"Call of the Dragon, Pt I" Cornell #1
"Call of the Dragon, Pt II" Cornell #2
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
Chapter 16 <==/ Chapter 17 (Final Chapter)
“… and I burned my finger!” Flink groaned and held up his hand. “See? It really hurts!”
Beyond the slight mark on the alreu’s finger, Cornell saw piles of rubble, smoke rising in thin columns into the dawn of the new day. Tonomai soldiers and private citizens were digging in the rubble, some others were throwing buckets of water at the remaining fires. Near the still standing portions of the Palace, a body was pulled from the debris. A healer – judging by his attitude – pushed the soldiers aside, knelt by the body and checked him for any signs of life.
“Sir?” Flink said and stretched out his hand so the burned finger would be in better view.
“Terrible, Flink. Didn’t Gabe tell you to torch only the Palace, not the buildings next door?”
The alreu frowned, looked around at the chaos he’d caused, casually sticking his finger in his mouth and sucking noisily on it. Cornell didn’t waste any time wondering how the alreu had managed to devastate half the Palace and at least three other houses. He certainly wouldn’t ask. No need to make the alreu start three or four hours of mindless babbling that might or might not contain any answers. “Uhm,” Flink said after a short while, “I got kinda lost, you know, sir? Just a little, I mean, goodness gracious, who knows where –“
“I understand,” Cornell nodded with a friendly smile.
Flink furrowed his forehead, staring at the Cayaborean with wide eyes – then a smile brightened his face.
Well, what do you know? Cornell thought to himself. Fake understanding, and he’ll shut up. For the time being, anyway. “Where’s Gabe?”
“Oh, back in the Palace. They’re questioning him.”
“Questioning?” Cornell repeated with sudden anger. “Whatever for?”
Flink shrugged, then started to answer, but the Cayaborean was already heading towards the Palace. In what had been a small garden area before the fire, Phindar – strange how quickly Cornell had adapted to recognizing his human appearance – was treating injured. Six of Melawdis’ troops stood nearby, set to watch him, yet the priest had converted them into orderlies as soon as he’d seen the ruins. “Phindar!” he yelled. “I need a translator!”
The cleric looked up from the body of an elderly woman, her simple dress torn apart, burn marks and gashes from falling rubble marking her. “I’m sorry, but I am quite busy,” he said in a tired, determined voice.
“Fine,” Cornell said when he’d reached the makeshift hospital. “Just tell one of the soldiers to take me to Melawdis.”
“Can’t I do that?” Flink piped from behind. Of course the alreu had followed him. How wonderful.
Phindar pointed at one soldier with a blood-drenched hand. A soft golden glow surrounded his fingers, shimmering magic that Cornell recognized as a protective spell. Decalleigh priests used it to keep wounds and their hands clean. Phindar said something in the Tonomai language to the soldier who carefully deposited the tools he’d been carrying on a small wooden table, then strode off towards the Palace entrance. “Follow him, Cornell. And be sure to have him sent back. I need every pair of hands I can use.”
“Like mine?” Flink asked, picking up one of the tools – a sharp stiletto that he started juggling instantly.
Phindar was ready to scream. Cornell chuckled, grabbed Flink’s collar and dragged him off. The stiletto fell to the ground, safely away from anyone it could hurt.
The songdwarf was seated on the governor’s throne, her short legs barely reaching the edge, while she didn’t bother trying to put her hands on the arms of the chair. “I’m sorry, but your friend needs to be debriefed. After all, he’s killed several soldiers and caused considerable damage to government property.”
“But that was me!” Flink raised his hand eagerly and stepped forward. “I did that, and now Gabe is getting de… whatevered? This isn’t fair!”
Melawdis leaned forward to curiously study the alreu. “I might question you personally later. Would that make it better?”
Flink paused, crooked his head and tapped his fingers on his lips. “Maybe. Is it better to be questioned personally?”
The dwarf slid from the throne, stretching herself much like a cat while she watched the alreu who was about her height. “We’ll have to see about that, handsome,” she smiled.
Something was shifting in Cornell’s body at that exact time. His stomach, getting rather unsettled at the images that the songdwarf’s words were conjuring up in his mind. “Pardon me for interrupting, Melawdis. Gabe?”
She was watching Flink with interest, then her head spun about to face Cornell – and the Cayaborean could swear that the gray of her skin had changed to a slightly darker shade. “Don’t worry about your friend too much. The soldiers he’s killed were rebels. I want to make sure he knew about that before he slew them.” Her eyes focused on him, as if to remind him that Cornell had killed his share of Tonomai in the last few days. (More than that, as a matter of fact, but why chance mentioning the demon-raisers?) “Anyway,” she sighed, “I am more interested in what happened to the governor. Gabe had been holding him and his closest counselors hostage, but when my troops came here, he was alone and beaten up. He claims they’ve escaped.”
“Derisham?!” Cornell couldn’t help but exclaim. The governor overpowering Gabe? Maybe he had had some guards with him, but it still seemed…
“Exactly,” Melawdis nodded. “So we’re questioning him while I consider you debriefed after our ride back here. That –“ She stopped, half-turned to look in confusion at Flink who was fingering her vest. “What are you doing?”
Flink smiled at her. “This is wonderful cloth, Madam Songdwarf! The embroidery is so excellently done, I love it!”
“Do you?” Melawdis brightened. “I made the vest myself. That – here – is the emblem of my clan.”
“That’s beautiful!” Flink exclaimed, bending forward to closely study the embroidery she’d pointed out. “So many threads, so perfectly layered… There’s a symbol below the outer layer, isn’t there? You’ve put another layer of embroidery over it so it can’t be seen, but I feel it.”
The songdwarf gently touched Flink’s hands and ran the cups of her fingers over his skin. “You have very sensitive fingers, young man.”
He smiled. “So do you, to have crafted something this pretty. Goodness gracious, did anyone ever tell you that your face looks just like a piece of dolomite in the evening light of the glowater?”
“Not recently,” Melawdis said, her voice a bit husky.
“That’s a shame,” Flink continued, his smile deepening. “I like dolomite.”
Cornell coughed as loud as he could. “Melawdis, Flink,” he said harshly, “if you don’t mind, I would truly enjoy talking to Gabe now.”
The songdwarf cast him an angry glance, then she disentangled Flink’s fingers from her vest, clasped them briefly and said, “We’ll continue this later. Wait for me, please?”
“Sure! You’ve got to question me!”
“I certainly will.” Melawdis turned away, shot another glance at Cornell. “Come with me.”
The Cayaborean followed her, wondering whether Flink had any idea what the personal questioning would entail. Then again, judging by the way he hopped onto the throne and started lounging there, Cornell was almost certain the alreu knew perfectly well.
“Why didn’t you tell me that Derisham has escaped?” Cornell challenged Melawdis when they’d left the reception room and were heading down a long corridor. Leaded glass windows were set in even distances, allowing a dim, blueish light to fall onto the ochre stone. Faint patterns were painted by fine cracks in the glass, their intricacy suggesting that the cracks had been created intentionally.
Melawdis shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to you. Derisham will be apprehended in short order, I’ve seen to that. A goodly number of his soldiers have renewed their oaths to the empress, adding a blood oath before a priestess of the One God.” A naughty smile lit her face. “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering clerics to accompany my troops. If a tera’qu, a civil judge such as Kerash, could succumb to Derisham’s promises of grandeur, so might the local priestesses. Not that you care much about this, do you?”
It was Cornell’s turn to lift his shoulders. “Internal policy. But you don’t need me around for any trial, now that the governor’s gone. I care about getting home, that is all.”
“Sorry,” Melawdis chuckled. “But the trial will take place with Derisham present or not. He will be sentenced to be executed on sight. Did I mention that Kerash will be presiding over the trial?”
Cornell didn’t answer. He found it interesting that she seemed to be sparing the judge’s life. Had she formed a bond with the man, when Kerash had thought her a mad creature? Maybe. Again, it didn’t matter much to him. He felt uncomfortable enough walking alongside her. Melawdis was a being of great power; her spellsong had proved as much, the one that had amplified his strength. If she had thrown her lot in with the Tonomai empress for the moment, that was good and fine. Yet that in itself raised the question of why she had done so.
He wouldn’t find an answer today, he guessed. Maybe never. Personally, he’d be happy to never meet the songdwarf again. For a moment he’d thought he’d be able to get out of Atnas earlier, and now she’d slammed the cell door shut again for two weeks.
“Down here,” she said matter-of-factly and opened a heavy oak door, leading to a spiral staircase. Torches were blazing, well maintained. Damp, moist air wafted up.
“In the dungeon? That is not very hospitable,” Cornell snarled.
Melwadis shifted her head a little, her eyes flashing. “But very conducive to making men talk.”
Not if the man in question is named Gabe of the Ryelneyd. “If you say so,” he smiled back, relieved to find her disconcerted by his answer. So, you don’t know everything, do you, my short bardic friend?
They walked down the stairs. A guard stood at the bottom, snapping to attention when he saw the songdwarf. Melawdis said a few words in the Tonomai language, then she walked past him and waved Cornell to follow. The dungeon, he thought, fit the name aptly. It was as dusty and mouldy as any representative of its kind should be, with heavy-set doors spaced closely – indicating rather tiny cells behind -, small barred windows set in the doors. Wooden signs were hung over nails under the windows, most of them filled with charcoal scribbles that he took to be the names of the prisoners. Rather full, the dungeon was, even though there was little noise.
Well, except for one cell some thirty yards down the corridor. A voice was singing in basso profundo, and Cornell’s smile intensified while Melawdis frowned and shot the human a glance. “Your friend?”
He lifted his eyebrows and said, “Unless one of your Tonomai knows The Barmaid of Marsey, I’d call that a safe guess.”
She grunted something, then hurried her steps toward the cell from which the song was coming. A guard stood before it, looking very uncomfortable trapped between the singing from behind and the approaching songdwarf. The soldier nodded hurriedly, tapped on the door twice, then swung it open.
The singing didn’t stop when Melawdis walked in. Funny that Gabe had just reached the stanza when the barmaid was dancing on the tables for her young suitor, twirling her skirts – which the song described in rather detailed and lewd phrases. Cornell followed her, interested in seeing her react to the words.
To his regret, Gabe stopped singing as soon as he caught sight of the Cayaborean. He’d been sitting on a stool, ringed by three standing Tonomai soldiers. Now he rose, while the Tonomai stepped aside to make room for Melawdis. “Cornell, you have come,” Gabe announced, looking straight over the head of the songdwarf.
“What is the meaning of this?” she snarled.
The nearest soldier, apparently the leader of the group, shook his head uncertainly. “Forgive me, mistress,” he said in accented but understandable meantongue, “we were trying to question the man, but he… He was singing the…” He broke off, as if unable to find words for the salacious lyrics.
Darkly Melawdis said, “I see.”
“Let’s cut this short,” Cornell said and carefully placed his hand on her shoulder. “Gabe, sorry to intrude on your fun. I want you out here and back in the tavern. Solstice Day, remember?” The barbarian’s eyes brightened, and he nodded slowly. “Not that I care about it,” Cornell continued sharply, taking care of a potential misunderstanding. “Now, Gabe, did you know that Derisham was rebelling against the empress?”
The southern barbarian shrugged. “The priest in the shield thought so.”
“Good.” Cornell pressed the songdwarf’s shoulder once. “So much for that. We spoke about that after you helped me get out of the Palace.” He rolled his eyes, focused on Gabe again. “What happened with Derisham and his cohorts? You held them hostage, then what?”
“How?” Cornell snarled, while Gabe was still speaking.
“Well, one guard had loosened his knots. He got free and surprised me. I had been watching the rubble blocking the door, so I didn’t notice until he hit me over the head with his chair. I fell unconscious.”
“All right,” Cornell nodded. “See, Melawdis, that’s how it happened. Derisham’s men must have dug him out while Gabe was in the land of dreams, then they took off before your troops got here. Everything’s taken care of, and we can go now.”
She looked up at him, unwilling to concede a point. “That sounds too easy. Your man here fought and won over several more of our trained soldiers. We have found enough bodies that were cleaved with his axe.”
“Still,” Cornell said and hoped she didn’t note the satisfied look on Gabe’s face, “any warrior can be taken by surprise. I know Gabe, and I say you should believe him.”
Melawdis closed her eyes, pursed her lips – then brushed his hand aside and stepped aside. “Go, Crimson Dragon, before I change my mind, and take that poor excuse for a bard with you.”
The two friends were walking back to the Crimson Talon. Cornell looked about, wondering if any of the passersby understood meantongue. If he still had the shield, Phindar might have an idea. On the other hand, how would Cornell ever have been able to have a private conversation with the three shield souls present all the time? Or four, come to think of it. He shook his head. One more reason to get rid of the damn shield. Magical appliances were nice and good, but they certainly shouldn’t be able to talk.
“Gabe,” he said then, “where is Derisham?”
The barbarian loosened his fur vest a little, pretending that the cloth was itching instead of getting a bit of cool air in. “I do not know. As I said he escaped while I was unconscious.”
“Uh-huh. And you were surprised because you forgot about watching your hostages along with the exit.”
“That is what I said,” Gabe agreed softly.
Cornell stopped and gazed up at his tall companion. “Let’s just hope that the governor is smart enough to stay out of sight long enough for us to get out of Tonomat. I don’t think he would have been singing in that dungeon.”
The Cayaborean sighed. He wouldn’t get an admission out of the barbarian today. Of course Gabe had let Derisham go. He might enjoy being called a barbarian, but he had an astute mind, and there were few people in the world who could walk softly enough to smash a chair on Gabe’s head. Not while there was quiet all around, and he knew the potential for danger.
But Gabe had his reasons, and that was enough for Cornell. Again, he didn’t always agree with the barbarian, yet he respected his choices.
A hearty slap on his back woke him from his pondering. Gabe was grinning ear to ear. “Let’s have a good Solstice Day, shan’t we, Cornell? We’ve put a good adventure behind us. At the end of our times, we’ll enjoy telling the tale to our grandchildren.”
Halla Valfrey was sitting on a chair before the inn. She was wearing her armor, the shield strapped to her arm. Cornell breathed deeply to see the buckler again. So uncomfortable seeing it on somebody else, even though it belonged to her. A large bag was on the ground next to her. It looked like a traveller’s bag, of Tonomai design.
She stood when she saw Cornell and Gabe approach. Her face was still, betraying no emotion. “Lord Cornell,” she said and bowed her head slightly.
He frowned. Why did she have to call him that? She hadn’t bothered with any of this when she’d still been in the shield! Does she actually know that you’re a nobleman? Not that you didn’t give her plenty of clues. “Halla.” He pointed to the bag. “You’re leaving?”
“I have to return to my homeland. Much has changed in Keroull.”
You can say that again, Cornell thought grimly. When Halla had left her home seventy years earlier, it had been an ordinary kingdom named Keroull. Now it was called Rek’atrednu, more commonly known as the Land of the Undead. Blood wizards, vampires, and other creatures of the dark controlled it, a constant threat to all surrounding lands – including Cayaboré. “That is not a good idea, Halla,” he said softly. “The people you knew are all gone. You can’t stand alone against the hordes of the dark. My home has fought many wars with Rek’atrednu, and the best we have managed was a stalemate.”
Calmly she nodded. “Phindar explained about that. Yet I have to see for myself what remains of the land I swore to protect. That oath binds me still. Perhaps,” she paused briefly, a shadow passing over her face, “I have more influence than the eyes perceive. You say that the ruler of Rek’atrednu is the former court wizard Kristo Pharlee. I knew him. I will have words with him.”
“Do you think that words can convince him?” Cornell fought hard to keep the sarcasm from his voice. Halla sounded strangely shaken, and he wondered what her relationship with Pharlee had been. Had they been friends? Or had there been more than friendship between them? Now that was a sobering thought. All his life he’d been raised with horror stories about the bloodthirsty Kristo Pharlee of Rek’atrednu. Now to even consider that an honorable woman such as Halla might have been in love with him, that was quite disturbing.
“I do not know,” Halla answered. “Many years have passed. If he no longer is the man I knew, I shall destroy him.”
The words were curt and bitter, proving to Cornell his assumption. They also permitted no doubt, nor gave they an opening to be convinced to another course. She knew that she was heading to a charnel house, and that she herself would be more prey. On the other hand, you’ve known her for a couple of weeks. Don’t you think she’s enough of a predator to last a while? He nodded gently, then held out his arm. “Good luck on your journey, Halla Valfrey, shield maiden of Keroull.”
“Thank you, Lord Cornell of Cayaboré,” she responded, put her arm against his and clasped his wrist firmly while he did the same. “May your life be rich and fruitful. Our paths will cross again. This I swear by my soul.” Strange, Cornell noted absently. She seemed to be speaking to Gabe more than to him.
The barbarian said, “I wish you luck as well. Your soul is bound to oaths.”
“I honor each oath I speak.”
“As do I.”
Halla let go of his arm, held it out to Gabe, and the two clasped each other’s wrist in the same manner. Something was passing between them, as if they were putting their honor on the line.
Cornell shook his head. He’d never quite understood Gabe, and Halla seemed very much like him.
The two let go. Halla shouldered her bag, nodded to Cornell, then walked down the street without another word. The Cayaborean spent a while watching her leave, wondering if he would ever see her again, then he turned to Gabe. “Are you in the mood to explain what just happened here?”
“I don’t understand,” Gabe said with his best I’m-a-dumb-barbarian look.
Cornell threw up his hands in exasperation. Clearly this wasn’t the day for coaxing explanations from the barbarian. “Let’s go inside and see what the rest of the idiots are up to,” he muttered and walked into the inn.
The Crimson Talon looked much as Cornell remembered it from his first visit. There was no sign that there had been a fight – except that there were three less tables. The others had been arranged so that there was no clearly visible gap. The garlands under the ceiling were more plentiful, he thought, and small red metal globes were hung from a few of the garlands. Several were close to him when he entered, a sweet scent emanating that covered any bad odors. If there were any left, after the ground had been scrubbed as clean as this was, with no trace at all of the blood that had been spilled here two nights earlier.
Nev, the paunchy coward of an accountant, sat at a table, oblivious to everything around him except for a tankard of warm ale and a full platter of food steaming in front of him. Opposite him sat the slip of a girl named Ana, the fourth of the shield souls. She looked forlorn, nibbling absently at a cookie and staring at the fireplace in the inn’s center.
A young man was tending the fire. The innkeeper’s son, Cornell remembered after a moment. Back from the journey with his mother, only to find that Vairpole had been nearly killed. A great way to start the Solstice Day celebration. Upon their return to Atnas, Cornell had asked Melawdis to lift all charges from the innkeeper and his family. The songdwarf had agreed immediately, dispatching a courier to the Tonomai healer’s house. By now, Cornell supposed, Vairpole must be back at his inn, probably in their private quarters, where his wife could take care of him.
That was a good assumption, yet he only needed to take a few more steps to be disabused of that notion for Vairpole was right here in the commons room, next to the tap counter. Half sitting, half lying on many pillows, he was watching his tavern with a look of pride and relief in his pale face. When he noted Cornell, he waved. “My lord, I thank you for saving my life.” He tried to shift higher on his pillows, as if to get up.
Cornell shook his head. “Stay down, Master Innkeeper. You have a lot of healing ahead of you.”
Vairpole sighed, closed his eyes, then slid back down into a more comfortable position.
Meanwhile Ana had turned around in her chair, watching Cornell with sudden glee in her eyes. Awkwardly the Cayaborean acknowledged her with a nod and a smile. She responded with a quick smile – then turned hastily back to the table and the cookie in her hand.
Cornell frowned, unsure how to take her behavior. He cast a quick glance over to Gabe, but found that the barbarian was no longer by his side. Instead he was walking to the tap counter and Rose standing behind it. The barmaid wore her customary clothes again, looking proper and merry – especially when she saw Gabe. She put her fists in her sides, beaming at the barbarian as if she had cleaned the tavern all by herself.
He shook his head, selected a nearby chair and plunked down. The boy near the fireplace looked up. “An ale,” Cornell said, patting the table before him. The boy nodded, then hurried to fetch the drink.
A good ale would suit him fine, nice and warm, just like at home. That was about the only way one could sensibly spend Solstice Day. All that idiocy… Oh, well, Cornell thought, now that all his companions were accounted for, he could relax and –
His eyebrows suddenly shot up, the rest of him following a scant heartbeat later. Where were Barandas and Sylasa? Those two had started this whole mess, and he hadn’t seen them today! Not since they came back from the temple!
They’d claimed to be tired from the fighting, exchanged a few words with Melawdis. Afterwards they’d taken their horses and the wagon – along with a couple of soldiers as guards -, to head back to the tavern. And Cornell only now realized that both of them had made the claim at the same time! He himself had been very tired, that was the only explanation why he hadn’t noticed that they had agreed and left together. Indeed he hadn’t had a chance to sleep since then, was now running on the steam of adrenaline.
Vairpole’s son came to the table, held out a mug of ale. “Will you be wanting anything else, your lordship?”
Cornell sighed, took the mug and drank a long draught. Just the right temperature. He put it down on the table while he said casually, “Are my friends – the wizard and the lady – in their rooms upstairs?”
“No, your lordship,” the youth shook his head. “I haven’t seen them today. Should I send somebody out to look for them?”
“Don’t mind that,” Cornell waved him off, sat down and drank from his ale again. There was no need to look for those two. In all likelihood, a soldier would soon come knocking on the tavern’s door, to fetch Cornell before a very irate Melawdis, where he’d see Sylasa and Barandas in chains.
“Happy Solstice Day, sir!”
Maintenance in this inn must be shoddy. Now the tables are sprouting alreus. Cornell blinked, keeping his eyes closed for a few heartbeats, but when he opened them again, Flink was still there, bent over at the hip so he could inspect the Cayaborean’s eyes closely. “Is your, uhm, questioning over?” Cornell groaned, reaching for his mug of ale.
Flink raised a finger to his lips, frowned in deep concentration, then his face brightened and he declared, “For today, it is. But Melawdis said she still had some matters to discuss tomorrow. Say, you won’t be needing me, will you, sir? I mean, I really wouldn’t want to think I’m letting you face danger alone. You know me, sir, if there are any tunnels to collapse, I’m your alreu. On the other hand, well, goodness gracious, I’ve also got to remember that Melawdis is now the acting ruler of Atnas. So – is that beer cold enough to drink?” Without waiting for any reaction from Cornell, Flink stretched out both hands and snatched the mug from the Cayaborean’s fingers. Moments later the ale gurgled down the alreu’s throat rather than Cornell’s, the unhappy Cayaborean noted. “Bah!” Flink announced a rather long while later, returning the – empty – mug. “That’s decidedly too warm, sir. We’ve really got to have a good talk with the innkeeper about this. I mean, warm beer, that’s… Well, it just isn’t done, is it, sir?”
“No, I’m sure,” Cornell told Flink earnestly, fixed the alreu’s face with his eyes, then hollered wildly, “Gabe! Come here and fetch Flink from my table!”
Flink’s head jerked back, and his long spidery arms shot out to cover his ears. “Well, now, sir,” he grumbled testily, “that was rather loud. Say, sir, are you drunk? Goodness gracious, not that I’m complaining, it’s just that your pronunciation isn’t as good as usual. And you’re rather good at that, sir, if I might add, so –“
Fortunately the barbarian appeared by the table moments later, grinning at the alreu. “Hello, Flink,” he boomed cheerfully. Cornell was far too happy that the alreu would now vanish to tell Gabe to be quieter. “So, how did your questioning at the Palace go? Were you taken to the dungeon?”
“No,” Flink started, hopping down from the table, “I wasn’t. My, do you think I should ask for the dungeon tomorrow? Is it interesting down there?”
“I liked it,” Gabe shrugged. “A good, orderly dungeon. I found it very enjoyable. Good acoustics.” The two walked away from the table where Cornell was burying his head in his arms, hoping that the mug of ale would miraculously refill itself.
The miracle didn’t happen, but fortunately Vairpole’s son happened to the mug, as he would a couple of times more during the evening.
The inn had filled up in the late hours of the evening, mostly with Tonomai, but also with the expatriates from Cayaboré and other southern lands. Musicians were playing in a corner, supposedly Cayaborean songs, but they were awfully distorted by the Tonomai instruments. You probably couldn’t find a decent fiddle anywhere in this bloody empire, Cornell had decided after a few notes. It all got worse when Gabe decided he hadn’t done enough singing in the dungeon.
He started out with Yelof and Egap Are On Their Way, a merry tune about Solstice Day. A bad start as far as Cornell was concerned. The stupid song had tormented him throughout his childhood when the servants wouldn’t stop singing it, reminding him all the more that Solstice Day was ahead – which the servants would spend happily with their families, while Cornell would dine on cold meats with his father and brother. “Happy Solstice Day,” he toasted himself cynically and downed the remainder of his current mug, then held it out to the side, waiting absently for the refill. By now Vairpole’s son and Rose must have gotten it into their heads that he needed fresh ale every couple of minutes, right?
Gabe had progressed to his favorite kinds of songs by that point, ribald bar songs that had the place rolling with laughter. Including the Tonomai. They might not understand the words, but Gabe was gesturing the poignant moments eloquently.
Then the inevitable happened, the moment that Cornell had been dreading all evening. The door of the inn flew open, and two armored Tonomai soldiers walked in. All right, he told himself. Off to see Melawdis and discover what my two wayward companions have stolen now. Surrendering into the inevitable, Cornell got up – then sat right back down when he realized that he had drunk a tiny bit too much ale, perhaps. His head was spinning. That must be the case because the two soldiers simply marched to the nearest table, squeezed into the crowd and called for drinks.
Worse than that, two other people now stood in the entrance, dressed up in very familiar costumes. One wore the brown traveller’s cloak, an ill-fitting wig and false beard; the other wore a yellow wig, chomping on a twig, wearing a long, blue shirt, under which a silver armor shimmered.
“Yelof! Egap! They’re here!” Flink’s cheerful voice sounded, and an alreu-shaped comet raced through the maze of tables towards the entrance where he bounced up and down eagerly. “Yelof, welcome!” he screamed to the man with the dark wig who bore a maddening resemblance to Barandas, then Flink yelled, “Welcome, Egap!”, addressing the woman.
Helplessly Cornell held out his mug again. To his relief, Rose was there with a pitcher of ale, and the mug was full in a few seconds. If only the girl weren’t smiling like that, watching the new arrivals with utter glee.
The tavern had fallen silent, all eyes were watching the door. Sylasa-Egap raised her hands, shouted, “Happy Solstice Day everybody! We’re here to spread joy to those who have been good, and the rest of you –“ She added a very Sylasa-like smile that had the men gasp in appreciation. “Well, you know who you are, don’t you?” A roar of laughter followed.
The two of them walked to the nearest table, pulling a large bag behind them. From it, Barandas pulled a couple of items that he distributed among the patrons at the table with a wide smile. Then Sylasa took a few other items, pointing a warning finger at each of the patrons she selected before giving the person a gift.
Cornell quickly drank from his ale. He must be delusional. Maybe he could have accepted Sylasa distributing gifts (or rather “punishments”, as befitting her role), but Barandas as Yelof? How? Why? When?
There wasn’t a good answer in the world, but Cornell decided it must be at the bottom of his mug. Hopefully.
The music started playing again, Gabe joined in with his deep voice a few heartbeats later until Barandas and Sylasa reached them, handing out gifts to the musicians. Gabe continued singing, staring all the while at Barandas. So much for your Solstice Day spirit, eh? Doesn’t extend to wizards. Good, there may be hope for you after all. Then Cornell nearly spat all his valuable ale when Barandas produced a whetstone from the bag – or rather, a worthless piece of limestone shaped like a whetstone. It would never sharpen anything harder than a finger nail, certainly not bwyell at which Barandas was pointing. If anything, bwyell would grow dull enough that it couldn’t cut anything. Gabe glared at the wizard, then roared in laughter as he took the stone.
Cornell took a glance down his mug. No, there still wasn’t any answer available.
In quiet amazement he kept watching as Sylasa and Barandas were making their rounds, depositing gifts at every table until they finally reached Cornell’s. The Cayaborean closed his eyes, told them to leave him alone, but noticed – after a while and the incomprehensive looks on their faces – that he didn’t have full control over his vocal chords.
Then Barandas grinned, took a vial from the robe under his cloak and poured a liquid into Cornell’s ale. He was too slow to protest or pull the mug away, and then thirst made him drink from his mug.
Moments later clarity hit him like a brick wall, all his pleasant bucolic stupor wiped away. “Anti-sobriety potion?” he groaned, wondering when the hangover would hit him. These things never took too long.
“Like every Solstice Day,” Barandas grinned. “I knew you’d be utterly drunk by now. Like last year.”
“So were you. What the abysses happened? You’re buying presents for everybody? Including Gabe?”
“Well,” Barandas shrugged and waved amicably in the direction of the barbarian, “that was only fair, considering I paid for the trinkets from his share of our party treasure.”
“Oh, that –“ Cornell broke off, his eyes widening. “The party treasure? But the bandits took that, or –“
Sylasa leaned forward and smiled at him. “Happy Solstice Day, darling. Your empty-headed friend and I spent all day looking for it. So fortunate that the governor hadn’t come around to killing Tarum yet. I only had to talk to him for a few minutes, and he’d told me where it was.”
Suspiciously Cornell answered, “That is – very kind of you. And out of character for both of you. What else did you get?”
“Why!” Barandas exclaimed in fake shock. “How dare you believe that there would have been anything else on our minds but our own property!” He suddenly grinned. “And the other stuff that Tarum’s stowed away in his cache.”
Sylasa beamed. “I had to recoup my losses, didn’t I, Cornell? After all, I didn’t manage to sell the dragon egg.”
“Also,” the wizard continued, nodding towards the guard who had come to the inn with them, “there was plenty to buy those two off. That rock lady won’t ever know that there was anything besides our property in Tarum’s cache.”
“Anything magical there?” Cornell asked drily.
In response Barandas pulled a statuette from his bag and placed it on the table before Cornell. “Happy Solstice Day.”
Carefully Cornell picked the statuette up. It was a wooden eagle, carved with exquisite detail. Copper threads were pressed into the wood, the eagle’s eyes were made of tiny, glittering jewels. At least they looked like jewels. Cornell had no doubt they were magically created imitations and practically worthless, or Barandas would have pried them from the wood.
“You couldn’t get it to work, right?”
The wizard shrugged. “I spent two hours deciphering the inscriptions on the bottom. I’d say its magic’s been depleted for decades.” He grinned. “Look at the bright side. This wood doesn’t talk.”
“Thank the gods for that,” Cornell returned the grin, only to sober up momentarily. “That doesn’t explain your get-up or distributing gifts to everybody.”
“Oh, that,” Barandas cocked his head. “Just a precaution, you know? In case you get angry that we looted the rest of Tarum’s cache, and you want to kill me. One never knows what crazy ideas you can come up with. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to enjoy the benefits of my benevolence. Ta-dah!” He swirled his hand in a complicated and rather ridiculous gesture, then paced away, towards the nearest table with a beautiful woman.
Speechless, Cornell turned to Sylasa. The woman was doffing her disguise as Egap, shook her head so her hair could fall free. “You know, Cornell,” she said softly, “I have another present for you.”
She reached out her hand, waited for him to take it. When he did, she gave a sudden pull – her strength enhanced by her magical armor -, and suddenly he found himself standing, her arms snaking along his sides so her fingers could clasp the back of his head and tilt it forward. His lips were right before hers, as she breathed, “Happy Solstice Day, Cornell of Cayaboré.”
He decided to worry about hangovers and wizards some other day. “Happy Solstice Day, Sylasa,” he grinned, then pressed his lips on hers.
Maybe this Solstice Day would be a happy one, after all.
T H E E N D