Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore

  A young boy bounded out of the cottage, running down the boardwalk and toward the town as the two friends tied up their mounts.

  “Gretel is calling in some friends,” Katerin explained.

  Oliver’s hand immediately and instinctively went to the hilt of his rapier, but he pulled it away at once, remembering the noble look in Gretel’s eye and feeling foolish for entertaining such a fear even for a moment.

  “Tea?” Katerin asked resignedly. She was thinking of the task before her, of convincing Gretel and her compatriots of the importance of the rebellion, of asking these people to risk their lives in a fight they likely cared nothing at all about. Suddenly she felt very tired.

  Oliver led the way into the cottage.

  Gretel would hear nothing of the troubles in Montfort, which Katerin insisted on calling Caer MacDonald, and nothing of the old legends come to life until the others arrived.

  “Old fisherfolk,” the harbormaster explained. “Too old for the boats and so we of Port Charley use their wisdom. They know the sea.”

  “Our troubles do not concern only the sea,” Oliver politely reminded the woman.

  “But the sea be our only concern,” Gretel said, a stinging retort that reminded Oliver and especially Katerin of just how difficult this mountain would prove to climb.

  Gretel wanted to talk about Hale; she knew some of the northern village’s older fisherfolk, had met them at sea during the salmon runs many years before, when she was young and captained her own boat. Though she was an impatient sort, a woman of action and not idle talk (especially not with cyclopian ships sailing fast for Eriador’s coast!), Katerin obliged, and even found that she enjoyed Gretel’s stories of the mighty Avon Sea.

  Oliver rested during that time, sipping his tea and taking in the smells and sounds of the seaside cottage. The other old sea dogs began arriving presently, one or two at a time, until Gretel’s small cottage was quite filled with brown, wrinkled bodies, all smelling of salt and fish. The halfling thought he recognized one of the men, but couldn’t quite place him, his suspicions only heightened when the fellow looked Oliver’s way and gave a wink. Perhaps this had been one of the crew on the boat that had taken Oliver into Port Charley several years before, or one of the others at the boardinghouse where Oliver had stayed until he had grown bored of the port and departed for Montfort.

  After a moment of studying the old creature, tucked protectively, even mysteriously, under a heavy blanket, even though he was sitting near the burning hearth, Oliver shrugged and gave it up. He couldn’t place the man.

  Despite that, Oliver thought it a perfectly grand gathering, and Katerin felt at home, more so than she had since she had left Hale at the age of fourteen to go into training in the arena at Dun Varna.

  “There, then,” Gretel announced after one particularly bawdy tale concerning ships that didn’t quite make it past each other in the night. “Seems we’ve all gathered.”

  “This is your ruling council?” Oliver asked.

  “These are all the ones too old to be out in the boats,” Gretel corrected. “And not old enough yet to be stuck lying in their beds. Them soon returned with the day’s catch will hear what we’ve to say.”

  She looked at Katerin and nodded, indicating that the floor was hers.

  Katerin rose slowly. She tried to remember her own proud village and the reactions of her people if they were faced with a similar situation. The folk of Hale didn’t much care for Greensparrow, didn’t talk much about him, didn’t waste many words on him—neither did the folk of Port Charley—but what she needed here and now was action, and ambivalence was a long way from that.

  She rose slowly and moved to the center of the room, leaning on the small round table for support. She thought of Luthien in Caer MacDonald and his stirring speech in the plaza beside the Ministry. She wished that he was here now, dashing and articulate. Suddenly she blamed herself for being so arrogant as to think to replace him.

  Katerin shook those negative thoughts from her mind. Luthien could not reach these folk—Katerin’s folk. His words were the sort that stirred people who had something to lose, and whether it be Greensparrow, or Luthien or anyone else claiming rulership of Eriador, and thus, of Port Charley, the folk here recognized only one king: the Avon Sea.

  Katerin continued to hesitate, and the fisherfolk, men and women who had spent endless hours sitting quiet on open, unremarkable waters, respected her delay and did not press her.

  The young woman conjured an image of Port Charley, considered the neat rows and meticulous landscaping, a pretty village cut from the most inhospitable of places. So much like Hale.

  But not so much like most of the more southern Eriadoran towns, Katerin realized, especially those in the shadows of the Iron Cross. The young woman’s face brightened as she realized the course of her speech. The folk of Port Charley cared little for the politics of the land, but they, as much as any group in Eriador or Avon, hated cyclopians. By all accounts, very few of the one-eyes lived in or near Port Charley; even the merchants here usually kept strong men as guards, not the typical cyclopian escort.

  “You have heard of the rebellion in Caer MacDonald,” she began. She paused for a moment, trying to gauge the reaction, but there was none.

  Katerin’s eyes narrowed; she stood straight and tall away from the table. “You have heard that we killed many cyclopians?”

  The nods were accompanied by grim, gap-toothed smiles, and Katerin’s course lay open before her. She spoke for more than an hour before the first questions came back at her, then answered every one, every concern.

  “All we need is time,” she finally pleaded, mostly to Gretel. “Keep the Avon fleet bottled in your harbor for a week, perhaps. You need not risk the life of a single person. Then you will see. Caer MacDonald will fend off the attack, destroy Greensparrow’s army in the field, and force a truce from the southern kingdom. Then Eriador will be free once more.”

  “To be ruled by . . . another king,” one man interrupted.

  “Better he, whoever it may be,” Katerin replied, and she thought she knew who the next king of Eriador would be, but saw no sense in speaking of him specifically at this time, “than the demon-allied wizard. Better he than the man who invites cyclopians into his court and appoints them as his personal Praetorian Guard.”

  The heads continued to nod, and when Katerin looked at Oliver, she found that he, too, was nodding and smiling. Quite pleased with her performance, the young woman turned directly to Gretel, her expression clearly asking for an answer.

  At that moment, a middle-aged man, his hair salt-and-pepper, his face ruddy and showing a few days of beard, burst into the cottage, wide-eyed and out of breath.

  “Ye’ve seen them,” Gretel stated more than asked.

  “Anchorin’ five miles to the south,” the man explained. “Too close in to sail through the dark.”

  “Warships?” Katerin asked.

  The man looked at her, and then at Oliver, curiously. He turned his gaze to Gretel, who motioned that he should continue.

  “The whole damned Avon fleet,” he replied.

  “As many as fifty?” Katerin needed to know.

  “I’d be puttin’ it more at seventy, milady,” the man said. “Big ’uns, too, and low in the water.”

  Katerin looked again at Gretel, amazed at how composed the old woman, indeed the whole gathering, remained in light of the grim news. Gretel’s smile was perfectly comforting, perfectly disarming. She nodded, and Katerin thought she had her answer.

  “The two of yer will stay with Phelpsi Dozier,” Gretel said. “On the Horizon, a worthy old tub.”

  Dozier, the oldest man at the gathering, perhaps the oldest man Katerin had ever seen, stepped up and tipped his woolen cap, smiling with the one tooth remaining in his wide mouth. “She’s mostly at the docks nowadays,” he said, almost apologetically.

  “I’ll have my boy see to yer horses,” Gretel continued, and her tone seemed to indicate that the m
eeting was at its end. Several of those gathered stood up and stretched the soreness out of their muscles and headed for the door. Night had fallen by then, dark and chill, the wind groaning off the sea.

  “We have many preparations,” Katerin tried to put in, but Gretel hushed her.

  “The folk of Port Charley’ve made them preparations before yet were even born, dear girl,” the old harbormaster insisted. “Yer said yer needing a week, and we’re knowing how to give it to yer.”

  “The depth of the harbor?” Katerin asked, looking all around. She didn’t doubt Gretel’s words, but could hardly believe that seventy Avon warships could be taken this lightly.

  “Shallow,” answered the old man by the hearth, the one Oliver thought he recognized. “The ships will have only the last forty feet of the longest two piers beside which to dock. And that section can be easily dropped.”

  The halfling noted then that the man’s accent didn’t match the salty dialect of the others, but that clue only left Oliver even more befuddled. He realized that he should know this man, but for some reason, as though something had entered his brain and stolen away a memory, he could not call him to mind.

  He dismissed it—what else could he do?—and left with Katerin and Phelpsi Dozier. They found the Horizon tied up near to shore on the next pier in line and Phelpsi let them into the hold, surprisingly well furnished and comfortable, considering the general condition of the less-than-seaworthy old boat.

  “Get yer sleep,” old Dozier invited them, tossing pillows out to them from a closet. He nodded and started for the door.

  “Where are you going?” Oliver was confused, for he thought that this was the man’s home.

  Dozier wheezed out a somewhat lewd laugh. “Gretel’s to let me stay with her this night,” he said. He tipped his wool hat once more. “See yet at the dawn.”

  Then he was gone, and Oliver tipped his hat toward the door, hoping that he would possess such fires when he was that old. The halfling kicked off his high boots and fell back onto one of the two cots in the tiny hold, reaching immediately to turn the lantern down low. He noted Katerin’s look of a caged animal and hesitated.

  “I thought you would be at home in such a place,” he remarked.

  Katerin’s eyes darted his way. “Too much to be done,” she replied.

  “But not by us,” Oliver insisted. “We have ridden a hard and long road. Take the last offered sleep, silly girl, for the road back is no shorter!”

  Katerin remained uneasy, but Oliver turned down the lantern anyway. Soon Katerin was lying back on her cot, and soon after that, the gentle rhythm of the lapping waves carried her away into dreams of Hale.

  A stream of light woke her, and Oliver, too: the first ray of dawn. They heard the outside commotion of people running along the wooden pier and realized that the fleet was probably in sight. Together, they jumped from their cots, Katerin rushing for the door while Oliver pulled on his boots.

  The door was locked, barred from the other side.

  Katerin put her shoulder against it hard, thinking it stuck.

  It would not budge.

  “What silliness is this?” Oliver demanded, coming up to her side.

  “No silliness, my halfling hero,” came a voice from above. The two looked up to see a hatch swinging open. They had to squint against the intrusion of sudden light, but could see that the opening was barred. Gretel knelt on the deck above, looking down at them.

  “You promised,” Katerin stuttered.

  Gretel shook her head. “I said that we could give yer a week if we had a mind to. I didn’t say we had a mind to.”

  For a moment, Katerin thought of grabbing the main gauche off of Oliver’s belt and whipping it the old harbormaster’s way.

  But Gretel smiled at her, as though she read the dangerous thoughts completely. “I, too, was young, Katerin O’Hale,” the old woman said. “Young and full of the fight. I know the fire that burns in yer veins, that quickens the beat of yer heart. But no more. My love fer the sword’s been tempered by the wisdom o’ years. Sit quiet, girl, and hold faith in the world.”

  “Faith in a world filled with deceit?” Katerin yelled.

  “Faith that yer don’t know everything,” Gretel replied. “Faith that yer own way might not be the best way.”

  “You will let the one-eyes through Port Charley?” Oliver asked bluntly.

  “Two of the Avon ships have already put in,” Gretel announced. “Move them along, so we decided. In one side and out the other, and good riddance to them all!”

  “You damn Caer MacDonald!” Katerin accused.

  Gretel seemed pained by that for a moment. She dropped the hatch closed.

  Katerin growled and threw herself at the door once more, to no avail. It held tight and they were locked in.

  Soon they heard the unified footsteps and drum cadence of the first cyclopian troops marching in from the pier. They heard one brutish voice above the others, surprisingly articulate for one of the one-eyed race, but neither of them knew of Belsen’Krieg.

  Belsen’Krieg the Terrible had come with nearly fifteen thousand hardened warriors to crush the rebellion and bring the head of Luthien Bedwyr back to his king in Carlisle.


  Luthien walked the length of the Caer MacDonald line, the area beyond the city’s outer wall. Caer MacDonald had three separate fortifications. The tallest and thickest wall was inside the city, dividing the wealthy merchant section from the poorer areas. Next was the thick, squat fortification that surrounded the bulk of the city, and finally, fifty feet out from that, the outer defense, a bare and thin wall, half again a short man’s height, and in some places no more than piled stones.

  Beyond this outer wall, the land was open, with few trees or houses. Sloping ground, good ground to defend, Luthien thought. The cyclopians would have to come in a concentrated formation—en masse, as Oliver had called it—for the city could only be attacked from the north or the west. East and south lay the mountains, cold and deep with snow, and though a few of the one-eyes might swing around that way, just to pressure the defenders, the main group would have to come uphill, across open ground.

  And that ground was being made more difficult by Shuglin’s industrious dwarfs. Every one of them greeted Luthien as he walked past, but few bothered to look up, would not interrupt this most vital of jobs. Some dug trip trenches, picking through the still-frozen earth inch by inch. These were only about two feet deep and fairly narrow, and would afford little cover, but if a charging cyclopian stumbled across one, his momentum would be halted; he might even break his leg. Other dwarfs took the trip trenches one step further, lining the ridge closest to the city with sharp, barbed pickets.

  Luthien grew hopeful while watching the quiet, methodical work, but, in truth, there were few dwarfs on the field. Most were over by the wall, and that was where the young Bedwyr found Shuglin.

  The blue-bearded dwarf stood with a couple of friends by a small table, poring over a pile of parchments and every so often looking up toward the wall and grunting, “Uh huh,” or some other noise. Shuglin was pleased to see Luthien, though he didn’t even notice the man’s approach until Luthien dropped a hand on his shoulder.

  “How does it go?” the young Bedwyr asked.

  Shuglin shook his head, didn’t seem pleased. “They built this damned wall well,” he explained, though Luthien didn’t quite understand the problem. Wasn’t a well-built wall a good thing for defenders?

  “Only eight feet high and not so thick,” Shuglin explained. “Won’t stop the cyclopians for long. A ponypig could knock a hole in the damned thing.”

  “I thought you just said they built it well,” Luthien replied.

  “The understructure, I mean,” said Shuglin. “They built the understructure well.”

  Luthien shook his head. Why would that matter?

  Shuglin paused and realized it would be better to start from the beginning. “We decided not to hold this wall,” he said, an
d pointed up Caer MacDonald’s second wall.

  “Who decided?”

  “My kin and me,” Shuglin answered. “We asked Siobahn and she agreed.”

  Again Luthien felt that oddly out-of-control sensation, like Siobahn was tugging hard at those puppet strings. For an instant, the young man was angry at being left out of the decision, but gradually he calmed, realizing that if his trusted companions had to come to him for approval on every issue, the whole of them would be bogged down and nothing important would ever get done.

  “So we’re thinking to fight from here, then retreat back to the city,” Shuglin continued.

  “But if the cyclopians gain this wall, they’ll have a strong position from which to reorganize and rest up,” Luthien reasoned.

  The dwarf shrugged. “That’s why we’re trying to figure out how to drop this damned wall!” he grumbled, his frustration bubbling over.

  “What about that powder you put in the box?” Luthien asked after a moment’s thought. “The box I used to destroy the supplies in the Ministry.”

  “Not nearly enough of the stuff!” Shuglin huffed in reply, and Luthien felt foolish for not realizing that the cunning dwarfs would have considered the powder if it was a practical option. “And hard to make.” Shuglin added. “Dangerous.”

  The dwarf finally looked up from the parchments, running his stubby fingers through his bushy blue-black beard. He reminded himself then that Luthien was only trying to help, and was even more desperate about the defense of Caer MacDonald than were Shuglin’s folk.

  “We’ll use some of the powder,” the dwarf elaborated, “on the toughest parts of the wall, but damn, they built it well!”

  “We could knock it down now and just begin our defense from the second wall,” Luthien offered, but Shuglin began shaking his head before the young man even finished the thought.

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