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Shadow Dance

A deadly plague is sweeping through Allanmere, brought by a stranger whose race vanished long before the humans of Allanmere, or the elves of the forest, came to the land.

Now Shadow must lead that stranger and her best friend Donya into the deadly swamp known as the Dim Reaches in search of a cure for the plague hidden among the traces of a race long gone.

Book 3 of the Shadow series

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Anne Logston

Anne Logston: An Icon of the Creative Universe—A Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy Quill—Paver of Past, Present, and Future. Each of best-selling author Anne Logston's books have their own story, but can all be described as all highly character-driven with a lot of action. Her characters, especially Shadow, often have a touch of whimsy and sly humor. While still maintaining a light touch, she talks about the consequences of racism, defining your own identity, and what happens when magic becomes mixed up in everyday lives.

"I was born February 15, 1962 in Indianapolis, Indiana and grew up there and in the country in southern Indiana. I started to write fiction as soon as I could put intelligible words on paper. I quickly learned to type so I could put intelligible and LEGIBLE words on paper. I graduated from the University of Indianapolis in 1984 with an Associate's degree in computer sciences, for which I had no talent, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature, for which I had no practical use.

"After college, I spent six years masquerading by day as a bad-tempered but sane legal secretary, then coming home at night to assume my secret identity as a bad-tempered and mildly demented writer. After significant bootsole-to-buttocks encouragement from my best friend, Mary Bischoff, I reluctantly sent off my first manuscript and was blessed with a remarkably short search for a publisher. My first novel, SHADOW, saw print in 1991, and two years later I abandoned my "normal" life and descended completely into fantasy.

"I have a remarkably patient husband, Paul, who supplies the sanity in our marriage. Together we are owned by three cats, two dogs, and one snake. In my infrequent leisure time, I like to grow and/or cook strange and spicy things, and I am an avid collector of anything about vampires."

Chronological Order of the Shadow Series

Greendaughter (Prequel—Book 6)
Wild Blood (Prequel—Book 7)
Shadow (Book 1)
Shadow Hunt (Book 2)
Shadow Dance (Book 3)
Dagger's Edge (Sequel—Book 4)
Dagger's Point (Sequel—Book 5)

Coming Soon...

Chapter One

The guards eyed Shadow with suspicion tinged with some surprise: first, that Shadow arrived openly at the palace at the front door; second, that she had two Guild members in tow, both carrying apparently heavy sacks; and third, that she came in style, dressed in rich green and amber silks as befitted an elven Matriarch and Guildmistress of the Guild of Thieves, and riding in a hired carriage. This amazing occurrence so stunned them that the Palace Guard did not bother to question her, but admitted the party with wide eyes and muffled whispers.

Shadow stifled a chuckle, but her entrance was not to be utterly mysterious and dignified; rounding a corner, she collided squarely with Donya. Moreover, as the Heir was dressed in full regalia, including her surcoat and “official” armor, the collision proved almost as damaging to Shadow’s nose as it was to her dignity.

“Ooof!” Shadow grunted, rubbing the offended feature. “More shame to me, if I can’t hear you coming dressed in enough metal to plate the Guildhouse floor.”

“Shady!” Donya exclaimed, her expression flickering through surprise, pleasure, puzzlement, and finally concern. “What are you doing here? And dressed like that? Is something wrong?”

“No, something’s right, and for once I wasn’t even here specifically to see you.” Shadow laughed. “Can’t you tell, since I came in the front door? No, tag along, if you have time. This is a momentous occasion.”

Donya frowned dubiously and glanced down the corridor, but she fell in beside Shadow as the group walked to the City Tax Collector’s office. That small, plump official and his three assistants looked every bit as puzzled as Donya by this invasion, and Shadow amusedly imagined that their worried expressions were probably due to the presence of three thieves, including the Guildmistress, in the receiving room of the city treasury!

“There you are!” Shadow said with satisfaction as her two companions dropped the heavy bags onto the Collector’s desk.

“Guildmistress?” the man asked confusedly, glancing from the bags to Shadow and back again.

Shadow grinned and pulled open the bags’ ties, gesturing at the gold inside.

“Taxes,” she said casually. “This should settle the Guild’s back taxes up to today. The Guild’s records were messier than a cesspit, but we finally muddled it out.”

Donya’s brow wrinkled.

“Shady, do you have any idea how long it’s been since the Guild’s paid its taxes?”

“Seven years.” Shadow nodded. “Since Ganrom took the seat. Go on, count it,” she told the Collector. “I want a receipt.”

It took the Collector and all three assistants to count the coins and track down the appropriate records. Finally, sweating over the last dusty volume from the storage room, the Collector nodded.

“Paid to the last copper, Guildmistress,” he said, smiling broadly and marking the books. “Chon, write up the Guildmistress’s receipt and I’ll sign it.”

“Well, I am impressed,” Donya said, shaking her head. “Not to mention amazed. Where did the Guild come up with that much gold in the less than two years you’ve held the seat? I can imagine what the Guild treasury looked like when you took over.”

“An empty room is what it looked like,” Shadow grimaced. “If Bobrick’s plan to destroy the Guild hadn’t worked, lack of funds might’ve done it for him. Fortune alone knows what Ganrom did with all that money—the cost of those ridiculous separate tokens, plus the bribes from Bobrick, plus what was already there from Evanor’s term—when not a copper went out to maintain that slime pit of a Guildhouse or the Guild’s responsibilities.”

“What did you end up doing about those tokens?” Donya asked curiously as Shadow pocketed the parchment receipt.

“Just a minute.” Shadow turned to the two thieves who had accompanied her. “You can go on back,” she said. “Take the carriage if you want. It’s already paid for.”

“Bought most of them back,” Shadow sighed, following Donya down the corridor. “Replaced them with a typical copper token and paid the members back the difference in fees out of my own pocket. Then I melted the rest of those damned things down for silver and gold.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Donya said. “I mean, what did you do about the token system?”

“Threw it into the chamber pot,” Shadow said cheerfully. “How do you think we made all that money? I went through the Guild members one by one, interviews and tests, figured out who was good and who wasn’t, who could handle responsibility and who couldn’t. Lot of dead wood, I’m afraid, but who knows, maybe they’ll learn given a century or two.

“Anyway,” Shadow continued, “I set up a hierarchy within the Guild. The really good thieves—the few responsible ones with real potential—I put in charge of certain areas of the city. The Guild gets ten percent of anything they make from their area, and they get ten percent of anything other thieves make in their area, but they’re also responsible for keeping control and passing news on up to me. They can assign smaller areas, too. So the money just moves up the chain to me, and the headaches move down the chain to them, and all I have to do is keep a tight hand on the few top people.”

“Impressive,” Donya admitted. “Rather like the City Guard, except for the money.”

“Ha!” Shadow grinned. “Shows what you know about the City Guard—you can take off the ‘except for the money.’ But enough about me. You look like I interrupted you on your way somewhere important.”

Donya grimaced. “I suppose you did,” she said. “Actually I was stalling. I’m going to Inner Heart to see Aspen. Want to come along?”

“You’re going to go riding through the Heartwood dressed like that?” Shadow asked incredulously. “And you think I’d want to?”

Donya shook her head, glancing around to make sure there was nobody listening nearby.

“Mother got together with a few of her mage friends and they created a Gate between here and a hut Aspen set up for the purpose,” she said. “After all the trouble we’ve had in town, I suggested it would be a good idea to have a direct route to the elves and vice versa. She and Father agreed, and they worked it out with Aspen. We’ll come out on the other side of Moon Lake—a goodish walk, but Aspen didn’t want such powerful magic sitting in the middle of his village, and I can’t blame him.”

“I never heard about this Gate,” Shadow accused.

“It was only set up a month or two ago,” Donya shrugged. “It’s not a state secret or anything, but it’s only to be used for important matters, and with the Royal Family’s permission or Aspen’s.”

“Maybe it’ll make the elven delegates a little happier about attending council sessions,” Shadow grinned.

“Nothing could do that, short of several kegs of wine,” Donya retorted. “But what do you say? Will you come? I could use some bolstering right now.”

“Bet on it,” Shadow said, nodding. “I wouldn’t miss trying a Gate for anything less than a free bottle of Dragon’s Blood. But why are we going? And why do you need bolstering?”

“Well, first of all, Aspen sent for me,” Donya sighed, motioning Shadow down a corridor she’d never seen before. “He wants to consult with me about someone the patrols apparently found trespassing in the Inner Zone. He apparently didn’t want to say too much via messenger, and he’s one of those elves who never leave the forest themselves, even with the Gate.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound too terrible,” Shadow shrugged. “But if that’s first of all, what’s second?”

Donya looked even more disgusted, if that were possible.

“I need to get Aspen’s advice,” she mumbled, “about finding a husband.”

Shadow laughed. “That’s good, Doe, and I’m going to Vikram’s for a tumble.”

Donya was silent.

Shadow glanced sideways at her, chuckled again, then glanced over again. “Fortune favor me, Doe, you aren’t serious, are you?”

“I’m serious,” Donya said glumly. “Mother and Father’s advisers have been at them—and me—day and night for months, since Father’s brother in Bryndwel died without an heir. There’s no collateral line to the family now, no one to inherit but me and no one to take the throne after me. So it’s important that I find a husband and produce an heir as soon as possible.”

“What, just like that?” Shadow asked amazedly. “Go find a husband, just like you’d shop for a scarf at the market?”

Donya shrugged. “I’ll have to find an elf who’s responsible enough to be the High Lord of Allanmere,” she said with a sigh. “And, of course, he’s got to be fertile.”

Shadow laughed again. “How do you plan on finding that out?” she chuckled. “That should be fun.”

Donya stopped in the hallway and looked at Shadow quizzically. “There’s got to be some way to know,” she said.

“If there is, generations of elves haven’t found it,” Shadow grinned.

“Well, Mother and Father managed to have me and...have me,” Donya said, a fleeting look of pain passing over her face.

“That’s a little different,” Shadow said, diplomatically postponing her curiosity. “I know I’m barren; most female elves know. When they ripen—every quarter century or so—they can feel it. Just to be safe, I imagine your father waited to be sure Celene was pregnant before they married.”

“Actually they waited until just before I was born,” Donya nodded. “But I can’t do that! I mean, I can see that it’s my duty to find an elf to marry. I can understand that. But surely it’s too much to expect that I go around tumbling elven fellows and then wait each time to see if I get pregnant! If I do that I’ll be old and gray before I’m wed! Not that I’m so looking forward to the prospect, mind you, but the City Council can’t wait.”

“Well, you can’t be the first female heir in a similar position,” Shadow said practically. “If I were you I’d do it the elven way.”

“What do you mean?” Donya said uneasily.

“Well, you pick out the fellow you want,” Shadow suggested. “After all, it’s more important that he be a good husband and a good High Lord than that he be fertile! Then you go to the Heartwood and round up two dozen or so doughty fellows, including your fellow, of course, and have the greatest High Circle the forest’s ever seen. Then when you’re pregnant, you say it’s your fellow’s, of course. It’s as likely his as anybody’s, anyway.”

“I can’t do that,” Donya protested. “I can’t marry a man in good faith and then have a child that may be a bastard!”

“Elves don’t have a concept of bastardy,” Shadow shrugged. “Most of us are High Circle babies anyway. So your husband won’t care, and the elves certainly won’t care, and nobody else even needs to know.”

“I don’t know,” Donya said doubtfully. “I’ll ask Aspen what he thinks.”

“Doe, are you ever going to tell me?” Shadow said after a pause.

Donya looked at her blankly.

“Tell you what?”

“Come on, Doe,” Shadow said patiently. “I’ve been in Allanmere two years now. Plenty of time to hear the gossip and study the Compact. The Heir’s supposed to have been fostered with the elves for at least ten years prior to inheritance. I know your worried City Council wouldn’t have let the Heir wander the country as a common hire-sword for years, not when they knew Sharl would refuse to father another heir elsewhere and Celene would abdicate as soon as Sharl died. So how long are you going to keep up the awkward silences and the verbal feinting with your best friend?”

Donya halted again, but this time she didn’t look at Shadow. When she finally turned to her friend, she looked haggard and—old, and Shadow was uncomfortably reminded of Donya’s mortality.

“It’s a long story,” Donya said tiredly. “I do trust you, Shady. It’s just that it’s hard to talk about. But you deserve to know.”

Shadow nodded and squeezed her friend’s hand.

“After we went our separate ways,” Donya said slowly, “I came home. Somehow the idea of traveling alone just seemed—I don’t know, not as exciting. My brother—my twin brother, Danyel—was wild, though, for a journey to somewhere he’d never seen. He’d been fostered with the elves, you see, since he was very young, and except for coming to town to visit, he’d hardly left the forest in all those years. He was pledged to an elven girl, too, and planned to marry her soon. She was already pregnant, so as soon as they were married, Mother and Father could step down anytime they liked.

“Mother and Father, of course, didn’t want him to leave town,” Donya continued. “He was the Heir, of course, and couldn’t just go gallivanting around the countryside like his second-born sister. But Danyel convinced them to let him go for a short journey. He’d be safe with me, he said,” Donya added bitterly. “And they believed him.”

Donya was silent for a few steps.

“I’d already been south and east,” she said at last. “Danyel wanted to go west. I didn’t; there aren’t many towns that way, lots of forest. That meant no inns and no regular supplies. But it was Danyel’s first—and probably only—journey, so I gave in.

“The first and second weeks out we ran into packs of bandits,” Donya continued. “Nothing we couldn’t handle; Danyel was almost as good with a sword as I am, although he was smaller—favored Mother, you know. But the bandits worried me, and I wanted to turn back. Danyel talked me out of it. After the second week we were so far into the wilderness that there weren’t even any bandits. I thought that was wonderful.” She laughed bitterly.

“To put it simply,” Donya said, “a week later we were surprised in camp by a pack of skinshifters. Only four of them, but that was enough. We managed to kill two and the other two ran away, but I’d been clawed and Danyel had been clawed and bitten, too. We could have both been infected with the shifter sickness.

“After that there was no talk of turning back. We’d never have made it home in time for treatment. But there was a town on our map only a week away, and that might—just might—be soon enough. But there was a monastery on the map, too. It meant going out of our way, but it was a little closer. We decided better to be safe.” Donya sighed. “Three days later we reached the monastery. We pleaded with them, but they said we were tainted with the shifter curse and locked us out. We hurried as fast as we could to reach the town, but by then there was no hope. Two days out from the town Danyel caught the shifter madness, and I—” Donya drew a breath, then continued stonily, “I killed him. I killed my brother.”

Shadow shivered in sympathy and patted Donya’s arm.

“There was nothing else you could’ve done,” she said comfortingly. “There’s no spell to cure the shifter curse once it’s caught. Danyel would’ve thanked you if he could.”

“I couldn’t even bring him home,” Donya continued, as if Shadow hadn’t spoken. “It was too far. So I buried him there in the forest. He would’ve loved that, at least,” she added. “He always liked the forest better than the city anyway.”

Shadow could think of nothing to say, so she said nothing.

“So I came home,” Donya said expressionlessly. “Danyel’s mate died in childbirth and her daughter with her. That’s the story, Shady, and I’ll thank you if you never mention it to my parents. It hurts them too much.”

“All right, Doe,” Shadow said softly. “I promise.

“So let’s see this Gate,” she said, changing the subject. “At least you picked a good night for this errand of yours.”

“Yes, tonight’s some sort of festival in the Heartwood, isn’t it?” Donya remembered, curiosity momentarily overcoming her grief.

“Uh-huh; tonight’s the Planting of the Seed,” Shadow nodded. “A big celebration on the calendars of the worshippers of the Mother Forest. I’d have gone myself, but I felt a little awkward. Sometimes other elves look at me a little awry because I worship Fortune. But you’ve given me a good excuse to go, and a way to get there, so why not? Anyway, you probably couldn’t pick a better night for husband hunting. Good night to try them out, too,” Shadow added slyly, hoping the festival would at least distract Donya. She wished she’d never asked for the story.

“Here’s the room,” Donya said, unlocking the door and ignoring Shadow’s last statement.

The room Shadow saw had probably once been a storage room; Shadow could see the marks on the stone where shelving had been removed from three of the four walls. The fourth—

There was no fourth wall. Opposite the door was a shimmering silver curtain that extended from wall to wall, from ceiling to floor.

Shadow frowned uneasily. It was bigger than she’d expected, and impressive. It looked a little too much like the wizard Baloran’s work for her comfort. Only the thought that Celene had supervised the Gate’s creation kept her from backing out of using it.

Shadow wondered privately if Donya had gotten the idea of having the Gate from Baloran’s arrangement; she doubted, however, that it would be wise to ask. Donya’s treatment at Baloran’s hands—her confinement to a body that would not obey her, helplessly forced to do anything Baloran told her—was to the proud warrior a humiliating memory that Shadow had learned it best not to invoke.

“Well,” Donya sighed at last, “I guess we’d better go.”

“You go first,” Shadow said, eyeing the shimmering curtain dubiously.

“If it doesn’t work and I’m sucked out into Berblek’s Nine Hells in forty-two separate bits,” Donya said practically, “how will you know from here?” She smiled brightly, stepped forward into the Gate, and vanished.

Shadow sighed irritably. When Donya was right, she was right. She shrugged and stepped forward.

There was no sensation but a momentary disorientation as she stepped from flagstones to earth, from a lighted room into a dim hut. She stumbled momentarily, and Donya’s hand steadied her.

“I’ll get the door,” Donya said. “It’s a magical lock, set to recognize only a few people. We didn’t want the elves using the Gate just for fun.”

Shadow grinned to herself. A magical lock might keep curious servants out of a stone-walled, windowless room in the palace, but it wouldn’t keep a determined elf out of a flimsy hut in the woods. Still, no need to add to her friend’s worries; any elf who used the Gate out of curiosity would likely simply step right back through rather than try to explain their way out of the palace!

Moon Lake was as beautiful as always. Shadow grimaced; the beauty of Inner Heart always evoked ambiguous reactions in her. Part of her sighed pleasurably, relaxing in the feeling of home; part of her winced in regret that somehow she never completely belonged here, that the forest had never been quite large enough to contain her restless spirit.

“It’ll be beautiful from here tonight,” Shadow told Donya. “They’ll have lighted lanterns to shine across the lake. Going to stay for the whole three nights, or just tonight? I’ll have to use your Gate to get back if you stay; they aren’t expecting me to be gone from the Guild, and Aubry might panic.”

“Just tonight,” Donya said regretfully. “I have to meet with the City Council tomorrow. It’s too bad; I love elven festivals. I almost wish I had been fostered here.”

“Would have done you good,” Shadow grinned. “You need a little more of the Mother Forest in you, I’d say, to make up for an overblown sense of duty. Come on; if you want to get a quiet hour with Aspen before the feasting starts, you’d better hurry.”

It was afternoon before they finished the long walk around Moon Lake, but Shadow didn’t regret the time spent; it was a pleasant quiet time with her friend, which happened all too seldom of late, and there was much to see. Even from across the lake, they could see signs of busy preparation for the festival: numerous boats were out on the lake hauling in fish for the night’s feasting; elves, on deer or on foot, were trickling into the village bearing fresh kills; and the village itself was a beehive of activity as lanterns were strung, firepits were laid, logs were dragged in for seating, and other less easily defined preparations were made.

Aspen was easily recognized even at a distance; his fiery red hair, uncommon now among elves, was easily visible, appearing intermittently among the many elves, short and tall, dark and fair, scurrying about through the village. When he sighted them coming, Aspen stopped abruptly, colliding with three or four other elves, and waved joyfully.

“My lady!” he said as soon as they were close enough to hear him over the bustle. “I’m delighted you could come so soon. And Guildmistress Shadow! Unexpected, but no less welcome for all that. Can you both stay for the Planting of the Seed?”

“Just for tonight,” Donya said. “I hope there hasn’t been any further trouble with trespassers?”

Shadow winced a little; by elven standards, it wasn’t really polite for Donya to cut to the main business so quickly, but Aspen appeared to take it in stride.

“No, there have been no other disturbances,” he said. “It happened at an inconvenient time, but I suppose there’s never a convenient time to deal with trespassers! But this fellow was a worry. If you’ll follow me, I’ve isolated him somewhat outside the village.”

“That dangerous?” Donya asked curiously. “I wondered why you wanted me to come.”

“Whether he’s dangerous or not I can’t say,” Aspen said, shaking his head. “What he is, is a puzzle. He was certainly carrying weapons when he all but staggered into a patrol camp near Yellow Oak, but he showed no inclination to use them. He babbled something in some foreign tongue and fell unconscious. The patrol were both puzzled and frightened and brought him back. He speaks no tongue I’ve heard, and—well—you’ll see for yourself, my lady.”

He had stopped outside the door of a large hut on the fringe of the village; the door was barred from the outside, and two elves stood guard beside it. Aspen nodded at them, and they stepped aside.

“Do you mind if I come in, too?” Shadow asked. “I’ve done a lot of traveling. Maybe I’ve heard his language before.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Aspen said oddly, “but you’re welcome, nonetheless.” He unbarred the door.

Freedom-loving elves found the concept of “prison” almost incomprehensible, and they usually dispensed their justice on the spot; the village’s attempt at confinement was more like a guest cottage than a cell. The windows were too narrow to permit egress but there were plenty of them; a stone-paved firepit, table and chairs, and a few colorful hangings gave the hut a decidedly homey atmosphere. A midday meal, simple but plentiful, sat untouched on the table. A wide sling-bed, comfortably heaped with cushions and furs, apparently held the prisoner, for although he could be seen only as a lump under the furs, his rasping breath could be heard from the doorway.

Donya had drawn her sword when they entered; now she lowered it hesitantly.

“He’s ill?” she asked.

Aspen nodded.

“Worse now, much worse than when he came,” he sighed. “I pray through no fault of ours. He was yet senseless when the patrol brought him back, and he has never roused.”

“I doubt he’d complain if he could,” Donya said, glancing around the hut. “He’s not armed now?”

“No; we took everything from him to examine, even his clothing and ornaments lest they be bespelled, but I have his belongings here to show you,” Aspen told her.

Well, they could talk all day if they liked; the fellow sounded anything but dangerous. Shadow moved around to the side of the bed and lifted aside the edge of the furs.

“Doe,” she said immediately, “better have a look.”

She could understand Aspen’s puzzlement and concern; this was no common poacher. No common anything, to her way of thinking.

The face she had exposed was darkly tanned and exquisitely fine-boned; if Aspen hadn’t said “he,” Shadow couldn’t have named the face male or female. It was topped with hair exactly the color of polished bronze; how long it was, Shadow couldn’t say, as the single braid at the back disappeared beneath the covers. The half-opened eyes were slightly slanted and were the same polished-bronze color.

Whoever he was, he was well fevered; Shadow’s hand, clutching the furs, could feel the heat radiate from the man’s skin.

As Donya bent over the bed, Shadow pulled the furs down a little farther. One limp hand rested on the slender throat as if he had fought for breath before losing consciousness; the hand was long and heavily callused—sword calluses, Shadow noted—but boasted six fingers, not five.

As soon as Shadow pulled the covers lower, the strange being began shivering so hard that the sling-bed swayed. Shadow hurriedly pulled the furs back up, but not before she saw the strange hand grope restlessly at his throat, as if desperately seeking something. The stranger murmured something unintelligible, shouted once, hoarsely, then subsided again.

“Our healers have attended him,” Aspen said helplessly. “He was fevered but not severely so, we thought, when he came. But after we took his belongings and confined him here he worsened quickly. We dared not potion him; elven medicines sometimes work ill on humans, and whatever he is, he is neither human nor elf.”

“He was reaching for something at his throat,” Shadow said. “Was he maybe carrying a message?”

“No; it was a piece of jewelry,” Aspen said. “Come outside and see.”

One of the guards produced a large, fur-wrapped bundle; Donya murmured with surprise as they opened it.

There was a sword nearly as long as Donya’s although not as broad, but which was wonderfully light and forged of some odd white metal, as were two daggers. A coat of links of metal so fine that at first glance it appeared to be cloth was made of the same substance. There was some sort of outlandish pipe carved from what appeared to be bone, long and slender. Dark gray trousers and a tunic were oddly cut but otherwise unremarkable. The pack contained a small quantity of journey food and some rolled leather on which was penned a very rough and incomplete map of the area.

“There is what he wore,” Aspen said, pointing.

Under the pack was a pendant made of the same white metal as the sword, strung on a fine chain. On the circular disk was depicted a highly stylized eye; it had been inset with countless tiny gemstones of a dazzling purple color.

“That’s really something,” Shadow said, reaching for it. “It’s worth a fortune, bet on—”

Just as she picked up the pendant, a hoarse scream came from the interior of the hut. They quickly turned to look.

The stranger was no longer lying quietly on the bed. He continued to scream and shriek, his arms and legs now flailing at the covers as if desperately scrambling for purchase. The sling-bed swayed precariously.

“Quick, help me hold him,” Donya said, striding to the bedside. “He’s having a fit.”

Shadow dropped the unusual pendant on the table and turned to help, but her help appeared unnecessary; immediately the stranger collapsed back into unconsciousness, his breath even weaker than before.

Aspen gestured to the guard.

“Quickly,” he said. “Fetch Roena.”

“Roena?” Donya asked.

“Our chief healer,” Aspen told her.

“Doe—” Shadow picked up one of the daggers. “Have you ever seen any metal like this? Light as moonbeams, but harder than steel. Got an edge that would split spider silk longways.”

“No, I’ve never seen the like,” Donya admitted. “If I would have, I’d have beggared myself to buy it.” She hefted the sword. “Weighted—got to be, or it wouldn’t balance and the swing would have no force. Hmmm. Strange grip, for six fingers. What I’d give for a sword like this!”

“This is what I’d want,” Shadow said, gesturing at the pendant. “The gems, the art—I could sell this to a couple of jewelers I’ve seen for enough Suns to floor the Guildhall in solid gold.” She caressed the eye design. “Think this is religious or—”

Another scream from the bed, this one weaker but somehow more desperate. Startled, Shadow pulled her hand away—and immediately the stranger was quiet.

“Don’t touch that again,” Aspen said sharply. “It must be magical. Your handling it appears to be harming him.”

“He’s getting awfully weak,” Donya said worriedly, stepping aside as a tall elven woman appeared and moved immediately to the bedside.

“He is indeed,” Roena said, shaking her head. “His fever is no higher, but it is as if the life is draining out of him.”

“What if we give him this back?” Shadow suggested, gesturing at the necklace. “It seems important to him, and magical or not, if it’s a weapon he’s in no shape to use it.”

Roena shrugged.

“I see no harm in trying,” she said. “He will die if he continues to weaken, and any potion I might try could well do more harm than good.”

Shadow glanced at Aspen, who nodded reluctantly. Shadow picked the necklace up carefully by the chain, carried it over slowly, and dropped it, amulet first, into the man’s hand.

The effect was almost miraculous. Immediately the stranger’s harsh breathing eased, and the desperate lines smoothed out of his face. His taut muscles relaxed and color flooded back into the skin.

Roena’s eyebrows lifted.

“Praise the Mother Forest, his fever’s going down,” she said. “And his heartbeat is much stronger. He is resting peacefully now. We should leave him be until he awakens.”

“Very well,” Aspen agreed, motioning the others outside the hut.

“I see now why you asked me to come,” Donya said when the door was shut behind them. “A curious business.”

“More than that,” Aspen frowned. “He appeared almost in the midst of an Inner Zone patrol. How could a stranger, and a sick one as well, pass our Middle Zone patrols unnoticed? Why at all, and why now? This goes beyond a mere case of poaching or trespassing upon our lands, Lady Donya. I doubt this man represents an enemy—or if so, a very foolish one to send an envoy sick and alone into our very hands—but what his presence may portend disturbs me.”

“Have you thought that his illness might spread?” Shadow asked.

“When he was brought here, he had already been in contact with a dozen elves, and they with other patrols,” Roena said, frowning gently. “There was no possibility of isolating them. They have shown no signs of ill health, nor have his guards, nor have I myself. If he carries a plague, I cannot find it.”

Aspen shook his head and smiled.

“But that must all wait, at least until the man can be questioned,” he said. “Meanwhile, tonight begins the Planting of the Seed, and I will not let such concerns trouble so important a celebration. Come, lady, and I will show you where you can store your armor—it would be both uncomfortable and inappropriate for the festival.”

“I wish I could learn to do that,” Donya muttered to Shadow as they followed Aspen away from the hut.

“Do what?” Shadow asked, her mind more on what she’d seen than her friend’s words.

“Just shrug off worries like that,” Donya sighed. “He’s as concerned as I am, but by all the gods I’ve ever heard of, I’d swear he’s not even going to think about it tonight.”

Shadow chuckled.

“Neither should you, Doe,” she grinned. “You could use a little of the Mother Forest in you. Worrying at a sore tooth only rubs your tongue raw and doesn’t help the tooth, you know. Have some wine and cheer up. There aren’t many humans invited to the Planting of the Seed. You may meet the great love of your life tonight, who knows? It’s certainly the right place and the right time.”

Donya grinned back weakly and shrugged.

“Who knows,” she agreed. “Shady, just what goes on at this festival?”

“All the good things—wine, dreamweed, food, dancing, music,” Shadow said. She chuckled. “A lot of ‘seed planting,’ too. Supposedly any children conceived during the festival will be blessed by the Mother Forest. I was a festival baby, you know.”

Donya gave Shadow a warning look, and Shadow laughed.

“Don’t worry,” Shadow grinned. “It’s males who get chosen for High Circles, not females, and certainly not humans. Besides, at the Planting it’s traditional for the women to choose the men. I’m afraid if you want somebody, you’re going to have to tell them.”

“Here is my hut,” said Aspen, who had diplomatically ignored their conversation. “If you wish to leave your armor and weapons here, they will not be disturbed.”

Donya unbelted her sword and lifted off her heavy chain mail without a murmur. Aspen turned politely away, but Donya watched amazedly as Shadow relieved herself of a small arsenal of knives, daggers, dirks, darts, and the like from various recesses in her clothing. She tucked the bundle out of sight under Donya’s mail and smiled brightly at Donya and Aspen.

“All right,” Shadow said. “Which way to the wine?”