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«Crown of Fire», Ed Greenwood

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Prologue

Something flashed as it moved – aye, there! Brann stepped up to the grassy crest of the hill where his flock was pastured and looked east, shading his eyes against the bright forenoon sun. Whatever was moving caught the light again, flashing against the dark, tree clad lower slopes of the mountains opposite him. Out of habit, Brann looked quickly around at his flock, counting without thought. He found nothing amiss and peered back to the east again, looking for that moving glint to show itself again.

The mountains stood high and dark, like a row of stone giants frowning down on easternmost Cormyr. The "Thunder Peaks", men called them, named for the fierce storms that often rolled and broke among them. They were hard and grim and splendid, and sometimes Brann just sat and watched them for hours.

Much as he was watching them now. They towered over him like a dark, many-spired fortress wall, forever hiding Sembia from the high meadows where he stood. Rich, splendid Sembia, a land where fat merchants lay at ease among piles of gold coins, glittering like that spot on the mountains. Ships full of coins from all over the Realms – even far, sinister Thay, where wizards kept slaves, came to its shores every day.

He'd not always be just a shepherd. Someday he'd go to Sembia's docks and meet with adventure, Brann promised himself… not for the first time. He sighed at that thought, shook his head with a wry smile, and glanced about at the sheep again. His count was right, and none of them was straying, shifting, or even looking particularly awake. Brann stared at the sheep in growing exasperation. They ignored him, as usual. Oh, for a little excitement! Nothing here seemed amiss-also as usual. He sighed again, and looked east.

The sky was bright and clear, and every boulder and stand of trees on the familiar flanks of the Peaks was as it had always been, unchanged-except…

Except for that little winking flash of light, far away over the rolling, grass-clad hills near the Gap.

Something shone back the sun at him again, something descending through the high meadows, where he spent most days alone with his flock It was something – or someone-that wore or carried metal. It wasn't on the road through the Gap, so it couldn't just be another trading wagon hung with pots and pans. Perhaps it was a knight of Cormyr, perhaps even one of the Dragon Knights, who were the personal swordguard and messengers of Azoun, the Purple Dragon, king of all this land. With quickening interest, Brann watched for another flash.

There it was again. Metal, surely, and bobbing in short, choppy moves – so it wasn't a horse, or someone riding. It looked… as if some splendid knight in gleaming armor were marching afoot across the hills toward him. Brann leaned on his staff and shaded his eyes for a better view. Then his mouth fell open. A dwarf – a real dwarf, with an axe and a beard and a mail shirt, and all! Brann stood frozen in wonder. A tiny voice inside him chuckled at his awe and reminded him that this was what he'd wished for. Adventure was striding to meet him, after all. Staggering, actually. The dwarf stumped along on one side of a girl who was being carried, and a slim young man struggled along on the other. The dwarf was bearing most of the girl's weight on his broad shoulders, but he was so much shorter than the man that the two were having trouble moving straight forward with their burden. "Keep on, lad," Delg grunted. "There's a guard post not far ahead… two hills ahead, and we should see it." Sweat dripped from the dwarf's dusty beard as he spoke.

Narm nodded grimly, saving all his breath for carrying his lady. Shandril was slim and shorter than most; she couldn't be this heavy. She hung loose between them, senseless. Narm stumbled, caught himself with a wordless hiss of apology to Delg, and shook his head impatiently; stinging sweat had run down into his eyes again. He looked ahead-and stiffened. Through the blurring of sweat he saw dark, moving blobs on the grassy hills ahead. "'Ware-" he panted.

"They're sheep, lad," the dwarf said dryly. "Right dangerous, if ye're a clump of grass, I suppose. Aye? just sheep."

Narm shook his head wearily. His legs felt hollow and weak, his strength draining out of them with every step. He had to-to rest. "Stop, Delg just a breath," he panted, wiping sweat away with his sleeve. "Just a-"

"No," the dwarf said in tones of cold iron. "If you stop now, boy, you'll never get on again in time. They'll catch up with us and run us down out here like boar, and Shan will have cooked twenty-odd Zhents in vain. Keep moving! We're almost there."

Brann watched, astonished, as the bristle-bearded dwarf in armor and the young man in mage robes staggered past him, panting under the weight of the girl they carried. Her long reddish-gold hair dangled along one limp arm as they strode doggedly and unevenly on, up the last hill before the village.

Brann looked east again, a view he knew very well. There was no sign of anyone following them. He turned and stared curiously at the sweat-darkened back of the young wizard as the strangers went over the hill and began to descend out of sight.

His mouth was suddenly dry. His hands, as they dipped to his belt, trembled; he almost dropped the horn. So this is excitement, he thought. Brann shook his head, and blew. The horn call wavered and then grew steady, high, and clear.

The high song of a shepherd's horn was ringing off the walls of houses as the three tired adventurers came down into Thundarlun. Before them rose the watchful stone bulk of the guardhouse, where Delg had known it would be. On benches along its wall, Purple Dragon soldiers sat alert, watching with interest in their eyes as the three approached.


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