Frej Wasastjerna


          Kahha were supposed to be cowards.

          Oh yeah? thought Horekt. Radeyann was a stinking Kahha, but since taking command of the expedition after Kelevrin’s death, he had proved repeatedly that he was both clever and brave.

          And that was exactly the trouble. This time his bravery had gone well beyond the bounds of sanity.

          In Shanlidarra, somebody had tried to disable the magical powers of Radeyann and the expedition’s two apprentice wizards, then, when that failed, to kill the whole expedition. Radeyann had said he thought it was done by some Halanni agent who suspected the expedition might support the rebels against the Halanni empire. That sounded reasonably plausible, at least Horekt couldn’t think of any other motive.

          So what did Radeyann do? Did he flee, heading back home to Miann-Shadalni with the expedition, as any sane person would have done?

          Like hell he did. Instead he set out for Kestrala, the capital of Halann, reasoning that with the expedition where they could watch it closely and do what they wanted to it, the Halanni would be less nervous.

          Maybe. And maybe a renya wouldn’t bite if you stuck your head into its mouth.

          While the other members of the expedition were clearly uneasy, nobody had had the guts to say no. They had meekly obeyed.

          Now it was up to Horekt to find some way of saving not only his own hide but that of the twenty-one other members of the expedition. Or should he just go along and trust Radeyann to save them again? No, he didn’t have that much confidence in a journeyman wizard. Especially when the result of failure might be not just a quick death but something much nastier. He had no idea what torture devices Halanni dungeons might be equipped with nor how likely the Halanni might be to use those devices on suspicious foreigners, but he had no desire to find out first-hand.

          So how could he get Radeyann to abandon this crazy idea? That was the thought that occupied his brain as the expedition rode ever northward under a gray sky that offered shade but no coolness. To the east a vast mountain range paralleled their course, its peaks hidden in the clouds. Westwards lay the sere, freshly plowed fields of the northern part of Miye Province, studded with palisaded villages and walled towns. Horekt paid little heed to all this, even to the dust parching his throat, stirred up by the expedition’s horses and the other traffic on the dry dirt road, as his mind frantically sought a way out of the trap.

          It was getting on towards evening when he figured it out. The purpose of this expedition was to gather information about the western lands, sending it back to Miann-Shadalni to be collected by the scholars of the White Order. Accordingly, Radeyann was quite willing to take risks so long as he could send a report back to Miann-Shadalni every day. But what if he couldn’t? What if the scrying bowl he needed to communicate with Miann-Shadalni vanished? Would he then be loath to risk not only the expedition’s lives but also the information gained from then on?

          It was worth a try.


          When evening fell, the expedition set up camp in a small forest rather than waste gold on an inn. They lit a fire in the center of a clearing and pitched their tents around it.

          Excellent, Horekt thought. This fit right in with his plans. He went to sleep happy, anticipating the fulfillment of his plan.

          After a few hours Lakedor and Astshek woke Hedral and Horekt. It was their turn for guard duty.

          Horekt crawled out of his sleeping bag, strapped on his breast- and backplates, vambraces and greaves, his sword and his quiver. Then he strung his bow and donned his helmet, turned over the hourglass so that he would know when his watch ended and went to stand watch on one side of the camp while Hedral did the same on the other.

          He stood for a while, dark trees of unfamiliar species looming on three sides of him, fitfully lit by the fire flickering on the fourth side. Hedral had added wood to the fire at the start of their watch, so there would be no need to do that again for a while.

          Even the smells in this forest were strange, far west of his home. So was the spooky whistling he heard. Presumably it was some nocturnal bird, but who knew? A slight shiver ran down his spine in spite of the heat.

          Finally he decided Lakedor and Astshek had had enough time to fall asleep. Most likely only he himself and Hedral were awake. Now was the time to act.

          He sneaked back into the camp. In the unsteady firelight, he missed a tent rope and stumbled. He didn’t quite fall, but his scabbard clanged loudly on his left greave when he caught himself.

          Hedral looked around. ”What are you doing?” he asked.

          ”Umm... I decided... to fetch...” Fetch what? Think quickly! ” whetstone. My sword could do with some sharpening.”

          Apparently the explanation satisfied Hedral, who turned back to face away from the camp.

          So now Horekt had to get his whetstone as well as his spade. He got them out of the tent he shared with three other soldiers, then it was time for the tricky part.

          He found the small tent where Radeyann slept alone and crept into it.

          Although the fabric of the tent let a little light through, it was very dark inside. Nonetheless the snores issuing from the dark blob on the left made it clear that that was Radeyann’s sleeping bag. Best to start searching on the right.

          Horekt’s fingers almost immediately found a bundle in which they could feel the characteristic shape of the scrying bowl. Then it took longer to check that nothing else would be disturbed when he removed the bundle. Finally he had made sure of that and crept backwards, taking the bundle with him.

          Back at his post, he decided to whet his sword first. Hedral would expect to hear that.

          After a few minutes of superfluous whetting of his already sharp sword, he decided that that was enough. Now down to business.

          He opened the stolen bundle. It was a sack with some leather straps that could be used to fasten it to a horse’s saddle or a man’s back. Inside it was, as expected, the bronze scrying bowl and a flask, likewise of bronze, that presumably contained the oil to be used in the scrying spell. He opened the flask and sniffed. Yes, this oleaginous smell seemed right.

          Now, where should he bury this stuff? At the edge of the clearing, maybe some way into the forest itself? Maybe not, the ground would probably be full of tree roots there, making digging difficult.

          Besides, he was a little scared of this alien forest.

          He decided to bury the bundle where he stood. Hedral was busy looking the other way and probably wouldn't see anything, especially since the fire was between them. Would he hear the digging? If so, a cover story would be needed again...

    Well, then tell him that Horekt hadn't dared go to the latrine pit in the forest but decided to dig a small pit here at the edge of the clearing instead. It would make him seem a bit of a coward, but then the forest was spooky.

    He dug as quietly as he could. Maybe the crackling of the fire masked the slight sounds he made, maybe it was the whistling sound from the forest, anyway Hedral didn't react. As Horekt had hoped, digging here was fairly easy, and there was no need to dig deep. After having dug out three spadefuls of earth, he jammed the stolen sack with its contents into the hole, then replaced what he had dug up as carefully as he could, smoothing everything down as well as he could in the near-dark. The soil for which there was no space in the hole got scattered so that there would be no heaps to betray anything.


          Taking down Radeyann's tent was the soldiers' duty, but the rest of his stuff he packed himself. Thanks to long practice, he could do it in a couple of minutes. However, this morning there was a problem. He couldn't find the sack with the scrying bowl and oil.

          All right, this problem wouldn't have fazed even an apprentice wizard. "Find Person or Object" was one of the most elementary spells. He stepped out of his tent to gain the space he needed for the motions to draw uruop into himself. He stretched his arms upward, then swept them sideways and down rather quickly, there was no need for anything more elaborate in this case. Casting the spell itself required only a few words and some simple passes with his hands, then he turned in a circle, visualizing the bowl and the oil flask.

          He got a clear sense of their proximity when he faced away from the nearby road, so he went in that direction. Soon he had zeroed in on a spot near the edge of the clearing. The soil there was disturbed as if someone had recently dug there and then tried to conceal that fact but done a poor job of it. He borrowed a spade from Medor and began digging.

          He found the sack almost immediately and lifted it out of the ground. Yes, the bowl and oil were in the sack. Everything was in order, but who had buried the sack and why?

          He had no sympathy for practical jokes. This sort of thing couldn't be tolerated, even though it was only a minor nuisance.

          He ordered the whole expedition to line up in front of him. "Who buried my scrying bowl?" he asked in a peremptory tone.

          For a moment nothing happened. Then Horekt stepped forward with a sigh. "I did," he said. "I, uh, didn't like the idea of sticking our neck in the renya's mouth the way you're planning..."

          Horekt rambled on for a while. When he finished, Radeyann began to take a deep breath preparatory to scolding him properly, but before he got started Medor spoke.

          "Excuse me, sir, but this time I think there's some sense in what Horekt says," the leader of the soldiers said. "Of course, insubordination like this needs to be punished, but I have to agree that going to Kestrala seems unreasonably dangerous. We knew, when we were assigned to this expedition that there would be risks, but going to Kestrala when we have reason to believe the authorities there are hostile is too much. I admit that you could be right that they'll be less suspicious if they have us where they can hold us under close observation, but I wouldn't really expect that.Rather, I'd expect them to be particularly nervous about having foreign sorcerers with unknown capabilities right in their capital. The logical thing for them to do would be to throw us in a dungeon or even kill us, to make sure we can't make any trouble."

          Radeyann was silent for a long while. Then he said, "All right, you win. We don't go to Kestrala. We go home instead."