Free Fantasy Feature July 2021 | Legends of Lasniniar: Shadow Stalker

Legends of Lasniniar Shadow Stalker coverBarlo wanders the underground streets of Dwarvenhome with only the wildcat Sinstari for company.

His days of adventure seem long behind him. He misses the thrill of battle, the journey to strange new places…

He misses Iarion.

Bereft of the elven best friend who always accompanied him into danger, Barlo’s life now revolves around a seemingly endless stream of clan meetings.

But fate—and Sinstari—have other plans.

A stand-alone story of action and adventure from the World of Lasniniar epic fantasy series by award-winning author, Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Legends of Lasniniar Shadow Stalker Collection.

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Legends of Lasniniar: Shadow Stalker

Jacquelyn Smith

Barlo walked the streets of Dwarvenhome, his mind wandering elsewhere. Other dwarves passed him in the corridors carved deep into the heart of the Jagged Mountains with a nod or wave of greeting as he went by. Barlo acknowledged them out of habit.

Sinstari trailed behind him. The dwarves who noticed the wildcat gave Barlo a wide berth. Even though Sinstari had become a fixture of the city, the cat still spooked most of the dwarves, who rarely ventured above ground. Barlo shrugged off their reactions. He was used to them by now.

His thoughts returned to the latest round of clan meetings and he suppressed a yawn. With the Third War of the Quenya over and the Free Peoples of Lasniniar liberated from Saviadro and his minions, a new, more peaceful era had begun. Although some of the Marred Races still wandered the lands in scattered groups, they were hardly a threat. As a result, the topics of the meetings had begun to focus on more tedious, internal concerns. After everything Barlo had gone through to help overthrow Saviadro, the meetings held little interest for him.

He missed the days when he could wander the lands in search of adventure, Iarion at his side…

Barlo shook his head, pushing away his familiar grief. Iarion was gone. The elf had died during their quest to reunite the Quenya. After the magical force had been rejoined, Iarion had passed on, leaving Barlo without his best friend. Even though he knew Iarion would eventually be reborn, years had passed since his death. Barlo missed him every day.

The wary glances in Sinstari’s direction only reminded Barlo how different he was from most other dwarves despite his similar to them he might look with his ruddy complexion, brown beard, and thick frame. No one from Dwarvenhome had traveled as much as he had, and none were as close to the elves. Barlo’s adventures had set him apart.

Sinstari ignored the looks. Barlo found himself taking comfort in the cat’s stoicism. Sinstari was even more of an outsider than he was. The cat had been born and raised in the north, in the wood of the Wild Elves, before becoming Iarion’s companion. Iarion had asked Barlo to take care of Sinstari for him before he had died.

In Barlo’s opinion, the cat was more than capable of taking care of himself, but he didn’t have the heart to refuse his friend’s last request. Although Barlo had doubted the cat would stay with him in the underground city, Sinstari had followed him willingly. The creature’s constant presence had become a comfort to Barlo over the years. Sometimes, he felt like Sinstari understood him better than anyone else.

Barlo suddenly found himself at the door to his home with little recollection of how he had gotten there. The realization disturbed him. It wasn’t like him to be so vague. Perhaps he should go above ground for a walk before supper to clear his head. It would give Sinstari a chance to hunt.

Opening the door, Barlo was surprised to hear a strange, but familiar voice speaking. He couldn’t quite place it. The male voice was speaking in Dwarvish, but Barlo couldn’t make out the conversation from where he was standing. His hand resting lightly on the ax at his belt, Barlo entered the room.

A familiar dwarf was lying on the couch. His black beard swiveled toward Barlo. Barlo held the visitor’s green gaze, trying to place him. The lad reminded Barlo of someone…

“Lorugo,” Barlo said, the pieces falling into place. The young dwarf was the nephew of Galhalga, Dwarfhaven’s Chief of Clans. Lorugo had helped Barlo and his companions during their quest to reunite the Quenya.

“Greetings.” Lorugo gave him a weak smile.

For the first time, Barlo noticed he bore bandages on his head and shield arm. Narilga hovered nearby, putting away her medical supplies. Barlo gave his wife a questioning look, which she answered with a small nod. Lorugo’s wounds weren’t serious.

“What are you doing here?” Barlo asked. “Last I heard, you were an emissary for Dwarfhaven at Belierumar.” The human city was the only home to Greater Men in Middle Lasniniar.

“I am. Lord Golaron asked me to deliver a message to you.” Lorugo rummaged in the pouch at his belt and pulled out a nondescript envelope.

Barlo frowned. “Why not send one of his own couriers?”

“Not that we aren’t happy to see you,” Narilga said, giving Barlo a pointed look.

Barlo flushed. “Yes, of course.”

“Golaron gave me the message in secret,” Lorugo said. “Didn’t trust one of his own to deliver it. I was attacked on my way here by a group of Darkling Men.”

“Huh.” Barlo held the envelope unopened. “Where did they attack you?”

“The Narrow Pass.”

Barlo cursed. “What is it about that blasted pass?” The pass was close to Dwarvenhome and the perfect spot for an ambush. It seemed to draw dark creatures like metal filings to a magnet. “How many?”

Lorugo shrugged with a wince. “Five or six. I didn’t stay to count the corpses. I think I killed all of them.”

“Well?” Narilga asked.

Barlo raised an eyebrow. “Well, what?”

“Are you going to read the message?”

“Oh, right.”

Barlo held the envelope for a moment before opening it. A strange feeling had fallen over him. He had been wishing for some adventure in his life. Something told him Golaron’s message would give him more than he had bargained for. With a sigh, he drew the letter from the envelope.

Barlo recognized Golaron’s firm hand, although most of the messages that had come to Dwarvenhome since the war had been in his wife’s script. It was written in the Common Tongue.

We require your advice and assistance in a delicate matter, which would put us in your debt. Please come quickly, for I fear the issue is time-sensitive.

The letter was not addressed to Barlo and was unsigned. He handed it to Narilga to read.

“Golaron gave you no verbal message to go with it?” he asked Lorugo.

Lorugo shook his head. “No. He was very hushed up about it. Didn’t seem to want anyone to overhear.”

Barlo paced. Why would the Lord of Belierumar send him such a letter? Golaron and Silvaranwyn must be in trouble. Barlo had seen little of them since their wartime quest together. The thought of Silvaranwyn being in danger worried him. Barlo had developed a protective fondness for Golaron’s elven wife. But as much as he wanted to go, he knew Narilga worried about him when he was away. Since the war, he had stayed home to allay her fears, but the monotony of life in Dwarvenhome was starting to get to him.

But what if he didn’t go and something happened to his friends? For all it didn’t say, Golaron’s message sounded ominous. Could Barlo live with himself if he didn’t go?

Narilga put a hand on his arm, stopping his pacing. He turned to look into her steady, deep blue gaze.

“You should go,” she said.

“What? But I thought… Are you certain?” Barlo narrowed his eyes.

“They need your help. And you need to get out of the city for a while. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Belierumar isn’t that far.”

“But—”

Narilga put a finger to his lips. “Go.”

A surge of excitement went through him. He tried to hide it, but Narilga saw it anyway. He looked down at Sinstari. “I guess we’re going to Belierumar.”

* * *

Traitor’s Road was quiet. Barlo saw no one as he traveled toward the Narrow Pass. It was strange being on the road again by himself. Well, Sinstari was with him, but the cat wasn’t exactly a chatty traveling companion.

The tower of Mar Arin rose to the west, its three spires piercing the sky. From this distance, it was hard to tell, but Barlo thought the tower was still empty. Lysandir had planned to move in, but Barlo guessed the Learned One of Fire was still busy in the north, retrieving scrolls and artifacts from his former home in Mar Valion and from his brother, Feoras’s, belongings, which were on the isle of Rasdaria. Surely, Golaron would have summoned Lysandir instead if he were in the neighborhood. Whatever was going on at Belierumar, a sorcerer would probably be more helpful than a single dwarf and a wildcat.

Barlo had brought no one else on this journey or told anyone outside his family and Lorugo the details of his trip. As much as Barlo would have liked to come to the rescue with a contingent of dwarves, Golaron’s note implied the need for secrecy.

Who would want to threaten the royal couple? Barlo had no idea. As far as he knew, Golaron and Silvaranwyn were beloved by their people. Golaron had been a member of the quest that had overthrown Saviadro, and Silvaranwyn was such a beautiful, kind creature, no one could help but like her. Since the people had no contact with the elves before the war, Silvaranwyn was also an exotic rarity in the human city.

Barlo’s musings were interrupted as he and Sinstari reached the southern entrance of the Narrow Pass. He loosened his ax in his belt. Time to focus on the task at hand.

He was no expert tracker, but spending years as a close friend of a Wood Elf had rubbed off on him. Keeping his ears strained, he bent low over the ground. He could make out bootprints traveling south and east. The strides matched those of a dwarf. He decided they must be Lorugo’s.

Barlo followed the path of the prints into the pass. Although the presence of the mountains towering over him on both sides would usually bring him comfort, there were too many places to hide among the rocks. He pulled his ax free, his brown eyes darting over the rocky terrain.

Sinstari was missing.

Where had the blasted cat gone off to? Just when his presence would have come in handy… Barlo resisted the temptation to call out for him. No need to alert anyone else lurking about. He returned to his tracking, ax in hand.

Barlo nearly tripped over the first body as the trail took him around a bend. His sudden arrival startled some crows, who had already arrived to scavenge. They took to the air with harsh cries, circling for a moment before flying off.

Once his pounding heart had slowed to a more reasonable pace and he determined no one else was about, Barlo bent to roll over the body. Swarthy skin, brown hair, and crude armor… He was a Darkling Man, sure enough. His spear rolled from his limp hand as Barlo moved him. A gaping ax wound marred his chest. Whatever tribal markings had adorned his leather jerkin, they were indecipherable from the bloodstains. The purse at his belt was empty.

As Barlo moved farther down the trail, he found more bodies. There were five in total. None bore any clue as to their origin or the reason behind their ambush. Barlo stood over the fifth corpse, considering.

What were these men doing here? Had Lorugo been the target of their attack, or did the young dwarf only have the misfortune of stumbling across their path? Were the men part of a larger force? Saviadro’s surviving minions had scattered after the war and tribal conflicts made the Darkling Men unlikely to work together in large groups.

Barlo’s thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Sinstari. Barlo gave the cat an accusing look.

“And where have you been off to? Couldn’t wait for your next meal, or did you think there might be a lady cat somewhere in the vicinity?”

Sinstari gave him a withering look, his tufted ears flattening for a moment. Then he turned, looking over his shoulder at Barlo. He took a few steps before looking over his shoulder again.

Barlo sighed. “All right, I’m coming.”

Sinstari led him onto a small trail that climbed up the mountainside. Barlo searched his memory of the area. A small cave should lie in this direction. Perhaps it was where the men had made camp.

Sinstari came to a sudden stop. He looked back with a glare when Barlo bumped into him.

“My apologies,” Barlo said, “but you could have given me some warning.”

With what sounded suspiciously like a sigh, Sinstari stepped aside, revealing the body of a sixth man. Barlo looked back down the trail and saw a trail of blood he had failed to notice before. Like the others, he was a Darkling Man felled by an ax wound. It looked like he had fled up the trail, away from the battle below before bleeding out. Barlo rummaged through the man’s belt purse without much hope and was surprised when his probing fingers felt the cool touch of metal. He dumped the contents of the purse on the ground.

Silver coins flashed in the sunlight. Barlo frowned. Darkling Men didn’t have their own currency. They used bartering and blackmail to get what they wanted. He picked up a coin to inspect it.

One side was engraved with the likeness of a tower city. Barlo’s stomach tightened. Only one such city existed in Middle Lasniniar. He flipped the coin over, hoping his guess would prove wrong.

The other side of the coin bore the stern profile of a familiar face: Lord Eranander. Barlo cursed. The former Lord of Belierumar and Golaron’s father, his likeness was still used on all that city’s coinage.

Either the Darkling Men had stolen the money, or someone from the city had paid them to watch over the pass. If Barlo had found these men without having received Golaron’s letter, he would have dismissed them as simple robbers, but an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach warned him otherwise.

Whoever was giving Golaron and Silvaranwyn problems didn’t want them sending for outside help. Worse, they were aware Lorugo’s trip to Dwarvenhome was more than a courtesy visit, even though it sounded like Golaron had taken precautions to keep his message secret.

Barlo shook his head. What was going on here? Whatever it was, it didn’t bode well for his friends.

With a new sense of urgency, he pocketed the coins and summoned Sinstari. It was time to go.

* * *

Barlo arrived at Belierumar a few days later. A hushed air of tension had fallen over the tower city. The guards seemed nervous and alert, while the people Barlo passed in the streets wore worried expressions. This only added to Barlo’s curiosity. Although Golaron’s message had been secretive, the city folk were certainly acting is though they knew something was wrong.

A page led Barlo and Sinstari through the hallways of the tower to the Hall of Portraits, where Golaron was already waiting. He seemed unaware of Barlo’s arrival, gazing at a painting of a woman in armor. Her auburn hair was bound in braids and her blue eyes seemed to look out from the canvas.

Barlo felt a pang of sorrow. The artist had captured Linwyn’s proud, warrior spirit perfectly. He blinked unexpected tears from his eyes and turned his attention to Golaron.

The Lord of Belierumar had gained a few silver strands in his dark hair since Barlo had last seen him. His expression looked pinched and worn, his bronze skin paler than it should be. Still, no one could mistake the high cheekbones and stubborn chin that matched the portrait of his dead twin. As different as he and Linwyn had been, they had always been inseparable.

“I come here every day,” Golaron said in a quiet voice. “I look at her portrait and ask myself what she would do. We were always supposed to rule together.”

“I know,” Barlo said, feeling inadequate. “I miss her too.”

Beside Linwyn’s portrait, Lord Eranander seemed to glare at them. His deep blue eyes and proud features matched Linwyn’s. The artist had captured the twins’ father in his prime, before his face had grown lined and careworn and his dark hair had become streaked with gray. Although he had been a good ruler, Barlo hadn’t cared for the man. Now even Eranander’s portrait made him uneasy. He slid his gaze away.

Golaron turned to face him, his hazel eyes sad and weary. “Thank you for coming. I am sorry for all the secrecy, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Bah, I needed to get out of Dwarvenhome and stretch my legs a bit anyhow,” Barlo said. “What’s the trouble? The city seems wound up about something.”

Golaron frowned. “You have identified one of the problems already. We have been in talks with Nal Huraseadro. They are still underpopulated since the war. Most of their people are widowed wives who work the lands with their children. They need men and we need the goods they provide.”

“Sounds like a fair trade.”

“It was.” Golaron sighed. “Everything seemed to be going well. My last message to them was a written contract that finalized our agreement. Their response was baffling. Lord Andiraron insisted we had insulted his honor and swore he would never deal with us again. He closed by saying any future emissaries would be treated as spies.”

Barlo’s eyes widened. “I always thought he was a reasonable man. Is that what’s gotten everyone around here on edge?”

“That’s just it. Nal Huraseadro’s message was only read by myself and the council. They have all sworn to keep the content of our sessions in strict confidence. I would trust any of them with my life. But less than a day after we received the message, rumors started spreading that Nal Huraseadro was planning to declare war to expand their territory.”

Barlo snorted. “That hardly makes sense. They need every able body they have at home to keep the city going.”

“I know. But now that the rumors have started, I have no way to convince my people otherwise. My last missive from Nal Huraseadro is hardly friendly.”

“Wait,” Barlo said. “You said this was one of the problems. What else is going on?”

Golaron shook his head. “As frustrating as our situation with Nal Huraseadro may be, I am afraid I summoned you for a more serious matter. Come with me.”

Barlo trotted behind him, Sinstari at his side. Golaron led them to an upscale wing of the tower. Plush carpets muffled their footfalls. The journey ended at the double doors of a chamber that was guarded by sentries. They moved aside to allow Golaron to enter.

Stepping inside the room was like stepping into a forest. There were plants and flowers everywhere. The air was filled with their fragrance. A servant looked up at them before returning to his work with a watering can. Barlo smiled. These must be Silvaranwyn’s chambers. Golaron adored his elven wife and did everything he could to ensure her happiness and comfort. The room even had a south-facing balcony, where Silvaranwyn could look toward her former forest home.

When the elf woman turned to face him, Barlo realized his vision of her on the balcony had been no mere fancy. He hastily smoothed his unruly hair and beard as she approached. She gave him a gentle smile, but her silver eyes looked tired. Her long, dark hair was bound in a simple braid, revealing her pointed ears. Barlo’s eyes traveled from her face to her swollen abdomen.

“You’re with child!” Barlo flushed at the idiocy of his statement. Despite being very pregnant, Silvaranwyn moved with the same grace she always did.

“Barlo,” she said with another smile. “I’m so glad you’ve come.”

“Congratulations on your upcoming child, my lady,” Barlo said, trying to recover. “Congratulations to you both! Narilga will be so pleased.”

“Barlo, when have I ever been ‘my lady’ to you?” Silvaranwyn asked with a stern look.

“Well, you are the Lady of Belierumar now. My wife is always trying to get me to improve my manners.”

“That has never stopped you from being rude before.” Golaron smirked.

“And this is hardly the time to start being formal,” Silvaranwyn said. “I am already ‘my lady’ to too many. I will always be ‘Silvaranwyn’ to my friends.”

Barlo sensed some of the loneliness behind her words and nodded. “Very well. But if Narilga asks, you must tell her I at least tried to be proper for once.”

Silvaranwyn laughed. “It shall be done. Now why don’t we sit? I am finding it difficult to stay on my feet for long these days.”

Golaron rushed to settle her in a nearby chair before sitting beside her. Sinstari padded over and lay at her feet. Barlo chose a low footstool for himself. Although all the furniture was padded, it was framed by intricately-carved wood that was polished to a sheen to display its natural color. Barlo suspected it was another nod to Silvaranwyn’s heritage.

For a moment, they sat in comfortable silence. The only sound was the occasional rustle and splash as the servant tended the many plants.

Barlo cleared his throat. “So what is this other problem? Surely you didn’t summon me to play midwife.”

Golaron opened his mouth to speak before frowning and closing it once more. He looked from his wife back to Barlo.

“Someone is trying to kill me,” Silvaranwyn said.

For a moment, her words didn’t make sense. “What?” Barlo shook his head in denial. “Who would do such a thing?”

“That is why I sent for you,” Golaron said. “We don’t know. Whoever it is has made several attempts. They have been designed to look like accidents. Just the other day, she was shoved from behind into the path of a loaded wagon in the courtyard. It was moving at full speed. Only her bond with the horses made them stop in time. The culprit seems to know Silvaranwyn’s every move, so they must be someone from inside the tower. I don’t dare search for the them publicly. I’m afraid I will only force their hand.”

“Who else knows?” Barlo asked.

“No one,” Golaron said. “Until the culprit is found, I can trust no one else. That is why I sent Lorugo to you in such secrecy.”

“Someone did know,” Barlo said, a sick feeling building in the pit of his stomach. He relayed the story of how Lorugo had been attacked by Darkling Men in the Narrow Pass, handing over the coins he had found. Golaron inspected them with shaking hands.

“This cannot be,” he said. “Who would stoop to hiring Darkling Men?”

“Who stands to gain from Silvaranwyn’s death?” Barlo asked with a shrug.

Golaron shook his head. “No one.”

“And how do your people feel about Silvaranwyn?” Barlo pressed. “Do they accept an elf as their lady?”

“The people adore her!” Golaron took Silvaranwyn’s hand in both of his own.

“What about you?” Barlo asked Golaron. “Do you have any enemies who would want her dead? A spurned lover from your past perhaps?”

“No!” Golaron flushed.

“And there haven’t been any threats or attempts at blackmail,” Barlo said.

“Neither Golaron nor I have received any threatening messages,” Silvaranwyn said. Golaron was still trying to compose himself.

“My apologies for asking such blunt questions,” Barlo said. “I haven’t been here, so I need to know the lay of the land.”

“We understand,” Golaron said. “I—” A knock interrupted him. He rose from his seat with an apologetic look. “Excuse me.”

Both Barlo and Silvaranwyn sat quietly as Golaron answered the door. The visitor was an elderly bearded man dressed in the blue robes of the city council. His voice was low and urgent, but a few words drifted within earshot.

“…people are agitated…Nal Huraseadro…We must do something.”

Golaron spoke some calming words of reply.

“…other strange news…lineage records…gone missing.”

Golaron sighed. “Have the archivist questioned. I will meet with the council shortly.” The councilor nodded and left.

“I’m sorry,” Golaron said, leaning over to kiss Silvaranwyn’s cheek. “I have to go. The Nal Huraseadro situation is heating up. I will come by after.” Silvaranwyn smiled up at him and watched him leave.

“He is doing everything he can,” she said to Barlo. “This situation has us both frazzled.”

“Understandably so,” Barlo said. “I don’t know whether this whole thing with Lord Andiraron has anything to do with the attempts on your life, but I need to find out. I’m going to visit Nal Huraseadro and try to straighten this out. I’ll leave Sinstari with you. He’ll keep you safe while I’m gone.”

“Thank you.” Relief flooded her features and she placed both hands on her swollen belly. “For weeks, I have been living in fear. Golaron wants to protect me, but he cannot be everywhere at once. Someone must rule the city.”

“All this stress can’t be good for the baby,” Barlo said with a frown. “Have you picked out a name yet?”

“Two names.” Silvaranwyn gave a mysterious smile.

“Two names? I had thought you would be able to sense whether it’s a boy or a girl. I thought most elves could.” Barlo suddenly felt as though he had been hit upside the head. “Oh, two names. Does Golaron know yet?”

“It’s a surprise. You mustn’t tell him.” She gave him a stern look.

“He won’t hear it from me!” Barlo said. “Now I’d best prepare for my journey if I’m going to protect you and your offspring. You should rest. I promise, I will do everything I can to help you and Golaron.” He hoped it would be enough… This was far more of a predicament than he had been expecting.

Silvaranwyn reached out and squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”

* * *

Barlo set out for Nal Huraseadro the next day. Although he had spent some of his time before his departure from Belierumar preparing supplies, he had also made a point of roaming the tower and listening to the local gossip, hoping to uncover some clue about the murder attempts. The only talk was of the unrest with Nal Huraseadro. No one seemed to be aware of the attempts on Silvaranwyn’s life and none of the people Barlo encountered seemed ill-disposed to her or Golaron. He would have to investigate further when he returned.

He took the first day easy, making camp before nightfall outside the mouth of the Southern Passage. He didn’t want to chance the pass in the dark. He decided to keep a cold camp. Who knew what unfriendly eyes might be watching? He found himself missing Sinstari’s silent presence. If nothing else, the cat’s large, furry body pressed against his back would have helped keep him warm.

The next day dawned cool and overcast. Barlo entered the Southern Passage with his ax ready. The looming mountains seemed full of unfriendly shadows. Barlo’s nervous eyes darted from crag to crevice, searching for enemies. He found none. Maybe he was being paranoid. It wasn’t as if he had announced his travel plans before leaving.

The mountains finally fell behind him and Barlo paused to rest. Another day’s journey and he should reach his destination. The open grassland of the Upper Daran Nunadan stretched before him, marked only by the Great North Road. To the east, a wisp of fog drifted from the Hills of Mist. Barlo almost fancied it looked like a horse. No, several horses.

Barlo scrambled to his feet. Five Darkling Men rode toward him on ragged-looking mounts, their spears held poised to strike. Now he really wished Sinstari were with him.

He ran back to the pass. He was only one dwarf on foot. He would have to even the odds. His eyes combed the barren rock. There.

Barlo threw himself at an outcropping, scrabbling his way to the top. At least now he had a height advantage. He waited for the riders to enter the pass and drew his throwing ax. He threw it at the man in the lead as soon as he came within range. His weapon caught the startled man in the chest. He fell from his horse to the ground. One down, four to go.

Barlo’s throwing ax was the only missile weapon he had. He knew if he stayed on his perch, his attackers would only pin him there. If he returned to the ground below, they would easily overpower him from their mounts. He needed to do something unexpected. What would Iarion have done? He had only a moment to act.

The answer came to Barlo with a groan. There was no help for it. He knew if he hesitated, he would only change his mind.

As the line of men rode toward him, Barlo launched himself from the outcropping, ax drawn. He swung it as he fell, severing the leader’s head from his shoulders. Barlo landed on the man’s horse in front of him, facing backward. The startled horse reared, toppling its headless rider. Barlo braced himself as he slid toward the beast’s rump. The rider behind him pulled up short with a panicked expression.

Somehow, Barlo managed to stay on. The horse lowered its forelegs and he used the opportunity to right himself, clamping his short legs to the horse’s sides and facing forward to clutch its mane. He forced himself to keep his eyes open. Dwarves were never meant to ride!

His mount must have sensed his nervousness. It bucked, but Barlo held on like a burr on the beast’s back. Unable to dislodge him, it panicked and reared again, its eyes rolling wildly. When Barlo still did not roll free, it turned to face the rider behind it, the only enemy it could see. One of its lashing hooves hit the rider’s head with a sickening thud. The man slumped and fell from his mount only to be trampled. Barlo shuddered at the feel of the rider’s body under his horse’s hooves.

The trampled man’s horse went into a panic of its own, rearing before charging the two mounted men on the pass behind it. The men rolled from their horses’ backs with startled curses. All the horses ran for the mouth of the pass, away from the battle, including Barlo’s. While he could use the opportunity to escape, Barlo knew the horse would eventually manage to throw him. Not to mention he had no idea how to control the wild beast. He also didn’t like the idea of leaving any of his attackers alive to report to whoever had hired them.

As his mount ran past the corpse of the first man he had killed, Barlo jumped from the horse’s back, rolling away from its wicked hooves. As he rose, he snatched his throwing ax from the dead man’s chest and hurled it at one of the remaining men. It caught him in the throat and he crumpled to the ground.

Now only one Darkling Man remained. He approached Barlo warily, his spear held ready. It darted toward Barlo’s side. Barlo twisted out of the way with a grunt. He needed to end this battle quickly. These men had wasted too much of his time already. He would have to travel all day and through most of the night to reach Nal Huraseadro. He didn’t dare spend any more time on the road than necessary now that he knew he was being hunted.

Tucking into a roll, Barlo bowled into the man’s legs, toppling him. Barlo was the first to reach his feet, leaning over his opponent. The man tried to raise his spear in time to block the blow, but he was too late. Barlo’s ax landed in his chest and his spear fell from limp fingers.

Barlo stood, panting. He was glad the fight was over, but what had he been thinking? He had no business trying to ride a horse. He was lucky he hadn’t been killed. At least the beast had done half his work for him. He was glad no one else had been there to watch. He would need to make some creative adjustments when he told this tale to his friends and family.

Great idea, Iarion.

Even in death, Barlo’s friend seemed to mock him. Barlo could just hear him making some clever remark about how Barlo’s tromping had attracted his enemies.

Barlo shook his head with a smile and bent to tug at the dead man’s purse. It looked heavy. He poured the contents into his hand.

Of course. More Belierumar coins.

He retrieved his throwing ax and started jogging north. He couldn’t reach Nal Huraseadro soon enough.

* * *

Barlo reached his destination the next day. It was mid-morning when he arrived. He had barely paused to rest since the attack. His eyelids were heavy and his feet felt like lead. His face split in another huge yawn.

The city gates were guarded by a pair of young lads, who eyed him suspiciously before allowing him to enter. Inside the walls, the streets were fairly quiet compared to the bustle of Belierumar. Barlo saw women performing various tasks, often with young children in tow. The only men were the elderly and some boys who had just come of age. Even the blacksmith was a heavyset woman.

Barlo meandered toward Lord Andiraron’s hall, which was in the eastern section of the city. No one greeted him as he passed. Before he reached the lord’s hall proper, he made a detour to dunk his head in a nearby horse trough. The cool water revived him as it trickled down his face and neck. He pulled a worn, tartan handkerchief from his pocket and dried himself with it, smoothing his hair and beard. Once he was satisfied with his appearance, he approached the hall.

An elderly gate warden stepped forward. “Halt. What stranger seeks audience with Lord Andiraron?”

“I’m hardly a stranger,” Barlo said. “I’ve been here before. I came here during the war with the Learnéd One, Lysandir, and some other companions.” Even though Barlo wasn’t close with Lysandir, he knew the fire sorcerer would have been the most memorable member of their party.

“Who else was with you?”

“Two elves, a man and woman from Belierumar, and a man from the Daran Falnun.”

“Hmm, yes. I remember.” The man frowned. “That lovely, golden elf lass was with you and the twin heirs of Belierumar. The elf woman is married to the Lord of Belierumar now, did you know?”

Barlo did his best not to roll his eyes. “Yes. I’ve just come from there. I need to speak with your lord.”

“Just come from Belierumar? Oh, we’re not too fond of that city these days.”

Barlo sighed. “I know. That’s why I’m here.”

“Well, I hope that young lord of theirs has sent a message of apology.”

Barlo’s eyes widened in confusion. “Apology? What for?”

“For breaking off the treaty! Don’t you know anything?” The man glared at him.

Well that was certainly interesting. “I think there’s been some confusion. The message Belierumar received was that your lord had no interest in bargaining with them.”

“Why wouldn’t we want the treaty? Have you seen our city? If we don’t get some men to keep the bloodlines going and help with the work, there won’t be much of a city left!”

“I can see that,” Barlo said, his patience waning. “Now, can I please see your lord so I can try to get to the bottom of this?”

“Yes, yes. No need to be rude about it. The sooner this gets mended, the better. Leave your weapons here and I’ll announce you.”

Barlo gave his name and title and the man went inside. He returned a few moments later.

“The lord will see you now.”

Barlo entered the arched hall, following the carpet that ran between two rows of stone columns. Lord Andiraron sat on his throne, watching him approach. He had already been an elderly man when Barlo had last seen him. The years since the war weighed heavily on him. New lines were etched around his dark green eyes. Both his sons had fallen protecting the Pass of Stars, which had been overrun by Darkling Men. Barlo had heard his wife had died of grief soon after.

A young woman with chestnut hair and wide, doe-like eyes sat next to him, a swaddled infant in her arms. Barlo realized she must be his new wife. Without any heirs, the lord had no choice but to remarry.

“So, you have returned,” Lord Andiraron said. “My warden tells me you bear news from Belierumar. What insults does Golaron wish to hurl at us now?”

“Begging your pardon, my lord, but Golaron never insulted you in the first place.” Barlo explained his friend’s side of the story and Belierumar’s unrest .

“We would never invade them,” Lord Andiraron said, shaking his head. “How could we even if we wanted to? We need all the people we have left to keep the city running.”

“I’ve brought the message Belierumar received from your scribe. Perhaps he should review it.” Barlo pulled a sheaf of parchment from an inside pocket.

The lord summoned his scribe and Barlo handed the message over. The young man wrinkled his nose. “This is not the message I sent.”

“How do you know?” Barlo asked. “You haven’t even read it yet.”

“I would never use such crude parchment for a message between two lords. The handwriting isn’t mine either.”

“Let me see that.” Lord Andiraron held out his hand. A few moments passed as he read the message. He banged his fist on the arm of his throne when he finished. “This is not what I dictated. I would never send such an insulting message!”

“I have a copy of the original here, my lord,” the scribe said, pulling another parchment from the stack of papers he carried. Even Barlo could see the difference in quality. The parchment Golaron had received seemed crude by comparison.

The lord reviewed the message before handing it to Barlo. “Yes. This is the message I sent.”

Barlo skimmed the contents. They were a politely-worded request to set aside any perceived differences in favor of the treaty and a suggested date for it to be enacted. The seal matched the one on the message Barlo had brought.

“Someone obviously tampered with the copy Golaron received,” Barlo said. “But it also bears your seal.”

The scribe picked at the offending gob of wax with a fingernail. It peeled away easily. “If the same person stole the original message, they could have transferred the seal.”

Barlo pulled out another piece of parchment. “I also have a copy of the message Golaron sent. Can you compare it with the one you received?”

The scribe rummaged through his pile and found the message. It had been written on another rough piece of parchment and bore Golaron’s seal, which also peeled off with little effort.

“Who would want to create strife between our cities by ruining this treaty?” Lord Andiraron asked.

“Would any of your people have a reason to want Lady Silvaranwyn dead?” Barlo suspected he already knew the answer, but it was worth a try.

What?” the lord spluttered. “Of course not! My people are far more concerned with trying to feed themselves than with the fate of an elven lady in another city. What does Silvaranwyn have to do with this?”

“I’m not sure,” Barlo said. “Nothing, maybe, but something isn’t right about all this.” He explained the situation.

“How horrible,” Lord Andiraron said. “I thought Silvaranwyn a lovely woman when I first met her in your party. I would never wish her any harm.”

“One more question about the mixed messages,” Barlo said. “Did you provide the messenger or Golaron?”

“Golaron provided the use of a messenger. He knew we do not have anyone to spare.”

“Thank you, my lord. If you’ll give me a new message, I’ll carry it back to Golaron and straighten this mess out.”

“Please do. The sooner the treaty is finalized, the better. I will have a new message ready for you when you leave the city. I would offer you an escort, but…”

“You have no one to spare. I understand. As long as the message is ready by tomorrow morning, that should be fine.” Barlo gave a jaw-cracking yawn. “I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

* * *

Barlo left Nal Huraseadro early the next morning with a new message from Lord Andiraron tucked in a hidden pocket inside his shirt. All dwarven clothing bore such secret compartments for hiding gems and valuables while traveling. No need to make the message easy to find by those who had been hired to kill him. He kept his senses alert and his hand near the haft of his ax as he made his journey south.

His caution proved unnecessary. No attack came. Whoever had hired the Darkling Men must have assumed their first squad had succeeded. Either that, or they hadn’t had time to hire another. Barlo only allowed himself to relax when the high wall of Belierumar came into view. Now he could clear up the misunderstanding with Nal Huraseadro and start working on the assassination attempts. He hoped Silvaranwyn was still safe. If anything had happened to her, he would have some stern words for Sinstari. The cat may not be able to talk back, but Barlo knew Sinstari understood him.

A guard approached him as he passed through the city gate. The man wore the gray cloak of a captain over his uniform. “Are you Barlo, Chief of Clans for Dwarvenhome?”

“Yes,” Barlo said, a chill of foreboding traveling down his spine. Where Silvaranwyn and Golaron all right?

“Take him.” The captain nodded to two other men, who pinned Barlo’s hands behind his back and bound them.

“What’s going on here?” Barlo squirmed in indignation as they removed his weapons and frisked him. They removed all his belongings as well. Only the precious message remained safe in its hidden pocket

“You are under arrest,” the captain said, giving the two guards a nod. He turned away and started walking. They dragged Barlo after him, one on each side.

“Under arrest?” Barlo shook his head in disbelief. “What for?”

“Theft and conspiracy.”

What? What did I steal?”

One of the guards snorted. “As if you didn’t know, dwarf.”

“The last dwarf who visited here, the emissary from Dwarfhaven,” the captain said without looking back. “He brought a gift of dwarven-made weapons. The weapons were stolen and replaced by useless pieces of rusted metal. The theft wasn’t discovered until after you left the city. According to an anonymous tip, you were seen entering and leaving the strongroom where the weapons were being held.”

“An anonymous tip,” Barlo growled. “How convenient.”

“Rumor of the theft has already spread through the city, along with a theory you were working with the dwarf emissary.”

“That’s ridiculous! Why would we do such a thing?”

“Thought you’d make fools of us, didn’t you?” Barlo’s overly enthusiastic guard shook him. “One dwarf generously gives us a cache of valuable weapons, but then they go missing. The first dwarf isn’t in the city anymore, so it can’t be him. But another dwarf has conveniently just come and gone. We know you took the weapons for him. All the dwarves at Dwarfhaven used to be traitors. Our people were foolish to think that had changed. Now all you dwarves are conspiring with them.”

“You do know the dwarves defended your city during the war?” Barlo quirked an eyebrow at him. “Great Galrin’s beard, my people helped break the siege! I was right on that wall of yours, fighting side by side with your people.”

“Which only makes you more of a traitor.” The man turned his head and spat. “You can’t trick us.”

“Yes, I can see that.” Barlo rolled his eyes. There would be no reasoning with this one.

“Captain!” A breathless lad ran toward them as they neared the barracks.

“Report,” the captain said. “Did you manage to capture the wildcat?” Barlo casually leaned forward to listen.

“No, sir. He got away. We have a team searching the tower now.”

The captain nodded. “Let me know when the beast is found. Dismissed.”

Barlo hid a smile. Sinstari had evaded the captain’s men. He may not be a creature of the city, but Sinstari knew how to remain unseen.

The captain led them inside an office attached to the barracks. Stone stairs led to a lower level underground. As Barlo’s captors dragged him down the steps, he made out a row of barred cells in the flickering torchlight.

A dungeon. Fantastic.

With one last cuff, the men tossed him into one of the cells. The door clanged shut behind them and the tumblers of a lock fell into place. Barlo took a moment to look around, pacing. Other than the iron bars, the dungeon was made of stone. Damp straw that smelled of mildew covered the floor of his cell. Two buckets sat in the corner. Barlo paced closer. One held water. The other was clearly meant for something else.

Only two other prisoners occupied the dungeon, but neither were in the cell next to him. Barlo’s cell was at the end of the row. There were no windows. A bored-looking guard watched the prisoners from a wooden bench by the stairs.

Barlo continued to pace. How was he going to get out of here? He silently cursed whoever had framed him and himself for walking into the trap. With both him and possibly Sinstari out of the way, there would be no one to protect Silvaranwyn. Barlo suspected Golaron would be busy trying to smooth over the rumors of the dwarves’ betrayal. Would anyone bother to tell him his friend had been imprisoned, or would that message go astray as well? Barlo felt a surge of panic. He had no desire to rot away the rest of his life in a dungeon.

The arrival of a servant halted his churning thoughts. The lad bore a tray of food. Barlo’s mouth watered. He hadn’t eaten since noon, and it was past supper time now.

“What’s that?” The seated sentry asked. “Prisoners have eaten already.”

“It’s for the dwarf.” Something about the servant nagged at Barlo. He recognized him from somewhere…

“Treating him nicely, are we?” the sentry drawled. “He missed dinner. He should have to wait until morning. That’s how things work around here.”

“Lord Golaron wants to make sure he’s fed.” The servant shrugged. “Do you want to eat it?” He held out the tray.

“Ugh, I don’t want that slop.” The sentry sighed. “Fine. I’ll give it to him.” He snatched the tray and carried it to Barlo’s cell.

The servant waited, watching. Barlo used the opportunity to study him. He was a lean, young man with a square chin. His dark hair was bound in a tail at the nape of his neck. It was impossible to tell what color his eyes were from such a distance.

The sentry shoved the tray through a slot at the bottom of Barlo’s cell door and stomped back to his seat.

“There. Happy now?”

The servant nodded and left.

Barlo sat, pulling the tray closer. A lumpy mass of indeterminate color sat in a bowl with a wooden spoon. Slop indeed. He tried mixing the contents, but it didn’t make them look any more appetizing. Why, anything could be in that bowl.

The thought nagged at him and he forced his thoughts back to the servant. Who was he? He reminded Barlo of Golaron.

Barlo dropped the spoon with a jolt. Yes, the stubborn chin, high cheekbones, dark hair, it all fit. Did Golaron have a mistress? No, the servant was too old to be his son.

What color were the lad’s eyes? If only he could have seen them…

Suddenly, Barlo realized he had seen them before. The servant had been watering the plants in Silvaranwyn’s rooms. Although he had mostly kept his eyes downcast as he worked, there had been a moment when Barlo entered the room with Golaron where he had looked up. Barlo closed his eyes, trying to bring the memory into focus.

Blue. The lad’s eyes were deep blue.

Several things clicked into place at once. The portrait of Golaron’s father, the missing lineage records, the assassination attempts… How had he not seen it? The guise of a trusted servant was the perfect position. He would have access to almost all rooms of the tower, and the chance to spy on Golaron and Silvaranwyn, all while remaining in plain sight. He would even have the opportunity to swap important messages. Barlo still didn’t know how the Nal Huraseadro situation fit in yet. He also didn’t understand why Silvaranwyn was the target instead of Golaron.

His gaze fell to the bowl of slop. The guard had been surprised the servant had brought it and the servant had stayed to make sure the guard gave it to Barlo.

Barlo pushed the tray away. He suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore. He waited for the sentry to doze and dumped the contents of the bowl into the waste bucket. He wondered how quickly the poison in the slop was supposed to act. How much time did Silvaranwyn have before the servant struck again?

Barlo began to pace once more, trying to come up with a plan as time trickled through his fingers. He had to get out of here. He would gain no sympathy from the sentry, he was sure of that. Maybe if he somehow manage to lure him into his cell? Perhaps he could overpower him and escape. But the sentry was armed and he was not. Even if Barlo did escape his cell, there would be more men upstairs. He couldn’t subdue all of them and he had no desire to kill anyone. That would only make matters worse.

Another familiar figure in blue robes arrived in the dungeon, carrying a bundle. The sentry’s head snapped up and his eyes opened. Barlo realized the new visitor was the councilor who had brought Golaron the news of the missing records. He spoke to the sentry in low tones. The sentry didn’t seem happy about what he had to say. He eventually rose with a grunt, approaching Barlo’s cell. To Barlo’s surprise, he drew a keyring from his belt and unlocked the cell door.

“You’re free to go,” he said with a scowl.

Barlo didn’t need to be told twice. He trotted out of the cell to greet his benefactor.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” Barlo asked.

“Here.” The councilor handed Barlo the bundle. Barlo realized it contained his belongings. He quickly put his axes back in his belt and stowed everything else where it belonged. “Lord Golaron heard about your arrest. I would have come sooner, but the information seems to have been delayed.”

“I’m not surprised,” Barlo said. The servant probably expected Barlo to be dead by now.

“Since the only witness to your supposed crime won’t come forward, and there is no other evidence against you, Lord Golaron has ordered you be freed, but the matter is still under investigation. He asked me to tell you that he knows you have been framed. He would have come himself, but he is busy with the preparations for the feast.” The councilor led Barlo up the stairs and out of the barracks. Barlo could feel the guards’ hostile glares as he passed.

“Feast?”

“Today is the anniversary of the end of the war. We celebrate with a midnight feast. Everyone in the city will be there.”

“Even Silvaranwyn?” Barlo’s suspicions mounted.

“Yes, of course the Lady Silvaranwyn will be there.”

As soon as they were away from the barracks, Barlo pulled the councilor aside. The city streets were quiet. He had lost track of time in the dungeon, but darkness had fallen. He fumbled inside his shirt and withdrew the hidden letter.

“Give this to Golaron,” he said, pressing it into the councilor’s hand. “Make sure no one sees you do it, not even a servant.” He explained what he had learned in Nal Huraseadro.

“Why not deliver the information yourself?” The councilor frowned.

“There’s something else I need to take care of first. Tell Golaron I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Barlo turned to leave.

“Wait! Lord Golaron asked me to deliver another message: ‘Silvaranwyn had problems on the stairs today, but she recovered. She has as many lives as a cat.’”

Another thwarted assassination attempt. Thank the First Father Sinstari had been there. The servant must be getting frustrated. If he had been willing to poison Barlo, his next attempt might be desperate. A crowded feast would be the perfect place to strike.

“Lord Golaron said you would know what it meant,” the councilor prompted when Barlo didn’t respond.

“It means I don’t have much time,” Barlo said. Without any further explanation, he ran off into the night. He had an assassin to thwart.

* * *

Barlo’s route to the tower was roundabout. He ducked into alleys and took side streets to avoid patrols and the odd passer-by. Although Golaron had freed him, sympathy toward dwarves wouldn’t be running high among the rest of the city. Even when Barlo reached the tower, he approached it from the side to lurk in the shadows near the servants’ entrance.

He squinted up at the night sky. There were still a few hours before midnight. Surely the guilty servant would need to return to his lair to retrieve whatever weapon or tool he needed for his plan. He couldn’t keep any damning evidence in his quarters in the tower since he likely shared them with other servants. Barlo hoped he hadn’t missed him already. He leaned against a stone wall and waited.

Other servants came and went on errands for the upcoming feast. Nearly an hour passed before Barlo’s target appeared. He walked with the purpose of a servant on a mission, his pace hurried and his eyes forward. As soon as the lad was out of range of the torchlight, he looked over both shoulders and slipped around a dark corner. Barlo forced himself to wait a few moments before following.

When Barlo rounded the same corner, the servant was already out of sight, but there was only one direction he could have gone. They were behind the tower now. The crumbling remains of stone huts stood abandoned in the darkness. Perhaps they had once belonged to high-ranking servants or those who had helped build the tower. The area was silent, except for the distant rush of the River of Sorrow.

Barlo flattened himself against a stone wall and peered into the night, wishing he had the eyesight of an elf. He squinted into the darkness for a few breathless moments before he spotted movement. The shadow was only a few huts away. Barlo slipped from where he was standing to the shadow of the next closest hut, hoping the servant didn’t look back. Dwarves weren’t exactly known for stealth.

Was this what it had been like for Iarion whenever he had gone off to scout? Barlo doubted his friend’s heart would be hammering so loudly in his chest. He took a deep breath.

Steady, Barlo. You can do this. If only Iarion could see you now…

He peered around the corner and stifled a curse. The servant was gone. He could almost hear Iarion’s mocking laughter.

Where had the lad gotten to? Wherever he was, it couldn’t be far. Barlo pushed away an image of the servant doubling back and finding him, only to stab him from behind. He looked over his shoulder and let out a relieved sigh. He was alone. He realized he was being paranoid. As far as the lad knew, Barlo’s corpse was already rotting in a jail cell.

Barlo moved to the shelter of the next hut. He still couldn’t see his quarry, but a muffled light was coming from somewhere ahead of him. Sticking to the shadows, he moved closer.

The servant had entered one of the dilapidated huts and lit a lantern. It seemed unnaturally bright in the surrounding darkness. Barlo edged toward the hut’s window, his back against the wall.

Inside, he saw the lad put something in his pocket before snuffing the lantern. The sudden absence of light made it difficult for Barlo’s eyes to adjust. He blinked rapidly, straining his ears for sounds of movement. He heard none. When he could finally see, he looked through the window. The hut was empty. Leaving the shelter of the shadows, he stepped into the open, his ax drawn. The servant was nowhere to be seen. This time, he cursed aloud. So much for capturing the little weasel.

The lad would be more familiar with the area than Barlo, so charging after him would do no good. If Barlo used stealth, the servant would be back at the tower by the time Barlo caught up with him. If Barlo captured him within sight of the tower, it would be his word against the servant’s and he didn’t even know exactly what the lad had planned. He doubted the guards would take his side. He would go back to jail and Silvaranwyn would die. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Sinstari to protect her, but it would be difficult for the cat to stay by her side at the crowded feast.

Barlo shook his head. There had to be another option.

Perhaps he could find some clues in the servant’s lair? If he could figure out the lad’s plan and reach Silvaranwyn in time, perhaps Barlo could stop him. It seemed better than anything else he had come up with. Barlo entered the hut.

He knew the location of the lantern from his glimpse through the window. He shuffled forward in the darkness until he bumped into a table. His fingers moved through empty air until he felt a smooth, glass globe. It was still warm. Fumbling for the fire starter kit at his belt, Barlo got a spark going. A moment later, the lantern flared to life.

The crude table was the only piece of furniture in the hut. A large tome lay open on its surface beside a mortar and pestle. Barlo leaned closer to read it. It was the missing lineage records.

The current page detailed the heritage of Golaron’s family. Barlo found Golaron and Linwyn’s names with their date of birth branching from the names of their parents. A third branch trailed from Lord Eranander’s name. It ended with another dated name: Falaron. The date implied this third child had been born long after the twins, whose mother had died in childbirth. A small set of hand prints had been made in ink below the child’s name, presumably to identify him. No mother was listed.

So, Barlo’s guess had been correct. Not only had Lord Eranander fathered a bastard son, but he had also acknowledged him. Barlo wondered if the lord’s official acknowledgment had been a deathbed decision. It would explain why Golaron seemed to know nothing about his bastard brother. Golaron’s father had been a proud man, but he had died of a war wound while his legitimate son and daughter had been far from the city on a dangerous quest. Perhaps Lord Eranander had feared to leave Belierumar without an acknowledged heir.

Or maybe he had simply wanted to irk Golaron with his final act. Lord Eranander had always held him responsible for the death of his beloved wife. Linwyn had somehow managed to escape their father’s blame by being born a few minutes earlier. Barlo had seen firsthand that the twins’ father hadn’t been rational where Golaron was concerned.

Barlo noticed two scrolls lying beside the records. He unrolled them. The parchment was fine, but only slightly oily patches existed where wax seals should be. He scanned the contents. They were the stolen messages between Belierumar and Nal Huraseadro. Barlo gave a grunt of satisfaction at having his suspicions verified, even though he still didn’t completely understand the motive.

His boot hit something solid beneath the table. He crouched with the lantern to investigate. A large bundle, wrapped in burlap, lay on the stone floor. He twitched the wrapping aside to discover a cache of dwarven-made weapons. Excellent. Now he could clear his name.

Barlo rose to stand over the table once more, being careful not to bump his head in the process. Was there anything else? He had evidence that the servant—Falaron—had framed him and was a member of the ruling family, but he still didn’t know how he planned to kill Silvaranwyn at the feast.

He lifted the heavy record book and found another open book lying beneath it. The pages bore images of plants and a list of instructions. They were followed by a description of expected symptoms.

Barlo’s heart leaped to his throat. They were instructions for brewing poison. The page beside it was inscribed with the recipe for an antidote.

Of course! The servant had already resorted to poison once. Why not poison Silvaranwyn? Such a task would be easy enough in the crowded bustle of the feast. A vial of poison would fit easily enough in a man’s pocket. That was what Barlo had seen from the window.

He suddenly realized how much time had passed since he had entered the hut. He snuffed the lantern and bolted out the door into the darkness. He had no more time to waste!

* * *

Barlo pelted down the twisting corridors of the tower as fast as his short legs could carry him. He had used the servants’ entrance to avoid any guards. He had to reach the great hall before Silvaranwyn started to eat. Once he had manged to duck out of the bustling servant’s quarters, the hallways were quiet. Everyone else in the tower was already at the feast.

He skidded around a corner and almost slammed into a pair of guards watching the entrance to the great hall. They stumbled backward in surprise, but quickly recovered.

“What are you doing here?” one of them growled.

Barlo collected himself. “I’m attending the feast. It’s open to everyone, isn’t it?”

“It’s open to all citizens of the city, yes. No one said anything about dwarves.”

“But I’m a friend of Lord Golaron’s.”

“Our lord’s a bit busy right now. Perhaps you should come back later.”

“But—”

“He was in quite a rush to get here,” the second guard said to his companion, jerking his chin in Barlo’s direction. “Seems a bit suspicious, don’t you think?”

The first guard’s eyes gleamed. “You’re right. Maybe we should take him for questioning. We can’t risk the safety of the guests.”

Both guards moved in, swords drawn. Barlo’s hand was already reaching for his ax when he stopped himself. He couldn’t harm these men, no matter how goon-like they were behaving. He balled his hands into fists and one of the men chuckled. He didn’t have time for this!

The men both stumbled forward without warning, forcing Barlo to backpedal from the reach of their swords. Sinstari’s familiar features appeared between them as he shouldered the guards aside. He looked up at Barlo as if to ask what had taken him so long to arrive.

“I was busy, all right?” Barlo said. Sinstari walked past him with a sniff.

“It’s his cat,” the first guard said. “Get it!” Sinstari loped down the hall away from them.

“You go after the cat, I’ll deal with the dwarf.” The second guard said before realizing Barlo had already used Sinstari’s distraction to slip into the hall. Barlo heard a muffled curse as the guard tried to follow him through the milling crowd.

For once, Barlo’s stature worked to his advantage. The taller men and women of the city shielded him from view. But his lack of height also made it difficult to locate Golaron and Silvaranwyn. He worked his way farther into the hall until he made out a long table, piled with food. Golaron and Silvaranwyn sat at its head on plush chairs. It looked like the first course was being served.

Barlo’s heart dropped. Sitting next to Silvaranwyn on a lesser seat was the servant, Falaron.

Indignant voices raised in protest alerted Barlo to the guard’s closing presence. He shouldered his way to the head of the table, the guard on his heels. Just as he reached Golaron and Silvaranwyn, the guard clapped his hand on Barlo’s shoulder yanking him back.

Golaron stood. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I’m sorry, my lord,” the guard said. “He was acting suspicious. We couldn’t keep him away from the feast.”

Golaron frowned. “Do you have orders to keep him away?”

The guard flushed. “No, but—”

Golaron raised his hand to silence him. “Barlo is my friend and he is welcome in this city. I want him treated accordingly.”

“Begging your pardon, Golaron,” Barlo said. “But there are more important matters right now than your guard’s lack of courtesy.” He gave Golaron a significant look.

Golaron’s eyes widened. “You have found the person responsible for…our problem?” Barlo realized the crowd was watching them in confused silence.

“Yes, but first tell me: Silvaranwyn, have you eaten anything from the feast yet?”

Silvaranwyn’s fork dropped from her fingers with a clatter. “No, why?”

“Because your servant is planning to poison you.” Barlo jerked his head in Falaron’s direction, whose expression turned to a fair semblance of shock.

Golaron shook his head. “Barlo, that makes no sense. He is acting as Silvaranwyn’s food taster tonight. Besides, what would he stand to gain from her death?”

Barlo snorted. “Of course, he’s her food taster. I should have known. You had to make sure you wouldn’t be considered a suspect, didn’t you?” Falaron didn’t reply.

“Barlo,” Silvaranwyn said in her gentle voice, “please explain.”

“You really want to do this here?” Barlo asked, indicating the crowd.

“Yes,” Golaron said. “I want this sorted out now.”

Barlo sighed. “Very well, but don’t say I didn’t give you an opportunity for privacy. You want to know why your servant wants to kill Silvaranwyn? He’s your bastard brother.”

Shocked murmurs traveled through the crowd as Barlo’s words spread. Golaron and Silvaranwyn turned to consider Falaron, who cowered under their glances.

“You have proof?” Golaron’s face had become an expressionless mask.

“The stolen records,” Barlo said. “He took them. I followed him to an abandoned hut behind the tower, where he has them hidden. Your father acknowledged him as his son. I also found the missing dwarven weapons and the original messages between you and Lord Andiraron.” The servant’s face became unreadable.

“What did you mean about him being Silvaranwyn’s food taster?” Golaron asked.

Barlo kept an eye on Falaron as he spoke. “He had a recipe for poison and an antidote. I’m guessing he’s already taken the antidote and put the poison in Silvaranwyn’s food. He might not have had the chance to ditch the bottles yet. I suggest you either search him or find some rats to eat Silvaranwyn’s dinner.”

Both Silvaranwyn and Golaron paled. The guard moved from Barlo’s side toward the servant. Too much distance lay between them. Falaron drew a knife and coiled himself to lunge at Silvaranwyn and Golaron. Barlo’s fingers clutched at his throwing ax, but he couldn’t hit Falaron without harming Silvaranwyn.

Suddenly, Sinstari was there. He sprang toward Falaron, but the servant was already backing away with Silvaranwyn in tow, his dagger at her throat. The crowd scattered behind him. Everyone else froze.

“Why?” Golaron asked, his hands balled into fists. “Why kill Silvaranwyn? If my father acknowledged you, I would have accepted you as my brother.”

Our father,” Falaron said, speaking for the first time. “If our father acknowledged me, which he didn’t until he was on his deathbed, by the way. A fat lot of good it did me and my poor mother then. You and your sister came back, and somehow, we were forgotten in the shuffle. If not for you, I could have been Ruling Lord of Belierumar, just like Mother always planned.

“It was bad enough you came back, but then you had to bring your witch of an elf wife with you. I couldn’t have her whelping half-breed heirs to replace me. Why couldn’t you have just died with your sister and made things easy for me?” Golaron recoiled, pain in his eyes.

“Where is your mother now?” Silvaranwyn asked, her voice soft.

“She died of a fever, no thanks to the city physicians,” Falaron snapped. “I couldn’t even afford a proper grave for her. A fine end for a woman who bore a son of royal blood. She would be horrified to see you now.” He eyed Silvaranwyn’s swollen belly with disgust.

“Why cause problems with Nal Huraseadro?” Barlo asked. The question had been nagging at him.

“If the people began questioning Golaron’s leadership, I could easily overthrow him when I used the records to claim my heritage and solved the problem. I would be a hero and they would claim me as their new lord.” Falaron glared at him. “Why did you have to interfere? You should have died in your cell.” He still held his dagger against Silvaranwyn’s throat, his blue eyes wild.

Barlo decided it was time to take a gamble. He shrugged. “Maybe because I’m not a self-pitying bastard, who’s still hanging from his dead mother’s teat.”

Falaron uttered a wordless cry of fury, flipping his dagger to hold it by the blade and cocking his arm. Silvaranwyn used the opportunity to twist away from him, but he still gripped her wrist.

Barlo was faster. His throwing ax rotated through the air between them, landing in Falaron’s chest. His dagger clattered to the floor.

Gasps traveled through the hushed crowd and some of the ladies swooned as a pool of blood formed around Falaron’s body. Silvaranwyn backed away, her hands over her belly. A gasp of pain escaped her lips.

“What’s wrong?” Golaron rushed to her side to steady her. Silvaranwyn could only shake her head. “What’s wrong with her, Barlo?” He turned to his friend with panic in his eyes.

Barlo reached up to put a steadying hand on Golaron’s back. “I’ve seen this a few times before. Let me take care of it.”

He turned away and climbed onto the feasting table, pushing dishes aside with his booted toes. “Ahem. Can I have your attention, please?” Everyone looked up. He had never felt so many eyes on him at once. “Right. Is there a midwife in the hall?”

* * *

Barlo watched Golaron pace in the hallway outside Silvaranwyn’s chambers. The man was going to wear holes in the carpet if something didn’t happen soon.

“Maybe you should have another drink.” Barlo took a sip from his own tankard. He had more than earned his mead after all he had gone through over the past few days. Sinstari was curled up at his feet.

“How long has it been?” Golaron asked.

Barlo sighed. “Only a few minutes since the last time you asked. Can you at least sit to I don’t have to crane my neck up at you?”

Golaron whirled to face him. “How can you be so calm?”

“I’ve been through this three times, you know. I imagine I’ll soon be keeping my sons company while they wait for their wives to give birth, once they’ve settled down.”

A squalling wail cut off Golaron’s response. He stopped mid-stride. For a few moments, the cries went silent only to start again. Golaron’s eyes were glued to the chamber door.

An elf woman with golden skin and hair opened the door. Somehow, Silvaranwyn’s mother had known exactly when her daughter would go into labor and had arrived shortly after the scene at the feast. Her green eyes were filled with merriment.

“You can go in now,” she said, smiling at Golaron, who rushed past her. She stepped into the hallway to join Barlo.

“Thank you for saving my daughter,” she said.

Barlo rose and bowed. “No trouble at all, my lady.”

She gave him a knowing look that told him she suspected otherwise. “You may call me Iadrawyn, you know. You have more than earned the right.”

Barlo blushed. “Very well.” A thought suddenly came to him. “Iadrawyn, has Iarion been reborn yet?” If anyone would know, surely it would be the Lady of the Light Elves.

Iadrawyn shook her head. “I am sorry. Iarion has not returned to us. He’s not the only one.” Her expression grew sad.

“Your husband?”

“Valanandir’s soul is still unborn. Every time a new child arrives among our people, I look for him, but he hasn’t returned.” She bowed her head.

Barlo silently berated himself for bringing up such a painful subject for both of them, but he dared to ask one more question.

“When Iarion does come back… Will you let me know?”

Iadrawyn’s head rose and she placed a hand on his arm. “Of course! I would have sent word, even if you had not asked. I know you miss him. We both miss those we have lost.”

“Thank you.” Barlo cleared his throat and blinked back tears.

Golaron’s head appeared through the door. He looked dazed. “Barlo, come see!” He beckoned for Barlo to enter.

Barlo and Iadrawyn entered Silvaranwyn’s chambers, Sinstari padding behind them. The new mother lay with two swaddled little bundles, one in each arm. She looked tired, but her dusky skin seemed to glow. She looked up at them with a smile.

“Twins!” Golaron crowed, rushing to stand beside his wife. “Uncle Barlo, meet Linwyn and Eranander.”

Barlo’s eyes misted over. Golaron’s sister had made him promise to name his first daughter after her just before she had died. She would be pleased. He cleared his throat again.

“‘Uncle Barlo?’” he asked.

Golaron beamed. “Of course! You saved their lives, after all. Now you will have to visit more often.”

“You should bring Narilga as well,” Silvaranwyn said.

Barlo’s wife had never accompanied him on his journeys, but she did enjoy babies… Maybe he could convince her. “And Eranander? I hope you get along better with him than you did his namesake.”

A shadow flickered crossed Golaron’s features. “My father and I were never close, but he adored Linwyn. I wanted to honor that bond. Besides, the name has been in our family for generations.”

“He will bear it well.” Silvaranwyn smiled up at him. She shifted her gaze to Barlo. “Would you like to hold one of them?”

“What?” Barlo spluttered. “Me?”

“Barlo,” Silvaranwyn chided, “you have traveled to the dark lands, made peace between Belierumar and Nal Huraseadro, and saved my life from an assassin. Are you really afraid of holding a baby?”

“Hey, you’re talking to a dwarf!” Barlo said, recovering. “We fear nothing. Pass me one of those little creatures.”

Golaron placed little Linwyn in his arms. Her copper face looked up at him with deep blue eyes. Dark curls framed her brow and slightly-pointed ears. Barlo looked down at her in wonder. These were the first half-elven children Lasniniar had ever seen. For a moment, Barlo smiled before grimacing.

“Ugh,” he said, holding the child at arm’s length. “I spoke too soon. This one has an odor that would frighten an ogre.” Sinstari wrinkled his nose in agreement.

Golaron took her back. “Are you saying my children are more terrifying than an assassin?”

“Only if the assassin doesn’t chronically soil himself,” Barlo said. “Everyone has to draw a line somewhere. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think the Hero of Belierumar is going to take a well-deserved nap. Wake me when my feast is ready.”

Golaron rolled his eyes and turned to Silvaranwyn. “Why did we summon him again?”

Silvaranwyn smiled. “Because we needed a brave, clever dwarf to save us.”

Barlo gave a nod of satisfaction. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Sinstari butted his head against Barlo’s hip. “Oh, right. I guess I did have some help.”

Sinstari gave him a flat stare.

“Fine! I couldn’t have done it without my loyal, feline companion. Happy now?” With a sniff, Sinstari pushed past him into the hallway.

Barlo looked after him with narrowed eyes. “I sure hope Iarion comes back soon. This cat-sitting business is turning out to be more than I signed up for.”

* * *

Legends of Lasniniar: Shadow Stalker

Copyright © 2021 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Akv2006, Isselee, Ralf Kraft, Vi73777,  Wimstime/Dreamstime

 

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