As usual, cats and children noticed him first. A striped tomcat sleeping on a sun-warmed stack of wood, shuddered, raised his round head, pulled back his ears, hissed and bolted off into the nettles. Three-year-old Dragomir, fisherman, Trigla's son, who was sitting on the hut's threshold doing his best to make dirtier an already dirty shirt, started to scream as he fixed his tearful eyes on the passing rider. The rogue rode slowly, without trying to overtake the hay-cart obstructing the road. A huge Nightsaber trotted behind him, stretching its neck, and constantly pulling the cord tied to the rogue's pommel tight. In addition to the usual bags the long animal was lugging a large shape, wrapped in a saddle-cloth, on its back. The grey-white flanks of the ass were covered with black streaks of dried blood. They finally turned down a side-street leading to a granary and harbour from which a seabreeze blew, carrying the stink of tar and ox's urine. Enerdhil picked up his pace. He didn't react to the muffled cry of the woman selling vegetables who was staring at the bony, taloned paw sticking out beneath the Saber-blanket, bobbing up and down in time with the Saber's trot. He didn't look round at the crowd gathering behind him and rippling with excitement. There were, as usual, many carts in front of the Reese's house. Enerdhil jumped from the saddle, adjusted the swords on his back and threw the reins over the wooden barrier. The crowd following him formed a semi-circle around the the Nightsaber. Even outside, the Tavernkeeper's shouts were audible.
'It's forbidden, I tell you! Forbidden, goddammit! Can't you understand what I say, you scoundrel?'
Enerdhil entered. In front of the Tavernkeeper's, small, podgy and red with rage, stood a villager holding a struggling goose by the neck.
'What— By all the gods! Is that you, Enerdhil? Do my eyes deceive me?' And turning to the peasant again: 'Take it away, you boor! Are you deaf?'
'They said,' mumbled the villager, squinting at the goose, 'that a wee something must be given to his lordship, otherways—'
'Who said?' yelled the Tavernkeeper. 'Who? That I supposedly take bribes? I won't allow it, I say! Away with you! Greetings, Enerdhil.'
The Tavernkeeper squeezed the rogue's hand, slapped him on the shoulder.
'You haven't been here for a good two years, Enerdhil. Eh? You can never stay in one place for long, can you? Where are you coming from? Ah, dog's arse, what's the difference where? Hey, somebody bring us some beer! Sit down, Enerdhil, sit down. It's mayhem here because we've the market tomorrow. How are things with you, tell me!'
'Later. Come outside first.'
The crowd outside had grown two-fold but the empty space around the Night Saber hadn't grown any smaller. Enerdhil threw the animal-blanket aside. The crowd gasped and pulled back. Reese's mouth fell open.
'By all the gods, Enerdhil! What is this?'
'A Crocolisk. Is there any reward for it?'
Reese shifted from foot to foot, looking at the crocodile shape with its dry dark skin, that glassy eye with its vertical pupil, the needle-like fangs in the bloody jaws.
'Where— From where—?'
'On the swamps. Reese, people must have disappeared there. Children.'
'Well, yes, true enough. But nobody— Who could have guessed— Hey, folks, go home, get back to work! This isn't a show! Cover it up, Enerdhil. Flies are gathering.'
Back inside the Tavernkeeper grabbed a large jug of beer without a word and drank it to the last drop in one draught. He sighed deeply and sniffed.
'There's no reward,' he said gloomily. 'No one suspected that there was something like that lurking in the cannals. It's true that several people have disappeared in those parts, but. . . Hardly anyone loitered on the swamps. And why were you there? Why weren't you taking the main road?'
'It's hard for me to make a living on main roads, Reese.'
I forgot.' The Tavernkeeper suppressed a belch, puffing out his cheeks. 'And this used to be such a peaceful neighbourhood. Even imps only rarely pissed in the women's milk. And here, right next to us, some sort of felispectre. It's only fitting that I thank you. Because as for paying you, I can't. I haven't the funds.'
'That's a shame. I could do with a small sum to get through the winter.'
The rogue took a sip from his jug, wiped away the froth.
'I'm making my way to Alterac Valley, but I don't know if I'll get there before snow blocks the way. I might get stuck in one of the little towns on Hillsbrad Foothills.'
'Do you plan to stay long in Stormwind?'
'No. I've no time to waste. Winter's coming.'
'Where are you going to stay? With me perhaps? There's an empty room in the Pig and Whistle Tavern. Why get fleeced by the innkeepers, those thieves. We'll have a chat and you can tell me what's happening in the big, wide world.'
'Willingly. But what will Elly Langston have to say about it? It was quite obvious last time that she's not very keen on me.'
'Women don't have a say in my house. But, just between us, don't do what you did during supper last time in front of her again.'
'You mean when I threw my fork at that rat?'
'No. I mean when you hit it, even in the dark.'
'I thought it would be amusing.'
'It was. But don't do it in front of Elly. And listen, this . . . what's it called . . . Cro—'
'Do you need it for anything?'
'What would I want it for? You can have them throw it in the cesspool if there's no reward for it.'
'That's not a bad idea. Hey, Karelka, Borg, Carrypebble! Any of you there?'
A town guard entered with a halberd on his shoulder, the blade catching the doorframe with a crash.
'Carrypebble,' said Reese. 'Get somebody to help you and take the Big cat with that muck wrapped up in the blanket, lead it past the pigsties and chuck the Crocolisk in the cesspool. Understood?'
'At your command. But . . . sir—'
'Maybe before we drown that hideous thing—'
'We could show it to Master Irion. It might be useful to him.'
Reese slapped his forehead with his open palm.
'You're not stupid, Carrypebble. Listen, Enerdhil, maybe that wizard will spare you something for that carcass. The fishermen bring him the oddest of fish — Terrorfish, Bloodtooth or Felblood snappers — many have made some money on them. Come on, let's go to the tower.'
'You've got yourselves a wizard? Is he here for good or only passing?'
'For good. Master Irion. He's been living in a tower for a year. A powerful magus, Enerdhil, you'll see that from his very appearance.'
'I doubt whether a powerful magus will pay for a Crocolisk,' Enerdhil grimaced. 'As far as I know it's not needed for any elixirs. Your Magus will only insult me, no doubt. We elves and wizards don't love each other.'
'I've never heard of Master Irion insulting anyone. I can't swear that he'll pay you but there's no harm in trying. There might be more Crocolisks like that on the swamps and what then? Let the wizards look at the monster and cast some sort of spell on the cannals or something, just in case.'
The rogue thought for a moment.
'Very well, sir. What the heck, we'll risk a meeting with Master Irion. Shall we go?'
'We're off. Carrypebble, chase the kids away and bring the floppyears. Where's my hat?'
The tower, built from smoothly hewn blocks of granite and crowned by tooth-like battlements, was impressive, dominating the broken tiles of homesteads and dipping-roofed thatched cottages.
'He's renovated it, I see,' remarked Enerdhil. 'With spells, or did he have you working at it?'
'What's he like, this Irion?'
'Decent. He helps people. But he's a recluse, doesn't say much. He rarely leaves the tower.'
On the door, which was adorned with a rosace inlaid with pale wood, hung a huge knocker in~the shape of a flat bulging-eyed fish-head holding a brass ring in its toothed jaws. Reese, obviously well-versed with the workings of its mechanics, approached, cleared his throat and recited:
'Reese Langston greets you with a case for Master Irion. With him greets you, Enerdhil Windsong, with respect to the same case.'
For a long moment nothing happened, then finally the fish-head moved its toothed mandibles and belched a cloud of steam.
'Master Irion is not receiving. Leave, my good people.'
Reese waddled on the spot and looked at Enerdhil. The rogue shrugged. Carrypebble picked his nose with serious concentration.
'Master Irion is not receiving,' the knocker repeated metallically. 'Go, my good—'
'I'm not a good person,' Enerdhil broke in loudly. 'I'm a rogue. That thing on my Nightsaber is a Crocolisk, and I killed in the swamps. It is the duty of every resident wizard to look after the safety of the neighbourhood. Master Irion does not have to honour me with conversation, does not have to receive me, if that is his will. But let him examine the Crocolisk and draw his own conclusions. Carrypebble, unstrap the Crocolisk and throw it down by the door.'
'Enerdhil,' Resse said quietly. 'You're going to leave but I'm going to have to—'
'Let's go, Reese. Carrypebble, take that finger out of your nose and do as I said.'
'One moment,' the knocker said in an entirely different tone. 'Enerdhil, is that really you?'
The rogue swore quietly.
'I'm losing patience. Yes, it's really me. So what?
'Come up to the door,' said the knocker, puffing out a small cloud of steam. 'Alone. I'll let you in.'
'What about the Crocolisk?'
'To hell with it. I want to talk to you, Enerdhil. Just you. Forgive me, Reese.'
'What's it to me, Master Irion?' Reese waved the matter aside. 'Take care, Enerdhil. We'll see each other later. Carrypebble! Into the cesspool with the monster!'
'As you command.'
The rogue approached the inlaid door, which opened a little bit - just enough for him to squeeze through - and then slammed shut, leaving him in complete darkness.
'Hey!' he shouted, not hiding his anger.
'Just a moment,' answered a strangely familiar voice.
The feeling was so unexpected that Enerdhil staggered and stretched out his hand, looking for support. He didn't find any.
The orchard was blossoming with white and pink, and smelled of rain. The sky was split by the many-coloured arc of a rainbow, which bound the crowns of the trees to the distant, blue chain of mountains. The house nestled in the orchard, tiny and modest, was drowning in hollyhocks. Enerdhil looked down and discovered that he was up to his knees in thyme.
'Well, come on, Enerdhil,' said the voice. 'I'm in front of the house.'
He entered the orchard, walking through the trees. He noticed a movement to his left and looked round. A fair-haired girl, entirely naked, was walking along a row of shrubs carrying a basket full of apples. The rogue solemnly promised himself that nothing would surprise him anymore.
'At last. Greetings.'
'Stregobor!' Enerdhil was surprised.
During his life, the rogue had met thieves who looked like town councillors, councillors who looked like beggars, harlots who looked like princesses, princesses who looked like calving cows and kings who looked like thieves. But Stregobor always looked as, according to every rule and notion, a wizard should look. He was tall, thin and stooping, with enormous bushy grey eyebrows and a long, crooked nose. To top it off, he wore a black, trailing robe with improbably wide sleeves, and wielded a long staff capped with a crystal knob. None of the wizards Enerdhil knew looked like Stregobor. Most surprising of all was that Stregobor was, indeed, a wizard.
They sat in wicker chairs at a white marble-topped table on a porch surrounded by hollyhocks. The naked blonde with the apple basket approached, smiled, turned and, swaying her hips, returned to the orchard.
'Is that an illusion, too?' asked Enerdhil, watching the sway.
'It is. Like everything here. But it is, my friend, a first-class illusion. The flowers smell, you can eat the apples, the bee can sting you, and she,' the wizard indicated the blonde, 'you can—'
'Quite right. What are you doing here, Enerdhil? Are you still toiling away, killing the last representatives of dying species for money? How much did you get for the Crocolisk? Nothing, I guess, or you wouldn't have come here. And to think that there are people who don't believe in destiny. Unless you knew about me. Did you?'
'No, I didn't. It's the last place I could have expected you. If my memory serves me correctly you used to live in a similar tower in Darkshore.'
'A great deal has changed since then.'
'Such as your name. Apparently, you're Master Irion now.'
'That's the name of the man who created this tower. He died about two hundred years ago, and I thought it right to honour him in some way since I occupied his abode. I'm living here. Most of the inhabitants live off the sea and, as you know, my speciality, apart from illusions, is weather. Sometimes I'll calm a storm, sometimes conjure one up, sometimes drive schools of whiting and cod closer to the shores with the westerly wind. I can survive. That is,' he added, miserably, 'I could.'
'How come "I could"? Why the change of name?'
'Destiny has many faces. Mine is beautiful on the outside and hideous on the inside. She has stretched her bloody talons towards me—'
'You've not changed a bit, Stregobor.' Enerdhil grimaced. 'You're talking nonsense while making wise and meaningful faces. Can't you speak normally?'
'I can,' sighed the wizard. 'I can if that makes you happy. I made it all the way here, hiding and running from a monstrous being that wants to murder me. My escape proved in vain - it found me. In all probability, it's going to try to kill me tomorrow, or at the latest, the day after.'
'Aha,' said the rogue, dispassionately. 'Now I understand.'
'My facing death doesn't impress you much, does it?'
'Stregobor,' said Enerdhil, 'that's the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off. Men hang from trees at the roadside, brigands slash merchants' throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters. In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at a banquet every minute, blue from poisoning. I'm used to it. So why should a death threat impress me, and one directed at you at that?'
'One directed at me at that,' Stregobor repeated with a sneer. 'And I considered you a friend. Counted on your help.'
'Our last meeting,' said Enerdhil, 'was in Dalaran. I'd come to be paid for killing an Hydra which had been terrorising the neighbourhood. You and your compatriot vied with each other to call me a charlatan, a thoughtless murdering machine and a scavenger. Consequently not only didn'l Idi pay me a penny, he gave me twelve hours to leave Dalaran and, since his hourglass was broken, I barely made it. And now you say you're counting on my help. You say a monster's after you. What are you afraid of, Stregobor? If it catches up with you, tell it you like monsters, that you protect them and make sure no scavenger ever troubles their peace. Indeed, if the monster disembowels and devours you, it'll prove terribly ungrateful.'
The wizard turned his head away silently. Enerdhil laughed. 'Don't get all puffed up like a frog, magician. Tell me what's threatening you. We'll see what can be done.'
'There's a sorceress.. I saw her in Stormwind City.' The wizard raised his wand. 'She's not alone. She's leading a gang, which shows that she's brewing something serious. Enerdhil, I don't have anywhere else to run. I don't know where I could hide. The fact that you've arrived here exactly at this time can't be a coincidence. It's fate.'
Enerdhil raised his eyebrows. 'What's on your mind?'
'Surely it's obvious. You're going to kill her.'
'I'm not a hired thug, Stregobor.'
'You're not a thug, agreed.'
'I kill monsters for money. Beasts which endanger townfolk. Horrors conjured up by spells and sorceries cast by the likes of you. Not people.'
'She's not human. She's exactly a monster. You brought a Crocolisk here. Renfri's worse than a Crocolisk. A Crocolisk kills because it's hungry, but Renfri does it for pleasure. Kill her and I'll pay you whatever sum you ask. Within reason, of course.'
'I bet the girl has her reasons for settling her account with you, and I'm not going to get mixed up in it. Turn to the town guards. You're the town wizard, you're protected by municipal law.'
'I spit on the law!' exploded Stregobor. 'I don't need defence, I need you to kill her! Nobody's going to get into this tower - I'm completely safe here. But what's that to me? I don't intend to spend the rest of my days here, and Shrike's not going to give up while I'm alive. Am I to sit here, in this tower, and wait for death?'
'No, Stregobor.' The sorcerer was silent. The unreal sun in its unreal sky hadn't moved towards the zenith but the rogue knew it was already dusk. He felt hungry. 'Time for me to go. We'll see each other tomorrow.'
'Maybe,' said the wizard. 'If you get here in time.'
The Pig and Whistle was crowded and noisy. The guests, locals and visitors, were mostly engaged in activities typical for their nation or profession. Serious merchants argued with dwarves over the price of goods and credit interest. Less serious merchants pinched the backsides of the girls carrying beer, cabbage and beans. Local nitwits pretended to be well-informed. Harlots were trying to please those who had money while discouraging those who had none. Carters and fishermen drank as if there were no tomorrow. Some seamen were singing a song which celebrated the ocean waves, the courage of captains and the graces of mermaids, the latter graphically and in considerable detail.
'Exert your memory, friend,' Reese said to the barkeeper, leaning across the counter in order to be heard over the din. 'Six men and a wench, all dressed in black leather studded with silver in Syndicate style. I saw them at the Harbor. Are they staying here?'
The barkeeper wrinkled his bulging forehead and wiped a tankard on his striped apron.
'Here, sir,' he finally said. 'They say they've come for the market but they all carry swords, even the woman. Dressed, as you said, in black.'
'Well,' Reese nodded. 'Where are they now? I don't see them here.'
'In the lesser alcove. They paid in gold.'
'I'll go in alone,' said Enerdhil. 'There's no point in making this an official affair in front of them all, at least for the time being. I'll bring her here.'
'Maybe that's best. But be careful, I don't want any trouble.'
'I'll be careful.'
The seamen's song, judging by the growing intensity of obscene words, was reaching its grand finale. Enerdhil drew aside the curtain -stiff and sticky with dirt - which hid the entrance to the alcove.
Six men were seated at the table. Renfri wasn't with them.
'What d'you want?' yelled the man who noticed him first. He was balding and his face was disfigured by a scar which ran across his left eyebrow, the bridge of his nose and his right cheek.
'I want to see Renfri.'
Two identical figures stood up - identical motionless faces and fair, dishevelled, shoulderlength hair, identical tight-fitting black outfits glistening with silver ornaments. And with identical movements the twins took identical swords from the bench.
'Keep calm, Vyr. Sit down, Nimir,' said the man with the scar, leaning his elbows on the table.
'Who d'you say you want to see, brother? Who's Renfri?'
'You know very well who I mean.'
'Who's this then?' asked a half-naked guy, sweaty, girded crosswise with belts, and wearing spiked pads on his forearms. 'D'you know him, Nohorn?'
'No,' said the man with the scar.
'It must be some sorceress,' giggled a slim, dark-haired man sitting next to Nohorn. Delicate features, enormous black eyes and pointed ears betrayed him to be a half-blood elf. 'Those bitches are not allowed to enter pubs among decent people.'
'I've seen him somewhere before,' said a stocky, weatherbeaten man with a plait, measuring Enerdhil with an evil look in his narrowed eyes.
'Doesn't matter where you've seen him, Tavik,' said Nohorn. 'Listen here. Civril insulted you terribly a moment ago. Aren't you going to challenge him? It's such a boring evening.'
'No,' said the rogue calmly.
'And me, if I pour this fish soup over your head, are you going to challenge me?' cackled the man sitting naked to the waist.
'Keep calm, Fifteen,' said Nohorn. 'He said no, that means no. For the time being. Well, brother, say what you have to say and clear out. You've got one chance to clear out on your own. You don't take it, the attendants will carry you out.'
'I don't have anything to say to you. I want to see Renfri.'
'Do you hear that, boys?' Nohorn looked around at his companions. 'He wants to see Renfri. And may I know why?'
Nohorn raised his head and looked at the twins as they took a step forward, the silver clasps on their high boots jangling.
'I know,' the man with the plait said suddenly. 'I know where I've seen him now!'
'What's that you're mumbling, Tavik?'
'In front of Reeses's house. He brought some sort of monster in to trade, a giant crocolisk. People were saying he's a mercenary.'
Fifteen moved closer and raised his fists. Enerdhil put his hand on the hilt of one of his swords.
'Careful,' he said. 'One more step and you'll be looking for your hand on the floor.'
Nohorn and Tavik leapt up, grabbing their swords. The silent twins drew theirs with identical movements. Fifteen stepped back. Only Civril didn't move.
'What's going on here, dammit? Can't I leave you alone for a minute?'
Enerdhil turned round very slowly and looked into eyes the colour of the sea. She was almost as tall as him. She wore her straw-coloured hair unevenly cut, just below the ears. She stood with one hand on the door, wearing a tight, velvet jacket clasped with a decorated belt. Her skirt was uneven, asymmetrical - reaching down to her calf on the left side and, on the right, revealing a strong thigh above a boot made of elk's leather. On her left side, she carried a sword; on her right, a dagger with a huge ruby set in its pommel.
'Lost your voices?'
'He's a mercenary,' mumbled Nohorn.
'He wanted to talk to you.'
'He's an elf!' Fifteen roared.
'We don't like elves,' snarled Tavik.
'Take it easy, boys,' said the girl. 'He wants to talk to me; that's no crime. You carry on having a good time. And no trouble. Tomorrow's market day. Surely you don't want your pranks to disrupt the market, such an important event in the life of this pleasant town?'
A quiet, nasty giggle reverberated in the silence which fell. Civril, still sprawled out carelessly on the bench, was laughing.
'Come on, Renfri,' chuckled Civril. 'Important . . . event!'
'Shut up, Civ. Immediately.'
Civril stopped laughing. Immediately. Enerdhil wasn't surprised. There was something very strange in Renfri's voice. Others must also have had similar associations - even Tavik's weather-beaten face grew pale.
'Well, midnight-hair,' Renfri broke the silence. 'Let's go into the larger room. Let's join the Tavernkeeper you came with. He wants to talk to me too, no doubt.'
At the sight of them, Reese, who was waiting at the counter, broke off his quiet conversation with the barkeeper, straightened himself and folded his arms across his chest.
'Listen, young lady,' he said severely, not wasting time with banal niceties, 'I know from this rogue here what brings you to Stormwind. Apparently you bear a grudge against our wizard.'
'Maybe. What of it?' asked Renfri quietly, in an equally brusque tone.
'Only that there are tribunals to deal with grudges like that. He who wants to revenge a grudge using steel - here in Eastern Kingdoms - is considered a common bandit. And also, that either you get out of Stormwind early in the morning with your black companions, or I throw you into prison, pre- How do you say it, Enerdhil?'
'Exactly. Understood, young lady?'
Renfri reached into the purse on her belt and pulled out a parchment which had been folded several times.
'Read this, Tavernkeeper. If you're literate. And don't call me "young lady".'
Reeves took the parchment, spent a long time reading it, then, without a word, gave it to Enerdhil.
"To my regents, vassals and freemen subjects," the rogue read out loud. "To all and sundry. I proclaim that Renfri remains in our service and is well seen by us; whosoever dares maltreet her will incur our wrath. Anduin, King—"
'Wrynn is not spelt like that. But the seal appears authentic.'
'Because it is authentic,' said Renfri, snatching the parchment from him. 'It was affixed by young Anduin, your merciful lord. That's why I don't advise you to maltreat me. Irrespective of how you spell it, the consequences for you would be lamentable. You are not, honourable Tavernkeeper, going to put me in prison. Or call me "young lady". I haven't infringed any law.
'For the time being.'
'If you infringe by even an inch,' Reese looked as if he wanted to spit, 'I'll throw you in the dungeon together with this piece of paper. I swear on all the gods, young lady. Come on, Enerdhil.'
'With you, rogue,' Renfri touched Enerdhil's shoulder, 'I'd still like a word.'
'Don't be late for supper,' the Tavernkeeper threw over his shoulder, 'or Elly will be furious.'
Enerdhil leant against the counter. Fiddling with the necklace hanging around his neck, he looked into the girl's blue-green eyes.
'I've heard about you,' she said. 'Is Stregobor your friend?'
'That makes things easier.'
'Not much. Don't expect me to look on peacefully.'
Renfri's eyes narrowed.
'Stregobor dies tomorrow,' she said quietly, brushing the unevenly cut hair off her forehead. 'It would be the lesser evil if he died alone.'
'If he did, yes. But in fact, before Stregobor dies several other people will die too. I don't see any other possibility.'
'Several, rogue, is putting it mildly.'
'You need more than words to frighten me.'
'The point is, I see other possibilities. It would be worth talking it over . . . but Elly is waiting. Is she pretty, this Elly?'
'Is that all you had to say to me?'
'No. But you should go. Elly's waiting.'
There was someone in his little attic room. Enerdhil knew it before he even reached the door. He blew out the oil lampwhich had lit his path up the stairs, pulled the dagger from his boot, slipped it into the back of his belt and pressed the door handle. The room was dark. But not for a night elf. He was deliberately slow in crossing the threshold; he closed the door behind him carefully. The next second he dived at the person sitting on his bed, crushed them into the linen, forced his forearm under their chin and reached for his dagger. He didn't pull it out. Something wasn't right.
'Not a bad start,' she said in a muffled voice, lying motionless beneath him. 'I expected something like this, but I didn't think we'd both be in bed so quickly. Take your hand from my throat please.'
'It's me. Now there are two possibilities. The first: you get off me and we talk. The second: we stay in this position, in which case I'd like to take my boots off at least.'
Enerdhil released the girl, who sighed, sat up and adjusted her hair and skirt.
'Light the candle,' she said. 'I can't see in the dark, unlike you, and I like to see who I'm talking to.'
She approached the table - tall, slim, agile - and sat down, stretching out her long legs in their high boots. She wasn't carrying any visible weapons.
'Have you got anything to drink here?'
'Then it's a good thing I brought something,' she laughed, placing a travelling wine-skin and two leather tumblers on the table.
'It's nearly midnight,' said Enerdhil, coldly. 'Shall we come to the point?'
'In a minute. Here, have a drink. Here's to you, Enerdhil.'
'Stop calling me Renfri, dammit.' She raised her head. 'I will permit you to omit my royal title, but stop calling me that!'
'Be quiet or you'll wake the whole house. Am I finally going to learn why you crept in here through the window?'
'You're slow-witted, rogue. I want to save Stormwind from slaughter. I crawled over the rooftops like a she-cat in March in order to talk to you about it. Appreciate it.'
'I do,' said Enerdhil. 'Except that I don't know what talk can achieve. The situation's clear. Stregobor is in his tower, and you'd have to lay siege to it in order to get to him. If you do that, your letter of safe-conduct won't help you. Anduin won't defend you if you openly break the law. The Tavernkeeper, guards, the whole of Eastern Kingdoms stand against you.'
'The whole of Stormwind would regret standing up to me.' Renfri smiled, revealing a predator's white teeth. 'Did you take a look at my boys? They know their trade, I assure you. Can you imagine what would happen in a fight between them and those dimwit guards who keep tripping over their own halberds?'
'Do you imagine I would stand by and watch a fight like that? I'm staying at the Tavernkeeper's, as you can see. If the need arises, I should stand at his side.'
'I have no doubt,' Renfri grew serious, 'that you will. But you'll probably be alone as the rest will cower in the cellars. No warrior in the world could match seven swordsmen. So, bluehair, let's stop threatening each other. As I said: slaughter and bloodshed can be avoided. There are two people who can prevent it.'
'I'm all ears.'
'One,' said Renfri, 'is Stregobor himself. He leaves his tower voluntarily, I take him to a deserted spot, and Stormwind sinks back into blissful apathy and forgets the whole affair.'
'Stregobor may seem crazy, but he's not that crazy.'
'Who knows, rogue, who knows. Some arguments can't be denied, like the Tridam ultimatum. I plan to present it to the sorcerer's council.'
'What is it, this ultimatum?'
'That's my sweet secret.'
'As you wish. But I doubt it'll be effective. Stregobor's teeth chatter when he speaks of you. An ultimatum which would persuade him to voluntarily surrender himself into your beautiful hands would have to be pretty good. So who's the other person? Let me guess.'
'I wonder how sharp you are, blue-hair.'
'It's you, Renfri. You'll reveal a truly princely— what am I saying, royal magnanimity and renounce your revenge. Have I guessed?'
Renfri threw back her head and laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. Then she grew silent and fixed her shining eyes on him.
'Enerdhil,' she said, 'I used to be a princess. I had everything one could dream of. Servants at my beck and call, dresses, shoes. Cambric knickers. Jewels and trinkets, ponies, goldfish in a pond. Dolls, and a doll's house bigger than this room. That was my life until Stregobor and that whore-.. my stepmother ordered a huntsman to butcher me in the forest and bring back my heart and liver. Lovely, don't you think?'
'No. I'm pleased you evaded the huntsman, Renfri.'
'Like shit I did. He took pity on me and let me go. After the son-of-a-bitch raped me and robbed me.'
Enerdhil, fiddling with his necklace, looked her straight in the eyes. She didn't lower hers.
'That was the end of the princess,' she continued. 'The dress grew torn, the cambric grew grubby. And then there was dirt, hunger, stench, stink and abuse. Selling myself to any old bum for a bowl of soup or a roof over my head. Do you know what my hair was like? Silk. And it reached a good foot below my hips. I had it cut right to the scalp with sheep-shears when I caught lice. It's never grown back properly.'
She was silent for a moment, idly brushing the uneven strands of hair from her forehead.
'I stole rather than starve to death. I killed to avoid being killed myself. I was locked in prisons which stank of urine, never knowing if they would hang me in the morning, or just flog me and release me. And through it all my stepmother and your wizard were hard on my heels, with their poisons and assassins and spells. And you want me to reveal my magnanimity? To forgive him royally? I'll tear his head off, royally, first.'
'Your stepmother and Stregobor tried to poison you?'
'With an apple seasoned with nightshade. I was saved by a gnome, and an emetic I thought would turn my insides out. But I survived.'
'Were they gnomes from Gnomeregan?' Renfri, pouring wine, froze holding the wine-skin over the tumbler.
'Ah,' she said. 'You do know a lot about me. Yes? Do you have something against gnomes? Or humanoids? They were better to me than most people, not that it's your business.'
'Stregobor and my stepmother hunted me like a wild animal as long as they could. Until I became the hunter. My stepmother died in her own bed. She was lucky I didn't get to her earlier - I had a special plan for her, and now I've got one for the wizard. Do you think he deserves to die?'
'I'm no judge. I'm a rogue.'
'You are. I said that there were two people who could prevent bloodshed in Stormwind. The second is you. The wizard will let you into the tower. You could kill him.'
'Renfri,' said Enerdhil calmly, 'did you fall from the roof onto your head on the way to my room?'
'Are you a rogue/mercenary or aren't you, dammit? They say you killed a crocolisk and brought it here on a Nightsaber to get a price for it. Stregobor is worse than the Crocolisk. It's just a mindless beast which kills because that's how the gods made it. Stregobor is a brute, a true monster. Bring him to me on a nightsaber and I won't begrudge you any sum you care to mention.'
'I'm not a hired thug, Renfri.'
'You're not,' she agreed with a smile. She leant back on the stool and crossed her legs on the table without the slightest effort to cover her thighs with her skirt. 'You consider yourself a mercenary, one different from others, a defender of people from evil. And evil is the steel and fire which will cause devastation here if we fight each other. Don't you think I'm proposing a lesser evil, a better solution? Even for that son-of-a-bitch Stregobor. You can kill him mercifully, with one thrust. He'll die without knowing it. And I guarantee him quite the reverse.'
Enerdhil remained silent.
Renfri stretched, raising her arms.
'I understand your hesitation,' she said. 'But I need an answer now.'
'Do you know why Stregobor and your stepmother wanted to kill you?'
Renfri straightened abruptly and took her legs off the table.
'It's obvious,' she snarled. 'They deslike sorceress. For them I'm supposed to be cursed.'
Renfri lowered her head, but only for a moment. Her eyes flashed. 'But enough of this! Your answer, Enerdhil.'
'My answer is no.'
You remember what I said?' she asked after a moment's silence. 'There are offers you can't refuse, the consequences are so terrible, and this is one of them. Think it over.'
'I have thought carefully. And my suggestion was as serious.'
Renfri was silent for some time, fiddling with a string of pearls wound three times around her shapely neck before falling teasingly between her breasts, their curves just visible through the slit of her jacket.
'Enerdhil,' she said, 'did Stregobor ask you to kill me?'
'Yes. He believed it was the lesser evil.'
'Can I believe you refused him, as you have me?'
'Because I don't believe in a lesser evil.'
Renfri smiled faintly, an ugly grimace in the yellow candlelight.
'You don't believe in it, you say. Well you're right, in a way. Only Evil and Greater Evil exist and beyond them, in the shadows, lurks True Evil. True Evil, Enerdhil, is something you can barely imagine, even if you believe nothing can still surprise you. And sometimes True Evil seizes you by the throat and demands that you choose between it and another, slightly lesser, Evil.'
'What's your goal here, Renfri?'
'Nothing. I've had a bit to drink and I'm philosophising, I'm looking for general truths. And I've found one: lesser evils exist, but we can't choose them. Only True Evil can force us to such a choice. Whether we like it or not.'
'Maybe I've not had enough to drink.' Enerdhil smiled sourly. 'And in the meantime midnight's passed, the way it does. Let's speak plainly. You're not going to kill Stregobor in Stormwind because I'm not going to let you. I'm not going to let it come to a slaughter here. So, for the second time, renounce your revenge. Prove to him, to everyone, that you're not an inhuman witch. Prove he has done you great harm through his mistake.'
'And if I tell you, rogue, that I can neither forgive Stregobor nor renounce my revenge then I admit that he is right, is that it? I'd be proving that I am a monster cursed by the gods? You know, when I was still new to this life a freeman took me in. He took a fancy to me, even though I found him repellent. So every time he wanted to fuck me he had to beat me so hard I could barely move, even the following day. One morning I rose while it was still dark and slashed his throat with a scythe. I wasn't yet as skilled as I am now, and a knife seemed too small. And as I listened to him gurgle and choke, watched him kicking and flailing, I felt the marks left by his feet and fists fade, and I felt, oh, so great, so great that ... I left him,whistling, sprightly, feeling so joyful, so happy. And it's the same each time. If it wasn't, who'd waste time on revenge?'
'Renfri,' said Enerdhil. 'Whatever your motives, you're not going to leave here joyful and happy. But you'll leave here alive, early tomorrow morning, as the Tavernkeeper ordered. You're not going to kill Stregobor in Stormwind.'
Renfri's eyes glistened in the candlelight, reflecting the flame, the pearls glowed in the slit of her jacket.
'I pity you,' she said slowly, gazing at him. 'You claim a lesser evil doesn't exist. You're standing on a flagstone running with blood, alone and so very lonely because you can't choose, but you had to. And you'll never know, you'll never be sure, if you were right . . . And your reward will be a stoning, and a bad word. I pity you . . .'
'And you?' asked the rogue quietly, almost in a whisper.
'I can't choose, either.'
'What are you?'
'I am what I am.'
'Where are you?'
'I'm . . . cold . . .'
She tossed her head as if waking up, and blinked several times, surprised. For a very brief moment she looked frightened.
'You've won,' she said sharply. You win, rogue. Tomorrow morning I'll leave Stormwind and never return to this rotten town. Never. Now pass me the wine-skin.'
Her usual derisive smile returned as she put her empty tumbler back on the table. 'Enerdhil?'
'That bloody roof is steep. I'd prefer to leave at dawn than fall and hurt myself in the dark. I'm a princess and my body's delicate. I can feel a pea under a mattress - as long as it's not wellstuffed with straw, obviously. How about it?'
'Renfri,' Enerdhil smiled despite himself, 'is that really befitting of a princess?'
'What do you know about princesses, dammit? I've lived as one and the joy of it is being able to do what you like. Do I have to tell you straight out what I want?'
Enerdhil, still smiling, didn't reply.
'I can't believe you don't find me attractive.' Renfri grimaced. 'Are you afraid you'll meet the freeman's sticky fate? Eh, blue-hair, I haven't got anything sharp on me. Have a look for yourself.'
She put her legs on his knees. 'Pull my boots off. A high boot is the best place to hide a knife.'
Barefoot, she got up, tore at the buckle of her belt. 'I'm not hiding anything here, either. Or here, as you can see. Put that bloody candle out.'
Outside, in the darkness, a cat yawled.
'Is this cambric?'
'Of course it is, dammit. Am I a princess or not?'
To be continued...