16th Tarsakh, 1362 DR

The leathery scent of fresh vellum mingled with wood smoke in the basement of the Stod bookshop. As Dyevin stitched the lacing through the spine of yet another copy of Kraus Veinlenn's "A Personal History of the Bloodstone War", the needle slipped and pricked one of his careless fingers. Damn, he thought, sticking his sore finger in his mouth, the coppery taste of blood on his tongue. Father will take the switch to me if I ruin another of these. Bookbinders were rare in Damara, Stod's being the only one in the city of Valls, and the tools of the trade- vellum, parchment, paper and the like- were not cheap. Dyevin brushed his lank blond hair, too long and in need of a cut, out of his eyes and inspected the spine carefully, but no tears showed through, and on the inside the lacings seemed no worse for wear for the lad's inattention.

I just have to finish this one and the next. The interplay of light from the fat tallow candle on the desk where the young man worked and the fire in the hearth across the room threw shadows across the bare stone walls of the room that served as the Stod workshop in a complex dance. It was late, well after moonrise. Not that Dyevin could see the moon down here. His parents had retired long before. He knew he should be abed as well -more work tomorrow- but the tasks set before him by his father seem to be taking him longer and longer every day.

It's that book. Dyevin ran a hand over the downy blond hair that now covered his face. He had hoped growing a beard would hide the pimples that scarred and pitted his cheeks, but the wispy hairs that sprouted there provided little improvement. He stifled a yawn and tried his best to return to his work. If I finish, I can look through it for a little while without waking Father. With that thought in his mind, the needle seemed to fly in his hands, deft enough when they needed to be, and the last binding was laced to the pages. Tomorrow he would stitch on the hasps that closed the heavy tomes, and the order would be complete. Perhaps then he could have some time to himself, perhaps visit Hayla. His heart quickened slightly at the thought of her sweet, shy smile. I should pick her some flowers. Irises maybe. She told me once that she loved the color.

Ever since the day she had walked into his father's bookshop, Dyevin had been smitten with the young girl. A couple of years his junior, she couldn't have seen more than fourteen of fifteen winters, but she had already blossomed into full womanhood and no doubt caught the eye of many a young man of Valls. Not that it mattered to Dyevin. This town is full of fools. Hayla is too smart for the likes of them- too smart for the whole town. She needs someone who understands her. We could be married, go to the capital. I could open my own shop. I could get her all the books she could ever want. I could make her happy.

Hayla understood him too. She never laughed at him or teased him. Not like the other girls, who giggled and called him Spots because of his pimples, or laughed when the other boys hurt him. They talked about the books they loved, heroes and villains and journeys and adventures from long past, and the adventures and journeys that they wished for themselves. Yes, she understood him. She could see past his sunken chest and skinny arms, past the way his tall gaunt frame hunched over slightly from years of bending over a binding table. She could see into his heart to who he really was, who he could be.

I must take her away from this, Dyevin thought as he stacked the tomes neatly and readied the table for tomorrow's work. His father, a meticulous man of little humor, would inspect the area keenly for any sign of disarray before he opened the shop, which Dyevin had already cleaned to spotlessness after his father locked the doors earlier in the evening.

But how? Dyren Stod, Dyevin's father, while not a young man anymore, was many years away from retiring, and as a respectable but common businessman had no lands or titles to bequeath to his only living son. Not that he would. Dyren Stod believed a man should work for everything he has. He certainly made Dyevin work. For as long as the younger Stod could remember, the elder one had been giving him lists of things to do, and beating him soundly when they were not done well and on time. It could be worse. Dyevin didn't think his father got any pleasure from beating him. Not the way some men did, the way he heard it. Then again, Dyevin wasn't sure his father got pleasure from anything. If he did, he hid it well.

At least his father had taught him to read. That Dyevin could do as well as anyone. He knew that many, if not most, Damarans could barely read their own name, and the thought brought with it a strange mixture of pity and contempt. Some days the only solace the young man could find was within the pages of some tome or codex.

Sometimes the written words in the books were like the voices of good friends that Dyevin had never known in real life. Sometimes, they were like the mother's touch that he had rarely known. Sometimes, they were almost the way he imagined Hayla's touch would be. And sometimes they are power, he thought as he ascended the stone steps out of the basement workshop.

Not every book in his father's shop was as boring as Veinlenn's war history. On occasion, something downright intriguing would pass through. The darker subjects were the ones that interested Dyevin the most. Indeed, the darker the better. Forgotten volumes hinting of hidden truths, black rituals to even blacker powers- oh, how eagerly he would consume them. Until his father found a buyer, and the tome would disappear from the shop, never to return. And there were always buyers. Even in Damara, where superstition reigned and magic was feared, there were always buyers. Often they would meet clandestinely with his father after the shop was closed. The book, wrapped in cloth, would be exchanged for a bag of gold and secreted away, and the buyer would exit. There were few questions. Dyren Stod had no use for hidden truths or dark rituals, but he did have use for the gold coins the books brought in.

The book that was now stored in his father's safe was different, Dyevin was sure. He removed several nondescript volumes from a shelf in the back of the shop's main room, revealing the iron door of the safe box that held his father's most rare volumes, available for inspection By Appointment Only. Too valuable to entrust to a key, the safe could only be opened by pressing four small copper tabs in the correct order. Any mistake would cause a small needle laden with venom from the Damaran viper to snap out of a hidden compartment in the lock. The poison would stop a man's heart in mere minutes. The whole contraption must have cost his father a fortune. It had taken years of careful watching for Dyevin to be sure of how to open it. Still, the first time he tried he thought his heart would stop from sheer terror, and that his father hadn't really needed the viper venom after all.

Now Dyevin unlocked the mechanism with confidence. Left, left, second from right, right. The door swung open soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. Only two books currently shared the small space. The first was a slim volume, bound in purple leather, several collected works of a celebrated Sembian playwright, annotated in the playwright's own hand. Worth a small fortune, but that was not what Dyevin sought.

The second tome inside the safe was thicker, and bound in scaly leather so black that it seemed to steal the very darkness from the night outside. With nervous fingers Dyevin removed the book and undid the leather strap that held it shut. Even though he was certain that the book was ancient, nothing about it belied its age. The golden hasp was untarnished, the vellum pages still supple as if bound yesterday and freshly oiled. As his fingers brushed the pages he was struck again by the feeling that the book always seemed slightly warmer than it was supposed to. So slight a difference that Dyevin was sure most people never noticed, but to him it was another sure indication of the books simple other-ness, and he was sure, its power.

There were no words in this book. At least, not in the way there were in other books. Page after page contained strange geometric designs stamped- almost seemingly burned- onto the surface of the vellum. Ever since that book had come into his father's possession a week or so before, Dyevin had been virtually itching to lay eyes upon the book's contents. When he first beheld the strange glyphs, he felt not disappointment, but elation. Here, in his father's shop, was a book that no one could read- unless he could read it.

The first time he opened the book, he realized that the figures repeated. He had counted 33 separate symbols- letters, he thought. Whoever had written it, had combined all of the words into one long stream of letters to further obscure his work. Whatever secrets were hidden in this tome, they were hidden well. He pulled a well-folded piece of parchment, secreted from his father's stocks, from his pocket. On it, he had sketched the 33 symbols, trying to match them with words he knew.

It hadn't taken Dyevin long to realize that the book wasn't written in Damaran, or at least he couldn't find any patterns that resembled any Damaran words- Chondathan either, for that matter. His Chondathan was far from the best, but he knew enough to get by, or in this case enough not to recognize anything written in the strange book. Page after page, the symbols repeated, mixtures of triangles, hexagons, circles, sometimes combining into strange shapes for which he had no names. He could almost feel the power thrumming behind the runes, could almost feel the shapes mocking him, daring him to find some meaning in their lines and angles. He had tried everything, searching for patterns forward, backward, up, and down. He tried skipping symbols, he tried alternating patterns, lines, everything. Nothing he did brought him closer to gaining any insight into those strangely warm pages.

I can do this, Dyevin thought as he contemplated the odd shapes for what seemed the hundredth time. If only I knew what language this was! There were hundreds of languages in Faerun, and Dyevin was only certain that the book wasn't written in the two that he could speak. Eventually, he would need help. A master of tongues, someone who could help him read the words locked behind the cipher. But that had to come later, and would require gold. In the meantime, however, the seeds of an idea had taken root in the back of Dyevin's mind, an idea that could bring him one step closer to breaking the cipher.

He had already sketched each of the different symbols on a piece of parchment. If he counted the number of times each one appeared in the text, he could identify the symbols that represented more common letters, and by looking at the patterns of those symbols, he could identify the most common words. From there it would be simple substitution, filling in the blanks piece by piece until the book's message was laid bare. Of course, different languages had different common sounds and words. If only the book were written in a language he knew, he would already be well on the way to unlocking its power. As it stood, all he could do was count and hope. Dyevin turned to the first page.

Triangle, diamond, inverted triangle, triangle upon circle, inverted triangle, square inside circle, circle, square inside circle, diamond split vertically, inverted triangle…

Each figure was recorded in turn, the tally growing with each moment. Dyevin could feel the patterns emerging, the shapes seemed to vibrate, to pulse with energy, goading him forward, figure by figure, page by page…

"Dyevin!" The anger in his father's voice was unmistakable. Nine Hells! How could I let this happen? Panic gripped the lad as he gaped, open-mouthed at his own carelessness. The grey light of dawn streamed through the shop windows. "My safe… What have you done?" Dyevin could read the betrayal etched into the lines on his father's face, lit by the candle he carried. The boy had no words. The black tome lay open, the quill still in his hand.

Dyren Stod stood at the bottom of the wooden staircase that led upstairs to the living quarters of the three-story stone structure, clad in his nightshirt, his graying sandy hair in disarray. His lips pursed in disapproval as he calmly surveyed the scene in front of him. "What foolishness has possessed you?" he said, in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper. "To the right person, that book is worth a fortune." He leveled a cool gaze at the pale, gangly boy. "If you have so much as creased a single page, by the gods I will-"

"You don't understand!" Dyevin spat back. "You can't sell this book! I won't let you!"

"This I understand: I am your father, this is my shop, and that is my bloody book. You will do as I bid and that is the end of it."

Dyren Stod's face was a mask in the sputtering candlelight as he took a step towards his son. Dyevin snapped the book closed and cradled it in one arm, the other outstretched as if to ward off his father's advance.

"No." Dyevin's own voice sounded strange in his ears. He could feel his body tensing as he drew himself to his full height. He realized he was taller than his father. Something was odd. His father's face, normally void of emotion save for a sort of cool disdain, showed hints of… unease? Even fear?

His father regarded him intently. "This is unlike you." His gaze fell on the book in Dyevin's hands. "I wonder," he muttered. "How long have you been fumbling about with that wretched thing?" Dyevin's grip tightened on the tome in his arm. "Listen to me," his father continued. "I locked that book in my safe because it is dangerous. Many books are." He extended a hand. "Give it to me. You don't know what you've been trifling with. Give it to me now."

"You're wrong! This book was meant for me to find. It should be mine!"

The side of his father's mouth twitched slightly. "STOP THIS NONSENSE!" he boomed. "You will stop this foolishness now and you will GIVE ME THAT BOOK!"

Dyren Stod lunged at his son. The black tome tumbled to the floor. Dyevin's hand closed around his father's wrist. Everything stopped. The candle had gone out.

For several moments Dyevin Stod remained right where he was, chest heaving, staring in disbelief at his father's crumpled body on the flagstones of the shop floor.

What have I done? His father was dead. He was sure. There was no movement, no breath. When he had grabbed his father's wrist something had awoken deep within him. He had felt an unnatural coldness flow out of him, seen his father's eyes widen, then roll back… and then Dyren Stod had simply collapsed. How? Was it my doing? Now was no time to ponder. He had to run.

Thankfully, his father's exhortations had not woken his mother. Those sleeping draughts she gets from the alchemist are stronger than I thought, Dyevin thought with grim humor. The appearance of the book had promised to change his life. Undoubtedly his life had changed. He was a murderer, a kinslayer, and a patricide. The penalty was death. He could not remain in Valls. Flight was his only choice. It didn't matter. He hated this town, he always had. His crime would be discovered within hours. Frantically, he retrieved a leather travelling satchel from the basement workshop and began gathering what he could. The book, of course, went in, as well as the other tome in his father's safe, to sell when the opportunity arose; a small bag of gold from the shop coffers, a slim dagger of polished steel in a leather sheath, and an old goatskin canteen followed. He draped a cloak from the rack by the front door around his shoulders and threw up the hood.

A muffled sob from behind him spun him around. On the landing of the wooden staircase, his little sister stood, her too widely set pig's eyes open in confusion, her mouth gaping stupidly as a rivulet of drool dripped towards her barely existent chin.

Dyevin instantly moved forward with a finger to his lips. "Shhh, Murna… You'll wake Father. He is sleeping, you see?" Murna looked up at the big brother she loved, wanting to believe him, but the quiver in her lip told Dyevin that even she could tell that something was very wrong. She whirled around, making to run up the stairs, undoubtedly to wake their mother, to send young Dyevin to the hangman's noose. I won't hang for this. I don't even know what I did! He grabbed his sister by the shoulders and forced her to the floor, stifling her screams with a big bony hand. Mother will scream for the guard. I know she will. She won't listen to me. Her own son!

Dyevin jerked his hand back from his sister's mouth. Blood dripped from where she had bitten him. He could feel the intake of breath as she began to scream. Panicking, he closed his long fingers around her throat and began to squeeze. Murna kicked, flailed, and clawed, beating her brother's face with her hands, but she had only seen ten winters, and was small for her age. After a few seconds her thrashing began to weaken, and then finally she was still.

Dyevin burst out of the front door of the Stod bookshop and into the street. A cold spring drizzle fell from the sky, lightly drumming on the hood of his cloak. Even at this early hour, a few townsfolk trudged through the mud of the narrow lane he had emerged into, doubtless on their way to the Market Square, most likely to set up stalls at this hour. One or two shot suspicious glances towards the tall boy who had run out breathlessly into the rain, but simply kept plodding southeast toward the square. Dyevin drew a deep breath to calm himself.

Careful. I must be very careful. Time was short. Sleeping draught or not, his mother would wake soon. What would she think, her husband and daughter dead and her son vanished? Would she know what he did, or would she fear for him? Somehow, he thought she would know. In a way, it was like she had always known. Klara Stod would have the guard combing the streets for him before noon. He had to go.

But where could he run? Dyevin Stod had never been known for his charm. He had no friends to speak of, and he had just murdered one, maybe two, of the few family members he had. I hope Murna's not dead. Even if she is, I didn't mean it. I didn't mean any of it! The lad drew a long, shuddery breath. I have to calm down. He cradled the leather satchel he had taken from the shop in the crook of his arm. He could almost feel the warmth of the black book creeping through the leather. It was comforting.

Hunching over to hide his height, Dyevin fell in with the sparse traffic wending its way to the Market Square, trying to ignore the pounding in his chest. His boots squelched in dirt softened by the spring drizzle as he moved in the shadows of the peaked roof stone buildings that lined the muddy lane. At this hour the ground floor windows of the tidy merchant shops that lined his street were still shuttered, but soon most of the working folk of Valls would be afoot. If he wanted to make it out of town before his mother raised the hue and cry, he would have to leave directly. He decided to make for the Morning Gate at the east end of town. Even at this time of the morning there would be caravan traffic headed out, mostly merchants heading down the Kingsroad to Ravensburg and beyond. With luck, he could walk out of the gate unmarked by the Town Guard. Dyevin rounded the corner at the far end of the lane without so much as a glance backward at the townhouse where he had lived his entire life.

Ahead of him rose the sturdy stone edifice of the outer rim of the Ducal Palace, its austere stone towers glistening in the morning rain. He wanted to avoid that part of town, crawling with Ducal Guards even at this early hour. Not that they would even notice one such as him, but it was better to be careful. He cut through a narrow alley to his right and emerged onto the flagstone paved central square. Market Square was well named, for it was here that farmers, traders and craftsman from all over Arcata came to hawk their wares in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. Jaspar, the only building in town rivaling the Ducal Palace in grandiosity. Dyevin barely noticed the clusters of country folk busying themselves setting up their stalls. He felt a wave of panic threatening to engulf him, and he found himself clutching at the leather satchel slung over his shoulder, clutching at the book inside that had shattered his young life as if it had been one of the stained glass panes in the cathedral dome. He had no idea where he was to go, even if he was able to make it out of town without being arrested for the murder of his father, and possibly his sister too.

Perhaps the gallows would be better. He'd just as like starve or die of exposure out in the wilderness alone. He had no woodcraft, he couldn't hunt; he could barely start a fire on his own, not to mention that he had no friends, no one to shelter him, and not the foggiest idea of where he could run to even if he passed through the Morning Gate unnoticed.

"Vrik."

Dyevin stood bolt upright in shock. The word, whispered but crystal clear, entered his right ear as if someone had been standing at his shoulder. A quick glance assured the boy that no one had passed anywhere near him without his notice. Casting his eyes around the square, his gaze fell upon the massive stone statue of Velkus I, founder of the House Horgat, the current ruling family of Valls, which marked the center of the town. Perched on the statue's outstretched arm was a huge mottled owl. The bird stared directly at Dyevin with its otherworldly green eyes, as if searching the lad's very soul. Bare seconds after finding his gaze, the owl cocked its head to the side, beat its great wings, and took off into the dreary morning sky. That's odd, Dyevin thought. An owl shouldn't be about this long after daybreak. Everyone knows that. A flurry of thoughts crowded the boy's mind. Did the owl speak to him? Was he going crazy? He tried to make some sense out of what had happened.

Vrik? Gehrman Vrik? The Vriks were a clan of ne'er-do-wells that had long lived in a jumble of ramshackle buildings in a shadowed valley about a mile west of town, scratching a bare living out of the rocky soil. Over the years, the Vriks had cultivated an evil reputation. Often, word had spread of strange lights or noises out that way, and rumor had it that more than one Vrik was gifted with sorcery, and had dealings with goblins, and darker things that came down out of the mountains. They rarely came to town, and then only to trade for needed items, barely speaking to the townsfolk at all. Since they never made much of a fuss, they were left to their own ways, their numbers dwindling with the years. It was said that Gehrman Vrik was the only one left these days, a greying hermit living alone among the graves of his kin. It was a pastime among the youth of Valls to see how close they dared go to the wooden palisade surrounding the Vrik homestead. Dyevin had never joined in. The other boys had never asked.

Well, I'll be braver than all of them. He decided to call on Gehrman Vrik. It was better than setting out on the road for gods knew where. Renewed, with a sense of purpose, Dyevin turned about, making to leave the square in the opposite direction from how he had intended. The Vriks lived to the west, in the shadow of the Galena Mountains. The Mountain Gate it is then. Less busy, but also less watched by the Town Guard, the Mountain Gate marked the entrance to Valls from the Shadow Road, which led north, joining the road to the city of Bloodstone Gate, some forty leagues distant. Although overland trade had increased dramatically since War's End, most of the goods going to and fromBloodstone Gate went down the waters of the Baumarus River to the towns and cities on the shores of Lake Mogador, bypassing the southern towns of Valls and Ravensburg. Still, Dyevin hoped there was enough traffic through the gate to allow him to pass unmarked.

He left the square, walking beneath the shadows of stately town homes on either side. At the end of the road he could see the squat stone towers to either side of the archway that marked the Mountain Gate. The stout wooden gate itself lay open, as it did from sunrise to sunset every day, barring some unforeseen event. A farmer's wagon, laden with parsnips and onions, passed through the gate as Dyevin approached, waved through by one of two bored-looking members of the town guard. As the farmers cart rolled by, leaving muddy tracks on the cobblestones, it occurred to Dyevin that he might never walk the streets of Valls again. Good, Dyevin thought. There was never anything here for me. Everyone hated me except for-

Hayla. He had forgotten about Hayla. It was understandable, given the events of the morning, but as her face rose to the forefront of his mind, the gangly lad felt a twinge of regret. She would never have me. Not after what I've done. She'd watch me hang with the rest of them. With these thoughts in his head, Dyevin passed under the wall and emerged on the other side, earning hardly a glance from the mail-clad men tasked with minding the gate. Hopefully, they wouldn't recall his leaving later. He had tried the best he could to hide his height. He could only hope that it was enough. His mother's sleeping draught would no doubt wear off soon, and the whole town would be crying for his head shortly thereafter, he felt sure.

In the rain, the hilly countryside to the west of Valls looked vibrantly green. Mist filled the valleys between, and the looming peaks of the Galenas were entirely hidden. Just as well. Dyevin needed every shred of courage he possessed at the moment, and those jagged pinnacles of rock had always made him feel uneasy, even though he had grown up at their very doorstep. Dyevin followed the graveled Shadow Road, named for the towering peaks that cast their long shadows onto it on sunny afternoons, briefly as it led west, past the small farms and freeholds that occupied the narrow strip of land between the town and the foothills, but then headed straight, onto a muddy track that led into the hills when the road executed a broad curve northward, away from the mountains and across the plains towards the river.

The rain had lightened somewhat, but a thick veil of clouds still blanketed the sky. This was the road to the Vrik place, he was sure. He had only been more than a dozen miles from Valls a few times, and had traveled with his father to Bloodstone Gate but once, but he remembered their wagon crossing this path, remembered his blood chilling at recalled tales of the Vriks' dark deeds, his father's contemptuous laugh as he told young Dyevin to disregard the tales of old women. "It's the type of foolishness your mother would go in for," he had quipped. As Dyevin made his way down the narrow, winding path, the tales of old women didn't seem quite so foolish.

The hills were eerily quiet. The only sounds were the occasional tapping of raindrops on the hood of his cloak and the soft squelch of his boots in the mud, and the heaviness of the air seemed to deaden even those. He had to be getting close. The path began to widen somewhat, even as the hills on either side rose higher. Patches of bare rock began to interrupt the green grass, sometimes dropping off into narrow canyons. As Dyevin rounded a bend in the road he was greeted by a large wooden palisade in the distance. Several thatched roofs rose above the sharpened logs, and smoke billowed from two stone chimneys. Around the palisade were a number of farmed plots, some already showing the green leaves of spring vegetables. The door to the palisade stood open. The back of the palisade was built flush into a rocky wall that rose up out of sight into the mist. The Vriks had laid claim to their own personal valley in the foothills of the Galenas, and the people of Arcata had seen fit not to disturb them.

Yet here I am, about to walk up and rap on the door like a tenth-day caller. 'Hullo, Ser! An owl told me to come by, can you spare some tea?' Like as not, he was walking toward a rather unpleasant death, but for the moment, grim humor overcame his trepidation. Death leered him from every direction, and given the events of the morning he was unsure if he didn't deserve it. Besides, if there was anyone in town who would aid a murderer, then Gehrman Vrik, with his black reputation, was surely it. These thoughts spun round the young man's head as he shuffled up the narrow path towards the palisade.

"Hold! Who calls on the House of Vrik?" The voice was sharp and reedy, shot through with the hoarseness of a man used to long spells of silence. Dyeven looked up to see a smallish man with a long black beard shot through with grey leaning over a stout oaken staff, regarding him with acuity from beneath a set of bushy eyebrows. With astonishment, Dyevin noticed that upon the man's shoulder sat a large grey owl identical to the one he swore spoke to him earlier in the square.

"Dyevin- Dyevin Stod," the lad called back, still unsure of what welcome awaited him, but the owl had to mean that he had come to the right place.

"Aye. So you are", the man replied cryptically. "Well, come inside, Dyevin Stod. We've much to discuss and I'm eager to be out of the rain." Without waiting for a reply, the man turned and strode away from the gate where he had been standing, towards the stone cottage with the smoke streaming from its chimneys. Dyevin followed through the gate, casting his eyes over the small compound that lay behind the palisade.

There were five buildings in all, in various states of disrepair. The one Gehrman Vrik had entered, the one with the smoking chimneys, seemed to be in the best shape, but the other structures gave little in the way of competition. Two were basically stone heaps with caved in roofs, obviously unlived in for some time. The remaining two were still standing, albeit somewhat lopsidedly. One was clearly being used as an animal pen, as several scrawny goats stood by the open doorway, absently chewing their cud as they stared dully back at him. The other still possessed its front door, which along with the shuttered windows along its façade gave little clue as to its current condition.

The owl had lit on the thatched roof of the main cottage, which Dyevin made for with long strides. He too was eager to get out of the rain, soaked and chilled to the bone from the morning's journey. The owl cocked its head and regarded him impartially with its coal black eyes.

Dyevin stepped over the threshold into the dimness of the cottage. Rushes strewn over an earthen floor crackled beneath his feet. The smells of wood smoke and unwashed bodies mingled with the pungent herbal smell emanating from a kettle that the small man was fussing with over the cottage's kitchen fireplace. He gestured towards a square wooden table with several chairs.

"Sit yourself down, boy."

The cottage itself was comfortable, if sparsely furnished and a bit untidy- surprising, considering the run-down appearance of the exterior. Aside from the kitchen area, there was a raised wood-floored section that appeared to house Vrik's bed and dressing table, as well as a desk and, Dyevin noted, a shelf containing various items including quite a few leather bound books.

So this is where all those boys feared to tread, Dyevin mused. It wasn't so scary after all. At least it was warm. A fire burned in the main hearth as well as the one in the kitchen, from which the smallish man approached with the kettle and two clay cups clutched in his dirty fingers. He set the cups down on the table and poured.

"The tea's not bad. Drink up, boy. There's no poison in it." He seemed to find that last part funny.

Dyevin mumbled an awkward thank you as he raised the cup to his lips. True enough, the tea wasn't bad, if a bit bitter. Gehrman Vrik took the chair across from Dyevin and leveled a curious gaze at the gangly youth seated at his table.

"Do you know who I am, boy?"

"I do. You're Gehrman Vrik", Dyevin replied cautiously.

"I am indeed, boy. The last of the Vriks, in fact." The middle age man snorted. "And here you are, at my table. I suppose this makes you the bravest boy in Valls. Having tea in the boggart's lair."

Dyevin swallowed another mouthful of the bitter tea and shifted uncomfortably in his seat as Gehrman Vrik stared across at him, dark brown eyes inscrutable beneath those bushy brows. Far from intimidating, those brows combined with the diminutive hermit's prodigious nose gave him a somewhat owlish appearance. Fitting, considering the big bird perched on the cottage's roof.

"May as well get right to it. There's blood on your hands, boy. Don't bother to deny it. Most wouldn't see it, but we know our own." The bearded man sipped his own tea and gestured at Dyevin.

"Let's hear it then. Tell it quick and tell it true. I've no time for fools or fancy. And you can leave out the bit about my owl. I know how you came to be here, I'm more curious as to why you need to be here at all."

Nervously, Dyevin began to relate his tale, slow and cautious at first, but after a bit the words began to spill out of him, almost against his will. He told Gehrman everything- the book, the cipher, the coldness that had seeped out of him and snuffed the flame of his father's life. It felt good to be unburdened, and if he was to be murdered underneath the roof of this hermit, then so be it, he would go to the gods with his crimes spoken aloud.

Long seconds of silence hung in the air after Dyevin finished his story. He could feel the hot streaks of tears streaming down his pitted cheeks. He couldn't help it. It was as if the telling had unmoored something inside him and he could no longer deny what he had done, even to himself. Because even though he truly hadn't meant to hurt his father, something within him had reveled in that instant when his hand closed around his father's wrist. It had felt good.

It certainly didn't feel good now. Dyevin wept. He wept for his father, his sister, his mother. He wept for his old life, the townhouse with its books, his room and its wool filled linen mattress. He wept for Hayla, and even for Valls, for he knew now that he wasn't going back. But most of all, he wept for himself, for his loss of comfort, his loss of certainty, of safety. He wept for the road ahead.

"Ugh. Quit that whimpering." The hermit's voice was filled with disdain. "We've plans to make and I've no time to sit here with you mewling like a hungry babe. Vrik produced a soiled handkerchief from inside the caftan he wore and tossed it at the lad. Dyevin promptly blew a great gob of watery snot into it. He drew a deep shuddery breath, which emerged as a wracking sob. The hermit rose from his chair and stomped off to get some more tea.

Gradually, Dyevin pulled himself together. He chided himself for weeping like a woman in front of a complete stranger. Why did I tell him all that? What if he wants to take the book? I won't let him! Dyevin's fists clenched with unexpected emotion. He raised his head and regarded the older man's approach.

"Are you done?" the hermit asked brusquely, reseating himself. The lad nodded. "Well then", he continued. "Let's see this book of yours." He must have seen something in Dyevin's eyes, because he raised his hands reassuringly.

"Calm yourself now, I don't want the bloody thing," he muttered. "Seems to have brought you naught but ill so far as I can tell. Call it a professional curiosity. Besides, if I did want it, you'd be dead and I'd be plumbing its secrets as we speak. There's more to this old man than there appears." He chuckled.

With some uncertainty, Dyevin reached into the leather travelling satchel at his feet. His hand closed around the book, strangely warm as always, reassuring in its presence. Dyevin felt the despair wash away from him, replaced by an eager hope. Perhaps this man could help him unlock the mystery bound in its pages. He slid the book across the table at Gehrman. The hermit stared at its scaly black cover, forehead creased in thought for what seemed like an eternity.

"What is it?" Dyevin blurted out.

The older man looked at up at Dyevin with a strange light in his eye. "Can I tell you of a dream that came to me as I lay abed last night?" He continued without waiting for a reply. "In this dream I sailed upon a ship tossed in a raging sea, alone at the helm, drenched and freezing. Just when I thought the waves would break my boat and swallow me whole, I spied a beacon of flame in the distance, and toward it I turned my vessel and raised sail. As I streamed toward the beacon it resolved itself into a light-house, perched upon an island of black rock. As I sailed into the harbor the storm abated, replaced by a deathly quiet. I docked and strode up a rocky path to the light-house tower. A sense of purpose like I'd never known before bore me through its gates. I found myself in an impossibly huge chamber, far bigger from what the tower could have held inside its walls. No sound of the ocean or salt tang of the sea followed me through that archway. Inside, it was quiet as a grave." He paused and drank deep from the earthen cup.

"And in the chamber? A throne. An empty throne that was not empty, though I couldn't make out what sat there. And seated at the foot of the throne, like a favored son, a lad- a blond lad, wreathed in shadow and holding a book. That book." The hermit's eyes returned to the tome on the table. "I was a long way off, too far to be able to tell that, but I know. I know it as well as I know my mother's face, gods keep her." He swallowed hard and looked at Dyevin. "And when I awoke in the cold grey dawn, wreathed in sweat, I knew that you would need to be led here."

Gehrman Vrik reached out with trembling hands and undid the hasp holding the book closed. He opened the tome, displaying a mix of excitement and fearfulness as he ran his fingers over the strange designs stamped onto the oddly warm pages. Abruptly, he shut the book and looked intently at Dyevin.

"Do you know the strangest thing?" he asked with something that almost approached wonder in his eyes. "In all my years I've never seen a stretch of water bigger than Lake Mogador, but last night I was a sailor who spent his whole life on a ship's deck. And I was adrift on the ocean, as sure as we stand on the soil right now." He shook his head in disbelief.

"Feh, enough of this old man's foolishness. What do you know about this book?" he asked.

"Not much," the lad admitted. "I know that it has power. At least, I'm quite sure that it does. And I know that I can read it. I just don't know how to, yet." After the words came out, the young man felt like somewhat of a fool. Gods, I really know nothing about it. I've killed my father and maybe my sister too, and for what? That book could be full of nonsense- or recipes for pig's liver for that matter.

To his surprise, the scornful laughter Dyevin expected never came. Instead, the hermit was surprisingly conciliatory.

"I suspect you're right. About the power, that is. This tome is magic. I can say that for sure. And it is old. How old, and how powerful, I couldn't tell you. And I know that I do not desire it." He gazed at the odd geometric markings emblazoned on the vellum. "You say that you don't know how to read it. Have you tried?"

"I think the symbols are letters. They repeat. I think it's some kind of substitution cipher. I started this." Dyevin pulled the piece of parchment he had been working on before it had all happened from the pocket of his quilted jerkin and handed it across the table. The bearded man unfolded the parchment and regarded it quizzically. Dyevin felt a brief flash of exasperation. "Once I can determine what figures and patterns repeat the most I can try to match the symbols to letters, and break the rest of the cipher that way. Or at least I could; it's not written in Damaran."

The hermit continued to regard the sigils intently. "Humph. I doubt a book of this nature would be. Our great kingdom isn't much known for its magical treatises. Thorass, perhaps, or Elvish. Perhaps something even older." He pushed the tome back towards Dyevin, who redid the hasp and slid the tome back into the leather satchel from which it came.

Without a word of explanation, Vrik got up and walked over to a chest near the main fireplace and began rummaging. He returned with a rolled up parchment, which he spread out on the table. Dyevin saw that it was a map of Arcata, the province of which Valls was the capital.

"You need to get away from Valls, that much is certain. The Duke cares little for the affairs of townsfolk like you, but he'll not permit a murderer to go unlooked for. The watch will be out hunting for you, if they're not already. They might even come here- not likely, but I'll not risk it." He followed the line of the Galena mountains north, then tapped his finger twice when that line met a bend in the Baumarus river, some ten or so leagues from where they stood. "Here- we need to get you to these crossroads, where the Bloodstone road and the Shadow road meet. There will be caravan traffic this time of year, and I can make arrangements for your passage east." He nodded, as if he found this course of action especially satisfactory. "We must leave quickly and make haste. It's a full day's journey to the crossroads, and we've lost a good deal of light already." He got up and returned to the chest, from which he retrieved a travel-stained pack that he began furiously cramming items into.

Dyevin watched the unfolding scene with confusion. "Wait!" he blurted out. The hermit stared at him, surprised. "Why are you helping me? You don't even know me."

Gehrman Vrik surprised the young lad by emitting a peal of laughter. "Are you thick, boy? We workers of the Weave have to stick together. If we didn't, they'd have burned us all for witches ages ago."

"What?" Dyevin stammered, confused. "I'm no wizard!"

"Of course not," the hermit snorted. "Wizards get their magic from books and such- bunch of grasping studyers, they are. You've got magic in the blood, same as me."

"But- the book I have, that's why I-"

"Nonsense!" the bearded man retorted sharply. "That tome may have stirred something up, but I can see the magic in you as clear as I can see that blood on your hands." He advanced on the tall lad and jabbed a dirty finger into the boy's sunken chest. "We Vriks have worked magic in sight of the walls of that town for five hundred years, and all we've got in return is a heap of scorn from just about everyone inside. And I'll be gods damned if I let them string you up just because there's something in your blood that isn't in theirs!" He spit onto the floor to make his point all the clearer.

"Besides. I always thought your father was a pompous ass."

"You knew my father?" Dyevin asked, confused.

"Course I did," the hermit replied gruffly. "Where do you think half those books come from?" He jabbed a finger at the bookshelf across the room. "I'd go in once, maybe twice a year- for a long time now. Not many places about catering to men of letters."

"I don't understand. I've worked in that shop everyday for most of my life, and I've never seen you before."

Gehrman Vrik snorted with laughter. "You don't think I wear this face to town, do you? Not if I want a fair price, I don't. Better to look like anyone else than a Vrik. Folk go out of their way to do us wrong, and your father wouldn't have been any better."

Dyevin had his doubts about that. Coin was coin to Dyren Stod, reputation be damned.

"I've seen you too, you know," the hermit continued as he resumed throwing items into his traveling pack, this time from the kitchen area. "Skulking about that shop of yours, sweeping and cleaning. We've not spoken much, but I knew your face well enough when I woke with it in my mind. Rest while you can, young Stod. We leave as soon as I've made ready. We've a long walk."

Less than an hour later, the grey light of that cloudy noon found the two in the middle of the Vrik compound. Gehrman had donned a shabby fur-lined travelling cloak, and the pack slung over his round shoulders was fill almost to bursting. The hermit shambled to the palisade's front gate, and to Dyevin's surprise, pulled it closed and dropped a heavy bar across it, locking them in. Noting Dyevin's bemusement, the bearded man chuckled.

"Can't have you walking down the Shadow Road for everyone to see, can we?" He set off toward the back of the compound, near where the palisade ran into the hillside behind. "We're to take a more hidden path", he grunted.

As Dyevin approached the hillside, he noticed that what appeared to be an unbroken rock wall actually harbored a small crevice, just wide enough for a grown man to slip in sideways. He felt quite sure that he could have walked right past it without ever knowing it was there. Gehrman deftly un-shouldered his bulging pack and slipped through. Dyevin followed, his fingers sliding over the rough granite, slick from the morning's rain. The crack opened onto a small canyon, narrow enough for Dyevin to put his arms out and touch both sides, but wide enough not to feel claustrophobic. Small rivulets of water flowed through the mud of the canyon floor.

"We take this north." Vrik's voice, barely more than a whisper, echoed off the high rock walls. "Follow me and don't lag behind, now. I've sent Prowler up ahead to scout the way."

"You mean your owl?" Dyevin said, too loudly.

"Yes, my bloody owl!" Vrik shot back. "Bloody bird's a good bit savvier than you, lad. Knows how to keep quiet." The hermit glanced around warily. "Prowler's got a good eye for danger, but it's best not to make too much noise. There's worse things than the Town Watch in these back ways."

And so they walked in silence for the next several hours, stopping only for short rests, moving steadily northward. The path led them through a twisting network of canyons of varying depth, occasionally spitting them out into the open to wander between hillsides, some which bore scraggly patches of pine trees as they stretched upwards towards the Galenas. The rain stopped, and then came back with renewed vigor. Dyevin could hear the smaller man cursing the weather under his breath and stayed well back.

I can do magic. The thoughts swam around in his head. This changed everything. If that was true, maybe the book had chosen him, chosen him for what he could do. A smile gradually crept onto his face. He found he was looking at the story of his whole life differently. He found himself thinking of the other Vallish boys, boys like Sverdik Braur and Jerik Holt, strong handsome boys who did nothing but torture and mock him. Had always done so for as long as Dyevin could remember. Never again, he thought gleefully. They'd never laugh at him again. Or if they did, it wouldn't be for long. He thought of Jerik Holt's face, with the stupid cleft in his chin that all the girls seemed to like, pale and bloodless. Just like-

Just like his father.

The thought that Dyevin Stod had been pushing below the others for hours now sprung up unbidden from the deepest recesses of his mind, fully formed. If he could do magic, if that was indeed his power and not the book, then his father's death was his doing. Nothing else. He shouldn't have tried to take the book. He should have listened to me- it's his own fault. Dyevin Stod had little love for his father, but he hadn't meant to kill him. The gods would understand, he thought. Weren't the priests of Ilmater always going on about forgiveness, about easing the suffering of a guilty conscience? He would be forgiven.

He wasn't even sure how guilty he felt. None of them ever loved me. He had been treated well enough, to be sure, but neither of his parents had ever looked at him with any warmth. Even his mother, who doted on Murna- drooling, stupid Murna!

If she is dead, I did her a favor. Better an early death than to live like that.

"Boy." The voice jolted Dyevin out of his reverie. Gehrman Vrik stood at the base of an overhanging rock wall some ten feet ahead. Underneath, there was some shelter from the rain, as well as a ring of stones with some charred wood. To Dyevin's surprise, the rock wall cast the long shadow of dusk upon the muddy earth. Had they walked for that long?

"We've come far enough for one day," the hermit grunted. "We set camp here." The diminutive sorcerer glanced around, seemingly taking stock of their location. "We should be hidden enough to risk a fire. See if you can find a use for yourself and gather some wood."

Dyevin looked at the older man incredulously. Surely he wasn't so daft. "Any wood I might find would be soaked through. It would never light."

The hermit's eyes flashed. "Do as I say boy! I'm no fool."

For an instant, Dyevin felt something rise up within him. He shouldn't speak to me that way. But then it subsided, and, grumbling, he set out to find some wood, the wetter the better- gods damn the old man.

Dyevin started back south- they had passed a patch of wooded hillside a few hundred yards back, he remembered. The thought of a fire to warm them overcame any spiteful impulses he felt, and he resolved to find some wood that was halfway decent. He was ravenous; He realized that he had eaten nothing since his evening meal the previous night- a lifetime ago. The rock wall that sheltered them to the west soon dwindled, and the hillside loomed up to Dyevin's right. The slope was steep, and he clambered up awkwardly, scooping up dead branches as he went. The pine boughs above sheltered the ground against the worst of the rain, so the wood he found wasn't as wet as he had feared it would be. He lingered a moment, letting the piney smell of the hillside drift into his nostrils. Despite the upheaval thrust unsuspectingly upon him, he felt good- better than he could ever remember feeling in fact. Good things were coming. Or he was headed towards them, more likely. Exactly where, he intended to find out.

When he returned to their campsite, he was surprised to see Gehrman skinning a pair of small rabbits. Dyevin dumped his respectable armful of firewood by the circle of stones.

"It's wet, but not too bad. Hopefully, it will catch."

"It will catch," the hermit responded. "I told you that I was no fool." The diminutive man dropped the rabbits and knelt by the pile of wood. Dyevin watched entranced as Gehrman made a few quick gestures with his hands and inhaled deeply. He exhaled a prodigious amount of air, creating a brisk breeze that blew through the pile of wood for what seemed like an impossibly long time. Dyevin noticed that it looked like the older man's eyes had rolled back in his head, although he seemed otherwise alert and focused. After a few moments, the flow of air stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and Gehrman Vrik was looking at him with a strange glint in his dark eyes.

"Was that it?" Dyevin asked eagerly. "Was that magic?"

The older man waved dismissively. "A trifle. A housekeeper's trick- not that it doesn't come in handy." He arranged the smaller pieces of now-dry wood and sparked it alight with a bit of flint he produced from one of his pockets. The crackle of flame was a welcome sound to Dyevin. He pulled his cloak around him as he sat close to the fire, its glow illuminating the quickly lengthening shadows. Gehrman spit the rabbits and set them to roasting.

"Could you teach me how to do that?" Dyevin blurted out, finally. He tried to hide his excitement and failed.

"Perhaps I could." The mage shrugged. "All workers of the Weave are different- at least, all those whose magic comes from the blood. Perhaps I could teach you some tricks, show you how to get at that power you've got in you." He began to laugh. "Ha, and why not? Make you my apprentice, have you sweep my floor and feed my goats. Ha!" Just as suddenly, his humor vanished and he looked straight at Dyevin over the flickering blaze. "But I'll not. Not for all the gold in the Duke's treasury, nor the King's for that matter. Hear me well, Dyevin Stod. It's well clear that someone or something of power wants me to grant you aid, so this I will do. I will get you to that crossroads, and I will get you on your way east. But after that's done, I've washed my hands of you, and whatever ill fortune that follows you. I'll not see you again after the morrow if I have my way." He glanced into the fire. "Rabbit's done."

He pulled one off the spit and tossed it to Dyevin. "Eat, boy. We've a way to go yet."

Dyevin tore into the meat like a man possessed, not even pausing to wipe the juices that flowed down his chin, matting the wispy hairs that grew there. There was also some brown bread and hard cheese, devoured with relish as well. Soon, there was nothing left but a pile of clean-picked bones and a few crumbs. The older man took considerably longer to finish his rabbit, washing it down with the occasional nip from a flask he carried on his belt. At one point he held it out to Dyevin.

"Drink?" he asked, eyebrows raised. "Odd bedfellows we may be, but you'll not find me completely without hospitality." The gangly lad accepted gladly and took a small pull. The liquor burned, but in a good way.

"My thanks." He tossed the flask back across the fire. "So, we go to the crossroads. What then?"

"My part in your tale ends. You travel east. It would be best if you went with a caravan. Safest."

"A caravan," the young man repeated incredulously. "And why would they just take me on?"

"Leave that to me." He tossed the flask back to Dyevin.

The tall lad took another pull of the flask and continued. The clear liquor inside prodded him to seek the answers he craved. "A caravan, travelling east. Where do I go? What do I do now?"

"That is not my concern. Your business is your own."

"You're not helping," the lad shot back, a note of petulance creeping into his voice.

"Nor do I need to."

They sat in silence for a while, watching the fire. At some point Gehrman motioned for his flask back. Dyevin obliged. He hadn't much taste for liquor, and what he had drunk had made his overfull stomach feel a touch queasy. He had no wish to spend the first night of his new life retching into an old man's campfire.

"Where's your owl?" He almost surprised himself. He hadn't intended to be the one who broke their silence.

"He hunts by night. He'll return before moonset. He always does."

"Is he your pet?" the lad asked.

The hermit surprised him by answering without anger. "It's… complicated. In some ways, he is. In others, he and I are more like one being in two separate bodies."

"Is he magic?"

"Yes."

The silence resumed for a few more minutes. The fire began to burn low and the older man made no signs of throwing more wood on. "Do you want some advice, Dyevin Stod?"

Dyevin looked up, curious. "Journey to the capital. When you get there, make your way to the docks. Walk out upon the longest pier, and throw that book of yours into the waters of Lake Mogador. After that, your life is your own. You won't return home of course, but the Duke's justice won't extend to Heliogabalus or any of the Inner Baronies. Find a nice lass and settle down." He made a harrumphing noise before continuing. "You won't, of course. You will chase the power of that black book- to your death; I'm sure- no matter what wisdom this old man chooses to lay at your feet. If that is to be your path, seek Sobiebor Yechin in the city of Praka. He makes a living there as a scholar of languages, translating documents and the like. I've not seen him for a while, but my name will likely carry some weight with him. If anyone in Damara could tell you what language that book is written in, it's him."

"He's that wise?"

The hermit snorted. "Wise enough. And, he can work a bit of magic himself, though his comes from books and spells and the like. But he does well enough with old tongues, magic or not.."

Gehrman Vrik sat a moment longer, watching the smoldering embers in the fire. After a time, he stretched out on the muddy ground, wrapping his fur-lined cloak about him. "Rest up, young Stod. The earlier we make our way to the crossroads the better chance you have of being on your way east before nightfall."

Dyevin could barely sleep at all that first night. Praka, the City of a Thousand Spires, loomed large his thoughts. The lad had never been there, of course, but he had read of it. Second only to Heliogabalus itself in power and grandeur, many rated it the most beautiful city in the kingdom- a real city, not like Valls with its dusty streets and smells of horse dung. Perhaps that was where his future lay. He would unlock the secrets of the black tome he carried and become a great mage, rich and powerful. After a while he could send for Hayla- tell her that he was innocent of the crimes they had tried to hang upon him. Surely she would believe him….

The lad awoke to a cold grey dawn. His thin travelling cloak, good enough at keeping the rain out, provided little warmth and he woke up shivering, his breath forming puffs of steam in the morning chill. When he rose, he saw that Gehrman was already up. The hermit stood looking north from underneath the overhang they had sheltered beneath.

"We've come further than I thought. Nearly there now, boy." He stroked his beard as his eyes scanned the grey morning skies. "I sent my owl back out a little while ago. Path's deserted, I'll wager, but we can't be too careful. A few more miles and we're to the crossroads, but the path opens up from here, and we're more like to be seen- if anyone's looking, that is, and I reckon they're not. Still, best not to risk it."

With that, the unlikely pair resumed their slow journey northwards. The day was as cloudy as the one before, but although mist drifted among the hillsides and occasionally enveloped the muddy path, no rain fell. By noon, Dyevin could see that ahead of them the hills sloped down gently, until the landscape opened up into a vast green plain, dotted here and there with the occasional bush or copse of scraggly trees. Further out he could see the Baumarus River, swollen this time of year with the first of the spring snowmelt, as a wide blue ribbon, executing a wide turn before wending its way northeast towards Goliad. Off to his right, the grey line of the Shadow Road emerged from behind the hills on his right and stretched towards the curve of the river. Where the two met stood an old doubly arched stone bridge he had crossed several times with his father, though he could scarcely make it out at this distance.

As the narrow path wove its way down out of the hills his view of the bridge became clearer. In addition to the bridge itself, the lad could now discern the jumbled ruins of the old inn that used to stand at the crossroads. Only the stones making up the foundation and first floor remained, the wooden parts of the structure having been burned during the war. Dyevin wondered idly why it had never been rebuilt, especially with the increased traffic coming down the road from Bloodstone Gate.

When it came time to leave the shelter of the hills and make for the bridge, Gehrman called a halt.

"We've trouble, boy." Dyevin waited in vain for several tense moments for the hermit to continue. "Old Prowler, he can see a caravan coming down from Ostrav way- still several leagues distant. Shouldn't be here for a few hours."

"That's good, isn't it?" the gangly lad responded. "If that's all we have to do is wait-"

"Aye, that is good, but the two guards down there by the bridge wearing the Duke's livery surely won't let us pass without a word or two. And those words likely won't mean anything good for you, my young murderer. Or me for that matter, sheltering you as I am."

Dyevin's heart sank as he squinted to make out the figures Vrik had mentioned. It was still too far for him to make out individual figures, the weather being as cloudy as it was.

"How can you see them from here?" the lad asked.

"Prowler can see them. That means I can see them as well," the older man finished simply. "We'll wait for his return. In the mean time, be silent and let me think."

Dyevin acquiesced quietly to the old sorcerer's wishes, hoping the man would think of a way to get them past those guards. They're waiting for me. Of course they are. What way could I have fled the city other than the Shadow Road or the King's Road? Of course they sent guards out on horseback to search them. Even if I were able to hide as they rode by, I'd have to cross the river somehow. Why not just wait for me at the bridge?

Soon enough the great grey owl the unkempt mage referred to as Prowler returned, alighting on Gehrman Vrik's outstretched arm as if it was the sturdy branch of a spruce tree. The blonde lad could hold his tongue no longer.

"So what do we do about the guards? Do you think they'll leave?"

"Aye, they will. Long after the caravan's passed and we're sitting out here alone in the cold and the wet. And certainly not before sending word down the road that there's a murderer afoot on the run from Valls- perhaps a murderer for whom a nice bit of a reward is being offered. No, my boy, I don't think that sitting here waiting for them to ride back to town is a choice we can make."

"Well, what then?" The lad's frayed nerves were beginning to show.

The old mage chuckled and grinned a grin Dyevin did not quite like. "Relax, my boy. Have I not said that I am not without power?"

The lad's mouth hung open. Surely, Gehrman was not talking about attacking two armed and armored soldiers- horsed, no less. "But, they're guards," he stammered. "Town Guards-"

"Guards of a town that would see both of us hang!" The hermit snapped back. "I'll not end up as morbid tenth-day entertainment for Vallish rabble." He spit on the ground to emphasize his point. Taking stock of the lad, his expression seemed to soften. "Fear not, lad. Magic has more uses than parlor tricks and coaxing secrets out of scared boys." Dyevin started at the last bit, but figured there was no time to dwell on it then. The hermit laughed again. Although his long stringy hair and unkempt beard hadn't changed, there was a gleam in the hermit's eye he hadn't seen before, one that made him look like a bird of prey that just spied a rabbit below.

Two rabbits. With mail of steel and swords to match, Dyevin thought dourly.

"Listen boy, and listen well." Gehrman Vrik's eyes, still with that predatory gleam, were all intensity and focus- and trained squarely on the skinny youth from Valls who could barely keep from quaking with fear. "They're watching the road, not these hills. The grass grows tall from the hills to the river. If we stay low, they'll not notice us until it's too late. Once we get closer, I can conjure some fog from the river to cover our approach. It's a cloudy day, and some mist off the river may not raise their hackles. Then again, it might- but it's better than crawling up in full view. Once we get close- a few yards away if we can- you stay back and let me go on from there. Do not try to follow me until it's safe- you will know when that is. If either of them remains alive, help me if you can, but it would be best not to let them know you're there. And don't forget about their horses. They're like to bolt if everything goes well." He looked towards the river with an eagerness that Dyevin did not share and began moving slowly towards the bridge where the two guards were waiting. "Try not to die, boy. I'd rather this not be for naught."

Prowler flapped off towards the river, and they followed, slowly and carefully. As they emerged from the hills down into the tall grass, perhaps two miles from the river, the hermit crouched low. Dyevin followed suit. He could barely hear the breeze rustling the grass for the sound of his own heart pounding in his chest, but he noted that his other senses seemed extraordinarily clear. His eyes were assailed by a riot of color- the bright green of the grass, studded by the blues and reds of spring wildflowers that sprang up in large patches, which they crawled slowly through- pounding his nostrils with the pleasant scents of wet grass and pollen.

For the first mile, the going was relatively quick. Every once in a while Dyevin ventured a look towards the river, and after a bit the image of the bridge resolved itself more clearly, and Dyevin thought he could make out two mounted figures at its entrance. Once the pair closed within a mile of the guards, Gehrman dropped to his hands and knees and motioned for Dyevin to do the same. As they crept closer, the lad saw that there were indeed two guards clad in mail, helmets and blue tabards bearing the three daggers of House Horgat which marked them as Town Guard, as opposed to the black tabards of the Duke's personal retinue. Other than the fact that one was a bit bigger than the other, the lad couldn't make out much detail. As the old mage had said, they seemed to be focusing most of their attention on the road leading from Valls, although occasionally the smaller one gave a cursory scan of the land between the river and the hills.

Once the pair got about a hundred yards from the mounted men, Gehrman suddenly stopped and bolted upright on his knees, surely at least partially visible above the grass. For an instant, Dyevin thought the old man had lost his mind, but almost immediately he realized that the odd posture the hermit had assumed- arms curled to the side, head reared back- bespoke the mustering of arcane power. True to his word, curls of mist began to drift in from the river, shrouding the entrance to the bridge and the two men before it.

The final distance seemed to take forever. Closer and closer they crept. Dyevin heard the crunch of horse's hooves on gravel as the guards nudged their mounts forward. They suspect something! It was hard for Dyevin to keep his breathing regular. He was sure that the guardsmen would hear his heart pounding against his ribs. They would both die, and it would be his fault.

"Hsst." The hermit spoke in a low whisper. "They're moving up the road. I think the fog has set their little guard noses all to twitching. No matter, they still can't see us. Listen well, boy. This fog will break up when the battle joins and I've my mind on other things. The only way for you to stay hidden is to keep beneath the grass. Here they come now. Remember, don't follow me!"

Dyevin could see the fogbank drift closer as the riders approached. Now he could almost see the shrouded forms of horse and rider through the mist, hear their voices.

"Don't like this fog. Not natural." One voice. Low. Another answered. "Right then. Be ready, man." Dyevin noticed that the larger of the two shadows had already hefted a spear with an effortless grace that told Dyevin he knew how to use it. Dyevin turned his gaze back to the old mage that had lain crouched in the grass in front of him and his breath caught in his throat.

Gehrman Vrik was gone.

The riders were nearly upon him. It was only a matter of time before they grabbed him and rode him back to Valls to be paraded about on his way to the gallows- that is, if they chose not to skewer him where he lay. Abandoned by the one person who promised to help him, rage and despair threatened to drown the young man, but his fear kept him rooted on his hands and knees, praying to all the gods that he might remain unseen. The guards were close enough now for Dyevin to see their faces. The one closest to him, the larger one, his strong jaw clean-shaven, scanned the grass before him. When his gaze fell upon the patch where Dyevin lay, the gangly lad could see the guard's eyes widen the slightest bit, then narrow. "Bert! We've-,"

The guard never finished his sentence. At that moment a crack of thunder louder than Dyevin had ever heard ripped the air asunder. It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck the very ground right behind the horsemen, although the lad saw no flash of light. The air in front of the young man seemed to crash against him with unbelievable force, knocking him onto his side.

The smaller guard was blown forward off of his horse and hit the ground with a muffled thud. His horse, now rider-less let out a terrified scream and bolted northwards, away from the figure of Gehrman Vrik, whose hair and beard appeared tossed by a fierce gale, even though Dyevin could feel no wind on his skin beside the slight breezes that rustled the grass.

The second guard fared better. Apparently shaking off the worst of the blast, he wheeled his mount towards the suddenly visible mage-Dyevin mercifully forgotten for the moment- and spurred the beast into a charge. In an instant, the large man closed the gap between he and Gehrman and plunged his spear down in one powerfully fluid thrust, driving it down through the fur of the hermits cloak and into the meat of the old man's round shoulder. Dyevin could have sworn that he saw lightning spring from the hermit's outstretched fingers as he cried out in pain. The horse reared as the electricity arced into its body, giving the smallish mage time to spin out from under the beast's hooves.

Dyevin wrenched his gaze from the fray ahead of him towards the other guardsman who, though having the wind knocked out of him, was struggling to rise. Try to help if I can. With a sudden burst of desperate courage that would have surprised him if he had time to consider it, Dyevin found himself crawling frantically towards the prone guard, pulling the dagger he had taken from his fathers shop from his belt as he did so. The guard had just returned to his feet, and was somewhat unsteadily trying to find his bearings when the gangly lad sprang up from the tall grass, thrusting the dagger wildly.

The thrust didn't even graze the man's tabard, but it did take him by surprise. Dyevin could see an expression of disbelief cross the man's features, which the lad could now see he recognized. Most of the Town Guard he knew by sight if not by name, and this particular guard, a stern but kindly veteran in his middle years who sported a great grey mustache in the style popular with Damaran fighting men, had served for what seemed like Dyevin's entire life. Those years of experience served the guard well, as his surprise swiftly evaporated and, having dropped his spear while being thrown from his horse, administered a solid, businesslike backhand to the side of Dyevin's head.

Pain exploded in the young man's skull and he felt himself pitching towards the ground. As his body tumbled to the soft grass of the earth beneath, he saw the older guardsman pull a short, straight-bladed sword form his belt. Dyevin was unsure whether the man meant to stick him with it or not, but in that instant a wave of hate and fear unlike anything he had ever known erupted from the very depths of his being. Crimson flames erupted from the guard's body, engulfing the man completely. A choked, gargling scream began to emerge from the man's throat, but quickly faded as the man stumbled forward, then collapsed, twitching. The sickly sweet smell of burning flesh assailed the lad's nostrils, and he retched into the grass.

The next thing he was aware of was the boot of the old hermit nudging the charred corpse of the old guardsman. "Impressive, boy," the mage offered approvingly. Dyevin looked at the bearded man with shock and horror. "Blood washes off, lad. Don't trouble yourself with it. They'd have pricked you with those shiny blades of theirs without a second thought."

Dyevin looked back towards the river, where he could see the crumpled body of the big guardsman's horse smoking slightly, and he assumed the body of the guardsman lay there as well. The hermit snapped his fingers impatiently at the blonde lad. "Come to your senses, boy- and quickly! We've much to do before the caravan reaches us. Can't very well be soaked in our own blood greeting them atop a pile of smoking corpses."

Dyevin saw that the left side of the old hermit's cloak was indeed soaked with blood. Gehrman saw the direction of the boy's gaze. "It looks worse than it is," he said in an attempt to be reassuring. "You'll have to clean it and sew it up though. Can't have me going to the cathedral to beg healing for a festering spear wound, can we? There's needle, thread, and cloth for a bandage in my pack. Use the liquor in my flask to clean the wound."

He helped the mage remove cloak and caftan, and ripped the shoulder seam of his linen shirt to expose the wound. It was, as the hermit said, not particularly deep, but blood continued to well up from the hole unchecked. Fighting a wave of queasiness, he poured the clear liquor over Gehrman's shoulder, wincing at the mage's sharp intake of breath.

"Sorry."

"Nonsense, my boy. You're doing fine. Now sew it up."

"I don't know how."

"Yes, you do. How many covers have you sewn onto manuscripts at your father's shop? More than one I assume?"

"Hundreds," Dyevin sniffed. "But this is different."

"No, it's precisely the same. Pretend my shoulder is leather and parchment instead of flesh and blood."

Dyevin set to work. True enough, the lad's nimble fingers soon had the bearded man's shoulder sewn and bandaged.

"Well done." The mage moved his left arm gingerly, grimacing slightly. "Now, let's get these bodies into the river."

After relieving the guards of a few silver coins, the only things of use to the pair besides the boots that Gehrman pulled off the smaller guard, they dragged the bodies to the riverbank, one at a time. "Fine boots!" he had exclaimed. "Only a little bit burnt." He had chuckled, but it made Dyevin feel somewhat ill. Though the guards' mail had made them dreadfully hard to move, especially the big one, it also sunk their remains straight to the bottom of the Baumarus. They stripped the dead horse of its tack and livery, which went into the river as well, but the body itself was much too heavy to move. "They won't see it from the other side of the bridge." The hermit motioned up the road to indicate the approaching caravan, whose wagons Dyevin could now make out against the afternoon sky. "The vultures will make short work of it anyway. Only bones will be left by the time anyone comes looking for our friends here."

They crossed the old stone bridge and sat by the side of the Bloodstone road on the northern shore. The day warmed a little and a few errant rays of sunshine broke through the blankets of clouds, glittering on the blue-grey surface of the river. It was quite surreal to the young man- lazing by the side of the road, eating some more of Gehrman's hard bread and cheese, watching the caravan's slow approach while turning the events of the last two days over in his mind.

"I didn't mean to burn that guard the way I did," the lad blurted out, breaking a long spell of silence. "It just… happened, when I needed it to."

"That's how it begins with most," the older man responded agreeably. "With time, you will learn to bend that power to your will."

"Like you did this morning."

"Yes. Just like that." The old hermit produced a pipe from his caftan, filled it, and began to smoke.

"How? Aren't there spells? Rituals? Incantations?"

"There are some who work magic that way. I told you before, not all workers of the Weave are the same." He paused to blow a cloud of smoke out of his prodigious nostrils. "But we do work the same Weave." He looked over and must have seen the question in the tall lad's watery blue eyes. "Think of it as a fabric that permeates everything we see and touch, but we can't see or feel it at all, normally. But it's there, and some of us can reach out and pull the threads into our world. Weave them into the forms we wish."

Dyevin's brow furrowed as he tried to picture himself weaving invisible threads. It wasn't working.

"Let me explain. When I wanted not to be seen, before, with the guards, I reached out with my will, feeling the Weave. I then spun its fibers around my being, shielding me from view. Everyone learns how to use the Weave a little differently, and even the most powerful of we who use the Weave intuitively only know how to use it in a dozen or so ways. The studyers, like our friend Sobiebor who you'll soon meet, they can shape the Weave in ways limited only by the pages of their little books, but without memorizing their incantations and little dances, they cannot touch it hardly at all."

"How did you know in what ways you could shape the Weave?" Dyevin asked.

The older man shrugged. "Some of it comes naturally, like the things you have already done. Other things, like influencing those people with weaker minds, just take some practice. Subtlety, if you wish. You will learn, I'm sure, in time. Your magic already seems to be there when you need it. Our blackened friend at the bottom of the river is proof enough of that."

Dyevin shuddered at the too-fresh memory of the charred meat that had remained of the guard's familiar face as they dragged his body to the bank, and turned his attention up the road to the caravan that was now drawing close to where the two sat. He could count four wagons, drawn by two teams of two horses each. Blood-red pennants tossed about on the light breeze fluttered from either side of the lead wagon, marking their allegiance to the Barony of Bloodstone, whence they had surely come. As the wagons approached the crossroads, Gehrman Vrik pulled a soiled handkerchief from his caftan and waved it in a gesture of greeting.

"Well met, good travellers! Well met!" he intoned. "Might we parley for a moment as you pass these crossroads?" The figure seated to the right of the lead wagon's drover raised his right hand, calling a halt. The horses, large and sturdy Arcatan draft by the look of them, snorted and stamped.

"Well, again." The speaker, the man who called the halt, was a man of middle years, whose brown hair was beginning to gray around the temples. He was rail thin, noticeable even under the fine cloak he had draped around himself to ward off the chill. "If you wish to parley, then let's and we can be on our way." His green eyes flitted about the crossroads like those of a wary beast.

"I can see you are in haste, so I'll not trouble you with formalities." The short mage trundled up to the caravan master's- for that's who the man surely was- wagon and continued. "My young friend here wishes passage to the Inner Baronies. Where are you bound, good man?"

The man squinted at Gehrman, apparently sizing him up. "We make for Heliogabalus from Bloodstone Gate. We carry iron from the mines bound for the forges of the capital." He turned his gaze upon Dyevin, who shifted uncomfortably. "We'll not take you on as charity, lad. Can you pay in gold?"

"He could," the hermit interjected smoothly. "But perhaps there is no need." The caravan master regarded him strangely. The old man is up to something, Dyevin thought.

"Perhaps you can take him on without payment, then he will leave your company at the gates of Heliogabalus and trouble you no longer."

The caravan master's eyes fluttered for an instant, and there was a strange note in his voice when he spoke again. "We are travelling that way, and he seems like a nice enough lad. Very well, he can ride in the back of one of the wagons. It's a three-day journey to the capital, and I wish to make several more leagues before we camp. Say your goodbyes, lad, then make for the last wagon. You can ride with Jan. He's about your age. Tends the horses- you can help with that."

Dyevin slung his leather satchel over a bony shoulder and turned to Gehrman Vrik, unsure of what to say. He began to stammer out a thank you to the old mage. The bearded man cut him off.

"Farewell, Dyevin Stod," he said softly. "Although I'd leave that name behind, if I were you. This caravan will take you to the gates of Heliogabalus. Part ways with them before they enter the city, and take the road south to Praka." He sighed. "I don't know what the gods may have in store for you there, but I will pray to every one that my role in it is done. Met, then- for better or worse- and our business is done. Off with you now."

The blond lad nodded his assent, and strode purposefully towards the rear wagon. As he passed the hard eyed guards on their horses, a ray of sunshine broke through the overcast sky, sending a fresh wave of sparkling light over the surface of the Baumarus. For the first time since he set out from Valls, he could see the looming outlines of the Galena Mountains to the west, and he looked upon them without fear.