Campaign Logs

A Year for Shadows

By Beth Oldman


Chapter 1

At the Sign of the Smoky Skull


The brown haze of coal-smoke hanging over the city had been visible from the road since sunrise.

Johan had not been able to subdue a certain relief at the sight of it. The previous night had been a terrible one, despite the relative safety and comfort afforded by the drafty barn he'd been allowed to shelter in. It had snowed unremittingly for several hours, and the thin monk had been forced to cover himself with handfuls of prickling, dusty hay, just to generate warmth sufficient for a solid hour's rest. His robes were still flecked here and there with the dust of broken stalks, and his eyes were red and irritated, though the day was now almost past and the frost of the evening had returned.

He approached Arabel from the east. The early morning light had revealed a frozen, gray, and depressing landscape, and the road was vanished beneath a sheet of ice-encrusted snow. It had stopped snowing, thankfully, but was yet cold enough to leave him huddled for a moment at the edge of the farm field with no clear idea of where to go. The weak light of Lathander seemed watery, pale, and very far away, and Johan did not feel good or strong enough to bother with his daily katas. Instead he took a deep and weary breath, resettled his bag over one shoulder, and trudged out into the place where he last remembered being.

The ugly, blanketing haze was a surprisingly encouraging beacon, since it required no road to find. It did not recommend itself as belonging to a healthy or inspiring place, but the goal was at long last clarified. Slowly but surely, the monk's long stride had eaten up the remaining miles, taking him past the last of the high hills surrounding Bospir and leading him onto the endless rolling plain of the Helmlands. The twin hills that guarded and fed the Arabel Springs were companionable humps in the shortening distance, and close enough by midday that Johan vaguely supposed he could see the blocky ramparts of the Palace crowning one of them.

There was very little traffic on what remained of the East Way, though this was well to be expected in the deepening gloom of wintertide. Small wooden farmhouses, which had clung with increasing frequency to the trade-enleavening highway, looked to Johan like rather dingy and miserable affairs, especially set in context with the empty, frost-ridden harrows of their unlovely supporting properties. The tall elms and poplars planted as break-winds along the edges of these roadside holdings had long ago shriveled into hibernation, leaving no evidence to contradict the feeling that growth, warmth, or happiness had ever graced their neighborhood.

It was implacably deep winter in the Kingdom of Cormyr, and all life had retreated in the face of it.

Narrow drainage ditches sprung up on either side of the road, and here and there a resident or two came out to gather wood or relieve their bladders. The chimney smoke rising from the roofs of crowded farmhouses thickened aromatically, and occasionally an ox-drawn cart carrying hay or fuel rumbled up from behind to overtake Johan. In these situations the tall young man was invariably treated to a curious stare from either the drover, his animal, or (more often the case) from both. While merchant traffic made an endless parade along the East Way, ferrying strange goods and stranger people from places as distant as Deepingdale, far beyond the mountains, it was not nearly so often that lone travelers had the fortitude to endure Nightal's usual flurry of driving winds and snow, especially without the benefit of animals.

Johan did not mind the looks or stares. Tall, dark, and prepossessing, he was used to the curiosity of common people, especially those unaccustomed to the voluntary simplicity of his lifestyle. It was not normal to the Cormyrean mind that a person should lay aside the trappings of a decent, or at least comfortable, mode of living, in favor or poverty and self-denial; and while Johan was dressed hardly different or more poorly from themselves, there was something about his ardent perseverence, his energy, and the youthfulness he had rarified by years of foregoing unnecessary luxuries, worked strongly against an impression of his being one more tall, if undernourished, local peasant.

A deep blue dusk had settled over the Helmlands by the time the monk approached the eastern wall of the city. To the right of the roadside, set high up upon a muddy, sloping bank, sat a collection of ramshackle daub buildings, surrounded by caravan wagons and bounded by a low wooden fence half-buried in snow; and some twenty yards beyond the furthest of these rose the high, frost-encrusted wall, and above that the two immense stone turrets that guarded Calantar's Gate. In the swirling, stinking gloom of the coal fires and the deepening darkness, the city seemed an unconquerable, uninhabitable, and extremely forboding place.

* * * * *

Aina Kember shut and fastened the door to her tiny room, careful to avoid slipping on the icy stone of the threshold.

She immediately wished she'd brought something warmer to wear末though, considering her less-than-adequate wardrobe, it seemed unlikely that anything of proper thickness was still inside. The last light of the last day of the year was fading quickly over her head, blocked from view by the looming, colorless facade of Phaesha's boardinghouse, where Aina had resided for the past three months; lamps and candles had been lighted about an hour ago, but not so well that they bore any cheer for her, who was far too poor to afford the oil and without many friends better off than herself to go to.

Already cold and shivering, she stepped out into the street. It had left off snowing, thank Illmater; while far above her the girl could see a mottled, threatening winter sky, the weather had improved enough that Arabel's streets were churned now all to frozen mud and slush, with only here and there a deep flurry remaining where an eave or coal-bin offered the requisite shade and shelter. There were still a number of people out and about, some of them slightly familiar to her as residents of the neighborhood. Most were in a hurry, moving with hunched shoulders and stiffened limbs either to escape the biting chill at home or in a tavern. A few buildings down the street, outside the turreted garrison where the city's Purple Dragon contingent quartered, two men stood watching the street traffic from the relative sanctuary of expensive-looking rabbit-fur cloaks. Knights from the look of them, she supposed, though of course they could have been anybody. Aina might have looked a little closer末she had had some weapons training of her own, not so long ago, and admired the look of capable fighting folk末but it was growing later by the hour, and she had many things to do.

The first item on her agenda, Aina knew, was to fetch Maeus at his family's house. The flautist and orator was no great acquaintance of hers, but they had performed together on one or two occasions末he accompanying her singing with his instrument末and were mutual friends of the Naturalist. Elmdaerle had asked them both to his Important Meeting, and the two musicians had agreed to brave the darkened city streets together. With most of the Watch too cold and irritable to properly do their duty, it was much safer than going alone. Even Aina, who did not get along easily or well with light- hearted folk like Maeus, reckoned it was better to go with company on a wintery Arabel night.

Crossing the broad avenue, Aina slipped down a dimly illuminated side- street, her cheap leather boots crackling and crunching through the frost. She had only one weapon to bring along with her, in case of emergency: a heavy steel mace lay concealed behind the flap of her thinly padded coat, and was obvious enough to the experience eye that, with any luck, she would drive off trouble immediately. Despite her living in a relatively safe and well-patrolled neighborhood, far from the squares where thieves and mercenaries prowled, the slender young woman was far too conscious of her own small size and scant combat experience to risk leaving anything to fortune.

As she passed the famous tailor shop and approached wide Calantar's Way, Aina could see that the inn called "Wayscross", where she had first holed up after arriving in the city, was crowded near capacity and doing remarkable business. It could only be accounted for by the fabled excellence of that ancient establishment's signature winter applejack, manufactured directly on the premises (or so it was rumored); she herself had barely had the money to afford a decent room there, and could hardly afford a luxury like seasonal liquors. A few times in the past she had sang there for a meal, to the praise and encouragement of the management; they seemed to appreciate her voice and the change it afforded from the usual shouts and belly- laughter of the roughshod clientele. Once again Aina's innate curiosity tempted her to take a closer look, but she resisted, knowing full well that a Guildmaster as sober and considerate as Elmdaerle would never summon her halfway across town over minor trivialities.

Hurrying across the Way, which even this late in the day was a clamoring confusion of merchant wagons, fog-blowing animals and drovers, she crossed from the East into the South section of Arabel. It was here, on one of the district's important north-south arteriols, that Aina knew Maeus's family lived; she could even vaguely recall the look of the street itself, though the exact address was an unknown quantity, as most of the buildings were unnamed and numberless. Fortunately, the extroverted bard had provided a ridiculously detailed description of the place, and she felt confident of finding it. The only real question was what sort of Meeting required the attendance of two anonymous citizens, neither of whom was particularly knowledgeable of any subject the Naturalist held dear.

And the secrecy. He had given her firm instructions to discuss the location and time of their Meeting with no one; it was a request of little consequence to Aina, however, since despite having lived in the city for some time she knew hardly anybody well enough to discuss private business, and remained unapproachable as a matter of habit, if not policy. Perhaps Elmdaerle was planning a riverboat trip along the Springs, and simply needed someone of her experience to advise him末but in that case, why would he ask her to haul along a hopeless romantic like Maeus, who had probably never set foot in a river in all his life? And then again, why the pledge of silence?

Something was up, and Aina was very interested.

The sight of Bhaliir's brightly painted auction house brought Aina back to the present. The bard had specifically mentioned this building, and said that his own house was located across the street, four buildings down and on the left. It was part of a multistoried, multifamily complex, and had a pair of rain-barrels on either side of the door. Peering through her frosty, billowing breath, she spotted the building with very little trouble. There was pale light beckoning from the tiny, rectangular first-floor windows, and occasionally someone's shadow passed on some business well within末but the solid, larch-wood door remained quite firmly shut, and looked, at least to Aina's lovely dark brown eyes, surprisingly inhospitable. She supposed that Maeus must still be inside.

* * * *

The tap room of The Smoky Skull was an ancient and retiring affair, constructed in the main from live oak boards and beams of polished black walnut. At first glance, its antiquity conjured visions of the King's Forest in its prime, when a man could walk from the Stormhorns to the Thunder Peaks and never leave the safety of the dusken weald; even the fire in the flagstone hearth, which burned robustly, seemed somehow reduced to an ineffectual orange glow by the rich, chocolatey darkness of the timbers.

It was a spare room, dominated by a long bar running along the wall to the left, with tables in the front, the rear, and crowded against the opposite wall. The tables in the front were small and round, while the handful in the back were long, trestle affairs, lined with benches for the use of larger groups. The fireplace was in the front of the hall, to the left of the entrance, and had a number of hooks on which customers could hang their cloaks and capes to dry. There were no windows.

It was very dark. Beside the fireplace, there was only one other light source of any consequence in the hall: this last came in the form of the tavern's namesake, an enormous, soot-streaked, and hideously deformed skull set atop the far end of the bar. The top of the skull had been broken out and replaced with a wide bronze dish, shallowly inset, and into which someone had poured a small shovelful of smouldering reddish coals.

There were only a handful of clientele to trouble the tavern's two employees, despite the relative earliness of the evening. The Skull catered mostly to aging locals, men and women who prefered the quiet and company of a few familiar faces, and serviced hardly any of the merchants or travelers so common to Arabel's busier and better-known establishments. It was so relaxed and peaceable that even the tavernmaster felt comfortable enough to leave the management of the place to his handsome, dark-haired nephew, who leaned boredly against the counter, trading jokes with the pretty young barmaiden in a mellow, subdued voice.

Balthazar Lazarus, called Taz by his friends and family, sat alone at one of the tiny, squarish tables pushed hard against the right-hand wall. A quiet, weathered-looking young man with long, wavy yellow hair and a tired expression, Taz looked far too large for either the table or the half-emptied mug of warm beer resting on it; his broad left shoulder extended out into the narrow aisle seperating the tables from the bar, and his long, muddy-booted legs were crowded in against the opposite chair.

He had no companion, but faced a lumpy, much-abused leather pack and matching set of variously-sized swords, all of which looked nearly as stained by grime and the broken-down weariness of travel as he himself did. Taz wore vaguely the appearance and dress of a man foreign to the country, or at least less comfortable with the broad Cormyrean accents and expressions tossed casually on occasion around the tap room. There was something about his discomfort, and also his strength末which was quite in evidence, irregardless of his obvious fatigue末that seemed to forbid conversation. He stayed alone, rubbing his great brown hands together for warmth occasionally, and made studious circumspection of his drink.

At some point in this lonely interlude, the broad plank door swung open onto the street and admitted a pair of talkative men, both of whom might also be considered out of place in a tranquil neighborhood tavern like the Skull. They were both dressed very warmly in heavy cloaks, gloves, and hoods, and their faces were flushed by the cold. One of them in particular looked decidedly well-off. A tall, grey-haired man with chapped, craggy features, and pale eyes obscured behind a set of curious round glass lenses, he wore dark clothing expensively embroidered and lined with silver fox fur. He rubbed his gloved hands together with an energy belying his seniority, and quickly made way for his companion, to whom he was speaking in a strong and sonorous voice.

The large man seated by himself took note of the arrival of the two newcomers, though by the tone of their discussion they did not seem to warrant his undue attention. Taz had been seated at his table for quite some time now, at least a couple of hours by his reckoning, and he was quite proud of the fact that he had managed to keep a good handle on the quantity of ale he'd imbibed. He was only on his second drink, and thankfully, the ale was not having an overly deleterious effect upon his senses...yet. He needed to keep his wits about him, he knew full well. The kind-hearted caravan master had assured him this was the tavern to find good work, the kind of work that was tough and perhaps even dangerous, but ultimately very rewarding in a variety of ways.

In his youthful and inexperienced heart, Taz was absolutely convinced this was what he had to do with his life. Well, may be not quite 'absolutely' convinced. He'd cast his die, though. The caravan master had offered him employment as a caravan guard. The work would have been well-paying and stable, and offered up the prospect of interesting travel. Being in the employ of a decent and honorable employer would have been an added bonus. But he had, with some regret, turned down the caravan master's offer. Something deep within his heart, nay, his very soul, compelled the runaway-turned-warrior to seek out a different path for his life. There was no turning back now.

For what seemed like the one hundredth time, Taz ran through in his mind the words of the caravan master naming and describing the tavern he was supposed to find. This was definitely the right place. It had to be! The large man swore under his breath at his inability to read the written word. Knowing that he was at the right establishment would be that much easier if only he could read. With a snort of disgust, Taz drained the last of the contents of his mug and slowly raised himself to his feet.

The blond youth's muscled body rippled as he stretched the kinks out of his six and a half foot frame, before he stepped smoothly over to the bar directly in front of the bartender. Sliding his empty mug across the top of the counter, the man rummaged through the pouch at his waist in search of the coin he would need to pay for a third mug of ale. Then, with an embarrassed cough and a sheepish smile, he asked the bartender "This is the Smoky Skull, isn't it?"

"I hope so, sir," said the other, jerking a thumb toward the back of the tap room. "Otherwise Bog must've come to the wrong place."

Glancing up from his pouch, Taz saw what he was pointing at末the gigantic, jawless specimen sitting on the edge of the bar. It glowed eerily, its coals scattering a bit of weak orange light toward the remote rear section. He could see someone sitting at one of the long trestle tables末a man, perhaps, and alone as he was末but little else was visible.

So which one was Bog?

Only momentarily taken aback, the large man quickly regained his sense of humor, and guffawed at the bartender's adroit observation. "Yes, of course it is. That was rather silly of me," he admitted, with a grin.

"Having another?" asked the handsome barman. He could not have been much older than the giant warrior was, and he wore the sort of tough attitude a young man sometimes will when suddenly faced with a strong contemporary. "Give us a poke, then."

That last was Cormyr-speak, Taz now knew末the fellow had used it twice before. He owed them another copper penny.

"Yes, please," Taz answered the question put to him as he placed a copper on the countertop. Following a bit of obvious hesitancy, Taz continued, "It's just that I was informed by someone with knowledge of this place that this was where one might find...er, 'interesting' work. You know, employers... reputable and honorable employers with use for my swordarm. Anyway. Please forgive my rambling, and thanks for the ale."

Taz stepped back to his nearby seat and carefully eased his overly-large frame into the crammed quarters of his table, taking great care all the while to not spill any of his ale. Once safely ensconced in his seat, the large warrior drew a draught of his drink into his mouth, and sighed contentedly as the flavorful liquid slid down his gullet.

The second man was smaller, darker, and considerably younger, and he alone of the two bore any sort of weapon: a long, slender rapier hung sheathed from his belt, its artfully crafted hilt a sparkling flurry of reflective curves. He was not so obviously charismatic as his friend, but possessed an attentive expression and a careless grace that made him interesting. There was something about his short stride and wide-legged stance that made him seem unusually poised and balanced, as though he'd spent many hours walking along a narrow path.

"Unless she was entirely mistaken," the old man said in his deep, finely accented voice, and taking a moment to enjoy the warmth of the fire while his companion saw to the door, "Wessa saw a comfortable-sized assembly here this evening, and had a strong impression of good fortune. I take great comfort in that, you know. I know you Starmantlites play host to many more elves than Cormyr does, and are rather better used to seeing magic than we are here -- but all the same, the Six are very powerful, and loath to share their power without good cause. Much less their students." He glanced swiftly around the room, and settled long on Taz's broad back before moving on. "I do not think he is here, yet. We must be the first -- ah! Haburnaum! Delighted! How are you?" This last was spoken to a paunchy, balding old man, who sat alone, smoking a pipe in a chair beside the fire.

"Just foine, Guildmaster," said Haburnaum. "A happy New Years to you. I recommend the cider, saer, if you're having something." He grinned widely, lifting his thick, woolly arm to display a mug of amber liquid.

The old man laughed, clapped him comfortably on the shoulder, and turned again to regard the dark young man he had entered with. "Haburnaum, this is Vetch, a friend of mine from the south. He and I are hosting a small party at the Skull tonight. Vetch, this gentleman is one of the finest tailors in all Arabel, though to our lasting regret he has recently retired."

Haburnaum shrugged apologetically, and squinted up at the newcomer with open curiosity. His eyes were small, sly and glinting in his wrinkled, fleshy face, but the smile beneath his large white moustache was a friendly one. "How'd you do, ah末Vetch, was it?"

"Yes, 'Vetch,' that is what my friends call me and I pray you will, too, sir." he said with a respectful nod and a controlled smile as he took in the decades of experience showing through the eyes above the grand moustache.

"It is my misfortune, however," Vetch continued, "to have arrived in Arabel too late to benefit from your finely-honed craftsmanship, Mr. Haburnaum."

"Nonsense," the old man laughed, waving him off末though his smile broadened considerably. "That's just the Guildmaster's way of telling me he's got new holes in his shirts. But you've got a queer accent, Mr. Vetch末sounds like one of them southern accents, if you ask me. Where did you say you were from? I'm not sure his honor mentioned it."

"I did mention it," said Elmdaerle, as he tugged on the fastenings of his cloak, "though perhaps you weren't familiar with the name. Mr. Vetch, as you call him, is a native of Starmantle, which末if you don't already know, Haburnaum末is a remarkably long way from here. He has been staying at my home for the past few days, because his friends in this part of the world are few. On a divan, unfortunately, but there you are."

"Hoy, Elm!" came a shout from the bar. The owner of the voice, which sounded very amused by the old man's arrival, was the pretty young barmaiden. She was leaning against the counter beside the barman (who also looked very much amused) and toying with a festive holly wreath that entwined with her glossy black curls. "Still havin' your party, are you? Couldn't stay away from me long!"

The Guildmaster looked over, and smiled kindly over his odd glass lenses. "I'm afraid you have overthrown my resistance, Malou," he said. "But I see you've been playing in the forest this afternoon. Have you brought me anything as nice as that hat of yours?"

"Yes, I have," the girl said stoutly. "Come over here and get it." Then she winked, rather prettily, at Vetch. "I see you've brought me something as well, though. I didn't know you had any friends, Elm."

"Just this one, I'm sorry to say," warbled the old man, and he swept off his cloak. His robes were all of dark, embroidered velvet, and he carried a rolled-up leather scroll case beneath one arm. "But I can think of worse ones to have, than this fellow."

"How'd you do," said Malou, curtsying briefly to Vetch. "And happy New Year's. What'll you two have to drink?"

Vetch looked at Elmdaerle, looked back at Malou, and blushed furiously. "I-I-I will have what Mr. Elmdaerle... I have my own mug, i-i-if that will help末" Vetch managed to stammer out before whirling around, dropping his pack and digging through it frantically末his face growing redder and redder all the while.

The Guildmaster chuckled. "Very proud of his mug, you see," he explained.

"It must be a big one," said Malou, and the place errupted with laughter. There were only a few people around to hear it, but even old Habernaum looked like he was about to cry, merrily slapping the arm of his wooden chair.

"Don't worry about it," said the barman, once the noise had subsided enough to be heard. "We've got our own, here. Sometimes I think we've got too many末this place gets less business than a graveyard." He reached behind the bar for a pair of tankards.

"Let us hope it continues to, Jacob," Elmdaerle said, hanging his cloak on one of the brass hooks above the grate, "lest our city suffer more than it has, these past few winters. But, in that case! I will take a cup of your best applejack, my lad, assuming there is some left. It is nearly the Year of the Shadows, after all, and with a name like that, it may be best to enter the season feeling rosy."

"Good," said the barman. "I'll join you, if y' don't mind."

"How about you, sir?" Malou asked Vetch; her voice was tender, as though she might have regretted making sport of him so quickly. He was new, and might be sensitive about such things. "Would you like one, as well?"

Vetch swore the tavern shook to its dark wooden rafters when the place exploded in laughter. Still bent over his pack, he bit his lip in frustration. So much for remaining quiet and unnoticed! Who brings their own tankard to a tavern? Idiot! Well, now you know, he admonished himself silently. He stood up, took a deep breath to compose, and turned to the barmaid.

"Yes, yes末please," Vetch said, entirely too nervously, his face still a bit flushed.

Say something witty! She's still looking at you, you know! his adolescent conscious screamed at him. Bowing to bravado rather than forethought, Vetch added with a straight face, "And any mug will do末although you are correct, Miss: I am more comfortable wielding ones of large size."

"In that case," said Malou, "I'll have to charge you double." The lass grinned, winked again, and went half-skipping to join Elmdaerle, who had begun to make his way past the tables and was now crossing to the bar. Feeling her hand on his sleeve, he leaned over for a moment so she could give him a light peck on cheek. "Make it two, Jacob."

* * * * * *

There was a steady stream of merchant wagons crowding past the buildings on the northern bankside, and leading up to the turrets and the gate; and there were cloaked and mittened people milling everywhere. Johan was soon surrounded by rough and shivering men and women of every age description, and all of them muffled in every sort of clothing conducive to retaining warmth. Many of them bore knives at their broad leather belts, or brutal-looking metalshod clubs, or occasionally even swords (these last were clearly trail guards, and mercenaries of one kind or another). The amount of hoarse and callow talk, and the mysterious chatter of many unrecognizable languages, was nearly overwhelming. Nobody so much as looked at him.

It had been a long time since Johan had seen or listened to the sorts of people he was now encompassed by, and for a moment his usual composure was threatened. The stink of shivering oxen, horses and unwashed bodies was heavy in the air, and the way to the gates was seemingly blocked off. It was evident to the monk that Arabel was soon to close its gates for the evening, and the last of the stragglers and merchants were making a bottleneck of traffic. He had no choice but to take up a place in the line, standing behind a pair of men末or were they women? It was impossible to tell, since their faces were well cloaked behind large dark hoods and matching thick woolen scarves末who stood quietly talking and, occasionally, clapping their gloves together to keep up the circulation in their fingers. They both ignored the quiet young man behind them as nothing more than another of their type.

"Elfstone's full," the man on the right grumbled; the expression in his dark and downcast eyes was unmistakably sour. "They say there ain't no more room, for anyone -- even Misrim's men. If we're caught out here, it's gonna be a long and innerestin' night. At least the wind ain't up."

The other only nodded through his scarf, though he looked no happier than his comrade. Both of them glanced longingly over the heads and backs of the horses, where the trio of daub buildings clustered on the bank. Many of the windows in those buildings were lit, and glowing a cheery orange-yellow; puffs of pale smoke billowed upward from enormous brick chimneys. A small mass of people were gathered at every door, and from these the occasional sound of hard or mirthless laughter floated out into the evening haze. The unpleasantness of the sounds made Johan shiver末though it may only have been the increasing cold.

"We better start thinking about how we're gonna manage, if we don't get through," said the sour-eyed fellow. "There ain't nothing closer by than them Red Ravens barracks, and those fellows sure ain't puttin' us up." He nodded off toward the south, where another set of tall stone buildings, slighty further from the road, were half-hidden from Johan's sight by the frosty breath of a miserable-looking team of oxen.

Doing his level best to cover his lean body with his simple robe as well as possible, Johan listened to the man's words and sneezed. As good as it was to get out from the monastery and see a bit of the world, the young monk was beginning to regret he hadn't waited until spring to make this journey. He hadn't thought he could get so cold while still being on this side of death's door, but the winter had proven him wrong several times during these last few days.

And now he might not even get inside for the night? If this was Lathander's way of trying my discipline, He's doing a very good job at it , Johan thought sourly. Even his usually sunny disposition couldn't take every setback with a smile.

Beginning a simple novice exercise to flex his muscles to generate some warmth, Johan considered his choices. It wouldn't do to try to sneak forward past other in the queue; he had more discipline than that. Even if he had to admit the thought brought a fleeting touch of guilty hope with it. No, he'd accept whatever befall as his due and adapt. He still had enough food for a day末perhaps two, if he ate sparingly末and he could go without sleep one more night if he had to. Note to self: next time arrange to arrive early in the morning, if you can manage it .

Mouthing a silent prayer for Tymora to smile on him and let him through the gates before they were closed for the night, Johan cleared his throat and directed his words to the two strangers in front of him. "Excuse me, sirs末do you know how much longer the gates will remain open?" he asked politely, his voice deep and calm. "Surely the guard will make some allowances because of the cold weather?"

The man on the left turned to look blinking at Johan, his pale and watery eyes looking near exhausted above the ragged edges of his loosely-wrapped woolen scarf; he said nothing, as he had said nothing before.

The other man, on the other hand, barely turned his head to indicate he'd registered the question, apparently deeming Johan an uninteresting and unimportant nobody (which perhaps he was). "Surely an' the guard'll throw a bucket 'a cold shit on us, if we ask 'im 'bout allowances," he answered mildly. He seemed in a much better humor than his companion, at any rate, weathering the cold and dark with casual understanding. "Gates 'ficially close at sundown, me friend, an' that's the way it usually 'ficially goes. They say it's New Year's, though, so p'rhaps our friends on th' Watch will be more, eh...accomodatin'. Leastaways, that seems the Cormyrean thing t' do."

The quiet fellow, who had taken in Johan's ill-dressed and ill- equipped appearance with some interest, suddenly spoke up thickly through his scarf. He had a deep voice, faintly accented, and unexpectedly curious; and somehow he turned his questions into statements. "You've nevah been here befoh, 'ave you末longshanks. But y'look C'myrean, don't you. Where 'bouts you from."

滴mm? Johan replied, momentarily lost in thought at the possibility of actually getting inside tonight. 徹h, sorry. Boghap is where I was born末that's near the Fearsea Marches, not too far from Eagle's Peak末or, it was, until a plague passed though. A curse from the swamp, the old women claimed, and who knows? Wasn't much left of the place once the disease had ran its course.

The watery-eyed fellow nodded sympathetically. His uncouth friend, who at first had not been listening, turned his head when the subject of plague was mentioned. They both regarded the monk with a mixture of interest and uncertainty, as though they weren't quite sure whether to listen further or to find someplace farther off to stand.

溺y mother moved east and remarried, so I grew up around Thunderstone, Johan went on, giving the men a friendly smile. 笛ohan Winterglade, a monk of the order of Sun Soul at your service. And yes, this is my first visit here末or at least, the first since I was a toddler.

The man on the right smirked, drawing a querying look from his companion. "Right talkative lad, this," he said. "Reckon we could 'ave 'is whole life story in a candlemark."

"Leave off, you," said the other, and frowned. "It'd do you good to hear somebody's voice asides your own, once in a while."

Shifting his weight from one leg to the other, Johan kept flexing his muscles to ward away the cold. He might not be athletic by any true measure of the word, but the monks at the Dawn's Reach monastery had showed him how to use what he did have. Leaning on his simple quarterstaff, Johan gave the slowly shortening line between them and the gate a wishful look before turning his attention back to the two strangers.

He had offered them his name, but he wouldn't ask them for theirs. After all, it was for them to reveal if they so chose. But there was one thing he did intend to ask. 擢rom your words, I gather you are regular visitors here末or near enough. Could you possibly give me directions to an Inn? The Smoky Skull, it was called末I believe. I know it's somewhere in the southern part of Arabel, but that's about it.

The two men looked at one each other, as though together they might arrive at a suitable answer. The talkative one pulled down his scarf sufficiently to reveal a thick nose, bristly black moustache and drooping mouth.

"You know?" he asked his friend.

The other shook his head, leaving his own scarf in place.

The first frowned slightly and, reaching up, dabbed his nose with the back of a leather glove. "Well, might be easiest if you ask末"

A sudden shifting of the crowd interrupted him. Many of the folk gathered about them raised their voices in to cheer or shout a blessing, for wagons were now proceeding through the massive ironbound gates and disappearing beneath the shadow of the barbican. Immediately the three men were forced closer together, as people crowded in for a chance to enter the city and hopefully escape the worst of the coming evening's weather.

Johan found himself pressed against the broad, woolen-cloaked backs of his new aquaintances, as new bodies squeezed forward from the back of the line. He heard a shout go up from the inn-yard high on the northern bank; it was followed by many others. Soon travelers who had been looking in vain for a room or space in the taproom came streaming back down into the road to join the press. The scene was one of minor, yet cheerful, anarchy.

"Looks like your bad luck's left you, sonny," grinned the fellow with the black moustache. "They're letting people in. Right decent of 'em, you know, with a new year comin' and all. Must be some good celebratin' goin' on, tonight."

"You'n come with us, if y' like," said the watery-eyed one, with unexpected friendliness. The reversal of fortune had much improved his mood. "We're off for the evenin'. We know all th' best cider-shops in Arabel, Av'rus an' me末if y're lookin' for an evening's entartainment. Don't know nothing about that Smokin' Skull, or what-have-you, but there's plenty proper places here for food, or smoking, or a decent night's rest末if you want it."

Smiling warmly at both the sudden good fortune and the unexpected friendliness, Johan gave the men a quick bow. "I thank you for you kind offer, but I fear I have some business in the Smoky Skull that needs to be taken care of today 末provided I manage to find the place in the first place. May Lathander smile on you both, and may we meet again末hopefully somewhere where we don't have icicles growing from our beards." The last words were accompanied by a warm chuckle.

Giving the two a final nod (thus giving them time to say their parting words if they had such intentions), the young monk began making his way towards the gates. Since he was still without directions, he needed to find someone to ask. Perhaps one of the gate guards would be inclined to give him a moment of his time. And if not, he'd just take the first major street south and ask along the way. And while he was at it, he might ask where the local temple of Lathander was located as well. The priests might let him sleep in one of their monks' cells since he was a fellow believer.

The guards did not know, and were too busy to bother with him anyway; they were too busy shoving through the river of incoming visitors in search of known criminals, the very ill, and other unseemly types.

Fortunately, a tiny, middle-aged halfling passing through the gates not far from Johan did know the tavern's name, and not a moment after the last guard had shrugged apathetically and waved the monk forward, sidled up to Johan and tugged at his voluminous sleeve.

"You're looking for the Smoky Skull?" the little man piped in his reedy voice, his neck craning far back to meet Johan in the eyes. "You're in luck, mate. I know where it is."

Together they passed beneath the dank, lichen-infested barbican, which was large enough to resemble a tunnel. It was nearly pitch dark, and the smell of wet wool clothing, horse hair, and shivering bodies was many times stronger.

"Skull's in South-district," the little voice continued, and Johan could still feel a little fist gripping on his sleeve. He realised that the halfling was keeping near him because he was comparatively huge, and offered a bit of protection from the bumping mass of immigrants. "Not far from the arena. All you've got to do is turn left on Ride Street and follow it until you come to a fork in the road. If you see the city wall, though, you've gone too far. You follow all that, mate?"

"I do indeed末and thank you, sir, for your help," Johan answered with a smile, drawing back his robe's hood enough to reveal his face; a bit too hard and narrow to be called handsome, but Johan's warm smile and the gentle look in his brown eyes made him appear approachable and sincere. A moustache covered his upper lip, curling down to join the goatee decorating his chin. His skin appeared deeply tanned for a Comyrean, a testimony of long hours spent under the sun.

As soon as he realized the halfling was counting on his size to win him room in the throng, Johan set his pace accordingly, so that the little man wouldn't have to run to keep up as he passed through the gate and took the left turn into the slums. Johan wasn't overly afraid of being mugged; with a night like this, there were surely many more tempting targets for the city's pickpockets末and besides, even if someone attempted to lift his purse, they'd be sorely disappointed at what it held...

Using his quarterstaff as a walking stick, Johan walked deeper into the city, marveling at the strange sights even this less-than-prosperous neighbourhood offered. Having been born and raised in little villages and then having spent a considerable amount of time in the Hullack Forest before moving to the monastery, Johan had found few opportunities to see such things as a large city could offer.

"'Fraid it doesn't look like much in the wintertime," remarked the halfling, as they emerged from the darkness of the wall. "Castle looks nice, though. Impressive."

Indeed it did. Johan could not see many other landmarks, because the buildings lining this street were so tall末they loomed coldly, a series of great grey cliff-sides frosted with snow末but far off the road suddenly swooped, then rose again, and he had a fair glimpse of the palace. It was large and splendid, and seemed to be built almost entirely of enormous domes, each set with banners so large and heavy that even the winter wind could not stir them; and beyond it, crowning the far hill, was Arabel's mighty fortress, her high stone walls shimmering with new-kindled bonfires and strong enough to fend off any army in the world -- or so it seemed to the monk.

The city was already quite dark, but lit with torches and lamps uncountable. A pale mist of crystalline ice had crawled up from the lower city, obscuring many details of its architecture, but Johan could see that most of the buildings were roofed with slate tiles and built at least partially from stone. These were mostly very tall, and on average two storeys high (but many were twice that or more). Here and there in the far distance, especially on the rightward side of the street, the gloomy shades of isolated towers sprung up far above the other houses. He could not guess who these belonged too, since they were hardly visible in the chilly fog.

As a strange contrast to this vision of a calm and implacable city, the street Johan and his diminutive guide had entered was jam-packed with wagon traffic, swinging lanterns, and a snarl of muffled folk conducting loud business. To their immediate left, just across a narrow side-street, a terrific deal of the activity had converged upon a bulky, three-storey daub building with large, multipaned windows and a busy courtyard opening out onto the street. It was practically spilling over with people, and so many of them standing near the entrance bore tankards that the monk could plainly see it was an inn.

"Irriphar's," said the halfling, having followed Johan's gaze. "Not a very interesting place, mate, I assure you. But末let me just see, now..." His attention shifted sideways, to the side-street lying between them and the inn.

The route this second street took passed south through a much quieter-looking neighborhood, with far fewer lights and only one building near at hand which seemed to be doing vigorous trade. It head straight for a long way, then curved gently to the left, finally disappearing out of sight.

"You see this street, mate?" piped the halfling. He pointed. "If I remember rightly, this could be a nice proper short-cut for you, at least compared to the Ride. I'm not from this part of town, and haven't the fortitude to show you the whole way末not in this blasted muck, at least末 but unless I'm far wrong, it'll take you straight to the Skull.

"Sorry 'bout this, but I've no intention of going into the smelly old South district today -- if you'll pardon me for putting it that way. Just too many puddles, at least for a bootless man."

鼎ertainly. And thank you for your help, sir, Johan said, giving the halfling a quick bow and then turning to follow the indicated street, lengthening his stride. Weaving left and right to chose the least slippery and muddy path he could find. But care for the state of his boots made way for haste; after all, he had been on the way for quite some time, and finally his goal was almost within sight.

Yes, it would be interesting to meet his father's old friend. After the letter had arrived he had spared no words expressing his regret he couldn't make the trip at that time, and when Johan had volunteered to take his father's place, he had been given a good enough description of the Guildmaster. Although it had been a few years since the two had last met...

Still, Johan felt confident that he'd find the Smoky Skull with the instructions he had received末and when he got there, how hard could it be to find an elderly herbalist who, at least according to his father's tales, was almost some kind of local celebrity? And if the Skull was his favourite haunt, surely the people there could point out the man to Johan.

A happy smile touching his lips, Johan walked down the road towards his goal.

* * * * *

When the knock on the door sounded, Maeus leapt up from his place beside the iron stove and went to say goodbye to his mother, who was putting the final touches on a heavy knit scarf in her bedroom.

"Try not to stay out to late, May-oh," she entreated him. "It's New Year's eve, I know, but your father and I will worry if you're gone all night. And don't drink too much末you know how you get. Say hello to your friend, that kind old gentleman, for us. Don't pester him unreasonably; he's an important man."

Maeus nodded impatiently, waved an arm, and swept back out into the living area.

Theirs was a small dwelling末only five rooms if you counted the bath末but neat and tidy, and in a heartbeat the quick-footed musician was across the room and gathering up his things. A fashionably cut hood for walking, a light steel dagger for defense, and his family's prized rapier for an added touch of style and respectability. He figured the blade would probably serve little practical purpose on such a benign and convivial occasion as the old year's turning, but it might serve to boost a first impression.

It was getting late already, he knew, and more snow was probably on the way. Tugging on his cloak, Maeus wondered whether he ought not bring along his flute末it was a night for high spirits, after all, and everyone said he had a gift for a cheering tune末but soon decided against it. The instrument was his most precious possession, far and away the most valuable thing he owned and, if he did have a little too much to drink, to leave it somewhere on the far end of town would be the defining catastrophe of his life.

Having dismissed the idea, Maeus let his clever fingers play quickly over his carefully washed and pressed clothing, setting it to the angles he felt were most complementary to his less-than-impressive physique. At a little more than five and a half feet, and hardly more muscular than his mother, the reedy young bard had nevertheless learned to make an art of his appearance; that extra bit of trouble taken could often make the difference between a patron's carefully attending or casually dismissing the actual performance of a song or tale, and while he might not be called upon to do so this evening, long habit had made it a property of easiness.

Finishing up in the blink of an eye, he flipped the latch and swept open the door. There was a short step leading down from the portico into the street, and at its base, Aina Kember, the singer who lived uptown, was standing shivering in her worn leathers. Maeus could not help tsking in his mind at her dreadful appearance; she might have been a pretty girl, really, if she would leave off wearing baggy trousers like a common beggar, or末for Sune's sake!末at least let her dark brown hair grow out further than a few inches.

She bore something under her jacket, he could see; perhaps Aina had bought a flute of her own? If so, it could not have been a good one; everybody knew she was literally poor as a churchmouse. He nodded politely, just the same, and wondered again if he ought not fetch his own (very beautiful) instrument.

"Hel-l-o," Aina said, her teeth chattering a little. She bobbed her head in greeting. "Good even', Maeus. You look ready to go. Are you? I hope so; it's getting cold out here."

"'Evenin', Aina!" Maeus answered, pausing only briefly to carefully close the door behind him. Then he skipped off the stair and around her. "I am! Let's go! It IS cold!"

Always on the balls of his feet, as if always ready to run, or perhaps start dancing, Maeus took a few steps down the street and Aina followed. A window opened with a squeak in the house next to Maeus's.

"Oooohh, Maeus! Leaving off with a lady friend!" a thin, blonde, pouty-lipped girl scolded from the window. Her lips got even more pouty as she went on, putting an arm to her brow as if feeling faint, "You're breaking my heart! Stay with me!" Belying her theatrics, the girl broke into giggles, shot a wink at Maeus and slammed the window shut.

Maeus's shoulders slumped and he winced as if in pain. "You're a woman, Aina -- perhaps you know: why does she do this to me? Why does she mock me so?" he asked, but the question must have been rhetorical because he did not wait for an answer before continuing. "Heeeey! Perhaps this is not mockery. Perhaps these are her real feelings and the other ones are just a joke... I have to think about that..."

"Say, Aina," Maeus changed subjects as quickly and as easily as he moved from one side of the woman to the other, "did you bring an instrument? I left my flute at home. Does Elmdaerle want us to leave somewhere tonight? It's New Year's, you know? Picking berries, p'r'aps? If he does, I'll have to swing back home and get my other gloves and the bracers. Last time I got scratched all the way to the elbows. And, boy, let me tell you, I got a lot of yelling for ruining the shirtsleeves like that."

Aina opened and closed her mouth comically each time a new question came up. Once the final pause came, she waited an extra moment to speak, as though wondering if he was really finished speaking or not. "I don't think we're going to pick berries, Maeus," she answered evenly, "seeing as how it's winter, you know, and there aren't many berries around to pick. I'm certainly not going to dig around in the snow for them, that's for sure.

"And no, I didn't bring a flute." Aina reached into her worn old coat and produced the mace, which was heavy enough that she cradled it in both hands. "I don't have a flute. But I don't have a nice sword like you do, either. I must say you're looking rather dashing in it. Is it new?"

As they spoke, she followed Maeus down the street. He seemed to know where he was going well enough, and clearly had no fear of the nighttime shadows; it made her feel a little better. The bard was too light-hearted, and too light-footed, to bother her the way so many men did. As an added benefit, he was far too distracted by another girl to take any notice of her, even if he could get past her shabby appearance to do so.

"Do not take me for a fool!" Maeus frowned in obviously mock anger, took two quick steps forward, turned, and started walking half-backwards to keep facing Aina. "How long have you known Elmdaerle? Haven't you picked up anything from him?"

"I've known him long enough to learn that he doesn't like to be kept waiting," Aina said mildly. She twirled a half-circle in the air with her finger, indicating that he should turn around. They had to make good time. She could not imagine what could cause Elmdaerle to issue a summons on the eve of the New Year, but it had to be important.

She was beginning to doubt her wisdom in leaving so late. As a street singer (although truthfully she sang in taverns and inns more than on the streets, especially in the winter), she had a passably good knowledge of the city. She was confident that she could have made the meeting on her own. What she had not taken into account in her calculations was Maeus' company. His jokes and antics made him a most entertaining companion, but they could easily set them back ten minutes or more.

His tone changed to do a fairly close impersonation of the old man. "Purpleberries are tart and bitter until touched by frost, when they get much sweeter. Wild rose - also called sweetbriar or eglantine - hips stay on the bough long after the leaves have fallen off...and the damn thorns ALWAYS stay on the bough...and are sour, but smell good in jams or teas. Then there are the juniper berries, which only ripen late in autumn and work great with vinegar or dry wine to tenderize tough meat...

Aina watched him curiously, her eyes softening with amusement under her woolen hat. At the end of the impromptu performance, she gave him a cautious grin. "You're good," she observed. "I didn't know you could do impressions. Did you spend a lot of time with Elmdaerle? You sound just like him."

Given that we're all..." Maeus changed back to his normal voice, then paused to take in again Aina's ragged clothing. "Given that many people in the city will have roast meat tonight, I wouldn't be surprised if it WAS about juniper berries."

Feeling his scrutiny, and suddenly aware of her own shabby attire, Aina self-consciously pulled down her hat until it almost covered her eyes. She rarely went without her hat in the winter. While not the handsomest of hats -- in fact, it was downright shapeless -- it was how she earned her bread. That, and the generosity of patrons who would throw copper coins into it in appreciation of her singing.

"Say," he continued softly and shyly, "if we have time for a snack at the Skull, would you be offended if I bought...if we had something juniper-flavored for dinner? Just to show you what it tastes like?

"And thank you about the sword. No, it's not new, it's last been used by my grandfather. 'Used' as in 'worn to show off,' kind of like me."

Aina raised her eyes, only to meet Maeus' gaze squarely. She quickly lowered her head, staring down at the filthy icy sludge that covered the streets. "I -- I don't know," she murmured. "Perhaps a bowl of potato soup instead?" she suggested, naming a much less expensive dish, and one she thought she could afford, even with the few coppers that jingled in her pockets.

She was instinctively wary of charity, knowing that ulterior motives so often underlay it. And although Maeus was charming and, to all appearances, the perfect gentleman, years of habit were hard to break.

As they trudged through the wintry streets, Aina shivered. Once again, she regretted her inadequate winter attire. If she came down with a sore throat, she might be unable to sing for days.

She should have brought a scarf. Granted, she didn't have one, not as such, but she could improvise one by twisting one of her threadbare old cloaks upon itself and throwing it around her neck. She tried to envision this. Yes. Perhaps it would not look especially nice, but it would keep her warm.

"Pfft!" Maeus huffed. "I wasn't merely offering food. For get that it's food末think of it as a new experience. I was trying to show you something new, like sharing a new song.

"My father says that if I have a copper, and if you have a copper, and then we exchange them, we still have a copper each; but if I have a new idea , and you have a new idea, and we exchange them, we'll have two ideas each."

Maeus paused and turned to walk beside Aina again. "But if you don't want me to, never mind." Barely able to hide a grin, he shot her a glance from under his hood to see if this little bit of reverse psychology worked.

Either Maeus' stratagem had worked, or perhaps Aina had merely decided that to persist in her refusal would be rude. "Well, all right," she said, relenting. She gave Maeus a guileless smile. "It would be a new experience. I don't think I've ever tasted anything with juniper."

As they rounded a corner, laughter and hearthlight spilled out from behind the half-open shutters of a nearby public house. This gave Aina an idea. "Did you bring your flute with you?" She scanned his clothes, but could not see the instrument. "Perhaps we could work the Smoky Skull together, if our business with Elmdaerle does not take too long. There are likely to be many patrons there tonight." And they would likely be toasting the New Year to general merriment, and perhaps freer than usual with their coin, but Aina did not think it appropriate to bring up that particular point.

Before the bard could reply, the pair suddenly came to the end of the long darkened row, and were faced with a narrow intersection littered with refuse and sooty piles of snow. They had reached the edge of the slums, and would have to proceed more carefully: even a well-armed, practiced young man like Maeus might make a welcoming target to the desperate or the very drunk. The Watch came here less frequently, and the Purple Dragons not at all.

They would have to angle right, Maeus knew, and proceed south past the partially-derelict pub末it was called the Rolled Roast, as he recalled, or something similar末until they came to the end of the block. Across that street, he could see only the dark, lumpen silhouette of the building he recognized as the Smoky Skull.

They were almost there末and just in time, too, since their exhaled breath was looking more and more like dragon-smoke, and their thickest woolen garments were beginning to feel thin as threadbare sack-cloth.

Clutching her cloak about her, Aina hurried her stride, falling into step beside her companion. She disliked this part of town, and avoided it whenever possible. As a newcomer to Arabel, she had once made the mistake of trying to sing at a street corner not far from here, and was instantly beset by gangs of grimy adolescents, who had teased and harassed her mercilessly.

Now it was nighttime, and the treacherous streets末though seemingly silent末held dangers far graver than mere taunting youths. She generally did not travel alone after dark, and if it had been up to her, she would have chosen a more circuitious route, avoiding the slums altogether. Still, that would waste precious minutes, and Elmdaerle was waiting.

She hitched her baggy trousers up a bit, to avoid dragging them on the sooty snowdrifts. With her free hand, she gripped the haft of her hidden mace. She was glad for Maeus' company, but would feel decidedly relieved once they were out of the streets.

"No," Maeus sighed, once they were on their way. "I thought about it末then decided to leave it at home. I figured there were two possibilities: either Elmdaerle wants us to leave the city末in which case, I would have to run back home anyway, to pick up my forest gear末"

Aina's lovely eyes, now reddened from squinting against the freezing wind, widened. "Do you really think he'll ask us to leave the city?" The thought had not occurred to her. She felt a quick surge of excitement, vague visions of thrilling journeys leaping into her mind.

Then she squelched the thought. After all, nothing interesting ever happened to her . She had learned long ago not to cultivate unwarranted hope. It could lead to nothing but disappointment.

"末or, he'll want us to stay at the Skull, and then I can go back at my leisure and bring it."

"Ah." Aina nodded. "I understand. It is a beautiful instrument. It would be a pity if it were damaged or lost. As for me, I am fortunate enough to carry my instrument with me wherever I go." She lightly tapped her throat with her finger.

"Watch out, now! Try to look big, and let's walk faster," Maeus said, switching topics yet again. "It's not very likely, but still possible that some beggar will try to harass us on this particular alley."

Aina's hands tightened around the handle of her mace. She glanced at her companion's not-especially-imposing frame, then down at her even smaller one. It would take a vibrantly active imagination to consider her 'big.' "Perhaps I should have starched my clothes before going out," she joked nervously.

As the Skull rose in silhouette in the distance, she ran over songs from her repertoire in her head, already assembling the outline of a performance for the night, just in case Elmdaerle's business should turn out to be boringly mundane after all.

* * * * *

After a short bit of argument, Elmdaerle agreed to let Vetch pay for the cups of applejack末for the first round, anyway. The dark young man also offered to pay for the barkeep's, but the gesture was politely brushed off. "Price goes down a lot when you're stuck at work on the Drawing Down," Jacob explained.

"In that case," Malou said, from her usual place beside the counter, "you'd better let me have one, too."

Jacob snorted. "You? Criminy, 'Lou, you're not even working."

This started off a fresh round of arguing, cut short only by Vetch's offer to pay for it. Malou gave him a kiss for that末"This holly is working wonders for my love life," she remarked, while her victim blushed under the amused looks of Elmdaerle and the barman末and in the end, it cost him only four bits of copper.

His small loss was defrayed well enough by the excellence of the drink, which was not terribly strong and had been flavored with something unusual末clove, Vetch guessed, though he had not tasted the latter for at least two years.

Having closed his purse (which was looking rather short on copper, at the moment), he looked up and for once took notice of the big, leonine fellow crowded at his own table beside the wall. Interestingly, the man had weapons propped up on the chair across from him, including a long blade with a finely-wrought hilt that made Vetch's own rapier look rather flimsy and cheap in comparison. It looked frankly incongruent next to the bedraggled appearance of the outsized owner.

Beauty! Vetch thought to himself after letting his gaze settle on the object d'art. A man of that size who is nimble on his feet would be a formidable opponent, indeed. With that sword, almost invincible.

From behind him came the dim sound of Jacob's lowered voice. "I think somebody's already here to see you, Elm."

"Mm?" the old man said, and followed Vetch's gaze to the tall stranger. "This young gentleman here? Is he really! I don't recall meeting him."

"No," Jacob said, and shook his head. "I'm not talking 'bout this fellow末though he's been askin' about work as well, now you come to it. But I'm talking about that man, there末in the back."

Taz leaned forward and swiveled his head around to better acquaint himself with the person that the bartender had just addressed. The man in question turned out to be the older of the two men who had walked into the tavern only a few minutes earlier. The large warrior was about to say something to the older man, apparently named 'Elm', when Jacob directed Elm towards the other fellow who had also been sitting in the tavern for as long as Taz had been there. Though a bit disappointed, Taz morosely accepted that he'd have to wait his turn to speak with this 'Elm' person. He settled back into his seat again and raised his mug up to his mouth, waiting for Elm to be done speaking with the other stranger.

Elmdaerle turned, and so did Vetch and Jacob; and as they did, so too did the dark shadow that Taz had seen sitting at the trestle table. They all straightened a little as he came forward, since it was still early, and the meeting was supposed to have been secret.

"Well, the Powers bless me!" said Elmdaerle. "It's you, Tynan. What a relief末how are you, my dear boy?"

Tynan had spent the last three-quarters of an hour quietly nursing a tankard of applejack in the shadows along the back wall of the Smoky Skull, watching the orange light from the hearth at the far end of the room gently dance across the beamed ceiling and trickle towards him until it soaked into the dark wood of the tavern. Having been there for nigh on two hours, the warmth of the place had already settled comfortably into Tynan's bones and banished all thoughts of the icy winter wind prowling just beyond the tavern door. Even the swirl of flurries that trailed in after the infrequent arrivals had done little to disturb his comfort, their chill touch unable to penetrate so far into the room.

His early arrival at the Smoky Skull had been driven more by anxious nerves than any particular foresight. Tynan had invested much meaning and hope into Elmdaerle's invitation and was determined that the actual event live up to his expectations. His obvious distraction had forced his uncle to send him off from the forge hours earlier than usual, lest Tynan ruin some important piece of work, or worse yet cause himself or another injury. But the extra time had merely gnawed at Tynan's gut, giving rise to uncertainties the young man could not banish. Finally in frustration Tynan had dressed in his best clothes and headed directly for the tavern, determined to wait out his worries there.

That was some two hours past. Since then he had eaten a simple but hearty meal of stew and bread, and watched as a handful of regular patrons had wandered in from the cold or wandered out to find their families and greet the coming of the new year. Malou had been attentive when needed, the pretty barmaid whisking away his dinner dishes and delivering the applejack when he was through but otherwise respecting his need for privacy, clearly sensing his anxiety. For that Tynan was grateful末he hoped the lass could sense that as well.

Finally Elmdaerle had arrived, along with a young protégé. There was some small talk between the herbalist and what appeared to be an associate already toasty by the fire, and then between that trio and the Skull's staff. Tynan missed the exact words that sent all but Elmdaerle's companion into fits of laughter, but could have made a good guess based on the young man's red face and Malou's subsequent look of chagrin. Tynan smirked in the shadows, glad the sharp barmaid had spared him similar embarrassment.

He had tried to rise right then, to go and greet the herbalist with confidence, but nerves wrenched at his stomach and he froze with hands still clasped around his tankard. An image of Bryndel and Fiala huddled close around their small fire at home, patched blankets draped about their shoulders for extra warmth, had come unbidden to his mind and stolen his will. What if Elmdaerle turned him away? How could he face his siblings with such a story, on the eve of a new year no less?

But when the barman pointed him out directly to the herbalist, and by association to everyone else in the tavern, Tynan had no choice but to come forward. Rising slowly, he left the darkened depths of the back wall and emerged into the relative brightness of the room's centre, stepping with a confidence that was at odds with the turmoil in his gut. It was the moment of truth at last.

"I am well, Guildmaster," replied Tynan in a steady voice, surprising himself. "Thank you for asking. I trust by your hale appearance you are keeping well yourself?"

Exposed now in the light of both skull and hearth for all to see, Tynan no longer appeared a shadowy mystery. Tall and athletic, the young man's light complexion, straight nose, wide mouth and deep-set, smoky grey eyes formed a pleasant if unremarkable face. His dark, wavy hair was somewhat raggedly cropped short, and the faint tracings of youthful whiskers lined his jaw. He was dressed in the simple clothes of a tradesman, and clearly not a wealthy one at that. His white linen shirt sported a hint of thin embroidery at the collar as its only embellishment, and while his dark woollen breeches were tucked into freshly polished boots, the scuffs of regular wear still showed through to the observant eye. The only weapon he carried was an unremarkable dagger sheathed alongside his right hip, itself bearing signs of regular use.

Though he paid it no heed himself, Tynan's most distinguishing feature was quite apparent to any who spared him more than a passing glance. And that was his maimed left hand, half his ring finger and the whole of his pinkie missing. What caused the damage was unclear, but the wound was long since healed and pale scar tissue puckered over the remains of his missing fingers.

"I apologize if I am too early," he continued, his grey eyes flicking briefly to Vetch and Elmdaerle's old tailor, "and have interrupted your other pursuits. But the weather was looking dour, and a warm fire was beckoning."

"It beckons indeed," Elmdaerle nodded, and set his mug down onto the bar. Coming forward, he clapped a slender, large-knuckled hand onto the young man's shoulder. "But you should not apologize for being early, since it is you who had to wait. Come, now末come and meet a friend of mine.

"Vetch," the old scholar said, turning to regard the still-cloaked swordsman, "Vetch, this is Tynan Silvermoor, a very decent and dependable person, a blacksmith whom I have known for many years末since he was a boy, almost, though there was little of the boy left in him, even then 末and someone I have asked to be here tonight. Tynan, this curteous gentleman is visiting our country from the far-off South, and seeking employment; and he is a very capable fellow also, unless I am no judge of character. You will very likely make some good and practical use of each other this winter, so do try and make fast friends!"

The dark-haired youth nodded agreeably to Elmdaerle and then listened attentively as Vetch was introduced by the naturalist. Tynan was impressed, and not a little intimidated, that Elmdaerle had drawn someone from so far away for this meeting. He was honoured to be a part of such august proceedings, but also anxious that he live up to such obviously high expectations.

"Well met, Master Vetch," said Tynan in greeting, offering his good hand to the southerner and smiling broadly. "It is always a pleasure to welcome visitors to the Overland City of Cormyr. I hope you are enjoying our hospitality so far?

"Well, except for tonight's weather, that is," he added, a smirk curling the corner of his mouth.

"And to you, too, Mister Tynan." Vetch replied quickly, taking his extended hand. "I had no idea about Arabel's plentiful hospitality or I would have made my way here sooner! Everyone has been so末"
Unexpectedly, and with another long squawl of protest, the tavern door cracked open. Vetch interrupted himself and whirled末maybe a bit too quickly末towards it.

Two people, both of them small and shivering violently, stomped their boots upon the threshold and shoved a way into the tap room. Despite their similar size, they could not have been more different looking: one was a girl meagerly dressed, pretty in a boyish sort of way, and hardly better clothed and shod than a beggar; the other was a boy, handsomely arrayed and equipped末he wore a brightly-polished rapier, Vetch noted with interest末who, despite his grace, was hardly less fragile or delicately-featured than the girl. They stood for a moment in the entryway, breathing clouds of fog and staring wide-eyed at the gathered assembly, and then the girl reached back and pulled the door closed with a slam.

Elmdaerle peered at them over his glasses. "Ah-hah! And who should now appear out of the misty evening, but my two young allies and adventurers! Come in, Maeus, Aina末the both of you!"

Aina was accustomed to such effusive greetings from the naturalist. She smiled back at him, though her gaze continued to linger on the strangers. "Winter's tidings to you, Guildmaster," she replied in a soft voice that nonetheless carried well. This greeting, though a commonly heard one in the outlying northern parts of Cormyr, was a bit out of place in a civilized place like Arabel, and thus marked her as an outlander. Certainly no native Arabellan would utter it, for fear of being labeled a country bumpkin.

Maeus shook and stretched like a wet dog, huffing, then slapped the snow off his shoulders.

"Good evening, master Elmdaerle," he started, then went "Oops!" as a dagger slipped out of his sleeve. Snake quick, he reached down and caught it before it hit the floor. "There were some ruffians outside," he shrugged by way of explanation and sheathed the weapon, "but we managed to pass them by."

Aina pulled off her woolen hat, but instead of tresses classically spilling out onto her shoulders, this gesture merely revealed brown hair jaggedly cut short. She had probably cut it herself末with a knife, by the looks of it, and without the benefit of a mirror.

She made as if to go next to the hearth, but it seemed too crowded already, so she settled for a chair not far from it. Cupping her hands, she blew into them, and felt tingling sensation return to her frost-numbed fingers. She turned to regard the guildmaster expectantly, but resisted the urge to ask what this was all about, knowing that he would tell them soon enough.

"Looks like we'll be needing another couple of mugs," said Malou, looking them over (especially the girl) with a kind but critical eye.

"Thank you, I'm not thirsty," Aina told the barmaid in the pleasant, automatic way she had developed whenever someone suggested spending money on luxuries. Perhaps Maeus had talked her into accepting a bit of food, but she couldn't accept charity drink as well.

Oh, no! I'm never going to get a word in with him at this rate , Taz thought, with a flash of despair. Then, more determined than ever, the eager young warrior nimbly gained his feet and strode over to Elm's side.

"Please pardon my interruption, good sir," he began tentatively, "but I was told by Caravan Master Arliss that this here tavern would be an excellent place to find employment in the service of honorable masters and goodly causes. Master Arliss seemed to be particularly knowledgeable of this establishment and its patrons. My name is Balthazar Lazarus末or 'Taz', as my friends like to call me. I hail from Selgaunt, and believe I am ably skilled in the use of my blades. Perhaps you would have use for one such as I in your current ventures?" The question with which Taz ended his words to Elm was tinged with desperate hope, and was as much a plea as it was a question.

Surprised by the unexpected politeness of the man末who stood a handswidth higher than even himself, though he was considered a tall man末the guildmaster followed the entire spiel in silence. His eyes, which were a remarkably vivid blue, regarded the warrior seriously over his strange lenses, sizing up the warrior's sincerity as well as his great size; and there was a certain troubledness in the old man's expression as he did so, though the reason for it was unclear. Perhaps he expected some kind of spy?

Whatever he read in Taz's face, it must have been positive enough to warrant further talk, because he once again patted Tynan companionably on the arm. "Tynan, would you be kind enough to show these other three back to that table where you were sitting末the long one, in the far corner? Thank you. I will need to speak to this good fellow for a moment."

"Jacob," Elmdaerle continued, raising his voice and turning to the bar, "I would very much appreciate it if you would give these young folk whatever they asked for in the way of food, and place the expense to my account. If they are patient enough to listen to my droning for the next hour, let them at least be given compensation for it. And that goes doubly for the rawboned girl; she will need to be a little more rosy in the cheeks, I think, to properly endure the evening's exposition. Aina, if you wish to argue, I shall first turn you into a toad末so be a good lass and eat something, before you fall over."

Giggling, Aina hung her head in defeat, thereby signaling her acceptance. Foiled twice in one night! she thought bemusedly as she stared into the crackling hearthfire. Apparently, her friends were determined to feed her.

Raising her eyes, she sought out the barmaid, attempting to catch her eye. This proved to be difficult, since she appeared to be busily engaged with Maeus. The young minstrel was whispering in her ear and末Oh!末had just planted a kiss on her cheek. Aina blinked. Then she averted her eyes, not wanting to be caught staring.

After a brief moment, when she sensed that the flirting was done, she raised her gaze again. As it turned out, Malou had caught her eye and was heading her way. Aina gave her a smile. "A mug of ale," she requested. She knew from experience that once the winter chill had gotten into your bones, it could take a long time in departing, even when one is sitting next to a blazing hearth. A good stiff drink, on the other hand, could warm you up in no time末from the inside.

"What about yourself, Master?" Jacob asked, rubbing his hands against his leather apron. Malou stood up a little straighter, and also looked expectantly at the old man.

"Jacob, I will take whatever it is you keep back there that smells so strongly off potatoes," said Elmdaerle, "and also a new loaf, and perhaps a bottle of wine, as well. I fear my throat will be quite worn down before this long, wretched year is finally finished with." Gathering his voluminous dark velvet robes, he stepped behind the chair on which Taz had piled his belongings, so that the others could move more easily along the aisle. Taz hastily did the same.

"Coming right up," said Jacob. Nodding toward Malou, who dusted clean her own hands in response, the handsome barkeep turned and pushed through the swinging plank door behind him. It must have led into the kitchen, because a cloud of fragrant steam billowed out into the taproom.

"Anybody?" Malou asked, by way of invitation. "Mr. Vetch, shall we start with you? I can tell you what we have, if you like."

"Ah, it's just 'Vetch,' m'lady, and I'd like..." Vetch trailed off, considering.

"Malou, dear," Maeus began, walking toward the serving girl, "I need something special."

Leaning in末not that he needed to lean in very far末he whispered an order for some-meat-seasoned-with-juniper-marinaded-venison-would-be-great-but-beef-and-sauce-will-do-thank you, then stole a peck of a kiss on the girl's cheek and smiled a smile that threatened to take in his ears. She blinked in surprise, but patted him fondly on the cheek, having long grown accustomed to the bard's advances.

"An' I'll have a piece of meat this big," Maeus continued in his normal voice and showed his small palm to indicate size, "rare and spicy, and a drop of Master Elmdaerle's wine, if he'll allow me, watered down. Nothing else."

Nodding toward the bard, Vetch picked up where he had left off. "...What that gentleman is having. Only, I'll continue with the applejack, please."

Malou did a little mental math and nodded.

"Please forgive my errant eavesdropping, good sir," Vetch said, following Maeus toward the table, "but one cannot keep a description of such culinary delight a secret for very long in front of this famished man! My name is 'Vetch,' sir." He extended his hand. A look of friendly expectation had replaced his previous apprehension and Vetch seemed, for the first time, genuinely happy to be where he was.

Maeus reached out to greet Vetch, but rather than stopping to shake his hand, he moved further in to grasp the man's arm near the elbow, at the same time placing his own arm within easy reach for Vetch's palm. "My name is Maeus, and if master Elmdaerle reccomends you, you must be either a good man, or a very skillful one, or, most likely, both. It is a pleasure to meet you."

Leaning in a little further, Maeus dropped his voice for a quick conspiratory whisper "The juniper meat is sort of a surprise for Aina末the girl I walked in with. We had a chat about berries and herbs and things outside, and I think she's never had anything like that before."

Maeus let go of Vetch's arm and looked to see if the others were already walking towards the long table. Seeing that everybody present was still milling around, he slowed down. "I guess master Elmdaerle will fill us in on the purpose of the meeting soon enough. Until then, where did you say you're from? Starmantle? Where exactly is that? Ever been to Suzail? I hear that there's a whole family of halflings over there called Shortstaff. Talk about an unfortunate choice of a name. Not that I'm the one to talk about short, but..."

The back of the tap room was very dark and warm, its closeness illuminated only by the eery, faintly shifting glow emanating from the bright orange coals in the giant's skull. The timber ceiling was very low, and a thin, vaporous smoke hung over the long polished tables and benches, and Maeus could see a small assortment of belongings piled against the wall at the foot of one of them. The naturalist's quiet blacksmith friend shifted hesitantly behind them.

"It would be the table there, in the back shadows," Tynan said, stretching an arm out to indicate his old haunt. "The light may be dim, but it is pleasantly warm and free of prying ears. I'll join you there in a moment."

Once the two smallest members of the company had been allowed passage, and Malou had also had worked her way past the counter to the enormous round tuns on the eastern wall where the tavern's ales were stored, Elmdaerle moved back out into the aisle and leaned lightly against Taz's table. His eyes once again regarded the tall hiresword with a discomforting closeness, as though he were trying to see clear to the depths of the young man's mind.

"So," he said, pleasant but sober, "You are a Sembian, Mister...errehh, what was it? Balthazar? I would have guessed as much from your accent, surely末which is strong but not unpleasant, don't worry over that末but also that you've not long been in this country, either. Well, your people do not carry a reputation for timidity or for overpoliteness, and I am pleased to see that at least the latter is not quite true."

Adjusting his spectacles absently, the aging man said seriously, "I have never met this caravan master of yours, and wonder that he singled out this place, and this evening, of all places and all evenings. The business I am about to conduct with those young people is, for all our jesting, no foolish or laughing matter, and an extra sword末or two swords, I should say末and two strong arms to use them might sit well enough with the others before it is all over and through with. Certainly you have the size for an adventure, and perhaps the fortitude as well.

"But I am somewhat hesitant to bring in an outsider, especially one who for all purposes (if not intents) has been waiting here for me. Also Sembians are well known as a crafty and tricksome lot. Tell me, has anyone approached you about the name or reputation of Elmdaerle the Naturalist? For that is my name, Balthazar, and I should answer quite honestly if I were you. Cormyreans do not lie, and so can tell a liar easily -- and also there is more to me than perhaps at first appears." This may have been a bluff, it occurred Taz, since in his country Cormyreans were often regarded as untrustworthy and double-dealing -- yet there was something in the man's cool blue eyes and craggy face that bespoke wisdom, a keen intelligence, and perhaps a touch of danger as well.

"No, Master Elmdaerle, I have not ever heard your name nor anything about you before this moment," Taz responded quite honestly and matter-of-factly. "As for who I am and how I've come to be here tonight, I am from Selgaunt, as I said before末for that is where I was born and raised, though my parents are末 were末 originally from the Moonshae Islands.

"The caravan I traveled with was on the road many tendays, heading from Selgaunt to Ordulin and then across the Dalelands before arriving here in Arabel this afternoon. And caravan-master Arliss merely recommended this tavern as a good place to find employment, generally. There was nothing in what he said that was special to this day or this hour. So, I was not waiting here for you in particular, kind sir. It just seemed to me that you might be the sort of person I could be happy working for, is all."

"Ordulin, across the Dalelands?" the old man softly ruminated. "Well, that is quite a journey, sir, quite a journey indeed. And the Moonshaes末I have heard of that place only once before, and know less of it than I do even of Sembia. I think to many people that would sound like a fanciful tale, though I have done some wandering myself in former times, and recognize a traveler when I see him. And then again, you are unusually tall and fair for an easterner, and all men know how tall the westerners are.

"If you are comfortable on the road, then, sir," he said, more briskly, "and also comfortable with difficult tasks, then by all means join us at our table. I had not thought to employ more folk than I knew, or to truck with caravan guards; but winters can be long and difficult in this part of the world, and I fear the worst part of it has not yet befallen us. From what I understand of caravans, there is not much money in protecting them, so perhaps it will not be worse for you under my contract, or in my service末if you prefer. But there shall be many stout people to go, probably, so if you guard some mischief from me, my young friend, think twice before agreeing to the task.

"What are your terms?" he asked.

"T-terms?" the tall youngster stammered, an incredulous look spreading across his face. "I...I have no terms, sir. I merely wish to do right by people who could use some help...and earn a bit o' coin along the way. Oh, an' maybe find some adventure, also."

Taz smiled sheepishly, and the old man nodded, his expression grave. "I see. A reasonable enough request, as these things usually go. But in some circumstances, it is necessary to cut all ties...especially when danger looms. In that case, you should be made of stuff as stern as you look, or be prepared to let you companions know just how far you are willing to continue. It would not do, young Sembian from the Moonshaes, to give them a false impression of courage, only to flee at the first sight of trouble.

"Have you anywhere to stay tonight? Or are you happiest in the cold, and snow?"

Taz straightened up sharply upon hearing Elm's words. "I swear to you, Lord Elmdaerle, that I will stand and fight...to the death if that's what it ever comes down to," Taz insisted firmly to Elm. There was not even the slightest hint of doubt or fear or apprehension in the young man's voice. "I have no home to ever return to, and those I travel with will be like family to me. My loyalty to you and to them will be beyond question."

Taz paused for just an instant before he addressed the questions that Elm had ended with a moment earlier. "As for a place to stay tonight, Lord Elmdaerle, no...I don't have any such place..." he muttered forlornly.

"Well, that can be amended, easily enough," mused Elmdaerle, and he scratched his cheek thoughtfully. While he was not bearded, Taz could see that he had the kind of hoary silver bristles no old man could entirely conquer. "I would caution you not to address me as 'Lord Elmdaerle', however, since it is usually a title men assign to themselves, and people would think I've gone senile. Which I have末but that's not the point. Master Elmdaerle will do, if that can be allowed, considering how little I am the master of."

He smiled kindly at the swordsman. "As for the rest, you will not need to give me your word on it, Master Balthazar. One can see immediately that you have the size to hold your own, and末given the state of the world today末I can't imagine you made the journey west without a problem. They say there are dark elves in the eastern mountains, you know; and that the rest of the elves are in league with those. I don't know that I believe it, entirely末but if your people in Ordulin thought it true enough to warrant a 'dispersion' of elves from Sembia, perhaps there is some truth there. Perhaps we can speak of these things later, however.

"In the mean time, why don't you gather your things up! I don't suppose they're any danger, staying here, since nobody but Master Arliss considers the Skull a place for mercenaries末I chose it for that reason, more than anything else末but the sight of a sword, and especially a pretty one like that, might help to lend this meeting a little added...gravity."

Taz nodded his head vigorously and smiled happily. "Thank you, Master Elmdaerle," he gushed. "You'll not ever regret taking me on."

With that, the young man gathered up his belongings and strode over to the corner table, where he stashed his gear in an out-of-the-way corner. The Guildmaster followed more slowly, wearing a bemused smile that did not quite touch his thoughtful blue eyes.

* * * *

Moving quickly now末as much from the biting cold as anything else末Johan slipped down the side-street, occasionally using his staff to sound out the larger puddles (some of which were alarmingly deep). His long stride took him past the only well-lit shop he could see, which turned out to be another inn: The Wild Goose.

There were not so many people chatting gaily outside this one as at the last, but the ones that were looked entirely different. For one thing, they were dressed more strangely, with brightly-colored robes, deep hoods, and many bejeweled rings; one or two had tattoos of unbelievable complexity. A greying woman not far from Johan cradled a big domestic cat in her arms, stroking it absently while she whispered to a friend on the doorstep.

The cat stared at him as he neared. It occured to the monk that this was the first such animal he had seen since entering Arabel末which struck him as unusual, since cats were as common in Cormyrean communities as rats were rumored to be elsewhere. They were the good-luck symbols of the country, injured or despoiled only at one's own peril, and their sudden absence could only be explained by the bitterness of the weather. If this city were like any other in the kingdom, warmth and sunshine would bring them out to play; as it was, Johan suspected that more than a few families played winter hosts to the lovely creatures, as the brotherhood of his own monastery invariably did.

As he slowed to smile at the cat, a curious thing happened.

Johan noticed末or thought he noticed末a sudden blurring of movement at the corner of his right eye. Glancing over and upward, he saw that the signboard above the inn's doorway was swinging gently, and in large bold letters read: The World Serpent .

That was odd. Hadn't it just read something else, a moment ago?

It seemed ridiculous to wonder, since inn names came a thumb for twenty fingers, but the wind had died sufficiently that Johan doubted it was strong enough to move the sign. Plus, he possessed a pretty good memory for things like that, since many of his katas bore names like 'Rising In The West', or 'Lark Above The Wall', and learning poetic phrases had become practically second nature to him.

He was about to say something, but the door suddenly opened with a lurch; from it emerged a sober-looking man alone, dressed well but no older than himself. Johan was surprised to see that the fellow not only bore a haversack on his shoulder, but also a very large and healthy-looking crow, which took one look at the cat and burst out croaking:

"Wicked! Nasty, wicked thing!"

Slightly less astonishing than this outcry, which was pronounced in a nearly-incomprehensible, but nonetheless impressive imitation of Common, was the reaction末or more precisely, lack of reaction末on the part of the oddly-accoutered bystanders. Hardly a one so much as glanced over at the disagreeable bird, which continued hurling abuse in a distressingly loud and unctuous tone; the only exceptions to this were the owner, who looked understandably unhappy and defensive, and Johan, who was so surprised that he stopped in the middle of the street without realizing it.

The cat, for its part, hardly batted an eye.

"Off already, Ozander?" asked someone, made unrecognizable by an unnecessarily large hood, swaddling robes, and a voice hardly audible over the rackety raven. "Not feeling poorly again, I hope末night's just beginning."

"You've forgotten already, Corphos!" ribbed the saggy-jowled man who'd been listening to the cat-owner. He was obviously attentive, and spoke in a friendly, but cultured voice. "Oz is being loaned out by the Hall for the evening. Some business to do with whats-his-name, you know末the collector from Suzail. El-something. There, I've forgotten myself."

"Ohh, yes," laughed a scrawny woman in a rust-red cloak that neatly matched her hair, "off to see Elminster. Can't be seen hanging about with this sorry lot." She had an expensive accent, as well, though it was displaced enough by a high, nasally timbre to cut clearly through the bird's voice (which had finally begun to subside).

"I thought you'd left hours ago," said the saggy-jowled man to the young fellow, who was fussing with the fastenings of his cloak. "Going to be late, aren't you? Unless Professor Swanwing's asked you to stay, of course."

At this many of the people laughed; it was clearly an inside joke of some kind. A few puffs of pipe-smoke, rich and pleasant, curled up over the heads of the company.

Blinking his eyes in confusion and bemusement, Johan was led to wonder if the talk of the old women back home was really true after all. Perhaps city-folk were mad. Or at least strange. On the other hand, Johan had met some pretty borderline insane people back home as well, so perhaps it meant people were much the same all world over. Mind you, he'd be greatly surprised to meet anyone weirder than Uncle Mathew...

And now even tavern signs played with his mind. Either he was faint from hunger末possible, but still unlikely; he had fasted often enough during training with no ill effects末or there was magic in the air. Arcane magic.

Having grown under the watchful eye of a druid末his stepfather Michael末and then living for years in the monastery where several of the brothers enjoyed the grace of Lathander or Selune enough to be able to perform divine miracles, magic wasn't completely alien to the young monk. Indeed, even his own esoteric training promised him abilities that a commoner would label as magical (though Johan would be quick to point out the difference). But arcane magic, the power of a wizard, he had had little experience with末barring Uncle Mathew again. How many kids were given a zombie for a birthday present? I cried for hours after Mother made it clear in no uncertain terms what the old hermit could do with frightful things like that. He had thought the stumbling corpse had been rather neat.

Shaking his head to rid it of the image of her mother beating his uncle with her broom and yelling him to get rid of the 'gift', Johan turned his attention to the young man and his rude raven. Tame animals were another thing Johan was comfortable with. At least focusing on the raven and its owner was better than keeping an eye on the blasted sign!

Giving the young man a curious smile, Johan continued on his way, although slower. The people had been interesting enough that he wouldn't mind hearing a bit more of what was said, even though he felt a small guilty bang for eavesdropping. Although since they weren't attempting to keep their voices down and were on the street it might have made it all right. But it wouldn't be polite either way.

And besides, the man had looked pleasant enough. Perhaps, should he take the same way as Johan, he might strike a conversation with him. Ozander, hadn't the others called him? Johan was a social soul despite the solitude that his chosen profession often called for, and it appeared the people of the big city weren't quite as free with their tongues than the folk back home. But, come to think of it, they could be pretty reticient when confronted by a stranger too...

"Shush, you," Ozander said, giving a halfhearted swat at the loud-mouthed bird on his shoulder. The bird, in response, took off from his perch with a squawk and a flap of wings before setting down again. This time finding a grip on the haversack on the man's back, out of harm's way. Settling his feathers, the crow let out with one more outburst before falling silent.

"W-i-i-i-i-cked!"

Ozander turned his attention to the others standing in the street, and responded lightly. "It is no secret I'd stay as long as she asked me. At least, not to her it isn't." He raised his right hand and wiggled the fingers dramatically. "In any case, she quite abruptly decided that she'd had more than enough of my company and shooed me off." He shrugged. "Probably as well, since末as you pointed out末I'm easily on my way to being late."

Feeling the biting cold, Ozander took a moment to pull his cloak more tightly around himself. He had a good recollection of the path to his destination, but confirming details was in his nature. On a night such as this, and with a meeting of such import, he was hesitant that anything should be left to chance.

"The Smoky Skull" He looked both ways down the cold street, and his eyes met with Johan's. He gave a quick nod of friendly acknowledgment before he turned back to the others, "Straight down and to the left. Do I remember correctly?"

Corphos shook his head. "No末more like straight down and dead center. I think."

So, the man is going in the same way I am , Johan mused, returning the nod warmly and clearing his throat. "As it happens, I'm heading that way myself末though I'm a stranger to this town. Perhaps we can make the trip together? Two sets of eyes末ah, allow me to correct myself 末three sets of eyes," Johan chuckled, as he glanced at the rude crow, "will find the place all the faster."

Waiting for Ozander to make his farewells to his friends, Johan began walking along the man and gave him a warm smile. "Johan Winterglade, a monk of the Sun Soul order, from Longford末at your service."

Still facing Corphos and his associates, Ozander heard Johan speak. Flashing a quick look of intrigue to his fellow arcanists, Ozander turned to examine the man addressing him. His initial suspicion末that this was some roustabout looking for an easy mark末was diminished when he more thoroughly appraised the man. Certainly he was dressed as a foreigner, and even then his clothing would suggest that he was a man of sacrifice. Definitely not your typical ruffian looking to make some coin with the quick stab of a knife.

Be that as it may, Ozander was still a cautious man and decided to test the monk's story. "Yes, yes, of course. Six eyes are better than two. Ozander Yisborne, and I'm pleased to meet you." Stepping inline with him in the street, Ozander spoke while walking slowly. "The Sun Soul Order, eh? I believe I've heard of it. Your reputation reaches even here, from your faraway community in Longford." Still walking slowly, Ozander waited for the man's reply. Ozander had in fact never heard of the Sun Soul Order, but knew there were no such monks in Longford.

Giving Ozander a puzzled smile, Johan decided not to question the man's words since he had no knowledge about that particular matter. "Really? That's news to me末but then again, what would I know of what's spoken of in a city like this? Usually we tend to keep to ourselves, but I guess someone did something important to become the talk of the city. So, what are they talking about us?" Johan asked innocently, apparently having accepted the claim as fact. After all, he had no reason to doubt Ozander and was trusting by nature.

"And might it be too much of a coincidence to believe you were looking for Elmdaerle the Naturalist as well?" Johan asked. Perhaps this meeting was fate after all, a nudge from Lathander to tell him something.

"You know of Elmdaerle? He's a fine man, you know." As has happened many times throughout this past day, Ozander found himself thinking back to the caravan journey that lead him away from home, and of Elmdaerle's kind words and friendship. "I owe him a debt to this day," Ozander added.

Satisfied to some extent that he was relatively safe in the company of this foreigner, Ozander offered a final wave to Corphos and the others and then turned his full attention to the street in front of him. "We should proceed with a reasonable amount of haste, I do not care to be too late." Ozander picked up his pace, watching to see if Johan would do the same. The sudden change in speed temporarily upset the raven perched on his pack, who responded with a flap of wings and a quick squawk before settling again.

Ozander didn't ask Johan's business with Elmdaerle, if the monk chose to speak of it, he would. In any case, Ozander had a feeling he would know soon enough.

"Agreed," Johan said and matched pace with Ozander, eager to seek the solace of a warm inn after several cold days in a row. "I think I haven't been warm since I left Thunderstone, and that was the better part of a tenday ago." But it had been good exercise, Johan had to admit. Though he had no wish to try it again in a hurry.

"And I don't know Elmdaerle all that well... It's my father who's close friends with him. I think I have met the man a few times when he came by to meet my father, but I was too young to remember much about it," Johan went on easily, trying to nudge Ozander into sharing something of himself by leading by example. "But father said the Hullack Forest was too restless for him to have made this trip, so I decided to take his place."

"Thunderstone, eh? I had not been aware that Elmdaerle made it out to those parts, but in review, I am not surprised." Thinking back to his own journey with Elmdaerle, Ozander wondered exactly how much travelling the man had done, and if he were still capable of doing so. "I wonder if he still travels as he once did."

Ozander glanced sideways at Johan and noticed for the first time that he had the chapped look of someone who had been bitterly cold for days. "Gods, man -- you look chilled to the bone. The inn shouldn't be much further, keep a look out for the sign if you can read."

典hat I am and that I can, Johan chuckled, giving Ozander a warm smile. 典he senior monks back at the monastery often made fun of my inability to master my body enough to ignore the elements. You wouldn't believe just how many hours I have spent dancing the katas out in the cold to learn the trick. But I never did. Guess that proves I still have a long way to go, eh? he chuckled.

Yes, life in the Dawn's Reach was good and interesting enough, but Johan was a man who greatly appreciated company, and no matter how pleasant the other monks were you could get enough of them. Particularly as the trails leading to and away from the monastery often crew impassable during winters and the monks were left with only each other for company until spring. On the other hand, the heavy snow also ensured the various beasts that inhabited the more distant valleys and caves also stayed away from the monks' paths.

The row they were on ended rather shabbily. They seemed to have come to an area of Arabel used mostly by the building trades: to the right sat a large hardware shop that looked more like a squat, outsplayed barn than anything else, and to their left was a fenced lumber yard and fuel supply. Everywhere about the street were strewn great drifts of sawdust, lumps of coal, and broken boards,and there were a number of impoverished, mist-blowing people in rags casting about in the lampless blue darkness for spare things to heat their meager homes with.

As the blight of the neighbourhood's inhabitants caught his eye, Johan's smile wilted slightly. A look of pure sympathy took its place as he watched the rag-clad men and women scavenge firewood. True, Johan himself owned nothing more than the clothes he wore and had made vows, holy vows sworn before Lathander's altar at Midsummer dawn, to never ask for or accept more, even if it was freely given. But these unfortunates were not poor by choice... and there was nothing Johan could do for them. At least, not yet. But perhaps some day.

A few yards ahead, there were two tiny ,two-wheeled wooden carts in the road. One was made for men to pull, and the other for a beast; but there was no sign of any animal large enough to do the job. Ozander's raven scrambled this way and that upon his shoulder, looking curiously around the intersection for more cats, and occasionally ruffing his feathers out for warmth. "Nasty place," it grumbled, giving its master a dirty look.

The wizard was inclined to agree. A pair of stinking men, shivering and clutching badly-split cedar boards, were approaching the man-drawn cart even as he and Johan did; there were already several wet sticks and lumps of coal piled inside of it. They seemed to think their pitiful booty was in danger of being looted, because they eyed the two outsiders with alarm.

Ozander's mood sobered noticeably as they entered into the more sordid district of the city. Not only due to his awareness of the heightened danger to himself and his companion, but in recognition of the plight of the local populace. Seeing the pair of wretched men approaching, his left hand went to his belt and he drew open the nearly frozen leather of his spell component pouch. Then, realizing his deed might be seen as an act of aggression, he quickly dropped his hand back to his side.

"Hoy, shove off, you," said one of them, angrily squeezing one of his boards. He had a drawn face, bulgy, wild-looking eyes, and hardly any teeth in his mouth. "This is our lot. Ger'away from it."

Ozander spoke while raising his hands in a placating gesture. "Of course, we mean you no ill will." Now taking Johan by the arm, he steered a course giving the two desolate men a wide berth. He thought briefly of giving them some money, but dismissed the idea; any show of coin could quickly make the situation more dangerous. He continued to move past the men as quickly as possible.

The paupers made no further move toward them -- apparently as unprepared for a brawl as the wizard was -- but continued to watch them suspiciously. The warning of the wild-eyed one had drawn the attention of a few others, including the owners of the horsecart, who straightened up from a frozen woodpile on the east side of the street and stared at the two out of hollowed sockets.

"Ask 'em for a bit," croaked one.

"Yeah, ask 'em," came a hoarse, but obviously feminine, voice from out the shadows.

Wild-eyes looked at them nervously, considering. He and his friend were probably not beggars, but there was enough local support that he might seem like a fool for ignoring the opportunity. Drawing himself up to his full height, which was not entirely inconsiderable, he regarded the well-dressed wizard with a disapproving frown. "Hey, give us a bit, if you got one," he demanded rudely.

"Two bits," added his friend, who was heavy, greasy, and wrapped in a moth-eaten gray cloak that stank horribly even from several paces away. Neither of them was blocking the way forward, but they both now gripped their dirty, broken planks in a vaguely unsettling way, and perhaps four other people had taken a step nearer the action in the center of the street.

As the paupers made their demand, Johan allowed Ozander to lead him away; but he shifted his grip on his staff, preparing for trouble. He most certainly didn't want to hurt the poor people, particularly for the sake of a few copper coins, but neither would he allow them to take the coins by force. Even though Johan hoped things wouldn't come to that, one way of another.

Too bad he didn't have any coins to give, Johan lamented. But then again, that might just have made the demands bolder. Perhaps he should have said something to defuse the tension, but the young monk didn't know what to say, so he kept his silence, offering the only thing he could give; his sympathy, though knowing that it wasn't of any worth to the paupers.

Hastening his steps to keep up with Ozander, Johan kept his eyes open, half-expecting someone to lose their calm and try to enforce the voiced demand with fists or a blade. If that happened the offender would be met with the business end of Johan's boot. The staff, the obvious weapon, was only a distraction; if the unwary opponent focused on it, on the mesmerizing patterns Johan could spin it into, then the strike from a fist or a boot or an elbow was ever more likely to pass through their guard.

First there were two, and now there were six. Ozander knew that people grew bolder in numbers and in desperation and this destitute crowd seemed to have ample of both. Ozander was convinced of two things; any show of coin would bring even more rabble forward, and lingering would give the crowd time to work up courage for some brash act.

Seeing Johan take a new grip on his staff, Ozander released his hold on the man's arm. He didn't know what Johan intended, but wanted to give the monk the freedom to move as he deemed necessary. Not knowing what to say as he walked by, he simply ignored the demands as if he hadn't heard them. Hopefully he and Johan would be past the crowd before the men decided on their next action, and their aggressiveness would fade with distance. Keeping his eyes on the street ahead, he trusted his familiar to alert him to danger at his back.

"Think's they can ignore us?" said the froggy, but feminine, voice. Its owner had made no move toward them, however, and only seemed interested in egging the others on. "Think's they're better than us?"

"Aw, let the dumb blighters go," said someone else, sending a wave of relief through the two companions. "Tall fellow's rich as you are, Kabba, and the other's spent all his money on clothes."

The greasy man laughed in the nasty, taunting way of a bully who has gone as far as he dared.

Ozander flinched slightly as a handful of wood suddenly clattered into the pile already resting in the oxcart. It was too bloody dark to see who had dropped it, but the sound appeared to startle the others, too, and Wild Eyes goggled around in fright.

"They're no better," said the female voice insistantly. "You can roll 'em, lads."

"Aye, and so can you," came a sour reply. The greasy man snickered again, his grayish teeth bared in the direction of the woman. "Kabba brawling by herself, that'd be the day."

Johan took the opportunity of their arguing to work his way past the end of the street, leading Ozander quickly into the wide intersection. It was nearly large enough to make a proper square and, judging by the number of hard cobbles sticking out through the frost and muck, had evidently been used as one in the past. There was a thin row of leafless saplings separating the lines of wagonwheel tracks running north and south, and here and there a length of rope or a broken tent stake. They could see lights on the further right-hand side, and from its direction could also determine the sound of singing and rhythmic clapping; as they approached, the sound of many people whistling and applauding slowly drowned out all the discordant noise of the unfortunate wood-gatherers.

By this time the darkness had swallowed up all the details of the neighborhood, and while the two men could tell they had come to a public house, it was some time before they could read the signboard. To their regret, it was not the place they were searching for: this one was rather large, two storied, sprawling, and unevenly constructed, and it had many tiny glass-paned windows on the ground floor that were brilliantly illuminated. Someone had also painted a bad mural of a feast beside the door -- recently, too, since time and the weather had not yet reduced it to a series of ugly brown blotches. Roll & Roast, was all the corkboard sign read.

The entrance was very small, they could see, but the door was either open or off its hinges completely. The singing had started up again -- the tune was "The Thief And The Cobbler", a familiar one to any old jack or lass in this region of the country -- and was definitely coming from within the pub, though they could not see past the several men lining its crowded parlour.

It looked warm and extremely inviting, but the wizard at least knew that they were now very close to their destination, and enjoined his weary companion to pass it by. There were no lamplights in this part of the city, and the street beyond was very dark, with only here and there a pair of shutters made visible by the light; instinctively the two moved closer together, and Johan's bony-knuckled grip grew nearly as bloodless as the snow upon his staff. There were icicles hanging from every arch, eave and coal-bin, making a cramped, wintry canyon of the down-trodden clapboard buildings, and overhead the snow still fell erratically, as though Auril could not make up her mind whether she wanted the world to be miserable or merely frozen stiff.

There were only three other people they could see on the street, moving together out of a narrow brick allyway to the left that converged with their own path. The voices of these newcomers were raised in angry, brutish shouting, and Johan and Ozander were surprised when two of the men suddenly cast the third one violently down into the road. They could hardly make out what any of the three looked like from this distance, but obviously a rather serious disagreement was in progress, and one that was rapidly escalating.

"What's the matter, you little faggot?" bellowed one of the men at the fellow on the ground, who was now struggling up on his hands and knees in the filth and slush of the roadbed. "Don't you like this game?"

The second goon brayed with laughter. "Loikes it less when he can't cheat, prolly! Lickle bastard! Now yur all wet末can't kiss the ladies, looking loike that!" They both laughed, rapacious and cruel.

Johan groaned as he realized they had escaped one trouble to find another thrust in their way. The young monk obviously had to clue what had provoked the attack, and was thus torn between the need to protect the underdog and the hesitation about getting mixed up in something he had no idea of. Perhaps the two had a very good reason to treat this Artie harshly. But be that as it might, he had no illusions how the two would like an outsider getting involved.

But he felt he had to try, nevertheless. He simply couldn't let a helpless man be beaten up without rising his hand in defense. He wouldn't be himself if he simply walked past, be the one suffering a criminal or not.

Ozander swore inwardly. Another situation to deal with, and one that appeared quite more dangerous at that. Couldn't he simply find his way to the inn without incident? He was contemplating simply classifying it none of his business and moving on, but the young man looked to be in genuine need of help. Wanting a moment more to examine the exchange before deciding on a course of action, Ozander slowed his pace. Then Johan took action and made the decision for him.

Careful to keep his young face hidden in the shadows of his hood, Johan stepped forward, slipped his holy symbol from under his robe to hang in plain sight. There was not now sufficient light in the street to reflect upon it, alerting them to his station or his alignment; so, twirling his staff, he brought the end of it down against a suitably large cobblestone with enough force to send an audible crack rebounding across the street.

All three of the strangers glanced up at him, blinking in the gloom. Running a novice's meditative exercise in his mind to appear as cool and unshakable as possible, Johan calmly said, 典he beginning of the New Year is close... not an auspicious time to begin a grudge, is it, my sons? Why not leave the poor man to his sins and find a warm tavern to contemplate yours, hmm?

Standing there calmly and unmoving, his face hidden by shadows, his holy symbol in plain sight, Johan rather hoped the two brutes would take him for a priest and decide they could do better than to anger him by continuing their harassing. He knew enough to emulate the mannerism of a cleric, or at least the kind of mannerism a commoner would expect from one.

"We'd be happy to, bloke," grunted the man on the left, "if this scum'd stop bringin' his sins -into- our warm tavern. As it is, I suggest you folla yur own advoice, and leave us to our own business."

At this near distance, the monk could see that the speaker was tall, slack-shouldered, and settling into middle age; his jowly face was shaven but grayish, and his dark hairline receded over bushy black brows. His companion was younger and shorter, but also heavier set, and he wore a mask of blank stupidity upon his apple-cheeked face. They were both dressed in brown wool, thick jerkins and leggings, though they seem to have forgotten their cloaks and hoods; probably they were not expecting to take long on their victim. Still, there were short, clumsy-looking daggers hanging at their belts, and both carried heavy oak truncheons shod with brass; they looked much stronger than Johan, and also much less friendly.

"Yeah," echoed the shorter, younger one. "Follow y's own advoice, and move it along." Perhaps unconsciously, he squeezed the knobbly end of his club in one fat fist, and he glared at the intruder with dumb dislike. "We've business to take care of."

Thinking quickly, Ozander moved to stand next to Johan. He threw back his own cloak to reveal the insignia of The Hall of Six. These men would most likely not recognize the badge, but would know it to be a mark of some station at the very least.

Loudly, so that all could hear, Ozander spoke. "We have no time, Johan末the other mages are waiting. Let me simply turn this lot to stone, and we can return to deal with them later." Reaching into his spell component pouch with his left hand, he pulled out a small packet and broke it open between his fingers in a well-practiced motion. Concentrating on maintaining his ruse, Ozander affected an expression of boredom and disdain.

Glad that his face was indeed hidden by the shadows of his hood so the two men couldn't see the expression of surprise on his face before be managed to compose himself, Johan silently thanked the mage that he had taken part in the matter. For subterfuge and lying were hard for a truthful soul like Johan to keep up, but it was now clear that the men weren't to be scared from their path of violence that easily. And, particularly since he still know not the real reasons behind the event and likely never would, he didn't relish the possibility of a battle.

天ery well. If that is your will, I cannot stop you, Johan sighed, moving forward and to one side to give Ozander 喪oom to cast his spell' and to get closer to the men. Turning to them, he smiling apologetically; he was close enough for them to see his face, despite the hood.

The two thugs exchanged wary glances, and their posture changed immediately. Even in a toughened frontier city like Arabel, magic was no trifling matter, and neither were those who wielded it; Ozander had taken a great risk, they all knew, since he could be reported to the Watch just for threatening its use. The sound of breaking packet sounded abnormally loud and significant, and the air in the street suddenly felt several degrees colder, though the wind had not picked up.

擢orgive me," Johan said sincerely, "but we cannot let this lie. I didn't wish it to end like this. While Johan didn't like to lie and generally wasn't much good at it, he could give false impressions, certainly if by doing so he might prevent bloodshed. 釘ut, as I said, I lack the means of stopping the Lord Wizard. Such a shame, really.

"Oh, well末may the Lord of the Morning smile on you. Johan began whispering a common prayer for the recently departed souls.

"Y-you can't do magic here," protested the older man, his deep voice quavering. "It's illegal. The W-war Wizards'll have you."

"This ain't none of your affair!" complained the other, his moony face paling in the darkness. He blinked away an errant snowflake. "This fellow's a thief, and a Sembian, and a cheat! He's nothing to nobody!"

Hearing his whole existence summed up so dismissively by the slab of dim meat who moments ago was set to bash his brain in, the man on the ground末Arthos was his name末felt something something snap into place in his mind. The roaring surf of his terrified heartbeat receded from his ears, replaced with something sharp, calculating, and deliciously dangerous. His fear and shame melted away and the need to retrieve some measure of dignity from this humiliating mess burned in him like a branding iron. He forced the knots out of his gut and the vigor back into his trembling limbs, silently steeling himself as his would-be attackers and rescuers continued their exchange.

典hat may well be, but is that a reason to beat the poor man senseless? Is it, my sons? Johan sighed. 添ou call him a thief and a cheat. What did he do to you, exactly, to deserve such hostility? I'm sure the Lord Wizard will be willing to stay his hand long enough to hear you reasons. The young monk gave the men a friendly, encouraging smile.

The brute was right of course, the threat of magic was an offense in and of itself. Yet, here Ozander stood, menacing complete strangers with wizardry quite beyond his capabilities. He was dumbfounded at his own actions even as he continued to entwine himself in his ruse.

Affecting a bored and aristocratic calmness to the best of his ability, Ozander spoke. "Actually, I care quite little for their rationalizations. I do care that I am cold, delayed, and will shortly be faced with writing up another one of those dreary accountings for the use of my arcane talents."

"Or," he continued after a short pause, "we can save this man the embarrassment of a beating, save me the trouble of a report, and save the two of you the discomfort of feeling your innards calcify if we simply all go our separate ways." Ozander turned to the Sembian kneeling in the street and spoke as if the matter had been decided. "You there, you're free to go. I suggest you do not return."

With a growl of feline disgust, the lean man sprang up from his crouch, shaking off the icy muck from his hands and leggings. He tossed back the hood of his black cloak to reveal cold grey eyes full of deadly intent as his hands dropped to the hilts of rapier and dagger. His smirk of fiendish aggression was all the more disturbing to see twisted across such childlike features as he glared out from under his tousled mop of red-black locks at the two big men. Arthos' quick young imagination reeled with threats of picturesque and memorable mutilation coupled with displays of impressive-looking blade maneuvers to chill the big men's blood, as well as half a dozen ways to exploit their obvious fear of the two staff-bearing men at the end of the alley. Then, almost too late, the young Sembian paused to think. It was all clear now, and not nearly so bad as he'd thought.

The demonic mask faded from Arthos' face as soon as it had formed, and he slid his hands from his weapon-belt to rest comfortably on his hips. He couldn't help but chuckle at the cowed bullies, and at the doubt he saw dancing behind his rescuers' faces.

"A good evening to you, boys," he said with a curt nod to the brutes," You be good now! I've heard of a Lord Wizard travelling with a priest, name of Johan, before. They say he turned a pack of bandits to mice in an ambush outside Waterdeep. Nasty business."

He then turned to stride toward his benefactors. "Esteemed gentlemen," he called in his most courtly tones, favoring them with a much more fiendly and informal grin and a wink, "I pray, let me buy you a warm drink this chill night."

The two bouncers looked at one another again末this time with almost comical confusion. Waterdeep? That was an infrequently-named place, lying so far to the west that only vague rumors, carried along with the occasional overland caravan, ever reached their ears. It was said to be the home of many wizards, and also (oddly) barbarians. Arthos had probably never been that far; still, there was enough matter-of-fact certainty in his fine tenor voice that they couldn't bring themselves to directly disbelieve it, and now looked at the three young men, especially Ozander, with the deep dismay that only outnumbered and overmatched bullies can affect.

"Ought to go to the Watch," mumbled the middle-aged one, defeat weighing heavily in his voice. "Ought to have done that in the first place."

"Or the Dragons," agreed the other dolefully.

"If you think you're gettin' away easy, Sembian," snarled the first, fixing his beady, malevolent eyes on Arthos, "you're very much mistaken. We don't wanna see you or your ugly priest in the Dracolisk again, you hear? If y'do, all the black magic in the world won't save you!"

The fat one lifted his truncheon, but only to wipe the snow from his dampened brow. "C'mon, Ur. We done our job. It's belly-all cold out here, an' Ester'll want to know about this." He turned, as if to leave, but the one called Ur persisted for another moment, obviously infuriated by his own fear. "You'd better get out of here quick, too末 'cause we'll be back in two heartbeats with ten more men, and the Watch besides. Get th' hell out of Cormyr, you little sneak! An' take your devil's magic with you!"

Lifting a meaty hand, he spat between two fingers, in the ancient ward against sorcery and evil. But that seemed to be enough; immediately he turned and, jostling his companion, stormed back into the alley with as much dignity as he could muster. The fat one followed swiftly after, his moony face turning one last time to look fearfully at the wizard and his friends, before disappearing into shadow.

The three men were once again left to themselves, shivering and sniffling in the snow and the frosty air.

Ozander held his place, and his breath, as the two men retreated. A brief moment later, he exhaled slowly and his posture relaxed in obvious relief. His grip on the torn packet in his left hand loosened and sand slipped through his fingers to be caught up in the swirl of wind and snow and scattered into the night. He took the now empty fold of parchment and slowly slipped it back into his pouch.

展ell, that went better than I had expected, Johan chuckled, once the two men were well away. With the excitement over and done with, the freezing air was once again clamoring for attention and the young monk shivered, shifting his weight and turning to look at Arthos.

的 don't know what you did to those brutes, but I sincerely hope it wasn't anything quite so bad as to deserve such treatment, he said, a warm smile once again on his lips. 釘ut perhaps we can continue the discussion in a slightly more hospitable place, hmm?"

"I must confess, I did put them in something of an impossible position," sighed the youg Sembian, his voice and eyes downcast, fighting a smile. "I was undeniably and unashamedly being far smarter, luckier, and better-looking than they could ever hope to match! Ha-ha!" Arthos patted Johan's shoulder and gave a knowing wink to Ozander as he stepped ahead of them, turning to walk backwards, facing them as he spoke.

"I'm certainly in Tymora's debt that you two happened along when you did," Arthos bantered on with disarming smoothness and dizzying vigor, "Things were very likely about to get quite messy one way or another, and I don't mind saying that I'm not entirely sure it would have ended well for me. But where are my manners?" He gave a quick nod of a bow, his hand touching his breast, "I am Arthos, of the House Kaldarion, and I am happy to meet such fine fellows as yourselves."

So there you have it , Ozander thought. Arthos had been playing at a game of chance, and had found himself winning末Ozander quite doubted whether the Sembian lost often末until tempers flared, and words had been exchanged. Arthos, who obviously had a talent with language, no doubt ruffled the wrong feathers and ended up on the business end of a bouncer's displeasure. This, in any case, seemed the most plausible turn of events. Now Arthos had somehow managed to attach himself to them.

"Johan Wintemist, a monk of the Sun Soul order," the monk introduced himself, nodding his head politely at Arthos. "Just arrived here from Thunderstone, and a singularly horrible trip it was, on foot through the winter storms. Teaches me to temper eagerness with some common sense in the future末I hope," he chuckled easily.

"A fine mix! As my Granduncle Pentaras used to say." Arthos's animated young voice suddenly became an old man's grim, gravelly pontification. "'Ambition and wisdom are the alloy of success.' Ah, I do miss him..." His voiced trailed off with a wistful lilt, but only for a moment. "But there, now! I'm not normally one to pry into the intentions of passing strangers..."

"銑ord Wizard' and I, Johan explained, winking at the title, 努ere on our way to a certain tavern around here末somewhere. The Smoky Skull, wasn't it? Perhaps you'd care to join us, and tell us your side of the story?

"Excellent!" beamed Arthos. "I'd be delighted." The young Sembian turned to fall into smooth step between Oz and Johan. Only his eyes, darting at every shadow and alleyway, betrayed the tension that was only now starting to loosen its hold on him.

Ozander could barely believe his ears as he heard Johan speak. Saving the Sembian from a split skull was one thing, but to invite him along? And to another tavern? The mage opened his mouth to protest, then remembered the parting words of the two bouncers and their threat to return with larger numbers. "Let's just move quickly from this place, shall we? I don't care to remain and test their resolve further." Looking between the two men, Ozander added more quietly: "And let's have no further talk of 'Lord Wizard', is that clear? This confrontation could easily prove to be one of the largest mistakes of my life末and could yet cost me dearly."

With that, Ozander gathered his cloak about himself and started off down the street.

Johan, not knowing the local laws concerning wizardry末such things were always less important the further from the capital one wandered, and one couldn't get much farther than the Thunder Peaks末gave Ozander a puzzled, half-apologetic smile. Judging from the wizard's attitude, it seemed he had said something wrong.

Reminding himself once more that life was always more complex out here than inside the walls of the reclusive monastery he had spent most of his adult life in, Johan sighed and followed along. At least they had avoided bloodshed末something to be pleased about末though Ozander now seemed to fear it might come back to haunt them. Well, he might be right: what mortal ever knew the ways of Fate?

Ozander had heard Johan and Arthos introduce themselves, of course末and he declined to do the same. Arthos seemed to be a talker at heart, and the wizard could easily imagine him retelling and twisting this story over a hundred different tankards of ale, until it was the accounting of the 'Lord Wizard Ozander' summoning up some dire beast to lay waste to dozens of men. No, there was no good to come of this Sembian knowing his name. It was best to simply accompany him to the Smoky Skull and part ways. The wizard walked on in silence.

Arthos gazed sidelong at him as they walked, smiling just a bit. He watched the worry etching creases into the young magician's face, and hoped that Oz knew enough to never gamble. "Small wonder wizards are so often gray and bent," Arthos said, with a chuckle. "Too much worrying. If the War Wizards末or anyone else of standing末were particularly concerned with what happens in the back alleys around here, we wouldn't have flabby pairs of hag's teats, like those big louts, bashing in the brains of the innocent with impunity, would we? Come, I'll buy us all a drink, and you can have all three, what say?"

Ozander looked sideways at the Sembian as he spoke. "It's the long view I'm considering. I have ambitions Arthos, and my conduct tonight certainly did nothing to forward my goals." He sighed. "Let me be clear, I do not regret coming to your assistance, but I believe that it was my responsibility to approach the encounter in a more principled manner. In any case, what is done is done and I can do little to repair the matter tonight."

After a short pause, he continued: "Your offer to share a drink is a generous one, and I thank you; but I'm afraid I have business to attend to tonight, and therefore I must decline."

Arthos nodded. "As you will," he said flatly, and continued without a trace of his earlier marketplace patter, "but these ambitions of yours, I'm sure they'll be as well-served by the guts you showed back there as they will by the worries you're having now."

Inwardly squirming at the growing familiarity and depth of the conversation, Arthos turned to the monk beside him and said in a conspiratorial tone, "So. Johan. None for the wizard, so that leaves three for us! What's your winter pleasure? Hot rum punch? Mulled wine? Please末 don't tell me you have some Vow of Sobriety to honor."

哲o, I have not sworn those kinds of vows. Not yet, at least. I think I'll want to enjoy the pleasures of the world a tad longer before cloistering myself to ponder the greater mysteries. The young monk chuckled. 釘ut the wizard is quite correct; we were on our way to meet someone when we happened across you and your troubles. Since Ozander had chosen not to share his name with Arthos Johan would honour his decision and not use his name openly.

釘ut as I understand, the place we are heading to does serve food and drink among other things, so perhaps I'll accept your gracious offer for a drink. I think a hot, spiced cider might be just the thing to warm the body after hours and days spent in this foul weather. We should be close to the place, from what little I know of the City.

Chatting with the smooth-tongued rogue, Johan kept his eyes open for the tavern sign he had been told to look for. The faster they got to somewhere warm and he got to see this Elmdaerle his father had talked so much about the better.

Relieved that the conversation had moved on to new topics, Ozander continued down the ill-lighted street with the monk and the Sembian, the three of them keeping a brisk pace. "Perhaps we passed it?" Without stopping, he half-turned and craned his neck to get a quick glimpse of the path behind. In truth he was rather sure that they hadn't missed the tavern, he'd been keeping a close eye on the boards and placards of the few establishments that they had passed. The move was more to assure himself that they weren't being followed.

Turning back to the road ahead, Ozander did the best he was able to protect himself from the cold. Despite his best efforts, a fresh blast of the biting cold wind took his breath away and made his ears burn. Squinting against it, Ozander reminded himself that he would soon be inside and out of this obnoxious weather.

* * * * *

Tynan sauntered up toward the small woman who had entered with Maeus and taken a chair near the hearth. He'd caught the colloquial greeting she'd offered the naturalist and its simplicity had sparked warm memories in him. Although growing up in the shadow of Arabel himself, farming folk rarely affected city airs amongst themselves, even so close to the walls. It was a reminder of kinder days.

"Aina, is it?" he asked tentatively, a small smile parting his lips. "I'm Tynan, Tynan Silvermoor. If you'd like to accompany me, I can show you to our table in the back, where the Guildmaster will explain this gathering to us."

The stranger's shadow fell over her, and Aina turned, blinking. Then she smiled at the man, whose position against the light made his facial features difficult to see. "Hello, Tynan. Where are we all sitting? Oh, there?" She nodded and rose to her feet, falling into step behind him.

As he led her to the table, she took note of his maimed hand -- and immediately lifted her eyes, making a point of staring directly into his face. He must be so tired of strangers ogling his injury as if that were the most interesting thing about him.

If Tynan noticed Aina's eyes stray to his hand he made no mention of it, but continued to lead the girl back toward the rear table. He checked to make sure she was still with him as they passed the end of the bar, the ruddy light of the inn's namesake casting a warm glow over his face as he glanced back. "Just watch your step here," he cautioned Aina. "The shadows deepen quickly."

Reaching the trestle table along the back wall, Tynan bent quickly and gathered his gear off the long bench so the others could find a comfortable seat. A well-worn leather pack, the darkened hilt of a sturdy longsword and the dull glint of chain links peeked out from beneath the woolen cloak Tynan had draped over his meagre pile of goods. Motioning Aina to her choice of seats, he waited for her to sit and then followed suit himself, claiming the spot behind his half-empty tankard of applejack.

Aina squeezed into the seat against the wall, folding her legs under her in a surprisingly girlish manner. It was difficult, in the dim lighting of the tavern, to guess at how old she was. Going strictly by her appearance, an onlooker might place her at anywhere between fifteen and twenty years of age, but there was something about the look in her eye that suggested she was closer to the upper part of that range.

She squirmed a bit in her seat, trying to find the most comfortable spot. The heavy mace was tugging uncomfortably at her clothes, so she pulled it out and placed it on the bench beside her. Then she reconsidered, and lowered it carefully to the floor, where it wouldn't accidentally roll over and crush someone's toes.

After taking her seat, she mostly remained silent, staring down at the table. She ran her finger along the grooves in the wood. It really was a rather nice establishment, compared to others she had performed in. Most places would relegate their cheapest, most worn- out tables to the darkest corners of the inn, so as to hide the flaws in the furniture -- but not this one.

"T'is a strange New Year's the Guildmaster has arranged for us," Tynan remarked, making conversation. He felt a little awkward with so many of Elmdaerle's trusted allies around, not knowing what it was the naturalist had planned for them. Maybe by getting to know a few of them, he would lose some of his own anxiety. "Nothing like the simple celebrations we have at home."

Tynan glanced around at the tavern, with its rich furnishings and ample fare. Even the mug of liquor in his hands was more than he would expect on the farm to celebrate the new year with Bryndel and Fiala. No, nothing at all like home, he thought. His dark gray eyes lingered for a moment on Elmdaerle and the giant, who were deep in quiet conversation halfway across the long room; he could not hear them over the sounds from the kitchen, and from the bard and Vetch, who chatted amiably side by side before him.

Aina raised her eyes, relieved someone had broken the silence. "Yes, it is rather strange, isn't it? I thought he just wanted to meet with Maeus and me. I thought perhaps he wanted a bit of music -- he plays the flute and I sing, you see. I didn't expect there to be so many other people."

She shot a furtive glance at the guildmaster, who was still discussing something with an earnest-faced young giant of a man. Realization began to dawn on her. "It almost looks like he cleared out the tavern," she murmured. "We're all here for the meeting, aren't we?"

Maeus leaned in over the table to look at Aina and Tynan. "Really?" he asked, raising an eyebrow, "I never got the impression that this was about music. When I got his message saying that you're going to pick me up this evening, I thought this was about one of his wilderness trips. Though I must admit that the fact that he called us on New Year's Eve is a little odd. That's why I haven't brought my flute."

Aina nodded. She hadn't really believed the music story herself, but that was the only other idea that came to mind, apart from the possibility that Elmdaerle would seek her advice about riverboating. Neither possibility appeared especially likely, given the presence of other strangers who had also been invited, and not just street mice like herself, but purposeful-looking strangers with bright weapons and fancy clothes.

"Let's see," Maeus continued, a sly look of conspiracy creeping over his girlish features, "looks like the guildmaster will be busy for another while. Why don't we pool what we know this far. Unsated curiosity is like unsated hunger. It makes your eyes cross and your knees weak. What do you all know about this meeting?"

Tynan took a sip of applejack, considering the questions Aina and Maeus threw down on the table. He looked past Elmdaerle and the huge stranger to where a few other patrons still gathered near the hearth, the naturalist's tailor among them. Were they all here at the behest of the Guildmaster? Possibly, but Tynan thought it more likely that the old sage had merely chosen his location wisely. A quiet corner was all they really needed, and the Smoky Skull seemed to fit the bill perfectly, despite its relative comfort on such a bone-chilling night.

His smoky grey eyes settled on Maeus for a moment, wondering at his choice of phrase. The fine dress, the flashy rapier, even his manner spoke of comfortable living. The youngling probably doesn't even know what true hunger is, thought Tynan with some condescension. Aina, he wagered, knew all too well. And yet they were friends just the same. Probably just an earnest slip of the tongue.

Aina merely smiled at Maeus, apparently taking no offense at the remark. "I know little, except that he was very keen on keeping the meeting a secret." Then she glanced nervously at the guildmaster, as if fearful that even this discussion constituted a betrayal of her promise of silence. She didn't think so, but still she lowered her voice. "I do wonder what could tempt him out into the cold. Especially on a night like this, when he should be celebrating with his family."

Then she thought -- was he even married? She had never felt comfortable asking him, given the disparity of their stations. Now it came down to it, she didn't really know that much about him, save that he was kind, and seemed to enjoy her singing, and had shown her uncommon generosity in throwing coins into her hat.

"The Guildmaster offered no details when he invited me here this eve," offered the young tradesman at last, his voice pitched for those at the table. "Though no doubt he realized I would honour his summons even so. I could never turn down his request for help."

"I expect a wilderness trip of some sort is indeed the task we will be given," agreed Tynan with a slight nod of deference to Maeus. "At least, I was told to bring whatever gear I had to the meeting," he continued, nodding over his shoulder to the small pile of belongings along the wall behind him, "so I do not expect to stay in the city long. However, I do not know what the goal might be, how far afield we might go, nor why the eve of the new year is the opportune time to divulge such secrets."

Pursing his lips, Tynan looked to their southern companion for any hint of greater understanding. "Master Vetch, you came in with the Guildmaster. Has he told you anything of this meeting, details that the three of us," Tynan included the two musicians sitting with them, "are not yet privy to?"

Maybe it was the hour; maybe it was the excitement of a New Start; maybe it was the second mug of applejack, but Vetch felt amongst those he could trust for the first time in quite a while. He leaned forward into the table and said in a slow, low whisper, failing to temper his excitement, "Well, I do know that Master Elm had a visitor the other day. His name was末" Vetch looked up and around furtively to ensure no eavesdroppers were lurking about, then continued. "末'Moyores.' He was introduced to me as member of the Guild of the Naturalists. I did not speak to him at length, but I did notice that he had a map case with him. They locked themselves up in the study for an hour and a half or so."

Vetch grinned a mischievous grin, waited just a second for a reaction from his newly-formed cadre末then continued.

He leaned over to Aina. "After that, Master Elm had me go with him to purchase horses, presumably to use as a team to pull a wagon he has currently in his stable." Vetch leaned back, arms folded -- his face showing a knowing nod.

As the speculative conversation drew to a close, Aina's eyes drifted between Tynan and Vetch. She seemed to want to ask something, but held back. Finally curiosity got the better of her. "You are not from around here, then?" she asked shyly.

Suddenly, the all-knowing Vetch realized where he was and who he was with, and his bright confidence fell from his face into his tankard of applejack. He may feel great about these people, but he didn't know them well enough to let down his guard and start inviting questions.

"Uh, no. I'm from south, through Suzail, here and there末you know," Vetch managed, and was quiet. Damn! Vetch! You idiot, too much attention to yourself just breeds more questions. What happened to being taciturn and laconic? Applejack, that's what. Switch to water and shut up! How many times do you have to tempt fate?

"Oh yes," Aina said, smiling briefly. She knew how tiresome it could be, being probed by strangers. She too was accustomed to evading such questions. Occasionally, late-night customers would hear her singing about love and other tender things, and would naturally assume that she would welcome hearing their life's story. While she often ended up doing just that, she had also learned to deflect curiosity about her own life with a minimum of fuss.

As though she had read Vetch's thoughts, Malou suddenly arrived; she carried a pitcher of water in one hand and a tankard of thick amber ale in the other. Her hollyberry halo had been skewed to one side, but she didn't seem to notice, and plunked down the pitcher with a grin.

"I'll be back with the wine in a moment, Mae," she said, setting the tankard in front of Aina. "And supper, as soon as can be arranged. You'll both be pleased to know that Jacob is concocting a sauce for you specially: pepper, laurel, and末guess. Brought down from the Stormhorns, and probably bad by now, but we'll get Elm to pass judgement over it first.

"That will be great! Thanks!" Maeus nodded eagerly. Aina beamed at Malou, and then snuck a shy smile at Maeus, now beginning to suspect what it was that he had whispered to the barmaid about. She lifted the huge tankard with her two slender wrists and took a long sip. It was delicious, and the best thing she had tasted in a long time. She felt its warmth coursing down her throat. Almost immediately, her surroundings began to seem friendlier. It was lovely being here, with delicious drink and good company, and an exciting mystery to boot. Tomorrow would probably be another gloomy day, but for now she felt like the Princess of Cormyr.

"And what about you two lads?" Malou said to Tynan and Vetch, both of whom had seriously depleted their reserves. "You need a refill yet?"

Tynan paused a moment before answering, wondering whether the spirits were fooling with his senses already. But no, Malou's wreath really was off-centre atop her head, and with that comforting realization the dark-haired youth lifted his tankard slightly and nodded with a smile. "Another applejack would be most welcome, when you've a moment," he requested politely. After the barmaid had left them to the warm shadows once again, Tynan turned his attention back to those around the table and the information Vetch had cheerfully divulged.

"If we are to take a wagon with us, we either will be carrying something large and bulky on the way out of the city or retrieving something of that nature to bring back," he offered, stating the obvious. "The part I can't figure out is, given that the Guildmaster is typically dealing in small plants and such, what of such size could interest him?"

"Maybe it's a very large animal, who eats the very small plants, that the good Master wants," Vetch muttered, to no one in particular. He drained the last of his applejack.

"It seems an odd thing to send a wagon in winter," Aina offered in her soft voice. "The roads are certain to be choked with snow, or mud if a thaw comes. Up in the north, where I come from, we would send large items on a river barge. It would be quicker and less expensive, and safer from brigands. But then," she added with an apologetic, self-conscious shrug, "I worked the rivers, so it's natural for me to think that way."

The table was suddenly cast into a deeper shadow, and the four adventurers looked up in surprise. Just beside them, towering like a blond, road-worn ogre, was the young man Elmdaerle had been speaking seriously to in private.

"Master Elmdaerle," the young giant announced gleefully, "has very kindly agreed to include me in your group! My name is Balthazar, but please call me Taz. All my friends do. I'm so very happy to join your company!"

Caught somewhat off guard by the huge man's exuberant attitude, Tynan nonetheless smiled in greeting. Who was he to question the eclectic mix Elmdaerle had assembled? After all, was he not just as curious a choice as any other?

"Welcome to the table, Taz," he said, pointing with his nearly empty tankard to an open seat down the bench. "I'm Tynan, and these are Maeus, Aina, and Vetch," he introduced the group one by one. Tynan eyed the newcomer curiously over the rim of his tankard as he finished off the last of his applejack, setting down the empty cup and clasping it between his hands.

Maeus chuckled as the big man introduced himself and cut in when Tynan finished. "I think it's great to have a big fellow with us. You, Taz, look like you can lift a millstone. How's about a deal? If you'll pick up my share of the heavy stuff, I'll...erm末" Maeus coughed to hide his loss for words and blushed bright crimson. "I'll thread your needles for you, maybe? I'm handy with very small things, but not so good with big ones," he finished lamely.

Aina smiled at the latest newcomer. "Maeus is being too modest. He knows berries and roots almost as well as Elmdaerle."

"'Tis a pleasure to meet you all," the large Sembian said with a beaming smile. "And you have a deal, Maeus! I will gladly carry your share of the heavy stuff, whatever that is, in return for help with things I'm not so very good with...like reading and writing!" Taz laughed heartily at that, not in the least bit embarrassed by his revelation.

Secretly relieved that the large man had stolen the focus away from him, Vetch stood to meet the man whose high-quality swords caught his interest earlier. As Vetch politely awaited his turn to greet the latest member of the troupe, he took in the man's height and breadth. A very well-armed companion, at that , Vetch thought to himself.

"Am I to understand you were not actually summoned here by the Guildmaster, then?" Tynan asked of the large Sembian. So far as he knew the rest of them were here via special invitation. If Taz was different, he wondered why.

"No, Tynan," said the other, settling his massive frame onto the open seat his fellow swordsman had indicated. Aina felt her end lift a bit as he did so, her own meager frame providing little in the way of a counterweight. "I was not brought here by Master Elmdaerle. I had never even heard of him, before this moment.

"I arrived here in Arabel just this afternoon...on a caravan, from Sembia. It was my hope that I would meet and find employment with someone like Master Elmdaerle末and in that I am extremely lucky, I'd say." Taz took a deep draught from his mug, allowing his gaze to casually wander across the faces of his new friends.

"It is would be better for you to first hear my offer, young Balthazar," said Elmdaerle severely, drifting like a tall, velvety-robed ghost to the head of the long table, "before congratulating yourself for any unexpected luck. Where has my drink gotten to, now? Oh, bother, I've left it on the table末nevermind, the rest is on the way.

"Now!" the old man cried, his mood brightening immediately. "I know you are all quite anxious to begin, and also to help yourselves to a decent supper. We are still waiting for the supper, and one more person, however. A person of some importance, I might add: for he is a very gifted young wizard, you know, and末if I might be allowed to say so末 a close friend of mine for many years."

There was less dismay visible at this news than might be glimpsed in the faces of a normal company of Cormyrean folk; save Taz, they were all well aware of Elmdaerle's eccentric prediliction for magical lore, and for his association with people of all stripes and background (though he himself dabbled in it hardly at all). Still, wizards were a strange and poorly-understood bunch, and thought badly of in most peaceful and civilized lands; and Arabel was no exception, despite its reputation for liberalism. The laws against magic, and its practitioners, was notoriously harsh in Cormyr, and elsewhere; the revelation that they might soon become involved in some sorcery-related business was enough to lend the evening a darker, more disturbing air.

"If his presence sits hard with some of you," the old man said softly, sensing the slight tension his words had immediately produced among some of the party, "I suggest you tell me now, and save us future trouble. He is vital to this enterprise, and his agreement to be present was difficult to come by."

"I've no problem with a magician," Taz said without any apparent reservation. "I've never run afoul of any, and to be quite honest, I think it would be interesting to see what they're all about."

Elmdaerle nodded approvingly to the fighter. From his expression, it was clear that Taz, as the only real stranger, had been the person whose opinion he most worried over. "Then, with your permission, Balthazar, it will be so末and I invite you to take as much education from this man as possible, too, since it is an easy thing to run afoul of magic, and inexperience with the subject will not help you.

"As far as you others go," the guildmaster said, fixing them all with a serious look, "it would do all of you well to understand a wizard's value, strange as his personal habits or philosophies may be. There very probably will come moments in this末er, this enterprise末when he alone, of any of you, will be able to solve a problem. I understand he has some proper training in divination. That alone would make him useful, if nothing else." With that, a curious silence descended over the party; if anyone wanted to argue, they would have a hard time doing it, in the face of Elmdaerle's stern expression.

"So, there's supper to be had soon, is there?" Taz asked hopefully, changing the subject. "I've not had anything to eat in near a whole day!"

The old man blinked. "Good gracious me," he wheezed, "That should be a reminder to all of us. I see that counfounded Malou has disappeared into the kitchen again. Why don't you young people stay here, since you are all already sitting, and I shall go determine what our prospects are." Before they could argue, he had stepped away from the table and was clomping toward the bar.

As the gazes of the adventurers settled uneasily upon each other once again, the front door reluctantly opened, sucking a great gust of cold air and flurrying snowflakes into the tavern. Those who could look over toward the front of the taproom did so; Elmdaerle himself paused at the counter, peering over his glasses with one hand poised to recover his cooling mug. Even the few patrons unconnected with their meeting seemed interested to know what sort of outlandishly accoutered person might turn up next.

There was not just one person entering, however末there were three; and all of them nearly overthrown by the weather, and bearing the marks of its burgeoning unhappiness. Two were fairly well-dressed, if only in comparison to the third, who looked at first glance more like a bearded hermit of the King's Forest than anybody of practical purpose. But on closer inspection, even he was a tall, straight-shouldered youth, and the hand holding a long timber staff was calloused as any Arabellan street tough's might be.

The other two were slight as well, and looked less like they belonged out in the winter weather. One was rather younger and smaller in appearance, while the other gave an impression of clinical maturity; they were both good-looking, however and decently equipped for a long walk in the cold. Oddly enough, of all three only the rustic, long-limbed fellow looked like he might survive a few minutes longer on his feet: his short dark beard and patchy clothing were flecked with frost, but his eyes were bright and interested.

"What's this?" cried Elmdaerle. "Three men, where one was hoped for! Have you brought along some of your fellow students, Ozander? In that case, I shall have to ask their pardon!"

"Elmdaerle!" Ozander said with relief. He took a few steps forward, allowing room for the others to enter, and began slapping at his clothing and stomping his feet to remove the snow and slush. It was largely hopeless末his clothing was mostly soaked through, and the stomping did little but cause his frozen feet to throb more painfully. The miserable-looking raven on the wizard's shoulder ruffled its feathers, with much the same effect. "I thought we'd never be done of that dreadful weather."

Closing the door behind them, Johan wasted to time in following Ozander's example to shake the excess snow from his clothes and boots, leaning his wooden staff in a corner to have both his hands free for the task.

He was clad in a wide-sleeved, knee length brown robe of coarse fabric worn over simple shirt and trousers of black wool, with a long silk sash tied around his waist over a hemp rope belt from which hung a single knife. Leather boots on his feet, white leather gloves covering his hands, a slim shoulder pack for his meagre belongings, Johan certainly didn't look much in a city that saw nobles, rich merchants and wealthy adventurers in plenty.

But when he threw back his hood to reveal his bearded face (He had hardly had the time nor opportunity during his journey to shave properly, so his goatee and moustache had now a full beard for company), too sharp and rugged to be called beautiful by anyone other than a good-natured liar, his warm smile and friendly eyes nevertheless made him appear approachable. Although there was something in his eyes末a hint of something that didn't belong末a touch of the fey...

Ozander moved to the naturalist, and grasped his hand in greeting. "Once again, it's been too long." He held the man's hand in a firm grip for a moment, before continuing.

"These gentlemen," he said, turning towards his companions, "I met along the way. This man here is Johan," he said, nodding toward the monk. "He's apparently quite eager to see you, since he's been trudging through the snow for near two weeks to meet with you, this night."

Ozander paused suddenly, as though coming to a decision末then he hurried on. "And this man here, is Arthos," he said, gesturing to the Sembian. "He found himself the unwanted attention of some rather large men, at a tavern a bit up the way末and we got ourselves tangled up in the whole affair. He seems to have taken the whole incident in stride, but I quite confess it had me at wit's end." He found himself smiling a bit, in spite of himself.

Hearing Ozander's introduction, Johan gave the people in the room a quick glance, before his eyes fixed on Elmdaerle. Granted, he had been a toddler when he had last actually seen the man末yet the description his father had given him matched quite perfectly.

溺aster Elmdaerle, you might not know me," Johan said, giving the old herbalist a warm smile, "but you do know my father, Michael Wintermist. I was told you sent him a letter, asking for his aid in some venture末but I'm afraid he thought the situation in the Hullack Forest too delicate to risk leaving. The forest and its occupants are restless末far more than is usual末and he and the other resident druids need to find out why.

的nstead, he sent me in his place, hoping I could do you some service, if one was needed. Johan Wintermist, a monk of the Sun Soul order, at your service, sir, he said, bowing low.

"Johan, of course!" cried the guildmaster, taking the monk's shoulders as he rose. "I have heard of it all from your father's last letter, of everything happening in the east末and he told me as well of his intention to call upon you, although I confess I hadn't dared to hope you might arrive in time. What a curious stroke of fortune, if fortune it can be called; after all, Tymora is still the true and only Queen of Arabel, whatever her wretched Church may do!

"But there you are," said Elmdaerle, and he laughed in his strong fine voice, regarding Johan fondly. "Tall as a shadowtop now, and only the smallest sort of boy when last we met. I am very happy to see you, my lad! Your father is a great friend, and I wonder to think him troubled by this nonsense with the elves. They are leaving the Realms, and passing through Hullack, or so he seemed to say in his last letter...I hope he does not go with them! Michael is a good man, and sensible; still, I sometimes think he would rather be an owl than a human. But perhaps his news has reached me, even before reaching you?

"It matters little, now. He has asked you to be here, and so you have come; and by all accounts you are as level-headed as your father, and as sensible. A sensible head is something we shall all need badly, I fear, before the winter is over. In that case, I am indebted to your good family once again, and will gladly ask you for your aid in this末venture of mine."

Giving Johan another encouraging pat on his thin shoulders, Elmdaerle cast a sidelong glance at Arthos and Ozander in turn, since it wouldn't do to ignore either. Of the Sembian he did not seem sure what to think or say immediately, and so regarded his longtime friend with a touch of bemusement, and humor. "Found yourself in a tangle, you say? That bodes less well, Ozander, I must say. And found yourself a Sembian, too. That's well enough, since I myself have only just acquired one末though I cannot think of a more dissimilar pair than they will make. What did you say your name was, sir?"

Arthos had been shaking the frost and chill out of his cloak whilst appraising the the assembly with an intense sweep of his gaze that might have seemed rude, if not for the boyish smile he wore. He replied to Elmdaerle in a firm voice that seemed too deep for his slight frame and childlike visage. "Well met, Good Master. It is an honor to make the acquaintance of one so well-regarded." He swept aside his woolen cloak and made a deep, courtly bow, his left arm extended to the side.

"I am Arthos of the House Kaldarion, a traveler and merchant of Selgaunt." He rose as he continued, his tone becoming more informal, and clapped Johan and Ozander on their nearest shoulders. "I've promised to share a drink with my bold companions, and I hope not to disrupt your evening's plans. I'll be on my way shortly, rather than inconvenience you."

He looked around for a server, more eager for a little liquid warmth and courage than he would dare let show. There were none present, as far as he could see.

"Selgaunt?" repeated the old man, musing over the name. "Selgaunt. Well, now, that is a coincidence! My Sembian is from there, also; it must be an unusual place, to harbor so many young men with dreams of Arabel. It was my understanding that your people cared less for Cormyreans than they do their other neighbors, owing to the occasional property disputes we have. Perhaps we had best owe your presence to the less provincial attitudes of this city's residents, eh? Though from the sounds of it, you have enjoyed little of that, so far.

"I hope none of you were hurt. You already look cold enough to 'raise the Maid,' as they say," Elmdaerle observed. 'The Maid,' of course, was Beshaba末as they all knew. "It might be wise to have another traveler at the table, if for no other reason than it makes for a better version of the news. At least you may come away this evening with a better feeling for our race. Tell me, monsieur: what route did you take to get here? Did you come east, across the Dales as your kinsman has?"

Kinsman? thought Arthos, his eyebrows arching in momentary surprise. "My family..." His voice trailed off as he cast his gaze again about the room, seeing no one who greatly resembled a Sembian. Arthos relaxed, realizing that Elmdaerle was using the term loosely. Blurring such specificities would seem cordial to a man of Cormyr, but the unforgiving nature of Sembian family rivalries dictated more narrow views of such things.

Recovering his wits, Arthos continued smoothly: "My family are procurers and transporters of all manner of precious commodities. I have taken leave from one of our caravans末recently in from the west, to answer your lattermost question, good sir末to seek business of my own. And yes, Selgaunt is a place where many an ambitious dream is born. Not all of my nights here in Arabel have been as rough as tonight nearly was, and surely none have ended in so interesting a place, or amongst such intriguing company. I've but come for some warmth末and I'm not one to pry unbidden into others' business, but might I ask the reason for this gathering?"

"I have not yet revealed that, to any of the party," he answered, "and since most of them are friends of mine, it would not due to reveal it first to you. Suffice it to say for now, then, that I am in need of stout backs, and stouter hearts, to carry out a difficult business末one that concerns the guild I am called master of, and also one that calls for a certain discretion. Since you call yourself a 'procurer' of 'precious commodities,' I guess that perhaps your presence here would not go far amiss."

Having said this, Elmdaerle looked sharply to Ozander, his intense blue eyes reading the mage's reactions closely. He may have sensed a trace of the hesitation his young friend had felt earlier, towards this stranger from the southeast; either that, or the old man bore a reservation or two of his own, and was looking to Ozander for guidance. But the diviner's mood appeared to have improved with the warmth and safety of the tavern, and a smile had taken the place of the frown.

Whether due to the much less threatening surroundings of the interior of the tavern, or his overall improved nature as the chill began to leave his bones, Ozander surprisingly found himself no longer so entirely distressed at the thought of further association with Arthos. In fact, he began to speculate that his misgivings were born more of his own actions in full display of the Sembian than anything Arthos himself had done. Another possibility, of course, was that Arthos' practiced charm was beginning to work its own subtle magic on him. In any case, and perhaps in the way of an apology, Ozander flashed a slight smile to the Sembian as the naturalist extended his invitation.

"Speaking of precious commodities ," Elmdaerle continued, more slowly, "I suppose time will become one for you all, the longer we stand about chattering. It would be much better if we continued this line of conversation amongst those others末that way questions will only need to be answered a single time. Perhaps you three would like to leave your damp things here? It is warmer in the back than it is here, if not so impressively lighted."

Ozander realized with chagrin that what he had intuited was correct, that his delay had resulted in being the last to arrive and he had no doubt kept the naturalist waiting. He wasted no time in shedding his sodden cloak and finding a peg for it on the wall. Removing his haversack from his back, he quickly examined it to insure that it had remained closed to the elements and its contents were not in danger of being damaged by melting snow. Satisfied, he dropped it to his left hand and hastened to join the others as they moved to the back of the establishment. The crow once again settled on the wizard's shoulder, and set to preening its wet feathers.

Nodding his head, Johan eagerly took off his heavy robe and found an empty chair to spread it on to dry in the warmth before following Elmdaerle towards the back of the tavern and the people waiting around the table. It felt so very good to be finally out of the foul weather! As the fragrances of food and drink reached his nose Johan's stomach announced its immediate needs by rumbling loudly, causing the young monk to shoot an apologetic smile at their host. Come to think of it, it had been the morning since he had last dined and that had been a simple meal of hard cheese and trail bread, with snowmelt water to chase it down. As usual.

And hot and filling meals had been scarce during his trip, Johan mused. He had stopped a few times on farms and earned his meal and a place to sleep with work or stories, but more often than not he had been forced to spend a cold night in some abandoned hayloft or some such. After all, for one who had sworn off money and possession, travel during the winter wasn't a pleasant experience. During the summer, at least, he might have foraged for food, perhaps even caught a rabbit or two, but now...

Well, the oath wasn't supposed to make your life easy , Johan chided himself. Rid yourself of the material to make room for the spiritual ; that was the logic behind the vow, and it did work. He had seen what marvels Brother Samuel had been able to achieve by following that path, and his efforts and wisdom had made quite an impression on Johan during his years in the monastery. Thus he had sworn the holy vows and had never looked back. Nor would he.

* * * * *

Tynan's smoky grey eyes darkened with concern as Elmdaerle spoke of a wizard joining their ranks. He continued to harbour his unease even following his neighbour's enthusiastic reaction, and the Guildmaster's strident endorsement. Like most Cormyreans, Tynan was not particularly comfortable with arcane trickery, even when it rested in the hands of Azoun's famed War Wizards. To openly invite an independent wielder into their own group left the dark-haired smith even more anxious than he had been at the outset.

Watching between Vetch and Maeus, Tynan examined the three new arrivals and their interaction with the evening's patron. The table was too far to the rear of the shadowy inn to catch more than a few scattered words, but clearly one of the men was Elmdaerle's wizard friend and the other two welcome additions. Preparing for their arrival at the table, Tynan unlimbered his legs and made ready to rise again.

"Looks like our last companions have arrived," he commented to the table at large, nodding toward the trio gathered around Elmdaerle. "The one with the raven is no doubt the wizard the Guildmaster spoke so fondly of. Does anyone recognize them? They are all new faces to me."

"Not a one, Tynan, not a one," Vetch said absently, regarding the group. Turning to Tynan, he continued in a low voice, "As for the wizard, as long as he concentrates his magicks on our enemies and not to perpetuate lies and deceit at our expense, I'll have no quarrel with him." A dark look washed over Vetch's face末then receded, as he reach for the pitcher of water and slowly, deliberately filled his tankard.

Aina, who sat nestled in the corner seat, craned her neck up to get a better look at the trio of newcomers. Ordinarily, she would not have stared so openly; but safely tucked as she was in the corner of the inn, she felt she could afford to do so, since her companions' broad backs shielded her from any reciprocal curiosity.

The wizard was readily identifiable, by the respect shown him by Elmdaerle if nothing else. As for the other two, she did not recognize even the better-dressed one, even though he was clearly comfortable in the environs of the tavern, judging by his alacrity in looking for a server. She had sung in most of Arabel's taverns, but could not recall seeing his face.

The presence of the wizard only complicated what was already a most puzzling mystery, Aina thought as she sank back into her seat. She took a dainty sip from her tankard. Up until now, she had entertained various guesses as to what the nature of Elmdaerle's undertaking might be. All of these speculations ran aground in the face of the enchanter's presence. And of her own presence, for that matter. What could possibly warrant the attendance of both a wizard, and someone like herself? Perhaps Elmdaerle was trying to 'help' her. It was not impossible. He had shown her great kindness in the past. In a way, even though she did not know him that well, he was the father her own father had never been.

The overgrown Sembian looked at Vetch with a significant amount of puzzlement displayed on his youthful face. "Why so down on wizards?" he asked, quite sincerely. "Is there something I should know about them?"

Taz's wide-eyed, curiosity-laden gaze darted from Vetch to Tynan; to the alleged wizard across the room; and then back again to Vetch, as he impatiently waited to be illuminated on a subject he considered to be entirely fantastic.

As it turned out, it was Aina who replied. "Wizards are not trusted in Cormyr," she explained. "They are tricky, and have a reputation for deceit. They seldom do any honest work. They pore over their own books and secrets, and always place their own needs above those of the community." The mild, nonjudgmental tone of her voice suggested that she was describing prevailing attitudes, rather than her own.

Turning to Aina, Vetch cooly replied, his eyes flashing momentarily. "My 'caution' is borne out of personal loss at a wizard's hands, rather than any exception taken as to their overall philosophy." Not waiting for a reaction from her, he bit his lip, softened his tone, and offered, "I am sure, however, that this particular wizard will bid me no ill. I trust Master Elm vetted him thoroughly." Vetch managed a grim smile her direction before turning back to scrutinize the new trio.

Nice recovery, Vetch, he thought to himself sarcastically. Now they all think you're a wizard-hating madman with a sword. Maybe you should go back to the applejack. Although they would find out all about your background, at least they wouldn't think you a murderous lunatic.

Aina turned to look in Vetch in surprise. She blinked at him, as if uncertain what to say. At last she found her voice. "I surely meant no offense, Master Vetch. It's just that we really are wary of wizards in Cormyr."

She receded in her seat, huddling down over her tankard, which she now gripped tightly with both hands. She was still not certain of the cause of the outburst. Perhaps she had antagonized the outlander with her earlier questioning. She should just have kept quiet.

Tynan nodded silently in agreement with Aina's assessment of wizards, and was not surprised to find that Vetch had run afoul of one himself. Not that Tynan had any direct experience with masters of the arcane, but everyone just knew that was the way they were. Good, solid folk did not mix with such fringe elements.

Malou bumped her way through the kitchen door just then, carrying a dusty green bottle of wine and another clay pitcher; she paid no heed to the newcomers, however, having been too long ensconced in the cellar to hear the front door open. Working her way past the chopping block behind the counter, she crossed the short distance between the bar and the companions' table.

"Here you are, Maeus," Malou said, setting the bottle down in front of him. "I'll leave it to you to mix it as you like." The pitcher she laid between Taz and Aina, and they could see it was brimming with the heavy gold ale they'd been drinking. Vetch had a charming glimse of her pale decolletage as she leant forward, which if nothing else was sufficient to draw him out of his regular gloomy thoughts. "That's only if you're thirsty, my friends. The soup will be out in末hey, where's Elm, then? Did he leave already?" She didn't pause to answer, instead heading off back the way she came.

"Oh, wary?" Maeus drawled, without taking his eyes from the departing figure of Malou. "Yes, I guess 'wary' is as good a word as any." When he finally made sure that his steak and the special order still weren't coming, he turned back to Aina and Vetch, and continued: "With most wizards, it's all smoke and mirrors, and the hand quicker than the eye. I, for one, am just as wary of a wizard's tricks as I am of cutpurse's. And, with both types, unfortunately, their 'special skills' are most often put to the same use. Separating honest folk from their money or," his voice sunk to an ominous whisper, "their lives.

"But I'm sure there are nice wizards, too. Look, I'm one!" he giggled. "Here's a silver coin! Silver is thaumaturgically charged with...erm...magical dweomerishness. See the coin?" He presented one, held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand; it looked dull and tarnished in the half-darkness. "Now, dum-dilly, dilly-dum, dubble, hubble, trouble, bubble, BAM! The coin was transabsorbed into the far plane of ethereal elemental silver!" And indeed, it looked that way; for Maeus's delicate fingers were now quite empty.

"No it wasn't! Here it is." Maeus showed it in his left hand, now catching the dim light brightly. "But if I was a naughty wizard, this would be your coin, not mine. And I would keep it. And, I would charge you an extra coin, because I've let you glimpse the mysterious mysteries of the mysterious universe of magick- ck - ck ."

"Who knows?" he finished, spreading his arms, "perhaps this fellow with the raven is the first末no, the second末nice wizard you've ever met, eh?"

Vetched laughed. "Maeus, if magick only involved making coins disappear, my life would be much less complicated." He smiled at his new friend's 'coming out.' "I'm willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt, if you and you末 he pointed to Aina, "末and even you末" at Tynan, "末are."

While he appreciated the skill behind Maeus' deft demonstration, for that was all Tynan naively supposed it was, he felt the exhibition in somewhat poor taste, considering the gravity of their discussion. But it seemed to nudge Vetch from the dour humour that had fallen upon him, and so the dark-haired tradesman said nothing of it.

The silly grin that had adorned Taz's face had very quickly been replaced by a thoughtful scowl, upon his hearing first Aina's, and then Vetch's, words about the nature of magic and magicians末as they saw things. "Oh!" was all he managed to blurt out, as he pondered and digested their claims about wizards and wizardry before raising his eyes to peer intently, suspiciously, at the figure of the purported wizard.

For the first time that evening, Taz found himself distinctly uncomfortable with his new experiences. Even Maeus' coin trick, normally something he would have thoroughly enjoyed, failed to return the large man's mood back to its earlier exuberant heights. Aina had gone back to sitting with her eyes lowered, tracing circles on the table with her finger. She lifted her gaze, though, as Maeus launched into his performance末which in the end wrung a ghost of a smile out of her. She even attempted to peer through the folds of her friend's sleeve, on the off-chance that he had merely substituted one coin for another, but she knew it was hopeless; from her experiences with other street performers, she had learned that once the crucial moment of misdirection had passed, it was nearly impossible to penetrate a magician's trick. The thought that perhaps they had witnessed a display of genuine magic末as opposed to common sleight of hand末did not occur to her.

Malou had slipped away without a refill for his tankard, leaving Tynan to stare into the empty depths of the mug. The smith looked past the huge Sembian on his right末no easy feat, that末to Aina, risking a glance at her expression before responding to his counterpart across the table. "I will do as Elmdaerle asks, for I owe him that much," he committed eventually. "If he vouches for this wizard, that is good enough for now. But only time will tell whether he will prove true to us all.

"Of course," he admitted with a gentle snort, after another moment's reflection, "that could be said for each of us in turn, I suppose. We all are here by the Guildmaster's invitation. If we choose to trust one another this night, is it not based on his endorsement above all else?"

Tynan cast his grey eyes about the table, then nodded slowly. "I will do as Elmdaerle asks," he repeated, though whether it was to convince the table or himself even he could not say.

Aina nodded mutely. She, too, was inclined to trust Elmdaerle's judgement, as she sensed that the Guildmaster, for all his jovial behavior, had a steely core and would not easily place his trust in the wrong person.

The distress around the table intensified suddenly; by all appearances the group at the door had finished speaking, and was now being guided by the old man in the direction of their table. At one point, both Taz and Tynan watched Elmdaerle's spectacles turn momentarily into glowing red disks as they reflected the light of the monstrous charcoal brazier; the image was a slightly disconcerting one, and the two warriors could not help repressing a shudder.

As the four of them got closer, Johan could hear and see an animated conversation taking place there, with one young man waving his hands in the air, his gestures and tone theatrical末it seemed the company Elmdaerle had gathered was lively enough. He chuckled, waiting for the old man to do the introductions; the guildmaster seemed to like playing the part of the good host so much, he didn't want to steal the pleasure.

"Why all these sorrowful faces?" Elmdaerle asked, looking around the table with quizzical concern. Only Maeus seemed really pleased with anything, and Taz looked downright miserable. "Come now, it's Drawing Down末we can't enter the new year gloomily, whatever the sages have agreed to call it!

"There are three gentlemen to join us," he said, turning slightly to indicate the young men standing expectantly at his side, "only one of whom I expected. This is Ozander, the man I told you about." Elmdaerle set one tapered hand on the diviner's arm, and brought him closer into view.

At this distance, it appeared to the seated company that there must be some mistake末the young man before them could not have looked less like a wizard, even if the waterlogged raven on his shoulder hadn't given him away as one. He was average of height, average of weight, even average of appearance: with brown hair clipped short, quiet dark eyes, and a demure, placid expression, Ozander looked more like a nondescript laborer than any of them. Only his pale complexion, and a faint prepossessiveness, betrayed him as a man uncomfortable with ordinary work. He dressed in an uncomplicated Cormyrean fashion, and nothing more unsual than a lightly-tooled pouch adorned his belt.

"He is on loan to us from the Hall of Six," Elmdaerle went on, "and if you've never heard of that place, well末I shan't trouble with an explanation now. Let us instead say, that it is a place of much and varied learning; and that the people who study there, do not leave frivolously. There is more to them than meets the eye , you might say." By speaking thus, the old man signaled his awareness of the young man's modest demeanor, and may have been trying to reassure them that Ozander was indeed the same person they'd been speaking of privately. "That being so, I think you would do best sitting there, beside Maeus末since he, too, is rather more than meets the eye, if he will forgive me for saying so."

Moving to take his place at the long table next to Maeus, Ozander became keenly aware of the large, wet bird on his shoulder. Not minding so much himself, he realized the others might find issue with the bird at the table. "Beck, let's give the shoulder a rest shall we? Would you be so kind as to find an empty chairback or a beam to light upon? I'll insure food finds you a bit later."

"This young fellow," Eldaerle continued, as Ozander took his place at the table, and Arthos stepped up, "is from Sembia, as his accent will bear out. He is also from Selgaunt末an unusual development, given that this gentleman末" he indicated Taz, "末is from that city, as well. Whether or not they are in league against us, I cannot say...though it would make for a rather transparent plot, would it not?"

Arthos gave a deliberate grimace and good-natured roll of his eyes as Elmdaerle spoke of inrigue, wordlessly making light of such a notion to those around the table. He grinned and inclined his head in greeting to them as the older man continued: "To avoid unwanted advice and speculation concerning this evening's business, I have asked you all to exercise your best discretion; but there is nothing we do here of particular tactical significance末anything that Sembia would care about, anyway. I will leave it for you to decide what to do with these two: I see no malice in either, however. I will assume there is none."

The Sembian was small, wiry, and delicate, and of a kind with Maeus. They might have been brothers, in fact, but that the bard was bloodless and fair, while the other was darker and self-consciously disarrayed. Both were dressed fashionably, with dark well-tailored jackets, and both wore rapiers, though Arthos's weapon was frankly far more impressive than he himself was, and he wore a set of cuir bouilli, as well.

"Sit here, on my left, if you will," said Eldaerle, directing Arthos to the broad bench beside Vetch. "That way I can keep a better eye on you.

"The last member of our party is this tall fellow, who looks like he could use a few days' rest, and also a decent meal or three. This is Johan, the son of a friend who was, unfortunately, called away on other business; as much use as I might have made of the father in this endeavor, perhaps I can find some similar use for his grown-up son. Johan has been away for many years in the eastern mountains, cloistered in a monastery of Lathander. I can think of no better man to have around on an occasion like today, unless it be one of the Morninglord's Favored! It is auspicious good fortune. A disciple of that ancient religion ought to be allowed a few words, before we properly begin末I would only ask that he offer what blessings he can to the New Year, and also to adventures and friends, newly discovered and won." He bowed diffidently to the monk, stepping slightly off to the side to let Johan speak.

Blushing slightly at the flowering words of praise, Johan gave the people gathered around the table a low bow and a warm smile, the copper sunburst symbol around his neck reflecting the dim light. 的 fear our good host has greatly overestimated my worth, but if it's a blessing you wanted I'll do my humble best.

Closing his eyes for a moment to see inspiration, Johan bowed his head, crossed his hands and intoned. 溺ay the Lord of the Morning smile upon us on this glorious day, the beginning of the new year, and bless this venture we are about to embark on, so that the greater good would be served, no matter the outcome.

Maeus had poured himself some wine, about three fingers deep, in a mug, then topped the mug with water. "Hear, hear!" he said, rising his mug, then sipping some.

Smiling a bit shyly, Johan cleared his throat. 的'm not much of a speaker, I'm afraid. One really needs a true priest for proper blessings; contemplation and meditation rather than glory and grandeur are what I strive for.

"The simple blessings are the best, friar Johan," Maeus smiled, "just like the simple pleasures of life.

"Speaking of simple pleasures and beginnings, I would really love to begin enjoying my simple steak. What is that girl doing..." Maeus drifted off, craning his neck to look for Malou.

As worried as he had become a moment earlier about being in the company of a magician, Master Elmdaerle's introduction of Ozander to the group actually helped ease the large man's concerns. Taz looked Ozander up and down without any care for whether this might be viewed as being rude, and then mentally declared himself to be completely satisfied that the plain-looking wizard was no danger to any in the fledgling group. "He looks to be just fine to me," Taz murmured under his breath, to no one in particular末though Aina, seated right next to him, may have heard.

The burly bladesman was, however, much more interested in the Sembian who was introduced next by Elmdaerle. I wonder who he might be, Taz thought to himself, his fears rising sharply. Then, as Elmdaerle revealed that the Sembian was also recently arrived from Selgaunt, Taz's brain practically froze in shocked panic.

No! He can't be here for me! his frenzied mind screamed. The blood drained from Taz's face, and he gripped the edge of the table in front of him as though his very life were at stake末which it very well may have been. He heard none of what Elmdaerle prattled on about thereafter, though Elmdaerle's utterances to the group about trusting Sembians did provide the young warrior with the time he needed to regain his faculties. Looking in Arthos' direction, and trusting that Master Elmdaerle would be able to discern and reveal any falsehoods that are spoken, Taz forced out a blunt question for the stranger from Selgaunt.

"Are you here for me? Are you working for my father?" he asked fearfully, in a voice that was far too small for the large body from which it emanated.

The big man's question dangled in the silence for moment before the baby-faced merchant answered. "My mighty compatriot," he said, his tone simple and earnest, "I am in Arabel on no man's business but my own, and I have no idea who your father may be.

"Still," Arthos went on, his voice sliding into a crisp, rapid patter, "'tis a glad omen to meet a lad from back home, and my friend Ozander here has left me with a promised drink that lacks a drinker. Will you be a proper Selgaunt man, and tidy up that loose end?"

It took a few moments for Arthos' response to register in Taz's panic-striken brain, but when it finally sank in that the other Sembian was not here for Taz but rather was here on his own business, a loud groan escaped the big fellow's lips. "Ohh, I'm a real idiot, aren't I?" he mumbled plaintively. "My apologies, Master Arthos. I guess I've got myself a touch of the nerves."

The large man looked about awkwardly, hoping against hope that not too many at the table had noticed his silly outburst. He grabbed his mug with both hands and drained all of the ale that was left in it, to both calm his nerves and cover up his loss of control. Looking up at Arthos, Taz added, "I believe I am ready for that drink you offered!"

"Of course!" Arthos replied, with a wink and a sympathetic smile. "Talk of family business is enough to make any man drink, eh?"

Tynan could not help but notice the large man's reaction, when Arthos was introduced as a fellow Sembian, even hailing from the same city末 and though Tynan tried to maintain a polite air of disinterest by feigning great interest in the craftsmanship of his rather plain and decidedly empty tankard, he ended up hearing most of the conversation between the two. After all, he was sitting right next to the huge Sembian.

But when Taz's fears proved unwarranted, Tynan still did not look up from his mug, for a moment of reflection had come over him. The talk of Taz and his father, however adversarial the relationship sounded, had sparked yearning in Tynan's heart for his own father, stolen away years ago to the hired blades of the Lost King. And though their simple home had mostly been a happy place, Tynan found himself a little envious of Taz, for he fancied even his father's anger would be better than the eternal silence of death.

The door to the kitchen pitched forward, and out spilled a fresh burst of steam. Close upon it both Jacob and Malou entered, one behind the other; and they carried broad boards in their arms, upon which several plates, baskets, toureens and sets of cutlery had been lain. This was food for the company, or at least for so many as had ordered it.

Proud, red-faced, Jacob brought his platter to the table, and set it down before them, just between Maeus, Vetch, and Aina. The tray was dominated by two platters, each baring a lean, roasted sheep-shank末one spiced heavily with a marinade of cubeb, garlic and galingale, the other sweetly perfumed with laurel and upland juniper. There were also three plates, dressed in soft-baked trencher, and a bowl of mixed chickpeas and onions besides.

"Sorry about the wait," puffed the barkeep, "but it doesn't roast quickly, does it, and we weren't expecting quite so much business. Still, it's a sight better than any old dried-out venison, and that's a fact! I don't mind saying that Granddad taught me well."

Maeus inhaled deeply and bowed to Jacob, "You, Lord, are the demigod of roast mutton!"

Then he turned to Vetch and Aina and sighed in theatrical dismay. "I said this big," he raised his open palm, "and he brought that . Did you, master Vetch, want what I wanted, or what I ordered? Never mind, it doesn't matter anymore, for now you can have some of both. Aina, that is what juniper tastes like! Enjoy! Let us try to solve together the ancient problem of splitting two things three ways."

Aina gazed down on the feast laid down before her with wondering eyes. Then she snuck a smile at Maeus, who sat opposite her. "Thanks," she told him. "It's too good for me." And so it seemed to be. It was a work of art. It would be a shame to despoil such a masterpiece by eating it. But she really was very hungry.

"Aina and Maeus, please, start off before it gets as cold as the icicles hanging off our shivering friends!" Vetch said. "I'll be glad to take what you don't eat."

Aina gave Vetch an uncomprehending smile, as if he had told a joke she could not understand. Of course she would not just give him the leftovers -- what kind of person did he think she was? Besides, she was eager to make amends. She picked up a knife and fork and, with swift, practiced motions, cut off a hefty chunk of still-sizzling meat. "Pass me your plate," she requested, and when he did, she dropped the meat off on it.

Then she plunged into her meal, with an appetite surprising for such a slip of a girl. Occasionally, when she caught a particularly interesting snippet of conversation, she would stop chewing for a bit, and raise her eyes and listen, before going back to her meal.

Malou rested her own tray in front of Elmdaerle himself, since it was mostly the things he asked for末a closed ceramic toureen, a set of small wooden bowls, another bowl holding thickened almond butter, and a basket covered with a cloth. The last emitted a warm fragrance of oats and barley; no need to ask what that contained. She, too, looked sweaty and rosy-cheeked, and had obviously been spending a lot of time near the oven.

"It's the best we have," she said apologetically. "Wintertime, and all of that. At least it isn't rye, or nuts, or acorn末come 'round here again in Ches, Elmie, if you fancy acorns."

"Alas, I do not," replied Elmdaerle, with great dignity. The lenses of his spectacles were beginning to fog. "I find the humor unsuited to my temperament. An extra chair, on the other hand, would suit me very well. We seem to have run out of room rather quickly, here." Jacob looked around in surprise, as though registering the new arrivals for the first time; scowling briefly at Malou, he rushed off to fulfill the elderly man's request.

"I hope it will do, then," said the barmaiden with a grin, "for I'm reasonably sure the oats were warm, and the barley soaked quite nicely. Do you need anything else?"

"No, I think this is sufficient末if you will just pass along the wine, Maeus. Thank you. No, my dear, it all looks very fine, very splendid末good for a cold winter's evening, and some matters of casual import. Is that real butter? I thought not. You may wish to assess the needs of my young people, however, since some of them are recent additions."

Malou looked about the table expectantly. "Is that so? Who's new, and who needs something? We've other customers to see to, but I guess they're well looked after末anyway, they're less interesting than some of you, and I fear their impatience less." Her eyes finally settled on Johan, who of all the companions looked the most out of place.

Trying his best to ignore his rumbling stomach and thus encourage others nearby to do the same, Johan sighed in relief. 展hatever you have, please. I could just about eat a heap of well-done bark, if someone set it on my plate, the lean monk chuckled. 鄭s long as it's warm and filling, I'll have no complaints.

"Warm and filling," said Malou. "That could be done." She stepped aside as Jacob reappeared suddenly with a sturdy chair for the guildmaster.

Ozander motioned to attract Malou's attention. "A bowl of anything hot would be wonderful. Would you happen to have a stew or hearty soup prepared? That with a bit of bread should warm me nicely." Turning from the barmaiden, he looked around the table at the many new faces. "I must apologize for my late arrival. Please be assured, it's no reflection of the significance I assign to this meeting."

"You've nothing to apologize for, Master Ozander," Taz said to the wizard with an infectious grin. Clearly, Taz was rather quickly regaining his old self. "Some of us have yet to order our dinner ourselves. Speaking of that ...."

The large warrior waved a meaty paw in Malou's direction as soon as she was done taking the next person's order. "Meat an' potatoes, please," he said to the woman with a warm smile. "An' some vegetables. A roast like what Maeus and Vetch ordered sure'd be nice, but I'm really hungry, an' I don't want to have to wait. So whatever you've got already cooked will be just fine."

"I understand," nodded the barmaiden. "So that's Warm and Filling, a bowl of Anything Hot, Meat an' Potatoes, and末I notice nobody's ordering anything to drink. This is a tavern! You need another ale, big guy." She motioned toward the full pitcher sitting in front of Vetch. "That's for everybody, since one man's buying. Anything else?"

Finding himself sharing a bench with Tynan, Johan gave the man a quiet smile as he sat down, sighing in pure pleasure. It had been a very long day, after all. He might be accustomed to spending the whole day on his feet, but at this point even youthful pride was beginning to wear thin. He'd give a lot for a comfortable chair, but would soon enough settle for sitting on the floor if nothing else was offered.

The shifting of the bench shook Tynan from his melancholic reverie, and he glanced over at the tall monk who had just delivered a blessing upon them all.

"Greetings, Johan," he said, half-turning to face the holy man and extending his good right hand. His scarred left continued to cup the tankard in front of him, as though a tighter grip might squeeze a few last drops of applejack from the metal. "I am Tynan, and I can tell you from recent experience that even the simple fare here is satisfying, and the warmth will soon chase any chill that still clings to your bones.

"Of course, another tankard of applejack would surely cover that as well! Malou!" called out Tynan, at last catching their server's attention. He had waited as patiently as he dared while the food was delivered末and then while the newcomers placed their own orders末but with that finished, he was worried she would once again scamper away without having remembered his refill.

"I believe you owe me a second mug," he reminded her kindly, dangling the empty tankard from his fingers as he flashed her a wink. "Now, I know I said when you had a chance, but a man gets a thirst with all these incredible dishes laid out before him."

"Well, so I did!" she said, with complete surprise. "And I'll bring you two, if you ask for nothing else, and if your friend wants one. And if the roof doesn't cave in, first. It's snowing like mad, and everything's down in the cellar. But there, you didn't order news of the weather! I'll be back in a moment. Last chance, last chance末how about you, laddie?" she nodded at Arthos. "You look a bit young, but it's a holiday, isn't it?"

Arthos gave a fox's grin and flashed Malou the sort of eyes that had caused more than a few barmaids to forget to charge him since during his time in Arabel, and made two or three forget a good deal more. "A holiday?" he said with playful dreaminess, "In years to come, it shall

mean but one thing to me: the day I was first graced with your smile."

Malou rolled her eyes. Arthos winked, and turned to seek out a perch well enough into the group for conversation, yet not so far as to intrude. "Many thanks, good maiden, for seeing to my towering countryman末and if he desires something other than pitcher-ale, please fetch it for him." He inclined his head toward Taz as he rambled on, then he gestured toward Johan with a flourish. "And a hot spiced cider for the good Johan, there. As for myself末a brandy, if you please."

"Right," said Malou. "I would please, but we haven't any brandy. I'll burn some strong perry for you, though末that should do the trick. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll find a couple of cups for your neglected mate, here." She finished settling Elmdaerle's food onto the table, whisked the tray away, and trotted toward the kitchen. Jacob was busy elsewhere.


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