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Milward Chronicles Book 4: Patriarch of Pestilence [MultiFormat]
eBook by Robert Beers

eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook Description: In a fit of desperate arrogance, Gilgafed the Sorcerer opened a rift between the worlds and released a Seeker. Combined with the soul of a thief named McCabe it became the one the prophecies called The Destroyer. Gilgafed knows he must seek help in order to prevent his death, but the only one capable of helping is his ancient enemy, Milward, last of the Wizards, and Milward has his hands full in the Southern Empire. With the rift weakening and the ancient prophecies coming to fruition, the peoples of the world are forced to combine forces to survive. That is, if they can keep from killing each other.

eBook Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing, Published: 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2006


78 Reader Ratings:
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Prologue

My dear Milward,

I hope this missive finds you hale and well. The past days in Grisham have become quite lively since you took your leave of us those months ago and I thought you might be interested in a bit of news. Even though I rarely stray too far from the Library's steps, I do have my sources, Felsten being one of them. Though the young scamp is currently in the doghouse, I will discuss his failings with you later.

That young man you brought with you on your first visit, Adam is his name, is it not, has apparently joined the Grisham Guard as an officer. Well I should say, had joined, for he's not there now, but I'm running ahead of myself.

As you well know, the sitting Duke committed a horrible act against the person of the Southern Emperor's young niece. For that act war has been declared by the South in order to bring the Duke to justice. I do not mind telling you old friend that the thought of that scares me dry. It is one thing to read the ancient prophecies. It is quite another to be witnessing them come to pass. One item that crossed my eye the other day is that Dwarfish prophecy you and I read last spring. There is a passage in it pertaining to the one the ancients called the Destroyer. If I am not mistaken, you and your apprentice had a time dealing with the thing shortly after you left the library. Word has reached me that this Destroyer is slowly making its way across the northern steppes toward the Sorcerer's Island of Pestilence. Well, it is Gilgafed's problem now. Good riddance, I say.

My sources tell me there has been fierce fighting west of here, near Cloudhook. Some of the stories that come out of the battlefield have more the ring of fantasy than anything else. One of them tells of a strange company consisting of a giant, an elf, a rail-thin tracker, a cat the size of a dog, and a warrior maiden gifted with a magik bow. There have been strange occurrences theses days, Milward. It could be this grouping exists, perhaps you would know. On one of our late night conversations you mentioned the young man's sister, Charity I believe you said her name was. I think I may have some news for you in this regard. A supplier I use for some of my more esoteric manuscripts and vellums was passing through Wycliffe around the same time you took your leave of us. I must say the shaping you used was quite a show. Cook still talks about it, but back to the young woman; my supplier told me an astonishing tale of marksmanship. It seems a group of Ortian soldiers out collecting conscripts came across a campsite just below the northern falls on the Ort River. The campers were, as he put it, a redheaded giant, and a whip thin man with crutches, a comely young woman, and a very large cat. I am sure you noticed the similarity to the tale I mentioned earlier. There have been others besides, but some of them are too fantastic for even my consideration.

Felsten, once he recovered from his night of excess, informed me that he let it slip about your young friend's heritage and about the sword he carries. Now the whole of Grisham is abuzz with the rumor that the heir of Labad is walking amongst them. Your apprentice is fortunate most of them could not find their spectacles even if they rested upon their noses.

An earthquake occurred a few weeks ago. I do realize that in a coastal region this is not unusual, but have you ever known an earthquake to create a gulf that cuts off an entire city without breaking a single window? This was either magik of a high order my old friend, or the hand of Bardoc himself, and I for one don't believe Bardoc is all that interested in saving Grisham, not in her current state.

Prior to the quake we were in dire straits indeed. The Ortian army had the city besieged and we were nearly overrun. Your apprentice can be proud of his actions that day. My sources tell me he is a man with natural leadership abilities, and the men like him. If he ever does assume the Emperor's throne, it should fit him well. It is said he accompanied the Duke's son on a quest to discover the old tunnels under Grisham. Captain Bilardi was never far from his side after the assassination attempt on the old Duke. I am told the assassin's arrow carried poison. No hope was given for recovery, yet recover is exactly what Duke Bilardi did right after a brief visit by your Adam. When you return, you should spend some time lecturing that young man on the difference between compassion and wisdom. That old man is still mad and his current affiliation with Magister Mallien worries me even more. I have never liked those thugs he calls his Inquisitors any more than I have liked the Duke's Plague. There is trouble brewing in Grisham Castle, old friend. War may have been averted due to our timely earthquake, but at best that is only a temporary fix. The Southern Army will not leave as long as the Duke avoids justice and I place no trust in Duke Bilardi's righteousness.

If you do make it back here before too long, do not look for your apprentice in the company of the Guard. Word has reached me that young Adam has resigned his commission and taken his Sergeant with him, much to the chagrin of the Duke's son. I am sorry that I cannot tell you where he has gone, but I suspect it may be back to that charming little village you told me about, Access, was it not? I am not so old that I do not remember what it felt like to be young and in love, Milward. There is a lot of power in that emotion, old friend, maybe more than any of us realize.

Until we meet again,

Your friend, Alten Baldricsson, Grisham Librarian

* * * *

Chapter 1

Neither Adam nor Ethan had any idea they would be running into another party in the tunnels below Grisham. As far as they knew, the tunnels' existence was still a closely guarded military secret. Captain Bilardi, the Duke's son had yet to tell his father they had been discovered. Yet here they were, on the verge of leaving Grisham forever; Adam, to a life of domestic bliss with the pregnant Thaylli in Access, and Ethan, back to Berggren with Ellona and the children. The group that stepped out of the sewer crossing didn't look all that dangerous, especially not when compared to Mallien's Inquisitors, but Adam felt as if he was preparing to go through that fencing match with the Inquisitors all over again.

"I said, 'hello Adam, how have you been?'" Charity brushed a lock of her long blonde hair away from her face, her expression grave.

"Charity?" His mind refused to wrap itself around the concept, his sister and his twin, here? "Charity, is it truly you?"

Charity could keep up the facade of nonchalance no longer. With a sobbing, "Adam!" she rushed to meet him.

"Seems they knows each other," Flynn murmured.

"Aye, Flynn, it sure does," Neely answered.

"He's her brother," the half-elf boy Circumstance said, from his spot behind the tracker and his giant friend.

"Figgered that," Flynn and Nelly said in unison.

Adam and Charity held each other tightly, afraid that the other would disappear if they let go.

"Where have you been?" They stepped on each other's words, "I thought you were..." "I searched every inch..."

Ethan moved around the embracing pair to stand in front of Flynn, Neely and Circumstance, "Looks like they could use some privacy. Good to see you, Circumstance."

The half-elf boy smiled shyly, "Hi Ethan."

Adam and Charity reluctantly released their embrace. He nodded to her, "You go first."

"Ok," she said, Beginning at the point where she and Adam were separated when the fighting in the Spu/Avern war overran the village of Dunwattle, she told him about the soldier who'd informed her that her brother was dead, and her despairing flight over the mountains where she met Flynn and Neely.

He chuckled when she described their reaction to her archery skills, and scowled when she got to the point when Cloutier, Earl of Berggren took them as captives. His scowl deepened when she told him why Cloutier held her. When she told him about Morgan and how he taught her to fight, his eyes widened at the man's name. Morgan had been Ethan's instructor decades ago, but he let her continue with her story. Charity's description of how she exacted her revenge on Cloutier for Morgan's murder caused Adam to wince, even though he felt the blackguard deserved every bit of agony the injury must have caused.

Charity took Adam on a whirlwind description of her flight from Berggren through Howell's Wayfarer House and into the lands near the Ort's headwaters where she helped Flynn and Neely build a raft. Adam smiled at her tale of the wager cast by her two companions with the Southern troopers over her ability with the bow, and the expressions of the men who witnessed her impossible shot.

Eventually Charity's tale wound down, passing through where she, Flynn and Neely were joined by Circumstance and how they came to be in Grisham's sewers. She looked up at Adam, still amazed at how much taller he was now, "Well," she said, "That's me, what about you?"

He smiled, "Oh, nothing quite as exciting as what you went through."

Charity crossed her arms. "Try me, I've spent four years hunting for you; the least I deserve is to know where you've been and what you were doing."

"Ok," Adam started at the same place Charity had, where they were separated in Dunwattle. He went on to describe how he and Hersh scoured the village looking for her and how, finally at his wits end searched out Milward. She laughed at his description of the old Wizard appearing in the air above him and the both of them ending up in a heap on the ground.

He took her from Milward's cave to where the old wizard taught him how to speak with wolves and where he learned the way of the hunt and the path of blood. She gasped when he described the Dragons and their city.

When Adam reached the part where he saved the Access miners from the collapsed tunnel she broke in, "You mean the entire entrance became diamonds?"

"Yes, Milward said that's what happens when coal is put under a lot of heat and pressure. It turns into diamonds."

"I'd liked to have seen that," She said. "Go on."

Adam continued with his story. He glossed over the part where Thaylli left Access in the dead of night to follow him, and skipped on to his duel with the Elven Fireshaper. If Charity noticed a gap in his narrative, she gave no sign of it. Then he moved to where he and Milward reached Grisham and the old Wizard's sudden illness and just as sudden recovery.

He stepped closer when he told her how Milward took him across the straight and to the Library. "They think I'm the next bloody Emperor. They claim the prophecy says so, just because of this," he shifted his sword's scabbard with his right hand, "...and a few other things."

"Emperor, hmm?" Charity murmured, "I think I like that. It might be nice being related to royalty."

"Charity," Adam hissed, "Please!"

"Oh, all right," she smirked, "Go on with your story."

Beginning a bit sulkily, Adam regained the track of his tale. He took up with their returning to Grisham only to be met by crowds trying to escape the city and the Duke's pressgangs. Then he moved on to Drinaugh's startling entrance into the city accompanied by the wolf pack, but again he left off any mention of Thaylli.

Charity broke in when he came to the part where McCabe killed the wolf, "That sounds like the thing that attacked us in the woods. Circumstance sent it away with magik."

Adam glanced in the direction of the boy, "Maybe they're related, your attacker and the one that killed my friend. I doubt even it could have survived the shaping I sent into it, so we'll probably never know."

"Shaping?"

"That's what a use of magik is called. Milward said it's because the user shapes the energies into whatever form the magik becomes."

"Oh," Charity said, "Where is Milward? Why isn't he with you?"

Adam grimaced, "That's the rest of my story, you see, we had an argument." He went on to tell her about Captain Bilardi's offer of a commission in Grisham's Guard and his acceptance. Then he told her about his training, his finding of Ethan and their adventures together during the fighting when Ort's army besieged the city's walls. And he told her about his causing the earthquake that formed an impassable gulf between the Southern army and the city.

"You did that?" Charity exclaimed.

Adam blushed. Fortunately, in the dim light of the tunnel she couldn't see it. "That was me," he said, "I didn't do it intentionally. It was like that time I healed that blind girl in Silgert remember? Soldiers were overrunning us and people all around me were dying. I guess there's a part of me deep inside that really knows what to do and just does it when it's needed."

Charity nodded. She'd experienced a bit of that herself. "So, if you're an officer in Grisham's Guard, what are you doing here? Are you going to arrest us?"

Even though they'd drawn back a ways from Adam and Charity at Ethan's request, Flynn, Neely and Circumstance were still close enough to hear most of what was being said. Charity's question came across loud and clear. The tracker and his giant friend stiffened.

Ethan saw their hands reach for their weapons. "Easy now, you don't know what the lad's going to say. You might be surprised."

The hands relaxed, partially.

Adam reached out and gathered his sister into a hug. "I'm not going to arrest you. I never would, even if I had the power to do so. No, Ethan and I resigned from Grisham's guard yesterday. We're going home."

Flynn and Neely relaxed all the way. Flynn wiped his eyes with a massive hand, "Ain't that just beautiful?" he sniffed.

Neely's answer had the gruff sound of a man holding back his emotion, "Yeah, Flynn, yeah."

When Adam released the hug, Charity stepped back and looked up at him, "So, where's home?" Then she smiled, "Never mind, I'll find out later. I want you to meet my friends; they're the most wonderful people in the world. Flynn, Neely, Circumstance, come meet my brother, Adam."

Charity's companions closed in around her and Adam. Charity did the introductions, embarrassing both Flynn and Neely with highlighted descriptions of some of their more heroic exploits, while Circumstance bore up under the praise with his usual aplomb.

Adam then introduced Ethan to Charity's companions and Ethan nodded to each of them in turn. When it came to Charity, Ethan bowed low from the waist, sweeping his right hand out with a flourish, "Milady, it is a pleasure to meet you once again. May I say you are even more striking than when I first saw you?"

Charity laughed, "Thank you, but if I remember correctly, the first time you saw me you had a hangover."

"You know this feller, Miss Charity?" Flynn hooked a thumb in Ethan's direction.

"Seems he gets around, Flynn," Neely remarked, "Seein' as he also knows Circumstance here."

"Yeah," Flynn replied, "You getting' the feelin' we're the strangers here?"

"Hush you two," Charity said to them over her shoulder. "So, Ethan," she turned on the dimples, "Adam says you're on your way home, where is that?"

He walked over to the tunnel wall and leaned against it. "Berggren, if you must know," he said. "Your little act of revenge, yes I could hear most of what you and Adam were telling each other. You killing the Earl changed more than just the political climate in that city. It changed the entire personality. It's a lovely place to live now. Amazing isn't it? One man gone and an entire city is transformed. Yes, I'm going home to Berggren and the most wonderful woman in this world. Now your brother there isn't going quite so far. You know the place, Circumstance; it's that little village halfway up Cloudhook. The locals there call it Access."

"Halfway up Cloudhook?" Charity mused, "What's my brother doing going there?"

"Didn't he tell you?" Ethan smiled, "That's where his consort and child will be."

Adam slumped against the other tunnel wall. Damn that Ethan. He didn't want to tell them, at least not right now.

Charity turned back to face Adam. "Consort, child? Why didn't you tell me you were a father?"

Ethan nodded, "I wondered that myself."

Adam mumbled something under his breath.

"What's that? I didn't quite hear you." Charity leaned closer.

"I said I didn't feel right telling you this way!" Adam said, perhaps a bit too forcefully.

Charity straightened and crossed her arms. "What way were you going to tell me, by messenger?"

"I think I know what th' boy means, Charity, iffn you'll pardon me buttin' in on a family tussle," Neely said from his place next to Flynn.

"We're not fighting!" Charity and Adam said, as they glared at each other.

Neely grinned sourly, "Yeah, we can see that. Seems to me, Charity, that your brother's a mite on th' shy side. Could be he'd druther tell that part of his tale in private, don'tcha think?"

Ethan chuckled, "You should have seen his reaction when I questioned him about Thaylli's pregnancy."

"Ethan!"

Charity nodded and smiled at Neely, "You're right, Neely, I forgot about that. So, tell me Adam," she turned back to her brother, "Is it a boy or a girl?"

"I don't know," Adam mumbled. "Thaylli's still pregnant. I don't know when the baby's due."

"It's coming in the spring, and it's a girl." Circumstance looked up at Adam shyly, not really sure if he should break in.

"Don't mind th' lad, Milord, it's his way. He just kinda knows stuff, iffn ya catch me drift." Flynn cupped a ham-sized hand around the boy's shoulder.

Adam returned Circumstance's look with a raised eyebrow, "That's ok, thank you, I appreciate knowing that. Can we change the subject please?"

Neely sidled over to Flynn and whispered, "Whatchoo callin' him milord for?"

The big man scratched a cheek, "I dunno, Neely. It just seems th' right thing to do, ya know?"

Ethan pushed himself off the tunnel wall. "You want a change of subject, eh? How's this? If we're going to stay here while you two get reacquainted why don't we do it sitting down and with some food in our bellies? I don't know what time it is out there," he waved a hand in the general direction of outside, "but my stomach swears it's long past dinnertime."

Flynn and Neely squatted right where they were.

"Sounds good to me," Neely said, rummaging into his pack, "Let's eat."

Circumstance joined them and then Ethan and Adam sat. Charity remained standing and peered along the tunnel's length in both directions.

"Something wrong, sis?" Adam paused in his unwrapping of a length of hard sausage.

Charity shook her head, "No, I'm just not sure this is a good place to settle down that long. Shouldn't we wait until we're in the city? I mean, what if it floods or something."

"Ain't no danger of that," Neely said around a mouthful of bread and cheese.

"He's right," Ethan said as Neely swallowed, "any water would be channeled away by the sewers. Like the one you came out of. Which begs the question," he looked across the tunnel floor at Flynn and Neely, "what are you doing here? These tunnels are a pretty tightly kept secret and the young lady there mentioned you going into the city. This is a pretty strange business, especially when most intelligent people would be wanting out."

Neely scowled over a bite of bread and muttered, "You sayin' we's not intelligent?"

Charity sat next to Adam and took the package of wax-coated cheese he held out. "He said nothing of the sort Neely, settle down." She half turned and arched an eyebrow at Ethan; "I'll answer your question if you'll answer mine."

"Depends on the question," Ethan smiled as he worked a cork out of a bottle.

"Fair enough," Charity smiled in return. "What is going on in the city? Why would the intelligent," she emphasized the word slightly, "ones be wanting to leave? I can understand your reason, but what about the others, answer me this, and I'll tell you why we're here."

Ethan swirled the wine in the bottle as he pursed his mouth in thought. "That is a very good question and it could take a long time to answer."

"It don't seem like we's in much of a rush here," Neely snickered.

"Like he said," Flynn nodded toward Neely as he gently elbowed him in the side, "we gots the time, 'sides I kinda likes a good story." He smiled hugely.

Neely muffled a snorted laugh.

"Adam?" Ethan cocked his head.

"Go ahead," Adam said with a sigh.

Ethan took another swallow of wine and passed the bottle to Adam. "All right," he rubbed his hands together and then steepled his fingers, "here it is. Do you remember what Berggren was like when you and you friends first showed up there? Nasty place, wasn't it?"

Charity, Flynn and Neely nodded.

"Yes," Ethan continued, "Cloutier had himself a nice bit of paranoia simmering there. Well, Duke Bilardi started the same sort of stew here, but unlike the good Earl, the Duke has a competitor vying for the title of Most Evil Personage in Grisham. Your brother, Charity, and I were attacked just before we began our journey out of this place. Have any of you ever read much of the history of the church?"

Five blank faces looked back at him.

Ethan sighed, "I see I'm going to have to add to this story a bit."

Flynn's smile broadened.

"After Labad died during the last days of the Magik War," Ethan held his hand out for the wine bottle as it was being passed from Neely back to Adam, "He left three sons. His eldest, Gershwyn took over the throne with the second oldest, Labatt assuming the Prelacy of the church. The third vanished without a trace. Both Gershwyn and Labatt did the best they could and to a certain extent were a credit to their father, but neither of them were Labad. They had neither the wisdom nor the power. The Dragons helped a bit, but they had suffered terrible losses during the war. Driving the Sorcerer out of the Empire took about all they had.

"When Gershwyn passed away he left no heir, having sired no children of his own. Labatt also had no heir, being Prelate, and there the troubles began. The closest cousin, Alfrecht, took over the throne guided by Labatt, but by that time the Prelate was getting on in years. Some say his mind was going. I don't know. I'll let Bardoc be the judge of that. But the records of his writings show he was developing a suspicious turn near the end and some of that rubbed off on Alfrecht. Alfrecht had three children. Dupryt, the son, took over as Emperor, but what I've read made it seem he would have rather sat as Prelate. The girls, Fastia and Hamete, weren't allowed a visible position of power, but they were still considered Royal and had the gold and the drive to use their fortune to further their aims. The children shared their father's suspicious tendencies, but something in the girls twisted and in them it moved into full-scale paranoia. After Labatt died, through background maneuverings Fastia and Hamete convinced the new Prelate to create a special kind of Priesthood, the Shepherd. They were supposed to watch over the flock and keep them in line by making sure overt straying from the commandments was nipped in the bud. The problem was, from Fastia and Hamete's point of view, that if overt straying was taking place then there must be even more covert straying going on. So the Shepherds became Inquisitors. Of course there is never as much sin around as the overly religious believe there is. That's what happens when religion isn't tempered with faith.

"Have any of you heard of the Church Purges?" Ethan looked around at his listeners. "No?"

Neely raised a hand, "I think I did, but I was just a kid hanging 'round Grisham's docks. Don't remember much but th' name."

Ethan tore a chunk off of the loaf of bread in front of him. "Anyone else? No? In a way I'm not surprised. A lot of the official histories don't include that delightful time. There was relatively little change for a generation after Fastia and Hamete died. In spite of their rigid beliefs, both of them were prolific little breeders. Hypocrisy knows no gender. I can't remember the exact numbers, but between them they gave birth to six boys and nine girls. One of Hamete's lads, Baen, assumed the throne, and Fastia's eldest, Namnette, got the Prelacy.

"Compared to Namnette, Labatt was the soul of liberality. Under his leadership the Inquisitors grew in power and numbers until they were the largest order in the Church. It didn't matter to Namnette what methods they used, just as long as sin was rooted out, and to him, the more innocent you appeared the greater the possibility of your guilt. All the Inquisitors needed to do were to get you to confess. It's amazing how many things a person will admit to when their fingernails are being slowly pulled off, one by one."

"That's horrible!" Charity exclaimed.

"What's even more horrible is that most of the Church leaders approved of the practice. They sincerely thought they were doing Bardoc's work by keeping the flock free from sin. Sadly for the ordinary folk, sin was no longer simply disobeying the original commandments but a much longer list which could include anything from voicing a mild complaint about a Church official to merely being pretty."

"What?" Adam could not believe his ears.

"I'm not kidding. There are records of young women being dragged off to the dungeons simply because they happened to be thought of as being more beautiful than the daughter of an official. That was very sinful of her, she should have known better." He laughed bitterly, "I know that last was somewhat cynical, but that was the tone of the time. It took a general uprising to change things. Many of the Priests were dismembered right inside their monasteries. So there it was, three short generations after Labad, his heirs managed to alienate enough of the Empire that it was torn apart into individual fiefdoms. Remnants of the Inquisitors managed to survive the uprising. Adam and I ran into a couple of them just a few hours ago."

"Ah, here we go," Flynn said quietly.

"I see you enjoy a good story." Ethan grinned at the big man.

"Near as much as he likes his food," Neely said, giving a sideways glance to his friend.

Charity and Circumstance joined Neely in a good natured chuckle over the mild poke at Flynn.

Ethan nodded, "Nothing to be ashamed of there. I can remember several women on the Wool Coast telling my mother those were two of their four conditions for choosing a consort."

"See there Flynn, didn't I tell ya? It don't take good looks iffn you knows how to use yer gob," Neely crowed.

Flynn blushed.

"Yeah, well," Ethan continued, "Back to my tale; these Inquisitors had something going for them besides bad religion and a dungeon, they used magik."

Charity turned to Adam, "Is that true? Were they Wizards?"

"No, not Wizards, I would have sensed that. They were something else," Adam shook his head. "Go on Ethan, tell them the rest."

Ethan pursed his lips, "Right-o. First let me say something, I'm a Blademaster, trained by Morgan of Berggren, and the only man skilled enough with a sword to possibly best me in a duel is sitting right next to me."

"I remember a time when you beat him," Charity said, a far away look in her eyes.

"That was a long time ago," Ethan answered her, "and that boy is now a man." He cleared his throat, "The next thing I want to say is we both nearly had our heads handed to us by that pair of Inquisitors."

Flynn and Neely leaned forward slightly.

Circumstance's eyes widened.

"I don't know how many times we went round the inside of that pub. Maybe Adam can tell you. I do know we'd both be dead now if Adam hadn't gotten an idea to attack their rapiers instead of them. Nice thing, having the heavier blade sometimes." He stretched and yawned, "Well, it's obvious we survived, which is something I can't say for our opponents."

"Run 'em through, huh?" Neely leaned forward a little further.

Ethan grunted, "No, we disarmed them. They tried to do a bit of magik against us and Adam here brushed it aside like so much driftmist. Then he bound them up in some kind of spell and hung them from the ceiling. We had the idea of asking them a few questions, such as who sent them, why were they there, and so on. They never had a chance to answer. A cloud of something formed up around them and then they started screaming. Blood began spattering onto the pub floor and then chunks of flesh joined it. When the cloud vanished a couple of bloody skeletons hung there grinning at us. You wanted to know why I said intelligent people would be leaving rather than trying to get into the city? There's one of the reasons. We don't have any proof, but we think Mallien, the Magister of the church in Grisham is behind the Inquisitors attack. There are two powers in the city, the Duke and the Church and you'll be hard pressed to find someone willing to decide which of them is worse. In addition to that, about the only foods readily available in Grisham are fish and travel rations such as what we have here, barley bread, cheese and hard sausages. Seems to me leaving is the thing to do. I certainly have no intention of going back any time soon."

"But you have to," Circumstance spoke up quietly.

Ethan looked down at the half-elf boy, "Why? Is this another one of those knowing times you told me about while we were covered in Skunkbush juice?"

Charity looked from Circumstance to Ethan, "You know each other."

Circumstance turned and faced Charity, "We should, he's my father."

"Adopted," Ethan amended the statement.

"Whatcho mean he's gotta go back?" Flynn asked Circumstance.

The boy rocked back until the tunnel wall supported his head. "Not just him. They both have to go with us. If they don't, none of us will live to complete our mission." He looked up at Adam, "I'm sorry."

"It's happening again," Adam rubbed the heels of his hands against his forehead.

All eyes turned to him. "What's happening?" Neely picked at a morsel of sausage stuck in his teeth.

"I think I know," said Charity as she watched her brother climb to his feet.

"So do I," Ethan said.

Adam began pacing back and forth along the tunnel wall. "Every time I think I'm getting to do what I want to with my life that flicking prophecy jumps into the middle of it. You heard him, if we don't help you with whatever mission you're on the world is going to come to an end. Gods but I'm sick of this!"

"What's he talkin' about?" Neely asked Flynn.

"I dunno," Flynn replied, "but it sounds like we're in for a time again."

Ethan stood and paced next to Adam. "Sure, you're sick of it, lad. I am too, seeing how I seem to have gotten tied up in it with you. If I had my way I'd have stayed in Berggren with Ellona and be very happily making spinning wheels right now. The one thing I've learned in all of this is that destiny doesn't share the same outlook on our lives as we do. There's a bigger picture, and like it or not we're not the artists painting it."

Adam stopped and stared at Ethan. His eyes held a haunted look.

"Do you remember that night you caught me sneaking out of the Guard Complex?" Ethan held Adam's eyes with his own.

Adam nodded.

"I was headed home that night and you stopped me. I didn't realize it until just now, but we did a few things together after that that may not have turned out they way they did if we weren't together, if you had let me go, Thaylli may not be alive and carrying your child right now. Need I mention Fainnelle and the Gaffer?" Ethan pointed back in the direction of the Pub's basement tunnel entrance. "No, I don't think I need to," Ethan said, as Adam remained mute. "Because you know what I'm saying is true. You know we're stuck in this."

"Why?" Adam shouted, "Why are we? I never asked for this. All I ever wanted was ... I don't know," he finished in a much quieter tone, "I just know I didn't want this."

He sat down next to Charity. "So what now, what's this mission?"

"That's the last part of my story, why we're here. If we can bring back the Duke, or his head, the war's over and a lot of good people won't have to die." She reached over and picked up a small bit of cheese, "How in the world we're going to do it is the big question." She popped the cheese into her mouth and chewed.

"I think," Ethan said, as he began putting the supplies he'd pulled out back into his bag, "that we'll be a lot more comfortable sorting this out in the pub. That is," he looked around at the others, "if that's all right with the rest of you."

Flynn and Neely began copying Ethan's actions. "Pub sounds good to me," Neely answered.

Flynn nodded, "Ale'd go down real good right now. You kin count me in."

Adam shook his head, "Fainnelle and the Gaffer are going to think we're insane, especially Fainnelle." He repacked his bag and stood. "Let's go, it's this way."

Time's rate of passage seems to change when the sun, moon and stars are not available for viewing. Thus it was when Adam and Ethan returned to the pub's basement they found the establishment closed and locked down for the night. A peek out through the slating that covered the windows showed a street deserted by all but a wisp of ground fog and a prowling tomcat.

Ethan grunted and closed the slating back up, "Looks like we spent more time talking than we thought we did. I guess we serve ourselves."

"Ethan, that's stealing." Adam protested.

"It is when you don't pay for it," Ethan fished a silver out of his purse and slapped it down onto the counter. He turned and smiled at Adam, "are you going to tell me you don't know how much the Gaffer charges for a tankard?"

"Six and two, what of it?" Adam thought he knew where Ethan was leading, but part of him still felt it was wrong.

Charity, Flynn, Neely and Circumstance had selected one of the circular tables just off the bar. Their heads moved back and forth as they followed Adam and Ethan's discussion.

Ethan picked up the silver and held it so the lamplight coming in from the street reflected off its edges. "Then he's making a nice tip off each tankard, three and eight," He slapped the silver back down onto the bar, "and I'll be sure to tell him that when he comes in later." He proceeded to draw from the brown ale spigot. "Anyone else?" Ethan called out as his tankard filled.

Flynn and Neely stumbled over each other getting to the bar. Neely dug into his purse and dug out a handful of coins, scattering them across the polished oak in front of the taps. "You just keep pullin' until that lot's used up," the tracker said, wiping his mouth with the back of a hand. "It's been so long since I's had a decent pint, me tongue's near forgotten what ale tastes like."

Ethan smiled as he handed his tankard to Neely, "Well, we can't have that now can we? Here, you get started on this and I'll take the next one."

"Why, thank you guv'ner," Neely returned Ethan's smile with one of his own, "that's right nice of ya. You know," he said, resting his right elbow on the bar, "you ain't such a bad fella."

"Thanks," Ethan replied dryly, "I appreciate that."

Neely missed the sarcasm entirely. "No prob," he said, draining off a good portion of the ale.

Ethan handed the second tankard to Flynn who thanked him profusely. Adam sighed, walked over to the bar and laid down his own coins. "Might as well join in." He turned, "Anything for you, Charity, Circumstance?"

Charity accepted a half pint of lager while Circumstance settled for a glass of sweet cider. The ale took its toll quickly and the next thing Adam knew he was being gently shaken awake. Looking up through bleary eyes he saw the worried face of Fainnelle staring down at him.

"Fainnelle..."

Her smile was fleeting at best. "Milord, what are you doing back here? Who are these others? What...?"

Adam cut off Fainnelle's rapid-fire questions with a raised finger. He kept it raised as he levered himself out of the booth he'd been sleeping in. "Shh, I'll tell you everything, just keep it down, ok?"

"That's all right Adam," Ethan's voice came from the booth next to his, "we're already up." He stood and brushed the wrinkles out of his olive green tunic. "Fainnelle, may I introduce you to Adam's sister, the lady Charity and her valiant companions. Believe it or not, but Milord Adam and I have elected to join them in their quest to deliver fair Grisham from the depredations of its mad Duke."

"Pipe it down, will ya?"

"Ohhh, me head! What's fer breakfast?"

Flynn and Neely poked their heads up out of the booths they'd been sleeping in and looked around.

"Hush, you two, you'll wake Circumstance. Adam?" Charity stood and noticed Fainnelle, "Oh, excuse me, I'm Charity, those two are Flynn," the giant redhead knuckled his brow in greeting, "and Neely," Neely ducked his head.

Fainnelle curtsied to each of them. "Well, I expect you'll be wantin' to wash up a mite. There's soap and water in the back over here." She walked across the pub to the door leading to the kitchen and held it open for them.

She waited for the door to close before rounding on Adam, "What is this all about?" she hissed, "Is Ethan right about you lot goin' after the Duke? What about Thaylli an' her child? Do you want to orphan the child afore it's even birthed?"

Adam rubbed the last of the sleep out of his eyes and stared levelly at Fainnelle, "I think I'll be harder to kill than that. Anyway, it's no use arguing about it, it's something I have to do."

She looked at him for several seconds, her mouth working as if she was going to say something further. Then she turned back toward the kitchen uttering an exasperated, "Men!"

Ethan came up beside Adam and grunted, "I don't think the Gaffer's going to be any more pleased about this than his woman is."

Adam nodded.

Fainnelle came back through the kitchen door bearing a tray loaded with hot tisane, a wedge of cheese, several barley buns, kippers, and a steaming pile of sausage links. "Here," she said, slapping the tray down onto a table, "you lot tie into this while I get me duties seen to, then you can tell me what this foolishness you're plannin' to do is all about." Fainnelle glared down at Adam and Ethan for a moment and then spun back through the kitchen door.

"She seems upset," Adam said, looking down at the food.

"I don't blame her," Ethan replied as he reached for a bun and some cheese.

"What?" Adam looked back up at Ethan, startled at the statement, "Are you saying you agree with her? What about all that stuff about destiny?"

Ethan grinned around a mouthful of breakfast, "Didn't say that. A person can agree with someone else's feelings without agreeing with their desires. In other words," he said, seeing Adam's puzzled expression, "simply because I understand Fainnelle's emotion, doesn't mean my intentions have changed. Circumstance has shown me too much for me not to trust his instincts."

"Thank you, Ethan," Circumstance's voice came from below the table in the booth across from where they were sitting.

Adam and Ethan both turned to see the half-elf boy climbing out of the booth. Ethan smiled at him, "Good morning lad, and thank you for what?"

"For trusting me, just like you said." Circumstance walked over to the table and stared hungrily at the food, "Can I have some?"

The door to the kitchen opened before Ethan or Adam could answer the boy.

"Food!" Flynn and Neely quickened their steps, reaching the table in mere seconds.

Adam stretched his arms over the feast, blocking the two men from their breakfast. "Just wait a bit, give the boy a chance first."

Neely clouded up, and for a moment he looked like he was about to argue the point then his face relaxed and he stepped back. "Go ahead lad," he motioned to Circumstance, "you get your helpin' first, looks like there's plenty there to go 'round." The look he directed at Adam said something akin to, "we'll settle this later, mate."

Charity came out of the kitchen door wiping her face with a towel. Her hair was still damp and she looked like she felt considerably better. "Good, "she said, rubbing the towel once more through her hair, "some breakfast at last."

"S'good, miss Charity," Flynn mumbled through a mouthful of sausage, cheese, and bun. "Theses sausages is near as good as them we had way back when in Berggren, you remember?"

Charity reached into the pile of sausages and selected one. She nodded as she nibbled, "You're right Flynn, and I do remember. These are almost as good as the ones Adam and I made for Hersh in Dunwattle."

Adam picked up a sausage and popped it into his mouth. "They are. Try one Ethan," he said after swallowing.

Ethan stabbed a sausage with the point of his small knife and bit off a portion. His eyes widened as he chewed. "They are good, very good, Fainnelle!"

"What?" She poked her head through the kitchen door.

"Where were you hiding these?" He held up a sausage. Glistening fat dripped from the golden brown tube.

Fainnelle shook her head. "We wasn't hidin' nothin', the Gaffer's got a friend livin' up near Bern. He raises pigs. We got a couple boxes of them sausages after you two went into the tunnel. You'd best eat 'em all, I don't like seein' good food wasted."

"It seems at least a few luxuries are making it into Grisham in spite of the siege," Adam murmured as he reached for the tisane pot.

Very little in the way of conversation happened after that as everyone bent to the task of enjoying a very good breakfast. At the point where Flynn and Neely were using the last of the buns to sop up the last of the sausage drippings and kipper bits, the Gaffer came in through the front door.

"Fainnelle! You starting th' day early on me ... what ... what's you lot doin' back here? Who're these folks?" The Gaffer closed the door behind him and flipped the closed/open sign in the window only through dint of long practice. He crossed the room, passing the long trestle tables in its center to stare down at Adam, Ethan and the others. "C'mon," he demanded, "somebody say somethin', or was what Fainnelle an' me went through last night just a bunch a nuthin'?"

Fainnelle appeared at the kitchen door drying her hands on a grayish towel. "They's intendin' on stormin' the palace an' haulin' his nibs across that great ditch to the Southerns, that's what they's doin' back here," she flicked a disgusted look to the table and then vanished back into the kitchen.

The Gaffer looked shocked, "That true?"

Adam pushed himself away from the table and stood. "That's true," he said, "and I think you should probably think better of our chances, considering what you saw in this place last night."

The Gaffer chewed his lip as he looked at Adam. Every eye at the table was now focused on the man. "...Aye," he said slowly, "a body tends to want to not remember somethin' like that, ya know? Fainnelle went back an' scrubbed that spot three more times after you left." He let his breath out in a long slow sigh, "Still smells funny. So, what's yer plan, these folks yer helpers?"

Ethan stood and pointed to Circumstance, "This strapping young lad, Gaffer, is my son, Circumstance. Seated next to him is Adam's sister, Charity. The very large redhead is known as Flynn, and the thin fellow next to him is called Neely. From what I've heard, with the help of them, we should have little trouble realizing our goal."

Charity nodded while Flynn blushed, and Neely preened an eyebrow.

The Gaffer ducked his head in a half bow with each introduction. He turned back to Charity when Ethan finished and knuckled his brow. "Milady, me an' me missus owe our lives to your brother, an', beggin' yer pardon, I means no disrespect, but we's wonderin' iffn you all've thought this plan through?"

Charity did not answer right away but reached into the pack she'd hung over the back of her chair. Out of it she pulled a sheaf of rolled vellums. "I was hoping we could do some of that here. Can I lay these onto that large table over there?" She pointed to the trestle table behind and to the left of the Gaffer.

He nodded, "Sure, sure."

Ethan walked quickly over to the front window and peered through the slats. The street was still quiet, though the ground fog had been replaced by the reddish light of dawn. "Looks like we have a few hours yet," he said, as he turned, "Unless things have changed since last night. You do still open at noon, don't you Gaffer?"

"Aye Ethan, that I do," The Gaffer said, though he didn't sound happy about it. "You're gonna follow through on this fools errand, ain't you?"

"Yes, we are," Charity said, flattening the last vellum onto the table. She took a small candlestick from Circumstance and used it as a weight on a stubborn corner. "Ok, gather 'round everyone."

The Gaffer watched as the others joined Charity at the trestle table. He stayed there as she began pointing out features of the old maps drafted onto the vellums. Finally, with a look of resignation on his long face, he made his way into the back areas of the pub to begin the morning's work.

"These look familiar," Ethan said in an aside to Adam as they looked down on the collection of maps spread across the table.

"I know, I was thinking the same thing. They look like some of the maps we used in finding the old tunnels." Adam bent to examine the one in front of him.

Neely looked up, "You seen these? You know anything that might make this trip a mite less dangerous?"

"Outside of being able to turn ourselves invisible, no," Ethan replied.

Charity raised an eyebrow at Adam, who shook his head no in a slight movement only she would notice.

Neely dropped his eyes back to the maps, "Thought so," he muttered. "Gonna get our backsides handed to us, I know it."

"If we run into the Plague or more of Mallien's Inquisitors, quite possibly," Ethan said, picking up a map detailing the various floors of the Palace. "How old are these?"

Flynn made a warding sign. "The Plague? I dunno 'bout this, Miss Charity, ain't been nuthin' said 'bout no Plague. I don' wanna get sick an' die."

Neely stuck an elbow into Flynn's ample stomach, "Th' Plague ain't no sickness, ya big oaf, it's men. They's th' Duke's special guard, picked for their size, speed an' meanness. I heard stories 'bout them when I was a kid playin' round Grisham's docks. Me Ma an' Da used to keep me in line by tellin' me th' Plague'd come for me iffn I didn't settle down."

"So, who're these Inquisitors, then?" Flynn asked.

"Remember what I said when I told you all about Adam and I being attacked by two men who almost handed us our heads?" Ethan put down the vellum he'd been studying and picked up another one.

Flynn nodded.

"Those men were Inquisitors, and the battle happened right here. They died hanging in the air just about ... there," he pointed to a spot a few feet to the right of where Flynn was standing.

The big man moved to the other side of the table.

"I don't think this map is correct," Adam said, tracing a finger along the lines of a map detailing the top floors of the palace. "If these are supposed to be the Ducal quarters, this suite of rooms should be over here, not here," He pointed to a section of the map on the far side of the vellum.

"You been in th' Palace, huh?" Neely smirked.

Charity looked up at the tracker, issuing a warning with the lift of an eyebrow. Neely, his attention focused on Adam, missed it.

"I've been in the Palace, yes," Adam said evenly. "The Duke's son, who also bears his name, is a friend of mine."

"I knew it!" Neely snapped, "This is trouble. We's got usselves a couple a insiders here Charity. He might be your brother an all, but how do we know we can trust 'im not to turn on us iffn th' chips is down. He said, with his own mouth, 'th' Duke's son's a friend of his.'"

"Neely..."

"He said it Charity, we all heard him," Neely protested.

Ethan slid around the table and put himself between Adam and Neely. "The man you're accusing happens to be the best swordsman I've ever seen, besides being a Wizard. I'm not going to let you challenge him because we can't afford to lose someone who may turn out to be useful, no matter how useless he looks."

Adam caught Charity's eye and shook his head. "Let them work it out," his expression said.

Neely's face began to flush red. "What're you sayin', Big Words?"

"Neely..." Flynn began, but Charity's hand on his arm stopped the rest of what he was going to say.

Ethan smiled up into the tracker's face. Neely topped him by a good three inches, but it appeared as if Ethan carried more muscle. "What I'm saying, Useless, you don't mind if I call you Useless, do you? Is that if you have a problem with us, you have a better chance of coming out of it alive if I deal with you, than him," he cocked his head in Adam's direction.

"I don't like this," Charity said, half aloud.

"It has to happen. We'll have trouble if it doesn't," Circumstance said quietly.

Charity looked down at him. He nodded at her reassuringly, "This is right."

Neely had backed away from Ethan while unbuckling the belt that held his long knife, he tossed it aside. "Come on then, Big Words, let see what you got."

Ethan removed his sword belt and handed it to Adam. "This won't take long."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Adam replied.

Ethan nodded, "I do. If this isn't taken care of now, we'll have problems with this guy later on, and we can't afford that to happen. I've seen him move. He's quick and he's strong, but he has no training. When he wakes up, things should be better."

Adam just shook his head and stepped back out of Ethan's way.

Neely held out his hand as Ethan moved onto the open floor space between the trestle table and the booths, "Might as well shake afore we gets to it."

Ethan shrugged and reached out to take the tracker's hand.

Neely's left hand whipped out in a blinding left hook intended to finish the fight in one blow, but Ethan's head wasn't there to receive it. Ducking under the blow, Ethan used his crouch to leap into the air while lashing out with his right foot. He caught Neely on the point of the chin just as the force of his follow through was pulling in the tracker's head. Neely dropped like a stone.

"He should be ok," Ethan said, as he straightened his tunic, "but you should use that magik of yours, Adam, just in case I hit him too hard. It's difficult to gauge things when you're dealing with a man that quick."

Adam nodded and bent to examine the tracker. Neely's breathing was steady, in spite of the size of the welt developing on his chin.

Charity and Flynn were at Neely's side in an instant. "Is he going to be ok?" Charity asked, as she cradled the tracker's head in her lap.

"Neely, ya stubborn dog," Flynn moaned, "why'd ya haffta go an' do it?" He looked up at Ethan. "I don't blame you none, mister," he said, with tears coursing down his cheeks. "I knows ya did what you thought was best."

"I appreciate that," Ethan replied, "because that's exactly what I did. Your friend strikes me as a man who has to push things in order to find his place. I hope this settles things between him and I. He could be a real asset when the chips are down."

"Circumstance said this was necessary," Charity said, stroking Neely's lank hair, "but if he dies..." She left the threat unsaid.

Ethan nodded and then bowed, "If he does, Milady, I am at your disposal."

Charity looked up sharply at Ethan. His reply held no cynicism, no taint of gallows humor. "You mean that, don't you?"

"With all my heart," He replied.

Adam focused his Wizard sense into Neely. He could feel a rush of warmth flowing towards the man's chin. He could also feel a strongly beating heart. Neely was alive and apparently relatively uninjured. Focusing in a bit deeper Adam felt the lingering pain of old wounds and two poorly knit broken legs. A small shaping re-knit the bones and another one was sent into Neely's body as a sort of handyman employed to fix this and that, just before pulling out he smoothed out the bruising caused by Ethan's kick.

"He'll be ok," he said, straightening his back and stretching to work out the kink caused by bending for an extended time.

Flynn grabbed Adam's hand and wrung it. "Thanks milord, I really means it. You's quality folk just like your sister."

Adam retrieved his abused hand from Flynn's enthusiastic grasp and shook some feeling back into it as Charity bent to examine Neely. "He really is all right?" She asked, somewhat skeptically.

"He really is," Adam replied. "I know a bit more about doing things like this since that time in Silgert."

Her face clouded in thought for a moment and then cleared. "I remember," she said, nodding her head. "I also remember a mob chasing us out of town because of it."

"Yeah," Adam said with a grin, "fun wasn't it?"

"Oh ... you," She hit him on the shoulder.

Neely groaned.

"Here, help me sit him up," Adam reached down and took the tracker by the shoulder, motioning to Charity with his head to take the other one.

Ethan and Flynn also bent to the task and when Neely gained full consciousness he found himself looking into four sets of concerned eyes with Circumstance reaching past them with a tankard of brown ale.

Neely felt his chin with one hand as he accepted the ale with the other. "Thanks, lad," he nodded at Circumstance. "Why don't my head hurt? After a kick like that I oughta be havin' a motherskruddin' headache."

"You can thank my brother, you thickheaded, pea-brained..." Charity cut off her list of Neely's attributes and hugged him fiercely, "I'm so glad you're not hurt!" She mumbled into his tunic.

Neely looked up at Adam, "Is what she says true?"

"It sure is Neely!" Flynn enthused, "An' I can vouch fer it. I saw the whole thing, he bent down over you wilst you was ... sleepin', an' then he ... then he..." Flynn looked at Adam. "What did you do, sides look at him?" He asked.

"If I told you that, I'd have to kill you," Adam murmured with a smile. "No ... no, I'm just kidding," he rushed the words out to assure Flynn, who had blanched a pasty white. "What I did is called a Shaping. It's a form of magik and it's controlled with the mind. You couldn't see anything because everything I did happened inside of your friend, but you can see the results now as well as he can feel them."

"Well, Charity," Neely said, feeling himself all over, "you said your brother was a wizard, I guess I'm th' livin' proof. An' why're you so upset? I been knocked 'round lots worse'n this, an' you seen it happen."

Ethan spoke up, "It's probably because you're considered family. I imagine those other times were in the heat of battle. Emotions function a bit differently during those times. Here, she was a spectator, and from what I've heard of your stories, this is a quiet spot at the end of a long, hard road."

Neely ran his long fingers through his lank hair. "You can say that again." He stood up.

"Don't you even start," Charity admonished Ethan with a pointed finger.

"What?" Ethan looked at Charity. "What?" he repeated in answer to a snort from Adam.

"'S one thing about Charity," Neely said as he stepped over to face Ethan, "she ain't much on stupid jokes."

Ethan smiled, "A pity. Stupid jokes are my favorite kind."

"Mine too," Neely returned the smile and held out his hand. "I had you pegged wrong, mate, you coulda done some real damage there an' you didn't. Who taught you how to fight? I ain't never been put down so quick." The fight over, it was now time to talk shop.

"You may or may not have heard of him," Ethan shrugged. "He also taught me a lot about swordsmanship. His name was Morgan. He was the Captain of the Berggren guard at the time."

Ethan's quiet statement drew a shocked exclamation from Charity, "I should have known it! The way you move, it's all there. It was there all the time and I never saw it."

Neely looked at Charity for a moment and then chuckled, "Of course, you spent a bit o' time learnin' from th' man yerself, didn'tcha?"

Ethan transferred his gaze from Neely to Charity and raised an eyebrow, "Really? Perhaps we should spar a few rounds, it might be fun."

Charity's smile held a feral edge. "You might be surprised."

"I might at that," Ethan nodded, "How about we get back to planning our little break-in?"


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