Chapter Seventeen




            The gigantic golden warrior never even glanced back at them; it moved off down the hallway, leaving Brianna and Gwydion to trail in its wake.

            The hall was wide, and so tall that even the towering giant that led them barely came to the halfway point on the wall.  The floor was pitch black and glossy-smooth, inlaid with golden designs that formed strange shapes and arcane symbols.  Large, glowing braziers lined the way, evenly spaced and low to the floor, so that the reddish orange light they shed radiated upwards, casting everything in an eerie light.  Gwydion wasn’t certain, but it felt like there was a faint vibration in the floor itself, as if it pulsed with hidden power.  He exchanged a glance with Brianna, who looked uncertain, then hastened to follow the giant warrior.

            Between the glowing braziers on either side of the hall was spaced a small tree.  Each of the trees was of a different variety, some thick with twisting branches, others straight and tall with nearly none; some leafed or lined with pine needles, others bare.  As they went Gwydion began to notice a pattern in their placing: every other one was dead, wilted and surrounded by dried up leaves.  The live trees, in stark contrast, were immaculately cared for.

            The giant’s pace was deliberate and even, its back ramrod straight.  It moved deceptively slowly, but its stride was so long that Gwydion and Brianna had to hurry to keep up.

            The hall slightly curved to the right, but seemed too long in distance to be able to fit inside the building.  As they walked, Gwydion was mentally trying to figure the geometry, wondering whether it was only an architectural effect or whether it was truly possible the building was larger on the inside than the outside.

            Then, almost without warning, the hall turned to the left, opening into a spacious room.  The golden giant halted at the entrance, facing sideways so they could pass.  Once it had stopped it did not move, only staring straight ahead.

            The chamber within was oval in shape, and the walls were not straight, but curved into a great dome overhead, the center of which was open to the sky.  To Gwydion’s astonishment it was not the far-away lights of Sigil that shined there, but a great white disc not unlike the moon of his home world, surrounded by twinkling stars.

            There was a still fountain of water in the center of the room, directly beneath the wide skylight above.  The silvery moonlight splashed down into its emerald depths, refracting and reflecting from it to paint the room in bizarre undulating waves.

            Spaced randomly about the room were stone columns of varying widths and heights, some only rising a few feet from the floor, others nearly brushing the ceiling, but none supporting anything but open air.

            Directly across from where they stood was a set of marble steps leading up to a small raised dais.  In front of and overlaying the steps was some sort of huge animal pelt, thick and soft, with the coloring of one of the giraffes of Gwydion’s homeworld, but with a different pattern.  And atop the dais, on a marble throne, sat a man in white robes.

            No, not a man, Gwydion revised.  A being, male in nature.

            His form was human-like, at first glance.  But even though he was seated and across the room, Gwydion could tell he was much taller than a regular man.  He was well muscled but very slender, and his skin had a silvery, metallic texture to it.  His head was attractive, but elongated, and there was a bony, ridge-like structure protruding slightly above his forehead.  His hair was white and straight, and he wore it long.  And his eyes where white, like an albino’s, and gave off a pearly glow.

            He sat with one finger propped thoughtfully along his chin, regarding them in expressionless silence.  “Approach,” he said at last.

            His voice was sonorous, but not hollow; piercing, but not loud.  It was pitched low, and yet Gwydion felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up at the sound.  The vibration of the man’s tone seemed to echo through the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and come from every point in the room at once.

            Brianna licked her lips, plainly ill at ease, and glanced uncertainly at Gwydion.

            Gwydion stepped fully into the room, then halted.  The robed man was directly opposite, and the pool lay between, with no obvious way around.

            The robed man lifted a hand in a small gesture, palm up, and abruptly there was the sound of rushing water.  A long stone that was laid directly across the bottom of the pool rose upwards, water cascading across its surface.  It rose to the level of the water and halted, forming a narrow walkway directly across.

            “Approach,” the man repeated.

            Gwydion stepped forward boldly onto the walkway, discovering that it was not slippery in spite of its wetness.

            The robed man waited until Gwydion stepped onto the giraffe-colored animal pelt at the base of the steps.  “Who are you, to enter my house and beg my aid?”

            Gwydion took a breath.  “I am Gwydion-“

            “You are Gwydion Talievar,” the robed man said, cutting him off, “and your companion is Brianna of Tarth.  What is your quest?”

            Gwydion glanced at Brianna, nonplussed.  She shrugged.

“I… we seek-“

            Again the robed man cut him off.  “You seek the Icon, and have been sent to retrieve it.  But to obtain it, you need the Bracelet of Amithor, which leads you to me.”

            “You know my purpose, then?”

            “I see many things,” the robed man said, “and intervene in all.”

            Gwydion was a little confused.  If the robed man had known, why had he asked?  He spoke boldly:  “Then, if you know what we seek, what is your answer?  Will you aid us?”

            The robed man did not immediately answer.  He sat, still as stone, and the silence stretched.  “I do not see a reason to act on your behalf.”

            Brianna spoke for the first time.  “I thought you said you intervened in all things,” she pointed out.  “How then is it that you will not act?”  She spoke from Gwydion’s shoulder, and he nearly started at the sound of her voice.  He had realized she had followed him across the bridge.

            “The Keeper of Time intervenes in all matters, whether he acts or withholds action.  In my days, I have treated with powers, slain mortals, tricked demon princes, and scorned the very gods themselves.  Yet more important were the many occasions when I took no action, and did nothing.  There are consequences to all choices.”  He turned his unblinking gaze on Gwydion. “You have powerful enemies in your quest, paladin.  Why then should I make common cause with you?  Why then should I surrender the Bracelet?”

            “You said that you had scorned the very gods themselves,” countered Gwydion. “Are my enemies more powerful still, that you should fear them so?”

            “I fear no one,” the robed man replied, “neither proxy nor power, nor even the Lady herself.”  He gestured towards the golden giant who still stood motionless behind them.  “I am secure in this place, surrounded by my pets and my baubles.   I have made enemies, many of them.  Yet I am not so foolish as to court new ones without cause.”

            Gwydion took another step forward, onto the edge of the animal pelt.  “We aren’t asking for charity.”  He lifted the backpack.  “We have coin and valuables.  Perhaps we may come to some agreement.”

            “The Keeper of Time has no need for gold,” the robed man answered.  “What then will you barter with?”

            “We have other valuables.”

            The robed man nodded.  “And so you do.”  He gestured at the rug.  “Lay out your wares, then, and we will see.”


                                                            *          *          *


            Tap circled the Collection slowly, pausing every few feet to make a closer examination of the wall  It was always the same:  pink marble shot through with veins of blue, glassy smooth, and rounded with the curve of the building.  There was no purchase for handholds, no breaks or crevices that could be used for climbing.  Worse, there were no openings in the building to climb to.

            The slender tower which stretched upwards above the building was lined with clocks of every variety, but down here at the base the walls were completely bare.

            He was about halfway around when he spotted a possible entrance.

            The main base of the building was smooth and featureless, and nearly twenty feet high.  But he noticed an opening on the lowest part of the tower, where it adjoined the roof of the base.

            The tower was set too far back from the edge of the base’s roof for Tap to see much of it from this angle, but it looked like it might be the top sill of a window or door.

            Tap scanned the surroundings.  How to scale a twenty foot tall building with no purchase?

            The little alleyway which ran behind the Collection was hardly ten feet wide, really more just a gap between buildings than a true street.  The building that rose directly behind the Collection was a monstrous square structure, made of brick layered on wooden workframes.  It was at least twelve stories high, but the upper levels were all unfinished; skeletal wooden framework criss-crossed by half-finished floors which stood starkly open to the gray dawn sky.

            The brickwork went up to the third floor and ended abruptly, leaving that level and all above it with no walls.  It was slightly higher than the top of the base of the Collection.

            Tap eyed it critically, measuring the space between the two buildings, then nodded to himself.  He could leap the distance.

            He picked a rugged patch of brickwork and hooked his fingers into the rough crevices between bricks.  Quickly he scrambled upwards.

            It was slower going than he expected, for although the building was still under construction the building materials were weathered and old, and the mortar and brickwork had been worn down by the relentless acid rains of the city.  In many places it was soft, and gave way beneath Tap’s fingers, crumbling to dust or breaking off of the wall.

            But Tap had scaled many a wall in his day, and more daunting than this.  He was forced to go slowly, but steadily he advanced upwards, here having to skirt right, there having to back down a few feet and find another way, but on the balance making good progress.

The last few feet were the most difficult.  The wall here was smoother, and there were less fingerholds.  The brickwork here was a different quality than that below; it seemed stiff and strong, but more than once great sections gave way and broke off entirely from the main wall, threatening to send him plummeting to the ground far below, and Tap was uncertain which parts would hold his weight.  Carefully he inched his way upwards, gradually nearing the opening to the third floor area.

            He had just got the fingers of his left hand over the edge when the brickwork he was holding with his right broke off, crumbling away to powder and leaving him dangling by one hand.

            He gave a small cry of dismay, swinging wildly, and scrabbling desperately with his free hand to find some handhold.  But his questing fingers found only smooth surfaces; there was no purchase.  Worse, his hold on the edge above him was slipping, the sandy bits of loose brick sliding beneath his fingers.

            He cried out again, and suddenly his hold slipped.


            A rough, calloused hand snatched him by the wrist as he fell out into open space.  It tightened painfully, causing Tap to cry out again, and suddenly he was hauled upwards and into the opening.

            A man held him, one of the largest men Tap had ever seen.  He stood at least seven feet in height, well-muscled, with a lumpy bald head.   “Well, what have we here, then?” he asked, peering at Tap, who he held effortlessly.  One of his eyes was dead white, as if blind, and he cocked his head to the side, as if to get a better look at the boy with his good eye.

            “Looks like you caught a little fish, Graf,” remarked a second man, sauntering up.  “So that’s where the noise was coming from, eh?  What, was he coming up the side of the building?”  This second man was much smaller than the first, shorter than average for a human, with a perpetual grimace and a wide gap in his upper teeth.  Like the first, he was wearing a reddish set of worn leather armor, old but kept in good shape, and although there were no emblems or insignia blazoned on the breast or shoulder it had the look of a uniform.  Unlike the first, he had a silver amulet formed in the shape of a hammer dangling from his throat.  He fingered it idly as he came.

            “True enough, he was,” said the big man.  “What is it anyway?  An oversized kender?”

            The newcomer eyed him.  “Mayhap.  Though it looks like some orphaned brat to me.”

            “What should we do?  Toss it back over the side?”

            The gap-toothed man gave his larger companion a stern look.  “Pike that, Graf.  You’re one of us now, spoken the vows and all.  We don’t take the easy way, not ever.  We do things the right way, and that’s the Harmonium way.  We’ll ask Elaurie; he’ll know what to do and he’s in charge anyhow.  Likely the little knight-o-the-post’ll be taken in for questioning.”

            Harmonium.  Tap’s heart sunk at the word.  Hardheads, he thought.  It might have been a kinder fate if they had tossed him back over the side.  Of all the factions that ran Sigil, this was the one Tap liked least.  He’d heard dark stories of what happened to people brought in for questioning, people who were never heard from again.

            He was still dangling in midair.  “Put me down,” he said, trying to sound commanding.  “Put me down at once.”

            The big man peered at him again.  “It talks,” he observed, making no move to obey.

            “So what?  Ignore it.”  The gap-toothed man had turned away.  “Sir!” he shouted towards the darker recesses of the building’s interior.  “Up here, sir!  Found us something, we did!”

            “Put me down,” insisted Tap again.

            The big man reared back with his other hand and struck Tap a casual blow with the flat of his hand.

            It was a light blow – hardly more than a slap - but the man was obviously terrifically strong, and it left Tap’s ears ringing.  He saw stars for a moment, then gradually everything came back into focus.

            Three more men had come forward out of the dark recesses of the building.  All were armored in the same boiled-leather uniforms that the first two men wore, but it was the leader who caught Tap’s attention.  A tall, older man, with a receding hairline and white hair, he wore a severe expression and walked stiffly.  The two other men stood behind him to either side, and it was plain he was the leader.

            “What’s this, then?” he asked, peering at Tap suspiciously.  “A child?”

            “Found him climbing up the wall, sir,” said the gap-toothed man.  “Leastways, Graf did.”

            “Hmm, and I wonder what business an honest person would have with an abandoned building.”

            Tap realized this was his chance.  If he didn’t come up with a plausible story, he’d be hauled off for questioning.  “I was only trying-“ he started, but the big man slapped him again.

            “Silence, little toad,” said the gap-toothed man.  “When Elaurie speaks, you listen.”

            “No doubt it would only be a pack of lies the little urchin would spew anyway,” said the older man, “and I am a trusting man, easily led astray.”  He looked thoughtful for a moment.  “We have done enough here for today,” he said at last.  “Bring the little creature, Graf.  Harmonium questioners will have the truth out of him, or I’ll know the reason why.”

            “Bring him along?” asked the big man.  “What, carry him, you mean?”

            “You have a sack,” the leader said.  “Put the little creature in it, and we’ll haul him off to justice.”


                                                            *          *          *


            The robed man was silent a long moment.  He was sitting slightly forward on his thone, gazing down at the latest item Gwydion had pulled from his backpack.  It was a golden thing that looked something like a teapot, though Gwydion wasn’t certain exactly what it was.  It was worked to look like a fat swan and inlaid with small sparkling jewels and elegant writing of a form he didn’t recognize.

            “No,” said the Keeper of Time at last.  “It holds no appeal for me.  Next.”

            Gwydion sighed in frustration, then held up the backpack.  “There is no next.  That is all we have.”  He gestured at the line of valuables and trinkets they had laid out on the thick carpet.  “You have rejected each in turn.  Is there nothing we have that you will barter for?  I would offer them all together for the Bracelet.  Is it too small a treasure?  We only need the Bracelet for a time – we will return it when finished.”

            “The Bracelet is prized by me.  These trinkets are not.  But perhaps you have something else which may interest me.  Next.”

            Gwydion shook his head.  “I’ve already told you – there is nothing else.  It’s this or nothing.”

            The robed man quirked an eyebrow.  “You have nothing else?  Nothing that you prize?  Nothing that you revere?”

            Gwydion glanced over at Brianna.  She appeared as lost as he.  “No…” he answered at last.  “These are all the items we possess.”

            “I have noted you bear a weapon, paladin.  It seems of fine make.”

            There was a beat of silence.

            Gwydion stepped a pace backwards.  “My weapon?” he asked, glancing back to where the hilt of tylith-senshai rode above his shoulder.

            The Keeper gave a slow nod.  “Your sword.  It is an item that interests me.  Perhaps I would be inclined to barter the Bracelet if you were to place it on the carpet.”

            Gwydion shook his head.  “Absolutely not.  It is not…  It was entrusted to me, and I will not part with it.  It is not even mine to-”

            “It is necessary for our quest,” Brianna broke in suddenly.  “Perhaps more necessary than your Bracelet.  But maybe we might make some bargain-“

            “Silence, tiefling,” said the robed man.  “This does not concern you.  If the paladin will not part with his sword, we will make no bargain.  The Bracelet is mine, and I will not release it without price.”

            Brianna glanced at Gwydion.  “Perhaps the paladin can be persuaded to part with the sword, after its use to his quest has ended.”

            Gwydion’s eyes narrowed.  “What do you mean?” he asked, suspicious.

            She turned back to the Keeper.  “If so, then you would take possession after the quest was completed.  Not only of his sword, but also of the Bracelet.  You would increase your Collection.”

            “What are you saying?” asked Gwydion, surprised and feeling a little betrayed.  “I will not part with tylith-senshai.  Surely you know that.”

            “Nor need you,” she answered, giving him a knowing look and lowering her voice.  “I am talking about your sword.  The one you spoke of using in the wars of you homeworld.  The rilmani asked for your sword.  Surely that is yours to promise.   He asked for it, and I think you should give it to him.”

            Understanding hit him.  She wanted him to make a false bargain.  The robed man had asked for his sword.  Tylith-senshai was not his, but he could promise his own sword – the one he had left with the Prophet on his homeworld - in its stead.  It was a word trick.

            The Keeper paid strict attention to this interchange.  He was silent for a moment, considering.  “An interesting proposal.  Here we have a paladin, who is bound to act on his oath, should he give it.  Will he give it, I wonder?  I would require an oath, that when his quest is completed not only would he return the Bracelet of Amithor but also he would relinquish his sword to me, to be placed in my Collection.”

            Gwydion was still considering.  It would be easy enough to give his word, especially if the oath was worded the way the rilmani had spoken it.  It was not even strictly a lie.  Gwydion would only be surrendering his own sword, and the holy artifact would never be in jeopardy.  And certainly this creature, this rilmani, was owed nothing.  The rilmani had already stated that aiding them would serve his own interests, and yet he still refused to even loan them the use of the Bracelet.

            It would be easy to justify offering a false oath, under these circumstances.

            Yet it was still a deception.  A lie, at its heart.

            Reluctantly Gwydion shook his head.  “No,” he said at last.  “I will enter no such bargain.  For it is a deception.  This,” – he touched tylith-senshai’s hilt – “is not mine to give.  Nor is it my sword, which is plainer by far than this, and an ordinary weapon.  Were I to promise my sword – which you certainly could have, if you desire it – it would not be this weapon.”

            There was a beat of silence.  Brianna shot him an exasperated look.

            “So,” the robed man said at last.  “You would not deceive me, even to serve your own purposes.”

            “A lie could never serve any good purpose,” said Gwydion.

            The robed man gave a half shrug.  “That is one point of view, certainly, though I do not share it.”

            Gwydion sighed.  “Look, we need that Bracelet.  If you won’t trade for it, perhaps there is some service we might render…”

            The robed man shook his head.  “You will swear an oath, paladin.  The selfsame oath you refused a moment ago.  And in return I will offer you the opportunity to take the Bracelet.”

            Gwydion was confused.  “What oath?  I told you, I will not give you tylith-senshai.  It is not mine to give.”

            “Not your artifact, paladin.  Your sword, which is what I asked for from the beginning.”

            “My… my sword?” Gwydion asked, fully off balance now.  “But…  I told you, my sword is an ordinary weapon, well-crafted certainly… but no item of power for your Collection.”

            “We shall see,” said the robed man.  “The Keeper of Time acts in his own interest.  You shall surrender your sword to me after your quest is fulfilled, or there is no bargain between us.”

            “But…” Gwydion shook his head again.  “Even this I cannot promise.  My sword is on my homeworld, and I have no knowledge of how to return, even should I survive my quest.”

            “This is known to me as well, and it is of little consequence.  I know your homeworld, and could journey there now, should I desire to.”

            Gwydion was still confused.  “Then why not go, if my sword is so important to you?  Why wait until my quest is fulfilled?”

            “Do not question my methods, mortal.  The Keeper of Time asks no counsel from you.  Enough of these foolish questions.  Will you swear?”

            Gwydion was silent a moment, still puzzled.  Brianna elbowed him.

            “I swear,” he said at last, “to surrender my sword to you upon completing my quest, should I ever be able to return to my homeworld.   This I swear to do, before God, if you fulfill your part of the bargain and allow us to leave with the Bracelet of Amithor.”

            For the first time the slightest hint of a smile played at the edges of the robed man’s silvery lips.  “Very well, then.  Our bargain is sealed with a paladin’s oath.”  He gestured again, holding out his right hand and forming the fingers into an arcane sign.  “The Bracelet of Amithor.”

            A low pitched grating rumble sounded, as of heavy stone moving, and as Gwydion watched, half in disbelief, the rear wall behind the rilmani’s right shoulder began to move.

            A seam opened up in the smooth surface of the wall, then widened.  As the opening got larger, the distinct sound of rushing water grew louder.  Beyond, a dark room lit only by torches ensconced in the upper walls loomed.

            After a moment the rumbling stopped, and the opening had grown to several spans in width and height.  The sound of the rushing water had not ceased; it had grown in volume, and now Gwydion could see why.

            The chamber beyond was like nothing he had ever seen before.  Even dim and uncertain as the torchlight was, he could make out certain details. There was no ceiling that he could see, just an immense chimney of rough rock, glistening with moisture.  There was a twenty-foot curved ‘wall’ that was really a raised platform.  From it cascaded a constant wall of water, sheeting down with force onto the ‘floor’, which was actually a pool of water that was dead level with the surface of the floor of the room he was standing in.  There was no way to see anything in those inky depths.  Where the water came from and where it went was an utter mystery – it appeared to come racing out of the surrounding rock walls as if by magic.

            The torches were placed high on the chimney walls, well above the level of the rushing and foaming waters below, except for a pair that stood raised on tripods on either side of a dais atop the raised platform.  The dais was about four feet high, and made of some smooth black stone.  It was impossible to see what rested upon it from this angle.

            “What is this?” asked Gwydion in surprise.

            “The Bracelet is on the dais,” said the Keeper.  “If you can claim it, it is yours.”

            “You want me to go in there and… and climb up the waterfall to get it?” he asked.

            “That is the general idea,” the rilmani answered.

            “That was never our agreement!” protested Brianna.  “You said you’d give us the Bracelet if the paladin gave you his oath.  Well he did, so give us the Bracelet.”

            The Keeper shook his head.  “I promised him the opportunity to take it, which is not the same thing.  There it is; if he can take it, it is his.”

            Gwydion stepped towards the opening.  The water from the chamber beyond lapped at the edge that separated the floor he stood on from the room beyond.

            The waterfall was not an unbroken sheet.  There were four or five places he could see where the rock of the raised platform was completely exposed, and it looked rough and knobby, easy enough to climb.

            “I can get it,” he said thoughtfully.

            Brianna had come up beside him.  “Can you swim, cutter?” she asked, speaking loudly to be heard over the rushing waters.

            Gwydion glanced at her.  “Not to worry; I’m a strong swimmer.  It isn’t that long a distance anyway, maybe thirty yards at the most.”

            She shook her head.  “I feel danger here.  There is more to this than the rilmani has told us.”

            Gwydion looked back at him.  The robed man still sat in his throne, watching impassively.  “No doubt.  But sooner done is sooner done, and we have not gone this far to give up now.”

            He handed her the backpack, then stripped off his cloak.  He followed by unlacing his boots and then pulled off his shirt.  He had necessarily unstrapped tylith-senshai from his back when he did this, but when he had turned to hand his shirt to Brianna she thrust the greatsword back at him.

            “Take it with you.  It may hamper your climbing a bit but… I don’t trust the rilmani.”

            Gwydion nodded, and then strapped the sword back on, slinging it over his bare chest.  He stepped out into the pool of water in a half jump.

            He plunged in to the depth of his mid-torso.  The bottom was rough and uneven on his bare feet.  “It isn’t too deep,” he said, shivering at the coolness of the water, “at least not here, anyway.”

            He waded forward a few feet, discovering at once that the bottom dropped sharply towards the center of the pool to unknown depths but that at the sides it remained about the same shallowness.  Deciding to keep to the edges rather than cut straight across, he headed to the right.

            He had just reached the nearest edge of the waterfall when he halted suddenly, peering down at the water surrounding him in sudden alarm.

            “What’s wrong?” shouted Brianna.

            Gwydion shook his head, not looking up at her.  He reached back for tylith-senshai.  “I thought I felt something brush by my leg.  It could have just been a current, but- Tyr’s mercy!

            Without warning he was yanked toward the center of the pool in a sudden violent splash by some unseen power beneath the surface.  He cried out, thrashing, and an instant later he had been sucked under, vanishing into the inky depths.


                                                            *          *          *


                        The big man still held Tap, but awkwardly.  He reached behind with his free hand, trying to get at something wedged into the back of his belt.  He struggled with it for a moment, trying to keep his hold on the boy at the same time, and Tap went limp, watching.

            With a grunt he managed to dislodge whatever he was seeking.  He pulled out a thick, rolled up cloth made of some rough material, then attempted to shake it open, one-handed.

            Tap had been waiting, watching for a moment when the big man’s attention would not be completely focused on him.  Now was the time; the man’s face was screwed up in irritated concentration as he tried to shake open the cloth.

            Tap suddenly writhed, pulling hard against the man’s grip, wrenching painfully away.  At the same moment he kicked for all he was worth, and connected solidly to the big man’s left shin.

            For an instant he didn’t think he could shake the man’s iron grip, distracted or not, but then, with a painful twist that felt like it took the skin off his wrist, he was suddenly free, and dropped sprawling to the ground.

            “Ouch!” said the big man.  “Little weasel’s loose!”

            Tap had landed unceremoniously on his bottom but was up on his feet and sprinting before the other hardheads had even looked back.  He skipped by the older man and the two younger hardheads, and was making for the darker recesses of the building when a fist closed on the back of his shirt, and he was yanked off his feet and into the air.

            The same person that had grabbed him slammed him down onto the unforgiving floor and he felt all the wind knocked out of him as he struck.  He stars for a moment, and then gradually his vision swam back into focus.

            The gap-toothed man was above him, his ragged breathing sour in Tap’s face.  “Got you, you little…  Make me run, will you?  We’ll see about that.”

            And with that, he stood and yanked, still having his hold on the back of Tap’s shirt, pulling him back towards the other hardheads.

            The collar of Tap’s shirt bit down hard into his neck, and for a moment he thought he was going to choke as he was hauled backwards across the rough brick floor.  He recovered himself enough to twist around and stumble to a half-kneeling/half-standing position, trying to keep pace with the gap-toothed man, who pulled him along faster than he could keep up.  Once he had managed this, he concentrated on breathing.

            “C’mon, you little piker,” said the gap-toothed man, casually smacking him on the back of the head with his other hand.  “Pick your feet up.  Cagers in this part of the city pay good tax coin not to be bothered by your sort.”

            The other hardheads were only a few feet away.  The older man looked bored, and irritated.  The big man looked confused about whether he should be coming forward to help or whether it was better to hang back and not draw attention to himself and the fact that he had lost his hold on the boy.

            The older man gave him an disgusted look.  “Well, what are you waiting for, dullard?  Must Coffard do all your work for you?”

The big man strode forward, shaking out the cloth he was holding.  Tap saw it was a burlap sack, of fairly sturdy make.

            One meaty hand closed on the front of Tap’s shirt, and the big man hauled him forward, taking possession.  “I got him, Coffard.”  He gave Tap a shake, as if to demonstrate.

            The gap-toothed man laughed.  “You got him now, you mean.  Put him in the bag and have done.”

The big man’s ears reddened.

“Perhaps this time you’ll manage to keep hold of him,” said the older man in disapproving tones, “and not let yourself be bested by some whore’s whelp.”

            The big man looked abashed.  “Uh, sorry sir.”

But the older man had already turned away.  “Damn fool namers.  More trouble than they’re worth.”

The big man’s face reddened with anger and embarrassment as the other hardheads followed.  For good measure he gave Tap an extra shake.  “Slippery little thing, ain’t you?” he said.  “Well, into the sack you go, and we’ll see who makes Graf play the fool now.”

            He shoved Tap face first into the rough burlap sack, and Tap felt a dizzy lurch as he was lifted free of the ground in it.  It was scratchy and hot, and smelled like it had recently held something dead, and worst of all once he had slid to the bottom it was difficult to move and shift.  His left arm was pinned against his body and he couldn’t reach the hilt of his dagger, which he was now thanking all the gods he knew the hardheads hadn’t taken from him.

            “Quit squirming,” cautioned the big man, and as if to emphasize his point swung his burden into the nearest stone wall.

            Tap cried out again at the sudden unexpected blow, his shoulder now on fire with pain.  But the blow had managed to shift him slightly, and now he had hold of the hilt of his dagger.

            The big man, for his part, watched the sack carefully for a moment after having swung it into the wall.  The squirming had ceased.  Idly, he wondered whether he might have killed the boy or not, decided he didn’t really care, and swung the sack over his shoulder.

            There was a ripping sound, and the weight of the sack vanished abruptly, causing the big man to stumble.

            Tap had sliced through the bottom of the bag at the moment the big man’s swing reached its peak, and flew out of the bag under the momentum.  He hit the ground in a roll, came to his feet, and ran.  Only ten feet ahead was the edge of the opening to the level he stood on.  And beyond that, the jump to the Keeper of Time’s tower.

            The big man whirled.  “Hey!”


                                                            *          *          *


            Gwydion’s lungs were burning.  The creature had taken him unawares, he had not had time to take more than a breath before he was pulled beneath the water.  And as he fought, he was acutely aware that each moment he spent writhing and fighting mindlessly used up a little more air.

            Calm, he thought desperately, must keep calm!

            He was immersed in a murky underworld of darkness and eerie shifting light.  Above, the surface loomed, only a few tantalizing feet away but receding further as the creature yanked him ever downwards.  The only light came from up there, the uncertain flickering of torches skewed by the rippling surface.

            Gwydion couldn’t see much of the creature that held him.  In the uncertain light it was only a dark, unnatural shape with several long arms (?) that slashed through the water.  One of them had a hold on his leg, a long jointed, hard thing that felt vaguely like metal but was ridged with prickly things that dug into his skin.  There was a claw of the same substance latched onto his calf, and the pain of its grip was biting.  Already Gwydion could see there was blood leaking from where the claw had cut into his flesh.

            He reached back for tylith-senshai, found its hilt, and pulled it free of the scabbard.

            But at the same moment the creature yanked him violently upward through the turbulent water, up nearly to the surface, and sudden force of the motion caught him off guard.  The rushing water tore the sword from his grasp, and it plunged down into the darkness of the depths.  He reached desperately for it as it fell, but it was gone, and his fingers closed on nothing.

            The surface was inches away when the creature suddenly reversed its motion, and in an instant Gwydion was hurled down to the inky depths again.

            With a thud he was slammed onto the rough rocky bottom, and what little air he had left escaped his lips, racing upwards as little bubbles.  He was there only an instant, stunned from the force of the blow.  His leg was on fire with the creature’s clawed grip.  And then his eyes lighted on a sudden sparkle reflected from the uncertain light above.  It was tylith-senshai, only a few feet away from where he lay.

            He reached for it, but as he did the creature yanked him upwards and away from it again.

            Keep your eyes on it, he thought as he was thrust upwards with dizzying speed, the racing water blurring his vision.  The damn thing means to crush me against the rocks.  If it hurls me to the same spot-

            And that suddenly he was racing downwards again, arms flailing uselessly against the tremendous downward pull of the creature’s strength.


            Again he struck, this time landing with full force from on his right shoulder.  He felt it give with the blow, and his fingers spasmed as his collarbone snapped, shooting pain through him.  His leg must be broken as well by now; it felt as if it were nearly torn off from the creatures violent shaking.

            But he had managed to keep tylith-senshai in sight as he had been hurled down.  Better, he had landed within reach of it.  If he were swift enough.

            But his near arm was the right one, the one that surely was broken, the one that was shrieking in pain and refusing to respond.  Slowly he moved it forward, then in a sharp burst of pain, made his fingers close on the hilt.

            As they did the creature reared back again, and Gwydion was yanked clear of the bottom for the third time.  The sword was heavy, but he used every ounce of willpower he had to keep his grip on it.  He wasn’t certain what use it would be anyway; in this water and with his bad arm, he could hardly hope to swing it to do any damage.  Maybe, if he was lucky, the creature would bring him close enough to its body that he could jab the point into its eyes.

            If it had eyes.  And if he didn’t run out of air and die first.

            Already he felt himself blacking out from lack of oxygen.  Already the pain was dimming and being replaced by a gentle darkness, making him more sluggish.

            He had to do something, and so he tried to attack.

            It was a feeble swing, made by an injured arm, in water that made the blow more feeble still.  Scarcely was he able to rear back, and when the tip of the blade descended and struck the creature’s claw, Gwydion doubted he had given it enough force to even break the skin and make a cut, were he fighting a mortal man.

            It cut through the creature’s leg as if it were cutting through air, severing the claw, which opened reflexively.

            The effect on the creature was immediate.  The injured leg retreated back into the darkness, spasming and belching out noxious clouds of greenish blood, and the claw, and Gwydion could see the creatures great dark shape racing away through the water.

            He felt a wave of energy pass through him as the blade connected; lifeforce returning through the magic of the sword.  There was a painful shift in his leg and in his shoulder as his shattered bones shifted and reset themselves, then knit.  They still throbbed terribly by they were healed, and usable.

            He almost didn’t care.  He was desperate, frantic, insane for air.  And now he was only a few feet from the surface.

            He struck out, clawing and kicking and fighting…

            And finally broke the surface in a great spray, gasping and coughing.

            Air… wonderful delicious air coursed into his lungs, and he welcomed it joyfully, gulped it in, almost choked on it.

            After a few heartbeats that felt like lifetimes as he gorged on it, he gradually became more aware of his surroundings.  Brianna was shouting at him.

            “Gwydion!  Gwydion!  Are you all right?  Answer me!  What was it?  Where is it?  Are you all right?  Gwydion!”

            He looked over at her.  “Some kind of… giant spider thing,” he sputtered.  “Seemed to be made out of metal…”  He felt a current of something, deep below, brush by his leg, and jerked his attention back to the water around him.  Damn thing is circling, looking to make another attack, he realized.

            “What’s wrong?” Brianna asked, worried and craning his neck.  “Can you see it?  I can’t see a thing; the water’s too dark.”

            And that was the whole problem.  The water was too dark.  Black, when looked at from the surface.  Gwydion swam a few paces over towards one of the walls, then took hold of the rough rock, pulling himself up out of the water and holding tylith-senshai ready.

            Brianna felt a shock course through her as he pulled himself free of the water and exposed his body.  His leg was slicked with blood, as were his shoulders and upper torso.  “You’re hurt!” she cried in alarm.  “I’m coming in!”

            “No!” he shouted back.  “Stay there!  It isn’t as bad as it looks.  Stay back, and keep your eyes open!  You’re more use to me where you are.”

            “That hardly seems fair,” said the robed man from beside her. 

Brianna looked over at him, surprised.  She hadn’t heard him approach, but then her attention had been on Gwydion and what fate held him beneath the foaming waters.  Now he stood beside her at the edge of the opening, interested in what was happening in the room beyond but reserved.  “What’s in there with him?” she demanded.  “One of your pet monsters?  You knew all about it, and you let him walk right in!”

            “Just as you say,” he answered.  “One of my pets.  Though an unruly one, perhaps.”

            “You never warned us!” she accused, stabbing her finger at him.  “He could have been killed!”

            “And still might be.  That remains to be seen.  If so, then I will have my pet retrieve his sword, and I will still claim it for my Collection.  I only promised that I would allow him to take it.  I will not vary from my promise, nor will I allow you to interfere.”

            “I’m going in!” she flared, and started forward-

And then found herself pulled backwards, up off the ground by a giant pair of golden hands.

            She screamed and kicked, but the golden giant held her firm.  Like its master, its approach had been silent.

            It held her pinned against its massive chest, one hand firmly over her abdomen, its grasp so tight she could hardly breathe.  Still she shrieked and screamed.

            The robed man gave her an irritated glance, and the gigantic golden-armored statue clamped one hand over her mouth.

            Her screams had drawn Gwydion’s attention.  “Put her down!” he shouted angrily, brandishing tylith-senshai.  “Let her go!”

            “Now, now, paladin,” it said.  “You have other problems.”

            And with a huge splash, the great creature from the pool exploded out of the water, lunging straight for where Gwydion perched.


                                                            *          *          *


            Tap sprinted toward the opening, and the daylight beyond.  Behind, he heard the cries of the hardheads, and their pursuit, but he was aware of it only distantly.

            His mind was on the jump.  From the ground it had looked like he could clear the gap.  From the ground it looked like the difference in height would get him across.  From the ground.

            But now he was sprinting full out, and he couldn’t even see the space he would have to clear, or gauge the distance.  And if he didn’t make it, he would plunge three and a half stories straight down.  The landing would be followed by the most painful three seconds of his life.  At least they would be his last.

            No pause, no room for doubt, no more time-

            He reached the edge and plunged out into open space.

            For a moment he hung suspended, and it seemed the distance was too far.

            Then he was down, rolling, rolling, and coming to his feet again, standing on the smooth hard surface of the marble from which the Keeper of Time’s tower was fashioned.  Breathing hard, he looked back.

            And saw that two hardhead soldiers leaping across the gap.

            Damn Harmonium barminess! he thought.  Won’t stop for anything.

            He turned and fled across the rooftop.

            Behind him he heard a clatter and a groan as the first hardhead landed.  He didn’t stop to look, but the soldier couldn’t have landed too badly, because Tap heard him shout.  “Hey, you little piker!  Make me run again, will you?  I’ll have your skin off!”

            It was the gap-toothed man.  The one who had outrun Tap the first time he’d bolted.  And that was before he’d been smashed into a wall.

            Before, when he had made his break from the sack, he hadn’t had time to notice how much pain he was in.  Now it consumed him.  There was a raging fire in his side – he’d probably broken a rib or two – that seemed to swallow his energy and make him gasp for breath.

            Still, that wasn’t the worst of it.  The Keeper’s tower was only so wide, and he was running out of roof.

            He could already see the edge, and part of the wide roadway beyond.  It was still over a two story drop to the ground, and while he might survive such a fall it seemed unlikely he would escape uninjured.

            He glanced back, and saw that gap-tooth was gaining on him.  The roof was wide and flat, there was nowhere to hide and nothing to slow the grown man down.  And behind him were two other hardhead soldiers.  None of them looked in a forgiving mood.

            Tap said a quick prayer to Brandobaris, the patron god of luck (or so he’d heard; he wasn’t that good with gods and things).  And leaped off the edge of the roof plunging down to the street below.


                                                            *          *          *


            It was a nightmare incarnate.

            Gwydion was right; it was a gigantic spider-shaped thing made of some black metal.  It’s size was difficult to judge; but surely those slavering mandibles could snap a man in two.  Its eyes were not insectile, but rather burning red orbs that glowed angrily and sparked with electricity and power.  Its forelegs were tipped with sword-like cleavers and it lifted and whirled them as it came onwards.

            The water boiled around it as it surged upwards, it forelegs slashing down.  On Gwydion in lightning-quick strikes meant to dismember him.

            For his part, Gwydion held onto the rock he clung to and tried to block one-handed.  In his weakened state, he was scarcely able to parry the creature’s claws as they struck in a blinding barrage.

            But tylith-senshai seemed almost to move on its own, whipping backwards and forwards, weaving blocks and parries, pulling Gwydion along behind it.  Each time the creature’s claws met the blade of the sword, there was a bright flash of light, as the creature pulled its legs back as if bitten, roaring in rage and frustration.  It’s cry sounded like the shrieking of tearing metal, and the blades at the tips of its forelegs were smoking, blunted, and slightly warped.

            It rolled its glowing red eyes, then jammed its head forward unexpectedly.

            There was a sudden roar as flames whooshed out of its eyes, raining down in sheets on the place where Gwydion stood.

            Brianna winced back from the sudden noise and light, and even from where she stood she could feel the heat.

            Gwydion merely raised his sword, and at a point only a few scant inches from the tip of the blade the billowing flames folded into themselves, sucked into a funnel that channeled their energy directly into the blade, leaving him untouched, though the waterfalls that spilled down around him vanished into sudden steam.  He felt the energy and power of the flames converted to a positive energy that coursed through his body, and his confidence grew.

            “Magnificent weapon,” said the robed man, watching.  Brianna thought she heard an unnatural desire creep into his voice.

            The spider thing shrieked again, rolling its eyes and backing off another step.  With one last hiss, it suddenly dove beneath the inky water, leaving only a ripple of its wake.

            Gwydion looked down at his feet, waiting expectantly for it to reappear.

            Minutes passed and finally he looked up to where the robed man stood impassively, his eyes narrowing in anger.  “What is it?  Some mechanical demon?”

            The robed man’s voice was not loud, or harsh, but was audible even over the sounds of the waterfalls.  “Indeed.  It is a gift from the demon prince Grazz’t himself.  Marvelous workmanship, though it does not play well with my marut.”

            Gwydion scanned the black waters.  “It hasn’t given up yet.”

            The robed man shook his head.  “I would certainly not expect it to.  As you have surmised, it is a construct; a made thing.  It does not know fear, or pain.  It plots to destroy you.”

            Gwydion glanced at where the golden-armored statue stood holding Brianna.  “Let her go,” he said.

            “Let’s make it more interesting.  I’ll give you a time limit.  We’ll say five minutes.  If you haven’t got the amulet out of the room, I’ll give the order for my pet to crush the life out of her.”

            Gwydion’s eyes blazed with anger.  “Let her go!” he shouted, pointing with his sword.

            The robed man held out a hand, palm-up, and an hourglass materialized above it.  There was only a little sand in it, and it was already sifting swiftly down to the lower portion of the glass.   “Time is against you,” he intoned.

            Gwydion started to curse, then stopped himself.  It would be a waste of breath.  Instead, he shifted his position slightly.  The water plunging down from the ledge above spattered against his shoulder, making it throb with the pain of his earlier, half-healed injury.

            It would be an easy climb from here, he thought, and the dais is not far. Yet should I turn my back to climb, the creature will take me from behind, and defenseless.

            He tried to peer down into the black depths, but the light here was useless.  He could see nothing.

            Briefly he considered trying to get one of the torches down to bring some light closer to the surface, and discarded the idea.  He couldn’t get to any of the torches without climbing, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway.  He could only bring the torches to the surface of the water, and it was what lay beneath that he needed to illuminate.

            If only I had a light I could submerge…

            At the thought the blade to tylith-senshai flared white, shedding light.

            “Of course,” said Gwydion.  “I must be losing it to forget about that.”

            “Magnificent,” said the Keeper of Time.

            Gwydion lowered himself waist deep into the water, submerging his sword.  The light it shed spread diffusely through the water, illuminating the rocks that ringed the bottom and even extending some distance down into the abyss that yawned in the center of the pool.

            There was no sign of the spider being anywhere.

            Gwydion’s eyes narrowed.  “Where in the hells did it go?” he muttered.

            At first he considered the possibility that it was crouched against the rocks on the opposite side of the room, holding itself still and hoping to blend in, but he discarded the notion immediately.  He could see the outlines of the rock floor there too clearly; there was no place for the great beast to hide.  It must be down in the abyss, beyond where even the light from tylith-senshai penetrated.

            And if that was the case, then perhaps it had retreated from him and given up the battle.

            Gwydion was torn.  To climb or not to climb?  He couldn’t very well swim down into the hole at the bottom of the pool and seek the creature out.  But if he turned his back he would be exposing himself to a rear attack from it.  He glanced over to where the Keeper stood.  Brianna still wriggled in the golden-armored statues hands to no effect, and the sands in the hourglass had already run nearly half away.  There was little doubt that the robed man would follow up on his threat.

            Gwydion made his decision.  He turned and started to climb.

            Then reared back in shock.  There, at the top of the waterfalls, was the spider.

            It lunged forward as he lunged back, one of its blades piercing his abdomen and slicing into his insides, the tip emerging from his back.

            Gwydion cried out in agony as he was ripped out of the water and up onto the ledge.  The other legs closed in as he was hauled forward, the blades flashing.

            Enraged and in intense pain, skewered at the end of the spider-thing’s leg, and being yanked to his doom, Gwydion roared in rage.

            He swept tylith-senshai in an arc that cut the spider’s leg off a foot from where it entered his chest, and tumbled down into the calf-deep water on the upper ledge.

            The spider shrieked in turn, drawing back its wounded leg but cutting forward with it’s remaining undamaged forelegs.  Three razor sharp blades darted in one blinding attack.

            Gwydion lurched to his feet, and yelled again, still enraged.  Tylith-senshai struck each of the blades in turn, shattering them, severing the limbs they were attached to, cutting pieces from the metal spider.

            The spider, for its part, rolled its eyes in pain and fear (perhaps?  Who may say what goes on in such an alien brain?) and backed off several steps.

            Gwydion charged forward, tylith-senshai held high, blazing with light.  With one hand he pulled the spider-claw/sword from his own body, shrieking in agony as he did so.  Bits of gore and internal organs leaked out of the massive wound.

            The sword flicked out once, twice, and great sections of the metal legs were sundered and destroyed.

            The spider seemed almost panicked.  It tried to dart around Gwydion, but the paladin moved to block the way.  And it was now backed to the wall.

            At last it reared back, its ruined legs held high, and then came crashing down, hoping to crush him with its massive metal body.

            Gwydion stood and waited, sword held high.

            With a ponderous crash, it crunched down on him, the dark bulk finally eclipsing the light.  Water surged down the sides of the raised wall, and for a moment Brianna could see nothing.  There was a cracking boom, which echoed through the room, and then silence, save for the ever-present waterfalls.

            Apparently the Keeper of Time could see, even in the darkness that followed.  “Magnificent weapon,” he murmured.

            And then a lone light shone.  Tylith-senshai, held high.  And Gwydion standing beneath it.  All about him were gigantic pieces of melted and twisted metal, broken and sundered.  It was hardly recognizable as a spider, and it was not moving.

            Gwydion was still catching his breath and wondering why he was not dead.  The wound the creature had given him was certainly mortal; a hole the size of his fist punched through his midsection.

            He glanced down at it, saw there was blood, but the wound was gone.  A jagged scar was all that remained of it.  And he gazed at the sword in wonder.  Another miracle, he registered vaguely.  There had been so many since he had arrived on the planes that perhaps he was even beginning to take them for granted.

            “Well done,” said the robed man, “but not finished yet, paladin.  Time is still against you.”

            Gwydion shot him an angry look, and saw that the very last of the sand was spiraling down into the bottom of the hourglass.

            He strode over to the black dais, and scooped up the bracelet that lay there, holding it aloft.

            “I’ve got it, damn you,” he said.  “Now: Let Her Go!”


                                                            *          *          *


            Tap felt his heart fly into his throat as an adrenaline surge raced through him.

            For a moment the street below was the only thing he saw, and the dizzying fall wrapped him in racing air, making his arms flap wildly.

            And then he landed…

            Plunging into the warm soft depths of a gigantic wagonload of Elysium hay.

            He had glimpsed the heavy-laden cart as it trundled by, at the last moment before springing off the edge of the roof, but he hadn’t been certain he had had enough momentum to make it.

            It hadn’t been a perfect landing; he had cracked his shin against the high wooden side of the cart, and already his leg was throbbing.  But he was unbroken and alive, and that was more than he’d expected five seconds ago.

            He glanced back toward the driver’s seat, which was well forward of where he lay.  The seat was lower than the cart, and only the tops of the driver’s shoulders and the back of his head was visible.  If he had taken any notice of his unexpected passenger’s arrival he gave no sign of it.  Tap couldn’t see many details but he looked from behind like human, with unkempt white-blond hair spilling down in an unruly mane past his shoulders.  He had a long-handled whip which he snapped above the backs of some half-dozen oversized oxen, prodding them forward.

            Tap groaned as his scrapes, bruises, and injuries flared with sudden pain (or perhaps, for the first time he had a moment to consider them), and sank back into the hay, catching his breath.

            He heard a muttered curse and felt the straw beside him shift with the impact of a man dropping from above.

            Damn hardheads! He thought wearily.  Won’t stop for anything!

            It was the gap-toothed man.  He’d landed only a few feet away from Tap, but with his head facing away.

            A second hardhead soldier came careening down, just a few feet from the very back of the cart, sprawling awkwardly and rapping his head against one of the wooden sides.  He cursed roundly and loudly, rubbing his head and trying to stumble to his feet.

            Yet a third hardhead came leaping down from the Keeper’s roof, uttering a strangled cry as he fell.  He was not so fortunate as his companions, though, landing across the self-same backboard of the cart that the second hardhead had smacked his skull against.  There was a sickening crunch as he landed – the upper torso towards Tap, the lower part hanging over the back of the cart – and he instantly went limp.  An instant later the cart lurched, and his body slid completely over the side, falling into the street behind.

            Behind him, up on the roof of the tower, three other hardheads had been jogging along (how many of them are there? Tap idly wondered), but had now reached the corner of the roof, and unable to go any farther, and too far back to have any hope of leaping into the haycart, they huddled there, pointing and watching.

            Tap hardly registered this.  Gap-tooth had rolled onto his hands and knees, and was looking at him with a mix of triumph and malice.  “Now you’ll pay, street rat!” he snarled, reaching for his sword hilt.

            All this sudden noise did not go unnoticed by the driver.  He looked back, surprise and anger playing in turn across his mustached face.  “What in the nine hells!”

            Tap was already on his feet.  Instead of running away he took a quick two-step towards the gap-toothed man, moving well despite the uneven and unstable footing, and kicked the rising man for all he was worth.  His boot connected solidly with the man’s face, and gap-tooth gave a grunt of surprise and pain, then went tumbling backwards, barely keeping his hold on his sword as he sprawled onto his back.

            The driver had stood up, facing backwards.  “Out!  The lot of you, out of my wares!” he shouted.

            The hardhead in the very back had gotten to his feet.  Eyes blazing with anger, he pointed at the driver.  “Halt this wagon in the name of the Harmonium, berk, or suffer the consequences!”

            The driver reared back with his whip and sent the tip licking forward.  With a terrific CRACK! he laid a stripe directly across the hardhead’s face.  For his part, the young soldier gave a scream and reared backwards, his hands instinctively going to his face.  But he only had a few feet to back, and stumbled against the rear boards of the cart.  With a cry he tumbled backwards and disappeared, falling into the street behind.

            The driver spat.  “That for your Harmonium!” he snarled.  His gaze fell on Tap.  “And this for you!”

            Tap jumped forward, falling prone as the whip cracked, snapping on empty air.  He felt something behind him grab his boot.

            Wild-eyed with fury, the gap-toothed man yanked him backwards across the hay, rolling him over onto his back as he went.  He raised his sword arm high in a killing stroke.


            The whip snapped again, and this time the strike was aimed at gap-toothed.  It went wide, the tip popping the air a few inches away from his left ear, but he cried out in alarm and jerked back a step, releasing his hold on Tap’s boot.

            Tap scrambled forward as the gap-toothed man struggled to keep from sprawling backward.

            “Here, you!” said the driver, when he was within reach, snatching him by his tunic.  “This for street rats!”

            The man’s yanked him up out of the cart and made to fling him over the side, beneath the wagon’s heavy wheels.  But he had been neglecting his driving, and with each curse and whip-snap the oxen had increased their pace, nervous and uncertain what was going on.  Half-panicked, they had veered off course along a narrow side-street, lined on both sides by an unending row of buildings.

            Without warning the ponderous wagon lurched too far to the right, and with a grinding crash veered into the side of one of the buildings.

            It grated along for a moment, splinters flying and sparks shooting from the side, then jerked away from the building.

            The driver lost his hold on Tap, swayed, overbalanced, and tumbled backwards, sprawling on the seat.

            Instead of being flung to the roadway to be crushed between the wagon and the building, Tap went tumbling back into the hay.

            The gap-toothed man, meanwhile, had regained his feet, swearing roundly.  He fumbled in the hay for a moment, searching for and finally finding his sword.

            Tap tried to stand, but the cart lurched violently once again, and he pitched back into the hay.

            The gap-toothed man snarled once, and stumbled his way forward.  There was murder in his eyes.

            And then a quick shadow passed over Tap’s face.  He registered the change in light and had a brief vision of stonework as a low bridge suddenly appeared, the wagon passing beneath and just clearing it.

            The gap-toothed man grunted once with surprise, then struck the side of the bridge with the full momentum of the cart.

            His sword went flying from his fingers, and his legs were lifted clear of the straw for a brief moment, then he tumbled down into the straw at the very rear of the wagon, groaning and with blood leaking from his nose.

            Tap didn’t know whether he’d been knocked unconscious or not and didn’t wait to find out.  He rolled onto his stomach and stuck his head up.

            The driver had regained his seat and was reaching down for his whip, which had fallen down.  Ahead there were a series of three more low bridges, interspersed with a few lines of laundry.

            Tap gauged it with his eye.  The wagon was not really moving that quickly; oxen were slow beasts, even when excited, and these oversized ones were no different.  If he was quick…

            He waited till the last possible moment, then suddenly turned and darted back to where the gap-toothed man lay, building a quick burst of momentum.

            Just behind him the first bridge came.  He timed his run so that he stayed just ahead of it, though there was a short space to cover before he reached the back of the wagon.  He reached behind as he ran, feeling for a handhold, then caught hold of a railing.

            The gap-toothed man sat up.

            His eyes widened for a moment as he realized Tap was bearing down on him, but hardly had to register before Tap went running nimbly up his chest, kicking off of his shoulder.

            Then the bridge was past and the wagon was still on its way.

            Tap swayed slightly behind it, holding the railing with both hands.

            “Piking hell!” raged the gap-toothed man watching him from the back of the wagon.  “Piking, piking hell!”  He turned and had to fall flat again as the wagon passed under yet another low bridge, then started to his feet, racing forward.  “Stop this piking wagon, imbecile!” he roared at the driver.  “I’ll have your piking guts for garters!”

            Tap was exhausted, but it was a long drop from the bridge to the ground, so stubbornly he pulled himself upward, hauling himself over the rail and then falling flat onto the bridge at last, breathing hard.

            He could still hear the gap-toothed man’s curses, but the wagon showed no sign of slowing.  He muttered a silent prayer of thanks to the patron of luck that the driver was a stubborn man who hated hardheads.

            Still, he knew hardheads.  The gap-toothed man would come back, and there were other pursuers.  It wasn’t safe to stay where he was at.  After the trouble he had given them, they’d surely form several patrols just to comb the area for him.

            Wearily he hauled himself to his feet.  He had to find someplace to lay low.  Bitterly he regretted not taking Gwydion’s advice.  He might be bored right now but he wouldn’t be aching in every joint, bruised, bleeding, and hurt.

            As he straightened he noticed something caught in the buckle of his left boot.

            A twisted bit of silver, formed in the shape of a hammer.

            He almost laughed.  Gap-tooth’s amulet.  Apparently it had snagged in his boot.

            He took a moment and worked it free, then took a closer look.  It was real silver, of good quality.

            “For my trouble,” he said, tucking it into a pocket.