Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  “We’ll get it down,” the dwarf assured Luthien. “The trick is to get it to fall out, on top of the stupid one-eyes.”

  Shuglin went back to his parchments; another dwarf asked him a question. Luthien nodded and walked away, reassured by the competence of those around him. Shuglin and his kin were trying hard to steal every advantage from their enemies, to hurt the cyclopians at every turn.

  They would have to, Luthien knew. They would have to.

  • • •

  The two trapped friends sat glumly, listening to the passage all morning long. Marching feet, thousands of them, the clanking and bristling of heavy armor and shields, and the clomp of hooves: ponypigs, the cyclopians’ favorite mount, smaller than horses and not as swift, but thicker and more muscular. The two heard the caissons roll, packed with weapons, no doubt, and food.

  It went on, and on, and on, and Katerin and Oliver could do nothing to stop it. Even if they found some way out of the Horizon’s hold, there was nothing they could do anymore to slow the Avon army, nothing anyone could do.

  “When they are gone, we will be freed,” Oliver reasoned, and Katerin agreed, for it seemed to her that Gretel and the people of Port Charley held no grudge against the rebels. They merely wanted no trouble in their town. To proud Katerin, though, that position was not acceptable. The war had come, and in her mind, any Eriadoran that did not join them was, at best, a coward.

  “Then we must ride so swiftly,” Oliver went on. “North and east around the army, to warn our friends.” He almost said “our friends in Caer MacDonald,” but at that moment, with the unending, unnerving rumble of the army on the dock above him, it seemed to the halfling that the city in the mountains might soon be known as Montfort again.

  “For whatever good that will do,” Katerin replied, her tone bitter. She pounded a fist against the unyielding door and slumped back on her cot.

  The procession outside continued, all through the morning and into the early hours of afternoon. Oliver’s mood brightened when he found some food in a compartment under his cot, but Katerin wouldn’t even eat, her mouth too filled with bitterness.

  Finally, the clamor outside began to lessen somewhat. The solid rumble became sporadic and the voices of cyclopians were fewer, much fewer. And then, at last, a knock on the door.

  It swung open before either could respond, and Gretel entered, her face somber but without apology.

  “Good,” she said to Oliver, “I see ye’ve found the food we left yer.”

  “I do so like my fish!” the happy halfling replied. “Oh,” he said, his eyes cast down when he noticed the scowl Katerin was aiming at him.

  “You promised,” Katerin growled at Gretel.

  The old woman held up her hand, waving away the remark as though it was insignificant. “We do what we must,” she said. “We do what we must.”

  “Even if that means dooming fellow Eriadorans?” Katerin retorted.

  “It was in all our best interests fer us to let the cyclopians pass, to treat them as friends,” Gretel tried to explain.

  But Katerin wasn’t hearing it. “Our only hope was to bottle the fleet in the harbor, to keep them off-shore until the defense of Caer MacDonald could be completed and support could be mustered throughout the land,” she insisted.

  “And what would yer have us do?”

  “Deny the docks!” the woman of Hale yelled. “Drop the outer piers!”

  “And then what?” Gretel wanted to know. “The brutes’d sit in the harbor, whittling sticks? Yer smarter, girl. They’d’ve gone to the north and found a beach o’ their own, and put in, and we could not have stopped them!”

  “It would have bought us time,” Katerin answered without hesitation.

  “We are a town o’ but three thousand,” Gretel explained. “We could not have stopped them, and if they then marched back to Port Charley . . .”

  She let the words hang unfinished in the air, dramatic and ominous, but still Katerin didn’t want to hear the reasoning.

  “The freedom of Eriador is all that matters,” she said through gritted teeth, green eyes flashing dangerously. She flipped her fiery hair back from her face so that Gretel could see well her unrelenting scowl.

  “Gretel echoes my own words,” came a voice from just outside the door, and an old man walked into the small room. His hair and beard were snowy white, hair tied back in a ponytail, and his robes, rich and thick, were bright blue.

  Oliver’s mouth drooped open, and he realized then who the man at the meeting, the man at the hearth, had been. Clever disguise!

  “I do not know you,” Katerin said, as if to dismiss him, though from his clothing, and indeed his demeanor, he was obviously a man of some importance. She feared for a moment that he might be one of Greensparrow’s remaining dukes.

  “Ah, but I know you, Katerin O’Hale,” the old man said. “The best friend Luthien Bedwyr ever had.”

  “Oh?” said Oliver, hopping up from his cot.

  Katerin looked to the halfling, and then to the old man, and saw that there was recognition between them, smiles friends might exchange. It hit her suddenly.

  “Brind’Amour?” she breathed.

  The old man fell into a graceful, sweeping bow. “Well met, Katerin O’Hale, and long overdue,” he said. “I am an old man,” he winked at Oliver, “and getting older every day, but still I can appreciate such beauty as yours.”

  Katerin’s first instinct was to punch him. How dare he think of such an unimportant thing at this time? But she realized that there was no condescension in his tone, realized somehow that the beauty he referred to was much more than the way she looked. He seemed to her, all at once, like a father, a wise overseer of events, watching them and measuring them, like the old fisherfolk of Hale who trained the novices in the ways of the sea. Brind’Amour was akin to those old fisherfolk, but the training he offered was in the way of life. Katerin knew that instinctively, and so when she realized what he had first said in support of Gretel’s words, she found some comfort and began to hope that there was some other plan, some better plan, in motion.

  “We must let the brutes through Port Charley,” Brind’Amour said to the pair, mostly to Katerin, as though he realized that she would be the hardest to convince. “We must let them, and Greensparrow, think that the revolt in Montfort—”

  “Caer MacDonald,” Katerin corrected.

  “No,” said Brind’Amour. “Not yet. Let them think that the revolt in Montfort is a minor thing, an isolated thing, and not desired by any outside of that one city. We must plan long term.”

  “But the defenses will not be completed in time!” Katerin replied, her pleading voice almost a wail.

  “Long term!” Brind’Amour said sharply. “If Eriador is indeed to be free, then this one force of cyclopians will prove the least of our troubles. Had we kept them out of the harbor, had we shown them that Eriador was in general revolt, they would have simply sent one of their ships sailing back to the south to inform Greensparrow and return with reinforcements. In the meantime, those cyclopians remaining would have overrun Port Charley and secured the defenses of this city, giving Greensparrow an open port north of the Iron Cross.

  “How many warriors do you think Luthien would lose in trying to uproot fourteen thousand Praetorian Guards from Port Charley?” the old wizard asked grimly, and Katerin’s sails had no more wind. She hadn’t seen that possibility—neither had Luthien apparently—but now that Brind’Amour spoke, it seemed perfectly logical and perfectly awful.

  “We are not yer enemies, Katerin O’Hale,” Gretel put in.

  Katerin looked hard at her, the young woman’s expression clearly asking the question that was on her mind.

  “But we are enemies of the one-eyes,” Gretel confirmed. “And whoever rules Eriador should be of Eriador, not of Avon.”

  Katerin recognized the sincerity in the old woman’s face and understood that Port Charley had indeed joined the alliance against Greensparrow. Again because of her k
nowledge of her own town, Katerin understood that Gretel would not have made such a bold and absolute statement if she didn’t have the backing of her townsfolk.

  “I still think that it would have been easier to keep them out of the docks,” Katerin had to say. “Perhaps we might have even sunk one or two of their ships, taking half a thousand cyclopians to the bottom with them!”

  “Ah, yes,” Brind’Amour agreed. “But then they would have kept those ships we did not sink.” Katerin and Oliver looked at the old man, his face widening with a wicked grin. “Not tomorrow night, but the night after that,” he said, and he and Gretel exchanged a serious nod.

  Brind’Amour turned back to the expectant companions. “The night after next will be a dark one,” he explained. “Dark enough for us to board the Avon ships. In two nights, Eriador will have a fleet.”

  The wizard’s smile was infectious. The halfling spoke for Katerin and himself: “I do like the way you think.”

  MOSQUITOES

  The word ran ahead of the marching force like windswept fire, crossed from town to town, raced along the roads and the mountain trails, and came to Caer MacDonald before the whole of the Praetorian Guard had even marched out beyond Port Charley’s eastern borders.

  Luthien took the news stoically, putting on a bold face for his companions, telling them that the cyclopians’ passage through the port city had been expected, and though he had hoped for more time, the defenses would be ready. A rousing cheer accompanied his every remark: after the victory in Caer MacDonald and the raising of Eriador’s ancient flag over the Ministry—the decorated mountain cross, its four equal arms flared at their corners, on a green field—the rebels were ready for a fight, eager to spill more cyclopian blood.

  Luthien appreciated that attitude and took heart in it, joining in the “celebration” Shuglin began in the Dwelf, the theme of the party giving praise for so many one-eyes to kill. The young Bedwyr left early, though, explaining that he had much to do the next day and reminding them that many small villages, most of them not shown on any maps or even named by any but those who lived there, lay between Caer MacDonald and Port Charley. When he left the Dwelf, the young Bedwyr did not go back to his apartment in Tiny Alcove. Rather, he slipped around to the back of the tavern and climbed the rain gutter to the roof.

  “What have we begun?” Luthien asked the starry night. The air was crisp, but not too cold, and the stars glistened like crystalline ornaments. He considered the news from the west; the cyclopians hadn’t even been slowed in Port Charley, and that could only mean that the folk of the port town had not embraced the rebellion.

  “We need them all,” Luthien whispered, needing to hear his thoughts aloud. He felt as if he was preparing a speech, and considering the way things had gone, he knew that he might well be. “All of Eriador. Every man, every woman. What good may our efforts be if those we seek to free do not take up arms in their own defense? What worth is victory if it is not a shared win? For then, I do not doubt, those who are free because of our sacrifice will not embrace that which we have accomplished, will not see the flag of Eriador as their own.”

  Luthien moved to the western edge of the roof, kicked away a piece of hardened snow and knelt upon the bare spot. He could see the massive silhouette of the Ministry, where so many brave folk had died. The Ministry, built as a symbol of man’s spirit and love of God, but used by Greensparrow’s pawn as a house of tax collection, and as a courtroom. Not even a courtroom, Luthien mused, for under Morkney, the Ministry was a place of condemnation and not of justice.

  Stars twinkled all about the tallest tower, as though the structure reached right up into the heavens to touch the feet of God. Truly it was a beautiful night, calm and quiet. Few lights burned in the city, and the streets were quiet, except right in front of the Dwelf, where the impromptu celebration continued and an occasional soul wandered outside. Beyond the city’s wall, Luthien could see the fires of the dwarven encampment. Some were blazing, but most had burned down to low embers, an orange glow in the darkened field.

  “Sleep well,” the young Bedwyr whispered. “Your work is not yet done.”

  “Nor is our own,” Luthien heard behind him, and he turned to see Siobahn’s approach, her step so light and quiet that she wasn’t leaving an impression in the hardened snow that covered most of the roof.

  Luthien looked back to the Ministry and the stars. He did not flinch, did not tense at all, as Siobahn put her hand under his ear and ran it gently down his neck to his shoulder.

  “Katerin and Oliver have failed,” Luthien said, bitter words indeed. “We have failed.”

  Siobahn cleared her throat, and it sounded to Luthien as more of a snicker than a cough. He turned to regard her.

  How beautiful she appeared in the quiet light of evening; how fitting she seemed to the time of starlight, her eyes twinkling like those stars in the heaven above, her skin pale, almost translucent, and her hair flowing thick and lustrous, in such contrast to the delicate and sharp angles of her elven features.

  “You declare defeat before the battle is even begun,” Siobahn answered, her voice calm and soothing.

  “How many cyclopians?” Luthien asked. “And they’re not ordinary tribe beasts, but Praetorian Guard, the finest of Greensparrow’s army. Ten thousand? Fifteen? I do not know that we could hold back half that number.”

  “They will not be as many when they get to Caer MacDonald,” Siobahn assured him. “And our own numbers will grow as villagers flock in from the western towns.” Siobahn slid her hand down Luthien’s shoulder, across his chest, and leaned close, kissing him on the temple.

  “You are the leader,” she said. “The symbol of free Eriador. Your will must not waver.”

  Once more Luthien Bedwyr felt as if he had become a pawn in a game that was much too large for him to control. Once more he felt himself in the embrace of the puppeteer. Siobahn. Beautiful Siobahn. This time, though, Luthien did not resist that touch, the pulling of his strings. This time the presence of the half-elf, a tower of strength and determination, came as a welcome relief to him.

  Without Siobahn beside him, behind him, Luthien believed that he would have broken that night, would have lost his purpose as he lost his hope. Without Siobahn, his guilt for those who would soon die, and who had already died, would have overwhelmed the prospects of the future, for with such a tremendous force marching toward the liberated city, the thought of a free Eriador seemed a fleeting, twinkling fantasy, as unreachable as the stars that flanked the tower of the Ministry.

  Siobahn led him from the roof and back to the apartment in Tiny Alcove.

  • • •

  Katerin did not sleep well that night, too worried for her homeland, but she heard Oliver’s contented snores in the room next to hers, comfortable quarters at a small inn high up the levels of Port Charley. The next morning, though, the woman of Hale was not tired, too excited by the sight of the departing army as she and Oliver joined Brind’Amour near to the eastern road.

  The main body of the Avon force was long out of sight, several miles from the town already, and now came the supporting troops, mostly driving wagons loaded with provisions. Gretel directed its departure, working side by side with one of the largest and ugliest cyclopians either Katerin or Oliver had ever seen.

  “The very ugliest!” Oliver assured his companions. “And I have seen many cyclopians!”

  “Not as many as I,” Brind’Amour interjected. “And Belsen’Krieg, for that is the brute’s name, is truly the most imposing.”

  “Ugly,” Oliver corrected.

  “In spirit as well as in appearance,” Brind’Amour added.

  “He will ride out soon to join with his force.” Katerin’s tone was anxious.

  “Belsen’Krieg will lead them, not follow,” Brind’Amour confirmed. The wizard motioned to a powerful ponypig, heavily armor plated, with sharpened spikes protruding from every conceivable angle. Just looking at the monstrous thing, both Oliver and Katerin knew that
it was Belsen’Krieg’s. Only the most ugly cyclopian would choose such a gruesome and horrible mount.

  “As soon as Belsen’Krieg and his soldiers are away, we can stop the wagons,” Katerin reasoned, her face brightening suddenly. That light dimmed, though, as she regarded the old wizard.

  “The wagons will roll throughout the day,” Brind’Amour explained. “And a smaller group will depart tomorrow. But all the food that leaves with that second group will be tainted, and their drinking supply will be salted with water from the sea. That should give Belsen’Krieg enough good supplies to get him more than halfway to Montfort, fully committed to his march. Above all else, we must prevent him from turning back to Port Charley. Let them reach their goal, hungry and weary, and not ready for the fight, with Luthien before them and our army on their heels.”

  Both Oliver and Katerin looked curiously at the wizard, reacting to that last remark.

  “Yes,” Brind’Amour explained. “Port Charley will send a fair force after the cyclopians, and the one-eyes will be pecked every mile of their march, for every village between here and Montfort has joined in our cause.”

  Katerin was no longer arguing with the wizard, though she wasn’t sure if he was stating fact or hope. Her instincts, her anger, continually prompted her to act, to strike out in any way she could find against the cyclopians and the foreign King Greensparrow. Already Brind’Amour had earned her trust. She realized that he, and not she, had brought Port Charley into the rebellion, before she and Oliver had even arrived. If the wizard’s claim was correct, he had also secured alliance with the other southern Eriadoran villages, and if the wizard was right about Port Charley, Eriador would soon possess a fleet of great warships that was probably nearly as large as Greensparrow’s remaining fleet in Avon.

  Still, Katerin could not forget the army marching east, marching to Caer MacDonald and her beloved Luthien. Could Caer MacDonald hold?

  She had to admit, to herself at least, that Brind’Amour was right as well in his argument about letting the cyclopians march upon that city. In the larger picture, if Eriador was indeed to be free, this force led by Belsen’Krieg—a mere token of what Greensparrow could ultimately hurl at them—might be among the least of their troubles.

 
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