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Tale the Fifth

A Song of the First Wars of Men

Shadowed, Unshadowed, surged forth on the plain,
Sword, spear, red armor; and blood fell like rain.
Grim fought Unshadowed, untutored, untrained,
Driv'n by their enemies while blood fell like rain.

Down fell the Dwarven Prince, faith his last cry,
Loyalty eternal, but death lingered nigh.
"No longer immortal," the grass seemed to sigh,
"Join now oblivion--your death is nigh."

No swords had Unshadowed, prepared not for war--
Foe came without warning, as blackness outpoured.
In Wilders long hungered, their envy a sore,
They came on the storm's wing, and blackness outpoured.

Scythe and a sickle, an ax meant for wood,
Breadknife in maid's hand; fought while they could.
Smith's hammer, wright's chisel, fell where they stood,
Though it 'twas futile, they fought while they could.

A village torn empty, dwarves dead on the plain,
Poor, lost Unshadowed! Weep for old pain.
Your maidens are stolen, your children are slain.
You now who listen, weep for old pain.

Who will remember the names of the lost?
Gravestones are age-worn, covered with frost.
All you who listen, forget to your cost--
Shadow is death, and surrender is frost.

Shadow is death, and surrender is frost.

Tales of the Seekers
Part 1: Ikmos
Tale the Fifth: Clouds Billow

"Don't drink the cider!"

Wari stared at his apprentice, holding his cup at chest height. For a moment he expected the boy to do something overly dramatic, like knock the cider from his hand, but Mateo just stood there, a framed silhouette in the doorway with daylight behind him. He looked quite wild, wide-eyed, his gold-brown hair catching sun like a fluffy corona around his head and giving him an other-worldly air, but he wasn't quite that far overboard. Constable Ingfred's face was visible over his shoulder, mouth open, eyes shocked.

The Seeker carefully set the cider down on Servant Hyran's desk. "I haven't drunk any, but I was just about to, for courtesy's sake. Do you have a reason for your suggestion, young one?"

Mateo glanced nervously at the Servant and his muscular guard, who were staring at him in slack-jawed bemusement. "I think it's poisoned."

Wari picked up the cup and sniffed, inhaling a long, deep whiff of apples and mild fermentation. He had not been concerned before, trusting the truth he perceived in Servant Hyran's words, but now he took time to analyze the scent. The others watched, Mateo anxiously, Hyran and Ingfred curiously, and the guard with an odd mixture of puzzlement, hope, and anger.

"Solana berries," Seeker Wari decided. "You're right, Mateo--the cider is poisoned."

Servant Hyran leaped to his feet. "That cannot be true!" The outrage and surprise in his voice was sincere. "We drank from the same jug!"

Mateo shook his head, stubborn despite the fear Wari saw sweep over him. "Solana berries are deadly. Those with heightened senses can smell them."

Wari poured his cider very carefully onto the tray the guard had set on Hyran's desk, creating a brown puddle around the sweating jug. He dipped his fingers in the dregs that remained and lifted out the pulped skin of a berry. "It was placed in the cups, not in the jug."

"By Chief Constable Gordath," Mateo said, pointing at the guard.

"Gordath!" Wari was startled. He looked at the constable more closely. "Tyat Morelo has told me about you." Foolish, mistaking him for a mere guard. I must be more careful.

Gordath glared at the boy with a rage closely approaching hatred, furious to have his plot spoiled by a scrawny youth. Every muscle in his body tensed, as if preparing to take his revenge, and Mateo shivered convulsively and shrank back against the doorjamb. Wari stood quickly and moved to stand beside him, hand on sword.

"But--but I knew nothing of this," Servant Hyran sputtered. "Seeker, you didn't drink!"

"No," Wari said gravely. "Every time I lifted the cup to my lips, I felt so satisfied already, not thirsty at all, that I lowered it again. But I was about to drink, to be polite, when Mateo stopped me."

"Seeker Wari, I assure you, this was not my plan! Gordath acted without my consent!"

Wari knew this was true, and also that the Servant had a far more complex pot brewing. Before he could reply, though, Gordath was upon him, shouting, "Ingfred, kill the boy!"

Despite his errors, Wari was prepared for this. Before the Chief Constable could get his hands around Wari's throat, Wari grabbed his wrists and thrust him away, putting his back to the wall. He spared a glance for the apprentice and saw that Mateo, skinning knife in hand, could handle his own fight. The Seeker turned his full attention to Gordath.

Wari's sword flashed out and met the constable's hefty blade. Servant Hyran squeaked in fear and ducked behind his desk as they dueled, grunting and slashing the air, as well as some of the furnishings. Seeker Wari deliberately steered their fight away from the desk and Kalindi Raiolai's beautiful sculpture, though.

Gordath was strong, but he had no style whatsoever. Wari guessed that what he knew about sword fighting, he had learned from chopping down trees. Tyat Morelo must have had no difficulty at all defeating him, though she must have traded her thin rapier for something sturdier. The constable's sword would have been perfectly useful for whacking slabs of meat in a butcher shop.

A feint, a crossing slash--Wari drove his opponent back into a corner. Gordath stabbed at him, and the Seeker moved to his left, allowing the blade to slip by. The constable tried again and again to cut the Seeker, purpling with rage as Wari easily eluded each blow. Riannan shone silver in the sunlight streaming in the window, as if delighted to be at work, but Wari's face was almost expressionless in its calm. He wasn't even sweating, despite the pressing heat.

At last Gordath reached out with his long thick arm and snatched the terracotta sculpture from Hyran's desk, tossing it to the Seeker. Wari caught it reflexively, and in the moment of inattention Gordath ducked under Riannan and threw himself out the window in an explosion of leaded glass. Wari dropped the sculpture on the overstuffed chair and vaulted out the window, cutting his hand on the jagged bottom edge, but the constable was gone.

The Seeker landed on his feet and looked around. Traces of blood in the dust--Gordath had been cut. But the huge man was nowhere in sight in this shaded back alley. Wari followed the blood, but it ended after a few paces. Hoof prints--a horse? The Seeker lifted his head and listened.

Hoof beats--on the outskirts of town already. The Chief Constable had moved very quickly. Wari started to whistle for Xakor, but then his ear caught another sound: Servant Hyran's voice, high with agitation.

"Constable Ingfred, really--put down your sword!"

"For your own good," another added. That was Mateo's voice, uttered as if through gritted teeth.

Wari bit off an exclamation and hurried back. Mateo's little skinning knife was no protection from a sword. He thought he heard a dog barking, and then Ingfred yelled in terror.

Wari swung back into the Servant's office to find Ingfred on the floor, pinned by a huge mud-colored dog slavering and growling as ferociously as any Katamobe. The constable looked absolutely terrified, and his half-rusted sword had flopped out of his reach against the legs of the desk. Mateo stood against the wall, knife still raised as if to ward off a blow, and Servant Hyran was peeking over the desk in wide-eyed wonder.

At the Seeker's entrance Mateo relaxed and lowered his knife. He knelt and whistled once, and the dog broke off his attack and hurried over to accept the boy's caresses, tail wagging frantically. Ingfred slowly started to sit up, but on seeing Wari he gulped and lay flat again, squeezing his eyes shut.

"Don't hurt me," the constable whimpered.

"Of course not," the Servant said briskly, standing. "Get off the floor, Ingfred. We know you were confused about who to obey. I'm sure the Seeker and his lad don't hold it against you."

Wari neither confirmed nor denied this. Instead he turned to Mateo. "What happened?"

Mateo took a moment to stop petting the dog and put away his knife. "Ingfred hesitated." He sounded quite charitable, as if agreeing that he didn't hold anything against his attacker. "We just stood there for a little while. But Gordath sounded so mad--when he threw the sculpture at you Ingfred lunged at me, but it was pretty clumsy, and I caught his blade on my knife. It still slid up until it was pressed almost to my throat, my knife-hilt just barely holding it off. But Ingfred didn't push; he just stood there, until my friend Hikano here jumped on him. That's when you came in." The dog Hikano lay down against Mateo's knees, dirt-crusted tail thumping on the Servant's carpet.

Wari shook his head in amazement. The boy had surprised him again with this calm report, and his knowledge of Elvish, naming the dog 'large' in the Elven tongue. Wari prodded the supine constable with his toe. "Get up, friend. Mateo seems to have forgiven you, and I have not forgotten our bargain concerning your knife."

"What bargain?" Hyran asked suspiciously, as Ingfred cautiously clambered to his feet.

"He will use it to fight the thieves that have been preying on your people." Wari smiled at Ingfred, who was now blushing again. "Isn't that right, constable?" At Ingfred's queasy nod he turned again to the Servant. "There seems to be no harm done, besides to your window. I'm glad to see Kalindi's sculpture survived intact. But I assume your confidence in Chief Constable Gordath has suffered."

"He will never step inside Ikmos again," Hyran said, fervent as any young lawman out to cure Madra of wrong. "Again I tell you, he acted without my knowledge or consent."

Truth. Hyran truly hadn't wanted them poisoned. Wari didn't understand.

"There's blood on your hand," Mateo said sharply, interrupting Wari's reflections.

Wari waved away the boy's worry. "A scratch. It's stopped bleeding already. I'm more concerned about these thieves, and what Servant Hyran intends to do about them." He looked expectantly at the Servant.

Hyran seemed to have regained his balance. His manner was as cool and smooth as burnished steel, barbs bouncing off. "Of course we need to discuss our strategy, Seeker. It would be well for you to join our local constables in their searches of the hills." He paused, then smiled, an oddly catlike expression. "Oh, I know! My friend the merchant Estaed is having a banquet tomorrow night. Come--everyone will be there, and we will be able to discuss everything."

Wari looked at the Servant with narrowed eyes. "That sounds well. But Mateo and I will have our fill of banqueting, once Princess Elladia and her husband arrive."

Instead of looking worried by the veiled threat, the Servant smiled as if he expected that the Princess would never come at all. "Nevertheless, come tomorrow night. Your apprentice is also welcome, of course."

The Seeker frowned. As if he expected the Princess would never come at all . . . Something was happening that he could not divine. He would have to dig much deeper to unearth the whole of this burrow of vermin winding its sunken paths through Ikmos.


Mateo sat slumped in the saddle, brooding. He paid little attention to his surroundings and had given up on asking to be allowed to walk. As he had known they would, the Servant's words about his father had returned with twice the power. It quite buried his curiosity about the other thing Hyran had mentioned, Seeker Wari's last apprentice. Mateo knew he was pitying himself and hated his selfishness, but he could not stop the phrases from echoing in his mind.

Must have infuriated your father . . . bested by his own son . . . infuriated your father . . . his own son . . . infuriated . . . own son . . .

Another thing troubled him as well, under that. He had shrunk from Gordath's anger like a sniveling coward, the same way he had reacted to his father's wrath for so many years. What kind of Seeker's apprentice was he if a glance from an enemy caused him to quail? Why did Katamobi and wild beasts rouse no terror in him if he was such a coward? How could he someday accept the sigil of a Seeker, knowing of this abhorrent weakness in his heart? Perhaps he would never be free of the fear, despite Wari's promise. Perhaps it would be better to return to the Mingled Forest and live there forever alone, where no fright could touch him.

It must have infuriated your father, being bested so easily by a callow child, his own son.

The same thoughts kept spinning round and round, leaves caught in a whirlwind. His skills had infuriated his father. He had been jealous. So it was Mateo's fault. But his father had taught him those skills, so it was his fault. Yet he punished Mateo for it, so it must have been Mateo's fault. Why was Droc jealous of his own handiwork? Why? It was a puzzle with no solution.

Must have infuriated your father . . . bested by his own son . . .

Mateo shuddered and hunched over Xakor's neck, clutching the reins despite the soreness of his hands. The balm Seeker Wari had rubbed on them had worn off, and they throbbed like an enormous new welt. Perhaps he would never be free of that pain, either.

Wari touched Mateo's knee, drawing his attention back to the present. The man was smiling, warm as the sun intermittently showing its face through the scudding clouds. "I was impressed by your presence of mind back there, Mateo. I do not doubt that you saved my life. You did very well."

Mateo smiled cheerlessly. "Thank you."

"I was also surprised you knew Elvish, to give the dog such a fitting name. Where did you learn it?" Apparently touched by the bond between the boy and the dog and impressed by Mateo's taming of the almost feral creature, Servant Hyran had offered to take Hikano in. Somewhere under the rest of his emotions, Mateo was glad the poor thing had found a home, but it didn't lighten his outlook much.

He sighed and looked away. "We did not always live in the Keranúm Forest, my father and I." For a moment Mateo was silent. Then he sighed again. The words came slowly, but they came. "Father was a . . . wanderer. Wherever he hung his cloak for the night, that he called home. He . . . he was once an impressive hunter, with a fairly wide-spread reputation."

Wari nodded. "I heard of him often in the first few years I was a Seeker, but about fifteen years ago the stories dropped off. What happened?"

"He met my mother." Mateo paused again, then repeated more strongly, "He met my mother, in a Southern Maychoria village I do not remember the name of. Her . . . her name was Tyat--you noticed my startlement when I met that lady constable earlier this afternoon."

The Seeker nodded again. Now that little mystery was explained, at least.

Mateo seemed resigned to telling this part of his story, though it was evident he didn't derive much pleasure from it. "One village Teacher told me . . . she said that for a while, people thought my father, the great hunter Droc, would settle down for good. He seemed . . . seemed happy, well adjusted to hunting from only one swath of woods on the edge of the Wilders. But when my mother died birthing me, he . . . I suppose he just couldn't bear it any longer. Almost as soon as I could walk he became a wanderer again, but this time . . . he was not quite as impressive."

The boy looked away over the hills. They were passing a farmer's holding, and grain and hay fought for purchase in the rocks in scattered clumps of summer green. "Perhaps my father . . . perhaps his skills had deteriorated, or perhaps he simply found no joy in hunting anymore. He did what work he could find, and we usually didn't go hungry, or I didn't, though I suspect now that he was overgenerous to me in the sharing of the food. He loved me then."

Again Mateo paused, and then he spoke more strongly and quickly, as if to get it all out while the words were coming. "When I was five or six we stayed for a while in Maychoria Castle, where there was plenty of work for a serving man at Delegate Meetings. He ran messages and waited tables and kept the glasses of the Delegates well filled. We lived in the worst part of that great city, which was no worse than a moderately well off village here in Tappuah. There I made friends, but my chief playmate was an elven lad named Korindel, after that famous Prince of ancient history. Korindel taught me many things, among them to speak his tongue. I'll never forget that elf--he was the best friend I ever had."

Again Mateo fell silent. Wari did not reply, expecting that the boy would continue once he gathered his thoughts. But Mateo said nothing more, only stared ahead at the rocky path, the gray hillside rising up on each side. His eyes were dry.

Abruptly he looked down at the Seeker. "I'm thirsty. Why wasn't I thirsty before?"

Wari smiled as he drew the leather water bag from behind Xakor's saddle and handed it up to his apprentice. "King's protection, young one. He was warning us of the poison. But I didn't think about my lack of thirst, watching the Servant so closely. It is a very, very good thing that you were there to stop me."

Mateo frowned as he drank, then handed the bag back down to the Seeker. It was obvious that something troubled the boy--perhaps many somethings.

Wari quenched his own sudden thirst, enjoying the water despite its warmth from being kept in the heat and the faint flavor of leather. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Mateo looked away and shook his head. His voice was soft. "Maybe later."

"My apprentice, you cannot ignore this forever, nor fight it alone. I want to help you."

"I know." It was a bare whisper, scarcely distinguishable from the breeze that ruffled the scrub grass growing on the hills around them.

Wari stared thoughtfully at the back of the boy's curly head, wondering if he should pursue the subject.

No, what Mateo needed now was reassurance, and then distraction, as quickly as possible. Wari nodded, acknowledging the Maker's guidance, and whispered a word of thanks. But what to say . . .

Quickly, now. "Mateo, it wasn't your fault." He knew this was the right thing to say as he knew that the sun would rise in the east and set in the west. He steeled himself and went on. "Did you wonder about what Servant Hyran said, about me refusing to take another apprentice?"

Mateo turned around to stare at him. Slowly, he nodded.

"Several years ago, I met a young dwarven lass among the clans who live on the braes of Northwest Maychoria. She was very young, and the development of dwarves is slower than that of men and elves. But she was so wise, and her gift was so strong . . ."

"What was her name?" Mateo whispered. His young face was intense; he was hanging on every word.

"Ponomára. I wish you could have met her, young one. You would have been fast friends, I think, even though you are so shy. She had a gift for connecting with people, as you do with animals. They called her Alarzóndar, Healer of Hearts in Dwarvish. When I looked into her eyes I saw the same I see in yours: the Sight of the Seekers. She was so pure, Mateo, so eager to heal this darkened world. I loved her as I would love my own daughter, if I had one."

Mateo watched the Seeker fixedly, wondering what had happened. He wanted to ask, but Wari had respected Mateo's wish for privacy, and he could do no less than return the favor. The man seemed so sad. Now Mateo understood, a little, the fear he had heard in Wari's voice earlier, when he spoke of the danger Mateo had been in yesterday.

Wari looked up at the boy. His smile was not really a smile at all. "What happened--I was to blame, young one. I swore I would never make the same mistakes. And I don't think I will. But I want you to talk to me, Mateo, tell me what you are feeling. I will never hurt you intentionally, but . . . tell me if something disturbs you, or if you don't understand something. I am sometimes unwise in dealing with people. I do not have Ponomára's gift. And you . . . you are so different."

Mateo nodded. He had forgotten his own troubles, though they still lurked somewhere just underneath. Perhaps . . . The thought was startling. Perhaps Seeker Wari needs my help as much as I need his.

In passing he realized that he was admitting, if only to himself, that he needed Wari's help. Later he would try to sort out just what that meant. But the idea of the Seeker needing his assistance was much more arresting.

Certainly he needed the subject changed, as quickly as possible. Mateo twined his fingers in the coarse hair of Xakor's mane and felt annoyance creep over his face as the perfect distraction occurred to him. Xakor bobbed his head as if in encouragement, almost dislocating the boy's fingers before he let go, and Mateo looked at the Seeker. "Are we really going to go to that banquet tomorrow night?"

Wari laughed. A warm sound, it seemed to dispel all the clouds that had gathered, despite the fluffy white things that still floated in the sky. "We certainly are. But in the meantime, we will prepare."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, you will find out, my dear apprentice. You will find out."


"Oh, that looks very well," Vemáley said in satisfaction, standing back to look Mateo up and down. "You look a fine gentleman, instead of the wild woodling you seemed when we began."

Mateo scratched his wrists, rubbed uncomfortably by lace cuffs, and tried to wriggle the shoulders of his too-large jacket into an easier position. It was no use, and he felt that his face had been bright red for hours. He had never thought clothes could be hated enemies, but these certainly were.

The boy tugged at his collar, and Quimal, Nirok's wife who had found these dreadful garments among her sons' wardrobes in the first place, pushed his hand away. "Leave it be, lad," she reproved. "You'll pop the buttons."

Mateo barely refrained from telling her that that was precisely what he wanted.

Vemáley began putting away her pins and needles and thread, which had been so busily employed in tightening the shepherd boy's finery to hug Mateo's more slender dimensions. "Come have a look!" she called to the cottage door, signaling that their creation was ready to be admired.

Wari, Ranof, Thanas, Joqirl, and Neuma poured into the cottage. Their oohs and aahs of appreciation were all the women could have desired, though Mateo was certain that dove-gray did not go well with his flushed face, whatever the women said about it being 'his color.' He wanted nothing more than to flee like the wild woodling he had seemed and hide until it was all over.

"I can't go," he told the Seeker desperately. "I'm--I'm sick. My stomach hurts."

Wari grinned. "It will pass, Mateo. Stars above, lad, the clothes suit you."

Mateo groaned quietly. The Seeker, too, looked very well, in the bright Maychorian garments he had produced from somewhere in his pack. Mateo would have felt a little better if the man hadn't looked quite so calm and confident, though. At least then he wouldn't be alone in his nervousness about the coming evening. They had completed their preparations earlier this afternoon, but that was not what Mateo was worried about.

"Aye, he looks very fine," said Joqirl, smiling as she looked Mateo over critically. Her eye lit on the boy's unruly curls. "Only one thing more to do, I think."

Ranof pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Aye, daughter, you've hit it. The lad needs a haircut." He reached out a hand as if to ruffle the tangled mop, but Mateo jerked back. Vemáley nodded gravely and began rummaging in her sewing basket.

Mateo looked wildly at the wicked-looking scissors she produced. He wanted them nowhere near his head. "Don't you use those to shear the sheep?"

Thanas laughed. "Of course not! They're far too small."

"But we might need the sheep-shears, to prune that bush," Vemáley said, rolling her eyes. "Haven't you ever cut it before, child?"

"Once in a while, when it started getting in my eyes." The rush of memories that thought roused weakened Mateo's knees, and his voice. He pushed them away and straightened back up. "Couldn't I just tie it back with something?" he pleaded.

"Perhaps," Quimal said, hand on chin. "But it should be combed, first."

Wari shook his head in amusement, tolerant of their whims. "Don't dawdle. We need to be in town in an hour."

The women didn't dawdle, but their hands were surprisingly gentle on Mateo's scalp. And after they had been working over him for so long, he was beginning to blush less, too, if only because his body couldn't leave that much blood in his face and still keep feeling in his extremities. When they finished, his hair was slicked back with water to a soft bundle of curls at the back of his neck.

Neuma giggled. "You look like a girl!"

"Hush, Neuma," Vemáley scolded, seeing Mateo's stricken expression. "Of course you don't look like a girl, child. Here, have a look." She led him to a small looking glass on the wall, obviously one of the most prized possessions in the house.

Mateo stared. It had been years since he'd seen his reflection in anything but still forest pools. The narrow face that looked back at him seemed thinner than the last time he'd seen it, boyish features hardened and drawn by fever and weariness. Yet he was not much changed--still the same unprepossessing Mateo, the lonely boy whose father hated him.

He turned his head slightly to look at the new scar on the left side of his face, a hook-shaped gift of the center rod on his father's belt buckle. Then he saw the dark ribbon holding his hair, and the small cloud of gold-brown fluff at his neck. It did look like a maiden's tail, rather than a man's.

Mateo turned away from the mirror, reaching back to loose the ribbon and let his shoulder-length hair hang free.

"Cut it."


"How do you capture a Seeker?" Servant Hyran asked.

"Ambush," answered the man sitting across from him. He traced a slender finger around the rim of his wineglass, drawing a single high-pitched note that stilled when he brought it to his lips.

Hyran had not failed to note that while his visitor sipped politely, the level of his wine had not descended appreciably.

"Ambushes of Seekers always fail," he said.

"So far."

The man had pushed his chair out of the light pouring through the still-broken window, but the hood of his cloak was lowered, and the Servant saw his face well enough. It was bland in the extreme, save for the white scar that crossed half his forehead, passing into his drab brown hair. The scar looked curiously like the weal of a whip.

Plain brown eyes studied the Servant right back, cool and unperturbed. Despite the numbing boringness of the man's appearance, Hyran fought a chill quite inappropriate for the summer heat.

"How would you prevent your ambush from failing?" he asked.

"Gain his trust."

"You plan to spend time with him? This Seeker is particularly skilled at detecting lies--how will you compensate?"

"Tell the truth."

Hyran's eyebrows lifted. "You will tell your true name?"

"I am known by many names. None is less true than any of the others."

This was interesting. The Servant discovered that he was almost enjoying himself. "Which do you wish me to address you by?"

"Farig Solma."

"The one you'll tell the Seeker?"

The stranger nodded.

Hyran pursed his lips. This man was not very open, to say the least, but it seemed he was no fool like Gordath. And his credentials were impeccable.

Perhaps the situation was salvageable, after all.

Hyran rose and raised his glass. "I accept your services. To the success of your mission, Farig Solma."

The newly hired assassin stood and also raised his glass, then took another tiny sip and set it on the Servant's desk. Red stained his lips--it seemed to belong there.

"Remember, Servant," he said calmly, with no trace of menace. "I work for gold."

Hyran set his wineglass down. "Remember, assassin. I want no blood. If you succeed in this task, I will be delighted to retain your employment, at almost any price. There will be no lack of gold, I assure you."

Farig Solma nodded.

"The Seeker will be at the merchant Estaed's home for a banquet tonight. I'll tell Estaed to expect you."

Solma nodded again and turned to go, but Hyran put out a hand to halt him, staring at the assassin's drab, forgettable clothes. "Wear something more appropriate, please."

Solma grinned, and the Servant shivered. "Tell me not how to perform my task, little village-man."

Then he was gone.

Servant Hyran stared thoughtfully at the door for a few long moments. He was pleased that the rumors he'd spread had attracted such talent. Yet he couldn't shake the feeling that he had let a wildcat into his house and then barred the door.

Ah well. No use being afraid of that. It had been too late more than a decade ago.

Hyran turned to the enormous crow that perched on the windowsill, heedless of the broken glass that sliced open its claws. The blood was black, its eyes twirling pools of non-light. It had been waiting, still as a sculpture of black ice, for some time.

"You heard all that?" the Servant asked, unnecessarily. He liked this visitor even less than the one who had just left, but it was the price he paid for power, consorting with fiends and fiend-masters. And he had long ago vowed that he would never be powerless again.

The embodied Katamobe bobbed its head. "My master will hear all," it hissed in a decidedly un-avian voice.

"Good. Then he will know that I am dealing with my little problems. When can I expect him to arrive?"


Hyran refrained a sigh. Were all trustworthy minions this taciturn? At least Gordath, for all his stupidity, did not ration his words like fine liquor.

"Is that all you have to tell me, little demon?"

"Obey." The crow flapped its wings suddenly, and darkness seemed to grow around it, clouding the late afternoon sunlight. "I am not always so small, 'little village-man.'"

"I know, I know," Hyran said, stumbling back to fall into his chair. "It is only the body you take on to deliver messages. I obey as always."

The heavy head bobbed again. "I go to see Gordath in the hill-cave."

"Aye, that's splendid. Tell him that our plans move on apace."

Another bob, and the crow flapped away, unnaturally huge wings spread as if to cover all that was light.

Hyran smoothed his hair and left the office-room. Time to prepare for the banquet.

--end tale the fifth

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