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SotS final snippet part 1

Fans of Bahzell and Tomenack come on in! Let's talk about David's fantasy series and our favorite hradani!
SotS final snippet part 1
Post by runsforcelery   » Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:42 pm

First Space Lord

Posts: 2425
Joined: Sun Aug 09, 2009 11:39 am
Location: South Carolina

Since the book is already out in e-book form, this is going to be the last snippet. Because it's the last one, it's also going to be a long one.

Hope you enjoy it.

CHAPTER NINE: The Road to Morfintan

The sound of hooves had long faded and the moon blinked and vanished in a bank of black and silver cloud as the smell of rain grew stronger. The flooded river’s voiced was a low, grumbling rush, underpinning the night, and the breeze swirled mist under the stable lantern while the sign creaked.

A dozen figures in black leather slipped through the mist. No blazon marred their black garb, and the feeble light seemed to sink into them and vanish. A concealing hood covered each face and soft buskins slithered noiselessly over the paving. The wind made more noise than they.

Their slim leader paused, head swaying as if to scent the night. An imperiously raised hand halted the others as the leader sidled up to the stable door and paused again. The unbolted panel stirred to the wind’s touch, and steel whispered. A longsword gleamed, dull in the moonlight and lantern light, as a buskin toed the door soundlessly open, and six figures filtered through like fog.

Fradenhelm huddled in a corner, propped against the wall, and clutched his arm while whimpers leaked through his teeth. An hour had passed since Bahzell dropped him, but shock and terror gripped him still, sapping his strength.

Five hundred gold kormaks had seemed a fortune, especially with half of it paid in advance, when all he’d had to do was inform the assassins when their victims appeared. Even the murder of the wind rider had been easy, for all he’d done was look the other way. Yet the rider’s death rattle had been the first whisper of his own fate, and now he knew what greed might have cost him.

He was marked. As a wind rider, Bahzell shared an obligation to kill him with every wind rider of the vast Kingdom of the Sothōii. The Sothōii had seemed safely far away at the time, but that distance had become cold comfort in the wake of Bahzell’s visit. Fradenhelm was only grateful their past dealings had created an offsetting obligation in the hradani’s mind. It gave him a chance to flee, and he must run if he wanted to live — run so far and hide so deep that no one, not even Bahzell Bloody Hand, could ever find him again.

Unless the assassins actually managed to kill Bahzell, of course. The chances of which, based on their uniform lack of success in that respect, were no more than even, even with Chernion himself taking the assignment.

None of which considered the fact that he’d violated Chernion’s instructions, as well, which could mean —

A buskin whispered in straw, and his head jerked up as six assassins materialized about him. His spastic effort to rise ended stillborn as a sword tip waved gently at his terror-dilated eyes.

“Greetings, Horsetrader.” The leader’s voice was low, carved from melodious, almost effeminate ice, and Fradenhelm trembled as he stared pleadingly into the dark eye-glitter in the hood’s slits.

“I received your message . . . tardily. You chose a poor messenger, yet he found us at last and bade us come. Behold me. Where are the targets?”

“G-gone,” Fradenhelm whispered.

“So I perceive.” The voice was gentle. “Weren’t you told to hold them here until I could attend to them?”

“I . . . They —”

“A simple answer is sufficient, Horsetrader,” the assassin purred.

“I tried! Bahzell was in too big a hurry for me to hold them long. I . . . I tried to convince them to spend the night here in Korun, but they refused! And . . . and I sent you word as soon as they got here!”

“You did — by a halfwitted oaf who took an hour and more to find me. But, yes, you sent word. And your messenger tells me you also kept the courser you were supposed to dispose of.” The soft voice sounded almost amused. “You know Bahzell’s a wind rider. Were you truly so foolish you thought you could hide a courser from him?

“They — that is, Bahzell —”

“You told them we were coming, didn’t you?”

“Bahzell made me! He tortured me!” Fradenhelm shrieked.

“So I see,” the assassin soothed, “and a man has a right to tell what he knows to end the pain. Even so, Horsetrader, it may have been unwise. You’ve failed me, and no one does that twice. Redeem yourself!” The voice became a lash. “Where did they go?”

“Morfintan! They said Morfintan!” Fradenhelm offered feverishly, raising his good hand ingratiatingly. “I-I crawled to the door to listen.”

“Morfintan.” The assassin considered a moment, then chuckled. “Foolish of you, Horsetrader. Do you really believe Bahzell Bloody Hand wouldn’t guess you were there?”

A gloved hand gestured, a knife whispered on leather as it was drawn, and Fradenhelm shrank back, moaning as the blade gleamed.

“You’re a fool,” the leader remarked calmly, nodding to the man with the knife, “and I have no use for fools. Your greed betrayed us, and your stupidity’s allowed our targets to begin some plan to evade us. Farewell, Horsetrader.”


Fradenhelm’s scream died in a gurgle, and a small body slumped to the straw in a spreading fan of red. The leader had already turned to one of the others.

“Check the gates, Rosper. Check them all. Their destination’s Sindor for the present — I’m sure of it. But I think this fool told the truth about what he heard, so perhaps they’ve chosen an indirect route. Check the East Gate well; if they have gone that way, we may be able to overtake them on the high road.”

“At once, Chernion.”

“The rest of you, gather our mounts and meet me in the Potters’ Square. We can ride in any direction from there.”

“Yes, Chernion!” they chorused.

“See to it. And hide your leathers until we ride.”

“Yes, Chernion!”

They slapped fists to chests in salute and faded into the mist, and Chernion’s emotionless toe pushed the body onto its back. The assassin reached into an inner pocket for a heavy purse, and gold gleamed as the Guildmaster emptied two hundred and fifty gold kormaks over the corpse.

Chernion dropped the purse and drew a tiny dagger of hammered silver, its pommel a grinning death’s head, from a wrist sheath. The killer drove it through the purse into the dirt, then turned on a heel without glancing back.

Chernion had no use for fools, but examples were another matter. Dog brothers were businessmen, and if mere murder paid no bills, executions for failure built a reputation for ruthless infallibility.

That was worth the kormaks Fradenhelm had been promised.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two horsemen and a hradani pressed down the high road.

The hradani’s ears pricked, as if to pluck any sound of pursuit from the breeze, as he ran with the steady, swinging, tireless endurance of the Horse Stealers. Mist wreathed the horses’ knees, so that the riders seemed to float on a sea of vapor that ended at their stirrup irons. Moonlight broke the clouds occasionally, but they’d grown thick; breaks big enough for the moon had become few and far between, and a soft drizzle sifted down.

One of the pack horses stumbled, but Bahzell’s iron arm held him. The gelding recovered, yet he breathed heavily as the hradani brought him back up. He was obviously still willing, but he was nearly spent, and the second pack horse was little better, although the courser and Glamhandro appeared fresh enough.

“We’ll have to rest them again,” Bahzell said so abruptly Kenhodan started in surprise after the speechless hours. He glanced at the drooping gelding and nodded agreement.

“I fear you’re right.” Wencit rose in the saddle to peer through the depressing mist. The high road was wide and firm, hard paved as it sped across the moor, and a swatch of firm turf ran along either verge for horsemen. The night lay in ashes about them, but dawn was still distant, and fine drops of rain made it hard to see much.

“Over there,” he said finally, pointing into the dark. “I see the loom of some trees. We can shelter there for an hour or so.”

Bahzell looked carefully in the indicated direction and grunted, then led them through the rainy mist at a more sedate paste, followed by Wencit, the pack horses, and Kenhodan. The redhaired man was uneasy, sensing the pursuit he couldn’t see, and his hand brushed his sword hilt. He turned every few minutes to glance cautiously behind, but at least the following breeze favored them. It would carry any sound of pursuit to them and push their own noise ahead . . . he hoped.

Melting snow and spring’s long rains had struck deep into the soil of South March Moor, and sodden ground sucked at the horses’ hooves between tussocks of stiff grass. A dense belt of firs bulked wetly, farther from the road than Kenhodan would have guessed. They stood on higher, firmer ground, and he suspected they’d been planted as a windbreak for the high road.

He sighed in relief as he dismounted, and Wencit swung down beside him with an echoing sigh of gratitude.

“Old bones don’t take kindly to desperate all-night rides,” the wizard observed, stretching until his shoulders popped loudly.

“Old bones, is it?” Bahzell’s ears twitched at Wencit in amusement. “I’m thinking as how someone wants an excuse to be lying about while others are after doing the work!”

“You expect a poor old man to work after such a night?” Wencit’s voice quavered pitifully. “An old man, worn with his labors and hard riding?”

“Aye,” Bahzell answered with a grin.

“The gods will deal with you as you with me,” Wencit warned him.

“That’s as may be, but it’s pleased as punch you’ve been with yourself all afternoon and night, Wizard. Well, wizard’s news is for wizard’s ears, they say, so I’ll not blame you for not sharing it — though Tomanāk knows it must be after being good indeed to have you grinning like a loon with dog brothers on our heels! But if you’ll not share that, you’ll at least share the work.”

“Learn from this, Kenhodan,” Wencit said mournfully. “Never ride with a hradani. He’ll either eat your horse or make you tend it like a slave.”

The coal black courser snorted. Then his nose pushed the wizard between the shoulders hard enough to make Wencit stumble forward a full stride, and Kenhodan — already busy with Glamhandro — grinned. The wizard turned to the courser, and the huge stallion cocked his head to one side, turning it to regard Wencit with a steady eye until he reached up and laid one palm on the courser’s forehead. The stallion pushed against it, far more gently, and Wencit smiled.

“Old and feeble I may be, My Lord, but I’m sure I can dredge up at least a little energy.”

The courser snorted again, and Wencit began loosening the saddle girth.

Kenhodan already had Glamhandro’s saddle off, and the big gray was sweaty enough to need attention in the chill air. Yet he still spoiled for a run — his ears were forward, and his left forefoot dug at the damp turf as Kenhodan stroked his velvet nose, then rubbed him down briskly. He turned the blanket and replaced the saddle, then draped his poncho over the horse. The firs protected him from the rain, and Glamhandro’s overheated strength needed warmth more than he. He eased the bit from the stallion’s mouth, and Glamhandro nuzzled his ear, blowing gently before he dropped his head to crop the sparse grass.

Kenhodan listened to the sound of grazing for a moment, then turned to help the others. Bahzell was just finishing with the first of the pack horses, and he glanced at Kenhodan with a tight grin as he bent his great bow and nodded back towards the high road. Kenhodan nodded in understanding, and the hradani vanished into the mist. Kenhodan heard his boots suck in and out of the mud once or twice; then there was only silence.

The redhaired man removed the second pack horse’s pack frame and set it aside, and the weary gelding — a gray, darker than Glamhandro with black legs — blew gratefully. The redhaired man began working the rubbing cloth over the horse’s coat and glanced over his shoulder at Wencit.

The courser was big enough to make it difficult for the wizard to reach his poll without some sort of stool, but the stallion had bent his head to ease the task, and Wencit’s hands were gentle on the galled welts his imprisoning halter had left. He wore no bridle, of course. Most coursers wore ornamental hackamores, usually without reins and decorated with ornamental silver work or even gems, but no wind rider would even consider putting a bit into his companion’s mouth, and no courser would ever choose a rider who might have contemplated anything of the sort. Kenhodan knew that, yet he’d still found it strange to watch Wencit cantering through the night with his hands resting on his thighs.

Now the wizard finished rubbing down the courser, and the stallion touched him with his nose again in thanks, then moved over beside Glamhandro to tear at the scanty grass.

Kenhodan and Wencit worked together, as silently and smoothly as if they’d practiced it for years, to set the picket pins for the pack animals. Wencit seemed content to trust their security to Bahzell, and after a moment or two of thought, Kenhodan discovered that he shared his confidence. The redhaired man considered what would happen to any pursuers out there in the dark and felt less anxious as he checked the picket rope and turned wearily to Wencit.

“Do we dare risk a fire? Or are they likely to be so close we really need Bahzell out there?”

“Probably not — to both questions.” Wencit’s silver hair gleamed with the fine raindrops. “For all his banter, Bahzell’s cautious. He doesn’t really expect to see anyone, but he hasn’t lived this long by ignoring remote possibilities. But why were you wanting a fire?”

“Leeana packed plenty of tea. I thought a cup or two . . . ?”

“An excellent idea! And we don’t need a fire for that; I’ll provide the heat.”

There was a stream somewhere near, chuckling softly in the night. Indeed, it was a rare spot on South March Moor where one didn’t hear running water, but direction was easily lost in the mist. Kenhodan didn’t care to stray far on the fog-girt moor, so he unstoppered a canteen to fill Bahzell’s blackened camp kettle and dropped in a handful of fragrant tea.

While he did that, Wencit had drawn his sword and turned up the flat of the blade. Now he set the kettle on the inlaid steel, balancing it with his free hand. His brilliant eyes burned even brighter for a moment and a diamond-hard glitter edged the blade, bathing his features in blue luminescence. Kenhodan swallowed a muffled exclamation and moved quickly between the sword and the road to hide its light, but his instinctive protest died as the kettle began to steam. His eyes fastened on the razor edge of light, and his mind echoed with a strange humming noise.

The kettle bubbled at a low boil within seconds, and Kenhodan snatched it from the sword. He hissed as he burned his fingers and set it aside quickly, fumbling a riding glove from his belt to shield his hand from the heat.

Wencit blinked at Kenhodan’s muffled curse, and the glow of the sword died instantly, plunging them back into a night all the darker for the brief light. All Kenhodan could see were the wizard’s eyes, floating like disembodied balefires in the gloom.

“Here.” Wencit wrapped a corner of his cloak around the kettle handle, and Kenhodan watched bemusedly — wondering why the small, casual sorcery impressed him as deeply as the desperate spells Wencit had used against the corsairs. Watching Wencit of Rūm calmly brew tea on a magical sword seemed somehow . . . inappropriate.

“What was that sound?” he asked curiously.

“Sound?” The glowing eyes shifted to consider him thoughtfully.

“Like a humming. I’ve heard something every time you’ve worked sorcery near me, only usually it sounds like some sort of animal.”

“Have you now?” Wencit chuckled. “Mightn’t it be wiser to say you heard it every time you knew I was using the art?”

“Are you trying to evade me?” Kenhodan asked curiously. “If so, I’m perfectly willing to drop it. I was only curious.”

“No, that’s all right,” Wencit said. “Some people can detect the wild magic, although there’s no fixed way of perceiving it. Some hear it, some see it — some actually taste it. It’s possible you truly can hear it.”

“Is that significant?” Kenhodan asked nervously.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Wencit said dryly. “I once knew a warrior with no more skill in the art than a block of wood. You couldn’t even begin to imagine how profoundly un-magical he was! Yet he could hear wild magic from one end of Kontovar to the other. Little good it did him in the end, I’m afraid. There’s a vast difference between detecting the wild magic and being able to command it, and he went off to the Battle of Lost Hope without ever showing even a hint of the Gift.”

“I see.” Kenhodan felt a surge of relief. “Good! I don’t want —”

Idiots! Idiots the pair of you!” Bahzell filtered out of the mist and glowered at them. “Clear down by the road, I was, and saw that glow like a beacon! I might’ve been picking you both off, clean and easy as butts at a target match — and tempted I was to do it! Why not be hiring a band the next time you’re wishful to draw the dog brothers’ eye?!”

“There are no eyes out there to see it,” Wencit said calmly, “and even if there were, there’s far less chance of anyone noticing so brief a light than any fire we might have lit.”

“With mortal eyes, maybe.” Bahzell gave not an inch. “But what if Wulfra’s seen fit to be giving her killers a pet wizard for a guide?”

“Unlikely.” Wencit shrugged. “Rumor says Chernion hates all wizards. His Guild has too many secrets, and he wants no wizard meddling with them. Besides, the dog brothers have been hurt too often working with wizardry against you and me alike, Bahzell. Chernion won’t want to risk repeating that against both of us. But even if he wanted a wizard, it’s unlikely any of Wulfra’s circle would go with him. Whatever else, Chernion’s never been afraid to see his victims before he strikes — or even to attack them face-to-face. Do you really think any of the scum running with Wulfra would willingly come close to me? I know you’re not that stupid, Bahzell.”

“All right! Put your pride back in your pack and forget I was after speaking! Wizards! Not a one of ’em but would take time out on the brink of disaster to discuss his peers’ failings!” Bahzell turned to Kenhodan before Wencit could take fresh umbrage at the suggestion that another wizard might be his “peer.” “If that’s tea I’m smelling, pour it out. My belly’s colder than a Purple Lords’s heart on settling day.”

Kenhodan chuckled as he poured into the metal cups, and they squatted, sipping gratefully at the hot, bitter tea of the East Wall mountaineers.

“What time is it?” Kenhodan asked finally, the better part of an hour later.

“About the turn of the morning watch,” Bahzell answered. “We’re after making good time — we’ve come over ten leagues, I’m guessing. Say what you will of Fradenhelm, he’s an eye for horseflesh and it’s not far wrong he was about Glamhandro.”

“Then we could camp here?”

“No.” Bahzell sipped noisily and shook his head. “I’m thinking we’d best rest a little more, then move on. They’ll be after us, and while they’ll not be making up much distance, they’ll not be many hours back, either.”

“Why not?”

“Because friend Fradenhelm was after sending them after us like a shot, lad, to save his own skin. Not but what he wouldn’t have done it for pay, anyway. He was after hearing us, and his only chance — and that not a good one — is to be telling them all he can.”

“I thought you said he couldn’t do any more harm!”

“And so I did, for I wanted him to be thinking I thought that. I’m hopeful of leading the dog brothers astray, and it’s mortal hard to lead someone wrong if they don’t think as they know where you’ve gone.”

“Why not go south if he sent them east, then? We might’ve lost them!”

“That we wouldn’t have. If we’d taken the South Gate, how long d’you think they’d’ve taken to be learning just that? We’re not after being the very hardest group for folks to notice, and Chernion’s the reputation of the best hired killer in Norfressa — not one to be running off on the say-so of such as Fradenhelm! No, Chernion’s one as knows his trade as well as I’m after knowing mine. He’ll have checked all the gates to be certain, for he’s not one to leave anything to chance, either. I’m doubting as it took him all that long to check, but it’s surprised I’d be if he could send runners to all of them in much less than an hour. So we’re that far ahead, and it may be — though I’d not count on it! — that he’s after believing we’re truly off to Morfintan.”

“Well, we are.” Kenhodan paused accusingly. “Aren’t we?”

“Lad, the war god loves truth, but himself’s also one as loves a cunning mind. In fact, to be cutting a long tale short —” Bahzell’s teeth gleamed “— no.”

“Then where in Phrobus’ name are we going?” Kenhodan was on his feet, amazed by the anger exploding within him. “You and this wizard seem to have a means of communication denied to lesser mortals! Am I supposed to consult the birds to divine our future — when I can find any birds in this Chemalka-cursed climate? We been riding hard all night, and you haven’t even seen fit to tell me where we’re really going?!

He couldn’t see himself, but his companions could, and he no longer looked like a worried young man without a past of his own, for that inner imperiousness he’d already detected within himself had risen to the surface. His green eyes were hard, his jaw taut, and his expression was that of a man accustomed to command, not to obey. The wizard and hradani glanced at one another, and then Bahzell shrugged.

“It’s sorry I am, lad,” he said calmly. “It was no part of my thinking to be misleading you, but you’ve the right of it — Wencit and I are after knowing each other too well. It’s not so very often we discuss our plans, because we’re in the habit of each knowing the other’s thought before he’s thought it. It may be as we feel too comfortable with you to be remembering you’re a newcomer.

“Well I am a newcomer,” Kenhodan half-snapped, and felt embarrassment at his own reaction heat his face. He dug a toe angrily into the sodden turf and glowered at them. “I can accept that you can’t discuss my past, but you can bloody well discuss the future! And you can start with why we’re freezing our arses off in the rain in the middle of nowhere like village halfwits waiting for hired assassins to stick knives in our backs!”

“Now, that’s after being a reasonable question.”

Bahzell’s chuckle snapped the tension — and Kenhodan’s anger. He felt suddenly abashed by his words and sank back down, reaching for his cup.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I guess I’m too sensitive, but I feel so damned helpless. So . . . so uninformed. And there’s so much I need to know!”

“Wencit,” Bahzell said more seriously, “the lad’s the right of it. And I’m thinking, now I think about it at all, that it’s surprised I am he’s been patient with us this long.”

“You’re right,” Wencit agreed, then turned to Kenhodan. “You’ve reason to feel ill used — not least because you know I know more about you than I can tell you — and you certainly have a right to know anything we can tell you. Please believe we left you in ignorance out of thoughtlessness and haste, not by design.”

Kenhodan nodded, gratified by their reaction but confused by his own. He knew part of it was frustration mixed with fatigue and not a little fear, but he also knew there was more to it. There’d been more than a trace of the rage he’d felt on Wave Mistress in that anger, and that worried him. It wasn’t the same sort of killing rage . . . but it wasn’t completely different from it, either, and that thought evaporated the last embers of his temper, leaving him shaken and cold, instead. Did he have his own share of the hradani’s Rage? And if he did, what did that say about him?

He drew a deep breath and clenched his teeth. What he’d been mattered less than what he was now. It had to. He couldn’t undo his past, even if he’d known what it was, but whatever sparked his fury lay within him. If he couldn’t alter what he’d been, at least he could control what he might become, and he would control it. He must.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated more naturally, “but I really do want to know what we’re doing, so tell me, please. At least —” his lips twitched a wry smile “— until my mindreading catches up with yours.”

“That’s better!” Bahzell clasped his forearms firmly. “Aye, and this old spell-spinner’s after speaking for me, as well. It’s not that we undervalue you, but sometimes we’re after forgetting, d’you see? Forgive us.”

“Don’t make me feel guilty, you oaf! You’ll start it all over again!”

“Tell him, Bahzell!” Wencit laughed. “As you value both our lives, tell him!”

Kenhodan surprised himself with an answering spurt of laughter, and his companions’ chuckles erased the last tension as if Wencit had used a spell.

“Aye, I will, then,” Bahzell agreed, and knelt as the moon blinked through a fortuitous hole in the cloud drift. He smoothed a patch of soil and put a pebble on it.

“This pebble’s after being Korun, Kenhodan. This line’s the South Road —” he scribed with a fingertip “— and this is the East Road.” He jerked a thumb at the mist-hidden high road. “This line’s the Morfintan High Road,” he went on, scribing in another north-south line to cap the eastern end of the East Road. “If we were to be going clear to the Morfintan High Road, we’d be hitting it here —” his forefinger jabbed “— at Losun, and it’s straight south we could turn for Sindor. But that’s after being the longer way. It’s leagues out of our way it would take us — not but what I’d not be so very unhappy about that, if it should so happen it would be throwing off the dog brothers. Only that’s not so likely to happen, I’m thinking.

“But that’s not so bad a thing, for we’re after knowing it won’t, so . . . .”

He made more lines.

“This is after being the White Water, and this other line the Snowborn — a river from the East Walls as meets White Water about five leagues from this very spot . . . here. The East Road’s after crossing the Snowborn on the Bridge of Eloham, then runs seventy more leagues to the Morfintan High Road.”

“All right,” Kenhodan said as Bahzell paused and glanced up. “I see where we are, but not why we’re here.”

“As to that,” Bahzell said, sitting back on his haunches, “the answer’s at the Bridge of King Emperor Eloham. Right at its west end, there’s a trail branches off to follow the Snowborn a league or two before it’s after turning back southwest through the Forest of Hev to join the South Road a hundred leagues south of Korun.”

“And we take that trail, do we?”

“Aye, and one of two things will be happening. If the dog brothers know the trail, or if they’re after figuring it out, like as not they’ll follow us. If they’re not after knowing or guessing, I’m thinking they’ll keep on to the east after ghosts and the wind. Either way, we’ll come out to the better.”

“I can see where we’d come out ahead if they lose us, but won’t we still be in the same fix if they do follow us down the trail?”

“No. First, I’ve no doubt at all, at all, that our horses — even the pack beasts — are after being better than theirs. Thief and traitor Fradenhelm may be, but he’s a master’s eye for horseflesh, and it’s his best we took. It’s not so very likely the dog brothers can match them, and cross-country, they’ll not find remounts when their own steeds fail. Holding to the roads, though, they’ll be after hiring or buying fresh at every posting station. That’s something we can’t do, unless we’re wishful to abandon the horses we have — aside from the courser, of course — and that I’d not do with all the scorpions of Sharnā nipping at my backside. But cross-country, it’s our heels we’ll show them, unless it should happen they’ve plenty of spares.”

“And if they do?”

“I’ll still not worry overmuch.” Bahzell smiled, and his tone was almost hungry as he touched a spot on his crude map. “Right about here,” he said almost wistfully, “there’s after being a stream. It’s not so much a stream it is in summer, but right now it’s running deep and fast. Best of all, the west bank’s sheer as a temple wall, and the trail’s after being steep as heartbreak and narrow as honor. It’s a place where horses can be going only in single file, and at the top, why there’s a nice cluster of trees. I’m thinking as we might make camp in those trees a day or two, lad.”

He met Kenhodan’s eyes in the moonlight, and the redhaired man nodded slowly. If he had a killer’s soul, who better to unleash it against than assassins? His smile was colder than Bahzell’s bright, fierce grin and his eyes were hard.

“That might be nice,” he murmured softly.

“Aye. At best, they’ll be ‘following’ us to Morfintan while we cut across the inside of the loop — a little slower, but a lot shorter. We can be waiting two days at the stream and still gain a week over them, and set them a pretty puzzle, too. At worst, they’ll follow along the trail and come up with us at a time and place of our choosing, not theirs.”

“I like it,” Kenhodan said. He supposed he should feel squeamish about cold bloodedly planning to ambush others, but he couldn’t. Hired killers were vermin, and there was only one way to deal with them. Or, at least, there was only one way for him to deal with them.

He wondered if he’d always been like that?

“Then —” Bahzell rose and carefully blotted his diagram with his heel “— I’m thinking we’d best be on our way again.”

Wencit and Kenhodan nodded, and the hradani pulled the picket pins and gathered up the pack horses’ leads as his companions, reclaimed their ponchos, tightened their girths, and climbed back into the saddle. The courser pawed impatiently, tossing his head and ready to be off, and Glamhandro snorted in reply. The pack horses seemed less eager, but their heads came up as the courser gave a shrill whinny. His right forehoof thudded the muddy ground again, and when Bahzell tugged on the lead ropes, they followed him gamely, forging back to the road. Hooves sucked in mud, then thudded on wet, firm turf. Horses and courser gathered themselves, then swung to the east once more, fleeing into the teeth of a misty dawn at the hradani’s heels, and rain swallowed them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Fine rain beaded the cloaks and ponchos of a grim group of horsemen. Two of them rode ahead while their ten companions followed respectfully behind. One of the leaders was Chernion; the other was Rosper.

“I wonder why?” Chernion murmured as they rode on through the shredding fog.

“Why what?”

Chernion eyed Rosper thoughtfully. Rosper was Craftmaster of the south, second only to Chernion in this part of the Empire, and he’d earned that position. Chernion considered him a little hasty, but he was an able man, and one of only two who knew Chernion’s deepest secret.

“Why Morfintan?” the Guildmaster said after a moment. “It’s not the straight path to Angthyr, Rosper.”

“What of it? They’re warned now, and they’re detouring to avoid pursuit.” Rosper shrugged, and water trickled down his cloak.

“Are they?” Chernion’s head cocked thoughtfully. “Neither the Bloody Hand nor the wizard is a fool. They knew the horsetrader would be listening, just as they knew he’d betray them the instant he could. No, they left us a message, Rosper. They want us to come this way.”

“With all respect, I think you’re seeing plots that don’t exist,” Rosper replied. “They’re afraid of the Guild. It’s that simple.”

“No, it’s not,” Chernion said firmly. “These are no fat merchants or fawning, fat-bellied nobles. Now that they know we’re hunting them, neither Wencit nor the Bloody Hand will fear us. They have some purpose in mind, whatever it may be.”

“I’m not so certain. Not even Bahzell would care to face all of us.”

Chernion suppressed a sigh. So Rosper meant to be stubborn, did he? Well, it was Chernion’s duty to teach him wisdom, even if it was likely to prove a futile exercise in this instance.

“Bahzell,” the Guildmaster said bluntly, “could kill half our brothers by himself, and if a quarter of the tales are true, Wencit could kill the rest without a spell. Which says nothing of the third man — and trust me, Rosper; the Bloody Hand and Wencit didn’t bring along a man who can’t fight.”

“And if we take them unaware?” Rosper asked pointedly.

“There are times, Rosper, when you show a glimmer of genius.” Chernion’s tone was as close to jesting as it ever came. “That’s what I hope for, but our best chance was in Korun, before they knew we were hunting them. The Bloody Hand hasn’t survived so long without growing eyes in the back of his head, and their guard will be up.”

“Let it be! We have two fresh horses each. We’ll run them to earth and take them in the dark! Or do you question my dog brothers’ stealth?”

“Rosper, you listen like a soldier! I never question the dog brothers’ stealthiness; but I fear the Bloody Hand’s. You’ve never hunted a target like him. I wouldn’t count on surprising him even if he didn’t know anyone was hunting him. But that’s the least of it, because he has a plan. I’m as certain of that as if he’d told me so himself.”

“What good’s a plan against a dozen of us in the dark? Not even Bahzell can see in all directions.” Rosper grimaced. “Your pardon, but this sounds like the fluttering of a frightened maid, not the words of an assassin.”

“Perhaps,” Chernion returned calmly. “But the wizard’s eyes aren’t like those of other men. Who knows what they see? I don’t . . . but I’m wise enough to fear them. No. We’ll follow, but carefully. Carefully, Rosper!”

“Of course, Chernion.”

Rosper slapped his chest in salute and fell back, explaining Chernion’s plans quietly to the others, and no listener could have guessed his mind wasn’t in complete accord with his words.

Chernion smiled and peered forward, carefully wiping bushy eyebrows and an oddly delicate face as water trickled down them. Rosper! He should have been a warrior, not an assassin. His skill with poison was outstanding, and it was his dart which had paralyzed the courser’s will before it could avenge its fallen rider. The drugs he’d supplied after that ought to have kept that will paralyzed, as well. Obviously, something had gone wrong with that, but the truth was that Chernion couldn’t really blame Fradenhelm for assuming Rosper’s concoctions would keep the stallion quiescent and pliant until he could dispose of it. Chernion would have assumed the same. Unfortunately, it would appear there was more truth to the tales about the coursers’ vitality and resistance to poison than the Guildmaster had believed, and while one could scarcely blame Rosper for not knowing that, the evidence that his potions had failed of their purpose in the end had touched his pride on the quick. That would have been enough to hone the edge of his determination to lay their quarry by the heels, yet the truth was that injured self-esteem was only a part of what pushed him to drive the pursuit.

Despite his well-earned pride in the efficacy of his poisons, there were times the dog brothers’ stealthy killing galled Rosper. Times when he wanted to face his prey openly, see the knowledge that death had come for them in their eyes. Which was foolish. Assassins were better fighters than most, or they didn’t live long, but pride paid no bills and frontal assaults were bad business. Men hired the dog brothers when they needed an enemy to vanish without fuss or bother; any hired bravo with a sword could kill openly.

No, assassins traded in skill and stealth, and the Guild’s reputation attracted patrons who didn’t relish failure. It was always wise to pick the moment carefully, and Chernion disliked the notion of meeting Bahzell on ground of his own choosing. Assassins were merchants of death, not heroes, and the Guild had long ago learned how expensive it could prove to hunt Bahzell Bahnakson on anything remotely like his own terms.

Norfressa’s deadliest killer rode silently onward, lost in thought.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wulfra of Torfo studied her crystal, peering down on Chernion from a great height. She knew Wencit was somewhere ahead of the assassin, but that was all she knew, for the old wizard’s glamour was beyond her piercing. Her patron could penetrate it, but he would no longer share his full information with her.

She sighed and gems flashed as she combed slender, ringed fingers through her golden hair, then steepled them under her chin. She might not like the cat-eyed wizard’s reasoning, but she understood it.

Wencit knew it was beyond her power to breach his defenses. So far, her minions had attacked only when there was some other reasonable explanation for how they might have tracked him, but if Chernion went unfailingly to him, he’d know he was under close observation. At best he’d strengthen his glamours . . . at worst he’d know someone more powerful than Wulfra opposed him, and the cat-eyed wizard refused to alert his ancient enemy.

Anyway, her patron probably disapproved of the dog brothers. Not that Chernion had much chance of succeeding. Wulfra knew that better than most, and she didn’t much like the exorbitant price the Assassins Guild had charged her, but it was she towards whom Wencit rode. Under the circumstances, she was prepared to try anything with a chance, however remote, of success. Besides, Chernion might just be lucky, for the assassin had a formidable record. And if the Guild failed, Wulfra lost nothing but the down payment they’d already received, for the dog brothers guaranteed success. In the rare instances when they failed — and they did fail, from time to time, despite anything their reputation might say — their clients owed nothing.

It was a pity, in a way. Wulfra smiled as she gazed at the assassin. Chernion truly was as capable as they said, and the assassin had already struck down two of Fallona’s better generals for Wulfra, though the dog brothers didn’t know she was the one who’d hired them. The contract had been negotiated in the name of Ranalf of Carchon, since Wulfra was of no mind to risk her saintly public image just yet. It would be a shame if the assassin’s steel was unequal to this task, but even that could be useful, for Bahzell and Wencit were bound to kill at least a few dog brothers along the way. If that happened, the Guild would be more determined than ever to kill them in return, for assassins had no friends. They took care of their own, because it was bad business for dead dog brothers to go unavenged. It was largely fear of inevitable retribution which made brave men hesitate to face them.

Yes, Chernion might yet be a winning card. If not . . . at least the assassin amused her. She enjoyed her link to Chernion’s mind, even knowing Chernion would risk anything to destroy her if the assassin ever became aware that link existed. Chernion had secrets, and the Guildmaster had killed repeatedly to hide them. It might be dangerous to know them, but Wulfra was willing to risk that.

She did so enjoy being on the inside.

* * * * * * * * * *

“I thought you said there was a trail.”

Kenhodan’s tone was both pointed and sour as he eyed the river. Like the White Water, the Snowborn was high with snowmelt, and the road arrowed out into its waters on a broad causeway that melded with a many-arched bridge. Foam boiled through those arches, fretting at the constriction in brawling rage, but the stonework rose like a fortress, throwing back the current in angry ruffles of yellow and brown lace while the river growled its anger.

Day had come, such as it was. There was no sun; clouds shouldered one another in solid, lumpy charcoal billows and misty rain dusted down. The desolate sight of the flooded river glowered at them in the barren gray light.

“Aye, and a trail there is!” Bahzell raised his voice over the bone-numbing roar. “I was never saying as it was easy to reach!”

“Easy isn’t all that important, as long as it’s possible! Is it?”

“And would I’ve been after bringing you this way if it wasn’t?”

Kenhodan shivered doubtfully. Trees drifted on the current, swirling slowly end for end while water heaved and foamed through broken limbs and roots. The swollen river rose ten feet up oaks and ash trees growing well back from its nominal bank; farther out, the willows along the “shore” were barely visible humps of foam. Two of the bridge’s arches were packed with jams of wreckage, but it stood like a cliff, its piers founded firmly in the riverbed. The stonework bore the scars of combat, yet it faced the battle undaunted.

“Show me!” he shouted dubiously.

“Would it happen you see that oak?” Bahzell pointed downstream, and Kenhodan nodded. “It’s thirty or forty feet beyond it our trail lies. All we’re after needing is to swim the horses from here to there, d’you see?”

“You’re joking!” Kenhodan was stunned. “It must be a hundred yards! Look at that current! How are we supposed to swim that far — much less the pack horses?”

Bahzell glanced at the weary horses and smiled as the gray gelding raised his head. The pack horse was tired and unsure of what was about to be demanded, but he was willing — though that might change when he confronted the river.

“I’m thinking Wencit will be just fine!” Bahzell shouted over the river. “And so will I. His beauty’s strong enough to be towing him ─ and me, too, come to that ─ and we’ll tie one of the pack horse’s leads to his saddle, as well. You and Glamhandro can be coming behind with the other!”

“Brilliant! And what about the current?”

“And what current might that be?” Bahzell pointed smugly into the blowing spray. “The causeway’s solid as a Dwarvenhame dam, Kenhodan! The only current’s after being out in the middle; along the downstream sides it’s smooth as a Saramanthan duck pond!”

“A duck pond!” Kenhodan snorted.

He glowered at the river a moment longer, then shook his head and climbed down to rearrange his equipment. It still sounded insane, but Bahzell was probably right about the current. He hoped so, anyway.

He rechecked the pack saddles, lashing each item individually to the frames, then fastened the gray gelding’s lead rope to Glamhandro’s saddle. He checked his bow carefully, sealed his extra string in the oiled leather case to protect it, and fastened the quiver to his saddle, trying to keep his arrows’ fletching high enough to stay dry. Then he stripped off his sword and tied it behind the cantle. Finally, he dragged off his boots, and the causeway was chill and wet under his stocking feet as he tied them to the pack frame, as well. Last but far from least, he checked the fastenings of his harp’s case and hoped Brandark would never hear how he was about to abuse the magnificent instrument.

Bahzell and Wencit had made their own preparations by the time he was finished. Wencit and Kenhodan retained only their daggers, and Bahzell had stripped to his arming doublet and bundled his hauberk and breastplate into an untidy package behind the courser’s saddle. Kenhodan grinned as they all stood bootless in the ankle-deep mud, and he wondered how many had ever seen Wencit of Rūm look so ridiculous.

“Ready?!” Bahzell’s shout cut across the river’s roar.

“As close to it as I’ll ever be, anyway,” Kenhodan replied glumly. Wencit merely nodded.

Bahzell roped the wizard’s left wrist to the courser’s saddle, fastened the second pack horse’s lead to it, as well, then reached up and gripped the saddle horn in his right hand. Water licked against the causeway six feet below its crest, and Kenhodan hoped there was no undertow . . . or underbrush.

“The slope’s steep as the price of grain in Vonderland, but the footing’s firm!” Bahzell said loudly. “It’s after being faced with stone, but grown with grass. Just take it slow and steady! Glamhandro will tell you when he’s ready to swim, and the gray will be after following him!”

Kenhodan nodded and watched Wencit and Bahzell slip over the edge. The courser showed no hesitation as he stepped almost gaily over the side and picked his mincing way down the slope more gracefully than the sliding, slipping hradani and wizard, but the pack horse was unhappy. He planted his feet and refused to budge until the courser turned his head with an admonishing whinny, as if chiding a fainthearted companion. The pack horse’s ears shifted. Then he tossed his head in unmistakable assent and followed.

The courser trumpeted approval and sprang into the water, the pack horse following with a rush. Bahzell released his grip on the courser’s saddle horn and launched out with a powerful breaststroke, and the courser and pack horse followed in his wake. Kenhodan watched anxiously for a moment, then sighed with relief as all of them rode the rippled flood easily.

Than it was his turn. He hesitated a moment, feeling absurdly like the pack horse. He was willing, but he couldn’t avoid a qualm. Then Glamhandro nosed him so impatiently he almost stumbled, and Kenhodan looked back in astonishment and burst into laughter as the stallion snorted and tossed his head impatiently. Urged on by his horse! Thank Tomanāk Bahzell was too busy swimming to have witnessed Glamhandro’s prodding.

“All right, then! Let’s go!” he said, and stepped off the road.

The footing was better than he’d feared. Over the years, a thick skin of sod had covered the ancient stonework, and the dense network of roots offered purchase in the slippery mud if he took it slowly. The gray pack horse was hesitant — it refused to budge until Glamhandro nipped it sharply — but it kept its feet as both horses finally eased into the river behind him.

The water was bitterly cold, and Kenhodan’s teeth chattered the moment his toes touched it. Snowborn! He shuddered. The river deserved its name! He struck out, side-stroking along the stream side of the horses, pacing them to prevent them from straying out into the current.

Glamhandro needed no encouragement. His neck cut the water like a ship’s prow, and the pack horse kept up with him, though it clearly had less liking for the challenge than he. The gelding rolled its eyes and swam with a painful, lunging motion, but the stallion’s eyes were bright as he fought the river. Personally, even though he had to admit Bahzell had been right about the current, Kenhodan could hardly fault the pack horse for its unhappiness.

By the time they reached the oak, only Glamhandro and the courser seemed in the least cheerful. Kenhodan himself was much the worse for wear, shivering uncontrollably, but Glamhandro appeared to have thrived on the trip. He and the courser touched noses cheerfully, apparently amused by everyone else’s misery, but even Bahzell was less ebullient than usual, breathing hard as he leaned against the courser’s side.

“Next time let’s face the assassins,” Kenhodan panted. “At least we’ll die dry!”

He wiped his face and coughed. Half the Snowborn seemed to have found its way down his throat, but Bahzell found the breath for a fair imitation of his normal laugh as he wrung riverwater from his warrior’s braid.

“At least we’ve thrown them off,” Kenhodan went on, looking back over the flood with a sort of miserable complacency.

“Not if they know we came this way.”

Kenhodan turned at the sound of Wencit’s voice, only to find the wizard once more booted. As Kenhodan looked at him, the wizard settled back into his poncho, as well, and began making sharp prodding gestures.

“Come, come! Let’s not stand around admiring our own cleverness! They can’t be many hours behind.”

“So? How’ll they follow us past that?” Kenhodan waved at the river.

“The same way we did,” Wencit said. “Or dry shod, if they want to leave the high road two miles back.”

What?!” Kenhodan straightened in outrage. “You mean we could’ve avoided swimming that — that —!”

Words failed him.

“Aye.” Bahzell had already squirmed back into his hauberk and buckled his breastplate. Now he nodded as he pulled his boots on. “That we could have, but the trail’s after twisting like a broken-backed snake betwixt here and there. It’s nigh on three times farther, and we’d’ve moved slower, too. We’re after leaving them further behind by this, and it’s possible they may miss us entirely, though I’d not bet on it.”

“Well you might’ve told me!” Kenhodan retorted.

“No, lad, this time I couldn’t be doing that,” Bahzell disagreed solemnly as he watched Kenhodan stamp into his own boots and buckle his sword belt.

“And why not?” the redhaired man demanded.

“Because you’re after being too smart and stubborn.” Bahzell grinned. “You’d never have agreed to swim if you’d known as how you’d a choice!”

He and Wencit were still roaring with laughter as they squelched off down the sodden trail

* * * * * * * * * *

Chernion reached the Bridge of Eloham at midday and drew up to regard the flood sourly. The water’s fruitless assault on the bridge seemed to mirror the assassins’ efforts to catch their prey, mocking them.

“Let’s move on,” their leader sighed finally, shifting in the saddle. The strain of so many mounted hours was beginning to tell even on Chernion.

They clattered onto the bridge, the horses rolling nervous eyes at the vibration in the stone. Storm wrack and flotsam left by the Snowborn’s wrath covered the road in places, proving the torrent was less than it had been. The pavement was clouded with drifts of fine sand and pools of water, and the misting rain was so fine it scarcely dimpled the puddles.

Chernion neared the center of the bridge and suddenly stopped. One hand rose sharply in command, and the others halted instantly. Some seemed puzzled, but all had worked with Chernion before and waited patiently for the reason to unfold.

“What is it?” Rosper finally asked softly.

“We’ve lost them,” Chernion replied calmly.

“Lost them? How? We found their last rest stop not a quarter-mile back! How can we lose them in the middle of a Sharnā-damned bridge?

“Because they never crossed it, Rosper.”

“How do you know?”

“Look for yourself, Brother. This entire span’s covered with sand. Where are their hoof marks?”

“Wh—” Rosper leaned from the saddle and looked carefully. Smooth sand smiled blandly back at him. “Could rain have washed them away?”

“It’s not heavy enough,” Chernion replied.

“Agreed.” Rosper nodded curtly. “But where have they gone, then? There’s no other road for them, Chernion.”

“No?” Chernion eyed him thoughtfully. “I’ve said from the start that the Bloody Hand has some plan, and it seems I was correct. Consider: we’ve become so certain they’re on the road before us that we almost failed to notice they’d left it. No, Rosper. There is another way.”

“Very well, I agree. But where is it?”

“Let’s see.”

Chernion wheeled and rode back along the bridge, and dark-cloaked assassins crowded aside and then fell in behind. Chernion rejected the north side of the road — leaving in that direction would only have mired their targets in the mud of the White Water and pinned them between the two rivers. Bahzell would never be that generous, so he must have gone south along some unknown path the Guildmaster didn’t really care to follow.

They were well off the bridge when Chernion’s dark eyes spied the marks of stockinged feet and hooves on the downslope of the causeway. They were faint in the thick, strong sod, but they were there, and they went straight into the river.

The assassin sighted thoughtfully along their course, and dark eyes lit on a huge oak that loomed like a giant among halflings. The bushy brows quirked. Sloppy of the Bloody Hand, the Guildmaster mused.

“There. They swam to that tree for some reason. Send one of your men to confirm it.”

“And if the Bloody Hand’s waiting with a bow?” Rosper asked.

“No fear of that,” Chernion said dryly. “The range is barely a hundred yards. If the Bloody Hand were there with a bow, we’d have bodies to prove it by now.”

“He might wait until we’re strung out crossing over.”

“No. He knows I’ll send a scout, and that without a satisfactory report, I won’t follow. He’s gone on.”

“But why? Why leave the road here, this way, instead of a dozen miles back?”

“Because he knows a trail,” Chernion said patiently, “and he doesn’t care if we follow him, or he would’ve hidden these marks. I don’t know where it leads, but there’s no other crossing to the east bank of the Snowborn short of South Bridge. He’s gone west into the Forest of Hev.”

“So they’re still bound for Sindor after all!”

“Of course. It was only a question of their route all along.” Rosper flushed as Chernion forbore to recall their earlier discussion. “As I feared, he knows the land better than we do. I only regret letting him lead me so far from the straight way to Sindor, or I might have met him outside its gates.”

“But we’re here now,” Rosper said diffidently. “What should we do?”

Chernion glanced at the Craftmaster from the corner of one dark eye. Rosper was chastened, but was he chastened enough? On the other hand, Chernion had no wish to lead dog brothers personally after Bahzell — not in the woods, and not when he obviously knew precisely where he was going.

“Send to that tree to see if there is indeed a trail,” Chernion said finally, and a volunteer plunged into the water, carrying one end of a coiled rope. If there was a trail, the rope would aid those who followed — and Chernion knew someone had to follow. There was no alternative.

The swimmer crawled ashore by the tree and clung to the bank, gasping. After a moment he vanished into the dense undergrowth, only to emerge ten minutes later and wave his arms vigorously in the semaphore of the dog brothers.

“So.” Chernion plucked a thoughtful lower lip. “They’ve taken a path we don’t know, headed we don’t know where, to take we don’t know t how long to reach Sindor. I’m afraid we have to split our forces, Rosper.

“You’ll take seven brothers and follow them, marking if they turn aside. The four others and I will go to Losun, then south to Sindor. We can buy horses at each step, so we can leave you all of our extra mounts and still make good time. Meanwhile, you’ll strike if the opportunity offers. But remember, Rosper: your main duty is to follow. Attack only if you can find a way to use your skills and deny them theirs.

“If we don’t meet on the road, send word to the Windhawk in Sindor, but stay on their heels wherever they go. Don’t let them vanish again. The Bloody Hand’s cunning, and if he breaks clear, we may never find him again.”

“Yes, Chernion!” Rosper slapped his chest in salute and grinned. “You won’t wait long for us in Sindor. We’ll bury them in the Forest of Hev.”

“Be wary, Brother,” Chernion responded coolly, saluting in reply.

“There are only three of them!”

“And only eight of you,” Chernion replied. “Be wary, I said. The Bloody Hand is a champion of Tomanāk, and this isn’t the first time, or even the second, the Guild’s hunted him. We failed to take him before, and each attempt cost the Guild dearly. Never doubt that all he asks is to meet any three dog brothers sword-to-sword! You’ve served the Guild well, Rosper. It would grieve me if I had to spend precious time selecting a new southern master, so heed me!”

“Very well.” Rosper nodded. “I’ll be wary and cautious alike.”

“Clean killing, then, Rosper.”

“Clean killing, Chernion.”

They exchanged salutes once more and went their different ways. Chernion and four others pelted across the bridge, using their mounts mercilessly in anticipation of obtaining ne_________________________________________________________

"Oh, bother!" said Pooh, as Piglet came back from the dead.
Re: SotS final snippet part 1
Post by ksandgren   » Wed Jul 29, 2015 12:02 am

Captain (Junior Grade)

Posts: 342
Joined: Tue Jun 14, 2011 6:54 pm
Location: Los Angeles, California

Thanks for the snippet, rfc! I enjoyed the aArc and look forward to reading the final hardcopy.
Re: SotS final snippet part 1
Post by dan92677   » Wed Jul 29, 2015 1:59 am


Posts: 218
Joined: Thu Apr 18, 2013 10:33 pm
Location: Southern California

Thank you, rfc!

You've made my weekend as I read and reread it/them.

The 4th can't get here soon enough!!!

Re: SotS final snippet part 1
Post by Bahzellstudent   » Fri Jul 31, 2015 6:19 pm

Lieutenant Commander

Posts: 100
Joined: Wed Jul 09, 2014 4:13 pm
Location: Derbyshire, United Kingdom

thank you RFC - only a few weeks until I have the hard copy in my hands

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