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A Merchant’s Luck

by Michael R. Meyerhofer

part 5 of 7

Castor expected the Roc to bear them due north, deeper into the hideous woodlands of Nelophi. Instead, the great bird wheeled south, sailing high over the farms and towns of Xozaria. Castor frowned. Confusion gave him courage. “Where are we going?”

Nightmare heard him and approached with a wolfish grin. “Not Nelophi, as you can see. At least not yet.” The Dusk Elf said nothing more.

Castor had the sudden, wild urge to attack him. But even if he managed by some miracle to incapacitate a Murklord, then avoid being pummeled to death by the other Dusk Elves, where would he go? He was a thousand feet up in the air!

Castor felt his stomach lurch as the Roc veered westward, skirting the vast, sun-scalded deserts of Dendain, then began a slow descent toward a lone mountain ringed by woods. Castor’s eyes widened. Suddenly, he understood.

“The Wytch Guild.” He choked, his mouth dry. “You’re giving me to the sorcerers!”

Nightmare grinned but still said nothing.

Castor felt dizzy. Had he not already been sitting, he would have fainted. “Why?” He shook his head. “They won’t help you against the Xozarians, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“The sorcerers will give me all the help I need,” Nightmare said. “Once you explain how you make your foppish trinkets, they’ll show me how to poison them. A very subtle poison the duke’s alchemists won’t detect. Then we’ll to return them to the same crates we took them from; with any luck, we still have days before Xozarian soldiers find your wagons!” He beamed coldly. “It’ll look as if we broke open the crates, looking for gold, but left your brushes untouched.” He added, “In exchange, the Wytch Guild gets your secret, so they can make the brushes themselves.”

Castor had flown on rocs often enough that he no longer got airsick; nevertheless, he gripped the railing along his seat until his knuckles turned white. “I won’t tell,” he protested weakly.

Nightmare laughed. “Then they’ll wring it out of you! Truth be told, they’re going to torture you anyway. Seems they don’t think very highly of you.” He glanced out the window. The Roc’s lavender feathers rustled in the wind, splashed with sunset as the great bird settled lower and lower.

Castor had a sudden thought. The Wytch Guild views the Tamers as renegades! Rocs aren’t permitted any closer to Dun Fey Jutt. They’ll have to take me there on foot. He stopped himself. But what chance does that really give me? How can I escape these men?

The Roc reached the ground, settling its massive body so gracefully that the cabin barely jostled. Nightmare’s men unloaded Castor’s wares from the cargo hold. The merchant looked out the window and saw even more Dusk Elves waiting outside with fresh horses. Within minutes, the saddlebags had been hauled out and draped over fresh horses’ backs.

Nightmare herded Castor down the wooden ramp to the damp grass below. Castor usually felt momentarily shaky after disembarking from a Roc, but this time, his heart beat too fiercely for him to notice. All too quickly, the Tamers drove the Roc back into the sky, leaving him alone with the Dusk Elves.

Castor guessed the Roc would return soon to carry the Dusk Elves and the freshly-poisoned brushes back to their shattered crates, but he knew he would be deep in the torments of the Wytch Guild by then. Sundown crested the treetops. Castor wondered if the impeding night would be the last he’d ever see.

Dun Fey Jutt... Home of the Wytch Guild. A misshapen, impregnable fortress carved from the face of a mountain. Castor could already see the awful, opaque structure rising like a twisted, crowned horn from the blasted earth.

He thought of Aesho Hess again. Where was she now? Had she taken advantage of her freedom, gone off somewhere to start anew? He thought of all the times her fast sword and even faster wits had saved him from bugbears, sorcerers’ assassins, other things he couldn’t even name.

She wouldn’t just abandon me, he decided resolutely.

He imagined her furiously trying to rally the caravan guards and persuade Captain Therocles to go back for him. But there was no way even a Satyr as shrewd as Hess could know the Dusk Elves had a Roc waiting in the woods. By the time the Hess found the abandoned wagon, then the clearing, it would be too late.

Castor wondered what awful punishments the Wytch Guild had planned for him. Extracting the formula for his brushes would be a simple matter. Castor had no stomach for pain. But he knew this was not just about gaining the formula for his invention. Most sorcerers were aristocrats; Castor was a peasant grown rich doing something they could not. Thanks to Hess, he’d survived every assassin they sent. Moreover, he’d shaken the Halfrealms’ belief in their omniscience. He’d humiliated them. Their pride would not stand for that.

Castor started to rasp and wheeze again, then saw the cold amusement in the Dusk Elves’ eyes and stopped himself. Goodbye, Faun, he thought wistfully. I should have given you a raise.

Nightmare shoved him. “Walk.”

Castor stopped cold in his tracks. No, he thought. If I go any further, I’ll die.

Nightmare glowered at him. All the amusement drained from the Murklord’s ice-blue eyes. He drew his sword and slapped Castor hard across the face with the flat of the blade. The sudden, stinging gesture drove Castor to his knees.

“You’re testing my patience, merchant. The Guild wants you alive, but I doubt they’ll miss a finger or two!”

Through tears of pain, Castor saw the Dusk Elf hovering over him. He knew the man was serious, but he also knew that every step toward Dun Fey Jutt was a step towards oblivion. Castor straightened. He pretended he was elsewhere, in the court of Duke Meddo. Steadying himself with strength he did not know he had, he said, “Lord Nightmare, I have a proposition for you.”

The Murklord chuckled in open derision. “I was waiting for this. What now: will you beg? Offer us a bribe?”

Castor shook his head. “No. I said I have a proposition. You should listen to men who are smarter than you.”

Nightmare’s men started towards him, but the Murklord waved them back. Nightmare snickered. “Do not feign courage before a man who could break every bone in your body and sleep better for it.”

Castor blanched, but he knew better than to back down now. “I’m not offering you a bribe. Yes, I want to live. So I’m offering you a deal, a better one than the Wytch Guild will give you.”

Nightmare sneered. Castor saw at once that the Dusk Elf did not trust him, but he was curious. That was a start. “Speak,” the Elf said.

Castor bowed. “Thank you. You may have just saved Nelophi.” Castor steeled himself and began. “First, do you really think the Wytch Guild will let you have my brushes when they’re done with me? As a Dusk Elf, you of all people know men being tortured will say anything. So the sorcerers will keep my brushes, just in case I’m lying. And if you protest” — he shrugged — “you and your men might be good fighters, but swords aren’t much use against magic.”

Castor paused, allowing time for the weight of his words to sink in. He could see by the expressions on the faces of Nightmare and the other Dusk Elves that they did not believe him, but at least he had their full attention. Castor had to think fast, making this up as he went along.

“But there’s another way,” he said. “You want to poison the duke’s soldiers? Fine. They mean nothing to me. I’ll tell you how I make my brushes. Then, I’ll help you poison them myself.” He forced a sneer that rivaled Nightmare’s. “Then you get everything. The sorcerers get nothing. And Xozaria withers. Can you think of a better deal than that?”

For a long time, Nightmare was quiet. Then he grinned coldly. “I misjudged you, merchant. You would make a fine Dusk Elf. Just one problem.”

Castor braced himself. “Yes?”

Nightmare took a deadly step forward. “What do you propose we do with you?”

Castor fought the shiver that iced his spine and shrugged. “That’s your decision. But if the price is right — and you agree not to kill me, of course — maybe we can do business. You could be richer than I am, Nightmare. Richer than a king.”

Castor saw Nightmare’s eyes flicker at the mention of wealth. The Dusk Elf was quiet for a long time. Then he gestured away from the distant abomination that was Dun Fey Jutt, towards the clearing where the Roc had rested just a moment before.

“We’ll set up camp and discuss this further.” He ordered his men to fetch a bottle of the strong but putrid Dwarfish wine confiscated from Castor’s wagons. “And fetch me one of those damn brushes,” he added. “I’d like to know what all this fuss is about!”

* * *

Proceed to part 6...

Copyright © 2009 by Michael R. Meyerhofer

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