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Tuesday, August 24, 2010


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...."

* * * * *

            " 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.”

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