Hralf and the Competition

Another tale of Hralf, in which Hralf meets his match. If you’ve not met Hralf, start with the first Hralf story “Hralf, Hewer of Sagas.”

Did I know Hralf? Does a dragon sleep on his hoard?

Yes, yes, he does, most of the time. Until you kill him, and then he sleeps with the vultures. Or the fishes. Depends on where you kill him. If you kill him. Probably you don’t.

But yeah, I knew Hralf. Me and Palantir, I’d say we knew him pretty well after working with him for a good ten years or so. And then again, I’m not sure anybody knew Hralf all that well. Not even my no-good cousin, whatever he might have told you.

Did he say that? Next family reunion he’s going to take a good-sized rock to his cranium.

Look, you wanna know about Hralf, you’re going to have to let me tell you a story. There’s only one person who might—but that can wait. Let me tell it in the order it happened.

The story starts maybe six months after we’d first started working with Hralf. The three of us were on the way to the Island of Zinn, looking for—

How did we meet him?

Oh, okay, backing up. See, Palantir and I, we were looking for some muscle. Palantir—you’ve spoken with Palantir? No? Good.

Anyway, the first thing everybody notices about Palantir is that he’s an elf. It’s hard to miss: he’s tall, well-spoken, got the ears, the funny name, the epic sadness of longevity, all that hoohah. But the second thing everybody notices about Palantir is that he’s, well…he’s a little down-market for an elf. You might say that he’s worn about the edges, a bit marked up, or even as battered as a fish in a Southwell fry shop. We’ve heard all of those over the years.

See, him and me, we went into business just the two of us, independent-like, roaming about and looking for lost treasures to sell. And we found them, too! Thing is, these items we found, well, they attracted opposition like dragon manure attracts dung beetles. It’s always the way; be it monsters defending their hoard or other adventurers, there’s always competition.

Now me, I’m good at sneaking and like that, and I excel at the occasional small task that requires quick wit and fine manual dexterity, but I’m not what you’d call a fighter. I do all right with the very short bow, but that’s about it. A fight starts, I find a niche to hide in, and take the occasional shot when opportunity presents itself. I get along pretty well. But Palantir, woo boy. He’s not bad at the combat thing, good elf with a sword and all, but when we attracted the wrong kind of attention he always caught the short end of it.

Ironic, if you think about it, being as he’s just about twice my height.

Anyway, my point is, it was all out of—what’s the word? Proportion! That’s it. Whenever we ran into trouble, Palantir got beat up all out of proportion; and then we lost our payday.

That’s what led us to sign up with Bounty Snare. We weren’t making any money, what with expenses and trips to the physicker and time for recuperation. But it’s different with the Snare. We find the treasure, the customer gets the treasure, the Snare pays the expenses, we get a flat rate, and if there’s not much glory there’s many fewer guts. Palantir prefers it that way; he has views. And when things do go south, as happens from time to time, the Snare has an account with the local temple of Amira the Kind. They patch us up good as new, and we’re off on the next job.

But the first thing The Boss said to us when we signed up was (and I quote), “A two-man team? That’s no way to live. And I mean that literally.” Too right, we said. To be finding some muscle, he said. To be going to do that, we said.

Trouble was, we didn’t know any worthwhile candidates. We tried several wannabes from around Clutterback City, but none of them were a good fit. Or good in any other way, for that matter. So I put the word out, and a few months later this eight-foot-tall wall of tawny fur comes stalking into the Cluttered Cellar, courtesy of my no-good cousin.

That’s how I always remember Hralf when I think of him. Huge; stooped over because of the low ceiling; mane brushing the rafters; damned dangerous looking.
Everybody gets really quiet when he comes in, you know how you do. The Cellar’s a peaceful joint, and this guy doesn’t seem like the peaceful type.
He takes a look around the room, peering through the clouds of smoke. Palantir and I, we look at our jacks of ale as his gazes passes over us. Then he goes and talks to Brandywort, the innkeeper.

Old Brandywort’s a halfling, like me, so Hralf has to go down on one knee. They exchange a few words, and then Hralf pulls a stone tablet out of the sack at his waist and offers it to him. Brandywort shakes his head, and old Hralf he sighs a full-bodied sigh, his chest billowing out like a sail when the wind hits it. It’s literally the biggest sigh you’ve ever seen. They chat for a moment more, and then Brandywort turns and points directly at us.

I look at Palantir, and he looks at me, and I say “I dunno, my conscience is clear,” and he shrugs.

Lion Guy comes and kneels by our table, which means he’s still taller than I am, and looks right at me. I feel like a mouse about to turned into a cute little present for the master of the house.

“You are Sarvalur?” he says in a voice that’s deeper than the Cellar.

“That would be me,” I say, cautiously. “Who’s asking?”

“Hralf am I, the Hewer of Sagas!” he says. “Your cousin decreed I should come to your side. Muscle I have, all monsters to maim, and gold I must gather, my sagas to serve! By your side will I swagger, and fight the most fiercesome, and you will be hiring, my havoc to have!”

Palantir looks at me; I look at him; and then, of course, Big Gaffney strides over.
There’s a guy like Big Gaffney in every inn the world over. I’ve seen a million of them. He’s big, even for one of you Big Folk; he’s strong; and instead of going out and getting beaten up by manticores and such he spends his days brawling at one inn or another. He’s been an unwelcome addition to the Cellar for several months, and I’ve been thinking that Old Brandywort might have his mind on subtraction, if you get my drift.

So Gaffney comes over and squares up to Hralf, and he says, “What have we got here, boys? Looks like a pussy cat.” His mates in the corner snicker. “Hey, pussy cat, can I get you a saucer of milk?”

And I look at Palantir, and he looks at me, and we both think, “Well, that’s torn it.” Palantir puts a hand on his sword, and I slide off my chair and under the table.

But Hralf, he doesn’t go berserk the way we think he will.

Instead, he stands up, and stoops over Gaffney. Hralf is almost three times my height, and he makes Gaffney look like a halfling.

Well, no, not a halfling. A dwarf, maybe. Or a smallish goblin—Gaffney’s no looker, is what I’m saying.

So anyway, Hralf extends a fore-finger, and out pops a claw, zing! And he scratches his chin with it.

“I do not know you, do I?” he says.

Gaffney’s not intimidated, I’ll give him that. “Not yet,” he says. “But I’m thinking you’ll know me next time.”

And damned if Hralf doesn’t pull out another of those stone tablets.

“Would you like to read one of my sagas?” he says.

“Sagas, is it?” He turns his head to look at his buddies across the room. “Hey boys?”

And then in mocking tones, “Would you like to read one of my sagas?”

And then he turns back, and unleashes his fist at Hralf’s midriff.

A split-second later it’s all over. Hralf has the Gaff’s fist in one hand, and from the look on Gaffney’s face he’s squeezing it pretty hard. He says gently, in his deep, deep, voice, “You should have read the saga.” Then he lowers the tablet not-too-gently onto Gaffney’s head. There’s an audible thud, and Gaffney goes down like a kobold after too many rounds of Sirulean whisky. Hralf inspects the tablet for damage, finds none, puts it carefully back in his sack, and looks at us expectantly.

There is dead silence, not least from Gaffney’s chums.

Then Brandywort whistles. Two of his helpers take the Gaff by the arms and drag him outside and up the stairs to the street, and Brandywort himself brings a tray over to our table.

“This round’s on me,” he said.

Hralf looks at the jack of ale he has been offered, and then at Brandywort.

“Have you anything of a size more suitable for the Last of the Veldt-Lords?”

“No sir, but I’ll keep them coming.”

Hralf nods, drains the jack in one swallow, and puts it back on the tray.

I take a sip. “So, you’re here about the job,” I say.

Hralf nods.

“We work for an outfit called Bounty Snare. They send us to retrieve items for clients. While we’re working we get a flat rate per week and all found—which in our case includes anything we find other than the item we’re looking for. We get medical, too. And yeah, we need some muscle. You in?”

Hralf nods gravely.

And that’s how we met Hralf.

So as I was saying before you interrupted me, the three of us were on the road to Zinn, and something wasn’t right.

We’d been on a number of jobs with Hralf by this time, and we’d found him to be a pretty good traveling companion: good in a fight, and mostly quiet the rest of the time. Oh, he’d chant at you for hours if you let him, all about how his people had died of plague, and about their battles with the fiendish evil cheetahs of the veldt, all in that weird alliterative sing-song of his. You’ve been asking around about him, so I’m sure you know the kind of thing:

Chasing the cheetahs, veldt-wards we vaulted,
Felines we followed, their swordhands to slay!

He could reel off that stuff for hours. Palantir and I always used to laugh at how it never seemed to occur to him that he was a feline, too. But once we’d made it clear—in the politest, most respectful way possible, you understand—that we were not interested in reading or listening to his sagas, he respected that.

So we’d ride, and he’d stride along beside us on foot because there was no horse we could buy that was big enough for him, even assuming we could find a horse that would tolerate having a lion on its back, and as he walked he’d hum to himself. Always composing new sagas about his tribe, that was our Hralf.

This trip, though, our Hralf is on edge, always sniffing the air and looking around.
“Something sinister stinks in this setting,” he says when we ask. “An aroma of evil belabors the breeze. Hralf is unhappy, the scent is suspicious. Enemies envelop us, our treasure to take.”

Competition? Just Hralf being jumpy? We don’t know. So we keep a good eye out, Palantir and I, and all we get from it is tired eyeballs. We don’t see anything unusual all that long day.

Farmland, you know? Can’t live without it, don’t want to look at it.

And then the next morning, the stable boys find our pack mule with its throat cut.
No one in the inn has seen or heard anything; and whoever did it has been sneaky in the extreme, because the stable boys were asleep in the hayloft all night.
We have to buy a new pack mule, of course, and while I’m haggling Palantir is looking thoughtful.

“Sarvalur,” he says as we lead the mule away, “Did the Boss give you an expense limit for this job?”

“Come to think of it, no,” I say. “You?”

“No.”

“That’s…really weird,” I say. And it is.

See, the way the business works is that Lord Manure-for-Manners contracts with Bounty Snare to acquire the Golden Maguffin of Magnificence, or what have you. We go find it, and in return the well-fertilized one pays Bounty Snare’s fee, which is determined ahead of time. If we spend too much on the way, there’s no profit—and the Snare is all about profit.

“Boys,” the Boss had told us, “the first rule is, you don’t exceed the expense limit. The job’s not worth it. You reach that limit, you turn around and come home.”

“But what about the customer?” I’d said.

“That,” said the Boss, “is not your problem. You reach that expense limit, I’m your problem. Kovaleh?

I never did figure out what language the word “Kovaleh” is from, but the meaning was pretty clear in context.

But on this trip, we’ve not been given an expense limit.

“What do you think it means?” says Palantir.

“Dunno. Maybe he forgot?”

We both consider that for a few moments, and then we both shake our heads.

“Maybe it’s a cost plus fixed-fee contract?” I say.

Palantir shakes his head. “The senior teams snag all of those. And the Boss would have said something.” He purses his lips. “Maybe it’s a test?”

“Maybe,” I say. “But I’m thinking we’d for damn sure better retrieve the item.”

Palantir nods.

Hralf is on high-alert all that day, head up, ears twitching. The scent from yesterday is still on the air.

“You sure?” I say.

“You have no nose, little man,” he says.

I’m a little hurt. I have quite a charming nose, thank you very much, or I did before it got broken. But that’s a story for another day.

We take precautions that night: whatever killed our pack mule is still out there. We warn the innkeeper that someone doesn’t like us, and that the stable hands need to keep a good watch.

“I’m not surprised,” he says. “No one here likes you either.”

But in the morning, all seems good. We load up, we head out; and about midmorning, when we’re not quite halfway between hither and yon, our new pack mule heaves a deep belching sigh, goes absolutely rigid, and falls over on its flank like a dead tree in a strong wind. Its eyes turn green, its hide goes patchy and then bubbly, and in minutes there’s nothing left of it but a black tarry spot in the road that looks like—

Well, it looks like the outline of a pack mule that’s toppled over on its side.

“That damned horse thief,” I say, cursing the guy we bought the mule from. “I thought there was something fishy about him.”

But Palantir shakes his head. “Winegarth’s Rot,” he says.

“Is that what it was?” I say.

Palantir nods. “Seen it before,” he says. “Smelled it, too.”

“Is it contagious?”

“No, it’s a poison.”

Ah.

Hralf, he pays no attention to us. He’s up on his toes, looking about like we might be attacked any minute, but nothing happens. Palantir and I load our stuff onto his horse; then he and Hralf walk while I ride, all of us still on high alert until we get to the next town, where we buy yet another pack mule.

On the third day our pack mule collapses with an arrow through its throat. Another arrow goes by my ear, and I’m off my pony.

Hralf whirls in place. There’s a tree up the slope to our right, maybe a hundred yards off. But by the time Hralf gets there, the archer is gone.

Hralf and Palantir quarter the surrounding area, but find no one. Hralf, ever more dour, starts rumbling incoherently under his breath.

“Glad you’re with us, Big Guy,” I say as Palantir and shuffle the loads yet again.

On the fourth day my pony staggers and falls over before deliquescing into yet another tarry puddle. Winegarth’s Rot again. I have to ride the pack-mule, bare-back because we couldn’t get the saddle off my pony in time. The pack-saddle is no good to sit on, and anyway it’s on Palantir’s horse with the baggage.

“That was a damn good pony,” I say.

“The Boss isn’t going to be pleased,” says Palantir as I hand over the coins for a replacement.

Hralf just looks sour.

On the fifth day the road passes through a wood. It’s a pretty spot—dappled sunlight, a fresh smell, the crackle of drifted leaves under the hooves of our mounts.

Hralf stops and is sniffing the air, head back, nose up, when the leaves make an odd noise and the ground is yanked out from under us as we all rise up into the trees, mounts and all. We’ve been snared but good. My pony’s screaming, a horrible sound, and as I fall off its back one hind hoof catches me and sends me into a bush by the side of the road. The pack mule’s screaming too, hanging by its forelegs, and Palantir’s hanging upside-down, his left boot caught in the stirrup.
“BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!”

I crawl out of my bush and see Hralf swinging by one ankle. He bends himself double, taking the rope of the snare in one hand and cutting the loop around his ankle with a razor-sharp claw, and then drops heavily to his feet.

“I begin to think someone doesn’t want us to get there,” I say, which is a total lie because this isn’t at all a new thought. Palantir is nodding when we hear Hralf roar.
He’s standing by the side of the road, facing away from us. His mane has expanded to about twice its normal size; his claws are out; and he’s crouched to spring, which still leaves him about twice my height.

And about ten yards in front of him, standing under a tree, there’s a figure. Looks a lot like Hralf in some ways: the same kind of ears, the same kind of nose, the fur. No mane, and what we can see of her fur under her leather vest and trousers—and may I say, she’s most definitely female—is reddish-gold with black spots. She looks to be a couple of feet shorter than Hralf, about Palantir’s height. She’s got a bow slung over her back, and she’s standing with one hand holding the bit of rope she just yanked and the other hand resting on a cocked hip. She gives our Hralf a quizzical look.

“Hey there, big boy,” she says in a warm, furry voice. She sounds a bit like Hralf, but in a higher register and with a noticeably different accent. “Those are retractable claws, yes? Or is it that you are just glad to see me?” And she gives him a wicked look.

Hralf leaps forward, and Miss Kitty leaps straight up into the tree. She catches a branch, swings to the next branch higher, and is off through the tree tops leaving poor Hralf bellowing in frustration. Hralf has many sterling qualities, but he is in no way arboreal.

“Well,” I say. “I guess we know who’s been abusing our livestock.”

Palantir doesn’t say anything. There’s not much to say, really. Miss Kitty’s out to wear us down, to drive us off, to make us give up, so she and whatever team she’s with can snaffle the goods before we do. We both know it, and there’s not much point in talking about it.

Hralf and Palantir keep watch while I shinny up one tree after another and cut down our beasts or burden. They all have broken legs, and Palantir puts them out of their misery.

Then we gather as much as we can carry and head off to the next town.

What was it we were supposed to collect?

You know, I don’t even remember what it was called. The Mystical Whatsit of Whatness, or some such damn-fool thing. I didn’t get to keep it, and working for the Snare I learned not to get too attached. It would be too tempting to try and sell the article for myself, and I’ve seen what was left of one guy who tried it, kovaleh?

We straggle into the next town around sunset. We’re tired, Palantir’s limping, we’ve abandoned half of our supplies, our expenses have already blown any limit we’ve ever been given, we’re worried about what the Boss is going to say, and Hralf has spent the whole time chanting not quite under his breath. Stuff like this:

Cheetahs the cheaters, swift and subterfugeous,
Always they aim our trappings to trash. 
Soon we will catch them, the kitties curmudgeonly,
Beat them and burn all their homes into ash!

The next morning I say, “So, do we buy fresh mounts? We should be in Croyport by evening, even if we walk.”

Palantir looks at the map the Boss gave us. “It’s a long day’s ride. Hralf can walk it, but I’m not sure my ankle is up to it. And anyway, we’ll need them for the ride back.”
So we buy another offering to the gods and ride out of town. Hralf stalks alongside, head constantly turning this way and that, his breathing loud in his nostrils, his eyes fierce.

Scary, in other words.

I like that in my muscle.

But it turns out to be a quiet day. There’s no trouble, and even the scent Hralf’s been catching seems to have vanished, the scent we now realize is the aroma of that nefarious cheetah Miss Kitty. We find our way to Croyport and in the waning twilight we take our ease at an inn called the Captain’s Ear, down near the docks. We’ll rent a boat in the morning, leaving our livestock safely—we hope—at the Ear, and make for the Island of Zinn.

We wake up in the morning to a hubbub and a stench.

Once again our pack mule has had its throat cut, most unusually thoroughly; and its head is lying on the floor just outside the door to our room, which I do not need to tell you is not an appropriate location for such things.

Hralf looks down at it, wrinkles his nose, and snarls.

“Smell anything?” I ask. As if the aroma of dead mule wasn’t already clearing the place out.

“Nothing useful,” he says, and stomps off downstairs.

We gather our things, and after a brief stop to board Palantir’s new horse and my new pony at the Leviathan’s Whiskers across the street, our custom no longer being welcome at the Captain’s Ear, we head to the docks and hire a boat.

Both Palantir and I have sailed before, and it’s a good thing because Zinn has a bad reputation. None of the fishermen will take us there, and in the end we have to buy a small fishing smack outright, or failing that, walk. Failing that is not an option, so we gulp loudly and pay up.

Hralf is more relaxed as we sail up the coast. The breeze is free of any scent of Miss Kitty, and no one’s going to be able to sneak up on us. Me, I spend the time wondering whether Winegarth’s Rot works as well on dead wood as it does on pack mules. But we have an easy day of it, reaching Zinn early in the afternoon.

Then the fun begins, the craziest game of tag I’ve ever seen.

Zinn is not a large island, but it’s weird. First there’s a ring of light blue water so clear you can see the bottom dozens of feet down—really inviting, if you like that kind of thing and the day’s warm enough, which it is. Then there’s a narrow ring of white sand that goes all the way around the island; and then a band of dense greenery; and then, there are walls. Lots of walls, running every which way.

I’m not talking ruins, you understand, nothing like you might see in Alfandir or Carellia. These aren’t the remains of buildings. They aren’t the remains of anything: they all look like they were made yesterday.

They aren’t fortifications, because there are neatly made and decorated gaps everywhere. There are no roofs or the remains of roofs; and there’s no evident plan. The space between the walls is sometimes paved, with one kind of stone or another, or sometimes there’s turf. Once in a while they spread out into a bigger area, square or round or oval or rectangular; and then there might be a fountain or a statue or a pool. There are lots of pools, and lots of shallow streams connecting them.

The walls are of different heights, with little odd bits of architectural detail: a little shelf here, a pilaster there, a shrubbish sort of face in between two keyhole windows, a nice archway.

There’s no obvious rhyme or reason to any of it. And the weirdest thing is, after all of the shrubs and trees we have to hack our way through just to get to it, is that none of it’s overgrown.

And that’s all there is: walls and the spaces between them.

Well, that and the water rats. I call them water rats; I don’t know what their friends call them, but they look kind of like enormous rats with blunt noses. They are about four feet long, furry, curious, and they stink of mildew. They are also maddeningly territorial, and they have sharp teeth. The complex is alive with them.

The Boss had told us that we’d need to find “some stairs down,” somewhere in the complex. The Arcane Artifact of Bill Paying, to name it by its usefulness to yours truly, would be somewhere inside.

What?

Not all that unusual, no. Our clients didn’t send us out on open-ended treasure hunts; they usually had a good idea of what they were looking for and where they expected us to find it.

We set up camp at the end of a corridor near our trail to the beach. We start by cutting down some of the weird stalky things that pass for trees out in the green belt so that we can build a barricade to keep the rats out—that’s after we dispose of the rats already in residence. Between those and a fire, which the rats don’t like, we’re safe enough.

And then we’re off exploring, and trying to not to get bitten or lost. It takes us days, a lot of which is spent decreasing the surplus rat population.

And everywhere we go, Miss Kitty is there before us.

We come around a turn, and she’s perched on top of the wall across from us. She blows us a kiss before flipping out of sight.

Another turn, and she springs past us, heading back the way we came—while we’re left dealing with the horde of water rats that have been chasing her.

We return to our camp, and find that our tent pegs have been stolen and there’s a rotten fish in our cooking pot.

Palantir steps into a stream—as we’re doing five times an hour—and a steel trap closes on his sore ankle. Fortunately he’s wearing sturdy boots.

We never see any other members of her party, and in fact Palantir and I, we often don’t see her at all. We just hear a little giggle, and then Hralf’s frustrated bellow as he leaps in chase, and then we have to wait for him to come back, and then we have to wait for him to calm down, because it doesn’t matter how quick he is, she’s quicker. By the third day, the poor guy’s trying to see every which way at once, and failing. We’re looking for the stairs down, Palantir and I; Hralf, he’s only got eyes for Miss Kitty.

You can’t hardly blame him. See, the thing about Hralf in this story, though you wouldn’t have thought it to look at him, is that he’s not much more than a kid. Sure, he’s huge; I think he might be big even for his own people. But he’s young. And his people are all gone. And Miss Kitty is easy on the eyes. However annoying she might be, she’s got it in all the right places—which is to say, wherever Hralf happens to be looking.

On the fourth morning I get up and stretch, and I surprise Hralf, who tries to hide something behind his back. It’s the pelt of a water rat.

“Where did that come from?” I say.

“Here,” he says, squirming and indicating the foot of his tent. Palantir pushes a little, and it turns out there’s been something there every morning since we arrived. Hralf brings them out and lays them on the ground: a water rat’s tail; two ears; four fangs; and now the pelt.

“Hah!” I say. “Pretty soon you’re going to be able to build your own rat.”

Seems Miss Kitty’s been busy, but Palantir and I can’t figure out what her game is. She’s quicker than we are; she can come and go as she likes; why not just find the Fabled Necklace of Financial Success and get gone? And then I begin to wonder.

Hralf’s never said much about the plague that took his people. The fact of it, sure, you can’t hardly get him to shut up about it. But he has never mentioned the details. We know it was nasty; Palantir and I, we’ve seen him in all weathers, rain and shine, and whenever Hralf gets soaked through you can see the pock-marks under his fur.

And now, looking at Miss Kitty, dancing about and pretty clearly trying to drive Hralf to distraction, I begin to wonder if the plague is another thing she and Hralf have in common. It must be hard being a lion—or a cheetah—alone among a crowd of “little men.”

That night I have to get up and take care of a thing or two, and I see a light from Hralf’s tent. It’s not that unusual; he often stays up late working on his sagas. It was a real nuisance our first trip together: who can sleep with that constant tap tap tapping? But after Hralf took apart a pair of dire badgers bent on expressing their disapproval on our persons, Palantir and I chipped in and bought him a magically silenced hammer and chisel. Not the sort of thing you’d find at the average shop, but me, I’ve got sources.

But he’s also chanting softly to himself, and I edge closer and give a little listen.

What? I’m a rogue, it’s what I do.

At first it seems like the usual sort of thing; and then it isn’t: “Their fangs so ferocious, her whiskers so winsome—” He cuts off, and then I hear, more softly, “Blood and bones broken.”

I leave him to it.

On the fifth day, about mid-morning, we find “some stairs down.”

It’s just wrong. There ought to be a temple or something, with columns, and a dome, and a proper guardian for Hralf to slay, something big and nasty and worth spinning yarns about; but no, there’s just the tail-end of a corridor, looking more or less the same as every other corridor in the place, and some stairs leading down to a door; and inside the door, which is not locked, a chamber, and inside the chamber a pedestal, and on the pedestal a black box, and inside the box, nothing, because it’s sitting there already open.

From outside we hear a contralto chuckle, and Hralf goes berserk. He’s up the stairs and away, and by the time Palantir and I reach the top he’s nowhere in sight. We wait for a bit, and at last we wander back to our camp, and wait. And wait. And wait.
Hralf straggles in as the sun is setting. He bats a nosy water rat into the middle of next week, and drops himself down by the fire. He hangs his head. He looks unhappy, and when Hralf is unhappy he’s unhappy all over.

“What happened?” says Palantir.

“I caught her,” he says sadly.

“Did you get the artifact?” I say.

But he just shakes his head.

I wake up early the next morning. I crawl out of my tent and stand up for a good stretch; and then I notice there’s a box by the foot of Hralf’s tent. It’s black, and it looks just like the box from the pedestal.

I pick it up and take a look. It is the box from the pedestal, and inside there’s a jeweled amulet on a chain.

I gasp out loud, and then I start to laugh, which wakes up Hralf and Palantir; and when they stick their heads out I look at Hralf and I hold up the box in one hand and the amulet in the other, and I say, “Hey, Hralf, did you catch her, or did she catch you? It looks like your girlfriend left us another present.”

Hralf leaps to his feet. “BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!” he cries, and dashes off toward the beach, head down.

Palantir and I, we pack up, taking our time for Hralf’s sake. The boat, amazingly, is unharmed; no slashed ropes, no holes in the bottom. We have a leisurely sail back to Croyport. Palantir’s horse and my pony, amazingly, have remained whole and in good health. We buy one last pack mule; the pack mule, amazingly, survives all the way back to Clutterback City. And then we head to the Snare, and find the Boss, and hand him the Jeweled Amulet of Infatuation.

“Did you have any trouble?” he says.

“Well, yes and no,” I say.

“Tell me,” he says. And so, while Hralf squirms, I tell him.

To our surprise, he waves away the expense.

“You’ve done well,” he says. “Thanks to you, we’ll now be able to sign a long term contract with a very special client, a collector who wishes to remain nameless. He set up a little test for us; he wanted to be sure we could remain steadfast and acquire the goods in the face of opposition.” The Boss chuckles. “We’ve already heard from him, and he’s completely satisfied. Though I don’t think it went quite the way he expected, kovaleh?

Kovaleh,” we say, all except for Hralf, who hangs his head.

Being furry means no one can see you blush, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know. You know?

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