Richard Lee Byers



12–13 Ches, The Year of the Dark Circle (1478 DR)

Khouryn Skulldark patrolled the study. He picked up chairs and returned them to their proper places. Straightened sheaves of papers and arrangements of knickknacks. Shelved books. Checked surfaces for dust and brushed away a spiderweb in a corner of the ceiling. Since he was a dwarf tidying a room sized for humans, many of the tasks required him to climb up on the stool he'd brought along.

As he peered around seeking the spider that had spun the web-he'd catch it and carry it outside if he could- someone chuckled. Khouryn pivoted atop the stool without any fear of falling. Decades of martial training and warfare made him sure of his balance.

But he didn't turn quickly enough to catch the person who'd laughed at him. The doorway was empty.

He scowled. He was a thick-built warrior with a bristling black beard, who never went anywhere without his urgrosh-a weapon combining the deadlier features of a war axe and a spear-strapped across his shoulders. Some folk found it comical to see such a grim-looking fellow fuss over the minutia of housekeeping. But that was because they didn't understand that on campaign, order was everything.

No one lost and mislaid articles like an army on the march, and that included items that could mean the difference between victory and defeat. The only way to guard against such a calamity was through order and organization. And the only way to make sure that one would maintain such habits amid the myriad distractions of the field was to practice them even when the Brotherhood of the Griffon was billeted in pleasant cities like Veltalar.

The night doorkeeper, one of the servants who came with the house, appeared in the entrance to the study. The stooped old fellow looked shaky and ill at ease, and Khouryn wondered for a moment if he was the one who'd snickered. But no, with his hangdog countenance, he scarcely seemed the type.

'Someone outside?' Khouryn asked.

The doorkeeper swallowed. 'Yes, sir. Asking for the master.'

'Anybody we know?'

'No, sir.'

'Well, it's too late for strangers to come calling, and the captain's not here anyway. Tell the whoreson to make an appointment like everybody else.'

The doorkeeper swallowed again. 'I tried.'

'What do you mean, you tried?'

'I wanted to send him away. He wouldn't go. I… I don't think I can try again.'

'Why in the Hells not?'

'I don't know! I just… Please, sir, will you see him?'

Khouryn wondered if the doorkeeper had been rippling. It might explain his strange manner and why he suddenly seemed incapable of doing his job, mindlessly simple though it was.

'All right, show him in,' Khouryn growled. Because somebody had to get rid of the intruder. After that, he'd sort the doorkeeper out.

'Thank you!' the elderly human said, almost as though Khouryn had just saved him from a dreadful fate. 'Thank you! I'll fetch him at once!' He turned and scurried away. More perplexed than ever, the dwarf climbed off the stool.

The caller strode in a few moments later. Tall and gaunt, with a fair complexion and a mane of wheat blond hair, he had a face his fellow humans might have found handsome if it weren't so haggard and stern. He wore the brigandine and bastard sword of a warrior but also carried a small harp slung across his back.

Khouryn realized the stranger was alone. 'Where's the doorman?'

'After he pointed out the proper room,' the swordsman said, 'I dismissed him.' His baritone voice was as rich and expressive as his features were cold and forbidding.

'You dismissed a servant of this house.

'Yes. I need to speak to Aoth Fezim immediately. Do you know where he is?'

'Back up a step. Who in the Silverbeard's name are you?'

'Bareris Anskuld. Once upon a time, Aoth and I were comrades.'

Khouryn shrugged. 'I've never heard of you.'

'Is Brightwing here? She'll know me.'

Khouryn eyed the human quizzically. 'I have heard of Brightwing. Many of the griffons we ride today are from her bloodline. But she's been dead for forty years.'

Something altered in Bareris's implacable expression. Some emotion revealed itself. But it disappeared before Khouryn could make out what it was.

'I had hoped,' Bareris said, 'she had attained longevity in the same way as her rider. But since she isn't here to vouch for me, you'll just have to take my word for it that I am what I say.'

Khouryn snorted. 'I don't have to do a damn thing except follow my orders. Which say nothing about helping you.'

'Please. I've traveled a long way, and my business is urgent.'

'Everybody's business is urgent. Get out of here now, and I might let you in to see the captain another time.'

Bareris started to chant blaring, rhyming words that pierced the ear like the brassy notes of a glaur horn. That got inside a listener's head and echoed and echoed there.

Khouryn finally understood what ailed the doorkeeper. Bareris had cast a spell on him to addle him and make him compliant, and now the bard or warlock or whatever was trying the same trick again.

But Khouryn was a dwarf, not a weak-willed human. With one fast, smooth motion, he pulled the urgrosh from behind his back, sprang, and cut.

Still chanting, Bareris leaped backward, and the stroke fell short. Khouryn instantly renewed the attack, this time stabbing with the spearhead at the end of his weapon's haft.

Bareris sidestepped, grabbed the urgrosh by the handle, and he and Khouryn struggled for possession of it. Khouryn felt it start to pull free of his opponent's grip. Then Bareris let go with one hand to grab him by the throat.

The human's fingers were icy cold, and the chill spread through Khouryn's body. Meanwhile, Bareris's chant kept reverberating in his head, louder and louder, paining him and shaking his thoughts to pieces.

The combination was too much. Khouryn's legs buckled and dumped him onto the floor. Bareris crouched over him, maintaining his frigid grip on his neck, and stared into his eyes.

'Where's Aoth?' the human demanded, and though he wasn't declaiming words of power anymore, something of the bright, pitiless essence of the chant still infused his voice.

Khouryn still didn't want to tell, but he couldn't help himself. The words just spilled out. 'Spending the night with Lady Quamara.'

'Who lives where?'

'A mansion on Archer's Parade.'

'All right.' Bareris straightened up. 'Rest now.'

Khouryn didn't want to rest, either. He wanted to jump up and attack. But with magic leeching his strength and resolve, it really was easier just to lie still and let his eyelids droop.

As Bareris reached the doorway, a new voice asked, 'Was that truly necessary? He's one of Aoth's men.'

'We're either in a hurry or we're not.'

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