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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A New Life

     It was late morning before the sun finally rose high enough to reach the western slope of the Stormhorn Mountains.  A lone figure strode down the western road; his breath condensed in the crisp autumn air that carried the promise of a harsh winter.
     Fergon had left the citadel at High Horn Pass well before dawn; the light from a full moon in a clear sky had been sufficient at this altitude for the young man to make his way down the western road from the pass.  The young Northman hurried along, aware that the regular patrols along the road did not remove all the hazards a traveler might face. 
     If he put enough miles behind him, he should meet up with a patrol of Purple Dragons, as the professional soldiers of Cormyr were called.  The patrol was scheduled to be two day’s travel away, and Fergon knew that if he left early and kept a solid pace, that he could cover that distance in one long day, at least downhill.  A caravan had left High Horn four days before, and Gareth had estimated that it would settle down for the evening with the patrol.  Fergon had wondered aloud how they could travel so slowly and still manage to make any profit, and the old sergeant had laughed, saying, “You’ll find out.  Your best option is to travel with them the rest of the way to Eagle Peak.  Get First Sword Zessington to vouch for you to the Caravan Master, mind yourself with the merchants, and don’t let the guards get to you.  It’s boring work, traveling with a caravan, but it’s a damn sight safer than traveling these mountains alone."


     In the summer that he had spent at the garrison at High Horn, Fergon had impressed even the grizzled veteran soldiers with his ability to cover vast distances on foot.  He had also polished many a pair of boots, shined more armor than he had ever seen before, and swept cubic yards of dirt.  In return, the soldiers at the garrison taught him the local language, showed him how to use a wide variety of weapons, and mesmerized him with stories (some of them true). 
     Fergon had arrived at High Horn as the slave of a foreign wizard disguised as a storyteller.  A perceptive sergeant had seen through the charade, and managed to thwart the wizard’s plans and free the boy.  Fergon’s first act of freedom was to kill his former master in a fit of rage, inadvertently impressing the garrison with his bravery and capacity for violence.  The soldiers had taken him under their communal wing, and the young barbarian had absorbed everything the troops had shown him, often impressing them with his attitude and aptitude.  For instance, Astel, a trooper known for his sarcastic sense of humor, had shown Fergon the manual-at-arms for the two-handed Greataxe, joking that “A barbarian should use a barbaric weapon.”  Fergon spent the next month mastering the Greataxe, and used it to best Astel in a sparring session. 
     But Fergon had recently turned seventeen years old, and he knew that many of the soldiers expected him to take the oath as a Purple Dragon.  While he loved the soldiers as liberators, teachers, and even father figures, he was a child of the wild barbarian tribes of the Great Glacier, not a son of the ancient empire of Cormyr.  Even though he owed the soldiers of Cormyr a debt that he may never repay, he also knew that the structured life of a soldier was alien to him. 
     Winter was fast coming on, and Fergon knew that the garrison would feel like a prison under the snows of winter.  It was time to leave and seek out his own path, wherever that would take him.  He had told his friends of his intent, and started packing his few belongings, when individual soldiers began to give him with gifts of their own.  Some would present them to him with emotional goodbyes, such as when Gareth gave him a suit of studded leather armor.  Others preferred anonymity, such as when Fergon came back from sweeping the training hall to find a Greataxe on his bedroll.  Although nobody would admit it, he suspected Astel. 
     So Fergon left the Citadel of High Horn with a somewhat heavier pack (and heart) than he had intended. 


     The sun had just kissed the western horizon when Fergon sighted the combined encampments of the caravan and the Purple Dragon patrol a half-mile off.  The cool morning had given way to one of the last mild days of the year, and despite the dry mountain air, sweat darkened the Northman’s clothes.  He quickened his pace; there was no danger of getting there before dark, but he was eager to be amongst familiar faces, if for the last time.


     Jendetha looked up from the clothes she was washing and stared at the approaching caravan.  The song she had been singing trailed off and she let out a heavy sigh.  Caravans depressed her.  Father would want to get rid of his excess goats for the oncoming winter, and the whole family would be up late tonight.  All the animals would be have to be combed to make them attractive (and to get as much mohair as possible before selling them). 
     But caravans meant more than to Jendetha than extra work.  They were proof of a world outside Eagle Peak that she would never see.  Eagle Peak was not a bad place: she was relatively safe, fed somewhat regularly, and loved her family (most of the time).  Her needs were taken care of, but her wants were left wholly unanswered.  She wanted to travel, to see distant lands, to live a life in which every day would be something other than a minor variation on the theme of goatherd. 
     She sighed again, and began to sing again.  Wishing wouldn’t make a life of adventure happen.  There was still laundry to do, and then there would be wood to gather for the upcoming winter, and then there would be shearing and birthing in the spring….  The song was a favorite of hers, a long lay about a maiden rescued from a life of drudgery by a dashing prince, and she had lost her place.  So she began again with the recounting of the life of drudgery faced by the dainty maiden.


     First Sword Zessington had indeed introduced Fergon to the caravan master, who showed obvious distaste at the young barbarian.  But he had agreed to let him travel with the caravan, if he would carry his own gear and eat his own rations.  “And if he makes ANY trouble, he’s out on his arse!”  Fergon had no choice but to agree or make his way alone down the dangerous road from High Horn.  At least water was free, thanks to the Chantrus, an acolyte of Shaundakul that traveled with the caravan and created pure water every morning and evening. 
     Fergon quickly found that Chantrus was the only man on the caravan friendly to him.  The merchants didn’t trust barbarians, and the guards seemed to be threatened by his size, greataxe, and fine armor.  So he had spent the last four days in Chantrus’ company, learning about the Rider of the Wind.  Fergon had often felt as if the vicious gods of his homeland had forsaken him.  But Chantrus managed, over a dusty four days, to convince the young man that Shaundakul, the Rider of the Wind, the Lord of Roads, the Traveler’s Protector, would care about him in his travels and adventures.  For the first time since his abduction, Fergon found a deity worthy of his prayers.  And though he did not fully join Shaundakul’s flock, he felt as if his place in the world was starting to be written.
     But right now, Fergon was thinking only of Thulvas, and how good it would feel to break his nose.  The caravan guard had once again called Fergon “that animal”, and his teenage patience was wearing very thin indeed.  He sped up his pace, partly out of anger, and partly to get away from the guard.  But Thulvas, unencumbered by a backpack, kept up with him.  “Why do you run, foreigner?  Do you fear my rapier wit?  You should be far more afraid of my sword.  Did you know that Cormyr is always driving off foreigners like yourself?”  Fergon ground his teeth again.  At this rate he would get to Eagle Peak with nothing left in his mouth but bloody gums. 
     Chantrus was speaking to the caravan master at the lead of the column, and Fergon hoped that his meeting would be done soon.  Thulvas would not pick on Fergon around the acolyte, having the uneducated man’s fear of the gods, and a caravaner’s innate respect for the God of Travels.  Fergon kept up the pace, hoping that Thulvas would trip and fall, or maybe that Shaundakul himself would rise out of the road and strike him down….
     And then he noticed Chantrus making his was back down the line, a smile on his face.  He saw Fergon and picked up his own pace.  Fergon and Chantrus greeted each other as Thulvas hung back, falling into an uncharacteristic silence. 
     “We will be in Eagle Peak within a few hours.”  Chantrus knew that Fergon was unwelcome by most of the caravan, and that he had planned to stop at the small town to look for work or adventure. 
     Fergon grinned.  This was indeed good news.  Although he knew how far it was from High Horn to Eagle Peak, the slow pace of the caravan threw off his sense of distance, and Chantrus had been less than forthcoming with their progress.  He looked out at the rugged terrain, and noticed a sod-roofed, rock-walled house perched on the crest of a nearby rocky outcrop, not more than a few hundred yards away.  A tiny figure in the small front yard seemed to be looking directly at him. 
     “So Eagle Peak begins here?”  Fergon’s wave included the house on the hill.
     Chantrus raised an eyebrow at the strange question, and then shook his head.  “No.  I know you haven’t seen much of Cormyr, but Eagle Peak’s a very small town, much smaller than the garrison at High Horn.”
     Fergon persisted.  “These people are under Eagle Peak’s protection?  They trade there?”
     “Yes, if you want to see it that way.  Eagle Peak is the closest town, and their garrison patrols this area.  Why do you ask?”  Chantrus’ confusion was written plain on his face.
     Fergon whirled around and landed a strong right cross on Thulvas’ nose.  There was a muffled crack as his nose broke.  Blood flowed across his upper lip.  Fergon turned around, smiled at Chantrus, and said, “Because now I do not travel with the caravan.  Now I am in Eagle Peak, and the caravan master cannot throw me ‘out on my arse.’”
     Chantrus stood shocked for a moment, and then a chuckle broke his face into a grin.  He began to laugh loudly.
     Fergon heard the soft ringing sound of a sword being drawn, and saw Chantrus eyes widen as he looked at Thulvas.  He spun around again and jumped at Thulvas, gripping his sword wrist and driving him backwards.  Fergon’s other hand reached out and gripped the caravan guard’s abused nose, grinding it back and forth like a mortar in a pestle.  Bone ground against bone, sounding like knuckles cracking.  Thulvas whimpered like a beaten dog, dropped his sword, and collapsed on the ground.  Fergon thought about kicking him for good measure, but Chantrus gripped his shoulder, bringing him back from the edge of fury.
     “I’ll handle this with the caravan master.  The fool drew his sword, and your axe is still slung on your back.  You should go now, and stay out of town for the next few days.”  He paused, and suddenly dug into his belt pouch.  “I want you to have this.”  He put a small pewter symbol of Shaundakul in Fergon’s clean left hand.  The two gripped wrists in the traditional handshake.  Fergon hesitated, glancing between the holy symbol and Chantrus. 
     “Take it; I have many more.”
     “Thank you.  May the road bring us together again.”  Fergon nodded and set off up a talus slope towards the stone house.  Maybe they would need some wood for the winter.  After all, I do have an axe….

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Freedom

Freedom, so long an unremembered dream, was his.
                                                "Conan the Barbarian"

            These damnable mountains even take the dawn from me, the sergeant thought.  There was no faint glow on the eastern horizon building slowly into a brilliant sunrise, a treasure generally reserved for farmers, soldiers and other early-risers.  Dawn was Sergeant Gareth's favorite time of day.  For a veteran soldier like himself, dawn could be the last calm moment in a day, or it could mean the end of a long night of battle.  But on days like today, the dawn brought nothing more than another shift on guard duty.
            But in the mountains, dawn arrived in stages.  The night sky, its stars far brighter than in the lowlands, began to soften in the east.  As the sky slowly shed its nighttime darkness, the pass remained in shadow.  Eventually, the rising sun touched the surrounding peaks, flooding the pass with a pink glow that Gareth considered unnatural.  As the hidden sun climbed into the sky, the light would become more normal, but the garrison on the pass would not see direct sunlight until mid-morning.  It was early springtime, and Gareth had not yet adjusted to the mountainous post.
            It could be worse, Gareth thought.  I could be in the swamps again.  The sergeant, like many old veterans, appreciated what he could about his post, especially after the tumult of the last two decades.  High Horn was an important mountain pass, to be sure, but it was as secure as anything in the Kingdom of Cormyr.  At least here the view was good and combat action was rare.  More than two decades as a Purple Dragon had satisfied a young recruit's thirst for action, and even managed to teach him some wisdom along the way.  Now, Gareth qualified for a pension, but he felt retirement was something for old men.  I can't be old yet.  There's still strength in these bones and fire in this blood.  I need a wife and children before I can be old.  He flexed his fist, ignoring the creaks in his joints as he did. 
            High Horn was only pass through the Stormhorn Mountains that would allow horses and (barely) wagons through, and had to be secured.  So a garrison had been built decades ago.  The raw materials were plentiful, and bored solders made a ready labor pool.  But the security of the garrison was mostly attributable to its location; it dominated the pass with two massive towers joined by walls that bisected the pass.  Nothing could get across the pass without going through the fortress.  It could easily be held by a few hundred men against a force many times their size, and was large enough to house half of Cormyr's armies.  Creatures in the area quickly learned that approaching the pass was a one-way trip, as there is little on the face of the earth more dangerous than a fortress of bored soldiers.  Regular patrols down the roads and through the surrounding areas kept it as clear of trouble as any mountain pass, and had the added benefit of keeping the soldiers' mischief to a minimum.  There is also little on the face of the earth more mischievous than a fortress of bored soldiers.
  
* * * * *

            In many places the changing of the guard is a grand spectacle of military precision and discipline, as guardsmen are marched out, inspected, and given orders before being trusted with one of the most important tasks a nation can face: securing it against all enemies.  In a definite sign of impending decadence, many changing of the guard ceremonies have attracted crowds of curious or respectful onlookers.
            However, none of these places were the garrison at High Horn.  Changing of the guard here happened at generally the same time, by generally the same people.  Sometimes the guards even acknowledged each other.  Gareth had been following the slow progression of a couple of men up the long road from the East for the last hour, and wondered if Roth, his replacement, would arrive before they did.  Roth was usually somewhat timely, but had taken ill yesterday, and Gareth didn't know if he was better, or would use it as an excuse to be late.  Roth was young, and had yet to learn that making an excuse was tantamount to an admission of guilt, at least for a soldier.  It was late afternoon, and Roth's shift began at the next bell.
            The two men continued their slow and painful procession up the mountain road.  Painful at least to Gareth, who watched and occasionally frowned at the stupidity on display.  The leader of the two men, older and obviously angry, rode a horse that was otherwise unencumbered.  The other man was a fairly slim youth if Gareth's eyes judged accurately, but he walked, weighed down with enough baggage to slow two men down.  The mounted man continued to harangue his porter, stopping only to drink from a skin he held.  Gareth couldn't tell if it held water or wine, but did notice that he never offered any to his companion.  As they approached the tower, the mounted man appeared to calm down considerably, as if he was intent on making a good impression on the guards.
            Now that they were within a hundred yards, Gareth got a good look at them.  The mounted man was indeed older, with some grey in his close-cropped beard and hair.  He looked somewhat foreign, but many of the travelers they saw did.  His skin was dark and bronzed, and his large nose curved out between two beady, deep-set eyes, over a weak chin.  The effect was of a vulture who had been trying to grow hair and a beard for the last two months.  He wore a heavy wool shirt and a fine leather jerkin, topped with a cloak against the chill that remained from the recent winter.  He gazed back at the guard, as if he had felt his stare.  Gareth did not flinch away; evaluation of visitors was part of his job, but the hair on the back of his neck rose.  On his own time, he switched his gaze to the walking companion.
            The youth (for he was younger than Gareth had thought) was originally from the Great Glacier, if experience was any guide.  If he were more than twenty, Gareth would take his pension tomorrow.  His reddish-blonde hair had been cut short, uncommon for a Northman, and he wore nothing more than a ragged tunic of rough wool, bound at the waist with a scrap of cloth, and a pair of ill-fitting boots.  He was taller than his companion, but stooped under the load.  He carried a frame pack piled over his head with bags and what looked like a small chest.
            As the odd pair approached the wall, Gareth heard the bell sound, and almost immediately, the sound of Roth's hurried footsteps approaching the door.  The door opened, and Roth came in, looking only a little pale.  "Sorry I'm late, Sarge.  This fever has me moving slowly today."  Gareth ignored the excuse, gave him a smile that could be interpreted as anything, picked up his gear, and moved out of the room.  Roth watched him go, curious as to why the old veteran seemed to be in a hurry today.

* * * * *

The pair of travelers stopped a good ways from the wall.  A small knot of guards exited the tower and stood around, waiting for them.  The older man dismounted, turned to his companion, and laced up the youth's tunic and then dusted off his own clothes. 
            Gareth hurried out of the gate just in time to see this.  The captain of the gate guard looked at him quizzically, but said nothing.  This pair doesn't look like trouble, but an extra hand is welcome.  And Gareth may know these two.  
            Apparently satisfied, the older traveler turned and smoothed his own clothes again, then proceeded to the gate.  He smiled and approached within ten feet of the guards, greeting them with a kindly smile and an open right hand, the picture of humble innocence.  "Greetings, noble guardsmen.  I am Malagar, a scribe from Aglarond.  I travel the breadth of Faerun and write stories of far-off lands for the entertainment of my people.  They are fascinated by the bravery of the famous Purple Dragons of Cormyr.  May I be allowed the privilege of interviewing some of your soldiers?"  At this, many of the guards shared a look of pride.
            The captain was expecting the usual poor-merchant-needs-shelter story and was ready to tell the man that only soldiers could enter the tower itself, but they could stay in the courtyard if they so desired.  The flattery and request stumped him.  "Well, um....  We, I, ah.... The commander of the garrison welcomes you, Malagar.  This is indeed unusual, and I will have to speak with him regarding your request.  Perhaps while you and your ...companion are resting from your journey.
            "Yes, captain, that would be most excellent if you could speak with him.  I and my assistant Fergon will eagerly await his answer." 
            At the mention of his name, the youth glanced up at Malagar, and then quickly back down to the ground.  Gareth caught the glance and saw a nothing in his eyes but a dull gaze.  The kid must be exhausted, walking all that way with their baggage.  Gareth moved towards the boy, "Allow me to help, sir.  This boy looks tired."
            Malagar stepped in front of Gareth, cutting him off.  "Tired?  No, he's dim-witted, but not tired.  Poor Fergon here was born with a limited intellect, but a strong body.  His parents knew he couldn't make it on the Great Glacier, and were ready to abandon him, but I took mercy on the poor soul.  He's strong as an ox, but only slightly smarter than one.  His pride would be injured if you were to help.  He'll be fine, I assure you."  The old man's voice was like honey, and Gareth could feel his concern slipping away.  Before he could say anything more, the two travelers slipped inside the gate, trailing their horse.
            The garrison at High Horn was relatively simple, but massive.  A fortress towered over each side of the pass, built into the cliff face, approachable only from within the courtyard or by air.  Two massive walls joined the fortresses and made a massive courtyard of the flat land at the top of the pass.  Each corner of the wall had a smaller tower, and a large gatehouse straddled the road at either side.  The courtyard was home to the few civilians who spent their summers at High Horn, providing the services that all garrisons need, but that the military neglected. 
            The two made their way to a straw-covered corner of the courtyard provided for travelers, and picked out a site.  While Fergon unlimbered his load and began to set up camp, Malagar took the horse to the stables and arranged for his keeping.  The stablemaster normally charged one Gold Lion for horses (highway robbery; there was no competition), but ended up keeping the horse for free, if the writer would 'put in a good word about the stables here' in a story.  That night the stablemaster's wife wondered how he could agree to such a deal, but all he could remember was how reasonable it sounded at the time.
            Meanwhile, the guard captain made his way to Sir Alaric, the commander of the garrison, to speak with him about the unusual request.  Sir Alaric was a Knight of the Purple Dragons, a member of a noble order who had disappointed his superiors one too many times, and ended up running what was little more than a rest stop for merchants on the way through the pass.  Sir Alaric agreed to meet with the scribe, and began to consider how to properly embellish his stories.  All for the benefit of the reader, of course.
            Gareth made his way back to the barracks, wondering why he had originally been suspicious of the scribe.  On meeting him, he had seemed like such a kindly and humble man, especially to take in that boy like that.  If he hadn't done that, the boy probably wouldn't be alive now, or might have been sold into thrall, he thought.  The Red Wizards of Thay occasionally raided those Northmen villages for slaves, after all.  Gareth's mind began to run over the brief encounter at the gate, as if something didn't fit in.  He let it run while he took off his armor and put it away, then lay down on his pallet for a brief nap before dinner. 
            But sleep eluded him.  Some fact or observation he had missed was demanding attention, but he couldn't put a name to it.  All he knew was that it involved the scribe and his boy.  Relax, you old grunt; you'll figure it out in time, and it will probably be nothing.  It's not like you've been charmed by a Dryad or anything.
            He jumped bolt upright, tugged on his boots and ran out of the barracks room.  Almost immediately, he ran back in and grabbed his sword, buckling it on as he ran out again.

* * * * *

            Gareth burst into the War Wizards' barracks, disturbing some of the sleeping wizards, and most of the studying ones in his haste.  "Shevetas, you must lend me your amulet!" 
            Shevetas was busy studying a new spell he had just received, but he recognized the voice.  Sergeant Gareth was an old comrade whom he had served with on a number of occasions.  The two had somewhat of a friendly relationship, but nothing to justify lending amulets or anything. 
            "Apparently the only thing I 'must' do is deal with impolite interruptions from rude sergeants who do not belong in this room to begin with."  Shevetas didn't even look up from his spellbook.
            Gareth sighed, coming to a stop at the side of Shevetas' desk.  "It's a long story, but I think there's a wizard in the courtyard with some kind of charm."
            "How nice, a charming wizard.  Is he pleasant with the ladies, too, or just with the guards?"  The wizard's voice dripped with sarcasm.
            "Not that kind of charm.  The kind like a Dryad or a Siren has.  The kind that makes people act funny."  He wasn't getting through.  Words weren't his strong suite; he much rather would have shaken the wizard out of his robes, but he needed this favor.
            "Well, then, it must be true," the wizard finally looked up.  "You certainly are acting funny.  Not in the amusing sense, of course, but funny none the less."  He gave the soldier a look that could curdle milk.
            "Shevetas, you know me.  Do I go off half-drawn?  Have I ever done anything rash or hasty?"  At least that you know of, he thought.
            "No, but there's always a first time.  Keeping that in mind, tell me about your charming wizard."  Shevetas turned to face him fully.  "And be quick about it.  If he is in the castle, it's dangerous.  If not, I've got spells to learn."
            "Okay, it started when I saw these two men approaching on the east road...."

* * * * *

            "...so then I took the Vorpal Blade from the Knight-Commander's lifeless hands and cut the vampire's head off.  I tell you, it was like slicing through a waterfall.  That blade was the best sword I've ever used.  Too bad they resurrected him; I would have liked to have kept it.  Sure could be useful out here."  Sir Alaric was in rare form.  His stories had departed reality within minutes of meeting this fascinating stranger, this eastern scribe, and he was making them up as fast as he could.
            "So this pass is dangerous?  We saw no sign of any creatures on the way up."
            "Only one of the most dangerous passes in all of Faerun.  The only reason it's safe is that we're here."  Alaric pointed proudly at himself to emphasize who exactly he was talking about.
            "You must be exceptionally busy, what with all the patrols and such." 
            Alaric realized that they were once again talking about reality, and came back down to earth.  "Well, actually, it's pretty quiet.  Most of the clearing out of critters has already been done.  We mostly make sure they don't come back, and protect the pass against raiders from the west"
            "Really?  So how many men do you have under you?"
            Alaric wanted to exaggerate, to make himself important to this scribe who would write stories about him, but the urge to be honest was overwhelming.  "About four hundred.  Two hundred Purple Dragons, eighty or so War Wizards, and the rest are support staff.  At any given time, about a third of the Dragons and Wizards are on patrol, leaving us with about two hundred fighting men and women on average.  Throw in some passes and leaves, a few sick calls, and it's about a hundred fifty, a third of whom are on guard at a time."  He was surprised at himself, sharing this much information with a stranger.  "You won't use the details in your stories, will you?  That shouldn't get out." 
            Malagar gave the Knight-Commander a reassuring smile.  "Of course not.  I just like to get a feel for whom I'm talking to.  You must be important to have received such a post."
            "Thank you.  I like to think that I've done more than my share of defending the Kingdom."
            "I'm sure you have.  I'll have to come back and ask you to tell me some more stories.  Do you think it would be acceptable if I wandered around the fortress a bit and interviewed some of the guards?"
            "Of course.  I'll announce to all my commanders that you are to be given access to all areas of High Horn.  Except the most sensitive ones, of course."  Alaric grinned at his new friend.
            "Of course," said Malagar, You grinning idiot.

* * * * *
           
            "And where is this 'scribe' now?" asked Shevetas.
            "I don't know.  I imagine he's speaking with the Knight-Commander."  The two were huddled over Shevetas' desk.
            "Well, so much for getting to him before he does any damage."  The wizard sighed and leaned back.  "And his servant?"
            "He's either with the scribe, or in their tent.  I came straight here."
            "Hmmm.  It sounds like this stranger is using at least two magicks.  One to charm everyone he meets, and another for his servant.  I’ve never heard of a charm spell as powerful and lasting as this one; it must be something new or very, very old.  Either way, we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with.”  Shevetas pulled a book from the stack on his desk and began thumbing through it.
“The servant is something else.  I wonder if he really is as simple-minded as this Malagar says, or if there is an enchantment responsible for his behavior.”  He continued to search through the book.  Gareth glanced at it, but could make no sense of the squiggles on the pages.  “Ah, here we go: Slave Collars.  They are magicked to limit one's intelligence and initiative, but to leave the body intact.  It says here that the Red Wizards use them frequently, but the collars are rarely seen outside Thay.  Wait.  You said he had hair?"
            "Yes, he's obviously a Northman, but it's cut short-"
            "The scribe, not the boy.  Did the scribe have hair and a beard?"
            "Yes, the scribe has hair and a beard.  Both cropped short, like he lives in a warmer climate.  Why does it matter?"
            "Cropped short."  The wizard thought for a moment.  "Or like it just started to grow out."
            "Well, yes, I guess he could have just started to grow it out....  Look, who the hell cares if he's got a beard?  I say we get the son of a bitch now, before he charms Sir Alaric the Idiot into doing anything stupider than normal."  Gareth went to stand up, but Shevetas laid a hand on his arm.
            "The Red Wizards of Thay shave their heads.  And they keep slaves.  And they are masters of the magical arts."
            The old sergeant slowly sat back down and took a deep breath.  "The Red...?  Shit."
            "Yes.  Deep and wide.  We may have more than a simple case of a charming slaver.  We may have a spy."

* * * * *

            Gareth had Shevetas' amulet against charms and other small magicks under his shirt, but he had been repeatedly warned by the wizard to act as if Malagar was a trusted friend.  Shevetas had added, "Of course, it's best if you don't say anything at all."  Gareth had no intent of being around if the potential spy showed up.
            Malagar was at dinner with the Knight-Commander, so the coast was clear for another hour, at least.  But Gareth had the soldier's aversion to spellcasters, so he watched from across the courtyard as Fergon methodically packed the camp.  Once it was mostly packed, the old veteran stole a glance around the mostly-deserted courtyard, took a deep breath, and walked over to where the youth was trying to arrange the frame pack so he could don it.
            Gareth gestured at the frame pack, smiled and said, "Give you a hand?"
            Fergon smiled and grunted in the affirmative. 
            By all the gods, is he that dumb? thought Gareth.  But then Fergon stood up and pointed at Gareth's end of the pack, saying something in a harsh language, and pantomiming picking up the pack by hand.  That's better; he just doesn't speak the language.  The two of them hoisted the pack and began to carry it over to the northern fortress.
            Gareth was surprised to see just how young Fergon was.  Despite his near-six-foot height, he seemed to be about sixteen.  The way he manhandled the pack showed that there was strength in his sparse frame.  The sergeant was hard pressed to keep up.
            Their room was one that housed wealthy merchants and diplomats on their way through the pass.  Carpets covered the stone floor, and a decent tapestry one wall.  There were no windows, of course, but Alaric had already arranged for candles and some stew to be sent for Fergon.  The smell made the sergeant regret that he was missing dinner.  Fergon led the way to one of the beds, and they set the pack down on it.  Gareth stood quietly while the young barbarian busied himself about the room, laying out his master's clothes, making a bed for himself on the floor, and moving the thin chest over to the table.  Gareth helped with the chest, and it was heavier than it looked.  I'll have to ask Shevetas about that. 
            Finally, Fergon sat down to eat, and even offered half his stew to Gareth, who could not bring himself to accept it despite his hunger.  As the young barbarian sat and ate, Gareth stared at him, lost in thought.  This boy takes obvious abuse from his master, yet eagerly does all the work and even offers to share what is probably his first meal this day with a total stranger.  I swear that I will not let you leave here a slave, Fergon.  Impulsively, Gareth reached over toward the young barbarian and twitched aside the high collar to his tunic.  A simple thin iron collar lay on his neck, looking like so much adornment.  Looking closely, Gareth could see runes scribed into it.  He made note of a few of the runes as Fergon gave him a cryptic look.

* * * * *

            “You’re sure that these are the runes you saw?”  Shevetas looked intently at the paper.
            “For the fourth time, yes.  What do they mean?”  Gareth was getting impatient with the wizard.
            “This series literally means, ‘power of the will’, and this is an odd variation of a subordinating rune.”
            “Okay, so it subordinates the power of the will?  Sounds like a Slave Collar.  Can you remove it?”
            The wizard looked at Gareth as if he had attempted to speak a foreign language.  “It’s not that simple.  You can pull the words ‘slavery’ and ‘evil’ out of a book of good deeds.” 
            “But it’s obvious.  He’s a slave.  He’s got a collar.  It’s a Slave Collar.” 
            Shevetas sighed.  “I wish things were that simple.”
            “Sometimes they are.”  Gareth gave Shevetas a look that said, ‘prove me wrong.’  Despite his natural superiority, the wizard realized his physical proximity to a veteran of many battles, and relented.
            “Okay.  Assume you’re right.  What do we do from here?”
            “Hey, you’re the brains.  Don’t you have any ideas?”
            The War Wizard thought for quite some time, staring at the runes on the paper.  “If he is a Red Wizard….  I would not want to match wands with the likes of him.  We must ensure that we have the advantage of surprise.”
            Gareth chuckled.  “In that case, it’s easy.  We wait until the Knight-Commander bores him to sleep, then we strike.”
            Shevetas smiled at the joke.  “I’m afraid that this imposter has Sir Alaric on his side.  Not only must we act decisively against him, we must also prove his guilt before Sir Alaric finds out what we’ve done with him.  Not an easy task, I assure you.  This Malagar has our poor Knight-Commander wrapped around his finger.”
            The veteran began to appreciate the complexity of their situation.  “Okay, we can’t go all the way to the top, but who can we include?”
            Shevetas gave him a long stare.  “We?  There is only one amulet.”
            Gareth didn’t even blink.  He had suspected it would come to this.  “Okay.  I’ll do it on one condition:  You get the slave collar off the boy.”
            Shevetas smiled.  “You are terrible at negotiating.  I was planning on doing that as soon as possible.”
            Gareth stood up.  “Negotiate, hell.  I’ll go get Hoff’s cosh.” 
As the sergeant walked away, he heard the wizard say, “Good idea.  We don’t want to kill him.”
           
* * * * *

            Malagar sat up in bed at the pounding on his door.  It must still be before dawn, he thought, who in the Nine Hells could this be?  Under his breath, he cursed the pounding in his head and the Knight-Commander’s cheap wines of the night before that caused it.  What sacrifices we make.  Have these upstarts never heard of proper fermentation?  “One moment, kind sir.”  Someday I will extract from their flesh the undeserved respect I must bestow on these barbarians.  He opened the door to the lantern by his bed and turned up the flame.  “Fergon!  Get the door!”
            Gareth continued to bang at the door.  It was still an hour before dawn.  If he couldn’t enjoy the dawn, then at least he could make sure that this imposter wouldn’t sleep through it.  Finally the door unlocked and opened.  Fergon towered in the doorway.
            Gareth took a deep breath and excitedly pushed his way into the room.  “Sir!  Malagar, sir!  The Knight-Commander wishes to speak with you!”
            The spy, if that’s what he was, sat up in his bed and rubbed at his eyes.  He fixed Gareth with his stare and calmly replied, “My poor constitution is not adjusted to the early risings of the military man.  Could you please give Sir Alaric my regrets at not answering his summons personally?  Yesterday was very taxing, and I’m afraid the quality of the Knight-Commander’s wines is not quite that to what I am accustomed.”
            Protected by the amulet, Gareth saw right through the last statement.  That almost sounded like a compliment, but wasn’t.  “My apologies, good sir, but he was most insistent that you join him.”  Gareth bowed low, hands behind his back.
            Malagar hesitated for a second.  That should have put off any questions.  The first to go shall be all early-rising soldiers.  Gareth thought for a split-second that he was found out, but then Malagar looked him in the eye and said, in words of velvet-wrapped steel, “I cannot be disturbed.  I would be most appreciative if you could explain that to the Knight-Commander.” 
            Gareth felt the full impact of the spell, and believed him.  That makes perfect sense.  He had a rough day and a late night.  Surely Sir Alaric will understand that he needs his sleep.  And then he felt the amulet begin to warm up against his skin, almost burning.  With a disorienting lurch, his thoughts were his again.  And they were not pretty.
            Malagar almost had a hand up before the shot-filled leather cosh in Gareth’s right hand caught him full on the temple.   He’s quick; I’m glad we got him while he was still sleepy.  Any consciousness left in him was quickly winked out when Gareth’s mailed left fist slammed into his face.  Gareth turned to face Fergon, unsure of what the youth would do, but not wanting to hurt him.  But the young barbarian stood there, grinning at Gareth.
            Shevetas burst into the room, wand in hand.  He took note of the unconscious and bleeding spy and visibly relaxed.  He walked over to Fergon, speaking calming words.  Fergon continued to grin at Gareth as Shevetas cast the counter-spell to the Slave Collar.  There was a faint glow from the wand, then an audible tink as the collar dropped off into his tunic.  Gareth stood from where he had sprawled on the bed, and Shevetas took a step away from the former slave.  Both the soldier and the wizard stared at the big youth, not sure what to expect, or even to say. 
Fergon looked from one to the other as intelligence bloomed in his eyes.  He blinked a few times, as if emerging into bright daylight.  Then he smiled and nodded at both men, then turned to look at his former master, unconscious and bleeding from his nose.  The smile on his face froze into a rictus of rage, and he dove forwards onto the body of his master, a bloodcurdling scream ripping the silence. 
Shevetas jumped back.  He knew not to get between a raging barbarian and his prey, even a young barbarian.  Gareth stood there, watching as Fergon screamed guttural curses and pummeled his former master.  Shevetas looked at his friend imploringly.  “Do something!”
Gareth laughed and looked back, “Like what?  Sell tickets?  I’m enjoying this.” 
“But he’ll kill him!” 
“That’d be a real tragedy, wouldn’t it?”  Fergon had taken to pounding Malagar’s head against the wall.  Gareth was impressed with his strength and stamina.
“But he’s a spy!  We need to take him prisoner!”
“Do we?  Like I said before: sometimes, things really are that simple.”  The solid tonk! of Malagar’s head against the stone wall turned into a juicy thwack! as his skull began to crack.
A crowd began to appear in the doorway, drawn by Fergon’s scream and continued cursing.

* * * * *

            Gareth was led from his cell by four guards.  He had done this before, so he knew the drill.  The other guards knew him personally, or at lest knew of him, and treated him accordingly.  At least I won’t fall down the stairs, like some of the poor sods we take in.  He was brought, not surprisingly, to the Knight-Commander’s suite.  Shevetas was already there, rubbing his wrists where the shackles had been removed.  Standing next to the Knight-Commander was Zell, the Wizard-Commander.
            “Remove his shackles.”  The Knight-Commander had been most insistent that all three be hung for their actions.  Gareth had briefly wondered if the hanging would be before or after Sir Alaric came to his senses.  Frontier justice can be too swift at times.
            “Sergeant Gareth, tell me what you know.  I already have Shevetas’ story, and wish to hear your version of… this incident.”  The Knight-Commander might be egocentric and overbearing, but he was no fool.
            Gareth relied on the soldier’s maxim, ‘When in trouble, tell the truth.’  He started with the first time he saw the travelers the previous day, leaving out nothing, including his admission that he had been ensorcelled by the old man’s charms, that he had drawn Shevetas into the affair, and even that he had stood by and watched as Fergon killed his former master.
            When Gareth was done, Zell nodded at Sir Alaric.  “He speaks the truth.”
            Sir Alaric stood up and regarded Gareth and Shevetas.  “We have you two to thank for exposing a spy.  Wizard-Commander Zell, after much study, penetrated the spells that protected Malagar’s chest.  Inside he found detailed documents on the structure, schedules, and commanders of this fortress, as well as descriptions of the surrounding area.”  He picked up a small case from his desk and opened it.  “While your actions went far beyond the chain of command... far, far beyond it, I might emphasize, you two exhibited the initiative and courage that the Purple Dragons and War Wizards are famous for.  Our nation relies on soldiers and wizards like yourself for its protection.”
            “However, if it were to be known what transpired here, Cormyr would be flooded with spies.  Nobody can know just how close this Malagar came to being successful in his mission.  Perhaps he would have died on the long road to Suzail.  Regardless, it is best that he expired before a trial.  For your actions, I award each of you the Heart of Valor.”  It was unusual for a Purple Dragon or a War Wizard to receive the Heart of Valor outside times of war.  “I must, however, insist that you both remain silent on what transpired here.”
            Not as dumb as I expected, thought Gareth.  Give us the Heart of Valor, but insist on our silence in return.  We get a greater reward than we deserve, but you get what you want.
            Shevetas shifted uneasily.  “Sir, may I make a request, please?”
            Sir Alaric looked a little put out, but Zell fielded the question.  “What is it, War Wizard Shevetas?”
            “Sir, it would be easier to keep my silence if I were to be stationed elsewhere.  Say somewhere closer to Suzail.”  Gareth mentally kicked himself for picking such a cocky partner in this affair.
            But both Commanders smiled.  “Excellent request, Shevetas.  I shall personally see to it that you are posted somewhere to your liking.  Perhaps the Great Library?”  The Great Library of Suzail was famous for its collection of magical books.
            Shevetas could barely contain his glee.  “Sir!  Thank you, sir!”
            Sir Alaric turned to Gareth.  “Do you have any such request, Sergeant?”
            “The slave boy, Fergon.  What is to be his fate?”  Gareth couldn’t believe he just passed up the opportunity to be somewhere warm, green, and with beautiful sunrises.
            Sir Alaric looked confused and a bit crestfallen.  “The boy?  Um, we haven’t thought of him, but I’m sure somebody will take him in.  Don’t you have a request?”
            No, sir, it might be more fun to stay here and watch you squirm.  And besides, that boy needs something more than a job shoveling stables.  ”No, sir.  I like the mountains.  But we could always use a hand in the barracks.”
            “Very well, Sergeant Gareth.  The boy Fergon will be released to you.  He’s your responsibility.”
           
* * * * *

Winter was coming on; the old sergeant could feel it in his bones.  Soon the snows of winter would close the pass.  The civilians would go wherever they spent winter, and the guards would prepare for the long siege of winter, stocking up on dice, cards, and other distractions.  High Horn remained manned year-round, but weather cut it off from the rest of the world for much of that time.
Since being adopted by the guards at High Horn almost eight months ago, Fergon had grown in many ways.  His lean body had filled out, now massing at over two hundred pounds.  He had learned Chondathan, the language of Cormyr, although he retained quite an accent.  And he had even mastered the basic manual-at-arms for the greataxe, originally taught as a joke by one of the guards who thought it the perfect weapon “for a barbarian”.  Fergon practiced daily with his axe, and was getting to where he could best some of the more experienced soldiers. 
But most importantly, at least to Gareth, was that Fergon had not sunk into despair at what had happened to his family and his people.  He was convinced that adversity made him stronger, like a smith’s forge made the steel stronger. 
One night, after introducing the boy to the wonders of mead, the youth had told him, “When I die in this world, my spirit will fly like an arrow to the halls of my ancestors.  I will meet my parents, and they will know how I lived my life.  If I lived it poorly, they will know, and they will cast me out of the family.  I will spend eternity alone.  If I lived it well, and met all my challenges with a strong heart, they will welcome me.”  Gareth pretended not to notice the tears on the boy’s cheeks.
Now, it was time for him to go live that life.  He didn’t realize until now that he felt like a father.  Imagine that… me, a father.  Perhaps it was time to take that pension, meager as it was. 
Gareth heard Fergon coming up the ladder to his post.  He usually showed up this time of day, if for nothing more than to catch up.  Today the normally boisterous youngster was uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn.  They exchanged quiet greetings, looking out at the snowy pass.  Some of it would melt, but some was already here to stay the winter.
Finally Fergon spoke, “Winter is coming.”
Gareth continued to look out the open windows.  “Yep.”  There was a long pause.  “Do you plan to leave?”  Both of them were blunt, Gareth by career and Fergon by nature.
Fergon breathed in deeply.  He didn’t know how Gareth would respond to his leaving, and he hoped the old sergeant would understand.  “Yes.”  He glanced at the older man, but he was still looking out the window.
“When will you be going?”
“The weather wizards say that it should be clear for a week, then the first storm will come.  I plan to leave before it arrives.”
“Aye, that’s a good idea.”  Gareth continued to study the pass. 
Minutes passed, and Fergon said, “I will miss you.”
Gareth finally turned from the window.  Fergon could see tears on his face.  The old sergeant grabbed him by the shoulders, smiled, and embraced him.  “I’ll miss you too, son.  I’ll miss you too.”

My Name Is Fergon

The boy was far from home when dawn lit the sky with its rosy glow.  His breath froze immediately in the subzero air, and his skis left parallel tracks for miles behind him.  He skied on at a tireless pace, putting miles between himself and home.  If there had been someone to see him pass, they would have noted an eager smile and a determined scowl fighting for dominance on his young face.
“I will succeed.  My father will be proud.  It is my fifteenth year and I will earn a name and become a man by hunting the White Bear.  Alone.”  The last thought gave him a shiver that he quickly attributed to the cold.  He wanted to hurry and get to the Ocean of Ice now, but he knew to pace himself.  If he were skilled and brave, he would still need all his energy to lure and kill the great northern bear, and even more energy to bring its pelt home as a present for his mother.  And nobody would ever call him boy again.
Any other culture would have considered his parents distant, if not downright abusive.  But the Northland is a harsh environment, and they knew that the best gift they could give their son would be the strength to survive anything it could throw at him.  The boy could still remember his father coming home from a hunt with half his face and one arm mauled by a bear that refused to die.  He remembered, not the blood and tattered flesh that hung off him, but the look of determination, the slow, smoldering strength in his father’s eyes, and his mother’s only comment, “Where there is life, there is hope.”  Old Scrama, the village healer, had done what she could, and his father lost only a little strength in his arm, and would carry the scars to his funeral pyre.
With the rising of the sun, a breeze began to blow in from the northwest.  The boy altered his pace with the breeze, slower when it was strong, faster during the lulls.  He had two days still to travel, and knew better than to fight the weather that Auril might send his way….


The white bear sniffed around the dead bird, wary of …something.  The large white birds did not normally lie there in a pool of blood, but winter was coming on, and free food was the best kind.  But there was a taint of something on the kill.  Something that stirred memories older than the bear, something buried deep in the bear’s bones.
Finally, hunger overcame wariness, and the bear licked at the blood.  It was fresh and tasty.  Caution disappeared as the bear settled down to crack the bones between its great teeth, oblivious to the hunter downwind who quietly drew his bow to his ear.


Fergon finished drilling a hole in the tooth with his knife, and added it and the remaining claws to the necklace.  The boy had perished in the hunt, reborn in the bear’s blood as Fergon, “Fearless”.  The bear had fought tooth and nail, taking eight arrows and one deep spear thrust before finally dying, claws and teeth sunk into the boy’s shield.  Fergon would remember it forever with this necklace.  Tooth and nail.  Perhaps the bear’s strength would be added to his when he wore it, like the magic swords his father had told stories about. 
Fergon smiled as he remembered his father’s tales of men who went away to foreign lands and returned with outlandish tales, wholly unbelievable except for the booty they brought back.  Drinks that healed mortal wounds, swords that never rusted and were always sharp, a ring that kept the wearer warm, though he wore nothing but a breechclout in the dead of winter.  He wondered what the truth was, for many in his tribe had mastered the art of storytelling, such that every journey was transformed by the telling into an epic odyssey, and every scrap a fight to the death. 
Fergon knew that he would never find out what lay beyond the horizon, for he was his parent’s only son, and had to take care of them as they grew older.  He had to hunt for the tribe, sharing his kills with the farmers who shared their crops with him.  It was the only life he knew, and the only one he would ever know.  But that couldn’t stop him from dreaming about what was beyond the horizon.


The return trip was not as easy.  The bear had been a large one, and its hide had a mind of its own.  It kept coming unbound, or knocking against his spear and bow, tripping him as he skied.  He had to re-tie it seven times on the first day, and twice today.  Even if the hide stayed put, its weight alone was enough to slow him down.  He sighed, realizing that the return trip would take three days, and he might lose some of the hard-earned respect he knew a successful hunt would bring.  He pressed on, so that he could at least return during the brief daylight hours tomorrow and show his trophy to the rest of the village.


The first sign of trouble was the smoke on the horizon.  There was always steam from the volcanic vents that kept the village warm through the long northern winters, but black smoke clouded the southern sky.  No Northman built a fire that smoked like that!  Fergon picked up the pace, skis and poles pumping like a machine, more curious than cautious….


Fergon crested the final hill, winded from running the last half-mile, and stopped in shock.
The village was gone.  Everything had been burned, except for the now-scorched stone walls on some of the houses.  Strange men in red robes and furs strode about the village as if they owned it, rifling through chests and dumping out their contents on the muddy ground.  There was no sign of any of the villagers.
Fergon stood in disbelief, mouth agape.  His hunter’s eyes picked out a dirty cloth sack lying on the ground in front of his house and shock jolted him again as he realized it was his mother, lying dead in the mud of the village that had raised her.
Numb shock turned to boiling rage in a flash.  He dropped his pack and the bearskin he was so proud of, slung his spear, and limbered his bow.  He would die this day, taking many of the red devils with him.
The first arrow took a red-robed figure through the throat.  He fell back, clutching at the crimson stream gushing from a severed artery and tried to scream. 
The second hit another in the back.  He looked down in disbelief at the bloody arrowhead sticking out of his chest, and sank to his knees.
A robed figure who was speaking to the second victim looked up and saw Fergon striding forwards and drawing his bow, his face a rictus of anger.   The robed man barely managed to avoid the third arrow by launching himself headlong into the mud.  Fergon had already switched targets and fired at a fourth, hitting him in the shoulder.  The third man got up out of the mud, pulled something out of his pocket, and began to chant, tracing intricate symbols in the air with his hands.  
Fergon had a fifth target, and had nocked and drawn a fifth arrow, but something happened just as he was about to release the arrow.  A wave of energy swept through his body, leaving his skin tingling, and suddenly he couldn’t move.  Fergon watched his target realize the situation and run inside the shell of a house.  He was frozen stiff as a board, unable even to release his bowstring.  He could do nothing but watch helplessly as the wizard who had ensorcelled him approached, followed by more of his kind.
“Why, it’s nothing more than a boy.”  The wizard spoke slowly, with a strange accent.  He stopped and stood directly in front of the arrow.  Fergon tried with all his being to will his fingers to release the arrow, but they would not. 
The wizard reached out and plucked the arrow off the bow.  “Tsk-tsk, boy.  Don’t you know these things are dangerous?”  The wizard looked at the arrow carefully, then up at Fergon.  “Now whatever shall we do with you?” he asked, twirling the arrow in his fingers.


Fergon shifted the slave collar around his neck so he could touch the necklace his owner had “so graciously” let him keep.  He was careful not to move the collar too much or it would punish him again.  He had learned over the last weeks that he could not fight it, just endure the paralysis and pain that it brought. 
His master was a Red Wizard of Thay.  The Red Wizards had opened a magical portal to his village, killed most of his people, and sold the rest into slavery.  He had stumbled on the scene after the slaves had been sold, and his master had closed the portal.  Now his parents were dead and he was a slave.
Fergon paused a moment, touching his necklace.  His father would never know that he had become a man, would never know his own son’s name.  The young slave had told himself countless times that he would have gladly arrived home before the slavers came, just to tell his father that he had succeeded, though it meant his death.  A wave of sorrow swept over him as he thought about the things that never would be, all because of a few extra hours’ travel.  “I am sorry, Father.  I have failed you.  You will never know my name, and I will never again hear your stories,” he whispered.
Despite his pain, Fergon could not just give up.  Where there is life, there is hope.  He had seen sights that made his father’s stories tame by comparison.  Cities that stretch farther than the eye can see.  Magic used to hurt, kill, and torture.  Monstrous creatures handled like so much cattle.  Wizards flying on carpets.  A mighty demon, held prisoner by nothing more than chalk marks on a floor.  His young mind drank it all in, and thirsted for more.  He was only beginning to learn of the new world around him. 
They could chain his body, but mind and spirit were his alone.  Just as his father’s spirit had not been conquered, only vanquished from his body to fly to the halls of his ancestors. 
Fergon realized then that he would see his parents again, in the halls of his ancestors, after his own life was over. He would tell his father his name, and regale them both with stories of what he has seen and done in this strange world south of their village.  He thought back to the stolen dream of his victorious homecoming and realized that it wasn’t stolen after all, just delayed.  A ghost of a smile touched his face for the first time in weeks.  There was life; there was hope.
“Boy!  Are you daydreaming again?  Finish sweeping or I’ll flay the skin from your bones.” 
Someday, he would be free of this evil man.  He would be free to live his life, and it would be a story that would be told for ages to come.