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Authors: Elaine Cunningham

Thornhold

BOOK: Thornhold
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Songs & Swords

Book 4

Thornhold

Elaine Cunningham

 

Prelude

 

27 Tarsakh, 927 DR

Two young wizards stood on a mountaintop, staring with awe at the terrible outcome of their combined magic.

Before them lay a vast sweep of spring grasses and mountain wildflowers. Moments before, they had beheld an ancient and besieged keep. The keep was gone, as were the powerful creatures who had taken refuge within. Gone, too, were any survivors—sacrificed to the war against the demons that spilled up from the depths of nearby Ascaihorn. Gone, leaving no marks but those etched in the memories of the two men who had brought about this destruction.

They were both young men, but there the similarities ended. Renwick “Snowcloak” Caradoon was small and slight, with fine features and a pale, narrow face. He was clad entirely in white, and his flowing cloak was richly embroidered with white silk threads and lined with the snowy fur of winter ermine. His hair was prematurely white, and it dipped in the center of his forehead into a sharp widow’s peak. His bearing bespoke pride and ambition, and he regarded the result of the joint casting with satisfaction.

His companion was taller by a head, and broad through the shoulders and chest. His hair and eyes were black, and his countenance browned by the sun even so early in the year. An observer might be forgiven for thinking him a ranger or a forester, but for the unmistakable aura of magic that still lingered about him. There was a deep horror in his eyes as he contemplated what he had done.

A gaping scar on the mountain, a charred skeleton of a fortress—that would have been easier for the mage to accept than this serene oblivion. He had never heard a silence so deep, so profound, and so accusing. It seemed to him that the mountains around him, and everything that lived upon them, bore stunned and silent witness to the incredible force of magic that had swept away an ancient dwelling place and all those who lived within.

From somewhere in the budding trees below them, a single bird sent forth a tentative call. The song shattered the preternatural silence, and the awe that held the two wizards in its grip. By unspoken agreement, they turned and walked downhill. The memory of what they had done hung heavy between them.

But the mage was not content to leave the matter. He turned to his fellow wizard. The expression on Renwick’s face stopped him in mid stride. Renwick looked content, almost exhilarated. Dreams of power, immortality—Renwick had often spoken of these—were bright in his eyes.

Suddenly feeling in need of support, Renwick’s companion rested one hand on a stout oak. “The rings you used in the casting,” he demanded. “What else can they do?”

The younger wizard gave him a supercilious smile. “Why do you ask? Was this day’s work not enough for you?”

The other mage’s temper flared. He fisted both hands in the folds of Renwick’s white cloak, lifted him bodily from the ground, and slammed him against the oak tree.

“Tell me where you found those three rings, and the nature of their power!”

Renwick only smiled. “What they were meant to be, I do not know. What use I have made of them… you will not know.”

Renwick’s calm demeanor shamed his companion. There were better ways to control the situation. He released Renwick and took a step back. “You know you cannot stand against me in spell battle,” he pointed out.

“I do not intend to,” Renwick retorted smugly. “The rings, and a partial knowledge of the power they wield, are in the hands of an adversary you cannot defeat.”

This set the mage back on his heels. Even among the elves who had raised him, there were few who could match his command of magic.

“You do not ask me of whom I speak. Pride forbids it, I suppose,” Renwick observed. “I will tell you nonetheless. Samular holds the rings, as will his descendants after him.”

“The paladin?”

“Samular is not just any paladin. He is destined for legend. With my help, of course.”

The mage began to understand, could even admire the sophistry of this ploy. Paladins were noble warriors, knights dedicated to the service of their gods. They served kings, protected the weak, and upheld law and justice. Evil in any form was anathema to them; they simply could not abide it. No other single group of men were as widely admired. If the three rings were in the hands of the paladin Samular, and if he used their power for good, then the mage could hardly wrest the artifacts away without appearing to be an enemy of all things noble.

“A paladin’s way is righteous and good,” Renwick taunted softly, in echo of the other’s thoughts. “If you do not stand with him, you are against him.”

He could not deny the truth in this, but felt compelled to add another truth. “So much power cannot be easily contained,” continued the elder mage, a man who, nearly two centuries later would come to be known as Khelben Arunsun. “You will not be able to keep the rings secret forever. Some day they will fall into other hands, and be used for other purposes.”

Again the pale wizard Renwick smiled. “Then it is in your best interest to make certain that this does not occur. Once the tale begins to be told, who knows where it will end?”

 

One

 

5 Mirtul, 1368 DR

The young woman, by all appearances a pirate down on her luck, paused at the base of the hill. There was little cover so close to the sea, and the wind that sent her cape whipping about her shoulders brought memories of a winter not long past. The woman cast a quick look over her shoulder to make sure the path behind her was still clear. Assured, she swept aside the dead branches concealing the small opening to a sea cave.

A lone bat darted out of the darkness. She instinctively ducked—a quick, agile motion that sent her long braid of brown hair swinging up to drape over her shoulder. She flipped it back, then took a torch from her pack. A few deft taps of knife against flint produced sparks, then flame. Instantly the stone floor of the cave exploded into life. Rats fled squeaking in alarm, and crabs scuttled away from the sudden burst of light.

“Waterdeep, the City of Splendors,” murmured Bronwyn, her lips curved with affectionate irony. Since taking up residence in the city four years ago, she had spent more time doing business in places like this than she did in her posh shop on the Street of Silver.

There was little splendor in the hills south of the great port city. The tang of the sea hung heavy in the still air, along with the smell of dead fish and the even less pleasant odor of the nearby Rat Hills, a length of shore that served as repository for the city’s garbage. She ducked into the small opening and stood, taking stock of her surroundings. The cave was cold and water was everywhere, dotting the cave floor in dank puddles, drizzling down through the moss and lichen that festooned the walls, and dripping like drool from the fang-shaped rocks hanging down from the ceiling. There would be even more water when the tide came in.

That thought quickened Bronwyn’s step down a steep, uneven path. As she went, she trailed one hand along the damp wall for balance and kept a wary eye on the shadows beyond the circle of her torch’s light. Bats, rats and crabs represented the cream of cave society. She fully expected to encounter worse.

She carefully skirted a broad pool that nearly spanned the stone ledge. Bronwyn hated water, which lent a touch of irony to her seafaring guise.

She lifted her hand to her head to ensure that her rakish scarlet kerchief was still in place and that the cheap bronze hoops evocative of Nelanther pirates were still secured to her ears. This was the Smugglers’ Caves, and as the old saying went, “When in the Coldwood, shiver.” Her years of slavery had taught her that survival meant adapting.

At that moment the path curved sharply. After a few more steps, it opened into a cavern. A crack far overhead let in a bit of light. Bronwyn eyed the ravine that suddenly appeared beside the path, looking like a deep, broad gash in the mountain’s stone heart. At the bottom of the ravine, running swift and deep and eerily silent, was an underground river. Bronwyn suppressed a shudder and went to work.

She shrugged the pack off her shoulder and took from it a large rag, then a small axe finely crafted from mithral and mahogany. A lifelong appreciation for fine things prompted her to wrap the axe carefully before placing it behind a boulder and obscuring it from view with a pile of pebbles.

That done, she dropped to her belly at the ravine’s edge and reached down the steep rock cliff, feeling around until she found the rope she had tied there several days ago, when she had scouted and prepared the meeting place. The rope was virtually invisible, for it was long enough to drape down the ravine walls on either side. The slack middle was held underwater by the swift flow of the river. Hauling up the wet rope was hard work, and by the time she’d finished, Bronwyn’s old leather gloves were soaking, her palms raw.

Bronwyn took a few moments to catch her breath and shed her ruined gloves, then she again shouldered her pack and tucked one end of the rope in her belt. She scrambled up a steeply winding incline to a point that overhung the path below—a spot she’d chosen because of the concave hollow beneath, between her and the path. This way, if her luck went bad and she was forced to use the rope to swing back across the ravine, she wouldn’t splat like an overripe apple against a sheer stone wall.

When the rope was secured and hanging in a loose, unevenly draping curve, Bronwyn removed from her bag an oddly shaped bit of iron, which resembled the outline of a pot-bellied caldron with a narrow neck and a wide rim curving on either side. This she turned upside down and placed over the rope. Taking a firm grip on the curved handles, she squeezed her eyes shut briefly and leaped out over the ravine.

Bronwyn slid down the rope toward the far side, rapidly at first, and then slowing as she reached the lowest point. When she came to a stop, a few feet from the far cliff, she swung her feet up and wrapped her booted ankles around the rope—just in case. She released one side of the handle and lunged for the rope. Her fingers closed around it. With a sigh of relief, she shimmied the rest of the way across the rope and crawled gratefully onto the solid ledge.

She left the rope where it was and hurried along the edge of the ravine. After about a hundred paces, she found what she sought: a small opening at the base of the rock wall that looked ridiculously like an oversized mouse hole.

Bronwyn dropped to the ground and crawled into the tunnel, a short passage through the stone wall into another network of tunnels. It was not the quickest route to the agreed-upon meeting place—far from it—and it was a very tight fit. This was, of course, the point. Bronwyn could wriggle through the small tunnel, but those with whom she was about to deal could not.

She emerged from the tunnel and lit another torch. A few hundred paces took her to the entrance to the meeting place, a small, damp antechamber carved into the stone by eons of dripping water.

The scene within was less than inviting. A relatively flat slab of rock had been propped up on several boulders to serve as a table. On this table lay scattered the remains of a rather unpalatable meal: dried bread, odoriferous blue-green cheese, and mugs of sludge-colored beer brewed from mushrooms and moss. This repast had just been consumed by three of the ugliest dwarves Bronwyn had ever seen.

They were duergar, a race of deep-dwelling dwarves who were gray of beard and skin and soul. The enmity between mountain dwarves and duergar was nearly as bitter as that which existed between elves and their subterranean counterparts, the drow. Bronwyn did business with all of these people—but cautiously.

Each member of the filthy trio raised a hand to his brow to shield his eyes from the bright torchlight. “Came you alone?” one of them demanded.

“That was the agreement,” she said, nodding to the third and smallest duergar. “Speaking of agreements, there were supposed to be only two of you. Who’s that?”

“Oh, him,” the duergar who’d first spoken replied, flapping one hand in a dismissive gesture. “A son, could be mine. He comes to watch, learn.”

Bronwyn considered the third member of the party, the only one she hadn’t dealt with before. Duergar were usually thin and knobby, but this little one was the scrawniest of his kind Bronwyn had ever seen. She raised her torch and squinted. He was no more than a boy. The other two duergar sported stringy gray beards, but this one’s receding chin was as bald as a buzzard. And he still had all his teeth, which he was busily picking with a black-rimmed fingernail.

The duergar boy removed his finger from his mouth and ran his tongue over his teeth to collect the dislodged bits. He caught Bronwyn’s inquisitive gaze. She nodded in greeting. As he regarded her, a slow, knowing leer stretched his lips. Evil wafted from the young duergar, as tangible as the foul steam that rises off a chamber pot on a cold morning. Bronwyn shuddered, chilled by such malevolence in one so young.

The leader noted her response. He snarled and backhanded the youngster, who yelped like a kicked cur. The boy sent a baleful glare at the human, as if the blow were somehow her fault.

Bronwyn pretended to notice nothing of this. She picked up a small stone knife from the table and helped herself to a hunk of the smelly cheese. Among duergar, this was regarded as taking liberties, perhaps even a small challenge. The second adult glowered at her but did not speak. He had never spoken in Bronwyn’s presence, though the three-foot iron tipped cudgel he carried lent a certain eloquence t) his silence.

She held his gaze and popped the cheese into her mouth. She kept her expression bland, almost smug, silently stating that she had the upper hand in this situation and saw no reason for concern. A necessary bit of bravado when dealing with such as these duergar, but it was a bad moment for Bronwyn. As she awaited a response, her stomach roiled in a mixture of apprehension and revulsion. But her luck held twice over. The duergar’s cudgel stayed down, and so did the pilfered cheese.

For form’s sake, Bronwyn sneered at the silent duergar and turned her attention back to the leader. “Where are the gems?”

BOOK: Thornhold
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