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Blood in the Snow: A Thomas Rabbitfurs mystery

©2011 by Geoff Hart

Dedication: As always, to my family, for accepting my own particular perversion and leaving me time to write. To Arthur Conan Doyle, for reminding us that eliminating the impossible and accepting the improbable makes for a darn good murder mystery, whatever the genre—though one must implicitly accept a modicum of the impossible if you want to call it a fantasy. To Agatha Christie and all the others who proved that detectives can be eccentric without compromising their effectiveness. And as always, to Mark Baker, Andy Fraser, and Guy Shimwell, for many stories exchanged and improved thereby.

Chapter 1: Walking in a winter wonderland
Chapter 2: Any port in a storm
Chapter 3: Introductions and broken fasts
Chapter 4: Divers players make themselves known
Chapter 5: Snowbound at the art gallery
Chapter 6: Dinner tables and other battlefields
Chapter 7: An interview with the vampire
Chapter 8: A death in the family
Chapter 9: The posse
Chapter 10: Things found in the larder
Chapter 11: Later that night
Chapter 12: In the cask
Chapter 13: Confrontations can be so unpleasant
Chapter 14: The trial
Chapter 15: The road goes ever on
Author’s notes

Chapter 1: Walking in a winter wonderland

It all began lo these many years ago, when the Vizard of Vahlt created a legend: The woman of his dreams, it seems, had this thing about short men, and His Vizardship wisely chose to have some part of her rather than none, and found a way to cater to her whims. As Vahlt lived near the Motherlode (May Its Name Be Praised Wherever Dwarves Gather), he decided to make do with the material at hand. Perhaps he should have called himself the Vizard of Ad Hoc instead, though the mages of that worthy land might have taken offense after what happened subsequently.

When the banns were posted in the Great Cavern, many Dwarves came to apply. At first, there was distaste at notion, because none of us much liked the thought of surrendering our freedom to become ornaments in some sorceror’s woman’s seraglio. But being pragmatic beings, and Dwarvish women being in rather short supply, you should pardon my indelicacy, we read to the end of the note and spotted the princely price being dangled before anyone who succeeded in their suit. That raised a great many eyebrows. I’m sure it raised other things, but you’ll not hear of it from me.

Look: I know what you’ve heard about my people, but don’t you believe it. It’s true we’ve acquired a reputation as miners, among other things, but it’s about as reliable a guide to the average Dwarf as the reputation you humans have as dragon slayers. Maybe you know someone in that line of work—maybe you are someone in that line of work—but I wouldn’t bet the beer money on it. Anyway, the real reason we mine is for the gold, that’s true enough, and just what we do with it once we’ve got it is—frankly—none of your damned business. It’s neither as lurid as some have said, nor is it pure greed, and further than that you’ll not hear from me. But the key, is, it’s not particularly pleasant work, and Service, our Poet Laureate, had it right when he talked about the little men who moil for gold. But then, he always did romanticize things, and we Dwarves are hopeless romantics when it comes right down to the important things. There’s this shortage of women, you see...

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining how I came to be one of those interviewed for the seraglio position. Seven others had already been chosen for a different job based on some mystical process known only to Vahlt. I felt the interview went fairly well, right up until the last question. Vahlt asked something about “inter-racial conjugal relations”, which made my hair crawl, right down to the last little curlicues at the tips of my beard. To be honest, I didn’t have half a clue what he meant, so to save face, I stalled. Not very effectively, as you don’t get to be a sorceror by being thick. He explained the notion baldly, in terms that would have made an Elf blush. Thinking fast (if not well), I replied that I’d have to see what the woman looked like first. As stalls went, it failed abjectly. I should have figured he’d have a picture ready.

The woman, “Blanche”, had ebony hair that fell to her waist, lips like rose petals and a figure like an hourglass on hormones... the painting didn’t do her justice, mercifully, but even so I winced. And that fast, I was out the door without so much as a “don’t call us, we’ll call you”.

Look: if pressed, I’ll concede the point that each race has its own concept of beauty—after all, if it weren’t so, then there’d be an awful lot fewer Elves for us to worry about. But let’s be honest. There are some things you just shouldn’t do for gold. Maybe if she’d at least had a half-decent mustache...

I hadn’t thought to clear my leave of absence with my pit gang, I’d insulted a sorceror, and—worse luck still—someone had come across a picture of Blanche and posted it in the caverns. Not only was I out of a job, but I was also being called a pervert by erstwhile friends. Allow me to digress a moment. Ever wonder why you’ve never heard a Dwarf called a pervert? Well, apart from the fact that it’s hard to taunt someone with an axe halfway down your throat, I mean. With Humans, it’s “suffer not a witch to live”—and they usually don’t. With my folk, the problem revolves around an ongoing operational difficulty in finding enough canaries to keep the mines safe for the workers and the fact that, as I’ve already mentioned, we’re an extremely pragmatic people. Suffice to say we don’t tolerate perverts for long.

It quickly became apparent it was time for a road trip unless I wanted to paint myself yellow and spend the rest of a short and inglorious career monitoring the air quality in the mines. In fact, it was looking like a great idea to hit the road Real Soon Now and not even think about looking back until I’d accumulated enough gold to return in triumph and buy some collective amnesia about the reasons for my departure. All together now: “we Dwarves are a remarkably pragmatic people”. So before you could say “hi-ho”, hit the road is what I did.

All of which is yet another rather roundabout way of getting to the real point, which is to explain why I found myself halfway up a mountain, halfway up to my neck in a colder but more pleasant kind of “Snow". By all omens thus far, it seemed my feet had led me even farther astray than my mouth.

Odd though it may seem to you, despite spending twenty-odd years of my youth in a mine, I’m a bit superstitious about the dark. In a mine, you’re safe in the warm embrace of the ground; outdoors, there’s an intolerable weight of sky looming overhead, and, well... The dark and silent woodlands rising about me, the darkly snowclad spruce and fir leaning inward over the road... well, I was cold and hungry you can be sure... and yes, not a little bit spooked. The two crucified thieves I’d come across some miles back hadn’t left a good impression, even though it implied the road would be safer than some. Call it a twinge of professional sympathy, perhaps. (Yes, I had found a way of accumulating the necessary wealth to buy my way back into Dwarvish society; no, it’s none of your damn business why I was on the road again without so much as a piece of copper to my name.)

For the hundredth time I paused to listen, casually laying a calloused hand on the frost-rimed shaft of my battleaxe. The weapon was near as tall as myself, with a wickedly curved blade on either side of the shaft, and though I could barely swing the damn thing, let alone wield it with any proficiency, it fit the image we Dwarves have as tough customers. It was essentially useless as a weapon, but it tended to discourage most thieves and provided the necessary camouflage for my real profession. It was a gamble carrying the thing, but anyone competent enough with their own implements of mayhem not to fear the axe was the sort of person I could outwit with half my brain tied behind my back. More to the point, I was unlikely to encounter any of them here.

Hearing nothing, I knelt for the thousandth time to remove the balls of ice that had collected on my supple buckskin trousers. For a side branch of the King’s highway, the road was cared for about as well as one might reasonably expect, which is to say, poorly. If it hadn’t have been so cold, so damp, so near to sunset—let’s face it, so downright ominous—I would’ve been certain I was being followed. As it was, I laughed at myself, to myself, pictured myself painted yellow to put things in perspective, and finished with a hearty curse on my overactive imagination. Plus, of course, an absent-minded curse for the peasant who’d assured me it was only a three-hour walk to the nearest inn. For him, maybe, with those damnably long Human legs. I relaxed a bit and once more scanned the darkening woods. They remained reassuringly empty.

Off I went once more, stride springy and confident. That lasted all of a mile, at which auspicious moment the sun’s silvery-grey disk vanished once and for all behind the clouds moving in from the west and spilling through the pass some indeterminate distance up ahead. Three hours my hairy Dwarvish posterior! With the light gone, I was once more a small, cold, and—let’s be honest with ourselves—frightened Dwarf. Pride, cussedness, and my own basic perversity were all that kept me from giving in to the primal urges of my race and seeking shelter in a warm, defensible hole in the rock somewhere. That, and the visible absence of any such shelter for the past too-many miles of my three-damned-hour walk. To add insult to injury, the heavy grey clouds began to drop their burden of snow.

As the heavy flakes thickened, blotting out what little light was left, I unslung my axe. The grip’s chill leather grip immediately froze to the part of my palm that was exposed to permit a better grip through too-light mittens. That stung, but it sure made the rest of me feel better, and I used the spike on the head to grope ahead of me for obstacles—or worse things. Another mile passed, heart pounding, whirling as I spun to face every half-imagined sound. Then a light touch at my back brought me about, spinning and slashing at the unseen assailant. And I laughed heartily as cold, powdery snow coated my hand from the overburdened branch I’d just killed.

A sluggish breeze arose, whirling snow about me and down the back of my hood. Apart from the periodic gaps it tore in the storm, it made vision even worse. I plowed my way back to the center of the road, from which I’d strayed, childish fears banished again for a time. Not hunger, though, for I’d long since eaten the last trail snack I’d brought along for this pleasant little walk. Odd how one can be ruled so by his body—give me a full belly and a warm hearth and I’ll face the Dark One himself, but deprive me of those same luxuries and I crumble. That’s likely why there are so few of us who wander the roads. Of course, there’s not much gold to be had as a wanderer either, whatever the ballads say. Remember, that bard who sings so prettily and talks of the “art” of his music and the difficulty of remembering the old tales probably gets 10% off the top from all the road gear the village general store sells, and a like retainer from any inn he’s been headhunting visitors for. If I had any talent with an instrument, I’d be singing my way across the country instead of working for a living.

Resignedly, I tightened my belt another notch, resettled my pack, and set off up the road.

I’d begun to seriously consider gnawing on my moccasins for sustenance by the time the snowfall began to slacken, and in the hushed silence, there came to my ears the distinctive creak of harness. No bandits, then, for such rarely traveled by wagon. Those who did worked for the proper authorities, and had no interest in such as I. At least, not unless I’d been more careless than I thought a few days back.

My faith in human nature was justified when, several moments later, the snowladen wagon hove into view. I saw it long before the weary, wary driver saw me, which gave me a few moments worth of study time. The wagon bore a closed-in cab, of elegant lines despite its mantle of snow, and was drawn by a single decrepit horse. The driver crouched uncomfortably over his draftbeast, cloaked heavily against the night, and seemed to be of moderate build for a man of these parts. The swaying of the wagon brought the muffled clink of chainmail, and his free hand rested comfortably on a small blanket-covered hump in his lap. I didn’t like the businesslike look on his broad face, nor the way he kept sweeping snow clear of that bundle in his lap, so I hailed him before he could see me and my axe and react inappropriately.

“Hello the carriage!”

Instantly, a loaded crossbow was in his hands, out from beneath the lap blanket, though the horse kept plodding ahead. Its ears pricked forward in my direction. Warily, the Human craned his neck in all directions, seeking an ambush.

“Hello yourself! Step forward and be recognized, but keep your hands where I can see them.” Not wishing to provoke him, I slowly reslung my axe and walked forward, keeping my hands in plain sight. The horse spotted me first, and slowed to a halt. It was a brownish gelding, old and covered in half-melted snow. Tired though he was, he snorted a friendly greeting, hoping no doubt for an apple or lump of sugar. I could empathize.

The Human relaxed. “Well, now, here’s somewhat of a surprise.” His voice was deep and hearty, amused in tone. “What’s one of the Little Folk doing on this road alone by night?” He slipped his weapon back under the blanket. I stepped closer, smiling reassuringly to put him at his ease, though it was tempting to knock those teeth back down his throat. Little folk! Pah! But there are some advantages to being short enough to be mistaken for a child, and at the moment, I was none to finicky about taking advantage of them.

“I seem to have underestimated how long it’d take to reach the next inn.”

He grinned back ruefully, craggy face surprisingly gentle for a warrior. “You’re not alone in that, I confess.” At that moment, there came a disturbance from the back of the carriage. A soft, pretty voice, plaintive somehow beneath a feigned merriness, called out impatiently. “Roger, what seems to be the problem? Have we arrived yet?”

Roger leaned back and whispered something I was unable to catch fully. But it was not without cause I used to be noted for my—some said overly—sharp ears, for I did catch some of it. Something to do with reassuring a Lady Elizabeth about my harmlessness. As he turned back, I took the opportunity to seize control of the situation. I sneezed loudly and emphatically, and made myself look—would it were possible!—even more miserable than I already was. If I’d had a halo, it would have been shining like a beacon in that darkness.

Roger looked awkward, and I was content. The conflict between abandoning a helpless waif to the snows to protect his passenger and offering a ride to a stranger was written plainly on his face. But even then, the situation hung in the balance until a rift opened in the clouds, flooding the scene momentarily with quicksilver moonlight. Far off, a wolf howled, echoed by a closer cousin, and they sounded every bit as miserable as the rest of us, and hungry enough to eat my axe if that was all that were available. No doubt it sounded more dire than that to Roger, judging by the look on his face, and I confess, the stories I’d heard of the local wolves gave me little confidence I was exaggerating the situation.

“Swift now, little one, climb aboard.” The crossbow was once more in his arms.

The phrase little one would have earned him a premature set of dentures if we’d been in a more secure setting—I’m tall for my race, I’ll have you know—but I wasn’t exactly in an ideal position to debate the point. Instinct told me that only the wolves would benefit from any excess of pride, and in the twinkling of an eye, I was seated beside Roger.

“Can you drive a carriage, Little One?”

“My friends call me Thomas.” I sure as perdition wasn’t going to tell him what they really called me back in the mines, though it would’ve been a tossup between that and Little One for humiliation.

“Roger Dalhousie, Deputy Sheriff. Can you drive?”

“Yes, but not well. If you’d rather, I’ll cover us with that crossbow instead.” He looked understandably skeptical, so I hastily went on before he could become even more condescending. “I’m stronger than I look, and I can put a bolt through a squirrel’s tail at thirty yards.” In point of fact, I was fairly skilled with a crossbow, as my weapon of choice tended to be damn near anything that kept a foe safely at arm’s length, preferably farther. But as for the squirrels—well, I’d yet to see one of these apparently mythical creatures during my travels, and had merely lifted a phrase, along with enough coins for a few decent meals, from a woodsman I once met.

Roger appraised me for a moment, my dense beard reassuring him I wasn’t as childish as I seemed at first glance. For a moment, we took each other’s measure, then he nodded and handed me the weapon. “Well enough. Besides, I suppose you’re more likely than I am to spot a wolf in this uncertain light. There are more bolts under the seat.” I nodded back, refraining from pointing out that now the snow had stopped, I could pretty much count needles on a nearby spruce with this much light. Roger made a clucking noise through his teeth, and the horse started up, shedding some snow.

I watched our horse carefully, noticing how he’d already settled down. That meant the wolves were nowhere near us yet. If they were canny as their reputation suggested, they’d be hiding somewhere warm and dry, sticking their heads out and howling only long enough to keep up appearances. We mortals also have a reputation for cunning, but it wasn’t the wolves who were out here freezing to death on the road, was it?

We rode on in silence, all senses directed outwards towards the hypothetical menace lurking in the woods. Cold and hungry though I was, I was no longer alone and no longer quite so worried. After a time, the road’s gentle ascent slowed further, and as we rounded a shoulder of the mountain, the trees and snow both thinned appreciably, though the wind picked up. The tension eased somewhat, and Roger chuckled in relief.

“I’m glad you’re along, Thomas, I tell you true. If we’d seen a wolf, I’d have been hard put to keep our doughty steed here under control while still shooting at the benighted creature.”

I grinned back. “True enough. If the horse had bolted, your quarrel with the wolves would have been interesting indeed.” I waited expectantly, got no reaction, sighed inwardly. “How much further must we go?”

“You see that cliff face up there?” He pointed at a spot ahead and to the left, silhouetted by another of those intermittent flashes of moonlight, and I nodded. “That’s the top of the pass. It’s all downhill after that, and an hour or two to town. I think we’ll stay at the castle, though.”

“The castle? What about the inn?” If I sounded reluctant, it was because I was—though in truth, certain indefatigable instincts began to awaken, banishing for a moment more mundane considerations of food and warmth. A castle held the greater possibility of gain, with less chance of being caught. I paid closer attention.

Roger appeared not to notice the gleam in my eyes. “Yes, castle. It’s a deal closer. The host’s said to be a strange one, but then the inn you mentioned burned to the ground several years back under mysterious circumstances, so the hospitality’s likely to be better in the castle.” He laughed loudly. “You must have got your information from a homebody.”

“So it would seem,” I replied, recalling the peasant’s apparent pride at the breadth of his travels. “But you say they’ll put us up in the castle?” A deep tummy rumble punctuated that sentence.

Roger laughed even louder, clapping me heartily on the shoulder. If I’d been as frail as my size indicated, he might have pitched me from my seat, but as it was, he just bruised his arm; twenty years in the mines puts muscle on one’s frame, and even a small Dwarf possesses a startling amount of mass. “Aye, Little One, aye. And feed you too I wager.”

I bit my lip, swallowed the epithet as I imagined him swallowing his teeth, and we rode on in a companionable silence.

Chapter 2: Any port in a storm

As we drew nearer to the crest of the pass, the castle itself hove into view. The main keep, surrounded closely by a high wall, clung to the rock face, monolithic as the mountains themselves. There was a strong hint of delvings extending into the rock, for the masons’ signature was clearly Dwarvish, and given the Human reputation for architecture and the keep’s precarious perch, that was reassuring. Below the keep’s brooding immensity, the road passed between two rock buttresses separated by a scant score of yards. In some distant day before unification of the kingdom, the castle’s owners had undoubtedly controlled the traffic through the pass, likely a lucrative proposition even this far from civilization.

Now, however, the place seemed deserted. The few windows we could see through the intermittent gusts of snow were black and empty, only half-revealed by shutters and a tapestry-diffused glow of light. In fact, to Human eyes, the castle must have seemed little more than a great dead mass of stone, poised to fall upon the road below. Roger seemed undaunted by the castle’s appearance, but I felt the vastness of those tons of stone as a reassuring weight hanging over me. It’s an inborn ability we Dwarves have to appraise stone, and I savored that heaviness the way a Troll savors bone marrow. Nearer now, I could see how the building would be small and stuffy inside—at least on a human scale—thick-walled and extensively cantilevered rather than spacious and drafty. Definitely Dwarvish in origin. The place would feel just like home, and I suppressed a momentary twinge of homesickness.

Ever higher it rose above us, like some exercise in intimidating literary symbolism, until at last we fronted the stone walls clustering around its feet and surrounding the gateway. There was a heavy portcullis, grinning toothily outwards, and slightly behind it, a heavy, iron-bound wooden door that would have kept out a hungry giant. Deep within that murky mouth, a shielded torch flickered, casting lascivious shadows across the drifted snow. There was an increasingly heavy ambience about the place, a soporific quiet that was only intensified by the hush that dwelled beneath the swirling blankets of cloud. Though my stomach begged me approach, the lurking of the shadows clutched at me with a barrow fear that bade my Dwarvish heart quail—after all, Dwarves no longer dwelt beyond these walls. In hindsight, I can only assume it was hunger that awoke these feelings, for no hollow made of stone could else have been aught but pleasant. Blame the melodrama on my stomach, for a Dwarf can’t help being what nature has made him. Wolf howls sounded from the forest, and the practicality of my baser instincts won out over any lingering fear. From somewhere inside, there wafted a scent of warm food, an aroma strong enough to penetrate my stopped-up nose.

Hallooo the gate!” Roger’s shout hung there between oblivion and echo, suspended on the silence.

There came a stirring from within, a bass grunt from behind the door, and a tiny window swung open. Lantern light spread out through the opening to limn the snow in gold, blinding us. A further deep clicking noise followed, and when the lantern’s beam was turned away, we could see that the night door had opened. In it, backlit by torchlight from the courtyard, stood a man with a massive frame. Again came the grunt, a basso profundo that went well with the man’s barrel chest.

Roger glanced my way, plainly amused. “Just like a child’s ghost story, not so?” I found the comment inappropriately apt, and shivered in my rabbit-fur cloak. Roger looked back to the gatekeeper. “I am Roger Dalhousie, Deputy Sheriff to His Majesty the Baron, bearing passengers on important business. Please ask your master if he will grant us leave to stay the night.”

The guard stepped closer, sinking deep into the drifted snow, but for all that weight, moving so soundlessly I felt a twinge of professional envy. He truly was big: Troll-high even allowing for the exaggerating effects of the poor light and my night fears. He was at least one and a half heads taller than Roger and far broader; he would have made five of me even on a full stomach, and six of me at present. If I’d been blown up to his size, I might have had broader shoulders, but I wouldn’t have cared to bet on it. For a moment, this behemoth stared piercingly at us from beneath jutting brows, scratching noisily at a flea deep in his beard. Then, still without a word, he turned and paced slowly and ponderously into the narrow snowy courtyard separating the walls from the donjon. He vanished from sight, and I pulled Roger down so I could whisper in his ear.

“If this is one of the servants, I don’t think I want to meet the master.”

Roger frowned his disapproval at my jest, though it was plain he didn’t disagree. Wolves howled again beyond the crest of the pass, mournful and chilling in their lonely concert. More echoes drifted down from the road at our backs. Ears cocked tremulously, the horse backed a step before Roger mastered him. “I fear the alternative is worse. For the wolves to gather so, they must be far from well-fed. That means they’ll be ready to tackle big game.” He left the implication unfinished, not needing to explain that by the usual wolvish standards, I qualified as little more than an appetizer. Nonetheless, it was a dramatic embellishment I felt to be thoroughly gratuitous, considering my already precarious state of mind. Unwanted, an image swam into my head—that of a sleigh filled with terrified faces, flying through the snow at a great pace and flinging off an occasional victim to lighten the load, while gaunt, half-starved wolves ran alongside, fighting for these morsels.

At that moment, so quietly I almost missed it, the portcullis rose into its hidden niche. I felt the hairs rise on the nape of my neck before I could convince myself this was nothing more than a tribute to Dwarvish engineering; a Human-engineeered portcullis would have squealed like a damned soul. Nonetheless, as we rode in beneath the murder hole, I reached out to reassure myself that this was all real. My groping fingers brushed cold, dank stone, age-roughened but still stern as ever it was intended to be. Then we were through and into the courtyard, a dark something swinging down at our backs to lock out the night and the wolves.

There was no sign of the massive servant who’d let us in, but a faint light came from open doors set into the cliff. A warm hay smell emanated from within, as well as the less-sweet smell that told of other horses. Our own valiant steed nickered at that, and was answered. In the scant room available to us, Roger guided the carriage up to the front steps and brought it to a gently rocking halt. Descending, he helped me down and started around the other side to open the door for our passenger. By that time, however, she had already descended and stood straight, neck craned to look around her.

Roger looked embarrassed by his tardiness. “Madame, will you wait here for me while I stable the horse?” It was plain this was as much command as query, and he obviously didn’t want his charge to enter the forbidding keep without him. She nodded distractedly, hooded features tilted upwards to better study the dark bulk of the castle. Roger hastened to lead the horse to the stables, leaving me alone with the woman.

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, Madame, but we haven’t been properly introduced.” She completed her leisurely survey of her surroundings, then gracefully tilted her face towards me.

“Isn’t it magnificent?” Her eyes were wide and, so far as I could tell in the poor light, the deep shade of blue of an eastern saphire. The pallid tinge of her complexion was attractive, even on a human, revealing as it did that some time had passed since she had been out of doors. Aristocratic, snub-nosed features were gentled by wonder at the castle and by a blanket of fat. She stood less than a foot taller than myself, quite short for a human, and even in the dim light, the faint tracing of an attractive mustache could be seen. She really was quite lovely. Sadly, I confess that having been so long without the solace of my own kind, I’d begun tending towards that perversion my erstwhile mates had accused me of.

“I’m Thomas,” I said hastily, lest she note my appraisal. A soft hand reached down absently and idly caressed my face, and I blushed to the roots of my beard.

“Lady Elizabeth Winters,” she replied, curtsying gracefully. She dimpled prettily as she brushed some snow off her hood. “I’ve never met one of your kind... a Dwarf, that is.” She gazed at me in frank curiosity from within the hood’s shelter, and clutched the heavy riding blanket closer about her as a gust of wind swept down the cliff and into the courtyard. I would have admired her sang froid—or was it simply naiveté?—had it not been for the chill in my own blood and an overpowering hunger made all the keener by what I could smell from within the keep. A slave to my own body, and too hungry to be the least bit ashamed of it.

“If I’m not being too personal, might I ask what brings a lady such as yourself this far from civilization on such a disastrously inhospitable night?”

She paused a while before replying, and I feared I had offended her. Then she giggled. “Indiscretions.” The gaiety in her voice was warming, and I relaxed a little, waiting for her to continue. “Indiscretions of a most scandalous sort. My Lord and I... well, let me be discreet. Let me just say that I left for reasons of my own health and his reputation. You see, it seems that his wife had...”

Footsteps in the courtyard caused her to trail off with a conspiratorial wink as Roger reappeared, glowering at us in the dim torchlight. “The blasted horse will wait until I’ve seen you safely inside.”

Crossbow and scabbarded longsword under one arm, he was bent over at a sharp angle beneath the weight of a large trunk on his back. He muttered something venomous as he mounted the steps to join us, and made no comment as I reached above my head to hammer on the door. The knocker was heavy bronze, carved in the shape of an amiable satyr clutching an improbable portion of his anatomy rather smugly in his mouth to form a broad “O”. The sharp noise the knocker made was echoed by a far deeper booming from within, comforting in the way it broke the silence of the keep. That pressure too lifted from my shoulders and I relaxed still further.

Even before the echoes had begun to fade, the door swung noiselessly open, and a gust of warm, delightfully scented air and a wash of brilliant light swept over us. The last of my fears vanished, for the entry hall that met my gaze was brightly and warmly lit, lavishly hung with tapestries, and thickly carpeted with clean straw mats. The butler who bowed us in was thin and ascetic, but for all that had a pleasant face. His clothing was well-kept, if somewhat old and worn, and he himself was exceedingly well groomed. I caught a strong whiff of floral perfume as he stood aside.

“Good evening Gentlesirs and Madame. I am Hans, and my master bids you welcome to his humble abode.” His accent was definitely Uropan, from somewhere to the east, and the voice was softly rich and cultured. My curiosity began to stir. Roger clung possessively to his burden, and Hans, noting its obvious weight, made no effort to take it from him. An eyebrow lifted at the prominently displayed weaponry, but he declined comment.

“Please enter. I’m certain you are all cold and miserable and will want to be shown to your rooms so you can freshen up. On the advice of one of our current guests, we prepared hot water against your arrival, and baths are being drawn for each of you as we speak.” Of the three of us, only Lady Elizabeth seemed unsurprised that the castle’s occupants seemed to have been expecting us; she’d evidently been well-pampered by her lord, whoever he might have been. “When you have recovered somewhat from your travels, summon me and I will introduce you to the other guests and to your host.” Without further ado, he led us to a broad set of stairs that wound upwards to a landing against the back wall and ushered us up. Belatedly feeling a bit guilty, I eased the sword and crossbow out from under Roger’s arm and he grunted his thanks.

At the second-storey landing, we edged past an archaic yet well-polished suit of armor with a crested, dragon-winged helm, and proceeded along a carpeted, well-lit corridor. On our way, we passed a door from behind which came the sounds of quiet conversation, the crackle of a fire, and—far more importantly!—the aroma of fresh-baked bread and other delicacies. Saliva sprang forth from my mouth and my stomach rumbled insubordinately, but warmth and food were imminent, so I once again felt master of my destiny. Hans led us past several more doors, opening each with large iron keys as he passed.

Roger dropped the chest to the floor of Lady Elizabeth’s room with a relieved grunt and straightened his back gingerly. “There you go, Milady. I’ll be back to check on you as soon as I’ve seen to the horse.”

“There’ll be no need of that,” interposed Hans. “Hob will wipe it down and feed it for you.”

Roger and I exchanged glances. We’d been with Hans the entire time since we’d arrived, so how he’d passed any word to this Hob fellow was beyond us. Unperturbed by the looks on our faces, Hans handed each of us the key to our rooms. I declined to note that this wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary for me, but made note of the keys for future reference. After all, one simply doesn’t point out that one’s host has neglected to bolt the pantry if one intends a midnight snack.

Hans ushered me into my own room, where a cheery little fire was burning in a small fireplace, warming me already. The butler helped me off with my cloak, holding it somewhat fastidiously at arm’s length until I took it from him and slung it over the back of a chair to dry. “Please take your time freshening up, Sir.” I was certain I’d heard him sniff, but chose to ignore it, for I’d already seen the basin of hot water warming by the fire. “The sitting room where the other guests are presently awaiting you is the one just this side of the suit of armor. This,” he gestured grandly at a thick rope hanging from a hole in the wall beside the door, “will summon assistance should you need any. If that’s all for now Sir, I’ll be seeing to the Lady?”

I nodded, and Hans left, moving on to his other tasks before I could reconsider. There was a certain eerie efficiency in the way he anticipated questions before they were asked, leaving no room for one to insert one’s own voice into the dialogue. I could have sworn he had a smug look on his face as he turned away, as if he’d just won some private game I hadn’t been aware we were playing.

I shut the door behind me, and it closed with a reassuring click. Not bothering to lock it, I hastened across the room to the basin of warm water that had been provided, shedding layers of clothing as I went. I left my soaked moccasins by the fire in a puddle of melting snow, and luxuriated briefly in the feel of the thick carpet on bare feet. Then, not daring to prolong my pleasure any further, I lowered myself into the bath. A delirious time later I emerged from the basin, scrubbed to pinkness, oiled and perfumed to perfection, and feeling—if you’ll forgive the choice of idiom—far more “human”. I dressed in fresh clothing from my pack, only briefly contemplating the lush bathrobe that had been set aside for my use; it looked lovely, but even pinned up as it was, it was too long for me. Once dressed, I donned the slippers that had been left on the chair, and looked for a mirror. There was none in evidence, so I combed my curly hair as best I could without one and bent my beard into some semblance of order. I suspect that images of the fair Elizabeth were working upon me, as I’m normally less careful of my appearance. But we’ll let that lie for the nonce.

As I combed, I took more serious note of my room. Here and there, in places a tall Human would not have noticed, there were pockets of dust, though on the whole, the room was immaculately clean. The floor was clad in a thick, soft fur rug, and the beautiful quarried stone of the walls was concealed to head height beneath a rich, dark wood of a type I did not recognize. The wall around the window, however, was heavily shuttered and dripped condensation—a nicely homely touch, in my estimation—into a shallow gutter wisely provided for this purpose. Though I could hear the wind outside swirling against the shutters, not a breath of it entered the room, which was unusual enough to bear investigation later.

The room was cluttered by the presence of a bed, a chest of drawers, a writing desk, and well-stocked bookshelves, plus an armchair by the fire. Beside the fireplace, a stack of split oak stood in a wrought-iron basket, several inches from the rug, and that was an obvious extravagance given the miles of oak-free pine and fir that surrounded the castle; someone had gone to a lot of effort to bring some long-burning wood this high into the mountains from the lands far below us. Or perhaps not; pine is what the Humans call “walking wood” because of the amount of walking required to keep a pine fire replenished. An ornate, wrought-iron poker that matched the wood holder stood braced beside the roaring fire right next to a similarly designed set of tongs. The room would have been on the small side of cosy for a human, but was more than ample for me. On the whole, it was an almost ostentatious display of wealth.

The mercenary part of me began appraising the possibilities, while the sybarite reveled in the afterglow of such an unaccustomed luxury as a hot bath.

The huge bed beckoned, large and deep enough to conceal a small squad of Dwarves, but my belly, inhumanly patient until now, was making increasingly urgent claims on my attention. I gave my unruly hair one last comb, pocketed my key, and “crossed” myself in a carefully honed imitation of Human practice: lockpick in my hair, another in my belt buckle, and a throwing knife strapped to the inside of each arm. The latter were a chill, yet comforting presence, given that I had no clear notion of what I’d gotten myself into. I confirmed that a few other choice items were snug and sound in their accustomed places, made a few small arrangements to be sure I’d know if someone entered the room in my absence, then carefully locked the door behind me. That done, I set off to join the others in the sitting room.

Chapter 3: Introductions and broken fasts

Pausing at the door to the sitting room, I reflexively looked both ways to ensure no one was coming, then pressed my ear to the door. There came the clink of glass and the crackle of a fire, but no loud conversation to eavesdrop on. I reached for the handle and the door opened easily under my grip. The room was no surprise, every bit as pleasantly appointed as what I had already seen, but red velvet trimmed with gold draped the walls above head height, above the ubiquitous wooden paneling. The gold gleamed dully in the glow of the fire, made from logs longer than I was tall stacked in a fireplace and burning steadily. Skillfully painted landscapes and hunting scenes graced the walls below the tapestry and above sumptuous armchairs and lounges. I made a mental note that there was more here of value than the silverware; furniture is harder to cart away, but far easier to fence than more obvious treasures such as jewelry, as I’d learned some years back, having narrowly escaped with my hands intact after walking off with some too-easily traceable pretties.

Two men absorbed in a game of chess glanced briefly in my direction before choosing once more to ignore me. By the fire, a golden-haired minstrel with the look of an Elf sat crosslegged in a chair, tuning a lute and totally absorbed in the task. A black silk ascot about her neck was intricately filigreed in silver thread that caught the light in furtive gleams. (I should add, in fairness, that although she was almost painfully unattractive, the covert glances that the other males in the room periodically cast towards her suggested I was the only one who shared this opinion.) Last of all, a lightly built young man sat brooding in a corner, slippered feet propped on a carved wooden table beside a half-empty bottle of some clear amber liquid. A threadbare brown beard spilled partway down the chest of a dark, unadorned housecoat.

My traveling companions had not yet arrived, and no other guest made any sign they wished to make my acquaintance. My roving eyes saw only the bones of the foodstuffs that had been here so recently, and I was not so desparate I would gnaw on leftovers to entertain the others. Salivating, I realized I would need something to take my mind off food until more arrived. To distract myself, I moved across the room to where a dartboard hung. I clambered atop a footstool to reach the darts, then paced off an appropriate number of steps before turning to take aim. As several quick tosses quickly revealed, the darts were well-balanced and skillfully fletched—but I was out of practice with weapons so light and distracted by my belly’s ruminations. It took several practice throws before my skill returned, and I began moving slowly and accurately around the familiar spiral board. I didn’t miss very often, and this attracted the drinker’s attention.

He rose and sauntered over, a slight waver in his walk from the drink, watching my throws carefully from close up before speaking in a surprisingly gruff voice. “Not bad, Dwarf, not bad at all. But I’d wager you’d not do nearly so well if there were money riding on each toss.”

I eyed him appraisingly. “I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“That’s ’cause I didn’t give it.” He looked me up and down, not so bleary as he’d at first seemed, taking in my worn but still serviceable garb. “Tell you what—you don’t seem to be possessed of much in the way of coinage...?”

“Thomas.”

“... so instead, let’s wager names and stories. You win, and I’ll tell all. Suits?”

“Well enough. Name your game.”

“The one you were just playing looks simple enough.”

Roundabout it is, then.” I raised an eyebrow. The goal of Roundabout is to move across the dartboard from number to number, consecutively, following the spiral inwards from the outside of the board to the bullseye. If you’re not playing alone, you score points equal to the numbers marked on the squares, provided you don’t miss the next number in sequence; when you do, your opponent takes over. The numbers go up to 25, with narrow target areas surrounded by inward-spiraling dead areas, so there was more than a bit of strategy involved on top of the obvious skill; given that your opponent began their scoring at the number where you left off, you had a certain amount of gambling to do. The spiraled board played games with your eyes if you followed it inwards for too long, and even the most accurate thrower inevitably missed. Missing could lose you the game as easily as hitting the exact center of the board before the final throw.

“Who goes first?” I asked, not much liking the confidence in his eyes, which gave the lie to his credible stone face.

He pulled a heavy gold coin from his pocket and I had to clamp down hard on my grab reflex. Later, I told myself.

“We’ll flip a coin,” he drawled. “Dwarf, and I go; Axe, and you do.” He flipped the coin in a high arc and I picked it nimbly from the air and laid it flat on my forearm. Axe.

He seemed confident enough that I paused a moment in thought and started figuring strategy. I knew that—at my best—I’d never achieve more than twenty straight throws. I’d need eighteen (for a total of 171 out of 325 points) to win, for a little voice was telling me that if given a chance, my companion wouldn’t miss. Well, forget strategy, then. I was reasonably sure I could do it. I gave him my best confident smile and set about racking up points.

He watched politely as my first dozen throws were right on target: 78 points and counting. Then, just when I was beginning to feel confident I could pull it off, the door opened and the colossal bearded servant entered bearing a tray of food. The aroma hit me like a blow, making my eyes water even more than the dartboard had begun to. Someone was an awfully good cook.

My opponent cocked a sardonic eyebrow and licked his lips. “Hang on a second there, m’boy. I’ll go fetch myself a snack to keep me busy while you’re throwing. It’s beginning to look like eating’s all I’ll get to do this round.” The evil bastard evidently knew something about Dwarves.

In a trice he was back, a large slab of butter melting on a fragrant husk of fresh-baked corn bread. He took a large mouthful, and my stomach grumbled jealously. “May I start now?” I pleaded.

“No hurry,” he replied around another mouthful of bread. “Any time you’re ready.” And he had the enormous gall to wink.

Well, I did try. I got in another four very shaky throws—136 points—but my fifth wobbled badly and missed by a good quarter inch. He grinned sympathetically and fetched the darts for his own turn. I watched, amazed, as he swiftly and methodically picked off all the remaining numbers, winning by an embarrassing 53 points. I’d just been hustled by an expert.

“Well played,” said my opponent, and he patted me on the head as he brushed past on his way back to his chair. “We’ll talk after you’ve had a chance to feed yourself.”

“Too bad,” echoed a soft, melodious voice at my back. I turned to face the minstrel, who at close range appeared more half-Elvish than full-blooded. She stood behind me, arms akimbo, her lute still leaning on the cushions by the fire; it was a fine piece that would bring its weight in gold from the Humans of any large city. “I’ve seen Ghusthav run the entire pattern twice while dead drunk without missing a single throw.” She smiled consolingly, and for a brief moment, I forgot about the food. Up close, Elvish women have an unquestioned magic that can overcome even another race’s aversion to their otherwise unpleasant appearance. A sorceror I once met claimed it was some chemical given off in their sweat that carried the essence of their magic; that much I could well believe now that I could smell her. Given my almost monomaniacal hunger and the proximity of the food, it could have been nothing mundane that held me there.

“My name’s Cleayne.”

“I’m Thomas.” Her eyes showed an unspoken question. “Do you know of me from somewhere?” I continued. I’m sure I would have remembered if I had seen her before— Elves are rare in the mines as honest men in government. Besides, there was that charm that came from her voice and perhaps elsewhere that made me want to keep her talking.

“I know of you,” she mused, puckering her brow attractively in thought, but not hiding a growing smile in her eyes. She brightened again. “Yes, of course! You were involved in the Lahndane jewel theft. You solved a case that had baffled the entire palace guard, including the court sorceror.” She smiled mischieviously. “Though they never did find the gems, did they?” She ran a delicate hand through her hair and I blushed, not wanting to meet those eyes. I’ve done some detective work since I left the mines, but my motives were never so pure as the authorities might wish to believe.

“But I’m being rude,” and with that she stood aside. “You look hungry, so come and talk with me after you’ve dined. I have my own hypotheses about the case.” With that, she winked and returned to her seat by the fire, slim and graceful as giant mushroom spores on a calm day in the air shafts of the mines. From his perch, the dart player spat loudly and accurately into a spittoon. I shook my head, freeing myself from the enchantment, for now, a different overpowering scent had caught my attention. I swiftly forgot the Elf and found myself in love, even though I’d not yet met the cook.

I hastened over to the table on which the food had been set out, clambered hastily atop a chair, and got to work. I was well into my second plate by the time Roger entered the room, followed closely by Lady Elizabeth. Roger had his sword belted on, and glared truculently about the room before moving to join me. From the color in his cheeks, he’d been having angry words with his protegé. Elizabeth delicately seated herself, not waiting for me to rise, and began picking fastidiously at the food. She was dressed in a finely embroidered housecoat, and wore a thin-linked gold chain that dropped into her subtly emphasized cleavage. Her hair was piled into a tall bun and held in place by a ruby-studded golden comb. My attentions were divided among her, her jewelries, and the food before me, but my loyalties were not for sale. I kept eating.

Roger seated himself, amusing me by how carefully he was sitting so as to survey everyone in the room, sword awkwardly angled behind him past the back of the chair. I didn’t quite catch how he managed to sit without knocking anything over with the sword, and I was irked, as I’d always wanted to know how that trick was done. To my further amusement, I observed how his gaze kept returning to linger on Elizabeth, and how the color rose once more to his cheeks. Very interesting, that, and after all, though no match for the food just yet, Elizabeth was remarkably attractive in her own right—for a Human.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” commented the lady in question, plainly amused.

I looked up from the ruins of my third plate, ready to attempt a sarcastic riposte, then stopped to choke down my present mouthful, which proved to be a fortunate diversion. Elizabeth brushed her hair backwards, away from her ears, thereby revealing earrings with diamonds the size of my thumbnail. Again, despite myself, my gaze followed the heavy gold choker down her throat to where it nestled in her bosom before hastily averting my eyes. Elizabeth chuckled, her stage dressing successful. And quite a stage it was.

Roger shot me a sour look around a mouthful of beef, and returned to his examination of the room’s inhabitants. To keep my mind—and eyes!—on safer subjects, I followed his example. The chess game seemed to be progressing well, the two opponents alternating between glares at each other and long musings on the board. The smaller of the two players was balding, densely red-bearded, and sat scratching his gleaming scalp in concentration. He was dressed in fine woolens, and occasionally reached down to caress his knobby, silver-capped walking staff. The man opposite him was portly enough for two, cleanshaven, and wore a round woolen cap well down on a high forehead even though the room was warm enough to draw beads of sweat down his face.

Redbeard lifted a hand from his forehead, made to touch a piece, then changed his mind. Back went the hand to the bald spot—scratch, scratch—then back to the board. Then, abruptly, he spat a moderately rude expletive and tipped over his king. He rose suddenly, jerkily, grasped his staff, and stalked angrily over to stand by the fire, his back to the room. The fat man smiled smugly to himself, nodded once over the board, then rose and left the room without a backward glance.

I began to slow my eating, noticing that Elizabeth had already finished and was watching me in bemusement. “When was the last time you ate, Thomas?”

“Just this morning, Fair Lady,” I replied, trying to keep a straight face at her ill-concealed surprise.

Redbeard left the fire and came to join us. “The Dwarvish folk are famous for their various appetites.” He smiled pleasantly at each of us, and winked as he saw his barb sink home. Then his gaze returned to Elizabeth, and he made no attempt to conceal the lingering once-over he gave her. “Permit me to introduce myself, Dear Lady. Malcolm Tente, Leech and Apothecary, at your service. If I might be so bold, may I invite you to join me over by the fire?” Looking at Roger, whose bristles were bristling even more obviously than before, he added hastily, “For some pleasant after-dinner conversation, nought more.” At a look from Elizabeth, Roger subsided with ill grace, and Malcolm offered Elizabeth his arm. She graciously accepted, and strode off without so much as a backward glance.

“Are you two feuding over something?” I had to repeat myself before Roger realized I was talking to him. His scowl faded, replaced by a rueful smile.

“Nay, Thomas, not really. It’s just that...” He paused, ran a hand through his thick hair, and frowned. “Tell me, young sir, do you think she’s being terribly discreet about all this?”

I tried to be discreet myself, as it never hurts to know all the sides of a story first. “About what?” Roger frowned a moment more, then relaxed.

“Let me tell you why she’s here, Thomas. You see, she was my Lord’s mistress for the longest time. You know the type—rich, but bored enough to become adventurous.” He cast a long look at her, and I wondered. There was something else on his face I began to recognize. “Well, the wife at last began to get glimmerings of what was going on, not that she was particularly innocent herself. Sound familiar?” I nodded sympathetically, and sipped at our host’s fine wine. It was dark red and full-bodied, with an almost salty aftertaste, but it was an unfamiliar vintage, possibly from some eastern place I’d never visited. If it were worth less than a gold piece a bottle, I’d been too long away from the fences.

“So it was decided it’d be best if she quietly vanished from the scene so the rumors would cease. I was told to escort her to another town where she could be happy, safe, and discreet.” He avoided my eyes. “Somewhere no one could tie her with the Baron. I suppose he was generous, as he might have fed her to the dogs to keep her silent, as some would have done.” He gestured curtly at her, where she was talking with some animation with the doctor. The Elf had moved from the fire and draped herself langourously on a chaise-longue, but now that I could no longer smell her or hear her voice, she was once more the unattractive creature she truly was. It was no trouble at all to switch my scrutiny back to the couple by the fire. But Roger was still speaking, so I forced my eyes away from Elizabeth and returned them to my dinner companion.

“And the lowcut dress and the jewelry are certainly discreet, aren’t they?” I finished for him.

“We find ourselves in agreement.” He gulped his wine, refilled the goblet, and lapsed into a moody silence. I could see where his eyes and thoughts were turned, and was now certain there was more to their relationship than what he was saying. I stole a glance into the corner, and saw Ghusthav lying in his chair, apparently asleep, but then Cleayne beckoned. I politely excused myself, and went to join her. Unnoticed, I pocketed a single silver spoon for the practice, planning to return it later and replace it with something better. The conversation was likely to prove interesting, even if it was only from self defence—I needed to know what she knew of my stay in Lahndane. Besides (I rationalized uneasily), I’d be able to eavesdrop on Lady Winters.

“I’m glad you could join me,” Cleayne said as I pulled a seat across from her.

“The pleasure is certainly mutual,” I replied with my warmest smile, and her eyes sparkled. Unfortunately, I could smell her once again, and that, combined with her voice, made a mockery of my intention to eavesdrop. “I don’t often get to talk with one of the Fair Folk.”

“Nor I with such a clever Dwarf, and a master thief to boot.”

“Let’s not spoil a pleasant moment with innuendo, Cleayne.” I repressed the tingle of fear that shot through me at the mention of my profession. “There’s no proof whatsoever that I’ve ever done anything beyond the law, and it’s not nice to make allegations you can’t prove.” I was obscurely worried for a moment that she might have blackmail on her mind.

“Don’t be silly,” she pouted, as if reading my thoughts. “I was merely stating how I admired your achievements. I’d love to know how you did it. Professional courtesy, you might say, and it would certainly make a fine ballad once it was properly mythologized.”

I gambled on the double meaning and tried the Guild recognition sign, but if she saw it, she let it go. I remembered, with a shudder, how I’d almost had my fingers broken by Guild enforcers before I learned to identify myself to my colleagues. Whatever the other benefits of Dwarvish culture, my people are indefensibly naive when it comes to the ways of the world at large, and life in the mines hardly prepares one for a career in large Human cities. Maybe there really hadn’t been any double meaning and she was only speaking as an entertainer. “Well,” I said modestly, glowing under her praise, “it was fairly simple once I figured out how it had to have been done. The who of the matter was—” A resounding slap interrupted me, and ours were not the only eyes that turned towards the fireplace.

Elizabeth had risen to her feet, cheeks flaming bright red and nostrils dilated. An answering red had risen to the cheeks of Malcolm Tente, who leapt to his feet and stood awkwardly, a hand pressed tight against his left cheek, unsure where to turn or what to do next. Before he had time to do anything more than rise, Roger had crossed the room, seized him by the collar, and lifted him entirely off the ground. Roger didn’t halt for a second, though, and moved Malcolm through a distinctly ungentle arc that ended sharply against the panelling beside the fire. Before the unfortunate Human’s whoof! of expelled air had faded from our ears, it was replaced by the rasping scrape of Roger’s dagger clearing its scabbard. The blade carved a brilliant arc of reflected light, ending with the unfortunate doctor pinned against the wall with the dagger’s tip at his throat. I made a mental note of the sheriff’s speed in the event we ever came to a disagreement over ownership of property or other matters.

I rose hurriedly before the matter could get any further out of hand and padded swiftly over to the enraged Human. My throwing knives felt heavy against my wrists, but I let them lie. Malcolm was sputtering an inarticulate mixture of apologies, outrage, and appeals for mercy. Elizabeth, meanwhile, was glaring icily at the soon-to-be ex-apothecary, her lovely features transformed with anger. It was a shame, really, that she hadn’t been born a Dwarf. But I stepped up behind Roger, letting my knife fall into my hand where nobody could see it, and as I lightly touched it to his groin, cleared my throat.

“Don’t let yourself be unmanned by your anger, Roger, I’m sure the fellow has a good explanation for whatever happened.” Roger looked down and paled, and as his grip slackened, his captive, with more courage than I would have wagered he possessed, broke free and took several hasty steps to the side. “Besides, murder would be an insult to our host,” I added, sliding the knife back into its sheath before anyone else saw it. When Roger’s breathing had returned to normal and he seemed once more in control of his emotions, I stepped back and smiled placatingly at the rest of the room’s occupants. Reluctantly, Roger resheathed his dagger and backed away from the Human.

I turned to our offended damsel. “Could you tell us what happened, Lady Elizabeth?”

Her reply was frosty enough to chill even the fireside air. “This... cretin... made a highly improper suggestion. Roger acted appropriately.” Her voice had thawed somewhat, and I faced the cretin in question.

“And what is your side of the story, good Doctor?” I felt a touch of sympathy for him, as he’d only been doing what I would eventually have done in his place, likely with the same results.

Having regained his composure, not to mention his walking stick, Malcolm looked down, suspicion and gratitude mingling in his expression. A livid spot on his cheek stood out plainly against his pale complexion; Elizabeth had more muscle to her than met the eye, and there would be a significant bruise on that pale face by morning. Truly, an attractive woman. “I merely made the suggestion that we get to know each other better. This... lady,” he made the word an insult, “seems to have misunderstood my intentions.” Roger growled and several inches of fine steel slid from their resting place. But he did nothing else, though his scowl deepened.

“Very well,” I stated, “the situation seems clear enough. Let’s not disgrace our host any further by continuing to fight over the matter. If the good doctor will apologize, then surely...”

“I have nothing to apologize for,” he interrupted, attempting to regain his lost dignity.

Roger placed a calloused fist on his sword, intending no doubt to clarify the man’s perception of the situation, but Malcolm was ready for him. The smaller man thumped his silver staff once on the bare flagstones at his feet and flame burst from its head. Roger gave ground, awe on his face and not a little fear. There was a flush on the sorceror’s face, and a new look of authority as he spoke. “I’ve said I have nothing to apologize for, and I meant it. Now get out of my way before I do something I’ll really regret.”

He brushed past Roger and left the room, pausing only to nod a curt thanks, and none dared stop him. Roger drew Elizabeth aside and began to comfort her, which was rather annoying, as I’d been hoping to make that my job. Ghusthav was picking himself off the floor, where he’d fallen when the commotion surprised him and caused his chair to topple, and I was unsurprised to note the surreptitious way he patted certain spots on his person as he tugged his clothing back into place. Our eyes met for a moment, and when I gave him the Guild sign, he responded with the proper countersign. That explained his skill with the darts, leastwise. I was about to approach him with some questions, when I felt a gentle touch on my elbow and one less tangible in my nose, and I surrendered to the inevitable, letting Cleayne draw me back to our seats. “It seems you’re not the only one who has more to you than meets the eye,” she said archly.

“Amen to that,” I whispered, and we sat in silence for a while longer before I went on. “I’d be pleased to hear you play your lute, Lady Elf. Your people’s music is reputed to be quite fine, and perhaps it would soothe the atmosphere, which has grown somewhat tense.”

“Yes, but inappropriate for this place and time.” She scratched the creamy skin beneath her ascot, and a distant look came into her eyes. Then she gazed on me with those mysterious eyes, but said nothing for a time.

“I can see there is more than one sorceror hidden in this room,” I whispered weakly, feeling a flush that was not due entirely to the wine and the heat of the fire.

“You flatter me,” she responded, placing a cool hand on my cheek. “Would you like to go somewhere quieter and experience Elvish music?”

“I’ve always been something of a patron of the arts,” I replied, hating myself for it.

We left the room arm in arm, Ghusthav spitting loudly again behind us, his opinion clear.

Chapter 4: Divers players make themselves known

I woke up later that night as a weight left the bed beside me. My legs were weak, and I felt a pleasant drowsiness, so I let Cleayne go, one eye half-open to watch her as she dressed and left, snugging the door carefully closed behind her. I burrowed deeper beneath the covers, before what passed for my mind reminded me this was her bed and that I’d best leave before anyone saw me here. I felt unclean and perverted, but on the whole too good to let that bother me; moreover, Cleayne’s magic still lingered in the sweaty sheets, and the distasteful nature of what we had done would undoubtedly lend a certain spice to the affair when her spell wore off.

The castle was silent as the mines the morning after the Motherlode festival, and it seemed likely no one else was awake. Now would be an excellent chance to explore the opportunities the situation presented. Groaning in self-pity at depriving myself of the comforts of that scented bed, I rose and silently wobbled over to my heaped clothing, rubbing at my eyes and chafing myself against the cold; the fire had gone out, and despite the wood paneling, the stone had sucked most of the heat from the air. I dressed carefully, making sure I would leave none of my special equipment behind to embarrass myself. I decided I liked Elvish music and Elves, and if I kept pragmatically repeating that assertion, I knew I might eventually come to believe it.

I listened carefully at the door, and left only when I was certain no one was in the hall. The door closed behind me, and I took a moment to relock it; after all, she’d left it locked, and it would have been discourteous of me not to leave it the same way. That done, I replaced my tools and moved off silently down the corridor in the direction of my room. But on the way, I was forced to step across the irregular patch of light seeping out from beneath a door. Could this be where Cleayne had gone? Force of habit stopped me in my tracks and brought me back to kneel by the door, slowing my breathing to better hear what went on within.

At first, there was nothing but the low murmur of voices. But as my head began to clear from its delightfully muddled state, my ears began to pick out words and then sentences. The room’s occupants were the fat chessplayer and Malcolm, and they seemed agitated about something.

“And I tell you the evidence is incontrovertible, and I should know. What of the mirrors?”

“I admit I’ve yet to see one, but that is hardly damning in itself. So the man isn’t particularly vain. What of it?” Malcolm’s voice.

“Then why do we see him only by night?”

“Perhaps he’s an astrologer. I could ask him some telling questions and determine that easily enough. I remain unconvinced.”

“Then there’s the matter of the crucifix. Why should he show such a strong reaction to it? And what of the garlic? I tell you he must be...” At that point, footsteps down the hall reached my ears, and I was forced to move away quickly. But the gist of the conversation was clear enough. The fat man seemed convinced that someone here showed the signs of vampirism. I remembered the two bruises beneath Cleayne’s ascot, the way she’d moved as I nibbled alongside them. Could the two men mean our host? I reached my room, swiftly entered it and shut the door before the person in the hall could catch up and become suspicious. I was slightly too slow, however—damn that fuddleheadedness!—and a voice called from down the hall.

“Master Thomas, is that you?” The footsteps came nearer, and I stepped back into the hall to meet Hans. “Ah! I see it is. Is there some problem? Has your fire perhaps gone out?”

“No, thank you Hans. I was merely hungry, and I felt sure I smelt warm food somewhere down the hall.”

“Undoubtedly the Baron’s meal,” he replied imperturbably. “When he works late, he tends to miss meals unless I remind him.” I pondered that one, trying to fit it into the pattern I’d seen so far. Not enough puzzle pieces yet, though my ever-eager—all right, overeager—curiosity was aroused. I’d discovered during my travels that my curiosity had attained heights that would have shamed the proverbial cat. Besides, with all other appetites sated for the moment, it was the one that remained unfed.

“Well, Hans, perhaps you could scrounge me some table scraps? I find that I’m quite ravenous.” In truth, I found I was becoming so, perhaps the result of my unplanned exertions.

“Certainly, Sir, I shall endeavor to do better than that. Make yourself comfortable, and I shall knock on your door when a meal is ready.” He bowed deeply and left.

I ducked back into my room, noticing as I did that something was awry. Someone had been here and had searched the place thoroughly. In fact, not only had they made no effort to conceal their search, but certain carefully arranged items had been just as carelessly left disarranged to make it clear their purpose was known. I fought down a wave of anger, and the brief feeling of panic that followed in its wake. A professional job, and they hadn’t cared if I knew about it—on the contrary, they’d waved the fact of it in my face. A quick survey of my possessions revealed nothing missing, which was no surprise, as I carried my few important items with me and had little else worthy of a thief’s attention. I sat on my bed, pondering the possibilities, and just then, a knock sounded on the door.

“Come in,” I called, and Hans entered with a small tray bearing a large assortment of viands. My mouth began watering in anticipation, and too late I realized that my bed was patently unslept in. But if Hans noticed that omission, he was too diplomatic to comment upon it, and he left after wishing me a good night’s rest and a pleasant repast. As I ate, I looked desultorily about the room for any evidence my stealthy visitor might have left. Nothing presented itself, and it was only by chance that I brushed against the bedsheets hard enough to reveal the lump beneath them. I hastily swept the crumbs from my shirt and lifted the sheets.

I found a folded scrap of parchment with my name on it. The hand was delicate, but not enough so to be feminine—or, more specifically, Elvish. Not Cleayne, then. I opened it, read it quickly through, then read it once again to be sure there was nothing I had missed. All it said was “We must talk. When you’re done with the Elf, meet me in my room.” There was the Guild chop by way of signature, and directions to a room further down the hall. Finishing my snack and washing it down with more wine, I once more left my room.

At the end of the hall, unobserved, I listened at the door. When I heard nothing, I opened it and slipped inside the darkened room. As I pulled the door shut, I heard Ghusthav’s rough voice. “About time!”

He crossed the floor silently, moved me gently aside, and locked the door behind me. Brushing a thick rug across the slit beneath the door, he reached past me to uncap a bullseye lantern. The room instantly flooded with light, and the thief was revealed. He was clad in a long black nightshirt, and the mostly empty bottle of liquor he’d been drinking earlier in the evening was clutched in one hand. Seating himself on the bed, he waved me to a chair, then chuckled deeply when I paused to sweep it off first.

“If you were that particular about your dirt, you wouldn’t have spent the night with the Elven bitch.”

“I’ll thank you to leave her out of this.” In fact, now that her spell had worn off, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with myself, and particularly at having let her extract everything I’d learned during my time in Lahndane. The delicious feeling of having done something naughty was rapidly becoming one of disgust at having let myself be used so. Time and past time to find something different to engage my mind.

“You said we had to talk, so let’s talk.” I frowned at him. The rumors of enmity between the Elves and Dwarves have always been just that: rumors. Well, apart from the War of the Diplomatic Blunder, when a soused Dwarvish ambassador rashly commented on the relative sexual merits of Elven and Dwarvish women. That would have been bad enough by itself, but could have been ignored had there not been certain rumors about the source of the ambassador’s knowledge. When the war was over, the ambassador was promoted to a new position as chief of mine security, a role he’d evidently served with distinction for the short time he lasted. But apart from that, the Elves like their forests and longbows and we prefer our caverns and hammers, and that doesn’t leave us much cause to find something to fight over. But I was personally rather sensitive about the state of Elf–Dwarf relations at the moment, which made my reply testier than it might otherwise have been.

Ghusthav raised an eyebrow. “You needn’t be so touchy about it.” I made as if to get up, and he stopped me with another gesture. “All right, all right. Everyone’s entitled to their perversions; I like a little brandy after dinner, for instance. So let’s put the cards on the table, then. What are you doing here? Did the Guild send you to keep an eye on me?”

I met his gaze for a moment, and saw something dark lurking there. No simple thief, this one—more likely one of the brotherhood of assassins. A dangerous one to lie to, and I reconsidered asking whether it’d been him who tossed my room. “No, not at all. I’m here on entirely unofficial business. Leaving the scene of my own past business, in fact, if you catch my drift.” He nodded, needing no further explanation. “And what of yourself? I’m here to escape the storm, and that’s all. Do you have any business here I should know about so I can give you space?”

He thought for a moment, avoiding my eyes. He reached for his bottle, held it to his mouth, then threw it away in disgust. It bounced on the thick rug. “Just passing through like yourself. Nothing for you to worry about.”

“Well, if that’s all you’ve got to say then I’ll be leaving.” I feigned a yawn.

“No,” he said, “that’s not all. I do have some friendly advice for a Guild brother.” He reached for the bottle, missed, then looked surprised to find it rolling slowly on the floor. He frowned again.

“First, there’s the Elf, and don’t move ’till you’ve heard what I have to say.” I settled back down, warily eyeing the finger-thin knife that had appeared in his hand. “Like I say, I won’t interfere with another man’s perversions so long as they don’t affect me. But for your own sake, leave her lie. She belongs to our host, and you’re asking for trouble with her. She’s not worth it.”

I swallowed the insult, and didn’t dispute the point. I’d already seen his skill with thrown objects and, more to the point, I agreed with him. “Second,” he went on, making the knife go away, “you’ll want to keep an eye out for the fat one—Simon-Ephraim Leitus, or something like that. He’s got a bad odor to him, and the look of a fanatic. I’d wager he’s here on Church business when he's not trying to sell his trinkets, something to do with our host, and it doesn’t do to get involved with his type’s business. I’m not sure I understand why he didn’t react to the sorceror’s little stunt at the chessboard tonight, but he wouldn’t be the first Churchman who talked the official line while using a sorceror’s skill when no one was looking.”

“Stunt at the chessboard?”

“You don’t think that lackwit won purely based on his strength of mind, did you?”

I nodded, knowing nothing of the man’s wits but willing to be agreeable. “And what of his business with our host? You know more than you’re telling.”

“Of course. But that’s all I’m saying.” He faked a yawn, poorly. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m tired, and that’s all the talking I want for tonight. Tomorrow, if you’ll honor your gambling debts, it’s your turn to spill the beans. Unless you want to try the darts again, double or nothing?”

I shook my head. Interview concluded. But now that I’d gotten a feel for the man, I was no longer scared of him. “One question. If you wanted to talk, all you had to do was say so. There was no need to go through my stuff. Why bother?”

He looked up at that. “Go through your stuff? What makes you think I’d do that? I already knew who you were, and had a good inkling you had nothing worth stealing. Go to bed, Dwarf, you’re imagining things.”

His voice held the ring of truth, and the amount of alcohol he’d consumed reinforced my impression he wasn’t lying, so I left without pressing the matter. It would bear thinking on, but for now, what I wanted most was a good night’s sleep.

Chapter 5: Snowbound at the art gallery

Through the thin gap that was all I was willing to open in my shutters, it was readily apparent it had begun snowing heavily again during the night. Drifted snow half-covered the entrance to the stables, and heavy, intermittent veils of snow were even now ghosting past my window and slowly collapsing against the sheltered lee of the castle walls. I shivered and pushed the shutters closed again, wrapping my heavy blanket more tightly about me. When I awoke, the cheery warmth of last night was naught but a memory, and the fire was only coals; though I’d tossed a few logs on the coals, they’d not yet caught, and did little to banish the chill. From what I’d seen, there was no way Roger would be leaving today, and I didn’t much relish the idea of walking through that mess by myself without a very compelling reason; about the only company I’d have was the wolves, and I could do without the warm shelter they’d be happy to provide. Roger didn’t know it yet, but I’d decided I was leaving by wagon, even if I had to wait ’till spring to do it. I shuddered again, and set my mind on more pleasant thoughts, like breakfast, Elizabeth, and her valuables.

As the growing fire gradually thawed my nose, the gentle fragrance of traditional delicacies began wafting from somewhere down the hall: fresh bread, preserves, melting butter, and bacon and eggs. There were also hints of what could be roast pheasant, suckling boar, and even a trace of venison. There was little doubt what had woken me from a deep sleep at such an early hour. The seductive comforts of the feather bed vied for a moment with those of a full belly, but the belly won handily. I dressed again in the robe I’d worn last night, paid my devotions to the chamber pot, then hurried on my way. The greater game had begun, and if I wanted a belly of the lesser game, my trail led once more to the sitting room.

The only other guest yet awake was Simon, the "trinket" salesman. He looked up at me noncommitally, then brightened suddenly, with the look of a drunken ex-thespian who’d just discovered a captive audience. I regretted the extravagant impulse that had made me—was it that long ago already?—purchase such a rich set of plush robes. Nonetheless, the covered pots on the table beckoned, and I approached singlemindedly, albeit with a courteous nod to my companion.

“I bid thee a good day, gentle Dwarf. Have a seat, and satisfy the needs of your body, and while you do, allow me to talk to you of matters of the soul.”

Sitting across from him, I refrained from saying what was on my mind—that he’d chosen one of the few mealtime subjects that could have put me off my feed. Still, no need to make an enemy this early in the day, and certainly not on an empty stomach. “And a good day to you too—Simon, is it? I have no objection to your company, since it seems we two are the only ones yet arisen.”

Uncomfortable though the situation could yet become, I was nonetheless curious to draw him out on some of the undercurrents I’d perceived last night. Bracing myself for what lay ahead, I leaned forward and began helping myself to the bounty, surreptitiously appraising the Human. He was a truly big man, I now saw, and the sheathing of fat concealed large, still-powerful muscles; hauling that bulk around was not a weakling’s task. An ostentatious golden pectoral cross hung prominently on his chest from around a bull’s neck, and a bound Bible lay on the table before him. I was of two minds about the crucifix: on the one hand, it was worth a small fortune if it was as solid as it appeared; on the other, it had the look of a nasty bludgeon, the vertical bar being about the right size and thickness for a firm grip. You learn to think of these things if you’ve had any dealing with the Uropan Church.

“A man after my own heart!” he stated heartily, the grin on his face belying the cold appraisal in his eyes. The air was chilly, the morning fire not yet having banished the night’s cold presence, and he wore the same woolen cap as yesterday upon his head. “The others are obvious decadents, with no taste for a bracing regime of early rising.” He raised an eyebrow as I began digging in, then went on.

“As you no doubt know, it has been my privilege to have been chosen to carry the faith to the... to those who lack it,” he finished, not unsubtly. “Might I assume that you are not a Christian?” His gaze became somewhat predatory, for his faith was only marginally less common among my race than Elf-loving, and I was the only Dwarf I knew who would admit to that particular perversion, and only because of extenuating circumstances. But I would be courting an unpleasant debate if I told him the truth, and there was that profitable summer I had spent as an altarboy...

“No, Brother, you might well assume that... but you would be mistaken.” I wiped egg from my lips with a handkerchief, thereby concealing a grin at his surprise. “In fact, I served an entire year at the Abbey of St.—" I paused a moment, reflecting, and wiping once more with the soiled cloth to cover my hesitation. After all, he might be familiar with the abbey and have some inkling of why I had left. “—Francis,” I finished, selecting the most distant abbey I’d heard of. He showed no inclination to question me on the Abbot’s health, which was a relief. He hadn’t been there either, though suspicion showed in those hard eyes for a moment. He mustered his resources for another approach.

“Then I need not convince you of the merits of carrying a religious icon with you wherever you travel. St. Timothy, for example, the patron of travellers. Or do you already carry one?”

I swallowed slowly, wondering—irreverently, I concede—who the patron of thieves might be. “No, I carry no such aids. Such business always struck me as dangerously near idolatry.” I stabbed another slab of bacon for emphasis, carefully noting how his face hardened. “Not that I contradict the teachings of His Holiness,” I added hastily; “rather, I speak from personal preference. I’m sure you understand.” He forced his expression to ease with an effort of will, though displeasure remained in his eyes.

“Quite, quite,” he answered, not understanding at all. “But there are always more benefits than one might at first think. The profits from my sales go entirely to support missionary work among those unfortunate enough not to have heard the teachings of our Lord. It occurs to me you might find that a useful way to spend your life when you return home to live among your race.”

With a masterful effort, I suppressed my reaction, barely avoiding choking on my mouthful of bacon as I did; I had already strayed dangerously close to canary duty, and had little need for additional pushes in that direction. Simon glanced about him conspiratorially, thereby missing my internal struggle, then returned his attention to me. “And, of course, an icon serves as an ever-vigilant guard against the machinations of the Dark One.” He crossed himself hurriedly, leaving me to wonder just which of several dark ones he hoped his icons would be potent against. He gathered himself as if ready to say more, then stayed himself when the door swung open.

Lady Elizabeth entered grandly, pausing only momentarily to let a flustered-looking Roger catch up. She took his arm, a mite possessively I noted, and Roger’s face softened. I took that to imply that my quest for the fair Elizabeth was foredoomed to failure, which was just as well; I’d already sinned enough against Dwarvish propriety during my extended stay among the Humans, and if I kept straying, all the gold in Uropa would not suffice to buy my re-entry into Dwarvish society. Ignoring us, the two Humans crossed the room to sit together by the fire. Then Roger rose and came towards us. Simon glared brimstone at him the whole way, and I took the moment of silence to more fully savor my breakfast. The brief discussion of theology had brought a bad taste to my mouth, and that did scant justice to the excellent repast spread before me. Indeed, even if it snowed for the next month, I could bring myself to survive here with little hardship.

With my attention freed from the convolutions of Uropan theology, and my thoughts increasingly lubricated by the balm of a delightful meal, Simon’s words and the conversation I’d overheard the previous night began to awaken a measure of uncertainty. If there was indeed a vampire within these walls, obtaining a little protection could hardly hurt. I looked around the table carefully, ostentatiously inhaling and savoring the aromas, to confirm my memories from last night, and as I’d recalled, there was neither sign nor scent of any garlic. This was odd, to say the least, given how common the herb was in these parts. I smiled at the vision of me holding a vampire at bay with a Polsh sausage in one hand and a crucifix in the other, and hoped that if anyone noticed, it would be mistaken for pleasure at the quality of the food.

Roger nodded, but his eyes were on the merchant. “Good morning. I see I’m still in time to rescue some food from our Dwarvish friend... though barely. It’s well I’m an early riser.” The sheriff turned his attention to the banquet, heaping his own plate high, then frowning in concentration as he scanned over the choices and began preparing a second plate for his breakfast companion. Then, turning on his heel with a broad wink to me, he strode smartly back to where a regal Elizabeth sat feigning indifference. They sat very close together on the couch, conversing in whispers between mouthfuls.

“Slut!” spat my companion, but not so loudly that Roger would hear. “Filthy harlot! And him—the sinner!—no better for consorting with her like. They’ll both burn for this!”

I was surprised at his vehemence. After all, the implications had been clear enough to those of us with a suspicous mind, but I knew of no reason for the vituperation I heard in his voice. I chose to play the ingenue and draw him out. “Pardon me, but have I missed something?”

He turned that glare on me, and I saw that at least this once, his eyes and face were in accord. “Missed something? The evidence of their sinful misdoings lies plain upon them. Even now they mock the Lord with their behavior! Look!”

Not wishing to risk revealing in my eyes that I’d had similar intentions and an equally guilty past, I looked where he gestured. Roger was just drawing back from what had obviously been a quick kiss, and one of Elizabeth’s hands rested upon his leg. But Simon was staring at me, demanding an answer. “They do seem somewhat brazen,” I replied meekly, wondering what the Church’s current preferred punishment was for inter-race fraternization.

Somewhat?” he thundered, slamming a fist on the table and rocking the plates. Roger and his companion glanced towards us, turning away again as the merchant subsided. “Do you mock me? But I should expect no more from a heathen!”

I didn’t bother to correct him, for his behavior had proven far too instructional and I had high hopes that once his anger passed, he’d feel guilty enough at his outburst to give me an advantage in our next confrontation. I eased another half loaf of bread on my plate beside a slab of butter, and rose to my feet, putting on my best image of wounded politeness. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be eating the rest of my breakfast where I can do so in peace.” I sketched out a shallow, not-quite-insulting bow and left, ignoring the sulfurous fumings at my back. The door closed at my back, shielding it from the man’s poisonous gaze.

On my way back to my room, I came across Hans as he was leaving Cleayne’s room. He tucked something I couldn’t quite make out into his immaculate waistcoat as he turned to face me. “Good day, Sir. I trust breakfast was to your liking?”

“Yes, though the company could have used improvement.” There was curiosity in his eyes, but he avoided the obvious question. “Speaking of which, is the Lady Cleayne awake and about?” I nodded in the direction of her room.

His face show no sign of any reaction. “No, Sir, she was still asleep. I made sure her fire was going, then left her. She seemed to have had a late night, for she’s usually up by now.” I’d been watching him closely, and saw no evidence of any inuendo. “If you have no further need of me sir, there are tasks which await me...”

“No, go ahead—wait!” He paused in mid-motion, weight shifting gracefully back onto both feet. “Would it be possible for me to meet the Baron today? I’d like to thank him for his hospitality.”

“Surely, Sir. But you shall have to wait until tonight to see him, as will our other guests. He was up rather late last night with his work.” The tall butler bowed again, one eyebrow raised as if he were expecting another interruption, then left, treading softly on the thick carpeting.

I waited, listening carefully until his footsteps had faded, then leaned up against Cleayne’s door. It was locked, and not even the sound of quiet breathing came from within—though to be fair, the doors here were thick, and I couldn’t be sure. Listening again to be sure I was alone, I laid my plate of food carefully on the floor and had my lockpick in hand by the time I was standing erect again. I did have some questions the Elf had deferred last night. In less time than it takes to recount, I was inside again, plate and food in hand. I turned from the door, careful not to disturb my breakfast, then paused, taken aback.

Cleayne’s bed was empty!

This bore thinking on, and given that Hans had indeed refreshed the fire, I seated myself on the bed, munching steadily. But no insight came as to where she might be and why the butler had lied. Well, as a colleague once commented, speculation in the absence of any facts was profitless. Having finished, I left the room as carefully as I’d entered.

There was still no sound from anywhere in the hall, and as I had nothing better to do just yet, I decided to reduce my ignorance, even if only to some small extent. Another locked door closed off the end of the hall, just past Ghusthav’s door, and I wondered where it led. I determined to find out.

This lock was more difficult than the last one—actually, something of a challenge, and the more so since I’d no desire to leave obvious signs of my tampering. But we Dwarves are masters of small mechanisms, and it yielded in short order. I stepped through into a small alcove with uncarpeted stone stairs leading upwards. Up the stairs I went, instinctively keeping to the outside to minimize any squeaks even though I needn’t have bothered on stone. At the top, the stairs opened onto a faintly lit corridor, this one with a door immediately at hand and another at the end of the hall. From beneath the far door came a strong light, but pressing my ear to the nearer door suggested the room was unoccupied. To my pleased surprise, I found the door unlocked. Never having been one to decline so polite an invitation, I entered, taking even greater pains to keep silent as I pulled the door shut behind me.

I found myself in pitch blackness, or so I at first thought, for the corridor light had blinded my night vision. Nonetheless, as my eyes swiftly adjusted, enough light seeped underneath the door to reveal a bullseye lantern and the dim glow from a pot of coals resting on the stone by the fireplace. I waited a moment more for my eyes to adjust completely, then catfooted across to the lantern, careful not to trip on any obstacles. I made it across the room handily enough, and unlatched the lantern. I took a thin splint from the jar that’d been provided for that purpose and lit it from the coals, lit the lantern, then swung the shutter most of the way closed, leaving just enough of a gap to see by. Then I dashed to the door and swept a rug up against the gap to block any light from escaping. Now I could relax and open the lantern more fully.

To my surprise, I found myself in an artist’s workroom. In one corner stood a large oaken desk, several bound books open upon it and a rack of cased scrolls above. Beside that, shelves bearing jars of what appeared from their smell to be pigments, oil paints, varnishes, paint thinners, and various less-obvious compounds covered a wall. A ceramic container held a double handful of brushes ranging in thickness from impossibly delicate to the width of two fingers. But what caught and held my attention was the sumptuous couch and the easel that stood before it. On that easel stood a partially completed oil painting of a half-naked Elf, instantly recognizable as Cleayne. I felt my gaze drawn irresistably to that portrait, painted by a hand so accomplished it made her appear seductive even in the absence of her olfactory weaponry. Memories of the previous night brought a warm flush to my cheeks, a tautening to the muscles of my groin, and an overwhelming sense of disgust at my weakness.

After some time, I breathed an embarrassed little laugh and stepped forward to examine the painting more closely. Honestly—behaving like some gawky virgin who’d never seen an unclad body before! Carefully, so as not to do any damage to the canvas, I reached out a finger. Some of the paint was still wet, which suggested where Cleayne had spent the night. I wiped my fingers clean on the rag thoughtfully provided for that purpose, careful to ensure that I’d leave no telltale paint during the rest of my exploration. Tearing my gaze from the painting, I set about examining the rest of the room. There were several other paintings, some under dustcovers, others complete and hung upon the wall. These were cloaked in shadow, and it was only when I turned the lantern directly upon them that their nature became clear.

While the incomplete painting on the easel only hinted at as yet unexpressed potential, the completed paintings left no doubt. The work of a master, these landscapes were like windows into someone’s dream, and a lovely dream at that. It didn’t take the “madonna” portrait of the Elf to tell me the same hand had created those masterpieces. I moved away from the wall, and made my way to the desk, a part of my mind already wondering how I could bring one or more of the paintings with me when I left.

On the desk, an open volume lay next to a nearly empty, overturned bottle of ink. A sheet of parchment had been torn from the book, and had presumably been the cause of the accident, but that sheet was nowhere in evidence. Carefully avoiding disturbing the ink, I turned to the previous page. There, in a beautifully calligraphed hand, were written the fragments of a poem in the Human tongue, a language I’ve come to understand passing well after so long among them. The fragments hinted of the pain of loneliness, and the despair of unrequited love. Not of the same order of mastery as the paintings, and actually rather saccharine on the balance, but competetenly executed for all that. A few more things began to add up. I replaced the page gently, and turned my attention to the desk’s drawers.

There was surprisingly little of note. More parchment, several hollow metal cylinders about the right size and with the right sharpened tips to be artificial pens, pricey jars of several colors of ink, and one or two tiny, bound volumes of the same style of poetry. It was all so mundane I almost missed the concealed compartment in the bottom-most drawer. I forced the lock carefully with the blade of my knife, and to my surprise, found several finely crafted glass bottles, each narrower than my small finger and each containing a pale grey solution. The bottles each had a narrow, wax-filled opening at one end and a cork stopper at the other. I carefully extracted the cork from one bottle, sniffed carefully, and wrinkled my nose at the unpleasant pungency. An unwholesome smell, but not wholly unfamiliar; it had some of the unpleasant bitterness of saltpeter, but there was something much more complex to the odor. There were enough of the small vials I felt confident one would not be missed, so carefully resealing the one I had in my hand, I placed it in a secure inner pocket and concealed its hiding place once more.

I was tempted to investigate the room further, but a tiny voice was whispering in my ear that it was time to go. Maybe later I’d have time to return and check for any nooks and crannies I’d missed. After all, my host was by all appearances a wealthy man, and I, a poor, impoverished Dwarf; there had to be gold somewhere. I smiled to myself, memorized my path to the door, then extinguished the lantern, careful not to slosh any oil.

I made my way uneventfully back downstairs, reaching my room scant footsteps ahead of Hans, who bowed politely as he passed and made his way to the stairway I had just left. With a sigh of relief, I pulled my own door shut and made my way back to the bed. The room had grown pleasantly warm, and given that my stomach was full enough to survive the next few hours without complaint, bed was inviting indeed. It was a long time to luncheon, my morning so far had given me much to think of, and I, like a certain infamous courtesan once said, did my best work on my back.

Chapter 6: Dinner tables and other battlefields

After some indeterminate time spent in contemplation, I rose from my bed, my stomach having begun to make its presence felt once more. Thus, I was relieved to hear the urbane voice of Hans in the hall, but somewhat dismayed to discover that his knocking on doors was to alert us to the imminence of supper, not lunch—evidently my nocturnal activities had worn on me more than I’d expected. Nonetheless, I was well rested and had my door open by the time he reached me, in time to bow to him in greeting. Unflappable, he returned my bow and proceeded onwards down the hall. I waited in my doorway for Cleayne to appear, and when she did, steeled myself to approach her. I had managed to avoid thinking of her all this time only by concentrating on the various mysteries that surrounded us, but as she took my hand, all that was forgotten. I found myself hoping there would be time for music and other things after dinner—and hated myself for those thoughts. It occurred to me that a sufficiently pungent pomander might provide some protection while in her presence.

“Have you met our host yet, Thomas?” she inquired, politely enough, her voice raising the fine hairs on the nape of my neck even so.

“Not yet, but I have high hopes. He strikes me as a fascinating man—indeed, fascinating unto the point of mystery.”

“He is that,” she replied, something indefinable in her voice for a moment. “But I suspect what really intrigues you is the rumors.”

I played dumb. “Rumors?”

She laughed. “You needn’t be coy with me, not after last night.” She ignored the color that sprang to my face and spread down my neck. “If you haven’t heard the rumors of black magic, vampirism, virgin sacrifice, and the like, then you were surprisingly lax during your travels through this land. I assure you, that like all rumors, they have only a modicum of truth to them.”

“Imagine my relief.”

She laughed again, louder. “Even were it true, you should console yourself: as a male, to which I can attest, you’re no target for a male vampire; as a nonvirgin, to which I can again attest, you’re not a target for sacrifice either; and as for black magic, you have only mine to fear.” Her callused fingertips, the one imperfection on an otherwise sinfully soft hand, trailed delicately across the nape of my neck.

When had it grown so hot in here? As we talked, we’d moved down the hall, past the sitting room and into a portion of the keep I’d somehow failed to notice during my initial passage from the front door. From the smells in the corridor, we were nearing both the kitchen and the stables, though it was obviously the former that most interested me—the more so given how those heavenly scents partially concealed that of the Elf beside me. I was grateful when we arrived at the dining room, for that cut off further private conversation. Cleayne rested her hand briefly atop my head, caressed my thick thatch of hair for an instant, then strode through the doorway before I could hold the door for her.

I took a deep breath, forced some semblance of calm into my expression, and followed her into the room. We were first to arrive, as it happened, and that gave me the opportunity to survey the room. The high ceiling was tall enough to be lost in darkness behind chandeliered tapers that shed a warm illumination upon the table, but also blocked any view of what lay above them. The darkly paneled walls were bare of ornamentation to the point of starkness, but the lavishly set table more than compensated for any perceived lack in the decor. Crystal there was in plenty, enough to bring nightmares to a soprano, and the bone-white flatware separating it and casting back glittering reflections of the tapers could have come only from the Sinese ceramics wizards of the far east. Nestled in lacy cotton handkerchiefs, the dull gleam of gold cutlery caught my eye.

This was ostentation beyond my expectations, for though I suspected our host to be as well equipped as any Dwarf to appreciate the finer things in life, the juxtaposition of food and gold bordered on the sacramental. Here, there was gold enough to buy me respectability again. For a moment, I grappled with a fantasy of returning with a large wain and carting off everything that wasn’t nailed down; then the reality of the situation sank in like a cold meat pie lying heavy on my gut. I shook my head, and returned to the present, though not without registering a mental note to review the situation, wain or no wain. As I seated myself belatedly beside Cleayne, my subconscious already gleefully appraising the possibilities, Roger and Elizabeth entered the room, holding hands, and sat together near the head of the table without acknowledging our presence. I felt a momentary pang at that lost opportunity—but Cleayne was still close enough I could smell her natural perfume, and that made it unpleasantly easy to forget the lost opportunity. I regained some semblance of control over my thoughts by setting one part of my mind to wondering whether it would be possible to bottle Elf sweat and sell it to Humans at some enormous markup as an aphrodisiac; the rest of my faculties began rationalizing how much easier Roger’s infatuation would make the task of making off with Elizabeth’s valuables, since their mutual attentions would eliminate any chance of physical entanglements on my part that might otherwise complicate the issue.

Malcolm and Simon were next to arrive, arguing in intense whispers about something. I was too involved in my mental gymnastics to catch the gist of their conversation, but hazarding a guess, I was prepared to wager they were continuing their earlier discussion on the status of our host’s soul. The ostentatiously large silver crucifix Simon withdrew from within his shirt to hang upon his chest confirmed this supposition; there was some momentary difficulty with the chain, which snagged upon and shifted his ever-present woolen cap, thereby treating me to a brief glimpse of the balding scalp beneath. Malcolm, who could have had a clear view of the mysterious territory beneath the omnipresent cap, was brooding about something, and missed the opportunity. A few cogs clicked into place in my mind and threw up the word tonsure for consideration.

Last of us to enter the room was Ghusthav, and I confess that what with the various thoughts in my poor head vying for dominance with Elvish perfume, I entirely missed his entry; one moment he was absent, the next he was seated across from me, cleaning his nails with a golden knife from beside his plate. He smirked as our eyes met, then turned to his own inspection of the room.

We sat for a bit in awkward silence, no one wanting to be the first to essay a conversation, for there was a lingering awkwardness in the wake of last night’s events, and it seemed wiser to say nothing than to start something unpleasant. We were saved from further awkwardness by the arrival of our host.

After so much foreshadowing, I confess to being disappointed. The Baron was short for a human, not much beyond five feet and a half to the top of his coal-black hair, and slimly built. In contrast, his skin had the pallor of milk after the butter had been skimmed from it, and blue veins made pale traceries across such of his skin as was visible. This otherwise attractive appearance was undermined somewhat by the fact that he lacked even the slightest trace of a beard despite the hour. His thick vest, elaborately brocaded with gold thread, covered that slim torso down below his waist, and his shirt extended to just beyond his wrists, which were shrouded in its lace frills. What I could see of his hands revealed skin as pale as his face, but the fingers were surprisingly short and blunt, and the hands seemingly strong and powerful.

He flashed us a warm grin, showing no teeth, as he brushed past us to take his place at the head of the table, and I confess to feeling relief that no canines protruded beyond his lower lip. As he sat, his hand lightly brushed Cleayne’s shoulder, and though her face remained politely neutral, she leaned into that caress like a cat being stroked by its master. To my surprise, a slightly unpleasant musk trailed in his wake, and even as I strove to place the unfamiliar odor, I noted from the corner of my eye how Elizabeth’s head snapped around as his wake passed her, and how Roger suddenly reached for her hand again, only to be rebuffed firmly. The frown on his face proved so instructive I almost missed our host’s opening speech.

“Welcome, my guests, and please accept my apologies for absenting myself from your presence these past few nights. I have been absorbed in... business.” His voice was surprisingly rich and deep for such a shallow chest, and bore an unmistakable eastern Uropan accent, something not heard much around these parts. “I bid particular welcome to our new guests; it is a pleasure to be given the opportunity to offer shelter from the elements with such a fierce storm swirling outside.”

Elizabeth spoke. “The pleasure is most assuredly ours, kind sir. Seldom have I been offered such hospitality, and I fear I have nothing to offer in return.” Roger’s face tightened as his charge once again spurned his hand and emerged from beneath the table to push aside a lock of hair that had fallen across her forehead.

Cleayne’s whisper, sotto voce, reached clearly to where I sat. “I’m sure.

Elizabeth’s eyes blazed, but as she made to prepare a spirited reply, Roger’s hand emerged from beneath the table to seize her much smaller hand and squeeze it, firmly enough to make her wince. She subsided, glaring her promised retribution at the Elf, who had set an appropriately ingenuous look upon her face.

The Baron cocked an eyebrow, his gaze moving between the two women before fixing on me. “And I bid a special welcome to you, Thomas, for it is rare for one of your folk to be seen by the men of my homeland, even here in the west. If it would be no intrusion on your privacy, I would relish the opportunity to speak with you in private after our supper.”

“As would I, my host. Please consider me at your disposal.” He nodded graciously, then siezed a golden bell I had noted earlier beside his place setting. It tolled quietly, but Hans had evidently been waiting for just such a cue, for he swept in through the open door before the bell’s echoes had faded. Hob followed close behind the butler, but had to bend his knees and angle slightly sideways to fit through the door; in one hand, the giant Human clutched a broad tray as if it were a toy, which indeed it seemed in those massive hands, while the other hand bore a magnum of some wine whose label I could not read from this distance. Hob swept past me like a toppling pine tree, accompanied by the heavenly aroma of soup and fresh bread.

Hans was as graceful at serving as he had been at everything else so far; it occurred to me that had he been a warrior, such grace with a sword would have made him a dangerous opponent. In moments, a thick bowl of red soup and a generous loaf of bread sat before me. I had the former in a spoon and the latter raised to my lips when Simon’s voice rang out across the table.

“Surely we will not be eating without saying grace for this bounty?”

Gaze directed carefully away from the merchant, the Baron replied. “If you feel that need, then so be it. Will you do us the honor, Simon?”

The fat man cleared his throat, rising to his feet to better display the crucifix on his chest, and I watched with suddenly intense curiosity—but the Baron showed no signs of pain or horror, only a certain distaste. “Dearly beloved, gathered before me, let us pray. Dear Lord, we give thanks for this food Thou hast set before us, and pray that the redness of the soup shall recall to us the sacrifice of Thy blood, and that this bread shall recall the sacrifice of Thine divine flesh, as we commemorate when we share the Eucharist. Amen.”

I was certain I’d heard his emphasis of the words blood and flesh, and it puzzled me that Simon would risk such open insults. Curiously, only myself, Elizabeth, and Roger echoed the amen, a point I considered more than worthy of further pondering. Among humans, it was rare to omit at least the formalities of religious custom; the Uropan Church had developed some innovative—if invariably fatal—notions of how to deal with pagans, and it had taken some blunt lessons on the field of battle to convince them my people had a very different form of worship involving blood sacrifice. The Church and my people soon came to a suitable modus vivendi, for both groups were relentlessly pragmatic when the occasion called for them to acknowledge reality. Having learned their lesson well, the Church had largely abandoned trying to save our souls, although the occasional solitary Dwarf that disappeared in Human lands was said by my people—not without a cold smile—to have been “saved”. My people have always lived by the maxim “safety in numbers”, and the rare Dwarf who forgot this was rarely mourned by his surviving kin.

The soup was odd, but pleasant; I recognized the cabbage, the tomato, and a few other vegetables, but not the stock. To direct the conversation in a safer direction, I asked the Baron its origin.

“My countrymen call the soup borscht; it’s a traditional delicacy made from sugar beets and various other vegetables, which give it that shocking red color.” Simon, who had refrained from tasting his soup, looked relieved and fell to with the hearty appetite his frame suggested. I had not really believed the red to be blood, but the suggestions of the other guests and Cleayne’s earlier remarks had failed to abolish a measure of uncertainty about my host’s nature.

“I must get the recipe for this soup; it’s delicious, and my kin would enjoy it as much as I.” He nodded to Hans, who had been hovering solicitously, and I saw the butler take note of my request. I neglected to mention that my kin currently had no desire whatsoever to break bread with me, but it occurred to me that a recipe was far more portable than the requisite quantities of gold.

Elizabeth, who had been sipping at her soup, cleared her throat and coughed delicately, in a ladylike manner, to attract our host’s attention. “And where might your homeland be, if I’m not presumptuous for asking? From the way you spoke, it seems you are not from around here.”

Cleayne made as if to say something in response, undoubtedly snide, but I elbowed her in the side hard enough to make her wince and glare daggers. I smiled my most angelic smile and focused again on the Baron.

“I come from Romaigne, high in the mountains. As you guessed so perceptively, I am estranged from my people and now live apart from them.”

Simon had been listening carefully over the edge of his soup bowl. “Ah. Religious differences, perhaps?” He ostentatiously wiped a fleck of soup from his crucifix, holding it so it caught the light and reflected it in our host’s eyes. The Baron winced and looked away again, but let the comment pass unchallenged.

“He would not be the only one to have had disagreements with the Holy Mother Church,” interposed Malcolm, glaring at the merchant. Simon returned the stare levelly, unperturbed by the venom in the sorceror’s voice.

Not to be left out, Cleayne commented as well, this time having put a hand firmly upon my arm beneath the table. “For an organization that advocates love for all the children of your God, your employers seem more inclined to offer a sharp reply to those who disagree with you.”

Employers? The word tonsure sounded more loudly in my head, and I resolved to take greater care in the man’s presence.

Simon, about to snap at the Elf, was forestalled by the Baron. “I have found,” he stated firmly, “that discussions of religion and politics ruin one’s digestion and may cause a falling out among companions. For this reason, I’d ask that you refrain from pursuing the matter further. Please, enjoy your meals instead. We can talk later over wine.”

As he spoke, Hans and Hob returned, bearing steaming salvers heaped with more food. “I thought you drank no wine?” stated Simon, casting a meaningful glance towards Malcolm.

“This is true, but although I cannot enjoy its savor myself, I can appreciate the reactions of my guests to a fine Romaigne vintage.”

I missed Simon’s reaction as Hans placed two large blood sausages on my plate, followed by a dollop of finely ground liver paté smothered in fried onions, a larger mound of creamy mashed potatoes, and some strange, deep-red tubers that had the look of thicker carrots. Once Hans had filled our plates, he effortlessly drew the cork from the large bottle Hob had carried in and circulated about the room, filling our glasses with a rich, red wine so thick it swallowed all light that fell upon it. He then vanished as if he’d never been in the room, though my ears told me he’d only retreated to a discreet distance from the table. More bread had appeared before me as if by magic, beside the dish of creamed butter. The Baron set a truly fine table, and I was as near to heaven then as I was ever likely to come.

Conversation stopped for a time while we turned our attention to the feast set before us. As my hunger became a distant and somewhat petulant echo in my mind, I snuck a glance at our host. Vampire he may have been, but he was eating much the same food as the rest of us, save only for the wine. I did notice that he’d taken a larger than normal helping of the red tubers, but so far as I could determine, there was no taste of blood to them—quite the contrary, in fact, for they were sweet and crunchy. Despite the suspicions that had grown in me from half-overheard conversations and Cleayne’s teasing, I had to admit that the rumors of vampirism were unlikely—though on the other hand, the only blood I’d ever knowingly tasted had been my own, after an unfortunate disagreement with a fist during my apprenticeship in the ways of civilized dispute. The gold tooth that winked whenever I chanced to look in a mirror was a constant reminder that stubborn though we Dwarves were reputed to be, there were things stubborner still.

From further down the table, there came a strong scent of garlic. I looked up from my rapidly emptying plate to see Simon liberally sprinkling his plate from a large, silver dispenser while our host looked on with considerable distaste and held a large, embroidered handkerchief across his mouth and nose. Noticing this attention, the merchant held the dispenser at arm’s length in the direction of the Baron. “Have some. It’s said to do wonders for the heart and blood.”

“Thank you, no,” the Baron replied, leaning slightly back in his chair to avoid contact with the proferred garlic. “Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s a cliché that eastern Uropans survive on garlic. It offends my dear Cleayne, a good enough reason for me to not indulge, even were I not allergic to the spice myself.”

Simon shot a triumphant glance at Malcolm, who looked away. “A shame. Perhaps if I placed it in a golden spoon for you?”

The Baron frowned, a touch of color rising to his cheeks. For a moment, he only stared at his tormentor, then abruptly the tension left him in an explosive laugh. “Why, Simon, one would think you were testing me somehow. Surely you don’t suspect some supernatural origin to my likes and dislikes?”

“Let me assure you, he’s fully human. In every way.” Cleayne smirked at Elizabeth, who gritted her teeth audibly. “Indeed, he’s more a man than many I’ve encountered during my travels.”

“And I imagine you’ve encountered a good many men,” Elizabeth riposted coolly, smiling as the barb sank home. “But tell me, Baron,” she continued before the Elf could respond, “what you suspect Simon to be accusing you of? I saw no harm in his suggestion.”

The Baron smiled warmly at the woman, his eyes dipping down the long, smooth curve of her neck towards her swelling bosom. “Perhaps he feels I’m a vampire, my dear.” Cleayne stiffened at the tone in his voice and the trajectory of his gaze. “Garlic is said to be a strong deterrent to those of the fiendish persuasion, as is silver. Then there’s the crucifix the man has been flaunting throughout dinner, undoubtedly in an attempt to turn me away from your charms. To no avail, I might add.”

Elizabeth flushed a warm red, and Roger drained his glass of wine in a gulp, thereafter turning his attention so firmly upon his dinner plate I felt a measure of sympathy for his charge once he got her out of this room. Cleayne forestalled the next phase of this flirtation by pushing her chair back so hard it struck the wall before Hans, already en route to intercept it, could intervene. “Please excuse me,” she spat. “I suddenly feel I need to have some fresh air.” With that she wheeled and left the room before the Baron could draw breath to respond.

Ghusthav chuckled into the sudden silence. “Our good merchant’s precautions seem to have worked well enough on your paramour. Even though I’d vow that she, despite her other flaws, is no vampire. Perhaps Simon simply isn’t a good enough Christian to make that crucifix work its magic?”

Malcolm rose abruptly, wiping his mouth upon one of the linen napkins and leaving a surprisingly large red smear. “I thank you again for your hospitality, Baron. I don’t mean to seem rude by leaving your table prematurely, but as you know, I’m a physician, and perhaps the good Elf is in need of my services.” He bowed deeply in response to our host’s hesitant nod of affirmation, then followed the departing Elf into the corridor. I heard his footsteps dwindling in the distance as he hurried to catch up.

The Baron turned the conversation rather forcefully to more neutral ground thereafter, mostly the weather and the prospects of the roads clearing anytime soon. Simon maintained a resentful silence throughout the hot drinks and spicy cake that appeared once the dinner dishes had been cleared away. It was generally agreed that it could be days before the storm broke, and still longer before the King’s men came to clear the pass for commercial traffic. Roger attempted to defend the King, albeit desultorily, and the Baron politely attended his words, although with some evidence of equally polite derision. As was common in those parts, there was little respect for the local royalty, who had an almost Dwarvish reputation for their love of gold and their unwillingness to part with it. Ignoring much of the small talk, I watched Elizabeth closely, observing how she leaned closer to the Baron whenever she spoke, exposing the deep cleft in her bosom and the flush that had crept there from his good wine. Roger did not fail to notice this, and his sullen silence deepened as he consumed glass after glass of the wine.

After dinner, I thanked the Baron and arranged to talk with him later that evening in his study. He thanked me most politely and told me Hans would come for me at the appointed hour to bring me to him. I missed his actual words, for I was doing my best to ignore the sudden, pointed looks from the others. I thanked him again and left to begin the digestion of my meal in the privacy of my room.

Chapter 7: An interview with the vampire

Some time later, as I lay atop my bed juggling the implications of miscellaneous conversational byplay and wondering how I might smuggle out the cutlery unbeknownst to my host, there came a polite rap on my door and the muffled voice of Hans. “Master Thomas? The Baron will see you now.”

I got slowly to my feet, adding various useful devices to my arsenal and readjusting my rumpled clothing. It wouldn’t do to visit our host looking like either a slob or a paranoiac. When I opened the door, Hans was waiting politely for me, no expression of impatience on his face.

“This way, if you please.” He conducted me along the same path I’d trodden on my own earlier that day, preceding me up the stairs and knocking loudly, thrice, on the door at the top of the stairs.

“Enter!” came the shouted reply.

I bowed my thanks to Hans, who smiled enigmatically and returned soundlessly the way we’d come. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door and entered the room. I felt a bit silly because of the silver crucifix, silver-inlaid dagger, and vial of holy water under my shirt, but one never knew, and there had been signs at dinner that could not be ignored without further investigation.

The door closed softly behind me, and I found myself in the same study as before, but this time fully lit and with Cleayne’s portrait veiled behind a paint-spattered cloth. The Baron stood before a fresh canvas, sketching in charcoal. Even from the preliminary lines, I could see the portrait of another woman taking form under his skilled hand; I had my suspicions who that might be, and looked forward to seeing the final product. I cleared my throat. “Would I be mistaken if I said I’d seen your work hanging in the great museums of Paree? Under the nom de plume Vladimir?”

The Baron laughed. “You would not be mistaken, for Vladimir is my name, and Tevyas my family. I see you are well traveled, my friend.”

“Better than most,” I admitted.

“And not without some appreciation for fine art.”

“Yes, but from a commercial standpoint as much as from an aesthetic one.”

“Ah. You are a collector, perhaps?”

“After a fashion.” I neglected to mention how I collected, and why I’d been unable to return to Paree after my last visit. “But I have not found collecting to be profitable, other than in the aesthetic sense.”

He laughed again, looking on me with a touch of irony in his eyes. “It is indeed truly said that only the artist does not profit from his works. At least, not in his own lifetime.”

“Yet you do not seem to be wanting for anything. Even in Paree, I was never so lavishly entertained.”

“True, but only a small portion of my wealth comes from my art. A vanishingly small portion, to my great regret. My wealth stems largely from certain sources of income in my ancestral lands and from certain services I perform for the cities on either side of this pass.”

I wondered at his openness, but decided I’d done enough overt prying for the moment. Even the most naïve host would begin to suspect that my motives went beyond polite curiosity. “If I might be so bold, would I be correct in assuming I’m familiar with the lady taking form beneath your hands?”

“I would not venture to inquire as to your familiarity with her, preferring to let such matters lie between the two of you.” He shot me an amused glance. “But you would be correct in assuming that our guest, the Lady Elizabeth, is the subject of this painting. She has agreed to pose for me later tonight, and perhaps a time or two more during the course of her stay should the storm delay her travel long enough.” He cocked an ear towards the roof as if listening to something for a moment; listen though I strove, I heard nothing. “Yes, I wager I’ll have time to complete the portrait.” Absently, he daubed at the canvas once again, refining a curve, then laid down his charcoal stick and wiped his hands on a dirty cloth hanging from the easel.

“But enough of me. I’m being a poor host.” He removed his paint-stained smock and laid it delicately on the floor beside the easel. “Can I get you something to drink. Or eat?” His eyes smiled at the latter, and I smiled back. I found myself liking the man for his lack of pretence and his affability.

“For one who claims no knowledge of the Dwarvish folk, you have me characterized to a nicety.”

“True, but remember that an artist is nothing without a keen eye for detail and, more importantly, for essence. Later, if you intend to stay for long enough, I would be greatly interested in painting you.” He crossed over to a hutch against the rear wall of the study, calling back over his shoulders. “Your face and hands tell me much already. There are many stories in them.”

From what I’d seen of Cleayne’s painting, admittedly studied in the poor light, he had the twin gifts of the telling detail and capturing the subject’s essence, and it occurred to me that I’d not want him reading my stories from seemingly trivial clues; I was all too aware of how that worked. Uneasily, I changed the subject, not sure I wanted him to paint my portrait, even if certain past aquaintances would never see it. “If I do stay that long, such a painting would be small price indeed for your excellent hospitality. But if I’m not mistaken, you’d expressed more than polite interest in my folk, and I shall be happy to oblige you with such details as are fit for public consumption.”

He turned from the hutch, one hand bearing a crystal decanter of some dark liquid and a matching crystal glass, the other balancing a tray of assorted sweetmeats and cheeses. Crossing to a small table surrounded by two luxurious armchairs, he gracefully set down his burdens, impressing me by not spilling so much as a crumb. “Please help yourself. When you’re done, call me back and we can resume our conversation.” The Baron moved around to the far side of his desk, where he sat with an elaborate quill pen and bottle of ink and began jotting something in a thick, leather-bound book.

The dark liquid turned out to be a heady, invigorating brandy of some type I’d never encountered before; having slid caressingly down the back of my throat, lighting a gentle fire along the way, it lay there in my belly, gently warming it and preparing it for the cheeses and pastries that followed. I’d begun to feel more than a little mellow when I called my host back, stifling a belch while brushing my lips at the same time with the sleeve of my robes.

“Forgive me, but I fear I’ve left little for you to share with me.”

“Pay it no mind. My blood does not permit me to indulge in liquor of even the simplest kind, and I ate well enough at dinner.” He watched me appraisingly for a moment, as if looking for some hint of Simon’s dark suspicions in my countenance, and I felt my hidden precautions pressing far too keenly against my skin for my comfort. When I returned his gaze, unperturbed, he went on. “It pleases me, however, that my guests can savor what I cannot.”

“Savor is indeed the word. I thank you again.” Then, in what poor coin I could muster, I repaid his kindness with a detailed description of my folk. Dwarves have never been particularly reticent about our lives, other than for one odd duck we nicknamed “Bashful” who ended up in service to the wizard of Vahlt. The Baron’s questions, though often pointed, were never offensive, and he guided me subtly through a remarkably thorough investigation of my people and our demesnes beneath the ground. Inadvertently, I provided much personal detail as well, filtering my descriptions through my own personal experience. Perhaps an hour or two later, I gradually wound down.

“That is most of what I can tell you; much of it must be experienced in person. Should I ever be permitted to return to the caverns, I would be honored if you would visit me.” The brandy had definitely gone to my head, for I’d not intended to use permitted, and I found myself unable to recall just how much I’d said of the reasons for my banishment.

One eyebrow raised fractionally. “It seems we have something in common, for I too am outcast by my people. And I agree, much of what you have told me could only be appreciated in person. Should you ever return home, I would be pleased to accept your hospitality, particularly if you’d let me bring my easel and paints.” He sat back in his chair, stretching.

The brandy had made me bold. “How is it that you could have been outcast by your own people... if you don’t mind my asking?” Simon’s suspicions returned to my mind, and the Baron seemed to sense what I was thinking.

“You mean, am I really the vampire that Eleitus was implying?”

Ee-lee-ightus?”

“Simon, the icon merchant. No, friend Dwarf, I am not what he thinks. My family has always had weak blood, and this led my forebears to experiment on matters the Church does not approve of. Oh, there are some older tales that deal with replacing our blood with that of unwilling victims, but I cannot testify to their veracity from my own experience. All I can assert with any certainty is that my own thin blood requires me to imbibe various noxious herbal potions at frequent intervals, and prohibits me from going abroad in bright sunlight.” Up close, I noticed the pinkish tinge to his eyes.

“No, I’d not suspected you of vampirism. Simon’s crucifix should have chased you from the room if you’d suffered from that particular affliction.”

My host grimaced. “You are right on both counts. The symbols of the Church have no power over me, and that, in part, is what led to my banishment.”

I nodded, having learned of the eternal push and shove between secular and religious forces. What religion and piety had been unable to accomplish, assassination and excommunication often succeeded in accomplishing, and I traveled continually alert lest I meet any of the more unpleasantly enthusiastic agents of the Church. As I pondered that, the Baron rose and returned to the hutch, from whence he pulled a large pitcher of clear liquid, presumably water, and one of the small vials of powder I’d seen on my earlier visit to his study. While he was mixing the powder into a small glass, there came a knock upon the door.

“Enter, please.”

The door opened, accompanied by a waft of a musky perfume, and Lady Elizabeth entered the room on the arm of Hans. If anything, she was even lovelier than before, and the cut of her dress and sultry look in her eye left no doubt as to her intentions. I cleared my throat, and—being a perceptive sort—made my excuses. “Thank you for your time, Baron. I’m afraid I must be going.”

He caught my eye and winked, crossing the room to take my hand as I rose. “No, Thomas, thank you. It was a most enlightening conversation. I hope we’ll have a chance for another one before you leave.”

His hand was surprisingly cold, and left a palpable chill where it had gripped the flesh of my palm. Despite his plausible arguments against vampirism, I was left wondering. His earlier aversion to garlic and alcohol, and the lack of mirrors or icons anywhere I had been in the keep remained suspicious, but there were no “nails in the coffin”; for that matter, there were no coffins.

As I took the final step down the stairs to the main corridor, I heard an intake of breath and the shuffle of rapidly moving feet. I accelerated swiftly, eager to see who’d been lurking nearby, and was in time to see a door closing a short distance down the hall. Was that Simon’s room? From the angle at which I’d seen it, there was no way to be sure, and I found myself wishing I’d drunk less or been born with longer legs. It occurred to me that one way to find out who’d been spying on us would be to visit the sitting room and count the missing faces. Sadly, it proved later than I’d thought, for no one was present, and the fire had burned down to cinders and a few dully glowing coals.

I returned to my room to ponder the evening’s events, and as I turned to seal my door behind me, Malcolm slunk past down the hall. Even in the dim light, my dark-adapted Dwarvish eyes spotted the bruise on his cheek, just beginning to blacken and swell; evidently, the medical profession, though less overtly hazardous than the warrior’s trade I used as my guise when I traveled, was not without its dangers. Making no effort to repress a grin, I locked my door, noting as I did that there had been no apparent effort to re-enter my room and search its contents. Either that, or the hypothetical searcher was more accomplished at covert entry than I was. On that cheery note, I tucked myself under the thick covers and fell asleep, momentarily regretting that I was the only one there to warm the bed and pondering whether to have a covert look at the portrait of Elizabeth the next day.

Chapter 8: A death in the family

The next morning, I could still hear the wind howling outside my window. There was little temptation to open the shutters, for if anything, the storm sounded like it was growing worse, and it was cold again in my room. One of the less obvious advantages of living hundreds of feet underground for most of one’s life was the natural heat that kept things comfortably warm year-round; sadly, that did not prepare one for the unsheltered surface life. Although there were certain distinct advantages to the Human way of life, I was having to work awfully hard to remember them at that particular moment. Indeed, the chamber pot was almost cold enough to leave frostbite in places best left unbitten, and as soon as I was able to free myself from its chill embrace, I set about rebuilding the fire and summoning Hans to beg a warm bath. Immediately thereafter, I flung myself back under the covers to ponder.

Hob returned with an astonishingly large caldron of steaming water in an impressively short time. Unlike Hans, he did not knock before entering the room, and his deep-set eyes showed no trace of any emotion as he set the tub on the floor and knelt to check on my fire. The tub was full, even though a Dwarf needed less water than a Human, and I raised an eyebrow at the Human’s feat of strength; I doubted that two strong Dwarves, working together, could have lifted that much bath water.

As the door closed behind the giant, I flung myself into the scented water, hardly waiting for my clothing to hit the floor. I’d learned from my encounter with the chamber pot.

The water was blissfully scalding, and soon permeated my body with warmth. Unfortunately, it rapidly awoke my hunger, and that tempted me from the waters sooner than would otherwise have been my wont. Despite the fire, the air was still cold, and I was certain I’d seen frost forming on various exposed extremities before I was able to towel myself dry and cover my nakedness with thick woolens. I took a few moments to settle my various gear imperceptibly about me, then locked the door and hastened to the sitting room.

Some saint had been thinking ahead, and the roaring fire that lit the room had long since chased away the last traces of chill. Moreover, hot water for tea steamed merrily away in a tureen by the fire, and small pots of coals kept the food on the table pleasantly warm. With scarcely a glance for the other occupants of the room, I selected a small serving tray from the sideboard and began heaping it with food. Had it not been for the morning’s cold and the lamentable lack of suitable female Dwarvish companionship—no disrespect intended to Cleayne’s indisputable charms—I might have found myself in a somewhat ecumenical heaven.

As my hunger began to abate, I began belatedly noticing the other occupants of the room. Cleayne sat by herself in a corner, morosely tuning her lute, staring into an imagined distance. At the opposite end of the room, Simon sat beside a half-empty plate, woolen cap still pulled low over his forehead. As I ate, he appeared to be struggling with himself, half-rising several times as our eyes met before seating himself again. Evidently, he was trying to muster the courage to confront me about something. I was enjoying the rich food too much to risk doing anything to encourage him, suspicious that whatever it was he would bring up would have unfortunate effects on my digestion.

My hunger was firmly in hand by the time the merchant took courage—and crucifix—firmly in hand and crossed the room to join me at the table. Repressing a twinge, I smiled a greeting at him around a mouthful of delightfully fluffy pancakes and syrup. “Good morning, brother Simon.” His eyes narrowed momentarily at the greeting, and while I took the opportunity to claim more pancakes, he replaced his suspicion with a spurious look of goodwill that never quite fully reached his sunken eyes.

“Good morning, Thomas.” He paused, licking his lips. “I confess to a near-religious awe at your capacity for even food this good. Are all your appetites so robust?”

Not sure what he was getting at, I stalled. “All the ones fit for polite breakfast conversation, at least.”

That wasn’t what he wanted. “I am talking about piety and devotion to those things all good and decent men trust.” His gaze sharpened on mine, measuring my reply.

He must have seen my hesitation as I tried to avoid choking on another mouthful of pancakes. “And which good and decent men would we be talking about? Your kind, my kind, or both?” I doubted he meant alcohol consumption, thievery, fraud, inter-race sex, and heretical worship practices, but one never knew and I wanted to be sure just what I’d be defending myself against.

His voice took on a new urgency, though from his eyes it appeared he’d already begun to consider me a lost cause. “I mean the fight against all things evil, as we are commanded to do by the good book. Can I be any clearer than that?”

“No, that defines your point to a nicety. I take it you mean our vampire host?”

That one scored. Simon stepped back a pace as if I’d struck him a particularly clever low blow when he’d been expecting a handshake. Several interesting emotions ran across his face in sequence, none of which was amusement. “How can you say such a thing so casually?”

I was spared the necessity of a reply by a yell of horror from down the hall. It was a man’s voice, too deep to be Ghusthav’s or Malcolm’s and, judging by their previous vocal performances, not likely to be Hans or Hob. Roger?

There was a moment of shocked silence in the sitting room, then we made for the door en masse, Cleayne following somewhat more leisurely with an oddly apprehensive look on her face. Roger stood frozen in the hall, hands white-knuckled on either side of the open doorway to Elizabeth’s room, slumped there as if he’d been crucified to the doorframe and was now supported only by his nails. Something informed me of what we’d find, and indeed, the situation was apparent at a glance. Malcolm, the only physician among the guests, ducked under Roger’s arms to investigate further. There were certain advantages to being short, among them the ability to look past the small crowd gathered by the door. I’d seen death before, but had no strong desire for another close look unless it was clearly in my self-interest to do so. As of yet, it wasn’t.

Malcolm knelt by the body, which lay on the bed with one shapely arm dangling towards the floor, the fingernails just brushing the rug, and felt at the wrist for a pulse. Apparently feeling nothing, he moved his hand to her neck, withdrawing it suddenly and stepping back hastily. He raised his hand to eye level, trembling now, and there was blood upon it. Visibly taking hold of his courage, he knelt once more by the body, turning it so we could see what his explorations had discovered: two small, bruised puncture wounds perhaps an inch apart on the swelling of her neck near where it met the line of her jaw. As if on cue, there came a collective intake of breath from those of us assembled by the doorway, followed by a sob of anguish from Roger.

“A damned vampire!” spat Simon, crossing himself, then doing so again for good measure. He shot a triumphant glance in my direction. “Now will someone believe me?”

There was a moment of silence, which I broke out of misguided loyalty. “Though your accusation appears likely, on the face of it, we should not leap to conclusions. A careful examination of the corpse would be required to prove the cause of death, even though the evidence appears damning to the untrained eye; after all, she’s obviously been murdered, and with all the talk of supernatural agents, falsifying the cause of death could buy the murderer enough time to escape.”

“Indeed,” Malcolm proclaimed with a distinct wheeze in his voice. “Let me remind you, there are other possible causes. Our host’s mistress, for example, had an excellent reason to wish this interloper dead.” There was venom in his voice, and Cleayne’s eyes shot fire at the physician, who cringed, as if fearing a physical blow. Roger slumped to his knees as if he’d been poleaxed.

Then, rallying, Roger’s chin came up. “You are equally under suspicion, Tente. Need I remind anyone of the dispute between Malcolm and Elizabeth on the first night of the lady’s arrival?” Some steel returned to Roger’s body, and he levered himself to his feet, watching the smaller man through narrowed eyes.

Suddenly, he lunged. “Bastard!” he spat, his hands reaching for Malcolm’s throat. His hands closed around their target, too fast for Malcolm to invoke any spell, and began squeezing as his victim flailed desperately at the big man’s head, trying vainly to dislodge the crushing grip.

“Come on!” I shouted at Simon, pushing him forward before he could form the resolution to resist me, and together we seized the maddened man, slowly forcing him to relinquish his grip. It was like wrestling with a troll, but the Sheriff was a good man and in the end, he retained enough self-control not to strike out at two people he regarded as innocent.

When we’d separated the two, Malcolm fell to the ground, lying prone and gasping. Cleayne glided into the room touched a soft hand to Roger’s cheek, turning his face towards her; her natural magic rapidly began calming him.

“Rest easy, friend, the good doctor must obviously have made the suggestion not because he believed it but because he wanted everyone to understand that it was probably not our host who did this. Nor was it me, for I spent last evening in Thomas’ bed.”

This was news, but the heat that sprang to my face made the statement impossible to deny. I nodded, reflecting that we would need to have a talk later. “ ‘Tis true. Cleayne could not have committed the murder. But despite her reassurances, we must still consider our host suspect; indeed, his absence casts a shadow upon him.”

Hans’ calm voice made everyone jump, no one having noticed his arrival with Hob. “Forgive me, gentle guests, but there is no cause for suspicion. I have informed my master of this tragic occurrence, but he is exhausted from certain exertions last night and unable to come...”

“Sated by his unholy feasting, you mean!” shot Simon, glowering.

Hans, still unperturbed, put a hand behind him to restrain Hob, who had balled his hands into impossibly large fists and made as if to advance. “I do not believe it to be so, and I have known the Baron longer than any of you. But please,” his voice became imploring, “come with me to the sitting room. I shall array the body properly and see that it remains undisturbed until suitable arrangements can be made for a funeral.”

Reluctantly, we made our way back down the hall. Cleayne’s hand had fallen to Roger’s arm, and she led the shaken man gently along, unresisting. Simon and I helped the shaken physician to his feet and supported him for several steps until he’d gotten his legs back under him. Hob remained behind, broad back to the door, fists clenching and unclenching in the first signs of passion I’d seen in the man. On the whole, I felt confident the body would remain undisturbed.

In the sitting room, there was a silence that might charitably have been described as uncomfortable. Though none of us apart from Roger had known Elizabeth personally, her murder put more of a damper on things than, say, the news that dinner would be late, sad though that too would be. Added to this, no doubt, was the small frisson that accompanied the knowledge that, without knowing why she had been killed, any of us might be at risk of suffering the same fate. Theological reservations aside, I was by no means ready to shuffle off my mortal coil just yet. Moreover, my curiosity had been kindled, and if it was curiosity that killed the cat, that was only because any Dwarves on the scene had been slower and more cautious than the deceased. I seated myself beside Cleayne, who sat far enough from everyone else that we could talk quietly without being overheard.

“Was I any good last night?”

She looked up, surprised, then smiled blindingly. “You were fantastic.”

I returned her smile, for the answer had been what any man wanted to hear, and her magic was beginning to wash over me in irresistable waves. Nonetheless, my curiousity was stronger. “So where were you really last night?”

She looked up, eyes inscrutable, and laid a hand on my cheek. “I wasn’t murdering Elizabeth, if that’s what you mean.” With the physical contact, she could have been telling me that I was really an Elf and I wouldn’t have doubted her word, but more to the point—and somewhat more objectively—there was no evidence the death had actually occurred during the night; the blood on Malcolm’s hand had been fresh.

“I wasn’t accusing you,” I temporized, though in truth she was as likely a suspect as anyone. “Although I admit that your apparent need for an alibi piqued my curiosity.”

She smiled. “I didn’t exactly need an alibi, but I felt it wisest to provide one. Humans become so emotional and irrational around death.”

I reflected on the fact that Elves, being the next best thing to immortal, predictably placed a different value on the ephemeral lives of Humans. “Dwarves too,” I added. It had always struck me as odd that Humans, with a paradisical afterlife guaranteed by their Church for the virtuous, feared death so much. Dwarves had no such guarantees; indeed, the few Dwarvish theologians that had openly admitted to such profitless speculation were convinced we simply returned to the rock from which we’d presumably once sprung. I had no idea about Elvish ideas on death, and just then, I had no interest in learning. “In any event,” I lowered my voice conspiratorially, “there’s a far more likely suspect than either the Baron or yourself.”

“Malcolm?”

“No!” I chuckled. “Although a sufficiently skilled physician might well be able to mimic the effects of vampirism. I was thinking of Ghusthav, who seems to have disappeared.”

“I hadn’t noticed!” she exclaimed. “He’s always sneaking about, appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye, but now that you mention it, there was no sign of him at breakfast nor at the murder scene. But why should he have an interest in Elizabeth’s death?”

I’d long since been disabused of the notion of honor among thieves; in this case, self-preservation dictated sharing any incriminating knowledge lest the assassin suspect I knew too much to be permitted to live. “He’s a thief or assassin; the latter, I believe. He confided in me that he was here for some mission it were best I knew nothing about—” Cleayne cocked an eyebrow at the implications of such a confidence. “—and I recall Elizabeth telling me she was here was to avoid embarrassing her former lover, a local noble of some influence. Of course, the easiest way to remove the possibility of future embarrassment, let alone deliberate extortion, would be to remove its source.”

Cleayne frowned. “That’s certainly plausible; unlike us, Humans have no shame greater than being exposed in such things. Will you mention the possibility to the others?”

I was tempted to explain that she spoke only for herself in matters of shame, but it seemed likely she would mistake my meaning. In fact, given that my meaning wasn’t fully clear even to me, what with the muddle of guilt and excitement that gripped me at the mere smell of her, it was wisest if I avoided that ground entirely. Cleayne noted my delay and began to frown. “Sorry—my thoughts were elsewhere for the moment.” I squeezed her hand and smiled at her with a certain amount of warmth, only partially faked, and her distrust vanished. “Will I mention this possibility? Only if pressed. I have no desire to make my professional affiliations known—or to have an assassin annoyed with me, for that matter, Guild loyalties notwithstanding. But since we are apparently in this together,” I reminded her, squeezing her hand again, “I have little fear of confirming what you already suspected.” I smiled warmly, increasingly easy to do with her warm body that close, and returned the broach she’d been wearing at her lapel until a few moments ago. She smiled, pleased that I’d confirmed her suspicions by word and deed, and before I could attempt to carry things further, we were interrupted by Malcolm’s calm voice, still hoarse from his recent strangling.

“I’ve never actually encountered a real vampire, but there is little doubt in my mind that her blood has been completely drained through two small wounds in her neck. If it wasn’t a vampire, then I could benefit from lessons from the killer in leechcraft. I confess to having dismissed Simon’s suspicions about our host to this point, but now I’m unsure.”

Simon cleared his throat. “Had you listened earlier, perhaps the woman would still be alive. Then again, there is no doubt she was punished for her brazen behavior.” He looked almost smug about his conclusion.

Roger lifted his head, which had been slumping again towards the floor, unseeing. “Have a care, merchant; if you persist in defaming the honor of my former charge, I shall have to contest the point.” He gathered himself as if ready to rise, hands crooked uncomfortably as if he meant to repeat his earlier demonstration of strength.

“I think not,” stated Malcolm calmly. With a swift flick of his wrist, he cast a shower of shimmering dust across Roger. The Sheriff attempted to rise, but instead fell to his knees, then collapsed gracefully forward onto his face. A throwing knife had fallen into my hand as if by its own volition, but I’d not raised it yet or done anything to alert anyone to its presence. Malcolm was already holding his hands upwards, empty. “Fear not, friends, I have merely placed him in an enchanted sleep. I thought it better to ease his mental torment, and safer for the rest of us should he persist in his agitated state.”

I sheathed the knife again without taking my eyes off him. “Agreed on both counts. Now tell me, what would you recommend as our course of action?”

Simon interrupted the mage. “It is obvious. We must confront the Baron with our suspicions and prove them, will-he, nil-he. When we have determined his guilt, he must be dealt with according to the prescribed Church procedure.”

“I don’t know whether you had noticed,” Cleayne commented, “but there are no representatives of the Church within a day’s ride.”

I watched carefully for his reaction, but said nothing. His eyes narrowed as if sensing a challenge, but he restrained any hasty response. “What you say is true, but surely everyone knows the routine: a stake through the heart, holy wafers in the mouth, sprinkle with holy water...”

“Sounds more like a recipe than a religious procedure,” I stated, prodding him hard to see his reaction. Surprisingly, he’d mastered himself, and only his eyes showed anger. “Nonetheless, on the assumption that you understand what you’re proposing, how would you go about proving your thesis?”

“Simplicity itself. Vampires are harmed by the light of the sun, and must sleep by day, as our host is no doubt doing even now. If we can locate his lair, I can use this holy water—” he withdrew a small flagon from one voluminous sleeve “—and sprinkle it upon him. If his flesh burns or he howls in agony, as would any creature of the Dark One, then we have proven our case against him. The rest should prove easy.” His face took on a look of predatory anticipation.

“Right,” commented Cleayne sourly. “A vampire has the strength of ten men, so it should be a simple matter for us to wrestle him to the ground and finish him off with a stake... assuming, of course, that giant Hob has nothing to say about our mistreatment of his master. In any event, I suppose you thought to bring a suitable stake, rosewood of course?”

“Naturally,” Simon replied, unperturbed by the sarcasm, and Cleayne sank back against my arm, shocked into silence.

“Then I suggest we set about it at once,” I said, squeezing Cleayne’s hand to ensure her silence.

We rose and, leaving the snoring Roger where he lay on the rug, buttocks raised inelegantly into the air, stepped into the corridor. However, we encountered a small obstacle when we tried to pass the scene of the murder. Hob, who had remained guarding the door, had divined something of our intention, and interposed himself in our path.

His voice was as deep as Home, and his body blocked the corridor against us, the combination bringing us to an immediate halt. “Stop! My master has requested that he not be disturbed until dinner.”

We exchanged glances, uncertain as to how to proceed. None of us could pass Hob without mystical assistance, and physical means seemed unlikely to be fruitful given that the man was larger than any three of us combined. Though the giant was unarmed and vulnerable to a low blow, I had no intention of dropping him with a thrown knife unless my own life were threatened. I’d agreed to the merchant’s suggestion because I was confident Simon’s accusation was false and certain the outcome of his little experiment would disappoint him—or at least I thought I was. A small voice clamored for attention at the back of my thoughts, and the feel of my own crucifix and the flask of holy water beneath my clothing was oddly reassuring for all my supposed confidence. After all, even if the Baron himself were no vampire, Malcolm’s assertions about Elizabeth’s fate suggested that there might nonetheless be a real vampire among us.

“Malcolm?” Simon implored.

“Regretfully, I used it all on Roger. Perhaps we’d best rethink our strategy.”

“Perhaps it were best if you all returned to your rooms until lunch,” said Hans calmly, and we all jumped at his silent arrival behind us. “There is little profit in precipitating a confrontation without the facts at your disposal. My master will join you to defend himself in good time. The alternative to patience is likely to prove unfortunate.”

I could well believe him, so I caught Cleayne by the arm and drew her towards my room. The others lingered a little longer before backing down and heading to their own accommodations. Once safely behind a locked door, I released my grip on Cleayne’s arm, albeit reluctantly.

“What did you make of that?”

She frowned. “I’m more interested in what possessed you to go along with this witch hunt. I can assure you, the Baron is no vampire.”

I tugged gently at the ascot she still wore about her neck. “You hardly seem a reliable witness to that. But don’t be upset; I believe you. No, my aim in going along with this idiocy was to prove the rumors false once and for all, and to get us back to my room. I have a notion to take a closer look at the corpse.” I’d had no such intention originally, but events strongly suggested I needed to find out enough to ensure I would not share the woman’s fate. Now that I was back in my room, I knew how it could be done.

Cleayne gently removed my fingers from her throat, where they had lingered unbidden after I’d made my point. “Forgive my lack of insight, but I don’t see how you plan to do that. Have you some magic the rest of us lack that will get you past Hob?”

“Just this.” I flexed my hands, happy to give them something more innocent to do. “There’s a ledge outside my window that should extend past the window to Elizabeth’s room. If you stay here and take measures to convince people that we’re both in this room, you’ll give me ample time to do a little investigation.”

“You don’t accept Malcolm’s version of things?” She wasn’t yet convinced that I’d accepted her story.

“No. I don’t know whether you noticed, but the blood on his hand was fresh. The body was found several hours past sunrise, and fresh blood means the murder was recent, probably less than an hour old. No vampire could have committed the crime under those circumstances. Besides,” I added thoughtfully, savoring her warm smile, “the legends say that vampires tend to leave their food alive for as long as possible. I find it unlikely a man as intelligent as our host would have deviated from this pattern.”

“Then you believe me?”

I stepped back before she could caress me, as she’d intended. “Conditionally. I’m no expert on such things, but the facts simply don’t fit together yet. I admit to having had doubts, even after talking to our host last night, and it’s certainly possible that there really is a vampire among us, but I lack enough information to do more than speculate.” I turned my back on her and moved towards the window. “Will you cover for me?”

“Definitely. And if you hurry back, I’ll warm you up again. It will be cold out on that ledge.

I shivered, only partly from the cold. “I’ll hurry.”

***

Once outside, it seemed that leaving a potential murderess at my back was not the wisest thing I’d done, since I was in an extremely vulnerable position should she choose to head off my investigations before I discovered any inconvenient evidence. I shook my head impatiently. It was all very well to keep an open mind on these things, at least until all the facts were in, but not so open that one let paranoia enter.

“Cold” was a thoroughly inadequate word for the ledge. The snow was still whipping past the keep, and even my tightly sewn rabbit-fur cloak offered little protection. My fingers were rapidly freezing solid, despite the intensity of my grip on the rough stone, and the ice underfoot made travel along the ledge treacherous. Several times I almost slipped, and I blessed the day I’d accepted an offer from the best second-story man in Lahndane to teach me proper climbing technique. Even so, it was only my Dwarvish instinct for the behavior of rock that kept me alive.

Eventually, I managed to reach the window I sought, and with the aid of a few useful implements, I was able to pop the latch on the shutters. Then, before I could react, I was flung out into space by the force of the wind against the downwind shutter, and only a desperate clutch at the shutter saved me from falling. It would have been awkward had the shutter crashed against the stone wall as hard as it appeared ready to do and brought someone to investigate, but fortunately, I was between it and the wall. That cushioned the impact, and I doubt that anyone heard my curses more than a few feet away in the storm.

Looking down, I paled even beneath the pallor induced by the cold. The drop was perhaps a dozen feet to the courtyard, but I would have had an unenviable task explaining my presence outside after everyone had seen me enter my room. Moreover, though I’d been assured by my teacher that such drops were easily survivable, I could not help but notice that he was human, and would have weighed less in full armor than I did naked. We Dwarves are small but dense, and not naturally creatures of the air. Not for the first time, I considered changing careers and leaving this sort of work to those better suited to it. But only briefly. My numbed fingers reminded me that they and a wooden contraption were supporting close to two hundred pounds of weight, and would prefer not to do so for much longer.

With a creditable feat of agility, I pulled myself up along the shutter until I could grip the stone of the windowsill. As in my room, the shutters had been reinforced with furs and tight-drawn hides to stop air movement. Having studied this arrangement carefully in my own room, it was a matter of seconds to open enough of a gap to gain entry to the room. I was unable to reach the downwind shutter from where I stood, and I hoped fervently that the increased wind noise and the flailing of the shutter wouldn’t alarm anyone.

Elizabeth lay on the bed where she’d been found, save only that her dangling arm had been laid solicitously across her breast and she had been covered with a woolen blanket. Grateful to be out of the wind, my body reciprocated by warming enough to let me move, albeit clumsily, across the floor to the bed. I hesitated, drawn by memories of her beauty, then, remembering Cleayne’s promise with a shudder born not wholly of my chill, put my mind on more urgent matters.

I folded back the blanket carefully. Elizabeth’s neck was indeed punctured twice a short distance below the base of her jaw. Each of the two marks was about the size of a plume’s sharpened nib, slightly oblong, and spaced about as far apart as the outer edges of a mid-sized man’s teeth. Apart from a slight crust of dried blood, there was no evidence of a bloody feast, which I imagined—with another shudder—would have left considerably more of a mess. I briefly pondered removing the diamond earring that lay untouched against her ear, then thought the better of it. It was not that I had any philosophical objections to robbing the dead, mind you, but rather that in the present situation, with a strictly limited number of suspects, the likelihood of doing so and getting away with it seemed small. It was as I gazed with some regret upon the jewelry that something else caught my eye.

Elizabeth’s cleavage, prominently displayed in her scanty nightgown, was indeed impressive, and it conspired with her position, the manner in which I’d drawn back her shroud, and my natural prurient tendencies to lead me to glance in that direction. What caught my eye was the thin tracery of black lines on her left breast, odd runic shapes that led in a gentle curve towards a precise, apparently bloodless incision that had been made between two ribs. An assassin couldn’t have made a neater cut, but where was the blood, and why would one have left such odd writing on their victim? It was certainly nothing that resembled the thieves’ cant I was familiar with, and had an odd quality to it that made me want to look over my shoulder to see if I were being watched. To ease that itch, I did, and saw another interesting thing.

Atop the chest of drawers that stood against the wall opposite the bed, a travel mirror of polished metal stood with a clear view of the entire room. There was no way a murderer could have entered the room secretly and avoided having his image captured in that glass. Another argument against vampirism.

My business in the room was done, but I was loath to return the same way I’d come. Instead, I crossed to the door and knelt to listen carefully and peer beneath the crack between the door and the floor. I could not see the shadows that would have represented Hob’s thick legs, an indication that he at least was not leaning against the door. As my ears adjusted to the noise of the wind, increased by the open shutter, I began to hear slow, deep breathing. If I read that right, Hob had fallen asleep on guard duty, and in exchange for the risk of capture, I could attempt to open the door silently and slip into the hall. That was no small risk, but better than daring the ledge again.

First, I returned to the window to ensure I had left no signs of forced entry. I left the skins unsealed against the edge of the window, as if they too had been blown open by the wind, and carefully dabbed at the few traces of snow I had left behind me in places snow would not normally have reached through the gap. Then I carefully smoothed the blanket back down over Elizabeth, regretting lost opportunities. Finally, I returned to the door and listened carefully.

There was no noise in the hall save Hob’s deep breathing, so with heart pounding in my chest, I eased the door open and slid out into the hall. Hob sat sprawled against the far wall, chest heaving like the swell of the ocean, eyes closed. Controlling my own breathing, I slid the door shut and re-engaged the lock, hearing it snick smoothly into its socket. I repressed the sigh that wanted to escape, turned, and slipped silently down the corridor to my own room. I was inside before Cleayne, standing tensely by the window, realized I had returned.

“You startled me!”

“Sorry, it couldn’t be helped. There was no way I was going outside again in that tempest. You can close the shutters again.” She leaned far out into the storm, long, fine hair whirling about her head, and seized the edge of the open shutter, forcing it shut against the howl of the wind. When it was once more safely latched in place and the insulating skins sealed against it, she returned to sit by my side on the bed, shivering. Against my better judgment, I put an arm around her.

“You neglected to make enough noise to convince anyone I was here.”

She shrugged off my arm, her face humorless. “Let them think what they will. What did you find?”

“I can confirm that your belief in our host is justified.” She relaxed a bit as I told her the details of what I’d found, then turned pale again when I described the writing. “What’s wrong?”

“The writing sounds suspiciously like the symbols a sorceror would use in invoking a spell, and the knife wound, if associated with the writing, would probably have something to do with human sacrifice for some sorcerous purpose. That would explain the lack of blood.”

“Malcolm?”

“He’s the only wizard we’re aware of between these walls, but he lacks the feel of such power.”

Feel?”

She pressed against me, shivering. “Human sacrifice is an intensely evil act, by whatever religious standards you apply. An Elf can feel something of a person’s aura, and such evil tends to taint its practitioner. In Malcolm, all I ever felt was lust.”

I turned her face towards mine. “And what do you feel in my aura?”

She smiled. “A certain kinship to the Human.”

Chapter 9: The posse

Waking up feeling like I’d been asleep for half a century, exhausted in every fiber of my being, was getting to feel like a habit. Not an unpleasant one, mind, just an unfamiliar one. I rolled over, stretching deliciously to a chorus of pops and cracks that should have woken anyone within twenty feet. But Cleayne was gone. I could see the frosty chamber pot beckoning from across the room, but for the moment I resisted its lure. My body was telling me it would only accept so much abuse, and that for the moment, it had reached its limit. Instead, I dressed hurriedly and headed for warmer climes, the chamber pot tucked under an arm.

Only Simon was present in the sitting room, a familiar sour look nestled comfortably on his broad face. Evidently, someone had come for Roger during the afternoon and removed him to his room, or else he’d woken and gone there himself; a tidy happenstance in either event. I made my way to the fire, beside which I laid the chamber pot to prepare it for future use. Then I hastened to the table, heaped with its usual bounty, and set myself a comfortable meal; murder or no murder, it wouldn’t do to face a crisis on an empty stomach. With my breakfast carefully balanced on one arm and a large stein of ale in the other hand, I went to join Simon. I had the impression it would be useful to sound him out on my theory, despite the likely effects on my digestion.

“May I join you?”

He scowled. “The recent death doesn’t seem to have affected your appetite, at least.”

I smiled back. “Survival trait. My race believes that one never knows where one’s next meal is coming from, so it’s better to eat heartily while one can.” I paused a few moments to demonstrate the application of this principle. “But since you raised the topic, I’d like to try you on my theory of what happened.”

He sat back in his chair, amusement warring with anger on his face. “Your theory? The facts of the matter are plain; it was a vampire, and none other than our host.”

I swallowed a large mouthful and washed it down with the proposed murderer’s ale. “I understand how you might feel so, but the facts don’t fit. For one thing, did you notice the travel mirror in the woman’s room?”

He looked uncomfortable, and reached up to scratch under his woolen cap. I caught a brief, tantalizing glimpse of that balding scalp, but not enough to reveal anything interesting. It was an unlikely connection in any event, but it was a clue to something that nagged at me. Why did he wear that hat at all times? I shrugged, proposing to lay my suspicions to rest at the first opportunity.

As I chewed another savory mouthful, Simon answered my question. “The mirror proves nothing. The bloodless corpse might have been carried there by the vampire’s servants after the deed was done.” He crossed himself.

“Then there’s the matter of the neck wound. I saw no blood on her clothes, nor indeed on her neck, and I can’t imagine that having one’s throat torn out is so tidy.”

“Death by vampire is not said to be messy; indeed, some sources claim it is quite gentle. Moreover, what of the blood on Malcolm’s hand when he tried to find a pulse?”

“Not messy? Your sources have a different aesthetic sense than the rest of us perhaps. But as for that blood, I admit that it puzzles me. There should have been no blood left to flow in a corpse, unless death had occurred within the hour.”

“You are accusing Malcolm?” He frowned, but more in thought than anger.

“Not of the murder. At least not yet. But I do suspect that part of what we witnessed was staged.”

He nodded slowly. “Very well; continue.”

“Then there is the matter of something I saw, some writing on the woman’s upper chest.” I watched his reaction, but he had his face under control again.

“You have keen eyes. Or is there more to it?”

I hesitated, suddenly on shaky ground. “No, just keen eyes and an enjoyment of the female form.” His scowl deepened, and I went on hastily. “To the point: it led me to suspect that some form of magic was involved.”

“Again, you point your finger at Malcolm, even if unintentionally. But surely, vampires are creatures of evil, and sorcery would not be beyond them?”

“Cleayne swears this is not the case.”

“You trust the word of his mistress?”

I swallowed heavily, feeling my carefully constructed logic falling apart around me. “Very well; my final argument. Is it not said that a vampire prefers his victim to remain alive for as many return visits as possible? Legend says three meals, but legend has been known to be wrong. But Elizabeth was slain on the first visit.”

He pondered for a moment. “There, you are closer to the truth, but perhaps it had been too long since his last meal and he lost control of his hunger. Though an accident, it means only that her death occurred earlier than might otherwise have been the case.”

Even though I was certain he was wrong, I could find no logic to refute him. “Cleayne bears no marks of the vampire, and I can assure you she is indeed alive.” Before he could attack the source of my knowledge, I hurried on. “But as you’ve already pointed out, a vampire would not necessarily turn on his servants, relying on them to give him the seeming of innocence. If true, then the only alternative is as you have already suggested; we must confront the Baron today and prove or disprove your accusation.” There was now enough uncertainty in me I’d begun to feel a need for more direct proof of my suppositions. Although I had never heard of a male vampire who preyed on men, neither had I made careful study of the creatures of darkness—the less I knew, the more comfortable I’d be by night, I’d always reasoned. More to the point, should we demonstrate our host’s guilt to our satisfaction, it would be against his interest to let us leave this place bearing that knowledge.

As we talked, I’d downed a sufficient quantity of food and drink that my stomach now lay content. Other concerns suddenly became more important. “Ahem. If you will excuse me, I feel there are certain preparations I must make before we pay our host a visit.” I strode swiftly over to the fire, where I saw to my relief that the chamber pot had lost its sheen of frost. “If you would be so good as to bring the others to my room, I shouldn’t be long.”

I closed the door behind me, cutting off his bemused look, and hastened to my chamber. The upcoming confrontation had made itself felt at an extremely visceral level, and I felt obliged to lighten my load lest I be required to flee and be caught having to carry excess baggage. In the chill safety of my room, I proceeded to gird my loins—you should pardon the choice of words—for what lay ahead.

***

By the time I’d composed myself, Simon had gathered Malcolm and the recovered but groggy Roger and was waiting impatiently outside my door. “Make haste, Dwarf, such tasks are best handled in broad daylight, and the day wanes even as we speak.” A feverish excitement was evident in his eyes, and I was suddenly glad I was not its focus.

Malcolm smiled sympathetically, but Roger only scowled; although he was with us for this confrontation with what was apparently a common threat, I had no doubt he bore us all ill will for his humiliating treatment the previous night. He bore his well-used sword naked in one clenched fist, and I made a mental note to get back on his good side before the day was over. Whatever had happened, I was certain the stolid sheriff had not been behind it, and he would be a powerful ally should things suddenly go to pieces.

At the door to Elizabeth’s room, Hob sat stiffly with his back to the door, but rose in alarm as he saw us approaching. Before he could do much more than get to his feet, Roger’s sword was at his throat, a gesture so deftly performed that a slight bead of blood appeared where the blade pressed against the giant’s skin. Hob made no attempt to converse with us, an understandable decision given that any movement of his throat would jeopardize his future ability to speak. Malcolm cautiously approached the servant, then daubed some sticky liquid upon the man’s cheek before darting back out of range of a possible blow. With a deep sigh, Hob slid slowly to the floor, Roger’s blade giving ground only reluctantly until he was sure the man was unconscious.

“Just a sleep lotion,” the wizard explained, “enough to keep him out of harm’s way for a few hours.”

We made our way past the unconscious guard and proceeded to the Baron’s study. I made a mental note that Simon seemed to know exactly where we were going, though his earlier exchanges with our host made it unlikely he’d been invited into this portion of the castle. My musings on this point were interrupted by Simon’s loud clearing of his throat.

“You’ll need these, good friends.” From within his voluminous cloak, he removed an assortment of religious icons, each on a thick golden chain so it could be worn about one’s neck, leaving both hands free for the business at hand. As the heavy chain bearing an icon settled about my neck, I reflected that I might have overlooked a remarkable source of income—and one far less hazardous to rob than our host—in the icon merchant.

Simon’s forceful knock on the door reminded me there was considerable muscle beneath those rolls of fat. If indeed I chose to enrich myself at his expense, I would have to be discreet and quick on my feet. We waited, Malcolm nervously fingering the crucifix about his neck, Roger’s fingers clenching and unclenching about the grip of his sword, me thinking happy thoughts about this being over so I could return to my real goal in life. There was no response, so Simon knocked again, even louder this time.

“He appears not to be home,” I observed.

“Or sleeping to recover from his night’s activities,” Simon replied. “Malcolm, the door appears barred from within. Can you force it?”

“I’m afraid not.” There was an awkward silence, all our plans come to naught as a result of a single barred door.

“We could knock it down,” offered Roger.

“Not bloody likely,” I mentioned. “Couldn’t you hear the thump of Simon’s fist?” They looked at me oddly, so I elaborated. “That’s oak, at least three inches thick and reinforced with iron bands. By the sound of it, the frame is braced on the inside by the stone of the walls.” In truth, I remembered these facts from my previous visit, but it wouldn’t do to admit this. “In short, you’d do better trying to bring the castle down on his head with a sledge.”

Simon frowned. “Trust a Dwarf to understand good worksmanship. Very well, it seems we’re stymied.”

I repressed a grin of relief, and felt no compulsion to mention that I could force the door in under a minute if it were in my interests to do so. Although I too wanted to discover the truth about our host, the better part of me was relieved at the opportunity to delay any such potentially hazardous confrontation. My relief was short-lived.

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Roger spoke softly. “Here’s a trick I learned from a thief I apprehended a few times without being able to keep him in the dungeons for more than an hour each time.” From within a well-worn sheath, he withdrew a slim stilletto with a blade almost as long as my forearm. Frowning in concentration, he forced the blade past the edge of the door and slid it up and down, attempting to find the latch. Though I knew this to be fruitless, I let him continue, not wishing to reveal my knowledge of such matters. I was as surprised as anyone else when there came a loud click and the door slid open a hair.

“It appears the door was not barred after all,” the sheriff commented, replacing his dagger with the sword.

Simon looked surprised for a moment before his look of grim determination returned. I stood well back as my larger companions opened the door and entered before me. Thus it was that I saw the few pale strands of fabric that had snagged on the bar; had someone attempted to lock the door from the outside and failed, leaving only these few fragments as witness to their attempt? I had little time to ponder the implications of my observation, however, for a thick silence had fallen over our party.

“My God!” exclaimed Malcolm, eventually breaking the silence. The study was a shambles, tables upended and books and art supplies scattered across the floor as if there had been a fierce fight. Over much of the mess, a thin sheen of blood had settled, pooling here and there to form thicker puddles. But what caught the eye was our former host, who lay spreadeagled across his desk, the shaft of a wooden stake protruding from his chest about where one might expect a heart to lie. The reek of death and loosened bowels permeated the room, forcing itself past my nostrils now that I was once again able to breathe.

“Indeed!” proclaimed Simon, sounding pleased by the discovery.

For my part, I felt a pang of regret at the loss of the man who had entertained me so lavishly, and who had so engaged my mind during our private conversation. At the same time, I felt a wash of relief that I would not have to confront a vampire on his home ground, daytime or no. We Dwarves are relentlessly practical creatures, and it was the feeling of releif that won out. As the others made their way towards the corpse, treading carefully to avoid the larger pools of blood, I slipped past them to the remnants of the portrait the Baron had been working on.

A quick inspection revealed that it had indeed been Elizabeth, and he had taken no artistic licence with her charms. I looked away, and my eye was caught by two of the glass vials I’d seen before, which protruded from beneath the toppled palette and were entirely free of the blood that had been shed so liberally in the room. The paint was dry by then, so I could pocket the vials without being seen. Behind me, the rest of our party was busy with their inspection of the corpse, while Simon lectured in a monotone on the art and science of killing a vampire. The subject might have been of interest under other circumstances, but I was otherwise occupied. By the time Simon wound down his monologue, I had pocketed several small items of value that had been scattered across the room, and rejoined my companions without any sign my absence had been noted.

Two other curious things had come to my attention during my brief inspection of the room: the blood lay beneath several of the overturned items, not atop them, and both of the crystal vials I’d pocketed had been empty. Had there been a fight here, culminating in the staking, it was odd how little blood had been spilled upon the wreckage, and equally odd the vials were empty. During my interview with the Baron, he had taken his medicine from an identical vial, and had immediately returned it to the liquor closet. The more I thought about it, the more it appeared the entire scene had been staged, and every bit as carefully as Elizabeth’s murder had been staged.

I looked around suspiciously. Roger seemed largely unaffected by the new death; indeed, he seemed half relieved, as if some terrible burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Malcolm, on the other hand, looked appalled and deeply shaken, even though he’d been expecting to face the possibility of butchering the Baron in his own chambers minutes earlier. He snuck a surreptitious glance at Simon, and I followed his gaze. The merchant had an unhealthy flush on his face that accompanied a smug look of triumph—of justice served. Simon met my gaze before I could look away, and there was speculation in those eyes. On a hunch, I spoke softly.

“From what you’ve said, his slayer must have been an expert in the lore of vampires, and no amateur in a fight either. Do you think it could have been Hans, the butler? He would certainly have had ample time to acquire the knowledge, and appeared fit enough to accomplish the task.”

The measuring look in Simon’s eyes disappeared, but a new voice entered the discussion. “You do me a great disservice, master Dwarf.” We turned as one to see that the butler in question had entered the room behind us, unheard as was his wont. “Although I resented the necessity of remaining in this Godforsaken land to serve my master, I would never have slain him to end my service. Certainly not in this manner.” He pursed his lips in distaste.

“Yet you do not deny you are unmoved by his death.” Simon’s gaze had turned predatory.

“Hardly.” The butler’s own gaze sharpened. “Now I am free to leave this place as soon as the necessary arrangements have been concluded. If one of you is the murderer, I owe you my gratitude.”

We appraised each other openly, none of us comfortable with the knowledge that any one of us could have been the murderer. Then a thought occurred. “Let us not be overhasty. The four of us came here to confront the Baron, with no clear intention of killing him until his guilt could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt.” Simon made as if to speak, but I cut him off. “It should be noted that several of our company are absent, including Cleayne, Ghusthav, and Hob. Any of these could have had both the motive and the skill necessary to perform the deed.”

“I doubt the Elf had the strength necessary to do the deed,” sneered Malcolm, “but your point remains valid. Either of the other two could have killed him.”

I had my doubts that any of the three save Ghusthav had a motive to murder the Baron, but I kept them to myself. “It seems logical that we should confront them and put them to the question.” There were nods of agreement from each man. “Then follow me.”

We left the door open at our backs, and strode rapidly down the hall to Ghusthav’s room. There was no answer to our knocks, and the door opened easily to a gentle push. The room was empty of any sign the man had ever been there, save only for the faint scent of an unchanged chamberpot that had frozen overnight.

“It seems as if we’ve discovered our murderer,” Malcolm proposed.

“It certainly seems that way,” Simon echoed, “though of course it would be more compelling if we could find the man and get him to confess to his crime... if crime it be to slay a vampire. Let’s bring the Elf and discuss where to go from here.”

Cleayne too was not in her room, but we found her shortly afterwards in the sitting room, warming herself by the fire. I knelt beside her and took her hands in mine, realizing that this would not be easy. She grew alarmed at the look in my eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Cleayne, but better that you hear it from a friend. The Baron is dead.” Her face went blank with shock, then all at once she threw her arms about my neck and began sobbing, tears flowing down her face and falling on my skin. I discovered that Elvish tears were also a powerful aphrodisiac, and it took all my strength of will not to carry her off to her room to console her. The others maintained a respectful silence until she mastered herself, and I escorted her to a chair large enough for the both of us.

Cleayne glanced around at the assembly, her face still puffy from crying. “I don’t see Ghusthav. Was it him? If so, can we catch him and bring him to justice?”

“He’s certainly fled,” I observed, preparing a barb that I hoped would produce a useful reaction, “but that alone does not convict him. After all, Simon is the more likely murderer, as we all know his feelings about vampires...”

Simon rose to the bait, and to his feet. “Preposterous! Though I admit to not mourning the fiend—my sorrow, Lady, for your loss—I was with you all most of the time, and in my room with Malcolm for the rest of the time.”

Malcolm nodded. “Since we’re being ridiculous, it might just as well have been Roger, the jealous lover; we’ve already seen his propensity for murderous rage.”

Roger snorted in amusement. “Like our merchant friend, I too don’t mourn the Baron. But if you think that a Sheriff would take the law into his own hands...” He trailed off, amusement plain on his face. “As well accuse the Lady Elf.”

Cleayne smiled harshly at the Human. “And to bring this full circle, I in turn accuse Thomas.” Her smile broadened, but grew no warmer, at my start of surprise. “I’m not serious, of course, but while we’re making accusations, it’s only fair to point out that any of us except me could have done it.”

Simon’s gaze had grown speculative. “You dismiss that possibility too hastily for my taste, Lady Elf. After all, our Dwarvish friend seems to be the only one without a motive for either of the murders. Unless you’d grown worried the Elf would return to the Baron once she tired of your attention?”

I smiled coldly at my accuser, enjoying the mental image of removing that cap from his dead body to see what lay beneath. “In fact, we’ve left one person out of the chain of accusation: Malcolm.” The physician sat bolt upright, eyes suddenly nervous. “After all, who better than a physician to know best how to slay someone and make it look like someone else did it.”

“You accuse me?”

I kept a smile on my face, while a part of me observed his response and coldly noted it for future consideration. “Of course not. I’m merely ensuring that each of us accepts our share of the suspicion. Let me remind you of the elements of any crime: there must be a motive, which each of us save myself has; a method, which is obvious in this case; and an opportunity, which I lack. On the whole, I still lean towards accusing Ghusthav. I never much trusted him.”

There were nods of agreement. Malcolm, considerably relieved, broke the contemplative silence. “So the Baron slew Elizabeth for her blood, and Ghusthav, for reasons yet to be determined, slew the Baron. Now that we’ve solved that problem, we face another one: Where do we go from here?”

Roger cleared his throat. “That would seem the easiest of our problems. As a Sheriff, I’m authorized to complete the investigation and file the appropriate report with the authorities. All that remains is to collect the bodies and bring them down from the mountains for a decent Christian burial.”

“You would bury the Baron in a Christian cemetery?” Simon was plainly outraged.

“I’d not think to question his fate, and neither should you. I’ll leave that to the priests of the Barony to decide. It’s primarily Elizabeth that concerns me. Of course, measures would have to be taken to protect this keep against bandits and others who might take the opportunity to loot it.”

Hans spoke up, and everyone jumped in their seats, not having noticed his entry. “As for that, you can leave it to me. Hob and I will see that the appropriate steps are taken to return the Baron’s goods to his family in Romaigne.”

“That seems fair enough,” Roger nodded agreeably.

“Can we trust them?” Simon wondered aloud. “After all, they were the servants of a vampire, and thus their morals cannot be of the highest standard.”

Hans frowned in anger, the first time he’d expressed strong emotion. “Believe that if you will, whatever the evidence to the contrary. In any event, if you offer me your cross, I’ll swear whatever oath will satisfy you that we can be trusted to do as I’ve said.”

Simon held out his crucifix, and the butler knelt before him. “As God is my witness, I swear to discharge my duties as butler to the late Baron Tevyas and return his personal possessions to his family.” He relinquished his grip on the icon and got to his feet. “Will that satisfy you?”

“It will satisfy me,” Roger stated.

Hans bowed deeply, a butler once again. “Thank you. I would now ask you one simple favor: that you watch over the keep until I can return with wagons and men-at-arms to carry the Baron’s possessions safely away. As soon as the storm breaks, I’ll set about the preparations. In the meantime, my oath of service ended with the Baron’s death. Please make yourselves free of the provisions in the kitchen, but mind your manners otherwise; Hob and I know well what treasures there are in this keep, and if any go missing, I’ll ask the Sheriff to take the appropriate measures.” With that, he turned silently on his heel and strode out through the door.

Chapter 10: Things found in the larder

It struck me as odd that everyone was taking the murders so well. Admittedly, Humans treat their lives with much less respect than the Dwarves and Elves do, but even so, it was a jarring note. Not so jarring, however, that I’d lost my appetite, and the prospect of Hans leaving and taking the kitchen staff with him struck me as perhaps the most immediately serious aspect of the situation. Forgive me if that sounds callous; in fact, it bothered me more than a little that I still didn’t know who’d done the killing and why. After all, it meant I myself might become a future victim. That prospect led me to do what Dwarves always do in times of crisis: secure a source of sustenance.

It was easy enough to find the kitchen, both because of the delightful smells coming from that direction and the fact that despite all the abandoned floors above us, there was only one part of the inhabited area I’d not yet explored. The kitchen was a pleasant surprise: large and spacious, with a huge cast-iron stove squatting over what must have been an open hearth when the keep was built. On top of the stove, a large tureen of borscht sat steaming happily, and a meat pasty had been set to cool; to further add to my joy, there was a bread warmer to one side of the main oven that emitted promising gusts of yeasty delight. I looked around for the kitchen staff, as I’d been meaning to congratulate them on their heroic efforts on our behalf, but not a soul was to be seen. Curious, but Hans had suggested that we help ourselves, so...

At the far side of the kitchen, where the keep leaned up against the flank of the mountain, there was bare rock and a set of stairs descending into darkness. The cold emanating from those stairs told me where I’d find the drinks, and I headed there first—just to give the delightful kitchen scents time to work on my appetite. There were tapers on a rock shelf by the stairs, so I took one and lit it from the stove to light my way downstairs. At the base of the stairs, which descended no more than about 20 feet into the native rock, I found the wine cellar—and two wrapped bodies, which I took to be those of the Baron and Elizabeth.

Though the sight gave me a shock, not being in the least expected, I recovered soon enough and bowed to pay them my respects before continuing on my way to the casks of ale and racks of wine. I glanced at the wine, which was faintly calling my name, but bypassed it in favor of the ale; I never did know which wine went best with a good savory pasty, and out of respect for my former host, wouldn’t want to choose the wrong one and appear gauche. So I sidled on past the corpses and made my way to the cask of ale, which had beckoned with a somewhat more urgent voice. I took a fresh pitcher from the rack beside the cask, remarking to myself that something was bothering me about the cask.

When I turned the tap, something sticky clung to my hand, and I held my hand up before the candle to see what it was. My first thought had been mold or perhaps tacky residues from the last time the cask had been refilled—as there was no way even Hob could have hauled a cask that large down the stairs full—but on my fingers, I found a reddish smear of fresh blood. I wiped my hand fastidiously on one of the burial shrouds, then held the candle close to the cask so I could have a better look. A rap on the cask with my fist confirmed what I’d suspected: the cask was mostly hollow, and that strongly suggested the presence of a secret passage.

I’d just begun debating whether to try to open it when I heard footsteps on the stairs above me. Hastily, I grabbed the pitcher and began filling it from what was evidently the bottom of the cask, sniffing approvingly at the yeasty tang. At the sound of a cleared throat, I turned to see Malcolm, standing nervously on the bottommost step with his own candle. I smiled at him. “Can I pour you your own pitcher while I’m down here?”

“Thank you, Thomas, but I’ll stick with the wine if you don’t mind. There are some fine, rare vintages here I’ll never have a chance to taste again when we leave.” He paused, and something in his face changed. “Is something wrong?”

Something must have shown on my face, for he was now suspicious, and he glanced past me at the cask. Thinking quickly on my feet, the sorceror’s staff at his side suddenly prominent in my thoughts, I rapped hard on the cask again. “Two things, to be honest.”

“And what, pray tell, might those things be?”

“Well, first and foremost, this cask is down to its dregs, and I’m thinking it’s a good thing we’ll all be moving on soon. I enjoy a fine wine as much as the next man—provided the next man is a Dwarf—but there’s nothing like strong ale to soothe a thirst.”

Relief washed over the apothecary’s face. “And the second thing?”

I reached into my pocket and removed one of the crystal vials I’d taken from the Baron’s study. “I found this in the Baron’s study, and took it with me in the hope we’d have some time alone so I could ask you what it is.”

His face grew guarded. “Well, surely you noticed the Baron’s pallor?” I nodded. “It’s a herbal concoction I developed that acts as a blood stimulant. It works indifferently well, but at least it’s something. I’d hoped to have more time to refine the formulation and find something more efficacious, but...”

I nodded. “Yes, but. Ah well, these things do happen. On a cheerier topic, might I hold a candle for you while you select your wine?”

Malcolm smiled, but it was a weak effort. “Thank you again, but no. You’d best head upstairs while the food is still warm; I may be a while making my choice.”

I nodded again, keeping the same cheery smile on my face, and turned my back on him, suddenly aware of how unguarded I felt. But nothing happened, and I made it safely upstairs with my ale and began helping myself to the food. I was pondering how I might get my bounty safely back to the sitting room, when I spotted the serving cart against the far wall. With that in hand, I piled enough food upon several plates that I’d have no need to refill them more than once this meal. It was a measure of how my encounter in the cold room had upset me that I hardly noticed what I was serving myself until I reached the room and began eating.

As I began working on the borscht, I surveyed the room, and found myself together there with Roger and Simon, neither of whom seemed inclined to converse. Malcolm joined us round about the time I’d begun mopping up the last of the soup with the remnants of the first half of my loaf of bread, and seemed similarly uninclined to converse, though I noticed him watching me as inconspicuously as he could manage during the course of the meal. It was a companionable silence, apart from being charged with sullen suspicion. Midway through the pasty, Roger left, and Simon departed as well about the time my last few morsels of bread had done their duty on the hearty brown gravy. Malcolm was gone by the time the rich honeycake was becoming nothing more than a pleasant memory.

Alone, I felt free to let my thoughts show on my face. It had been clear that something in the cellar worried Malcolm , and that cast Ghusthav’s disappearance in a more sinister light—both because I now feared foul play, or because his absence implied he might not have been responsible for the Baron’s murder after all. If the latter were true, it left the real killer still at large and free to kill again—which, given the fact that we no longer had a clear motive for the murder, did little to reassure me that he or she would not do so. The weight of dinner was suddenly less comforting than it had been only moments earlier.

I got to my feet with a groan, contemplated returning the cart to the kitchen and having another look at the cellar, then thought the better of it; the bodies would keep, as would the secret passage, and if Malcolm had been involved with either, it would be wise for me to leave things lie until he’d been lulled into believing the innocence of the concerns I’d expressed in the cellar. In the meantime, it occurred to me that perhaps Cleayne had a thing or two to tell me about what happened after she left our communal dinner the previous night.

When I knocked on her door, she was quick to answer, and pulled me into her room fast enough to nearly dislocate my shoulder. “I was wondering when you’d come,” she accused.

“Miss me already?” Despite myself, I reached for her, and fortunately, she took a step backwards, out of my reach, and sat on the bed. When I moved to join her, she gestured me to a chair. I raised an eyebrow, which she ignored, then throwing caution to the four winds, I told her what I’d discovered. “So it appears that one way or another, Malcolm is at least as good a suspect as Ghusthav.”

“A very interesting explanation, if a somewhat dangerous one to attempt to prove. He’s a sorceror, after all. You don’t think it would be best just to let matters lie?”

“Well, now that you mention it...” I had the impression that now would be a good time to provoke a reaction.

“I don’t like that look. Out with it!”

“Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but it occurred to me to wonder just where you were the night Elizabeth died. You left in something of a foul temper, and—”

“Surely you don’t think I did it?” Cleayne rose to her feet so rapidly I half expected her heels to lift from the ground, and though she remained grounded, there was something elemental about the fury in her eyes. For a moment, all the Elvish magic in the world ceased to exist for me, and I felt the ages-old enmity between our races.

I held up a hand hastily. “No. You definitely had the motive, but as for the opportunity? None that I’m aware of. The method? Well, though you nibble me most delightfully, I’m not aware of any punctures in my neck, nor did I notice any carnal attraction to Elizabeth. Quite the contrary.”

She held her fierce stare for a second, then all at once, broke into helpless giggles. As she did, I forced myself to relax, only then realizing how tense I’d grown, for a moment, I’d truly believed she was about to attack me. When her laughter ran its course, she sobered quickly enough and abruptly sat back down on the bed. “I’m sorry. It’s been an awkward time for me, what with the Baron’s death and all.”

I broached the question again, but from a different angle that wouldn’t seem quite so much like an attack. “You two were very close, weren’t you?”

“You mean were we lovers, don’t you? Yes, we were.”

Were, meaning...”

“Well, apart from the obvious, he’d grown somewhat distant over the past several weeks. We hadn’t slept together in that time, let alone... you know.”

I smiled, remembering her scent. “Yes, I know.”

She looked away before continuing. “So it was doubly painful when he turned to Elizabeth, who he’d known for such a short time, and continued to shun me.”

“I can imagine you were hurt.” I cringed inside, expecting another explosion.

“Not enough to kill her, much though I wished her dead.” She’d still not met my eyes, but her voice was sincere enough I had no doubt of her.

“How did you meet the Baron?”

“Much the way you’d expect. I was traveling from town to town, earning my keep by playing my music, all the while collecting local music and mastering it by imposing my own style upon it.”

“Collecting local lays, as it were.” I regretted that instantly, fearing she’d assume I was referring to an apparent tendency to confuse the two meanings, but fortunately, her thoughts were on that first meeting.

“I knew he was half-Elven, like me, at first glance, and—”

“I beg your pardon?” She’d just just pulled the rug neatly out from under me.

“Half-Elven, like me. Didn’t you know?” The surprise in her gaze was genuine, and no less than what must have been showing on my face. “It’s why he is—was—so pale and why Malcolm has been working so hard to strengthen him with those herbal concoctions; not all matings between the Human and Elvish races work out so well as I did.”

I shook my head, striving to clear my disorientation. “I’m sorry, please continue.”

“There’s not much more to it than that. We enchanted each other, and I’d stayed here far longer than I’d expected to stay, really.”

I yawned, my digestive processes finally having overcome my willpower. “I’m sorry, I guess I’m more tired than I thought. I’d better turn in.”

“Elsewhere, please.”

I nodded. “I don’t suppose it would be respectful so soon after his death.” I was equal parts relieved and disappointed.

“No, it wouldn’t. You do understand, don’t you?”

I did, and it was one more thing to add to the list of things to think about.

Chapter 11: Later that night

I retired to my room to sleep off my meal, ponder the facts I’d collected, and rest myself for later that evening, for there were certain investigations I felt it necessary to perform—for my peace of mind, and because my curiosity had grown beyond the point where I could let things lie. Before going to bed, I dragged a chair against the door and braced it there so no one could enter without waking me.

I awoke to that most familiar of things, a cold room. After I’d moved about briskly enough to get both my blood and my thoughts flowing again, I set about preparing myself for a little breaking and entering. I lightened my load by removing the crucifix and holy water, thought about it for a moment, then added them back into my kit again. I was reasonably certain our host had not been a vampire, but not at all sure that somewhere in the abandoned portions of the keep there wasn’t a real vampire lurking. I patted myself down one last time to make sure everything was secured and would neither make a noise at an inconvenient moment nor provide visible evidence of its presence. That done, I moved the chair out of the way and walked down the hall to the sitting room.

From the door, I heard a three-way conversation between Roger, Simon, and Malcolm, chewing over the same theories we’d discussed earlier that day, going around and around in circles. Beneath the conversation, I could hear the faint strains of Cleayne’s lute, playing something atonal and haunting. Good. I’d have some time. Moving a little faster now, I made my way to Simon’s room, and after checking to ensure he’d not left anything in the door to reveal my entry, I picked the lock and slid into the room before anyone could wander along the hall and surprise me. There was not a light in the room, but such light as filtered through the shuttered window and beneath the door were more than adequate for eyes born beneath the ground.

The room stank of unwashed Human, compounded of the stale, acrid sweat of an angry or fearful man mingled with the unpleasantness of an unemptied chamber pot. I wrinkled my nose and resolved to breathe only through my mouth while I was here. I had no idea of how long I’d have before the merchant returned, and resolved to pass efficiently through the room. Simon had unpacked his clothing into the chest of drawers, and I went through it swiftly, disturbing nothing and finding nothing; neither was there anything behind the drawers, or glued to their bottoms. The noisome bed, with sweatstained sheets and random pieces of greasy-looking hair, proved similarly unproductive, and I wiped my hands upon the comforter afterwards to remove the soil. On the bedside table, there was a partially consumed candle and—somewhat of a rarety in these days—a thick, leatherbound Bible. The book fell open to Exodus 22:18, but apart from that, there was nothing of note.

The only remaining things worthy of inspection were two travel-stained bags and a trunk. I returned to the door to listen and, hearing nothing, I returned to my task. One travel bag was empty, and the other was similarly uninteresting. The chest proved considerably more inspiring, however. Its lock was large and complex, and had a small, clever trap: a tiny needle that descended right where a careless thief’s finger would rest while picking the lock. Something black and tarry gleamed on the needle—not mere grease from the mechanism, I would wager—and I smiled, expecting I would find something important. I wasn’t disappointed.

The chest was fitted well enough to be watertight, and once I had it open, I saw why. The top layer was merely a collection of icons, statuettes of anonymous-looking saints, and crucifixes in materials ranging from wood to gold and in quality from pedestrian to finely crafted. Intermingled were rosaries of a similar range of quality. I removed the tray that held this material, resisting the temptation to pocket samples that might prove inconvenient if found on me, and beneath it found the real treasure and the reason for the waterproofing: bound bibles, carefully layered to avoid damage, and bundles of dried herbs and divers other powders: garlic, wolfsbane, and others with vaguely familiar smells I could not identify. Last but not least, there was a bundle of seasoned rosewood stakes. Clearly, the man traveled prepared for any supernatural emergency.

On a hunch, I lifted these materials out of the case, setting them in careful order to make it easier to restore them to their original positions, and felt about the bottom of the case until I found the inevitable false bottom. I lifted the velvet lining cautiously, wary lest a razor-sharp blade or other trap lay in wait, but the poison pin on the main lock had evidently been expected to suffice. Beneath the wood lay the most interesting of the chest’s contents: a tightly wrapped roll of gold coins, and a finger-thin dagger of the sort an assassin might use, bloodstained and never cleaned. I pocketed a few of the coins and rewrapped the remainder with practiced ease while I examined the dagger.

The blade was short enough it could be easily hidden up a sleeve, and bore only token quillons for the same reason, yet was long enough to easily reach the heart. It was thin enough to slip easily between the ribs or upwards past the diaphragm, and there was an unusually deep blood gutter that both facilitated withdrawal and left room to bear any of several poisons in quantities sufficient to kill the average Human and most Dwarves. The wavy pattern in the blade's surfacewas familiar: Tolaydo steel, famous both for its quality and for the religious fanatics who lived in the region and who’d given my people such grief before we convinced them we had no intention of being converted, whether by the sword or otherwise. There was a faded Latin inscription that seemed to be de haeretico comburendo, but the lettering was faded enough I could not be sure, and in any event, such a slogan seemed out of place on a blade.

I frowned in concentration. The blood certainly looked old, but the real question was how old? I had no way to tell. A professional soldier or assassin would have taken better care of such a fine weapon, but the nature of Simon’s room suggested such care was foreign to the owner. Even as I pondered this, I began replacing the items in the chest, careful to restore their original order. It was well I’d not hesitated, for suddenly, an angry conversation began in the hall, and drew rapidly closer.

Roger’s deep voice was clear even through the door, and he spoke accusingly, though I couldn’t yet make out the words, preoccupied as I was with restoring the chest. Simon’s voice, equally distinctive, was mocking and cynical, and he replied to Roger’s accusations at some length, until he was interrupted by a thunderous boom! against the room’s door. Roger had evidently lost his temper, and flung the merchant against the door. My hands moved faster, finishing just as a second boom! announced Roger’s rebuttal to whatever Simon had been preparing to say. I finished restoring the chest, sealed it again and relocked it, narrowly avoiding the poisoned pin, and flung myself beneath the bed. I’d been inexcusably sloppy in not checking beforehand, but the fates had smiled on me, for this bed, like my own, was raised well off the floor to protect its occupants from the chill stone. I came to rest against the wall, and disciplined my breathing.

A key clicked in the lock, and the door sprang open, Simon half falling through it. “Keep your hands off me, Sheriff, or your master will hear of your behavior, and more damning things too, perhaps.”

I peered cautiously through a rip in the hanging comforter just as Roger’s hand shot through the opening and caught Simon by the throat, cutting off whatever else the man might have said. “Accuse me of killing the Baron if you feel you must, and I will suffer those accusations in silence ’til I rebut them before my master. But accuse me once more of behaving improperly with Lady Elizabeth, or slander her memory once more, and I’ll kill you with my bare hands. Do we understand each other?”

Simon slammed the door against the Sheriff’s arm in reply, and with a howl, the big man released his grip and withdrew his arm. The door slammed closed, and I heard the latch fall. A body crashed against the door once, twice, then there was silence. After a moment, there came the sounds of movement and muttered curses, followed by the rasp of flint and steel and the wash of light as a candle flared by the bed. That was followed by the sound and stench of the chamber pot being used. I was grateful—not for the first time, though now for a different reason—I’d learned to breathe shallowly.

As I controlled my breathing and focused on my ears, trying to ignore the chill seeping into my bones from the cold stone, Simon fell to his knees beside the bed, and it was all I could do to suppress the panic that surged in me; had I not already searched beneath the bed and found nothing, panic would have overwhelmed me, but I controlled myself and lay still. Nonetheless, I relaxed only when Simon’s voice began intoning the sonorous Latin of one of the innumerable prayers these Christians seemingly spent all their time inventing. This went on for long enough that I was shivering from cold by the time he was done. Eventually, with a creaking and popping of his knee joints, he got to his feet and blew out the candle. I slid towards the open edge of the bed and braced myself, and sure enough, his considerable weight fell heavily upon the bed. Flat as I was, the underside of the frame didn’t strike me as it gave under that weight, but it was a near thing.

After a time, I heard deep, resonant snoring coming from the bed above me, and when I was certain the snores were real, I carefully withdrew from beneath the bed and padded towards the door. I leaned against the door, pressing it against the jamb to loosen the bolt and latch in its mounting, and after ensuring nobody was in the corridor, gently opened the door. As I eased it open, I pulled a thin metal strip from my sleeve and used it to hold the latch up as I closed the door behind me. That done, I let the metal slip downwards until the latch engaged, then tugged the door towards me to ensure the latch was securely into place.

That much done, I took a deep breath and moved towards the kitchen, needing both a snack to soothe myself after the close call and an alibi lest anyone had been seeking me. I also had a notion to examine the two corpses more closely now that I’d found the dagger, for it was possible I’d found an explanation for events. The remains of the pasty had been left to cool, and I helped myself to what was left, which was every bit as savory cold as it had been warm. I found no sign of any kitchen servants, which struck me as increasingly curious with each passing moment, but that was a mystery for another time. I licked my fingers clean of most of the gravy, then wiped my hands on my pants. Taking a clean ale stein from a shelf, I lit a candle from the glowing coals in the stove and made my way downstairs into the cold cellar.

To fortify myself for what lay ahead, I poured myself a drink from the cask of ale. This time, there was no sign of any blood on the tap, suggesting that someone had been along to clean up the evidence of some crime as yet undiscovered. As I drank, I unwrapped the two bodies, beginning with Elizabeth. A careful examination confirmed my suspicions: Simon’s dagger clearly fit the wound in her side. I gave a satisfied grunt, and had another drink as I rewrapped the corpse.

Next, I turned my attention to the Baron, who I’d not yet had a chance to examine. There was the expected broad wound from the rosewood stake, but at the edges of that wound, I found clean separation of the flesh rather than jagged tears, as if the stake had only expanded a previous wound created by something narrow and sharp. Though this was hardly proof, it was certainly possible that the same dagger had been responsible for the Baron’s death. I was about to rewrap the body when I noticed a series of small matching scars running down both of the man’s arms. There were dozens of these wounds that ran along the major veins, each wound about the size of a plume’s nib and all but a few long-since healed. I refilled my stein and had another drink before covering our former host. Curious: why kill the man with a dagger, then conceal the wound, when no attempt had been made to conceal the cause of Elizabeth’s death? What were the mysterious pinprick wounds along his arms?

I refilled my stein one last time and, motivated by the curiosity that had dogged me since my initial discovery, set about examing the cask. It didn’t take long before I found the trigger that released the front of the cask. It swung open, groaning, and as I’d anticipated, revealed a large empty space and a floor that covered the part of the cask containing the ale. However, it also revealed a bound body, slumped against the wall of the cask.

I entered swiftly, grateful that because of my short stature, there was no need to hunch over as a Human would have done. As I drew closer, the figure before me gave a mighty twitch and looked up. Ghusthav stared up at me, desperation in his eyes, and he moaned through his gag. I worked at the knot, his movements becoming ever more violent as I struggled to remove the gag, until I had to force him roughly against the wall to hold him still. I drew a knife from my arm sheath and slit the gag, drawing blood when he tossed his head again.

“Hold still, damn you—unless you want your throat slit.” Ghusthav spat the loosened gag from his mouth, and desperately croaked something. “What? Say it again!”

He swallowed painfully, licked his lips and tried again. “ ’ware!”

Puzzled, I hesitated a moment too long. At the far end of the cask, a pale light sprang up from the darkness where it opened into a larger chamber, and the silhouette of a Human appeared, backlit so I couldn’t make out its face. Even as I got to my feet, ready to defend myself, the figure’s arm shot forward, and there came a soundless explosion in my head. The last thing I recall was falling across something soft and yielding and screaming.

Chapter 12: In the cask

I awoke, stiff and cold in every limb, with an uncomfortable hollowness in my head and a foul taste in my mouth. All at once, Ghusthav’s warning came back, and as I regained control of my limbs, I found myself bound hand and foot. My head continued to clear, and I discovered the wretched taste came from a thick gag that had been forced between my teeth. I opened my eyes, bracing for pain, but there was none; indeed, I felt none of the usual symptoms of being struck on the head, which in the past have ranged from a throbbing lump the size of a testicle to copious quantities of clotted blood. Just what had felled me remained a mystery, but I was far too uncomfortable to worry about that particular problem right then.

I tested my bonds, and found them amateurishly applied, but whatever the bards may claim in their exaggerated tales, even poorly applied bonds are impossible to escape if they’re tight enough. Mine were tight enough to numb my fingers. However, my mysterious assailant had neglected to search me adequately, and had missed most of my assorted tools. Of these, the most useful were the brace of throwing knives near my wrists. I was cold enough to drop the first one at my feet, cursing ineffectively around the gag; a free mouth is really the sine qua non for cursing with any style. But eventually I managed to grip the knife’s twin firmly between my feet, after which it was short work to cut the ropes and free myself.

I spat out the gag, retching at the taste and hoping against hope it was not the same one that had been used on Ghusthav, who was no longer to be seen. Only the faintest trace of light came from the cellar side of the cask, and nothing at all from the far side, and a Human would not have seen even that much. Nonetheless, it seemed certain I was alone here, though how long that might last, I could not say. I chafed the feeling back into my arms and legs, recovered my knives, and chose to exercise the better part of valor.

It was harder to open the cask from the inside, but I managed that trick easily enough. Pushing the door shut behind me, I made my way up the stairs into the kitchen’s blessed warmth. I’d have hugged the stove, save only that Roger was there before me, warming something. He started in surprise as I came up behind him, raised an eyebrow, and held his silence as I pushed him aside and got as close to the stove as safety permitted. He reached over the top of my head and took the black iron pot from the stove, then went to pour its contents into two large mugs, one of which he thrust into my hands. I sipped at it tentatively, then more eagerly when I discovered it was warmed brandy. When some color had returned to my complexion, he cleared his throat.

“Not that I mean to pry, friend Thomas, but you seem to have spent a rough evening.”

I tried my voice, pleased to discover it was working once again. “You wouldn’t know the half of it—nor how glad I am to see you here.”

His eyebrow rose again. “Do tell.”

“Well, to begin: I found our missing friend Ghusthav, then misplaced him again.”

“A man is a large thing to misplace.”

“Well, someone knocked me unconscious and bound me while I was attempting to free him. When I woke, he was gone.”

“And yet somehow you freed yourself from your bonds where our departed friend could not?” A large, gentle hand descended on my head, probed delicately for a wound, then withdrew.

I nodded, figuring that changing the topic was safer than answering. “Small hands; large ropes. And no, there’s no bump; I already checked, and no, I have no idea why I lost consciousness without a blow. In any event, I need you to come with me. I’ve a hunch I know where Ghusthav is, and that he can answer many of our questions if he’s still alive. Are you game to follow?”

“I’m certainly game if it’ll help us find Elizabeth’s killer. Lead on.” He drained his remaining brandy in a single gulp, then unsheathed his sword. I took a candle—more for his benefit than mine—lit it, and led the way.

As it turned out, I was right on the first count and wrong on the second. Roger followed me downstairs, maintaining a discreet silence as I opened the door in the cask, and led him through the passageway. At the far end, we found Ghusthav, but he was in no condition to tell us anything.

I stepped down from the cask, skin crawling and careful to avoid the pools of blood that still gleamed slickly in the candlelight. Roger’s gasp as he followed suit was justified. The assassin had been staked down across a pentagram, and judging from the pattern of cuts across his body and the symbols drawn in blood, someone had sacrificed him as part of a sorcerous ritual. It had taken some time, judging by the amount of blood and the evidence the dead man had fowled himself repeatedly before he died. I moved closer, and found the pentagram carved into the floor, suggesting that sorcery had not been a new thing in this place. Ignoring for the moment the repulsive nature of what had been done to him, I examined the scene closely in search of clues.

The first thing that struck me was the absence of an altar. In its place, there was an iron brazier large enough to have comfortably heated the chamber, and a thick pile of woven mats long enough to sleep upon, an impression reinforced by the luxurious pillow at one end of the mats. Beside the mats stood a low table, with pale rings on the smooth, dark wood that suggested the presence of sweating wine bottles or other drinks; the table also supported a half dozen candles as thick as my biceps, burned down to a height of about a foot, that despite being unlit, gave off a strange and mildly intoxicating scent powerful enough to be discerned despite the overwhelming stench of death in the room.

I repressed a shudder at an old memory that haunted me, though its originator was long dead, and continued my inspection. Rather than gutters to carry away the spilled blood, there were deeply incised symbols that twined unpleasantly about the periphery of the pentagram and strongly resembled those I’d discovered on Elizabeth; as before, watching the symbols too closely made me intensely uncomfortable, and I kept glancing over my shoulder, certain that someone other than Roger was watching me. Last of all, whatever instruments had been used to mutilate the assassin were nowhere in evidence, a puzzling absence given how foolish it would have been to carry them on one’s person; the odor of blood alone would have given the killer away.

“Evil magic,” Roger pronounced the obvious, his voice quavering.

“That would explain how someone rendered me unconscious without leaving so much as a bruise.”

“The Baron?”

“Impossible. He’s as dead as dead gets.”

Roger tore his eyes away from the scene before us and shot me a hard look. “You know this, do you? You have depths that don’t emerge under casual inspection, small friend. But leave that aside for the moment. Is it not said of vampires that they are dead and merely mock the appearance of life? If that’s the case, you could have been fooled.”

“I don’t believe our host was ever a vampire. Apart from reasons I’m not comfortable revealing, there’s strong evidence to the contrary. First and foremost, Simon’s best efforts to offend him with garlic, silver, and religious icons all proved fruitless. Second, if you know any way the Baron could have unwrapped his burial cloths, slain Ghusthav, then rewrapped himself, I’m willing to hear them.” Roger grunted his reluctant acceptance of my logic, and I went on.

“This suggests two possibilities. First, there’s someone here we haven’t yet met, someone who’s stalking us and picking victims at his leisure. Second, the only known wizard in our small company has—to borrow your phrase—levels to him that don’t emerge under casual inspection.”

“I follow your reasoning thus far.”

“Then follow me a step further: I think we need to search Malcolm’s room for clues.”

“That seems reasonable.”

“I’m glad you agree, for it’s not a task I’d want to undertake alone. Will you help?”

“Breaking into his room is not something I can easily condone.” Roger smiled. “But of course if you were to do so without my knowledge, there’s little I could say or do about it. I have a sudden desire to talk with Malcolm, purely to be social. If you choose to be elsewhere, that’s no business of ours.”

I returned his smile. “I wish you pleasant discourse. In the meantime, I feel a pressing need to return to my room.”

We left, careful to leave no clues we’d been there.

Chapter 13: Confrontations can be so unpleasant

Malcolm and Simon were playing chess once more when we entered the sitting room, and Roger hooked a footstool over with one foot and sat down to watch. I stood on the opposite side of the board for a few moments, yawning with increasing frequency until Simon shot me a dire look. Malcolm showed no reaction to my presence, suggesting mastery of his emotions—or, to be fair, innnocence. Stifling another yawn, I headed towards the door, trying to give the impression of someone exhausted enough to be stumbling along on instinct rather than with serious purpose. It worked, for they ignored me.

Once in the hallway, I banished all pretense of drowsiness and made straight for Malcolm’s room. I hesitated briefly over the lock, remembering the man was, after all, a sorceror, and hoping he’d not chosen to place any mystical protections upon his room. It would have been nice to have Cleayne along to confirm this, but I didn’t want to risk involving her in my activities just yet.

Happily, there was no trap of any sort on the door, and the well lubricated lock let me into the room with only a modicum of coaxing. Once inside, I examined the sorceror’s room much as I’d examined Simon’s room earlier. Unlike the merchant, Malcolm kept fastidiously clean. His room was pleasant and smelled faintly of lavender from a large pomander that had been hung from a bedpost. There were two trunks, one of which stood open to reveal neatly folded clothing and a variety of perfumes and lotions. Atop the pile, there was a large leather-bound book with a stained cover. Not without some trepidation, I opened it, and discovered it to be full of a bewildering variety of illustrations of unclad human females, many engaged in fascinating activities or displayed in anatomically improbable positions. I put the book down with a smile.

The second trunk was locked with a mechanism so simple in appearance I immediately suspected a trap. The fact that the key was lying on the night table by the bed was even more troubling. Nonetheless, search though I tried, I found no evidence of a trap. That didn’t reassure me in the least, and I sat upon the bed to ponder the situation. After a few moments, it seemed time was slipping away, and that there was little point in being here if I wasn’t willing to look in the one place that might hold incriminating evidence. Taking a deep breath to calm my nerves, I knelt once more in front of the track and released the lock with the key.

Nothing happened, so I exhaled more loudly than I’d intended, and lifted the lid. That was when I sprang the trap, for as the lid cleared the lip of the trunk’s bottom, a sickly yellow illumination seeped from the trunk and flowed along my arms. I’d already begun moving back, but that light caught me as firmly as a straightjacket I’d once spent an uncomfortable afternoon trying to escape. Strain as I might, my limbs refused to obey, and I crouched there, frozen in an awkward pose, halfway crouched and halfway turned towards the door. Getting caught in this manner was bad enough, but it was made worse by the spell, which only prevented conscious movement. The strain in my muscles from holding this awkward position was increasing by the moment. If Malcolm didn’t happen along soon to free me, I’d be in agony until my muscles uncramped.

An unfortunate span of time passed before Malcolm returned, accompanied by Simon. There was a coldly satisfied look on Malcolm’s face that changed to predatory pleasure as he took in the scene. Simon entered bearing the jovial look of one who’d just won the chess match, but his face changed to stunned surprise when he recognized me.

“Well, friend Thomas. Fancy meeting you here. It would seem you’ve mistaken your room.”

I would have smiled, save for the agony that coursed through my legs and back and the fact that any such motion would have required conscious control over my muscles. I found, however, I could speak after a fashion, and that concentrating hard enough to do so took my mind off the pain. “So it seems. Yet I’d be obliged if you’d help me find my way back.” It was lame at best, but I was in no fit state for clever repartee.

Simon scowled rather nastily. “It appears my suspicions of your profession are confirmed. And you accused me of being unduly suspicious, Malcolm!”

“Nay, Simon, I merely felt you were being uncharitable to our Dwarvish friend. Even so, given the evidence, I would accuse the Dwarf of nothing more sinister than prudent snooping. After all, until we find Ghusthav, there’s a possibility the murderer still walks among us.”

“And he thought the murderer would be hiding in your trunk? You logic is as faulty as your game play.” Simon’s vindictive gaze was so fully upon me he missed the sneer of contempt that crossed the mage’s face.

“Be that as it may, we speculate without facts, and I propose that we find some upon which to base our speculations.” Malcolm walked in front of me and slammed the chest shut—not affecting the spell in the least—then began running his hands over my clothing. As he found each concealed item, he turned and deposited it atop the trunk. In short order, there was an embarrassingly large collection.

It was growing increasingly difficult to ignore the pain in my muscles. “Forgive me for interrupting you gentlemen, but I wonder if you might honor a small request.”

“Why, of course,” Malcolm smiled disarmingly, his hands efficiently continuing their work.

“Could you perhaps do something about my posture? My muscles are ready to tear themselves to pieces.”

“And fitting justice it would be if they did,” Simon spat at my back.

“Peace, friend,” Malcolm replied calmly. “Are we not civilized men? We’ve caught him before he could do any harm, and his crime is, after all, not great, so why cause him to suffer needlessly?” He obligingly laid me down flat upon the floor, staring up at the ceiling, and the tearing pain as my muscles relaxed was almost worse than what had come before. Tears welled up in my eyes, blurring my vision, but after a time, all that remained was an ache that waxed and waned unpredictably.

When my vision cleared, Simon was standing over me holding a throwing knife and one of my lockpicks. “It would seem I was right after all. He’s a thief—or worse still, an assassin.”

Malcolm shook his head sadly. “So it would seem. Though he’s found scant treasure.”

He restlessly turned one of the glass vials I’d found over and over in his hands. “You seem familiar with those vials,” I suggested, seeking to regain some control over the situation.

Malcolm laughed, and his voice assumed a lecturing tone. “And well I should, for it was I who invented them. You already know I’m an apothecary, but what you don’t know is that I’ve been testing various concoctions in an effort to compensate for the Baron’s thin blood. After some experimentation, I thought I finally had a formulation that would strengthen him better than what he was using before my arrival, and with far fewer and less severe side effects. Among other things, his previous, rather amateurish efforts cost him too much time sleeping, and he found increasingly that bright lights hurt his eyes. While I’ve not cured the latter effect, I’ve moderated it to some extent. Moreover, I’d also discovered a means of administering the infusion directly into the blood by means of a hollow needle. That greatly improves the efficacy of the treatment. I plan to make my fortune selling these needles to physicians throughout Uropa.”

Fascinating though this lecture was, I found Simon’s reaction more interesting still. Though he’d watched with mild curiousity and a tinge of contempt while the sorceror discussed the Baron’s medical history, he suddenly gasped and grew pale as its implications sank in. I almost saw the cogs turning in his head, then all at once, he calmed down and color began to return to his face. “We’ve established that he’s a thief, and the vials you’ve found confirm he’d looted the Baron’s study. Do you think he killed the Baron to provide the time he needed for looting?”

Malcolm’s face grew pensive for a moment, then relaxed, as if a burden had lifted. “I suspect you’re right. Undoubtedly he killed our host during their meeting after dinner. That would have been shortly after I’d given the Baron his post-dinner dose of the new drugs. He obviously found the poor man in the weakened state that persists for perhaps an hour until the drugs take effect, took him by surprise, and killed him with a stake stolen from your room.”

I’d lain there silently while they discussed this, recognizing that it would be futile to defend myself just yet and valuing the opportunity to observe the two men more than the opportunity to speak. Malcolm’s comments brought back the impression I’d had that the Baron had been drugged and thus unable to resist his murderer, but that clashed with the suggestion the drugs had been administered shortly after dinner. Then there was the clear evidence that the study had been messed up after the murder to give the impression of a struggle, followed by a robbery. How the contradictory evidence could be reconciled was not yet clear, but that could wait.

Now that their purpose had been explained, the hollow iron “pen nibs” I’d found in the Baron’s desk seemed less sinister, and explained the marks I’d observed on the dead Baron’s arms. But they also seemed likely to be the cause of the puncture wounds on Elizabeth’s neck. If both Humans had been drugged, by someone as yet unknown, it explained why neither victim appeared to have struggled while they were being killed.

I felt an increasing need to interpose a few words on my own behalf, so I cleared my throat to gain their attention. “If I might?” Simon glared at me, but Malcolm nodded politely. “Is it possible that one of the side-effects of your drug concoction might have been—” I rolled my eyes suggestively “—a certain inability to... well, to be delicate, an inability to perform the act of love?”

Malcolm made no attempt to conceal his startlement, and took a moment to compose himself. Evidently, I’d scored a hit. “No, that was one of the unfortunate side-effects of the Baron’s original formulations. My concoction largely eliminated that—ahem—difficulty. And how might it be that you knew of this side-effect? I can’t imagine the Baron mentioning it to any but his personal physician.”

I did my best to appear shamefaced. “Well, I did some experimentation of my own and—well, let’s just say I tried the old version of the drug myself.” Given what Cleayne had told me of the timing of the Baron’s loss of interest in her, combined with the fact the Baron would not have been using the old drugs after Malcolm’s new ones became available, it was obvious Malcolm was lying. In fact, I would have wagered heavily he’d been intentionally drugging the Baron to estrange him from Cleayne and thereby leave an opening for himself to exploit.

Simon spat noisily upon the floor. Malcolm glared at him until the other man made desultory efforts to clean up the offending sputum with his boot. Then, after taking a moment to digest my statements, he burst out laughing, much to the other man’s distaste. “I think the moral of this particular story is that you should stick to your own profession and leave experimentation with drugs to the professionals.”

“I cannot dispute that verdict,” I added, suitably penitent. “Nonetheless, I would dispute your other conclusion. I did not kill the Baron. He was alive and well when I left him, and Elizabeth’s visit to the study coincided with my departure. Hans can confirm that.”

Simon’s face went blank and Malcolm frowned as their carefully developed conclusions were cast into doubt. Malcolm’s frown deepened, and he touched my forehead ungently and spoke a few harsh words into the silence of the room. Something changed in the nature of the spell, and though I’d intended to follow up on that small victory, I suddenly found I could no longer talk.

“I think we’ve heard enough from you for now, thief.” The sorceror gathered several of the items he’d taken from me during his search. As he moved to show them to Simon, I caught a glimpse of what he was displaying. “Despite his protestations, I think the tools of thievery condemn him as well as our words; add to this the empty medicine vials and these needles, and I think we have a convincing case that we’ve captured the murderer. Somehow he divined the use of the needles, and stole them so he could drug the two victims.”

“Agreed.” Simon’s voice was distant, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. “I propose that we gather the rest of our company and hold a trial. Our esteemed Sheriff can then carry out the sentence.”

“An excellent suggestion. You collect the others, and I’ll bring our captive to the sitting room.” With that, he bent to touch my forehead with his free hand. “Arise, Dwarf, and walk with me.”

To my horror, I found myself rising, muscles screaming in protest after their abuse, and I followed meekly behind the sorceror, like a lamb to the slaughter.

Chapter 14: The trial

Malcolm seated me comfortably enough on one of the chairs, and began pacing while he awaited the arrival of the remaining guests. As he did, I struggled to overcome the effects of the spell that bound me, and met with not the slightest success. If it had not been for the breathing discipline I’d long ago mastered, I would have succumbed to panic. The case against me was convincing, but hardly damning—providing only that I had the chance to speak my piece and that Hans would confirm what I’d said.

Roger arrived with Simon, frowning mistrustfully at his companion, and showing surprise when he saw me sitting motionless and unable to acknowledge his presence. The frown deepened, and though I’d hoped to count him as an ally, the suspicion growing in his eyes told me that perhaps I’d earned another enemy. Hans entered the room a few moments later, accompanied by Hob, who eyed the sorceror with a sufficiently threatening look that Malcolm gave ground a step. Cleayne was the last to arrive, and taking in the situation at a glance, she moved swiftly to sit beside me. Her eyes widened as she realized what had been done to me, and she shot Malcolm a look of such hatred it would have earned her a spell of her own had he noticed; fortunately for her, his eyes were mostly on Hob, who posed the far greater threat.

Now that everyone was present, Malcolm cleared his throat. “I’ve called you together to report that we’ve found the murderer. Though we’d all agreed the likely suspect was Ghusthav, we’d never explained his motives to our satisfaction. In fact, the reason is that Ghusthav was not the murderer. Thomas was.”

There were gasps of shock from Cleayne and Roger, but Hans remained imperturbable as always, and caught Hob by the arm when the big man seemed ready to advance on me. I could feel the sweat springing out on my forehead as the sorceror went on. “I know how much of a surprise this must seem, but we caught the Dwarf redhanded with the evidence of his crimes. These vials—” he held them up for all to see “—contain a powerful drug that I’ve been using to strengthen the Baron. And these needles are the means by which they are administered. It’s an invention I’ve been working on for...”

“Enough about you,” Roger interrupted. “Stick to the facts.”

Malcolm began to protest, then seeing the look on the Sheriff’s face, wisely changed his mind. “One minor side-effect of the drugs is that they leave the patient drowsy for about an hour after they’re administered. I believe that Thomas administered the drug, then while the victims were drowsy and unable to defend themselves, killed and robbed them. The final clue that theft was his motive is that he carried these tools with him.” Malcolm threw my lockpicks onto the table before me. “We’ve already discussed how he did it. Now we know why.”

All eyes in the room were upon me save one pair. Cleayne rose and spoke angrily at Malcolm. “You’ve done a fine job of presenting your case, save for one thing: you’ve left out how Thomas could drug the two. In at least the Baron’s case, and probably that of Elizabeth, Thomas could not have been responsible—for he was with me when both murders were committed, and was too weak in the knees to stagger from our bed, let alone to kill anyone. Moreover, I think it telling that he hasn’t been permitted to speak in his own defence.”

Simon’s expression froze between disgust at my purported behavior, and discomfort, for back in Malcolm’s room, he’d been taken aback at the vehemence of my denial. “Though I feel only abhorence at what passed between the Elf and the Dwarf, I nonetheless must agree that a potentially innocent man must have an opportunity to defend himself.

“The Elf speaks truth, Malcolm.” Roger’s expression became softer. “Let him speak so we can determine whether you’ve got the story right.”

Caught between three such strong opinions, Malcolm had no choice but to give in. With a scowl that did not bode well for me, he gestured dismissively in my direction and I slumped in my chair as control of my muscles came back in a rush. Half-sobbing in relief, I took a moment to master myself before mustering my defence.

“Thank you for the chance to defend myself. In fact, I could not have killed the Baron, for he was alive and well when I left him. Hans can testify to the fact that when he brought Elizabeth to the Baron’s study, our host was in perfect health. Though I might have come back later and attemped the murder Malcolm accuses me of, Cleayne can assure you I was with her at the time.” Both nodded in confirmation, and a covert smile returned to Roger’s face.

That encouragement gave me strength for the more difficult part of my defence. I began deceptively easily, to put the true murderer at his ease. “In fact, whoever it was that planted the evidence of thievery on me succeeded in deceiving Malcolm in all respects save one: where are the things I purportedly stole from the two victims? Both had enough jewelry upon them to make me comfortable indeed had I but the wit to have taken it. I think you’ll find that both victims still have their personal possessions, and that you’ll find nothing in my quarters other than what I came by honestly.”

Hans rose swiftly to his feet, confusion plain on his face. “I can confirm this. When I brought both victims to the cold cellar, Elizabeth was still wearing her earrings, a finger ring, and a necklace; similarly, my master still bore his signet and various other personal effects.”

I nodded in thanks, and turned my gaze on Malcolm, who had grown visibly more nervous as my logic unfolded. “Fortunately, while I was held imprisoned by your spell, I had time to think about what must have happened, and I believe I know the true murderer.” The sorceror paled slightly, but staggered when I completed my thought. “It was Simon.”

Simon rose to his feet in outrage. “What, me? How could you accuse a man of God of such a thing?”

I smiled coldly. “Based on the simple fact that your venom towards our host was obvious to all. You were convinced he was a vampire, and no evidence to the contrary would sway your opinion. So you killed him based on what you saw as your religious duty. Then, when it appeared that Elizabeth had been preyed on by the Baron and was thus on her way towards becoming a vampire herself, you slew her too.”

Roger growled incoherently, rose, and clapped hand to his sword. With surprising courage, Simon ignored the Sheriff. “Then how did I accomplish the murders?”

“The rosewood stake speaks for itself, for each of us saw you bearing one just like it when we went to confront the Baron and accuse him of vampirism. As for Elizabeth, I took the opportunity to inspect her corpse, and I found an obvious knife wound in her chest. I believe you’ll find the murder weapon in Simon’s travel trunk.”

Simon suddenly grew more confident. “You have permission to search my quarters. You’ll find nothing.” With a scowl, he flung the key to his room at me, and Cleayne snatched it out of the air.

“I’ll be back momentarily.”

“Bide a moment!” She paused and looked back at me. “Simon, are there any traps she should be aware of?” That was all I felt I could say in warning without giving away that I’d been in his room already.

“What are you accusing me of?”

“It’s well known that traveling merchants protect their wares aggressively.”

“There are no traps so long as she uses the key.” Cleayne frowned, then left the room almost at a run.

There was silence in the room, every face a study in Human emotion. Simon was all outraged innocence, but with an unmistakable tinge of fear underlying it; Roger and Hob showed frustrated anger, the latter combined with the desire to reach out and hurt someone; Malcolm’s face had gone wholly beyond his control, displaying emotions ranging from consternation to careful consideration of the changed facts, to something I didn’t recognize; and Hans, as usual, was placid almost beyond belief.

Cleayne returned in surprisingly short time, out of breath from her run. In one hand she clutched the assassin’s dagger I’d found earlier, and her face was flushed with excitement. I smiled approvingly at her. “I believe you’ll find that upon close examination, this blade will match Elizabeth’s death wound exactly.”

Simon paled at the unexpected sight of the dagger, and tried to bolt from the room. Roger had been ready for this moment and moved to restrain him, but Simon used his concealed muscle well and shouldered the bigger man aside with surprising skill. He’d passed the staggered Sheriff and was well on his way to the door when Hob rose up before him like a mountain, and seized him in two hands that, from my perspective, seemed large enough to immobilize a bull. Whether or not they were truly that large, they certainly proved sufficient to the task of immobilizing Simon. After a brief struggle, he went limp in the huge servant’s arms.

Roger took the dagger from Cleayne, held it up to the light, and examined it closely. When he came across the Latin inscription, he grunted in satisfaction. “And here lies the most damning evidence of all: the inscription on this dagger proves Simon to be a member of an outlawed sect of the Christian church, the Avengers of the Lord, who are rumored to assassinate the Church’s enemies whenever convenient. If that’s true, then there will be matching evidence on his person.”

Without waiting for further prompting, Cleayne snatched away Simon’s ever-present wool cap, and gasped. With the cap no longer in place, Simon’s tonsure was plain for all to see. At the Elf’s bidding, Hob forced the man to his knees, so all of us could see the tattoo on his scalp. I approached, and it was evident that the tattoo matched the inscription on the dagger.

Roger smiled coldly, and the prisoner cringed. “This evidence proves you to be a defrocked priest, an assassin, and by no means the simple traveler in holy icons that you pretended to be.”

From his kneeling position, Simon rallied, defiance plain in his voice. “I confess that as you suspect, I am a member of the Avengers, and that those who sent me strongly suspected this keep to be ruled by a vampire who had been driven out of his native land by the outraged peasantry. If I found this to be true, I was to kill him; indeed, I was not to return without doing so.”

“Yet our master was no vampire.” Hob’s deep voice filled the room.

“Those who serve him would be quick to claim that to be so, but I know what I saw. I did find the Baron weak and helpless, and slew him while he could not resist me. Imprison me if you will, but know that the Church will have me released as soon as they learn their work has been done.”

“I’d not count on that, were I you,” Roger observed. “Your Church is weaker here than in the larger cities of the west. You may find yourself beyond their protection.”

Simon returned the Sheriff’s gaze with equanimity. “Then even so, I will have done the Lord’s work, and whatever happens to my mortal body, my immortal soul will at least be safe. And I can die secure in the knowledge that I’ve saved other souls from the terrible curse of the vampire.”

“And what of Elizabeth? Do you admit that too?” Roger’s voice was dangerous in its calm.

“That I did not do, despite the Dwarf’s elegant logic. And in this you must believe me. Why would I admit to killing the Baron but not the woman? I freely admit my responsibility for the Baron’s death, but I never laid hand on the woman. The slut certainly deserved to die, but though I don’t mourn her, it was not me who killed her.”

Roger’s control abruptly broke, and with an inarticulate howl, he sprang across the room and delivered a blow with his fist that snapped the unfortunate cleric’s head backwards. “Whatever the truth of your claim, I warned you I’d not stand by again and let you slander a good woman.” He retreated a step, rubbing his fist and wincing, as Simon’s head fell bonelessly forward, only Hob’s grip keeping the man from toppling.

Malcolm cleared his throat.“Of course we believe him. After all, a man proven by his own admission to be a clever and capable liar, also a defrocked cleric and an assassin, can be trusted to tell the full truth. These are sterling character references.”

Roger smiled at the sarcasm in the sorceror’s voice. “Hob, do me the favor of confining our former friend to his room. Remove anything he might use to escape, and keep the door open so you can observe him at all times.” The giant servant nodded, a tight smile on his face, and removed the unconscious cleric from the room as easily as if he’d been removing a tea tray.

Roger met my eyes, and I nodded. Then he returned his gaze to Malcolm. “One thing remains. There’s still the matter of Ghusthav’s disappearance to resolve, and I’m sad to say that Thomas and I found what was left of the man. He too had been murdered, and from the evidence, a sorceror of some sort must have been involved.”

Malcolm blanched at the accusation in the Sheriff’s voice, then rallied. “And you would accuse me? I deny that vehemently. I suggest that Simon committed that murder too, since if the body were found, it would direct attention either against the Baron or against me. I have nothing to hide, and give you my permission to search my room for any evidence of the crime—indeed, I command you to do so.”

Roger met the mage’s defiant glare calmly enough. “Rest assured, we shall. Cleayne, you Elves are said to have certain skills where sorcery is concerned. Do you feel confident you could safely search Malcolm’s quarters.”

“That would pose no risk. I’ll do as you suggest.” Malcolm threw his key gracefully to Cleayne, and showed no apprehension whatsoever as the Elf left the room, though I’d been certain I’d see at least some evidence of guilt in his eyes. It was possible I was wrong, and it would not be the first time, so I was willing to give more credit to the mage’s defence than previously. An expectant silence fell once more upon the room.

Cleayne returned an unexpectedly long time later, disappointment plain in her eyes. “I found nothing.”

“As I told you.” Malcom’s voice was triumphant.

“Then I believe we’ve tied up all loose ends,” Roger proclaimed. “It’s late, and it’s been a stressful day for everyone. I’ll take turns watching Simon so Hob can get some rest. If the pass is clear in the morning, I’ll take our murderer back to town, along with the bodies.”

Chapter 15: The road goes ever on

I awoke next morning to silence—not the absolute silence of a block of stone fresh-fallen from its mother rock and waiting to be squared, but rather the silence of a stone keep, with each hewn stone or vein of untouched rock popping and murmuring to its neighbors as it adjusted its position in response to minute changes in temperature and pressure. It took a moment for my waking mind to recognize the change, and when I did, I sat bolt upright.

The wind had stopped.

Blankets clutched tight around me, I made my way to the window. The floor was not as cold as it had been in days past, and I noted from the corner of my eye—with considerable relief—that the chamberpot lacked its familiar crown of frost. Thus emboldened, I released the hide barrier that kept the window airtight, and carefully unlatched the shutters. The shutters swung open into the gentle, cold light of a perfect winter morning, the air crisp and free of the slightest trace of wind or snow. I took a deep breath, and regretted it: warmer, yes; less windy, yes; clearer, yes. But warm? Not remotely. Breathing a trifle more cautiously, I peered down over the walls at the pass, which I was able to see clearly for the first time since I’d begun my trek several days ago.

To either side, sheer cliffs rose hundreds of feet overhead and stretched a like distance until a curve in the mountains cut off their full extent. The trail beyond the walls turned out—to my surprise—to be a broad road, free of all obstacles, even of boulders fallen from the cliffs. And—miracle of miracles!—the road seemed clear enough for travel, as I could see the tight-packed earth free of snow in places. Evidently, some quirk of the geometry of these mountains was such that once the snow stopped, the winds scoured the road free of snow and left it passable.

After performing my standard morning rituals, I made my way to the kitchen to procure some breakfast. The low buzz of conversation from the sitting room was a welcome sign that now, the murderer safely in custody, things were returning to normal. With a touch more spring in my step than formerly, I made myself a full breakfast from the cold leavings of the previous day’s feast, and returned to join them.

Malcolm was the first to greet me. “Thomas! Come join us.”

“You’re in a suspiciously fine mood.” I took a long pull at my ale, and filled my mouth with some still-fresh bread and butter.

“And well I should be. I’ve offered to stay and take over the castle from Hans and Hob, and as there are no other likely owners, they’ve accepted my offer—conditional, of course, on our host’s relatives accepting the price I’ve named.”

“Well, good for you. I trust this arrangement will meet with no protests from the nobility on either side of the pass?”

The mage’s eyes blazed with irrepressible energy. “Let them protest! This keep is a find and a half for a sorceror—why it positively reeks of magical energies. They’d be ill-advised to press me here once I’ve made myself at home. Why, even controlling the local weather is not beyond me! A push here, a nudge there...”

Roger laughed aloud. “So it’s you we have to thank for the clearing of the roads, is it?”

Malcolm sobered rather abruptly, his eyes focused warily on the big Sheriff, then abruptly he relaxed and forced a smile. “There is much you mundanes fail to understand of the mystical ways of a sorceror.”

I laughed outright at his pretension. “In any event, the roads are free once again; I saw it myself from my window. I take it that means we’ll be parting company today, Roger?”

The Sheriff nodded reluctantly. “You’ve been a pleasant companion, small one, but I’ll be returning back the way we came to take Simon to justice and the three corpses to the cemetary. You’d be welcome to accompany me, but I had the impression you were headed in the opposite direction.”

I nodded, mouth too full for a reply, but when I’d swallowed enough to breathe again, I was able to answer him. “That’s correct. Moreover, I’ve a mind to wait a bit longer and travel the opposite direction with Cleayne. She’s good company, and I’d feel more comfortable knowing she’d not have to travel on her own.”

Malcolm winked broadly. “And, of course, there would be other comforts from her company.”

Cleayne cleared her throat, eyes flashing. “I’ll thank you two gentlemen—if such as you meet the admittedly low local standards for gentlemen—to remember that you’re discussing me. Much though I appreciate Thomas’ offer, I’ve been on my own before, and probably for longer than either of you two have been out of diapers.”

I recalled belatedly that even half-Elves had an enviable reputation for longevity, and as I’d been too much a gentleman to inquire as to her actual age, I realized I had no idea how old she was. “Forgive us, Milady Elf. With the sudden release in tension, I suspect we’ve all grown a bit giddy.”

She settled back into her chair, mollified, and I turned my attention to Hans, who’d been keeping his traditional resolute silence while observing the byplay. “And what of you two?” I gestured to Hob, looming over us all at the butler’s back.

Hans held a silent debate with himself for a moment, then the butler’s mask dropped for the first time and he smiled—stiffly, but still a genuine smile. “Hob and I plan to open a restaurant in the first large town that will take us in. I’ve been cooking for the Baron for years, and—”

I rose to my feet in such a rush, I almost spilled my breakfast upon the floor. “You are the cook? Hans, I wish I’d known earlier—I’d have kissed you!”

“Thus confirming certain rumors of the depraved tastes of the Dwarvish kind,” Cleayne muttered, sotto voce, and there was general laughter.

I seated myself and nodded, acknowledging her point. “Touché!”

Laughing, Roger rose and headed for the door, with Hob following. “Well, much though I’ve enjoyed this, I’ve got a ways to go before I sleep, a murderer to release from his bonds, and at this time of year, the storm can return as easily as it’s departed. The Lord’s blessing on the lot of you, and if you should happen to be passing through the Barony, be sure to look me up. The drinks will be on me!”

I leaned across to Hans. “Where is your man-mountain friend going?”

Hans sobered somewhat. “He’s going to help the Sheriff load his wagon with the two bodies and Simon.”

“Ah. Well, I must say, Hans, it’s been a pleasure knowing you. I don’t think I’ve ever dined so well, even when I was in Paree.”

The former butler’s eyes lit up. “You’re not just saying so? Then perhaps Paree would be a suitable destination for me once we’ve settled the Baron’s affairs.”

“Why aim any lower? The Franks appreciate good food, and...” My voice trailed off as Cleayne rose and headed for the door. “Excuse me a moment.”

I laid the remnants of my breakfast gently on the floor before me, and managed to catch up with the Elf before she reached the door. “Cleayne!” She turned, an eyebrow raised. “Am I forgiven?”

Her smile was still frosty, but her eyes sparkled rather than blazing. “Conditionally.”

Her perfume had begun working its magic on me once again, and I straightened and tried to suck in my gut. “Good. Then I’ve a favor I need to ask of you.”

“I did say conditionally.”

“It’s important. There’s something I need to check downstairs, in the wine cellar.”

“Let me guess... in addition to being the only Dwarvish Elf-lover, you’re also the only Dwarf who's afraid of the dark?”

I grimaced. “No, something altogether more sinister.” I paused a moment, letting her curiosity build so I could surprise her and wipe some of that smugness from her face. “We found a secret passage behind the large ale cask, and behind it, a sorcerous chamber. That’s where we found Ghusthav’s body. He’d been sacrificed in some sort of dark ceremony.”

If I’d expected to surprise her, it was I who was surprised; her only reaction was dismay. “Sacrificed? That’s really too much.” Tears began to form in her eyes, and I took a step back; I had work to do, and her scent had grown almost overpowering.

“Steady now. If it’s any consolation, he was not a particularly nice man, and there may have been some poetic justice involved in the manner of his death.”

The tears trickled more obviously down her cheeks, and I tried to breathe more shallowly. “It’s no consolation... I’ll tell you why later. In any event, I know of the chamber you’re describing. What do you want me to do?”

I blinked. She knew about the chamber? “Um. Give me 15 minutes.” Hans walked past us in the direction of the Baron’s part of the keep, smiling a little less stiffly now. “After that, come on down and check on me—but bring a weapon of some sort. In all likelihood, I’ll be waiting for you in the kitchen with a pitcher of ale, but a tiny voice in the back of my head is telling me we’re not out of the woods just yet.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You think someone might waylay you?”

“Let’s just say I’m not fully convinced Malcolm is as innocent as he seems.”

“Ah.” The tears had long since stopped flowing, and she licked her lips. “All right. Fifteen minutes.”

“With a weapon.”

“You mean poor, defenceless little me?”

I smiled back at her. “The same. Purely for distraction value, of course.”

She trailed a soft hand painfully gently across my cheek. “You’re distracted enough as it is, Dwarf. But I’ll be there. I’m looking forward to you owing me your life for the second time in as many days.”

I watched her departing gracefully down the hall towards her room, then mentally shook myself. Enough clarity returned that I was able to make my way downstairs for that one last look I’d promised myself. I still wasn’t sure precisely what I hoped to find, but the more I’d thought about it, the less I trusted Malcolm. I made my way swiftly through the cask and into the sorceror’s room, practice with the procedure having made perfect, and stood there with a candle chasing the darkness. Ghusthav’s body having been removed, nothing came to my attention beyond what I’d already noted previously, so I lit the larger scented candles I’d noticed during my previous trip and set my own candle down. I’d forgotten how powerful their scent was likely to be, and it was indeed dizzying in that enclosed space.

I hesitated, reconsidering the wisdom of keeping them lit, then decided I could survive their scent for some time yet, but that I could not do without the additional light they provided. It was as I turned towards the doorway that a familiar, sickly yellow glow flowed out of the darkness to surround me, and once again, I found myself immobilized. I wasn’t much surprized when Malcolm stepped from the darkness, a predatory smile on his face.

“It seems my prudence has been repaid a second time. Curiosity, ‘tis said, killed the cat, and this time, it seems certain to kill the Dwarf.”

He’d left me the power of speech, and I used it to buy some time. “Would I be correct in assuming that it was you who sedated Elizabeth and killed her through whatever dark sorcery you were planning?”

Malcolm’s smile broadened. “Clever, aren’t you? But not entirely correct, as it happens. I had no intention of killing the woman at all; I just needed a moderately large quantity of blood for certain sorcerous purposes. She was alive when I returned her to her room, though she’d have been unable to exert herself much for several days.”

“And you expect me to believe that?”

The smile broadened further. “She was no virgin, let me assure you, and at the time, I fully believed I needed a virgin for my spells. So I was disappointed at my discovery, but only briefly, for given that she was not a virgin, there were other uses for her.” I must have shown my revulsion in my face, for his smile vanished. “That shocks you? Let me shock you further: with the Baron out of the way, I had other plans for her once I’d drugged her enough to reduce her resistance. I’d tried with your Elf friend, you see, but she has an inordinate amount of resistance to my magic, and I suspect I’d have killed her if I persisted.

“In any event, Ghusthav proved that you don’t really need a virgin for a summoning—any living soul will do, including yours. I’d originally intended to keep your Elf here when everyone else left and use her for my next sacrifice, but you’ll do nicely. There will be other women aplenty I can strand here with my storms, and women more amenable to my persuasions.”

The sorceror gestured with one hand, and a leather bag appeared out of nowhere. He released the drawstring, and withdrew a gleaming flensing knife, stained darkly with what I assumed was Ghusthav’s blood. Pleased though I was to have discovered the murderer and the murder weapon, that pleasure was tempered by the likelihood I would have firsthand proof of his guilt.

Malcolm’s predatory grin had reappeared. “To be honest, I’ll feel a lot safer once she’s gone.”

Cleayne rose from out of nowhere, a long knife gleaming in the candlelight. “Wise man,” she exclaimed dryly as she plunged the knife home beneath his chin and into his brain, bone crunching beneath the force of the blow. She released her blade, and the former sorceror slumped bonelessly to the ground, dead before his body had finished settling. As his blood ran out to merge with that of the dead assassin, the Elf kicked him viciously in the side, then spat on the corpse. “Bastard! Profaner of sacred places!” She kicked him again, harder.

I cleared my throat. “Your timing was impeccable, my dear. Only one more favor, and then I’ll be eternally in your debt.”

Cleayne looked up, the vicious anger on her face chilling even though I knew I wasn’t its target. “Huh?”

“Unfortunately, the sorceror’s spell apparently didn’t die with him. I’d be grateful if you knew something about dispelling it so I might accompany you out of this place.”

The Elf knelt to reclaim her knife, wiping it harshly on Malcolm’s cloak and resheathing it. Then without so much as a word, she flowed up against me and kissed me. When my head cleared, I found myself able to move again.

“I think I’ll have to arrange ensorcelment more often!”

She stepped back, evading my sluggish attempt to clutch her and draw her near. “Take shallow breaths and get over it.”

I complied, belatedly returning my arms to my side. “Not to seem ungrateful, but would I be correct in assuming you’ve been here before?”

“Yes. It’s no accident that there was a sorcerous workroom in this keep. The Baron, being half-Elven, had some minor sorcerous talents himself, and was experimenting with using them to strengthen himself. I, of course, was more than willing to help him, since the rituals he was using were Tantric in origin and involved rather pleasurable combinations of the male and female active principles.”

Still under the influence of that kiss and the scent of the candles, I blushed at her matter-of-fact tone. “Then before I lose what little self-control remains, I suggest we get out of here... fast. Among other things, we’ll want to send this last body along with Roger.”

Amusement now plain in her eyes, Cleayne turned gracefully and preceded me up the stairs.

***

It had taken little effort to convince Roger and the others of Malcolm’s role in things, particularly once we’d shown them the leather bag and matched the various unpleasant devices we found within it to the wounds on Ghusthav. The Sheriff had clapped me on the shoulder with a certain amount of respectful affection after he’d loaded the body onto the carriage, then rode off back down the pass, whistling some cheerful Human tune that made Cleayne smile knowingly, his breath steaming in the still-cold air, which had warmed only slightly as the sun began to fully clear the clifftops.

Once he was gone, my rescuer and I made our way back into the keep to gather our belongings, obtain enough provisions to get us to the next town, and say our final farewells to Hans and Hob. We left well before noon, and strode along in a companionable silence until our exertions raised enough of an appetite to prompt a halt. We’d made sufficiently good progress downhill that the air was appreciably warmer, enough so that we could relax and enjoy our meal.

Cleayne was first to break the silence. “So where will you go now, Thomas?”

I snorted. “I suppose the first order of business will be to find a job of some sort, since my funds are uncomfortably low.”

She returned my snort, her eyes measuring me. “You might find it easier if we stayed together a while. Even though you owe me a living, as it were, I suspect there are other reasons for me to keep you around.”

I reflected on her offer. She wasn’t really all that unattractive once you got used to her thinness and lack of facial hair, and if you got close enough to catch a whiff of her, even that didn’t much matter. But I sensed a subtext to what she’d said, and I supposed that in broad daylight, with me fully alert and with plenty of room to maneuver, this was the safest time to broach the subject. “I’ve never thanked you fully for your role in my continued existence—”

Twice, I’d remind you: once by getting them to let you speak and defend yourself, and once by not letting you be sacrificed to what was likely to be some extremely unpleasant Human demon.”

“—but how long would I live to enjoy your company?”

She snorted again. “Your continued existence should answer that question. But of course, now that you’ve figured things out—and given your reputation, I suspected you would—that changes things.”

“It wasn’t all that hard to figure things out. You were the obvious suspect for Elizabeth’s murder. The absence of any blood from the knife wound meant Elizabeth was stabbed after she was already dead, or at least close enough that she might as well have been. I’d wager you stabbed her with this,” I concluded, holding up the stilleto I’d taken from Cleayne while we talked. “How did it manage to find its way into Simon’s chest?”

She smiled appreciatively as her hand went reflexively to her sleeve and found the weapon missing. “I planted it there, as you well know. As you suggest, she wasn’t really dead, though at first I thought she was. She was in some form of suspended animation, which is why she didn’t bleed when I stabbed her. I didn’t feel any magic, so it must have been one of Malcolm’s drugs, combined with blood loss.”

“So you didn’t use Malcolm’s needles to drug Elizabeth? You certainly would had access to them.”

She frowned. “No, that wasn’t me. I imagine it may have been the Baron, for he was fond of using chemical stimulants to enhance our lovemaking. Although they worked after a fashion if you drank them with brandy, he found the large vein in the neck easiest for administering them, and the effects were much more intense.”

“Until he drugged the Baron to keep him out of your arms.” She looked surprised. “Oh, he hadn’t lost interest in you; far from it. Malcolm admitted he’d added something—presumably saltpeter—to the Baron’s medication to kill his desire for you, hoping you’d turn to him for consolation.”

She rose to her feet with an explosive curse. “Bastard! My only regret is that I killed him so swiftly. If I’d known, he’d have suffered a long, long, time, let me assure you.”

“If that’s expected to reassure me, I think you’ve misjudged.” She glared, then smiled reluctantly at my conspiratorial smile. “Actually, given Malcolm’s intentions for her, I suppose you were just anticipating. She was already dead in a very real sense, for he’d used her once to summon something foul, and it’s my understanding that such beings acquire a craving for someone’s blood once they’ve tasted it. In any event, you’ll never come to justice for her death.”

“In case you misunderstood, let me repeat myself: If I’d wanted you dead, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” The look on her face left me in no doubt.

“Likewise, in return. After all, if I’d had any doubts about you, I’d have explained them to Roger and had him cart you away with the corpses.” I handed her back her weapon, hilt first, and she took it hesitantly. Then, with unsurprising dexterity, she vanished it. “Besides, you knew I was lying about the money.”

Cleayne nodded. “You did a creditable job hiding it, but to Elvish ears you make the strangest metallic noises when you walk, and I know for a fact you’re not really that lumpy under those disreputable rabbit furs. You know, I suppose, that they don’t remove the hands of thieves in these parts?”

I shuddered. “No. These lands are new to me.”

“Then you’ll do better with me than without me.”

I returned her smile.“You know, I've come to believe I might.”

She leaned across and kissed me softly on the lips. I steeled myself for the thrust of her dagger, then when it didn’t come, relaxed and enjoyed the kiss. After all, we were far enough from the lands of my people that nobody would ever hear of what passed between us. And right about then, I wasn’t sure I much cared if they did.

Author’s notes

This story is an old one that sat and fermented for many years until it became passable wine rather than just spoiled grapes. The writing process was interesting because it started with an image similar to the one that begin Chords, though it was based on a very different model: both stories begin with someone hiking through a mountain pass, but this time Thomas is cowering like a mouse as an owl passes overhead, whereas Bram is fearlessly embarking on a new future. The genesis of Blood was very different; if memory serves, it came from a Karl Edward Wagner story (Raven’s Eyrie) about his immortal sorceror–warrior, Kane, and the image was inspired by the sense of being locked into a very constrained space while trying to solve the puzzle at the heart of the story. If you haven’t read Wagner, his books are well worth hunting down; he’s a superb craftsman and the Kane stories are atmospheric and memorable. The central conceit of this story is based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, though I’ve never read the novel nor have I seen any movie based on it. All I knew of the story was that a bunch of people are trapped in a remote location, dying one by one at the hands of a mysterious killer. That was enough to give me a pattern for the story.

Another contrast with Chords is that the feeling accompanying the image that gave rise to this story was entirely different: where Chords begins with a sense of melancholy mingled with hope, Blood in the Snow begins with the image of someone small and powerless, caught in an unpleasant situation and forced to bull through it based on courage, perseverance, and judicious application of his wits. It shares some kinship of spirit with my novel Jester, a story about a human dwarf with very similar disempowerment but an entirely different challenge to overcome.

The story’s world is inspired by late-Medieval central Europe, a couple centuries after the so-called “dark ages” ended, and it’s set somewhere east of the more prominent kingdoms of that age such as France and Germany. Apart from that, it bears little resemblance to real history; the Dwarves and Elves should be a strong clue that it’s not intended as a true alternate history. This “European” context exists solely to provide a background tone or mood or atmosphere for the story, since everyone is familiar to a greater degree with how this historical period is portrayed in fiction, and it takes shameless advantage of the emotional resonance conveyed by the many cultural tropes associated with Transylvania: deep, dark woods, and hidden mysteries in mountain fastnesses. The deliberate absence of anything resembling historical allusions should also make it clear this is not an alternate history of the real world.

Language is always an issue when you set a story in faux-medieval times. Although I aimed for an ornate and slightly antique style, I deliberately made no attempt to be authentically medieval; the more important goal was to create something that pastiched the modern detective novel. As a result, I made the translator's choice of translating from what would have been authentic medieval discourse into something more appropriate for the detective genre. For a more authentic take on the medieval murder mystery, Edith Pargeter's Brother Cadfael mysteries are a good place to start. The medieval folk would have had similar categories of imagery, discourse, cultural references, and the like, but the details would have been radically different in many ways. Thus, it's clearly authorial malfeasance to allow modern language and anachronisms to creep into the story as I've done, but hopefully it's a malfeasance that can be justified by the aims of the story.

Thomas started life as a hobbit, but there was too much resonance with Bored of the Rings for that to satisfy me. A Dwarf was the next best thing, and fell neatly into the Brothers Grimm folklore associated with this ill-defined “somewhere in central Europe” atmosphere, so a Dwarf he became. Cleayne is, of course, the stereotypical femme fatale of the noir detective genre, transposed into a fantastic milieu. Though she’s hardly a feminist icon, she has the same agency and brains as many of her spiritual kin, which almost excuses the cliché.

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