Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  There was Oliver, the epitome of Eriador’s many foreign rogues. The rough land was a favored destination for those who could not fit in, either in Avon or Gascony, or even in lands farther removed. Oliver’s value on the field could not be doubted, nor could his value as Luthien’s trusted companion. But the true worth of Oliver, and of the many others who would no doubt surface as the rebellion spread, would be found in his knowledge of other places and other people. Should this rebellion, this war, reach a level where Gascony saw fit to become involved, Oliver’s understanding of that place would prove invaluable. Oliver the diplomat? Brind’Amour considered that possibility for some time.

  And there, last, was Luthien, still dozing with his back against the stone of the hearth. He was all of them, Brind’Amour realized. Proud as an islander, angry as one of Caer MacDonald, a pure, unselfish soldier, and the figure-head that Eriador desperately needed. After his exploits in the battle, Luthien had become undeniably the cornerstone on which Eriador would succeed or fail. Already the tale of “Luthien’s Gamble” was spreading far from the city walls, mingling with the stories of the Crimson Shadow, the mysterious enemy to all that evil Greensparrow represented. Who would have guessed that the young man from Bedwydrin could rise so fast to such notoriety?

  “I would have!” Brind’Amour answered his own question suddenly, and unintentionally, aloud. Embarrassed, the wizard cleared his throat many times and glanced about.

  “What was that?” Luthien asked, stretching as he came awake.

  “Nothing, nothing,” the wizard apologized. “Just exercising my jaw at the mind’s request, you know.”

  The others shrugged and let it go at that, except for shrewd Oliver, who kept his gaze on the wizard as though he was reading Brind’Amour’s every thought.

  “You know,” the halfling began, drawing everyone’s attention, “I was once in the wild land of Angarothe.” Seeing that his proclamation apparently didn’t impress anybody, the halfling quickly explained. “A hot and dusty land some distance to the south of Gascony.”

  “The War of Angar?” inquired Brind’Amour, more worldly than the others, despite the fact that he had spent most of the last few centuries asleep in a cave.

  “War of anger?” Luthien snickered.

  “Angar,” Oliver corrected, appearing insulted. “Indeed,” he answered the wizard. “I fought with deBoise himself, in the Fourth Regiment of Cabalaise.”

  The wizard cocked an eyebrow and nodded, seeming impressed, though the reference meant absolutely nothing to the others in the room. Oliver puffed with pride and looked about, but quickly deflated as he realized the ignorance of his audience.

  “The Fourth of Cabalaise,” he said with some importance. “We were in deepest Angarothe, behind the Red Lancers, the largest and most terrible of that country’s armies.”

  Brind’Amour met the curious gaze of each of the others and nodded his understanding, lending gravity to Oliver’s tale, though the wizard highly doubted that Oliver had ever been anywhere near to Angarothe. Few Gascons who had gone to that wild land had ever returned. But Brind’Amour did know the tale of deBoise and the Fourth, one of the classic victories in the history of warfare.

  “We could not win,” Oliver went on. “We were two hundred against several thousand, and not one of us thought that we would come out of there alive.”

  “And what did you do?” Luthien asked after a long and dramatic pause, giving the halfling the necessary prompt.

  Oliver snapped his fingers in the air and blew a cocky whistle. “We attacked, of course.”

  “He speaks truly,” Brind’Amour interjected before the expressions of profound doubt could grow on the faces of the other four. “DeBoise spread his line along the foliage marking the perimeter of the enemy encampment, each man with a drum. They used sticks to bang against trees, imitated the calls of huge elephants and other such warbeasts, all to make their enemy believe that they were many more, an entire army.”

  “The Red Lancers were weary of battle,” Oliver added. “And they had no good ground to wage such a fight. And so they retreated to a mountain.”

  “DeBoise watched them and dogged them with empty threats, every step,” Brind’Amour finished. “By the time the leaders of the Red Lancers came to understand the bluff, the Fourth had found the reinforcements it needed. The Red Lancers of Angarothe came off the mountain, thinking to overwhelm the small force, but were themselves overwhelmed. The only Gascon victory of the campaign.”

  Oliver turned a sour look on the old man at that last statement, but it melted away quickly, the halfling too eager to announce his own part in the strategic coup. “They wanted to call it Oliver’s Bluff,” he asserted.

  Brind’Amour did well to hide his chuckle.

  “A fine tale,” Shuglin said, obviously not too impressed.

  “But does it have a point?” Katerin wanted to know.

  Oliver huffed and shook his head as though the question was ridiculous. “Are we not like the Fourth Regiment of Cabalaise?” he asked.

  “Say it plainly,” Shuglin demanded.

  “We attack, of course,” Oliver replied without hesitation. That widened more than a few eyes! Oliver paid no heed to their incredulity, but looked at the wizard, where he suspected he would find some support.

  Brind’Amour nodded and smiled—he had been hoping all along that one of the others would make that very suggestion and save him the trouble. The wizard realized that he was more valuable agreeing with plans than in convincing the rebels to follow plans he had constructed.

  Katerin rose from the hearth and slapped her hands against the back of her dusty breeches. “Attack where?” she demanded, obviously thinking the whole notion ridiculous.

  “Attack the wall,” Brind’Amour answered. “Malpuissant’s Wall, before Greensparrow can run his army of Princetown north.”

  Suddenly the prospect didn’t seem so absurd to Luthien. “Take Dun Caryth and cut the land in half,” he put in. “With the mountains and the wall, and a fleet to guard our ports, we will force Greensparrow to attack us on ground of our choosing.”

  “And the daring conquest will make him think that we are stronger than we are,” Oliver added slyly.

  Siobahn’s green eyes sparkled with hope. “And stronger we shall be,” she asserted, “when the northern lands learn of our victory here, when all of Eriador realizes the truth of the rebellion.” She looked around at the others, practically snarling with eagerness. “When all of Eriador comes to hope.”

  “Oliver’s Bluff?” Brind’Amour offered.

  No one disagreed and the halfling beamed—for just a moment. Suddenly it occurred to Oliver, who of course had not really been with deBoise in Angarothe, that he had set them all on a most daring and dangerous course. He cleared his throat, and his expression revealed his anxiety. “I do fear,” he admitted, and felt the weight of Luthien’s gaze, and Siobahn’s, Shuglin’s, and Katerin’s as well, upon his little round shoulders. “They have wizard types,” the halfling went on, trying to justify his sudden turn. He felt that he had to show some doubt to avoid blame in the face of potential disaster. But if this did go off, and especially if it proved successful, the halfling dearly wanted it to be known as Oliver’s Bluff. “I am not so keen on the idea of daring a group of wizard types.”

  Brind’Amour waved the argument away. “Magic is not what it used to be, my dear Oliver,” he assured the halfling, assured them all. “Else Morkney would have left Luthien in ashes atop the Ministry and left you frozen as a gargoyle on the side of the tower! And I would have been of more use on the field, I promise.” There was conviction in the wizard’s words. Ever since he had left the cave that had served for so long as his home, Brind’Amour had realized that the essence of magic had changed. It was still there, tingling in the air, though not nearly as strong as it had once been. The wizard understood the reason. Greensparrow’s dealing with demons had perverted the art, had made it something dark and evil, and that, in turn,
had weakened the very fabric of the universal tapestry, the source of magical power. Brind’Amour felt a deep lament at the loss, a nostalgia for the old days when a skilled wizard was so very powerful, when the finest of wizards could take on an entire army in the field and send them running. But Brind’Amour understood well enough that in this war with Greensparrow and the king’s wizard-dukes, where he was the only wizard north of the mountains, an apparent lack of magical strength might be Eriador’s only hope.

  “To the wall, then,” he said.

  Luthien looked at Katerin, then to Shuglin, and finally, to Siobahn, but he needed no confirmation from his friends this time. Caer MacDonald was free, but it could not remain so if they waited for Greensparrow to make the next move. The war was a chess game and they were playing white.

  It was time to move.

  WARM WELCOME

  The snow let up the next day, leaving a blanket twenty inches deep across the southern fields of Eriador, with drifts that could swallow a man and his horse whole, without a trace.

  A huge force left Caer MacDonald anyway, mostly composed of the folk from Port Charley, in pursuit of those seven thousand Praetorian Guards who had fled the battle. Wearing sheepskin mittens and thick woollen cloaks, with many layers of stockings under their treated doeskin boots and carrying sacks of dry kindling, the Eriadorans were well equipped for the wintry weather, but those cyclopians who had run off most certainly were not. Tired and hungry, many of them wounded and weak from loss of blood, that first frozen and snowy night took a horrible toll. Before they had gone two miles from Caer MacDonald’s gates, the Eriadorans came upon lines of frozen bodies and shivering, blue-lipped cyclopians, their hands too numb and swollen for them even to hold a weapon.

  And so it began, a trail of prisoners soon stretching several miles back to Caer MacDonald’s gates. By midafternoon, more than a thousand had come in, and returning couriers estimated that two or three times that number were dead on the snowy fields. Still, a large force remained, making a direct line for Port Charley.

  Brind’Amour used his magical sight to locate them, and with the wizard directing the pursuers, many cyclopians were caught and slaughtered.

  Undercommander Longsleeves, still carrying wounds from the bridge collapse and with the head of an elvish arrow stuck deep in his shoulder, led the main host of some three thousand Praetorian Guards. They were dogged every step and had not the strength to respond to the attack in any way. Somehow they persevered and trudged on, cannibalizing their own dead and hunching their backs against the stinging, blowing snow.

  Soon they were down to two thousand, their numbers barely larger than the force pursuing them, but the weather improved steadily and the snow diminished by the hour. Purely out of fear, Longsleeves kept them moving, kept them driving, until at last the tall masts of the Avon ships in the harbor of Port Charley came into view.

  Among the cyclopian ranks there was much rejoicing, though every one of them understood that with the city in sight the force pursuing them would likely come on in full.

  What the Avon soldiers didn’t realize was that, while they were eyeing the masts for salvation, spotters among the folk within Port Charley were eyeing the cyclopians, locating shots for the crews, who had become quite proficient with the catapults on the captured ships.

  One by one, the vessels loosed their flaming pitch and baskets of sharpened stones. Longsleeves would have called out a command to charge the city, but as fate would have it, the very first volley, a burning ball of sticky, black tar, buried the undercommander where he stood, burned away his pretty hair, pretty sleeves, and his muttonchops.

  Confused and frightened, the leaderless one-eyed brutes ran every which way, some charging Port Charley, others turning back east, only to meet old Dozier and his army. The slaughter was over within the hour, and it took only one of the captured ships to sail the remaining cyclopians to the north, where the Diamond Gate would serve as their prison.

  • • •

  Back in Caer MacDonald, the preparations for the march to Malpuissant’s Wall were well under way. A two-pronged movement was decided upon. Shuglin and his kin would go into the Iron Cross to guard the passes and hopefully to locate more of their own to bring into the rebellion. The main force, led by Brind’Amour himself, would strike out around the perimeter of the mountains.

  The sheer daring of the move became apparent as those days of preparation slipped by. The force would not be so large, with the folk of Port Charley back in their city, and with so many dead and wounded. The Praetorian Guards, in such numbers, were simply too dangerous to be kept within the city, and so they, like their kin who had been caught on the field outside of Port Charley, would be carted west and then shipped north to the Diamond Gate, from which there could be no escape.

  That gave Luthien and Brind’Amour only a few thousand soldiers to work with, and it became quite apparent that Oliver’s Bluff would depend upon how many reinforcements the Eriadorans might find as the days wore on. Word was spreading to the more northern towns, they knew, and cheers reverberated across the countryside for the freeing of Caer MacDonald. But they were asking much if they expected many farmers to come and join in the cause. The planting season was fast approaching, as was the prime fishing season for those Eriadorans who made their living at sea. And even with the stunning victories, both in taking the city, then in holding it against an army of Praetorian Guards, the Eriadorans had lived long enough under the evil Greensparrow’s rule to understand that this fight was a long way from won.

  “Oliver and I will go,” Luthien announced to Brind’Amour one morning as the two walked the city wall, observing the preparations, overseeing the assembly of wagons and the mounds of supplies.

  The wizard turned a curious eye on the young man. “Go?” he asked.

  “Out before the army,” Luthien explained. “On a more northerly arc.”

  “To roust up support,” the wizard reasoned, then went very quiet, considering the notion.

  “I will not be secretive about who I am,” Luthien said. “I go openly as the Crimson Shadow, as enemy of the throne.”

  “There are many cyclopians scattered among those hamlets,” Brind’Amour reminded. “And many merchants and knights sympathetic to Greensparrow.”

  “Only because they prosper under the evil king while the rest of Eriador suffers!” Luthien said, his jaw tight, his expression almost feral.

  “Whatever the reason,” Brind’Amour replied.

  “I know the folk of Eriador,” Luthien declared. “The true folk of Eriador. If they do not kill the cyclopians, or the merchants, it is only because they have no hope, because they believe that no matter how many they kill, many more will come to exact punishment upon them and their families.”

  “Not so unreasonable a fear,” Brind’Amour said. The wizard was merely playing the role of nay-sayer now; he had already come to the conclusion that Luthien’s little addition to the march was a fine move, a daring addendum to a daring plan. And they would likely need the help. Malpuissant’s Wall had been built by the Gascons centuries before to guard against just such a rebellion, when the southern kingdom, after conquering Avon, had decided that it could not tame savage Eriador. The wall had been built for defense against the northern tribes, and would be no easy target!

  “But now they will know hope,” Luthien reasoned. “That is the measure of the Crimson Shadow, nothing more. What I do while wearing the cape long ago became unimportant. All that matters is that I wear the cape, that I let them think I am some hero of old returned to lead them to their freedom.”

  Brind’Amour stared long and hard at Luthien, and the young man became uncomfortable under that familiar scrutiny. Gradually the wizard’s face brightened, and he seemed to Luthien then like a father, as Luthien hoped his father would be.

  In all the excitement of the last few weeks, Luthien realized that he had hardly considered Gahris Bedwyr since Katerin’s arrival with Blind-Striker, the Bedwyr family swor
d, bearing news that the rebellion was on in full on Isle Bedwydrin. How fared Gahris now? Luthien had to wonder. Homesickness tugged at him, but a mere thought of Ethan, his brother whom Gahris had sent away to die, and of Garth Rogar, Luthien’s barbarian friend, ordered slain in the arena after Luthien had defeated him, stole that notion. Luthien had left Isle Bedwydrin, had left Gahris, for good reason, and now frantic events gave him little time to worry about the man he no longer considered to be his father.

  He looked at Brind’Amour in a different light. Suddenly the young Bedwyr needed this wise old man’s approval, needed to see him smile as Gahris had smiled whenever Luthien won in the arena.

  And Brind’Amour did just that, and put his hand on Luthien’s shoulder. “Ride out this day,” he bade the young man.

  “I will go to Bronegan, and all the way to the Fields of Eradoch,” Luthien promised. “And when I return to you on the eastern edges of Glen Albyn, I will carry in my wake a force larger than the force which soon departs Caer MacDonald.”

  Brind’Amour nodded and clapped the younger Bedwyr on the back as Luthien sped off to find Oliver and their mounts that they might head out on the road.

  The old wizard stood on the wall for some time watching Luthien, then watching nothing at all. He had set Luthien on this course long ago, the day in the dragon’s cave when he had given the young man the crimson cape. He was responsible, in part at least, for the return of the Crimson Shadow, and when he considered Luthien now, so willing to take on the responsibility that had been thrust his way, Brind’Amour’s old and wheezy chest swelled with pride.

  The pride a father might have for his son.

  PASSAGE OF SPRING

 
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