Originally published in The Sword Review 2005

The shopkeeper consulted his parchment, then counted on his fingertips. “That will be eight guild, if you please.”

Tanner Kyle reached for his pouch and found nothing. His heart gave a lurch. He felt for the oilskin packet concealed in an inside pocket, and fingered the telltale lump just long enough to confirm its presence there. He relaxed, just a bit. Smart to have separated the amulet from the coin. Still, the theft of the pouch did promise to make life difficult.

“We’ve been robbed,” he announced.

Keele Wren glanced up from the scroll he was perusing. “Ah,” he said. “The irony.”

Tanner concluded that ‘irony’ must be another word for amulet. “Safe,” he said. “We only lost the coin.”

Keele arched an eyebrow.

“I don’t suppose you — never mind.” Tanner knew very well that Keele’s oath prevented him from carrying coin of any kind. “I don’t understand how the rascal even got close to me. You did have wards in place, didn’t you? Against theft, loss, that sort of thing?”

Keele eyed the sword sheathed at Tanner’s side. “We needed wards?”

Tanner ripped the severed drawstring from his belt and flung it on the floor. “My blade will serve us well enough when we find the scoundrel who robbed us. I’ll use it to skin and gut him if he has any meat on his bones. He’ll be all we have to eat in Fanarion now that we can’t afford food.”

The shopkeeper grimaced. “Surely it won’t come to that. I’d be quite happy to barter.”

Tanner eyed the shopkeeper’s squat body, wiry black hair, and flat, misshapen nose. Any fool could see that the blood of a gnome coursed through this one. Tanner’s father had often regaled him with stories about gnomes. Stories full of greed, and cunning. “What do they call you?” he asked.

“Darvin, son of Neek.”

“What did you have in mind, Neekson?”

Neekson’s eyes settled on Tanner’s sword, a slender affair that Tanner kept polished and well oiled.

“I think not,” Tanner said.

“Of course not.”

Tanner turned to Keele. “Anything you could stand to part with?”

“A compendium of indigenous waterfowl,” Keele suggested.

“Birds,” Neekson translated, tapping his fingers on the lid of a barrel. “That won’t do, I’m afraid.”

Keele returned his attention to the scroll.

The staccato of Neekson’s fingernails on the barrel grated on Tanner’s nerves. He considered hastening matters, unsheathing his blade and stealing the goods they needed. But that would only bring the city guard down upon him, and the last thing he needed was more people chasing him.

He smiled toothily. “I could let you have some furs.”

“Plenty of furs left over from last winter.”

Tanner’s grin faded as he considered his options. Perhaps, between his bow and Keele’s arts, they would be able to make do in Fanarion without supplies. But no, that would be foolhardy. The same qualities that made Fanarion such an ideal hiding place – a scarcity of game and water, a reputation for transforming stolid, capable men into barking lunatics — made it a destination not to be taken lightly. You had to be half a fool to venture into Fanarion at all, let alone without supplies.

Tanner took the oilskin packet from inside his coat, unwrapped it, and set the contents on the barrel in front of Neekson. He felt Keele’s eyes upon him as he did so.

Neekson sucked in his breath at what he saw.

“You know what this is,” Tanner said. “What it’s worth.”

“Of course,” Neekson said. “It’s my business to know. But it’s of no use to me.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t deal in such things.”

“You don’t deal in gems?”

“I don’t deal in objects of darkness forged in secret by warped craftsmen for the sole purpose of robbing men and women of just about everything they have. Including themselves. If I were you I would cast this thing aside, somewhere no one will find it.”

“It doesn’t frighten me the way it seems to frighten some.”

“It ought to.” Neekson studied Tanner. “Anyway, you’ll be wanting more than a few quarrels and blankets for the likes of this. I don’t keep that kind of coin on hand.”

“You could get it.”

“No,” Neekson said, “I could not.”

Tanner put the amulet away. “You’re right, I want more than a few blankets, a lot more. Keep my goods together, gnome. I’ll be back with the coin.”

Neekson closed his eyes. “There’s no such thing as gnomes,” he said, through clenched teeth.

A gnome who didn’t believe in gnomes? Tanner could not help but chuckle on his way out.

###

A worn sign depicting a single gauntlet swayed in the breeze outside the Heroes Welcome. At the door, a sinewy woman with two short swords slung low at her hips looked Tanner over, but said nothing. The common room was well populated despite the early hour. Tanner walked slowly between thick oak tables stretching from one end of the room to the other, admiring a variety of stuffed animal heads affixed to the walls, several species of which he didn’t recognise.

He chose a table beneath the mildewed tusk of one such enormous beast.

“Innkeeper,” he called out. “Mead. Hot.”

He yanked off a boot and shook out one of two copper pieces he kept hidden for just such a predicament as this. He struggled to get the boot back on, then straightened up to find a steaming hot mug of mead on the table before him.

The innkeeper, a grizzled sort, lingered nearby clearing a table.

“Place like this must see no small spot of trouble,” Tanner said.

“Aye, that it does.”

“Just the one keeping your peace?” Tanner jerked a thumb toward the woman lurking in the entrance. Though easily half again Tanner’s age, she appeared fit and well muscled.

“Don’t let Leese fool you,” the innkeeper said. “Tougher than old leather, that one.”

Tanner wasn’t fooled. He had plenty of respect for the likes of Leese, having fought beside several just like her. “Could you use another?”

“Nope.”

“Just for the day?”

“Nope.”

Tanner grunted his dissatisfaction, and watched as Keele strode into the common room. Keele had to bend slightly to avoid hitting his head on top of the doorframe.

Leese looked the other way as Keele entered. Keele’s vocation was unmistakable, with his drooping moustaches, black robes, and especially the owl ring adorning the third finger of his left hand. Only a fool messed with a man like Keele. If such a fool were lucky and didn’t die a grisly death right away, he might wake up several nights in a row screaming, covered from head to toe in large, black spiders. Hairy ones, with long legs. Tanner shuddered at the memory — never again would he criticise Keele’s cooking.

Neekson trailed Keele into the inn, struggling to keep up. Leese had no qualms about stopping him before he got very far.

“Your kind isn’t welcome here,” Leese said, her voice carrying easily to Tanner’s side of the room. “As you well know.”

Keele pushed his billowing cloak aside and sat down opposite Tanner.

“What’s the gnome doing in here?” Tanner asked him.

Keele shrugged. “Perhaps he found your coin.”

Tanner whirled on the innkeeper. “Let him in.”

“And why would you be wanting the likes of that in here?”

“Just let him in.”

The innkeeper called to Leese, “Let him pass. See that he doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Several patrons guffawed at the innkeeper’s wit. Tanner chuckled himself.

Leese slapped Neekson on the backside with the flat of her blade. Neekson scurried away to avoid being hit again, and reached Tanner’s table out of breath.

“You can have the goods you asked for,” he told Tanner, glancing nervously over his shoulder.

“That’s very generous.”

“In exchange for—”

“What?”

Neekson faced Keele. “I want you to make me strong.”

He was either very brave or an ignorant fool. Many in Keele’s Order would have turned him into a steaming pile of manure just for asking. Tanner edged back from the table just in case; he didn’t want shit on his good fur cloak.

Keele inspected his one-inch long fingernails. “Why?”

Neekson stole a glance at Leese, then returned his gaze to Keele. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.

Tanner had a jibe on the tip of his tongue, but Keele silenced him with a look. Tanner felt a thrill of fear. Neekson had aroused Keele’s interest — whether for good or ill remained to be seen.

The innkeeper approached. “I let you in, now do you spit on my hospitality?”

“I beg your pardon,” Neekson said. “I’ll have, ah…”

“An ale,” Tanner said. “Make that two.”

Keele’s accent sometimes got the better of him, and he said something now that not even Tanner could understand. Clearly afraid to ask Keele to repeat himself, the innkeeper nodded and backed away.

“My father used to say that strength without honour is like a wolf with no teeth,” Tanner said. “Strong today, food for the buzzards tomorrow.”

“I have honour. My word is important to me.”

Tanner chuckled. “Then you’re stronger than me already.”

“You don’t understand –”

“I understand perfectly,” Tanner interrupted. “You want to be strong. Keele makes you strong, you give us the goods we need. What do you say, Keele? The sooner we get out of here the better.”

“You ask a lot of me,” Keele said.

Neekson’s chin rose. Amber eyes locked onto brown. Neekson held Keele’s eyes for a good four seconds before jerking his head away.

Keele’s moustache twitched. He produced a blank parchment from within his cloak, and a bottle of black ink and a quill from another pocket. He began inscribing elegantly formed symbols on the parchment.

The innkeeper arrived and plunked three drinks down in front of them. Neekson paid for all three of them. Tanner took a belt of ale and tried to guess what all the symbols on Keele’s parchment meant. Across from him, Neekson fidgeted restlessly.

Keele finished and handed the parchment to Neekson. “I require one of everything on the list. Except for the horn of rhinoceros.”

Neekson looked up.

“I need two of them.”

Neekson opened his mouth, then closed it.

“Can you do it?” Tanner asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll try. I have certain… contacts. I’ll do what I can.”

“You will get it all,” Keele said. “By twilight. Or you will never be strong.”

Neekson nodded and stuffed the list inside his cloak. On his way out, Leese mussed his hair and pinched his bottom.

Tanner placed his mug on the table. “Think making him strong will do him any good?”

Keele wasn’t listening. He spat on the table, then glared in the direction of the innkeeper. “I did not ask for cow’s milk,” he said.

Tanner grimaced, and wondered how the innkeeper felt about spiders.

###

Twilight found Tanner sitting beneath the same gargantuan tusk staring sourly into the mug of ale he had just purchased with his last copper. It irked him that after only two swigs precious little ale remained in the mug. That wasn’t all that was bothering him. The stable master had just informed him that he owed two guild for the lodging of his horses – two guild more than he possessed. Two guards had lurked menacingly behind the stable master as he spoke.

It would not do to lose the horses. If Neekson ever showed up – and Tanner was growing sceptical on this count — he could find himself with plenty of goods, but no animals to carry them. If that happened, he might have no choice but to steal the animals back. He remembered the two stable guards, and almost laughed aloud. He risked all of a stubbed toe confronting the likes of them.

Problem was, Keele would not approve. He had adamantly refused to have anything to do with the theft of the amulet.

“I am a scholar, not a thief,” he had stated firmly when Tanner informed him of his plan.

“Is it the oath you took?” Tanner asked him. Oaths were something he could understand, having sworn several himself, none of which he could remember in any detail.

“It has nothing to do with my oath.”

Tanner was not offended. Keele was a different sort of man, his code was not Tanner’s code, that of the surly miners with whom Tanner and his father had lived in near poverty. Rough-hewn men carving coal out of the Blue Shank Mountains. Or those with whom they had later dwelt and whom Tanner admired most, men of dark humour and lightning fast blades, who took what they wanted when they wanted. Gold from dead men’s teeth, land from arrogant lords. Gems off the slender white necks of vain young noblewomen.

Tanner’s plan had revolved around one such creature basking in the moonlight on a remote part of her family’s estate — just as a certain gentleman in Lycatos had said she would be. A simple throat lock made a fool of her inattentive guardian, and Damaris Fen – that was what the fellow in Lycatos had called her, along with other, less flattering names — did not stir as Tanner stole upon her.

Clutching his dagger in one hand, Tanner took hold of the amulet with the other. A flush of warmth spread from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Attributing the sensation to nerves, he dismissed it, and lifted the amulet from Damaris’ bosom. It felt cool in his palm. He marvelled at the intricacy of the engravings on its rim, at the beauty of the crystalline stone set within. A diamond, if Tanner’s loose-lipped acquaintance could be believed – and though half in his cups, the fellow had been right about everything else.

A sharp tug freed the chain from Damaris’ neck. She awoke and felt where the amulet had been. When she did not find it, and spied Tanner crouching beside her, she sat up abruptly. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and sat utterly still, looking at him.

Tanner was transfixed by the look of her. Not because she was the beauty the unhappy fellow in Lycatos had professed her to be – there was a child-like quality to her features that did not appeal to Tanner — it was that he had never seen a woman look half so well scrubbed before.

When Damaris opened her mouth to speak, Tanner shushed her by placing a finger to his lips. He feared that her retainers might be lingering near the edge of the woods, not so far away.

She spoke anyway, her voice tremulous. “It was a gift –”

Tanner clapped a hand across her mouth and clutched her to him. “Not a word,” he whispered, brandishing his dagger before a pair of widening eyes.

Damaris’ scent, like that of a freshly bitten peach, enveloped Tanner, made him acutely aware that it was the flesh of a woman beneath his callused hands. He felt her tremble beneath his embrace. She probably thought that he intended to claim another, more ignoble prize.

Tanner released her. “Quiet,” he commanded, as her weeping became audible.

The request was futile.

The fear of being discovered overtook Tanner, and he fled back through the woods with his prize. Any misgivings he might have felt for having terrorised Damaris he dismissed as foolishness. Not a single drop of blood had been shed, and such an amulet, worth more than Tanner might honestly earn in his lifetime, was surely but a bauble to the likes of her.

On the road to Wyrth, Keele sat astride his grey and examined the amulet for all of two seconds before handing it back to Tanner.

“Moonstone,” Keele said. “Not diamond.”

“Moonstone? Never heard of it.”

“A particularly nasty indulgence of the rich.”

“What do you mean?”

“She wore it in the glen, you say. Under the light of a full moon.”

“As was her habit, I’m told.”

“That does not strike you as peculiar?”

Tanner shrugged. “She’s rich. Rich people do all sorts of strange things.”

Keele regarded Tanner for several long seconds. Finally he said, “Do not wear it against your skin, or handle it any more than necessary, especially in moonlight. Try not to look at it. As soon as you can, get rid of it.”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

Keele twisted in his saddle, and squinted down the road behind them. “She will come for it.”

Tanner snorted. That much he knew already. Mere bauble or not, the House of Fen would soon be after him. The rich did not like to be trifled with. Brimming with wrath and righteous indignation, they would hang

Tanner from the highest tree for his effrontery, if they could find him. They might find him in Wyrth, if they tried hard enough.

They would not find him in Fanarion.

Leese’s throaty voice jarred Tanner back to the present. “I’ll throw you out by the scruff of the neck if I have to.”

Tanner looked up to see Leese looming over Neekson, who struggled under the weight of a large sack. Neekson said something that Tanner couldn’t quite make out.

A beefy man clad in the burnished leather of the city guard snatched the sack away from Neekson and emptied its contents onto the floor. He snapped up one of the objects and held it aloft. “He brings wares to sell to the kitchen. A bat! He would have us eat this filthy vermin.”

“It’s not for sale.” Neekson made a grab for the bat, but the guard held it just out of reach.

Keele emerged from his room at the top of the stairs.

Tanner scrambled to his feet — he had to do something before Keele turned the guard into a toad, or worse. By the time he made it to the entrance, though, Keele was already there, and Neekson was on his hands and knees chasing around a duck. Neekson’s tormentor was nowhere to be seen.

“You’ll turn the entire inn against us!” Tanner whispered to Keele.

Keele looked over Tanner’s shoulder. Tanner spun to see Leese ushering the guard outside. The duck had come from Neekson’s sack, he realised.

Keele’s moustache twitched. “Come with me,” he said. “You too, Neekson.”

Keele led them to the room he shared with Tanner. Neekson cast nervous glances behind them the entire way. In the room, a small array of glass tubes, bottles and jars littered a rickety table in the corner. Much of the apparatus was coated with a greenish residue. The room itself smelled of burnt incense. Keele placed the sack under the table, and passed Neekson a small vial containing a yellowish solution.

Tanner had drunk Keele’s concoctions before. He made a face, but held his tongue. He didn’t want to discourage Neekson from drinking the solution. Neekson lifted the vial to his mouth and drank the fluid down without a second’s hesitation. He coughed and twisted his face in a grimace, but seemed otherwise unaffected.

“I don’t feel any different,” he said. “You haven’t even used the goods I spent all day collecting.”

“They will be put to good use. In a stew I am preparing.”

Neekson stared at the empty vial in his hand. “You’ve taken me for a fool.”

“Perhaps,” Keele said. “Just the same, you will be strong tomorrow.”

“But I’m still small.”

“On the outside. You will be strong on the inside.”

Tanner agreed with Neekson that he didn’t look any different, but he knew better than to underestimate Keele Wren.

“Uh oh.” Neekson steadied himself on the table.

Tanner had been waiting for this. When Neekson’s legs buckled, Tanner was there to catch him.

Beads of moisture appeared on Neekson’s forehead. “You’ve killed me!”

“You will run a high fever tonight,” Keele said. “You will sleep through most of it, and dream of the past, the present, and the future. When you wake up, you will be strong.”

Neekson tried to say something but it came out as gibberish. Tanner placed him on Keele’s pallet, where he lay sweating and gasping for air.

“He will be fine,” Keele assured Tanner.

“What about you?” The night would hold more challenges for Keele, Tanner suspected, than it would for Neekson.

“I will be fine too.”

Tanner nodded and left.

Laughter and the stench of stale ale greeted Tanner at the bottom of the stairs, too much of each. Slipping out back of the Heroes Welcome for some fresh air and quiet, he succumbed to the temptation to inspect his prize. He removed the oilskin from its hiding place, carefully uncovered the amulet, and admired it in the day’s fading light.

Despite his caution, the amulet chanced to brush Tanner’s skin. A shock of pleasure swept over him, utterly unlike anything he had ever experienced before. It left him breathless, made him yearn to touch the amulet again, but he resisted, though it took all his will to do so.

With great care, he put the amulet away. He thought about asking Keele more about it, but decided not to. Keele would tell him to get rid of it, and this Tanner would not do. Not until he could sell it for the kind of coin other men spent entire lives pining for. Embittered men, health and spirits broken. Men doomed to shallow graves.

Smarter, bolder than his father, Tanner would neither live nor die like him.

###

In the morning, Keele sat cross-legged on his pallet, his eyes closed, a thin blue vein pulsing high in his forehead. From time to time he placed a hand on the floor to steady himself.

Neekson sat breaking his fast at the table. Tanner joined him.

“I feel better than ever,” Neekson said, between heaping mouthfuls of stew. “Maybe that potion did something after all.”

Keele opened one bloodshot eye.

“I dreamt, too, just as you said I would. There were enemies all about me. I cut men down with a terrible sword, cut them down by the score, and I was stronger than I ever imagined possible, and finally I grew tired and I wanted to lie down but I couldn’t, my enemies kept on coming. I couldn’t see the end of them.” Neekson placed his spoon down on the table. “What does it mean, a dream like that?”

“Something you ate,” Tanner said.

The others looked at him.

“I have dreams like that all the time,” he explained.

Keele said, “There is a woman in Lycatos who knows a thing or two about dreams. Perhaps you should ask her.”

Neekson nodded. “I might just do that.”

After consuming a dish of Keele’s succulent stew himself, Tanner led Neekson to the smithy next door to determine just how effective Keele’s labours had been. They walked in on the blacksmith holding a horseshoe in place with a pair of iron tongs. Ropy muscles bulged beneath the blacksmith’s filthy tunic as he pounded on the glowing object.

“I’m busy,” he told Tanner. “Come back later, tomorrow maybe. Next week.”

“We’re not looking to hire you.”

“What then?”

Tanner nodded toward the anvil the blacksmith was using. “We want to borrow that.”

“What the devil for?”

“To see if I can lift it,” Neekson said.

The blacksmith placed the freshly formed horseshoe in a bucket of icy water. The water hissed and frothed as the horseshoe cooled. “I told you, I’m busy. Take your drunken nonsense someplace else.”

Before the blacksmith could stop him, Neekson strode toward the anvil and gripped it with both hands. When he straightened up, the anvil rose with him.

Tanner whistled. “Set it down now, carefully,” he said. “Bend your knees, not your back.”

Neekson did as Tanner instructed.

“What devilry is this?” The blacksmith wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “I can’t move that anvil without a team of oxen.”

Tanner had witnessed Keele accomplish several mind-boggling feats in the time that he’d known him, yet even he was impressed.

Neekson stood stock still, staring at his hands. His mien had darkened. “Let them mock me now.”

“Give me the goods you promised me,” Tanner said, “or I’ll do more than mock you.”

“You’ll have your goods,” Neekson said. “Just – I need time to get them together.”

Tanner recalled his father’s profound distrust of gnomes. But Neekson would have Keele to contend with if he tried anything foolish. Either way, Tanner would get his goods. “Be quick about it,” he said. “We’re in a hurry.”

###

Sour red beans and water the colour of urine constituted board at the Heroes Welcome. Tanner toyed with the beans, then forced himself to eat every last one. He meant to be in Fanarion by late afternoon, and a man wanted a full belly before setting foot in a place like that.

The innkeeper placed a mug on the table. Startled, Tanner stuck his nose over the brim. It smelled like wine. Tanner hadn’t drunk wine – real wine – in over a year.

The innkeeper sat down beside him. He had dark circles under his eyes that had not been there the day before. “Seems I’ve offended your friend,” he said. “Had dealings with his kind before, you know. Snakes there were, dozens of them. Lucky to get out of there alive. Be the same tonight, won’t it?”

Tanner bid the innkeeper lean closer. “You served him cow’s milk, a terrible mistake. Keele considers cows holy, or mystical, or some damned thing.”

The innkeeper rubbed his temple with a knuckle, hard. “Don’t want to have to go through another night like that one.”

Tanner thought about the coin he owed the stable master. “You could make it up to him.”

The innkeeper sighed. “I was afraid you’d say something like that. How much do you want?”

The idea that Tanner had any real influence over Keele was absurd, but the innkeeper had no way of knowing that. Tanner fiddled with his mug. Wine slopped over the brim and onto the table.

The innkeeper peered at him, waiting.

“Two guild,” Tanner said. There was no way around it, not if he wanted his horses back.

The innkeeper refused to look Tanner in the eye. He gave Tanner the coin and left. Afterward, Tanner sampled the wine and made a face. It was real wine all right, but only just. He took another slug of the stuff just the same.

He caught a glimpse of Neekson coming through the entrance and spat the wine out all over the table. Clad in complete battle regalia, everything Neekson wore was too large by half. Chain mail drooped below his knees. His helm refused to stay put over his eyes. Tanner wondered at his ability to walk in the outrageous outfit, but walk he could, for he strode right up and pressed a short sword firmly against Leese’s belly.

The door warden’s lips curled in disbelief at the sight of Neekson’s costume. She pushed Neekson’s sword aside with a finger. “What in the Seven Levels of Hell are you?”

“I want in. Let me in.”

Leese sighed. “You’re not welcome here, gnome.”

All the life seemed to go out of Neekson. He lowered both sword and gaze. Then, issuing a loud cry, he struck, neither quickly nor assuredly, yet the force of the blow was enough to tear Leese’s hastily drawn weapon from her grasp and send it clattering to the floor.

“Sorcery,” Leese observed, retrieving her weapon. Rising and twisting all in one motion, she struck Neekson full on the chest, sending him aloft in a shower of sparks. Neekson came crashing to the floor half a span from where he had been standing.

Neekson rose to his feet, scowling. The expression did not make him any prettier. A large dent was visible in his armour, yet he appeared unharmed.

Leese offered up a series of short, probing jabs. It soon became painfully obvious that Neekson did not know the first thing about wielding a sword. He countered Leese’s advances gamely enough, but his own clumsy forays Leese swept aside with about as much effort as a cat batting aside an errant whisker.

The time came to end the charade. Leese stepped in deftly and slapped Neekson on the side of the head with the flat of her blade. Neekson’s eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the floor. Leese lugged him unceremoniously out of the Heroes Welcome by the straps of his breastplate, and was back inside the Heroes Welcome seconds later as if nothing at all untoward had happened.

Tanner suspected that for a woman like Leese, in a place like the Heroes Welcome, nothing had.

He found Neekson sitting forlornly on the front steps of the Heroes Welcome with his helm off, a small, purplish bruise marring his left temple. Kneeling, Tanner made to examine the bruise, but Neekson shied away.

“Neekson,” Tanner said. “Look at me.”

Neekson lifted his chin.

Leese had landed at least one blow that would have cracked an ordinary man’s ribs, yet Tanner could find no evidence of it. After a brief but thorough inspection, he said, “You’ll live. Thanks to Keele’s arts, I expect.”

Neekson muttered something under his breath.

“What did you say?”

“I said that’s something, at least.”

“Figured to best her easily, did you? Suppose you thought it would be enough to be strong.” Tanner sat down at Neekson’s side. “What you need to do is find yourself a master. Throw yourself at his mercy. Beg him to teach you everything he knows. Train morning, noon and night for seven years. Then find Leese again.”

Neekson looked at him as if he were mad. “Seven years?”

“In your case, maybe eight.”

A horse approached at a gallop; Keele’s grey, wild-eyed and frothing at the bit. Keele reined up in front of the two men, looking little better than he had that morning. A woman sat behind him, her arms wrapped tightly about his waist, her head resting between his shoulder blades.

The grey pranced sideways. With a shock that brought him to his feet, Tanner recognised the woman as Damaris Fen. She didn’t look quite so freshly scrubbed anymore. Burrs dotted her hair. Streaks of mud and blood discoloured her cheeks and fingernails. Tanner tried to wrap his head around her presence on the back of Keele’s grey, and couldn’t, quite.

Keele regarded Tanner from atop the grey. “Is it her?”

Tanner felt a sinking in his gut, a feeling he got whenever his luck was about to change, and not for the better. “Yes, but –”

“Good,” Keele said, dismounting.

“What are you doing with her?”

“Found her. Off the King’s Road, alone.”

“Alone? You’re sure about that?”

Keele did not deign to answer.

“You mean no one’s after us?”

“No one except her.”

“I don’t understand. What about her family? What’s the matter with her, anyway?”

“It’s the moonstone,” Keele said.

Neekson’s head jerked up like a small rodent sensing danger.

“What about the moonstone?” Tanner asked, although he did not really want to know.

“It’s killing her,” Keele said, easing Damaris down off the grey.

###

The whites of Damaris’ eyes flickered beneath half-closed eyelids. Beads of spittle pooled at the corners of her mouth. But for Keele’s grasp, she might have fallen.

“How could it be killing her?” Tanner asked. “She’s not even wearing it.”

Keele eased Damaris gently onto the steps of the Heroes Welcome. “You took the moonstone from her. In turn, the moonstone took her mind. It’s not unheard of.”

Damaris had suffered more than just injury to her mind. Countless brambles and thorns had torn the clothes from her back, flayed the skin from her face and body. Tanner watched as Keele applied salve to an ugly laceration on her face. “You went looking for her,” he accused him. “You knew she would be out there.”

“I am not a seer,” Keele said. “I did not know for certain.”

Why Keele would have gone out of his way to find Damaris Fen Tanner could not imagine. Keele’s Order was not exactly known for their good works. Damaris was a Fen, of course, of the House of Fen, and a man stood to benefit greatly by aiding the likes of them, but Tanner did not think that was it. The Keele he knew served no man.

His voice pitched slightly higher than usual, he asked, “What if someone followed you? What then?”

Keele ignored him, and Tanner forced himself to let it go. In the end, Keele’s act had done more good than harm. Now it was obvious that the House of Fen didn’t know about the theft. Damaris had simply wandered off, into the woods, her mind addled by the abrupt loss of the moonstone. Her guardian, having failed to protect her, had almost certainly not alerted his superiors. If the House of Fen wasn’t after Tanner, then it wasn’t necessary to risk Fanarion. Tanner was free to travel inland, to Marjan maybe, or Wurzipal. Sell the amulet. Live like a king.

Neekson appeared at his side, his eyes fixed on Damaris. Tanner had almost forgotten about him.

“Give it back to her,” Neekson said.

Tanner could hardly believe his ears. “Give it back?”

“Look at her. As it is she’ll never be the same, if she lives. Do you understand that? Do you care?” Neekson’s fists were white balls at his sides. “Or are you too busy figuring out how much silver and gold you’re going to squeeze out of the thing that’s killing her?”

Tanner flinched. “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know about the moonstone. I thought it was diamond –”

“You know now.” Neekson’s short sword hissed from its scabbard. “Give it back to her.”

Tanner stepped back in alarm, fearing Neekson’s lack of control with the weapon.

“Now.” Neekson levelled the sword at Tanner’s chest.

“And what good would that do?”

“Save her life, if we can wean her off it properly. If we’re lucky. If she hasn’t been wearing it too long. And that’s not all. We need to make sure you don’t sell it to anyone else.” The point of Neekson’s blade descended slowly, coming to rest lightly on Tanner’s chest. “We need to make sure that no one else suffers.”

Tanner flicked his eyes from the sword to Neekson back to the sword again. His own sword exploded from its scabbard, searing a blistering path through the air that ripped Neekson’s weapon from his hands and sent it careening away. A boot to the chest doubled Neekson over. Neekson collapsed to the ground gasping for breath, his knees drawn up close to his chest.

“Let me tell you a little something about suffering.” Tanner’s blade drew a slender, menacing shadow across Neekson’s face. “About boys digging for coal with their bare hands. About black-lunged fathers boiling grass for their families to eat. Men and boys coughing up blood. Suffering. Dying. I’ve done my share of suffering, Neekson. I’ll do no more of it.”

“You’ll make others suffer instead,” Neekson wheezed, through lips drawn taut with pain. “Is that it?”

Tanner tightened his grip on his blade, tempted to end Neekson’s suffering right then and there. Neekson’s unnatural strength had clearly waned; a quick thrust to the neck should make him dead enough to satisfy most gods. He stared into Neekson’s amber eyes, struggling to muster some strength of his own. The strength to kill a man over a cutting remark. To let a girl die over want of a few coin.

But that kind of strength Tanner did not possess. Would never possess. And so it was that he found himself handing the oilskin packet over to Keele, who, with clever fingers, mended the broken chain and slipped the amulet around Damaris’ neck. Damaris opened her eyes, took in her surroundings. Keele’s moustache twitched. It occurred to Tanner that he didn’t know Keele quite as well as he thought he did.

Perhaps even less than he knew himself.

December 5, 2003