Rodrick struck off the dead girl's head with his sword, the blade clanging against the stone floor as it severed her neck cleanly. Her head rolled until the hilt of the dagger hit the floor and arrested its motion. Alaeron choked back a scream. Had the scoundrel gone mad?
Rodrick turned the dead girl's torso over with his foot, flopping her over on her belly and revealing her back—
—which was nothing but a hollow shell lined with wood, like the interior of a rotten tree or a walnut shell. She was an emptiness.
"Some kind of monster," Rodrick said. With the tip of his sword, he prodded at a lump in the back of the girl’s skirt, lifting its hem just far enough to reveal a tail like a fox’s. "Guarding the barrow, I'm sure. I knew there was something unnatural about her right away—I liked her, and wanted to protect her, and didn't think at all about how valuable she would be to certain slave traders of my acquaintance. I knew she must be bewitching me somehow." He glanced at Alaeron. "I'm too good at being charming to be easily charmed myself."
Rodrick, charming? Ha. "I've heard of creatures like this," Alaeron said. "She's fey. Huldra, I think they're called, or hilders—but they are creatures of the far north. She may not have been a guardian of this tomb, you know. She could have been a prisoner, her spirit bound to some cursed or magical object in the barrow—"
"Monster," Rodrick said. "Now a dead monster. Why are we still talking about her?"
"I just prefer not to kill, without provocation, creatures who are capable of holding a conversation with me," Alaeron said. "She may have been charming us because she needed help, and wanted us to save her—"
"I suppose that's why you didn't kill her, and I did. Let's go. There must be loot here somewhere."
"But why would a huldra be here at all?" Alaeron muttered. "They're from the north, the lands of the Mammoth Lords, or the White Witches, or the—"
"Linnorm Kings," Rodrick said, bending to retrieve his dagger from the huldra's eye. "Yes, Simeon said something about that. Apparently when Brant was a boy, raiders from the Land of the Linnorm Kings laid waste to his little fishing village. Brant survived, nursed vengeance in his heart, and so forth. When he was grown, he led an expedition to raid the raiders. You have to admire the old boy's confidence, don't you? Apparently they ended up exploring some ruin called the Spire of Snow or the Frostbite Citadel or something similar, slaying a dragon inside—"
Rodrick rolled his eyes. "Fine, they slew the linnorm, though it killed or cursed everyone else in the party, and Brant alone escaped unscathed. He came back with all manner of valuables, not just the gold and jewels that made the family fortune but rarer things: a sword with a blade of ice, a bell that summons blizzards, a petrified linnorm egg, a magical ring that lets you conjure a mystical twin to do your bidding, and other wonders. That's what old Brant took to the grave with him, along with a hoard of gold and jewels, or so the story goes. If even half of it's true, I'll be a very wealthy man."
"We will be, you mean."
"Of course." Rodrick didn't even bother trying to sound sincere.
"That explains the huldra, at least. She must have been bound here, or enslaved to serve Brant even in death, or—"
Uncle Brant hasn't aged so well.
"Dead monsters bore me," Rodrick said. "Live ones are more interesting. Let's see if we can find some."
They proceeded into the depths of the barrow, following the twisting corridors, and investigating a couple of dead-ends that terminated abruptly in deep pits. Even along what seemed to be the proper route there were traps, more ingenious than the spiked log, but Rodrick proved adept at spotting them. They encountered a shelf bearing stone skulls that spat acid, an ordinary-looking room that Rodrick said would have flensed them alive if he hadn't discovered and pressed some hidden buttons to deactivate the concealed blades in the walls, and a door that sprouted dozens of bone spears when Rodrick prodded the wood with his sword. Nothing Alaeron couldn't have coped with himself, of course, but it was nice to have a strapping thief to handle the stray acid droplets instead.
"We make a fine team," Alaeron said, after Rodrick set off a bear trap with a tossed stone.
"You've done exactly nothing except open a door," Rodrick said. "In that respect, you're no worse a partner than Simeon was, I suppose." He slipped into another chamber, and whistled.
Alaeron joined him in the next room, and in the lantern's pool of light saw part of a massive stone throne, occupied by a skeleton dressed in elaborate black armor. They'd reached the main burial chamber, then, and after only a few hours—these modern tombs were so much more manageable than the vast crypts of the ancients.
"There are torches on the walls." Rodrick lit a taper from his lantern and carried it through the dark, igniting two torches and filling the room with flickering light.
The throne stood in the center of the room, and behind it were stone shelves and platforms holding... well, the wreckage of smashed treasure chests, mostly. Bits of shattered wood and twisted metal. A scattering of coins and precious gems remained, probably enough to buy a small house in Almas, but not the riches they'd expected. Alaeron wondered what sort of remarkable valuables the room had originally contained, if the original looters hadn't bothered to stoop to pick up these gold coins and jewels.
"Someone got here first!" Rodrick said. "But how? None of the traps were sprung, the doors were unbreached, I don't see how—"
Alaeron squinted at the shadows at the far end of the room, then picked up the lantern and advanced. "Look at the wall," he said, holding the lamp aloft.
He and Rodrick stared together at the great hole that had been smashed through the wall, a ragged circle easily ten feet to a side. Alaeron pushed the lantern through the hole, revealing a tunnel of packed dirt that angled down and away.
"Graverobbers digging a tunnel to break in, perhaps?" Rodrick said.
"Or it might be the work of interlopers from the Darklands," Alaeron said.
Rodrick chewed his lip. "We should investigate. If there's any chance of finding the treasure... But to take a light into those tunnels could be dangerous. If there are subterranean monsters down there, light would be a beacon to them."
"I have a potion that lets me see in the dark," Alaeron said. "It's rather more expensive than a torch, which is why I didn't use it before—"
"Excellent. We'll both drink it."
"I could go down on my own," Alaeron began, but Rodrick cut him off.
"Ha. And find the treasure and a convenient path to the surface? No. Let's take the potion together."
Alaeron shrugged, took a vial from his pack, drank down half of it—it tasted of carrots, mainly—and then handed it to Rodrick. The extract would have no effect on the thief, since like most alchemists' preparations it only worked for the creator, but he'd let Rodrick figure that out on his own. The thief drank, made a face, and handed back the vial.
"In we go," Alaeron said, and slipped into the tunnel.
"I'm not sure it's working," Rodrick said doubtfully behind him, but Alaeron shushed him. His own vision had already altered, allowing him to see the tunnel clearly, albeit in black-and-white. Roots poked down through the top of the tunnel, and an earthworm dropped from the ceiling before Alaeron's face and wriggled away.
The passage was angled steeply downward, and crumbling—it seemed more like an animal's burrow than a tunnel hewn by human hands. Alaeron had terrible visions of being buried in tons of dirt as he slid forward, going as silently as possible, trying not to lose his footing and roll down. The tunnel ended abruptly, in a huge cavern—occupied by something almost equally huge.
A great serpentine body filled almost the entirety of the space, its coils moving slowly in steady breath. Far above, Alaeron thought he could discern a head, its huge eyes closed in sleep. The chamber was filled with gold and gems and other things, most of them nestled under the great beast's body or its huge forelegs, each digit tipped with a claw like a greatsword.
After a long moment of staring, not even daring to breathe, Alaeron turned and scrambled back up the tunnel, pushing past Rodrick and clambering back into the burial chamber, where he knelt, gasping and trembling.
Rodrick arrived after him. "Your stupid potion never worked for me. What's wrong with you? What did you see down there?"
"Did you say one of the treasures Uncle Brant brought back was a petrified linnorm egg?" Alaeron said.
"So Simeon told me."
Alaeron lifted his head and looked into the rogue's eyes. "The egg hatched."
Rodrick blinked. "You're lying. You're trying to trick me—"
"Didn't you smell it?" Alaeron said. "The stink of a vast beast?"
"I thought that was you," Rodrick said, and gave a weak smile. Alaeron laughed despite himself. The thief sat down on one of the shelves of stone. "Well, then. Where do we go from here?"
"Out, and swiftly," Alaeron said.
"You corrected me earlier, when I called a linnorm a dragon," Rodrick said. "That suggests you know something about the beasts—more than I do, anyway."
"Just what I've read in books. I've never been farther north than the south shore of Lake Encarthan."
"Books about linnorms were presumably written by people who survived encounters with them," Rodrick said reasonably. "What did they have to say?"
Alaeron sighed. "They're huge, of course. Eighty, a hundred feet long? I think it depends on the variety, and no, I don't remember the different types, or have any idea which kind our linnorm is. It doesn't matter. A battleaxe can kill you just as well as a mace. The beasts are intelligent, but generally cruel—gluttonous, greedy, lovers of treasure, obviously, since it took everything from in here into its hole. The thing must have cleaned out this chamber when it was smaller. Made itself a nest, then grew." Alaeron shook his head. "I do remember reading that they can hibernate for centuries, for so long that people living nearby forget they're even there, until the linnorm bursts forth to devour everything in the surrounding landscape. For now, we’re lucky, and this one appears to be sleeping."
"I imagine news of this beast would drive down the price of property hereabouts," Rodrick said thoughtfully. "What sort of treasures did you see in its chamber?"
"I hardly took a complete inventory," Alaeron said. "I saw a sword hilt protruding from beneath its belly. Some sort of black cask, big as a sea chest, under one of its claws. Gold, jewels, ingots of precious metal, bits of statuary... I couldn't say more specifically. I was too busy trying to control my bowels."
Rodrick stroked his chin. "How deeply is it sleeping, do you think?"
Alaeron stared at him. "You can't possibly mean to go back down there and try to steal from the monster?"
"Of course not," Rodrick said. "I can't even see in the dark." He drew his sword and smiled, showing all his teeth. "I want you to go down there and steal from the monster for me."
Coming Next Week: Pilfering a linnorm's hoard in the final chapter of Tim Pratt's "A Tomb of Winter’s Plunder."
Tim Pratt's writing has won a Hugo Award, a Rhysling Award, and an Emperor Norton Award, as well as been nominated for Nebula, Mythopoeic, World Fantasy, and Stoker Awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as two short story collections of his own. He novels include the contemporary fantasies The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and Briarpatch; the Forgotten Realms novel Venom in Her Veins; and seven books in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series (as T. A. Pratt). He edited the anthology Sympathy for the Devil, and the forthcoming Rags & Bones anthology with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages.
And in this chapter, Rodrick continues to be a jerk, surprising no one.
I like Alaeron a great deal. He reminds me of the alchemist PC in my weekly Kingmaker game. Knowledge check, drink a potion, knowledge check, fail a will save, knowledge check... Looking forward to the final chapter!