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Book Jacket

0875527221
Trade Paperback
506 pages
May 2006
P & R Publishing

Shadow in the Deep (Binding of the Blade #3)

by L. B. Graham

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

PROLOGUE:

FARIMAAL’S REWARD

FARIMAAL COUGHED AS HE walked through the roughhewn, dimly lit tunnel. The sound of hammers striking rock echoed up and down the corridors all around him. Despite the fact they had been working more than ten years already, there seemed to be no end in sight to the ongoing excavations. Malek was digging into the very roots of the Mountain, and it had been a long time since the Nolthanim had dared to hope that their sojourn beneath the earth, cut off from the sun and stars, would be brief.

Arriving at a dark junction where two of the smaller corridors intersected, he paused. He had only recently started coming down this way, and he was still getting his bearings. As sure as he was ever going to be that the correct way was to the left, he kept moving with his torch held firmly before him. The tunnel was made for men and was much too small for Malekim, let alone Vulsutyrim, but from time to time Black Wolves came down this way. It wasn’t that the children of Rucaran scared him, but he didn’t like surprises, especially when they brushed past his legs in the dark.

A few turns and several minutes later he found the midsized, reasonably well-lit room that he had been looking for. His friend Ronan had shown him the room a few weeks earlier, and ever since, Farimaal and the other captains of the Nolthanim had used it as a sort of common room far from the populous and sometimes-crowded rooms and caverns on the upper levels of Malek’s new home. The modicum of distance the Nolthanim managed to keep from the rest of Malek’s hosts was hard to maintain inside the Mountain, but as the labyrinth of tunnels and rooms continued to grow, the opportunity to reestablish that distance increased.

Three men sat at a table along the near wall, but only Bralis looked up as Farimaal entered. He nodded in acknowledgment and Farimaal reciprocated, moving silently past them toward the table much farther inside the room where Ronan sat, waiting.

“Do you have it?” Ronan said as Farimaal sat down at the table.

“Yes,” Farimaal answered, pulling a small, carefully wrapped package from the pouch that hung at his waist and putting it on the table. Ronan picked up the package and unwrapped it carefully.

“Freshly cooked rabbit,” Ronan said under his breath as he pulled a strip of meat away from the bone and dropped it into his open mouth. His face broke into a wide smile as he chewed silently, looking at Farimaal and shaking his head. “You are going to get yourself killed if you keep going down to the edge of Gyrin on your own. I don’t care how good of a hunter you are, one of these days a patrol of Great Bear is going to catch you, and you aren’t going to come back.”

“Maybe,” Farimaal answered, watching his friend enjoy the gift. “But I don’t think you really want me to stop going.”

“True.” Ronan nodded, having taken another bite. “There are benefits to your foolhardy ideas.”

“Indeed,” Farimaal answered. “I would not go if there were no benefits.”

Ronan continued to eat the rabbit, and Farimaal watched in silence. He had eaten his own fill, for he had caught three and brought them back the previous night. What he didn’t eat he stored in his room, but he always brought Ronan a portion, even though his friend had gone with him to Gyrin only once, many years ago when they first retreated into the Mountain.

Seeing motion out of the corner of his eye, Farimaal turned back toward the door. Another man entered and took a seat with the other three Nothlanim officers. Farimaal turned back to Ronan, who was still eating the rabbit, watching Farimaal closely. “What is it?” Ronan asked.

“What is what?”

“What’s on your mind?”

Farimaal shrugged and shook his head.

“Don’t say nothing,” Ronan said, pausing for the first time before taking another bite. “You’re pondering something.”

Farimaal looked back over his shoulder at the four men, who were far enough away that they surely couldn’t hear. “I’m thinking about going to Malek about his most recent offer.”

Ronan choked, a small chunk of rabbit meat falling out of his mouth and onto the floor. “You’re wasting my meat,” Farimaal said evenly.

“Yes, and I’d better not, because if you just said what I think you said, you won’t be getting me any more. Are you mad? I mean, I know you’re a little out there, but I didn’t think you were really mad.”

Farimaal shrugged again.

“By the Mountain, Farimaal, you’re serious! I can’t believe you. I know you don’t want to live the rest of your life in here, but if you want to die so badly, one of us could run you through and get it over with. Why travel all the way to that dragon tower just to be a meal for a Grendolai?”

“Malek says he’ll give the one who subdues the Grendolai the power to rule at his right hand when we get out of here. Not only could I secure all the things we’ve dreamed of for our people, Ronan, but Malek would give me life, long life.”

“Farimaal.” Ronan looked and sounded completely incredulous. “You would have to survive the journey and compel the Grendolai to reforge their bonds with Malek before he gave you anything. What makes you think you could succeed at what even Malekim and Vulsutyrim couldn’t do?”

“I have to.”

Ronan’s expression changed from shock to bewilderment.

“What do you mean, you have to? You don’t have to do this. No one really believes what Malek is asking can be done, unless Malek goes himself, and even then there are doubts. You saw what the Grendolai did to the dragon near that dragon tower in Suthanin. He ripped a gaping hole right through the dragon’s scales and tore him up inside. You think you’re going to walk into that dragon tower and tell the Grendolai what he has to do?”

“I have to.”

Ronan shook his head. “Why do you keep saying that?”

“I have the disease.”

Ronan’s face changed again. The shock was back, but this time there was more. He was sobered, and Farimaal knew Ronan now understood just how serious he was. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. I have all the signs: the bruises, the cough, everything.”

“It can’t be,” Ronan muttered. “Not you. Of all people, not you.”

“Why not me?” Farimaal said, returning Ronan’s gaze levelly.

For several moments, neither of them said anything. The sound of laughter drifted across the room from the other table, but neither of them turned to look. “Even if it is true,” Ronan said at last, “some have lived a couple of years with the disease. There is no point throwing away what time you have left.”

“I don’t want a couple of years. I don’t even want ten or twenty years. I want all the time it will take to leave this place, to walk out under the sun and sky and lead my men back into the field. I want to live to see the Nolthanim returned to their rightful home and enjoying the life on the land that they should never have lost. Doing this is the only way I can have these things.”

“Are you sure Malek can give them?”

“I will make sure the terms of the offer are clarified before I go.”

Ronan’s eyebrows rose. “Oh you will? And what is to prevent Malek from telling you whatever he likes just to get you to try? You are Nolthanim. You know the history of Malek’s promises.”

“I know.”

“So what certainty could he give you?”

“None. But I have no choice. Nothing else can save me.”

“Farimaal—”

“Besides,” Farimaal continued, “if I do this, if I’m successful, is it not possible that Malek will fear me? Will not all the men and all the creatures in this place fear me? If I do what no one believes can be done, don’t you think Malek will keep his promise to me?”

“You will become legend, that is sure,” Ronan said, “but how can it be done?”

“That is for me to worry about.”

Ronan had pulled all the meat there was to eat from the bone, so he tossed it away from the table and licked his fingers.

“Thanks again for the rabbit.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You’re still crazy,” Ronan added.

“Maybe.”

“You know, even if you somehow did succeed in subduing the Grendolai, and even if Malek did heal you from the disease and grant you long life, you won’t be leading your men out onto the battlefield again one day. If Malek doesn’t move again in the lifetime of this generation, you will lead out our children or grandchildren. Who knows how many generations removed they will be? We will all be dead.”

“Unless you come with me. Maybe Malek will give you long life too.”

Slowly Ronan shook his head. “I’m sorry, friend. I want to walk beneath the sun and sky again too, but I’d rather spend the remainder of my days here than die in this foolishness. That’s what it is, you know. I’m sorry you have the disease, but I wish you wouldn’t throw away the months and years you have left in the vain hope of a miracle.”

“I understand, but I am decided.”

“When are you going to Malek?”

“After I have seen the keeper.”

“Nalson? Why are you going to him?”

“Because he is the keeper. He knows what the rest of us have forgotten. He is the memory of the Nolthanim, and if anyone knows anything about the towers or the Grendolai that I can turn to my advantage, it is Nalson.”

Ronan nodded. “Can I come with you?”

“Sure. I’m meeting with him tomorrow.”

“And if you don’t learn anything that will help you? Will you give up this idea then?”

“No.”

Ronan sighed. “I didn’t think so.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“Habit.”

Farimaal smiled. “Come, Ronan,” he said, standing. “Let’s not spend the remainder of the day debating the issue. Tomorrow we will see what the keeper has to say.”

Nalson Kirisuul clasped his hands tightly together and peered at Farimaal over them. On the wall behind his bed was the tapestry of Harak Andunin, the symbol of Nolthanin that each keeper passed on to the next, along with the stories of the Nolthanim. He was ten years older than Farimaal and had only been keeper about that long. “The dragon towers?”

“Yes.”

“Everything?”

“Yes.”

“All the Kirthanim, with the aid of the Great Bear and under the direction of some of the Twelve, built them early in the First Age. The rock was quarried—”

“Perhaps not everything,” Farimaal interjected, and he didn’t turn to look at Ronan, who he knew would be smirking. “I was thinking more in terms of their design than their history.”

Nalson nodded. “The towers themselves exist purely as a stand for the gyres on top. There is nothing inside them except a narrow spiral stair. The walls are extra thick to support the gyres’ weight, leaving little room for anything else. The gyres on top are like great bowls of smooth stone. They are open except for a small roof that stands over the center of the gyre.”

“The roof was to shelter the dragons?”

“No, the roof was meant to protect signal fires. The Novaana used beacons to summon dragons, and if the weather was bad, they needed to be covered. Each gyre has a great door in the floor. Dragons would descend from the gyre into the large supply room below if they desired shelter from bad weather or if they wished to partake of any of the supplies the men and Great Bear would sometimes leave for them there.”

“The narrow stairs you spoke of, they were big enough for Great Bear carrying supplies, then?”

“Big enough for Great Bear, yes, but only just. Great Bear could ascend the stairs if they went on all fours and squeezed through the narrow doorway at the top. If they brought supplies, they probably dragged them up behind or pushed them up ahead.”

“So how did the Grendolai get up into the supply rooms? Could they also fit up the stairs if they climbed on all fours?”

“Oh no, the Grendolai are too tall and far too broad to ascend inside the towers, but they didn’t need to. Their arms are so powerful that they can ascend the outside of the towers. Their claws were made to be stronger than even the strongest stone, and up they went, sinking their claws into the exterior walls. Once up on top, they most likely slipped down into the great rooms beneath the gyre and waited for dragons to come. There they could attack the dragons where they were most vulnerable, in the underbelly. Before warning could spread among the dragons of the Grendolai’s existence and danger, many of Sulmandir’s children died at their hands, and before long the dragons forsook the towers altogether for the safer climes of the mountains. So the towers have been dark and abandoned by all but the Grendolai these past fifteen years, and so they shall be as long as the Grendolai live.”

“And how long will that be?” Farimaal asked, but only half seriously, for he knew it was a question that neither Nalson nor anyone else could answer, perhaps not even Malek, their maker.

Nalson shrugged. “I cannot say, but there they are and there they will remain.”

“The Grendolai,” Farimaal started, bringing Nalson’s attention to the other subject of his inquiry, “they are less than three spans tall, are they not?”

“Yes, two and half, maybe a hand or two more.”

“Still, you are sure they cannot use the stairs in the towers?”

“No. You have seen them. Their shoulders are massive, two or three times as wide as any Great Bear’s. The passage is too narrow to allow it.”

“So their only way in and out of the towers is from above. They must go out through the gyre and down the outer wall.”

“Yes, though I don’t think they are frequently outside.”

“But surely they eat.”

“Yes, they do, but I think their need of food is far different from our own. They can go long periods of time without eating; indeed their metabolism is not unlike that of a hibernating animal. This is no doubt why they are reluctant to leave the towers. They have great rooms that are completely dark and isolated.”

“And their weakness?”

Nalson shook his head. “I don’t know of any.”

“But if even a dragon is vulnerable like you said, underneath, than surely the Grendolai are weak too.”

“Perhaps, but I don’t know where.”

“If a swordsman could get close enough, could he not be successful at the joints? The eyes? Somewhere?”

“I don’t see how anyone could get close enough. Not only are their hands strong, but their arms are unusually long, nearly as long as their bodies. And the Grendolai are as fast as any living thing. A swordsman would be ripped into pieces long before he was able to bring a single stroke home.”

“What about arrows?”

“Arrows? Their hides are virtually impossible to penetrate, except perhaps by another Grendolai’s claw, or a dragon’s. You would need an arrow the size of a battering ram to penetrate that hide.”

“A spear then?”

“A spear might work in theory, but I can’t see how it could be used in reality. A man couldn’t lift a spear large enough to deal a mortal wound to the Grendolai, let alone strike with it, and one stroke is all he’d get, if that. A spear of regular size just wouldn’t work. If it pierced the armor at all, which would be unlikely unless the head was exceptional, it would inflict but a pinprick. More likely the Grendolai would catch and smash the spear on its way, then he would catch and smash the spearman.”

“There must be some point of weakness,” Farimaal muttered.

“Perhaps a Grendolai could be crushed under the gyre if it could be dropped on him, but I don’t know of a force in all Kirthanin that could dislodge the stones of the tower, for they were made with extraordinary skill and blessed by the Twelve. They have weathered two thousand winters and show no diminished structural resilience at all, save only where the claws of the Grendolai have chipped their exterior.

“I will add this much to what I have already said: In the right place, with the right equipment and enough men, a Grendolai could be killed. Especially if it was daylight, for they hate the light of the sun. But in a dragon tower, where they live in darkness in a confined space, the Grendolai are essentially unassailable.”

Farimaal nodded, and when Nalson said no more, he stood to go. Ronan stood as well. “Keeper, I thank you for sharing the knowledge of our people. May you live long and keep safe the memory of the Nolthanim.”

Nalson nodded. “You are welcome,” he answered, again peering carefully at Farimaal. “You will need the knowledge of our people and more if you intend to do more than ask questions.”

Farimaal nodded, not wishing to discuss the matter, though Nalson had clearly guessed at his purpose for coming. Nalson added, “Please send Derrod in as you go out. His lessons for the day have only just begun.”

“I will.” Farimaal left the room, followed by Ronan.

Farimaal ignored the voice that seemed to drone endlessly behind him in the corridor. He grew weary of Ronan’s chatter, but Ronan didn’t appear to grow weary of chattering. “Are you listening to me?” Ronan said, his volume escalating.

“No,” Farimaal said without turning around.

Ronan grabbed his arm, and Farimaal spun, stopping to meet Ronan’s gaze with fire in his own eyes. “You heard what Nalson told you last week. You can’t go into the dragon tower to fight the Grendolai and hope to come out. This mission is impossible.”

Farimaal scoffed. “The boundaries of the possible change all the time. If no one ever tried the so-called impossible, most of the world’s greatest accomplishments would never have come to pass.”

“Maybe so, but this is beyond you. Let it go.”

“I will not.”

Ronan’s frustration turned to sadness. “Then you will go to your death alone.” He let go of Farimaal’s arm and stepped back.

“Very well then. I will go to my death, but at least I will go to it. It will not come to me as I sit skulking in this hole. I at least will die a man’s death.”

“No, Farimaal, you will die a fool’s death.”

Ronan left, and Farimaal turned back in the direction he was going. A quarter of an hour later he approached Malek’s chamber, and a small contingent of soldiers stood before the entrance, talking quietly among themselves. They were Nolthanim as well, but because they served on Malek’s private guard, they held themselves aloof from regular officers of the Nolthanim.

“What business brings you here, soldier?”

“I’m here to see Malek.”

“Are you indeed?” The man laughed and looked at his companions as though Farimaal was out of his mind. “Go away, fool, you don’t come to this door unbidden. Malek will call you if he has need of you.”

“He has and he does. Malek has these last three months repeated his invitation for any who would subdue the Grendolai to come forward.”

The man laughed again, as did his friends, but when he looked back at Farimaal, the laughter died in his mouth. His eyes narrowed, and he stepped toward Farimaal, sniffing. “I smell no ale on your breath, but even so, you must be drunk. Make your purpose here plain and have done with you.”

“I have, but if you are too slow to follow me, repeating myself will do no good.”

Anger flashed across the man’s face, and he made to draw his sword, but one of the other guards stayed his hand. “Let it be. If he is serious, he will die soon enough. If he isn’t, well, he will learn firsthand that no man makes a mockery of Malek.”

Farimaal stood still, his hand resting casually on the hilt of his sword. The guard who intervened took Farimaal in soberly, then spoke with measured tones. “I know you. You are the one they call Farimaal, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

The guard nodded. “You are fearless in battle, that I remember. I believe you are here in earnest, but I cannot see how even your success on the battlefield gives you cause to believe you can do this. We will announce your name and reason for coming, if you are decided.”

“I am.”

“Very well.” The guard motioned to another guard, who went inside and closed the door. The guards and Farimaal stood silently, no one moving, until the man returned. “The Master will see you. Go in and have a seat.”

Farimaal nodded and stepped through the door. The room inside was scarcely lit by a low, flickering candle near a single chair. Farimaal crossed to it. He could hear from the echo of his own footsteps on the stone floor that the room was much larger than the small candle revealed.

“So, you have come in answer to my call,” a voice said from the shadows, and the hair on Farimaal’s arms tingled at the sound.

“I have.”

“You are willing to go to the dragon tower and confront the Grendolai?”

“I am, if you can give me what I desire in exchange.”

“If I can give you what you desire?” Malek sounded mildly amused.

“Yes.”

“What do you desire, man of Nolthanin?”

“Time.”

“Time?”

“Yes, I want more time. I have the sickness.”

“Ahh, I see,” Malek answered in smooth and even tones. “You are dying anyway, so you thought you’d go out and see the world one more time. You thought you’d cross over into the ancient homeland of your fathers for one last journey. You thought that this would be a more interesting way to make an end than dying a slow and painful death here in the Mountain with the rest of my servants. Is this so?”

“It is so, but I have not reconciled myself to death as you suppose. I mean not simply to subdue the Grendolai but to kill it and so deliver the allegiance of the remainder to you again. That is why I am here.”

A sound of scraping on the stone floor drew Farimaal’s eyes, and a stooped figure in dark blue robes stepped forward to the edge of the candlelit area. Malek’s hand took Farimaal’s chin in a strong grip. Piercing blue eyes peered out from under Malek’s hood, which was drawn up over his dark hair, and for a long moment, Farimaal returned Malek’s stare. At last Malek began to nod. “Yes, I see. You are determined to try your hand at this thing.”

“I am.”

“Then you have my promise,” Malek answered, his voice almost a whisper. “If you give me back the Grendolai, I will give you all the time you want. Is that the answer you were looking for?”

“It is.”

“What hope have you for success?”

“Little, but hope I do have. I have a plan, but I won’t really know whether it can succeed until I am there.”

“When will you head out?”

“I need to make a trip to the Kellisor Sea—”

“The Kellisor Sea? Why?”

“There are two things I need. One I could possibly get here, but the other almost certainly I could find no place closer than there.”

“These things are necessary?”

“I can think of no way around it.”

“Very well then. I have waited this long for someone to come forward; I can wait a little longer. How long will you need?”

“To go around Gyrin and reach the coast and get back I will need perhaps two months.”

“So be it. Come to me upon your return. I will have an escort ready.”

The escort Malek promised consisted of half a dozen Nolthanim and about as many Malekim, but the number of Nolthanim had swollen to more than thirty by the time they were out of the Mountain and headed north to the dragon tower.

Apparently, word of Farimaal’s venture had spread throughout the Mountain rapidly, and there was talk of little else during his absence. Speculation about his sanity, the terms of his agreement with Malek, and the purpose for his mysterious trip to the Kellisor Sea swirled through the tunnels and corridors of the Mountain like great gusts of wind. The general consensus on each of the questions appeared to be that too much time underground had indeed deprived Farimaal of at least part of his senses, that Malek promised Farimaal a throne in Avalione, and that the trip to the Kellisor Sea involved some sort of quest for a magic weapon, perhaps hidden by Malek during the Invasion. Farimaal’s return from the sea caused such a stir that it reminded him of the days before they departed from Nal Gildoroth to board the ships for Suthanin more than fifteen years ago.

On his departure from the Mountain, just six short days later, word again quickly spread, and several, especially among the younger Nolthanim, hastily joined the party. At first the additional Nolthanim rode at some distance behind Farimaal and his escort, watching the quiet, lean, and grizzled man make his way steadily toward one of the most feared places in Kirthanin. After a few days, however, they joined the other Nolthanim in the escort and all traveled together, though Farimaal consistently rebuffed their attempts to engage him in dialogue of any kind. He did not speak rudely or dismissively; he simply did not speak to them at all.

Farimaal knew why they had come. They were there to see him fail, but he would not fail. At first they kept their murmurs and mockery to themselves, but by the end of the first week, the uninvited Nolthanim began to mock and ridicule Farimaal and his quest openly. They rode beside, before, and behind him, laughing at his folly and speculating as to the specifics of the hideous and certain death that awaited him. And so, in this way, the remainder of their journey passed until they were camped perhaps half a league away from the dragon tower, now visible above the tops of the trees that surrounded it in the distance.

The following day, the men and Malekim of the escort, as well as the hangers on, made no motions to accompany him. He packed his saddlebag and prepared to ride on alone as the others sat around a fledgling fire.

“What did it feel like, waking up for the last time?” one of the more contemptuous of the uninvited Nolthanim asked as Farimaal mounted. “All this time you’ve spent traveling, first to the Kellisor Sea and now here to the dragon tower, and the Grendolai will probably kill you in less time than it takes me to drink a cup of water on a hot day.”

“Even so,” another added, “we thank you for the excuse to leave our digging and our duties behind us. It has been pleasant to ride abroad again, even through this wilderness. What’s more, though you will likely be dead before we lie down to sleep this evening, we’ll remain here for a week or so on the pretense of waiting for your return. Then we’ll take to the road again, enjoying every moment of our journey, before having to feign sadness at your failure. We are greatly in your debt.”

“Greatly,” a third chimed in, “but we regret we will have no chance to repay what we owe.”

“When I return,” Farimaal said, looking down at them serenely from his horse and enjoying the shock on their faces at hearing his voice for the first time in reply, “I will exact payment from each of you in my own time and way.”

He turned his horse away and spurred it forward.

Farimaal stooped beside the bones of the Vulsutyrim scattered beside the door to the dragon tower. As he had suspected, the giants died outside the tower. It was comforting to have been right, and alarming at the same time. He would have to limit his excursions outside the tower to times when the sun was fully up and shining, and even then he’d be quick about his business. The Grendolai who inhabited this place still used the exterior of the tower as a ladder, and however odd it seemed, the only safe place for Farimaal was inside the tower and on the spiral stairs.

He pulled the heavy saddlebag off his horse but left the saddle on. He stroked the horse gently for a few moments, then picked up a stick from the ground and struck the beast hard upon the hindquarters. The startled animal started off and ran several spans through the trees before slowing to a trot. He disliked having to be cruel to the poor creature, but he feared it would be supper for the Grendolai otherwise. With any luck it would make its way back to the camp and the others and so return again safely to the Mountain.

Farimaal shouldered his saddlebag and walked to the great iron door that stood slightly ajar at the base of the dragon tower. He hesitated, gazing up the exterior wall to the gyre high above him. He wondered just what exactly he would find up there, but he did not allow the question to delay him for too long. He pulled a torch from his saddlebag, lit it, and wrenched the door open just enough to slip inside.

The stairs were much like he had imagined them. They were narrow and steep, very steep. He ran his hands along the smooth stone of the interior walls and marveled at the quality of the work. The joints were still solid, and whatever had been used for mortar was not crumbling. The stones did not seem to have groaned under the weight of all they upheld for so many years. He was glad, for his plan, at least in part, depended upon their stability.

He pulled the door almost entirely closed behind him, but not quite. He couldn’t bring himself to close it completely. The torch flickered, burning brightly enough to illuminate the small space. Farimaal set his foot cautiously upon the first stair and started up. Though he knew he could not hide his presence from the Grendolai for long—indeed, it was essential to his plan that the Grendolai know of him and be aware of him—he felt the urge to be quiet and so stepped up gingerly and delicately, so that each footstep made almost no sound.

Around and around, upward and upward he went, the torch flickering. Occasionally his pack, so heavy it pulled him constantly toward the outer wall, would hit the stone, and a slight echo would reverberate up and down the spiral staircase. Then he would pause, frozen on the steps, listening. But every time he stopped to listen, he heard nothing except his own breathing. He didn’t know if the Grendolai heard him or smelled him or detected him in any way, and though he’d spent much time in dark corridors and tunnels of late, he felt a bit unnerved.

He stopped again, but this time he was smiling. He was unnerved by the mystery, by the unknown, by the uncertainty of what he would find above, and it was precisely the power of these things to unnerve and disconcert that his plan was based upon. But, he wondered, and not for the first time, would these things affect a Grendolai like they affected a man? Could a Grendolai be unnerved and disconcerted? Or were they so secure in their dark homes that Farimaal’s hopes were based on impossibilities? Were they so sure of their invincibility that they could not be baited?

Farimaal started upward again. He needed the Grendolai to be so confident, but he also needed him to be capable of doubt and capable of being provoked. For Farimaal this would require patience, almost inhuman patience. He would have to endure long hours and days and perhaps weeks in this unsettling darkness as he worked bit by bit to prepare the Grendolai for that one brief moment when everything would hinge on the strength of the tower’s stone, the speed of Farimaal’s reflexes, and the Grendolai’s desire to rip him to pieces.

Eventually, Farimaal reached the top of the stairs. The uppermost steps moved up and out, extending toward a small open space of perhaps half a span framed by an open doorway. The fact that the stairs were just as steep here, and that there was a slightly greater number of stairs within view of his torchlight, was encouraging. He had worried about whether the tower would be both wide and long enough for the pole he had in mind, but he could see now that it was.

He didn’t waste much time thinking about that, though, for there would be plenty of time later to set the trap. What would take more time, and what he needed to turn his attention to first, was presenting the bait and convincing the Grendolai to care enough to go for it.

Farimaal stood a couple of steps down from the top. With less than a span between the top step and the doorway, he wasn’t about to go all the way up, where the Grendolai’s arms, infamous for both their length and their strength, would be able to reach him. Instead he gazed through the open door into the darkness of the storeroom beyond. He couldn’t see much, but he could see that the space beyond was large, much larger than the narrow landing.

For a long time he stood there, waiting and listening. He felt a growing curiosity to explore the room, but he knew that would be foolish. Patience, he reminded himself, I can only do this with patience.

And then, almost as if on cue, a soft and even soothing voice spoke from the darkness. “Greetings, stranger. Welcome to my home. Why wait outside my door? Having come so far so boldly, why not see what you have come to see?”

The Grendolai’s voice was so inviting that for a moment he forgot the danger. Farimaal felt his foot rising to ascend, but he forced it back down. “No thank you,” Farimaal called when he had gathered himself. “I am not yet worthy to stand in your presence. I will come in when I have earned the right.”

There was a pause, and then the Grendolai spoke again. “There is no need to prove yourself here. All are welcome. Come in.”

“I am afraid not,” Farimaal said, almost laughing. “I have seen how you welcomed your more recent guests, and I have no wish to remain in your company in that state. I have not come to stay forever, unfortunately. I’m only here until I have done my master’s bidding.”

“And who is your master?”

“You know my master, for he is your master too.”

“I am my own master. No one rules over me.”

“You are wrong, for you have both a maker and a master, and they are one and the same. I am sent here by him to secure the return of your allegiance.”

Low laughter echoed in the darkness beyond the doorway. “You are a jester, sent here for my amusement. What crime did you commit that Malek sent you here to atone for it? Is there an army hidden behind you, crouching on the stairs? Surely you haven’t come alone. Even if you haven’t, you have come here in vain. You will not leave this place with my submission. Indeed, unless you flee, you will not leave at all.”

“I will not flee.”

“Good,” the soothing voice said with genuine enthusiasm. “I have gotten used to regular meals again. I don’t suppose you will make more than a snack, but I will eat and give thanks to my maker for his provision all the same.”

“Do as you please with me if you catch me,” Farimaal answered. “I expect no mercy from you, nor will I grant any.”

For a second time laughter came floating through the darkness. “Good, little messenger, I consider myself duly warned. Even so, my submission you will not have.”

“I am not here for your surrender. I have come for your head.”

The laughter ceased, and Farimaal wondered what was happening now in the quiet darkness. When no words or laughter or sound of any kind came after several minutes, he threw his torch as far into the room as he could. It landed many spans inside, and the small flame still burning on the stone floor made precious little difference in the dark expanse. Farimaal waited, and still nothing happened. He held his breath, but soon doubt began to creep in, doubt that the Grendolai’s hatred of light was as strong as rumor claimed.

Then a dark form moved across the small circle of light the torch had created, and for a brief instant Farimaal saw a towering form as a great foot came down upon the torch, thrusting the tower into darkness.

As soon as the light was extinguished, Farimaal retreated instinctively and reached around for his pack and another torch. As he did, though, his foot slipped and he lost his balance, falling several steep steps before he could stop his momentum. He clenched his teeth to keep from howling and held his shin where it had crashed against the stone. As he did, a voice, seeming to come from just above, floated down the stairs. “Watch yourself, little messenger. You’ll find my head hard to come by. How secure is yours?”

Farimaal sat as still as he could until the throbbing in his leg had diminished enough for him to descend again. He went down about ten steps, then emptied his pack entirely, distributing on the stairs the things he had brought with him. He took out what food he had left and his supply of torches. Then he removed the coil of rope he had obtained from the shipping yard on the Kellisor Sea. Lastly, he set out a hammer, three iron rings, and the great iron piece fashioned by the blacksmith there, which weighed the better part of half a dozen stone. This he set cautiously on a stair against the wall. He didn’t want to step on that by accident, so he lit a torch and surveyed his items. Moving gingerly, he descended the great stair to the bottom.

Pushing the iron door open, he stepped back out into the sunshine. He breathed deeply, as though coming up for air. For a moment he drank in the sunshine on the leaves of the trees, the slight breeze, and the feel of space around him. Then, with his empty pack, he set about the task at hand. Moving slowly around the tower and out under the nearest trees, he started filling his pack with rocks.

That night, Farimaal slept on the stairs of the dragon tower. It was every bit as uncomfortable as he had imagined it would be, but he didn’t dare sleep outside. Nor did he dare sleep within reach of the iron door at the bottom or the storeroom door at the top.

Eventually he did sleep, and when he awoke, he had no concept of whether it was day or night. He picked up one of the iron rings and the hammer and silently ascended to the top. He stepped onto the small landing outside the open door for the first time, and sweat began to bead on his forehead. This was one of the stages in his plan that made him nervous, even more than most of it did, but there was nothing for it. If he couldn’t get the rings in, there was no plan. Reaching overhead, he could not feel the ceiling. It had looked the previous day, in the torchlight, to be just over a span and a half, so he knew it would be close. Setting the hammer and ring on the top stair, he went back down. As he filled his pack with rocks the previous day, he found two broad, flat stones, which he now lugged up the stairs one at a time. He set each gently on the edge of the top stair, then slid them into the middle of the landing. There he set the one on top of the other, and with hammer and ring in hand, stood on them.

With the added height, he could place his hand flat against the ceiling. He felt around with his fingertips for one of the joints, and having found it, raised the iron ring. The ring was about half a hand in diameter, with a long iron piece coming out of one side, tapering to a sharp point. This point he lined up on the joint. Then, looking nervously at the door that opened onto the darkness beside him, he raised his hammer.

Ching! Ching! Ching! The hammer flew up and down, and the sound of metal on metal split the silence and echoed in the darkness. It took several strokes before he felt the ring move at all, and he kept pounding. He needed to drive the ring all the way in and get out of this vulnerable spot. He kept hitting, over and over, aware that every stroke exposed him further. Suddenly the sound of scraping against stone came to him between strokes, and without hesitation he let go of the ring and with hammer in hand leapt off of the stones in the direction of the stairs. This time, miraculously, he kept his balance when he landed.

He scrambled down several steps, then squatted, listening. After a moment, he heard the Grendolai’s voice. “Piling stones at my door, little messenger? Do I not have enough stone about me that you need to bring more? Do you hope to shut me in by walling off my door? Pile away. If these are the biggest stones you can carry, know I can squeeze them into dust.”

When no further words were forthcoming, Farimaal slipped back down and grabbed a second ring. He didn’t dare continue the actual work of driving them in today, but as he had nothing else to do, he could always begin his siege on the Grendolai’s patience. Settling onto one of the stairs as close to the top as he dared, he set down the iron ring and started tapping it firmly, over and over. Sitting there in the dark, listening to the echo of the hammer, he thought of life inside the Mountain. He could only hope the Grendolai found this disruption of his quiet life as irritating as Farimaal did.

All he did the rest of the day was tap the iron ring, over and over, but if he was provoking the Grendolai, there was no sign of it. Eventually he went to sleep again, passing a second uncomfortable night on the stairs. When he awoke, he slipped up to the top again. He felt for the stones that he’d left on the landing, and sure enough, they were still there. Slowly, quietly, he stepped back up onto them. He reached up and felt around on the ceiling until he found the iron ring again. He was pleased to find that he had driven the iron shaft above the ring solidly into the mortar of the joint. In fact, it was more than halfway in, and a few solid blows would be sufficient to drive it the rest of the way. It might have been secure enough as it was, but Farimaal didn’t want his plan to fail because he hadn’t completely secured the ring. He lifted the hammer to finish the job, but paused, turning to stare at the open doorway.

Suddenly he felt quite sure it would be a mistake to strike the ring, so he stepped off and hastily scrambled down the stair and found the iron ring he’d spent the previous day tapping. Picking it up and returning to a place only six or seven stairs from the top, he struck the ring as hard as he could so that the sound rang up and down the stairs.

No sooner had he struck the ring than something sailed over his head and smashed into the wall. That something smashed into pieces, some of which fell on Farimaal’s head. He scrambled back down and, lighting one of his torches, examined what had broken. It only took a moment to recognize the fractured pieces of a large skull, probably that of a Malekim, for it was too small to be a giant’s and too big to be a man’s.

Farimaal smiled as he grabbed his pack and moved as close as he dared to the top of the stairs. “I appreciate your cooperative spirit,” Farimaal called out, “but that was not the head I was after.”

There was no response from within, and after several moments, Farimaal drew open the pack and stacked several stones on the stair beside him. Then, standing, he took a few in his left hand and again threw his torch as far into the open room as he could. This time the massive form quickly crossed the small circle of light and stomped it out. Just as quickly, Farimaal began throwing the stones in the direction of the great form. Half a dozen stones he threw, and though he tried to hear what they struck, he could not tell if any had hit anything but the stone floor.

The Grendolai’s soft, low laugh sounded right above him. Panicked, Farimaal moved clumsily down several stairs. If the Grendolai wasn’t standing in the doorway, he was right beside it. “This is your plan, little messenger? Draw me out into the open with your torches, then throw these pebbles at me? What do you think they will accomplish? Tell me you haven’t come all this way and pinned all your hopes on that. Tell me there is more to your dread plan than stones and persistent sounds. Come now, servant of Malek, show me something to fear, for my only fear right now is that I will grow bored with you.”

Farimaal didn’t speak but listened for the Grendolai’s next move. The sound of another object smashing against the wall, followed by a second, both dropping heavily onto the stairs, told him he had been right to be cautious. He groped around in the darkness and found one of the broad stones that had been sitting on the landing. Part of it had been broken off by the impact, but it was basically intact, which was good news. It would have been inconvenient had the Grendolai taken the stones away, but the only inconvenience now was that Farimaal would have to put them back.

He found the other and stacked them both together before heading to the bottom. He would leave the ring alone for today. He would leave the Grendolai in silence, leave the creature to wonder if he’d been scared away. Farimaal had other things that needed taking care of, and now was as good a time as any.

Outside in the sunshine, he walked among the trees that surrounded the dragon tower. Most of the trees were old, very old, but he spotted new growth here and there, and these trees he examined carefully. None of them was exactly the right size. Though he looked all day, he did not find what he wanted. He marked the tree that came closest, but he was not yet ready to give up on finding the perfect one. The one luxury he had now was time, for the longer he dwelt upon the tower stairs, the longer the Grendolai lived with the mystery of his presence, the better his chances that when the right moment came, the creature would respond as he desired.

The better part of the next day Farimaal searched again, and not long before sundown he found what seemed the perfect tree. The diameter was ideal, he was sure of it, and the trunk was straight and solid. The tree was taller than he could lift or carry, he knew that, but better too big than too small. He could cut it down to a manageable size, but now was not the time. As the sun sank, he marked this tree as well and quickly made his way back inside.

His fourth night on the stairs was just as miserable as the first three, and after drifting in and out of sleep several times, he decided that it was time to finish with the first ring. If the Grendolai was camped out close to the doorway, this could be the end of everything, but sooner or later, he was going to have to try. He had not ascended to the top in almost two days, and when he reached the two stones, he found himself strangely calm. One at a time, he lifted them back up to the landing and stacked them there again. With no hesitation he stepped up onto the stones, found the ring with his left hand, and sent the hammer flying. Ching! Ching! Ching!

Six strokes. That was all it took. The ring was flush with the ceiling, driven in as far as he could drive it. A great arm swept past him in the darkness. A great arm was what it had to be, for something sharp as nails ripped through his shirt and cut his side as he leapt down several steps. He felt the wounds, two shallow, bleeding cuts.

“Your flesh is soft, Nolthanim, for that is what you are, isn’t it? The land around my tower was once your home, or at least, it was the home of your fathers before you became Malek’s slaves. Malek is not your maker, and yet you serve him. He is my creator, but I defy him. I am my own master. Why do you care if I serve Malek or not? Why come here and give your life away in service to him? What has he done for you, except conquer your homeland and subjugate your brothers and sisters? Go back to the Mountain, or go make your way north. If you stay here, you will die. One way or another, you will die.”

“Malek is my master,” Farimaal called, “but I’m not here for him. I’m here for me. If killing you will get me what I want, so be it. I will kill you and not think twice about it. I will not die here.”

“So be it, little messenger. You have sealed your fate.”

That was all Farimaal had from the Grendolai, so he tended his wound and settled in for sleep once more.

The next day, the fifth since his arrival, Farimaal returned to his tree. With only his hammer and a slender wedge, he set about cutting the tree down. It was slow going, for he had to drive the wedge in as far as he dared without getting it completely stuck, and then work it out so he could drive it in elsewhere on the trunk. A few times he stopped a hair’s breadth shy of too far, and the wedge was almost pinched beyond recall. Still, each time, he patiently and successfully removed it. Eventually, after making perhaps a dozen cuts into the tree, he heard a cracking and knew that the tree was ready to be toppled. He leaned against it and pushed, and with all the force he could bring to bear, he forced the tree to the ground. He sat down next to it and rested. He would come back in a day or two and measure out how long he wanted it to be, but he couldn’t bring himself to start that laborious process now. He retreated into the tower.

The following day, though, he did not go back to work on the tree. Rather he spent the first half of the day finding three more large, smooth stones that he could stand upon when inserting the second and third rings. Each of these he carried up the tower and stacked on the landing several hands away from where the first stack had been. The original stones he also moved so that he had a wider base on which to stand.

Feeling the ceiling for a joint, he lined up the sharp end of the next ring and started to drive it in. He worked until it was in far enough to stay without him holding it, and then he quickly ducked down and stooped nearby on the stairs. He waited, but nothing happened. Nothing came flying through the door; no voice called or laughed from within. He lit a torch, stood, and hurled it into the room. The Grendolai did not go to it immediately, but he did go, and Farimaal marked that he approached the torch from the far side. He had not been waiting by the door, nor had he come to it when Farimaal started to hammer. Even so, he thought he wouldn’t press his good fortune any further today.

He went downstairs and outside, but not back to the tree. His food supply was running low. He didn’t know what kind of creature might live in close proximity to the tower and the Grendolai, but he thought he’d have a look. He was making good progress, but even so, he was several days, perhaps even weeks away from being ready to move forward with his plan. Sooner or later he was going to have to try his hand at hunting.

Hunting proved futile. He had imagined that the selection of living creatures near the dragon tower would be slim, but it seemed as though everything that walked or slithered or crawled upon the earth had fled. Only the birds remained, but even these seemed always to be flying overhead, not resting where they could be caught. Any hope Farimaal harbored for substantial sustenance slipped away. His only consolation was the plentiful occurrence of locusts, especially on the trees of the north. He might not eat well when his food ran out, but he would eat.

The next three days he spent doing three things in uneven shifts. In sporadic and brief bursts, he worked on driving home the second iron ring just above the edge of the small landing. That complete, he set about pounding in a third, this one into the slightly sloping ceiling just above the first stair. All told, this took up perhaps only a quarter of an hour of his time, though it was far and away the activity that dominated his mind the most as he lay down to sleep each night.

When he wasn’t about the nerve-racking business of securing the iron rings, he was dividing his time between cutting the tree to his desired specifications and sitting near the top of the stairs, tapping the heavy iron piece with his hammer. Long years beneath the Mountain had all but made him deaf to the clanging of hammers, but he hoped that the Grendolai’s long years in silence had made him especially sensitive to the piercing notes. Still, the creature gave no sign of irritation. If his plan was working, he had no proof of it. Farimaal could only hope that despite the apparent calm, the Grendolai would eventually grow angry enough to become careless.

On the tenth day, as Farimaal climbed to his place near the top of the steps to continue his psychological assault, a voice greeted him from inside the room.

“Nolthanim, the pole you are shaping down below fascinates me.”

Farimaal felt his heartbeat falter. In his mind’s eye he imagined the tree broken into pieces or gone altogether. All that work, and now he would have to start over. Worse, perhaps the Grendolai had figured it out: the hammering, the tree, the plan. He was unmasked. How could he have been so careless as to leave his work lying on the grass overnight? He knew the Grendolai was not confined to the tower. Why had it not occurred to him that the creature might find his handiwork?

“Still,” the creature continued, “if you have aspirations to be a carpenter, I can’t see that you have any future here. Like the stones you have piled outside my door, what good will that pole do you? It may be a mighty tree to you, but I assure you it is but a twig to me. I would snap it in my hand, as you would break dead branches from a tree. Go home, little messenger, and leave your scheming and your irritations behind. You have worn out your welcome here, and when you eventually find the courage to come out from your hiding spot, I will sharpen one end of that stick of yours and spit you upon it.”

Farimaal did not dare speak for fear he would give away his panic. If he was undone, he would find out for himself down below. He would not, though, as his enemy had done, give anymore of himself or his plan away involuntarily. He had at last confirmation that he was succeeding in irritating the Grendolai. The voice was the same, but the message and words were different. He wanted Farimaal gone or dead, whatever would silence him. But Farimaal would not be silenced. He took up his hammer and started tapping.

When his hand was exhausted from the motion of the hammer, he made his way quickly down the stairs and outside. Hurrying through the trees to the place where he had left his pole on the ground, he saw it still lying there. If it had been touched, he could not tell. He set to work, for he did not want to leave it out even one more night. He cut and shaped and peeled what remained of the bark. He needed it smooth, completely smooth, and by the early evening, the surface was like the slick stone of the tower wall. Returning to the tower at a run, he grabbed the great iron piece and his hammer and the four solid nails he had left with his rope.

Back in the dying light of day, he carefully slid the top of the wooden pole into the open end of the large iron piece, which was thick and solid and more than two hands in diameter. Yet at the top, the piece formed a point so sharp that it could have slid between Farimaal’s finger and his fingernail. The tree slid snugly almost a hand into the sharp point, and with the hammer, Farimaal drove the four nails through the holes prepared for them and into the hard wood. He clasped the thick edge of the iron piece and tried to tug it off, but it would not move at all.

The sun had nearly set, and he dared not risk being found by the Grendolai, so he expended the last of his energy on dragging the tree into the tower. It was almost completely dark when he set the tree down some twenty stairs up, securing the edge of the great iron head on the stair to keep it from sliding down. He considered retrieving his hammer, but he would have to leave it out tonight. Better to lose his hammer than his life.

The next day, he returned to the place where he had shaped and smoothed the tree, but his hammer wasn’t there. He looked all over the small clearing, but he couldn’t find it. It was useless to conjecture whether the Grendolai had destroyed or taken it; in the end it didn’t really matter. The groove on the tree he could make with the wedge, which the Grendolai had not taken with the hammer. Perhaps he had overlooked it, for it was still lying in the grass. He took up the wedge and returned to the tower.

Ascending to the top of the stairs, he stepped quietly onto the stones and threaded the end of his rope through the three rings so that the end almost touched the landing. He couldn’t light a torch to see what he was doing, because it was imperative that the Grendolai never see the rope. He was going to have to use his hands and arms to measure distances in the dark, which meant he was going to have to brave his way across the landing to the door. It wasn’t the only time his plan called for this, but it would be the most vulnerable time. If the Grendolai was lurking there, all Farimaal’s efforts were in vain.

Holding the rope he had fed through the loops, he started to crawl, groping through the darkness. He made his measurements. If the iron head was to be free to swing through the doorway, Farimaal must give the rope enough slack to prevent the point from going straight into the ceiling.

The pole was just over two spans long, and with the iron head attached, it was almost all Farimaal could do to lift it. Even after he had made the groove and attached the rope, it took him two full days of yanking and tugging and pulling to move the contraption up the stairs. He had to go quietly, for great screechings and scrapings would have alerted the Grendolai to the nature of the danger that Farimaal was preparing. All Farimaal could do was lift the pole, step by step, setting it down on each successive stair and keeping firm hold on the rope should the pole start to slide. In this way he brought it all the way up to the place where he had been sleeping the previous twelve nights. He was ready to put the plan in motion. All that remained was to spend one final day baiting the hook.

The next morning, Farimaal took all but three of his remaining torches and climbed to the top of the stairs. He removed the stones that he had used on the landing, as they would only get in the way now. A sizeable stack of smaller stones remained. Lighting one of the torches and throwing it into the room, he again took aim at the form of the Grendolai stomping out the offending light. This Farimaal did at random intervals throughout the day, until his supply of both torches and rocks was exhausted. The Grendolai said nothing as this pattern was repeated, and neither did Farimaal. He felt as though they had established a connection, a clear and almost tangible bond. There was no more use for words. Neither would speak again until the other was dead.

The morning of the fifteenth day came at last, and Farimaal stretched on the stairs. Today was the day. He would go down and look on the outer world once more. If he failed and these were his final hours, he would spend them in the sunlight, under the trees.

In the early afternoon he ascended the stair once more. The way was now familiar, and his feet moved quickly and quietly up the long spiral stairwell. When he reached the pole, he went right to work moving it up, step by step. With every step, he became increasingly sensitive to the slightest sound. He spent ages lowering the pole at an almost imperceptible rate, all with the hope that no sound at all would be made. In this way, he moved slowly toward the landing. When at last he was there, he took off his shirt and wiped the sweat from his face. Crouching beside the pole, he made sure it was centered on the stairs and that nothing might impede it.

He stooped at the bottom of the pole and gave it a slight push. It didn’t move. He frowned in the dark. Had he made it too heavy? It was lighter than he was, but was it light enough? He would have momentum and he would pull as hard as he could, but would that be sufficient? With both hands he grabbed the pole, and straddling it, he pushed it up. It slid a little bit. He eased it back down gently until it rested on the stair again. He felt relieved. If he could move it like that from the bottom, then surely he would be able to propel it forward when the time came.

Back up top, he took hold of the rope end that wasn’t fastened to the pole and fed it through the loop closest to the door. It was a delicate process, as even on his tiptoes he could barely reach the ring. He then pulled the rope back toward the stair, and through the second and third rings. When he had pulled the rope all the way through, he stepped back up onto the landing. Standing on the edge, he could hold both lengths of rope in either hand, the taut one securely tied to the pole and the loose one dangling slack down the stairs. He closed his eyes and imagined the whole process again. As he did, he started to feed some of the rope back through the rings. He didn’t want there to be tension in the rope when he first grabbed it. He wanted some slack to play out before the rope jerked taut and pulled the pole. He felt both bits of rope again. The amount of tension felt right now. All that remained was to take the excess that was sitting in a jumbled heap beside the pole and move it over until it sat against the wall. He needed that part of the rope to hang to the side. It would be catastrophic if he grabbed the wrong piece.

Satisfied that everything was ready, he faced the open room. There was no time like the present, and the longer he waited, the more nervous he would become. He’d imagined this moment a thousand times, and he didn’t need any more time.

Pulling out his last three torches, he lit them all. He held two in his left hand and, stepping right up to the doorway, threw the third as far into the room as he could. As the torch fell to the floor, some ten spans inside the room, he moved a second torch into his right hand. As he did, he passed through the doorway, at last entering the domain of the Grendolai.

He had not gone far when the Grendolai’s large figure glided into the circle of light and stomped out the torch. The second torch was already in the air on its way toward the Grendolai, and heavy footsteps echoed through the room, telling Farimaal the creature was now moving his way, and quickly. He turned and ran. As he was turning, he caught a glimpse of the torch gliding past the ducking form of his pursuer. He expected that at any moment the long arm of the creature would reach out and seize him, but it didn’t. He flung the last torch along the wall as he shot out of the room and onto the landing. Grabbing the dangling rope, he leapt as high and as hard off of the top stair as he could.

For the briefest of moments he soared out into the air, but he barely had time to feel the power of his leap before the slack in the rope was played out and the weight of the pole on the other end altered his trajectory, swinging him in a downward arc. He had known that this would hurt, and he tried to brace himself for the impact of his body against the stone stairs, even as he tried midflight to pull the rope with all his might.

His body swung at full speed into the stairs, and pain erupted all across his body. His leg and ankle hit the hardest, but as he struck he twisted, and the side of his head whacked the corner of one of the stairs. He lay there for a second groaning. He was still holding as tightly as he could to the rope, and as he pulled against it, he was momentarily encouraged by the fact that there was not give at all. That was a good sign.

Even so, his encouragement was only momentary. As his mind raced back over the leap, he realized that in no part of his memory could he locate a cry or shriek or scream from the Grendolai. If the plan had worked, surely some outcry of shock, of pain, of indignation would have been forthcoming.

Slowly, and with much pain, Farimaal started back up the stairs, using the taut rope as a handle to pull himself up and along. As he neared the top, he saw the bottom of the pole lodged firmly against the top step. Farimaal’s heart sank. The angle seemed much too sharp. The pole rose too high, too quickly. He had feared this, that after all his work he might succeed in doing nothing more than lodging his makeshift spear in the stone arch above the doorway.

But even as his heart was sinking, he stopped in his tracks. The torch that he had cast aside was still glowing, and silhouetted in the doorway by its light was the thick and imposing form of the Grendolai. He stood where he was, still holding the rope, and stared.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the faint light, but as they did, he noticed two things. The first was that the Grendolai did not move, not at all. The silhouette was completely still. The second was that the pole had not struck the stone arch, for the long, thick shaft passed through the doorway beneath it.

Hope and excitement began to rise in Farimaal. He stepped onto the landing and moved closer. He stopped again. Even if the iron point had struck the Grendolai, it might not have killed or even seriously wounded the creature. He wait