"Hexmoor, eh?" Kraig stepped closer; Ahearn tossed his proud head with an apprehensive snort.  "A long way from 'ome, aren't ye, lass?" he reached out and patted Ahearn's velvety nose, his wise, slate blue eyes glinting knowingly up at me.

"As I said before," I shifted uncomfortably beneath the Dwarf's gaze. "I'm

searching for my husband."

"And ye search for 'im here?" Kraig's black eyebrow rose suspiciously.  "'Mong the StoneMasters?"

"Who said I was traveling to the castle?" I bristled indignantly, but it was

just a bluff.

I had sensed Kraig's hostility toward the StoneMasters when he had asked me if I had been one of their Guild. I had spoken truthfully when I had denied being a StoneMistress, but it had only been a half- truth. I prayed to the gods that Kraig's animosity didn't extend to a StoneMaster's wife.

"This road leads only to the StoneMasters' castle," the Dwarf patted Ahearn's nose once more, finally lowering his eyes from mine.

"Then, yes - we're going to the same place," I grimly enjoyed turning Kraig's prying words against him.

He suddenly looked up, his eyes wide and startled. But then they narrowed in a smile and he tossed his head back with a deep-chested roar of laughter.

"Yer a sharp little vixen, young lass!" Kraig chuckled good-naturedly, winking at me. "Well, then," he adjusted his belt and nodded toward the darkened castle. "Shall we go together? 'Tis a wee bit cold out here an' I wouldna' mind sittin' me-self down in fronta' fire."

"Yes, neither would I," I agreed - the wind had picked up, chilling me to my very bones.

Without another word, I turned Ahearn's reigns and nudged him forward with my knees.

With a grunt of approval, Kraig fell in beside me and together we made our slow way down the rocky, narrow road. I glanced up at the castle; only one light from a tower illuminated the darkness. It struck me odd that only one room shed a dim, flickering light out into the harsh night.

I had seen many castles at night, resplendent in all their glory. The memory of Genma's Palace Royale came to mind.

I remembered the home of the Deardaoin Royals as I had seen it that balmy summer night so long ago. That was the first time I had seen my beloved Vladoff, walking through the fragrant gardens lighted by the castle's massive windows.

There weren't miles of enchanting gardens surrounding this dark, stone castle on every side. There was no charming, smiling, handsome Vladoff to greet me and to take me by my hand down fairy-lighted walkways. The air was filled with cold, damp mist and chilling wind, instead of a light, warm breeze and the serenading song of crickets. Instead of the balmy, salty scent of the sea, the crisp smell of snow filled my lungs.

This was far, far from warm, Roguish Genma and the charming, sophisticated Palace Royale. This was a cold, hard country, full of ice, snow, and the premature darkness of winter. A land foreign to me - a place I had never traveled during my days as a Ranger.

Now I understood why my Vladoff had been so loathe to return to this harsh world of his childhood. Why he had preferred instead to make his home on the wild, haunting, beautiful Hexmoor. Now I knew why he hadn't wanted the children or me to accompany him back to Ijs, back to the cold stones and dark windows of StoneMaster Castle.

Ahearn stumbled slightly, bringing me back to a dark reality.

"Ye may wanna' walk 'side yer horse, lassie," Kraig's deep voice startled me – I had momentarily forgotten that he was walking beside me.  "He's tired an' this is no road to be ridin' down at night."

Ahearn's head was indeed lowered, his ears laid back in exhaustion.  I had ridden many horses for many years, on many travels, and I could sense that he was only going forward because I was there to command him.  With a slight pull of the reigns, I halted Ahearn – he lifted his head slightly and looked at me hopefully as I swung out of the saddle.

"We're not out of the woods yet, my old friend," I sighed softly, patting him on his sweaty neck, just beneath his mane.

I glanced up, trying to gauge where we were and how far we stood from the castle.

"We're not that far, lassie," Kraig stuck his hands in his belt and eyed the single window of light.

It was certainly closer than when I had last sighted it, but the majority of the castle was hidden behind the massive stone hills that guarded each side of the narrow road.

"This castle is near invincible," I murmured in deep admiration as I took Ahearn's reigns and started walking onward.

"Carved straight outta' the cliff it is," Kraig nodded sagely.  "A silent testimony to the genius an' craft of the StoneMasters."

"And no army could ever lay siege to it," I glanced up at the stonewalls standing sternly above us.  "This canyon would be the perfect set-up for an ambush."

"The StoneMasters planned it this way," Kraig's voice echoed eerily off of the stone.  "Many there are in the world who want the StoneMasters' secrets for themselves."

He paused slightly, as if weighing the price of his next words.

"The StoneMasters fancy that we Dwarves want their craft-skill for ourselves."

"Why?" I glanced down at his shadowed form in surprise.  "I thought the Dwarves were the only ones who could rival the StoneMasters' skill."

"Quite the opposite is true," Kraig chuckled dryly.  "We Dwarves are metal smiths, not stonemasons."

I turned these words over slowly in my mind, puzzling over their meaning.  I knew little of Black Dwarves – most of the Dwarves I had known in my travels had been the cheerful, social, above-ground dwelling Red Dwarves.  The Reds made their homes in the giant tree trunks of the Impasse Mountain forests, perfecting their craft of woodcarving, basket weaving, and pottery.

They did not live their lives by the fiery anvil and forge of their cousins, the Black Dwarves.  In fact, the Blacks were as much an enigma to the Reds, as they were to the rest of Tir-nan.  No one really knew what they did, hidden underneath the snow-capped Sabreheim.

But everyone knew of their craft – of the delicate, but deceptively strong, links of silver chain mail.  Of the dazzling rings, necklaces, crowns, and bracelets of the purest metals and the most precious, most dazzling gems.  Of the perfectly crafted armor, so strong that it could withstand the deadly hardships of battle, yet light enough that even a dainty Royal woman could wear it comfortably.

The Continent's rich Nobles and Royals coveted the craftsmanship of the Sabreheim Black Dwarves.  But just as legendary as their skill, were the stories of the great wealth in gold and silver coins the Blacks hoarded deep within their mountain.  "Poor" and "Black Dwarf" were never two words associated with each other in the minds of Continental humans or Mageians.

There was abundant evidence of the Black Dwarves' metal-smith skill, but I knew that I, for one, had never thought about the skill it had to have taken to carve out Sabreheim's fabled city.  If anything, I had always assumed that the Dwarves themselves had done it.  Wasn't that evidence enough that they were stonemasons as well as metal-smiths?

But if Kraig spoke the truth – and I had no reason to doubt him – then how did Sabreheim come to be?  If the Dwarves had no interest in stone and rock, then who had created their massive home?  The gods Yuki and Ewan?  Somehow I doubted that, but I couldn't fathom who else could have created the wonder of Sabreheim.

The only beings in existence I knew of who would have the skill and power to do something of that magnitude were the StoneMasters.  But they were human and according to Vladoff, had next to nothing to do with the Black Dwarves.  In fact, the great hatred and animosity between the two guilds was well known in Ijs.

I never got to share my puzzled thoughts with Kraig, though.  In the time it had taken me to mentally sort through what he had said, we were approaching the StoneMaster Castle's grim iron gate.