Tanis obviously had overheard Laurana’s conversation with the guard. He was standing expectantly off to one side when Flint slipped into the room.
The dwarf handed the half-elf the sword and scabbard that he’d surrendered when the palace guards took him away. Then, wordless, a finger to his lips, Flint crossed to the window and peered over the edge. The outside wall was a seamless sheet to the courtyard twenty feet below.
“What are you doing?” Tanis demanded in a whisper.
Motioning the half-elf quiet again, Flint unwrapped the iron claws at the end of the rope ladder and slipped them over the windowsill. He checked the courtyard again. It was still deserted; most of the palace occupants were celebrating in the streets of Qualinost. Sounds of revelry drifted in.
The dwarf looked satisfied and flung the ladder over. Then, checking to make sure the bulky sack he carried was secure on his shoulder, he swung his stocky body through the window and stepped onto the ladder, pausing to motion to Tanis to follow him. He closed his eyes, awaiting the passing of a mild case of vertigo.
But the half-elf balked. “Do you know the penalty for disobeying an imprisonment order?” he asked.
The dwarf’s eyes opened again, and his bushy eyebrows rose on his forehead.
“Banishment!” Tanis whispered.
Flint leaned back through the window, his mouth near Tanis’s ear. “Then what do you have to lose?” the dwarf said sotto voce. “Anyway, you’ll be coming back.”
Moments later, Tanis stepped from the ladder to the courtyard surface, and the half-elf watched as Flint tugged on a side rope that released the ladder from the iron claws that still gripped the windowsill. “My own design,” the dwarf commented quietly as he pulled the half-elf behind a pear tree. Flint rummaged within the leather sack and drew out a mask fashioned to look like the head of a gully dwarf. He motioned for the half-elf to put it over his head.
Tanis’s hazel eyes widened. “You want me to dress like a gully dwarf?”
“It’s a costume,” the dwarf whispered. “It will get you from the palace to the western bridge.”
“A six-foot gully dwarf?” Tanis hissed.
Flint hushed his friend. “It was the only one the vendor had left. You should feel fortunate that I threw away the fake rat corpse that came with it.”
Flint plunged ahead. “Laurana tells me the elves will dress in costumes until midnight, when the celebrating will end and they’ll observe a somber period until the Kentommen is over. That gives us an hour to escape from Qualinost.”
Tanis still held the gully dwarf mask, surveying its olive skin, scruffy beard, and stupid expression. Anger rose on his own face. “If you believed I would flee, you don’t know me well,” he said, making no attempt to lower his voice. He turned, as if to toss the mask aside.
Flint caught his arm. “Trust me!” he snapped—for about the thousandth time, he thought. Anger turned to indecision in the half-elf’s eyes. “Trust me,” Flint whispered again.
Finally, Tanis donned the mask. “I feel ridiculous,” came the muffled words from within the wooden cylinder.
“You look lovely,” Flint said. “Come on.”
They made their way through the courtyard and gardens, then around the front of the palace to the street, where they plunged into the crowd of celebrating elves. “Don’t they ever sleep?” Flint asked irritably as the third elf in a row bumped against him.
“Very little, until the Kentommen is over.” Tanis’s voice sounded hollow through the mask.
Flint kept to the edge of the street, creeping along the edges of buildings to avoid being jostled by revelers.
Half an hour later, they passed beneath the graceful arch that spanned the western edge of the city, and turned south toward the bridge that crossed the River of Hope. The tiled avenue narrowed, and trees leaned in from either side. The revelers dwindled until Flint and Tanis were nearly alone, moving through the night. Tanis began to remove the mask.
“Best wait until we’re across the bridge, lad,” Flint said, and the thought of crossing the bridge in the dark, the River of Hope crashing hundreds of feet below him, made him queasy. He fought off the feeling as he quickly filled Tanis in on what the dwarf had learned—or rather, surmised—in the past two days.
“So you think someone may attack Gilthanas during his vigil at the Kentommenai-kath?” Tanis asked.
“It’s a possibility,” Flint said. “And right now possibilities are all we have to go on.”
After two days of Kentommen revelry, the guards at the bridge were obviously used to revelers in costumes and masks. They merely watched as the dwarf and an overgrown gully dwarf headed out on the structure. Flint clutched Tanis’s arm—to keep the half-elf steady, of course.
Back in the dimness that shrouded the entrance to the bridge, one of the guards held the animal by her bridle. “Flint,” the guard called, his voice echoing in the ravine, “your friend wants you.”
Flint was unsure what to do. If he took the animal home, he’d be leaving Tanis to face the murderer alone. If he took her along, she’d betray them with her infernal braying. Finally, he gestured, and the guard released the mule, who rocketed out to the dwarf.
Dodging Fleetfoot’s nuzzling muzzle, Flint pulled out the ladder, which he still carried, and removed the rope that had released the ladder from the base, back at the palace. He knotted the rope to Fleetfoot’s collar and tied the other end to an aspen tree at the western edge of the bridge. Tanis hid the mask in the underbrush. Fleetfoot’s brays reverberated off the rocks as he and Tanis climbed along the path.
The night was black; no moons lit the sky. He could smell the musty odor of moss and hear Tanis breathing heavily behind him. The day they’d rested at the Kentommenai-kath seemed ages ago, back when Xenoth and Ailea still lived.
Fortunately, elves—even half-elves—could see fairly well in the dark, and dwarves had developed keen sight from generations of work in dim mines underground. Thus, the pair made relatively good time as they followed the path along the edge of the ravine.
“Unless Gilthanas and his guards are making the trip at a run, we should catch up with them soon,” Tanis whispered once as they paused to rest in a grassy inlet. Flint averted his eyes from the steep drop, just off to his right, and nodded his agreement. They resumed hiking.
The pathway began to wind upward, and here and there Flint recognized gnarled trees and jumbles of granite. They came to a fork. The way became steeper, and soon Tanis and the dwarf were breathing hard.
At that moment, they heard footsteps ahead and leaped behind an outcropping of granite. Flint peered around as two figures passed by, heading back toward Qualinost. “Gilthanas’s guards,” Tanis whispered once they were out of earshot. The dwarf and half-elf redoubled their efforts, for Gilthanas was unguarded now.
Finally, the trees began to thin, and the ground was strewn with more granite boulders. Flint knew the rocky crest was near.
“Listen!” Tanis whispered.
A clear tenor voice soared in the distance, singing words nearly as old as the rocks that framed one side of the path.
“Gilthanas’s vigil song,” the half-elf explained. “It asks the spirits of the trees and the earth to protect Porthios and guide him throughout his days. That’s why Gilthanas is unarmed for this vigil. It shows the woodland spirits that he trusts in them.”
The song echoed in the ravine and made the dwarf shiver.
“My Fullbeard Day was nothing like this,” he breathed. “And praise Reorx for that.”
They kept walking, being more careful now that they drew close to the Kentommenai-kath. For if they didn’t want Gilthanas to see them, they were even less interested in revealing themselves to the murderer, who might be hiding behind any boulder or tree. Flint felt the hair creep up at the back of his neck, and he placed a reassuring hand on the hammer he carried at his belt.
Finally, they reached the Kentommenai-kath. Flint placed a hand on the half-elf’s shoulder, and the two paused, watching as Gilthanas stepped back and forth along the slabs of granite that capped the ridge. Tanis gestured that they should circle to the right, and Flint nodded. The two crept along, hugging the boulders for cover, making their way perhaps two hundred yards along the crest of the ridge from where Gilthanas stood, still singing. They passed the last of the trees and stepped briefly into the open, ducking quickly behind an upturned slab of granite.
Flint peered around the slab. Gilthanas, wearing a plain gray robe with the hood pulled up, stood at the edge of the cliff, gazing out into the black abyss and singing a lament that jumped through intervals unknown to human and dwarven music.
“I’m not sure. Maybe we should try to get closer.”
Flint nodded in agreement. Tanis loosened his dagger at his belt, and the dwarf did likewise as they began to pick their way through the jumble of boulders. All the while, Gilthanas’s musical supplication formed a backdrop.
“I have a bad feeling about this, Tanis,” Flint grumbled softly. “It’s like we’re just waiting for something to go—”
The earth dropped out from under the dwarf.
A scuffling sound, like something sliding against stone, and a muffled oath interrupted Flint’s words. Tanis spun and twisted his head about.
“Flint!” Tanis whispered as loudly as he dared, crouching to be sure he was out of Gilthanas’s line of sight. “Flint!”
There was no answer, only Gilthanas’s tenor, unabated.
Tanis cursed himself. Why hadn’t he been paying closer attention? He shook his head. But the dwarf had been right behind him. Where could he have gone?
A patch of shadow among the stones—or, rather, a patch of black deeper than the rest of the blackness—caught Tanis’s eye, and he crawled closer to examine it. When he drew nearer, a puff of dank air wafted against his face and he saw that the dark patch wasn’t a shadow at all. It was a crevasse, riven in the rock, just behind a lump of stone.
Tanis had stepped right over it without even noticing it. But Flint, with his stocky legs and his shorter stride …
Oh, gods, no, Tanis said to himself, and he threw himself down on his stomach, peering into the crevasse. “Flint!” Tanis whispered down into the deep darkness, but the shadows swallowed his voice. There was no answer.
The opening was large enough to admit the dwarf-though just barely. Frantically, Tanis tried to think. The dwarf could be hurt down there—or worse.
“Flint!” he tried one more time, but there was still no answer. Tanis was utterly alone.
“You should not be here!” Gilthanas cried. “The Kentommen forbids …”
Tanis looked back at the crevasse that had swallowed Flint. Then, moving as quickly as he could and drawing his sword, Tanis slipped from boulder to boulder.
A figure, barely discernible even to Tanis’s sensitive sight, stood before Gilthanas. It advanced a step.
“Who are you?” cried Gilthanas, edging backward. The edge of the cliff loomed dangerously near his heels.
The figure, wordless, drew nearer. Gilthanas looked to the right and left, but the stranger was blocking the only escape. “Who are you?”
As Tanis watched, picking his way as close as possible while staying behind cover, he saw the figure move as if to gather its forces for a lunge. The half-elf dashed from behind a granite block, shouting, “Gilthanas!”
His cousin turned. In that same heartbeat, the robed figure feinted at Gilthanas. With a scream, the blond youth disappeared over the edge of the cliff. Another scream broke off abruptly.
The murderer dashed toward the forest, and Tanis hesitated, not sure whether to follow the figure or to go to the spot where Gilthanas had disappeared. But the ravine had swallowed his cousin, Tanis was sure. The half-elf darted into the trees after the evil one.
He had run only ten or twenty paces into the forest when the underbrush closed around him. There was no path; where, then, had the figure disappeared to? Tanis cursed the vines that clutched the sword blade, and squinted into the darkness. He held his breath and listened, but heard no muffled breathing from his quarry.
Tanis retraced his steps to the granite slab from which his cousin had disappeared. “Gilthanas!” he cried hopelessly into the gloom. Then, “Flint!” he cried, for good measure.
He got a response, but not the one he’d hoped for.
A figure loomed behind Tanis, placed strong hands on the small of his back, and pushed.
As the half-elf fell, he heard the words, “I’m sorry, Tanis.”