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Chapter 3: Solidarity Dead on Target


— Sorcerers Almanac, Section Six:

On the Successful Use of Magic

The closest of the outlaws was only a few feet away, brandishing a large and lethal-looking length of steel. The rest of them weren’t far behind. Ignoring the fate of their stricken companion, they stood elbow to elbow, forming a nearly solid wall of flesh, steel, and leather as they confronted their prey—Erwyn.

The wolf finished her kill and sprang over to crouch next to the sorcerer. She barked once.

“Easy for you to say.” Erwyn knew what she meant. Do something. But what?

He racked his brains, trying to come up with a decent defense. If he just had more time to think! He needed a chance to compose himself, but he had a feeling the guy who was about to lop his head off wasn’t going to give him that chance.

There wasn’t enough room to try the sandcastle trick. Not enough distance to erect a suitably thick wall. What else could he try?

“Think, Erwyn, think!” he muttered softly.

The lead ruffian smiled in anticipation, showing gold-crowned teeth while he toyed with the point of his blade. He probably figured he had the upper hand. Erwyn figured he was right.

“Damn!” Erwyn rested his hand on the neck of the wolf. He had to try something. Maybe he could slow them down enough to allow him and the wolf to get away.

The guy in front started forward.

This was it. Erwyn quickly cast the first spell that came to mind. With his eyes closed. He didn’t want to see how it turned out.

After a few seconds, he cautiously opened his eyes, prepared to run as fast as possible in any direction that looked safer than where he was. He stared for a moment at what he’d done and realized he wouldn’t have to run after all.


— Sorcerers Almanac, Section Six:

On the Successful Use of Magic

“Oh, dear.” Erwyn collapsed where he was, eyes closed once more. In his hurry, he’d forgotten one very important detail.

The wolf whined, nuzzling Erwyn’s hand, and the boy reached over to scratch behind her ears.

“Yeah, I know, I know.” He rested his head in his other hand. A hard, familiar knot formed in the pit of his stomach. For the first time in a long while, Erwyn felt close to tears. “I didn’t mean to. I just didn’t have enough time.”

For an answer, the wolf leaned over and gave the boy’s cheek a tentative lick. Erwyn smiled sadly as he looked up into her eyes. Deep golden brown eyes stared back—so intelligent, almost human. Which reminded him: there was something he needed to know.

“By the way, what’s with the wolf bit, anyway? Did you just lure me out here so I could get mugged, or did you have another purpose in mind? Like maybe you wanted to talk to me. Fenoria.”

He felt a brief surge of satisfaction as the wolf jerked backward in surprise. She even looked a tiny bit worried.

“So, are you going to explain what’s going on? And why you’ve been following me around for the last year or so?”

For a second, Erwyn thought she might actually tell him. Then the sound of horses behind them interrupted the interrogation.

The wolf barked again, flashing what could only be the equivalent of a smile, then disappeared into the trees. Really disappeared. One moment she was there, the next moment Erwyn was alone.

Except of course for Chesric, Kerissa, Lariyn, Devydd, Viona, Fenoria, and all their horses and equipment. The princess, Erwyn noted, hadn’t stopped complaining.

“Couldn’t you guys ride a little slower? My hair’s a mess and my dress is simply ruined! I’m covered with bruises and I’ve broken another nail...”

If only she wouldn’t whine, maybe they could ignore her more easily. Erwyn kept the thought to himself.

Not to be outdone, Viona added her gripes to the general racket. “Listen, sweetie, you think you’ve got it bad. My dress is practically in tatters. And I worked so hard on it, too...”

Chesric rolled his eyes, dismounted, and walked over to where Erwyn sat. Somehow, without ever increasing his pace, he gave the impression he was running away from the princess. Everyone else sort of faded into the woodwork, some of them quietly.

“We saw them outlaws follow ye into the trees, boy. Then when yer horse bolted outta there like his tail was afire, we thought ye might need a bit o’ help.” Chesric glanced toward Erwyn’s sandcastle. “How many of them are in there?”

“Six.” Erwyn frowned at the structure he’d created, but made no attempt to stand.

“How long do ye think it’ll take ’em to dig their way out?” He didn’t look particularly nervous, just curious.

“They won’t.”

“What d’ye mean ‘they won’t’?” And maybe a little confused.

“I mean they won’t be digging their way out.” Erwyn fought to control his voice.

“Why not?”

Damn! He could be so dense sometimes. “Because they can’t. The castle is solid.”

“Ye mean they’re ...?”

“Dead. That’s exactly what I mean.” Erwyn sighed and rubbed his temples with his fingertips.

“Well, I was wonderin’ when ye’d think up a really good use fer that little talent of yers. Well done, boy!” Chesric laughed and gave him a pat on the back.

“I certainly didn’t do it on purpose!” Erwyn yelled at the old man. “You act like it’s such a great thing to kill people, the way you use that sword to slash through people like you were slicing cucumbers. But it didn’t feel so good to me!”

Chesric stood statue-still for a second, considering. “You’ve never killed anyone before.”

“Nope. Not that I know of. And definitely not on purpose. Unless you count slowing Sharilan’s army down long enough for the rest of you to cut them down to size. I don’t know if anyone died in the sand pit at Perbellum or the enchanted castle.” Or maybe broke an ankle or a neck in one of the holes he might have left when he practiced.

Chesric dropped down beside the boy. Erwyn wondered idly if the creaking he heard came from the old man’s leather garments or his joints. The two of them sat together in silence for a few minutes before Chesric spoke again.

“The world is a mighty rough place, and sometimes you’ve got to do things you don’t want to do.”

“That’s not the problem, Chesric. Death is a fact of life. I know that.” Erwyn scooped up a handful of dirt, rubbed it between his fingers for a second, then tossed it away from him. “And I knew sometime I’d have to do the killing myself. It’s just that …”

“Just that what?”

“If I’d had a little more time, I could have avoided this. I didn’t have the chance to think about what I was going to do.”

“You didn’t seem to have any trouble a few weeks ago. You were building and crisscrossing walls faster’n we could see.”

“That was different.”

“Really? How?”

“I was ready for it. Expecting it. I did all my mental preparations hours ahead of time. Those guys,” he nodded toward the sandcastle, “surprised me.”

“How the devil could six men who, I might add, rode here on very loud horses, manage to surprise you?”

“I was kind of busy. Preoccupied.”

Chesric stared at Erwyn, a peculiar look on his face.

“Don’t look at me like that. I was talking to someone.”

“Who? We didn’t see anyone when we rode up.”

“Just someone. Nobody important.” Erwyn tried to sound nonchalant, but Chesric wasn’t fooled. He was, however, discreet.

“You know, you’re not always going to have time to prepare. Life is chock full of nasty surprises, and a lot of them prefer to jump out and yell ‘Boo!’ rather than having themselves formally announced.”

“Yeah, I know. I just don’t know what to do about it.”

“We’ll think of something.”

Erwyn wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that. “By the way, when are you going to tell me why you hang onto the phony accent?”

“Someday, perhaps.” The old man’s mustache twitched. “Maybe when we have a little more time. Meanwhile, we ought to do something about your, uh, friends there.” He slapped his thighs, then tried to rise. He seemed to be having some difficulty.

Erwyn stifled his snicker.

“Stop laughin’ at me and give me a hand, ye young whelp,” the old man growled. “See if ye get around half as good when yer as old as I am!”

Erwyn stood and extended his arm to aid Chesric. “I’ll just be happy if I live long enough to be as old as you.” Leaning back, he heaved his friend to his feet. “I only hope,” he added, groaning from the strain, “that, when that day comes, I don’t weigh as much.”

Chesric sputtered in indignation while Erwyn turned to the sandcastle and the task at hand.

“We can’t just leave it there,” the young sorcerer observed.

“Why not? How long will it last?”

“Until someone decides to dig into it, or the first hard rain, whichever comes first, I guess.”

“Is there something ye can do? Personally, I’d rather not have to dig them out to bury them. Actually, I’d rather not have to bury them at all.”

“Can’t handle a little hard work, eh, Chesric?” Erwyn had an idea already, but he couldn’t resist teasing the old man. Besides, it made him feel better.

“Just don’t see any point in doing more than is necessary.”

“Well, I think I might be able to help you there.”

Erwyn considered his options for a few seconds. Then he stared at the large block of sand, concentrating. A moment later the entire structure melted into the ground, leaving the area smooth, if a little sandy.

“What did ye do?” Chesric’s mouth hung open. Erwyn had to admit it was pretty spectacular.

“I moved the dirt out from under the castle. The whole thing just fell in. Got rid of the castle and buried the brigands at the same time.”

“Neat trick. But what did ye do with the dirt ye moved out?”

Erwyn smiled at the old knight. It was his turn to be smug. “I put it back where I got the sand for the castle. I think.”

“Nice job,” Chesric whistled. “Let’s hope no one and nothing fell into that hole in the interim.”

Erwyn glared at the old man. “Pessimist,” he muttered. He was trying to think of a really scathing reply when Devydd ran up to them.

“Hey, kid,” the thief took a deep breath before continuing, “I know you don’t much like her and all, I mean, she’s been a real pain in the rear, but ...”

“Wait a minute. Don’t like whom?”

“Princess Fenoria. I thought you’d like to know.”

“Know what? What about Princess Fenoria?”

“She’s disappeared.”

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