Chapter 7
A Death in the Forest

A.C. 308, Early Spring

Flint loathed horses—claimed to be allergic to them—and wouldn’t ride one to save his life—well, maybe then. At any rate, he patted the neck of his gray mule, Fleetfoot, and surveyed the silvery aspens and broad oaks of Qualinesti with fond regard.

After twenty years of coming and going between Solace and the Tower of the Sun, he was almost familiar with the trail to Qualinost—a claim even few elves could make beyond the specially trained guides the Speaker of the Sun hired to escort visitors there and back. Of course, he occasionally took a wrong turn or two, but the hill dwarf who couldn’t find his way by forest signs was a poor excuse for a dwarf, he thought.

Truth to tell, however, he wasn’t quite sure where he was at the moment. He sat back on Fleetfoot, noting the rich earthen scent of the forest. A squirrel chattered at him from a bur oak and flung a clump of green leaves down upon him. The dwarf reached with broad fingers, deftly caught the bunch, and tossed it back into the air at the creature. “Save it for your nest!” he cried. “For if I’m not mistaken, you have family duties on your mind these days.” Another squirrel appeared on a nearby branch, and the first creature, tossing one last insult at the mounted dwarf, darted off after it.

Flint drew in a large breath. It was spring, and time to return to Qualinost. It had been a hard journey back to Solace, that autumn after his first stay in the elven city. The snow had begun to fly just as he’d reached the fringes of the grove of vallenwoods, the great trees that housed the village of Solace in their branches. His elven guide had quickly disappeared back down the road, and Flint had been left alone to trudge through the snow to his little house on the ground. He found his home cold and empty, save for a single mouse cowering in the corner.

It had been a lonely winter, twenty years ago, despite the warmth of the hearth and the companionship at the Inn of the Last Home; the following spring, he had found his thoughts turning toward the forests to the south, and Qualinost, wondering how Tanis was.

Not a week later, Flint had encountered a stranger in the Inn who turned out to be none other than a Qualinesti elf bearing a message from the Speaker: Flint was welcome to return, should he wish it. And he did. His next stay in Qualinost lasted more than a year before he grew lonely for human folk again. Eventually, with some variation, he’d worked into the pattern of visits that he found himself in now, living in Qualinost from the earliest spring to the latest autumn. Lately, he’d begun to wonder why he returned to his joyless little home in Solace at all.

The Speaker of the Sun had given up bothering to send for the dwarf each spring, knowing that Flint’s love of the city would draw him back south, until one spring morning would find the dwarf clattering across the bridge west of Qualinost. Flint, queasy about heights, never crossed the structure without paragraphs of oaths that would make a Caergoth longshoreman’s skin blister.

His entrance never ceased to amuse the elves.

Now, though, he still had several hours’ ride ahead of him. He prodded the laden Fleetfoot in the flanks with his booted heels, hoping that for once she would pick up the pace without protest.

Naturally, she balked.

Han-Telio Teften had had a good trading expedition. He whistled tunelessly and, not for the first time, blessed the Speaker of the Sun, whose relaxed attitudes toward relations with nonelves had made it easier in recent years to make a living by trade.

The young elf’s brown eyes glowed as, for the fiftieth time this trip, he slipped a slender hand into his canvas saddlebags, each time unwittingly tightening the knot in the thong that held the bag nearly shut. As he and his horse entered a widening of the trail, a small clearing, he drew out a small leather sack and shook the contents into his palm. Three white opals shone translucent against his weathered, tanned hand.

“Beautiful,” he breathed. “And the key to my future.”

A rustle off to his left brought his head up, a wary look on his face. Brigands had been virtually unknown on the inland trails of Qualinesti for years, but recent months had brought reports of lost travelers. After minutes without incident, however, Han-Telio returned to admiring the opals and fell to listing the wonderful things they would buy.

“A home, that’s first,” he mused. “And furnishings, of course. And a plot of land for my Ginevra to grow fragrant herbs on.”

Then, of course, there was Ginevra herself, the sloe-eyed elf who had promised to marry him once he could handle his part of the wedding expenses. Her practical-minded vow had spurred him to spend months on the road, trading fine elven jewelry, silken cloth, quartz sculptings, and, of course, her popular herbal remedies. And now he had finally earned enough to meet his half of the arrangement.

He didn’t see the creature right away. It was the smell that first caught his notice—a sweet smell of rotting garbage. The odor, and the sudden shiver of his horse, caught his attention.

Han-Telio looked up and felt his limbs go leaden. Waiting in the trail not twenty paces ahead stood a huge lizardlike creature. Its hide was dun-colored, the same hue as the worn dirt path behind it. Horns about the length of the elf’s arm tilted back from the lizard’s horny brow. It sported five toes with six-inch claws on both front feet. Its mouth was slightly open; each exhalation sent another cloud of fetid breath swirling toward the elven trader. The creature, resembling a wingless dragon, had a horned body as long as four elves, with a thin, whiplike tail only slightly shorter.

“A tylor!” the trader said. The beasts were rare even in the arid regions they preferred. None had ever inhabited the forests of Qualinesti. And even though the trader had ranged far from the elven homeland in his travels, he’d never seen a tylor.

But he knew they were strong, capable of great magic if brute force didn’t succeed, … and deadly.

Beneath him, Han-Telio’s horse stood stock-still in fright, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, forelegs locked. Han-Telio sawed at the reins, but the animal was heedless of his commands and kicks. The woods lay silent of all sounds except the creaking of the oak branches overhead.

“Your steed will not move, elf.”

Han-Telio looked around wildly, hoping that a rescuer—preferably one armed more heavily than an elven trader—stood ready to pitch into battle with him. The voice had been deep but raspy, as though air flowed over scales of sandstone. Over scales … Han-Telio felt another flood of fear pitch through him. He looked at the lizard.

“That’s right, elf. I speak.”

The tylor spoke Common.

The sounds spurred Han-Telio into quavery action; he slipped the opals into a pocket of his split tunic, and, hands shaking as the creature advanced two paces, its dangerous, sharp-edged tail twitching, the elven trader attempted to draw his canvas saddlebags open wider, to draw forth the short sword that he kept there.

But the knot in the thong that bound the saddlebags resisted his efforts, tangled hopelessly. The tylor moved another step forward; the smell grew stronger. Han-Telio recognized the odor.

It was the stench of rotting meat.

The voice rumbled again. “Where are you going, elf? Your horse does not appear willing to carry you.”

Han-Telio was not sure why he answered. Perhaps to win time. “To Ginevra,” he replied, yanking with one hand at the reins and with the other at the saddlebags. He breathed raggedly. “I must get home to Ginevra.”

Finally, the trader, with strength born of fear, snapped the thong and drew forth his short sword.

When Han-Telio looked up again, the tylor, head weaving as it sought to mesmerize its target, stood mere paces away. As the trader watched, fascinated despite himself, the creature passed before a spruce tree, then before a boulder of quartz, and its flesh turned first green, then rose-pink, then back to dun as the gray-brown path once again comprised the creature’s background. Camouflage, the elf found himself thinking, irrelevantly. With a burst of bravado, he pointed his sword at the beast.

“A slender pig-sticker like that short sword will do you little against the likes of me, elf,” the monster thundered, its plated face two arm lengths away. Then the tylor rent the clearing with a screech that shook Han-Telio to his spine.

The trader’s horse, terrified finally into movement, reared and wheeled to flee. But the tylor lunged and caught the horse by the neck in its jagged jaws as Han-Telio screamed and leaped from the animal. The trader screamed again as the tail of the tylor lashed with cobralike speed.

The elven body that hit the rocklike floor of the path was split nearly in two.

Three opals rolled to a stop in a pool of blood.

The roar came from a distance as Flint tugged vainly on the reins of his mule, trying fruitlessly to browbeat the beast into resuming the trip to Qualinost. For a moment, Flint stood frozen, his alert blue eyes inches from Fleetfoot’s dumb brown ones. Then a thin scream rocketed through the forest, and Flint’s hand went to his battle-axe as he twisted on the trail, seeking to locate the direction of the sound. Behind him, Fleetfoot shuffled nervously.

The scream came again, louder, but ended abruptly. It came from directly in front.

“Reorx’s thunder!” the dwarf exclaimed, throwing himself on Fleetfoot’s back. “Move, you cursed mule, or I’ll see you fed to a minotaur and enjoy the sight!”

Fleetfoot, for once, responded, and gallumphed down the trail as fast as her huge feet would carry her. Flint pulled out his short sword as he rode. Ten minutes later—an eternity for the anxious dwarf—Fleetfoot came to a wheezing halt in what was unmistakably the site of a battle.

The dwarf sat quietly at first, not dismounting, trying to gauge whether the creature that caused such mayhem still lurked in the area. Huge slash marks showed in the tough wood of the oaks. Dozens of slender aspens lay in splinters on both sides of the trail. The packed earth beneath his feet displayed a splash of what was undeniably blood, already fading from scarlet to brown. A rose-quartz boulder up ahead showed a wide smear of blood, drying against the backdrop of dense underbrush. Fleetfoot stirred as if to bolt. Flint calmed the mule and slipped quietly from the saddle.

The surrounding forest was silent of all but the most sylvan of noises, as though nothing on Krynn was amiss. Tiny blood-root flowers stood open in the damp earth off to Flint’s right, but he couldn’t see more than ten feet beyond them into the underbrush, fresh with new-sprung leaves. Battle-axe in his right hand, short sword in his left, he waited. A slight breeze, scented with old snow, raw soil, and a salty odor of blood, moved a few black and gray hairs in Flint’s beard.

Nothing happened.

Relaxing only slightly, grasping the mule’s reins in the same hand that held the short sword, the stocky dwarf moved warily around the clearing, pausing to note the claw marks, the slashes, that had ravaged the vegetation.

“Clearly a creature with a long tail,” Flint mused, never loosening his grip on his battle-axe and constantly searching the undergrowth with sharp eyes. “Built like a lizard. But in woodlands?”

He felt his eyes drift out of focus as he moved slowly in a circle. The bur oak, the boulder, another oak, and a dozen aspens went by in a blur.

“A woodland lizard makes little sense,” he reflected, gaze coming to rest on a knobby oak about twenty feet away. As he pondered, his vision eased back into focus.

Another smear of blood was daubed on a piece of wood jutting out halfway up the tree trunk. Above that, the trunk …

 … was looking back at him.

And the eyes were intelligent.

Flint felt the tylor’s razor-sharp jaws snap past his head as he hurtled across the clearing and into the underbrush. He dived to the wet earth and heard, rather than saw, Fleetfoot thunder by. He scrambled up again, beard clotted with clay, and looked frantically about for the monster. What in Reorx’s forge was that thing? he thought.

The creature, temporarily caught between an oak tree and a spruce, lunged again, snapped the evergreen, and pounded across the clearing.

It came right at Flint, who took off running with a speed that would have stunned his slower-moving dwarven relatives. After fifty paces or so, he caught up with Fleetfoot, who, being larger, couldn’t slip through the trees as quickly as Flint could. However, the mule was stronger than the dwarf, so the race appeared to be neck and neck. Behind them, the tylor pushed trees aside in its bloodlust, and roared. The dwarf and mule crashed through underbrush until Flint no longer had any idea where he was.

“Reorx!” he gasped as he dashed into another clearing, the mule a half-pace behind. In the center of the opening stood a huge dead oak—so large that it would have taken six or seven men to encircle it with their arms. One side showed a shadow—no, a depression in the trunk.

No, an opening. The tree was hollow.

As the tylor crashed out of the woods behind Flint, the dwarf bolted into the opening in the tree. The mule followed close on his heels.

“Fleetfoot!” the dwarf protested as the smelly mule, lathered with sweat, pressed against him in the dark interior of the oak. Flint turned toward the gap in the trunk, half-thinking to shove the mule back through it.

But the opening was gone. Outside, the tylor roared and screeched in protest, pounding against the tree again and again. Then it began to chant magic words.

Flint found himself standing in utter darkness, short arms flung around the neck of a trembling mule. At least he thought it was Fleetfoot who was trembling.

“God’s thunder,” he muttered. “Now what?”

He groped along Fleetfoot’s back to the saddlepack and drew out flint and steel. Moments later, as the trunk continued to reverberate with the sound of magical chanting and the force of the tylor’s blows, Flint, groping, found a stick on the pine needle-littered floor of the tree and lit it. Fleetfoot cuddled ever closer to the dwarf, who swatted her aside with an irritable hand.

“Move over, stupid,” he hissed. Flint held up the glowing chunk of wood and examined the bottom of the trunk. There was a thin layer of soil, which he poked a stubby finger into—and felt wood.

That would not seem surprising in a hollow tree, except that his fingers also felt something carved into that wood.

Nudging Fleetfoot aside again, Flint brushed aside the rich soil until the carving stood exposed.

“Reorx’s hammer!” he breathed. “A rune!” He leaned closer, heedless of the torch, which suddenly spat out a cinder, smack into the dry pine needles. The needles flared up in a blaze, which soon spread in a circle to the wooden floor of the trunk. The mule stood and trembled in a cylinder of flame, disregarding Flint’s attempts to haul her out of the blaze.

Flint was never sure what happened next. One moment he was tugging at the halter of a stalled mule, and the next moment he was standing in a huge oaken chamber, seemingly below where he’d been just a second before.

There was no sound in the chamber but the harried breathing of a hysterical pack mule and an only slightly calmer dwarf. He held up his makeshift light. A regiment could have fit comfortably in the spherical chamber.

“By the gods, we’re in the heart of the oak!” he told the mule, who appeared unimpressed. The dwarf stooped and poked at the floor with his short sword. “This tree is still alive.” He stood erect again and gazed around the chamber.

Firelight flickered off coppery walls of living wood, leaving knots and burls in shadow but exposing the smoother, rounded portions of the tree’s interior. Several passages appeared to open onto the chamber, much like enormous hollow roots.

Off to his left, Fleetfoot sighed and nickered, seeming finally to be emerging from the panic of the moments before. The mule looked around, an expression of torpid curiosity rising in her eyes. Then the creature spied what appeared to be an enormous water trough in the very center of the oaken room, and, mulelike, she acted immediately upon her impulse. She shuffled over to the wooden trough and snuffled the edge with quivering nostrils.

Clear liquid filled the basin, which was about five feet across. On the surface floated a lily—a golden lily, with the leaves of a normal water flower but a blossom of pure gold. Flint reached forward and touched the blossom with a reverent finger. Something so beautiful could not be evil, he thought.

As he touched it, the blossom opened and the pure voice of an elven woman chimed through the chamber:

“Well met, well met, the portal is set, the star is silver, the sun is gold, cast your coin where you’re going, then take hold and touch the gold.”

Flint drew back, casting a suspicious glare around the room, as though expecting a beautiful elf with a voice like a bell to step out from one of the rootlike caverns. “What should I do?” he whispered and turned, as if for an answer, toward Fleetfoot, who gazed back dimwittedly. “Oh, of all the creatures to get trapped in a magic tree with,” the dwarf said disgustedly. “Well, it said to cast in a coin, that the portal is set. A portal’s a door,” he explained to Fleetfoot. “And it seems to me I see no real door hereabouts, so perhaps this flower will help us. As my mother would say, ‘A bird in the hand makes light work.’ ”

Flint dug into a pocket and drew out the sum total of his winter’s wages from Solace: one gold coin. “Well, if I starve here, it doesn’t matter if I’m broke or not,” he reasoned, and tossed the coin into the honeylike fluid.

The liquid lit up as though a lamp burned deep within it, within the woody flesh of the oak. “Reorx!” Flint muttered, and grabbed Fleetfoot’s mane for support. The sweaty animal nuzzled him again, as if to encourage him. “Oh, all right,” he snapped, then continued more thoughtfully. “Maybe I should’ve tossed the coin into the flower; the lily seemed to be doing the speaking.” He touched one golden petal and …

 … Warmth suddenly flooded the dwarf’s body, and, turning to the mule—whom Flint now realized he had never appreciated for the dear, devoted creature that she was—he saw a similar warm glow glisten in Fleetfoot’s limpid eyes. Flint would later swear that the music of a hundred lutes filled the cavern at that moment. The room faded around them. Flint saw the mule’s heavy eyelids begin to close, and he let his own drift shut as well.

Suddenly the room grew noisy, and Flint felt stone, not wood, beneath his feet. His eyes flew open.

He stood, daubed in mud, pine needles, and mule sweat, embracing the odoriferous Fleetfoot. Around him, and slightly below, stood the open-mouthed figures of Tanis, Miral, and several elven courtiers. Flint gazed around him.

He was on the rostrum of the Tower of the Sun. With Solostaran, Speaker of the Sun. And a mule.

Fleetfoot opened her mouth and brayed. Flint took that as a suggestion to speak.

“Well,” he said. “I’m back.”

Kindred Spirits