by R.A. Salvatore
GwenhwyvarJosidiah Starym skipped wistfully down the streets of Cormanthor, the usually stern and somber elf a bit giddy this day, both for the beautiful weather and the recent developments in his most precious and enchanted city.
Josidiah was a bladesinger, a joining of sword and magic, protector of the elvish ways and the elvish folk. And in Cormanthor, in this year 253, many elves were in need of protecting. Goblinkin were abundant, and even worse, the emotional turmoil within the city, the strife among the noble families -- the Starym included -- threatened to tear apart all that Coronal Eltargrim had put together, all that the elves had built in Cormanthor, greatest city in all the world.
Those were not troubles for this day, though, not in the spring sunshine, with a light north breeze blowing. Even Josidiah's kin were in good spirits this day; Taleisin, his uncle, had promised the bladesinger that he would venture to Eltargrim's court to see if some of their disputes might perhaps be worked out.
Josidiah prayed that the elven court would come back together, for he, perhaps above all others in the city, had the most to lose. He was a bladesinger, the epitome of what it meant to be elven, and yet, in this curious age, those definitions seemed not so clear. This was an age of change, of great magics, of monumental decisions. This was an age when the humans, the gnomes, the halflings, even the bearded dwarves, ventured down the winding ways of Cormanthor, past the needle-pointed spires of the free-flowing elvish structures. For all of Josidiah's previous one hundred and fifty years, the precepts of elvenkind seemed fairly defined and rigid; but now, because of their Coronal, wise and gentle Eltargrim, there was much dispute about what it meant to be elvish, and, more importantly, what relationships elves should foster with the other goodly races.
"Merry morn, Josidiah," came the call of an elven female, the young and beautiful maiden niece of Eltargrim himself. She stood on a balcony overlooking a high garden whose buds were not yet in bloom, with the avenue beyond that.
Josidiah stopped in midstride, leapt high into the air in a complete spin, and landed perfectly on bended knee, his long golden hair whipping across his face and then flying out wide again so that his eyes, the brightest of blue, flashed. "And the merriest of morns to you, good Felicity," the bladesinger responded. "Would that I held at my sides flowers befitting your beauty instead of these blades made for war."
"Blades as beautiful as any flower ever I have seen," Felicity replied teasingly, "especially when wielded by Josidiah Starym at dawn's break, on the flat rock atop Berenguil's Peak." The bladesinger felt the hot blood rushing to his face.
He had suspected that someone had been spying on him at his morning rituals -- a dance with his magnificent swords, performed nude -- and now he had his confirmation. "Perhaps Felicity should join me on the morrow's dawn," he replied, catching his breath and his dignity, "that I might properly reward her for her spying." The young female laughed heartily and spun back into her house, and Josidiah shook his head and skipped along.
He entertained thoughts of how he might properly "reward" the mischievous female, though he feared that, given Felicity's beauty and station, any such attempts might lead to something much more, something Josidiah could not become involved in -- not now, not after Eltargrim's proclamation and the drastic changes.
The bladesinger shook away all such notions; it was too fine a day for any dark musing, and other thoughts of Felicity were too distracting for the meeting at hand.
Josidiah went out of Cormanthor's west gate, the guards posted there offering no more than a respectful bow as he passed, and into the open air. Truly Josidiah loved this city, but he loved the land outside of it even more. Out here he was truly free of all the worries and all the petty squabbles, and out here there was ever a sense of danger -- might a goblin be watching him even now, its crude spear ready to take him down? -- that kept the formidable elf on his highest guard.
Out here, too, was a friend, a human friend, a ranger-turned wizard by the name of Anders Beltgarden, whom Josidiah had known for the better part of four decades.
Anders did not venture into Cormanthor, even given Eltargrim's proclamation to open the gates to nonelves.
He lived far from the normal, oft-traveled paths, in a squat tower of excellent construction, guarded by magical wards and deceptions of his own making. Even the forest about his home was full of misdirections, spells of illusion and confusion. So secretive was Beltgarden Home that few elves of nearby Cormanthor even knew of it, and even fewer had ever seen it. And of those, none save Josidiah could find his way back to it without Anders's help.
And Josidiah held no illusions about it -- if Anders wanted to hide the paths to the tower even from him, the cagey old wizard would have little trouble doing so.
This wonderful day, however, it seemed to Josidiah that the winding paths to Beltgarden Home were easier to follow than usual, and when he arrived at the structure, he found the door unlocked.
"Anders," he called, peering into the darkened hallway beyond the portal, which always smelled as if a dozen candles had just been extinguished within it. "Old fool, are you about?" A feral growl put the bladesinger on his guard; his swords were in his hands in a movement too swift for an observer to follow.
"Anders?" he called again, quietly, as he picked his way along the corridor, his feet moving in perfect balance, soft boots gently touching the stone, quiet as a hunting cat.
The growl came again, and that is exactly when Josidiah knew what he was up against: a hunting cat. A big one, the bladesinger recognized, for the deep growl resonated along the stone of the hallway.
He passed by the first doors, opposite each other in the hall, and then passed the second on his left.
The third -- he knew -- the sound came from within the third. That knowledge gave the bladesinger some hope that this situation was under control, for that particular door led to Anders's alchemy shop, a place well guarded by the old wizard.
Josidiah cursed himself for not being better prepared magically. He had studied few spells that day, thinking it too fine and not wanting to waste a moment of it with his face buried in spellbooks.
If only he had some spell that might get him into the room more quickly, through a magical gate, or even a spell that would send his probing vision through the stone wall, into the room before him.
He had his swords, at least, and with them, Josidiah Starym was far from helpless. He put his back against the wall near to the door and took a deep steadying breath.
Then, without delay -- old Anders might be in serious trouble -- the bladesinger spun about and crashed into the room.
He felt the arcs of electricity surging into him as he crossed the warded portal, and then he was flying, hurled through the air, to land crashing at the base of a huge oaken table. Anders Beltgarden stood calmly at the side of the table, working with something atop it, hardly bothering to look down at the stunned bladesinger.
"You might have knocked," the old mage said dryly.
Josidiah pulled himself up unceremoniously from the floor, his muscles not quite working correctly just yet.
Convinced that there was no danger near, Josidiah let his gaze linger on the human, as he often did. The bladesinger hadn't seen many humans in his life -- humans were a recent addition on the north side of the Sea of Fallen Stars, and were not present in great numbers in or about Cormanthor.
This one was the most curious human of all, with his leathery, wrinkled face and his wild gray beard. One of Anders's eyes had been ruined in a fight, and it appeared quite dead now, a gray film over the lustrous green it had once held. Yes, Josidiah could stare at old Anders for hours on end, seeing the tales of a lifetime in his scars and wrinkles. Most of the elves, Josidiah's own kinfolk included, would have thought the old man an ugly thing; elves did not wrinkle and weather so, but aged beautifully, appearing at the end of several centuries as they had when they had seen but twenty or fifty winters.
Josidiah did not think Anders an ugly sight, not at all.
Even those few crooked teeth remaining in the man's mouth complemented this creature he had become, this aged and wise creature, this sculptured monument to years under the sun and in the face of storms, to seasons battling goblinkin and giantkind. Truly it seemed ridiculous to Josidiah that he was twice this man's age; he wished he might carry a few wrinkles as testament to his experiences.
"You had to know it would be warded," Anders laughed.
"Of course you did! Ha ha, just putting on a show, then. Giving an old man one good laugh before he dies!" "You will outlive me, I fear, old man," said the bladesinger.
"Indeed, that is a distinct possibility if you keep crossing my doors unannounced." "I feared for you," Josidiah explained, looking around the huge room -- too huge, it seemed, to fit inside the tower, even if it had consumed an entire level. The bladesinger suspected some extradimensional magic to be at work here, but he had never been able to detect it, and the frustrating Anders certainly wasn't letting on.
As large as it was, Anders's alchemy shop was still a cluttered place, with boxes piled high and tables and cabinets strewn about in a hodgepodge.
"I heard a growl," the elf continued. "A hunting cat." Without looking up from some vials he was handling, Anders nodded his head in the direction of a large, blanket covered container. "See that you do not get too close," the old mage said with a wicked cackle. "Old Whiskers will grab you by the arm and tug you in, don't you doubt! And then you'll need more than your shiny swords," Anders cackled on.
Josidiah wasn't even listening, pacing quietly toward the blanket, moving silently so as not to disturb the cat within. He grabbed the edge of the blanket and, moving safely back, tugged it away. And then the bladesinger's jaw surely drooped.
It was a cat, as he had suspected, a great black panther, twice -- no thrice -- the size of the largest cat Josidiah had ever seen or heard of. And the cat was female, and females were usually much smaller than males. She paced the cage slowly, methodically, as if searching for some weakness, some escape, her rippling muscles guiding her along with unmatched grace.
"How did you come by such a magnificent beast?" the bladesinger asked. His voice apparently startled the panther, stopping her in her tracks. She stared at Josidiah with an intensity that stole any further words right from the bladesinger's mouth.
"Oh, I have my ways, elf," the old mage said. "I've been looking for just the right cat for a long, long time, searching all the known world -- and bits of it that are not yet known to any but me!" "But why?" Josidiah asked, his voice no more than a whisper. His question was aimed as much at the magnificent panther as at the old mage, and truly, the bladesinger could think of no reason to justify putting such a creature into a cage.
"You remember my tale of the box canyon," Anders replied, "of how my mentor and I flew owl-back out of the clutches of a thousand goblins?" Josidiah nodded and smiled, remembering well that amusing story. A moment later, though, when the implications of Anders's words hit him fully, the elf turned back to the mage, a scowl clouding his fair face. "The figurine," Josidiah muttered, for the owl had been but a statuette, enchanted to bring forth a great bird in times of its master's need. There were many such objects in the world, many in Cormanthor, and Josidiah was not unacquainted with the methods of constructing them (though his own magics were not strong enough along the lines of enchanting). He looked back to the great panther, saw a distinct sadness there, then turned back sharply to Anders.
"The cat must be killed at the moment of preparation," the bladesinger protested. "Thus her life energies will be drawn into the statuette you will have created." "Working on that even now," Anders said lightly. "I have hired a most excellent dwarven craftsman to fashion a panther statuette. The finest craftsman...er, craftsdwarf, in all the area. Fear not, the statuette will do the cat justice." "Justice?" the bladesinger echoed skeptically, looking once more into the intense, intelligent yellow-green eyes of the huge panther. "You will kill the cat?" "I offer the cat immortality," Anders said indignantly.
"You offer death to her will, and slavery to her body," snapped Josidiah, more angry than he had ever been with old Anders. The bladesinger had seen figurines and thought them marvelous artifacts, despite the sacrifice of the animal in question. Even Josidiah killed deer and wild pig for his table, after all. So why should a wizard not create some useful item from an animal? But this time it was different, Josidiah sensed in his heart. This animal, this great and free cat, must not be so enslaved.
"You will make the panther" Josidiah began.
"Whiskers," explained Anders.
"The panther" the bladesinger reiterated forcefully, unable to come to terms with such a foolish name being tagged on this animal. "You will make the panther a tool, an animation that will function to the will of her master." "What would one expect?" the old mage argued. "What else would one want?" Josidiah shrugged and sighed helplessly. "Independence," he muttered.
"Then what would be the point of my troubles?" Josidiah's expression clearly showed his thinking. An independent magical companion might not be of much use to an adventurer in a dangerous predicament, but it would surely be preferable from the sacrificed animal's point of view.
"You chose wrong, bladesinger," Anders teased. "You should have studied as a ranger. Surely your sympathies lie in that direction!" "A ranger," the bladesinger asked, "as Anders Beltgarden once was?" The old mage blew a long and helpless sigh.
"Have you so given up the precepts of your former trade in exchange for the often ill-chosen allure of magical mysteries?" "Oh, and a fine ranger you would have been," Anders replied dryly.
Josidiah shrugged. "My chosen profession is not so different," he reasoned.
Anders silently agreed. Indeed, the man did see much of his own youthful and idealistic self in the eyes of Josidiah Starym. That was the curious thing about elves, he noted, that this one, who was twice Anders's present age, reminded him so much of himself when he had but a third his present years.
"When will you begin?" Josidiah asked.
"Begin?" scoffed Anders. "Why, I have been at work over the beast for nearly three weeks, and spent six months before that in preparing the scrolls and powders, the oils, the herbs. Not an easy process, this. And not inexpensive, I might add! Do you know what price a gnome places on the simplest of metal filings, pieces so fine that they might be safely added to the cat's food?" Josidiah found that he really did not want to continue along this line of discussion. He did not want to know about the poisoning -- and that was indeed what he considered it to be -- of the magnificent panther. He looked back to the cat, looked deep into her intense eyes, intelligent so far beyond what he would normally expect.
"Fine day outside," the bladesinger muttered, not that he believed that Anders would take a moment away from his work to enjoy the weather. "Even my stubborn Uncle Taleisin, Lord Protector of House Starym, wears a face touched by sunshine." Anders snorted.
"Then he will be smiling this day when he lays low Coronal Eltargrim with a right book?" That caught Josidiah off his guard, and he took up Anders's infectious laughter. Indeed was Taleisin a stubborn and crusty elf, and if Josidiah returned to House Starym this day to learn that his uncle had punched the elf Coronal, he would not be surprised.
"It is a momentous decision that Eltargrim has made," Anders said suddenly, seriously. "And a brave one. By including the other goodly races, your Coronal has begun the turning of the great wheel of fate, a spin that will not easily be stopped." "For good or for ill?" "That is for a seer to know," Anders replied with a shrug. "But his choice was the right one, I am sure, though not without its risks." The old mage snorted again.
"A pity," he said, "even were I a young man, I doubt I would see the outcome of Eltargrim's decision, given the way elves measure the passage of time. How many centuries will pass before the Starym even decide if they will accept Eltargrim's decree?" That brought another chuckle from Josidiah, but not a long-lived one. Anders had spoken of risks, and certainly there were many. Several prominent families, and not just the Starym, were outraged by the immigration of peoples that many haughty elves considered to be of inferior races.
There were even a few mixed marriages, elf and human, within Cormanthor, but any offspring of such unions were surely ostracized.
"My people will come to accept Eltargrim's wise council" the elf said at length, determinedly.
"I pray you are right," said Anders, "for surely Cormanthor will face greater perils than the squabbling of stubborn elves." Josidiah looked at him curiously.
"Humans and halflings, gnomes and, most importantly, dwarves, walking among the elves, living in Cormanthor," Anders muttered. "Why, I would guess that the goblinkin savor the thought of such an occurrence, that all their hated enemies be mixed together into one delicious stew!" "Together we are many times more powerful," the bladesinger argued. "Human wizards oft exceed even our own. Dwarves forge mighty weapons, and gnomes create wondrous and useful items, and halflings, yes, even halflings, are cunning allies, and dangerous adversaries."
"I do not disagree with you," Anders said, waving his tanned and leathery right hand, three-fingered from a goblin bite, in the air to calm the elf. "And as I have said, Eltargrim chose correctly. But pray you that the internal disputes are settled, else the troubles of Cormanthor will come tenfold from without." Josidiah calmed and nodded; he really couldn't disagree with old Anders's reasoning, and had, in fact, harbored those same fears for many days. With all the goodly races coming together under one roof, the chaotic goblinkin would have cause to band together in numbers greater than ever before. If the varied folk of Cormanthor stood together, gaining strength in their diversity, those goblinkin, whatever their numbers, would surely be pushed away. But if the folk of Cormanthor could not see their way to such a day of unity...
Josidiah let the thought hang outside consciousness put it aside for another day, a day of rain and fog, perhaps. He looked back to the panther and sighed even more sadly, feeling helpless indeed. "Treat the cat well, Anders Beltgarden, he said, and he knew that the old man, once a ranger, would indeed do so."
Josidiah left then, making his way more slowly as he returned to the elven city. He saw Felicity again on the balcony, wearing a slight silken shift and a mischievous, inviting smile, but he passed her by with a wave. The bladesinger suddenly did not feel so much in the mood for play.
Many times in the next few weeks, Josidiah returned to Anders's tower and sat quietly before the cage, silently communing with the panther while the mage went about his work.
"She will be yours when I am done," Anders announced unexpectedly, one day when spring had turned to summer.
Josidiah stared blankly at the old man.
"The cat, I mean," said Anders. "Whiskers will be yours when my work is done." Josidiah's blue eyes opened wide in horror, though Anders interpreted the look as one of supreme elation.
"She'll do me little use," explained the mage. "I rarely venture out of doors these days, and in truth, have little faith that I will live much more than a few winters longer.
"Who better to have my most prized creation, I say, than Josidiah Starym, my friend and he who should have been a ranger?" "I shall not accept," Josidiah said abruptly, sternly.
Anders's eyes widened in surprise.
"I would be forever reminded of what the cat once was" said the elf, "and what she should be. Whenever I called the slave body to my side, whenever this magnificent creature sat on her haunches, awaiting my command to bring life to her limbs, I would feel that I had overstepped my bounds as a mortal, that I had played as a god with one undeserving my foolish intervention." "It's just an animal!" Anders protested.
Josidiah was glad to see that he had gotten through to the old mage, a man the elf knew to be too sensitive for this present undertaking.
"No," said the elf, turning to stare deeply into the panther's knowing eyes. "Not this one." He fell silent, then, and Anders, with a huff of protest, went back to his work, leaving the elf to sit and stare, to silently share his thoughts with the panther.
* * *
It was for Josidiah Starym a night of absolute torment, for Anders would complete his work before the moon had set and the great panther would be slain for the sake of a magical item, a mere magical tool. The bladesinger left Cormanthor, heedless of the warnings that had been posted concerning venturing out of the city at night: goblinkin, and enemies even greater, were rumored to be stalking the forest.
Josidiah hardly cared, hardly gave any thoughts to his personal safety. His fate was not in the balance, so it seemed, not like that of the panther.
He thought of going to see Anders, to try one last time to talk the old human out of his designs, but the bladesinger dismissed that notion. He didn't understand humans, he realized, and had indeed lost a bit of faith in the race (and, subsequently, in Eltargrim's decision) because of what he perceived as Anders's failure. The mage, once a ranger and more attuned to the elven ideals than so very many of his rough-edged race, should have known better, should not have sacrificed such a wondrous and intelligent animal as that particular panther, for the sake of magic.
Josidiah moved through the forest, then out of the canopy and under a million stars, shining despite the westering full moon. He reached a treeless hillock. He effortlessly climbed the steep slope through the carpet-thick grass and came to the top of the hill, a private and special place he often used for contemplation.
Then he simply stood and stared upward at the stars, letting his thoughts fly to the greater mysteries, the unknown and never-known, the heavens themselves. He felt mortal suddenly, as though his last remaining centuries were but a passing sigh in the eternal life of the universe.
A sigh that was so much longer, so it seemed, than the remaining life of the panther, if the cat was even still alive.
A subtle rustle at the base of the hillock alerted the elf, brought him from his contemplations. He went into a crouch immediately and stared down at the spot, letting his vision slip into the infrared spectrum.
Heat sources moved about the trees, all along the base of the hill. Josidiah knew them, and thus was not surprised when the forest erupted suddenly and a host of orcs came screaming out of the underbrush, waving weapons, charging the hill and the lone elf, this apparently easy kill.
The lead orcs were right before the crest of the hillock, close enough for Josidiah to see the glistening lines of drool about their tusky faces, when the elf released his fireball. The gouts of flame engulfed that entire side of the hill, shriveling orcs. It was a desperate spell, one Josidiah hated casting in the midst if grasslands, but few options presented themselves. Even as those orcs on the side of the hill fell away into the flames, charred and dying, they were replaced by a second group, charging wildly, and then came a third, from the back side of the bill.
Out came the elf twin swords, snapping up to the ready. "Cleansing flames!" the elf cried, commanding the powers within his swords. Greenish fires licked at the metal, blurred the distinct lines of the razor-sharp blades.
The closest two orcs, those two who had been right before the elf and had thus escaped the fury if the fireball, skidded in surprise at the sudden appearance of the flaming blades and, for just an instant, let their guards drop.
Too long; Josidiah's left sword slashed across the throat of one. while his right plunged deep into the chest of the second.
The elf spun about, deflecting wide a hurled spear, dodging a second, then picking off a third with a furious down-cut. He dived into a roll and came up charging fast for the back side of the bill, meeting the rush of three monsters, cutting at them wildly before they could get their defenses coordinated.
One fell away, mortally wounded; another lost half of its arm to the searing sweep of the elf's deadly blade. But almost immediately Josidiah was pressed from all sides, orcs stabbing in at him with long spears or rushing forward suddenly to slash with their short, cruel swords.
He could not match weapons with this many, so he moved his flaming blades in purely defensive motions, beginning the chant to let loose another spell.
He took a spear thrust on the side and nearly lost his concentration and his spell. His finely meshed elven chain armor deflected the blow, however, and the elf finished with a twirl, tapping the hilts of his swords together, crying out a word to release the spell. His swords went back up straight, his thumbs came out to touch together, and a burst of flame fanned out from the elf in a half-circle arc.
Without even stopping to witness the effects of his spell, Josidiah spun about, swords slashing across and behind.
Ahead charged the bladesinger, a sudden rush of overwhelming fury that broke apart the orcish line and gave Josidiah several openings in the defensive posture of his enemies .
A surge of adrenalin kept the bladesinger moving, dancing and cutting down orcs with a fury. He thought of the panther again, and her undeserved fate, and focused his blame for that act upon these very orcs.
Another fell dead, another atop that one, and many went scrambling down the hill, wanting no part of this mighty warrior.
Soon Josidiah stood quiet, at the ready, a handful of orcs about him, staying out of his reach. But there was something else, the elf sensed, something more evil, more powerful. Something calmed these orcs, lending them confidence, though more than a score of their kin lay dead and another dozen wounded.
The elf sucked in his breath as the newest foes came out onto the open grass. Josidiah realized then his folly. He could defeat a score of orcs, two-score, if he got his spells away first, but these three were not orcs.
These were giants.
* * *
The cat was restless, pacing and growling; Anders wondered if she knew what was to come, knew that this was her last night as a mortal creature. The thought that she might indeed understand shook the old mage profoundly, made all of Josidiah's arguments against this magical transformation echo again in his mind.
The panther roared, and threw herself against the cage door, bouncing back and pacing, growling.
"What are you about?" the old mage asked, but the cat only roared again, angrily, desperately. Anders looked around; what did the cat know? What was going on? The panther leapt again for the cage door, slamming hard and bouncing away. Anders shook his head, thoroughly confused, for he had never seen the panther like this before -- not at all.
"To the Nine Hells with you, elf," the wizard grumbled, wishing he had not revealed Whiskers to Josidiah until the transformation had been completed. He took a deep breath, yelled at the cat to calm down, and drew out a slender wand.
"It will not hurt," Anders promised apologetically. He spoke a word of command, and a greenish ray shot forth from the wand, striking the panther squarely. The cat stopped her pacing, stopped everything, just stood perfectly still, immobilized by the magic of the wand.
Anders took up the figurine and the specially prepared knife, and opened the cage door. He had known from the very start that this was not going to be easy.
He was at the cat's side, the figurine in hand, the knife moving slowly for the creature's throat.
Anders hesitated. "Am I presuming to play the role of a god?" he asked aloud. He looked into those marvelous, intelligent eyes; he thought of Josidiah, who was indeed much like a ranger, much like Anders had been before devoting his life to ways magical.
Then he looked to the knife, the knife that his hand, his ranger hand, was about to plunge into the neck of this most magnificent creature.
"Oh, damn you, elf!" the mage cried out, and threw the knife across the cage. He began a spell then, one that came to his lips without conscious thought. He hadn't used this incantation in months, and how he recalled it then, Anders would never know. He cast it forth, powerfully, and all the cabinet doors in his shop, and the door to the hallway, and all the doors in the lower section of the tower, sprang open and wide.
The mage moved to the side of the cage and slumped to a sitting position. Already the great cat was stirring -- even the powerful magic of his wand could not hold such a creature as this for long. Anders clutched that wand now, wondering if he might need it again, for his own defense.
The cat shook her head vigorously and took an ambling step, the sensation at last returning to her limbs. She gave Anders a sidelong glance.
The old mage put the wand away. "I played god with you, Whiskers," he said softly. "Now it is your turn." But the panther was preoccupied and hardly gave the wizard a thought as she launched herself from the cage, darting across the room and out into the hallway. She was long gone before Anders ever got to his tower door, and he stood there in the night, lamenting not at all his wasted weeks of effort, his wasted gold.
"Not wasted," Anders said sincerely, considering the lesson he had just learned. He managed a smile and turned to go back into his tower, then saw the burst of flame, a fireball, mushrooming into the air from the top of a hillock to the north, a place that Anders knew well.
"Josidiah," he gasped, a reasonable guess indeed. That hillock was Josidiah's favorite place, a place Anders would expect the elf to go on a night such as this.
Cursing that he had few spells prepared for a confrontation, the old man hustled back into his tower and gathered together a few items.
* * *
His only chance lay in speed, in darting about, never letting his enemies close on him. Even that tactic would only delay the inevitable.
He rushed to the left but had to stop and spin, sensing the pursuit coming from close behind. Backing them off with a sweeping cross of his blades, Josidiah turned and darted left again and, predictably, had to pull up short.
This time, though, the elf not only stopped but backtracked, flipping one sword in his hand and stabbing it out behind him, deep into the belly of the closest pursuing orc.
His grim satisfaction at the deft maneuver couldn't hold, however, for even as the dead creature slid from his blade, even as the other few orcs scrambled away down the side of the hill, Josidiah noted the approach of the three giants, fifteen-foot-tall behemoths calmly swinging spiked clubs the size of the elfs entire body.
Josidiah considered the spells remaining to him, tried to find some way to turn them to his advantage.
Nothing; he would have to fight this battle with swords only. And with three giants moving toward him in coordinated fashion, he did not like the odds.
He skittered right, out of the range of a club swipe, then went straight back, away from a second giant, trying to get at the first attacker before it could bring its heavy weapon to bear once more. He would indeed have had the strike, but the third giant cut him off and forced him into a diving roll to avoid a heavy smash.
"I must get them to work against each other," the elf thought. "To tangle their long limbs with each other."
He put his sword up high and screamed, charging straight for the closest brute, then dipped low, under the parrying club and dived into a forward roll. He came to his feet and ran on, right between the giant's widespread legs.
Up thrust one sword, out to the side slashed the second, and Josidiah ran out from under the giant, meeting the attack of one of its companions with a double-bladed deflection, his swords accepting the hit of the club and turning it, barely, to the side and down.
Josidiah's arms were numbed from the sheer weight of the hit; he could not begin to counterattack. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted the sudden rush of the third giant and knew his daring attack on the first had put him in a precarious position indeed. He scrambled out to the side, threw himself into yet another roll as he saw the club come up high.
But this giant was a smart one, and it held the strike as it closed another long, loping stride. Josidiah rolled right over a second time and a third, but he could not get out of range, not this time.
The giant roared. Up went the club, high and back over its head, and Josidiah started a sidelong scramble, but stopped, startled, as a huge black spear -- a spear? -- flew over him.
No, it was not a spear, the bladesinger realized, but a panther, the old mage's cat! She landed heavily on the giant's chest, claws grabbing a firm hold, maw snapping for the stunned monster's face. Back the behemoth stumbled, overbalanced, and down the giant went, the panther riding it all the way to the ground.
The cat was in too close for any strike, so the giant let go of its club and tried to grab at the thing. The panther's front claws held fast, though, while her back legs began a running rake, tearing through the giant's bearskin tunic and then through the giant's own skin.
Josidiah had no time to stop and ask how, or why, or anything else. He was back on his feet, another giant closing fast. The one he had hit shuffled to join in as well. Out to the side rushed the bladesinger, trying to keep one giant in front of the other, trying to fight them one at a time.
He ducked a lumbering swing, ducked again as the club rushed past from a vicious backhand, then hopped high, tucking his legs as the giant came swiping across a third time, this time predictably low. And getting the club so low meant that the giant was bending near to the ground.
Josidiah landed in a run, charging forward, getting inside the range of the coming backhand, and sticking the monster, once, twice, right in the face.
It howled and fell away, and its companion shuffled in, one hand swinging the club, the other clutching its torn loins.
A sudden blast, a lightning stroke, off to the side of the hill, temporarily blinded both elf and giant, but Josidiah did not need his eyes to fight. He waded right in, striking hard.
* * *
The giant's hand closed on the cat, but the agile panther twisted about suddenly, biting hard, taking off three fingers, and the behemoth fostered no further thoughts of squeezing its foe. It merely shoved hard with its other hand, pushing the cat from its chest. The giant rolled about, grabbing for its club, knowing it must get to its feet before the cat came back in.
No chance of that; the panther hit the ground solidly, all four claws digging a firm hold, every muscle snapping taut to steal, to reverse the cat's momentum. Turf went flying as the panther pivoted and leapt, hitting the rising giant on the head, latching in, biting, and raking.
The behemoth wailed in agony and dropped its club again. It flailed at the cat with both arms and scored several heavy blows. But the panther would not let go, great fangs tearing deep holes in the behemoth's flesh, mighty claws erasing the features from the giant's face.
* * *
Josidiah came up square against his one opponent, the giant bleeding from several wounds, but far from finished.
Its companion moved in beside it, shoulder to shoulder.
Then another form crested the hill, a hunched, human form, and the second giant turned to meet this newest enemy.
"It took you long enough to get here," the elf remarked sarcastically.
"Orcs in the woods," Anders explained. "Pesky little rats." The human had no apparent defenses in place, and so the giant waded right in, taking up its club in both hands.
Anders paid it little heed, beginning a chant for another spell.
The club swished across, and Josidiah nearly cried out, thinking Anders was about to be batted a mile from the hilltop.
The giant might as well have hit the side of a stone mountain. The club slammed hard against Anders's shoulder and simply bounced off. Anders didn't even blink, never stopped his chanting.
"Oh, I do love that spell," the old mage remarked between syllables of his present casting.
"Stoneskin," Josidiah said dryly. "Do teach it to me." "And this one, too," Anders added, laughing. He finished his present casting, throwing his arms down toward the ground at the giant's feet. Immediately, earth began flying wildly, as though a dozen giants with huge spades were digging furiously at the spot. When it ended, the giant was standing in a hole, its eyes even with those of the wizard.
"That's more fair," Anders remarked.
The giant howled and moved to raise its club, but found the hole too constricting for it to properly get the weapon up high. The wizard began yet another chant, holding his hand out toward the monster, pointing one finger right between the giant's eyes and bending the digit to show the giant a bejeweled ring.
With its weapon tangled in the tight quarters of the hole, the monster improvised, snapping its head forward and biting hard the wizard's extended hand.
Again, Anders hardly finished, and the giant groaned loudly, one tooth shattered by the impact.
Anders thrust his hand forward, putting the ring barely an inch from the monster's open mouth and loosing the magic of his ring. Balls of lightning popped forth, into the open mouth, lighting up the behemoth's head.
"Ta da!" said the old mage, bending his legs, more of a curtsy than a bow, and throwing his arms out wide, palms up, as the giant slumped down into the hole.
"And the grave is already dug," Anders boasted.
The second giant had seen enough, and started for the side of the hill, but Josidiah would not let it get away so easily. The bladesinger sprinted right behind, sheathing one sword. He let the giant get far enough down the hillside so that when he leapt for it, he came in even with the monster's bulbous nose. He held fast and brought his swordarm in hard around the other side, slashing deep into the monster's throat. The giant tried to reach up and grab the elf, but suddenly it was gasping, stumbling, skidding to its knees, and sliding down the hill.
Josidiah's sword arm pumped furiously, widening the wound, tearing at the brute's arteries and windpipe. He pushed away as the giant tumbled facedown, coming to a standing position atop the monster's back. It was still alive, still gasping, but the wound was mortal, Josidiah knew. And so he turned back for the hilltop.
Anders's self-congratulatory smile was short-lived, dissipating as soon as the mage looked to the battered panther. The cat had done her work well -- the giant lay dead on the ground -- but she had been battered in the process and lay awkwardly, breath coming in forced gasps, backbone obviously shattered.
Anders ran to the panther's side; Josidiah joined him there a moment later.
"Do something!" the elf pleaded.
"There is nothing I can do," Anders protested.
"Send the cat back into the figurine," Josidiah said.
"She should be whole again when she returns." Anders turned on the elf, grabbed him by the front of his tunic. "I have not completed the spell," he cried, and only then did it hit the mage. What had brought the panther out here? Why would a panther, a wild panther, run to the aid of an elf? "I never got close to finishing," the mage said more calmly, letting go of the elf, "I just let her go."
Josidiah turned his wide-eyed stare from Anders to the panther. The questions were obvious then; neither the elf nor the mage bothered to speak them aloud.
"We must get her back to my tower," Anders said.
Josidiah's expression remained incredulous. How were they to carry six hundred pounds of limp cat all the way back to the tower? But Anders had an answer for that. He took out a swatch of black velvet and unfolded it several times, until he had a patch of blackness several feet in diameter on the hilltop. Then the mage lifted one side of the cloth and gently eased it against the rear of the panther.
Josidiah blinked, realizing that the cat's tail had disappeared into the cloth! "Lift her as I pass this over her," Anders begged.
Josidiah did just that, lifting the cat inch by inch as the mage moved the cloth along. The panther was swallowed up by the blackness.
"Extradimensional hole," the mage explained, slipping it forward to engulf the cat's head. Then he laid the cloth flat once more and carefully folded it back to a size that would fit in his pocket. "She is quite fine," he said. "Well, except for the giant's wounds." "Wondrous toys, wizard," Josidiah congratulated.
"Spoils of adventuring," Anders replied with a wink. "You should get out more."
The mirth could not hold as the pair ran off, back for Beltgarden Home. What might they do there but make the dying cat comfortable, after all? Anders did just that, opening his portable hole and gently easing the panther part of the way out of it. He stopped short, though, and Josidiah winced, understanding that the cat was drawing her last breaths.
"Perhaps I can finish the figurine enchantment," Anders reasoned. He looked sympathetically to Josidiah. "Be gone," he said, "for I must slay the cat quickly, mercifully." Josidiah shook his head, determined to bear witness to the transformation, to the mortal end of this most wondrous cat, to this intelligent panther that had come, unbidden, to his rescue. How might the elf explain the bond that had grown between him and the cat? Had Anders's magical preparation imparted a sense of loyalty to the panther, given her the beginnings of that mindless slavery she would have known as a magical tool? Josidiah looked once more into the cat's eyes and knew that was not the case. Something else had happened here, something of a higher order, though perhaps in part facilitated by the magic of Anders's preparation.
Anders moved quickly to retrieve the figurine and placed it beside the dying panther. "You will take the figurine," he said to Josidiah.
"I cannot," the bladesinger replied, for he could not bear to see the panther in the subsequent lessened form, could not bear to take the cat as his slave.
Anders did not argue -- there was no time for that. He poured some enchanted oil over the cat's head, weaving his magic, and placed his hand over the panther's eyes.
"I name you Whiskers," he began, putting his dagger against the animal's throat.
"No!" Josidiah shouted, rushing beside the mage, grabbing the man's hand and pulling the dagger away, "Not Whiskers, never that!" Josidiah looked to the cat, into the marvelous yellowgreen eyes, shining intently still, though the moment of death was upon her. He studied the animal, the beautiful, silent friend. "Shadow," he declared.
"No, not shadow," said Josidiah, and he held back the dagger once more. "The high elvish word for shadow." He looked right into the cat's eyes, searching for some confirmation. He had not chosen this name, he suddenly understood; this had been the panther's name all along.
"Gwenhwyvar." As soon as he uttered the name, there came a black flash, like the negative image of one of Anders's lightning bolts. Gray mist filled the room; the cloth swatch contracted and disappeared altogether, and then the panther, too, was gone, dissipating into nothingness.
Anders and Josidiah fell back, sitting side by side. It seemed for a moment that there was a profound line of emptiness in the room, a rift in the universe, as though the fabric of the planes of existence had been torn asunder. But then it was gone, everything -- panther, hole, and rift, and all that remained was the figurine.
"What did you do?" Josidiah asked the mage.
"I?" balked Anders. "What did you do?" Josidiah moved cautiously to retrieve the figurine, with it in hand, he looked back to Anders, who nodded slowly in agreement.
"Gwenhwyvar," the elf called nervously.
A moment later, the area beside the elf filled with the gray mist, swirling and gradually taking the shape of the panther. She was breathing more easily, as though her wounds were fast on the mend. She looked up at Josidiah, and the elfs breath fell away, lost in the intensity, the intelligence, of that gaze.
This was no slave, no magical tool; this was the panther, the same wondrous panther! "How did you do this?" the elf asked.
"I know not," Anders replied. "And I do not even know what I, what we, have done, with the figurine. It is the statuette that transforms into the living beast, and yet, the cat is here, and so is the statuette!" The old mage chuckled, locking gazes with the elf. "Send her away to heal," he bade.
Josidiah looked to the cat. "Go, Gwenhwyvar, but I shall summon you forth again, I promise."
The panther growled, but it was not an angry sound, and she began a slow, limping pace, melting away into gray mist.
"That is the joy of magic," Anders said. "The mystery of it all. Why, even the greatest wizards could not explain this, I should guess. Perhaps all of my preparation, perhaps the magic of the hole -- ah, yes, my dear, lost hole! -- perhaps the combination of all these things.
"The joy of the mysteries," he finished. "Very well, then, give it to me." And he held out his hand for the figurine, but Josidiah clutched it all the tighter.
"Never," the elf said with a smile, and Anders smiled, as well.
"Indeed," said the mage, hardly surprised. "But you will pay for my lost hole, and for my time and effort."
"Gladly!" said the elf, and he knew, holding that statuette, holding the key to the wondrous black panther, to Gwenhwyvar, whom Josidiah realized would be his most loyal companion and friend for all the rest of his days, that it would be the most worthwhile gold he ever spent.