CHAPTER SIX--Where all the gold in the world is


. It came as no surprise to her that Doremi found it difficult to sleep that night after the intense planning the Fellowship had made all day long, until they broke for a few hours of hoped-for sleep. A couple of hours before dawn, she finally gave up and decided to get ready for whatever the next day would hold.

The Bard opened one of her bags and reached in to retrieve one of what she called her “Adventuring Outfits”. Her favorite part was the skirt. Actually a bulky pants outfit, light tan in color, it was comprised of an outer shell of muslin tailored to hold the shape of a trumpet skirt that draped down to the top of her boots when she stood still, yet beneath which was really a pair of canvas pants permitting her to ride, move, or run if she had to without the problems a real skirt would cause. Doremi had invented the design, then found a skilled Torrencian seamstress who made her sketch come to life, and the outfit was something she was very proud of.

She also donned a thick linen bodice that provided at least some protection against anything that got through a light vest of brown leather she wore over her yellow linen blouse. Around her waist a belt held four pouches. The most important--and, in fact, the second-most most valuable thing she owned--was a black leather pouch embossed with a red Elven “L” upon it, that hung on the right side in easy reach. Just in front of it a second smaller pouch held elixirs of healing and detoxification for emergencies, and next to that was a dagger safely tucked in its scabbard as a last line of defense for anything getting so close that her special bracers of throw daggers were unusable.

On the left side of the belt was a small pouch with a set of castanets next to her largest pouch, which held a small book--her special scroll book with a removable cover. Into it, she would place a variety of enchanted scrolls whenever she found one small enough to fit, or when she could afford the services of a scribe to fashion them for her, since her skill at reading languages enabled her to invoke the powers of some scrolls as if she were a true wizard. The drawback was that the more powerful the scroll, the greater her chance of failing to control the magic she released. The low rank spells were thus her favorite since she almost never failed to control something below the third rank of power.

She finished by pinning up her hair and stuffing most of it into a ruffled cap.

Her knapsack held the essentials of normal equipment such as some rope, a few bandages, a small oil lamp with a flask of oil, some jasper and steel, an extra flute, spare strings for her instruments, her song book, a journal, her bracers of throw daggers and a few other sundries. Hooks on the back of the knapsack allowed her to secure a mandolin to it for use when a flute wouldn’t do, for the flute and mandolin were her preferred tools of the Adventuring trade since the lute and most other stringed instruments were a bit too large for practicality.

But this was no ordinary adventure, and so no ordinary instrument would do. A quest like this demanded something unique to give a Bard every possible edge, and in Doremi’s case the answer came in Faire-chlaidh-ceol, her lute. A magnificent instrument dating from ancient times, she had claimed it as a treasure pick when she had helped discover Dellenthar’s mandolin.

Or perhaps it had claimed her. Whatever the case, she had wound up with this consummate form of a lute, and had borne it for the last few summers. A large instrument, even for a lute, half the people in Islay couldn’t count high enough to number its 28 strings. Its bulbous body of polished laminated rosewood mounted a double slotted neck studded with golden tuning knobs and inlaid with silver frets. But where most lutes ended in a normal head, cocked at an angle, Faire-chlaidh-ceol’s neck extended out some seven inches in a graceful, swanlike curve where its ten treble strings were mounted.

No Bard in Islay had any idea how to play it, and there was more than a little envy directed toward her for possessing it, but she had taught herself how to make the instrument sing its magic. And sing it could, for the power of its many strings allowed it to play virtually any song of the Bards, including those that stringed instruments normally could not be used for.

The lute also had shown itself to be especially potent when used against undead. Doremi could practically count on one hand the number of times an undead creature had managed to resist its magic, and thus was born its name, for translated from Avalonian, Faire-chlaidh-ceol means the musical grave-guardian.

Even so, there was one song the lute could not play: One that laid undead creatures to rest. A flute was needed for that. Doremi was never certain why it couldn’t play that particular song, but it wasn’t a major problem.

There was no reason to don the knapsack yet, so Doremi left both it and Faire-chlaidh-ceol lying on the bed, and decided to take a stroll outside.

The hallway outside her room was dark but for the soft light of candles spaced every ten feet down the lengths of the corridor. No sound from her footfalls disturbed the silence of the villa as she made her way over one plush throw rug after another until she reached the divide of the stairway leading down to the main floor of the upper villa and the concourse of wood and marble that wound its way down to the great hexagonal tower below the upper villa.

Apprehensive over what the day would hold, she slowly made her way down the darkened stairs to the tower, trying to imagine every possible thing she could do to stay alive inside of the School.

By and large, it amounted to staying back, and staying out of combat--a sad commentary on her lack of offensive capability. And, as much as she hated to admit it, Espidreen wasn’t that far off in her comments.

But--she did have enough confidence in herself to know that while she may not be able to kill anything that moved with one spell or thrust with a sword, she could still be invaluable by using her talents to support her fellow treasure hunters.

If nothing else, she could remember every step they made in the place, and retrace their path better than any cartographer could with the best map he could make.

After a while she arrived at the tower, but instead of continuing down to the ground floor she diverted from the stairs to follow a landing on the third level.

The humble Bard made her way around the circumference of the third story, admiring some of the statuary on that level, and eventually happened upon a glow from a fireplace that caught her eye as she approached a doorway to peer in. Beyond was a small reading room with white plaster walls tastefully decorated with small paintings of mothers and children. Potted ferns stood in the corners of the room and against the north wall was a Baroque white fireplace, likewise accented in silver and gold as the one in the Inn’s waiting room. A fire cast a soft, orange glow in the otherwise darkened chamber, and before it stood a large, high-back chair of maroon velvet.

Doremi noticed the top of Raven’s head just above its back.

She wasn’t sure if Raven was asleep, so she quietly took a step into the room and leaned to the side to observe the Mistress of Freeport sitting quietly, deep in thought. Her elbows rested on the plush arm rests and her hands came together a few inches before her face, forming a diamond shape as the tips of her gloved fingers touched and every so often rubbed in a gentle circular motion in time to whatever thoughts were passing through her head.

The Bard debated whether to speak, and for a moment stood there in silence.

Without turning around to look, the head shifted slightly as Raven became aware of her presence.

“I’m not asleep, if you were wondering,” came a voice from the chair.

“I couldn’t sleep either,” Doremi answered. “So I got up and got ready.”

Raven leaned around the right arm of the chair and glanced at her.

“Cute outfit,” she remarked. Then she turned back to her original position.

“Thanks--I invented it. It’s a little more feminine than regular pants, but works just about as good. They aren’t crazy about women wearing pants in Torrencia.”

A soft chuckle came from the chair.

“When I started out, a woman who wore pants in Torrencia would be lashed for trying to look like a man. I’m the one who made wearing pants at least a little acceptable when I met the King of Torrencia in pants back when I was what--twenty-one? The whole Court was shocked, but since I was cute, and since King Lawrence was so happy for what I had done to reform Freeport and open up the market to Krella, pants-wearing became a fad amongst some of the lesser women at Court. In any event, the Torrencians now don’t react as harshly to the notion. And I’m the one responsible.”

“Wow!” Doremi exclaimed. “I didn’t know that. I was just a child when you did all those things in the early days of the Guild.”

“I don’t like wearing dresses or gowns,” Raven continued as if she didn’t hear her. “They restrict movement. When I met him, they wanted me to wear a gown in front of the King of Torrencia. I threw it back in the faces of those crones who tried to get me to accede to their notion of what propriety was, and when I met the man I stood there in pants and a blouse, smiled sweetly at him--and had him enraptured.

“You should have seen them--all his handlers panicked, for they had been parading these over-fed, out-of-shape, pampered court cows before him to select a queen from. They realized--as I did--that I could get him to propose marriage with the greatest of ease because I was unlike anything he had ever seen. I was unique. I was exciting. I was confident. I was powerful. I was beautiful. I was everything the women of Torrencia can never be, and Lawrence was drawn to it like a moth to a lantern. Yes, the new King Lawrence was totally enamored of me, and I realized I was one step from becoming Queen of Torrencia if I wanted. I could have sidestepped all these years of games with the Guild right then and there if I’d wanted.

“But I did them all a favor, and let them know I wouldn’t marry him because I didn’t think him good enough for me. That settled them down and insulted them at the same time--which was my intent, of course. And it all started because I wouldn’t wear a gown. I hate wearing gowns!

“I don’t even like wearing a stola--that's a woman's toga--but I do when I address the Senate. I suppose it’s expected of me, given that technically I'm a member of the Patrician class and hold the rank of First Citizen. That was the rank Baltarus held before he became Emperor, you know. But my rank is designed for me only to negotiate in the Senate's name. Even so, I technically have the right to command the Legions--and I can get away with that one time before they’ll revoke that ability. They only had five legions when I started--today they have thirty.”

“So Freeport is a part of Krella then?” Doremi asked.

“No,” Raven replied. “By an Acta Baltarus we can never be a part of the Republic. When Baltarus was a young man, before the Triad, he fled here from the emperor who murdered his father. The ancient Freeporters gave him sanctuary, and in gratitude he exempted us from ever being forced into the Republic. So we have nothing to fear from Krella and, in fact, they protect us, although we have no real enemies. I have enemies, of course, but no one ever dared attack me here in force because an attack here would have been considered not just an attack on the Senate, but even against Torrencia as well since I give both nations what they want most: Gold, in the case of the Senate, and grain, in the case of Torrencia.

“You see, the Torrencians and the Krellans hate each other--but they need each other. Torrencia--even in good years--has problems feeding so many people. And Krella has seas--literal seas of grain fields. Have you ever seen them, Doremi? They have grain fields that stretch from horizon to horizon. They have far more grain than they can use. And Torrencia--and the rest of Islay, too--needs it. Torrencia has a lot of silver, gold, and cotton--in the south of the country anyway--but the ground is too rocky to grow much food in. They need Krella’s grain, and Krella needs their cotton and gold. But they’ve hated each other since the First Age, so they would never trade with each other directly. I made it possible. I, the neutral outsider who was smart enough to realize that food was the key to control--for the nation that controls the food controls the people. And the nation that controls the people controls all Islay. That’s why the most powerful nation in Islay is but an island and city called Freeport. Those idiot pirates who preceded me thought all Torrencia was good for was robbing their pathetic little cogs--but I realized that the grain ship wielded far more might then the pirate ship. And once I offered them the grain ships, the Torrencians fell into the trap that would doom them from the very beginning: They traded non-renewables--gold and silver--for perishable grain and wine.”

She leaned out and looked over to Doremi for a moment. “You only trade renewables for renewables or non-renewables for non-renewables,” she explained. “You never trade renewables for non-renewables because you use up the renewables while your non-renewables are lost forever to your trading partner, permanently transferring some of your non-renewable resources to someone else.”

Raven turned back to her fire. “Stupid,” she muttered.

The Bard had no idea what all this talk of renewables and non-renewables meant.

“Thus, it all started simply,” the Mistress of Freeport continued, “--I used the former pirate ships of Freeport to ship the grain of Senator Bacchus to Torrence. Both of us started making a lot of gold then, and soon the rest of the Grains faction came to me, wanting me to sell their grain, too. Next, the Wines faction approached me, and then the Metals faction. And, in time, I had the Nobles of Torrencia and the wealthy merchants there wanting me to ship their goods back to Krella. I just made sure that the Guild itself always took its cut in the form of non-renewable gold.

“To be honest, I was overwhelmed by how much gold I was making and how important I was becoming. So, just like a little baby octopus, the Guild started very small and in no time grew to become a kraken. And through it all I came to see that the Rich hold all the power, but that I could one day control not just the sea lanes, but all of Islay by giving the greedy Rich what they wanted most--more gold! But just where do you think most of the gold in Islay is today, Doremi? In the remnants of some lost Karnaki city buried in the desert sands? In some dungeon forgotten since the First Age? In the treasury of the King of Torrencia? In the halls of the Dwarves? No. It’s right here in Freeport. Here, where all the goods of the world come to be bought and traded, all the gold in the world also makes its way. The Rich bring their gold here and leave it at my bank. That enables them to buy goods here at the Guild. In return, I give them a little token or a piece of paper that says they have a certain amount deposited in the Bank, and they pay for their merchandise with it. Thus, I get their gold--and they get a scrap of paper!”

Raven leaned forward, laughing in an almost giddy manner.

I think she’s drunk, Doremi thought to herself. I can’t believe it!

“I almost have them to the point,” Raven continued, “where they treat my tokens and credit slips as actual money, abandoning the ‘inconvenience’ of hauling around something heavy like a thousand ounces of gold in favor of tokens and credit slips representing the gold they bank here.

“Actually,” Raven mused, adjusting her position to something a bit more relaxing, “I had planned to issue an edict requiring all cargo purchases, even out of Freeport, be made using only trade tokens and credit slips. It won’t be necessary now, though. But anyway, in so far as the actual gold I have control over goes, I take it and loan it out for usury and make the Guild richer. And I indebt the Rich to the Guild by loaning their own gold back to them in the form of credits for cargoes that they want because they can take those cargoes and sell them at home for more profit! Meanwhile, all the profits they make off those cargoes from their own people come back here to me for me to hold and invest as I see fit--to make the Guild more powerful. Thus, the richer they get, the more powerful I become.

“The greedy fools wanted gold, and give them gold I did. Each year, I made sure that everyone made a little more profit; and each year, I took a little more control. They traded their freedom for profit, Doremi, and they wound up losing both because I eventually came to control both. They were all just plain lucky that I wasn’t a thief who would simply take all they had for myself, and that the power of control itself satisfied me.

“You see, one day the Rich woke up to realize they could no longer exist without me because I’m the one who controls whether their goods are sold, and if they don’t do what I say, I boot them from the Guild and no one buys from them or sells to them, lest they get booted too. They have no choice but to obey. And if they won't, or if they try to fight back, I make an example of them because I am the one in control.

“And I control more than just individuals--I control whole nations as well. I once embargoed your own country because your Queen banned the Guild, did you know that? This was probably when you were in the Ecclesiastical School. Queen Anne did something no one else has ever done to me, and lived: She humiliated me in front of her entire Court, and banished both myself and the Guild from Avalon.

“Well, she had the right to ban the Guild, but as my power grew, she found that price was that the world’s commerce flowed out through Freeport, and since the Avalon wouldn’t deal with the Guild, suddenly Avalon began having problems making trade with other nations. And thus, after a time, your Queen found herself here, begging us to lift the embargo, and the Guild came back in. Avalon is better for it. And not just Avalon. Even Krella, because of me, has made so much profit by me taking their goods and selling them to the rest of Islay that they even have enough extra wealth to create something called a dole--they make sure every Krellan citizen receives free bread to keep them alive, so that’s why they don’t abandon unwanted children as much as in years past. They make sure that fires are put out without charge to the citizens. They build roads anyone can use without paying a toll. You’d probably appreciate the system.”

“That’s wonderful!” Doremi exclaimed. “Every country should work that way! Of course, they do have slaves, though. And there are other things I think are bad--like their love for seeing gladiators kill each other.”

Raven leaned over and looked back at her.

“If two gladiators want to fight, what’s the problem with that? It’s their lives to do with as they see fit.”

She turned back and settled into the plush comfort of her chair. “Even so, the Krellan system can never be perfect if they don’t let me run it--but it’s still the most efficient system ever known, and the profits I've brought them have enabled them to lift the standard of living for all of their people. And as long as they have me guiding Islay toward my vision of the future, it will continue to improve. Do you realize how important I am? How much I’ve done for Islay that most people aren't even aware of? I've nearly eliminated slavery in Krella by making hired labor cheaper to use. And I started that by maneuvering the Senate into booting the Slavery faction out years and years ago, and then I assassinated the former Senators when it was safe to do so. I always hated slavery! Also, when I started, if something notable happened in Krella, Torrencia might hear about it two years later. Today if something happens in Draconium, Torrence knows about it in a few days. Through my influence, I've almost made magic a part of everyday life. When I started out, wizards were rarely seen outside of Hocwrath, and now they’re almost everywhere, except they’re still frowned upon in Torrencia, where they’re still mistrusted...but at least they don’t burn them at the stake anymore.

“Before the Guild, people were ignorant and lived in their own little isolated hovels. Today many people can read, because if they can’t, they can’t advance in the Guild so they find some way to learn how. Today everyone from every nation interacts with each other on equal terms here and elsewhere because of their common need to develop commerce, and to profit off each other’s goods, making war between nations almost impossible because I, not their kings, am the one who wields the real power--and war would inconvenience my plans.

“I made it all possible. Me. No one else. I took Islay from the Darkness and led it toward the Light of a new Age. I won't say everything I've done has been done in the most moral fashion possible, but the world, sooner or later, had to move to a more efficient way of doing things. And at least I'm honorable--compared to the people I deal with on a daily basis. And doing this at least keeps my mind busy, and off other things that aren't so good.”

Doremi shuffled her feet slowly on the thick, maroon carpet. She was very uncomfortable with all that Raven was letting slip out about the machinations of she and the Guild, yet the Bard had traveled enough and seen enough to understand that people in power play such chess games and, sadly, those sorts of games would probably always exist in Islay. If not with Raven, then with someone else possibly even worse. And at least she hated slavery, which was a point for her.

“You’ve sure done a lot in your life, Raven,” Doremi finally said. “Someone should write a book about you.”

“Be my guest,” she answered. “You’ll have to think up a good title, though. Is that dagger of yours any good, by the way?”

“Um, it’s okay, I guess. Probably made by a tenth-circle. I have a set of throw daggers I usually rely on.”

Raven shifted to her left to reach down to her right side. Then a sheathed dagger came flying backward from her. Doremi missed catching it and it fell to the ground. The Bard picked it up and slid the weapon from its sheath, observing that it was beautifully crafted, with a pommel and handle of silver, engraved with a Raven standing upon a TenTolliver crest. The razor-sharp blade was unique--one half silver, mated to another blade of iron. Clearly, it was meant to be usable against monsters that might require either silver or iron to be struck instead of steel. A brilliant idea, Doremi thought. She could tell it was balanced for throwing as well.

“Throw that tooth pick away and use this one,” Raven spoke. “I’ve plenty of daggers, and to spare.”

“Thank you, Raven. What is it? A dagger made by a fifteenth-circle?”

“At least,” came the answer.

Then Raven paused. “Did you know I once wrote a book?”

“No, really?”

Doremi stepped forward to Raven’s side and noticed she was dressed in her own Adventuring outfit: Instead of a blouse and pants, she was clothed in a handsome outfit of soft, black leather pants with matching sleeved vest, and, of course, the ever-present dark blue cloak and gloves. The leather outfit was so supple it obviously wasn’t practical in close combat. Apparently, Doremi surmised, Raven relied more upon a pair of ornate silver bracers upon her wrists. A very large book with a glistening cover of bluish silver--possibly some huge spell book--was placed on the floor next to her, resting against her legs.

“What was your book's title?” the Bard asked. “What was it about?”

“It was called Excerpts From a Forgotten Tome: How to Fight Dirty.”

Raven smiled. “I wrote it when I was in my twenties. It was a bunch of tips I’d learned during my career as a treasure hunter--tips on how to defeat your enemies quickly and effectively in combat and such. It’d probably do you a lot of good--but they definitely weren’t chivalrous tips, I admit. I had some copies made by scribes and gave them out to some of my early henchmen. Maybe Morgaine still has a copy someplace.”

“What’s that big book by you?” Doremi asked, curious about the tome.

Raven quickly reached down and lifted the book up, placing it between the left side of her body and the sides of the chair--obviously away from Doremi’s sight.

“Spell book,” she answered. “I was changing some spells for the Operation.”

“You’re a wizard?! I didn’t know that!”

“I’m a lot of things, Doremi,” Raven answered her.

“What circle are you?”

“High,” came the curt response.

Doremi suddenly realized Raven wasn’t drunk--it was something quite different, and quite surprising. It’s spell fugue, she realized! She has spell fugue!

Doremi was amazed--in her life, she’d only known one wizard who suffered from the malady.

Spell fugue was a temporary state of madness that a few wizards went through when they memorized spells due to the mental strain it caused. Fortunately, it was a very rare disease, for in some cases it rendered a wizard helpless until its effects wore off. Those effects ranged from a state of apparent drunkenness, to unrestrained depression or rage. Raven apparently had the sort that mimicked a state of drunkenness, and in that state she was being talkative. It was hard to believe, for every case Doremi ever heard of had befallen wizards of limited intelligence with no real aptitude for spell-casting.

Whatever problems Raven had, a limited intelligence wasn't one of them.

“Wow, Raven--you really are a woman of surprises,” Doremi said, at a loss for other words.

“That’s why I always win,” she responded.

“Guess you couldn’t sleep either,” Doremi noted after a few moments.

“I don’t imagine anyone is getting much sleep tonight. It’ll be dawn in a couple of hours, and maybe I’ll try to take a nap. I have a headache from playing chess all night. I do need to rest.”

Doremi was puzzled by the remark. Raven didn’t look at her, but apparently she sensed the Bard’s confusion.

“The chess I was playing is not the sort you play on a board--this chess game is for real.”

Raven stared into the fire and Doremi noticed her right fist slowly clenching and opening as she slipped deep into thought.

“I’ve been projecting Nostradamus’ strategies he might employ against us,” she spoke. “Going over and over in my mind all the possible variations of what he might do, based on what he might know. If we take him by total surprise--how does he respond? If he knows we’re coming but isn’t sure when--what defenses might he prepare? If he somehow knows precisely when we’re coming--what traps might he lay in place? Would he just kill us, or would he attempt some sort of finesse move against us? What are our avenues of escape if we need to retreat? What are our best strategies for a quick assault? What spells will be useful? What items will protect us? Over and over again, I’ve been trying to find any potential holes in my plans and sew them up beforehand.

“No matter how I approach it, it keeps coming back to Nightshadow. There is no practical way for Nostradamus to fight him. An army can't stop him...his whole Conclave of Liches can't stop him. I just can't see what possible strategy he could employ to defeat us so long as he's with us. Even so....”

She paused for several moments and then stiffened in the chair. “Even so, something in the back of my mind tells me there's something I'm missing. But I'm not sure what it could be. So perhaps it's just over-analyzing the game. I sometimes do that.”

“Raven,” Doremi prompted, “is there any way to talk you out of this? I just feel like we’re walking into a trap. Maybe it's my imagination, but I keep feeling like someone's watching me and knows what I'm doing.”

Raven continued to stare into the fire, nearly hypnotized by the dancing orange flames, oblivious to the Bard’s concerns.

“Too late,” she said in a hushed whisper as she focused on the fire. “Things have come too far. Things are now in motion. My Gambit cannot be stopped now. We go on to victory or defeat. If you have some gods you worship, best pray they help us.”

“What gods do the people here follow?” asked the Bard. “The Krellan ones?”

“I suppose,” Raven answered. “The Sisters of the Moon, the Druids up in the hills, follow Artemis, whom the Krellans call Diana. The sailors pray to Neptune or Vesta.”

“Do you worship any gods?”

“Only myself.”

“Huh?” Doremi asked, puzzled by the comment.

“The god I worship is myself,” she responded. “Not that I'm saying I am a god--but I've noticed that just about every person I've ever met who worshipped a god worshipped that god because they wanted he or she to do something for them. So really, they were worshipping their gods for what they, themselves, could get out of it. Ultimately, they live for their own self-interest, and really it’s themselves that they worship, not the gods they pray to. I'm just more honest about it than everyone else so I don't hypocritically call something else my god when it's really only myself that I care about. So no god helps me, Doremi--I help myself, and I do it all myself. You'll have to pray for me, I guess, the way the sea....”

Her voice trailed off.

“Anyway, you'll have to do the praying for me.”

“I’ll say a few prayers to Aton, you can count on that!”

“Aton? Who’s that? Some Avalonian God? I’ve never heard of him.”

“Aton was an ancient Karnaki God. I’m the only one left who worships him.”

“You must be--I thought I’d at least heard all the names of the old Karnaki gods, but Aton is not one I’ve heard of, I don’t think.”

“He was only worshipped for a few years before the priests of the traditional pantheon of Karnak wiped out all traces of him. There was a Pharaoh named Akhenaton who learned of him in a vision.”

“He must be a pretty weak god if I’ve never even heard his name.”

“Actually, Akhenaton believed Aton was the most powerful of all the gods. He even thought that Aton was the only true god, and the rest of the gods were only a lesser class of beings, on par with demons and the like. You know that the gods are forbidden to directly interfere with the affairs with mortals, right? That they have to work through Humans to accomplish their ends?”


“Ever wonder who forbids them?”

Raven looked over to her.

“I always did wonder that. I supposed they decided amongst themselves that there would be chaos if Jupiter and Uzza and Asmodeus all met up in Draconium and hashed it out, for instance. So I figured they must have a Gentleman’s Agreement to stay off Jewel.”

“The gods could never have such an agreement they’d all willingly follow,” Doremi proposed. “They'd have to be forced to stay in their place. Akhenaton taught that Aton was the god who forced the others to keep from interfering in the lives of mortals.”

“So what happened to this Akhenaton?” Raven asked.

“He was assassinated by the last and greatest of the Pharaohs. The priests of the other Karnaki deities couldn’t abide the teachings of Aton, that men should show justice and mercy to each other, and that they shouldn’t fight each other, but disband their armies. So the priests backed an opponent of Akhenaton ‘s and killed Akhenaton because he was defenseless. Then they destroyed Aton’s temples.

“That Pharaoh didn’t live long to enjoy his victory, though--he was the Pharaoh who ruled Karnak when Gorus attacked and turned it into a desert.”

Raven shook her head.

“I see why you like the idea of this god Aton, Doremi. But you should learn from Akhenaton’s mistake--evil will always defeat good because evil is willing do whatever is necessary to achieve victory, whereas good, by its very nature, must behave good, and thus one evil person willing to murder a hundred good people wields more power than a hundred good people who think killing is wrong.”

“I don’t believe that, Raven,” Doremi answered.

Raven turned back to her fire, her giddiness now replaced by solemnity.

“I know you don’t. But I’m living proof of it. Compared to what you call good, I’m evil. Compared to Nostradamus, I’m good. So what is good, and what is evil? One man’s good is another man’s evil. But your definition of good is what any definition of evil will always be able to wipe out because evil is willing to kill to achieve its ends, and you believe killing is wrong. Thus, you’re not willing to pre-emptively destroy your enemies, and thus they’ll always strike you first, and they’ll destroy you--unless you’re lucky. I don't play that way--I learned that, in order to survive, I must destroy my enemies before they destroy me, because the side that strikes first has the best chance of victory. I'd have been dead a hundred times over if I trusted to the good will of my enemies by giving them the first opportunity to strike me directly.”

“I don’t believe,” Doremi answered, “that you have to use evil methods to protect good. Good will triumph because evil will always turn against itself sooner or later.”

Raven shook her head and sighed. “You’ll probably never be in a position where you’re Queen of Avalon or something, but let me give you a piece of advice that any smart King or Queen should know: Evil will always perceive things like mercy or compassion as weakness, and weakness is something you dare not show to an evil enemy. Evil only respects strength! You cannot defeat an evil enemy with kindness, nor can you negotiate a lasting peace with him. He’ll always use your overtures for peace to give him time to grow stronger, and when he’s ready he’ll maneuver you to the point of his sword. You must defeat your enemy while he’s still weaker than you are, for if you give him time, eventually you’ll find the enemy you ignored when he was insignificant has suddenly become as powerful, or even more powerful, than you are. And do you think that he’ll give you the time to grow stronger and become a menace to him? You can’t defeat evil except by evil. Learn that while you can.”

Doremi looked down to the carpet. “You know what, Raven?” she said. “You may be right. Maybe ninety-nine out of a hundred evil people would laugh at someone who tried to show compassion toward them, and maybe they’d even run them through with a sword and kill them. But there’s always the chance that the one person out of the hundred might be reached and might turn from his wickedness and do more good for the world than a hundred other good people. To me, regardless of the risk, it’s worth it to try and reach them. I still say that good will always defeat evil in the end, because otherwise, if you use evil to defeat evil, then evil always wins. And I don’t believe that’s how things are supposed to work.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Raven answered quietly. “What does matter is that no one defeats me, Doremi--no one. You see, I study my enemies. I learn how they think. I learn how they respond: Is it quick and emotional, or is it patient and planned? What will they rely on? Their skills, or their henchmen? What’s the most efficient way they can use them against me? What is the most probable way they will use them against me? Can I use a distraction from the front to allow me to attack them from behind and destroy them? What will their strategy be in the event of a frontal assault or a feint by a distracting force? Over and over again, I project their strategies and plan my counter-strategies to maneuver them right where I want them to be--and then I destroy them after I determine which strategy they chose to rely on. I destroy them because I’m smarter than they are, and I think ten moves ahead. I always find something to do that my enemy hasn’t counted on, and I always use their own strength against them. I let my plan do my fighting for me, and it's my plan that beats whomever I'm struggling against.”

“Well,” Doremi said, “I guess that’s the sort of game that powerful people have to play to stay in power. I hate it, though. I wish people in power would spend their time trying to help others instead of fighting to keep power over others.”

Doremi noticed Raven’s posture began to relax. She seemed exhausted and was now focusing so intently on the dying flames of the cedar logs that the Bard thought Raven no longer even noticed her.

“I will always destroy them,” she whispered to herself. “I will always win. I’ll win simply because I am smarter than all of them. And no pirates...no merchants...no Senator...no stupid little child Queen...no midget Sultan...no King...and no Liche will ever stop me. It’s my destiny, and no one can stop me--no one. They tried, and they failed. They didn’t think I knew what I was doing. But I knew. And you all should have listened to me.”

Raven seemed now to be lost someplace long past.

“You all could have been with me and ruled with me. But no--you all had to betray me. Even you, Aradawn.”

A look of sadness spread across Raven’s face now, barely visible as the fire started to die out.

“If you had only listened to me,” she continued, speaking to herself, her head now hanging low in grief. “But you wouldn’t listen, and where are you now? Look at me--I run this continent. From nothing, I’ve become the most powerful woman in the history of Islay--and in a few more hours I’ll go down in history and Bards will tell stories about me. You could have been here with me if you’d only have listened,” she whispered. “But you didn’t listen, and you died. And you left me to carry a curse every day of my life I didn’t need to carry but for your own stubborn foolishness. How much further I would have gone with you...but you wanted me to die, and if it makes you happy, die I do...a little more every day, but still I struggle onward to my destiny, weary as I am of it. At least our father would have been proud of me.”

Raven’s eyes closed and she began falling into slumber. She was quiet for several moments and Doremi thought she had nodded off. The Bard began to exit the room to let her sleep, but then she paused and turned back when she heard Raven mutter something that seemed odd.

“How I wish I were a deer,” she believed she heard as Raven fell asleep.

Doremi thought the comment very queer, and she wondered what Raven had meant by it. But something inside her told her that she should not bring up Raven’s comments to her when she awakened. And so she quietly left the room to go wait for the dawn in the garden.

Outside, the air was brisk and sweet. A breeze was blowing from the west, catching and playing with the strands of her hair, and the stars above twinkled brightly to the song of the crickets in the bushes. The moon hung large in the sky, some of its blue oceans visible through the porridge-like clouds that gave it its name.

Hands behind her back, and staring at the ground beneath her feet, Doremi walked slowly about the courtyard pondering the day’s events and wondering what the morning would hold.

Things were going downhill fast, she feared.

What Raven was, frightened her. Doremi hadn’t expected to become involved with a person who held so much power yet grasped for much more. She began to understand in a way she hadn’t before that Raven was indeed different--but not different in a good way, but different in a way that could be very dangerous to all of Islay.

Somehow, she now realized, this woman had nearly gained control of the entire continent from behind the scenes with her Guild. If it was true that she who controlled the food controlled the people--then Raven truly was the one who was in control. She had the wealth and she had the food. What more was left to her, Doremi wondered? Come out from behind the scenes, and declare herself Empress of all Islay?

Yet perhaps Doremi’s presence was a good thing. If there was any hope of tempering what this woman was capable of, it could only come through people of good character, like herself, or perhaps Desmore, who had some influence with the Guildmistress. Certainly, people like Espidreen would never be a help. So perhaps it was Doremi’s task to try and get her hostess to see what danger her plans posed to so many innocent people.

But just how, she wasn’t certain.

She was nearly to the pool when she paused, realizing a dark figure was seated on a bench before it. The figure noticed her presence at the same time she noticed its, and a set of glowing red eyes fixed themselves upon her.

It was Nightshadow.

“Oh!” Doremi exclaimed, startled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was out here.”

“I'll leave if you like,” Nightshadow offered in his calm, soft voice.

“No, no--please stay; you were here first.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then the Bard found herself asking without thinking, “May I sit with you?”

 “If you wish,” he replied, turning back to stare into the pool.

She hadn’t actually wanted to sit with him, but caught off guard as she was, and answering as she might have with a normal person, Doremi eased down upon the marble bench next to him, planning to be polite for a few moments, and then leave to be alone with her thoughts.

“I guess we were never truly introduced,” she said politely. “My name is Doremi Bender.”

“I am Cormorant TenTolliver,” he responded, without turning to her.

“Do you prefer being called that to Nightshadow?” the Bard asked.

He shrugged. “Everyone calls me Nightshadow,” he said quietly. “I suppose I’m used to that.”

“All right--Nightshadow,” she said, relaxing and joining him in staring at the crystal blue water glittering like silver in the moonlight. “So are you just up early, or could you not sleep either?”

“I don’t sleep,” he answered.

Doremi was puzzled by the comment.

“You mean never? Ever?” she asked.

He shook his head, his white mask shimmering beneath the light of the moon above. “I do not get tired. I cannot sleep.”


It was all she could say.

They were silent for several moments, and finally Nightshadow spoke again.

“When I was a boy back in Green Dell,” he began, “there was a dome over my bed. I could tug on a rope and it would swing open so I could see the stars above me. In the summertime I would always sleep with the dome open so I could look up at the stars. Sometimes the fireflies would come into my room. I used to enjoy that.”

Doremi smiled. “I would have loved to have a room like that when I was small.”

Nightshadow seemed not to hear, and his posture relaxed as he seemed to be remembering.

“Some people make wishes upon the stars,” he said after a few moments.

“Oh, I’ve done that lots of times!”

His head finally turned to look at her. “You shouldn’t, you know” he spoke.

“Why not?“

“They could come true.”

Doremi found the comment odd. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

He was silent for a moment until he finally said, “I once made a wish.”

“Did it come true?” Doremi asked.

His glowing eyes seemed to burn into her very soul. “You are looking at my wish,” he answered. “I...captured Affenargit and wished for what you see.”

Doremi thought for a moment. “Okay, I know a little Elvish,” she said. “Let me try and figure out that word. ‘Git is short for Brigit. A-R at the end of a name means it’s a male. It’s a male something that belongs to Brigit, your goddess. Affen...affen...that’s a horse, I think. A male horse that belongs to Bright? No, wait! Affenargit--Brigit’s unicorn! That’s it!”

She looked to him in shock. “I know that legend! It’s a unicorn that roams the great Forest. Supposedly, if you catch it, it will grant you a wish in return for its freedom. Am I right?”

Nightshadow slowly nodded.

Doremi was awed. “You actually caught Brigit’s unicorn? And it gave you a wish? What did you wish for, exactly?”

His head seemed to fall as he looked away. “You are looking at it. I wished to be a powerful warrior against whom no man could stand. I wished that I would strike fear into the hearts of those who saw me. I wished that I would ride down the streets of Talon and people would say ‘look--there goes Cormorant TenTolliver’. I wished for all those things. I just didn’t know what the cost would be.”

Doremi, at a loss for words, could say nothing in response.

“I was only fifteen,” he continued after a moment. “And perhaps it could have been different, but I did evil in the sight of Brigit, and I killed a man. Then the Talisman came alive, and I became Nightshadow.”

He looked back to the pool, perhaps seeing in it the shadows of memories or the dreams of what might have been. “That was how the wish was fulfilled.”

His voice trailed off again, and he became silent.

“Can you not simply remove it?” she asked.

He shook his head. “If I tried, it would slay me and absorb my soul into it. I am forever bound to it.”

Doremi’s heart was instantly touched by compassion for this man, and she was sorry for the fact that she had judged him by his reputation without knowing the real truth behind him.

“I suppose it--must be a hard burden to carry, to kill a man when you’re so young,” she answered, trying to think of something to say.

“A thousand times a thousand times have I’ve wished I’d never done it,” he whispered.

“Whom did you kill?” Doremi found herself asking, realizing it was nosy, but she simply had to know.

“Doesn’t matter,” he muttered.

Doremi thought for a moment. “You killed your cousin’s suitor, didn’t you?”

The masked head looked to her in shock. “How could you know that?!

Doremi shrugged. “I sometimes just seem to know things. I don’t know why. Somehow, I guessed that was it.”

He turned away again, seeking the safety of the reflecting pool. “We do such stupid things in the name of love when we’re young, don’t we?”

“Oh, we definitely do,” Doremi answered. “I guess it’s part of being a teenager. Too bad we’re not half as smart as we think we are during those years, huh?”

“One would hope we could grow out of such foolishness,” answered Nightshadow.

Then he sighed.

“I suppose some our mistakes and the things we do wrong haunt us forever, though.”

“Well,” Doremi answered, “the important thing is to realize when we’ve done wrong, and to be sorry for it. That’s the only way to grow.”

He chuckled sardonically. “If sorry could do any good, I’d have long ago been free of this curse. I agree what I did was wrong, but haven’t other men done just as bad and not borne a curse such as this? Why could not Brigit forgive me? Don’t other people’s gods forgive them?”

Doremi considered the question.

“Well, are you truly sorry for what you did?” she finally asked.

The masked face turned toward her once again. “You can ask that?! Take a look at me! Do you not think I loathe myself and what I am every moment of every day?”

Doremi looked down, feeling nervous at gazing into the eyes that gazed upon her. “But are you sorry for what you did because you’ve come to know in your heart that murder is morally wrong?” she asked. “Or are you instead sorry for it because of the curse you brought upon yourself?”

“What difference does it make?” he asked. “Sorry is sorry!”

She looked back at him. “No, Nightshadow, that’s not true! I once knew a Highwayman named Dick Turpin who was real sorry as they led him away to the gallows. He was sorry, all right--sorry he got caught. Sorry he wasn’t faster in escaping. Sorry he couldn’t fight his way out of it. Sorry he was going to hang. But he wasn’t sorry enough that if he could have escaped he would have become an honest man.

“You see, that’s not real sorrow, Nightshadow. Real sorrow would be if he was able to look back upon his life and what he did, and feel true remorse for the harm his actions caused others--not just himself. Then he truly would have been sorrowful. But all Dick cared about was that he’d finally been caught. If someday you can look back and grieve for the man and your cousin more than you do for yourself, then that would be true remorse, not remorse like Dick had, which wasn't remorse at all.”

“I just wish I hadn’t done it,” Nightshadow muttered, balling his hand and punching his left palm. “If I only hadn’t done it. Why was I such a fool?!”

Doremi sighed. Apparently, he couldn’t understand.

“Well, maybe you could go make some sacrifice or something to Brigit and obtain forgiveness,” she said, only half serious.

Nightshadow shook his head. “Unfortunately, Brigit isn’t like human gods--we don’t make sacrifices to her; we just love her, and that is enough. There is no sacrifice I can make; she doesn’t accept them.”

Doremi was silent for a moment, and finally spoke. “Well...I guess you’re stuck then. I don’t know what else to say.”

“What is there that anyone could say?” Nightshadow responded angrily. “Who could have an answer for any of this? Who could understand? Who could fathom the hell I live through each day and each night? Never hungry. Never thirsty. Never tired. Cursed with a visage that prevents the one person I care about from caring about me! Can you imagine what that would be like?”

Doremi shook her head.

“To walk Islay as an outcast--scorned, feared. Denied even the pleasure of a night’s peaceful sleep. Do you know what I would give to be able to merely lie down in a bed and sleep?! Was my wrong so much worse than that of a host of other men?”

His shoulders slumped again.

“I am so very tired, and I don’t know what to do,” he muttered.

“You can stop feeling sorry for yourself, for one!” Doremi suddenly snapped at him.

Nightshadow jumped in surprise and gazed at her.

In an instant, Doremi realized she had just spoken sharply to one of the most powerful beings in Islay, who might gut her in reward for her boldness.

But he merely stared, shocked at what she’d said.

“If this is the horse you’ve been given to ride, then at least use it to help someone else!” Doremi continued. “You and your cousin are amazing! You’ve got power like no other people in Islay, and both of you could help so many people.

“Raven and her stupid Guild could make sure everyone had enough to eat, and that goods were sold at a fair price. You could defend people who have no one to stand up for them, because no man can stand up to you! But instead, both of you sulk. I don’t know why neither one of you can find it in your hearts to care about others and to fight for the downtrodden in the world. Why won’t the two of you bring good out of the bad that’s happened to you?”

“I’ve helped people in my time,” Nightshadow responded. “I’ve helped quite a few...but I can’t help what I am. This curse has made me into its image and I cannot change it. I can only try to dilute it as much as I can. But I grow so weary of it.”

“Look,” Doremi said, her voice softening, “I have no right to snap at you, and I’m sorry. The gods only know what I would do if I had found that Talisman and slipped it on and became what you are. But I don’t think anyone can bear a burden like yours forever, Nightshadow. I think if you never come to grips with your past, sooner or later that Mind Sapphire will destroy you. Then what will happen, I wonder? What will become of that Talisman then? Will it die with you, or will some other hapless soul become bound by it?”

He said nothing, but turned back to the pool. “You’re a very smart person,” he said after a time. “You remind me of a friend of mine named Mentar.”

“Oh, I’m not so smart, Nightshadow. I’ve just done my share of dumb things in my life, so don’t think you’re the only one. What ever happened to your cousin after all this?”

Nightshadow placed his elbows upon his knees and rested his chin atop his clasped hands.

“Well...she never did turn to me. How could she with this accursed mask?!”

He paused for a moment.

“I haven’t seen her in years. I don’t know what has become of her. Perhaps she still grieves for him--that would be an Elven thing to do. I only know she never turned to me. Perhaps she never would have. We were too apart in age, some would say.”

“How much of a difference was there between you two?” Doremi wondered.

“I was--fifteen, and she was fifty or so.”

“Fifty, Nightshadow?!” the Bard exclaimed. “That’s a whole lot of years’ age difference!”

He sat up and turned back to her. “In half-Elf years, not human years!”


Doremi understood now.

“Cassandra,” he continued, “was full-blooded half-elf. Her father was a VanTolliver, and her mother was an Elf. My own mother was an Arwinian, so I have less Elven blood than she does, and I’ve aged differently. But I suppose, in human terms, back then it would have been like a fifteen year-old and a twenty-five-year-old or so,” he explained.

Doremi nodded. “I can understand that then,” she replied. “I, uh, ran off from the Ecclesiastical School with someone who was about that much older than me. It was a bad idea, though. He wasn’t good for me, and I made a lot of bad choices because of that. It took a year for me to realize that I didn’t love him, but that I actually hated him.”

“Well...it would have worked out for us, I’m sure--but for the bad circumstances that prevented it,” Nightshadow said. “Cassandra once even kissed me.”

“You mean a real kiss?”

“Well...it was on the forehead, but it was still a kiss. She didn’t kiss anyone else that I know of. She would have come around in another year or two after I was grown up. I’m sure she would have.”

Doremi smiled, understanding how someone could think that.

She decided to change the subject.

“I suppose it’s interesting that one family should be so influential in Islay,” she spoke. “I think you TenTollivers must somehow be marked for greatness of a sort. It’s too coincidental that you and Raven should be gifted with so much power--someone must be behind it. Hopefully, someone good like Brigit. Otherwise, I shudder to think what powers behind the scenes are exploiting you two to their ends. But, despite how things look, and despite what you’ve done, I’ve seen enough to know that things aren’t always what they look like. Maybe what happened to you will turn out to be a good thing.”

He chuckled sarcastically.

“No, really,” she added. “As bad as this has been for you, imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t been there and Nostradamus had gotten his hands on the Mind Sapphire. Who knows what he could do if he got a hold of it? Or if some evil warrior possessed it? All of Islay is fortunate you got a hold of it instead of him or someone like him!”

“‘Evil warrior’,” he muttered. “Interesting you say that. Raven thinks Nostradamus knew the Sapphire was where we were searching, and that was why we were there--to find it for him. But I’ve wondered if, in fact, the leader of our expedition was the one who was actually seeking it. His name was Revenwood. He was a warrior indeed. As good as my uncle.”

Both were silent for several moments, and then Doremi spoke again.

“So how did Raven ever come to leave the Elflands for Freeport?” she asked. “That’s what I don’t understand. You Elves--or half-Elves, as the case may be--aren’t known for becoming pirates.”

“She’s a pirate?!” Nightshadow exclaimed.

“Well--not now, but she was when she was young. In fact, she killed off the other pirates in order to take over Freeport.”

Nightshadow shrugged. “Raven wasn’t raised by us,” he answered. “She was raised by a friend of my uncle’s who was from Freeport. He and my uncle are both dead now, of course.”

“Oh, that makes sense. I noticed she always says things about her papa’s views that don’t sound like things Elves believe. That explains it. Did you know her sister, by any chance?”

“Sister?!” Nightshadow’s head snapped back in surprise. “She had a sister?!”

Doremi nodded. “I think her name was A-rah-da-wynn. She died in Arwin.”

Nightshadow looked shocked.

“No, I didn’t know her,” he finally said.

“I think Raven really grieves over her.”

He sighed. “All of us had a lot of grief to bear. I lost an uncle and she lost two fathers, though she didn’t know one of them.”

The Bard nodded. “I heard it was only you and King Dorrik who survived that quest.”

Nightshadow looked down. “Yes, we did survive. The two of us were gathering wood, and being two young sprouts, we were horsing around and took longer than we needed to, and we came back to find the camp burned up and everyone dead. We didn’t know what could have done it. Something as powerful as a dragon, though. We buried our own and made our way back through Sarvia to Erin’s Gate, where we separated and Dorrik continued home. His brothers, you know, were a part of our fellowship, and with them dead Dorrik became first in line to the throne of Naz-Al.”

“Why would three Dwarves of such importance be out treasure hunting?” Doremi wondered.

“Well,” he answered, “the man I mentioned--Baltar Revenwood--had sent a message to Naz-Al, saying he had located the ancient Gnomish city of Tsu-Naz deep in the Land of Shadows. He wanted to form an expedition to recover some of its treasures and he knew King Thorbol would be interested. Thorbol sent his three oldest sons. The oldest, Stevn, had hunted treasure with my uncle before, and he brought together he, Lucius, Runolf, and Shibato to join the quest. They didn’t want me along, of course, but I followed along and refused to go home. My uncle ran me off, but I came back. He whipped me and ran me off, but I came back. They paid a caravan to return me to Marble Hall, but I escaped and came back. Raven’s father tied me to a tree, but I got loose and I came back. No matter what they did, I kept coming back and following them. They all thought I was mad. They never realized I was doing it because I thought Cassandra would be impressed with my courage.”

Both of them now chuckled.

“So they had no choice but to take me.”

“I see,” Doremi said with a smile.

She leaned back and kicked her legs out against the lip of the pool. “So how do you think Nostradamus become involved in all this? How would he know where the Mind Sapphire was? I mean, if he knew before--or if the First School knew--he’d have tried to find it long before your fellowship did, wouldn’t he?”

“I suppose. How he knew, I can’t guess. Perhaps he didn’t know, and Raven is simply wrong. But so far as our group goes, we didn’t realize until we reached Serpenalik that Revenwood worked for Nostradamus. None of us was any too happy to quest for a Liche, but still we did.”

“So you’ve seen Nostradamus up close then?”

He shook his head.

“No. My uncle did, but me and Dorrik they had wait down in Serpenalik.”

“And you and Raven think Nostradamus was responsible for murdering most of your fellowship?”

“Yes. Supposedly, Throckmorton told one of Raven’s servants that, and--thinking about it--it did seem to make sense. We didn’t have any wizards in the group--they were hard to find outside of Schools back then--but our group could fight off an army! My uncle was a great swordsman, Dorrik and his brothers could wield axes like no one else I’ve ever seen, Runolf was a twin brother of Thor--but for the fact he was born twenty years earlier and had red hair--and Raven’s father was unlike anyone who’s ever walked in Islay. He could do things I still can’t believe!

“Even so, they were all of them dead. Burned alive, with no sign they’d managed to even strike a blow against whomever slew them. I have no problem believing Nostradamus was somehow responsible. He probably sent a team of wizards to slay them with energy blasts--that, or he sent a dragon after them, which I strongly doubt! The only question was whether Revenwood was also involved. He didn’t leave with us; he stayed back in Serpenalik, and Lucius too remained to take a ship back to Krella. Lucius was my friend, and a friend of my uncle’s, so I’m sure he played no part in it. Revenwood, though--I wonder now just how much he was fooling all of us. I suppose I can never know now, though.”

“Why is that?”

“He’s sure to be dead by now. That was thirty seasons ago, and he was an old man even then.”

“I’m sorry for all that you lost, Nightshadow,” Doremi spoke. “It must have been horrible to see so many friends and family die at one time.”

“Our family is so cursed,” he mumbled.

“You have a beautiful background, though,” Doremi spoke, trying to lighten things up. “I love the legend about your ancestors--the Elf princess who married the Torrencian in the First Age. I’ve heard a little about it, and I think it’s a wonderful love story.”

He nodded. “It was a wonderful story, how Ellendyryl fell in love with our patriarch. His name was Cormorant, like mine. People didn’t have real last names back then. But he was supposedly a tall man, and there is a very tall tree in Torrencia called an iver tree. Because he was so tall, they called him Cormorant, the Tall Iver. Eventually, the name became shortened to Tolliver, and all his sons added their names to his, which became the last names of their descendants. I am descended from his youngest son, who was also the tenth son he had. Thus, our last name was originally TenthTolliver, for we were descended from the tenth Tolliver child. Eventually even that got shortened to TenTolliver.”

Doremi smiled. “I just love hearing history like that.”

She paused a moment and then asked, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

He shrugged.

“You say that you don’t eat. But you’re, um, um....”

“Not thin?” he asked, dryly.

“Well, yes. I mean, you’re not grossly fat or anything; you just look like a normal person who eats a bit too much--like some others of us. Since you don’t eat, I just found that odd.”

“Ah,” he spoke in reply, “I see you’re one of those thin women who think they’re fat.”

Doremi looked back to him. “You’re a man--you wouldn’t understand.”

“I suppose not,” Nightshadow sighed. “You’re right, though--you are a little big from behind.”

Instantly, Doremi snapped to attention and craned her head over her left shoulder, trying to see what he meant.

Nightshadow started to laugh. “Made you look!” he exclaimed, slapping his knee.

Doremi now chuckled and turned back to him. “So you have a sense of humor, I see.”

“My cousin Dierdre--Raven’s half-sister from Green Dell--used to say I was perpetually stuck at fifteen. Perhaps she was right--I’ve always enjoyed playing jokes on people. You’re right, though--today I’m built differently than I was back then. But when I was young, I’ll have you to know I was very thin. As I got older, though, I got a bit bigger. The Mind Sapphire doesn’t convey immortality; it only heals damage and sustains one without the need for food, water, or sleep,” he continued. “One’s body ages normally. Without it, I suppose I’d be--not so thin anyway.”

“Interesting,” Doremi commented. She then looked over to look at the Talisman, noting its form and intricate designs upon its green and white surface. The great sapphire shimmered slightly in the evening darkness and the two ruby eyes of the serpent had a faint glow about them.

“Whatever you do, don’t touch it,” Nightshadow warned.

“Don’t worry!” she responded. “I have no desire to touch that thing. What happens if you do?”

“If you grasp it, it will draw your very soul into it and kill you,” came the reply.

“How amazing that something that looks so innocent--so much like nothing more than a piece of jewelry--can be so evil and have so much power,” the Bard observed. “So that thing heals you when you get struck by a sword, and it keeps you from being hungry and thirsty and even tired?”

He nodded. “It even does a little more. Let me show you. Stand.”

Nightshadow rose to his feet as Doremi likewise stood up, facing him.

He reached out, grasped her by the waist, and lifted her up in the air.

“Look at the sapphire,” he spoke as he held her.

Doremi glanced down to see that the huge sapphire in the center of the cobra’s hood was now glowing slightly.

“It’s giving me strength right now,” he explained. “I could lift you anyway, but with the Talisman’s power, you feel light as a feather to me. I could hold you up like this all day if I wanted.”

He set her down and the glow from the sapphire faded as he released her.

“That’s another one of its powers,” he explained. “It gives me great strength when I need it. It can also do this....”

He took a step back and began to concentrate. As he did so, he started to fade as his cloak seemed to be whipped up by an invisible wind. Fascinated, the Bard watched as he nearly faded from sight, becoming transparent as a spirit.

Then he began to fly!

He rose into the air, circled around the shocked Bard, and then landed, once again taking solid form.

“You can fly?!” Doremi asked in shock.

“I can shift to the Ethers--the realm of spirits,” Nightshadow replied, retaking his seat. “If I control how far I shift, I can remain enough on this plane to float or fly as a spirit can.”

“Incredible,” she noted, once again taking a seat next to him.

“Oh!” Doremi exclaimed after a moment. “There’s something I wanted to know: I heard once someplace that you’re actually a Bard?!”

He chuckled. “Well, that was a story concocted by Dierdre to explain the mask. We heard somewhere that Master Bards wear masks.”

Doremi nodded. “That’s true. Many of them do; I don’t. I dislike wearing a mask because it’s uncomfortable. Plus, I’m not from any traditional Bardic Institute, so it’s not a custom I follow.”

Nightshadow gazed toward the east, observing the bright constellations in the night sky.

“I’m going to wait here until sunrise. Would you like to wait here with me?” he asked.

“If you’ll promise to tell me your story,” Doremi prompted.

“My story?”

“The story of your life. There are so many rumors and tales about you I suspect aren’t so, it would be wonderful to know the truth about you--just to set the record straight.”

Nightshadow nervously looked down to the pool, gazing at his own reflection. “I don’t talk about my life. I--try to forget my past.”

“But wouldn’t you want people to know what you really were, once you’re gone? Wouldn’t that be better than your memory living on in folk tales that have almost no truth in them? That’s the fate of famous people who never let their real story be known, you know.”

“Why would anyone care?” he wondered.

Doremi playfully leaned against his shoulder and whispered up to him, “In case you didn’t know--you’re the most famous person in Islay. Everyone wonders about you--they’re just too scared to ask.”

“Really? Do you wonder about me too?” he asked, looking up at her, genuinely surprised.

“‘Everyone’ would include me, huh? Besides, I’m a Bard--it’s my job to wonder about people’s lives. I like studying about famous people. Sometimes, by learning from their mistakes, it helps you to follow in their footsteps without wandering off the path like they may have. You don’t have to mention anything embarrassing or too personal, but just to know your story...your adventures--that would mean a lot to me.”

The wind caught the side of his cowl for a moment as he returned to gazing down at the visage that looked back at him from the rippling pool.

“Once upon a time,” he began, “there was a young man who lived in the Forest of Brigit, in the town of Green Dell, and his name was Cormorant TenTolliver....”

There are some loves, it occurred to Doremi, that people never get over. Sometimes it’s because they spend their entire lives trying to recapture a moment of magic so wonderful it can never really be repeated. Other times, I suppose they never move beyond the chains of wondering what might have been....

Raven awoke with a start. Quickly, she glanced out to the rotunda, whose shadows were vanishing, and realized dawn was almost here. Instantly, the Mistress of Freeport cursed the fact she’d fallen asleep while memorizing spells.

How she loathed what the process did to her.

Just why it did, she had never known--but it was a fact that if she focused her mind on memorizing spells from the Book, she’d act drunk and lose all track of time. Part of the price, Raven presumed, but a price more than reasonable for the amount of power the Book had granted her over the years.

And if oversleeping weren’t bad enough, she’d had a disturbing dream in which Doremi had come into the room and lectured her about how bad she was, then tried to convince her to worship a Karnaki god named Akhenaton who’d killed some pharaoh, or something.

Shaking her head to clear it, she quickly fumbled through her belt pouch for a diamond and then opened a teleportal to the Book’s secret chamber. She stepped through and carefully replaced the huge tome upon its pedestal, then another teleportal returned her to the landing outside her bedroom. Below, she could hear sounds coming from the ground floor of the tower.

“Who’s down there?” she called out, leaning over the railing.

A hooded figure stepped into view and looked up.

“Venivica!” its voice echoed back.

“Venivica, I’m running late--if any of the Team comes down there, send them up to the dining room and have the servants fetch them a quick breakfast. I’ll join you soon as I can.”

The Witch waved and Raven rushed into her room, passing over the thick rug made from furs of the great white Scandian bear to the twin doors of a large closet, each of which had a mirror mounted to its back. She swung them open and her eyes found what she sought: Upon a simple wooden stand atop a chest of drawers lay three curved swords of differing lengths, securely tucked in their scabbards. Raven reached out to take the middle sword and carefully pulled it from its sheath, running her hand across the blade and the wavy patterns upon its surface.

For you, Aradawn,” she whispered slowly, “--katana. It is the finest of swords. It is the sword used by the Samurai. They are the great warriors of Yamato, very much like the Knights of Torrencia.”

She almost never used it, but today was a different day, and carefully the Mistress of Freeport hooked it onto a pair of braids attached to her belt so that the thread-wrapped grip pointed upward at just the correct angle for her right hand to reach over and pull from its sheath with one quick move.

Next, she grasped the last and shortest of the swords, sliding it free and whipping it through the air in a series of quick movements, flipping it in circles with one hand and bringing it down in a series of slashes as her left hand thrust up to grab hold of the handle for extra power and control.

How perfect it felt to her, and how one in being she felt with it! This blade was the crowning achievement of her career as a Witch, armourer and weapon smith. Shorter than the katana by nearly a foot, the same sort of blade sprouted from a magnificent handle of ivory wrapped tightly in diamond-shaped patterns with green silken threads, ending in a golden pommel (as non-Yamatans would call it) upon which was the crest of a Raven standing upon the TenTolliver symbol.

She had never given the blade a name, and it was unmatched by anything in Islay save for the katana she had already retrieved. Not even Nostradamus could enchant a blade more powerful, for his magic was the magic of the Second Age--while hers was magic of the First.

Such was the power granted her by the Book. But, unlike the Mind Sapphire, it asked nothing in return for what it gave.

At least, she had never been aware of its asking anything.

For you, Karasuko,” she began to whisper again, “--wakizashi. Also carried by the Samurai, but it is shorter, like you are, and strikes very quickly. It is much better than the ninja-to.”

The Mistress of Freeport stared down for several moments at the blade and finally raised her head to look at herself in the mirror to her right.

Then she exploded.

“Filthy Liche--I’ll cut you apart a piece at a time!” she screamed, ramming her left fist into the mirror and shattering it.

Just as quickly, she stopped herself.

Get control! Get control! There is no room for anger, no room for emotion. Emotion will cause you to make mistakes. Any mistake in the next twenty hours will spell your doom, Raven. You have a job to do. You cannot make a mistake. Stay in control. Release all the anger you want when the Liche is on the other end of your sword, but not ‘til then…not ‘til then!

Raven relaxed, and concentrated.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven--all good Ravens go to heaven.

She repeated the thought several times, burying the anger deep within until she no longer felt it, and then she let out a calm breath.

Raven now looked in the other mirror, and a face devoid of feeling stared back at her. All that was left now was logic.

Cold, calculating logic. The logic that would spell the doom of her enemies once and for all.

She flipped the wakizashi around and twisted the handle. In response to the move a plate on the bottom sprang open and a spring-loaded shaft shot out and locked into position. Raven quickly drew her cloak around her face, shielding her nose and mouth, and carefully reached over to slide open a drawer, removing one of several glass vials filled with a ruby-colored powder. With her thumb, she flicked off the stopper and, while exhaling, carefully poured the contents down into the handle of the wakizashi. She then dropped the vial and slowly pressed the shaft down against the spring behind it until it locked into place with a twist of the handle.

Returning the weapon to its sheath, Raven secured the wakizashi to another set of braids on the left side of her belt, and both blades were ready.

Upon the wall above the swords hung a set of what looked like small metal tridents to an Islayan. These she took down and slipped behind her, tucking them into the back of her belt, hiding them from view.

An oval-shaped metal can, about an inch thick and five inches wide, was waiting inside the drawer. A bracket had been soldered onto the back, allowing it to be hooked to Raven’s belt along with the swords. Two spring-loaded doors along the bottom of each one, facing opposite directions, could be pushed open, allowing either of two sets of round ceramic marbles to roll out into her hand.

It took only a moment to hook it onto the right side of the belt next to where her dagger--which apparently she'd misplaced--usually hung.

She retrieved another from the drawer.

Wrapped in a black cloth was a stack of blued steel stars--or so they resembled--that Raven next turned her attention to. Each had a square hole in the middle that fit perfectly with a series of five studs running around the circumference of the belt, and she pressed them on.

This was the one Yamatan weapon that Islayan arms had an advantage over--they were next to useless in true combat, for even a dagger was more effective. But Raven didn’t use them in that manner anymore--the way she did use them would prove devastating to any opponent unfortunate enough to be their target.

She reached into the drawer once more and retrieved a small ivory box inside of which was a set of ivory dentures, its two incisors resembling fangs. Raven opened her mouth and placed them within, and the dentures magically melded with her own teeth.

Now she sat down cross-legged on the floor, avoiding the shards of broken glass, and pulled off her boots. From the bottom drawer she retrieved two pieces of shaped steel, and, grasping one of the boots with her hands, squeezed the sides of the toes to open a slot in the leather. Raven slipped one of the metal pieces flush inside the slot, concealing it.

Now only the razor sharp edge protruded slightly out the toes of the boot.

She did the same thing with the other, then she reached back in the drawer and found a pair of special leather inserts holding a piece of lead under the heel. She stuffed these in the boots and donned them, rising and stomping her feet to set them solidly in place.

A small bow hung from a slot in the wall. Made of stained ash, it was dark green in color and carved in such a manner that it resembled a serpent. Wrapped around it was its enchanted bowstring made from the sinew of a Scandian frost giant.

Raven took down the bow, laid it aside, then retrieved a quiver of arrows and flipped open a box on a shelf next to them. Row after row of hollow glass beads lay within, each varying in color depending on what substance it contained.

One at a time, she began pulling out arrows. Each, whether the business end was of silver or steel, featured a small hole fashioned between the three blades in the tip. Into this aperture Raven would slip one of the beads until it was tightly in place. Be it holy water or a variety of poison, each arrow was then ready to speed death to whomever was the recipient of her skills as an archer.

A cloak of midnight blue hung from a hook next to where the bow had been. Unlike the cloak she normally used, this one wasn’t secured by a clasp around her neck, but instead it hooked to two buckles on the shoulders of her tunic so no one would be tempted to try and strangle her with it.

It was also far more magical.

Finally, she removed her gloves and replaced them with another set. Cunningly sewn into the knuckles of each was a band of powdered lead that made the strikes with her fist that much more deadly. Raven then balled her fists and punched each palm of her hand, satisfying herself that she was indeed ready.

No one would ever accuse her of fighting fairly, but neither could they deny that she fought effectively.

Quickly, she left her closet and mounted the four stairs to where her bed and dressing mirror were located.

The mirror was, in fact, one of the most magical things she owned. An enormous full-length mirror set into a stunning carved frame of mahogany and ebony crafted with a variety of gold-leafed unicorns and ornate fretwork, she’d owned it since her early days.

There was no question that it had to be highly enchanted, but its actual purpose was a bit puzzling. In the beginning, it seemed no different from any mirror. But quickly Raven watched the image within it change. Instead of the way she was, it showed a Raven a few years older, with shorter, curlier hair, the style she eventually came to settle upon in her 30s. It stayed that way until the last few years, when it returned to the way she was in the beginning.

Now, when she beheld herself, she looked around 20 again. That may not have been the truth, but it certainly wasn’t a bad thing, though it did chafe at her somewhat when she noted how perfect her body was in those days compared to now.

Turning this way and that, the Mistress of Freeport did a quick check to note that everything was in place, and nodded her approval.

She spent the rest of her time double-checking the small knapsack upon the bed that she’d be bringing along, and finally moved to a writing desk to pen a host of letters that would play a critical role as events unfolded.

That accomplished, Raven was done.

Doremi and Nightshadow spent quite a while in the garden getting to know one another, and as the sun finally dawned, bringing a new day to Freeport, they decided it was time. He accompanied the Bard upstairs where she retrieved her lute and knapsack and he a leather tunic that he donned, and then it was down to the tower.

The Assault team was ready. No longer dressed in common attire, they were garbed in the accouterments of the Adventurer’s trade. Sir Giles was now resplendent in his polished plate armour, looking every inch a mighty Torrencian Knight, Holy Sword at his side, ready for battle.

Mac Tavish looked little changed from the day before, but he had donned leather greaves upon his legs along with a stout leather tunic. His large claymore was scabbarded at his left side, while a huge axe was strapped across his back along with a small shield.

Espidreen, no longer looking feminine, had exchanged her silks for a simple brown robe and wimple that covered her hair and made her look much like Giles, whose chainmail coif covered his own head. A mace hung from her belt, ready for anything managing to get close enough to warrant it, and upon her back was a knapsack stuffed with everything else she’d need, including a ready supply of scrolls. Her belt had a ring of pouches for spell ingredients, and on her left side was a scroll case.

Thor, standing with Rolf, Sten and another Scandian, sported a studded leather jerkin and his helmet. His hammer hung from the right side of a thick leather girdle; a sword hung from his left. A huge bow and a round shield wider than Desmore was tall hung from a strap of a backpack so bulky Doremi thought she could almost squeeze inside it.

Fosmo looked the least changed from the day before, wearing a leather vest over the same outfit. He was now armed with one of those new Torrencian swords called rapiers, she could tell, along with an assortment of daggers tucked in everywhere from his boots to the leather bracers upon his forearms.

Finally, Romulus looked the sparsest. His legs were bare apart from a set of bronze greaves, while his midriff was protected by a drape of chainmail covering a leather girdle and loincloth. Naked from the waist up, his right arm alone was covered by a thick sleeve of chainmail. A small round shield was slung across his shoulder, and tucked under his arm was an unusual helmet. It was a full-face helm of bronze, wide with a solid face guard shot through with holes permitting the wearer to see and breathe through. The style was nothing like the Torrencians would wear; it clearly was based somewhat on the open-faced helms of the vaunted Legionnaires, modified for the Gladiatorial arena.

Unfortunately, he had shaved his locks off the night before, and was now bald.

Romulus’ weapons were as simple as his amour was sparse--a gladius and dagger hung on the left side of his girdle and a folded net hooked to the right side. A trident leaning against the wall completed his armament.

Venivica, in hooded black robe, looked no different from any of the other times Doremi had seen her, and she drew near to the group with a couple of the servants wheeling in a small table behind her.

“Gentlemen--and ladies,” she spoke with her usual air of confidence, “--Raven has some goodies for you.”

The Witch reached over and pulled away a linen cover to reveal an assortment of weapons beneath: Swords, daggers, bows, axes--even a trident. All were beautifully made of the highest quality materials. A couple of them, Doremi thought, might even be legendary.

“Everything here was made by at least a fifteenth-circle,” the Witch continued. “Take whatever you think will be of use to you. You will also note there are vials within the box there. The crystal vials hold especially powerful elixirs of healing, while the ceramic vials hold elixirs of detoxification. The healing elixirs will restore your strength as well as heal any wounds you have suffered. Take one or two detoxifications, and a handful of healings. That should be adequate for you.”

An offer like that could not but be well received, and a crowd quickly stepped up to see what was there.

Mac Tavish reached out to grab a sturdy-looking double axe. He tested the balance for a moment, and then hefted it, swinging the weapon in a wide figure eight.

“Hey, there, watch that!” Fosmo exclaimed as the head SWOOSHED a bit too near him for comfort.

“If ye’ve a prroblem wi’ it, don’t stand s’ close then, eh!” he answered back with a grin.

Satisfied, the Highlander quickly returned his own axe to the table in its place as the Cutpurse heeded his advice and moved a few steps away.

Romulus grasped the trident, an attractive weapon of golden bronze with a grip midway down its shaft. He looked it over and tested its balance.

“The balance could be better,” he spoke to Venivica.

“Anything it lacks in balance it will more than make up for by what it does to someone it strikes,” she answered.

“What does it do?”

“I suppose you’ll have to use it to find out.”

“Any volunteers?” he asked, looking at her.

She grinned slyly. “Take your one shot.”

The Gladiator smiled back and decided to take the weapon, so he left his own against he wall. He then turned back to the table and picked up a sheathed gladius. Romulus pulled it free and even he couldn’t hide his enthusiasm, for the sword was one of the finest he had ever laid eyes on. The blade was just under two feet long, polished so brightly that one could almost use it as a mirror. An ornate series of gold reliefs wound its way toward a knobby wooden handle that was capped by a golden Krellan eagle.

“I dare say that’s better than the orc-sticker you usually use,” Venivica observed.

“Pretty doesn’t mean it cuts well,” the Gladiator answered.

“I wager only Deathmaid was a greater Krellan blade, Romulus.”

“Well,” he answered, holding the blade up to catch the sunlight filtering into the rotunda, “I must admit this at least looks like something Baltarus could have wielded.”

“No magic rapiers?” Fosmo asked disappointedly, scanning the table unsuccessfully for his weapon of choice.

“Sorry, Fosmo--too new a weapon,” answered Venivica. “We haven’t found any in our travels, and didn’t have time to make one for you. Why don’t you use a regular sword anyway instead of that oversized dagger?”

The Cutpurse flashed a grin. “Well, like Raven says--use a weapon people aren’t familiar with, and you’ve won half the battle. But that’s okay--me and Betsy, here,” he said, patting his sword, “have been through enough together. She’s always faithful to me.”

“How touching,” the Witch spoke, sarcastically.

Raven, clearly armed for battle, with two swords and a bow with a belt quiver of arrows, was now descending the stairs, Morgaine at her side.

They paused at the bottom, wrapping up their conversation.

“I think what I’ll do is hang at the Inn and trust the Sisterhood and the town Guard to keep watch in town,” Morgaine was saying. “I might take a stroll around the Guild to make sure there are no problems there; and if everything seems okay, I’ll just pick my ground and try to go where I think I can be the most use. I may even come out here to see that everything’s all right.”

Raven nodded nervously, hardly aware of what she said, the weight of the Operation now resting solidly on her shoulders.

“Yes--that sounds fine,” she answered. “As I’ve said, I don’t expect an attack here. If someone does infiltrate the island, I’ll know immediately, and will send a note to you, so I don’t think you’ll need to worry about it. Venivica and some of the Scandians will be here for part of the night anyway, so we should be covered. My Guard and our mercenaries should be enough to protect the Guild. That’s where any real attack would come--they’d want the gold.”

Morgaine snorted. “I’d love to see either of those Liches try to steal the gold from the bank! What we’ve got waiting for their cronies if they try....”

Raven nodded. “I think we’ll be fine. But if trouble does arise somewhere other than the Guild, it will almost certainly be a feint to draw forces away from there. Be ready, and don’t fall for that. When the time comes to join Venivica, get it over with quickly, and get back here.”

Morgaine nodded in response. “What about Dreamspinner?” she now asked.

Raven stiffened. “Dreamspinner!” she exclaimed. “Yes, Dreamspinner.”

The Mistress of Freeport began to shake her finger at Morgaine. “Take some people and kick her door down. Then you tell her she’s expected to help defend the city just like everyone else. Then get her over to the bank. If she gives you any lip--I mean any--you drag her out, throw her aboard the first ship leaving port, and burn her house down. Tell her if she ever shows her face around me again I’ll kill her!

“Stupid Elf,” Raven now grunted. “Just because she’s lived here a hundred years longer than anyone else, she thinks she’s detached from the normal goings on because she’ll outlive everyone. Well--we’ll show her who’ll outlive whom!”

“Consider it done,” Morgaine said.

A few feet away, Venivica beckoned for Raven and she moved over to her. Morgaine remained at the stairway, and once Raven was far enough away she made eye contact with Doremi and nodded her head slightly to indicate she wanted her to come over.

Doremi left Nightshadow’s side and walked over to the stairs, curious as to what she wanted.

“Turn around,” Morgaine said quietly when she reached her.

“Huh? Why?”

“Just turn around.”

Puzzled, Doremi did as she asked, and she felt Morgaine lift the flap of her knapsack and deposit something within.

“I placed a parcel in your pack for Nazier,” she spoke as Doremi turned back to face her.

“Who’s that?” Doremi asked.

“Don’t worry about it; you’ll meet him soon enough. Just make sure you find an opportunity to get him alone and give it to him. Raven is absolutely not to know, understand?! A letter inside will explain everything to Nazier.”

Doremi gave her a nervous look. “I don’t think I--”

“Don’t worry about it--just do what I said!”

Doremi sighed and shrugged. Morgaine then led her over to the group and behind them three men came down the stairs carrying crates of fruit and freshly cooked meat along with a small barrel of wine that they piled next to Espidreen.

“Gee, Raven, you sure Adventure in style!” Doremi observed.

Raven turned to her. “What?” she asked.

Doremi pointed to the foodstuffs.

“That’s not for us--it’s for the crew; they haven’t had anything good to eat for a while.”

“Crew?” Doremi asked.

“They’ll be glad of it, I think. It will lift their spirits,” Espidreen commented. “We need them at their best.”

“Okay!” Raven now spoke loudly. “Time to go! Everyone grab their stuff. Thor, if some of your men could bring the extra food? Espy--go to it.”

The Vikings responded to Thor’s nod as Espidreen retrieved a scroll from a pocket. She intoned the words upon it and crushed a diamond in her hand, opening a greater teleportal next to her.

“Nightshadow, Romulus, Giles and Fosmo--in,” Raven ordered.

Anxious to depart, the four men stepped through, one at a time, and the portal closed behind them as Espidreen brought out another scroll.

“Thor and the Scandians,” Raven said as the second one opened.

The four Vikings, with the food, vanished into the portal.

“I guess it’s our turn now, Raven spoke, looking at Doremi and Mac Tavish.

Morgaine reached out and grasped Raven’s shoulder.

“Good luck--we’ll keep Freeport safe,” she promised.

Raven nodded, looking to her. “And no one can do it better than you. I know I have nothing to worry about with you in charge, Morgaine. Just keep things protected until I come back.”

“You promise you’ll be back?”


Raven took a step toward Espidreen and then suddenly stopped in her tracks. To Doremi, it seemed something disturbed her, for the look on her face told the Bard that something had struck deep in her soul.

She turned around and stepped back to Morgaine.

“I have to take back what I just said,” Raven spoke.

Morgaine looked puzzled. “Huh?”

“I--I don’t know what will happen, Morgaine. I absolutely plan on coming back. But I don’t know for sure that I will. If things go wrong...if Nostradamus hits us with a spell I fail to dodge...if a monster gets in a lucky shot....

“What I’m trying to say is, other than Nightshadow, no one has a better chance of surviving this than me, but I can’t absolutely know that I will. So I--I won’t make a promise to you I can’t guarantee.”

Her voice cracked now and she seemed totally flustered. “I...don’t want what could be my last words to you perhaps winding up being a lie if you can understand.”

Morgaine’s look showed she didn’t truly understand, but her concern was obvious.

“You’ll be back,” she assured her, her eyes starting to water. “No pig of a Liche will get the better of you--you’re smarter than he is! You’re smarter than any of them!”

Still flustered, Raven looked unsure of what to do, then suddenly she came erect.

“I forgot something!” she exclaimed, handing Morgaine her bow.

Then she hurried for the stairs.

“I’ll be back!” Raven called out as she bolted up toward the villa, leaving everyone behind.

The door swung open, and Stormie looked up from the covers as Raven hurried in.

The Mistress of Freeport smiled. “I’m glad to see you’re awake,” she said, closing the door behind her and easing down onto the bed, moving her swords out of the way so she could sit on the side of the mattress.

Stormie smiled back.

“I always wake up when the sun comes up.”

“I wanted to tell you something,” Raven began. “I’m going to have to go away for a while.”

The child’s face began to fall.

“I don’t know how long it may be for. Maybe a long time or maybe a short time. But before I go, I, uh....”

Her voice started to crack. “I want to tell you...that of all the people I know--I think I like you the most.”

A big smile spread across Stormie’s face and she leaned over to kiss Raven’s cheek and give her a hug.

“I like you the best too!”

Raven stiffly began to hug her back and was about to explode in tears when she caught herself. Furious that she’d let her emotions ravage her, she gave Stormie a quick hug and then eased back to the pillow.

“Now,” she said in her usual businesslike tone, “I want you to be good while I’m gone, and learn whatever they have to teach you at the school. Make me proud of you.”

“Can I go with you?” Stormie asked.


“How come?”

“The place I’m going is no place for a nine-year-old. Your job is to stay here and learn, and some day you’ll be one of the most important ladies in all of Islay. I’ll make sure of that!”

“But who will I push the cart for if you’re gone?”

“You can push it for Morgaine.”

“She doesn’t like to eat in the dining room.”

“I’ll make sure she does. She won’t be able to for the next couple of nights, but after that, she will.”

“Will you bring me back something?”

“Perhaps. Now there’s one more thing. I know you’re very young, but I want you to listen to what I’m going to say, and every day when you wake up I want you to promise me that you’ll think of this, all right?”

Stormie nodded.

“If you believe in yourself, you can be anything in this life that you want to be. Decide what it is that you want to be and do, and make a plan to do it. When you think you’ve failed, make a new plan that avoids the mistakes you made earlier. Every time you fail, get up and try again until you succeed! And I promise you, no one will stop you so long as you have faith in yourself. Will you remember that?”

Stormie nodded again.

“All right.” Raven arose from the bed and opened the door. “Good bye for now. Be good.”

“Bye, Raven,” Stormie said sadly, not really understanding the conversation.

A bit later, the Mistress of Freeport descended the stairs more slowly than she’d climbed them.

“They’ll be wondering what happened to us,” Raven spoke as she rejoined the last three of the Fellowship and recovered the bow from Morgaine. “Get it open, Espy.”

Espidreen complied, reading off another scroll as Raven turned to Morgaine.

“After this is over, for the duration of while I’ll be gone, I want you to eat in the dining room so Stormie can push her cart.”

“Raven, I don’t like--” Morgaine began.

“Just do it.”

“But I like eating with my friends in the Glove.”

“Fine--eat with them in the dining room.”

“But we already have our own private dining room.”

“Up four flights of stairs, so use my dining room. And don't you dare make Stormie think you resent it! You can go back to the way things were when I'm done.”

Morgaine threw up her hands. “Fine--we’ll eat downstairs then. Just hurry back.”

“Thank you.”

Raven took a last look around her tower as the portal opened. Yes, she would be back. And the next time she was back, she vowed that she would rule more than just Freeport.

She would rule Hocwrath as well.