The Serpent and the Eagle

A short story by Pete Smith

A seagull flew over a deep valley, a tangled jungle with a brackish serpentine river flowing dully in it's center. It was a long way from it's coastal home, and did not care for the muggy humidity of the interior. Yet it was seeking, ever seeking, something it knew not what. It was as if voices would whisper to it every now and then... "over there," they'd say... "a little to the left - what's that? Take a closer look."

Obliging, the seagull coasted a little south of west, now, towards the south side of the valley. Up ahead, a massive bridge spanned the valley; thick columns of white stone reared up out of the jungle below, supporting a great span that must have run ten leagues or more. The seagull, sadly was unequipped with the knowledge to appreciate such an achievement. As far as he was concerned, this must be just as natural a formation as a mountain, or a tree. How it got there, all the sweat and blood and stone and lives it took, mattered not to him.

The voices spoke again, and he sought the south end of that bridge. Figures were moving on the bridge, plodding southward, and they had many shapes. Some were shaped like men, of the various shapes men came in. Others were larger, and many legged beasts, who carried burdens or men or both. None of this was very novel to the seagull; these were just things that man-things do. They do things without rhyme or purpose and there's no sense trying to comprehend it.

But the voices were interested, and they wanted to see the man-things on the bridge. So the seagull - who has no name, because of course, he is a seagull and they do not have names - looked at the man things on the voices' behalf. The lane of the bridge must have been twenty yards wide, and was paved with white flagstones. There was enough room for ten mounts to ride abreast, and in many parts, they did. The bridge was crowded. "Southward," they whispered, "over the bridge, on towards that hill..."

Swerving again, and beating his wings a little to gain altitude, the seagull flew towards the south end of the bridge. There it debouched into a wide hill, the first of the foothills of the mountains to the south. A wide road ran from the bridge, and forked, one way going east, the other west. The man-things seemed to be heading west, mostly, though some stopped and camped after their long trek across the giant causeway.

Beating upwards again, the voices found what they sought; a lone figure astride a reptilian mount, watching the people below from a high vantage point. "There!" they whispered. "Look at that! You may rest in the tree and watch from there." The seagull obliged, coming to rest on the branch of a wide tree. He examined the man below him.

The man had a brownish-green, scaly skin, and the head of a large serpent, perhaps an anaconda or boa constrictor. He wore a harness on which a variety of knicknacks and shiny things hung, and he sat on a large beast, another lizard, with a long tail big thick hind legs and a bony crest on its head and sharp fangs in its mouth. He and his mount looked hard, and muscular, and they had that predatory look that the seagull knew to shy away from. But the voices had commanded, and it never occurred to the seagull to defy them.

The man reminded him of the seagull's former home. It was a sprawling town on the seaside, and it was a seagull's paradise. Fishermen plied their boats there, and there was always the scraps of fresh fish around to feast on. Even the fishermen themselves smelled and looked like fish, and they seemed not to mind the seagulls' playful attention. But then the snake-men came, and the fishermen went away, and a fire burned the town. So the seagulls had to work for their fish once again. The seagull wished he could be in such a place again, and began to think fondly about fish guts.

The seagull watched for a time, but he gradually got bored, and his eyes started to wander. He watched his shadows for a time. They always fascinated him, the twin shadows of the light of the two suns. There on the ground was a red seagull, and a green one, the opal light of the twin red and green suns of the world of Kregen shone and created these two familiar friends for this humble seagull. They aped his movements, though they would never reply when he called them. But they always followed him.

Then, satisfied, the voices departed. The seagull cawed; he was free to follow his own inclinations, and he knew in the camp below there would be trash to root through and food to be found; man-things were always good providers, as long as you did not annoy them too much. He launched himself in the air again...

Lassak's forked tongue darted out to taste the air. There was a hint of smoke there, on the north wind, and that did not bode well. On the horizon he could make out a faint smudge in the hills to the north, north of the valley of Ghara across which spanned the Bridge of White Wind. That did not bode well either, nor did the hordes of homeless people venturing across the bridge to seek safety in the heart of the Empire.

He had railed at the refugees on the trail when he first encountered them on the great road. They ought to have known that to leave their homelands without the permission of the Emperor was forbidden, but as one man he soon found himself without the means to turn anyone back. The forts and towns along the road had long since closed their gates, and the garrison commanders would not stir themselves to halt the masses of people flowing down the road. Not even for an Emperor's man.

The cawing of a seagull woke Lassak from his reverie. He looked up, and a seagull flew off out from a perch in the tree above. Odd, Lassak thought; we're easily three hundred leagues inland, a long way for a seagull to travel. He had seen seagulls often on this journey, it occurred to him, or perhaps this was the same one, following him. Who knew, or could tell them apart.

He imagined for a moment that perhaps he stank of fish from his disastrous adventure by the sea. He had been a leader of men then, stout warriors from his clan of the great central plains. They had ridden down to the southeast to attack a small town on the sea, inhabited by their enemies, the fish people, or Ishkarim. He had heard that the people from the other side of the world called them "Shanks," though the word "shank" meant "to prize a nail out of wood." He had no idea why they called them by that name. Perhaps they considered the fish people irritating and hard to dislodge? Who knew.

The attack had gone well, and when the Ishkari reinforcements arrived to cut off his rear, his reserves, who had waited for just that moment, charged from behind a hill and routed the Ishkari. They retreated behind their walls, but the javelins of his men struck them from the parapets and the giant risslaca they had captured they drove against the gates, smashing them down. It ought to have been a great victory; his men had defeated a force twice their numbers, with minimal casualties, and the fish people had some tough warriors among them.

But everything went awry when his men entered the city. His mission was not simply to subjugate the town but also to bring back the priest Szentakar, who was a snake-man like himself. This priest and his men were part of that corrupt order of Nakarim, the vile and treacherous snake people who, unlike Lassak and his kind, had venomous fangs and could lick their weapons to poison them. Apparently, the men on the other side of Kregen called these men "Schtarkins," though that name did not mean anything at all and puzzled Lassak even more.

Many of his men died in fits from the smallest cuts from the barbed blades of the priests, though the priests themselves were no match for them otherwise. And when the palace had at last been taken, Szentakar was nowhere to be found.

With the city in flames, and much of the population escaped on their fishing boats, no one could say if he had burnt to death, or was hiding somewhere in the town, or had escaped, or perhaps had disguised himself as a lesser priest and had been killed. Mad with rage, Lassak had taken particular pleasure in putting that city to the torch and the sword. These were his instructions, but he had not expected to find himself such a wanton killer. But going from house to house, killing, burning, plundering, and most of all, searching, did not help him find that wicked priest.

And the sort of fighting that took place in that city had soured his men somewhat. It is one thing to cut down a man who is trying to stick a trident in you; it is altogether another to cut down a woman who, hiding in her cellar, defends herself by throwing her dishes at you. Rooting what Ishkarim remained in the town was a grisly task, and a dark mood had settled on his men since they left that town. And none had lapsed in as foul a mood as Lassak himself.

While the seers of the Great God Estredur the Unyielding teach that a man must learn to harden his heart, like unto a stone, so as he cannot be defeated by his own emotions, nevertheless it never seemed to him to be a proper occupation for warriors to kill such civilians. Of course, that was sloppy thinking; all the fish people were enemies, whether they wielded tridents or frying pans, and the Emperor had decreed that they must die. To resist this was folly, and, by Estredur the Unyielding, he would not allow himself to be defeated by the crying of a babe after defeating two thousand armed men.

Their return to the army had filled Lassak with dread. To report to the Emperor that he had failed to capture Szentikar would surely mean great suffering for him. He was afraid of the wrath of the Emperor and would have gladly died with an Ishkarim trident in his guts if it meant his success. But a heavy price was always paid for failure. He imagined that his body might adorn a spike outside the camp of the army, as a warning for others not to fail.

But instead, he had been sent to the sands of the great arena of Anshargor, to prove his worth to the Emperor. He had taken the trial of the fourth order in that pit of blood and death. And he had passed.

That made him a warrior of the fourth order, which was no mean feat. The trial required him to defeat four other warriors from the Emperor's army, all at once, and one of the men chosen to face him was Drakkar the long, who was a renowned warrior of the fifth order himself.

And yet, he had survived, and not only that; he had defeated four men as well trained as himself, not one by one, but all at once in one skirling melée. To do such a thing was to invoke admiration among his people. Some men, though idiots in Lassak's mind, went voluntarily to the arena, to prove themselves mighty warriors in the Emperor's eyes. He had heard of a precious few who had become warriors of the sixth, and even seventh, orders. He also knew that many would volunteer to be the opponents of such men, knowing that the chances of such a man were always poor when facing many opponents. The Emperor was known to be pleased when his warriors took cruel sport with a man who could not defeat all those arrayed against him.

He was glad to not have been killed out of hand, and even gladder to survive the Emperor's test. But what pained him greatly was to see that his men, all of them, would be put to the test as well, a test of the second order for each one. Each of his men would have to face two other men at once.

Most of his men did not pass the test; out of almost five hundred only a little more than a hundred remained.

To see his men, who had performed valiantly in battle, to be cut down by the punishment of the Emperor they served, drove a sharp pain in his guts. He watched, sitting at the Emperor's feet, as his men were cut down one by one. And every now an then the emperor would clap his hands, or laugh at the goings on in the pits below. While Lassak secretly cheered when one of his men survived, the feeling was poisoned by the Emperor's approval; he would say "Well played," or "Good move," or "Fine reflexes on that lad." Perhaps the Emperor truly did not care what hapened, and only cared for the prowess of his warriors. But Lassak found himself hating the Emperor.

Well, by Estredur the Unyielding, he would harden his heart. Would he ever!

His punishment had not ended with this, not by a long stretch of a risslaca's tail. His command had been stripped away, and he had been sent, and an emissary of the Emperor, to investigate rumors of unrest in the Eastern part of the Empire. With him were no servants, or guards, or armed men; he felt like some bureaucrat rather than a warrior. But he had gone. There was no point in bucking at the goads; the Emperor was all-powerful.

And what had he found? Thousands of people fleeing the Zishar Plateau, heading west for the heart of the Empire.

How was one man to stop them? He cajoled, he threatened, and he nearly got himself lynched.

So his duty remained clear; he must discover what the source of this exodus was; why had all these people decided to abandon their homes and face the wrath of the Emperor?

So far, he had heard stories of great, savage lizard people, coming out of the Great Swamps of Shargor, on the northern coast. These beast men came on, raving, killing and destroying, and even tales of cannibalism were heard. These ferocious creatures were apparently much larger than ordinary men and were the most bestial of savages.

Well, it sounded like one of the garrisons in the swamps had gone stir crazy and run amok. It was not unheard of; the swamps bred all kinds of strange diseases and many people were stricken with "Swamp Fever" each season, going mad, or having fits of paralysis or convulsions, and sometimes dying. But the numbers he saw told him that this was not just a bunch of madmen from the bayou; a whole army must have gone nuts, and reverted to this savage and bestial level.

But to report to the Emperor he needed to be sure. He had to see them first-hand. So, with a barely perceptible twitch of his knees, his mount wheeled about, and headed down the slope.

As he approached the column of refugees, they took note of him, and made way. Some must have recognized the brands and tattoos that marked him for an Imperial soldier, while others wisely kept clear of his mount, a Zachin, which have big fangs and claws and are known to be irritable. The Zachin's head turned this way and that, surrounded by a great many smells of myriad peoples.

Lassak found himself surrounded by people of all sorts. There were the sinuous snakelike Shalheen, with their great green and yellow stripes down their backs, there were the crusty iguana-like Gomecks, and there were the slick forms of the Thipidites, whose slick skin and salamander-like features made them seem alien to Lassak. The Empire of Shar was a reptile nation, and beings like the Thipidites were tolerated by the Emperor, but only just. Experience with the fish races had shown that they could not be trusted, and perhaps the amphibian peoples would be next. Although, the Thipidites had never been a military threat, and as long as they continued to pay homage to the Emperor, he was unlikely to bother.

He surveyed the seething masses with a steely glare. Most of the people averted their eyes and bowed as he passed, as was their duty to an Imperial agent, despite the fact that he was alone and surrounded by teeming masses of peasants. Most were really paying respect to his weapons and his fierce Zachin mount, since irritable Imperial riders were known to strike down those who failed to pay homage to the Imperial badge of office without reservation. It was hard to imagine that most of these held any real affection for the Emperor or his army; it was the threat of destruction by Imperial troops that kept them in line.

Well, in the long run, any Empire is really ruled by Force. Force is used to uphold the law, and execute the wishes of the rulers. The threat of force is the ultimate weapon to ensure compliance by the populace, and when a force within the Empire is not under the control of the rulers, war results. The region hereabouts had been conquered by men like Lassak long ago, and since then a few "lessons" taught by the soldiers of the Empire had served to guarantee loyalty.

Nevertheless, Lassak soon caught the eye of a Gomeck man ahead, who stood in his path defiantly, glaring up at him with arms crossed.

Lassak reined in his mount, and stopped in front of the man.

"Out of my way, citizen. I am on a mission for the Emperor, and I am sure you do not wish to interfere," said Lassak authoratatively. The rest of the people around had stopped to watch, most fearful of the consequences that were about to be heaped on the foolish Gomeck.

"One man!" the Gomeck replied incredulously. "The armies of Black Zuduur himself pour upon us and the Emperor sends one man! By Sharleena's Tears, it is not to be believed!"

Most of the onlookers made quick gestures to ward off the evil presence of Zuduur the hungry, the god of death. Few civilized people ever mentioned his name aloud without some dire reason.

"You mention the hungry one so casually. If you wish to speak with him directly, I will be happy to arrange it," Lassak replied coldly.

The eyes of the Gomeck narrowed. As far as Lassak could tell, he was armed only with an ordinary knife. "If I wished to see the claws of the black one, I would have remained in my home! But his armies contrive of deaths more horrible than even the Emperor ever thought of. His creatures have huge fangs, and they eat the men that fall into their hands, dead or living! You can kill me if you wish, but your sword does not frighten me half as much as that which pursues us."

Lassak was taken aback, and most of the onlookers made their superstitious gestures once again. A Thipidite woman to Lassak's left broke into tears, to be comforted fruitlessly by her husband.

Lassak paused for a moment. "What is it you want of me citizen? State your peace or let me pass. I have little time for dallying."

The Gomeck gritted his teeth. "Where is your army? Where is the mighty force that will drive this enemy from our midst? Surely you do not intend to face them alone?"

"If the precautions the Emperor made for the defense of this land were not adequate, then he will surely send more. It will be my job to deterrmine if that is necessary. And I will have to tell him that the people of the land refused to aid in it's defence; they fled from the enemy rather than fighting."

The Gomeck's jaw dropped. "How can you possibly expect that of us! We would have been swept away like a leaf in a rashoon! None can face this enemy and live."

"That does not abrogate your duty," Lassak continued. "Though your forces would be extinguished, nevertheless you would have taken some toll on the enemy, slowing them down and reducing their numbers. That death would have served the empire. Why should the Emperor send men who are willing to give their lives for the Empire, in order to protect those who are not so willing?"

The Gomeck stared at Lassak, and then he averted his eyes, looking at the stone of the bridge. "Many soldiers went out to fight them, lord. And none returned."

"Then not enough went," Lassak replied coldly. "Now stand aside."

The Gomeck, without looking up, stepped out of the path of the Zachin mount. Lassak spurred the mount again, and began again his ride across the great causeway.

At the center of the causeway the bridge widened, and the span was much greater than before. Here the causeway actually spanned the River Ghal, wending its way sinuously below. Here at the centre of the bridge the wind was quite strong, and little stone huts stood at the centre of the widened area, which was almost like a little plaza.

The suns were setting, and many people had congregated in the plaza area to make camp for the evening. The bridge was long enough that to cross it all at once in one day required that one begin at dawn.

Lassak reined in and dismounted.He would camp here for the night, among the many refugees who could not make it across the bridge in one day. Many had already put up tents on the pavement or or awnings attached to their wagons and carts. It appeared to Lassak that there were hundreds gathered here, at the very least.

Beside the little huts there were lineups of people, whom Lassak joined, nonchalantly. The huts contained winches and pails that would descend to the river below, to fetch up water. It took a long time for the pails to rise and fall, though there was one on each end of the chain, so when one reached the top, the other pail would have reached the water. The pails were in constant motion as the four little huts could not possibly meet the demand of all the people gathered.

Lassak thought a moment, and considered barging ahead of all these commoners. Technically it was his right as a servant of the Emperor. But to antagonize all these people did not seem wise, considering their numbers and their panicky state of mind. So he got meekly in line like any other citizen. There were perhaps a dozen people in front of him.

The people about were quiet, and spoke to one another in hushed voices. No one seemed to pay any particular attention to him; they went about the business of making camp and kept to themselves. The last waning light of the mighty red sun, whom his people called Sheor, streamed across the valley from the west. It was a pretty sight, with the red light glinting off the river below. Somewhere under that sun in the west, stood the great central plains, and the capitol of Anshargor, where the Emperor sat. The Emperor never had claimed to have set the suns in motion, but if he did, men like Lassak would have been sent to ensure that all confessed this truth. For a moment the red light streamed from the capitol upon the people on the bridge, and then, it was gone, and the world became dark.

Well, it was not a night of the Great Jeweller Jehannis, a moonless night. The Great Jeweller Jehannis is said to have made the stars and set them in their places in the heavens, so a moonless night is named after him.

But orbiting about Kregen there are seven moons, all of different sizes and demeanors. Two such moons were visible tonight, almost directly overhead; the two moons that some called "The Twins," and others called "The Lovers," though his people called them "The Duelists." They forever circled each other, and his father told him that they are deadly enemies, and one day one of those moons will spot an opening, and move in, and attack the other, and vanquish him from the sky. He did not know which one will win. As far as Lassak knew they had pirouetted about one another as long as men trod the earth, and were unlikely to finish their duel any time soon. But sometimes he looked up, as he did when he was a child, wondering if tonight would be the night for the moons to fight at last.

As he looked up at the moons, and at the stars as they came out in the deepening dusk, he was startled by a voice behind him.

"Line's moved up, sir."

He looked back, and behind him stood a middle aged man of the Akkarid race. He looked much like a crocodile who stood on his hind legs. There was a bit of a smirk on his face, but he had used the honorific "sir," indicating he meant no offence.

"Thanks, citizen," Lassak said as he moved ahead in line. He eyed this stranger warily. The man wore a peaked cap with a feather in it, and though colour was difficult to make out in the gloaming light he was certain the feather was brightly coloured, along with the scarf and jacket the man wore. The man also had a variety of pouches and belts strapped across his chest and waist, and Lassak gathered that this man was used to travelling.

"I see you are curious about me, and by Anzairo the Great, who wouldn't be!" remarked the stranger with a smile. "I am called Pithir of the Treasures, and I am at your service lord."

Lassak knodded. This Pithir clearly knew who he was, even in the dark.

"I am Lassak of the clan Tetrahak, warrior of the fourth order and Jehar in the service of the Emperor."

Pithir seemed suitably impressed.

"Naturally I assumed you to be in the Emperor's service; all you Neeshargs seem to be somehow," Pithir commented sagely.

"Well, not all. But many, of course. The Emperor is one of us, after all."

"Naturally, naturally. Don't mind me; I'm not criticising or questioning the order of things - it's just that Neeshargs don't go sightseeing often, so the ones we see out here all have some sort of 'official business' or some such thing."

Lassak grunted. It was not really a question.

"You'll pardon my ignorance, but 'Jehar' is a military rank, is it not?" the Akkarid asked.

"It means the commander of a Jehas, a unit of eight hundred cavalrymen. Zachin riders, in this case."

"Ahh, fascinating, fascinating," Pithir burbled. Lassak got the impression he knew exactly what a Jehar was. "But of course, your Jehas is not with you now, is it?"

"No, it is not," Lassak said with an air of finality. Pithir looked at his face, and then had the sense to let the subject drop.

Pithir, not to remain quiet for long, found another subject to discuss. "Ah, my friend, I can tell what you're thinking, though you are too polite to ask. Why is this man called 'Pithir of the Treasures,' you wonder. I can tell, sir, there is no need to ask. I will be happy to explain."

"Of that I have no doubt," Lassak commented wryly.

"You see, you are getting to know me already! That is a good sign, sir, a good sign indeed. Many people look upon me and say 'why is this man called "of the treasures?" He does not look rich or wealthy!'"

"I had noticed that too," Lassak agreed.

"Of course, sir, of course! But that is because my humble calling permits me to only take enough profit to live on; all else I surrender to the peaceful order of the Sisters of Rememberance."

Lassak nodded, agreeing, but starting to lose interest in the subject. The Sisters of Rememberance were a group of women dedicated to assiting the victims of the duress of war, particularily wounded and crippled war veterans. The Emperor tolerated them because they gave medical aid to his troops, but the fact that they assisted crippled men to live on after losing a leg or two after a battle seemed insulting. Why couldn't they let those men have an honourable death?

"And what calling is that, my good sir? I can tell you are puzzled. But my calling is a sacred one, one with deep religious significance."

"By Hebor of the Maze! Out with it man! I grow tired of your twaddle!"

"Easy, my lord, easy! I am a distributor of protective charms, totems, and wards, all blessed and sanctified by the head of the order, made with the strictest discipline and care, all guiaranteed-"

"You sell charms." Lassak finished for him.

"Sell, my lord, what a base word for what I do! I am not some huckster in a marketplace, who'd as lief rob you as give you a fair deal! I do this in the service of mankind, helping to distribute these wards for protection against those things that man cannot protect himself from. Do you want a charm that will ward off the yellow fever? Or the attention of evil spirits? These are things that the Sisters desre all men to be safe from."

"For free?"

"Ah, well, my friend, not quite, of course - now wait, before you get the idea that this is some base sales pitch, let me tell you that all we ask is a simple donation to the order, which I will faithfully pass on to them. The order is struggling, my lord; let me tell you that there has recently been a fire in their hospital in Korst, and the sisters are calling out in need for our aid. Only a few pieces of silver is all it will take-"

"I have been through Korst, my friend, and there was no fire there, nor a hospital of the Sisterhood either," Lassak replied coldly.

"Korst? Is that what I said? My, my my mind is getting addled these days. It was the hospital in Skorsang, that's it, I'm sure of it. Not Korst, of course -" Pithir paused for a moment, as if the gears in his mind were spinning freely.

Pithir began again, cautiously.

"Sir, if I might inquire, how recently were you in Skorst?"

"Oh about four days ago," Lassak replied casually.

"But sir! That is in the mountains to the south! Do you mean to tell me that you are coming from the south? That you are travelling north across this bridge?"

"That is so."

"By the Great Anzairo! You are going the wrong way! Haven't you seen this great river of people moving south?"

"I had noticed," said Lassak.

"But sir, only death awaits you on the north side! Had you not heard; a fell army of beasts marches on the cities of the Zishar! No one is safe, not even you!"

"I know. That is why I am going."

"Ha! Surely Hebor has you in his Maze of madness, man!" Pithir exclaimed. "Well, you are a warrior of the fourth order - what do you plan to do, fight them four at a time?"

"Do not mock me, Pithir. I do not care for that," Lassak said in warning.

"My apologies, Lord! No insult was intended, I assure you! I merely meant to caution you regarding the peril you face. These beasts are terrible to behold, foul creatures of the pit if I ever laid eyes on one."

"Have you?" Lassak asked, pointedly.

"I'm sorry?" The Akkarid stopped, confused.

"Have you seen them? This horror you described?"

"Yes, my lord, I have indeed. I saw them as they came down on the manor of Sir Agueiro, who had a plantation ouside of Pross. There were about forty of them, sir, and they were huge; they looked to be twice the size of the Shalheen who worked the plantation. The plunged onward with a maniacal abandon, and they butchered the people of the villa with glee. Then they began to eat some of the people they killed. It was horrible. Horrible!" Pithir shuddered with the memory.

"How did you escape them?"

"I watched from the top of a nearby cliff. They could not get to me easily had they tried, but I do not think they saw me."

"What did they look like? Were they a serpent people?"

"No sir, not like you. Their heads were shaped more like a Gomeck's, big and blunt. But they had rows of sharp teeth and a spiny ridge of bristles down their backs. And they had six limbs."

"Six limbs, eh?" Lassak pondered. Well, that was not unusual on Kregen but it did not sound much like a garrison of Neeshargs, nor of a local militia. "The extra pair... were they arms or legs?"

"Well, it looked like legs at first, but they reared up every now and then and used the middle ones like arms. The upper ones were the only ones they carried weapons in, though."

"Weapons! So they weren't complete animals, then?"

"Oh no sir. They wore harnesses of weapons, and they spoke to one another, though it did not sound like proper speech to me. But I could hear little from the clifftop."

The line had moved forward all the way, so now Lassak had entered the hut, with Pithir behind him. Lassak began to wind the winch that would bring a bucket full of river water to the height of the bridge, and he pondered the things that Pithir had said.

"My lord, If I may make a humble suggestion to one going boldly into danger. I have sold many charms in the past, to soldiers as much as any other trade. They usually buy love charms, or charms to ward away spirits, or charms to make them strong or give them great charisma."

"I thought you didn't sell them, merely 'distributed'?"

"Of course, sir, of course! But my point is that there is one charm I would recommend to you, who are clearly already a warrior of renown and need these things little."

"And what is that, Pithir?"

"It is called the charm of the extra eye. It will give you the gift of extra sight, so that others cannot sneak up beind you and cut you down with your back turned."

"This charm lets you see out the back of your head?"

"Well, not quite, sir, though it will warn you when danger approaches from behind. I have no idea how it works exactly. It is the magic of the Sisterhood."

"Humph. It sounds like it should be called 'the charm of the Third Eye'. 'extra eye' sounds a little... I don't know, clunky."

"Ha! they used to be called that, my lord, but once I tried to sell one to a Marliman - er, I mean distribute - I tried to distribute one to a Marliman. And, of course he pointed out that he already had a third eye, and a fourth as well! What could I say to that?"

Lassak smiled. "How much?" he asked.

"Why, my friend, a customary donation would be four silver dekars -"

"I'll offer you two, if you can catch them."

"Two! I never sold one for so little! You are not a charitable man, not at all, sir! What will the sisters say -"

"Catch!" Lassak said, as he tossed two of the thich silver coins into the air. They glittered and flashed in the moonlight like leaping fishes. Deftly, Pithir snatched them out of the air in one fluid move.

"Do not think my arm or eyes will fail me when silver is on the line, sir. Here is your totem."

Pithir handed Lassak a small metal item hanging from a leather thong. Lassak took it, but couldn't make out much detail in the dim light.

"Your arm and eyes may be swift, but you were aided by the light of the duelists, there," Lassak observed.


"The two moons, above us."

"Ah, I see!" Pithir exclaimed. "My people do not call them that."

"Oh? What are they called among the Akkarids, then?"

"They are called 'The Hagglers'."

Lassak chortled, and a wry smile appeared on Pithir's lips.

"So what, pray tell, do they haggle over?"

"Why, sir, they barter for the world of Kregen upon which we stand. Perhaps one day they will agree on a price..."

Lassak had no response for this, but it was just as well; the winch had finally brought the large bucket of muddy water up from the river, and Lassak filled his waterskins, lost in thought.