Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  As it should be, Luthien logically realized, but he could not follow such a course. Not now. He waved his arms in defeat, looked to the crestfallen Estabrooke, and stormed from the tent, leaving the others in a moment of blank and uncomfortable silence.

  “Exactly what Duke Paragor was hoping for,” Brind’Amour remarked. The wizard wasn’t judging Luthien, merely making an observation.

  “You know where he means to go?” Siobahn asked.

  “He is already on his way,” Oliver replied, understanding the young man too well. No one doubted the claim.

  Brind’Amour wasn’t sure how to respond. Should he try to dissuade Luthien? Or should he offer support, fall in with Luthien’s obvious thinking that Katerin’s safety should now be paramount? Brind’Amour was truly torn. He knew that he could not rush off in pursuit of the demon, for the sake of Katerin or anyone else. His responsibility was to no one person, but to Eriador as a whole.

  “He should go,” Siobahn said unexpectedly, drawing everyone’s attention. She looked at the tent flap as she spoke, as though she was watching Luthien riding off even then. “That is his place.”

  When she looked back to the others, she noticed Oliver most of all, the halfling eyeing her suspiciously.

  “More fuel for the legend of the Crimson Shadow,” Siobahn insisted.

  “Or does the woman scorned wish her lover dead?” Oliver asked bluntly.

  Brind’Amour winced—the last thing they needed now was to be fighting amongst themselves!

  “A fair question,” Siobahn replied calmly, diffusing the tension. “But I am no woman, no human,” she reminded the halfling. “Katerin is in peril, and so Luthien must go after her. If he does not, he will spend the rest of his days thinking himself a coward.”

  “True enough,” Brind’Amour offered.

  “We will not be led by a coward,” Kayryn of Eradoch said coldly.

  Oliver, as frustrated as Luthien had been, looked at them, one after the other. They spoke the truth, he knew; their reasoning was sound, but that did little to comfort the halfling. He had been beside Luthien from the beginning, before Brind’Amour had given the young Bedwyr the crimson cape, before whispers of the Crimson Shadow had ever passed down the back streets of Montfort. Now Luthien was doing as he must, was going after the woman he loved, and so Oliver, too, had to follow his heart and follow his friend.

  He gave a curt bow to the others and walked from the tent.

  Estabrooke, a noble man, a knight whose entire existence was founded on stringent principles, silently saluted the halfling and the brave man who had gone before Oliver.

  • • •

  Luthien paced Riverdancer easily along the edge of shadow cast by Malpuissant’s Wall. The sun was low, breaking the horizon to the east, casting a slanted but narrow shadow into Eriador. Not as black as the shadow which had crossed the young Bedwyr’s heart. It seemed to Luthien as if all the world had stopped the night before—as if everything, the rebellion, the coming invasion, had simply ceased, caught in a paralysis, a numbing of the spirit that would remain until Luthien reclaimed Katerin from the clutches of the demon and its evil master.

  He wanted to hurry, to break Riverdancer into a powerful run, but he did not wish to attract too much attention, either from friends who might try to stop him, or from spying enemies who would warn the duke of Princetown.

  He and his horse were by then a common sight to the guards at the gatetower closest to Dun Caryth, and so they let him cross through the wall into Avon without incident.

  To Luthien’s surprise a foppish halfling on a yellow pony was on the other side of the wall, sitting quietly, waiting for him.

  “At least you waited until the morning,” Oliver huffed and sniffled, looking thoroughly miserable, his little nose bright red. He sneezed, a tremendous sneeze for one so small, then brought a bright yellow-and-red checkerboard handkerchief up to wipe his nose and goatee.

  “You have been out here all night?” Luthien asked.

  “Since you left the meeting,” Oliver replied. “I thought you would go straightaway.”

  Luthien didn’t manage a smile, though he was touched by the halfling’s loyalty. He didn’t want Oliver along this time, however. He didn’t want anyone along. “This is for me to do,” he said firmly, and when Oliver didn’t reply, Luthien made a ticking noise in Riverdancer’s ear and gave a slight prod and the great shining stallion trotted off to the south.

  Oliver and Threadbare paced him, the little pony scampering along to match Riverdancer’s longer strides.

  Luthien’s scowl had no effect, and when he kicked Riverdancer to a faster trot, Threadbare, too, picked up speed. Finally, Luthien pulled his mount up short and sat staring at the halfling. Oliver looked at him curiously and sneezed again, showering the young man.

  “This is for me to do,” Luthien said again, more firmly.

  “I do not argue,” Oliver lisped.

  “Me, alone,” Luthien clarified.

  “You could be wrong.”

  Luthien sighed and looked all about, as if trying to find some way out of this. He knew how stubborn Oliver could be, and he knew how fast that deceptive little beast Threadbare could run.

  “Do you know anyone else so small enough to fit under the hem of your hiding cape?” Oliver asked logically.

  Luthien stared at his friend for a long moment, then threw his hands up in defeat. In truth, the concession came as a huge relief to the young Bedwyr. He was determined to go after Katerin, and it frightened him to take another on the perilous, probably suicidal, journey, yet he realized that Oliver’s place was indeed beside him, as his place would have been beside Oliver if the halfling’s love had been whisked away in the night. So now he would have company for the long ride and the adventures to follow, a trusted friend who had gotten him out of many predicaments.

  Before the pair began to move once more, they heard the sound of hooves behind them. They looked back toward the wall to see two riders, one large and wearing a horned highlander helm and the other small of frame.

  “Siobahn,” Oliver reasoned, and as the pair approached, Luthien saw that the halfling had guessed right. Now the young Bedwyr grew frustrated. He could rationalize having Oliver along, but this was getting out of hand!

  Siobahn and the rider pulled up beside the companions.

  “You are not going,” Luthien offered, a preemptive strike against any argument to the contrary.

  Siobahn looked at him curiously, as though she didn’t understand. “Of course I am not,” she said matter-of-factly. “My duty is to Eriador, and not to Luthien, or to Katerin.”

  For some reason that Luthien couldn’t quite figure out, that statement hurt more than a little.

  “But I condone your course,” the half-elf went on. “And I wish you all speed and all victory. I expect to see you, and you,” she said, looking at Oliver, “and Katerin, waiting for us when we breach Princetown’s gate.”

  Luthien felt better.

  “I have brought this,” Siobahn went on, extending her hand to reveal an amber-colored stone the size of a chicken egg. “From Brind’Amour,” she explained as Luthien took the stone. “When your task is complete, or when you are most in need, the wizard bids you to hurl it against a wall and speak his name three times.”

  Luthien felt the stone for some time, marveling at how light it was. He wasn’t sure what the stone was all about, but he had seen enough of Brind’Amour’s magic to understand that this was no small gift. “What of him?” the young Bedwyr asked, looking at the highlander.

  “Do you mean to ride into Princetown?” the half-elf asked.

  Luthien was beginning to catch on.

  “Malamus will ride with you as far as the eastern end of Glen Durritch, almost in sight of Princetown,” Siobahn continued. “And there he will wait with your mounts.” Unexpectedly, the half-elf then slid down from her saddle, handing the reins to Malamus. “For Katerin,” she said to Luthien. “My walk to the wall is not so
far.”

  She nodded to Luthien, then to Oliver, and patted the rump of her horse as she started back for Malpuissant’s Wall, back to the duties that would not allow her to accompany them.

  Luthien watched her with sincere admiration. Siobahn wanted to go, he realized. Though she and Katerin were rivals in some respects, they also shared a deep regard for each other.

  The young Bedwyr looked from Siobahn’s back, to her gifts, to Brind’Amour’s gift, and then to Oliver, sitting patiently, waiting for Luthien to lead on.

  The night had been dark, but the day was dawning brighter.

  • • •

  Back atop the gatehouse at Malpuissant’s Wall, Estabrooke, the First of the Sixth Cavalier, watched the small forms on the southern field, the Eriadorans in Avon, invading the proud knight’s homeland. The image of the demon, of evil Praehotec, was still sharp in the old knight’s mind. For twenty years Estabrooke had lived in the shadow of Greensparrow, hearing the tales of atrocities, of allegiances with demonkind. Some said that the horrible plague which had broken Eriador’s will for war twenty years before had been brought on by the Avon king, but Estabrooke had dismissed such rumors as peasants’ folly.

  Some said that Greensparrow was a sorcerer of the darkest arts, a demon friend, a fiend himself.

  But Estabrooke had dismissed such rumors, all the rumors.

  Now the knight of the throne, the noble cavalier, had seen with his own eyes. The rumors had come true for poor, torn Estabrooke. They had materialized into a demonic, evil shape that the noble warrior could not shake.

  He watched Luthien and Oliver ride off. Secretly, and though it were against everything the man had devoted his life to defending, Estabrooke hoped that they would succeed, would bring Katerin back safely and leave Duke Paragor, the same duke who had sent the cavalier to Eriador, dead in a pool of blood.

  GHOSTS

  The highlander, Malamus, spoke not a word on the two days of riding it took the companions to get into Glen Durritch, the wide and shallow vale just southeast of Princetown. Here, there were no more trees for cover and only a single road, a brown snake winding through the thick green turf.

  Luthien, playing the role of general again, studied the land, imagined a battle that could be fought and won here. The ground sloped up to the left and to the right, into rolling, tree-covered hills. Perfect cover and high ground. Elven archers could hit this road from those trees, he realized, and down here, there was no cover, no place to hide from the stinging, deadly bolts.

  So intent was the young Bedwyr that he was caught fully by surprise when Oliver’s rapier tapped him on the shoulder. Luthien pulled up on Riverdancer’s reins and looked back to see the halfling dismounting.

  “The western end of Glen Durritch,” Malamus explained. Oliver motioned with his chin to the west and Luthien squinted against the low-riding sun. Mountains loomed dark and cold, not so far away, and before them . . .

  What? Luthien wondered. A sparkle of white and pink.

  Oliver walked by him. “Five miles,” the halfling said. “And I do not like to walk in the dark!”

  Luthien slipped down from Riverdancer and gave the reins over to Malamus. The highlander matched Luthien’s gaze for a long moment. “The blessing of Sol-Yunda go with you, Crimson Shadow,” he said suddenly and turned about, pulling hard with his massive, muscled arm to swing all three riderless mounts with him. “I await your return.”

  Luthien just grunted, having no reply in light of his surprise. Sol-Yunda was the god of the highlanders, a private god whom they said watched over their kin and held no regard for anyone else, friend or foe. The highlanders hoarded Sol-Yunda as a dragon hoarded gold, and for Malamus to make that statement, to utter those seven simple words, was perhaps the most heartening thing Luthien Bedwyr had ever heard.

  He stood and watched Malamus for a few moments, then turned and sprinted to catch up with Oliver as the halfling plodded along, toward the speck of white and pink below the line of dark mountains.

  Less than an hour later, the sun low in the sky but still visible above the Iron Cross, the friends came close enough to witness the true splendor of Princetown and to understand why the place had earned the nickname as the Jewel of Avon.

  It was about the same size as Caer MacDonald, but where Caer MacDonald had been built for defense, nestled in between towering walls of dark stone, Princetown had been built as a showcase. It sat on a gently rolling plain, just beyond the foothills, and was widespread and airy, not huddled like Caer MacDonald. A low wall, no more than eight feet high, of light-colored granite encompassed the whole of the place, with no discernable gatehouses or towers of any kind. Most of the houses within were quite large; those of wood had been white-washed, and the greater houses, those of the noblemen and the merchants, were of white marble tinged with soft lines of pink.

  The largest and dominant structure was not the cathedral, as in most of the great cities of Avonsea. That building was impressive, probably as much as Caer MacDonald’s Ministry, but even it paled beside the fabulous palace. It sat in the west of Princetown, on the highest ground closest to the mountains, four stories of shining marble and gold leaf, with decorated columns presented all along its front and with great wings northeast and southeast, like huge arms reaching out to embrace the city. A golden dome, shining so brightly that it stung Luthien’s eyes to look upon it, stood in the center of the structure.

  “This duke, he will be in there?” Oliver asked and Luthien didn’t have to follow the halfling’s gaze to know which building Oliver was talking about. “We should have kept our horses,” the halfling remarked, “just to get from one end to the other.”

  Luthien snickered, but wasn’t sure if Oliver was kidding or not. The young Bedwyr couldn’t begin to guess how many rooms might be in that palace. A hundred? Three hundred? If he kicked Riverdancer into a full gallop, it should take him half an hour to circle the place but once!

  Neither companion spoke, but they were both thinking the same thing: how so oppressive a kingdom could harbor such a place of beauty. This was grandeur and perfection; this was a place of soaring spirits and lifting hearts. Was there more to the Kingdom of Avon than Luthien, who had never been to the south before, understood? Somehow, the young Bedwyr simply could not associate this spectacle of Princetown with what he knew of the evil Greensparrow; this fabulous city spread wide before him seemed to mock his rebellion and, even more so, his anger. He knew that Princetown was older than Greensparrow’s reign, of course, but still the city just didn’t seem to fit the mental image Luthien had conjured of Avon.

  “My people, they built this place,” Oliver announced, drawing Luthien from his trance. He looked to the halfling, who was nodding as though he, too, was trying to figure out the origins of Princetown.

  “There is a Gascon influence here,” Oliver explained. “From the south and west of Gascony, where the wine is sweetest. There, too, are buildings such as this.”

  But not so grand, Luthien silently added. Perhaps the Gascons had built, or expanded, Princetown during their occupation of Avon, but even if Oliver spoke truthfully, and the architecture was similar to those structures in southwestern Gascony, Luthien could tell from Oliver’s blank stare that Princetown was far grander.

  Shaken by the unexpected splendor, but remembering Katerin in the clutch of the demon and focusing on that awful image, Luthien motioned to the north and started off at a swift pace; Oliver followed, the halfling’s gaze lingering on the spectacle of Princetown. From somewhere within the city, near to the palace, it seemed, came a low and long roar, a bellow of pure and savage power. A lion’s roar.

  “You like cats?” Oliver asked, thinking of the zoo and wishing that he could have visited Princetown on another, more inviting, occasion.

  The sky was dark and dotted with swift black clouds by the time the companions had circled Princetown, moving along the granite wall back to the south, toward the palace. They came around one sharp bend in the wall, and Luth
ien stopped, perplexed. Looking to the west, he discovered Princetown’s dirty secret.

  From the east, the place had looked so clean and inviting, truly a jewel, but here, in the west, the companions learned the truth. The ground sloped down behind the palace and the eight-foot wall that lined the city proper encircled into a bowl-shaped valley filled with ramshackle huts. Luthien and Oliver couldn’t see much in the darkness, for there were not many fires burning down below, but they could hear the moans of the poor, the cries of the wretches who called a muddy lane their home.

  Luthien found the sights and sounds heartening in a strange way, a confirmation that his conclusions of Greensparrow and the unlawful and ultimately evil kingdom were indeed correct. He sympathized with the folk who lived in that hidden bowl west of the city’s splendor, but their existence gave him heart for the fight.

  Oliver tugged on his cloak, stopping him.

  “Close enough,” the halfling whispered, pointing up to the side of the palace, looming dark and tall not so far away.

  “Here now!” came a bellow from the wall, a guttural, cyclopian voice, and both friends dropped into a crouch, Luthien pulling the hood of his cape over his head and Oliver scampering under the folds of the magical crimson garment.

  On the wall, several lanterns came up, hooded on three sides to focus the beam of light through the fourth. Luthien held his breath, reminding himself repeatedly that the cape would hide him as the beams crossed the field before him and over him.

  “Get back to your holes!” the cyclopian roared and from the wall, several crossbows fired.

  “I would like it better if the one-eyes could see us,” Oliver remarked.

  The barrage continued for several volleys and was then ended by a shared burst of grunting laughter from the wall. “Beggars!” one cyclopian snorted derisively, followed by more laughter.

  Oliver came out from under the crimson garment and straightened his great, wide-brimmed hat and his own purple cape. He pointed to the south, toward the towering palace wall, and the pair moved on a few dozen yards.

 
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