Birds of a Feather



            Ithican woke with start as a ray of sun managed to make its way through the thick summer forest canopy.  Whatever dream he’d been locked in had vanished the second he’d woke. He sat up and looked around, finding himself alone.  The height of the sun over the forest told him that it was fast approaching noon, he’d over slept. 




            When he got no response Ithican got up and went looking for his friend.  It didn’t take long for him to find where Sam had wandered off to.  The Human was lying in a near by field on a large flat rock.  He’d taken his shirt off and was using it as a pillow.


            “What are you doing?” 


            “What does it look like I’m doing?”  Sam replied nonchalantly.


            “Looks like you’re laying in the sun like a lizard.”




            “Okay...I guess the question I meant to ask is: why?”


            “I’ve never been this pale.  After nearly a month underground I need some sun.  Speaking of which, kindly cast your shadow elsewhere.”


            “You know the sun just damages your skin.”


            “That’s fine.”


            “You’re hopeless.”  Ithican laughed.




            “We really should have stayed with the Nymphs a while longer.”


            “Missing Tallutha already?”  Sam mocked.


            “You’re not completely well yet.”  Ithican said ignoring the jab.


            “I’m well enough.”   Sam gave up on sun bathing, he sat up and pulled his shirt on.  “Besides I’d rather drink a vat of Yaritine before suffering through one more mushroom based meal.”


            “I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I have to agree with your general point.”  Ithican winced at the thought.  “I don’t know how they stand the stuff.”


            “There is no accounting for taste, particularly when women are concerned.”


            “Well, if we are where they say we are we shouldn’t be too far from Banthick.  We should be able to get some real food there.”


            “And something to drink, it’s been far too long.”


            “Forget it,”  Ithican said sternly  “your liver has worked hard enough lately.”


            “No sun, no has become your mission to suck all the fun out of my life, hasn’t it?”


            “I have to do something to keep myself amused.”  Ithican smiled.


            “We need to find you a new hobby.”


            “Right now I’d just be happy if we could find the nearest point of civilization.”


            “Then quit yapping and start walking.”







            “All I’m saying is that we should probably start watching what we spend.”  Ithican said as they made their way towards Banthick.  “It’s amazing how quickly we managed to spend several lifetimes worth of gold and jewels.”


            “You know what they say: ‘easy come, easy go’.”  Sam said with a shrug.


            “’Easy’?”  Ithican repeated with mock indignity.  He tugged on his white lock.  “You call that ‘easy’?”


            “Sorry,”  Sam laughed  “it’s just an expression.  Besides, we didn’t spend all of it, Tommy’s brothers helped us quite a bit.”


            “Don’t remind me.”  Ithican rolled his eyes.  “Those gu...”


            “Ith?”  Sam asked when Ithican stopped.


            “Did you hear that?”


            “No.”  Sam said automatically, but then he did hear the noise: a pitiful bleating.  “It’s just a deer.”


            Ithican turned off the road they’d been following and waded into the forest towards the sound.  Sam just watched him for a second.


            “What are you doing?”  Sam finally asked.


            “It sounds hurt.”


            “So?  There are probably some hungry wolves around, we should be grateful that there is easier prey around here than us.”


            “I’m going to find it.  Are you coming?”


            “No, this is ridiculous.  Since when did my life become about other people’s problems?”


            Ithican stopped and looked back at Sam with a catty grin.  “Right about the time you met me.”


            “And I’ve been paying the price ever since.” 


            “Oh, come on.  What’s the worst that could happen?”


            “I thought we weren’t allowed to ask that question out loud anymore.”  Sam laughed. 


            Ithican ignored him and walked further off the road.  Sam shook his head and followed the Elf into the brush.  A few hundred yards off the road was a small glade that held the injured animal.  As Sam had guessed it was a deer.  It was young, a mere spike buck.  It’s back leg was caught in a snap trap.  It caught sight of the intruders and tried to pull away, which only made matters worse.  


            “I hate it when people use traps to catch deer, it’s cowardly.”  Ithican growled.  When he went to go to the animal’s aid Sam stopped him by catching him by his sword belt and pulling him back.  “What ar...”


            “Something’s not right here.”  Sam said looking around with a critical eye.  “That animal isn’t trapped, it is the trap.”




            “It’s bait.” 


            “How can you tell?”


            Sam didn’t answer he picked up a large stick and starting tapping the ground.  He was about four feet from the fawn when he sprung another trap.  Ithican jerked back as the force of the trap nosily broke the stick Sam held. 


            “That could have been your leg.”  Sam said holding up the shattered end of stick.  “Let that be a lesson to you: ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.”


            “Very funny.  How did you know that was there?”


            “It’s the oldest trick in the book.  They weren’t after deer.”


            “What were they after?”


            “I don’t know, something bigger.  Do gooding Elves perhaps.” 


            Ithican walked over to the fawn and released him.  The injury wasn’t too serious and the animal quickly bounded away.  He went back to the larger sprung trap and crouched down next to it for a closer look.  Sam also knelt down, he flipped the now harmless device over and swore.


            “What’s wrong?”  Ithican asked.


            “It’s magical, it has a sensor on it to let the owner know it’s been triggered.  They’ll be here an...”  Sam stopped cold, he’d found an inscription on the trap.  He read the name a few times to make sure he wasn’t imagining things and then looked up at his Elven friend.


            “Sam?”  Ithican asked.


            “You have to get out of here, Ith, now.” 




            “If the dogs catch sent of you you’d better have a head start.  Now run, I’ll met you Banthick.”




            As if on cue a lone hound bayed off to the north.  Its voice was quickly joined by others.


            “What part of ‘run’ don’t you understand?”  Sam drew out his sword.  “Go!”


            Ithican looked at Sam dubiously and then up at the direction that the howling was coming from.  The animals were definitely getting closer.  Sam saw him hesitating.


            “I’ll explain later.  Trust me, Ith.”


            “All right, I’ll see you in Banthick then.”


            Sam watched Ithican leave.  When he was sure that the Elf wasn’t turning back he brought his attention back to the approaching dogs.  He whistled sharply three times to draw the hounds towards him.  They reacted instantly and it wasn’t long before they joined Sam in the small glade.  The four tri-coloured hunting dogs growled and bristled menacingly at him.


            “Hastes eckt nata!”  Sam commanded.


            The animals didn’t even hesitate.  They sat down and gave Sam their full and undivided attention. 




            The hounds faithfully obeyed and laid down without a sound.  Sam watched the dogs with a leery eye for a moment.  He hadn’t been a hundred percent sure that his plan was going to work, but it seemed to be going smoothly. 


            “What has gotten into you mutts!”  A deep voice came into the glade followed, quickly by it’s owner.  “Get up!  Nescrit!”  Despite the command the dogs didn’t move.


            “Hello.”  Sam said calmly.


            The new comer looked up from his rebelling pack.  He stared at Sam for a moment in shock. 


            “Sam?”  He finally asked in disbelieve.  He smiled brightly  “Samaricus, is that you?  By the Gods, how many years has it been?”


            Not enough.  Sam thought darkly.  “Too many, Dace.”


            “I can’t believe this!”  Dace laughed boorishly.   “Guys!  Get over here!  You’ll never believe who it is!”


            Out of the five men who came out of the forest three of them recognized Sam instantly.  The other two Sam didn’t recall having met.  The three who knew him reacted similarly to the way Dace had.  Sam forced a smile as Brandon gave him a good natured shove.


            “I didn’t think we’d be seeing you again!”  Brandon said excitedly.


            “Yeah, I figured you’d be dead by now.”  Mikle, another face from Sam’s past, chimed in.


            “I see that the dogs still listen to you before they’ll listen to Dace.”  Alexin laughed. 


            Sam didn’t reply.  He looked around nervously. 


            “What’s wrong with you, Sam?”  Dace asked.  “Put that sword away.  We’re all friends here, right?”      


            “Right.”  Sam put his weapon back in its sheath. 


            “In fact I’ve even got a job for you.  I can’t believe our luck in finding you.  I set this trap for something else, but I’m glad it caught you.  So to speak.”


            “Who is this?”  One of the men Sam didn’t know asked suspiciously. 


            “This is the answer to our prayers, Wayln.”  Dace said proudly.  “He’s the man who is going to solve this little problem of ours.”


            “What?”  Wayln asked.  “What makes him so qualified to help us?”


            “Because,”  Dace put him arm around Sam’s shoulders and jerked him close  “he is probably the greatest poacher Nuearth has ever seen!”






            “You guys get back to the camp,”  Dace ordered with a dismissive wave  “We’ll meet you later.  I want to talk to Sam alone.”


            Sam ignored the ‘glad you have you backs’ and other such comments that were exchanged.  He just watched sullenly as the pack of thieves left. 


            “That means you too, mutts.”  Dace growled at the dogs.  “Sesta!”


            Sam had to smile when the dogs didn’t move.  “Sesta.”  Sam said calmly and the hounds got up and followed the others. When they’d gone Dace chuckled, a noise that grated on Sam’s nerves. The man hadn’t changed in twenty years.


            “They always did like you best.”  Dace teased.  “They wouldn’t eat for a week after you left.” 


            “You might as well go with them, Dace.  We have nothing to talk about.”


            “Oh come on, Sam.  You haven’t even heard me out.”


            “The last time I ‘heard you out’ I ended up chained to a wall in Tanthic Prison.”


            “Hey, be fair.  I got you out didn’t I?”


            “After two months.  Not to mention only about five minutes before I was going to be executed for your botched job.”


            “As I recall I already apologized for that.  Besides, it looks like you’ve managed to get into trouble even without me.”




            “Don’t play naive with me.”  Dace laughed.  “So, who are you running from now?”       


            “I’m not running from anyone.”  Sam growled. 


            “Are you trying to tell me that you actually served out a full sentence?”  Dace asked mockingly.  “That’s not the Sam I know.  Where did you break out of this time?”


            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


            “Like Hell you don’t.”  Dace smiled brightly.  He took Sam’s wrist in his bronze hand and held up Sam’s pale arm.  “You can’t tell me you haven’t been locked up for the past month or more.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What I wanted to talk to you about is an opportunity that I want to give you because you’re an old friend.”


            “No, you want to bring me in on whatever this is because you can’t do it yourself.”  Sam sneered pulling his wrist away.  “Forget it, I won’t help you.  I don’t want to end up back in Tanthic, or any place similar.”


            “Now, now, stop jumping to conclusions.  This job is perfectly legal, I assure you.”


            “Legal?”  Sam repeated with a derisive snort.  “That’s not like you, Dace.”


            “I know, it’s practically embarrassing.”  Dace laughed.  “But it’s true.”


            “You know, I don’t even care if is.  As nice as this little reunion has been, I have somewhere else to be.”  Sam turned to leave.


            “I’ll pay you a hundred thousand.”


            “What?”  Sam stopped.


            “There’s the Sam I know.”  Dace grinned.  “I knew that would get your attention.  We’re birds of a feather, Sam...”


            “You’re no bird, Dace, and the last time I checked I didn’t have any feathers.”  Sam retorted.  “But I’ll give you five minutes to explain this little proposal of yours, and I better not regret giving you that much.”


            “Oh, you won’t.  Trust me.”






            Banthick was a sleepy little town with more inns than actual residences.  It had the feeling of a midpoint town, where nine people out of ten were ‘just passing through’.  Ithican went to the nearest inn to make it easier for Sam to find him.  He had a few theories on why Sam had asked him to leave, but he didn’t worry about it too much. 


            The counter at the inn that Ithican had walked into was empty.  He went up to it anyway and looked around.  The only thing of note was the large painting on the wall of a grassy plain with a herd of ibex.


            “You’re a little far north, aren’t you?”  A deep voice asked.


            Ithican turned around quickly with his hand automatically going for the hilt of his sword.  When he saw the owner of the voice it took him a second to believe what he was seeing.  After all it had been over two years since he’d seen another Elf.


            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”  The Elf smiled.  “Where are my manors?  How are the Wetlands?”


            “As beautiful as ever,”  Ithican answered automatically  “and the Plains?”


            “As open and free as the sky.”  The Plains Elf laughed.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to use that greeting.”


            “Same here.” 


            Ithican had never met a Plains Elf before, but it wasn’t hard to recognize the man as one.  They were heavier built and wore their hair pulled back into a braid that reached down to the lower back. 


            “You need a room?”  The Plains Elf asked.


            “You’re the owner?”


            “I am.  That surprises you?”


            “No, I...I guess I just wasn’t expecting to find any Elves here.  Like you said: I’m a little far north.”


            “Nuearth’s still a free place.”  He said with a wink.  “But you should know that better than most.”


            “What do you mean by that?”


            “You are Ithican of Evergladrida, aren’t you?”


            “No, sorry you have me mistaken for someone else.”  Ithican said quickly.  “My name is Aristat.”


            The Plains Elf smiled and nodded.  “All right then, ‘Aristat’.  If you need a place to stay room ten is open.”  He walked around to the other side of the counter and fished out a key.


            “Thank you.”  Ithican took the key.  He hesitated for a second.  “Someone is going to come here looking for me...”


            “I know.”  The Plains Elf smiled again.  “I’ll tell him you’re here.” 


            “Thank you.  How much do I owe you?”


            “You owe me nothing.”




            “No, my family’s freedom means more to me than anything.  And I know I have you to thank for that.”


            Ithican replied with an embarrassed smile.  He’d never been thanked by an Elf for what he and Sam had done, not even the ambassadors had ever truly recognized them.  If anything they’d been treated as troublemakers.


            “I wasn’t alone.”


            “Well, I can thank him when he comes looking for you.”








            “You have come up with some hair brained schemes in the past, Dace.  But this one transcends mere mortal stupidity.”


            “’Transcends’?”  Dace repeated.  “Where did you learn a word like that?  What do you even mean by it?”


            “I mean you are going to get killed.  Can you understand that?  How did you even find someone willing to pay you for this?”


            “They came to me.”  Dace replied defensively.  “They have already paid us very well for the other animals we’ve brought them.”


            “Yes, but a Dragon isn’t just ‘an animal’.” 


            “Of course it is.  It’s an overgrown lizard.”


            “A very overgrown Lizard with razor sharp claws, and a very large set of jaws lined with lots of teeth.  Their hide is like armor, I can’t even imagine how anyone would go about trying to kill one.”


            “But that’s the whole point, we don’t want to kill it.”


            “You said...”


            “I said I wanted to ‘catch’ one, we need it alive.”


            “That’s even worse!”


            “I don’t remember you being such a pessimist.”  Dace mocked.  “You used to be the most brazen one of us all.  In fact I remember a time when you had serious dreams of stealing the Eye of the Unicorn, talk about bad ideas.”


            “Tell me about it.”  Sam muttered to himself. 




            “Nothing.  Why does this buyer of yours want these creatures?”


            “It’s actually a company, and they are building some sort of Zoo.”


            “And they want to put a Dragon in it?  That’s insane.”


            “Hey, I’m only the messenger.  Actually the list they gave me mainly has weird, not to mention rare, animals on it.  Things like unicorns, manticore, kin-rin, stuff like that.”




            “Yeah, I said ‘no’ to that one.”  Dace laughed.  “Those things are dangerous, worse than Dragons.  Anyway, I’ve got just about everything except this blasted Dragon, and of course that’s the one they’re willing to pay the most for.”


            “I can imagine.  Do these guys have any idea what they’re getting themselves into?  Where are they even going to keep it?”


            “Who cares?”  Dace shrugged.  “We just have to get it to them, after that it’s their problem.”


            “Even if I did want to help you, and I’m not saying that I do,”  Sam added quickly  “we must be five hundred miles from the Dragon Mountain Range.”


            “Six actually.  But that doesn’t matter, there is a Dragon in this area.”


            “Here?  What’s it doing so far north?”


            “I don’t know.  This isn’t a normal Dragon, it’s small, hardly larger than a horse.  That’s why it’s perfect.”


            “Horse sized?”


            “Yeah, only not as tall.”


            “You’ve seen it?”


            Dace nodded.  “I’m tell you Sam, this isn’t impossible.  We just have to get close enough to it.”


            “Good luck.”


            “Come on, Sam.  Where’s your sense of adventure?  Don’t tell me you’re getting too old for this sort of challenge.”


            “What have you tried so far?”  Sam sighed.


            “Everything.”  Dace said in an exasperated tone.  “It doesn’t even seem interested in bait.”


            “That’s because you haven’t been using the right kind.”  Sam said with a sly grin.


            “Really?”  Dace said with interest, he knew Sam well enough to know when he had an idea.  “Dragons are known for their love of deer meat.”


            “True, but you’re appealing to the wrong instinct.  You shouldn’t be trying to make it hungry, you should be trying to make it mad.”


            “What?!”  Dace said shocked.  “The last thing we need is a pissed off Dragon, even a small one.”


            “You said you needed to get close to it didn’t you?”


            “Yeah, but...”


            “So strike first, Dragons are very territorial.  If we go into it’s territory, instead of trying to lure it out, it will attack and it could be lead into a trap.”


            “That’s insane!”  Dace shoved Sam playfully.  “So insane, it just might work!  You never were one for sneaking about, were you Sam?  This reminds me of the Lacrity Emerald heist.  Do you remember that job?”


            “I’ll never forget it.”  Sam grinned.


            “We’d been planning how to get into Lacrity’s house for a month and then you decide to just knock on the front door while he was away and ask Mrs. Lacrity if you could come in.”  Dace chuckled.  “I couldn’t believe it.”


            “She said ‘yes’ didn’t she?”


            “More than once, if my memory serves me right.” 


            “Hey, you’d said you needed a distraction.”


            “You certainly distracted her.”  Dace laughed. 


            Sam had to laugh as well.  As much as he hated to admit it he and Dace had had some great times.  They had also pulled off some amazing stunts.


            “It was definitely one of your better plans.”  Dace admitted.  “And their is just one flaw to your current idea.”


            “What’s that?”


            “We’re going to have to find someone brave, or stupid, enough to walk into a Dragon’s Lair.”


            “I think between the two of us we’ve got that covered.”


            “So you’ll help us?”


            “Just this once, and I’m raising the price to one-fifty.”








            Ithican quickly learned that Banthick was about as interesting as a rainy day.  The inn’s keeper, Ethlan, had chatted with him for a while, but the Plains Elves and the Wetland Elves really have nothing in common.  Since Ithican was not very willing to discus his past they didn’t have much to talk about.    


            It was getting close to dark and Ithican was getting tired of just waiting around.  He paced  the room once and decided to go out and explore the woods near the town.  Since Sam didn’t see well in the dark Ithican rarely got the chance to roam around at night, something he loved doing.  The forest at night was an entirely different world from the one seen in broad daylight. 


            “Ethlan?”  Ithican called.


            “Yes?”  The inn’s keeper came out from the back room.


            “I’m going out, if Sam comes by please ask him to wait here.”


            “Actually, he’s already been here.”


            “What?  Why didn’t you tell me?”


            “He asked me not to.”  Ethlan shrugged. 


            “Did he say why?”


            “No, but he left a note.”  Ethlan rummaged around on the desk behind the counter.  “Here it is.  He asked me to give it to you later tonight, but I see no harm in giving it to you now.”


            Ithican took the note.  He read the sloppy script and rolled his eyes. 


            “Anything wrong?”


            “No,”  Ithican replied  “he just needs to work on his spelling.  I’m going out.  If he comes back tell him I got tired of ‘wating heir’, but I’ll be back ‘latter’.”


            “All right.”  Ethlan laughed. 


            Stepping out into the quiet street Ithican noticed that the winds had shifted, bringing a strong musky scent into the air.  He walked to the far side of town, which didn’t take long, and found that the odor got stronger.  He reasoned that it was coming from something in the forest.  Since he was going there anyway he decided to hunt out its source.


            Two of the tri-moons were out casting a blue light over the woods.  An owl flying on wings so silent that even Elven ears couldn’t hear them glided past Ithican in search of a meal.  He watched the animal until it was out of view and then followed it deeper into the hushed trees. 


            Creatures that usually remained hidden during the bright day were wandered about the woods.  Most of them ignored the Elven invader or simply regarded him calmly.  Every once in a while something would scurry hurriedly away.  The diverse wildlife that populated the nocturnal hours was exactly what Ithican had come out to enjoy.


            For a lack of anything better to do Ithican kept making his way towards the musky smell.  It wasn’t until the harsh sound of Human laugher tore through the still night that Ithican identified the subtle scent of Human mixed in with the now overpowering animal odor.  


            When Ithican crested a rise in the terrain the bright glare from a campsite’s fire momentarily blinded him.  After his eyes readjusted he found six Humans gathered around the large fire sharing the contents of a bottle and joking with one another. 


            Widely circling the clearing that the Humans had carved out of the forest Ithican discovered the source of the scent he’d been tracking.  Behind the men was a large number of cages and pens of all sizes and types of construction.  Ithican slunk into the rows of prisons and found animals that he’d only ever read about held behind the bars.  Several times he came across creatures that he could have sworn had been extinct for centuries.  Despite the diversity of species all of them were strangely quiet. 


            Probably to terrified to make noise.   Ithican thought to himself.  What’s going on here? 


            In search of an answer to his own question Ithican slipped back into the woods and quietly made his way back over to the men.  The firelight kept the Humans from being able to see out into the comparatively pitch black surroundings, making it easy for Ithican to spy on them. 


            “I can’t believe they went out after that thing!”  One of the men laughed. 


            “Yeah, but look at it this way: if the five of them don’t come back, all the more for us!”  Another added excitedly. 


            “Well then we better start deciding how we’re going to spend the extra money.  That new guy is going to get them all killed.  I don’t know why Dace trusts him so much.” 


            “Don’t worry about him, Wayln, he’s one of us.”


            “You know him then?”


            “Only by reputation.”


            “Reputations can be deceiving.”  Wayln snarled.  “I don’t trust him, we should have gone with them.”


            “Hey, I for one am glad they asked us to guard the place.  I’d rather not get eaten.  And fail or succeed we’re still going to make more money than we’ll know what to do with once we sell off these flea bags.” 


            “I will definitely be glad to get rid of these disgusting creatures.”  The blonde man complained.  “I miss the old days when we just slaughtered them for the skin.”


            “We missed the glory days, boys.”  Wayln said with a lecherous grin.  “If we’d been alive two thousand years ago we could be out here catching Elves for the Slave Trade.  If I’m going to waste my time catching animals it might as well be one that can do some useful work, rather than just be gawked at by tourist like what were collecting now.”


            “I agree, besides I wouldn’t mind having an Elf Maiden or two to call me ‘Master’.”  


            “I think you’d end up with more bite and scratch marks than you’ve gotten from the animals.”  One of the men teased.


            “Yeah, they might elect to a lifetime of torture instead.”


            “I can’t think of a punishment worse than a lifetime with you, Rexin!” 


            “Harris is right, no one deserves that fate,”  Wayln chuckled  “not even an Elf.” 


            The men laughed boorishly.  Ithican narrowed his emerald eyes and tried to keep his flash of temper under control.  Ithican studied the poachers for a moment and then smiled to himself.  Melting back into the deep forest he slunk back over to the cages and one by one he started opening them.   


            He’d freed most of the animals when he came to a large horse-like creature tied by a halter to a tree.  Ithican approached the animal slowly unsure of how it would react to him.  The other animals had stayed in the back corners of their cages until he’d left.  This animal however couldn’t back away from him and he didn’t want to spook it.


            Ithican had never actually seen a Unicorn before.  Its single horn swept back from its forehead in a graceful arc.  The near mythical creature eyed Ithican wearily, but kept quiet.  However, when Ithican went to cut the halter the Unicorn caught the glint of steel from the sharp Tarrin dagger and panicked. 


            Ithican tried to calm the animal, but it was too late.  The Unicorn’s braying quickly brought Wayln and the other to the cages.  Ithican turned around and found himself facing six well armed Humans.  At first Wayln just stared at the Elf and damage he’d done to their hard won collection in shocked disbelief.  Ithican smiled nervously.


            “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing so far North...”






            “I simply don’t believe it!”  Dace laughed.  “I can’t believe it actually worked.”


            “Neither do I.”  Sam admitted.


            Sam stared at the creature that lay behind the bars.  He’d seen Dragons from a distance, but he’d never been this close to one before -of course few had.  The animal was undeniably breath taking.   Its was predominately a polished emerald colour, but it had speckles that looked like rubies and sapphires embedded into its surprisingly delicately scaled hide.  The spikes that ran down the length of its back glittered like metallic gold.


            The Dragon tried to lift its head, but the chain around its serpentine neck held it down.  The steel snare that Dace had managed to slip over the Dragon’s narrow snout kept the animal from opening its jaws.  Dragons have powerful muscles for biting down, but their ability to open them up again is very weak.


            Sam looked back at the mouth of the cave where the Dragon had made its Lair.  It had reacted exactly as he thought it would to an invasion.  Since they had been brave, or stupid, enough to enter cave before the Dragon came out the animal hadn’t had much room to maneuver.  They’d had the added advantage of surprise due to the Dragon’s inability to see well at night. 


            In the end capturing the Dragon hadn’t been half as difficult as Sam thought it was going to be.  The advantage that most Dragons have over Humans is their massive size.  However for some reason this one was only about twelve feet from its nose to the tip of its tail, and only about five feet tall at the highest point along its back -positively tiny by Dragon standards. 


            The Dragon tilted its head so that one of its golden eyes caught Sam’s stare.  The Dragon’s slited pupil was dilated wide.  Taking a deep breath it whimpered pitifully.  Sam took a step back and turned away.


            “Do you think it will survive?” 


            “Of course it will.”  Dace answered confidently.  “It isn’t bleeding anywhere, we didn’t even have to use any electricity spells on it.”


            “I meant do you think it will survive being in captivity?”


            “All I care is that it lives through the next two weeks.”


            “Two weeks?”


            “That’s when the guys from Sandi-Aigo will be stopping by to see what we’ve got.  They come up and collect whatever we’ve got once a month.  They’re going to piss themselves when they see this!”


            “Dace, I’m having second tho...”  Sam started, but was interrupted when Brandon and Mikle came out of the cave.


            “How’s Alexin?”  Dace asked.


            “The Dragon smacked him with its tail pretty hard, but he’ll be all right.”  Mikle answered. 


            “We’ll get some brandy in him, and he’ll forget the whole thing.”  Brandon laughed.


            “I think we could all use a drink after this.”  Dace grinned.  “How about you, Sam, you all right?”


            For the fist time Sam took the time to look at the blood that dripped casually off his arm.  “It’s just a scratch.”


            “You look shaky.”


            “So do you.”  Sam said defensively.  “After all we did just tangle with a Dragon.”


            “And won!” 


            Sam looked back at the defeated Dragon.  It laid in the wheeled cage looking for all the world like it was going to cry.  Sam shook his head angrily at the thought, it was just an animal.  He knew exactly who’s influence was causing him to feel guilty right now, and for some reason it annoyed him. 






            “You mentioned something about a drink?”


            “Yes I did.”  Dace laughed.  “I think we’ve earned it.”






            “This job with Sandi-Aigo is only the beginning.”  Dace rambled on the way back to the camp.  “I’m finding out more and more each day that there is a huge market out there for exotic pets.”




            “Yeah, I’ve sold a lot of stuff to private buyers as well.  Why steal from the rich, when you can just as easily get money from them legally?”  Dace laughed.  “I’m telling you, Sam, you should stay with us.”       


            “I can’t.”


            “Why not?  I don’t understand.  We’ll make a fortune, Hell, we’ve already made one!”


            “I told you before, I have somewhere else to be.”


            “Sam, for as long as I’ve known you, you have never, not once, ever had anywhere to be.  You have no land, no job, no family, and no place to call home.  I found you nearly thirty years ago starving to death with a hangover that had lasted probably ten years.”


            “What is your point?”  Sam growled.


            “My point is that I’d be surprised if you’ve ever had a legitimate job in your whole miserable life, but I’m offering you one now.”


            “I don’t need or want to be under your employment, Dace.”


            “If that were true you wouldn’t be here now.”  Dace grinned.  “I know you, Sam.  The money you’ve earned for catching this Dragon will be gone in a month, and you’ll have nothing to show for it -beyond a little extra liver damage.”




            “No, don’t answer now, just think about my offer.  And remember, you can’t just wander Nuearth for the rest of your life.  You’re young now, but age will catch up with us both.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have some security in the future?”


            Sam didn’t bother replying.  He knew that there was no point in arguing with Dace when he was like this.  Dace had always been a dreamer and Sam had always lived for the here and now.  Together they could be amazingly shortsighted, but of course neither one of them had every noticed that fact before. 


            Sam spent the rest of the journey back in silence .  It didn’t take too long to get the Dragon back to the camp.  They had left some horses near the cave to hook up to the wagon-like cage and were able to haul it back easily enough.  Dace’s sprits were high the whole way, however, when they got back the first thing that caught his eye was the missing Unicorn -things went down hill from there.


            “What the Hell happened?!”  Dace demanded angrily.


            Wayln and the others who had stayed behind looked at one another nervously.  Wayln rubbed at the dark bruise at his left temple and cleared his throat.  He looked like a school boy being berated by the principal. 


            Sam looked around at the now mostly empty cages, disinterested.  He had plans of leaving now anyway.  He knew Dace well enough to have asked for the money up front on their recent venture, so there really wasn’t anything to keep him here.  This was not his problem.  


            “Answer me!”  Dace screamed when he didn’t get a reply.


            “We, um...”  Wayln started to explain  “we were attacked.”


            “By what?!”


            “An Elf.”  Wayln admitted after a few moments hesitation.


            “What?!”  Dace and Sam asked in near unison. 


            “What did he look like?”  Sam asked quickly.


            “Like any other slave!”  Wayln snarled.  “Although he did have a white strea...”


            “Who cares?!” Dace roared.  He took a deep breath and continued in an eerily calm voice.  “In case you were wondering, this is the part in the conversation where you take me to his bleeding half-dead carcass so I can feed him to my dogs.”


            Wayln cringed.  Sam looked around nervously, but as far as he could tell the only captives here were animals. 


            “Well?”  Dace asked impatiently.


            When Wayln still didn’t answer Sam chuckled to himself.


            “What’s so funny?”  Dace growled.


            “They didn’t catch him.”  Sam explained matter-of-factly. 


            “Is that true?”  Dace demanded.


            “He had a Tarr...”


            Dace didn’t wait for a full explanation.  He struck Wayln like a snake and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and his wrist.  Pulling the man’s arm up behind his back Dace used the leverage to drag him over to the cage where the Dragon lay.


            “Do you see that?”  Dace asked.  “Do you know what that is?  Well?!”


            “Dragon, it’s a Dragon.”  Wayln replied hastily after Dace had jerked on his wrist, threatening to break his arm.


            “Correct, a Dragon.  We caught a Dragon, and the six of you couldn’t even defend yourselves against an Elf!  How can you explain that?”              


            “Dragons aren’t smart like Elves.”  Wayln growled in pain and humiliation unable to free himself from Dace’s grip.


            “Apparently neither are you.”  Sam laughed. 


            “I want that Elf found!”  Dace spat.  He pushed his captive to the dirt. 


            “He’s miles from here by now.”  Wayln sat up and rubbed at his shoulder. 


            “Sam, tell the mutts to go get him.”  Dace ordered.  He looked down at Wayln in disgust.  “I should have left them here to guard the place instead, at least they know how to fight.  They’ll find him.”


            “They’ll tear him apart.”  Sam protested without thinking.


            “That’s the point.  What’s wrong with you?”


            “Nothing, what I meant was...”  Sam hesitated while he tried to think of something plausible to say.  “What I meant was -I know how you are about revenge.  It’s no fun to just let the dogs kill him.  Wouldn’t you rather have him alive?”


            “Of course, but...”


            “I can do it.”  Sam said confidently.  “I’ll bring him back for you.”


            “I can’t remember the last time you ever did anything for ‘me’.”  Dace said suspiciously.


            “You’re right, let me clarify: I’ll bring him back for fifty thousand.”


            Dace laughed.  He looked around at the destruction to the camp with a strange look in his eye.  Dace nodded to himself and turned his attention back to Sam.


            “Tell you what, bring me that Elf and I’ll make you a full partner on this deal.”




            “That way we’ll both be happy, I’ll have you on my side and you won’t have to be ‘under my employment’.  Millions, Sam, we’ll make millions, I guarantee it.  This is only a minor set back.”


            “You ca...”


            “All you have to do is catch that Elf.”






            Ithican was exactly where Sam thought he’d be.  Finding him had been easy enough.  Sam had simply gone to Ethlan and asked him if there were any rivers or lakes in the area.  Ethlan had cheerfully given him directions to a near by lake.  Elves are nothing if not creatures of habit, and knowing the habits of one’s prey is the easiest way to hunt it down.


            The water loving Elf was sitting in the shallows.  Ithican had his shirt in his hands and was concentrating on trying to scrub the blood out of it.  The summer day was warm enough to just pull one’s shoes and weapons off and crawl into the cool water. 


            “Any of that yours?” 


            “Some of it.”  Ithican admitted.  He looked up at Sam with a mischievous grin.  “Where have you been?”




            “And I suppose ‘nothing’ happened to your arm.”


            “That’s right.”  Sam answered rubbing at the shallow cuts.  He looked critically at the large dark spot on Ithican’s ribs.  “I take it the same thing happened to your ribs.”


            “And my back.”  Ithican laughed.  “Ouch.”


            “You’re just lucky that you weren’t killed.”


            “Yeah, well...”  Ithican winced as he pulled on the wet shirt  “that seems to be my new motto.  But that’s okay, it was worth it.”


            “I don’t see how a few mangy animals are worth risking your life over.” 


            “You know what happened?” 


            Sam swore under his breath.  “Yes.”  He admitted. 


            “Dare I ask how?”


            “When an Elf with black and white hair is wanted for thievery and assault word gets around quickly.”


            “Thievery?”  Ithican repeated getting out of the water. 


            “It never occurred to you that you were stealing?”


            “I don’t see how anyone can steal from poachers.”


            “They weren’t poachers.”  Sam said defensively.  “They have every legal right to catch those animals.”


            “I find that hard to believe.”  Ithican shrugged.  “But legal or not, it’s still wrong.”


            “They’re just animals, Ith.” 


            “That doesn’t make it right.”  Ithican snapped.


            “But it makes it right for you to release them?”  Sam growled.


            “I don’t think you’re the person to lecture me over right and wrong, Sam.” 


            “You just can’t stand to see anything in a cage.  These are not prisoners of war or slaves, they are beasts, and they’ll be cared for just like any dog or horse.”


            “That Unicorn was no mere horse.”  Ithican retorted angrily. 


            “Look, this really isn’t worth arguing over.”


            “Yes it is.  I want to know why you’re defen...”  Ithican stopped and slowly took a step back.  “Wait... those guys would have never admitted to having been out foxed by a single Elf.  Unless they couldn’t hide it.  You know about what happened, because you know them.  You’re part of this.”




            “What were you helping them catch?”


            “Nothing important.”


            “What was it?”  Ithican repeated.


            “A Dragon.”  Sam sighed.


            “Dragon!  And you succeeded?”


            “Yes.”  Sam said simply.  “I can’t say that I’m proud of it, but it was a legitimate job, and you said yourself that we need the money.”


            “But why would they even ask for your help, you’re a thief not a poacher.”


            “I’m neither,”  Sam snarled  “not anymore.” 


            “I’m sorry, you’re right, that was uncalled for.”  Ithican apologized.  “But you used to be both, didn’t you?”


            Sam smiled sadly.  “Best in the business.  I could catch anything...or anyone.”


            Ithican thought about that for a second and laughed.  “They sent you to find me, didn’t they?”


            “They did.”


            “Do they have any idea that we’re friends?”


            “Of course not.  Dace would have killed me if he even suspected such a thing.”  Sam paused.  “He’s...unstable, to say the least.  And he’s very interested in revenge.”


            “So, how much is my hide worth?” 


            “It doesn’t matter.”  Sam answered with a shrug.  “I’m obviously not taking you back to those jackals.”


            “Yes you are, Sam.”


            “What?  Ithican, we shouldn’t even be standing here, we have to get out of here.”


            “No way, I’m not letting you get out of this that easily.”






            Dace almost choked on the whiskey that he was drinking straight from the bottle when Sam came walking into the camp with an Elf under his control.  The random conversations that the men had been having came to a complete stand still when they caught sight of the pair. 


            Although his hands had been left untied Sam held the Elf’s arms behind his back and used the leverage to force him forward.  The captive looked weary and hardly struggled until he noticed the Humans highlighted in the firelight.  The Elf’s eyes flashed luminescent green as he looked around desperately.  He renewed his efforts to escape, however Sam quickly tamed him by jerking up on his arms. 


            “How on Nuearth...”  Wayln started in disbelief. 


            Wayln jumped up and pulled a dagger out of the back of his sword belt.  Ithican watched him approach calmly until Wayln was only a few feet away.  He leaned against Sam and used the grip the strong Human had on his elbows as balance point so he could lift both feet off the ground and kicked Wayln square in the chest.  Wayln fell back to the dust unsure of exactly what had happened.


            “Watch out,”  Sam laughed  “he’s a bit of a Spitfire.”


            “Apparently you didn’t learn your lesson the first time, Wayln.”  Dace chuckled.  “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you came back, Sam, successful at that.”


            “Yeah, well, I thought about your offer and came to the only logical conclusion.”


            “I thought you might.  You won’t regret this.”


            “How did you catch that creature?!”  Wayln hissed getting to his feet, but keeping his distance.


            At the insult Ithican strained forward like a dog pulling at the end of a leash. Sam was not expecting the aggressive move and lost his grip.  Ithican went for Wayln, but quickly thought better of it and used the sudden freedom to try and escape into the dark forest.  Dace drew out his sword and went to take chase, but Sam calmly stopped him.


            “Escra!”  Sam ordered the dogs in a language he’d created just for this purpose.  “Astric, neari.”


            The hounds leapt at the chance.  Ithican hadn’t made it twenty feet before the dogs were in front of him growling and bristling menacingly.  He stopped and raked his hand through his long hair in frustration.  Ithican turned around and glared spitefully at the Humans.  Sam walked over to reclaim his prey.  Dace didn’t see exactly what Sam did to him, but the Elf cried out sharply.  


            “He’ll behave now.”  Sam stated confidently bringing the Elf back over.


            “Why didn’t you tie his wrists?”  Wayln asked irritated.


            “Didn’t have to.”  Sam shrugged.  “He’s fast, but not a particularly skilled fighter.”


            “I guess that makes two of you, Wayln.”  Dace laughed.


            “Something isn’t right here.”  Wayln growled suspiciously.  “How did you even find him?”


            “Sam’s just better at his job than you are.”


            Dace walked up put his hand on Ithican’s shoulder like they were old friends.  Ithican tried to pull away, but quickly found that Dace’s grip was even stronger than Sam’s.  Dace studied the Elf for a second finding his expression one more of disgust than anything else. 


            “Although, I have to admit that he seem uncommonly fearless.”  Dace mused.  “Aren’t you even going to cry for help, Elf?”


            “No one would hear him.”  Sam answered for Ithican.


            “True.”  Dace admitted.


            Sliding his calloused hand up the side of Ithican’s neck so that his thumb rested in the space just below the Elf’s ear.  When Ithican tried once again to pull away from the Human’s touch Dace seized his upper arm in the other hand to keep him still.


            “Not that it really matters, but what are you doing?”  Sam questioned.


            “They say,”  Dace explain without taking his eyes off Ithican  “that Elven ears are so sensitive that if you press against this point it causes excruciating pain.  Something about changing the pressure in the inner ear.”


            “I remember hearing something to that effect,”  Sam said with a shrug  “but I doubt it’s true.”


            “We can find out easily enough.”


            Dace pushed into the soft spot at the back of his captive’s ear.  Ithican grit his teeth, determined not to any weakness.  However Dace noticed that the Elf’s breathing was getting ragged as pain slowly leaked into his well guarded expression.  Dace increased the pressure on the point and was rewarded by a quick whimper from the uncomfortable Elf. 


            “On your knees, and I’ll stop.”  Dace offered cheerfully.


            When Ithican made no move to submit Dace jabbed the area that he was already bruising.  The Elf cried out sharply and his green eyes momentarily rolled back to white.  Interfering for the first time Sam placed the tip of his boot at the back of Ithican’s knee and forced the Elf down by pressing against the tendon that kept him standing. 


            Dace released his hold and Ithican rubbed gingerly at the spot.  He glared at Sam momentarily.  Dace could see him considering getting back to his feet.  However looking around the Elf found himself out numbered eleven to one, fifteen counting the dogs.  He sighed and voluntarily held his hands behind his back.


            “That’s better.”  Dace mocked.  “I’ve always said that any animal can be tamed, given the proper motivation.”


            “We don’t want him tame,”  Wayln spat  “we want him dead.  Enough of these games.”


            “You simply don’t know how to have fun, Wayln.”  Dace joked.  “But you do have a point.  Any suggestions, boys?”  Dace asked the other men who had been keeping quiet.  It was always best not to draw attention to one’s self when Dace was in a violent mood.  “Well?”


            “He looks like a Swamp Rat to me,”  Alexin answered  “best to drown him like one.”


            “We could hang him from one of the trees,”  Rexin said lightly  “you know how much Elves hate having things around their necks.” 


            “Good point,”  Brandon snickered  “although we’ve got enough electricity hanging around here to stun a Dragon.  I’m sure we could set the spells for torturing and killing Elves instead.”


            “Yeah, I hear if you do it right you can get them to sing.”  Mikle laughed. 


            “Call me Old Fashioned, but I think the best way to deal with an Elf is a horse whip.  It takes a bit of effort, but it’s well worth the results.”


            Ithican listened to the Humans discuss his fate passively.  He stared into the depths of the dark forest beyond the firelight.  Dace had expected some sort of reaction from the Elf, and was somewhat annoyed that he wasn’t getting it.  He reached down and gently tilted Ithican’s head back so he could look into his unnaturally emerald eyes. 


            “What do you think, Sam?”  Dace asked calmly.


            “I...”  Sam hesitated, but he quickly pulled himself together and smiled.  “As...imaginative as your ideas are, I think you’re going about this all wrong.  You’re making the same mistake that you made with the Dragon.”


            “Really?”  Dace said interested.  “How so?”


            “You’re working with the wrong instinct.”  Sam explained.  “The Elves don’t fear death or pain.  Just look at him, a Human in this situation would be quaking by now.  A gruesome death at your hand is practically doing him a favour.”


            “That’s a pretty unusual favor.”  Dace said keeping his eyes locked on the Elf’s.  “But go on, I’m listening.”


            “The Elves believe in honor above all a fault at times.”  Sam added. “The more difficult a passage from Life to Death the higher their station in the Afterlife.  They don’t fear having their lives taken from them, there is something else that they hold much more sacred.”


            “And that is?”


            “Their freedom.” 


            Dace smiled broadly, he had finally gotten the reaction he’d been searching for.  The change in the Elf was subtle.  His eyes had involuntarily flashed a panicked glance in the direction of the already imprisoned animals.  Dace kept his hand under Ithican’s chin until he could feel his jaw tremble as his fear pumped adrenaline into his blood. 


            “I think you might be on to something there, Sam.”


            “Of course, it’s the whole reason he’s in this mess in the first place.  Best of all you’ve caught him stealing.  Take him into the nearest city and they’ll give him five to ten years.  You and I both know he won’t survive more than a month in a Human prison, if that.”


            “I like the way you think.”   Dace looked at Sam and grinned.


            “This is foolish!”  Wayln protested.  “Don’t drag this out, Dace, just slit his throat.  We don’t need to get mixed up in anything like this right now!”


            “I think someone’s still scared.”  Sam mocked. 


            “That Elf is dangerous!”  Wayln spat.  “Just kill him now.”


            “No.”  Sam said a touch too quickly.  “If we kill him ourselves it’s murder, this way it will be legal and our hands will be clean.”


            Dace looked down at Ithican once more and saw that for the first time the Elf looked honestly frightened.  Dace smiled to himself and tangled his hand in Ithican’s ebony hair.  Ithican tried to remain calm, knowing full well that Dace had the strength to snap his neck in a heartbeat if he decided to.


            “Well...”  Dace finally said.  “seeing as you are my new partner on this venture, and you did bring him here, we’ll do it your way.  Besides, I think you’re right, I doubt I could come up with a crueler fate and it will be completely legal.”  Dace looked up and smiled mischievously.  “However, you are wrong on one detail.”


            “What’s that?”


            “Our hands will never be clean.”






            Sam sat staring into the glowing embers of the dying campfire.  His stomach hadn’t hurt this much since he’d been poisoned by the Nymphs.  Looking down at the half empty bottle of brandy at his feet Sam wondered how he had been talked into this. 


            The rest of the men were passed out, half of them snoring peacefully.  It had been a long time since Sam had been in the company of this many Humans.  Seeing them in the dim light of the tri-moons Sam suddenly saw why other races avoided them.  Even sleeping they looked more dangerous than a den of Dragons. 


            “Birds of a feather...”  Sam muttered darkly.  “Vultures, maybe.”


            Sam sighed deeply and stood up.  There was no delaying what was to happen next.  He’d gone this far, there was no turning back now.  Stepping carefully between the sleeping serpents Sam made his way back towards the cages.  When he walked past Wayln he had to use all of his will power not to kick the man in the ribs. 


            He managed to resist temptation and walked over to the rows of cages.  Sam put his hands on the bars of the cage that had once held a Manticore and that now held Ithican in its loose steel embrace.  Ithican was sitting with his back up against the far corner staring at the Dragon that lay in its own cage twenty feet away.  The Dragon was staring back at him sullenly.  When they looked up at Sam both pairs of eyes reflected the dim tri-moons light eerily, Ithican in green, the Dragon in gold. 


            “I was beginning to think that you weren’t going to come.”  Ithican said as he got to his feet.


            “How’s your ear?”  Sam asked concerned. 


            “Fine.”  Ithican came and leaned against the bars casually.


            “I didn’t realize you could do that to Elves.”


            “You can’t.”




            “It’s just a Wives Tale.”  Ithican smiled brightly.  “It didn’t hurt.”


            “You could have fooled me.” 


            “That was the whole point, wasn’t it?”  Ithican asked rhetorically.  “Although part of me still can’t believe they fell for this.”


            “You’re an impressive actor, Ith.”


            “It’s not hard to act scared when you’re already terrified.”  Ithican replied half-jokingly.


            “Hey, this was your idea.”  Sam rolled his eyes.  “You’re just not happy if you’re not trying to get us killed.”


            “Apparently not.”  Ithican laughed.  “So were are they?”


            “They drank themselves into a celebratory coma, just like I knew they would.  It will be a long while before they wake, and we’re going to need every second of it.”


            “Well then, might I suggest that you let me out of here.”


            “I don’t know...”  Sam mocked.  “Are you going to behave?”




            “I didn’t think so.” 


            Sam had considered lifting the keys off Dace earlier, however he knew that the lock on an animal cage would be a simple one.  It would have taken more time to figure out which key to use than to just pick it open.  When he went to unlock the door Ithican reached through the bars and snatched the lock pick away. 


            “Stay away from me, Human!”  Ithican snarled backing into the far corner.


            “Ith, wh...”


            “Having trouble sleeping?”  A dark voice asked.


            Sam paused for a second to allow his heart time to start beating again.  He forced a smile and turned around.  Wayln walked up and leaned against one of the nearest cages.  Fishing out a dagger he started to clean his fingernails casually with the tip. 


            “What do you want, Wayln?”  Sam asked trying to hide his surprise.


            “You don’t have to get so defensive.”  Wayln spread a sickenly sweet smiled across his thin face.  “We’re all friends here, right?  Or at least two of us are.”


            “I wouldn’t go so far as to call us ‘friends’, Wayln.”


            “I wasn’t talking about you and I.”  Wayln walked up to the bars.  “I was referring to your Elven companion here.”


            “You said yourself that he was dangerous,”  Sam said with a shrug  “I was just making sure he was still here.”


            “Oh, I doubt he’d go anywhere without you, Samaricus.”  Dace’s voice slipped into the conversation like a tendril of smoke followed quickly by the man himself.   “From the stories I’ve heard, you two are somewhat inseparable.” 


            “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dacetrinian.”  Sam didn’t trust hearing his full name and used Dace’s in return.


            “No?  Well perhaps we should ask the Elf, he’s been awful quiet.”  Dace turned his dark glittering eyes on his captive.  “Surely you’ve heard of Ithican of Evergladrida.”


            “That would be me.”  Ithican answered calmly. 


            “Yes, I know.  I recognized you instantly.  Although it took me a moment to connect Sam into all this, I still find it hard to believe, it’s so unlike him.”


            “This not the Human I know.”


            “I’m finding that I don’t seem to know him that well myself.”  Dace admitted.  


            “Dace, you certainly know me better than this.”  Sam protested.  “This Swamp Rat is not my friend.  If he was, why would I bring him back here?”


            “I haven’t figured that part out yet.  But you’re right I do know you, and I know you’re always up to something.” 


            When Alexin, Brandon, and Mikle came out of the shadows Sam back up against cage bars.  Any hint of friendship that he may have had with any of them was not going to be enough to make them help him against Dace.  They knew were to best put their loyalties, however he didn’t feel totally out numbered yet.


            “Hastics!”  Sam called to the hounds.


            Dace and the others laughed.  Dace motioned to Alexin and Brandon and they obeyed wordlessly.  It took both of them to restrain Sam, but they managed.  Mikle sighed and dropped four black leather collars to the dirt at Sam’s feet.  


            “Sam,”  Dace said with mock sympathy  “the dogs are dead.  I knew they wouldn’t allow this.”


            “That was uncalled for, Dace.”  Sam growled.


            “So was lying to us!”  Dace snarled.  “Which you’re still miserable at.”


            “And we know you enough to stay sober when you’re not participating.”  Alexin added.


            “What happened to ‘honor among thieves’, Sam?”  Brandon asked mockingly.


            “He’s not a thief anymore.”  Ithican snapped.


            “No, apparently not.”  Dace mused.  “It seems he’d rather be an Elf, and in that case he’s in luck.  Because I’ve decided to do him a favor.”


            “A favour?”  Alexin asked confused.


            “Yes,”  Dace smiled  “because if what the Elves believe about the passage from Life to Death is true, I’m about to make Sam a God in the Afterlife.”        


            “What about ‘Ith’?”  Wayln mocked.


            “I’m not particularly interested in him anymore.”  Dace shrugged. 


            “Then let me kill him.”


            “Feel free to try.  Actually, no, wait...”  Dace smiled  “I’ve got a better idea.” 




            “Throw him in with the Dragon.”







            “How does he do this?” 


            Ithican muttered to himself in frustrations as he attempted to open the lock with the pick he’d taken from Sam.  No matter how many times Sam had shown him how Ithican had never become skilled at lock picking.  It didn’t help that he had to try and work the lock from the wrong side of the bars.  He felt that if he could just see what he was doing he’d have half a chance.


            “I don’t suppose you’re any good at this?”  Ithican asked the Dragon. 


            The Dragon flared its nostrils and groaned.


            “Yes, of course, if you were you’d be out of here by now.”  Ithican smiled sadly. 


            The Dragon went to lift its head and found itself quickly restrained by the chain it still wore.  Ithican hated to see the animal restrained, but it didn’t seem wise to release it while he was still locked in with it.  Ithican picked at the lock once more but his concentration kept getting broken by the sounds of Dace and the others laughing. 


            “I never thought I’d live to hate the sound of laughter.”  Ithican sighed. 


            Whimpering through tightly closed jaws the Dragon seemed to agree.  Giving up on the door lock Ithican approached the Dragon slowly.  The Lizard had backed as far away from the Elf as its chain would allow.  The lock around its neck turned out not to be a lock at all, but just a kind of slide pin that a creature without hands couldn’t work.  Suddenly deciding he had little to lose Ithican slid the thick chain off the Dragon’s serpentine neck. 


            “See?  I’m not going to hu...”


            Ithican froze as Sam’s voice roses above the general noise for the fist time.  Ithican had been nervously anticipating hearing Sam scream.  However this was not a cry of agony like he’d been expecting, but one of rage that was quickly followed by more boorish laughter.  Ithican ran a shaky hand through his midnight hair.  He reached over and loosened the snare around the Dragon’s jaw and released it. 


            “This way you’ll have half a chance when they come to get you.”  Ithican explained.    


            After shaking its head the Dragon snapped its powerful jaws a few times.  Ithican watched it unafraid.  The Dragon got up gracefully to its four clawed feet.  It walked a few feet so that it could put its slender snout against the door. 


            “It’s locked, I’ve alrea...”


            Ignoring the Elf the Dragon turned its head to the side and bit down on two of the bars.  To Ithican’s amazement the creature actually started to bend them.  It let go when the two bars touched together.  The Dragon looked back at Ithican and then did the same trick on two of the bars next to the bent ones. 


            When it was done the Dragon had created a gap in the steel cage.  Although there was no way the Dragon could get its girth through the space, Ithican could.  The Dragon looked back at Ithican expectantly.  Ithican didn’t hesitate, he slipped his light frame through the damaged bars. 


            Sam cried out again, this time in obvious pain.  Ithican instantly went to help, without even thinking about the fact that he was still out numbered, and now had no weapon.  The Dragon growled angrily. 


            “I’ll come back...”


            The Dragon responded with an accusing glare.  Ithican thought about the chances he had of actually returning and sighed.  He rushed back over to the door and tried his luck once more with the lock.  He slipped twice while working with the pick and was about to give up when laughter grated against his ears once more.  In a sudden flash of anger Ithican jammed the delicate pick into the lock, breaking them both. 


            The door swung open and Ithican dashed off without looking back.   All three of the moons were out tonight, making it practically daylight as far as Ithican was concerned.  However he still didn’t think he was seeing right when he came across the Humans. 


            At first glance Ithican couldn’t see Sam.  There was a man on his knees with his wrists bound tightly.  He had his back turned to Ithican, but the man’s wet black hair was an unmistakable feature.  Ithican’s blood flashed to ice at the thought that they’d caught another Elf.  After all if Ethlan lived in the area there was no reason why others might not as well.


            The bloodied Tarrin dagger that Dace held only helped the theory.  However, Dace quickly dropped the weapon as if he’d forgotten he was holding it.  He stared at Ithican with a look of terror that Ithican didn’t understand.  Looking around he saw that the others were just as petrified. 


            The whole scene seemed to be holding its breath.  When no one else moved Ithican took a step closer.  Wayln, who had somehow ended up with a bloody nose, backed up so quickly that he tripped over himself.  Now that someone had moved the trance that had been keeping the Humans spellbound broke and the scattered like frightened rats.  Even Dace backed away from his captive and bolted into the dark forest.


            Ithican watched them leave, more than a little confused.  He looked down at himself and found nothing out of the ordinary.  A sound very close to a chuckle startled Ithican half way out of his skin.  Turning around he came nose to snout with the Dragon.  It had never occurred to him that the Lizard would follow him.  The Dragon laughed gutturally again and winked.  Spreading its leathery wings it launched into the air and took off in the same direction Dace had. 


            Ithican briefly wondered if the Dragon would actually catch the others.  Dragons were supposed to see poorly at night, but then again they weren’t supposed to have a sense of humor either.   


            “Please don’t tell me that that overgrown Lizard just saved my life.”




            Ithican turned back around and found that the black haired man was standing behind him.  It took a second for Ithican to figure out his mistake.  Dace hadn’t caught another Elf.  Now that he had a better look Ithican could see the midnight dripping out of Sam’s hair like sweat.  Ithican bit down on his lip to keep from smiling.


            “That’s an... interesting look, Sam.”  Ithican commented, straining not to laugh. “Although I have to say that’s not really your colour, it doesn’t go well with your eyes.”


            “Just untie me.”  Sam grumbled.


            “Don’t let those guys get to you, Sam.”  Ithican advised, freeing his friend. 


            Sam said nothing.  He rubbed at his sore wrists and sighed.


            “What’s wrong?”  Ithican asked confused.  “It’s just ink, it’ll wash out...eventually.  Besides it will take more than black hair to make you Elven.”  


             Sam smiled at some private irony.  Ithican’s previous mirth turned to concern as he noticed the crimson mixing with the black that streaked down the side of Sam’s neck.  Sam reached up and pushed back his recently died hair.  Ithican gasped at the sight of the source of the blood.  Keeping with Elven tradition, Dace had cut Sam’s left ear so that it looked like Ithican’s. 


            “I guess this makes me Half-Elven.”