"Och, I do," said Sneg, intelligently, "since although I have no skill in the art of understanding, still it is true that a complicated phenomenon can also be a simple danger to the public, and that danger I certainly understand because I have heard that some people have been lost into this fireplace nearly every year since anybody can remember!"
"How many?" Asked Ergo. "Oh, never mind, more than four, eh? Now, a wise king would send warriors to get his treasure back and then bring stonemasons to close this weird passage, don't you think?"
"No I don't think, not a lot. It is not my trade, ken ye. But if I were a king, I would do just as you have suggested, since kings also are not famous for the thinking but everybody knows that a bard's advice is well worth hearing."
"And so you ought to be a king, Sneg!" Ergo laughed. Next day, he asked to speak with Kaillean King, since all his life Ergo had been interested in treasure, and he had learned some skill at talking with people who could get him some. Those were usually kings or the like. Well, sure enough, Kaillean told Ergo that there was a big reward for anybody who would get back the stolen treasure. It would be an easy treasure to bring back, said Kaillean, since it was just a little necklace of emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The wife liked it. It was enchanted too, but that was a private matter for the royal bedchamber, the king told Ergo. And he told Ergo that the thief was probably dead, along with those men who had gone looking for him, and that the necklace was probably on the neck of that thief's skeleton. So much had Kaillean worked out by what seemed to himself pure logic.
"I'm surprised, king, that you don't go after this thief yourself with a war-band," said Ergo, admiringly, "since you can almost see where he is!"
"Ah well, probably I wouldn't return," replied Kaillean, "and that is not advisable for a man in my position, do you think?"
Ergo agreed, and then he went straight out that fireplace again, this time taking a small harp, his winter cloak and a flask of watered wine. Beside the cactus tree he sat on the boulder there and waited, looking along the valley, because between the dunes he could see a path winding, a path such as travelers make if they are riding hoofed animals with iron shoes on, or driving wagons.
He did that every day for a week. He would go out the fireplace and sit down on a black boulder to wait. People began to laugh at him. "What is it about the front door you don't like any more?"
"That there are fools both sides of it and yet no treasure on either side, so how could I improve my circumstances by going through it?" Ergo would call back, and then laugh his own laugh.
"Sometimes" they would then tell each other, "I don't like that way how bards laugh."
On the seventh day when he sat waiting by the cactus tree, Ergo heard people singing and animals braying, then saw a caravan of wagons and pack-beasts coming along the desert trail.
He went downhill to meet these travelers, and held up his harp so that they would not shoot him full of arrows or anything unwelcoming like that. As he began to walk with them, he spoke to a man who had a great bullock-wagon and was walking beside it, cracking a long whip and often screaming unbelievably foul insults at his team of bullocks. But if he hated them that did not stop him from feeding them all well and fettling their hooves and brushing their coats and polishing their tack, as Ergo noticed with amusement. A closer look at this wagon had made Ergo's eyes pop wide open, and it is not the ordinary eyes he had, as you remember, even besides his sharp eye for a bit of wealth.
The wagoner looked like Ergo, instead of looking like a lot of those caravan folk who were shiny black in their skins, a thing Ergo had never heard of before, nor seen, and they had black hair and eyes too but their clothing made up for that with some remarkable colours.
Ergo did not waste time, but asked that wagoner: "Did you know that if you step backwards hereabouts you will find yourself in a king's hall, except not at his table but at the back of the fireplace?"
The wagoner nodded. "Aye," he said. "I knew that. But that king would kill you because he has lost his treasure."
"Well thank you for telling me that, and I have something to do with such a thing so now I will be going to sort it out." Ergo replied, reticently, and then went back straight away to Kaillean King's hall.
When he walked backwards into the hall, he bumped into the king who was waiting for him.
"It's the other side of you I'd be talking to." Kaillean grumbled. "So have you any news of my treasure with your returning not once but seven times more often than any man yet who has sought it?"
If he sounded confused in his arithmetic, that was no more than expected of a king in those days.
"Yes, king, for I know where you should search for that necklace." Ergo replied, smugly. "It turns out that many people in that Blacksands Land know how to come here and why they should not, since your treasure was stolen. Well, that means the thief indeed went there, and told somebody his story, but it does not mean he is still there. Would any man from this country, thief or not, willingly stay in that one, do you think?"
"Probably not." the king agreed. "That I was not thinking about, but sure enough a thief has the daring character of course."
"Therefore your jewel came back through this fireplace, maybe the next day, and the thief paid whoever saw him come back to keep quiet. And then the thief went off to sell that jewel to some other king, since who else is rich enough to buy such a thing, or brave enough if you should ever hear about it?" Ergo finished explaining, exhaustively, since he knew by experience that kings with their imperious big-picture vision could often miss some minor point such as, for example, the main point.
Kaillean was delighted. "So instead of trying to make war against my own fireplace, I ought to send messengers to some other kings? To ask them if they have my jewel? Well that is a much easier task and I thatk you for your remarkably intelligent investigation of this theft, O bard."
"Many have addressed me as O Bard, and many have found a reason to thank me," replied Ergo, "But few of them were men of as few words as you but whose gratitude so greatly outweigh mere words."
"Now this is the wrong side of you I'm talking to again." Kaillean grumbled; but he was certainly a king, so that he had to give Ergo a small bag of gold coins for all his detective work. It was small for a king, anyway, although for Ergo big enough.
It was only another week before the king's messengers came back from the other kingdoms, and with one of them rode twenty warriors guarding the precious necklace for Kaillean's chief wife and so saving him from many a cvmonth or year of unhappiness. And those men had with them, all tied up and ready, the very thief who had lifted the necklace to begin with.
"So generous is the trust which prevails amongst kings!" People told eack other when the news got about. But nobody knew what Kaillean's messengers had actually said to his brother kings. So confidential are the threats and bargains which prevail amongst kings, as Ergo Harper told himself in private, laughing.
The evening before he left that king's hall, Ergo was chatting with Sneg beside that fireplace which had caused all the trouble.
"Well that thief has been hanged and Kiallean's chief wife is talking to him again with her enchanted necklace on, which I expect is not all they are doing lately, and so everybody is happy, but I am still wondering wom it was that thief bribed to let him out of this hall. For there he was backing out of the fire and looking amazingly guilty and nobody here in the hall, I suppose, at that time except a few of the servants - only one perhaps? Don't you think?
"And might not a servant be just as avaricious as a bard, just sometimes?" Sneg protested, indignantly. "For how was I to know what he had stolen?"
"Probably not QUITE as avaricious," Ergo replied, thoughtfully, "in fact I expect only HALF as avaricious, in the cases of some bards you might have met."
So Sneg gave Ergo half of the money which the thief had paid Sneg; and Ergo sang the story of The Jewel And The Weird Land to the king and his chief wife and then quietly roder away on his white mule. He was travelling on, to visit yet another king and sing histories to him; but Ergo was thinking that there was now one king, just a single one, who if he ever happened to meet Ergo Harper should not at all hear about his detective talents.
And Ergo was also remembering what he had found out about the trading of wealth in Blacksands Land, and how a bard might get there again some day - supposing there were not that unique fireplace handy any more - which was indeed the case since Kaillean king had destroyed it. Ergo was regretting that because of his desire to retire wealthy himself, but the king was feeling better by then because he was more secure not only from thieves but from alien invaders.
More in chapter 3 ...