If Ever They Happened Upon My Lair by R. A. Salvatore

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  Many years ago, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman suggested that the three of us, along with Ed Greenwood, should do a book together. The idea was to each write a novella with our signature characters, taking them through the same challenges. It sounded like a blast to me, but unfortunately, for one reason or another, it never got off the ground.

  So when I was approached for Dragons: Worlds Afire, I was already softened to the idea. “If Ever They Happened Upon My Lair” is the only novella I’ve ever written, and I have to admit that I like the format much more than the short story. I’ve always been a fan of Fritz Leiber’s novellas, and James Joyce’s “The Dead” is probably my favorite piece of writing of all.

  Since we weren’t all writing the same conundrum for our heroes in this book, I was able to go back again to my favorite villains, Entreri and Jarlaxle. Although they don’t appear in this tale, the events certainly tie in to their adventuring days in Vaasa and Damara, for once again, I’m writing a supplement to the novels.

  I love the Bloodstone Lands, and I have since I read those old Douglas Niles game modules. It’s no accident that many of the characters appearing in Promise of the Witch King come straight from those modules. I wrote the resource book for the region for the AD&D game, and wanted to set my “Monk Quintet” in these lands (but the Monk Quintet became the Cleric Quintet and went to other reaches of the Realms). In addition, I’m intrigued by Zhengyi the Witch King—mostly because I know there’s an inside joke about the creation of the lich dating back to the old TSR days, and no one will let me in on it!

  I had a lot of fun with dragons in “Wickless in the Nether,” so I was quite comfortable in letting these beasts take center stage here. And just because I’m using dragons doesn’t mean I can’t continue my exploration of yet another theme that has played so prominently in the Legend of Drizzt: mortality. Dragons live a long, long time in the Forgotten Realms, but is even that long enough, I wonder? I always hear people declaring, “I wouldn’t want to live forever!” but I don’t really believe them—not most of them, anyway. I’m sure for some there is such certainty in “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” that the sentiment is sincere and would hold in the face of the ultimate test. I expect that most people might say it, but when the moment of truth came, they’d recant if doing so would do any good.

  And that really is the promise of the Witch King, after all, and the promise of vampires and the promise of most religions. So much of what we do in life relates to our fears and hopes of an afterlife, or an absence of one. This is the conundrum of rational, self-aware creatures, the eternal question of purpose or one big joke. Are we more than our mortal coils, or an accident of molecular combinations?

  Drizzt claims that he is free of the petty concerns of life because he knows, truly understands, that he will one day die. How often have we heard a survivor of a terrible illness claim it to be the greatest blessing of her life because it has focused her so greatly on the present, reminding her to live each day as a blessing?

  To die, to sleep,

  To sleep, and perchance to dream?

  Aye, there’s the rub.

  Even for dragons.

  Fill the buckets, grab a fish,” muttered Ringo Heffenstone, a dwarf with exceptionally broad shoulders, even for a dwarf, and a large, square head. Ringo was quite an exception among the group of dwarves who had ventured out into the mud lands of northeastern Vaasa in that he wore no beard. A gigantic handlebar mustache, yes, but no beard. An unfortunate encounter with a gnomish fire-rocket a few years before back in the hills of northwestern Damara, the southern and more civilized neighbor to Vaasa, had left a patch of scarred skin on Ringo’s chin from which no hairs would sprout.

  It was a sad scar for a dwarf, to be sure, but with his typical pragmatism and stoicism, Ringo had just shrugged it off and redesigned his facial hair appropriately. Nothing ever really bothered Ringo. Certainly he could grump and mutter as well as the next dwarf about present indignities, such as his current position as water mule for the troop of dwarves, but in the end everything rolled out far and wide from him, eventually toppling off his broad shoulders.

  He came to the bank of the pond, his friends a few hundred feet behind him tipping beers and recounting their more raucous adventures with ever-increasing volume.

  A burst of howling laughter made Ringo cringe and look to the south. They weren’t far from Palishchuk, a city of half-orcs. They could have been there already, in fact, sleeping comfortably in a tavern. The half-orcs would gladly have taken their coin and invited them in. But though the half-orcs were no enemies of the dwarves, the troop had already decided they would avoid the Palishchukians if at all possible. Ringo and the others didn’t much like the way half-orcs smelled, and even though those particular half-orcs acted far more in accordance with their human heritage than that of their orc ancestors, they still carried the peculiar aroma of their kind.

  Another burst of laughter turned Ringo back to the encampment. As several of his drunken friends unsuccessfully shushed those howling loudest, Ringo shook his head.

  He turned back to the pond, a vernal pool that formed every spring and summer as the frozen tundra softened. He noted the movement of some fish, flitting in and out of the shadows to the side, and shook his head again, amazed that they could survive in such an environment. If they could live through the extended Vaasan winter, in the shadow of the Great Glacier itself, how could he bring himself to catch one?

  “Bah, but ye’re safe, little fishies,” the dwarf said to them. “Ye keep winning against this place and old Ringo ain’t got no heart for killin’ ye and eatin’ ye. ”

  He reached up and picked a piece of his dinner, a large bread crumb, from the left handlebar of his mustache. He’d been saving it for later, but he glanced at it and tossed it to the fish instead.

  The dwarf grinned as the fish broke the surface, inhaling the crumb. Several others came up, making plopping sounds and creating interconnected rings of ripples.

  Ringo watched the spectacle for a few moments then picked up one of his buckets and moved down to the water’s edge. He knelt in the mud and turned the bucket sidelong in the shallows to fill it.

  Just as he started to tip the bucket back upright, a wave washed in and sent water overflowing the pail, soaking the dwarf’s hands and hairy forearms.

  “Bah!” Ringo snorted, falling back from the freezing water.

  He fell into a sitting position, facing the lake, and curled his legs to get away from the cold wash of the encroaching wave. His gaze went out to the water, where more rings widened, their eastern edges rolling in toward him.

  Ringo scratched his head. It was a small pond, and little wind blew. They weren’t near any hills, where a rock or a tree might have tumbled from on high. He had seen no shadow from a falling bird.


  The dwarf stood up and put his hands on his hips as the water calmed. A glance to the side told him that the fish were long gone.

  The water stilled, and the hair on the back of Ringo’s neck tingled with nervous anticipation.

  “Hurry it up with that water!” one of the dwarves from the camp called.

  Ringo knew he should shout a warning or turn and run back to the camp, but he stood there staring at the still water of the dark pool. The meager sunlight filtered through the clouds in the west, casting lines of lighter hue on the glassy surface.

  He knew he was being watched. He knew he should reach around and unfasten his heavy wooden shield and his battle-axe. He was a warrior, after all, hardened by years of adventure and strife.

  But he stood there s
taring. His legs would not answer his call to retreat to the camp; his arms would not respond to his silent cries to retrieve his weapon and shield.

  He saw a greater darkness beneath the flat water some distance out from shore, a blacker spot in the deep gray. The water showed no disturbance, but Ringo instinctively recognized that the blacker form was rising from the depths.

  So smoothly that they didn’t even form a ripple, a pair of horns poked up through the surface thirty feet out from the bank. The horns continued to climb into the air, five feet … seven … and between them appeared the black crown of a reptilian head.

  Ringo began to tremble. His hands slid from his hips and hung loosely at his sides.

  He understood what was coming, but his mind would not accept it, would not allow him to shout, run, or grab his weapon, futile as he knew that weapon to be.

  The horns climbed higher, and the black head slipped gently from the water beneath them. Ringo saw the ridge of sharp scales, black as a mineshaft, framing the beast’s head in armor finer than any a dwarf master smith might ever craft. Then he saw the eyes, yellow and lizardlike, and the beast paused.

  The awful eyes saw him, too, he knew, and had been aware of him long before the beast had shown itself. They bored into him, framing him with their own inner light that shone as distinctively as the beam of a bull’s-eye lantern.

  “Hurry it up with that water!” came the call again. “I’m wantin’ to drink and pee afore the night comes on. ”

  He wanted to answer.


  “Heft-the-Stone, ye dolt!” another dwarf chimed in, using the nickname they had given to their principal pack mule.

  The playful insult never registered in Ringo’s senses, for his thoughts were locked on those awful reptilian eyes.

  Run! Ringo silently screamed, for himself and for them.

  But his legs felt as if they had sunk deeply into the gripping mud. He didn’t run as the water gently parted to reveal the tapering, long snout, as long as his own body but graceful and lithe. Flared nostrils came free of the water, steam rising from them. Then came the terrible maw, water running out either side between the teeth—fangs as long as the poor dwarf’s leg. Weeds hung from the maw, too, caught on those great teeth, trailing and dripping as the head rose up above the gray flatness of the pond.

  Up it rose, and as it did, the beast drifted forward, slowly and silently, so that in the span of a few moments the dragon’s head towered above the paralyzed dwarf, barely ten feet from the muddy bank.

  Ringo’s breath came in short gasps. Locked by the power of those awful reptilian eyes, his head tilted back as the head rose on the black-scaled, serpentine neck. Slowly, the dragon swayed, and Ringo moved with it, though he was totally unaware of his own motion.

  Beautiful, he thought, for the grace and power of the wyrm could not be denied.

  There was something preternatural, some power unbound by the limitations mere mortals might know, something godlike and beyond the sensibilities of the dwarf. Gone were any thoughts of drawing a weapon against so magnificent a beast. How could he presume to challenge a god? Who was he to even dare ask such a creature to think him worthy of battle?

  Transfixed, entranced, overwhelmed by the power and the beauty, Ringo barely registered the movement, the snakelike speed of the strike as the dragon’s head snapped forward, the jaws opening to fall over him.

  The dragon was in the lake, swaying methodically.

  There was darkness.

  And Ringo knew no more.

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