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The Mystara Chronicles I: "A Strange Sort of Gathering"

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

Running languidly through the center of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos was the River Shutturga; at least, that is what it was called by the Traladarans who lived on her banks. Elsewhere, among the cartographers of Thyatis City or at the Ducal Court in Specularum, it might be called by other names, but these were foreign names. Up here, in the north of the Duchy, where on the river's shores generations of Traladarans had made their living by her waters, it was known as the Shutturga, as it had since time immemorial.

In Penhaligon, however, the Shutturga was known as the Hillfollow because of the way that it winded itself south through the pine-covered Wufwolde Hills. Penhaligon was a decent-sized town on the eastern bank of the river, where the Hillfollow disgraced her name by passing by a few miles of good farmland on each side. The town itself was a new one, founded only thirty years ago when Arturus Penhaligon accompanied his good friend Stefan Karameikos from his ancestral holdings in Thyatis to the western province of Traladara. Most of the men who lived inside her walls were second-generation Thyatians, sons and daughters of the original settlers who had followed Penhaligon into the northern Traladaran wilds.

But the town of Penhaligon also sheltered Traladarans, and in the countryside, in the estate that surrounded the town and was at least nominally under her auspices and protection, Traladaran farmers lived and thrived. There they spoke the old language, worshipped the old Immortals, and generally continued their existence untroubled by and unconcerned with the customs and affairs of the city. To them, the river to which they owed their prosperity was the Shutturga, old women still read the leaves to predict the weather, and they owed their ultimate fealty not to Duke Stefan Karameikos III but to King Halav Red-Hair, who would come again.

So Thyatian and Traladaran lived together in peace. Sure, there were some of the older Traladarans, like old Yuri the carrot-farmer, who despised the invaders and the roads that they built and the coins that they minted. And, it is true, there were not a few Thyatians who looked down upon the Traladarans and thought them uncultured, ill bred, and stupid. In the larger cities, Specularum and Kelvin, these mutual animosities were known to bubble over into violence, and it was rumoured that relations were worse still in the western barony of Halag, but up here in the north, where the river (by whatever name you called it) flowed for Traladaran and Thyatian alike, peace was a daily reality.

But this is not to say that all of the people of Penhaligon were content. Most Traladarans looked forward confidently to the time when Halav Red-Hair would return to the land and restore the glory of the Traldar that was lost so long ago. The fact that they paid their taxes in Karameikan royals, to a Thyatian-born duke ruling from his Specularum court, was irrelevant to the fact that their true king was merely missing and not forever lost.

Many a Traladaran youth dreamed of the days when a Traldar king ruled the land, when her armies, dressed in armour of glittering bronze, held all outsiders at bay. Fyodor Grygorov was such a youth. Each day, as he laboured in his family's fields, he passed the time by daydreaming of the exploits of the Traldar past. When he was a child, his father used to hold him in his lap and tell tale after tale of Halav, Petra, and Zirchev. Fyodor loved going to church to hear the stories of the War. He loved it so much that he thought for a while that he would like to join the priesthood so that his entire life could revolve around these stories, could be totally consumed by them. This dream was cruelly shattered when he discovered that the gift of letters did not come easily to him. Frustrated, he left the job only half done.

Fyodor grew into a young man who was much loved and respected by all the farming families around Penhaligon. He was strong and hard working, quick to assist a friend in need and slow to complain of exhaustion or ask for anything for himself. His neighbours never tired of telling the tale of how one night, in the winter of 998 when old men died from the cold, Fyodor single-handedly killed four wolves with a borrowed bow as they tried to carry off some of Old Ivanevitch's lambs.

As much as Fyodor was loved he loved in return. But as he grew older, he looked north to the Steach and wondered if giants really did live there. He looked south, down the Shutturga, and dreamed of the wonders of Kelvin and Specularum. Often, he would strap his father's sword to his belt and walk into the hills, dreaming of adventure. His behaviour was not lost on his neighbours, who recognised the wanderlust of youth when they saw it. Many of their own number had spent the years of their Shearing away from the community and grew misty-eyed remembering their own journeys.

Thus it came as no surprise when Fyodor, in the early summer of his nineteenth year, finally approached his parents and asked to be Sheared. They solemnly yet gladly gave their assent, for they knew that a boy could not grow into a man without the trial of the Shearing, without proving his worth to the clan. Almost immediately they began the work of preparing for the ceremonial dinner, which by agreement of parents and son was to take place the next week.

Fyodor, ever helpful, was sent into Penhaligon to arrange for the delivery of several barrels of various types of ales. Old Man Grygorov was a connoisseur of sorts when it came to dark frothy beer, and when the occasion presented itself he always made sure to obtain the finest in brewery. Fyodor was especially happy to go on this errand for his father because it had been some time since he had last set foot in town, and more specifically in the tavern of Oliphant Smeaton.

Penhaligon was a small town by Thyatian standards but a very large one indeed for a rural lad such as Fyodor. He always delighted in seeing the strong fortified walls and the yellow and green flags waving from them. On this particular balmy Klarmont day, foot- and cart-traffic was sparse and Fyodor entered the town easily, waving at the guards and exchanging pleasantries in Thyatian. Like most of his people born after the Thyatian Invasion, he had learned both his ancestral language and the conquerors' tongue as a child. Although it sometimes pained him to use it, the fact of the matter was that knowledge of Thyatian allowed him the ability to communicate with nearly anyone that he should meet in or around town. It was the language of Darokin as well as the empire, and it was even a dependable standard when dealing with Traladarans from distant villages who came to Penhaligon to do business, speaking strange native dialects.

The inn that was Fyodor's destination was run by a portly fellow named Oliphant Smeaton. He was a native of Thyatis who set up shop in Penhaligon soon after Duke Stefan created the Duchy. He was well liked by the Traladarans living in the town because he lacked the pompous air that many of his fellow-countrymen possessed. His establishment, the Wanderer's Rest, was a smallish two-story affair. Upstairs were rooms for travellers, not large, but clean enough and well lit. The downstairs was devoted only to a large common room with a small kitchen out back. Those patrons who desired a private dining room were politely directed to the Ruby, two streets over.

Fyodor was in the habit of coming to the Wanderer's Rest once a month or so to suck back a few pints of beer (Smeaton imported a high-quality brew from the Minrothad Guilds) and listen to the tales of adventurers, rangers, and visitors from Darokin and beyond. Busy as he was with matters surrounding the potato crop, Fyodor had not managed to make his regular pilgrimage to the city for a few months now. Therefore, it was with some degree of pent-up excitement that he threw open the oaken door to the tavern and strode in.

It was barely midday, but the Wanderer's Rest was already nearly full of patrons. From the corner, Fyodor heard a clutch of Darokinian merchants singing a tune. Other men were talking in groups, some roaring with laughter. One grizzled old veteran was telling what appeared to be a comical tale, and was reaching its climax by doing a ridiculous dance, much to the entertainment of those around him. In the middle of it all was stout Oliphant Smeaton who, despite his rather sizeable bulk (which seemed to Fyodor's eyes to grow noticeably larger with each passing year), was moving dexterously through the crowd. He carried a large tray of earthenware mugs and set them down quickly and efficiently before thirsty travellers, scooping up copper kopecs as he went. Fyodor was happy; he had been looking forward to this sort of relaxation for months, and he did not think that he would be disappointed.

Before he could make his way to Oliphant or the bar, while he was still savouring the smells and sounds of the place, he heard a voice call his name. Turning to look, he saw a young man in the corner, grinning broadly and waving him over.

"Varis!" Fyodor shouted in greeting. "How have you been?" He drew near to his old friend and gripped his hand in a firm and enthusiastic embrace.

"I am quite well, thank you," Varis answered. Varis Acinavit had grown up within a few hours' walk of the Grygorov farmstead. His father was a former Thyatian soldier who had retired from Duke Stefan's service, married a Traladaran girl many years his junior, and settled down in the country to do some small-scale farming. Some of the farmers around Penhaligon had resented the family for their mixed heritage- it was Varis' poor mother who suffered the most from this- but the Grygorovs, who did not share in this ill will, always welcomed them. When Fyodor was ten, Varis' father died and the boy and his mother moved into town. After that, their paths had crossed infrequently.

"It's been too long, my friend," Fyodor said. He had always liked Varis, partially for his kindness, but mostly because of a vague sense of peace and calm that he always seemed to possess, as if no problem were insurmountable. Fyodor could remember this about Varis going back to when they were children playing in Yuri's fields. Although they had not seen each other for years, he instantly felt right at home in his presence.

"It has been, hasn't it? Fyodor, I want you to meet someone." Varis motioned towards a man sitting next to him. He was dirty with the dust of the road and the bottom of his cloak was sheared. "This is Alexander. He's an old friend of mine who just got back into town." Fyodor shook the other's hand, noticing that he was wearing the kind of tough leather armour worn by guardsmen.

"Where have you been travelling, Alexander?" Fyodor asked. He was always curious for news from far away and exotic locations.

Alexander pulled his legs down from off the chair where he was resting them. "Here and there," he said. "I went to visit some relatives of mine in Darokin and took my time getting back." His blue eyes had a wild gleam to them.

"What were you doing?" Fyodor sat down and rested his arms on the table.

Alexander scratched his beard. "Nothing much...just living off the land, sleeping under the stars. I like to avoid city life if I can help it."

Varis cut in. "Ever since I've known him, Alexander has been this way." He grinned apologetically. "But what about you, Fyodor? What brings you here?"

Fyodor smiled. "I'm to be Sheared next week, and the old man sent me here to place some orders with Oliphant."

"You're being Sheared? Why that's wonderful!" Varis cried. "You'll have to invite me to the dinner, of course."

"Consider it done," said Fyodor. "And you, Alexander, please come and eat."

Alexander thanked him and promised to attend. "What do you plan on doing once you are Sheared?"

Fyodor sighed. "I'm not sure, that's the thing. I just want to...wander for a while. See what the world's like. Do you know that I've never even been to Kelvin?"

Varis laughed. "It's overrated, Fyodor, believe me." He took a swig of beer. "But how can we discuss this when you don't have anything to drink? Oliphant! Oliphant Smeaton!" he cried.

Heeding his voice, old Smeaton made his way to the table where the three young men were sitting. "Yes, yes?" he said. "What will you be having?"

"Smeaton," Varis said, "have you no words of greeting for Fyodor Grygorov here?"

"Oh my!" said Oliphant. "I'm sorry, lad; I didn't see you come in. I trust you are well? And your family? Good, good. What can I get you?"

Fyodor ordered a pint of Minroth ale, the same thing he ordered every time he entered the Wanderer's Rest. When Oliphant returned a few moments later with it, Fyodor closed his eyes and took a deep breath, excited by the fruity overtones that were so typical of these island brews before swallowing a mouthful. It was as good as he remembered.

"Anyway," Varis interjected, "we were talking about travel."

"Yes," said Fyodor. "I've never really travelled at all, see? So I'm not sure what to do or where to go." His manner suddenly grew more serious. "Is this foolish, Varis? To want to seek adventure? Alexander, you're well-travelled...tell me, what is out there?"

Alexander grinned again, his eyes flashing. "Everything!" he said dramatically.

Varis chimed in. "The world is a large place, Fyodor. I don't think that anybody truly knows all of the wonders that it contains. Nevertheless, Alex and I are going to do our best to see what we can!"

"You, Varis?" Fyodor exclaimed. "You never seemed the sort. But-oh my! -where are my manners? What have you been doing with yourself? The rumour was that you'd become a priest!" Varis worshipped the Karameikan pantheon, like his father but unlike most of the other farmers outside Penhaligon. Consequently, the Acinavits never took part in any of the great Traladaran festivals. There was one time that Varis' mother made him a doll to throw in the bonfire on the Day of the Straw Men, but he had done so disinterestedly, and Fyodor never again saw him at any Traladaran church function.

"Half-right!" Varis laughed. "I entered the seminary in Kelvin with the thought that I would either take the tonsure of Viuden or Halav, but I soon found that my gifts were more...intellectual than pastoral. I undertook the study of philosophy and am now a member of the Philosophers' Order."

Fyodor was confused. "So, are you associated with the Church of Karameikos?" He had never quite understood the Karameikan church's many different orders and tonsures.

"Well, technically I'm a novice, if that's what you're asking," he said. "But I'm no priest."

"I see," Fyodor said, sipping thoughtfully at his ale to hide his confusion. "What made you decide not to be a priest of Halav?" Halav was the only deity worshipped by both Traladarans and Thyatians, and the Red-Haired King played a central role in Karameikan thought.

"I never had made up my mind about him," Varis answered. "As I said, Viuden too was a possibility. But as to why I decided against the priesthood completely..." At this point Alexander groaned. "I'm afraid I've been chewing Alex's ear off as of late concerning this subject. Sorry, friend, one more time!" Alexander rolled his eyes and put his feet back up on the chair.

"You see, Fyodor," Varis said, adopting a pedagogical tone, "the Immortals are as superior to us as we are to insects. They wield terrible power, and rightfully command enormous respect. But even they- and do not think that I blaspheme by saying this- are limited in power and scope. Even Halav has laws that he cannot break. I can see from the expression on your face that you doubt me. Very well; I will prove it. Let me ask you, Fyodor: you worship Halav, do you not?"

"Of course," Fyodor responded.

"Well then, you certainly must know his attributes-his powers and limitations."

"Yes, but the might of Halav knows no limitations."

"Ah, but that is where you are wrong. Tell me, do you know what the colour blue is?"

Alexander laughed and Fyodor looked confused. "Of course, I know what the colour blue is, but I don't see what this has to do with..."

"You will. Now, is Halav able to make something blue?"

"Well, I have never heard a tale in which Halav did so, but I believe that he could if he wanted to, yes."

"Excellent. Suppose he were to make this beer stein blue. Okay? Are you following me? Now, can Halav make something green?"

"Varis, you are beginning to frustrate me."

"I'll take that as a yes. Now, and this is the crucial question, is Halav able to make this stein both completely blue and completely green at the same time?"

Fyodor thought about it for a second. "I suppose so," he said.

"You do?" Varis replied incredulously. "What would that look like, pray tell?"

"I know where you're going with this," Alexander butted in. He had heard Varis dissertate on this subject ever since he had first started to read Beda his first year at seminary. Although he loved him, Alexander had little patience for Varis' lofty talk and wanted to get this over with quickly. "Maybe you or I couldn't conceive of it, but that's no reason that an Immortal One couldn't do it."

"But surely you know what a colour is?" Varis responded. "It can be seen and identified as such. I can see that your eyes, Fyodor, are brown. I can see that that wench's dress over there is red. Colours are 'seeable things.' Can a colour exist which cannot be seen? This is absurd."

"What's your point?"

"My point is merely this: that Halav cannot make a beer stein, or anything else, for that matter, both completely blue and completely green at the same time and in the same manner. And therefore, his power is limited.

"Let me prove my point another way, using 'The Song of King Halav' as an example. Fyodor, you believe that the Song is true, isn't that right?"

"Yes." The Song was the only thing that unified Traladaran societies separated during the Dark Age, and the only real sacred text possessed by Fyodor's people. Varis might as well have asked if Fyodor believed that the sun rose in the east.

"Well, let me ask you this: can Halav, if he so wished, lift this inn up into the air?"

"If he wished."

"Could Halav, if he so wished, lift this inn, or, I should say, something of comparable size and weight, into the air while he laboured in Lavv as a stoneworker, as the Song records that he once did?"

"Well, it is said that Halav Red-Hair had the strength of ten men..."

"Very well, but could ten men, even twenty, even one hundred, for that matter, lift it into the air? No, they could not. And neither could Halav, while he was in the form of a mortal. Therefore, there was a time when Halav could not perform this act of strength, therefore his power is limited."

"Well, what is your point?" asked Fyodor. Although a part of him found this discussion intriguing, most of him was getting impatient.

"My point is merely this," said Varis, leaning forward. "That even the Immortals are 'ruled' by another force. Now this force may not watch over you and intercede in mortal affairs the way the Blessed Immortals do, but it is far more powerful and far more basic and far more pervasive. It is Law. Law holds the world together and establishes a place and time for all things. It is this search for Law, for Order, which separates us from the animals. It is Law that decrees that were I to drop this beer stein, it would fall to the floor. It is Law that confirms the nature and properties of colours. It is Law that creates and upholds as well the moral order, and the truth of the statement 'as you sow, so shall you reap.' Law is the most fundamental force in the world.

"If you do not believe, think for a moment about 'The Song of King Halav.' How does it begin? 'In the beginning,' or, as is more appropriately translated from the Traladaran, 'at the start of it all, the Immortals created the world from a roiling, chaotic mass.' There are two things to notice about this.

"First, the Immortals doing the creating are not mentioned by name. I know the teaching of the Church of Traladara, that they are Halav, Petra, and Zirchev before their descent to the Traldar. But notice that the text itself does not specifically name the Three. This is to indicate the fact that the creation story is only an allegory and is not meant to be taken literally.

"Rather, this passage is meant to point to the great truth that the world owes its existence to the workings of Law, which is my second point. Without Law, there can be no properties. Without properties, there can be no objects. Without objects, there is nothing: a roiling, chaotic mass. The world is dependant upon Law. Put differently, if there were no Law, there would be no world." Varis stopped and took a great swig of ale. The philosopher had been waiting for an opportunity to bedazzle a commoner with the depth of his wisdom, and he was feeling quite proud of himself. He could see that Fyodor's brow was wrinkled in confusion, and Alexander had long ago pretended to fall asleep, but he felt justified in his learning by the fact that other patrons of the Wanderer's Rest had ceased their discussions and were listening intently to him.

"But even if this is so," Fyodor said, trying to regain control of the dialogue, "Law doesn't watch over us Traladarans the way the Three do." Most of this discussion was going over his head. What he knew of "The Song of King Halav" came from hearing its recitation in churches and on festival-days. He had little tolerance for Thyatians taking this sacred text, his people's sacred text, and claiming it as their own, interpreting it in strange and fanciful ways as they did.

"Well," responded Varis, "there is of course the fundamental disagreement between the Traladaran and Karameikan views about the extent of Halav's protection; remember that it was wandering Thyatian clerics who first wrote down 'The Song of King Halav' and that he has been worshipped in Thyatis for centuries. But this is a discussion for another time. Granted, Law is not personal the way that Halav is. This is true. We in the Church of Karameikos have always paid respect to the Traldar King and worship him as is right. We speak of Halav and the rest of the Immortals as they who 'confirm every order.' But they are not the ultimate forces in the universe, and this is important to realise."

"So this is why you're a philosopher rather than a priest? Because you want to..." Fyodor could not find the appropriate words.

"I want to dedicate my life to the most ultimate of realities, yes. Although I do so without forsaking the reverence of the Fourteen, my friend."

"It is said that one who seeks lofty things does so because he wishes to discover in the world how he feels about himself. If this is so, then your quest seems the greatest pride." While the three were talking, they had not noticed that someone had entered the Wanderer's Rest and sat down at the small corner table near them. But now he spoke and they turned to see him.

But he was not a man. It was the first thing that they noted, as Alexander opened one eye, Fyodor twisted to see the stranger and Varis paused in the middle of a sip. He was short, not much over five feet tall, and his ears sloped to a graceful point. That alone was enough to determine that this stranger was an elf, one of the wild folk that lived in the woods of Karameikos, who came out of the shadow of their great trees more and more frequently as of late (in fact, it was even rumoured around Penhaligon that the duke himself had a battalion of these strange people serving him in Specularum). Fyodor had seen elves infrequently throughout his life, always at a distance, and never in the city itself.

"I mean no disrespect," the elf said. "Perhaps I misspoke." His skin was pale, paler even than Fyodor, who, despite spending much time out of doors, had light skin in typical Traladaran fashion. The whiteness of the elf's skin was offset by two shocking splashes of colour. His hair was a fiery red, and long, cascading past his well-defined cheekbones and jaw and over his shirt of mail. His eyes were a deep, rich green the likes of which none of the humans had seen before. His clothing was also green, from his tunic to his cloak to his belt to his hose to his boots, all trimmed in black piping.

"Do not trouble yourself, child of Ilsundal," said Varis politely. "I am not a man who is easily offended. Have you travelled far? It is not often that we see one of the Callarii in Penhaligon."

"Thank you for your kind words. You are obviously a learned man, and although you speak of matters and tell tales different from those of my people, I ought to listen more and speak less when I am in a place that is not my home." He bowed his head slightly to Varis. "I have travelled far indeed, but I am not a member of the Callarii tribe. Rather, I am of the Vyalia, east of what is known in your language as the Rugalov River,"

"That is a long journey, friend," said Alexander, smiling. "What brings you to the north?"

"Curiosity," said the elf. "My people rarely venture across the river, but I have heard that much has changed while we tended to our own affairs. This land that is called Karameikos used to be known by the name of Traladara. That is the name by which we are accustomed to speak of it when conversing in human tongues. But now it goes by a different name, and strange tales of wondrous doings came to our forests. If a human kingdom is once again rising in these lands, it would be meet for my people to know and understand your customs, your habits, your mores. It is for this reason that I travel."

Alexander was clearly intrigued. When Varis had spoken of Alexander's love of the outdoors, he was not exaggerating. The presence of an elf, a Vyalia elf at that, the very embodiment of Nature Herself, was more fascinating to him than any academic philosophical discussion. "Traveller, what is your name? Mine is Alexander, and these are my friends Varis and Fyodor." Fyodor thought it was odd that he would be counted as among Alexander's friends considering that the two had just met, but he paid it no mind.

"My name is Thalaric, and I am of the Blueleaf Clan. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Alexander called Oliphant over to the table and ordered a drink for the elf. Thalaric thanked Alexander for offering, but halted the innkeeper and asked for a bottle of wine instead of the ale that the human had asked for. "Wine is more to my liking, friend, but I thank you for the offer." He reached into this belt pouch and withdrew three shiny silver cronae. "A bottle, please. And some bread and cheese, if you can manage it." Smeaton nodded with the pleasure of serving such an exotic guest and soon returned with Thalaric's request. The elf poured a glass and drank it down quickly. "I have not tasted wine for many days," he said wistfully.

"Thalaric," said Alexander, "I don't want to disturb you while you're eating, but I have a strange tale that I would like to relate to you. I'm afraid I don't really know what to make of it, but perhaps you might have some insight."

The elf smiled. "I am always eager to hear a tale. Please, go ahead." Fyodor shuddered as he watched the elf. The red wine had stained his lips and teeth, and this coupled with the unnatural whiteness of his skin made Thalaric look to Fyodor like one of the nosferatu that his grandmother told stories about. Is it true that the elves have no souls? he wondered. It had been whispered so among the friends and acquaintances of his youth, who had also told him fantastic tales of elves seducing maidens, carrying off babies, and the like. Fyodor was wary enough not to completely trust them, but he had to admit to himself that Thalaric looked very much like what he had always imagined evil spirits would look like.

Alexander, on the other hand, was very pleased to see the elf. He found most of the people of Penhaligon unadventurous and stale, content to sit behind her walls and carry out boring, mundane lives. But here, in Thalaric, Alexander saw freedom. He took a pipe from his pocket, looked around for fire and, finding none, wistfully put it down on the table.

"Varis has already heard this tale, so he will, I hope, forgive me that I am telling it again. It is a most perplexing story, one that, I admit, I myself might not believe had it not happened to me." Fyodor noted that despite his rough exterior, Alexander spoke in very inflated, city-inflected Thyatian.

"I have been travelling in Darokin recently. My sister and her husband live in Akorros, and I spent a few weeks with them on the shore of Lake Amsorak. After I parted with them, I travelled to Darokin City and then turned east to Selenica. I strayed from the road, preferring instead to travel through the forest and pastureland. I had spent so much time in cities and alongside the works of men that I wanted to spend some time among the trees, exploring the Darokinian landscape." Thalaric, upon hearing this, nodded approvingly.

Alexander continued. "I had been travelling for three days when the forest began to become much thicker. Regardless, I pushed on, slightly afraid that I would be lost, but pleased nevertheless that I should have the opportunity to find my way again.

"As it approached time to make camp for the evening, I stumbled into a little glade that was perfect for my purposes. I lay on my bedroll at the edge of the clearing, protected by the arms of an ancient oak if it should rain, and stared at the stars until I fell asleep.

"I awoke in the middle of the night with a start. I had been having a strange dream in which I was ripping off my clothes and running madly through the woods (although if it was for fear or joy I could not recall) while this sort of otherworldly music played. I was surprised to find that, though I was now awake, I could still hear the strange music that I heard in my dream! And then I saw the most extraordinary sight.

"A strange sort of gathering was taking place in the glade. There were eight of them, all told, and they were engaged in a sort of frenzied dance. They were led by a creature that seemed to me to be straight out of a nightmare. It was short, maybe four feet tall, with the body of a man but with the legs and hooves of a goat, and with ram's horns upon its head. I soon realised that the source of the strange music which had haunted me so, even in my dreams, issued forth from a set of shepherd's pipes that the thing played upon frantically." Fyodor felt his heart begin to beat harder in his chest. It seemed to him as if Alexander was describing the Black Prince himself, or at the very least one of his demons.

"I can perhaps be of some help," said Thalaric, who had been listening intently to Alexander's story. "It is not a nightmare, although I have heard it said that many a man has mistook these creatures for such a thing. No, what you have described is known in your language as a faun."

"What are they?" asked Varis.

Thalaric shrugged. "They are dwellers-in-the-wood. Fauns have lived alongside elvenfolk for as long as we can remember. But you spoke of many participants in the dance."

"Yes," said Alexander. "There were three other...fauns also dancing. They looked very much like the first to my eyes, but they carried spears with stone heads instead of pipes. Completing the group were four young people...humans, I mean: three women and one man, all about my age. But this too was most odd, Thalaric; for two of the women, who were dressed in loose gowns of the purest white, had hair that was most assuredly green! Like moss, maybe, or the leaves of a tree...

"The dance careened around me. It seemed almost demonic, for the dancers danced with frantic abandon, yet I perceived a frightening emptiness in their eyes. I began to feel very odd myself; the sound of the pipes grew louder and louder, and as they did, it was as if I heard other instruments join in: the oboe and the horn and the drum. I looked down and saw to my horror that my foot was tapping along right in time. I realised that all I wanted to do was to join the chain and lose myself in the dance.

"But as this thought grew ever stronger in my mind, so too did the realisation that I was under some unknown enchantment, and that if I yielded even for a moment to its call I might spend forever lost in the dance. This may sound foolish and irrational, but if you were there, you too would understand.

"Anyway, it was the thought that I was becoming spell-bound that evinced the stronger desire in my heart, giving me the strength to resist. I clapped my hands to my ears and let out a great shout. That made me feel better, but the dancers seemed not to hear. The dance continued, undisturbed, as if I weren't really there.

"At this point I began to seriously wonder if in fact I wasn't really there, if this was all a mad dream. But dream or no, the sound of the pipes was becoming louder again, and I did not want to feel the same loss of control that I felt before.

"My first instinct was to reach for my blade, but I had no idea what I would be getting myself into if I drew steel against such beasts as these. Instead, I opted for another solution. When the piping faun neared me, coming so close that I could smell the woody mustiness of its fur, I leapt from my sleeping-place and knocked the pipes right out of its hands.

"The sudden quiet startled me so much that I nearly screamed in fright. Immediately, two of the humans, one man, one woman, dropped to the ground. The three fauns with the spears bolted into the forest. One of the green-haired women did also. The other floated about as if in a trance, dancing still, but gently, beautifully, not frantically as before.

"But the piping faun stood staring at me, hands on goatish hips. I backed away, hands raised in peace, shivering with fear. Suddenly, it laughed, scooped up its pipes, and disappeared into the forest."

"I think I know what occurred here," broke in Thalaric. "We Vyalia tell tales of the power of fauns and their pipes. It is a said that the music that they make can cause others to lose control over their inhibitions, to act without forethought or reflection. There are stories of jealous fauns turning clansman against clansman in anger through their haunted music. You, my friend, are the first man to whom I have spoken who has had the privilege, and nearly the misfortune, of hearing their music."

Alexander shivered. "I would not wish to hear it again for all the gold in Darokin. But my tale, and the strange things that befell me that night, did not end when the piper withdrew. For there were three who remained in the glen.

"First, I ran to the two who had collapsed. They were no older than I, and dressed in peasant garb. Their faces were flushed and their brows soaked with sweat; they must have passed out as soon as they hit the ground. I was about to fetch some water to wet their lips when I heard a cry and, out of the corner of my eye, saw the green-haired maid fall to the ground as if in agony.

"Sensing, I knew not how, that her condition was worse than the others, I hastened to her, but I could not rouse her. I quickly fetched my waterskin and splashed some water on her brow. I do not have much knowledge in the healing arts, and this is all that I could think of to do.

"Soon, she began to recover, but I noticed a fearful thing: her skin grew paler by the moment as I looked upon her, and her hair, which had been thick and deep in hue but a few moments ago, had lost its lustre, the green turning to brown at the ends.

"While I was pondering what to do, the maid spoke to me. 'Please,' she said in a broken voice, gesturing with her hand away in some direction. 'What?' I answered. 'Is there somebody here? Has the piper returned?' 'No,' she said. "Please carry me.' And then she pointed again, into the forest, the same way as before.

"I had no idea what she could want, but even though I suspected witchery, I opted to act in accordance with her wishes. I lifted her quite easily, for she weighed little, and stumbled into the forest with her slung over my shoulder, leaving the man and the woman passed out in the glade. I wasn't sure what I was looking for, but suddenly she spoke again, this time strongly and beautifully: 'Stop. Put me down.' By now I was completely confused, but I did as the lady wished. To my surprise, the colour had returned to her face and her hair shone with life. 'What is happening?' I asked, but she only smiled at me and told me to wait where I was. She turned and ran off into the forest, and I soon lost sight of her among the trees.

"I must admit, friends, that I felt quite scared and not a little confused standing there in a strange part of Darokin, having witnessed such witchcraft and devilry (for that is what I imagined them to be). But the strange woman soon reappeared, thanked me, and gave me this." Alexander pointed to the brooch that was pinned to his cloak. Fashioned in the shape of a wild boar, it was made of silver set with fine pieces of onyx. The thing seemed very elegant to Fyodor, and a bit out of place on Alexander's travel-worn cloak.

"What then?" asked Fyodor, completely entranced by the story.

Alexander answered. "She smiled again at me and ran into the woods. I had the briefest of urges to pursue her, but I knew that she was a fey thing that belonged in the forest, whereas I was merely an interloper."

"You were right, Alexander," said Thalaric, who had been paying careful attention to the story. "She did indeed belong in the forest. You could even say, in a sense, that she was the forest, or at least a part of it. From what you tell me, I think that she was a dryad."

"A what?" asked Alexander.

Thalaric took a sip of wine thoughtfully. "It is hard to render in your tongue. Suffice it to say for now that they are spirits of the wood. These dryads have intimate connections with certain trees. What I believe happened was that this particular dryad was caught up in the music of the faun and danced too far away from her tree. Without it, she began to be drained of life. Your intervention, my friend, probably saved her."

"But this is foolishness!" exclaimed Varis, silent until now. "How can a woman be dependant on a tree for her life-force? Forgive me, but this sounds like fanciful superstition."

"I am saddened that the ways of the forest seems like foolishness to you city-dwellers," Thalaric said. "I assure you that this creature, appearances to the contrary, was no woman! She was rather the forest itself, the forest walking in the manner of men. Do not confuse the mystery of the wood with fancy and the tales of old women; if the dryad that Alexander assisted wished, she could have called him to her, and no mortal, no matter how wise or learned, can resist this call. And then he would never again see this world that you men have created, perhaps to his benefit."

The elf spoke in a way that suggested a cool breeze blowing through the trees, whispering as it went. Fyodor was not sure what exactly Thalaric was speaking of, but he did feel that Varis had been rightly put in his place. At the same time, however, the elf made him uneasy. Despite his explanation, Fyodor couldn't help but think that the faun in Alexander's story was anything less than a servant of darkness.

Varis spoke. "I have no experience in matters such as these. This story seems fantastic, but I do not doubt the testimony of either you, Alex, or you, friend Thalaric."

Thalaric nodded deferentially. "I understand that here, in your cities, surrounded by the works of your hands, the forest seems strange, even evil. This saddens me, but I can relate; this place," he gestured around him, as if to suggest all of Penhaligon, "I am not wholly comfortable with. But tell me, Alexander: what befell the young pair?"

Alexander was relieved to be able to continue his story. He was glad that Thalaric was not angry with them after Varis' comment, although he did wonder why Fyodor was looking at the elf so suspiciously. "I returned to the clearing to find the two exactly as I had left them, sprawled out in the center of the clearing. I took some water from my skin and wet their brows and lips, but they remained deep in sleep; I could not shake them awake. Lacking any idea as to how to proceed, I resolved to keep watch over them for the remainder of the evening. Come morning, I would reconsider the situation.

"I decided to build a small fire. Not for warmth, of course, but because the presence of fire made me feel safer. After everything that I had seen that evening, having just that little bit of humanity, of civilisation in the middle of the darkness eased my mind considerably. But at one point in the night, when my lids grew heavy, I thought I saw the face of the faun staring at me from the forest. I blinked and it was gone, but it served to scare me into full wakefulness.

"Around dawn- and never have I praised the sun as on that dawn- the two awoke. They were at first very confused as to what had befallen them, thinking that they had only dreamt the insanity of the dance. But soon they began to remember. Their names were Mara and Rurik, and they were lovers from a small nearby village. They had been out walking in the evening when they heard the sound of the pipes. For a reason that escaped them, they felt compelled to stop and listen. Soon the faun himself appeared. He beckoned and the two immediately and unquestioningly followed, into this glade, into the dance.

"Mara and Rurik were weak, for they had danced for many hours, unable to stop themselves. I gave them some of my rations and then escorted them back to their village. I must have seemed a bit devilish to the villagers, appearing out of the wood with their lost children, but explanations (such as they were) were soon made and I stayed the entire day and night as their guest.

"After my adventure had run its course, I went right back to the road that I had so abhorred earlier and travelled on to Selenica, and then south to Penhaligon. And, that, my friends, is what befell me on my way back from my sister's house." Alexander smiled and downed the last of his ale.

"Very interesting," Thalaric said, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin. "Tell me, what are your plans for the future?"

Alexander and Varis looked at each other. "Varis and I were going to hit the road, travel a bit. Either Darokin or Specularum, we're not quite sure. And what are you planning on doing after you finish your lunch?"

Thalaric looked down at his empty plate. "Order some more wine, I would imagine." Everyone laughed. "Much the same as you, friends. There are many things in this land that I need to see before I can return to my people. Would you be interested in another companion? This journey has been more dangerous to a single traveller than I had imagined; once already I have been waylaid by bandits. If our paths lead the same way- at least for the time being- I believe that we would enjoy each other's company."

Alexander smiled broadly. "I would be honoured by your presence! That is, if Varis has no objection."

"I do not," Varis said. "We could use another in our party, if only to keep Alex and I from killing each other!"

"Delightful!" said Thalaric. "Well then," he raised his glass in a toast. "To the three of us!"

"No," said Varis. "To the four. My old friend Fyodor is getting Sheared next week and he too longs for adventure." He turned to Fyodor, who had been watching this entire exchange with some degree of jealousy. "Why don't you come with us?"

Alexander shot him an inquiring glance. "Can you wield a sword?" he asked before Fyodor could respond to Varis' offer.

"Yes," Fyodor lied, or, rather, said half-truthfully. He had never fought with blade in hand before, but he was strong and was comfortable with the heft of a sword. He had no doubts that, if he had to, he would be able to defend himself adequately.

"Then it's fine with me," Alexander said. "Do you want to come with us?" Fyodor looked around at the circle of three faces. Varis beamed, his mug of ale raised high. Alexander gazed questioningly his way, foam from his beer loose in his beard. And then there was the strange elf, Thalaric, unpleasant to Fyodor's eye but pleasing to his ear, who looked at him with one corner of his mouth pulled into an inquisitive smirk. True, he only knew Varis out of the three. And of the others, Alexander seemed a tad dangerous and Thalaric a bit too mysterious. But any concern that this might have caused was brushed aside by his desire to leave this place, leave Penhaligon, leave Traladara even. When Alexander was telling his story, Fyodor felt something rising up from deep within him. Although the tale frightened him somewhat, that same fear excited him, filled his soul with song. Was he being foolish? He didn't care. The young Traladaran took a deep breath and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

"Well?" said Alexander.

Fyodor smiled.