Rick counted the coins,
stared at the pile in front of his opponent, and picked up the handful
"Three," he said.
"Three?" Mike Bywell echoed. "You're betting three on one throw? Are you crazy?"
"Try me and see," Rick said with a devilish grin.
"All right, three." He pushed three farthings from his pile. "But it's got to be a clean win."
There were twelve small stones in his hand, six black and six white. He blew across them for luck,
closed his fist, rattled the stones, and tossed them across the table. They bounced on the wooden surface,
some coming to rest inside a painted circle, others outside.
"Damn it!" Mike swore.
Rick was playing white, and the object of the game was to toss the stones so that more of his color
landed inside the circle. There were four white stones inside, and only three black. It had been close, but
close was good enough to win.
He picked up Mike's farthings and added them to his own pile. He now had eleven, almost three
"One more round?" he challenged.
Jean leaned over his shoulder. "Are you winning this time?" she asked sweetly. "For once?"
He caught her long blond braid and tugged. She retaliated by seizing a handful of his silky black
hair and twisting her small fist. Their playful struggle pulled her chest against his back and shoulder, which
distracted him. Jean was almost thirteen now, and her body was beginning to change in interesting ways. It
made him have thoughts that a guy wasn't supposed to have about his own sister. Suddenly uncomfortable,
he let go of her and returned his attention to Mike Bywell, who was picking up the stones.
"Sure," Mike said. "One more round. But you throw first."
"Fine with me." He held out his hand, and Mike poured the stones into his palm. Jean drew up a
stool and sat down to watch. Nearby, Mike's sister Elaine was shelling peas into a large wooden bowl. He
winked at her, and she blushed.
He held the stones, wondering how much to bet. He'd had a good feeling about the last throw, but
this time he felt uncertain.
"One," he said slowly.
"One?" jeered Mike. "What's the matter, lose your nerve?"
"One? Rick, that's pathetic," Jean said. "At least bet two."
"Oh, all right, two," he snapped. "But if I lose, you owe me a half-penny."
"Why me?" she asked.
"Because you told me to bet two."
"Well, then, if you win, you have to give me a half-penny."
"That's not fair. I'm the one doing the winning."
"Hey!" Mike interrupted. "Could you just shut up and throw? I want to finish this round before I
die of old age."
"Here goes." Rick scattered the stones, knowing even as they left his hand that his feeling had been
correct. Most of the stones missed the circle entirely. Some bounced off the table and into the dust. And one
lone black stone sat in the circle. "Rats!"
"Hah!" crowed Mike. "That's two farthings for me."
"You haven't made your throw yet," Rick reminded him.
Jean gathered the fallen stones and gave them to Mike. He rattled them thoughtfully.
"Well, bet," Rick urged.
"I bet a kiss," Mike said.
"No way!" Rick recoiled so fast he almost fell off his stool. "I'd rather kiss a pig!"
"Not you, stupid! If I win, I get to kiss Jean."
"All right," Rick said.
"Rick!" she gasped.
"But if you miss, I get to kiss Elaine."
Elaine looked up again, and Rick gave her his most dazzling smile. He knew the girls really liked
his smile, and counted himself lucky for his straight white teeth. Big Bill Edgebrook occasionally threatened
to knock them out until Rick looked like an old picket fence, but he hadn't had the chance and never would.
"Wait a minute," Jean protested. "Don't I get a say in this?"
"You can play the next game," Rick said. "Go on, Mike, throw!"
He did. The stones bounced briefly, and came to rest. Two white and two black stones were in the
circle. A tie.
Jean burst out laughing. "Now what are you going to do?"
Mike grabbed her around the waist and pulled her onto his lap. "I think we should both collect our
winnings," he said to Rick.
"Sounds good to me." He jumped up and went to Elaine, who was already setting down the bowl
of peas. Behind him, Jean squealed in mock protest as Mike put his arms around her.
Elaine was really quite pretty. Her hair was a light brown, not as glowing honey-colored as Anne
Larksley's hair or as buttery gold as Jean's, but still nice and soft. Her brown eyes danced merrily and she
lifted her arms to him with no hesitation.
He kissed her firmly, wondering if he dared try to touch her peaches. He'd tried once before, and
she'd slapped him, but not as hard as she could have if she'd been really mad. Still, wild as he was to explore
her blossoming shape, he didn't think it was a good idea to do it right next to her house, with her brother just
a few feet away.
"That's enough," Jean said, sounding a little breathless, and Rick let go of Elaine too.
"Good game," Mike said, grinning.
"Yeah," Rick agreed. "We should play for kisses more often."
"I am not," huffed Elaine, "about to stand around and let my brother wager away my virtue."
"Me, either," declared Jean, trying to sound like a fancy highborn lady.
"Oh, look who's being so pure now," Mike said. "I heard you talking about the Dorus. You can
hardly wait for First Rites."
Elaine tossed her head. "I want to be a good Dorianite. Besides, Dorus Alexander is so handsome!
He's lots more handsome that Dorus Benjamin was. Dorus Benjamin was so old!"
"How come they don't have First Rites for men?" Rick wondered aloud. "Why do the girls get all
"It's so we can teach our dull husbands how to please us," Jean informed him archly.
"I bet we could figure it out," Mike said, elbowing Rick. "Can't be that tough."
"Like you'd know," Elaine giggled. "Closest you've come is spying on 'Lizabeth and Galen when
they do it."
"You spied on your own brother?" Jean said.
"It's not spying," Mike protested. "Can I help it if they wake me up? It's a small house. What am I
supposed to do, shut my eyes and pretend I don't hear anything?"
"What's the matter anyway?" Rick asked. "There's nothing wrong with it. That's what the Dorus
says. Our folks do it all the time."
"That's why they've got ten kids," Elaine said.
"Dorian likes it when people appreciate her gifts," he said.
"Yeah, but that's not how they got you," Mike said.
"What do you mean?" He felt a sudden chill. Part of him wanted to leave right away, but the rest of
him had to hear what Mike was about to say.
"Oh, come on. You're not really their kid. Look at you. You don't look like anybody. Besides, I
was down at the oven the other day, and I heard Mrs. Ridgefield telling Mrs. Edgebrook that your folks
were going to wish they'd never taken you in."
"That's a lie! You're lying!" Rick flared.
"No, I'm not. That's what she said."
"She's just saying bad things about our mom because she's jealous," Rick said. He was raising his
voice, but he couldn't help it. "She's jealous because she doesn't have any kids at all, just a dried-up old leaf
who's probably a sinner and Dorian hates her!"
"Rick!" Jean gasped. "You shouldn't talk like that!"
"She is! You know she doesn't like us. She used to be nice, but she just gets meaner and meaner
"Other people say things too," Elaine said. "And you don't look like anybody else. Mr. Darby the
butcher said you're a gypsy, like he saw once in Briarglen. They're dark, like you, and they tell fortunes at
"I'm not a gypsy!"
"He's my brother!" Jean cried. "We were born on the same day, just like Ellen and Isabelle!"
"Mr. Rockhill told me once that if I didn't get off his roof, he'd sell me to the gypsies," Mike said.
"Maybe they sell kids too, and your folks just bought you. Or maybe they found you in the woods."
"Shut up!" Rick stepped toward him, feeling his fists clench. "Mr. Rockhill's a mean-assed drunk,
and he doesn't know anything!"
"Well, maybe you should ask your mom!" Mike yelled. "You'll see! You're not really one of us,
and that's why everybody hates you!"
"They do not!"
"We will ask her," Jean said, grabbing Rick's arm. "And you'll be the one that sees! Come on,
Rick. Let's go home."
He let her lead him away from the Bywells' house, still fuming. But, mad as he was, he couldn't
stop turning Mike's words over and over in his mind. He was different from everybody else. He always had
been. And now that he actually thought about it, he seemed to remember lots of times when people would
"What if he's right?"
"Stop it. Don't even think it. We'll ask Mama, and that'll settle everything. You're my brother.
Everyone knows that."
"But I don't look like you. Ellen and Isabelle look almost exactly the same."
"That doesn't matter."
"Yes it does, Jean!" He was startled to hear himself near tears. "Yes, it does!"
She had heard it too, and stopped walking. "Rick, you're scared!"
"I'm not scared! I'm worried!"
Jean put her arms around him. "Don't be," she whispered.
He hugged her, and started to feel better, but then he realized that her body was pressed close
against his, and he could feel her new curves pushing against his chest and hips. To his eternal shame, part
of him reacted in an entirely predictable way.
She sensed the change too, and drew back slightly. Before she could say anything, he kissed her as
hard as he could. His hands slid down, cupping her bottom, pulling her closer. He couldn't resist, couldn't
stop, even though he knew it was wrong to be holding Jean like this, kissing her, and oh, dear gods! feeling
her hands move down his back toward ...
He sprang away from her, flustered, red-faced, heart pounding and body tensed. She looked up at
him, her own cheeks pink, one hand held before her mouth in a gesture of shock.
"I'm sorry," he gasped.
She quickly shook her head. "No. It was my fault."
"No, it was mine."
They stared at each other for a moment, an awkwardness between them now that had never been
there before, then he cleared his throat and started walking again. Their house seemed very far away, and
the silence stretched out uncomfortably.
"Rick ..." she began.
"I liked it when you kissed me," she confessed in a whisper.
"I did, too," he admitted. "But we're not supposed to! You're my sister, damn it!"
"Would it ..." she trailed off, then glanced hesitantly at him. "Would it be so awful if I wasn't? If
Mike was right?"
"But you are." He lengthened his stride, forcing her to hurry to keep up. "Mike's a liar, and he was
just mad because he lost so much money."
She said nothing more, and they reached the small house that was home to the ever-expanding
Avery family. Most everyone was out doing chores or amusing themselves in the treasured free time that
summer allowed, between the planting and the harvest. Margaret Avery, their mother, was sitting in the
front yard mending clothes while the youngest child, baby Anne, lay on a blanket nearby and four-year-old
Matthew napped in the shade.
"Rick. Jean. You're home early," she said. "Mrs. Forrester just sent Damon over with a pot of early
blackberry jam, if you want any."
"No, that's all right, Mama," Rick said. Now that he was actually facing her, he didn't know how to
ask without sounding either cruel or stupid. This woman, with her gentle face and soft voice, had to be his
mother. She loved him, took care of him. The time he'd blundered into a bee's nest, she'd sat by him and
bathed his swollen wounds until he was all better. Would someone other than a mother do that?
"Mama," Jean said hesitantly.
"What's the matter, honey?"
"Are you my real mother?" Rick blurted. "Mike Bywell says you're not."
She set down her mending and came to him, taking his hands. She looked sad, yet unsurprised. As
her fingers closed over his, he was rocked by a sudden flash of insight and knew even before she spoke that
she was not his mother.
"I always knew this day would come," she said sadly. "No, Rick, I did not give birth to you. But
you are still my son, the son of my heart."
"He's not my brother?" Jean asked. "But he's been here all my life!"
"I took you in when you were just minutes old," Margaret said to Rick, smoothing back his dark
hair as he stared at her. "Jean was only two days old, and I had milk to spare. We raised you as our own, but
our blood does not flow in your veins."
"Who am I?" he asked numbly. "What happened to my real parents?"
"Your mother died just after you were born. Charles found her in the fields, sick and half-starved.
We didn't know anything about her, not even her name. She was all alone."
"Was she a ... a ... gypsy?" He brought the hated word out, the word that people had called him all
his life without him ever really knowing what it meant.
Mama nodded. "She was."
"But what does that mean?" he wailed. "Everyone calls me that, like it's something bad, like an orc
or a goblin or something. What are gypsies? What am I?"
"They are a traveling folk," she explained. "They live in wagons and go from place to place. They
are dark, like you, and tall, and quick. Some people say they have strange magic and can see the future by
looking at the lines on a person's hand."
Another chill went through him and he thought of all the times he'd had unexplainable feelings, or
dreams that had later come true. More times than he could count, he'd changed his mind about going a
certain way or place because he had the feeling that Big Bill was lying in wait for him, or come off lucky in
a bet because he'd followed a hunch.
"They usually visit towns at festival time," she continued. "They dance and play music, and games
of chance. A lot of people don't trust them, saying that they cheat or steal."
"No!" he yelled. "It's not true! I'm not a gypsy! I don't do magic! I don't cheat! I don't steal! I was
born right here in Stonebridge, just like everyone else!"
"Yes, you were, but I was not the one who gave birth to you," she said.
"No!" He tore away from her as she reached to comfort him. He shoved past Jean, who was gazing
at him in openmouthed shock. "I'm not a gypsy!"
"Rick, come back!" Mama called, but for once he didn't listen. He kept running, running away
from the house of lies, the people who tried to hurt him by making up such terrible stories when it should be
perfectly clear that he was one of them, even if he looked a little different.
He ran and ran. He thought briefly about looking for one of his friends, Damon or Taren, sure that
they would understand, but thought better of it. Damon was off in the woods probably, hunting with his dad.
And Taren would be out with the sheep, trying to teach his new puppy to watch them like a good shepherd
dog. Besides, he didn't really want to see either of them. What if they started believing he was a gypsy just
like everyone else in town thought?
The village was soon far behind him, and the range of hills known as the Upper Reaches was
getting closer. Without slowing, he raced up King Dane's Hill and kept on going. He would run all the way
to the end of the world, if he had to.
But eventually, he tired out. He slowed to a walk, continuing south through the hills. The run had
cleared his head, and he began thinking about what Mama had told him.
Could it be true? Had there been some woman, dark and tall, some gypsy woman who wandered
into Stonebridge all by herself and died, leaving behind only a baby boy? His dreams and hunches, which
he thought were things that happened to everybody but nobody talked about them, now seemed even more
unusual. Was he the only one in the village who had those feelings? Were they really part of his gypsy
blood? The more he thought about it, the more right it felt.
He topped a ridge and came to a halt, awed by the sight of the forest spread out below him. It was
huge, much bigger than Glenslot where he and Damon used to play. Damon's father called it Dunhollow
Forest, and went there sometimes in the spring to hunt boar for one of Lordling Edmund's feasts. Rick had
been in the woods before, but he'd never seen them from the hilltop. The road, the Lord's Road, wound
throught he woods and cut across the fields. He could see it leading off into the distance, to the city of
Briarglen and the wide world beyond.
The road seemed to call to him, and he was tempted to just go, to leave now with nothing but the
clothes on his back and the farthings in his pouch. But he knew he couldn't leave without saying goodbye to
his friends, and if he ran away, Lordling Edmund would send people after him, and fine him for missing
Someday, he thought. Someday I'll go down that road and see where it takes me. I'll go to
Briarglen, where they have an inn, a whole building where people pay to eat and sleep. I'll see the big
marketplace and the walls around the city, and the guards and the castle where Lord Brizbayne lives. I'll go
even farther, and I'll become a famous hero, and then when I come back, they'll all be sorry they ever made
fun of me.
He sat on a rock, watching the clouds scud across the blue sky, imagining himself on a big horse,
even bigger than Sir Galen Castleton's, with a shining helmet and a sword.
The clouds quickly bored him, so he bet himself two farthings that the next bird to fly overhead
would be headed north. Then, the bet won, he plucked a stem of vetch and bet that there would be an odd
number of seeds in the fleshy pod on the underside of the leaf. Prying open the pod without losing any of
the seeds was a difficult task, but he did it. There were seven seeds.
"Hah! Two in a row," he said, popping the chewy underripe seeds in his mouth. Mama would have
a fit, since she always yelled at him for eating vetch too early, but he liked the tangy taste of the green seeds.
He looked around for something else to do, then spotted a row of small rocks on the edge of a
ridge about five feet high. They were almost as perfectly aligned as if they had been placed there for the
express purpose of serving as targets. He scrounged up a handful of other rocks, good throwing rocks that
nicely fit his hand, and bet himself that he could knock all of the rocks off of the ridge with just five throws.
He hurled the first rock, but was way too short. With only four throws left, he had to do something
impressive. He cocked his arm back, took careful aim, and let fly. The rock struck one of the targets,
chipping it, and both fell off the other side.
"Bodak!" a strange, coarse voice barked.
Rick froze, gripping his last three rocks. It had sounded almost like a bear, and it had come from
the other side of the ridge. He scooted backwards, not our of fear, but only trying to get a clearer view in
case he had to throw some more.
Something appeared around the corner of the ridge, where the stone melted back into the dirt. It
was shorter than Rick, but more than twice as broad, with short thick legs and a bristly brown beard heavily
streaked with grey. Small, glittering eyes like chips of flint peered at Rick from beneath the rim of an upside
down metal pot. No, not a pot, a helmet, a slightly conical metal helm with rivets all the way around the
"A boy?" it rumbled in that same deep voice. "Tall, yes, but a boy nonetheless. Don't move."
Rick gulped and nodded.
It came closer, walking with a peculiar gait suited to its short legs. It wore a vest of metal loops
hooked to leather, and had a belt with a short-handled axe bumping at its side. It wasn't like the woodaxe he
sometimes had to use. That looked like an axe made for hitting people, not wood.
"Are --" Rick said.
"What are you doing throwing rocks, boy?" the creature demanded. "Almost hit me, you did!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to," he mumbled.
"Well, if you didn't mean to hit me, then it's all right. If you'd meant to hit me and missed, you
ought to be ashamed. Who are you?"
"Rick Avery. Are you a dwarf?"
"Do I look like one?"
He nodded. Once his initial shock was past, he realized that the creature did look very much like
the way the mountain-dwelling dwarves were described. Short, wide, bearded, clad all in metal. The only
thing missing was the big pile of gold and gems.
"Where's your gold?" he asked, growing bolder since the dwarf did not appear to have any
immediate plans to take up that axe and chop him down to size.
"Dwarves're supposed to have gold."
"Sure that's not dragons?"
"Well, them too."
"Listen, kid, you're partly right. Most dwarves have gold, and so do nearly all dragons. But me, I
don't have any, so if you were getting any ideas, think twice before you decide it's worth it."
"About trying to jump me and get my money. You're a tall one, but skinny, and I'm willing to bet I
could cut you in half with one stroke."
"No bet," Rick said quickly. "I wasn't going to try anything. I've never seen a dwarf before."
"So now you have. Name's Mokik, by the way. Mokik Kol. Of Kazdarak."
Rick tried to wrap his tongue around the unfamiliar sounds and couldn't quite do it, but the dwarf
"Close enough for a longlegs. Where's the rest of your folk?"
"The village is that way," he said, pointing. "It's called Stonebridge."
"Oh, Talo T'agas. Hmph. Didn't know I was that close."
"What did you say?"
"That word. Tallow taggas?"
"Talo T'agas. Stonebridge. Well, it means 'stones over water,' but that's close enough."
"So that's what Stonebridge means in dwarven?"
"You're quicker than you look."
"Thanks. Hey, wait a minute ..."
"Which way are your folk bound? I don't have much patience for these longlegs peasants."
"Your people. You know, the wagons?"
"I'm not a gypsy!" he yelled. "I'm one of those longlegs peasants! I mean --"
Mokik laughed. "You have spark, boy. I like that."
"I mean, maybe I was born a gypsy, but I grew up in Stonebridge."
"Hmph." The dwarf looked him up and down. "Strange."
"Yeah, that's what everybody says," he said bitterly.
"So why do you stay?" Mokik asked, sitting on a flat rock and pulling off one of his boots. He
shook gravel and dirt out of it.
"Where else would I go? People hate gypsies everywhere." He kicked a rock.
"How do you know?"
"Well, everybody says so. I mean, Mr. Attewater, he's the baliff, he probably wouldn't even let me
work except that I live here. If I have to work in the fields anyway, I might as well stay here where my
family is. The people who raised me, I mean. My sister. Not my real sister," he added, realizing that it was
true. Jean wasn't his real sister. So that meant that kissing her wasn't wrong. That meant he wasn't going to
the Abyss for liking it so much. Relief, cool as a summer breeze and big as the open sky, swept over him.
"Is that all you want out of life, boy?" Mokik dumped out his other boot, then unstrapped
something from his belt that looked suspiciously like an aleskin.
"Working in the fields?"
"No." He sat down crosslegged on the ground, near the dwarf. Though he still found Mokik
intimidating to look at, he was reassured by the dwarf's friendly manner. And it was really neat talking to a
stranger. "I don't want to be a farmer."
"Higher aspirations, hmm? A blacksmith, maybe?" He looked him up and down again. "Nope.
Strong, but wiry. You'll never have the shoulders to be a smith. Carpenter? Stonewright? Village probably
needs a good stonewright. I bet they still build with wood, don't they?"
"Yeah, mostly. Except for the mill. It's stone. And parts of the manor."
Mokik shook his shaggy head. He unstoppered the aleskin and took a long pull. "You drink, boy?"
"Sure," Rick said, puffing out his chest proudly. "I can drink more than anybody, and I never get
sick the next day. Maybe I'll be an ale-taster someday, or a brewer."
"You ever drink dwarven ale?"
"No. Isn't it made out of gold?"
The dwarf snorted. "Made from grain, mostly, with a bit of something extra added. Mushrooms,
boy. Heart of the earth."
"Mushrooms can be poisonous. Anne Larksley's mom died from eating bad ones."
"Well, these are safe. Drink up. Put some hair on your chin." He slung the aleskin to Rick, who
caught it eagerly, feeling the liquid slosh of weight.
He brought it close to his nose and breathed deeply. The smell was rich, earthy, different from any
of the ale he'd ever smelled. His mouth watered. He took a swig. "Wow, that's good!"
Mokik grinned. "Hungry? I was about to stop for a bit anyway." He took a couple of small flat
loaves out of his sack and passed one to Rick.
"Thanks." It was thick, chewy, heavy, tasty. But it was work, and by the time he'd gotten through
half of it, his jaws were aching. He watched Mokik eat, and saw how the dwarf's strong jaws methodically
bit and chewed. No wonder they looked the way they did, if this was the kind of food they had to eat.
"So what are you going to do with your life?" Mokik asked. "Don't want to be a farmer, can't make
much of a living as an ale-taster, though I grant you it'd be a damn fine hobby. Miller? Leatherworker?
You've got the hands for it."
"I want to be an adventurer," he confessed, feeling that he could trust Mokik. The dwarf would not
ridicule him or make light of his dreams. He sometimes got feelings like that about people, especially after
he'd been drinking.
Mokik nodded. "How old are you?"
"Tall. Even for a longlegs. Long arms. Yes, boy, you could do well at swordplay."
"I've always wanted to have a sword, like Sir Galen! And a big horse, and ride all over the world
killing monsters and getting treasure and rescuing girls!"
"There's more to adventuring that being a warrior, though," Mokik said. "You've got to learn to
live by your wits, boy, not just your back. Any yokel can learn to swing a sword, with someone to teach him
or stand over him and beat it into him. Any fool can be a soldier. Got to be smart. Quick. Clever. Sneaky,
"Mokik, are you an adventurer?" he asked, so awed he could not keep his jaw from dropping.
"I have been. I've been many things. Adventurer, mercenary, soldier, gambler, hell, even a sailor, if
you'd believe it. Most folks don't. They take one look at me, see that I'm dwarven, and can't picture me on a
boat. Most of my kind don't care for the water. We don't swim well. But I've been a sailor, and I tell you,
boy, you haven't seen the world until you've seen the sea."
"Gambler?" Rick asked eagerly, half-ignoring everything Mokik said after that one word. "You
like to gamble?"
"By Reghar's beard, I do. Won a year's pay off of my unit commander once. You should have seen
him. Looked like a kettle getting ready to boil. But I'd won, in full sight of half the company, and there was
nothing he could do but pay it off."
"Wow. I love to bet on games. It's more fun that way. See," he poured his pouch into his hand. "I
won all this today!"
Mokik looked at the pile of farthings, and his bushy eyebrows climbed over each other. "You won
"Yeah, off of Mike Bywell. And I won a kiss from his sister Elaine."
"That's your idea of big winnings, boy? Hammer and tongs! Look at this!" Mokik took a pouch
from his own belt and emptied it on the ground in front of him. "See these?" He picked up a coin and held it
in front of Rick's nose.
It was bright and shiny, almost the color of Anne's hair, and Rick shivered as he realized what it
had to be. "Gold! But you said you didn't have any."
"I thought you meant real gold. A vault full. But pay attention. I won this off of a merchant in a
tavern, just a casual bet by the fire. All we did was bet over whether a certain barmaid wore linens under her
skirts. I bet she didn't. And I won."
"How did you find out?"
Mokik grinned again. "Dropped a penny on the floor, and when she went to pick it up, I flipped up
her skirts. There was her bottom, white and round as Lunari's Throne."
"Wow. And you won a gold coin because of that? But what would have happened if she was
"But I knew she wasn't."
"I'd been in the stable earlier, and saw the same wench rolling in the hay with a messenger. While
they were busy, a goat got ahold of her linens and took a bite. She said that was the only pair she had. So,
when I saw her again, I figured she'd probably go without than wear a pair of ripped ones."
"But why would a merchant bet a gold coin over that?"
He shrugged. "Merchants are funny, especially longlegs ones. They've got more money that they
seem to know what to do with, and for them, it's not enough to hoard it all in a vault. They like to spend it,
spread it around. Some of them, anyway. Others are so miserly, they put dragons to shame. This one was
one of the kind who feels money burning a hole in his pouch. He'd also had a lot to drink, and wanted to see
that wench's bottom, linens or no. So he was willing to plunk down this coin. Do you understand what I'm
getting at, boy?"
Rick thought about it. "Always bet with merchants?"
"No, no. The point is, to me, this gold coin came from one simple wager. Your handful of farthings
is a big win as far as you're concerned. See the difference?"
"Yeah. My farthings are nothing, not compared to that. But farthings are all I have!"
"And if you want to turn those farthings into more, you've got to be clever. How long did it take
you to win them?"
"We were playing all morning."
"What were you playing?"
"So you spent a morning playing toss-stone, and came out of it with what, nine farthings?"
He nodded, feeling suddenly embarrassed.
"Whereas I spent an hour letting a merchant buy me drinks, and came out of it with a gold pound.
You know how much a pound's worth, boy?"
"Sir Galen sold three cows to Lordling Edmund, and Mr. Attewater said it cost him a whole
"So this could buy three cows. What could you buy with your farthings?"
"Um, a lot of ale, or a couple of gallons of milk, or a couple of chickens."
Mokik scratched his beard, pulled off his helm. To Rick's surprise, he was completely bald on top,
with a fringe of grey and brown hair around the edges. He rubbed his head thoughtfully. "Let's talk about
"I can count. I can count almost as good as Mr. Edgebrook, and he's the reeve."
"Let's find out. Do you know what a penny is?"
"Sure," Rick said, wounded. "I'm not stupid. I even had a penny once."
"All right. This pound is worth two hundred and forty pennies."
His jaw dropped again. "Two hundred and forty? That's a penny for each person in the village! If
everyone in the village gave me a penny, I'd have a pound?"
Mokik nodded, pleased. "Good. Good. You're quick. Now, how many farthings to a penny?"
"Four," he said promptly. "I've got nine farthings, so that's tuppence and a farthing left over."
"So how many farthings in a pound?"
"Umm ..." He thought frantically, scratched in the dirt a little, tried to count on his fingers, and
finally looked at the dwarf in dismay. "I don't know."
"Nine hundred and sixty. That's almost a thousand farthings." He set his pound on the ground next
to the pile of farthings. "See the difference?"
"Yeah." He gaped at the coins. A thousand farthings would make a huge pile, too big to carry, but
the pound was one small coin.
"What does that tell you?"
"I'm wasting time betting for farthings with Mike. I should be betting for pounds with merchants."
"Right. But before you can bet for a pound, you've got to have a pound you can afford to lose."
"Lose a thousand farthings!?!"
"And if you're ever going to have that many, you're going to have to learn to win more. Now, the
trouble with toss-stone is that it takes too long, and too much depends on skill. You want to win at betting,
you've got to learn to know things as well as being good at things. Play Trenchers?"
"Sometimes, but the board belongs to Mr. Peterson and he doesn't like to let many people use it.
My dad's pretty good at it."
"That's another one that depends on skill. There's three kinds of betting, boy. That which depends
on things you can control, like throwing stones, daggers, whatever. The next kind depends on knowing
things. Say racing. You do dog racing in Talo T'agas?"
"Well, pretend you do. So if you want to win, you've got to know about the dogs. You've got to
know if they come from fast parents, if they've won a lot of races, if they're feeling sick, if they're hurt. Dog
with a sore paw will do better in a short race, for instance, because the dog'll know that if he runs faster, he
won't have to run so long. Get it?"
He nodded, listening with an intensity that he never felt when he was listening to the grownups talk
about the best way to plow.
"So you've got to know things. Like how I was pretty sure the wench would be going bare under
her skirts. Knowing things is the key to that kind of betting."
"What's the last kind?" he asked eagerly.
"That's the kind that depends on raw chance. It's the rarest kind, because nearly everything in the
world can be meddled with one way or another. Say you and a friend decide to bet which way a bird will
Rick twitched, because he had just made a bet with himself about that. "Okay."
"Now, some people might say that's all a matter of chance. But it isn't, is it? Depends on knowing a
lot of things. The season, for instance. Birds fly south in the winter, right? So there's a better chance that a
bird will be headed south if it's winter time. But the red-crested jay flies north in the winter, so if there are a
lot of jays in your area, you might want to bet on north. Lots of different things to think about. There's
hardly anything in the world that's a matter of pure chance."
"So betting is really just knowing things," Rick said slowly, trying to make sure that he understood.
"Either knowing that you're good enough at something like Trenchers to beat most other people, or knowing
about other things. I bet myself that a vetch pod would have an odd number of seeds, and it had seven, but
almost all vetch pods have an odd number of seeds unless they're the short-stalked kind. Those ones have an
"Right. You've got the knack for it. And you might have one thing even above other people.
Another big part of betting is following what your gut tells you. You ever get feelings, boy?"
"Yeah," he admitted. "Sometimes."
"You trust 'em?"
"Yeah, I try to. But sometimes I don't like to, especially if I don't think that I'm going to lose, and I
don't want to lose, but I've got a feeling that I might. I don't like that."
Mokik shook his head warningly. "Always trust your gut. A man's head gets him in a demon of a
lot more trouble than his gut. That goes for more than just betting. A man's head may be telling him he can
take on a Talmaran barbarian twice his size and armed with a double axe, but that same man's gut might be
telling him a whole lot different. If that man ignores his gut, he may see it spread out all over the ground.
I've known a lot of men that died because their heads told them they were better than they really were. So
listen to your gut, boy. You'll win more, live longer, and have better luck with the wenches."
The dwarf nodded and took another long drink. "You, though, being of the traveling folk by blood
at least, might have stronger feelings. More hunches. That's what I've seen, anyway. Knew a fellow a couple
of years back, dark like you, who was one of the best gamblers I've ever seen. Sat down at a table with a
purseful of shillings, left with a purseful of pounds and an admiring wench. See, boy, you can get treasure
and girls without having to fight monsters. Frankly, I'll tell you, fighting monsters isn't as fun as you might
think. You ever get hit?"
"All the time," he said sourly, remembering just a few weeks ago when Bill Edgebrook and two of
his cronies had caught him by surprise and knocked him down before he could get away. They'd given him
several good kicks and a few punches for good measure, before the baliff had happened by and broke it up.
Thanks to Dorus Alexander, soon only his pride remained hurt.
"Imagine getting hit by something twelve feet tall, with fists like boulders and breath like a rotting
"Oh, you know Bill Edgebrook?"
"Ogres. I'm talking about ogres. Strong enough to send a man flying ten feet, the same way you'd
swat a fly. Or trolls, with teeth and claws and eyes that glow like a smith's forge. Or giants the size of a
mountain. I've seen all those things, and more besides. All things considered, I'd rather win my money than
pick it off a dead ogre's body."
"Yeah, I guess. But what about dragons? Huge piles of gold and jewels just laying there, gold
cups, necklaces, magic swords like in the stories ..."
"But what about the dragon? A hundred feet from head to tail, mouth big enough to swallow a
building whole, teeth long as trees and sharp as blades, breathing fire that could roast a whole herd in a
single pass, not to mention sorcerous spells."
Rick knew that Mokik was trying to frighten him, but instead of being scared, which he never was,
he felt instead a wild exhileration. He could kill a dragon. Maybe with some help, like Damon to shoot it in
the eye with an arrow and distract it, but he was sure he could do it.
"Wow," he breathed, his mind filled with thoughts and images
"Trust me," Mokik said. "Stick with betting. You're not likely to get many monsters coming to
Talo T'agas anyway. You know anything about odds?"
For the next hour, the dwarf told him about odds and betting, and while most of it was too
complicated, he thought he grasped the gist of it. Even when he hadn't understood a word, he was still
fascinated. Mokik had seen more of the world than he'd ever imagined existed.
Mokik spoke of other things too. He mentioned Coventry, the huge city where the Duke lived, and
the thought of a place where there were thousands of people instead of the scant two hundred of
Stonebridge boggled his mind. And Coventry, accordning to Mokik, was actually small compared to some
cities, like Oramos, where the King's castle was, or some of the ancient dwarven cities entirely dug out
inside mountains. As he spoke, Rick imagined he could almost see these places, the dwarven tunnels like an
anthill, smoky and dark, echoing with the clanging of metal on metal as the dwarven smiths made their
"Here," he said, laying his axe across Rick's outstretched palms. "Feel the weight? Doesn't seem
like much --" Rick was struggling to hold it at the same level without lowering his arms, and was impressed
anew at the strength evident in Mokik's thick arms "-- but it could take the leg off an ogre, or the head off a
man, with one stroke. Keeps an edge, never rusts, cleans off real easy. Even troll blood, which is thick as
syrup, washes right off. That's dwarf steel, boy. Nothing else like it in the world. Dwarven craftsmanship.
Oh, the elves can make some pretty toys and jewelry, and you longlegs have a way with food and animals,
but when it comes to weapons and armor, there's nothing better than dwarf stuff."
He gave back the axe, but the feeling of the weapon in his hands remained. Someday, he told
himself, he would see the places that Mokik talked about. He would do all the things Mokik had done.
The sun was beginning to get low, when Mokik finally stood. "I've got to be going. Spent far too
long already, but it's good to find an interested ear. You could go far with what I've told you, boy, if you can
ever get out of the village. It's not easy. But I think there's more to you than spending the rest of your life
behind a plow."
"Do you want to stay the night?" Rick offered, scrambling to his feet. Somehow, while sitting, he'd
forgotten how short Mokik was. It was a shock to find that the dwarf's head only reached the middle of his
chest. "I'm sure my parents wouldn't mind." He imagined the look on everybody's faces when he came into
town with a real dwarf, an important dwarf with lots of money and an axe. They'd think twice about
bothering him then!
"No, better not," Mokik said. "I've got a long way to go."
"Where are you going?"
"Visiting family in the north. Arrokalirk. Heard of it?"
"It means 'house of diamonds' or 'diamond home'. My daughter and her husband live there. I
haven't seen Oro since she got married, and I hear she's going to make me a grandfather soon."
"You've got kids?"
"What about your wife?"
"She's gone too. Gadalo wasn't the prettiest of women. Didn't have much of a beard at all. But I
thought she was pretty as a limestone cavern and bright as a fresh-minted coin. It was terrible when I lost
her, but time heals. I've still got Oro to remind me of her."
"What happened?" Rick asked.
"Cave-in. The damned farrom undermined some of the tunnels. It was a long time ago."
Rick wanted to ask, but he suddenly knew that it was long indeed, longer than he had been alive,
longer than Old Man Hillsby had been alive. He knew, without Mokik saying a word, that the dwarf was
more than two hundred years old, and the concept awed him to silence.
"So," Mokik said, shaking off his momentary melancholy. "Thank you for the company, but I'll be
on my way. Short legs make for long miles."
"I could come with you," he said eagerly. "I could help out, and gather wood, and stand watch. I
can't cook very well, but I could try."
"No, boy, I don't think so. Arrokalirk is no place for humans. Reghar's bones, they don't even care
that much for other dwarves. If not for Oro, I wouldn't be going there myself. And you've got family here.
Even if they're not blood kin, they must care about you and are probably wondering where you've been all
"Wait until I tell them about you!" he said, delighted. Then his face fell. "But they'll never believe
"Here. Show them this." Mokik rummaged in his purse again, and for a moment Rick thought the
dwarf was going to give him the pound. But instead Mokik placed a silver coin in his hand.
It was a penny, but unlike the few pennies Rick had ever seen. This one was a perfect circle, with
an anvil on one side and two crossed hammers on the other, along with some strange symbols that made no
sense to him. A dwarven penny, bright silver.
"They still might not believe you, but at least you won't wake up tomorrow wondering if it was all
just a dream. Good luck, boy." Mokik offered a hand.
Rick shook it, feeling the dwarf's callused and powerful grip. "Good luck to you, Mokik. And
thanks. Thanks for everything."
* * *