“Have you found them then?” The balefire nimbus played aboutToth-Set-Ra as he hunched in his high-backed chair..
Atros grinned. “We know roughly where they are. We have only to summonour creatures for the final search.” He shook his great shaggy head.”We have been closing in on them for the last three days. They evaded ourambush at the Forest Gate and fought their way through to the Wild Wood. Thenthey camped for the night within the ruins of the Rose Palace of Ali Suliman,”(while the search swept past them, Atros did not add). “We lost themsomewhat in the next day’s rain, but we have them generally located.”ated.”
“How have they avoided you for so long?”
Atros shrugged. “Bal-Simba—blast his eyes—is a clever foe. His Watchershave been working hard to muddy our Sight. The whole of the North is coveredwith blanking and false trails.”.”
He hesitated. “There is another thing. The wizard has a most pussiantcloaking spell. We cannot find the least trace of his magic anywhere in theNorth.”.”
“Indeed?” croaked Toth-Set-Ra. “Oh indeed? And the hedgewitch?””
“That is the strangest thing of all. The hedge witch discarded most ofher magical apparatus early on. Some trolls found parts of her magic kit strewnabout.” He neglected to mention that the trolls were sleeping off a feastand had not reported their finds for three days. That had cost the troll fatherhis head. “Apparently the hedge witch is relying on the other one toprotect her.”her.”
Toth-Set-Ra rubbed the line of his cheekbone with a leathery forefinger.”Strange,” he agreed. “Either this one is a most powerful wizardor she is a most trusting witch.”.”
“I would suggest he is a powerful wizard, Dread Master. Judging fromtheir success at eluding us.””
“But you have found them?”
“We have them penned in a small part of the forest. They are somewhatto the west of the elf duke’s hold.””
“But you have found them?” Toth-Set-Ra pressed.
Atros smiled. “Tonight, Lord. Since we cannot locate them by magic, wemust search by eye and ear. I am flooding the area with our creatures andallies. At night they are at their most powerful.” His smile grew broader.”Besides what weary travellers can refrain from lighting a fire to cooktheir dinner and warm their bones? And a fire in the Wild Wood can be seen fora long way away.”way.”
Toth-Set-Ra looked unimpressed. “And if our wizard chooses to usemagic?””
“Our black robes will be watching, ready to pounce.”
We shall see, old crow, Atros thought. After tonight we shall see.
“In any event, it is results I want, not details. Bring me thisstrange wizard with the most perfect cloaking spell. And bring him to me alive,Atros. Do you understand? I want him alive.”.”
“Thy will, Dread Master,” said Atros and bowed out of hispresence..
There were a few other details Atros forebore to mention. His searcherswere mostly allies or those who wanted the reward promised. Worse, nearly halfof the searchers were trolls. Trolls are none too bright and far too inclinedto murder to be ideal for this task.sk.
Beyond that, Atros knew he could not hold his army together much beyond onenight. The creatures not sworn to the League were restless, chancy things whowould not stay no matter how great the promised reward. Even the League’s swornservants could not stay long. Such a concentration would quickly attract theattention of the Council’s Watchers.ers.
Not that it mattered, Atros told itself. One night would be more thansufficient..
Where were they bound? he wondered. They seemed to have a destination. Theelf duke’s hill? That made no sense. Elves were badly disposed to mortals ofall varieties. Besides, if they wanted shelter among the elves there wereeasier roads to take.ke.
Whatever their destination, they would have to swing south shortly or theywould blunder into the deadest dead zone in all the North, a place where thetiniest spark of magic would show instantly. By now Atros had a grudgingrespect for this alien wizard’s masking spells, but no spell could be goodenough to hide them in that.hat.
Atros was well satisfied as he went down the corridor. Not only did he havethings well in hand for the capture of the strange wizard, but his other planswere well in hand besides.s.
Soon. Very soon.
“Where are we going anyway?” Wiz asked, sitting on a stump by thefire..
Moira looked up from stirring the porridge. “Someplace safe.”
“You said that before.”
“I prefer not to name it. There is always the chance of beingoverheard.””
“Well, what’s it like? A farm?”
Moira laughed. “No, it is a very special place hidden away in the WildWood. A place built like no other in the World.””
“You make it sound wonderful.”
“It is that.”
“Have you ever been there before?”
“This deep in the Wild Wood? Not likely. I have heard of it,though.””
“Right now anyplace that put a roof over our heads would bewonderful.””
“Patience, Sparrow. We are perhaps a day or two from ourdestination.””
“Then what happens?”
“Then you will be safe and I can return to my village.”
“I have work to do, Sparrow. There are people who need me.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Only…” Moira held up her hand to silencehim..
“Wait,” she said. “There is something…”
With a roar four trolls charged into the clearing. They were huge and foulsmelling, clad in skins and leathers and rags. One brandished a rustytwo-handed sword in one hand and the others carried clubs.s.
A troll closed in on Moira, arms extended and fanged mouth agape. Wizgrabbed a faggot from the fire and charged. With a casual, backhanded swipe andwithout taking his eyes from his prize, the creature sent Wiz sprawling throughthe fire.re.
Wiz rolled out as the beast got a hand on Moira. Without thinking hereached back into the fire and grabbed a burning brand. He pointed it at thetroll and yelled “Bippity boppity-boo.”.”
The troll was unfazed but the tree behind it exploded into flame with acrackle and a roar. The astonished troll weakened its grip and Moira twistedfree.e.
“Moira! Run!” Wiz yelled and ducked under the grasping arms ofanother troll. He twisted about and pointed the stick at it..
“Bippity boppity boo!” he shouted and another tree blazed up. Thetroll cringed back..
Whirling in a circle, Wiz pointed the branch and yelled”BippityboppitybooBippityboppitybooBippityboppityboo.” Trees all aroundthe clearing turned to fiercely burning torches and the confused trolls coweredand whimpered in the ring of light and heat.at.
Wiz sprinted in the general direction Moira had taken. Behind him he couldsee the forms of the trolls black against the orange-yellow glow. The scent ofburning pine filled his nostrils and he coughed from the smoke. One of thetrolls groped after him. Wiz pointed the stick at a tree between them, shouted”Bippity boppity boo” and watched the tree turn to a lance of flamein the very face of the monster. Then he turned and ran as fast as he could.ould.
As Wiz charged through the forest, a dim shape flitted from behind a treeinto his path. He flinched until he saw it was Moira, her form distorted by hercloak. He clasped her hand and she gave a welcoming squeeze. His cloak was backin the clearing, he realized, as were both their packs. But Moira was safe andnone of the rest mattered.red.
Behind them the reddish glow of the fires lightened the night. Also frombehind them came a series of hooting roars..
“They hunt us,” Moira whispered and released his hand. “Comequickly.””
The forest sloped gently downhill and they followed the slope as best theycould. Wiz silently blessed the open parklike nature of the Wild Wood herebecause they could move quickly and quietly through it.t.
Ahead he could hear the bubble and murmur of a running stream. Behind himcame the sounds of the trolls. They seemed to have spread out along the ridgeand were casting back and forth, calling to each other as they went. Once Wizsaw a misshapen form silhouetted on the ridgeline by the faint fireglow. Hetried to shrink in on himself even though he knew night and distance made himinvisible.ible.
They paused on the rocky stream bank while Moira turned this way and that,seeking the best path. There were boulders to serve as stepping stones, butinstead Moira led Wiz directly into the chill, swift waters.s.
“The water will mask our scent,” she explained over the stream’sclamor, “and some things cannot cross running water.””
“You mean like trolls?”
“The trolls are the least of it,” Moira said. “Listen.”
Off in the distance came the sound of a horn and again the hunting roar oftrolls echoed through the trees.
The water was not deep, but the current was swift and the bottom rocky. Bythe time they left the stream, some little distance above the place they hadentered, Wiz had fallen into holes twice and was soaked from head to foot.Moira had lost her balance once and was thoroughly wet down one side.de.
With Moira leading they sprinted over the wide pebble beach and into thesheltering dark of the trees. The forest was thicker here and the underbrushmore profuse. Wiz and Moira crowded into it and peered back the way they hadcome.me.
“Which way?” Wiz panted.
Moira cast about indecisively. “Ahh,” she breathed at last.”They throng to the south and east of us. To the west and north are areasrich in magic.”.”
“So we go west and north?” Wiz suggested.
Moira shook her head. “To enter a powerful area with the hunt so closeupon us would be our doom. With magic all about us we would stand out like antson a griddle.”.”
Moira didn’t answer. Which was answer enough.
“Can’t you use magic to get us out of this?”
Moira snorted. “If I used magic they would sniff us out at once. Weavoid them only because they cannot sense magic upon us.””
A weird, warbling howl pierced the night, chilling Wiz’s blood. Across thestream, a huge wolf-like shape loomed on the ridge, outlined by the risingmoon. Even in the moonlight its eyes burned red. It was the epitome of all thewolf nightmares of Wiz’s childhood.od.
“Dire Beast,” Moira breathed. She squeezed Wiz’s hand eventighter and they crept away, clinging to the shadow and thickets. Behind themthe wolf creature howled again but made no move to follow.w.
Once away from the stream bank they ran. They scrambled up another ridgeand half-ran half-slid into a valley. The woods were thicker and darker, butthat was no comfort. Still the sounds of their hunters rang and the treesseemed to close in about them to the point of suffocation.on.
There were brambles to catch at clothing and rip flesh. Once Wiz took athorny branch full in the face and once they had to stop to disentangle Moira’scloak from a barbed bush. As they worked the fabric off the grasping thorns Wizsaw that Moira’s hands had been cruelly lacerated by pushing through thespindly growth.wth.
Finally, exhausted, Moira led Wiz into a thicket. There was a hollow in thecenter as if once long ago a tree had been uprooted there. Together theycowered and panted in the little crater beneath the bushes and listened to thesounds of pursuit echoing through the forest.st.
Dared they stay here? Wiz wanted to ask but he was afraid to make a sound.Besides, he didn’t think he would like the answer. Unbidden, Moira’s words onthe first day came back to him. .
Suddenly something hissed in Wiz’s ear like a disturbed snake. Wiz jumped.
“Hsst,” came the sound again. “Hsst, Lady, over here.”He turned and stared but saw nothing. Then part of the bush seemed to twist andcoalesce and a tiny man stood beckoning to them where a second before there hadbeen only moonlight and branches. He was clad in a pointed cap, tunic andbreeks with pointed shoes. Wiz could not tell the color in the dim light.ght.
“Come this way. Quickly.” The little being turned and skippedthrough the undergrowth. Moira started to follow but Wiz caught her arm.”Trap?” he panted.d.
Moira scowled and shook off his hand. She hurried after the little man, whowas dancing with impatience..
Wiz was half-blown when they started, but he pushed ahead gamely. The trailled through glades and over ridges until at last they arrived at the base of ahill. As their guide approached, a rock rolled away and pale golden lightflooded out into the dark.rk.
“Enter and be welcome,” said a melodious male voice from within.
Again Moira started forward and again Wiz caught her arm.
“Didn’t you tell me to avoid places like this?”
“Would you rather the trolls and Dire Beasts?” she snapped. Wiznodded and followed her into the hill..
“May there be peace upon you. May you leave the woes of the Worldbehind,” the voice said, as if reciting a formula..
“May there be confusion to our enemies and may we return to the worldwe know,” Moira said firmly into the air..
“May it be so,” responded the voice and their host seemed to stepout of the wall of the tunnel to them..
He was tall, graceful and silver-haired. His eyes were so blue as to bealmost purple and his skin was the color of milk. Wiz could see the blue veinsunderneath.h.
He wore a long tunic of scarlet, intricately worked, and a collar of beatengold. His belt was dark leather decorated with bronze the length around..
“My Lady,” he bowed to Moira. “My Lord,” he nodded toWiz..
“My Lord.” Moira dropped a deep curtsey.
“My Lord,” Repeated Wiz and made a clumsy bow. He barely noticedthat the rock had slid silently back across the entrance, sealing them within..
Their host regarded them serenely. “I am called Aelric. I am duke ofthis place and I bid you welcome here.””
“We thank you for your hospitality, Lord,” Moira said. “I amcalled Moira and this one is called Sparrow.””
Duke Aelric looked narrowly at Wiz. “Ahhh,” he said simply, butwith a world of meaning..
“You have heard of us then, Lord?”
“A mite.” The elf duke made a languid gesture. “But there willbe time for talk later. I hope you will do me the pleasure of dining with methis evening.”.”
“We would be honored, Lord,” Moira said.
“Let it be so then.” Duke Aelric snapped his fingers and theirguide capered out and bowed low to his master..
“Most dread Lord, most gracious Lady, if you will deign to followme?” The little creature turned and moved down the tunnel. Duke Aelrictouched his fingertips to his forehead and faded back into the rock. Wiz gapeduntil Moira jabbed him with her elbow. Then he followed her and their guidedown the corridor.dor.
Wiz’s shoes squeaked on tessellated marble floors inlaid in fantasticpatterns. Over his head columns of scarlet and gold soared upward until lost inthe gloom. Here and there an elaborately carved lantern cast a gentle yellowglow through its alabaster panes, making the light more mellow rather thanbrighter. Occasionally the glint of gold added accent and unostentatiousrichness to their surroundings.ings.
They passed down stately corridors, through tapestry-hung halls and upsweeping curving staircases, yet they saw no one. Not even a faint, distantfootstep or the furtive motion of a curtain dropping into place showed thatthere was anyone in the huge underground palace but themselves and their tinyguide.ide.
At last they came to a massive door, twice their height and finely carved.The elf placed his hand on the intricately worked handle and pushed gently..
The door swung open to reveal a spacious, richly appointed room. It wasmore brightly lit than the rest of the palace and the carved and gildedlanterns along the walls cast a warm light on the furnishings of pale brownwood and heavy silken hangings the color of chrysoberyl. The ceiling waspainted the blue of a summer sky and spangled with glittering golden stars.Lines of silver traced out the shape of unfamiliar constellations. The air washeavy with the scent of roses and lilies.ilies.
“My master bids you be comfortable,” the elven major-domosqueaked. “There will be time to rest and bathe before dinner. My Lady’schamber is to the right,” he swept a bow in that direction, “and myLord’s is to the left. Peace and repose be unto you.” With that he bowedout.out.
“Wow,” said Wiz as he looked around at the splendor. “Thisis really something.””
“Elves contrive to live well,” Moira said, laying her cloak ontoan elegantly proportioned table and sinking down onto a silken cushion of thepalest blue in the chair next to it.t.
“All right!” Wiz said and dropped onto a couch nearby.
Moira removed the ribbon from her hair and shook out her flaming locks. Wizwatched, enthralled..
“It was brave of you to save me from the trolls,” she told him.”You gave me my life at the risk of yours and I thank you for it.””
The words were sweet, but her tone was used to thank a stranger for aservice. Moira was sincere and grateful, but that was all. She had been warmerto the man from the village, Wiz thought.t.
“It was nothing, Lady,” he said uncomfortably.
“It was, and again I thank you.”
Wiz did not reply. “Lady,” he said finally, “may I ask you aquestion?””
“Since you must.”
“I mean we won’t be overheard or anything will we?”
“We will almost certainly be overheard, although mayhap Duke Aelric istoo noble to pry into the affairs of his guests. Question if you must, butguard your tongue.”.”
“Where is everyone? I mean, does Aelric live here all alone?”
Moira shrugged. “I doubt it, for elves are social creatures. But theplace cold be aswarm with elven folk and we might see none. All elves have thetrick of not being seen when it pleases them.”.”
“Why did Aelric help us? Are the elves allied against theLeague?””
Again the shrug. “Allied against the League? No. Elves ally with noneand barely notice what mortals do to each other. His Grace acted for his ownreasons and those are beyond conjecture. Barring war or murder, elves aredeathless and they fill their years with contests and rivalries amongthemselves. They play deep and subtle games with their own kind and meddleseldom in the affairs of mortals. Perhaps we are part of such a game.”ame.”
“Well, as long as he’s willing to put us up, we can be whumpuses forall I care.””
“What’s a whumpus?”
“An imaginary animal.” Wiz lay back on the couch and started toput his feet up before looking at his muddy shoes and thinking better of it.”Now what?”?”
“Now we had best make ready for dinner.” Moira rose from thechair. “This is your room, I believe.””
The bedroom managed to be magnificent, simple and cozy all at once. Thecanopied bed was made of some rich dark wood crafted in sleek, almost modern,lines and polished until it glowed a warm reddish brown. The sheets were tanand the thick comforter was a pale russet. The lighting was soft and indirect,brighter than the twilight the elves seemed to prefer but not as bright as thesitting room. The bed looked so inviting Wiz nearly sank down onto it, but heknew if he got comfortable he’d never be ready for dinner. He had a strongfeeling it would not do to keep Aelric waiting.aiting.
The bath beyond was walled in pink-veined marble set with gold. In thecenter of the room was a sunken tub of steaming water, fragrant with herbs..
Wiz moved toward it, pulling at his shirt.
He had the shirt over his head when soft warm hands touched his bare back.
“Hey!” Wiz tried to turn, but the hands restrained him gently andhelped him get the shirt off. With his head free, Wiz turned, but the room wasempty.y.
“What is this?”
The only answer was a very feminine giggle as someone started to undo hisbelt. He looked down and saw nothing, yet his belt was unhooked and fingersbegan to unzip his fly. Instinctively he reached down to knock the invisiblehands away, but he met only air. Again someone or something giggled.ed.
Once his unseen companion had undressed him, he stepped into thejust-too-warm water and sighed luxuriously..
Wiz was expertly soaped, scrubbed and rinsed. The water that came off himwas black with dirt, but the water in the tub remained so clear he could seehis toes.s.
Clean and glowing, he was assisted from the tub and rubbed down with towelshe could not see. It felt like there were two or three pairs of hands workingon him at once. .
His clothes were gone, but when he reentered the bedroom new clothes werelaid out for him, a shirt with enormous puffed sleeves, a russet doubletseveral shades darker than the bedspread and a pair of tight buckskin breeches.Soft calf-high boots of ox-blood leather completed the outfit.it.
This time there were no invisible hands to help him so Wiz dressed himself,struggling with the unfamiliar fastenings..
Moira was waiting for him when he emerged. If Wiz looked good in hisborrowed clothes, Moira was breathtaking. She wore a gown of emerald greenvelvet, cut low and caught tight at the waist, with full-length sleeves thatflared sharply from elbow to wrist. Her hair was a flaming mane about her face,held in place with silver pins set with opals. Wiz could only stare.are.
“Do you like it?” she asked somewhat shyly. “I’ve never hada dress like this.””
“It’s gorgeous,” said Wiz when he finally got his lower jaw undercontrol. “You’re gorgeous.””
“Thank you, Sparrow,” she dropped him a mock curtsey. Then shebecame serious. “Now watch yourself. Be respectful and above all, becourteous. Elves place great store on courtesy and there are very few mortalswho have shared Duke Aelric’s table.”e.”
Wiz nodded dumbly and moved toward her. She moved away with fluid grace.
“Shall we go?”
“Is it time?”
Moira only smiled and opened the door. Their guide was waiting for them. Hebowed so low his forehead almost touched the floor and led them off..
Again their way took them down empty corridors and magnificent halls, allbathed in the soft dim light. At length the little man brought them down astair as subtly curved and carefully proportioned as a sea shell, to a greatbronze door. The door swung open at their approach. The creature bowed to thefloor and motioned them within.hin.
Their host awaited them inside the door.
“My Lady. My Lord.” He had changed his red tunic for atight-fitting outfit of silver-gray velvet. Silver glinted at his neck andwrists and a silver band set with a fiery blue opal held back his white hair.He was fully as magnificent as he had been when they first saw him, but now theeffect was less barbaric, more civilized.zed.
He bowed to them and Wiz bowed back as best he could. Then the duke tookMoira’s arm in his and led them to the table..
The odd half-light made it impossible for Wiz to judge the size of theroom. The far walls were lost in the dimness, but Wiz didn’t feel dwarfed. Thefloor was elaborately patterned parquetry and the table was draped insnow-white linen. Softly glowing balls of light hung above the table. Theydanced gently in an unfelt breeze and the ripple and play of the light was likecandlelight on the table and diners.ners.
Invisible pipers played a high reedy tune in the background, at oncemedieval and modern, like soft progressive jazz performed on recorders..
The duke seated Wiz on his left and Moira on his right.
“You seemed to have created an uncommon stir among the mortals,”Aelric observed to Moira as they sat down..
“It was not intentional, Lord.”
“And you were the object of a Grand Summoning,” he said to Wiz.
“Yes, Lord. Uh, it wasn’t my idea.”
“No doubt,” Aelric said equitably.
The elf duke was a perfect host, charming, gracious and witty. He madeMoira laugh and dimple without arousing more than a twinge of jealousy in Wizand contrived to make Wiz feel more at ease than he had since he arrived onthis world. Only once did Moira bring the talk back to the circumstances whichled them beneath the elf hill this night.ght.
“Lord, why did you aid us?”
Aelric smiled, just a hint of a smile. “Let us say we find yourpursuers an annoyance. Trolls and such like are uneasy neighbors and were theyto find that which they seek they might be encouraged to tarry.”.”
“We thank you for your service.”
“The pleasure was mine, Lady,” he said with an easy smile andagain changed the subject..
For all his charm, Wiz could not warm to their host. There was malicethere, Wiz thought, as he listened to the flow of the elf duke’s talk. Thecasual malice of a cat with a mouse. There was alien, and underneath it wasboredom. Would it be boring to live forever? Yes, in the end it would be, nomatter how rich, how powerful or how skilled you were.ere.
The food was rich and varied. The portions were small but there were manydishes and each plate was brought forth as carefully arranged as if by a masterdesigner. Most of it was unidentifiable. But it was all delicious.s.
Once Wiz had been taken to one of the fanciest restaurants in San Franciscoas part of a dog-and-pony show for a client. The meal had been very much likethis. Excellent food, beautifully presented in magnificent surroundings. Exceptthis was better on all counts.ts.
The girl who served them was human. Wiz wondered if she was Lothar’sdaughter. But she was so quick and efficient and so quiet and downcast she wasgone before he could ask the question. Probably not a good thing to ask anyway,he decided uncomfortably.ly.
They had gone through a half a dozen courses of meats, vegetables, sweetsand savories when the duke reached out to lay a gentle hand on Moira’s wrist,interrupting the story she was telling.g.
Aelric frowned. “Your pardon Lady, Lord. But it seems we have a callerasking for you.””
Wiz froze, his spoon halfway to his mouth.
Aelric listened and then said into the air. “You may speak.”
A hazy shimmering began to congeal in the center of the hall but the elfprince raised his hand. “I said you may speak. None enters hereunbidden.” The half-shadow dissipated until only a little shimmerremained.ed.
“You have two mortals here,” wailed a voice, high, thin and reedywith all the despair in the universe..
“What is within this hill is not the business of outsiders.”
“You have two mortals,” the voice repeated. “We wantthem.””
“Your wants are no concern of mine,” Aelric said in a bored tone.”Now speak on matters of interest or begone.””
“My master will reward you well,” crooned the voice.
The elf duke cocked his head and arched his brows. “It might be ofinterest to know what your master has that he possibly believes I should want.But not tonight. Say you further?”?”
“My master offers double what the Council offers for themortals.””
Aelric frowned. “I have no part in mortal quarrels,” he saidsharply. “What I do, I do because it pleases me and for no other reason.Those who are here stay here and those outside stay outside.”.”
“My master is powerful,” the voice wailed. “He is powerfuland determined. Give us the mortals.””
“Your master is a mortal,” Aelric responded. “That is limitenough on his power.””
“Will you duel him by magic?” the voice asked.
“Perhaps some other time. Now I am at meat. And you growtedious.””
The voice changed. It deepened and became louder. “GIVE THEM TOUS,” it roared. “GIVE THEM OR WE SHALL KICK THIS HILL DOWN ABOUT YOUREARS.”.”
Aelric yawned elaborately. “Tedious indeed,” he said. “Nowbe off with you.” He lifted a hand languidly and gestured..
“GIVE US the mortaaalllls…” The voice lessened and diedlike a train whistle down a tunnel..
Aelric turned to Wiz and Moira and smiled sweetly. “Uncouth creatures.Now, you were saying?””
“Forgive me, Lord,” Wiz broke in, “but aren’t you afraid hewill do something?””
Aelric gave Wiz a look that froze his bones and cleaved his tongue to theroof of his mouth..
“Forgive him, Lord,” said Moira quickly. “He is from faraway and is unused to our ways. Please forgive him,” she begged.”Please.”.”
Aelric cocked his head and stared at Wiz. “Far away indeed, Lady. Verywell, but teach him manners.” Then his expression softened..
“Know, infant, that this place has stood for aeons and on. It wasbuilded by magic on a foundation of magic and it would take more magic than amortal could learn in a puny lifetime to touch it or any of mine.”.”
“Yes, Lord,” said Wiz, very subdued.
The rest of dinner passed off without incident. Aelric was again thegracious host, diverting and ever attentive to his guests’ needs. By the timethe last sweets had been removed with nuts in golden bowls and the wine broughtforth in crystal flagons, Wiz was almost relaxed.ed.
Almost. He regarded the elf prince in the same light as a friendlylion—magnificent, unsettling and not at all someone you wanted to spend timewith.h.
At last Moira yawned delicately behind her hand and Aelric took that as asign that the dinner was over..
“I should not keep you,” he said with a charming smile. “Youhave had a long day already and several—interesting—days before that. May yourest well.”.”
“Thank you, Lord.” Moira returned the smile. “And thank youagain for your hospitality.” She extended her hand and the elf lord raisedit to his lips.s.
“You are more than welcome. Thank you for gracing my table.” Heturned to Wiz. “And thank you, Lord. It was a privilege to meet someonefrom so far away.”.”
Wiz bowed as best he could.
“You do not know why you were Summoned then?” Aelric saidsuddenly..
“Beg pardon?” Wiz asked, confused by this turn of theconversation. “Ah, no Lord.””
“Well then,” said Duke Aelric with an odd, cold smile. “Itwill be interesting to see what becomes of you, Sparrow.””
“Thank you, Lord,” Wiz replied, not sure whether he should bethanking the elf or not..
“Then will we see you again, Lord?” Moira asked.
“I doubt it,” Duke Aelric said. “But it will be interestingnonetheless.” Again the alien smile, like a rather sleepy cat examining anewly discovered plaything.g.
“Lady, do you suppose he knows something about me?” Wiz asked assoon as they were back in their rooms..
“He knew who we were,” Moira said, yawning and stretching in away that made her dress swell alarmingly and Wiz’s heart nearly stop..
“I mean do you think he knows why Patrius brought me here?”
“Who knows what an elf knows?”
“Shouldn’t we ask him?”
“Sparrow, if he knew and if he wanted us to know, he would tell us. Itmight be he was making sport of us. Elves are prone to such tricks. But I doknow this. If he did not tell us there is no point in asking him.”.”
“But I am going to bed,” Moira said firmly. “You may sit upand attempt to fathom the unfathomable if you wish.””
Wiz watched the door to Moira’s room close after her and then turned towardhis room. He dropped his clothes on a chair in the corner and headed groggilyfor his own bed.d.
I wonder if he really does know. Or if he’s just playing head games, Wizthought dreamily as he drifted off to sleep..
In the morning there were fresh packs in the main room. The clothes theyhad worn into the hill were waiting for them with all traces of travel staingone. Somehow they had even restored the nap to the suede on Wiz’s runningshoes. Moira’s cloak was clean and patched so expertly there was no sign it hadever been rent and tattered. There was a new cloak hanging next to Wiz’s packto replace the one he had lost.lost.
Sitting on the table was a round loaf of brown bread, still warm from theoven, a slab of pale yellow cheese, a pitcher of brown ale and a bowl of whiteonions.s.
“It appears we are to break our fast alone this morning,” Moirasaid, pulling her chair closer to the table. She poured herself a tankard ofale and used her knife to hack off a chunk of cheese and a thick slice ofbread. With the knife point she speared one of the onions and took a healthybite.ite.
Although the idea of beer and onions for breakfast made Wiz a littlequeasy, he followed suit. In spite of his misgivings the combination wasdelicious. The cheese was sharp and tangy, the onions were mild and sweet andthe ale refreshingly astringent on his tongue.ue.
“Doesn’t time run differently in these places?” Wiz asked Moiraaround a mouthful of bread and cheese..
“Not if the elf lord does not will it so,” she said. “Hepromised me when we entered that it would not.””
“So that’s what that greeting was all about!”
“Just so. Albeit we had little enough choice should he have decided tomake centuries pass like minutes.””
“I take it we’re going on this morning?”
“I doubt Duke Aelric’s hospitality holds for more than a singlenight,” said Moira, appropriating the heel of the loaf. “Besides, thesooner we reach our destination the better.” She looked at the bread andsighed. “I wish we could carry bread like this on our journey. It isunusually good.”od.”
“It’s baked by elves,” Wiz said smiling.
“Their servants morelike. What’s so funny?”
“Never mind,” Wiz chuckled. “I’m not even going to try toexplain it to you.” Then he turned serious. “What are the chancessomeone is going to be waiting for us outside?”?”
“Small enough. Oh, they may watch the door we entered like cats at amouse hole. But I do not think we will go out that same way. Not only time butspace runs strangely in places the elves make their own.”.”
Wiz picked up the last crumb of cheese and popped it into his mouth. He letit melt away on his tongue savoring the bite and flavor. “Well, when do weleave?”?”
“As soon as we gather our things,” said Moira. She stood up fromthe table and fastened her cloak at her pale freckled throat with the turquoiseand silver clasp. Wiz followed suit, throwing his cloak over his back.k.
“Don’t we need to ring for someone to show us out?”
“I doubt it,” said Moira as she reached for the door handle.”If a guide is needed one will be waiting when we open the door.””
The door swung outward at her touch and brilliant morning sunlight floodedin. Instead of a marble corridor lined with travertine pillars the door openedinto a sunny forest glade. An orange and brown butterfly flitted lazily abovethe deep green grass that ran to their threshold.ld.
Moira looked over at Wiz, smiled slightly and shrugged. Wiz shrugged back.Then they adjusted their packs and set out under the warm morning sun..