He is the child of beauty, child of light.
He is the golden boy, blessed and protected; he walks in the way of his Lord, and every single thing he does is right.
Power is with him, glory burns bright in his eyes; words are molten silver on his tongue, all the world listens and believes.
His is the true faith, immutable, uncompromised. Through him all riddles are answered, all doubts dispelled.
He is the lover and the deeply beloved, a man of infinite trust, never betrayed.
Everything that happens, happens because of what he is, of what he does and says.
He is not afraid.
“Okay. So you’re standing there, you’re inside the hut. All of you?”
“Yes, all of us.”
“No,” Derry said. “I’m staying outside.”
“What for?” That was Mick, otherwise known as Althar the Wizard, leader of their little band: frowning across at him, suspicious of insubordination.
“On guard, right? Dunno what might happen out there. Something might come along.”
“Right.” Mick nodded, turned back to Stu. “Palidas stays outside, the rest of us go in. What’s in there?”
“Hang on. Derry, what’s Palidas doing?”
“You know. Watching, listening out for trouble . . .”
“All right.” Stu scribbled behind his hand; Derry took the note, and read it slowly.
The sun comes out from behind a cloud. You see rocks and sand and lots of wilderness. That’s all.
Derry nodded, keeping the smile off his face. Just another of Stu’s red herrings, to keep the rest on edge.
“Okay. Now, Althar, Dael, Simonid: you’re standing inside a bare wooden hut. There’s a mouldy old mattress in one corner with a wooden chest next to it. On top of the mattress is the mummified body of an old man. Looks like he’s been there a long, long time. What are you going to do?”
“Are there any locks on the chest?” Linda, alias Dael Blue-thumb, halfling and thief.
“No. It’s just a box.”
“I’m going to open it. Carefully, with the blade of my knife.”
“Hold it,” Mick snapped. “Shouldn’t we test it for traps first?”
“Yeah, ’course we should; but Dael wouldn’t, would she? She’s hoping for jewels or something she can pocket quick, while you two are still looking at the body. I open it,” firmly, to Stu. “What happens?”
“Not a lot.” He grinned at her. “No jewels, just a big rusty tin. It’s labelled ‘Woodworm Powder’.”
“Might not be woodworm powder inside,” pointed out Albie, aka Simonid, rebellious son of a merchant-adventurer.
“Okay, let’s see.” But this time Dael did ask Althar for a spell to be cast over the tin, “just to check.”
“What are you checking for?”
“Booby-traps,” Mick said.
Stu made a face. “Bit general. But I guess you’re in favour at the moment,” confirmed with a roll of the dice, hidden again behind his hand. “All right. You cast your spell, and there are no booby-traps.”
“Open it up, Linda. Dael.”
Dael prised the lid up with her knife, and: “It’s full of silvery-grey dust, but you can just see a corner of parchment poking out above the surface. Do you want to fish it out?”
“Wait a minute. What’s the dust stuff?” Linda asked warily.
“Woodworm powder,” Stu said, straight-faced.
“Right. I take the parchment out. Anything else in there?”
“A couple of dead woodworm. It’s good stuff, that powder.”
The parchment turned out to be a map; and after a break for refreshment—lager and cigarettes shared around, with the windows wide open to the night and the ashtray washed afterwards to keep Stu’s parents from guessing—the intrepid adventurers followed the marked route to a wide canyon and a narrow bridge.
“It doesn’t look good, that bridge,” Stu warned them. “Very rickety it looks, very unsafe. There are planks missing, and the handrail’s broken away one side. You going over?”
“Althar’s casting another spell first,” Mick said. “To see if there’s any magic on it, or any creatures lurking down in the canyon. You got us with a troll, once.”
“Yeah. Didn’t you like my troll? I loved my troll. But that’s two spells, Mick. Takes it out of you. You’ll have to rest on the other side.”
“So we’ll rest. I want to be sure, this time.”
“All right.” Two rolls of the dice, and, “No magic, and no creatures. Oh, except for woodworm, of course. In the bridge.”
“Shut up with your bloody woodworm. We’ll go over. One at a time, and lightest first. That’s you, Dael.”
Dael got across with no alarms; Althar followed, and Simonid. Then it was Derry’s turn. Palidas the Paladin, golden-haired warrior-mystic, six foot six of solid muscle: he stepped cautiously onto the creaking, shifting planks, made it halfway over, and—
“Sorry, mate,” Stu said, rolling his dice again and shaking his head at the result, trying to hide a triumphant grin. “The whole bridge falls apart under you. Just disintegrates. And it’s a long drop. Do you want to scream?”
“Nah. Palidas is a hero, he wouldn’t scream.”
“Right. Strong, silent type. Okay, you just fall. What about the rest of you?”
“I’ll scream,” Linda said obligingly. And did.
“Jesus!” Mick scowled at her, then back at Stu. “So what the hell happened, with the bridge?”
“Woodworm.” He was openly laughing now. “I did warn you. It was crawling with ’em. Could’ve gone any time, the rest of you were only lucky with the dice.”
“That’s not fair.” Mick always protested disasters; Derry closed his eyes and let the words roll over him, wondering if he was dead or not, how it would feel to die like that, quick and clean and easy. “You’ve got to give us a chance. What chance have we got against woodworm? We can’t fight that . . .”
“I did give you a chance.” Derry heard Stu’s voice distantly, as if he really were lying injured or dying at the bottom of a deep canyon. It happened a lot these days, this sudden distancing, this falling away; the only strange thing was to have such a ready excuse tonight. “Remember the powder? Now that was magic. If you’d brought that along, it would’ve killed the woodworm and fixed the bridge up like new.”