Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  “I never heard the claim of a challenge to the death,” Luthien said, stepping aside and extending his hand. The Dark Knight looked at him skeptically for a moment, then accepted the grasp, and Luthien helped him to his feet.

  “I will see to our horses,” Estabrooke offered, walking away as he noticed Oliver’s approach.

  Luthien saw the halfling, too, and with the blood still running from his bent nose, he wasn’t very pleased. “You said that you would charge right in,” the young Bedwyr scolded.

  “I never said that,” Oliver corrected.

  “You implied it!” Luthien growled.

  Oliver blew a deep breath and shrugged. “I changed my mind.”

  Their conversation came to an abrupt end a moment later when the ring of mounted highlanders suddenly converged, huge horsemen and wicked weapons, two-headed spears and axes with blades the size of a large man’s chest, pinning the pair helplessly together.

  Luthien cleared his throat. “Good sir Estabrooke,” he began. “Might you talk to your . . . friends?”

  GLEN ALBYN

  Excited whispers circulated among the Eriadoran soldiers as they set their camp in the wide vale of Glen Albyn, northeast of the Iron Cross. They had nearly crossed the glen; Dun Caryth, the anchoring point of Malpuissant’s Wall, was not yet in sight, but the mountain that harbored the fortress certainly was. The battle was no more than two days away, might even be fought on the next afternoon.

  The Eriadorans believed that they could take Dun Caryth and all the wall with just the force from Caer MacDonald, the five thousand that had settled into Glen Albyn. Their hopes soared higher, for the whispers spoke of more allies. Luthien was on the way back to them, it was said, along with a thousand fierce riders of Eradoch and a like number of farmers-turned-warriors from the smaller hamlets of central Eriador. All the land had risen against Greensparrow, so it seemed to the soldiers as they set their camp that night.

  Too many issues swarmed Katerin’s thoughts and she could not sleep. Eriador had risen and would fight for freedom, or for death. It was something the proud woman of Hale had dreamed of since her youngest days, and yet, with the possibility of this fantasy looming right before her eyes, Katerin felt the joy tainted.

  She had lost Luthien. She heard the whispers of friends talking behind her back, and though there was no malice, only sympathy in their quiet words, that stung Katerin all the more. She knew that Luthien and Siobahn were lovers, had known it for some time, but only now, with the rebellion nearing its end and the prospects of life after the war, did Katerin come to appreciate the weight of that truth.

  She walked alone, quietly, past the guards and the groups huddled about campfires, many engaged in games of chance, or in soft songs from Eriador of old. Some took notice of her passing and waved, smiling broadly, but they understood from Katerin’s expression that she meant to be alone this night, and so they granted her the desired solitude. Katerin walked right out of the northern perimeter of the encampment, out into the dark fields where the stars seemed closer suddenly, and there she stood alone with her thoughts.

  The war was barely six months old, would likely not last another six months, and what, then, would be left for Katerin O’Hale? Win or lose against Avon, it seemed to Katerin that life without Luthien would not be complete. She had traveled nearly two hundred miles to be with him, and had gone nearly two hundred more on missions, including this march, for his army and his cause, and now it seemed to the young woman that all her efforts would be for naught.

  Her sniffle was the only sound, and that was taken from her by the wind.

  She was surprised, and yet, deep in her heart, she was not, when a slender form, much smaller than her own, walked quietly up beside her.

  Katerin didn’t know what to say. She had come out here to think of what could not be, to come to terms with the realities of her life, and here was Siobahn, apparently following her right out of the camp.

  Siobahn!

  Katerin didn’t look at her, couldn’t look at her. She sniffled again and cleared her throat, then turned abruptly back for the encampment.

  “How very stubborn and very stupid you will be if you let the man who loves you, and the man whom you love, get away,” Siobahn said suddenly, stopping Katerin dead in her tracks.

  The red-haired woman wheeled about, eyeing her adversary skeptically. How stupid will you be to let me have him? she wondered, but she did not speak, too confused by what Siobahn might be hinting at.

  Siobahn tossed her long and lustrous wheat-colored tresses over her shoulder, looked up at the stars, and then back at Katerin. “He is not the first man I have loved,” she said.

  Katerin could not hide the pain on her face at hearing the confirmation of their passion. She had known it was true, but in her heart had held out some last vestige of hope.

  “And he will not be the last,” Siobahn went on. Her gaze drifted back up to the stars, and Katerin didn’t hate her quite so much in that moment, recognizing the sincere pain that had washed over her fair, angular features. “I will never forget Luthien Bedwyr,” the half-elf said, her voice barely a whisper. “Nor you, Katerin O’Hale, and when you are both buried deep in the earth, I, young still by the measures of my race, will try to visit your graves, or at least to pause and remember.”

  She turned back to Katerin, who stood, mouth agape. Tears rimmed Siobahn’s green eyes; Katerin could see the glistening lines that had crossed the half-elf’s high cheekbones.

  “Yes,” Siobahn continued, and she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, feeling the warm breeze and tasting the first subtle scents of the coming spring. “I will mark this very night,” she explained. “The smells and the sights, the warmth of the air, the world reawakening, and when in the centuries to come I feel a night such as this, it will remind me of Luthien and Katerin, the two lovers, the folk of legend.”

  Katerin stared at her, not knowing what to make of the unexpected speech and uncharacteristic openness.

  Siobahn locked that stare with her own and firmed her jaw. “It should pain you that Luthien and I have loved,” the half-elf said bluntly, catching Katerin off her guard, turning her emotions over once again. “And yet,” Siobahn continued unabashedly, “I take some of the credit, much of the credit, for the person the young Luthien Bedwyr has become. This person can understand love now, and he can look at Katerin O’Hale through the eyes of a man, not the starry orbs of a lustful boy.”

  Katerin looked away, chewing on her bottom lip.

  “Deny it if you will,” Siobahn said, moving about so that the young woman had to look at her. “Let your foolish pride encase your heart in coldness if that is what you must do. But know that Luthien Bedwyr loves you, only you, and know that I am no threat.”

  Siobahn smiled warmly then, a necessary ending, and walked away, leaving Katerin alone with her thoughts, alone with the night.

  • • •

  Luthien and Oliver were camped on the fields south of Bronegan that night, part of a force nearly half the size of the army in Glen Albyn. After the victory over the Dark Knight, Estabrooke had indeed talked to his “friends” as Luthien had asked, giving Oliver and Luthien some breathing room and some time.

  Noble to the core, Estabrooke promptly and openly ceded to Luthien his earned leadership position over the thousand assembled riders. Luthien eyed the man with concern as he did so, understanding that such a transition would not be easy.

  Kayryn Kulthwain, a huge and fierce woman, the finest rider in all of Eradoch and the one Estabrooke had defeated in open challenge just a few days before, immediately reclaimed that position. By the ancient codes of the riders, the title could not be passed from outsider to outsider.

  Luthien, son of an eorl and somewhat trained in the matters of etiquette, understood the basic traditions of Eradoch. Estabrooke had ascended to a position of leadership by defeating the leader of the gathered riders, but that position would have never been more than temporary.

  Ve
ry temporary. Estabrooke was an outsider, and as soon as the highlanders could have determined a proper order of challenge, the Dark Knight would have been forced to battle and win against every one of the riders, one after another. And if any of them had defeated Estabrooke on the field, there would have been no mercy.

  “Is Kayryn Kulthwain the rightful leader?” Luthien had asked those around him.

  “By deed and by blood,” one man answered, and others bobbed their heads in agreement.

  “I came not to Eradoch to lead you,” Luthien assured them all, “but to ask for your alliance. To ask that you join with me and my folk of Caer MacDonald against Greensparrow, who is not our king.”

  The men and women of Eradoch were not a complicated folk. Their lives were straightforward and honest, following a narrow set of precepts, basic guidelines that ensured their survival and their honor. It was all Luthien had to say. When he turned back for Bronegan, the riders of Eradoch were not behind him, they were beside him—and it seemed to both Luthien and Oliver that the fiercely independent folk of Eradoch had wanted to join all along, but had been bound otherwise by the Dark Knight.

  Now the two friends, the knight, and the riders were camped south of Bronegan, along with hundreds of farmers who had taken up arms for the cause, eager to join once they learned that Eradoch had come into the alliance.

  Luthien sat with Oliver long into the night, the halfling wrapped in blankets and working furiously to clean his marvelous clothing, and to polish his belt buckle and his rapier. Oliver had put his purple breeches too close to the fire to dry, and Luthien watched in silent amusement as the foppish trousers began to smolder.

  The halfling shrieked when he noticed, yanking the breeches away and putting a nasty stare on his content friend.

  “I meant to tell you,” Luthien offered innocently.

  “But you did not!” Oliver stated.

  Luthien shrugged, much as Oliver had shrugged earlier that same day, after Luthien’s painful encounter with the Dark Knight. “I changed my mind,” the young Bedwyr said, imitating his diminutive friend’s Gascon accent.

  Oliver picked up a stick and heaved it at him, but Luthien got his arm up in time to deflect it—though the movement pained his injured shoulder. He laughed and groaned at the same time.

  As if on cue, Estabrooke, seeming only half the size of the imposing Dark Knight without his full suit of armor, walked into the light of their fire, carrying a small bowl. “A salve,” he explained, moving near to Luthien. “Should take the sting out of your wounds and clean them. Allow them to heal properly, you see.” Like a protective mother, the older man bent over Luthien, scooping up a handful of the smelly gray salve.

  Luthien tilted his head so that his thick hair shifted away from the shoulder, giving the older man the opportunity to apply the stuff. All the while Luthien and Oliver watched the man closely, still not quite understanding why Estabrooke, First of the Sixth Cavaliers, was even in Eriador at that time. Luthien hadn’t broached the subject up to now, for the day had been one of rushed travel and impromptu alliances. The young man could not wait any longer.

  “Why are you here?” he asked bluntly.

  Estabrooke’s look was incredulous. His lips pursed, sending his huge mustache out so far as to tickle the tip of his nose. “I am a Lord Protector,” he answered, as though that should explain everything.

  “But King Greensparrow, he is in Gascony,” Oliver reasoned. “Why would he think to send you so far to the north?”

  “Greensparrow?” Estabrooke echoed. “Oh, no, not that one! Duke Paragor, it was, Duke of Princetown and all that.”

  “When?” Luthien interrupted.

  “I was visiting—fine city, that Princetown. The best of zoos, and the gardens!”

  Oliver wanted to hear about the zoos, but Luthien kept his priorities. “The duke?” the young Bedwyr reminded.

  Estabrooke looked at him curiously, seeming for a moment as though he did not understand. “Yes, of course, Paragor, skinny fellow,” the Dark Knight said finally, recollecting his original train of thought. “Should get his face out of those books and into some pie, I say!

  “Two weeks,” he added quickly to defeat Luthien’s mounting scowl. “Called me in for a grand banquet, then asked me to come north, to Era . . . Eradoy. I say, what was the name you gave to this place?”

  “Eradoch,” Oliver answered.

  “Yes, Eradoch,” Estabrooke continued. “‘Go to Eradoch,’ so said Paragor. Put the ruffians in line. Long live the king, and all that, of course. It was necessary to oblige, being a Lord Protector of the First of the Sixth, of course, and Paragor being an emissary of the rightful king of Avon.”

  It made perfect sense to Luthien and Oliver. Duke Paragor saw the trouble brewing in Eriador and was close enough to the northern land to understand the value of the riders. The duke would not have impressed the fierce highlanders, and neither would his most usual cohorts, wizards and cyclopians. But then Estabrooke, a knight of the old school, a man of the sword and of indisputable honor, arrives in Princetown and the emissary is found.

  “But why did you turn sides?” Oliver had to ask.

  “I have not!” Estabrooke insisted as soon as he figured out what the halfling was implying. “Your friend beat me in fair challenge, and thus I am indebted to him for one hundred days.” He looked to Luthien. “Of course you understand that you cannot use me as a weapon against my king. My sword is silent.”

  Luthien nodded and smiled, quite pleased. “In that time, good sir knight,” he promised, “you will come to know the truth of your King Greensparrow and the truth of what we in Eriador have begun.”

  • • •

  Now it was the half-elf’s turn to mourn the loss of Luthien, though Siobahn had known since that windy and rainy night in Caer MacDonald that their love would not be. It was official now, final, as it had to be.

  Still, it hurt, and so Siobahn decided that she, too, would find no sleep this night. She meandered for a while around the encampment, pausing long enough to join in the singing at one campfire, the gaming at another. Making her way toward the southeastern end, she came in sight of Brind’Amour’s rather large tent. A lantern was burning inside, and the shadows showed the old wizard to be awake.

  He was clapping his hands, a smile stretching from ear to ear, when Siobahn entered. She noted that he had just draped a cloth over a circular item atop a small pedestal—his crystal ball, she realized.

  “You have seen Luthien,” Siobahn reasoned. “And know now that the rumors of his force are true.”

  Brind’Amour looked at her curiously. “Oh, no, no,” he replied. “Too much fog up there. Too much fog. I think I saw the boy earlier, but it might have been a highlander, or even a reindeer. Too much fog.”

  “Then we cannot confirm—” Siobahn began.

  “Rumors usually hold some measure of truth,” the wizard interjected.

  Siobahn paused and sighed. “We will need to form two sets of tactics,” she decided. “Two plans of battle. One without help from Luthien, and another should he ride in with his thousands.”

  “No need,” Brind’Amour said cryptically.

  Siobahn looked at him unblinkingly, in no mood for the wizard’s games.

  Brind’Amour recognized this and wondered for an instant what might be so troubling the half-elf. “Word of our victory in Caer MacDonald precedes us,” he explained at once, anxious to bring a smile back to the fair Siobahn’s face. “The pennant flying above Dun Caryth is the mountain cross on the green field!”

  It hit Siobahn too unexpectedly and she screwed her face up, trying to decipher what Brind’Amour might be talking about. Gradually, it came clear to her. Brind’Amour had just claimed that the fortress anchoring Malpuissant’s Wall was under the flag of Eriador of old! “The wall is taken?” the half-elf blurted.

  “The wall is ours!” the wizard confirmed, lifting his voice.

  Siobahn couldn’t even speak. How could such a victory h
ave been handed to them?

  “The majority of those living at Dun Caryth and in the various gate towers all along the wall were not cyclopian, nor even Avon citizens, but Eriadorans,” the old wizard explained. “They were servants to the soldiers, mostly, craftsmen and animal handlers, but with easy access to the armories.”

  “They heard of the Crimson Shadow,” Siobahn reasoned.

  Brind’Amour put his arms behind his head and leaned back comfortably against the center pole of his tent. “So it would seem.”

  EYES FROM AFAR

  He was so thin as to appear sickly, skin hanging loosely over bones, eyes deep in dark circles. His once thick brown hair had thinned and grayed considerably, leaving a bald stripe over the top of his head. The rest he combed to the side and out, so that it appeared as if he had little wings behind his ears.

  Frail appearances can be deceiving, though, as was the case with this man. Duke Paragor of Princetown was Greensparrow’s second, the most powerful of the seven remaining dukes. Only Cresis, leader of the cyclopians, and the only duke who was not a wizard, was higher in line for the throne: a purely political decision, and one that Paragor was confident he could reverse should anything ill befall his king.

  Paragor wasn’t thinking much about ascension to the throne this day, however. Events in Eriador were growing increasingly disturbing. Princetown was the closest and the most closely allied of the Avon cities to that rugged northern land, and so Paragor had the highest stakes in the outcome of the budding rebellion in Eriador. Thus this wizard, proficient in the arts of divining, had watched with more than a passing interest. He knew of Belsen’Krieg’s defeat on the fields outside of Montfort; he knew that the Avon fleet had been captured wholesale and sailed north. And he knew of his own failure, Estabrooke, who had been sent north with the intent of keeping the Riders of Eradoch out of the Crimson Shadow’s fold.

  That very morning, a surly Duke Paragor had watched a thousand riders follow the Crimson Shadow into the swelling rebel encampment in Glen Albyn.

 
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