Ahearn lifted his head, perked his ears forward, and nuzzled my ear in excited anticipation.

"Yes, my friend," I chuckled softly. "You'll get to rest and eat soon."

My words were drowned out by Kraig, who had stepped up stoutly to the gate and banged his thick fist on against the unrelenting iron façade. He then stepped back for a minute, as if giving the gatekeeper time to come and see who was demanding entrance at the dead of night.

I glanced behind me at the thick darkness from which we three had emerged. I shuddered slightly; Caya's blue light cast ghostly shadows that played across the stone cliffs. If I had ever been one to superstitiously believe in ghosts, this would have been a perfect place to imagine a haunting.

"Whatcha' want?" a crotchety old voice rang out against the cold and the stone.

I jumped – with all the thoughts of ghosts, a disembodied voice didn't help my active imagination – and Ahearn shied away from the gate with a half-panicked snort. But Kraig stood fast, his hands in his belt, glowering away at the thin sliver of light that appeared in the center of the castle gate.

"Tell your Master that's it's Kraig Konig der Berg – come to bargain for his son."

There was a soft sound that suspiciously resembled a gasp and the light disappeared with the blink of an eye. Apparently Kraig's name meant something to the gatekeeper. I turned to him in mild bewilderment; he simply looked up at me and grinned mirthlessly, his blue eyes glittering dangerously.

I was a little startled by Kraig's sudden change in demeanor, but then I realized that he was, after all, about to enter his enemy's stronghold – unarmed.

With a tremendous clanking of hidden chains and grinding of cogs, the great gate in front of us began to swing open. Ahearn reared and threw his head back with a loud cry of protest. I held on firmly to the reigns wrapped around my hand, but allowed him to prance and snort in his displeasure.

Did that hurt your ears, my friend? I Whispered to him; Ahearn rolled his eyes and shied in affirmation.

I continued to Whisper kind, soothing words to my agitated gelding while keeping a keen eye on the scene that was unfolding before me. The gate swung completely open, exposing the dark, gaping maw of an unlighted courtyard. A lantern swung in a high arch over the gatekeeper's bald pate – I had to stifle a small gasp when I saw the creature revealed by the swinging, sputtering light.

A gnome! I thought in amazement.

I had heard many stories of the small, wizened, crafty creatures, but had never seen one in person. Supposedly, gnomes were a sub-race of the Dwarves, even smaller than their stout cousins and shorter of temper.

This particular gnome was as ugly as the descriptions I had heard. His skin resembled old, brown, wrinkled parchment of the most ancient variety; I wouldn't have been the least surprised if the slightest puff of wind blew the creature away before our very eyes. He was perfectly bald, except for a few stubborn, stray, straggly, wispy white hairs that stuck out in every which direction from behind his abnormally long and pointed ears. His thickly hooded eyes were the color of green sludge and they practically oozed disgruntlement as they glared at Ahearn, Kraig and me.

He gathered his torn, filthy scrap of a night-robe around his equally ragged nightshirt and puffed his thin-chested, hunch-backed form to its full height. Even then, he stood only to Kraig's belt buckle.

"You say yer the Dwarven king?"

I turned my head swiftly, staring in amazement at Kraig.

"I am," Kraig replied simply, with the utmost of dignity.

"The Master says to let yer in," the gnome shuffled his bare feet; the look on his face indicated that had he his way, he'd slam the iron gates shut in our very faces.

The little creature then turned toward and fixed me with a haughty eye and a hostile expression.

"But who be she?" he jerked his pointed chin in my direction.

"I respectfully beg the StoneMaster's hospitality an' generosity fer this woman – the same that he extends toward me," Kraig raised his hand slightly, silently bidding me to keep my tongue.

"That's all fine an' well," the gnome snapped irritably, shooting me another dirty look before grudgingly turning his attention back to the Dwarven king. "But that don't tell me who she be."

"She is a Ranger – a 'daughter' o' Lord Sylvan himself," Kraig's voice rumbled dangerously in his chest. "Would the laird o' this castle refuse a night's lodgin' to one beloved o' the great Dagda's son?"

"Ain't my place to say what the Master be doin' wi' a stranger," the gatekeeper swung his lantern in my direction to better see my face and then squinted up at me. "That still don't tell me who she be."

"My name is Morgaan," I drew myself up to my full height.

By either human or Elf standards, I wasn't very tall, but even so, I towered over the scrappy gnome. The illusion of height gave me a false sense of bravado that threatened even then to leave me and fade into the darkness around us.

"Tell your master that Morgaan SteinMeister seeks a night's asylum in his castle."

The reaction to my words was both powerful and puzzling. The gnome uttered a sharp squeak and took a quick step back, nearly tripping on the hem of his nightshirt. His eyes opened wide and nearly bulged out of his face – the gatekeeper stared unbelievingly at my face, his mouth opening and closing rapidly as if he was trying to say something, but couldn't get any words to come out.

"Come on, you fool!" Kraig finally lost his patience and roared, his deep voice echoing majestically off of the courtyard's stone walls. "Will ye let us in, or is all meanin' o' hospitality lost on the damned StoneMasters?"

"There's no need to insult your hosts," a calm voice answered back from the darkness behind the gnome, as cool and impartial as the stones around us. "King Konig – we of the StoneMasters Guild greet you."

A tall, thin form hidden by a dark blue, hooded robe, stepped into the lantern's small circle of light.

"Hummel – the light, please," a slender white hand, almost feminine in nature, appeared out of the robe's right sleeve, one artistic finger beckoning for the gnome's lantern.

Finally tearing his luminous eyes from my face, Hummel glanced up at the newcomer and relinquished his lantern without so much as a peep. Apparently sensing that his duty was done, Hummel shot me one last look and then melted into the shadows, eager, no doubt, to return to his warm bed.

"I am Sasha Ivanovich, StoneMaster Petrov's apprentice," the blue-robed figure bowed to both Kraig and me in turn. "On behalf of the StoneMaster, I welcome you to his home."