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SHADOWS
OF THE
FOREST

© Greumach MacCoinneach

See now; a bar room, just like a thousand others from the Sea of Ice to the Southern Deserts. A low ceiling with heavy beams, stained black by two hundred years of wood and tobacco smoke. Battered tables, wheelbacked chairs and settles all of age darkened oak filled the floor. To the left a bar, backed by barrels of ale, beer and wine; pewter tankards hanging in a rack. Over the ancient fireplace opposite hung a stuffed stag's head which had seen better days, and on the walls old stage wagon timetables, a number of rusting swords and axes and several indifferent and flaking paintings. The light of the dying sun spilt golden through the leaded glass of the windows. In one of the recesses dozed the tavern's fat black and white patched cat. Somewhere a clock struck nine on a cracked bell. Smoke hung in the air like river mist on a frosty morning.

As he walked through the low doorway from the market place Colgrim looked around him, it was busier than usual for the time of day. He waved to Jotham, the landlord, a thickset, shaven-headed ex-pit-fighter in a leather apron who was pouring a jack of ale. Jotham nodded to the Sheriff Officer and handed the quart to Simeon, the letter writer, a thin-faced, grey haired man in a faded and stained jupon of cherry coloured broadcloth. Simeon wasn't drunk yet, but Colgrim would lay a gold to a copper he would be before the hour was up. Ah, yes, and there was Beitris, the harlot, in her red and orange silks, a goblet of wine in her hand, draping herself around a tall dark faced stranger in the robes of a mage. Colgrim was willing to bet the stranger's black beard and hair were dyed to hide grey, he looked the vain type; the robe and rings were just too ornate for good quality. A low roar drew the lawman's attention to a group of scale-mailed Dwarves at a table, swallowing ale as if it were going out of fashion, cracking off-colour Elf jokes and playing dice. He wouldn't have any trouble with them unless somebody else started it, Colgrim knew Dwarves. Another table held a group of men in the faded green tunics of Foresters, all locals, all law abiding. Tillingast, the head Verderer, a self important chubby faced blonde, shouted a greeting and he blew her an insincere kiss, a memory of a drunken beltane tumble several years ago.

In the corner by the fire Tobias, the local gleeman, was strumming on his mandolin and singing in a brandy darkened voice, trying to make himself heard over the noise of the customers. The Sheriff Officer listened as he gestured to Gwynneth, one of the tavern wenches, to bring him a beer and sat down at an empty table, hitching up his broadsword.

The gleeman was half-way through his rendition of the Mistaken Suitor and Colgrim was beginning his second tankard when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. He looked round and saw Berdan, the Halfling peddler, usually a cheerful little chap but serious looking at that moment, perhaps even scared.

'Sergeant, Oi 'ates to bother yeou, but there is a Lady as wants a word. She does be in the parlour loike. Jotham told me to tell yeou.'

Intrigued, the Sheriff Officer took his tankard and wended his way to the bar parlour, a cheerful little room, used by visiting gentry and by merchants for private business. He wasn't sure what to expect; usually a noble with problems would go to his commander, the Under-Sheriff, Sir Valerey, if not the Sheriff herself, rather than a humble Sergeant like Colgrim.

He entered the bar parlour ducking through the low door and manoeuvring his sword so as not to bang it off the frame. He straightened and looked at the figure awaiting him. The first thing he saw was her robe, an unusual one he'd never seen the like of, it was the blue of a summer sky, hooded, trimmed with black and girdled with scarlet; almost he would have said it was the robe of an Archmage, but it wasn't. The second thing was her face, under a fringe of light brown hair it was finely boned with the slightly slanted green eyes of a Half-Elf. The full lips were set in an expression of habitual severity. Thirdly her figure, she stood perhaps five and a half feet tall and had the compact build of a warrior, which accorded well with the fact that she was wearing a sword on her left hip, a sword with a plain functional crosshilt, the more expensive version of his own. She spoke, a strange voice, it sounded as though she was not used to speaking.

'Sergeant Colgrim Etheridge, I presume. I am Felice Ui'Sihane. I require your assistance.'

The lawman was surprised, one didn't expect to find a legend here in Cloyne Bridge. The Blue Witch, no less, Rector of a famous school for Mages and Healers, celebrated bandit killer. Well, it explained the odd robe at least.

'Whatever I can do to aid you, Worshipful Lady, that I shall do,' he made her his best bow, 'what seems to be the problem?'

The Blue Witch seemed to meditate for a moment before answering, so that it was clear to Colgrim he was not going to be told any more than she thought he should hear.

'Are you aware that in the Forest some leagues to the North of Cloyne Bridge lie the ruins of the College of Oghma?'

'The ruins are fairly well known, Worshipful lady, but uhm... avoided by the locals. Adventurers go there sometimes, never heard of any making a profit from it. The Elves may frequent the place, I wouldn't know about that nor wouldn't to. It's no further than their city than from us though. Can't say I knew it was a school.'

'Ah... well a Scholia it was, some centuries since and as such it held a library and a scriptorium - no printing presses in those days. Well, some weeks ago a party set out for the ruins from Castle Gabhran. They passed through the Elven Kingdom and they... disappeared. From my inquiries here it would appear they haven't arrived. Therefore I require you as the Sheriff Officer to form a posse comitatus to search the Forest and the ruins.'

'Worshipful Lady, surely magic would be more useful in locating...'

'The Scholia is in an area in which magic does not operate. What is called a dead magic zone, Sergeant. And even were it not, the Forest has so many magic-users and magical creatures in it that divination becomes, shall we say, unreliable. No, a physical search is the only possibility. You have a week to form your posse Sergeant, by then the rest of my own party will be here and you will join us.'

'I don't like the sound of this,' said Merci Tillingast the next morning. 'What were a bunch of Gabhran soldiers doing this side the border? And...'

Colgrim cut in. 'We don't know they were soldiers.'

'We don't know they weren't, at any event! And as I was about to say, why would the Blue Witch be looking for them? She doesn't live in the Duchy of Gabhran. And why didn't she go to the Sheriff? That'd be the normal thing or the Lord High Verderer.'

Dean Whately, the local sorcerer, spoke, turning from the window his bearded face serious, 'the Blue Witch's school is in Travenhurst County and Maeve of Gabhran is also Countess of Travenhurst, so she's tributary to the Duchess. I would suggest she didn't go to the high-ups exactly because of the political dimension. Sergeant Etheridge has to comply, they might be obliged not to.'

'All right' said the Verderer 'I get your point but I don't like the idea of going anywhere near the ruins. And what about those bloody Elves? They ain't gonna want us too close to their bloody borders and they tend to warn you off with arrows.'

'That's why you're coming, you and your Foresters. Haven't you always said that you are the match for any Elf in woodcraft, Merci?' remarked Colgrim.

'Hmf!'

The three bent to the maps on the table, in the Sergeant's office at the town gaol.

The Sergeant was on his way to the Flying Pig for dinner when half across the muddy market square a voice hailed him. 'You!' Imperious, foreign and female 'do you know where I can find Felice the Blue?' He turned, his interrogator was sitting astride a blue roan and she wasn't alone; more than a dozen other riders were behind her, armour ed riders in ankheg shell plate mail and heavy clothes of dark green. Colgrim knew who she was, he didn't need her to remove her helmet; Selva of Cormyr, the Great Druid of the Forest's personal assassin and lieutenant. Things were going from bad to worse.

'I do, Reverent Captain, she is in the inn yonder...' Before he could continue the riders swept past him, almost knocking him down, heading for the inn yard. Etheridge wasn't so fond of the druid's soldiers, of the Great Druidic Guard, that he was pleased to see them.

'Sergeant' said a voice as gentle as the wind in the trees, and he realised that there were two other riders, and what riders, glowing like jewels in the muddy familiar square with its black and white half-timbered buildings and animal tents.

The first, the one who had spoken, was one of the most beautiful girls the Sheriff Officer had ever seen, an Elf, a cloud of dark hair waist-length, almost black, deep violet eyes like pansy flowers, a perfect figure and an Archdruid's robe of gleaming black silk. She sat a grey pony of the Northern breed. She looked shy and vulnerable and he experienced a desire to hold and pet her like a kitten or a puppy, before going one stage further. The second rider was also a woman, and just as beautiful, but one to strike superstitious dread into the lawman. She was Drow, hair white as the snowdrift in the mountains, skin the colour of charcoal, eyes topaz yellow. She sat a tall white pony of the Desert breed and her whine red robes and turban were also in the style of the Kingdoms of the Sands.

The Druidess spoke again 'I apologise for the Lady Selva's behaviour, Sergeant, at most times she is more polite, but she is worried. I am Eoraidh of Muir, Debtera to her Grace, the Duchess Great Druid Maeve of Gabhran and the Mountains.' Her voice was wonderful and Colgrim could not but feel stirrings of lust. 'This', she gestured at the Drow Lady 'is the Lady Lycia of the House of Sharsdottir, Hierarch and Mage, Under-Constable of her Grace's possessions in the Land Below. We apologise for disturbing your peace and that of your King, but our need is urgent. Please conduct us to the inn.'

Colgrim started back for the inn and the Drow Lady spoke 'Tell me, Officer, to which deities have you temples here?' Her accent was strange, a mixture of the aristocratic and that of the desert nomads.

'We've two, Reverent Lady, the one to Mielikki, the other to my own Lord, Torm.'

'Torm, eh' she laughed, 'a good omen, Eoraidh, would you not say?'

'Did Gods concern a Druid, I should.' Remarked the black-clad beauty, then 'Sergeant, our company is not yet complete. In the forenoon will come the last with his company, then we shall meet with you to decide our course. I trust your posse will be ready.'

'They will, Reverent Lady, be assured,' said Colgrim.

'Oh, and Sergeant, forget the honorific. I am not Archdruid, may never be, I'm just Firehair's Debtera, that means, well, assistant, apprentice, sergeant, perhaps. I'm here because she ordered it. Call me Tigre, it's my byname.'

'I see, my Lady – Tigre.'

'Sergeant', the Drow Lady spoke 'I also care not for honorifics, so far as I am concerned you may use my given name or indeed call me “bloody Drow”. Even if I'm offended, which I may be, I won't complain. I learned better ten years back, dealing with a colleague who... well never mind, he didn't understand my people.'

It was not one day, but two, Colgrim was sitting in his office, running over equipment lists for the posse, when Machmud, one of his corporals, poked his head round the door with a clink of chainmail.

'Sarge, gentleman to see you!'

A figure clad in a plain leather robe, the heavy swing of which hinted at an armoured lining, entered stooping under the lintel. The two examined each other. Colgrim saw a tall man whose long hair tied back in a ponytail and drooping moustache were in a style common to the Druids and Half-Elves. But in spite of the robe and scimitar, this man was no Druid, and his height and build, still more his ravaged face said he was human; he had clearly seen at least forty years and maybe more. He knew what the tall stranger could see, a man of his own age, thickening at the waste, slightly over the middle height, regulation haircut and short beard, dark blue broadcloth tunic and jerkin with yellow trim.

'Sergeant,' the visitor held out his hand, 'I am Uilleam MacDonnell, Scholar in the service of the Knights of the Holy Knowledge and Wisdom.'

'Welcome, Sir Knight' Colgrim clasped a sword-calloused hand.

'Just a humble Scholar, Sergeant, call me Uilleam; got any ale bout the place? I'm thirsty, it's a long trek from the Keep and I had to hurry my chaps a long somewhat, they're over at the inn just now.'

They gathered in the temple of Torm, the only building in the town big enough to hold the Officers' council; the inn had provided three trestle tables to hold the maps and they were all gathered around the tables, the Druids in their Ankheg plate, Paladins in mithral plate, Dwarves in scale mail, Foresters and posse members in studded leather and chain mail, the magic users and seniors in their robes of leather and silk.

Selva, the Assassin-Druid, her green eyes bleak, tapped a map with a beringed forefinger.

'We're told they were seen here at the Fords of Drasta by en Elven patrol about two weeks after they set out. After that, nothing. Then again, even the Great Druid isn't sure the Elves can be trusted in this matter, so we should perhaps beware of what they tell us. The area isn't patrolled by her Reverence's forces, regrettably.

'Howd oan a meenut!' exclaimed Tormod, the tough-looking Dwarf who led the Blue Witch's bodyguard. 'Yewr tellin me that we're gonnae hev bluidy tree-huggers snipin ut us aa the wey tae oor destination? Because if thet should be the case, ah'm no gonnae guarantee mah bhoys ull no shoot back. We're Dwarves ken, and Elves are no exactly wur favourite peeple by re wey, present company an' her Grace and the Leddy aside.'

'If we are fired upon, we shall respond', stated the Blue Witch acerbically.

'If they were at the Fords, they will have left their horses there' said Uilleam the Sage, ignoring the side issue. 'From there on, the undergrowth is too thick for horses. We too will proceed afoot. I misdoubt we're in some danger from that point. That is, if the people of the trees are intent upon stopping us.'

'The Lady has forbidden them to.' commented Eoraidh.

'Will their Queen and Council listen to the Lady of the Sidhe?' asked Sir Uilleam.

'For a thousand years and more they have,' said the Druidess 'and for good reason. Why should that change? Why would they risk the wrath of Retribution and the Sidhe?'

'Does that not rather depend upon what the ruins hold? After all, the Elves had some reason for wrecking the place six centuries gone. We don't know why it was done and mayhap the Lady doesn't know any more than do we. They destroyed the college and the scholars and sacrificed sixty spellcasters to make of it a dead magic zone. Their needs must have been great cause.' said the Sage.

'Six centuries is a long time to be angry.' said Sir Jehan, one of the Knights.

'For an Elf six centuries is as nothing, my friend.' stated Eoraidh.

Colgrim could understand very little of this. He felt lost here, he was an ordinary peacekeeper standing around people who discussed matters of which he could know nothing. He decided to ask Tigre or Lycia for an explanation at the first opportunity.

His opportunity came that same evening, when he found the Druid wondering in the fields by the bridge. Seeing her he called out.

'Lady Tigre, may I speak with you?'

'But of course, Colgrim. What can I do for you?'

'I need to understand what this is all about. Can you explain?'

'I can try, but there may be some things I cannot tell you or that I do not know. Ask, and I will answer as best I may.'

'What were the ruins?'

'You already know, they were a college of Oghma, a Scholia for magic-users.'

'Why did the Elves attack the place?'

'Only they could tell you that, it's one of their many secrets. They did, that's all we know, which is why my Mistress sent Sir Galen and his company to investigate the ruins and that is why we are going to seek them.'

'Who is the Lady of the Sidhe, of whom you speak, and where is the Sidhe? I gather she's an Elf Queen like the one in the Forest.'

The Druid laughed heartily.

'You gather wrongly, my friend, on several counts. The Sidhe is not a place, but a people among the Elvenkind. I'm one of them, as is my Reverend Lady, and many others. As for the Lady, she is not a Queen; I don't know the word for her position in the common tongue, if there is one. The Kozakuran word I do know, it is Shogun; in the tongue of the desert tribes, Ghazi Ul Melek, and in Dwarven it is Khanattalik. We call her Toiseach Nan Toiseach Nan Tuath, the Elves call her “The Lady”. Her name is Shanya, and she is my Lady's Grandmother. She is our leader.'

'If she's so important, why doesn't she know the answer to your puzzle?'

'Six centuries ago she was far from here, Otherwhere, and was not consulted in the matter.'

'She's a Druid, isn't she? Like you and your Mistress?'

'No, a Battlemage. Well, a Warmage, to be accurate. In your terms, call her a General. That's what Toiseach means.'

The column wound its way towards the green rampart of the ancient Forest, the town dwindling behind it. Harness jingled and clanked, horses nickered, hooves rang on the stony ground, the Dwarves clumped and swore, the Knights chorused their marching song. The sun broke through the clouds to bathe the miniature army in liquid gold. Colgrim glanced back and reflected on the fact that he might easily never see Cloyne Bridge again and wished that he and his men had better armour and weapons, Elf chain was far better than the variety that he wore, and Elven bows were better than Tillingast's Foresters could boast. Uilleam the Sage rode alongside him.

'You look worried, my friend. Anything in particular?'

'I was just thinking I may never see my home of ten years again.'

'You haven't lived in Cloyne Bridge all your life, then.'

'No, I grew up in Castle Treyne, and then I was in the Royal Army for ten years, went all over the kingdom and into the Desert. When I'd served my time, the Under-Sheriff offered me this post. I wanted to settle down, so I took it. Travel's fine, but it gets wearing.'

'I know just what you mean, Colgrim, I treasure my time on the island at the Commandery. Mind, I've just spent six months at the Motherhouse of the Knights of Retribution, the Keep, and I quite enjoyed that.

'You're a scholar, why the life of soldier?'

'Simple, really. I believe that Knowledge needs to be protected as well as gathered. There are those who burn books, you know, those who'd favour censorship. I grew up in a place and time like that. So I joined the Order, it seemed a simple choice.'

'What was it that the missing expedition were looking for?'

'The answer to a riddle, Sergeant. The Elves know it, but they won't give it to others, not even to other Elves. In the end, someone will find it, it had better be the right people; and that means us, Colgrim.

The shadows of the forest floor were deep and the sounds of the horses' hooves were muffled by centuries of leaf mould. The trees seemed even to swallow up the jingling and clank of harness and armour. Now and again the racket of a rising pheasant would break the stillness or they would reach a clearing, where bathed in golden sunlight they would crash through bracken or secondary growth. The green twilight of the ancient forest was depressing and the silence sinister. And all the time they could feel watching eyes, not just those of squirrels or the other woodland wildlife either. At times a rider would catch a flickering glimpse of Elf mail or hear a bird cry that wasn't. At night, the Dwarves would guard the camp, their eyesight designed for a deeper darkness than the forest could bring.

The Drow magic-user rode up alongside Colgrim.

'Selva tells me we'll reach the Fords of Drasta tomorrow some time. I must say I'll be glad to the sun again!'

'Isn't that an odd sentiment for one of your... people?' questioned Colgrim. 'I thought you found sunlight painful or unpleasant, or well, something.'

'I'm not a normal member of my race, Sergeant. I spent over a decade in the Desert south of here, studying magecraft under Abdel Rahim Abu Tahir and riding with the nomads. That's why my skin is this colour, the sun bleached me. It's also why I dress as I do. But I find all this greenery strange. No trees in the Underdark, and not many in the Desert, leaving out the oases. Truth is, I like sunlight and I know of at least one other Drow who agrees with me. A great male in all senses of the word, and a greater Mage... I wish he was here, I miss him.' Her strange voice sounded both tender and amused.

'Can I ask a question? Rev-, uh, Wor-, uh, Lady Lycia?'

'Of course.'

'Why are you here? I can understand the Druids, and the Blue One, and MacDonnell and his Knights, but why you?'

'Let me ask you a question before I reply, Colgrim. Do you like me? Not lust after me, – that I know you do, human men always want to involve females of my kind in minor sexual atrocities, – but do you actually like me?'

The Sheriff Officer thought a moment before replying. 'Yes Lycia, I do. Damned if I know why, I've been trained to regard Drow as enemies. But yes, I like you.'

'Do you see me as evil?'

'Erh... no, I can't say that I do.'

'Well beware then; if the concept means anything, which I doubt quite strongly, I probably am. Or at least, if I am not, my magic is, clerical and arcane. So who better to deal with evil magic, if it is present in the ruins, and it may very well be, Colgrim my friend.'

'But I thought magic didn't work there!'

'On the surface, my friend, but below ground who can tell? Not I, certainly. Also, before we get there, we will probably encounter opposition and do not, I beg you, imagine that all Darthim are good any more than all Rivill are.'

'Darthim?'

'Surface Elves. And you, my friend Colgrim are a Rivin, a human. Did you know that my ancestors were jungle dwellers?'

'No.'

'They were. I am not.'

The shadows of evening were falling; the column had set up camp and were cooking dinner, when a voice hailed one of the sentries out of the darkness under the treed.

'You are far from home, city-dwellers. What do you in this wood? Beware, lest you profane the Great Earth-Mother by your careless perambulations!'

The Assassin-Druid shouted back. 'By your speech it would seem, stranger, that you pretend to be one of the Wise. And yet I know not your voice. Be aware that I am Selva of Cormyr, Debtera to Sian, Great Druid of the Forest, and that there are among my company others of the Order; even Eoraidh of Muir who is to Maeve, the Great Druid of the Mountains, as I to Sian. Call us not city-dwellers, nor think to preach to us, but come forth from the darkness.'

Colgrim heard her mutter over her shoulder to Tigre 'What think you? A member of the pernicious sect of the Shadow Druids, sister?'

'She may simply be an eremite' said Eoraidh, 'but I mislike what I smell.'

'Even so do I.' stated the Assassin flatly.

A figure came into the firelight and one once seen, not likely to be forgotten. She looked human, and wore a robe of night-black leather trimmed and lined with blood red, the hood thrown back to reveal a head of hair as white as Lycia's and a beautiful face equally blanched, yet she was not an albino, for in the firelight her eyes glowed cat-green. Her robe showed as much as it concealed, and it seemed to the lawman that if she was not naked under it, the difference was a matter for philosophical debate. She spoke.

'I am Herfjottur, second to none, and I am the Druid of this Wood; my sisters, the Dryads and Melias of the Forest and the Naiads of the streams and pools watch you even now. You may be of the Wise, sister Selva, but there are humans here, and even Dwarves, and they have no place in these woods. Yet see, I set aside my staff and my sword, and I come within your circle of flame.'

She suited her actions to her words, 'May the powers of Light, Shadow and Darkness bless your coming and your going.'

Colgrim realised that Lycia, her own beautifully crafted staff in her hand, stood beside him. She hissed in his ear 'Trust a snake before a harlot and a harlot before that bleached bitch, my friend! Watch her carefully.'

'But she's a Druid' said Colgrim, 'surely that means we can trust her.'

'It is as I say, and the Druids and the Witch know it as well as I' stated the Drow. 'I've met with the work of the Melias in my time, in the Spine of the World. And men say we Drow are cruel! We have a reason. White skin can be worse than black, Sergeant, and a Druid than a Cleric of Shar. Tell your people to stay awake and alert this night, Colgrim, if they wish to stay alive. The Night Queen's blessing be with us all.'

Felice and Uilleam came forward to meet the stranger.

'I am Felice of Ulcaster. Called by men the Blue Witch or the Archwitch, and this is Sir Uilleam, a Scholar Knight' said the party's leader. 'Will you join us in our evening meal? It may be that you can help us, Reverent Sister, to find what we seek.'

'I have heard your name on the forest's breeze, Felice the Blue. They say that you have travelled to strange places and in stranger company.'

'Then your breezes speak the truth, and I will warn you that those travels have made me wary beyond the normal.' The mutual dislike of the two women was blatant and the contrast considerable. The white beauty looked around and her eyes fell on Lycia. She chuckled looking embarrassed.

'A Drow here! Who are you, dark one, that you would walk in my wood?'

'I am Lycia, Priestess and Daughter of the Night Queen, if you wish to know. I walk where I will, and have walked in places that you would avoid, I think, for you could bend neither the sands nor the spirits of the Desert to your will. Since none has seen fit, let me introduce Colgrim of Cloyne Bridge, an Officer of your King's court.'

The Sergeant made his best bow, and the newcomer curtsied. He wondered if it was a mistake that her movement proved so revealing. He thought that it was not and for a second his body responded, until he saw the hungry look on her face and the vast blankness behind her eyes. Lycia's warnings were right; Druid or not, this woman was evil. He shivered inwardly.

The meal over, the guest departed, saying that she would return with the dawn and guide them to the Fords of Drasta. Everyone spent an uncomfortable and some a sleepless night. Beyond the firelight and even the darkvision of the Dwarves something was moving around the camp perimeter, and now and then the shadows seem to belly ominously towards those guards who were human Foresters. Indeed, had it not been for the Druid and Clerical wards the officers were quite sure that men would have been lost that night. Towards dawn Colgrim took a walk around the camp.

'Oi smelled wolves in the darkness!' said one Forester.

'No nor yeou didn' noither, 'twere wererats an' Oi knows the smell.' said another.

'An' yeou both be wrong, pair o' mommets!' said a third ' 'twere direbeasts, not normal, nor werebeasts, an' Oi knows that!'

'Pull yourselves together, men!' ordered Colgrim. 'It doesn't matter a toss what the enemies were, they were there and they still are. So stop peeking arguments and stay alert. The enemy is out there, not here in the camp, so keep your eyes peeled lads and the arrows loose in your quivers.'

Dawn was coming up.

Colgrim was checking the outposts when Tigre found him. She looked tired and worried and the compulsion to cuddle her was almost irresistible.

'Keep your men up to scratch Colgrim, we'll ambushed today.'

'Art sure, little one?'

'Oh yes, I'm sure. Keep your sword handy, I wouldn't want to see you hurt. Oh, and wear your hauberk, it won't be much protection but it's better than nothing.'

'This from a girl in a silk robe!' he laughed.

'A silk robe lined with blue dragon scales' the Druid responded, 'and a cloak of protection, don't you go worrying about me; I'm safe enough, so is Lycia Dubh, but we are concerned for you.'

'I'm flattered, but why?'

'Let's just say that you remind us very much of a mutual and much loved friend; perhaps in Lycia's case I should say respected rather than loved. I don't know what form the attack will take, but it will come.'

And come it did, within minutes of the dawn.

Colgrim knew a sound he knew only too well; the hiss of an arrow storm. His shield, hastily grabbed up and raised, was feathered by half a dozen shafts; the posse member next to him fell with the hiss and gurgle of a punctured throat. Others fell too, reddening the ground. The Sergeant heard the Archwitch spit out a stream of words and saw falling arrows burst into flames. The Drow raised her hand in a circular motion and the arrows fell upon a disk of living darkness that seemed to eat them as they came. The Druids moved forward in a body and from them the projectiles simply bounced as if they had struck rock; ahead of them the undergrowth moved like a wave against the almost invisible foe. Their swords rasped free.

Tillingast yelled at her Foresters 'Shoot, you buggers, if they breathe, they can die!'

The Foresters loosed a ragged return volley from their longbows.

The Dwarves, moving like a well-oiled machine, formed two lines and readied their heavy crossbows.

'Aa, richt youse bastards' shouted Tormod 'teach'em aboot sodgerin'! Front rank shoot! A'ts the speerut, bhoys! Rear rank shoot!'

The bolts ripped into the attackers, erupting into great swelling gouts of flame that ignited low-hanging branches. Several of the attackers, green skinned and haired women, screamed and went into convulsions. Then the Druids and the Knights hit them, broadswords, axes and scimitars swinging.

'The Earth receive your blood!' shouted the Druids.

'Know your end!' cried the Knights.

'Die, fools!' shouted the Drow, loosing a stream of glowing meteors from her fingers.

'Bow before my power' cried the Archwitch, her hands throwing spears of frigid death that silvered the bracken with frost and withered leaves.

The Assassin Druid said nothing but wielded a crossbow of shining steel that threw lightning bolts. Colgrim grabbed up a bow from a fallen Forester and loosed shafts as quickly and accurately as he knew how. And albeit the bow was not his weapon, he saw attackers stagger under the impact.

A mist of blood tinged the golden sunlight carmine.

The skirmish seemed to last hours, but in reality it was over in minutes. The Sheriff Officer began the task of numbering the wounded and the dead. The Druids worked their healing magics on those they could help and gave the coup de grace to those they could not. The company had been two hundred strong, now it lacked two Knights, and nearly fifty members of the posse; the arrows had been poisoned, but then the Melias and the Dryads seldom used any other kind.

On the edge of the clearing the lawman found Uilleam and another Knight examining the body of a fallen Fey, struck down by a lightning bolt.

'Interesting. It would appear that the old notion, that to kill them you have to kill their trees, is wrong' observed Uilleam. 'Ah, hello Colgrim, what shape are we in?'

'We've lost about a quarter of our force' Colgrim stated.

'Unfortunate. How about revivification?' asked the scholar Knight.

'The Dryads used poison, seems to be some kind of snake venom or maybe the poison of wyverns. In any event, the answer's no' replied the Sheriff Officer.

'Shame. I wonder what stirred them up against us' muttered the scholar.

'It wasn't a what, but a who.' Eoraidh's voice cut into their conversation. 'And I favour the notion it was my good “sister” Herfjottur and her sisters, whoever they may be.'

'You'd accuse another Druid?' questioned the scholar.

'Get something clear in your mind, Uilleam, I am a servant of the Balance. She may say that she is, but that one and I are not the same. I don't know what she serves, and I'm not even sure what species she is. Maybe she was a Druid once, but other than a Gnoll I never met an evil Druid myself. Felice and others I know have, but that was Otherwhere. And that one was evil, I could smell it on her.'

'Lady Eoraidh, we've got a prisoner!' shouted one of the Great Druidic Guard.

They ran across to where a group of guardsmen were standing around a wounded Fey who was lying on the ground, her right leg grey-blue with cold and an empty quiver by her side. She was fragile looking, her skin brownish-green, and hair rust coloured. She wore an armour which looked to be made of tree bark and boots spun from moss. Her bow was grey, smooth, polished and of double recurve shape. She was swearing in the Sylvan tongue.

Eoraidh said something in the same tongue and the Dryad's eyes widened and she said 'Yes, I speak manthings tongue, a little. I learn from matings. I T'Gellain am of trees guardian. Why help you the tree killers, Wise Sister, you of the Draoi? Darthaer I not surprise if do, but Draoi?'

'Know this, little sister, I come from Ad-daledigaeth yr derwydd mawr herself, I am Teigr; also yr Llew derwydd mawr has sent my sister Llofrudd. We are not tree-killers, save by necessity, such as you force upon us. Answer me, who are the Gwynchwayru?'

'Gwynchwayru, our friends, serve yr Gwaedbrenhines y hynafol, friend of us.'

'What is she talking about, in the name of the Nine Hells?' asked Uilleam 'I can't bloody well speak Sylvan!'

'She says the White Ones serve somebody known as the Blood Queen and the Ancient One.'

'Who is that?'

'You're the scholar, you tell me.'

'Damned if I know!'

By now Lycia had arrived and she spoke. 'I've heard the term somewhere, but whether it was from Abu Tahir or Jaerex I don't know. Let me think... you, hi effyd mae do?' pointing at the Fey.

'Oes hwy dywedyd' said the Dryad.

'Got it! It was something Jaerex said about something Lileas told him' Lycia said exultantly.

'Pardon me, who are these people?' asked Colgrim pitifully.

'One of my old teachers and his teacher, the one called the Silver Mage. He mentioned something she said about another creature, like but unlike herself.'

'I've heard of the Silver Mage, but I thought she was an Elf' said Colgrim.

'I've met her, she isn't, she's unique. Well at least I thought she was' commented the Mage-Cleric. 'Lileas is silver, this one is bronze. There were others once, some say Talos is one of their kind.'

'The Stormlord?' This was Uilleam.

'Just so' said the Drow. 'Bring her into the camp, so that Felice can talk to her.'

Four hours later a voice hailed the camp.

'I wish to speak with your officers. I am unarmed. May I enter?'

A figure emerged from the trees just outside the thorny rampart grown by the Druids. At first sight it appeared to be Herfjottur, but as she came closer it became clear that this was another woman, though one with the same costume, or lack of it, and the same physical characteristics.

Colgrim and Tormod looked at her.

'I am Skogullur, a Druid of these Woods, and I have a message for your leaders.'

'Enter, but by Torm, if you try treachery, you shall die' stated Colgrim.

One of the Druid guards gestured and a section of thorns sank into the earth. With a flash of white thigh the woman stepped over it and entered the camp.

She smiled a slow hungry smile at Colgrim and said,

'Take me to your Commander, handsome one.'

'The male is mine, Gwaer slebog. I claim perchem! Care to fight for him?' Lycia's voice came from behind Colgrim.

'Gastdu!' spat the White Druid.

'True, but do you want to join with the everlasting darkness now or later?' chuckled Lycia. 'Come, Gwaer ysbwrial.'

As they escorted her towards the Blue Witch's tent, Colgrim asked the Sharian Cleric, 'What did all that mean?

'I said that you were my property and that if she wanted you, she'd have to fight me for you' she smiled.

'I'm right flattered.'

'Don't be. No insult intended, but I already have a better than you, and I wouldn't risk what I have for a passing fancy.'

Colgrim didn't know whether to be complimented or insulted.

The officers stood behind the table facing the White Druid. The Dryad, T'Gellain, lay on the Blue Witch's camp-bed to their left.

The White One spoke. 'I come to deliver a warning. Turn back now, or face the wrath of the Queen, unless of course you choose to join us. If you do, as many have, your reward will be great. Do not allow this little scuffle to deceive you, you cannot win and you will never enter the Court of Power. That I speak the truth, my little sister here will confirm' she gestured at the Dryad.

'Tell me, are you a seer?' asked Eoraidh of Muir in a strangely sarcastic tone.

'No, the gift of the Sight is not mine, but I have magic, strong magic, enough to defeat you all, I alone!'

'Think you so?' said Selva of Cormyr. 'I think you boast too freely and know all too little of our capabilities. Isolation or something else has made you mad.'

'I am not mad, but I think that you are, who marched to you know not what, at the bidding of one who calls herself a god and who presumes to hold the Balance in her own hands.'

'My Mistress does not call Herself a god,' said Eoraidh mildly. 'Nonetheless, a god She is, Retribution Herself. She does not claim to hold the Balance, but in some sense She is the Balance. Defy Her if you will, by doing so you become vulnerable to Her. Be sure your hubris shall destroy you, as it has destroyed many others. We serve the Balance; you, I think, do not.'

'And so also say I,' stated the Assassin-Druid.'

'I offer you mercy, fools, mercy or power beyond your dreams,' said Skogullur.

Lycia laughed. 'Mercy is an offer made by the weak and a gift given by the strong without words being involved. As for power, it is a thing to be taken or given by the strong, but is a thing to be offered by the weak who do not have it to give. Those who accept such an offer are worse than slaves and worse than fools. I am Drow, daughter to the Night Queen. I for one will never take such an offer.'

The Archwitch spoke. 'Run back to your mistress, my little white ape, and tell her that I, Felice the Blue, cast despite in her face; and that when she is dead, I will pay bards to play satire upon her, the round world over. In my own name, and in that of Retribution, I toss her gift back in her face.'

Then spoke Sir Uilleam the sage. 'As a Knight I know my duty, as a scholar I live to learn. I will learn from the destruction of your mistress and your sisterhood and my duty forbids me to accept.'

And finally, Colgrim, annoyed, reverting to the speech of his youth. 'I am a simple man, a soldier be trade, but I've heard offers the like of thine before. They were always made be criminals or servants of evil, and they were never honoured. Happen you'll tell me what offer you made the Dryads. Didst tell them what destruction would be reeked upon them and their Forest, if so be we defend ourselves to the utmost of our ability?'

'What are you saying?' asked the Dryad.

'What, lass, do you think would occur, happen we fired nothing but exploding arrows and bolts, and happen our magic users cast only fire spells. No, don't worry yourself, we wouldn't do that, but we could and this white faced whore-daughter knows it! What happened when the Elves came?'

'Imbeciles, we will destroy you all!' screamed Skogullur.

'The sands of the Deserts shall drink your blood, and none shall know your resting place; it shall be concealed even from your gods, until the end of time,' pronounced Lycia in a resonant voice.

The evil Druid turned and with a flash of white flesh fled the tent and the camp.

An hour later Colgrim and Eoraidh escorted the now healed Dryad to the edge of the clearing. The Druid addressed her.

'Hear me little sister, carry our message to the people of the great trees. With you we have no quarrel and we wish you no harm. We ask what favour the White Ones have ever done you; did they not bring the Great Destruction that fell upon you more than six lives of man ago? That those of the ash and the birch should favour them is obvious, their realm was advanced and yours decreased. But what will you gain by fighting us, nothing. All we ask of you is inactivity.'

'I saw Skogullur of the White Sisterhood flee in fear. I will carry your message to my Queen and my sisters. May the Forest always open a path for you and I offer you blessing of leaf and bough.'

And she stepped into the trees and was gone.

In the dark of the night came another attack, this time by animals and insects, maddened with the magic of the blanched Druids. The animals crashed into the walls of darkness and shadow woven by the Archwitch and the Drow and onto the Druid thorns. They died in their dozens and hundreds but kept coming. A great swarm of insects lunged from the air but were dispersed by Druid counterspell and fireball. Then the Melias, the Ash-Dryads, launched another storm of poisoned arrows which were destroyed, and they fell before the Dwarven crossbows and the much less accurate arrows of the Foresters and Knights. Three times they came before the day broke and when it did, the defenders could see Melian and animal corpses piled in windrows. No defender was injured.

Exhausted, the magic users slept or went into trance, and the mundanes stood guard. Colgrim, tired himself, sat on a rock reading a book that had been a present from his brother, a teacher, and muttered the lines of poetry.

Think you, my love, that we should part I'm sure that act would break my heart. The maiden bent with weeping eyes Exclaimed betwixt repeated sighs Her shoulders heaved with every groan 'T would break you'd swear a heart of stone. I mourn the maiden's spirit rent Her gallant mourned her money spent. That very day her jewels pawned His mother had a monster spawned. A lad most handsome, that was true His spirit though would make one grue –

'Colgrim, can I speak with you a moment?' Tillingast's voice broke in on him, jerking him back to reality.

'Of course Merci lass, Arnprior's works can wait. What can I do for you?'

'Well I was thinking, it would be a damn good notion to send a patrol ahead to the Fords of Drasta, just to see what chance they have to bushwhack us. I'll lead it myself if you like.'

She sounded a bit less egotistical this morning.

Colgrim considered the idea, and it seemed a good one to be coming from such an unpromising source.

'How many men would you be needing, that is hypothetically?'

'Six and myself, I've already chosen the part, Colgrim sweetheart,' Merci pouted, sure he was about to say no.

'Congratulations on an independent command, lass, happen it's a small one. Get back as quick as you can.'

'You're saying I can go?' the Verderer said, shocked.

'To quote Shalen of Briatte, “the one who has the best idea, should first act upon it himself”. Of course I'm saying yes, you daft cow! Now get your arse in gear and get gone.'

The river was wide, shallow, fast flowing over a rocky bed and flashing in the sun. Tillingast looked across it and saw that the other side was clothed not by the giant oaks, elms and sycamores of her band, but with aspens, ashes and birch, and blanketed with bracken, brambles and other secondary growth. She could see why she had been told that from here they would go afoot; it would clearly be impossible to force horses through such a tangle. Halfway across the Drasta a low grassy island broke the surface, an island that must have been a mile long. It seemed to the Verderer that it would be the ideal camping ground.

'Come on boys,' she signalled her Foresters and they splashed forward into the river. 'Keep your eyes peeled for bushwhackers, they're out there somewhere.'

Nothing happened and they scrambled up onto the island.

'Dismount!' Tillingast's voice rang out and her men swung from the saddle.

She looked around, the grass was dotted with piles of horse dropping and old camp fires. She stooped and examined the signs of former use. It was clear that this was the camping ground of more than one band of adventurers. Some of the signs seemed to her to be of the right age to be that of the company they sought, they must have ridden down the eastern bank from the Elf city and crossed here.

'What we gonna do neow, moy Lady?' asked Cedric her sergeant.

'We set up camp,' she said.

'But 'er Leddyship, 'er in the Blue, she told us...'

'I am the head Verderer, you damn well do what I tell you, peasant!'

An owl hooted from the darkness of the great trees and the river chuckled over the stones, silver under the moon. Tillingast lay in her tent, sweating, turning and tossing as she thought of Colgrim's body under hers that too long ago night. She was tortured by jealousy, which intruding on her fantasy brought visions of Beitris, Lady Jhaelna the Mage or that Drow bitch, Lycia. She sat up cursing in her bedroll, wet and tormented. Why was it that he'd never returned to her bed? Why was it no man ever did? She was attractive, fit, and a match for anyone in combat, she had some money, but it was Colgrim she wanted most; she sank back into her bedroll and her fantasy.

'Hear me, sister,' the voice inside her head was a whisper, 'hear my now, come to me, I await you on the west bank of the river.'

Tillingast opened her eyes and shook her head, frustration was driving her mad.

The voice came again insistently. 'Come, I await you. I can fulfil all your dreams. But you must come of your own will. Come to me.'

She arose shakily from her bed, pulled on her tunic over her head and slipped on her knee-high soft deerskin boots. She silently slid out of her tent into the darkness, evading the heavy-footed Cedric, and waded out into the stream. She climbed the west bank and peered into the gloom ahead.

'Come, sister, just a little further, I await you,' came the voice in her head.

An owl hooted again, but closer.

Merci Tillingast moved into the trees, the brambles and bracken seemed to move away from her, opening a path, a moonlit one, which she followed into the thickets. She really couldn't think why she was doing it. The trees opened into a clearing and a figure awaited her, a figure robed and hooded in glistening darkness; white flesh shone in the moonlight.

'Greetings, sister, I am Mist, and this...' a second figure whose robe seemed grey in the dim light emerged from the trees, 'is Gondullur, The Witch of the Trees; we were waiting for you.'

The women circled her and Merci saw the moonlight reflecting from their perfect white limbs, barely covered busts and faces. Gods above and below, how she envied them, if she looked like them Colgrim would crawl at her feet.

'He and as many others as you want, sister. To be our slaves, and your playthings,' said the one called Mist, responding to her thoughts.

'No-one will give you orders any more, all will bow to your will, and your needs,' hissed the one called Gondullur. 'Your every hunger shall be gratified and you need give so little in return, so very little.'

'What is it you want of me?' asked Merci, her mind a kaleidoscope of libidinous images, her body turning to follow them.

'Whom do you worship?' asked Mist.

'Mielikki, I worship Nature's goddess,' Merci stammered.

'And what she ever given you? Nothing but a cold bet and a sense of duty fulfilled. Truly is it written that virtue is its own reward, the reward of virtue is knowing that you have been virtuous,' Gondullur's musical voice was acid with sarcasm.

'See what our Mistress offers!' The two dropped their robes and their blanched and perfect bodies gleamed in the night of the moon. The hair of the one was white as snow and of the other black as nightfall in the desert. They pivoted and danced and Tillingast's bile rose acid into her mouth in jealousy of their slender beauty.

'What she has given us, she will give you, beauty, power and everlasting life. Yes, immortality; we were here when the Elves came since hundred years gone, and we are still here. Worship her, and she will give you what she has given to us, sister. Give your soul up to her, submit to her, and all you crave will be yours!'

Merci Tillingast struggled against herself, her conscience screaming more and more faintly, and then she said one word.

'Yes.'

Colgrim surveyed the camp site. The rest of the island was bad, but this was worse. The place was a shambles, and that in the literal sense. The men had been torn apart, the horses likewise and the tents shredded. Blood was everywhere. It looked to the Sheriff Officer as if a maddened troll had gone through the place, or possibly a giant, but he knew that wasn't the case, it couldn't be because the signs were all wrong. No, this had been done by a human or at least something the size of a human. He considered the possibility of a werewolf being responsible, but it seemed to him that there was something against that idea.

'You are quite right, Sergeant, these men put up no resistance, they simply stood there and let themselves be torn apart,' said Selva of Cormyr, sounding vaguely depressed.

'But who would do something like this?' asked the scholar Knight.

'Someone in a berserk rage,' stated Colgrim.

'If you are strong enough and you want to, you don't need to be berserk,' said Eoraidh gently. 'Any Druid could do it, for example; most wouldn't, but they could.'

Colgrim stared at the short gentle Elf Lady and gulped.

'I'm a Druid, Colgrim, I'm a lot stronger than I look at the moment. We all are if we learn enough. I don't think most of Sian's guards are strong enough in Wisdom, but Selva is, and the White Ones most certainly are, and they would enjoy this, because they are what you would call “evil”. Let me show you.'

She stooped and drew one of the dead men's sword from its scabbard. She raised it with one hand on the hilt and the other by the point, and almost negligently snapped it like a twig.

'See,' she chuckled.

Colgrim stared, the pretty Elf was not even five feet three inches tall and yet she could break a broadsword. He wasn't sure but he thought he might be scared.

'Colgrim,' she said, 'I don't have to look like this. Don't mistake me, this is my real appearance, but I could have a thousand others. That's also true of most Druids of rank and that might include the White Ones, but I am not sure.'

'If they could shift, would they keep the appearance they have?' asked Selva acidly.

'That's why I expressed doubts,' said Eoraidh.

'So you think the White Ones did this?' asked Colgrim.

'I doubt it, if one of them had appeared these chaps would have tried to defend themselves. They didn't. I don't quite understand that,' Eoraidh observed.

'Well whatever happened I'm going to order t'boys to bury them and set up camp. A very well defended camp,' stated Colgrim.

'Colgrim, my love, wake up.'

Colgrim swam up out of sleep to feel a warm body pressed heavily on top of his, and hot breath on his neck. He opened his eyes and stared into a half familiar face, the woman looked like Merci Tillingast's much better-looking twin sister, except for an odd green tinge in her blue eyes. He was about to say something, but the minute that he opened his mouth, hers clamped over his and her right hand under the bedclothes started to do things that were distracting, to say the least.

A sarcastic, strangely accented voice split the air like a whip. 'Clumsy, very, very clumsy! I do hate lack of subtlety.'

The strange naked woman sprang off of Colgrim, hissing like an angry cat, but before she could do anything else, Lycia kicked her feet out from under her and placed her staff against the base of the woman's throat.

'Please try to stand up, you butchering slut! I'd quite enjoy killing you, and if you do anything, I will; I swear it by Shar. ' Lycia sounded amused.

The tent flap swung open to admit the Archwitch and the Assassin-Druid. Colgrim grabbed his blanket and huddled it around him to avoid further embarrassment.

'Colgrim, are you alright?' Felice sounded genuinely worried.

'I am, but I've got no idea what the bloody 'ell's happening!' the Sheriff Officer blurted out.

'Someone actually thought that they could teleport, that, into the camp and we wouldn't know. Insulting, but they shall pay for it,' said Felice.

The woman on the floor made incoherent noises, it sounded as if Lycia was cutting off her breathing with the staff.

'Who is she?' asked Colgrim.

'That is a very difficult question, my dear,' said the Blue Witch. 'Who she was, that I can tell you. Who she is I have no idea or what as a matter of fact. Oh, I shall find out, but I do not know yet.'

'Gi' me an answer, in t'name of Torm!'

'I'll give you one. She was your friend the Verderer, Mistress Merci Tillingast,' said Lycia.

'What!'

'You heard me, my friend, and I ask you to remember that I told you, not the Blue One. I hurt the traitor, not she. But I also am your friend. May I send her to join eternal darkness, Abbil?' Lycia asked the Archwitch.

'Not yet, Reverent Sister. We need to interrogate this creature,' responded Felice.

She gestured and uttered a short sentence, and a set of brilliantly glowing blue manacles and shackles appeared on the woman on the ground. The woman screamed; obviously these chains, forged as it seemed of nothing but light, hurt greatly. Lycia raised her staff, made a similar gesture, spat a sentence and the blue light became entwined with a living darkness. The woman fell silent.

The Assassin-Druid leaned out of the tent and shouted something. Two Dwarves entered and dragged out the prisoner. The women followed her out. Colgrim, still shocked, pulled on his clothes.

The chains of light and darkness held the prisoner to the pole of the Archwitch's tent; on the big table rested some strange, impractical looking black armour, covered in spikes like steel thorns, a very nasty looking recurved bow, a quiver of green fletched arrows and a war flail with two heads, all of which had been found outside the lawman's tent. An hour had passed since the capture and Colgrim had, to some extent, managed to pull himself together. Colgrim and Sir Uilleam examined the armour and equipment.

'This stuff is more like a stage costume than anything else,' said the Sheriff Officer. 'I've seen actresses wear gear like this, it's no defence at all, but it displays the woman's body for the groundhogs to drool at, and gives the impression of armour to the ignorant.'

'The bow is real though, it's a Dryad bow, I'd guess. It's very much like those the Neriads use, so are the arrows. I know Neriad weapons, a friend of mine has a Neriad... uh... companion. The arrows are poisoned of course, oh and the flail too, don't touch the spikes.'

'Is it a Dryad weapon?' asked Colgrim.

'No, human, originally, but it's hellish old, look at the pitting.'

'Finished looking at her gear gentlemen?' asked Felice with a tone of faint exasperation. 'Could we possibly begin questioning her now?'

'Apologies, Worshipful Lady!' both answered promptly.

'Lycia, please give this... thing her voice back,' she said.

The Drow gestured and a torrent of words spilled from the prisoner's mouth.

'Colgrim, darling, help me! These people aren't your friends, I am. You can't let them kill me! I love you, I want you, I'm yours, you're mine, please...'

Lycia gestured and she fell silent again.

'Ha, I don't think she's going to say anything useful. Mind you...' she gestured at the woman's naked body, 'it would be an awful waste of a nice piece of meat just to kill her out of hand; since she's so keen on it, maybe we should give her to the soldiers. That spell for weight loss and muscle toning must be worth an awful lot of Lions.'

'Lycia,' laughed Eoraidh, 'you are incorrigible. Any Druid knows how to do that!'

'No you don't. This one is an arcane spell, like Transformation or Shape Change, but it's none of those that I know, it's a simpler spell than they are, and I want it as a present for a very important person. Very important to me, that is,' Lycia smiled, her white teeth gleaming in her dark face.

'Do you wish to do it Sister, or shall I?' asked the Assassin of Eoraidh.

'You do it, Selva, I've no wish to send my mind swimming in a cesspit.'

Selva of Cormyr prowled forward and stood in front of the prisoner, who struggled. Colgrim watched her eyes expand as in terror and then she went limp.

'All right, you can let her talk Reverent Sister, she'll only answer questions now. Faugh! But her mind is even as the Reverent Debtera says, a cesspit!'

'Power of the Serpent,' the scholar Knight muttered to himself, 'not magic, Druidic ability, like mind flayers.'

The Drow gestured again and said, 'What is your name?'

'Anatsdottur,' came the reply.

'Who is your god?'

'Anat Bloodqueen.'

'Felice,' said Lycia, 'cast the spell Detect Evil.'

The Archwitch nodded and muttered, and the prisoner glowed scarlet like a signal fire.

'Who did Merci worship?' Felice asked Colgrim.

'Mielikki,' he replied.

'And there we have some answers,' observed Eoraidh.

'Who killed the men here?'

'I did. They were enemy, other.'

'For what do you live?'

'I don't understand.'

'What is your purpose?'

'To obey my Queen and slay her enemies.'

'What do you want with this man?' Lycia pointed to Colgrim.

'To couple with him, he is my mate.'

'What is your pleasure?'

'To destroy the Queen's enemies and to mate.'

The interrogation lasted over an hour, but Colgrim, sickened, left after only ten minutes. He was relieved when Lycia caught up with him by the river, and uttered a brief sentence, 'She is dead, I sent her to the darkness eternal.'

They craned over the map table in the Archwitch's tent.

'Six leagues from here the dead magic zone begins,' stated Felice, 'so any magical action must occur before that; but more to the point, from there on we will find no Dryads. The ruins are a league further on; we must be prepared for attacks before we reach the zone.'

'They don't seem very well prepared,' said Colgrim.

'I believe they have been rendered complacent by having only small groups opposed to them. In the past six centuries this area has only been breeched by parties of up to two dozen. Even after our losses, we still have five times that number, and a very large proportion of more than competent magic users. Most adventuring parties have magic users who are little more than students, no match for them, whereas we have a sufficiency of serious practitioners, lay, clerical and druid, and a number of magic resistant personnel. In addition, we have much better and heavier equipment than most parties could ever hope to have.'

'Sir Galen and his men were pretty well-equipped and trained,' said Uilleam.

'True, but there were only sixteen of them, and they didn't have any Druids with them,' Felice replied.

'What a terrible oversight,' said Selva.

'Well, yes, but Sir Galen is funny about Druids, doesn't even trust her Grace. Some Knights are like that,' stated Uilleam embarrassed.

'Obviously he found some Druids who lived up to his expectations,' Lycia seemed to find this amusing.

'We didn't find his armour and sword in the mess in that gully,' stated Colgrim. 'Could he have got the same treatment as Tillingast?'

'A definite possibility,' Eoraidh said.

'Here,' stated Tormod, tapping the map with a calloused finger. 'This wee glen juist here, that's whur they fuckin' bastards 'ull ambuish. Goat tae be. If youse can fault mah loagic ut's fine. But ken, I doan't thunk ye can, bah re wey.'

'I agree,' stated Colgrim.

'I also,' Selva chimed in.

'Happen they're already in place, it would be difficult to avoid being in a losing position,' said Colgrim.

'Not if we get them in a pincer move,' said Selva.

'We'd have to move faster than even Foresters can through all that underbrush,' Colgrim again.

'If you can get your boys, the Knights and the Dwarves there, the Great Druidic Guard will already be waiting for you. If you think Foresters move fast, you've no idea how fast we can move, without horses,' Selva laughed. 'And I'm willing to wager the White Bitches don't either.' She looked at Eoraidh, 'Tiger?'

'Yes, Direwolf?'

'Absolutely.'

'Why didn't the Dryads try to lure us that first time?' Colgrim asked the Archwitch as the part forced their way through the underbrush. 'I forgot to ask.'

'The Druids,' she replied; 'they're immune. Likewise they can travel through all this shit,' she hacked at the brambles with her sword, 'as if it wasn't there. Unlike us, unfortunately,' and she chuckled. A nice sound, Colgrim thought. 'This reminds me of a time twenty years back, in the woods up North. We, my troop and I, had been after a bunch of Chill bandits, hobgoblins mostly, but some renegade humans and kobolds amongst them. Anyway we were chasing them for a tenday or more, and I was beginning to develop armour chafe, my leather was mildewed, and I though I was getting footrot.'

'You wore armour?' Colgrim was surprised.

'Back then, yes,' Felice chuckled again. Plate mail mostly, mithral. I wasn't using any magic in those days, didn't think I ever would again. Anyhow, those Chill bastards ran into a seriously overgrown area of the Larswood, and we had to go in after the sods. It was pretty much like this, only marshy as well. Got the buggers in the end though!'

She smiled at Colgrim and her face just lit up, suddenly she looked beautiful. Even the lines etched into her face by age and worry didn't change that.

'Twenty years ago I was a shiny new trooper in the Royal Horse, fighting the Bhaalspawn, like that bastard Yaga Shura. Well, that, and the occasional bunch of rebels, they were plenty around in those days,' said Colgrim.

'The Bhaalspawn set up the Chill as well, a bastard called Sarevok was responsible for them. Got himself killed by another one of them, only he was on the right side. We had to make our own law then, too much confusion and corruption.' Felice sounded just like one of his old army pals, only they weren't anything like as attractive.

'Why did you give up magic?'

'I had a sister, Dolores, and a master, Bergthor; I was a student. We were travelling to Candlekeep, Master Bergthor wanted to consult some books. Anyway, a group of bandits, a big one, attacked us on the Coast Way, and suddenly they were both dead. I still don't know how it happened. I went crackers, totally berserk, grabbed a sword and charged the whore sons. I'd have been killed, but some mercenaries turned up and the long and short of it was we took thirty scalps to the Sheriff. I spent the next six months learning how to use weapons, bolstered myself up with every spell and potion I could find so as to learn quickly, practiced ten hours a day all week, and then got together my own troop and went hunting.' She smiled again, but this time ruefully.

'You are one tough Lady!' Colgrim said admiringly.

'Listen, my friend Colgrim, I'm a lot of things, but a Lady isn't one of them. How do you think I paid men to give me arms instruction?'

Colgrim looked at her dead level. 'The only way you could. That doesn't make you any less a Lady, and I admire you for it, so there! Oh, and by the way, if I ever hear anyone say otherwise, I'll run 'em through and know I'm in the right. How did you come to take up magic again?'

'Firehair, she talked me into it when she found out I was a Witch.'

'Why are you called a Witch and not a Mage? I'd been meaning to ask.'

'Because I can use Clerical spells as well as Arcane, even though I'm not a Cleric.'

'How come?'

'Bergthor was a Cleric of Oghma as well as a Mage, and because I was only a student, I never learned I couldn't use both kinds of magic. It's mainly a matter of mental conditioning, you see. Avenger Druids can do the same thing I can, Firehair for instance.'

'I see.'

'So can some Sorcerers. But if you are a Mage or a Cleric, they call you a Witch. Sorcerers don't have that problem. Some Bards and Sages can do it, I suppose, I don't know.'

She shook her head and shrugged, and they moved on, hacking their way through the undergrowth.

They moved into the glen in schiltrom formation; bowmen and crossbowmen on the outside, magic users in the middle, infantrymen in between. Arrows coursed down upon them to be blasted from the air, then screaming Dryads leapt from the undergrowth with short swords and knives, and as they ran forward were mown down in waves by blast and lightning bolts, fireball and a number of other, nasty life-snuffing spells. Then lightning crashed down on the Feys, follower by a torrent of crazed wildlife. Colgrim saw a gigantic black tiger rip a dozen Dryads to bleeding chunks in spite of their tree bark armour. It was a massacre, obviously the White Sisters were not there to help their allies, but equally obviously, the Druids were there for the column from Cloyne Bridge. The few injured Dryads who tried to flee were cut down by arrow and bolt. It was a short, brutal and thoroughly nasty engagement, that almost made the Sheriff Officer feel guilty, and did make him feel sick. Of course, it would have been a different story, if they hadn't been expecting it. He looked into Lycia's eyes as she stood next to him.

'These people are idiots! If they didn't try to engage us in battle, but just sniped at us from the trees, they'd have whittled us to nothing by now.'

'I agree, that's how the nomads work, and the Elves usually; hold on.' She threw something into a knot of fleeing Dryads that exploded deafeningly; for a second it rained blood and bits of Fey. Then she spoke again. 'But you see we know about warfare, we've lived through wars, fought in them, expect to do so again. These people don't, and haven't, and are taking the advice of people whose minds are ossified in the tactics of a lost war six centuries gone. Didn't work then, won't work now, but that I suspect is not the point.'

'What do you mean?' asked Colgrim.

'It's just a suspicion on my part, but we think in terms of warfare, and I have a feeling that the thing we are up against doesn't. I think it is seeking bloodshed, pure and simple, and which side spills the blood is irrelevant. If that is the case, we may be feeding the Blood Queen even as we win and making our eventual task that much harder.'

The fight over, Colgrim was standing on a rock, looking at a pile of Dryad corpses, when he suddenly became aware that he was being watched. Looking up, he found himself staring into the yellow eyes of an enormous black furred tiger, perhaps the same he had seen during the fighting. He was rooted to the spot, and more scared than he could remember being. He began very slowly to back away and draw his sword, not that it seemed the best weapon to employ against such a beast, but because it was the only one he had with him. Then suddenly the great beast seemed to blur, and fall in upon itself; for a second there was a column of brilliant glittering dots of rainbow coloured light, and then Eoraidh the Druid was standing in front of him.

She laughed. 'I'm sorry Colgrim, I really didn't mean to frighten you, but you should see the look on your face!'

'But, what? I don't understand. Where's the tiger!' he stammered.

'Here, I'm the tiger, twit. Remember, I told you they call me Tigre! It's my other favourite form. Most Druids are shapeshifters, the more senior you get the more forms you have.'

Much calmer now, Colgrim was beginning to realise that all he'd ever heard about Druids was true.

'How long can you stay... like that?' he asked.

'As long as I wish, we're not like Mages or Sorcerers, our minds are much more stable than theirs, we remain ourselves. If a Mage stayed in animal form for too long, he'd lose his one identity and too long would only be a couple of days; we would have to stay changed for half a lifetime for that to happen, and then it would be voluntary. Actually it makes us feel energetic, it makes them feel like shit. Clerics of Mielikki can do it too, I think.'

'And I thought you needed protecting!' he sounded exasperated.

'Think a tiger can't get hurt? I can't shift were, though some can. I'm grateful for your help, sweetheart, don't go thinking otherwise. I might be a lot older than you and have some powers that you don't, but you have a great deal of experience I lack. I've spent most of my life in study and contemplation, you've been out there doing things, moving amongst people. I esteem your opinion, we all do, and respect your authority; this is your kingdom, not ours. You know its laws and manners, we don't.'

'Thank you, Eoraidh.'

'Don't mention it.'

The Druids going ahead to open a path, the column moved forward through the scrub until nightfall. Then they pitched camp within the usual carefully woven defences.

Colgrim sat in his tent looking at a map of the ruins, or rather at a map of the wall enclave as it had been six hundred years ago, before the Elves reduced it to ruins. It seemed to have been an odd place, a cross between a castle and a small town. He wondered if Candlekeep was anything like it and decided to ask Felice who had been there. He wondered how much was still intact or standing to a height of over ten feet. He needed to know.

He hailed a sentry, one of his own men. 'Cerbrand!'

'Sergeant.'

'Go and present my compliments to the Lady Felice, and ask her if she will do me the compliment to attend me here.'

'Sergeant!'

Coming out of his brace the sentry trotted off into the firelit darkness. A few minutes later the Archwitch, who looked slightly rumpled, entered.

'What can I do for you, Colgrim?'

'I asked for you, because you are part human, like me. The others are pure Elves – oh, I trust them, but well their allegiance might prevent a wholly accurate reply.'

'My allegiance to her Grace might too, if that's so Colgrim. I am, I always will be loyal to her, just like Eoraidh or Lycia for the matter of that. And don't be too sure I'm half human.'

'I don't express myself well. I'm sorry, lass. Forget all that bullshit. Awright, 'ere's what I want to know,' he tapped the map. 'How much of this is still standing? As far as you know.'

'Well, the reports we have are a bit conflicting. This much we do know,' she pointed at the North-western side of the map. 'This keep here, is gone, the Elves blasted it to slag; parts of the outer perimeter wall are still standing. This building,' she indicated a large building at the Southern end of the map, 'the Western Residencia, is standing to a height of twenty feet or more; this central square, and all of its buildings, are almost intact; the entrance to the catacombs is here, in the Temple of Oghma, right in the middle. It's behind the altar. Other buildings are standing in part or in whole, but I couldn't tell you which ones. Oh, yes –' she tapped the North-eastern quarter of the map, 'the old water gardens here, have turned into a pretty thorough swamp. That is according to one witness, a Cleric who passed through that area about ninety years ago. ' Felice sounded like the professor she was.

'Is it anything like Candlekeep?' Colgrim asked.

'Not much, it's older for one thing, and the layout is very different. See, this cross-shaped arrangement of streets and rectangular outer wall with four gates is very regular. Candlekeep is anything but, and only has one gate. Why do you ask?'

'I just wondered, is all,' said Colgrim. 'Is it at all like your Scholia, Ulcaster?'

'No, not really. I wish we had gardens such as this place had, and libraries as large, I'd love that.'

'You love your College, don't you?'

'Oh yes, that I do. I'd prefer to be there, but sometimes if you want knowledge you have to go out and grab it. So here I am.'

An hour after dawn the column entered the dead magic zone; it felt strange, like wading through a dream. It was too quiet and somehow everything seemed faintly unreal. Within minutes Colgrim developed a nasty slight headache and a metallic taste in the back of his mouth that didn't fully go away for hours; it was a lot like a hangover, but he couldn't remember a hangover that persistent. Uphill and down dale they plodded on, crushing their way through the undergrowth, wishing they still had the horses under guard back on the island. Ahead of them rising above the scrub they could see the ruins, bleached, forgotten and silent. Trees, strange-twisted looking trees, rose behind the walls on the Eastern side. Curiously the gates in the broken walls were still in place. A dome rose somewhere towards the centre of the place, presumably that of the temple of Oghma.

'Can you see any defenders?' Colgrim asked Selva, knowing how keen the Assassin-Druid's eyesight was.

'No, but I can see something.'

'What?'

'The insignia of Oghma over the gates has been chiselled off. And those gates are new, not old. Furthermore someone has been shoring up those damn walls.'

'So, they have enough of a labour force to do that. Which means a defensive force of some scale, and we have no magic.'

The Dwarf, Tormod, clumped up alongside them, smiling in the middle of his grey beard.

'Ah wuz lisenin', like. Noo, as ut happens, ah sorta wundered uf thus might nocht be the case. So Ah bocht aloang a few wee guidies o' mah ain like. Ah used tae be un a companie commanded bah a chap callit “the Weasel”, now he had a motto, “Let's introdooce these peepul tae the wunders o' alchemie”. He had a point, but. Let us do juist that!' He produced a small, tightly stoppered phial from his backpack. 'Twa o' these 'ull taik they gates doon, nae probs. An ah've twelve, bah re wey! An' uan or twa ithers o' hus makin' that doan't dae peepul a loat o' guid, kinda like Cloudkill, ken.'

Selva looked at the phials worriedly. 'I was at Nashkel, remember; if that what you used there, isn't it just a bit unstable!'

'No uf ye keep it cool an' doan't bang it aboot like. Ah packed ut in sheepskin, wet sheepskin, which same Ah keep wet.

Felice patted his muscular scale-mailed shoulder.

'And that, Tormod, is exactly why I chose you and your boys for this job. I knew this was going to be your kind of fight. I only wish I could have got your old Captain and his wife too.'

'So dae Ah, mam, but he's probably busy yon gang, him and his missus!'

Colgrim watched Tormod and half a dozen of his Dwarves heading for the gate and the soldier in him was acutely jealous of their discipline. One would go forward at a run, covered by another, dig in and wait, crossbow at the ready, then another would go forward, covered by him, and so on. Eventually they reached a position about ten yards from the gate. Tormod signalled and his men formed a half-moon in the scrub. Then Tormod himself carrying the bag of explosives went forward in a fast zig-zagging sprint to the gate itself. Concealed from any defender under the arch, Colgrim saw him take something out of one of his belt pouches and do something to the gate, then move across the other gate and repeat the action. Tormod took something or other from the bag and fossicked about at each place for a couple of minutes, and then the Dwarves sprinted back to the scrub, and he and his men repeated the approach pattern in reverse. When they were way half-way back came an interruption. With a thunderous crash the gates and the walls around them for several yards disintegrated, splinters of wood and pebble-sized bits of stone came raining down like hail. Colgrim saw the Dwarven Lieutenant go bowling through the air like an armoured football and land in a bush.

The rest of the force moved forward at a run, at some point Colgrim found the dusty and bruised Dwarven Lieutenant alongside him.

'Moradun's hairy arse! Hey, beg man, how's aboot that then! Used the wrang fuckin' fuses, but; too quick, stull we goat the joab dun tho'. Glad Ah oanly took the twa chirges elsewise Ah'd be deid! Hey Torkil, geeze the resta they boambs like,' and he grabbed the pack from a Dwarf Sergeant in an alarmingly casual manner.

A cloud of dust hung over the gap where the gates used to be, but there was still not a sign of defenders. There was smoke from a burning clump of bushes and a ruined building, but of defenders, no sign. Colgrim watched the Dwarves repeating their manoeuvre, dodging from archway to archway of the ruins that lined the street, heading for the central square. Ahead of them Colgrim could see the gates to the square and the ancient temple, but where, he asked himself, were the defenders, they had to be around somewhere. The Sheriff Officer scanning every ruin entered the square itself, moving round to the left and looking at the temple. Age hung heavy on it, but it was all in one piece, even the windows were intact, not a tile missing from the roof. No, that wasn't true, he realised. It wasn't quite intact; the sigil of Oghma had been chiselled from the keystone of each window arch, and was also missing from the dome.

The company fanned out around the square, bows and crossbows covering windows, doorways, and rooftops. Colgrim moved round to face the portico of the temple, along with the other leaders. The recesses, which should have held statues of Oghma, held instead bronzes of a nude female figure, brandishing a crook bladed sword and standing on one foot in a dancing posture. That one could easily deal with; but nailed to the doors were the skins of two people, blackened by age, and the doors themselves looked to have been soaked in old blood, which had spattered onto the stone of the door jambs and threshold.

'Well now we know what to expect,' said Felice.

'Richt, uf we lose oor hides'll get nailed tae yon doors,' said Tormod. 'Wheell, we faced wurse than that. Ah'd a fuckin' sight sooner get flayed than turnt intae whit yon Chaos Beastie had en mind, ken.'

Sir Uilleam examined one of the statues. 'Interesting style, looks vaguely Kozakuran, not Faerunian anyway. Not very old, look at the patination, not more than ten years, I'd say.' He pointed to some lettering on the base. 'Don't know the alphabet, but there are only two symbols here, so I suppose they don't write vowels in the language it's used for. Funny thing, it looks incomplete, somehow, as if she should be standing on something; look at the way the toes on her foot are curled. Haven't seen a sword like that either, looks nasty. Wide straight blade, then a hook. Slashing weapon, evil!'

'Tormod,' said Felice, 'would you mind checking that door for traps? You too, Selva, you're the specialists, can't be a magical trap, but physical or mechanical, yes; and if the two of you can't locate it, it isn't there.'

'Yo!' the two responded simultaneously and moved forward.

They examined the doors and their surroundings minutely.

'There's either a bell or a crossbow, or both wired to the lock,' stated the Assassin-Druid. 'What do you say, Dwarf?'

'Same, same, tree-hugger!' the Dwarf Officer chuckled. 'Wuth the emphasis oan a crossbow, the muckle big kind, bah re wey.'

'A ballista,' said the Scholar Knight.

'Wheell, ef there's nae fuckin' door there, then there's nae fuckin' trap, right? Can Ah blaw ut tae buggery, boss?' Tormod looked at Felice, his brilliant light blue eyes twinkling in his lined and leathery face.

'Well I hope Oghma will forgive me. Yes, Tormod, but use just a little less of the oil this time, please,' the Blue Witch said, and she laughed as she said it.

The Dwarf moved forward, put his pack down, rummaged in it and produced a ball of clay, which he started to roll into a sausage between his calloused but deft hands. He then formed it into a circle around the locks on the door and drew a groove into it with his forefinger, a deep groove rimmed by ridges. He carefully took out one of the phials of the blasting oil and poured some of it into the groove, then stoppered the phial and placed it carefully back in the pack. He then extracted a tube that looked to be made of silver, bent it, and shoved it into the clay, picked up his pack, and walked back to the group.

'Dae yerselves a big favour an' tak cover coz in twa meenuts that door is gonnae sorto vanish. Oh, an' cover yer ears!'

They took cover, and two minutes later the door exploded into splinters with a deafening roar. When the smoke cleared, Colgrim could see that the statues had been blown out of the niches. One had broken in half, and the door lintel was cracked through and sagging.

'Impressive stuff that, what's it made from?' asked Colgrim.

'Buggered uf Ah know,' said Tormod, 'the Weasel made it, no me. But ut, like re rest o' whet he makes, ut wherks! He showed me how tae dae that, Whitterick, a while back; said the fowk that dae ut where he comes frae, are callit petermen. C'mon big man, let's get un there.'

Colgrim, Tormod and Selva strode forward into the nave of the temple, stopping briefly to look at the shattered ballista which had stood behind the door. Light from the windows poured in strings through the dust kicked up by the explosion. Behind them came the rest of the company save for a dozen Knights and two Druid soldiers detailed as a rearguard. Ahead Colgrim could see the altar, desecrated, splattered with old blood, and the mummified and rotting remnants of sacrificial victims. There was a statue like those on the doorway standing on it. He worshipped Torm, not Oghma, but he could sympathise with the gasps of disgust he heard from the Knights behind him and the mutterings.

Sir Uilleam cursed aloud. 'By the Fires! Tormod my friend, when we leave, I want this place shattered. The Lord Oghma would wish the cleansing, save me some of that oil!'

He strode forward and was about to throw down the statue on the altar when a voice rang out.

'Stand, in the name of Anat, the almighty Queen! I, Galen Anatschosen, say stand!'

A figure had emerged from the floor behind the altar, a figure dressed in the plate armour of a paladin, but with the insignia defaced; in his hand was a magnificent broadsword with a jewel-studded gold crosshilt. He brandished the sword. 'I challenge any here who would defy my Lady and my God!'

Every Knight reached for his or her sword, but Tormod and the Assassin-Druid swung up their arbalests and shot. A stink of ozone filled the air and lightning struck twice, the fallen paladin toppled like a levin-struck tree. Tormod muttered, ' stupid fuckin' knightly bullshit, did he tak uz for arseholes like himself, d'ye think, killer Leddy?'

Selva looked at him with a serious face and twinkling eyes. 'He did, rock-eater, typical human!' She prowled forwards and plucked the sword from the hands of the dead man, unhooked his fancy baldric and scabbard and slid the sword into it, then she tossed it to Colgrim saying, 'here Colgrim, catch, it's a good blade, as good as your army issues at least. It deserves the grace of being carried by a real man, not by some dressed-up popinjay who failed at the first test.'

Colgrim caught, shrugged off his baldric and pulled on the new one. He withdrew the sword and swished it through the air a couple of times, excellent balance. He reseated it into the scabbard, but loosely enough for quick withdraw.

Selva spoke again from behind the altar. 'Staircase down, smells like shite and is dark as Cyric's cloak, but it's a way down anyhow. Tormod, get your boys together, I think we'd better go first, crossbows at the ready.'

'Awricht, Dwarves ready! Advance an' watch out for traps an' nasties. There's gaun tae be plenty o' boath. Advance, fast pace.'

Colgrim gave his orders. 'Axes, not swords, lads. We'll likely not have room for swordplay. Forward, ho! Ladies with me, please.'

Eoraidh said, 'no Colgrim, I take the Guards. Brothers in Wisdom and Nature, swords and staves, but drill for confined spaces. Wildshape at will.'

Sir Uilleam, 'For the love of Oghma, gentles, we move against those who would desecrate his sanctum, powers of Ignorance. Axe, mace of flail. In two files, advance.'

The staircase was narrow, steep and long. The hall at the bottom must have been sixty or seventy feet below the surface and it was dark, though not completely so, for from several archways around the hall weak torchlight filtered. The floor was flagstoned and the ceiling barrel vaulted. The hall itself was perhaps fifty feet wide, twice that long, and lined with arches. At the opposite end Colgrim could just about make out what he presumed was another altar.

Felice said, 'Everyone close your eyes,' and uttered a word.

The vault was flooded with a bright blue light. Colgrim, when he opened his eyes, saw that he was right, it was an altar. In the centre of it stood one of those statues and like the one above it was blood-soaked. Colgrim felt sickened. He turned to the Archwitch. 'So magic does work down here.'

'It had to,' she said, 'couldn't you feel it? I could.'

'Well I know my headache's gone away, but that's about it,' he said, she looked at him and winked.

The Assassin-Druid and the Dwarves were doing something to the floor in the middle of the chamber. 'Trap,' she said looking back, 'damn crude but it'd not do us a lot of good to be filled with poisoned darts.'

Lycia, who was standing in one of the archways, spoke. 'Wards major, nasty ones, low powered really but unpleasant. Seem to be general, four of the doorways have them. I'll take them down now if you like, Blue.'

'Do it, Red,' said Felice.

A muttered word from the Drow and four doorways lit up like the Northern Lights, then went dark again.

In front of the altar there was a shimmering in the air like heat haze, and a figure was standing looking at the party. She wore a blue robe, somewhat like that worn by the Archwitch, and held a staff of silvery-grey wood shod with bronze, her skin was white like marble, her hair the black of midnight. Cat green eyes under level black brows and above high, wide cheekbones surveyed them. Full purplish-red lips twisted into a smile, displaying pearly teeth, and then she spoke. 'I welcome you in the name of my Mistress. I am Gondullur, the Witch of the Trees. My Mistress will give Her mercy to any who will join us in Submission to Her Will. Mercy, power and eternal life. The rest of you will die,' she laughed, a sound like ice on glass.

'I don't think any of us are interested in listening to a pack of lies and we aren't very likely to believe them. We aren't idiots,' said Felice; 'eternal life! What gibberish! Even gods don't have that, the Lord Ao aside, and that is because He is Eternity itself! So, puny one, you esteem yourself to be a Witch, do you?'

The white-faced one hissed and snarled like a cat, 'I've more power than you can imagine, you old hag!'

'Really? Now, that is a lot of power! I'll be fascinated to face that, that is assuming of course you have the courage to face me in Duel Arcane. No Tormod, don't shoot, that would be too easy. I want to educate this silly cow, put it down to my being a teacher. Well Gondullur, “sister”, shall we get to it?'

The Archwitch stepped into the middle of the floor, opposite the White One, and using her staff traced a half circle on the floor behind her. It crackled into sky-blue flame. The White One did the same, but the flames were the green of her eyes. The flames rose and bent over to form a dome, where the two colours met; multi-coloured tongues leapt out to a distance of three or four feet.

The others could hear nothing of what happened within but they could see the two figures as if through a coloured and swaying mist. Their hands moved in intricate gestures, lights flashed and things seemed to form and disappear, tearing at each other. Now and again flame would fill the globe or clouds of evil-looking fumes, and from time to time there was the glare of lightning.

Lycia, who was now standing at Colgrim's shoulder, was muttering, 'The woman doesn't seem to know anything above the most elementary level of Spellcraft, by Shar, she is little more than a senior student!' The blue was steadily spreading into the green section of the dome. 'She must know she can't win. Felice is vastly more powerful than she.' At length the whole dome turned blue and then flickered out of existence. Felice stood over the other who lay on the floor almost naked and adorned with shackles of blue flame. The fragments of her robe scattered the floor and several deep claw marks on her body welled dark blood.

'She is stripped of all power, for ever; I could not find it in my heart to finish her off, it would be like killing a child,' said Felice.

Lycia kicked the woman over and struck her over the heart with her staff. The woman convulsed and blood poured from her mouth. 'To quote a friend of mine, “if it bleeds I can kill it”,' she said.

Frankly, Colgrim was glad she saved him the trouble, these creatures didn't deserve mercy; he was surprised at Felice's reaction, sometimes she seemed too gentle a woman for her own good.

'That corridor,' said Felice pointing, 'follow me, I read her mind.'

The corridor was long and cobwebbed, but the blue light advancing with the party burned away the webs and sent spiders scattering onto the floor to be crushed by armoured boots. They entered another vaulted hall, lined with full bookshelves.

'Oghma! What a treasure!' exclaimed Sir Uilleam.

'A treasure you'll not live to loot, sage,' came a voice.

It had happened again, a white-skinned, white-haired, half naked figure in a black leather robe stood before them. 'You, I take it, are Mist,' said Felice.

'I am, Witch,' snarled the White Druid.

'My turn,' said Eoraidh calmly, a dimple appearing in her smiling cheek, and she stepped forward. 'Mist, you who once were of the Order of the Wise, know me; I am Eoraidh of Muir, Hierophant of the Order, Debtera to Maeve, Great Druid of the Mountains. In the name of the Balance and in the name of Nature I call upon you to return to your allegiance and to aid us, or to face the power of Retribution in my person.'

The White Druid laughed. 'Fool, you know that you cannot harm me, this is not the pit nor the Grove. I am Archdruid and these are not the Rites of Ascension!'

'Are you deaf! I am Hierophant and Debtera, this is the pit now. In the name of the Order and its power, I call upon the powers of Light, of Shadow and of Dark, of the Balance and of Nature, to witness; in this place and now the Rites shall occur.'

For a second the chamber shook and swayed as if there was an earthquake. Dust fell from the ceiling and books from the sagging shelves.

'It is done,' stated Selva. 'Face her, traitor.'

Eoraidh unslung her baldric and dropped it to the floor with a clang. Mist the White dropped her staff and dagger likewise. The two moved forward with the grace of predators, the White One's figure blurred and a huge white cave bear stood in her place. Colgrim feared for Eoraidh, this creature was even bigger than the giant tiger, but he learned that he should not have worried. Eoraidh's figure blurred and the wind of her wings swayed the rest of the party. The charging bear was engulfed in a spray of freezing vapour and then the silver Dragon's claws struck, ripping into her spine; the bear screamed, and a second set of living sabres slashed into her. The bear flickered and the white woman lay on the floor gashed by awful wounds and at an angle that made it plain that her spine was broken. The Dragon blurred and Eoraidh stood over her.

'Eoraidh is Archdruid of these woods. Let all from the shores of the sea to the highest peaks know this, let the wind carry the message. There is a new Archdruid and her name is Eoraidh, the Tiger of Muir,' proclaimed Selva.

The dying woman croaked out, 'beware, Sister, when you face Anat. You are stronger than I, but she may still overcome your will as she did mine. I die free, thanks to you. Stay free, ride on the wings of the wind, walk beneath the trees, upon the hills and the shore with my blessings, Eoraidh of Muir; be more worthy than I, who was Bethraigh in a time forgotten and a Grove desecrated.'

The Elven Druid closed the dead woman's eyes. 'Return to Earth, Sister, and may you be reborn more worthy. But meantime may you know peace in the Overworld.'

She swayed slightly, as if tired, and tears dewed her cheeks. 'Poor bitch, somewhere in her heart she knew she couldn't win and she wanted me to free her. I'm glad I did, but just now I have a headache and feel ashamed, oh, and a bit sick.'

The Assassin-Druid threw an arm around her shoulders, 'that's how I felt when I took the Rites the first time. Corlassa needed killing, she was of the Shadow, but somehow it didn't seem fair or clean, unlike an assassination or a duel.'

'How many times have you done it?' Eoraidh asked.

'Four, it doesn't improve a lot, said Selva.

'Your Great Druid, Sian, how often?'

'Fifteen, sixteen times. I'm not sure.'

'Firehair has fought thirty-seven times. How does she do it?'

'She isn't like us, gods can't be. She is what she is, you are her minister sometimes and so am I. She is there every time, she was with you. It isn't thirty-seven times, or three hundred and seventy times; it's every time. I pity you, Tiger, but my pity for her has no bounds.'

'There are another two of them,' remarked Lycia.

'Don't worry about it. I'll take the next one,' said the Assassin.

Sir Uilleam was looking through the bookshelves. 'Worshipful Lady Felice, I've just found a copy of Tolquhan's “On Magecraft” and one of Rhiannon's “Meditations on Being”, I think it's the fifth.'

'Good, so aside from curing an ill six centuries old we'll be profiting. Very good,' said the Archwitch.

'I hate to interrupt, but someone's coming this way fast, and they don't sound friendly,' said Colgrim, clearing his new sword and standing away from the door. It vomited a horde of shambling undead things that had once been people.

A volley of charged bolts loosed from Dwarven crossbows met them, turning the archway into a slaughter house, and then the Knights and the Druids struck with broadsword and scimitar, Colgrim at their head. They hacked and slashed; rancid black blood splattered over them. Colgrim swung at desiccated faces whose eyeballs made disgusting sucking, scraping sounds as they moved in their sockets. He lopped hands terminating in filthy claw-like nails and he prayed to Torm for victory. The creatures seemed confused. Some were clearly trying to escape, impeding the others with their struggling. Especially they were trying to flee the Knights who sung a mournful hymn as they fought. Whenever a Knight even touched one of the things it simply collapsed into a rotting heap, and if their swords struck the hideous creatures exploded in a welter of decomposition.

The eruption ceased, clearly there were no more of the creatures left.

'What in the name of Torm were they?' the Sergeant asked.

'Revenants, zombies, take your pick for a name,' said Lycia. 'Undead victims of our enemy, raised from the grave by her magic. Anyone hurt? Scratches, cuts and bites are dangerous, those bastards carry disease.'

It seemed that everyone was alright. Most of the Knights led by Sir Uilleam were left to check through the bookshelves for valuable volumes and defend against any repeated attack by the revenants. Climbing over the dismembered undead the party moved onwards down the exit corridor, Colgrim and Tormod in the lead, the Blue Witch's light preceding them.

They emerged into another chamber, this time hexagonal, not rectangular, and with a domed ceiling. Lycia muttered a spell. 'No traps,' she stated.

In the centre of the floor was a dais of six steps topped by an hexagonal pillar covered in carved runes. On top of the short pillar stood a sphere that looked to be made of onyx, white and black tiger-striped onyx. Lycia moved towards it and examined it carefully from a distance.

'Felice, come and look at this. It isn't my field, but if I remember rightly, I think this thing is Rey'Allegn'e's Sphere of Summoning, Abu Tahir mentioned it once as an artefact of Vile Darkness, Ultimate Evil, something of that sort; he talked a lot about Vile Darkness.'

The Blue Witch stepped forward and moving around the object examined it from all angles.

'It isn't my field of study either, but I think you are right. I read about it in a footnote somewhere or other. I wish Lileas or Engerrad were here, they could tell us for certain. But if it is what we think it is, it explains what has happened. If somebody used that damnable thing then it's no wonder we've got something nasty on our hands.'

She detailed a guard of Druids to secure the chamber and they proceeded down the exit corridor.

'Hold it!' said Selva, who was now leading, 'Trap.' This was repeated several times in the corridor, the group pausing while she disarmed the devices. The corridor curved to the left and sloped gently downwards, and eventually they emerged into another chamber, one which had the appearance of a natural cavern perhaps a hundred feet in diameter.

Felice spoke a spell. That's a surprise,' she said, 'no traps.'

They entered the cavern and fanned out. For several minutes nothing happened and then the air opposite to them flickered, and the two remaining White Druids appeared.

'You still seek to intrude, go back before you face the wrath of Anat,' proclaimed Herfjottur.

'Or join us,' added Skogullur.

'I said these people were idiots!' muttered Colgrim sotto voce.

'They're gonnae end up getting' hurt real fuckin' bad, bah re wey!' said Tormod.

'May they receive what they deserve,' observed Lycia, 'nothingness.'

Selva of Cormyr stepped forwards, her robes swirling. 'I am Selva, Archdruid and Debtera to the Great Druid of the Forest. I, hundredkiller and commander of horse, bid you surrender in the name of the Order of the Wise and of Nature's Balance, the which you have too long defied, degraded ones. Your time is done, but you can avoid being reborn as lesser creatures if you surrender now, and it may be that in time you will again resume a place among the Wise. By your acts you presume too much. Beware, lest you bring the power of Retribution upon yourselves.'

'I call upon my rights under the Code of the Wise, I challenge you!' screeched Herfjottur.

'You?' Selva's voice was thick with contempt. 'Do you dare lay claim to the rank to challenge me? If so, I say that you lie, for my sister fought and slew your superior not one hour since. Neither of you have received the raising, you are not exalted ones, you have barely received the initiation. Fight me and you will die, as those of your rank who presumed so much deserve. I beg of you again, do not force me to be the agent of Retribution, but surrender and return to the Way.'

With a scream of rage Herfjottur sprang forward swinging her scimitar at the Assassin-Druid. The screaming blade struck at her enemy's head and shattered into fragments as if it had struck a rock, and a granite rock at that. She staggered and fell to her knees, clasping her broken right hand with her left, a right hand which was not only broken but blackened, cracked and bleeding, as if she had trust it into a blacksmith's forge.

'My Queen, help me!' she screamed.

'Nothing can help you,' the Assassin-Druid stated flatly. 'Now burn.'

And as Colgrim watched, the woman's hair flared away to nothing, smoke poured from every orifice of her body, her flesh blackened, bubbled, and having crisped, burst asunder, and she died.

Lycia looked at Skogullur. 'Be warned. You are my meat, and I have said how it shall be with you. Do you choose that it should come now, or will you prolong your miserable existence for a few more divisions of the candle? Think well, Blanched One, for I shall be the death of you.'

'You cannot challenge me, you are no Druid!' ejaculated Skogullur.

'In the desert there are no Druids, and so as the Grand Druid of all Faerun has proclaimed I stand in the place of one, as did Abu Tahir, my master. I do have the right.'

Skogullur quailed before the stony glare and set features of the Drow Mage-Cleric. If Colgrim had ever seen another's death writ in somebody's eyes, then that person was Lycia, and he didn't blame the White Druid for being scared one bit. She slunk back against the wall and stammered out, 'my Mistress will destroy you all!'

'It meseems,' said Felice, 'that there is more of hope in your speech than of truth. Let your mistress be never so powerful, yet we are many and she is but one. She has, moreover, a damnation poor choice of underlings and no Companions. Such is not usually the case with gods, even Talos is better served than she. So slink away with your tail between your legs, my little bitch-puppy, you are unworthy of my attention.'

The air flickered and the White Druid was gone.

''N naow what?' asked Colgrim.

'Now we wait, my friend,' Felice said, 'as long as we must. Now Anat, Queen of Blood, must come to us herself, and match her would-be-godhood against our humble powers and Retribution's certain decree, before which even the true gods tremble and to which even they are subject; think you, dear man, of what befell Bhaal and his offspring.'

'Dost thee mean that even gods doan't get owt fer nowt?' In his worried state, Colgrim had reverted once more to the broad dialect of his youth. 'Or fer t' matter o' that even bogles an' boh-ghasts. Aye, I ken that well enuff, lass! Oo doan't when wants they've tasted test o' strife. But I'm fair sure we'd best stand to all t' same, cos if t' others were easy, thisun woan't be! Likewise I'd 'av thee remember, lass, that even if t' Lord Ao Almighty 'isself stand at our side, nuthin's certain save death an' the taxmen cum fer brass as flies go for shite. Me uncle Waltheof told me that, an' 'e were a bright owld bugger, 'im! Never found 'is advice wrong as yet, 'tis 'ow 'e lived to be over ondred year owld. Sneaky owld bugger, 'im.'

They waited; two hours, four; nothing happened.

From time to time a Knight would poke his head round the door and report on the looting of the library, or a Dwarf would go off and come back with a similar report. It seemed that all was going well there, with valuable books being found every few minutes. However the strain was enormous, for to expect an attack and not to suffer it is one of the worst things a military force can experience. It plays upon the nerves, for nobody can stand in a defensive posture for more than a certain length of time without flagging. True, the Dwarves still stood to arms, but amongst the humans and even the Elves and Half-Elves tiredness and boredom began to take their toll. A degree of disorganisation commenced to set in.

At length, when everybody had begun to be sure that nothing was going to happen after all, came the thing that they had feared.

This time there was no disturbance in the air; one second the Blue Witch's force faced a blank stone wall and the next she was standing there.

The Blood Queen was eight feet tall and nude, save for some jewellery and a sort of crown or tiara. The light flickered and gleamed on skin that did indeed seem to be made of polished and oiled bronze; her hair, cascading down her back, were slightly wavy and seemed to be made of fine brass wire. The being's figure was faultless and her tawny-eyed face was so achingly beautiful that it made one's breath stop. In her hand was the same kind of sword the statues held, an ugly weapon which looked to be made of black iron. Around her in the air hung a glow.

She looked around the chamber and her eyes then fastened on the Archwitch. She spoke in a voice like the music of temple bells.

'What do you here, servant of the False Gods, you and your lackeys? Why do you intrude upon myself and my servants? We have done nothing to harm you, as we had done nothing to harm the Elves when they destroyed this place. Of course, you are Sidhe, aren't you, little Witch?' she said, narrowing her eyes. 'Always the Sidhe were our enemies, even long ago, back on the Old World, on Ge. So that is why you are here, isn't it? These foolish humans and Dwarves and your malignant offspring, the Elves, whom I hated for their resemblance to you, believed you, didn't they? They didn't know that you were simply trying to settle a grudge old beyond worlds.'

'I have absolutely no idea of what you are talking about,' responded the Archwitch, in the tone of an exasperated teacher talking to a particularly dim-witted student.

'Liar!' spat the Blood Queen. 'Or is it that you are such a fool that you do not hear the message in your blood?'

'If you say my blood tells me that you are an abomination that must be destroyed and that it drew me here to see that done, oh I know that well enough, but of a feud I know nothing. I have never been to Ge and know few who have...'

The Blood Queen cut in, her voice singing like a blade in the still air; 'I escaped your kind once before, when they destroyed Ugaret, I killed many and my mate died. Now you shall die, and feed me. Come, minions!'

A familiar shimmer in the air, and Skogullur and another stood beside their mistress. The new white figure was half-clothed in the fragments of a vivid blue robe; her blanched and beautiful features were those of an Elf, as was her semi-clothed figure. She stood forward.

'I am Hladgunnur, the Archmage. Six centuries ago the Elf Queen sent me to destroy, but I learned to serve, gladly, and now I bring you your death.'

'She should have sent a Bladesinger,' said Lycia, shrugging off the left hand side of her robe, revealing a complex scarlet tattoo that covered her shoulder and spread down onto her breast, then shrugging it back into place. The blanched mage recoiled in obvious fear. 'Yes, I am Bladesinger, and that means not my death but yours, traitor. She probably drained your magic with your colour, like the apes who pretend to be Druids.'

The White One hissed a sentence and tossed a spell as a stream of lightning. It struck a shield spun out of thin air. Lycia threw a return spell; a stream of flame that splattered and dashed against the evil Archmage's white breasts, like water against an iron plate. The White One lofted a stream of acid from her fingertips, that splashing against the stone of the floor left melted pits in the cobbles. Spells slashed backwards and forwards; neither Mage seemed to be harmed, until Lycia raised her staff and uttered a single word, 'Umrzec!' A shaft of darkness sprang from the head of the staff and stabbed into the white-skinned Mage's chest, again and again. She staggered and fell, tried to rise to her knees and fell again.

Even as her eyes began to cloud over in death, she spoke in a cracked and rasping voice. 'I, who was Azuriel, thank you, Respected Sister; you have delivered me from a nightmare six hundred years old. Accept my blessing and slay the One whom I summoned, the One who drained me and the others of life for all these years. Destroy her, I pray you, Bladesinger.' And so saying she died, holding out her hand to the Drow in mute supplication.

For a second everybody was deafened by the scream of rage which ripped from the throat of the Blood Queen; it seemed to Colgrim that they could have heard it back in Cloyne Bridge. Then the air in the chamber erupted into searing flame, humans fell burnt to charcoal; Dwarves staggered, protected by their special Behir scale mail and their tough constitution, but they cursed as the ends of their beards and hair flared. Colgrim felt the terrible heat, but it had no effect upon him and he realised that Felice had cast a spell around Lycia and himself as well as in self-protection. The Druids, immune to fire by nature, and a few Knights protected by spell and armour, drew their weapons and closed on the bronze figure with deadly intent.

A second before they struck, the Dwarves unleashed a volley of crossbow bolts. Bolt and sword hit simultaneously and bounced from the brazen flesh, leaving not even a scratch. The Blood Queen screamed again, and swung the great black cleaver than she carried. It struck with an enormous clang, hurling Knight and Druid backward like dried leaves before the wind. Others slashed and hacked at her again and again, their blades failing to have any effect. She flowed forward, striking at her attackers with the blade in her left hand, and with her right gestured and yelled out a spell. Five Knights began to convulse and then all eight. Half a dozen Druids were smashed to the ground by the sword. More Dwarf bolts struck and exploded into flame, but Anat did not even stagger, though the blast felled two more of the Druid Guards. The remaining Druids blurred into animal form, Tiger, Direwolf, Leopard, Lion, Wolf; Eoraidh and Selva became Earth and Fire Elementals. All sprang forwards, eager to test what natural weaponry could do against her, immune as she seemed to be to artificial.

The struggle shook the cavern, the Druids were hurled in every direction, crashing to the ground stunned. This time it appeared that the Blood Queen had been hurt. She staggered and panted, what looked like bruises had appeared on her bronze flesh, but the Druids, some of whom had reverted to their natural form, were clearly incapable of any further action.

The Dwarves uttered a strange, low, groaning noise and drew their axes and warhammers. 'Awricht, you bluidy bitch, let's see how well you do against real sodgers en a rammie. C'mon bhoys, let's gae raj!' greated Tormod. 'Pogue mahone!

They rushed forward but were met by the White Druid, who blurred into the form of a troll and smashed into them, arms flailing. Axes and hammers thudded against the stone skin, making wounds that healed immediately, or none at all. Curses rent the air. Tormod was sent crashing to the ground, his helmet shattered and blood pouring from his nose and ears.

Lycia spun, raising her staff, 'Umrzec!' The spear of darkness plunged into the troll's back, once, twice, three times, and the creature reverted to Skogullur's form, and fell to the floor in the midst of the fallen Dwarves. 'I warned you, bitch,' snapped Lycia; and then again, 'Umrzec!'

As the darkness lashed at the White Druid the Blood Queen flung out a hand and shouted a stream of syllables in an unknown tongue. A mist of whirling red particles like a carmine waterspout formed between her and the Drow. It spun forward and swallowed the Mage-Cleric up. A single word was screamed out from the vortex, 'Shar!' Then it retreated to Anat, seeming to flow into and over the brazen skin. Lycia lay stretched on the cobbles, her breath shallow. Felice ran forward, raising her right hand, standing between the fallen Drow and the foe and yelling out, 'Sotet pok ver laz verzes halott.' A flash passed between them. The Blood Queen staggered and then shouted the same sentence as before, with the same result. Engulfed by the bloody whirlwind, Felice yelled, 'Colgrim, kill her for me, my love!'

The sentence rang in Colgrim's ears and the tone of it he would never forget.

The Sergeant rushed forward, drawing the paladin's blade, and stood astride the fallen Archwitch. The Blood Queen laughed. 'Imbecile, you would stand against a god? You? I will rent your soul from you and you will spend an eternity of pain licking the soles of my feet.'

'Us'll see abowt that, I'll tak me chances. But you're going to die. Rest sure on that, ye owld witch!'

Pure bravado on his part; if Lycia and Felice couldn't stop her, he had no hope, but he'd die trying.

The great iron blade swung down on him and he hefted the broadsword two-handed to meet it. Colgrim had never heard a noise like that of the two blades as they met, a mixture of a clang and a shriek, like someone hitting a bell with a cat. The black blade shattered like glass, but the Sergeant was bashed to his knees by the impact, and his sword flew from his stinging hands. The Blood Queen's tawny eyes glowed with triumph, her lips curved back in a smile and she licked them as she spoke. 'And now, you are mine!'

In that instant which seemed to last for ever, so that he could hear dust falling through the air, Colgrim heard a voice in his head, the voice of a young woman, rich, deep, calm and wonderful as a mountain lake. 'Colgrim my friend, I, Retribution, stand with you. You are my chosen. In my name and in that of those you love, strike.'

Then another voice, also female and musical, but like a great bell over the marshes. 'Colgrim, I too stand with you. Let your power so long denied be released and come into its own. You, like me, took an oath; you promised to protect the helpless. Keep your word; I look forward to our meeting, young brother.'

The Sheriff Officer blinked, then he pointed at Anat and uttered these words; 'Fallen deity of a fallen people, join with the Eternal Darkness; Begone!'

He felt a terrible wrench deep inside, and for a second he went blind, or thought he did. While the darkness lasted that terrible scream came again, but this time it was a scream of desperation and it seemed to be fading. At the same time, a crashing explosion from the orb chamber shook the cavern.

The light returned and the Blood Queen was gone. He was lying on the floor next to Felice, looking up into Sir Uilleam's worried eyes.

'Thank Oghma, you're alive!' the Knight exclaimed.

'I doan't rightly know oo to thank, but I've felt better and that's a fact. Are the rest alright? Bugger whether I am,' Colgrim croaked.

'We tried to get in, but the doorway was warded. Then the wards just dropped, that bloody orb exploded, and they just dropped. The place is still shaking. What happened?' Sir Uilleam was flustered.

'Just you see to the wounded, man. I'll tell you later, probably,' said Colgrim, rolling over to look into Felice's slowly opening eyes; 'You awright, me lass, you look a bit queer.'

'Thanks to you and your spell, I am, Colgrim darling,' she muttered.

'My spell? I can't cast spells!' he spluttered.

Behind him he heard Lycia's familiar laugh, 'Try telling that to Anat! You mean you really didn't know you were a Sorcerer? I thought you were kidding -- we all knew! What a laugh! I must tell Jhaerex this one, he'll adore it. Come on, Eoraidh, you can't just lie there all day, we've still got work to do.'

'Moradun's hairy arse, mah fuckin' heid hurts somethin' terrible!' Tormod's voice; 'Ah'm bluidy glad I left the bomb bag back en the library, or we'd all hev snuffed ut! Come on bhoys, we've goat charges tae lay. Clangaddin's crotch, mah back! Torkil, help me up! That woman was worse than your fuckin' mother!'

Selva, her face badly bruised, but the bruises fading, swam into Colgrim's vision. She looked deeply into his eyes, her head dipping and turning, and massaged his temples with her thumbs.

'Well brother Colgrim, you don't look too bad, all things considered. Do you want me to heal those splinter cuts?'

'Don't matter, lass; look to the bad hurt, I'll heal up natural like. Thanks all the same.' Slowly and shakily the Sheriff Officer stood and offered his hands to Felice. 'How art thee?'

'I'm fine, brother,' she said.

'I'm going to go daft, happen someone don't tell me why every bugger and his mother has started to call me bloody brother,' said Colgrim.

'Because you're now a functional magic-user, dear!' responded Felice.

Colgrim spluttered, half started to say a dozen things, but Felice placed her forefinger on his lips and looked deep into his eyes. 'Great need changes the rules, and so do great anger and great love. Anyway, Sorcerers and Mages don't have the same rules, and you Colgrim are a Sorcerer; and more than that, being chosen by a god changes everything. And you have been, haven't you?'

'Yes,' he said.

Colgrim looked around the sunlit square, blinking to readjust his eyes. 'Something's different,' he said. 'With your destruction of the orb that summoned Anat, the dead magic zone ceased to exist,' stated Felice. He looked at the Dwarves, busily preparing charges to collapse the temple, moving spryly in spite of having packs loaded with books from the looted library.

'Is it really over?' he asked.

Felice, her arm around his shoulder, as it had been ever since they left the cave, smiled and said, 'Yes, you banished her, you blasted the orb. It is over; but this place is unclean, and it must be forgotten. See, Lycia is working her magic,' she gestured at the Drow Mage-Cleric, who was tracing a intricate figure on the ground with her staff and singing a long and complicated set of verses in the language of the Desert Nomads.

'What is she doing?' queried Colgrim.

'She is calling the Desert,' answered Felice, 'keeping her word to Skogullur. Even now, winds she creates are bringing uncounted millions of tons of sand to bury this place hundreds of feet deep. It will be as if it had never been. The Djinn, the Hakeasha and the Nishurru will come with it; this will be a Desert. The catacombs are flooded with the Weasel's poison gas, Tormod will blow up the entrance and then the sands will bury it.'

'And I'll go back to Cloyne Bridge and you to Ulcaster, and that will be that,' Colgrim was almost crying.

'No it won't!' Felice said determinedly.

'What do you mean?' asked the Sheriff Officer.

'This,' said Felice, and she kissed him, long, thoroughly, deeply and passionately.

Epilogue

The Archwitch Felice took Colgrim Etheridge back to Ulcaster with her after he left the Royal Tethyrian service -- which he did as soon as he could. The story of his training and of his eventual meeting with Maeve Firehair and Lileas, the Master of Magery, and the story of how he became Archsorcerer, is told elsewhere. So too is the story of how he and Felice married.

Lycia went back to her beloved Master Jhaerex in the Underdark, and their adventures are a legend in themselves.

Eoraidh became Grand Druid in the end, and Selva Great Druid of the Forest. Both can be found in other books. Tormod and his sodgers lived to fight another day, introduced many more people to the Wonders of Alchemie and were reunited with the Weasel and his Lady. You can read about them in later novels and in the short story 'The Siegemasters'.

Sir Uilleam was killed a few months later, trying to seize a convoy of books from the evil Zentarim. Sir Uilleam never did find out what happened to a fifth of the books they took from the library. Tormod could have told him, but the Dwarf didn't believe the contents of his Captain's library had anything to do with the Knights.

The Desert of Belcar in the midst of the Forest was still a desert more than seven hundred years later.

See now; a bar room, just like a thousand others from the Sea of Ice to the Southern Deserts. A low ceiling with heavy beams, stained black by two hundred years of wood and tobacco smoke. Battered tables, wheelbacked chairs and settles all of age darkened oak filled the floor. To the left a bar, backed by barrels of ale, beer and wine; pewter tankards hanging in a rack. Over the ancient fireplace opposite hung a stuffed stag's head which had seen better days, and on the walls old stage wagon timetables, a number of rusting swords and axes and several indifferent and flaking paintings. The light of the dying sun spilt golden through the leaded glass of the windows. In one of the recesses dozed the tavern's fat black and white patched cat. Somewhere a clock struck nine on a cracked bell. Smoke hung in the air like river mist on a frosty morning.

As he walked through the low doorway from the market place Colgrim looked around him, it was busier than usual for the time of day. He waved to Jotham, the landlord, a thickset, shaven-headed ex-pit-fighter in a leather apron who was pouring a jack of ale. Jotham nodded to the Sheriff Officer and handed the quart to Simeon, the letter writer, a thin-faced, grey haired man in a faded and stained jupon of cherry coloured broadcloth. Simeon wasn't drunk yet, but Colgrim would lay a gold to a copper he would be before the hour was up. Ah, yes, and there was Beitris, the harlot, in her red and orange silks, a goblet of wine in her hand, draping herself around a tall dark faced stranger in the robes of a mage. Colgrim was willing to bet the stranger's black beard and hair were dyed to hide grey, he looked the vain type; the robe and rings were just too ornate for good quality. A low roar drew the lawman's attention to a group of scale-mailed Dwarves at a table, swallowing ale as if it were going out of fashion, cracking off-colour Elf jokes and playing dice. He wouldn't have any trouble with them unless somebody else started it, Colgrim knew Dwarves. Another table held a group of men in the faded green tunics of Foresters, all locals, all law abiding. Tillingast, the head Verderer, a self important chubby faced blonde, shouted a greeting and he blew her an insincere kiss, a memory of a drunken beltane tumble several years ago.

In the corner by the fire Tobias, the local gleeman, was strumming on his mandolin and singing in a brandy darkened voice, trying to make himself heard over the noise of the customers. The Sheriff Officer listened as he gestured to Gwynneth, one of the tavern wenches, to bring him a beer and sat down at an empty table, hitching up his broadsword.

The gleeman was half-way through his rendition of the Mistaken Suitor and Colgrim was beginning his second tankard when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. He looked round and saw Berdan, the Halfling peddler, usually a cheerful little chap but serious looking at that moment, perhaps even scared.

'Sergeant, Oi 'ates to bother yeou, but there is a Lady as wants a word. She does be in the parlour loike. Jotham told me to tell yeou.'

Intrigued, the Sheriff Officer took his tankard and wended his way to the bar parlour, a cheerful little room, used by visiting gentry and by merchants for private business. He wasn't sure what to expect; usually a noble with problems would go to his commander, the Under-Sheriff, Sir Valerey, if not the Sheriff herself, rather than a humble Sergeant like Colgrim.

He entered the bar parlour ducking through the low door and manoeuvring his sword so as not to bang it off the frame. He straightened and looked at the figure awaiting him. The first thing he saw was her robe, an unusual one he'd never seen the like of, it was the blue of a summer sky, hooded, trimmed with black and girdled with scarlet; almost he would have said it was the robe of an Archmage, but it wasn't. The second thing was her face, under a fringe of light brown hair it was finely boned with the slightly slanted green eyes of a Half-Elf. The full lips were set in an expression of habitual severity. Thirdly her figure, she stood perhaps five and a half feet tall and had the compact build of a warrior, which accorded well with the fact that she was wearing a sword on her left hip, a sword with a plain functional crosshilt, the more expensive version of his own. She spoke, a strange voice, it sounded as though she was not used to speaking.

'Sergeant Colgrim Etheridge, I presume. I am Felice Ui'Sihane. I require your assistance.'

The lawman was surprised, one didn't expect to find a legend here in Cloyne Bridge. The Blue Witch, no less, Rector of a famous school for Mages and Healers, celebrated bandit killer. Well, it explained the odd robe at least.

'Whatever I can do to aid you, Worshipful Lady, that I shall do,' he made her his best bow, 'what seems to be the problem?'

The Blue Witch seemed to meditate for a moment before answering, so that it was clear to Colgrim he was not going to be told any more than she thought he should hear.

'Are you aware that in the Forest some leagues to the North of Cloyne Bridge lie the ruins of the College of Oghma?'

'The ruins are fairly well known, Worshipful lady, but uhm... avoided by the locals. Adventurers go there sometimes, never heard of any making a profit from it. The Elves may frequent the place, I wouldn't know about that nor wouldn't to. It's no further than their city than from us though. Can't say I knew it was a school.'

'Ah... well a Scholia it was, some centuries since and as such it held a library and a scriptorium - no printing presses in those days. Well, some weeks ago a party set out for the ruins from Castle Gabhran. They passed through the Elven Kingdom and they... disappeared. From my inquiries here it would appear they haven't arrived. Therefore I require you as the Sheriff Officer to form a posse comitatus to search the Forest and the ruins.'

'Worshipful Lady, surely magic would be more useful in locating...'

'The Scholia is in an area in which magic does not operate. What is called a dead magic zone, Sergeant. And even were it not, the Forest has so many magic-users and magical creatures in it that divination becomes, shall we say, unreliable. No, a physical search is the only possibility. You have a week to form your posse Sergeant, by then the rest of my own party will be here and you will join us.'

'I don't like the sound of this,' said Merci Tillingast the next morning. 'What were a bunch of Gabhran soldiers doing this side the border? And...'

Colgrim cut in. 'We don't know they were soldiers.'

'We don't know they weren't, at any event! And as I was about to say, why would the Blue Witch be looking for them? She doesn't live in the Duchy of Gabhran. And why didn't she go to the Sheriff? That'd be the normal thing or the Lord High Verderer.'

Dean Whately, the local sorcerer, spoke, turning from the window his bearded face serious, 'the Blue Witch's school is in Travenhurst County and Maeve of Gabhran is also Countess of Travenhurst, so she's tributary to the Duchess. I would suggest she didn't go to the high-ups exactly because of the political dimension. Sergeant Etheridge has to comply, they might be obliged not to.'

'All right' said the Verderer 'I get your point but I don't like the idea of going anywhere near the ruins. And what about those bloody Elves? They ain't gonna want us too close to their bloody borders and they tend to warn you off with arrows.'

'That's why you're coming, you and your Foresters. Haven't you always said that you are the match for any Elf in woodcraft, Merci?' remarked Colgrim.

'Hmf!'

The three bent to the maps on the table, in the Sergeant's office at the town gaol.

The Sergeant was on his way to the Flying Pig for dinner when half across the muddy market square a voice hailed him. 'You!' Imperious, foreign and female 'do you know where I can find Felice the Blue?' He turned, his interrogator was sitting astride a blue roan and she wasn't alone; more than a dozen other riders were behind her, armour ed riders in ankheg shell plate mail and heavy clothes of dark green. Colgrim knew who she was, he didn't need her to remove her helmet; Selva of Cormyr, the Great Druid of the Forest's personal assassin and lieutenant. Things were going from bad to worse.

'I do, Reverent Captain, she is in the inn yonder...' Before he could continue the riders swept past him, almost knocking him down, heading for the inn yard. Etheridge wasn't so fond of the druid's soldiers, of the Great Druidic Guard, that he was pleased to see them.

'Sergeant' said a voice as gentle as the wind in the trees, and he realised that there were two other riders, and what riders, glowing like jewels in the muddy familiar square with its black and white half-timbered buildings and animal tents.

The first, the one who had spoken, was one of the most beautiful girls the Sheriff Officer had ever seen, an Elf, a cloud of dark hair waist-length, almost black, deep violet eyes like pansy flowers, a perfect figure and an Archdruid's robe of gleaming black silk. She sat a grey pony of the Northern breed. She looked shy and vulnerable and he experienced a desire to hold and pet her like a kitten or a puppy, before going one stage further. The second rider was also a woman, and just as beautiful, but one to strike superstitious dread into the lawman. She was Drow, hair white as the snowdrift in the mountains, skin the colour of charcoal, eyes topaz yellow. She sat a tall white pony of the Desert breed and her whine red robes and turban were also in the style of the Kingdoms of the Sands.

The Druidess spoke again 'I apologise for the Lady Selva's behaviour, Sergeant, at most times she is more polite, but she is worried. I am Eoraidh of Muir, Debtera to her Grace, the Duchess Great Druid Maeve of Gabhran and the Mountains.' Her voice was wonderful and Colgrim could not but feel stirrings of lust. 'This', she gestured at the Drow Lady 'is the Lady Lycia of the House of Sharsdottir, Hierarch and Mage, Under-Constable of her Grace's possessions in the Land Below. We apologise for disturbing your peace and that of your King, but our need is urgent. Please conduct us to the inn.'

Colgrim started back for the inn and the Drow Lady spoke 'Tell me, Officer, to which deities have you temples here?' Her accent was strange, a mixture of the aristocratic and that of the desert nomads.

'We've two, Reverent Lady, the one to Mielikki, the other to my own Lord, Torm.'

'Torm, eh' she laughed, 'a good omen, Eoraidh, would you not say?'

'Did Gods concern a Druid, I should.' Remarked the black-clad beauty, then 'Sergeant, our company is not yet complete. In the forenoon will come the last with his company, then we shall meet with you to decide our course. I trust your posse will be ready.'

'They will, Reverent Lady, be assured,' said Colgrim.

'Oh, and Sergeant, forget the honorific. I am not Archdruid, may never be, I'm just Firehair's Debtera, that means, well, assistant, apprentice, sergeant, perhaps. I'm here because she ordered it. Call me Tigre, it's my byname.'

'I see, my Lady – Tigre.'

'Sergeant', the Drow Lady spoke 'I also care not for honorifics, so far as I am concerned you may use my given name or indeed call me “bloody Drow”. Even if I'm offended, which I may be, I won't complain. I learned better ten years back, dealing with a colleague who... well never mind, he didn't understand my people.'

It was not one day, but two, Colgrim was sitting in his office, running over equipment lists for the posse, when Machmud, one of his corporals, poked his head round the door with a clink of chainmail.

'Sarge, gentleman to see you!'

A figure clad in a plain leather robe, the heavy swing of which hinted at an armoured lining, entered stooping under the lintel. The two examined each other. Colgrim saw a tall man whose long hair tied back in a ponytail and drooping moustache were in a style common to the Druids and Half-Elves. But in spite of the robe and scimitar, this man was no Druid, and his height and build, still more his ravaged face said he was human; he had clearly seen at least forty years and maybe more. He knew what the tall stranger could see, a man of his own age, thickening at the waste, slightly over the middle height, regulation haircut and short beard, dark blue broadcloth tunic and jerkin with yellow trim.

'Sergeant,' the visitor held out his hand, 'I am Uilleam MacDonnell, Scholar in the service of the Knights of the Holy Knowledge and Wisdom.'

'Welcome, Sir Knight' Colgrim clasped a sword-calloused hand.

'Just a humble Scholar, Sergeant, call me Uilleam; got any ale bout the place? I'm thirsty, it's a long trek from the Keep and I had to hurry my chaps a long somewhat, they're over at the inn just now.'

They gathered in the temple of Torm, the only building in the town big enough to hold the Officers' council; the inn had provided three trestle tables to hold the maps and they were all gathered around the tables, the Druids in their Ankheg plate, Paladins in mithral plate, Dwarves in scale mail, Foresters and posse members in studded leather and chain mail, the magic users and seniors in their robes of leather and silk.

Selva, the Assassin-Druid, her green eyes bleak, tapped a map with a beringed forefinger.

'We're told they were seen here at the Fords of Drasta by en Elven patrol about two weeks after they set out. After that, nothing. Then again, even the Great Druid isn't sure the Elves can be trusted in this matter, so we should perhaps beware of what they tell us. The area isn't patrolled by her Reverence's forces, regrettably.

'Howd oan a meenut!' exclaimed Tormod, the tough-looking Dwarf who led the Blue Witch's bodyguard. 'Yewr tellin me that we're gonnae hev bluidy tree-huggers snipin ut us aa the wey tae oor destination? Because if thet should be the case, ah'm no gonnae guarantee mah bhoys ull no shoot back. We're Dwarves ken, and Elves are no exactly wur favourite peeple by re wey, present company an' her Grace and the Leddy aside.'

'If we are fired upon, we shall respond', stated the Blue Witch acerbically.

'If they were at the Fords, they will have left their horses there' said Uilleam the Sage, ignoring the side issue. 'From there on, the undergrowth is too thick for horses. We too will proceed afoot. I misdoubt we're in some danger from that point. That is, if the people of the trees are intent upon stopping us.'

'The Lady has forbidden them to.' commented Eoraidh.

'Will their Queen and Council listen to the Lady of the Sidhe?' asked Sir Uilleam.

'For a thousand years and more they have,' said the Druidess 'and for good reason. Why should that change? Why would they risk the wrath of Retribution and the Sidhe?'

'Does that not rather depend upon what the ruins hold? After all, the Elves had some reason for wrecking the place six centuries gone. We don't know why it was done and mayhap the Lady doesn't know any more than do we. They destroyed the college and the scholars and sacrificed sixty spellcasters to make of it a dead magic zone. Their needs must have been great cause.' said the Sage.

'Six centuries is a long time to be angry.' said Sir Jehan, one of the Knights.

'For an Elf six centuries is as nothing, my friend.' stated Eoraidh.

Colgrim could understand very little of this. He felt lost here, he was an ordinary peacekeeper standing around people who discussed matters of which he could know nothing. He decided to ask Tigre or Lycia for an explanation at the first opportunity.

His opportunity came that same evening, when he found the Druid wondering in the fields by the bridge. Seeing her he called out.

'Lady Tigre, may I speak with you?'

'But of course, Colgrim. What can I do for you?'

'I need to understand what this is all about. Can you explain?'

'I can try, but there may be some things I cannot tell you or that I do not know. Ask, and I will answer as best I may.'

'What were the ruins?'

'You already know, they were a college of Oghma, a Scholia for magic-users.'

'Why did the Elves attack the place?'

'Only they could tell you that, it's one of their many secrets. They did, that's all we know, which is why my Mistress sent Sir Galen and his company to investigate the ruins and that is why we are going to seek them.'

'Who is the Lady of the Sidhe, of whom you speak, and where is the Sidhe? I gather she's an Elf Queen like the one in the Forest.'

The Druid laughed heartily.

'You gather wrongly, my friend, on several counts. The Sidhe is not a place, but a people among the Elvenkind. I'm one of them, as is my Reverend Lady, and many others. As for the Lady, she is not a Queen; I don't know the word for her position in the common tongue, if there is one. The Kozakuran word I do know, it is Shogun; in the tongue of the desert tribes, Ghazi Ul Melek, and in Dwarven it is Khanattalik. We call her Toiseach Nan Toiseach Nan Tuath, the Elves call her “The Lady”. Her name is Shanya, and she is my Lady's Grandmother. She is our leader.'

'If she's so important, why doesn't she know the answer to your puzzle?'

'Six centuries ago she was far from here, Otherwhere, and was not consulted in the matter.'

'She's a Druid, isn't she? Like you and your Mistress?'

'No, a Battlemage. Well, a Warmage, to be accurate. In your terms, call her a General. That's what Toiseach means.'

The column wound its way towards the green rampart of the ancient Forest, the town dwindling behind it. Harness jingled and clanked, horses nickered, hooves rang on the stony ground, the Dwarves clumped and swore, the Knights chorused their marching song. The sun broke through the clouds to bathe the miniature army in liquid gold. Colgrim glanced back and reflected on the fact that he might easily never see Cloyne Bridge again and wished that he and his men had better armour and weapons, Elf chain was far better than the variety that he wore, and Elven bows were better than Tillingast's Foresters could boast. Uilleam the Sage rode alongside him.

'You look worried, my friend. Anything in particular?'

'I was just thinking I may never see my home of ten years again.'

'You haven't lived in Cloyne Bridge all your life, then.'

'No, I grew up in Castle Treyne, and then I was in the Royal Army for ten years, went all over the kingdom and into the Desert. When I'd served my time, the Under-Sheriff offered me this post. I wanted to settle down, so I took it. Travel's fine, but it gets wearing.'

'I know just what you mean, Colgrim, I treasure my time on the island at the Commandery. Mind, I've just spent six months at the Motherhouse of the Knights of Retribution, the Keep, and I quite enjoyed that.

'You're a scholar, why the life of soldier?'

'Simple, really. I believe that Knowledge needs to be protected as well as gathered. There are those who burn books, you know, those who'd favour censorship. I grew up in a place and time like that. So I joined the Order, it seemed a simple choice.'

'What was it that the missing expedition were looking for?'

'The answer to a riddle, Sergeant. The Elves know it, but they won't give it to others, not even to other Elves. In the end, someone will find it, it had better be the right people; and that means us, Colgrim.

The shadows of the forest floor were deep and the sounds of the horses' hooves were muffled by centuries of leaf mould. The trees seemed even to swallow up the jingling and clank of harness and armour. Now and again the racket of a rising pheasant would break the stillness or they would reach a clearing, where bathed in golden sunlight they would crash through bracken or secondary growth. The green twilight of the ancient forest was depressing and the silence sinister. And all the time they could feel watching eyes, not just those of squirrels or the other woodland wildlife either. At times a rider would catch a flickering glimpse of Elf mail or hear a bird cry that wasn't. At night, the Dwarves would guard the camp, their eyesight designed for a deeper darkness than the forest could bring.

The Drow magic-user rode up alongside Colgrim.

'Selva tells me we'll reach the Fords of Drasta tomorrow some time. I must say I'll be glad to the sun again!'

'Isn't that an odd sentiment for one of your... people?' questioned Colgrim. 'I thought you found sunlight painful or unpleasant, or well, something.'

'I'm not a normal member of my race, Sergeant. I spent over a decade in the Desert south of here, studying magecraft under Abdel Rahim Abu Tahir and riding with the nomads. That's why my skin is this colour, the sun bleached me. It's also why I dress as I do. But I find all this greenery strange. No trees in the Underdark, and not many in the Desert, leaving out the oases. Truth is, I like sunlight and I know of at least one other Drow who agrees with me. A great male in all senses of the word, and a greater Mage... I wish he was here, I miss him.' Her strange voice sounded both tender and amused.

'Can I ask a question? Rev-, uh, Wor-, uh, Lady Lycia?'

'Of course.'

'Why are you here? I can understand the Druids, and the Blue One, and MacDonnell and his Knights, but why you?'

'Let me ask you a question before I reply, Colgrim. Do you like me? Not lust after me, – that I know you do, human men always want to involve females of my kind in minor sexual atrocities, – but do you actually like me?'

The Sheriff Officer thought a moment before replying. 'Yes Lycia, I do. Damned if I know why, I've been trained to regard Drow as enemies. But yes, I like you.'

'Do you see me as evil?'

'Erh... no, I can't say that I do.'

'Well beware then; if the concept means anything, which I doubt quite strongly, I probably am. Or at least, if I am not, my magic is, clerical and arcane. So who better to deal with evil magic, if it is present in the ruins, and it may very well be, Colgrim my friend.'

'But I thought magic didn't work there!'

'On the surface, my friend, but below ground who can tell? Not I, certainly. Also, before we get there, we will probably encounter opposition and do not, I beg you, imagine that all Darthim are good any more than all Rivill are.'

'Darthim?'

'Surface Elves. And you, my friend Colgrim are a Rivin, a human. Did you know that my ancestors were jungle dwellers?'

'No.'

'They were. I am not.'

The shadows of evening were falling; the column had set up camp and were cooking dinner, when a voice hailed one of the sentries out of the darkness under the treed.

'You are far from home, city-dwellers. What do you in this wood? Beware, lest you profane the Great Earth-Mother by your careless perambulations!'

The Assassin-Druid shouted back. 'By your speech it would seem, stranger, that you pretend to be one of the Wise. And yet I know not your voice. Be aware that I am Selva of Cormyr, Debtera to Sian, Great Druid of the Forest, and that there are among my company others of the Order; even Eoraidh of Muir who is to Maeve, the Great Druid of the Mountains, as I to Sian. Call us not city-dwellers, nor think to preach to us, but come forth from the darkness.'

Colgrim heard her mutter over her shoulder to Tigre 'What think you? A member of the pernicious sect of the Shadow Druids, sister?'

'She may simply be an eremite' said Eoraidh, 'but I mislike what I smell.'

'Even so do I.' stated the Assassin flatly.

A figure came into the firelight and one once seen, not likely to be forgotten. She looked human, and wore a robe of night-black leather trimmed and lined with blood red, the hood thrown back to reveal a head of hair as white as Lycia's and a beautiful face equally blanched, yet she was not an albino, for in the firelight her eyes glowed cat-green. Her robe showed as much as it concealed, and it seemed to the lawman that if she was not naked under it, the difference was a matter for philosophical debate. She spoke.

'I am Herfjottur, second to none, and I am the Druid of this Wood; my sisters, the Dryads and Melias of the Forest and the Naiads of the streams and pools watch you even now. You may be of the Wise, sister Selva, but there are humans here, and even Dwarves, and they have no place in these woods. Yet see, I set aside my staff and my sword, and I come within your circle of flame.'

She suited her actions to her words, 'May the powers of Light, Shadow and Darkness bless your coming and your going.'

Colgrim realised that Lycia, her own beautifully crafted staff in her hand, stood beside him. She hissed in his ear 'Trust a snake before a harlot and a harlot before that bleached bitch, my friend! Watch her carefully.'

'But she's a Druid' said Colgrim, 'surely that means we can trust her.'

'It is as I say, and the Druids and the Witch know it as well as I' stated the Drow. 'I've met with the work of the Melias in my time, in the Spine of the World. And men say we Drow are cruel! We have a reason. White skin can be worse than black, Sergeant, and a Druid than a Cleric of Shar. Tell your people to stay awake and alert this night, Colgrim, if they wish to stay alive. The Night Queen's blessing be with us all.'

Felice and Uilleam came forward to meet the stranger.

'I am Felice of Ulcaster. Called by men the Blue Witch or the Archwitch, and this is Sir Uilleam, a Scholar Knight' said the party's leader. 'Will you join us in our evening meal? It may be that you can help us, Reverent Sister, to find what we seek.'

'I have heard your name on the forest's breeze, Felice the Blue. They say that you have travelled to strange places and in stranger company.'

'Then your breezes speak the truth, and I will warn you that those travels have made me wary beyond the normal.' The mutual dislike of the two women was blatant and the contrast considerable. The white beauty looked around and her eyes fell on Lycia. She chuckled looking embarrassed.

'A Drow here! Who are you, dark one, that you would walk in my wood?'

'I am Lycia, Priestess and Daughter of the Night Queen, if you wish to know. I walk where I will, and have walked in places that you would avoid, I think, for you could bend neither the sands nor the spirits of the Desert to your will. Since none has seen fit, let me introduce Colgrim of Cloyne Bridge, an Officer of your King's court.'

The Sergeant made his best bow, and the newcomer curtsied. He wondered if it was a mistake that her movement proved so revealing. He thought that it was not and for a second his body responded, until he saw the hungry look on her face and the vast blankness behind her eyes. Lycia's warnings were right; Druid or not, this woman was evil. He shivered inwardly.

The meal over, the guest departed, saying that she would return with the dawn and guide them to the Fords of Drasta. Everyone spent an uncomfortable and some a sleepless night. Beyond the firelight and even the darkvision of the Dwarves something was moving around the camp perimeter, and now and then the shadows seem to belly ominously towards those guards who were human Foresters. Indeed, had it not been for the Druid and Clerical wards the officers were quite sure that men would have been lost that night. Towards dawn Colgrim took a walk around the camp.

'Oi smelled wolves in the darkness!' said one Forester.

'No nor yeou didn' noither, 'twere wererats an' Oi knows the smell.' said another.

'An' yeou both be wrong, pair o' mommets!' said a third ' 'twere direbeasts, not normal, nor werebeasts, an' Oi knows that!'

'Pull yourselves together, men!' ordered Colgrim. 'It doesn't matter a toss what the enemies were, they were there and they still are. So stop peeking arguments and stay alert. The enemy is out there, not here in the camp, so keep your eyes peeled lads and the arrows loose in your quivers.'

Dawn was coming up.

Colgrim was checking the outposts when Tigre found him. She looked tired and worried and the compulsion to cuddle her was almost irresistible.

'Keep your men up to scratch Colgrim, we'll ambushed today.'

'Art sure, little one?'

'Oh yes, I'm sure. Keep your sword handy, I wouldn't want to see you hurt. Oh, and wear your hauberk, it won't be much protection but it's better than nothing.'

'This from a girl in a silk robe!' he laughed.

'A silk robe lined with blue dragon scales' the Druid responded, 'and a cloak of protection, don't you go worrying about me; I'm safe enough, so is Lycia Dubh, but we are concerned for you.'

'I'm flattered, but why?'

'Let's just say that you remind us very much of a mutual and much loved friend; perhaps in Lycia's case I should say respected rather than loved. I don't know what form the attack will take, but it will come.'

And come it did, within minutes of the dawn.

Colgrim knew a sound he knew only too well; the hiss of an arrow storm. His shield, hastily grabbed up and raised, was feathered by half a dozen shafts; the posse member next to him fell with the hiss and gurgle of a punctured throat. Others fell too, reddening the ground. The Sergeant heard the Archwitch spit out a stream of words and saw falling arrows burst into flames. The Drow raised her hand in a circular motion and the arrows fell upon a disk of living darkness that seemed to eat them as they came. The Druids moved forward in a body and from them the projectiles simply bounced as if they had struck rock; ahead of them the undergrowth moved like a wave against the almost invisible foe. Their swords rasped free.

Tillingast yelled at her Foresters 'Shoot, you buggers, if they breathe, they can die!'

The Foresters loosed a ragged return volley from their longbows.

The Dwarves, moving like a well-oiled machine, formed two lines and readied their heavy crossbows.

'Aa, richt youse bastards' shouted Tormod 'teach'em aboot sodgerin'! Front rank shoot! A'ts the speerut, bhoys! Rear rank shoot!'

The bolts ripped into the attackers, erupting into great swelling gouts of flame that ignited low-hanging branches. Several of the attackers, green skinned and haired women, screamed and went into convulsions. Then the Druids and the Knights hit them, broadswords, axes and scimitars swinging.

'The Earth receive your blood!' shouted the Druids.

'Know your end!' cried the Knights.

'Die, fools!' shouted the Drow, loosing a stream of glowing meteors from her fingers.

'Bow before my power' cried the Archwitch, her hands throwing spears of frigid death that silvered the bracken with frost and withered leaves.

The Assassin Druid said nothing but wielded a crossbow of shining steel that threw lightning bolts. Colgrim grabbed up a bow from a fallen Forester and loosed shafts as quickly and accurately as he knew how. And albeit the bow was not his weapon, he saw attackers stagger under the impact.

A mist of blood tinged the golden sunlight carmine.

The skirmish seemed to last hours, but in reality it was over in minutes. The Sheriff Officer began the task of numbering the wounded and the dead. The Druids worked their healing magics on those they could help and gave the coup de grace to those they could not. The company had been two hundred strong, now it lacked two Knights, and nearly fifty members of the posse; the arrows had been poisoned, but then the Melias and the Dryads seldom used any other kind.

On the edge of the clearing the lawman found Uilleam and another Knight examining the body of a fallen Fey, struck down by a lightning bolt.

'Interesting. It would appear that the old notion, that to kill them you have to kill their trees, is wrong' observed Uilleam. 'Ah, hello Colgrim, what shape are we in?'

'We've lost about a quarter of our force' Colgrim stated.

'Unfortunate. How about revivification?' asked the scholar Knight.

'The Dryads used poison, seems to be some kind of snake venom or maybe the poison of wyverns. In any event, the answer's no' replied the Sheriff Officer.

'Shame. I wonder what stirred them up against us' muttered the scholar.

'It wasn't a what, but a who.' Eoraidh's voice cut into their conversation. 'And I favour the notion it was my good “sister” Herfjottur and her sisters, whoever they may be.'

'You'd accuse another Druid?' questioned the scholar.

'Get something clear in your mind, Uilleam, I am a servant of the Balance. She may say that she is, but that one and I are not the same. I don't know what she serves, and I'm not even sure what species she is. Maybe she was a Druid once, but other than a Gnoll I never met an evil Druid myself. Felice and others I know have, but that was Otherwhere. And that one was evil, I could smell it on her.'

'Lady Eoraidh, we've got a prisoner!' shouted one of the Great Druidic Guard.

They ran across to where a group of guardsmen were standing around a wounded Fey who was lying on the ground, her right leg grey-blue with cold and an empty quiver by her side. She was fragile looking, her skin brownish-green, and hair rust coloured. She wore an armour which looked to be made of tree bark and boots spun from moss. Her bow was grey, smooth, polished and of double recurve shape. She was swearing in the Sylvan tongue.

Eoraidh said something in the same tongue and the Dryad's eyes widened and she said 'Yes, I speak manthings tongue, a little. I learn from matings. I T'Gellain am of trees guardian. Why help you the tree killers, Wise Sister, you of the Draoi? Darthaer I not surprise if do, but Draoi?'

'Know this, little sister, I come from Ad-daledigaeth yr derwydd mawr herself, I am Teigr; also yr Llew derwydd mawr has sent my sister Llofrudd. We are not tree-killers, save by necessity, such as you force upon us. Answer me, who are the Gwynchwayru?'

'Gwynchwayru, our friends, serve yr Gwaedbrenhines y hynafol, friend of us.'

'What is she talking about, in the name of the Nine Hells?' asked Uilleam 'I can't bloody well speak Sylvan!'

'She says the White Ones serve somebody known as the Blood Queen and the Ancient One.'

'Who is that?'

'You're the scholar, you tell me.'

'Damned if I know!'

By now Lycia had arrived and she spoke. 'I've heard the term somewhere, but whether it was from Abu Tahir or Jaerex I don't know. Let me think... you, hi effyd mae do?' pointing at the Fey.

'Oes hwy dywedyd' said the Dryad.

'Got it! It was something Jaerex said about something Lileas told him' Lycia said exultantly.

'Pardon me, who are these people?' asked Colgrim pitifully.

'One of my old teachers and his teacher, the one called the Silver Mage. He mentioned something she said about another creature, like but unlike herself.'

'I've heard of the Silver Mage, but I thought she was an Elf' said Colgrim.

'I've met her, she isn't, she's unique. Well at least I thought she was' commented the Mage-Cleric. 'Lileas is silver, this one is bronze. There were others once, some say Talos is one of their kind.'

'The Stormlord?' This was Uilleam.

'Just so' said the Drow. 'Bring her into the camp, so that Felice can talk to her.'

Four hours later a voice hailed the camp.

'I wish to speak with your officers. I am unarmed. May I enter?'

A figure emerged from the trees just outside the thorny rampart grown by the Druids. At first sight it appeared to be Herfjottur, but as she came closer it became clear that this was another woman, though one with the same costume, or lack of it, and the same physical characteristics.

Colgrim and Tormod looked at her.

'I am Skogullur, a Druid of these Woods, and I have a message for your leaders.'

'Enter, but by Torm, if you try treachery, you shall die' stated Colgrim.

One of the Druid guards gestured and a section of thorns sank into the earth. With a flash of white thigh the woman stepped over it and entered the camp.

She smiled a slow hungry smile at Colgrim and said,

'Take me to your Commander, handsome one.'

'The male is mine, Gwaer slebog. I claim perchem! Care to fight for him?' Lycia's voice came from behind Colgrim.

'Gastdu!' spat the White Druid.

'True, but do you want to join with the everlasting darkness now or later?' chuckled Lycia. 'Come, Gwaer ysbwrial.'

As they escorted her towards the Blue Witch's tent, Colgrim asked the Sharian Cleric, 'What did all that mean?

'I said that you were my property and that if she wanted you, she'd have to fight me for you' she smiled.

'I'm right flattered.'

'Don't be. No insult intended, but I already have a better than you, and I wouldn't risk what I have for a passing fancy.'

Colgrim didn't know whether to be complimented or insulted.

The officers stood behind the table facing the White Druid. The Dryad, T'Gellain, lay on the Blue Witch's camp-bed to their left.

The White One spoke. 'I come to deliver a warning. Turn back now, or face the wrath of the Queen, unless of course you choose to join us. If you do, as many have, your reward will be great. Do not allow this little scuffle to deceive you, you cannot win and you will never enter the Court of Power. That I speak the truth, my little sister here will confirm' she gestured at the Dryad.

'Tell me, are you a seer?' asked Eoraidh of Muir in a strangely sarcastic tone.

'No, the gift of the Sight is not mine, but I have magic, strong magic, enough to defeat you all, I alone!'

'Think you so?' said Selva of Cormyr. 'I think you boast too freely and know all too little of our capabilities. Isolation or something else has made you mad.'

'I am not mad, but I think that you are, who marched to you know not what, at the bidding of one who calls herself a god and who presumes to hold the Balance in her own hands.'

'My Mistress does not call Herself a god,' said Eoraidh mildly. 'Nonetheless, a god She is, Retribution Herself. She does not claim to hold the Balance, but in some sense She is the Balance. Defy Her if you will, by doing so you become vulnerable to Her. Be sure your hubris shall destroy you, as it has destroyed many others. We serve the Balance; you, I think, do not.'

'And so also say I,' stated the Assassin-Druid.'

'I offer you mercy, fools, mercy or power beyond your dreams,' said Skogullur.

Lycia laughed. 'Mercy is an offer made by the weak and a gift given by the strong without words being involved. As for power, it is a thing to be taken or given by the strong, but is a thing to be offered by the weak who do not have it to give. Those who accept such an offer are worse than slaves and worse than fools. I am Drow, daughter to the Night Queen. I for one will never take such an offer.'

The Archwitch spoke. 'Run back to your mistress, my little white ape, and tell her that I, Felice the Blue, cast despite in her face; and that when she is dead, I will pay bards to play satire upon her, the round world over. In my own name, and in that of Retribution, I toss her gift back in her face.'

Then spoke Sir Uilleam the sage. 'As a Knight I know my duty, as a scholar I live to learn. I will learn from the destruction of your mistress and your sisterhood and my duty forbids me to accept.'

And finally, Colgrim, annoyed, reverting to the speech of his youth. 'I am a simple man, a soldier be trade, but I've heard offers the like of thine before. They were always made be criminals or servants of evil, and they were never honoured. Happen you'll tell me what offer you made the Dryads. Didst tell them what destruction would be reeked upon them and their Forest, if so be we defend ourselves to the utmost of our ability?'

'What are you saying?' asked the Dryad.

'What, lass, do you think would occur, happen we fired nothing but exploding arrows and bolts, and happen our magic users cast only fire spells. No, don't worry yourself, we wouldn't do that, but we could and this white faced whore-daughter knows it! What happened when the Elves came?'

'Imbeciles, we will destroy you all!' screamed Skogullur.

'The sands of the Deserts shall drink your blood, and none shall know your resting place; it shall be concealed even from your gods, until the end of time,' pronounced Lycia in a resonant voice.

The evil Druid turned and with a flash of white flesh fled the tent and the camp.

An hour later Colgrim and Eoraidh escorted the now healed Dryad to the edge of the clearing. The Druid addressed her.

'Hear me little sister, carry our message to the people of the great trees. With you we have no quarrel and we wish you no harm. We ask what favour the White Ones have ever done you; did they not bring the Great Destruction that fell upon you more than six lives of man ago? That those of the ash and the birch should favour them is obvious, their realm was advanced and yours decreased. But what will you gain by fighting us, nothing. All we ask of you is inactivity.'

'I saw Skogullur of the White Sisterhood flee in fear. I will carry your message to my Queen and my sisters. May the Forest always open a path for you and I offer you blessing of leaf and bough.'

And she stepped into the trees and was gone.

In the dark of the night came another attack, this time by animals and insects, maddened with the magic of the blanched Druids. The animals crashed into the walls of darkness and shadow woven by the Archwitch and the Drow and onto the Druid thorns. They died in their dozens and hundreds but kept coming. A great swarm of insects lunged from the air but were dispersed by Druid counterspell and fireball. Then the Melias, the Ash-Dryads, launched another storm of poisoned arrows which were destroyed, and they fell before the Dwarven crossbows and the much less accurate arrows of the Foresters and Knights. Three times they came before the day broke and when it did, the defenders could see Melian and animal corpses piled in windrows. No defender was injured.

Exhausted, the magic users slept or went into trance, and the mundanes stood guard. Colgrim, tired himself, sat on a rock reading a book that had been a present from his brother, a teacher, and muttered the lines of poetry.

Think you, my love, that we should part I'm sure that act would break my heart. The maiden bent with weeping eyes Exclaimed betwixt repeated sighs Her shoulders heaved with every groan 'T would break you'd swear a heart of stone. I mourn the maiden's spirit rent Her gallant mourned her money spent. That very day her jewels pawned His mother had a monster spawned. A lad most handsome, that was true His spirit though would make one grue –

'Colgrim, can I speak with you a moment?' Tillingast's voice broke in on him, jerking him back to reality.

'Of course Merci lass, Arnprior's works can wait. What can I do for you?'

'Well I was thinking, it would be a damn good notion to send a patrol ahead to the Fords of Drasta, just to see what chance they have to bushwhack us. I'll lead it myself if you like.'

She sounded a bit less egotistical this morning.

Colgrim considered the idea, and it seemed a good one to be coming from such an unpromising source.

'How many men would you be needing, that is hypothetically?'

'Six and myself, I've already chosen the part, Colgrim sweetheart,' Merci pouted, sure he was about to say no.

'Congratulations on an independent command, lass, happen it's a small one. Get back as quick as you can.'

'You're saying I can go?' the Verderer said, shocked.

'To quote Shalen of Briatte, “the one who has the best idea, should first act upon it himself”. Of course I'm saying yes, you daft cow! Now get your arse in gear and get gone.'

The river was wide, shallow, fast flowing over a rocky bed and flashing in the sun. Tillingast looked across it and saw that the other side was clothed not by the giant oaks, elms and sycamores of her band, but with aspens, ashes and birch, and blanketed with bracken, brambles and other secondary growth. She could see why she had been told that from here they would go afoot; it would clearly be impossible to force horses through such a tangle. Halfway across the Drasta a low grassy island broke the surface, an island that must have been a mile long. It seemed to the Verderer that it would be the ideal camping ground.

'Come on boys,' she signalled her Foresters and they splashed forward into the river. 'Keep your eyes peeled for bushwhackers, they're out there somewhere.'

Nothing happened and they scrambled up onto the island.

'Dismount!' Tillingast's voice rang out and her men swung from the saddle.

She looked around, the grass was dotted with piles of horse dropping and old camp fires. She stooped and examined the signs of former use. It was clear that this was the camping ground of more than one band of adventurers. Some of the signs seemed to her to be of the right age to be that of the company they sought, they must have ridden down the eastern bank from the Elf city and crossed here.

'What we gonna do neow, moy Lady?' asked Cedric her sergeant.

'We set up camp,' she said.

'But 'er Leddyship, 'er in the Blue, she told us...'

'I am the head Verderer, you damn well do what I tell you, peasant!'

An owl hooted from the darkness of the great trees and the river chuckled over the stones, silver under the moon. Tillingast lay in her tent, sweating, turning and tossing as she thought of Colgrim's body under hers that too long ago night. She was tortured by jealousy, which intruding on her fantasy brought visions of Beitris, Lady Jhaelna the Mage or that Drow bitch, Lycia. She sat up cursing in her bedroll, wet and tormented. Why was it that he'd never returned to her bed? Why was it no man ever did? She was attractive, fit, and a match for anyone in combat, she had some money, but it was Colgrim she wanted most; she sank back into her bedroll and her fantasy.

'Hear me, sister,' the voice inside her head was a whisper, 'hear my now, come to me, I await you on the west bank of the river.'

Tillingast opened her eyes and shook her head, frustration was driving her mad.

The voice came again insistently. 'Come, I await you. I can fulfil all your dreams. But you must come of your own will. Come to me.'

She arose shakily from her bed, pulled on her tunic over her head and slipped on her knee-high soft deerskin boots. She silently slid out of her tent into the darkness, evading the heavy-footed Cedric, and waded out into the stream. She climbed the west bank and peered into the gloom ahead.

'Come, sister, just a little further, I await you,' came the voice in her head.

An owl hooted again, but closer.

Merci Tillingast moved into the trees, the brambles and bracken seemed to move away from her, opening a path, a moonlit one, which she followed into the thickets. She really couldn't think why she was doing it. The trees opened into a clearing and a figure awaited her, a figure robed and hooded in glistening darkness; white flesh shone in the moonlight.

'Greetings, sister, I am Mist, and this...' a second figure whose robe seemed grey in the dim light emerged from the trees, 'is Gondullur, The Witch of the Trees; we were waiting for you.'

The women circled her and Merci saw the moonlight reflecting from their perfect white limbs, barely covered busts and faces. Gods above and below, how she envied them, if she looked like them Colgrim would crawl at her feet.

'He and as many others as you want, sister. To be our slaves, and your playthings,' said the one called Mist, responding to her thoughts.

'No-one will give you orders any more, all will bow to your will, and your needs,' hissed the one called Gondullur. 'Your every hunger shall be gratified and you need give so little in return, so very little.'

'What is it you want of me?' asked Merci, her mind a kaleidoscope of libidinous images, her body turning to follow them.

'Whom do you worship?' asked Mist.

'Mielikki, I worship Nature's goddess,' Merci stammered.

'And what she ever given you? Nothing but a cold bet and a sense of duty fulfilled. Truly is it written that virtue is its own reward, the reward of virtue is knowing that you have been virtuous,' Gondullur's musical voice was acid with sarcasm.

'See what our Mistress offers!' The two dropped their robes and their blanched and perfect bodies gleamed in the night of the moon. The hair of the one was white as snow and of the other black as nightfall in the desert. They pivoted and danced and Tillingast's bile rose acid into her mouth in jealousy of their slender beauty.

'What she has given us, she will give you, beauty, power and everlasting life. Yes, immortality; we were here when the Elves came since hundred years gone, and we are still here. Worship her, and she will give you what she has given to us, sister. Give your soul up to her, submit to her, and all you crave will be yours!'

Merci Tillingast struggled against herself, her conscience screaming more and more faintly, and then she said one word.

'Yes.'

Colgrim surveyed the camp site. The rest of the island was bad, but this was worse. The place was a shambles, and that in the literal sense. The men had been torn apart, the horses likewise and the tents shredded. Blood was everywhere. It looked to the Sheriff Officer as if a maddened troll had gone through the place, or possibly a giant, but he knew that wasn't the case, it couldn't be because the signs were all wrong. No, this had been done by a human or at least something the size of a human. He considered the possibility of a werewolf being responsible, but it seemed to him that there was something against that idea.

'You are quite right, Sergeant, these men put up no resistance, they simply stood there and let themselves be torn apart,' said Selva of Cormyr, sounding vaguely depressed.

'But who would do something like this?' asked the scholar Knight.

'Someone in a berserk rage,' stated Colgrim.

'If you are strong enough and you want to, you don't need to be berserk,' said Eoraidh gently. 'Any Druid could do it, for example; most wouldn't, but they could.'

Colgrim stared at the short gentle Elf Lady and gulped.

'I'm a Druid, Colgrim, I'm a lot stronger than I look at the moment. We all are if we learn enough. I don't think most of Sian's guards are strong enough in Wisdom, but Selva is, and the White Ones most certainly are, and they would enjoy this, because they are what you would call “evil”. Let me show you.'

She stooped and drew one of the dead men's sword from its scabbard. She raised it with one hand on the hilt and the other by the point, and almost negligently snapped it like a twig.

'See,' she chuckled.

Colgrim stared, the pretty Elf was not even five feet three inches tall and yet she could break a broadsword. He wasn't sure but he thought he might be scared.

'Colgrim,' she said, 'I don't have to look like this. Don't mistake me, this is my real appearance, but I could have a thousand others. That's also true of most Druids of rank and that might include the White Ones, but I am not sure.'

'If they could shift, would they keep the appearance they have?' asked Selva acidly.

'That's why I expressed doubts,' said Eoraidh.

'So you think the White Ones did this?' asked Colgrim.

'I doubt it, if one of them had appeared these chaps would have tried to defend themselves. They didn't. I don't quite understand that,' Eoraidh observed.

'Well whatever happened I'm going to order t'boys to bury them and set up camp. A very well defended camp,' stated Colgrim.

'Colgrim, my love, wake up.'

Colgrim swam up out of sleep to feel a warm body pressed heavily on top of his, and hot breath on his neck. He opened his eyes and stared into a half familiar face, the woman looked like Merci Tillingast's much better-looking twin sister, except for an odd green tinge in her blue eyes. He was about to say something, but the minute that he opened his mouth, hers clamped over his and her right hand under the bedclothes started to do things that were distracting, to say the least.

A sarcastic, strangely accented voice split the air like a whip. 'Clumsy, very, very clumsy! I do hate lack of subtlety.'

The strange naked woman sprang off of Colgrim, hissing like an angry cat, but before she could do anything else, Lycia kicked her feet out from under her and placed her staff against the base of the woman's throat.

'Please try to stand up, you butchering slut! I'd quite enjoy killing you, and if you do anything, I will; I swear it by Shar. ' Lycia sounded amused.

The tent flap swung open to admit the Archwitch and the Assassin-Druid. Colgrim grabbed his blanket and huddled it around him to avoid further embarrassment.

'Colgrim, are you alright?' Felice sounded genuinely worried.

'I am, but I've got no idea what the bloody 'ell's happening!' the Sheriff Officer blurted out.

'Someone actually thought that they could teleport, that, into the camp and we wouldn't know. Insulting, but they shall pay for it,' said Felice.

The woman on the floor made incoherent noises, it sounded as if Lycia was cutting off her breathing with the staff.

'Who is she?' asked Colgrim.

'That is a very difficult question, my dear,' said the Blue Witch. 'Who she was, that I can tell you. Who she is I have no idea or what as a matter of fact. Oh, I shall find out, but I do not know yet.'

'Gi' me an answer, in t'name of Torm!'

'I'll give you one. She was your friend the Verderer, Mistress Merci Tillingast,' said Lycia.

'What!'

'You heard me, my friend, and I ask you to remember that I told you, not the Blue One. I hurt the traitor, not she. But I also am your friend. May I send her to join eternal darkness, Abbil?' Lycia asked the Archwitch.

'Not yet, Reverent Sister. We need to interrogate this creature,' responded Felice.

She gestured and uttered a short sentence, and a set of brilliantly glowing blue manacles and shackles appeared on the woman on the ground. The woman screamed; obviously these chains, forged as it seemed of nothing but light, hurt greatly. Lycia raised her staff, made a similar gesture, spat a sentence and the blue light became entwined with a living darkness. The woman fell silent.

The Assassin-Druid leaned out of the tent and shouted something. Two Dwarves entered and dragged out the prisoner. The women followed her out. Colgrim, still shocked, pulled on his clothes.

The chains of light and darkness held the prisoner to the pole of the Archwitch's tent; on the big table rested some strange, impractical looking black armour, covered in spikes like steel thorns, a very nasty looking recurved bow, a quiver of green fletched arrows and a war flail with two heads, all of which had been found outside the lawman's tent. An hour had passed since the capture and Colgrim had, to some extent, managed to pull himself together. Colgrim and Sir Uilleam examined the armour and equipment.

'This stuff is more like a stage costume than anything else,' said the Sheriff Officer. 'I've seen actresses wear gear like this, it's no defence at all, but it displays the woman's body for the groundhogs to drool at, and gives the impression of armour to the ignorant.'

'The bow is real though, it's a Dryad bow, I'd guess. It's very much like those the Neriads use, so are the arrows. I know Neriad weapons, a friend of mine has a Neriad... uh... companion. The arrows are poisoned of course, oh and the flail too, don't touch the spikes.'

'Is it a Dryad weapon?' asked Colgrim.

'No, human, originally, but it's hellish old, look at the pitting.'

'Finished looking at her gear gentlemen?' asked Felice with a tone of faint exasperation. 'Could we possibly begin questioning her now?'

'Apologies, Worshipful Lady!' both answered promptly.

'Lycia, please give this... thing her voice back,' she said.

The Drow gestured and a torrent of words spilled from the prisoner's mouth.

'Colgrim, darling, help me! These people aren't your friends, I am. You can't let them kill me! I love you, I want you, I'm yours, you're mine, please...'

Lycia gestured and she fell silent again.

'Ha, I don't think she's going to say anything useful. Mind you...' she gestured at the woman's naked body, 'it would be an awful waste of a nice piece of meat just to kill her out of hand; since she's so keen on it, maybe we should give her to the soldiers. That spell for weight loss and muscle toning must be worth an awful lot of Lions.'

'Lycia,' laughed Eoraidh, 'you are incorrigible. Any Druid knows how to do that!'

'No you don't. This one is an arcane spell, like Transformation or Shape Change, but it's none of those that I know, it's a simpler spell than they are, and I want it as a present for a very important person. Very important to me, that is,' Lycia smiled, her white teeth gleaming in her dark face.

'Do you wish to do it Sister, or shall I?' asked the Assassin of Eoraidh.

'You do it, Selva, I've no wish to send my mind swimming in a cesspit.'

Selva of Cormyr prowled forward and stood in front of the prisoner, who struggled. Colgrim watched her eyes expand as in terror and then she went limp.

'All right, you can let her talk Reverent Sister, she'll only answer questions now. Faugh! But her mind is even as the Reverent Debtera says, a cesspit!'

'Power of the Serpent,' the scholar Knight muttered to himself, 'not magic, Druidic ability, like mind flayers.'

The Drow gestured again and said, 'What is your name?'

'Anatsdottur,' came the reply.

'Who is your god?'

'Anat Bloodqueen.'

'Felice,' said Lycia, 'cast the spell Detect Evil.'

The Archwitch nodded and muttered, and the prisoner glowed scarlet like a signal fire.

'Who did Merci worship?' Felice asked Colgrim.

'Mielikki,' he replied.

'And there we have some answers,' observed Eoraidh.

'Who killed the men here?'

'I did. They were enemy, other.'

'For what do you live?'

'I don't understand.'

'What is your purpose?'

'To obey my Queen and slay her enemies.'

'What do you want with this man?' Lycia pointed to Colgrim.

'To couple with him, he is my mate.'

'What is your pleasure?'

'To destroy the Queen's enemies and to mate.'

The interrogation lasted over an hour, but Colgrim, sickened, left after only ten minutes. He was relieved when Lycia caught up with him by the river, and uttered a brief sentence, 'She is dead, I sent her to the darkness eternal.'

They craned over the map table in the Archwitch's tent.

'Six leagues from here the dead magic zone begins,' stated Felice, 'so any magical action must occur before that; but more to the point, from there on we will find no Dryads. The ruins are a league further on; we must be prepared for attacks before we reach the zone.'

'They don't seem very well prepared,' said Colgrim.

'I believe they have been rendered complacent by having only small groups opposed to them. In the past six centuries this area has only been breeched by parties of up to two dozen. Even after our losses, we still have five times that number, and a very large proportion of more than competent magic users. Most adventuring parties have magic users who are little more than students, no match for them, whereas we have a sufficiency of serious practitioners, lay, clerical and druid, and a number of magic resistant personnel. In addition, we have much better and heavier equipment than most parties could ever hope to have.'

'Sir Galen and his men were pretty well-equipped and trained,' said Uilleam.

'True, but there were only sixteen of them, and they didn't have any Druids with them,' Felice replied.

'What a terrible oversight,' said Selva.

'Well, yes, but Sir Galen is funny about Druids, doesn't even trust her Grace. Some Knights are like that,' stated Uilleam embarrassed.

'Obviously he found some Druids who lived up to his expectations,' Lycia seemed to find this amusing.

'We didn't find his armour and sword in the mess in that gully,' stated Colgrim. 'Could he have got the same treatment as Tillingast?'

'A definite possibility,' Eoraidh said.

'Here,' stated Tormod, tapping the map with a calloused finger. 'This wee glen juist here, that's whur they fuckin' bastards 'ull ambuish. Goat tae be. If youse can fault mah loagic ut's fine. But ken, I doan't thunk ye can, bah re wey.'

'I agree,' stated Colgrim.

'I also,' Selva chimed in.

'Happen they're already in place, it would be difficult to avoid being in a losing position,' said Colgrim.

'Not if we get them in a pincer move,' said Selva.

'We'd have to move faster than even Foresters can through all that underbrush,' Colgrim again.

'If you can get your boys, the Knights and the Dwarves there, the Great Druidic Guard will already be waiting for you. If you think Foresters move fast, you've no idea how fast we can move, without horses,' Selva laughed. 'And I'm willing to wager the White Bitches don't either.' She looked at Eoraidh, 'Tiger?'

'Yes, Direwolf?'

'Absolutely.'

'Why didn't the Dryads try to lure us that first time?' Colgrim asked the Archwitch as the part forced their way through the underbrush. 'I forgot to ask.'

'The Druids,' she replied; 'they're immune. Likewise they can travel through all this shit,' she hacked at the brambles with her sword, 'as if it wasn't there. Unlike us, unfortunately,' and she chuckled. A nice sound, Colgrim thought. 'This reminds me of a time twenty years back, in the woods up North. We, my troop and I, had been after a bunch of Chill bandits, hobgoblins mostly, but some renegade humans and kobolds amongst them. Anyway we were chasing them for a tenday or more, and I was beginning to develop armour chafe, my leather was mildewed, and I though I was getting footrot.'

'You wore armour?' Colgrim was surprised.

'Back then, yes,' Felice chuckled again. Plate mail mostly, mithral. I wasn't using any magic in those days, didn't think I ever would again. Anyhow, those Chill bastards ran into a seriously overgrown area of the Larswood, and we had to go in after the sods. It was pretty much like this, only marshy as well. Got the buggers in the end though!'

She smiled at Colgrim and her face just lit up, suddenly she looked beautiful. Even the lines etched into her face by age and worry didn't change that.

'Twenty years ago I was a shiny new trooper in the Royal Horse, fighting the Bhaalspawn, like that bastard Yaga Shura. Well, that, and the occasional bunch of rebels, they were plenty around in those days,' said Colgrim.

'The Bhaalspawn set up the Chill as well, a bastard called Sarevok was responsible for them. Got himself killed by another one of them, only he was on the right side. We had to make our own law then, too much confusion and corruption.' Felice sounded just like one of his old army pals, only they weren't anything like as attractive.

'Why did you give up magic?'

'I had a sister, Dolores, and a master, Bergthor; I was a student. We were travelling to Candlekeep, Master Bergthor wanted to consult some books. Anyway, a group of bandits, a big one, attacked us on the Coast Way, and suddenly they were both dead. I still don't know how it happened. I went crackers, totally berserk, grabbed a sword and charged the whore sons. I'd have been killed, but some mercenaries turned up and the long and short of it was we took thirty scalps to the Sheriff. I spent the next six months learning how to use weapons, bolstered myself up with every spell and potion I could find so as to learn quickly, practiced ten hours a day all week, and then got together my own troop and went hunting.' She smiled again, but this time ruefully.

'You are one tough Lady!' Colgrim said admiringly.

'Listen, my friend Colgrim, I'm a lot of things, but a Lady isn't one of them. How do you think I paid men to give me arms instruction?'

Colgrim looked at her dead level. 'The only way you could. That doesn't make you any less a Lady, and I admire you for it, so there! Oh, and by the way, if I ever hear anyone say otherwise, I'll run 'em through and know I'm in the right. How did you come to take up magic again?'

'Firehair, she talked me into it when she found out I was a Witch.'

'Why are you called a Witch and not a Mage? I'd been meaning to ask.'

'Because I can use Clerical spells as well as Arcane, even though I'm not a Cleric.'

'How come?'

'Bergthor was a Cleric of Oghma as well as a Mage, and because I was only a student, I never learned I couldn't use both kinds of magic. It's mainly a matter of mental conditioning, you see. Avenger Druids can do the same thing I can, Firehair for instance.'

'I see.'

'So can some Sorcerers. But if you are a Mage or a Cleric, they call you a Witch. Sorcerers don't have that problem. Some Bards and Sages can do it, I suppose, I don't know.'

She shook her head and shrugged, and they moved on, hacking their way through the undergrowth.

They moved into the glen in schiltrom formation; bowmen and crossbowmen on the outside, magic users in the middle, infantrymen in between. Arrows coursed down upon them to be blasted from the air, then screaming Dryads leapt from the undergrowth with short swords and knives, and as they ran forward were mown down in waves by blast and lightning bolts, fireball and a number of other, nasty life-snuffing spells. Then lightning crashed down on the Feys, follower by a torrent of crazed wildlife. Colgrim saw a gigantic black tiger rip a dozen Dryads to bleeding chunks in spite of their tree bark armour. It was a massacre, obviously the White Sisters were not there to help their allies, but equally obviously, the Druids were there for the column from Cloyne Bridge. The few injured Dryads who tried to flee were cut down by arrow and bolt. It was a short, brutal and thoroughly nasty engagement, that almost made the Sheriff Officer feel guilty, and did make him feel sick. Of course, it would have been a different story, if they hadn't been expecting it. He looked into Lycia's eyes as she stood next to him.

'These people are idiots! If they didn't try to engage us in battle, but just sniped at us from the trees, they'd have whittled us to nothing by now.'

'I agree, that's how the nomads work, and the Elves usually; hold on.' She threw something into a knot of fleeing Dryads that exploded deafeningly; for a second it rained blood and bits of Fey. Then she spoke again. 'But you see we know about warfare, we've lived through wars, fought in them, expect to do so again. These people don't, and haven't, and are taking the advice of people whose minds are ossified in the tactics of a lost war six centuries gone. Didn't work then, won't work now, but that I suspect is not the point.'

'What do you mean?' asked Colgrim.

'It's just a suspicion on my part, but we think in terms of warfare, and I have a feeling that the thing we are up against doesn't. I think it is seeking bloodshed, pure and simple, and which side spills the blood is irrelevant. If that is the case, we may be feeding the Blood Queen even as we win and making our eventual task that much harder.'

The fight over, Colgrim was standing on a rock, looking at a pile of Dryad corpses, when he suddenly became aware that he was being watched. Looking up, he found himself staring into the yellow eyes of an enormous black furred tiger, perhaps the same he had seen during the fighting. He was rooted to the spot, and more scared than he could remember being. He began very slowly to back away and draw his sword, not that it seemed the best weapon to employ against such a beast, but because it was the only one he had with him. Then suddenly the great beast seemed to blur, and fall in upon itself; for a second there was a column of brilliant glittering dots of rainbow coloured light, and then Eoraidh the Druid was standing in front of him.

She laughed. 'I'm sorry Colgrim, I really didn't mean to frighten you, but you should see the look on your face!'

'But, what? I don't understand. Where's the tiger!' he stammered.

'Here, I'm the tiger, twit. Remember, I told you they call me Tigre! It's my other favourite form. Most Druids are shapeshifters, the more senior you get the more forms you have.'

Much calmer now, Colgrim was beginning to realise that all he'd ever heard about Druids was true.

'How long can you stay... like that?' he asked.

'As long as I wish, we're not like Mages or Sorcerers, our minds are much more stable than theirs, we remain ourselves. If a Mage stayed in animal form for too long, he'd lose his one identity and too long would only be a couple of days; we would have to stay changed for half a lifetime for that to happen, and then it would be voluntary. Actually it makes us feel energetic, it makes them feel like shit. Clerics of Mielikki can do it too, I think.'

'And I thought you needed protecting!' he sounded exasperated.

'Think a tiger can't get hurt? I can't shift were, though some can. I'm grateful for your help, sweetheart, don't go thinking otherwise. I might be a lot older than you and have some powers that you don't, but you have a great deal of experience I lack. I've spent most of my life in study and contemplation, you've been out there doing things, moving amongst people. I esteem your opinion, we all do, and respect your authority; this is your kingdom, not ours. You know its laws and manners, we don't.'

'Thank you, Eoraidh.'

'Don't mention it.'

The Druids going ahead to open a path, the column moved forward through the scrub until nightfall. Then they pitched camp within the usual carefully woven defences.

Colgrim sat in his tent looking at a map of the ruins, or rather at a map of the wall enclave as it had been six hundred years ago, before the Elves reduced it to ruins. It seemed to have been an odd place, a cross between a castle and a small town. He wondered if Candlekeep was anything like it and decided to ask Felice who had been there. He wondered how much was still intact or standing to a height of over ten feet. He needed to know.

He hailed a sentry, one of his own men. 'Cerbrand!'

'Sergeant.'

'Go and present my compliments to the Lady Felice, and ask her if she will do me the compliment to attend me here.'

'Sergeant!'

Coming out of his brace the sentry trotted off into the firelit darkness. A few minutes later the Archwitch, who looked slightly rumpled, entered.

'What can I do for you, Colgrim?'

'I asked for you, because you are part human, like me. The others are pure Elves – oh, I trust them, but well their allegiance might prevent a wholly accurate reply.'

'My allegiance to her Grace might too, if that's so Colgrim. I am, I always will be loyal to her, just like Eoraidh or Lycia for the matter of that. And don't be too sure I'm half human.'

'I don't express myself well. I'm sorry, lass. Forget all that bullshit. Awright, 'ere's what I want to know,' he tapped the map. 'How much of this is still standing? As far as you know.'

'Well, the reports we have are a bit conflicting. This much we do know,' she pointed at the North-western side of the map. 'This keep here, is gone, the Elves blasted it to slag; parts of the outer perimeter wall are still standing. This building,' she indicated a large building at the Southern end of the map, 'the Western Residencia, is standing to a height of twenty feet or more; this central square, and all of its buildings, are almost intact; the entrance to the catacombs is here, in the Temple of Oghma, right in the middle. It's behind the altar. Other buildings are standing in part or in whole, but I couldn't tell you which ones. Oh, yes –' she tapped the North-eastern quarter of the map, 'the old water gardens here, have turned into a pretty thorough swamp. That is according to one witness, a Cleric who passed through that area about ninety years ago. ' Felice sounded like the professor she was.

'Is it anything like Candlekeep?' Colgrim asked.

'Not much, it's older for one thing, and the layout is very different. See, this cross-shaped arrangement of streets and rectangular outer wall with four gates is very regular. Candlekeep is anything but, and only has one gate. Why do you ask?'

'I just wondered, is all,' said Colgrim. 'Is it at all like your Scholia, Ulcaster?'

'No, not really. I wish we had gardens such as this place had, and libraries as large, I'd love that.'

'You love your College, don't you?'

'Oh yes, that I do. I'd prefer to be there, but sometimes if you want knowledge you have to go out and grab it. So here I am.'

An hour after dawn the column entered the dead magic zone; it felt strange, like wading through a dream. It was too quiet and somehow everything seemed faintly unreal. Within minutes Colgrim developed a nasty slight headache and a metallic taste in the back of his mouth that didn't fully go away for hours; it was a lot like a hangover, but he couldn't remember a hangover that persistent. Uphill and down dale they plodded on, crushing their way through the undergrowth, wishing they still had the horses under guard back on the island. Ahead of them rising above the scrub they could see the ruins, bleached, forgotten and silent. Trees, strange-twisted looking trees, rose behind the walls on the Eastern side. Curiously the gates in the broken walls were still in place. A dome rose somewhere towards the centre of the place, presumably that of the temple of Oghma.

'Can you see any defenders?' Colgrim asked Selva, knowing how keen the Assassin-Druid's eyesight was.

'No, but I can see something.'

'What?'

'The insignia of Oghma over the gates has been chiselled off. And those gates are new, not old. Furthermore someone has been shoring up those damn walls.'

'So, they have enough of a labour force to do that. Which means a defensive force of some scale, and we have no magic.'

The Dwarf, Tormod, clumped up alongside them, smiling in the middle of his grey beard.

'Ah wuz lisenin', like. Noo, as ut happens, ah sorta wundered uf thus might nocht be the case. So Ah bocht aloang a few wee guidies o' mah ain like. Ah used tae be un a companie commanded bah a chap callit “the Weasel”, now he had a motto, “Let's introdooce these peepul tae the wunders o' alchemie”. He had a point, but. Let us do juist that!' He produced a small, tightly stoppered phial from his backpack. 'Twa o' these 'ull taik they gates doon, nae probs. An ah've twelve, bah re wey! An' uan or twa ithers o' hus makin' that doan't dae peepul a loat o' guid, kinda like Cloudkill, ken.'

Selva looked at the phials worriedly. 'I was at Nashkel, remember; if that what you used there, isn't it just a bit unstable!'

'No uf ye keep it cool an' doan't bang it aboot like. Ah packed ut in sheepskin, wet sheepskin, which same Ah keep wet.

Felice patted his muscular scale-mailed shoulder.

'And that, Tormod, is exactly why I chose you and your boys for this job. I knew this was going to be your kind of fight. I only wish I could have got your old Captain and his wife too.'

'So dae Ah, mam, but he's probably busy yon gang, him and his missus!'

Colgrim watched Tormod and half a dozen of his Dwarves heading for the gate and the soldier in him was acutely jealous of their discipline. One would go forward at a run, covered by another, dig in and wait, crossbow at the ready, then another would go forward, covered by him, and so on. Eventually they reached a position about ten yards from the gate. Tormod signalled and his men formed a half-moon in the scrub. Then Tormod himself carrying the bag of explosives went forward in a fast zig-zagging sprint to the gate itself. Concealed from any defender under the arch, Colgrim saw him take something out of one of his belt pouches and do something to the gate, then move across the other gate and repeat the action. Tormod took something or other from the bag and fossicked about at each place for a couple of minutes, and then the Dwarves sprinted back to the scrub, and he and his men repeated the approach pattern in reverse. When they were way half-way back came an interruption. With a thunderous crash the gates and the walls around them for several yards disintegrated, splinters of wood and pebble-sized bits of stone came raining down like hail. Colgrim saw the Dwarven Lieutenant go bowling through the air like an armoured football and land in a bush.

The rest of the force moved forward at a run, at some point Colgrim found the dusty and bruised Dwarven Lieutenant alongside him.

'Moradun's hairy arse! Hey, beg man, how's aboot that then! Used the wrang fuckin' fuses, but; too quick, stull we goat the joab dun tho'. Glad Ah oanly took the twa chirges elsewise Ah'd be deid! Hey Torkil, geeze the resta they boambs like,' and he grabbed the pack from a Dwarf Sergeant in an alarmingly casual manner.

A cloud of dust hung over the gap where the gates used to be, but there was still not a sign of defenders. There was smoke from a burning clump of bushes and a ruined building, but of defenders, no sign. Colgrim watched the Dwarves repeating their manoeuvre, dodging from archway to archway of the ruins that lined the street, heading for the central square. Ahead of them Colgrim could see the gates to the square and the ancient temple, but where, he asked himself, were the defenders, they had to be around somewhere. The Sheriff Officer scanning every ruin entered the square itself, moving round to the left and looking at the temple. Age hung heavy on it, but it was all in one piece, even the windows were intact, not a tile missing from the roof. No, that wasn't true, he realised. It wasn't quite intact; the sigil of Oghma had been chiselled from the keystone of each window arch, and was also missing from the dome.

The company fanned out around the square, bows and crossbows covering windows, doorways, and rooftops. Colgrim moved round to face the portico of the temple, along with the other leaders. The recesses, which should have held statues of Oghma, held instead bronzes of a nude female figure, brandishing a crook bladed sword and standing on one foot in a dancing posture. That one could easily deal with; but nailed to the doors were the skins of two people, blackened by age, and the doors themselves looked to have been soaked in old blood, which had spattered onto the stone of the door jambs and threshold.

'Well now we know what to expect,' said Felice.

'Richt, uf we lose oor hides'll get nailed tae yon doors,' said Tormod. 'Wheell, we faced wurse than that. Ah'd a fuckin' sight sooner get flayed than turnt intae whit yon Chaos Beastie had en mind, ken.'

Sir Uilleam examined one of the statues. 'Interesting style, looks vaguely Kozakuran, not Faerunian anyway. Not very old, look at the patination, not more than ten years, I'd say.' He pointed to some lettering on the base. 'Don't know the alphabet, but there are only two symbols here, so I suppose they don't write vowels in the language it's used for. Funny thing, it looks incomplete, somehow, as if she should be standing on something; look at the way the toes on her foot are curled. Haven't seen a sword like that either, looks nasty. Wide straight blade, then a hook. Slashing weapon, evil!'

'Tormod,' said Felice, 'would you mind checking that door for traps? You too, Selva, you're the specialists, can't be a magical trap, but physical or mechanical, yes; and if the two of you can't locate it, it isn't there.'

'Yo!' the two responded simultaneously and moved forward.

They examined the doors and their surroundings minutely.

'There's either a bell or a crossbow, or both wired to the lock,' stated the Assassin-Druid. 'What do you say, Dwarf?'

'Same, same, tree-hugger!' the Dwarf Officer chuckled. 'Wuth the emphasis oan a crossbow, the muckle big kind, bah re wey.'

'A ballista,' said the Scholar Knight.

'Wheell, ef there's nae fuckin' door there, then there's nae fuckin' trap, right? Can Ah blaw ut tae buggery, boss?' Tormod looked at Felice, his brilliant light blue eyes twinkling in his lined and leathery face.

'Well I hope Oghma will forgive me. Yes, Tormod, but use just a little less of the oil this time, please,' the Blue Witch said, and she laughed as she said it.

The Dwarf moved forward, put his pack down, rummaged in it and produced a ball of clay, which he started to roll into a sausage between his calloused but deft hands. He then formed it into a circle around the locks on the door and drew a groove into it with his forefinger, a deep groove rimmed by ridges. He carefully took out one of the phials of the blasting oil and poured some of it into the groove, then stoppered the phial and placed it carefully back in the pack. He then extracted a tube that looked to be made of silver, bent it, and shoved it into the clay, picked up his pack, and walked back to the group.

'Dae yerselves a big favour an' tak cover coz in twa meenuts that door is gonnae sorto vanish. Oh, an' cover yer ears!'

They took cover, and two minutes later the door exploded into splinters with a deafening roar. When the smoke cleared, Colgrim could see that the statues had been blown out of the niches. One had broken in half, and the door lintel was cracked through and sagging.

'Impressive stuff that, what's it made from?' asked Colgrim.

'Buggered uf Ah know,' said Tormod, 'the Weasel made it, no me. But ut, like re rest o' whet he makes, ut wherks! He showed me how tae dae that, Whitterick, a while back; said the fowk that dae ut where he comes frae, are callit petermen. C'mon big man, let's get un there.'

Colgrim, Tormod and Selva strode forward into the nave of the temple, stopping briefly to look at the shattered ballista which had stood behind the door. Light from the windows poured in strings through the dust kicked up by the explosion. Behind them came the rest of the company save for a dozen Knights and two Druid soldiers detailed as a rearguard. Ahead Colgrim could see the altar, desecrated, splattered with old blood, and the mummified and rotting remnants of sacrificial victims. There was a statue like those on the doorway standing on it. He worshipped Torm, not Oghma, but he could sympathise with the gasps of disgust he heard from the Knights behind him and the mutterings.

Sir Uilleam cursed aloud. 'By the Fires! Tormod my friend, when we leave, I want this place shattered. The Lord Oghma would wish the cleansing, save me some of that oil!'

He strode forward and was about to throw down the statue on the altar when a voice rang out.

'Stand, in the name of Anat, the almighty Queen! I, Galen Anatschosen, say stand!'

A figure had emerged from the floor behind the altar, a figure dressed in the plate armour of a paladin, but with the insignia defaced; in his hand was a magnificent broadsword with a jewel-studded gold crosshilt. He brandished the sword. 'I challenge any here who would defy my Lady and my God!'

Every Knight reached for his or her sword, but Tormod and the Assassin-Druid swung up their arbalests and shot. A stink of ozone filled the air and lightning struck twice, the fallen paladin toppled like a levin-struck tree. Tormod muttered, ' stupid fuckin' knightly bullshit, did he tak uz for arseholes like himself, d'ye think, killer Leddy?'

Selva looked at him with a serious face and twinkling eyes. 'He did, rock-eater, typical human!' She prowled forwards and plucked the sword from the hands of the dead man, unhooked his fancy baldric and scabbard and slid the sword into it, then she tossed it to Colgrim saying, 'here Colgrim, catch, it's a good blade, as good as your army issues at least. It deserves the grace of being carried by a real man, not by some dressed-up popinjay who failed at the first test.'

Colgrim caught, shrugged off his baldric and pulled on the new one. He withdrew the sword and swished it through the air a couple of times, excellent balance. He reseated it into the scabbard, but loosely enough for quick withdraw.

Selva spoke again from behind the altar. 'Staircase down, smells like shite and is dark as Cyric's cloak, but it's a way down anyhow. Tormod, get your boys together, I think we'd better go first, crossbows at the ready.'

'Awricht, Dwarves ready! Advance an' watch out for traps an' nasties. There's gaun tae be plenty o' boath. Advance, fast pace.'

Colgrim gave his orders. 'Axes, not swords, lads. We'll likely not have room for swordplay. Forward, ho! Ladies with me, please.'

Eoraidh said, 'no Colgrim, I take the Guards. Brothers in Wisdom and Nature, swords and staves, but drill for confined spaces. Wildshape at will.'

Sir Uilleam, 'For the love of Oghma, gentles, we move against those who would desecrate his sanctum, powers of Ignorance. Axe, mace of flail. In two files, advance.'

The staircase was narrow, steep and long. The hall at the bottom must have been sixty or seventy feet below the surface and it was dark, though not completely so, for from several archways around the hall weak torchlight filtered. The floor was flagstoned and the ceiling barrel vaulted. The hall itself was perhaps fifty feet wide, twice that long, and lined with arches. At the opposite end Colgrim could just about make out what he presumed was another altar.

Felice said, 'Everyone close your eyes,' and uttered a word.

The vault was flooded with a bright blue light. Colgrim, when he opened his eyes, saw that he was right, it was an altar. In the centre of it stood one of those statues and like the one above it was blood-soaked. Colgrim felt sickened. He turned to the Archwitch. 'So magic does work down here.'

'It had to,' she said, 'couldn't you feel it? I could.'

'Well I know my headache's gone away, but that's about it,' he said, she looked at him and winked.

The Assassin-Druid and the Dwarves were doing something to the floor in the middle of the chamber. 'Trap,' she said looking back, 'damn crude but it'd not do us a lot of good to be filled with poisoned darts.'

Lycia, who was standing in one of the archways, spoke. 'Wards major, nasty ones, low powered really but unpleasant. Seem to be general, four of the doorways have them. I'll take them down now if you like, Blue.'

'Do it, Red,' said Felice.

A muttered word from the Drow and four doorways lit up like the Northern Lights, then went dark again.

In front of the altar there was a shimmering in the air like heat haze, and a figure was standing looking at the party. She wore a blue robe, somewhat like that worn by the Archwitch, and held a staff of silvery-grey wood shod with bronze, her skin was white like marble, her hair the black of midnight. Cat green eyes under level black brows and above high, wide cheekbones surveyed them. Full purplish-red lips twisted into a smile, displaying pearly teeth, and then she spoke. 'I welcome you in the name of my Mistress. I am Gondullur, the Witch of the Trees. My Mistress will give Her mercy to any who will join us in Submission to Her Will. Mercy, power and eternal life. The rest of you will die,' she laughed, a sound like ice on glass.

'I don't think any of us are interested in listening to a pack of lies and we aren't very likely to believe them. We aren't idiots,' said Felice; 'eternal life! What gibberish! Even gods don't have that, the Lord Ao aside, and that is because He is Eternity itself! So, puny one, you esteem yourself to be a Witch, do you?'

The white-faced one hissed and snarled like a cat, 'I've more power than you can imagine, you old hag!'

'Really? Now, that is a lot of power! I'll be fascinated to face that, that is assuming of course you have the courage to face me in Duel Arcane. No Tormod, don't shoot, that would be too easy. I want to educate this silly cow, put it down to my being a teacher. Well Gondullur, “sister”, shall we get to it?'

The Archwitch stepped into the middle of the floor, opposite the White One, and using her staff traced a half circle on the floor behind her. It crackled into sky-blue flame. The White One did the same, but the flames were the green of her eyes. The flames rose and bent over to form a dome, where the two colours met; multi-coloured tongues leapt out to a distance of three or four feet.

The others could hear nothing of what happened within but they could see the two figures as if through a coloured and swaying mist. Their hands moved in intricate gestures, lights flashed and things seemed to form and disappear, tearing at each other. Now and again flame would fill the globe or clouds of evil-looking fumes, and from time to time there was the glare of lightning.

Lycia, who was now standing at Colgrim's shoulder, was muttering, 'The woman doesn't seem to know anything above the most elementary level of Spellcraft, by Shar, she is little more than a senior student!' The blue was steadily spreading into the green section of the dome. 'She must know she can't win. Felice is vastly more powerful than she.' At length the whole dome turned blue and then flickered out of existence. Felice stood over the other who lay on the floor almost naked and adorned with shackles of blue flame. The fragments of her robe scattered the floor and several deep claw marks on her body welled dark blood.

'She is stripped of all power, for ever; I could not find it in my heart to finish her off, it would be like killing a child,' said Felice.

Lycia kicked the woman over and struck her over the heart with her staff. The woman convulsed and blood poured from her mouth. 'To quote a friend of mine, “if it bleeds I can kill it”,' she said.

Frankly, Colgrim was glad she saved him the trouble, these creatures didn't deserve mercy; he was surprised at Felice's reaction, sometimes she seemed too gentle a woman for her own good.

'That corridor,' said Felice pointing, 'follow me, I read her mind.'

The corridor was long and cobwebbed, but the blue light advancing with the party burned away the webs and sent spiders scattering onto the floor to be crushed by armoured boots. They entered another vaulted hall, lined with full bookshelves.

'Oghma! What a treasure!' exclaimed Sir Uilleam.

'A treasure you'll not live to loot, sage,' came a voice.

It had happened again, a white-skinned, white-haired, half naked figure in a black leather robe stood before them. 'You, I take it, are Mist,' said Felice.

'I am, Witch,' snarled the White Druid.

'My turn,' said Eoraidh calmly, a dimple appearing in her smiling cheek, and she stepped forward. 'Mist, you who once were of the Order of the Wise, know me; I am Eoraidh of Muir, Hierophant of the Order, Debtera to Maeve, Great Druid of the Mountains. In the name of the Balance and in the name of Nature I call upon you to return to your allegiance and to aid us, or to face the power of Retribution in my person.'

The White Druid laughed. 'Fool, you know that you cannot harm me, this is not the pit nor the Grove. I am Archdruid and these are not the Rites of Ascension!'

'Are you deaf! I am Hierophant and Debtera, this is the pit now. In the name of the Order and its power, I call upon the powers of Light, of Shadow and of Dark, of the Balance and of Nature, to witness; in this place and now the Rites shall occur.'

For a second the chamber shook and swayed as if there was an earthquake. Dust fell from the ceiling and books from the sagging shelves.

'It is done,' stated Selva. 'Face her, traitor.'

Eoraidh unslung her baldric and dropped it to the floor with a clang. Mist the White dropped her staff and dagger likewise. The two moved forward with the grace of predators, the White One's figure blurred and a huge white cave bear stood in her place. Colgrim feared for Eoraidh, this creature was even bigger than the giant tiger, but he learned that he should not have worried. Eoraidh's figure blurred and the wind of her wings swayed the rest of the party. The charging bear was engulfed in a spray of freezing vapour and then the silver Dragon's claws struck, ripping into her spine; the bear screamed, and a second set of living sabres slashed into her. The bear flickered and the white woman lay on the floor gashed by awful wounds and at an angle that made it plain that her spine was broken. The Dragon blurred and Eoraidh stood over her.

'Eoraidh is Archdruid of these woods. Let all from the shores of the sea to the highest peaks know this, let the wind carry the message. There is a new Archdruid and her name is Eoraidh, the Tiger of Muir,' proclaimed Selva.

The dying woman croaked out, 'beware, Sister, when you face Anat. You are stronger than I, but she may still overcome your will as she did mine. I die free, thanks to you. Stay free, ride on the wings of the wind, walk beneath the trees, upon the hills and the shore with my blessings, Eoraidh of Muir; be more worthy than I, who was Bethraigh in a time forgotten and a Grove desecrated.'

The Elven Druid closed the dead woman's eyes. 'Return to Earth, Sister, and may you be reborn more worthy. But meantime may you know peace in the Overworld.'

She swayed slightly, as if tired, and tears dewed her cheeks. 'Poor bitch, somewhere in her heart she knew she couldn't win and she wanted me to free her. I'm glad I did, but just now I have a headache and feel ashamed, oh, and a bit sick.'

The Assassin-Druid threw an arm around her shoulders, 'that's how I felt when I took the Rites the first time. Corlassa needed killing, she was of the Shadow, but somehow it didn't seem fair or clean, unlike an assassination or a duel.'

'How many times have you done it?' Eoraidh asked.

'Four, it doesn't improve a lot, said Selva.

'Your Great Druid, Sian, how often?'

'Fifteen, sixteen times. I'm not sure.'

'Firehair has fought thirty-seven times. How does she do it?'

'She isn't like us, gods can't be. She is what she is, you are her minister sometimes and so am I. She is there every time, she was with you. It isn't thirty-seven times, or three hundred and seventy times; it's every time. I pity you, Tiger, but my pity for her has no bounds.'

'There are another two of them,' remarked Lycia.

'Don't worry about it. I'll take the next one,' said the Assassin.

Sir Uilleam was looking through the bookshelves. 'Worshipful Lady Felice, I've just found a copy of Tolquhan's “On Magecraft” and one of Rhiannon's “Meditations on Being”, I think it's the fifth.'

'Good, so aside from curing an ill six centuries old we'll be profiting. Very good,' said the Archwitch.

'I hate to interrupt, but someone's coming this way fast, and they don't sound friendly,' said Colgrim, clearing his new sword and standing away from the door. It vomited a horde of shambling undead things that had once been people.

A volley of charged bolts loosed from Dwarven crossbows met them, turning the archway into a slaughter house, and then the Knights and the Druids struck with broadsword and scimitar, Colgrim at their head. They hacked and slashed; rancid black blood splattered over them. Colgrim swung at desiccated faces whose eyeballs made disgusting sucking, scraping sounds as they moved in their sockets. He lopped hands terminating in filthy claw-like nails and he prayed to Torm for victory. The creatures seemed confused. Some were clearly trying to escape, impeding the others with their struggling. Especially they were trying to flee the Knights who sung a mournful hymn as they fought. Whenever a Knight even touched one of the things it simply collapsed into a rotting heap, and if their swords struck the hideous creatures exploded in a welter of decomposition.

The eruption ceased, clearly there were no more of the creatures left.

'What in the name of Torm were they?' the Sergeant asked.

'Revenants, zombies, take your pick for a name,' said Lycia. 'Undead victims of our enemy, raised from the grave by her magic. Anyone hurt? Scratches, cuts and bites are dangerous, those bastards carry disease.'

It seemed that everyone was alright. Most of the Knights led by Sir Uilleam were left to check through the bookshelves for valuable volumes and defend against any repeated attack by the revenants. Climbing over the dismembered undead the party moved onwards down the exit corridor, Colgrim and Tormod in the lead, the Blue Witch's light preceding them.

They emerged into another chamber, this time hexagonal, not rectangular, and with a domed ceiling. Lycia muttered a spell. 'No traps,' she stated.

In the centre of the floor was a dais of six steps topped by an hexagonal pillar covered in carved runes. On top of the short pillar stood a sphere that looked to be made of onyx, white and black tiger-striped onyx. Lycia moved towards it and examined it carefully from a distance.

'Felice, come and look at this. It isn't my field, but if I remember rightly, I think this thing is Rey'Allegn'e's Sphere of Summoning, Abu Tahir mentioned it once as an artefact of Vile Darkness, Ultimate Evil, something of that sort; he talked a lot about Vile Darkness.'

The Blue Witch stepped forward and moving around the object examined it from all angles.

'It isn't my field of study either, but I think you are right. I read about it in a footnote somewhere or other. I wish Lileas or Engerrad were here, they could tell us for certain. But if it is what we think it is, it explains what has happened. If somebody used that damnable thing then it's no wonder we've got something nasty on our hands.'

She detailed a guard of Druids to secure the chamber and they proceeded down the exit corridor.

'Hold it!' said Selva, who was now leading, 'Trap.' This was repeated several times in the corridor, the group pausing while she disarmed the devices. The corridor curved to the left and sloped gently downwards, and eventually they emerged into another chamber, one which had the appearance of a natural cavern perhaps a hundred feet in diameter.

Felice spoke a spell. That's a surprise,' she said, 'no traps.'

They entered the cavern and fanned out. For several minutes nothing happened and then the air opposite to them flickered, and the two remaining White Druids appeared.

'You still seek to intrude, go back before you face the wrath of Anat,' proclaimed Herfjottur.

'Or join us,' added Skogullur.

'I said these people were idiots!' muttered Colgrim sotto voce.

'They're gonnae end up getting' hurt real fuckin' bad, bah re wey!' said Tormod.

'May they receive what they deserve,' observed Lycia, 'nothingness.'

Selva of Cormyr stepped forwards, her robes swirling. 'I am Selva, Archdruid and Debtera to the Great Druid of the Forest. I, hundredkiller and commander of horse, bid you surrender in the name of the Order of the Wise and of Nature's Balance, the which you have too long defied, degraded ones. Your time is done, but you can avoid being reborn as lesser creatures if you surrender now, and it may be that in time you will again resume a place among the Wise. By your acts you presume too much. Beware, lest you bring the power of Retribution upon yourselves.'

'I call upon my rights under the Code of the Wise, I challenge you!' screeched Herfjottur.

'You?' Selva's voice was thick with contempt. 'Do you dare lay claim to the rank to challenge me? If so, I say that you lie, for my sister fought and slew your superior not one hour since. Neither of you have received the raising, you are not exalted ones, you have barely received the initiation. Fight me and you will die, as those of your rank who presumed so much deserve. I beg of you again, do not force me to be the agent of Retribution, but surrender and return to the Way.'

With a scream of rage Herfjottur sprang forward swinging her scimitar at the Assassin-Druid. The screaming blade struck at her enemy's head and shattered into fragments as if it had struck a rock, and a granite rock at that. She staggered and fell to her knees, clasping her broken right hand with her left, a right hand which was not only broken but blackened, cracked and bleeding, as if she had trust it into a blacksmith's forge.

'My Queen, help me!' she screamed.

'Nothing can help you,' the Assassin-Druid stated flatly. 'Now burn.'

And as Colgrim watched, the woman's hair flared away to nothing, smoke poured from every orifice of her body, her flesh blackened, bubbled, and having crisped, burst asunder, and she died.

Lycia looked at Skogullur. 'Be warned. You are my meat, and I have said how it shall be with you. Do you choose that it should come now, or will you prolong your miserable existence for a few more divisions of the candle? Think well, Blanched One, for I shall be the death of you.'

'You cannot challenge me, you are no Druid!' ejaculated Skogullur.

'In the desert there are no Druids, and so as the Grand Druid of all Faerun has proclaimed I stand in the place of one, as did Abu Tahir, my master. I do have the right.'

Skogullur quailed before the stony glare and set features of the Drow Mage-Cleric. If Colgrim had ever seen another's death writ in somebody's eyes, then that person was Lycia, and he didn't blame the White Druid for being scared one bit. She slunk back against the wall and stammered out, 'my Mistress will destroy you all!'

'It meseems,' said Felice, 'that there is more of hope in your speech than of truth. Let your mistress be never so powerful, yet we are many and she is but one. She has, moreover, a damnation poor choice of underlings and no Companions. Such is not usually the case with gods, even Talos is better served than she. So slink away with your tail between your legs, my little bitch-puppy, you are unworthy of my attention.'

The air flickered and the White Druid was gone.

''N naow what?' asked Colgrim.

'Now we wait, my friend,' Felice said, 'as long as we must. Now Anat, Queen of Blood, must come to us herself, and match her would-be-godhood against our humble powers and Retribution's certain decree, before which even the true gods tremble and to which even they are subject; think you, dear man, of what befell Bhaal and his offspring.'

'Dost thee mean that even gods doan't get owt fer nowt?' In his worried state, Colgrim had reverted once more to the broad dialect of his youth. 'Or fer t' matter o' that even bogles an' boh-ghasts. Aye, I ken that well enuff, lass! Oo doan't when wants they've tasted test o' strife. But I'm fair sure we'd best stand to all t' same, cos if t' others were easy, thisun woan't be! Likewise I'd 'av thee remember, lass, that even if t' Lord Ao Almighty 'isself stand at our side, nuthin's certain save death an' the taxmen cum fer brass as flies go for shite. Me uncle Waltheof told me that, an' 'e were a bright owld bugger, 'im! Never found 'is advice wrong as yet, 'tis 'ow 'e lived to be over ondred year owld. Sneaky owld bugger, 'im.'

They waited; two hours, four; nothing happened.

From time to time a Knight would poke his head round the door and report on the looting of the library, or a Dwarf would go off and come back with a similar report. It seemed that all was going well there, with valuable books being found every few minutes. However the strain was enormous, for to expect an attack and not to suffer it is one of the worst things a military force can experience. It plays upon the nerves, for nobody can stand in a defensive posture for more than a certain length of time without flagging. True, the Dwarves still stood to arms, but amongst the humans and even the Elves and Half-Elves tiredness and boredom began to take their toll. A degree of disorganisation commenced to set in.

At length, when everybody had begun to be sure that nothing was going to happen after all, came the thing that they had feared.

This time there was no disturbance in the air; one second the Blue Witch's force faced a blank stone wall and the next she was standing there.

The Blood Queen was eight feet tall and nude, save for some jewellery and a sort of crown or tiara. The light flickered and gleamed on skin that did indeed seem to be made of polished and oiled bronze; her hair, cascading down her back, were slightly wavy and seemed to be made of fine brass wire. The being's figure was faultless and her tawny-eyed face was so achingly beautiful that it made one's breath stop. In her hand was the same kind of sword the statues held, an ugly weapon which looked to be made of black iron. Around her in the air hung a glow.

She looked around the chamber and her eyes then fastened on the Archwitch. She spoke in a voice like the music of temple bells.

'What do you here, servant of the False Gods, you and your lackeys? Why do you intrude upon myself and my servants? We have done nothing to harm you, as we had done nothing to harm the Elves when they destroyed this place. Of course, you are Sidhe, aren't you, little Witch?' she said, narrowing her eyes. 'Always the Sidhe were our enemies, even long ago, back on the Old World, on Ge. So that is why you are here, isn't it? These foolish humans and Dwarves and your malignant offspring, the Elves, whom I hated for their resemblance to you, believed you, didn't they? They didn't know that you were simply trying to settle a grudge old beyond worlds.'

'I have absolutely no idea of what you are talking about,' responded the Archwitch, in the tone of an exasperated teacher talking to a particularly dim-witted student.

'Liar!' spat the Blood Queen. 'Or is it that you are such a fool that you do not hear the message in your blood?'

'If you say my blood tells me that you are an abomination that must be destroyed and that it drew me here to see that done, oh I know that well enough, but of a feud I know nothing. I have never been to Ge and know few who have...'

The Blood Queen cut in, her voice singing like a blade in the still air; 'I escaped your kind once before, when they destroyed Ugaret, I killed many and my mate died. Now you shall die, and feed me. Come, minions!'

A familiar shimmer in the air, and Skogullur and another stood beside their mistress. The new white figure was half-clothed in the fragments of a vivid blue robe; her blanched and beautiful features were those of an Elf, as was her semi-clothed figure. She stood forward.

'I am Hladgunnur, the Archmage. Six centuries ago the Elf Queen sent me to destroy, but I learned to serve, gladly, and now I bring you your death.'

'She should have sent a Bladesinger,' said Lycia, shrugging off the left hand side of her robe, revealing a complex scarlet tattoo that covered her shoulder and spread down onto her breast, then shrugging it back into place. The blanched mage recoiled in obvious fear. 'Yes, I am Bladesinger, and that means not my death but yours, traitor. She probably drained your magic with your colour, like the apes who pretend to be Druids.'

The White One hissed a sentence and tossed a spell as a stream of lightning. It struck a shield spun out of thin air. Lycia threw a return spell; a stream of flame that splattered and dashed against the evil Archmage's white breasts, like water against an iron plate. The White One lofted a stream of acid from her fingertips, that splashing against the stone of the floor left melted pits in the cobbles. Spells slashed backwards and forwards; neither Mage seemed to be harmed, until Lycia raised her staff and uttered a single word, 'Umrzec!' A shaft of darkness sprang from the head of the staff and stabbed into the white-skinned Mage's chest, again and again. She staggered and fell, tried to rise to her knees and fell again.

Even as her eyes began to cloud over in death, she spoke in a cracked and rasping voice. 'I, who was Azuriel, thank you, Respected Sister; you have delivered me from a nightmare six hundred years old. Accept my blessing and slay the One whom I summoned, the One who drained me and the others of life for all these years. Destroy her, I pray you, Bladesinger.' And so saying she died, holding out her hand to the Drow in mute supplication.

For a second everybody was deafened by the scream of rage which ripped from the throat of the Blood Queen; it seemed to Colgrim that they could have heard it back in Cloyne Bridge. Then the air in the chamber erupted into searing flame, humans fell burnt to charcoal; Dwarves staggered, protected by their special Behir scale mail and their tough constitution, but they cursed as the ends of their beards and hair flared. Colgrim felt the terrible heat, but it had no effect upon him and he realised that Felice had cast a spell around Lycia and himself as well as in self-protection. The Druids, immune to fire by nature, and a few Knights protected by spell and armour, drew their weapons and closed on the bronze figure with deadly intent.

A second before they struck, the Dwarves unleashed a volley of crossbow bolts. Bolt and sword hit simultaneously and bounced from the brazen flesh, leaving not even a scratch. The Blood Queen screamed again, and swung the great black cleaver than she carried. It struck with an enormous clang, hurling Knight and Druid backward like dried leaves before the wind. Others slashed and hacked at her again and again, their blades failing to have any effect. She flowed forward, striking at her attackers with the blade in her left hand, and with her right gestured and yelled out a spell. Five Knights began to convulse and then all eight. Half a dozen Druids were smashed to the ground by the sword. More Dwarf bolts struck and exploded into flame, but Anat did not even stagger, though the blast felled two more of the Druid Guards. The remaining Druids blurred into animal form, Tiger, Direwolf, Leopard, Lion, Wolf; Eoraidh and Selva became Earth and Fire Elementals. All sprang forwards, eager to test what natural weaponry could do against her, immune as she seemed to be to artificial.

The struggle shook the cavern, the Druids were hurled in every direction, crashing to the ground stunned. This time it appeared that the Blood Queen had been hurt. She staggered and panted, what looked like bruises had appeared on her bronze flesh, but the Druids, some of whom had reverted to their natural form, were clearly incapable of any further action.

The Dwarves uttered a strange, low, groaning noise and drew their axes and warhammers. 'Awricht, you bluidy bitch, let's see how well you do against real sodgers en a rammie. C'mon bhoys, let's gae raj!' greated Tormod. 'Pogue mahone!

They rushed forward but were met by the White Druid, who blurred into the form of a troll and smashed into them, arms flailing. Axes and hammers thudded against the stone skin, making wounds that healed immediately, or none at all. Curses rent the air. Tormod was sent crashing to the ground, his helmet shattered and blood pouring from his nose and ears.

Lycia spun, raising her staff, 'Umrzec!' The spear of darkness plunged into the troll's back, once, twice, three times, and the creature reverted to Skogullur's form, and fell to the floor in the midst of the fallen Dwarves. 'I warned you, bitch,' snapped Lycia; and then again, 'Umrzec!'

As the darkness lashed at the White Druid the Blood Queen flung out a hand and shouted a stream of syllables in an unknown tongue. A mist of whirling red particles like a carmine waterspout formed between her and the Drow. It spun forward and swallowed the Mage-Cleric up. A single word was screamed out from the vortex, 'Shar!' Then it retreated to Anat, seeming to flow into and over the brazen skin. Lycia lay stretched on the cobbles, her breath shallow. Felice ran forward, raising her right hand, standing between the fallen Drow and the foe and yelling out, 'Sotet pok ver laz verzes halott.' A flash passed between them. The Blood Queen staggered and then shouted the same sentence as before, with the same result. Engulfed by the bloody whirlwind, Felice yelled, 'Colgrim, kill her for me, my love!'

The sentence rang in Colgrim's ears and the tone of it he would never forget.

The Sergeant rushed forward, drawing the paladin's blade, and stood astride the fallen Archwitch. The Blood Queen laughed. 'Imbecile, you would stand against a god? You? I will rent your soul from you and you will spend an eternity of pain licking the soles of my feet.'

'Us'll see abowt that, I'll tak me chances. But you're going to die. Rest sure on that, ye owld witch!'

Pure bravado on his part; if Lycia and Felice couldn't stop her, he had no hope, but he'd die trying.

The great iron blade swung down on him and he hefted the broadsword two-handed to meet it. Colgrim had never heard a noise like that of the two blades as they met, a mixture of a clang and a shriek, like someone hitting a bell with a cat. The black blade shattered like glass, but the Sergeant was bashed to his knees by the impact, and his sword flew from his stinging hands. The Blood Queen's tawny eyes glowed with triumph, her lips curved back in a smile and she licked them as she spoke. 'And now, you are mine!'

In that instant which seemed to last for ever, so that he could hear dust falling through the air, Colgrim heard a voice in his head, the voice of a young woman, rich, deep, calm and wonderful as a mountain lake. 'Colgrim my friend, I, Retribution, stand with you. You are my chosen. In my name and in that of those you love, strike.'

Then another voice, also female and musical, but like a great bell over the marshes. 'Colgrim, I too stand with you. Let your power so long denied be released and come into its own. You, like me, took an oath; you promised to protect the helpless. Keep your word; I look forward to our meeting, young brother.'

The Sheriff Officer blinked, then he pointed at Anat and uttered these words; 'Fallen deity of a fallen people, join with the Eternal Darkness; Begone!'

He felt a terrible wrench deep inside, and for a second he went blind, or thought he did. While the darkness lasted that terrible scream came again, but this time it was a scream of desperation and it seemed to be fading. At the same time, a crashing explosion from the orb chamber shook the cavern.

The light returned and the Blood Queen was gone. He was lying on the floor next to Felice, looking up into Sir Uilleam's worried eyes.

'Thank Oghma, you're alive!' the Knight exclaimed.

'I doan't rightly know oo to thank, but I've felt better and that's a fact. Are the rest alright? Bugger whether I am,' Colgrim croaked.

'We tried to get in, but the doorway was warded. Then the wards just dropped, that bloody orb exploded, and they just dropped. The place is still shaking. What happened?' Sir Uilleam was flustered.

'Just you see to the wounded, man. I'll tell you later, probably,' said Colgrim, rolling over to look into Felice's slowly opening eyes; 'You awright, me lass, you look a bit queer.'

'Thanks to you and your spell, I am, Colgrim darling,' she muttered.

'My spell? I can't cast spells!' he spluttered.

Behind him he heard Lycia's familiar laugh, 'Try telling that to Anat! You mean you really didn't know you were a Sorcerer? I thought you were kidding -- we all knew! What a laugh! I must tell Jhaerex this one, he'll adore it. Come on, Eoraidh, you can't just lie there all day, we've still got work to do.'

'Moradun's hairy arse, mah fuckin' heid hurts somethin' terrible!' Tormod's voice; 'Ah'm bluidy glad I left the bomb bag back en the library, or we'd all hev snuffed ut! Come on bhoys, we've goat charges tae lay. Clangaddin's crotch, mah back! Torkil, help me up! That woman was worse than your fuckin' mother!'

Selva, her face badly bruised, but the bruises fading, swam into Colgrim's vision. She looked deeply into his eyes, her head dipping and turning, and massaged his temples with her thumbs.

'Well brother Colgrim, you don't look too bad, all things considered. Do you want me to heal those splinter cuts?'

'Don't matter, lass; look to the bad hurt, I'll heal up natural like. Thanks all the same.' Slowly and shakily the Sheriff Officer stood and offered his hands to Felice. 'How art thee?'

'I'm fine, brother,' she said.

'I'm going to go daft, happen someone don't tell me why every bugger and his mother has started to call me bloody brother,' said Colgrim.

'Because you're now a functional magic-user, dear!' responded Felice.

Colgrim spluttered, half started to say a dozen things, but Felice placed her forefinger on his lips and looked deep into his eyes. 'Great need changes the rules, and so do great anger and great love. Anyway, Sorcerers and Mages don't have the same rules, and you Colgrim are a Sorcerer; and more than that, being chosen by a god changes everything. And you have been, haven't you?'

'Yes,' he said.

Colgrim looked around the sunlit square, blinking to readjust his eyes. 'Something's different,' he said. 'With your destruction of the orb that summoned Anat, the dead magic zone ceased to exist,' stated Felice. He looked at the Dwarves, busily preparing charges to collapse the temple, moving spryly in spite of having packs loaded with books from the looted library.

'Is it really over?' he asked.

Felice, her arm around his shoulder, as it had been ever since they left the cave, smiled and said, 'Yes, you banished her, you blasted the orb. It is over; but this place is unclean, and it must be forgotten. See, Lycia is working her magic,' she gestured at the Drow Mage-Cleric, who was tracing a intricate figure on the ground with her staff and singing a long and complicated set of verses in the language of the Desert Nomads.

'What is she doing?' queried Colgrim.

'She is calling the Desert,' answered Felice, 'keeping her word to Skogullur. Even now, winds she creates are bringing uncounted millions of tons of sand to bury this place hundreds of feet deep. It will be as if it had never been. The Djinn, the Hakeasha and the Nishurru will come with it; this will be a Desert. The catacombs are flooded with the Weasel's poison gas, Tormod will blow up the entrance and then the sands will bury it.'

'And I'll go back to Cloyne Bridge and you to Ulcaster, and that will be that,' Colgrim was almost crying.

'No it won't!' Felice said determinedly.

'What do you mean?' asked the Sheriff Officer.

'This,' said Felice, and she kissed him, long, thoroughly, deeply and passionately.

Epilogue

The Archwitch Felice took Colgrim Etheridge back to Ulcaster with her after he left the Royal Tethyrian service -- which he did as soon as he could. The story of his training and of his eventual meeting with Maeve Firehair and Lileas, the Master of Magery, and the story of how he became Archsorcerer, is told elsewhere. So too is the story of how he and Felice married.

Lycia went back to her beloved Master Jhaerex in the Underdark, and their adventures are a legend in themselves.

Eoraidh became Grand Druid in the end, and Selva Great Druid of the Forest. Both can be found in other books. Tormod and his sodgers lived to fight another day, introduced many more people to the Wonders of Alchemie and were reunited with the Weasel and his Lady. You can read about them in later novels and in the short story 'The Siegemasters'.

Sir Uilleam was killed a few months later, trying to seize a convoy of books from the evil Zentarim. Sir Uilleam never did find out what happened to a fifth of the books they took from the library. Tormod could have told him, but the Dwarf didn't believe the contents of his Captain's library had anything to do with the Knights.

The Desert of Belcar in the midst of the Forest was still a desert more than seven hundred years later.

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Tigh Na Feidh: The Second Druidic Seat