From the Tops of the Trees

By Gerry Torbert


Leaves darted past, the breeze of motion shaking them and scattering drops of rain like explosions of love and a wind borne of two hearts. The distant lightning flashed a staccato dance, emblazoning a determined face, frame-by-frame, in an eerie motion picture, encircled with light green leaves and those spheres of rain falling, frightened, in mid-drop.

A young deer, unwilling at first to be enslaved by a wizard, but now appreciative for the opportunity to see, think and hear as if she was a human, raced alternately along the valley floor, hilltop road and the edge of open fields while keeping the black-cloaked figure within sight and sound. She felt the presence of her friend high above, an eagle familiar, ever vigilant, equipped with almost god-like senses, watching two blurs though thick patches of cloud cover.

Assassin's Creed Shao Jun by Wolf Nocturne

The black cloaked woman, grasping branches and trunks with five-toed shoes in an almost simian grip, leapt at times between limbs that were sturdy to fall toward earth, only to catch others that she only "felt" were there, using them to swing to the next tree in the dark night. She was fueled by a strange, heightened, Kunese ritualistic marital bond and the blood-rush of desperation, tears borne of a dream of abject terror mixed with the pelting precipitation to cool her flushed skin. The flashes of light relented at times to allow a glimpse of campfires ahead; the heart-wind strengthened. She began to slow her pace, looking for a place to alight. Tao flipped just before hitting the ground, to lose energy, but hit the soaked sod with a loud "sploosh." She cursed to herself, thinking it may have given away her position, but most of the orcs were either asleep or huddled around the fire, wishing they were. Hide caught up and stopped beside her, sniffing the air. "Believe best to do is smell and find guards. I can do this better. You should wait. Will scratch ground twice if clear."

"I cannot wait. They will kill you if you are..."

"There is no other way. I know what I can do. Smell is more important than sight now. Start making plan, and about what you will do when you get there."

Tao sighed and nodded, patting Hide on the neck in thanks. The deer crept silently through brush and along a wooded area until she came near the limit of the cleared encampment; she turned left and searched for twenty yards, then to the right as well. She turned back, found a flat rock and scratched it twice.

Tao searched with the heart wind while she waited. She could feel Twa's presence, and tried to relate the importance of being quiet and calm. It was difficult for her to do, as she was just as excited; she thought of her location, thinking of the layout of the camp and relating it to him in the form of a picture. Although this was a rudimentary method of speech, it was far and away a more advanced type of communication from any other, with the exception of the relationship of a sorcerer to his familiar.

Twa gave her an image of a cave, then one of him carrying buckets of slop from the cave. She winced with a little indignation, understanding that it must be a very dirty job. He then showed a picture of a giant.

Tao created an image of a doe at the far side of the encampment, and orcs running toward it; Twa showed her a feeling of approval. Apparently, the stories, handed down from wanderers and wizards alike, were true; that these strange people from the East had, through millennia of study and concentration, found a method of controlling and using what most people consider as intuition, in an almost magical way.

Hide must have sensed what her female counterpart wanted to do; she ran to the right, around the edge of the camp, just barely visible to anyone who would be watching. When she had attracted enough attention, she turned away and ran back into the depth of the woods to circle back to the starting point.

Tao made her move, now running quietly between each shadow, stopping when the shadows ran out, working with the flickering bonfire and heading toward the cave. She stopped at the edge of the rock and clung to the shadow cast by the flickering fire silhouetting the orcs as they ran toward a doe. She saw an opening and made her move, "reading" Twa's image of his surroundings to guide her. It was a mistake. In his tent, Morbagg flinched while reading an old sorcerer's book. He felt a change in the air, something strong, something different. "Grunt - now. To the cave. Tell me what you see!" The crow perked his head and tilted it to the side. "Yes. Will go." He flapped away immediately.

Tao ran swiftly, masking each breath, executing perfect heel-to-toe contact with each step. She turned a corner around a circuitous path and stopped dead in her tracks. Speechless, the two Kunese, so far from home, collapsed in each other's arms.

"I knew you were..."

"I knew you knew. But so far..."

"Did they hurt you?"

"Only mind, but those wounds stop bleeding quickest."

"I was true. I lived by sacred page of Do Sahn Rim."

"As I. Have found someone... a friend."

"Here?" asked Tao, confusedly. "How can someone here be a friend?"

"Turn around..."

As she did, she came to stare at the knees of something. She wasn't sure what that something was, but she recognized the fact that they were knees. Her jaw dropped as she slowly gazed higher and higher, her face resting on a giant of purplish skin and tusks.


Twa stepped beside her and put his arm around her. "Yes, Groll. This is Twa. She is my...wife...the woman I have chosen to live with. Now family becomes three."

Groll smiled and nodded. Tao, still uncertain what was going on, looked to Twa. "Family?"

Twa nodded. "Yes. Groll has been captive here, and Morbagg continues to torture him. I told him that I help him, and so we are family." Tao stared at her long-lost husband, but her trust in his judgement got the best of her caution and suspicions.

"If you feel it is what should be, so it is. Yes, Groll. I am Tao. I am also fam..."

She was interrupted by a familiar flapping. Looking up and toward the entrance, she saw Grunt. Her right hand went instinctively to her belt, and in one swift move, a throwing star was sailing through neck feathers, gristle, veins, part of a beak and a left eye. There was a desperate flutter and a light thud.

Groll grunted and shook his head in disbelief. "Think maybe Tao move too quick. That was Grunt. Means Morbagg be here soon. Was his most liked bird." Twa grabbed Tao's arm. "We must leave. My visible power works on only one. Morbagg is too powerful to fight."

Groll grunted. "True. Will meet both of family soon, maybe in war. Will not harm family. Go, be safe!"

Twa hurried Tao along the adit. "Come. You can still shadow-hide? I can become unseen. Will meet you outside cave."

"No! Came this far, will not leave you!"

Twa kissed her, then disappeared. "Go! Sweetest fruit of tree is highest, one you must work to reach!" said a disembodied voice. "I will not leave you! You will see me in your mind - our heart wind will be our tether. Hurry - there are only a few minutes!"

Tao exited the cave and immediately found a suitable shadow cast by a rock silhouetted by the campfire. She became one with the darkness just before a large orc thundered by. He stopped and turned, but apparently noticed nothing, and he continued to the cave.

Inside, the brisk trot of the angry sorcerer brushed along Twa's clothing. Morbagg stopped and turned, but saw - and felt - nothing. They both turned and continued separate ways.

In a minute's time, a shadowy blur dove between other shadows and melted into each one, alongside an invisible being that was doing his best to both keep up with her and lead her along. Along the thick woods line, both beings ran past a doe and elicited a snort of confusion in the deer; they became sensible once again, and running through the tree cover, Tao stopped to introduce Hide and Mountaintop to Twa.

The eagle familiar laid out his plan. "Have found a cave for you both to rest. Made bedding with branches. We will watch over you for the night. Big storm comes. Come..."

Half an hour of paced running brought the party to a cave, with Mountaintop leading the way. The bedding was secure, soft and in from the entrance, and they arrived just in time to escape nature's fury. Twa lit a small campfire with a fire-bow, and the two long-lost lovers entwined beneath their cover of clothing and leaves, while two loyal animals sat outside and watched the woods.

"You will enjoy my friends. Two immortals of legend, a heroic elf, four dwarven adventurers, and a town of people. Suzanne, wife of the leader of the town, has become good friend. She gave this blanket..." as she pulled it out of her pack, "...and said it was to make sure I returned. It will keep us warm. The townspeople are good people; the orcs raid them, but my friends are training them to fight. I owe so much to them for their help."

"I will be honored to meet them, and most happy to be away from slave camp. Will miss Groll, and hope we do not meet in battle."

"One more thing. I think I am of time..." Even in the darkness, he could feel her eyes search his soul.

"A child? Among a time of war?"

"Is there a better time, making life among death?"

"No better time but now, my love."

Battle, slavery, torture, death and loneliness, all faded and disappeared while the waning light from the campfire was replaced by the wind of two hearts - if only for a night.


Morbagg stormed into the cave, only to find a decapitated crow; bending low, he grasped a shiny, bloody steel star, lying nearby. He picked up both and began to seethe with anger. "You idiot! Did your little friend do this! Tell me, bastard, I can tell if you're lyin'!"

Groll looked directly into his eyes and became as transparent to his question that he possibly could. "No. He has no weapons. He came to take buckets away." Morbagg's fists ground into his hip in frustration. "Piece of garbage! You're tellin' the truth! Then you must have done it! Where did you get this piece of steel?"

"I never touched it. I never saw such a thing before now." Which was, again, the truth.

Morbagg trembled in anger. "Damn you, ya abomination. You know what pain I can give you! Who's responsible, fool?"

Groll yelled back, "I told you! I saw no man do anything to your damn bird!" Still, the truth.

Morbagg stammered and threw his hands up in the air. "That was my favorite crow, dammit! Someone's gonna pay for this! There's gonna be a raid tomorrow; we'll see if those mercs and their friends are still in town." The sorcerer left in a huff, off to General Garlack to arrange another sortie.


The day went badly in Norville. Despite the fighting experience of an Anarian leader, a prince of Creagland, an expert bowman from the ranks of elven sorcerers and four well-rounded Khazak adventurers, there didn't seem to be much of a way to quickly teach a town full of cattlemen and businessmen the fine art of taking a life.

Time and time again, an errant wooden sword would find its way to a calf or forearm of a defender, bringing bruises that the softer folk of the northern hills found difficult to withstand. Over and over, a fake sword would slip out of an attacker's grasp, only to become an unexpected weapon to another man. And slips and trips were the order of the day, causing the most injuries.

As late afternoon approached, the mercenaries called a halt to the training, more for the protection of the trainees than due to tiring. Darmon pointed to Richard's house to assemble his group as the townsfolk limped home to tend their bruises.

"We need ta talk, men."

Thanos seemed more out of touch and distant than the rest as they arrived at the picket fence surrounding the Hallerd's home. "You first, Thanos. What does the House of Gloran's finest think of our troops?"

The elf sighed and shrugged. "I am not sure if arrows are the answer. If we were to be appropriately deployed as a fighting unit, many of our own would walk away as porcupines." Agli frowned, then smiled and nodded as he understood what was meant by the metaphor.

"But somethin' else troubles ya, my elhil friend. Your people can only teach folks to do so much, since the rest of yer abilities are natural. But ya seemed ta have yer mind somewhere's else today."

Thanos seemed to be disturbed at the accusation of his not being nearly perfect, but then nodded. "Most perceptive of you, Agli; I would expect nothing less from the descendant of Agralin. Yes, something has been bothering me. It is a poem." Darmon, resting on one knee and chewing on an oatmeal cake, snorted, shook his head and plunged the metal lady into the soft sod. "First poop, now poems. Wha's it take ta keep yair 'eads in the fight, gentlemen?"

"My head is in it, Darmon. It is just that I remember something from my book of poems that has a lot to do with our current situation. I would think you might find it fascinating, Prince. It has a lot to do with the curse of Tanarus."

Darmon stood up, incensed. "Now wait a minute, elf. Keep a civil tongue in yair..."

"Darmon! Take a breath, ol' boy! He's an elf, and they live long lives, too. Thanos! Watch where you tread, friend! It's not an easy cross for us to bear, mind you!" Yngvarr pointed to both of them to quickly calm the situation.

"I meant nothing, I assure you, Darmon. I sometimes forget how the two sides of immortality can both cut and mend."

Darmon thought for a minute, then nodded. "Hae, I forgot your background. Once you're used ta dyin', it's viewed as a welcome release, I guess. But poetry? How's 'at 'elp us?"

"It is the story of the first cursed man, called The Legend of Gagan MacMann." He reached into his pack and pulled out an old book. "I do not know why Ingmir, my mentor, packed this book, nor why he compiled this into the book in the first place. But so he did, and knowing his enlightenment, it was no doubt with the best of intentions. But it is written in something called Old Creagish, a language unknown to the elves and believed lost. Do you speak it, Darmon?" He handed the old book to the Creag.

Darmon turned to the dog-eared page and gave it a quick glance. "Hmm... I can make most of it oot. It's dense, with a lot o' imagery, so ya 'ave ta think aboot wha' they might've been referrin' ta, have a knowledge of customs an' 'at - knowledge o' 'istory goes 'an-'n'and wi' poetry. Seems like they wair always lookin' over their shoulder, or somethin', afraid ta come right oot an' say things." He sat down on his butt in the grass and began to read the poem.

" 'Starts oot ...

A'Legen O' Gagan MacMann

T'was airly the yairs o' ole Creagish lands wha builds us a tayle r'two
O' a strappin' yung man o' Caisteal Gorm, from ole Buchanan brew;
The Buch's own'd ‘eir land, as septs lived MacManns, an' payd in crops for Buch swords,
T'was the way o'the lives o'men an' theyre wives; ye payd fer protection of Lords.

Pup Gagan was sired, brotha four o'the line, a'followin' fine lasses three,
But a'runt o'the pack, a'ways stealin' a snack, as ‘e'd grow like a tall oakyn tree!
As Canna an' Alla, an' Ora the kid, ‘is sistas teased Gagan enuf,
As a child did ‘ey dress ‘im in skirts so fine, bu' it served ta make ‘im tough.

Nogar an' Nemal an' ta some extent, Ashe, cuffed aboot syblin' Gagan when yung,
Bu' when e' be growed, a new field ‘e sowed, an' oot ta see new lands he rung;
‘E alit ta the North, up Anaria way, as ‘e ‘eard o' the tayles o' theyre might,
With the storys a'told, aboot Draygons ‘n Gold, n' th' magic o' cold, dairk nights.

Bu' ‘e run far a'fowl wi' a great wing'ed beast, a draygon the name'o M'ole Oz,
What lizyrd lay'd death t'the folks o' ArBeth, a small farmin' town, for no cause.
‘E dispatched th' great wyrm, bu' a little too firm, with brash an' bold terrible threats,
Causin' ire an' a pyre from the Sun God of fyre, an' a curse e'd soon wysh ta forget.

Tanarys appear'd, with a fiery white beard, an' a-swirlin' white head may'd o' smoke,
T'was th' las' thing ya see, ya'd expect there ta be, an' wi' voice of vengynce ‘e spoke;
"Ya treated my child, alone in th' wyld, with respect less'n that of a fly!
E' meant ya no ill, just wanted ‘is fill, bu' ya cairsed ‘im an' spet in ‘is eye!

Now ‘e'll rest in a pyre, in a Hell, burned wi' fire, a'cairsed for 'is natural ways,
Whilst a murderin' man reaps the cheers that ‘e can from the pestylant humans ‘e saved!
Fair all ‘o your sins, you'll be farsed ta live in, the remains o' this town that ya kept,
An as worth o' yair cryme, till the end of all tyme, you'll feel ev'ry tear M'ole Oz wept!"

Gagan spynt years, and as bad that ‘e feared, in a ghost of a town in the vayle,
E'ry tyme he approached the limit of ghosts, a deathly ill pox turned'm payle.
So ‘e stayed in ArBeth, with th' smell o' its death, and a carcass o'draygon uphill,
As remynder to Gagan o'a hapless young draygon, an' a mad god's powerful will.

So e' slept an' e' ate, he learned ‘ow ta hate, as ‘e thot long'n ‘ard ‘boot his fate,
There were trav'lers still, who a'turned up quite ill, as they came to the town's rusty gate.
Then one day, a tall gent, stayed an whyle, then went; since as syck as a dog ‘e becayme,
But ‘e wairned ‘im o' daynger, an' things much straynger, puttin' child horror stories ta shame.

"Take caution an' cayre, above all bewayre, o' the scourge o'the orcs from Nor'east,
A'cairvin' a path, wi' Blood Vengynce an' wrath, by the torches an' chants o' the beasts!"
It was ‘rond-a-boot tyme ‘e collapsyd in mid rhyme, but gud Gagan, ‘e crossed the town lyne,
An' bravin' disease drug the man to the trees, gayve'im rain water an' sat for a tyme.

The gent came aroon, shuk ‘is ‘ead wi' a swoon, an' continued his story anew;
"A'fifty ‘r more, mayb' a full four score, they rumbyl, I seen it, it's true!
A'fueled by theyre rage, as a'pent in a cage, they eat e'rything seen in theyre path,
Bu'theyre all soon a farse, shud ya wash clean yair arse, in th' child's life's sparkley bath!"

Th' gent looked askanyce, in a deep, stolid trance, as ol'Gagan, afflictyd a'deep,
Fed ‘im more from ‘is cup, e'ry last tiny drup, an' awoken ‘im from ‘is deep sleep;
"T'is one more little cayre, ya should be full awayre, shudya wysh ta remain to the tell,
Ya nede call ta yer clan, a'clad babe, nae a'man, wi' yair breath a'tween Heavyn an' ‘Ell!'

‘Is wairnyn' now told, ‘e turned ovyr an' rolled ta ‘is feet he then clymed an' ‘e smyled,
Turned away an' did walk; nae, na once did ‘e balk, an' ne'er did luk bak ta ‘is child.
As he hastyned, did speed, ‘gainst ol'Gagan's dyre pleads, ‘neath an aft'noon's rayny skye red,
One cud see, if one tried, some white smoke in ‘is eyes, and a wysp o' white clouds ‘roond ‘is ‘ead.

Styll a'sick ‘cross town lynes, ‘e staggered an' whined, ‘is confusyd an' ill Gagan MacMann,
When ‘e met ‘is own syde, ‘e felt bettyr insyde, an' studyd wha' said by the man.
‘Is clothin' a'soiled, from the aft'noon's toils, ‘e decyded ta wash from the stream,
Tha' cold issued forth, from the ‘illsyde did course, ‘neath a rottin' remayns of bad dreams.

It sparkyld a'bright, mayd ‘im swoon in the light of the moon, as if Sullys cud see;
A fyre did course in ‘is blood with such force as ‘e drank from the flow so free.
‘E clymed from the banks after two hearty dranks to the glimpse o' some torches afar,
A'shiverin' cold from the threats that they told, an' the chyll o' the frigyd nyght air.

Runnyn' bak ta the tent, so quickly he went, a'forgettin' ‘is clothes for a while,
Startyd gatherin' wood, the best that he could, put some herb and dry sod in a pyle,
An' he thot in the dairk, as ‘e lit up a spairk, that ‘e needyd some warmth and some lyght,
Shud he need some defynce, an' he become entrynched, in one Holy Hell of a fyght!

Th' lyght showyd ‘is sword, by ‘is sharpenyn' board, so ‘e sat as the gent's words rang clear,
An' scraypd on the steel, an' called to appeal, ta ‘is seven old sibs, in ‘is fear,
Fairst theyre names, then the sounds, then ‘e sang ‘em in rounds, and the fact he was bare as a child,
An' ‘e suckyd in the smoke o' the fyre, ‘e chokyd, but ‘is muscyles began to grow wyld.

Th' fyre an' smoke, bought the purplish folk, donnin' torchys an' clubs as they screamed,
Bu' a nekked white child, wi' ‘is eyes red an' wild, was a byt more strange than they dreamed,
‘Is teeth wair a'gleamin, ‘is eyes red an' steamin', foul cursys cayme utterin' forth,
An' a'fore cayme the sun, the carnage ‘s a'done, an' ‘is sword eighty tymes found its worth!

Th' sairchers all say, ta this very same day, ‘boot the pyle o'bleached bones in the sun,
Th' remaynes could've been from some demon o'wind, or a sykness tha' took its full run;
Bu' theyre stacked, ‘eads in line wi' a carcyss so fine, of a byrd in the bed of a stream,
An ne'er hyde, nor a'hair, o' McMann chyld so fair, can be found in the glimpse o' a dream."

Darmon finished reading.

"Hmmm... interestin' Thanos, Darmon. Sounds like ol' Gagan found a recipe fer fightin', or somethin'," said Burin. Do ya think it's what we have here? If so, we're missin' somethin'."

"Well, Burin, the first paragraphs read a little borin', mostly because it describes the clan system, a bit. The smaller families had a lot o'pride, in their ancestors, in their accomplishments, an' their names. Folks took a lot o' time comin' up wi' the names, and they usually meant a lot. Guess ‘at's important, ‘cause he mentions it later, in depth.

They would go so far as ta write their names on the mantle, make plaques, even names an' secret sayin's with the letters. It's mostly ‘cause, that's all they had, some of ‘em."

"Guess Gagan was a wanderer, of sorts, eh?" asked Yngvarr. "Seems he took the chance to leave home and strike out on his own."

"Chances are that is true," said Thanos, "and maybe it led to his disrespect of mythology and tales of sorcerers. He might have heard of the curse, but ignored it."

"Or maybe this was the first time. If that's what Tanarus really said, it sounds like he made things up as he went along. Darmon was given the same curse as I was, and as I remember, it wasn't as if he tried other punishments or changed his mind. He just told us we were gonna be growing old for a long time."

"But let's get back ta the names, Darmon," said Dwalin, " they mean anything, like you say, on the mantle? There's gotta be some kind of clue or somethin'." "Well, ‘c, a, o, n, n, a, then ‘g' for Gagan. The word ‘gaonnag' means ‘fight', or ‘to fight', in Creagish. Sounds like a feisty clan."

"Sounds familiar, Darmon. Some kind of fight you Creags used to do..." Darmon thought, then shook his head. "Nae, nothin' that comes ta mind right now. Tanarus did lock ‘im up in the town, a different punishment, so this could o' been the first time he'd administered one."

"Then the stranger comes. That seems to be the next thing to happen of consequence. He seems to talk about Orcs and warns Gagan, but the first thing he says that seems out of place is ‘wash clean yair arse, in th' child's life's sparkley bath'. Why even mention it, if it does not have any point?"

"Hmm... true, Thanos. It does seem outa place. Whose child is he speakin' of?" asked Agli.

Owin ambled up to the conversation, a little bruise on his calf, from a wayward wooden sword, growing to a lump. "Well, didn't it say as the stranger turned around, there were clouds in his head? What's that mean?"


"Darmon?" nudged Agli, "...somethin' that rings a bell?"

"Hae. Tanarus. Cloudy head, strange lookin' guy. Dinna think aboot it, but, every time I saw him...?" he looked, question unspoken, to Yngvarr, who nodded. "So, Gagan bathed in the water from the stream, the same stream that flowed around and through the dragon's carcass, and mingled with his blood. Agli...?" nudged Thanos.

"Mithril in his system, yup. Same as...?"

Burin answered, "...every damned one of the townspeople, I betcha. He lived there for two years, drinkin' water from the stream. Betcha he had mithril poop, same as everyone here."

Thanos looked to Agli. "My Khazak naturalist friend, if he had the same magical stuff in his body, and he took on the orcs, could not a whole town of people do the same?"

Agli opened his mouth, but was interrupted by a man in a kilt. "Naked." This is usually a conversation stopper, on the order of Agli asking "Where does the poop go?" It had the same effect.

"The dance, Yngvarr. A' the Farland barr'cks. Caonnag Lomnachd. The naked fighting dance in the Creagish custom. That's what it was."

Thanos looked quizzically at Darmon. " have done...this...?"

"Hae. Several times. Keeps ya on yair toes, an' it do", he said, nodding his head in remembrance of something hundreds of years ago. "It's done in th' night, in front o' Sulis, goddess o' the moon. Guess she gets lonely, too..."

Yngvarr snorted as he held back a laugh. "So, somehow, we have to get the whole town naked. Any idea how that's ta be accomplished?"

"Well, that dunna mean they ool ‘ave ta be skins. It could be the spell itself, the words."

Owin, possibly still hurting from his missing lost love, mused, "Maybe they have some kinda frisky festival we don't know about," and sighed.

Thanos continued. "Still, there is more. What is the reference to Heaven and Hell? Anyone?"

"The mention of ‘wi' yair breath a'tween Heavyn an' ‘Ell' makes me think of a tradition in the North." began Yngvarr. "I think they do it in Creagland, too, but it came from us, I think. A fire is stoked with fir branches and peat moss. After it gets good and hot, some heather is piled on the fire, and the smoke is breathed in, which is why it says breath a'tween - the combination of the two, clears the head and puts you in a dream-like state."

"Yae, t'is true. Eocahob and I used it jus' a'fore I took the road here. Never ‘eard o' it causin' other effects, bu', ‘oo can tell?"

Agli breathed deeply and nodded. "Sounds like we need another experiment, yup..." and all four dwarves nodded their heads in unison. Thanos had learned enough of them to know they were plotting as they spoke.

Darmon frowned a mite, uttering a slight "Hmm..."

"Something wrong, Darmon?"

The Creag looked to the Anarian and nodded. "Hae, we may get some heather, bu' peat, around ‘ere? Na common ta find it outside o' Creagland."

"I think I can help you, gentlemen." They all turned around to see James O'Malish, the town "character" and Richard's old friend, walking up the road with an armful of garden shovels and a scythe. "I overheard a little of the conversation; I was coming up to deliver these steel garden tools to Mr. Hallerd." Richard, almost on cue, exited his house and greeted him.

"Thank you, Jim. Everyone, this is James O'Malish. Did you have any trouble getting these?" But looking at Jim, Richard could see something was troubling him. "Are you okay, Jim?"

Jim looked a little confused as he dropped the utensils; his eyes fluttered and he stammered, his voice coming out a little deeper. "We're quite fine, Richard. Both of us."

Darmon and Yngvarr stood up; Darmon grasped Slayer, not in an offensive stance, but more of a protective one. "Sumus? Don't hurt him. He's Richard's old friend. What do you want?"

Jim shook his head and started to talk, with no sound, almost as if Sumus changed his mind. "I'm - not - going to hurt James. I - don't want to - hurt anyone. I can help..."

Darmon looked down at his sword; I believe him, Darmon.

After a moment of searching the face of a townsman who was a captive audience, Darmon nodded; "Go ahead, Sumus. Slayer trusts yae, so do I, then. Wha' du ya know?"

"I remember a conversation I had with Aedan O'Limm. He was quite proud of his heather, which he transplanted from Creagland. And he used to own the low-lying lot behind his old bar, where there's been peat growing there for years. I - er, James and some of his friends - can gather a lot for you."

"That would be perfect, Sumus. We'll need it soon, I think. Pick the peat first, and let it dry in the sun for as long as it can, somewhere near the main road - that's where we'll have the fire." Yngvarr shook his hand, adding, "...take care of James, Sumus..."

The ghost and his shell smiled, nodded and hurried off toward town.