A dragon chew on you for a while and spit you out?" Rig Mer-Krel asked as he leaned against the doorframe, eyeing a patient who was almost completely sheathed in bandages. 9 страница Главная страница сайта Об авторах сайта Контакты сайта Краткие содержания, сочинения и рефераты

A dragon chew on you for a while and spit you out?" Rig Mer-Krel asked as he leaned against the doorframe, eyeing a patient who was almost completely sheathed in bandages. 9 страничка


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Across the camp, Rig gaped at her. Dhamon brushed by the mariner, Rikali and Fetch on his heels. Dhamon opened an empty waterskin and held it out to catch the rain as he headed toward the wagon, intending to camp underneath it. "Fiona, I told Rig you're welcome to share our camp tonight."

She stepped in front of him, eyes bright, blocking his path.

"You're not taking me back to Ironspike." His head was still a little muddied by the alcohol, but his words were coming clearer and quicker.

"Not my plan."

"You're not taking me anywhere else to ‘atone' for my crimes. I won't let you."

"I wouldn't think of it."

Dhamon tipped back his head and chuckled. "And you're not going to change my ways, dearest Fiona. I've been through this with Rig. No redemption. I rather enjoy the way I've turned out."

She took a step closer until the stink of his sweat and the alcohol on his breath stung her eyes. "I don't want to redeem you, Dhamon Grimwulf. I want to join you."

CHAPTER SEVEN

Grim Kedar's

"You're crazy! Join him?" The mariner's eyes were wide, mouth working soundlessly as he tried to figure out what else to say to Fiona.

"Join me?" Dhamon, too, was momentarily stunned. Then his face quickly slipped into its stoic mask and his eyes grew hard. His teeth clicked lightly together and he alternately clenched and relaxed his fingers as he waited for Fiona to explain herself.

"Join a band of brigands? I'd say that's hardly the Solamnic thing to do. Might tarnish your shinin' plate mail." Rikali sidled up close to the Knight. "Besides, Fee-ohn-a, we don't want you to join us. The four of us do just fine by ourselves. The two of you wouldn't fit in. And wouldn't be welcome."

Fiona none-too-gently nudged the half-elf away, causing Rikali to puff out her chest, thrust her chin up, and make a defiant fist. Maldred put a hand on the half-elf's shoulder, keeping her from taking a swing at the Knight.

"I need coins, Dhamon. Gems, jewels, lots of them. I need them quickly. Immediately. And you seem to know how to get them."

Rig slapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. Softly, he said, "It won't work, Fiona. You can't make a deal with evil. I can't believe you're considering this. By all the vanished gods, I had no idea this was going through your head." The mariner watched the Knight, a myriad of emotions playing on his face-above all, annoyance.

The Solamnic had everyone's attention. "My brother is one of several Solamnic Knights held captive in Shrentak," Fiona began. "He's been there for nearly two months. And I mean to see him free."

"Shrentak, the heart of the swamp," Rikali whispered. "Now that's a right foul place to find yourself in." The half-elf wrinkled her nose and leaned against Dhamon, who in turn leaned more heavily on his cane.

"Sable, the black dragon overlord, holds them-and others-in her lair. And I intend to free my brother and as many other Knights as I can. I'll have to use plenty of coin to ransom them."

Dhamon stood silent for several moments, the rain and her words sobering him. His dark hair was plastered against the sides of his head, the grime on his face and hands slowly vanishing under the constant torrent. The fire behind him was out, plunging the camp into darkness. Still, there was just enough light from the lightning that danced overhead to register his grim expression. A touch of anger burned in his eyes, the skin on his face was taut like a drum.



"You should listen to Rig," Dhamon told her. "Ransoming them, making a deal with a dragon, that's foolishness indeed. You should know better."

"I've no choice."

"Contact your mighty Solamnic Council. Doubtless they ordered the Knights into the swamp in the first place. They can send more Knights to rescue them."

She shook her head. "Yes, the council sent my brother and the other men. For what purpose is a mystery. And yes, the council has tried to rescue them. Twice garrisons have gone in. And twice, no one has returned."

"Send another." His words sounded hard and brittle. "It would be an honorable cause."

Rikali thrust out her bottom lip and nodded agreement.

"The council refuses," Fiona practically hissed. "In all its infinite wisdom it has decreed that no more lives will be… ‘thrown away, were the words."

"Then hire mercenaries." This from Maldred.

"We've tried," Rig added. "But no amount of coin, it seems, will lure people into Sable's swamp."

"Smart people," the half-elf cut in.

"But coin will get my brother out," Fiona continued. "One of the dragon's minions recently contacted the council and said Sable would ransom the men for enough coin and gems. Dragons horde treasure."

"But you can't trust a dragon." Dhamon's words were ice.

So I've told her, Rig mouthed.

"I don't have any choice," she repeated firmly. "He's my brother."

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Dhamon shook his head. "And he's probably dead. Or for his sake you should hope he is."

"I don't believe that. I'd know if he were dead. Somehow I'd know."

Dhamon let out a breath between his clenched teeth and cocked his head to catch a glimpse of a long fork of lightning. He squinted through the rain. "And the council, Fiona, what did they contribute for this ransom?"

Thunder rocked the camp and the lightning overhead intensified, jagged fingers bouncing from cloud to cloud.

The rain was drumming down even faster now.

"Nothing," she finally said. "Not a single piece of steel. They said they would have no part of this, didn't believe the minion's offer to ransom the men. They've written off the Knights, the council has, considering all of them lost. Dead."

"Then why…" Dhamon began.

"I'm doing this on my own. And I'm risking my standing as a Solamnic Knight." She crossed her arms, looking more defiant than Dhamon ever recalled seeing her. "I don't care how I get this treasure, Dhamon Grimwulf. I'll rob hospitals with you. Merchant wagons. I'll do whatever it takes short of killing. I'll…"

"… be joining our fine, but humble company of thieves, it seems, Lady Knight," Maldred finished. Rikali spat at the ground, and Fetch's eyes glowed red. Dhamon's expression was unreadable, though his unwavering eyes were on Maldred now, not Fiona. "Pity, however, that we have no wealth at present to contribute to your worthy endeavor, Lady Knight," the big man continued. "Nothing. We squandered nearly everything Dhamon recovered from the hospital. But we are traveling to Bloten, to drop off some supplies. And there, I am certain we can arrange for a way to gain considerable wealth. Enough for your ransom."

Fiona's stiff posture relaxed just a little. "I am to meet Sable's minion in Takar. He lives there, somewhere. It shouldn't be hard to find him and…"

"And this man is…" Dhamon prompted.

"Not a man, Dhamon. A draconian. The dragon has assigned him there."

"Lovely," Rikali interjected. "And you'll recognize him, I suppose."

Fiona nodded. "He has a gold collar welded about his neck. And a deep scar on his chest. I'd recognize him."

"A charmin' fellow, I'm sure," Rikali added.

Fiona ignored the half-elf, who was now grumbling about the swamp and the Knight, and about four thieves being more than enough for their small company. The Solamnic continued to watch Dhamon and Maldred. "Bloten is not very far out of the way," she said finally. "I'll go with you."

Behind her, Rig cupped his face with his hands.

* * * * * * *

The rain turned soft, but maintained a steady downpour until dawn, a sheet of driving gray that kept them thoroughly soaked, and turned the trail that wound between the rocky ridges into mud.

"You should return to Khur," Dhamon told Rig as the mariner was saddling his big mare. The horse was not as good as the one Dhamon had stolen from him. Its back swayed and there was a large lump on one rear leg. "The country's more hospitable, safer for you and Fiona. Talk her out of this nonsense. Dragons… and draconians… are not to be trusted. She's wasting her time."

The mariner cinched the saddle and made a clucking sound in his throat. "Glad to see you're so concerned about our safety."

"I'm not." Dhamon's face was impassive, his voice steady. "I'd just rather not have your company."

"All the more reason, then, for Fiona and me to come with you. I know once she gets her mind set on something I can't change it. But I'm not going to help any of you swipe a single steel piece."

"A waste of time," Dhamon repeated.

"It's our time to waste."

The trail they followed had become a meandering brown snake that rippled with thick rivulets of water. At times it gently wound its way through the mountains, with steep rocks rising on both sides. But often it coiled around the edge of the western slope, as it was doing now, climbing a near-vertical cliff face, the top of which disappeared into dark gray clouds on one side, on the other a two-hundred-foot drop-off that yielded to Sable's immense swamp. A thin strip of cloud hovered above a section of the swamp, a few of the giant cypresses stretched through it, their tops decorated with large parrots.

Rikali sloshed ahead, probing with Dhamon's cane to make sure the way was safe for the horses and wagon. Though complaining about the task, she had suggested that it be done and that she be the one to handle it.

"My eyes're better'n yours," she had said to the men. Softer, so Rig and Fiona could not hear, "and I don't want anythin' happenin' to our gems. No tumble down the mountainside to lose them after all we went through to get ‘em." She knew Dhamon was still favoring his ribs and that Maldred couldn't use his right arm. And although her own scrapes and bruises hadn't yet healed, she recognized she was the best choice for guide. The only thing wrong with Fetch seemed to be the repulsive odor he was exuding from being so thoroughly wet, but Rikali didn't trust the kobold to lead the wagon.

Maldred sat on the wagon bench, eyes trained on the half-elf, his wounded arm still tucked close to his chest. Dhamon, who sat next to him, could tell he was feverish. Dhamon had the reins and was watching Rikali carefully, too, though it was clear from his blank expression his mind was elsewhere.

Fetch was behind them, sitting cross-legged on the tarp that covered the bulging bags of gemstones. He'd fastened the tarp down tightly at Maldred's orders. Rig had been eyeing the tarp, and the kobold felt certain he was trying to guess what was underneath. Supplies, hah! Fetch had decided from the very beginning that he didn't like the dark man-didn't like the way he swaggered, the way his eyes flared from time to time with belligerence, the way he dressed, and the kobold certainly did not like all the weapons he carried.

The kobold didn't care for the Knight, either, but he knew Maldred was at least mildly interested in her, so voicing too much resentment there would be wasting words.

Fiona and Rig rode side by side behind the wagon, the entire procession moving slowly, the mariner frequently glancing at the tarp.

"They're talking," the kobold informed Maldred, his beady red eyes fixed on the mariner, hoping to unnerve him. "All this rain, the patter, making it too hard fer me to hear what they're saying. Something ‘bout Knights an' prisoners an' Shren-something, can't make out the rest. Wagon's creaking, too. Hope it doesn't fall apart. Loaded down with gems and water. Water. Water. Water."

"I thought you wanted it to rain."

The kobold made a noise that sounded like a pig snorting. "Not this much, Mai. Can't even light up my old man. Tobacco's all damp. In all my days I've never seen it rain so much at one time in these mountains. It ain't right. Ain't natural. It could stop anytime now an'…" As a booming clap of thunder cut the kobold off, he dug his small claws into the tarp. "An' what's this business about you helping that Solamnic Knight get coins an' gems an' such? Since when do we share our booty with the likes of her?"

Maldred chuckled. "I truly have no intention of helping her. And I certainly won't share any of what we have in the wagon."

"Yeah, yeah, it's for Dhamon's sword," the kobold grumbled. "Damn expensive sword."

"But she believes I will help her," Maldred continued. "And that thought warms my heart."

"And keeps her hanging around." Fetch made a face. "But she's a… well, she's a Solamnic Knight. Trouble. Very big trouble. Besides, she's going to marry that man."

"But she isn't married yet. And I fancy her."

"Fancy." The kobold snarled again. "The last woman you fancied was the wife of a rich Sanction merchant an'…"

"She didn't have so much spirit as this one," Maldred returned. "And wasn't quite so pretty. Besides, Lady Knight and the dark man are heading toward Takar, and eventually, deeper into the swamp. I suspect we could turn a good profit by going along-at least part of the way."

At mention of the swamp, Dhamon snapped to attention. He shot the big man a protesting glance. "You can't…"

"What's this about profit?" Fetch qut in. "How much profit?"

"There are people in Bloten who are concerned about Sable and her swamp. They'll pay well for any information garnered from a scouting party."

"I'm not going on your little scouting party," Dhamon said. "Bad enough you invited Rig and Fiona along."

Maldred shrugged. "If I hadn't, they'd have followed us anyway. Lady Knight is headstrong. Better we keep track of them."

Dhamon found himself agreeing. "But I don't have to like it," he said. Then he reached behind the seat and for the jug. Shaking it, he scowled. There was little left. He unstoppered it, drained the last of the spirits, then tossed the jug over the side of the mountain and watched it disappear into the mist.

Just then, Rikali slipped, the cane flying from her fingers and clattering over the edge. Dhamon pulled back on the reins, stopping the horses before they could trample her. Spitting and cursing, she picked herself up and brushed at the mud on her back. The half-elf looked up at Maldred and vehemently shook her head. Her long white hair was plastered against the sides of her body, streaked with mud. "It's like a damn stream ahead!" she hollered. "Pigs, but water is gushing down it. It's too slippery. We'll have to stop."

"Fetch!" Dhamon gestured to the kobold.

Muttering all the way, the small creature clambered down from the wagon and skidded toward the half-elf, falling twice before he reached her. He glanced down the merchant trail that continued to wind its way along the edge of the Kalkhists, his red eyes looking like tiny beacons through the gray sheet of rain. He skidded past Rikali and glanced around the next curve, scowled, and looked up, squinting as the rain pounded against his face.

"She's right. It's pretty bad," he called to Dhamon. "But waiting ain't gonna help." He pointed. "No sign of this letting up anytime soon. Only gonna get worse."

The big man gestured down the trail, and Rikali and Fetch moved slowly ahead, stopping at the bend to wait for the wagon to catch up, and guiding the horses around the next outcropping. It was difficult going, as a significant portion of the trail was washing away, and what was left was barely wide enough for the wagon. When the wagon rounded another curve, Fetch let out a whoop. His feet flew out from underneath him. Hands flailing in the air, the kobold slipped toward the edge.

Rikali grabbed his bony wrist just as his body shot over the side. She let him dangle in the air for a moment, treasuring the terror-filled look on his face before hauling him to safety and hoisting him up on the back of one of the horses. "Worthless," she muttered, turning and resuming her task as solo guide. "You are completely worthless, Fetch."

What would have taken them only a few hours, took them nearly the entire day and almost resulted in a catastrophe when a wheel slipped off the trail. It required Rig, Fiona, and Dhamon to set it back on.

They camped that night on a small plateau that was free of mud-the rain had washed all the earth away, revealing a layer of slate that gleamed slickly black when the moon made a brief visit. The rain was also threatening to dislodge the few saplings that sprouted from the cracks in the cliff face. The small trees were whipping about unmercifully in the wind that had picked up and that was driving the rain nearly horizontally.

The deluge continued throughout the night, lessening with the morning and then increasing again at sunset. The sky was masked with clouds, billowy and dark and rumbling with constant thunder. Occasionally the ground shook beneath them, and though it was not as threatening as the earlier tremors, it unnerved Fetch, Rikali, and Mal-dred. Dhamon remained impassive to the weather and small quakes.

Rig and Fiona kept to themselves for the most part, and Dhamon managed to avoid their company by losing himself in Rikali's arms. The half-elf was suspicious enough to wonder why Dhamon had become so devoted all of a sudden. She couldn't help but notice the mariner's eyes narrow every time she kissed Dhamon.

"I know you love your brother," Rig said in a low voice to Fiona. "But I don't think he'd approve of this. Hell, I don't approve." They sat side by side on a flat rock, inured to the rain. "Keeping company with these people, heading to Bloten. That's the heart of ogre country. It doesn't feel right. And it's damn dangerous."

"I need to raise a ransom, Rig. How else can I get it? These… people… are my best chance. I have nothing- through the years I've tithed it all to the order. You haven't enough. And you haven't a better idea."

The mariner snorted and draped an arm around her shoulders, frowning when she didn't sag against him as she usually did. Her posture was as stiff as her armor. Water trickled out from between gaps in the plates and spilled over the lips of her boots. "I don't trust Dhamon. And what about this man Maldred? We know nothing about him other than that he's a thief."

"I recall you telling me you were a thief once."

The mariner shook his head, grinding his heel against the slate. "That was a lifetime ago, Fiona. Feels like it anyway. And I wasn't a thief. I was a pirate. There's a big difference. At least to me there is."

"Those whom you stole from might disagree." She sighed and softened her tone. "Look, Rig, I really need to raise this ransom. And soon. This is my best idea. Maybe if there was more time… but there isn't. His life is at stake."

"Do you really think this draconian will be waiting around for us?"

"He told the Solamnic Council he was stationed in Takar."

"And you trust him?"

She shrugged. "What choice do I have? Besides, there's no reason he'd lie to the council about his whereabouts if he really wanted to collect some treasure for Sable. And there's no reason he would've approached the council about a ransom in the first place if the dragon wasn't interested in adding to her horde."

"And if you can manage to raise the ransom, and get to Takar, you've still got to find this draconian. I'd wager there are quite a few draconians and spawn there."

She let out a deep breath. "That, I'm certain, will be the easy part. I will recognize him, Rig. I know it. His name is Olarg, and the scar was singular."

"Fine. So you're sure you can find him. And are you as certain this draconian will simply hand over your brother for a big sack of…"

"I've no alternative but to believe it. And Dhamon and Maldred are our best chance of raising the coin. Maybe our only chance. My brother must be set free. Then we can put all of this behind us and be married."

Rig raised his eyebrows and leaned forward to look into her face. She was watching the bare-chested Maldred, who was resting against the wagon, his face tipped up into the rain.

"And what about Dhamon? After this is all over-one way or the other?"

"Dhamon needs us to believe in him, and you know it. He needs another chance. He's a good man, Rig. Deep down. Too good to cart off to prison, no matter what he's done recently."

Her words genuinely surprised him. "Doesn't sound like you, Fiona. I thought you told me justice demands people pay for their wrongs."

"Justice," she repeated. "Where's the justice in this world? My brother is in Shrentak. And Dhamon is going to help me get him released. That's the justice I want-my brother free. Besides, Dhamon is really a good man. Deep down good."

I'm a good man, too, the mariner thought ruefully, as he picked a spot on the ground and settled down for another drenched and sleepless night.

Two days later, the rain still falling, though more gently now, they stood at the gates of Bloten, a once-great city nestled high in the Kalkhists, the mountains ringing it like a spiky crown.

A crumbling wall nearly forty feet high wrapped around the ancient capital. In sections it had collapsed, the gaps alternately filled with boulders piled high and mortared in place, and with timbers driven deep into the rocky ground and held together with bands of rusted iron. Across the top where the walls seemed in the worst repair, spears were jabbed in, angled outward and inward.

"Broken glass and caltrops are spread across the top everywhere," Fetch informed the mariner. "For the purpose of keeping the uninvited out."

"Or to keep everyone in," the dark man returned. "It looks like an enormous prison to me."

Atop a barbican that seemed so weathered it might crumble at any time, stood two grizzled ogres. Stoop-shouldered and wart-riddled, their gray-green hides slick with rain, they glowered down at the small entourage. The larger had a snaggly tooth that protruded up at an odd angle from his bottom jaw. A dark purple tongue snaked out to wrap around it. He growled something and thumped his spiked club against his shield, then growled again, issuing a string of guttural words lost on all save Maldred and Dhamon.

Maldred eased himself from the wagon, swaying a little from the effects of his fever, and padded to the massive wooden gates. He looked up at the pair and raised his good arm, balled his fist and circled it once in the air, then brought it down against his waist. Then he spoke, nearly shouting, his words sounding like a series of snarls and grunts.

Next, Maldred motioned to Dhamon, making a gesture Rig recognized as "wealth," or "coin," a signing word his deaf friend Groller taught him. Rig instantly thought of his companion, wondering if he'd found work on a ship somewhere or had elected some cause to champion. Perhaps he was assisting Palin Majere. The mariner regretted not staying in touch with Groller and found himself wishing the half-ogre were here. He would be handy in this city, though he would not be able to hear what was being said, and he was someone Rig could trust. If I get out of this, he mused, and after the matter of Fiona's brother is settled, I'm going to find my old friend.

Dhamon tugged the Legion of Steel ring off his hand and tossed it to Maldred. Again Maldred issued a string of growls and grunts, punctuating it by hurling the ring up at the ogres. The larger's arm shot out, warty fingers closing over the bauble. He brought it up to his eyes, then smiled, revealing yellowed, broken teeth. He snarled back happily.

"Not good," Rig whispered to Fiona. "That man Maldred knows the ogre tongue. Worse, it seems Dhamon does, too. And don't tell me ogres are deep down good. I know better. I don't like it."

"Good that someone can understand the brutes," she softly returned. "Otherwise, I doubt we'd get past the gates."

"Oh, we'll get in all right," the mariner smugly replied. "But we might not get back out again." He watched the doors swing wide, as the pair of ugly sentries gestured for them to enter. "I really don't think this is a good idea."

Fiona ignored him, kneeing her horse to follow the wagon. Rig cursed, but tagged along, keeping his eyes alert. The doors creaked closed behind them, and a great plank lowered to lock them in place. They saw large crossbows mounted at the crest of the walls, and ladders leading up to them. "Wonderful," the mariner muttered. "This is such an enchanting place we've come to. We should vacation here."

The city spread out before them, too large for them to take it all in at one glance. Massive buildings, the facades of which were deteriorating from age and lack of repair, stretched toward the clouds overhead. Signs hung from some of the buildings, drawings indicating taverns, weaponsmiths, and inns, though whether the buildings were actually open and operating businesses was doubtful-some looked as though they might topple at any moment and few lights shone from within. The words on the signs were in some foreign language, looking like faded and chipped bugs dancing in an uneven line. Ogre tongue, Rig guessed, though he had never seen it written down before.

Growing puddles dotted wide streets lined with wagons and massive draft horses with sagging backs. A large ox was being groomed by a one-eyed ogre woman outside what appeared to be a bakery. The woman glared at the Solamnic and brushed the ox harder as the group streamed past her.

Nearly all of the other citizens they spotted were ogres, manlike creatures nine or more feet tall. They were all broad-faced with large, thick noses, some of which were decorated with silver and gold hoops and bones. Their brows were thick, shadowing large, wide-set dark eyes that glanced at the newcomers, then looked away. Their ears were overlarge and misshapen, most pointed like an elf's, but not gracefully so. And their skin ranged from a pale brown to a rich mahogany. A few were green-gray, and one who strolled slowly across the street in front of them was the color of cold ashes. They milled about sluggishly, as if the unusual wet weather had managed to dampen their spirits.

Many were in hide armor and toting large spiked clubs. The shields that hung from many of their backs were pitted and worn, some with symbols painted on them, others with hash marks that attested to victories, or crudely painted pictures of fearsome animals they'd likely slain. Some ogres wore tattered clothes and ragged animal skins, and were sandaled or had bare feet, all looking filthy. Only a few were dressed in garments that appeared well made and reasonably clean.

There were some half-ogres in the crowd, and these were also dressed raggedly, their features closer to human-looking. One was a peddler hawking smoked strips of gray meat from beneath an awning that swelled away from a boarded-up building. A trio of ogre children hung around him, alternately begging for food and taunting him.

"Our good friend Groller's a half-ogre," Rig said, his voice low and his words intended only for Fiona. "But he's far removed from these creatures."

She nodded. "These people, Rig. Ogres were once the most beautiful race on Krynn. It is said no other race equalled their form."

"Beautiful. Pfah!"

"They were beautiful. But they fell from the grace of the gods during the Age of Dreams. Now they're ugly and brutal, shadows of what their ancestors were."

"Well, I don't care for these shadows," Rig said. "And I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you." His hands tightly gripped his mare's reins, the wet leather cutting into his finger joints, and his eyes drifting from one side of the street to the other, looking for a face with the tiniest spark of friendliness. "We're definitely out of place here, Fiona. I'm so uncomfortable my skin feels like ants're crawling all over it."

"Wait, there're some humans here." Fiona leaned forward in her saddle and pointed west, down a side street they were passing.


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