In the fifteen hundred years of its existence, the city of Ranneng has survived a hundred rulers, six fires that wiped it clean off the face of the earth, a number of coups, rebellions, epidemics, and, naturally, wars. For those who don’t know, Ranneng is the former capital of the kingdom of Valiostr, and it lost that noble title during the Spring War, when an armada of orcs came flooding in from the Forests of Zagraba.
Almost obliterated by the orcs and then rebuilt, Ranneng is rightly considered the most beautiful city in the kingdom. The old architecture; the numerous statues of the gods; the broad streets and fountains; the high, pointed spires of the watchtowers; and the swing bridges on the banks of the rivers—all of these attract large numbers of travelers, idle gawkers, merchants, and traders.
Inhabitants of the south of Valiostr who have never seen Avendoom are inclined to think that Ranneng is a very big city. Well, it certainly isn’t small, but it’s still nowhere near as big as Avendoom.
* * *
At the very beginning of the rule of the Stalkon Dynasty, the king founded the University of Sciences by royal decree, and now people come here to study from almost all the northern kingdoms. Opposite the venerable university there is a huge park, and a walk through this small forest that thrives within the city limits to the Upper District of the city will bring you face to face with the massive bronze gates of the school of the Order of Magicians.
This is where future sorcerers master the fundamentals of their trade, and only then, after five years of rigorous training, do they set out for the school in Avendoom to further refine and improve their magic art. Thanks to the magicians’ school and the university, the old capital is known as the City of Learning.
It would be impossible to find a better site for founding a city—Ranneng is conveniently located on five hills at the precise intersection of the major trade routes in the south of the kingdom.
Poets love to sing the city’s praises for its beauty, but Ranneng has one substantial shortcoming: It is much closer to the Forests of Zagraba than Avendoom and therefore much closer to the orcs—if they should suddenly have the morbid desire to go back to war, they can get here much more easily than they can to the Cold Sea. And that’s why five hundred years ago we acquired a new capital. The orcs had taught men to be cautious.
The Stalkon Dynasty was certainly determined not to be taken by surprise again, and the king and his entire court moved north to Avendoom, farther away from the land of forests and the potential dangers lurking in them.
But, with your permission, I will end my brief historical and geographical excursion, since we have finally reached the gates of the city.
* * *
It was late morning and the people from the surrounding villages and towns were heading for the gates in order to buy, sell, steal, find work, go to college, visit relatives, listen to gossip, or simply gape for lack of anything better to do. The crush was so bad that I wasn’t hoping to get into the old capital before evening.
The din of the crowd was absolutely indescribable. There were hundreds of people talking, shouting, bellowing, and arguing, foaming at the mouth as they claimed the right to push their way through to the entrance ahead of everyone else. A fight sprang up over a disputed place in the queue beside a cart loaded with turnips. The Ranneng guard tried to restore order, but they only made things worse and only served to focus the crowd’s hostile attention on the hapless guardsmen.
A serious scrimmage was brewing, and the air had a distinct smell of burnt Garrak pepper. The small group of soldiers regretted ever getting involved in the brawl.
“What’s all this nonsense?” the moody-looking character who answered to the name of Loudmouth asked irritably. “I can’t remember seeing a jam like this at the Northern Gates. Everybody always piles in through the Gates of Triumph.”
“Then what are we doing stuck here?” Hallas hissed angrily, holding one hand against his cheek.
What could be worse than a sullen, cantankerous gnome who’s angry with the whole wide world? Only a sullen, cantankerous gnome who’s angry with the whole wide world and also happens to have a toothache. Hallas’s tooth had started aching the evening before and it was causing him dire agony. But the insufferable gnome had dug his heels in and refused to let anyone pull out the lousy tooth, saying he wanted to have it done by a respectable barber and not horse doctors, in which category he included Deler and Kli-Kli, who had offered their services as healers.
“These gates are closer to the highway!” Loudmouth exclaimed.
“They may be closer,” Hallas said gloomily, plucking at the tangles in his beard, “but did it never enter your thick head that I’m about to expire from pain here?”
“Stop whining,” Deler muttered. “Hold on for a bit longer.”
The gnome gave the broad-shouldered dwarf a dark look, with the clear intention of thumping him on the nose, but instead he muttered: “Why’s it taking so long?”
He watched as the guard allowed a cart loaded high with cages of chickens in through the gates.
“They have to inspect everyone, tax them, find out what they’ve come for,” Kli-Kli squeaked.
“What incredible zeal from the municipal guard. Why now?”
“Who can say,” the little green goblin said with a shrug.
“Perhaps we could try the other gates, Milord Alistan?” Honeycomb asked hesitantly, with a sideways glance at the leader of our party.
The knight pondered the suggestion for a few seconds and then shook his head: “They’re more than an hour away.”
Hallas’s face turned crimson and I was suddenly afraid that he was about to have a stroke.
“An hour!” he snarled. “I can’t hold out that long.”
And the gnome started riding determinedly toward the gates.
“Where’s he going?” Loudmouth asked, but Alistan only laughed and set his own horse moving after Hallas. There was nothing else we could do but stay with them.
At first the people gaped at us in fascination, but then, realizing that we were jumping the queue, they started murmuring.
“They’ll kill us! I swear by Sagra, they’ll kill us!” Marmot muttered.
But the gnome drove on heedlessly through the indignant crowd, yelling like an old-time cobbler for them to make way.
“Halt, gnome! Ha-alt!” cried a guardsman with a halberd. “Where do you think you’re going? Don’t you see the queue?”
The gnome opened his mouth to let the soldier know what he thought about him and his family back to the seventh generation, but in some miraculous fashion Miralissa was suddenly there beside him and she edged him out of the way.
“Good morning, honorable sir. Why the delay?” the ashen-haired elfess asked with a smile.
The guardsman immediately lowered his voice and even tried to straighten his uniform tunic. Like all the rest of us he knew—because his mother had told him when he was a little baby—that you always had to be polite to elves; light or dark, it makes no difference. If, that is, you don’t want to end up with a dagger under your ribs when some denizen of the forest decides that you just happen to have insulted him—or her.
“What’s so good about it, milady? Just look at what’s going on. We have to check and recheck everyone. And all because the Nameless One’s been up to his tricks again. They say a few weeks ago he attacked the king’s palace!”
“You don’t say! The Nameless One?” Uncle chortled incredulously into his thick gray beard.
“The Nameless One, as large as life! And five thousand of his followers. If it wasn’t for the guard and Alistan Markauz, they’d have killed His Majesty!”
“Five thousand, you say?” Uncle chortled incredulously again and scratched his bald head.
“Folks is saying as it was five,” the talkative soldier said, slightly embarrassed—apparently he’d only just realized that five thousand was quite a large number.
“My, my,” chuckled Uncle. Like all the rest of us, he had been in the palace on that memorable night when the Nameless One’s supporters decided to test the resolve of the Royal Guard.
“But what’s that got to do with the queue at the gates? The attack was in Avendoom, but the gates are in Ranneng!” Hallas exclaimed in exasperation.
“The king, may he reign for a hundred years, has given orders to increase our vigilance. So we’re doing our best.”
“If an army of orcs went tramping past them, they wouldn’t even notice,” Kli-Kli whispered quietly in my ear.
The goblin was right, because it was highly doubtful that your average guardsman would be able to recognize a supporter of the Nameless One even if he walked right under his nose. As yet, the traitors who sympathized with Valiostr’s main enemy didn’t actually look any different from perfectly peaceable citizens.
The crowd at our backs started murmuring more loudly.
“What is all this?”
A dour-looking soldier wearing a corporal’s stripes came toward us from the gates. He was obviously not in the mood for pleasant conversation.
“Hang on there, Mis,” the talkative guardsman said, ignoring the corporal’s rank. “Can’t you see the lady elfess is inquiring after the news?”
The corporal almost fell over when he got a good look at our motley group. A green goblin with blue eyes; three dark elves; a dour knight; nine warriors, one of whom appeared to be an angry gnome; and a dwarf in an absurd bowler hat. Plus a skinny rogue. Not the kind of company you meet in the city every day of the week.
“A-ah…,” the corporal drawled, trying to choose the right words. “Well, if that’s how it is…”
“We don’t wish to detain you,” said Miralissa, with another smile. “May we pass?”
An elf’s smile can put a man who isn’t prepared for it into a prolonged stupor, especially if it’s the first time he has seen those two sharp white blades protruding from over the lower lip.
“Of c-course you can p-pass,” said the corporal, gesturing toward the gates so the guards would let us through. “But remember, only the municipal guard and elves have the right to carry weapons within city limits.”
“But what about nobles and soldiers?” asked Eel, raising his eyebrows in surprise as he broke his silence for the first time.
“Daggers and knives of an acceptable size—that’s the only exception.”
“But we are in the king’s service! We’re not a detachment of mercenaries.”
“I’m sorry, but the law’s the same for everyone,” the corporal responded.
I’d heard about this law. It had appeared about three hundred years earlier, when brawls used to flare up in Ranneng with the speed of forest fires. Those were troubled times, with three noble houses squabbling over power; when the king set aside his important affairs to intervene in the fracas, there were more bodies in the streets than on the Field of Sorna after the battle between the gnomes and the dwarves.
Half of the counts, barons, marquises, and other riffraff with royal blood running in their veins expired right there in the streets. Unfortunately the other half were left alive, and the houses known as the Boars, Oburs, Nightingales, and their supporters still nursed their grudges against each other to this very day.
And so anyone who walks round town carrying a blade the length of a man’s palm or, Sagot forbid, a crossbow, risks a large fine and a couple of days’ rest in an uncomfortable prison cell. This has had quite a remarkably sobering effect on noble gentlemen. After spending a little time in places that were damp and unbearably bleak, their lordships became as meek and mild as lambs … for a while.
“But that can’t be right,” Lamplighter exclaimed: His very heart and soul protested against the idea of such a law.
Mumr, our beloved Lamplighter, was never parted from his immense bidenhander, and now it seemed that in Ranneng the master of the long sword would have to hide his fearsome weapon and make do with a short-bladed knife.
“I’m not asking what business has brought you to our city and which house you intend to serve here,” the guardsman said, giving us a suggestive look.
“We have no intention of entering service with the noble houses,” Milord Alistan snapped.
“It’s all the same to me, milord knight,” said the corporal, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “If you choose not to serve, then don’t. That’s your right. It’s just that the first thought that comes into my head when I see a band of people bearing arms in the city is that one of the houses has hired itself a few more cutthroats.”
“Is there unrest in Ranneng again?” Miralissa asked, tossing her thick ash-gray braid behind her shoulder.
“Just a bit,” the soldier said with a nod. “The Nightingales and the Wild Boars had a set-to just recently in the Upper City. There were two barons slit open from neck to navel. Mmmm … I beg your pardon if I have affronted you, lady elfess.”
“No, indeed, and thank you for answering my questions, kind sir. So, may we pass?”
“Yes, milady. Here’s a paper for you, it will help you to avoid questioning by the patrols.” The corporal took a rolled-up document out of a wooden case hanging at his hip and handed it to the elfess. “It says that you are newly arrived in our glorious city. Welcome!”
“This is for you. For services rendered,” said Egrassa, leaning down from his horse and putting a coin in the corporal’s hand.
“Why, thank you, kind—,” the guardsman began, but when he saw what coin the elf had given him, he broke off and froze, like a statue in the royal park.
It’s not every day that a corporal got to hold a full gold piece in his hand. I had a feeling there would be a party in the guardhouse that evening, and not a single guardsman would be left standing at midnight.
We left the delighted guards and rode in through the gates … with our weapons, though we would have to be careful about carrying them around.
From the lane that began at the city gates, we turned onto a broad street leading into the very heart of the city. The inn to which Miralissa was taking us was located on one of the hills, and as we made our way there I turned my head this way and that, studying the surroundings.
On a small street that began with a monument to the defenders of Ranneng who fell in the Spring War, we were stopped by a patrol of guards, but they left us in peace when they saw the paper that the corporal had given us.
“All right,” said Loudmouth. “I have to go and see how my relatives are getting on. See you at the inn!”
“Greetings to the girlfriend!” Arnkh shouted, not believing his story about relatives, but Loudmouth had already melted into the crowd, leaving his horse in the care of Lamplighter, who was rather annoyed to be given this gift.
The people were as thick on the ground as gkhols in an abandoned graveyard.
“Is this some kind of holiday?” Lamplighter muttered, surveying the crowd with a not entirely friendly glance.
“Certainly is!” replied that know-it-all Kli-Kli. “Exam week at the university. The whole city’s making merry.”
“Very clever of us,” I said drearily. “I can’t stand crowds.”
“I thought you were a thief,” the goblin said.
“Well, so I am,” I replied, not quite understanding what he was getting at.
“I thought thieves loved a crowd.”
“And just why should I love a crowd?”
“I thought a crush was handier for stealing purses,” Kli-Kli said with a shrug.
“That’s a bit below my level,” I snorted. “I don’t deal in purses, my dear fool.”
“Right, you deal in Commissions,” the detestable goblin giggled. “But you know, Harold-Barold, I reckon that pilfering purses with coppers in them from the pockets of halfwits is better than the Commission you have now.”
“Go and annoy Hallas,” I snarled.
Kli-Kli had pricked me in a sore spot. Okay, there was no point in crying over spilt milk. I’d accepted the Commission—I must have been slightly insane at the time—and now there was no way back.
“Harold!” Lamplighter shouted, jerking me out of my moody reverie. “What’s got you so miserable?”
“That’s just his usual state of mind,” the king’s jester interrupted arrogantly. “Our Dancer in the Shadows has been far too glum and gloomy recently.”
“But then, someone else has been far too cheerful and chatty,” I muttered. “Make sure you don’t regret your blathering later.”
“Loudmouth’s the one who blathers,” Kli-Kli retorted. “All I ever do is speak the truth.”
“And you also quote the prophecies of goblin shamans who guzzled magic mushrooms,” I teased the jester. “All their prophecies about a Dancer in the Shadows aren’t worth a rotten sparrow’s egg.”
“Too late to get stubborn now. You accepted the title of Dancer in the Shadows, just like in the prophecy. The Bruk-Gruk has never lied!” Kli-Kli began testily, but then he realized I was only teasing him and lapsed into offended silence.
Kli-Kli’s weak point is his beloved goblin Book of Prophecies, which he knows from cover to cover. And now, you see, I wasn’t Harold the thief any longer, but a walking prophecy, who was destined to save the kingdom and the entire world. Yeah, sure. If I had my way, I’d rob it, not save it.
“Kli-Kli,” Arnkh put in, “why don’t you tell us if this little book of yours by the shaman Tru-Tru…”
“Tre-Tre, not Tru-Tru, you great ignoramus!” the goblin interrupted the bald warrior resentfully.
“Written by the shaman Tre-Tre,” Arnkh went on as if nothing had happened, but the goblin interrupted him again: “The great shaman Tre-Tre!”
“All right. Written by the great shaman Tre-Tre. So, is there anything in it apart from your beloved prophecies?”
“For example?” The native son of the Border Kingdom seemed to have succeeded in catching the goblin off balance.
“Well, for example, a cure for a gnome’s toothache?”
Hallas, who had drawn level with our little group again, heard the conversation and pricked up his ears, although he tried to pretend he wasn’t interested at all.
Kli-Kli spotted this and gave one of his now-watch-what-happens smiles—a clear sign that he was about to play one of his rotten tricks.
The jester paused so theatrically that Hallas started squirming in the saddle with impatience. When the gnome’s fury was just about to reach the boiling point, the goblin spoke.
“And what is it?” I asked, tugging desperately at my bridle and trying to steer Little Bee out of the space between Kli-Kli and Hallas.
As sure as eggs were eggs, the goblin had some rotten trick in mind, and I had no wish to be caught in the line of any heavy objects when the bearded gnome decided to spill the royal jester’s blood
“Oh!” Kli-Kli declared in a mysterious voice. “It’s a very effective remedy. In principle it could have been applied at the very beginning of Hallas’s ailment, and the tooth would have stopped hurting immediately. I swear by the great shaman Tre-Tre’s hat, Harold, it’s the truth.”
“Then why didn’t you say anything?” the gnome roared, setting half the street fluttering in alarm.
Uncle turned round and waved his fist at us, then pointed in Alistan’s direction and ran the edge of his hand across his throat.
“Cut the clowning, Kli-Kli,” Marmot said good-naturedly. “People are looking.”
“All right, not another word,” the goblin promised solemnly, gesturing as if he were locking his mouth shut.
“What d’you mean, not another word?” the gnome asked indignantly. “Deler, tell that green-skinned lout that if he doesn’t give me the remedy, I won’t answer for myself!”
Kli-Kli gazed at the gnome with his blue eyes and said with a very doubtful air, “I’m not so sure you’ll like the goblin remedy for a toothache, Hallas.”
“Can’t you just tell me, Kli-Kli?”
“You won’t use the method anyway,” said Kli-Kli. “And I’ll simply have revealed a goblin secret for nothing.”
“I promise that I will use your method this very moment!” said the gnome, struggling desperately to hold himself back from wringing the goblin’s neck.
A broad smile split Kli-Kli’s green face from ear to ear, making him look exactly like a wickedly contented frog.
I worked away even more desperately with my bridle, holding Little Bee back until I was beside Lamplighter, and the goblin and the gnome were ahead of me. My brilliant maneuver did not go unnoticed by Marmot, Deler, and Arnkh, who repeated it precisely. Hallas and Kli-Kli were left on their own: None of us wanted to be caught between the hammer and the anvil.
“Remember, you promised to use the goblin method,” the prankster reminded the sick man. “Well then, in order to cure a sick tooth, you have to take a glass of ass’s urine and hold it in your mouth for an hour, then spit it out over your left shoulder, preferably into your best friend’s right eye. Your toothache will disappear instantly!”
Hallas gave the goblin a baleful glance, spat juicily on the ground under the hooves of his horse, and urged it on. I think Kli-Kli was rather upset. Like everyone else, he’d been expecting thunder and lightning.
“Tell me, friend Kli-Kli,” I asked the downhearted goblin. “Have you ever tried that remedy yourself?”
The jester looked at me as if I were demented: “Do I look like an idiot, thief?”
I just knew he was going to say something like that.
* * *
“Behold and tremble, Harold,” said Honeycomb.
“I am trembling,” I said, with my eyes glued to the Fountain of the Kings.
And what a sight it was! I’d heard a lot about this fountain before, but this was the first time I’d ever set eyes on it.
The huge column of water fifty yards high was regarded as one of the sights of Ranneng. The fountain took up the whole square; its roaring jets of water soared way up into the sky, and then fell back down to earth, shattering into a watery haze that shrouded the entire area. The droplets of water and the rays of the sun merged in a passionate embrace to create a rainbow bridge that sliced the sky above the square into two halves and came diving back down into the fountain.
Those in the know said that when the dwarf master craftsmen created this miracle they had a little help from the Order. It takes magic to produce a rainbow that appears out of the spray every day of the week in any weather. It looked as if I could reach out my hand to touch the seven-colored miracle and feel all the airy fragility of this bridge in the sky.
“Magnificent.” Arnkh sighed contentedly, catching the fresh spray on his face.
Late June and the first half of July had been so hot that even a hardened warrior like Arnkh had taken off his beloved chain mail a couple of times during our journey. And for someone from the Border Kingdom who has been used to wearing armor almost since the day he was born, that is a very serious concession indeed.
Fortunately, over the last few days the heat had abated a little, but it was still hot enough to make me worry about my brains boiling in my skull. So it was sheer bliss for our group to stand beside the fountain, where the air was so cool, fresh, and clean.
“No halt here!” Alistan announced without even glancing at the marvelous sight.
So much for our rest. When I thought about the long journey under the summer sun waiting for us after Ranneng, I felt really bad. In the name of a h’san’kor, what was wrong with the weather this year?
“What’s wrong with you today?” an indignant voice asked right in my ear. “Here I am fluttering about like a lark in front of a cockerel to get your attention, and you might as well be deaf!”
“And did you say anything interesting, chatterbox?” I asked.
“Chatterbox!” the jester snorted. “I wasn’t simply talking talking, I was extolling the beauties of this glorious city.”
“I don’t see much beauty around here at the moment,” I muttered, looking round the street.
It was just an ordinary street. Little old two-story houses with battered, peeling walls, although I had to give the locals some credit—not all the buildings looked totally decrepit. But I definitely couldn’t see much beauty. If I hadn’t known I was in Ranneng, I would have thought this was the Outer City of Avendoom.
“Wait a bit, we’ll get to the park in a moment; the trees there are just like those in the Zagrabian forest!”
“Have you been here before, then, Kli-Kli?” asked Lamplighter, who had ridden up to us on his roan horse Stubborn.
Loudmouth’s horse was trudging after Stubborn, flicking her ears in protest at being dragged in such a perfunctory manner.
“Yes, I was here once,” Kli-Kli mused, smacking his lips. “I was on a mission for the king.”
Hallas almost choked in surprise. Forgetting all about his sick tooth, he stared at Kli-Kli and said: “Don’t go telling me fairy tales, goblin. I’ll never believe the king could trust you with important business.”
“Baa!” said Kli-Kli, sticking his tongue out at the gnome.
“Never mind, tell us your silly story anyway, it’ll ease the boredom. Are we never going to get to this inn?” Marmot said.
“Why, there’s no distance left at all. We just go through the park into the Upper City, where the university is, and the school of magic and all the rest of it. A fine district it is. We’ve haven’t got far to go now.”
The goblin was simply playing the clown and waiting to be asked again.
“Come on, get on with it,” said Lamplighter.
“Just let me think where to start,” Kli-Kli agreed graciously, and put on an important air, as if he really was thinking.
“Harold, hold Invincible for me while I take my jacket off,” said Marmot.
“All right,” I agreed, and Marmot tossed his ling across, onto my shoulder.
Marmot’s shaggy tame rat Invincible took a sniff, grunted, wheezed, and settled down on my shoulder. It was incredible, but apart from Marmot I was the only one in the entire party that the ling didn’t bite; he even allowed me to stroke him when he was in a generous mood.
I couldn’t fathom just why the long-haired rodent from the Deserted Lands took such a great liking to me. But when I saw the way the rat howled and tried to bite Kli-Kli’s finger every time he reached his hand out to it, I chuckled merrily, which greatly annoyed the goblin.
“You promised us a story, Kli-Kli,” I reminded him.
“Ah, so I did! Right, then: A year ago the Oburs and the Wild Boars decided to conclude an alliance and give the Nightingales a bloody night of it. There was a fine old brawl all set to break out in Ranneng, and that was not in Stalkon’s interests. They would have started with the Nightingales and finished with His Majesty. And so I was sent.”
“And our truly fearless little friend defeated them all!” Deler chortled.
“You dwarves don’t have even a spark of imagination,” Kli-Kli snorted. “I was sent here to make the Wild Boars fall out with the Oburs and vice versa, to make sure that those noble gangsters never thought about concluding an alliance again.… And that’s just what I did!” There was a distinct note of pride in the goblin’s voice.
“And how did you pull that off?” I chuckled, handing the ling back to Marmot.
“I used the same plan as you did in that business with the Horse of Shadows. Set everyone against everyone else.”
“Set everyone against everyone else? What’s he talking about, Harold?” asked Lamplighter, puzzled.
“Don’t bother your head about it, Mumr,” I said: I didn’t want to get into that story just then. “And how did the Oburs and Wild Boars take to your plan, Kli-Kli?”
“You know, Harold, it’s strange, but they really didn’t like my plan at all!” The jester giggled. “Especially the Oburs! Those noble gentlemen were so upset when they heard that one of the Wild Boar counts was marrying his daughter to a Nightingale that without thinking twice they set up a really lively betrothal party for the Wild Boars. And the Wild Boars gave tit for tat by slitting the throats of a couple of Oburs. The mayhem that broke out in the city then ended any more talk about an alliance. The nobles of the south carried on squabbling among themselves, and my king had no need to feel concerned for the safety of his throne. The threat of rebellion and civil war was postponed indefinitely, and the whole kingdom came to thank the jester for the peace and tranquillity of Valiostr.”
“Well, isn’t our fool a fine lad after all!” Arnkh chuckled, jangling his chain mail.
The nobles of the south are like a fishbone stuck in the king’s throat. Painful to swallow, and if you try to spit it out, you’re likely to make things worse. Because if their lordships aren’t watched carefully, they might turn around and strike a deal with the western provinces, and that would be the end of the throne. As soon as the squabbling and intriguing comes to an end, the nobles—and especially the nobles who have formed an alliance—will start looking for something else to do with their armed men.
During the time of our present king’s father there was an unpleasant incident when the western nobles decided to overthrow the dynasty. They were annoyed, you see, because the king didn’t want to give away the Disputed Lands to Miranueh. Fortunately, that time the rebels got nowhere. The royal guards surprised them by turning up when they weren’t expected. And the nobles of the south failed to support the revolt of their neighbors to the west: the Wild Boars, Nightingales, and Oburs were too busy with each other to take notice of any appeals to take part in a conspiracy.
We were riding through the park, with its giant oaks. I could hardly believe that trees that size grew inside the city limits. There weren’t any big trees in Avendoom, even in the grounds of the royal palace, not to mention the other districts of the city. With the cold weather that the winds bring us from across the Cold Sea and the Deserted Lands, all the trees are taken for firewood the moment winter arrives. The folks from the Port City and the Suburbs would soon have reduced all these trees to nothing but stumps.
The road started rising uphill and we emerged from the park to find ourselves in the area of Ranneng immediately around the university and the school of the Order. The houses here were a bit newer and more handsome than the ones we had ridden past earlier. But even so, the streets were still swarming with people. More people than there were fleas on an unwashed dog, that’s for sure.
The inn, separated off from the street by a fence, was a large, respectable-looking establishment of three stories.
“Well, blow me!” Deler said with a whistle as he surveyed our temporary residence. “If the building’s that big, then the kitchen must be huge, too. And a huge kitchen is a sure sign of good food! What do you think, Hallas?”
The gnome merely cast a mournful glance at his partner and kept his mouth shut.
“You’re right there, Deler,” boomed the giant Honeycomb. “We’ve had enough of that lousy grub Uncle and Hallas dish up. Oh, I could just do with a suckling pig and horseradish!”
“And you shall have one, dear sir. You shall quite definitely have a suckling pig! And even two! I hardly think one would be enough to satisfy a mighty warrior like yourself!” replied a potbellied, red-cheeked little man who had appeared from out of nowhere. “Good day, Lady Miralissa. I’m glad to see you again in my most humble establishment.”
“And I am glad to see you alive and well, Master Pito,” the elfess replied with a polite smile. “How are things at the inn?”
“We get by well enough and just about make ends meet.”
“Don’t give us the poor mouth,” Ell said with a smile. “You’ve put on weight in the half year since we were last here.”
“What do you mean?” the innkeeper protested, brushing aside the comment from Miralissa’s bodyguard. “That’s just from the worry of everything! Oh! Tresh Miralissa has brought some new travelers to my establishment! But where are the ones who were here last year? I can only see their lordships Egrassa and Ell.”
“They are no longer with us,” Miralissa replied reluctantly.
I didn’t know this part of the story, but from the fragmentary phrases that the dark elfess had let slip in conversation with me, I realized all the companions who left the Forests of Zagraba with her, apart from Egrassa and Ell, had been left behind in the snows of the Needles of Ice. Only three elves and Uncle’s platoon, who had accompanied Miralissa to Avendoom, had escaped alive from the Deserted Lands.
“What a catastrophe!” the innkeeper exclaimed, wringing his hands. “How could that have happened?”
“Why don’t you show us our rooms, Master Pito?” Egrassa suggested.
“Oh!” said the innkeeper, realizing that he had touched a sore spot. “I beg you most humbly to forgive my curiosity. Please follow me, good gentlemen. I’ve already given one of your companions his room. And poured beer for him!”
“Who have you given a room to, good master?” Markauz asked suspiciously, narrowing his eyes and lowering his hand to his sword.
“Have I done something wrong?” the innkeeper asked in dismay, stopping dead on the spot. “He arrived and said he was with you and—”
“Who arrived?” Count Alistan interrupted him.
“Why, I arrived, Milord Alistan, I did!” said Loudmouth, emerging from the door of the inn with a mug of beer in his hand.
“Oho!” said Arnkh with a sharp intake of breath. “You move like greased lightning! I expected you this evening.”
“How’s the girlfriend?” Lamplighter asked as he walked past Loudmouth and then disappeared through the door of the inn without hearing his reply.
“I didn’t go to see any girlfriend,” Loudmouth protested feebly.
“Of course not. You went mushroom-picking,” said Marmot as he followed Mumr inside.
“Come in, gentlemen, come in!” said Pito, feeling firm ground under his feet again. “All the rooms have been made ready.”
Kli-Kli gazed round at the group with his blue eyes and asked: “Nobody objects if I stay in Harold and Lamplighter’s room, do they?”
Of course no one objected.
The main hall of the inn was the size of a city square; there were chandeliers with candles up under the ceiling, sturdy chairs with carved openwork backs, long benches, and stout tables. There was a huge owl carved out of a single tree trunk hanging on one of the walls, a staircase leading up to the second floor, a bar counter, and a strong oak door leading to the kitchen.
“Do you have many guests, Master Pito?” Count Markauz asked, taking off his leather gloves and tossing them onto the nearest table.
“No one, apart from you.”
“How so?” asked the captain of the royal guard, raising one eyebrow in amazement. “Is business really going that badly?”
“Don’t be concerned, milord!” the innkeeper said with a cunning smile. “Tresh Miralissa paid the inn’s expenses for two years in advance.”
“We decided to make the Learned Owl what you humans would call our headquarters,” Egrassa said. “My cousin paid Master Pito not to take in any other guests, and with no one else staying here we can feel perfectly at ease.”
“Master Pito,” said Mumr, leaning on his huge bidenhander, “how about some beer?”
“Why, certainly!” the innkeeper said keenly.
“And a bath to go with the beer,” Uncle put in.
“And a piglet,” Honeycomb added.
“Everything will be ready in literally five minutes!” said the innkeeper, dashing to give instructions to the staff.
When we were all fed and refreshed, I walked to the farthest table, leaned back blissfully against the back of a chair, and hesitated for a moment before taking out the plans of Hrad Spein. I hadn’t been able to study the maps of the deep labyrinth of burial grounds properly. But now at last I had a free moment to take a close look at the scrolls that I had worked so hard to get.
“Harold, stop poring over those papers. You’ll have time for that later. Are you coming with us?”
“Where?” I asked, looking up at Kli-Kli.
“To take Hallas to the barber.”
“We’re not seeing him off on his final journey. What do you need me for?”
Kli-Kli moved up close, looked around conspiratorially, and whispered, “Deler says the gnome’s terribly afraid. We might have to hold him.”
“Then take Honeycomb,” I said, trying to get rid of the jester. “He’s big enough to restrain five gnomes.”
“Honeycomb won’t lift his backside off his bench now,” the goblin said in a disappointed voice. “Arnkh, Lamplighter, and Marmot are going off for a walk round the city, the elves and Alistan aren’t here to ask—they’re busy searching for provisions for the next stage of the journey. And Loudmouth and Uncle will swig beer until they burst. Who else can I ask but you?”
“Eel,” I said, nodding in the direction of the swarthy Garrakian.
“He’s already coming with us.”
“And you don’t think he’ll be enough?”
After the long journey I wasn’t exactly burning with desire to go anywhere.
“Come on, Harold! Deler especially wants you to come.”
I snarled at the goblin, but I still picked the papers up off the table, wrapped them in drokr, and put them back in my bag.
“Let’s go!” Hallas hissed when Kli-Kli and I walked over to him.
“Harold,” Miralissa purred, “don’t forget to leave your crossbow at the inn.”
Name of a h’san’kor! I’d completely forgotten about my little darling!
I really didn’t want to part with the expensive and very necessary item. Without my crossbow hanging at my back I felt naked and defenseless.
“And leave your blade as well,” said Ell as he watched me hand my weapon to Uncle.
“Yes, Harold,” Uncle confirmed, “you’ll have to forget about the knife, too.”
“We’ll give you something a bit less obvious. How about a fork?” Kli-Kli giggled.
“But why do I have to leave the blade?” I asked, ignoring Kli-Kli’s jibe and looking at Miralissa’s yellow-eyed k’lissang.
“It’s longer than allowed.”
I was reluctantly obliged to leave the knife in Uncle’s care, too.
“Honeycomb,” said Marmot, addressing Uncle’s deputy, “throw my bag over here; we can’t let Harold go wandering the streets without a weapon.” Marmot caught the bag when it was tossed to him, rummaged in it, and fished out a dagger in a simple, well-worn sheath.
“Here, take that.”
I took the weapon and pulled it halfway out of the sheath.
“Canian forgework. Good steel.”
“Ooh, look at that! Just like Alistan’s sword!” the jester exclaimed with an admiring whistle when he saw the red shimmer of the blade.
“Thank you, Marmot,” I said and regretfully handed the knife back to the warrior. “It really is magnificent steel, but it’s too noisy. Don’t you have anything simpler?”
“We’ve got any amount of blades. Here, take mine,” said Lamplighter, handing me a dagger.
“That’ll do,” I said with a grateful nod and fastened the weapon to my belt.
If anything happened, I had a razor in a secret pocket and a bag with a whole arsenal of magical tricks that I’d bought just before I left Avendoom.
“Kli-Kli!” said Alistan, going up to the jester. “Are you sure you haven’t got anything you shouldn’t have?”
The fool looked as if he had been accused of royal treason, and flung open the flaps of his dark cloak to reveal a wide belt with four heavy throwing knives hanging on it, two on the right and two on the left. I couldn’t remember him taking one of them out of its sheath in all the time we’d been traveling.
“That’s it? You haven’t got anything else hidden away?”
“I’m as empty as a bottle of wine in the hands of a drunkard,” Kli-Kli replied in a sincere voice.
“All right,” said Alistan, apparently taking the goblin at his word. “But remember you can get into trouble if you’re too sharp-tongued with the guards.”
“I won’t forget,” said the jester, with an air that made it quite clear Alistan didn’t need to tell him that soldiers had no sense of humor.
The goblin started rooting in his numerous pockets and pulled out a tangle of knotted string. I remembered he had wagered with us that he would work terrible goblin magic with that thing. But so far, all he had for his pains was a crazy jumble of string and knots. Kli-Kli caught my glance and winked merrily.
“Warn me when you want to test that,” I told him. “I’ll cut and run for the next kingdom.”
The jester gave me a glance that said his faith in me was destroyed forevermore and stuck the bundle of string back in his pocket.
“You’ll be surprised yet, Harold, when I let my shamanism loose.”
“Marmot!” said the taciturn Eel, holding out the scabbards containing his “brother” and “sister.” “Take good care of them.”
“Of course, old chap, of course,” Marmot replied, taking the two blades from the Garrakian.
“Come on, Harold, or I’ll expire of the toothache right here on the floor!” the gnome grumbled on his way out of the inn.
Copyright © 2002 by Aleksey Pehov
copyright © 2011 by Aleksey Pehov