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The Mystara Chronicles XXI: "The Right of Husbandry"

by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)

The Brotherhood of the Silver Band rode north, not stopping to inspect the ancient ruins on the shore of Lake Windrush but pressing on towards the mountains and Eltan's Spring. They rode with purpose, yet with caution; with confidence, yet with alertness. For although they had dared to call themselves by the name of adventurers for in truth only a few weeks, they had managed in that time to make powerful enemies. Whether at the hands of the Iron Ring or from illegal necromantic covens, danger seemed to court their every step.

They were rapidly reaching the northern extent of the lake, and the gently sloping Wufwolde Hills that made up the western portion of the protecting bowl that sheltered Threshold and its surroundings were giving way to the harsher slopes of the Black Peak Mountains. The terrain rose sharply up ahead and the companions could see a rising mist from the north end of the lake: a waterfall. Cascading over the rocks, the Krevilan River poured down onto the lake with a certain reserved majesty, steady and strong.

As they gazed upon the stunning natural beauty of the scene, they saw that something large was being swept over the falls, a boat perhaps, wrecked in the mountain river and cast unceremoniously over the cascade's crest, down the scintillating stream of the mountain's libation to where it was voraciously received by Threshold's mere. But as the timber struck the troubled face of Lake Windrush, the companions realised that it was not a boat; at least, it wasn't yet.

"It's a tree!" Thalaric called out in a mixture of delight and surprise. "It must have fallen into the river."

Varis thought back to a conversation that he had had with one of Halaran's men-at-arms. "No, it's from the logging camp in the mountains. There's a group of Darokinians who cut timber upstream. They float the trees down the river, over the waterfall, and across the lake to Threshold. There the town loggers trim them and cut them into logs so that they can raft them up for shipment to the south." The companions watched as a second, then a third mighty pine tree tumbled over the falls. "The mountain loggers are very private folk, from what I heard. Much like the people of Eltan's Spring."

The trail pulled away from the lake and the river and soon grew steeper and steeper until, almost before they realised it, the companions found themselves climbing the pine-studded slopes of the Black Peak Mountains. Their steeds began to labour more heavily, although they were cooled somewhat by the imperfect shade of the mountain trees and their thirst slaked by cold water from crisp streams. The path eventually turned and ran roughly parallel to the fast-running Krevilan that fed the lake at its northernmost tip, the waters swirling mightily in a shallow gorge below. The companions were slowed by the incline but they kept on, encouraged by the clearing sky and the drop in humidity.

About five miles later, just past a point where another river joined the Krevilan from the east in a harmonious confluence, they reached an interesting geological foundation: a broad arch of stone, obviously completely natural in origin, that spanned the wide, swift-flowing river. Thalaric was tremendously pleased with it, and would have spent all day sitting at its edge, dangling his blue-booted feet over the waters below, if Boldar had not gruffly insisted on pressing on. Thalaric stuck out his tongue at the dwarf, but mounted up anyway. He realised that Boldar was right, that it was more important for them to reach Eltan's Spring before nightfall than to enjoy the beautiful scenery; for the shadow of the Iron Ring haunted the mountains as surely as it haunted the streets of Threshold.

The trail continued on the other side of the arch, following the other, eastern, river now. It gradually led higher and higher into the mountains, leaving the river farther and farther below. The trees were thinner here, and it afforded the companions yet another amazing view of the ebony-tipped mountains.

It was short-lived, however, as the trail began to descend more rapidly than it had ascended, until soon they reached a narrow valley, bounded on one side by high peaks and the other by the river. "Farmland!" Fyodor called out with surprise, for the companions could clearly see crops growing in orderly plots and farmhouses and barns not far off. "I didn't know that the soil here was good enough for farming," he mused, wondering at the half-dug irrigation ditches that furrowed the fields.

"I do not think that it is," Thalaric said. "Look, the crops are parched. Can you see? Even the trees are dry and thirsty." The others squinted off into the distance, and it seemed that the elf had it rightly. As they drew closer, they could see that the wheat was not golden and lush but brittle and cracked.

"Have they not had the same rain in the mountains as we have had in the lowlands these past few weeks?" Fyodor said, scratching his jaw.

"In Dengar, this often happens," Boldar said sagely. "The rain clouds are broken apart by the strength of the mountains."

"Still," Varis said, "this is pretty dry, and the peaks are not so high here as of yet. And note that all of the other trees that we have seen since we left Threshold have been green and healthy." He felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. "I am worried for the town of Eltan's Spring," he said quietly.

"What's that noise?" Boldar said, twisting in his saddle.

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the others heard it too, a buzzing of sorts coming from behind them. Fyodor turned in his saddle and saw it, black, yellow, and impossibly large, hurtling down upon them at incredible speed. "Look out!" he cried in panic, his hand fumbling for Bastard-Slayer.

Thalaric didn't turn in time. The giant wasp, bigger than Boldar, swooped down upon the elf and buried its stinger in his back. Thalaric convulsed with agony as the surprised companions hastily grabbed for their weapons. Fyodor, struggling to control his unruly mount, closed with the hideous insect and stuck it a glancing blow with his enchanted blade. The elf slumped in his saddle as the wasp released him, darting away for a moment before lunging at the companions once more. Varis had just gotten control of his own horse when suddenly the wasp filled his vision, and he realised that unlike any insect that he had ever seen, this one had a mouth full of teeth.

It hit him at full speed and he knew no more.

* * *

Varis heard voices; more precisely, he heard sounds that could have been voices. Everything hurt, especially his head, neck, and left shoulder. He had no will to stand, no will to do anything but die. He was glad that he had undertaken the Rite of Purification this morning; his spirit was ready for the Light. It would not be found wanting, of this he was certain.

Through the philosopher's tired mind flickered a few lines of Palamar of Zeaburg, a surprise, in a sense, because it had been quite some time since he had read the mystic's works. Nevertheless, Varis, thus reminded, wondered with his last bit of strength if his spirit's future vision of Viuden's radiant heart would make all of his human wisdom, everything that he had spent his last three years trying to perfect, appear to be what it always was: a reflection, an imperfect copy. He sighed. He was ready.

But hands were pulling at him, tugging and prodding. They were saying something to him, shouting something. Varis realised in a flash that it was not yet his time, that he was still alive, and that he was needed. Shamed at the childish and overly dramatic way in which he had thought himself at the brink of death, he concentrated all of his effort on his eyelids, willing them to open. He saw faces, heard voices. They were becoming more distinct. If he could only concentrate! Something was trying its best to pull him back into darkness and sleep. Angered, Varis silently called upon Diulanna and forced his eyes to focus on the shapeless mass in front of him and demanded that his ears report faithfully the content of the speech.

"Varis! Oh, Petra, Varis please you must get up!" It was Fyodor's voice, panicked and desperate. The young Traladaran was shaking him, perhaps harder than he should have been. "Varis, be strong, get up! You have to use the staff!"

The effort was immense; the philosopher almost felt buried under the weight of it. There was a horrible bilious taste in his mouth. As he spit out chunky pieces of grey and green he realised, to his surprise, that he had been revived with the aid of the herbalist's craft. Who has done this for me? he thought. Who knew what combination of bitter-tasting herbs would bring me back from unconsciousness?

"Varis!" Fyodor continued. "Thalaric is going to die. I tried to heal him with the staff but it wouldn't work. You have to do it! Oh, Petra, please keep him alive!"

The philosopher's eyes were focused now. He was lying on the ground, obviously where he had fallen. Fyodor knelt over him, helmless, tears staining his cheeks. Boldar stood nearby, axe resting on his shoulder, sallet cradled under his other arm. He too had concern writ all over his face. "What...happened..."

"No time," Fyodor said, pressing the ashwood staff into his hand. "Thalaric is going to die, Varis. You have to use the staff now." The young Traladaran was practically dragging him to his feet.

Varis' face felt hot, and he thought that he was going to be sick for a moment, but he allowed his old friend to help him up. Thalaric lay on the ground, his skin yellowish and dry, his body spasming even as two men in peasant clothing whom Varis had never seen before tried to hold him still. The philosopher stumbled closer and dropped to his knees. "Chardastes help us," he mumbled and lay the staff on Thalaric's chest, praying with all of his heart that his friend might be healed.

The elf's thrashing ceased and his breathing became steady and deep. His eyes opened slowly, revealing slits of dark green. His lips opened once, twice, mumbled something in what could have been his native tongue before his eyes closed again. Varis' heart leapt in his chest, but he soon realised that the elf had passed into a restful sleep, not the embrace of death.

Now that Thalaric was out of immediate danger, Varis found that he could no longer ignore his own weakness, his own anguish. With a gentle sigh, the philosopher collapsed near his friend, a faint smile on his face, the name of Asterius on his lips.

* * *

The valley that harboured Eltan's Spring would have been picturesque if it were not for the dying wheat that filled the small plots on either side of the trail. The air was clean and crisp and the soft lights that emanated from the half-dozen or so buildings that made up the village proper brightened the dusk. Fyodor thought that he detected the welcoming smell of roasting meat in the air.

Night was fast falling, the sun descending to its nightly repose at their backs. Thalaric and Varis were sitting unsteadily on their horses, groggy and weary. The philosopher had come to his senses soon after he had healed the elf, discovering that he too had had been badly ravaged by the strange giant insect, his shoulder and neck bearing the marks of its jaws, his head lumpy and sore from where it had struck the ground as he tumbled off of his horse.

He had turned the staff on himself, healing himself of most of the damage, but one scar remained: the beast had torn off the earlobe of his left ear. When Fyodor had told him about his disfigurement, Varis had accepted the news with stoic acceptance but turned away before his friend could see the tears of frustration on his face.

Yet, in a more rational moment, he knew that the elf had it worse. Thalaric's main wound, a startlingly deep puncturing of his back by the wasp's barbed stinger, had been healed by the grace of Chardastes (and the philosopher thought that he really must spend some time researching the notion of sacred objects as media of Immortal beneficence). But despite this healing, the insect's venom- merely irritating in wasps of normal size but life-threatening in this gargantuan variety- had insinuated itself into Thalaric's body. Varis' partial recovery had allowed him the chance to feed the elf some purgative herbs, but as they rode on for Eltan's Spring he was still sweating profusely and his eyes were wild and panicked. Varis thought that perhaps a good night's sleep would allow the venom to run its course and encouragingly told the elf as much. Nevertheless, his skin remained tinted faintly yellow from the wasp's poison.

As the friends rode into town, they saw a few villagers walking the dusty path that passed for a road in Eltan's Spring. Recoiling somewhat at their approach, they seemed surprised at first to see the companions and rather fearful of them. But when Fyodor hoarsely pleaded to see Gernon, the village elder, the villagers promptly directed them to the Crock and Goblet, the only inn in town.

"Friendly folk," Boldar said. He meant this truly. Varis and Thalaric probably owed their lives to two such as these. After the deadly attack of the wasp, once Fyodor and Boldar had cut the thing out of the sky, they were surprised to see a peasant running towards them with a youth of Shearing age (his son, as it happened). They were farmers of the land outlying Eltan's Spring, whose plots were farthest from the village. Seeing the attack, they had run from their small home with a leather pouch filled with healer's remedies and set to work immediately, staunching the flow of Varis' blood and helping to revive him.

Fyodor had gratefully given the farmers the sack of gold that he had received from Aleena. The father, a shaggy and soft-spoken man with the strange name of Blergix, had thanked him profusely and told him and Boldar that the wasps had recently come to the western parts of the valley, preventing easy access to Threshold. When asked, he had also said that he had neither heard of nor seen the matriarch's three missing servants, but when Fyodor uttered the name of Bertrak Blergix's face grew dark. He mumbled an unconvincing demurral and together with his son bowed away from the companions, heading off for their own farmhouse, the twilight clothing them like a robe.

If it were not for those kind people, Boldar thought, both Varis and Thalaric might be dead. And without that staff, neither would have recovered so quickly. Not that they were in perfect condition; far from it. But they were alive. Because of that staff, Varis is truly the most important member of our group.

Boldar's own life had been saved by the staff once before, when he had been scorched by the ichor from the hand of Kavorquian Penhaligon's unliving servant. To this day his shoulder still bore the terrible, hand-shaped scar. Although at that time he had been acutely conscious of Kagyar's creative hand in his healing, he had seen Varis use the staff so many times since then that its miraculousness threatened to become mundane. The shocked reaction on the part of Blergix and his son to its effects, however, had reinvigorated the dwarf's appreciation.

But why is it that neither Fyodor nor I could use it? He shrugged, knowing full well that they had other, more pressing matters to deal with here in Eltan's Spring. Hopefully we'll find some answers, Boldar thought as he halted his mule in front of the Crock and Goblet, a well-maintained but simply constructed building with a faded signboard above the door, rocking gently in the wind.

Fyodor quickly dismounted and helped Thalaric and Varis down off of their horses before he threw a handful of cronae at the stable boy standing at a safe distance, curiously watching as the companions unloaded their baggage. As they headed for the door, the young Traladaran caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of the boy creeping towards the horses. Now that he paid him more attention, he was surprised to see the child's pointed ears and slender features. An elf! he thought, remembering Aleena's words. The child met his surprised look with a shy smile before taking the first horse gently by the reins. Fyodor shook his head. For some reason, the elf-child disturbed him.

It was only after they burst through the front door of the Crock and Goblet that Fyodor realised that they must have made a strange and terrifying sight: dirty, bloody, bristling with arms and armour, and bearing on their faces the unmistakable signs of recent combat. Inside, the tavern was nearly full, with folk in the simple garb of commoners drinking and talking amongst themselves. But one by one they saw the companions standing in the doorway, ceased their conversations, and looked at them, a mixture of surprise and challenge on their faces. Fyodor noticed that more than one rested his hand on a cudgel or a stout wooden staff. Doubtless these strong folk are used to taking care of themselves, he thought.

There were a few elves mixed in with the humans, although their manner of dress was so similar they did not immediately stand out. One of the elves, slightly taller than Thalaric, stepped out from the crowd. He had a bushy shock of brown hair and smiled in what appeared to be a truly genuine fashion. "Welcome in the name of Belnos, travellers," he said in Thyatian. "I'm Gernon Durgovitch, the elder of Eltan's Spring."

This is Gernon Durgovitch? Varis thought to himself as he bowed in greeting. An elf? Has he been adopted into the Durgovitch family somehow?

"This is my sister Liselle, proprietor of this place," the elf indicated a slim woman who, to the companions' eyes, was undoubtedly human, with Traladaran colouring and features. Yes, he must be adopted, Varis thought. Although it does seem odd that an adopted elf would be the town elder, especially one who seems so young. "Patrons here are not but farmers," Gernon continued, "but you're welcome to join us."

"Please make yourselves comfortable, and enjoy our humble hospitality," Liselle said liltingly, indicating a table near where the companions were standing. She had maintained her figure well despite the fact that she had seen at least forty summers. "Oh! Shoo that black cat off the bench," she said as the offending feline hissed at Boldar. Liselle smoothly scooped up the cat, allowing Boldar a seat. Saved me the trouble of kicking the thing out the door, he thought.

"We were attacked," Fyodor said tiredly. "It was like a wasp..." He stopped, searching for the proper words.

"Except it was the size of a small horse?" said a burly man wearing the leathers of a trapper and with more hair on his face than the top of his head. "Aye, we know of such beasts. They've come to the western valley and attacked many of us who've tried to head south to Threshold. As if we need any more troubles around here. Be thankful that you're still alive."

Fyodor nodded, trying to make some sense out of the glances and the whispers that spread around the Crock and Goblet like wildfire. He was happy that he was alive, but the memory of his powerlessness haunted him, his utter impotence as he stared down at Thalaric's twitching body and the glazed eyes of Varis. He needed some of Eltan's Spring's famous ale, and fast.

For his part, Thalaric was not doing so well. His complexion remained a sickly yellowish-white and the sweats continued to come even as his lips had dried out and cracked. He felt like he was going to be sick at any moment. He was fascinated by Eltan's Spring and curious about the elves that lived there, but he was so tired he could barely concentrate.

Seeing him, Varis raised his voice. "Madam, my friend and I are desperately in need of a soft bed." The philosopher was still stunned from the attack, and it was all that he could do not to touch his ear, to feel where the fleshy lobe had been torn away. I am disfigured.

"I'm sorry, master, but I don't have any rooms," Liselle said. "Mayhaps one of the farmers could grant you rest in his hayloft, but-"

"Nonsense, Liselle," Gernon spoke up. "They shall stay in my home." He waved at a youth of perhaps fifteen years. "Take them over for me, will you Sleet?"

"We have gold," Fyodor said, perhaps unwisely. "We will well compensate you for your kindness." The only elf that Fyodor had spent any time around was Thalaric, so he had based all of his assumptions about that race off of his friend. But seeing Gernon was revelatory, in that the elf seemed in his behaviour and mannerisms to be much like the sort of peasants with whom he had grown up. He felt immediately comfortable with him, as opposed to how cautious he had felt around Thalaric when they had first met.

Gernon smiled. "We can speak about all that later. Now go on and get some rest."

Varis bowed deeply and turned to Fyodor. "We'll be okay, my friend," he whispered in the young Traladaran's ear. "We just need a good night's sleep. Why don't you and Boldar stay here and try to find out what you can about Aleena's problem and we'll talk about it tomorrow morning."

Fyodor nodded, trying not to stare at Varis' injury. He felt like he was back in Penhaligon, visiting Lord Kaerin. "Are you going to be okay?" he whispered.

Varis smiled thinly. "I'll be fine. Thank Chardastes," he said, shaking his staff.

"I'll thank Petra," Fyodor said, grinning in return, "and I think we should thank you as well. Thalaric wouldn't have made it without you. That staff knows you, Varis; your wisdom gives it power."

"I don't know about that," the philosopher demurred, shaking his head. "The power is not from me-"

"Varis, you're much smarter than me, so I'm not even going to argue with you. All I mean is that you can heal. Whether with the staff, like back there with the wasp, or with your hands, as I've seen many times before."

"It didn't prevent me from getting my ear chewed off."

Fyodor smiled. "Most of it's still on. Think of it as a story to tell your children. Besides," he said with a wicked grin, "getting that tooth pulled hurt worse."

Liar, Varis thought, though he appreciated the way that the jape helped to give him calmness and clarity. Korotiku's great gift is perspective. "Thalaric is going to faint," he said, watching the elf grasping the wall for support. "I'll see you in the morning."

Fyodor gently clapped first him, then Thalaric on the shoulder before joining Boldar on the bench, watching as Sleet escorted Varis and Thalaric out of the inn.

"You must have seen our crops," said an inebriated thick-necked farmer sitting at the table next to the young Traladaran and the dwarf. He leaned over towards them, his eyes watery and wandering. "Withered and dying in the fields..."

"We did," Fyodor said, turning to him, laying his helmet and sword beside him on the bench. "Has there been a drought?"

"I wish it were that simple a problem." Gernon came over to their table and sat down across from them. "No, drought is not to blame for the condition of our crops. Nor pestilence, for that matter. Unfortunately, Bertrak, our priest, is."

They were interrupted by Liselle plopping a pair of huge wooden mugs in front of Fyodor and Boldar. The grumpy look on the face of the dwarf disappeared as he began to suck down the ale before Fyodor had even paid the proprietress. The beer was exceptional, surprisingly so to Boldar, who had some definitely chauvinistic beliefs when it came to non-dwarves and brewery. Yet he could not deny that this beer had a delicious yet unfamiliar crispness to it. Despite himself, he was impressed. He raised his mug to Liselle, who smiled and curtsied politely.

Meanwhile, Fyodor was mulling Gernon's words. "What do you mean, your priest is to blame?" he said at last.

Gernon shook his head. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself," he said. "Every year, Bertrak comes to Eltan's Spring and blesses our fields, ensuring a bountiful crop."

"He didn't come this year?" Boldar asked.

"He came all right. About a week before we were to begin our harvest, Bertrak came wanderin' into the village, babbling nonsense."

"He had a mad look in his eyes," Liselle said, hovering around the table. "And he kept casting vile curses about."

"Whatever he did it ruined the crops and the fields," said the drunken farmer.

Gernon resumed his narrative. "After that, Bertrak disappeared again." He shrugged, smiling unconvincingly. "We haven't seen him since."

"Is that so?" Fyodor asked, frantically trying to remember everything that Aleena had told him the night before. This is supposed to be Varis' job, he thought. I'm no good at this sort of thing. "Did he give any reasons for his actions?"

"He kept muttering the strangest things," said the farmer, his eyes screwed up tightly.

"About chimes in the wind and a raven-haired woman," Liselle added in a low voice.

Fyodor took a sip from his beer and tried to remain impassive as the cold drink seemed to put clamps on his still-sensitive teeth. "Do you know what he was talking about?" What was it that Aleena had said about Ilsa?

"No," Liselle admitted. "Nobody does."

"We're too afraid to go to Bertrak's house and ask him," the farmer said grudgingly.

"You've heard much of our affairs, but you've told us nothing about yourselves!" Fyodor had been so concerned about his own performance in what was a very unusual role for him to play that he did not realise that the rest of the Crock and Goblet had been listening to the conversation. One man in particular, the same woodsman who had spoken earlier, was standing up and glaring at them irately. It was he who had spoken, and his pronouncement was met with a chorus of approval from the others. Boldar, sensing that the mood in the tavern had changed, slowly inched his right hand towards the haft of his axe propped up against the bench next to him.

Fyodor stood up slowly, eyeing the crowd. He swallowed. He was not good at making speeches. Taking a deep breath, the young Traladaran raised his mug for silence. "Very well," he called out. The tavern quieted. "My name is Fyodor Grygorov and I am from the Estate of Penhaligon. This is my companion Boldar Shieldcracker, son of Balar, from the dwarvish nation of Rockhome. We are here, at the request of Aleena Halaran of Threshold, looking for three people, three who went north bound for Eltan's Spring but did not return." Suddenly Fyodor grew very afraid as he was struck with a sudden insight. What if these people were the cause of the disappearances? he thought to himself. There are too many for the two of us to fight off.

"Three have come from Threshold," Gernon said, nodding his head.

"Not all together," Liselle added, "but one at a time."

"They all inquired after Bertrak's grove," the thick-necked farmer said, as if he had just recognised a connection.

"We told them about the situation," It was the bearded man in leathers who answered this time, his face impossible to read. "We told them about the goblins and Bertrak's madness. Aye, I will call it by the name of madness." He turned in a provocative semi-circle, as if daring others to challenge him. None did. "They went all the same. But none returned."

"We fear the worst," the farmer added, nodding drunkenly.

"We sent a group of men after them, to pay Bertrak a visit ourselves," the bearded man continued, rubbing his hands together slowly.

"But they had to turn back," said the drunk, leaning towards them, "because of goblins in the woods."

Fyodor suddenly realised that the villagers were scared. "Please, master," Gernon said. "You can see what we've come to. Between Bertrak, the goblins, the pestilence, and the wasps, we are stretched too thin. Belnos has sent you here, I know; he has sent you to us in friendship and healing. On your mission for Aleena, can you see a way to spare some help for us?"

The young Traladaran puffed out his chest. "My friends," he said, "we will do everything in our power to help you."

The tavern-goers did not cheer, as Fyodor expected. Instead, they returned to their drinks and their conversations, a little more subdued than before. The thick-necked man sitting next to them passed out and Liselle spared them a wan smile before going off to tend to her other patrons. Gernon, however, remained sitting at the table, sipping at his beer. Judging that the crisis had passed, Boldar removed his hand from his axe handle and returned to his drink.

"It saddens me that it has come to this," Gernon said quietly, his elven eyes distant and sad. "Do you see him?" he asked, waving his hand lazily at the man sleeping at the next table. "You would never have seen Trestan like this when things were right around here. Now there's nothing to do but sit in the Crock and Goblet and drink. Let me tell you, Liselle would gladly lose all of the business if it meant that Eltan's Spring could be Eltan's Spring again."

He sighed deeply. "Understand, friends, that we are used to relying on ourselves. The Chosen of Belnos have always kept us safe from harm, and our labour has always kept us comfortable. Oh, it's not an easy life, that's for sure, but we're satisfied with it. We're happy with what we've built here in the mountains. Eltan, Liselle, and Farnold Durgovitch made this town out of nothing, with the work of their own hands, and it would be a damn shame if this generation proved itself not up to the task of preserving it. A damn shame. Belnos would never let his trust fall to us again, I tell you truly."

Although amazed by a piece of information that Gernon had let drop, Fyodor tactfully waited a few moments as the village elder gazed off into nothingness. Finally he gently cleared his throat. "Liselle founded the town? I thought Eltan's Spring was established many years ago."

Gernon smiled as his gaze snapped to the young Traladaran. "Not my sister Liselle. She's named for our grandmother, the Liselle Durgovitch."

"I see." After another pause, Fyodor continued, hesitantly. "Sir, I have a question. Were you adopted into the Durgovitch clan? I must admit that I was very surprised to hear that Liselle was your sister." The village elder looked askance at Fyodor, and before the young Traladaran could properly finish his question Gernon jumped in. "You have asked for a long story, my friend. To be honest, I am surprised that you have not heard it, for the tale is very great. You have not heard of Liselle Half-Elven?"

"No," said Fyodor truthfully. He was always ready for another story.

Gernon sighed. "Have you ever heard tales of the epkhoi?"

Fyodor nodded slowly. "They are the accursed," he answered, "the children of women who mate with evil spirits." He began to feel the first pangs of horrible understanding working their way up his spine.

"So they named our grandmother Liselle," Gernon said sadly. "She was born in Traladara of a Traladaran woman who was gotten with child by an elf, one of the Callarii. He abandoned both mother and child, and they lived a piteous existence, ostracised by all. You see, although Liselle looked like a normal human child, the story of her conception travelled quickly. And so she and her mother were forced to live in the wilds of the southern hills. When her mother died, Liselle was all alone at the age of fifteen."

Fyodor was stunned. What kind of abomination is this? A union between elf and human? Ephkoi indeed, he thought with mounting horror.

The elf took a sip of his beer. "Liselle despaired of her loneliness and made her way to Threshold, where she and her mother had occasionally brought wild berries and grains to trade. There, a brewer named Eltan Durgovitch saw the maid and fell in love with her, and she with him. The priests told Eltan that she was spirit-possessed and born of a demon father, but he did not heed them. He renounced his gods and married her in the old way.

"The priests incited the townsmen to drive the two out of Threshold. And so, along with Eltan's brother Farnold, they headed into the mountains until they found a spring of clear, clean water bubbling up from the earth. That spring- Eltan's spring- is right next to my house, just a ways over there." Gernon pointed off to the north. "It is there that they made their home, and it is there that their descendants live to this very day."

"But what about you?" Boldar asked, a slight edge to his voice. "How did you come to be in this family?"

"I was born into it," Gernon said. "The children of Liselle's line sometimes favour our grandfather." His sad-eyed smile failed to take any of the edge off of his words.

"So..." Fyodor was at a loss.

The village elder nodded his assent to Fyodor's unasked question. "Eltan and Liselle's first daughter was born, and although both of the parents were by all appearances humans of the Traladaran race, the child was of elvenkind. In Liselle, the blood of man and elf was mingled, you see, but not mixed. Don't ask me to explain it, but it's true. And then, when my mother married a man of Darokinian stock, she gave birth to me and my brother Boltac, who take after her, and my sister Liselle, who, as you can see, favours her grandmother and namesake."

Every instinct in Fyodor's body cried out that this was wrong, accursed. Yet Gernon seemed so friendly, so very normal somehow that part of him resisted, although if it was out of sympathy or decorum was impossible to tell. His heart was racing and he caught himself clenching and unclenching his hand in his lap.

"What do your neighbours think about this?" Boldar asked daringly. He was as scandalised as Fyodor, but he was also feeling less and less reticent as his mug grew more and more empty.

Gernon sighed. "I have been told that when Liselle the elder gave birth to my mother, some of the Darokinian farmers who were also early settlers here came to visit her. When they saw the child there was some whispering that she was a demon. But as the story goes, Belnos gave a great sign. When Liselle sat the child down on the ground, the earth gave forth a stream of water, as pure and as clean as the sacred spring that marked this spot as holy. And so, seeing this sign from the god, the villagers came to accept her and love her.

"You see, my friends, this is the way of Belnos, the way that Farnold brought to us from the far west. He taught us how to sacrifice to the god and how we should live to please him. We live a peaceful life, and despite the past we trade with Threshold out of obedience to the will of Belnos. Things have changed here over the years, no doubt about that: Traladara has become Karameikos, and we now pay tribute once a year to Armstead when once we did not. But my sister still brews her ale in the same way that Eltan did, and, in this town, we worship no god but Belnos."

Fyodor took a careful sip of his beer, unclear and uncomfortable with this talk of sacrifice. The language made him think of stories of demonists and ritual murders. Or might Gernon mean nothing more than first-fruits offerings? "I do not know about Belnos," he said as politely as he could. "I am from the Shutturga, and there we worship the Blessed Three."

"I figured as much," Gernon said with a resigned smile on his face. "Belnos has not been worshipped in Traladara for thousands of years. The journey of Farnold Durgovitch to the far lands of the west and the coming of the blessing of the god is an even longer tale than that of Eltan and Liselle and is not for now."

"But who is Belnos?" the young Traladaran asked, for some reason almost fearing what the too-young elder would say in response.

The elf cleared his throat. "Belnos is the first-born of the Mother of Nature. To him she delivered the Right of Husbandry." Gernon said this last with audible capitals. "Belnos preserves the Mother's order, protects the growing things of the earth from you understand?"

Fyodor nodded his head slowly. "Yes, I think so," he answered, wishing that Varis were here to cut through all of the theology.

Just then a young, wiry elf with a long face and unevenly cropped short black hair drew near to Gernon. "Ah, Ilselloc, have a seat," the town elder said to the newcomer, distracted from his explanation. Ilselloc sat down with an awkward smile of greeting on his face and nodded to Fyodor and Boldar. When he spoke he spoke in an enthusiastic whisper that indicated some kind of vocal infirmity rather than the need for silence. "Thank you for helping us," he wheezed. "We all are very grateful."

"Ilselloc here is my nephew; he helps his mother out with the Crock and Goblet," Gernon clarified, patting him on the back avuncularly.

"Well met, Ilselloc. We are happy to help," Fyodor said as Boldar grunted almost inaudibly. The dwarf was even less comfortable with the notion of humans breeding with elves than Fyodor was.

"And we are happy to have it," Gernon said, smiling gently at the young Traladaran. "At any rate, we should be speaking more about the problems that we have at hand and less about our customs and days long ago. There will be time for that, but for now we should discuss Bertrak."

Fyodor nodded. "That seems appropriate," he said, trying to ape Varis' educated speech. "I know that he is your priest, but is there anything else that you can tell me that might be useful to us?"

"He is beloved of Belnos," Gernon said. "In a sense, that is all that one can say about him. That is all that we are used to saying about him, at any rate. But these are dark times, and with dark times comes dark tales, tales and whispers that have been heard hereabouts.

"Bertrak was actually born in Threshold and found his way up to Eltan's Spring during his Shearing. He has told us little of his past, but some think that he dabbled in the black arts until he cast aside his old ways and entered the service of the god."

"The black arts?" Fyodor asked, curious. Does he mean worship of demons?

"Magic," Gernon clarified. "The magic of paper and rune. It is just a rumour, and I hesitate even to mention it, except that we are worried about him and..." He shrugged his shoulders, smiling awkwardly. "Maybe it will be helpful."

"Thank you. Go on."

"Others say that he is you know the term?"

"I think I have heard it before," Fyodor said, rustling through his memory. "Is it like a zoyenga, a spirit that is both animal and man?" The image of a green-eyed tiger flickered in his mind's eye.

"Yes, exactly," the elder said. "Some say that his dark arts had brought this curse upon him, and that our old priest Uthuinn the Younger made him whole again, casting away the spirit of the bear that had troubled him." Gernon shrugged again, letting Fyodor and Boldar know exactly what he thought of this story.

"Well, as I said, Bertrak is favoured by Belnos. So he stays mostly in his grove, communing with the god, but every year he comes down from the mountains and prays over the crops, and every year our yield is better and better."

"But not this year," Boldar said with the slightest twinge of sarcasm to his voice. The dwarf saw that Fyodor had picked up on his tone of voice and had turned almost imperceptibly towards him. Boldar immediately felt bad, and surmised that the too-good beer brewed by these humans and elves, of all people, was making him a little bit jealous.

The village elder's face grew dark. After a pregnant pause, he spoke. "At first, when Bertrak came out to the fields and cursed them, we thought that maybe we had angered Belnos in some way and that we were being punished. Some of us still do, but not me. You see, Bertrak was acting so queer. He's reckoned a handsome man- some call him 'the Fair'- but he came out of the woods with his robes all ripped up and his face all filthy and smeared with berries; we thought it was blood at first, but when he got near we saw that it was berries." The elf shook his head. "No, we don't know what to make of it, nor of chimes and raven-haired women, although everybody in this town's got an opinion. I'm afraid nothing short of going to his grove will give us any answers."

"Well, then," Boldar said, resignedly. "How do we get there?"

Gernon swallowed a bit of his beer. "Finding the priest's grove is easy; it's not far from here. You'll have to go on foot, 'cause it's a narrow mountain path."

"We'll tend your horses, hoping you'll return," Ilselloc said and immediately began to blush. He looked away from Fyodor even as Gernon strove to smile through his obvious anger at his nephew's faux pas.

"Mark my words," the elder said, very pointedly, "Bertrak is a powerful man. Do not take him lightly."

In the meantime Liselle had once again sidled up to the table. "He's been a friend to this community for a long time. We beg you, please, don't harm him."

"Of course," Fyodor said, his eyes narrowing slightly as he tried to figure out what Ilselloc had meant.

"And keep a good watch during your trip to his grove," Gernon warned. "Goblins infest the woods now. It was if they knew that he was going to go mad, as if they were just waiting for the right time to act. We have never had problems with goblins before, I guess because our priests always kept them away. Now we gamble with Death if we risk the mountain path to Bertrak's grove. Believe me, friends, we warned those Threshold folk about the dangers, we did."

"They didn't listen," Liselle interrupted. "We had some of our men escort them as far as they dared..." She hung her head, as if ashamed. "It brings tears to my eyes to think about that pretty girl Ilsa." The innkeeper's voice suddenly changed to an angry tone. "Stupid thing, she should've known better. She grew up in the mountains, she knows what it's like." Liselle looked up, tears clouding her large hazel eyes: Zirchev's eyes.

When she spoke again it was in a barely audible whisper. "Without Bertrak we don't know what to do." She played nervously with her apron strings before curtsying quickly and running off. As she went, she almost crashed into the large trapper who had spoken earlier. The two exchanged a long look before Liselle brushed past him with a swishing of skirts. The large bearded man caught Fyodor's eye, and the young Traladaran felt a deep sense of his guilt and shame before the trapper turned away and hastily exited the Crock and Goblet.

Fyodor took all of this in, wondering at the secrets that this village held. He absent-mindedly reached for his beer as Boldar finished his off with a final swig. "Let me tell you something, elf," the dwarf said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "If we know one thing, it is how to kill goblins."

"I bet you do," Gernon said, pointing to his military accoutrements. "We don't use such things up here in Eltan's Spring, your armour and swords and all." His voice grew quiet. "Bertrak and all the others chosen by Belnos have taught us to be...wary of tools of iron." He smiled diplomatically and apologetically. "But don't get me wrong: we sure do appreciate your help, even if your ways are different from our ways. Now," Gernon said, striking the table with his open palms, "why don't you two spend the night at my house as well. That way maybe you could start out fresh first thing tomorrow morning?"

"Of course," Fyodor said. "We thank you for your hospitality." Boldar's mind was too baffled by Gernon's aversion to smithcraft to respond to his generous offer.

"It is the gift of Belnos, not of Gernon," the elf laughed. "Besides, even if your friends were not tired from their ordeal, the path to Bertrak's grove is not easy. It is narrow, and at one point you must make a steep climb."

"The horses cannot make the trip," Ilselloc interjected with a shame-faced grin, as if explaining the thought behind his earlier misstatement.

"No, they cannot," said Gernon. "And the wood is dark and tangled. It is only about a two-hour journey, all told, but it is a hard one."

"We'll be able to manage it just fine," Fyodor said, leaning his back against the wall of the inn. "And now, if I can offer you something in return for your hospitality, I would like to tell you a story of my own. It concerns the legend of Elendorath, Demara's Bane, and the evil that dwelt in Haradraith's Keep..."