The Wolves of Citadel Felbar

Angry voices woke her. She opened her eyes and rolled over, blinking in the unexpected dawn light as it streamed in from the tiny window above. The air was stale and damp. The sound of dripping water filled the small space, and the faint taste of rusted metal stung her tongue. Keys rattled and a furious shout echoed through the narrow passage. The jail door was pushed open and bright sunlight assaulted her. She slipped off the narrow cot and sought the safety of a shadow. Crouching in the wedge of darkness, she wiped at her watering black eyes and focused on the thick door. The bars of her tiny cell became clear after a moment, and she ducked quickly as two guards walked past her, not bothering to look in her direction. It would not have surprised her to know that in truth, the city watch had forgotten she was even there.

The guards separated. One stopped at the empty cell next to hers, opened the gate, and tossed the keys to his companion. The second guard hurried to the third cell and fumbled with the lock. So, not one but two new occupants to torment and harass her. She stifled a sigh and looked up as two figures strolled past. Her eyes widened. She opened her mouth and whispered a curse, and then a hasty prayer.

A small woman, dressed in road-worn but sturdy cloths, strolled past the bars and walked with a noticeable limp to the open gate of the first cell. Her long, dark hair was tousled. Her pale and delicate face was twisted with distress. A bruise swelled on her cheek, and her eyes were red from crying. The woman walked into the cell after casting an uneasy glance behind her, and threw herself on the small cot childishly.

The silent watcher ignored her. It was not this small woman who had caused her such concern. No, it was her companion.

He was led past. Two more guards, both looking unhappy about their task, flanked him as they nervously escorted him to the last cell. It was not his dour expression that had caused such dread to creep into her heart. Nor was it his angry words, for he had not ceased to shout at the small woman since the jail door had been opened. His words were intimidating, no question, but it was his appearance that brought her such concern.

The silent watcher squinted through the bars and frowned with worry as the angry dwarf walked by. He was formidable, even for a dwarf. She swallowed hard and peered over her cot as he stomped past. He wasn't much taller than she, but his strength was obvious. He moved with such purpose and ease that it was plain he was accustomed to fighting, and judging from the blood that covered his knuckles, he probably liked it. She sank even further into the shadow to make herself as invisible as possible. He was not just a dwarf. Although that would have been bad enough. No, he was of the Northern Clans, a Shield dwarf. She knew exactly what he would do if he caught sight of her.

"I thought you said yer brother would take care of this!" he shouted.

He stomped into the third cell and walked straight to the bars. He grabbed them with both hands and locked his fierce gaze on the woman. She lay on the cot, looking miserable. She didn't look up at his words, and instead she snatched her dingy wool blanket off her cot and pulled it over her head.

"Aisha! Ya look at me!" he shouted. "Take that thing off yer head and tell me ya had a good reason for getting me into this!"

The guards had locked the gates, checked the dwarf's gate twice, and were leaving vigorously.

"Aisha!" he yelled.

The woman broke into a sob. She pulled the blanket tighter over her head and cried with a high pitched keening that was both endearing and annoying.

"I'm sorry," she said. It was mostly audible. The blanket muffled her response, but her message was understood.

"Ya always are," he said. "Did ya think that it would be clever to sing that little song about the man's secret arts?"

"How was I to know he was a thief?" she said. She sat up and brushed her hair out of her green eyes, making certain that she left her lower lip protruding.

"Aisha, he weren't just a thief," said the dwarf. His knuckles were white. His hands were locked to the bars with an unforgiving grip.

"How was I to know?" she asked. She threw up her hands. "It was all in fun. Most men are flattered when someone sings a song about their…"

"And just what in the nine hells were ya doing singing a song about his…"

"But it rhymed so well with broken hearts," she cried.

"Gods woman! Don't ya know it when someone is using ya for cover?" he shouted back.

"How was I to know that the city watch was looking for him? There were so many people in the tavern I couldn't see them!"

"Well, I guess ya don't have to worry about that anymore. Ya know why?" he asked. "Cause' he's dead! Along with that poor bastard who tried to help him by taking me head off with his sword. You do remember the swords, don't ya?"

She nodded. She wiped away a tear and looked up at the angry dwarf.

"Taklinn, I said I was sorry. I never meant for anyone to get hurt."

"Ya never do! It just happens. Everywhere we go. I'm starting to loose count of the bodies," he said.

The silent watcher observed the odd pair and shook her head. The woman hadn't noticed, but where the dwarf's hands gripped the long bars the iron had bowed considerably. She settled down to listen to the rest of the argument. She had been alone in the city jail for a day and a half now, and almost anything was preferable to the boredom that was creeping in.

"Raef will sort it all out. I know he will," the girl said.

The dwarf looked away from her and let go of the bars with a gruff snort. He turned and ran his wide hands through his thick, rusty brown hair. "The way ya talk I'd swear yer brother was perfect. Aisha," he said, rounding on her and fixing her with a direct glare. He spun so fast his braided beard swung over his shoulder. "I don't think that yer brother is going to be able to sort this one out. I think we may have ta stand trial."

The girl looked shocked. "But, it wasn't our fault. I was only having a bit of a lark. He was trying to hide from the watch!"

"Causing a ruckus about a song is one thing, drawing steel on a lass, now that's another." the dwarf said. He paced his cell, clenching and unclenching his fists. "That was a fine days' work, an I ain't a bit sorry I killed the bastard. But I don't think the city watch sees if quite like I do."

So, they were companions. From the way he spoke, despite his anger, very close companions. It seems that the dwarf had just ended a man's life for threatening the human girl. The watcher appraised the young woman. She was beautiful, as humans went, but she seemed so fragile. What was a slight creature like her doing with a battle-hardened Shield dwarf?

"If there is a trial, I will just tell them what happened. It will all work out. All we have to do is tell the truth." She smiled at him hopefully.

"Tell them the what?" he asked. "Tell them we was in that bar cause' ya wanted to drink yerself into forgetting about the fight ya just had with yer brother, who told ya exactly what he thought about us, by the way. The same brother who said he didn't know who ya was anymore?" he said as he started pacing. "Oh, aye, I feel a lot better, knowing that…"

"He said he was happy to see me," she said.

"Happy to see ya alive! Looking all the world like he wanted to start cutting bits off of me."

"He can't blame you for what I am," she said. Her eyes clouded with tears.

"Can't he, then?" he yelled. "Its cause' of me that ya have taken up the road, and the sword. Aisha, yer a noble Lady, at least ya were, until I came along."

"Are you sorry you met me?" she asked.

"Sorry? Gods, no. I didn't mean it like that," he said. He ran a bloody hand across his forehead, glanced at it with contempt and leaned against the bars. "Did ya see the way he looked at me?"

The girl started to cry again. Not the high pitched sound of frustration, but the soft sobs of true sadness.

"Aisha, ya know I love ya more than anything else in the world, but did ya ever stop to think about what it could have been if ya had just stayed here, taken up the family title and lived the life yer brother wished for ya?"

"Raef wants me to be happy," she said.

"Alive. He wants ya to be alive. He ain't no fool." He stopped pacing and stared ahead. His eyes seemed to cloud with worry. "I don't think he believed it when ya said ya got lost on the way to Athkatla."

"Taklinn, I always get lost," Aisha said.

"I know it." He looked in at her with a slightly softer expression. "He had too much confidence in that lot he sent with ya. Who wouldn't? I never would of thought that four o' his best soldiers couldn't protect a wee thing like yerself on an open road."

"They were good men," Aisha said. "I shouldn't have worn that gown. It drew too much attention to me. That and the ridiculous wagon. Of course we were robbed. I looked rich!"

"Aisha, ya are rich," Taklinn told her.

"Oh." She fell silent.

"I don't think he believed it. How could he believe that I stumbled on ya in the middle of the night, wandering around alone, and lost. Gods!" he said and threw his arms out. "I wouldn't have believed it."

"I thought he would have been grateful," she said. "If you hadn't found me, I doubt I could have made it to the next village."

"Nay, ya wouldn't have. But he thought ya was getting married and moving in with yer new husband."

"I never liked him," Aisha said.

"To see ya show up like this," Taklinn continued. "Riding in off the plains with a sword at yer hip and a bow slung over yer shoulder…"

"But I wanted to go with you!" she insisted. "I didn't want to marry Von, he was dull."

"Dull, but safe," Taklinn said. His face was drawn with concern.

"What do you mean?" she asked. She slipped off the cot and walked over to the bars that separated them. "What do you mean, he was safe?" she asked again.

"I mean that people in my line o' work don't have ta worry about what they are gonna do in their old age."

She looked puzzled for a moment, and then she turned and walked to the other side of her cell. The watcher froze as Aisha walked to within three yards of her, then spun around and dropped down to sit with her back against the bars.

The girl sighed and put her head in her pale hands.

"You mean they die before they reach old age, don't you Taklinn."

He said nothing, but his face was grim and it was clear he meant exactly that.

Aisha looked up at him, her expression childlike in its fear. It was plain for anyone with eyes that this human woman loved the rough-edged shield dwarf. From the way he looked back at her, it was obvious that he loved her as well.

The watcher was more than a little surprised. Oh, she had seen unions between Elves and humans, even between humans and Orcs, though it seemed unnatural. But she had never seen anything like this. She shrugged. One found love where they could. Who was she to judge or say that it was wrong? But from the sound of it, the Lady's brother was less than happy about his sister paired with a mercenary. She shook her head and felt a twinge of sympathy for the woman. She understood how hard it was when you were shunned by your kin, oh yes. She understood that very well indeed…

Aisha suddenly squared her shoulders and tossed her hair.

"He will help us. He will not let his prejudice against you stop him. You will see. He may not like you, but he will not sit idle while we are in jeopardy. Raef isn't like that," she said.

Taklinn shook his head. "I hope yer right. I don't want ta hang tomorrow morning."

"Hang!?" she shouted. Aisha tried to stand up, but her smudged jacket snagged on an imperfection in the bar and held her fast. She choked as the fabric pulled taught, and frantically tugged at her collar.

"What's wrong?" Taklinn asked. He walked over to her cell and looked in with concern.

"I'm caught!" she said. "Something on the bars has me. I can't get loose." She sounded annoyed. Her nimble hands moved quickly and she tried to find the snag. It was just out of her reach. She would be able to get free but it would mean ruining her jacket. It was sturdy hide, and would not tear easily.

The watcher, knowing her actions would surely have unhappy consequences, moved silently forward and stood up behind the woman. She reached down and tried to free the jacket. It was snagged fiercely, and she was forced to retrieve her tiny dagger that she had smuggled in her boot. She unsheathed it and stood up again.

"Hold still," she said. "I'll get you free."

Aisha froze with surprise.

Taklinn, watching Aisha with concern, gaped in horror as a gray-skinned dwarf drew a dagger and knelt down behind her.

If there was a race on Faerun more hated by the Shield dwarves, it had yet to be discovered. Bitter enemies, and rightfully so, Shield dwarves would kill Duergar without hesitation or remorse. A gray dwarf, with a knife, stood within reach of Aisha. And he was helpless stop it.

As the Duergar woman knelt down to pry the errant shard of iron away from the Lady's garment, she heard the sound of protesting metal. She glanced up quickly and saw the Shield dwarf bending the bars of his cell.

"If ya touch her I will kill ya where ya stand!" he yelled.

Grimacing, she worked quickly. She slid her tiny weapon beneath the iron shard and carefully bent it up and away from the heavy leather of the Lady's jacket. She could have done it more quickly, but the last thing she wanted to do was to slip and stab the woman she was trying to help. When the jacket was free, she stepped back and patted the woman on the shoulder reassuringly.

"There ya go, then. Yer free," she said.

The girl stood up and turned quickly, a look of fear on her face. She glanced back at her furious companion and then back to the gray skinned dwarf before her.

"Oh, thank you," she said. "I didn't know you were in there."

The gray dwarf bowed once and smiled at her. "That was the idea," she said.

"Aisha! Get back from that thing!" Taklinn yelled. He wrenched on the iron again. The metal groaned. He was almost able to squeeze through.

"I'm Aisha."

"I know," said the gray dwarf. "I heard ya both talking. I'm Basha."

"Damn it girl! I told ya to step back!" Taklinn bellowed.

Aisha glanced back at him again. "I'm sorry. He loses his temper sometimes."

The gray dwarf nodded. "I see that." She swallowed hard. He would be in Aisha's cell shortly.

"I'm glad I could help ya," said Basha. She reached through the bars toward the slender girl and held out her hand. To her utter surprise, Aisha took it fearlessly and shook it once in an open and friendly way.

"I'd be asking ya for just one favor, though," she said to Aisha.

"You would like it very much if I stopped him from trying to kill you, wouldn't you?"

Basha nodded and smiled at her. "I'd be grateful."

"You did help me," Aisha said. "If you had wanted to hurt me, you could have."

"Aisha! Get over here!" Taklinn yelled.

"I've never seen a dwarf like you before," Aisha said. To Basha's surprise, the girl spoke the phrase in perfect Dwarven. Basha grinned and spoke the language back.

"I've never seen human who could speak Dwarven so well,"

"I learned when I was a child. I have always admired the dwarves from the Great Rift. Are you from the Rift?"

"No. I'm from the Underdark. Have ya never heard of it?" Basha asked.

"Yes," Aisha said. "But I know nothing of it"

"If ya can keep yer man from twisting my head off, I'll tell ya about it sometime," Basha said.

The two women couldn't have been more different. The slender, dark-haired human, barely more than a girl, and the short, gray-skinned warrior with black eyes and white hair were like summer and winter. But as they stood facing each other, they both felt an odd kinship. For the first time in her life, the duergar woman found herself staring at someone who wasn't grimacing in fear or hatred. This young woman was looking at her with an expression that was so rare Basha could count the times it had happened on one hand. She was smiling.

"What are you doing in here?" Aisha asked. Her head was tilted to the side and she was standing no more than a foot or two away.

"I was working, here in the Shaar," Basha started to say. She paused for a moment and could see that Taklinn was starting to squeeze through the bars. She would have to talk fast.

"Was guarding a shipment of gold from Kormul. We ended up here in Shaarmid a couple of days ago. I guess I didn't leave fast enough. The city watch don't much like Duergar."

"Is that what you are?" Aisha asked. "I've never met a Duergar before."

"We tend to keep to ourselves," Basha said.

Aisha was shoved aside and a heavily muscled arm shot through the bars. Basha was ready though, and stepped back easily. The arm swiped at her like a bear-paw. She folded her arms and stared at the furious shield dwarf without a trace of fear. She was afraid, but she'd rather die than let him see it.

"Did ya touch her, ya ash-faced demon?" he demanded. "If ya did, yer dead! Understand?"

"Taklinn, it's alright," Aisha said. She smiled again stepped close to the bars.

Taklinn pushed her back roughly. "Ya stay back! Don't ya know what that is?"

"Yes, Taklinn. That is Basha. She was kind enough to free my jacket."

"Kind? Do ya know what yer saying? It's a Duergar, there's nothing of kindness in any of em'."

"Oh, of course. That is why I am lying dead on my cell floor right now with my throat cut and my purse robbed," Aisha said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. She snorted and stepped closer to the bars. "He really is friendly once you get to know him," Aisha told the worried Duergar.

"Yes, I'm sure he is," Basha said, having heard humans use that phrase to describe near-rabid dogs. She raised one eyebrow and started to size him up. As expected he was busy working on the bars of her cell now. He would have his hands around her neck in a few moments.

Basha lowered her arms and shook them. She searched her cell for anything she could use to defend herself. Once again, she was cornered and on her own. The city guards surely wouldn't help her.

"Taklinn, stop it," Aisha said. She tried to pull his hands away from the bars. "You are acting very rude."

He ignored her and started to wrench the bars apart. They bowed with alarming speed.

Gods, Basha thought. He is very strong.

Never mind that. She was very strong too. He might kill her, but he would not find it an easy task.

She glanced at the small dagger she still held in her damp hand. He didn't have a weapon. Shrugging, she slipped it back into her boot. Maybe he didn't have any honor, but she certainly wouldn't fight someone with a knife when they were unarmed. She stood up and planted her feet. Bring your best, she thought.

Taklinn snarled with effort and rage as he heaved against the iron. It gave way with a snap and one of the bars clattered to the floor.

Shoddy craftsmanship, Basha thought. Typical.

The shield dwarf crammed his thick shoulders through the gap and practically fell into Basha's cell. He righted himself with surprising grace and took another swing at her. Basha dodged him, backed away and raised her fists.

Just as Taklinn was about to lunge, a blur of movement caught his eye. He paused and growled. Aisha had darted into the cell and stood between the two dwarves, her hands spread apart and her back to Basha.

"I'm not going to just stand here and watch you murder someone, Taklinn. Now stop this! She is not dangerous."

"Get out of the way!" Taklinn shouted. "She would kill ya without a thought, don't ya see it?"

"What I see is you about to hurt an innocent person!" Aisha shouted back.

Innocent person? Basha nearly laughed. Certainly no one had ever said that about her in her life. She liked this impulsive girl. She liked her enough to make sure she wasn't accidentally killed. Without a moment's hesitation, Basha took a huge step and moved out from behind her would-be rescuer. She faced Taklinn again, and raised one hand. She bent her fingers in a come on then, gesture and waited.

"No!" Aisha yelped. She dashed between them again. "I won't let you fight."

"Get out o' the way, girl," Basha said. Her eyes were locked on the enraged shield dwarf. "Yer gonna get hurt."

"No, that's what yer gonna do," Taklinn told Basha with a sneer.

"Stop it," Aisha demanded. She spun around and faced Basha with a look of desperation. "I won't let you do this!"

"I'm not about to do anything!" Basha insisted. "I just want to live to see tomorrow."

"No one is going to kill anyone," Aisha said. She turned around and looked directly at Taklinn. "Are they?"

But Taklinn wasn't listening. He was side-stepping her and tried to dodge past. Aisha was small and nimble. She didn't think, she just leapt. To Taklinn's, and Basha's, horror, she jumped straight at Basha and threw her arms around the duergar.

"What in the nine hell's?" Taklinn said. "What do ya think yer doing?"

"If you are going to hurt her, you are going to have to hurt me too," she said.

"Let go!" Basha said. She tried to pry the girl's arms off, but Aisha was slippery and kept regaining her grip. "He's gonna kill us both, ya daft cow," Basha said.

For the first time since he had burst into the cell, Taklinn paused when he heard those words. The idea that he would ever hurt Aisha, or cause' her to be injured, jarred him out of some of the rage that had gripped him.

"No he's not," Aisha said. She tightened her grip on Basha.

"Get off! Please, girl. Yer gonna get hurt. I don't want that."

"No! Not until he promises he won't fight you," Aisha said.

It was too much for Taklinn to take. His Aisha was holding on to a Duergar, and the Duergar was trying to peel her off to prevent her from being a casualty of his violence. It went against everything he ever thought he knew about the Gray Dwarves, and himself. He felt a twinge of shame for a moment. But he shook his head and pushed the thought away. He stepped forward. It had to be a trick. The Duergar was trying to fool him somehow. That was the only explanation.

"Lass, come away now," he said. His voice was low and menacing.

"No. You promise," Aisha said.

"I won't," he said.

"Then I'm not moving," she replied.

Basha was a good judge of people, and not at all afraid to use that skill to her advantage. She knew that if the girl thought she was hurting someone; she would stop what she was doing at once.

"Yer choking me," Basha said.

This had the desired result.

"I'm sorry!" Aisha said as she relaxed her grip. Basha crammed her arms between her neck and Aisha's quick hands and managed to shove her back. The idea that the delicate woman could choke her was laughable. But the ploy worked. She was free.

"Now, do as he says," she told the girl. "Stay out o' the way."

Taklinn tried to reach forward and grab Aisha, intending to pull her out of harm's way. But he wasn't quick enough. Aisha spun around and backed up until she had Basha pinned against the wall. She was actually using herself as shield for the Duergar. She faced Taklinn, a stubborn look set on her pretty face. It was dangerously comical.

"I won't let ya hide me," Basha said. "It ain't right. You were kind to me. I'm sorry I got to do this, but I can't let ya be hurt."

Basha grabbed the small woman with her powerful hands and lifted her out of the way. She set Aisha down to the side and kept one hand on her to prevent her from dashing back.

"No! I'm trying to help you," Aisha said. She struggled, but the gray dwarf's powerful grip was unrelenting and held her fast.

"An' get yerself broken in half doing it," Basha said. She held on to the girl firmly. It was clear she wasn't going to let go.

Taklinn charged. His protective nature had seen the Duergar handle Aisha enough, and his fists were flying before his brain had a chance to stop him.

"Stop it! Taklinn, stop!" Aisha screamed.

He assailed Basha with five quick blows from his balled fists, two of them landing home. She managed to block the others.

"Let her go," he said. He grabbed her neck with both hands and squeezed. Her strength was impressive. She tried to fight him off with one hand, but she couldn't manage it. She had to let Aisha go. As soon as she did the girl tried to break the two dwarves apart. She grabbed Taklinn's hands and tried to pull them off of Basha's neck.
"Let go, Taklinn!" she cried.

"Get back," he said. His teeth were clenched and he tried to choke the Duergar with both hands. She grabbed his wrists and started to pull them down. Unbelievably, his hands started to move. He was stronger, but not strong enough to stop her from loosening his grip.

Aisha squirmed between them and managed to get under Taklinn's right arm. She was wedged between them and tried to pull Taklinn's arms away.

"Stop it, ya great furry oaf! Yer gonna hurt yer Lady!" Basha yelled as she struggled.

"Taklinn! Let go!"

Taklinn's grip slipped and his arm smashed into Aisha's nose. She yelped in pain and blood trickled down her lip. She refused to let go.

"By the name of all that is holy! Stop this at once!" bellowed a man's voice.

The three wrestling figures froze and looked towards the gate. A tall man with black hair, wearing the crest of a general of Shaarmid, stood with his large fists on his hips and looked in at the scene with disbelief. He wore a suit of black splint-mail armor. His black cloak was pulled back to reveal the hilt of a gleaming long sword.

"Aisha, what…?" he looked in at the two dwarves locked in a deadly contest, Aisha crammed between them, bleeding

"Raef," she said. She smiled at him. "Hello. Um, how are you?"

"Master Hammerstriker, you seem to have found a way out of your cell," Raef said to Taklinn. His expression was deadly.

"Would the two of you mind taking your hands off of my sister?" the general asked.

Both dwarves released each other instantly.

"Raef, we had a little disagreement," Aisha said. She walked over to the gate and smiled at her brother. "Ah. That is, we had a little argument."

"You are hurt," Raef said. He did not seem amused.

"Oh, it's only a little bump," Aisha said.

"Stop saying the word 'little'," Raef said. "You are hurt. They appear to have caused it. That is all I need to know."

Taklinn groaned. He lowered his head and seemed close to weeping. His shoulders slumped. Once again, he had disappointed Aisha's saintly brother. The brother that Aisha worshiped. The brother that Aisha adored. The brother that didn't like him.

"It isn't how it looks," Aisha said. She smiled with a timid glance back at Taklinn. He felt like asking the Duergar to kill him on the spot. Once again, Aisha would have to try and explain to her brother why she was engaged in an activity that could hardly be considered lady-like.

"I can see for myself how it looks," Raef told her. "It looks as though you were caught in the middle of something that you should not have been involved with." He paused. "Again."

Taklinn flinched.

"It was a misunderstanding," Aisha said. She inhaled deeply and started to speak, but a voice cut her off.

"He thought I was trying ta hurt yer sister," Basha said. She looked up at Raef with a straightforward expression. Her face said, go ahead. Argue with me.

"How could he have possibly thought that?" Raef asked. "There are, were, solid iron bars separating you. I don't believe for a moment he thought of you as a threat to her."

Without a word Basha reached into her boot and pulled out the hidden dagger.

"That's why," she replied.

Raef's eyes widened in surprise. So did Taklinn's. Why was this Duergar helping him?

One of the city guards had stumbled through the door and looked in the cell.

"What is he doing in there?" Then he caught sight of Basha and grimaced. "Oh, you. I forgot you was in there."

"You allowed a prisoner to be placed in a cell with a weapon, and then you forgot she was there?" asked Raef. "If one of my soldiers paid this sort of sloppy attention to duty I'd relieve him of his post."

"Sorry General Ahnjae," the guard said.

"No, you are not," Raef told him. "But you will be. Now open this cell. I don't want my sister in here for one more minute."

"Yes sir," said the guard. He pulled out his keys and unlocked the gate.

Aisha walked over to her brother and lowered her head. "Raef, I'm sorry. I know I should have kept out of the way, but I didn't want anyone to get hurt."

Raef's eyes softened as he looked at his sister. "You never do, Love. You never do."

"That's exactly what I told her," Taklinn said.

Raef shot him a stern glance. Taklinn's lips thinned as he clamped his mouth shut.

"I suppose I should be grateful," Raef said at last. "If it is true you tore through two sets of iron bars to protect my sister then I can hardly say you did not have her best interests in your heart."

Aisha leaned against her brother and he wrapped a protective arm over her shoulder.

"Now, about this bar-fight," he said. "It seems that the man your Taklinn killed was a thief, no question. The city guard have been after him for months. So have I. Not only him, but the group he works for. I have invested quite a lot, but without success. The city guard has not been able to find them either. I am no longer surprised by this fact," he said. He cast a stern look in the direction of the chastised guard.

"He was definitely one of the men I have been searching for. There is no question of that now. We have been unable to understand why he was at the same place that you were, Aisha. It was almost as if he was there for a reason. It was not easy for him to sneak into the city, and I find it too coincidental that you were both in the same place. I think you may have been sought out by this man. So, it seems that once again Master Hammerstriker was watching over you. Although I still don't understand what you were doing in that place…" he trailed off. He obviously couldn't guess that his sister would willingly enter a rough tavern in order to find solace in a mug, due to his rejection of Taklinn.

"But what about the man who tried to help the thief?" asked Aisha. "Why did he draw a sword and try to attack us?"

"He was no innocent," Raef said. "He was apparently the man's accomplice. The reason he attacked Master Hammerstriker was to stop him from killing his cohort."

"So Taklinn won't be forced to stand trial?" Aisha asked. Her eyes were wide with hope.

Raef looked down at her and smiled a bit. "No. No trial will be necessary. You can both leave. And I am sorry to say this, but you will have to leave the city."

"What?" Aisha asked. "But why?"

"The two men you killed," Raef said, looking at Taklinn. "They were part of a group I have been hunting for weeks. They have been remarkably difficult to catch and it is almost as if their skills at avoiding capture were inhuman."

"Aye, I know o' em'," said Basha. Her dagger had been safely slipped back into her boot, and she stood beside Taklinn, one eye swelling, with her arms folded across her chest. "I was traveling with that gold shipment from Kormul," she explained. "We were told to keep a close watch on the wagon. Captain Bedhlam warned us about that group. We never did see em'," she said. She sounded disappointed. "We did see twelve Orcs who thought they'd like ta take the gold off our hands." She smiled. "It didn't fare well for em'."

"Captain Bedhlam spoke highly of you," Raef said. "At least, I assume it was you he spoke of. We do not see many of your kind in this city. You apparently did not require sleep, and you fought beside him during that skirmish. He said you were damn handy to have around and he was sorry to lose you."

Basha bowed slightly at the praise and said nothing. She was proud, but not vain.

"What brought you to this?" Raef asked, glancing around the cell with a puzzled look.

Basha's lips pulled back from her teeth. She thrust her chin in the direction of the city guard. "They did. Thought I was causing trouble cause' I wanted a bitter black ale and a bed in a local Inn. Seems the Shaarmidian city watch don't like my kind."

The city guard slumped against the wall as General Ahnjae added another item to his mental list of things that made him angry about the watch.

"I see," Raef said. His tone was that of a man on the edge of losing his temper. "In my city," he mumbled. "This occurs in my city."

"You think that mob will look for revenge on them that's killed their partners?" Basha asked Raef.

The General unconsciously squeezed his sister tight against him. "I do. I don't want her in this city. I want her safely away, at least until I can sort out this mess and track them down."

"I'd be happy to help ya," Basha told him. "That is, if ya would find some sympathy for me and ask these louts ta let me out. "She looked up at the imposing General with anticipation. She would need his influence to be released from the city jails, and she was certain that his anger at the watch would help him make that decision an easy one. But more than that, she desperately wanted to be useful again. The only time she felt worthy was when she was perched atop a wagon guarding it from bandits, or fighting off hungry creatures in order to protect innocent travelers. To say that Basha was not like a typical Duergar was akin to saying that Aizure Firewater had a bit of a kick.

"I think I can find some use for you," Raef said.

Basha squared her shoulders. She was eager to have work again.

"I want you to escort my sister out of the Shaar."

"What?" Taklinn barked.

"You have a problem with that, Master dwarf?" Raef asked.

"Yer damn right I've a problem with that," he said.

"I suppose you will have to adapt," Raef told him. "I want more than one set of eyes watching my sister's back when she leaves. Basha Skulldark proved herself to my Captain, and that is good enough for me."

"Skulldark?" Taklinn mumbled.

"Raef, I don't know when we will be able to come back," Aisha said. She leaned against him and looked up at her brother with uncertain eyes. "Taklinn wants to go home. All the way past Silverymoon and back to Citadel Felbar. It could be years before we come back to see you."

"As long as you are safe," Raef said. "Once you arrive at his home in the North, will you promise me that you will settle down and stay in one place for a while?" He sighed and gave her another fierce squeeze. "I know you think I am disappointed in your…choices…" he trailed off as he looked at Taklinn. "But please understand I am only worried about you. If you love him then I am happy for you, but no more adventures! Promise me?"

"Alright," she said. "I am tired of waking up with arrows sticking out of my leg, anyway."

Raef and Taklinn flinched in unison.

"Well, Madam Skulldark?" Raef asked. "What say you to my request?"

"If Aisha wants me, I'll do it," she told him. After the girl's spirited defense of her, Basha was prepared to follow the green-eyed sprite anywhere.

"I don't want you," Taklinn said.

"I do," Aisha told her. "I think it will be nice to have someone else along. It won't be so lonely."

"Nice?" Taklinn asked.

"Then I'll get you some fresh horses and see to it that you have an escort at least as far as the Firesteep Mountains. The nomads have been rather aggressive lately and I want you to get past the grasslands without incidence."

Taklinn looked at Basha with a mixture of frustration and gratitude. She had gone out of her way to help him. What did she really want. He was fully prepared to walk away from her at this moment and let her go in peace. He felt that he owed it to Aisha to let the creature live. But it wasn't working out that way at all. How could he be expected to tolerate a Duergar?

"Raef, we've hardly slept," Aisha said. "Can't we wait until morning?"

"No. I know you are tired. I tried to get this mess sorted out as quickly as I could, but unfortunately I can't promise that you will be safe here in Shaarmid and I want you to leave as soon as you can. Preferably within the hour."

Aisha groaned and gave her brother a wide eyed, pleading look.

"It won't work," he said. "I don't care how much you beg. I want you out of the city while I try to track down this gang."

Taklinn glared openly at Basha. "We don't need any help, General. We can manage."

"Like you 'managed' that bar fight?" Raef retorted. "I think that you would benefit from having someone a bit less hot headed watching your back, Master dwarf."

Taklinn growled. A Duergar watching his back. What next? He looked at Basha with a warning glance. "She'd better watch it, and not stab it," he said.

Two hours after leaving the jail, the three unlikely companions rode out of the city of Shaarmid with everything the General had promised.

Aisha sat atop a fabulous black war horse named Ahmed. He had belonged to Raef and had only recently been replaced by an even more magnificent beast. Ahmed took to the younger, much smaller, version of his former owner quickly. He pranced and pawed the ground at every opportunity. Taklinn blinked hard when he looked at deep, brown eyes on the big war horse. It almost looked as if someone quite keen and intelligent was looking back. Well, Raef had mentioned that the horse was special. Taklinn hoped that the animal was special enough to make the long journey North.

The horses supplied to Taklinn and Basha were considerably more docile, aside from the nasty habit that Taklinn's horse seemed to have to bite anyone who he didn't like. Which was everyone.

True to his word, a small detachment of the General's soldiers rode with them. In all, six serious-faced and grim looking soldiers rode in a protective ring around the small group. Taklinn found the experience to be both annoying and pretentious. The idea that he could not protect Aisha, after all that they had been through to reach Shaarmid in the first place, seemed insulting.

Aisha's farewell to her brother had been short. Raef had urged them to leave quickly, but that didn't stop her from weeping openly and clinging to him. He had reluctantly lifted her onto the war horse, his face a mixture of sadness and determination., and watched from the hill as they had ridden away. He had promised to track down the thieves, and Aisha had promised to return.

Taklinn's mood was even fouler as they rode out of the city, if that was possible. He clearly hated watching Aisha suffer, even if it was only emotional pain.

Basha seemed completely at ease with the small group of soldiers. She rode beside Aisha, but took every opportunity to chat with the men. She had earned something of a reputation for herself with them due to her brave performance with the captain who they served with, and she was enjoying the rare chance to feel like she belonged. Raef had requested that she return to Shaarmid when her task of escorting his sister had been accomplished. As he had put it, he was looking to replace many of the city watch with proven Shaarmidian soldiers, and if she wanted the job it was hers. She had declined almost at once. The idea of living in a city with the open prejudice that she had seen firsthand was not appealing.

"So, just what are ya gonna do with yerself, ash-face?" Taklinn asked.

Basha, riding silently beside Aisha, looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. "I don't know," she said. She honestly didn't. "Maybe make a home for myself in Felbar?"

Taklinn laughed at her. "Felbar? You? A Duergar in Felbar. Oh, that's good!" He laughed again, great guffaws that made his horse put its ears back.

"Maybe not," she said. "You seem to think it would be a mistake."

"Mistake? Sure," he said, getting himself under control. "The last mistake ya would ever make. No. Felbar is not a place fer yer kind. And don't ever forget I said it."

Basha looked ahead. Her face had gone ridged. She was used to being told she was not welcome. But to have another dwarf say it so openly was a slap in the face to her. She was too angry to reply, and she didn't want to start yet another argument with the shield dwarf. No. Better to do something else entirely. She cast a quick look at Taklinn as he wiped the tears of laughter off his cheeks. She narrowed her eyes and allowed herself a quick glare at him before looking ahead. For Aisha's sake, instead of cuffing the great oaf on the back of the head like he deserved, she would do what he didn't expect. She would prove herself to him the one way she knew. She would fight beside him and show him that she was honorable.

They rode hard through the day and ended the first leg of the journey camped on the open grasslands of the Shaar. The soldiers set up the tents. Taklinn grumbled that the men insisted on setting up Aisha's tent for her. He grumbled even more when he realized that he was expected to sleep with the men, and not with Aisha.

"We managed, just the two of us, to get to Shaarmid in once piece. Now yer home, yer damn brother thinks I ought to act as if we aren't…" he trailed off. They had been together a year and one half, and Taklinn still had difficulty discussing their relationship. Not that he was ashamed of Aisha, only that he always seemed to stumble over what she was to him. Not a wife, but more than a comrade, certainly. Each time he had been called upon to introduce Aisha, or explain what she meant to him, he found himself at a loss. He was skilled with his war ax, not with words.

"It is only for a few days," Aisha told him. "Once we pass the mountains it will be just the three of us and we can have some more privacy."

"Do ya here yerself, woman? The three of us, and we'll have more privacy?"

Aisha put her hand on his cheek and smiled. His gruff expression faded and he grabbed her hand quickly.
"Lass, ya look like ya haven't slept in days. Get ye off ta bed." His tone was gruff, but his expression was protective.

He looked up at her with genuine affection and concern. It was an odd sight. Though she was slight of frame and short for a human, Aisha stood a full half a head taller than Taklinn. What he lacked in height, he made up for in breadth. Taklinn was almost twice again as broad as she.

Basha watched the exchange with a bit of curiosity. She realized she was staring and looked away, finding something else to occupy herself as Taklinn threw a thick arm around Aisha and gave her a mightily squeeze before she retreated to her small tent. The girl limped slightly as she walked away. Basha guessed that she must have been injured during the bar fight. No wonder Taklinn was so angry about the incident.

The surly shield dwarf scanned the camp of men with a sharp glare after the girl had settled in. His expression dared anyone to openly mock him. Basha concluded, rightfully so, that the stern dwarf had received his fair share of teasing about his affection for a human woman, and he wasn't about to tolerate any more.

"I'm taking the first watch," he announced. No one objected. Which was wise.

"I will help ya," Basha told him.

"What for?" he asked. He strode over to her and drew his war ax. For a moment Basha felt the urge to back away from him, but then she realized he was checking the edge, nothing more.

"I slept for almost a day in that cursed jail cell," she told him. "I don't need any more rest an' I can help ya set up a perimeter."

"Fine," he said. His tone sounded anything but fine.

"That's a beauty," Basha said, admiring his ax. It was well crafted and slightly ornate, but not gaudy. The edge gleamed in the dim light of the setting sun.

"I know," he replied. "Me Grandfather made it." He glared at her. "But I didn't come over here ta chew me jaw. Understand one thing, and mark it well. If ya disappear on me tonight and leave me without someone watching me back, or take yer opportunity to lift a purse or two off these men and sneak off, I'll track ya down and make ya wish ya'd never, ever seen me."

"I already wish I'd never seen ya," she said. She pulled her mace off her back and gave it a good swing. It was not ornate, but well-crafted and beautiful in its own way. The metal seemed to glow. It was an odd color as well. Taklinn could see that it was hizudgar, the odd blue-green metal sometimes used to make weapons. He also knew that the weapon was not typical. The metal had strange properties that gave it an extra edge when it came to causing pain.

"Nice," he told her. "Make sure ya use it on the little beasties that come in the night an' not me."

Basha did not reply. The idea that she would purposefully hurt someone she was supposed to be protecting was abhorrent to her. But she could not tell the proud shield dwarf that, she would have to prove it to him.

She replaced her mace and lifted her chin as she looked back.

"Ya won't see me, but I'll be there." Then she turned and walked into the tall grass. Taklinn walked the opposite direction, glancing at the men as he strode through the camp. He didn't like having so many people together in the open. It would draw attention to them.

He found a suitable place to take up his watch and settled in. After casting a protective glance at Aisha's tent, he looked for Basha to see where she had settled. True to her word, he couldn't see her at all. It gave him a chill to know that a Duergar was close by, and that he couldn't see her. It was going to be a long night.

Not more than an hour had passed when Basha heard them. She sensed movement in the tall grass and silently pulled her mace free. She held it at the ready, though she could tell from the size of the individual paths that cut through the tall grass, and the snuffling sounds, that she wouldn't need it. After a few moments a pack of wolves nosed their way through the grass and halted when they stumbled upon her. She sat still and waited. They sniffed the air. They were not happy about finding her, and growled. She remained still and waited for them to decide to leave, which they did with little hesitation. Four wolves were not to be worried about. Basha knew from experience that the creatures kept to themselves. She listened to them trot away.

The moon had dipped below the horizon and all she had was starlight to keep her company. She allowed herself to look at the sparkling sky, but only briefly. Her home had been the Underdark city of Dunspieren. She had not had many opportunities to see the glowing stars, living as she had in the great underground city, and they still managed to mesmerize her. If she wasn't cautious she would forget what she was doing.

"Basha!"

The gray dwarf sat up instantly. She listened again for the harsh whisper that had startled her. Someone was close by, trying to sneak up on her. Or trying to find her. But finding Basha when she didn't want to be found was nearly impossible.

"Basha, it's me," said a feminine voice.

Of course it was Aisha. Who else would be creeping around in the dark looking for someone who was supposed to be on watch?

Basha stood up and spotted the girl. She was wrapped in a blanket and was stumbling through the darkness. Her eyes were scanning the sea of grass hopefully.

"Yer not even armed," Basha said.

Aisha jumped and squeaked with surprise. "You startled me!" she said. But she was smiling. "You are impossible to see," Aisha said.

"Yes, that's the…"

"I know, I know," Aisha interrupted. "That's the idea."

The girl came to Basha's hiding place and plopped down in the grass like she was with an old friend. The gray dwarf watched her with a small smirk. This girl never ceased to charm those she met. Basha wasn't sure if it was her warm smile or her child-like nature that disarmed stubborn hearts. She understood completely why Taklinn loved her so. There was no one alive more stubborn than he, and no one more adept at peeling back the tough hide of his heart than this sprite of a girl.

As if she had been reading Basha's thoughts, Aisha cleared her throat and looked up at the gray dwarf apologetically.

"Taklinn is not easy to get close to," she said. "At first. But give him time."

Basha sat down and laid her heavy mace across her folded knees. Her black eyes completely vanished in the darkness, and Aisha found the affect odd. She smiled again and continued.

"He doesn't like you right now, but he will. Taklinn is only afraid that he can't trust you. Once he learns that you are someone he can rely on then you won't find a better friend."

"So, how long do ya figure it'll take?" Basha asked. "A couple hundred years?"

Aisha laughed. The sound bubbled up and seemed to tickle Basha's ears like a musical feather.

"No," Aisha said. "He will warm to you in no time."

Basha was 73. Not old in terms of dwarf years, but old enough. She had been living on the surface for a decade now. Long enough to learn how to judge humans. She was wise enough to know when someone wanted something from her. She waited for Aisha to get to it.

"I know my brother wanted you to travel with us as far as the Firesteep mountains, but I thought you might want to come with us a bit further."

Basha raised an eyebrow suspiciously. "Just how far was ya thinking I'd go?" she asked.

"Silverymoon," Aisha said. "At least, I'd like to have you come with us that far. Will you do it?"

"Ya don't waste time, do ya?" Basha asked. This was a very forward proposal.

"Well, we don't have very much time. The mountains are only four days away, and I didn't know if I would get another chance to speak with you alone."

"He won't have it, ya know," Basha said.

"Yes, he will," Aisha said. Her face had lost all expression. She looked at Basha with narrow eyes. "I will convince him."

For a child-like waif, Aisha was suddenly quite self-assured.

"So, what is it yer not saying?" Basha asked. Her black eyes were locked on the girl. She sat still as a stone and waited.

Aisha relented at last and released a long sigh. "Tis the dream he has," she said, slipping into a slightly odd accent. It sounded Shaarmidian.

"He sleeps after all, then," Basha said sarcastically.

"He is convinced it is real," Aisha continued. "It is a terrible dream. Sometimes it wakes him and he is swinging his arms and calling my name…" she choked and stopped speaking. Then she breathed a deep sigh and continued.

"Taklinn has a dream wherein I am standing on the edge of a cliff. He thinks it is at Citadel Felbar. He can see one of the great Vigils. I am standing with someone, but he never can see who it is. Then he sees a great beast coming for me, and he tries to save me, but I fall off of the cliff and I die."

Basha's eyes turned down with surprise and sympathy. She too, knew the pain of watching loved ones suffer, and being helpless to stop it

"He looks over the edge of the cliff, but he can't see me. All he can see is blood on the rocks below."

"But, it's just a dream," Basha said. "It don't mean anything."

"I told him such," Aisha said. "He won't believe me. He says that it is so real he can't forget it. He thinks that when we get back to Felbar, that I am going to die, and there is nothing he can do to stop it."

"Well, and what do you think?" Basha asked.

Aisha frowned and looked away quickly. "I don't know," she said.

"So, why are ya telling me this tale?"

"He has it often. The nightmare began after we made it to the Shaar. That was months ago, now. We traveled to the Rift before we went to see my brother, mostly because I think Taklinn was afraid of what Raef would think about me taking up the sword. Well, he has had the dream so many times now that I have lost count. Each time he awakens, sweating and calling my name. He claims the dream is so real that he believes it is really happening when he is asleep."

"Ya think it's some sort o' omen?" Basha asked. Her gut was starting to feel tight. What was this girl after?

Aisha nodded and looked at Basha with a pleading expression. "I think it is a warning. I don't know what it means, but I believe he is having this dream for a reason. If you proved yourself to Raef's men, then you are someone who can be trusted."

"What can I do about a dream?" Basha asked.

"What if it isn't just a dream?" Aisha asked, looking back at Basha with a worried face.

"So, ya think it may mean that yer gonna face some sort o' danger up North, an' ya want someone along who can handle themselves around danger."

She hoped Aisha felt some friendship for her, but she was beginning to think that all along the girl had only wanted her around for her skills as a warrior.

"No, it isn't that at all," Aisha said. Her face had twisted up and she seemed close to tears. "If he is right and I am going to die when we get there, I want someone to watch over him when I am gone. I like you and I trusted you the moment we met. You don't seem to be afraid of anything, and when it concerns Taklinn, not being afraid to say what you think is very important. You could take care of him if something does happen to me."

Basha's mouth fell open at the girl's words. Take care of him? As if the great lout needed anyone to take care of him. No. This was too much. He would never stand for it, and Basha knew it.

"Ya have got ta be out of yer…" the wind was knocked from her lungs as something heavy smashed into her shoulders. She was knocked to the side with violent force and slid through the grass on her side before rolling to a stop.

She sprang up and fumbled for her mace frantically. Aisha was screaming in fear and scrambling backwards through the grass, looking past Basha at something that she couldn't see. Basha blinked hard and looked up at the animal that loomed over her. A lion was crouched before her, preparing to lunge. Its tail slashed through the air and she could see its muscles tensed and ready. Her mace lay several paces away, too far for her to reach. She looked back at the lion and balled her hands into tight fists. She intended to fight with or without a weapon. Her chances were not good, but she was a dwarf. It was not in her nature to give up

Just as the lion tensed its haunches to leap, Basha disappeared. Momentarily startled, the lion glanced back to its companion, another rouge male lion, and then turned its attention to Aisha. The two began stalking closer to her, shoulder to shoulder.

"Taklinn!" Aisha screamed. She crouched into a tight ball and threw her hands over her head desperately.

One of the lions licked its teeth once and pounced. Instead of feeling the soft flesh of the small human laying helplessly before him, he felt the stinging pain of a terrible blow to the muzzle and jumped back yowling.

He blinked and saw the gray dwarf standing where nothing had been a moment before.

"Run!" Basha yelled.

Aisha tried to scramble to her feet but the heavy blanket hampered her legs. She stumbled and fell face down in the tall grass.

"No! Here!" Basha yelled at the lions. She waved her arms and drew their attention back to her. "Here!" she yelled. They snarled and split apart, each one coming at her from the side. Aisha squirmed away into the grass.

"Oh, no." Basha looked from side to side. The lions were separating. She tried to watch them both but they were too far apart. They stalked towards her, swiping with their paws, testing her. She clenched her fists and waited for the bite.

"Move!" bellowed a voice. Out of the night an ax sailed straight for one of the lions and struck it's face with a sickening crunch. The lion roared and pawed at the ax frantically.

Basha tumbled to the side and dove for her mace. It lay in the deep grass and she dug it out quickly. As she turned to attack, she was struck by the sight before her.

Taklinn stood in front of Aisha, his war ax in both hands, his feet planted like an old oak, as he snarled a challenge to the uninjured lion. Aisha was curled up behind him in a quivering ball, and Basha could see that an army wouldn't have stopped him from protecting her.

"Have at ye, ya great, stinking cat," he snarled.

The lion pounced. Taklinn dodged with amazing speed and brought his ax down with a mighty swipe. The lion stumbled and fell forward, it's head nearly severed. It lay dead, not two yards from Aisha.

The injured lion had managed to pull Taklinn's small ax out of its face. Its eye would be useless now, but it was still alive and wanted to stay that way. It turned and ran into the darkness.

Taklinn scanned the grass with a daunting gaze and a curled lip. He put Basha in mind of the snarling wolves she had encountered earlier.

Satisfied that the night offered up no more dangers, he spun around and marched to Aisha.

Basha started to move towards them, for his anxiety was plain and she worried that Taklinn would strike the girl out of rage for putting herself in danger. Had she known Taklinn even a bit better, she would have understood that he was not angry, he was afraid.

Taklinn laid his ax to the side and dropped to his knees on the ground before her. Basha could see that he was shaking. He wrapped both arms around her and lifted her up effortlessly.

"Are ya hurt?" he asked. He bundled her up in the blanket and tucked it around her carefully.

"I'm alright," she said. She buried her head in his shoulder for a moment and then pulled back to look at him. She was smiling up with relief.

"Ya scared the life out o' me," he told her. "What were ya doing out here?" he asked. His voice was gentle, not angry.

"I was talking to Basha. I am so sorry," she said. "I thought it would be alright."

Basha noticed for the first time that she had been clawed. Her forearm stung and drops of blood darkened the brown cloth of her shirt. She wore a shirt of mithril armor, but the lion had caught her low on the arm and had raked her skin. She ignored the pain and looked back to the others. She had used a very old trick to outwit the lion. One advantage to being a Duergar was her innate ability to completely disappear for short periods of time. She was slightly embarrassed by the talent, and she hoped that Aisha had not seen her do it. She hoped too, that Taklinn had somehow missed her feat, for such skills always seemed to increase the prejudice that haunted her. But as she watched the pair where they were huddled in the grass it was clear that they were hardly concerned with her.

A few of the soldiers had gathered around them, awoken by the noise. When they spied the dead lion and Taklinn's bloody ax, they looked back at the dwarf with respect.

Taklinn held the girl and sighed with gratitude that she was unharmed. He set her back on the ground and cupped her face in his wide hands.

"Next time, take yer little rapier with ya," he said.

Aisha nodded and took his hands in hers. Basha had never seen such a display between a dwarf and a human and she nearly blushed. The scene was odd, to say the least, and the last thing the two of them needed was three hulking soldiers staring over them. Basha headed towards the men purposefully.

"Back to bed with ya, boys," Basha told them as she walked past. She replaced her mace in its leather sheathing on her back and headed for the camp. As she had hoped, the soldiers followed her.

She walked back into the camp and past the dying fire. She leaned over and tossed in another skinny branch. The fire wasn't made up of wood, but was a pathetic bundle of dried grass and scrub weeds the men had managed to scrape together. The light was practically useless.

She glanced back and saw Taklinn walking with Aisha towards their tent. He lifted the flap and shooed her inside. Then he made straight for the fire, his eyes locked on Basha intently.

She groaned. "What now."

"Hey, ash-face," he said as he stopped in front of her. The fire stirred between them and shadows danced across his blue eyes. She looked up, sighing and vowing she would try to keep her temper.

"What?" she said. "It's not like I crawled into that tent and hauled her out, ya know. She came out there on her own, I had nothing ta do with it. So if ya think ya can blame me fer her being daft enough ta wander around in the dark with nothing more than a blanket, yer wrong."

Taklinn wasn't looking at her face. He was looking at her forearm.

"Yer hurt," he said. "Looks like one o' em' clawed through yer shirt."

"So? So what?" she snapped. "I'll wager yer sorry they didn't kill me outright."

"Hold still," he told her. He stepped around the small fire and pulled the sleeve of her bloody shirt aside.

He pulled out a water skin and rinsed the wound.

"That stings," she said, and tried to jerk her arm away. Taklinn held on to her and finished rinsing the wound. Two scratches traced a line down her arm, but they were not deep, only long. He examined the wounds and then replaced his water skin. He turned and left her standing by the fire while he went to rummage in his saddle bags. He came back with a small bundle of clean strips of cloth and started to wrap her arm carefully.

"What do ya think yer doing?" Basha asked. She looked at him with confusion.

"When she called fer me I thought I was too late," he said as he worked. He tied the bandage skillfully and released her arm. "But when I came running over I saw ya standing in front of her, without that mace. It must have got knocked away when they hit ya," he said, looking at her arm. "But ya was standing there anyway."

She didn't speak. She looked at him with defiance.

He looked down at the fire. The light danced across his face and played in his beard, making it glow. He shook his head once and stared at the small flames. "They would ave' killed her."

"Aye, they were looking fer an easy mark," Basha said.

"I thought that was what ya were looking for, yerself," he replied.

"Ya thought?" she asked.

"I won't say that I was wrong," Taklinn said quickly. He lifted his gaze and stared at her, trying desperately to make sense out of what she had just done.

"I won't say I was wrong," he repeated. "But I'm saying I may ave' been."

"Wrong about what?" she demanded.

He pointed at her. "You."

They watched each other for a moment in silence. Taklinn looked straight into her black eyes without blinking. It was Basha who looked away first. She let her shoulders drop and then casually glanced over at the soldiers a few yards away as they settled in again.

"Anyone would have done the same," she said with a shrug.

"No, they wouldn't," he told her flatly.

"Well, I couldn't stand there an' let her die," Basha snapped.

"That's what I don't understand," he said. "Because ya could have."

She opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again and started to walk away.

"Why did ya put that little knife away?" he asked.

Her back was too him, but she stopped and glanced over her shoulder.

"Back in the jail?" she asked.

"Aye. Why did ya put it away? I thought ya was trying ta keep from making me angrier. Was that it?"

She turned and regarded him with a cold expression. "No. I did it cause' I've got honor. Something you don't know anything about."

Taklinn stepped straight over the fire, marched at her and grabbed her by the collar. "Now listen," he said, hauling her up to her toes. "Honor is one thing I know more than a little something about. Don't ya ever question that. Ever! Got it?"

He let her go. She stood toe to toe with him and didn't flinch. "Got it," she said.

"I'm waking you for the second watch," he said as he brushed past her.

She turned and watched him go. Then she looked down and the bandage on her arm and covered it with her other hand. He actually did help her; she hadn't imagined it. But if he hated her, why would he ease her suffering at all? She glanced at the tent where the girl lay sleeping. Ah. From now one, Basha vowed that she wouldn't underestimate Taklinn's vulnerability when it came to Aisha. She walked over to her new saddle bag, a gift from the General, and pulled out her bedroll. She kicked it open next to the fire and climbed into it, laying her mace beside her within reach.

Either she was wrong and he didn't hate her, which she doubted greatly, or he was so grateful that she had helped Aisha he had overcome his hatred for a brief time. That was a much more likely explanation. As she settled in and pulled the blanket up, she understood why Aisha had asked her to go with them. Taklinn loved that girl so much he could overlook a blood feud with a Duergar long enough to question whether the hatred was deserved. No wonder Aisha wanted someone else to join them. If anything did ever happen to her, Taklinn would be devastated. Basha wondered if he would even want to live if the girl was gone. For someone who cared about him and wanted him to survive, it might be wise to ask a skilled companion to join them. Someone who was actually strong enough to stop the great cur from bringing himself harm. It would be just like him to get himself killed if Aisha was dead. But a level headed and wiser person might be able to stop him. Suddenly, Aisha's blunt request made sense.

Basha rolled over and closed her eyes, feeling the warmth from the meager fire and fingering the bandages on her arm. She would do it, of course.

After her encounter with the girl in the Shaarmidian cells, she would have done almost anything that Aisha asked. She was the first person who had openly accepted her, and defended her. Basha would have had a difficult time saying no had the girl asked her to steal the Queen's Crown in the Great Rift.

He would continue to hate her and she couldn't change that. But Basha couldn't stop thinking about the odd human girl who had leapt to her defense and risked injury to help a gray dwarf who's only contribution had been to free a snagged jacket. The girl was either crazy or the kindest person Basha had ever met. She believed that Aisha wasn't crazy, and that left the other explanation. It would not be easy, but when someone like Aisha crossed your path and decided to take you into their life, you went.

Dawn broke over the plains. The sun splashed into the dew-soaked grass and lit the sea of waving green with sparkling beauty. Basha woke and realized that she had slept through the night. She sat up and saw one of Raef's soldiers standing watch. Apparently the surly dwarf had taken some pity on her due to her injury.

She looked down at the bandage and smiled. She wasn't used to kindness from anyone, much less a shield dwarf. Back home, had she been welcome there anymore, they would never believe it.

"Oh, you are awake," said a soft female voice.

"Good morrow," Basha said. She stretched and yawned. "Did ya sleep well?"

"Yes," Aisha said as she sat down in the grass. "Taklinn told me you were hurt."

"Nothing, really," Basha told her as she got to her feet.

"It looks like a serious scratch. Just stand still for a moment." Aisha put a hand on the wound and spoke a strange word.

"Deshava," she whispered.

Basha felt a slight tingle. Her arm throbbed for a moment and then the tingle was gone.

"That should help you," Aisha said.

Basha unwrapped the bandage and saw that the wound was completely healed. "What, you a wizard?" she asked, quite surprised.

"No, not hardly. I have some skill, but only a little," Aisha said as she scooped up Basha's bed roll and started to fold it quickly.

"Handy trick," Basha said, taking the bed roll and giving the girl a nod of thanks. "I thought about what ya said last night," she began.

"And what have you decided?"

"Decided about what?" asked a gruff voice. Taklinn strolled towards them, pulling on his cloak and watching them suspiciously.

The two women exchanged a look. Taklinn stopped in front of them and frowned.

"Yer up to something, woman," he told Aisha. "What?"

"She wants me to ride with ya to Silverymoon," Basha said. She winced and waited for the explosion of curses. But Taklinn just stood looking at Aisha with narrow eyes and folded arms.

"That what ya really want?" he asked her. "Be certain of it, before ya go asking."

"I'm sure," Aisha said. "We will fare better if there are three of us. It is too dangerous with only two people. There isn't even enough time to sleep properly, and what if we run into more lions?"

Taklinn held up a hand. "Alright, alright. Ya don't have to make up excuses. Yer sure, then."

"I am. If you want to come with us, that is," she said to Basha.

The gray dwarf breathed in and exhaled slowly. "Aye. I'll come with ya."

"Thought ya would," Taklinn said. His face didn't change, but his eyes seemed less hostile than usual.

"So, admitting that ya was wrong about me?" Basha asked him.

He shook his head. "No, only she likes ya," he said as he jerked a thumb at the grinning girl. "And I never known her to be wrong about someone before. She seems ta think we'd be better off having ya with us than not."

"I hope she's right," said the gray dwarf.

Aisha kissed Taklinn on the forehead and skipped to the horses. She started to pack her saddle bag and periodically grinned at him.

Basha shook her head. "That girl. I never have seen the like."

"Nor have I," he said. "I never will again, either."

His voice sounded sad suddenly, and Basha gave him a questioning look. He ignored her and turned away too busy himself with his horse.

They were saddled and riding within the hour, and Basha urged her horse ahead of the others. She rode point and thought hard about what she had just agreed to. It would be weeks before they could make it to Silverymoon. Weeks of putting up with the sour shield dwarf. She felt the choice was right, even with his hostility and harsh words. In spite of her better judgment.

Basha found herself plotting ways that she could prove herself to him. Maybe if she showed herself to be trustworthy some of his frosty attitude would melt away and she would be able to befriend him. She shook the thought away. Why should she? He was impossible and there would be no changing him. Even though she told herself that, she found herself wanting to impress him. The feeling was odd, and she spent the rest of the morning trying to understand what could possibly make her want to befriend Taklinn Hammerstriker.

By late afternoon a black thunderhead rolled down from the distant mountain range and spilled across the plains, bringing with it flashing lightning and pouring rain. The small band of travelers was lucky enough to avoid the worst of the storm, but were forced to stop early and camp on a small rise to avoid the pooling water. The horses hung their wet heads miserably. Aisha stood beside her damp warhorse and tried to shelter him from the worst of the hail that came in spurts by holding her blanket over his head.

Basha sat in a tight circle with the soldiers and conversed about the possible success or failure of General Ahnjae concerning his hunt for the thieves that were harassing Shaarmid.

Taklinn stood watch. It was raining, but that didn't always stop hungry beasts from hunting. And it certainly didn't stop the more determined two-legged variety.

He grimaced and thought about home. The Citadel would be full of activity. It was late summer and his family would be busy trading with merchants, storing supplies for the harsh winter that would come all too soon, and wondering where he was. They would be surprised, at the very least, when he returned home after three years of travel with a human woman as his companion. He pictured the look that would surely cross his father's and mother's faces, and laughed out loud at the thought. They would be surprised, but when they got to know the impulsive and kind-hearted girl, they would take her into the family readily.

The rain was slowing. Every few moments Taklinn could see a bit of pale blue sky break through the dark clouds. He looked back up the small rise and saw the men starting to stand, shake their cloaks and wring out their hoods. They would have to make camp on the small hill, for the sun would be setting soon and it was too late in the day to continue.

He lifted his feet and shook some of the mud off his boots. "I hate the rain," he said to himself.

"Ceeche con sotath?" asked a deep, guttural voice.

Taklinn's gaze shot forward. He froze in shock and tried with all his will to avoid drawing his ax.

"Ah, hello, friend," he said. He held his hands up slowly and tried to force a smile to his lips. Standing before him, holding a long spear and carrying a hide shield as tall as a man, stood an unbelievable creature. It was huge, at least compared to Taklinn, and stood before him completely at ease. It had an oddly human torso, the face of a lion and definitely the body of a lion. It stood on four legs, and the upper half of its body composed of the human like torso was adorned with simple braided sashes and slung with a plain leather belt.

"Aisha, get down here!" he called. He turned back to the creature and held his hands up politely. The strange lion-man stood still and waited as Aisha trotted down the hill. She caught sight of Taklinn and then she saw the lion-man standing before him.

"Oh, my," she said. She stopped and bowed very low to the creature. He, for Taklinn assumed it was a male of the species, bowed back. "Ceeche con sotath?"

"Sotath con sontonan," said Aisha. She walked forward with slow steps and stopped beside Taklinn.

"You understand?" he asked.

"Yes, he's speaking Mulhorand," she whispered.

"Then tell him that we are friends," said Taklinn.

"I just did that," she replied with a smile. Her smile was forced, for she seemed a bit on edge.

"Then why is it, ah, he just standing there?" he asked.

"I was about to find out," she told him tartly.

She spoke to the creature at some length, and after a few odd pauses while the lion-man seemed to consider something that Aisha had said, he bowed and flicked his wet tail. He uttered another string of growls and something that sounded very close to a hiss, before sneezing once and looking up at the rain with irritation.

Aisha replied and Taklinn startled as the lion-man made a sharp growl that seemed to go on for a very long time.

"He is laughing, "she said.

The creature picked up his long spear and nodded curtly to Taklinn. The dwarf nodded back and relaxed. The conversation seemed to be over.

The creature turned and stalked off, his fur damp and his mane pressed flat against his strangely human face. He shook out his wet fur the way a horse shakes itself and slogged off through the mud, as silently as he had come.

"A Wemic," Aisha said before Taklinn could ask. "They are quite territorial. He was concerned we were going to hunt in this area and he wanted us to move on before we got too hungry."

"What did ya tell him?" Taklinn asked as he shook out his hood. It had become full of rain water.

"I told him we would not be hunting here, but if we became hungry we would eat the horses."

"Ya what?" he said.

"He seemed to think that it was prudent to bring our own food," she said.

"What did he think was so funny, then?" he asked.

"I only said that if it kept raining we could all swim to the Firesteep mountains. I was joking, and I think he fancied me a bit of a prankster."

"Well, madam prankster, guess who gets ta take first watch tonight in case he comes back?" Taklinn asked as he turned and trudged up the hill.

Aisha sighed and followed him.

Well into the night, the rain ceased completely and Aisha woke one of the soldiers to take the second watch. As she climbed into the tent, soaked through and shivering, Taklinn met her with a dry blanket and bundled her into her bedroll before falling back to sleep himself.

His last thought before he closed his eyes was of Aisha, standing before the Wemic and smiling at his strange laughter. He slept soundly until just before dawn, when he woke from an unquiet sleep, flailing his arms and calling for Aisha frantically. When the girl found him in the darkness and threw her arms around him to reassure him he was sweating and sobbing her name. Once again the nightmare had assaulted his sleep, leaving him with the feeling of devastation and loss. As Aisha tried to comfort him she said a silent thanks to whatever God or Goddess had sent Basha to them. Maybe now they would find an ally who could help them through whatever suffering lay ahead.

The soldiers grumbled at the mud as they mounted up and started off.

"At least the sky is clear," Basha told them all, trying to keep their spirits high. "It will dry out today."

As Taklinn mounted his horse, he looked shaken. Basha noticed that Aisha hovered around him, but he kept brushing her away and telling her that he was alright.
"It was just a dream," he insisted. "So stop yer mothering."

Basha gave the girl an encouraging smile. She led her horse to a small tuft of grass she could use as a step to reach the stirrup. It was an ordeal every time she had to get into the saddle, and she hated it each time. After struggling with the reigns, the stirrup and finally convincing the horse to stand still, Basha mounted and kicked her horse into a trot. The others were already gone, and she had to hurry to catch up with the group.

Aisha trailed behind the group and Basha reigned her mount to a walk next to the black war horse.

"He had the dream again," Aisha said. Her pretty face was pinched with worry.

"How often does he have it?" Basha asked.

"More than he should. At least every ten days."

"He just worries about ya," Basha told her. "It don't mean a thing."

"It does, though," Aisha said. "He doesn't like to talk about it, but no matter what happens to us when he gets home, I will die before he does. Long before."

"How do ya know that?" Basha asked. Her tone was not argumentative; she was truly curious about how the girl thought.

"I'm a human, he is a dwarf. Taklinn is only 57 years old." She sighed and looked ahead to make certain that he couldn't hear the conversation. "No matter what happens to us I will be gone long before him."

Basha didn't reply. What could she say? Everything she could think of sounded trite. Try to enjoy the time you have? Tell that to someone who has to live with the knowledge that they will die long before the one they love.

"I think he has the dream because of that," Aisha continued. "He thinks about it and worries about it, but what can he do? He knows that he will be without me someday."

"And what if yer both wrong?" Basha asked. "What if he dies in battle?"

Aisha shot her a doubtful look. "Who do you think has a better chance of surviving a battle? Surely you don't think that it is me."

"All I'm saying is that ya can't tell the future. Neither one of ya knows what will happen. It could be something ya don't expect. And yer a young woman. Ya got years yet to be with him."

This seemed to comfort the girl. She looked at Basha and actually smiled. "Yes, that is true."

"Next time he has that nightmare, ya may want to tell him that," Basha suggested.

The two women rode together throughout the day, chatting and trading stories. Aisha sang two lively traveling songs, and her voice was so pure it noticeably warmed the spirits of everyone within earshot, including Taklinn. She even produced a small flute from her saddle bag and played a few soft melodies as they rode. It didn't matter much to Basha that, by her own admission, the girl couldn't fight very well. She had other talents.

As the day was slipping away the sun was skimming the edge of the grassy horizon and painting the landscape a pale pink. The men were grumbling about damp trail rations when Basha's horse threw its head and snorted. He stopped and blew hard through his nose. His eyes grew wide and he danced sideways beneath her. Ahmed, Aisha's big black, did the same.

"What does that mean?" she asked.

Aisha reigned her war horse to a halt and began scanning the horizon. "It means he smells something. Can you see anything?"

"There, My Lady," called one of the soldiers. "On that rise. I see a wagon."

The two women strained their eyes and caught sight of a tall, lumbering wagon as it creaked and rocked across the prairie. A team of four horses pulled the wagon, but something trailed behind it, moving along at the same pace.

"That's odd," said Aisha. "It looks as if those people walking behind it are carrying something. But what could be so long?"

Basha saw what she was speaking of and her eyes flashed in anger. "They ain't carrying anything," she said. "It's a chain."

Basha kicked her horse hard and charged up the hill at a full gallop.

"What the blazes is she doing?" demanded Taklinn.

"I don't know. She said those people were chained," Aisha replied. She turned Ahmed towards the wagon and clicked her tongue. The big war horse flicked his tail and bolted after Basha.

"Hell and hailstones, woman! What are ya doing?" yelled Taklinn.

As Aisha galloped up the hill, the Shaarmidian soldiers charged after her. Raef had given them specific orders. Where ever his sister went, they were to follow.

"Has every one of ya lost yer minds?" Taklinn cried. He cursed and followed them, knowing full well that what waited for him over the rise was not going to be pleasant.

As he crested the hill he saw Basha, her mace held in both hands, standing on the ground next to the wagon and looking up at the driver. She was shouting.

The greasy human man wore filthy gray cloths and was practically obscured by his unkempt rat's nest of hair. He sat on the seat holding the reigns, surrounded by three upset and armed men. He was shouting back.

"Oh, Gods," Taklinn said. He rode towards them quickly. Maybe there was time yet to settle the argument peacefully.

"Come down off that wagon and I'll split yer skull open and dance on yer corpse!" Basha yelled.

Maybe not.

Taklinn spotted Aisha. She was still mounted, thank the Gods for that, but she was trying to dismount and the only thing keeping her in the saddle was one of the soldiers. He kept insisting that she stay where she was.

"Ya stay on that horse, woman," Taklinn told her. The girl meant well, but Taklinn could see that this situation called for less delicate negotiations. He rode past her and dismounted. He cautiously walked to the front of the wagon and stood beside Basha with his arms folded across his chest.

"Afternoon," he said to the driver. "Nice day, ain't it?"

"You get that Duergar scum out of my way before I turn the tables on her and slap her in chains."

"And I said ya was to toss me them keys," Basha told him.

"Please," Taklinn said, holding up a hand. "Don't say 'over my dead body', alright?"

What the wagon driver lacked in teeth, he made up for in sense. He had three men, as opposed to the six heavily armed soldiers who clustered around the wagon, swords half drawn. "I don't want any trouble," he said.

"Then ya do as I say," Basha said. "Give me them keys. Now."

"You got no right, I own them and I got the receipts to prove it." The driver frantically began to reach into his scrubby jacket, but froze as six swords rang as they left their scabbards. "I, I'm not armed," he said.

"Once more," said Basha through clenched teeth. "The keys."

"What are ya doing?" Taklinn asked her with a whisper.

"I'm letting them go," she hissed. "Don't get in my way."

"Ya don't have to do this," he told her.

She spit on the ground and growled.

"Alright," he said with a shrug. "Ya heard the lady. Give her the keys."

"This is robbery!" shouted the driver. "Your nothing but a common thief!"

"Me? Taklinn asked, clutching his chest innocently. "I'm not a thief." He pointed at Basha. "She's the thief."

"Shut up," Basha snapped.

"Maybe we can come to an agreement of some sort," called Aisha. She still sat atop her horse, but reluctantly. She was glancing nervously back and forth between the driver and Basha.

"You keep still," Taklinn said.

"Keys!" shouted Basha. She looked angry enough to kill the driver, the three guards and all the horses.

After a long pause the driver slowly reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a set of iron keys. He grimaced and then tossed them to the ground at Basha's feet. She scooped them up and shoved her mace back in its sheath. The three guards, sitting on their horses nervously, looked between each other and shrugged. So, they were giving up? It suited them. The slaver didn't pay them that well in any case.

Taklinn watched as Basha walked to the back of the wagon, glaring at the mounted guards as she went, and began unlocking the wrist cuffs that bound five people to the heavy chain. The two women wept openly as she unlocked the cuffs. The three men bowed their heads and thanked her again and again as she finished unlocking the chains. Taklinn felt his anger beginning to rise as he watched the people, so grateful to be free, that they didn't seem to notice their benefactor was a duergar. If they did notice, they didn't care. The slaver must have been cruel indeed to frighten the five humans to the point where they were grateful to see a gray dwarf come to their rescue.

When they were free of the chains Basha walked back to the front of the wagon and looked up at the driver. "Now, the set that opens the back," she said.

"There's nothing back there," he insisted. "It's empty."

"I'm in a good mood," Basha told him. "So I won't kill ya for lying to me. Sorry about yer door." She pulled her mace free and stalked to the back of the wagon.

After seeing to it that the grateful people were well out of her way, Basha swung at the wagon and smashed the door off its hinges. It hung for a moment and then dropped to the ground with a creak of metal and a groan of wood.

"It's alright," she said. "Ya can come out."

A face appeared in the remains of the wagon's back door and peeked out cautiously. When Taklinn glanced behind the wagon, he thought he saw a child jump down and walk timidly towards Basha.

"A little girl? Ya keeping a little girl locked in yer wagon?" he asked the driver.

"No! No, she's not a child! She's a Halfling," he stammered.

"That tears it," Taklinn growled. "Get down."

"What?" asked the driver. "I had to keep her locked in the wagon. She kept picking the lock on the chains."

"And I told you to get down," Taklinn repeated.

"But, we are in the middle of nowhere. You can't just take my wagon!"

"I'm not taking yer wagon," Taklinn told him. "They are." He pointed at the people who had just been released from the chains.

"You are soldiers of Shaarmid," the driver said to the men who crowded around Aisha. "Aren't you going to do something? This man is stealing my property!"

"If you start walking South," responded one of the soldiers. "You should reach the city in two or three days. If the lions don't eat you first." The other soldiers watched him in silence. If he expected sympathy, the slaver wasn't going to get it from the soldiers of Shaarmid. To the man, they thought he was getting a fair deal.

"Get off the wagon," Taklinn ordered the driver. But the man stuck out his jaw and folded him arms defiantly. He was about to argue when an ax whistled through the air and buried itself in the wood not three inches from his head.

The driver scrambled off of the wagon as quickly as he could without falling, and snatched a water skin from the seat.

"May the demons take you," he said.

"Get moving," Basha said behind him. "And you," she told the three mounted guards. "Ya leave us yer weapons."

The guards began to protest, but six flashing swords convinced them they would be wise not to argue. They tossed their weapons to the ground and Basha loaded them into the back of the wagon.

One of the guards, complaining bitterly, pulled the driver into the saddle behind him and thought very seriously about a career change.

"Start riding," Basha told them. After a half-hearted threat from the driver, the men headed South, leaving a trail cut through the tall grass behind them.

Basha had already started to help the people into the wagon. She noticed that they looked very much alike.

"Yer a family, aren't ya?" she asked.

"We are from Innarlith," said the oldest man. "These are my children." He gestured to the other four. "My wife died somewhere in between there and this awful place. We buried her on the road…" he sobbed once and looked away. "Thank you, again."

Basha looked up at him and nodded. "Get home, with ya. I'm given ya two of these good men to travel with ya on the way."

She jerked her head towards the soldiers. "How's about it lads? Who wants to help these people get home?"

In the end, as all the soldiers volunteered for the task, and the two men who were chosen to accompany the family home were picked by lots. The two who drew the shortest stick from behind Aisha's back stayed with the wagon. They were proud to do it after seeing the treatment the family had received.

"And ya will be seeing yer comrades in a few days' time," Taklinn told them. The soldiers agreed to meet in the city Innarlith. Aisha was going in that direction and the four men who rode with her would simply wait in the small city for their companions.

Taklinn had climbed up on the wagon and was pulling his throwing ax from the frame when he glanced over and saw someone sitting on his horse.

"What do ya think yer doing?" he said as he jumped to the ground. He looked up at the child and realized she was an adult after all. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a neat braid, her cloths were a bit ragged but mostly clean, and she looked back at him with a clever smile and sharp brown eyes.

"I'm riding with you," she said. Her voice was lilting and quick. "I'm Calathra Hardingdale." She waved at him and grinned. Then she slipped back and settled behind Taklinn's saddle. She patted the seat in front of her and winked at him. "We had best get mounted up," she said. "The others are leaving."

"Ya can't ride with me," he told her.

"But why? I'm not too large. Your horse can carry us both."

That much was true. She was no larger than a child. Taklinn looked over at Aisha for help. She smiled and shrugged as she climbed into Ahmed's saddle. "She isn't a member of that family," she told him casually. "She doesn't know them. She may as well ride with us to Innarlith."

"But why does she have to ride with me?" he asked, glaring up at the small woman.

"No one was sitting on your horse," said the half ling woman. "He looked like he needed the company."

"I don't need the company," Taklinn insisted.

"It's only for a few days," Aisha said as she turned Ahmed North.

Basha was busy struggling to get back on her horse and didn't have the time or the energy to offer him any sympathy.

Releasing a great sigh, he mounted his horse in front of the half ling woman and waited for Basha to do the same. It was an ordeal for her, as usual. When she was finally in the saddle they set off.

"So," the half ling woman said to Taklinn as they rode. "What is your name?"

Taklinn rolled his eyes and kicked his horse into a gallop. "There ain't much light left!" he called to the others. "Let's use what we got and ride hard."

That was a very brave thing you did," Aisha told the gray dwarf as they watched Taklinn gallop ahead.

"I hate slavers," Basha said. "There is a special place in the Nine Hells, waiting just for them. But every chance I get," she said with a dark grin. "I like to give them a taste of what to expect."

Darkness crept over the band of travelers and forced them to stop for the night. The soldiers set up camp and joked with the half ling woman who sat beside the fire and traded stories with them. She was clever and made the men laugh. This strange turn seemed to make Basha all the more convinced that she had done a good service for the day, regardless of what Taklinn thought.

She volunteered to take the first watch and found a suitable spot to settle in for the duration of her duty. Just as she was laying her mace across her knees she heard purposeful footsteps approach. She sighed. What did he want now?

"Right," said Taklinn as he came to stand next to her in the darkness. "Ya owe me an explanation."
"I what?" she asked. She frowned at him and turned her head to the side with irritation.

"Ya put the group at risk. Ya rode into a situation without knowing what would come next, and ya drug the rest of us into it. I want to know why."

He stared at her. His blue eyes were locked on her face with determination. It was clear he wasn't going anywhere until he got the answer he wanted. Basha let out a long sign and looked at the ground. She thought it would be better to tell him the truth, in spite of what he would think. She got the feeling he would know if she tried to be evasive about her reasons.

"My family were slavers," she said flatly. She looked up and into his hard expression with defiance. "That's why I left the Underdark. That's why I hate them bastards so much."

"Yer family?" he said. "Back in the Underdark, eh?"

"In Dunspieren," she said. "They were good at their job." Her voice was bitter and her face had twisted up in anger.

"So, what did ya have against the family profession?" he asked her. His tone seemed almost sarcastic and she searched his face for a hint of mockery. She did not see any.

"Everything," she told him. "I hated every minute of it. My husband, my Mother, my cousins, they all worked at it. I tried to get away from it by joining up with the army, but every time I came home I got stuck working with them."
She paused and wiped her face. She had broken into a cold sweat at the memory.

"So why did ya leave?" Taklinn asked. He watched her with an expression that almost seemed sympathetic.

"I had to, after what I did," she replied.

"What, did ya let some of the slaves go?" he asked. She looked up at him quickly. "Or something worse?".

"Oh, I'd been helping them get away for years," she said. She shrugged and continued. "I'd give them knives sometimes, if they didn't have the strength to get away and just wanted to die."

"Ya helped them kill themselves?" he asked. His voice seemed angry.

"Aye, and I was glad to do it," she told him. She did not seem at all apologetic. "What else could I do? They didn't have the will to live or go on, and they was close to death as it was. The ones that were strong enough, well, I'd just unlock them sometimes and smash the chains. Made it look like they had escaped."

"But something happened, didn't it?" he asked.

Basha looked at him with a sad expression. It was almost as if he could read her mind.

"Aye, something happened, alright." She looked at her mace and squinted hard. Her eyes clouded and she stared out at nothing as she told him of the terrible night that she had left the Underdark forever.

"I had just come back from a patrol," she began. "I was a scout for the army in Dunsperien. I spent a lot of time on the surface, following the merchants to make sure they weren't dealing with spies. Searching out information, watching for trouble or any threats of raids. I came back to see my daughter, Kineesha, whenever I weren't on duty."

"What of yer husband?" asked Taklinn.

"My husband? Well, he had been dead for years by then. He didn't like me much anyway, but my daughter, she was different. Kind, like Aisha. But like me, she could fight. She could fight like a warrior, even being so young. Oh, she ain't trained with weapons, at least she weren't then, but she was tough as steel. But she was still too young to live on her own so my sister took care of her. She was just a child then, and I couldn't bring her with me on patrol. So my sister cared for her, and Kineesha and I would see each other when we could." She paused and her face fell as she recalled the bitter memory of her departure.

"I came home to see her. I had been gone for days and days. Almost a month. When I go home I could see there was something wrong. My sister was fighting with her husband about something. I finally got out of them that the family had just captured a big group of new slaves. Twenty at least. They were humans, the whole lot. Some of them kids. I told them to let the kids go, at the very least, and they looked at me like a was crazy."

"I see," Taklinn said. He sat down next to Basha and nodded for her to continue.

"I went to find Kineesha. She was with my cousins. She was trying to do the same thing that I wanted my sister to do. She was telling them to let the children go. My cousins were laughing at her and telling her to shut up and leave before she got what she deserved. Well, she tried to take the keys from them," she said. Basha swallowed hard and looked at her hands.

"My cousins, two big fellows, didn't like it much. They took the keys back and beat her pretty bad doing it."

"Did they know you were there watching them?" Taklinn asked.

"No. Or they wouldn't have done it. Last mistake they ever made," she said.

Taklinn's face grew pale as he listened. He knew what she was about to say and he braced for it.

"I killed them. I killed them both. I watched them argue for a moment, but when they took the keys back from Kineesha and knocked her down I started running. They had her on the ground and were kicking her hard when I got there. I don't think they even knew what happened. I hit them from behind. I didn't just kill them," she said. "I smashed their heads to bits. I couldn't believe what I was doing, even as I did it. All I could think was that they was hurting my daughter."

She paused and looked over at Taklinn to see if he was still listening. He nodded to her and she continued.

"I don't even remember taking my mace out, but when Kineesha looked up she saw what I had done. She got up and looked mad, or ashamed, or something. But she weren't mad at me. She took the mace out of my hands and started to smash up the chains. She freed all the slaves. They started running off in all directions. We couldn't even point them in the right way and Gods know what happened to them."

"What happened to Kineesha?" Taklinn asked. His face was almost as gray as Basha's.

"She told me to run away and never come back. She gave me my mace and told me she would say the slaves had done it all. She said my sister would believe her, cause' of the bruises she had. Some of the slaves had been big humans, big men. She said she would tell my sister they had been fighters and had somehow gotten their hands on my cousins. How could my sister doubt her? She was hurt badly. And who would think that I had done it? How could someone do that to their own family?"

"So, you left her?" he asked.

"I had to," Basha cried. "I couldn't take my daughter up to the surface. She was a child. How could I take care of her up here? The way others see us, she would suffer every day. I didn't want to leave her there alone, but if it had got out to my sister what I had done, both Kineesha and I would have suffered for it. Anyway, what kind of a life would she have had here?"

"You do alright," he said.

"Sometimes, but where was I when ya first met me?" she asked.

"Right. I forgot about that."

"I didn't want her to live every day wondering who was sneaking up behind her. Living every day with people staring at her and calling her 'scum' and 'thief'. What kind of a life is that for a child?"

"So, that's why ya took off after that slaver," Taklinn said.

"I ain't proud of it," she said. "But if it happened tomorrow, I'd do the same. I can barely keep from killing them, sometimes. Everything they touch is evil. I wish they was all dead."

She stopped speaking and hung her head. Taklinn sat with her in silence. She looked up at him after several minutes had passed.

"I'm sorry for putting the rest of ya at risk. I'm not sorry for anything else. Think what ya like, but don't ya ever think for one second that I don't have honor."

Taklinn stood up and placed a hand on her shoulder. She sat back with surprise and flinched at his touch. He smiled at her for a moment.

"I'm beginning to think I was wrong about ya after all," he said. "Ya seem to be more shield dwarf than duergar. Now I see why Aisha took to ya so quick."

He took his hand away and turned. She watched him walk back to the camp, not quite sure what she was feeling. Relief? Gratitude?

She lifted her chin and resumed her watch. A shield dwarf had just said something nice to her. Maybe there was a place in the world for her after all. She just had to find it. She had to do it for the sake of her daughter who was still trapped in the underdark. If she didn't find a home where she was accepted and belonged, she would dishonor the sacrifice that her daughter had made.

Basha took up her mace. The same weapon that had destroyed her life and at the same time made her free, she now held at the ready to defend her new friends. As Taklinn slipped into his tent she felt an odd pang of relief, and something else that she didn't understand. A feeling that she hadn't experienced for a very long time.

Hope.

The ride to Innarlith lasted only three days, but to Taklinn it seemed longer. The half ling woman had decided that Taklinn lacked a sense of humor, and therefore needed to be exposed to humor in order to be cured of that malady. She had been telling him tall tales and chatting a never ending string of wisecracks since she had joined them.

"Shut up, Calathra," Taklinn growled. It was the fourth time that day he had said it. "We're going to be to the city gates by this afternoon, and I want to have ears left when I get there."

Calathra laughed. "You made a joke! Well, it was a very bad joke, but still a joke. Don't you feel better?"

"I'll feel better when you are going one way and we are going the other," he mumbled.

"Basha, don't you think it would be a wise thing to do if you pulled your hood up?" said Aisha. She had ridden her horse over to Basha's at a trot and rode next to the placid roan, fixing Basha with a nervous smile.

"No, I don't," Basha told her. "It always makes it worse when they find me out if I tried to lie about what I am at the start. But if ya want me to, I'll cover up. It'll make it easier for the rest of ya."

She pulled the hood of her brown cloak low over her face and began cramming her hands into a pair of black gloves. It wouldn't do a bit of good if her face were covered and her hands were not.

The party rode towards the city and encountered a few riders, and a few merchant wagons who were on their way to the main gates as well. It was a few hours before dusk when they reached the main gate.

Basha felt the familiar pang of dread. Whenever she approached a new place there was always a moment of uncertainty, coupled with a bit of fear, that caused her to be on edge.

The soldiers of Raef's detachment automatically fell into a tight formation around Aisha, fulfilling their duty as the honor escort that had been their original order. Basha reigned her horse back and rode behind the line of men. She glanced over with surprise and saw that Taklinn had left Aisha's side. He was riding next to her, and looked over with an encouraging smile. The half ling woman riding behind him gave the two burly human guards standing at the gate a swift once over with her quick brown eyes and nodded to Basha. She didn't need to be convinced that Basha was trustworthy. Seeing the duergar's face appear in the shattered door of the slavers wagon had already done that.

"It will be alright," she told the gray dwarf. "They won't be interested in us at all."

"Why not?" Basha asked.

"We're too short," Calathra said cryptically.

Basha looked ahead with a puzzled expression and was surprised to see the guards ignoring Taklinn and her completely. They were scrutinizing Aisha and the guards with a wary eye, and had even demanded to search some of the men.

"It's alright, Captain," Aisha told the irritated leader who was in charge of the Shaarmidian soldiers. She dismounted and walked over to the guards, holding her hands out and allowing them to look under her cloak.

"Aye, she's armed alright," said the youngest of the city guards. Two small daggers were tucked just above the hilt of her rapier, and he looked at Aisha with suspicion.

"We would like it if you left those weapons with us," said the senior guard. He looked up at the soldiers and nodded. His thick gray mustache wasn't quite bushy enough to conceal his frown. "Them too," he said as he watched the soldiers.

"What?" said the Captain. "Absolutely not. We are soldiers, young man. We are not nomadic rabble that have come to Innarlith to pillage. We will not, in any case, give up our weapons. We are escorting this Lady to your city under the orders of General Ahnjae of Shaarmid, and we will not be disarmed."

The guard looked about as impressed as man who had just bitten into a bad sausage.

"I don't care who you are," he said. "We have had a lot of trouble with raiders, some of them looking all the world like they were from Shaarmid itself. You can leave your weapons, or you can camp outside the city."

"There must be some way that we can convince you of who we are," said Aisha. She smiled and folded her hands demurely in front of her.

Taklinn groaned. "Ah, Gods. Here we go," he mumbled. "She is gonna try and flutter her eyelashes at them."

Calathra sighed with impatiently and slipped off of the back of Taklinn's horse soundlessly. When Taklinn glanced back, she had vanished. He thought he caught sight of her edging her way towards the city through the tall grass, and locked his eyes forward. He didn't want to draw attention to her and risk having the guards spot her. Maybe she would get lost in the city and he would be rid of her. The thought made him smile a bit. No more chatter and no more jokes.

Hove beats clomped behind them and Basha sensed that someone else was riding up to the gate. Well, she thought, they will have to wait. Aisha was busy fluttering.

"Why, our language alone must be enough to convince you that we are not nomads," Aisha said. She smiled politely and opened her hands in an appealing gesture. "Do you see this crest?" she asked. She held up a small gold pendant that hung on a sturdy chain around her neck. "This is the seal of the house of Vothriel. My house. I am Lady Aisha Donleedelay Vothriel. My brother is a General in the Shaarmidian army. Well, my half-brother, actually. Do you think a nomad of the plains would be carrying a seal of a noble house of Shaarmid and be traveling with an armed escort?" she asked.

The older guard spit on the ground at her feet and looked back up at her with a smirk. Now he was determined to exercise his authority, not because he really believed that they were a threat, but in order to have the privilege of abusing a noble.

"Leave your weapons," he repeated. "Or, camp outside. It's up to you."

Something bumped into Basha's horse.

"Sorry," said a deep voice. Basha cautiously glanced over, making sure not to pull her hood back, and saw a rider next to her who was trying to work his way to the front of the line. She gasped.

He glanced her way but she looked down quickly and managed to avoid his gaze. Taklinn had seen him as well. He watched the rider carefully, but didn't seem too concerned and went back to watching Aisha and her sloppy negotiations.

"Look here, master dwarf," said the senior guard as he caught sight of the rider. "You have to wait. We are in the middle of something here and…"

"I can understand that," answered the dwarf who had just ridden past Basha. "But I have been alone on the road for a ten-day and if I don't have a bath I don't think my horse will forgive me. Can't you just let me pass?"

Basha hadn't taken her eyes off him from the moment that he had ridden by. He was striking, no question about it. He was a gold dwarf and most likely hailed from the Great Rift. He sat astride a white horse heavily armored with well-crafted barding. The gold dwarf's armor was no less impressive, and gleamed in the late day sun like well-polished silver.

"I see that these people are all together," he explained. "But I am not with them. I am Vorgim, knight of Baranor Truesilver and representative from the Great Rift city of Underhome. I am just passing through your fine city on my way North. I would be grateful to you gentlemen if you could let me through these gates so that I may drop a gold piece or two into the chests of the good innkeepers."

Taklinn chuckled. "Looks like he is gonna have better luck than us," he said. "Hey, what's the matter with you?"

"Hmm?" she said. "Oh, ah. I was just admiring his, uh, armor," she said.

Taklinn shook his head and gave the gold dwarf a careful examination. "Uh-Hu. He sure is a handsome fellow," he said, glancing at Basha with a grin.

"Oh?" she replied too casually. "I hadn't noticed."

What was she saying? Of course she had noticed. Basha had never seen a more handsome dwarf that she could recall. She didn't even blink as he was allowed to pass through the gates and started riding into the city. She watched him with glassy eyes and stifled a sigh as he rode away.

She hadn't noticed that her hood had slipped back and her face was partly exposed.

But the guards did.

"Maybe if we could pay some sort of toll," Aisha was saying.

"What the blazes?" said the younger guard. His eyes shot to Basha and he drew his sword. "Captain Marc!" he yelled and pointed the tip of his sword at Basha.

Unfortunately, his sword came dangerously close to Aisha as he pointed and to the man the soldiers of Shaarmid drew their swords and started to dismount.

"Put that damn metal toothpick away!" shouted Taklinn. "What are ya, mad? We're not here to pillage yer damn city!"

"Then explain that," said the senior guard, jabbing a finger at Basha. He held his sword by the hilt, but hadn't draw. Taklinn saw Basha's gray cheek and his eyes widened. "Ah, that's just great," he mumbled.

"Stand down your arms, Lad," the Shaarmidian Captain said with a stern glare. "We can explain this." He had stepped in between Aisha and the young guard and was pushing the tip of the lad's blade away from her with his long sword. "No need for weapons."

"Start talking," said the guard. "You have about a minute before I call the alarm."

"Play along," Taklinn whispered to Basha. He kicked his horse and approached the two nervous guards. He stopped his horse and lowered his head as if he had just been discovered with his hand in the temple offering plate.

"Well, ya got us boys. We tried to be discrete about this," Taklinn said, shaking his head. "But ya was too quick for us. That bodes well for ya. Does credit to yer post."

"What is that doing here in Innarlith?" asked the young guard.

"She's our prisoner, ya see. We have to take her back to Citadel Felbar to stand trial. We got the unhappy task of keeping track of her all that way.

"Your prisoner?" said the senior guard. "They why isn't she bound?"

"Well, ya see," Taklinn began. "We didn't want to draw attention to us. Besides, the wee lass there standing before ya is a powerful sorceress, and she has a spell cast on the prisoner that keeps her from being able to escape."

The guards both looked at Aisha with doubtful expressions. "She's a sorceress, eh?" said the young guard suspiciously.

"Oh, aye," said Taklinn. He could see that they doubted him on that account. "Well, just look at her. Does she look like someone who could actually fight with that rapier she's wearing?"

Both guards looked back to Aisha and shrugged. They had to concede that she didn't look like much of a fighter to them.

Aisha turned her head slowly and glared at Taklinn. He was not going to have and easy night of it, he could tell already.

"So, there ya have it," he said. "Ya don't believe that load of clap-trap about these men being here just to escort that wee lass? Oh, no. They are here to help me keep an eye on the prisoner."

"Oh," said the old guard. "Well, why didn't you just tell us that when you rode up?'

"We didn't want to make a show of it," Taklinn said. He gave the guards a friendly, but not too friendly, smile and waited.

"As long as it's just for one night," said the senior guard.

"Just the one," Taklinn reassured him. Taklinn smiled. They were in.

"Then you can pass," he told the party. "Just see to it that she doesn't escape, will you?"

"That's our job," Taklinn said. He turned his horse back and pretended to take up his post.

Basha pulled her hood low and pretended to look like a prisoner. She did a remarkably good impression of a scowling criminal. The soldiers replaced their swords and silently mounted up. They completed the ruse by flanking Basha, not Aisha, as they rode through the gates.

"Next time," Taklinn said.

"I know, I know," Basha snapped. "Keep the damn hood low."

"Glad I don't have to tell ya twice," he grumbled.

They found an Inn with a stable and Basha led her horse into an empty stall while Taklinn was busy fending off Aisha.
"What did that mean?" she asked. "Don't I look like a fighter? Why did everyone laugh when we got through the gate?"

"Of course ya look like a fighter," Taklinn said. He rolled his eyes at Basha as he walked past her and led his horse as quickly as he could to the next stall. "I was trying to get us in, that's all."

"Well, I don't think that it was very clever of you to tell them I was a sorceress," she scolded. "I don't like it at all."

"Who's up for a bitter black ale?" Taklinn asked the gathered soldiers. He was desperately trying to change the subject. "I'm buying!"

Aisha shot Taklinn a piercing look and spun on her heel. She left the stable and headed off in the direction of the main thoroughfare without a backward glance. She seemed like she was determined, and her slender arms swung with purpose.

"Oy, Taklinn," Basha said. "Ya just gonna let her go off alone? It's getting dark."

"What?" he said, looking out to see Aisha stomping away. "Hah! You don't need to worry about her. She don't look it, but that girl is damn good with that little stick of a sword. She'll be fine."

Basha raised an eyebrow and laughed. Taklinn smiled back at her and slapped her on the shoulder.

"Come on," he said. "I owe ya a drink."

"Ya owe me two," she told him. "It's the least ya can do for calling me ash-face all the time."

He headed towards the tavern. As Basha pulled her saddle bag off her tired mount, she glanced in the stall next to hers and felt her heart flutter. Standing in the stall, munching on hay and looking regal, was a white horse. The same white horse she had seen only a few minutes before.

Basha felt her face flush and scolded herself for the reaction. "He's just a man," she told herself. Oh, aye. Just a man. Like no other she had ever seen.

She pulled her hood low and headed to the inn. No sense in making a fool of herself for a handsome dwarf like that. One look at her gray skin and he would be drawing steel and asking questions later. No. There was no doubt that Basha would be eating in her room tonight. She could pine after the handsome gold dwarf all she wanted. Talking to him face to face would be impossible.

She trudged towards the inn, following Taklinn, who was whistling.

Her spirits lifted a bit as he ordered two rooms for herself and Aisha, leaving the soldiers to fend for themselves. He handed her the key to her room and gave her a wink.

"I'll be up after a bit with something hot for ya to eat," he told her. "Stay up there and get some rest. I've got to stay down here and wait for Aisha to get back so she can chew me to bits for what happened at the gate."

"No argument from me," she replied as she headed for the stairs. She thought she saw the gold dwarf sitting in the tavern, but instead of torturing herself with the thought that she may get a chance to see him again, she went to her room and locked herself in. It was almost an hour before she heard a knock on her door.

"It's about time, ya lazy…"

"Hello," said Aisha.

Basha opened the door. "Oh, I thought ya was the oaf," she said.

"May I join you?" Aisha asked.

Basha stood in the doorway for a moment and raised an eyebrow. "Ah, join me in what?"

"Can I come into your room?" the girl asked.

"Aye, ah. Ya can."

Aisha slipped into the small room and bolted the door behind her. She was carrying a small wooden case under one arm and her pack was slung over her shoulder.

"Aren't ya staying with him?" Basha asked.

"I need more light," Aisha said, ignoring her. "Don't you have any candles in here?"

Basha rummaged in the small desk that squatted in the corner and pulled out a crude white stump of a candle. She set it on the brass plate on the top and lit it. It emitted bright, clear light and she turned back to Aisha.

"What," she asked the girl. "Are ya doing with that?"

Aisha sat in the middle of the floor, the box opened in front of her and an assortment of what looked like cosmetics scattered around her.

"Sit," Aisha said. "It won't take long, if I do it right."

"Wait just one second," Basha said. "Yer gonna paint me, is that it?"

"Yes. Now sit."

"I don't want no part of it," Basha told her sternly. "It is always worse when they find my out. Every time I tried to hide myself before it didn't work. They think I was trying to be sneaky. I won't do it."

Aisha's shoulders dropped. She gave Basha a pleading look and sighed. Aisha sighed a lot, Basha noticed. When she did, she always seemed to get what she wanted.

"It is only for one night," the girl said. "You can come downstairs and eat with us. You won't see any of these people ever again, so why not? It could be fun."
"Oh, fun ya say. Fun until that paint rubs off and men with big clubs start asking me questions."

"It won't rub off unless it gets wet," Aisha explained. "And I don't think it is going to rain inside the tavern. It will only be for one night. And then when we ride tomorrow you can wash it off. Alright? Please?"

Basha thought about it. "Ya say I will be able to go down them stairs and eat with the rest of ya?"

"Of course. I can make you look like just another gold dwarf. I'm afraid I can't make you look like a shield dwarf. Pardon me, but you are the wrong shade for that. But a gold dwarf, now that I can do." Aisha smiled up at her with such a convincing twinkle in her eye that Basha almost believed her.

Then Basha thought about the handsome gold dwarf, sitting alone in the tavern at that very moment, probably wishing he had company.

"Alright," she said. She sat on the floor and started to pull off her chain shirt. "What about my hair?"

"It will be black. I hope that is alright," Aisha replied.

"How should I know? Just don't make me look too ugly," she insisted.

"You are not ugly," Aisha scolded. "I think you are quite beautiful, when your face isn't all covered up with your hood. Now, take off your shirt."

Basha complied. She was willing to suffer the indignity for the sake of one night of sitting beside the gold dwarf and feeling like she was welcome.

"Let's get this over with," she said as she lifted her shirt over her head.

Taklinn stood up when Aisha, and a shockingly different Basha, strolled over to his table and stopped in front of him.

"Is this seat taken?" Aisha asked him with a proud grin.

"Ah, no," Taklinn stammered. "Go ahead and sit down, the two of ya." He tried to look as if he wasn't amazed to see Basha walk into the tavern so casually. She looked exactly like the gold dwarf who sat beside him. Except for one thing. Her eyes were still as black as the night sky. Her skin had been painted cleverly and her hair glistened with surprising sheen, considering it was now as black as her eyes. It was still wet, and Aisha had styled it back into a very attractive two sided braid that revealed Basha's large eyes and showed the curve of her high cheeks.

Taklinn motioned for her to sit but she was staring straight at the handsome gold dwarf and didn't see his gesture. She smiled. Well, if she was going to live dangerously for one night then she might as well get started.

"I'm Basha. Basha Skulldark," she said. She extended her hand to the gold dwarf and took his when he offered it. She shook it once firmly and then sat beside him.

"I am Vorgrim. It is a great surprise and a pleasure to meet you here in Innarlith," he replied. "Do you hail from the Rift?" he asked. His eyes turned up at the corners as he broke into a broad grin. He ignored Aisha completely.

The Rift?" Basha asked. "No, I'm from the Underd…

"Waterdeep," Taklinn said. "She's from Waterdeep. Ain't ya, Basha?"

"No, I'm not," she said, sounding annoyed.

"Not from Waterdeep, exactly," Taklinn continued. "She was born in the Rift, but her parents moved on to Waterdeep when she was still too young to remember."

Basha took a deep breath and glared at Taklinn. Then she smiled at Vorgrim as sweetly as she could. "Do ya hail from the Rift yourself?" she asked.

"I do," he said. He was smiling at her with an unusual expression. He seemed delighted to have stumbled across a fellow gold dwarf in a human city. "I have just left there on my way North. Your companion here was generous enough to offer me a flagon of ale and a bit of conversation."

"He is nothing if not generous," Basha said. She gave Taklinn a warning glance. Her eyes seemed to say stop answering for me.

"So, what takes the three of you to Citadel Felbar?" the gold dwarf asked. His tone was friendly, but his eyes hadn't left Basha once. Taklinn noticed this and coughed nervously.

"We are going to see Taklinn's family," Aisha said. She was watching Vorgrim, the gold dwarf, with as much nervousness as Taklinn.

"It's my home," Taklinn told him. "And it's been three years since I saw it last. Its time I let them all know that I'm still alive. We asked Basha to ride with us."

"Oh?" Vorgrim said, casting a surprised look at her. "On your way to the Citadel?" His expression changed a bit.

It was nearly imperceptible, but Taklinn saw it. He nudged Basha under the table. She hadn't answered his question because she was busy staring at his brown eyes.

"Oh, "she stammered. "Ah, I was hoping to make it that far, but who can say? I may not make it all the way to the Citadel, but I plan to ride with them as far as I can."

"You plan to stop at Silverymoon, then," Vorgrim said. He took a sip of his ale and looked at her expectantly.

"Silverymoon? I hadn't thought about it," she answered.

"I plan to go that far," Vorgrim said. "I am hoping to meet someone there." His lip curled up at the corner and he seemed to be appraising Basha with unusual scrutiny. He didn't elaborate further about his meeting in Silverymoon and smiled back at Basha intently.

"Fancy an ale yourself?" he asked her.

"I think I do," Basha said. She scooted her chair a bit closer to Vorgrim's and folded her gloved hands on the table.

Aisha's eyes popped open and Basha shot her a questioning look. She couldn't see what had upset the girl, so she shrugged and looked back to Vorgrim. She felt surprisingly confident. His attentions served to make her feel even more at ease. It was having the exact opposite effect on Taklinn and Aisha.

"Ya look a bit road weary yerself," Taklinn said to Vorgrim. He couldn't see it, but Vorgrim had placed a hand on the back of Basha's chair. Her damp hair had dripped. Aisha was watching the gold dwarf with a forced smile and a twitching foot. She could see the back of Vorgrim's hand where the dye had dripped, but she couldn't tell if Vorgim could. Had he been a shield dwarf he would have noticed a damp circle of black die coloring his hand. But his skin was dark and luckily for Basha the dye was not noticeable. This didn't stop Aisha from squirming in her chair and casting nervous looks at Basha's hair.

"I am weary. The road from the Rift was a hard one," Vorgrim replied. He casually wiped his hand on his trouser and failed to see the black smudge that the dye had left in the fabric. Aisha twitched.

"Had trouble, did ya?" Taklinn asked. He pinched Aisha under the table to stop her from squirming.

"Some," Vorgrim replied. "I'm alone, so I must look like an easy mark. Two humans tried to rob me just a day out of Innarlith, up in the Firesteeps."

"Tried?" Aisha said, her voice squeaking.

"And failed," Vorgrim said. He grinned at Basha. "I manage to take care of myself."

"From the look of ya," Basha said, her eyes sparking. "I think ya could take care of yerself and several others at the same time."

Vorgrim emitted a modest chuckle and held up his hand in mock protest. "Oh, my Lady, I am but one man. You make it sound as if I were some sort of champion."

Basha sighed. He had called her 'my Lady'. It would be impossible to drag her away from him at this point.

"But I promised you an ale," Vorgrim said. He smiled at Basha and stood up. He bowed to her once, inclined his head at Aisha and strolled to the bar.

"My, my," Basha said. "He is very, ah, likeable, isn't he?"

"What do ya think yer doing?" Taklinn hissed. He was trying to whisper, but his voice carried quite far and two human men glanced at him. He slid his chair closer to Basha and slammed a fist on the table. "What the blazes it this?"

"It's a cosmetic, Taklinn" Aisha said. She cocked her head to the side and smiled innocently. "I think it looks rather convincing."

"Convincing?" he said. "Gods, woman. I didn't hardly know her when ya walked over!"

"Shh!" Aisha held up a hand and glanced at the bar. Vorgrim was chatting with the barkeep and didn't seem to notice Taklinn's strife.

"He looks like he could be in the service of Hala Brightax," Basha said with a dreamy expression. She was staring at Vorgrim. "He is wearing a holy symbol of the temple."

"That doesn't mean that he is," said Aisha. She was growing a bit worried. Vorgrim had taken a sudden and intense interest in their duergar companion and it unnerved her.

"Just look at the way he carries himself," Basha replied, oblivious to her friend's concern. "He is very regal."

"Hey," Taklinn said. He snapped his fingers in front of Basha. "I'm over here. You was just explaining to me what possessed ya to do this, remember?"

Basha pointed at Aisha. "She did. And just so ya know, I don't like lying to him about where I'm from."

"So ya think telling him the truth now would be a good idea, then?" Taklinn asked.

"I just thought it would be nice if she could dine with us in the tavern," Aisha told them. She smiled innocently. Sweat had started to collect on her upper lip.

"And what happens if he finds out what color she really is?" Taklinn growled.

"He won't," Aisha said. She leaned closer to him and lowered her voice. "Unless it gets wet, it won't come off. Alright?" She was reassuring herself more than him.

"Alright?" Taklinn asked. "No, not even close to alright. That Vorgrim isn't just a traveler. Do ya know who he is?" he asked. "Do ya know what he is?"

"No," Aisha said. Vorgrim's strong arms and easy stance revealed his confidence and his noticeable strength. She frowned.

"He's a knight. He told me as such. Not any kind of knight, either. He's a paladin," Taklinn told her. "And Basha was right when she said he was in service of the temple. He's a knight of the temple belonging to Hala Brightax. If there is a dwarf in the city of Innarlith that ya don't want sitting next to ya in this tavern," Taklinn said darkly. "It's him."

"I don't mind," Basha said.

"You keep quiet," Taklinn snapped.

"It doesn't matter," Aisha said, waving her hands. "It's only for one night. It isn't as if he is going to ride with us all the way to the Citadel."

"Did you say I should ride North with you?" asked Vorgrim as he came back to the table.

"Did I?" Aisha said. She hadn't seen him returning. "Ah, well, actually I was just saying that it was unfortunate that you couldn't ride with us, because it would be nice if…" Taklinn kicked Aisha under the table and she yelped.

"She means it's too bad that ya can't" Taklinn finished.

Vorgrim placed two tankards of ale on the table and sat back down. He looked over at Basha and slid her ale in front of her. "Your drink, my Lady."

"No offense meant," Taklinn said. His voice was even. "But we are riding hard and the pace we set might not be to yer liking." Taklinn stared at Vorgrim with a stony expression.

"I understand," Vorgrim said. He looked at Taklinn and nodded. He assumed that the protective shield dwarf was not comfortable allowing a stranger to join them. He couldn't blame Taklinn. He wouldn't allow an untested companion to ride with his female friends. Not that Basha appeared to need protection of any sort. No, it was the human that Taklinn worried about. That much was plain. Vorgrim cast another long look at Basha and narrowed his eyes. He was watching her carefully. He seemed to be thinking.

Taklinn cleared his throat loudly and coughed. He was sweating too.

"Just because ya can't ride with us doesn't mean we can't share a drink and a song or two tonight," Basha said. She lifted her tankard and tapped it against Vorgrim's. She was determined to have a pleasurable evening with this striking man, and to the devil with what her worried companions were thinking.

"Then we shall," Vorgrim replied, returning the salute with his mug. He smiled at Basha unabashedly.

Aisha and Taklinn obediently lifted their tankards as well and each took a drink.

"And perhaps I can convince you to allow me the pleasure of a dance?" Vorgrim asked. He smiled at Basha suggestively.

Half a mouthful of ale shot out of Taklinn's nose. He spit the other half out and pounded on his chest, coughing loudly.

Vorgrim glanced at him with concern. "Did I say something wrong?" he asked.

"No," Taklinn sputtered. "There was a bug in my drink."

"I'd love a dance," Basha said to Vorgrim. She took a delicate sip from her mug.

"Oh, no," Aisha murmured.

She was looking towards the door. Taklinn followed her gaze and his mouth fell open. The blond Halfling woman, Calathra, was striding towards them.

"She doesn't know about…" Aisha began.

"Calathra!" Taklinn bellowed. "Where have ya been?" He jumped from his chair and marched towards her with an enormous grin covering his shocked face. She stopped and stared at him suspiciously. He tried to intercept her before she could reach the table, but she dodged past him and stole his seat.

"Looking for you, that's where I've been," she answered.

"Well, here we are!" he practically shouted. He trotted back to the table and gave her an exaggerated smile. "All of us, all together, ah…"

She was looking at Basha with a half-smile. "Yes, I can see that."

"How are you?" asked Aisha. She was wringing her hands under the table.

"Hungry," Calathra told her. "So, who's buying me dinner?" She smirked and looked straight at Taklinn. She scrunched up her eyes and pointed at him. "I think you are."

Taklinn suppressed a growl. The Halfling woman swung her dangling feet playfully and looked towards the barkeep. "Have you got any lamb?" she called to him. He nodded and turned towards the kitchens. "Thanks," she said, looking at the angry shield dwarf and grinning. She had named her price. You buy me dinner; I don't say anything about Basha's sudden transformation. Not that she would have done such a thing to begin with, but Taklinn didn't need to know that.

"So, Basha," Vorgrim began. "How did you come to know present company?"

"You mean these two?" Basha said, seeming to notice them for the first time all evening. "Oh, I was locked up…"

"Aisha!" Taklinn yelled. "Sing us a song, will ya lass?"

"Of course!" Aisha yelled back.

Vorgrim looked between them, startled. "That sounds alright," he said with confusion.

Aisha stood up and moved away from the table. She positioned herself deliberately. Vorgrim had to crane his neck around to see her, and made it impossible for him to look at Basha.
"This is a little song that some have affectingly named 'Iron Maiden', but I like to call it 'The Chastity Belt'."

She opened her mouth and started to sing. The words were startling, to say the least. When she got to the verse about the lucky blacksmith who had a knack with locks Taklinn's ears were turning pink with embarrassment. The other patrons in the tavern had stopped their chatting and were listening to Aisha with growing grins. Some of the rowdy patrons were chuckling and clapping along.

Her song had the desired effect. Vorgrim wasn't even glancing at Basha. He was listening to Aisha sing, his mouth hanging open slightly.

The two human men who had been startled by Taklinn's previous outburst were banging their hands on the table and were dangerously close to whooping.

"Just how many verses are there?" Basha asked with annoyance.

"Six," Taklinn said.

"Wonderful," she replied. She propped her chin on her fist and glared at the wall.

When Aisha finished the song at last she tried to sit down, but the two excited human men were calling out for more. One of Aisha's more noticeable weaknesses was an inability to turn down a request. Especially if it was a request to sing. She launched into a rousing drinking song. Several of the other patrons were starting to feel enthusiastic about the evening and were also clapping along. Someone had produced a pipe and was playing a cheerful tune. The tavern was hopping with bouncing mercenaries. Swords clanged and daggers flashed as heavily armed humans circled Aisha and threw back their cloaks so they could clap and stamp their feet in time to the song.

Vorgrim smiled back at Basha and stood up. "My Lady," he said, offering his hand. "Care to topple some chairs over and take a turn with me?"

Basha couldn't reach for his hand fast enough. She allowed him to pull her into the center of the tavern and helped him push back a few chairs. They locked arms and started spinning. Another gold dwarf, old and gray-haired but still enthusiastic about getting drunk, leapt onto his stool, and hammered out the rhythm in time to Aisha's song on the table with the butt of his heavy ax.

Taklinn glowered at Calathra, who sat next to him happily munching her free dinner and swinging her feet in time to the song.

"So," she said to him through a mouthful of lamb. "This is you lot keeping a low profile, is it?"

"Shut up," Taklinn said.

She laughed and scooped up another mouthful.

Aisha finished singing, bowing graciously and obviously soaking up the praise. The human men whistled and called for more. She feigned modesty and pretended to not want to sing any longer. This caused quite a stir, and after out-right begging from the two men who had settled practically at her feet, she began again. She was a terrible fighter, there was no question about that. But the girl could sing a tune lively enough to bring the residents of a cemetery to its feet.

Other patrons had started to dance, and in so doing had obscured Basha and Vorgrim from view. Taklinn was keeping a wary eye on the two men who were paying entirely too much attention to Aisha for his liking, when he noticed that he couldn't see Basha at all. He stood up. He searched the tavern, peering through the smoke and hoping bodies. He had only just spied her. Where had she gone?

Taklinn stood up on his chair and searched the crowd. She was nowhere in sight. Neither was Vorgrim. He felt his heart squeeze tight. Taklinn toppled his chair over as he headed for the door.

"What are you asking me?" asked Basha. She was leaning against the rough wall in front of the tavern, her arms folded across her chest. Vorgrim stood in front of her, his hands held out in a pleading gesture.

"Convince them to let me ride with you," he said. His eyes were wide with excitement and intensity.

"Is that why ya drug me out here?" she asked. She was not unhappy about his sudden attention, but she was confused by his strange manor. "Why would I do that? Of course I like ya, but we only met today. Why do ya want to ride with us?"

"I am not going North for a pleasure journey," he told her. He glanced nervously up and down the dark ally and placed a hand on her shoulder. His eyes were pleading. "Just tell me that you will try. Ask your friends if I can ride with you as far as the Citadel."

"Yer not going to Silverymoon, are ya," Basha said.

He took a deep breath and shook his head. "No, I'm not. I only tell other travelers that I am bound for Silverymoon. I am traveling North, but my destination is not exactly certain."

Basha frowned and looked away. She could hear Aisha launching into another song. Something about a rosy maid and a milk cow. She looked back at him and shook her head.

"Vorgrim, no matter how I might want to, I can't tell them to let ya join us," Basha said. She would have loved nothing more than to travel beside him every day, but she knew it would end tragically. There was no possible way for her to keep her secret from him over a long period of time.

"But it is more important than you realize," he said. His hand tightened on her shoulder and she frowned.

"What are ya not telling me?" she asked.

He grimaced and glanced behind him nervously. "Honestly, I do not know myself the exact nature of this journey. But I do know that you are a very important part of my mission. It is vital that you convince them to let me ride with you," he said.

"Important?" she asked. She swallowed hard. Who was this man? Why was he so interested in her?

"My Goddess demands it," he said. "I must ride with you."

"Yer Goddess?" Basha said. She pulled his hand off her shoulder and tried to take a step back. "I think ya had best explain yerself." She propped her hands on her hips, waiting.

"Basha, I can't tell you all that I know, or how I have come to know it, but I believe you are the one I am looking for."

"And I think ya had best tell me why ya really brought me out here," she told him. Her eyes had narrowed. He wasn't interested in her as a person, he was obviously lonely and had latched onto her because she was another Gold dwarf like himself. Or so she thought.

"I don't have the time to explain it all," he said. His voice was barely under control. He was practically trembling with excitement. "I wish I did. But what I can say is that it is more important than you could possibly realize. I must ride with you. I am duty sworn to do so. Please, convince your friends to let me accompany you North. If they don't, they will be making a terrible mistake."

"No, I think yer the one who's made a terrible mistake," said a voice.

Vorgim spun around and came face to face with Taklinn. The angry shield dwarf stood nose to nose with Vorgrim, hands clenched and feet planted.

Basha rolled her eyes. "Don't ya think I can handle this?" she demanded. "Let me talk to him. He was just telling me how important I am."

"Get inside," Taklinn ordered. "Basha, don't glare at me. Just do it."

"Oh, alright," she said. She started to walk past Taklinn but Vorgrim reached out quickly and caught her arm.

"Please," he said, speaking fast. "Give me a chance to tell you my reasons for this."

"Let's give him a chance," Basha said. She looked at Taklinn hopefully, but the shield dwarf was in no mood to compromise. Taklinn was very concerned that Vorgrim would discover Basha's secret. Basha was too smitten with the gold dwarf to think clearly at this time. If she got careless and was discovered it could be a disaster. He was determined to avoid violence on this night.

"Let her go," Taklinn said. His voice was sharp as a razor.

"But you don't understand," Vorgrim started to say. He released Basha's arm, but tried to explain. Taklinn held up a hand.

"I don't care to hear yer excuses," he told the gold dwarf. "If yer a man of honor, you'll understand why I don't like ya draggin my friend into the dark of the street. Good night to ya. Don't be following us. Understand?"

"You have no idea what you are doing," Vorgrim said. He held up his hands. "Please, just let me talk to her for a while, I can explain to her why this is so important."

"I'm goin' in," Basha said with disgust. Once again she was finding it impossible to have a pleasant evening. She turned and headed back to the tavern.

"My Lady," Vorgrim cried. "Please, it is most important that you…"

But she was gone, through the door and out of his reach.

Vorgrim looked back a Taklinn. "I know what you must be thinking. You think I have not been honest. I can only say that I am on a mission that is vital, not just to the Rift, but to all of our kind."

"Sure you are," Taklinn told him. "I think that the vital thing for ya to do right now is to walk away and leave us be."

Taklinn had heard enough of the conversation between Basha and the gold dwarf to jump to the conclusion that Vorgrim was crazy.

"I ask you as a fellow dwarf," Vorgrim pleaded. "Let me go to her. She is a part of a very important puzzle that myself and the members of my temple are trying to piece together. It is urgent that I be allowed to ride with you."

"No, I don't think it is," Taklinn said. He crossed his arms and leaned forward. "If I catch ya trying to talk to her yer gonna have a hard time piecing that puzzle together, cause' yer arms will be busted. Got it?"

Vorgrim's face clouded with anger. "You can't do this," he said. "I have information that convinces me that she is the one I am looking for. I have orders from my temple…"

"And ya expect me to believe that she is some part of this puzzle ya are going on about? Well, I don't," Taklinn told him. "What I do believe is that it's damn strange that ya took such an interest in my friend."

"It is not her that I seek," Vorgim whispered. He leaned closer. His eyes were desperate. "She will lead me to the one I seek," he said quietly.

Taklinn smirked. "Oh, I see. She appeared to ya in some vision, eh?"

"Not to me, to my companion. I am due to meet her soon. She is a priestess of the temple and it is her vision that we follow. She was shown by the Goddess what to do, and our mission starts with Basha. I am certain of it."

Taklinn shook his head. "Listen, friend. I liked ya. I don't want to have to tell ya this again. Stay away from us. Got it? I don't care about some vision. But what I do care about is making sure that my friends don't get mixed up with folks who are half mad. So, take yerself to yer room and lock the door. Then maybe the wee spirits chasing ya will leave ya be for the night."

"I am not crazy," Vorgrim said. "Basha is a critical part of a very important mission, and you must not try to stop me."

"Oh, I ain't trying. I'm doing," Taklinn said. "Stay away from us. I won't say it again."

With that, Taklinn turned and walked back into the lively tavern, leaving Vorgrim in the alley alone.

"Martel will be so disappointed in me," Vorgrim said to himself. "I had her here, within reach. But now…" he stared at the tavern door with disappointment. "I was too hasty, and I've ruined our chances."

He lowered his head and walked inside. He headed straight for his room and didn't even cast a glance in Basha's direction. He closed the door of his room and settled in for the night.

He was momentarily defeated, that was all. If he would not be allowed to ride with Basha and her friends, then he would follow them. That was the only way to insure that he would find the one he was seeking. Basha would lead him where he needed to go. He was certain of it. His friend, the priestess Martel, had seen it all. It was happening the way she told him is would. Except for the minor mistake he had made tonight. All was not lost. He still had a chance. When Basha and her friends left in the morning, he would follow. It was too important to risk losing her now. Not after he had searched for so many weeks to find her.

Basha left the tavern. She stomped to her room, slammed the door and threw herself on her narrow cot. Someone pounded on the door.

"Go hang yerself!" she shouted.

"Open the blasted door!" Taklinn shouted back.

She pulled herself up and threw open the door. "What!" she snapped. "I want to be alone!"

Taklinn shouldered his way into her room and kicked to door closed behind him.

"I was looking out for ya," he explained. "I thought it was odd he was so interested."
"Why? Were ya jealous?" she demanded. She stood before him, fists on hips and chin stuck out. He glared at her. She glared back.

"Jealous?" he said suddenly. "Of an ash-faced, sour-tempered banshee like you?"

Basha hissed. Taklinn stood his ground.

They stood thusly for several heartbeats, and then they both broke into grins and laughed at the stupidity of the situation.

"Aye, ya was right to be concerned," Basha said at last. She sat back down on the cot and tried to pull a hand through her hair. Her fingers tangled in the heavy braid and she grimaced. "It was odd."

"What was it he said? That ya was a part of something important?" Taklinn asked as he sat down beside her.

"I don't know what he was on about," she said with exasperation. "I think he's half mad. Still, he is a handsome devil. Maybe we could just…"

"No," Taklinn said. His expression was stern. "Quit yer daydreaming."

Basha sighed and leaned against the wall. "Aye, yer right. It would have been a bad idea. He would have found me out, and then what?"

"Then, he would have tried to kill ya," Taklinn told her.

Basha's sudden crush on Vorgrim faded instantly. The thought of him discovering her secret wiped all fantasies of traveling with him out of her mind. She shook her head and looked at Taklinn gratefully.

"Thanks," she said. "I weren't right in my head. It would be a very bad idea."

"Aye, since he said that you wasn't even the one he was looking for. He said that you was supposed to lead him to the one he was seeking"

"He said what?" she asked. Then she jerked her eyes towards the door and sat up with a start. Her eyes widened. "Did ya hear that?" she asked.

Taklinn shook his head. "What?"

"Aisha," she said, leaping off the cot. "She's screamin!"

Taklinn beat Basha to the door. He nearly tore it from the hinge pulling it open. Basha almost tripped on his heels as she ran behind him down the hall. Aisha was yelling Taklinn's name. She sounded terrified.

Taklinn rounded the stairs and stopped on the landing. He looked into the smoky tavern and froze. Basha crashed into him but he didn't even notice. He was looking down at the tavern. His face had gone white with rage. Taklinn ripped his ax from his back with a snarl and leapt over the banister straight into the crowd.

Basha watched him roll when he hit the floor and spring to his feet like a panther. She glanced into the crowd and saw what had provoked Taklinn to draw steel.

The two men who had sat at Aisha's feet as she sang were flanking her. One held a long, curved dagger, the other a scimitar. One attacked Aisha while the other fended off the angry bar tender. The old gold dwarf who had enjoyed Aisha's song was lying dead at the feet of the scimitar wielder, his blood darkening the floor, a short sword held in his lifeless hand.

Aisha had drawn her rapier and was fighting fiercely. She dodged and paired their attacks with surprising speed, but she was losing ground fast. The other patrons of the tavern were running for the door, tripping over each other as they did and causing a jam of bodies that blocked the door and the landing. Basha had no other choice. The stairs were not an option. She pulled her mace free and jumped over the railing.

Taklinn charged straight towards the scimitar wielder and hit him between the shoulders with a crippling strike from his ax. The man's armor peeled back, but had protected him from a death blow.

Taklinn had moved with such speed his attack was nothing more than a blur, but the man kept his footing. Despite his pain, he managed to whirl and lunged out. His scimitar cut the air inches from Taklinn's face. The angry dwarf dodged aside effortlessly, snarled and spun around for another attack.

Basha landed on the floor and rolled. She jumped to her feet just as Aisha barely managed to block a quick strike from the curved dagger. Basha watched as the girl somersaulted backwards and rolled gracefully behind an overturned table. She curled into a tight ball and covered her head as a chair crashed into the wall behind her. The bar tender had joined the fray and was flinging anything he could get his hands on. Furniture was flying in every direction. Mugs of ale splashed on the floor, silverware clattered underfoot.

Taklinn blocked a desperate strike from the injured attacker, ducked a swipe from the curved dagger and kicked back in time to avoid another slice from the deadly scimitar. He took his ax in both hands and swung. The injured man managed to block the strike, but his scimitar shattered and the blade fell to the floor in pieces. Basha charged. She lifted her mace over her head in one hand and ran straight for him.

Taklinn stepped aside as Basha swung. Her mace hit the man full in the chest. He choked and fell to his knees, gasping for air. His ribs were crushed.

Taklinn spun his ax with nimble flair and brought the flat edge of the weapon down on the man's head with a crack. He fell to the floor, dead. His skull was shattered.

The remaining man drew another dagger from his belt and threw it at Taklinn. It glanced off the dwarf's shoulder, barely scratching the plate mail armor. Taklinn drew a throwing ax from his bandolier and raised his arm. Just as he was about to throw the ax, the man fell to the ground, screaming in pain.

Calathra, the Halfling woman, stood behind him. She held a Halfling sized sword in both hands. The man couldn't stand. Calathra had cut his hamstrings.

Taklinn hesitated. He didn't want to risk hitting Calathra. He dropped his throwing ax to the floor and charged.

The wounded man made a desperate attempt to fend off the furious dwarf, but he was no match for Taklinn and crumpled to the floor beside his companion. Taklinn pulled his bloody ax from the man's chest and kept walking. He pushed the angry bar tender aside and headed straight for the back wall where he had last seen Aisha.

She was still curled into a ball, both hands over her head. At the sound of Taklinn's voice she sat up instantly and smiled with relief.

"You're alright," she said.

"Course," he replied gruffly. "Did they hurt ya, Lass?"

He knelt beside her and brushed her black hair out of her eyes. She shook her head.

"No. I'm alright. Is anyone hurt?" she asked.

"We're fine," Taklinn told her. He stood up and held out his hand. She took it, her small fingers disappearing in his massive paw. He pulled her to her feet. His face was set with an expression of cold anger.

"Basha," he called. "Check the door, would ya? I want to make sure they was alone."

Basha nodded and cautiously headed outside. She searched the darkness and shook her head, coming back in and slamming the door behind her.

"No one out there," she told him. "Just some people running away. I think they was alone. But just in case," she kicked over a bench and slid it in front of the door, wedging it behind the base of the stairs and effectively baring the door. "I think I'll feel better if we lock the place down tonight."

"Friends of yours?" asked Calathra. She had sheathed her sword and was busy searching the pockets of the two dead men.

"I've never seen em' before," Taklinn said. He slipped his ax into its sheath and retrieved his throwing ax. "Aisha?" he asked.

"They are Sharrmidian," she said. She knelt beside Calathra and studied their faces. "I think they are, in any case. They look it. But what did I do?" She looked up at Taklinn. Her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. "Why did they attack me?"

"Look at their cloths," Calathra said as she searched them. Taklinn watched her with disapproval as she slipped pilfered coins and a nice gold bracelet into her pockets. "They are wearing new cloths. Hardly worn at all. They don't look Sharrmidian to me," she told them. "The cloths look Mulhoranda made."

"They are," Basha said. "But that's deliberate, I think."

Taklinn glanced up at Basha and then shot a worried look at Aisha.

"They followed us, then" he said.

Basha nodded and glanced at Aisha as well. "It looks like you two made an impression on those thieves back in Sharrmid. I think they wanted to make an impression on you." Somehow, Taklinn doubted that she meant a favorable one.

"They followed us?" Aisha asked. She stood up and edged closer to Taklinn.

"Let's hope yer brother tracks the leaders down soon," Taklinn replied. "Or else the road to Felbar will feel a lot longer."

The bar tender was pacing and mumbling under his breath. Taklinn leaned over and pulled Calathra to her feet. He tapped her pockets and held out his open hand.

"The coins," he said.

"Can't I keep the bracelet, at least?" she protested.

"Hand em' over," Taklinn told her.

She frowned at him, but dug in her pockets and dropped the coins, and the bracelet, into his hand. Taklinn handed the coins to the bar tender. It was enough to replace all the furniture plus pay for the money lost when the other patrons had fled.

"Sorry," Taklinn told him. "About the mess, that is."

"I think we should ride at first light," Basha said. She still held her mace, and she had smudged her clever disguise. Patches of grey skin showed on her cheek and neck.

"Right," Taklinn said by way of a reply. "Let's get some sleep. Calathra and Basha, you two double up tonight. I don't want anyone sleeping alone. I'll get us up just before dawn."

The door crashed open. The sturdy bench that Basha had wedged at the foot of the stairs shattered and slid across the floor. Taklinn drew his ax and Basha crouched into a fighting stance. Aisha jumped behind Taklinn.

They looked towards the door and saw Vorgrim, the persistence gold dwarf, standing in the moonlight. He held an unconscious man in one hand and a great ax in the other.

"Gods, he's strong," Basha said with a sigh. She lowered her mace.

"What's this, then?" Taklinn asked. Vorgrim held the small man like a limp rag, but when she approached he dropped the slender human to the floor.

"I heard the ruckus," Vorgrim told her. "I looked out my window and saw this fellow running. He went behind the building to the stable and came out with this." Vorgrim held up a wand. "I thought he may be up to mischief and yelled at him to stop. I asked what was happening and he pointed this little stick at me. That was all I needed to know."

"What did you do?" Aisha asked. She was studying the face of the man carefully. Taklinn reached out and snagged her by the arm so she couldn't walk any closer to Vorgrim.

"I ducked," he replied. "And thank the Goddess I did. You should see my window. It's charred black, down to the glass."

"He one of them?" Taklinn asked Aisha.

"I don't think so," she said with a furrowed brow. "Well, I mean he isn't from Sharrmid. But maybe he works with them. He certainly doesn't sound friendly."

"Are you alright, My Lady?" Vorgrim asked Basha. "I would never forgive myself if something happened to you."

Basha raised an eyebrow. "That's nice," she said suspiciously. "Still, thanks to ya for catching this for us." She nudged the man with her toe. "He isn't even wearing a knife."

The unconscious man groaned and rolled to the side. His face was bruised purple. His left eye was starting to swell shut.

"What did ya hit him with?" Basha asked.

Vorgrim smiled at her and turned his head to the side. "My helm," he said. "I threw it at him from my window. He dropped like a grouse. I could see the stairs were blocked here, so I climbed down the back ladder they keep for fires and found him lying where he had fallen. There were several people anxious to leave the tavern just then, and they were stepping on him in their haste. I am sorry to say, I probably saved his life by hauling him to his feet."

In spite of her better judgement, Basha smiled at Vorgrim and clasped his shoulder. "I think ya may have stopped him from causing us serious harm," she told him.

"I'm pleased to see you all well," Vorgrim said. "My Lady, you have something on your face," he told her softly.

"Oh, ah, just some dirt," Basha said quickly. She moved away from Vorgrim where the light was dim and turned her face to the shadows. Vorgrim didn't seem to notice.

"Get yer things, Aisha," Taklinn said gruffly. "Were not stayin here tonight."

He sheathed his ax and headed for the stairs. "You too, Basha. We'll get the horses in the morning. Let's go."

"I'm coming with you," Vorgrim told them.

Taklinn hesitated, his hand on the rail of the stairs. "I don't think…" he began.

"I will not allow you to risk being attacked again." He glanced at Basha. "It is too important. I will guard you tonight so you can sleep."

"Well, I know a place not too far from here that will have rooms left," Calathra said. "It is a bit rough and not very clean, but no one will notice us there."

"Us?" Taklinn asked her. She grinned at him and he let out a snort. "Alright. But let's get moving."

Vorgrim hauled the slender man at his feet up by the collar and looked him over. "What do I do with him?"

"Bring him," Taklinn said. "We turn him over to the gate watch when we leave in the morning. Tonight we tie him up and if he wakes we see what we can get him to tell us."

Everyone moved at once. It was only a matter of minutes before they left the tavern. Calathra led them to the Inn she had spoken of, and true to her word it was rough and not clean. But to Taklinn's relief no one even glanced in their direction when they headed for their rooms.

Against his better judgment Taklinn had allowed Vorgrim to take a room close to Basha's. He insisted that Calathra share the room with Basha, and hoped that her presence would discourage the gold dwarf from speaking to the Gray Dwarf any more about his odd ideas and crazy notions. It did not.

They had settled in for the night and Taklinn had dropped off into an uneasy sleep, Aisha tucked safely beside him, when Vorgrim crept to Basha's door and knocked softly.

She opened it quickly, her hand on the pommel of her mace, and relaxed when she saw him.

"I thought it would be you," she said. "Come to try to convince me that you need to ride with us, I suppose."

"I at least owe you the entire story," he said.

Basha glanced behind her as Calathra turned over in her sleep. Vorgrim stood aside and motioned for Basha to step out into the hall. "No need to wake your companion," he said. "Follow me."

He headed back to his room and held the door open. Basha lowered her head and sighed. Taklinn would not approve, but she was not accustomed to having others care what she did. Her curiosity was too much for her and she closed the door of her room and followed.

Aisha had managed to find a moment to re-touch the cosmetic disguise, and Basha was grateful for that now. She slipped inside Vorgrim's room and let him close the door behind her.

"Alright," she said. "I'm listening."

Vorgrim checked the slender human who was tied to the wooden chair in his room. He lifted the man's head and saw that the small man's eyes were shut tight. He nodded with approval. Basha could see that the man was still unconscious and probably would be until morning.

"Ya hit him hard," she said. "It doesn't look like he will be telling us much."

"I don't think he would in any case," Vorgrim told her. "He is a wizard of some sort. But from the look of him he is not very good at it. His cloths are poor and he is not much more than a lad."

"Probably trying to make a name for himself with that lot from Sharrmid," she replied. "I don't know that they will even want him back after tonight. He seems to have failed spectacularly."

Vorgrim let the man's head drop and motioned for Basha to sit on the bed. It was filthy, but she did so. Being careful not to touch anything.

"I am a knight of the Great Rift, that much you already know," he began. He paced for a moment and seemed to be trying to decide how much to tell her. "I serve the Lady Haela Brightax as a protector of my people in Underhome. I am duty sworn to see to it that no harm comes to my kin, my neighbors or the Rift proper, if I can help it."

He heaved a great sigh and plunged on. "My companion, Martel Saberhime, is a priestess of Beranor. She is gifted with visions from the Lady and her insights have never led us astray. Some months ago she started to have a vision of great importance."

"Ya would think any vision from a Goddess would be important," Basha said, a bit of sarcasm tinging her voice.

"She has seen the future," Vorgrim said, ignoring her comment. "A future involving a Dwarf woman who will be a representative of the Goddess."

"Representative?" Basha asked. "What sort?"

"The Goddess has become concerned that her connection to her followers has diminished. She wants a way to reach out to them. She has decided that the best way to do that is to choose a representative that will have unprecedented access to her. She has already chosen this representative. The only problem is, well, we don't know who it is."

"How can ya not know?" Basha asked.

"It has not been revealed to Martel. We know that it is a Dwarf woman. And we know that she is of the Northern clans. But that is all we have been permitted to see."

"Why don't ya just wait to see who it is?" she asked. "If she is chosen of a Goddess, she'll turn up."

Vorgrim smiled at Basha, trying to be patient. "It is not that simple. You see, the woman who is chosen does not know it herself."

"Oh. That is a problem," Basha agreed.

"We have decided, Martell and I that is, that we will find the woman and protect her until such time as the Goddess reveals herself and her plan. We are concerned that something could happen to her before she understands her role."

"Why would the Goddess show yer friend what the future holds but not the woman herself?" Basha asked.

"We don't know," Vorgrim said with complete honesty. "There are many things we have not seen. We do not understand her reasons, but we know that many things occur that are beyond our understanding. All we can do is try to find the woman and see to it that she is kept safe until such time that the Goddess sees fit to show her what her future holds. Until that time, it will be my duty to watch over her. You cannot understand the importance this mission holds for me. My temple is prepared to go to any length to protect her. She is of incalculable value to us."

"That's noble of ya," Basha said. Her voice was not sarcastic, she meant it. But she wasn't completely certain she believed him.

"That is why you are so important," Vorgim said.

"Me?" Basha asked. "Taklinn said something about ya thinking I was to lead ya to her. But I don't even know any Northern dwarves. I'm not from the Rift, ya know. I was raised elsewhere."

"Yes, I know. Waterdeep," Vorgrim said. "That is another part of the puzzle. Martell received a vision that told her of you."

"Me?" Basha said again. She shifted uncomfortably on the bed.

Vorgrim looked directly into Basha's eyes. She couldn't look away, and gazed at his handsome face unblinking. "She was told that a dark-skinned cousin of the Northern Clans, a young woman not raised in the North and not from the Rift, and yet befriended by Shield dwarves and humans, would lead us to the chosen woman."

"What makes ya think it is me?" Basha asked. Dark skinned cousin? She swallowed and tried not to look away.

"When I first saw you walk into the tavern I felt like I had seen you before, but I couldn't place where," he said.

Basha looked down quickly. He had seen her at the gate leading into Inarrlith. But her hood had obscured her face, and it was a very good thing that it had.

Vorgrim paced again and continued. "You walked towards me with a human woman at your side, and then you sat down beside a shield dwarf. Not only were you traveling companions, you were comrades. I could see it. I paid too much attention to you and I could see that both of them became quite protective of you. That leads me to believe you are very close to them."

"For my part," Basha said. "I think of them as friends."

"There you were," Vorgrim said. He locked his brown eyes on her and clasped his hands behind his back. "Right in front of me. I have been searching for weeks, traveling up and down the road between the Rift and the Firesteep mountains, trying to find you. Searching for a dark skinned dwarf woman befriended by a shield dwarf and a human, not raised in the Rift and not raised in the North, and their you were. At last."

"What if yer wrong?" she asked. She had to force her voice to remain steady. "What if it is another, and ya only mistake me for her?"

"How could that be?" he demanded. "You are everything that the Goddess reveled to Martell."

Basha stood up. She was uncomfortably aware of how close he was and sat back down. He was very persuasive, no question. But Basha knew she couldn't possibly be the one he was searching for.

"I ask nothing of you," he said hastily. "All I ask is that I be allowed to ride with you. I am not crazy, no matter how it may sound."
She glanced up at him and suppressed a guilty sigh. That was exactly what she had been thinking.

"I intend you and your friends no harm," he added. "I am proud to serve and protect you, for by doing so I further the cause' of the Lady I ultimately serve."

"I can't ask them," Basha said, jerking her head towards her companions. "What would I say?"

"Say that you believe me," he told her. "Say that you think I am telling the truth."

"I think you believe what ya say," she said cautiously.

"You know I am right," he insisted.

"I know nothin of the sort," she snapped. "It sounds daft. Taklinn won't hear of it. He thinks yer half twisted."

"He is a good man," Vorgrim said. "He is very bold and he does you credit by being suspicious. I would feel the same, if I were him."
"Then how can ya expect them to go along with this?" Basha asked. "By yer own admission it would be hard for ya to do what yer asking of them."

"Because I know that you are the one I seek. More than the evidence I have seen, I feel it in my heart. If they will not let me ride with you, I will follow you anyway. If you tell this to Taklinn he will be angry. But tell him it will be better to have me close where he can keep an eye on me rather than to have to keep looking over his shoulder, wondering."

"Ya don't know him," Basha said. "If he doesn't want ya there, he will make it so that ya can't follow us."

"There is no need for that," Vorgrim said soothingly. "I want only to see you safely North. Then, when I find the chosen of the Lady, I will leave you all in peace and that will be the end of our journey together."

"Then you can ask him," Basha said. She got to her feet and put a hand on the door. "I'm going to sleep. We can sort this out tomorrow. At least, you can try," she added. "But I don't think he will allow it. Goodnight."

She pulled the door open and failed to notice the shadow that darted away. Calathra barely managed to slip back into their room and pull the door closed before Basha was pulling it open again. The young Halfling woman had heard the entire conversation. She feigned sleep as Basha kicked open her bedroll and settled on the floor to sleep. She couldn't be sure, but she felt that Basha believed the gold dwarf. Did she believe him? Calathra knew that the gold dwarf certainly believed the story himself. He was completely dedicated to finding this chosen woman. She had to give him credit for perseverance.

She pulled the covers over her and tried to fall asleep. She couldn't wait to see what happened in the morning when Vorgrim tried to convince the surly shield dwarf to let him join the group. It would be quite a show.

Basha woke to the sound of arguing. She groaned and rolled over.

"What now?" she asked.

Calathra was standing in the doorway watching the discussion going on in the narrow hall.

"Taklinn doesn't want him to come with us," she told Basha. "But Vorgrim isn't giving up. He is very persuasive."

"Why can't they do it outside?" Basha asked. "Or in the stable?"

"I think that Vorgrim is winning," Calathra said with a grin. "He is wearing Taklinn down."

"Taklinn isn't the only one worn down," Basha grumbled.

Aisha strolled into the room, combing her hair and looking worried. "Is he coming with us?" she asked. She wasn't wearing her chain shirt, and once again Basha was struck by Aisha's diminutive size.

Calathra shrugged. "It is starting to sound like it."

"But what about Basha's…" she trailed off. "You know, her…" she wiggled her fingers in front of her face.

"He can't ride with us," Basha said flatly. "But even if Taklinn tells him he can't, he intends to follow us. What the blazes are we going to do?"

"Well," Calathra mused. "You could tell him the truth."

The other two women stared at her as if a live lobster had just crawled out of the Halfling's ear.

"What?" Calathra protested. "I know about her, and that hasn't changed what I think."

"He is different," Aisha said. "He is a knight. They detest evil. And, no offence Basha, but if he knew the truth I believe he would assume you are evil."

"Want to keep your voice down?" Basha snapped. "It won't work. He will find me out," she whispered."

"He's coming with us!" bellowed Taklinn from the hall. "Get yer gear!"

"Well, that tears it," Basha snarled. She stormed from the room and chased Taklinn down the hall. She caught him by the arm and spun him around.

"Just what do ya think yer doin?" she asked.

"Leaving," he said. "We've got a long ride."

"You know he can't come with us!" she yelled. "What do ya think is gonna happen when…" she stopped when Taklinn held up a hand. Vorgrim was standing right behind her.

"I assure you, my Lady, my intentions are honorable," Vorgrim told her.

"We ride," Taklinn said again. "The sun will be up soon. We have to leave. Now."

"Have ya got rocks in yer head?" Basha asked.

"We will find a way to make it work," he said. "I don't have time to argue. I want us out of here by the time the sun is rising. We can fight about it later. You keep yer head down, keep yer distance from him and let me worry about the rest."

He looked around her at Aisha and Calathra who were standing in the hall watching him. "Today? Alright? Move!" he bellowed at them. They jumped and started to gather their things.

"But…" Basha began. Taklinn turned and walked away, leaving her standing in the hall.

"I know you have reservations about this," Vorgrim said.

"Ya got no idea," Basha told him.

"Please, you have to trust me." He walked close to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Nothing could dissuade me from riding by your side. I offer you this, I swear that no harm will come to you as long as I can prevent it."

"If ya swear to protect me from yerself, then I'll believe it," Basha said tartly.

"Protect you from myself?" Vorgrim asked.

Basha turned and headed for her room. "Never mind. Let's go."

She walked past Vorgrim's room and glanced in. "Ah, hell," she said.

Vorgrim looked in and saw the empty chair toppled on the floor. "Oh, no. Where did he go?"

"Did anyone see him leave?" Basha asked.

"What?" Calathra asked, looking up from her pack. "Did we lose something?"

"Don't tell Taklinn," Basha said with a groan. "If ya thought he was angry before, ya don't want to see him after he finds out we lost that damn wizard."

"Ya lost him!?" Taklinn yelled. He was just coming up the stairs and was looking at them all with disbelief.

"I guess he was a little bit more skilled than we gave him credit for," Calathra said with a shrug. "No sense wasting time looking for him. He's long gone by now."

"Which is where we should be," Taklinn said. "Why is everyone still standing around"

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Aisha said quietly.

"Forget him," Taklinn said. He grabbed his pack and headed for the stairs. The others were on his heels and soon they were mounted and leaving town.

As they rode through the city gates the sun was just beginning to crest over the Firesteep mountains. It filled the valley before them with crimson light, making the waving grass look awash with red.

Aisha, riding a bit behind the others, gasped when she saw the valley. It looked to her as if her friends were riding into a sea of blood. She blinked and shook away the thought. Spurring her black horse on, she plunged into the grass after them.

Faustus ran. He ran clumsily, and with no mind to the direction, but he ran relentlessly. He ran until his lungs felt like they would squeeze shut. Then he collapsed and lay on a pile of dead leaves, waiting for his breath to return.

It was sheer chance he had managed to escape. The chair he had been tied to by the horrible gold dwarf sported a jagged nail that jutted from the back. He had spent the entire night carefully rubbing the rope against the nail, and by morning it had worn through enough for him to break the bonds and slip away. The window was two stories about the ground, and he had twisted his ankle from the drop. But he was free. That was all that mattered.

Now, how to make it back to Sharrmid? Should he even go back to Sharrmid? From the sound of it, the black-haired girl's brother was anxious to get his hands on anyone involved with the circle of thieves that he served. Going back might be dangerous. But then again, staying in the Firesteeps would surely be more dangerous than leaving. And then there were the watchers to consider. The thieves ring had employed them at great cost. They were always there, and if Faustus tried to travel away from the Shaar without telling his employers, he would be caught. They always caught you.

Faustus sat up and tried to determine which way to go. He was lost.

He looked around and ran a hand through his disheveled blond hair. He stayed sitting on the ground, which was fortunate for him. Had he been standing it would have been much more painful when the Lycanthrope pounced.

Faustus grunted when the great animal hit him from behind. He rolled helplessly to the side and screamed, flailing his arms frantically and kicking out with his feet.

"Shut up," said the creature. "It's me."

"Ruach!" Faustus whimpered. "I was just coming to find you!"

The Lycanthrope sat back on his haunches and turned his great black muzzle from side to side, smelling the air.

"Of course you were," he said.

"How did you find me?" Faustus asked.

"Idiot, I could smell you for a mile. Where are the others? No," he said quickly. "I think I already know. I smell blood on you."

"That dwarf killed Tgautu and Sa'ad," Faustus said as he scrambled to his feet. "They didn't even have time to change it happened so fast!"

"I see," said Ruach.

Faustus tried not to tremble as he stood before the werewolf, but seeing the great black shape sitting in the leaves not five paces away would be enough to upset even the bravest of souls. Ruach seemed to be constructed of muscle, bone, teeth and little else. He was half sitting, half crouching before Faustus, his strange clawed hands resting on his long legs casually. Ruach radiated fearless calm. He also radiated fearless bloodlust. Faustus was terrified.

"So, you were coming back to tell me what had happened?" Ruach asked.

"Well, I was lost," Faustus confessed.

"I believe that," the werewolf said dryly.

"We found them in Innarlith," Faustus said quickly. "But the dwarf…"

"I know, I know," Ruach interrupted. "Did you at least manage to kill the General's sister?"

Faustus trembled. "No."

"And this would be due to what?" asked Ruach.

"There was another dwarf with them. A gold dwarf. He did this to me," he said, pointing to the purple bruise and half-closed eye.

"You have not had much success in dealing with this problem," Ruach said.

"And a Halfling," Faustus said desperately. "And another gold dwarf. A woman. She was very strong and had a terrible mace that she…"

"Shut up," Ruach ordered. "I understand you. They were not alone."

"They were going to kill me too," Faustus lied. "But I managed to use my magic and escape."

"Odd that you could not use your magic to kill the human girl," Ruach told him. He stood up and circled Faustus menacingly. His clawed feet stirred the dried leaves as he paced. He watched the trembling wizard like a deer. Faustus had lived out his usefulness at this point.

"I can understand why you couldn't kill the dwarf. That was why I sent Sa'ad with you. But a girl? Really, Faustus. I am disappointed."

Faustus quavered and tried to move away from the circling werewolf.

"They are on a mission!" he squeaked.

Ruach paused. He was trying to decide whether to rip out the wizard's throat or break his neck.

"What sort of mission," he said. His desire to punish this incompetent dolt was strong, but he was not opposed to toying with his prey.

"The gold dwarf," Faustus stammered. "He said that he was following a vision that someone in his temple received about a chosen one."

"What are you babbling about, Faustus?" Ruach demanded.

"He said that he was to go North and find out the identity of a dwarf woman who has been chosen of a Goddess of the Rift. He said he was to protect her until the Goddess appears to her and reveals her future."

"Who was this gold dwarf?" Ruach asked. He sat back. If nothing else, Faustus's tale could be amusing. He could kill the inept wizard after the story was over.

"He was a knight of Beranor Truesilver," Faustus jabbered.

"A paladin," Ruach said with disgust. "Continue."

"He said that his temple priestess received a vision that the Goddess had chosen a dwarf woman to be a representative for her followers. This gold dwarf said that the female gold dwarf would lead him to her. He said that this chosen one was valuable to the Rift and that he would find her no matter what it took."

"How valuable?" Ruach asked. He was having second thoughts about killing Faustus.

"Incalculably valuable," Faustus insisted.

Most of the gold that Ruach and his circle of thieves had stolen over the past two years had come from the Great Rift. There was so much gold in the Rift that the dwarves didn't know what to do with it all. Ruach began to get ideas.

"Did they leave this morning?" he asked the slender man.

Faustus quivered like a tulip in a hard rain. "Just after I escaped."

"This knight," Ruach said carefully. "You said he was a representative of a temple of the Rift?"

"Haela Brightax," Faustus said. He wrung his hands together and smiled pitifully at the werewolf.

"A very rich temple," Ruach said slowly. "Very rich."

"I was thinking," Faustus said. He winced when Ruach shot an annoyed look his way. But he babbled on. "I was thinking that such a woman would be valuable enough to buy back, if she was taken from them. And I was thinking that they would be willing to pay a great sum to see her returned safely."

"Were you?" Ruach asked. He sneered at the small man. The effect was terrifying for it produced a toothy snarl. "Maybe you are not quite as stupid as I once thought."

"I could go back to the Shaar and wait for you there while you…"

"Shut up, fool," Ruach snapped.

"We," said Ruach. "Are going North. Get yourself back to Innarlith and buy a horse and some warm cloths. I will meet you when you leave."

"But what about my wand?" Faustus whined. "I lost it to the dwarf."

"You don't need it now."

"But, I won't be able to defend myself," Faustus whined.

"Idiot!" howled Ruach. The sound was eerie, halfway between a bark and a screech. "You won't be alone. The pack is with me."

"The pack?" Faustus whispered. "The whole pack? Here?"

"You didn't think it would be safe for us to stay in Sharrmid, did you? Not with that General searching everywhere for us. Besides, killing his precious sister will avenge the loss of Saklas and Angleisanti. It is inconceivable that the dwarf killed them. We will not allow their deaths to be unanswered."

"What of the gold dwarves?" asked Faustus.

"What do you think, fool? We will dispose of them too."

"Of course," Faustus echoed. He ceased to tremble, but he watched Ruach warily. Still, he liked this plan much better now that he knew Ruach wasn't planning to kill him any longer. But the very thought of the entire pack of Lycanthropes, running loose in the foothills of the Firesteeps was enough to make his blood chill. They were ruthless, cold and enjoyed killing the gold traders so much that Ruach had been forced to threaten punishments to the worst offenders of the pack. He told them it would draw too much attention to them if they killed too many dwarves. Still, the killing had gone on, and now the pack was hunted in Sharramid and forced to flee.

Ruach considered it a gift that the sister of the man who had forced the pack to run like animals was now fitting into a neat plan that would make him rich. This chance would afford him the opportunity to make the pack enough gold to let them all travel far away from the Shaar, and give him an excuse to kill the black haired girl.

"Now go," Ruach commanded. "I will find you. Start riding North and we will join you no later than sunset."

Faustus turned and headed off at a stumbling trot. The werewolf sighed and shook his head.

"Faustus," he growled. "That way," Ruach said with contempt. He inclined his long nose towards the city, the opposite direction that Faustus had gone.

"Oh, of course," Faustus said with a nervous smile. He turned and started towards the city.

"Don't think I won't find you," Ruach warned. "I always do. Don't forget that."

"No, no. I never do," Faustus said obediently. "I never do."

Vorgrim smiled at Basha as they set up the camp for the night. She smiled back. As he turned away, she looked at the ground and grimaced. Taklinn walked past her and she caught his eye.

"I need to talk to you," she said.

"Ya don't have time," he replied. "Ya got to get ready for the watch. Yer taking the first one tonight."

"What? Why do I have to take the first watch?" she asked.

"Cause' I can see that ya got too much nervous energy to burn off," he said. Then he grinned at her boyishly and resumed building a small fire.

She suppressed a growl and started to walk the camp perimeter. She searched for a likely place to hide and found an overturned tree stump that would do nicely. As she checked her dagger and her mace, making certain that the former was sharp and the latter was clean, she heard footsteps and glanced up to see Taklinn coming towards her.

"I didn't want it to be like this," he said. He leaned against the tree stump and rubbed his tired eyes. "I am sorry, alright?"

"What do ya think will happen when he finds me out?" she asked.

"He won't," Taklinn said. "I know ya think he's not right in the head, but he's a good sort. I think we can trust him."

"Oh sure," Basha said with a snort. "Until he sees me without my rouge."

"We just have to make sure he doesn't."

Basha shook her head. "For how long? It's gonna rain sometime, Taklinn. Ya heard Aisha, it rubs off in the wet. How long can I keep this up before he starts to get curious?" She threw her hands out and sighed.

"Until we get there," Taklinn said.

"That could be a month!" she shouted.

"Maybe more," he replied. "It's a long road to Felbar."

"I will just have to tell him the truth," she said. She started to walk past him, her arms swinging.

Taklinn grabbed her arm and stopped her cold. "Basha," he said. His voice was even and calm. "Don't do it, Lass. I know ya hate lying to him. But I'm telling ya, it's for the best and there ain't no other way."

"So when he does find me out, he thinks he can't trust me," she replied. Her face was hard as granite.

"He won't find ya out," Taklinn said. He was trying to be reassuring, but he knew he sounded less than confident.

"It ain't right," she said.

"At least let him get to know ya. Maybe if he has time to see who ya are, what ya are, on the inside, he won't be so quick to judge ya for yer color. Alright?" he asked.

Basha pulled her arm away and paced. She looked back towards the camp, back at Vorgrim where he helped Calathra hammer a tent stake into the hard ground, and her faced softened.

She liked him, no question. She had from the moment she had first seen him. She admired his manor, his station in the temple and his ways. She had doubts about his zealous nature, but her instincts told her that Vorgrim was a good man and that she could trust him. It pained her to think that she would be deliberately misleading him about her identity. But maybe Taklinn was right. Maybe if he had time to get to know who she really was, underneath her skin, he would accept her even after she confessed the truth.

Basha looked away from Vorgrim and her black eyes found Taklinn's clear blue ones watching her. He wasn't smiling. He knew that she was torn.

A song bird trilled overhead. The sparse forest was giving way to grass again, but the few trees surrounding them were full of life and color. It would have been a cheerful place but for the heavy burden that Basha carried.

"I never hated being a duergar more than I do at this moment," she told him.

He nodded, but remained silent. He had said all there was to say. The choice was hers to make. She knew that if she revealed herself to Vorgrim, if it went badly and he attacked her, Taklinn and Aisha would stand by her side and defend her. The thought of Vorgrim and Taklinn fighting because of her haste was more than she could stomach.

"Alright," she said at last. "I'll wait. I'll give him time ta get to know me."

"Yer doing the right thing, Basha," he said. "I know ya hate it, but for now it's the right thing. It's a long road North, and having another set of eyes, and another ax with us will help us all get there alive."

"I know," she said. "But why did it have ta be him?"

"What do ya mean?" Taklinn asked.

"Anyone else and I wouldn't have cared," she said. "But him? I hate to say it, I wouldn't feel so awful lying to anyone else, but I don't want to lie to him."
Taklinn clapped her shoulder and gave her a half smile. "It's alright to have hope, ya know."

"Hope for what?" she asked. Her lips thinned as she pressed them tight together.

"Hope for a place in the world where ya belong. Hope for friends and hope for a future," he said.

Basha's eyes welled with tears. She looked back at Vorgrim and shook her head. "I know what it is to hope," she said. Her voice sounded far away. "I know what it is to love and ta dare believe that it's real, and I know what it is ta be destroyed by it."

She pulled away from him and finished walking the perimeter.

Taklinn walked back to the fire and stood before the bright flames, feeling older than he was. He had hated Basha when he had first seen her. He couldn't help it. All his life he had been taught to hate the duergar. Now, here he was. Not only traveling with one, but counseling her and doing his best to see to it that she was protected. He chuckled at the absurdity of it all and tossed a stick into the fire. If he had been convinced, after stanch insistence from Aisha, that Basha was not a threat, he believed Vorgrim could be as well.

The half hour that Vorgrim had spoken to him that morning had completely changed his mind about the gold dwarf. Vorgrim was trustworthy, of that Taklinn was almost certain. Taklinn wouldn't have admitted it to himself, but there was something so compelling about Vorgrim it was almost impossible to tell him no. As long as the gold dwarf didn't discover what Basha really was, Taklinn felt confident there would be no trouble from him. In fact, he would be a good traveling companion.

Taklinn felt Aisha's slender arm circle his shoulder, and he leaned against her seeking reassurance. He would never forgive himself if something happened to Basha because of his decision. He took Aisha's hand and squeezed it has hard as he dared. She squeezed him back and started humming a gentle tune that would have lifted his spirits had he not been so worried.

He had had the dream again. The night they had spent in Innarlith. It was the same, dreadful vision that had haunted his sleep before, and now seemed to be visiting his sleeping mind more and more.

Aisha left his side and slipped into the tent for the night. Taklinn watched her go and felt his heart tighten with dread. He had seen her die horribly in the dream. He had seen the black, hairy abomination looming over her and attacking. And once again, he had been helpless to stop it. She had plunged to her death. Just like she had so many times before in his sleeping mind.

He shuddered and unconsciously gripped the pommel of his ax. What if it was real? He shook the thought away and turned to follow Aisha into the tent. As he ducked under the flap, he glanced towards the fallen tree stump and tried to catch a glimpse of Basha. As usual, she was impossible to see.

Her signature spoken phrase echoed through his mind as he stepped inside the darkness.

Ya won't see me, but I'll be there.

Part II

Capitan Jostein stood by the ramp leading to her ship and stared unsympathetically at the five misfits who stood before her.

"Aye, we are planning to sail past the Asaviris Channel," she replied.

"Good, good," said the stout gold dwarf. He was smiling in an openly friendly way, and Capitan Jostein was always suspicious of friendly people.

"Why, you want to book passage?" she asked him.

"That we would, my good Capitan," he said jovially. "I don't suppose there is any way we could also book passage for the horses?"

"Four horses, too?" she asked. Her eyebrows shot up. This was going to be a very profitable voyage after all. From the look of them, they could afford it. She smiled. "I think we can accommodate you."

"For a fair price," said the shield dwarf standing off to the side. He leaned on the ramp-rail, watching his companion negotiating and squinting in the bright harbor sunlight.

"You must have been told by that worthless cur at the Barking Knag that my cargo was light," Jostein said irritably.

"We were," said the shield dwarf. "We was also told that ya run a tight ship."

"I do," she said proudly. She smiled at them and calculated how much she would charge the party for the voyage. "I don't let anyone on board who will make trouble for me or my crew, and I don't allow drinking."

Taklinn groaned and Aisha dug an elbow into his ribs. He cleared his throat and offered the big Capitan an apologetic smile. "Course," he said quickly. "That's sensible."

Capitan Jostein wiped her salt-stained hands on her oiled-leathers and folded her arms over her ample chest. She rubbed her chin and tucked an errant strand of graying hair behind her ear. She named a price.

Taklinn sputtered. "What?" he demanded. "Ya can't be serious."

"It's not too unreasonable," Vorgrim said. "But what would you say to taking 20 percent off of that fee?"

"Why should I?" Jostein asked.

"We will be useful in skirmishes," Vorgrim said with a grin.

In spite of herself, Jostein was taken in by his easy manner. She towered over the gold dwarf. Standing nearly six feet and boasting the ability to lift a double sized keg of bitter-black ale under each arm, Jostein was a Capitan that commanded and received complete respect from her crew. She was 51, not a young and inexperienced pup, and she was crafty. But for all her experience with negotiations and trading she was succumbing to the charm of the confident gold dwarf.

"Ten percent," she said.

"Fifteen," Vorgrim said with a smile.

Jostein shook her head and barked out an abrupt laugh., startling the small human standing with the dwarves.

"How useful?" she asked.

Vorgrim turned his gaze at Taklinn and nodded once. "Do you see that broken rope tied on the mooring post?" he asked.

Jostein glanced over her shoulder at the mooring post. It was about fifteen feet away from them.

Taklinn nodded back, drew a throwing ax from his bandolier and severed the rope with one quick throw. The ax was embedded nearly to the shaft in the old wood.

Jostein murmured. "Not bad, not bad," she conceded. "But what about the rest of you? I don't have room on my ship for those seeking a pleasure trip. You," she said, looking at Basha. "What can you do?"

Basha lifted her chin and raised an eyebrow with an unhappy expression. "Whatever ya tell me to do, Capitan," she said. She was convinced that being stuck on a ship with Vorgrim in such close proximity for the weeks it would take to make it North would be her undoing. But Taklinn had made up his mind, the rest of the group had agreed, and she would just have to make the best of it.

"Good answer," Jostein said. "What about you two?" she asked Aisha and Calathra.

The Halfling woman was sitting on a pile of burlap bags filled with Gods knew what and picking at the seam. "Me?" she asked. "I can stay out of the way."

This seemed to satisfy the Capitan.

Aisha glanced nervously around and shrugged. "I don't know what I can do," she said truthfully.

"Good, then that means you get to be our new stable mucker."

"What's a stable mucker?" Aisha asked Taklinn in a whisper.

"Ya get to take care of the horses," Taklinn whispered back.

He stifled a laugh when Aisha's eyes brightened up.

"It means ya get to shovel, a lot," he explained.

Realization dawned. Aisha's shouldered slumped and she sighed. "Oh."

"Twelve percent," Jostein said.

"Done," Vorgrim said with a grin.

"But you realize that means we can't leave until tomorrow," the Capitan told them.

"We're in a bit of a hurry," Taklinn protested. "Why can't we leave tonight?"

"You want to eat, don't you?" Jostein replied. "I need the extra day to stock the ship for you and your mounts. Five times the food, and water and hay for the animals."

"I'll pay you now," Vorgrim said, stepping forward.

"I want half now, and half when we reach Luskan," Jostein said, holding up her hand.

"We can pay you all of it now," Vorgrim said.

"No, you can't." Jostein insisted. "I don't cheat my passengers. You pay me the rest when I get you there in one piece."

Vorgrim bowed respectfully. "As you wish," he said.

"Our first stop won't be until we reach Calimport, and that will only be long enough to off-load six crates of wine," Jostein told them. "If you have any business to attend to on land that requires more than a few hours' time, do it now. We run the coast North with as few stops as we can make, and unless we hit bad weather I expect to be there in five weeks, at the most. Four if I can catch a good wind." She grinned at them. "So, you lot won't be spending much time on land for the next month."

Taklinn nodded. "The quicker, the better," he said severely.

The group gathered their belongings and Taklinn retrieved his throwing ax from the mooring post. They led their horses back towards the Barking Knag, intending to stay there one more night.

As they departed, two pairs of eyes watched them go. A tall, slender man with black hair and a handsome, narrow face stood beside a smaller man who shivered in the late afternoon breeze.

"Sell your horse, Faustus," said the tall man. His cloths were plain, but sturdy and in spite of their drab color it was clear they were quite expensive. He wore a single gold ring on his left hand. Shaped like a knot with a tiny ruby set in the center, the ring was designed to protect his true identity from prying or curious magic users. His black beard was trimmed neatly and his black hair hung to his shoulders in well-brushed waves. Any street urchin who stumbled across the man would mistake him for a wealthy merchant trying to dress like a poor man to avoid attention. They would have been wrong.

Ruach sneered at the small man beside him and snapped his fingers under the man's nose irritably. "Faustus, did you hear what I just said?"

"What?" the wizard mumbled. "Oh, yes. Sell the horse," he repeated obediently.

"What is the matter with you?" Ruach demanded.

"The girl," Faustus answered. "This is the first time I have seen her clearly. I only caught a glimpse of her back in Innarlith. She is beautiful."

Ruach slapped Faustus on the back of the head with blurring speed. "Idiot. She if the sister of the man who hunts us like animals. You can fall in love with a tavern wench after you finish this job. She and her companions will lead you to this dwarf woman who will make our fortune, and then you will have the happy task of disposing of her."

Faustus looked away and then nodded with reluctance. "Alright," he said.

"You will book passage on this ship and you will travel with them to Luskan. We will be there, waiting for you," Ruach said, brushing some dust from his dark trousers with a well-manicured hand.

"Why can't I go with you?" Faustus asked. He regretted it immediately. Why would he ever want to travel with the pack? They were horrible beyond belief. And even now Ruach was casting an irritated glare at him.

"We can travel much faster without you," Ruach snapped. "You will sail with them and try to learn as much about the gold dwarf and the woman he seeks that you can. When you meet us in Luskan we may be able to beat them to their ultimate destination. If," Ruach said doubtfully. "You manage to get the information from them by the end of this voyage. And I want you with them, just in case."

"In case what?" Faustus asked cautiously.

"In case you get an opportunity to push the young lady overboard, idiot," the werewolf told him. "She is unimportant. Killing her before you reach Luskan would improve your standing in the eyes of my brothers. Not to mention that it would please me," he added with a dark smile.

"But what about the dwarf?" Faustus protested. "He watches her constantly. He never leaves her side, and if I even touched her he, he would kill me!"

"Shut up," Ruach said quietly, holding up his hand. "The entire dock will hear you."

Faustus pulled his camel colored cloak tighter around his slender shoulders unhappily.

"He has to sleep sometime," Ruach said with a tight smile. "And you won't be alone. I am sending Futhark with you."

"Oh," Faustus said. "Yes. I forgot." Faustus didn't know if the knowledge that there would be a member of the pack on the ship with him brought him comfort or unease.

"Use your magic, fool," Ruach told the shaking man beside him.

"Yes," Faustus said quietly. He stood a bit straighter at the thought of finally having a chance to use his powers for something besides stopping caravans on the road. Faustus was a skilled illusionist. He had no other talents to speak of, but in the realm of illusion there was no one more gifted who he had ever met. That was the only reason the Pack had ever found him useful. It was much simpler to have Faustus create the illusion of a huge over-turned tree blocking the road than to try and force a caravan of gold merchants to stop. When the armed guards were busy dismounting to deal with a fallen tree, the surprise attack was always much more successful.

This was more complicated than an over-turned tree. This time Faustus would be face to face with the victim. He wouldn't have the pack to protect him, aside from Futhark. As horrible as they were the sight of nine snarling werewolves standing between him and the men with the swords had always been preferable to Faustus.

"Where is Futhark?" the wizard asked suddenly.

Ruach chuckled and shook his head. "Close," he told the blond man with amusement. He could almost read the wizard's mind. "Don't worry, Futhark won't let the mean dwarf get you."

Faustus swallowed and looked away with shame. He glanced up at the ship and felt a sudden determination to prove himself. "I can deal with it," he said impatiently. "Tell Futhark that I will kill the girl and not to interfere."

"So," Ruach said with mock surprise. "Finding a spine after all, are we?"

"Just tell him," Faustus said quickly. "I will do it. When you met me in Luskan, you will see that I am not so worthless after all."

Ruach looked the wizard up and down with obvious contempt, but Faustus was staring at the ship with determination edged with fear.

"Alright," the werewolf said. "I will tell him. She is yours."

Morning dawned over the already bustling harbor, painting the blue waters with shades of gold and pink light that glittered like tiny stars on the gently rolling water. Dock hands loaded cargo, shouted back and forth to one another and prepared the ship to set sail.

Taklinn led the others to the dock and stopped in front of the Lander Gail, appraising the ship that would be their home for the next few weeks.

She was not a beautiful ship, unless you were an experienced sailor. Then she was nothing short of gorgeous.

The Lander Gail looked old and gray but the 97-foot-long craft was solid and well maintained in spite of her appearance. She boasted a narrow hull, tall triple masts and a deeply angled bow with a nearly square cross section. With all three sails catching a strong wind she was capable of fourteen knots. There was a reason that Capitan Jostein worked as a first mate on board a pirate hunter for seventeen years in order to buy the ship. The Lander Gail was one of the fastest ships to sail the Sea of Swords. It was the rare pirate ship that could catch her. Jostein had painted the bottom half of the ship ocean blue to hide the hull and flew black sails at night. The windows in the cabins could be sealed with dark shutters and Jostein often took to sailing with the bell tied down. Some of the other Captains in Yhep harbor had taken to calling her the ghost ship. At night she was almost impossible to see or hear, and at day she was almost impossible to catch.

The ship had only been boarded once in the five years Capitan Jostein had owned her, and when the pirates spilled onto the decks of the Lander Gail, they had they found an angry two-hundred-pound woman swinging two sabers and holding a curved dagger between her teeth waiting for them. The crew and the Capitan had driven the shocked pirates from the decks of the Lander Gail with guts and sheer force of will, and a healthy measure of combat skill. After the encounter Jostein had sailed her ship, with its cargo intact, into the Calimport harbor with a few minor wounds and only one lost crew member. To say that the crew of the Lander Gail were loyal to Jostein would be akin to saying that dwarves were moderately skilled at metal work. A good Capitan has a crew that is willing to kill for the sake of the ship when needed. Jostein's crew were not only willing to kill if necessary, they were willing to die for her as well.

Taklinn had stayed up late in the tap room of the Barking Knag the previous night talking to an old sailor and hearing the tales of Capitan Jostein and the ghost ship. He had been impressed and please to hear that the ship had such an honored reputation.

He watched Aisha try to coax the wary horses into the hull and he gave the ship one last look before walking up the ramp. He felt certain that of all the ships in the harbor this was undoubtedly the safest place for Aisha.

As Vorgim and Basha followed Taklinn up the ramp they noticed the slender blond man who watched them from the deck. He did not greet them as they came on board, and turned to go below without so much as a nod or a smile. Basha frowned at the man when she noticed he paused before going below the deck. He stopped dead in his place and stared at Aisha for a full minute before blinking to his senses and ducking below. Basha shifted the weight of her pack and trudged aboard. Yet one more thing to be cautious of, as far as she was concerned.

Vorgrim made his way to the wheel and greeted the Capitan. Basha watched as Calathra tried to climb the mast rope that lead to the crow's nest and was scolded by a crewman.

"They're all men," she said.

"What?" Taklinn asked, trying to steady himself on the rocking vessel beside Basha.

"The crew," Basha told him. "They are all men."

Taklinn shrugged. "So?"

"Oh, nothing," she said, shaking her head. "I suppose there is only enough room for one queen bee."

Taklinn laughed and slapped her on the arm as he gathered his gear and headed below.

The mooring ropes were slipped off and crew began hoisting the smallest sail. The ship began to creak and it smoothly peeled away from the docks. Jostein was calling orders and Basha turned to give Vorgim a cautious smile.

"It only comes off when it gets wet," she said to herself. So far, the black paint seemed to be holding up and she looked every bit the part of a gold dwarf. Still, it didn't stop her from feeling self-conscious as Vorgrim smiled back at her from his place next to the Capitan. She looked around her, not able to miss the ironic situations she found herself in, and sighed.

Then her keen ears heard the slap of running feet on the docks. She turned and saw an elf running towards the ship as fast as he could. His red hair flew behind him and his arms pumped in a blur. He was being chased.

"Oy, Capitan!" Basha called out. "You forgot someone!"

"No I didn't!" Jostein called back.

The Lander Gail was easily fifteen feet away from the dock. The elf was showing no sign of slowing down and ran towards the ship undaunted.

"He's gonna jump!" Basha called. She darted forward and pulled a short crewman out of the way just as the elf's feet left the dock. He tucked himself into a ball in midair and landed on the deck, rolling skillfully. He got to his feet and dusted himself off, glancing back in time to duck just as a crossbow bolt whizzed past him.

"I didn't cheat you," he said irritably to the two angry men on the dock. "You are just terrible at dice."

They couldn't hear him, of course. They were busy shouting curses and threats at the elf, and reloading the crossbow.

"You may not want to stand next to me for a few moments," the elf told Basha. "At least, not until we are out of range."

"You could duck," Basha offered.

Just then another bold zinged from the dock and the elf stepped aside deftly as it sailed past him, missing him by inches.

"No need," he said casually. Basha gapped at him. He seemed fairly unconcerned about the crossbow bolts. Almost as if they were not much of a threat. She dipped below the rail and waited until they were out of range before chancing another look back at the dock.

Jostein was watching the scene from the wheel with an unhappy expression. She was powerless to do anything until the ship was well away from the docks. Her hands stayed on the wheel as she deftly steered the vessel away from the other crafts coming and going around them. She grimaced at the elf and concentrated on getting the Lander Gail out to open water rather than trouble herself with her new passenger just yet. He seemed to be waiting for her in any case, and deliberately went out of his way to look like he wasn't going to try anything foolish. The crew worked frantically around the passengers. They pulled ropes and tied lines and shouted slang sea-terms back and forth as they pulled the second sail.

When the second sail was unfurled and the ship lurched forward and into the open water of Yhep harbor, Jostein turned the wheel over to her first mate and stomped towards the red -haired elf.

"Seems a bit too convenient to me that I was leaving just when you needed me to," she said. Her ears were pink she was so angry. "Now, this is the part where I throw you off my ship."

She lifted a hand to grab the elf but he side-stepped her easily and dropped a small leather pouch into her hand.

"My winnings," he explained. "Those two gentlemen on the dock were convinced I cheated them."

"Did you?" Jostein demanded.

"Hardly," he said with a laugh. "But I did take a fair amount of their money. I am hoping that this ship is sailing North." He smiled rakishly.

"It is," Jostein said with a glare. She hefted the leather pouch. It was quite heavy.

"I am also hoping that will be sufficient to pay my passage. I will be no trouble to you," he added. "I like to keep to myself. I just had a bit of bad luck with those two men, but I prefer to avoid confrontations when I can."

Jostein opened the pouch and shifted the coins inside with a long finger. She counted the coins quickly and could see that the amount was even greater than the sum she had charged all five of Taklinn's party. She glanced up quickly at the sun elf and narrowed her eyes.

"This is quite a days' winnings," she said suspiciously.

The elf smiled at her with equal caution. "I am hoping to make it as far North as possible. My concern, and my business, lies there. Until we reach a coast that lies past Baldur's Gate, I can assure you that I will offer you no trouble. As I said," he told her with a reassuring half smile. "I like to keep to myself."

"See that you do," Jostein said. She tucked the pouch inside her leather vest and heaved a heavy sigh. "There is no drinking allowed on my vessel."

She turned to go back to the wheel and stopped suddenly. Glancing back over her shoulder she gave the sun elf another warning glare. "And, no gambling."

The elf smiled. He bowed once in compliance and shifted his single visible weapon. It was a stunningly crafted rapier. Quite expensive and well maintained. No doubt that was not the only weapon he carried, but Jostein could see no other. She turned away and walked back to the wheel, uncertain of her sudden decision to let the elf remain on board.

She took the wheel from her hulking first mate and leaned towards the bald sailor as she did so.

"Keep an eye on him," she said.

The first mate nodded, his odd facial tattoos catching the sun and giving him a feline look as he did. "Yes, Capitan."

Basha had watched the scene with amusement at the start, but now that the sun elf was evidently staying on board she was less amused and slightly uneasy. She had a bad feeling about the voyage. There were too many odd characters on this ship casting suspicious glances at each other for her tastes. She decided then and there that she would never be without her mace, not for the entire duration of the trip.

Aisha had managed to get the horses installed bellow and, having never been on a ship before, was busy stumbling through the narrow corridor that led to the small cabins. She had to lean against the walls on two occasions to keep from falling. Her black hair hung over one eye and she brushed it aside as she paused to get her bearings. The corridor looked exactly the same as the last one. She was lost.

"Excuse me," she said to a busy sailor as he brushed past her. "Could you tell me which way…"

But he was gone. Her shoulders slumped and she placed a pale hand against the rough wood to keep from pitching backwards. She couldn't find the others. Taklinn was not to be found and she couldn't seem to find the cabins where they were supposed to sleep.

"Looking for your room?" asked a man behind her.

Aisha tensed. The man's voice was not friendly. He stood inches behind her but she hadn't heard him approach. She turned and smiled in what she hoped was a friendly way, and managed to look slightly childlike as she did so.

"Yes," she replied. "Do you know where they are?"

He was strikingly handsome. His blond hair was unusually thick and long and he sported a thick beard. His frame was lean and incredibly muscled. His face was narrow, almost feral. But Aisha was struck by his eyes more than anything. They were gray. Not gray like the reassuring tones of granite stone or of a cloudy day, but like a gravestone. Like rotten flesh.

She swallowed and stumbled backwards.

The ship pitched as she moved and she started to fall. The man's hand shot forward and grabbed her by the collar. He pulled her to her feet and she gasped at his strength.

"Careful," he said. His voice was like ice. "Wouldn't want you to get hurt, would we?"

He smiled, and continued to grip her collar. On his hand Aisha spied a single golden ring, bearing a knotted symbol and set with a dazzling ruby.

"Let go," she said. "I need to find my friends."

She could see that this man was evil. He looked at her as if she were prey. She tried to pull away but he held her fast. His eyes stared though her as if she were simply a thing to be dealt with, and nothing more.

"Let go," she repeated.

"You are blocking the corridor," said a voice behind Aisha disdainfully.

Aisha felt the man's grip loosen and she pulled away quickly. The bearded sailor straightened his oiled coat and nodded at her with mock respect. He turned and disappeared down the dark passage, heading back to whatever work was waiting for him.

"Sometimes sailors spend too much time on the open water, and not enough time with female companionship."

Aisha turned and saw a red-haired elf a few paces behind her, though he seemed to address her, he wasn't watching her; he was watching the sailor.

"What?" Aisha said with confusion. "Oh. Yes. I think he has been out here for a very long time." She laughed nervously.
The elf tried to brush past her and Aisha stepped out of his way. "Thank you," she said as he moved past.

"What for?" he said over his shoulder. "You were blocking the way."

He had rescued her, but obviously he hadn't done it out of kindness. Aisha blinked and turned the way she had been going. She nearly ran through the narrow corridor searching for any sign of stairs leading up. Finally, she saw sunlight and dashed for the short ladder that led to the deck. She felt like something was behind her, almost on her. She climbed onto the deck as quickly as she could and fell to her knees.

"Taklinn?" she called. "Where are you?"

"Here Lass!" he called back. "What's the matter? Did ya fall?" His tone suggested that he was accustomed to asking her if she had fallen.

She stood up and searched the ship. She saw him standing at the stern and ran to his side. She smiled and reached for his big hand desperately.

"What's wrong?" he asked. "Are ya seasick?"

"I don't like this ship," she said. "One of the sailors, he is not a nice man."

Taklinn gave her a look usually reserved for lost children or very confused old people. "Aisha, they are sailors," he told her, as if that would be explanation enough. "They are not here to be nice. They are here to run the ship."

"He grabbed me," she said.

Takklin's eyes went from amusement to anger in a split second. "Where is he?" he asked, is lips pulling back in a snarl.

"Below deck," she said. "I was unsteady on my feet and he caught me before I fell. But he didn't let me go when I asked him to."

Taklinn paused for a moment. He was irrational when it came to protecting Aisha, but he was sensible enough to know that he would be stuck on this vessel for a least a month, and it might not be a good idea to smash someone's face on the very first hour of the trip.

"When ya see him again," Taklinn said. "Ya show him to me. If he ever touches ya again, tell me. I'll deal with him. Alright?"

Aisha nodded. She slipped her arm around him and closed her eyes. She was almost trembling.

There had been something else about the man that had unnerved her. Something that she couldn't describe and would certainly not be able to put into words.

He had seemed somehow familiar. It was impossible, of course. But she couldn't help the feeling that she had seen him, or someone very much like him, before. She shuddered and clung to Taklinn's arm. As long as he was with her she would be alright. But her usual easy smile had been replaced with a worried frown.

The rest of the day was uneventful, and soon the sun had set, casting an easy pink glow over the ship as it sailed North.

That night Taklinn slept with Aisha tucked under his arm. She seemed unsettled and worried but as the night progressed she fell into a deep sleep and rested easy.

Taklinn did not sleep easy. Just before dawn he awoke with a start, his heart pounding and his face covered in sweat.

The nightmare had gripped him once again. He had seen Aisha standing on the edge of a great precipice, and he had seen her face twist into pain and fear as she had plunged over the edge of the cliff to her death. He wiped his face and felt his throat grow tight with sorrow.

He gathered her up in his arms carefully so he wouldn't wake her from her peaceful rest and cried softly as he held her. He tried to tell himself that is was only a dream, but the image was so powerful it haunted him. As she slumbered in his arms he felt an unstoppable rage rise up in his chest. His tears vanished and his face set in a snarl of defiance.

"I don't care," he whispered to the dark cabin. "I don't care what I have to do to stop it. But I will. I swear it. I won't let her die. Do ya hear me?"

He looked out the tiny portal into the rising sun and set his face with furious determination. He spoke to no one, but he felt that he had been heard.

"I will not let her die," he said again. "Not even if it means the end of me."

Basha stood on the deck as the sun broke through the wispy clouds and bathed the calm ocean with golden light. She smiled. It was quite a sight to see the sun peak over the land that fenced in the Lake of Steam. Sea birds chased the ship, looking for scraps and a place to land and rest. The deck hands were busy with the morning's tasks and shooed the birds away as they worked.

"It is beautiful, is it not?"

Vorgrim came to stand beside Basha. He gave her a gentle pat on the arm and settled in beside her where she leaned against the rail.

"It is. But I don't think he thinks so," she said, pointing to the slender wizard who hung his head over the side of the rail, retching.

Vorgrim chuckled. "I think the cook may have a bit of tea that will settle his stomach. Vorgrim walked over to the young man and scooped him under the arm.

"Come with me lad," he said.

"What?" Faustus slurred. "Oh!" he said with a start, catching sight of Vorgrim. "I don't need any help. Leave me alone."
"Yes, you do," Vorgrim insisted. He didn't recognize the wizard in the least. Faustus had been careful to alter his face enough to disguise his identity. No one in Taklinn's party would mistake the young man for the scoundrel who had tried to kill them back in Innarlith. The illusionist had crafted a powerful spell that would make his features seem quite different than the face they had seen back in the city. He had even managed to alter his voice slightly. He was in no danger of being recognized, but that didn't help him feel any better about being bodily lifted and drug below deck by the dwarf who had knocked him cold with a steel helmet.

Basha sighed as she watched Vorgrim haul the young man below. She could see that the knight was noble and generous. In spite of her sensible concerns about traveling with him in such close quarters, another, less sensible part of her was quite happy with the prospect.

She shook her head and looked away. "Get a hold of yerself, girl," she said. "He's just a man."

She turned and headed for the stern. Her task, as assigned by the Capitan, was going to be helping the crew repair and maintain the rigging and tackle used to haul the sails. She was happy to have a job. It would give her something to occupy her hands. And it would give her an excuse to stay away from the prow of the ship where the splashing water occasionally rained down on the deck.

Aisha woke and found that Taklinn had gone. She knew he would be. He had been drafted by the crew for ship security. He would be patrolling the deck even now and watching the waves for trouble. It would be a very boring task for the shield dwarf but if something did happen his boredom would vanish in the blink of an eye.

Aisha pulled herself up and prepared for a morning of shoveling horse manure from the stalls deep in the hull of the ship. She trudged below, wiping her sleepy eyes and pushed open the gate that led to the horse stalls. They nickered a greeting to her as she approached and she took the time to scratch each animal behind the ears before she started her work. As she shoveled the wheelbarrow full, the horses snorted and shifted their feet nervously. Aisha glanced up and saw the bearded sailor watching her with a predatory gaze.

"Not the work one would expect a Lady to get stuck doing," he said, watching her where she stood with the shovel half way to the wheelbarrow.

"Who said I was a Lady?" she asked him tartly.

"Oh, come now," he told her. "It is plain that you are not used to this sort of task."

Aisha set the shovel down. Her hand slid to her hip and she realized she didn't have her rapier.

"Forget something?" the sailor asked.

"No," she lied. "But you have."

"And what might that be?" he asked her snidely.

"Your manners," she replied.

He made a tisk-tisk sound through his teeth and smirked.

"I don't like you," Aisha told him. "But I don't suppose you care very much."

"You are correct," he said, his gray eyes looking even more dead than they had the previous day. "I don't care."

"But I think you will," she informed him. "I think it will be very important to you to stay away from me after I tell the shield dwarf that you are bothering me."

The man's eyes came to life then. Not with surprise but with anticipation of a confrontation.

"Tell him. I care not," he said quickly.

"Futhark, get back on the deck," said Faustus behind the man. "They want you." The small man was slightly pale form the sick feeling that had overcome him, but he was recovering quickly thanks to the awful medicine that the gold dwarf had forced down his throat. He had recovered enough to seek out the black haired girl, and he was not happy about finding Futhark stalking her.

The bearded sailor turned on the young man viscously, but Faustus didn't budge.

"I said," Faustus repeated. "They want you on deck."

The two men locked eyes and to Aisha's amazement, the bearded sailor blinked first. He lowered his gaze and looked back at Aisha with contempt. "Not that I need to worry about it being an issue for much longer," he said bitterly. She didn't understand his meaning, but it was ominous and she was suddenly grateful that the young blond man was there.

Faustus stood his ground. He lifted his chin slightly and smiled with satisfaction when the sailor swept out of the stalls and vanished down the corridor.

Aisha smiled at Faustus. "Thank you. He has been bothering me ever since I came on board."
"He doesn't like women," Faustus replied. It was the best explanation that he could fabricate, and it seemed to satisfy her. Faustus stood a bit straighter as he walked to Aisha's side. It was the first time he had openly defied a member of the pack and he was flush with the power of his success.

"I am Aisha," the girl said, extending her manure-stained hand.

Faustus took it and shook her hand once. "I know." He wiped his hand on his camel cloak.

"How do you…?" she began.

"One of the other passengers said your name," he told her quickly. "I'm Faustus. Where are you bound?"

"We are going all the way to Luskan," she told him as she resumed shoveling. "And you?"

"I am also bound for Luskan," he said. "I have work waiting for me there."
"Oh?" Aisha asked. "What is it that you do?"

"I'm a scribe," he said, the lie rolling off his tongue with ease.

He sat on a hale bale and watched her work. She really was lovely to look at. He was admiring her openly and felt not the least bit self-conscious for the act. His triumph over Futhark had given him courage.

"So what is a young woman like you doing with that pack of battle-hardened dwarves?" he asked her with a smile. He grimaced inwardly at using the term 'pack', for it had not been intentional.

"I'm going to Citadel Felbar," she said. "I am going to meet Taklinn's family."

"The shield dwarf?" he asked.

Aisha nodded. "I don't like the cold very much, but I would do anything for Taklinn."

"I suppose you would," Faustus replied. "He has probably been a very handy traveling companion, hasn't he?"

"Oh yes," Aisha chatted on. "He has saved my life countless times. If it wasn't for Taklinn I would be dead a dozen ways by now."

Faustus turned his head to the side and felt his stomach tighten when Aisha pushed an errant lock of black hair behind her ear and smiled at him.

"Maybe you should settle down," he told her.

"Oh, I couldn't do that," she said hastily. "I promised my brother I would, but I won't be parted from Taklinn. As long as he calls the road home, so shall I."

Faustus murmured a reply. His eyelids drooped slightly and he allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to stroke the girl's porcelain cheek.

"Besides," she continued. "If I wanted to settle down I would only have to go back home to the Shaar and reclaim my title."

"You have a title?" Faustus asked with mock surprise. He knew who she was, and that she was a Lady from Shaarmid. Still, he managed to present an expression of someone who was ignorant of such things.

"Yes. I am the sole survivor of my house and someday I may well reclaim it."
"Is your house wealthy?" Faustus asked as casually as he could.

"Yes," Aisha said, pausing to lean on the shovel. "I suppose it is. I never really thought about it, but my brother said it is and he watches over my estate while I am traveling."

"Why doesn't he claim the title for himself?" the wizard asked, suddenly full of ideas.

"He is only my half-brother," she answered as she began shoveling again. "He is not entitled to the office. He wouldn't want it anyway. He is too busy."

"I'm sure," Faustus said with a growing smile. Too busy hunting the pack.

Then his eyes narrowed and he found himself appreciating her slender legs. What was a Lady like her doing with a dwarf? She should be with someone like him. Someone who could understand her delicate nature and protect her from the dangers of the world. Hadn't he just now saved her from a werewolf? Well, not exactly. But maybe it could be arranged that he did. Maybe if he managed to thwart an attempt on her life, she would be grateful. Very grateful.

"Maybe you and your friends could join me tonight on the deck?" he asked.

"Is something happening?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied with a growing smile as a plan developed in his mind. "The crew are snag fishing tonight. Apparently, luminescent claw-fish are swarming and they hope to catch a few. Very tasty, from what I understand. But it can be a bit dangerous. Would you like to come?"

"Of course we would," she said with enthusiasm. "Anything to get out of the stalls and have some fresh air."

Faustus nodded with satisfaction. "Good. There will be plenty of light to fish by. It's a full moon tonight. This should be an interesting evening and I am looking forward to it."

He gave her a courtly bow, which she returned with a dainty curtsy, and turned away with a selfish smile. After tonight, Aisha would think of him as a hero, Futhark would be out of the way, and he would be one step closer to living the sort of life he really deserved.

Killing Aisha was not acceptable at this point. She would be far more useful to him as a wife. And with her powerful brother to protect him from the pack he could rescue her from a life on the road with that sour dwarf who always watched her.

Yes. She would be much happier with him. He just had to make her see it first.

Basha avoided the deck as the others gathered for an exciting evening of something called snag fishing. She feigned fatigue and scurried below deck just as Taklinn and Aisha were lining up beside the sailors, spray splashing their faces, each holding a long fishing pole with a short line and a wicked hook.

"It's not for baitin' see," said one of the sailors to Taklinn. "The hook is just to snag em'. They don't eat anyway, not while they's swarmin'. You just got to snag em' with this hook and jerk em' on deck."

Taklinn let out a low whistle when the sailor held up the four pronged hook. He grinned at the sailor as he started to tie it to the line.

"I never seen a fish hook like that," Taklinn confessed.

Aisha's eyes popped when she saw the thing. "It's ghastly," she said.

The hooks were nearly four inches long and the stout prongs were barbed with sharp edges. It looked sturdy enough to haul a large deer on board.

"I think I will watch," Aisha said sensibly. "I'll just be over there if you need me."

"Need you?" Taklinn asked. "Don't ya want to fish?"

"I will just wait to see if any of the creatures pull you overboard, Love. If they don't, maybe I will take a turn."

The sailor helping Taklinn tipped his grubby hat at her. "That's a wise choice, my Lady. Claw-fish are right nasty. Oh, they are only a couple feet long but they's got these nasty pinchers that can take a finger off."

"Take off a finger?" Taklinn said grinning. "Which way do I throw my hook?"

The sailor led Taklinn to the stern and began instructing him on the best technique for casting the deadly hook. Aisha watched them and smiled. Seeing Taklinn happy was a gift to her. She loved it that he seemed so at ease.

Calathra was, as usual, sleeping in the cabin she shared with Basha. Vorgrim had also gone below the deck, presumably to help mend one of the stall beams that Aisha's big war horse, Ahmed, had destroyed in a fit of boredom. But most likely he was using it as an excuse to be closer to Basha. Aisha wasn't the only one who noticed that the stately gold dwarf was finding ways to spend more time with Basha. It pleased and worried her. She backed up against the rail and steadied herself against the solid wood.

"Not fishing, my Lady?" asked the sun elf, appearing suddenly at her side. He had, as promised, kept to himself for short time they had been sailing. This was the first time Aisha had seen him on the deck.

"You startled me," she said. "Amandur, is it?"

He nodded and leaned against the rail beside her. "Amandur Rasharen. I see you have decided not to participate in tonight's sport."

"Well, I would like to but I am not very confident," she said truthfully.

"It is just as well," he said. "The way that dwarf is fishing it could be hazardous for anyone standing next to him."

At that moment Taklinn swung the long pole around and enthusiastically cast the hook into the murky water. He began jerking the hook through the water forcefully, trying to snag one of the submerged, glowing claw-fish that swarmed around the boat. It was an eerie sight, seeing the strange bobbing shapes dodging and knocking against the hull as they competed for space. It was like watching dozens of bright candles swim beside the boat.

"I trust that he will be able to master it without much difficulty," Aisha told the red-haired elf. He leaned against the railing and smoked a short pipe. His face was placid, but his slender form seemed limber and ready. His green eyes watched all the activity on the deck and he appeared to be taking in every detail of the action around him.

"He seems capable," Amandur replied, watching the shield dwarf with an appraising eye. He was not amusing himself, he was evaluating the dwarf's skill. His raised eyebrow indicated that he was not unimpressed with Taklinn's reflexes and strength.

The moon was on the verge of rising. Torches glowed on the deck, bathing the ship and the passengers with orange light and licking the shadows with golden flickers. Aisha watched Taklinn fishing and laughed with delight at his enthusiasm. The fact that he hadn't caught anything in no way dampened his spirits. He laughed together with the helpful sailor and kept casting his hook into the black waters.

Below deck, Faustus opened his cabin door as Futhark hammered against the wood with a fist.

"You should have been here sooner," Faustus scolded.

The werewolf shot him a scowl and shouldered his way into the small cabin.

"I have a job on this ship," Futhark snapped. "I hired out on this vessel as a sailor, not a passenger. Remember?"

Faustus slammed the cabin door and stuck out his hand.

"Let me see your ring," he demanded.

"What for?" Futhark asked. He looked at the illusionist with suspicion.

"The moon is rising soon," the blond wizard replied testily. "The full moon. The enchantment needs to be strong. I want to check to make certain that it is still working."

"Of course it's working," the bearded man said as he began pulling the gold band from his finger.

Faustus made a show of holding the ring up to the light and examining it carefully. In truth, he had no idea what sort of enchantment gave the ring its power to suppress the change that would come over the werewolf, but he didn't need to. When he fumbled with the ring and accidentally dropped it on the floor, Futhark sucked in his breath and lunged forward.

"Careful, you idiot!" he hissed. "If you lose that trinket half the people on this ship will get their throats ripped out before I even know what I'm doing."

"Here," Faustus said, quickly handing the man his ring. "Its fine."

"Of course its fine," Futhark snarled. He grabbed the ring and slid it back on his finger.

The werewolf checked the gold band carefully and then lifted his dead eyes to Faustus. "When are you going to dispose of the girl?"

"She may have more information," the wizard replied calmly. "I want to ask her a few questions, and then I will take care of it."

"You should let me do it," Futhark remarked eagerly. "She may be too much for you."

Faustus tried to keep his eyes from flashing angrily and failed.

"Oh," the werewolf said knowingly. "I see. You want to prove yourself and kill her without my help."

He had totally misinterpreted Faustus, and the young wizard was suddenly relieved.

"Yes, that's it," he replied. "I will just push her off the ship some night when no one is watching. If it is a windy night, no one will even hear her call for help."

"Seems boring to me," the werewolf said. "Let me kill her, and then you can push her off the ship. I will even let you tell Ruach that you were the one who disposed of her. It would be worth it to me if I could sink my teeth into her neck."

"No," Faustus said quickly. "I'll do it. You take care of the Northern dwarf as Ruach ordered."

"You seem to think that you can tell me what to do," Futhark snapped. "I decide what I will do. You are taking too long to deal with the girl. We will be landing in Calimport harbor in a few days. Kill her tonight. If you don't, I will do it. I don't want to risk losing the chance. What if they get off the ship early and we miss this opportunity?"

"We won't," Faustus insisted. "I will deal with her tonight. Alright?" He leveled his most convincing stare at the werewolf and forced himself not to look away.

Futhark watched him with an impatient expression. "Alright," he said at last. "But if you fail tonight I will finish what you were ordered to do."

"I said I have it under control!" Faustus shouted. "You worry about the dwarf, and I will worry about the girl."

Futhark's eyes narrowed to slits. He watched Faustus with suspicion. "As you say," he said. "I will." He clapped the wizard on the arm with false fondness. "I will leave her to you, my little man. You have my word." He was lying through his canines.

He had seen Faustus's expression and knew the wizard had no intention of killing the girl. That meant he would have the pleasure of dealing with her, and that gave him reason to smile wickedly.

"I'm going up," he told the wizard. "The crew are fishing and I want to get out of this stinking hole." And have the pleasure of imagining the death he would bring to the girl. It would be the perfect revenge for the torment her brother had caused the pack.

"I will see you there," Faustus said with relief, mistakenly believing the bearded man. He was too busy working out the details of his own plan to notice the smile the werewolf wore as he turned away. Futhark had given his word and now all the wizard had to do was position himself at Aisha's side in order to save her when chaos erupted on the deck. For it would occur, there was no question about that.

As the werewolf left and slammed the door behind him, Faustus went to his tiny cabin window and pushed it open. He pulled a gold ring from the sleeve of his camel robe and tossed it into the sea. Futhark was no longer wearing an enchanted ring. It was a copper spring that the wizard had stolen from the kitchens. It certainly looked like Futhark's ring, but the only thing that was enchanted about it was its appearance. When the moonlight touched the werewolf he would change and there was nothing that he would be able to do to stop it.

Faustus smiled and left his cabin. The first part of his illusion was complete. Now, all he needed to do was be in the right place at the correct moment and he would be able to show Lady Aisha that he was the hero she had always longed for.

As Faustus stepped on the deck he saw Futhark standing a few paces away from the wheel beside the stocky, hairless first mate. Satisfied, he scanned the deck with his nervous eyes and saw the infuriating sun elf standing next to Aisha, chatting casually. He grimaced and stomped forward, robes flying out behind him.

"I didn't think you were the fishing kind," he said testily to Amandur.

"I'm not," the elf replied with amusement.

"I just thought that someone of your ilk would be more inclined to avoid these sorts of activities," he said with obvious ire.

"Hello, Faustus," Aisha said with a smile.

The wizard's face softened and he smiled back. "Hello again. I am glad to see you accepted my invitation."

"Taklinn is having great fun, even though he hasn't caught a thing yet," she told him happily.

"So," said Amandur with a smirk. "Planning on trying to snag a few fish yourself tonight?" He glanced at Aisha suggestively.

Faustus glared at the elf and Amandur chuckled. The sun elf was a scoundrel of the highest order, and as such he was able to spot another scoundrel instantly. He could see that the blond man had his eye on the young lady and he couldn't resist goading him.

With skillful grace, Amandur tapped out the spent ash of his extinguished pipe and replaced it in a pocket of his vest, and in so doing managed to maneuver his arm so that it draped around the rail behind Aisha. He winked at Faustus and settled beside the black haired girl with a grin.

Faustus's eyes widened with frustration. He needed to be exactly where Amandur was standing and he needed to be there quickly. The moon would be rising in moments, and when that occurred the deck would erupt with activity. He had to force Amandur to move.

"My Lady," Faustus said to Aisha, a note of panic rising in his voice. "Wouldn't you be able to watch the fishing better if you were standing over there?" He pointed to a place a few paces away and watched her hopefully.

"Oh, this is alright," she replied. She was oblivious to Amandur's arm and seemed intent on watching Taklinn.

Faustus glared openly at Amandur, and turned on his heel. The sun elf cocked his head to the side with amusement. He removed his hand from the rail quickly and knelt down to check his boot dagger. No sense in being lapse, even though he didn't consider Faustus to be much of a threat.

Faustus wasn't a threat, and he knew it.

But Taklinn was.

The wizard, unaware of the fact that Amandur had just moved away from Aisha, marched desperately towards the shied dwarf and gripped him on the shoulder.

"Aye?" Taklinn asked.

Aisha watched as Faustus leaned forward, whispered something in Taklinn's ear and pointed straight at Amandur.

Taklinn's eyes lit up like torches and she could see him mouth the words, "he did what?"

That was the moment everything about Faustus's plan went terribly wrong.

Taklinn started to drop his pole and head towards the sun elf when it jerked with sudden force as he felt the hook bite into a claw-fish. Torn between running the sun elf down and pulling the fish on deck, Taklinn did what any resourceful dwarf would have done. He did both.

Swinging the long pole around in a graceful arc, Taklinn heaved the heavy claw-fish over the rail and snapped the line with a deft crack. The fifteen-pound fish sailed across the deck and headed straight for Amandur's head.

Amandur was ready for retaliation from Faustus, but he was not ready for a huge orange fish with two heavy, snapping claws to come sailing at his face fast as an arrow. He lunged to the side and tumbled backwards as the fish slapped the rail precisely where his head had been. He stood up and prepared for a second attack when the fish, flopping frantically and angry, lurched out with a huge claw and sunk the barbs straight into Aisha's leg.

She screamed with pain and fell back, trying to pry the claw out of her flesh but the fish held on. She kicked and struggled, fumbling for her knife frantically.

Amandur had his dagger out in a flash and plunged the blade into the flopping fish with a deft strike.

And then, the moon rose.

Taklinn was charging towards Amandur with definite ideas about causing the sun elf pain when he heard the sickening sound of flesh being torn and mutated. He stopped, as did everyone else on the deck, and watched with shock as the bearded sailor standing beside the first mate groaned and writhed where he stood. It seemed as if the sailor was ill at first glance. But as Taklinn watched he could see the man was not ill, he was changing form.

The sailor seemed to shift in and out of focus, but Taklinn realized with growing dread that what he was actually seeing was the transformation of a man into an animal. The sailors skin changed color and twisted horribly as the bone and muscle beneath began rearranging itself into the twisted likeness of a black, bi-pedal wolf.

The sailors face elongated and Taklinn could hear the sickening sound of teeth popping and straining for space inside the man's mouth. His skin stretched past its limits and actually split apart in places, only to heal almost instantly and sprout fur. The man's eyes dripped with moister as the pupils struggled to dilate and focus on the crew. He stepped back and released a sharp howl of pain as the process came to an end. The stunned first mate found himself standing beside a snarling animal where moments before a man had stood. He swallowed and started to back away, but the werewolf's quick gaze darted towards him and the creature leapt. The hairless sailor screamed as white fangs bit into his neck and powerful jaws snapped bone as easily as dry twigs. The wheel spun out of control and the ship lurched violently starboard. Everyone on the deck fell to the side, clutching whatever they could to keep their feet. When the werewolf looked up from the broken body of the first mate, only two people were left standing upright. Amandur, and the angry shield dwarf, Taklinn Hammerstriker.

The werewolf looked down at the shapeless spring coiled around his finger and realized that he had been duped. He searched the deck for Faustus, but the wizard was nowhere to be seen. Knowing that in moments the crew would rally and attack, he knew he had one chance to finish what Ruach had commanded.

Aisha stood up and froze, clinging to the rail and looking at the abomination before her with a face as white as the sails. Looming twenty paces away was the very creature she had seen in her nightmare. She was helpless with fear and unable to move.

The werewolf brought his great muzzle around and his eyes locked on the girl with deadly intention.

Taklinn abandoned all thoughts of the lecherous sun elf and reached for his ax, realizing at once that it wasn't there.

Cursing, he remembered that the sailor had told him to take off his weapons before taking up the fishing pole.

Futhark grinned. He did not fear death. What he feared was a death without purpose, or glory. Killing the girl would bring him both. Baring his teeth, Futhark crouched and prepared to leap.

Aisha couldn't move. She was frozen with terror. Taklinn watched as the wolf snarled and charged straight for her.

Taklinn started running, knowing full well he wouldn't make it in time.

As the wolf closed on the frozen girl, Amandur drew his rapier with amazing speed. He stepped in front of the terrified girl and leveled his blade with a calm expression and a level gaze. His eyes glinted like cut emeralds, and he smiled.

The wolf lunged. Two hundred pounds of muscle and claws came straight at the sun elf with blinding speed. Amandur side-stepped and struck. His blade sunk into the wolf's shoulder and the animal howled in pain.

"Move!" he yelled at Aisha, but she stood where she was, completely stunned.

Seeing her state, Amandur attacked the wolf and drew it away from her. He assailed the beast with a series of devastating jabs. The wolf snarled and tried to get past the elf's deadly blade, but Amandur was too skilled and kept him at bay.

Desperate to finish what his pack leader had commanded, Futhark risked it all and crouched. He would die, there was no question. The elf's blade would end him when he leapt, but maybe he could take the girl over the side with him. He tensed his legs and jumped, and landed on the deck with a horrible crunch.

Snarling, Futhark looked back and saw Taklinn holding his tail. The shield dwarf dug in and heaved, pulling the werewolf away from Amandur with amazing strength. Futhark's claws left gouges across the deck as the dwarf bodily drug him into the center of the ship.

"Oy! Elf!" shouted Taklinn. "Strike now!"

Amandur danced deftly to the side of the snapping jaws and pierced the werewolf straight through the heart. The creature let out a scream of pain. The eerie sound was half man, half beast and it sent a chill down the spin of every man on the deck.

The wolf collapsed and its body went limp. Taklinn held the tail for a good few moments before letting go. He waited until he was certain that the animal was truly dead before releasing it.

Dropping the limp tail, Taklinn stepped straight past Amandur towards Aisha. She stood against the rail, her eyes glazed with shock and her hands trembling. Her leg was bleeding from the claw-fish, but she seemed completely unaware of it.

"Lass, it's alright," Taklinn said.

She looked at him and blinked.

"Aisha," Taklinn said quietly. "Why didn't ya run when the elf told ya to?" He took her hands and looked up into her unfocused eyes with concern.

"My dream," she said with a choked whisper. "He was in my dream."

"That?" Taklinn said with alarm. "That was in yer nightmare? Are ya sure?"

"Yes," she told him. "Exactly like that."

"Well then," Taklinn said with a growing smile. "That's good!"

'What?" she asked. "How can it possibly be good?" Some of the color that had drained from her cheeks was returning and she focused on Taklinn with a clearer gaze.

"It's dead," Taklinn said happily. "Ya faced it down and yer still alive! Now ya don't have nothing to worry about!"

He seemed so convinced that the nightmare was now over that Aisha offered a tentative smile.

"Maybe your right," she said at last. She ran a hand through her hair and looked away, trying to hide her expression. "It is dead, isn't it?"

"Oh, aye," Taklinn said with a smile. "That elf killed it, no mistake."

Faustus suddenly appeared at Aisha's side, looking sick with worry.

"Are you alright?" he asked her with concern. "I thought it would kill you."

In the chaos, no one seemed to notice that Faustus had actually appeared out of nowhere, having panicked and cast an enchantment that made him look like a water barrel during the attack. He stepped forward and tried to comfort Aisha, but Taklinn grabbed the young man by the sleeve and pulled him away from her.

"She's upset," the shield dwarf said.

His hand gripped the young man with such fierce strength that Faustus gulped.

Taklinn looked up at Faustus and glared. "Now, ya was sayin something about the elf?"

"Oh," Faustus said quickly. "I must have been mistaken. I thought I saw him grab her on the…"

"I remember," Taklinn said abruptly. "Did ya touch Aisha?" Taklinn asked the sun elf over his shoulder with a glare. "Tell me the truth."

"I'm not stupid," the sun elf replied. When this answer did not seem to satisfy Taklinn, Amandur sighed and shook his head. "Of course not. That would be very foolish."

"I, I must have been mistaken," Faustus stammered.

Taklinn looked straight into Faustus's eyes. He held the man's sleeve tightly and watched the wizard suspiciously. "Everyone makes mistakes," he said in a low, angry voice. "The trick is to not make em' twice." Taklinn was not certain what sort of mischief the slender man had been up to, but he had ideas. After all, Aisha was a kind, beautiful and often clueless young woman. He understood full well that was a combination destined to bring him trouble. Taklinn had no reservations when it came to things that gave Aisha trouble, however, and he gave Faustus a warning glare.

Faustus swallowed and nodded vigorously. "Yes," he managed to say. "I understand."

Taklinn let Faustus go and reached over to Aisha. He took her hand, and not taking his eyes off of the young man once, thanked Amandur quietly and led Aisha below the deck to see to her wound.

As the shield dwarf disappeared down the steps that led to the cabins, Amandur cast a questioning look at Faustus and replaced his rapier in its sheath. He knew that Faustus had told Taklinn the lie just out of spite. Or had he?

At that moment, Capitan Jostein came on deck, her face looking angry. "What was all that yelling? And who the blazes is at the wheel? We pitched so hard the dishes slid off the mess table and the coffee…" her voice trailed off when she saw her first mate dead by the wheel and some sort of animal laying in a heap at Amandur's feet. Her face went pale and she closed her mouth slowly. What she saw was clearly the shape of a dead werewolf, bleeding on the deck of her ship. Shocked, she looked up at the elf with surprise. "Did you kill it?" she asked.

"Yes," he said without pride.

She glanced back at the dead first mate and her eyes welled with tears.

"Well?" she bellowed, looking around the deck to the other sailors. "Why are we just standing around? Someone get on the wheel, were straying off course. Sebastian," she said to a tall sailor with gray hair dusting the temples around his deeply lined eyes, "You are my first mate now. Alright?" She watched him, her eyes betraying her sadness and her hope that he would accept her promotion. What the crew needed was sudden, iron-firm order to keep them from giving in to shock and grief. They needed her to be a Capitan, not a mourning waif. She would have time to mourn later in any case, right now her crew needed her to be strong. She lifted her chin and watched Sebastian expectantly.

He looked down at the shredded throat of the last first mate and nodded solemnly. "Aye, Jostein," he said with a croak. "I'm yer man."

Relief flooded her. She nodded back at him with gratitude and took control of the deck. She shouted orders and set about to caring for the body of her fallen comrade. Her main concern was to maintain order on the ship and get the crew working as quickly as she could. Routine was a good way to keep the crew from falling into despair. Some of the sailors worked with tears openly falling down their cheeks.

As the deck came alive with activity, Amandur stood quietly by the rail and did his best to stay out of the way. He had examined the body of the wolf and was puzzled by something. On the left hand of the animal he saw a coil of copper. It was worn like a ring, but it was not a ring and that was plain to see. The keen elf remembered his encounter below the deck with the surely, bearded man just after coming on board the ship. He remembered that it struck him as unusual that the sailor wore a very expensive ring set with a ruby.

The copper band was on the same finger.

Grimacing, Amandur stood up and turned away from the werewolf as the crew heaved the creature over the side of the ship. He heard the splash as it hit the water and he made a point to watch Faustus as the animal sunk away into the black waters.

The slender man stood in the moonlight with his back to the crew and scanned the water with an expression of relief set on his young face. Amandur frowned as he watched the young man. Faustus's face wasn't just relieved; it was also angry. What could have made the young man look so bitter and cheated?

Amandur decided that he would watch the man carefully. Perhaps the timid Faustus was not all that he appeared to be.

The hours after the death of the first mate turned into days, and soon a week had gone by without incident. The crew settled in to the new routine with a new first mate, and the Capitan managed to get past her grief at the loss of a good friend and see to the ship and crew with a clear head.

Taklinn grew board. Calathra slept.

Basha and Vorgrim could often be seen on the deck, their heads bent low together, laughing about some tale or adventure that they had experienced. It made Aisha nervous to see them together so often. But Basha seemed to be cautious about the paint that covered her face and she spent most of her time below deck where the danger of getting wet was not as great. It was becoming unusual to see Basha without Vorgrim, and rumors floated among the crew that the dwarf woman had been seen leaving Vorgrim's cabin in the middle of the night. When Aisha complained of this to Taklinn, he had only shrugged and told her to keep herself to herself.

Aisha sat on the rail at the stern, her legs hanging over the edge and dangling above the water. If Taklinn saw her sitting thusly he would scold her. But she did not care. The image of the creature that had tried to kill her, even though it was a ten day ago, refused to leave her haunted mind. She was as restless as a cat on a leash, and the small comfort that playing her delicate flute usually brought was also losing its charm.

She sighed and swung her feet like a child.

The werewolf was dead. There was no question of that. But Taklinn had again experienced the horrible dream. Aisha was beginning to think that the dream was more than just a nightmare. She was starting to think that it was a warning.

But what if it was? She was powerless to stop it. Wasn't she? The fact that Taklinn and the elf had killed the werewolf had brought her comfort for a short time, but now she found herself feeling the familiar dread that had dominated her heart from the start of the nightmares. She had experienced the dream again as well. How could it be a coincidence that Taklinn and she would dream the same thing only a few nights apart? She shook her head and stared at the rolling water beneath the ship, her face set with a worried frown.

She slipped off the rail and turned. Standing at the prow of the ship, his red hair being tossed about by the morning breeze, stood Amandur. She watched him for a moment. He wore his rapier, as always. But he never touched the hilt, not even to move it aside for someone to pass by. The only time she had ever seen him touch the hilt of his rapier was when he had drawn it.

Had anyone on deck been paying attention to the young woman as she watched the sun elf, they would have seen her face suddenly light up like a sunrise. Aisha had just had a wonderful idea.

She looked about for Taklinn or Basha, for she was certain that they would not approve, and when she could see them nowhere in sight she walked straight across the deck to Amandur's side.

"My Lady," he said as she approached. Aisha was unsettled a bit by the fact that he had not looked behind him before speaking. Apparently he knew her by the sound of her footsteps.

"You are quite skilled," she said flatly.

"Yes," he replied with a rakish grin. "At a great number of things."

"I want you to teach me," Aisha said.

"Pardon me, my Lady?" he asked, taken aback slightly.

Aisha plunged on, undeterred. Amandur was not entirely certain that they were talking about the same thing and gave her a slightly confused look.

"Teach me how to fight," she said.

"What?" he asked with surprise. "You?"

"That creature was going to kill me and there wasn't a thing I could do to stop it," she explained. "I don't ever want to feel like that again. Can you teach me how to fight?"

"With that?" he asked, pointing at her own rapier.

She nodded and gave him a pathetically hopeful look. Her green eyes practically shed tears as she watched him imploringly.

Amandur shook his head and laughed. "First of all, your Taklinn would try to break me in half if I did."

"Of course he wouldn't hurt…" Aisha began.

"I said, he would try," Amandur told her quietly. His tone suggested that the elf would have no trouble at all hurting Taklinn back. "And secondly, I have seen you walk. You have a difficult time making it from one end of the ship to the other without falling down. What makes you think that I will be able to teach you anything?"

"I'll pay you," she said quickly.

He paused and gave her another sly look. "With what, may I ask?"

It was a mistake and he knew it. She was very pleasing to look at, but if he even so much as laid one finger on her the shield dwarf would become enraged. It wasn't that Amandur was afraid of Taklinn, but he certainly respected him. More than that, however, Amandur was anxious to avoid any confrontations that were not absolutely necessary. He held his breath and waited for Aisha's reply, hoping that she was oblivious to his suggestive tone.

"I'll pay you with this," she said, reaching into her belt pouch and pulling out a huge diamond. It was at least the size of a fat walnut and looked real. Her face was determined.

Amandur snatched it out of her hand and held it up to the sunlight, letting out a low whistle as he watched the facets of the stone reflect the light in a rainbow of color.

"Where did you get this?" he asked, amazed at the size and clarity of the diamond.

"Well, I was in a cave and I saw this huge chest against the wall," she began. "I tried to open it but it grew arms and grabbed me and then I yelled for Taklinn…"

"I see," Amandur said, holding up a hand to stop her. "And after Taklinn smashed it open this was inside," he finished for her.

"Well, no," she said. "It was in a small box on a table behind the chest, but how did you know Taklinn smashed the chest?" she asked.

"Just a hunch," he replied sarcastically.

"So," she went on. "Will you?"

"Will I what?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Teach me," she said, snatching the diamond back. "And you can have it."

Amandur rubbed his chin and watched the determined young woman. She stared at him unblinking.

"You won't lose your temper when I make a fool out of you?" he asked.

"I swear it," she told him.

"And if I give you exercises to perform will you do them without fail?"

"I will," she promised.

"And will you stop him from trying to kill me when he finds out that you are my student?" Amandur asked her pointedly.

Aisha frowned. She seemed to remember hearing that phrase before.

"I'll try," she said truthfully.

Amandur turned and paced the deck for a moment. He could just steal the diamond when they were leaving the ship. He could just walk away and tell Aisha no and that would be the end of it. He glanced back at her.

Then again, she was lovely to look at, and it might be amusing to watch her try to master swordplay. Amusing like a toothache, he thought, but a least he wouldn't be bored and it would give him a chance to stay limber. If nothing else, he could show her a few simple moves that might save her life someday.

He frowned at the idea. Why did he want to help her? She would only cause him trouble, of that he was certain. The dwarf was mixed up in her life and no doubt he had experienced more trouble than most people saw in two life-times just keeping her alive. Why help her at all?

"Please?" she asked him. Her face had gone pale and her eyes were shinny with tears.

"Don't blubber at me," he said harshly. He paced again and considered all of the horrible things that could, and most likely would happen if he accepted the task.

"Please?" she asked again.

He glared at the deck and then cast his pale, green eyes over the sea. Of course he would do it, Gods knew why.

"If I accept you as a student then you will swear to me that you will do everything I say, when I say to do it and how I command. Understand? Because if you do not, then one of us, and it will not be me, could get injured."

"Oh, I get injured all of the time," she said with a smile. "I'm used to it." She shrugged and held out an arm. It was crisscrossed with a lattice of fine scars. She blinked and cocked her head to the side. "See? It's funny I am still alive," she said with a chuckle.

Her cheerful reply saddened him. She looked at him with a trusting expression and such optimism, in spite of the obvious injuries that she had endured, that he felt his hardened heart clench at the pain that she must have gone through. Amandur had done a great many things in his life that would be considered wrong, and a few things that could be considered evil. But had he ever done anything to help another person, not out of selfishness, but out of generosity?

He had. But that had been many, many years ago and since then the world had taught him that generosity was usually a foolish thing. He watched the hopeful young woman before him and grimaced. Perhaps a part of him wanted to do something good for a change, just to remember what it felt like.

"Alright," he told her, not fully understanding why he was agreeing to her scheme. "Where?"

"The only place I can think of that no one else ever goes is the hull where we keep the horses," she said with a grateful expression.

"Wonderful," he said through clenched teeth. "I will meet you there tonight."

"Why not right now?" she asked.

"Because your Taklinn is due on deck for the night watch just after sunset," he said impatiently. "Jostein has him patrolling the deck for four hours every evening and that will be the best time for us to practice."

"Thank you," Aisha said.

"I won't wait for you if you are late," he said sharply.

"I will be there," she promised. "I will do my best not to disappoint you."

She turned and scampered off to go below. Amandur watched her as she teetered unsteadily across the deck and shook his head.

The world had taught Amandur a long time ago that it was not a gentle place, and the people in it could not be trusted. He had trusted once, and believed in fairness. Loss, death and failure had shown him that believing in others would only bring pain and heartbreak. His heart was closed and impenetrable. He trusted no one.

Aisha trusted everyone. She was like a child, but she was not a child. She was too innocent and naïve. Where Amandur was jaded and cynical, Aisha was willing and hopeful. Her blind loyalty to her friends was something that he had not seen in a very long time. No wonder the surly dwarf loved her so. She sparkled with life and she was so optimistic in her good intentions that even when things turned out badly one could not help but smile at her.

Amandur knew that accepting her request would bring him trouble of some kind. Probably the dwarfish kind. But maybe, just maybe he could teach her a bit of common sense and a few choice moves that might keep her from getting killed someday. In spite of himself he liked her and her child-like attitudes about life. He corrected himself instantly at the thought. He was amused by her, that was all. Simply amused. But if there was a person whom he had met in the last fifty years who truly did have a pure heart, it was this light-hearted young woman. He didn't much care for the idea of her getting killed because of a lack of skill. What harm could come in teaching her a few useful moves?

Amandur did not know it, but in his cold heart there still lived some small hope for redemption. He had managed to push away all thoughts of ever doing anything that was not selfish, in some way, ever again. This one act of selflessness, bestowed on a foolish young woman who followed a dwarven warrior into battle, would bring him as close to reclaiming his jaded soul as he had been for more than five decades.

He folded his arms behind his back and headed below. His head was bent in concentration as he put together a hasty idea of what the first lesson should be. But his steps were quick as he moved down the stairs. He intended to sneak a meal from the kitchen before his practice tonight, for he would need all his strength to put up with such an unskilled pupil.

As he disappeared, a pair of eyes popped over the edge of the crow's nest directly over the spot that Amandur had been standing.

Calathra draped and arm over the edge of the smooth wood and grinned mischievously. So, Aisha wanted to learn sword play. And not just from anyone, but from the sun elf, the one everyone on board said was a thief. Calathra had nothing against thieves, for she had participated in unauthorized liberation of the occasional trinket. But Amandur was a thief on a level that she could only hope to aspire too someday. And from Calathra's estimation, Amandur was much more complicated than Aisha could possibly realize. He wasn't just a thief, of that Calathra was certain.

The Halfling woman turned and slumped back down in the seclusion of the crow's nest and crossed her legs lazily. She smirked and thought about Taklinn's face when he found out that Aisha was learning sword play from an assassin. Oh, the voyage had started out to be fairly boring. But Calathra was sure that it wouldn't stay that way for much longer.

Aisha lunged forward and stumbled head first into the straw.

Amandur shook his head. "Get up," he said with a sigh. "What were you doing? I said attack, not fall down."

Aisha scrambled to her feet and gave him a silly grin.

"I was practicing my dodging technique," she explained with a laugh.

"Oh, I see," he replied. "You dodge them by being where they don't expect you to be. Is that it?"

"Exactly!" she said, waving her rapier over her head with a flourish. It clanged against a bridle that hung above, starling her. She ducked. "They won't expect me to be on my face during a battle." She grinned at him childishly.

"Now," Amandur said, trying not to chuckle at her foolishness. "Try it again. This time, be aware of the pitchfork in the straw and try to avoid tripping on it. Part of fighting is being aware of your surroundings." He suppressed a smile.

Aisha nodded enthusiastically and took the fighting stance that Amandur had shown her. She lifted her rapier and lunged with her right leg extended.

"Not bad," he said. "Try it again."

She regained the stance, lunged and managed to repeat the attack move with relative skill.

"Good," he said. "Now, do it again. One hundred times."

"Why one hundred?" she asked. "You always have me practice a move one hundred times. Why not one hundred and one? Or ninety-nine?"

"It will take longer if you keep jabbering," he scolded.

"Well, you said that these lessons wouldn't be easy. I suppose this is what you were talking about," she said with a smile.

Amandur waited and watched as she repeated the move, exactly one hundred times. He made suggestions and corrected her as she practiced. He observed that each time she performed the move she did so with all her heart and soul.

Aisha had been determined not to waste his time. They had practiced for just over a ten day and she had been a model student. She grew respectfully quiet when he spoke, she tired her best to mimic his moves and she always thanked him for suggestions.

Amandur allowed the lesson to continue for two hours longer than he had originally planned for the night. He found the lessons a pleasant distraction from the dull voyage, and in spite of himself, he was beginning to enjoy her company.

Each night the lessons had continued. Each night he worked her mercilessly. This was the first night that he could actually see results.

"Now, I have already told you about this move," he said, coming to stand beside her with his own rapier. He rarely drew his own weapon, relying instead on verbal commands to instruct her. But tonight was special. Tonight he was going to teach her something that he believed might actually save her life.

"I want you to lift the tip of your weapon thusly," he said, demonstrating with his own rapier.

She mimicked him perfectly.

"This is called a faint," he said. "It is intended to draw your opponent into a vulnerable position so that you can strike him from a position of superiority."

"Amandur," she said with a sigh. "You always fight from a position of superiority."
"Don't flatter me," he said, poking her sword-arm with two fingers. "Do it."

She took the stance he demonstrated and watched as he showed her three different faint attacks. She copied him as well as she could, which was not very well, but he was encouraged by her progress.

"Do them each, one hu…"

"I know, I know," she said with a weary smile.

"Not tonight, though," he said, a hint of compassion coming into his voice. "You have worked very hard and now you need to rest."

"I can't rest," she said. "I have to muck out the stalls now."

He re-sheathed his rapier and glanced over. Ahmed, Aisha's big black war horse, chewed a mouth full of hay and stared back at him, his brown eyes looking amused by the activity.

"Tonight?" he asked. "But we have been practicing for three hours. How can you even lift the pitchfork?"

"I have to get it finished. I have been neglecting them because of practice and Jostein's crew are beginning to notice."
Amandur smirked at her as she removed her sword-belt and took off her protective jacket, hanging it on a hook and lifting the pitch fork with her blistered hands.

She winced with pain as she worked, but she attacked the task with the same vigor as she had the lessons.

Amandur made a great performance of falling into a pile of straw and letting out a sigh of relaxation as he settled in to watch her work.

"Ah," he sighed loudly. "This is sooo relaxing." He was mocking her, waiting for her to protest the fact that he was resting while she was working.

Instead, Aisha asked him about the faint attack and continued to work.

"Don't you care that I am just sitting her while you work?" he demanded at last. "Why are you not tossing filthy straw at me, or chastising me for my sloth-like behavior?"

"Amandur," she said, pausing with all seriousness. "You are my teacher. You deserve to rest while I work. That is the way it should be. You don't have to do this, and I know that. But you are. Because of you I may be able to actually help my friends some day during battle, instead of just getting in the way."

She looked at him with such seriousness and respect that he found himself feeling slightly ashamed for mocking her.

She turned away and resumed her work, stifling a cry of pain when she tripped and a heavy water bucket smashed her toe.

After several more pitchfork loads of horse manure had found their way into the dumping box, he could stand it no longer. Amandur rose and took the pitch fork from her hands roughly.

"Give it to me," he said harshly. "If you work yourself to death tonight, you will be useless for practice tomorrow night."

She relented and gave him the pitch fork. "Alright, but are you sure?"
He began to work wordlessly and pointedly ignored her.

Then, to his consternation, she went to the exact same spot that he had just occupied and fell back into the straw with a relieved sigh. She folded her hands behind her head and made a great production of getting comfortable.

"Don't forget to get well into the corners," she said, sounding all the world like a pushy head butler.

Amandur paused, glanced at her where she snuggled in the straw, and caught a glimpse of a playful smile breaking across her face. She looked up at him a laughed at his stunned expression.

"You worthless harpy," he snapped. "Playing on my sympathy!"

She shrugged innocently, and was rewarded with a face full of manure laden straw for her trouble.

She squealed and jumped up, gathering up a handful of the disgusting straw, and chased after him.

He dodged her easily and broke into a run as he slipped down the corridor that led towards the stairs. She shouted a warning to him as he disappeared into the darkness, but she did not follow.

He laughed out loud as he took the stairs leading up two at a time. As he slowed his steps and reached the top of the stairs he saw Basha leaning against a beam, chewing a tooth pick and watching him, her arms folded across her chest.

Amandur felt his smile fade. He stopped and looked her straight in the eye.

"Hello," he said, sounding casual. He gave her a warning nod. "It is a nice night for a swim. Don't you think?" He stared straight at her, unblinking.

Basha's eyes widened as she caught his meaning. If she betrayed Aisha and told Taklinn about what she had undoubtedly seen and heard from the hull, then Amandur would reward her for her trouble by tossing her overboard.

"I hate to swim," she said evenly. "But I hate to see my friends taken advantage of more."

Her meaning was clear as well.

Amandur shrugged. "A bit of fun," he told her, jerking his head over his shoulder in Aisha's direction. "I thought it would pass the time if I showed her a few moves. Nothing more."

His eyes locked on Basha like twin torches. He lifted his jaw slightly and his expression faded from casual detachment into deadly seriousness.

"Nothing wrong with having a bit of fun," Basha replied.

Then her face changed as well, and she narrowed her black eyes at the elf. "I like her," she explained. "I like them both. I don't want to see anything happen to em' due to association."

"Meaning?" Amandur asked darkly.

"I know what ya are," she said fearlessly. "I know. She doesn't. I don't care what ya are, but if ya have a soul then ya will only teach her things that will help her. I think it may do her some good to learn how to fight from someone of your ilk. But if she ends up a ruthless killer like yerself, then I know a shield dwarf who would take issue with the lessons."

"There isn't a ruthless drop of blood in her," Amandur said quickly. Almost too quickly. He took a deep breath before he continued. He didn't want to sound like he was defending Aisha.

"She is a terrible fencer, but I think I can do something with her," he said with a condescending tone.

"Then teach her how to stay alive," Basha told him.

"You presume to give me orders?" he asked, sounding offended.

"No," the duergar replied. "I'm asking. She has a good heart. Please don't teach her how to be like you."

This stung him more than he would have ever expected. For a moment all he could do was look at Basha with a blank expression.

"No need to worry," he said, brushing past her quickly and heading off down the dark corridor. "She will never be as good as I am."

"That's not what I am afraid of," Basha said as he disappeared. "I don't want her to be as bad as you are."

Basha watched him go. She glanced back down into the deep hull and could hear Aisha humming to herself as she finished her work. The girl didn't need to know about their exchange. It would only worry her and cause her unneeded stress.

Basha would not tell Taklinn about what she had seen, but she knew the canny shield dwarf was no fool and would most likely figure out what was happening on his own. If he became enraged over the secret, Basha vowed that she would stand with Aisha and defend the girl's decision. Granted, Aisha could have picked someone a bit less disreputable than the sun elf for a teacher, but if there was anyone who could teach the Lass how to defend herself it was a ruthless killer like Amandur.

Basha left and went back to find Vorgrim. She flexed her powerful hands as she walked and tried to calm herself. Aisha was good hearted, but too trusting. Calathra wasn't the only one on the ship who had noticed that Amandur was a bit too quiet when he moved, a bit too distant from the rest of the passengers and perhaps more than a bit too interested in Aisha. Not that she thought he wanted her for himself, only that she worried the sun elf might stop being amused with the girl and grow tired of their nocturnal practice.

She went above and felt the night breeze tickle her hair. It was a constant battle to conceal her true identity from Vorgrim, and now she had yet one more secret to keep. She lowered her head and trudged towards the bow where the gold dwarf waited.

When she passed Taklinn on the deck, Basha gave him a smile and clapped his shoulder as she went to Vorgrim's side. What a strange voyage this was turning out to be. But if she had anything to say about it, Aisha would not fall victim to the whims and fancies of someone like Amandur. And Basha definitely would have something to say about it if the lessons started to go sour.

That night, as Aisha collapsed into her narrow bunk, exhausted, she fell asleep almost at once. Taklinn came into their tiny cabin shortly after she had started to dream and found himself watching her. As she rolled over he caught a glimpse of her blistered hand and noticed that she had a tiny cut on her elbow.

He carefully lifted her hands and examined them. Her left hand was smooth and had only one or two small calluses. Most likely from shoveling horse manure.

But her right hand was covered in fresh blisters. It was red and swollen, as if she had been repeating the same task over and over relentlessly. Gods knew how, but even her knuckles were scraped.

Taklinn stripped off his armor and gingerly climbed into the narrow bunk beside her. He gathered her up in his arms and sighed the sad sound of a troubled soul.

"What have you been up to, Lass?" he whispered. He didn't even need to ask. It was plain that the elf was teaching her sword play. Basha had been correct when she assumed that Taklinn would suspect something. It was a bit ship, but not that big. People talked. He considered telling her to stop, but something inside of him told him to reject that idea.

What harm could it do? She may learn something, and it would keep her busy on the long voyage.

But more than that, something inside Taklinn murmured a warning to him that he tried desperately to ignore, but couldn't.

Let her practice, it said. Let her practice, for soon she will need all of her skill just to stay alive.

He shuddered at the thought of harm coming to her. Trying to reassure himself he squeezed her tight and almost woke her in so doing.

The dream haunted him. It was the rare night these days that he didn't have a least a snippet of the nightmare in which she plummeted to her death. He had been certain that after the horrible creature who had disguised himself as a sailor in Jostein's crew had been killed that the dream would end. But he had been wrong.

Not only had the dream not ended, but it had come to him with more regularity than ever before.

He closed his eyes and renewed his vow to protect her with his life until they reached Citadel Felbar. Once he was home, surrounded by his family and his comrades, Taklinn felt certain that there was absolutely no harm that could come to Aisha. She would be safe if only he could get her home. The dream was nothing more than a warning, his own sleeping mind telling him to be cautious and protective.

That is what he told himself. That is what he wanted so desperately to believe.

The Lander Gail continued on its voyage, undaunted and resolute. The Sea of Swords stretched out around her like a desert of waves, endless and unforgiving.

The ship was only a tiny speck against the black night of the sea. It sailed on, invisible to the world. Invisible, that is, to all save one pair of very interested, and very powerful eyes who had watched the ship from a great distance, and with unwavering attention.

The eyes blinked as Taklinn fell into a deep, and forgivingly, dreamless sleep. They were blue. Bluer than the sea itself, and just as deep. They were the same blue as a clearing sky after a terrible thunderstorm. The same blue as a clever beam of light that shone through a curl in a drifted cup of snow, reflecting a gleaming color that seemed magical.

The owner of the bottomless eyes turned away from Taklinn momentarily and towards another sleeping figure who even now rested in the very Citadel that Taklinn was so keen to reach.

The eyes watched the sleeping form with compassion, and with intent.

"It will not be long now," said a voice.

The sleeping form in Citadel Felbar stirred. It was almost as if the disembodied voice could be heard by the sleeper.

"Not long now, and he will be there to watch over you," the voice said reassuringly.

"You have a great trial ahead. But I am sending you a champion. Others will be lost, but you will survive. I will see to it."

The slumbering form inside the Citadel turned over and resumed resting.

The blue eyes, sad and determined at the same time, turned back to the tiny ship that bobbed on the Sea of Stars, and watched.

Vorgrim and Basha sat across from one another in the galley. They talked and laughed openly with each other about the other members of the crew, Vorgrim's experiences as a Knight of the Rift and increasingly, about the future.

Calathra tried to swallow the hard tack bread that seemed almost petrified, slurped her sour soup, and ignored the two dwarves who cooed and sighed as they stared at each other. She could see that their ankles were intertwined beneath the table and she made a face that displayed her disgust.

"Do you have to do that here?" she asked Basha.

The duergar shot her an angry look and then turned her attention back to Vorgrim. Her disguise was still flawless. It appeared as though Basha was spending half of her time trying to look like a gold dwarf and the other half trying to act like one.

"Tonight we should lay on the deck and try to see how many stars we can name," she said with a love-struck smile.

Vorgrim nodded and smiled back. "I would be delighted."

Calathra groaned and picked up her soup, heading towards Aisha in an attempt to get as far away from the two mooning dwarves as possible.

"Does he know about her?" she asked Aisha, placing her soup on the rough table and plopping down beside the girl with a frown. They were well away from the two dwarves, and Calathra felt safe talking about Basha openly. The galley was deserted, aside from the four of them.

"No," Aisha replied, watching the dwarves with a frown that matched the Halfling's. "He doesn't know. But if they continue on like this, he is going to find out. And then, who knows?" She gave Calathra a worried look.

"Taklinn doesn't seem to mind," Calathra said casually.

"I think he has lost his mind," Aisha told her. "He thinks they are a perfect match. He has completely changed his mind about Vorgrim and thinks that the knight can do no wrong. He even thinks that if Basha told the truth Vorgrim would accept her. I don't. I think it is prudent that she continues to wear the face paint, but I just don't see how she can go on like this. I don't understand how Basha thinks she can keep such a secret."

"You shouldn't be so quick to judge her for her secrets," Calathra scolded. She raised an eyebrow and brandished her spoon like a sword, pretending to trust it and parry an invisible foe.

Aisha's eyes widened as she realized that Calathra knew about her fencing lessons. "Don't say a word!" she hissed quietly, her face turning white. "Swear it!"

"I swear nothing," Calathra said flippantly. She tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and gave Aisha an amused smile. "But you don't need to worry. I won't tell him about the sword play."

Aisha's shoulders slumped with relief. "Thank you. I don't feel good about keeping it secret, I just don't think Taklinn would understand."

"No, you're wrong. I think he would," the Halfling told Aisha with narrow eyes. "I think he would understand much better than you give him credit for. You shouldn't be hiding it from him." The Halfling woman knew more about everyone on the ship than she cared to. But she was not in the habit of sharing other's secrets, luckily for her two female companions.
"He would kill Amandur if he knew," Aisha insisted.

"He would try, and then it would get ugly," Calathra said with a serious expression. "Amandur may be a match for him. At least, most assassins that I have met before are a match for just about anyone. Even Taklinn."
"What are you talking about?" Aisha asked quietly, glancing around nervously to be certain no one was listening. "Amandur is no assassin."

"You don't think so?" Calathra asked with a smirk. "If he is only a lucky card player, and nothing more, then I am Queen of the Rift. I've seen the way he fights, and the way he moves. I snuck down to the hull once and watched you practice. He is very good. And as for how he moves? You can't hear him until he is already past you in the corridor."

"That is ridiculous," Aisha insisted. "And what do you mean, you snuck down to watch?" Who else had seen them? Aisha felt her face grow hot with worry.

"I was curious!" Calathra snapped. "I wanted to see what you were doing down there. Found out, didn't I?" She gave Aisha a satisfied smirk.

"I don't care," the Halfling went on, seeing the girl's worried expression. "About the lessons, I mean. It looks like he is a good teacher. But if you think that the sun elf is only a generous person who wants to help you, then I think you need to take a better look at him."

"Amandur is not and assassin," Aisha said with finality.

"Oh, is he not?" Calathra asked with an amused tone. What about the…"

"All hands! All hands on the deck!"

The four companions jerked their heads towards the galley door in unison and saw the first mate, Sebastian, standing in the corridor. He had drawn his cutlass and his face was red from running.

"We're bein' boarded! All hands with weapons! We're bein' boarded!"

He dashed down the corridor, shouting a loud as he could to call everyone to the deck.

"Boarded?" Aisha asked. She jumped to her feet and felt for her rapier. "What does he mean, boarded?" She felt the reassuring hilt of her weapon and grimaced as she touched it. Her right hand was covered with blisters from endless practice.

Calathra had forgotten her soup and was getting to her feet, her face stricken. "He means we are under attack," she told Aisha.

Basha and Vorgrim were already running up the stairs towards the deck, their weapons out and their arms pumping as they moved.

"Where is Taklinn?" Aisha said, panic rising in her voice. Everything was happening so quickly.

"On the deck," Calathra said. "He's on the deck. He was with the Capitan by the wheel."

The haling ran towards the door and darted up the stairs, drawing her short sword as she did so.

As Aisha ran after her. She stumbled to a halt as Amandur's face appeared in the doorway. He purposefully blocked her path.

"You should stay here," he said with a dark expression.

"Taklinn is up there," Aisha told him sternly.

"And he can take care of himself," Amandur snapped. "You can't."

"What?" she asked, frantically trying to squeeze by him.

The sun elf placed a hand on the door and bared her way. "You have been learning but you are not good enough yet."

"Get out of my way!" she shouted.

Amandur grabbed her arms and pushed her backwards. "Aisha! Listen to me," he said furiously. "You fight like a broken windmill. The only reason you are still alive is because you are lucky. Those are pirates up there, not ruffians in some bar in Shaarmid. You are not ready yet," he said fiercely, slicing his hand through the air with finality. "Stay here!"

"And let Taklinn fight alone?" she demanded.

"Let him fight and not have to worry about keeping you alive," he answered.

His words shocked her. "But." she began.

"Stay here," he ordered.

"Alright." She nodded pitifully and watched him go. He didn't bother to draw his own rapier until he reached the top of the stairs, and when he did so he ducked to one side and vanished from view.

Aisha stood alone in the galley and listened. She could hear Basha yelling, not from pain but from rage. It was a battle cry.

The girl felt her heart clench and she wiped away a tear that had trickled down her cheek. Let Taklinn fight… Amandur had said. And not have to worry about you…

And let him die because she was too afraid to help? She shook her head and walked towards the stairs. She stood at the bottom and could hear screams and the clash of swords coming from above. She flexed her hand and gingerly drew her rapier, even though doing so sent a shock of pain up her arm.

Taklinn was on the deck.

There were people on the deck trying to kill him.

That was all she needed to know.

Amandur's warning evaporated, as did her promise not to go above.

Aisha gripped her rapier and bounded up the stairs out of the darkness of the hull and into the bright sunlight of the besieged ship. She gasped at the sight before her.

The deck was filled with clashing bodies. Everywhere there was the sound and sight of battle. It was nearly impossible to make out individuals, the bodies were pressed in on each other so tightly.

Aisha squinted and tried to see Taklinn. She searched the deck desperately. Then she saw her friends.

Basha and Vorgrim stood back to back, their shoulders nearly touching as they battled four men who circled them like dogs.

Basha's mace was covered in blood and a body lay before her. Vorgrim's ax had cut into flesh as well, for Aisha could see that it was stained bright crimson. The two dwarves struggled to keep their attackers at bay. Four huge humans harassed them from all sides, swords and daggers slicing in a frenzied blur. Vorgrim fought with his face set in a fierce glare and his teeth bared like an angry lion. Basha screamed openly as she ruthlessly fended off the men. She kept her shoulders to Vorgrim, even as she dodged and attacked, never letting his back become vulnerable. It could have almost been a dance.

The duergar stood her ground, protecting Vorgrim as diligently as she did herself, and fought with fearless rage.

Beyond, Amandur was just pulling his rapier from the chest of an unfortunate man who had tried to smash the sun elf with a club.

Capitan Jostein stood at the wheel, duel cutlasses in her hands, hair flying out behind her like the mane of a wild mare as she fought a toothless sailor. He aimed a well place blow with his empty crossbow, swinging it like a club and landing a deadly hit square on the Capitan's temple. The big woman slumped to the side, but she kept her feet and rallied. She jabbed twice and managed to cut him just above the knee. He squawked in pain and jumped back… straight into Calathra Hardindale's blade. The Halfling woman stood behind the toothless sailor with her sword buried in his back. She looked angry.

Aisha lifted her rapier and continued searching for Taklinn. He was nowhere in sight.

Beside the Lander Gail she saw another ship pressed up against their hull like an angry bull. Ropes had been hastily tossed over and the two ships were lashed together. The sails were still unfurled and the two ships wrestled against each other violently, the ropes straining and creaking from the incredible pressure. She could hear the mast groan against the furled sail, and the ship tilted abruptly as a wave pushed them forward and the two hulls crashed together.

"Look out!"

Aisha felt herself pushed aside by a pair of weak hands. She fell to the deck and could see nothing but a jumble of feet and legs. There were pirates everywhere! Men in filthy cloths, holding clubs and swords swarmed the deck like maggots. Shouts filled her ears. Blood covered the deck.

"Get up!" shouted Faustus. He had pushed Aisha down just as an arrow sailed past her head. "We need to get out of here!"

"Where is Taklinn!" she shouted back.

"Who cares!" Faustus cried.

Aisha leapt to her feet and spun around to face him. "I have to find him," she said frantically. Then she turned and waded into the fray.

"Come back!" Faustus squeaked with fear. "You'll be slaughtered!"

Faustus was not the only one who saw Aisha plunge into the crowd. Glancing back, Amandur spotted his student as she lunged though the mass of bodies and tried to break through the frenzied battle. She made it almost four paces before the crush of the fight stopped her. Four of Jostein's sailors grappled with a huge man wielding a massive club. He swung it leisurely, smashing the sailors aside effortlessly. Jostein's men fell aside like cut wheat. Aisha was caught in the crush of battle, her arms pinned and her feet entangled with the sailors who tried desperately to knock the big pirate off his feet. It was chaos like she had never seen. She struggled valiantly and managed to pull an arm free.

Crying in frustration and rage Aisha struggled to pull her rapier up and forced it just above her waist. Amandur lifted his eyebrows with surprise as Aisha slashed the big pirate across the back of his thigh. He yelled in pain and clenched a heavy fist. Turning to see who had attacked him, the angry brute brought his fist down and caught Aisha across the face. She crumpled to the deck like a dropped doll.

"Aisha," Amandur whispered. He glanced to his left and deftly blocked a swipe from a savage woman leaping towards him with a long sword. She hissed like a snake when he side-stepped out of reach. Her teeth were filled into sharp points, and he could see that they dripped blood.

She screamed an insane cry and lunged, her wild black hair clinging to her face like spilled ink. She attacked the sun elf with a boat hook held in her off hand, and followed it with another wide swipe from the sword. She had managed to stay alive through sheer force of will rather than talent, but she assailed Amandur with deranged glee and he found himself quite busy keeping her at bay.

It was over in moments, though. Amandur stepped back and found his footing. He drew his man gosh from its concealed sheath at his chest. She lunged with frightening speed, but her attack was flawed. He blocked her hook attack with the hilt of his rapier, spun once and jammed his hastily drawn man gosh into her neck. She fell to the deck in a terrible spasm, blood pouring from the wound. He didn't pause to finish the kill, but walked away from her twitching shape, rapier in one hand, glistening man gosh in the other, and headed towards Aisha.

"I've just started to teach her something useful," he said with a growl as he stalked towards the huge pirate who had just knocked Aisha down. "I am not about to let you kill her before she finishes our next lesson."

The pirate was searching the deck for the girl who had stabbed him, but he couldn't see her. Jostein's men crowded around him and tugged at him like monkeys climbing a tree. He stupidly stood with his back to the sun elf as he searched, roughly pushing the sailors aside as he looked for the black haired girl.

"I don't think she fancies you, my good man," Amandur said sarcastically. "Maybe you should try not hitting women for a change?" When the pirate spun around, spit dribbled from his mouth and he looked down at the small elf with a sick grin. Amandur expected the huge club to swing around and was ready to duck, but the pirate only grinned and dropped the wooden weapon to the deck. Instead of attacking, he reached towards Amandur with hands as powerful as giant anacondas. Amandur slipped past the pirate's huge paws and plunged his man gosh straight into the man's barrel chest. He stepped back as the hulking shape toppled towards him, crashing to the deck at his feet.

"Why didn't he try to kill me?" Amandur asked with confusion.

"Get off my ship!" shouted Jostein. Amandur glanced at the furious Capitan. She was standing at the wheel fighting with one cutlass, her off-hand hanging uselessly at her side. Her first mate stood at her back and fended off two pirates who tried to kill the Capitan. He seemed to be keeping them at bay.

Amandur looked away from the Capitan and searched for Aisha. He found her at last. She was standing, Gods knew how, at the stern with her rapier leveled at a vicious looking skinny pirate waving a heavy mace. Faustus cowed behind her, his hands covering his head. Amandur could swear he heard the small man whimper, even from his distance.

"Just keep him busy for a moment," Amandur said under his breath. He started for the stern and ran straight into a fat man, ax in one hand, club in the other.

"Ahrrrg!" screamed the fat man as he spotted the armed elf. He charged, his flesh giggling.

"Not now," Amandur said impatiently. "I don't have time for this."

The fat man threw his ax straight at the elf's head. Amandur knocked it aside and somersaulted across the deck. He came to his feet right behind the fat pirate.

"You heard the Capitan," he said as he jabbed his man gosh into the fat man's back. He felt the blade slip between the ribs and was sure he had pierced a lung. "Get off her ship!"

Amandur pulled his man gosh free, took two steps back, lowered his head and charged. His shoulder slammed into the fat pirate's back and Amandur drove the mass of flesh over the side of the ship.

He turned, once again, back towards his pupil.

Aisha had managed to dodge the skinny man with the mace. She stood her ground and kept her rapier high, just as he had taught her.

"That's good," he found himself saying, as if she could hear him.

Faustus had vanished.

Aisha had her hands full just keeping alive and she didn't see anything going on around her. She certainly didn't see the crazed and bloody, fang-toothed woman creeping up behind her.

Amandur cursed. "I thought I killed you!" he yelled, breaking into a run.

The razor toothed woman adjusted her hook and leapt, throwing herself at the girl with arms flailing.

She hit Aisha in the back, pulling the girl down and knocking her rapier to the side. The crazed woman lifted the rusted boat hook over her head and squealed with evil laughter.

Aisha rolled to the side just as the hook came down on the deck with a sharp crack. She rolled back and kicked the crazed woman in the face, managing to break away, and scrambled for her rapier. She grabbed it and swing it up just as the second hook attack came. She blocked it and struggled to her feet, her face only inches away from the pointed teeth. Aisha pulled her rapier free of the hook and crouched as the vile weapon slashed the air above her head. She planted her feet and regained her balance.

The woman screamed her mad cry and tried to heave the girl backwards, but Aisha was ready for her. The girl thrust out her right leg and fell into a perfect attack stance. The razor toothed woman cried in pain as the rapier cut through her. She fell to one knee and fell silent, her mouth hanging open and her arms slack.

Aisha didn't hesitate. She pulled out her rapier and thrust it in again, sinking the blade into the woman's chest as deep as it would go.

The crazed woman fell to the side, but Aisha didn't see it, for she was side-stepping an attack from the skinny man behind her. He narrowly missed taking her head off with a brutal swipe. Aisha twirled away and managed to slip out of reach.

Amandur reached them and leapt in front of his pupil, eyes locked on the skinny man's eyes, man gosh at the ready.

"I know, I know," he said to the pirate. "Ahrrrg,"

The skinny man hesitated, looking at the elf with confusion. Suddenly his eyes went blank and he fell to the deck, dead. Aisha's rapier slid from the wound, and she looked up at Amandur with pleading eyes.

"You told me to take every opportunity," she explained.

"Yes," he said with surprise. "Yes I did. Well done, my Lady."

"I need to find Taklinn," she said as she turned away.

"He isn't here," Amandur told her quickly.

"Where is he?" she demanded, wheeling on him desperately.

Amandur pointed towards the enemy ship still tied to the Lander Gail. "Over there." He had just caught a glimpse of the shield dwarf as Taklinn had leapt over the rail onto the deck of the rouge vessel.

Aisha looked towards the pirate ship and could see Taklinn standing on the deck, fighting everything that moved.

"He's got a torch," Amandur said. His voice was like steel. "I think he means to burn it."

He glanced at the deck of the Lander Gail and could see that the tide of battle was turning in their favor. Basha and Vorgrim were slowly driving the angry pirates to the rail, the Capitan had taken the wheel and several members of the crew were trying to cut the lines that bound the ships together.

"He'll be trapped over there," Amandur said quietly. "Unless he gets off that ship now, he won't make it back." He looked away from Aisha, trying to think of a safe place to tell her to hide.

"You stay h…" Amandur started to say. But even as he did so, Aisha darted away and ran for the side. She jumped for the top rail at a run, kicked off the smooth wood like a deer and leapt straight onto the deck of the pirate ship. She hit the deck hard and fell face first into a coiled pile of ropes, her rapier spinning across the deck and coming to a stop ten paces away. She tried to get up. As she lifted her head, she saw a huge shadow block out the sun. Blinking, she scrambled backwards and found herself pinned against the rail. She looked up into the face of a huge half-orc who towered over her. His fangs had been capped with gleaming, sharpened steel and protruded from his mouth like knives. He gripped a crude net weighted with lead balls in one hand, and in the other he held a massive trident.

"This one? I trap this one?" the half-orc called. Someone behind him yelled a command and pointed at Amandur.

The sun elf squinted through the mass of bodies and spotted a man, in a crimson shirt, neatly trimmed moustache and carrying a magnificent golden sword, run to the half-orc's side and slapped him on the back of the head. "That one!" he yelled, pointing once again at Amandur. The man glanced down at Aisha dismissively. "Kill her! Get him!"

The man looked very familiar. He had seen this pirate before. Amandur felt his stomach sink.

They were after him.

He sheathed his rapier, placed his man gosh between his teeth and took a running jump for the side. He leapt onto the rail of the Lander Gail and flew across the narrow gap between the ships. He landed on the deck of the rouge ship and rolled.

When he came to his feet he saw Taklinn standing in the middle of the deck, war ax in one hand, blazing torch in the other, gleefully killing any pirate that came close enough to hit.

"We've got to go!" shouted Amandur. "Their cutting the ships apart!"

"Just let me get it lit!" Taklinn bellowed back.

"No time!" Amandur yelled. He drew his rapier and turned. Taklinn and Amandur stood back to back on the deck of the rogue ship, surrounded by angry, bleeding men.

"Aisha!" Amandur yelled over his shoulder, just as he parried a thrust from a nasty scimitar strike. "Needs you!"

Taklinn wheeled instantly and caught sight of the girl, pinned against the rail, unarmed and staring up at a huge half-orc with a thick trident pointed at her chest.

"Gods," whispered Taklinn. His eyes narrowed with rage.

He watched as the half-orc drew the weapon back and prepared to thrust.

Just as the half-orc moved to strike, a blazing torch smashed straight into the side of his huge head. His greasy hair lit up in flames, the torch bounced into the pile of coiled rope that entangled Aisha's feet and went up like a bottle of lamp oil. Aisha screamed as the flames snaked their way up the rope towards her feet.

Taklinn gripped is war ax with both hands, bellowed a battle cry, and cut a path straight though the mob of stunned pirates. He felled them one by one until he reached Aisha's side, and turned on the burning half-orc with determined fury.

His hair ablaze, the half-orc bellowed in pain and swung the trident wildly, hitting his own comrades in desperation. Bodies sailed in all directions.

Taklinn planted his feet, raised his ax, and stood in front of Aisha fearlessly.

Amandur seized the chance and ducked away from the crowd of pirates scrambling to get out of the half-orc's way. He dodged and slipped past the pirates and ran straight for the Capitan.

"You make this easy for me," the Capitan said as he caught sight of the sun elf. "You come to me. Very gracious of you."

"C'Colud," Amandur spat. "I never thought to see you again."

"You didn't think I was that persistent?" C'Colud asked, leveling his golden sword at the assassin.

"I didn't think you were that stupid," Amandur replied.

"You are worth a lot more to me alive than dead," the Capitan said as he circled the sun elf. "Give up, and I will pull my men off the ship and leave."

"You think I care about them?" Amandur asked with a smirk. "Kill them all, I care not. But you won't take me. And that leaves only one alternative."

"I suppose you will try to run again," C'Colud said with a sneer. "And just where will you run to this time?" he asked, pointing at the sea that surrounded them.

"Not this time," Amandur said with venom. "I will never run from you again."

He feigned a quick jab to the left and grinned as the Capitan lunged to block. Pulling back with lightning speed, Amandur lunged and felt his rapier sink into C'Colud's side.

The pirate winced in pain but managed to swing his golden sword around and land a grazing strike on Amandur's left wrist. Instantly his hand was useless. The cut was superficial, but the magic from the golden sword seeped into Amandur's skin and took his ability to move his hand.

Behind him, Taklinn had disarmed the half-orc and was pulling Aisha out of the burning ropes with one hand while he kept the pirates at bay with his swinging ax.

Amandur cursed himself for worrying about the girl, his anger at his own weakness giving him strength.

He turned back to the pirate, spat on the deck and grinned.

Amandur lunged forward and opened up into a full on assault. C'Colud fell back under the onslaught, the sun elf relentlessly driving him back with strike after strike. Amandur's rapier hit home again and again and the pirate stumbled to the side from his wounds.

"Others will come," C'Colud said as he fell to one knee. He knew that the sun elf would end him in moments. "They will find you. Be sure of it." C'Colud grimaced in pain and dropped his sword, hoping for mercy.

"And I will be waiting," Amandur said bitterly.

The sun elf pierced the rouge Capitan through the heart, watched as his lifeless body slumped forward, and pulled his rapier free.

"I will be waiting," Amandur repeated. He spun and headed for the rail.

Taklinn had pulled Aisha from the ropes. The half-orc, bleeding from a dozen wounds and burned horribly, made one last desperate lunge towards the shield dwarf and paid for it with his life. Taklinn brought his war ax up in a terrible arc. The half-orc crashed to the deck, his head spinning on the smooth wood beside his body.

"They are cutting the ropes!" Aisha cried. "The ship!"

Taklinn turned and saw that the Lander Gail was slipping away.

"Jump!" Taklinn yelled at Amandur.

The sun elf needed no encouragement. He sheathed his rapier, climbed onto the rail and lunged. He landed on the deck of the ship and rolled. As he came to his feet he saw Taklinn bodily lift Aisha from the deck of the rouge ship and toss her over the rail. The girl flew across the widening gap of water and landed on the deck of the Lander Gail, bruised but alive.

"Catch this, Taklinn!" cried Basha. She was standing at the rail of the Lander Gail and heaved a heavy mooring rope over the side. It landed on the pirate ship with only a few inches to spare.

Taklinn caught the rope just as it slid over the side, and jumped, vanishing beneath the rail.

Aisha called his name and scrambled to the side.

"Where is he?" Vorgrim asked frantically. The gold dwarf ran to the rail, searching the water for his friend.

Within moments, the rope that Basha had tossed began to vibrate and twist. Everyone on the deck stepped back as Taklinn hauled himself up the heavy rope and grabbed the rail with his powerful arms. Swinging his legs over the rail, he landed on the deck with both feet spread wide apart and his arms flexed from exertion.

A ragged victory cry rang out from the crew. Sailors went to Taklinn's side and slapped his shoulders gratefully. He turned with satisfaction to see the deck of the pirate ship erupting in flames. He had tossed the burning rope onto a pile of canvas just before jumping from the ship. The pirates scrambled to drench the fire before it reached the sails.

The crew of the Lander Gail broke into a chorus of curses and shouted threats at the defeated pirates as they lined the rail of their beloved ship and taunted the defeated foes.

Basha and Vorgrim received their share of praise as the sailors shook their hands and thanked them for the help. Between them, Basha and Vorgrim had managed to rout the worst of the pirates and had killed five of the scoundrels before driving them from the ship.

Faustus magically appeared again, unscathed as usual. He looked pale.

Amandur shouted a warning just as several flaming arrows sailed from the rouge ship towards the deck. They sank into the wood and caught. But the crew was quick to respond, and soon the fires were doused.

The pirate ship drifted away as Jostein spun the wheel with her good arm. She took them on a fast wind back into the rough current that would whisk them away from the floundering pirate ship.

Taklinn went to Jostein's side and waited until she had the ship back on course. The first mate helped her hold the wheel.

"I guess they weren't in need of help," he said wearily.

"What a mistake," the Capitan said as she ran a bloody hand over her face. "I was sure they were a vessel in distress. They flew the yellow flag and gave every appearance of it. But I didn't recognize the ship, and I never should have slowed to help them."

"They never would ave' caught us otherwise," Sebastian told Taklinn angrily.

"Why did they attack?" Jostein asked. Her face was set with anger and confusion. "I'm mostly carrying passengers. I don't even have valuable cargo. Just some wine that we already off-loaded in Calimport. What did they want with us?"

"Or who," Taklinn said under his breath. He had seen the conversation that had passed between Amandur and the rouge Capitan. Although he hadn't heard a word of it, he thought it was strange that the sun elf would speak to a man he was about to kill.

"What did you say?" Jostein asked.

Taklinn shook his head. "Maybe they thought we was someone else. Or maybe they just wanted yer ship."

"My ship," Jostein said with a panicked expression. "Bastards. Ship salvagers! I should have thought it."

"We will post a double watch tonight," she told Taklinn, regaining her composure. "After we see to the wounded."

"After we see to you," Sebastian corrected her. "I got the wheel, Cap'n. Get yerself looked at."

The first mate nodded at Taklinn, who was remarkable unscathed considering what he had just done, and the shield dwarf stepped forward to assist. He took Jostein's arm and let her lean against his stout frame as he guided her away from the wheel.

"Aisha! I need ya, Lass," he called.

The girl was watching the pirate ship as it became smaller and smaller on the horizon. "My rapier, my beautiful rapier," she said sadly.

"I'll buy ya another," the surly dwarf said quickly. "The Capitan needs ya."

Aisha went to Jostein's side and placed her hands over the big woman's wounded arm. She closed her eyes and uttered a quiet word, casting a weak spell that managed to stop the bleeding and help the Capitan's pain.

"Thank you, girl," Jostein mumbled. She pulled away from the dwarf and headed back towards the wheel, offering words of encouragement to her crew as she went.

"Are you hurt?" Aisha asked Taklinn.

He shook his head. "Just a scratch here and there. See to the others."

She nodded and placed her hand on his cheek. "I thought I was going to lose you," she said sadly.

"Not today, Love," he said resolutely. "Not today."

She smiled and turned away to look for Basha. The duergar was nowhere in sight, and had undoubtedly gone below to see to her disguise. Vorgrim was on the deck helping the sailors push the dead pirates over the side.

Amandur stood starboard, his arms folded across his chest and his brow furloughed.

Aisha approached him carefully and placed a hand on his shoulder. He seemed to wince at her touch, but when he saw who it was he turned away and watched the horizon again.

Aisha placed a hand over his wound and murmured a word. The wound responded, but his hand still seemed injured.

"It's alright," he said distractedly. "It will be good as new tomorrow."

"How are we going to practice?" she whispered. "My rapier was on the ship."

"This is an armed vessel," he snapped. "Someone on board will have another rapier."

"Oh," she replied, looking away. "Are you angry with me?"

"Of course I am," he growled. "You could have let Taklinn deal with the situation. He is very good at doing just that. But instead, you have to throw yourself into the fight."

"I was doing fine," she insisted.

Amandur shot her a look.

She glanced down, ashamed. "I was managing," she said hastily.

"Only just," he told her. "Have you learned nothing in the past two weeks?"

"I killed the woman with pointed teeth," she said defensively. "And the man with the mace."

"I killed the woman," he corrected. "She was so mean she just didn't have the decency to die when she should have. Her wound would have been fatal eventually, but I should have finished her when I had the opportunity."

"I need more practice," she said. "I want to be able to help."

"Help?" Amandur said incredulously. "If you really want to help, then you will stay out of the way."

Aisha swallowed and looked at Amandur with a hurt expression. "But I have learned so much."

"You have learned just enough to be a nuisance," he scolded.

"A what?" she said, more loudly than she had planned. A sailor walking past glanced at them.

"You risked lives today with your foolishness. Why should I keep instructing you if you are only going to get yourself killed before you have a chance to become a decent pupil?

"I don't have time to be a proper student," she told him sadly. "My friends don't have time to wait for me to learn. I need to become as skilled as I can now," she whispered, her face stricken.

Amandur sighed and shook his head. He knew the real reason he was so angry. He didn't want to see her gain confidence and then die on the point of a sword because she felt invincible. He hated that he was beginning to feel responsible for her. What was happening to him? Where was his sensibility?

He knew in his heart that the reason he didn't want to teach the girl any longer was because he was beginning to care for her. Not romantically, for that was a ridiculous notion. She was clumsy and foolish and not appealing to him past her pleasing looks. But he could not shake the memory of the horrible feeling that had washed over him when he saw her leap over the side of the ship, straight into the mob of pirates.

It had made him afraid.

Amandur did not like feeling afraid of anything.

"You have no talent," he said harshly. "If you want to continue to practice with me I will expect better results. I want to see you make progress or I will quit. Do you understand?"

Aisha closed her mouth and looked about to cry. She nodded and turned away. He could hear her shuffling footsteps, and he hated himself for crushing her so. But what else could he do? He was running out of time.

He angrily brushed a lock of red hair out of his eyes and tried to move his hand. It responded, but it would be useless for hours.

Amandur felt sick at heart. He knew that the best thing for him to do was leave the Lander Gail at the next port. He had managed to teach the girl a few useful moves, and maybe his lessons would keep her alive. But the longer he stayed on the ship, the closer he came to falling victim to compassion. He was dangerously close to feeling friendship for Aisha, and that was the last thing he wanted.

No. That wasn't exactly right. The last thing he wanted was to see her die when the next bounty hunter found them and she was forced to fight. She was the first person who had shown him compassion, and respect, for God's knew how many years. What would it be like if he was forced to watch her die due to his crimes?

There would be others. He knew it. Aisha and Taklinn would be on the ship for another two ten days, and that was more than enough time for word to get back to those who hunted him which vessel he was on. He wasn't exactly certain how they had managed to find him this time. Unless he left the Lander Gail he would bring more trouble to the ship, and to Aisha.

They would be at the next port in two days. When the Lander Gail set sail from Baldur's Gate after re-stocking supplies, Amandur would not be sailing with her.

The ship had been devastated by the pirate attack, but Jostien had insisted they break the schedule and not make land until they reached the port at Waterdeep. The crew had tried to convince her to stop at Baldur's Gate harbor, but she was too nervous and feared a second attack. She reasoned that it would be too predictable. She had made it known that her plan was to stop at Baldur's Gate even before the Lander Gail had departed from Yhep harbor. Anyone who wanted to catch her ship would be able to do so in the confined harbor of Baldur's Gate and that was something she wasn't willing to risk. Whoever had attacked them had proved they were a crafty enemy. Jostein was determined to do the unexpected. They would make land in eight days, not two.

Amandur was not happy about the Capitan's decision and grew surly. He continued to teach Aisha each night in the hull of the ship. Enduring the smell of horse and the feeling that he was a cur for pretending that everything was back to normal when he was planning on leaving the ship without saying goodbye.

Basha had managed to avoid discovery during the pirate attack. Her disguise had come through the ordeal with only minor smudges and she was able to attribute the odd color of her face to grease from a tackle set. It was incredible to her that Vorgrim had not been able to see past her face paint, and she was grateful beyond belief that he hadn't. The noble gold dwarf was fast becoming her closest companion, and her heart was succumbing to his charming smile alarmingly quickly.

Taklinn knew about the sword lessons. It was impossible not to. Everyone on the ship knew about them. Calathra had not said a word, but others had and Aisha suspected that the shield dwarf was aware of her practice but simply chose to ignore it. He finished his watch on the deck each night, now a six-hour stretch, and came below after she had already fallen asleep from exhaustion. He wrestled with his feelings about the lessons. He felt that they were more good than bad, against his better judgment, and kept silent. He didn't trust Amandur and he thought that the quiet elf was at the very least a skilled thief, at the worst a good soldier who had gone bad and now lived as a mercenary. Allowing Aisha to keep working with him was one of the most difficult things Taklinn had ever done.

Calathra watched the odd dance of deception and respectful silence between her companions with amusement and pity.

She couldn't understand why Basha didn't tell Vorgrim the truth. He obviously loved her and would understand why she had deceived him. Taklinn suspected that Aisha was learning how to fence from the assassin, but said nothing. Why didn't he simply tell her that he knew and let her know he supported the girl's choice? And Faustus, the odd young man who slunk through the ship's corridors and shadowed Aisha like a puppy, was no mystery to the Halfling woman either. He lacked confidence in himself. It was painfully clear. Coupled with his terrible shyness was his obvious crush on Aisha, someone who he could never dream would return his affection. It didn't stop him from watching her with sad eyes and trying desperately to engage the girl in conversation every chance he got. Taklinn was remarkably patient with the boy's admiration for Aisha. He was patient only so far, though, and had been forced to physically place himself between the boy and Aisha on at least two occasions to discourage the lad from monopolizing her. The girl seemed oblivious to Faustus and his attentions. She was too engrossed in learning as much about fencing and fighting as was possible to notice him. This only seemed to make things worse.

Amandur had managed to become even more removed from the rest of the crew after the pirates had attacked. Calathra didn't think it was possible for the sun elf to be even more invisible than he had, but Amandur was managing to do so.

Jostein could feel the tension and unease in the air. She had reluctantly agreed to drink a healing draught and her arm was completely healthy once again. Her arm was as good as new, but her gut was not. She felt uneasy and anxious. She was no fool and could sense that there was something not quite right with the passengers on her ship. Maybe the pirates were ship salvagers, maybe they were not. She could not prove her suspicions, but she guessed that they had been attacked because of someone she carried on the Lander Gail. She slept little, and prowled the deck endlessly, just trying to keep the situation from getting out of hand until they made port in Waterdeep.

Her crew was smaller now. She had lost four men to the attack and she was in desperate need. The crew pulled doubled duty to keep the ship sailing at the pace she had set. Basha and Vorgrim tried their best to help take up the slack, and they became honorary members of the crew over the course of the next few days.

Faustus wasn't the least concerned about the crew and the need to help. He was concerned about Aisha and the infuriating sun elf.

Amandur was suave. He was polite and handsome. He was everything that Faustus was not. And Aisha was spending four hours every night in his company! It made Faustus mad with jealousy and envy that the elf was able to be so intimate with her. He tried to impress her with his clever wit, but all she seemed to pay attention to was the dwarf, and her worthless fencing lessons. He was no warrior. If only he could show her his skill with magic, then he might be able to capture her affection. But he needed to hide his gift. It was important that no one know his true power. He had not managed to discover anything else about the dwarf woman that the gold dwarf had spoken of. Whenever he tried to speak to Vorgrim casually, the gold dwarf became tight lipped. Friendly, but not forth coming The other gold dwarf was the same way, and Faustus avoided them when he could.

So he had managed to learn absolutely nothing about their destination, or the woman who would make Ruach and the pack rich. That thought infuriated him as well. Was he always to be at the mercy of the pack and what they wanted? When was it going to be his turn to shine?

It was sunset on the Sword Coast. He could just make out the hazy land that lay to the east. Taklinn had just come on the deck to begin the night watch, and Aisha had just gone bellow to seek out the elf.

Faustus sighed. He hated that she was going to see Amandur. He hated that she wasn't coming to seek out his company. When was she going to see him for what he really was? Someone that she could respect, and love?

Faustus was determined that on this night, Aisha would have a chaperon. The thought of her alone with the elf was more than he could stand. He had managed to avoid sneaking down into the hull to shadow them as they practiced. Mostly due to a healthy respect for what Amandur would undoubtedly do to him if he was discovered.

But not tonight. He had to see what was happening. His plans for impressing Aisha had not materialized as he had hoped. The only fortunate thing that had occurred during the voyage was the death of Futhark.

That had been his doing, hadn't it? Wasn't he capable of carrying out plans that were dangerous and needed a clever mind? Of course he was.

Tonight would be no different.

Faustus decided that he would take the form of the water barrel, once again. It was the easiest shape to conjure and no one noticed a water barrel.

Surely Amandur and Aisha would not notice. And this way he would be able to see exactly what was really happening between the two of them.

"This is the last thing that I will teach you," Amandur told Aisha as she finished cleaning her borrowed rapier.

"The last thing?" she asked, concern clouding her face.

"Tonight," he said hastily. "The last thing I will teach you tonight."

He hadn't the heart to tell her that as soon as they landed in Waterdeep, he would be gone.

"So, pay attention," he went on, coming to stand beside her and lifting his own weapon in demonstration. "This is the most important lesson we will have."

She stood straighter and followed his example precisely. "I'm ready."

He braced himself for the next four hours. The Capitan had said they had a good wind and might make Waterdeep by sunset on the following day, and this was the last time he would be able to instruct Aisha. He intended to make the lesson one she would never forget.

Amandur paused and turned to look over his shoulder. Something troubled him. He had the uneasy sensation of being watched, but when he looked through the murk of the dank hull he could see no one. Still, his keen senses told him something was not quite right with the makeshift stable on this night.

Trying to shake off the feeling, Amandur launched into his last lesson.

"I call it a counter-strike," he told her.

"Show me," she said, watching him intently.

"If you are attacked, your first reaction is always to get out of the way. I have seen the way you fence, and it seems as if your first instinct is to retreat. I am going to show you a way to turn an evasive action into an attack. I think it will be the best defense you have against a foe who is better, faster and more experienced. They won't see it coming."
Amandur demonstrated. He stood beside her and waved his rapier once to limber his wrist.

"In front of us is the mad, cat-woman who attacked you on the deck. Do you remember her?"

"Of course I do," Aisha said with a weary sigh. "She was terrible."

"Yes, well. She was. But the point is that she is in front of you. She is coming at you with the hook. What do you do?"

"I jump behind the elf," Aisha said with a smirk.

Amandur shook his head and tried to keep his expression serious.

"No, you dodge to the side, like this."

He pretended to pivot to the left so that an imagined attack would brush past his chest.

"Now, you can see that as I turn, my sword-arm is in perfect line to strike. Turn the dodge into an attack. Understand?"

"Yes, I see," she said, her face brightening as the concept took hold in her mind.

She raised the borrowed rapier and mimicked his move.

"Good, very good," he said with surprise. "You may be able to learn this by tonight."

It's simple, though Faustus from his hiding place in plain sight. I could do that. This sword practice isn't so difficult. He squatted behind a stack of hay, looking to all the world like a water barrel, and watched.

Amandur instructed Aisha to repeat the move one hundred times. She set to the task obediently.

"Alright," he said, when she was barely completing the tenth repetition.

"Now we try it together."

"What do you mean?" she asked, her eyes smiling.

Amandur moved to face her, lifted his rapier and attacked.

Aisha did just what he expected her to do. She backed away.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. "I just showed you what to do."

"But, I can't hurt you!" she protested.

"I assure you," he said patiently. "That will not happen. This is practice. I won't let you hurt me. Now, fight me to the best of your ability. Use everything I have taught you. Show me what you have learned. On-guard!"

He lunged again.

This time Aisha stood her ground. She parried his strike and moved her feet with impressive speed. She took a defensive stance and let him come at her, defending herself with more skill than he expected.

Amandur could have cut her down in seconds had he wanted to. But his goal was to teach her, not scare her into helplessness.

He fenced carefully, only using moves that she had seen him use before.

Then, he intensified his attack. He started to push past her defenses and was actually touching her with the tip of his rapier.

She was aware that he could have killed her at least a dozen times, but she fought on. Not letting her defenses down for a moment.

Even Faustus was impressed by the display. He watched with terrible fascination as Amandur and Aisha battled on the floor of the make-shift stable. Aisha was clearly loosing, but doing everything she could to stay in step and keep herself alive.

It was exactly what Amandur had wanted to see. He pushed her harder and harder, until she did something that really did surprise him.

As he lunged for another attack, Aisha implemented the move he had only just shown her and turned her dodge into an attack. It was close. Too close.

Amandur stopped the duel.

"That was very good," he said with sincerity. "You nearly had me."

Aisha fell to one knee and panted from exertion.

"Get up," Amandur instructed.

She shook her head and suck in her breath in great gulps. "I, I can't."

"Get up, Aisha."

"One moment," she protested.

"When you are in a battle you won't have a moment," he snapped. "Get on your feet!"

He grabbed her arm and pulled her up. She stumbled and looked at him with confusion.

"Defend yourself," he ordered, lifting his rapier.

"I can't," she said, shaking her head. She was pale and looked ready to fall over.

"And you want to stay alive in the North?" he chided. "Fight!"

"That's enough," said a voice.

Amandur looked into the murk of the hull and saw Taklinn standing behind Aisha. His arms were folded across his chest and his face was not amused.

"I let ya do this, thinking that ya might teach the Lass. But I won't let ya abuse her."

Amandur sheathed his rapier in one quick motion. He lowered his head and let out a heavy sigh.

"I apologize," he said. He sat down on an oat box and ran a hand through his red hair wearily.

Aisha had dropped her rapier and was looking at Taklinn with tears in her eyes.

"Taklinn…" she began.

The shield dwarf held up a hand. "It's alright," he said with quiet reassurance. "I know ya meant well. I know ya been doing this for the month. But I think ya learned enough."

"Not hardly," Amandur murmured.

"Aisha, go up now, Lass," Taklinn told her. "I want to talk to the elf."

"I'm not going to be able to practice anymore, am I?" she asked.

Taklinn shook his head. "No."

Aisha turned and looked at Amandur with a sad smile. "Thank you," she said. "I hope I was not a disappointing student."

She left her borrowed weapon where it lay and walked past Taklinn towards the narrow stairs.

He watched her go, unsmiling.

"Tell me the truth," Taklinn said to Amandur, managing to keep his composure.

His instincts told him to smash the elf's head against the stall, but his love for Aisha kept his temper in check.

"Has she learned enough?"

"Enough for what?" Amandur asked bitterly. "To keep her alive if you run into serious trouble?"

Taklinn nodded.

The sun elf shrugged. "Maybe. She was a better pupil than I imagined. She is determined to be a help to you."

Taklinn winced at the words. "I know it. She thinks she isn't."

"Why do you do this?" Amandur asked suddenly. "Why drag her all over the face of Faerun?"

Taklinn looked straight at Amandur unapologetically. "She chose it. I just do my best to watch over her."

"Then you have had your hands full, haven't you?" Amandur replied.

Taklinn sighed. "Aye, I have."

"She will be slightly easier to watch over now," the sun elf said, a note of pride in his voice.

"I thank ye," Taklinn said, forcing the words of gratitude out as if they tasted bad. "For teaching her."

Amandur nodded. "She was a good student."

"So, Waterdeep," Taklinn began. "It's a city full of opportunity." He let the words hang in the air.

"Yes," Amandur replied. "Waterdeep. I think it is for the best."

They both understood what the other meant. Taklinn had just given Amandur a very pointed suggestion. Amandur had taken it.

"She needs a new rapier," Amandur told the dwarf.

Taklinn nodded. He wished with all his heart that the girl would never have to lift a weapon again as long as she lived. He knew that her fate was not a peaceful one, however, and that she had already chosen to follow him on his road of adventure.

"I think I can find the Lass a good blade when I get her home," Taklinn said.

Amandur smiled at his understatement. Citadel Felbar was home to some of the most skilled craftsmen in the North. Of course he would be able to find her a good blade.

"If yer path ever takes ya North," Taklinn said to the elf, his eyes narrow. "Don't come to Felbar."

Amandur looked up. He could see that the shield dwarf was not joking.

"I won't," he replied.

Taklinn turned and walked away, leaving Amandur alone but for the horses.

The sun elf stood up and leaned down to snatch the fallen practice rapier where Aisha had left it. As he leaned down he saw the walnut-sized diamond lying next to the blade, partly hidden by the straw.

He picked it up and shoved it in his pocket with a grimace.

Payment for services rendered. Had his company meant nothing to her?

He chided himself for being so foolish. Of course it hadn't. But that was not the point.

Her company had meant something to him.

He scooped up the rapier and strode towards the stairs, pausing as he passed the big water barrel.

Amandur glared at the innocuous thing and then placed a foot on the rim. He shoved it over, realizing as he did so that it was empty. He knew it would be.

"So, this is how you managed to keep from getting skewered during the fight," he said to the toppled water barrel.

It rolled to the side and came to a stop.

"I know it's you, Faustus," he said.

The water barrel remained a water barrel. Faustus was determined to play the part, and Amandur shook his head with disgust. The sun elf had noticed the thing after Taklinn's arrival and realized that it had never been there before. He remembered seeing it on the deck during the raid as well, at just about the same spot that Faustus had been standing before he had vanished.

"I should run you through," he said with venom. "I have seen the way you look at her, and the way you look at me. I don't care that you hate me, but if you ever touch her it will be a mistake that will cost you all that you are, and all that you ever will be."

He left the hull and headed for his tiny cabin. He had no belongings to pack, but he wanted to do one more thing before he left the ship the following day. It was a simple matter, only re-sizing the belt that held his scabbard. It would only take a short time, but he wanted it right.

Dawn came and the cloudy sky bulged with rain. Dark storm-clouds hung threateningly over the ship, blending with the choppy sea and blurring the horizon.

Jostein knew they would make the harbor at Waterdeep by late afternoon, and she was grateful. The storm looked like it would be trouble.

Taklinn stood on the deck, Aisha at his side, and listened silently as she played a sad sea shanty on her little flute.

Basha was staying below, worried about the rain. If it came down unexpected she would no longer be able to keep her secret from Vorgrim.

Amandur was nowhere in sight. Faustus sulked in the galley.

Calathra stood beside Jostein's sailor in the crow's nest, watching for the harbor of Waterdeep, feeling the tension on the ship and feeling grateful that they would be on dry land for a least one day. Maybe the diversion of Waterdeep would break the spell of gloom that had fallen over her friends.

The day wore on and the storm intensified. The rain refused to fall, and the storm simply gathered strength and menaced the sails like an angry raven pecking a mouse.

The Lander Gail was tossed relentlessly by the rough seas.

Faustus ran from the galley to the deck at least twice, trying to hide his sea-sickness from the others, and failing miserably.

By late afternoon the sky had given up a few drops of rain, but nothing more. The air seemed to groan with the pressure.

Lightning danced on the surface of the water off in the distance.

Calathra sensibly left the crow's nest and sought shelter in the safety of the galley with Basha.

Everyone was silent as they lifted their heads to Sebastian's call.

"Land! Land ho!" he practically sang.

All of Jostien's sailors seemed to breath a bit easier. Finally, a chance to have a respite from the ship.

The deck erupted in activity as they sailed into Waterdeep harbor. The mood was a bit brighter, even though the sky was growing even darker.

Everyone came on deck except Basha and Amandur. The worried duergar hid below with the horses keeping the animals calm, using their unease at the rough seas as an excuse to avoid the deck in case the sky did open up.

In spite of the thick clouds, it refused to rain. The sun had set and the night sky brooded and flashed with lightning. The passengers couldn't see the city well, but what they could see was alive with movement despite the threatening storm.

Waterdeep was a retched snake-pit, a hive of wasps, a hub of trade and an unforgiving mass of humanity. If it was for sale, it was in Waterdeep. If it was illegal, it was to be found somewhere on the streets or in the dark alleys of the teeming city.

"Be cautious," Jostein told Taklinn as he prepared to leave the ship. "Stay at the White Raven. Tell them I sent you. Hueban is an honest innkeeper. But don't stare. He is ugly as an ogre."

Taklinn nodded and gave Basha and Vorgrim a wary glance. They nodded back, understanding that he had just wordlessly asked them to be on their guard.

"Where's the Halfling?" Taklinn asked.

"She left," Basha told him. "Said something bout' goin' to see an old acquaintance."

"She can take care of herself, that one," said Vorgrim with a smile. "But what about Lady Aisha?"

Taklinn sighed and turned away. He trudged below and kicked open the door of his tiny cabin. Aisha was standing by the narrow bunk, her head bent.

"Let's go, Aisha," he said irritably.

But she didn't move. She stood as if in a trace and stared at the bunk, not looking at him at all.

"What are ya…?" he asked. But as he came forward he stopped.

Taklinn followed her gaze and looked down. Laying on the wool blanket was a scabbard and a sword.

"It's Amandur's," she said.

Taklinn's eyebrows shot up and his mouth dropped open.

"Aye," he said, not knowing how to respond.

"But, what is it doing here?" she asked.

"Looks to me like he left it for ya," Taklinn said with a growl.

"Why?" she asked with a frown.

Taklinn shrugged. "Well, he won't be back. Maybe he wanted ya to have it."

"He won't be back?" she asked, finally looking at him.

"He is stayin' here when we go," Taklinn explained. "He was ready to move on, as I understand it."

"Oh," she said, picking up the scabbard and drawing the rapier with a smooth motion. It felt good in her hand.

"It's a good little sword," Taklinn said, trying not to seem insensitive and rush her. But his sensibility one out and he touched her arm. "Now, we got to go."

"Alright," she said, sheathing the rapier.

She tucked it under her arm and turned to go.

"What are ya doin', Lass?" Taklinn asked, shaking his head. "Put it on. If ya walk out there carrying it, someone will try to snatch it."

Aisha reluctantly strapped the rapier on and hefted her small pack. "I won't lose it," she said, smiling a bit.

Taklinn could see that Amandur's unexpected departure had hurt her.

"It weren't you," he told her, placing a huge hand on her shoulder. "He said ya was a good student."

"I guess he believed in me after all," she mused, touching the hilt of the splendid weapon.

She waited for him to lead and followed him off the ship.

It took the four of them almost an hour to find the White Raven. When they did they were disappointed to learn that it was full.

"Now what?" asked Basha irritably.

"We need to find someplace else," Taklinn said with equal ire.

"I'll go," Vorgrim announced.

"Not by yerself, ya won't," Basha told him with a protective tone.

"Gods, woman. He can look after himself," Taklinn snapped.

"We shouldn't spit up," she retorted.

"Right, then you go with him," Taklinn said, poking her in the chest.

Aisha strolled away from them and slumped into a chair at the last empty table. Taklinn could see that she was weary and his heart sank. The sky was still flashing with the hiss and flash of lightening, and Taklinn could already smell the rain. The moment Basha stepped outside it would open up in a torrent of rain and her disguise would be ruined.

"No," he said quickly. "I'll go. Ya stay her and keep yer eye on the Lass. She can't walk another step. We'll be back. Or one of us will, when we find a place."

Basha nodded and watched them go. She took the last chair in the Tavern and pulled it next to Aisha.

"We wait," she said.

The girl nodded gratefully and tried to catch the eye of the barkeep. She failed.

The tavern was packed with sailors, being so close to the docks. Basha didn't recognize anyone from the Lander Gail. It seemed to be full of men who had just come in from the sea like they had, but the sailors in the tavern were expressing their glee at coming ashore slightly differently than Basha and Aisha.

To the man, they were getting as drunk as they could, as quickly as they could.

Basha noticed a few of the braver souls casting sloppy glances at Aisha. She groaned.

"Hurry up, Vorgrim," she murmured.

Aisha sat and fingered the hilt of the rapier on her hip. She looked uncharacteristically sad.

Basha sat with her in silence. She knew when someone wanted to be alone with their thoughts and she took the time to fetch two ales for them while they waited.

The minutes ticked away. Soon, and hour had passed and Basha was growing restless. The ale was gone and there was no sign of either one of them.

"Where are they?" she asked.

"Maybe something happened to them," Aisha offered.

Basha gave the girl a side long look. Taklinn and Vorgrim? No. Nothing had happened to them. Taklinn happened to things, not the other way around.

But as the second hour began to approach, even Basha started to get worried.

"I think I will go and just have a quick look," she said, getting to her feet.

Just then, the storm broke.

Water exploded from the sky, coming down in torrents and instantly soaking the street.

"Damn," Basha said with a grimace. She looked down helplessly at the table.

"I'll go," Aisha said.

"No, ya won't" the duergar told her. "Taklinn would have my head."

"But it has been too long," the girl said, getting to her feet. "I will not go far. I will come straight back. Alright?"

"No," Basha said again. "We wait."
"But it isn't like him to leave for so long," Aisha said, her face set with worry.

"I know," Basha replied.

"What's your name, precious?" asked a slurred voice.

The alcohol was wearing down the sailor's inhibitions. An intoxicated, sloppy man stood beside Aisha, weaving terribly.

"I'm married," Aisha told him, not bothering to look up.

"Tht's alright," he said with a dumb grin. "I won't tell my wife either."

"Maybe ya should just go have a peek outside," Basha told the girl. She glanced up at the sailor with a glare that could have cut glass. "But if ya don't come back in the time it takes me to dump his body behind the alley, I'm comin' after ya."

Aisha nodded. She got to her feet and pulled her hood up.

"Now," Basha said, turning her gaze on the drunk sailor. "Ya want to make it home to yer lovely wife, or not?"

Aisha didn't wait to hear the man's reply. She darted into night and turned down the street she had seen Taklinn go.

The rain was busy turning the street to mud. A few stragglers ran for cover, and she could see a few disgusted people trying to find refuge from the torrent.

She followed the street and came to a fork. Standing stupidly in the center of the road, Aisha looked left, then right, and tried to decide which way to go. It was hopeless. She would never find them.

Turning back, she slipped a bit and regained her footing, intent on heading back to the White Raven. If she tried to find Taklinn she would become hopelessly lost.

She had no choice but to go back and wait.

Then she heard the scream.

Aisha whirled back and looked down the street that lead to the left. She listened. Another scream came from the blackness, barely audible over the thunder.

She cautiously walked towards the sound.

There it was again. It was a woman, calling for help.

Aisha broke into a run.

She sloshed through the muck and slid to a halt before an alley, listening. She could see shapes moving in the shrouded alley. Another scream prompted her forward.

Aisha drew Amandur's rapier and charged.

She gave no battle cry. She made no sound at all. Aisha landed in the midst of the gang, poised and ready.

To her shock, the woman who had been the victim of a vicious attack, broke into a laugh and darted away.

Aisha swallowed as three men encircled her, chuckling.

It was a trap.

"Well, pretty," one of the shapes said, drawing closer. "I didn't think a sweet thing like you would show up here tonight."

"I'm not sweet," Aisha said. She flicked the tip of her rapier at him. "Get out of my way."

"Oh!" he said to his companions. He pulled his hood back and grinned hungrily. "This kitty cat scratches!"

"She's got a nice, fat purse, Lowe," another of the figures said.

"Give it up," the first man said. He held his hand out. "Just give it to us and we'll let you go."

Aisha knew without a doubt that he was lying. She surveyed her foes.

Three of them. One of her. They had daggers, she had a rapier.

"Looks almost even to me," she said softly. "Probably not very good at your work, are you?" she asked, cutting the air with a threatening slash. Amandur's rapier hissed as she spun and sank the blade into the chest of the man standing behind her.

He gasped with shock and dropped his dagger in the mud. He looked down at the steel blade, impossibly deep in his flesh, and fell backwards.

The two remaining thugs paused for a single moment. Seeing their companion crumple to the ground was more than they could stand for.

"You're gonna die for that girlie!"

They were on her like angry wasps.

Aisha stepped back and deflected their strikes with startling speed. The weeks of lessons had paid off in one respect, she had learned not to hesitate. Not for a moment.

Aisha fought them off, blocking their attacks, but not gaining any ground. She was managing to stay alive but she wasn't managing to break free or run. They were enraged and she was slipping in the mud. She knew it would only be seconds before one of them got lucky and managed to get past her guard.

She was holding her own, but she hadn't counted on one thing.

She hadn't counted on the crossbow.

One of the thugs attacked as the other lifted his left hand. He fired.

The bolt sank into her, tearing its way through her flesh and lodging in the soft skin just below her collarbone.

Aisha screamed in pain. She nearly fell to the ground, but she knew if she did they would kill her.

Adrenalin and fear kept her up. She fended them off, using every trick and every move that Amandur had ever shown her.

There was no Taklinn here to save her. She had to fight or she would die.

Aisha parried and parried again. She barley kept the daggers from cutting her, and she was bleeding badly.

Her strength was waning. She had to do something, and she had to do it fast.

"Taklinn!" she cried, looking over the shoulders of the men with surprise.

The ruse worked. Both men turned away for a split second to check behind them.

Aisha stabbed the thug on her left, dropping him with a deadly strike that cut through his heart.

The remaining man cursed his own gullibility and faced her down. He slashed at her and as she parried he lunged.

Aisha fell backwards as he landed on top of her, pinning her to the ground.

She grabbed his arm with both hands, fighting desperately to keep his blade from plunging into her chest. It hovered over her as he pushed the blade closer.

Her arms began to tremble, and the blade sunk lower. It was inches from her. Aisha gasped as rainwater filled her mouth. She struggled on, but the dagger was nearly touching her. She watched in horror as his chapped lips spread apart as he grinned.

She would be dead in moments.

Suddenly the man's weight lifted off her and she saw him crash to the side.

"Are ya alive?" called Basha.

Aisha managed to nod once. She fell back from exhaustion and relief.

The duergar faced the stunned man, her paint washed away and her grey skin plain for him to see. She held her rain-slick mace in both hands.

He struggled to his feet and groped for his lost blade. It had sunk into the mud.

"What are you?" the thug asked Basha, disgust plain on his face.

"I'm her friend," Basha spat.

The duergar lifted her mace and leapt in the air. She brought the heavy weapon around in a blinding arc and smashed him over the head.

He crumpled to the ground.

Basha spun and searched the alley. She could see more shapes moving in the shadows, her duergar eyes showing her everything that Aisha's human eyes could not.

They were not alone. Other thieves had gathered close by, attracted like vultures to the activity.

"We've got to go," Basha said, brandishing her mace and backing towards Aisha.

The girl didn't respond. Basha glanced over and her heart sank. Aisha looked dead.

Cursing in Undercommon, the foul language of her people, Basha took her mace in one hand and retrieved Aisha's sword. She slipped it into the scabbard on the girl's hip and grabbed her arm.

Basha pulled Aisha up and shouldered her unconscious body.

She carried the girl from the alley, walking backwards, holding her mace like a torch. When the alley was safely behind them she turned and walked with purpose back the way she had come.

She didn't know what else to do, so she decided to head for the ship.

As she hurried down the street she thought she heard voices. They grew louder. Someone behind her was yelling.

She turned, her vision blurred from the rain, her mace still gripped in her right hand.

Taklinn and Vorgrim ran towards her. They came to a halt before her. Taklinn's face fell. He reached for Aisha and took her from Basha's shoulder carefully.

He laid her on the ground and saw the protruding cross bow bolt.

"Aisha!" he yelled. "Wake up! Ya got to cast a spell! Wake up girl!"

Basha wasn't watching them. She was watching Vorgrim.

The gold dwarf stood looking at her with disbelief. His face changed from shock, to denial, then to anger in the space of a few heartbeats.

"Vorgrim," she said.

"You're a, a…" he stammered.

"I'm sorry," she cried. She reached out to him, her face desperate.

"Help me," Taklinn said. He rose to his feet and grabbed Vorgrim by the collar. "It's just Basha," he said, shaking the gold dwarf roughly. "I need ya to help me with the Lass."

Vorgrim tore his eyes from Basha and nodded, his expression stunned.

"Lift her up," Taklinn said. Vorgrim knelt at Aisha's side and effortlessly pulled her up.

Taklinn knelt beside him and wrapped his fingers around the cross bow bolt.

"I'm tearing it out before she wakes up," he told Vorgrim. "It may bring her around. Hold her."

Vorgrim nodded and braced himself.

Taklinn closed his eyes and pulled. The bolt came free, but Aisha still lay limp and unconscious.

"She's lost too much blood," Basha said "I don't think she will wake up."

"Don't ya say that!" Taklinn bellowed.

"A temple," Vorgrim murmured. "We've got to get her to a temple. Can you carry her?" he asked Taklinn.

The worried shield dwarf bent down and lifted the girl as if she weighed nothing.

"Which way?" he asked.

"There was a temple devoted to Gorm Guthan close to the inn we found. We can take her there."

"Ya got to hurry," Basha said frantically. She noticed that Aisha's cloths were soaked with blood. She hadn't seen it before due to the rain, but now that she had a chance to get a closer look, she could see that Aisha was turning alarmingly white. The cross bow bolt must have struck something vital.

Taklinn turned and practically ran towards the temple, Vorgrim and Basha on his heels.

The gold dwarf refused to even look at Basha. He led them to the temple and pounded on the heavy wooden door with a curled fist.

"Open! In the name of the Lady of mercy, open!"

Taklinn held Aisha close to his heart, willing her to survive.

The door opened at last and Vorgrim stepped forward.

"We need a healer," he explained. He pulled his hood back and grabbed the sleepy acolyte by the shoulder. "I am Vorgrim Hjortgar, knight of the Rift and servant of the Holy Lady Haela Brightax. Please, let us get this girl to a dry place and bring a cleric of the temple to us as quickly as you can."

The acolyte did what most people did when faced with the persuasive gold dwarf. He nodded obediently, and pushed the door wide.

"This way."

Taklinn shouldered inside and followed the acolyte, his hold on Aisha unrelenting.

Basha pulled her hood up and followed. Vorgrim turned on her, pointing at her with two fingers.

"I shouldn't let the likes of you into a holy temple of my Lady," he hissed.

"Vorgrim," Basha said helplessly.

"Just stay quiet, stay out of the way, and stay away from me," he commanded.

He whirled and followed Taklinn.

Basha felt her heart breaking. She knew when she ran into the alley, following the sound of Aisha's cries, that the paint would wash away and she would be in danger of discovery. It was that or let Aisha die. For Basha, there had been no choice.

But now she would be paying the price for her deception. She went after her friends, knowing that the bond between Vorgrim and her had just been severed.

The acolyte took Taklinn to a small room and pointed to a low slab of marble that dominated the center of the room.

"We use this room for resurrections," the young dwarf told them. "But from the looks of her, I think your human will need it."

If Taklinn hadn't been holding Aisha, he would have punched the acolyte in the face. Instead, he laid Aisha down on the marble and cupped her head with his big hand.

"Get yer healer," he growled. "Now."

The young dwarf slipped away, returning shortly with a very old gold dwarf who shuffled into the small room, still pulling on his holy robes.

"Everyone get out!" he snapped. "You too," he said, pointing at Taklinn.

"I ain't leavin'," Taklinn informed the old dwarf.

The cleric looked at Taklinn's expression and pursed his lips.

"Very well. Just keep silent. You!" he said, rounding on Basha and Vorgrim. "Out!"

They backed away and the acolyte pulled the door closed behind him.

Basha wiped her face and tried to clear the water from her bleary eyes.

"Were you ever going to tell me?" Vorgrim demanded. "Or were you just going to perpetuate this ruse until you were no longer amused with me?"

"I wanted to tell ya from the start," she insisted. "Taklinn told me not to say anything."

"Blame them for your deceit, then," he said bitterly.

"No, I blame myself," she told him. "I wanted to be like you, so very much. I wanted it so badly I was willin' to lie."

"You certainly fooled me," he said, glaring at her openly. He looked as if he could kill her.

"But it wasn't only that," she went on, the words spilling out of her before she could think.

"I wanted to be with you. This was the only way I could do it."

"Why, so you could kill me in my sleep?" he said accusingly.

"No! I would never harm ya," she told him.

"Why, because I would be worth more as a slave?"

"Because I love ya!" she cried.

Vorgrim froze and simply stared at her.

"What did you say?" he asked at last.

"Ya heard me."

"I just didn't believe my own ears," he said. He turned away from her, shaking with fury.

"I am still the same Basha that you befriended," she insisted. "I haven't changed. Just my color."

"No!" he shouted and whirled around to face her. "You are not! The Basha I know would have never lied to me."

"I didn't lie," she said softly. "I just made the mistake of not showing ya who I really am."

Vorgrim turned away. "What else haven't you told me, then?"

"Nothing," she said, holding her arms out in a pleading gesture.

"How could I have been so blind?" he asked himself.

"Yer the one who said I was the 'sign' ya sought," she argued. "Yer the one who said that 'a dark skinned cousin of the shield dwarves' would be the one to lead ya to this woman ya seek. I thought ya mad. So did the others, but we gave ya a chance to prove yerself. We let ya ride with us till we could see what ya were made of. We accepted ya, even though we most likely shouldn't have."

"And so I am just supposed to forget about your deceit and accept you as well?" he asked.

"Yes," she said plainly. "Please."

"But you are a duergar," he said, as if that was all the explanation he needed to give.

"Aye, and I can't change that," she told him. "But I am not like them. I left Dunspeiren long ago. I couldn't live there. I am a duergar, but not in here." She put her hand over her heart. A tear spilled down her cheek as she watched him.

"To think that I almost, that we almost…" he looked at her, repulsed.

"What I am, is not who I am," she explained.

"Who are you then?" Vorgrim demanded. "Are you the beautiful gold dwarf woman who stole my affections, or are you the wretched offspring of murderers and slavers?"

"Both," she said honestly. "I come from the Underdark. I am what you see before ya. But not in here." She slapped her chest defiantly.

"I don't believe you," he said flatly.

"Then don't believe me," she snapped. "Believe Taklinn and Aisha. They knew what I was. They accepted me. Do ya trust Taklinn? Do ya trust that he wouldn't befriend a murderer?"

Vorgrim shook his head sadly. "I don't know what to believe. All I know is that I gave you my trust, I gave you my heart, and you deceived me."

He turned and walked away, leaving her standing alone in the empty temple.

She stood where she was for what seemed like an hour, unable to move.

After a time, she felt a hand on her shoulder and she turned to see Taklinn standing beside her.

"She's going t' be fine," he said with a weary smile.

"Ah, that's good," Basha said with relief.

Taklinn kept his hand on her shoulder and searched the room. He didn't see Vorgrim anywhere.

"He took it bad, then?" he asked.

Basha nodded. "Aye, he did."

"Well, he'll have plenty of time to sort it out on the ship. We leave first thing tomorrow. It's another ten days to Luskan. The two of ya will find a way to get past tonight."

"Ya think he will come with us, then?" she asked.

"Oh, aye, I know he will," Taklinn said with confidence. "Ya know he believes he is on some mission in service of his goddess herself. Trust me," the shield dwarf said with a knowing smile. "He'll be there."

They spent the night in the temple. When morning came the sky had cleared and the three of them left the temple quietly. Basha kept her hood pulled down low over her face, and Taklinn let Aisha lean against him as they walked back to the Lander Gail.

When they reached the docks and found their ship alive with activity and ready to cast off, Basha was stunned to see Vorgrim standing at the ramp waiting for them.

"I won't say that I can go back to it the way it was before," he said to them. "But my Lady calls me North. I must go with you. I will do my best to be an asset to you, if you will have me."

"Of course we will," Aisha said gently.

"Yer always welcome to journey with us," Taklinn said, a relieved sigh escaping him. "Ain't that right, Basha?"

The duergar nodded silently. She didn't dare to look at Vorgrim. She knew what she would see if she did. Rejection.

"Then I will do so," the gold dwarf said with a forced smile.

"Just one thing," Taklinn said as he walked past the gold dwarf. "As far as the crew is concerned, Basha is just another gold dwarf. I want to keep it that way. Understand?"

Vorgrim's face contorted for a moment, but then he looked down and nodded. "Alright."

They climbed on board and found Calathra sitting on the rail, swinging her legs and waiting for them. She smiled and waved when she saw them.

"Where have you been?" Taklinn asked.

"I have friends here," she explained.

"I bet ya don't anymore," he murmured as he walked past her.

She sneered at him and then caught sight of Aisha gingerly walking up the ramp.

"And what happened to you?" she asked Aisha. She was wearing blood-stained cloths and looked very pale.

"Oh, I almost died," the girl replied conversationally.

"That all?" the Halfling said sarcastically, shaking her head.

"What happened to Basha?" she asked. The duergar was nowhere in sight.

"She must have gone below to tidy up," Vorgrim said bitterly, glaring at the deck.

Calathra raised both her eyebrows with surprise.

So. Vorgrim knew Basha's secret. He did not appear to be too happy about know it, either.

"Maybe they will stop that disgusting lovey-kiss-kiss stuff, now," Calathra said to herself.

She slid off the rail and moved out of the way as the crew cast off the mooring ropes and prepared to make for the open sea. Jostein was not smiling, but she looked as if she were closer to her confident self than she had been for days.

As Calathra wandered to the bow of the ship she couldn't help but notice that Amandur was nowhere to be seen, and that Aisha was now wearing his old rapier.

Faustus had noticed the same thing. He couldn't have been happier. The infuriating sun elf had vanished in the night and his secret was safe. No one on board had managed to discover that he was a master illusionist. Aisha would no longer be practicing every night with the scoundrel, the pack was a least a ten day away in Luskan and aside from the surly dwarves he would have the ship to himself. He would have Aisha to himself.

The threat that Amandur had delivered to him in the hull the previous night meant nothing to him. He would dedicate the next leg of their journey to winning Aisha's affection. He would become her new closest friend and ally. He would be there to fill the void that had been created when her teacher had abandoned her and disappeared into the vast chaos of Waterdeep.

Faustus smiled to himself as the ship lunged towards the open sea, her sails unfurled and a brisk wind driving her on.

He stretched his slender arms lazily and prepared to go below in search of the girl so he could begin winning her over.

"Faustus," said a deep voice.

He looked down. The shield dwarf was standing in front of him.

"A word?" Taklinn asked.

Faustus sighed. "What do you want?"

"Just to let ya know that the elf warned me about yer fondness for Aisha."

Faustus felt his face flush. "What are you jabbering about?" he asked snidely.

Taklinn's eyes narrowed to slits. "Ya know what I mean."
"I, I don't, really," the slender man insisted.

Taklinn reached up and grabbed Faustus by the collar. He hauled the boy down until his face was inches away.

"Yes, ya do. I won't tell ya this twice, so nod if ya understand what I say."

Faustus nodded, his eyes wide with growing fear.

"Stay away from her. If I see ya talk to her more than to ask her to pass the salt at dinner, I'll deal with ya. Nod."

Faustus nodded. He swallowed, but his throat was so dry he emitted a wheeze.

"If ya bother her, or if I see ya following her with yer eyes like ya done a thousand times before, yer swimming to shore. Nod."

Faustus nodded.

Taklinn let the boy go and stood, feet planted wide, as Faustus slunk below deck.

He had known about the affection that Faustus nursed for Aisha. He had considered the infatuation harmless, until the sun elf's parting words before he had slipped off the ship.

Amandur had warned Taklinn about the boy's ability to disguise himself as almost anything. Taklinn was surprised and troubled by the news. Until Amandur's warning, Taklinn Faustus was nothing more than an annoyance. Now, he wasn't so certain that the boy was so harmless. He vowed to spend the rest of the journey watching the lad very, very carefully.

Part III

"Luskan!" called Sebastian from the bow. "Luskan, ahead!"

"Thank whatever gods are watchin over us," Taklinn murmured.

Twelve days had passed since they had departed from Waterdeep.

The crew had been ravaged by a bought of food poisoning. The main sail had torn free of the mast and had come crashing to the deck, injuring a sailor and taking a day to repair. Calathra had fallen overboard when a rogue wave had crashed into the ship. She had been rescued by the quick thinking of the Capitan. Jostein had dumped out a barrel of fresh water and tossed the empty container into the sea to give the Halfling something to cling to until Basha managed to cast a heavy rope close enough for her to catch.

She had been hauled up, soaked and vomiting sea water, but otherwise uninjured.

Ahmed, Aisha's war horse, had become insane from boredom and had chewed through the latch on his stall. He had escaped and managed to find his way to the galley, leaving a trial of manure behind him, before being re-captured and taken back below, biting and kicking.

Two sailors broke out into a fight over a dog-eared tobacco stick and had beaten each other bloody like two angry fighting dogs before Vorgrim had forced them apart.

The gold dwarf had given them a stern lecture. His compelling personality had caused the sailors to apologize to each other and make amends to the rest of the crew for the disturbance by pulling extra duty. Their gesture was appreciated, but it did little to alleviate the ill will.

The voyage was cursed. Soon all of Jostein's sailors were saying it. Everyone on board felt tense and worried. The sailors took to wearing charms and practicing superstitious chants during watch to ward off evil demons. Every unfortunate event was cause' for alarm.

The crew was convinced they had angered an ocean deity and wanted to sacrifice Aisha's horse to make amends for whatever wrong they had committed.

There had been an ugly scene with Aisha facing down two furious sailors with her pitchfork as they had tried to get to the black horse. She was intent on running them through, they were intent on slicing Ahmed's throat, and it had all come to an abrupt end when an angry shield dwarf stormed into the hull to find two men menacing his beloved Aisha with knives.

The sailors were still alive, but only due to intervention from the Capitan, and now sulked in a makeshift holding cell in the same hull that housed the horses.

Jostein would throw them off her ship when they made Luskan.

Which would not be for at least one more night.

"What do you mean, I can't dock?" the Capitan demanded, her eyes flashing.

"Just as I say, Capitan," said a swarthy woman in white cloths that displayed a red cross covering an image of the harbor on each arm. "The harbor master said that the fire may spread and we don't want to have to put any more ships out."

"But it looks as if the fire is only smoldering," the Capitan said, waving her arms in frustration.

"Wait till sunset, Ma'am," the woman replied. "The sky will light up like dragon's breath."

"Rubbish!" Jostein yelled. "Let me dock, and we can help the fire crew."

The sailors behind her nodded their heads adamantly. Anything was preferable to staying on the cursed ship.

"No, Capitan," the woman said. Her tone was firm. "We won't risk it. You can dock at dawn if the harbor master will allow it. The crews will work through the night, and by morning we should be able to let the Lander Gail come in. Until then you have to stay in the harbor at anchor."

"Blast it!" Jostein bellowed. "Sebastian! Get those to dogs out of the hull!"

The swarthy woman turned and headed back to her boat. Two men with oars, looking weary and singed, waited for her.

She climbed down the rope ladder that hung down on the side of the Lander Gail and stepped into the boat.

"Back to the dock," she said. "What's left of it, that is." They put their oars into the water.

At that moment, two men flew over the side of the ship and splashed into the water beside the small craft.

"Don't expect to be paid for this trip!" Jostein called over the side. "If you swim hard you can make it to the docks before the squids get you."

The harbor master's apprentice shook her head.

"Should we pull them in?" asked one of the rowers.

"No," she said. "If Jostein tossed them off her ship, I don't want them in my boat."

The small craft turned and started back.

"One more night," Jostein snarled to herself as she stomped back to the wheel. "Drop the anchor! Tie up the sails and someone get this damn bird off the deck!"

A huge, white bird lounged in the sun next to the wheel house. It stared at her lazily as she walked past, taking a moment to preen a stray feather with its long, yellow beak. It glanced sleepily back at her and blinked.

She aimed a kick at the bird and slipped in the slick pile of bird dung that hadn't been on the deck moments before.

The bird squawked as Jostein landed flat on her back beside it. The animal shook itself and casually spread its wings, dropping over the side with ease.

The Capitan lay on her back for a moment, staring at nothing.

"Are ya hurt, Cap'n?" Sebastian asked, hovering over her face with a worried look.

Jostein sighed and shook her head.

"Get the dingy," she said, pulling herself up.

"What for?" Sebastian asked. "The woman said we wasn't to go ashore."

"We are not going ashore," Jostein said. "You are." She got to her feet, a defeated expression clouding her face.

"Alright," he said, looking surprised.

"Bring us a keg of bitter black ale, Sebastian."

This brought the first mate up short. "Cap'n?" he asked quietly.

"Your right," she replied. "Make it two."

She slapped a leather purse in his hand and stared at him. "What are you waiting for? Get!"

He shuffled uneasily. "But, you said…"

"Well, tonight we need it," she said, cutting him off.

"Yes, Cap'n," he said, looking nervous.

"And bring back a fat boar, as well. We should eat something besides gruel tonight."

This brightened Sebastian's mood instantly.

"Yes, Ma'am!"

"Maybe some of those fancy warm-weather fruits, if they got any," she went on.

"If you can find them, get some wine in those little kegs."

Sebastian nodded with a growing smile.

"If we don't give them something to do that will let them relax a bit we'll end up spending the night wondering who is gonna try and put a knife in our backs," she said under her breath.

Sebastian nodded and closed his hand over the purse. "Who should I take with me? Looks like the city is in a mess."

Jostein surveyed the docks and saw what he meant. A fire had broken out the night before in a stable and had ravaged at least a dozen buildings close to the water. Two buildings still burned. Even from this distance she could see figures running, could here yelling and thought the city looked wilder than usual.

"Take that shield dwarf," she said. Her first mate may need someone who could handle himself in a scuffle. Dwarves were famous for coming out in one piece when the fists started to fly. "Don't make a show of it. Do it quiet. Alright? I want it to be a surprise when I break out the keg after the sun sets. We will have a celebration."

"What are we celebrating?" he asked.

"Pick something," she said irritably.

"Yes, Cap'n," he said with a shrug. "I just seen Taklinn in his cabin. I'll go get him now."

Jostein nodded. "Be back in a couple hours, will you?"

The first mate went below quietly. As he slipped below, Faustus felt his face break into a broad grin. The boy had been hunkered down next to the wheel housing, hiding from the others in anticipation of leaving.

Taklinn was leaving the ship! No one else was to know about it, and he knew for a fact that Aisha was busy deep in the hull with the horses.

She wouldn't even know he was gone.

He hovered nervously on the deck until Sebastian reappeared, Taklinn at his side. They quietly lowered the dingy and slipped into the water. No one seemed to notice, aside from a few stragglers on the deck, but Faustus was certain Aisha was not one of them.

Faustus watched with glee as Taklinn, bane of his existence for the past twelve days, rowed with the first mate towards the docks.

"Two hours," he said. "A lot can happen in two hours."

He darted below and checked the hull. Aisha was still there, cleaning the tack and rounding up the saddles. She still thought they would be landing tonight and worked to prepare for off-loading the animals.

"Stay there," he whispered pleadingly.

He ran back to his cabin and slammed the small door behind him.

When the door opened a scant few minutes later, Taklinn Hammerstriker walked out.

"Aisha!" Taklinn yelled, looking into the hull at the girl with an impatient expression. "I thought ya was gon'ta meet me in yer…our cabin?"

Aisha startled and leaned back from the tack. "But I've got to get this clean before we land," she told him.

"Naw, ya don't" Faustus said, mimicking Taklinn's voice perfectly. He was not a master illusionist in vision only. He could also re-create sounds as well.

"We ain't landing till tomorrow. There's a bad fire on the docks and we are stuck here till then."

"Oh," she said with disappointment. "Alright. What did you want to see me about?"

"Aisha," he said, folding his arms. He felt confident and powerful wearing the shell of the shield dwarf to protect him. "Just come, alright, Lass?"

She nodded and began to stow the tack in a crate.

He turned and nearly fell as he headed up the stairs.

His legs felt like they would give way at any moment.

Aisha was coming to him! She would walk through the cabin door and close it behind her, shutting out the rest of the world. His heart pounded with excitement and fear. He was safe in the guise of the shield dwarf and she would think nothing of it if he took her in his arms and kissed her, like he had seen the dwarf do so many times before.

Faustus went to the cabin and waited.

It seemed an eternity. Each set of footsteps that passed by the door made him swallow with fear and anticipation. Where was she? He paced back and forth until the tension grew too intense to bear.

He jerked the door open furiously to check the corridor.

"What are you doing here?" Vorgrim asked. The gold dwarf was glancing back over his shoulder at Faustus, obviously headed for the galley.

"Ah, we're getting a late start," Faustus stammered, mimicking Taklinn's voice.

"Right," the gold dwarf said slowly. "Swore I saw the dingy headed to shore. Maybe they left without you?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Ha!" Faustus laughed. "Maybe. Wouldn't be the first time."

He grinned foolishly.

Vorgrim frowned. "Want me to go on deck and see if Sebastian is still here?"

"No!" Faustus squeaked. He cleared his throat and regained control over his vocal cords. "No, ya don't need to be going an' doing something like that. I'll head up in a bit. Just got to get my ax."

"Fine," Vorgrim said, shaking his head. "See you when you get back."

The gold dwarf turned and headed towards the galley once more, leaving Faustus alone.

He pulled the door shut and resumed pacing.

Vorgrim passed Aisha in the corridor as he reached the galley door.

"Where are you off to?" he asked her.

"Taklinn wanted to see me," she said, hurrying past him. "I must have forgotten."

She disappeared.

Vorgrim went into the galley, a deep furrow creasing his brow. He glanced up and saw Basha sitting alone, trying to force down the awful hardtack bread, helping it down with a mug of stale water.

She looked up and glanced back down as soon as she saw him. His heart squeezed at the sight of her. She had tried her best to avoid him for the past ten day. She had done quite a good job of it, too.

Seeing her was almost more than he could take.

Vorgrim sighed and let his shoulders slump. He momentarily forgot about Taklinn's odd behavior and watched Basha.

He loved her. There was no denying it. He hated her, as well.

No, that wasn't it. He hated that she had lied to him. But it didn't change his feelings.

Nothing could.

He had struggled against his love for her since leaving Waterdeep, but nothing he did stopped the flood of emotion that crashed over him whenever her eyes meet his.

There was no help for it. He had to tell her.

Vorgrim walked to the table and placed his strong hands on the wood. Basha seemed to shrink back from him. It was almost as if she was afraid of him.

"Basha," he said harshly. "Don't."

She looked everywhere but at him, her eyes darting around the room frantically.

"Basha," he said again, more gently. "We need to talk."

She pulled away, searching for an escape.

"Oh?" she asked, her voice high with worry.

"I need you to know how I feel," he said, leaning closer to her.

"I already do," she said quietly. "Ya hate me."

"I wish I did," he said. "I really do. It would make it easier for me."

She looked up at him, unshed tears filling her eyes.

"I don't hate you," he repeated. "Even though you lied. Even though you tried to be something that you are not…." his eyes widened and he stood up straight.

Taklinn.

On shore. He had seen the dingy leave.

Aisha, rushing to meet Taklinn in their cabin, supposedly urged to do so by the shield dwarf.

What was it that Taklinn had said about that young scamp who lusted after the girl? He wasn't all he appeared to be?

He was some sort of magic user…

Vorgrim whirled away and ran for the door.

"Don't leave!" he shouted. "I'll be back!"

He stormed down the corridor, knocking an angry sailor aside as he ran.

"Sorry!" he called back.

Aisha was inside the cabin by now. He was certain of it.

She was not alone.

He had seen Taklinn leave only a short time ago. That meant only one thing.

The man in Taklinn's cabin… wasn't Taklinn.

Vorgrim reached the door and hammered on the stout wood with a balled fist.

"Aisha!" he shouted.

No one answered. He pressed his ear to the door and heard a muffled sound. Like someone trying to speak and having their mouth covered.

Vorgrim took a step back and kicked the door off its hinge.

Aisha stood in the room, with what looked for all the world like Taklinn Hammerstriker, his arms wrapped around her, his mouth pressed against hers forcefully.

Vorgrim's lips curled back, he slammed his fists together and charged.

Aisha's eyes widened as she looked up from the kiss and saw Vorgrim barreling towards them at a deadly run.

She broke free from the embrace and leapt back just as Vorgrim crashed into Taklinn. The shield dwarf slammed against the wall and crumpled to the floor.

"Get on your feet!" Vorgrim shouted.

"What are you doing?" Aisha cried.

"Look at him," Vorgrim snarled. He grabbed the shield dwarf by the back of the neck and hauled him up.

Instantly, Taklinn seemed to shift out of focus and became a blurry shape wriggling in the gold dwarf's grasp.

Aisha's mouth fell open in silent shock as Faustus snapped into focus. He struggled against the gold dwarf's powerful hands in vain.

"Sweet mother of Mercy," Aisha said. Her face twisted into revulsion and she spat on the floor, wiping her mouth with her hand. "How could you do this?" she asked. Her hands began to tremble and she ran out of the cabin, angry tears filling her eyes.

"I was just about to ask you the same thing," Vorgrim told the limp boy. Faustus hung in Vorgrim's grasp like a dead fish.

"What's wrong with Aisha?" Basha asked from behind him.

He turned and held Faustus out at arm's length. "This," he said with a sneer.

"Was in Aisha's cabin. He looked just like Taklinn."

"What do ya mean, he looked…?"

"He's a wizard," Vorgrim explained. "Taklinn went ashore. I found this," he gave Faustus a hard shake, "here in the room with her. He made himself look like Taklinn."

Basha's eyes widened as understanding dawned.

"Let me have him," she said with a growl.

"No," Vorgrim told her, glaring at Faustus. "I'm going to do better than that. I'm giving him to Taklinn when he gets back."

Faustus squirmed frantically. He pulled at the gold dwarf's hands desperately.

"You can't do that!" he cried. "He'll kill me!"

"Ya should o' thought of that before ya put yer hands on Aisha," Basha told him unsympathetically.

"Let's go," Vorgrim said, hauling Faustus towards the door.

He dragged Faustus onto the deck, throwing him down by the wheel where the Capitan stood.

"Now what," she asked, rolling her eyes. She braced herself as Vorgrim drew breath. Whatever it was, it wasn't good news.

"Faustus is a wizard," Basha said with contempt.

"Oh?" Jostein replied. "That so?" She propped her hands on her ample hips and waited. She wouldn't be surprised by anything at this point.

Aisha had washed her face and was striding towards Faustus, murder in her eyes. She stood over him.

"Never without my permission!" she shouted. "And you never had it!"

Faustus scrambled to his feet and grabbed her shoulders. She slapped him across the face.

He took a step back and touched his cheek. His face twisted into uncontrollable anger for a flicker of a moment, but he managed to regain control. He looked at her with a pleading expression.

"Listen to me," he begged. "What sort of life can you have with him? You are going to get yourself killed. Or you will get him killed someday when he tries to protect you. Is that what you want?"

Her face twisted with torment. "Stop it. You don't know anything about me, or Taklinn."

"I know that you were a Lady once. You used to attend parties at court, now you sleep on a tattered bunk and eat hard-tack. I know that you only ever picked up a sword to practice for fun, but now you carry one so you can kill people. Is that what you wanted to do with your life?"

Basha cuffed the wizard on the back of the head. "Shut yer yap."

Aisha wrapped her arms around herself and suppressed a sob. "I know what you are trying to and it won't work. I will not be parted from him. Ever. I know you think I belong at court, wearing a dress and practicing needlepoint instead of fencing, but that isn't who I am anymore." Aisha felt a wave of uncertainty as she spoke. These were the same things Raef had told her, more or less.

"It is who you could be again," Faustus told her quietly.

"I've had enough of this," Vorgrim said, stepping forward. "Into the hull with you until Taklinn gets back on this ship."

Jostein frowned and rubbed her chin. "I suppose that will do for now. It could be a few hours before he and Sebastian are back on board." The Capitan sighed and rubbed her eyes. What next? This truly was a cursed voyage. She nodded to Vorgrim and turned back to the navigation charts she had spread out on a table beside the wheel. "Alright. Take him down and lock him up."

"You don't have to live like this anymore," Faustus called to Aisha as Vorgrim forced him below the deck. "Think about what I have said. You could be making the worst mistake of your life!"

Aisha watched as Vorgrim pulled the boy down the stairs. Her eyes drifted towards the town, but it was simply too far away. There was no possible way she could catch a glimpse of Taklinn from this distance.

Basha laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and gave her a smile. "I know ya think that there may be a bit o' truth in his words. But don't believe nothing he tells ya. He's doing it out o' selfishness, an' no good can ever come o' that."

"I know. I only wish that he wasn't right,"

Basha looked surprised. "What do ya mean?"

"I mean, he is right. Taklinn probably will get himself killed someday trying to save me. I really am not very skilled. Even Amandur said as such."

"Aye, but who's blade do ya wear at yer side?" Basha asked her.

Aisha looked down at the magnificent rapier. "I still don't understand why he gave it to me."

"Then let me tell ya why," Basha replied with a smile. "It's cause' he believed in ya. Don't listen to nothing that boy says. Yer Taklinn is right capable. And so are you. Ya got yer friends. And ya got a whole world that needs exploring. Don't let the words o' one selfish cur crush yer spirit."

She gave Basha a thankful smile and turned away.

Jostein stood with her back to Aisha, musing over the nautical charts that splayed across the table before her. She made a notation with a stub of charcoal on the battered chart and scratched her chin. She had forgotten all about Aisha.

Basha had gone to find Vorgrim. He had been trying to tell her something in the galley, she was certain of it, and she had gone to seek him out and finish their conversation. They were nowhere in sight.

Aisha backed away from the wheel. She couldn't stop thinking about what Faustus had said to her. She knew it was no wise, but she made her way to the hull instead of leaving well enough alone as common sense would dictate.

Faustus crouched in a heap inside the make-shift holding cell next to the horse's stalls. He glanced up when she walked in and got to his feet.

"I knew you would come," he told her quickly. He wrapped his fingers in the wire mess of the make-shift cell and squeezed until his fingers turned white.

"I need to finish packing the tack," she replied haughtily.

"No, you wanted to hear what I have to say."

She stopped next to Ahmed's stall and reached over for his neck. She glanced back at Faustus with a wary look as she scratched the big war horse. Ahmed nibbled her hair affectingly.

"I have already heard everything that you have to say," she remarked tartly.

"But you haven't," he insisted. "You haven't heard why I did what I did."

"I think I can guess why," she said bitterly.

"No," Faustus told her. "It wasn't what you thought. I wasn't after a moment's touch. I, I love you."

Aisha whirled around.

"You don't even know what that means!" she shouted. "If you did you wouldn't have touched me without my permission. You wouldn't have misled me and taken advantage of my trust."

"Trust? You and your high words," he said mockingly. "If trust is so important to you then why didn't you tell him about your lessons with Amandur?"

She opened her mouth to answer, but doubt suddenly clouded her eyes and she fell silent.

"I thought so," he said savagely. "I watched you. You carried on with him for a month. Did you think trust was so important when you were with that wretch?"

"Carry on," she snapped. "You make it sound like something it wasn't. He was my teacher!"

"And now you wear his sword," Faustus said accusingly.

"He left it as a gift, nothing more."

Faustus grinned. He could see the uncertainty marring her features. He knew she felt dreadfully guilty about lying to Taklinn about the lessons. He also knew she felt guilty about the fact that she was not a very accomplished warrior and the shield dwarf was constantly pulling her out of scrapes.

He intended to use her guilt to his advantage.

"Aisha," he said softly. "I told you the truth. I only want what is best for you because of how I feel about you. It makes me sad to think that you are wasting your life with someone who can never really understand you, or who has to watch you grow old and die long before he is even considered middle aged."

Aisha put her hands over her ears like a little girl. "Stop it."

"Taklinn will have to watch you die long before he is past his prime. He will have to give up a life of adventure, something he loves with all his heart, in order to care for you when you are old and cannot follow him on the road any longer. Is that what you want?"

A tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away angrily. "You don't understand; he loves me more than his own life."

"And you intend to make his life difficult to satisfy your own selfishness?"

"It isn't like that!" she shouted. "I can never leave him. I would die for him!"

"And he would for you as well. And if you stay with him, then he may very well do just that."

Aisha scooped up an oat bucket and hurled it at the wire mesh of the holding cell. It crashed against the wire and fell to the floor.

"Stop it! You have no right!"

"I have the right of a man who loves you," he said intently.

"And what would you have me do?" she demanded. "Leave him? For what? To be with you?"

He nodded sincerely. "That is exactly what I would have you do."

She laughed at him. "I will never leave his side. Ever. Do not ask me again."

"If you were not with him, think of all that he could accomplish. He could be a great warrior. If he didn't have you there taxing his strength, sapping his energy, why imagine what he could be!"

"That will happen in any case," she said. She slumped to the floor and buried her head in her hands.

"What do you mean?" he asked with confusion.

"It will be as you have said," she told him, looking up sadly. "We have both seen it."
"What have you seen?"

"When I reach the Citadel, that will be the end of me."

Faustus swallowed. "You mean; you'll die?"

She nodded.

It was like a knife of ice piercing his chest. The thought of her dying sent a shock of dread through him. Faustus shook his head and tried to clear his thoughts. He was not accustomed to caring what happened to other people. This fear took him by surprise.

"All the more reason to leave him now," he offered.

She looked at her hands and shook her head. "I will never do that. I cannot. I really don't know what I would do without him. But this dream we have, it is too real to be just a nightmare."

"What dream?" he prompted. He snaked his fingers through the wire and slowly checked it for weak spots.

"It is at Citadel Felbar. I am standing on a cliff, or a high place of some sort, and I fall to my death. We have both seen it." She shuddered as she spoke.

"Is that why he asked the two gold dwarves to come with you?" he asked, hoping to peel back her defenses now that he had her talking.

She shook her head. "No. Vorgrim thinks that there is someone very important at Felbar. Or, North, at least. He wants to find them. I really don't understand very much about that. Basha just wants to be with us. She is our friend. Not too many others would accept her because of who she is."

The wizard raised an eyebrow at the remark, but he pressed on, not wanting to let her stop talking.

"And once you reach Felbar, you believe that you will die," he remarked.

She shrugged. "If the dream we share is more than just a dream, and it is a foretelling, then I suppose, yes."

"Then why go? Why not change what you have seen?"

"And just walk away from Taklinn? To save myself? I can't do that. What if something terrible happens to him because I am not there to help him?"

Faustus shot her skeptical look. "Oh, yes. I'm sure he won't be able to take care of himself without you there to protect him."

She glared at him. "I am much better than I used to be."

"At what? Fencing? Aisha, this is not practice. You could cost him his life from your lack of skill."

"But I love him!" she insisted.

"Oh, and what you selfishly want is more important than his life, is it?"

"It isn't like that!" she shouted. She got to her feet and started for the stairs.

Faustus lifted his chin and called after her. "You know what he will do to me when he gets back on this ship, don't you?"

"What do you think?" she asked impatiently, stopping and turning to face him.

"He'll kill me, Aisha. He will do it with his bare hands. You know he will."

"No, he won't. He isn't like that."

Faustus laughed openly. "Pretend if you like, but you know I am right. He will choke the life out of me. All because of a misguided action brought about by my affection. Do I deserve to die for a kiss?"

For a horrible moment, he thought she would say yes. But then her eyes fell and she shook her head slowly.

"No, of course not. No one deserves that."

"Then toss me those keys," he told her.

"What! Let you out? So you can work another spell on me and trick me again?"

"No. So I can escape and never see you again. I swear it. I love you, and I truly do, but you have chosen to stay with him and I know when I am beaten. If you toss me the keys, I will walk away and never look back. You can go about your life and you never have to see me again. I promise."

She looked uncertain.

Faustus swallowed hard and gave her a pleading look. He was gambling that she would let her sympathy win out over her anger. If he knew anything about Aisha at all he knew that she hated to see anyone suffer. Especially if it was due to her in some way.

"All I wanted from you was a kiss. Would you condemn me to death for that?"

She twisted her hands together and bit her lower lip.

It was working, he could see it.

"You promise that you won't ever come back?" she asked.

He nodded. "I swear it. You have made your choice and I respect that. I won't ever trouble you again."

She walked over to the nail holding the keys to the heavy lock on the wire door.

She glanced back at Faustus, uncertain and confused.

"No one needs to know," he said rapidly. "You give me the keys and I will make it look as if I escaped."

She lifted the ring of iron keys from the hook slowly and stepped closer to the cell.

"Alright," she said, her resolve evaporating. She raised the keys, then paused and looked directly at him. "But if we ever see you again, I will not stop him from hurting you."

She unlocked the door and dropped the keys on the floor. As she turned to go he stepped forwards and touched her arms. She jerked away from him violently.

"Please," he said. "I only want to say thank you."

"Just get off this ship," she said with a scowl.

"You are saving my life," he told her with a longing expression.

"I may wish I hadn't someday," she snapped back. "Now leave."

"Goodbye, Aisha. I will never forget you."

He lowered his head in his best impression of a devastated and rejected swain. She turned abruptly and left him standing there alone.

As he lifted his head, his dejected expression melted into a wicked grin.

"Oh, we will see each other again very soon. I promise you that."

Faustus raised his hands and chanted methodically. He flickered and shifted images, becoming a blur of colors. Then, Faustus was gone and standing in the hull was the image of Sebastian, the first mate. No one had seen him leave the ship. It would not seem strange to them if they saw him taking one of the small row boats to shore. As long as he avoided the Capitan he would be alright.

Faustus found himself sneaking up to the deck and realized he looked ridiculous doing so. He straightened up and strolled as he had seen Sebastian do, mimicking the first mate perfectly.

The Capitan was gone. For the moment. He could see a table covered with nautical maps beside the wheel. She wouldn't be gone for very long. He wouldn't have time to retrieve his few belongings from his tiny cabin. If he was going to make it off the ship he needed to leave now.

Working quickly, he went to the side and climbed into one of the remaining row boats. It was tricky, but he managed to get the craft into the water without turning himself upside down. Once he got the small boat facing the right direction it was a simple task to row it towards the docks of Luskan. He didn't bother to pull the boat up onto the sandy beach that lay beneath the raised docks. What did it matter if it floated away on the tide? He would never need it again.

He waded through the ankle deep water and collapsed to his knees on the sand.

Faustus felt the eyes watching him before he saw them.

A woman stood in the shadows of the docks, looking at him with mild irritation.

Her raven hair spilled over her white shoulders, gleaming in the late day sun. Her amber eyes sparkled like the multiple golden bangles she wore on each wrist. She stood with a casual, feral posture. Her black garments clung to her shapely body suggestively, and her tight, sleeveless shirt hugged every curve of her ample breasts. A breeze drifted by and tossed her hair around her porcelain features like smoke.

"Tzelmoth," he sputtered.

"Faustus," she replied in greeting.

She was one of the most beautiful women that he had ever seen, until he learned shortly after their first meeting that she was one of them.

"How did you find me?" he asked, scrambling to his feet.

"The ship is the only one in the harbor with black sails," she said irritably.

"Oh, I see. How long have you been here?"

"Nine days. So, you had best have good news for Ruach. He has not enjoyed waiting."

"I don't have good news," he said reluctantly. "Futhark is dead. The crew found him out, and they killed him. He forgot to put on his ring and the moon came out while he was standing on the deck."

She sighed. "He never was very intelligent. Did they discover that you were with him?"

"No, they never did. But I think they suspected me and so I left the ship while I still could." He had decided that telling Ruach, or any of the pack the real reason he had to leave would be unnecessary.

She pulled her lips back in a snarl. It looked odd, such a beautiful woman baring her teeth. "Well, did you at least manage to find out anything else about this woman we are supposed to kidnap?"

"I know where they are going," he supplied.

She held out her hand. "Well?"

"Citadel Felbar. That is their destination. The gold dwarf seems to think that she is there. Now all we have to do is get there before they do."

"That doesn't sound very difficult," she said, coming towards him. She grabbed his arm and pulled him up. "Let's go see Ruach. Shall we?"

He grimaced at the name.

"And then, you need a bath, Faustus. You reek."

He shrugged apologetically and followed her beneath the deserted docks. A rat scurried away as they passed by, retreating into the shadows. Tzelmoth growled at it.

They found the ramp leading to the streets and climbed it in silence.

Faustus felt his heartbeat quicken. He always felt nervous before seeing Ruach. With luck he would escape the interview without any injuries. But he doubted that he was due anymore luck on this day.

He certainly wasn't going to volunteer information about his failure to kill Aisha. They would discover that eventually in any case. As Faustus followed the beautiful, but dangerous woman into a plush Inn that had escaped the fire, the sun was just setting over the Luskan harbor. He hoped that he would make it through the night.

Taklinn and Sebastian had arrived at last. They had been gone more than four hours and the sun had long since disappeared beneath the horizon. As Sebastian's face appeared at the side of the ship the Capitan looked over the rail and stopped cold.

"What in the Nine Hells are you bringing on my ship?" she demanded.

Sitting in the row boat was a giggling group of tavern wenches dressed in low-cut clingy garments. Strong perfume snaked its way up on the breeze. Jostein's eyes almost watered from the clashing shades of red that barley managed to cover their ample flesh. They called to the sailors on the Lander Gail and waved bottles of wine over their heads.

"They's from the Cat's Paw," Sebastian told her with a guilty grin. "The whole place burned to the ground and they needed a spot to bar-tend for the night."
"Bar-tend," Jostein echoed. Her right eye began to twitch.

"I just thought, as we're havin' this party, what with the crew bein' all stove up with worry about a bad trip, this might make the lads feel a bit less anxious."

The Capitan rubbed her forehead. A huge vein had popped out across her sun-burned scalp and her face was turning as red as the carnival of colors that was even now spilling onto the deck of her ship.

"Fine," she said with a forced grin. "But not a one of them goes below. Understand?"

Sebastian nodded so hard his hair flopped back and forth like a wind sock.

"Yes, Cap'n. As you say. We won't be o' bit o' trouble. I swears it!"

Jostein scooped up her remaining nautical charts in a fist and slammed the door of her cabin behind her. It was clear that the Capitan would not be on deck for the rest of the night.

Taklinn strode towards Aisha, his ears pink with embarrassment. The tavern wenches had assaulted him with teasing remarks during the short jaunt from shore, making jokes about finding clever ways to deal with their difference in height. He looked flustered.

As he approached, he saw Aisha standing with her hands propped on her hips, a scowl covering her face and her lips pressed together with what he interpreted to be anger.

"What?" he said innocently, holding his hands up. "I never touched nothing!"

"Taklinn, while you were on shore Faustus came into our cabin."

Taklinn's guilty grin faded into a glare. "Did he, now."

"And he tried to kiss me. Well, he did."

"He did what!"

"I let him," she said quickly.

He froze and looked at her with confusion.

"I don't think I heard…"

"He looked like you," she explained. "I didn't know he could do that. I didn't know he is a wizard."

"Ya say he looked like me?" Taklinn asked, blinking hard to keep his rage from overtaking his ability to understand a sentence.

"Yes. I thought it was you. Well, Vorgrim kicked the door in and threw him against the wall, and then I saw it was really Faustus, and I ran out. Vorgrim said he would give Faustus to you when you got back. But I wanted you to know."

She twisted her hands together. It wasn't coming out the way she had rehearsed it at all.

"Ya wanted me to know what, Lass?" he asked darkly.

"I let him go," she said, almost in a whisper.

His eyes popped open with shock. "Ya let him…?"

"We locked him in the cage in the hull, but he told me that he only did it because he cared about me and I was afraid you would kill him and so I let him out and he ran away and he promised he would never come back please don't be angry with me!"

She closed her eyes and held up her hands as if he would strike her.

Taklinn dropped down right where he stood.

He sat motionless for a few moments, scowling at the deck.

After a moment he glanced up and saw that the girl was trying not to sob and failing miserably. He watched her, not believing his eyes. She was more afraid of his anger than her own safety. It tore his heart to watch her suffer so. He got to his feet slowly and went to her.

"Lass, yer right about one thing. I may have killed the wretch. But ya don't need ta be looking like I'll take yer head off as well. I don't blame ya. I'm just sorry I wasn't here. I knew about him and his skill. It was a mistake to leave the ship an' I shouldn't have done it."

He took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

"It must have been hard for ya ta tell me the truth."

She nodded and tried to dry her eyes with her sleeve. As fast as she wiped, more tears came to replace the ones she had dabbed up.

"But ya told me the truth an I am grateful to ya fer that. He's left the ship and run off ya say?"

"He promised he would never come back," she told him through her sobs. "I'm so sorry. But I didn't want anyone to get hurt because of me."

Taklinn pulled her down by the collar of her shirt and wiped her dark hair out of her eyes.

"Ya never do, Aisha. But ya can't go around protecting those that don't deserve it. That boy? He don't deserve yer help."

"I didn't want him to get hurt because of a silly crush. Was that wrong?" she asked.

"No, it weren't wrong. But ya shouldn't have let him out. When someone makes a mistake like that they need to face up to what's commin' to em'. Ya let him go and now he don't have to pay for it. That was a mistake. But not wanting someone to get hurt? That ain't wrong."

She managed to stem the flow of tears and she tried to smile.

It was pathetic really. She looked puffy and her face was blotchy from crying. But Taklinn shook his head and pulled her into a tight embrace in spite of it.

He suppressed his rage, but only just. Had Faustus been on the ship he most likely would have torn the gate from the cell to get to the boy. The thought that someone had put their hands on Aisha without her consent, and behind his back, was enough to make him mad with anger.

But Aisha's tears and her sadness over the incident kept his anger at bay. He tucked it away to use later, and vowed that if he ever saw Faustus again he would give the lad a beating that he would never forget.

Basha had come on the deck to see what the noise was about. Vorgrim had followed her and stood beside her.

"Looks like Sebastian is determined to lift the mood o' everyone on the ship," she said with a sideways grin.

"Not an easy task," Vorgrim returning her smile. He clapped Basha on the shoulder and caught her eye.

He jerked his head towards the bow. The sailors were laying out a small feast with a whole roast boar, boxes of fruits and soft breads and two massive kegs of ale propped precariously on two small tables.

"Buy you a drink, my Lady?" Vorgrim asked. His mouth was turned up in a half-smile. Basha blinked hard. Had she heard him right?

He watched her hopefully.

Basha glanced at the sailors, not daring to believe what he had said. Someone was tuning a fiddle and the crew had obviously managed to shake off the feeling of dread that had spread over them during the voyage.

It promised to be a fine evening.

She looked back to Vorgrim and he nodded to her once. His offer had been genuine.

Basha smiled with relief. "Only if I can return the favor."

The gold dwarf offered Basha his arm and a reassuring smile. She grasped his wrist gratefully and walked beside him towards the crowd.

"Good to see they are getting back to normal," Aisha said. She glanced back. Taklinn was not watching them, he stared straight at the her.

"Lass, I…I should have been here. I won't ever leave ya again."

He looked stricken as he spoke.

"Oh, no, no Taklinn," she said. "It wasn't your fault. No one knew that Faustus would do such a thing"

"The wretch watched yer every move," Taklinn said, anger creeping into his voice. "I should o' never left ya alone with im' on the ship."

He reached for her and pulled her into a crushing embrace. "I won't ever leave ya again. I promise. If I can help it, I won't ever leave ya again."

Aisha smiled and wrapped both arms around him as tight as she could. "I know."

He felt relief that she seemed alright, and anger at himself for leaving her alone. She didn't seem like she wanted to join in the celebration.

Taklinn helped Aisha settle in to their cabin and went back on the deck to see if Basha and Vorgrim were sorting out their differences. When he went above he could not see either one of them. Apparently they were sorting out more than was called for in a public place.

The sun had set, turning the sky over the city blaze orange. Two buildings still burned, glowing red in the darkness. The air smelled of smoke, perfume and roasting meat. Jostein's crew had been busy.

Girls laughed and the deck was slippery with spilled ale. They had rounded up all the mugs on the ship, and it looked to Taklinn as if they were all being used. He managed to find one relatively clean tankard and drew himself a modest draught of ale as he halfheartedly tore off a piece of the boar. The fiddle player was well into another song and at least two other sailors had joined in with their own instruments. The deck was lively, but Taklinn felt ill at ease.

Calathra ate her fill, scooped up a small mug of ale and bopped through the throng of dancing sailors and the bouncing wenches that spun and mingled on the deck. She spotted the surly shield dwarf sitting alone at the stern, back against the rail, eyes closed and empty mug beside him. She snuck up on him. Not difficult to do considering the noise.

She pinched him on the back of his thigh and jumped back to avoid his swing.

But he didn't swing at her, which seemed to disappoint her a bit.

"You knew I was there," she said, plopping down beside him.

"Aye, I saw ya at the tables. I knew if I sat here long enough ya'd try sneakin' up on me."

"How can you look so glum when there is a full keg of ale and a smoked boar sitting not twenty paces away?" she asked.

He looked at her sideways.

"Oh. You talked to Aisha."

"She talked to me," he corrected.

"So she told you she let him go, then," the Halfling said as she slurped her ale.

"She told me."

An uncomfortable silence passed between them. Calathra cleared her throat and coughed.

"Ah, and you are still speaking to her?" she asked.

"Oh, I ain't angry at her," he said.

"Really?" she asked with surprise. "Um, I mean, of course. She was just trying to do the gentle thing."

"It's gonna get her in trouble someday," he said with a sigh.

"Isn't that what it did today?" she asked.

He shot her a warning look.

"At least she's alright, mostly," he replied. "It just means I got ta keep a closer eye on her, that's all."

"You already do keep a close eye on her."

He shrugged. "Maybe not close enough. We got a long road ahead to Felbar. I forget sometimes that she's so trusting, and so beautiful to human men. I would love her if she looked like her horse, but there's many out there who think they love her just cause' they look at her big green eyes and she smiles at em'."

"Her horse?" Calathra asked.

"If she weren't beautiful," he explained. "Ya know, if she was as ugly as her horse?"

Calathra laughed.

"Well, she is beautiful. So good for you, and too bad for all the other poor sots who think so."

"Do ya ever take anything I say seriously?" he asked the smiling Halfling.

Calathra rose, lifted her mug and took a long drink. "Only the things that I can do something about. May as well dance tonight. While we can."

She skipped away, heading for the big table and the boxes of fruits.

Taklinn stood up and turned to look out over the harbor. He watched the black waters splash against the ship. He wouldn't miss the sea. Mostly he hated ships. But there was something oddly comforting about the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.

He thought about going back for another mug of ale and shook his head. He wanted to be alone.
"It looks like you want to be alone," said a female voice. It sounded like crushed red velvet.

Taklinn glanced back and saw one of the saucy tavern wenches standing behind him with a mug of ale in each hand.

She sidled up beside him and push a mug towards him along the rail.

"No thanks," he said, feeling foolish. What the blazes did she want?

"Just to talk," she said, as if she could read his mind.

Taklinn looked at her with surprise. As he did his mind went completely blank.

Her eyes were bluer than cut sapphires. They looked like pools of ice water at the base of a green mountain-side. They seemed to go on forever. If sunlight could be caught in a bottle and if power could be captured in an image, it would have been like looking at those eyes. He blinked and took a step back.

"Oh, don't let it get to ya," she said, slipping into flawless ling. "It does at first. But ya get used to it."

"What?" Taklinn asked stupidly. Had she just spoken to him in dwarfish?

She winked at him. It was like watching a star explode.

She leaned against the rail beside him and smiled.

Her burgundy dress spilled off her white shoulders suggestively, but there was nothing about this woman that was alluring.

"I came to talk to ya," she went on. "Not make ya feel awestruck. So stop yer gawking."

"Talk?" he asked, his ability to annunciate slipping away.

"Yer a good man," she said confidently. "That's why I picked ya. Oh, not to say that Vorgrim isn't. But for the task ahead, I need you, Taklinn Hammerstriker."

He took another step back. "How do ya…"

"And yer brave," she went on. "Ya wouldn't hesitate to die for yer loved ones. Aye, I've chosen well."

"Course I'd die for my loved ones," he told her, trying to make sense of the conversation.

"But there is a trick to being what ya are," she explained. She cast him a knowing look.

"Oh?" he asked, slipping back into confusion. "What's the trick when it comes to fightin' for me friends?"

"Ya got to know when not to." Her eyes flashed. It was like blue lightning trapped in a thimble.

"Yer telling me I got to know when not to help my loved ones?" he asked, swallowing hard. It was almost difficult to look at her. Taklinn was feeling out of his depth.

"Aye, that's what I'm sayin'" she replied. "Not out of fear, or selfishness. But out o' the need for the greater good."

"Yer cracked in the head, Lady," he said flatly. He pushed the mug away and turned to go.

"Not tomorrow," she said quietly, watching him over her creamy shoulder. "Tomorrow will take care of itself. But later on, that's when ya will need all yer cunning and all yer strength."

Taklinn stumbled to a halt. "What do ya know about tomorrow?" he asked with a snort.

"Only that ya best have yer wits about ya. And it wouldn't hurt to take along a silver dagger."

Taklinn went back to the rail and peered at her closely. "Just who are ya, then?"

She looked into his eyes and smiled. Then she allowed the guise of her temporary shape to peel back just enough and showed him a sliver of her true self. It was overpowering. Blinding.

Taklinn felt his knees go weak as the force of her personality washed over him like an exploding star. She reached out and laid a soft hand on his cheek. He gasped.

"Dear Taklinn," she said. Her voice filled him from the inside out. It was like feeling thunder in his chest. Her dwarfish speech had vanished. Now she sounded like a dulcet singer.

"I am asking you to do something for me, something that I don't want to do."

"Anything," he whispered. "Anything."

"I need you to let your sweet Aisha go."

He blinked back his tears and almost pulled away, but her powerful gaze kept him there.

"I can't," he choked. "I can't let her go."

"You need to," she said, her face losing some of its softness. "If you don't, then I risk losing something I've nurtured for a very long time."

"But why?" he asked. "She never done an evil thing in her life. I love her more than my own self."

"Oh, I know it," she replied. "But there is something that is more important. Something that I need you to do for me that will make the lives of thousands better."

"I don't understand," he cried. Let Aisha go? How could he. She was a part of who he was.

"You don't need to understand," she said, taking her hand away. "You just need to do as I say."

"But, do you mean I have to let her die?" he asked, not wanting to know the answer.

She nodded, watching him sadly.

"I can't do it," he confessed. "It isn't in me. If I could have even a chance o' savin' her, I would try."
"You will have a chance," she told him. "That is why I am hear, Taklinn. I need you to save someone else instead."
"Who?" he asked. His soul felt like it was dying.

"It'll be clear to you when the time comes," she told him cryptically.

"I can't do it," he said, shaking his head. "Please, can't someone else?"

She lifted her chin a bit and regarded him with compassion. "No, Taklinn. They can't. I need you. You will have a choice ahead of you. It's a hard choice and I hate putting you through it. But there is no one else. You were born for this. But to do it, you must let Aisha die. There is no other way."

"What if yer wrong?" he asked.

He saw her face ripple with intensity and felt heat flash out from her body like a smith's forge. He blinked and shook his head to clear it.

"I am not wrong," she told him. "I will admit that there are some things that are unknown to me. But this I know. Why do you think I have been sending you the dreams?"

Taklinn flinched as an image from his nightmare invaded his mind. It appeared there in a flash.

He felt himself standing on the cliff, just as he had a thousand times in the nightmare. He even felt his ax gripped in his sticky hands. When he looked down he saw that he was covered in wet crimson, and it was plain he had been through a fight.

Then he saw Aisha. She stood, as always, on the edge of a precipice. A black beast menaced her. It loomed over her, impossibly huge beside her slender frame.

Then he was standing on the deck of the Lander Gail, the tavern wench smiling her gentle smile, looking at him with those bottomless blue eyes.

"You won't need to have the dream any longer," she told him. "Now you know what you face."

"What if I fail?" he asked. "What if I can't do it?"

"You will make the right choice," she said. "Now that you know why it is so important."

"I don't know a damn thing," he said with frustration. "Except there's a woman I never seen before telling me I got to let the one I love more than life itself die to save someone I ain't even met."

"It's a lot to ask of anyone," she admitted. "I'm asking it of you."

"What if I say no?" he demanded.

She lifted her head slightly. She closed her eyes and he felt a fresh wave of heat surge from her form. He felt the force of her mind wrap around him like a lake of fire and his fell to his knees. She found the center of his heart and she cradled it with her overpowering love until he wept. Taklinn sobbed, knowing that he would have no other choice.

"I'll not fail ya," he said at last, gasping to regain his breath. "I'll not fail."

"I know," she whispered. "That is why I chose you. Do not let yourself be troubled with dark imaginings," she instructed. Her words sounded reassuring in spite of the pain he felt.

Then she released him. He shuddered as the cold night air seeped around him. The woman standing before him looked as she had the first time he had seen her. She looked ordinary once again.

"Life is only the beginning," she said to him as she turned away. "Your Aisha will be watched over. Do not fear for her soul. She will never be alone, so do not be afraid."

Then she was gone. The place she had stood glowed for a moment, and then the golden light slowly faded away like the dying embers of a fire.

Taklinn tried to stand but his legs refused to support him. He rolled to his side, feeling the smooth surface of the deck press against his cheek. He lay unmoving for several moments before he managed to draw a normal breath again.

What had just happened? How had that woman known so much about him? But more importantly, what had she done to him?

He wiped his eyes and tried to sit up, but his body failed him.

She had been no tavern wench; he was certain of that. But as to her true identity, he hadn't a clue. He did know that she was very powerful, and that she was not evil. The power of her true and just personality was painfully obvious to him. She was someone who knew something of the future. His future. And she had seen something that he would face.

What had she meant, he would know which one to save?

At last he was able to roll over and press his back against the side of the ship. The coarse wood offered small comfort.

He tried to remember the encounter.

She had appeared as a normal woman. Their conversation had been anything but normal.

Then she had vanished. How was it possible?

Taklinn had no answers, only more questions. He did know one thing, however, and that was the truth of the words she had spoken. He had been engulfed by the power of her certainty.

She had to be a very skilled sorceress. Maybe she had dealings with his clan. Maybe. But not likely.

The more he thought about it the more confusing it became.

She had told him he must let Aisha die.

At that thought Taklinn forced himself to sit up.

She had said that he would need to save someone else instead.

Did that mean Aisha would cause the death of someone innocent?

No. He refused to believe that. The woman had said he would need to save someone else instead of Aisha.

So. Two people, Aisha and someone else, would be in danger and he would have to choose between them.

How could he? How could he purposefully let Aisha die?

He couldn't. That was all there was to it. He would never let Aisha die when he had the power to save her.

But then he remembered those bottomless blue eyes. He remembered their power, their pleading request.

He would save someone who would make the lives of thousands of people better? How was that possible? He was just one man. How could he suddenly be so important?

He rubbed his eyes and let his powerful hands fall into his lap. They were crisscrossed with scars. He flexed his ax-hand and felt his heart squeeze tight.

Aisha. His Aisha.

Oh, yes. He was strong. No question. He studied his hands carefully. There were few who could stand against him. He was proud that he was a skilled warrior. He had always felt grateful for his skill when his loved ones had needed him. How could he ignore his skill and let the person he loved more than his own life slip away?

The memory of those blue eyes snapped him back into the here and now.

She had been adamant.

He must not fail her.

But that would mean he would sacrifice Aisha. How could he willingly do so?

He lay back on the smooth deck and closed his weary eyes. He was drained from the encounter and exhausted from his internal struggle.

Darkness engulfed him at last and he drifted off into a dreamless sleep that lasted until the moon began to rise over the horizon.

When he woke he found a blanket tucked around him and Aisha asleep at his side. She was pressed against him for warmth and looked content just to be with him.

He turned over and wrapped her in a crushing embrace. Remarkably, she did not awaken.

He whispered her name over and over again, holding on to her as if he could stop the progression of time and freeze the two of them in this moment forever.

She was his life. She meant more to him than his own soul. How could he do this thing the woman with the velvet voice had asked. How could he?

He couldn't. He simply couldn't.

When the time came, Taklinn vowed that he would save the person he had been appointed to save. But it would not be Aisha's life that would be forfeit on that terrible day.

He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her forehead gently. She murmured and snuggled closer to him.

It would not be Aisha who would fall to her death. He would do whatever it took to save her.

Even if that meant he was the one who would die in her place.

Dawn was only an hour away, and the fading starlight found the deck of the Lander Gail covered with unconscious sailors and rumpled tavern wenches.

Taklinn had decided to deal with his thoughts and feelings from the strange encounter at another time. On this day he would do the task that lay before him and let the future take care of itself. He was still determined to protect Aisha with all of his heart and soul. He could make no sense out of the strange mission that the woman had given him, but he knew what he would not do. Grimacing, he walked up the stairs with his heavy pack gripped in one arm. He found the Capitan standing by the main mast and headed towards her. He stopped before Jostein and lifted his gaze.

"I know ya can't dock just yet, but we'll wait for ya in the city and when we see them black sails comin' in we'll be back for them horses."

She looked down at the surly shield dwarf and nodded. "It's not been a pleasure having you aboard, but that was through none of your doing. We faced a fair amount of trouble and I am sorry for that. But you were a true asset to my crew, Taklinn Hammerstriker. I will miss you."

She held out a hand and Taklinn took it instantly. He smiled at her powerful grip and shook her hand once.

"If I was ta ever have ta cross that damn sea again, I'd rather do it with Capitan Jostein than with anyone. Yer a fine mistress o' this vessel, and a damn honorable sailor."

She smiled down at him and folded her arms over her chest. "Coming from you, that is a compliment."

He returned her smile and hoisted his heavy pack over his shoulder. Aisha and the others waited for him by the single remaining row boat that hung on the side of the ship. No one had been able to discover what had become of the other.

Sebastian had volunteered to row them all ashore and he did so with great care. The dwarves, weighted down as they were with weapons and armor, were nervous and rightfully so. One slip and the boat would be overturned. With all their weapons and armor pulling them down they would most likely sink straight to the bottom of the harbor.

But the short stretch between the dock and the Lander Gail was navigated without mishap and soon they were tied at the end of the dock and climbing onto solid land for the first time in weeks.

"Right," Basha said, scanning the row of buildings that faced the harbor. "So we find a place close to the docks that's not a pile of char and we wait."

"That looks like it's still standing," Vorgrim said, pointing to a tavern that looked slightly singed but intact.

"The Belching Basilisk?" Aisha said with a raised eyebrow as she read the slightly singed placard that hung over the door. "Are you sure?"

"It doesn't really matter where we go," Basha said. "We only need a place to stay long enough to let them dock and unload the horses. And have a bath," she added hopefully.

They crossed the deserted street and headed for the tavern.

"Would anyone like a drink?" Aisha asked lightly.

Four sets of eyes glowered in her direction. After the previous evening's celebrations, no one was in the mood for any sort of drinking.

"Oh. I, I suppose not," she said quietly, looking down with embarrassment.

They took a table in the empty tavern and settled in.

"Let's hope we won't have to wait long," Basha said. She glanced over at Vorgrim with a sly smile. He squeezed her hand underneath the table, hoping that no one would notice.

Everyone noticed.

A few hours passed and they had all eaten a plain breakfast and cleaned up as best they could be using the single impromptu washing tent set up behind the tavern. Basha had managed to slip in and out of the tent quickly enough to avoid being seen. She had been forced to sneak into an empty stable with Aisha where the two had hastily re-applied her disguise.

As the day slipped into late afternoon, Calathra came running into the tavern to announced that the Lander Gail was preparing to dock.

Everyone stood up gratefully and gathered their gear.

"We won't be able to ride far tonight," Taklinn told them as they headed for the docks. "But I think we should try to get as far as we can."

"Why in such a hurry?" Calathra asked.

"If I never smell the stink of a harbor again I can die a happy man," he replied.

They trudged towards the docks together, Basha and Vorgrim walking side by side.

As they headed down the busy street a beautiful woman with raven hair and a distinctly feral walk strolled past them. She smiled at the group lasciviously, her flowing black garments billowing around her like smoke. She wore several gold rings on each hand and her amber eyes sparkled to match the multiple bangles that dangled from her wrist. She walked like a woman who knew what she wanted.

As she passed them she blew Taklinn a kiss. He raised his eyebrows.

"Taklinn," Aisha asked, a sharp edge to her voice. "Who was she?"

"I don't know," he said truthfully. He looked at Aisha with a lopsided grin and shrugged.

Aisha glanced back to give the woman a warning glare.

"She's gone," the girl said with surprise. "How could she be so quick? She was there not a moment ago."

Taklinn turned and searched the street.

"Aye, that is a bit odd."

He felt the hairs on his arms stand up.

"Basha," he said casually, leaning close to the duergar so the others could not quite hear him. "Keep yer eyes open. There was something not quite right about that woman."

She nodded and checked her mace.

They resumed walking and found themselves at the docks. The beach lay beneath the sun-bleached planks of wood that stretched for a thousand paced in both directions. The main dock plunged out into the harbor for four hundred paces, supporting a menagerie of nets, boxes, used sails and empty barrels. A few sailors hustled to and fro, clearing pathways for the ships that were already starting to come into shore. The Harbor Master had decided that it was finally safe enough to allow all the ships anchored in Luskan harbor to dock and the huge vessels were plowing forward all at once. As usual, the Lander Gail was in the lead.

They walked until they reached the end of the long main dock and dropped their packs. The Lander Gail had masterfully edged past a smaller ship and was easing into the harbor. She slowed as she approached and they all stood watching her with a mixture of admiration and loathing. They had been living on the ship for close to four ten days and the sight of her was hardly comforting. Still, she was a beautiful ship to look at.

Behind them, the white bird squawked in surprise and took to the air. When Taklinn looked behind them he couldn't see anything, but he felt that same odd sensation creep over him. Like they were being watched.

"Not long now and we'll have yer horse on land again," Basha said to Aisha with a grin.

The girl smiled brightly and bobbed up and down with happiness. "Thank the…"

The boards beneath her feet shattered.

Taklinn spun around to see her fall straight through the dock.

He lunged and tried to grab her but she had already disappeared.

"Aisha!" he cried.

He looked through the gaping hole in the dock and saw a huge, toothy maw grinning at him.

"Lose something?" hissed the werewolf.

He dangled from the bottom of the dock nonchalantly. His claws gripped the wood, and with one arm he held Aisha by the waist.

"Drop her or yer insides will be brought out to see the light o day!" Taklinn shouted.

The werewolf shrugged. "As you wish."

He let Aisha go.

She plummeted twelve feet down and splashed into the harbor.

The werewolf snapped his gaze back to Taklinn and growled out a laugh. He licked his jaws suggestively and let go of the dock as well, splashing into the water after her.

Taklinn fell to his knees and craned his neck through the hole. Aisha was surfacing and swimming towards the shore. So was the wolf.

He drew his ax.

"We got to get under the docks!"

"How in the Nine Hells do we do that?" Basha cried.

They looked at each other, realizing that neither one of them would be able to swim the distance.

Then they turned in unison and looked at Calathra.

She looked up at Taklinn with a blank expression. "What?"

The werewolf swam like a river otter after the black haired girl. She was faster than he expected and he quickened his pace. It would be a great accomplishment to bring her head to Ruach. He slipped through the water after her, flexing his jaws in anticipation. Aisha swam for her life. She hit the beach and pulled herself onto the sand beside the heavy pillars supporting the docks. She coughed out a mouthful of sea water and struggled to pull herself up.

She heard the werewolf swimming behind her. She didn't bother to look back. He would be on her in moments.

Left, or right?

She turned to her left and ran as fast as she could.

This way would either take her to the ramp that lead to the street, or to a dead end. She prayed that she would see the ramp.

She ran with all her might, but within moments she could hear the sound of pursuit. The wolf was on her heels.

She dodged through the rows of oak pillars not daring to look back.

She felt a tug on her water soaked cloak. He was toying with her.

Then she saw the thick brick work of the sewer outlet. It wasn't the ramp up ahead. It was a dead end.

Aisha reached out for one of the beams and used it as a break. She snagged the beam and spun herself around. She managed to stay upright and found herself facing the opposite direction.

She didn't pause to look back and put her head down, breaking into a full on run.

It was just as well that her head was down, that way she didn't see what she ran into until it was too late.

Aisha, the wolf, Calathra Hardingdale and one extremely surprised sewer rat went crashing into a heap on the packed sand.

"Ah!" cried Calathra. She had tried to surprise the wolf from behind, who had been trying to intercept Aisha. The girl's sprint had brought the lot of them to the ground.

Calathra recovered first. She rolled to her feet and reached for Aisha's hand. The wolf lay in an unconscious sprawl, flat on his back, his skull bleeding against a discarded half anchor that lay beneath him.

Aisha straddled him, her face buried in his hairy neck. She pushed herself up and looked down. She opened her mouth to scream but her lungs were halted in mid-gasp when Calathra jerked her off the wolf by the collar.

"Run now, scream later!" the Halfling said.

Aisha stood up and hastily drew Amandur's rapier.

"Never hesitate," she whispered.

She tightened her grip on the hilt and drove the blade straight into the werewolf's chest. His body convulsed violently. Aisha drew the rapier out and plunged it in again. She drew the rapier back once more, but Calathra grabber her arm.

"I don't think you can kill it like that," she told Aisha. "We should run. Now would be a good time for that."

Aisha re-sheathed the rapier and nodded.

They headed back the way they had come.

When they reached the spot that Aisha had swum ashore, Calathra grabbed her again and stopped her.

"Can you climb?" she asked.

Aisha glanced back and could see that the prone form of the werewolf was moving.

"I can bloody well climb out of here," she announced.

Calathra pushed her into the water.

"Then get going!" The Halfling took a deep breath and leapt in behind her.

They swam back to the hole the wolf had gouged in the dock.

Aisha looked up and used one hand to quickly wipe her face. A rope dangled from the hole, it's wet coil floating before her like a swimming snake.

"Grab it, the both of ya!" Taklinn called. His face appeared above.

Aisha thought she saw a flicker of movement behind them and lunged for the rope. Calathra grabbed it as the end slithered past. Taklinn heaved and they came out of the water.

Calathra glanced back and saw a black shape lurching towards them from the shore.

"Taklinn…." she started to say.

The wolf half-fell, half jumped into the water after them. He started to swim towards them.

"Taklinn…." Calathra said again, a bit more desperately.

The wolf came at them with alarming speed. Calathra's feet dangled just above the water.

Taklinn heaved. They dripped water as they rose. The wolf was almost beneath them.

"I hate to sound ungrateful," Calathra said hurriedly. "But could you please get a move on?"

Her feet were still close enough to grab.

"Ahh…. Taklinn!"

The werewolf reached for her. Calathra tucked her feet up frantically.

Taklinn shifted his grip on the rope and pulled.

Aisha shot out of the hole like a slippery fish and landed on the docks in a heap. Calathra grabbed the lip of the hole and felt the wood splinter in her hand. She held the rope in one hand and struggled to grab the dock with the other, but the wood was shattered and crumbled in her grasp. She scrabbled for a hold but couldn't get one.

She glanced down and saw the wolf waiting below to see if she would fall. He licked his jaws.

"Some help!" she called.

Aisha reached for her just as the wood gave way. Calathra felt the girl's hands wrap around her wrist. She let the rope go and kept herself rigid as Aisha and Taklinn lifted her up.

"About time," she said as Taklinn set her on the dock. "Ah, I mean, thanks. Let's get out of here, shall we?"

"Where did you come from?" Aisha asked the Halfling.

Calathra wiggled her eyebrows playfully.

At that moment the crew of the Lander Gail was rushing towards them, weapons drawn and curses flying.

They reached the hole and nearly knocked Basha off the docks in their haste to send a barrage of arrows flying after the retreating wolf.

Jostein was busy getting the ship tied down, alone, and cursing her luck.

Aisha sat beside Calathra, her legs splayed out in exhaustion, her face stricken.

"Taklinn," she began.

"I know, I know," he said furiously.

"I thought it was then end of them," the girl said with confused fear. "Where did it come from?"

Taklinn was already headed for the ship, his arms pumping and his legs moving fast.

"I don't know, but were getting' out o' here and were doin' it right now."

Basha and Vorgrim shot each other worried looks.

"It was exactly like the one we saw on the ship," Vorgrim said with disbelief.

"Aye, an' it seemed right keen to get at her," she replied, pointing to Aisha.

Calathra had followed Taklinn up the ramp leading to the Lander Gail and had disappeared.

The two dwarves helped Aisha to her feet and flanked her protectively as they went up the ramp.

Shouts and curses drifted up from the hull of the ship. Dwarfish shouts.

"Aisha! Get down here and get yer bloody stupid horse!" Taklinn yelled from the stairs.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"He's gone half mad and is kickin' out the side o' the ship!"

Aisha forgot her fears and darted below to rescue her horse. Actually, she needed to rescue the ship.

Jostein shook her head and walked down the ramp towards the city. She didn't say a word as she left and Sebastian watched her stomp away. He called after her, but she didn't reply.

It would have shocked the entire crew to know that their Capitan was headed for the nearest tavern in order to get blind drunk.

It took less than a quarter hour to unload the horses. The animals were so relieved to see land they practically tore the lead ropes from Aisha's hands getting down the ramp.

They had been prepared to ride and all the gear was packed in their saddle bags.

Taklinn wasted no time and lead the small band of travelers straight into Luskan. They stopped long enough to purchase supplies for the road and then they were gone, grateful to be leaving the port city behind them.

The beautiful Tzelmoth stood beside Ruach as the pack watched Taklinn lead his friends past the gates of the city, and onward into the country side.

"And what of Siorvanes?" the well-groomed man asked.

"He lives," she said dispassionately. "The blade the girl used was common steel. He will recover soon."

"It seems Futhark was not so lucky," he replied, casting a backwards glare at Faustus. The wizard stood behind him wretchedly, shoulders slumped and face drawn in fear.

He had made it through the night, but only because Futhark needed his skills for a difficult trick he intended to play once they reached Citadel Felbar.

"They will travel the roads until they reach Silverymoon and then they will take the passage between the Moon Wood and the Nether Mountains," Ruach told them. "It is the easiest path. I imagine the gold dwarf wants to reach the woman he seeks as quickly as possible. I doubt very much they will linger in any one place for long."

Gathered around Ruach and Tzelmoth stood six striking young men. They had all been hand-picked by Ruach to join the pack and each possessed abundant skill at thievery and street-smart cunning, even in human form. As werewolves they were each a match for any four stalwart city guards, and the six of them together would most likely be quite capable of dealing with any challenge they would meet on the road.

"Why can't we kill them when they camp for the night?" asked one of the men standing behind Ruach. His pale eyes followed the band of travelers hungrily.

"And risk another injury?" their leader snapped. "I think not. We will wait for them to come to us."

He turned and faced them. Tzelmoth watched him with admiration. Ruach was the only soul alive she respected, and that was because he was the only soul alive that she feared.

"When they reach Felbar we will be waiting." Ruach let his gaze drift to Faustus disdainfully. "And then we will take this woman the gold dwarf values so highly, and kill the black haired sister of General Ahnjae. As Faustus was not able to accomplish that simple task for us."

The wizard looked at the ground with shame.

"Tzelmoth will travel with us until we reach the Moon Wood, and then she will need someone to stay with Faustus while she infiltrates the Citadel. Who will it be?"

The pale-eyed man took a step forward. "I will."

Ruach nodded his approval. "Very well, Mylonas. You will 'protect' our wizard so that he can create the illusion of his life, and thus allow us to complete our task. Pick three more brothers to travel with you. They will assist you. The rest of you will follow me to Ascore. When Tzelmoth has discovered the identity of this chosen one, she will return to the Moon Wood and the illusion can begin. We will start our journey from Ascore as soon as we arrive, and take the Low Road beneath the city. We will be waiting, just outside of Felbar in the tunnels, and when Faustus has done his work we will close around them like a vice. Tzelmoth will lead us to this woman, I will kill that impossibly lucky girl and we will wait for the ransom."

The group of men uttered words of approval and shifted with excitement.

"We have searched for an opportunity like this for many years, my brothers. We are on the verge of obtaining wealth that we have thus far only dreamed we could one day have. Now is not the time for mistakes, or mercy. If anyone tries to interfere, anyone, kill them without hesitation. When we succeed, we will no longer live the lives of common thieves and highwaymen. We will never need to return to the Shaar. We will be able to live like princes on the wealth the Rift dwarves will pay in ransom."

Faustus watched the sickening scene with helpless dread. He had agreed to join the pack a year ago, hoping to use his skill as an illusionist to improve his life. Instead, he was helping to plot the death of the woman who should be his.

He pretended to smirk with anticipation as Ruach's eyes passed over him, when he truly wanted to take a silver knife and drive it straight into the heart of the horrible man.

He would go along with the plan. He had no choice. But he vowed silently as he watched the pack gloat and cajole one another that he would find a way to thwart them. Somehow. He would find a way.

When Taklinn had set foot on the Lander Gail back in Yhep harbor the sun had been high and the days warm. Summer was ending now and each day they traveled brought them closer to Felbar, and to Fall.

The journey to Mirabar had brought little in the way of trouble, aside from two gnomes who fancied themselves accomplished bandits.

They had been horribly surprised by the effortless routing visited upon them by one angry shield dwarf guarding the night camp, and had escaped with their lives and not one shred of bounty to show for their trouble, not to mention not one shred of dignity.

On from Mirabar to Longsaddle, the road had been less forgiving.

Basha had stood watch alone on a windy night just outside of Mirabar. She had been set upon by orcs, suffering several nasty wounds before her friends had awaken and killed the band of raiders. She had fallen to her knees from pain, grimacing and crying out. Vorgrim was by her side in an instant once the orcs had been dealt with, and his stricken expression nearly matched hers. Until Aisha had cast a soothing healing spell and stemmed the flow of blood from her wounds, Vorgrim had been nearly frantic with fear that she may die.

Basha had shaken off his concern and insisted that she was alright, but he had insisted on taking the rest of her watch. It was clear from that moment on to the entire group that Vorgrim was completely devoted to the duergar. Something that surprised her as much as it did him.

When they reached the gates of Yartar several days later, they were almost turned away when Taklinn had refused to submit to a search. The gate guards were searching every dwarf coming and going from the town, although they would not say what it was they were searching for.

Taklinn at last allowed himself and his belongings to be pawed through and rummaged, but he did so with a foul glare and cursed in Dwarfish liberally throughout the entire process. His display was so dramatic that the gate guard's barley bothered with the female gold dwarf. Something that could have been a nasty confrontation between Basha and four heavily armed men turned out to be nothing more than a casual and quick encounter.

Once inside the gates of Yartar Taklinn's mood returned to normal instantly, and Basha realized his antics had been done purposefully to take attention away from her. It had worked quite well. She had been searched, but not nearly with the amount of attention that had been focused on Taklinn. Her true identity had not been reveled and the gate guards had reluctantly allowed them to pass into the town.

The rest of the group didn't seem to notice the clever ploy, but Basha's respect for Taklinn's quick mind was raised considerably.

The days stretched on and soon they found themselves leaving Everlund and camped not two days away from the famed city of Silverymoon. Everyone had been in high spirits, talking about the city and all its splendors, until Taklinn had announced that they would not be going there.

Basha had nearly started a brawl with her angry outburst. She had wanted to see the city and voiced her opinion about his decision loudly. He had shouted his opinion back just as loudly, and she had stormed off, cursing in Under Common. Hearing the strange tongue had unnerved the rest of the group, but Taklinn seemed not to notice or care at all.

Vorgrim had tried valiantly to convince Taklinn to change his mind, but to no avail. They would be going beyond Silverymoon and straight on to the lowlands between the Moon Wood and the Nether mountains. It was the quickest route to Felbar and Taklinn was more than a little anxious to get home.

They made the lowlands in good time, pushing the tired horses as much as they dared, and riding well past sunset on a least two days.

The weather assaulted them with a drenching rainstorm as they traveled North East beyond the Moon Wood. Basha gave up trying to wear her disguise. On one occasion she was surprised to find a detachment of shield dwarves patrolling the muddy road ahead, and almost didn't get her hood pulled over her face in time before they passed by. She took to wearing her hood all the time, even when it appeared that the road was deserted.

Fortune smiled on the group when they camped for their last night before reaching Citadel Felbar. The skies cleared, the rain ceased and Basha was able to wear her disguise once again.

They searched until they found a relatively dry stone shelf to camp that had been sheltered by a cluster of huge, leaning granite slabs. Using a bit of oil and more than a bit of flint and tinder they had started a cheerful fire and Taklinn had used Aisha's small bow to bring down a plump deer.

The sun had set and the spirits of the small group were high. They sat in a half circle around the bright fire, their backs to the wall of granite, trading stories and listening to Aisha play a tune on her high-pitched flute.

They made no attempt to conceal the fire, feeling secure sitting in the shadow of Flebar. The Citadel was less than a full day's ride from them and they felt confident that the patrols who guarded the lands surrounding the fortress discouraged marauders and bandits. They were correct about the bandits.

But wild animals knew no such boundaries as the circle of influence of Felbar.

The bright fire did little to discourage the beast that came up the ridge.

A lumbering hulk followed the smell of roasting deer meat up the slope, unconcerned for the moving figures that surrounded the small blaze and more concerned with the carcass that hung over the licking flames.

Calathra was staring at the deer eagerly, impatient for the meat to cook.

Basha and Vorgrim were busy doing what it was they always did, staring into each other's eyes.

Aisha dozed against Taklinn's thick shoulder. He poked the fire with a stick, willing it to cook the deer faster.

"Is it done?" Calathra asked.

"No," Taklinn replied.

A moment passed.

"How about now?" the Halfling asked.

"Not yet," Taklinn said.

"Does it have to be cooked?" she said impatiently.

"Yes," Taklinn said evenly.

She sighed mightily. She reached a hand forward to try and snag a bit of the deer and Taklinn slapped the back of her hand with his stick.

"Ow!" she cried.

"I didn't hurt ya," he told her.

"Well, you could have," she said, pouting.

They both watched the fire.

Calathra perked up and looked out into the darkness.

"Did you hear that?" she asked.

"It won't work," Taklinn told her. "I ain't taking my eyes off ya."

"No, I really did hear something," she said. She stood up and walked to the edge of the small granite shelf that held them. She peered into the blackness and turned her head to the side.

"There it is again," she said, looking back towards Taklinn.

Basha and Vorgrim had ceased to gaze and each other and were watching her.

"What?" Taklinn asked.

"It sounds like…." she paused and peered back into the darkness. "Breathing."

As she turned back the dim fire illuminated the profile of an enormous fury head. A powerful muzzle framed by shoulders like mountains appeared in the orange glow. A pair of black eyes focused on her.

Calathra gasped and leapt back. A paw as wide as she was tall racked the air where she had stood.

She fell backwards into Taklinn's lap.

"Bear!" she screamed.

Basha was the first to react. She grabbed her mace and charged forward before anyone else had a chance to move.

The bear rose up and roared.

Taklinn tried to toss Calathra to the side and Aisha froze with shock.

"Basha get back!" Vorgrim yelled, jumping to his feet.

But the duergar didn't hear him. She raised her weapon and planted her feet, facing the bear with her mace held in both hands, standing fearlessly between it and her friends.

The dire bear looked at the small creature standing before him and snorted.

He lifted a massive paw and swung.

Basha whirled as he struck and brought her mace around in a perfect arc. She rolled to the side as the paw raked over her head, and smashed the back of the hairy arm with a quick strike from her mace.

The bear bellowed in pain.

It dropped on all fours and charged at Basha like a landslide of muscle.

Vorgrim slammed into her side and knocked her off the stone shelf just as the bear lunged. He screamed in pain as the bear hit him head on, and Taklinn watched in horror as the massive jaws closed around Vorgrim's neck. He heard the crack of bone and saw the gold dwarf's great ax fall to the ground.

Taklinn grabbed his war ax with his right hand and jerked a throwing ax free with his left. He threw the smaller ax straight at the bear's huge head. The blade sliced down to the bone just behind the bears skull.

The bear dropped Vorgrim's limp body to the ground and turned towards the furious sheild dwarf, bellowing with rage.

Taklinn took up his ax in both hands and yelled a battle cry that shook the stones beneath his feet. His eyes blazed with fury as he attacked.

The bear stood up, lifted its huge paws and roared.

Aisha, white faced and terrified, drew her rapier and tumbled backwards behind Taklinn. She stood up just as Taklinn lunged.

The bear racked his claws over the dwarf, missing most of Taklinn's skin and leaving huge gashes in the breastplate of the sturdy armor.

Taklinn struck. His war ax cut straight into the vulnerable belly. The bear staggered and fell to the side, blood pouring from it in a torrent.

Basha had clawed her way back onto the shelf, clutching her mace and trying desperately to reach the others, when she saw Vorgrim's lifeless body slumped at the base of the granite slab.

She pulled herself to her feet just as Taklinn brought his ax around again, cutting a killing wound into the bear's chest.

The dire bear crashed to the ground, heaving a great sigh as its lungs collapsed under it's dead weight.

Basha tore past Taklinn and the bear and ran to Vorgrim.

She pulled him into her lap and cradled his head. "Aisha!" she screamed.

The girl dropped her rapier and rushed to Vorgrim's side. She placed her hands over his lifeless face and spoke a single word.

"Desuhava," Aisha whispered. She already knew it would have no effect.

"Vorgrim!" Basha cried. "Get up!"

Vorgrim remained motionless.

Basha shook him desperately. "Vorgrim, ya got to get up!"

Taklinn placed a bloody hand on Aisha's shoulder. She turned to look up at him and shook her head.

"I can't," she told Taklinn. "He's gone. I can't help him."

Basha looked over at the girl with disbelief.

She grabbed Aisha's cloak and pulled her forward. "Ya just do it again, ya hear me?" she commanded.

Aisha placed her hands over Vorgrim again and spoke her healing word. It was a useless gesture. Vorgrim Hjortgar, knight of the Rift and servant of the holy temple of the Lady Haela Brightax, would never fight again.

Basha clung to his lifeless body fiercely. She refused to let go, even when Taklinn tried to pry her hand away. She cried his name over and over and sobbed uncontrollably.

Calathra brought a cloak from beside the fire and tried to cover Vorgrim's body, but Basha shouted her away.

Aisha sat with her back to the granite slab that sheltered them and cried into her hands.

Everyone but Taklinn was in shock. He kept his wits and fought his grief, determined to deal with the pain when he could do so safely.

Taklinn watched Basha descend into near madness. She stared out at the night and sobbed Vorgrim's name over and over, begging him to awaken. She clutched his head to her heart and screamed.

Taklinn knew what would come next and he rose to stand beside her, ready.

Calathra and Aisha retreated back to the fire and sat hunched together helplessly as Basha laid Vorgrim on the ground gently, slowly got to her feet and took up her mace. She stumbled towards the dead bear and raised her mace high in the air. She smashed its skull with blow after blow, not stopping until she couldn't lift her weapon any longer.

She dropped to her knees, still holding her mace, and sobbed.

Taklinn waited, hovering behind her, his faced twisted in grief.

Basha sucked in great, ragged breaths and regained her strength. She stood up. She screamed at the bear, smashing its pulverized skull again and again.

"He would've made a life with me! He would've! Ya took it all away!" she cried, tears streaming down her face and bleeding out the disguise. Her gray skin shone through the black paint, revealing her true color.

She tried to fight on, even though there was nothing left to fight, and her eyes were glazed with rage and shock. She lifted her mace again but her hands trembled and she staggered back.

Taklinn went forward then and took her mace out of her trembling hand. He tossed it away, far out of her reach.

She swung at him with her fists, screaming incoherently in Under Common.

He rolled with the first punch and then grabbed her arms, pinning them to her sides and wrapping her in his powerful grip.

She tried to fight him, but her strength was gone and he held her firmly. She collapsed in his grasp and he lowered her to the ground, holding her head against his chest as she sobbed.

"He would've made a life with me," she said.

"Aye, he would've," Taklinn said, fighting back his own tears.

She curled into a ball and Taklinn rocked her like a frightened child.

"He loved me," she managed to say. "He didn't care what I am. He loved me."

Taklinn's face twisted from suffering and he fought to keep his own tears from falling.

Basha cried for what seemed like hours. She finally fell into a restless, trance-like sleep and Taklinn wrapped her in his cloak. He carried her back to the fire and laid her in her bed roll.

He stood up and looked over at Aisha and Calathra. They clung to each other in silence by the fire, watching him and Basha with helpless grief.

"What do we do, Taklinn?" Calathra asked.

"Felbar is less than a day from here. I'm gonna let her rest for a couple hours and then we ride. It'll be dawn soon after we leave." He sat down and took up his water skin. He started to wash the dried blood from his arms.

"Aisha, ya got to do something about Basha's paint. She has ta pass as a gold dwarf. Understand?"

Aisha nodded solemnly. "I'll see to it."

"We'll put Vorgrim on his horse. Calathra, ya ride Basha's horse. She's ridin' with me. I don't want her alone. It's gonna be hard enough getting her into Felbar being a duergar, and it'll be impossible if she has ta speak. I'll do the talking and the ridin' for her until we can get her someplace where there won't be so many eyes looking at her."

"Will your family help us?" Aisha asked.

Taklinn sighed and rubbed the remaining blood from his arms. "Aye, until they find out what she is. Then, who knows? They trust me, but a duergar? I think it may be to much ta ask o' em'."

"What about the chosen one? The woman Vorgrim was looking for," Calathra said quietly. "He was the only one who knew who she was, or could find out who she was."

Taklinn shot the Halfling a sour look. "It'll take care o' itself. If that vision his priestess had was true, then there's mightier powers than us looking out for her."

He dried his arms and stood up. While Basha slept he lifted Vorgrim's body onto the back of his beautiful white horse and covered his friend with a heavy blanket. When Basha awoke the last thing she needed to see was Vorgrim's body.

Taklinn allowed Basha to rest until false dawn. He helped Aisha load the horses and they both woke Basha from her uneasy sleep.

Aisha worked carefully and quickly, and soon the disguise was back in place and Basha could pass for a gold dwarf once again.

Taklinn practically lifted her onto his horse, settled in behind her and took up the reigns. She sat before him like a block of marble. Cold and unmoving.

They left the granite slab and started off just as the first tentative fingers of light crept over the horizon. They road in silence. Basha couldn't speak, and more than once Taklinn had to stop her from falling out of the saddle.

By mid-day they could see the road snake between the high cliffs leading to the Felbarr river.

"That's the Hammer," Taklinn told them, pointing at a huge stone arch that spanned the road leading towards the Citadel. "It's the first gate o' Felbar. We get past that, an' we stand a good chance o' getting in. Beyond that is the Anvil. It's guarded well. We got ta keep our heads. No one says nothing. I'll answer any questions."

Aisha and Calathra nodded.

Basha was silent.

Taklinn kicked his horse and they trotted to the road.

By late afternoon, Taklinn found himself staring up at the Hammer, the forty-foot-high gate tower carved from stone that spanned the road. Fourteen alert shield dwarves stopped them as they approached.

Taklinn made certain Basha's hood was pulled back so they could see her face. Fortunately, she had not been crying and her paint was well in place. She looked like a gold dwarf.

"Taklinn?" asked one of the dwarves who had halted them. "Taklinn Hammerstriker?"

"Aye," Taklinn said with relief and surprise. "Who be you, then?"

"Dorn, Dorn Stonesheild. Ya finally come back to fill yer post, eh?" the burly, black haired dwarf asked with a good natured chuckle.

"Dorn," Taklinn repeated with a serious expression. "I come ta see my kin. And I need fast passage. We have a fallen comrade here. He died last night, fightin' a great bear not a half day from here. Can ya let us pass?"

"Fallen?" echoed Dorn. "Oy, Lad. I didn't know. Who was he?"

"Vorgrim," said Basha in a raspy voice. "Vorgrim Hjortgar, Knight of the Great Rift."

Taklinn stiffened when she spoke, but sat motionless, holding his breath and hoping the guards didn't allow their gazes to linger on her for long.

"You lads," Dorn said, pointing to a cluster of young dwarf men who stood apart from the others. "Ya take him and his friends straight up to the Rune Gate and tell em' ta let him pass."

The five shield dwarves trotted forward and lined up in front of the small group. They lifted their spears and started marching briskly down the road.

"I wish I wasn't in such need," Taklinn told Dorn. "But I'm grateful. When I can, I'll be back ta' give ya proper thanks."

"When ya get back, ya can fill yer post," Dorn said, a scowl crossing his face.

Taklinn paused and gave Dorn a blank look. "But, sir, I ain't an active member o' the militia."

"I know it," Dorn told him. He glanced at the other shield dwarves and lifted his chin.

"The Argent Legion marches at dawn."

"Marches?" Taklinn said with alarm. "All two hundred?"

"Aye," Dorn replied.

"What could take the Knights in Silver and the infantry from Citadel Adbar away from Felbar?" Taklinn asked.

"Just North East o' the Moon Wood, there's an army camped. An army o' orcs. At least a few hundred. We ain't been able ta get word but from one or two scouts. The others we sent out ain't come back. We think something's killin' em' before they get a chance ta leave the Moon Wood."

"We was just at the Moon Wood four days ago," Taklinn said with confusion. "We didn't see no army; I can tell ya that."

"Well, we got one scout who'd stake his life on it. He saw em' with his own eyes. I trust him He said they was no match for us, and we got orders ta wipe em 'out before they make it to the valley leading to Felbar. King Emerus is gone. He's at Adbar now, trying ta work out a plan ta keep half of the infantry from there that we got helping us right now. But Unnal, she's here. She's decided ta march on them orcs and drive em' out before they got a chance ta reach the Felbar river."

"Then they must o' come just after us," Taklinn told him, shaking his head.

"We've sent to Silverymoon, and to Adbar for word tell of this, but we don't know if the messages have gotten to em' or not. Taklinn, we need ya. Will ya stand with us?"

Taklinn shot Aisha an alarmed look. He had promised her that he would never leave her again. But this was his home, his kin. They needed his help.

He gave her a pleading expression.

"We'll be alright," she said, glancing at Calathra. "We will stay and help them inside."

"Then I'll be there," he told Dorn with a stern nod. "I'll ride past the Anvil at dawn and stand beside ya. We'll meet em' at the Moon Wood."

Dorn nodded, proud to know that someone who by rights didn't need to help was offering to do so unselfishly.

"Can she fight?" Dorn asked Taklinn, jerking his chin towards the silent Basha.

Taklinn stiffened again and shook his head. He glanced back at the white horse and the lifeless form wrapped beneath the blankets.

"She can, but I don't want her to. Not now."

Dorn nodded, understanding at once what Taklinn meant.

"Then we'll see ya at dawn," the burly dwarf told him.

Taklinn reigned his horse hard and sent it down the road at a gallop. Aisha and Calathra came fast on his heels.

They caught the five guards who marched down the road and slowed to a walk behind them.

Taklinn looked up as they passed beneath the Anvil, the thirty-foot-tall gate that spanned the road leading to Felbar. It was nearly complete.

He glanced with worry back at Aisha. The weather was turning colder and the girl shivered in her cloak.

Calathra looked grim, her usual happy expression replaced with distress. She kept glancing at him with wide eyes and then looking away hurriedly.

He set his eyes forward and felt Basha shift in the saddle before him. She could fight. She was deadly, in fact. But he couldn't ask her to stand with him. Not only would she risk being discovered, she might get herself killed. She was too vulnerable to go into battle. Her grief would cloud her judgement and she would be a liability to him. He would be trying to watch over her and that would distract him.

"Basha, understand, it ain't cause' I doubt ya," he said to her quietly.

"Ya don't need to explain," she mumbled back. "Just go. I'll stay with Aisha."

He gave her a hard squeeze on the arm and kicked his horse into a trot.

They reached the rune gate with the five shield dwarves flanking them, and as they passed through the enchanted opening Taklinn found himself letting his gaze linger on the thirty-two runes carved deeply into the stone. The gate guards nodded them through at a quick word from their escort.

For a brief, horrible moment Taklinn thought that Basha's presence would trigger the enchantments that protected the gate. But then he remembered that there was nothing about the duergar that was evil. They passed through without incident and soon found themselves riding into the Citadel. They stabled their horses, hefted their packs and, after giving the escort thanks, walked into Felbar.

Dwarves hurried in all directions. The high stone ceiling echoed with shouts and quick conversations. The huge stone columns that supported the main cavern disappeared into darkness high above them. The massive columns dominated a honeycomb of tunnels and descending stairways that lead in all directions from the main cavern. Every single opening was crowded with dwarves, a few humans and the occasional gnome, who bustled back and forth carrying weapons, food and personal belongings. Each entrance and tunnel exit was meticulously decorated with deep-carved runes. Felbar hummed with activity.

Aisha looked up and realized that she couldn't see the top of the columns beside her.

"Oh," she exclaimed. "They are very tall."

Taklinn gave her a smile, put an arm over Basha's shoulder and pulled her in tight beside him.

She was standing stock still, gazing at the scene before her with her mouth open with amazement.

"Why, there's hundreds of em'," she said with a note of fear in her voice.

"Just stay by us and we'll see to it that ya don't come to no harm," Taklinn said reassuringly.

He realized that Basha had never seen so many shield dwarves at one time, in one place, and was most likely a bit afraid for her life.

Taklinn led them to an inn that he knew, an innkeeper owner whom he trusted, and got them all settled in at a quiet table.

As soon as Basha had a tall ale placed before her and Calathra a plate of food, he left them and sought out the of the temple of Haela Brightax., Vorgrim's patron.

Taklinn found, to his surprise, a gold dwarf woman dressed in full-plate armor strolling through the temple when he arrived. He stopped her and told the priestess that a servant of her temple had fallen and they needed to give him a proper burial before dawn came.

"Oh, I'm not…" she began.

"It's a bit urgent," he said, interrupting her. "He was a knight o' yer order and I want ta see him laid ta rest proper."

"A knight?" she asked him with surprise.

"Aye," Taklinn explained. "Can ya see to it?"

She nodded and assured him that she would, and that she would do so immediately. She had the look of experience despite her apparent youth. She carried herself with controlled grace. Taklinn couldn't help but notice the amazing craftsmanship of her mithril armor. Had the circumstances been less pressing he would have asked her who had made the full-plate mithril, but he felt the urgent need to return to his friends, particularly Basha, and offer what little comfort he could provide.

"From where did this knight hail?" she asked him with a sympathetic turn of her head.

"From the Great Rift," Taklinn told her sadly.

Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open in a silent 'oh' of shock.

"Where is he now?" she asked quickly.

Taklinn gave her the name of the stable where he had left the horses, along with Vorgrim's body, and turned to go.

As he headed for the door she ran past him and disappeared into the crowds of people. He thought it seemed a bit odd, but shook his head and started back.

Taklinn left the temple and was returning to the small Inn where he had left the others, his head bent low with worry and his brow furrowed with deep lines, when something hit him hard from behind.

He spun around with shock and grabbed a squirming mass of reddish hair and grasping hands.

"Uncle Taklinn!" shouted a Dwarf girl as she tried to scramble onto his shoulders.

"Samrbil!" Taklinn cried with relief. "I thought ya was a great monster."

"I missed you," she said, grabbing him into a fierce hug.

He scooped her up in his arms and swung her about. "I missed ya, too, Sambril. Where's yer da?"

"He's sharpening his ax," she said. "He told me he's marching tomorrow. Are you going with him?"

"I am at that, Lass," he told her sadly. "But we'll both be back. We just got ta clean the woods up a bit, that's all."

"Did you come by yourself?" she asked him, her bright eyes fixed on him intently.

"I came with my friends. Do ya want ta meet em'?" he asked.

She nodded vigorously. "Are they dwarves, too?"

"One is, and the other is a Halfling and one is a human." He felt a sudden surge of concern. He hadn't had a chance to tell his family about Aisha. What would they think? Would they be angry that he had chosen a human woman instead of a Dwarf Lass?

He shook his head and flung his nice over his shoulder, carrying her like a sack of potatoes and pushing away his fears. He thought he knew what they would all say. They would accept Aisha, reluctantly, but they would respect his wishes.

He set her down once they reached the Inn and she grabbed his hand hastily.

"I want to meet them," she said. "I didn't know you was friends with a human."

Taklinn bent down on one knee before Sambril and put both his hands on her shoulders lightly.

"Well, she's a bit more than a friend, truth be told. She's very dear to me, Sambril. Ya could say that we was more than just fiends."

"Are ya gonna marry her?" Sambril asked enthusiastically.

Taklinn chuckled and struggled to find an answer.

"Ah, well, I don't know. She is dear to me as me own life, I can tell ya that. But…" he paused. He hadn't ever thought about it.

In one instant his young niece had managed to completely flabbergast the tough shield dwarf.

"Is she pretty?" Sambril asked, not noticing his awkwardness.

"I think she is beautiful," he told her.

He stood up and took her hand.

They marched through the door to the Inn, side by side, and saw Aisha and Calathra sitting next to Basha, talking quietly.

They glanced up when they saw him and Calathra rose to greet him.

"She looks sad," Sambril said, her eyes lingering on Basha.

"She is," Taklinn told her softly. "Her close friend was killed last night. She misses him very much. We all do."

Taklinn saw that Calathra had been crying. He struggled with his own tears at the sight of his friend's grief, and managed to keep them at bay through sheer force of will. The temple priestess would probably be collecting Vorgrim for burial by now, and the thought nearly caused him to weep.

Later. After the orcs had been routed from the woods. Then he could grieve for the loss of his friend properly. Now he needed to be strong. His friends needed him to be strong.

Aisha stood up just then and gave him a relieved smile.

The girl tried to come towards him, but the tip of Amandur's rapier had gotten wedged between the chair legs and she nearly tumbled to the floor trying to dislodge it.

Sambril watched Aisha with raised eyebrows. "Is that her, uncle Taklinn?" she asked timidly.

Taklinn sighed and nodded. "Aye, it is. Ya get used to her clumsiness. In time."
"She isn't very pretty," Sambril remarked matter-of-factly.

Taklinn shot his niece a warning look. "I know she ain't a dwarf, but don't go holding that against her."

"And she's very tall," Sambril went on, oblivious to his stern glance.

"She ain't but a half a head taller n' me," he said defensively.

"I guess she's short for a human, then," Sambril mused.

Aisha had extricated her sword from the chair and was coming towards them. She looked down at Sambril and smiled.

"I'm Aisha," she said, holding out her hand.

Sambril looked at the girl's small fingers and pale skin and shrugged. She took Aisha's hand and shook it, nearly crushing it with her strong grip.

"I'm Sambril. I'm Taklinn's brother's daughter," she said helpfully.

"Oh!" Aisha said with surprise. "Then I am very happy to meet you."

"Why?" Sambril asked.

"Well, your Taklinn's family, and that means you are a very important person."

"It does?" Sambril asked, looking back at Taklinn for confirmation of the statement.

But Calathra had stood up and was coming towards them as well.

"Taklinn, I'm going out. I'll be back," she told him when he shot her a quizzical look. "I need to do a few things. Like sell something."

He raised an eyebrow and watched her suspiciously.

She glared at him openly. "I didn't steal it," she snapped. "And I want to get something for Basha that will help her sleep tonight."

"Don't stay gone for long," he said seriously.

She brushed past him. "I won't."

"Was that your Halfling friend?" Sambril asked brightly.

Taklinn nodded.

"She didn't seem to like you very much."
"Sometimes I wish she didn't," he told her.

He gave Aisha a forced smile.

"How is she?" he asked. He could see from looking at her that Basha was in terrible shape. She didn't even meet his eyes when he looked at her.

"She needs to rest," the girl told him.

"She'll have plenty of time to do that. We'll be gone for a few days, so I want ya to stay close to her, alright?"

"Of course. But, why can't we come with you?"

"Lass, it's a battle. I don't want either one of ya ta get within a league of the place. She ain't in no shape ta fight, and ya know I think that ya have learned well, but I still don't think ya can face up to something like this."

"I want you to take Ahmed," she said. "If it's going to be that dangerous, I want him with you instead of that plug you have been riding."

"Plug?"

"Ahmed is fast. Very fast. He will keep you out of trouble. Promise me," she demanded.

He growled at her protectiveness, but he nodded and looked up at her, defeated. "Alright. I'll take im'."

Sambril looked up at Taklinn, her brows folded together with disbelief, and rolled her eyes.

Taklinn started to tell Aisha that a detachment of twenty dwarves from the Argent Legion would be staying behind to protect the Citadel, but Sambril didn't hear him. She had slipped away from him and walked towards Basha timidly.

"Are you sad for your friend?" she asked quietly, stopping at Basha's side.

"Aye," she said, looking over at the shield dwarf child. "Aye, I am sad for im'."

"Was he from the Underdark, like you?"

Basha blinked hard and looked at Sambril intently. "Who told ya I was…"

"No one," Sambril said, her voice regaining its normal volume.

"I thought all Gray Dwarves were from the Under Dark."

Taklinn and Aisha were arguing loudly about who would be more useful in an orc battle, and they didn't hear the exchange, but someone else did. The inn keeper had hurried past them on his way to the back room and nearly crashed into the end of the bar when he heard the child.

He tried to act as if he hadn't overheard the comment and ducked behind the low bar, pretending to search for something. Had he heard the child right? Had she said Gray Dwarf?

Basha glanced nervously around the tap room and then leaned closer to Sambril.

"What did you say?" she asked.

"I said I thought all Gray…"

"Right, I heard ya. Now, who told ya that I was a….? Well, can't ya see that I'm a gold dwarf?" she asked.

"Well, ya look like a gold dwarf," Sambril explained. "But I can see that yer a due duer, a drue…"

Basha clamped a hand over Sambril's mouth.

"Ya don't need ta go and say it here," she said quickly.

Sambril pulled Basha's hand away. "I knew it as soon as I saw ya. She showed yer face to me. Only, ya was like ya really are, not like ya look right now."

"She?" asked Basha, not really wanting the child to elaborate.

"The lady in my dream. She said ya was comin' ta find me. She said ya would show uncle Taklinn who I am."

Basha shot to her feet. "Taklinn," she said frantically.

"What!" he shouted. His argument with Aisha had escalated into a fight. They stood, nose to nose, glaring at each other.

"I think it's time ya took this child home."

He looked at Basha with confusion. "Why?"

"She knows who I am," she told him. "Did ya tell her?"

Taklinn's eyes widened. "No," he said, stepping forward and placing a hand on his niece's head. He turned her around using the top of her head as a handle and made her look up at him.

"Sambril, what did ya say ta Basha here?"

"I just wanted to know if her friend was from the Under Dark, too," she said with an impatient sigh.

He blinked and looked at Basha with shock. "Ah, she didn't even know yer name," he told her truthfully.

"Then someone told her," Basha replied with a worried look. "I'm goin' to my room. I think I need ta stay there for a time."

Taklinn gave her a worried look and nodded. "Take Aisha with ya," he said quickly. "I don't want either of ya ta be alone."

Basha walked past the angry girl and grabbed her arm as she went by, not slowing down a whit. Aisha's head snapped back as Basha drug her down the narrow hall. They went into a room Taklinn had secured for he and Aisha, and slammed the door.

Taklinn took Sambril's hand and pulled her out of the tavern.

When they were moving through the crowds Taklinn prodded his neice with questions. She explained to him that the woman in her dreams had told her about Basha.

He listened to her silently and lead her back to his brother's dwelling, not sure what to make of Sambril's unusual story.

As he stepped across the hearth that lead to his brother's rooms he heard his sister-in-law, Usul, crying.

"Ma, what's the matter?" Sambril asked as she caught sight of her distraught mother.

The dwarf women opened her arms when Sambril ran to her, and gathered her up in a tight embrace.

"Taklinn," Usul said, her shoulders dropping as she saw him standing in the door.

"Where's Tenbin?" Taklinn asked her.

"Their gone," the red-haired, stout framed woman told him, shutting her brown eyes tightly.

"Gone where?" he asked, coming to her side and giving her a quick embrace as a greeting.

He hadn't seen her for two years, but there would be time for proper hello's later.

"They's marchin'," she said. "We just got the word. The Argent Legion has been called out now. Unnal heard from a scout and she mobilized them. All of them. Taklinn, she gave the order to march. Gangil left only minutes ago."

Taklinn felt his heart clench.

"Oh, Usul. I'm sorry. I got to go. I swore ta ride with em'," he told her. He wrapped Sambril and his sister-in-law in a fierce embrace and turned away.

"Will ya tell Aisha and Basha that I couldn't wait?" he asked. He looked at Sambril and lifted his finger, shaking it at her.

"An not a word about Basha, understand? Just let her alone, and she'll be alright till I get back. Sambril?" he asked, trying to squeeze a promise out of her.

Sambril looked down, not certain what she had done wrong, but desperate to please her uncle.

"Yes, Taklinn," she told him.

Usul wiped away a tear. "I'd go myself, but…" she glanced at Sambril.

Taklinn shook his head. His sister-in-law was a fierce fighter, not unlike Basha but Sambril needed her more than the Argent Legion.

"I'll find him and we'll ride together," Taklinn told her. "Sambril, will ya tell Aisha I'll be back as soon as I can?"

She nodded, grateful that he trusted her with such an important task.

"I'll tell her," the child said resolutely.

He gave them one last look and then he was gone.

Taklinn saddled Ahmed fast and rode out of Felbar, chasing after the army that marched away from the fortress. Aisha had been correct about one thing, Ahmed was fast.

The Legion was just passing under the arch of the Hammer when he caught them.

He took his place beside his brother and surveyed the army.

"It's good ta have ya home, Taklinn," his brother said. Tenbin was an older, heavier version of Taklinn. They gripped each other's arms.

"It's good ta ride with ya," Taklinn replied.

More than two hundred fifty dwarves, armed and armored for battle, marched down the road leading towards the Moon Wood. Maybe twenty of them were mounted. Taklinn's brother was one of them. They gave each other's a look that said all that words could not. Defending one's home and family, facing danger so that others might be safe, was the ultimate honorable action. They each felt pride and dread. But neither of them felt fear.

Taklinn watched the army marching into the valley and struggled to face his grief.

Vorgrim was dead. He had watched his friend die only hours ago.

Now he was leaving Aisha alone. Something he swore to her he would never do.

He had slept for perhaps two hours, and now he was marching out to meet an orc army. An army that he and his friends had somehow missed seeing not four days earlier.

He watched the sun as it started to set and his face twisted up in dread as he looked across the shadow-cast valley. He reached up with one hand and rubbed his eyes, trying to clear the illusion that he had just seen. Then he looked at the valley again and gasped. The crimson sunset cast a glow so red over the Felbar valley that it looked as if the very grass was painted with blood.

He tried to shake off the vision, but until the last rays of the sun had retreated behind the cliffs it persisted. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. Would he fall in this battle? Would the last angry, meaningless words that he had spoken to Aisha be the last words he would ever say to her?

He dug his heels into Ahmed's side and urged the war horse to a quicker pace.

No. He would not fall. Not this battle. He had too much living to do. He had too many souls who needed him to return. What would happen to them all if he was killed?

"Well, we ain't gonna find out," he answered himself.

His brother glanced over. "Find out what?" Tenbin asked, his braided beard dancing in the stiff wind.

"I'll tell ya when we get home," Taklinn replied.

"Stop it," Faustus said. "Just kill him. If you aren't quick, it will only draw attention to us."

Mylonas held a shield dwarf between his jaws and shook him violently, obviously enjoying the dwarf's screams of pain.

Faustus looked away, sickened by the sight. Tzelmoth watched as her pack mate tortured the dwarf scout. Her hands were sticky with drying blood. She had been using her black handled dagger to torture the dwarves before giving them to Mylonas to kill, and her face was dotted with drops of blood.

"Maybe he's right," she said at last. "He won't tell us anything more."

Mylonas looked disappointed, but not for long. He threw the dwarf to the ground and pounced like a cat on a mouse. He ripped the dwarf's throat out, growling with pleasure.

Faustus clutched his stomach and tried not to wretch at the sight.

He stood in a cluster of trees and watched as the pack members celebrated the kill with each other.

Five shield dwarves lay dead in the trees. Each one had been tortured by Tzelmoth horribly before being killed. This had been the worst day of their journey.

Before, all they had done was kill the two scouts who had tried to reach Felbar with word that the army was not real, that it had been an illusion created by a clever wizard. Tzelmoth had caught the scouts after discovering them sneaking away from the werewolf camp. She had decided that it would be prudent to kill all of the shield dwarves they encountered, just in case. Another eleven lay dead future along the trail. She had killed them indiscriminately as they made their way to Felbar, leaving their bodies out in the open to rot.

Faustus had been forced to witness the murders. He had been forced to watch as the pack hunted down and killed more than sixteen shield dwarves in two days' time.

He was near sick from the killing. And they were not finished. Not close to being finished.

"Shouldn't we go?" Faustus asked Tzelmoth. She seemed to have been appointed the leader as Ruach was even now in the tunnels that led to the Low Road entrance into Felbar.

Tzelmoth brushed a lock of smoky hair out of her amber eyes. She smiled at Faustus, blood still covering her teeth. It was even more disturbing when she killed in her human form, for her beautiful features seemed grotesque when she was in a blood rage. Looking like a human did little to stem her lust to bite.

"In a rush?" she asked Faustus.

"I thought you said that we needed to be inside before the army got very far."

Her bloody smile faded. "We are only an hour from Felbar," she snapped. "We can be inside so quickly they won't even know it." She sucked her teeth grotesquely, cleaning up the blood.

"I knew you wanted to be there when Ruach arrived," Faustus reminded her timidly. "And from the look of them, those dwarves will be marching for half the night before they stop."

He pointed in the direction of the Argent Legion. A row of torches led away from the Citadel into the darkness. They had marched past the pack not more than a quarter hour ago. The five dwarves had still been alive then. But they had been prevented from making a sound and Tzelmoth had forced them to watch as their comrades had ridden past, oblivious to the five Felbar scouts who were bound only a few hundred feet from them.

"I see them," she replied testily. "Alright. If you think it will make any difference, then we can go now."

Faustus felt his stomach unclench a bit. At least they would be getting out of the trees. The moon was rising and it cast an eerie glow through the trees that scared up every horrible creature possible from Faustus's imagination. He was glad to be going.

"I still don't know how you found her so fast," he said to Tzelmoth as the pack moved out of the forest.

They walked upright, but moved with amazing speed. He was the slowest of the group by far, and Tzelmoth walked beside him, Mylonas behind, as they left the trees. The other two brothers fanned out from them and searched the area, trotting with frightening speed through the darkness.

"I already told you," she said, giving him a crafty look. "She found me, in a manner of speaking. I would have had to wait for days until those two gold dwarves reached Felbar, if she hadn't been blabbing to someone in the temple about her true purpose."

"But how did you get inside the Citadel in the first place?" Faustus asked, not wanting to believe that she had actually done it.

"I avoided that rune gate, if that's what you want to know," she said flippantly. "I went across the bridge, the bridge that spans the Felbar river. Then I just slipped in the North door. No one expected that. At least, not at the time of night I did it. There were only a few guards and they were easy to get past."

"How did you get on the bridge?" he asked with a patronizing tone.

"I climbed it, idiot."

He fell silent. He had seen the pack climb. It was uncanny how well they could do just about everything. It was their unnatural strength. It gave them abilities that others simply didn't possess.

"She is some sort of priestess of a temple there," Tzelmoth went on. "She wears armor that covers her head to toe, but it is strange because I don't think she can fight very well. I heard her tell someone that she hoped her friend Vorgrim would arrive soon so she wouldn't be needed to fight. She said she hated it."

"She said his name then," Faustus asked.

"She did. You told me that was the name of the gold dwarf who was traveling North searching for this woman. Vorgrim, wasn't it?"

Faustus looked at her and pretended to be impressed. "I did. You have a very good memory." He had been flattering her for days, hoping to soften her to him. He couldn't tell if his efforts were successful or not.

She laughed a bit, soaking up his praise. "Oh, it was no trick really. I just snuck into the temple that Ruach told me that knight served, and pretended to pray."

"But, you're a human," Faustus said. "Didn't they think it was odd, you praying in a Dwarf temple?"

She smirked. "Stupid fools. I told them I had been shown a great kindness by a dwarf once and that I owed him my life. I said that I wanted to serve his memory by paying homage to the goddess he served once. They believed me. Well, after that I was allowed to stay there and pray whenever I wanted to. It was only the second day when I heard this woman talking to another priestess. I was very lucky."

"Luck?" he asked. "Or skill?"

He smiled at her, offering her a look of admiration. He wanted her to think that he believed she was the cleverest person alive. If she believed he doted on her every word and idolized her, she might be less apt to rip his throat out when the time came for him to move against them.

Faustus had witnessed the most horrible crimes, and these creatures took delight in committing them. He was still determined to do whatever he could to stop them from killing Aisha. Trying to build a bit of trust between he and Tzelmoth was a weak plan at best, but for now it was the only one he had.

He pretended to fawn over Tzelmoth as they headed towards Felbar. Once inside the fortress, the pack would take human form once again and seek out the woman Tzelmoth had located. They would take her captive, with Ruach's help, and they would disappear the way their leader had come. Ruach had taken three brothers with him to Ascore and had slipped into the underground tunnels that stretched between Ascore and Felbar. He was waiting for them there, just outside of Felbar. By midnight there would be eight werewolves stealing through the caverns and tunnels of Citadel Felbar.

And there would be no one there to stop them.

The illusion Faustus had created of an orc army swarming on the outskirts of the Moon Wood had been his masterpiece. He had only been able to keep the illusion strong for a few hours, but it had been enough. Tzelmoth had allowed two shield dwarf scouts to slip back to Felbar to raise the alarm. She had killed the others, thinking it would add to the dwarves' fear and draw the army out.

It had. The army stationed at Felbar was marching in the opposite direction, leaving Felbar unprotected, save for a scattering of guards left behind. The remaining citizens would offer little resistance, at least, that is what the pack believed. Ruach had told them the ruse would allow the pack to move through the Citadel unhindered. He told them they could kill whomever they wished, take whatever they wanted and have what fun they chose. All of Felbar was theirs to exploit, except for the black haired sister of the General. Ruach had made it quite clear to all of them that she was his to deal with.

This order gave Faustus some small hope that Aisha may yet be able to survive this night.

That and one small trick that he had prepared for Taklinn.

He trudged along beside Tzelmoth, giving her looks of admiration, and hoped that the shield dwarf would see the spell-cast body that he had left behind. If Taklinn looked at any of the bodies Tzelmoth had left along the trail he would get the surprise of his life.

The boy had cast a strong illusion on one of the bodies the pack had left behind, hoping that Taklinn would see it and unravel the puzzle. If Taklinn was clever, and Faustus believed he was, then he would guess what was really happening.

It was a desperate ploy, but Faustus was a desperate wizard. Having Taklinn Hammerstriker back at Felbar was one thing he truly believed would save Aisha 's life. He had given up hoping that his own life would be spared on this night. He only wished that as payment for the crimes he had helped to commit with the pack that he could find a way to do something to find redemption. That thought was the only thing that gave him the strength to keep moving.

Basha and Aisha sat together in the small room at the Inn and talked quietly. They grew a bit worried when Taklinn didn't come back after what seemed like a long time.

"Where is he?" Aisha asked, pacing the room.

Basha tilted her head to the side and seemed to be thinking. "It's well past sunset now," the duergar said with concern.

"Well, he wanted to see his brother. Maybe that is what is keeping him," Aisha suggested.

Someone knocked on the door and Aisha went to open it.

"Wait," Basha said with a whisper. "Why would he knock?"

The girl paused and then folded her arms. She looked at the door, as suspicious glint in her eyes.

"What do you want?" she asked in a clear voice.

"Ah, its Nikirk, yer Inn Keeper," replied a nervous voice.

The two women glanced at each other.

"I was wondering if ya two ladies had everything ya needed?" he asked.

"We're just fine," Aisha said. "We don't need anything."

There was a silent pause from the other side of the door, and then it exploded in a shower of splinters.

Two heavily armed shield dwarves crashed through the door, their axes drawn and their eyes blazing.

They stood shoulder to shoulder and blocked the door.

Aisha leapt back, her eyes wide with disbelief.

Basha sat on the narrow bed holding her hands at her sides, her mace leaning against the wall too far away for her to reach.

"What are you doing!" Aisha demanded.

"Out o' the way, Longshanks," one of the dwarves told her.

He made a move for Basha, trying to push Aisha to the side.

The girl side-stepped him and drew Amandur's rapier. She blocked his way, standing in front of her friend.

"What do you want?" she asked, leveling the blade at the two angry dwarves.

"Ya shouldn't o' done that, Longshanks," one of them told her with a glare.

"And you have no right to be here," Aisha shot back.

"We got every right," he said. He pointed at Basha. "We're takin her with us, and if ya try ta stop us, we'll kill ya where ya stand."

"And you will have Taklinn Hammerstriker, and Clan Hammerstriker to deal with if you do," she said hotly. "I am his wife. And if you touch me, or my friend, he will separate each of your heads from your bodies when he walks through that door."

This brought them up short. "Yer his wife?"

"Aye, and if you both want to wake up tomorrow morning, you will turn around and walk out of here immediately," Aisha said in sharply accented Dwarfish.

"She ain't no wife o' a Hammerstriker," one of them said caustically.

Basha had broken out into a cold sweat. These two obviously knew what she was.

She stood up slowly, holding her hands in front of her. This was her worst nightmare come true. She had been found out, and she was trapped.

"I told ya it was always worse when they found out later," she said under her breath.

"Get out o' the way," growled one of the dwarves.

Aisha lifted the tip of her rapier and pointed it straight at his eye. She curled her lips as she had seen Taklinn do just before he attacked, and snarled a reply.

"Bring me your steel, gentlemen, and I will feed it to you."

Basha knew this would be the end of the girl unless she did something and did it fast. The two soldiers before Aisha would not hesitate to kill the girl, not for an instant.

"I'm sorry," Basha said. She punched Aisha in the back of the head, not hard enough to hurt her, but hard enough to knock the girl unconscious. Aisha crumpled and fell to the floor.

The shield dwarves raised their weapons.

"I won't fight ya," she told them.

They stepped over Aisha's unconscious body and grabbed Basha's arms.

"We never said that we wouldn't do the same."

One of them smashed the butt of his ax across her temple, sending her reeling.

They hauled Basha up by the arms and started to drag her from the room.

When they crossed the threshold they heard a child cry out.

"Stop it! Stop it!" Sambril shouted. She ran towards Basha, waving her arms desperately. Her mother hurried after her.

"She's not bad," Sambril said to the soldiers.

Usul rushed to Sambril's side and grabbed her hand, trying to pull her back. Sambril struggled free and stood in front of the soldiers. Basha hung between them, staring at the floor with unfocused eyes.

"Usul, get yer whelp out o' the way," one of the soldiers ordered.

"You're going to hurt her, aren't you?" Sambril cried.

"No, little girl," he replied. "We're gonna execute her."

"Why?" Usul asked as she tried to pull Sambril back.

"She's a duergar," he said.

Usul gasped. She took a step back, grabbing Sambril as she did.

"You can't!" Sambril cried. She broke free from her mother's grasp and ran to Basha. She tried to pry the soldier's hands free from Basha's arms.

The soldiers halted and stared at her with disbelief.

"What are ya doin', child? She's a duergar! Ya want her ta be let loose so's she can murder ya in yer sleep?"

"She's not bad!" Sambril shouted. "Let her go! She's here to help!"

"Usul, get her out o' the way," the soldiers said.

Sambril's mother reached for her daughter.

One of the soldiers raised his ax and used the handle to push the angry child back.

Sambril's eyes flashed with indigo light. She lifted her hands and grabbed the two soldiers.

Both dwarves screamed and dropped to the stone floor.

Basha stumbled to the side and stepped back. She looked down and saw two writing shield dwarves clutching their hands and moaning. She looked at the girl. Sambril's eyes glowed with blue-white light. She blinked once and the light was gone in an instant.

"What did ya do?" Basha asked. She watched Sambril with confusion and awe.

"I won't let them hurt you. She said ya was good."

Basha stood where she was. Had she just seen what she thought she had just seen? Or had the soldier hit her on the head a bit harder than she thought?

Usul stood behind her daughter with her hands covering her face.

"Sambril," she said. Her face had gone white. "How….?"

"I didn't mean ta hurt em'," she explained. "But I can't let em' do anything to Uncle Taklinn's friend."

The soldiers were getting to their feet. They were obviously in great pain.

"Usul," one of them said with a dangerous tone. "Ya get that child back. We got orders."

"Maybe ya should listen to my daughter," Usul told them. She had no idea what had just happened, but she was determined to defend her daughter at all costs.

"If ya kill Uncle Taklinn's friend he will be very angry. He will hurt both of ya when he gets back."

The soldiers flanked their prisoner again and one of them snatched Basha's arm.

The duergar had made no move to run away. She did not resist him.

"Then let im'," he said to Sambril.

"What if yer wrong?" Usul demanded. "What if yer makin' a mistake?"

The soldier took his hand and rubbed it across Basha's face roughly. He lifted his hand and showed it to Usul. It was smeared with black paint.

"Wrong, is we?" he asked. He looked satisfied at her stunned expression.

"Wait," she said. Her voice was desperate. "Let Unnal give the order."

"But Unnal Hornwinder is leadin' the Argent Legion to the Moon Wood. She won't be back fer days."

"Then lock her up," Usul said.

"What for?" he asked. "So's she can plot ways ta convince Unnal ta let er' go?"

"What if she's a spy?" Usul said with a worried expression. "Don't ya think Unnal would want ta speak ta her? What if she knows something and only Unnal can get it out o' her?"

The soldiers hesitated.

"Maybe she's right, Nikirk," one of them said. He looked less certain. He gave his determined companion a worried look.

Nikirk shook his head and glared at Usul. He glared at Sambril as well, confused by the child's unexplained and violent power that had stunned him. He looked over at Basha, daring her to challenge him. She kept her head low, waiting.

Basha had kept her rage under control, but only just. She allowed the soldiers to take her only to save Aisha the beating of her life. But if they lifted a hand to the child one more time she vowed she would take them apart, one limb at a time, Felbar soldiers or no. She flexed her muscles and waited.

"Alright," he said at last. "We lock er' up. But we'll make it known what she is and if she makes a move to escape, we'll kill er'."

Usul stepped out of the way and pulled Sambril back against her protectively.

"Keep that freak o' a child out o' my sight," Nikirk told Usul as they went past, half-dragging Basha along.

When they were gone Usul knelt down and looked at her daughter. "Sambril, is this the woman ya told me about? The one the Great Lady said would come for ya?"

Sambril nodded. "Aye, she is. What do we do? Are they gonna hurt her?"

"I don't know," Usul said. "I hope not. If yer Uncle gets back an' can talk sense into em', then maybe she'll be alright."

Usul took Sambril's hands and frowned. "I know ya was scared, Sambril. But I told ya never ta use yer gift ta hurt people. Didn't I?"

"But, they was gonna hurt her!" Sambril cried.

"There's other ways ta get people ta do the right thing, Sambril. Ya always got ta look fer the solution that don't cause no one pain. Understand? Ya only use yer gift when everything else ya try don't work.

Sambril nodded. "I'm sorry."

Well, maybe she'll be alright," Usul said to Sambril, her tone as reassuring as could be. "As long as yer uncle makes it back here before they get more ideas about killin' er'."

Taklinn and Tenbin road for the space of an hour before the Argent scouts came back to the army to report what they had seen ahead.

"What is it?" Tenbin asked. "What have we stopped fer?"

"It looks like they found something," Taklinn replied.

He kicked Ahmed and rode past the columns of foot-soldiers towards the front. Tehbin rode beside him.

When they reached the end of the lines they could see a shield dwarf, dressed in full-plate battle armor, a huge battle ax slung across his back and a short-sword at his hip. He was listening to the scout and staring at the ground. His expression was grim.

"What new, Malleous?" Tenbin asked.

The white-haired General from Citadel Adbar glanced up at Tenbin.

"There's fallen soldiers up ahead," he said with a dark scowl. They had their throats ripped out. Almost looks like an animal killed em'."

Taklinn looked in the direction they were moving. It was almost total darkness. The only light came from the torches carried by the soldiers at the front.

"An animal," Taklinn said to himself. Something tickled his memory. What was it that strange woman on the ship had said? It wouldn't hurt to take a silver dagger with him? Well, she had been right about it. The very next day Aisha had almost been killed by…. he felt a sudden jolt of fear and he looked back at the General.

"Could I ride on ahead and take a look at em'?" he asked.

Tenbin glanced over at his brother. He raised an eyebrow. "Yer not goin' alone," he said.

"Aye, ya can go if ya so chose. Just keep yer axes ready. I'm marching the army till moon rise. Then we camp. I figure…. a couple more hours? We will be to them dead lads by then. We can at least give em' a proper burial."

Taklinn thanked the General and kicked his horse into a run.

"What's goin' through that head o' yers?" Tenbin shouted over the wind as they galloped side by side. He was certain his younger brother was thinking something.

"This march may be a mistake," Taklinn yelled back.

Tenbin closed his mouth and put his head down, leaning into the wind. Taklinn's horse, a big grey, was galloping as hard as Taklinn could drive him on. Something was wrong. Tenbin didn't know what, but he could see from his brother's expression that Taklinn was working something out in his mind.

Taklinn was trying to remember everything that had occurred until this moment, everything that he could remember happening up until they had left the Shaar.

Faustus had been with them on the ship. So had the werewolf.

Faustus was an illusionist. A very skilled one if he could make himself look and sound like a shield dwarf.

A second werewolf had tried to kill Aisha under the docks at Luskan. Not anyone else, just Aisha. Back in Innarlith, two mercenaries had tried to cut her to ribbons in a tavern. And the incident that had led up to his meeting Basha. The thief that he had been forced to kill in Sharrmid. The scoundrel had made move to take a stab at Aisha for no reason. At least, at the time Taklinn had thought there was no reason.

There had been a young wizard there as well. He hadn't looked life Faustus, but he had seemed about the same age and size.

What did it all mean?

Raef had warned Aisha to leave Shaarmid. He had told her that a skilled band of highwaymen was working the gold routes in the Shaar and that he was trying to put a stop to their activities.

He had said they were inhuman in their ability to evade him.

Inhuman.

Taklinn kicked Ahmed even harder. The great horse lurched forward.

Tenbin urged his horse faster as well but the black stallion easily outpaced him.

It was not very long before they came across the killing field.

Four dead shield dwarves lay in a row beside the road. A single scout, holding a brightly burning torch, stood up as Taklinn reigned Ahmed in and leapt from the saddle.

"I got em' off the road," the scout explained. He jumped back as Taklinn stormed past him, grabbing the torch from his hand.

Tenbin dismounted and caught the reigns of his brother's black horse.

Taklinn lifted the torch and shone the fire light over the bodies of the four soldiers.

"Ah, Gods," Taklinn murmured. He crouched down and looked at the first two bodies.

Their throats had indeed been ripped out. But not by an orc knife. No. These dwarves had been killed by teeth. He could see it even in the torch light.

"Were there any others?" he asked.

The nervous scout stepped forward, shaking his head. "None that we could see. But, we only just found em' at sunset. We ain't had a chance ta look fer others."

Taklinn stood up. He looked at the third body. Another ripped out throat.

He shifted his grip on the torch and walked around the row of bodies until he could see the last one.

He crouched down and looked at the face. Taklinn gasped. "No!" He nearly fell over backwards.

"Tenbin!" Taklinn shouted. He dropped the torch and ran to this horse as fast as he could. "We're goin' back ta Felbarr. Mount up!"

"What? But there's an orc army in the Moon Wood," his brother said.

"No, there ain't," Taklinn said. He grabbed the reigns of his mount and tossed them up.

He gripped the saddle and climbed into it.

"What do ya mean, there ain't no army?"

"It ain't real," Taklinn said. "It's an illusion. We was just made ta think it's real."

"What are ya on about?" Tenbin demanded.

"It's Aisha," Taklinn said, pointing at one of the bodies.

Tenbin strode forward and scooped the torch off the ground. He stomped over to the dead soldier, lifted the torch and blinked with surprise.

Laying on the ground was the body of a shield dwarf soldier, with the face of a young human woman with black hair and emerald green eyes.

"What sorcery is this?" Tenbin asked. He whirled around and ran for his horse.

"Aisha, she's me wife," Taklinn explained.

Tenbin tried to mount up but his foot slipped out of the stirrup at Taklinn's words.

"Yer what?"

"Well, as near to it as she could be without the ring," he said.

Tenbin regained his balance and mounted.

"Ya best tell me about it as we ride," Tenbin told his brother.

Taklinn reigned Ahmed hard and kicked him into a gallop. Tenbin kept pace beside him, but only just.

Taklinn told his brother all that he knew. He recounted everything he could remember from meeting Aisha six months after he had left home, to falling in love with the clumsy human, meeting her brother and Basha in the Sharr, the encounters on the ship and in the taverns and the young wizard who had become infatuated with Aisha.

He knew the tale sounded too fantastic to believe. He even told Tenbin the truth about Basha, who, and what she was.

Tenbin nearly fell out of the saddle when Taklinn told him that he would trust his life to a duergar. But if there was a soul in Faerun that Taklinn trusted with the information, it was his wise and incorruptible older brother.

The army appeared off in the distance. They would meet up with the column very shortly and Tenbin reigned his horse to a halt.

Taklinn followed suit and faced him, watching his brother carefully.

"Ya believe me, don't ya?" Taklinn asked at last. He watched his silent brother hopefully.

Tenbin grimaced. The burly dwarf looked over at his impetuous younger sibling and nodded. "Aye, Taklinn. I believe ya. Ya couldn't come up with a tale like this less it was true. There's just one problem."

"I know," Taklinn said, glancing in the direction of the army.

Tenbin sighed. "Convincing the General ta turn back."

Basha rolled with the punch. She crumpled, pretending to be more hurt than she actually was.

The two soldiers had dumped her in a cell and were giving her a quick reminder of who was in charge.

"Let's leave it," said Nikirk, panting from exertion. Hitting Basha was starting to hurt his fists. "She'll meet her fate when Unnal Hornwinder sets foot back in Felbar."

They kicked her once more as they left, slamming the cell door behind them and locking it with a set of huge iron keys.

She spit out a mouth full of blood and sat up slowly. One or two ribs were broken, but other than that and a swollen eye, she was feeling remarkably healthy. She had expected to be dead by now.

She looked over and saw, once again, a set of heavy iron bars hemming her in.

"Ah, that looks familiar," she said.

She curled her legs under her and stood up. The pain in her ribs was sharp and made her catch her breath, but it was bearable.

She eased herself onto the stone slab that served as a bunk and leaned against the cold wall.

"At least I had a blanket in Shaarmid!" she shouted. She knew there was no one there to hear her.

She sighed and rubbed her ribs.

She felt terrible about hitting Aisha. She figured that if she still had her head when Taklinn came back, and he found out that she had knocked the girl out then she would save the soldiers the trouble of executing her. He'd kill her for hurting Aisha.

"Naw," she said, picturing the scene at the inn. "He'll understand."

As odd as it sounded, she had done it out of selflessness. She couldn't bear the thought that the girl would end up injured trying to help a duergar.

She touched her puffy eye and winced. It was going to be a long night.

"I'm alright," the skinny human girl said to Usul. She glanced around the inn room and wasn't quite certain for a moment where she was.

The stout Dwarf woman had helped Aisha onto the narrow bed and watched her with concern.

"You know where they took my friend?" she asked Usul and Sambril.

"They locked her up," Usul said with a scowl.

"But she's alive," Sambril added.

"Then I've got to go get her out," Aisha said, trying to stand. She fell backwards and moaned.

"Yer not goin' no place," Usul said with a stern, motherly expression. "She'll make it till the army gets back. Then Taklinn can sort this all out. At least, I hope he can."

Usul turned suddenly and looked at the door with surprise. Calathra stood there, a sack of herbs in one hand and a very confused expression on her face.

"It's alright," Aisha said quickly. "She's our friend."

Usul relaxed and gave the Halfling a nod. "I'm Taklinn's sister-in-law."

Calathra looked the dwarf woman up and down. "Uh-huh. So, where is the big ox, anyway?"

She looked over at Aisha and saw the girl rubbing the back of her head.

"What happened to you?" the Halfling asked as she came into the room

"Basha's been arrested," the Aisha said.

Calathra stopped. "Oh. That's bad."

"She's gonna be exsiccated," Sambril said.

"How did they find out about her?" Calathra asked.

Sambril looked at the floor with a guilty expression.

Calathra wasn't certain, but from the Dwarf child's guilty face she could guess how they had found out.

"And Taklinn is gone," Aisha went on. "He rode out a few hours ago and won't be back for days."

Calathra threw herself onto the bed and tossed the bag of herbs on the floor.

"The soldiers said they wanted to kill her," Sambril explained. "But mama stopped them. She told them to wait until the army got back."

The Halfling looked up at Usul with a grateful expression. Basha had saved her from a life of slavery and she would always feel indebted to the duergar for that. Anyone who helped her friends was an ally.

"We have to get her out," Calathra told them. "You all know that she won't make it until Taklinn gets back. And even when he does come back, what can he do? They won't listen to him."

Usul paced the room. She closed the door and looked at them, ringing her hands.

"I know it sounds strange commin' from me," she whispered. "But I think yer right. We got to get her out o' Felbar."

"Will you help us? Aisha asked.

"As much as I can. I'm not sure how ta tell ya both this, but Sambril knew who yer friend was, what she was, before she ever came ta Felbar."

"How?" Calathra asked. She sat up quickly.

"Sambril saw her face in a dream. Her face the way it really is. Without the paint she's wearin' now."

"A dream?" Aisha asked with alarm.

"Aye. She's seen yer friend before. In that dream. Sambril said that she'd be the one who'd tell her uncle Taklinn that he needed ta give up his life on the road and stay in Felbar. She also said that it was yer friend who would show Taklinn who Sambril really is. And I think I know how."

"How?" Aisha asked.

"Just now, as they was taken yer friend away, Sambril tried ta stop em'. She put her hands on them two soldiers and they fell ta the floor. She hurt em' both. She's never done nothing like that before. Oh, little things, she's done lots o' harmless little things. Like bein' able ta find needles I lost on the kitchen floor without even looking. Or knowing people's names before she's ever met em', starting the fire in the hearth without flint. But what she just did ta try an' help yer friend, she's never been able ta do that. It's like something inside o' her woke up."

"And Basha was the one who brought it about," Calathra said.

Calathra and Aisha looked at each other.

"Vorgrim," Calathra said.

"He was right. The chosen one is in Felbar," Aisha replied.

Calathra sat back with a thump. She stared at the wall.

"Dark skinned cousin to the shield dwarves," she said.

"Would reveal her identity," Aisha finished.

"There's somthin' else," Usul said, looking back and forth between the two stunned women.

"Oh, course there is," Calathra said with dread.

"Sambril told me that her uncle would be the one to watch over her from now on. She said that once it got out that she was the one the Great Lady had chosen to speak to, that she just wouldn't be safe no more. She said that her Uncle Taklinn was the one who would watch over her till she was old enough ta watch over herself."

Aisha blinked.

Calathra looked over at the girl and grimaced. "Ah, is she sure?"

"She's sure," Usul repeated.

Aisha had gone quite pale. She rubbed her head and winced. "I suppose we can worry about that later," she told them. "Right now we have to get Basha out of Felbar."

"But, she's locked up in a cell," Usul said with a worried frown.

"Where is this cell?" Calathra asked.

Usul told the Halfling how to reach the lower levels. She explained carefully where Basha would be. Calathra stood up and felt her pockets. Her hands lingered on a hidden pocket beneath her outer jacket and she nodded once.

"Right. I'm going to get her out,"

"What?" Aisha asked. "Exactly how do you plan to do that?"

"Never you mind," Calathra said. "What I need is a place to take her. We can't just walk out the Rune Gate. Where else can she get out of Felbarr?"

"The North Vigil," Usul said. "It'll be deserted but fer a few guards. Everyone else is gone with the Legion. If we can get er' across the bridge and to the Vigil, she can climb down from there and make it out of the valley. The vigil is still bein' built an' there's a tall scaffold that leads ta' the ground."

"I'll meet you both there," Calathra said, pointing to Aisha and Usul in turn. "I'll bring her with me, and you can help me distract the soldiers long enough for Basha to sneak past. Alright?"

"What can I do?" Sambril asked, wanting desperately to be useful.

"You can stay right by us," Usul told her daughter. "And you can help us to keep the attention of the soldiers at the Vigil when Basha and her friend get there."

Sambril took her mother's hand and smiled. This was going to be a great adventure and she got to be a part of it. In her mind there was nothing better.

"We'll go there now and wait for you," Usul told Calathra. "Please hurry. I know the soldiers who arrested your friend. I don't think they will be very gentle with her."

"Then she may need this," Calathra said. The Halfling took Basha's mace from the corner and wrapped it in the duergar's cloak. It was so heavy she needed both hands to lift it.

"I'll be quick as I can," she said as she darted towards the door. "Just be there."

She was gone.

Faustus and the pack scaled the scaffolding secured to the North vigil post, slaughtering the soldiers who guarded the bridge as they sprang over the side of the half-finished wall. The dwarves didn't even have time to react. The Pack were deadly and totally silent when they wanted to be.

Tzelmoth had to haul the wizard up by the scruff when he nearly fell from the lip of the wall.

"Idiot," she said as she dropped him safely on the bridge. "Be more careful."

Faustus looked over the side of the bridge and felt the racing of his heart. It was nearly four hundred feet to the bottom. Had he fallen there would have not been much left of him. The jagged rocks below would have crushed him like a peach.

He nodded pitifully.

Four Felbar soldiers lay dead at her feet. She stepped over them daintily, not wanting to soil her boots with their blood.

"Ruach will be here soon," she told them all.

Mylonas moved to stand beside her. He and his brother's looked even more horrible than usual. Their fangs glistened with fresh blood.

The half-moon was just rising and they all turned to look at the bright orb as it climbed over the valley cliffs.

Even a half-moon was enough to send them all into a frenzy of excitement. Tzelmoth shouted at them before they could release a chorus of howls.

"Silence! Fools. Pay attention," she snapped. "We need to find this woman. Ruach and the rest will find the sister. We will meet them in the tunnels and Ruach will lead us back to Ascore on the Low Road. But, someone needs to stay here and make certain that no one follows us."

"I'll do it," Faustus said.

Tzelmoth cocked her head at the wizard and smirked. "You?"

"I can hide the dead soldiers, too," he added.

Tzelmoth snorted. "Fine. But if we don't come back for you then you must get out of Felbar without us. Do you think you can do that?"

His shoulders hunched up and he chanced a look at her. "I think so."

She tossed her smoky hair. "Alright. Then you can stay. We will find you in Ascore if we become separated. Understand?"

"You trusssst him?" Mylonas asked, his wolf mouth mangling the syllables of the words he spoke.

"No," she replied. "But it's Faustus. What harm can he do?"

This seemed to satisfy Mylonas. He lowered his head as a gesture of acceptance of her orders.

"I'll find you in Ascore," Faustus told her.

"No," she said, her amber eyes flashing. "We will find you."

The Pack turned and raced across the bridge, morphing into their human shapes as they moved. It was sickening to watch and Faustus tried to look away, but he couldn't. Tzelmoth, flanked by three horrid beasts on the bridge, walked beside three ordinary human men when she reached the other side.

Faustus set about the awful task of hiding the bodies.

He could not believe his luck and he worked as quickly as he could. His feigned admiration for Tzelmoth had convinced her to allow him a small measure of freedom. Her trust was terribly misplaced. He had no intention at all of staying on the Vigil. As soon as the four soldiers were hidden from sight he would steal into the Citadel and try to find Aisha. He had no idea what he would do once he found her. Warn her of the Pack at the least, and maybe try and help her escape if he could. He knew his soul would find one of the gates of Hell when he died, but if he could save one gentle soul, perhaps fate would find a gate that was not so cruel.

The General of Citadel Adbar was well known for his staunch distrust of magic and all things mystical. He relied on an ax and his wits, and made no secret of his disdain for sorcery or spell-tricks.

With that in mind, Taklinn had decided to let his brother ride to meet the army. Tenbin would have the unhappy task of trying to convince the General that the orc army was an illusion, nothing more. Both Hammerstriker brothers knew the chances of convincing the General to reverse the army and take them back to Felbarr were poor indeed.

Taklinn would return to Felbar alone. He knew what waited for him there. He knew that even now his Aisha was the target of not just one, but many of the beasts that he had seen in his dream. He pushed his horse as fast as he dared.

Even if he returned to Felbar at his current pace he knew it would be a nearly an hour before he reached the Rune Gate. He felt a stab of fear when he realized the wolves were most likely already inside.

Calathra slipped through the main cavern of Felbar. She darted down the tunnel Usul had told her would lead to the cells deep beneath the Citadel. She cradled Basha's mace and hurried along the corridor.

It seemed a greater distance than she had imagined. She had to stop twice to get her bearings. The tunnels of Felbar were confusing, even to someone as skilled at exploring as she was.

In spite of her excellent memory and Usul's careful instructions, she became slightly disoriented and realized she was going the wrong way. The direction she was heading seemed to be taking her gradually up, not down, as Usul said that it would.

She stopped and rested Basha's heavy mace on the cold stone beneath her feet. She turned and carefully watched the tunnel behind her. It was mostly deserted. All of Felbar seemed to be eerily silent. The army was gone and it left the Citadel pitifully empty. Still, a few hardy souls moved to and fro, hustling back home.

She watched an old Dwarf woman shamble by and almost asked for directions.

She decided against it. The thought of asking casually where the Felbar dungeons were seemed a ridiculous notion.

She lifted the mace once again and decided she would travel on a bit further and then go back the way she had come.

Abruptly the slope of the tunnel shifted and she started to descend rapidly. She also noticed that all of the usual side passages seemed to be disappearing. It looked more like a long cavern to her than a tunnel leading into the depths of Felbar.

She stopped again and caught her breath. It was so dark ahead she couldn't see more than a few paces. The dim torches that lined the top of the wall had almost withered down to nothing and the darkness was thick.

She heard something rushing towards her and tried to step out of the way.

A terrified face appeared in her vision. A human woman squealed and tried in vain to stop.

Calathra dodged aside and they missed each other by the width of a finger as the woman ran past.

"Run!" she screamed.

"What's happening?" Calathra asked frantically.

"Wolves are coming through the tunnel!" the woman cried. "They killed my father and all of the men in my caravan!"

"Wolves?" Calathra said with confusion. Surely a band of confident humans could deal with a few wolves.

It made no sense to her, but suddenly she felt a hot breeze drift up from one of the tunnels behind her. She headed towards it hopefully.

As she stood in the opening she sighed with relief. "This is it," she said as she stole through the tunnel.

Usul had said that the cells were hot. Stifling in fact. She said the heat was forced up from the great forges far below and found its way through the tunnels to the cells. If the wind here was hot, this was the way she needed to go.

Ruach stood in his human form and listened to the screams as the Pack killed a terrified woman as she tried to flee. He watched with satisfaction as Garphiel savaged the one human who remained alive.

Two of the merchants in the caravan they had encountered had resisted them with weapons and had died horribly as a consequence.

"Enough," he said. Graphiel was playfully nipping at the legs of an old man who crouched on the ground and kicked at him with terror.

"Kill him. We don't have time to waste."

The werewolf looked at Ruach with disappointment, then turned back to the old man and pounced. He choked the life from the man in seconds, flinging the corpse aside.

"Tzelmoth should be in the Citadel now," Ruach said. "I will continue on and locate her. You will stay here long enough to make certain we are not followed. Kill anyone else you find. If no one comes, follow me. Give me a few minutes. No more than a quarter hour. Do you all understand?"

"Yesss," Graphiel replied. "But where do weee meet you?"

"If we become separated, find me here. I may need to search for the wretched girl alone. I will not leave before sinking my teeth into her flesh, mark what I have said. She will die before I leave this place. I will not linger once I have found her, though. Tzelmoth will lead you to the Dwarf woman and you will take her to Ascore. I will tell you all what comes next when we find each other there."

The three Pack brothers lowered their heads as Ruach walked past them. They watched him until the darkness swallowed him.

Basha lay on the stone slab and rubbed her eyes. She could see in spite of the swelling. She wasn't certain if that was a blessing or not. All she had to look at was carved stone and iron bars.

The two soldiers who had arrested her were taking turns stalking past her cell. She could see from their faces that it would only be a matter of time before they came back in to give her another beating.

She felt her heart sink. It would have broken Vorgrim's heart to see her like this.

Her face twisted in pain and she began to cry.

Vorgrim was dead. He was gone. It didn't matter any longer if she was executed. What did she have to live for now?

She wiped away her tears and tried to stem their flow. It would only make things worse if the soldiers saw her during a moment of weakness. She'd be damned if she'd give them the satisfaction of seeing her suffer.

Something hit the floor in her cell. She jumped and looked down.

Her mace lay at her feet.

She looked up and saw Calathra Hardingdale staring back at her, and impish grin on her mischievous face.

"I thought you may need that," the Halfling said.

Basha stood up and grabbed her mace with disbelief. "How did ya…?"

"Just stay quiet," Calathra instructed.

She pulled a small pouch out of her jacket and selected a slightly curved tool that looked like a tiny knife.

The Halfling set to work on the lock of Basha's cell. She kept one ear turned to the tunnels, and both eyes on the stubborn lock.

"Hurry. They come around regular ta check on me," Basha said.

"I know," Calathra said irritably.

"Ya don't have a lot of time," Basha told her.

"I know, I know," Calathra said quickly.

Basha moved to the cell door and gripped it with one hand.

"Don't ya have it yet?" she asked.

"I'd be able to do it a lot quicker if you would shut up!" Calathra hissed.

"Quiet!" Basha whispered. "They'll hear ya."

"I think they will have their hands busy in a moment," the Halfling said. "There's wolves in the tunnel up above."

"Wolves?" Basha said. She gave the bars a shake.

"That won't help," Calathra told her.

"How did wolves get in the tunnels o' Felbar?"

"How should I know?" the Halfling said.

Basha stepped back and slapped her hand to her forehead. "Gods!" she cried.

"What?" Calathra asked. Just then they both heard a click and the cell door swung open.

"Wolves," Basha said, stalking towards the door.

"And?" Calathra demanded.

Basha stopped and faced her. "Taklinn's dream. Remember? He said that Aisha was standing on a cliff and a great hairy beast was tryin' ta kill er'. Well, a werewolf tried ta kill her in Luskan. What if they followed her here and they's coming in from the Low Road?"

"We'll, they won't find her," Calathra said. "She's up at the North Vigil waiting for us. We are going to get you out of Felbar before they start chopping bits of you off."

"I ain't goin' nowhere," Basha said. "If they's here ta kill Aisha, they won't ever make it."

"What are you talking about!" Calathra shouted. She covered her mouth and glanced around nervously.

"The Low Road, can ya take me to it?" Basha asked.

"Yes. Its straight up this passage," Calathra said, pointing to a tunnel.

Basha turned on her heel.

"But, this is an escape!" Calathra cried. "You're not supposed to stay where you are escaping from."

"Thanks fer getting me out," Basha called over her shoulder as she disappeared up the tunnel.

Calathra stood at the cell door and let her arms fall limp at her sides. Now what?

She replaced her tool in its hidden pouch.

She stood where she was for a moment, feeling confused and angry.

Basha was going to get herself killed. How could she possibly expect to survive if there really were werewolves coming down the tunnel of the Low Road.

Maybe that was the point. Maybe she didn't expect to survive. Maybe Vorgrim's death had crushed her more than anyone knew.

Approaching voices snapped her out of her thoughts and she looked down the corridor. She could hear two dwarves approaching.

She looked at the empty cell. Once they saw that Basha was missing they would search for her and most likely use it as an excuse to kill her on the spot.

Without a moment's hesitation Calathra darted into the cell and closed it behind her. She gathered Basha's cloak from the floor and bundled it around her tightly. She crouched behind the stone slab, pulling the hood over her head as she did. She propped her arms up to make her shoulders appear larger and bent her head low.

"Please, don't come in," she pleaded quietly as the voices drew closer.

The two dwarves walked by the cell, pausing only long enough to check that it was still occupied, and moved on without another word.

Calathra slumped with relief as they left.

Then she realized what she had just done. It would take her much longer to pick a lock from inside the cell. She wouldn't be able to find Aisha and warn her in time.

She pulled out her tools and set to work on the lock once again, hoping that luck was on Basha's side.

Taklinn kicked Ahmed hard and realized with great surprise that the horse wasn't even lathered from the run. He shook his head, trying to understand how it could be possible.

Ahmed seemed to gallop without any effort at all. His stride was just as strong as it had been when he had left Felbar.

How could this be? Had there been a reason that Aisha had told him to take her horse?

There had been, indeed.

Ahmed was a gift from her brother, General Raef Ahnjae.

Raef had known that he could never be there to take care of his sister, so he had given her a horse that could do it for him.

Ahmed was no ordinary stallion. To say that the animal was otherworldly would have been close to the mark.

Taklinn had always felt a bit odd when the big war horse looked him in the eye, like someone just as intelligent was looking back.

"Aisha is in trouble, Mate," he told Ahmed. He felt a bit foolish, but he was desperate.

"We got ta get back ta Felbar. We got ta do it quick."

Almost as if the great animal had understood his words, Ahmed opened up his stride and tore across the valley with a speed that Taklinn didn't believe was physically possible. He had to grab the black mane to keep from tumbling off the back at Ahmed's sudden burst of speed.

"Aye, that's it!" he cried as Ahmed ran. Tears leaked from his eyes as the wind rushed past like he was flying.

Faustus had just finished dragging the last body behind a stack of cut stones when he heard voices coming from the bridge.

He poked his head over the stones and saw Aisha standing in the door way on the other side. He slouched down quickly.

She was standing beside a Dwarf woman and a child. They were crouched in the shadows of the arch that led into Felbar from the bridge, but he had seen them.

They seemed to be searching the bridge for something.

He sat back on his heels and thought fast. What was she doing up here? How had she managed to get past Tzelmoth?

Well, it didn't matter. What mattered was that he had to get her out of here.

If she saw him, she would either run him through with her sword, or she would run away. Neither option was acceptable.

Faustus stood up and lifted his hands. Why be himself when he could be someone she would trust on sight? It was the only way he could think of that would ensure her co-operation.

He spoke a quiet phrase and stepped out of the shadows and into the moon light.

Aisha looked across the bridge at the figure moving towards her and gasped.

Basha stalked up the tunnel that led to the Low Road and listened. She moved with silent speed, relying on her skills as a former denizen of the Underdark. Even an alert soldier would have walked directly past her without knowing she was there.

Basha had become invisible.

She knew that she didn't have long before she became visible again and she wanted to take advantage of it while she could.

Then she heard them.

A small group moving towards her, coming up from the wide tunnel with alarming speed. They panted like huge dogs as they moved and she knew that she had found what she was searching for.

She stopped.

Basha stood in the center of the tunnel, planted her feet and raised her mace high.

She narrowed her eyes and smiled.

"Show yer teeth, boys. Show yer claws. I got noting ta loose."

Three huge beasts burst forth from the darkness and ran straight for her.

"Amandur!" Aisha shouted. She didn't hesitate a moment and ran towards the figure on the bridge. He trotted towards her and met her in the center.

"How? What…."

"You've got to get out of here," he said, mimicking Amandur's voice perfectly.

"But, what…"

"There isn't time to explain. Do you remember the wolf on the ship?" he asked.

"Yes, but what does…"

"There is a pack of those creatures hunting you right now."

"What?" she asked. Her face went white.

"They want to take revenge on your brother by killing you. That werewolf on the ship was sent there to kill you. You have got to leave here."

"I don't understand," she said.

"You don't have to understand. You only have to listen to me. Now, give me your cloak."

"Why?" she asked, even as she began to take it off.

It was Amandur. Of course she would obey him.

"They can smell you. If I wear it, that might make them confused for a moment."

She gave him her cloak and watched as he slipped it on. He pulled his cloak over her shoulders when he was finished and tied it tightly around her neck.

"Who are they?" he asked, looking towards Usul and Sambril.

"Taklinn's family," she answered.

"Is he here?" he asked hopefully.

"No. He is riding to the Moon Wood."

"Curse it, I was too good," he mumbled.

"What?" she asked, still confused.

"Aisha," he said, grabbing her arms. "You have got to leave. They won't rest until they find you. Go back to the Sharr and your brother will be able to protect you."

"I can't leave Taklinn," she said automatically.

"Then will you at least leave Felbar until they are gone? Will you do that much?"

She looked torn and he shook her once.

"Aisha! There's no time. They are here now!"

"Alright," she said. "What do you want me to do?"

Ahmed tore down the Felbar road leaving a trial of dust hanging in the air. His black mane flew behind him like a flag in a hurricane.

Taklinn's hands were nearly numb from holding on. He chanced a look up and saw the outline of the South Vigil off to his right. They were almost there. He wouldn't have believed it was possible unless he had actually seen it.

The three werewolves stopped short when the big gray in front held out his claws.

He sniffed the air and growled.

"What isss it?" his brother asked.

"Theresss someone here," he told them.

They moved forward slowly and tasted the air.

"A dwarf," one of them said.

The big grey-furred wolf snarled.

"And it's right here. I can smell it."

"I don't see anything," his brother said impatiently. "Ruach needs us."

He turned away from the other two and took two steps forward.

His head exploded in a shower of blood and teeth.

Basha let out a battle scream and spun full around. She cried out as her broken ribs stung her, but she did not hesitate for and instant.

Using the momentum from her devastating attack to carry her into a spin, she lowered her mace a hand's breadth and felt it smash into the wolf's head once more.

He crumpled to the stone, his head unrecognizable.

The two other werewolves snarled at her and crouched, ready to spring.

Basha spit on the ground and wiped her mouth.

"What do ya know?" she said with a jaunty twirl of her bloody mace. "And it ain't even made out o' silver."

"You die!" growled the big grey wolf.

"Everybody does," she replied. She looked him straight in the eyes fearlessly. "Everybody."

Tzelmoth waited outside of the temple where she knew the dwarf woman would be. She had smelled her out and knew that she was inside. She was not alone, but as far as Tzelmoth could determine there was only one other person with her.

Other temples stood on either side of the wide cavern, as well as deserted shops and dark dwellings. Most of the citizens of Felbar were asleep, or gone. More than half of the population was marching towards the Moon Wood, and the half that remained was old men and women. Tzelmoth didn't consider a Dwarf woman to be much of a threat.

She leaned against the wall and tried to look as casual as possible.

Mylonas and the other two brothers were standing not far away. They watched her expectantly.

She shrugged at them when they glanced over at her quizzically.

Where was Ruach? He should have found her by now.

At that thought she caught sight of him strolling towards her.

She smiled.

"What kept you?" she asked.

"Details," he told her.

He looked towards the temple.

"Is she there?" he asked.

"She and one other. It will not be a problem."

Ruach sniffed once with distain.

"Then I will meet you in the tunnels leading to Ascore. Take her there. I will find you when I have finished with the black haired girl. I have her scent and I will track her. It shouldn't be long."

"Kill her for all of us," Tzelmoth said with a smile.

"I will bring you a trophy. Her fingers, perhaps?"

"As you wish," she replied.

He left them to their task and went after his quarry.

Tzelmoth caught the eye of Mylonas and walked into the temple. He and the other two brothers waited for her signal.

They waited. And waited. There was no movement and no sound from the temple.

One of the brothers leaned in close to Mylonas.

"Something is wrong," he said. "Where is her call?"

"I'm going to find out. Come with me, both of you."

The three men walked towards the temple and ducked inside.

When Mylonas passed over the threshold he saw Tzelmoth standing with her back to him, unmoving. The temple was empty. A low door led off to the right and a dim light issued from inside.

He moved forward cautiously and touched her shoulder.

"Tzelmoth, where…"

She folded up and crumpled to the floor at his feet. A silver cross bow bolt protruded from her chest.

He jumped back and instantly began to change shape. Within moments he was a wolf again.

He saw his brothers change as well and the three of them moved into a tight circle.

"She's dead," Mylonas hissed. "But, how? Who could have known we were here?'

"Oh, we knew," said a voice.

They turned towards the low door and saw a gold dwarf woman standing in the glow. Her full plate armor gleamed in the dim light. She held a crossbow. It was aimed straight at them.

"The wee Lass said you would come," she told them. "I always said that one should listen to children."

Taklinn rode past the South Vigil. He urged Ahmed on towards the Rune Gate, but the horse refused to obey him. Instead of heading towards the main entrance the big stallion headed North and rode for the North Vigil. Taklinn was powerless to stop him. No matter how hard he pulled the reigns Ahmed refused to alter his course.

"Blasted animal!" Taklinn shouted. "Are ya daft?"

Ahmed charged ahead until he stood at the base of the scaffold.

"What?" Taklinn demanded. "Ya want me ta climb it?"

Ahmed gave his answer. He folded his legs and laid down where he stood.

Taklinn tumbled to the ground and sprang to his feet.

"Ya must know something I don't," he told the horse.

Even if he ran he couldn't make it to the Rune Gate for several minutes. If he started climbing now, he might be able to reach the top fairly quickly. The scaffold was well built and the ladder was sturdy. It would be faster than the Rune Gate at this point.

"I hope yer right," he told Ahmed.

Taklinn checked the pommel of his war ax. It was secure in its sheath on his back.

He took a deep breath and grabbed the first wrung.

The gray werewolf sprang. He ripped Basha's shoulder with a slice from his claws and was rewarded with a punch to his eye that broke the bones.

Basha stepped back.

The second wolf darted forward and snapped at her legs, landing a nasty bite on her left knee that almost took her down.

She staggered but kept her feet.

The big gray stumbled to the side, shaking his head and howling in pain. His oddly human hands cupped his shattered eye socket and he whimpered.

"Kill her!" he shouted.

"Ya heard im'," she said to his companion. "Kill me."

The wolf growled and darted in again.

She swung her mace, but he was too quick. He slid underneath her attack and hit her in the ribs.

She cried out in pain as he pinned her against the tunnel wall, his hairy shoulder digging into her gut.

Basha brought her knee up as hard as she could. She heard the satisfying crunch as the wolf's jaw cracked from the impact.

He stumbled backwards.

She leaned forward and kicked him in the face as hard as she could.

He howled and fell to the side.

The gray wolf struck. He raked her with his claws, catching her face and blinding her in the left eye.

She nearly dropped her mace, but the pain only served to enrage her and she charged.

She hit the wolf full on, grinding her shoulder into his groin and falling on top of him as he curled into a ball.

He tried to toss her off, but she deflected his claws and smashed her knee into his arm.

She gripped her mace with one hand and held the wolf's face with the other. She raised her mace and brought it down.

Just as she did, the second wolf crashed into her from behind. He knocked her off the gray wolf and sent her sprawling. She landed against the wall of the tunnel.

He moved forward, preparing to pounce.

Basha watched him out of her right eye. He came closer. Closer.

She didn't move. She didn't even breath.

When he was nearly on top of her she tensed every muscle in her body.

He sprang.

She somersaulted out of the way and he bounced off the stone wall. She used her mace as a brace and pushed herself up on her feet.

Blood poured from the wounds on her face. Her leg dripped blood from the bite. She panted with exhaustion and rage.

The wolf stood before her, his jaw smashed and his eyes swelling shut quickly. He wouldn't be able to see soon. He had to finish her now.

"What?" Basha asked. "Are ya giving up, pup?"

He snarled. His jaw was mangled too badly for him to speak. He couldn't bite her, he must finish her with his claws.

Basha knew that as well and she was ready.

He moved towards her cautiously. His courage was bolstered when the big gray wolf joined him. They faced her down, each coming at her from a different side.

She tried desperately to watch them both, but her left eye was useless and they moved further and further apart until they stood on either side of her.

She could hear the gray breathing on her left, and she could see the other standing on her right waiting for his chance to rip her open with his claws.

It was over. She knew it. Even if she did kill one of them, the other would be one her before she had a chance to react.

"They all know that yer here," she said. He voice was ragged. Her mace felt so heavy.

"Liar," the gray hissed.

"It ain't a lie," she told him. "How else would I have known ta come looking for ya?"

He didn't respond. He wasn't believing her story. He was concentrating on her neck.

"They killed them others already," she said.

This made him pause. "How did you know there were others?"

She hadn't. She had taken a wild stab at a statement that might buy her a moment or two to catch her breath.

"Cause' they's dead," she said as matter-of-factly as possible.

He tensed his muscles. She turned her good eye just enough to see his thick legs bulge with effort. He was ready.

"Ya know how I know they's dead?" she asked.

He snarled viciously.

"Cause' I killed em'!"

He lunged.

Basha paused for a single heartbeat, then stepped back just enough to let him sail past. He hit the other wolf and they both crashed to the ground.

She was on them in an instant.

She brought her mace down on the gray's back and felt the bones in his spine shatter. He crumpled at her feet.

The other wolf tried to scramble away but she grabbed his tail and pulled him back. He clawed at her legs and ripped straight through the heavy leather of her leggings.

She pinned him down, using her elbow as a lever and pressed it into his neck.

She grabbed her arm with her other hand and pushed with the last of her strength. She felt his neck snap beneath her.

He went limp in her grasp and she dropped him to the floor.

As she stood up, she saw the two soldiers who had arrested her, frozen with shock, watching her.

"I think they's softened up for ya, Lads," she said. "Ya can take me back ta my cell now."

She staggered once and fell over.

The soldiers stared at the scene before them. Three dead werewolves lay scattered across the cavern floor. And one badly bruised and bleeding duergar lay beside them.

Neither of them could speak. They looked at each other wordlessly, not knowing what to do next.

Mylonas and his brothers tried to run. Tzelmoth's death had shaken their confidence.

As Mylonas turned to flee, a silver cross bow bolt hit him square in the chest. He fell to the floor instantly, convulsed once and moved no more.

The other two wolves bolted. But as they turned towards the door it was suddenly blocked by another gold dwarf.

He held a silver dagger in each hand. He looked pale, but he looked angry as well. They tried to rush in on the solitary gold dwarf but he had anticipated them. He threw one dagger, then the other and one of the brother's crumpled to the floor.

The gold dwarf woman had reloaded her crossbow and was aiming carefully. She had to pause in order to avoid hitting her friend, and the wolf seized the chance. He dodged past the dwarf standing in the door and darting away into the dark cavern.

"We've got to catch him," said the woman. She gave her companion a worried glance. "Are you able?"

He shook his head. "I cannot. I am still too weak."

She reloaded her crossbow and ran from the temple after the feeing wolf.

"Be careful!" he shouted after her. "Never underestimate an angry animal!"

Taklinn was half way to the top when he could hear voices carried on the wind above him.

He was not certain, but he thought heard Aisha.

He quickened his pace and nearly fell when one of the ladder rungs snapped beneath his eager hands.

Steadying himself, he pressed on, desperate to reach the top. Something told him that he hadn't even a moment to loose.

The gold dwarf woman chased after the fleeing werewolf, keeping her crossbow leveled at him every chance she got. But always her line of sight was interrupted by his movement, or a passerby who stepped in her way.

She hurried after him. He outpaced her quickly and she lost him, but she could tell from the direction he had been going that he was headed down. He seemed to know where he was going.

The only escape route available that led deeper into the Citadel was the Low Road.

She lowered the cross bow and gripped it with one hand before breaking into a run.

She knew a quicker way to the low road than he did. She was certain of it. If she was fast enough she could beat him there.

She lowered her head and ran.

Taklinn grabbed the last wrung on the scaffold ladder and heaved himself over the side. He could see that the buttress towers of the Vigil were completely deserted. Not one soldier manned their post. He stood up straight, drawing his ax, turned towards the bridge that spanned the Felbar river and froze.

Usul lay in a slump against the arch of the great door that lead into Felbar from the bridge. He could not see if she was alive or dead., but she was slumped unnaturally and covered in blood. Before her motionless body stood the largest wolf that Taklinn had ever seen. The wolf shook itself and then stood up, revealing what it truly was. This was no ordinary wolf. It was the creature from his night mare made real. It was the beast that he had seen kill Aisha a thousand times.

Taklinn started forward and then stopped dead where he stood. Standing on the bridge before him was Sambril. His niece was weeping and crying Usul's name.

Beside her was something so unbelievable that Taklinn was stunned from the sight.

Two Aisha's stood before him on the long, narrow bridge. One of them held Amandur's rapier with a confident grip, the other seemed bewildered and confused.

Sambril was looking back and forth between them frantically. She didn't know which one was which.

That meant there was no way for Taklinn to know either.

But he did know one thing. He knew that in moments he would be forced to make the most agonizing choice of his life.

He pulled a throwing ax from his belt and charged.

The wolf mirrored his actions and bolted forward.

Taklinn ran with all his might. He took a double step as he drew closer and threw his ax straight at the wolf. It sailed straight between the two Aisha's and hit the beast square on the forearm. The wound didn't slow the wolf down. He was almost on top of them.

Taklinn gripped his war ax desperately.

The wolf sprang.

Sambril was hit hard and tumbled straight for the side of the bridge. She tried to catch herself but the force from the blow was too powerful and she crashed into the railing. She lost her balance and started to fall.

The werewolf set his eyes on the frightened Aisha and sprang.

Taklinn would be able to grab Sambril before she fell to her death, or he would be able to stop the wolf, but not both.

Just as Sambril started to teeter over the edge of the bridge, Taklinn grabbed her shirt and pulled her back from the brink of death. They tumbled to the bridge, Sambril clutched in her uncle's powerful embrace.

Taklinn turned back in horror as he watched the wolf's jaws close around Aisha's throat. She screamed and grabbed it by the arms, her legs pumping backwards furiously. The wolf had come too fast and he couldn't stop his momentum.

"Aisha!" Taklinn cried.

The wolf and Aisha slammed into the side of the bridge and plunged over the side. The last thing he saw was her frightened eyes as she dropped out of his sight. He released Sambril and clawed his way to the rail.

The Felbar river had swallowed them up. But even at this distance he could see the smears of blood on the rocks that showed him where their bodies had crashed onto the sharp granite before falling into the river.

Dazed, he turned back to the Aisha still standing on the bridge. He didn't dare hope that it was truly her.

He was certain that it was Faustus. The wizard had cast an illusion to disguise himself as Aisha, hoping to avoid death in the end.

It was exactly the horrible type of cowardly trick the selfish boy would employee just to save himself.

As Faustus's magic faded, he could see that she wasn't wearing her cloak, that is was in fact, the camel colored cloak that he had often seen the boy wearing on the Lander Gail.

Taklinn clenched his fists and let out a great bellow of rage and agony. He buried his face in his hands and fell to his knees on the bridge. He sobbed as the reality of her death hit him like an arrow.

"No! Not Aisha!" he sobbed. "I told ya I can'na live without her!"

"Taklinn," the Faustus/Aisha said. "I'm alright."

He lifted his head when he heard her voice and blinked tears out of his blurry eyes.

She came forward and stood before him. She sheathed Amandur's rapier with a practiced stroke and knelt down to place her hand on his cheek. She smiled at him sadly.

"I'm alright," she said.

He grabbed her hands and squeezed them with desperate disbelief.

"Aisha? Lass, is it really you?"

She sat back on her heels and wrapped both arms around him as tightly as she could.

"It's really me," she said.

"But, I saw ya fall," he stammered.

"It was Faustus. He did it to save me."

"Mama!" Sambril cried. She had gotten to her feet and was running towards Usul.

"He saved ya?" Taklinn asked incredulously.

"He tried to convince me to run away," she told him as she got to her feet. "He looked like Amandur when we first came on the bridge. But that creature attacked us and hurt Usul very badly. He made himself look like me to try and save me. It worked."

Taklinn got to his feet and went towards Usal, Aisha walking beside him with a concerned look.

Usul moaned and tried to turn her head but she was to wounded to speak.

Aisha knelt down beside her, placed her hands over the injured woman's face and spoke her heling word.

"Desehvah."

Almost at once Usul seemed to respond. She focused on Sambril and lifted her hand to her daughter's face.

"Oh, thank the Great Lady, yer alright."

"Uncle Taklinn saved me," Sambril said through her tears.

"I knew he would," she said with relief. "May the Lady bless ya, Taklinn. Ya gave me my daughter back."

Taklinn placed a protective arm over Sambril's small shoulders and took Aisha's hand in his trembling grasp. He had watched her die, just as it had happened in his dream. But here she was, alive and safe beside him. He thought that if there was such a thing as luck, then he was truly the luckiest soul alive.

The last werewolf ran for the tunnels that led to the Low Road. He snarled at a few startled dwarves as his quick feet brought him closer to the entrance, but otherwise he didn't slow his pace for anything.

As he rounded the corner and clambered up the steps that led to the passage, he could smell stench of blood.

Wolf blood.

He ran until he was well into the great passage and stumbled to a halt when he saw the carnage before him.

Three of his brothers lay in the tunnel. They were battered and beaten and lifeless. He panted with fear when he saw them. Then he saw her.

The gold dwarf stood in a shadow cast by the last burning torch still flickering in the long cavern. She lifted her crossbow and aimed it straight at him.

Without a word she fired and he felt the silver bolt pierce his chest. His last thought before he succumbed to total blackness was one of utter confusion. How had she beaten him there? And why was she standing over the prone figure of a duergar?

The last werewolf died beside his brothers.

Basha opened her one working eye and looked up to see a vision standing over her.

A gold dwarf woman, dressed in full plate armor and holding an empty cross bow was leaning down and smiling at her with cheerful brown eyes.

"And you must be Mistress Skulldark, of whom I have heard about constantly for the last half-day."

It was the last thing she remembered before unconsciousness claimed her.

Basha awoke to find herself on a soft bed with forest green blankets tucked carefully around her. She tried to focus but she couldn't see very well. She could sense that someone was with her. She felt the strong fingers of a familiar hand wrap themselves around her bandaged hands and she tried to sit up.

Vorgrim Hjortgar placed a restraining hand on her shoulder and pushed her back down gently.

"Stay still. Martel's a skilled healer, but you still need rest."

"I'm dead, then," she told him. "It's you, Vorgrim. I know it. So I must be dead."

"No. Just very close to it," he said, his voice breaking with emotion.

"Where am I?" she asked.

"In the temple of my Lady, Haela Brightax."

"How are you here with me?" she asked. "Is this real?"

"I'm real," he said wearily. "It still hurts me to move. But I am real."

"Who is Martel?" she asked, trying to sit up again. He vision was beginning to clear and she wanted to sit up and look at him.

"She is the Holy Priestess of my temple back in the Rift. She has been waiting for me for weeks. She had hoped I would make it here alive, but when she discovered that I hadn't, she was able to remedy that unfortunate mishap and get me back on my feet."

Basha was finally able to focus on him and she lifted a hand to his face slowly. He took it and pressed his cheek against her palm, holding it fiercely.

"Why did you believe you needed to face down a pack of those ruthless animals all alone?" he asked

"I thought ya was gone forever," she answered. "I didn't have nothing ta loose."

"Only your life," he said harshly. "Promise me that you will never make such a careless sacrifice ever again."

"Only if ya promise me the same thing," she told him, tears of happiness spilling down her cheeks.

Vorgrim gathered her up in a tight embrace and she wrapped her arms around his neck, grateful to have him with her once again.

Taklinn and Aisha came into the temple to see her shortly after she regained consciousness. They visited with her and Taklinn scolded her exactly as Vorgrim had done.

She let him. It was so good to see them all together again that she didn't even argue with the surly shield dwarf when he told her she would be stuck in the temple bed for at least another two to three days.

When she was well enough, after a half-day of sound sleep, she gingerly left her bed and walked out into the main temple wrapped in the blanket Vorgirm had tucked around her when she had been brought in.

The gold dwarf woman who had worked miracles was sitting in the temple before the carved edifice of the Goddess she served.

"I never got a chance ta thank ya fer what ya done," Basha said, taking a seat beside the Priestess.

Martel turned and smiled at her warmly. "I was glad to, my dear. I could tell from the way Vorgrim spoke of you that you were truly a good person. I am always glad to help when I can."

"I didn't mean me," Basha said softly. "I mean ta thank ya fer bringin' Vorgrim back to us. I don't think there are words for how grateful I am."

Martel patted Basha's arm gently. "He is my comrade. I could do nothing less."

Basha felt a wave of respect for this kind woman who sat beside her.

"What about this chosen of your Goddess?" Basha asked. "Do ya know who it is?"

"Oh, yes," Martel said with a nod. "It is Sambril. Taklinn's niece. I knew it was her weeks ago. She spends a great deal of time here in the temple, you see. We have had a chance to become very close."
"What will happen to her now?" Basha asked.

"Oh, she will stay here until she is old enough to travel and be the voice of the Great Lady. Taklinn has said that he will remain here and watch over her. Aisha has declared that she will be staying with him."

"What has Vorgrim said he will do?"

Martel gave her a sideways look. "He mentioned something about waiting to see what it was you decided to do."

Basha let out a great sigh of relief. "Then I think I will stay here until I get me legs back under me, and maybe travel on ta Silverymoon. I think if there is a place on Faerun I may be able ta make a home for myself, it just might be there."

"Then I suspect Vorgrim will be traveling there as well," Martel said with knowing smile.

"Calathra!" Basha said, standing up. "The last place I saw her was the cells. Is she alright?"

Martel laid a soothing hand on Basha's arm and pulled her back down. "She is well. Do not distress yourself. She has elected to stay with Taklinn. She says that she owes him too much to leave him behind. She also expressed her hope that you would stay here with them."

"In Felbar?" Basha said with a laugh. "Why, how long do ya think I'd last before I had my neck in a noose?"

"I suspect that won't be a problem," Martel told her with a serious tone.

"What? But, ya know what the shield dwarves think o' my kind," she said with a grimace.

"Have you seen yourself since you woke up?" Martel asked. "I know you haven't seen your hands. The bandages would have prevented that. But, your face. Have you seen it?"

Basha shook her head. "No. Is it damaged somehow? I know I had a terrible pain in my face and my eye didn't work. But, did it leave a horrible scar?"

Martel chuckled. "Ah, no. Not exactly. Well, a small scar yes." She stood up and lead Basha to a silver mirror that stood by the entrance to the temple. It was small, only about the size of carrying basket, but it was large enough for her to see her whole face.

She looked at her reflection and her mouth fell open with surprise. She reached up with a bandaged hand and touched her face. There was indeed a scar, though it was small and crossed over her eye like a thin line of white ink.

That was not what had made her gasp. She leaned forward and touched the glass as if she was not certain of what it showed her.

"Is that me?" she asked. "Is that really me?"

She looked at Martel for confirmation that what she saw was real.

"It is, my dear. I am not sure how it came about. But I think our young miss Sambril may have had something to do with it."

Basha looked back at the mirror and shook her head with amazement.

Staring back at her was the face of a gold dwarf. Her face looked the same as it had always looked, save for the new scar, but her skin was not gray. It was rich black, like Vorgrim's. She looked for all the world just like one of her dark-skinned cousins.

"Sambril said that the heart of a gold dwarf beat in your chest and that you were just born in the wrong place. I don't know how she managed it, but I believe it was her doing. There are a great many things I have yet to learn about that special young lady."

Basha gingerly peaked beneath the bandage on her arm and saw the same thing. Her arms and hands were no longer gray. She looked over at Martel and choked out an amazed laugh.

"I don't believe it!" she exclaimed. "I could stay here, if I choose it! I can live anywhere!"

Martel smiled. "You could before, my dear. But this way it will be much easier."

Basha turned as Vorgrim came into the temple. He carried a bundle of flowers under one arm and her mace under the other.

She turned towards him and pointed at herself.

"Vorgrim! Look at my new head!"

He stared at her, then opened his mouth and laughed like a fiend. He laughed so hard Basha's mace slipped out of his grasp and landed on his toe. He jumped around on one foot, still laughing, tears trickling down his cheeks, flowers spilling across the floor in all directions behind him.

This sent Basha and Martel over the edge and they too burst into laughter at his expense.

The sun rose over Citadel Felbar that morning as the army marched back beneath the high arch of the Hammer and back into Felbar valley. They had not gone on to the Moon Wood. Tenbin had convinced the General to turn back.

Taklinn and Aisha stood on the high steps beneath the Rune Gate and watched them as they came back down the road.

Taklinn wrapped his arms around Aisha and leaned his forehead against her shoulder, grateful that she was alive. He felt her heart beating and he smiled.

As the sun peaked over the cliffs surrounding the valley, Taklinn felt the warm rays of light tickle his face.

He also felt the weight of the responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders.

Sambril was to be the voice of a Goddess of the Morandsamin, and he was to be her guardian.

After all, that he had endured to get back home to Felbar, he decided that it was a task he would be more than able to fulfill.