Wisdom of the Fox


Harry Turtledove



Prince of the North


"Duin, you're a damned fool if you think you can fight from horseback," Drago the Bear said, tossing a gnawed bone to his trencher.

Duin the Bold slammed his tankard down on the long table. Ale slopped over the rim. "Fool, is it?" he shouted, his fair face reddening. "You're the fool, you thickskulled muckbrain!"

Drago stormed up with an oath, murder in his eyes. His thick arms groped toward Duin. The slimmer man skipped back. His hand flashed to his swordhilt. Cries of anger and alarm rang through Castle Fox's great hall.

Gerin the Fox, baron of Fox Keep, sprang to his feet. "Stop it!" he shouted. The shout froze both angry men for a moment, giving their benchmates a chance to crowd between them. Drago sent one man flying with a shrug of his massive shoulders, but was brought up short by a grip not even his massive thews could break. Van of the Strong Arm grinned down at him. Almost a foot taller than the squat Bear, the outlander was every bit as powerfully made.

Gerin glowered at his fractious vassals, disgust plain in every line of his lean body. The men grew shamefaced under his glare. Nothing would have pleased him more than breaking both their stupid heads. He lashed them with his voice instead, snapping, "I called you here to fight the Trokmoi, not each other. The woodsrunners will be a tough enough nut to crack without us squabbling among ourselves."

"Then let us fight them!" Duin said, but his blade was back in its scabbard. "This Dyaus-damned rain has cooped us up here for ten days now. No wonder we're quarreling like so many snapping turtles in a pot. Turn us loose, lord Gerin!" To that even Drago rumbled agreement. He was not alone.

The Fox shook his head. "If we try to cross the River Niffet in this weather, either current or storm will surely swamp us. When the sky clears, we move. Not before."

Privately, Gerin was more worried than his liegemen, but he did not want them to see that. Since spring he'd been sure the northern barbarians were planning to swarm south over the Niffet and ravage his holding. He'd decided to strike first.

But this downpour—worse than any he could remember in all his thirty years on the northern marches of the Empire of Elabon—balked his plans. For ten days he'd had no glimpse of sun, moons, or stars. Even the Niffet, a scant half mile away, was hard to spy.

Rumor also said the Trokmoi had a new wizard of great power. More than once, the baron had seen fell lights dancing deep within the northern forests. His ever-suspicious mind found it all too easy to blame the Trokmê mage for the rude weather.

Duin started to protest further. Then he saw the scar over Gerin's right eye go pale: a sure danger signal. The words stayed bottled in his throat. He made sheepish apologies to Drago, who frowned but, under Gerin's implacable gaze, nodded and clasped his hand.

As calm descended, the baron took a long pull at his own ale. It was late. He was tired, but he was not eager for bed. His chamber was on the second floor, and the roof leaked.

Siglorel Shelofas' son, when sober the best Elabonian wizard north of the High Kirs, had set a five-year calking spell on it only the summer before, but the old sot must have had a bad day. Water trickled through the roofing and collected in cold puddles on the upper story's floor. Spread rushes did little to soak it up.

Gerin plucked at his neat black beard. He wished for carpets like those he had known in his younger days south of the mountains. Study was all he'd lived for then, and the barony the furthest thing from his mind. He remembered the fiasco that had resulted when exasperation drove him to try the book of spells he'd brought north from the capital.

History and natural lore had always interested him more than magecraft. His studies at the Sorcerers' Collegium began late and, worse, were cut short after fewer than a hundred days: a Trokmê ambush took both his father and elder brother, leaving him the unexpected master of Fox Keep.

In the eight years since, he'd had little cause to try wizardry. His skill was not large. Nor did age improve it: his incantation raised nothing but a cloud of stinking black smoke and his vassals' hackles. On the whole, he counted himself lucky. Amateur wizards who played with forces stronger than they could control often met unpleasant ends.

A snatch of drunken song made him look up. Duin and Drago sat with their arms round each other's shoulders, boasting of the havoc they would wreak among the Trokmoi when the cursed weather finally cleared. The baron was relieved. They were two of his stoutest fighting men.

He drained his mug and rose to receive the salutes of his vassals. Head buzzing slightly, he climbed the soot-grimed oak stairway to his bedchamber. His last waking thought was a prayer to Dyaus for fair weather so he could add another chapter to the vengeance he was taking on the barbarians. . . .

* * *

A horn cried danger from the watchtower, tumbling him from his bed with the least ceremony imaginable. He cursed the bronzen clangor as he stumbled to a window. "If that overeager lackwit up there is tootling for his amusement, I'll have his ears," he muttered to himself. But the scar over his eyes throbbed and his fingers were nervous in his beard. If the Trokmoi had found a way to cross the Niffet in the rain, no telling how much damage they might do.

The window was only a north-facing slit, intended more for shooting arrows than sight. The little Gerin saw was enough. Jabbing forks of lightning revealed hand after hand of Trokmoi, all searching for something to carry off or, failing that, to burn. The wind blew snatches of their lilting speech to his ears.

"May the gods fry you, Aingus, you tricky bastard, and your pet wizard too," Gerin growled. He wondered how the Trokmê chieftain had got so many men across the river so fast. Then he raised his eyes further and saw the bridge bulking impossibly huge over the Niffet.

It had to be sorcerous: a silvery band of light leading from the northern woods into Gerin's holding. It had not been there when the baron went to his rest. As he watched, Trokmê nobles poured over it in their chariots, retainers loping beside them. Once long ago, Gerin thought, he had read something of such spans. He could not recall where or when, but the half-memory sent a pang of fear icing up his spine.

No time for such worries now. He hurled himself into trousers and hobnailed sandals, buckled on his sword, and rushed down dim-lit passageway and creaking stair to the great hall, where his vassals had hung their corselets when they arrived. That hall was a swearing jumble of men donning bronze-faced leather cuirasses and kilts, strapping on greaves, jamming pot-shaped helms onto their heads, and fouling each other as they waved spears in the air. Like Gerin, most had skin that took the sun well and dark hair and eyes, but a few freckled faces and light beards told of northern blood—Duin, for one, was fair as any Trokmê.

"Ho, captain!" Van of the Strong Arm boomed. "Thought you'd never get here!"

Even in the rowdy crew Gerin led, Van stood out. Taller than the Fox's six feet by as many inches, he was broad enough not to look his height. A sword-cut creased his nose and disappeared into the sun-colored mat of beard covering most of his face. Little hellish lights flickered in his blue eyes.

His gear was as remarkable as his person, for his back-and-breast was cast of two solid pieces of bronze. Not even the Emperor had a finer one. Unlike the businesslike helms his comrades wore, Van's was a fantastic affair with a scarlet horsehair plume nodding above his head and leather cheekpieces to protect his face. Looking more war-god than man, he shook a spear like a young tree.

If his tale was true, he'd been trying to cross the Trokmê forests from north to south, and had all but done it till he fell foul of Aingus' clan. But he'd escaped them too, and had enough left in his giant frame to swim the Niffet, towing his precious armor behind him on a makeshift raft.

His strength, bluff good humor, and wide-ranging stories (told in the forest tongue until he learned Elabonian) had won him a home at Fox Keep for as long as he wanted to stay. But when Gerin asked him his homeland, he politely declined to answer. The Fox did not ask twice; if Van did not want to talk, it was his affair. That had been only two years ago, Gerin thought with a twinge of surprise. He had trouble remembering what life had been like without his burly friend at his side.

The Fox's own armor was of the plainest, leather much patched, plates battered and nicked. The leather was firm and supple, though, and every plate sound. To Gerin's way of thinking, the figure he cut was less important than staying alive himself and putting a quick end to his foes.

The warriors wallowed through thick mud to the stables. It squelched underfoot, trying to suck their sandals and boots into its cold, slimy mouth. The chaos was worse inside the stables, as boys tried to hitch unwilling horses to their masters' chariots.

Gerin strung his bow and stowed in on the right side of his car next to his quiver; on the left went an axe. Like many of the Fox's vassals, Van affected to despise the bow as an unmanly weapon. He bore sword, dagger, and a wickedly spiked mace on his belt.

His shield and the Fox's, yard-wide discs of bronze-faced wood and leather, topped the car's low sidewalls when put in their brackets. Gerin's was deliberately dull, Van's burnished bright. Despite their contrasting styles, the two formed one of the most feared teams on the border.

Gerin's driver, a gangling youth named Raffo, leaped into the chariot. A six-foot shield of heavy leather was slung on a baldric over his left shoulder. It gave Gerin cover from which to shoot. Taking up the reins, Raffo skillfully picked his way through the confusion.

After what seemed far too much time to the Fox, his men gathered in loose formation just behind the gatehouse. Shrieks from beyond the keep told plain as need be that the Trokmoi were plundering his serfs. Archers on the palisade kept up a sputtering duel with the barbarians, targets limited to those the lightning showed.

At Gerin's shouted command, the gatehouse crew flung wide the strong-hinged gates and let the drawbridge thump down. The chariots lumbered into action, trailing mucky wakes. Van's bellowed oaths cut off in midword when he saw the bridge. "By my beard," he grunted, "where did it come from?"

"Magicked up, without a doubt." Gerin wished he were as calm as he sounded. No Trokmê hedge-wizard could have called that spell into being—nor could the elegant and talented mages of the Sorcerer's Guild down in the capital.

An arrow whizzing past his ear shattered his brief reverie. Trokmoi swarmed out of the peasant village to meet his men. They had no mind to let their looting be stopped. "Aingus!" they shouted, and "Balamung!"—a name the Fox did not know. The Elabonians roared back: "Gerin the Fox!" The two bands met in bloody collision.

A northerner appeared at the left side of the Fox's chariot, sword in hand. The rain plastered his long red hair and flowing mustaches against his head; he wore no helm. The reek of ale was thick about him.

Reading his mind was easy. Van would have to twist his body to use his spear, Raffo had his hands full, and Gerin, who had just shot, could never get off another arrow before the Trokmê's blade pierced him. Feeling like a gambler playing with loaded dice, the Fox snatched up his axe with his left hand. He drove it into the barbarian's skull. The Trokmê toppled, a look of outraged surprise still on his face.

Van exploded into laughter. "What a rare sneaky thing it must be to be left-handed," he said.

More barbarians were hustling stolen cattle, pigs, sheep, and serfs across the gleaming bridge to their homeland. The villeins had no chance against the northern wolves. Huddled in their huts against the storm and the wandering ghosts of the night, they were easy meat. A few had tried to fight. Their crumpled bodies lay beside their homes. Sickle, flail, and scythe were no match for the sword, spear, bow, and armor of the Trokmê nobles, though their retainers were often little better armed than the peasants.

Gerin almost felt pity as he drove an arrow into one of those retainers and watched him thrash his life away. He knew the northerner would have had no second thoughts about gutting him.

A few Trokmoi had managed to light torches despite the downpour. They smoked and sputtered in the woodsrunners' hands. The rain, though, made the thatched roofs and wattle walls of the cottages all but impossible to light.

With a wave and a shout, Gerin sent half his chariots after the pillagers. His own car was in the middle of the village when he shouted, "Pull up!"

Raffo obediently slowed. Gerin slung his quiver over his shoulder. He and Van slid their shields onto their arms and leaped into the mire. Raffo wheeled the horses and made for the safety of Fox Keep's walls. The chariot-riders not chasing looters followed the Fox to the ground. Panting footsoldiers rushed up to stiffen their line.

A Trokmê sprang on the baron's back before he could find his footing in the mud. His bow flew from his hand. The two struggling men fell together. The barbarian's dagger sought Gerin's heart, but was foiled by his cuirass. He jabbed an elbow into the Trokmê's unarmored middle. The fellow grunted and loosened his grasp.

Both men scrambled to their feet. Gerin was quicker. His foot lashed out in a roundhouse kick. The spiked sole of his sandal ripped away half the Trokmê's face. With a dreadful wail, the marauder sprawled in the ooze, his features a gory mask.

Duin the Bold thundered by on a horse. Though his legs were clenched round its barrel, he still wobbled on the beast's bare back. Since a rider did not have both hands free to use a bow and could not deliver any sort of spearthrust without going over his horse's tail, Gerin thought fighting from horseback a foolish notion.

But his fierce little vassal clung to the idea with the tenacity of a bear-baiting dog. Duin cut down one startled Trokmê with his sword. When he slashed at another, the northerner ducked under his stroke and gave him a hefty push. He fell in the mud with a splash. The horse fled. The Trokmê was bending over his prostrate victim when an Elabonian with a mace stove in his skull from behind.

Van was in his element. Never happier than when on the field, he howled a battle song in a language Gerin did not know. His spear drank the blood of one mustachioed barbarian. Panther-quick, he brought its bronze-shod butt back to smash the teeth of another raider who thought to take him from behind.

A third Trokmê rushed at him with an axe. The barbarian's wild swipe went wide, as did Van's answering thrust. The impulse of the blows left them breast to breast. Van dropped his spear and seized the barbarian's neck with his huge fist. He shook him once, as a dog does a rat. Bones snapped. The Trokmê went limp. Van flung him aside.

Gerin did not share his comrade's red joy in slaughter. The main satisfaction he took from killing was the knowledge that the shuddering corpse at his feet was one enemy who would never trouble him again. As far as he could, he stood aloof from his fellow barons' internecine quarrels. He fought only when provoked, and was fell enough to be provoked but seldom.

Toward the Trokmoi, though, he bore a cold, bitter hatred. At first, it had been fueled by the slaying of his father and brother, but now revenge was only a small part of it. The woodsrunners lived only to destroy. All too often, his border holding tasted of that destruction as it shielded the softer, more civilized southlands from the sudden bite of arrows and the baying of barbarians in the night.

Almost without thinking, he ducked under a flung stone. Another glanced from his helmet and filled his head with a brief shower of stars. A spear grazed his thigh; an arrow pierced his shield but was turned by his corselet.

His archers shot back, filling the air with death. Spouting bodies disappeared in the mud, to be trampled by friend and foe alike. The Trokmoi swarmed round Gerin's armored troopers like snarling wolves round bears, but little by little they were driven back from the village toward their bridge. Their chieftains fought back, making fierce charges across the Fox's fertile wheatfields, crushing his men beneath the flailing hooves of their woods ponies, sending yard-long arrows through cuirasses into soft flesh, and lopping off arms and heads with their great slashing swords.

At their fore was Aingus. He had led his clan for nearly as long as Gerin had been alive, but his splendid red mustachioes were unfrosted. Almost as tall as Van, if less wide through the shoulders, he was proud in gilded armor and wheel-crested bronze helm. Golden fylfots and the ears of men he had slain adorned his chariot. His right hand held a dripping sword, his left the head of an Elabonian who had tried to stand against him.

His long, knobby-cheekboned face split in a grin when he spied Gerin. "It's himself himself," he roared, "come to be corbies' meat like his father. Thinking to be a man before your ape of a friend, are you, laddie?" His Elabonian was fluent enough, though flavored by his own tongue.

Van shouted back at him; Gerin, silent, set himself for the charge. Aingus swung up his sword. His driver, a gaunt, black-robed man the Fox did not know, whipped his beasts forward.

On came the chariot, its horses' hooves pounding like doom. Gerin was lifting his shield to beat back Aingus' first mighty stroke when Van's spear flashed over his shoulder and took one of the onrushing ponies full in the chest.

With the awful scream only wounded horses make, the shaggy pony reared and then fell. It dragged its harness-mate down with it. The chariot overturned and shattered, sending one wheel flying and spilling both riders into the muck.

Gerin ran forward to finish Aingus. The Trokmê lit rolling and rushed to meet him. "A fine thing will your skull be over my gate," he shouted. Then their blades joined with a clash of sparks and there was no more time for words.

Slashing and chopping, Aingus surged forward, trying to overwhelm his smaller foe at the first onset. Gerin parried desperately. Had any of the Trokmê's cuts landed, he would have been cut in two. When Aingus' blade bit so deep into the edge of his shield that it stuck for a moment, the Fox seized the chance for a thrust of his own. Aingus knocked the questing point aside with a dagger in his left hand; he had lost his bloody trophy when the chariot foundered.

The barbarian would not tire. Gerin's sword was heavy in his hands, his battered shield a lump of lead on his arm, but Aingus only grew stronger. He was bleeding from a cut under his chin and another on his arm, but his attack never slowed.

Crash! Crash! An overhand blow smashed the Fox's shield to kindling. The next ripped through his armor and drew a track of fire down his ribs. He groaned and sank to one knee.

Thinking him finished, the Trokmê loomed over him, eager to take his head. But Gerin was not yet done. His sword shot up and out with all the force of his body behind it. The point tore out Aingus' throat. Dark in the gloom, his lifeblood fountained forth as he fell, both hands clutching futilely at his neck.

The baron dragged himself to his feet. Van came up beside him. There was a fresh cut on his forearm, but his mace dripped blood and brains and his face was wreathed in smiles. He brandished the gory weapon and shouted, "Come on, captain! We've broken them!"

"Is it to go through me you're thinking?"

Gerin's head jerked up. The Trokmê voice seemed to have come from beside him, but the only northerner within fifty yards was Aingus' scrawny driver. He wore no armor under his sodden robes and carried no weapon, but he strode forward with the confidence of a demigod.

"Stand aside, fool," Gerin said. "I have no stomach for killing an unarmed man."

"Then have not a care in the world, southron darling, for I'll be the death of you and not the other way round at all." Lightning cracked, giving Gerin a glimpse of the northerner's pale skin stretched drumhead tight over skull and jaw. Like a cat's, the fellow's eyes gave back the light in a green flash.

He raised his arms and began to chant. An invocation poured forth, sonorous and guttural. Gerin's blood froze in his veins as he recognized the magic-steeped speech of the dreaming river valleys of ancient Kizzuwatna. He knew that tongue, and knew it did not belong in the mouth of a swaggering woodsrunner.

The Trokmê dropped his hands, screaming, "Ethrog, O Luhuzantiyas!"

A horror from the hells of the haunted east appeared before him. Its legs, torso, and head were human, the face even grimly handsome: swarthy, hooknosed, and proud, beard falling in curling ringlets over broad chest. But its arms were the snapping chelae of a monster scorpion. A scorpion's jointed tail grew from the base of its spine, sting gleaming at the tip. With a bellow that should have come from the throat of a bull, the demon Luhuzantiyas sprang at Gerin and Van.

It was a nightmare fight. Quicker on its feet than any human, the demon used its tail like a living spear. The sting flashed past Gerin's face, so close that he caught the acrid reek of its poison. It scored a glittering line across Van's corselet. Those terrible claws chewed the outlander's shield to bits. Only a backward leap saved his arm.

He and Gerin landed blow after blow, but the demon would not go down, though dark ichor pumped from a score of wounds and one claw was sheared away. Not until Van, with a strength born of loathing, smashed its skull and face to bloody pulp with frenzied strokes of his mace did it fall. Even then it writhed and thrashed in the mire, still seeking its foes.

Gerin drew in a long, shuddering breath. "Now, wizard," he grated, "join your devil in the fiery pit that spawned it."

The Trokmê had put twenty or so paces between himself and the Fox. His laugh—an unclean chuckle that scraped across Gerin's nerves—made plain his lack of fear. "It's a strong man you are, lord Gerin the Fox"—the contempt he packed into that stung—"and this day is yours. But we'll meet again; aye, indeed we will. My name, lord Gerin, is Balamung. Mark it well, for you've heard it twice the now, and hear it again you will."

"Twice?" Gerin only whispered it, but Balamung heard.

"Not even remembering, are you? Well, 'twas three years gone by I came south, having it in mind to take up sorcery. You made me sleep in the stables, with the reeking horses and all, for some fatgut from the south and his party of pimps filled the keep all to bursting, you said. When the next time comes for me to sleep at Fox Keep—and 'twill be soon—I shan't bed in the stables.

"So south I fared, stinking of horsedung, and in Elabon the town only their hinder parts did the Sorcerers' Collegium show me. They called me savage, and that to my face, mind! After you, it's them to pay their price.

"For, you see, quit I didna. I wandered through desert and mountain, and learned from warlocks and grizzled hermits and squinting scribes who cared nought about a 'rentice's accent, so long as he did their bidding. And in a cave lost in the snows of the High Kirs, far above one of the passes the Empire blocked, I found what I had learned to seek: the Book of Shabeth-Shiri the sorcerer-king of Kizzuwatna long ago.

"Himself had died there. When I took the Book from his dead fingers, he turned to a puff of smoke and blew away. And today the Book is mine, and tomorrow the northlands—and after that, the world is none too big!"

"You lie," Gerin said. "All you will own is a nameless grave, with no one to comfort your shade."

Balamung laughed again. Now his eyes flamed red, with a fire of their own. "Wrong you are, for the stars tell me no grave will ever hold me. They tell me more, too, for they show me the gates of your precious keep all beat to flinders, and that inside two turns of the bloody second moon."

"You lie," Gerin growled again. He ran forward, ignoring the pain that lanced up from his wound. Balamung stood watching him, hands on hips. The Fox lifted his blade. Balamung was unmoving, even when it came hissing down to cleave him from crown to breastbone.

The stroke met empty air—like the light of a candle suddenly snuffed, the wizard was gone. Gerin staggered and almost fell. Balamung's derisive laugh rang in his ears for a long moment, then it too faded. "Father Dyaus above!" the shaken Fox said again.

Van muttered an oath in an unknown tongue. "Well, captain," he said, "there's your warlock."

Gerin did not argue.

The Trokmoi seemed to lose their nerve when the sorcerer disappeared. Faster and faster they streamed over Balamung's bridge, their feet silent on its misty surface. Only a snarling rearguard held Gerin's men at bay. Those warriors slipped away to safety one by one. With deep-throated roars of triumph, the Elabonians swarmed after them.

Like a phantasm compounded of coils of smoke, the bridge vanished. Soldiers screamed as they plunged into the foaming Niffet, the bronze they wore for safety dragging them to a watery doom. On the shore, men doffed armor with frantic haste and splashed into the water to save their comrades. Jeering Trokmoi on the northern bank shot at victims and rescuers alike.

It took two men to save Duin. Impetuous as always, he had been farthest along the bridge when it evaporated, and he could not swim. Somehow he managed to stay afloat until the first rescuer reached him, but his grip was so desperate that he and his would-be savior both would have drowned had another swimmer not been nearby. A few others were also hauled out, but Balamung's trap took more than a dozen.

A plashing downstream made Gerin whirl. Matter-of-fact as a river godlet, Drago the Bear came out of the water, wringing his long beard like a peasant wench with her man's breeches. Incredibly, armor still gleamed on his breast.

If anyone could survive such a dip, thought Gerin, it would be Drago. He was strong as an ox and lacked the imagination to let anything frighten him. "Nasty," he rumbled in a voice like falling trees. He might have been talking about the weather.

"Aye," an abstracted Gerin muttered. At the instant the bridge had melted away, the rain stopped. Pale, dim Nothos, nearing full, gleamed in a suddenly star-flecked sky, while ruddy Elleb, now waning toward third quarter, was just beginning to wester. The other two moons, golden Math and quick-moving Tiwaz, were both near new and hence invisible.

Hustling along a doubled handful of disheveled prisoners, most of them wounded, the weary army trudged back to the keep. Gerin's serfs met them at the village. They shouted thanks for having their crops, or most of them, saved. Their dialect was so rustic that even Gerin, who had heard it since birth, found it hard to follow.

Gerin ordered ten oxen slaughtered, laying the fat-wrapped thighbones on the altars of Dyaus and the war-god Deinos which stood in his great hall. The rest of the meat vanished into his men. To wash it down, barrel after barrel of smooth, foaming ale and sweet mead was broached and emptied. Men who found combat raising a different urge pursued peasant wenches and servant wenches, many of whom preferred being chased to chaste.

At first the baron did not join the merrymaking. He applied an ointment of honey, lard, and astringent herbs to his wound (luckily not deep), and winced at its bite. Then he had the brightest-looking captive, a tall mournful blond barbarian who kept his left hand clutched to a torn right shoulder, bandaged and brought into a storeroom. While two troopers stood by with drawn swords, Gerin cleaned his nails with a dagger from his belt. He said nothing.

The silence bothered the Trokmê, who fidgeted. "What is it you want of me?" he burst out at last. "It's Cliath son of Ailech I am, of a house noble for more generations than I have toes and fingers, and no right at all do you have to treat me like some low footpad."

"What right have you," Gerin asked mildly, "to rob and burn my land and kill my men? I could flay the hide off your carcass in inch-wide strips and give it to my dogs to eat while what was left of you watched, and no one could say I did not have the right. Thank your gods Wolfar did not catch you; he would do it. But tell me what I need to know, and I will set you free. Otherwise"—his eyes flicked to the two hard men by him—"I'll walk out this door, and ask no questions after."

One of Cliath's eyes was swollen shut. The other peered at the Fox. "What would keep you from doing that anyway, once I've talked?"

Gerin shrugged. "I've held this keep almost eight years. Men on both side of the Niffet know what my word is worth. And on this you have that word: you'll get no second chance."

Cliath studied him. The Trokmê made as if to rub his chin, but grimaced in pain and stopped. He sighed. "What would you know of me, then?"

"Tell me this: what do you know of the black-robed warlock who calls himself Balamung?"

"Och, that kern? Till this raid it's little I've had to do with him, and wanted less. It's bad cess for any man to have truck with a wizard, say I, for all he brings loot. No glory in beating ensorceled foes is there, no more than in cutting the throat of a pig, and it tied, too. But those who go with Balamung grow fat, and the few as stand against him die, and in ways less pretty than having the skins of them flayed off. I mind me of one fellow—puir wight!—who no slower than a sneeze was naught but a pile of twisty, slimy worms—and the stench of him!

"Nigh on a year and a half it is since the wizard omadhaun came to us, and for all we're friends now with Bricriu's clan and thieving Meriasek's, still I long for the days when a man could take a head without asking the leave of a dried-up little turd like Balamung. Him and his dog-futtering talisman!" The Trokmê spat on the hard-packed dirt floor.

"Talisman?" Gerin prompted.

"Aye. With my own eyes I've seen it. 'Tis squarish, perhaps as long as my forearm, and as wide, but not near so thick, you understand, and opening out to double that. And when he'd fain bewitch someone or magic up something, why, the talisman lights up almost like a torch. With my own eyes I've seen it," Cliath repeated.

"Can you read?" the baron asked.

"No, nor write, no more than I can fly. Why in the name of the gods would you care to know that?"

"Never mind," Gerin said. "I know enough now." More than I want, he added to himself: Bricriu's clan and Meriasek's had been at feud since the days of their grandfathers.

The Fox tossed his little knife to the barbarian, who tucked it into the top of one of his high rawhide boots. Gerin led him through the main hall, ignoring his vassals' stares. He told his startled gatekeepers to let Cliath out, and said to him, "How you cross the river is your affair, but with that blade perhaps you won't be waylaid by my serfs."

Good eye shining, Cliath held out his left hand. "A puir clasp, but I'm proud to make it. Och, what a clansmate you'd have been."

Gerin took the offered hand but shook his head. "No, I'd sooner live on my own land than take away my neighbor's. Now go, before I think about the trouble I'm giving myself by turning you loose."

As the northerner trotted down the low hill, Gerin was already on his way back to the rollicking great hall, a frown on his face. Truly Deinos was coursing his terrible warhounds through the northern forests, and the baron was the game they sought.

After he had downed five or six tankards, though, things looked rosier. He staggered up the stairs to his room, arm round the waist of one of his serving wenches. But even as he cupped her soft breasts later, part of his mind saw Castle Fox a smoking ruin, and fire and death all along the border.


He woke some time past noon. By the racket coming from below, the roistering had never ceased. Probably no one was on the walls, either, he thought disgustedly; could Balamung have roused his men to a second attack, he would have had Fox Keep in the palm of his hand.

The girl was already gone. Gerin dressed and went down to the great hall, looking for half a dozen of his leading liegemen. He found Van and Rollan the Boar-Slayer still rehashing the battle, drawing lines on the table in sticky mead. Fandor the Fat had a beaker of mead, too, but he was drinking from it. That was his usual sport; his red nose and awesome capacity testified to it. Drago was asleep on the floor, his body swathed in furs. Beside him snored Simrin Widin's son. Duin was nowhere to be found.

The Fox woke Simrin and Drago and bullied his lieutenants up the stairs to the library. Grumbling, they found seats round the central table. They stared suspiciously at the shelves full of neatly pigeonholed scrolls and codices bound in leather and gold leaf. Most of them were as illiterate as Cliath and held reading an affectation, but Gerin was a good enough man of his hands to let them overlook his eccentricity. Still, the books and the quiet overawed them a bit. The baron would need that today.

He scratched his bearded chin and remembered how horrified everyone had been when, after his father was killed, he'd come back from the southlands clean-shaven. Duin's father, dour old Borbeto the Grim, had managed the barony till his return. When he saw Gerin, he'd roared, "Is Duren's son a fancy-boy?" Gerin had only grinned and answered, "Ask your daughter"; shouts of laughter won his vassals to him.

Duin wandered in, still fumbling at his breeches. Bawdy chuckles greeted him. Fandor called, "Easier to stay on a lass than a horse, is it?"

"It is, and more fun besides," Duin grinned, plainly none the worse for his dunking. He turned to Gerin, sketched a salute. "What's on your mind, lord?"

"Among other things," Gerin said drily, "the bridge that was almost your end."

"Downright uncanny, I call it," Rollan murmured. He spoke thickly, for his slashed lip had three stitches holding it shut. Tall, solid, and dark, he ran his fief with some skill, fought bravely, and never let a new thought trouble his mind.

"Me, I have no truck with wizards," Drago said righteously. He sneezed. "Damn! I've taken cold." He went on, "There's no way to trust a body like that. Noses always in a scroll, think they're better than simple folk."

"Remember where you are, fool," Simrin Widin's son hissed.

"No offense meant, of course, lord," Drago said hastily.

"Of course." Gerin sighed. "Now let me tell you what I learned last night." The faces of his men grew grave as the tale unfolded, and there was a silence when he was through.

Duin broke it. Along with his auburn hair, his fiery temper told of Trokmê blood. Now he thumped a fist down on the table and shouted, "A pox on wizardry! There's but one thing to do about it. We have to hit the whoreson before he can hit us again, this time with all the northmen, not just Aingus' clan."

A mutter of agreement ran down the table. Gerin shook his head. This was what he had to head off at all costs. "There's nothing I'd like better," he lied, "but it won't do. On his home ground, their mage would squash us like so many bugs. But from what the braggart said, we have some time. What I'd fain do is go south to the capital and hire a warlock from the Sorcerers' Collegium there so we can fight magic with magic. I don't relish leaving Fox Keep under the axe, but the task is mine, for I still have connections in the southlands. We can settle Balamung properly once I'm back."

"It strikes me as a fool's errand, lord," Duin said, plain-spoken as always. "What we need is a good, hard stroke now—"

"Duin, if you want to beard that wizard without one at your back, then you're the fool. If you had to take a keep with a stone-thrower over its gate, you'd find a stone-thrower of your own, wouldn't you?"

"I suppose so," Duin said. His tone was surly, but there were nods round the table. Gerin was relieved. He was coming to the tricky part. With a little luck, he could slip it by them before they noticed.

"Stout fellow!" he said, and went on easily, "Van will need your help here while I'm gone. With him in charge, nothing can go too badly wrong."

It didn't work. Even Fandor and Simrin, both of whom had kept those noses buried in their drinking jacks till now, jerked up their heads. Diffidently, Rollan began, "Begging your pardon, my lord—" and Gerin braced for insubordination. It came fast enough: "The gods know Van of the Strong Arm has proven himself a man, time and again, and a loyal and true vassal as well. But for all that, he is an outlander and owns no land hereabouts, guesting with you as he does. It'd be downright unseemly for us, whose families have held our fiefs for generations, to take orders from him."

Gerin gathered himself for an explosion. Before he loosed it, he saw all the barons nodding their agreement. He caught Van's eyes; the outlander shrugged. Tasting gall, the Fox yielded with as much grace as he could. "If that's how you would have it, so be it. Van, would it please you to ride with me, then?"

"It would that, captain," Van said, coming as close as he ever did to Gerin's proper feudal title. "I've never been south of the Kirs, and I've heard enough about Elabon's capital to make me want to see it."

"Fine," Gerin said. "Duin, you have the highest standing of any here. Do you think you can keep things afloat while I'm away?"

"Aye, or die trying."

Gerin feared the latter, but merely said, "Good!" and whispered a prayer under his breath. Duin was more than doughty enough and not stupid, but he lacked common sense.

Drago and Rollan decided to stay at Fox Keep themselves and leave the defense of their own castles to the vassal contingents they would send home; Gerin dared hope they might restrain Duin. After his other liegemen had gone, he spent a couple of hours giving Duin instructions on matters probable, matters possible, and as many matters impossible as his fertile mind could envision. He finished, "For Dyaus' sake, send word along the West March Road and the Emperor's Highway. The border barons must know of this, so they can ready themselves for the storm."

"Even Wolfar?"

"As his holding borders mine, news has to go through him anyway. But the slug happens to be out a-courting, and his man Schild, though he has no love for me, won't kill a messenger for the sport of it. Also, you could do worse than to get Siglorel here; he has the most power of any Elabonian wizard north of the Kirs, even if he is overfond of ale. Last I heard, he was in the keep of Hovan son of Hagop east of here, trying to cure Hovan's piles."

Duin nodded, hopefully in wisdom. He surprised Gerin by offering a suggestion of his own: "If you're bound to go through with this wizard scheme, lord, why not go to Ikos and ask the Sibyl for her advice?"

"You know, that's not a bad thought," Gerin mused. "I've been that way once before, and it will only cost me an extra day or so."

* * *

Next day he decided—not for the first time—that mixing ale and mead was a poor idea. The cool, crisp early morning air settled in his lungs like sludge. His side was stiff and sore. His head ached. The creaks and groans of the light wagon and steady pound of hooves on stone roadbed, sounds he usually failed to notice, rang loud in his ears. The sun seemed to have singled him out for all its rays.

Worst of all, Van was awake and in full song. Holding his throbbing head, Gerin asked, "Don't you know any quiet tunes?"

"Aye, several of 'em," Van answered, and returned to his interrupted ditty.

Gerin contemplated death and other delights. At last the song came to an end. "I thank you," he said.

"Nothing at all, captain." Van frowned, then went on, "I think yesterday I was too hellishly worn out to pay as much attention to what you were saying as I should. Why is it such a fell thing for Balamung to have got his claws on Shabeth-Shiri's book?"

The Fox was glad to talk, if only to dull the edge of his own worry. "Shabeth-Shiri was the greatest sorcerer of Kizzuwatna long ago: the land where all wizardry began, and where it flourishes to this day. They say he was the first to uncover the laws behind their magic, and set them down in writing to teach his pupils."

"Now, that can't be the book Balamung was boasting of, can it?"

"No. I have a copy of that one myself, as a matter of fact. So does everyone who's ever dabbled in magic. It's not a book of spells, but of the principles by which they're cast. But, using those principles, Shabeth-Shiri worked more powerful warlockery than any this poor shuddering world has seen since. He made himself king as well as mage, and he fought so many wars he ran short of men, or so the story goes. So he kept his rule alive by raising demons to fight for him, and by many other such cantrips. Think how embarrassed an army that thought itself safe behind a stream would be to have it flood and drown their camp, or turn to blood—or to see Shabeth-Shiri's men charging over a bridge like the one Balamung used against us."

"Embarrassed is scarcely the word, captain."

"I suppose not. Shabeth-Shiri wrote down all his most frightful spells, too, but in a book he showed to no one. He meant it for his son, they say, but for all his wizardry he was beaten at last: all the other mages and marshals of Kizzuwatna combined against him, lest he rule the whole world. His son was killed in the sack of his last citadel, Shaushka—"

"Shaushka the Damned? That was his? I've seen it with my own eyes. It lies in the far north of Kizzuwatna, at the edge of the plains of Shanda, and the plainsmen showed it to me from far away: stark, dark, and dead. Nothing grows there to this day, even after—how many years?"

Gerin shuddered. "Two thousand, if a day. But the winners never found Shabeth-Shiri's body, or his book either, and sorcerers have searched for it from that day to this. The legends say some of its pages are of human skin. It glows with a light of its own when its master uses it." The baron shook his head. "Cliath saw it, sure as sure."

"A nice fellow, this Shabeth-Shiri, and I think he'd be proud of the one who has his Book now. It seems all Kizzuwatnans have a taste for blood, though," Van said. "Once when I was traveling with the nomads—" Gerin never found out about the Kizzuwatnan Van had fallen foul of, for at that moment two hurtling bodies burst from the oaks that grew almost to within bowshot of the road.

One was a stag, proud head now low as it fled. But it had not taken more than three bounds when a tawny avalanche struck it from behind and smashed it to the grass. Great stabbing fangs tore into its throat, once, twice. Blood spurted and slowed; the stag's hooves drummed and were still.

Crouched over its kill, the longtooth snarled a warning at the travelers. It settled its short hind legs under its belly and began to feed. Its stumpy tail quivered in absurd delight as it tore hunks of flesh from the stag's carcass. When the men stopped to watch, it growled deep in its throat and dragged its prey into the cover of the woods.

Van was all for flushing it out again, but Gerin demurred; like rogue aurochs, longtooths were best hunted by parties larger than two. Rather grumpily, Van put away his spear. "Sometimes, Gerin," he said, "you take all the fun out of life."

The Fox did not answer. His gloomy mood slowly cleared as the sun rose higher in the sky. He looked about with more than a little pride, for the lands he ruled were rich ones. And, he thought, the wealth they made stayed on them.

The lands between the Kirs and the Niffet had drawn the Empire of Elabon for their copper and tin and as a buffer between its heartland and the northern savages. Once seized, though, they were left largely to their own devices.

Not a measure of grain nor a pound of tin did Elabon take from Gerin's land, or from any other borderer lord's. The Marchwarden of the North, Carus Beo's son, kept his toy garrison in Cassat under the shadow of the Kirs. So long as the borderers held the Trokmoi at bay, the Empire let them have their freedom.

Traffic on the great road was light so near the Niffet. The only traveler Gerin and Van met the first day was a wandering merchant. A thin, doleful man, he nodded gravely as he headed north. A calico cat with mismatched eyes and only one ear sat on his shoulder. It glared at Gerin as they passed.

When night began to near, the baron brought a brace of fowls from a farmer who dwelt by the road. Van shook his head as he watched his friend haggle with the peasant. "Why not just take what you need, like any lord?" he asked. "The kern is your subject, after all."

"True, but he's not my slave. A baron who treats his serfs like beasts of burden will see his castle come down round his ears the first time his crops fail. Serve him right, too, the fool."

After they stopped for the evening, Gerin wrung a hen's neck and drained its blood into a trough he dug in the rich black soil. "That should satisfy any roving spirits," he said, plucking and gutting the bird and skewering it to roast over the campfire.

"Any that wouldn't sooner drink our blood instead," Van said. "Captain, out on the plains of Shanda the ghosts have real fangs, and they aren't shy of watchfires. Only the charms the nomads' shamans magic up can keep them at bay—and sometimes not those, either, if most of the moons are dark. A bad place."

Gerin believed him. Any land that made his hard-bitten comrade leery sounded like a good place to avoid.

They drew straws for the first watch. Within seconds, Van was curled in his bedroll and snoring like a thunderstorm. Gerin watched Tiwaz and Math, both thin crescents almost lost in the skirts of twilight, follow the sun down to the horizon. As they sank, full Nothos rose. Under his weak grayish light, field and forest alike were half-seen mysteries. Small night-creatures chirped and hummed. Gerin let the fire die into embers, and the ghosts came.

As always, the eye refused to grasp their shapes, sliding away before they could be recognized. They swarmed round the pool of blood like great carrion flies. Their buzzing filled Gerin's mind. Some shouted in tongues so ancient their very names were lost. Others he almost understood, but no true words could be heard, only clamor and loss and wailing.

The Fox knew that if he tried to grasp one of the flittering shapes it would slip through his fingers like so much mist, for the dead kept but a pallid semblance of life. Grateful for the boon of blood, they tried to give him such redes as they thought good, but only a noise like the rushing wind filled his head. Had he not granted them that gift, or had the fire not been there, they likely would have driven him mad.

He kept watch until midnight, staring at stars and full Nothos and the half-seen shapes of spirits until Elleb, a copper disc almost half chewed away, was well clear of the dark woods on the horizon. No man disturbed him: few travelers were so bold as to risk moving in the dark of the sun.

When Gerin roused Van, he woke with the instant awareness of a seasoned warrior. "The ghosts are bad tonight," the baron mumbled, and then he was asleep.

Van announced the dawn with a whoop that jerked the Fox awake. Trying to pry his eyes open, he said, "I feel as if my head were filled with sand. 'Early in the morning' says the same thing twice."

"An hour this side of midday is counted as morning, is it not?"

"Aye, it is, and too bloody early in the bargain. Oh for the days when I was in the capital and not one of the wise men I listened to thought of opening his mouth before noon."

Gerin gnawed leathery journeybread, dried fruit, and smoked sausage, washing them down with bitter beer. He had to choke the bread down. The stuff had the virtue of keeping nearly forever, and he understood why: the bugs liked it no better than he.

He sighed, stretched, and climbed into his armor, wincing as his helm slipped down over one ear bent permanently outward by a northerner's club in a long-ago skirmish. "The birds are shining, the sun is chirping, and who am I to complain?" he said.

Van gave him a curious glance. "You feeling all right, captain?" he asked, a note of real concern in his voice.

"Yes and no," Gerin said thoughtfully. "But for the first time since I came back from the southlands, it doesn't matter at all. Things are out of my hands, and they will be for a while now. If someone pisses in the soup-pot, why, Duin will just have to try and take care of it without me. It's a funny feeling, you know. I'm half glad to be free and half afraid things will fall apart without me. It's like running a long way and then stopping short: I've got used to the strain, and feel wrong without it."

They moved south steadily, but not in silence. Van extracted a clay flute from his kit and made the morning hideous with it. Gerin politely asked if he'd been taking music lessons from the ghosts, but he shrugged a massive shrug and kept on tweedling.

A pair of guardhouses flanked the road where it crossed from Gerin's lands to those of Palin the Eagle. Two sets of troopers sprawled in the roadway, dicing the day away. At the creak of the wagon, they abandoned the game and reached for their weapons.

Gerin looked down his long nose at the wary archers. "Hail!" he said. "Would that you'd been so watchful last summer, when you let Wacho and his brigands sneak south without so much as a challenge."

The guard captain shuffled his feet. "Lord, how was I to know he'd forged his safe-conduct?"

"By the hand of it, and the spelling. The lout could barely write. Too late now, but if it happens again you'll find a new lord, probably in the underworld. Do we pass your inspection?"

"You do that, lord." The guard waved the wagon on. Gerin drew sword as he passed the ancient boundary stone separating his holding from Palin's. Palin's guardsmen returned his salute. For long generations the two houses had been at peace. The stone, its timeworn runes covered by gray-green moss, had sunk almost half its height into the soft earth.

Once past the guards, Van turned and said to Gerin, "You know, Fox, when I first came to your land I thought Palin the Eagle had to be some fine warrior, to judge by what his folk called him. How was I to know they were talking of his nose?"

"He's no Carlun come again, I will say." Gerin chuckled. "But he and his vassals keep order well enough that I don't fear a night or so in the open in his lands, or perhaps with one of his lordlets."

"You don't want himself to guest you?"

"No indeed. He has an unmarried sister who must be rising forty by now and desperate, poor lass. Worse, she cooks for him too, and badly. The last time I ate with Palin, I thought the belly-sickness had me, not just a sour stomach."

When the travelers did stop for the night, it was at the ramshackle keep of one of Palin's vassals, Raff the Ready. A blocky boulder of a man, he was very much of the old school, wearing a forked beard that almost reached his waist. His unflappable solidity reminded the Fox of Drago; so, less hearteningly, did his disdain for cleanliness.

Withal, he set a good table. He had killed a cow that day, and along with the beef there was a stew of frogs and mussels from a nearby pond, fresh-baked bread, blueberries and blueberry tarts, and a fine, nutlike ale with which to wash them down.

Gerin sighed in contentment, loosened his belt, belched, and then, reluctantly, gave Raff his news. His host looked uneasy. He promised to spread the word. "You think your men won't be able to hold them at the Niffet, then?" he asked.

"I'm very much afraid they won't."

"Well, I'll tell my neighbors, not that it'll do much good. All of us are looking south, not north, waiting for the trouble in Bevon's barony to spill over into ours."

"There's fighting there?" Van asked hopefully.

"Aye, there is that. All four of Bevon's sons are brawling over the succession, and him not even dead yet. One of them ran twenty sheep off Palin's land, too, the son of a whore."

With that warning, they left early, almost before dawn. They carried a torch to keep the ghosts at bay. Even so, Gerin's skin crawled with dread until the spirits fled the rays of the sun.

He spent a nervous morning hurrying south through Bevon's strife-torn barony. Every one of Bevon's vassals kept his castle shut tight. The men on the walls gave Gerin and Van hard stares, but no one tried to stop them.

Around noon, they heard fighting down an approaching side road. Van looked interested, but Gerin cared far more about reaching the capital than getting drawn into an imbroglio not his own.

The choice did not stay in his hands. Two spearmen and an archer, plainly fleeing, burst onto the highway. The archer took one quick glance at Gerin and Van, shouted "More traitors!" and let fly. His shaft sailed between them, perhaps because he could not pick either one as target.

He got no second shot. Gerin had been sitting with bow ready to hand, and no confusion spoiled his aim. But even as the archer fell, his comrades charged the wagon. Gerin and Van sprang down to meet them.

The fight was short but savage. The footsoldiers seemed to have already despaired of their lives, and thought only of killing before they fell. Cool as usual in a fight, the Fox ducked under his foe's guard and slid the point of his blade between the luckless fellow's ribs. The man coughed blood and died.

The baron wheeled to help Van, but his friend needed no aid. A stroke of his axe had shattered his man's spearshaft, another clove through helm and skull alike. Only a tiny cut above his knee showed he had fought at all. He rubbed at it, grumbling, "Bastard pinked me. I must be getting old."

The triumph left the taste of ashes in Gerin's mouth. What fools the men of Elabon were, to be fighting among themselves while a storm to sweep them all away was rising in the northern forests! And now he was as guilty as any. Warriors who might have been bold against the Trokmoi were stiffening corpses in the roadway—because of him.

"Where you're going makes you more important than them," Van said when he voiced that worry aloud.

"I hope so." But in his heart, Gerin wondered if the southern wizards could withstand Balamung and the Book of Shabeth-Shiri.

He sighed with relief when at last he spied the guardhouse of Bevon's southern neighbor, Ricolf the Red. He was not surprised to see it had a double complement of men.

The baron returned the greetings Ricolf's guardsmen gave him. He knew a few of them, for he had spent several pleasant weeks at Ricolf's keep on his last journey to the southlands. "It's been too long, lord Gerin," one of the guards said. "Ricolf will be glad to see you."

"And I him. He was like a second father to me."

"Peace be with you, wayfarers," Ricolf's man called as they drove past.

"And to you also peace." Van made the proper response, for he held the reins. He had been quick to pick up the customs of Gerin's land.

The sun was dying in the west and Gerin felt the first low keenings of long-dead wraiths when Ricolf's castle came into view, crowned by a scarlet banner. Somewhere high overhead, an eagle screamed. Van's sharp eyes searched the sky till he found the moving speck. "On our right," he said. "There's a good omen, if you care for one."

"I mislike taking omens from birds," Gerin said. "They're too public. Who's to say a foretelling is meant for him and not some lout in the next holding who has to squint to see it?"

A boy's clear voice floated from Ricolf's watchtower: "Who comes to the holding of Ricolf the Red?"

"I am Gerin, called the Fox, guest-friend to your master Ricolf, and with me is my friend and companion, Van of the Strong Arm. By Dyaus and Rilyn, god of friendship, we claim shelter for the night."

"Bide a moment." After a pause, Gerin heard Ricolf's deep voice exclaim, "What? Let them in, fool, let them in!" The drawbridge swung down. The lad cried, "In the names of Dyaus and Rilyn, welcome, guest-friend Gerin! Be you welcome also, Van of the Strong Arm."

Ricolf's keep, more sophisticated than Gerin's frontier fortress, had stone outwalls instead of a log palisade. Its moat was broad and deep; limp-looking plants splashed the slick surface of the water. A vile stench rose from the moat. Sinuous ripples made Gerin suspect water plants were not the only things to call it home.

Ricolf greeted his guests at the gatehouse. He was stout, perhaps fifty, with a square, ruddy face and blue eyes. His tunic and trousers were brightly checked and modish in cut, but the sword swinging at his belt was a plain, well-battered weapon that had seen much use. He had more gray in his red hair and beard than Gerin remembered, and lines of worry the Fox had not seen before bracketed his eyes and mouth.

When Gerin scrambled down from the wagon, Ricolf enfolded him in a bearhug, pumping his hand and thumping his back. "Great Dyaus above, lad, is it ten years? They've made a man of you! Ten years indeed, and us not living five days' ride from each other. This must never happen again!"

Untangling himself, Gerin said, "True enough, but I doubt if either one of us had a five-day stretch free and clear in all those years." He explained why he was traveling south. Ricolf nodded in grim comprehension. Gerin went on, "If what traders say is true, you've had your own troubles."

"I did, until I sent my unloving cousin Sarus to the afterworld this past winter," Ricolf agreed. He focused on Van. "Is this your new lieutenant? I thought what news I heard of him so much nonsense, but I see it was just the truth."

"My comrade, rather," Gerin said, and made the introduction. Van acknowledged it with grave respect. His broad hand, back thick-thatched with golden hair, swallowed Ricolf's in its clasp.

"I greet you as well, Van of the Strong Arm. Use my home as you own for as long as you would. Speaking of which"—Ricolf turned back to Gerin—"would you like to scrub off the dust of the road in my bath-house before we eat? You have the time, I think."

"Bath-house?" Geirn stared. "I thought I'd have to shiver in the streams or reek like a dungheap till I got south of the mountains."

Ricolf looked pleased. "So far as I know, I have the first up here. I had it put in last summer, when I sent messages to the unmarried barons of the north-country—and to some south of the Kirs, too—that any who thought himself worthy of my daughter Elise's hand should come here, to let me decide which man I thought most suited to her. My wife Yrse gave me no sons who lived, you know, nor have I hopes for any legitimate ones now, as I've no real intention of marrying again. I had three bastard boys, and one a lad of promise, too, but the chest-fever carried them off two winters back, poor lads, so when I die the holding passes to Elise and whomever she weds. Gerin, you must have got my invitation to join us; I know you're still wifeless."

"Yes, I did, but I had an arrow through my shoulder. It was a nasty one, and I was afraid the wound would rot if I traveled too soon. I sent my regrets."

"That's right, so you did. I remember now. I was truly sorry; you've done yourself a fine job since Duren and Dagref, er, died."

"It wasn't the trade I was trained for," Gerin shrugged. "My father always counted on Dagref; besides being older than me, he was a fighter born. Who would have thought the Trokmoi could get them both at once? I know my father never did. As for me, I'm still alive, so I suppose I haven't disgraced myself."

He changed the subject; remembering his father still hurt. "Now you'd better show me where that bath-house of yours is, before your dogs decide I'm part of the midden." He scratched the ears of a shaggy, reddish hound sniffing his ankles. Its tail switched back and forth as it grinned up at him, tongue lolling out. A half-memory flickered, but he could not make it light.

"Go away, Ruffian!" Ricolf snapped. The dog ignored him. "Beast thinks the place belongs to him," Ricolf grumbled. He took Gerin's arm and pointed. "Right over there, and I'll see to it your horses are tended."

Ricolf's tubs were carved limestone. The delicate frieze of river godlets and nymphs carved round them told Gerin they'd been hauled up from the south, for local gravers were less skilled. Soaking in steaming water, the Fox said, "Ricolf gives the suitors nothing but the finest. I never thought I'd feel clean again."

Van's bulk almost oozed out of the tub, but he grunted contented agreement. He asked, "What is this daughter of Ricolf's like?"

Gerin paused to rinse suds from his beard. "Your guess is as good as mine. Ten years back, she was small and skinny and rather wished she were a boy."

They dried off. Van spent a few minutes polishing imaginary dull places on his cuirass and combing the scarlet crest of his helm. Gerin did not re-don his own armor, choosing instead a sky-blue tunic and black breeches.

"With your gear, you could go anywhere," he said, "but I'd look a mere private soldier in mine. Even this is none too good; the southerners will doubtless have their hair all curled and oiled and wear those toga things they affect." He waved a limp-wristed hand. "And they talk so pretty, too."

"Don't have much use for them, eh, captain?"

Gerin smiled wryly. "That's the funniest part of it. I spent the happiest part of my life south of the Kirs. I'm a southerner at heart some ways, I suppose, but I can't let it show at Fox Keep."

Ricolf led them into his long hall. At the west end, a great pile of fat-wrapped bones smoked before Dyaus' altar. "You feed the god well," Gerin said.

"He has earned it." Ricolf turned to the men already at the tables. "Let me present the baron Gerin, called the Fox, and his companion Van of the Strong Arm. Gentlemen, we have here Rihwin the Fox—"

Gerin stared at the man who shared his sobriquet. Rihwin stared back, his clean-shaven face a mask. His smooth cheeks alone would have said he was from the south, but he also wore a flowing green toga and a golden hoop in his left ear. Gerin liked most southern ways, but he had always thought earrings excessive.

Ricolf was still talking. "Also Rumold of the Long Bow, Laidrad the Besieger, Wolfar of the Axe—"

Gerin muttered a polite unpleasantry. Wolfar, a dark-skinned lump of a man with bushy eyebrows, coarse black hair, and an unkempt thicket of beard that almost reached his swordbelt, was the Fox's western neighbor. They'd fought a bloody skirmish over nothing in particular two winters ago, before Wolfar went to seek Ricolf's daughter.

While Ricolf droned on, introducing more suitors and men of his household, Gerin got hungrier and hungrier. Finally Ricolf said, "And last but surely not least, my daughter Elise."

The baron was dimly aware of Van's sweeping off his helmet and somehow bowing from the waist in full armor. What Elise's long golden gown contained reminded him acutely of how much little girls could grow in ten years. He vaguely regretted she did not follow the bare-bodiced southern style, but the gown showed plenty as it was. Long brown hair flowed over her creamy shoulders.

Her laughing green eyes held him. "I remember you well, lord Gerin," she said. "When last you were here, you bounced me on your knee. Times change, though."

"So they do, my lady," he agreed mournfully.

He took a seat without much attention to his benchmates, and found himself between Rihwin and Wolfar. "Bounced her on your knee, forsooth?" Rihwin said, soft voice turning words in elaborate southern patterns. "I should be less than a truthteller were I to say some such idea had not crossed my mind at one time or another, and I daresay the minds of others here as well. And now we meet a man who has accomplished the fondest dreams of a double hand of nobles and more: in good truth, a fellow manifestly to be watched with the greatest of care."

He raised a mug in mocking salute, but Gerin thought the smile on his handsome face real. The baron drained his own tankard in return. Rihwin seemed to wince as he downed his ale; no doubt he preferred wine. Most southerners did, but grapes grew poorly north of the Kirs.

An elbow nudged Gerin's ribs. Wolfar grinned at him, displaying snaggled teeth. Gerin suspected he had were-blood in him. His hairiness varied marvelously as the moons whirled through the sky. Three years before, when Nothos and Math were full at the same time, a tale went round that he'd gone all alone into the forests of the Trokmoi and slain men with his teeth.

At the moment, he seemed civil—and civilized—enough. "How fare you, Fox?" he asked.

"Well enough, until now," Gerin answered smoothly. From the corner of his eye, he saw Rihwin cock an eyebrow in an expression he was more used to feeling on his own face than seeing on another. He felt he had passed an obscure test.

His belly was growling when the repast appeared. Ricolf's cooks did not have the spices and condiments the Fox had known south of the mountains, but the food was good and they did no violence to it. There was beef both roasted and boiled, fowls fried crisp and brown, mutton, ribs of pork cooked in a tangy sauce, creamy cheese with a firm, tasty skin, thick soup from the stockpot, and mountains of fresh-baked bread. Ricolf's good beer was an added delight. Serving wenches ran here and there, food-laden bronze platters in their hands, trying to keep ahead of the gobbling suitors.

Rihwin and one or two others discreetly patted the girls as they went by. Gerin understood their caution; it would not have done for a noble intent on marrying Ricolf's daughter to get one of his wenches with child. Van had no such worries. When a well-made lass came by, he kissed her and gave her a squeeze. She squealed and almost dropped her tray. Her face was red as she pulled away, but she smiled back at him.

The feasters tossed gnawed bones onto the hall's dirt floor, where Ricolf's dogs snarled and fought over them. Whenever the battles grew too noisy, a couple of cleaned-up serfs in stout boots toed the hounds apart. Even so, the din was overpowering.

So were the smells. The odors of dog and man vied with the smell of cooking meat. Smoke from the torches and the great hearth next to Dyaus' altar hung in a choking cloud.

Gerin ate until he could barely move, then settled back, replete and happy. Everyone rose as Elise made her exit, flanked by two maids. When she was gone, the serious drinking and gambling began.

Wolfar, Gerin knew, was a fanatic for dicing, but tonight, for some reason, he declined to enter the game. "I never bet in my life," he declared loftily, pretending not to hear the Fox's snort.

"I wish I could say that," a loser mourned as his bet was scooped up.

"Why can't you? Wolfar just did," Rihwin said. Gerin grinned at him with genuine liking. In the southlands the smooth insult was a fine art, one the baron had enjoyed but one too subtle for Castle Fox. Rihwin nodded back; maybe he had aimed the remark for Gerin's ears. It always warmed the Fox when a southerner born and bred took him for an equal. They were a snobbish lot on the other side of the Kirs. That Rihwin's target was Wolfar only made things more delightful.

Rihwin had a capacity for ale that belied his soft looks. Gerin valiantly tried to keep up, empyting his mug again and again until the room spun as he rose. His last clear memory was of Van howling out a nomad battlesong and accompanying himself with the flat of his blade on the tabletop.

To his surprise, the baron woke up the next morning in a bed. He had scant notion of how or when he'd reached it. Little wails of delight and Van's hoarse chuckle from the next room told him the outlander had not wasted his night sleeping.

The Fox found a bucket of cold water outside his door. He poured half of it over his head. Spluttering, he walked down the passageway and into the yard. He found Ricolf there, halfheartedly practicing with the bow. Though the older man had not tried to pace his guests, he looked wan.

"Does this sort of thing happen every night?" Gerin asked.

"The gods forbid! Were it so, I'd have been long dead. No, I plan to announce my choice tonight, and it would be less than natural if tension didn't build. For near a year I've seen these men—all but Sigiber the South, poor wight, who got a spear through his middle—in battle, heard them talk, watched them. Aye, my mind's made up at last."


"Can you keep it quiet? No, that's a foolish question; you could before, pup though you were, and it's not the sort of thing to change in a man. For all his affected ways—I know some call him 'Fop' and not 'Fox'—Rihwin is easily the best of them. After him, perhaps, would be Wolfar, but a long way back."

"Wolfar?" Gerin was amazed. "You can't mean it?"

"Aye, I do. I know of your trouble with him, but you can't deny he's a doughty warrior. He's not as slow of wit as his looks would make you think, either."

"He's a mean one, though. Once in hand-to-hand he almost bit my ear off." Something else occurred to the Fox. "What of your daughter? If the choice were hers, whom would she pick?"

It was Ricolf's turn for surprise. "What does that matter? She'll do as I bid her." He turned back to his archery.

Gerin was tempted to leave, but knew his old friend would think him rude to vanish on the eve of the betrothal. He spent the day relaxing, glancing at the couple of books Ricolf owned, and making light talk with some of the suitors.

Van emerged in the early afternoon, a smile on his face. The outlander was rubbing a callus on his right forefinger when he found Gerin. The baron remembered the heavy silver ring he'd worn there. Van explained, "It's only right to give the lassie something to remember me by."

"You, I don't think she's likely to forget."

"I suppose not," Van said happily.

A bit before sunset, a wandering minstrel appeared outside Ricolf's gate and prayed shelter for the night. The baron granted it, on condition that he sing after Elise's betrothal was announced. The minstrel, whose name was Tassilo, agreed at once. "How not?" he said. "After all, 'tis the purpose of a singer to sing."

The evening meal was like the one the night before. Tonight, though, Ricolf opened jugs of wine brought up from the south along with griffin-headed ivory rhytons and eared cups of finest Sithonian ware—beautiful scenes of hunting, drinking, and the deeds of the gods were painted under their glaze. Gerin's thrifty soul quailed when he thought of what Ricolf must have spent.

Rihwin, who seemed to expect his coming triumph and hadn't tasted the wine he loved in a year, began pouring it down almost faster than he could be served. He held it well at first, regaling his comrades with bits of gossip from the Emperor's court. Though this was a year old, most of it was new to Gerin.

The feasters finished. An expectant hush fell on the hall.

Just as Ricolf began to rise, Rihwin suddenly clambered onto the table. The boards creaked. Voice wine-blurred, Rihwin called out, "Ha, bard, play me a tune, and make it a lively one!"

Tassilo, who had looked at the bottom of his cup more than once himself, struck fiery music from his mandolin. Rihwin went into a northern dance. Gerin stared at him. He was sure Ricolf would not like this. But Rihwin found the jig too sedate. He shifted in midstep to a wild, stamping nomad dance.

Ricolf, watching the unmanly performance, looked like a man bathing in hellfire. He had all but beggared himself to provide the best for these men and make his holding as much like the elegant southland as he could. Was this his reward?

Then, with a howl, Rihwin stood on his hands and kicked his legs in the air in time to the music. His toga fell limply around his ears. He wore nothing under it.

At that spectacle, the maids hustled Elise from the hall. Gerin did not quite catch her expression, but thought amusement a large part of it.

In agony, Ricolf cried, "Rihwin, you have danced your wife away!"

"I could hardly care less," Rihwin said cheerfully. "Play on, minstrel!"


After that, there was little Ricolf could do. He tried to make the best of the fiasco by proclaiming to everyone that Wolfar of the Axe was his true choice as Elise's groom. Wolfar acknowledged his honor with a gracious grunt, which only disconcerted Ricolf more. There were scattered cheers, including a sardonic one from Rihwin.

Gerin muttered insincere congratulations to Wolfar. Then he left the feast, claiming he wanted to make an early start in the morning. That held just enough truth to make mannerly his escape from his enemy's triumph. Van had already disappeared with another wench and a jug of wine. Ignoring the raucous celebration in the great hall, Gerin blew out the little flame flickering from the middle fingertip of the hand-shaped clay lamp by his bed and fell asleep.

He woke to the sound of someone fumbling at the barred door. Elleb's crescent, just now topping the walls of Ricolf's keep, peeped through the east-facing slit window and sent a pale pink stripe of light across the bed to the door. Sunrise was still two or three hours away.

Head aching, Gerin groped for his clothes. He slid into trousers, but wrapped his tunic round his right arm for a shield. The fumbling went on. Knife in hand, he padded to the door and flung it open.

Whatever outcry he had intended clogged in his throat. "Great Dyaus, Elise, what are you doing here?" he gurgled. He almost had not known her. No longer was she gowned and bedecked. She wore stout boots, breeches, and a sheepskin jacket so baggy it all but hid her curves. A knife swung at her belt. Her long hair was tucked up under a shapeless leather traveler's hat.

For a long moment, she stared at the blade in his left hand. Its nicked edge glittered in the fading light of the hallway torches. Then she brushed past the stunned Fox and shut the door behind them. Voice low and fast, she said, "I need help, lord Gerin, and of all the men here, I think I can only ask it of you. I was willing to try my father's idiot scheme as long as I thought I had some chance of getting a husband I could endure, but Wolfar of the Axe—"

Gerin wished he had not drunk so much. His head still buzzed and his wits were slow. "All the northland knows I have no love for Wolfar, but what do you want of me?" he asked, already afraid he knew the answer.

She looked up at him, eyes enormous in the gloom. "I know you are going to the capital—take me with you! My mother was of a southern house, and I have kin there. I'd be no burden to you. I've been daughter and son both to my father, and I can live from the land like any warrior—"

"Don't you see I can't?" Gerin broke in. "It's impossible. What would my life be worth if someone were to find you here even now?" Alarmed at that, he added, "By the gods, where are your maids?"

"As soon as I knew my father had chosen Wolfar, I put a sleeping powder in their cups. The ninnies were still clucking over poor besotted Rihwin. He wasn't a bad fellow, for all his silly ways."

The baron felt a twinge of annoyance at her mentioning the drunken fool with kindness, but stifled it. He said, "That's one for you, then. But why won't Ricolf think I ran off with you against your will?"

"Nothing simpler: I let a note in my room saying just what I was doing, and why. There are things in it only he and I know; he'd not think it forced from me."

Gerin stared. Women who read and wrote were not of the ordinary sort. Well, he thought, I've already found that out. But he shook his head, saying, "You have all the answers, it seems. But answer me this: would you have me break the sacred oath of guest-friendship I hold with your father? No luck comes to the oath-breaker; gods and men alike turn from him."

She inspected him. Her eyes filled with tears. He felt himself flinch under her gaze. "You've forgotten the oath you gave me all those years ago, then?" she asked bitterly. "How old was I? Eight? Ten? I don't know, but I've remembered from then till now that you treated me like a real person, not just a brat underfoot. You swore if ever I needed you, there you would be. Is an oath less an oath because given to a child? Am I less a person because I have no beard? You called on Dyaus; by Dyaus, lord Gerin, could you see yourself wed to Wolfar, were you a woman?" The tears slid down her cheeks.

"No," he sighed, understanding what the truth meant but unable to lie to her.

"No more could I. I would sooner die."

"There's no need of that," he said, awkwardly patting her shoulder. He shrugged on the rolled-up tunic and climbed into his cuirass. "What sort of gear do you have?"

"No need to worry about that. I've already stowed it in your wagon."

He threw his hands in the air. "I might have known. You know, Van will call me nine different kinds of fool, and every one of them true, but you'll be useful to have around. You could talk a longtooth into eating parsnips.

"Wait here," he added, and stepped into the hall. He tried Van's door. It was barred. He swore under his breath. He was about to tap when the door flew open. Van loomed over him, naked as the day he was born. His mace checked its downward arc inches from the Fox's head.

"Captain, what in the five hells are you up to?" he hissed. Behind him, a woman made drowsy complaint. In the half-light, the curve of her hip and thigh made an inviting shadow on the bed. "It's all right, love," the outlander reassured her. She sighed and went back to sleep. Van turned to Gerin: "Don't come scratching round my door. It isn't healthy."

"So I see. Now will you put that fornicating thing down and listen to me?"

When the baron finished, there was nothing but astonishment on Van's face. He whistled softly. "I will be damned. Spend two years thinking a man stodgy and then he does this to you." His shoulders shook with suppressed mirth. "What are you standing here gawking for? Go on, get the horses hitched up; I'll be with you in a few minutes." Softly but firmly, he shut the door in Gerin's face.

Blinking, the baron retrieved Elise and hurried down the hallway. The only sounds were faint cracklings from the guttering torches and snoring from behind almost every door. Gerin thanked the gods for the flooring of rammed earth. On planking, the nails in his sandals would have clicked like the wooden snappers some Sithonian dancers wore on their fingers.

"How can I thank you?" Elise whispered. "I—" Gerin clamped a hand over her mouth: someone else was in the hall.

* * *

Wolfar, stumbling to his bed, had rarely felt better in his life. He had spent most of the night thinking of Gerin chopped into dogmeat after he took over Ricolf's lands as well as his own; Elise was a tasty baggage, too. Every other feaster had long since either lurched off to bed or slid under the table, but Wolfar, buoyed by visions of glory and mayhem, was still mostly himself after drinking them all down.

He gaped when Gerin appeared before him. "Ah, the Fox," he said jovially. "I was just thinking of you." His piggy eyes went wide when he saw the baron's companion.

Gerin saw Wolfar fill his lungs to shout. He snatched a dead torch from its dragon-headed bronze sconce and broke it over his rival's bald spot. Wolfar sank without a sound, mouth still open. Gerin and Elise darted for the stables, not knowing how long he would stay stunned.

They slowed once they got outside the castle. Attracting the gate crew's attention was the last thing they wanted.

The horses looked resentful as Gerin harnessed them. His fingers leaped over the leather straps. Each had to go in its proper place, lest the whole harness come apart. He expected an alarm at any moment. But the horses were hitched and Elise hidden under blankets in the back of the wagon, and all stayed quiet. Van, however, did not come. Gerin waited and worried.

A footfall in the doorway made him whirl. His hand leaped for his swordhilt, but that gigantic silhouette could only belong to one man. "What kept you?" the baron barked.

"Some things, a gentleman never hurries," Van said with dignity. "You laid Wolfar out cold as a cod; he'll have himself a ten-day headache. Now let's be off, shall we? Ah, you've already got a torch lit. Good. Here, start another. The light may keep the worst of the ghosts away. Or, of course, it may not. I know few men who've gone night-faring, and fewer still who came back again, but now it's a needful thing, I think."

He climbed aboard, took the reins, and set the horses moving. Harness jingling, they rode up to the gate. A couple of Ricolf's hounds sniffed about the wagon's wheels. Van flicked them away with his whip.

The gate guards made no move to let down the drawbridge. They looked curiously at Van and Gerin. One asked, "Lords, why are you on your way so early?"

Van stopped breathing. It was a question for which he had no good answer. But Gerin only grinned a lopsided grin. He laughed at the guards and said, "I'm running away with Ricolf's daughter; she's much too good for anyone here."

The soldier shook his head. "Ask a question like that and you deserve whatever answer you get, I suppose. Come on, Vukov," he said to the other watchman, "let down the bridge. If they want to take their chances with the ghosts, it's their affair and none of mine."

Smothering a yawn, Vukov helped his comrade with the winch. The bridge slowly lowered, then dropped the last few feet with a thump. To Gerin, the clop of the horses' hooves on it seemed the loudest thing in the world.

Trying not to bellow laughter, Van wheezed and choked. Between splutters, he said, "Captain, that was the most outrageous thing I've ever seen! You've got to promise me you'll never, ever let me gamble with you. I have better things to do than throwing my money away."

"It's ill-done to lie in the house of a guest-friend. If his men choose not to believe, why, that's their affair and none of mine." Gerin shrugged, mimicking the guardsman.

As soon as they left the shelter of Ricolf's keep, the ghosts were on them, keening loss and shrieking resentment of any who still kept warm blood in their veins. Without the boon of blood to placate them, they sent an icy blast of terror down on the travelers.

The horses rolled their eyes, shying at things only they saw. Gerin stopped his ears with his fingers in a vain effort to shut out the ghosts' wails. He saw Van work his massive jaw, but no word of complaint passed the outlander's lips. Elise, shivering, came up to sit with them under the scant protection the torches gave.

Ricolf's lands shot by in a gray blur, as if Van thought to outrun the ghosts by fleeing south. The horses did not falter; rather they seemed glad to run. False dawn was touching the east with yellow light when the wagon sped past the little guardpost Ricolf kept on his southern border. Gerin was not much surprised to see the guards curled up asleep inside; fire and blood warded them from the night spirits. They did not stir as the wagon clattered past.

The Fox had been looking back over his shoulder as long as he was in Ricolf's lands. When he saw how Van slowed their pace once past the border, he knew he had not been the only one to worry. He cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "For all his willingness to help carry off the lady," he said to no one in particular, "I seem to notice a certain burly accomplice of mine lacking a perfect faith in the power of her notes to soothe ruffled tempers."

"If all that noise means me," Van rumbled, "then you've hit in the center of the target. It would have been downright awkward to have to explain to a horde of warriors just what I was doing with their lord's daughter."

Elise made a face at him. She, at least, seemed confident there would be no followers. Gerin wondered what it took to put trust in someone unknown for a double handful of years. His mind stalked round the idea like a cat with ruffled fur. He was still astonished any pleading of hers could have convinced him to bring her along.

At last the sun touched the eastern horizon, spilling out ruddy light like a huge hand pouring wine from a jug. The ghosts gave a last frightened moan and returned to whatever gloomy haunts they inhabited during the day.

The morning wore on with no sign of anyone on Gerin's trail, but he still felt uneasy for no reason he could name. It could not have been the land. Save for the High Kirs, now a deep blue shadow on the southern skyline, nothing was much different from what he knew in his own barony.

Meadow and forest alternated, and if there were a few more elms and oaks and a few less pines and maples, that mattered little. The woods did grow closer to the road than the Fox would have liked: south of Ricolf's holding, the highway marked the boundaries of two barons said to be rivals, and to Gerin's way of thinking they should have kept the undergrowth well trimmed so no one could use it for cover.

Once a little stream wound close by the roadway. When Van pulled off to water the horses and let them rest for a few minutes, frogs and turtles leaped from mossy rocks and churned away in senseless terror, just as they would have near Fox Keep. No, the Fox thought as he stared back at a suspicious turtle, the land was not what troubled him.

The peasants seemed much the same, too. They lived in little villages of wattle and daub, the community oxen housed about as well as the people. Scrawny chickens picked around cottages and squawked warnings at dogs, who snarled back. Little naked herdboys guided flocks of sheep and cattle with sticks, helped by the shortlegged brown and white dogs native to the north country. Men and women in colorless homespun worked in the fields, as hard as the draft animals laboring with them.

Not until Gerin lifted his eyes to the keeps could he finger what troubled him. Castles crowned many hills, but here and there the banks of their moats were beginning to crumble into the water. Some lesser barons let stands of trees big enough to shelter scores of warriors grow almost within bowshot of their walls.

Gerin had no desire to claim shelter from any of these nobles. The few he saw on the road distressed him. Their chariots were decorated with inlays of gold and bright stones, but plainly had never seen combat. More than one man wore cloth instead of mail. What cuirasses were to be seen were covered with studs and curlicues of bronze: beautiful to look at, but sure to catch and hold a spearpoint.

The footsoldiers were not much better. They were well armed, but soft jaws and thick middles said they were unblooded troops. Behind the shield of the border, where the Trokmoi were always ready to pounce on the weak, Elabon's northern province was starting to rot.

Van saw it too. "This land is ripe for the taking," he said. Gerin could only nod.

The sun rose high and hot. Gerin felt the sweat trickle down his back and chest. He wished he could scratch through his armor.

With fairer skin, Van suffered more, tanned though he was. He finally took off his proud helm and carefully stowed it in the back of the wagon, then poured over his head a bucket of cool water from the brook where they had stopped. He puffed and snorted as the water poured down his face and dripped through his beard. "Ahhh!" he said. "That's better, even if I do sound like a whale coming up for air."

"A whale?" Elise said. She had shed her jacket. In tunic and trousers, she was more comfortable than either of the men. Her hat she kept on, for her fairness was not like that of Van, who grew golden under the sun: she would burn and freckle and peel and never really tan at all. She went on, "I've heard the word. Some kind of fish, is it not? I've never seen one."

"Nor I," Gerin said. "The farthest I've traveled is to the capital, and there are no whales in the Inner Seas."

"Well, captain, I'll tell you—and you, my lady—I've seen whales right enough, and closer than I wanted, too. Do you know the land called Mabalal?"

Elise shook her head. Gerin said, "I've heard the name. It's far to the south and east, I think."

"That's the one, captain. And sultry—why, this is nothing beside what it's like there. I thought I'd melt like a lump of wax in a fire. The people are little and dark, and they seem to like it well enough. For all their swarthy hides, the women are not uncomely, and what they do—" Van abruptly broke off. Gerin was amused to see his huge friend could blush.

"But I was talking about whales," Van went on. "They come in all sizes, and the sailors like the little ones, and wouldn't think of harming them. But the big ones hate men, and sink whatever boats they can. Now, one of them had lived outside the harbor at Jalor—that's the capital thereabouts—for years, and he'd sunk maybe twenty ships. He had a reddish skin they knew him by, and they called him 'Old Crimson,' since crimson is the color their kings wear. Five times they'd tried to kill him, and neither of the two harpooners who lived was whole.

"It got so bad the captains wouldn't ship out of Jalor, and if they did they couldn't find a soul to man the oars. Didn't that put a pretty squeeze on the merchants! So they decided to have another go at him, and when one of their big traders, a fellow named Kariri, saw me in some dive, he thought I would make a good oarsman, having more in the way of muscle than his countrymen. I was game; things had been dull since I'd had to leave Shanda, and the price he promised was good. It had to be, to get rowers for that boat! Most of us were foreigners of one kind or another: the folk of Jalor knew better.

"So off we sailed, the only ship in the water, though the docks and beach were black with people watching. Now, in those part the way they lure whales is this: they catch a lot of fat tunny and pickle them with salt in big jars, and when they're nice and ripe, they soak rags in the fish-grease and dump 'em in the water where they think the whales are. The first thing any of us knew of Old Crimson being round was a sort of a loud hiss and a cloud of evil-smelling steam. Whales aren't like other fish. They have to come to the surface every so often to get a breath of air and blow out the old. That's what he'd done, not fifty yards to starboard.

"I tell you, I missed a stroke, and I wasn't the only one. Then he came all the way out of the water, and I never want to see such a sight again. That ruddy hide of his was all scarred and torn from the ships he'd sunk, and I saw three spearpoints stuck in just back of his head, but not deep enough to do more than drive him mad with pain over the years. I don't lie when I say I'd've sooner been elsewhere right then. He was bigger than our boat, and not by a little, either.

"But the harpooning crew knew what to do if they—and we—were going to come home alive. They tossed ten or twelve pounds of that pickled tunny toward the monster, and he snapped it up. It's a funny thing, but the stuff makes whales drunk, and Old Crimson lay still in the water. If he were a kitten, he would have purred.

"Once that happened, the harpooners slipped out of their clothes (not that they wore much, just rags round their middles) and swam over to him, quiet as they could. One trailed his barbed harpoon, the second a little stand for it, and the third, who had more brawn than most men of Mabalal, took a big mallet with him. They climbed up on Old Crimson's head, and he never stirred. We lay dead quiet in the water, for fear of rousing him.

"They set up the harpoon just aft of his head, right behind the others that hadn't gone deep enough to kill. Then the fellow with the mallet swung it up over his head and hit the butt end of the harpoon with everything he had. I swear by all the gods there are that the whale leaped clean out of the water, with the harpooners still clinging to him. They might have screamed, but we never would have heard them. We were backing water for all we were worth, but still I saw that great tail like a fist over the bow.

"When it came down, the ship just went all to splinters. I'm hazy about what happened next, because something hit me right between the eyes. I must have grabbed an oar; the next thing I remember is being fished out of the water by one of the little boats that came out as soon as the people on shore saw Old Crimson was really dead. Thirty-four people were on our boat when we set out, and six of us lived: only one of the harpooners, the fellow with the little stand.

"Anyway, the fishermen who rescued me took me to shore, and the Jalorians took the whale's carcass ashore too, for they valued the meat and oil of it. The head of the merchants' guild kissed all of us who had lived, and gave each of us a tooth worried out of the whale's head: I don't lie when I say it was more than half a foot long.

"But do you know what? I didn't make a copper more from it, for that fat merchant sitting on his arse on the shore just called me a filthy foreigner and wouldn't pay. For all that, though, I drank my way through the grogshops for ten days straight without touching a coin of my own, and to this day no one in Jalor knows how old Kariri's warehouses burned down."

"You know," Gerin said thoughtfully, "if they were to put a line on the end of their harpoons with floats—sealed empty casks, maybe—every hundred paces or so, they could spear their whales without having to climb onto them, and if the wound didn't kill on the spot, the whales couldn't escape by diving, either."

Van stared at him. "I do believe it'd work," he said at last. "Why weren't you there then to think of it? The gods know I never would have." He looked to Elise. "Gerin, I do believe our guest thinks my yarn would be good for making flowers grow, but not much else, though since she's kind as she is fair she's too polite to say so. Hold the reins a bit for me, will you?"

Elise started to protest, but Van was not listening to her. He stepped into the back of the wagon. Gerin heard him rummaging in the battered leather sack where he kept his treasures. After a minute or two, he grunted in satisfaction and emerged, handing Elise what he held.

Gerin craned his neck to look too. It was an ivory tusk unlike any he had ever seen: though no longer than the fang of the longtooth he knew, this was twice as thick, and pure white, not yellowish. Someone had carved a whale and the prow of an unfamiliar ship on the tooth; the whale was tinted a delicate pink.

Seeing the baron's admiration, Van said, "A friend of mine made it while I was out roistering. You'll notice it isn't done, but I got out of Jalor in a hurry, and he didn't have time to finish."

Elise was silent.

* * *

Gerin kept the reins. Van had been yawning all morning, and now he tried to snatch some sleep in the cramped rear of the wagon. The Fox was looking for one particular dirt track of the many joining the Elabon Way. Each path had a stone post set beside it, carved with the marks of the petty barons to whose keeps the roadlets ran. It was past noon before Gerin saw the winged eye he sought. He almost passed it by, for the carving was so ancient that parts of it had weathered away; startling red lichens covered much of what remained.

"Where are we going?" Elise asked when he turned down the track. She coughed as the horses kicked up dust.

"I thought you knew all my plans," Gerin said. "I'd like to hear what the Sibyl at Ikos tells me. I stopped there once before, when I went south for the first time, and she warned me I'd never be a scholar. I laughed at her, but two years later the Trokmoi killed my father and my brother, and I had to quit the southlands."

"That I had heard," Elise said softly. "I'm sorry." Gerin could feel the truth in her words. He was touched, and at the same time annoyed with himself for letting her sympathy reach him. He felt relieved when she returned to her original thought: "Where we go matters little to me; I simply didn't know. Any place away from Wolfar is good enough, though I've heard evil things of the country round Ikos."

"I've heard them too," he admitted, "but I've never seen much to make me think them true. This road goes over the hills and through some of the deepest forest this side of the Niffet before it reaches the Sibyl's shrine. It's said strange beasts dwell in the forest. I never saw any, though I did see tracks on the roadway that belong to no animals the outer world knows."

The more prosperous petty barons and their lands clung leechlike to the Elabon Way. A few hours' travel from it, things were poorer. Freeholders held their own plots, men not under the dominion of any local lordling. They were of an ancient race, the folk who had been on the land between the Niffet and the High Kirs even before the coming of the Trokmoi whom the Empire had expelled. Slim and dark, they spoke the tongue of Elabon fluently enough, but among themselves used their own soft, sibilant language.

The road narrowed, becoming little more than a winding rutted lane under frowning trees. The sinking sun's light could barely reach through the green arcade overhead. Gerin jumped when a scarlet finch shot across the roadway, taken aback by the flash of color in the gloom. As the sun set, he pulled off the road and behind a thick clump of trees.

He routed Van from his jouncing bed. Together they unharnessed the horses and let them crop what little grass grew in the shade of the tall beeches.

They had but a scanty offering for the ghosts: dried beef mixed with water. It was not really enough, but Gerin hoped it would serve. Elise wanted to take one watch. The Fox and Van said no in the same breath.

"Please yourselves," she shrugged, "but I could do it well enough." A knife appeared in her hand and then, almost before the eye could see it, was quivering in a treetrunk twenty feet away.

Gerin was thoughtful as he plucked the dagger free, but still refused. Elise looked to Van. He shook his head and laughed: "My lady, I haven't been guarded by women since I was old enough to keep my mother from learning what I was up to. I don't plan to start over now."

She looked hurt, but said only, "Very well, then. Guard me well this night, heroes." He half-sketched a salute as she slipped into her bedroll.

Van, who was rested, offered to take the first watch. Gerin got under a blanket, twisted until he found a position where the fewest pebbles dug into him, and knew no more until Van prodded him awake. "Math is down, and—what do you call the fast moon? I've forgotten."


"That's it. As well as I can see through the trees, it'll set in an hour or so. That makes it midnight, and time for me to sleep." Van was under his own blanket—the gold-and-black striped hide of some great hunting beast—and asleep with the speed of the experienced wanderer. Gerin stretched, yawned, and heard the ghosts buzz in his mind like gnats.

In the dim red light of the embers, the wagon was a lump on the edge of visibility, the horses a pair of dark shadows. Gerin listened to their unhurried breathing and the chirp and rustle of tiny crawling things. An owl overhead loosed its hollow, eerie call. Somewhere not far away, a small stream chuckled to itself. A longtooth roared in the distance, and for a moment everything else was quiet.

The baron turned at a sound close by. He saw Elise half-sitting, watching him. Her expression was unreadable. "Regrets?" he asked, voice the barest thread of sound.

Her answer was softer still. "Of course. To leave all I've ever known . . . it's no easy road, but one I have to travel."

"You could still go back."

"With Wolfar's arms waiting? There's no returning." She started to say more, stopped, began again. "Do you know why I came with you? You helped me once, long ago." Her eyes were looking into the past, not at Gerin. "The first time I saw you was the most woeful day of my life. I had a dog I'd raised from a pup; he had a floppy ear and one of his eyes was half blue, and because of his red fur I called him Elleb. He used to like to go out and hunt rabbits, and when he caught one he'd bring it home to me. One day he went out as he always did, but he didn't come back.

"I was frantic. I looked for two days before I could find him, and when I did, I wished I hadn't. He'd run down a little gully and caught his hind leg in a trap."

"I remember," Gerin said, realizing why the dog Ruffian had seemed familiar. "I heard you crying and went to see what the trouble was. I was heading south to study."

"Was I crying? I suppose I was. I don't remember. All I could think of was poor Elleb's leg shredded in the jaw of the trap, and blood dried black, and the flies. The trap was chained to a stake, and I couldn't pry it loose from him.

"Hurt as he was, I remember him growling when you came up, still trying to keep me safe. You knelt down beside me and patted him and poured some water from your canteen on the ground for him to drink, and then you took out your knife and did what needed to be done.

"Not many would tried to make friends with him first, and not many would have sat with me afterwards and made me understand why an end to his pain was the last gift he could get from someone who loved him. By the time you took me home, I really did understand it. You were kind to me, and I've never forgotten."

"And because of so small a thing you put your trust in me?"

"I did, and I have no regrets." Her last words were sleep-softened.

Gerin watched Nothos and the stars peep through holes in the leafy canopy and thought about the obligations with which he had saddled himself. After a while, he decided he too had no regets. He fed bits of wood to the tiny fire, slapped at the buzzing biters lured by its light, and waited for the sun to put the ghosts to rout.

At dawn he woke Van. His comrade knuckled his eyes and spoke mostly in sleepy grunts as they harnessed the horses. Elise doused and covered the fire before Gerin could tend to it. They breakfasted on hard bread and smoked meat. To his disgust, Gerin missed a shot at a fat grouse foolish enough to roost on a branch not a hundred feet away. It flapped off, wings whirring.

The track wound through the forest. Trailing shoots and damp hanging mosses hung from branches overhead, eager to snatch at anything daring to brave the wood's cool dim calm. The horses were balky. More than once Van had to touch them with the whip before they would go on.

Few birds trilled to ease the quiet. Almost the only sounds were the creaking of branches and the rustling of leaves in a breeze too soft to reach down to the road.

Once a sound almost softer than silence paced the wagon for a time. It might have been the pad of great supple feet, or perhaps nothing at all. Gerin saw—or thought he saw—a pair of eyes, greener than the leaves, measuring him. He blinked or they blinked and when he looked again they were gone. The rattle of the wagon's wheels was swallowed as if it had never been.

"Place gives me the bloody shivers!" Van said. To Gerin, his friend's voice sounded louder than needful.

The baron thought the day passing faster than it was, so thick was the gloom. He bit back an exclamation of surprise when they burst from shadow into the brightness of the late afternoon sun. He had not realized how much the thought of camping again in the forest chilled him until he saw he would not have to.

The hills cupped the valley in which Ikos lay. Travelers could look down on their goal before they reached it. The main road came from the southwest. Gerin could see little dots of moving men, carriages, and wagons, all come to consult the Sibyl. His own road was less used. The border lords usually put more faith in edged bronze than prophecy.

A tiny grove surrounded the temple. Probably in days long past the forest had lapped down from the hilltops into the valley, but the sacred grove was all that was left of it there. The shrine's glistening marble roof stood out vividly against the green of the trees.

Around the temple proper were the houses of the priests, the attendants, and the little people who, while not really connected with the Sibyl, made their livings from those who came to see her: sellers of images and sacrificial animals, freelance soothsayers and oracle-interpreters, innkeepers and whores, and the motley crew who sold amulets, charms—and doubtless curses too.

Around the townlet were cleared fields, each small plot owned by a freeholder. Gerin knew the temple clung to the old ways. He did not grudge it its customs, but still thought freeholding subversive. A peasant could not produce enough wealth to equip himself with all the gear a proper warrior needed. Without the nobles, the border and all the land behind would have been a red tangle of warfare, with the barbarians howling down to loot and burn and kill.

"Should we go down before the light fails?" Van asked.

Gerin thought of Ikos' dingy hostels. He shook his head. "We'd get nothing done at this hour. From what I recall of the inns, we'll find fewer bugs here."

The evening meal was spare, taken from the same rations as breakfast. Gerin knew those had been packed with the idea of feeding two people, not three. He reminded himself to lay in more. Pretty sorry scholar you are, he jeered at himself—worrying over smoked sausages and journeybread.

He must have said that aloud, for Van laughed and said, "Well, someone has to, after all."

The baron took the first watch. In Ikos below, the lights faded until all was dark save for a central watchfire. The hills to the southwest were dotted with tiny sparks of light Gerin knew to be camps like his own. In its grove, the temple was strange, for the light streaming out from it glowed blue instead of the comfortable red-gold of honest flame.

Magic, Gerin decided sleepily, or else the god walking about inside. When Math's golden half-circle set, he roused Van, then dove headfirst into sleep.

He woke to the scent of cooking; luckier than he had been the morning before, Van had bagged a squirrel and two rabbits and was stewing them. Elise contributed mushrooms and a handful of herbs. Feeling better about the world with his belly full, Gerin hitched up the horses. The wagon rolled down the path toward the Sibyl.


Gerin soon discovered his memory had buried a lot about Ikos. First of all, the place stank. It lay under a cloud of incense so cloying that he wished he could stow his nose in the wagon. Mixed with the sweet reek were the scents of charring fat from the sacrifices and the usual town odors of stale cookery, garbage, ordure, and long-unwashed animals and humanity.

The noise was as bad. Gerin's ears had not faced such an assault since he returned to the north country. It seemed as if every peddler in Ikos rolled down on the wagon, each crying his wares at the top of his lungs: swordblades, rare and potent drugs, sanctified water, oats, pretty boys, savory cooked geese, collected books of prophetic verse, and countless other things. A fat bald man in greasy tunic and shiny leather apron, an innkeeper from the look of him, pushed his way through and bowed low before the bemused Fox, who had never seen him before. "Count Stoffer, I believe?" he said, back still bent.

Patience exhausted, Gerin snapped, "Well, if you believe that, you'll believe anything, won't you?" and left the poor fellow to the jeers of his fellow townsmen.

"Is this what the capital is like?" Elise asked faintly.

"It is," Gerin said, "but only if you will allow that a map is like the country it pictures."

She used a word he had not suspected she knew.

Van chuckled and said, "It's the same problem both places, I think: too many people all pushed together. Captain, you're the only one of us with pockets. Have a care they aren't slit."

Gerin thumped himself to make sure he was still secure. "If any of these fine bucks tries it, he'll be slit himself, and not in the pocket." He suddenly grinned. "Or else not, depending on how lucky I am."

They pushed their slow way through Ikos and into the clearing round the sacred grove. The sun was already high when they reached it. They bought cheese and little bowls of barley porridge from the legion of vendors. Men from every nation Gerin knew cursed and jostled one another, each trying to be the first to the god's voice on earth.

One lightly built chariot held two nomads from the eastern plains. They were little and lithe, flat of face and dark of skin, with scraggly caricatures of beards dangling from their chins. They dressed in wolfskin jackets and leather trousers, and bore double-curved bows reinforced with sinew. They carried small leather shields on their left arms; one was bossed with a golden panther, the other with a leaping stag. When Van noticed them, he shouted something in a language that sounded like hissing snakes. Their slanted eyes lit as they gave eager answer.

There were Kizzuwatnans in heavy carts hauled by straining donkeys: squat, heavy-boned men with swarthy skins; broad, hook-nosed faces; and liquid, mournful eyes. Their hair and beards curled in ringlets. They wore long linen tunics that reached to their knees.

There were a few Sithonians, though most of them preferred the oracle at Pronni in their own country. Slimmer and fairer than the Kizzuwatnans, they wore woolen mantles with brightly dyed edgings. They scornfully peered about from under broad-brimmed straw hats: though they had been subjects of the Empire for five centuries, they still saw themselves as something of an elite, and looked down on their Elabonian overlords as muscular dullards.

Even an Urfa from the deserts of the far south had come to Ikos. He must have ridden all the way around Elabon's Greater Inner Sea, for he was still perched atop his camel. Gerin looked at its reins and saddle with interest, thinking how fascinated Duin would have been. The desert-dweller peered down at the wains and chariots around him. He growled guttural warning when they came too close. That was seldom; horses shied from his evil-looking mount.

The Urfa was wrapped in a robe of grimy wool. Eyes and teeth flashed in a face darkened by dirt and long years of sun. Save for a nose even larger than the Kizzuwatnans', his features were delicate, almost feminine. He wore a thin fringe of beard and, for all his filth, seemed to think himself the lord of creation.

Gerin had a hard time naming some of the other outlanders. Van claimed one black-haired, fair-skinned giant belonged to the Gradi, who lived north of the Trokmoi. The man was afoot, and sweating in his furs. He carried a stout mace and a short-handled throwing axe. Gerin knew almost nothing of the Gradi, but Van spoke of them with casual familiarity.

"Do you know their tongue?" Elise asked.

"Aye, a bit," Van said.

"Just how many languages do you know?" Gerin asked.

"Well, if you mean to say hello in, and maybe swear a bit, gods, I've lost track long since. Tongues I know fairly well, though, perhaps ten or a dozen. Something like that."

"Which is your own?" Elise asked.

"My lady," Van said, with something as close to embarrassment as his deep voice could produce, "I've been on the road a lot of years now. After so long, where I started matters little."

Gerin grinned wryly; he'd got much the same answer when he asked that question. Elise looked to want to pursue it further, but held her tongue.

One group of foreigners the Fox knew only too well: the Trokmoi. Three chieftains had come to consult the Sibyl. Their chariots stayed together in the disorder.

They were from deep in the northern woods: Gerin, who knew the clans on the far side of the border as well as he knew the barons warding it, recognized none of them, nor were the clan patterns of bright checks on their drivers' tunics familiar to him. Chiefs and drivers alike were tall thin men; four had red hair and two were blond. All wore their hair long and had huge drooping mustachioes, though they shaved their cheeks and chins. Two clutched jugs of ale to themselves; another wore a necklace of human ears.

Priests circulated through the crowd. Gerin looked with scant liking at the one approaching the wagon. A robe of gold brocade was stretched across his over-ample belly, and his beardless cheeks shone pink. Everything about him was round and soft, from his limpid blue eyes to the toes peeking sausage-like from his sandals. He was a eunuch, for the god accepted no whole man as his servitor.

The tip of his tongue played redly across his lips as he asked, "What would your business be, gentles, with the Sibyl of my lord Biton?" His voice was soft and sticky, like the caress of a hand dripping with honey.

"I'd sooner not speak of it in public," Gerin said.

"Quite, quite. Your servant Falfarun most definitely agrees. You have, though, a suitably appropriate offering for the god, I hope?"

"I think so." Gerin swung a purse into Falfarun's pudgy fist.

The priest's face was blank. "Doubtless all will be well when your question is heard."

"I do hope, my dear Falfarun, it will be heard soon," Gerin said in his suavest voice. He handed the priest another, larger purse, which vanished into a fold of Falfarun's robe.

"Indeed. Yes, indeed. Come this way, if you please." Falfarun neared briskness as he elbowed aside less forethoughtful seekers of divine wisdom. Clucking to the horses, Van steered after him. Falfarun led the wagon into the sacred grove around the temple precinct. Seeing the Fox's success, the Trokmoi pulled off rings, armlets, and a heavy golden pectoral and waved them in the face of another plump priest.

"You gauged the size of your second sack about right," Van whispered.

"Praise Dyaus for that! The last time I was here, I spent three days cooling my heels before I got to go before the Sibyl. I was still too young to know the world runs on gold."

"Was the wench worth looking at, once you finally saw her?"

"Scarcely. She was a wrinkled old crone. I wonder if she still lives."

"Why have hags to give prophesies? It seems to me they'd hardly be fitting mates for whatever god runs the shrine here. Give me a young, juicy lass every time," Van said, drawing a sniff from Elise.

"Biton has spoken through her since she was chosen for him when she was still a child," Gerin explained. "Whenever a Sibyl dies, the priests search among families of the old race; this valley has always been their stronghold. When they find a girl-child with a certain mark—what it is they keep secret, but it's been Biton's sign for ages—she becomes the new Sibyl for as long as she remains a maiden: and her chastity is guarded, I assure you."

* * *

The tumult behind them faded under the trees. Images of all-seeing Biton were everywhere in the grove, half of them turned to show the two eyes in the back of his head. Another priest led the Trokmoi along a different path. Far from being struck by the holiness of the wood, they argued loudly in their own language.

High walls of gleaming white marble warded the outer courtyard of Biton's temple. The gates were flung wide, but spear-carrying temple guards stood ready to slam them shut should trouble threaten. Here and there the shining stone was chipped and discolored, a mute reminder of the great invasion of the Trokmoi two hundred sixty years before, when Biton himself, the priests maintained, made an appearance to drive the barbarians from his shrine.

Before they could go in, Falfarun summoned a green-robed underpriest. The fat priest said, "It is not permitted to enter the courtyard save on foot; Arcarola here will take your wagon to its proper place. Fear not, for there is no theft on the grounds of the temple. A loathsome plague unfailingly smites any miscreant daring to attempt such rapine."

"How many are thus stricken?" Gerin asked skeptically.

"The body of the latest is one of the curiosities within the outer walls. Poor wretch; may he edify others."

Sobered, Gerin descended from the wagon, followed by Elise and Van. When Arcarola climbed up, the horses rolled their eyes and tried to rear, feeling the unfamiliar touch at the reins. Van put a heavy hand on each one's muzzle and growled, "Don't you be stupid, now," following that with an oath in the harsh tongue Gerin guessed was his own. The beasts subsided and let themselves be led away.

The Trokmoi came up about then. More green-robes took their chariots. The priest who was leading them drew Falfarun aside and spoke softly with him. The Trokmoi were talking too, and not softly: the argument they'd begun under the trees of the sacred grove was still in full swing. Gerin was about to greet them in their own tongue until he heard what they were quarreling about.

One of the northerners looked suspiciously at the Fox and his comrades. "Not so loud should you make it, Catuvolcus," he said. He sounded worried, and his scarred hands made hushing motions.

Catuvolcus was not going to be hushed. Gerin guessed he was a bit drunk. His eyes were shot with red, his speech slurred. He toyed with his gruesome necklace. "Divico," he said, "you can take a flying futter at fast Fomor." He used the northern name for the quickest moon. "What's the chance we would find someone this far south who speaks the real language?"

"There's no need to take a chance for no purpose."

"But I'm saying it's no chance at all. And if you will remember, now, 'twas your scheme to come here. And what was the why of it? Just to have the privacy we could scarce be getting from our own oracles."

"A proper notion it was, too. I'd liefer not have that Balamung omadhaun know it's less than full faith I have in him. Who is the spalpeen, anyhow, and why should we fight for him? If I go hunting with a bear, why, I want to be sure he'll not save me for the main course."

Listening as hard as he could without seeming to, Gerin barely noticed Falfarun return. He was trailed by the other priest, who was even fatter than he. Falfarun coughed and said, "Good sir, my colleague Saspir"—he indicated his companion, whose smooth eunuch's face belied the years shown by his graying hair and sagging jowls—"and I have decided that these northern gentlemen should precede you to the Sibyl, as their journey has been longer than yours and they have urgent business in their own land which requires them to make haste."

"You are trying to tell me they paid you more," Gerin said without much rancor.

Falfarun's chins quivered. His voice was hurt as he answered, "I would not put it so crassly—"

"—But it's still true," Gerin finished for him. "Be it so, then, if we can follow them directly."

"But of course," Falfarun said, relieved to find him so agreeable. Saspir gave the Trokmoi the good news and took them into the temple courtyard. Falfarun followed, his reedy voice loud in the ears of Gerin, who would much rather have listened to the barbarians. Another golden-robed hierarch conducted a toga-clad noble out from the holy precinct; the man's thin, pale face bore a troubled expression. The nomads from the plains of Shanda came up just as Gerin entered the courtyard. He heard a priest override their loud objections to being separated from their chariot.

Even the Trokmoi had fallen silent in the temple forecourt. They were gawking, necks craning every which way, trying to see everything at once. Gerin thought they looked like so many hungry hounds licking their chops in front of a butcher's shop. He did not much blame them, for the sight of so much treasure affected him the same way. The would-be thief's corpse, covered with hideous raw-edged lesions and bloated and stinking after some days in the open, did little to dampen his enthusiasm. Beside him Van whistled, soft and low.

Only the choicest gauds were on display. Most of the riches Biton's shrine had accumulated over the centuries were stored away in strong-walled vaults behind the temple or in caves below it. What was visible was plenty to rouse a plunderer's lusts.

Chief among the marvels were twin ten-foot statues of gold and ivory, one of the Emperor Oren II, who had built the temple in the ancient grove, the other of his father, Ros the Fierce, who drove the Trokmoi north of the River Niffet and won the land between the Kirs and the Niffet for Elabon. Oren wore the toga and held in his upraised right hand the orb of empire; Ros, mailed, had a javelin ready to cast and leaned upon a narrow-waisted shield of antique design.

Ros' stern craggy face, with its thrusting nose and lines carved deep on weathered cheeks, still brought awe after four hundred years. Gerin shivered when he looked up into those cold eyes of jet.

A huge golden mixing bowl celebrated Biton's triumph over the Trokmoi. Wider even than Van's outstretched arms, it was set upon a claw-footed tripod of bronze, and held the images of barbarians fleeing the god's just wrath—and the prostrate bodies of those his arrows had struck down.

On a pedestal of purple marble next to it was a splendid statue of a dying Trokmê. The naked warrior was on his right side, propping himself up with his right arm. That hand still clung to swordhilt. The other clutched a gaping gash in his right side; the red-painted blood streamed down his flank to form a puddle at his hip. His face was turned up to stare at his unportrayed conqueror. Its grimace showed agony and defiance, but not a hint of fear. The statue's features were blunter than those usual among the long-faced, thin-nosed Trokmoi. Probably the sculptor, himself a Sithonian, had used a countryman as model, adding only long hair and mustaches to make clear the statue's race.

There was much else to see: the silver-and-gold longtooth, its leap onto an aurochs frozen by a master artisan of long ago; the chalices and urns of precious metals, alabaster, cinnabar, and multicolored jades; the stacks of ingots and bars of gold and silver, each with a plaque telling which accurate prophesy it commemorated . . . but Falfarun was leading Gerin up to the steps of the temple, and that was a sight in itself.

Oren's architect had tried to harmonize the sparely elegant columned shrines the Sithonians loved with the native brickwork fanes of Elabon, and his effort was a noble one. The sides of Biton's shrine were marble blocks; spacious glazed windows helped illuminate the interior. The front wall was pure Sithonian, with its triangular entablature supported by delicately fluted columns of whitest stone.

Between architrave and overhanging eaves the frieze, carved by a team of workmen from drawing by the creator of the dying Trokmê, showed Biton, hand outstretched, guiding an imperial column against a horde of Trokmoi. Ros, his harsh features easy to recognize, stood in the lead chariot. His men had a tough uniformity in striking contrast to the disorderly foe they battled—and to the barons who had come after them.

Up the seven marble steps they went, Falfarun chattering all the while. When Elise heard statue and frieze sprang from the same man's mind, she asked his name. Falfarun looked shocked and shook his head. "I have no idea," he said. "The work is far too holy to be polluted by such mundanities."

Gerin's eyes needed a moment to adjust to the inside of Biton's shrine, accustomed as they were to bright sunshine. They went wide as he saw the splendor within, for it had faded in his memory.

Limiting himself to simple white stone for the outside of the building, its designer had let color run riot within. Twin rows of crimson granite columns, polished mirror-bright, led the eye to the altar. That was of sandalwood overlain with gold and encrusted with all kinds of precious stone. It threw back in coruscating sheets the light cast on it by dozens of fat candles in three arabesqued chandeliers overhead.

The temple's inner walls were faced with rare green marbled shot with gold. That stone came from only one quarry, near Siphnos in Sithonia. The Fox could but marvel at the sweat and gold needed to haul it here, a journey of several hundred miles over the Greater Inner Sea and the royal roads of Elabon. Like the columns, it was buffed till it gleamed; it tinged niche-set gold and silver statues with its own color.

Chanting acolytes paced here and there, intent on Biton's rituals. Their slippers swished over the floor mosaics, their swinging censers filled the air with the fragrances of aloes, myrrh, and other costly incenses. Folk who wanted Biton's aid but needed no sight of the future knelt and prayed in pews flanking the granite columns. Some kept their heads lowered; others raised them to the ceiling frescoes, as if seeking inspiration from the scenes of the god's begetting by Dyaus on a princess and of his subsequent adventures, most of them caused by the jealousy of the heavenly queen Darza.

Only in two respects was Biton's shrine unlike many even more superb temples in the lands south of the mountains. One was the image of the god behind the altar. Here he was no graceful youth. A square column of rough black stone stood there, drinking in the light and giving back none. Immeasurably old, it could have been a natural pillar, save for the faint images of eyes round its top and a jutting phallus stabbing forward from its middle.

Biton's priests had only smiled when Oren proclaimed their deity a son of Dyaus. In their hearts they knew whose god was the elder. Seeing that image, Gerin was not inclined to doubt them. Biton's power was rooted in the earth, and in the square of bare earth to the left of the altar was a rift leading down below the roots of the sacred grove to the Sibyl's cave, a rift whose like was unknown in the tamer south.

The Trokmoi made obeisance before Biton's altar, the three chieftains on their knees and the drivers flat on their bellies. They rose, dusted themselves off, and followed their guide into the yawning mouth of the cave. One driver, a freckled youth with face tight-set against fear, flexed the fingers of one hand in a sign to avert evil. The other was tight on the hilt of his blade.

Falfarun brought up his charges to take the barbarians' place. All bent the knee before Biton, Falfarun panting as he eased his bulk to the floor. Gerin looked up at the ancient idol. For an instant, he thought he saw eyes brown as his own looking back at him, but when he looked again they were only scratches on stone.

Rising, Falfarun asked, "Would it please you to take more comfortable seats while waiting to meet the Sibyl?"

Gerin sat in the foremost pew. He ignored the puffing Falfarun, who dabbed at his forehead with a square of blue silk. His thoughts were on the Trokmoi: if these barbarians, men from so deep in the forests he knew nothing of them, had allied their clans with Balamung, how many more had done the same? Fox Keep, it seemed, was in the way of an onsalught more terrible than the attack whose scars still showed on the temple forecourt's walls.

He grew more and more jittery until the Trokmoi emerged from the cavemouth. All were grim-faced: they had no liking for what they'd heard. The young driver who had made the wardsign was white as an exterior column, the freckles on his nose and cheeks standing out like spatters of dried blood.

The two chiefs who had been quarreling outside the temple forecourt were still at it. Divico, even more worried than before, waved a hand in front of Catuvolcus' face. "Are you not glad now we came?" he said. "Plain as day the witch-woman told us there'd be naught but a fox gnawing our middles if we joined Balamung, plain as day."

"Ox ordure," Catuvolcus said. "The old gammer has no more wits than teeth, the count of which is none. On all the border there's but one southron called the Fox, and were you not listening when himself told us the kern'd be ravens' meat in no more than days? It must be done by now, so where's your worry?"

Gerin stood and gave the Trokmoi his politest bow. "Begging your pardon," he said, using their tongue with a borderer's ease, "but a wizard's word a coin I'd bite or ever I pocketed it. But if you're after the Fox, I am he, and I tell you this: the raven who'll pick my bones is not yet hatched, no, nor his grandsire either."

He had hoped his sudden appearance would show the barbarians the folly of their way. Instead he saw the rashness of his, for Catuvolcus bellowed an oath, grasped sword from scabbard, and rushed. His five comrades followed.

Leaping to his feet, Van lifted Falfarun over his head as easily as if the fat eunuch had been stuffed with down. He pitched him into the Trokmoi, bowling over two of them and giving himself and Gerin time to free their blades. At the same instant Elise hurled a dagger, then skipped back to safety. The freckled driver fell, throat pumping a torrent of blood round the hilt suddenly flowering there and sword slipping from nerveless fingers.

Catuvolcus ducked under the hurtling priest. He swung up his sword two-handed, brought it down in a cut to cleave Gerin from crown to chin. Sparks flew as the Fox blocked the stroke. His arms felt numb to the elbow. He ducked under another wild slash, edged bronze whizzing bare inches above his head.

His own sword bit into the Trokmê's belly. He ripped it free to parry the lunge of one of the drivers. The northerner seemed confused at facing a lefthanded swordsman. Gerin beat down another tentative thrust, feinted at his enemy's throat, and guided his sword into the barbarian's heart. More surprise than pain on his face, the Trokmê swayed and fell. He gasped for air he could not breathe, tried to speak. Only blood gushed from between his lips.

The Fox looked round for more fight, but there was none. Van leaned on his blade and puffed; he watched the shrilling, scrambling eunuchs with distaste. Half the proud crest of his helm was sheared away. His armor was drenched with gore, but none was his. Red hair matted by redder blood, the head of one barbarian stared glassily at its body. The ghastly corpse lay across another, whose entrails and pouring blood befouled the gentle meadow of the mosaic floor.

Horror on her face, Elise came up to survey the carnage. With a flourish, Van plucked her dagger from its victim's throat and handed her the dripping weapon. "As fine a throw as I've ever seen, and as timely, too," he said. She held it a moment, then threw it to the floor as hard as she could and gagged, reeling back against the pews.

Gerin put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. She clung to him and sobbed. He murmured wordless reassurance. He was nearly as much an accidental warrior as was she, and recalled only too well puking up his guts in a clump of bushes after his first kill. Now he was just glad he was still among the living, and tried not to think of the ruined humanity at his feet.

He offered his canteen to Elise so she could rinse her mouth. She took it with a muffled word of thanks.

A squad of temple guardsmen rushed down the main aisle, brushing aside the plainsmen (who had watched the fight with interest) and their guide. The guard captain, his corselet gilded to show his rank, shook his head when he heard Gerin's story, though Saspir confirmed it. Tugging his beard, the officer, whose name was Etchebar, said, "To slay a priest of the god, even to save your own lives, is foully done. Surprised am I Biton did not smite you dead."

"Slay?" Van shouted. "Who in the five hells said anything about slaying a priest, you jouncebrained lump of dung?" Etchebar's spearmen bristled at that, but restrained themselves at his gesture. "The great tun is no more slain than you, as you'd find out if you flipped water in his fat face. And if we'd waited for your aid, it'd be the Trokmoi you were jabbering with here!" He spat into the pool of red. "Look!"

As smoothly as before, he lifted Falfarun. The priest had still been on top of the inert Divico. Van set him on his feet as blood dribbled from the hem of his robe. The outlander slapped him gently, once or twice. He groaned and clutched his head. He did not seem much hurt, however shaken he was.

Gerin turned all his powers of persuasion on the guard captain and the priest, one of whose eyes was already beginning to blacken. He broke off in mid-sentence when he saw Van stooping over Divico, plainly intending to finish off the unconscious man. The baron made a quick grab for his friend's arm.

"Captain, are you daft?" Van said.

"I hope not." Gerin took Van's place over the fallen Trokmê and shook him.

* * *

Divico came to himself with a thunderstorm in his head. He moaned and opened his eyes. That accursed Fox was bending over him, the scar above his eye white against his tan, his square face hard. The Trokmê gathered himself for a spring until he felt the cold kiss of a blade at his throat. He rolled his eyes down until he saw its upper edge, still smeared with blood.

Impotent rage flashed across his face. "I willna beg for my life, if it's that you're after," he said. "Slit my weasand and have done."

"A warrior's answer," Gerin nodded, still speaking the forest tongue with a fluency Divico found damnable. "Can it be you're wise as well?"

He sheathed his sword and helped the bewildered Trokmê sit. The chieftain hissed when he saw his slaughtered comrades.

Gerin waved at them and went on, "You and your friends heard the Sibyl's words, but did they heed them? Not a bit, and see what's become of them now. Sure as sure the same'll befall you and your clansmen if you go following Balamung's war-trumpets. If I give you your life, would you go and tell them that, aye, and others you meet on the way?"

Divico's red brows came together as he thought. At last he said, "I would that. For Catuvolcus and Arviragus I cared not a fart. Poor Togail is another matter, though. Black shame 'twill be to me to tell my brother Kell his son had his lovely throat torn out while I return revengeless. Still, I will do it, to keep the same from befalling all my kin. Fox, I like you not, but I will. By Taranis, Teutates, and Esus I swear it."

That was the strongest oath the Trokmoi knew, Gerin thought; if it would not bind Divico to his word, nothing would. "Good man!" he said, clasping his hand and helping him to his feet. He almost told the Trokmê he thought like an Elabonian, but judged the proud chieftain would think it an insult.

"A moment," Etchebar said drily. "You have not the only claim on this man. Because of him, blood was shed in the holy precinct, which is abhorrent to our lord Biton." He touched his eyes and the back of his head in reverence. Falfarun nodded vigorous agreement. The guardsmen leveled their spears at Divico, who shrugged and relaxed but kept his hand near his sword.

"I am sure we can come to an understanding," Gerin said, propelling guard captain and priest into a quiet corner. There they argued for some minutes. The Fox reminded them that Divico had opposed Catuvolcus, who started the unholy combat. Furthermore, he pointed out, Biton was able to deal with those who offended him, as he had proved on the body of the luckless thief who was displayed in the forecourt.

Etchebar growled a curt order and Divico was set free. The Trokmê bowed to Gerin and left, one hand still clutched to his aching skull.

Another discreet offering of gold "for the temple" salved Falfarun's bruises. Etchebar was a harder case, for Van's chaffing had wounded his pride. He wanted satisfaction, not gold. Making sure the outlander was not in earshot, Gerin apologized profusely.

Black-robed temple servitors dragged away the dead Trokmoi and began to mop up their spilled gore, which had already attracted a few flies. Eyes still unhappy under bushy eyebrows, Etchebar gathered up his men and led them back to the forecourt. "And now, gentles, to the Sibyl at last," Falfarun said, with quite as much solemn aplomb as he had had before he was tossed about and his gleaming robe befouled.

The mouth to the Sibyl's cave was a black, grinning slit. Elise, still wan, took Gerin's hand. Looking down into the inky unknown, he was glad of the touch. Van fumed blasphemously as he tried to scrub sticky drying blood from his cuirass.

Falfarun vanished down the cavemouth. "You need have no fear for your footing," he called. "Since the unhappy day a century ago when the cousin of the Emperor Forenz (the second of that name, I believe) tumbled and broke an ankle, it was thought wise to construct regular steps and flooring to replace rocks and dirt. Such is life." He sighed, a bit unhappy at tradition flouted.

The subterranean corridor to the Sibyl's cave went down and down, twisting until Gerin lost all idea of which way he was going. A few dim candles set in brackets of immemorial antiquity gave pale and fitful light, making the flapping shadow of Falfarun's robe a monstrous thing. Cross-branches of the caverns were holes of deeper blackness in the gloom. Elise's grip on Gerin's hand tightened.

Most of the cave wall was left in its natural state. Now and again a bit of rock crystal would gleam for a moment in the candlelight and then fade. A few stretches were walled off by brickwork of a most antique mode which had its origins in the timeworn river land of Kizzuwatna, where men first lived in cities: not truly square like most bricks, these had convex tops and looked like buns of baked earth.

When Gerin asked the reason for the brickwork, Falfarun answered with a shiver, "Behind the bricks are charms of great fellness, for not all branches of these caves are safe for men. As you have seen, some we use for armories, others to store grain or treasure. But in some branches dread things dwell, and men who tried to explore them never returned. Those ways were stopped, as you see, to prevent such tragedies. More than that I cannot tell you, for it was done ages ago."

Imagining the pallid monsters that could inhabit such dismal gloom, Gerin shivered himself. He tried not to think of the tons of rock and earth over his head. Van muttered something that might have been prayer or curse and hitched the swordbelt higher on his hip.

An ancient statue of Biton smiled its secret smile at them as they neared the Sibyl. The candles gave way to brighter torches. The corridor widened to form a small chamber. A gust of cool, damp wind blew past Gerin's face. He heard the deep mutter of a great subterranean river far below.

When Falfarun touched his elbow, he started. "Your gifts entitle you to privacy with the Sibyl, if such is your desire," the priest said.

Gerin thought, then nodded.

Surprisingly, Falfarun's bruised face crinkled into a half-smile. "Good," he said. "Did the answer you received please you not, belike your brawny friend would undertake to pitch me through a wall." Van sputtered in embarrassment. Falfarun went on, "Good fortune attend you, gentles, and I leave you with the Sibyl." He waved at the throne set against the rear wall of the chamber and was gone.

"By my sword," Van said softly, "if I didn't know better, I'd say it was carved from one black pearl." Taller than a man, the high seat glimmered nacreously in the torchlight; crowns of silver shone on its two back posts.

The throne's splendor made the bundle of rags sitting on it altogether incongruous. Though the Trokmoi had called the Sibyl a crone, Gerin hadn't been able to believe the withered body through which the god had spoken ten years before still held life. But it was she, one eye dim, the other whitened by cataract. Her face was a badlands of wrinkles; her scalp shone through thinning strands of yellowish hair.

The mind behind that ruined countenance was still sharp, though. She raised one withered claw in a gesture of command. "Step forward, lass, lads," she said, voice a dry rustle. Gerin knew she would have called his father "lad" had he been before her, and she would have been as right.

"What would you know of my master Biton?" she asked.

For some days Gerin had mulled the question he would put. Still, in that place his tongue stumbled as he asked, "How best may I save myself and my lands and destroy the wizard who threatens them?"

She did not reply at once. Thinking she had not heard, the baron opened his mouth to ask the question again. But with no warning, her eyes rolled back, showing only vein-tracked whites. Her scrawny fists clenched; her body shook and trembled, throwing her robe off one dry shoulder to reveal an empty dug. Her face twisted. When she spoke, it was not in her own voice, but that of a powerful man in the first flush of strength. Hearing the god, Gerin and his companions went to their knees as his words washed over them:

"Buildings fall in flame and fire: Against you even gods conspire. Bow before the mage of the north When all his power is put forth To crush you down, to lay you low: For his grave no man will know."

The god's voice and power gone, the Sibyl slumped forward in a faint.


Evening came. Gray clouds scudded across the sky. The wet-dust smell of rain was in the air. Grim and silent, Gerin began to help Van make camp. Elise, worry in her voice and on her face, said, "Not three words have you spoken since we left the temple."

All the rage and helplessness the baron had contained since he stalked frozen-faced past Falfarun to reclaim the wagon came out in a torrent of bile. He slammed his helmet to the ground. It spun into the undergrowth. "What difference does it make?" he said bitterly. "I might as well cut my own throat and save that perambulating corpse the work. The Sibyl told me the same thing he did, only from him I hadn't believed it. I was a fool to go to her; I wanted advice, not a death sentence. A plague take all oracles!"

At that, Van looked up. While Gerin stormed, he had quietly gone on setting up camp. He'd started a fire and drained the blood of a purchased fowl into a trench to propitiate the ghosts. "I knew a man who said something like that once, captain," he said.

"Is there a story to go with the knowing?" Elise asked, seemingly searching for any way to draw Gerin out of his inner darkness.

"Aye, that there is," Van agreed. He understood well enough what she was after, and pitched his words to the Fox. Elise settled herself by the fire to listen. "Captain, you know—or you've heard me say—the world is round, no matter what any priest may blabber. I know. I should; I've been round it.

"Maybe ten years ago, when I was at the far eastern edge of this continent, I hired on as a man-at-arms under a merchant named Zairin. He was moving a shipment of jade, silk, and spices from a place called Ban Yarang to Selat, a couple of hundred miles southeastward. The folk are funny round those parts, little yellow-skins with slanting eyes like the Shanda nomads'. It looks better on the women, I must say. Still, that's no part of the yarn.

"Zairin was one of those people who have no truck with the gods. Now, in those parts it's customary to check the omens by watching the way the sacred peacocks peck at grain. If they eat well, the journey will be a good one. If not, it's thought wiser to try again some other time.

"There we were, all ready to set out, and Zairin's right-hand man—a fat little fellow named Tzem—brought us a bird from the shrine. He poured out the grain, but the peacock, who probably hadn't much liked traveling slung under his arm for more than a mile, just looked at it. He wouldn't touch it for anything, not that bird.

"Zairin sat watching this, getting madder and madder. Finally the old bandit had himself a gutful. He got up on his feet and roared out, 'If he won't eat, let him drink!' May my beard fall out if I lie, he picked up that peacock, chucked it into the Kemlong river (which runs through Ban Yarang) and started off regardless."

Gerin was caught up in spite of himself. "Dyaus! It's not a chance I'd like to take," he said.

"And you the fellow who curses oracles? You can imagine what we were thinking. Most of the way, though, things went well enough. The road was only a little track through the thickest jungle I've ever seen, so we lost a couple of porters to venomous snakes the poor barefoot fools stepped on, and one more to a blood-sucking demon that left him no more than a withered husk when we found him the next morning. But on a trip like that, you learn to expect such things. Zairin was mightily pleased with himself. He kept laughing and telling anyone who'd listen what a lot of twaddle it was to pay any attention to a fool bird.

"Well, a day and a half before we would have made Selat and proved the old croaker right, everything came unraveled at once. A dam broke upstream from where we were fording; five men and half our donkeys drowned. The customs man Zairin knew at the border had been transferred, and I shudder to think of the silver his replacement gouged out of us. Half the men got a bloody flux. It bothered me for two years. And just to top everything off, old Zairin came down with the crabs. From then on, captain, he was a believer, I can tell you!"

"Go howl!" Gerin said. "I was hoping you'd cheer me with a yarn where a prophesy turned out wrong. I know enough of the other sort myself. For that you can stand first watch."

"Can I, now? Well, you can—" The outlander scorched Gerin in more tongues than the Fox knew. Finally he said, "Captain, fair is fair: I'll wrestle you for it."

"Aren't you the bloodthirsty one? I thought you'd had enough fighting for one day."

Gerin got up and pulled off his tunic. He helped Van undo the leather laces of his back-and-breast. His friend sighed as the weight came off. In kilt and sandals, Van seemed more a war-god than ever. His muscles rippled as he stretched. The forest of golden hair on his chest and belly flashed in the firelight. Only his scars told of his humanity—and his turbulent past. One terrible gash ran from right armpit to navel; every time Gerin saw it, he wondered how the outlander had lived.

Not that he was unmarked himself: sword, spear, knife, and arrow had left their signatures on his skin, and the cut Aingus had given him was only half healed. Seeing Elise's eyes travel from Van's enormous frame to him, he knew he seemed a stripling beside his companion, though he was a well-made man of good size.

But he had a name as a wrestler on both sides of the Niffet. He had learned more tricks from masters south of the Kirs than his neighbors ever imagined, and threw men much bigger than himself. For all that, though, Van's raw strength was enough to flatten him as often as he could finesse his way to victory. When word went out that they would tussle, even Trokmoi came to watch and bet.

Embarrassed that her look had been seen and understood, Elise dropped her eyes. Gerin grinned at her. "He won't chuck me through a tree, girl."

"Who says I won't?" Van bellowed. He charged like an avalanche. Gerin sprang to meet him. Ducking under the thick arms that would quickly have squeezed breath from him, he hooked his own left arm behind Van's right knee and rammed a shoulder into his friend's hard-muscled middle.

Van grunted and went down, but a meaty paw dragged Gerin after him. They rolled, thrashed, and grappled in the dirt. Gerin ended up riding his friend's broad back. His hands had slid under the outlander's shoulders; his hands were clasped behind Van's neck. Van slapped the ground. Gerin let him up. He shook his head and rubbed his eye to rout out some dust.

"You'll have to show me that one again, Gerin," he said. "Another fall?"

The baron shrugged. "All right, but the last one was for the watch." Van nodded. In mid-nod, he leaped. Gerin had no chance to use any of his feints or traps. He was seized, lifted, and slammed to earth with rib-jarring force. Van sprang on him like a starving lion onto a fat sheep.

Thoroughly pinned, Gerin grumbled, "Get off me, you pile of suet!" Van snorted and pulled him to his feet. They both swore as they swabbed each other's scratches with beer-soaked rags. The stuff stung foully.

After supper, Gerin began to regret not having the first watch. He was sure he was too full of troubles to sleep, despite the day's exertions. He tossed, wriggled until a small stone no longed gouged his back, wished the crickets were not so loud. . . .

Van watched his friend's face relax as slumber overtook him. He was not too worried about the baron's dejection; he had seen him downhearted before, and knew he recovered quickly. But the Fox deeply felt his responsibilities. If anything, a menace to his lands hit him harder than a threat against himself.

More and more clouds blew in from the west, pale against the dark blue dome of the sky. Math, a day past first quarter, and mottled Tiwaz, now nearly full, jumped in and out of sight. A couple of hours before midnight, dim Nothos' waning gibbous disk joined them. The wind carried a faint salt tang from the Orynian Ocean far away. Van scrubbed dried blood from his armor and helm, waiting till it was time to wake Gerin.

Rain threatened all through the Fox's watch. It was still dark when the first spatters came. Elise jerked as a drop splashed her cheek; she woke up all at once, like a soldier. Smiling at Gerin, she said, " 'The gods in the heaven send dripping-tressed rain/ To nourish sweet hope in a desert of pain'—or so the poet says, anyway."

He stared at her. The passage of a night had eased much of his gloom; now surprise banished the rest. "Where did you learn to quote Lekapenos? And whose rendering was that? Whoever did it knows his Sithonian well."

"As for the rendering—" She shrugged. "It's mine. That passage always appealed to me. And where else would I learn my letters than from the epics?"

That held much truth. The baron still recalled the godlike feeling he'd had when the curious marks on parchment began to correspond with the verses he'd learned by ear. Thoughtfully, he started getting ready to travel again.

* * *

Gerin was glad to exchange the dirt road that led to Ikos for the main southbound highway before the former became a bottomless river of mud. Moments later, he was wondering at the wisdom of his choice. From behind him came a drumming of hooves, the deadly clangor of bronze on bronze, and wheels rumbling on a stone roadbed—a squadron of chariotry, moving fast.

Van unshipped his spear and Gerin began to string his bow. Then a deep voice sounded above the rising clatter: "Way! Way for the men of Aragis the Archer!"

The baron pulled off the road with almost unseemly haste. Ignoring the rain, Aragis' troopers pounded past, brave in surcoats of scarlet and silver. A handful of draggled bandits were their reluctant companions.

Proud hawk face never smiling, Aragis' captain—or maybe it was Aragis himself—raised one arm in salute as his men thundered by. Some of them had leers for Elise, stares for Van's fine cuirass. The bandits looked stolidly ahead. Gerin guessed they could already see the headsman's axe looming large across their futures, and precious little else.

"Whew!" Van said as the chariots disappeared into the rain ahead. "This trip will make a fine yarn, but it's not something I'd like to do more than once."

"Which is true of most things that make good stories," Gerin said. Van laughed and nodded.

From Ikos to Cassat was a journey of two days. To the baron, they were a time of revelation. For years his mind had not reached further than the harvest, the balance of a blade, or the best place to set an ambush. But Elise had read many of the works that were his own favorites and, better yet, thought on what she read. They passed hour after hour quoting passages they liked and arguing meanings.

Gerin had almost forgotten talk like this existed. Over the years, all without his knowing it, his mind had grown stuffy and stale. Now he relished the fresh new breeze playing through it.

Van chimed in too, from time to time. He lacked the background Gerin and Elise shared, but he had seen more of the varied ways of man than either, and his wit was keen.

The purple bulk of the High Kirs, a great rampart looming tall on the southern horizon, came to dominate the landscape. Eternal snow clung to many peaks, scoffing at high summer below. Eight passes traversed the mountains; seven the Empire had painstakingly blocked over the years, to keep out the northern barbarians. In the foothills before the eighth squatted the town of Cassat, a monument to what might have been.

Oren II had planned it as a splendid capital for the new province his father had won. Its great central square was filled with temples, triumphal arches, law courts, and a theater. But fate had not been kind. Birds nested under the eaves of the noble buildings; grass pushed up between marble paving-blocks. The only reality to Cassat was its barracks, squat, unlovely structures of wood and grimy plaster where a few hundred imperial soldiers pretended to rule the northlands. A few streets of horsetraders, swordsmiths, joyhouses, and taverns met their needs. The dusty wind blew mournful through the rest of the town.

The Empire's dragon flag, black on gold, flew only over the barracks. There did Carus Beo's son, the Marchwarden of the North, perform his office; mice alone disputed in the courthouse Oren had built.

Once, Carus had been a favorite at court. He had earned his present post some years back, when the Urfa massacred a column he led. Because of what he saw as exile to the cheerless north, he despised and resented the border barons.

Gerin called on him nonetheless. Few as they were, Carus' men would help hold the border against the Trokmoi, could he be persuaded to send them north. Elise accompanied the baron. Van took the wagon to a leading trader of horseflesh, seeking fresh animals to replace Gerin's weary beasts.

The Marchwarden of the North sat at a well-scuffed desk piled high with parchments of all sizes. He was sixty or a bit over; his yellowish-white hair had retreated to a ruff round his ears and the back of his neck, leaving his pink scalp bare but for a meager forelock. His eyes had dark pockets under them.

His jowls quivered when he lifted his head from whatever bureaucratic inconsequentiality Gerin's arrival had interrupted.

"My man tells me you seek the assistance of the Empire against the Trokmoi. Surely the boldness of the brave holders of Elabon's frontier cannot have declined to such an abysmal level?" he said, looking at Gerin with no liking at all.

Then his narrow eyes swiveled to Elise, and a murky gleam lit them. The Fox saw a liking there, sure enough, but only of the sort that made him want to kick Carus' stained teeth down his throat. Elise studied a point on the wall directly behind the Marchwarden's forehead.

"Surely not," Gerin said. Ignoring the fact that he had not been offered a seat, he handed Elise into a chair and took another for himself. Carus' sallow cheeks reddened. As if nothing had happened, the Fox resumed, "At the present time, however, circumstances are of unusual difficulty." He told the Marchwarden of Balamung and his threatened invasion.

Carus was drumming his nails on top of his desk by the time the Fox finished. "Let me see if I understand you correctly," he said. "You expect the troops of the Empire to get you out of trouble with this wizard, into which you have gotten yourself. Now to justify this request for service, you may point to—what?"

"Among other things, that we border barons have kept the Trokmoi out of the Empire for two hundred years and more."

"A trivium." Carus waved his hand in a languid southern gesture which might have seemed courtly from Rihwin but was only grotesque in a man of the Marchwarden's years and girth. "If I had my way, we would merely send a few thousand tons of stone down behind the Great Gate. That would quite nicely seal off the barbarians for all time."

"Horseballs," Gerin muttered. Elise heard him and grinned. Carus heard him too. The baron had not intended that.

"Horseballs?" Carus' mouth moved in what might have been a smile, but his eyes stayed cold. "Ah, the vivid turn of phrase of the frontier. But do let me return to what I was saying: indeed, I think the Empire would be as well off without you. What do we gain from you, after all? No metals, no grain—only trouble. Half the rebels of the past two hundred years have had northern ties. You corrupt the calm, orderly way of life we crave. No, my good lord Gerin, if the barbarians can eat you up, they are welcome to you."

The Fox had not really expected help from the Marchwarden, but he had not expected outright hatred, either. He drew in a long, angry breath. Elise pressed his hand in warning, but he was too furious to pay heed. He spoke in the same polished phrases Carus had used, and the same venom rode them: "You complain the Empire receives nothing from us? Up on the border, we wonder what we get from you. Where are the men and chariots of the Empire, to help us drive away the northern raiders? Where are they when we fight among ourselves? Do you care? Not a bit, for if we are kept distracted, we cannot think of rebellion. You judge, and rightly, our flesh and blood a better shield than any you might make of stone or wood, and so we die, for nothing."

Bowing to Carus, Gerin stood to go. "And you, my fine Marchwarden, you have gained most of all from our thankless toil. While we sweat and bleed to keep the border safe, here you have stayed for the past twenty-five years, shuffling parchments from one pile to the next and sitting on your fat fornicating fundament!" The last was a roar of surprising volume.

Carus leaped to his feet, fumbling for his sword but finding only an empty scabbard. Gerin laughed mockingly. "Guards!" the Marchwarden bleated. When the men appeared, he gabbled, "Clap this insolent lout in chains and cast him in the dungeon until he learns politeness." His eyes lingered on Elise. He reached out a flabby hand to take her arm. "I will undertake to instruct the wench personally."

The befuddlement on the guards' faces was ludicrous; they had not seen their master so active in years. Gerin made no move for his own blade. He said mildly, "Do you know what will happen if you seize us? As soon as the barons learn of it, they will come down in a body and leave your precious barracks so much kindling. Not long after that, the Trokmoi will be here to light it. I'm almost sorry you won't live to watch."

"What? What nonsense are you spewing now? I'll—gark!" Carus' voice abruptly disappeared. Elise was tickling the soft skin under his chin with the tip of her dagger. She smiled sweetly at him. The blood drained from his face, leaving it the color of the parchment on his desk. Moving very carefully, he let go of her arm. "Go," he said, in ragged parody of the tone he had used a moment before. "Get out. Guards, take them away."

"To the dungeons, sir?" asked one, scorn in his voice.

"No, no, just go." Carus sank back into his chair, hands shaking and sweat gleaming on his bald head. With as much ceremony as if it were a daily occurrence, his men conducted Gerin and Elise from the Marchwarden's presence.

The sun was still high in the southwest; the audience had made up in heat what it lacked in length. Gerin turned to Elise and said, "I knew having you along would be a nuisance. Once he caught a glimpse of you, the old lecher couldn't find a way to get me out of there fast enough."

"Don't be ridiculous. I'm a mess." Of itself, her hand moved to brush at her hair.

The baron surveyed her. There was dust in her hair and a smudge of grime on her forehead, but her green eyes sparkled, the mild doses of sun she allowed herself had brought out a spray of freckles on her nose and cheeks, her lips were soft and red, and even in tunic and trousers she was plainly no boy. . . .

Easy there, Gerin told himself: do you want to make Ricolf your irreconcilable enemy too, along with the Trokmoi and Wolfar? He gave his beard a judicious tug. "You'll do," he said. "You'll definitely do."

She snorted and poked him in the ribs. He yelped and mimed a grab at her; she made as if to stab him. They were still smiling half an hour later, when Van pulled up in the wagon. He smelled of horses and beer, and had two new beasts in the traces. A grin split his face when he saw how happy Gerin looked. "Himself gave you the men, did he?"

"What? Oh. No, I'm afraid not." The Fox explained the fiasco; Van laughed loud and long. Gerin went on, "I expected nothing much, and got just that. You seem to have been busy, though—what sort of horse do you have there, anyway?" He jerked a thumb at one of Van's newly acquired animals.

Unlike its companion, a handsome gray gelding, this rough-coated little beast was even less sightly than the shaggy woods-ponies of the Trokmoi. But Van looked scandalized. He leaped down and rubbed the horse's muzzle.

A quick snap made him jerk his hand away. Even so, he said, "Captain, don't tell me you don't know a Shanda horse when you see one? The fool trader who had him didn't. He thought he was putting one over on me. Well, let him laugh. A Shanda horse will go all day and all night; you can't wear one down if you try. I like the bargain, and you will too."

"All right, show me." Gerin helped Elise up, then climbed on himself. Van followed. The wagon clattered out of Cassat toward the Great Gate, the sole remaining link the Empire allowed itself with its northern provinces.

It was a long pull through the Gate. Toward the end, the gray horse was lathered and blowing, but the pony from the plains showed no more sign of strain than if it had spent the day grazing. Gerin was impressed.

Though Elabon had not blocked this last way through the Kirs, her marshals had done their best to make sure no enemy could use it. Fortresses of brick and stone flanked the roadway. Watchmen tramped smartly along their battlements, alert against any mischance. The towers' bronze-sheathed wooden gates were closed now, but could open to vomit forth chariots and footsoldiers against any invader.

Wizards, too, aided in defending the Empire. They had their own dwellings, twin needle-like spires of what seemed to be multicolored glass, off which the late afternoon sun shimmered and sparkled. Should the fortresses' armed might fail to blunt an attack, the warlocks would set in motion the thousands of boulders heaped on either side of the pass, and thus block it forever.

The arrangement left Gerin uneasy: what wizardry had made, it could unmake. He cheered slightly when he discovered the warriors in the fastnesses could also start the avalanche by purely natural means: paths led up to the tops of the piles of scree, and triggering rocks there had levers under them. The Fox did not envy the men who would work those levers.

The succession of powerful strongholds awed even Van. "Folk who huddle behind forts are dead inside," he said, "but with forts like these it will be a while yet before anyone notices the reek of the corpse."

A brown and buff lizard chased a grasshopper into the road. It danced madly under hooves and wagon wheels, then vanished into a crevice in the rocks on the far side. Gerin never knew whether it had caught its bug.

Traffic through the Great Gates was heavy. Traders headed north. Their donkeys brayed loud disgust at the weight of the packs they bore. Traders came south. Their donkeys brayed loud disgust over nothing at all. Mercenaries, wandering wise men, wizards, and a good many travelers who fell into no neat scheme—all used the imperial highway.

Nearly two hours went by before the wagon reached the end of the pass. Golden under the light of the setting sun, the southern land spread out ahead like a picture from a landscape master's brush. Field and forest, town and orchard, all were plain to see, with brooks and rivers like lines of molten copper.

"It's a rare pretty country," Van said. "What are the people like?"

"People," Gerin shrugged.

"I'd best keep an eye on my wallet, then."

"Go howl! You'd bite a coin free-given."

"Likely I would, if I planned to spend it."


Just then a warm, dry breeze wafted up from the south. It was sweet and spicy, with the faintest tang of salt from the distant Inner Sea, and carried scents the baron had forgotten.

Like a swift stream breaching the dam that restrained it, long-buried memories flooded up in Gerin. He thought of the two years free from care he had spent in the capital, then of the sterile, worry-filled time since—and was appalled.

"Why did I ever leave you?" he cried to the waiting land ahead. "Father Dyaus, you know I would sooner have been a starving schoolmaster in the capital than king of all the northlands!"

"If that's how you feel, why not stay in the south?" Elise asked. Her voice was gentle, for the fair land ahead had enchanted her as much as the Fox.

"Why not indeed?" Gerin said surpised. He realized the notion had never crossed his mind, and wondered why. At last he sighed and shook his head. "Were the danger behind me less great, I'd leap at the chance like a starving longtooth. But for better or worse, my life is on the cooler side of the mountains. Much depends on me there. If I stay, I betray more than my own men, I think. The land will fall to Balamung, and I doubt it will slake his evil thirst. That may happen yet; the gods have given the northland little enough hope. It's partly my fault Balamung is what he is; if I can make amends, I will."

"I think you will do well," Elise said slowly. "Often, it seems, the most glory is won by those who seek it least."

"Glory? If I can stay alive and free without it, I don't give a moldy loaf of journeybread for glory. I leave all that to Van."

"Ha!" Van said. "Do you want to know the real reason he's bound to go back, my lady?"

"Tell me," Gerin said, curious to see what slander his friend would come up with.

"Captain, you'd need more than a wizard to drive you away from your books, and you know it as well as I do." There was enough truth in that to make Gerin throw a lazy punch at Van, who ducked. A good part of the barony's silver flowed south to the copyists and bookdealers in Elabon's capital.

They wound their way down from the pass, hoping to reach a town before the sun disappeared. Gerin was less worried about the ghosts than he would have been on the other side of the mountains; peace had reigned here for many years, and the spirits were relatively mild. For his part, Van grew eloquent about the advantages of fresh food, a mug of ale (or even wine!), a comfortable bed, and perhaps (though he did not say so) a wench to warm it.

The road was flanked by a grove of fruit trees of a kind unknown north of the Kirs. Not very tall, they had gray-brown bark, shiny light-green leaves, and egg-shaped yellow fruit. Both leaves and fruit were fragrant, but Gerin remembered how astonishingly sour the fruit was to the tongue. It was called . . . he snapped his fingers in annoyance. He had forgotten the very name.

As the trees began to thin, another smell made its presence known through their perfume: a faint carrion reek. The baron's lips drew back in a mirthless grimace. "I think we've found our town," he said.

The road turned, the screen of trees disappeared, and sure enough the town was there. It was not big enough to have a wall. The Fox was sure folk living ten miles from it had never heard its name. Nonetheless, it aspired to cityhood in a way open to the meanest of hamlets: by the road stood a row of crucifixes, each with its slow-rotting burden. Under them children played, now and then shying a stone upward. Dogs slunk there too, dogs with poor masters or none, waiting for easy meals.

Some of the spiked and roped criminals were not yet dead. Through sun-baked and blistered lips they begged for water or death, each according to the strength left in him. One, newly elevated or unnaturally strong, still howled defiance at gods and men.

His roars annoyed the carrion birds nearby. Strong black bills filled with noisome food, they flapped lazily into the sky, staring down with fine impartiality on town, travelers, and field. They knew all would come to them in good time.

Van's face might have been carved from stone as he surveyed the wretches. Elise was pale. Her eyes went wide with horror. Her lips shaped the word "Why?" but no sound emerged. Gerin tried not to remember his own thoughts when he'd first encountered the malignant notions of justice the southerners had borrowed from Sithonia.

"Maybe," he said grimly, "I had my reasons for going home, after all."


The town (Gerin learned its name was Fibis) did little to restore the luster of the southlands in the baron's eyes. The houses lining the north-south road were little finer than the huts of his peasants. Only muddy alleys ankle-deep in slops led away from that road.

The sole hostel Fibis boasted was of a piece with the rest. It was low-roofed, dingy, and small. The sign outside had faded past legibility. Within, the smell of old grease fought with but could not overcome the odor of stale urine from the dyeworks next door and the never-absent stench of the crosses.

And the townsfolk! City ways that had been sophisticated to the youth who traveled this road ten years before now seemed either foppish or surly. Gerin tried to strike up a conversation with the innkeeper, a dour, weathered old codger named Grizzard, but got only grunts in return. He gave up and went back to the rickety table where his friends awaited supper. "If I didn't know better," he said, "I'd take oath the fellow was afraid of me."

"Then he thinks you've already tasted his wine," said Van, who was on his third mug. "What swill!" He swigged, pursed his lips to spit, but swallowed instead.

The rest of the meal was not much better than the wine. Plainly, lack of competition was all that kept Grizzard in business. Disgusted with the long, fruitless day he had put in, Gerin was about to head for bed when a cheery voice said, "Hello, you're new here! What's old Grizzard given you to drink?"

Without so much as a by-your-leave, the fellow pulled up a chair and joined them. He sniffed the wine, grimaced, and flipped a spinning silver disk to the innkeeper, who made it disappear. "You can do better than this, you thief," he said. To the Fox's surprise, Grizzard could.

The baron studied his new acquaintance curiously, for the man seemed made of pieces which did not belong together. Despite his heartiness, his voice soon dropped so low Grizzard could not hear what he said. While his mouth was full of slang from the capital, his homespun tunic and trousers were both rustic. Yet his chin sported a gray imperial and his shoes turned up at the toes: both Sithonian styles. The name he gave—just Tevis, without patronymic or sobriquet—was one of the three or four commonest south of the mountains.

Whoever he was, he had a rare skill with words. Softly, easily, he enticed from Gerin (usually as close-mouthed as any man alive) the story of his travels, and all without revealing a bit of his own purpose. It was almost as if he cast a spell. He paused a while in silent consideration, his clear dark eyes studying the Fox. "You have not been well-used by the Empire," he said at last.

Gerin only shrugged. His caution had returned. He was wary of this smooth-talking man of mystery. Tevis nodded, as if he had expected nothing more. "Tell me," he said, "do you know of Moribar the Magnificent, his imperial majesty's governor at Kortys?"

Van, who had drunk deep, stared at Tevis in owlish incomprehension. Elise was nearly asleep, her head warm on Gerin's shoulder. Her hair tickled his cheek. The scent of it filled his nose. But in his mind the stench of the rood was stronger still. Here was the very thing Carus Beo's son had feared most: a potential rebel in the capital of Sithonia, seeking northern help.

At any other time, the baron would have shed no tears to see the Empire go up in civil war, but now he needed whatever strength he could find at his back. He chose his words with care: "Tevis, I don't know you and I didn't ask to know you. If you say one word more to me, you will have spoken treason, and I will not hear it. True, I've had my quarrels with some of his majesty's servants, but if he does not plot against me in my land, I have no right to plot against him in his. I would not have drunk with you had I known what was in your mind. Here, take this and go." He set a coin on the table to pay for the jug of wine.

Tevis smiled faintly. "Keep it," he said, "and this as well." He took something from the pouch on his belt, tossed it next to the coin, and was gone into the night while Gerin still gaped at what he had thrown: a tiny bronze hand, fingers beginning to curl into a fist.

"Oh, great Dyaus above!" he said. "An Imperial Hand!" He propped his chin on his palm and stared at the little token before him. He could have been no more startled had it sprung up and slapped him in the face.

Bristles rasped under Van's fingers as he scratched his jaw. "And what in the five hells is that?" he asked with ponderous patience.

"A secret agent, spy, informer . . . call him what you will. That doesn't matter. But if I'd shown any interest in setting Moribar on the throne, by this time tomorrow we'd be on crosses side by side, waiting for the vultures to pick out our eyes."

"Ha! I'd bite off their heads!" Van seemed more concerned with the vultures than the crucifixion that would invite them.

"That's one way of dealing with them, I suppose," Gerin agreed mildly. He woke Elise. She yawned and walked sleepily to the one room Grizzard grudged female travelers. Van and Gerin headed for their own pallets, hoping they would not be bug-ridden. Almost as an afterthought, the Fox scooped up the diminutive but deadly emblem Tevis had left behind.

Though weary, he slept poorly. The quarrel with Carus, his jarring reintroduction to the dark side of the southlands, and above all the brush with doom in the form of Tevis kept him tossing all night. The bed was hard and lumpy, too. When he awoke, half a dozen red, itchy spots on his arms and chest proved he had not slept alone.

Van was unusually quiet at breakfast. "Head hurt?" Gerin asked as they walked to the stables.

"What. Oh. No, it's not that, captain." Van hesitated. Finally he said, "I'll tell you right out, Gerin, last night I almost decided to buy myself a gig and get the blazes out of this crazy country."

Gerin had imagined disaster piled on disaster, but never in his worst nightmares had he imagined his friend leaving. Ever since Van came to Fox Keep the two of them had been inseparable, fighting back to back and then carousing and yarning far into the night. Each owed the other his life several times. With a shock, the baron realized Van was a larger, gustier version of his dead brother Dagref. Losing him would be more than parting with a comrade; part of the baron's soul would go with him.

Before he could put what he felt into words, Elise spoke first: "Why would you want to leave now? Are you afraid? The danger is in the north, not here." She seemed unwilling to believe her ears.

At any other time, the outlander's wrath would have kindled if his courage was questioned. Now he only sighed and kicked at a pebble. Genuine distress was in his voice as he answered, "My lady, look about you." His wave encompassed not just the grubby little hamlet of Fibis and the crosses outside it, but all the land where the writ of the Empire was law. "You've seen enough of me to know what I am and what my pleasures are: fighting, talking, drinking, aye, and wenching too, I'll not deny. But here, what good am I? If I break wind in the backhouse, I have to look over my shoulder lest some listening spy call it treason. It's not the kind of life I care to lead: worrying before I move, not daring even to think."

Gerin understood that well enough, for much the same sense of oppression weighed on him. But Van was still talking: "I was all set to take my leave of you this morning—head north again, I suppose. But then I got to thinking"—he suddenly grinned—"and I decided that if any boy-loving Imperial Hand doesn't like the way I speak, why, I'll carve the son of a pimp into steaks and leave him by the side of the road to warn his scurvy cousins!"

Elise laughed in delight and kissed him on the cheek.

"I think you planned this whole thing just to get that kiss," Gerin said. "Come on, you hulk, quit holding up the works."

"Bastard." Still grinning, Van pitched his gear into the wagon.

* * *

The morning was still young when they splashed through the chilly Langros river. Though not as great as the Niffet or the mighty Carastos which watered much of the plain of Elabon, its cold current ran swift as it leaped down from the Kirs toward the Greater Inner Sea.

The water at the ford swirled icily around Gerin's toes and welled up between the wagon's floorboards. Most of the travelers' belongings were safe in oiled leather sacks, but half the journeybread turned to slimy brown paste. Gerin swore in disgust. Van said, "Cheer up, captain, the stuff wasn't worth eating anyhow."

When they stopped to rest and eat, Van turned to Gerin and said quietly, "Thanks for not pushing me this morning. You might have made it hard for me to stay."

"I know," Gerin said. Neither of them mentioned the matter again.

They made good progress that day, passing small farms in the foothills and then, as the land began to level out, going by great estates with splendid manor-houses set well back from the road. When shadows lengthened and cool evening breezes began to blow, they camped by the roadside instead of seeking an inn. Gerin fed and watered the horses as the sun set. In the growing darkness the ghosts appeared, but their wails were somehow muted, their cries almost croons.

Elleb's thin crescent soon followed the sun, like a small boy staying close to his father. That left the sky to the stars and Math, whose gibbous disk bathed the land beyond reach of the campfire in pale golden light. As the night went on, she was joined by Tiwaz, whose speedy flight through the heavens had taken him well past full. And, when Gerin's watch was nearly done, Nothos poked his slow-moving head over the horizon. The baron watched him climb for most of an hour, then gave the night to Van.

The next day gave every promise of rolling along as smoothly as had its predecessor. The promise was abruptly broken a bit before noon. A manor-holder had decided to send his geese to market. The road was jammed by an endless array of tall white birds herded along by a dozen or so men with sticks. The geese honked, cackled, squabbled, and tried to sneak off the road for a mouthful of grain. They did everything, in fact, but hurry. When Gerin asked their warders to clear a way so he could pass, they refused. "If these blame birds get into the fields," one said, "we'll be three days getting them all out again, and our lord'll have our heads."

"Let's charge right through," Van suggested. "Can't you see the feathers fly?"

The thought of a goose stampede brought a smile to Gerin's lips, but he said, "No, these poor fellows have their job to do too, I suppose." And so they fretted and fumed while the birds dawdled along in front of them. More traffic piled up behind.

As time dragged on, Van's direct approach looked better and better. The whip twitched in Gerin's hand. But before he used it, he noticed the road was coming to a fork. The geese streamed down the eastern path. "Can we use the western branch to get to the capital?" he called.

"You can that," one of the flock-tenders answered, so the Fox swung the wagon down the new way.

New? Hardly. Gerin noticed that none of the others stalled behind the geese used the clear road. Soon enough, he found out why. The eastern branch of the highway was far newer. After it was complete, evidently nobody had bothered with the other one again. The wagon jounced and rattled as it banged over gaping holes in the roadbed. On one stretch, the paved surface vanished altogether. There the blocks had been set, not in concrete, but in molten lead. Locals had carried away blocks and valuable mortar alike as soon as imperial inspectors no longer bothered to protect them. The baron cursed the lout who had sent him down this road. He hoped he could make it without breaking a wheel.

The district had perhaps once been prosperous, but had decayed when its road was superseded. The farther they went, the thicker the forest grew, until at last its arms clasped above the roadway and squirrels flirted their bushy gray tails directly overhead.

Soon the very memory of the road would be gone.

Finding a village in the midst of such decline seemed divine intervention. The villagers fell on Gerin and his friends like long-lost relatives, plying them with food and a rough, heady country wine and listening eagerly to every word they brought of the world outside. Not a copper would they take in payment. The baron blessed such kindly folk, and blessed them doubly when they confirmed that the road did in fact eventually lead to the capital instead of sinking into a bog.

"You see, captain? You worry too much," Van said. "Everything will work out all right."

Gerin did not answer. He could not let things work out all right; he had to make them do so. Backtracking would have cost him a day he could not afford to spend.

The villagers insisted on putting up their guests for the night. Gerin's host was a lean farmer named Badoc son of Tevis (the baron hid a shiver). Other villagers, just as anxious for news, claimed Elise and Van.

The benches round Badoc's table were filled to overflowing by the farmer, his plump, friendly wife Leunadra, the Fox, and a swarm of children. These ranged in age from a boy barely able to toddle to Badoc's twin daughters Callis and Elminda, who were about seventeen. Gerin eyed the striking girls appreciatively. They had curly hair, sparkling brown eyes, and cheeks rosy under sun-bestowed bronze; their thin linen tunics clung to young breasts. As subtly as he could, the baron turned the conversation in their direction. They hung on his every word . . . so long as he was talking about Van. To his own charms they remained sublimely indifferent.

"I wish your friend could stay here," one of the twins mourned; Gerin had forgotten which was which. They both babbled on about Van's thews, his armor, his rugged features, his smile . . . and on and on, until Gerin began to hate the sound of his comrade's name. Badoc's craggy face almost smiled as he watched his guest's discomfiture.

At last the ordeal was over. The baron, quite alone and by then glad of it, went to his bed. His feet hung over the end, for Badoc had ousted one of his younger sons to accommodate the Fox. Gerin was tired enough that it fazed him not a bit.

A woman's cry woke him around midnight. Another followed, then another, long and drawn out: "Evoi! Evoiii!" The baron relaxed; it was only the followers of Mavrix, the Sithonian god of wine, out on one of their moonlight revels. Gerin was a bit surprised Mavrix's cult had spread to this out-of-the-way place, but what of it? He went back to sleep.

The next morning he discovered the considerate villagers had not only curried his horses till their coats gleamed, but also left gifts of fresh bread, wine, cheese, onions, and bars of dried fruit and meat in the back of the wagon. A troop of small boys followed him south until their parents finally called them home.

"I almost hate to leave," Van said. Gerin studied him: was he still wearing the traces of a satisfied grin? What if he is, witling? the baron asked himself. Do you begrudge him his good fortune? Well, yes, a little, his inner voice answered.

The road was a bit better south of the village; at least it never disappeared. Under the trees the air was cool and moist, the sunlight subdued. Gerin felt more at home than he had since leaving Ricolf's keep. He was not alone. He heard Elise softly humming a song of the north country. She smiled when she saw him watching her.

They came to a clearing almost wide enough to be called a meadow, hidden away deep in the forest. The Fox squinted at the sudden brightness. A doe which had been nibbling at the soft grass by the forest's edge lifted its head at the wagon's noisy arrival and sprang into the woods.

"Pull over, will you?" Van said. The outlander reached for Gerin's bow and quiver. Though he disdained archery in battle, he loved to hunt and was a fine shot. He trotted across the clearing and vanished among the trees with grace and silence a hunting cat might have envied.

Sighing, Gerin threw down the reins and stretched out full-length on the sweet-smelling grass. Sore muscles began to unkink. Elise stepped down and joined him. The horses were as glad at the break as the people; they cropped the grass with as much alacrity as the deer had shown.

Minute followed minute, but Van gave no sign of returning. "He's probably forgotten which end of the arrow goes first," Gerin said. He rose, went to the wagon, and emerged with Van's spear. "Carrying this, I shouldn't wonder." Every time he touched it, he marveled at his friend's skill with such a heavy weapon.

He practiced slow thrusts and parries to while away the time, more than a little conscious of Elise's eyes on him. Showing off in front of a pretty girl was a pleasure he did not get often enough. More and more he resented the wound that had kept him from courting this particular pretty girl.

It was not that he lacked for women. If nothing else, a baron's prerogatives were enough to prevent that, though he was moderate in his enjoyment of them and never bedded a wench unwilling. But none of his partners had roused more than his lusts, and he quickly tired of each new liaison. In Elise he was beginning to suspect something he had thought rare to the point of nonexistence: a kindred soul.

He had just dispatched another imaginary foe when a crackle in the bushes on the far side of the clearing made him raise his head. Van back at last, he thought; he filled his lungs to shout a greeting. It died unuttered. Only a thin whisper emerged, and that directed at Elise: "Do just what I tell you. Walk very slowly to the far side of the wagon, then run for the woods. Move!" he snapped when she hesitated. He made sure she was on her way before loping into the middle of the clearing to confront the aurochs.

It was a bull, a great roan, shaggy shoulders higher than a tall man's head. Scars old and new crisscrossed its hide. Its right horn was a shattered ruin, broken in some combat or accident long ago. The other curved out and forward, a glittering spear of death.

The aurochs' ears twitched as it stared at the puny man who dared challenge it. The certainty of a charge lay like a lump of ice in Gerin's belly: any aurochs would attack man or beast, but a lone bull was doubly terrible. Drago's grandfather had died under the horns and stamping hooves of just such a foe.

Quicker even than the Fox expected, the charge came. The beast's hooves sent chunks of sod flying skyward. There was no time to throw Van's spear. Gerin could only hurl himself to his left, diving to the turf. He had a glimpse of a green eye filled with insane hatred. Then the aurochs was past, the jagged stump of its horn passing just over him. The rank smell of its skin fought the clean odors of grass and dirt.

Gerin was on his feet in an instant. But the aurochs was already wheeling for another charge, faster than any four-footed beast had any right to be. The Fox hurled his spear, but the cast was hurried and high. It flew over the aurochs' shoulder. Only a desperate leap saved Gerin. Had the bull had two horns, he would surely have been spitted. As it was, he knew he could not elude it much longer in the open.

He sprang up and sprinted for the forest, snatching the spear as he ran. Behind him came the drumroll of the aurochs' hooves. The small of his back tingled, anticipating the horn. Then, breath sobbing in his throat, he was among the trees. Timber cracked as the aurochs smashed through brush and saplings. Still, it had to slow as it followed his dodges from tree to tree.

He hoped to lose it in the wood, but it pursued him with a deadly patience he had never known an aurochs to show. Its bellows and snorts of rage rang loud in his ears. Deeper and deeper into the forest he ran, following a vague game trail.

That came to an abrupt end: some time not long before, a forest giant had toppled, falling directly across the path. Its collapse brought down other trees and walled off the trail as thoroughly as any work of man's might have done. Gerin clambered over the dead timer. The aurochs was not far behind.

The Fox's wits had been frozen in dismay from the moment the aurochs appeared in the clearing. They began to work again as he leaped down from the deadfall. Panting, "I can't run any farther anyway," he jabbed the bronze-clad butt of Van's spear deep into the soft earth, then blundered away into the forest, having thrown his dice for the last time.

Ever louder came the thunder of the aurochs' hooves, till the Fox could feel the ground shake. For a terrible moment, he thought it would try to batter through the dead trees, but it must have known that was beyond its power. It hurled its bulk into the air, easily clearing the man-high barrier—and spitted itself on the upthrust spear.

The tough wood of the spearshaft shivered into a thousand splinters, but the leaf-shaped bronze point was driven deep into the aurochs' vitals. It staggered a couple of steps on wobbling legs, blood spurting from its belly. Then a great gout poured from its mouth and nose. It shuddered and fell. Its sides heaved a last time, then were still. It gave the Fox a reproachful brown bovine stare and died.

Gerin rubbed his eyes. In his dance with death out on the meadow, he had been sure the beast's eyes were green. His own hand came away bloody. He must have been swiped by a branch while dashing through the forest, but he had no memory of it. Shows how much I know, he thought. He wearily climbed back over the deadfall.

He had not gone far when Van came crashing down the game trail, drawn bow in his hands. Elise was right behind him. The outlander skidded to a stop, his jaw dropping. "How are you, captain?" he asked foolishly.

"Alive, much to my surprise."

"But—the aurochs . . . Elise said . . ." Van stopped, the picture of confusion.

Gerin was just glad Elise had had the sense to go after his friend instead of showing herself to the aurochs and probably getting herself killed. "I'm afraid I'll have to buy you a new spear when we get to the capital," he said.

Van hauled himself over the barrier. He came back carrying the spearpoint; bronze was too valuable to leave. "What in the name of the trident of Shamadraka did you do?" he asked.

The baron wondered where Shamadraka's worshipers lived; he had never heard of the god. "Climbing those trunks took everything I had left," he said. "The beast was hunting me like a hound—I've never known anything like it. He would have had me in a few minutes. But by some miracle I remembered a fable I read a long time ago, about a slave who was too lazy to hunt. He'd block a trail, set a javelin behind his barrier, and wait for the deer to skewer themselves for him."

Elise said, "I know the fable you mean: the tale of the Deer and Mahee. In the end he's killed by his own spear, and a good thing, too. He was a cruel, wicked man."

"You got the idea for killing the brute out of a book?" Van shook his head. "Out of a book? Captain, I swear I'll never sneer at reading again, if it can show you something that'll save your neck. The real pity of it is, you'll never have a chance to brag about this."

"And why not?" Gerin had been looking forward to doing just that.

"Slaying a bull aurochs singlehanded with a spear? Don't be a fool, Gerin: who would believe you?"

Van had killed his doe while the baron battled the aurochs. He dumped the bled and gutted carcass into the wagon and urged the horses southward. None of the travelers wanted to spend the night near the body of the slain aurochs. Not only would it draw unwelcome scavengers, but the spilled blood was sure to lure hungry, lonely ghosts from far and wide, all eager to share the unexpected bounty of the kill.

When the failing light told them it was time to camp, the deer proved toothsome indeed. Van carved steaks from its flanks. They roasted the meat over a fire. But despite a full belly, the outlander was unhappy. He grumbled, "I feel naked without my spear. What will I do without it in a fight?"

Gerin was less than sympathetic. "Seeing that you've brought a mace, an axe, three knives—"

"Only two. The third is just for eating."

"My apologies. Two knives, then, and a sword so heavy I can hardly lift it, let alone swing it. So I think you'll find some way to make a nuisance of yourself."

A nuisance Van was; he plucked a long straw from Elise's hand, leaving the short one—and the first watch—for Gerin. The Fox tried not to hear his friend's comfort-filled snores. His sense of the basic injustice of the universe was only slightly salved when Elise decided not to fall asleep at once.

Gerin was glad of her company. Without it, he probably would have dozed, for the night was almost silent. The sad murmurs of the ghosts, heard with the mind's ear rather than the body's, were also faint: the lure of the dead aurochs reached for miles, leaving the surrounding countryside all but bare of spirits.

For some reason the Fox could not fathom, Elise thought he was a hero for slaying the aurochs. He felt more lucky than heroic. There was precious little glory involved in running like a rabbit, which was most of what he'd done. Had he not plucked what he needed from his rubbish-heap of a memory, the beast would have killed him. "Fool luck," he concluded.

"Nonsense," Elise said. "Don't make yourself less than you are. In the heat of the fight you were able to remember what you had to know and, more, to do something with it. You need more than muscle to make a hero."

Not convinced, Gerin shrugged and changed the subject, asking Elise what she knew of her kin in the capital. Her closest relative there, it transpired, was her mother's brother Valdabrun the Stout, who held some position or other at the Emperor's court. Though he did not say, Gerin found that a dubious recommendation. His imperial majesty Hildor III was an indolent dandy, and the baron saw little reason to expect his courtiers to be different.

To hide his worry, he talked of the capital and his own two years there. Elise was a good audience, as city life of any sort was new to her. He told a couple of his better stories. Her laugh warmed the cool evening. She moved closer to him, eager to hear more.

He leaned over and kissed her. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to do. For a moment, her lips were startled and still under his. Then she returned the kiss, at first hesitantly, then with a warmth to match his own.

You do have a gift for complicating your life, he told himself as she snuggled her head into his shoulder. If things go on the way they've started, not only will Wolfar want to cut out your heart and eat it (a project he's been nursing quite a while anyhow), but your old friend Ricolf will be convinced—note or no note—you ran off with his daughter for reasons having very little to do with taking her to her uncle. And what is she thinking? She's no peasant wench, to be honored by a tumble and then forgotten. And further . . .

A plague on it all, he thought. He kissed her again.

But when his lips touched her soft white throat and his hands moved to slide inside her tunic, she asked him softly, "Was it for this, then, you decided to bring me south? Have I traded one Wolfar for another?" She tried to keep her tone light, but hurt and disappointment were in her voice. They stopped him effectively as a dagger drawn, perhaps more so. She slipped free of his encircling arm.

Breath whistled through his nostrils as he brought his body back under mind's rein. "I would never have you think that," he said.

"Nor do I, in truth," she replied, but the hurt was still there. The time to remember he was man and she maid might come later, he thought. It was not here yet, despite the cool quiet of the night and the moonlight filtering through the trees.

She was silent so long he thought her still upset, but when he framed further apologies, she waved them away. They talked of inconsequential things for a little while. Then she rose and walked to the wagon for her bedroll. As she passed him, she stooped; her lips brushed his cheek.

His mind was still thought-filled long after she had fallen asleep. Elleb's thick waxing crescent was well set and the nearly full Math, bright as a golden coin, beginning to wester when he woke Van and sank into exhausted slumber.

His dreams at first were murky, filled now with the aurochs, now with Elise. He remembered little of them. He rarely did, and thought strange those who could recall their dreams and cast omens from them. But then it was as if a gale arose within his sleeping mind and blew away the mists separating him from the country of dreams.

Clear as if he had been standing on the spot, he saw the great watchfires flame, heard wild music of pipe, horn, and harp skirl up to the sky, saw tall northern warriors gathered by the fires, some with spears, others with drinking-horns in their hands. This is no common dream, he thought, and felt fear, but he could not leave it, not even when black wings drowned his sight in darkness.

Those proved to be the edges of the wizard's cloak Balamung wore. The sorcerer stepped back a pace, to be silhouetted against the firelight like a bird of prey. Only his eyes were live things, embers of scarlet and amber set in his gaunt face.

The barbarian mage was only too aware of the Fox. He turned a trifle and bowed a hate-filled bow, as if the baron had been there in the flesh. The light played redly off his hollow cheeks. He said, "Lord Gerin the Fox, it's no less than a nuisance you are to me, no less, so I pray you'll forgive my costing you a dollop of sleep to show you what's waiting in the northlands whilst you scuttle about the filthy south. Would I could be drawing the black-hearted soul of you from your carcass, but there's no spell I ken to do it, what with you so far away."

No spell Gerin knew could have reached across the miles at all. He was nothing, not even a wraith, just eyes and ears bound to see and hear only what Balamung chose to reveal.

The Trokmoi danced round the fires, tossing swords, spears, aye, and drinking-horns, too, into the air. The baron's disembodied spirit was less terrified than it might have been; the dance was one of those Rihwin had performed atop Ricolf's table. It seemed an age ago. But Balamung surely knew the baron expected him to arm for war. What else had he been summoned to see?

Balamung called down curses on the Fox's head. He hoped they would not bite deep. On and on the wizard ranted, until he paused to draw breath. Then he went on more calmly, saying, "Not least do I mislike you for costing me the soul of a fine fighting man this day. Like a wee bird I sent it flitting out, to light in the body of the great aurochs. Sure as sure I was he'd stomp you to flinders and leave you dead by the side of the road. Curse your tricky soul, how did you escape him? His spirit died trapped in the beast, for I could not draw it free in time. And when it flickered away, his body was forfeit too, poor wight."

No wonder the bull had trailed him with such grim intensity! Maybe he'd been right when he thought its eyes were green, there in the meadow; that might have been some byproduct of Balamung's magic. He had been lucky indeed.

"But sure and I'll have my revenge!" Balamung screamed. Behind him, the music had fallen silent. The dancers stood motionless and expectant.

The spell the mage used must have been readied beforehand, for when he cried out in the harsh Kizzuwatnan tongue a stout wicker cage rose from the ground and drifted slowly toward the fire. Gerin's spirit quailed when he saw it; he knew the Trokmoi burned their criminals alive, and in this cage, too, a man struggled vainly to free himself.

"Die, traitor, die!" Balamung shouted. All the gathered warriors took up the cry. Horror rose in Gerin, who suddenly recognized the condemned prisoner. It was Divico, the Trokmê chieftain whose life he had spared at Ikos. He wished sickly that he had let Van give the northerner a clean death. "Have a look at what befalls them who fight me," Balamung whispered, "for your turn is next!" His voice was cold as ice, harsh as stone.

And while he spoke, the cage entered the blaze. Some minor magic had proofed the wicker against flame; no fire would hold on it. But wherever a tongue licked Divico, it clung, flaring as brightly as if his body were a pitch-soaked torch.

Held there by Balamung's wizardry, Gerin watched in dread as the flames boiled Divico's eyeballs in his head, melted his ears into shapeless lumps of meat that sagged and ran against his cheeks, then charred the flesh from those cheeks to leave white bone staring through. Fire cavorted over the Trokmê's body, but Balamung's evil magic would not let him die. He fought against the unyielding door until his very tendons burned away. His shrieks had stopped long before, when flames swallowed his larynx.

"He was a job I had to rush," Balamung said. "When it's you, now, Fox, falling into my hand, I'll take the time to think up something truly worthy of you, oh indeed and I will!" He made a gesture of dismissal. Gerin found himself staring up from his bedroll, body wet with cold sweat.

"Bad dream, captain?" Van asked.

Gerin's only answer was a grunt. He was too shaken for coherent speech. Divico's face, eaten by flames, still stood before his eyes, more vivid than the dimly lit campsite he really saw. He thought he would never want to sleep again, but his weary body needed rest more than his mind feared it.

The sounds of a scuffle woke him. Before he could do more than open his eyes, strong hands pinned him to the ground. It was still far from sunrise. Did bandits in the southland dare the darkness, or was this some new assault of Balamung's? He twisted, trying to lever himself up on an elbow and see who or what had overcome him.

"Be still, or I'll rend thee where thou liest." The voice was soft, tender, female, and altogether mad. More hands, all full of casual deranged strength, pressed down his legs. They tugged warningly. He felt his joints creak.

All hope left him. After he had escaped Balamung's forays, it seemed unfair for him to die under the tearing hands of the votaries of Mavrix. Why had the wine-god's orgiastic, frenzied cult ever spread outside his native Sithonia?

Moving very slowly, the baron turned his head, trying to see the extent of the disaster. Perhaps one of his comrades had managed to get away. But no: in the moonlight he saw Van, his vast muscles twisting and knotting to no avail, pinned by more of the madwomen. Still more had fastened themselves to Elise.

The maenads' eyes reflected the firelight like those of so many wolves. That was the only light in them. They held no human intelligence or mercy, for they were filled by the madness of the god. The finery in which they had begun their trek through the woods was ripped and tattered and splashed with mud and grime, their hair awry and full of twigs. One woman, plainly a lady of high station from the remnants of fine linen draped about her body, clutched the mangled corpse of some small animal to her bosom, crooning over and over, "My baby, my baby."

A blue light drifted out of the forest, a shining nimbus round a figure . . . godlike was the only word for it, Gerin thought. "What have we here?" the figure asked, voice deep and sweet like the drink the desert nomads brewed to keep off sleep.

"Mavrix!" the women breathed, their faces slack with ecstasy. Gerin felt their hands quiver and slip. He braced himself for a surge, but even as he tensed the god waved and the grip on him tightened again.

"What have we here?" Mavrix repeated.

Van gave a grunt of surprise. "How is it you speak my language?"

To the Fox it had been Elabonian. "He didn't—" The protest died half-spoken as his captors snarled.

The god made an airy, effeminate gesture. "We have our ways," he said . . . and suddenly there were two of him, standing side by side. They—he—gestured again, and there was only one.

As well as he could, Gerin studied Mavrix. The god wore fawnskin, soft and supple, with a wreath of grape leaves round his brow. In his left hand he bore an ivy-tipped wand. At need, Gerin knew, it was a weapon more deadly than any mortal's spear. Mavrix's blond curls reached his shoulder; his cheeks and chin were shaven. That soft-featured, smiling face was a pederast's dream, but for the eyes: two black pits reflecting nothing, giving back only the night. A faint odor of fermenting grapes and something else, a rank something Gerin could not name, clung to him.

"That must be a useful art." The baron spoke in halting Sithonian, trying to pique the god's interest and buy at least a few extra minutes of life.

Mavrix turned those fathomless eyes on the Fox, but his face was still a smiling mask. He answered in the same tongue: "How pleasant to hear the true speech once more, albeit in the mouth of a victim," and Gerin knew his doom.

"Are you in league with Balamung, then?" he growled, knowing nothing he said now could hurt him further.

"I, friend to some fribbling barbarian charlatan? What care I for such things? But surely, friend mortal, you see this is your fate. The madness of the Mavriad cannot, must not be thwarted. Were it so, the festival would have no meaning, for what is it but the ultimate negation of all the petty nonfulfillments of humdrum, everyday life?"

"It's not right!" Elise burst out. "Dying I can understand; everyone dies, soon or late. But after the baron Gerin"—the Fox thought it a poor time to rhyme, but kept quiet—"singlehanded slew the aurochs, to die at the hands of lunatics, god-driven or no—"

Mavrix broke in, deep voice cracking: "Gerin slew a great wild ox—" The god's smile gave way to an expression of purest horror. "The oxgoad come again!" he screamed, "but now in the shape of a man! Metokhites, I thought you slain!" With a final despairing shriek, the god vanished into the depths of the woods. His followers fled after, afflicted by his terror—all but the lady of rank, who still sat contentedly, rocking her gruesome "baby."

Still amazed at being alive, Gerin slowly sat up. So did Elise and Van, both wearing bewildered expressions. "What did I say?" Elise asked.

Gerin thumped his forehead, trying to jar loose a memory. He had paid scant attention to Mavrix in the past, as the god's principal manifestations, wine and the grape, were rare north of the Kirs. "I have it!" he said at last, snapping his fingers. "This Metokhites was a Sithonian prince long ago. Once he chased the god into the Lesser Inner Sea, beating him about the head with a metal-tipped oxgoad: Mavrix always was a coward. I suppose he thought I was a new—what would the word be?—incarnation of his tormentor."

"What happened to this Metokhites fellow?" Van asked. "It's not the smartest thing, tangling with gods."

"As I remember, he chopped his son into bloody bits, being under the impression the lad was a grapevine."

"A grapevine, you say? Well, captain, if I ever seem to you to go all green and leafy-like, be so good as to warn me before you try to trim me."

At that, the last of the maenads lifted her eyes from the ruined little body she dandled. There was a beginning of knowledge in her face, though she was not yet fully aware of herself or her surroundings. Her voice had some of the authority of the Sibyl at Ikos when she spoke: "Mock not Mavrix, lord of the sweet grape. Rest assured, you are not forgotten!" Gathering her rags about her, she swept imperiously into the woods. Silence fell on the camp.


Taking advantage of the quiet of the ghosts, Gerin decided to leave at once, though he knew mere distance was even less guarantee of safety from Mavrix than from Balamung. No thunderbolt smote him. Before too much time had passed, the rising sun turned Tiwaz and Math to a pair of pale gleams hanging close together in the southern sky.

So full of events had the previous day been that the Fox took till mid-afternoon to remember his dream, if such it was. By that time they were on the main road again, three more corpuscles among the thousands flowing toward the Empire's heart. "So that's why you woke with such a thrash!" Van said. Then the full import of the baron's words sank in. "You're saying the scrawny son of nobody knows where we are and what we're up to?"

Gerin rubbed his chin. "Where we are, anyway."

"I'm not sure I like that."

"I know damned well I don't, but what can I do about it?"

The Fox spent a gloomy, watchful night, fearing a return visit from Mavrix. The oracular tones of the god's half-crazed worshiper had left him jittery. The watch was lonely, too. Van fell asleep at once, and Elise quickly followed him.

That day on the road, she had hardly spoken to the baron. She spent most of her time listening to Van's yarns; he would cheerfully spin them for hours on end. She gave Gerin nothing more than cool courtesy when he tried to join the conversation. At length he subsided, feeling isolated and vaguely betrayed. The left side of his mouth quirked up in a sour smile; he knew only too well that his ill-timed ardor was what made her wary.

The new morning began much as the day before had ended: Gerin and Elise cautious and elaborately polite while Van, who seemed oblivious to the tension around him, bawled out a bawdy tune he had learned from the Trokmoi. So it went till they reached the Pranther River, another of the streams that rose in the foothills of the Kirs and ended by swelling the waters of the Greater Inner Sea.

The road did not falter at the Pranther, but sprang over it on a bridge supported by eight pillars of stone. The span itself was of stout timbers, which could be removed at need to slow invaders. This bridge was no flimsy magician's trick—it looked ready to stand for a thousand years.

Van gazed at it with admiration. "What a fine thing! It beats getting your backside wet, any day."

"It's probably the most famous bridge in the Empire," Gerin told him, grinning; the bridge over the Pranther was one of his favorite places in the south. "It's called Dalassenos' Revenge."

"Why's that, captain?"

"Dalassenos was Oren the Builder's chief architect. He was the fellow who designed this bridge, but Oren wanted only his own name on it. Being a Sithonian, Dalassenos didn't have much use for the Emperor in the first place, and that was too much to bear. So he carved his own message into the rock, then put a coat of plaster over it and chiseled Oren's name in that. After a few years, the plaster peeled away and—well, see for yourself." He jerked a thumb at the pylon.

"It's only so many scratches to me. I don't read Sithonian, or much else, for that matter."

Gerin thought for a moment. "As near as I can put it into Elabonian, it says:

'The plaster above? 'Twas nought but a farce, And as for King Oren, he can kiss my arse.' "

Van bellowed laughter. "Ho, ho! That calls for a snort." A blind reach into the back of the wagon brought him his quarry—a wineskin. He swigged noisily.

Dalassenos' flip insolence also earned the Fox a smile from Elise; her appreciation was worth more to him than Van's chuckles. "What happened to Dalassenos when the plaster wore off?" she asked. The friendly interest in her voice told Gerin he had been forgiven.

"Not a thing," he answered. "It lasted through Oren's life, and he died childless (he liked boys). His successor hated him for almost bankrupting the Empire with all his building, and likely laughed his head off when he learned what Dalassenos had done. I know he sent Dalassenos a pound of gold, tight though he was."

As they passed over the bridge, Gerin looked down into the Pranther's clear water. A green manlike shape caught his eye. It was so close to the surface that he could easily see the four scarlet gill-slits on either side of its neck.

The Pranther held the only colony of rivermen west of the Greater Inner Sea. Dalassenos had brought the reptiles here from their native Sithonian streams. The canny artificer knew stones and sand propelled by the Pranther's current would eventually scour away the riverbottom from under his bridge's pilings and bring it tumbling down. Hence the rivermen: they repaired such damage as fast as it occurred.

In exchange, the Empire banned humans from fishing in the Pranther, and gave the rivermen leave to enforce the prohibition with their poisoned darts. It was also said that Dalassenos had hired a wizard to put a spell of permanent plenty on the fish. The baron did not know about that, but the rivermen had flourished in the Pranther for more than three hundred years.

Gerin heard the screech of an eagle overhead. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looked up into morning haze until he found it. It wheeled in the sky, sun striking sparks from its ruddy plumage. Its feathers, he mused, were red as a Trokmê's mustache.

Sudden suspicion flared in him as he realized what he'd thought. "Van, do you think you can bring me down that overgrown pigeon?" he asked, knowing his friend's mighty arms could propel a shaft farther than most men dreamed possible.

The outlander squinted upward, shook his head. "No more than I could flap my arms and fly to Fomor."

"Fomor, is it?"

"Tiwaz, I mean. Whatever fool name you give the quick moon."

"Two years with me, and you still talk like a Trokmê." Gerin sadly shook his head.

"Go howl, captain. What's in your mind?"

The Fox did not answer. He pulled the wagon off the road. The eagle gave no sign of flying away, nor had he expected any. He had never seen a red eagle, and was convinced it was some creature of Balamung's, a flying spy. He climbed down from the wagon and began to root among the bushes by the roadside.

"What are you looking for, Gerin?" Elise asked.

"Sneezeweed," he answered, not finding any. He muttered a curse. The plant was a rank pest near Fox Keep; it grew everywhere in the northlands, even invading wheatfields. When it flowered, those sensitive to its pollen went into a season-long agony of wheezing, sneezing, runny eyes, and puffy faces. The dried pollen was also a first-rate itching powder, as small boys soon learned. The Fox remembered a thrashing his brother Dagref had given him over a pair of sneezeweed-impregnated breeches.

At last he found a ragged sneezeweed plant huddling under two bigger bushes, its shiny, dark green leaves sadly bug-eaten. He murmured a prayer of thanks to Dyaus when he saw a spike of pink flowers still clinging to it. It would serve for the small magic he had in mind.

He ran the spell over and over in his head, hoping he still had it memorized. It was simple enough, and one all 'prentices learned—a fine joke on the unwary. At the Sorcerers' Collegium, one quickly learned not to be unwary.

He held the spray of sneezeweed flowers in his left hand and began to chant. His right hand moved through the few simple passes the spell required. It took less than a minute. When it was done, he looked up and awaited developments.

For a moment, nothing happened. He wondered if he had botched the incantation or if it simply was not strong enough to reach the high-flying eagle. Then the bird seemed to stagger in mid-flight. Its head darted under its wing to peck furiously. No longer could it maintain its effortless rhythm through the air, but fought without success to maintain altitude. It descended in an ungainly spiral, screaming its rage all the while, and flopped into the bushes about twenty paces from the wagon. Van put an arrow through it. It died still snapping at the shaft.

Much pleased with himself, the Fox trotted over to collect the carcass. He had just brought it to the wagon when Elise cried out in warning. Two more red eagles were diving out of the morning sky, stooping like falcons. Van had time for one hasty shot. He missed. Cursing foully, he snatched up the whip and swung it in a terrible arc. It smashed into one bird with a sound like a thunderclap. Feathers flew in a metallic cloud. The eagle gave a despairing screech and tumbled to the roadway.

The other one flew into Gerin's surprised arms.

It fastened its claw on the leather sleeve of his corselet, seeming to think the garment part of its owner. The Fox plunged his free hand at its shining breast, trying to keep its bill from his eyes. It screamed and bucked, buffeting him with vile-smelling wings.

There was a crunch. Van drove the butt end of the whip into the eagle's head, again and again. The mad gleam in its golden eyes faded. Gerin slowly realized he was holding a dead weight. Blood trickled down his arm; that leather sleeve had not altogether protected him.

A gleam of silver caught his eye. The bird wore a tiny button at its throat, held on by a fine chain. The button bore only one mark: a fylfot. "Balamung, sure enough," Gerin muttered.

Van peered at it over his shoulder. "Let me have a closer look at that, will you?" he said. Gerin slipped the chain from the dead eagle's neck and passed it to him. He hefted it thoughtfully. "Lighter than it should be." He squeezed it between thumb and finger, grunting at the effort. "Gives a little, but not enough." He brought down a booted foot club-fashion. There was a thin, hissing wail. Gerin gagged. He thought of latrines, of new-dug graves fresh uncovered, of scummed moats, of long slow evils fermenting deep in the bowels of swamps and oozing upwards to burst as slimy bubbles.

The body in his arms writhed, though he knew it was, knew it had to be, dead. He looked down, and dropped his burden with an exclamation of horror. No longer was the corpse that of an eagle, but of a Trokmê, his head battered to a pulp, fiery locks soaked in blood. But . . . the broken body was no bigger than the bird had been. Grim-faced, he and Van repeated the grisly experiment twice more, each time with the same result.

As he buried the three tiny bodies in a common grave, the pride he had felt in his sorcerous talent drained away like wine from a broken cup. What good were his little skills against such power as Balamung possessed, power that could rob men of their very shapes and send them winging over hundreds of miles to slay at his bidding?

Elise said, "It will take a mighty southern mage indeed to overcome such strength." Her voice was somber, but somehow her words, instead of depressing the baron, lifted his spirits. They reminded him he would not, after all, have to face Balamung alone. More and more, their conflict was assuming in his mind the nature of a duel between himself and the northern wizard, a duel in which the Trokmê owned most of the weapons. But why was he here in the southlands, if not for allies?

"You have a gift for saying the right thing," he told her gratefully. She shook her head in pretty confusion. He did not explain. As the day wore on, he felt better and better. True, Balamung had tried to slay him from afar, but twice now his efforts had come to nothing, and every hour put more miles between him and his quarry.

Late in the afternoon, Van pointed to a hand-sized roadside shrub not much different from its neighbors and said, "You know some plant-lore, Gerin—there's another useful plant for you."

"That?" the Fox said. "It looks like any other weed to me."

"Then you Elabonians don't know what to do with it. It grows out on the plains of Shanda, too. The shamans there call it 'aoratos,' which means it lets you see a bit of the unseen when you chew the leaves. Not only that, they help keep you awake on watch. Like I said, a useful plant."

"What do you mean, 'it lets you see a bit of the unseen'?"

"That's the only way I can explain it, captain. Hold up a moment, and I'll let you see for yourself." Van uprooted the little bush and returned to the wagon. Gerin studied the plant curiously, but it was so nondescript he could not say whether he had seen its like before.

He got to test its properties soon enough, for he drew first watch that night. The leaves were gritty and bitter. Their juice burned as he swallowed. Little by little, he felt his tiredness slip away. As he sat sentinel, the night came alive around him.

The sky seemed to darken; Elleb, just past first quarter, shone with spectral clarity. So, when she rose, did Math, a day past full. The stars also seemed very bright and clear.

But that was the least effect of the aoratos plant. The Fox found he could tell with certainty where every live thing lurked within a hundred yards of the fire. No matter how well concealed it was, its life force impinged on him like a spot of light seen in the back of his mind.

He understood why Van had had trouble talking about the experience—it seemed to use a sense his body did not normally employ. He was even able to detect strange patterns of radiance within the ghosts, though their flickering shapes remained indistinct as ever.

The extra perception gradually faded, and was gone well before midnight. On the whole, he decided, he approved of the aoratos plant. If nothing else, it made ambushes nearly impossible. "Aye, it does that," Van nodded when Gerin told him of his feelings, "but you have to use near half the plant at every dose. The gods know when we'll see another here. I never did find one in the northlands, you know."

Nor did they find another aoratos bush the following day, or the next, or the next. The last of its leaves stripped, the little plant was tossed away and all but forgotten. As the road swung east, down into the great plain whose heart was Elabon's capital, Gerin found he had more important things to think about. The dry warmth of the south, the quality of the sunlight pouring down from the sky, and the bustling people of the ever more numerous towns were calling forth a side of his nature he had had to hide on the frontier, a gentler side his vassals would only have construed as weakness.

Drago or Rollan could never have understood his open admiration of a sunset; his search for verses from Lekapenos appropriate to its beauty; his easy, friendly dealing with merchants and innkeepers, men at whom they would simply have barked orders. He felt like a flower, half of whose petals were seeing the sun for the first time in years.

The presence of Elise beside him was a pleasant pain. She unsettled him more than he was willing to admit, even to himself. He was too conscious of her as a woman to bring back all the ease of talk they had once enjoyed. She stayed warm and friendly, but deftly avoided anything truly personal, seeming content with the inconclusive status quo. Her warmth extended farther than the Fox, too; her laughing responses to Van's outrageous flirtation grated on Gerin's nerves.

Two days out from the capital, the travelers found lodging at a tavern in a little town called Cormilia. The lass who served them there was short, dark, and, though a bit plump, quite pretty; a tiny mole on her right cheek made her round face piquant.

Something about her struck the Fox's fancy. When he raised an eyebrow at her, she winked back saucily. He was not surprised when she tapped at his door later that night. While her thighs clasped him, she seemed hot-blooded enough for any man's taste. But her ministrations, immensely pleasant in the moment, somehow left him less than satisfied after she slipped away.

He knew he had pleased her. Her adoring manner the next morning spoke of how much. But the coupling only showed him the emptiness within himself. He was preoccupied and curt, and breakfasted without much noticing what he ate.

When he and Van went out to the stable to hitch up the horses, he blurted, "You know, when Dyaus created women he must have been in a fey mood. You can't live with them and sure as sure can't live without them."

Though surmise gleamed in Van's eye, he said nothing to that. He knew Gerin was a man who had to work things through in his own mind and often thought advice interference.

A briny breeze from the Greater Inner Sea blew all day. They might have made the capital by evening. But Gerin did not relish trying in the dark to find his old friend Turgis' inn; the great city's maze of streets was bad enough by day.

The coming parting with Elise also wrenched him more each mile he traveled. He was far from eager to speed it unduly. He decided to camp just in front of the last low ridge shielding the capital from sight. As darkness fell, the city's lights put a glow on the eastern horizon and bleached fainter stars from the sky.

In an area so densely peopled, night travel was no longer unthinkable. A brightly lit convoy of wagons and chariots rumbled past the campsite every few minutes, often with a mumbling priest to help ward off the spirits.

Of this Van heard nothing, for he fell asleep almost instantly. But Gerin did not pass his watch in lonely contemplation. For the first time since the night Mavrix appeared, Elise decided to stay up a while and talk. The reason soon became clear: she was bubbling over with excitement and curiosity about the capital and the family in it she had never seen.

She gushed on for a time, then stopped, embarrassed. "But this is terrible! What a loon I am! Here I play the magpie over all I'll see and do in the city, and not a word of thanks to you, who brought me here safe through so many troubles. What must you think of me?"

The answer to that had been slowly forming in the baron's mind ever since he helped her slip from Ricolf's keep. Her rhetorical question but served to bring it into sharper focus. He replied hesitantly, though, for fear of her thinking he was abusing the privilege their companionship had given him. "It's simple enough," he said at last, taking the plunge—the thought of losing her forever filled him with more dread than any Trokmê horde. "After Balamung and his woodsrunners are driven back to the forests where they belong, nothing would make me happier than coming south again so I can court you properly."

He did not know what reaction he had expected from her—certainly not the glad acceptance she showed. "As things are now, I cannot say as much as I would like," she said, "but nothing would please me more." Her lips met his in a gentle kiss that gave him more contentment than all his sweaty exertions the night before in Cormilia. She went on, "Foolish man, did you not know I cried last year when I learned your wound would keep you from coming to my father's holding?"

He held her close, his mind filling with a hundred, a thousand foolish plans for the future. The rest of the watch flew by like a dream, as it would have for any lover who suddenly found his love returned. If Balamung's gaunt figure stood like a jagged reef between him and his dreams, on this night he would pretend he did not see it.

Elise fought sleep until Math rose to add her light to that of Elleb, whose nearly full disc rode high in the south. The baron watched her face relax into slumber, murmured, "Sleep warm," and kissed her forehead. She smiled and stirred, but did not wake.

When Gerin told Van what he had done, the outlander slapped his back, saying, "And what took you so long?"

The Fox grunted, half annoyed his friend had been able to follow his thoughts so well. Something else occurred to him. "We need to start right at sunrise tomorrow," he said.

"What? Why?" Van did not seem to believe his ears.

"I have my reasons."

"They must be good ones, to make a slugabed like you want an early start. All right, captain, sunrise it is."

* * *

They topped the last rise just as the sun climbed over the eastern horizon. It flamed off the Greater Inner Sea and transformed the water to a lambent sheet of fire, dazzling to the eye. Tiny black dots on that expanse were ships: merchantmen with broad sails billowing in the fresh morning breeze and arrogant galleys striding over the waves like outsized spiders on oared legs.

Elise, who had never seen the sea, cried out in wonder and delight. She squeezed Gerin's hand. The Fox beamed, proud as if he'd created the vista himself. Van also nodded his appreciation. "Very nice, captain, very nice," he told the baron.

"If that's all you can find to say, you'd likely say the same if Farris herself offered to share your bed."

"She's your goddess of love and such things?" At Gerin's nod, Van went on, "I'll tell you, Fox, that reminds me of a story—"

"Which I'll hear some other time," Gerin said firmly. Straight ahead, on a spur of land thrusting out into the sea, lay Elabon's capital. All his attention centered there.

A thousand years before, he knew, it had been nothing but a farming village. Then the Sithonians came west across the Sea, and the infant city, now a center for Sithonian trade with the folk they deemed barbarous westerners, acquired its first wall. Its inhabitants learned much from the Sithonians. Little by little it extended its sway over the fertile western plain, drawing on ever greater reserves of men and resources. Soon it swallowed up the Sithonian colonies on the western shore of the Greater Inner Sea.

Nor could the Sithonians come to the aid of those colonies, for Sithonia itself, divided into rival confederacies led by its two greatest city-states, Siphnos and Kortys, fell into a century of bloody civil war. All the while, Elabon waxed. No sooner had Kortys at last beaten down her rival than she had to face the army of Carlun World-Bestrider, whose victory ended the Elabonian League and began the Empire of Elabon. A great marble statue of him, ten times as high as a man, still looked east from the shore. It was easy to spy, silhouetted against the bright sea.

Not far away from Carlun's monument stood the Palace Imperial. Gleaming like an inverted icicle, it shot a spearpoint of marble and crystal to the sky. An eternal fire burned at its apex, a guide from afar to ships on the Inner Sea. Round it was a wide space of well-trimmed gardens, so the palace itself almost seemed a plant grown from some strange seed.

Near the palace was the nobles' quarters; their homes were less imposing by far than the Emperor's residence, but most were far more splendid than anything north of the Kirs.

To Gerin's mind, though, the rest of Elabon was the Empire's true heart. Men of every race and tribe dwelt there; it boiled and bubbled cauldron-wise with the surge of life through its veins. There was a saying that you could buy anything in Elabon, including the fellow who sold it to you.

The Fox could have gazed on the city for hours, but from behind a gruff bass voice roared, "Move it there, you whoreson! Do you want to diddle the whole day away?" The speaker was a merchant, a loudly unhappy one.

Gerin waved back at him. "This is the first time I've seen Elabon in eight years," he apologized.

The merchant was not appeased. "May it be your last, then, ever again. You stand gawking, you boy-loving booby, and here I am, trying to make an honest living from tight-fisted nobles and little bandit lordlings, and all my thirty wagons are piling into each other while you crane your fool neck. I ought to set my guards on you, and it's a mark of my good temper and restraint that I don't. Now move it!"

Gerin twitched the reins and got the horses moving. Van chuckled. "Fellow sounds like a sergeant I knew once."

Like any town south of the mountains, Elabon had its ring of crucifixes. Because of the city's size, the crosses made a veritable forest. Bright-winged gulls from off the Inner Sea squabbled with ravens and vultures over the dead meat on them. The stench was overpowering. Elise produced a wisp of scented cloth and pressed it to her nose. Gerin wished for one of his own.

Expanding through long years of security, the capital had outgrown three walls. Two had vanished altogether, their bricks and stones going to swell the growth. Only a low ridge showed where the rammed-earth core of the third had stood.

Gerin took the wagon down the city's main street. The locals affectionately called it the Alley; it ran due east, arrow-straight, from the outskirts of the capital to the docks, and was filled with markets and shops from one end to the other. The Fox drove past the Lane of Silversmiths (a trade Kizzuwatnans dominated), the pottery mart where Sithonians and Elabonians cried their wares, odorous eateries serving the fare of every nation subject or neighbor to the Empire, the great canvas-roofed emporium where wheat imported from the northern shore of the Inner Sea was sold, a small nest of armorers and smiths (the baron had to promise Van they would come back later), and so much else he began to feel dizzy trying to take it all in at once.

Beggars limped, prostitutes of both sexes jiggled and pranced, scribes stood at the ready to write for illiterate patrons, minstrels played on every corner, and, no doubt, thieves lurked to despoil them of the coins they earned. Running, shouting lads were everywhere underfoot. Gerin marveled that any of them lived to grow up. He pricked up his ears when he heard one shouting, "Turgis!" His head swiveled till he spied the boy.

"Snatch him, Van!" He steered toward his target, talking the horses to calm in chaos.

"Right you are, captain." Van reached out and grabbed up a ragamuffin whose first beard was just beginning to sprout.

"You can lead us to Turgis?" Gerin demanded.

"I can, sir, and swear by all the gods and goddesses no finer hostel than his exists anywhere."

"Spare me the glowing promises. I'm known to Turgis. Tell me, lad, how is the old butterball?"

"He's well enough my lord, indeed he is, and generous of food, though sparing of praises. You turn left here, sir," he added.

Within moments, Gerin was lost in the maze of the capital. He did not think Turgis' hostel had formerly been in this district; the old fraud must have moved. His guide, who called himself Jouner, gave directions mixed with shrill abuse directed at anyone who dared block the narrow, winding back streets. The abuse often came back with interest.

Jouner was also extravagantly admiring of his charges—especially Elise. She blushed and tried to wave him to silence, not recognizing that his manner was part professional courtesy. Still, the Fox heard sincerity in the lad's voice, too.

Most of the houses in this part of the city were two-storied, flat-roofed structures. Their whitewashed outer walls defined the twisting paths of its streets. Despite occasional obscenities scrawled in charcoal, from the outside one was much like another. But within the austerity, Gerin knew, would be courtyards bright with flowers and cheerfully painted statuary. Some, perhaps, would be enlivened further by floor mosaics or intricately patterned carpets woven by the Urfa.

Poorer folk lived in apartment houses: "islands," in Elabon's slang. Solid and unlovely, the brick buildings towered fifty and sixty feet into the air, throwing whole blocks of houses into shadow. More than once, jars of slops emptied from some upper window splashed down into the street, sending passersby running for cover. "Watch it!" Van bellowed up. An instant later, two more loads just missed the wagon.

"That's one of the first things you learn to watch for here," Gerin told him, remembering his own experience. "They hold the high ground."

When at last the travelers came to Turgis' establishment, the baron was agreeably surprised by the marble columns on either side of the entranceway and the close-cropped lawn in front of the hostel itself. "Go right in," Jouner said, scrambling down. "I'll see to your horses and wagon."

"Many thanks, lad," Gerin said as he descended. He gave the boy a couple of coppers, then helped Elise down, taking the opportunity to hug her briefly.

"Have a care with that Shanda horse," Van warned Jouner. "He snaps."

The boy nodded. As he began to head for the stable, Elise said, "A moment. Jouner, how do you live in this stench?"

Puzzlement crossed Jouner's face. "Stench, my lady? What stench? Travelers always complain about it, but I don't notice a thing."

Turgis met the travelers at the front door. His bald pate, brown as the leather apron he wore, gleamed in the sunlight. A smile stretched across his fat face, the ends of it disappearing into a thick graying beard. "You appear to have come up in the world a mite," Gerin said by way of greeting.

"Crave pardon, sir? No, wait, I know that voice, though you've had the wisdom to hide your face in hair." Turgis' grin widened. "A cocky young whelp by the name of Gerin, badly miscalled the Fox, not so?"

"Aye, it is, you old bandit. Also Van of the Strong Arm and the lady Elise."

Turgis bobbed a bow. "You have a most lovely wife, Fox."

"The lady is not my wife," Gerin said.

"Oh? My lord Van—?"

"Nor mine." Van grinned.

"Oh? Ho, ho!" Turgis laid a finger alongside his nose and winked.

Elise spluttered indignation.

"Not that either," Gerin said. "It's a long story, and more complicated than I like."

"I daresay it must be. Well, it would honor me if you tell it."

"You'll hear it before the day is done, never fear. Turgis, it does my heart good to see you again, and to know you've not forgotten me."

"I, Turgis son of Turpin, forget a friend? Never!"

Gerin had hoped for that opening. "Then no doubt you recall just as well the promise you made the night I left the city."

The smile disappeared from Turgis' face. "What promise was that, lord Gerin? We both looked into our cups too often that night, and it was a long time ago."

"You won't wriggle out as easy as that, you saucy robber. You know as well as I, you gave me an oath if ever I came this way again I'd have my rooms for the same rate as I had them then!"

"What? You insolent whelp, this is a whole new building—or had your oh-so-perfect memory not noticed that? Are you fain to hold me to a drunken vow? May your fundament fall out! And the way prices have risen! Why, I could weep great buckets and your flinty heart would not be so much as—"

"An oath, damn your eyes, an oath!" Gerin said. Both men were laughing now.

Turgis talked right through him. "—softened. Think of my wife! Think of my children! My youngest son Egginhard would study wizardry, and for such school, nothing less than which is his heart's desire, much silver is needed."

"If he would be a conjurer, let him magic it up, and not have his father steal it."

"Think of my poor maiden aunt!" Turgis wailed.

"When I was here last, your poor maiden aunt ran the biggest gambling den in the city, you bloodsucker. An oath, remember?"

"As my head lives, only a third more would satisfy me—"

"On that your head would live entirely too well. Would you be known as Turgis the Oathbreaker?"

"May all the grapes in every vineyard you own turn sour!"

"Don't own any at all, truth to tell: too far north. Is your memory jogged yet?"

Turgis hopped on one foot, hopped on the other foot, plucked a gray hair from his beard, and sighed heavily. "All right, I recollect. Bah! The innkeeping trade lost a great one when you became a pirate or baron or whatever it is you do. I'm sure you're a howling success. Now go howl and let me lick my wounds—or do you carry courtesy so far?"

"What do you think, Van?" Gerin said.

His comrade had watched the altercation with amusement. "Reckon so, captain, if your friend can fix me up with a hot tub big enough for my bulk."

"Who dares call Turgis son of Turpin a friend of this backwoods bandit? Were I half my age and twice my size, I'd challenge you for that. As is, however, go down this corridor. Third door on the left. You might follow him, Gerin; even your name stinks in my nostrils at this moment. And for you, my lady, we have somewhat more elegant arrangements. If you would care to follow me . . . ?"

Turgis led Elise off to whatever facilities he had for making beautiful women more so. She seemed as much captivated by the innkeeper as was Gerin himself; though this was a new building, the same atmosphere of comfort and good cheer the Fox had always known was here. Other hostels might have had more splendid accommodations, but none of them had Turgis.

The bath-house's masseur was a slim young Sithonian with outsized hands, arms, and shoulders. His name was Vatatzes. As if by magic, he had two steaming tubs ready and waiting. He helped Van unlace his corselet. When the outlander shed his bronze-studded leather kilt, Vatatzes, true to the predilections of his nation, whistled in awe and admiration.

"Sorry, my friend," Van chuckled, understanding him well enough. "Gerin and I both like women."

"You poor dears," Vatatzes said. His disappointment did not stop him from kneading away the kinks of travel as the hot water soaked off grime. Swathed in linen towels and mightily relaxed, Gerin and Van emerged from the bath to find Jouner waiting outside. "I've taken the liberty of moving your gear to your rooms," he said. "Follow me if you would, sirs." He also offered to carry Van's cuirass but, as usual, the outlander declined to be parted from it even for a moment.

The rooms were on the second floor of the hostel. They offered a fine view of the Palace Imperial. A door which could be barred on either side gave access from one to the other. "Don't bother to put things away," Gerin told Jouner. "I'd sooner do it myself—that way I know where everything is."

"As you wish, my lord." Jouner pocketed a tip and disappeared.

Gerin surveyed the room. If nothing else, it was more spacious than the cubicle he had called his own during his former stay in the capital. Nor would he sleep on a straw pallet as he had then. He had a mattress and pillow, both stuffed with goosedown, and two thick wool blankets to ward off night's chill. By the bed were a jug, bowl, and chamberpot, all of Sithonian ware fine enough to be worth a small fortune north of the Kirs. A footstool, chair, and stout oaken chest completed the furnishings. On the chest were two fat beeswax candles and a shrine to Dyaus with a pinch of perfumed incense already smoking away. Above it hung an encaustic painting of a mountain scene done by a Sithonian homesick for his craggy native land.

The baron quickly unpacked and threw himself onto the bed, sighing with pleasure as he sank into its soft stuffing. Van rapped on the connecting door. "This is the life!" he said when Gerin let him in. "I haven't seen beds so fine since a bordello I visited in Jalor. I don't know about you, Fox, but I'm all for sacking out for a while. It's been a long, hard trip."

"I was thinking the same thing," Gerin told him. Yawning, Van went back into his own room. The baron knew he should go down to see how Elise liked her chamber in the women's quarters. Enervated from the hot bath and massage and tired from many nights with little sleep, he could not find the energy. . . .

The next thing he knew, Jouner was knocking on the door. "My lord," he called, "Turgis bids you join him in the taproom for supper in half an hour's time."

"Thanks, lad. I'll be there." Gerin yawned and stretched. He heard Jouner deliver the same message to Van, who eventually grumbled a reply.

It was a bit past sunset. Tiwaz's razor-thin crescent, almost invisible in the pink in the west.

The Fox splashed water on his face, then went rummaging through his gear for an outfit that might impress Turgis and, not incidentally, Elise. After some thought, he decided on a maroon tunic with sleeves flaring out from the elbows and checked trousers of contrasting shades of blue. A necklace of gold nuggets and a belt with a bronze buckle in the shape of a leaping longtooth (Shanda work, that) completed the outfit. Wishing for a mirror, he combed his hair and beard with a bone comb. I look the very northerner, he thought: well, fair enough, that's what I am. He set out for the taproom.

Folk of every race filled the high-ceilinged hall. Three musicians—flautist, piper, and mandolin-player—performed on a small stage at one end, but they were all but ignored. Every man's attention was on Turgis' cook.

A dark, burly fellow with hooked noise, bushy beard, and black hair drawn back into a bun, he worked behind a great bronze griddle in the center of the room, and in his own way was more a showman than the musicians. He kept up a steady stream of chatter about every dish he was preparing, and knives were quicker in his hands than in those of any warrior Gerin had ever seen. Its gleam reflecting off his sweaty face, bronze danced as if alive, shining in the torchlight, dicing vegetables and slicing meat with a rhythm of its own. No, not quite; with a small shock, Gerin realized the knives were providing a percussion accompaniment to the music from the stage.

A waiter hovering by his elbow, Turgis sat at a quiet corner table. He surged to his feet and embraced Gerin, who pointed to the cook and asked, "Where did you find him?"

"He's something, isn't he?" Turgis beamed. "He's good for business, too. Just watching him makes people hungry." He turned to the server, saying, "Bring me my special bottle. You know the one I mean. Bring some ordinary good wine, too, and—hmm—four glasses."

The Fox's eyes widened. "That can't be the same 'special bottle' you used to keep when I was here before?"

"The very same, and not much lower, either. Where would I get another? You know as well as I that it was salvage from a ship of some unknown land that wrecked itself down in the southeast on the Bay of Parvela's rocks. Aye, it's precious stuff, my friend—see, I still call you that, highway robber though you be—but then how often do we look upon friends thought lost forever?"

"Not often enough."

"Truth in your words, truth in your words."

The waiter returned. Careful not to spill even one drop, Turgis worked at the cork of the flask they had been discussing. Even that flask was special: small and squat and silvery, like no other glass Gerin had seen. "Here it is," Turgis said. "Nectar of the sun."

Gerin had a sudden terrible fear that when Van came down, he would loudly announce he had traveled with whole shiploads of the brew. By rights, there should be no more than this one miraculous bottle.

At Turgis' murmured invitation, the baron enjoyed the rare drink's rich fragrance. A silence fell over the hall. For a moment, Gerin thought his nose's pleasure had made him ignore his other senses, but the quiet was real. He looked up. There in the doorway stood Van, helm and armor gleaming, crimson cloak over his shoulders matching helm's crest. He was a splendid sight: indeed, too splendid, for Gerin heard a mutter of superstitious marvel. "Come in and sit down, you great gowk," he called, "before everyone decides you're a god."

Van's earthy reply sent relieved laughter echoing through the room. The outlander joined his friend and his host. He looked with interest at the bottle Gerin still held. "Never seen glasswork like that before," he said, and the Fox, too, knew relief.

A few moments later, Elise arrived. The buzz of conversation in the taproom again lowered, this time in appreciation. As Gerin rose to greet her, he realized once more how fair she was. He had grown used to her in battered traveler's hat and sturdy but unlovely clothes. Now, in a clinging gown of sea-green linen, she was another creature altogether, and startlingly beautiful.

Turgis' servitors had subtly enhanced the colors of her eyes and lips, and worked her hair into a pile of fluffy curls. The style became her; it was popular in Elabon this year, and several other women in the hall wore their hair thus. The baron saw more than one jealous glance directed at Elise, and felt proud to have earned the affection of such a woman.

Turgis was also on his feet. He bowed and kissed Elise's hand. "The sunshine of my lady's beauty brightens my hostel," he exclaimed. When he saw he had flustered her, he added with a wink, "What in Dyaus' name do you see in this predacious lout who brought you here?" Put at her ease, she smiled and sat. Turgis poured a drop or two of his nectar of the sun into each of the four glasses, then resealed the flask. He raised his glass. "To past friendships now restored and successes yet to come!"

Everyone drank. Gerin felt the brew caress his tongue like smooth silk, like soft kisses. He heard Van's hum of approval and was glad his far-traveled friend had found a new thing to enjoy.

Turgis poured again, this time from the local bottle. As Gerin's stomach began to growl, the waiter returned, bringing dinner just in time, he thought, to save him from starvation. The first course was a delicate clear soup, made flavorful by bits of pork and chopped scallion. It was followed by what Turgis called a "meat tile," which convinced the Fox that Turgis' cook was a genius as well as a showman: simmered and sautéed pieces of lamb and veal in a spicy sauce which also featured pounded lobster tail and nutmeats. Whole lobster tails garnished the incredible creation; Gerin had never tasted anything so delicious in his life. He could hardly look at the fruits and spun-sugar confections that came after. All the while, Turgis made sure no glass stayed empty long.

The baron's head was beginning to spin when Turgis announced, "Now I will have the tale of your coming here."

All three travelers told it, each amplifying the others' accounts. Gerin tried to slide through the tale of his fight with the aurochs, but to his annoyance Elise made him backtrack and tell it in full.

Turgis looked at him shrewdly. "Still carrying your lantern with a hood on it, are you?" He turned to Elise: "My lady, here we have the most talented of men, the only one who does not know it being himself. He can sing a song, cut a purse (even mine, the unprincipled highwayman!), tell you what that finger-long bug is on friend Van's cuirass—and the cure for its bite as well—"

Snarling an oath, Van crushed the luckless insect. "No need for that," the Fox said. "It was only a walkingstick, and it doesn't bite at all; its sole food is tree sap."

"You see?" Turgis said triumphantly. The wine had flushed his face and loosened his tongue. "He can conjure you up an ever-filled purse—"

"Of mud, perhaps," Gerin said, wishing Turgis would shut up. The innkeeper's paean of praise made him nervous. Most plaudits did; as a second son, he'd seldom got them and never quite worked out how to deal with them. He knew his virtues well enough, and knew one of the greatest was his ability to keep his mouth shut about them. They were often of most use when employed unexpectedly.

Turgis was not about to be quiet. "Besides all that," he said, "this northern ruffian is as kind and loyal a friend as one could ever hope for"—Elise and Van nodded solemnly—"and worth any three men you could name in a brawl. I well recall the day he flattened three rascals who thought to rob me, though he wasn't much more than a stripling himself."

"You never told me that one," Van said.

"They were just tavern toughs," Gerin said, "and this fellow here did a lot of the work. He's pretty handy with a broken bottle."

"Me?" Turgis said. "No one wants to hear about me, fat old slug that I am. What happened after the aurochs was slain?" The hosteler howled laughter to hear how Mavrix had been thwarted. "Truly, I love the god for his gift of the grape, but much of his cult gives me chills."

The baron quickly brought the journey down to the capital: too quickly, again, for Elise. She said, "Once more he leaves out a vital bit of the story. You see, as we traveled we came to care for each other more and more, try though he would to hide himself behind modesty and gloom." She gave him a challenging stare. He would not meet her eye, riveting his attention on his glass. She went on, "And so it's scarcely surprising that when he asked if he might come south to court me when the trouble is done, I was proud to say yes."

"Lord Gerin, my heartiest congratulations," Turgis said, pumping his hand. "My lady, I would offer you the same, but I grieve to think of your beauty passed on to your children diluted by the blood of this ape."

Gerin jerked his hand free of the innkeeper's grip. "A fine excuse for a host you are, to insult your guests."

"Insult? I thought I was giving you the benefit of the doubt." Turgis poured wine all around. A sudden commotion drowned out his toast. Two men who had been arguing over the company of a coldly beautiful Sithonian courtesan rose from their seats and began pummeling each other. Three husky waiters seized them and wrestled them out to the street.

Turgis mopped his brow. "A good thing they chose to quarrel now. The could have broken Osnabroc's concentration—see, here he comes!"

A rising hum of excitement and a few spatters of applause greeted Osnabroc, a short, stocky man whose every muscle was so perfectly defined that it might have been sculpted from stone. He wore only a black loincloth. In his hand he carried a pole about twenty feet long; a crosspiece had been nailed a yard or so from one end.

A pair of young women followed him. They, too, wore only loincloths, one of red silk, the other of green. Both had the small-breasted, taut-bellied look of dancers or acrobats; Gerin doubted if either was five feet tall.

The musicians vacated the stage and Osnabroc ascended. More torches were brought. Each girl took one and set the rest in brackets. After a sharp, short bow to his audience, Osnabroc arched his back and bent his head backwards, setting the pole on his forehead. He balanced it with effortless ease. At his command, both girls shinnied up the pole, torches in their teeth. Once at the crosspiece, they turned somersaults, flips, and other evolutions so astounding Gerin felt his heart rise into his throat. All the while, the pole stayed steady as a rock.

One girl slid down headfirst, leaving the other hanging by her knees twenty feet above the floor. But not for long—she flailed her arms once, twice, and then she was upright again, going through a series of yet more spectacular capers. Despite her gyrations, the supporting pole never budged. A grimace of concentration distorted Osnabroc's face; sweat ran streakily down his magnificent body.

"Who do you think has the harder job?" Turgis whispered to Gerin: "Osnabroc or his girls?"

"I couldn't begin to tell you," the baron answered.

Turgis laughed and nodded. "It's the same with me. I couldn't begin to tell you, either."

Van, though, had no doubts: his eyes were only on the whirling girl. "Just think," he said, half to himself, "of all the ways you could do it with a lass so limber! She all but flies."

"Speak to me not of people flying!" Turgis said as the second girl slid down the pole to a thunderous ovation. She skipped off the stage, followed by her fellow acrobat and Osnabroc. He sagged now as he walked, and his forehead looked puffy.

Van tried to catch the eye of one of the girls, but with no apparent luck. Disappointed, he turned his attention back to Turgis. "What do you have against people flying?" he asked.

"Nothing against it, precisely. It does remind me of a strange story, though." He waited to be urged to go on. His companions quickly obliged him. He began, "You've told me much of the Trokmoi tonight; this story has a Trokmê in it too. He was drunk, as they often are, and since the place was crowded that night, he was sharing a table with a wizard. You know how some folk, when they go too deep into a bottle, like to sing or whatever. Well, this lad flapped his arms like he was trying to take off and fly. Finally he knocked a drink from the wizard's hand, which was the wrong thing to do.

"The wizard paid his scot and walked out, and I thought I'd been lucky enough to escape trouble. But next thing I knew, the northerner started flapping again, and—may my private parts shrivel if I lie—sure enough he took off and flew around the room like a drunken buzzard."

"A boozard, maybe," Gerin suggested.

"I hope not," Turgis said.

"What befell?" Elise asked.

"He did, lass, on his head. He was doing a fine job of flying, just like a bird, but the poor sot smashed against that candelabra you see up there and fell right into someone's soup. He earned himself a knot on the head as big as an egg and, I hope, enough sense not to make another wizard annoyed at him.

"This tale-telling gets to be thirsty work," Turgis added, calling for another bottle of wine. But when he opened it and began to pour, Elise put a hand over her glass. A few minutes later she rose. Pausing only to bestow a hurried but warm kiss on Gerin, she made her way to her room.

The three men sat, drank, and talked a bit longer. Turgis said, "Gerin, you're no fool like that Trokmê was. You're the last man I ever would have picked to make a sorcerer your mortal foe."

"It was his choosing, not mine!" The wine had risen to Gerin's head, adding vehemence to his words. "The gods decreed I am not to be a scholar, as I had dreamed. So be it. Most of my bitterness is gone. There's satisfaction in holding the border against the barbarians, and more in making my holding a better place for all to live, vassals and serfs alike. Much of what I learned here has uses in the north: we no longer have wells near the cesspits, for instance, and we grow beans to refresh the soil. And, though my vassals know it not, I've taught a few of the brighter peasants to read."

"What? You have?" Van stared at the Fox as if he'd never seen him before.

"Aye, and I'm not sorry, either." Gerin turned back to Turgis. "We've had no famines round Fox Keep, despite two bad winters, and no peasant revolts either. Wizard or no wizard, no skulking savage is going to ruin all I've worked so hard to kill. He may kill me—the way things look now, he likely will kill me—but Dyaus knows he'll never run me off!"

He slammed his glass to the table with such violence that it shattered and cut his hand. The pain abruptly sobered him. Startled by his outburst, his friends exclaimed in sympathy. He sat silent and somber, staring at the thin stream of blood that welled from between his clenched fingers.


After the Alley's hurley-burley, the calm, nearly trafficless lanes of the nobles' quarter came as a relief. Jouner had given the Fox careful directions on how to find Elise's uncle's home. For a miracle, they proved good as well as careful.

Valdabrun the Stout lived almost in the shadow of the Palace Imperial. Despite his closeness to the Empire's heart, the grounds of his home were less imposing than those of many nobles in less prestigious areas. No carefully trimmed topiaries adorned his lawns, no statuary group stood frozen in mid-cavort. Nor did the drive from the road wind and twist its way to his house under sweetly scented trees. It ran directly to his front door, straight as the Elabon Way. The dominant impression his grounds gave was one of discipline and strength.

The baron hitched the horses. Van gave both beasts feedbags, eluding a snap from the Shanda pony. He cuffed it, grumbling, "Poxy animal would sooner have my hand than its oats."

Valdabrun's door-knocker was a snarling bronze longtooth's head. Gerin grasped a fang, swung it up, then down. He had expected the knock to set off sorcerous chimes. Many southern nobles liked such conceits. But there was only the honest clang of metal on metal. After a stir inside, a retainer swung open the door. "Sirs, lady, how may I help you?" he asked crisply.

The man's speech and bearing impressed Gerin: he seemed more soldier than servitor. "Is your master in?" the Fox asked.

"Lord Valdabrun? No, but I expect him back shortly. Would you care to wait?"

"If you would be so kind."

"This way, then." Executing a smart about-turn, the steward led them to a rather bare antechamber. He briefly saw to their comfort, then said, "If you will excuse me, I have other duties to perform." He left through another door; Gerin heard him bar it after himself.

A woman's voice, low and throaty, came from behind the door. Gerin could not make out her words, but heard the steward reply, "I know not, lady Namarra. They did not state their business, nor did I inquire deeply."

"I will see them," the woman said.

The bar was lifted. Valdabrun's man announced, "Sirs, lady, my lord Valdabrun's, ah, companion, the lady Namarra," and went off.

As Namarra entered, Van sprang to his feet. Gerin was only a blink behind. No matter what he felt toward Elise, Valdabrun's companion was, quite simply, the most spectacular woman he had every seen: tiny, catlike, and exquisite. The clinging silk she wore accented her figure's lushness.

Her hair, worn short and straight, was the color of flame. Like a fire, it seemed to give out more light than fell on it. Yet for all that incandescent hair, she was no Trokmê woman; her face was soft, rounded, and small-featured, her skin golden brown. Her eyes, a slightly darker shade of gold, were subtly slanted but rounded as if in perpetual surprise; the strange combination, more than anything save perhaps her purring name, made Gerin think her feline. She wore no jewelry—she herself was ornament enough, and more.

She studied the Fox with some interest, Van with a good deal more, and Elise with the wary concern one gave any dangerous beast suddenly found in the parlor. Out of the corner of his eye, Gerin saw Elise returning that look. He felt a twinge of alarm.

Namarra swept out a lithe arm to point at the baron. "You are—?"

He introduced himself and Van, and was on the point of naming Elise when he was interrupted: "And your charming, ah, companion?" Namarra used the same deliberately ambiguous intonation the steward had applied to her.

Voice dangerously calm, Elise replied, "I am Elise, Ricolf's daughter." The Fox noticed she made no claim of relationship to Valdabrun.

The name of Elise's father meant nothing to Namarra. She turned back to Gerin. "May I ask your business with my lord?"

The baron was not sure how to reply. He had no idea how much of the noble's confidence and trust his woman enjoyed. He was framing an equivocal answer when a door slammed at the back of the house. Seconds later, the steward reappeared, to announce his master's presence.

"Enough of this foolishness. Let me by," Valdabrun the Stout said as he surged into the antechamber.

Gerin hastily revised his notion of what the noble's sobriquet implied. Valdabrun was edging toward fifty, balding, and did in fact carry a considerable paunch, but the Fox was sure he would break fingers if he rammed a fist into it. Shaven face or no, here was a soldier, and no mistake. Hard eyes, firm mouth, the set of his chin all bespoke a man long used to command. Nor was he slow to see he faced two of his own breed.

The air in the room crackled as the three strong men took one another's measure. Each in his own way was a warrior to reckon with: Gerin supple, clever, always waiting for a foe to expose a flaw; Van, who fought with a berserker's delight and a drillmaster's elegance; and their host, who reminded the Fox of one of Carlun's or Ros' great captains: a man with scant polish or flair, but possessed of an almost brutal indomitability, the very concept of retreat alien to him.

The tableau held for long seconds. Elise shattered it, exclaiming "Uncle!" and throwing herself into Valdabrun's startled arms. The stern expression dropped from his face, to be replaced by one of utter bafflement.

Namarra's face changed, too. Her eyes narrowed; her lips drew back, exposing white, pointed teeth. A cat she was, and feral. She laid a hand on Valdarun's arm. "My lord—" she began.

"Be still, my dear," he said, and she was still, though restive. Gerin's respect for him grew. He untangled himself from Elise. "Young lady, you will explain yourself," he told her, still in that tone of command.

She was as matter-of-fact as he. "Of course. As I told your leman"—Namarra bristled, but held her tongue—"I'm Elise, daughter of Ricolf the Red—and your sister Yrse. My mother always said you would know this locket." She drew it up from between her breasts, freed it of its chain, and handed it to Valdabrun.

He examined it at arm's length; his sight had begun to lengthen, as it often does in the middle years. His face softened, as much as that craggy countenance could. "Yrse's child!" he said softly. This time, he folded her into a bearlike embrace.

Behind his back, Namarra's expression was frightening.

Elise introduced Gerin and Van to Valdabrun. "I've heard of you, sirrah," he told the Fox: "One of those who never pay their taxes, aye?"

"I pay them in blood," Gerin answered soberly.

Valdabrun surprised him by nodding. "So you do, youngling, so you do." He exchanged a bone-wrenching handclasp with Van that left both big men wincing, then announced, "Now I will have the tale of your coming here." He visibly composed himself to listen.

As they had the night before to Turgis, the three of them told their story. "I never thought that harebrained scheme would work," Valdabrun observed when Elise spoke of her father's plan to find her a husband.

The noble proved a far more skeptical audience than Turgis had, firing probing questions at Gerin on Balamung's wizardry, politics in the northlands, Mavrix's cultists, and whatever else caught his interest.

"Well, well," he said at last. "The whole thing is so unlikely I suppose it must be true. Child, you are welcome to stay with me as long as you like." He told his steward to take her gear from the wagon, then turned to Namarra, who appeared less than delighted at his niece's arrival. "Kitten, show Elise around while I talk with these rogues."

"Of course. We can talk as we go. Come, child." In Namarra's red-lipped mouth, the word was poisonously sweet.

"That would be wonderful," Elise answered. "I've always wanted to talk to a woman of your, ah, experience." A tiny smile on her face, she kissed Van and Gerin, fiercely hugged the Fox, and whispered, "This will be hard. Hurry back, please!" She followed Namarra out. When the door closed behind her, Gerin felt the sunshine had left the day.

Valdabrun seemed oblivious to the byplay between the two women. That proved again to the baron that he was more used to the field than to the imperial court's intrigues. After his niece and mistress were gone, he said bluntly, "Fox, if half what you've said is true, your arse is in a sling."

"I'd be lying if I said I liked the odds," Gerin agreed.

"Advice from me would be nothing but damned impertinence right now, so I'll give you none. But I will say this: if any man is slippery enough to slide through this net, you may be that man. Yet you seem to have kept your honor too. I'm glad of it, for my niece's—how strange that seems!—sake." He shifted his attention to Van. "Could I by any chance persuade you to join the Imperial Guard?" His smile showed he knew the question foolish before he asked it.

Van shook his head; the plume of his helm swayed gently. "You're not like most of the popinjays here, Valdabrun. You seem a fighting man. So you tell me: where will I find better fighting than with the Fox?"

"There you have me," Valdabrun said. "Gentlemen, I would like nothing more than talking the day away over a few stoups of wine, but I must get back to the palace. The Eshref clan out of Shanda have forced a pass in the Skleros Mountains, and their brigands are plundering northern Sithonia. His imperial majesty thinks paying tribute will get them to leave. I have to persuade him otherwise."

"The Eshref?" Van said. "Is Gaykhatu still their chief?"

"I believe that was the name, yes. Why?"

"Send troops," the outlander said decisively. "He'll run. I knew him out on the plains, and he always did."

"You knew him on the plains . . ." Valdabrun shook his head. "I won't ask how or when, but I do give thanks for the rede—and when I talk with his imperial majesty, I'll term it 'expert testimony' or some such tripe. Dyaus, what drivel I've had to learn in the past year or so!"

* * *

As Van and Gerin drove away from Valdabrun's home, the baron was heavy-hearted over parting from Elise, necessary though he knew it was. Van, on the other hand, was full of lickerish praise for Namarra and lewd speculation on the means Valdabrun, who was certainly no beauty, used to keep her at his side. His sallies grew so unlikely and so comical that Gerin finally had to laugh with him.

"Where now?" Van asked as the Alley's turmoil surrounded them once more.

"The Sorcerers' Collegium. It's in the southwestern part of the city, near the apothecaries' district. I should know when to turn."

But he did not. He never learned whether the building he sought as a marker was torn down or if he had simply forgotten its looks in the eight years since he'd seen it last. Whichever, before long he knew he had gone too far west along the Alley. He turned to passersby for directions.

At first he got no responses save shrugs and a few vaguely pointing fingers. Realizing his mistake, he tossed a copper to the first halfway intelligent-looking fellow he spied. The man's instructions were so artfully phrased, accompanied by such eloquent gestures, that Gerin listened as if spellbound. He had all he could do to keep from applauding. Instead, he gave his benefactor another coin.

The man's thanks would have drawn an aurochs into a temple.

Unfortunately, the Sorcerers' Collegium was nowhere near where he claimed. Gerin expended more coppers and most of his patience before he finally found it.

There was nothing outwardly marvelous about the building that housed it, a gray brick "island" not much different from scores of others in the capital. But it was discreetly segregated from its neighbors by a broad smooth expanse of lawn. None of the nearby buildings had a window that faced the Collegium. They only gave it blank walls of stucco, timber, or brick, perhaps fearing the sorceries emanating from it.

Though the Collegium accepted students only from within the Empire, folk of various races called on it for services. Many odd vehicles and beasts were tied in front of it; to his horses' alarm, Gerin hitched the wagon next to a camel some Urfa had ridden up from the desert.

No sooner had he done so than three muscular individuals appeared and asked if the gentlemen in the wagon would pay them to watch it. "I'll see you in the hottest firepit in the five hells first," Gerin said genially. "You know as well as I, the Collegium has spells to keep thieves away from its clients."

The largest of the bravos, a fellow who would have been a giant beside anyone but Van, shrugged and grinned. "Sorry, boss," he said, "but the two of you looked such rubes, it was worth the chance."

"Now you know better, so be off with you." After exchanging a final good-natured insult with the baron, the ruffians ambled away, looking for less worldly folk to bilk. Gerin shook his head. "When I was a student the same sort of rascals were about, preying on strangers."

Inside the Collegium the ground floor was lit, mundanely enough, by torches. Some of them flared crimson, green, or blue, but that was the simplest of tricks, scarcely sorcery at all, merely involving the use of certain powdered earths. A greater magic kept the chamber free of smoke but let the nose detect the pinches of delicate incense burning in tiny braziers set along the walls and mounted on the sturdy granite columns that supported the Collegium's upper stories.

The procedures on the ground floor of the Collegium reminded Gerin of nothing so much as those of the Imperial Bank. Orderly lines of clients snaked their way toward young mages seated at tables along the north wall. Once there, they explained their problems in low voices. Most were helped on the spot, but from time to time a wizard would send one elsewhere, presumably to deal with someone more experienced.

Van bore queueing up with poor grace: "I don't fancy all this standing about."

"Patience," Van said. "It's a trick to overawe people. The longer you have to wait, the more important you think whoever you're waiting for is."

"Bah." Van made as if to spit on the floor, but changed his mind. It was too beautiful to soil: an abstract mosaic of tiny glass tesserae of silver, lilac, and sea-green, glittering in the torchlight.

The man in front of them finally reached a wizard and poured out his tale of woe like a spilled jug of wine, glug, glug, glug. At last the wizard exclaimed, "Enough! Enough! Follow this"—a blob of pink foxfire appeared in front of the startled fellow's nose—"and it will lead you to someone who can help you." He turned to Gerin and Van, said courteously, "And what my I do for you gentlemen? You may call me Avelmir; my true name, of course, is hidden."

Avelmir was younger than Gerin, his round, smoothly shaved face smiling and open. His familiar, a fat gray lizard about a foot long, rested on the table in front of him. Its yellow eyes gave back Gerin's stare unwinkingly. When Avelmir stroked its scaly skin, it arched its back in pleasure.

Gerin told his story. When he was done, Avelmir's smile had quite gone. "You pose a difficult problem, sir baron, and one in which I am not sure we can render timely assistance. Let me consult here . . ." He glanced down at a scrap of parchment. "We are badly understaffed, as you must be aware, and I fear we shall be unable to send anyone truly competent north of the Kirs before, hmm, seventy-five to eighty days."

"What!" Gerin's bellow of outrage whipped heads around. "In that time I'll be dead, with my keep and most of the northland aflame for my pyre!"

Avelmir's manner grew chillier yet. "We find ourselves under heavy obligations in the near future, the nature of which I do not propose to discuss with you. If you do not care to wait for our services against your barbarous warlock, hire some northern bungler, and may you have joy of him. Good day, sir."

"You—" Outrage choked the Fox.

The battle-gleam kindled in Van's eyes. "Shall I break the place apart a bit, captain?"

"I would not try that," Avelmir said quietly.

"And why not?" Van tugged at his sword. It came halfway free, then struck. He roared a curse. Avelmir's hands writhed through passes. When Gerin tried to stop him, the reptilian familiar puffed itself up to twice its size and jumped at him. He drew back, not sure if it was venomous.

Sweat started forth on Van's forehead, and an instant later on Avelmir's. The outlander gained an inch, lost it again. Then more and more blade began to show. At last it jerked clear. With a howl of triumph, Van raised his sword arm.

Gerin grabbed it with both hands. For a moment, he thought he would be lifted off the floor and swung with the blade. But reason returned to Van's face. The outlander relaxed.

Avelmir had the look of a man who'd fished for minnows and caught a shark. Into the dead silence of the great chamber, he said, "We must see if a way can be found. Follow this."

A blue foxfire globe popped into being an inch in front of Gerin's nose. Startled, he took a step backwards. The foxfire hurried away, like a man on an important errand. Gerin and Van followed.

The ball of light led them down a steep spiral stairway into the bowels of the Collegium. Gerin's excitement grew; here, he knew, the potent sorceries were undertaken. When he was a student, he had been restricted to the upper floors. As the eerie guide led him down echoing corridors, he realized for the first time how much of the Collegium was underground—and how little he had understood its true extent.

He and Van passed doors without number. Most were shut; more than one bore runes of power to ensure it stayed so. Many of the open ones were innocuous: a smithy, a chamber in which glassblowers created vessels of curious shapes and sizes, a crowded library. But a winged, tailed demon thrashed within a pentacle in one room. It glared at the Fox with fiery eyes; its stench followed him down the hall.

"What do you suppose would happen if we didn't choose to follow our magical guide?" Van said.

"Nothing good, I'm sure."

The foxfire winked out in front of a closed door. Gerin knocked; there was no reply. He lifted the latch. The door silently swung open.

The chamber was far underground and held no lamps, but it was not dark. A soft silvery gleam which had no apparent source suffused it. Behind a curiously carven ebony table sat an old wizard who looked up from some arcane computation when the privacy of his cubicle was breached. His amber silk robes rustled as he moved.

He nodded to Gerin and Van. "If you need a name for me, call me Sosper." That was clearly a pseudonym, for he was no Sithonian. Though his phrases were polished, he spoke with a western accent; he must have been born somewhere on the long peninsula that jutted into the Orynian Ocean.

He smiled at Van. "No need to keep hand on hilt, my friend. It will avail you nothing, as I am no child in shaping spells of sealing." The outlander, confident as always in his own strength, tried to draw. His sword was frozen fast. Gerin would have believed Sosper without test; the man radiated power as a bonfire radiates heat.

Gentle but overwhelmingly self-assured, Sosper cut off the baron when he began to speak. "Why do you question Avelmir's judgment? I can give you no aid, nor can the Collegium, until the time he specified. What happens among barbarians is of little moment to us in any event, and less now. You may perhaps be able to deduce the reason, having once studied here. No, look not so startled, my young friend: who knows the chick better than the hen?"

Trying to master his surprise, Gerin turned his wits to the problem Sosper had set him. He found no solution, and said so.

"Do you not? A pity. In that case, there appears to be no need for further conversation. Leave me, I pray, so I may return to my calculations."

"At least tell me why you will not aid me," Gerin said. "Balamung is no ordinary mage; he has more power than any I've seen here."

For the first time, Sosper spoke with a touch of asperity. "I am under no obligation to you, sir; rather the reverse, for you take me away from important matters. And as for your Trokmê, I care not if he has the Book of Shabeth-Shiri—"

"He has. You don't seem to have listened to a word I said."

"How can you know this? Have you seen its terrible glow with your own eyes?" Sosper was skeptical, almost contemptuous.

"No, but I spoke with a woodsrunner who has."

"You accept the untrained observations of a savage as fact? My good man, a hundred generations of scriers have sought the Book of Shabeth-Shiri—in vain. I doubt a barbarian hedge-wizard could have found it where they failed. No, lost it is and lost it shall remain, until the one no grave shall hold brings it back to the world of men."

Gerin had not heard that bit of lore before. It chilled him to the marrow. But his protests died unspoken. The old man before him had been right for so long, and grown so arrogant in his rightness, that now he could not hear anything that contradicted his set image of the world. He was talented, brilliant . . . and deafened by his own rigidity.

"Leave me," Sosper said. It was order, not request. Followed close by Van, Gerin left the chamber. Ice was in his heart. The door swung closed behind them of its own accord. Like a faithful servant, the foxfire ball reappeared to guide them back to its creator.

On their return, Avelmir looked to be considering some remark at their expense, but Gerin's stony visage and an ominous twitch of Van's great forearm muscles persuaded him to hold his tongue.

"What now, captain?" the outlander asked as they left the Collegium.

Gerin shook his head in dejected bewilderment. "Great Dyaus above, how should I know? Every move I make rams my head into a stone wall: the Sibyl, Carus, now this. Maybe Balamung was right. Maybe I can do nothing to fight him. Still, I intend to go on trying—what else can I do? And I can do one thing for myself right now."

"What's that?"

"Get drunk."

Van slapped him on the back, sending him staggering down the steps. "Best notion I've heard in days. Where do we find a place?"

"It shouldn't be hard." Nor was it. Not five minutes' ride from the Collegium stood a small tavern, set between an apothecary's shop and an embalmer—"Where the druggist sends his mistakes, I suppose," Gerin said. He read the faded sign over the tavern door. "'The Barons' Roost.' Hah! Anything that roosted here would come away with lice in its feathers."

"Someone doesn't seem to care." Van pointed to the matched blooded dapples and fine chariot tied in front of the tavern.

"He must be slumming." Gerin slid down and hitched the wagon next to the fancy rig.

The Barons' Roost had no door, only a splotchily dyed curtain, once perhaps forest green. Inside, it was dirty, dark, and close. Its few patrons, from the look of them mostly burglars, pimps, and other small-time grifters, gave Gerin and Van a wary once-over before returning to their low-voiced talk. "Hemp for smoking?" Gerin heard one say to another. "I can get it for you, of course I can. How much do you want?"

"What can I give you boys?" asked the fat man behind the bar. His hard eyes gave the lie to the jovial air he tried to cultivate.

"Wine," Gerin said. "And quiet."

"The quiet's free. For the wine, I'd see your silver first."

Van laughed at that. "Show too much silver in a dive like this and half the jackals here'll decide they're wolves today."

"They don't seem to be troubling him, do they?" The taverner jerked a thumb at the noble slumped over the far corner of the bar. Three jars of various vintages stood before him; from his slack-jointed posture they were empty, or nearly so.

"For all I know, he's one of them, or their boss," Van said.

At that, the noble slowly swung round. A golden earring caught candlelight and glinted. "Who is it," he asked loftily, "who dares impute me a part of this place in any way save my location?" A swacked grin spread across his face as he focused on Gerin and Van. "As I live and breathe, the wench-stealers!"

"Rihwin! What are you doing here?" Gerin exclaimed.

"I? I am becoming preternaturally drunk, though if I can still say preter—pre—that word, I have not yet arrived. I shall be honored to stand you gentlemen a round: anyone filching so luscious a lass as Elise from Wolfar of the Axe deserves reward. Yet after she was gone, what point to my staying in the north—especially as my welcome had worn rather thin? So three days later, home I fared, and here I am."

Considering it, Gerin decided it was quite possible; Rihwin would have taken no side-trips to delay his journey. With his load of cares, the Fox was glad to see any face he knew. He answered, "You can buy for us if we can buy for you."

"Fair enough." Rihwin turned to the tapster. "A double measure of Siphnian for my comrades, and quickly! They have considerable overtaking to do."

The wine the taverner brought had never seen Siphnos, and the amphora in which it came was a crude local imitation of Sithonian ware. At any other time, Gerin would have stalked out of the dive. Now he relished the warmth rising from his belly to his brain. When the vessel was empty he ordered another, then another.

No amateur toper himself, Rihwin watched in disbelief as Van poured down mug after mug of wine. "Heaven above and hells below!" he exlaimed. "I toast your capacity." The three men drained their cups.

"And I your fine company," Van said. The cups emptied again. Riwhin and Van looked expectantly at Gerin.

He raised his mug. "A murrain take all magicians." He drank.

Van drank.

"All but me," Rihwin said. He drank too.

"What's that?" Gerin was abruptly half sober.

"What's—arp!—what? Excuse me, I pray, I am not well." Riwhin's head flopped onto his arms. He slept. Gerin shook, prodded, and nudged him, to no avail. The southerner muttered and whimpered, but would not wake.

"We've got to get him out of here," the Fox told Van.

Van stared owlishly. "Who out of where?"

"Not you too!" Gerin snarled. "Before he flickered out, this candle said he was a wizard."

"A murrain take all wizards!" Van shouted. He drank.

The baron tried to whip his fuzzy wits into action. At last he smote fist into palm in satisfaction. "I'd wager you think you're quite the strong fellow," he said to Van.

"I am that," the outlander allowed between swigs. "And sober, too."

"I doubt it," Gerin said. "In fact, I'd bet you're too puny and too drunk even to carry this chap here"—he indicated the inert Rihwin—"out to the wagon."

"Go howl, captain." Van slung Rihwin over his shoulder like an empty suit of clothes and headed for the door. Gerin paid the taverner and followed.

Van slung Rihwin into the back of the wagon so hard Gerin hoped the noble was unhurt. "Will you own you were wrong?" he said.

"It seems I have to," Gerin answered, smiling inside.

"Pay up, then."

"Tell you what: I'll race you back to Turgis', double or nothing. You take the wagon and I'll drive Rihwin's chariot."

"Doesn't seem quite fair," Van complained.

Privately, Gerin would have agreed. He loaded his voice with scorn. "Not game, eh?"

"You'll see!" Van untied the wagon from the hitching rail, leaped aboard. He cracked his whip and was gone. Gerin was right behind him. Pedestrians fled every which way, tumbling back into shops and displays for their lives.

Rihwin's team was as fine as it looked, but the Fox still had trouble gaining on Van. The outlander, with more weight behind him, bulled through holes Gerin had to avoid. He also drove with utter disregard for life and limb, his own or anyone else's.

They were neck and neck when they reached the Alley. They stormed down it. And then, right outside the wheat emporium, they descended on a great flock of geese being driven to slaughter. Gerin doubted it was the flock which had delayed them on their way to the capital. That one still had to be on the road.

Van never slowed down. He had time for one bellowed "Gangway!" before he was into the middle of the geese, Gerin still a length or two behind. The Fox glimpsed blank despair on the face of one goose-tender. Then the air was full of terrified honking, squealing, cackling, defecating big white birds.

Some flew into the grain market. They promptly began to devour the wheat there. Swearing merchants tried to drive them back into the street, only to retreat in dismay as the birds fought back with buffeting wings and savage pecks and bites.

Half a dozen geese flapped their way through the second-story window of a bath-house. An instant later, four nude men leaped out the same window.

A dun-colored hound contested the right of two geese to a cartload of peaches. When five more birds joined the fray, the dog ran off, tail between its legs. Squawking contentedly, the victors settled down to enjoy their spoils.

Yet another goose seized a trollop's filmy skirt in its beak. The goose tore it from her legs and left her half naked in the roadway. Her curses only added to the turmoil.

Somehow or other, the racers got through. Any pursuit was lost in the gallinaceous stampede. Gerin took the lead for a moment, then lost it when Van, quite by accident, found a shortcut. The baron was gaining at the end, but Van pulled into Turgis' forecourt a few seconds in front.

Plucking a feather from his beard, he walked over to the Fox, broad palm out. "Pay up, if you please."

"You know, we forgot to set a stake. I owe you twice nothing, which, the subtle Sithonians assure us, remains nothing."

Van pondered this, nodded reluctantly. "Then we'll just have to race back," he declared. He took two steps toward the wagon and fell on his face.

The pound of galloping hooves brought Turgis out his front door on the run. "What in the name of the gods is going on?" he shouted. "Oh, it's you, Gerin. I might have known."

The baron lacked the patience to trade gibes with him. He boiled with urgency. "Do you have a potion to sober up these two right away?" He nodded toward Van and Rihwin, whom he had lain beside his friend. The noble had stayed unconscious all through the wild ride.

"Aye, but they'll not be happier for it." Turgis vanished into the hostel. He returned a moment later with a small, tightly stoppered vial. He poured half its contents into Van, gave the rest to Rihwin.

As the drug took effect, the two of them thrashed like broken-backed things, then spewed their guts on the ground. Sudden reason showed in Rihwin's eyes. Wiping his mouth, he asked, "What am I doing here? Where, for that matter, is here? Who do you think you are, my good man?" he added when Van, still in pain, rolled up against him. His voice showed much of his usual cheerful hauteur.

The outlander groaned. "With any luck, I'll die before I remember. There's an earthquake in my brains."

Rihwin rose gingerly. He looked from Van, who stayed on the ground with head in hands, to Gerin, none too steady on his feet himself. "I congratulate you, my friends: practice has made you a superior pair of kidnappers. Tell me, which of you has wed Elise, and which intends to marry me? I confess, I have given little thought to my dowry."

"Go howl!" Gerin said. "Tell me at once: is it true you're a wizard?"

"Where did you learn that, in that horrid dive? How drunk was I? It were better to say I am all but a mage. I completed the course at the Collegium but never graduated, nor was I linked to a familiar."

"Why not?"

"Of what interest is this to you, may I ask?"

"Rihwin, you will have my story, I promise you," Gerin said. "Now tell me yours, before I throttle you."

"Very well. The fault, I fear, was my own. I learned all the required lores, mastered the spells they set me, met every examination, completed each conjuration with adequate results—which is to say, no fiend swallowed me up. And all this I accomplished on my own, for he who nominally supervised my work was so concerned with his own goetic researches that he had scant moments to lavish on his pupils."

"Not the wizard who styles himself Sosper?" Gerin asked.

"Indeed yes. How could you know that?"

"I've met the man. Go on, please."

"Came the night before I was to be consecrated mage, and in my folly I resolved to repay my mentor for all his indifference. He is a man who likes the good life, is Sosper, for all his sorcerous craft, and he dwells near the Palace Imperial. At midnight I essayed a small summoning. When the demon I evoked appeared, I charged it to go to my master's bedchamber, give his couch a hearty shake, and vanish instanter once he awoke. What I ordained, the demon did."

A reminiscent grin lit Rihwin's face. "Oh, it was a lovely jape! Even warlocks are muzzy when bounced from slumber, and Sosper, suspecting nothing other than a common earthquake, rushed in his nightshirt to the palace to inquire after the Emperor's safety. I would have given half my lands to see his face when he found the temblor his private property.

"But it takes a mighty wizard to befool such a man for long, and I, alas, had nowhere near the skill to maintain my appearance of innocence 'gainst his inquiry. Which leaves me here . . . almost a mage, and glad, I suppose, my punishment was no worse than expulsion."

Rihwin's tale was in keeping with the judgment Gerin had formed of him at Ricolf's holding: a man who would dare anything on the impulse of a moment, never stopping to consider the consequences—but one who would then jauntily bear those consequences, whatever they were.

Banking on that mercurial nature, Gerin plunged into his own tale. "And so," he finished, "I found I could get no proper mage, and was in despair, not knowing what to do. Meeting you in the tavern seems nothing less than the intervention of the gods—and on my behalf, for once. Fare north with me, to be my aid against the Trokmoi."

Rihwin studied him, wearing his usual expression of amused cynicism like a gambler's stiff face. "You know, I suppose, that I have every right to bear you ill-will for winning the love of a girl for whose hand I struggled over the course of a year?"

"So you do," Gerin said stonily.

"And you know I find your northern province uncouth, unmannered, and violent, nothing at all like this soft, smiling land?"

"Rihwin, if you mean no, say no and stop twisting the knife!"

"But my dear fellow Fox, I am trying to say yes!"

"What?" Gerin stared at him.

"Why do you think I traveled north a year ago, if not for the adventure of it, and the change? I was stifled by the insipid life I led here; were it not that I am in a bad odor up there, I doubt I should have returned at all."

Van struggled to his feet. "Good for you! Keep the same ground under your feet too long and you grow roots like a radish."

"But—what you said of Elise . . ." Gerin was floundering now.

"What of it? That I lost her was my own foolish fault, and none other's. I was not in love with her, nor she with me. Aye, she's a comely maid, but I've found there are a good many of those, and most of them like me well. I entered Ricolf's contest much more to measure myself against the other suitors than for her sake."

The last of his foppish mask slipped away, and he spoke with a seriousness the baron had never heard from him: "Lord Gerin, if you truly want my aid, I will meet you here in three days' time, ready to travel. I pray your pardon for not being quicker, but as I'm here, I should set my affairs in order before faring north again. Does it please you?"

Dumbfounded, Gerin could only nod. Rihwin sketched a salute, climbed into his chariot, and departed. His horses whickered happily at the familiar feel of his hands on the reins.

"What do you know?" Van said. "More to that fellow than he lets on."

Gerin was thinking much the same thing. It occurred to him that he had seen Rihwin only on a couple of the worst days of his life; now he began to understand why Ricolf, with longer acquaintance, had thought the southerner a fit match for Elise.

* * *

More than once over those three days, the Fox wondered if Rihwin would have second thoughts, but he was too busy readying his own return to waste much time on worry. Van acquired a stout ash spear ("A little light, but what can you do?") and four examples of another weapon Gerin had not seen before: flat rings of bronze with sharp outer edges. Their central holes were sized so they fit snugly onto the outlander's forearms.

"They're called chakrams," Van explained. "I learned the use of them in Mabalal. They're easier to throw straight than knives, and if I just leave them where they are, they make a forearm smash unpleasant for whoever's in the way."

When the baron paid Turgis, the innkeeper put an arm round his shoulder. "You're a good friend, Fox. I'm sorry to see you go. You remind me of the days when I still had hair on my pate. Please note, however, you brigand, I am not so sorry as to make you any rash promises. The last one cost me dear enough."

Rihwin arrived on the morning he had set, and as ready as he had vowed. Gone was his thin toga; he wore a leather tunic and baggy woolen trousers. A sword swung at his hip, armor and a quiver of javelins were stowed behind him, and he had set a battered bronze helm on his curls.

His left ear, though, still sported a golden ring. "It's possible to ask too much of me, you know," he said sheepishly when Gerin pointed at it.

"Rihwin, for all I care, you can wear the damned thing in your nose. Let's be off."

The baron drove the wagon up the Alley. Van stayed in the rear compartment, out of sight. Gerin did not want to be stopped by some irate merchant who'd had his goods smashed or scattered in the wild ride and now recognized one of its perpetrators. He was confident he was immune from being identified so; save for his northern dress, he looked like just another Elabonian. Thus it came as a small shock when someone waved frantically and called his name.

"Elise!" he said. "Great Dyaus above, what now?"


Elise's story was simple enough, if unpleasing. Valdabrun's delight at guesting his unknown niece had faded. The fading quickened when he realized how cordially Elise and Namarra despised each other.

"It all blew up at dawn this morning in a glorious fight," Elise said. She reached into a pocket of her traveling coat and brought out a lock of Namarra's fiery hair. "Black at the roots, you'll notice."

"May I be of service, my lady?" Rihwin asked. "A spell for an enemy's ruin is easy when one has a lock of hair with which to work."

"I know enough magic for that myself," Gerin said, not wanting Rihwin to help Elise in any way at all.

"The hussy hardly merits being blasted from the face of the earth simply because she and I don't get along," Elise said. She asked Rihwin, "How is it you are in the city, and in Gerin's company?"

He briefly explained. She said, "When last I saw you—and more of you than I wanted to, I'll have you know—I would have thought you'd never want to go back to the northlands again."

He flinched at that, but answered, "They hold no terror for me, so long as I am not required to face your father."

"Where shall I take you now?" Gerin asked Elise. "You must have other kin here."

"I do, but I know none of them by name. Nor would it do me much good if I did. My uncle is not a man to use half-measures. He swore he'd make sure I was no more welcome in any of their houses than in his. That leaves me little choice but to travel north with you."

Gerin realized she was right.

"Get moving, will you, and talk later," Van said from his comfortless perch in the back of the wagon. "I feel like an ostrich in a robin's egg."

Once they were out of the city, he emerged from confinement and stretched till his joints creaked. "Let me ride with you a while, Rihwin," he said. "I like the bounce of a chariot under my feet."

"Do you indeed?" Rihwin said. He flicked the whip over his matched dapples. They leaped forward, sending the light car bounding into the air whenever its bronze-shod wheels struck a stone set an inch or two higher in the roadbed than its fellows. Van was unruffled. He shifted his weight with marvelous quickness, not deigning to clutch at the chariot's handrail.

Rihwin gave up after a wild quarter of a mile, slowing his horses to a walk. As Gerin caught up, he asked Elise, "Does he always act so?"

"I've rarely seen him otherwise. The day he came to court me, he stepped down from his car, kissed me, then kissed my father twice as hard! But he has such charm and nonchalance that the outrageous things he does don't grate as they would from someone else."

"What, ah, do you think of him?" Gerin asked carefully.

"As a possible husband, you mean? I could have done much worse." She laid a hand on his arm. "But I could do much better, too, and I think I have."

Guard duty was easier to bear with three men to carry the load. Golden Math, a waning crescent, had been in the sky when Rihwin woke Gerin to stand the third watch. Elleb, three days past full, was nearing the meridian; Tiwaz had just set.

"Tell me, how is it you know sorcery?" Rihwin asked. To Gerin, he seemed to be saying, How could a backwoodsman like you hope to master such a subtle art?

The baron had met that attitude from southerners too often during his first stay in the capital. Touched on an old sore spot, he said shortly, "Surprising as it may seem, I spent two years studying in the city, including a turn at the Collegium, though a short one."

"Did you really? What did you study besides magecraft?" Far from being condescending, Riwhin showed eager interest.

"Natural philosophy, mostly, and history."

"History? Great Dyaus above, man, did you ever hear Maleinos lecture?"

"Yes, often. He interested me."

"What do you think of his cyclical notion of historical development? I was so impressed by the peroration he always used that I memorized it: 'Peoples and cities now have great success, now are so totally defeated as no longer to exist. And the changing circuit revealed such things before our time, and will reveal them again, and the revelations will not cease, so long as there be men and battles.' And he would stalk off, like an angry god."

"Yes, and do you know where he'd go?" Gerin said: "To a little tavern close by, to drink resinated wine—how do Sithonians stand the stuff?—for hours on end."

Rihwin looked pained. "You just shattered one of my few remaining illusions."

"I'm not saying he's not a brilliant man. I do think he presents his ideas too forcefully, though, and makes too little allowance for variations and exceptions to his rules."

"I can't quite agree with you there. . . ." All but oblivious to their surroundings, they fenced with ideas, arguing in low voices until Rihwin exclaimed, "Is it growing light already?"

They made good progress the next day, and the next, and the next, reaching the Pranther River at the end of the fourth day out of the capital. They camped near its southern bank.

The night was quiet, save for the river's gentle murmur. Pale clouds drifted lazily from west to east, obscuring now the pale thin waxing crescent of Nothos, now Tiwaz's bright full face, now rosy Elleb, which came into the sky halfway through the midwatch. Gerin, whose watch that was, endured the muttering of the ghosts for another couple of hours, then nudged Van.

His friend woke with a thrash. "Anything happening?" he asked.

"Not so you'd notice," Gerin said.

"Aye, it seems restful enough." Van looked down. "What's this? Look what I've been all but sleeping on, captain—another aoratos plant." He plucked it from the ground.

Gerin eyed it with distaste. "Now that I'm only standing one watch in three I don't need anything to keep me awake at night, and the leaves are so bitter they shrivel my tongue. Throw it away."

"I'd sooner not. I want to see if Rihwin knows of it."

"Suit yourself. As for me, I can hardly keep my eyes open."

It was still nearly dark when Van woke him. "Something moved over by the river, behind that stand of brush," the outlander whispered. "I couldn't quite make out what it was, but I don't like it."

"Let's have a look." Grabbing for sword and trousers, the baron slid out of his bedroll. He roused Elise and Rihwin, told them to give him and Van a few minutes and then to use their own judgment. Then he slipped on his helm and followed Van down toward the Pranther.

As always, the Fox marveled at Van's uncanny ability to pick his way through undergrowth. His own woodscraft was better than most, but once or twice an arm or shoulder brushed a branch hard enough to make it rustle. His comrade made never a sound.

Van froze when he came to the edge of the brush. A moment later Gerin eased up beside him, following with his eyes the outlander's pointing finger. "Trokmoi!" he hissed, hand tightening of itself on swordhilt.

A pair of the barbarians sprawled by the riverbank. Their attention seemed focused on the stream. Their tunics were not checked in the usual northern fashion, but were all over fylfots. These were Balamung's men!

But they did not move, not even when Gerin parted the curtain of bushes and walked toward them. His bafflement grew with every step. He came up close behind them, and still they were oblivious. Then he bent down and prodded one of them.

The Trokmê toppled. He was dead, his face an agonized rictus. In his throat stood an unfletched wooden dart, half its length stained with an orange paste. A matching dart was in his companion's unmoving chest. A fat green trout lay between the Trokmoi, bone hook still set in its mouth.

"What in the gods' holy names—!" Van burst out.

A grim smile formed on Gerin's face. "I do believe the rivermen have done us a good turn," he said. "Can you think of any reason Balamung would send men south, except to hunt us? And here, almost up with their prey, they stopped to do a little fishing—in the one river in all Elabon men don't fish." He explained how the rivermen had come to the Pranther.

Van shook his head. "Poor damned fools, to die for a trout. But it will make us a fine breakfast." He stooped to pick up the fish.

Gerin grabbed his arm and stopped him. A reptilian head was watching them from the river. No expression was readable in the riverman's unwinking amber eyes, but he held an envenomed dart ready to throw.

"All right, keep the blasted thing!" Van flung the trout into the Pranther. The riverman dove after it, surfacing a moment later with it in one webbed hand. A grave nod and he was gone.

"What's toward?" Riwhin called from the bushes. The baron was glad to see he'd had sense enough to don armor and to carry his bow with an arrow nocked and ready. He was a good deal less glad to see Elise behind Rihwin; he wished she wouldn't always run toward trouble. Frowning, he told them what had happened.

Rihwin said, "That Trokmê must hate you indeed, to work so hard for your destruction. Or perhaps he fears you."

Gerin laughed bitterly. "Why should he? I doubt I'm more than a pebble underfoot to him—a sharp pebble, aye, but a pebble nonetheless."

Hooves thuttered on the bridge called Dalassenos' Revenge. Rihwin half drew his bow, expecting more Trokmoi. But it was only a dour courier in the black and gold of the Empire, a leather message pouch slung over one shoulder. He headed south fast as his lathered horses would take him. "Make way!" he shouted, though no one blocked him.

"Just once," Gerin said, "I'd like to see one of them have more to say than 'Make way!' It's no more likely than a wolf climbing trees, though."

The Fox disliked Elabon's courier corps. All the barons north of the Kirs saw it as part of the thin web binding them to the Empire, and they were right. The couriers carried news faster than anyone else, but only on imperial business.

Later that day another courier came south at the same headlong pace. Gerin called after him for news. He got none. They refused even to gossip, fearing it might somehow compromise them. Cursing, Gerin hurried his own northward pace.

Rihwin, as it happened, did not know of the aoratos plant or its uses. "And that is passing strange," he said, "for I thought surely the Collegium's herbalists were aware of the properties of every plant that grows within the Empire." He took the little bush from Van and studied it. "I must say it seems ordinary."

"Which is likely why no one's bothered with it here," Van said. "On the plains it stands out a good deal more."

"I must try it tonight," Rihwin said.

"The taste is foul," Gerin warned him.

"What if it is? If the effects are as interesting as claimed, I may be on the brink of discovering a whole new vice." He gave a voluptuary's leer, but spoiled it by winking.

"If you were half the carpet knight you pretend to be, you'd have debauched yourself to death years ago," Gerin said.

"And if you were as sour as you let on, you'd long since have pickled in your own juice," Rihwin retorted, a shot with so much justice that Gerin chuckled and owned himself beaten.

He stood first watch that night. By sunset he had grown so edgy that he decided to chew some aoratos leaves himself, regardless of their flavor. He felt fatigue flow away as the juice coursed through his veins. The curious extra sense the plant conferred showed him a squirrel asleep in its nest high in an aspen tree, a fox stalking a vole, a nightjar whipping after fluttering moths. The ghosts seemed troubled; thanks to his added perception, Gerin could almost make out the cause of their alarm, but in the end it eluded him.

He did not know whether he'd swallowed more leaves this time or this was a more potent aoratos, but its effects were still strong in him when he woke Rihwin. They made the baron reluctant to seek sleep at once. He was also curious to learn what the southerner would think of the plant.

"Pah!" Rihwin almost choked on the first mouthful, but choked it down. "A gourmet's delight it is not." He chewed more leaves. A few minutes passed. His breath began to whistle more quickly through his nostrils. His voice grew soft and dreamy. "How bright Tiwaz is, like polished silver!" After another moment: "Is that a ferret over there, Gerin?" He pointed into the darkness.

The baron felt his own mind reach out. "I think it is."

"Remarkable. And the ghosts—hear them wail!"

They talked idly for a while, trying with scant success to find some everday sensation comparable to that induced by the aoratos. "This is foolishness," Gerin said at last. "If there were half a dozen things like it, it would not be marvelous at all."

"Astutely reasoned," Rihwin answered, his tone mildly sarcastic. "From that, it would follow—" He paused in mid-sentenced, exclaimed, "The ghosts are gone!"

They were, fled away as suddenly and completely as if driven to shelter by the rising sun. The gloom outside the campfire's glow seemed somehow strange and flat. Surrounded by this great stillness, the cry of a hunting owl came shockingly loud.

Gerin's surprised senses were still groping for an explanation when Rihwin, now feeling the aoratos more strongly than did the baron, whispered, "I know why they fled. Look north."

Looking was not what was required, but Gerin understood. The blood froze in his veins as he sensed the approaching demon. Only the aoratos plant let him do so; without it, the flying monster would have stayed unseen, undetected, until it descended on the travelers like a hawk stooping on roosting fowl.

The huge demon drew swiftly nearer, like a stone hurled from a god's hand. Even with the aoratos, its shape was hard to define. Gerin was most reminded of the jellyfish that floated in the Greater Inner Sea, but the analogy was imperfect, for Balamung's sending—the baron had no doubt it was such—surveyed with three bright, pitiless eyes the landscape over which it sailed. For mouth it had a rasping sucker disk, set with hundreds of tiny curved teeth. The edges of its gross body blurred and wavered, like a stone seen through running water.

Still, while in this plane it had to be vulnerable to weapons, however fearsome its appearance. Though fear gripped him, Gerin strung his bow and set an arrow in it. His fingers worked more of themselves than under his conscious direction.

But the demon halted well out of bowshot. The baron's heart sank. He saw no way to lure it into range before it began a killing rush too swift to give him a good shot. Whistling tunelessly, Rihwin glanced from bow to demon.

The creature gave no sign of immediate attack. It seemed as uncertain as the men it faced. Words formed in the baron's mind: "How do you know of me? The man-thing who sent me forth promised easy meat, not warriors with weapons to hand."

For no reason Gerin understood, Rihwin was grinning. "Nor is that the only way in which your master deceived you," he said. He spoke softly to avoid waking Van and Elise, who could not sense the demon; it felt his ideas as he and Gerin perceived its.

"I name no man-thing master!" Its thought dinned in Gerin's head. More quietly, it asked, "And how else am I deceived?"

"Why, by thinking you can do us harm, when you cannot so much as touch us," Rihwin answered airily.

"How not?" the demon asked. Gerin was tempted to do the same. They had no protection against it, as it surely knew.

But Rihwin was not perturbed. "Consider," he said: "To reach us, you first must traverse half the distance, not so?"

"What of it?" the demon snarled.

"Then you will travel half the remaining interval, and then half of that, and half that, and so on forever. You may come as close as you like, but reach us you never will."

Gerin felt the demon muttering to itself as it pursued Rihwin's chain of logic. It did not seem very intelligent; relying on invisibility and ferocity, it had rarely needed much in the way of wits. At last it said, "You are wrong, man-thing, and my showing you this will be your death." Terrifyingly quick, it was twice as close as before. It halted for a moment. "Do you see?"

It halved the gap again, paused to show itself—and Gerin drove his arrow cleanly through its central eye.

It screamed like a woman broken on the rack and was gone, fleeing back to whatever plane Balamung had summoned it from. Gerin thought that agony-filled cry had to wake everything for miles, but only he and Rihwin seemed to hear it. Van and Elise slept on, and all was unchanged out in the darkness. No, not quite—the ghosts returned, their murmurs now far less fear-filled than before.

The baron picked up the denuded aoratos bush. He hefted it thoughtfully. "Thank the gods for this little plant," he said to Rihwin. "Without it, we'd've been nothing but appetizers for that devil."

"At the moment I am still too terrified to move, let alone think about anything so abstract as giving thanks. You have an unpleasant and powerful enemy, my fellow Fox."

"I've already told you that. Didn't you believe me before? As for fear, you handled yourself better than I did—I thought we were done for till you stalled the demon."

Rihwin shrugged. "That paradox always did intrigue me. I first heard a variation of it posed at the Collegium, purportedly to demonstrate that a longtooth could never catch its prey, even were the victim five times slower than it."

"It's logically perfect, but it can't be true. Where's the flaw?"

"I haven't the faintest idea, nor did my instructor. Your elucidation with the bow seemed as elegant as any."

Gerin tried to sleep. He was too keyed up to find rest quickly. He was still awake when Rihwin passed the watch to Van, and listened to his friend's sulfurous oaths at not having been waked to help fight the demon. Van was still grumbling complaints into his beard as his comrades at last gave in to slumber.

The next morning, Gerin let Elise drive for a while and tried to get more sleep in the back of the wagon. He knew Van had managed the trick on the way south. Now he wondered how. Every pothole was magnified tenfold when felt all along his body, and rumbling wheels and creaking axles did nothing to help his repose. Red-eyed and defeated, he came forward to take the reins again.

Traffic was light, for which he gave thanks. He wished Van had been able to buy a pair of Shanda horses instead of just the one. The shaggy little animal pulled magnificently. It seemed never to tire.

Its harnessmate the gray gelding was willing enough, but lacked the steppe beast's endurance. It exhaustedly hung its head at every rest stop. Gerin was afraid its wind would break if he pushed it much harder.

From the chariot Rihwin was sharing with him, Van pointed up the road at an approaching traveler and said, "Someone's coming in one awful hurry."

"Probably another whoreson of a courier," Gerin said. He reached for his bow nonetheless.

A courier it was, whipping his horses as if all the fiends of all the hells were after him. The beasts' scarlet, flaring nostrils and lathered sides said they had been used so for some time. "Way! Clear the way!" the courier shouted as he thundered past.

He was gone in the blink of an eye, but not before Gerin saw the long Trokmê arrow lodged in the crown of his broad-brimmed hat. North of the Kirs, the blow had fallen.

Rihwin stared blankly at the dismayed looks his friends wore; like Gerin, Elise and Van had recognized that arrow for what it was. Elise hid her face in her hands and wept. When the baron put an arm around her, he almost steered the wagon into Rihwin's chariot.

"Careful, captain," Van said.

Gerin's laugh was shaky. "Here I am trying to make Elise feel better, and look at me."

"Will someone please tell me what the trouble is?" Rihwin asked plaintively.

Gerin did, in a couple of curt sentences. Despite the gray gelding's exhaustion, he urged more speed from his horses.

"That's good thinking," Van called. "You can bet there's a mob a few hours or a day behind that courier, all of them hightailing it south as fast as they can go. Best make haste while the road's still clear."

"A pox! I hadn't even thought of that." Gerin added another worry to his list. He tried to comfort Elise, who was still sobbing beside him.

She shook his arm away. "I wish I had never left—I should be with my father." She cried even harder.

"I know," he said quietly. "But no one can change what you did, not god or man. All we can do now is wait to see how things are north of the Kirs and not borrow trouble till we know." Wonderful, he told himself, you talk as if you thought you really could do it—and if your own guts knot any tighter, you can use them for lute strings.

Despite his own doubts, his words seemed to reach Elise. She raised her tear-streaked face, trying without much success to smile. As the hours passed and the Kirs loomed ever taller on the horizon, a spurious calm came to the northbound travelers. They talked of life in the capital, legends from Kizzuwatna, swordfish-fishing on the Bay of Parvela south of Sithonia—anything except the Trokmoi and what was happening on the far side of the mountains.

As Van had guessed, they soon began meeting refugees fleeing the Trokmê invasion. The first one they saw brought a sardonic smile to Gerin's face: there stood Carus Beo's son, tall in his chariot. He used his whip with more vigor than the baron thought he still had. He shot passed Gerin's party without recognizing them.

The Marchwarden of the North was but the precursor of a steadily swelling stream of fugitives, many with better reasons to flee than his. The warriors who appeared had the look of defeated troops: they straggled south in small, dejected parties, and many were wounded. Now and again Gerin saw a minor baron among them, sometimes leading his family and a small party of retainers, more often alone, haggard, and afraid.

The Fox kept hoping to find a man he knew, so he could stop him and grill him at length. For two days he was disappointed. On the third, he spied a merchant who had been to Fox Keep two or three times, a man called Merric Forkbeard. The trader was still leading a string of donkeys, but their packsaddles were all empty. Gerin looked in vain for the two youths who had accompanied Merric in times past. When Merric heard the baron call his name, he pulled off the road to share what word he had. He took a skin of wine. His hands shook as he raised it to his lips. He had only a few more years on him than did Gerin, but looked to have added another ten in the past few days: his thin face, which Gerin remembered as full of quiet humor, was gray and drawn, his eyes haunted.

"I can't tell you as much as I'd like, Fox," he said, running fingers through thinning sandy hair. "Six days ago, I was on the road between Drotar's holding and Clain the Fluteplayer's—a good bit southwest of your keep, I guess that is—when I saw smoke ahead. It was the plague-taken woodsrunners, burning out a peasant village and acting as if not a soul in the world could stop them. I turned around and headed south—and ran into an ambush." He bit his lip. "That's when I lost my nephews. They died cleanly—I think."

Gerin tried to express his sympathy, but Merric brushed it aside. "It's done, it's done," he said tiredly. He took another pull at the wineskin, went on, "I will say you're the last man I ever expected to see south of the mountains."

"I was looking for help against the Trokmoi, though I didn't find much."

"Even if you had, it would do you little good."

"What? Why?"

"I came through the pass hours ago. Even then, officers and men were rushing about, making ready to seal it off. What use would your aid be, trapped on this side of the Kirs?"

Gerin stared at him, aghast. "Hours ago, you say?"


"Then I have no time to waste bandying words with you, I fear. The gods keep you safe, Merric, and may we meet again in happier times." The baron twitched the reins and got his wagon into motion. Van and Rihwin followed close behind in the northerner's chariot.

Merric watched them speed north. "I don't think I'm the one who needs the gods for my safety," he muttered to himself.

Now Gerin could show the gray gelding no pity. Once north of the Kirs, he might be able to replace it, but unless he forced an all-out effort from it now, all such problems would cease to matter.

The rich southern countryside flashed by in a blur. To the north, the Kirs grew ever taller. Their crowns of snow were smaller than they had been twenty days before. High summer was drawing near.

The stream of fugitives continued to thicken, clogging the road and stretching the baron's nerves tighter. Yet had that stream failed, all his hope would have vanished with it, for he would have known the pass was sealed.

He raced through the grimy town of Fibis, past its crucifixes, and into the foothills, now cursing desperately at every slight delay. The gray began to fail. Its nostril flared to suck in great gulps of air and its sides heaved with the effort it was making, but it plainly could not keep up the killing pace much longer. Gerin felt its anguish as keenly as if it were his own. Strange, he thought, how in the end all his hopes rode not on his own wit or brawn, but on the stamina of a suffering beast.

Much too slowly, the pass drew near. Another party of refugees appeared ahead, blocking the roadway and forcing the Fox to the verge. No, these were not refugees—they were the garrison troops who had manned the pass. They marched south in good order, spears neatly shouldered. If they were pulling out, the pass would be closed very soon. Even curses failed Gerin—had he come so far to miss by so little?

At last the gap came into sight. The baron's heart descended from his throat when he saw it was still unblocked. But at his approach an officer stepped into the road, backed by a double squad of archers. The officer stepped forward with a salute, introduced himself as Usgild son of Annar. "I am most sorry, sirs, lady. No travel is permitted beyond this point. We are but minutes from ending contact with the north, as it is under strong barbarian attack."

"I know—that's why I'm here." Gerin quickly outlined his need.

Having heard him out, Usgild shook his head. "I cannot take the responsibility for delaying a measure vital to the safety of my Empire." As if to underscore his words, his archers nocked arrows.

"Can nothing persuade you?" Gerin asked, hearing the finality in Usgild's voice. Perhaps, he thought frantically, I can bribe him. But he knew that had to be futile. Usgild seemed honest. Even if he wasn't, Gerin did not have enough money to buy him.

Nonetheless, he rummaged through his pockets—and his fingers closed on the tiny bronze Imperial Hand the agent Tevis had left behind in Grizzard's tavern. He drew it forth and displayed it on his upturned palm. "Can nothing persuade you?" he repeated: "Not even this?"

He was afraid Usgild would doubt his right to the token, but the officer sprang to attention at the sight of the most potent official talisman the Empire knew. "My lord, I had no idea—"

"Never mind all that," Gerin said, determined to give him no chance to wonder. "Send a man at once to hold things up until we are through."

"Hanno!" the officer bawled. One of his archers raced for a chariot.

Gerin decided more, not less, effrontery would make him seem genuine. "My supplies are a bit low. I could use some field rations, and also"—he held his breath—"a fresh horse to replace this poor creature."

Usgild was beyond questions. "At once." Under his efficient direction, his men met Gerin's needs. A sturdy bay stallion replaced the gelding, which barely had the strength to be led away. Soldiers stowed square loaves of journeybread, salt beef, smoked sausages, and lumps of pale, hard cheese in the back of the wagon. They and their commander eyed the Fox with almost servile respect, doing his bidding as though they thought their lives were hanging in the balance. They probably did, Gerin thought sourly—an Imperial Hand was no one to trifle with.

He wondered why Tevis had seen fit to give him the emblem of his office. Could a Hand have realized the barons, in their way, served the Emperor too? It was hard to credit a southern man with such breadth of vision, but then Tevis, whatever else he had been, was no ordinary southerner.

Usgild broke into Gerin's thoughts. "My lord, may I ask your mission in the north?"

"I intend to seek out and slay the wizard who controls the Trokmoi." For the first time Gerin spoke simple truth, and for the first time Usgild looked unbelieving. The baron hardly blamed him, as he himself had no idea how to put an end to Balamung.

The soldier Hanno returned. Flicking a salute to Gerin, he said, "Imperial Hand or no, sir, if I were you I'd hustle down the pass. You've got some wizards mighty peeved at you. They were about halfway through their spells when I told them to hold up, and they're not what you'd call pleased about having to wait and start over."

A party like Usgild's must have been covering the northern end of the pass. The gap through the Kirs, so congested and noisy when Gerin had come south, was achingly empty and silent. The Empire's fortresses stared, empty-eyed, at wagon and chariot moving lonesomely where hundreds of men, beasts, and wains usually passed.

Half a dozen sorcerers paced the battlements of their sparkling, glassy towers. They too glowered down on the baron and his comrades. Though they were too high and too far for him to read their faces, the very snap of their robes in the breeze bespoke annoyance.

As soon as he was past, the wizards began their spells anew, moving in sharp, precisely defined patterns and chanting antiphonally. Their voices, thin and high in the vast quiet, followed Gerin a long way down the pass.

"I know that spell," Rihwin said, "but to think of using it on such a scale. . . ." His voice trailed away. He urged his dapples out in front of the wagon.

The commander of the pass had been no fool: to stop southbound traffic he had posted at the gap's northern outlet not a token force of archers but a solid company of spearmen and charioteers. They were needed. The road stretching north was full of fugitives, shouting, begging, threatening, gesticulating, but leaderless and not quite daring to rush the orderly ranks of gleaming spearheads standing between themselves and the southland. The din was dreadful.

Or so Gerin thought for a moment. Then the earth shook beneath the wagon. The sub-bass roar of endless tons of cascading stone left his ears stunned and ringing. A dust-filled blast of wind shrieked out of the pass behind him. It caught a couple of birds and sent them tumbling through the air. Guardsmen and refugees cried out in terror, but no sound from a merely human throat could pierce the avalanche.

"Looks like I'm home for good," Gerin said. No one could hear him either, but what did that matter? The fact itself seemed clear enough.


As inconspicuously as he could, Gerin made his way through the shaken solidery. No one tried to stop him. If any of the imperial troops had, he would have shown them the Hand. He was glad he did not have to. He did not want to find out how they would react to the symbol of a regime which had just marooned them on the wrong side of the mountains.

Those who had fled their homes and lands in the face of the Trokmê onslaught now parted before Gerin, stepping aside like wolves in the presence of a longtooth. Any man going north of his own free will had to be of superior stuff, not to be hindered by the likes of them.

Rihwin let the baron catch up to him, then said, "You will surely need a fighting tail later. Why not start collecting it now?"

Gerin shook his head. "These are the ones who ran first and fastest. I might be able to shame some into coming with me, but they'd likely disappear again at the first sign of a red mustache."

"Right you are, captain," Van said. "Later we'll run into some who got honestly beat: bushwhacked like poor Merric, or just too many woodsrunners and not enough of them. That bunch will be aching for revenge, or a second chance, or what have you. They'll be the ones we take along."

"The two of you make good sense," Riwhin said, adding thoughtfully, "There's more to this business than meets the eye."

They rolled through Cassat not long before nightfall, fighting heavy southbound traffic all the way. The town was nearly deserted. Most of its soldiers and the folk who catered to them must have fled with Carus Beo's son. Looters prowled through abandoned shops and taverns, seeking valuables, drink more potent than water, or perhaps just shelter for the night.

At most times, Gerin would have been after them sword in hand. To his way of thinking, they were worse than Trokmoi: scavengers, preying off the misfortunes of others. Now he had more important concerns. He drove by, wanting to put as much distance as he could between the rats' nest Cassat had become and his camp for the night.

Only Nothos' crescent was in the sky when the sun went down. Math was a day and a half past new and lost in the glow of sunset. Tiwaz would not rise till midnight, and ruddy Elleb less than two hours before the next sunrise.

"Strange, not to have the Kirs staring us in the face," Elise remarked.

Her three companions round the campfire nodded. To Gerin, it was not only strange but wonderful. For the past couple of days, the mountains and the sealing of the pass had loomed over him like a death sentence. Now he felt reprieved. Tomorrow he would need to start thinking of Balamung and the Trokmoi again but, as he drew in a deep breath of cool night air made flavorful by the fire's smoke, he deliberately suppressed such worries.

Some responsibility, though, had to stay with him. "We need to be really careful on watch tonight," he said. "Some of the fools on the run will be more afraid of the Trokmoi than the ghosts. They'll likely be on the move tonight. And who knows? The woodsrunners may be this far south already."

Travelers in the night there were, but no Trokmoi and no problems, at least during the baron's watch. But when he woke the next morning to the sound of Rihwin's fervent cursing, he knew something had gone wrong. "What now?" he muttered, groping for his sword.

"The plague-taken wine's gone sour!" Rihwin said. "It's no better than vinegar."

"Great Dyaus above, from the howl you raised I thought it was Balamung come in person. Worse things have happened than sour wine, my friend."

"So have better ones. You cannot know what torment my year at Ricolf's was, away from the sweet grape."

"Aye, and look at the trouble you got into, once you had it back," Van said.

Rihwin ignored him. "By the gods, I'd thought a year's separation long enough, but here I am, bereft again."

"If you must have you precious wine," Gerin snapped, "are you not mage enough to call it back from vinegar? If not, why did I ask you to come with me?"

Rihwin refused to notice the expasperation in Gerin's voice, but eagerly seized on his idea. "Your wits are with you, my fellow Fox! I learned that spell—" ("Naturally," Elise murmured, so low only Gerin heard) "and it's easy to cast."

As usual, the southerner was quick to fit action to thought. He rummaged through his gear, producing a packet of grayish powder and a minor grimoire. Gerin was relieved to see him checking the spell before he used it, but still felt a gnawing sense of unease. Things were moving too fast, and out of his control.

Rihwin fed tinder to the nearly dead embers of the fire, coaxing them back into flame. He sprinkled a few drops of the turned wine onto the fire, chanting an invocation in Sithonian. The gray powder followed. It produced an aromatic cloud of smoke. Rihwin chanted on: ". . . and to thee, O great Mavrix—"

Gerin's unease became alarm, but too late. With a whistling hiss, the summoned god, in all his effeminate finery, stood before Rihwin. "So!" Mavrix screeched, bouncing with wrath. "You are in league with this miscreant, and have the gall to seek my aid?" The furious deity pointed a finger at Gerin; somethow it did not seem strange that the digit should lengthen till it thumped the baron's chest.

"I will never help you, wizard! Never! Never!" Mavrix shouted, dancing around the little fire in a sort of war-dance. "And you shall never have the chance to ask my aid again. Mortal wretch, now and forevermore you have forfeited your right to work sorcery, and be thankful I leave you the remainder of your pustulent life!

"Take that, ox-goad!" the god added for Gerin's benefit. He stuck out a long pink tongue like a frog's, made a gesture street urchins often used in the capital, and vanished.

"What was all that in aid of?" Rihwin asked, white-faced.

"I told you before, the god and I had a disagreement not long ago."

"Disagreement forsooth! The next time you have a disagreement with a god, my dear Gerin, please let me know in advance so I can take myself elsewhere—far elsewhere." Rihwin tried to resume his interrupted spell, stopped in confusion. "A pox! The pestilential godlet did it! I still know every spell I ever knew, but I can't use them. No wine, no magic . . ." He seemed ready to burst into tears.

So, for the moment, was Gerin. He had gone south with high hopes, and returned with—what? A suddenly useless wizard and some sour wine. No, fool, wait, he told himself before his mood altogether blackened—there's Elise, and she's worth troubles a dozen times worse than these. His gloomy side added: or she will be, if troubles no worse than these at all don't kill you first.

The Elabon Way continued packed with refugees. They fled south toward a safety that no longer existed, carrying on their backs or in handcarts such pitiful belongings as they had salvaged. Pushing north against them was so slow that at last, much against his will, Gerin decided to leave the highway and travel on back roads. Though less direct, he hoped they would also be less traveled.

His hopes were justified most of that day. He made better progress than he had since he'd first seen that accursed imperial courier. But as the first cool evening breezes began to blow, what must have been the whole population of two or three farming villages jammed the narrow track on which he was traveling.

The peasants had their women, children, and meager possessions in ramshackle carts driven by oxen or asses. They drove their flocks of cattle and sheep before them. When the baron tried to tell them the way through the Kirs was blocked, they listened in dull incomprehension, as if he were speaking some foreign tongue, and continued on their way.

The same thing happened three more times in the next two days. Gerin's pace slowed to a crawl. Once more he had the feeling the whole world was against him. He was brusque even with Elise, and so churlish toward Rihwin and Van that the outlander finally growled, "Captain, why don't you shut up and do us all a favor?" Shame-faced, the Fox apologized.

* * *

Later that day, Gerin heard a commotion ahead, but thick woods and winding road kept its nature hidden. He, Van, and Rihwin reached for their weapons. But when the path opened out into a clearing, they put them down—there would be no fighting here. Instead of Trokmoi, they had come upon yet another group of peasants taking flight and the local lordlet trying to talk them out of it. Or so Gerin thought at first. A moment's listening showed him the noble had given up on that and was telling them what he thought of them for going.

"You cheese-faced, goat-buggering, arse-licking whores' get—" The noble's command of invective was marvelous; even Van listened in wide-eyed admiration. The fellow's appearance complemented his delivery. He was a solidly made man of about thirty-five; he had a fierce red face with one eye covered by a leather patch, thick brows, and a tangled black beard. He wore a bearskin cape over broad shoulders and massive chest, and carried a brace of scabbardless swords on his belt. "Lizard-livered, grave-robbing sodomites—"

The abuse rolled off his tenants like water from oiled leather. They were going whether he liked it or not. Despite the three troopers and two chariots he had at his back, there were at least twenty men in the exodus, each with scythe, mattock, or pitchfork close at hand. Gerin wished they would have been as ready to take up arms against the Trokmoi.

As the peasants began to move, the minor baron noticed Gerin. "Who in the five hells are you?" he growled. "Why aren't you on the run like these pissweeds here?"

Gerin named himself and his friends. He asked, "Are the woodsrunners so close, then, to send your villeins flying?"

"Close? I've yet to see one of the pox-ridden bandits, for all they've sent these dungheaded clods a-flying, aye, and most of my fighting men too. I've seen partridges with more heart in 'em than they showed." He spat in utter contempt and slowly began to calm. "I'm Nordric One-Eye, in case you're wondering—lord hereabouts, not that I look to have much left to be lord over."

"Friend Nordric," Rihwin said, "would it please you to fare north with us and take vengeance on the barbarians who have caused such chaos?"

Nordric lifted an eyebrow at the southerner's phrasing, but the notion of hitting back at the Trokmoi was too tempting for him to resist. "Please me? Great Dyaus above, I'd like nothing better! Those sheep-futtering, louse-bitten woodsrunning robbers—"

He rumbled on for another couple of angry sentences. Then he and one of his men climbed aboard one chariot and the other two soldiers into the second. His driver, Gerin learned as they began to travel, was Amgath Andar's son; one of the last pair was Effo and the other Cleph, but the Fox was not sure which was which. Neither of them said much. Nor, for that matter, did Amgath.

That did not surprise Gerin. Nordric talked enough for four. Not only that, he kept peppering his speech, even on the most innocuous subjects, with fluent, explosive profanity.

Rihwin steered close to Gerin. "It's as well for him he's short an eye—otherwise they'd surely style him Nordric Swillmouth."

The baron grinned and nodded. He was still glad to have Nordric along. He did not think the foul-mouthed baron would shrink from a fight, or his men either. Facing Trokmoi in battle had to be less terrifying than confronting an angry Nordric afterwards.

Though armed, Nordric and his men carried few provisions. Gerin had resupplied from imperial stores at the pass, but he knew what he had would not feed eight people long. The food would go even faster if he gathered more followers. That meant spending time hunting instead of traveling, something he resented but whose necessity he recognized.

More companions, though, also meant more men to stand watch. Freed from the need to break his sleep with a watch in three, Gerin spent the early evening sitting by the fire with Rihwin. He studied the southerner's grimoires with a desperate intensity that he knew was almost surely futile. Still, he persisted. The vengeful Mavrix had taken Rihwin's power to work magic, but not, it seemed, his ability to pass on what he knew.

"Here." Rihwin pointed to an incantation written in the sinuous Kizzuwatnan script. "This is another spell for the destruction of one's enemies when a bit of their spittle, hair, or nail parings is in one's possession."

"How does it differ from the more usual one, the one I would have set on the fair Namarra?"

"It has the advantage of needing no elaborate preparation, but is more dangerous to the caster. Unless perfectly performed, it will fall on his head rather than the intended victim's."

"Hmm." The spell looked simple enough, involving only a couple of genuflections and some easy passes with the left hand. But as Gerin studied its verbal element, his first enthusiasm faded: the Kizzuwatnan text was one long tongue-twister, full of puns, subtle allusions to gods he barely knew, constantly shifting patterns of rhyme and rhythm. He almost passed at once to the next charm. Then, stung by the challenge and artistry of the ancient versicle, he stopped and read it again and again, until it was fairly well lodged in his mind.

"I have it," he said at last, adding, "I think. What's next?"

"Here is one I've always found useful. It keeps horses' hooves sound and strong, and helps prevent all sorts of lameness."

"Yes, I can see where that would be a good thing to know. Ah, good, it's in Sithonian, too. Let me have a closer look—" And soon the veterinary magic was also stored in the baron's capacious memory.

The next day dawned luminously clear. The sun leaped into a sky of almost southern clarity and brilliance. The fine weather pleased Gerin less than it might have under other circumstances. In such heat, armor became an itchy, sweaty torment, but trouble was too close to chance removing it.

Thus the baron, longing for relief from the sweltering day, was glad to hear the rush of river water ahead. But almost at the same instant, he became aware of other sounds rising above the stream's plashing: the clash of bronze on bronze, the deep battle cries of Elabonian fighting men, and the higher, wilder yells of the Trokmoi.

Van was driving Rihwin's chariot. When he caught the noise of combat, his head jerked up like that of a dog suddenly taking a scent. "A fight!" he shouted, his voice pure glee. "The gods beshrew me, a fight!"

He sent the light car bounding forward with such a rush that he almost pitched the startled Rihwin into the roadway. Nordric and his driver were right behind, the stocky baron swearing sulfurously. On his heels were his liegemen, leaving Gerin to bring up the rear.

The Fox cursed as fervently as Nordric, but for a different reason. The last thing he wanted was to expose Elise to the risks of war, but he had no choice. "For Dyaus' sake, stay in the wagon and don't draw attention to yourself." He handed her his bow and quiver. "Use them only if you have to."

Black willows grew along the riverbank. Under their low spreading branches a grim drama was under way, with seven southerners battling twice as many Trokmoi. The Elabonians had accounted for four woodsrunners, but three of their own number were down and the survivors desperately fighting back to back at the water's edge when unexpected rescue arrived.

The Trokmoi shouted in dismay as Gerin's band leaped from chariots and wagons and loosed murder among them. Van was a thunderstorm, Gerin and Rihwin a pair of deadly snakes, striking and flickering away before being struck in return. Nordric's men fought with dour competence, but the petty baron himself brought the worst terror to the barbarians.

At last come to grips with the foes who had turned his life upside down, he went berserker-mad, his ruddy features darkening to purple, incoherent cries of raw rage roaring from his throat, spittle flecking his beard with white. Swinging a sword in each meaty hand, he rampaged through the Trokmoi, oblivious to his own safety as long as he felt flesh cleave and bones shatter beneath his hammerstrokes. The Trokmoi broke and ran after half of them had fallen. All but one were cut down from behind by the vengeful Elabonians. An arrow from the wagon brought down the last of them, who had outdistanced his pursuers—Elise once more proving her worth.

The onslaught was so sudden and fierce that Nordric's man Cleph was the only Elabonian badly hurt. He had a great gash in his thigh. Gerin washed it with wine and styptics and bound it up, but the bleeding would not stop. Cleph was pale and clammy, and seemed partly out of his wits.

"You're going to have to tie off his leg," Van said.

"I hate to," Gerin answered. "If I leave the tie on for more than a few hours the leg may go gangrenous, and if I take it off he'll probably start bleeding again."

"Look at him, though. He'll damn well bleed out on you right now if you don't do something in a hurry," Van said. Shaking his head, Gerin applied the tourniquet. The flow of blood slowed to a trickle, but Cleph remained semi-conscious, muttering curses under his breath against demons only he could see.

Nordric's battle-demon, on the other hand, deserted him after the fight was done. A man in a daze, he wandered across the small field of combat, staring at the results of his own butchery. "Dip me in dung and fry me for a chicken," he grunted, apparently not much believing what he saw.

"Friend Nordric, must your every phrase have an oath in it?" Rihwin asked.

"That's not so—" Nordric began, but his driver Amgath interrupted him.

"I fear it is, my lord," he said. "Remember what happened when Holgar the Raven bet you a goldpiece you couldn't go a day without saying something vile? 'You son of a whore, you're on!' you said, and forfeited on the spot."

The four footsoldiers Gerin and his comrades had saved were glad to take service with him. Two of them had lost brothers to the Trokmoi and another a cousin. They were all burning to retaliate. "The worst thing about dying here," said one, "would have been knowing we'd only taken a woodsrunner apiece with us."

Elise found herself less troubled over the Trokmê she'd slain than she had been at Ikos, which in turn troubled her. That evening she said to Gerin, "I don't understand it. He was only running away, and the driver back at the Sibyl's shrine was trying to kill us, but the first death left me sick for days, and now I feel almost nothing: only that I did what I had to do."

"Which is nothing less than true," the Fox said, though he knew it did not help much.

He stood a late watch, and a strange one in that no moons were in the sky: Tiwaz was new that night, Elleb a thin crescent, golden Math a fatter one, and pale, slow-moving Nothos just past first quarter. By an hour past midnight it was cool, quiet, and amazingly dark. Countless dim stars the baron had never seen before powdered the sky with silver, their light for once not drowned by the moons.

Cleph died early the next day. He had never really come to himself after the shock of the wound, and whenever the tourniquet was loosened it began to bleed again. They hastily buried him and pressed on.

Two men joined them that day, half a dozen more on the next, footsoldiers all. Of necessity, Gerin was reduced to a pace a walking man could keep. He wondered it the added numbers were worth the delay, and considered moving ahead with chariots alone. Van and Nordric were all for it. Rihwin advised caution. Events soon proved him right.

The baron's fighting tail was emerging from forest into cleared fields when a wild shout from ahead made them all grab for weapons. Just out of bowshot waited a force of Trokmoi of nearly the same makeup as their own: four chariots and a double handful of retainers afoot. About half the northerners wore plundered Elabonian armor. The others were in their native tunics and trousers, except for one tall, gaunt barbarian who was naked but for shield and weapons.

Gerin heard a growl go up behind him. He knew the men at his back were wild to hurl themselves against the Trokmoi. But he did not want to fight at this moment, against this foe. The little armies were too evenly matched. Even if he won the battle, he would be defenseless against the next band of woodsrunners he happened across.

The Trokmê seemed to have similar thoughts, which puzzled the baron. Most northerners fought first and questioned later. He watched, bemused, as the chief winded a long, straight horn. He was no trumpeter, but Gerin recognized the call he had blown: parley.

He waved an agreement, got down from the wagon, and walked alone into the field. He ignored the scandalized murmurs of his men. Those stopped abruptly when Van announced, "The next one of you who carps will be carp stew." His huge right fist, fingers tight round the sweat-stained leather grip of his mace, was a persuasive argument.

The northerner met Gerin halfway between their men, empty hands outstretched before him. Plump for a woodsrunner but cat-courteous, the Trokmê bowed low and said, "I am Dagdogma the son of Iucharba, who was the son of Amergin the great cattle-thief, who was the son of Laeg the smith, who was . . ." Gerin composed himself to wait out the genealogy, which, if it was like most others, would go back ten or twelve generations to a god.

Sure enough, Dagdogma finished, ". . . who was the son of great Fomor himself." He waited in turn.

Gerin did not think it wise to reveal his true name to the barbarian. "Call me Tevis," he said, picking the first name he thought of. Like Dagdogma, he spoke in Elabonian.

"The son of—?" Dagdogma prompted politely.

"Nobody, I fear."

"Ah well, a man's a man for all he's a bastard, and a fine crew you have with you. Not that we couldn't deal with them, but I'm thinking 'twould be a shame and a waste of my lads and yours both to be fighting the now."

Gerin studied Dagdogma, suspecting a trick. Things he had not noticed at first began to register: the Elabonian women's rings the Trokmê had jammed onto his little fingers, the gleaming soft leather boots he wore instead of the woodsrunners' usual rawhide, the booty piled high in his chariots. The baron suddenly understood. This was no northern wolf, just a jackal out to scavenge what he could with as little effort as possible.

The Fox was filled with relief and contempt at the same time. His talk with Dagdogma went quickly and well since, each for his own reasons, neither man had any stomach for fighting. The Trokmê trotted back to his men. He moved them off along a forest track running west, clearing the way north for Gerin and his troop.

But Gerin's own warriors were unhappy he had talked his way past the Trokmoi instead of hewing through them. "I came in with you to kill the whoresons, not pat 'em on the fanny as they go by," said one of the men who had joined just that day. "If you're going to fight your fool war like that, count me out. I'd sooner do it right."

He stamped away, followed by four more footsoldiers of like spirit. Van looked questioningly at Gerin, asking with his eyes whether to bring them back by force. The baron shook his head. He had no use for unwilling followers.

In turn, he eyed Nordric curiously; he'd expected the hot-tempered lordlet to leave him the moment he ducked a confrontation. Nordric spat. He said. "That was just a pig in a red mustache, and scarce worth the slaughter. There'll be real fighting soon enough—I think you draw bloodspilling like honey draws flies."

Just what I need, Gerin thought, but he had the uneasy feeling Nordric was right.

As he and his band moved north the next day, signs of the devastation the Trokmoi were working became more frequent: corpses by the roadside (some Elabonian warriors, some woodsrunners, and all too many serfs hacked down for the sport of it), empty peasant villages (some abandoned; others gutted, smoking ruins), livestock wantonly slaughtered and now rotting in the sun, fields of wheat and oats trampled into ruin or torched, and a good many keeps overthrown. A couple of castles now flew northern banners. Some of the Trokmoi, at least, had come to stay.

Their raiding parties were everywhere—bands of half a dozen men or so, under no real leadership, out more for the joy of fighting and the hope of booty than for Balamung or the conquest of the world. The Trokmoi seemed surprised to see a sizable party of Elabonians under arms. They gave them a wide berth.

The farther north Gerin went, the fewer refugees he came across. Most of those who had fled had already fallen to the barbarians, perished on the road, or made their way south. The few fugitives he did encounter could tell him little. They had been skulking in the woods for days now. None wanted to join him.

His homeland's agony brought torment to the Fox. How could he alleviate it even if he beat Balamung? "Twenty years of peace will hardly repair this," he said bitterly that night, "and when has the border ever known twenty years of peace?"

Only the moons, almost evenly spaced across the sky, were above all strife. Nothos had been nearly due southeast at sunset, Math a day past first quarter, Elleb just at it. Rushing toward his three slower siblings, Tiwaz was now a fat waxing crescent. As twilight deepened, the fourfold shadows they cast spread fanwise from men, chariots, and trees. The ghosts began their senseless night whispers.

Although Gerin's troop was still traveling by back roads, Elise began to recognize the cast of the land the next morning. Pointing to a keep crowning a hillock ahead, she said, "That holding belongs to Tibald Drinkwater, one of my father's vassals. We must be less than a day from home!"

The Fox had not dared hope he could come this far unscathed. An unfamiliar confidence began to grow in him. It was rudely dashed when he drew closer to Tibald's keep and discovered it had been abandoned and looted and its palisade torn down.

A little later, the path they were following merged with the Elabon Way. Without hesitation, Gerin led his band onto the highway. They sped north for the castle of Ricolf the Red. Van left Rihwin's chariot and joined the Fox. He took over the driving; Elise, despite her protests, was relegated to the rear of the wagon. If they traveled openly through country held by their foes, they had to do so in battle order; one of the new footsoldiers took Van's place with Rihwin.

As Van tested the edge of one of his chakrams with a callused forefinger, he said softly, "Captain, if Ricolf's holding has fallen, you'll look a right fool coming up on it in the open like this."

"If Ricolf's holding has fallen, I'll be in too much trouble to care how I look."

The last time Gerin traveled this stretch of road, it had been too dark and he was going too fast to pay much attention to landmarks. By now, though, Elise was on land she had known since birth. "As soon as we round this next bend, we'll be able to see the keep," she said.

"Aye, there it is," Van said a moment later, "and the red banner still flying, too. But what's all that folderol around the moat—tents and things?" He drew up the wagon. Gerin waved the rest of his little force to a halt.

"It's a Dyaus-accursed siege camp, that's what it is," the baron said. "Who would have thought it from the Trokmoi? Freeze, blast, and damn Balamung! Still, though, I think we may be able to give them a surprise." He climbed down from the wagon and talked briefly with his men. They nodded and readied themselves.

The Trokmoi had set up their perimeter just out of bowshot from the ramparts of Ricolf's castle, intending to starve it into submission. A scallop in the outer edge of the moat showed where they had tried to hurry matters by filling it and storming the walls. That, plainly, had failed.

No one raised an alarm as Gerin and his men drew close. As the baron had noticed, the woodsrunners did not seem to think an armed party could belong to anyone but themselves. But sooner than the Fox hoped, a sharp-eyed Trokmê raised a shout: "Esus, Taranis, and Teutates! The southrons it is!"

Quick as he was, he was too late. Gerin's men were already rushing forward, foot and chariotry alike. A flight of fire arrows sent trails of smoke across the sky. The arrows landed on the woolen fabric of the Trokmê tents. A second flight followed the first; a couple of archers had time for a third release before they had to reach for spear and sword to defend themselves from the barbarians, who came rushing from the siege line to meet this new threat.

The Trokmoi hurled themselves into battle with their usual ferocity. These were no fainthearts like Dagdogma and his crew, but Gerin's attack cast them into confusion. And after the first few moments, they had no leader to direct their courage. Van took care of that. He sent a chakram spinning into the throat of a gilded-helmed noble. It cut him down in the midst of a shouted order.

"What fine things chakrams are!" Van told Gerin as he readied another knife-edged quoit. "I can cast them and drive at the same time." As he had in the capital, he handled the wagon as if it were a chariot. The baron, who had both hands free, felled two barbarians with well-placed arrows.

Battle madness seized Nordric harder now than it had by the river. Disdaining even his sword, he leaped from his chariot, seized a Trokmê, and broke him over his knee like a dry stick. An instant later he was down himself, caught in the side of the head by the flat of a northerner's blade. Three Elabonian footsoldiers held off the Trokmoi until he was on his feet and fighting again.

Leaderless or no, the woodsrunners badly outnumbered Gerin's men. He was beginning to wonder if he'd bitten off more than he could chew when, as he'd hoped, their camp began to blaze. Many of them pulled out of the fight in dismay. They tried to fight the flames or salvage what belongings and booty they could.

Then Ricolf's drawbridge thudded down. He and his men fell on the barbarians from the rear. Ricolf and a few of his followers had harnessed their chariots. Their arrows spread destruction through the northerners.

The battle was suddenly a rout. The Trokmoi fled singly and in small groups, turning to loose an occasional arrow but not daring to stand and fight. Ricolf and his charioteers rode a short distance in pursuit, but had no real mass of fugitives to chase. They soon reined in.

Then the men from the besieged castle were all over Gerin's troopers. They squeezed their hands, pounded their backs, and yelled congratulations and thanks. But their jubilation faded as they recognized first Rihwin and then Gerin and Van. Curiosity replaced it. That grew tenfold when Elise stuck her head out of the wagon. Many shouted happily to see her, but as many seemed confused.

Ricolf returned from the hunt. His jaw dropped when he caught sight of Rihwin, who was having a hurt arm attended to. "What are you doing here?" he growled. Rihwin flinched. He started to stammer a reply, but Ricolf paid no heed. He had just seen Gerin, Van, and his daughter.

Gerin waited in some apprehension, not sure what the older baron's reaction would be. Ricolf got down from his chariot, speechless and shaking his head. He folded Elise into his arms, then turned to the Fox. "I might have known trouble would lure you back, kidnapper," he said; Gerin was relieved to hear no anger in his tone. "Your timely return has an explanation, I'm sure?"

"Would you hear it now?"

"This very instant. If any man is entitled, I am."

Having recovered some but not quite enough of his usual aplomb, Rihwin suggested, "Perhaps to cool his throat after his exertions, my fellow Fox could use a cup of wine—" He stopped abruptly. The glare Ricolf turned on him was frightening.

"Rihwin, you are a fine young man in many ways," Ricolf said, "but if ever I hear the word 'wine' in your mouth again, I vow it will have my fist there for company."

So, unmoistened, Gerin plunged into the tale. His comrades did not let him tell it unhindered, but he controlled the flow of it, and it went well. He saw Ricolf's men, many of whom had given him hard looks when he began, coming round as he spoke. When he was done, Ricolf stayed silent a long time. He finally said, "Do you know, I believe you. No one would make up such an unlikely story."

"The last person who said something like that was Valdabrun," Gerin told him.

"From what I remember of my brother-in-law, he has trouble believing the sun comes up each morning. He misses a good deal of the juice in life." A twinkle in his eye, Ricolf asked Elise, "Do you mean to tell me you'd rather have this devious wretch than a forthright warrior like Wolfar?"

She kissed the Fox by way of answer.

Ricolf turned to Gerin. "Frankly, Fox, I thought you had more sense than to get involved in a tangle like this one."

"Frankly, so did I."

"Hmm. A year ago I had Elise's wedding plans firmly in hand, and now I seem to have very little to say about them. As I recall, Gerin, you said something about 'a mind of her own.' You were right, the gods know. This, though, I say and mean: I think you will make my daughter a good husband, but there will be no rushed wedding for fear of what the future may bring. If it should bring ill, such a wedding had better never happened. When the Trokmoi are driven away, that will be time enough."

"I can't quarrel with you," Gerin said. He saw disappointment cross Elise's face, but Ricolf's demand was only just under the circumstances.

Van said, "Ricolf, would you put a fist in my face if I asked for a mug of ale?"

"In your face?" Ricolf laughed. "You're like the thousand-pound thrush in the riddle, who perches where he pleases. Things are a bit tight—the damned barbarians have been sitting outside for some days. We're a long way from being starved out, though. Come along, all of you. We'll see what we can do."

"You spoke of Wolfar in jest a moment ago," Gerin said. "What happened to him after I, ah—?"

"Left suddenly? When he woke up (which wasn't soon; you're stronger than you think), he tried to beat down the door of my chamber and have me send all my men after you at once. I'd have done it, too, were it not for the note Elise left behind," Ricolf said.

Elise looked smug. Gerin pretended not to notice.

Ricolf went on, "When I said no, things grew unpleasant. Wolfar called me an oathbreaker and worse. He said he'd pull my castle down around my ears for me. After that, I told him he could take his carcass away while he still had ears of his own. I see what you meant about him, Gerin: he can be mild as milk when it suits him, but cross him and he raves."

"It's the streak of wereblood in him," Gerin said. "It runs thinly in many families on both sides of the Niffet, you know, but strong in his." He told Ricolf what had happened to Wolfar when Nothos and Math were full together.

The older baron frowned. "I had not heard of that. If I had, I'd never have asked him here. Lucky such conjunctions are rare."

For all their joy over driving away the Trokmoi, neither Gerin's men nor Ricolf's could work up much revelry. The day was drawing to a close. Both bands were exhausted. Even Van, as dedicated a roisterer as was ever born, contented himself with little more than the single mug of ale he had asked of Ricolf. Men gnawed at smoked beef and hard bread, cheese and sun-dried fruit. Then they sought bedrolls or fell asleep where they sat. Gerin woke in Ricolf's great hall at sunrise the next morning, still holding the same half-empty cup over which he'd dozed off.

The day passed in watchful waiting. Everyone expected the Trokmoi to try to restore their siege. But the morning slipped by with no sign of the barbarians. Tiwaz rose at noon, overlooking only peace. Elleb followed a couple of hours later. He was trailed at hourly intervals by Math and pale Nothos, and all was still quiet.

"I think you may have driven them away for a while," Ricolf said to Gerin. The Fox pointed to heaven, wishing Ricolf's words into the ear of Dyaus.

As men began to realize the woodsrunners would not be back at once, they began the celebration they'd been too worn to unleash the night before. Gerin and Ricolf quickly saw they could not stop it: the warriors needed release. The barons did what they could, ordering a few reliable men to stay sober and stand sentry lest the Trokmoi dare a night attack.

Among the troopers Gerin chose was Amgath Andar's son, Nordric One-Eye's driver. Nordric himself happened to be close by. He reinforced the Fox's orders: "Keep your eyes open, you son of an unwed she-moose, or I'll wear your family jewels on a necklace."

"Does he always use his men so?" Ricolf whispered to Gerin.

"No. Usually he's worse."

Someone by the main gate got out a mandolin and began to play. Gerin thought fleetingly of Tassilo and Rihwin, and of how a couple of foolish drunks had changed his life. Leaving Elise tomorrow, he thought, would be harder in its own way than facing the Trokmoi: that he had done many times. But only once had he left the woman he'd come to love, and then in hands he thought safe. Now, even behind Ricolf's sheltering walls, Elise was in nearly as much danger as he.

When one of Ricolf's men passed him an earthen jug of ale, he gave it back still corked. He knew drink would only lower his spirits further. He watched as Van came up with his clay flute to accompany the mandolin-player. The man who had offered Gerin ale soon joined them with one of the long horns the Trokmoi favored. That surprised the Fox; few Elabonians played the northern instrument. The music was loud and cheery, but powerless to expel Gerin's gloom.

The sun sank and was forgotten. Most of the men in the holding gathered by the gate. Song followed bawdy song. Sentries shouted refrains from the stations on the wall. When too many throats grew dry at once, Van spun things along with a tale of his days on the plains of Shanda, a story of high daring and higher obscenity. Then the soldiers roared into another ballad.

To escape the gaiety he could not share, Gerin wandered into the castle's great hall. Dyaus' altar had no offering before it now, nor were the benches crowded with feasters. One warrior snored atop a table. His head rested in a puddle of dark, sticky ale. In a corner, another trooper was kissing the bare breasts of a serving maid. Neither he nor his partner paid the Fox any mind.

Gerin walked through the dark hall, kicking at rushes and bones. Once in the corridor beyond, he stopped and looked about: which sconce's torch, he wondered, had he used to flatten Wolfar? Was it the one by that much-scarred wooden door, or its neighbor a few feet down the hallway? Unable to recall, he turned a corner—and almost ran into Elise.

Later he realized he must have been trying to find her, searching for the one happiness he'd found in a collapsing world. At the moment, no thoughts intruded. She was warm in his arms. Her lips and tongue met his with the same desperation he felt. "Where—?" he whispered, stroking her hair.

"Follow me."

It was, he thought, the chamber in which he'd slept on his way south. That seemed fitting, somehow. He chuckled under his breath. Elise made a questioning sound. He shook his head. "It's nothing, love."

The straw of the matress rustled as he drew her down. She softly cried out beneath him, three times: first in pain, then in wonder, and then, at last, in joy.

When she rose to leave, the pain of separation was nearly more than Gerin could bear. She bent down for a last kiss, said softly, "Come back to me," and was gone. He was sure he would toss for hours after the door closed behind her. Almost at once, though, he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.


It was nearly noon the next day before the Fox and his companions began the last leg of their journey. He left the wagon behind. Ricolf lent him his own stout three-man chariot, and with it a lean, weathered man named Priscos son of Mellor, his driver and shieldman.

Gerin suspected Ricolf guessed what had happened the night before, why he'd left the celebration so early. It showed in no overt way but, as the Fox made small talk with the older man while getting ready to leave, he felt an acceptance, a closeness between them of a different sort from their earlier friendship. He was glad. Ricolf's good opinion mattered to him.

Elise's farewell was wordless. He tasted tears on her lips as they kissed goodbye. He, Van, and Priscos climbed into Ricolf's chariot; Nordric and Amgath were beside them, as were Rihwin and Effo, the survivors of the fighting tail the Fox had recruited along the way, and a few volunteers from Ricolf's holding. They were twenty-two in all, with four three-man and five two-man chariots.

Priscos clucked to the horses. The little army started to move. The gatekeepers lowered the drawbridge. One of them caught Gerin's eye as he passed. "What are you running off with this time, my lord?" he asked.

"Nothing you don't see, Vukov," the Fox answered, pleased he remembered the fellow's name. He doubted the gatekeeper had had a happy time the morning after Elise left. He turned for a last glimpse of her, but the cramped confines of the gatehouse already blocked his view.

Priscos was a man of few words, most of them about horses. "You don't see many Shanda beasts hereabouts," he remarked. "Where did you come by this one?"

"What's the name of that town in the mountains, Gerin?" Van asked.


"Aye. That's where I picked him up. Cheap, too—the clod of a horse-trader didn't know what he had. He's been a rare worker."

"They're ornery, I hear," Priscos said. He went on, more to himself than Gerin or Van, "Reckon I can handle that, though." Gerin was sure he could. Priscos had an air of quiet competence he liked.

As the sun sank, they camped by what had been the border station between Ricolf's land and Bevon's. Now the square wooden building which had housed Ricolf's guardsmen was only charred ruins. One more debt to pay, the baron thought, among so many.

The ghosts were strange that night. Their keenings and wailings were more intense, and also more nearly understandable, than the Fox had ever heard. One in particular flitted round him as if drawn like moth to flame. For all its efforts, he could neither make sense of what it would tell him nor recognize its pallid form in the flickering firelight.

"That is an uncanny thing," Rihwin said, watching the wraith's frantic but vain efforts to communicate.

"Likely it's like a Shanda spirit, seeking to lure you away from the light so it can drink your blood," Van said.

Gerin shook his head. "I feel no harm in it, even if I can't understand what it would say. Besides, Van, every ghost in the north country must have had a glut of blood by now."

To that the outlander had no reply but a grave nod.

Remembering the fraternal strife tearing Bevon's barony even before the Trokmoi invaded, Gerin wanted to cross it in a single day if he could. He did not want to camp inside it: if he could expect night marauders anywhere, Bevon's tortured land would be the place.

And tortured it was. The Fox's band passed two battlefields before the sun was high in the southeast. The woodsrunners had plundered both fields, but all the bloated, naked corpses seemed to be Elabonians. Here brother had fought brother, and fought with a hate greater than they turned against the Trokmoi.

As he surveyed the second meadow filled with bodies, Gerin's face was stony and full of bitterness. "Poor fools," he said. He wondered if his words were not an epitaph for all the northland.

Whichever brother had won the war, he had not enjoyed victory long. A lot of the keeps still standing were held by small bands of Trokmoi. They hooted in derision as they saw Gerin's force go by, but did not move against it. "They think us beneath contempt," the Fox said to Van, "and perhaps we are."

"Honh! The next time I care what a woodsrunner thinks will be the first."

A bit more than halfway through Bevon's barony, they passed a roadside holding destroyed in a way Gerin had never imagined before. The timbers of one whole wall of the palisade lay like jackstraws in the bailey, as if kicked in by a monster boot. The stone keep itself was a pile of broken rubble.

Something white stuck out from under one limestone slab. As the baron drew closer, he saw it was the skeleton of a human hand and arm, picked clean of flesh by scavengers. No one, Elabonian or Trokmê, garrisoned this keep.

"This is the work of your Balamung?" Rihwin asked.

"He's not mine. I wish with all my heart I'd never heard of him," Gerin said, but he had to nod as he spoke. His warriors eyed the shattered keep with awe, fear, and wonder. Hand-to-hand fighting against the Trokmoi was all very well, but how could they hope to hold against sorcery like this? Even Nordric was grim and quiet.

"I wonder why such powerful wizardry has not been used further south," Rihwin said. "Few castles could stand against it, yet here, so close to the Niffet, is the first sign we've had of anything more than a simple barbarian invasion."

"What difference does it make?" Gerin said bleakly, staring once more at the blasted holding.

"Maybe none, maybe a great deal. One explanation I can think of is that your northern mage may have so much trouble trying to lay low one particular keep—I name no names, mind you—that he has had little leisure to help his men elsewhere."

Gerin gave him a grateful look. The line of hope the southerner had cast him was thin, but he was all but drowning in despair. Anything that buoyed his spirits was welcome.

His renewed optimism and his hope of crossing Bevon's lands in one day both collapsed not long after noon. His band came to the top of a low rise. There they stopped in horror and dismay. For the next three or four miles, the Elabon Way and most of the surrounding landscape had been brutally wiped out of existence. All that was left was a ruined expanse of raw-edged muddy craters, some a hundred feet across and twenty deep. They overlapped one another in the mangled earth, as if the same giant who had pulverized the keep had then amused himself by pelting the ground with thousands of huge boulders. But there were no boulders, no visible explanation of how the devastation had been committed.

Chariots were not built to cross such terrain. Twice Gerin and his band had to stop to mend wheels battered by half-buried fragments of roadbed and treetrunk, and once more to fix the axle of Nordric's car when it broke.

Van repaired it with bronze nails, leather lashings, and a large measure of hope. He said, "It may hold, and then again it may not. All we need now is for a horse to break a leg in this mess."

Gerin's fingers moved in a protective sign. "May the ears of the gods be closed to you."

They barely managed to escape the ruined land before the sun set. All four moons were low in the east, slow-moving Nothos being most nearly full and Tiwaz still closest to first quarter.

That night the ghosts were louder and more insistent than Gerin had over known them. Again, one in particular tried to deliver some message to him; again, he did not understand. Although he failed, something in him responded to the ghost, as if it was the shade of someone he had once known well. Irked by the riddle he could not solve, he pored over Rihwin's grimoires until sleep overtook him.

He and his men came on another band of desolation not far into the lands of Palin the Eagle. This was worse than the one before: the ravaged area held several streams and ponds. Their water made the trek a nightmare of slimy, clinging mud.

In some places, chariots sank axle-deep in the muck. The warriors had to get out and slog through it on foot to lighten the load enough to let the horses move the cars at all. Men and beasts alike were filthy and exhausted when at last they reached flat, solid ground. To his disgust, Gerin found several fat leeches clinging to his legs.

Though some daylight was still left, the Fox decided to camp when he came to an unfouled creek in which to wash. Most of his men, spent by the day's exertions, collapsed into slumber almost at once.

Only Rihwin kept any semblance of good cheer. That surprised Gerin. He had expected the southern dandy to be dismayed at his present unkempt state.

"Oh, I am, my fellow Fox, I am," he said with a grin when Gerin asked, "but what, pray, can I do about my plight save laugh? Moreover, I truly begin to think Balamung has wreaked all this havoc for no other purpose than sealing aid away from your lands. Did you not tell me a mage was warding your keep?"

"Aye, or so I hope, at any rate: Siglorel Shelofas' son. He's southern-trained, true, but I don't know how long he can stand against one such as Balamung. For one thing, he drinks too much."

"By your reckoning, so do I, yet did it keep you from bringing me along on this mad jaunt? Also, never forget that while crisis makes cravens of some, in others it burns away the dross and leaves only their best."

"From your mouth to Dyaus' ear," Gerin said, touched again by Rihwin's efforts to reassure him. What the southerner was saying held just enough sense to keep him thoughtful, too: maybe Balamung did have some unknown reason to fear him. And maybe, he told himself, I'll do as Van says and flap my arms and fly to Fomor. Neither was likely.

Despite the gift of fowls' blood, the ghosts were a torrent of half-seen motion, a clamorous murmur of incomprehensible voices. The spirit which had visited Gerin on the two previous nights returned once more. He could see its ill-defined features writhing in frustration as it failed again to impart its tidings.

"You know, captain," Van said, "I may be daft, but I think the poor wraith even looks a bit like you." Gerin shrugged. For one thing, though the ghosts were extraordinarily immanent of late, they remained cloudy and indistinct. For another, the Fox, like most folk in the Empire and the lands it knew, had only a vague idea of his features. Mirrors of polished bronze or silver were uncommon and expensive; even the best gave images of poor quality. He probably had not seen his own reflection more than a dozen times since taking over his father's barony.

The holding of Raff the Ready, Palin's vassal who had guested Gerin and Van on their way south, was only a burnt-out shell. The little pond beside it was rubble-choked and fouled with the bodies of men and beasts. Gerin viewed the ruins with sadness, but little surprise. Too many years of peace had led Raff to neglect his walls. He could not have put up much of a fight, not in his dilapidated keep.

Late that afternoon, the Fox passed from Palin's land and entered his own once more. The roadside guardhouses on either side of the border were deserted, but had not been burnt. The borderstone itself had been uprooted by the Trokmoi. Gerin cursed when he saw its moss-covered runes effaced by fylfots chipped into the rock, as if Balamung was claiming the land for his own.

So, perhaps, he was. Gerin and his band had not gone far before they tripped some sorcerous alarm the wizard had planted. A misty image of the black-robed sorcerer appeared in the road before them. "Back, are you, Fox, in spite of it all? Well, you'll have no joy of it. My lads will see to that, and soon." With a scornful laugh, the projection vanished.

"The spell your enemy placed here was plainly set to react to you and no one else," Rihwin said. "In which case—"

Gerin finished for him: "—there's sure to be another charm in action now not far away, telling a few hundred woodsrunners to come down and make an end of me. Well, what can I do but go on? Balamung has thrown away the advantage of surprise in his vainglory, for whatever that's worth."

Arms at the ready, they moved ahead as the sun sank low in the west. As they passed a tiny crossroads, a whoop from behind some brush told them they had been seen. Archers nocked arrows; spearmen tightened grips on their weapons.

They did not have long to wait. Chariots and infantry together, a veritable army thundered down the cross road toward them. At its head was Wolfar of the Axe. His hairy features split in a bloodthirsty grin when he recognized the Fox. "What luck! It's the wench-stealing sodomite himself!" he roared to his men. Then, to Gerin: "I'll make a capon of you, to keep you from having such thoughts again!"

Had Wolfar's rancor against the Fox driven him into the arms of the Trokmoi? Gerin would not have thought that even of his western neighbor, yet here he was.

There was scant time for such thought. Gerin shot at Wolfar but missed. His arrow tumbled one of the men behind Wolfar out of his chariot. Rihwin and the other bowmen let fly too, dropping a couple of other men and sending a chariot down in crashing ruin as one of its horses was hit. But to stand and fight was madness, for Wolfar had easily ten times Gerin's force.

"North!" the Fox shouted to his followers. "We'll outrun the footsoldiers, at least, and meet him on more even terms."

North they fled in the gathering dusk. Wolfar howled hatred close behind. Arrows flew up. Almost all went wide—the jouncing chariots made poor shooting platforms.

"Captain," Van shouted in Gerin's ear, "what in the five hells is that up ahead?"

Only his will kept the baron from hysterical laughter. Whatever else Wolfar was, he was shown to be no traitor. "What does it look like? It's the wizard's bully-boys, come to finish us off. We're on the horns of a dilemma, sure enough, but maybe, just maybe, they'll gore each other instead of us."

The leader of the Trokmoi was an immensely tall, immensely fat blond barbarian who filled most of a three-man chariot by himself. He stared in dismayed amazement at the force of chariotry bearing down on him. Instead of the small band he'd expected, this looked like the leading detachment of an army as large as his own.

He frantically reined in, shouting, "Deploy, you spalpeens! Don't be letting 'em get by you, now!" The Trokmoi shook themselves out into a wide line of battle, some afoot, others still in their cars.

But Gerin did not intend to take evasive action. He and his men stormed toward the center of the Trokmê line, hoping to slash through and then let the northerners and Wolfar's men slaughter each other to their hearts' content. But the Trokmoi were too many and too quick to be broken through so easily. They swarmed round the Fox's chariots, slowing the momentum of his charge and stalling him in their midst.

Their huge leader left his car to swing a great bludgeon with deadly effect. He crushed the skull of Rihwin's chariot-mate, then lashed out at Priscos. Gerin's driver took the blow on his shield. It all but knocked him from the chariot. The baron chopped at the Trokmê with an axe. The barbarian, quicker than his girth would have suggested, ducked the stroke.

A horse shrieked as a woodsrunner drove a dagger into its belly.

For a moment, Rihwin was close by Gerin. "We've got to get out of here!" he cried.

"If you have any notion how, I'd love to hear it," Gerin said.

A barbarian tried to climb into his chariot. Van hit the man in the face with a chakram-braceleted forearm. He screamed through a torn, blood-filled mouth and fell away.

Then, suddenly, the pressure of the woodsrunners on Gerin's beleaguered band slackened as Wolfar hurled himself into the sea of Trokmoi after the man he hated. "He's mine, you arse-lickers! He's mine!" he roared.

The barbarians turned to meet this new and much more dangerous threat. Gerin tried to extricate his men from the now three-cornered battle. It was not easy. The Trokmoi had not forgotten them, and to Wolfar's men the woodsrunners were only obstacles blocking the way to their real target.

Unnoticed by anyone in the melee, the sun sank below the horizon. As it set, the four moons rose within seconds of one another, all of them full. The last time that had happened had been close to three centuries before Elabon's capital was founded.

Huge tides swamped low-lying coastal areas, drowning small towns and wrecking great ports. Prophets the world around cried doom.

And in those lands where the taint of wereblood ran through a folk, no moons at quarter or crescent counteracted the pressure to change shape exerted by the light of a full moon's disk. Those with only the thinnest, most forgotten trace of wereness were now liable, indeed compelled, to take beast form.

Hills off to the east briefly shielded the battlefield from the rays of the rising moons. Then they topped the low obstacle and washed the fighters in their clear, pale light. Gerin was trading axe-cuts with a scrawny, green-eyed Trokmê who fought without armor when his foe dropped his weapon, bewilderment and alarm on his face.

The Fox had no idea what was happening to him, but was not one to let any advantage slip. His stroke was true, but the northerner ducked under it with sudden sinuous ease. The Trokmê's body writhed, twisted . . . and then the baron was facing no Trokmê, but rather a great wildcat. It spat fury and leaped at him.

He had no time to wonder if he had lost his mind. Razor-sharp claws tore at the bronze facing of his shield, snarling jaws full of jagged teeth snapped at his arm. He brought his axe crashing down between the mad eyes of the cat, felt its skull splinter under his blow. Hot blood spattered his arm. The carcass lay still a moment, twitching.

Gerin stared in disbelief. The awful wound he had inflicted healed before his eyes. Bones knit, skin and fur grew together as he gaped. The wildcat's eyes opened and caught sight of him. It yowled, gathered itself for a second spring—and was bowled over and spun to the ground by an outsized wolf. They rolled away, locked in a snarling, clawing embrace.

The battlefield was a world gone mad. At first the Fox thought some spell of Balamung's, intended for his destruction, had gone awry. He soon realized the chaos was far too general for anything of that sort.

Then, quite by accident, he saw the four full moons. Understanding came, but brought no relief, only terror. Nearly half the fighting men had gone were, in one beast-shape or another. The field was littered with corselets, greaves, and helms they escaped when the change came over them. The were-creatures fought former friends, foes, and fellow beasts with an appalling lack of discrimination.

A bellow of red rage from beside Gerin made him whip his head around, fearful lest Van too was falling under the influence of the moons. Not so: the outlander, in dispatching one of Wolfar's men who had remained both human and combative, had taken a cut on his forearm.

More and more, those who kept their human form left off fighting one another and banded together against the ravening werebeasts. At the baron's side were three Trokmê foot soldiers, but neither they nor he had any leisure in which to quarrel.

The werebeasts were so lithe and fast, they found it easy to slip through the quickest human guard and fasten claws or fangs on flesh. Even when they were killed, men gained only momentary respite from their onslaught. Within seconds of taking the most ghastly wounds, they grew whole once more.

Men caught away from their fellows were for the most part quickly killed. One pair of exceptions was Nordric One-Eye and his driver Amgath. Their chariot had foundered in the middle of the field when Van's repairs failed at last and the car's axle broke beneath it.

The werebeasts made short, dreadful work of their horses, but Nordric was in full berserker rage, and fast and savage as any shape-changer. With one mighty stroke of his sword he cut a leaping werewolf in two, then seized its tail and hurled the spouting hindquarters far away. "Live through that, you backscuttling demons' get!" he shouted.

Still, had the werebeasts not battled each other with the same ferocity they gave those who had not changed, they would have made short work of them all. As it was, boar stomped and tusked wolf, a pair of wildcats sprang at a stag. The stag tossed one away with a wicked swipe of its antlers, but went to its knees as the other reached its back. Then the werewolf was beset in turn by a gigantic badger.

The shape-changers, Gerin noted, seemed to keep the same body weight they had possessed as men. A couple of hawks far too heavy to fly stumped about the battlefield. Their cruel beaks gaped as they screamed challenge to all and sundry. Nor were they long without foes. A wolf attacked one, a fox the other. Between beaks, talons, and battering wings, both soon had cause to regret it.

The majority of the werebeasts were wolves, foxes, or wildcats, but deer, boar, bear, badger, and wolverine were all commonly represented. Along with these mundane creatures, though, were several oddities. One of Wolfar's men must have had some Urfa blood in his past, for a miniature but combative were-camel, moaning, snorting, and spitting, struck shrewd blows with its forefeet at the carnivores assailing it.

Off to one side lay a tremendous salmon, a corselet still round the middle of its body. It flopped and gasped in the air it could not breathe. It could not die, either, because of the vitality of its wereblood.

In the convulsions of the field, two transformed creatures stood out. One was the wolf which had been Wolfar. His passion against Gerin was so fierce that he kept it in beast shape. He fought to force his way through the press and close his jaws on the Fox's throat. His howls of fury held almost understandable curses buried within them.

Yet even the were-Wolfar gave way before a great tawny longtooth which, from its bulk, must have been the animal shape of the swag-bellied Trokmê commander. It flailed its way through the imbroglio with hammerlike blows of its paws, blows that sent even werebeasts reeling back, stunned.

The monster cat came up to the stalled chariot in which Nordric and his driver still held out. Amgath snapped his long lash at it, hoping to keep it at a distance. It squalled in pain and anger but, instead of being repulsed, ran at him. He dropped the whip and grabbed a short thrusting-spear. Too late. A single cuff crushed his face and broke his neck.

The longtooth's rush overturned the chariot and tumbled Nordric among the ravening werebeasts. Gerin was sure he was doomed. In an instant, though, he was on his feet, a sword in either hand. His curses pierced the cacophony of beast-noises around him. He seemed to face every way at once, flashing blades keeping death at bay. He drove off one werebeast after another. Trokmoi and Elabonians shouted together.

Their cheers turned to groans as he went down, a wildcat clinging to his back. Van leaped from the chariot and ran to his rescue. The wolf that had been Wolfar bounded toward him, slavering jaws agape, yellow eyes blazing hatred.

The outlander was ready when it sprang. A blow of his spiked mace shattered its skull. The wereflesh healed with unnatural speed, but Van was past by the time the wolf regained its feet. He kicked the cat away from Nordric. It lashed out at the first thing it hit, another, even bigger, wildcat. While they tried to gut each other with raking claws, Van hauled Nordric erect. Side by side, they fought their way back to the chariots.

Nordric was battered and bleeding, but still full of fight. Gerin and Van had to hold him back from throwing himself once more against the were-longtooth that had killed Amgath.

"There's no vengeance to gain against a beast you cannot kill," Gerin said. "He'll be in human shape again, you know—maybe you'll meet him then." Nordric let himself be persuaded, a true measure of the punishment he had taken.

Wolfar's chief lieutenant, Schild Stoutstaff, had not gone were. Now he began to rally to himself such of his overlord's men as were left. The Trokmoi, too, gravitated toward a pair of their nobles.

Gerin thought it a good time to vanish discreetly from the field. Followed by all his surviving men—Rihwin and Nordric in the former's chariot and three more warriors in another car—he edged toward the cover of the woods.

Their departure went unmarked by still-struggling men, but one werebeast saw. The wolf that was Wolfar bayed angrily and started to lope after them. Before he could clear the battlefield, the longtooth knocked him down from behind. It tried to bury its fangs in were-Wolfar's neck. The werewolf tried to twist free, but his foe's great weight held him down.

Wolfar writhed, wriggled, and clamped his teeth on one of the longtooth's forelegs. Bones crunched. The longtooth screamed. It tore at the wolf's belly with its hind feet. Wolfar let go, but only to snap at the longtooth's throat. Any greater purpose was forgotten in the fighting madness now gripping him. Outmatched physically, he was nearly the longtooth's match because of the fury that drove him.

Gerin thanked the gods he and the poor handful of followers left him had made good their escape. Giving quiet directions to Priscos, he guided them north through a web of tiny trails. No one who had not lived in the barony could have followed them in the dark.

At last he judged it safe to stop. The din of battle had long since died behind him, but the night was far from still. More than the usual number of animals ranged the woods. Many were men caught in the open by the werenight and now running wild, bloodlust in their souls.

That led to another thought: what hell was the werenight playing in keeps under siege—especially in Castle Fox (always assuming it had not fallen)? "Don't worry about it, captain," Van said when Gerin spoke aloud. "Whatever's going on inside, it's just as bad out, and that you can bet on. Balamung or no, the Trokmoi'll be in no shape to take advantage of things tonight. Maybe a weresnake will swallow the cur and solve our problem for us."

"Such happy endings happen more often in romances than in fact, I fear," Gerin said, but the outlander had heartened him.

Something else occurred to Rihwin: "Great Dyaus above! I wonder what's happening south of the mountains?" The Fox shied away from that idea. With even a small part of its populace turned were, the capital's narrow, winding streets and dark alleys would be a worse jungle than any forest through which he'd pass. He thought of Turgis and hoped the innkeeper was safe.

Not so the Sorcerers' Collegium. He started to send a curse down on its head, then stopped, suddenly ashamed of himself. "Now I understand why the southern wizards offered me no help!" he exclaimed. "They must have known this was coming, and been making ready to meet it. Sosper as much as told me so. No wonder they needed to keep every man they had in the southlands."

Despite exhaustion, Gerin found sleep hard to come by. So did his men: they were all in pain from wounds taken fighting the Trokmoi, Wolfar's warriors, or the werebeasts.

Also, the light of the four full moons seemed to allow the ghosts fuller access to this plane than at more normal times. They floated round the campfire, sometimes darting up to one or another of the men to try to give such advice as each thought important. Thanks to the moons, they were sometimes able to make themselves understood, but that understanding did not always make their listeners see why the wraiths deemed their news important.

"What possible difference does it make to me that the price of barley in the capital dropped two coppers a bushel three days ago?" Rihwin demanded. The spirit that told him did not explain.

The ghost that had been straining for days to get through to Gerin drifted toward him again. "Captain, I take oath it looks like you," Van said. "Face a little wider, maybe, but leave out that and what looks like a broken nose and it could be your twin—"

"Father Dyaus above!" Gerin whispered. "Dagref, is it you?" He moved to embrace his slain brother's shade, but it was like trying to hold a breeze.

The ghost withdrew a few paces, slowly and sadly shaking its head. Gerin recalled that gesture well. His older brother had always used it when the Fox did something foolish.

The memory brought sudden tears to the baron's eyes, though he and Dagref had not always been close. Dagref was half a dozen years older, while Gerin, as he approached manhood, found the soldier's life Dagref took to so naturally did not suit him at all. Or so I thought then, Gerin said to himself: here I am living it.

The lips of Dagref's ghost were moving, but the Fox still could not make out any words. He heard his brother's voice in his mind, but so windblown and blurred by echoes that he could not grasp Dagref's meaning. "Once more," he begged.

The wraith grimaced in exasperation, but started over. This time its meaning, or a sentence of it, was clear: "You still don't keep the stables as clean as our father would have liked," Dagref's ghost said. It shook its head again in the gesture so familiar to Gerin, then, satisfied it had finally got across what was necessary, disappeared into the darkness, leaving Gerin more bewildered than before.

"What did it say?" Van asked. Gerin told him. Van tugged at his beard, gave the Fox a quizzical look. "It's hounded you for days to let you know you're a scurvy excuse for a housekeeper? Tell me, captain, was your brother crack-brained?"

"Of course not." The news Dagref's ghost had given was plainly important to it. Gerin cursed himself for failing to see why. He turned the ghost's enigmatic words over and over in his mind, but came no closer to understanding them.

Half a night's sleep brought no new insight. He was glad, though, when he woke, to see the sun shining through the trees to the east and all the moons gone from the sky.

"You look like death warmed over," Van said. "There's dried blood all over your face."

The baron scrubbed with his fingers, saying, "I must have done enough tossing and turning to open up a cut or two." He pounded left fist into right palm. "Damn everything, what was Dagref trying to tell me?"

He got no good answer to that, either from his own wits or from his comrades when he put the riddle to them. "Perhaps he wants you to have a good storage place for my cheap barley," Rihwin suggested. Gerin glared at him, but it made as much sense as anything else.

Not long after they left camp, they came upon the mangled and partially eaten carcass of a brown bear. Beside it slept a naked Trokmê. Awakened by their approach, he leaped up and fled into the woods, red hair streaming behind him.

Rihwin stared in disbelief. "No man could—"

"And no man did," Van said grimly. "Look at the tracks: bear and wildcat. It shouldn't have been too hard. In were shape, the woodsrunner would have taken no hurt. Then he had his feast, curled up afterwards—and changed back when the moons set."

The forest path was punctuated by random death: another bear, horribly torn; a Trokmê with his throat ripped out; a pair of Elaboninan warriors so mutilated as to appall even Gerin's hard-bitten crew; a crofter's cottage, its flimsy door torn from leather hinges, a blackened puddle of blood luring flies at the threshold. Gerin did not need to look to be sure no one was alive inside. He hoped the deaths there had been quick.

Live Trokmoi still lurked in the woods. An arrow from hiding grazed the side of Gerin's helm. He and Rihwin shot blindly into the undergrowth. The sniper, unhurt, let fly again, hitting Priscos' left arm just below the shoulder. The driver cursed and tore out the arrow, then ripped at his tunic for cloth to bandage the wound.

The rest of the Elabonians jumped from their chariots. They ran for cover, then stalked the barbarian sharpshooter. The Trokmê, no fool, held his well-concealed position until he had what he thought was a good shot at Van. But in his cramped quarters he could not draw bow to his ear, only to his chest. The outlander's stout cuirass turned his shaft.

Van shouted in rage and rushed at the thicket from which the arrow had come. The Trokmê fled. A blow of Van's mace felled him from behind before he had taken ten strides. Like a charging longtooth, the outlander was deadly quick in a short rush.

He surveyed the sniper's corpse without a hint of remorse. "A pity the craven bushwhacker didn't die slower," he said. "If he wanted to fight, he should have come at us like a man."

Gerin had planned and executed enough ambushes in his time to keep a discreet silence.

When they returned to the chariots, Priscos was matter-of-fact. "Did you get him?" he asked. At Gerin's nod, he said, "Good," and jerked the reins to get the horses moving north again.

They returned to the Elabon Way no more than a couple of hours' journey south of Fox Keep. Gerin was sickly aware he was returning without even the ragtag army which had set out from Ricolf's holding. The werenight had seen to that. His main hope now was that it had disrupted Balamung's men more than the Elabonians.

Then that hope died too. A shout rang out from the flanking forest: "Here's more o' the buggers!" A score and more of footsoldiers charged from the woods, spears ready to cast, swords bared.

But the Fox was still reaching for his bow when he realized the cry had been in his own tongue, not the woodsrunners'. And when the onrushing warriors spotted him (or more likely spied Van and his distinctive armor), they stopped so abruptly that one man stumbled and fell to his knees. Then they came on again, but now in friendship and joy, raising a cheer to chill the heart of any Trokmê in earshot.

Gerin recognized them as Drago the Bear's men; their commander was one of Drago's chief retainers, Fedor the Hunter. The Fox did not know Fedor well. He usually stayed behind at Drago's keep as deputy when his overlord went to Castle Fox. But Gerin had never been gladder to see anyone than this heavyset, scar-faced warrior.

Fedor led his men up to the Fox. "We thought you dead, my lord," he said accusingly. "The Trokmoi and their cursed wizard claimed you were, when they tried to get me to yield the Castle of the Bear to them."

"Drago's holding stands?" Gerin said. "You beat back an attack the wizard led himself? Great Dyaus, Fedor, how? His magic has leveled more keeps than I can count."

"Oh, he tried to shake the holding down after I said no to him, so he did. Fires and smokes and flying demons and I don't know what all. But the Castle of the Bear is good and solid, and it sits on bedrock. As for the rest"—he shrugged with the same stolidity Drago would have shown—"we were inside and they were outside, and that's the way it stayed. The wizard's lightnings blasted one breach, but no woodsrunners came through it alive. They paid a lot more than half the butcher's bill, my lord. After a while, they'd had enough and went away."

Listening to the bald report, Gerin decided Fedor had not had the imagination to see he had no chance. And, going on phlegmatically where a more perceptive man would have despaired, he had endured. Something to be said for dullness after all, the Fox thought.

But Fedor was not yet done. "You need not look so surprised, my lord. Fox Keep still holds too, you know."

The baron's heart gave a great bound within him. "No," he said softly. "I did not know."

"Aye, it does." Fedor seemed oblivious to the impact his news had on the Fox. "They're under siege, true, but they managed to sneak a messenger to us through the woodsrunners' lines: some trick of your wizard Siglorel, I understand. Sixty men set out from the Castle of the Bear two days ago, but after last night—" He shrugged again. "For a while I thought I'd lost my wits, but I was too busy staying alive to worry about it."

"Weren't we all?" Gerin said.

Thanks to the footsoldiers, the final approach to Fox Keep was slower now, but Gerin would not have traded them for all the treasures of Ikos. A final fear gripped him: that the keep had fallen after its messenger went out. Then Van pointed north. "Right on the skyline, captain—the very tip of your watchtower. And I think"—he squinted—"aye, I think it's your banner atop it."

As his men exulted, Gerin tried to follow his friend's pointing finger. He had to say, "Your eyes are better than mine." But that Van saw what he claimed, the baron had no doubt. He had surmounted every stumbling block now, save the last . . . putting an end to the mightiest mage the world had seen in two thousand years. And even as he quickened his pace toward his castle, he realized he still had no idea how to do that.


Castle Fox had taken a fearful beating, Gerin saw as he and his men sped toward it. Part of one wall had fallen, to be replaced by a lower, makeshift bulwark of timbers and earth. For some reason, the logs of the palisade were painted a sour dark green. Though the watchtower still stood, gaps had been bitten into some of the upper stonework of the keep.

Still, on the whole the Trokmê investment was a shabby job. Mighty sorcerer or no, Balamung was only a woodsrunner when trying to besiege a holding his magic could not flatten. He knew nothing of engines or stratagems, but had to rely on the ferocity of his troops—and ferocity counted for little against a fortress with determined defenders. Broken bodies littered the ground below the palisade. Here as at the Castle of the Bear, their bravery and inexperience were making the Trokmoi pay more than their share of blood.

But what ferocity could do, it would. Just out of bowshot from the palisade, Balamung harangued his men, nerving them to yet another charge against outwall and gate. Despite the repeated maulings the Elabonians had given them, despite the horrors of the werenight just past, they waved their weapons and cheered at his speech, for all the world like so many outsized, destructive children.

The Fox's men on the palisade caught sight of Gerin before the Trokmoi did. Their yells made Balamung pause in mid-word. He looked up. An evil orange glow lit his eyes. His voice sounded inside the Fox's head, scornful and exasperated at the same time: "It's infernally hard to kill that you are. Well, so long as you're here, you can watch your fine castle die, for I'm fresh out of patience with your puppydog of a wizard, indeed and I am."

The lean sorcerer gave quick orders to his men. Fifty or so loped toward the Fox ("Just to make sure you don't joggle my elbow, now," Balamung said). The rest advanced on the palisade. The baron found their discipline remarkable—and alarming. He'd hoped his sudden advent would draw all the barbarians from the walls and free his men inside to sally against them.

The first arrow hissed past his head. Another found the breast of one of Rihwin's proud dapples. The southerner's chariot slewed, flipped over. He and Nordric, both veterans of such mishaps, landed lightly. They were on their feet at once to face the oncoming Trokmoi.

More arrows flew past. The Fox shot a couple in return. Then he yelled to Priscos, "We'd all better get down. The horses will just have to take their chances."

The driver chewed his lip, unhappy at the thought of abandoning the beasts but knowing not all spills ended so luckily as Rihwin's. He pulled to a halt, his long face doleful. Sword in hand, he followed Gerin and Van to the ground.

He ran to the horses. Evading a snap from the Shanda pony, he slashed through their traces and slapped both beasts' rumps with the flat of his blade. They galloped away, leather straps trailing. Priscos gave Gerin a wintry grin. "All right, my lord, I expect I'm ready now."

The baron had no time to answer—the Trokmoi were upon them. He glimpsed a hurled stone just in time to flick up his shield and knock it aside. A wild-haired northerner, naked but for a helm and one greave, thrust at his legs with a short pike. He skipped aside.

Van rammed his own, longer, spear into the Trokmê's belly. He jerked it free with an expert twist. Bloody entrails came with it.

At first, progress toward Fox Keep was not hard. Though outnumbered almost two to one by the Trokmoi Balamung sent to hold them off, the Elabonians had better weapons and armor than their foes. But soon the lack of order the baron had looked for before began to cost his relieving force. More and more Trokmoi gave up the attack on the palisade and ran toward the hand-to-hand fighting they loved so well. Their wizard leader cursed shrilly and tried to bend them to his will again, but had little luck. Wizard or no, leader or no, he could not change the habits of the proud, wild folk he led.

A tall noble in brightly burnished scale-mail confronted the Fox. "It's Dumnorix son of Orgetorix son of—" he began. He got no farther, for an arrow—a Trokmê arrow, by its length and fletching—suddenly sprouted in his throat and sent him spinning to the ground.

Then the baron was facing a woodsrunner who must have learned his swordplay from an Elabonian. Forsaking the usual slashing style of the Trokmê, he thrust wickedly at Gerin's face, belly, and face again. His wrist was quick as a snake. But Rihwin sprang to Gerin's side. His slim blade darted at the Trokmê. Unable to stand against two such swordsmen, the barbarian sprang back among his comrades.

Both sides slowed to a brief, panting halt. Not fifteen feet from the Fox, a sweaty barbarian leaned on his spear. He was picking his teeth with a gory forefinger. He caught Gerin's eye and grinned. "Good fighting." And in truth, that was all the twisted corpses, the gashed limbs, the terror and agony meant to him: a sport, something to enjoy and at which to excel.

Gerin wearily shook his head. Too many on both sides of the border felt thus.

Someone threw a stone. Someone else cast a spear. The heat of battle again grew to a boil. Shouting like men struck mad, a wedge of Trokmoi slammed into the middle of Gerin's thin line, splitting his force in two.

The larger half, led by Nordric, made for the repaired breach in the palisade. That, thought Gerin, was largely because his berserker comrade saw more Trokmoi there than anywhere else. Nordric and his companions fought their way into range of covering arrows from the palisade. Its defenders cheered their every forward step.

For his own fragment, which included Van, Rihwin, and Priscos, the baron had another goal: Balamung himself. The black-robed mage, hood flung back to show his face, stalked menacingly round the palisade. Under one arm he carried the Book of Shabeth-Shiri. The codex was bound in light, fine-grained leather, perhaps tanned human hide.

No arrow bit the wizard, though the men on the palisade sent many his way. Some flared into brief blue flame, others flew wild, others simply vanished. Arrogant and contemptuous, Balamung stood, dry, under a rain of death.

He opened the Book of Shabeth-Shiri and began to chant. Even fighting desperately a furlong away, Gerin felt the power the wizard gathered, saw the air around him shimmer with pent-up energies. His hair tried to prickle upright under his helm.

The Trokmoi who had been assaulting the wall of the palisade on which the spell would fall sprinted away for their lives. Balamung's chant rose to a crescendo. He shouted in the dread Kizzuwatnan tongue, paused, shouted again.

Sheets of red flame flowed from his fingertips. The fire engulfed the wall of the palisade. Gerin watched in awe and consternation. Not even ashes, he thought, could remain when that incandescent flood receded. But the palisade withstood the fiery bath unharmed, still the same sour green which had bemused the Fox before.

"I think your own wizard has won a point," Rihwin said, parrying a spearthrust. That was a notion new to Gerin. It had not occurred to him that the ugly paint might be a sorcerous defense.

Balamung shouted in frustrated wrath. His flapping black cloak gave him the aspect of a starveling vulture. He loped toward the repaired section of the palisade, crying to Siglorel, "Southron fool, you'll pay for not bending the knee to me!" Less than a bowshot from where Gerin battled his minions, the Trokmê mage opened his fell grimoire and began another spell.

Redoubling their efforts, the baron and his men tried to close with the wizard while his sorcery distracted him. But they had all they could do to stay alive; pushing forward against the barbarians was impossible.

The Fox could only watch as fire shot once more from Balamung's hands. It caught and clung to the untreated timbers of the improvised barricade—and to the back of a woodsrunner not quick enough to get away. A human torch, he shrieked and fell and burned. Gerin's men within Fox Keep braved arrows to beat at the flames with hides and pour water and sand on them, but could not douse the wizardfire.

Then Siglorel, clad in robes no less black than Balamung's, appeared at the top of the burning stretch of palisade. As Rihwin had said, when faced with the supreme challenge of his life he turned his back on the alepot and fought Balamung's spells to a standstill. Now he worked with unhurried skill, ignoring the missiles flying around him. His fingers flashed in intricate passes. As his hands fell when his spell was done, the flames fell too, leaving the bulwark smoldering but intact.

"You dare to show yourself in my despite?" Balamung hissed. Gerin shuddered at the malice in his voice. Siglorel gave his foe a tired, grave nod. "Then dare—and die!" Balamung's arm swept down. Lightning cracked from a clear sky. A flick of Siglorel's hand sent the bolt smashing harmlessly to the ground.

The backlash of energies from the wizards' duel—and simple fear, too—held Trokmoi and Elabonians frozen where they stood, unwilling witnesses to a struggle more dire than any in which they fought. Balamung was clearly the stronger. The lightnings he hurled crashed ever closer to his enemy, his whirlwinds spun up great clouds of choking dust that all but hid the palisade, his demons flew shrieking through the winds and dove on Siglorel like huge bat-winged falcons.

No levinbolt, though, seared through Siglorel's heart, no wind seized him and flung him to his doom (though the warrior who had been at his side had time for but one brief scream of terror as Balamung's tornado tore him from Castle Fox), no demon drank his blood. Face gone dead white from strain, hands darting now here, now there like those of a man wracked by fever, Siglorel somehow kept an ever-tightening circle of safety round himself.

Once or twice he even managed to strike back. Balamung contemptuously swatted aside his lightnings, as if they were beneath his notice. The end, Gerin saw, was inevitable. Balamung cursed in balked outrage as his weaker opponent evaded destruction again and again, but each escape was narrower, each drained more of Siglorel's waning strength.

Then the Trokmê wizard chuckled terribly. He briefly checked the Book of Shabeth-Shiri. At his gesture, a plane of pulsing violet light sprang into being on either side of Siglorel. As Balamung brought his hands toward each other, the planes of force he had created began to close upon his antagonist. Siglorel tried to check the inexorable contraction, but all his knowledge, all his cantrips, were of no avail against the ancient, mighty sorcery Balamung commanded.

Ever nearer each other drew the planes of force, so that now Siglorel held them apart not with his magic, but by the power of his strongly muscled arms and shoulders. The desperate tableau held for half a minute, no more; then only a crimson smear lay between the glowing planes.

Gerin expected his own life to be similarly crushed away, but Balamung, a cat toying with a helpless mouse, took too much pleasure in the baron's dismay to end the game so quickly. Full of noxious confidence, his voice sounded in the baron's ear: "First you can watch your fine keep fall. Then I'll get round to dealing with yourself—if my lads have not done it for me."

That seemed likely. Gerin and Van fought back-to-back much of the time now. Many of the warriors who had accompanied them were gone. Attacked at the same time by one Trokmê with a sword and two more with spears, Priscos went down while Balamung was speaking. Rihwin and Gerin killed the spearmen, but Priscos lay where he had fallen.

Balamung began another spell. A clot of black smoke rose before him. It quickly began to take shape and solidity. Even after his invocation ceased, that which he summoned continued to grow.

The demon was roughly anthropoid, but twice the height of any man, and broad in proportion. Forced to bear its huge mass, its short thick legs were bowed, but they carried it well enough. Its huge arms, hanging almost to the ground, ended in grasping, taloned hands. Its skin was black and green, and wet like a frog's. It was grossly male.

Its chinless lower jaw hung slack, showing row on row of saw-edged teeth. A bifurcated tongue lashed in and out. The demon had no nose, only red slits to match the banked fires of its eyes. Above those eyes, its forehead sloped straight back. Its batlike ears swiveled and twitched at every sound.

Obeying Balamung's shouted command, it waddled toward Castle Fox. The Trokmoi scattered before it. As he watched it near the keep, Gerin saw a plume of smoke curl up from within the palisade. One of the outbuildings was alight, whether from Balamung's magic or a mere fire-arrow he did not know.

The wizard saw it too. He laughed. "You'll no more be putting your betters in the stables to sleep, will you now?"

At their mage's order, the Trokmoi raked the palisade with arrows, forcing its defenders to keep their heads down. A few Elabonians shot back. Two arrows pierced the demon. It wailed and gnashed its teeth, but did not slow.

Then Nordric rushed at it, a sword in either hand, curses rising even over its cries. All the barbarians around him had fled at the demon's onset, but in his blind fury he knew only the attack. The demon stopped as he charged. It was confused, no doubt, to see a human running toward it.

Then confusion gave way to a full-throated bellow of pain and rage, for Nordric's first stroke ripped into its thigh. Purplish-red ichor spurted from the wound. Gerin and the Elabonians cheered frantically, and were joined by more than a few Trokmoi not happy with the unholy ally Balamung had given them.

But the demon, faster than its bulk suggested, slipped by Nordric's next rush. An arm longer than he was tall snaked out. A huge hand seized him in a chest-crushing embrace. No last oath passed his lips as his swords fell from nerveless fingers. The demon brought the fresh-killed dainty to its mouth. The horrible jaws slammed shut. The monster flung what was left of the broken body behind it and resumed its advance on the palisade.

Reaching the repaired section of wall, it grasped a charred timber near the top. Enormous muscles bunched under its glabrous hide. The timber groaned, screamed, and came loose with a splintering crash. The demon tossed it aside, grabbed another and pulled it free, then another and another.

More arrows thudded into its flesh, but so thick were its muscles that they guarded its vitals almost as well as a corselet. The Trokmoi shouted in excitement as they saw the barrier torn apart.

When the breach was all but complete, an Elabonian with more courage than sense attacked the demon with a spear. A heavy forearm knocked aside his weapon. The demon lashed out with a broad, flat foot. The Elabonian's body, torn nearly in two by that terrible kick, flew through the air to land well within the courtyard of Fox Keep.

Balamung cried out once more in whatever fell tongue he used to control the monster he had summoned. It turned away from the keep, moved ponderously toward Gerin and his embattled comrades. The smoke from the burning stables grew thicker as the warriors who had been fighting the flames abandoned that task to meet the Trokmoi swarming into the breach.

More afraid of their hideous partner than the men they were facing, the woodsrunners who had opposed the Fox gave way as the demon neared. Out of the corner of his eye, Gerin saw Van closely studying the oncoming monster. The tight smile on the outlander's face puzzled him until he realized his friend had at last found a foe to overawe him.

Then shouts from the keep made every head whirl. The demon, bat-ears unfurled to the fullest extent, turned to meet the new challenger bearing down on it. Duin the Bold, mounted on a horse and carrying the biggest spear he could find, had rammed his way through the Trokmoi at the breach. He thundered toward the monster, shouting to draw its attention from Gerin and his companions.

The part of the Fox's mind which, regardless of circumstances, observed and recorded fine details, now noted that Duin was not riding bareback. He sat on a rectangular cloth pad cinched tight round the horse's middle. His feet were in leather loops depending from either side of the pad.

Duin rode straight at the demon, which gathered itself to meet him. His lance, powered by the hard-charging horse, plunged deep into the monster's belly. The improvised stirrups kept him atop his mount and added even more impact to the blow. The gore-smeared bronze spearpoint jutted from the demon's back.

Its roar of agony filled the field. Though blood bubbled over its lips, it plucked Duin from his horse and slammed him to the ground. He lay unmoving. The demon's shrieks faded to gurgles. It swayed, toppled, fell. Clawed fingers opened and closed on nothing, then were still.

But Balamung did not let the Trokmoi dwell on the defeat of his creature. "Have no fear, lads," he said. "I'm after having more of the beasts, which they'll not find easy to stop. And look: the palisade's broken, and there's fire in the courtyard. One more good push and we'll need push no more." He opened the Book of Shabeth-Shiri, began again the dreadful invocation which had called the demon from its plane.

Gerin looked from the congealing smoke of the Trokmê's magic to the smoke puffing up from the stables—the stables where Balamung had slept three years before, the stables which, as his brother's ghost had reminded him, had not been well cleaned from that time to this.

Sudden wild hope burned through him. If a single one of Balamung's hairs was buried in the old dry straw of the burning outbuilding—and if his own memory still held the spell he had learned from Rihwin more out of sheer annoyance from any expectation it would ever be of use . . . "What have I to lose?" he muttered to himself, and began.

A woodsrunner leaped at him when he dropped his sword and shield. Van stretched the man lifeless in the dirt. The outlander had no idea what his friend was doing, or indeed whether he still had all his wits, but would guard him as long as breath was in his body.

Chanting in the harsh Kizzuwatnan tongue, left hand moving through passes fast as he dared, the Fox went to his knees in the first of the three required genuflections. As he rose, he remembered the words of the Sibyl of Ikos, words he had thought filled only with doom. Confidence tingled along his veins, warm like wine. He grinned savagely. Aye, he was bowing to the mage of the north, but he did not think Balamung would appreciate the compliment.

That newfound confidence almost made him careless. His tongue stumbled in a particularly intricate passage of the spell. For a moment, his body filled with frightening heat. But he recovered and raced on, driving to be done before Balamung could finish his own magic and realize himself attacked. He bowed for the last time, shouted the last Kizzuwatnan curse, and stood. If he had blundered, he would soon be dead, either from the recoil of his spell or the overwhelming power of his foe.

He had won the race. Balamung was still incanting, his demon materializing before him. Half a minute passed in anticlimax. Gerin watched his enemy in baffled despair. Then the fire in the stables reached the two or three hairs still left from the wizard's visit long before.

Balamung paused for an instant, brushing a sleeve of his robe across his forehead as if to wipe away sweat. Then little yellow flames licked at the robe, and at his flesh as well. Smoke poured from his body.

The half-formed demon vanished.

Balamung screamed, a cry of utmost anguish that stirred horror though from the throat of a foe. The wizard beat at his flaming chest with arms no less afire. He knew the author of his destruction the instant his dreadful eyes seized the Fox's. A clawlike hand speared at Gerin for a final malediction. Flame dripped down the pointing index finger before the spell was cast.

The all-consuming fire left of Balamung only gray flakes of ash. The wind tossed them high in the air and blew them away. He had read his stars aright: no man would ever know his grave, for there was nothing of him to bury.

And with him burned the Book of Shabeth-Shiri. That evil tome, which had survived so long, seemed at the end more tenacious of life than the wizard who briefly owned it. Only slowly did the flames grip its pages. Gerin would have taken oath that he saw those pages flutter and rustle in an almost sentient effort to put out the fire and escape their fate. But the spells Shabeth-Shiri had amassed in ancient days now turned to smoke one by one, and as each was destroyed the power of the Book grew less. At last the fire engulfed it altogether, and it was gone.

A strange pause followed; neither side could quite believe Balamung had truly perished. Gerin's men in Fox Keep recovered first. Shouting, "The Fox! The Fox!" they battered their way through the dismayed Trokmoi at the breach and rushed toward the baron and his few remaining comrades. The woodsrunners scattered before them.

Drago the Bear took Gerin in an embrace that hurt even through armor. Right behind him were Rollan, Simrin Widin's son, and most of the borderer crew. They were thinner and dirtier than the Fox remembered, but still men to be reckoned with, and happier than he had ever seen them.

Gerin had hoped their onslaught, coupled with the death of the wizard at his moment of triumph, would send the Trokmoi fleeing for the Niffet. But a northern chieftain stopped the rout before it began. He cut down with his own hand a barbarian running past him. "Are we men or snot-nosed weans?" he roared. "It's but southrons we're fighting, not gods. They bleed and they die—and it's not many of 'em are left to be killed!"

The Trokmoi sensed the truth in his words. So, with sinking heart, did the Fox. Though magic had failed the barbarians, edged bronze might yet suffice. "We haven't enough men to fight in the open here. Back to the castle before they cut us off," he commanded. "Keep the best order you can."

Drago began to protest. He looked from the regrouping barbarians to the white scar over Gerin's eye and thought better of it. For the first hundred yards or so, the retreat went smoothly. Then the Trokmoi gave a hoarse cheer and charged.

Direct as always, Van went straight for the northern leader, reasoning that his death might kill the spirit he'd given his men. But not even the outlander's might let him bull his way through the Trokmoi. Their noble commander declined combat. Like few barbarians Gerin knew, he was aware he had more value for his band than his sword-arm alone.

The baron and his men were within the shadow of the palisade when Rihwin swore and fell, an arrow through his calf. An axe-wielding Trokmê leaped in for the kill. Though prone, Rihwin turned the first stroke with his shield. Before the woodsrunner could make a second, Drago speared him in the side. Gerin's burly vassal slung Rihwin over his shoulder like a sack of turnips. He ran for the breach with the rest of the Elabonians.

Thus, through the gap torn in the palisade, Gerin re-entered Fox Keep, the outbuildings afire before him, the Trokmoi hard on his heels. Cursing the noble who had rallied the northerners, he shouted for pikemen to hold the gap.

The barbarians outside the keep listened to the passionate oratory of their self-appointed leader. With much argument and wasted motion, they formed a ragged line of battle. "At 'em!" the noble cried. Now he led the charge himself.

Arrows and javelins took their toll of the onrushing barbarians, but they did not waver. They slammed into the thin line the Fox had built against them.

Spear and shield, sword and corselet kept them out. Van was everywhere at once, smiting like a man possessed, bellowing out a battle-song in the twittering tongue of the plains. He hurled his spear at the leader of the woodsrunners and cursed foully when he missed.

He took out his rage on the Trokmoi nearest him. Blood dribbled down the leather-wound handle of his mace and glued it to his hand. As always, Gerin fought a more wily fight, but he was in the front line, his left-handed style giving more than one woodsrunner a fatal half-second of confusion.

When at last the Trokmoi sullenly pulled out of weapon-range, though, Gerin realized how heavy his losses had been. Simrin Widin's son was on his knees, clutching at an arrow driven through his cuirass into his belly. Fandor the Fat lay dead behind him, along with far too many others. Almost everyone who could still wield a weapon was at the breach, and almost everyone bore at least one wound.

Shouts of alarm came from the watchtower and two sides of the palisade. "Ladders! Ladders!" The few defenders still on the wall raced to the threatened spots. One ladder, another, went over with a crash, but already red-mustached barbarians were on the walkway. They fought to hold off the Elabonians until their comrades could scale the wall for the final, surely victorious assault on Fox Keep.

Gerin knew such weariness as he had never felt before. He had endured the terrors of the werenight, slain a wizard more deadly than the world had known for a score of centuries . . . for what? An extra hour of life. Merely for the lack of a few men, his holding would fall despite all he had done. A double-bladed throwing axe hurled from the walkway flashed past him. It buried itself in the blood-soaked ground.

But instead of pressing home their attack, the Trokmoi cried out in despair and fear. The Fox's troopers shouted in sudden desperate urgency. The barbarians on the wall fled back to their scaling-ladders and scrambled down them, trying to reach ground outside the keep before its defenders sent their escape routes toppling.

Bewildered, the baron looked south and saw the most unlikely rescue force conceivable thundering toward Fox Keep. Wolfar of the Axe, in man's shape once more, still had with him a good third of the two-hundred-man army he had led before the werenight. Gerin more than half expected Wolfar's men to ignore the Trokmoi and attack him, but they stormed down on the barbarians, the bloodthirsty baron at their head.

The Trokmê noble tried to rally his men yet again. Wolfar rode him down. At his fall, the woodsrunners broke and ran, flying in all directions. They had already taken one assault from the rear, and had kept their courage after Balamung died just as his triumph seemed assured. Now courage failed them. They threw away weapons to flee the faster. Most ran for the Niffet, and most never reached it, for Wolfar's warriors fought with savagery to match their overlord's.

Gerin did not let his men join the pursuit. He kept them drawn up in battle array at the breach, unable to believe his long-time enemy would not try to deal with him next. Their numbers were near even, though Wolfar's men were fresher. But when Wolfar returned from the killing-ground, he and his vassal Schild stepped over the contorted bodies of the Trokmoi who had died before the palisade to approach Fox Keep unarmed.

"I ought to cut your liver out, Fox," Wolfar said by way of greeting, "but I find I have reason to let you live."

The notion galled Wolfar so badly, he could go no further. Schild spoke for his chief, over whom he towered—he was as tall and lean as Wolfar was short and stocky, and was one of the few men serving under Wolfar whom Gerin respected. He said, "As you can guess, once we pulled ourselves together after whatever madness struck last night"—Gerin started to explain the werenight, but decided it could wait—"we came north after you. But a little south of here, we caught a woodsrunner fleeing your keep. He told us you'd killed their wizard, the one you warned me of not long ago. Is it true?"

"Aye, it's true. Dearly bought, but true."

"Then you've earned your worthless life," Wolfar said, looking toward the corpse of the demon Duin had killed. It was already starting to stink. "You've done a great thing, damn you, and I suppose I have to let it cancel what's between us from the past." He started to offer Gerin his hand, but could not bring himself to do it. The Fox knew there was still no liking or trust between them.

That was not so of their men—soldiers from both sides broke ranks to fraternize. In their shared victory over Balamung and the Trokmoi, they forgot the enmity that had existed between them. Though he did not want to do it, Gerin felt he had no choice but to invite Wolfar and his troops to help man Castle Fox and make it defensible once more.

To the baron's secret disappointment, Wolfar accepted at once. "A holding with too few soldiers in it is almost worse than none at all," he said. "I worry about my own keep; the men I left behind rattle around in it like dried beans in a gourd—do they not, Schild?"

"Hmm?" Schild gave him an unclassifiable look. "Aye, my lord, the garrison there is very small indeed."

As Wolfar's men filed into the holding, Gerin assigned them duties: some to the palisade, others to help some of his own men plug the breach, still others to help the wounded or fight the fires still flickering in the outbuildings. Wolfar did not object to his dispositions. He seemed content to let the Fox keep overall command inside Fox Keep.

Gerin was glad to find that Rihwin's injury was not serious. "You're not hamstrung, and the arrow went clear through your leg. Otherwise we'd have to cut it out, which is nothing to be taken lightly," the baron told him. "As is, though, you should heal before long."

"If I put spikes on my wrists and ankles, do you think I'll be able to climb trees like a cat?" Rihwin asked, adjusting his bandage.

"I see no reason why not."

"Odd," Rihwin murmured. "I never could before."

"Go howl!" Gerin threw his hands in the air and went off to see to other injured men. If the southerner could joke at his wound, he would soon mend.

Had they taken place at any other time, Gerin would have reckoned the next days among the most hectic of his life. As if was, they scarcely stood comparison to what had gone before.

True, four days after Balamung's fall, the Trokmê chieftain who had turned longtooth in the werenight led an attack on Fox Keep. By then, though, the breach in the palisade was repaired, and the holding had fresh supplies drawn from the countryside. Nor did the woodsrunner have patience for a siege. He tried to storm the walls, and was bloodily repulsed. He himself jumped from a scaling ladder to the palisade walkway. Wolfar took his head with a single stroke of the heavy axe that gave him his sobriquet.

Then the ladder went crashing over. Half a dozen Trokmoi tried to leap clear as it fell. The ladders that stayed upright long enough for the barbarians to come to grips with the Elabonians were few. After their leader was slain inside the keep, they lost their eagerness for the fight.

In a way, that second attack by the Trokmoi was a gift from the gods. It further united Wolfar's men and Gerin's against a common foe, and again reminded them how petty their old disputes were now. A good lesson, Gerin thought. He regretted that the province north of the Kirs had not learned it sooner.

Wolfar, surprisingly, seemed to take the lesson to heart. He did not much try to hide his animosity toward Gerin, but he did not let it interfere with the running of the keep. He never mentioned Elise. He was as cordial as his nature allowed toward the baron's men, and insisted on praising Fox Keep's ale, though by now it was coming from the barrel-bottom and full of yeast.

Gerin would sooner have seen him surly. He did not know how to react to this new Wolfar.

For Schild, on the other hand, his admiration grew by leaps and bounds. When the Fox learned from a prisoner of a band of Trokmoi planning to raft over the Niffet, Wolfar's lieutenant led a joint raiding party to ambush the barbarians as they disembarked. The ambush was a great success. The Trokmoi paddled back across the river after leaving a double handful of men dead on the shore.

On the raiders' return, Wolfar was so lavish in their praise and so affable that Gerin's suspicion of him redoubled. But beyond this uncharacteristic warmth, the thick-shouldered baron as yet showed no hint of what was in his mind.

"He's given me every reason to trust him," Gerin told Van one night, "and I trust him less than ever."

"Probably just as well for you," Van said. Gerin was not sorry to find his worries shared.

Word of Balamung's death spread quickly. It raised the Elabonians' spirits but disheartened their foes, who had leaned on the wizard's supposed invincibility. Two days after the defeat Schild had engineered for the band of southbound barbarians, a large troop of Trokmoi came north past Castle Fox. Except for keeping out of bowshot, they ignored the keep, intent on returning with their booty to the cool green forests north of the Niffet.

Another large band came by a day later, and another two days after that. As if the appearance of the third group of retreating Trokmoi had been some sort of signal, Wolfar stumped up to the Fox in the great hall and said abruptly, "Time we talked."

Whatever Wolfar had been hiding, it was about to come into the open. Of that Gerin felt sure. Stifling his apprehension, he said, "As you wish. The library is quiet." He led his western neighbor up the stairs.

Wolfar seemed less disconcerted by his strange surroundings than Gerin had hoped. "What a bastardly lot of books you have, Fox!" he said. "Where did you pick them all up?"

"Here and there. Some I brought back from the southlands, some I've got since, a few came from my father, and a couple I just stole."

"Mmm," Wolfar said. Then he fell silent, leaning back in his chair.

At last Gerin said, "You said you wanted to talk, Wolfar. What's on your mind?"

"You don't know, Fox?" Wolfar sounded honestly surprised.

"If it's Elise, she won't marry you, you know. She'd sooner bed a real wolf."

"As if what she wanted had anything to do with it. Still, she's only a—what word do I need?—a detail, maybe."

"Go on." Now Gerin was genuinely alarmed. This cold-blooded calculator was not the Wolfar he had expected, save in his utter disregard for anyone else. The Fox wanted to keep him talking until he had some idea of what he was dealing with.

"I'd thought better of you, Gerin. We don't get along, but I know you're no fool. You have no excuse for being stone blind."

"Go on," Gerin said again, wishing Wolfar would come to a point.

"All right. On this stretch of the border, we have the only two major holdings that didn't fall. Now tell me, what aid did we get from the Marchwarden of the North or our lord Emperor Hildor?" Wolfar tried to put mockery in his voice, but managed only a growl.

"Less than nothing, as well I know."

"How right you are. Fox, you can see as well as I—better, I suppose, if you've really read all these books—the Empire hasn't done a damned thing for us the past hundred years. Enough, by all the gods! With the confusion on the border—and deep inside, too, from some of the things you've said—the two of us could be princes so well established that, by the time Elabon moved its fat arse against us, we'd be impossible to throw out, you and I!"

No wonder Wolfar had changed, Gerin thought, whistling softly. Anyone carrying that big an idea on his shoulders would change, and might buckle under the strain of it. Something else bothered the Fox too, but he could not place it. "What would you have us be princes of?" he asked. "Our side of the border is so weak the Trokmoi can come down as they wish, with or without their wizard. For now, we can't hope to hold them."

"Think, though. We can channel their force into whatever shape pleases us. Save for them, we're the only powers on the border now, and we can use them against whoever stands against us."

That idea Gerin liked not at all. He wanted to drive every woodsrunner back across the Niffet, not import more as mercenaries. He said, "After a while, they'd decided they'd sooner not be used, and act for their own benefit, not ours."

"With their sorcerer gone, they could never hurt us, so long as we kept up enough properly manned and alert keeps," Wolfar argued. His elaborate calm worried Gerin more than any bluster or nervousness.

But at last he had it, the thing Wolfar was trying to hide. The blank look Schild had given his overlord, a few odd remarks from Wolfar's men . . . everything fell together. "Wolfar," he asked, "what were you doing on my land, away from your properly manned and alert keep, when you ran into me just before the werenight?"

"What do you mean?" Wolfar's deep-set eyes were intent on Gerin.

"Just this: you've tried to bury me in a haystack without my noticing. It almost worked, I grant you—you're more subtle than I thought."

"You'll have to make yourself plainer, Fox. I can't follow your riddles."

"Very well, I'll be perfectly clear. You, sir, are a liar of the first water, and staking everything on your lie not being found out. Your keep must have been sacked, and almost at once, or you'd still be in it, not trotting over the landscape like a frog with itchy breeches. In fact, you're as homeless as a cur without a master."

Wolfar took a long, slow breath. "Reasoned like a schoolmaster, Fox. But your logic fails you at the end."

"Oh? How so?"

Heavy muscles rippled under Wolfar's tunic. "I do have a home keep, you see: this one." He hurled himself at Gerin.

The Fox sprang from his seat and threw a footstool at Wolfar's head. Wolfar knocked it aside with a massive forearm. Like a crushing snake, he reached out for the Fox. In the first moment of fighting, neither man thought to draw sword. Their hatred, suppressed these past few days, blazed up out of control, too hot for anything but flesh against flesh, Gerin mad as Wolfar.

Then Wolfar kicked the Fox in the knee. He staggered back, hearing someone shriek and realizing it was himself. The bright pain cut through his bloodlust. When Wolfar roared forward to finish him, he almost spitted himself on Gerin's blade.

His own was out the next instant. Sparks flew as bronze struck bronze. Wolfar used his sword as if it were an axe, hacking and chopping, but he was so quick and strong Gerin had no time for a telling riposte. His movement hampered by his knee, he stayed on the defensive, awaiting opportunity.

It came, finally: a clever thrust, a twist of the wrist, and Wolfar's blade and one finger went flying across the room. But before the Fox could pierce him, Wolfar kicked the sword from his hand and seized him in a pythonic embrace.

Gerin felt his ribs creak. He slammed the heel of his hand against Wolfar's nose, snapping his head back. In the capital they claimed that was often a fatal blow, but Wolfar merely grunted under it. Still, his grip loosened for an instant, and Gerin jerked free.

He wondered briefly what was keeping everyone from bursting into the library and pulling the two of them apart. They were making enough noise to scare the Trokmoi in the woods, let alone the men in the castle. But no one came.

Wolfar leaped for a sword. Gerin tackled him before he could reach it. They crashed to the floor in a rolling, cursing heap. Then, like a trap, two horn-edged hands were at the Fox's throat. Almost of their own accord, his reached through Wolfar's thick beard to find a similar grip. He felt Wolfar tense under it.

Gerin tightened his neck muscles as he had learned in the wrestling schools of the capital, tried to force breath after precious breath into his lungs. The world eddied toward blackness. In one of his last clear moments, he wondered again why no one was breaking up the fight. Then there was only the struggle to get the tiniest whisper of air and . . . keep . . . his . . . grip . . . tight . . . 

After that, all he knew was the uprushing welcoming dark.

The first thing he realized when his senses returned was that he was no longer locked in that death embrace. His throat was on fire. Van and Schild Stoutstaff bent over him, concern on their faces. He tried to speak. Nothing came from his mouth but a croak and a trickle of blood.

He signed for pen and parchment. After a moment's incomprehension, Van fetched them. Quill scratching, Gerin wrote, "What happened?"

As reading was not one of his many skills, Van held the scrap of parchment in some embarrassment. Seeing his plight, Schild took it from him. "'What happened?' " he read. "My lord Gerin, you are the only man who knows that."

Gerin looked a question at Van.

"Aye, Wolfar's dead." The outlander took up the tale. "When he and you went up to have your talk, the rest of us sat around the great hall wondering what would come of it. Then the racket started. We all looked at each other, hoping it was something simple, say a demon from one of the hells or Balamung back from the fire.

"But no, sure as sure, it was you two going at each other. We could have had a fight down there to match the one up here. If anybody had tried going up the stairs, that's just what would have happened. So, though nobody said much, we figured whoever came out would rule here, and anyone who didn't like it or couldn't stand it would be free to go, no hard feelings. And we waited.

"And nobody came out.

"Finally we couldn't stand it any longer. Schild and I came up together. When we saw you, we thought you were both dead. But you breathed when we pried Wolfar's hands off your neck, and he'll never breathe again—you're stronger than I gave you credit for, captain."

Gerin sat up, rubbing his bruised throat. Looking at Schild, he managed a thin whisper. "You knew Wolfar was tricking me with his talk of a keep he could go home to, and you helped him do it."

Van barked a startled oath, but Schild only nodded. "Of course I did. He was my overlord; he always treated me fairly, harsh though he was. He was not altogether wrong, either—it's long past time for us to break away from the Empire's worthless rule, and I cannot blame him for wanting the power he saw here for the taking."

Schild looked Gerin in the eye. "I would not have called you 'my lord,' though, did I not think you would do a better job with it." Slowly and deliberately, he went to one knee before the Fox. Van followed, though his grin showed how little he thought of such ceremonies.

Dazed more ways than one, Gerin accepted their homage. He half-wished he could flee instead. All he'd ever wanted, he told himself, was to read and think and not be bothered. But when the responsibility for Castle Fox fell on him, he had not shirked it. No more could he evade this greater one now.

He looked at his books, wondering when he would find time to open them again. So much to be done: the Trokmoi ousted, keeps restored and manned, Elise wed (a solitary bright thought among the burdens), Duin's stirrups investigated (which reminded him how few horses he had left), peasants brought back to the land . . . Dyaus above, where was there an unravaged crop within five days' journey?

He climbed to his feet and walked toward the stairs. "Well," he said hoarsely, "let's get to work."


When in the early 1970s Poul Anderson reissued The Broken Sword after it had been out of print for some years, he noted that, without changing the plot, he had cleaned up the writing. I didn't fully understand when I read his afterword: he'd published The Broken Sword, hadn't he? How could it need cleaning up?

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Werenight was written in bits and pieces from 1976 to 1978 (often in time stolen from my dissertation); it first appeared in 1979 broken into two parts, titled by the publisher Wereblood and Werenight. The same publisher also tagged me with the pseudonym Eric Iverson, on the assumption no one would believe Harry Turtledove, which is my real name.

And now it's time for the book to see print again. When I looked over the manuscript, I discovered, as Anderson and no doubt many others had before me, that I'm a better craftsman than I used to be. Without interfering with the story or characters I invented in my younger days, I have taken this chance to cut adjectives, adverbs, and semicolons, and generally tighten things up, and I've changed a couple of bit-players' names where I'd used others that struck me as too similar to them in later fiction. All in all, this is the book I would have written then if I'd been a better writer. I hope you enjoy it.

—Harry Turtledove, October 1992

Prince of The North


Gerin the Fox eyed the new logs in the palisade of Fox Keep. Even after five years' weathering, they were easy to pick out, for they'd never been painted with the greenish glop the wizard Siglorel had concocted to keep Balamung the Trokmê mage from burning the keep around him. The stuff worked, too, but Balamung had slain Siglorel even so. Gerin knew something of magecraft himself, but he'd never been able to match Siglorel's formulation.

In front of those new logs, a handful of the Fox's retainers sat on their haunches in a circle. Gerin's four-year-old son Duren ran from one of them to the next, exclaiming, "Can I roll the dice? Will you let me roll them now?"

Drago the Bear held the carved cubes of bone. Rumbling laughter, he handed them to Duren, who threw them down in the middle of the gamblers' circle. "Haw! Twelve! No one can beat that," Drago said. He scooped up his winnings, then glanced toward Gerin. "The boy brings luck, lord."

"Glad to hear it," Gerin answered shortly. Whenever he looked at his son, he couldn't help thinking of the boy's mother. When he'd wed Elise, he'd been sure the gods had granted him everlasting bliss. He'd thought so right up to the day, three years ago now, when she'd run off with a traveling horseleech. Only the gods knew where in the shattered northlands she was these days, or how she fared.

The Fox kicked at the dirt. Maybe if he'd noticed she wasn't happy, he could have done things to make her so. Or maybe she'd just tired of him. Women did that, and men, too. "The great god Dyaus knows it's too late to do anything about it now," he muttered.

"Too late to do anything about what, Captain?" Van of the Strong Arm boomed as he came out of the stables. The outlander overtopped Gerin's six feet by as many inches, and was nearly twice as thick through the shoulders, too; the red-dyed horsehair plume that nodded above his helmet only made him seem taller. As usual, he kept his bronze corselet polished almost to mirror brilliance.

"Years too late for us to do anything about getting imperial troopers up here," Gerin answered. He was the sort who guarded private thoughts even from his closest friends.

Van spat on the ground. "That for imperial troopers. It was too late for those buggers five years ago, when the carrion-stinking Empire of Elabon shut all the passes into the north sooner than help us keep the Trokmoi out."

"Dyaus knows we could have used the imperials then," Gerin said. "We could use them still, if they'd come and if—"

"If they'd keep their hands off what's yours," Van finished for him.

"Well, yes, there is that," Gerin admitted: he was given to understatement.

Van wasn't. He snorted, back deep in his throat. "Honh! 'There is that,' he says. You think the Emperor of Elabon would be happy with the title you've gone and taken for yourself? You know what he'd do if ever he got his hands on somebody who styled himself the Prince of the North, don't you? He'd nail you to the cross so the ravens could sit on your shoulders and pick out your eyes, that's what."

Since Van was undoubtedly right, Gerin shifted the terms of the argument. He did the same thing whenever he and his friend wrestled, using guile to beat strength and weight. In wrestling as in argument, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. He said, "I'm not the only one in the northlands with a fancy new title since Elabon abandoned us. I'd have company on the crucifying grounds."

"Aye, so you would," Van said. "What's Aragis the Archer calling himself these days? Grand Duke, that's it. Honh! He's just a jumped-up baron, same as you. And there's two or three others of your Elabonian blood, and as many Trokmoi who came south over the Niffet with Balamung and stayed even after the wizard failed."

"I know." Gerin didn't like that. For a couple of centuries, the Niffet had been the boundary between the civilization of the Empire of Elabon—or a rough, frontier version of it, at any rate—on one side and woodsrunning barbarians on the other. Now the boundary was down, and Elabon's abandoned northern province very much on its own.

Van tapped Gerin on the chest with a callused forefinger. "But I tell you this, Captain: you have the loftiest title, so he'd nail you highest."

"An honor I could do without," the Fox said. "Besides, it's quarreling over shadows, anyhow. Elabon's not coming back over the mountains. What I really need to worry about is the squabbles with my neighbors—especially Aragis. Of the lot of them, he's the ablest one."

"Aye, he's near as good as you are, Captain, though not so sneaky."

"Sneaky?" Since Gerin's devious turn of mind was what had earned him his Fox sobriquet, he couldn't even deny that. He changed the subject again: "You're still calling me 'Captain' after all these years, too. Is that the sort of respect the Prince of the North deserves?"

"I'll call you what I bloody well please," Van retorted, "and if one fine day that doesn't suit your high and mightiness, well, I'll up and travel on. I sometimes think I should have done it years ago." He shook his head, bemused that after a lifetime of wandering and adventure he should have begun to put down roots.

Gerin still did not know from what land his friend had sprung; Van never talked of his beginnings, though he had yarns uncounted of places he'd seen. Certainly he was no Elabonian. Gerin made a fair representative of that breed: on the swarthy side, long-nosed and long-faced, with brown eyes and black hair and beard (now beginning to be frosted with gray).

Van, by contrast, was blond and fair-skinned, though tan; his bright beard was that improbable color between yellow and orange. His nose had been short and straight. These days it was short and bent, with a scar across the bridge. His bright blue eyes commonly had mischief in them. Women found him fascinating and irresistible. The reverse also applied.

"Roll the dice?" Duren squealed. "Roll the dice?"

Van laughed to hear Gerin's son say that. "Maybe we'll roll the dice ourselves later on, eh, Captain? See who goes to Fand tonight?"

"Not so loud," Gerin said, looking around to make sure their common mistress wasn't in earshot. "She'll throw things at both of us if she ever finds out we do that sometimes. That Trokmê temper of hers—" He shook his head.

Van laughed louder. "A dull wench is a boring wench. I expect that's why I keep coming back to her."

"After every new one, you mean. Sometimes I think there's a billy goat under that cuirass, and no man at all," Gerin said. Van might have settled in one place, but his affections flew wild and free as a gull.

"Well, what about you?" he said. "If her temper doesn't suit you, why don't you put her on a raft and ship her back over the Niffet to her clansfolk?"

"Dyaus knows I've thought about it often enough," Gerin admitted. After Elise left him, he'd thought about swearing off women forever. No matter what his mind said, though, his body had other ideas. Now he laughed, ruefully. "If either of us truly fell in love with her, we'd be hard-pressed to stay friends."

"Not so, Captain," Van answered. "If one of us fell in love with her, the other would say take her and welcome. If we both did, now—"

"You have me," Gerin admitted. He kicked at the dirt, annoyed at being outreasoned even in something as small as this. But if you couldn't grant someone else's reason superior when it plainly was, what point to reasoning at all?

Van said, "I think I'll roll the dice myself for a while. Care to join?"

"No, I'm going to take another pass at my sorcery, if you know what I mean," Gerin said.

"Have a care, now," Van said. "You're liable to end up in more trouble than you know how to get out of."

"Hasn't happened yet," Gerin answered. "I have the measure of my own ignorance, I think." He'd studied a bit of magic in the City of Elabon as a young man, back in the days when people could travel back and forth between the northlands and the heart of the Empire, but had to give up that and history both when the Trokmoi killed his father and elder brother and left him baron of Fox Keep.

"I hope you do," Van said. Pulling broken bits of silver from a pouch he wore on his belt, he made for the dice game. Before he could sit down, Duren sprang at him like a starving longtooth. He laughed, grabbed the boy, and threw him high in the air three or four times. Duren squealed with glee.

* * *

Gerin made for a little shack he'd built over in a back corner of the courtyard. It was far enough from the palisade that, if it caught fire, it wouldn't burn down the castle outwall along with itself. Thus far, he hadn't even managed to set the shack ablaze.

"Maybe today," he muttered. He was going to try a conjuration from a new grimoire he'd bought from a lordlet to the southwest whose grandfather might have been able to read but who was himself illiterate and proud of it. As with most spells in grimoires, it sounded wonderful. Whether results would match promises was another question altogether.

The codex of the grimoire had silverfish holes on several of its pages, and mice had nibbled its leather binding while it lay forgotten on a high shelf in a larder. The spell in which Gerin was interested, though, remained unmutilated. In a clear hand, the mage who'd composed it had written, "A CANTRIP WHICH YIELDETH A FLAMING SWORD."

That yieldeth had made Gerin suspicious. Along with wizardry and history, he'd studied literature down in the City of Elabon. (And where, he wondered, will Duren be able to learn such things, if he should want to? The answer was mournfully clear: in the northlands, nowhere.) He knew Elabonian hadn't used those archaic forms for hundreds of years, which meant the author was trying to make his work seem older than it was.

But a flaming sword . . . false antique or no, he reckoned that worth looking into. Not only would it make ferocious wounds, the mere sight of it should cast terror into the hearts of his foes.

He hefted the bronze blade he'd use. It was hacked and notched to the point where it would almost have made a better saw than sword. Bronze was the hardest, toughest metal anyone knew, but it wasn't hard enough to hold an edge in continued tough use.

Gerin had the crushed wasps and bumblebees and the dried poison oak leaf he'd need for the symbolic element of the spell. Chanting as he worked (and wearing leather gauntlets), he ground them fine and stirred them into melted butter. The grimoire prescribed olive oil as the basis for the paste, but he'd made that substitution before and got by with it. It was necessary; the olive wouldn't grow in the northlands, and supplies from south of the High Kirs had been cut off.

He was readying himself for the main conjuration when someone poked his head into the hut. "Great Dyaus above, are you at it again?" Rihwin the Fox asked. His soft southern accent reminded Gerin of his student days in the City of Elabon every time he heard it.

"Aye, I am, and lucky for you at a place where I can pause," Gerin answered. If anyone had to interrupt him, he preferred it to be Rihwin. The man who shared his ekename knew more magic than he did; Rihwin had been expelled from the Sorcerers' Collegium just before his formal union with a familiar because of the outrageous prank he'd played on his mentor.

He walked into the hut, glanced at the sword and the preparations Gerin had made for it. He'd stopped shaving since he ended up in the northlands, but somehow still preserved a smooth, very southern handsomeness. Maybe the big gold hoop that glittered in his left ear had something to do with that.

Pointing to the wood-and-leather bucket full of water that stood next to the rude table where Gerin worked, he said, "Your precautions are thorough as usual."

Gerin grunted. "You'd be working here beside me if you took them, too." Rihwin had been rash enough to summon up Mavrix, the Sithonian god of wine also widely worshiped in Elabon, after Gerin had earned the temperamental deity's wrath. In revenge, Mavrix robbed Rihwin of his ability to work magic, and left him thankful his punishment was no worse.

"Ah, well," Rihwin said with an airy wave of his hand. "Dwelling on one's misfortunes can hardly turn them to triumphs, now can it?"

"It might keep you from having more of them," Gerin replied; he was as much given to brooding as Rihwin fought shy of it. He'd concluded, though, that Rihwin was almost immune to change, and so gave up the skirmish after the first arrow. Bending over the grimoire once more, he said, "Let's find out what we have here."

The spell was no easy one; it required him to use his right hand to paint the sword blade with his mixture while simultaneously making passes with his left and chanting the incantation proper, which was written in the same pseudoarchaic Elabonian as its title.

He suspected the mage of deliberately requiring the left hand for the complex passes to make the spell more difficult, but grinned as he incanted: being left-handed himself, he was delighted to have his clumsy right doing something simple.

The painting and passes done, he snatched up the sword and cried, "Let the wishes of the operator be accomplished!"

For a moment, he wondered if anything would happen. A lot of alleged grimoires were frauds; maybe that was why this one had sat unused on a shelf for a couple of generations. But then, sure enough, yellow-orange flames rippled up and down the length of the blade. They neither looked nor smelled like burning butter; they seemed more the essence of fire brought down to earth.

"That's marvelous," Rihwin breathed as Gerin made cut-and-thrust motions with the flaming sword. "It—"

With a sudden foul oath, Gerin rammed the sword into the bucket of water. A hiss and a cloud of steam arose; to his great relief, the flames went out. He cautiously felt the water with a forefinger. When he discovered it remained cool, he stuck in his hand. "Cursed hilt got too hot to hold," he explained to a pop-eyed Rihwin. "Oh, that feels good."

"Which, no doubt, is the reason we fail to find blazing blades closely clenched in the fierce fist of every peerless paladin," Rihwin answered. "Many a spell that seems superb on the leaves of a codex develops disqualifying drawbacks when actually essayed."

"You're right about that," Gerin answered, drying his hand on the thigh of his baggy wool breeches. Everyone in the northlands wore trousers; the Trokmê style had conquered completely. Even Rihwin, who had favored southern robes, was in breeches these days. Gerin inspected his left palm. "I don't think that's going to blister."

"Smear butter or tallow on it if it does," Rihwin said, "but not the, ah, heated mixture you prepared there."

"With the poison oak leaves and all? No, I'll get rid of that." Gerin poured it out of its clay pot onto the ground. After a bit of thought, he scooped dirt onto the greasy puddle. If the sole of his boot happened to have a hole, he didn't want the stuff getting onto his skin.

He and Rihwin left the shack. Shadows were lengthening; before long, no one would want to stay outdoors. Ghosts filled the night with terror. A man caught alone in the darkness without sacrificial blood to propitiate them or fire to hold them at bay was likely to be mad come morning.

Gerin glanced to the sky, gauging the hour by the moons. Nothos' pale crescent hung a little west of south; golden Math, at first quarter looking like half a coin, was about as far to the east. And ruddy Elleb (pinkish white now, washed out by the late afternoon sun), halfway between quarter and full, stood well clear of the eastern horizon. The fourth moon, quick-moving Tiwaz, would be a waning crescent when the serfs went out to work just after sunrise tomorrow.

As if Gerin's thinking of the serfs he ruled had brought them to new life, a mournful horn blew in the village close by Fox Keep, calling men and women in from the fields.

Gerin looked at the moons again, raised one eyebrow in a characteristic gesture. "They're knocking off early today," he remarked. "I think I may have to speak to the headman tomorrow."

"He'll not love you for making him push the other peasants harder," Rihwin said.

Who does love me, for any reason? Gerin wondered. His mother had died giving birth to him; maybe because of that, his father had always been distant. Or maybe his father simply hadn't known what to do when he got himself a thinker instead of a brawler.

His son Duren loved him, aye, but now it was his turn to have trouble returning that love, because whenever he saw Duren, he thought of Elise. She'd loved him for a while, until passion cooled . . . and then just disappeared, with only a note left behind begging him not to go after her. It was, in fact, very much the way she'd fled with him from her father's keep.

He didn't feel like going into any of that with Rihwin. Instead, he answered, "I don't care whether Besant Big-Belly loves me or not." That, at least, was true. "I do care that we grow enough to get through the winter, for if we don't, Besant will be big-bellied no more."

"He would say, did he dare, that all the peasants would be bigger-bellied did they not have to pay you a fourth of what they raised," Rihwin observed.

"He could say it to my face, and well he knows it," Gerin returned. "I'm not a lord who makes serfs into draft animals that happen to walk on two legs, nor do I take the half some barons squeeze from them. But if I took nothing, who would ward them from the chariot-riding wolves who'd swoop down on them?"

He waited for Rihwin to say something like, "They could do it for themselves." He was ready to pour scorn on that idea like boiling water splashing down from the top of a palisade onto the heads of attackers. Farmers didn't have the tools they needed to be fighters: the horses, the chariots, the swords, the armor. Nor did they have the time they needed to learn to use those tools; the endless rhythms of fields and livestock devoured their days.

But Rihwin said, "My fellow Fox, sometimes you don't know when you're being twitted."

Denied his chance to rend Rihwin with rhetoric, Gerin glared. He walked around to the front of the castle. Rihwin tagged along, chuckling. As they went inside, another horn sounded from a more distant village, and then another almost at the edge of hearing. Gerin said, "You see? If one village knocks off early, they all do it, for they hear the first horn and blow their own, figuring they don't want to work any harder than the fellows down the trail."

"Who does like to work?" Rihwin said.

"No one with sense," Gerin admitted, "but no one with sense will avoid doing what he must to stay alive. The trouble is, not all men are sensible, even by that standard."

"If you think I'll argue with that, you're the one who's not sensible," Rihwin said.

* * *G G G

The great hall of the castle occupied most of the ground floor. A fire roared in the stone hearth at the far end, and another, smaller, one in front of the altar to Dyaus close by. Above the hearth, cooks basted chunks of beef as they turned them on spits. Fat-wrapped thighbones, the god's portion, smoked on the altar. Gerin believed in feeding the god well; moreover, after his brush with Mavrix, he figured he could use all the divine protection he could get.

Two rows of benches ran from the doorway to the hearth. In winter, seats closest to the fire were the choice ones. Now, with the weather mild, Gerin sat about halfway down one row. A couple of dogs came trotting through the rushes on the rammed-earth floor and lay at his feet, looking up expectantly.

"Miserable beggars," he said, and scratched their ears. "I don't have any food myself yet, so how can I throw you bones and scraps?" The dogs thumped their tails on the ground. They knew they got fed sooner or later when people sat at those benches. If it had to be later, they would wait.

Van and Drago the Bear and the other gamblers came in, chattering about the game. Duren frisked among them. When he saw Gerin, he ran over to him, exclaiming, "I rolled the dice a lot, Papa! I rolled double six twice, and five-and-six three times, and—"

He would have gone down the whole list, but Van broke in, "Aye, and the little rascal rolled one-and-two for me, and sent me out of that round without a tunic to call my own." He shook a heavy fist at Duren in mock anger. Duren, safe beside his father, stuck out his tongue.

"The dice go up, the dice go down," Drago said, shrugging shoulders almost as wide as Van's. From him, that passed for philosophy. He was a long way from the brightest of Gerin's vassals, but a good many more clever men managed their estates worse. Since Drago never tried anything new, he discovered no newfangled ways to go wrong.

Gerin called to one of the cooks, "We have enough here to begin. Fetch ale for us, why don't you?"

"Aye, lord prince," the man answered, and hurried down into the cellar. He returned a moment later, staggering a little under the weight of a heavy jar of ale. The jar had a pointed bottom. The cook stabbed it into the dirt floor so the jar stood upright. He hurried off again, coming back with a pitcher and a double handful of tarred leather drinking jacks. He set one in front of everybody at the table (Duren got a small one), then dipped the pitcher into the amphora, pouring and refilling until every jack was full.

"Take some for yourself, too," Gerin said; he was not a lord who stinted his servants. Grinning, the cook poured what looked like half a pitcher down his throat. Gerin slopped a little ale out of his mug onto the floor. "This for Baivers, god of barley," he intoned as he drank.

"This for Baivers," the others echoed as they poured their libations. Even Van imitated him: though Baivers was no god of the outlander's, the deity, whose scalp sprouted ears of barley instead of hair, held sway in this land.

Rihwin made a sour face as he set down the mug. "I miss the sweet blood of the grape," he said.

"Point the first: the grape doesn't grow in the northlands and we've lost our trade south of the High Kirs," Gerin said. "Point the second: when you drink too much wine, dreadful things happen. We've seen that again and again. Point the third: wine lies in Mavrix's province, and have you not had your share and more of commerce with Mavrix?"

"True, all true," Rihwin said sadly. "I miss the grape regardless."

The cooks came round with bowls of bean-and-parsnip porridge, with tiny bits of salt pork floating in it to give it flavor. Like everyone else, Gerin lifted his bowl to his lips, wiped his mouth on his sleeve when he was done. South of the High Kirs, they had separate squares of cloth for cleaning your face and fingers, but such refinements did not exist north of the mountains.

Off the spit came the pieces of beef. While one cook carved them into man-sized portions, another went back to the kitchen and came out with round, flat, chewy loaves of bread, which he set in front of each man at the table. They'd soak up the juices from the meat and get eaten in their turn.

Gerin patted the empty place between Van and him. "Put one here, too, Anseis. Fand is sure to be down before long."

"Aye, lord prince," the cook said, and did as he was asked.

Duren started tearing pieces from his round of bread and stuffing them into his mouth. Gerin said, "If you fill yourself up with that, boy, where will you find room for your meat?"

"I'll put it someplace." Duren patted his stomach to show the intended destination.

Just as the cook who was carving the beef started loading steaming gobbets onto an earthenware tray, Fand did come down from Castle Fox's living quarters into the great hall. Gerin and Van glanced over at each other, smiled for a moment, and then both waved her to that place between them.

"Och, you're still not after fighting over me," she said in mock disappointment as she came up. Beneath the mock disappointment, Gerin judged, lay real disappointment. She might have resigned herself to their peacefully sharing her, but she didn't like it.

Hoping to get her off that bloodthirsty turn of thought, Gerin called for a servant to pour her a jack of ale. He handed it to her himself. "Here you are."

"I thank you, sure and I do." Her Elabonian held a strong Trokmê lilt. She was a big, fair woman, not too much shorter than the Fox, with pale skin dusted with freckles wherever the sun caught it, gray-blue eyes, and wavy, copper-colored hair that tumbled past her shoulders. To Gerin, men of that coloring were enemies on sight; he still sometimes found it odd to be sharing a bed with a woman from north of the Niffet.

Not odd enough to keep me from doing it, though, he thought. Aloud, he said to Fand, "Should I have put you on a boat across the river after all?"

"'Twould have been your own loss if you had," she retorted, tossing her head so the torchlight glinted in her hair. One thing she had was unshakeable self-confidence—and why not, when two men such as they danced to her tune?

Gerin said, "My guess is still that you stuck a knife into the fellow who brought you south over the Niffet."

"I've told you before, Gerin dear: I brought my own self over, thinking life might be more lively here. Och, and so it has been, not that I reckoned on yoking myself to a southron—" she paused to half turn and make eyes at Van "—let alone two."

"I'm no Elabonian," Van boomed indignantly, "and I'll thank you not to call me one. One fine day I hitch a team to a chariot or just go off afoot—"

"How many years have you been saying that?" Gerin asked.

"As many as I've been here, no doubt, less maybe one turn of the fastest moon." Van shook his head, forever bemused he could stay in one place so long. "A tree, now, has need of growing roots, but a man—?"

"A man?" Fand said, still trying to stir up trouble. "You'll quarrel over whether you're a southron or no, but not over me? What sort of man is that after making you?"

"You should remember well enough from last night what sort of man I am." Van looked like a cat that had fallen into the cream pitcher.

Fand squeaked indignantly and turned back to Gerin. "Will you be letting him speak to me so?"

"Aye, most likely I will," he said. If she got fed up and left them both, he'd be sorry for a while, but he knew he'd also be relieved. He didn't feel like a screaming fight now, though, so he said, "Here comes the meat."

That distracted her. It distracted him, too. He drew his dagger from his belt and started carving strips off the bone in front of him and popping them into his mouth.

The dagger, like the rest of his personal gear, was severely plain, with a hilt of nothing more splendid than leather-wrapped bone. But it had good balance, and he kept the edge sharp; sometimes he used plainness to conceal effectiveness.

Van, by contrast, had the hilt to his knife wrapped in gold wire, with a big topaz set into the pommel. For him, flamboyance served the same purpose self-effacement did for Gerin: it disguised the true warrior beneath. Being dangerous without seeming so, Gerin had found, made the danger double.

Thinking thus, he glanced over at Fand, who was slicing with her own slim bronze blade. Was she disguising something? He snorted and took a long pull at his ale. No, concealment wasn't in her nature. But he'd thought as much about Elise, and where had that got him?

Duren said, "Papa, will you help me cut more meat?" He had a knife, too, but a small one, and not very sharp. That helped keep him from getting cut, but it also kept him from eating very fast.

Gerin leaned over and sliced off several strips for him. "Splash water on your face when you're done," he said. He remembered how surprised and delighted he'd been to discover the elaborate hot and cold baths the City of Elabon boasted. North of the High Kirs, as best he knew, there was only one tub, and it wasn't at his holding. Not without a pang, he'd gone back to being mostly dirty most of the time.

Fand made eyes first at Van, then at him. "Och, a woman gets lonely, that she does."

"If you're lonely with the two of us to keep you warm at night, would you try a bandit troop next?" Van said.

She cursed him in the Trokmê language, Elabonian not being satisfying enough for her. Van swore back in the same tongue; he'd traversed the gloomy forests of the Trokmoi before he swam the Niffet (towing his precious armor behind him on a makeshift raft) and splashed up inside Gerin's holding.

"Will you be letting him speak to me so?" Fand demanded of the Fox once more.

"Probably," he answered. She picked up her drinking jack and threw it at him. She had more fury than finesse. It splashed down behind him and sprayed ale onto a couple of the hounds quarreling over bones. They separated with a yelp. Fand sprang to her feet and stomped upstairs.

"Not often dull around here," Van observed to no one in particular.

"It's not, is it?" Gerin said. "Sometimes I think I'd find a bit of dullness restful." He hadn't known much, not since he came back over the Kirs to take over his father's holdings and especially not since the Trokmoi and their wizard Balamung invaded the northlands. Balamung was dead now, without even a grave to hold him, but too many Trokmoi still raided and settled on this side of the Niffet, adding one more volatile element to already touchy politics.

Gerin emptied his own jack in a fashion more conventional than Fand's, went over to the amphora, and poured it full again. Some of his vassals were already swilling themselves into insensibility. If I want dull, he thought, all I need do is listen to the talk around this table. Dice, horses and chariots, crops, women . . . no new ideas anywhere, just old saws trotted out as if they were fresh-minted from pure gold. He longed for the days when he'd sat in students' taverns, arguing sorcerous techniques and the shape of the historical process.

Rihwin the Fox knew the pleasures of intellectual conversation, but Rihwin also knew the pleasures of the wine jar or, that failing, the ale pot. He might complain about having to pour down ale, but that didn't stop him from doing quite a lot of it. And, at the moment, he had a serving girl on his lap. He would have done a better job of fumbling at her clothes had his hands been steadier.

Van knew his letters; he'd made a point of learning them when he discovered Elabonian could be written. He even spoke well of its alphabet; Gerin gathered he'd run across other, more cumbersome ways of noting down thoughts in his travels. But learning his letters did not make him interested in quoting poetry, except for informational content, let alone analyzing it.

As for Gerin's own vassal barons, most of them thought reading a vaguely effeminate accomplishment (he wondered why; even fewer women than men were literate). They'd learned better than to say so to him, and had learned he was a good fighting man in spite of having a room that stored several dozen scrolls and codices. But that didn't mean they grew interested in thinking, too.

Gerin sighed and drank more ale himself. Sometimes he thought slipping back into near barbarism easier than trying to maintain the standards of civilization he'd learned south of the High Kirs. Which is the way civilization falls apart, said the part of him that had studied history.

After one more jack of ale, he didn't feel like arguing with that part any more. Rihwin and the girl had wandered off. Drago the Bear snored thunderously on the floor, and took no notice when one of the dogs walked over him. Duren was asleep, too; the little boy had curled up, catlike, on his bench.

Van, on the other hand, was wide awake and looked more sober than Gerin felt. The Fox raised an eyebrow at him. "What would you?" he asked. "Shall we roll the dice after all?"

"For the lass, you mean?" Van shook his massive head. "You go to her tonight, if you've a mind to. She'd sweeten up for me in a bit, I expect, but I haven't the patience to get through the shouting that'd come first. I'll drink a bit more and then maybe sleep myself."

"All right." Gerin lifted Duren off the bench. His son wriggled a little, but did not wake. As he carried Duren upstairs, the Fox was grateful for the banister he'd added to the stairway when he came back from the south. With it, he was much less likely to trip and break not only his neck but the boy's.

He set Duren on the bed in his own chamber, hoping his son would wake up if he had to piddle in the night. Otherwise, the mattress would need some fresh straw.

With Duren in his arms, the Fox hadn't been able to carry a lamp or a taper up to the bedchamber with him. That left it black as a bandit's heart inside. He stumbled over some wood toy or other that he'd carved for Duren and almost fell on his face. Flailing his arms, he managed to keep himself upright and, with a muttered curse, went out into the hallway.

A couple of failing torches cast a dim red light there, enough, at least, to let him see where he put his feet. The walk to the next chamber was a matter of just a few steps. He rapped on the door, wondering if Fand had fallen asleep. If she didn't answer, he'd go back to his own bed.

But she did: "Which of you is it, now?"

Maybe it was the ale, but Gerin felt mischievous. He deliberately deepened his voice and put on a slight guttural accent: "Which d'you think?"

He heard her take three rapid strides toward the door. She threw it open and blazed, "Van of the Strong Arm, if you're after thinking y'can—" Then, by the torchlight and the brighter flame of the candle beside her bed, she realized it wasn't Van standing there. She scowled at Gerin. "You're a right devil to befool me so, and I ought to be slamming the door on the beaky nose of you."

He looked down that member at her. "Well?" he said when she didn't do as she'd threatened.

"Well, indeed," she said, and sighed. "Must be I'm the fool, for taking up with a southron man—worse, for taking up with a southron man and his great galoon of a friend, the both of them at once. Often enough I've said it, but—" Her face softened. "Since I am the fool, you may as well come in."

She stood aside to let him pass, closed the door behind him. She kept the room scrupulously neat; it was, by all odds, the cleanest part of the castle. Gerin knew the tunics and skirts and drawers in the cedar chest against the wall would all be folded just the same way. Beside that chest, her sandals and shoes stood in precise pairs. He lavished that much care only on his weapons, where it could be a matter of life or death.

Fand must have been mending a tunic when he knocked: it lay on the wool coverlet to her bed. Candlelight glistened from the polished bone needle she'd used. She picked up the tunic, set it on the chest. She nodded toward the candle. "Shall I blow it out?"

"Please yourself," he answered. "You know I like to look at you, though."

That won him a smile. "You southrons are sweeter in the tongue than men of my own folk, I'll say so much for you. Maybe there's the why of my staying here. A Trokmê chief, now, he'd just tell me to be after spreading my legs and waste no time about it."

Gerin's skeptical eyebrow rose. "My guess is that any man who told you such a thing would be likelier to get a knife in the brisket than anything else."

"Sure and that's the very thing he got, the black-hearted omadhaun," she said. "Why d'you think a puir lone woman would come to your keep at sunset, seeking shelter from the ghosts? Had his kin caught me, they'd have burned me in a wicker cage, that they would."

He knew she was right—that or some other equally appalling fate. South of the High Kirs, they crucified their miscreants. He reckoned himself merciful: if a man needed killing, he attended to it as quickly and cleanly as he could. But he'd killed his share and more, these past few years.

His other thought was that Fand calling herself a poor lone woman was about as accurate as a longtooth claiming it was a pussycat. At need, she likely could have shouted down the ghosts.

She cocked her head to one side, sent him a curious look. "What is it you're waiting for? I've no knife the now, nor even a needle."

"And a good thing, too, I say." He took a step toward her, she one toward him. That brought them together. Her face lifted toward his, her arms went round his neck.

She was cross-grained, quarrelsome, cantankerous—Gerin had never settled on just the right word, but it lay somewhere in that range. On the wool coverlet, though . . . she bucked like a yearling colt, yowled like a catamount, and clawed his back as if she were part wolverine.

In a way, it was immensely flattering. Even when he'd pleased Elise, which hadn't been all the time (nor, in the end, nearly often enough), she'd given little sign. With Fand, he had no room for doubt there. But a passage with her sometimes put him more in mind of riding out a storm than making love: the pleasure he felt afterwards was often tempered with relief for having got through it.

Their sweat-slick skins slid against each other as he rolled off her. "Turn over," he said.

"Turn over, is it?" she said. "Why tell me that? You're not one of those who-do-you-call-thems—Sithonians, that's it—who like boys and use their women the same way. And I'm not one for that, as well you know." But, the warning delivered, she did roll onto her belly.

He straddled the small of her back and started rubbing her shoulders. The warning growls she'd let out turned to purrs. Her flesh was warm and firm under his hands. "Is that too rough?" he asked as he dug in with his thumbs.

She grunted but shook her head; her bright hair flipped back and forth, with a few shining strands covering his fingers and the backs of his hands. "You've summat here we never found north o' the Niffet," she said. "Sure and there may be more to this civilization you're always after prating of than I thought or ever I came to Fox Keep."

He wondered if he should tell her the best masseur he'd ever known, down in the City of Elabon, was a Sithonian who would have been delighted to do more with him than merely rub his back. He decided against it: the more people in the northlands who cherished civilization, for whatever reason, the better off the war-torn country would be.

As Gerin's hands moved from her shoulders down her spine, he moved down, too. After a bit, Fand exclaimed sharply, "I told you, I'm not one for—" She broke off, then giggled. "What a sneak of a man y'are, to put it in the right place from the wrong side." She looked back at him over her shoulder. "Different this way."

"Better? Worse?" Even in such matters, even at such a time, he liked to know exactly how things went.

But she laughed at him. "How can I tell you that, when we've hardly begun?" They went on, looking for the answer.

* * *

Gerin woke the next morning when Duren got out of bed to use the chamber pot. The light in the bedchamber was gray. The sun hadn't risen yet, but it would soon. Gerin got out of bed himself, yawned, stretched, and knuckled his eyes: the ale he'd drunk the night before had left him with a bit of a headache.

"Good morning, Papa," Duren said.

"Good morning," Gerin answered, yawning again; he woke up slowly. He tousled the boy's hair. "I'm glad you're using the pot. Are you finished? My turn, then." When he was through, he pulled on the tunic and trousers he'd tossed on the floor after he came back from Fand's room. They didn't have any new spots he could see, so what point in changing? People were more fastidious on the other side of the High Kirs, but not much.

Duren underfoot like a cat, Gerin walked down the hall to the stairs. Snores came from Fand's chamber. Louder snores came from Van's, one door further down. In the great hall of the keep, some of the Fox's vassals were already up and stirring; others lay bundled in blankets on straw pallets. The fire in the altar still burned, holding night ghosts at bay.

The doors that led out into the yard stood open, to give the great hall fresh air and clear out some of the smoke from the cookfires. Gerin picked his way through the warriors and went outside. In the east, Tiwaz's thin crescent stood low in the brightening sky. The other three moons had set.

Torches smoked along the palisade. Even so, Duren, who had followed his father into the yard, whimpered and said, "I don't like the ghosts yelling in my ears, Papa."

To Gerin, the cries of the night spirits were not yells but whimpers and faint wails, none of them understandable. As he had fires lit and had given the ghosts blood in the great hall, they were not likely to do him or Duren harm. He set his jaw and endured the cries he heard only with his mind's ear. Children, though, were supposed to be more sensitive to the spirits than adults.

A couple of minutes later, the first rays of the rising sun touched the top of the tall watchtower that stood above the keep. The ghosts sounded frightened for an instant, then vanished back into whatever gloomy haunt was theirs while the sun ruled the sky.

"A new day," Gerin said to Duren. "This is the time for living men to go abroad in the world." He patted the boy's back, heartening him against the terror that fluttered with the ghosts.

Van of the Strong Arm came out a few minutes later, whistling loudly but off-key. Smoke poured from windows and doorways as the cooks built up the fire to heat the morning porridge. Van squinted as a strand of smoke stung his eyes. "There ought to be a way to cook your food without smoking everyone who eats it as if he were a sausage," the burly outlander complained.

Gerin narrowed his eyes, too, but not at the smoke. There ought to be a way was a phrase that always set him thinking. Sometimes nothing came of it, but sometimes things did. He said, "Remember the newfangled footholders Duin the Bold came up with so he wouldn't go over his horse's tail if he tried to ride? Maybe we could find a new way to get rid of smoke, too."

"Remember what happened to Duin? He got himself killed with his newfangled scheme, that's what. Me, I'd sooner fight from a chariot any day." For all his wandering, for all the strange things he'd seen and done, Van remained at heart a profoundly conservative man.

Gerin had more stretch to him. "I think this business of riding to war will end up coming to something: a horse alone can cross terrain where a chariot can't go. But you have a special trouble there—where will you find a beast to bear your bulk?"

"I've never been small; that's a fact," Van said complacently. "From the rumbles in my belly, though, I'll be thin if I don't put something in there soon. They'll have bread and meat from last night to go with the porridge, won't they?"

"If they don't, they'll be looking for a new master by this time tomorrow," Gerin answered. Van clapped his big hands together and hurried back inside.

The morning proved busy. Gerin always kept someone in the watchtower. Life had been dangerous enough before the Trokmoi swarmed south over the Niffet. Now danger could come from any direction at any time. When the lookout's horn blew, men up on the palisade reached for their weapons; the gate crew got ready to pull up the drawbridge and defend Castle Fox against barbarians or men of Elabon.

But after he winded the horn, the watchman cried, " Tis but a single man approaching—a trader, by the look of him."

Sure enough, the fellow was no harbinger of a ravening horde: he drove a two-horse team from a small, neat wagon. "Dyaus give you a good day, sir," Gerin greeted him when he rolled into the courtyard. The Fox glanced at the sun. "To get here so early in the day, you must have spent last night in the open."

"That I did, lord prince," the man answered. He was small and neat himself, with a shortsighted gaze and hands with long, slim fingers. "I bought a couple of chickens from a peasant—likely a serf of yours—and their blood in a trench warded me against the ghosts. Otes son of Engelers I am, maker and purveyor of jewelry of all descriptions, and also ready to do tinker's work if you have pots and such that need patching."

"Aye, we have a few of those," Gerin said. "If you know the secret of proper soldering, you'll make a bit of silver before you leave here. I've tried, but without much in the way of luck. But jewelry, now—hmm." He wondered if he could find a piece Fand would like at a price that didn't make his own thrifty soul quail.

Van came up to the wagon and, from the thoughtful look on his face, might have had the same idea. But what he said was, "You're not the least brave man I ever met, Master Jeweler, if you take your wares through this bandit-raddled countryside alone."

Otes Engelers' son dipped his head to the outlander. "You are gracious, sir. I traveled up into the Fox's lands from those of Aragis the Archer. Few bandits try to make a living in your holding, lord Gerin, or in his—few who aren't vassals styling themselves barons, at any rate." He smiled to show that was meant as a joke.

"Aye, Aragis is a strong man." Gerin let it go at that. One of these days, he and Aragis were liable to fight a war. The prospect would have bothered him less had he been less afraid he might lose.

"Show us these jewels of yours," Van boomed.

Otes, as he'd said, had adornments of all descriptions, from polished copper with "gems" of glass paste to gold and emeralds. Before he'd opened all his little cedar chests to display the baubles inside, Fand came out of the castle to admire them with her two men. Suddenly she pointed to a brooch. "Isn't that pretty, now?" she breathed. "Sure and it must be Trokmê work. It fair puts me in mind of my auld village on the far side of the Niffet, that it does."

Smiling, the jeweler picked it up and held it in the palm of his hand. It was a circular piece, about three fingers broad, decorated with spirals half silver and half inlaid, polished jet. "As a matter of fact, my lady, I made this one myself, and I'm as Elabonian as they come," Otes said. "That it is from a northern pattern, though, I'll not deny."

" 'Twould suit the very tunic I have on me," Fand said, running a hand across the dark blue woad-dyed linen. She looked from one of her paramours to the other.

Van, who'd quarreled with her the night before, weakened first. With a cough, he said, "Master Otes, perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me what outrageous price you're asking for this chunk of tin and dirt."

"Tin?" Otes screeched. "Dirt? Are you blind, man? Are you mad? Feel the weight of that metal. And look at the care and the workmanship I put into the piece, shaping the tiny slivers of jet one by one and slipping each into its place—"

"Aye, tell me more lies," Van said.

Sensing that the dicker would go on for some time, Gerin took his leave. He figured he had time to walk out to the village by Fox Keep, talk with Besant Big-Belly about knocking off too early, and be back before Van and Otes had settled on a price. He knew how stubborn Van could be, and the jeweler looked to have mule's blood in him, too.

But before the Fox could walk out over the drawbridge, the lookout in the watchtower winded his horn again. He called down, "A chariot approaches, lord Gerin, with what looks to be a Trokmê chieftain and two of his men."

"Just a chariot?" Gerin shouted up. "No army attached?"

"I see only the one, lord," the lookout answered. A moment later, he added, "The chieftain is holding up a green-and-white striped shield: he comes under sign of truce."

Gerin called to the gate crew, "When you spy him, give him sign of truce in return. We'll see what he wants." Before the invasions, he'd have attacked any northerners he caught on his holding. Now the Trokmoi were powers south of the Niffet. However much it galled him, he had to treat with them.

"Who comes?" one of the men at the gate called to the approaching chariot.

"It's Diviciacus son of Dumnorix I am, liegeman to himself himself, the great chief Adiatunnus son of Commus, who's fain to have me bring his words to Gerin the Fox," the chieftain answered in Elabonian that lilted like Fand's. "No quarrel, no feud, stands between us the now."

The Trokmoi had slain Gerin's father and brother. As far as he was concerned, that put him eternally at feud with them. Moreover, he reckoned them deadly dangerous to the remnants of civilization that survived in the northlands after Elabon had cut the province loose. But in a narrow sense, Diviciacus was right: no active fighting went on between Adiatunnus' men and those of the Fox.

Dropping into the Trokmê tongue, Gerin said, "If it's the Fox you're seeking, I am he. Aye, I grant the truce between your chief and my own self. Come sit yourself by my hearth, drink a stoup of ale, and tell me Adiatunnus' words at your comfort and leisure."

Diviciacus beamed. He was a tall, thin, pale man with a lean, wolfish face, clean-shaven but for a straggling mustache of bright red. He wore a checked tunic and baggy wool trousers tucked into boots; a long, straight bronze sword hung from his belt. The other warrior in the chariot and its driver might have been poured into the same mold as he, save that one of them had sandy hair and mustache, the other blond.

Inside the smoky great hall, Diviciacus gulped down his first jack of ale, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, belched loudly, and said, "Sure and you're after living up to the name you have for hospitality, lord Gerin, that y'are."

Gerin could take a hint. He filled the Trokmê's drinking jack again, then said, "And what would Adiatunnus wish with me, pray?" The northern chieftain controlled several holdings a fair distance south and west of Fox Keep. Of all the Trokmoi who'd settled south of the Niffet, he was probably the most powerful, and the most adept at riding—and twisting—the swirling political currents of the northlands.

Diviciacus came to the point with barbarous directness: "Himself wants to know if you're of a mind to join forces with him and squeeze the pimple called Aragis off the arse of mankind."

"Does he?" Gerin said. In a way, that was logical: Aragis blocked Gerin's ambitions no less than Adiatunnus'. In another way . . . "Why wouldn't I be more likely to combine with a man of my own blood against an invader?"

"Adiatunnus says he reckons you reckon Aragis more a thorn in your side than his own self." Diviciacus smiled at the subtlety of his chief's reasoning, and indeed it was more subtle than most northerners could have produced. The envoy went on, "Forbye, he says that once the Archer is after being cut into catmeat, you can go your way and he his, with no need at all for the twain of ye to clomp heads like bull aurochs in rutting season."

"He says that?" Gerin didn't believe it would work so; he didn't think Adiatunnus believed it, either. Which meant—

He was distracted from what it meant when Duren came in and said, "I'm bored, Papa. Play ball with me or something."

"A fine bairn," Diviciacus said. "He'd have, what—four summers on him?" At Gerin's nod, the Trokmê also nodded, and went on, "Aye, he's much of a size with my youngest but one, who has the same age."

Gerin was so used to thinking of Trokmoi as warriors, as enemies, that he needed a moment to adjust to the notion of Diviciacus as a fond father. He supposed he shouldn't have been taken aback; without fathers, the Trokmoi would have disappeared in a generation (and the lives of all the Elabonians north of the High Kirs would have become much easier). But it caught him by surprise all the same.

To Duren, he said, "I can't play now. I'm talking with this man." Duren stamped his foot and filled himself full of air, preparatory to letting out an angry screech. Gerin said, "Do you want my hand on your backside?" Duren deflated; his screech remained unhowled. Convinced his father meant what he said, Duren went off to look for amusement somewhere else.

"Good on you for training him to respect his elders, him still so small and all," Diviciacus said. "Now tell me straight how you fancy the notion of your men and those of Adiatunnus grinding Aragis between 'em like wheat in the quern."

"It has possibilities." Gerin didn't want to say no straight out, for fear of angering Adiatunnus and of giving him the idea of throwing in with Aragis instead. The Fox reckoned Aragis likely to be willing to combine with the Trokmê against his own holdings; no ties of blood or culture would keep Aragis from doing what seemed advantageous to him.

"Possibilities, is it? And what might that mean?" Diviciacus demanded.

It was a good question. Since Gerin found himself without a good answer, he temporized: "Let me take counsel with some of my vassals. Stay the night here if you care to; eat with us, drink more ale—by Dyaus I swear no harm will come to you in Fox Keep. Come the morning, I'll give you my answer."

"I'm thinking you'd say aye straight out if aye was in your heart," Diviciacus said dubiously. "Still, let it be as you wish. I'll stay a bit, so I will, and learn what you'll reply. But I tell you straight out, you'll befool me with none o' the tricks that earned you your ekename."

Since persuading the Trokmê not to leave at once in high dudgeon was one of those tricks, the Fox maintained a prudent silence. He suspected Diviciacus and his comrades would use the day to empty as many jars of ale as they could. Better ale spilled than blood, he told himself philosophically.

Fand came in, wearing the silver-and-jet brooch just above her left breast. Diviciacus' eyes clung to her. "My leman," Gerin said pointedly.

That recalled to Diviciacus the reason he'd come. "If you've allied with us so, why not on the field of war?" he said, hope for success in his mission suddenly restored.

"As I said, I'll talk it over with my men and tell you in the morning what I've decided." Gerin went out to the courtyard, where Van was practicing thrusts and parries with a heavy spear taller than he was. The outlander, for all his size, moved so gracefully that he made the exercise seem more a dance than preparation for war.

When Gerin told him what Adiatunnus had proposed, he scowled and shook his head. "Making common cause with the Trokmê would but turn him into a grander threat than Aragis poses."

"My thought was the same," Gerin answered. "I wanted to see if you saw anything on the other side to change my mind." Van shook his head again and went back to his thrusts and parries.

Gerin put the same question to Drago. The Bear's response was simpler: "No way in any of the five hells I want to fight on the same side with the Trokmoi. I've spent too much time tryin' to kill them buggers." That made Gerin pluck thoughtfully at his beard. Even had he been inclined to strike the bargain with Adiatunnus, his vassals might not have let him.

He went looking for Rihwin to get one more view. Before he found him, the lookout called, "Another man approaches in a wagon."

"Great Dyaus, three sets of visitors in a day," Gerin exclaimed. Sometimes no one from outside his holding came to Fox Keep for ten days, or twenty. Trade—indeed, traffic of any sort—had fallen off since the northlands went their own way. Not only did epidemic petty warfare keep traffic off the roads, but baronies more and more either made do with what they could produce themselves or did without.

"Who comes?" called a warrior up on the palisade.

"I am a minstrel, Tassilo by name," came the reply—in, sure enough, a melodious tenor. "I would sing for my supper, a bed for the night, and whatever other generosity your gracious lord might see fit to provide."

Tassilo? Gerin stood stock-still, his hands balling into fists. The minstrel had sung down at the keep of Elise's father, Ricolf the Red, the night before she went off with Gerin rather than letting herself be wed to Wolfar of the Axe. Just hearing Tassilo's name, and his voice, brought those memories, sweet and bitter at the same time, welling up in the Fox. He was anything but anxious to listen to Tassilo again.

But all the men who heard the minstrel name himself cried out with glee: "Songs tonight, by Dyaus!" "Maybe he'll have ones we've not heard." "A lute to listen to—that'll be sweet."

Hearing that, Gerin knew he could not send the man away. For his retainers, entertainment they didn't have to make themselves was rare and precious. If that entertainment made him wince, well, he'd endured worse. Sighing, he said, "The minstrel is welcome. Let him come in."

When Tassilo got down from his light wagon, he bowed low to the Fox. "Lord prince, we've met before, I think. At Ricolf's holding, was it not? The circumstances, as I recall, were irregular." The minstrel stuck his tongue in the side of his cheek.

"Irregular, you say? Aye, there's a good word for it. That's the business of a minstrel, though, isn't it?—coming up with words, I mean." Being moderately skilled in that line himself, Gerin respected those who had more skill at it than he. He eyed Tassilo. "Curious you've not visited Fox Keep since."

"I fled south when the Trokmoi swarmed over the Niffet, lord prince, and I've spent most of my time since then down by the High Kirs," Tassilo answered. He had an open, friendly expression and looked as much like a fighting man as a singer, with broad shoulders and a slim waist. In the northlands, any traveling man had to be a warrior as well, if he wanted to live to travel far.

"What brought you north again, then?" Gerin asked.

"A baron's daughter claimed I got her with child. I don't think I did, but he believed her. I thought a new clime might prove healthier after that."

Gerin shrugged. He had no daughter to worry about. He said, "The men look forward to your performance tonight." Lying a little, he added, "Having heard you those years ago, so do I." The minstrel could sing and play, no doubt about that. The Fox's memories were not Tassilo's fault.

* * *

After a few more pleasantries, Gerin strode out over the drawbridge and headed for the peasant village a few hundred yards away. Chickens and pigs and skinny dogs foraged among round huts of wattle and daub whose thatched conical roofs projected out far enough to hold the rain away from the walls. Children too young to work in the fields stared at Gerin as he tramped up the muddy lane that ran through the middle of the village.

He stuck his head into Besant Big-Belly's hut, which was little different from any of the others. The headman wasn't there, but his wife, a scrawny woman named Marsilia, sat on a wooden stool spinning wool into thread. She said, "Lord, if you're after my man, he's out weeding the garden."

The garden was on the outskirts of the village. Sure enough, Besant was there, plucking weeds from a patch of vetch. Not only did he have a big belly, he had a big backside, too, which at the moment stuck up in the air. Resisting the urge to kick it, Gerin barked, "Why have you been blowing the horn with the sun only halfway down the sky?"

Besant jerked as if Gerin had kicked him after all. He whirled around, scrambling awkwardly to his feet. "L-lord Gerin," he stuttered. "I didn't hear you come up."

"If you don't want more unexpected visits, make sure you work the full day," Gerin answered. "We'll all be hungrier come winter for your slacking now."

Besant gave Gerin a resentful stare. He was a tubby, sloppy-looking man of about fifty in homespun colorless save for dirt and stains here and there. "I shall do as you say, lord prince," he mumbled. "The ghosts have been bad of late, though."

"Feed them more generously, then, or throw more wood on the nightfires," Gerin said. "You've no need to hide in your houses from an hour before sunset to an hour past dawn."

Besant nodded but still looked unhappy. The trouble was, he and Gerin needed each other. Without the serfs, Gerin and his vassal barons would starve. That much Besant Big-Belly knew. But without the barons, the little villages of farmers would be at the mercy of Trokmoi and bandits: peasants with pitchforks and scythes could not stand against chariots and bronze armor and spears and swords. The headman did his best to ignore that half of the bargain.

Gerin said, "Remember, I'll be listening to hear when you blow the horn come evening." He waited for Besant to nod again, then walked off to see how the village fared.

The gods willing, he thought, the harvest would be good. Wheat for bread, oats for horses and oatmeal, barley for ale, rye for variety, beans, peas, squashes: all grew well under the warm sun. So did row on row of turnips and parsnips, cabbage and kale, lettuce and spinach. Gardens held vetch, onions, melde, radishes, garlic, and medicinal herbs like henbane.

Some fields stood vacant, the grass there lengthening for haymaking. Cattle and sheep grazed all the way out to the edge of the trees in others. A couple of lambs butted heads. "They might as well be barons," Gerin murmured to himself.

The peasants were hard at it as usual: weeding like Besant, repairing wooden fences to keep the animals where they belonged, unbaling straw to repair a leaky roof—all the myriad tasks that kept the village going. Gerin stopped to talk with a few of the serfs. Most seemed content enough. As overlords went, he was a mild one, and they knew it.

He spent more time in the village than he'd intended; the sun was already sinking toward the treetops when he headed back to Fox Keep. No, Besant won't blow the horn early tonight, not with me here so long, he thought. We'll have to see about tomorrow.

* * *

When he returned to the castle, the cooks were full of praise for the way Otes son of Engelers had fixed half a dozen pots. The Fox nodded approvingly. The large sale the jeweler had made to Fand (or rather, to Van) hadn't kept him from doing the other half of his job. On seeing Otes himself, Gerin invited him to stay for supper and pass the night in the great hall. By the way he grinned and promptly accepted, the neat little man had been expecting that.

In the great hall, Tassilo was fitting a new string to his lute and plucking at it to put it in proper tune. Duren watched him in pop-eyed fascination. "I want to learn to do that, Papa!" he said.

"Maybe you will one day," Gerin said. Stored away somewhere was a lute he'd had as a boy. He'd never been much good with it, but who could say what his son might accomplish?

After supper, Tassilo showed what he could do. "In honor of my host," he said, "I shall give you some of the song of Gerin and the dreadful night when all the moons turned full together." He struck a plangent chord from the lute and began.

Gerin, who had lived through that dreadful night five years before, recognized little of it from the minstrel's description. Much of that had to do with the way Tassilo composed his song. He didn't create it afresh from nothing; that would have overtaxed even the wits of Lekapenos, the great Sithonian epic poet.

Instead, like Lekapenos, Tassilo put his song together from stock bits and pieces of older ones. Some of those were just for the sake of sound and meter; the Fox quickly got used to hearing himself called "gallant Gerin" every time his name was mentioned. It saved Tassilo, or any other poet, the trouble of having to come up with a new epithet every time he was mentioned in the story.

And some of the pieces of old songs were ones Gerin had heard before, and which didn't perfectly fit the tale Tassilo was telling now. The bits about battling the Trokmoi went back to his boyhood, and likely to his grandfather's boyhood as well. But that too was part of the convention. More depended on the way the minstrel fit the pieces together than on what those pieces were.

All the same, Gerin leaned over to Van and said, "One thing I remember that Tassilo isn't saying anything about is how bloody frightened I was."

"Ah, but you're not a person to him, not really," Van replied. "You're gallant Gerin the hero, and how could gallant Gerin be afraid, even with every werebeast in the world trying to tear his throat out?"

"At the time, it was easy," Gerin said, which won a laugh from Van. He'd been through the werenight with Gerin. "Bold Van," Tassilo called him, which was true enough, but he hadn't been immune to fear, either.

And yet, the rest of Tassilo's audience ate up the song. Drago the Bear, who'd gone through his own terrors that night, pounded on the table and cheered to hear how Gerin had surmounted his: it might not have been true, but it sounded good. Duren hung on Tassilo's every word, long after the time he should have been asleep in bed.

Even the Trokmoi, whose fellows had been on the point of putting an end to Gerin when the chaos of the werenight saved him, listened avidly to the tale of their people's discomfiture. Well-turned phrases and songs of battle were enough to gladden them, even if they came out on the losing side.

Tassilo paused to drink ale. Diviciacus said to Gerin, "Give me your answer now, Fox, dear. I've not the patience to wait for morning."

Gerin sighed. "It must be no."

"I thought as much," the Trokmê said. "Yes is simple, but no needs disguises. You'll be after regretting it."

"So will your chief, if he quarrels with me," the Fox answered. "Tell him as much." Diviciacus glared but nodded.

When Gerin, who was yawning himself, tried to pick up Duren and carry him off to bed, his son yelled and cried enough to make the Fox give it up as a bad job. If Duren wanted to fall asleep in the great hall listening to songs, he'd let him get away with it this once. Gerin yawned again. He was tired, whether Duren was or not. With a wave to Tassilo, he headed for his bedchamber.

What with Fand and Van in the next room, the noise up there proved almost as loud as what the minstrel made, and even more distracting. Gerin tossed and turned and grumbled and, just when he finally was on the point of dropping off, got bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. He mashed the bug, but that woke him up again. He lay there muttering to himself until at last he did fall asleep.

Because of that, the sun was a quarter of the way up the sky when he came back down to the great hall. Van, who was just finishing a bowl of porridge, laughed at him: "See the slugabed!"

"I'd have gotten to sleep sooner if someone I know hadn't been making such a racket next door," Gerin said pointedly.

Van laughed louder. "Make any excuse you like. You outslept your guests, no matter what. All three lots of them are long gone."

"They want to get in as much travel as they can while the sun's in the sky. I'd do the same in their boots." Gerin looked around. "Where's Duren?"

"I thought he was with you, Captain," Van said. "Didn't you take him up to bed the way you usually do?"

"No, he wanted to listen to Tassilo some more." Gerin dipped up a bowl of porridge from the pot over the fire, raised it to his mouth. After he swallowed, he said, "He's probably out in the courtyard, making mischief."

In the courtyard he found Drago the Bear pouring a bucket of well water over the head of Rihwin the Fox. Both of them looked as if they'd seen the bottoms of their drinking jacks too many times the night before.

"No, I've not seen the boy all morning," Drago said when Gerin asked him.

"Nor I," the dripping Rihwin said. He added, "If he made as much noise as small boys are in the habit of doing, I'd remember seeing him . . . painfully." His eyes were tracked with red. Yes, he'd hurt himself last night.

Gerin frowned. "That's—odd." He raised his voice. "Duren!" He put two fingers in his mouth, let out a long, piercing whistle that made Rihwin and Drago flinch.

His son knew he was supposed to come no matter what when he heard that call. He also wasn't supposed to go by himself too far from Castle Fox to hear it. Wolves and longtooths and other wild beasts roamed the woods. So, sometimes, did wild men.

But Duren did not come. Now Gerin began to worry. Maybe, he thought, the boy had gone off to the peasant village. He'd done that alone once or twice, and got his backside heated for it. But often a boy needed a lot of such heatings before he got the idea. Gerin remembered he had, when he was small.

He walked over to the village, ready to thunder like Dyaus when he found his son. But no one there had seen Duren, either. A cold wind of dread in his belly, Gerin went back to Castle Fox. He sent men out in all directions, beating the bushes and calling Duren's name. They came back scratched by thorns and stung by wasps, but without the boy.

Duren was missing.


Gerin paced between the benches in the great hall, making Rihwin and Van and Drago move out of the way. "One of those three must have snatched him," he said: "Diviciacus or Tassilo or Otes. I can't believe Duren would go wandering off where we couldn't find him, not of his own accord."

"If you're right, Captain, we've eaten up a lot of the day looking around here," Van said.

"I know," Gerin answered unhappily. "I'll go out and send others in chariots as well, even so; if Dyaus and the other gods are kind, one of us will catch up with our—guests." He spat the last word. Guest-friendship was sacred; those who violated it could expect a long, unhappy time in the afterlife. Unfortunately, though, fear of that didn't paralyze all rogues.

"Who'd want to steal a little boy?" Drago the Bear growled. His big hands moved in the air as if closing round a neck.

Gerin's more agile wits had already started pursuing that one. "Diviciacus might, to give Adiatunnus a hold on me," he said. "I don't think Adiatunnus would have ordered it—who could guess ahead of time if the chance would come up?—but I don't think he'd turn down a gift like that if it fell into his lap."

"Duren might give him a hold for now, but he'd get nothing but grief from you later," Van said.

"Aye, but since I turned him down for a joint move on Aragis, he's liable to think he'd get only grief from me anyhow," the Fox answered, thinking, He's liable to be right, too. Aloud, he went on, "Speaking of Aragis, Otes the jeweler came from his lands. And Aragis might not turn down a hold on me, either."

"You're right there, too," Drago said, making more choking motions.

"You're leaving out Tassilo," Van said.

"I know." Gerin kicked aside a dog-gnawed bone. "I can't think of any reason he'd want to harm me."

"I can," Rihwin the Fox said.

"Can you indeed?" Gerin said, surprised. "What is it?"

Rihwin coughed; his smoothly handsome face went a couple of shades pinker than usual. "You'll recall, lord, that when last you made the acquaintance of this Tassilo, I was in the process of, ah, disqualifying myself from marrying the fair Elise. I hadn't tasted wine in too long, you understand."

"Disgracing yourself is more like it," Van said, blunt as usual. Gloriously drunk, Rihwin had stood on his head on a table at Ricolf the Red's and kicked his legs in the air . . . while wearing a southern-style toga and no drawers.

He coughed again. "Perhaps your word is more accurate, friend Van, though not calculated to make me feel better about the incident or myself. Be that as it may, I resume: Elise having found you no more to her taste, lord Gerin, than her father did me, she might possibly have engaged the services of this minstrel to rape away the boy for her to raise."

Gerin bit down on that like a man whose teeth closed on a worm in an apple. Ever since Elise left him, he'd done his best not to think about her; whenever he did, it hurt. He had no idea where in the northlands she was, whether she was still with the horse doctor with whom she'd gone away, or even whether she still lived. But what Rihwin said made enough sense that he had to ask himself those questions now.

Slowly, he answered, "Aye, you're right, worse luck; that could be so." He plucked at his beard as he weighed odds. "I still think the Trokmoi are likeliest to have stolen Duren, so Van and I will go southwest after them. Which way did Tassilo fare?"

"West, toward the holding of Schild Stoutstaff, or that's where he told the gate crew he was heading," Drago answered.

Gerin grunted. If Tassilo had Duren with him, he might well have lied about his chosen direction. Or he might not have. Schild had been the leading vassal to Wolfar of the Axe. He wasn't a deadly foe to Gerin, as Wolfar had been, but he was no great friend, either. Though he'd acknowledged the Fox his suzerain after Gerin killed Wolfar, he forgot that whenever convenient. He might shelter Tassilo, or at least grant him safe passage.

"All right, Rihwin," Gerin said. "You ride west to Schild's border, and past it if his guards give you leave. If they don't—" He paused for effect. "Tell them they, and their overlord, will have cause to regret it."

Rihwin nodded. "As you say."

"Now, Otes," Gerin said.

Again, Drago answered: "He said he was heading east along the Emperor's Highway, to see if Hagop son of Hovan had tinker's work for him. He didn't think he'd sell Hagop much in the way of jewelry: 'skinflint' was the word he used, I think."

"For Hagop, it's a good one," Gerin said judiciously. "All right, you go after him, then."

"I'll do that, lord," Drago said, and strode out of the great hall. Gerin was as sure as if his eyes could follow that Drago was heading for the stables to hitch his team to his chariot, and that he'd ride out after Otes the minute the job was done. To Drago, the world was a simple place. His liege lord had given him an order, so he would follow it. Gerin sometimes wished he couldn't see all the complications in the world around him, either.

Van said, "You'll want me to ride with you, eh, Captain? We'll need a driver as well, if we're to take on Diviciacus and his friends on even terms."

"You're right on both counts," Gerin said. He thought about adding another chariot and three-man team of warriors, too, but decided against it. Van was worth a couple of ordinary men in a fight, and the Fox did not denigrate his own skill with his hands. And Raffo Redblade, who'd been driving for them for years, hadn't earned his ekename by running from fights. The Fox added, "And we'll send Widin Simrin's son south to ask what Aragis knows. Van, find him—he'll be in the courtyard somewhere—and get him moving, too."

The decision made, Gerin took his armor down from the wall and put it on: bronze greaves first, then leather cuirass faced with scales of bronze, and last of all a plain pot of a helmet. None of it was polished; none of it looked the least bit fancy—the Fox left that to Van. But his own gear was sound. It did what he wanted it to do: it kept edged and pointed metal from splitting his flesh. As far as he was concerned, nothing else mattered.

He slung his quiver over his shoulder, took down his bow, and then grabbed his shield. That was a yard-wide disk of leather and wood, with bronze edging to keep swordstrokes from chewing it up.

Most Elabonian warriors had gear much like the Fox's. Some men went in for gold or silver ornamentation, but he wanted nothing of the sort: curlicues and inlays could catch and hold a point, while rich armor made a man a special target on the battlefield.

With his outlandish armor, Van of the Strong Arm was always a target on the battlefield, but no one yet had been able to strip his crested helm and two-piece corselet from him. Along with his spear, he carried a sword, a mace, and several daggers. He was also a fine archer, but did not use the bow in combat, affecting to despise slaying foes from afar as unmanly.

"Foolishness," Gerin said, as he had many times before. "As long as you're alive and the other fellow isn't, nothing else matters. You get no points for style, not in war you don't."

Van brandished his spear. "Captain, that's never been a problem." His grin showed only a couple of broken teeth, more evidence (as if more were needed) he was more dangerous with weapons in hand than anyone he'd run up against.

Practical as usual, Gerin went into the kitchens and filled a leather sack with twice-baked bread that would keep indefinitely (and that needed someone with good teeth to eat it) and strips of smoked mutton even tougher than the bread. If he had to fight from the chariot, the sack would go over the side. If he didn't, he and Van and Raffo could travel for a few days without worrying about supplies.

Gerin shouldered the bag and carried it out to the stables. Raffo, a gangling young man with pimples along the margin of his beard, looked up from hitching the horses to either side of the chariot shaft. "Be good to get out on the road, lord Gerin," he said, getting the animals into the double yoke and securing them to the shaft with straps that ran around the front of their necks.

"It would be better if we were going out for a different reason," Gerin said heavily. Raffo's face fell; he'd forgotten that. The Fox had given up on expecting tact from his men. They were, he sometimes thought with something approaching despair, only a couple of steps more civilized than the Trokmoi. Improving that was a matter for generations, not just years; even keeping them from falling back into barbarism often seemed none too easy.

He stowed his shield on the brackets mounted on the inside of the car. It made the side wall higher. Van walked into the stables then. His place in the chariot was on the right side. He set his shield into its stowage place, too, and grunted approvingly when he saw the sack of supplies.

"That's good," he said. "Now we'll just need to buy a fowl from the peasants if we camp out in the open, or bleed out our prey if we go hunting: have to give the ghosts something, after all."

"Aye." Gerin's voice was abstracted. "The chase won't be easy. Diviciacus and his friends have half a day's start on us, and more than one road they can choose to go back to Adiatunnus—and we don't even know they have my boy." He wanted to scream in rage and fear. Instead, he grew more quiet and withdrawn than ever; he was not one to show worry on the outside.

"Only one way to find out," Van said.

"True, true." Gerin turned to Raffo. "Are you done harnessing the beasts?" By way of answer, the young driver vaulted into the car. The Fox clapped him on the back. "Good. Let's travel."

The six-spoked wheels began to spin. The bronze tires on those wheels rattled and clattered as they bounced over pebbles. Gerin felt every tiny thing the wheels went over, too. Had he not needed the most speed he could get, and had he not thought he might have to fight to get Duren back, he would have taken a wagon instead. But the chariot it had to be.

"A day of standing in this car and we'll wobble on solid ground like sailors coming off a ship long at sea," he said. The chariot rumbled out through the gateway, over the drawbridge, and away from Fox Keep.

"Speak to me not of sailing," said Van, who had done his share of it. "You're not likely to get seasick in the car here, and that's a fact—a fact you can thank the gods for, too. I've puked up my guts a time or three, and I've no wish to do it again."

"South and west," Raffo said musingly. "Which road would they have taken, lord Gerin? Would they have fared south down the Elabon Way and then gone straight west toward Adiatunnus' castle? Or do you think they went along the lesser roads that run straighter between here and there?"

The Fox rubbed his chin as he considered. At last he said, "If they're going down the Elabon Way, Widin will come on them, for he's taking that road toward Aragis' holding."

"He'd be one against three," Van pointed out.

Gerin grimaced. "I know. But he wouldn't be foolish enough to attack them. If they have Duren, and he finds out about it, he'll get word back to the keep. We can plan what to do next—go to war with Adiatunnus, I expect."

"I didn't think you wanted to do that yet, lord Gerin," Raffo said.

"I don't," Gerin answered, "but I will. But if we go the same way Widin has, we narrow the search more than I want. I aim to throw my net as wide as I can, hoping to catch something in one strand of the mesh."

"Aye, makes sense to me," Van said, which eased the Fox's mind somewhat: his burly friend had a keen eye for tactics, though Gerin reckoned himself more adept in planning for years ahead.

Raffo steered the team down a way that headed toward Adiatunnus' lands. Within a couple of minutes, the clearing where Gerin's serfs scratched their living from the soil disappeared behind the chariot. Forest closed in on either side of the road, which, but for the ruts from wagons and chariots, might have been a game track. Branches reached out and tried to slap the Fox in the face.

He held up an arm to turn them aside. Whenever he went down a back road like this one, he was struck by how lightly civilization rested on the northlands. The stink of the castle midden, and the bigger one in the peasant village, were out of his nostrils now; the woods smelled green and growing, as if man with his stinks had never come this way. In the virgin pines and elms, robins sang sweetly, chickadees twittered, and jays cried their harsh, metallic calls. A red squirrel flirted its tail as it clambered up a tree trunk.

But Gerin knew better than to idealize the forest, as some Sithonian poets (most of whom had never set foot outside the City of Elabon) were wont to do. Wolves ranged through the woods; in hungry winters they'd go after flocks or the herders who tended them. Longtooths would take men as they would any other prey, winter or summer. And the aurochs, the great wild ox of the forest, was nothing to take lightly—a few years before, Gerin had almost died under the horns and trampling hooves of a rogue bull.

He motioned for Raffo to stop the chariot. With a puzzled look, the driver obeyed. But for the bird calls and the soft purling of a stream somewhere off out of sight, silence closed down like a cloak. To the Fox, who was comfortable with only himself for company, it felt pleasant and restful.

Van, though, quickly started to fidget. He pulled a baked-clay flute from a pouch on his belt and began playing a tune whose notes ran in no pattern familiar to Elabonian music. "That's better," he said. "Too bloody quiet here."

Gerin swallowed a sigh and tapped Raffo on the shoulder. "Let's get going again. I'd sooner listen to jingling harness than to Van's tweedles."

"Aye, lord Gerin. Now that you mention it, so would I." Raffo flicked the reins. The horses snorted resentfully—they'd started cropping the grass that grew between the ruts—and trotted down the road.

At the next village, Gerin asked the serfs if they'd seen the chariot full of Trokmoi come past. They all shook their heads, as if they'd not only not seen such a thing but never heard of it, either.

The Fox scowled. "We're too far north or too far south, and Dyaus only knows which: that or they've gone down the Elabon Way as Raffo feared." He pounded his fist on the chariot rail in frustration.

"Too far north'd be my guess," Van said. "The track we were on curved, I think, till it ran nearer west than southwest."

"I didn't note that myself, but you're most often right about such things," Gerin said. "Raffo, the next road we come on that heads south, you take it till it crosses one leading in the direction we really want to go." Or until it peters out, he thought: not all paths connected to others.

The peasants watched as their overlord rode out of the village. Though still on land he ruled directly rather than through one of his vassal barons, he seldom came here save when collecting what was due him each fall. He wondered what the serfs thought of this unexpected appearance. Most likely, they were relieved he hadn't demanded anything of them.

Shadows lengthened as the chariot rattled and rumbled through woods that seemed to grow ever thicker. "I wonder if this road ever does join up with anything else," Van said.

"If it doesn't pretty bloody soon, we're going to have to turn back and head for that last village to buy a couple of chickens," Gerin said. "I don't want to have to count on just fire to keep the ghosts away."

Raffo pointed with his free hand. "Looks like more light up ahead, lord Gerin. Might be only a meadow, mind you, but it might be fields, too, and fields mean another village."

It was fields; Gerin felt like cheering. No sooner had the chariot emerged from the woods than the quitting horn called the peasants in from their labor. The Fox looked around. "Yes, I know this place—Pinabel Odd-Eyes is headman here. I'm used to coming here from the west, though, not out of the north."

Pinabel's left eye was blue, his right brown. Brown and blue both widened when Gerin rolled into the center of the village. Pinabel bowed very low. "L-lord prince, what brings you here?" he stammered.

The nervousness he showed made Gerin wonder what sort of cheating he was doing, but he'd have to worry about that later. "My son's been kidnapped," he announced baldly. Pinabel and the other serfs who heard exclaimed in dismay; family ties mattered to them, not least because those were almost all too many of them had. He went on, "I think three Trokmoi who visited Fox Keep yesterday may have taken him."

That brought more murmurs from the peasants. They were even more afraid of the Trokmoi than of night ghosts, and with reason: the ghosts could be propitiated, but the woodsrunners ravaged as they pleased. But when Gerin asked if Pinabel and the others in the village had seen the chariot Diviciacus and his comrades were riding, they all denied it.

He believed them, much as he wished he thought they were lying. Pinabel said, "They might have gone through by way of the next road south. It's very great, I hear, though I have never traveled far enough to see it."

"Maybe." Gerin didn't have the heart to tell the headman that next road was just another muddy track. Like most serfs, Pinabel had never traveled more than a few hours' walk from where he was born.

"Will you stay with us till morning, lord prince?" Pinabel asked. "Night comes soon." He gestured to the east, where Elleb, only a day before full, had already risen. Math hung halfway up the sky, while Nothos, almost at first quarter, showed near enough where south lay. And in the west, the sun was near the horizon. When it set, the ghosts would come out.

But Gerin shook his head. "I want to push on as long as I may—every moment may prove precious. Sell me two chickens, if you would, so I can give the ghosts blood when they come."

"Aye, lord prince." Pinabel hurried away. He returned a couple of minutes later with a pair of hens, their legs tied with strips of rawhide. Gerin gave him a quarter of a silverpiece for them: probably more than they were worth, but the smallest bit of money he had in the pouch at his belt. Pinabel Odd-Eyes bowed himself almost double.

As the chariot bounced away, Raffo observed, "Most lords would have said, 'Give me two chickens' there."

That hadn't occurred to Gerin. He said, "Those birds aren't remotely part of the dues Pinabel's village owes on its land. I have no right just to take them from him."

"Neither does any other Elabonian lord with his serfs, if I understand your ways aright," Van said. "The thing of it is, most wouldn't let that stop 'em."

"You're probably right," Gerin said with a sigh. "But the way I see it, I owe my peasants fair dealing, just as they do with me. If I don't give it, how can I expect to get it in return?"

"Often enough you won't get it in return, no matter what sort of dealing you give," Van said.

"You're right." The Fox sighed again. "But when I don't, I'm not soft on that, either." Gerin was scrupulously fair. Anyone who thought him weak on that account soon regretted it.

"If I don't stop now, lord Gerin, we'll not have time to make ready to meet the ghosts," Raffo said, pointing to the western skyline. The sun, red as hot copper, had to be just on the point of setting.

Gerin thought about pushing on for another furlong or two, but regretfully decided Raffo was right. At his nod, the driver reined in. Gerin jumped down and gouged out a trench in the soft dirt by the side of the road. That did the edge of his dagger no good, but it was the only digging tool he had. Van handed him the trussed fowls. He cut off their heads, one after the other—the knife was still sharp enough for that—and let their blood spill into the trench.

None too soon: he still held the second hen over the hole when the ghosts came. They were, as ever, indistinct; the eye would not, could not, grasp their shape. They buzzed round the blood like carrion flies, soaking up vitality from it. Because he'd given them the gift, they were not fierce and angry and terrifying as they would have been otherwise, but tried to give him good advice in return.

He could not understand them. He had never been able to, save on the werenight, when his brother's shade managed to deliver a message of truly oracular obscurity—though he'd been able to use it later to destroy Balamung just when the opposite result looked far more likely.

Van bent over a firebow, twirling a stick with a rawhide lace to start a blaze for the evening. He shook his head like a man bedeviled by gnats. "I wish they'd quit yowling in my mind," he grumbled, but then he grunted in satisfaction. "Here we go, Raffo—feed me tinder, a bit at a time. You know how."

"Aye." Raffo had been crumbling dry leaves. He poked some into the hole where the stick from the firebow spun. Van breathed gently on the sparks he'd started, hoping to fan them rather than blowing them out. "You have it!" Raffo said, and gave him more tinder to feed the new little flames. With the fire well and truly started, he passed Van larger twigs to load on. Soon the thick chunk of branch on which the outlander had used the firebow would also catch.

"I wish it were that easy all the time," Van said. "Gut those birds, Fox, and pluck 'em, so we can get ourselves outside them. They're better fare than what we brought with us."

"You're right there." The plucking job Gerin gave the hens was quick and decidedly imperfect. He didn't care; he was hungry. He picked out the birds' hearts, livers, and gizzards from the offal to roast them over the fire, then threw the rest of the guts into the trench with the blood.

He, Raffo, and Van drew stems of grass for the night watches. Few bandits dared the ghosts to travel by night, but Gerin was not the sort to take unnecessary chances—the necessary ones were quite bad enough. And the beasts of the forest, being without souls themselves, took no notice of the night spirits. They usually did not attack travelers encamped in the woods, but you never could tell.

Van drew the short stem, and chose the first watch. Gerin and Raffo drew again. This time Raffo won, and picked the watch that led to dawn. "Since I get to have my sleep broken up, I may as well take what I can get of it," Gerin said, and wrapped himself in a blanket—as much to keep off the bugs as for warmth, for the night was mild.

Van shook him awake with the cheerful insouciance of a man who'd already done his share of a job. "Nothing much doing, Captain," he said while Gerin tried to break free of the fog that shrouded his wits. Van took off the helm, corselet, and greaves he'd worn through his watch, cocooned himself in his blanket, and was snoring by the time the Fox began to think himself awake.

Gerin put on his own helmet and sword, but did not bother with his cuirass. He paced back and forth, not willing to sit down until he was sure he wouldn't doze off. The fire had died into embers. He fed it twigs and then branches and brought it back to briskly crackling life. That drove away some of the ghosts flittering near, and reduced their murmur in his mind.

By the time he'd taken care of that, he felt more confident he could stay awake. He walked to the edge of the circle of firelight and sat down with his back to the flames. His night vision, almost ruined when he'd stoked them, slowly returned.

The moons had wheeled a good way through the sky. Nothos was nearing the western skyline, Math well west of south—when her golden gibbous disk sank below the horizon, it would be time for the Fox to rouse Raffo. Elleb, looking like a bright new bronze coin, neared the meridian.

Here and there in the forest, birches mingled with ash and oak and pine. By the light of the moons and the nightfire, their pale trunks seemed almost to gleam against the darker background.

Gerin wished his ears could grow more sensitive to the dark the way his eyes did. Off in the distance, a barn owl hooted. The Trokmoi thought the souls of dead warriors inhabited the pallid night birds. The Fox had his doubts about that, but he'd never tried a sorcerous experiment to find out one way or the other. He spent a while trying to figure out how such an experiment might be run, and what he could do if he found the Trokmoi were wrong. Making the arrogant woodsrunners doubt themselves in any way was likely to be worthwhile.

"You know," he said to himself in a low voice, "the midwatch isn't so bad after all. I don't get enough time of my own, with no one havering at me to do this or decide that right this moment." In small—or sometimes not so small—doses, he relished solitude.

Perhaps three parts of his four-hour watch had gone by when a coughing roar not far away roused him from contemplation, or rather jerked him out of it by the scruff of the neck. No one could ignore a longtooth's hunting cry; a man's blood knew it meant danger. One of the horses let out a frightened snort. The Fox found his left hand on the hilt of his sword without conscious memory of how it had got there—not that a sword would stop one of the great hunting cats if it chose to hunt him.

The longtooth, to his vast relief, came no closer to the campsite. "Well," he muttered, "I'm not sleepy now." He felt as if he'd had ice water splashed over him. When a nightjar swooped down to grab one of the moths fluttering around the fire, he almost jumped out of his skin.

He woke Raffo as soon as Math set. The driver looked toward the west, saw the moon was down, and nodded in approval. "No one ever said you weren't one for right dealing, lord," he said blurrily around a yawn.

Gerin wrapped himself in his blanket once more. He kept an eye on Raffo to make sure the younger man wouldn't go back to sleep as he almost had. Raffo, though, took watch-standing seriously, and paced about as the Fox had. Gerin feared he himself would have trouble dozing off again but, in spite of his worries, quickly drifted away.

The rising sun made him rise, too. His eyes came open just as the ghosts vanished for the day. He got to his feet, feeling elderly. Van was still snoring. Gerin roused him cautiously; the outlander's first waking act—especially when he was disturbed—was usually to grab for a weapon.

This time, though, he seemed to remember where he was, and came to himself without violence. He headed for the forest, saying, "Either I go off behind a bush or I burst where I stand."

"I watered the grass on watch, so I don't have that worry," Gerin said, buckling on his right greave. Raffo harnessed the horses.

The chicken bones and guts were already beginning to stink. The travelers moved upwind before they gnawed on bread and smoked meat. "Are we ready?" Raffo asked, looking around the little camp to make sure nothing had been forgotten. Gerin looked, too; if they had left something behind, he would have blamed himself.

They climbed into the chariot, Raffo driving, Gerin behind him on the left, Van on the right. Raffo flicked the reins. The horses started forward. When they came to a stream, Raffo let the animals have a brief drink. Gerin scooped up some water in the palm of his hand, too, and freshened what he carried in the waterskin at his belt.

At the next road that ran west, Raffo swung the chariot onto it. A little village lay not far from the crossroads. The appearance of their lord so early in the day was a prodigy for the peasants. When he asked if they'd seen Diviciacus and his comrades the day before, one of the men nodded. "Aye, just before noon it were," he said. A couple of other people nodded.

The Fox scowled; he was on the right track, aye, but no closer to the Trokmoi than when he'd set out. If they were traveling hard, maybe they had a reason. "Did they have a boy with them?" he asked, and then amplified that: "My son, I mean."

The serfs looked at one another. "Didn't see no boy, lord," answered the fellow who'd spoken before.

That wasn't what Gerin wanted to hear. Had the Trokmoi cut Duren's throat as if he were some sacrifice to the night ghosts, then dumped the corpse by the side of the road? Horrid dread filled him: his father, his brother—now his son, too? If that was so, he vowed he'd not rest till every red-mustached robber south of the Niffet was dead or routed back to the northern woods. Even as he made it, he knew the vow to be impossible of fulfillment. He spoke it in his mind, all the same; it would give his life a target.

"Take everything you can from the horses," he told Raffo, his voice harsh. "Now we have to catch them before they win back to Adiatunnus' lands."

"Aye, lord Gerin." But Raffo sounded doubtful. "They have a long lead, though. Gaining enough ground won't be easy, the more so as we may have to keep casting about for the road they took."

"I know that," Gerin growled. "But I'll have answers from them if I have to wring out each word with hot pincers."

Van thumped him on the shoulder. "Easy, Captain, easy. We don't even know they ever had the lad, mind you."

"But they must have—" Gerin stopped, shook his head. Assuming something was so because you thought it had to be was one of the flaws in logic that made the savants in the City of Elabon laugh. He took a deep breath and said, "You're right. We don't know they had him."

He wondered if he ever would, or could, know. Had Diviciacus and his crew killed Duren and tossed his body into the woods, scavengers would make short work of it (he knew too well that his son had only a little meat on his bones). When he'd charged out after the Trokmoi, he'd figured he or Drago or Rihwin or Widin would catch up with Duren's kidnappers, rescue the boy, and return in triumph to Castle Fox. Now he realized he'd been making assumptions there, too. Uncertainty, in a way, felt even worse than being sure of Duren's death would have. How long could he go on wondering without going mad?

Then he thought that, after a while, he wouldn't be uncertain any more. He'd have to reckon Duren dead if he wanted to keep on living himself.

"Push them," he said to Raffo. This time, the driver did not answer back. He flicked the whip over the horses' backs. They leaned into the harness, pushed their pace up to a fast trot.

The chariot rolled through another peasant village and then drove by the small keep of Notker the Bald, one of Gerin's vassal barons. "Aye, lord Gerin," Notker called from the palisade, "they came by here yesterday, sometime past noon, but they showed shield of truce, just as they had on the way to your castle, so I thought no more about it."

"Did they have Duren with them?" Gerin asked. Two sets of serfs had already answered no to that, but the Fox put the question again anyhow. Maybe, he thought with what he knew to be irrationality, a noble would have noticed something the serfs had not.

But Notker shook his head. "Your son, lord?" he said. "No, I saw him not. What then? Is it war between the woodsrunners and us despite the truce sign?"

"By the gods, I wish I knew." Gerin tapped Raffo on the shoulder to drive on before Notker asked any more questions he couldn't answer.

Toward the middle of the afternoon they passed the boundary stone that had marked the border between Gerin's holdings and those of his southwestern neighbor, Capuel the Flying Frog. No one had seen Capuel since the werenight; Gerin sometimes wondered if his ekename had been a clue to a were strain in his family and he'd turned toad when all the moons rose full together. More likely, though, the Trokmoi had slain him.

The boundary stone lay on its side these days, ruining the charms for peace and prosperity that had been carved into it. Whether that was cause or effect Gerin did not know, but Capuel's former holding knew no peace these days. None of his vassals had been able to take any kind of grip on the land. The Fox held some of it himself, Trokmoi had overrun a couple of keeps, and the rest was given over to banditry.

The first peasant village the chariot passed was only a ruin, some of the houses burned, the rest falling to pieces from lack of care. Some grain grew untended in weed-choked fields, but before another generation passed no sign would be left that man had ever lived here.

"Captain, we may need to stop to hunt toward sunset, and I don't mean for the Trokmoi," Van said. "Who's going to sell us a chicken in country like this?"

Gerin didn't answer. He knew Van was right but didn't want to admit it, even to himself. Stopping to slay an animal with whose blood to propitiate the ghosts would make him lose time on Diviciacus, not gain it.

The next village was still inhabited, but that did the travelers no good. Only a handful of people remained in what had been a fair-sized hamlet. When one of them spotted an approaching chariot, he let out a yell full of fear and desperation. Everyone—men, women, children—fled from fields and houses into the nearby woods.

"Wait!" Gerin shouted. "I just want to ask you a couple of questions." No one paid him any attention.

He looked helplessly to Van. The outlander said, "You ask me, Captain, these poor buggers have got themselves trampled too often lately to take chances when somebody who looks like a warrior comes by."

"No doubt you're right," the Fox answered, sighing. "Doesn't say much for the state the northlands are in, does it?"

"Your serfs don't run from you, lord Gerin," Raffo said.

"That's so," Gerin said, "but there's more to the northlands than my holdings—and if I took in these lands, I'd do it by war, so the peasants here wouldn't get the chance to learn I treat them decently. They'd just go on running when they saw me coming."

Raffo didn't answer. Unless he should be involved in fighting to gain control of land beyond Gerin's holding, it was too remote to matter to him. That made him typical, not otherwise, which saddened Gerin: he tried to think in larger terms.

Van said, "You're not the only baron—excuse me, Captain: prince—the serfs don't flee. What Aragis does to the ones who run that he catches makes all the others think three times before they try it."

"He's a hard man," Gerin agreed. "Harder than need be, I think. But it may be that hard times require a hard man. Who can tell for certain?"

"Do you know what your trouble is, Captain?" Van said.

"No, but I daresay you're going to tell me," the Fox answered, raising that eyebrow of his. Every so often, Van found a flaw in him, rarely the same one twice. The infuriating thing was that more often than not he had a point.

"Your trouble, Captain, is that you're so busy trying to understand the other fellow's point of view that you don't give enough heed to your own."

Gerin clutched his chest and lurched in the chariot, as if pierced by an arrow. Van's chuckle rumbled deep in his chest. That was a hit, though, and the Fox knew it. He said, "Understanding the other fellow has its uses, too. Sometimes he may even be right."

"And what does that have to do with the price of tin?" Van said. "All you really need worry about is that he does what you have in mind."

"Are you sure you're not really a Trokmê after all?" Gerin asked mildly. That earned him the glare he'd expected.

The chariot rattled past a burned-out keep. Perched atop one of the charred logs sat a fat bustard. Van tapped Raffo on the shoulder, pointed. The driver pulled back on the reins; the horses stopped and began to graze. Van reached for Gerin's bow. "I saw the bird—will you let me do the hunting?" he asked.

"Go ahead," the Fox answered. Van might think slaying men with the bow an effete way to fight, but he was a fine archer nonetheless.

The outlander strung the bow. Gerin handed him an arrow. He dropped down from the chariot and slid toward the bustard, light on his feet as a stalking longtooth. The bustard grubbed under its wing for mites. Van got to within twenty paces before he stood still, nocked the shaft, drew the bow, and let fly.

The arrow hit the bustard just below where it had been scratching. It let out a startled squawk and tried to fly, but tumbled off its log into the ditch that had not served to protect the palisade. Van scrambled in after it. When he came out again, he carried the bird by the feet and wore an enormous grin.

"Well shot," Gerin said, pleased the hunt had been so successful—and so brief. "Blood for the ghosts and supper for us."

"The very thing I was thinking," Van said.

Before long, sunset forced the travelers to a halt. Gerin and Van got out of the chariot and, one with sword, the other with spear, moved cautiously through the woods on either side of the road until Gerin came upon a small clearing screened off by trees. He hurried back to the dirt track, whistled to let Van know he'd found what he was after.

"You've got a place to keep us away from prying eyes, do you?" the outlander said, slipping out from between a couple of oaks. Despite his bulk, he moved so quietly that Gerin had not heard him till he spoke.

"Indeed I do. In my own lands, I wasn't much worried about making a fire out where anyone could see it. Here, though, it might draw serfs on the run, bandits—who knows what? Why take the chance?" The Fox turned to Raffo. "Unharness the horses. We can lead them back to the clearing, too; the way's not badly overgrown."

"Aye, lord Gerin." Raffo freed the animals from the central shaft; he and the Fox led them away to tether them in the clearing.

Van joined them a few minutes later. "I dragged the chariot off the road and into the bushes," he said. "It won't be so easy to see now."

"Good." Gerin nodded. "And if one of the horses goes lame, now we know we can hitch you to the shaft in its stead. Maybe we'll let the horse ride in your place in the car."

"I thank you, Captain," Van said gravely. "Always good to see how you look out for the welfare of them that serve you, so it is."

Suspecting he'd come off worse in that exchange, Gerin dug a trench to hold the blood from the bustard Van had killed earlier in the afternoon. When the bird had bled out, he frowned. "I hope that will be enough," he said. "We'd better build the fire bigger than we would have otherwise, or we'll have dreadful dreams all through the night."

After the sun went down, the ghosts did buzz gratefully around the offering the travelers had given them, but they rose from it faster than the Fox would have liked to see, as if they were men getting up from the table still hungry. They also braved the light and heat of the fire to gain more vital essence from the cut-up chunks of bird Gerin, Van, and Raffo were roasting.

The Fox drew first watch. After he woke Raffo for the middle stint, he fell asleep almost at once. His dreams were dreadful: monsters rampaging over the northlands, with men in desperate and what looked like losing struggle to drive them back. At first, in one of those almost-conscious moments dreams sometimes have, he thought he was harking back to the werenight. But he soon realized that was not so; these monsters seemed more appalling than mere wild beasts armed with the remnants of human wit that still clung to them.

When Van shook him awake at sunrise, he rose with such alacrity that the outlander gave him a curious look and said, "You're not apt to be so cheerful of a morning."

"Bad dreams," Gerin muttered, sliding a foot into a sandal.

"Aye, I had 'em, too." Van shook his head. "All manner of horrid creatures running loose—the gods grant I had a sour stomach or some such, to make me see such phantoms in my sleep."

The Fox paused with the sandal strap still unfastened. "That sounds like the same dream I had," he said slowly.

"And I," Raffo agreed. "I wouldn't have minded spending more time on watch and less in my blanket, and how often do you hear me say something like that?"

They hashed it out over breakfast, each recounting what he remembered of his dreams. As best Gerin could tell, they were all the same. "I don't like that," he said. "The omen is anything but good." His fingers shaped a sign to turn aside ill luck. The sign worked well enough for small misfortunes. Whatever misfortune lay ahead, he feared it would not be small—with Duren missing, it was already large. He offered the sign as a man without food in his house will offer a neighbor a stoup of water: not much, but the best he can do.

Van said, "If it is an omen, we won't be able to escape it, whatever it may prove to mean. One way or another, we'll get through." He seized his spear, made a sudden, savage thrust, as if to dispose of any troublesome foretellings.

The Fox wished he could match his friend's confidence. Van had never found anything, even the werenight, he couldn't overcome with brawn and bravery. Gerin trusted his own power less far. He said, "Let's get on the road."

They passed another couple of mostly deserted villages that day, and a wrecked keep. And, about noon, the Fox saw on a distant hill a building that wasn't quite a keep but was far stronger and more elaborate than anything a serf would need. Raffo saw it, too, and scowled blackly. "If that's not a bandits' nest, you can call me a Shanda nomad."

"That's what it is, all right, and right out in the open, too." Gerin spat into the dirt of the road to show what he thought of it. "Everything's going to the five hells when bandits set themselves up like barons."

"Who do you think the first barons were?" Van said. "Bandits who got rich, most likely. That's how it was a lot of places, anyhow."

"Insulting my ancestors, are you?" Gerin said. "I'd be angrier if I didn't know you were probably right. Even so, one fine day we're going to come down here and burn these bandits out before they get the chance to turn into barons."

"We're getting close to the lands Adiatunnus holds," Raffo said. "He's liable not to like that."

"Aye, he might have in mind to use these buggers, whoever they are, as a buffer between him and me," Gerin agreed. "That he has it in mind, though, doesn't mean it will happen so."

The sun had slid more than halfway down toward the west when the chariot clattered up to a new border stone standing by the side of the road. The boulder was carved not with Elabonian designs or letters, but rather with the fylfots and spirals the Trokmoi favored. In the roadway itself stood a couple of red-mustached northerners, one with a spear, the other with a sword. The one with the spear called in lilting Elabonian, "Who might you be, coming to the lands of the great chief, Adiatunnus his own self?"

"I might be anyone. I am Gerin the Fox," Gerin answered. "Did Adiatunnus' liegeman Diviciacus pass this way?"

"He did that." The border guard gave Gerin a look more curious than hostile. "And I'm after thinking it's fair strange, Fox, for you to be after him so. Have you changed your mind, now, over the matter anent which Diviciacus was sent forth for to talk with you?"

"I have not," Gerin answered at once, which made both Trokmoi scowl. "But neither am I at feud with Adiatunnus, nor with any of his. Does peace hold between us, or not?" He reached for the bronze-headed axe in its rest on the side wall of the chariot. Van hefted his own spear, not in a hostile way but thoughtfully, as if to find out how heavy it was.

It certainly made the Trokmoi thoughtful. The man who had spoken before said, "Sure and you've no need to be fighting us, now. For all Diviciacus ranted and carried on about what a black-hearted spalpeen you were, Fox—these are his words, mind, and none o' my own—he said not a whisper of faring forth to fight."

"As I told him I had no quarrel with Adiatunnus," Gerin agreed. "But tell me this—when Diviciacus rode through here, did he have with him in the chariot a boy of four summers? Not to put too fine a point on it, did he have my son? Before you answer, think on this: if you lie, we shall be at feud, and to the death."

The two northerners looked at each other. This time, the one who had the sword replied: "Fox, by Esus, Taranis, and Teutates I swear he did not." That was the strongest oath the Trokmoi used, and one they did not swear lightly. The fellow went on, "If we aimed to go to war with you, we'd up and do it. Stealing a child, now?" He spat. "Bad cess to any man who's after trying such a filthy thing."

"Aye," the other warrior said. "Did one of ours do such to you, Fox, we'd hand him back nicely tied and all, for you to do with him as you thought best. You could make him last days so, and wish every moment he'd never been born. I've two lads and a girl of my own, and I'd use the same way any ogre of a man who so much as ruffled a hair on their heads without my leave."

His anger and sincerity were unmistakable. Maybe Adiatunnus had set him and his friend here just because they lied so well, but Gerin couldn't do anything about that, not without an army at his back. He said, "I shall believe you, but remember what I said if you've not spoken truth."

"Och, but we have, so we've nought to fear," the fellow with the sword said. "I hope you find the bairn safe, Fox."

His friend nodded, adding, "Since you're apt to be spending the night in the open, would you want to buy a hen from us, now?"

"You probably stole it," Gerin said without rancor. "That's what all you Trokmoi south of the Niffet are—just a bunch of damned chicken thieves."

"Indeed and we're not," the northerner with a spear answered indignantly. "We came south because you Elabonians are after having so many things better and better than chickens to steal."

Since that was nothing but the truth, Gerin could not even argue with it. He tapped Raffo on the shoulder. His driver slewed the chariot in the narrow roadway and started east, back toward Castle Fox. "Sensible," Van said. "This set of woodsrunners seemed friendly enough, but we'll want to put some distance between them and us all the same. One of their higher-ups is liable to decide we're worth hunting through the night."

"My thought exactly," Gerin agreed. "Raffo, go by back roads while the day lasts, so long as they lead north or east. If we stay on the main track, I think we're asking for trouble."

"Aye, lord Gerin," Raffo said, and then, after a moment, "I'm sorry we didn't find your son."

Gerin sighed. "So am I. I have to pray that Rihwin or Drago or Widin had better luck than we did." He tried not to think about what might be happening to Duren. Too many of the pictures his imagination came up with were black ones.

"We were so sure the Trokmoi had run off with him, too," Van said. Another man might have put that, You were so sure— Like any proper friend, the outlander shared responsibility as well as credit.

"We'll know more when we get back to the castle," the Fox said, wondering how he'd keep from going mad till then.

* * *

Rihwin the Fox spread his hands. "Lord Gerin, Schild Stoutstaff's border guards declined to give me leave to pass into their overlord's land. For whatever it may be worth, they say Tassilo did enter that holding, but that they saw no sign of any small boy with him."

"For whatever it may be worth," Gerin repeated. "If he had Duren trussed up in the back of the wagon, it may be worth nothing at all. Or, on the other hand—" He gave up, shaking his head in frustration and dismay. He'd hoped he'd find answers at Fox Keep, not just more questions, but questions seemed in better supply. Turning to Widin Simrin's son, he asked, "Any luck with you?"

Widin was a young man, but wore his beard long and forked, an antique style. He shook his head. "The same as Rihwin, lord prince. Aragis' borderers say they'd not seen Rihwin—nor Tassilo nor Otes, either—but would not give me leave to enter their lord's land."

Drago the Bear said, "As for Otes son of Engelers, lord Gerin, far as I can tell he's just vanished off the face of the earth. No trace of him eastwards, that's certain."

"Well, what happened to him?" Gerin growled. But he knew that could have a multitude of answers, too. The jeweler might have run into bandits, he might have been taken ill and laid up at some little peasant village which Drago had gone right past, or he might have decided not to fare east after all. No way to be certain, especially now that Drago the Bear had decided to give up the trail and return to Fox Keep. Gerin might have wished for more diligence from him, but he'd done what he was told, which was about what he was good for.

As if uneasily aware his overlord was dissatisfied with him, Drago tried to change the subject: "Lord Gerin, you shouldn't let Schild get by with the insolence he shows you these days. He bent the knee and set his hands in yours after you slew Wolfar, but you'd never know it by the way he acts. He has his nerve, he does, keeping your vassals off his land when he's properly a vassal his own self."

"In law, you're right," Gerin said. "Trouble is, we haven't much law north of the High Kirs. So long as he hasn't warred on me or attacked my lands when I was busy elsewhere, I've always had more important things to do than forcing him to heel."

"But when it's your son, lord prince?" Widin asked softly.

Gerin sighed. "Aye, now it's my son—not that Tassilo seems to have had him. I'll send Schild a courier with a letter: his border guards won't hold back a courier under my orders to take the message to their lord."

"They'd better not, anyhow," Drago said. "'Twould be against all polite usage." Down in the heart of the Empire, Gerin thought, Drago would have made a perfect man of law: he lived in a world where precedent bulked more real and larger than reality. That often served him well—it saved him the trouble of thinking, which was not his strength, anyhow. But when he had to confront something new and unusual, he might as well have been unarmed.

Rihwin the Fox said, "I hope the mere sending of a letter will not offend Schild's, ah, delicate sensibilities."

"You mean, will he get angry because my courier can read and he can't?" Gerin asked. Rihwin nodded. Gerin said, "It shouldn't be a problem. Schild may not have much in the way of learning, but he doesn't hate people who do—unlike some I could name." Some who are my vassals, he thought.

"If you did want to make him worry about you, Captain, you could use one of those serfs you've taught their letters," Van said.

"Makes me worry, too," Drago muttered, just loud enough to let Gerin hear.

"No, I try not to let word of that leak out of the holding," Gerin said. "The time's not ripe, not yet."

"Still don't know why you started that crazy business anyhow, lord," Widin said.

"Why? Because there's too much ignorance running around loose in the northlands, that's why," Gerin said. Widin and Drago both stared at him in incomprehension. Van shook his massive head; he'd known what the Fox was up to for years, and hadn't complained about it, but that didn't mean he approved.

Even Rihwin, who was himself not only literate but possessed of a formal education better than Gerin's, seemed dubious. "One of the things of which the serfs remain cheerfully ignorant is their own miserable lot," he remarked. "Let them learn to think, to reason, and they will surely wonder at the justice of an order which keeps them in their huts and the barons who rule them in grand keeps like this one."

"They wonder at that anyhow," Gerin said. "The northlands have never been free from peasant revolts, and that's only grown worse since the Trokmoi came over the Niffet. But my serfs, among them the ones I've taught, have stayed loyal where those of other lords rose."

"Belike that's so—for now," Van said. "But often, too, it works out that a man who's too hungry and worn to rise up will go on working where even a pack mule would drop dead. Give that same man a bit of hope, now, and a full belly, and then try to crack the whip on him . . . well, you'd better have a good place to hide, is all I have to tell you."

Gerin clicked his tongue between his teeth. That had some truth to it; his own reading of history said as much. But he answered, "I have to take the chance. If I don't, this whole land will slide back into barbarism in two generations' time, and the only way you'll be able to tell Elabonians from Trokmoi will be by black mustachios in place of red."

"I'm not ignorant," Drago said indignantly. "Hearing I am all the bloody time wears thin, lord Gerin. I know how to war and raise horses and keep order in my own holding. What else do I need?"

"Suppose there's a drought and you need magic done to get some rain?" Gerin asked.

"I hire a mage, of course."

"Where do you suppose the mage learned his art? If he's any good, at the Sorcerers' Collegium down in the City of Elabon. But northlands mages can't do that any more—we're cut off, remember. If we want to have another set of mages come along to replace the ones who die, we'll just have to find some way to train them ourselves. That means reading and writing, too, you know."

Drago scowled. "You don't argue fair, Fox."

"There I must disagree," Rihwin said. "Lord Gerin's arguments strike me as logical enough—and logic also seems to me to be a civilized appurtenance worth preserving. The question is whether the risks inherent in seeking to make civilized men of serfs outweigh the benefits to be gained from that course if successful."

Gerin abruptly sickened of the dispute. "A murrain on it," he growled. "The only thing that truly matters now is who has Duren and what they're doing to him. I said the same thing before we all set out searching, but I hoped we'd know something when we came back to Fox Keep. Instead, here we are sitting along this same cursed table five days later, and just as ignorant as the moment we set out."

Rihwin gave him a sidelong glance. "Where chariots rumbling down roadways and men beating bushes fail, sorcery might serve. I speak purely in the abstract, you understand, my own abilities along those lines having been raped away by the angry god, but the possibility deserves mention."

"It would deserve more mention if I were more of a wizard." Gerin sighed. "Oh, aye, you have the right of it, and I'll try, but I've essayed such magics before, and never yet found what I was looking for. And by the time we can find a proper mage and bring him here, the trail will have grown cold."

"Attempting a spell while convinced it will fail is the surest way to guarantee such failure," Rihwin said.

"I know that, too, but I find optimism hard to come by when I see no good reason for it." The Fox wished he could cast aside his gloom. As Rihwin had said, he would have been a better wizard—though never a good one, he thought—without it. But it was as much a part of him as the scar over his left eye.

Just then, Fand came into the great hall. She pointed to Rihwin and Widin and Drago. "I know they had no luck," she said. "Are you after finding your lost boy, and him so small and all?"

"No," Gerin said, and the one word pressed the weight of defeat and despair more heavily onto his shoulders.

"Och, the black shame of it, to be snatching children," Fand said. She meant it, Gerin judged, but hers was a nature that held the troubles of others in mind for only a little while before returning to her own concerns: "And fair lonely I was, too, with both my men off on a sleeveless errand. Still and all, though, they might have brought something back with them to make amends for being gone so long." She looked hopefully from Gerin to Van.

The outlander answered first: "Maybe I should bring my hand across your greedy backside. Does that seem fair, when you think on what we were about?"

When Van spoke in that rumbling tone of warning, as if he were an earthquake about to happen, sensible men walked soft. But Fand was nothing if not spirited herself. She shouted, "Greedy, is it, to be asking a simple question of you? Often enough there's a question you ask of me, aye, and with the understanding my answer had better be yes, too, or I'd be sorry for it. And you call me greedy? A pox take you!"

"If a pox did take me, where would I likely get it?" Van retorted.

"You've been staying with me too long," Gerin murmured. "That's the sort of crack I'm apt to make."

Fand didn't hear him. She let her wrath fall on Van: "You? Who knows where you'd be likely to come by the pox? You think I don't know you'll cover anything with a slit, like a billy goat in the springtime? I've more to fear from your wanderings than you from mine. Go on, now, tell me I'm a liar."

Van turned the color of the embers smoldering on the hearth. "That's the way of a man," he sputtered. Drago, Rihwin, and Widin nodded. So did Gerin, though he was less inclined to make a tomcat of himself.

"Och, I know that." Fand tossed her head in fine disdain. "But since it is, why blame me for what'd be the fault of your own self?"

Gerin worked so hard to choke down laughter that he had a coughing fit. Van wasn't the only one who'd spent a lot of time with him. No toga-wearing Sithonian sophist could have done a neater, more logical job of punching holes in the outlander's gibe than Fand just had.

Van looked his way. "Will you not come to my aid?" he asked plaintively, as if alone on the field and beset by a host.

"I think our lady here was greedy, too, but as for the rest, you got yourself into it, and you can get yourself out." Gerin rose and headed for the stairs. "As for me, I'm going to see what sort of search spells I can use to try to find my son."

Bass and alto shouts, like angry kettledrum and horn, followed him up to his library. He knew of no greater hoard of books anywhere in the northlands, yet he also knew how inadequate the collection was. There were hundreds of grimoires, for instance, but he owned fewer than ten. With them he had Lekapenos' epics, a few codices of history, a couple on natural philosophy, a treatise on horsemanship, another on war, a school set of Sithonian plays (many of them crumbs from Lekapenos' banquet)—and that was all. So much knowledge stored away in volumes he would never see, let alone own . . . thinking of his own ignorance saddened him.

He went through the grimoires one after another, looking for a spell that would let him see either who had taken Duren or where his son was now. He found a fair number of them, but had to dismiss most out of hand. Some were beyond his limited abilities as a mage. Some required ingredients he could not hope to obtain: dried sea-cow flipper from the Greater Inner Sea, for instance.

And too many needed wine. Even if it hadn't been unavailable, he would have been afraid to use it. The last thing he wanted was to attract the angry notice of Mavrix.

"I wonder if ale would do?" he muttered, running a finger down the closely written column of a cantrip that looked promising except for prescribing a silver bowl full of wine as the scrying medium.

A sentence near the end of the spell leaped out at him: Whereas the aspect of Baivers god of barley is dull, sodden, and soporific, whilst that of Mavrix lord of the sweet grape (to whom the cry of Evoii! rings out) sparkles with wit and intelligence, the ill-advised operator who seeks to substitute ale for wine will surely have cause to regret his stupidity.

"It was only an idea," the Fox said, as if talking things over with the author of the grimoire. That author was a Sithonian; though the Fox's copy was an Elabonian translation, he'd already found several scornful references to the westerners who had conquered and then been all but conquered by the more anciently civilized land, and equally short shrift given to other Elabonian gods.

Gerin plucked at his beard as he thought. Substituting butter for olive oil had worked out well enough. No matter what this snooty Sithonian said, using ale in place of wine could also succeed. And he was and always had been on good terms with Baivers. He picked up the grimoire, saying, "I'll try it."

He had a silver bowl; it had been at Fox Keep since his grandfather's day. He'd been thinking about melting it down along with the rest of the odd bits of silver in the keep and starting his own coinage. Now he was glad he'd never got round to doing that. And ale, of course, was easy to come by.

He took the bowl and a pitcher of the strongest brew in his cellar out to the shack where he essayed his magics. Before he began the conjuration, he took a while studying the text of the spell, making sure he could slip in Baivers' name and standard epithets for those of Mavrix. He nodded to himself: that ought to work. He didn't think he'd need to modify any of the mystical passes that accompanied the charm.

"I bless thee, Baivers, god of clear sight, and call upon thee: lift the darkness of night," he intoned, and poured the silver bowl half full of golden ale. He smiled a little when he thought of that; mixing gold and silver, even symbolically, ought to make the spell work better.

As often happened, the sound of his chanting drew Rihwin, who stood in the doorway to see what he was up to. Gerin nodded to him and set a finger to his lips to enjoin silence. Rihwin nodded back; he knew a man working magic did not need and sometimes could not tolerate distraction.

Again, the wizard who had written the grimoire made the operator perform the more difficult passes with his left hand. Again, Gerin gratefully accepted that, because it made the spell easier for him. Soon, he thought, the ale would turn clear as crystal and he would be rewarded with a glimpse of Duren's face, or at least of his surroundings.

He caught himself yawning in the middle of the spell. What's wrong? he thought. He couldn't say it aloud; he was in the middle of the chant. As if from very far away, he watched his sorcerous passes grow languid, listened to his voice turn fuzzy. . . .

"Lord prince! Lord Gerin!"

With a great effort, the Fox opened his eyes. Anxious faces crowding close blocked light from the smoking torches that lit the great hall. Gerin's eyebrows came down and together—last he remembered, he hadn't been in the great hall, and torchlighting was hours away.

"What happened?" he croaked. He discovered he was lying in the rushes on the floor. When he tried to sit up, he felt as if he'd forgotten how to use half his muscles.

Among the faces peering down at him was Rihwin's. "Would that you could tell us, lord Gerin," the southerner answered. "You fell asleep, or perhaps your spirit left your body—however you would have it—in the middle of the spell you were using. We've tried from that time to this to rouse you, but to no avail till now."

"Aye, that's the way of it," Drago agreed. "We didn't know what in the five hells to do next—stick your foot in the fire, maybe."

"I'm glad it didn't come to that," Gerin said. From Rihwin, the suggestion might have been a joke. Drago, though, had neither the wit nor the temperament for jokes. When he said something, he meant it.

That odd, unstrung feeling was fading. Gerin managed to get to his feet. Van, ever practical, gave him a jack of ale. "It's not enchanted, Captain, but it's pretty good," he said.

Gerin gulped down half the jack before he choked and spluttered. "That's it," he said. "That's what went wrong. This time, the chap who wrote the grimoire was smarter than I am. He warned that Baivers' influence on the spell was soporific, and that's just what he meant."

"The Elabonian pantheon is so dismayingly stodgy," Rihwin said. Like many of his educated countrymen, he preferred the Sithonian gods to those native to Elabon.

But Van said, "Honh! Remember how much joy you had of Mavrix." Rihwin flinched but was honest enough with himself to nod, acknowledging the justice of the hit.

"Never mind any of that," Gerin said; his wits were beginning to work more clearly again, and his body to seem as if it might be fully answerable to him after all. "I've learned something from this escapade, which may in the long run make it worthwhile."

"What's that?" Van asked, a beat ahead of the rest.

"That whatever magic I can do isn't going to let me find my son. And find him I will." Gerin counted stubbornness a virtue. If you kept hitting at a problem, sooner or later it was likely to fall down. He went on, "Using ale for wine in the spell might have knocked me out, but, by Dyaus, there are eyes that never sleep."

"Not by Dyaus," Drago said. "By Biton, you mean, or do I mistake you?"

"No, you have the right of it," Gerin said. "I'll fare forth to the Sibyl at Ikos. Her verse will tell me what I need to know." He hesitated, then added, "If I can understand it, of course."


After the Empire of Elabon conquered the land between the High Kirs and the Niffet, the Elabonians pushed an all-weather highway, the Elabon Way, north from the town of Cassat to the river so they would always be able to move troops against invaders or rebels.

No large numbers of imperial troops had been seen in the northlands for generations before Elabon severed itself from its province north of the Kirs, but the highway remained: far and away the best land link the northlands boasted. Even barons who did little else maintained the stretch of the Elabon Way that ran through their territory: if for no other reason than to make sure they collected tolls from travelers along the road.

"Hard on the horses' hooves," Van remarked as the wagon rumbled onto the flag-paved roadbed.

"So it is," Gerin said. "Nothing to be done about it, though, unless you want to throw away the road whenever it rains for more than two days straight. Getting a wagon through hub-deep mud isn't much fun."

"Can't argue with that," Van agreed. "Still, we don't want the animals lamed or stonebruised, either."

"No. Well, we won't push them hard, not when it's a five days' run to Ikos," Gerin said. "As a matter of fact, the horses aren't what worries me most."

"You always have something to worry about—you'd be worried if you didn't," Van said. "What is it this time?"

"Ricolf the Red's would be a logical place to stop for the third night," the Fox answered. "Or it would have been the logical place—" His voice trailed away.

"—if Ricolf weren't Elise's father. If Elise hadn't up and left you," Van finished for him. "Aye, that does complicate your life, doesn't it?"

"You might say so," Gerin agreed dryly. "Ricolf's not my vassal. When Elise was with me, there seemed no need, and afterwards I hadn't the crust to ask it of him. Nor has he ever sought my protection; he's done well enough on his own. When Elise was with me, I had a claim on his keep once he died. Now that she's gone, I suppose Duren is the rightful heir: she's Ricolf's only legitimate child, and none of his bastard sons lived."

"Which means Duren is Ricolf's only grandson, too," Van said. "He'll need to know about the boy disappearing. Or let me put it another way—he'd have cause to quarrel with you if you rode by without saying so much as a word."

Gerin sighed. "I hadn't thought about it quite like that, but I fear you're right. I'm his guest-friend from years gone by, but it'll be bloody awkward just the same. He thinks Elise never would have run off if I'd done . . . Dyaus, if I'd known what I should have done, I'd have done it. He won't think better of me for letting Duren be kidnapped, either."

"Captain, you feel bad enough about that all by yourself—you won't hardly notice anyone else piling on a little more."

"Only you would think of making me feel better by reminding me how bad I feel now." The method was, Gerin admitted to himself, nicely calculated to suit his own gloomy nature.

Sitting beside him on the wagon's bench, Van stretched and looked about with an almost childlike delight. "Good to be out on the road again," he said. "Fox Keep's all very well, but I like having new things to see every minute or every bend in the road—not that the Elabon Way had many bends in it, but you take my meaning."

"So I do." The Fox looked eastward. Quick-moving Tiwaz, now a day past first quarter, had raced close to Nothos, whose pale gibbous disk was just rising over the tree-covered hills. He shook his head. Just as Tiwaz gained on Nothos, so troubles seemed to gain on him with every day that passed, and his own pace was too slow to escape them.

"There's a pleasant thought," Van said when he spoke his conceit aloud. "Tell you what, Fox: instead of sleeping in the open tonight, what say we rest at the next serf village we come upon? They'll have ale there, and you'll be better for drinking yourself drunk and starting off tomorrow with a head that thumps like a drum. Then at least you'll know what ails you."

"I know what ails me now," Gerin said: "Duren's missing. What I don't know is what to do about it, and that eats at me as much as his being gone." Nevertheless, he went on reflectively, "Headman at the next village south is Tervagant Beekeeper. His ale doesn't have the worst name in the lands I hold."

Van slapped him on the back, nearly hard enough to tumble him out of the wagon. "The very thing. Trust me, Captain, you'll be better for a good carouse."

"That's what Rihwin thought, and he ended up with his robe round his ears and his pecker flapping in the breeze."

Even so, the Fox reined in when they rolled up to Tervagant's village. The headman, a nervous little fellow who kept kneading the front of his tunic with both hands as if it were bread dough, greeted the arrival of his overlord with ill-concealed alarm. "W-what brings you so far south, l-lord prince?" he asked.

"My son's been stolen," Gerin answered flatly. Tervagant's eyes widened. The news, the Fox saw, had not reached the village till this moment. He set it forth for the headman and the crowd of listeners—mostly women and children, for the men still labored in the fields—who gathered round the wagon.

"Lord prince, I pray the gods give you back your boy," Tervagant said. Everyone else echoed his words; noble and peasant shared the anguish a missing child brought. The headman's hands fell away from his tunic. His face, which had been pasty, gained color. Another one who's glad I'm not looking into his affairs, Gerin thought. He wondered just how many village headmen had little schemes of their own in play. One of these days, he'd have to try to find out.

Not today, though. Tervagant ducked into his hut, came out with a ram's-horn trumpet. He glanced at Gerin for permission before he raised it to his lips. The Fox nodded. Tervagant blew a long, unmusical blast. Some of the peasants looked up from their work in surprise: the sun was low in the west, but not yet brushing the horizon. The men came in happily enough, though.

"Shall we kill a pig, lord prince?" the headman asked.

"Aye, if you can without hurting yourselves," Gerin answered. The thought of fat-rich pork made spit rush into his mouth. He added, "The blood from the beast will give the ghosts what they want, too."

"Some of the blood," Tervagant corrected thriftily. "The rest we'll make into blood pudding." In good times, serfs lived close to the edge. In bad times, they—and the nobles they supported—fell over it. They could afford to waste nothing.

The pig, like any other, was half wild, with a ridge of hair down its back. Tervagant lured it to him with a turnip, then cut its throat. He had to spring back to keep it from tearing him with its tushes. Blood sprayed every which way as the beast ran through the village until it fell over and lay kicking.

"That'll keep the ghosts happier than if the blood went into a nice, neat trench," Van said.

The fire the villagers made was big enough to hold a fair number of ghosts away by itself. They butchered the pig, baked some of it in clay, and roasted the rest. Living up to his ekename, Tervagant went into his hut, came out with a pot full of honey, and glazed some of the cooking meat with it. The delicious aroma made Gerin hungrier than he had been before.

Along with bread, ale, and berries preserved in more of Tervagant's honey, the pork proved as good as it smelled. A sizable pile of rib bones lay in front of Gerin when he thumped his belly and pronounced himself full. Van had found a pointed rock and was cracking a leg bone to get at the marrow.

"More ale, lord prince?" one of the peasant women asked.

"Thank you." He held out the cup they'd given him. She smiled as she filled it for him. She was, he noticed, not bad-looking, with light eyes that told of a Trokmê or two in the woodpile. She wore her hair long and unbraided, which meant she was unmarried, yet she was no giggling maid.

When he asked her about that, her face clouded. "I had a husband, lord prince, you're right, I did, but he died of lockjaw year before last."

"I'm sorry," Gerin said, and meant it—he'd seen lockjaw. "That's a hard way to go."

"Aye, lord prince, it is, but you have to go on," she said.

He nodded solemnly; he'd had quite a bit of ale by then. "What's your name?" he asked her.

"Ethelinda, lord prince."

"Well, Ethelinda," he said, and let it hang there. Now she nodded, as if he'd spoken a complete sentence.

After supper, Tervagant waved Gerin and Van into a couple of huts whose inhabitants had hastily vacated them. "The gods grant you good night, lord prince, master Van," he said.

"Me, I intend to give the gods some help," Van said. While he'd been sitting by the fire and eating, a couple of young women had almost come to blows over him. Now he led both of them into the hut Tervagant had given him. Watching that, Gerin shook his head. Too bad no one could find a way to put into a jar whatever the outlander had.

And yet the Fox was not altogether surprised to find Ethelinda at his elbow when he went into the hut the headman had set aside for him. "You've no new sweetheart?" he asked her. Some lords took peasant women without thinking past their own pleasure. Along with hunger, though, that was the sort of thing liable to touch off an uprising. As usual, Gerin was careful.

But Ethelinda shook her head. "No, lord prince."

"Good." Gerin had to duck his head to get into the hut. It was dark inside, and smelled strongly of smoke. He shuffled in, found a straw-filled pallet with his foot. "Here we are."

The straw rustled as he sank down onto it, then again when Ethelinda joined him there. She pulled her long tunic off over her head; that was all she wore. Gerin took a little longer getting out of his clothes, but not much. By the way she clung to him, he guessed she'd been telling the truth about having no sweetheart; he didn't think anyone had touched her so for a long time.

That made him take care to give her as much pleasure as he could. And, at the last moment, he pulled out and spurted his seed onto her belly rather than deep inside her. He thought he would make her grateful, but she said, "What did you go and do that for?" in anything but a happy voice.

"To keep you from making a baby," he answered, wondering if she'd made the connection between what they'd just done and what might happen most of a year later. Every time he thought he had the measure of serfs' ignorance, he ended up being startled anew.

Ethelinda knew that connection, though. "I wanted to start a baby," she said. "I hoped I would."

"You did?" Gerin rolled off her and almost fell off the narrow pallet. "Why?"

"If I was carrying your baby, I could go up to Fox Keep and you'd take care of me," she answered. "I wouldn't have to work hard, at least for a while."

"Oh." Gerin stared through the darkness at her. She was honest, anyhow. And, he admitted to himself, she was probably right. No woman had ever claimed he'd put a bastard in her; he was moderate in his venery and, to keep such things from happening, often withdrew at the instant he spent. But he would not have turned away anyone with whom he'd slept.

Maybe you shouldn't have pulled out, the darker side of him murmured. With Duren gone, you're liable to need an heir, even if he is a bastard.

He shook his head. Sometimes he got trapped in his own gloom and lost track of what needed doing. He couldn't let that happen, not now. His son depended on him.

Ethelinda sat up and reached for her tunic. "Do you want me to go away, lord prince?" she asked.

"We'll be crowded on this bed, but stay if you care to," Gerin answered. "The night's not so warm that we'd be sticking to each other wherever we touched."

"That's so," she agreed. "I always did like having somebody in a bed with me. That's how I grew up, with all my brothers and sisters and my father and my mother while she was alive, all packed tight together. Sleeping just by yourself is lonely." She tossed the tunic to the dirt floor. "And besides, who knows what might happen later on?"

What happened was that Gerin slept the night through and didn't wake up till after sunrise, when Ethelinda rose from the pallet and finally did put her tunic back on. When she saw his eyes open, she gave him a scornful glance, as if to say, Some stallion you turned out to be.

He bore up under that without getting upset; unlike Van, he didn't wear some of his vanity in his trousers. He looked around the peasant hut for a chamber pot. When he didn't see one, he got up, dressed quickly, and went off into the bushes by the village to relieve himself. The reek that rose from those bushes said he was but following the peasants' practice.

When he came back, Van was standing outside the hut he'd been given, tweedling away on his flute. The two women who'd gone in there with him both clung to him adoringly. His grin was smug. The Fox felt like throwing something at him, but contented himself with saying, "Time we got moving. We can eat as we travel."

"As you will." Van walked over to the horses, which were tethered to the low branches of a maple. "You harness the leader, then, and I'll see to the off beast. You're so hot to be on the road, the two of us together'll get us on our way in a hurry."

* * *

That afternoon, the wagon rolled into the holding of Palin the Eagle. Palin, who had Trokmoi on his western flank, acknowledged Gerin as his suzerain and, because he'd needed the Fox's help more than once against the woodsrunners, was more sincere about his submission than Schild Stoutstaff.

Not far into Palin's land, Gerin and Van came upon a belt of devastation: for several miles, the Elabon Way and the land to either side of it had been cratered by Balamung's destructive sorcery. Now that weeds and shrubs had had five years to spread over the craters, they looked less raw and hideous than they had when they were new, but the ground remained too broken for farmers to work.

The Elabon Way itself was in fair repair. That was at Gerin's order; he did not want the main road south from Fox Keep to remain a ruin. The repairs, he knew, did not come up to the standard the Elabonian Empire had set when it pushed the highway north to the Niffet. With the resources of a realm behind them, the imperial artisans had built to last, with a deep bed of gravel and stone, stone flags cemented together, and good drainage to either side of the roadway.

With peasant levies working in time snatched from their fields, the Fox hadn't had a prayer of matching such construction. Cobblestones and gravel did give the rebuilt stretch of the Elabon Way a surface that, while it was hard on hooves, did not turn into gluey mud whenever rain fell.

"Strange," Gerin said as the wagon jounced along over the uneven surface: "Whenever I travel this stretch of road, I remember trying to fight my way north over it just before the werenight."

"You're not likely to forget that," Van agreed. "Me, I find it strange to travel the same stretch of road more than once. I'm too used to seeing something new every day to be easy with the idea of going back and forth, back and forth. Boring to see the same hills on the skyline every day. I want to find out what's on the other side of them."

"Those hills?" Gerin pointed west. "They shelter Trokmoi and bandits."

"Not what I meant," Van said. "Captain, you've no poetry in you, and that's a fact."

"I suppose not. I do the best I can without it, that's all."

Toward evening, they passed the keep of Raff the Ready, where they'd guested on their last trip south to Ikos. No guesting at Raff's tonight; the keep had fallen to the Trokmoi, and nothing but tumbled ruins remained. Gerin shook his head, remembering the fine meal Raff had fed him. Tonight it would be hard bread and sausage and sour beer and whatever they managed to hunt up to keep the ghosts happy.

A red fox scurried across the road in front of the wagon. It paused by a clump of hound's-tongue, sitting up on its haunches with its own tongue lolling out as it watched the horses and men. Van tapped Gerin on the shoulder. "Rein in. Let me grab the bow and we'll have our evening's offering."

"What? Where?" Gerin said.

Van pointed to the fox. "Right there. Are you blind, not to see it?"

Gerin stared, first at the fox, then at his friend. "You're enough like a brother to me that I often forget you're not Elabonian born. It's not our custom to kill the animals that give us our ekenames. All my luck, such as it is, would run away if I tried to slay a fox."

"You wouldn't," Van said. "I would."

"I'd be abetting you." Gerin shook his head. "In the spirit world, it would count for the other."

"The spirit world will do more than count if we don't find something with blood in it pretty soon," Van grumbled. "Looks like all the peasants hereabout have fled, and a night in the open with only a fire to hold the ghosts at bay is nothing to look forward to."

"Something will turn up." Gerin sounded more confident than he felt. But hardly more than a minute after he'd spoken, he spotted a big, fat gray squirrel sitting on the topmost branch of an oak sapling that really should have been cleared away from the side of the road. Now he did rein in. Van had seen the squirrel, too; he was already reaching into the back of the wagon for the bow.

The bowstring thrummed as he let fly. The squirrel toppled out of the little tree and lay feebly kicking on the mossy ground below. It had stopped moving by the time Van walked over and picked it up. He hefted it in his hand. "It should serve," he said.

"Not a whole lot of meat, but what there is will be tasty baked in clay," Gerin said. "If you'd shot at the fox, the gods might not have put the squirrel in our path."

"If they're so grateful for me being good, why didn't they put a nice fat buck in that tree instead of a rat with a fuzzy tail that won't give us two good bites apiece?"

"Abandoned scoffer," Gerin said, though he had to fight to get words past the laughter that welled up when he pictured an antlered stag perched atop a sapling. "Show some respect for the gods of Elabon."

"I give them as much as they deserve and not a bit more," Van said. "I've done enough traveling, seen enough gods to know they're stronger than I am, but I'll be switched if I can see that some of 'em are a whole lot smarter than I am."

Gerin grunted, remembering Mavrix's long, pink tongue flicking out like a frog as the deity had mocked him and taken away Rihwin's sorcerous ability. "You may have something there, though you'll not be happier for it if some god hears what you've said."

"Ifsobe that happens, I'll just go on to someplace else where the writ of Elabonian gods doesn't run," Van said. "The thing about gods is, they're tied to the lands of those that worship them, and me"—he thumped his chest—"I'm not."

"Just like you to be so sure you'd get away," Gerin said, but then something else occurred to him. "Gods can travel, though, as their worshipers do—look at the way the Sithonian deities have taken hold in Elabon. And, I fear, we'll have Trokmê gods rooting themselves here in the northlands now that the woodsrunners have made homes south of the Niffet."

"You're likely right; I hadn't thought of that," Van said. "Not a crew I'd be happy with as neighbors: their yen for blood is as bad as the one the Trokmoi have themselves. I should know; the woodsrunners were all set to offer me up till I got free of them."

"Yes, you've told that tale," Gerin said. He shook his head. "One more thing to worry about." Trouble was, he seemed to add to that list almost every day. He halted the wagon. As long as he and Van had an offering for the ghosts for tonight, he wouldn't worry about any of the things on that list till tomorrow.

* * *

Splitting the night into two watches rather than three left the Fox and Van yawning as they started traveling a little past sunrise. "I'm slower than I should be, and that's not good," Gerin said. "When we cross Bevon Broken-Nose's holding, we'll need all our wits about us."

"Bevon Broken-Land would be a better name for him, that's certain," Van said.

"Can't argue with you there," Gerin replied. Bevon's sons had been squabbling over their father's holding five years before. Bevon himself was still alive, but universally ignored beyond a bowshot from his keep.

Gerin pointed ahead. "There we are. That's progress, if you like."

"Your fort, you mean? Aye, I expect so. It's about the only thing that keeps the Elabon Way open through Bevon's lands, anyhow."

Despite a wooden palisade, the building wasn't a keep in the proper sense of the word: no stone castle sat inside the wall, only a blockhouse also of wood. Gerin had run up the fort and put a garrison in it less than a year after the werenight, to make sure the road stayed clear. Bevon and all four of his sons had protested furiously, but couldn't unite even to get rid of the Fox's men.

"One day soon, Captain, you'll just quietly claim the land along the road as part of your own holding, won't you?" Van said. "Without your patrols, it'd be the howling wilderness it was before you put your men here—and it's like you to let the facts talk before you open your mouth yourself."

"That has been in my mind lately, as a matter of fact." Gerin gave his friend a look half respectful, half annoyed. "I like it better when no one else can pick out what's in my mind."

"Live in a keep for a while with a man and he will rub off on you." Van added, "However much he doesn't care to," in the hope—which was realized—of making Gerin scowl.

A three-chariot patrol team came north up the Elabon Way toward the fort. Seeing the wagon, they made for it instead, to see who was on the road. Gerin waved to one of the men in the lead car. "Hail!" he called loudly. "How fares the road, Onsumer?"

"Lord Gerin!" the bulky, black-bearded man called back. "I thought that was your wagon, though I'm just now close enough to be sure. We had a quiet run down to Ricolf's border and back, so the road is well enough." His face clouded. "But what of you? Is this the business Widin Simrin's son spoke of?"

"My son being stolen, you mean? Yes," Gerin said. "All my searches went awry, those after the men who might have taken him and the one round Fox Keep as well. I'm off to Ikos, to learn if the Sibyl can see farther than I did."

"Dyaus and Biton grant it be so," Onsumer said. The driver and warrior who shared the car with him nodded vigorously.

"I can but hope," Gerin said. "Widin told me he learned nothing new on his run down here. Have you had word of anything unusual from Bevon's sons? One of them, I suppose, could have arranged to kidnap Duren, though I'd not have thought any of them had the wit to plan such a thing."

Onsumer shook his head. "No, lord Gerin, nothing of the sort. I think the lot of them are too busy trying to slaughter one another to worry about outsiders, even ones they hate. We haven't had an attack on the fort in close to a year, but the strife among the brothers never ends."

"You're probably right," Gerin said. "All the barons in the northlands squabbled among themselves and didn't pay heed to the Trokmoi till it was too late. I wonder if we Elabonians learned the joys of faction fighting from Sithonia."

"I wouldn't have the faintest idea about that," Onsumer said. He was a good enough soldier, and far from stupid, but all he knew of the wider world he'd heard in minstrels' songs.

He got the horses moving again. "Good luck to you," Onsumer called as the wagon rolled by. His comrades waved to Gerin. Then they turned around and headed back toward the fort.

An hour or so later, Van pointed to a column of black smoke rising in the distance. "Somebody's burning his neighbor out there, or I miss my guess."

"Better they battle each other than my men," Gerin said, "but better still if they didn't battle at all."

"Honh! What are the odds of that?"

"On the face of it, not good," Gerin admitted. "Still, it used to happen. Elabon, not so long ago, was a single empire stretching from the Niffet east past the Lesser Inner Sea into the seething river plains of Kizzuwatna. Now it's falling apart. When the Emperor and his court think more of putting gold in their own belt pouches now than worrying about where the Empire will be a generation hence, that happens."

"It's not just the ones at the top," Van said. "It's everyone who's strong, out to get rich off the ones who aren't and to put a fist in his strong neighbor's eye."

"Aye, that's the way of it," Gerin said. "In the early days, they say, Elabonian warlords would go back to the plow once they'd won a war." He grinned wryly. "Of course, who knows what tales of those early days are worth?"

Near the southern edge of Bevon's unhappy holding lay another belt of devastation from Balamung's sorcery. As before, the wagon bounced roughly over the equally rough repairs Gerin had had the local peasants make. Van said, "Remember how Bevon's sons tried to stop you from fixing the road, each of them screaming he'd do it himself?"

"Oh, yes." The Fox's laugh was less than mirthful. "And if I'd waited for that, I'd be waiting still, and so would Duren's grandson."

When Gerin had come into Ricolf the Red's holding five years before, only a couple of guards kept watch at the border. Now a fort like the one he'd built on Bevon's land stood strong to keep out bandits—and perhaps to keep out his own men as well. The thought saddened him.

A guardsman strode out from the open gateway of the fort to ask his business. The fellow started slightly when he recognized Gerin and Van. Gerin started slightly, too; he had no idea what this warrior's name was, but he'd been at the border on that other journey, too. The Fox remembered those first days when he'd known Elise and snuck her out of her father's keep as vividly as if they were just past. Now that only ashes lay between him and her, he often wished he could forget. Somehow that only made him remember more intensely.

"Lord prince," Ricolf's man said, his voice polite but wary. "What brings you to the holding of Ricolf the Red? Is it the matter your vassal—what was his name?—spoke of some days past?"

"Widin Simrin's son," Gerin supplied. "Yes, it has to do with my son—Ricolf's grandson. We've had no luck finding him—I'm for the Sibyl at Ikos, to see if Biton will grant her sight of where the boy might be."

"May it prove so," the guard said. "Since it's but you and your comrade here, and no host in arms behind you, pass on, lord prince."

"No host in arms behind me?" Gerin said angrily. "Does Ricolf look for one? I've no quarrel with him, but I may, by Dyaus, if he keeps thinking that way."

"You had no quarrel with Bevon, either, yet your men stay on his land against his will. We don't want that happening here."

"Ricolf ought to get down on his knees and thank me for that," Gerin ground out. "If my men didn't keep order along the Elabon Way, you'd have more trouble spilling into this holding than you dream of. But Ricolf keeps his own house quiet, and needs no help from me."

"Just pass on," the guard said.

Gerin flicked the reins so violently, the horses sprang forward with startled snorts. Van said, "A good thing we're away. I thought you were going to jump down and murder that fellow."

"For a counterfeit copper, I would have." Gerin rubbed at the scar over his eye. He was sure it was white now; it always went dead pale when he got furious. "Worst of it is, the fool's only echoing what Ricolf says."

"Would you sooner we didn't stop of Ricolf's holding, then?" Van asked.

"Now that you mention it, yes." But the Fox sighed. "Has to be done, though—as you say, Duren's his grandson, after all. I expect I'll get through it. I wouldn't show my face in his holding if I thought he seriously meant me harm—not without that host in arms behind me, anyhow."

"The gods grant it doesn't come to that."

"Yes." Gerin wasn't thinking of the gods alone. If he ever did have to take on Ricolf, his former father-in-law was only too likely to call on Aragis the Archer for aid. Having Aragis extend his power northward was the last thing Gerin wanted. For that reason as well as for Duren's sake, he'd speak softly to the older baron. So he told himself, anyhow.

* * *

The sun tinged the western sky with colors like the belly of a salmon. Gerin imagined he felt the ghosts stir, though they would not truly emerge until after sunset. And from the castle ahead came a boy's cry from the watchtower: "Who comes to the holding of Ricolf the Red?"

All was so much as it had been five years before that the hair on Gerin's arms tried to prickle up. He felt himself caught in time, like an insect in the sticky sap of a pine tree. Insects so stuck rarely got loose. The Fox knew the trouble here lay in his own mind, but knowing did little to help him get free, either.

He shouted back toward the keep, giving his own name and Van's—just as he had then. But then Ricolf had been eager to let him in; they'd become friends on Gerin's earlier journeys south. Now? Who could say what Ricolf thought now?

Whatever it was, the drawbridge lowered, thick bronze chains rattling and squealing over the spokes of the winch as the gate crew turned it. The horses' hooves drummed like thunder when they walked across the timbers over the moat. Water plants added touches of green there, but the smell said that Ricolf's men used the barrier to empty their slop jars.

Ricolf the Red stood in the bailey near the gate, waiting to greet Gerin. He was a broad-shouldered, thick-bellied man heading toward sixty, his manner still vigorous and his hair still thick, though now mostly white rather than the Trokmê-like shade that had given him his sobriquet. When he opened his mouth to speak, Gerin saw he'd lost a front tooth since the last time they'd met.

"Guest-friendship is a sacred trust," Ricolf said, his deep voice younger than his years. "With that trust in mind, I greet you, Fox, and you also, Van of the Strong Arm. Use my keep as your own while you stay here."

"You are gracious as always," Gerin said. Ricolf hadn't sounded particularly gracious; he sounded more like a man doing a duty he didn't much care for. Gerin thought more of him for that, not less. Sometimes his own sense of duty was all that kept him going.

"Pah! This for graciousness." Ricolf kicked at the dirt. "I hear something's amiss with my grandson, and I want to know everything there is to know about it. First Elise, now Duren—" He shook his big, hard-featured head. "I wasn't the luckiest man born, to link my family to you."

"That's not what you thought when you gave me your daughter," Gerin answered as steadily as he could; as always, anger and longing surged in him when Elise came to the front of his mind. He went on, "The gods know I am not a perfect man. Will you entertain the notion that Elise may not have been a perfect woman?"

"The notion does not entertain me." Ricolf kicked at the dirt again. "Well, we'll speak of that later. What's your pleasure for supper? We killed a sheep this afternoon, so there's mutton, or we can chop a couple of hens down to size if the two of you would rather."

"Mutton," Gerin and Van said in the same breath. The Fox added, "We've been traveling a good deal these past few days, and mostly supping on the fowls we've killed as blood-offerings for the ghosts."

"Thought as much," Ricolf answered, "but I figured I owed you the choice." He was indeed meticulous in observing the rituals of guest-friendship.

Inside Ricolf's great hall, fat-wrapped bones smoked on Dyaus' altar. At the cookfire, servants roasted ribs and chops. A big bronze pot boiled busily above it. Van stabbed a finger toward it. "That'll be the tongue and tripe, the lungs and lights?" he asked.

"Aye," Ricolf said. "Which of the dainties do you care for most?"

"The tongue," the outlander answered at once. "Have you got any rock salt to scatter on it?"

"I do that," Ricolf answered, a Trokmê turn of phrase he probably would not have used before he got woodsrunners for neighbors. "The holding has several good licks, one of them near big enough to mine salt from."

Had Ricolf's holding been Gerin's, he suspected he would have mined salt and sold it to his neighbors. The only concern Ricolf had beyond his own borders was foes who might come at him. Past that, he was content with his land as he found it. Gerin wondered if he himself would ever be content with anything.

Bread and ale and meat distracted him from such worries. He gnawed roasted mutton from ribs, then tossed them to the dogs. Tripe was slippery and gluey under his knife, chewy in his mouth. The kidneys' strong smell cut through the smoke that filled the hall and foretold their flavor.

He stuffed himself full, but Van outdid him. Ricolf watched the outlander with awe tinged by alarm. He said, "Dyaus, I'd forgotten how you put it away. You could eat a man out of his barony."

"There's a deal of me to keep fed," Van replied with dignity. "Would you pass me the pitcher of ale? Ah, thank you, you're very kind." He poured from the pitcher into a delicately carved rhyton, part of the great stock of southron goods Ricolf had laid on to impress the band of suitors for Elise's hand. Elise was gone. The drinking horns, the even more elaborately carved bathtub, and other such things remained, and probably lacerated Ricolf's spirit whenever he saw or used them.

Van poured the horn of ale down his throat, hardly seeming to swallow. He filled it again, drained it with the same ease. By the look Ricolf gave him, the older man expected him to slide under the table at any moment. Instead, he got up and spoke softly to one of the young women who'd fetched food. Gerin listened to her giggle and was not surprised when, a little later, she and the outlander went upstairs together.

The Fox wished he could have gone upstairs, too, even alone, but Ricolf's eyes held him. The white-haired baron said, "Your harvests must have been good in spite of everything, or you'd not be able to afford to keep him around."

"I don't begrudge him his appetites," Gerin answered. "Not any of them. The rest of his spirit is in proportion."

"As may be, as may be." But Van was not what Ricolf wanted to talk about, and Gerin knew it. Ricolf stared down at his own drinking horn for a while before he went on, "Well, Fox, what in the five hells happened?"

"With Duren, you mean? You've heard everything I know about that," Gerin answered. "Someone snatched the boy, and when I find out who he was, he'll be sorry for the day his father woke up with a stiff one in his breeches."

"Oh, no doubt." Ricolf drank, smacked his lips, brought his fist down onto the table. "You'll track the whoreson down and make him pay. You're bloody good at all that sort of thing. Prince of the North these days, are you? I'll not deny you've earned the title. You hold more land—or control it, which amounts to the same think—than anyone else in the northlands save maybe Aragis and one or two of the cursed Trokmoi, and you run it better, too."

"You're generous." The Fox also took a pull at his ale. He could feel it buzzing inside his head. Maybe that was what made him burst out, "I wish I were shut of the whole business, and just left to be what I'd like."

"So do we all," Ricolf said. "But you do it well, like it or no. Which brings me to what I'd truly learn: how was it you didn't do as well by Elise?"

Gerin wished he were drunk enough to fall asleep—or a good enough mime to pretend he was that drunk. But he wasn't, not either one—and he knew he owed Ricolf an answer. He drank some more, as much to give himself time to think as for any other reason. Ricolf waited, patient and stubbornly unmoving as a boulder.

"I suppose part of it was that her life at Fox Keep wasn't as different as she'd hoped from what she had here," Gerin said slowly. He snorted air out through his nose. Wherever Elise was now, she'd surely found a different life. Whether it was better was a different question altogether.

"Go on," Ricolf said.

"You know what the first flush of passion is like," Gerin said. "It masks everything bad or even boring about whomever it lights on. After a while, though, you can wake up and realize this isn't what you had in mind. I—suppose that's what Elise did."

"None of it your fault, eh?" Ricolf's rumbling baritone flung sarcasm as a catapult flung stones.

"I didn't say that," Gerin answered. "Looking back, I guess I took a lot for granted. I figured everything was all right because she didn't complain out loud—and I've always been one who doesn't necessarily expect things to be perfect all the time, so I didn't worry so much when they weren't. I think perhaps Elise did after we fell in love, and when things got rocky, they looked worse to her than maybe they really were. If I'd realized that sooner . . . oh, who knows what I'd have done?"

Ricolf chewed on that with the air of a man finding something on his plate other than what he'd expected. Now he drank and thought a while before he spoke: "I respect that knack you have, Fox, for looking at yourself and talking about yourself as if you were someone else. Not many can do it."

"For this I thank you," Gerin said.

"Don't." Ricolf held up a big-knuckled hand. "The trouble with you is, you don't know how to do anything but stand back from yourself, and from everybody around you. You talked about how my daughter might have felt after passion cooled, but what about you? Did you go back into that keep inside your head, the one you mostly live in?"

"You shame me," Gerin said quietly.

"Why? For asking a question?"

"No, because the answer is so likely to be yes, and you know it very well." If sarcasm had stung, truth cut like a knife, the more so for being unexpected.

Ricolf yawned. "I'm getting old to sit around drinking half the night," he said. "Come to that, I'm getting old for anything else, too. Only a handful of serfs on this holding who were born before I was. One winter not so far from now lung sickness will get me, or I'll fall over with an apoplexy. That wouldn't be too bad—quick, anyhow."

"You're strong yet," Gerin said, alarmed for his host. Few men spoke so openly of death, lest a god be listening. "If you do go out, you'll go fighting."

"That could happen, too," Ricolf said. "I'm not as fast nor as strong as I was, and there's plenty of fighting around. And what becomes of the holding then? I'd hoped to last long enough to pass it on to Duren, but now—"

"Aye, but now," Gerin echoed. If Ricolf died heirless, his vassal barons would brawl over the holding, just as Bevon's sons had been doing for so long further north. And Ricolf's neighbors would be drawn in, Aragis coming up from the south, the Trokmoi from the west perhaps biting off a chunk . . . and the Fox did not see how he could stand aloof. He even had a claim of sorts to the barony.

As if picking that from his head, Ricolf said, "Aye, a couple of my vassals might think well of you because you were wed to Elise. More of 'em, though, are likely to think less of you because she ran off. And if she ever came back here wed to a man with a fighting tail of his own—"

Gerin upended his drinking horn, poured the last draft down his throat. That thought, or rather nightmare, had crossed is mind, too, most often of nights when he was having trouble sleeping. He said, "I have no notion how likely that is, nor what I'd do if it happened. A lot would depend on who and what the fellow was."

"On whether you thought you could use him, you mean." Ricolf spoke without rancor. He drained his own rhyton, then pushed to his feet. "I'm going up to bed. Do you want to come along, so I can show you the chamber I've set aside for you? The keep's not packed with suitors now; I don't have to give you one of the little rooms down here off the kitchens."

"I'll come," Gerin said, and rose, too. Ricolf carried a lamp as they went up the stairs. He didn't say anything. The Fox counted that something of a minor triumph. He'd been dreading this interview since the day Elise left him, and he seemed to have got through it.

Ricolf opened a door. As Gerin walked through it into the little bedchamber the lamplight revealed, the older man asked quietly, "Do you miss her?"

Another knife in the night. Gerin said, "Yes, now and then. Quite a lot, sometimes." He stepped into the room and shut the door before Ricolf could stab him with any more questions.

* * *

South of Ricolf's holding, the land grew debatable once more. Gerin and Van traveled in armor, the Fox keeping his bow ready to hand. The Elabon Way seemed all but deserted. That suited Gerin fine: the fewer people he saw, the fewer people who saw him. He knew too well how vulnerable the wagon was to a good-sized band of raiders.

The roads that ran into the Elabon Way from east and west were dirt tracks like the ones up in the Fox's holding. Pieces of the Elabon Way were just dirt here, too; peasants had prised up the paving stones for the houses, and maybe barons for their keeps, too. That hadn't been so the last time Gerin visited Ikos, five years before.

He said, "Taking stones from the roadway used to be a crime that would cost a man his head or put him up on a cross. A good law, if you ask me; roads are a land's lifeblood."

"No law left up here but what comes from the edge of a sword," Van said. "Most lands are like that, when you get down to it."

"South of the High Kirs, Elabon isn't, or wasn't," Gerin said. "Law counted for more than might there, for a lot of years. It was even true here for a while. No more, though. You're not wrong about that."

They rolled slowly past another connecting road. At the crossroads stood a granite boulder carved with pictures showing where the road led: a crude keep surrounded by farms and horses. "That's not the one we want, eh, Captain?" Van said.

"No. We're looking for an eye with wings—that's Biton's mark. We're not far enough south to come to it yet, I don't think. I hope it will still be there; some of the crossroads stones I thought I remembered from my last trip to the Sibyl aren't here any more."

"You were paying attention to stones?" Van shook his head in disbelief. "Far as I could see, you were so busy panting over Elise, you didn't have eyes for anything else."

"Thank you, my friend. I needed that just now, I truly did," Gerin said. The visit with Ricolf had left him glum enough. If Van was going to rub salt in the wounds, they'd sting even worse.

But Van, perhaps mercifully, kept quiet after that. Like Gerin's, his eyes went back and forth, back and forth. Every time the wagon went by a clump of bushes or some elm saplings growing closer to the road than they should have, he shifted the reins to his left hand so he could grab his spear in a hurry if he needed it.

The Fox soon became certain some crossroads stones were missing: he and Van rolled past a hollow in the ground that showed where one had recently been removed—so recently the grass hadn't filled in all the bare dirt. "Someone's losing trade on account of that," he said sadly. "I wonder if he even knows."

About halfway between noon and sunset, Gerin spied the winged eye he sought. "I'd have guessed it'd be there," Van said. "You steal it, you're fooling with a god, and what man with a dram of sense does that?"

"How many men have sense?" Gerin returned, which made his comrade grunt. He added, "Not only that, how many are wise enough to realize they're stealing from Biton and not just from some petty lordlet?"

"They don't know beforehand, they'll find out pretty soon," Van said, which was likely enough to be true that Gerin had to nod. The farseeing god looked after what was his.

The wagon swung east down the road that led to the Sibyl and her fane. Gerin remembered the lands away from the Elabon Way as poorer than the baronies along the main north-south route. They didn't seem so now. That wasn't because they'd grown richer. Rather, the holdings along the chief highway had suffered more from the Trokmoi and from the nobles' squabbles among themselves.

When Elabon conquered and held the northlands, the road that bore the Empire's name had also been one of the chief routes along which colonists had settled. Farther from the Elabon Way, the folk native to the land were more in evidence. They were dark like Elabonians, but slimmer and more angular, their faces full of forehead and cheekbones.

Old customs lingered away from the highway, too. Lords' castles grew scarce; most of the peasant villages held freeholders, men who owed no part of their crop to a baron. Gerin wondered how they'd fared when Trokmê raiders swooped down on them: they had no lords to ride to their defense, either.

The freeholders measured him and Van with their eyes when the travelers paused in a village to buy a hen before evening caught them. "You're for the Sibyl, then?" asked the man who sold it to them. His Elabonian had a curious flavor to it, not quite an accent, but old-fashioned, as if currents of speech had swept up the Elabon Way, too, but never reached this little hamlet.

"That we are," Gerin answered.

"You've rich gear," the peasant observed. "Be you nobles?"

Van spoke first: "Me, I'm just a warrior. Anyone who tries taking this corselet off my back will find out what kind of warrior I am, and won't be happier for knowing, either."

"I can take care of myself, too," Gerin said. Peasants without lords had to defend themselves, which meant they needed weapons and armor. Robbing people who already had them seemed a likely way to acquire such.

If that was in the peasant's mind, he didn't let on (but then, he wouldn't, Gerin thought). He said, "Aye, the both of you have that look. Go on, then, and the gods watch over you through the night."

As soon as they were out of earshot, Gerin spoke to Van, who was driving: "Put as much space between that village and us as you can. If you find a side road just before sunset, go up it or down it a ways. We'll want to camp where we can hide our nightfire."

"Right you are," Van said. "I'd have done the same thing without your saying a word, mind, but I'm glad you have the same thoughts in mind as I do. On your watch, sleep with your bow, your sword, and your shield and helm where you can grab them in a hurry."

"If I thought I could, I'd sleep in armor tonight," the Fox said. Van grunted out a short burst of laughter and nodded.

They traveled until the ghosts began to wail in their ears. Then, setting his jaw, Gerin sacrificed the hen to calm the spirits. A boulder shielded the light of the fire from the little track down which they traveled to get off the main road to Ikos.

Gerin had the first watch. Nothos and Tiwaz stood close together, low in the east at sunset: both were approaching full, though swift-moving Tiwaz would reach it a couple of days sooner than Nothos. Math would not rise until almost halfway through his watch, and Van alone could commune with Elleb, for the ruddy moon would stay below the horizon till after midnight.

The Fox moved as far away from the fire and the blood-filled trench near it as the ghosts would allow: he wanted to be sure he could spot trouble coming down the road from the village where he'd bought the chicken. His bow was strung, his quiver on his back and ready for him to reach over his shoulder and pull out a bronze-tipped shaft.

Sure enough, just about the time when golden Math began peeping through the leaves of the trees, he heard men coming along the road from the west. They weren't trying very hard to keep quiet; they chattered among themselves as they ambled eastward.

They all carried torches, he saw when they came to the crossroads. Even so, the ghosts bothered them. One said, "This havering is fair to drive me mad. An we don't find them soon, I'm for my hut and my wife."

"Ah, but will she be for you in the middle of the night?" another asked. The lot of them laughed. They paused at the narrow track down which Gerin and Van had gone. A couple of them peered toward the Fox. He crouched lower behind the bush that concealed him, hoping the light of three moons would not betray him to the peasants. Maybe their own torchlight left them nightblind, for they did not spy him. After some muttered discussion, they kept heading east down the main road.

Perhaps half an hour later, they came straggling back. Now their torches were guttering toward extinction, and they hurried on toward their village. "Mayhap 'tis as well we found the whoresons not," one of them said; Gerin recognized the voice of the fellow who'd sold him the hen. "They'd have slain some or ever we overcame them."

"We need arms," somebody answered.

"Belike, but we need men to wield them, too," the hen-seller replied. "You were in the fields, and saw them not: a brace of proper rogues, ready for aught. We'd have given the ghosts our own blood had we broiled ourselves with them, I tell you."

As the peasants withdrew, the argument got too low-voiced for Gerin to follow. The peasant who'd sold him the chicken was right; he and Van would have sold their lives dear. Even so, he was nothing but glad the farmers or robbers or whatever they reckoned themselves to be hadn't found him and his comrade. No matter how dearly you sold your life, you could never buy it back.

The Fox drew back down the path toward his camp. He didn't think the locals would come out again, and he proved right. When Math had traveled a little more than halfway from the horizon to the meridian, he woke Van and told him what had passed.

"Expected as much," the outlander answered, setting his crimson-crested helm on his head and adjusting the cheekpieces. "They had that look to 'em, so they did. Not likely they'll be back, not so late in the night."

"No." Gerin got out of armor as Van donned it. "Wouldn't do to count on that, though."

"Hardly." Van's rumbling chuckle had next to no breath behind it. "Tell you something else, Captain: on the way home, we make sure we roll through this place around noontime, so we're none too close to it the night before or the night after."

"Can't argue with you." Gerin yawned enormously. "Haven't the wit to argue with anything right now. I just want to sleep. If I get killed while you're on watch, I'll never forgive you."

"Nor have the chance, either," Van said, chuckling again. Gerin crawled under the blanket, conceding him the last word.

He awoke unmurdered the next morning to the savory smell of toasting sausage. Van had built the fire up from embers and was improvising breakfast. The flames sputtered and hissed as grease dripped down into them. Gerin accepted a sharp stick with a length of hard sausage impaled on it, burned the roof of his mouth when he tried to take a bite while it was still too hot to eat, swore, and then did manage to get the meat down.

Van finished before he did, and harnessed the horses while he was getting into his cuirass and greaves. A jay perched on a branch of a spruce seedling screeched at the outlander all the while. He pointed at it. "You'd best be quiet—some lands I've been through, the folk reckon songbirds good eating." As if it understood him, the jay shut up.

"Elabonians eat songbirds now and again," Gerin said. "We catch 'em with nets, usually, not with bow and arrow."

"Aye, that makes sense," Van said. "They're so small and swift, you'd need to be a dead shot to hit 'em, and you'd waste a slew of arrows." He fastened a last strap. "Come along, Captain. Let's be off."

The forest deepened and took on a new aspect as they rolled on toward Ikos. Perhaps, Gerin thought, taking on an old aspect was a better way of describing it. Elabonian traders and explorers, back in the days before Ros the Fierce brought the northlands under imperial control, described them as almost unbroken forest from the High Kirs to the Niffet and all the way west to the Orynian Ocean.

Around the Sibyl's shrine at Ikos, that ancient forest survived undisturbed. Some of the gnarled oaks and deep green pines might have been saplings when the men round what would become the City of Elabon were still unlettered barbarians. Some of them might have been saplings before the Kizzuwatnans in their river valleys scratched the world's first letters onto clay tablets and set them in an oven to bake.

Maybe the shaggy beards of moss hanging from many of those trees helped muffle sound, or maybe some lingering power clung to the forest: some of the trees that grew there, at any rate, Gerin had never seen outside these confines. Whatever the reason, the woods were eerily still. Even the squeak and rattle of the wagon's ungreased axles seemed diminished. Far above the roadway, branches from either side interlaced, cutting off a good part of the daylight and turning the rest cool and green and shifting.

"If we could drive the wagon under the sea, it might look like this," Gerin said.

"Maybe so." Van kept craning his neck, looking up, down, all around. "I don't like this place—and I don't think it likes people, either. It wishes we weren't here, and so do I."

"I'd argue with you, if only I thought you were wrong." Gerin kept not quite hearing things pacing alongside the road as if tracking the wagon, not quite seeing them no matter how quickly he turned his head toward what he hadn't quite heard.

Van mused, "I wonder what would happen if, come a dry summer, some lord sent his peasants in here with axes and torches."

Gerin wondered if the forest and the things that dwelt in it understood Elabonian. He feared they did, for all at once the cover of branches over the road grew thicker and lower, while most of those branches suddenly seemed full of thorns. The very roadway narrowed, with trees—many of them full of thorns, too—crowding close, as if ready to reach out and seize the intruders. Once or twice he was sure he saw eyes staring balefully at him from behind the leaves, but he never got a glimpse of the creatures to which they were attached.

Nervously, he said, "You were just joking there, weren't you, my friend?"

"What? Oh, aye." Van was more than bold enough against any human foe, but how could even the boldest man fight a forest? Eyeing the growing number of encroaching branches, he went on, "All this lovely greenery? In truth, it would be a dreadful shame to peel even one leaf off its stem."

For a long moment, nothing happened. But just when Gerin was about to grab for his sword and start slashing away at the aroused trees and bushes, everything returned to the way it had been. The sun played through breaks in the overhead canopy, the road widened out again, and the trees went back to being just trees. Whatever had been moving along with the wagon went away, or at least became altogether silent.

"Whew!" Van muttered under his breath. "Place must have decided I was just joking after all—which I was, of course." He added that last in a much louder voice.

"Of course you were," Gerin agreed heartily. Then his voice fell: "All the same, we'll spend tonight in one of the lodgings round Ikos, not in this wood. That will further prove we mean no harm to the powers here."

Van's eyes met his. The two men shared one thought: It will also keep anything in the forest that's still angry from coming down on us. The words hung unspoken in the air. Gerin didn't want to give any of those possibly angry things ideas they didn't have already.

* * *

The sun was low in the west behind Gerin and Van when they topped a rise and looked down into the valley wherein nested Biton's gleaming white marble shrine and, leading down from within it, the rift in the earth that led to the Sibyl's chamber.

"Last time we came this way, we camped in the woods," Van said. "As you say, though, better to pay the scot at one of the inns down there tonight." A little town had grown up in front of the Sibyl's shrine, catering to those who came to it seeking oracular guidance.

"Aye, you're right." Gerin sighed. He didn't like silver going without good cause. Come to that, he wasn't overfond of paying silver even with good cause. But he did not want to spend a night in these uncanny woods; they were liable to shelter worse things than ghosts. He twitched the reins and urged the horses forward.

When he'd visited Ikos before, the town in front of the shrine had been packed with Elabonians from both the northlands and south of the High Kirs, Sithonians, Kizzuwatnans, Trokmoi, Shanda nomads, and other folk as well. A big reason Gerin had preferred to camp in the woods then was that all the inns had bulged at the seams.

Now, as the wagon rolled into town, he found the dirt streets all but empty. Several of the inns had closed; a couple of them, by their dilapidated look, had been empty for years. The innkeepers who survived all rushed from their establishments and fell on him and Van with glad cries. Gerin hardly needed to haggle with them; they bid against one another until he got his lodging, supper, and a promise of breakfast for half what he'd expected to pay.

The taproom in the inn was all but deserted. Apart from Gerin and Van, only a couple of locals sat at the tables, drinking ale and telling stories they'd probably all heard a thousand times. The innkeeper brought ale and drinking jacks to his new guests. "And what would your pleasure for supper be?" he asked, bowing as low as if the Fox had been Hildor III, Emperor of Elabon.

"Not chicken," he and Van said, much as they had at Ricolf's.

"You've traveled some way, then, and spent nights in the open." The innkeeper pursed his lips to show he sympathized. "I killed a young pig this afternoon. I was going to smoke and salt down the flesh, but I do some lovely chops flavored with basil and thyme and wild mushrooms. It's a splendid dish, if I say so myself, and one I don't have the chance to prepare as often as I'd like these days. True, the cooking of it takes a while, but where have you gentlemen to go in the meantime?"

Gerin and Van looked at each other. They nodded. The Fox said, "Your trade has fallen off since the Trokmoi swarmed over the Niffet and the Empire shut the last passage up from the south."

"Good my sir, you have no idea." The innkeeper rolled his eyes. "Sometimes I think all of us left here make our living by taking in one another's washing. The shrine has fallen on hard times, that it has, and every one of us with it."

"Does the old Sibyl still live?" Gerin asked. "I'd not expected to find her breathing when I was last here five years ago. Now nothing would surprise me."

"No, Biton took her for his own last year," the innkeeper answered. "The god speaks through a younger woman now. 'Tis not that the quality of oracle has suffered that's cost us trade"—he made haste to reassure the Fox—"only that fewer folk now find their way hither."

"I understand." Gerin drained his jack dry. The innkeeper hastened to refill it. Gerin drank again, sighed with something close to contentment. "Good to relax here, away from the ghosts, away from robbers in the night, with only the worries that brought me here to carry on my shoulders."

"That my humble establishment is able to ease your burdens does my heart good," the innkeeper declared.

"To say nothing of your coin hoard," Gerin said dryly.

The innkeeper turned his head to one side and coughed, as if mention of money embarrassed him. Then he paused, plainly listening over again to what Gerin had said a moment before. "Robbers in the night, good my sir? So men begin to hold the ghosts at bay and the gods in contempt?"

"Men on the very road that leads here," the Fox said, and told of the free peasants who'd looked to arm themselves at his and Van's expense. "They didn't come on us, for which Dyaus be praised—and Biton, too, for watching over us—but they weren't out there in the darkness just for the journey. I heard them speak; I know what I'm talking about."

"Sometimes I think the whole world is guttering down toward darkness, like a candle on the last of its tallow," the innkeeper said sadly. "Even my dreams these days are full of monsters and pallid things from the underground darkness. At night in my bed I see them spreading over the land, and poor feeble men powerless to do aught against them."

Gerin started to nod: here was another man who shared his gloomy view of the world. Then he gave the innkeeper a sharp look. "I too have had dreams like that," he said.

"And I," Van put in. "I tell you the truth—I mislike the omen."

"Maybe the Sibyl will shed light on it." Gerin did his best to sound hopeful, but feared his best was none too good.


The horses were curried till their coats gleamed and hitched to the wagon waiting when Gerin went out to the stables to reclaim them. He tipped the groom who'd cared for them, saying, "You did more here than was required of you."

"Lord, you're generous beyond my deserts," the fellow answered, but Gerin noticed he did not decline the proffered coin.

Every other time Gerin had visited the Sibyl's shrine, the area around the fenced forecourt had been packed with wagons, chariots, and men afoot, and with all the visitors passionately eager to put their questions to Biton's oracle as soon as possible. The only way to get in quickly—sometimes the only way to get in at all—was to pay off one of the god's eunuch priests.

The Fox had prepared himself for that eventuality. At his belt swung two medium-heavy pouches, one an offering for the temple, the other (though the word would not be used in public) a bribe for the priest who would conduct him to the shrine.

He soon discovered he was going to save himself some money. When he and Van came to the gate in the marble outwall, only three or four parties waited ahead of them. Just a few more rolled up behind the wagon. Instead of shouting, cursing chaos, the oracle-seekers formed a single neat line.

Van recognized what that meant, too. "Let's see the priests try to squeeze anything past their due out of us today," he said, laughing.

To their credit, the priests did not try. They took the suppliants one group at a time, leading away their animals to be seen to while they consulted the Sibyl. Everything ran as smoothly as the turning spokes of a chariot wheel. Gerin wished all his visits had gone so well. He also wished this particular visit hadn't been necessary.

A plump, beardless fellow in a robe of glittering cloth of gold approached the wagon. Bowing to Gerin and Van, he said, "Gentles, you may call me Kinifor. I shall conduct you to the Sibyl and escort you from her chamber once the god has spoken through her." His voice was pleasant, almost sweet, not a man's voice but not a woman's, either.

Thinking of the mutilation eunuchs suffered, Gerin always felt edgy around them. Because the mutilation was not their fault, he always did his best to conceal those feelings. He swung a plump leather sack into Kinifor's equally plump hand. "This is to help defray the cost of maintaining your holy shrine."

The eunuch priest hefted the bag, not only to gauge its weight but to listen for the sweet jingle of silver. "You are generous," he said, and seemed well enough pleased even without any special payment straight to him; Gerin wondered if the temple would see all the money in the leather sack. The priest went on, "Descend, if you will, and accompany me to the temple."

As Gerin and Van got down from the wagon, another priest, this one in a plainer robe, came over and led the horses away. The travelers followed Kinifor through the gate and into the fenced-off temenos surrounding the shrine. The first thing the Fox saw was a naked corpse prominently displayed just inside the gateway; hideous lesions covered the body. Gerin jerked a thumb at it. "Another would-be temple robber?"

"Just so." Kinifor gave him a curious look. "Am I to infer from your lack of surprise that you have seen others Biton smote for their evil presumption?"

"Another, anyhow," Gerin answered. "With the chaos that's fallen on the northlands since the last time I was here, though, I wondered if your god was up to the job of protecting the treasures here from everyone who'd like to get his hands on them."

"This is Biton's precinct on earth," Kinifor said in shocked tones. "If he is not potent here, where will his strength be made manifest?"

Perhaps nowhere, Gerin thought. When the Elabonians conquered the northlands, they'd taken Biton into their own pantheon, styling him a son of Dyaus. But the Trokmoi brought their own gods with them, and seemed to care little for those already native to the land. If they prevailed, Biton might fail for lack of worshipers.

Van cast an appraising eye on the treasures lavishly displayed in the courtyard before the temple: the statues of gold and ivory, others of marble painted into the semblance of life or of greening bronze, the cauldrons and mixing bowls set on golden tripods, the piled ingots that reflected the sun's rays in buttery brilliance.

The outlander whistled softly. "I wondered if I misremembered from last time I was here, but no: there's a great pile of stuff about for your god to watch over, priest."

"The farseeing one has protected it well thus far." One of Kinifor's hands shaped a gesture of blessing. "Long may he continue to do so."

The white marble temple that housed the entrance to the Sibyl's cave was in a mixed Sithonian-Elabonian style, a gift of Oren the Builder to win the favor of Biton's priesthood—and the god himself—not long after the northlands came under Elabonian sway. The splendid fane, elegantly plain outside and richly decorated within, was surely magnificent enough to have succeeded in its purpose.

Seemingly out of place within all that gleaming stone, polished wood, and precious metal was the cult image of Biton, which stood close by the fissure in the earth that led down to the cavern wherein the Sibyl prophesied. The temple was a monument to Elabonian civilization at its best, to everything Gerin labored to preserve in the northlands. The cult image was . . . something else.

As he had the last time he visited the shrine, the Fox tried to imagine how old the square column of black basalt was. As he had then, he failed. This was no realistic image of the god, carved with loving care by a Sithonian master sculptor or some Elabonian artist who had studied for years in Kortys. The only suggestions of features the column bore were crudely carved eyes and a jutting phallus. Yet somehow, perhaps because of the aura of immeasurable antiquity that clung to it, the cult image carried as much impact as any polished product of the stonecutter's art.

"Seat yourselves, gentles," Kinifor said, waving to the rows of pews in front of the basalt column, "and pray that the lord Biton's sight reaches to the heart of your troubles, whatever they may be."

The eunuch sat beside Gerin, bowed his head, and murmured supplications to his god. The Fox also prayed, though unsure how much attention Biton paid to petitioners' requests. Some gods, like Mavrix, seemed to listen to every whisper addressed to them, even if they did not always grant requests. Others, such as Dyaus the father of all, were more distant. He didn't know where in that range Biton fell, but took no chances, either.

As soon as he finished his prayer, he glanced up at the cult image. Just for a moment, he thought he saw brown eyes staring back at him in place of the almost unrecognizable scratches on the basalt. He shivered a little; he'd had that same odd impression on his last visit to the shrine. Biton's power might not reach far, but it was strong here at its heart.

Puffing a little, a plump eunuch priest climbed up out of the fissure in the earth that led down to the Sibyl's chamber. Behind him came a grizzled Elabonian with a thoughtful expression on his face. With a nod to Gerin, he strode out of the temple and away to reclaim his team and vehicle.

Kinifor said, "Nothing now prevents us from seeking the wisdom Biton imparts through his sacred Sibyl. If you will please to follow me, stepping carefully as you descend—"

On his previous visit, Gerin had had to fight for his life against Trokmoi dissatisfied with what they heard from the oracle. He looked down to see if bloodstains still remained in the cracks between the tesserae of the mosaic floor. He saw none, which pleased him.

Kinifor stepped into the cave mouth. Gerin followed. Darkness, illuminated only by torches not nearly close enough together, swallowed him. The air in the cave felt altogether different from the muggy heat he'd endured in the temple: it was damp but cool, with a constant breeze blowing in his face so that the atmosphere never turned stagnant.

Kinifor's shadow, his own, and Van's swooped and fluttered in the torchlight like demented birds. Flickering shadows picked out bits of rock crystal—or possibly even gems—embedded in the stone of the cave walls. One glint came red as blood. "Was that a ruby we just passed?" Gerin asked.

"It could be so," Kinifor answered. "Biton has guided us to many treasures underground."

"Is it your god or your greed?" Van asked. Kinifor spluttered indignantly. The outlander laughed at the priest's annoyance. Just then they came to a branch of the cave that had been sealed up with stout brickwork. "What about that? Didn't you have to wall it up because your prying roused things that would better have been left asleep?"

"Well, yes," Kinifor admitted reluctantly, "but that was long ago, when we were first learning the ways of this cave. The bricks say as much, if you know how to read them."

Gerin did. Instead of being flat on all sides, the bricks bulged on top, as if they were so many hard-baked loaves of bread. That style had come out of Kizzuwatna in ancient days, not long after men first gathered together in cities and learned to read and write and work bronze. He took a long look at those bricks. They couldn't possibly reach back so far in time . . . could they?

After that first long look came a second one. Loaf-shaped bricks had not held their popularity long in Kizzuwatna: they required more mortar to bind them together than those of more ordinary shape. Some of the mortar on these, after Biton only knew how many centuries, had begun to crack and fall away from the bricks; little chips lay on the stone floor of the cave.

The Fox pointed to them, frowning. "I don't remember your wall there falling apart the last time I came this way."

"I hadn't noticed that," Kinifor confessed. "Some evening, when no suppliants seek the Sibyl's advice, we shall have to send down a crew of masons to repair the ravages of time." His laugh was smooth and liquid, like the low notes of a flute. "If the barrier has sufficed to hold at bay whatever lies beyond it lo these many years, surely a few days one way or the other are of scant import."

"But—" Gerin held his tongue. The eunuch priest was bound to be right. And yet—this wasn't a slow accumulation of damage over many years. Unless he and Kinifor were both wrong, it had happened recently.

The rift wound deeper into the earth. Kinifor led Gerin and Van past more spell-warded walls. Several times the Fox saw more loose mortar on the ground. He would have taken oath it had not been there when he'd last gone down to the Sibyl's chamber, but forbore to speak of it again. Kinifor, plainly, did not intend to hear whatever he had to say.

The priest raised a hand for those who accompanied him to halt. He peered into the chamber that opened up ahead, then nodded. "Gentles, you may proceed. Do you seek privacy for your question to the Sibyl?"

Privacy would have cost Gerin an extra bribe. He shook his head. "No, you may hear it, and her answer, too. It's no great secret."

"As you say." Kinifor sounded sulky; most people who thought a question important enough to put to the Sibyl also thought it so important that no one other than Biton and his mouth on earth could be trusted with it. Gerin had been of that opinion on his latest visit. Now, though, he did not mind if the priest listened as he enquired about his son's fate.

Kinifor stepped aside to let the Fox and Van precede him into the Sibyl's underground chamber. As before, Gerin marveled at the throne on which she sat. It threw back the torchlight with glistening, nacreous highlights, as if carved from a single black pearl. Yet contemplating the oyster that could have birthed such a pearl sent his imagination reeling.

"It is a new Sibyl," Van murmured, very low.

Gerin nodded. Instead of the ancient, withered crone who'd occupied this chamber on all his previous journeys to Ikos, on the throne sat a pleasant-faced woman of perhaps twenty-five in a simple white linen dress that fastened over her left shoulder and reached halfway between her knees and ankles. She nodded politely, first to Kinifor, then to those who would question her.

But when she spoke, she might have been the old Sibyl reborn. "Step forward, lads," she said to Gerin and Van. Her voice was a musical contralto, but it held ancient authority. Though the Fox and the outlander were both older than she, they were not merely lads but babes when measured against the divine power she represented. Gerin obeyed her without hesitation.

Coming to the crone on that seat had seemed natural to him. Finding a new, young Sibyl there made him think for the first time of the life she led. Biton's mouth on earth was pledged to lifelong celibacy: indeed, pledged never even to touch a whole man. Here far below the ground she would stay, day upon day, the god taking possession of her again and again as she prophesied, her only company even when above the earth (he assumed—he hoped—she was allowed out of the chamber when no more suppliants came) eunuchs and perhaps serving women. Thus she would live out however many years she had.

He shivered. It struck him more as divine punishment than reward.

"What would you learn from my master Biton?" the Sibyl asked.

Gerin had thought about how to ask that question all the way south from Fox Keep. If the god got an ambiguous query, the questioner was liable to get an ambiguous reply; indeed, Biton was famous for finding ambiguity even where the questioner thought none lurking. Taking a deep breath, the Fox asked, "Is my son alive and well, and, if he is, when and where shall we be reunited?"

"That strikes me as being two questions," Kinifor said disapprovingly.

"Let the god judge," Gerin answered, to which the priest gave a grudging nod.

Biton evidently reckoned the question acceptable. The mantic fit came over the young Sibyl, harder than it had with the old. Her eyes rolled up in her head. She thrashed about on the throne, careless of her own modesty. And when she spoke, the voice that came from her throat was not her own, but the same powerful baritone her predecessor had used—Biton's voice:

* * *

"The Sibyl's doom we speak of now (And worry less about the child): To flee Ikos, midst fearful row (Duren's fate may well be mild). All ends, among which is the vow Pledged by an oracle defiled."

* * *

The god left his mouth on earth as abruptly as his spirit had filled her. She slumped against an arm of the throne in a dead faint.

* * *