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The little green goblin reacted rather sensitively when I criticized the Forests of Zagraba. “So what were you expecting, Harold? A fanfare?” Kli-Kli asked, waxing indignant. If I expressed dissatisfaction with anything, even some withered little flower, the royal jester launched into a passionate tirade in defense of his home country.
“No, I just thought Zagraba was a bit different from this,” I relied peaceably, already regretting that I’d started this conversation.
“So what do you think it ought to be like?” Kli-Kli asked me.
“Well, I don’t know…,” I drawled thoughtfully, trying to get the tedious goblin off my back.
“If you don’t know, then why are you talking nonsense?” The blue-eyed fool kicked a tussock of grass that was unfortunate enough to be in front of his foot. “He doesn’t like this! He doesn’t like that! What did you hope your naïve and innocent gaze would behold? Majestic trees ninety yards high? Or streams flowing with blood and oburs under every bush? I’m sorry, we don’t have that here. Zagraba’s a real forest, not a collection of children’s stories!”
“I realize that,” I said with a placid nod.
“He realizes, hah!”
“Kli-Kli, don’t make so much noise,” Eel said without turning round. He was walking in front of us.
The surly titch gave the tall swarthy Garrakian a resentful look, pouted, and stopped talking, and for the next two hours it was impossible to drag a word out of him.
This was our fifth day of walking through Zagraba. Yes, yes, that didn’t seem to make sense. Nine crazy characters, including two dark elves, one goblin, one broad-shouldered dwarf, one cantankerous bearded gnome, one gloomy knight, two warriors, and a fairly young, rather shifty-looking guy, striding along between the pine trees and bawling at the tops of their voices.
Why were they bawling? Because they were all crackpots.
Why were they crackpots? Because no normal person would stick his nose into the Land of Forests for any kind of money, and especially not into the territory of the orcs, who were famous throughout Siala for the warm welcome they give to strangers.
But in actual fact we weren’t all that crazy (speaking for myself, at least). It’s just that we were forced to stick our noses into Zagraba by a certain circumstance that went by the name of the Rainbow Horn.
What in the name of darkness did we want that damned tin whistle for anyway? Well, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t go to Hrad Spein to get the Horn for love or money. But I wasn’t a free man; I had a Commission hanging over my head, and by midwinter, I had to bring the Horn back to the Order of Magicians in the glorious city of Avendoom, otherwise we could say good-bye to the kingdom.
The Rainbow Horn, stupidly hidden by magicians of the past in the very depths of the Palaces of Bone, was the only thing holding back the Nameless One, who had borne a grudge against our kingdom for the last five hundred years or so. And the power of the Horn was weakening, and next May we could expect the sorcerer to come visiting, together with all the forces of the entire Desolate Lands. Naturally, nobody was exactly waiting to greet the Nameless One with open arms, and the Order of Magicians was desperate to get hold of the Horn in order to drive the enemy back into the icy wilderness.
So that was what we were doing in Zagraba. We were collecting the Horn, saving the world, and getting up to all sorts of other useless and foolish nonsense.
Stupid? Well, maybe. I woke up every morning with that idea in my head, but for some reason no one wanted to listen to me. Miralissa didn’t—and Alistan Markauz most certainly didn’t.
But it was my own fault—I accepted a Commission that couldn’t just be torn up. So I had to puff and pant, run and shout as I struggled to clamber out of a heap of … problems.
But then, the Commission did have its good points, too. When the work was done, I’d get fifty thousand gold pieces and a royal pardon … it’s just that I’d never heard of dead men being in any need of money or a pardon. What corpses usually require is a deep grave and a headstone.
Why would I say all this? Because everything that happened to our group on the way from Avendoom to Zagraba was a mere afternoon stroll in the park. But in Zagraba, and especially in Hrad Spein, things were going to get really tough. I didn’t have any illusions (well, maybe just the tiniest little one) about the success of our mission.
“Harold, are you playing the fool again?” Kli-Kli’s voice distracted me from my gloomy thoughts.
“Playing the fool is your job. I’m a thief, not a royal jester,” I told the little swine morosely.
“That’s your bad luck. If you were a jester, you wouldn’t have got caught out with this Commission from the king. You’d be sitting at home, swigging beer.…”
I suddenly felt an irresistible desire to give the little green wretch a good kick, but he evidently read my thoughts and went darting after Eel, so I had to postpone my reprisal for another time.
From the very moment we set foot in Zagraba, Miralissa had set a frantic pace for the group, and at the end of the first day I almost died. We stopped for the night in a forest clearing, and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to get up next morning. If everyone else liked tramping through the forest so much, then that was their right, but I’d rather lie on the grass and take a rest. If they liked, they could take turns carrying me piggyback, because I was willing to swear by Sagot that I didn’t have any strength left for strolling through the woods.
And the next morning really was tough. I had to force myself to get up, grit my teeth, and tramp, tramp, tramp. But by lunchtime I’d more or less got into the rapid rhythm, and the next day I almost stopped feeling tired. In fact, I began to suspect the elfess was adding some of her magical supplies to the cooking pot to make our daily marches easier to bear.
Since we entered Zagraba, all the fires had been lit by Egrassa. And amazingly enough, a fire lit by Miralissa’s cousin gave almost no smoke. The first night I was a little bit nervous that the flames might attract unwelcome attention, but the cautious elf didn’t seem too worried, and that meant there was no point in me getting agitated, either.
Despite my skeptical attitude to Zagraba, during the five days we had been walking through the forest, we had seen many wonderful things. We followed animal tracks that appeared and then disappeared again in the tangled ferns and prickly brambles. We walked through dense copses of black Zagraban oak, pine groves, forest clearings, and small meadows flooded with sunlight and overgrown with forest flowers. We jumped across babbling brooks with crystal-clear water. The forest stretched on and on: leagues and leagues of groves and copses, impenetrable tracts of fallen timber that we had to skirt round, losing precious time in the process, dozens of meadows and boggy hollows in places where streams dammed by unknown creatures had overflowed.
And not a sign of orcs.
Only the squirrels greeted us with their furious chatter and followed the group, jumping from branch to branch and tree to tree. The day before yesterday, after clambering through trees felled by a spring storm, we came out into a beautiful forest meadow covered by flowers in colors so bright they seemed to ripple in front of my eyes. But the moment Egrassa stepped into the meadow, the flowers exploded into a brilliant rainbow and went soaring up into the sky, turning into thousands of butterflies of every possible size and color. With his natural curiosity, Kli-Kli tried to catch one of them, but he wound up stuck up to his ears down someone’s burrow. We wasted a lot of time getting the goblin out of there and he caught it hot from Miralissa and Count Markauz. From then on Kli-Kli tried to keep out of their sight and strode along in the company of your humble servant.
Beside a copse of oaks, where there was a jolly babbling stream carrying along the fallen leaves like little boats, we came across a wild boar. He was a mature tusker—two men could easily have sat on his back at the same time. If a beast like that ended up on the dinner table, two companies of ravenous soldiers would have had a hard time finishing him off.
Deler, as the most intelligent and agile, was up a tree in a moment. And that despite the fact that the beech had no branches near the ground, which any self-respecting dwarf would have needed for climbing up. The tusker gazed at us with his small, black, malicious eyes, grunted furiously, and came for us.
But Miralissa only had to flash her yellow eyes and hold out her hand for the boar to stop dead and then just walk away, grunting apologetically.
Deler looked down at the elfess with sincere admiration from the height of his refuge and then climbed back down. We moved through the forest in single file, following Egrassa’s lead, with the rear of our little column brought up by Alistan Markauz. The count’s hand never left the hilt of his beloved sword, but the triangular oak shield hung behind his shoulder.
The elf said that moving in this way had already saved our lives three times. With true gnomish stubbornness, Hallas objected rebelliously that that was absolute nonsense, and he definitely didn’t like seeing a dwarf’s backside right under his nose. Egrassa simply laughed at that.
“As soon as I get the chance, I’ll be glad to demonstrate the surprises of Zagraba to the respected master gnome,” he said.
His chance came soon enough. Egrassa jabbed at the ground ahead of him with a stick that he had picked up, and it collapsed, revealing to our gaze a deep wolf pit, with its bottom set as thick with spikes as a hedgehog’s back.
“Just think, gnome, what would have happened if you weren’t walking behind me,” the elf said merrily, flashing his fangs to emphasize the point.
Hallas grunted in bewilderment, took his helmet off, and scratched the back of his head, but he only took his words back after the elf had disarmed another two traps in front of his very eyes—a bow rigged with a tripwire, hidden in the bushes, and a huge heavy log hanging high up in the leaves of an oak right above the path. If that had come tumbling down, someone would have been crushed.
“But who set up these traps?” Lamplighter asked, shifting his terrible two-handed sword from his left shoulder to his right.
“Who knows?” said the elf with a cunning smile, looking down at the short man. “There are too many paths to follow every one.”
“But you know where to find a trap like that!” said Mumr, determined to get an answer to his question.
“Just a little magic—that’s all there is to it,” said the swarthy elf, adjusting the s’kash behind his shoulder.
Egrassa was clearly not prepared to share the secrets of his people with outsiders.
Once, after Kli-Kli sank up to his chest in a swamp (when he got the bright idea of wandering away from the path) an elk came out onto the path in front of us. It was a king of the elk, with horns more than three yards across. The beast sniffed at the air, glanced at us indifferently with its huge velvet eyes, and trotted off briskly into the young fir trees. Hallas grunted in annoyance and regretted he hadn’t thought of felling the massive beast.
“What a feed of meat we’d have had then.”
Deler laughed merrily and said that all the gnome’s brains must have gone onto his beard, or he’d realize what a bad idea it was to tackle a huge monster like that.
All day long birds chirped and twittered and sang in the branches of the trees. When we lay down for the night the oak trees whispered a forest lullaby to us and the owls hooted soothingly in the silence of the night. On the fourth day of our journey Miralissa said that we had to pick up the pace, and from now on our group would travel at night, too. Someone groaned quietly (I think it might have been me) but, naturally, no one took the slightest notice.
The full moon appeared in the sky, so there was plenty of light in the forest, and in any case the elves seemed to see in the dark as well as cats. Now we walked for most of the night and lay down to sleep in the hours before dawn, in order to continue on our way to Hrad Spein after midday.
It was at night that I learned about the magic of Zagraba. During the hours of darkness the forest was transformed into a world that was wild, alien, and mysterious, but very beautiful in its own way.
The dark branches of the oaks and maples were like arms, and there was a mysterious murmuring in the crowns of the trees—either the leaves rustling or some mysterious creatures talking to each other. We could hear low whispering and squeaking and faint laughter from the trees, the bushes, and the tall grass. And sometimes we were followed by the bright sparks of tiny eyes. Green, yellow, and red. The nocturnal denizens of the forest observed and exchanged opinions, but they were in no hurry to come out of their little hidey-holes and meet us.
“Who’s that?” I asked Kli-Kli in a whisper.
“You mean those little chatterers? My people call them the forest spirits. Every tree, bush, forest clearing, and stream has its own forest spirit. Take no notice of them, they’re perfectly harmless.”
“They’re small fry,” said Deler, testing one of the blades of his poleax with his thumb. “You should see the kind of forest spirits we have in the Slumbering Forest! You never know what to expect from them, but these just sit there and don’t bother anyone, they just…”
“They just watch,” Hallas concluded for Deler.
“That’s right,” said the dwarf, agreeing with the gnome for once.
But the spirits weren’t the only things in the Zagraban night. Once we saw the air in the forest burning. There were thousands of fireflies soaring between the trees, flashing with emerald, turquoise, and scarlet fire. Kli-Kli caught a dozen or so of these harmless creatures and put them on his shoulders, and for a few minutes the goblin shone like a holy character from the priests’ stories, then the glowworms got tired of riding on the royal jester and flitted off to join their brothers in the living kaleidoscope.
Night was the time of the owls, who drifted silently above the meadows in the moonlight. The birds were looking for food, listening to the sounds coming from the grass.
Night was the time of the wolves—we heard them howling in the distance several times. Night was the time of creatures whose names I didn’t even know. The cries of the night birds sounded like a madman’s laughter; there was roaring, hooting, chattering, growling. All sorts of different creatures lived in the night, and they weren’t always welcoming to uninvited guests.
Four times Egrassa and Miralissa led us off the path and we hid and waited for danger to pass. The elves didn’t condescend to explain what we were hiding from in the bushes alongside the track. But at moments like that even the fidgety goblin and the argumentative gnome fell silent and obeyed all the elves’ instructions.
At night Zagraba became multicolored. The colors were bright and lush—fresh, pure emerald, delicate turquoise, icy blue, sweet fiery red, and poisonous green. Flaming auroras of cold fire filled the forest with a magical, enchanting life. The glowworms glimmered with all the colors of the rainbow, a gigantic spider’s web glinted bright blue, and the body of the spider that owned it shimmered with purple (the beast was at least the size of a good pumpkin), rotting tree stumps glowed bright green, and the veins on the emerald caps of the huge mushrooms—big enough for a grown man to shelter under during a shower—pulsed blue and orange. Pink fire wandering through the branches of willows by a lake was reflected in the water.
The cold fire of wandering lights, the bright blue sparks in the crowns of the trees, the glimmering of the forest spirits’ eyes, the scent of the forest, the grass, the damp earth, the half-rotten leaves, the fir tree needles, the resin of the pines, oak leaves, and the freshness of a stream. Whatever I might say to Kli-Kli during the daytime, I was completely overwhelmed by the incomparable, wild beauty of the Zagraban night. Although most of the time at night Zagraba was almost black, and then we had to walk by the pale silver light of the moon.
In the evening of the fifth day the narrow track winding between moss-covered larches finally led us to the Golden Forest.
“The gods be praised!” exclaimed Lamplighter, dropping his sack on the ground. “It looks like we’ve arrived!”
“You’re right,” Miralissa confirmed. “It’s only one and a half days’ march from here to Hrad Spein.”
For some strange reason, when she said that I got an unpleasant prickly feeling in my stomach. So this was it! We were almost there! What had seemed so distant that it was almost out of reach only two hours earlier was now less than two days’ journey away.
“Just an ordinary forest,” said Hallas, squinting contemptuously at the trees with the golden leaves. “The Firstborn are always making themselves out to be some kind of chosen people! Anybody would think their shit was solid gold, too!”
“I hope you won’t get a chance to ask them, Hallas,” Eel said with an ominous laugh. “The orcs are not in the habit of answering questions like that.”
“Come on, we have to keep going.” Milord Alistan took off one of his boots, shook out a stone, and pulled it back onto his foot.
The Golden Forest was called such because, as well as all the ordinary trees, the golden-leafs grew here, too. They were majestic giants with dark orange trunks and broad leaves that looked as if they were cast out of pure gold. The golden-leafs only grew here, in the Golden Forest, and their timber was highly valued throughout the Northern Lands, not to mention both of the Empires and the Sultanate. If the orcs found a woodcutter felling a golden-leaf, first they chopped his arms off with his own ax, and then they did things to him that are too horrible even to mention.
“Harold, you should see how beautiful the golden-leafs are in the fall!” Kli-Kli gushed.
“Have you been here before?” Deler asked the jester.
Kli-Kli glared at the dwarf with theatrical disdain.
“For those who don’t know—the Golden Forest is my homeland. It reaches all the way to the Mountains of the Dwarves—and that’s all of eastern Zagraba, so it’s not really surprising that I know what it looks like in the fall.”
“It’s the fall already, as a matter of fact,” I said, just to provoke the goblin.
“Early September,” the jester exclaimed with a contemptuous sniff. “Just you wait till October comes.…”
“I’d like to be long gone from Zagraba before October comes.”
“Is your home very far from here?” asked Lamplighter, absentmindedly fingering the fresh scar on his forehead (a memento left by an orcish yataghan).
“Do you want to visit?” Kli-Kli chuckled merrily. “Then you’ll have to walk for about another three weeks until you reach the center of the orcs’ territory. Then another two weeks from there to the densest thickets in the forest, and then you have to trust in luck. Maybe you’ll be able to find some goblins; of course, if they want to be found. The orcs have taught us to be wary, and in the past you humans used to hunt us with those wonderful dogs of yours.”
Kli-Kli was right there—in olden times the goblins had been treated very badly by men, who had decided that the little green creatures were terrible monsters. Before they finally realized what was what, there were only a few tribes left of what had once been a large population.
“But the history of this forest is really interesting. Is it true that this is the place where elves and orcs both first appeared?”
“Yes.” Kli-Kli giggled. “And then they went straight for each other’s throats. I think the elves even have a song about it. ‘The Tale of the Gold,’ it’s called.”
“‘The Legend of the Soft Gold,’ Kli-Kli. You’ve got it all mixed up,” said Egrassa, who had overheard our conversation.
“Ah, what’s the difference!” Kli-Kli said with a careless wave of his hand. “Tale, legend … there still won’t be peace in Zagraba as long as there’s a single orc still alive.”
“Egrassa,” Mumr said to the elf. “Could you tell us this legend?”
“It has to be sung, not just told. I’ll sing it for you. At the next halt.”
“So you’ve decided to sing forbidden songs, cousin,” Miralissa chuckled, plucking a reddish-golden leaf from the nearest tree and crumpling it in her fingers.
“But why is it forbidden?” Kli-Kli immediately asked Miralissa.
“It’s not exactly forbidden, it’s just singing it in decent elfin company is regarded as the height of disrespect. But it is sung—mostly by rebellious youths, and mostly in secret, in dark corners, in order not to disgrace the honor of their ancestors.”
“What’s so bad about it?” asked Eel, raising one eyebrow.
“It doesn’t show the elves in the best of lights, Eel,” put in Milord Alistan Markauz, who had been silent so far, “and the orcs are shown as pure white lambs. I’d bet half my land that the song was made up by men.”
“Milord is mistaken, the song was composed by an elf. A very long time ago. Have you heard it?” Egrassa asked in surprise.
“Yes, in my young days. One of your light elf brothers sang it.”
“Yes, they could do that,” said the dark elf, adjusting the silver coronet on his head. “Our relatives rejected the magic of our ancestors, so it’s not surprising that they sing such things to strangers.”
“But you promised to sing it to us!” Kli-Kli teased Egrassa.
“That’s a different matter!” the elf snapped haughtily.
Whatever the dark elves might say to anyone, relations between them and their light brethren were not problem-free.
We marched for another three hours before the elf ordered a halt. The group stopped in a meadow overgrown with small forest daisies, and the white flowers made it look as if snow had fallen. The autumn had no power over the Land of Forests. At least, not yet. We still came across butterflies and summer flowers.
There was a small stream gurgling through the roots of a broad-trunked hornbeam at the edge of the meadow, so we were well provided with water.
“We’ll stay here tonight,” Miralissa said decisively.
Alistan nodded. From the moment we entered the forest he had completely surrendered his command to Miralissa and Egrassa, and he obeyed all their instructions. One thing you couldn’t accuse Milord Rat of was a lack of brains. The count understood perfectly well that the elves knew far more about the forest than he did and he should take whatever they suggested seriously. That is, drop the reins of command when necessary.
“Egrassa, you promised us a song,” Kli-Kli reminded the elf after supper.
“Let’s get some sleep instead,” Hallas said with a yawn. “It’s the middle of the night.”
The gnome only liked the songs of his own people. Like the “The Hammer on the Ax” or “The Song of the Crazy Miners.” He had absolutely no interest in anything else.
“Not on your life!” the goblin protested desperately.
“Hallas, you’re on watch tonight,” Eel reminded the gnome. “So don’t start settling down, you won’t be getting a good night’s sleep anyway.”
“Oh, no! The first watch is yours and Lamplighter’s. Deler and me only come on for the second half of the night, so I’ll have plenty of time.”
Hallas turned over on his side, ignoring everyone else, and immediately started snoring.
“So, are we going to hear the song?” asked Mumr, who had just had the stitches taken out of his wound by Miralissa.
Thanks to the elfess’s shamanic skills, instead of an ugly scar, all Lamplighter had as a reminder of his terrible wound was a faint pink line running across his forehead.
“Yes, just as I promised,” Egrassa replied. “But it requires music.”
“So what’s the problem? I’ve got my whistle with me,” said Lamplighter, reaching into his pocket.
“I’m afraid we need music that’s rather more gentle,” said the elf, declining Mumr’s offer. “Your whistle makes too much noise. I’ll just be a moment.”
Egrassa rose lightly off the grass, walked over to his bag, and took out a small board about the size of an open hand. There were thin silvery strings, barely visible in the moonlight, stretched across the board.
“What’s that?” Deler asked curiously.
“A g’dal,” Miralissa answered. “Egrassa likes to play it when he has the time.”
Egrassa likes to play music? Well, now, I’d never have guessed. At least, I’d never seen the elf doing anything of the kind in all the time we’d been traveling together.
The dark elf’s rough fingers ran across the fine strings with surprising agility and the strange instrument sang in a quiet voice. Egrassa kept plucking at the strings and the sleeping meadow was filled with the melody.
“Don’t forget that the legend should really be sung in orcic. It won’t sound as beautiful in human language,” Egrassa warned us, and started to sing.
Arrows of bronze are used by orcs,
The elves make theirs of gold.
The Golden Forest and the Black—
The song of the branches is cold.
Led by their King, the elves arrived,
The orcs were led by their Hand.
Facing each other eye to eye
Argad and the King did stand.
“This forest is ours,” said the King,
“Turn back, my friends, and go.
What use to an orc is a bleeding skin
Pierced by arrows of gold?”
“Your words will not serve you for soldiers,”
Came the answer from the Hand.
“I have two thousand bold warriors
And you but a small fighting band.
“We will take back our forest as booty,
Fortune favors the hardest blades,
Gold is the softest of metals,
And our bronze will rule the day.”
For long minutes King Eldionessa
Replied not a single word.
Then he took out an empty quiver
And smiled at his enemies’ lord.
“No arrows?” asked Argad in wonder.
“Then this is surrender, it seems.”
The King laughed: “Hand, you are dreaming,
Woe unto you and your dreams.
“Argad, your time is approaching!
Do you hear the war horns sound?
Those are men in armor arriving,
Their boots are tramping the ground.
“Indeed bronze is strong, I know.
You were right to say that, Hand.…
But I changed our golden arrows
For a fighting force of men.”
The orcs closed their ranks together
And stood with their shields raised high,
The Hand he frowned and glowered.
The King had a glint in his eye.
“Foolish elf!” Argad’s harsh words
Struck like a mighty sword blow.
“Do you think, when they finish with us,
The men will just turn and go?”
Then metal on metal sounded
As blade struck hard against blade.…
Argad fell, twelve times wounded,
And could not rise again.
“Hand, why are you now so silent?”
Asked the elf, leaning down over him.
“Gold is the softest of metals,
To lie here is good, oh King.
“Death will sharpen the meaning
Of these few words that I speak.
Fight for your home with your own strength,
Though your forces may be weak.”
Thus saying, he opened his eyes
And death stopped the breath of the Hand.
“What was it you said?” asked the Elf-King.
“How am I to understand?”
“A hard battle,” the weary man panted,
“And dearly indeed has it cost.
Orcs are stubborn and bronze is hard,
Many good men have I lost.”
Said the King: “We are most thankful.
This service will not be forgot.”
The man asked: “Are we mere servants?
Surely, my friend, we are not!
“A hired soldier is a fine thing
When he fights on distant ground,
But at home greater honor is given
To the lowly hunting hound.”
“Now what is it you seek?
You were paid! And we fought too!
You know we are not mean!
Yet more pay? Here, will this do?”
“No more pay,” proclaimed the man-soldier,
Addressing the elf with a grin.
“Gold is the softest of metals,
And we shall just take everything.”
Egrassa sang well, and the song flowed quietly and beautifully. The rousing words were like a furious battle in the distance and the strings wept when the Hand of the orcs died after giving his final words of advice to his kinsman and bitter enemy.
The elf’s g’dal sang its final plaintive chord and an oppressive silence descended on the meadow.
“A beautiful legend,” Deler eventually said with a sigh.
“It’s hardly surprising that the elves are not very fond of that song. Milord Alistan is right: It doesn’t show your race in the best possible light,” Mumr commented.
“And the orcs are so very noble,” Miralissa replied with a contemptuous expression.
“Not the best possible light … so very noble…,” Kli-Kli drawled. “It’s nothing but a stupid song, and nothing like that ever really happened!”
“How do you know it didn’t?” asked Deler, stretching out on his horse blanket and yawning widely.
“Because it’s nothing but a legend. Without a single shred of truth in it. When the elves appeared in the Golden Forest, there weren’t any negotiations. The orcs went straight into battle. And definitely nobody called each other ‘friend.’”
“But Eldionessa did exist. The first and last king who ruled our entire people,” said Miralissa, pouring cold water on Kli-Kli’s belligerent passion. “His children created the houses of the elves.”
“And Argad lived eight hundred years later, and he almost reached Green Leaves; you barely managed to stop his army at the edge of the Black Forest,” the goblin said disdainfully. “And men appeared in Siala one thousand seven hundred years after the events described, so Eldionessa, Argad, and the man couldn’t possibly all have met each other. And the elves are certainly not such idiots as to make their arrowheads out of gold. And the orcs are not so stupid as to forge their yataghans out of bronze. It’s nothing but a legend, Tresh Miralissa.”
“But you must admit it’s beautiful, Kli-Kli,” I said.
“It’s beautiful,” the little jester said with an amicable nod. “And very instructive, too.”
“Instructive? What lesson does it teach, goblin?” asked Alistan Markauz, stirring the fire with a stick.
“That you shouldn’t rely on men or trust them, otherwise you can lose your home forever,” the goblin replied.
Nobody tried to argue or object. This time the king’s fool was absolutely right: Give us a chance, and we’ll finish off all our enemies, then our friends, and then each other.
That night my nightmares came back, and at one point when my head was filled with incomprehensible hodgepodge, I opened my eyes.
Morning had already come, but everyone was still asleep, apart from Lamplighter. Hallas and Deler were dozing, having laid their own responsibilities on the shoulders of reliable Mumr. The soldier nodded without speaking when he noticed that I was awake. I lay there for a while, feeling surprised that Miralissa was not in any hurry to get up and wake the others. Perhaps the elfess had decided to let the group have a rest before the final dash for Hrad Spein?
That was probably it.
I heard Kli-Kli crooning gently somewhere at the edge of the meadow. The goblin was wandering along the line of the trees, singing a simple little song. So I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep.
“What are you singing?” I asked, going up to him. “You’ll wake everyone up.”
“I’m being quiet. Want some strawberries?” Kli-Kli held out a hat, filled to the brim with fine strawberries.
The berries were giving off an amazing smell, and I simply couldn’t resist.
“You were groaning in your sleep again, Dancer. Bad dreams?”
“Probably,” I said with a casual shrug. “Fortunately I hardly remember them.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” the goblin said with a frown. “Someone doesn’t want you to see them.”
“And just who is this someone?”
“The Master, for instance. Or his servant—Lafresa.”
“You certainly know how to keep your friends’ spirits up,” I told Kli-Kli. “Come on, let’s get a fire going while everyone’s asleep.”
“You go on. I’ll just finish off the strawberries and take Deler’s hat back.”
“Hmmm … Kli-Kli, surely you can see the inside is all stained with juice? You squashed half the strawberries!”
“Really? I never thought about that,” said the goblin, thoughtfully contemplating what he had done. “It’s just that I think squashed strawberries taste a little bit better than ordinary ones. Maybe I should wash the hat in the stream?”
“Please don’t, you’ll only make it worse,” I told him, and set off back.
Kli-Kli was like a little child; he didn’t seem to realize that now Deler would be yelling the whole day long about how his hat had been ruined! And the jester had made that unwelcome comment about the Master and Lafresa, too.
The Master was the nasty piece of work who had been making our lives a misery since the very beginning of our journey, but we still hadn’t found out who he was. The bastard was virtually omnipotent and vindictive, and his powers rivaled any of the gods’. But the lad obviously didn’t want to simply swat us like flies, so he just mocked and battered us, and when we ruined his latest tricky plan, it didn’t upset him at all, he simply came up with a new one even more elegant and dangerous in no time at all. The Master, like the Nameless One, was not very keen on the idea of us retrieving the Rainbow Horn from the burial chambers. But while it was a matter of life and death for the Nameless One, it was just one more whimsical fancy for the Master.
Lafresa was a servant of the Master, and although she looked like a twenty-year-old, she was several hundred years old—at least that was according to one of my dreams. (Yes, indeed, imagine that—I happened to have acquired the remarkable gift of prophetic dreams!) And Lafresa was also the most powerful shamaness (or should that be shawoman?) that I had ever seen in my life. The Master’s servant possessed the forbidden magic of Kronk-a-Mor, and she had managed to kill two of us with it after we stole the Key and left her with egg on her face. And to be quite honest …
“Watch where you’re treading, beanpole!” someone barked in a deep bass voice under my feet.
I was so startled I almost sprouted wings and flew away. I certainly jumped a serious distance up into the air.
“I’ve seen all sorts of things in my time, but I’ve never seen a beanpole jump like that before! Hey! Where are you looking, idiot? Look down! Down!”
Sitting there on the ground was a creature that looked like a strange mixture of a grasshopper, a dragonfly, and a goat. That’s right. This little creature had the legs of a grasshopper, the head and body of a goat, and the transparent, segmented wings had been inherited from a large dragonfly. Its entire body was covered with yellow and black stripes. In other words, sitting there at my feet was an actual legendary dragoatfly. The little beast was no larger than the palm of a man’s hand.
“Well, how much longer are you going to go on gawping at me?” the same voice asked.
It was only then I saw there was a tiny man, the size of my little finger, sitting on the dragoatfly’s neck. Curly golden hair, a tearful-looking face, a little suit of velvet lilac, a small bow, and a quiver. This creature was looking at me with an expression of high dudgeon.
“A flinny,” I gasped.
“How very perceptive, may the forest spirits drink my blood! Are you always so bright, or is it just in the mornings? Take me to elfess, quick!”
“What elfess?” I asked, staggered by the little minnow’s cheek.
The dragoatfly shot up into the air and hovered in front of my nose, fluttering its wings. The flinny on its neck gave me a hostile look. “Are all beanpoles this stupid, or did they dig you out especially for me? Tresh Miralissa of the house of the Black Moon. Ever heard of her?”
“Then wake up and take me to her, you idiot!” the little man yelled.
“What’s the noise?” asked Kli-Kli, who had joined us unnoticed. “Ah, a flinny’s shown up!”
“I’ll give you ‘shown up,’ greeny,” the midget fumed.
“Greeny, you say?” Kli-Kli asked ominously. “You just shut your mouth, you golden-haired half pint, or it’ll be worse for you!”
“All right, all right, keep your hair on,” said the flinny, backing down immediately. “I was just introducing myself.”
“Well, now you have. So what have you shown up here for?” asked Kli-Kli, deliberately emphasizing the two words “shown up,” but the flinny pretended not to hear the insult and he sang out: “A message. Information. News.”
“Well, go and pass it on. The elves have already got up—look!”
“I have to be introduced, you know yourself, it’s the custom,” said the flinny, making a face as if someone had stuffed sour gooseberries into his mouth.
“I know,” Kli-Kli sighed, “your kind are all full of dragoatfly’s milk! Come on, then.”
The dragoatfly’s wings hummed as it flew alongside the goblin’s shoulder. I walked behind them as a guard of honor.
“Lady Miralissa, permit me to present the flinny.… What’s that your name is, titch?”
“Aarroo g’naa Shpok of the Branch of the Crystal Dew, you blockhead,” the flinny hissed, stretching his lips out into a smile.
“Aarroo g’naa Shpok of the Branch of the Crystal Dew.”
“I am glad to greet my brother of the little people at my campfire. What brings you here, Aarroo g’naa Shpok of the Branch of the Crystal Dew?” Miralissa asked with a nod of greeting.
“A message. Information. News,” Aarroo answered with his ceremonial phrase, and set the dragoatfly down on the ground.
“Have you sought me out especially, or is your knowledge for any of the dark elves?”
“I have sought you out. The head of the House of the Black Moon sent several of my brothers to look for you, Tresh Miralissa, but I am the only one fortunate enough to have found you. And that is all because I can think.”
“Luck serves the worthy,” the elfess replied seriously to the little braggart. “Would you care to taste our food and drink our wine?”
“Gladly,” Aarroo shouted, rubbing his little hands together in anticipation of the forthcoming banquet.
Egrassa had already brought the food, and the delighted flinny was presented with a tiny little golden plate of gruel cooked by Hallas and a tiny little goblet of fragrant wine. The elf obviously carried these miniature items around with him especially for little loudmouths who rode around on dragoatflies.
I touched Kli-Kli’s elbow and led him aside to make sure that the flinny couldn’t—Sagot forbid—overhear our conversation.
“Why are they making such a fuss of that little squirt? Wouldn’t it be easier to first find out why he came to us, and then feed him?”
“Oh, Harold,” the goblin said, clicking his tongue in disappointment. “Of course it wouldn’t be easier. He’s a flinny. You should never forgive their rudeness, or those flying nosey parkers will hound you to death, but you can’t just dispense with the ancient rituals, either. If it was something urgent or dangerous, he would have told us already, but since it can wait a bit, it’s best to stick to their silly rules. He’ll eat up his gruel and tell us everything. You should just be thankful that he was sent to us with a message, otherwise we wouldn’t have got away with just food. Freelance flinnies usually take something more substantial than a full stomach for their information. Let’s go back, I want to hear what the little gasbag has to say.”
The flinny had almost finished his meal. The little fellow ate with the speed of a ravenous giant, while the dragoatfly peered over its master’s shoulder at the plate and mewed gently, making a sound like the squeaking of a drowning mouse. Aarroo whatever-his-name-was shoved the dragonfly-goat’s face aside yet again.
“Have you got anything left in that great big cooking pot? Flolidal won’t leave us in peace until he gets fed,” the flinny said peevishly, taking a swig from his goblet.
Egrassa took a wooden spoon and scraped it round the pot, and the dragonfly-goat fell on the spoon with its wings humming, like a hungry vulture attacking a chicken.
Meanwhile Hallas woke up. The gnome yawned, then he spotted the flinny eating breakfast; he slammed his mouth shut so hard that his teeth clattered, and rubbed his eyes furiously. After this slapdash procedure Hallas took another look at Aarroo but, as was only to be expected, the flinny was still there, and he carried on chewing and gave the astonished Hallas a dour look.
“Strange,” the gnome declared thoughtfully, nudging the sleeping Deler in the back with his elbow. “Hey, hathead! I don’t remember us drinking anything yesterday. So why in blazes am I seeing little men?”
Deler woke up, took a look at Aarroo and said, “That’s a flinny, you bearded woodpecker!”
“In the name of the Nameless One, what do you mean, a flinny? Deler, flinnies only exist in children’s stories, and they don’t eat the gruel that I cooked!”
“Gnomes are even worse than people,” Aarroo declared in annoyance, apparently addressing everyone in the meadow at the same time. “As for the gruel, dear sir, it’s only my respect for Tresh Miralissa that prevents me from throwing this swill into your beard. I’ve never tasted such disgusting muck in my life!”
The gnome almost choked on this insolence and couldn’t come up with an answer.
“Well, then,” the flinny said with a sigh, pushing his plate away. “All the laws have been observed.”
Aarroo whistled to summon his dragoatfly, climbed onto its neck, circled round above us, then hovered in the air and announced in a singsong voice:
“A message. Tresh Eddanrassa, the head of the House of the Black Moon, sends his daughter Miralissa greetings and a mournful message. Tresh Elontassa has been killed in a skirmish with the Clan of the Bloody Axes. Tresh Epevlassa was killed at the same spot. Tresh Miralissa is now the third in line for the leafy crown, after only Tresh Melenassa and Tresh Epilorssa. Tresh Eddanrassa asks his daughter to abandon other business and return home as speedily as possible. The message is concluded. Do you wish to send a reply?”
“How did this happen?” Miralissa asked abruptly.
“The message is concluded. Do you wish to send a reply?” the flinny repeated stubbornly.
“The reply is: Until the business entrusted to me last year by the united council of the houses is completed, I shall not return home.”
“It has been heard,” the flinny said, nodding solemnly, and the dragoatfly flew another circle above us.
“Just like a dragonfly,” Mumr said with an envious whistle, following the flight of the magical creature.
“Information. Unpaid,” the flinny chanted, and made a wry face. He clearly didn’t like doing anything without pay. “In the Red Spinney, which lies beyond the city of Chu, all the birds have disappeared. And also the wild boar, the elk, the bears, the wolves, and almost all the forest spirits.”
“Why?” Egrassa asked curtly.
“If I knew, the information would not be unpaid,” Aarroo replied irritably. “I was told about it by the spirit of a large tree stump, who lives three leagues’ journey away from this spot. He didn’t know anything himself, but in recent times the small inhabitants of the forest have tried to keep as far away as possible from that area. And they keep their mouths tight shut about it, too.”
“Stupid information!” said Hallas, tugging on his beard in annoyance.
“The information is every bit as good as the porridge,” the flinny said furiously, and his dragoatfly buzzed angrily. “If the gnome wishes to taunt, then get your news from someone else! Let beard-face here tell you about it!”
“Shut up, Hallas,” Eel said immediately.
“Please forgive my servant, honorable Aarroo g’naa Shpok of the Branch of the Crystal Dew,” Miralissa said in a conciliatory tone of voice.
“Servant?” the gnome asked with a silent movement of his lips.
Deler waved his fist at Hallas. The gnome turned redder than a red-hot sheet of metal in a blacksmith’s forge, but he didn’t say a word.
“That’s a bit better,” the flinny said with a satisfied grin, and the dragoatfly made yet another circle in the air above our heads.
“Will we be passing through this Spinney, Lady Miralissa?” Alistan Markauz asked while this was happening.
“Unfortunately, yes. It’s the shortest route.”
“But there are others?” the count inquired, emphasizing every word.
“Yes, but if we go through the Red Spinney, we shall be at the Palaces of Bone tomorrow evening. By taking a detour we shall lose five or six days. And the path will lie right along the edge of the orcs’ inhabited lands. It is far too dangerous.”
“No more dangerous than a place from which all the forest spirits have disappeared,” Egrassa contradicted his cousin.
“We’ll take the risk,” said the elfess with a flash of her eyes.
“You are the senior in our line, it is for you to decide,” said the elf, raising his hands in the air to indicate that he did not intend to argue with her.
“News,” said the flinny, after waiting for the end of the conversation. Then he sang out: “Three pieces of news. The price of the first is a dance by that obstinate gnome.”
“What?” Hallas bellowed. “Gnomes never dance for anything!”
“Then I am doubly fortunate!” the flinny laughed mischievously. “If you wish to know the first piece of news, the gnome has to dance. If you do not wish to know it, I shall fly. I have already completed the assignment I was given and am only talking to you out of simple politeness.”
“Ah, you little…,” said the gnome, jumping up and clenching his fists.
“He will dance,” Alistan Markauz said firmly.
“What? Why, may I be—”
“That is an order, soldier! Dance!” said the captain of the guard in a voice with a steely ring to it.
“Dance, my friend,” said Deler, putting a reassuring hand on the gnome’s shoulder. “It’s only a dance for a flinny, after all. Imagine you’re dancing for me.”
That settled the matter. The gnome snorted disdainfully. “A gnome dancing for a dwarf! I’d rather dance for a flinny.”
And he did dance. It looked like some kind of gnomish military dance. At least, Hallas performed it with his battle-mattock in his hands, and it resembled a fight more than a dance of celebration. The Golden Forest had probably never seen a performance like it before. Lamplighter played along, helping the gnome out with his whistle. Kli-Kli clapped his hands merrily. Deler almost burst his sides laughing.
“That’s all!” the panting gnome declared.
“You gnomes dance even worse than you cook,” the flinny declared.
Deler managed to grab Hallas by the arm just in time and drag him out of harm’s way.
“Now, how about the news?” said Miralissa, trying to be polite despite everything.
“News. People have been seen in the Golden Forest. They are two days ahead of you. More than twenty men. All armed. One woman. I saw no crests on their clothing.”
“Which way were they headed?”
“They were moving toward the Red Spinney. Two days ago it was still calm there.”
“I’d wager my soul that’s Balistan Pargaid and his men,” Milord Alistan said with a frown.
“And Lafresa. They’ll be at the entrance a lot sooner than us,” Kli-Kli sniffed.
“After their blunder with the Key, do you think they’ve decided to arrange an ambush for us at the entrance?”
“Perhaps, Harold, or perhaps not.” There was an anxious glint in the elfess’s eyes. “They might take the risk of trying to grab the tastiest morsel of all.”
“Yes. If you tell anyone about our conversation, I shall find you,” the elfess said, turning to the flinny.
“I understand that it is best not to interfere in elves’ secrets. I shall be as silent as the grave,” the flinny muttered discontentedly.
“Were any of the men wounded?” I asked him.
“One of them was missing his left hand.”
Well, if his hand was missing, it was definitely Paleface. That rat had been hunting me for ages, and during his last attempt to dispatch me into the light, Hallas had cut off his left hand. Paleface worked for Influential, or Player, as the Master’s servants called him. Player was some bigwig in Avendoom and it was thanks to his loving care and attention that I had almost lost my life. And for the time being Paleface was a member of Balistan Pargaid’s retinue.
Count Balistan Pargaid, for those who don’t know him, was a servant of the Master, and it was from his house in Ranneng that I stole the Key that we hoped to use to reach the very heart of Hrad Spein. Lafresa was supposed to deliver the Key to the Master in person, but I stole the Key, and then Balistan Pargaid and Lafresa set off after us in hot pursuit.
So far we had somehow managed to get the better of them, and not even a trial by combat had done them any good. Mumr had carved up his lordship’s prize warrior, and then everything had suddenly gone quiet. Balistan Pargaid and his retinue had disappeared. We had been wondering where he could have gotten to. Lafresa had already disappeared sometime during the trial by combat, and now it seemed likely that she had set out for Hrad Spein, and the count had caught up with her along the way. It was clear enough why Lafresa wasn’t afraid of entering Zagraba—she hoped that her shamanic skills would keep her safe. And she had no other choice anyway: The artifact had been lost, and the Messenger, who had instructed her to deliver the Key, would be very upset, not to mention the Master himself.
“What is the second piece of news?” Egrassa asked, looking at the flinny.
“The price of the second piece of news is a pinch of sugar.”
“We don’t have any sugar,” Hallas said spitefully. “We’re not confectioners, you know. Maybe I should do another dance for you?”
The gnome’s words sounded like a challenge.
“Oh, no! My heart couldn’t stand another spectacle like that! What do you have instead?”
We looked at each other. Darkness only knew what might interest this dealer in news.
“I have a sweet!” Kli-Kli suddenly announced.
“Show me it,” said Aarroo, leaning forward.
Kli-Kli hastily rummaged through the many pockets of his outfit and took out a battered-looking sweet, still wrapped in its bright golden paper. He must have been saving it since Avendoom.
The flinny studied it closely and then, with a bored expression on his face, as if he was doing us a humongous favor, declared, “Garbage, of course, but it’ll do. Throw it on the ground.”
I thought it was all an act, and the flinny actually liked the sweet. He lowered his dragoatfly right onto the sweet and started tying it to the belly of his mount.
“News. A man has been seen in the Golden Forest. Wearing a gray cloak, his face was not visible. Armed with a spear. Walking quickly, almost without stopping at all. Four hours’ flying away from you. Coming straight here. Seems like the Golden Forest has been smeared with honey; I haven’t seen so many outsiders in a long time. Ah, yes! I advise you not to interfere with him—the forest spirits say he’s a warrior.”
“We’re not exactly cobblers,” Deler protested.
“When the forest spirits say that someone’s a warrior, we usually take notice, but that’s up to you. The price of the third piece of news is the ring of that beanpole over there with the long mustache,” said the flinny, with a nod toward Alistan Markauz.
“Which one?” the count asked.
“Well, certainly not the silver one with your crest,” the little extortionist quipped. “You people are too sensitive about those little family knickknacks. It’s stupid to ask for them—you won’t give them up anyway. I like that one, with the red ruby.”
Alistan took the ring off his finger without the slightest objection and put it on the ground. The flinny smiled contentedly and the ring joined the sweet under his dragoatfly’s belly.
“Is your news worth it?” I asked.
“That’s for you to decide, not me. News. There are orcs nearby.”
“Where?” asked Egrassa, reaching for his bow.
“In the ruins of the city of Chu. Six of them. Ordinary scouts. They’re not waiting for you. They’ll stay there for another five days.”
“How do you know that?”
“I heard,” the flinny said with a grin. “One of them fell into a trap and broke his leg, and now he’s delirious, so only five of them are fit to fight. You can finish them off, or you can just avoid them.”
“We shall take note of your information. Is that all?”
“Yes. There is no more news, good-bye.”
The dragoatfly hummed as it rose up into the air and flew off toward the forest with its belly touching the tops of the daisies. The little beast was well loaded, and I was surprised it could get off the ground at all carrying that weight.
“Flinnies are very fond of all sorts of rings,” Kli-Kli enlightened me.
“I’ll remember that.”
“Rotten skunk!” Hallas exclaimed, watching with anger in his eyes as the flinny flew away.
“What can you expect from a flinny?” Kli-Kli asked with mock surprise. “They earn their living by peddling the news.”
“So won’t he sell us to that group of orcs? I think the Firstborn could find something to pay for information on our whereabouts. I don’t trust those little runts.”
“He would do that, if the Firstborn would bother to talk to him. But they have no respect for flinnies, and the flinnies are too proud to put up with that kind of treatment.”
“Pack up your things!” said Egrassa, getting up off the ground. “We have the whole day until it gets dark, and then the night in reserve. We have to cover as much distance as possible today.”
“What are we going to do about the orcs?”
This was no idle question from Mumr—there were Firstborn up ahead, even if they weren’t expecting us.
“We’ll kill them,” said Egrassa, glancing at Miralissa, who nodded. “We could just avoid them, of course, but it’s never a good idea to leave enemies behind you.”
“And what do we do about this fellow who’s coming up behind us? Why don’t Deler and I stay behind and ask him a few questions?”
“Hallas, you have no brains and no imagination!” said Deler—the dwarf never pulled any punches talking to his partner. “All you ever want to do is to wave that mattock about. The flinny told us this fellow is dangerous and we should stay well clear of him! And even if we beat him, then how are we going to find the group afterward, have you thought about that? Or since this morning have gnomes learned how to wander through forests without getting lost?”
“It’s no more difficult than walking through the mine galleries,” Hallas muttered.
“But I don’t want to get lost in the forest and then one fine day discover that I’ve wandered into an orcs’ nest,” Deler snapped.
“No one’s staying here,” said Milord Alistan, putting a swift end to the argument between the gnome and the dwarf. “If that man wants to follow us, let him. If he catches up and attacks us, then we’ll fight him. I’m more concerned about Pargaid and his dogs waiting for us up ahead, and this Spinney.”
“We’ll deal with Pargaid when we reach him, milord,” said Eel, who had already packed his sack.
“There’s no reason to be so concerned about the Spinney, either,” said Miralissa, throwing her s’kash behind her shoulder. “The forest spirits could have left it for a hundred different reasons. We’ll hope for the best.”
“And expect the worst,” I muttered quietly, but I think the elfess heard me anyway.
“Kli-Kli.” The dwarf’s voice was very soft, but it sounded rather ominous for the goblin. “What did you do with my hat?”
The goblin decided the best thing to do was hide behind my back. That’s always the way—he plays his pranks and Harold’s left holding the baby.
Shadow Blizzard Copyright © 2003 by Aleksey Pehov