In which Ewan tells his tale
It was late spring when they arrived in Larenna. Six weeks had wrought much change in the surrounding lands. The fields were burgeoning with new growth. All was green and prosperous, although, on closer inspection, there was a faint hint of neglect. Since the scourge of the Saghan' îl, there were far fewer people available to work the land. Some of the unlikeliest people had found themselves called upon to lend a hand, including Laris, Lord Florian's jester, and Ravelin, his chamberlain, the latter most unwillingly. It was not consonant with his dignity, he said, to stoop to menial tasks. However, as Florian himself joined in from time to time, this seriously weakened his argument.
Nanny Grimonia rolled up her sleeves, and set about marshalling the women, young and old alike, into teams of "land-girls" as she called them. She also roped in Vanus, Levis and Furcifer, three noted idlers of the town. No one was prepared to argue the toss about it. All placed too much value on their ears, which were likely to be either verbally or physically assaulted - or both.
Thus, the town was rather quiet when the travellers arrived, and there was only a token guard on the gate. They made haste to the inn where Scipius was quartered and found him still rather frail but otherwise much recovered. He was delighted to see them and demanded news.
"No, stay. I am forgetting my manners. Food first, news after. You must be hungry and tired. Sit awhile and rest, and Marcella shall fetch us some victuals."
So saying, he rang the bell for the maid who came so swiftly that Kai wondered if she'd been taking more than a polite interest in Scipius's guests. By his expression, Scipius clearly thought the same thing, but the demure look on the girl's face disarmed reproof. While she went hurrying off to do his bidding, Scipius turned his attention to Leon.
"Three of you, I have met before, but this young man is new to me."
"I beg your pardon," said Kai, "I, too, forget my manners. This is Leon, a barbarian from the north. He has agreed to join our enterprise to Gyldenburg."
"Gyldenburg... yes, I recall Valarien mentioning something of the sort when he was last here, but we were overtaken by events before anything was settled. I would come with you myself, but I fear I would delay you in my present state of health."
Kai looked across at Valarien to see his reaction, but there was none. Over the past few days, the wizard had been less introspective, but had not yet begun to take more than a passing interest in what was going on around him. Scipius followed the look, and regarded his old friend with concerned interest.
The meal that appeared was food fit for a king. Kai raised a quizzical eyebrow at Scipius, who sighed and banished the illusion.
"Just practising," he murmured.
In reality, the fare proved to be plain wholesome food, which was nevertheless well-presented and tasty. Kai noticed that Leon was looking ill at ease - no doubt from the sudden realization that he was in the company of yet another practitioner of the magical arts.
"It's all right, friend. He won't turn you into a toad," he grinned.
Leon looked rather sheepish. He had only just become accustomed to the presence of the Angst-ridden wizard. Now here, it seemed, was another one. He was prepared to accept Kai's reassurances of Scipius's goodwill, but old habits die hard. He found he was being subjected to a particularly unnerving stare. The illusionist's piercing gaze seemed to penetrate the very essence of his being, and to read things there that the barbarian had very much rather he did not. He shivered involuntarily and looked away.
Reluctant to show his apprehension any further, he resolutely turned his attention to the food and reached for another pasty. He raised it to his mouth and found himself eyeball-to-eyeball with an indignant-looking tortoise. With a cry of horror, he leapt to his feet, sending his chair flying, and threw down the tortoise. Its shell shattered, spreading its innards gruesomely across the table.
Scipius grinned impishly and snapped his fingers. Instantly, the tortoise disappeared, leaving only a wreck of pastry, meat and vegetables. Kai and Ewan were convulsed with laughter as the barbarian looked suspiciously at the remains, then at the illusionist. Even Valarien smiled. Furious now, Leon whipped out a knife from his belt.
"By the Gods, you'll pay for that!" he snarled. "Nobody makes a monkey out of me and "
"Careful, friend," said Kai still laughing, "or maybe he will!"
Leon subsided scowling, then tucked the knife away again. He gave a faint self-conscious grin.
"He's an illusionist," Kai informed him, "so he isn't likely to do you any real harm."
"Yes, he is," Valarien put in unexpectedly. "You know I learnt some spells of - um - illusion from him. Naturally, I taught him some of my spells from the - um - seventh discipline in return."
"Gracious, he is dangerous, then," Kai exclaimed in mock terror, "if his wizardry is as good as your illusions... "
Valarien responded with a reluctant smile.
"Well," Scipius remarked, "it seems I have killed two birds with one tortoise. Young Leon no longer goes in fear of death from me, and Valarien is showing signs of life again. Clearly, much has happened since last I saw you. Perhaps some things are best left untold, but for the rest, I confess I am most curious."
Kai appointed himself spokesman, wishing he possessed even a tenth of the narrative skills of Sofian. His report was brief and unadorned. Valarien's part, he left out of the report, and with it, his own encounter with Vash'târik. He concluded by requesting of Scipius an account of events after his departure from Larenna.
Scipius looked a little surprised, but obliged, dwelling with relish on the arrival of the dragon. Of the conflict thereafter, he was unable to contribute further. If this was a little pointed, Valarien affected not to notice.
It was not lost on Kai however. To spare the wizard from the burden of discourse he clearly wished to avoid, for the moment at least, he turned the conversation to the other paradigm of loquaciousness.
"I understand you had quite a long chat with Ewan a few weeks ago," he began. "So far, we've done well to get more than six words at a time out of him. Perhaps we could persuade him to share his tale with the rest of us?"
"Well," Scipius said sardonically, "if that was a long chat, I'm a dung beetle."
"That's why they call him 'Ewan the - um - Silent'," explained the wizard.
Kai and Scipius exchanged glances. A second unsolicited remark. Things were looking up.
"Except when he finds a tavern to his - um - liking," Valarien concluded in a reproving tone.
Kai and Scipius grinned. This was much more like the Valarien of old.
"You might think it's funny," he went on caustically, "but if he's not there when you - um - need him, because he's smashed out of his skull in some ale-house in the - um - back of beyond, you wouldn't laugh."
This effectively wiped the grin off the Kai's face. Ewan had cut it very fine in timing his arrival at the Eyrie. A moment later... It certainly added an extra piquancy to the expression, 'the nick of time'!
"I came, didn't I?" Ewan protested, a picture of offended innocence.
"Yes," grated the wizard and the warrior in chorus.
"Sounds like you make a habit of it," observed the illusionist, with an impish twinkle in his eye. "A couple of interesting stories there, I can see. Care to tell me them?"
"No!" came the chorus again. Kai and Valarien looked at each other questioningly.
"It would be interesting to know what kept you?" Kai said finally, and received a look of blank incomprehension from the erring nightranger.
The warrior's eyes narrowed, and Ewan capitulated.
"Oh well, odds and ends to tie up. Y' know how it is."
He spread his hands in manner that was at once apologetic and self-exculpatory.
"Actually, we don't know. That's why we're so looking forward to hearing all about it." Kai gave him a placid smile suggestive of a cat that has just cornered a mouse and has the rest of the day free to play with it.
Ewan sighed. "I'm not too good with words," he temporized.
Kai's smile remained fixed. "You just need a little practice, that's all... "
"Hm. Well - where shall I begin?"
"From where you first saw my - um - messages," Valarien said firmly.
"One of your better efforts, I thought."
"Oh, get on with it," growled the wizard.
"Right. Well, I found the first one in Tara Gor"
Kai whistled. "That far?"
"The - um - 'Caravanserai-A-Go-Go'. I might have known."
"You didn't have to nail it outside an inn," Ewan pointed out reasonably.
"I wanted to be sure you'd - um - see it. Before you got rat-arsed!"
"I didn't go in there anyway. Real crap joint."
"That's why I - um - chose it," said Valarien, looking smug.
"Nearly missed it. Should have stuck it outside the 'Tipsy Gypsy' in the Street of a Thousand Tent Pegs. Now, that's a class place. First left, second right after the 'Caravanserai-A-Go-Go'."
The wizard groaned.
"Anyway, I must have been about a week behind you, judging by the state of the paper, and although quite a number of people recognized your description, no one knew which way you went "
"I had to leave in - um - disguise."
"Oh, it was you they chased round Barka's harem, was it?"
"No, it wasn't! At least, I only - um - passed through it on my way out of the - um - palace."
"That's not what I heard," crowed the nightranger. "It was three days before Kalyana stopped having hysterics. Or so I was told."
"Rumour!" scoffed the wizard. "Anyway, she - um - deserved all she got. Evil woman..."
"She was, wasn't she?" agreed Ewan.
"Was?" Valarien asked sharply.
"You just said she deserved all she got... Ah. While I remember... "
The nightranger turned to his pack and pulled out a short, stout stick, about a foot long. It was made of a reddish wood, finely polished, and tipped at both ends with finely engraved silver.
"I think this is yours?"
Valarien's eyes flew wide as Ewan passed it over.
"Wierga! My favourite staff!" he exclaimed. "A thousand thanks for this, my - um - dear friend."
"Staff?" Leon was clearly unimpressed.
"You doubt?" Valarien, eyes alight, stood up and held the little stick aloft.
"Porrigay!" he commanded.
Instantly, brilliant silvery sparks coruscated along its length and with a faint thump, suddenly it was five feet long.
"Great galloping goblins!"
The barbarian was impressed. He would have liked to ask what else it did, but wasn't sure if he really wanted to know.
"Abrogar!" Valarien commanded again, and the staff snapped back to its former size. "Where did you - um - find Wierga?"
"Hm. In Barka's harem, actually," the nightranger admitted.
"Just passing through?" Kai enquired innocently.
"What were you doing then?" Leon asked with a leer.
"Oh, just finishing what Valarien started. Finding your staff was a real stroke of luck."
"What?!" exclaimed the wizard, horror-struck. "You mean, you used it?"
"No choice really. Remembered what you'd done with it. Worked. Didn't get anything like the power out of it that you did, but it was enough."
"Remembered what I'd - um - done with it when?" Valarien asked suspiciously.
"Oh Is the palace still - um - standing?"
"Most of it, yes."
"Dan-gashk?" asked Leon in awed tones. "Not the Blasted Plain of Dan-gashk? Holy shit!"
"Anyway, that held me up for about ten days," the nightranger went on.
"Ten days?" Valarien asked incredulously. "The whole operation only takes ten - um - seconds!"
"Ye-es," Ewan conceded cagily. "I wasn't really in a fit state to travel though - afterwards."
Valarien tried to suppress his laughter - and failed.
"Well, that certainly shows the advantages of - um - working together, doesn't it?"
Ewan's face was impassive. He found the rest of the group looking at him expectantly and gave up hope of evading further explanations.
"Hm. I might have caught up with you sooner if you'd given some indication of which 'sea' you were planning on crossing. I'd no idea which way you'd gone. Spent days casting around for some trace of you, and when I did, you seemed to be heading south-east..."
"Just - um - laying a false trail to confuse any - um - pursuers."
"It worked very well," Ewan confirmed pointedly. "Then he asks why I didn't arrive sooner!"
"I thought you'd - um - realize it was a ploy."
"If I'd known which road you took out of Tara Gor, I'd probably have recognized your devious style. As it was, I'd nothing to go on, and you have to admit, that as detours go, it was a hell of a lot longer than you usually make."
Valarien looked a little uncomfortable but said nothing.
"It wasn't until I reached Khandizar and found you'd never arrived there, that I realized what was going on. By then, I must've been nearly a month behind you - and still wasn't certain which sea you were aiming for. I back-tracked as far as Nirvann and, by luck, picked the right direction first time. The real right direction, that is. Thereafter, I followed your markers as far as the Sea of Beloshadi, and crossed from Pristan to Bandar in Sharestan. I expected another marker there, but there wasn't one"
"Well, I left one," Valarien said, puzzled. "You sure you - um - looked properly?"
"Certain. I checked out every possible site - the Mermaid's Arms', the 'Blistered Barnacle', 'Ye Olde Tarre Barrel', the 'Wooden Anchor', the 'Jumping Jellyfish' and the 'Friendly Filleter'. Very rough, that one..."
"What about the - um - 'Cross-eyed Kittiwake'?"
"Eh? There were only six taverns in Bandar."
"Seven," Valarien corrected loftily. "You must have - um - crashed out before you got to it. Otherwise how you could have missed it on - um - Windy Wharf"
"Windy Wharf? So that was still standing when you were there? They said it'd slipped into the sea one dark and stormy night, but they didn't say when. Should've thought to ask. Wonder why I didn't...?"
"Good question," murmured the wizard, "like why didn't we spot the ambush on the way to Larenna? And why didn't we check up on the living before looking to the dead...?"
"Coincidence," Kai said rationally.
"Hm. I'm not so sure."
"Anyway," Ewan continued, "I figured you'd head for Del-e-ziba, which you did. There, I found you'd been asking after a Caspar of Q'izzam."
Here, he looked directly at Kai, who raised a hand in acknowledgement.
"I take it news of Q'ulzira reached the capital in all its gory detail?" Kai said ruefully.
" 'Fraid so, though I understood no blame attached to you personally," Ewan reassured him.
The warrior looked unconvinced. He still blamed himself for the disaster, though the ultimate victory against Zervan and his men had gone a long way towards assuaging his conscience.
"Actually, it was a good thing I heard about it when I did," the nightranger went on, "or I might have arrived at the Eyrie very much later. A young lady in the 'Saucy Salamander' - excellent taste, there, Valarien! - remembered you leaving a message with the tapster. Unfortunately he'd died suddenly a few days later, but one of the men - well, more than half goblin, if the truth be known - butted in and said he'd overheard what you'd said. Didn't sound very likely, but he was very polite. Said you'd been quite friendly with him. Introduced himself as Glitch "