/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Nightrunners

Luck in the Shadows

Lynn Flewelling

When young Alec of Kerry is taken prisoner for a crime he didn't commit, he is certain that his life is at an end. But the one thing he never expected was his cellmate. Spy, rogue, thief, and noble, Seregil of Rhнminee is many things—none of them predictable. And when he offers to take on Alec as his apprentice, things may never be the same for either of them. Soon Alec is traveling roads he never knew existed, toward a war he never suspected was brewing. Before long he and Seregil are embroiled in a sinister plot that runs deeper than either can imagine, and that may cost them far more than their lives if they fail. But fortune is as unpredictable as Alec's new mentor, and this time there just might be… DEADLY MISSION "Looks like you'll have to climb," Seregil whispered, squinting up. "Be careful going over; most of these places have the walls topped with spikes or sharp flints." "Hold on!" Alec tried to make out Seregil's expression through the darkness. "Aren't you coming with me?" "It's a one-man job; the fewer the better," Seregil assured him. "Would I send you in alone if I didn't think you could handle it? Best leave your sword, though." "What if someone sees me?" "Honestly, Alec! You can't just go hacking your way out of every difficult situation that arises. It's uncivilized." Alec unbuckled his sword and started up the garden wall. He was halfway to the top when Micum called softly, "We'll meet you back here when you've finished. Oh, and look out for the dogs." "Dogs?" Alec dropped down again. "What dogs? You didn't say anything about dogs!" Seregil tapped himself sharply between the eyes. "Illior's Fingers, what am I thinking of tonight? There's a pair of Zengati hounds, snow-white and big as bears." "That's a fine detail to forget," growled Micum. "Anything else I should know?" "Let's see, the spikes, the dogs, the servants—No, I think we covered it. Luck in the shadows, Alec." "And to you," Alec muttered, starting up the wall again. Praise for Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling "Part high fantasy and part political intrigue, Luck in the Shadows makes a nice change from the usual muck of contemporary sword-and-sorcery. I especially enjoyed Lynn Flewelling's obvious affection for her characters. And at unexpected moments she reveals a well-honed gift for the macabre." – Stephen R. Donaldson, author of This Day All Gods Die "Memorable characters, an enthralling plot, and truly daunting evil. The magic is refreshingly difficult, mysterious, and unpredictable. Lynn Flewelling has eschewed the easy shortcuts of cliched minor characters and cookie-cutter backdrops to present a unique world peopled by characters who are truly of that world. I commend this one to your attention." – Robin Hobb, author of Royal Assassin "A splendid read, filled with magic, mystery, adventure, and taut suspense. Lynn Flewelling, b ravo!Nicely done." – Dennis L. McKiernan, author of The Dragonstone "An engrossing and entertaining debut novel. It opens up a new fantasy world that is ripe for exploration-full of magic, intrigues, and fascinating characters… the kind of book you settle down with when you want a long, satisfying read." – Michael A. Stackpole, author of Star Wars X-Wing: Rogue Squadron

Lynn Flewelling

Luck in the Shadows

(Nightrunners - 01)

Acknowledgments

Like many first novels, this one wouldn't be complete without acknowledgments. Those of you who don't know me can skip this part, if you like. Really. I don't mind.

With deepest gratitude to those hardy early readers who believed in this project long before I did myself:

Mom, Fran, and kid sister Sue, God love 'em; Gram, God rest her; Jeffs K. and A.; sisters of the heart Darby, Laurie, the Other Lynn, and Nancy; Bonnie; Cheryl; Marc and the whole BookMarc's gang; Cathie Pelletier, for her guidance and support; Greta, Sandy E, Gary, Bill and Dorothy, Maria, Sabine, Scott and Julie, Marc and Lisa, Todd, Jen, Gail N.; Suzannes K. and C.; and Pete "The Organmeister" K. and Debbie C., who materialized out of the electronic ether at the nicest possible time. Apologies to anyone I missed.

Love also to Matt and Tim, who've heard, "Not now, Mom's writing," far too often; and to my dad, who's probably bragging me up in Heaven, because he always did.

And finally, special thanks to my literary midwives, Lucienne Diver, Eleanor Wood, and Anne Groell, who made it all come real.

Author's Note

The ancient Hierophantic calendar is based on a lunar year divided into twelve 29-day months and four seasonal festivals, which account for an additional twelve days.

Winter Solstice—observance of the longest night and celebration of the lengthening of days to come. (mourning Night and Festival of Sakor in Skala.) Followed by:

Sarisin

Dostin

Klesin

Spring Festival—preparation for planting, celebration of fertility of Dalna. (festival of the Flowers in Mycena.) Followed by:

Lithion

Nythin

Gorathin

Summer Solstice—celebration of the longest day, followed by:

Shemin

Lenthin

Rhythin

Harvest Home—finish of harvest, time of thankfulness. (great Festival of Dalna in Mycena.) Followed by:

Erasin

Kemmin

Cinrin

Map

LUCK IN THE SHADOWS

Prologue

Mouldering bone crumbled beneath their boots as Lord Mardus and Vargыl Ashnazai lowered themselves down into the tiny chamber beneath the earthen mound. Oblivious to the pervasive odor of swamp and old death, to the dank earth filtering down the back of his neck and into his hair, Mardus crunched across more bones to a rough stone slab at the back of the chamber. Brushing aside brittle ribs and skulls, he reverently lifted a small pouch from the stone. The rotted leather fell to pieces at a touch, spilling eight carved wooden disks across his palm.

"It appears you've accomplished your purpose, Vargыl Ashnazai." Mardus smiled and the scar beneath his left eye tightened.

Ashnazai's sharp, sallow face was ghostly in the uncertain light. With a nod of satisfaction, he passed a hand over the disks and for an instant their form wavered, giving hint of their true shape.

"After all these centuries, another fragment reclaimed!" he exclaimed softly. "It's a sign, my lord. The time draws nigh."

"A most propitious sign. Let us hope that the remainder of our quest is as successful. Captain Tildus!"

A black-bearded face appeared in the rough opening at the top of the mound. "Here, my lord."

"Have the villagers been gathered?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Good. You may begin."

"I shall make preparations for the safe conveyance of these," Vargыl Ashnazai said, reaching to take the disks.

"And what could you do that the ancients have not already done?" Mardus inquired coldly, pocketing them as casually as if they were gaming stones. "There's nothing so safe as that which appears to be worthless. For the time being, we will trust in the wisdom of our ancestors."

Ashnazai quickly withdrew his hand. "As you wish, my lord."

Mardus soulless black eyes met and held his as the first screams erupted above them.

Vargыl Ashnazai was the first to look away.

1 Luck in the Shadows

Asengai's torturers were regular in their habits—they always left off at sunset.

Chained again in his corner of the drafty cell, Alec turned his face to the rough stone wall and sobbed until his chest ached.

An icy mountain wind sighed through the grating overhead, carrying with it the sweet scent of snow to come. Still weeping, the boy burrowed deeper into the sour straw. It scratched painfully against the welts and bruises that bloomed across his bare skin, but it was better than nothing and all he had.

He was alone now. They'd hanged the miller yesterday and the one called Danker had died under torture. Alec had never met either of them before his capture but they had treated him kindly. Now he wept for them, too, and for the horror of their death.

As the tears subsided, he wondered again why he'd been spared, why Lord Asengai repeatedly told the torturers, "Don't mark the boy too badly."

So they hadn't seared him with red-hot irons or cut off his ears or opened his skin with knotted whips as they had with the others. Instead, they'd beaten him skillfully and dunked him until he thought he was drowned. And no matter how many times he'd screamed out the truth, he couldn't seem to convince his captors that he'd wandered onto Asengai's remote freeholding seeking nothing more than the pelts of spotted cats.

His only remaining hope now was that they would finish him off quickly; death loomed like a welcome release from the hours of pain, the endless stream of questions that he didn't understand and couldn't answer. Clinging to this bitter comfort, he drifted into a fitful doze.

The familiar tread of boots jerked him awake sometime later. Moonlight slanted in through the window now, pooling in the straw beside him. Sick with dread, he pulled himself into the deeper shadow of the corner.

As the footsteps came closer a highly pitched voice suddenly burst out, shouting and cursing over the sounds of a scuffle. The cell door banged open and the dark forms of two warders and a struggling captive were framed for an instant against the torchlight from the corridor beyond.

The prisoner was a small, slightly built man but he fought like a cornered weasel.

"Unhand me, you cretinous brutes!" he cried, his furious words marred somewhat by a noticeable lisp.

"I demand to see your master! How dare you arrest me! Can't an honest bard pass unmolested through this country?"

Twisting an arm free, he swung a fist at the warder on his left. The larger man blocked the blow easily and pinned his arms sharply back again.

"Don't fret yourself," the guard snorted, giving the prisoner a sharp cuff on the ear. "You'll meet our master soon enough and wish you hadn't!"

His partner let out a nasty chuckle. "Aye, he'll have you singing loud and long before he's through." With this, he struck the smaller man quick, harsh blows to the face and belly, silencing any further protests.

Dragging him to the wall opposite Alec, they manacled him hand and foot.

"What about that one?" one of them asked, jerking a thumb in Alec's direction. "They'll be taking him off next day or so. How 'bout a bit of sport?"

"No, you heard the master. Be worth our hides if we spoiled him for the slavers. Come on, the game'll be starting." The key grated in the lock behind them and their voices faded away down the corridor.

Slavers?

Alec curled more tightly into the shadows. There were no slaves in the northlands but he'd heard tales enough of people carried off to distant countries and uncertain fates, never to be seen again. Throat tight with renewed panic, he tugged hopelessly at his chains.

The bard raised his head with a groan. "Who's there?"

Alec froze, regarding the man warily. The pale wash of moonlight was bright enough for him to see that the man was dressed in the gaudy clothing common to his kind: a tunic with long, dagged tippets, the striped sash and hose. Tall, muddy traveling boots completed the garish outfit. Alec couldn't make out his face, however; the fellow's dark hair hung to his shoulders in foppish ringlets, partially obscuring his features.

Too exhausted and miserable to attempt idle conversation, Alec pressed into his corner without reply. The man seemed to be squinting hard in his direction, but before he could speak again they heard the guards returning. Dropping flat in the straw, the bard lay motionless as they dragged in a third prisoner, this one a squat, bull-necked laborer in homespun garments and stained leggings.

Despite his size, the man obeyed the warders in terrified silence as they chained him by the feet next to the bard.

"Here's another bit of company for you, boy," one of them said with a grin, setting a small clay lamp in a niche over the door. "Someone to help you pass the time 'til morning!"

The light fell across Alec. Dark bruises and welts showed darkly against his fair skin. Clad in little more than the tattered remnants of his linen clout, he returned the man's gaze stonily.

"By the Maker, boy! What did you do that they dealt with you so?" the man exclaimed.

"Nothing," Alec rasped. "They tortured me, and the others. They died-yesterday? What's the day?"

"Third of Erasin, come sunrise."

Alec's head ached dully; had it really only been four days?

"But what did they arrest you for?" the man persisted, eyeing Alec with obvious suspicion.

"Spying. But I wasn't! I tried to explain—"

"It's the same with me," the peasant sighed.

"I've been kicked, beaten, robbed, and not a word will they hear from me."

"I'm Morden Swiftford, I tell 'em. Just a plowman, nothing more! But here I am."

With a deep groan the bard sat up and struggled awkwardly to untangle himself from his shackles. After a considerable effort he finally managed to arrange himself with his back resting against the wall.

"Those brutes will pay dearly for this indignity," he snarled weakly. "Imagine, Rolan Silverleaf a spy!"

"You, too?" asked Morden.

"It's too absurd. There I was, performing at the Harvest Fair at Rook Tor only last week. I happen to have several powerful patrons in these parts and believe me, they shall hear of the treatment I've endured!"

The fellow prattled on, giving an encyclopedic recital of the places he'd performed and the highly placed people to whom he looked for justice.

Alec paid him little heed. Wrapped in his own misery, he huddled morosely in his corner while Morden gaped.

The jailers returned within the hour and hauled the frightened plowman away. Soon cries of an all-too-familiar nature echoed up the hallway. Alec pressed his face against his knees and covered his ears, trying not to hear. The bard was watching him, he knew, but he was beyond caring.

Morden's hair and jerkin were matted with blood when the guards dragged him back and chained him in his place again. He lay where they flung him, panting hoarsely.

A few moments later another guard came in and handed out meager rations of water and hard biscuit.

Rolan examined his bit of biscuit with obvious distaste.

"It's maggoty, but you should eat," he said, tossing his portion across to Alec.

Alec ignored it and his own. Food meant dawn was close and the start of another grim day.

"Go on," Rolan urged gently. "You'll need your strength later." Alec turned his face away, but he

persisted. "At least take a bit of water.

Can you walk?"

Alec shrugged listlessly. "What difference does it make?"

"Perhaps a great deal before long," the other man replied with an odd half smile. There was something new in his voice, a calculating note that was decidedly out of place with his dandified appearance. The dim light of the lamp touched the side of his face, showing a longish nose and one sharp eye.

Alec took a small sip of the water, then downed the rest in a gulp as the needs of his body took over. He'd had nothing to eat or drink in more than a day.

"That's better," murmured Rolan. Getting to his knees, he moved out as far as the leg chains allowed, then leaned forward until the manacles drew his arms back tautly. Morden raised his head, watching with dull curiosity.

"It's no use. You'll only bring the guards back," Alec hissed, wishing the man would keep still.

Rolan surprised him with a wink, then began to flex his hands, spreading the fingers and straining the thumbs about.

From across the cell Alec heard the soft, sickening snap of joints separating. Rolan's hands slipped free of the manacle rings. Falling forward, he caught himself on one elbow and quickly relocated the joints at the base of each thumb.

He wiped the sweat from his eyes with the end of one tippet. "There, and now the feet." Pulling down the top of his left boot, he extracted a long, bodkinlike instrument from an inner seam. A moment's work on each of the leg iron locks and he was free.

Taking up Morden's water cup and his own, he came over to Alec.

"Drink this. Slowly now, slowly. What's your name?"

"Alec of Kerry." He sipped gratefully at the extra ration, hardly believing what he'd just seen. For the first time since his capture, he felt the beginnings of hope.

Rolan watched him closely, looking as if he'd reached a not entirely agreeable decision. At last he sighed and said, "I suppose you'd better come with me." Pushing his hair impatiently back from his eyes, he turned to Morden with a thin, unfriendly smile.

"But you, my friend, you seem to set remarkably small value on your life."

"Good sir," Morden stammered, cowering back, "I'm only a humble peasant but I'm certain my life means as much to me—was Rolan cut him off with an impatient gesture, then reached forward to thrust his hand into the neck of the man's grimy jerkin. He yanked out a thin silver chain and dangled it in Morden's face.

"You're not very convincing, you know. Louts though they are, Asengai's men are far too thorough to miss a bauble like this."

His voice is different! Alec thought, watching the strange confrontation in confusion. Rolan wasn't lisping at all now; he just sounded dangerous.

"I should also tell you, by way of instruction, that tortured men are usually extremely thirsty," the bard continued. "Unless they smell of ale, as you do. I trust you and the guards had a pleasant supper together? I wonder what sort of blood is it you're smeared with?"

"Your mother's moon flow!" Morden snarled, his simple expression vanishing as he pulled a small dagger from his legging and lunged at Rolan.

The bard dodged the attack and drove his clenched fist against Morden's throat, crushing his larynx.

A swift jab of his elbow to Morden's temple felled the man like an ox; he collapsed in the straw at Rolan's feet, blood flowing from his mouth and ear.

"You killed him!" Alec said faintly.

Rolan pressed a finger to Morden's throat, then nodded. "Seems I did. The fool should've yelled for the guards."

Alec cringed back against the clammy stone as Rolan turned to him.

"Steady now," the man said, and Alec was surprised to see he was smiling. "Do you want to get out of here or not?"

Alec managed a mute nod, then sat rigidly while Rolan unlocked his chains. When he'd finished he went back to Morden's body.

"Now let's see who you were." Sliding the dead man's dagger into his boot, Rolan pulled up the soiled jerkin to examine the hairy torso beneath.

"Hmm, that's no great surprise," he muttered, probing at the left armpit.

Curious in spite of his fear, Alec crept just close enough to peer over Rolan's shoulder.

"See here?" Rolan showed him a triangle of three tiny blue circles tattooed into the pale skin where the arm joined the body.

"What does it mean?"

"It's a guild mark. He was a Juggler."

"A mountebank?"

"No," Rolan snorted. "A keek, a ferret. The Jugglers carry out any sort of dirty mischief for the right price. They swarm around petty lords like Asengai the way blow flies gather on a midden." Tugging the dead man's jerkin off, he thrust it into Alec's hands. "Here, put this on. And hurry! I'll say this just once; fall behind and you're on your own!"

The garment was filthy and soaked with blood at the neck, but Alec obeyed quickly, pulling it on with a shudder of revulsion. By the time he'd gotten it on, Rolan was already at work on the lock.

"Rusty son of a whore," he remarked, spitting into the keyhole. The lock gave way at last and he opened the door a crack, peering out.

"Looks clear," he whispered. "Stay close and do what I tell you."

Alec's heart hammered in his ears as he followed Rolan out into the corridor. Several yards down lay the room where Asengai's men carried out their tortures. Beyond that, the door to the warder's room stood open and they could hear the noise of a rowdy game of some sort in progress.

Rolan's boots made no more noise than Alec's bare feet as the two of them crept up to the open doorway. Rolan cocked his head, then held up four fingers. With a quick motion he indicated that Alec should cross the doorway quickly and quietly.

Alec stole a glance inside. Four guards were kneeling around a cloak on the floor. One cast the knucklebones and coins changed hands amid much good-natured cursing.

Waiting until their attention was focused on the next toss, Alec slipped across to the other side.

Rolan joined him soundlessly and they hurried around a corner and down a stairway. A lamp burned in a shallow niche at the bottom. Rolan took it and set off again.

Alec knew nothing of the lay of the place and quickly lost all sense of direction as they made their way along a succession of twisting passageways.

Halting at last, Rolan opened a narrow door and disappeared into the darkness beyond, whispering for Alec to watch his step just in time to save the boy from tumbling down more stairs that descended less than a pace from the door.

It was colder down here, and damp. The wavering circle of light from Rolan's lamp skimmed across lichen-stained stonework. The floor was stone as well, rough and broken with neglect.

A final, crumbling set of stairs brought them to a low, iron-strapped door. The paving beneath Alec's bare feet was frigid. His breath puffed out in rapid little clouds. Handing him the lamp, Rolan went to work on the heavy lock that hung from a staple in the door frame.

"There," Rolan whispered as it came free. "Blow out the light and leave it."

They slipped out into the shadows of a walled yard. The lopsided moon was low in the west; the sky behind the stars showed the first hint of predawn indigo. A thick rime of frost coated everything in the yard: wood stack, well, farrier's forge-all glinted softly in the moonlight. Winter was coming early this year, Alec thought. He could smell it on the air.

"This is the lower stable yard," Rolan whispered.

"There's a gate beyond that wood stack, with a postern beside it. Damn, but it's cold!"

Scrubbing a hand back through his ridiculous curls, he looked Alec over again; except for the filthy jerkin, the boy was all but naked. "You can't go traveling all over the country like that. Get to the side door and open it. There shouldn't be a guard, but keep your eyes open and be silent! I'll be right back."

Before Alec could protest, he'd ghosted away in the direction of the stables.

Alec crouched by the doorway for a moment, hugging himself against the cold. Alone in the darkness, he felt his brief burst of confidence ebbing away. A glance at the stables showed no sign of his strange companion.

Genuine fear stirred just below the fragile threshold of his resolve.

Fighting it down, he forced himself to concentrate on gauging the distance to the dark side of the wood stack. still haven't come this far to be abandoned for weakness, he berated himself.

Maker Dalna, hold your hand over me now!

Drawing in a deep, silent breath, he darted forward. He got within arm's length of the wood stack before a tall figure stepped from the shadow of the forge a scant few feet away.

"Who's that?" the man demanded, pulling something from his belt. "Stand and speak, you!"

Alec dove for the stack, throwing himself down behind it.

Something hard dug into his chest as he landed. Grabbing at it, he closed his hand around the smooth haft of an ax. Then he was rolling to avoid the heavy club the man was swinging at his head.

Gripping the ax like a quarter staff, Alec managed to deflect the sentry's arcing swing. He was badly overmatched, however, and what little strength he had left after days of mistreatment soon faded as blow after blow rained down. Leaping back, he caught sight of Rolan near the stable door.

Instead of coming to his aid, however, the bard faded back into the shadows.

That's it then, he thought. I got into trouble and he's left me.

Driven by fury born of utter despair, Alec flew at the startled sentry, driving the man back with wild swings of the ax's double blade. If he was going to die in this terrible place, he'd go down fighting under an open sky.

His adversary recovered quickly and was pressing in for the kill when they were both surprised by a clattering uproar nearby. The stable door slammed back and Rolan burst out mounted bareback on an enormous black horse. A pack of ostlers, stable boys, and guards spilled out after him, raising the alarm.

"The gate, damn it! Open the gate!" Rolan shouted, leading his pursuers in a fool's chase around the courtyard.

Distracted, the sentry made a clumsy parry and Alec sprang under his guard with a savage swing. The blade struck home and the man went down screaming.

Dropping the ax, Alec dashed to the gate, heaved the heavy bar out of its brackets, and pushed the doors wide.

Now what?

Looking around, he found Rolan occupied at the far end of the yard.

A guard had him by one ankle, and a stable hand was leaping for the horse's bridle. Spotting the open gate, he reined the horse back on its haunches and kicked the beast into a furious gallop straight across the yard. His mount sprang effortlessly over the well and bolted for the gate. Hauling back on the reins, Rolan twisted the fingers of one hand into the black's mane and leaned over its neck, other arm extended.

"Come on!" he yelled.

Alec reached up just in time. Rolan's fingers clamped around his wrist, wrenching him off his feet and across the horse's broad back. Clambering upright, he locked his arms around Rolan's waist as they thundered though the gate and down the road beyond.

They skirted the little village nestled against the walls of the keep and flew on along the road down the wooded mountainside below Asengai's domain.

After several miles, Rolan left the road and plunged into the thick forest that flanked it. Safe among the trees, he reined their mount to a halt.

"Here, take these," he whispered, shoving a bundle of some sort into Alec's hands.

It was a cloak. The coarse fabric smelled rankly of the stable but the boy wrapped himself in it gratefully, drawing his bare feet up against the horse's steaming sides to warm them.

They sat in silence, and after a moment Alec realized that they must be waiting for something. Presently they heard the clatter of hooves approaching. It was too dark to count the riders as they passed, but judging by the sound, there were at least half a dozen. Waiting until they were all well past, Rolan turned the black again to the road and started back in the direction of the keep.

"We're going the wrong way," Alec whispered, tugging at Rolan's sleeve.

"Don't worry," his companion replied with a soft chuckle.

A few moments later he turned aside from the main road, this time onto a badly overgrown track.

The ground fell away sharply, and branches whipped at their faces as they cantered along under the cover of the trees. Halting again, Rolan claimed the cloak and threw it over the horse's head to keep the beast quiet. They soon heard the riders again, moving slower now and calling back and forth to one another. Two riders ventured down the track, passing within ten yards of where Rolan and Alec stood holding their breath.

"He must've been a wizard, I tell you!" one was saying. "Killing that southern bastard the way he did, disappearing out of the cell, and now this!"

"Wizard be damned," the other retorted angrily.

"You'll wish you was a wizard if Berin don't catch up with 'em down the road. Lord Asengai'll skin the whole bunch of us!"

A horse stumbled and reared.

"Bilairy's Guts! This way's hopeless in the dark. They'd have broke their necks by now," the lead man

grumbled. Giving up, the riders turned back the way they'd come.

Waiting until all was quiet, Rolan mounted in front of Alec and handed him back the cloak.

"What do we do now?" whispered Alec as they headed down the mountain track again.

"I left some supplies a few miles from here. I just hope they're still there. Hang on tight. We've got a rough ride ahead of us."

2 Across the Downs

Alec opened his eyes to the noonday light. For a drowsy moment he blinked up at the branches overhead, trying to recall where he was and wondering why the scratchy roughness of the blankets felt so good against his skin.

Then a sudden onslaught of memories slapped him fully awake. Scrambling to his knees, he pulled the blankets around him and looked about in alarm.

Rolan was nowhere in sight, but their stolen horse was still in the little clearing, along with the bay mare and the battered leather pack Rolan had cached here before venturing into Asengai's domain. Burrowing back beneath the blankets, Alec closed his eyes again and waited for his heartbeat to slow.

He was amazed that Rolan had been able to find his way back here at all. To Alec, exhausted beyond measure, the ride had seemed one long, impossible series of difficulties: thickets, streams, and a skree field they'd crossed on foot. Never faltering, Rolan had urged him on with promises of hot food and warm blankets. By the time they'd reached the clearing, Alec had been too tired and cold to do more than collapse onto the bracken pallet that lay ready beneath the shelter of a thick fir.

The last thing he remembered was listening to Rolan curse the cold as he joined him beneath their shared pile of blankets and cloaks.

It was bitterly cold now, despite the brightness of the sun. Long crystals of frost thrust up through the mossy loam next to his pallet, like bundles of tiny glass blades. Overhead, mackerel-striped clouds ribbed the hazy sky. There'd be snow soon, the first of the year.

Their camp lay next to a small waterfall, and the sound of it had gotten into his dreams. Pulling the stolen cloak around his shoulders, he went into the bushes to relieve his bladder, then walked down to the edge of the pool below the falls. Every bruise and welt protested as he dipped up a handful of icy water, but he was too happy to care; he was alive and he was free! Whoever, whatever this Rolan Silverleaf was, Alec owed him his life.

But where was the man?

Branches rattled on the opposite side of the pool as a doe stepped from the trees to drink.

Alec's fingers itched for the taut pull of a bowstring.

"Maker keep you fat until we meet again!" he called softly. Startled, the deer sprang away on slender legs and Alec set off to see what he could forage.

It was an old forest. Towering firs had long since choked out all but the most persistent undergrowth, so that a man could easily have driven a cart between their thick, straight trunks. High overhead, the dense canopy of interlaced boughs filtered the sunlight to muted underwater tones. Moss-crusted boulders studded the slope. Between them, patches of dead ferns whispered dryly as he passed. Finding a few late mushrooms, he gathered them, nibbling at one as he went along.

As he passed a large boulder, he was surprised to find a rabbit dead in a snare. Hoping this was Rolan's work, he freed the carcass and sniffed it.

It was fresh. Mouth watering at the first prospect of hot meat in days, he headed eagerly back to the camp. As he neared the clearing he heard the knock of steel against a flint and hurried on to show Rolan their breakfast.

Stepping from the shelter of the trees, he froze in terror.

O Dalna, they found us!

A rough-clad stranger was standing with his back to Alec, looking out over the pool. His tunic of green homespun and leather breeches were unremarkable; it was the long scabbard slung low on the intruder's left hip that caught the boy's attention.

Alec's first thought was to melt back into the woods, find Rolan. As he took a cautious step back, however, his heel struck a dry stick. It snapped loudly and the man whirled about, sword drawn. Dropping the rabbit and the mushrooms, Alec turned to bolt. A familiar voice behind him brought him to a halt.

"It's all right. It's me. It's Rolan."

Still poised to run, Alec took a wary look back and realized his mistake. It was Rolan, after all, though he bore little resemblance to the foppish coxcomb of the night before.

"Good morning," Rolan called. "You'd better go get that coney you dropped. I've only got one other and I'm famished!"

Alec's cheeks flushed hotly as he hastily gathered up the rabbit and mushrooms and brought them to the fire.

"I didn't recognize you," he exclaimed.

"How can you look so different?"

"Just changed my clothes." Rolan pushed back the thick brown hair that hung now in damp waves over

his shoulders. "I don't suppose you got a very good look at me before, racing around in the dark as we did."

This was true, Alec reflected, sizing his companion up. Rolan somehow seemed taller in the daylight, though he was not a large man at all.

Rather, he was slender and fine-featured, with large grey eyes set over high cheekbones and a long, narrow nose. His mouth was fine, almost thin, and tilted at the moment in a lopsided grin that made him look younger than Alec would have guessed before.

"I don't know, Rolan—"

"Oh, and about the name." The grin tilted a bit higher. "It isn't actually Rolan Silverleaf."

"What do I call you, then?" asked Alec, not particularly surprised.

"You can call me Seregil."

"How's that?"

"Serah-gill."

"Oh." It was an odd-sounding name, but Alec sensed it was all he was going to get for the moment. "Where were you?"

"Checking to see if anyone tracked us. There's no sign of Asengai's men yet, but we'd better move on soon in case they get lucky. We'll eat first, though. You look starved."

Alec knelt by the fire, inspecting the two lean coneys with a rueful smile. "We'd be eating venison if I had my bow. Those bastards took everything I owned. I don't even have a knife! Lend me one and I'll clean these."

Reaching into the top of one tall boot, Seregil handed him a long poniard.

"Maker's Mercy, that's a beauty!" Alec exclaimed, running a thumbnail appreciatively along the edge of the narrow, triangular blade. As he set about cleaning the first rabbit, however, it was Seregil's turn to be impressed.

"You're pretty handy at that sort of thing," he remarked as Alec opened the belly with a single quick stroke.

Alec offered him a purplish-brown lobe of liver. "You want some of this? Good for your blood in the winter."

"Thanks." Accepting the morsel, Seregil sat down by the fire and watched him thoughtfully.

Alec colored a little under that frank gaze.

"Thank you for saving my life last night. I'm in your debt."

"You handled yourself well enough. How old are you, anyway? You look young to be roaming around

all by yourself."

"Sixteen last summer," Alec replied a bit gruffly. He was often taken for younger than he was. "I've lived my whole life in the woods."

"But not alone, surely?"

Alec hesitated, wondering how much he really wanted to reveal to this odd stranger. "My father died just after the summer solstice."

"I see. An accident, was it?"

"No, he had the wasting sickness." Tears stung Alec's eyes and he bent lower over the rabbit, hoping Seregil wouldn't notice. "It was a hard death. Even the drysians couldn't help him in the end."

"You've been on your own all of three months, then?"

"Yes. We missed the spring bird trade, so I had to spend the summer in Stone Tor working off our debt to the inn where Father lay sick. Then I came out for the fall trapping, like we always did. I already had a whole string of pelts, good ones, when ran into Asengai's men. Now, with no equipment, no horse, nothing, I don't know—" He broke off, his face grim; he'd walked the thin line of starvation before.

"Don't you have a family somewhere?" Seregil asked after a moment. "Where's your mother?"

"I never knew her."

"Friends?"

Alec handed him the dressed rabbit and took up the second. "We kept to ourselves mostly. Father didn't like towns."

"I see. So what will you do now?"

"I don't know. In Stone Tor, I worked in the scullery and helped out the ostler. I guess I'll have to go back to that for the winter."

Seregil made no comment and Alec worked in silence for a moment. Then, watching the steam from the open carcass rise between his fingers, he asked, "All that back there last night—was it you they were looking for?"

Seregil smiled slightly as he skewered the first rabbit on a long stick and propped it over the fire. "That's a dangerous question to ask a stranger. If I was, I'd probably kill you just for asking. No, I'm just a wandering collector of tales. I've picked up a lot that way."

"So you really are a bard, then?"

"Sometimes. I was up above Kerry not long ago, collecting stories of the Faie who were supposed to have lived up in the Ironheart Mountains beyond Ravensfell Pass. Being from that region yourself, you must know something about them."

"The Elder Folk, you mean?" Alec grinned. "Those were always my favorite stories. We used to cross

trails with a skald who knew all about them. He said they were magic folk, like trolls or centaurs. When I was little I used to look for them in the shadows of the trees, though Father said it was foolish. 'Those tales are nothing but smoke from a liar's pipe! he'd say" — Alec's voice faltered and he broke off, rubbing at his eyes as if smoke had blown into them.

Seregil tactfully failed to notice his distress.

"Anyhow, a few days ago I ran afoul of Asengai, same as you. I'm off Wolde now. I've got a bit of singing lined up there in three days' time."

"Three days?" Alec shook his head. "You'd have to go straight over the Downs to get there that quickly."

"Damn! I must be farther west than I thought. I hear the Downs are a dangerous place for anyone who doesn't know where the springs are."

"I could show you," Alec offered. "I've been back and forth across them most of my life. Maybe I could turn up some work there, too."

"Do you know the town?"

"We traded there every fall at the Harvest Fair."

"Sounds like I've found myself a guide." Seregil extended his hand. "What's your price?"

"I can't take your money," Alec protested. "Not after what you did for me."

Seregil waved this aside with a crooked grin. "Honor's for men with money in their pockets; you've got a long, cold winter ahead. Come now, name your price and I'll pay it gladly."

The logic was indisputable. "Two silver marks,"

Alec replied after a moment's calculation. Reaching to clasp hands on it, however, his father's voice spoke in the back of his mind and he drew back, adding, "Hard money, and half now."

"Very prudent of you."

As they shook on the bargain, Alec felt a curving edge against his palm and drew his hand from Seregil's to find himself holding a large silver coin. Two fingers wide and covered with fine designs, it lay heavy against his palm.

"This is too much!" he protested.

Seregil shrugged. "It's the smallest I have. Keep it and we'll settle up in Wolde. It's a pretty thing, don't you think?"

"I've never seen anything like it!" What little currency Alec had seen were crude lozenges of copper or silver, distinguished only by weight and a few crude symbols struck in. The designs on this coin were better than anything he'd seen in a jeweler's stall.

One side bore the slim bow of a crescent moon, tipped on its side like a smile with five stylized rays

fanning out beneath it to the lower edge of the coin.

Cradled within the crescent was the figure of a flame. The obverse showed a crowned woman. She wore a cuirass of some sort over her flowing gown, and held a large sword upright before her face.

"How did you get it into my hand?" he asked.

"Telling spoils the trick," replied Seregil, tossing him a square of wet sacking. "I'll tend to the cooking. You go clean yourself up. A quick swim should help."

Alec's smile disappeared. "Bilairy's Balls, it's nearly winter and you want me to take a bath?"

"If we're going to share blankets over the next few days, yes. No offense, but dungeon life hasn't done much for your general ambience. Go on, I'll mind the fire. And get rid of those clothes! I've got clean ones for you."

Dubious but not wanting to appear ungrateful, Alec picked up a blanket and went to the pool.

Noting the lacy edgings of that still rimmed the stones, however, he decided that gratitude only went so far. Stripping off his rags, he gave himself a scrubbing and pulled the blanket around his waist. As he bent to duck his head under the water, the sight of his reflection froze him, crouched and trembling, on the wet stones. Only the day before, Asengai's men had strapped him to a plank and titled him into a water butt, holding him under again and again until he thought his lungs would burst. He'd had enough of water for now thank you very much.

Seregil smiled wryly to himself as he watched the boy's hasty ablutions. These northerners seemed to develop a genuine aversion to water over the winter.

Tugging open his pack, he rummaged out an extra tunic, breeches, and a belt.

Alec hurried back to the fire and Seregil tossed him the. clothes. "These should do for you. We're almost of a size."

"Thanks." Shivering, Alec went off a few feet and turned away before letting the blanket drop.

"Asengai's men did a thorough job on you, I see," said Seregil, running a critical eye over the bruises on the boy's back and thighs.

"Dalna's Hands, there's such a thing as modesty," the boy muttered as he struggled into the breeches.

"Never had any use for it, myself, and I don't see why you're so bothered with it either. Under those bruises and that scowl— you're fairly pleasing to look at." Seregil's expression betrayed nothing more than the thoughtful concentration a man might show when sizing up a horse he was about to buy.

Indeed, Alec was well favored, Seregil thought, amused by his companion's discomfort. The boy was lightly built and supple with dark, intelligent blue eyes in a fair face that blushed easily and concealed little. This last was easily remedied, though at times an honest face was useful. The ragged, honey-gold hair looked like it had been trimmed with a skinning knife, but time would fix that, too.

Still, there was something more than Alec's appearance that intrigued him. The lad was neat-handed, and there was a familiar quickness about him that had little to do with training.

And he asked questions.

Alec finished dressing and reached to put the silver coin Seregil had paid him into a pouch on his borrowed belt.

"Wait a second. Watch this," said Seregil, producing another like it from his own purse. Balancing it on the back of one hand, he gave a quick snap of his wrist, pulled his hand out from under it, and caught the coin before it dropped half an inch. "Want to try?"

Puzzled but intrigued, Alec tried the trick.

On the first attempt he dropped his coin. On the second and third try it bounced off his fingertips.

The fourth time, however, he grasped it before it had fallen more than a few inches.

Seregil nodded approvingly. "Not bad. Now try it with your left."

When Alec could do the catch with either hand, Seregil had him try it using only his thumb and forefinger, and finally to perform the trick with his eyes shut.

"Ah, but this is too simple for you," Seregil said at last. "Here, give this a try."

He placed his coin on the ground beside him and rested his hand to the left of it, an inch or so away. With a subtle twitch of his little finger, he swept it beneath his palm without even disturbing the dust. When he raised his hand, the coin was gone. Shaking it from the sleeve of his tunic with a comic flourish, he demonstrated how the snap was done. Again Alec managed it after only a few tries.

"You've got the hands of a born thief," Seregil observed. "Perhaps I'd better not show you any more of those just now!"

Left-handed compliment that it was, Alec returned the grin as he snapped the coin up his sleeve a final time. They ate quickly, then covered all signs of their camp, burying the fire and tossing their refuse into the pool. As they worked, Seregil found himself again pondering what he'd seen of Alec so far, wondering what he could make of such a boy. Alec was quick and surprisingly well spoken. His nature—a blend of stubborn persistence and appalling openness—made for an interesting mix.

With a bit of positioning and greater training— Shaking his head, Seregil pushed the thought away.

As they mounted to leave, a tiny owl flew across the clearing and perched in a dead tree. Blinking in the afternoon light, it fluffed up and let out a mellow too too too.

Seregil gave the owl a reverent nod; the Lightbringer's own bird seen in daylight was no small omen.

"What do you suppose he's doing out so early?" Alec remarked.

Bemused, Seregil shook his head. "I have no idea, Alec, no idea at all."

A cold wind carried the first light snow down through the trees as they set off down the mountainside.

Giving the bay a loose rein, Seregil scanned the forest around them for any sign of Asengai's soldiers as he rode along behind Alec. Without a saddle, the boy had to cling on with knees and hands.

He managed well enough, but it was hard going and made for little conversation.

They reached the edge of the Downs by late afternoon and cantered from the shelter of the trees. Before them monotonous, dun-colored grasslands rolled away to the distant horizon. The wind moaned steadily over the waste, sweeping the fine, gritty snow up into feathery gusts. A rumpled grey blanket of clouds had sealed itself across the sky.

"Illior's Finger, but I hate the cold!"

Seregil exclaimed, stopping to secure his hood and tug on a pair of gloves.

"And you the one all for bathing," Alec chided. "This is nothing compared to what it will be come next—"He broke off suddenly, staring at Seregil. "You swore by Illior!"

"And you swear by Dalna. What of it?"

"Only southerners swear by Illior. Are you from the south? The Three Lands?"

"As a matter of fact, I am," Seregil replied, enjoying the boy's guileless astonishment.

To most northerners the Three Lands were hardly more than places of fancy in a bard's tale; he might as well have said, "I'm from the back of the moon."

"Do you know much of the south?"

"A little. The Gold Road goes down from Wolde all the way to the country of Mycena. Most of the caravaneers I've met have been Mycenians, though there have been a few Skalans, too. Skala's near there, isn't it?"

"Yes, it's a huge peninsula between the Inner and Osiat seas, west of Mycena. To the east is Plenimar, which lies on another peninsula to the east of Mycena, along the coast of the Gathwayd Ocean.

The Gold Road, as you call it, is the main trade route between the Three Lands and the northern freeholdings."

"Which country are you from?"

"Oh, I travel around."

If Alec noticed the evasion, he let it go.

"Some of the traders claim that there are dragons in the south, and powerful wizards. I saw a wizard once at a fair." His face brightened at the memory, easy to read as a tavern bill. "For a price she'd hatch salamanders from hen's eggs and make fires burn blue and red."

"Indeed?" Seregil had performed those tired fakeries a few times himself. Still, he understood all too well the wonder they could evoke.

"A Skalan trader tried to tell me the streets of his cities were paved with gold," Alec went on.

"I didn't believe him, though. He was the one who tried to buy me from Father. I was only eight or nine. I could never figure out what he wanted me for."

"Really?" Seregil lifted a noncommittal eyebrow.

Luckily, Alec was more interested in the matter at hand. "I've heard that Skala and Plenimar are always at war."

Seregil gave a wry smile. "Not always, but often."

"Why?"

"That's an old question, and a complicated one. This time, I suspect it'll be to gain control of the Gold Road."

"This time?" Alec's eyes widened.

"They're going to have another war? And way up here?"

"Looks that way. There are those that believe Plenimar means to drive out the Skalan and Mycenian merchants and extend their own political influence over the northern freeholds."

"You mean by conquering them?"

"Given their past history, I imagine that will be Plenimar's solution."

"But why haven't I heard any of this before? In Stone Tor, even at the Harvest Fair, nobody was talking of war!"

"Stone Tor is a long way from the main trading routes," Seregil reminded him. "The fact is, very few northerners are aware of it at the moment, except those who already have a hand in it. As it stands now, no one will be able to make a move until spring."

"But Asengai and that man Morden, are they part of it?"

"An interesting question." Seregil pulled his hood forward again. "I think the horses have walked long enough, don't you? We need to make some distance before dark!"

The Downs made for smooth riding. Alec knew of a spring they could camp by and set a steady pace until dark.

He knew the landmarks well, but could imagine what it must look like to his companion. Seregil was clearly uneasy as they left the mountains behind, and kept looking back over his shoulder as if trying to use the distant peeks to gauge their progress.

But the mountains were quickly obscured by the lengthening darkness and windblown snow. The sun, never more than a pale hint behind the lowering clouds, was their only guide.

"We'll have to make your food last," Alec remarked when they'd halted for the night. "Most of the summer game has moved south—not that I'd be able to get anything without my bow anyway," he added bitterly.

"I've got cheese and sausage enough for both of us," Seregil told him. "Good with a bow, are you?"

"Good enough." In truth, Alec felt like he was missing a limb without one. The bow he'd lost at Asengai's had been the best he'd ever made.

Dismounting, they scavenged around for firewood but found nothing except low, resinous bushes that burned too quickly, giving off more light than heat. Bundling up as best they could against the wind, they sat close together over their cold supper.

"You said that the fighting between Skala and Plenimar is an old question," Alec said at last. "What did you mean?"

"That's a long story," Seregil said with a chuckle, pulling his cloak tighter. "But a long story can make a long night seem shorter, I suppose. To begin with, did you know that the Three Lands were once one country?"

"No."

"Well, they were, and they were ruled over by a priest king called a Hierophant. The first Hierophant and his followers came from somewhere far across the Gathwayd Ocean over two thousand years ago. It's from them that your Dalna the Maker comes, along with Astellas and the others. They made their first landfall on the Plenimaran peninsula. Benshal, the capital city of Plenimar, stands on the site of the Hierophant's first city."

Alec's eyes narrowed skeptically at the thought of a city that old, or his familiar patron deity having such exotic origins. He kept his doubts to himself, though, not wanting to interrupt the tale.

"Over the years, these people and their religion spread around the Inner and Osiat seas, founding what eventually became Mycena and Skala," Seregil went on.

"And it was these people who brought the worship of Dalna north?"

"That's right. The Hierophant's people worshiped the Sacred Four: Dalna the Maker and Astellus the Traveler, whom you know; and Illior Lightbearer and Sakor of the Flame, who never caught on up in these parts.

"But getting back to the subject at hand, the unity of the Three Lands didn't last. As centuries passed the different regions developed ways of their own. The Plenimarans, for instance, stayed by the great Gathwayd Ocean, a body of water larger than you've ever dreamed of. They're still great sailors and explorers. It was the Plenimarans who sailed south beyond the Strait of Bal to discover the Aurлnfaie—was

"Hold on! Aurлnfaie? Like the Faie up beyond Ravensfell?" Alec broke in excitedly, then felt his

cheeks go warm as Seregil chuckled.

"That's right. Your Elder Folk, properly called the Hazadrielfaie, are said to be the descendants of a group of Aurлnfaie who went into the northern lands before the time of the Hierophant. Aurлnen lies south of the Three Lands, across the Osiat and beyond the Ashek Mountains."

"Then the Aurлnfaie aren't human, either?"

"No. Faie, in their tongue, means 'people" or 'belonging to, while Aura is their name for Illior; hence, Aurлnfaie, the People of Illior. But that's another story alt—"

"But they are real?" Alec persisted; this was more than Seregil had let on previously. "Have you ever seen any? What are they like?"

Seregil smiled. "Not so different from you and me, really. No pointy ears or tails, anyway. They're a handsome folk, for the most part. The main difference between Aurлnfaie and humans is that the 'faie generally live for three or four hundred years."

"No!" Alec snorted, certain this time that his companion was pulling his leg.

"Think what you like, but that's what I've understood to be true. More important, however, is the fact that they were the first to possess magic. Not that they're all wizards, of course."

"But priests have magic," Alec interjected.

"Especially the drysians. Long ago, when the Maker still lived among the people, Dalna came to a woman named Drysia and revealed to her all the secrets of the land and its proper use. The drysians can draw on the power of the earth and they know the secret uses of herbs and stones. Some even know the speech of beasts."

Seregil regarded him with that peculiar tilted grin again. "You've got a touch of the skald, too, I see. You're correct about priests having magic, but it's not the same as true wizardry. If you ever see a real wizard at work, you'll recognize the difference."

"So all wizards are really Aurлnfaie?"

"Oh, nothing of the sort. But they did mix blood with the Tirfaie."

"Tirfaie?"

"Sorry. A good story teller should always know his audience. Tirfaie is the Aurлnfaie word for outsiders. Roughly translated, it means 'the people of short lives'."

"I guess they'd think so, if they live as long as you say," Alec allowed.

"Just so. Anyway, during the years when the Aurлnfaie had open commerce with the Three Lands, the peoples mingled and many of the half-blood children were born with magic. Some stories even claim that Aura—or Illior, depending on which side of the Osiat you're from—sent a messenger in the form of a huge dragon to teach these half bloods how to use their powers."

"Dragons are real, too?" breathed Alec, more wide-eyed than ever.

Seregil grinned. "Don't get your hopes up. As far as I know, no one's seen a dragon in Skala since then."

"Skala? But I thought the Plenimarans were the ones who found the Aurлnfaie."

"And I thought you hadn't heard this story before," Seregil countered dryly.

"I haven't, but you said that the Plenimarans—"

"They did, but the Aurлnfaie got on best with the Skalans in the end. Most of those who stayed in the Three Lands settled there. But that was a very long time ago, more than eight hundred years. Eventually most of the Aurлnfaie withdrew to their own land again."

"Why did they leave?"

Seregil spread his hands. "As with anything, there were many reasons. But their legacy remains. Wizard children are still being born and they still go to Rhнminee for training. That's the capital city of Skala, by the way."

"Rhнminee." Alec savored the exotic sound of it. "But what about the wizards? Have you ever seen one?"

"I know a few. We'd better get some sleep now. I suspect we've a hard few days ahead of us."

Although Seregil's expression scarcely changed, Alec sensed once again that he'd strayed into forbidden territory.

They settled down for the night, sharing what warmth they could beneath their blankets and cloaks as the wind wailed across the Downs.

The following morning Alec tried the coin catches again but his cold fingers were too stiff.

"As soon as we get to Wolde we'd better find you some gloves," said Seregil, hovering over their meager fire. He lifted his hands to show Alec the fine leather gloves he wore. He'd had them on yesterday, too, the boy realized. "Let me look at your hands."

Turning Alec's palms up, he clucked disapprovingly as he examined the cracks and calluses that covered them.

"Too much rough living. No delicacy of touch."

Pulling off a glove, he slid his palm across Alec's. The skin was surprisingly smooth.

"I can tell gold from silver in the dark just by the feel of it. Looking at my hands, you'd think I'd never done a day's work in my life. But you! We could dress you up like a gentleman dandy and your hands would give you away before you ever opened your mouth."

"I doubt I'll ever have to worry about that. I like those tricks, though. Can you show me something else?"

"All right. Watch my hand." Without lifting his arm from where it rested across his knee, Seregil moved the fingers quickly in a smooth ripple, as if drumming briefly on an invisible tabletop.

"What's that?" Alec asked, mystified.

"I just told you to have the horses ready. And this—" He raised his right index finger as if to scratch under his chin, then looked slightly to the left, drawing the finger back a little toward his ear. "That means we're in danger from behind. Not every sign is that simple, of course, but once you learn the system you can communicate without anyone being the wiser. Say we were in a crowded room and I wanted to tell you something. I'd catch your eye, then lower my chin once just a bit, like this. Now you try it. No, that's too much. You might as well shout! Yes, that's better. Now the horse sign. Good!"

"Do you use this a lot?" asked Alec, trying the danger sign with indifferent results.

Seregil chuckled. "You'd be surprised."

They set off at a brisk canter. Seregil still found the terrain distressingly featureless, but Alec seemed to know what he was doing. Finding the spring the previous night had been heartening evidence of Alec's abilities as a guide and Seregil kept his doubts to himself.

Keeping one eye on the sky, the boy scanned the horizon for landmarks Seregil could only guess at. Left to himself, Alec was rather quiet by nature.

There was nothing reticent or strained about it—he simply seemed content to concentrate on the business at hand.

This soon proved not to be the only thing on his mind, however. Reining in at another small spring just before noon, he turned to Seregil as if they'd only paused for breath in an ongoing conversation and asked,

"Will you be working as a bard in Wolde?"

"Yes. Around the Woldesoke I go by the name Aren Windover. Perhaps you've heard of me?"

Alec gave him a skeptical look. " You're Aren Windover? I heard him sing last spring at the Fox, but I don't recall him looking like you."

"Well, I guess I don't look much like Rolan Silverleaf, either, just now."

"That's true," Alec admitted. "Just how many names do you go by, anyway?"

"Oh, whatever suits. And if you won't take my word that Aren and I are one and the same, I'll prove it. Which of my songs did you like the best?"

"The Lay of Araman," was Alec answered at once. "The tune stuck in my head for weeks after but I could never remember all the verses."

"The Lay of Araman" it is, then."

Seregil cleared his throat and launched into the song, his voice a rich, lilting tenor. After a moment Alec joined in. His voice wasn't as fine, but he could carry a tune.

"Across the sea sailed Araman, a hundred men he led. His ship was black as Death's left eye, her sails were deep bloodred. They sailed to Simra's distant shore to answer Honor's call. A hundred men sailed out to sea, but none sailed home at all.

For Honor's price is blood and steeland Death will be your brother. A soldier's life is full of strife, but I swear I'd have no other!

On the city walls stood King Mindar,

he watched the ship draw nigh.

Five hundred men were at his back and gave the battle cry.

Then marched they to the battle plain to meet the seaborne foe,

While Araman and his hundred men came all ashore below.

For Honor's price is blood and steel

and with your life you'll buy it. But the ladies love a fighting manand there's none that will deny it!

Then Araman strode on the field and Mindar stepped to meet him. "Your lying tongue has brought us here!" cried Araman to greet him. "I see your force is greater, you have numbers on your side, But by my sword, I'll see you dead 'ere the turning of the tide."

For Honor's price is blood and steelthough flesh won't stop a sword. The glory of a soldier's death will be your last reward!

Then on the plain the armies met and sword rang out on shield.

Helms were cloven, limbs were hacked,

yet neither side would yield,

Until the generals found themselves alone upon the plain.

Six hundred soldiers, brave and bold,

would never fight again.

For Honor's price is blood and steeland well the widows know The worth of Honor to the lads now lying down below!

Then toe to toe and blade to blade the two fierce warriors fought. To steal the heart's blood of his foe was each one's only thought. From their wounds the blood flowed down to stain the trampled sward And when the tide was turning Mindar fell to Araman's sword.

For Honor's price is blood and steelfor churl and lord as well And generals often lead their men down to the gates of hell!

Bold Amman, the victor now,

lays his blade aside.

From his wounds his life flows out just like the sea's great tide.

The price of Honor paid in full with blood and steel and lives.

On an empty plain by an empty shore

the rightful victor dies.

For Honor's price is blood and steelso harken well, my son. Honor's a damned expensive thing if you're dead when the battle's won!"

"Well sung!" Seregil applauded. "With a good apprenticeship, you might make a passable bard yourself."

"Me?" Alec said with an embarrassed grin. "I can imagine what Father would have said to that!"

So can I, Seregil thought, having decided that the dead man must have been a pretty dour sort.

They passed much of the afternoon ride trading songs. As soon as Seregil discovered how Alec blushed at the bawdy ones, he made a special point of including plenty of those.

For two days they traveled hard and slept cold, but the time passed quickly. Seregil proved as fine a wayfaring companion as Alec could have hoped for, happy to fill the long hours of riding with tales, songs, and legends. The only subject he proved stubbornly reticent about was his own past, and Alec quickly learned not to press. Otherwise, however, they got on well enough. Alec was particularly intrigued by stories of life in the south.

"You never finished telling me about why the Three Lands fight so often," he said, hoping for another story after a particularly long silence that afternoon.

"I do tend to get sidetracked, don't I? What would you like to know?"

"About that priest king and all, I guess. It used to be all one country, you said, but now they're three. What happened?"

"Same thing that always happens when someone thinks someone else has more land and power than they do—there was a war.

"About a thousand years ago, the various territories got restless under Hierophantic rule. Hoping to hold his people together, the Hierophant granted them dominion, dividing them up into pretty much what are now Skala, Mycena, and Plenimar. Each had its own regent, appointed by him, of course.

"It was a logical split, geographically speaking, but unfortunately Plenimar got the short end of the stick. Skala controlled the sheltered plains below the Nimra Range. Mycena had fertile valleys and established outposts to the north. But Plenimar, earliest settled of the three, lay on a dry peninsula with diminishing resources.

"To make matters worse, the first rumors of gold soon came back from the north and Mycena controlled the routes. What Plenimar did have, though, were warriors and ships, and it wasn't long before they decided to use them. Just two centuries after the division, they attacked Mycena and started a war that lasted seventeen years."

"How long ago was this?"

"Nearly eight hundred years. Plenimar probably would've won, too, if Aurлnen hadn't come into the fight in the last years."

"The Aurлnfaie again!" Alec cried, delighted. "But why did they wait so long?"

Seregil shrugged. "The doings of the Tirfaie were of little concern to Aurлnen. It was only when the fighting neared their own waters that they officially allied themselves with Skala and Mycena."

Alec thought a moment. "But if the other countries had all the gold and land and everything, how come they weren't stronger than Plenimar?"

"They should have been. The wizards of Skala were at the height of their powers then, too. Even the drysians were enlisted to the fight and, as I'm sure you can imagine, they are a force to be reckoned with when they want to be. Some old ballads speak of Plenimaran necromancers and armies of walking dead that could be driven back only by the strongest magicks. Whether or not these tales are true, it was the most terrible war ever fought."

"And Plenimar didn't win?"

"No, but they came close. In the spring of the fifteenth year of the war, Hierophant Estmar was killed; this sundered the Three Lands forever.

"Luckily, the black ships of Aurлnen sailed through the Straits of Bal just after this and attacked at Benshal, while the Aurлnfaie army and their wizards joined the fighting at Cirna. Whether it was by magic or simply the force of fresh troops, the power of Plenimar was finally broken. At the Battle of Isil, Krycopt, the first Plenimaran ruler to call himself Overlord, was killed by the Skalan queen, Gherilain the First."

"Hold on!" Reaching into his purse, Alec brought out the silver coin. "Is this her, the woman on the coin?"

"No, that's Idrilain the Second, the present queen."

Alec turned the coin over and pointed to the crescent ant! flame symbols. "And what do these mean?"

"The crescent stands for Illior; the flame above is for Sakor. Together they form the crest of Skala."

Skala! thought Alec as he tucked the coin away. Well, at least I know now where you're from.

3 Seregil Makes an Offer

Their third morning on the Downs dawned clear.

Seregil woke first. It had snowed heavily the night before. Luckily, Alec had spotted an abandoned burrow just before sunset and they'd spent the night inside. The hole still stank of its former inhabitants, but it was large enough for the two of them to stretch out in. With the pack and Seregil's saddle jammed in the opening as a windbreak, they'd managed to keep warm for the first time since they'd come onto the Downs.

Cramped but warm, Seregil was tempted to let Alec's soft, even breathing lull him back to sleep. Looking down at him as he slept, he examined the planes of the boy's face.

Am I only seeing what I want to see? he wondered silently, feeling again the instinctual twinge of recognition. But there would be time for all that later; for now he had to concentrate on Wolde.

Giving Alec a nudge, he wriggled out of the burrow. Golden pink light washed across the unbroken expanse of snow surrounding them, its brightness dazzling after several days of sullen weather.

The horses were pawing at the snow in search of forage and Seregil's belly growled sympathetically at the sight; tired as he was of tough sausage and old cheese, this morning's scant breakfast would exhaust the last of the food.

"Thank the Maker for a sight of the sun!" Alec exclaimed, crawling out behind him.

"Thank Sakor, you mean," yawned Seregil, pushing his hair back from his eyes. "Of the Four—Oh, hell, it's too early for philosophy. Do you think we'll make Wolde today?"

Alec peered hard to the south, then nodded. "Before sundown, I'd say."

Seregil waded over to the horses and scratched his bay under the forelock. "Oats for you tonight, my friends, and a hot bath and supper for me. If our guide's worth his silver, that is."

Seregil was uncharacteristically quiet as they rode along that morning. When they stopped to rest the horses at midday, however, Alec sensed something was up.

Seregil had that same bemused look about him that Alec remembered seeing when he'd offered to rescue him from Asengai's keep, as if he wasn't certain what he was about to do was the wisest move.

"The other night I joked about an apprenticeship for you," he said over his shoulder as he adjusted his saddle girth. "What do you think of the idea?"

Alec looked at him in surprise. "As a bard, you mean?"

"Perhaps apprenticeship isn't exactly the right term. I'm not a guildsman of any sort, much less a bard. But you're quick and smart. There's a lot I could teach you."

"Like what?" Alec asked, a little wary now but interested.

Seregil hesitated a moment, as if sizing him up, then said, "I specialize in the acquisition of goods and information."

Alec's heart sank. "You're a thief."

"I'm nothing of the sort!" Seregil frowned. "At least not in the sense you mean."

"Then what?" Alec demanded. "A spy like that Juggler fellow you killed?"

Seregil grinned. "I'd be insulted if I thought you knew what you were talking about. Let's just say for the moment that I'm acting as an agent of sorts, engaged by an eminently respectable gentleman to collect information regarding certain unusual occurrences here in the north. Discretion prevents me from saying more, but I assure you the goal is noble—even if my methods don't always seem so."

Hidden somewhere in his companion's suddenly high-flown, convoluted discourse, Alec suspected he'd just admitted to being a spy after all. Worse, he had nothing but Seregil's word that what he was telling, or half telling him, was the truth. Still, the fact remained that Seregil had rescued him when he could more easily have left him behind, and had since offered him nothing but friendship.

"I imagine you're already fairly skilled in tracking and that sort of thing," Seregil went on casually. "You say you're a fair shot with a bow, and you made good use of that ax, now that I think of it. Can you handle a sword?"

"No, but—"

"No matter, you'd learn quickly enough, with the right teacher. I know just the man. Then, of course, there'd be palming, etiquette, lock work, disguise, languages, heraldry, fighting—I don't suppose you can read?"

"I know the runes," Alec retorted, though in truth he could only make out his own name and a few words.

"No, no, I meant proper writing."

"Hold on, now," cried Alec, overwhelmed. "I don't mean to be ungrateful—you've saved my life and all, but—"

Seregil waved this aside impatiently. "Given the circumstances of your capture, getting you out of there seemed the least I could do. But now I'm talking about what you want, Alec, beyond tomorrow, beyond next week. Honestly, do you really mean to spend the rest of your life mucking out stalls for some fat innkeeper in Wolde?"

Alec hesitated. "I don't know. I mean, hunting and trapping, it's all the life I've known."

"All the more reason to give it up, then!" Seregil declared, his grey eyes alight with enthusiasm. "How old

did you say you are?"

"Sixteen."

"And you've never seen a dragon."

"You know I haven't."

"Well, I have," Seregil said, swinging up into the saddle again.

"You said there weren't any more dragons!"

"I said there weren't any more in Skala. I've seen them flying under a full moon in winter. I've danced at the great Festival of Sakor and tasted the wines of Zengat, and heard mermaids singing in the mists of dawn. I've walked the halls of a palace built in a time beyond memory and felt the touch of the first inhabitants against my skin. I'm not talking legend or imagination, Alec, I've done all of that, and more than I have breath to tell."

Alec rode along in silence, overwhelmed with half-realized images.

"You said you couldn't imagine yourself as anything more than what you've been," Seregil went on, "but I say you've just never had the chance to try. I'm offering you that chance. Ride south with me after Wolde, and see how much world there is beyond your forests."

"But the stealing part—"

Seregil's crooked grin held no trace of remorse. "Oh, I admit I've cut a purse or two in my time, and some of what I do could be called stealing depending on who you ask, but try to imagine the challenge of overcoming incredible obstacles to accomplish a noble purpose. Think of traveling to lands where legends walk the streets in daylight and even the color of the sea is like nothing you've ever seen! I ask you again, would you be plain Alec of Kerry all your life, or would you see what lies beyond?"

"But is it an honest living?" Alec persisted, clinging to his last shred of resolve.

"Most of those who employ me are great lords or nobles."

"It sounds like a pretty dangerous line of work,"

Alec remarked, aware that Seregil had once again side-stepped the question.

"That's the spice of it, though," cried Seregil. "And you can end up rich!"

"Or at the end of a rope?"

Seregil chuckled. "Have it your way."

Alec gnawed absently at a thumbnail, his brow creased in thought. "All right, then," he said at last. "I want to come with you, but first you've got to give me a few straight answers."

"It's against my nature, but I'll try."

"This war you spoke of, the one that's coming. Which side are you on?"

Seregil let out a long sigh. "Fair enough. My sympathies lie with Skala, but for your safety and mine, that's as much as I'll say on the matter for now."

Alec shook his head. "The Three Lands are so far away. It's hard to believe their wars could reach us here."

"People will do quite a lot for gold and land, and there's precious little of either left in the south, especially in Plenimar."

"And you're going to stop them?"

"Hardly," scoffed Seregil. "But I may be of some help to those who can. Anything else?"

"After Wolde, where would we go?"

"Well, home to Rhнminee ultimately, though first—"

"What?" Alec's eyes widened. "You mean to say that you live there! In the city where the wizards are?"

"What do you say?"

Some small, final doubt held Alec back a moment longer. Looking Seregil in the eye, he asked, "Why?"

Seregil raise one eyebrow, perplexed. "Why what?"

"You hardly know me. Why do you want me to come with you?"

"Who knows? Perhaps you remind me just a bit of—"

"Someone you used to know?" Alec interjected skeptically.

"Someone I used to be." The crooked grin flashed again as Seregil pulled off his right glove and extended his hand across to Alec.

"So it's settled?"

"I guess so." Alec was surprised to catch a glimpse of what looked like relief in his companion's eyes as they clasped hands. It was gone in an instant and Seregil quickly moved on to new plans.

"There are a few details to take care of before we reach town. How well known are you in Wolde?"

"My father and I always stayed in the trader's quarter," replied Alec. "We generally put up at the Green Bough. Except for the landlord, though, most of the people we knew wouldn't be there this time of year."

"Just the same, there's no use taking chances. We'll need a reason for you to be traveling with Aren Windover. Here's a lesson for you; give me three reasons why Alec the Hunter would be in the company of a bard."

"Well, I guess I could tell how you rescued me and—"

"No, no, that won't do at all!" Seregil interrupted. "First of all, I don't want it known that I—or rather Aren—was anywhere near Asengai. Besides, I make it a rule never, never, never to use the truth unless it's the last possible option or so outlandish that nobody would believe you anyway. Keep that in mind."

"All right then," said Alec. "I could say I was attacked by bandits and you—"

Seregil shook his head, motioning for Alec to continue.

Alec fidgeted with the reins, sorting through various inspirations. "Well, I know it's sort of the truth, but people would believe that you hired me as a guide. Father and I hired out sometimes."

"Not bad. Go on."

"Or" — Alec turned to his companion with a triumphant grin—"perhaps Aren has taken me on as his apprentice!"

"Not bad, for a first effort," Seregil conceded. "The rescue story was very good, actually. Loyalty to one who saves your life is well understood and seldom questioned. Unfortunately Aren's reputation is such that nobody would believe it. I'm afraid he's a bit of a coward. The guide story, however, is seriously flawed. Aren Windover is a well-known figure in the Woldesoke; if bards make their living as wanderers, why would he need to engage a guide in the territory he's familiar with?"

"Oh." Alec nodded, a bit crestfallen.

"But the apprentice idea should do nicely. Luckily, you can sing. But can you think like a bard?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, suppose you're in a tavern on the highroad. What sort of customers would you have?"

"Traders, wagoneers, soldiers."

"Excellent! And suppose there's a great deal of drinking going on and a song is called for. What would you choose?"

"Well, probably something like the 'The Lady of Araman'."

"A good choice. And why?"

"Well, it's about fighting and honor; the soldiers would like that. And it's widely known, so everyone could join in. And it has a good refrain."

"Well done! Aren's used that song many times, and for just those reasons. Now suppose yourself a minstrel in a lord's hall, performing for fat barons and their ladies."

"Maybe 'Lillia and the Rose'? There's nothing coarse in it."

Laughing, Seregil leaned across to clap Alec on the shoulder. "Perhaps you should take Aren on as apprentice! I don't suppose you play an instrument?"

"Afraid not."

"Oh well. Aren will just have to apologize for your green skills."

They spent the rest of the afternoon extending Alec's repertoire as they rode along.

By late afternoon the Downs gave way to the rough, sloping terrain of the Brythwin River valley. In the distance they could make out the squares of bare fields and distant farmsteads that marked the boundary of the Woldesoke district. The river itself, a black, tree-fringed line far below, flowed into Blackwater Lake several miles east of the waterfront town.

Bordered along its northern shore by the great Lake Wood, the shimmering expanse of water stretched unbroken to the far horizon.

"You say the Gathwayd Ocean is bigger than that?" asked Alec, shading his eyes. He'd hunted along the Lake's shores all his life and couldn't imagine anything larger.

"By quite a margin," replied Seregil cheerfully. "Let's move on before we lose the light."

The late-afternoon sun cast a mellow glow across the valley. Picking their way down the stony slope, they struck the main road leading along the river toward Wolde. The Brythwin was low, its course laced with gravel spits. Stands of ash and willow grew thickly along the banks, often screening the river from view.

A mile or so before reaching the lake shore, the road curved away from the river to skirt a dense copse of trees. Reining in, Seregil studied the wall of branches for a moment, then dismounted and motioned for Alec to follow.

Bare willow branches stroked over them, catching at hoods and harness as they pushed their way through to a clearing beside the river. A tiny stone cottage surrounded by a wattle and daub fence stood on a rise close by the water's edge.

As Seregil approached the gate a brindle hound came rushing at them from around the corner of the cottage, growling and showing its teeth. Alec retreated hastily back in the direction of his horse, but Seregil stood his ground. Muttering a few low words, he made some sort of sign with his left hand. The dog skidded to a halt on the other side of the gate, then skulked back the way it had come.

Alec gaped. "How did you do that?"

"Just a little thief's trick I picked up somewhere. Come on, it's perfectly safe."

A very old, very bald little man answered Seregil's knock.

"Who's that?" he demanded, peering blankly past them. A deep scar, faded white against the old fellow's leathery skin, ran in a ragged line from the top of his skull to the bridge of his nose.

"It's me, old father," Seregil replied, slipping something into his outstretched hand.

The old man reached to touch Seregil's face. "I thought as much when Crusher went quiet like that. And

not alone this time, eh?"

"A new friend." Seregil guided the blind man's hand to Alec's cheek.

The boy remained still as the dry fingertips ran swiftly over his features. At no point were names exchanged.

The old fellow gave a rheumy chuckle.

"Beardless, but no girl. Come in both of you, and welcome. Sit yourselves by the fire while I fetch something to eat. Everything's as you left it, sir."

The little house consisted of a single room with a loft overhead. Everything was neat and spare, the old man's simple belongings arranged with care on shelves along the walls.

Seregil and Alec warmed themselves gratefully at the cheerful blaze on the hearth while their host shuffled about with practiced efficiency, setting out bread, soup, and boiled eggs for them at the scrubbed wooden table.

Seregil wolfed his supper and disappeared into the loft.

When he came down again he was dressed in a bard's embroidered tunic and striped hose. A traveler's harp of dark wood inlaid with silver was slung over his shoulder. He'd washed again, too, Alec noted in mild surprise. He'd never met anyone who set such store by washing.

"Do you recognize me now, boy?" Seregil asked in a haughty, slightly nasal voice, giving Alec an elaborate bow.

"By the Maker, you really are Aren Windover!"

"You see? What you remembered about Aren wasn't his face so much as his flamboyant manner, the gaudy clothes, and the affected way he spoke. Believe me, I do all that with good reason. When you get right down to it, aside from the fact that Aren and I are physically identical, we're nothing alike at all."

Their host let out a dry cackle from his corner by the fire.

"As for your appearance," Seregil continued, "I've set out some things for you upstairs. Go clean yourself up, then we'll see about your hair. Aren would never allow any apprentice of his to look so unkempt."

The loft was as sparsely furnished as the room below, containing only a bed, washstand, and clothes chest. A dusty candle burned in a dusty sconce and by its light Alec saw a broadsword hanging on the wall above the bed, its scarred scabbard blackened with age. On the bed lay a tunic of russet wool, a new cloak, a pair of soft doeskin breeches, and a belt with a sheathed dagger and a pouch.

Opening the latter, Alec found ten silver pennies. A pair of high leather boots sagged against the bedpost. Both clothing and boots were clean but worn—more of Seregil's castoffs, no doubt.

Lucky for me I met up with someone my own size, Alec thought, inspecting the boots more closely. As he'd expected, there was a dagger pocket stitched inside the left one. Pulling on the boots, he slipped his Skalan coin and five of the pennies into the knife pocket as a precaution against cutpurses; his father had taught him never to carry all his money in one place when he went into a town.

As he dressed, he could hear Seregil plucking away at the harp below. After a moment there came a light ripple of notes and scattered snatches of melodies.

He plays as well as he sings, thought Alec, wondering what other talents would reveal themselves as he got to know Seregil better.

Below the music, however, he suddenly caught the sound of quiet conversation. After a moment's hesitation, he crept to the edge of the loft and strained to hear more. Both men were keeping their voices low and he could make out only bits and pieces.

". days ago. They seem peaceful enough, but why so many?" the blind man was saying.

"No doubt…" Seregil's voice was harder to hear. "I suppose, with the mayor."

"Aye, calling himself Boraneus, claims to be a trade envoy for the Overlord."

Overlord? thought Alec. He'd heard that term before! And hadn't Seregil as much as said he'd been sent north to see what the Plenimarans were up to? Holding his breath, Alec inched closer to the edge, trying to pick up the thread of the conversation.

"Did she know him?" Seregil was asking.

"… last evening… dark, well favored… a sword cut…"

"Which eye?"

"Left, she said."

"Illior's Fingers! Mardus?" For an instant Seregil sounded genuinely startled. The old man muttered something, to which Seregil replied, "No, and I'll do my best to see that he doesn't… more demon than…"

Both men were silent for a moment, then Seregil called out, "Alec! Have you fallen asleep up there?"

Alec quickly rolled his old clothes into a bundle, then paused a moment longer for the guilty blush to pass.

The look that Seregil gave him as he hurried down the ladder betrayed only impatience, but he was certain he could feel Seregil's eyes on his back as he busied himself with packing away their traveling clothes.

Seregil tucked his harp under one arm and went to take leave of their host.

"Luck in the shadows," the blind man said, clasping hands with them at the door.

"And to you," Seregil returned.

4 Wolde

Wolde—largest of the isolated trade centers scattered across the northlands— owed its prosperity to the Gold Road, a narrow span of the Gallistrom River, and a tiny yellow flower.

The Gold Road began to the north in the foothills of the Ironheart Mountains, where gold had been mined from time out of mind. At Kerry, the precious metal was smelted and molded into round, flat ingots called baps and sewn into square sheepskin bales stuffed with wool. This wool, shorn from the mountain sheep native to the region, was especially soft and fine and had since become another source of wealth for the region. The original purpose of the bales, however, was merely to protect the gold, for the road was fraught with hazards, not the least of which were bandits. Weighing as much as two men, the bales were difficult to steal but floated if they were lost in one of the many rivers that crossed the route.

Loaded onto ox-drawn wagons, the bales were carried on to Boersby, where they were packed onto flatboats and taken down the Folcwine to the Mycenian seaport of Nanta.

The country between Kerry and Boersby was desolate except for a few settled districts. The caravaneers traveled in large groups with hired swordsmen and archers to protect them.

The last safe refuge between Blackwater Lake and Boersby was the town of Wolde on the banks of the Gallistrom River.

Unlike the placid Brythwin, the Gallistrom was dangerous, deep, and broad. From its source in the Ironheart, it swept down through the great Lake Wood into Blackwater Lake. Originally the only safe crossing was a slow, precarious system of ferries. Wagons waiting on the shore for the next raft across were easy prey for bandits. Many others were lost to the river itself when strong spring currents overturned the rafts, sweeping away men, oxen, and gold.

At last a wide stone bridge was constructed and the tiny settlement that had sprung up around the ferry site grew into a village. The area had riches of its own, as it turned out. Dye-yielding plants of many sorts grew in profusion between the lake and the forest, among them the yellow wolde from which the town took its name. With these plants nearly any color could be produced, many in rich hues superior to anything produced in the south. Dyers, weavers, fullers, and felters set up shop there and suddenly the wool of Kerry was in great demand.

Bolts of soft, lustrous "Wolde cloth" were now sought almost as eagerly in the south as the golden baps.

By Alec's day, Wolde was a wealthy guild town centered around the bridge and protected by a stout wooden palisade.

The sun was nearing the western horizon when Alec and Seregil rode up the lake shore to the town walls. Across the water they could see the many colored sails of fishing boats making their way back to town for the night.

"It's early for the gates to be closed, isn't it?" remarked Seregil as they reined in. "Any time I've been

here before they've been kept open until well after dark."

Alec looked the palisade over. "The walls are higher, too."

"State your names and business, if you please," a disinterested voice called from overhead.

"Aren Windover, a bard," Seregil announced, dropping into Aren's slightly pompous manner. "I am accompanied by my apprentice."

"Windover, is it?" The sentry leaned over the parapet for a better look at the newcomers.

"Why, I remember you! You played at the summer fair and was the best of all the bards that come. Pass through, sir, and your boy."

A horse postern swung inward. Alec and Seregil ducked their heads and rode inside. The sentry, a youngish man in a leather jerkin, extended a long-handled toll basket down to them.

"That's one copper a horse and a silver half penny for each rider, sir. We've not seen a proper bard or skald since you was here last, you know. Where will you be staying this time through?"

"I mean to start at the Fishes, but hope for better before I leave," replied Seregil, motioning Alec to pay the toll. "By my recollection, it's early in the day for the gates to be locked. Aren't there more guards than usual?"

"That there is, sir," the man replied, shaking his head. "There's been three raids on the caravans within the last couple of months, two of 'em within ten miles of the town. The caravaneers are mad as scalded cats over it, claiming the town's supposed to guard the road. But the mayor, he's more worried about Wolde itself being attacked. We've been building up the palisade and standing extra watches ever since. It all seems to have calmed down, though, since them southerners showed up."

"Southerners?" Seregil's feigned surprise was not lost on Alec.

"Oh, aye. Plenimarans, of all people! An envoy called Lord Boraneus come to set up trade, as I hear it."

Boraneus?

Alec stole a glance at Seregil; this was one of the names he'd picked up eavesdropping at the blind man's cottage— that and another, something starting with M.

"Brought a mess of soldiers with him, too," the gatekeeper went on. "Must be two score or more. We didn't know what to make of it when word first come that they was on the way, but it turned out to be a good thing. They made short work of them bandits, I can tell you! The taverners claim they're a rough lot, but they pay well, and in silver. I warrant you'll pick up a good piece of trade with 'em yourself."

"I have the greatest hopes." Throwing back his cloak, Seregil produced a silver coin from his own purse and flipped it to the man. "Thank you for your most helpful information. I hope you'll drink my health at the Three Fishes."

Pocketing the coin happily, the sentry waved them through.

Within the palisade the road wound through the center of the town toward a market square that spanned

both sides of the bridge.

The streets here were stained with the colorful, foul-smelling runoff of dyers shops. In the more prosperous lanes, raised wooden walkways had been built to prevent patrons from staining their garments with the mud. Gatherers' carts trundled from shop to shop all day, loaded with shipments of pigment-bearing plants and minerals. The poorest of children had bright rags on their backs; even the pigs and dogs that wandered the neighborhood displayed a startling diversity of color. The clack and thump of the weavers' looms filled the air and lengths of freshly dyed cloth, hung to dry on racks strung between buildings and over the streets, gave the area a perpetually festive appearance This was familiar territory to Alec, and he felt a twinge of sadness as he looked around. The last time he'd been here his father had been alive.

"That's the mayor's hall there, where that Boraneus fellow is staying," he said as they entered the open square at the center of the town. Too late he recalled that his knowledge of Boraneus whereabouts had also been gleaned while eavesdropping.

Seregil looked over at him, an unreadable expression on his face, and Alec added quickly, "Important visitors always lodge with the mayor. It's the custom here."

"I'm lucky to have so well versed a guide," Seregil replied with quiet amusement.

The large, elaborately decorated hall stood beside the Daman temple. Guildhalls and craftsmen's shops lined the sides of the square on this side of the bridge. The Temple of Astellus commanded the other side of the river, and with it the fishermen s guild, a tavern, more shops, and several inns.

Seregil took the lead here, riding across the bridge into the Lake Quarter. As they neared the waterfront, the streets grew narrower and more winding.

The stink of the dyers' quarter was replaced by the pungent odors of fish and damp nets.

"Father and I never came down into this part of town, Alec said, looking nervously around at the weathered building overhanging the street and the shadowed alleys between.

Seregil shrugged. "People know how to mind their own business here.".

The taverns were coming alive now; the sounds of shouting brawls and snatches of drunken song echoed from all directions. Someone hissed a soft invitation to them from a shadowed doorway as they rode by. After several more turns, they came out at the waterfront.

The palisades extended out into the water on both sides of the town. Within their embrace lay long wharves, warehouses, and taverns, all built on posts above the slope of the shingle. Looking out over the water, Alec again tried to imagine how big an ocean must be to outstrip this.

On either side, the shore seemed to curve away endlessly, the far shore visibly only on the clearest of days.

Seregil hurried them along down the street to a narrow building squeezed in among the wharves. The sign over the open door displayed three intertwined fish, and from inside came the raucous clamor of a tavern crowd. A small knot of loafers had gathered beneath the windows with pipes and mugs.

Dismounting, he handed Alec his harp and pack.

"Mind the part I've given you," he whispered, keeping his voice low. "From here on you're the apprentice of Aren the Bard. You've seen what he's like; react accordingly. If I'm abrupt with you, or order you about like a servant, don't be resentful—it's Aren's way, not mine. Frankly, I don't envy your position. Ready?"

Alec nodded.

"Good. Then the act begins." With that, Seregil stepped back and became Aren.

"Take the horses to the stable around the side," he ordered, raising his voice for the benefit of the onlookers. "Make certain they're properly looked after. Then see the tavern keeper about a room. Tell him I'd have the one at the top of the house, overlooking the lake, and don't let that villain charge you more than a silver mark for it, either! When you've taken care of the baggage, bring my harp to the common room. Be quick, now."

With this, he disappeared into the warmth of the tavern.

"By the Old Sailor, I guess you been told, boy!" laughed one of the loiterers, much to the amusement of his cronies.

Scowling, Alec led the horses around to the stable. In spite of Seregil's hasty explanation, he wasn't sure he liked this turn of events. When the horses had been seen to, he gathered up the pack and Seregil's saddle and hurried into the steamy bustle of the kitchen.

"I'm looking for the tavern keeper," he said, catching a harried serving girl by the sleeve.

"Taproom," she snapped, nodding curtly toward a nearby doorway. Leaving the gear by the door, he went on into the taproom and found himself faced with a portly, red-faced giant in a leather apron.

"I need lodgings for my master and myself," Alec informed him, endeavoring to imitate Aren's imperious manner.

The taverner scarcely looked up from the tapping of a fresh barrel. "Big room at the top of the stairs. Shouldn't be no more than three or four to a bed tonight."

"My master prefers the room at the top," Alec said.

"Does he indeed? Well, he may have it for three marks a night."

"I'll give you one," Alec countered. "We'll be here for several nights and I'm certain my master—was—"

"Your master be damned!" the taverner growled.

"That's my best room, and I couldn't let the mayor himself nor the whole of the damned Guild Council have it for less than three! Not when there's all these southern strangers lolling about with more money than brains. I could get five a night from any one of them."

"Begging your pardon," Alec chose his words with care, "but I think my master, Aren Windover, and I could bring you in ten times that each night we're here."

Satisfied with the set of the tap, the taverner shoved his hands into his belt and glowered down at Alec.

"Well! Begging your pardon, my young whelp, but just how do you think you could do that?"

Alec held his ground stubbornly; his father'd had a knack for dickering. Thinking back, he asked, "Do you make more profit from your rooms or your ale?"

"From the ale, I suppose."

"And how much do you charge for that?"

"Five coppers for a flagon, a half silver for a jug. What of it?"

Sensing the man's growing impatience, Alec quickly came to the point. "What you need, then, is something to attract men to drink. And what attracts drinking men more than a good bard? You may not know Aren Windover, but a good many in town do. You put it about that he's playing at your tavern and I think you'll have to send out for more ale. I can probably coax a few soldiers in here, and they'll bring their friends the next night. You know how fighting men can drink!"

"Aye, used to be one more'self," the tavern keeper nodded, looked Alec up and down. "Come to think of it, I believe I have heard of this Windover chap. He's the one drew such a crowd over at the Stag and Branch last year. Perhaps I could let you have the room for two and a half."

"I can pay in advance," Alec assured him. Then carried away with the success of his own invention, he added for good measure, "Master Windover is to play for the mayor, you see."

"The mayor, eh?" the tavern keeper grunted in surprise. "Why didn't you say so! Playing at the mayor's, and the Fishes as well? All right, then. Go and tell your master that the room is his for two marks."

"Well—" Alec mused stubbornly.

"Damn you, do you want my blood? One and a half, then, but I've got to make a profit, don't you see?"

"Done," Alec conceded. "But that does include candles and supper, right? And the bed linens had better be fresh! Master Windover is very particular about his bed linens."

"You do want my blood," the landlord growled. "Yes, yes, he'll get his dinner and he'll get his cursed bed linens. But by the Old Sailor, he better be all you say or the fishermen will have the pair of you for bait."

Alec paid out two nights in advance for good faith, then toiled upstairs balancing their gear and a candlestick.

Passing the common sleeping room on the second floor, he climbed a steeper stairway to the attic. A short, windowless corridor led to a door at the far end.

Tucked in the peak of a gable, the room Seregil had specified was small, with sloping walls on either side. The narrow bed and washstand nearly filled the cramped space. Alec found a cheap tallow candle in a cracked dish on the stand and lit it from his own, then pushed back the shutters of the window over the bed.

The back of the tavern stood out over the water on pilings. Looking out, Alec found a sheer drop down

to the water below.

A thick crescent moon cast a glittering trail across the lake's black surface. It was pleasant up here at the top of the house, quiet and warm. It occurred to Alec that he could probably count on one hand the times he had ever been alone inside a proper house, and never in a room so high. After pausing a moment to savor the new sensation, he sighed and headed back down the stairs.

Looking out over the noisy commotion of the tavern, he spotted Seregil talking with the host and was struck once more by the difference between «Aren» and Seregil; their movements, their stance, the set of their mouth, all as distinct as if they really were two separate men.

Seregil glanced up just then and motioned impatiently for him to come. Dodging past servers with flagons and wooden trenchers, Alec made his way through the crowd.

"Of course, we have only just arrived in town," Seregil was saying, "but I shall present myself to your most honored mayor tomorrow." Coughing delicately into his fist, he added, "I seem to have taken sore in the throat today, but I'm certain a night's rest will repair my voice. In the meantime, I am certain that you will be pleased with my apprentice's abilities."

The landlord darkened noticeably at this, and Alec gave Seregil a startled glance, which he pointedly ignored.

"You mustn't fear," Seregil went on airily. "This lad is constantly surprising me with his rapid progress. Tonight you shall have a demonstration of his talents."

"We shall see, Master Windover," the taverner growled doubtfully. "Your boy claims he'll be good for business, so the sooner you start, the better."

Though he made a sort of bow to Seregil, Alec was certain he caught a glint of malevolent humor in the man's eye as he left.

"You've been busy," Seregil remarked dryly as he checked the tuning of his harp. The crowd shifted restlessly around them, anticipating entertainment.

"There's nothing wrong with your voice!" Alec whispered in alarm.

"There are a few things I need to do tonight that don't allow me to be the center of attention for the whole evening. You'll be fine, don't worry. I understand you beat our landlord down to one and a half for the room. I didn't think you'd bring the old robber down below two. I am curious, however, as to how you propose to bring in Plenimarans."

"I don't know," Alec admitted, "it just seemed like a good thing to tell him at the time."

"Well, hopefully we'll be on our way before we have to keep too many of your promises. But in case we're not, a word of caution—stay clear of the soldiers, especially if you're out alone. These are Plenimaran marines, and there's not much most of them aren't capable of, if you take my meaning."

"I don't think I do," said Alec, puzzled by Seregil's tone.

"Then try this. They have a saying among them: 'When whores are few, a boy will do. Got that?"

"Oh." Alec felt his face go hot.

"Anyway, consider yourself warned. Now I think it's time for you to prove yourself, my bardling."

Seregil rose and cleared his throat before Alec could make further objections.

"Good people," he announced, gesturing for their attention. "I am Aren Windover, a humble bard, and this lad is my apprentice. While journeying to reach your fair town, I fear I have contracted a temporary inflammation of the throat. Nonetheless, I pray you will allow us to offer you entertainment."

He resumed his seat amid enthusiastic cheering and pounding of mugs. Favorite ballads were called for, and more ale.

Alec's mouth went dry as a roomful of expectant faces turned his way. He'd sometimes been a member of such gatherings, but never the focus of one.

Seregil passed him a mug of ale with a mischievous wink.

"Don't worry about this lot," he whispered, "they've got full bellies and half-empty jugs."

Alec took a long swallow and managed a weak grin in return.

Seregil knew the extent of Alec's repertoire and chose requests accordingly, striking up first with "Far Across the Water Lies My Love."

Alec's voice, though hardly of bardic quality, was good enough for this audience. He sang all the fishermen's songs he knew, and made a passable job of several of the story ballads Seregil had taught him on the Downs. This, together with Seregil's excellent playing, soon endeared them to the crowd.

When his voice began to weaken Seregil pulled out a tin whistle and struck up a dance tune for variety.

More customers appeared as word spread, pushing in and calling for ale and songs. Among the newcomers were half a dozen men in brigandine leather armor and brimmed helmets. Heavy swords were slung from their belts. Alec didn't need Seregil to point these out as the marines he'd been warned against. They looked like rough customers.

Alec sang for over an hour before Seregil stopped to beg leave for a small rest.

"Stay and mind the harp," he told Alec, thrusting the instrument into the boy's hands. "And see that you get some water to wet your throat with. Ale's good for the spirit but bad for the voice. You're doing splendidly!"

"But where are—"

"I'll be back soon."

Alec watched as Seregil made his way toward the far corner of the room where a tall, broad-shouldered man sat by himself. The fellow's face was shadowed by a deep hood, but by his worn leather cuirass and the long sword at his belt Alec guessed he made his living as a caravan guard. Seregil exchanged greetings with the stranger and was invited to join him on the bench. They were soon deep in conversation.

Having clearly been dismissed for the moment, Alec let his gaze wander over the rest of the crowd and discovered a drysian sitting near the door.

Distinguished by her plain robe and the bronze serpent lemniscate pendant she wore on a leather thong around her neck, she was already surrounded by a small crowd of people seeking healing. They stood quietly, watching with a mixture of hope and awe as she examined an infant lying on her lap. Curious as ever, Alec headed over to join them.

The dark braid that fell over her shoulder as she leaned forward was well streaked with grey, her weathered face set in stern lines, but her hands were steady and gentle as she examined the baby. She ran her hands over the little body, then lifted the child and put her ear to its chest and belly. Grasping the staff that leaned against the bench at her side, she spoke a few soft words over the child, then handed it back to its mother.

"Boil one of these in a cup of clear water each morning," she instructed, counting out six dried leaves from a pouch at her belt. "Add a little honey and some milk. Cool it and give it to her through the day. When the last leaf is gone, the child will be well. On that day place three copper marks on the altar at Dalna's Temple and give thanks. You will give me one mark now and the Maker's Mercy be with you."

She then went on to deal with the others, sometimes dispensing herbs or charms, sometimes merely praying over the sufferer. Several fishermen ventured near when she had finished with the children, and finally a wealthy merchant couple who timidly presented their young daughter. After the usual examination, the drysian gave the mother a bunch of herbs and charged her to give a silver offering rather than copper, as she had all the others. Without a word, the husband paid her the money and the family left.

Alec was about to turn away when the drysian looked straight at him and asked, "Why do you suppose I charged them more?"

"I–I don't know," Alec stammered.

"Because they could afford to pay more," she stated, and startled him further by giving him a knowing wink. "Perhaps I could be of some service to your master. You're lodging here tonight?"

"Yes, in the room at the top," Alec replied, wondering what she would make of Seregil's sham illness. "Can I tell him your name?"

"That won't be necessary. Tell him I'll attend to him later."

She stood to stretch and her staff slid sideways, clattering to the floor. Without thinking, Alec retrieved it and held it out to her. In the brief moment that both their hands were on it, he felt a strong and not altogether pleasant tremor pass through the wood.

"The blessings of the Maker be with you this night," she said and disappeared into the crowd.

The singing went on until midnight. Though Alec's modest repertoire was exhausted long before that, the drinkers called on Seregil to keep playing and a number of them stood to lead the song. When at last the owner announced that he must put the shutters up, the crowd gave the bard and his apprentice a rousing round of applause and most left a coin or two on the table near the door.

Well pleased with his investment, the taverner poured them each a final mug of ale and, drinks in hand, they went upstairs.

Collapsing on the bed, Seregil inspected the night's earnings and passed half the coins to Alec.

"We did well. Thirty coppers, two silver. You met Erisa, I noticed."

"Who?"

"The drysian. What do you make of her?"

"She seemed like any of the others. Sort of—" He paused, seeking the proper word.

"Unsettling?"

"Yes, that's it. Not frightening, just unsettling."

"Believe me, drysians can be pretty damn frightening when they choose to." Before he could expound on the subject, however, the latch lifted and Erisa herself slipped quietly in.

"I thought you'd keep the poor lad at it all night," she scolded. "I suspect you're not really in need of my ministrations?"

Seregil shrugged, grinning crookedly. "I could hardly expect to fool you. Alec, run down to the kitchen, will you? We both need something to eat after all that ale, and I'm certain Erisa's had no time for supper."

"Just tea and a little bread for me," said Erisa, folding her arms. Clearly they were both waiting for him to leave.

Ordered about again! he thought as the door closed firmly behind him. He was more intrigued than irritated, however. This drysian must be the mysterious «she» spoken of by the blind man, but who was the hooded swordsman?

Halfway down the passage he hesitated, then crept back as silently as he could to the door.

"A force of fifty was reported heading into the Western Barrens above Wyvern Dug," Erisa was saying. "Connel spotted them near Enly Ford on the seventh of Erasin, but there's been no sign of them since."

"I can understand them courting the mountain lords and trying to get a hold on the Gold Road," said Seregil, "but there's nothing in that direction but a few barbaric tribes. What in the world are they after up there?"

"That's what Connel hoped to learn. He set out to follow them as soon as we heard what was going on. Unfortunately, nothing's been heard from him, either—Alec, please do hurry with my tea."

An unpleasant tingling sensation that had nothing to do with the burning of his cheeks engulfed Alec briefly as he hurried downstairs. He took his time heating the water, dreading having to face her again. When he returned to the room, however, she simply thanked him and took her leave.

"Well now, this is a good enough bed, but only wide enough for one. Where are you going to sleep?" Seregil yawned, stripping off his tunic. Apparently he had nothing to say on the subject of Alec's

eavesdropping.

"As your apprentice, I guess I'd be expected to sleep in the stable," Alec ventured, not relishing the prospect.

"You're thinking like a tinker's brat. What good would you be to me out there? Your place is in front of the door in case we have any visitors in the night. Make yourself a pallet."

As they settled down to sleep, Alec found himself thinking of the drysian again.

"Have you known her long?" he asked, looking up into the darkness.

"Erisa? Oh, yes."

It became evident after a moment's silence that Seregil considered this sufficient reply. Alec decided to press on. "How did you meet her?"

For a moment he thought Seregil had gone to sleep or was refusing to answer, but then he heard the bed ropes creak.

"I had business at Alderis," Seregil told him. "That's in Mycena, near the coast. It was a difficult job and I was new at my trade, very young. Anyway, I botched it and got caught. My captors expressed their displeasure most emphatically and discarded what was left of me rather far from the town. They thought I was dead; I remember having a few doubts on the matter myself. When I woke up several days later, I was in a hut and there was Erisa."

"I'll bet she has powers beyond just healing," Alec said, remembering the sharp tingle from her staff.

"She can control people if she chooses. I've seen her do it, though she dislikes the power for the most part. I'll tell you something, though. She's saved my life several times, and I hers, but I'm a little nervous around her. You seldom know what a drysian's thinking, or how they see things."

"She knew I was listening."

Seregil chuckled in the darkness. "She'd have known if still was listening. Don't worry, you do it very well for a beginner. Now you'd better get some rest. We have a busy day tomorrow. You need outfitting, and I want a good look at those soldiers."

Alec heard the bed creak again. Below their window, waves lapped softly at the pilings, lulling him into a comfortable doze. He was just drifting off when Seregil's sudden laugh startled him awake again.

"And you've got us singing for the mayor!"

5 Friends Met, Enemies Made

Alec sat up blinking as Seregil threw open the shutters early the next morning. Cold air and early sunlight flooded the room. "I doubt you'd have heard a prowler in the night, but you blocked the door nicely," Seregil observed, tucking his harp under his arm. "While you've been snoring the morning away, I've been thinking. Your idea of singing for the mayor was an inspiration. That's where this Boraneus fellow is staying, after all. I have a few things to attend to at the market. Find yourself something to eat and meet me there later so we can see about getting you properly outfitted. Look for me at the swordsmith Maklin's in an hour if you don't see me sooner. Now out of my way!"

As soon as he was gone Alec rose and pulled on his boots. Outside, the sun shone across the calm surface of the lake, shimmering around the distant sails that dotted the waters to the horizon.

Anxious as he was to catch up with Seregil, the scents of porridge and frying sausage that met him as he hurried downstairs were too good not to investigate.

"You're the bard's 'prentice, ain't you?" a woman asked as he paused in the doorway. "Come in, lad! Your master was just here and said I was to see you have all you want."

Seregil must have been generous, Alec thought as she piled his trencher with plump sausages and oat porridge, then fetched a pitcher of milk and some hot ash cakes to go with it.

"However did you get so thin with a master as kind as that, eh?" She smiled, watching with satisfaction as Alec tucked in to her cooking.

"He only just took me up," Alec told her around a mouthful. "I had some hard times before."

"Well, you stick by him, love. He'll make an honest fellow of you."

Alec nodded agreeably, though he still had certain reservations on the matter. Leaving a coin of his own on the table when he'd finished, he set off for the market.

"All I have to do is go back the way we came in last night," he told himself, setting off on foot. But for all his skill in the wilds, Alec had always found towns rather baffling. One narrow, twisting street looked very much like another in daylight and before long he was so turned around he couldn't even find his way back to the waterfront. Cursing all towns and those who built them, he gave up and decided to ask directions.

Unfortunately, there were few people about. The fishermen had long since gone out, and most of their women were at the market at this hour, or indoors behind their shutters. He'd passed several gangs of children earlier, but the street he found himself in now came to a dead end in a cluster of warehouses and was quite deserted. Nothing to do, it seemed, but retrace his steps and hope for the best.

Turning a corner, he spotted a tavern and decided to try his luck there. He'd almost reached it when the door swung open and a knot of Plenimaran marines spilled unsteadily out into the street. There were five of them, staggering and singing drunkenly in their foreign tongue. Spotting Alec before he could duck back out of sight, they ambled over in his direction.

Giving them a polite nod, Alec tried to hurry past but one caught the edge of his cloak and yanked him roughly into their midst. His captor, a round-faced man with a scar twisting his lower lip, rattled off some

sort of challenge, punctuating it by poking Alec in the chest with his finger.

"Stupid drinker!" a taller fellow with a black beard growled, pushing Scar-Lip away and throwing an arm heavily around Alec's shoulders. His accent was thick but he made himself understood. "What my Soldier Brother says, you is a likely looking man-child to be a marine. Why you don't join us up?"

"I don't think I'd make much of a soldier,"

Alec replied. Several of them casually felt their daggers. "What I mean is, I'm not old enough, big enough-like you!"

A one-eyed soldier fingered the sleeve of Alec's tunic. "Nice, nice. You too good be Soldier Brother?"

"No!" Alec cried, turning within the circle of men. "I respect Soldier Brothers. Brave men! Let me buy you a drink."

Without warning, One-Eye and Round-Face pinioned his arms. The bearded soldier tore Alec's purse from his belt, emptying the contents into his hand.

"Sure, you buy us all many drinks!" he said, grinning as he inspected the coins. Suddenly his face darkened, and he thrust something up before Alec's eyes.

It was the Skalan coin; he'd had it out the night before and forgotten to put it back in his boot.

"Where you got this, man-child?" the bearded Plenimaran snarled. "You don't look no filthy Skalan! What you do having filthy bitch queen money?"

Before Alec could answer, the man punched him hard in the stomach and spat out, "Filthy spy, maybe?"

Maker's Mercy, not that again!

Gasping for breath, Alec doubled over and they knocked him down into the half-frozen mud of the street. Someone kicked him in the back and his vision blurred with dazzling sparks of pain. Struggling up onto his knees, he prayed that his cloak hid the motion of his hand as he reached for his dagger.

"You, Tildus! It's early in the day to be out torturing children, isn't it?"

Alec couldn't see who'd spoken, but the man's deep voice carried a welcome north country accent. The marines paused in their sport as the bearded man turned.

"Micum Cavish, greetings! Not torturing at all, just questioning spy."

"That's no spy, you damned fool, that's my brother's son. Let him go before you strain our friendship!"

Astonished, Alec craned his neck for a better look at this Micum Cavish. Catching sight of the man, he began to understand.

Cavish was the hooded man Seregil had spoken with the night before. The hood was thrown back now to reveal a freckled, strongly featured face under a thick mane of auburn hair. Heavy reddish brows overshadowed his pale blue eyes, and an even heavier mustache drooped over the corners of his mouth. His stance was relaxed, but his right hand, hooked casually into his belt, was in easy reach of his sword

hilt. The fate he was outnumbered five to one was apparently not of the slightest concern to him.

"You must forgive," Tildus was saying, "there is much drink in us. When we see money of the bitch queen here, we get mad, you see?"

"Since when does a single coin make anyone a spy?" Micum Cavish's tone was bantering, but his hand remained at his belt. "He got himself 'prenticed to a bard not long ago. They pick up all kinds of coins along the caravan route. Up here silver's silver, no matter whose face it has on it."

"Mistake, eh?" Tildus grinned tightly, motioning for the others to get Alec on his feet. "Not hurt so much, eh, man-child? You singer, maybe we come hear you sing. Give you good Plenimaran silver! Come, Brothers, we sober up now and not get into some more trouble." With that he gathered his glowering men and lurched off down the alley.

"Thanks," Alec said as they gathered his strewn money. At closer range, he was surprised to see that the man's hair was sprinkled with silver around the temples. "So you're my uncle Micum?"

The big swordsman grinned. "First thing that came to mind. It's lucky I happened along when I did, too. That Tildus is a nasty bastard to begin with, and worse when he's drinking. What are you doing wandering around here alone?"

"I was heading for the market, but I got lost."

"Just go back up the street, turn left and keep straight 'til you get there." Favoring Alec with a knowing wink, he said, "I think you'll find Aren at the second tailor's to the right of the corner."

"Thanks again," Alec called after him as Micum strode away. The tall man raised his hand in a brief salute and disappeared around the corner.

Alec found Seregil busy haggling over the price of some tunics. Taking in Alec's disheveled appearance, he broke off quickly and stepped away from the booth.

"What have you been up to?"

Alec's tale was quickly told. Seregil raised an eyebrow at the mention of Micum's intervention but made no further comment.

"There's a good deal of activity in the square today," he told Alec.

"Seems we got here just in time. The Plenimarans are leaving tomorrow and the mayor is holding a banquet tonight in their honor, quite a grand affair. He is, however, somewhat at a loss for entertainment. I've just been working out a way to make myself conspicuous."

"What are you going to do, sing on the steps of his house?"

"Nothing so obvious. There's a very pleasant fountain right across the street from it. I think that's close enough, don't you?"

He concluded his business with the tailor and they set off across the bridge to Armorers Street.

The clamor of hammer on metal there was almost more than Alec could stand, but as they came abreast of a bowyer's shop, he paused, face brightening noticeably.

"I don't know much about that sort of thing, but I've heard Corda's the best," Seregil remarked.

Alec shrugged, not taking his eyes from the display of bows. "Corda's are fancy enough, but they don't have the range of Radly's. Either way, though, they're beyond my means. I'd like to stop in at Tallman's, if you don't mind. I don't feel comfortable traveling without a bow."

"Certainly, but first I want to see Maklin about a sword."

Somewhere behind the front room of the swordsmith's shop, hammers rang down on steel and Alec had to resist the impulse to put his fingers in his ears.

Seregil, however, poked happily through the gleaming collection of swords and knives that covered the walls. Most of these weapons were the swordsmith's own work, but one section was given over to an assortment of older weapons traded in for new.

Seregil paused to look these over, pointing out those of antique or foreign design, as well as certain clever modifications. Alec could scarcely hear him.

Mercifully, the din lessened suddenly as a portly man in a stained leather apron stepped in through a doorway at the back of the shop, shouting a greeting to Seregil.

"Well met, Master Windover! What can I do for you today?"

"Well met, Master Maklin," Seregil shouted back. "I need a blade for my young friend here."

"For me?" Alec asked in surprise. "But I told you—" The swordsmith turned an appraising eye on Alec. "Ever held a sword before, lad?"

"No."

Pulling out a set of calipers, the smith set about measuring Alec's various dimensions. Kneading his arm muscles with a serious expression, Maklin bellowed, "I've just the thing for him!" and disappeared into the workshop again. He returned with a sheathed long sword cradled in the crook of one arm. Presenting the hilt to Alec, he motioned for him to draw it.

"He has the height and span to wield it,"

Maklin remarked to Seregil. "It's a good blade, well balanced and easy to cast about with. I made it special for a caravaneer, but the bugger never called back for it. Not overly fancy, but it's a lovely bit of steel. I slaked it in bull's blood during the forging, and you know there's nothing finer than that short of magicking."

Even Alec could see that the swordsmith was being modest. The gleaming blade felt like a natural extension of his arm. It wasn't light, but he felt a certain natural flow to the movements as Maklin had him hold his arm this way and that. The hilt was wire-bound, with a round, burnished pommel.

The bronze quillons arched gently away from the hilt, terminating in small flattened knobs carved to look like the tightly curled head of an unopened fern. The blade was unadorned but mirrored the light with a faintly bluish sheen.

"A pleasing design," Seregil remarked, taking the sword in his hands and fingering the quillons. "Not fancy, as you said, but not cheap-plain, either. See how the quillons curve away from the grip, Alec? Just the thing to snap your enemy's sword out of his hand or break his blade, if you know what you're doing."

Drawing his own sword, he held the two up together to show Alec the similarity between them. For the first time Alec noted that the quillons of Seregil's weapon, which ended in worn dragon's heads, were notched and scarred with use.

"It's a fine blade, Maklin. How much?" asked Seregil.

"Fifty marks with the sheath," the smith replied.

Seregil paid his price without quibbling and Maklin threw in a sword belt, showing Alec how to wrap it twice around his waist and fix the lacings so that the blade hung at the proper angle against his left hip.

Back in the street again, Alec tried to thank Seregil.

"One way or another, you'll repay me,"

Seregil said, brushing the matter aside. "For now, just promise me that you won't draw it in public until you've learned how to use it. You hold it just well enough for someone to give you a fight."

As they passed the bowyer shops again, Seregil paused in front of Radly's.

"There's no point going in there," Alec told him.

"A good Radly bow costs as much as this sword."

"Are they worth it?"

"Well, yes."

"Then come on. If it comes down to you protecting our lives with it, I for one don't want you using some three-penny stick."

Alec's heart beat a bit faster as they entered the shop. His father, a competent bowyer himself, had often pointed the place out with uncommon reverence. Master Radly, he'd told his son, had gifts beyond the natural for bow making. Alec had never imagined that he'd enter the place as a customer.

The master bowyer, a stern, grizzled man, was instructing an apprentice in the finer points of fletching as they came in. Inviting them to look about for a moment, he continued on with his instruction.

Alec was in his element here, inspecting the array of bows with the same relish that Seregil had obviously felt at the swordsmith's.

Great longbows, six feet tall unstrung, hung on cords from the ceiling. Crossbows of various types were

displayed on wide shelves, along with lady's hunters, composite horse bows-nearly every type common in the north. But Alec's eye settled on those known simply as the Black Radly.

Somewhat shorter than the regular longbow, these were fashioned from the Lake Wood's black yew, a difficult wood to work. Less experienced bowyers were likely to ruin half a dozen staves for every bow they came out with, but Radly and his apprentices had the knack. Rubbed with oil and beeswax, the black bows gleamed like polished horn.

Seven of these lay on a long table in the center of the shop and Alec inspected each one, checking the straightness of the tapered limbs, the smoothness of the nocks and the ivory maker's plate set flush into the back of the grip. Then, choosing one, he grasped it on either side of the grip and twisted sharply; the lower limb of the bow came free in his hand.

"What are you doing?" Seregil hissed in alarm.

"It's a wayfarer's bow." Alec showed Seregil the steel ferrule on the end of the limb, with its tiny pin that locked in place inside the sheath of the hand grip. "They're easier to carry in rough country, or riding."

"Easier to conceal, too," Seregil noted, fitting the sections back together. "Is it as powerful as a longbow?"

"They can have better than eighty pounds pull, depending on the length."

"And what, pray tell, does that mean?"

Alec picked up another bow and held it out in front of him as if to draw. "It means that if you could get two men to stand one in front of the other, you could shoot a broadhead arrow through the both of them.

They'll take down most anything from a hare to a stag. I've heard they can even shoot through chainmail."

"They'll draw heart's blood from a brass weathercock!" said Radly, joining them at last. "Sounds like you know something of archery, young sir. What do you think of 'em?"

"I like these." Alec indicated the two he'd laid aside. "But I'm not certain on the length."

"We'd best check your draw," Radly said.

Alec held out the bow and drew an invisible string back to his ear while the bowyer stretched a measuring line between the back of his left forefinger and the angle of his jaw below his right eye.

"Either of these would do for you," Radly concluded, "or that there." He pointed to one on the table that Alec had passed over.

"I'll go with these two," Alec said, sticking by his first choice.

Radly held the bows up side by side. "Have a look at the plates."

The shop mark, a black yew scrimshawed into the ivory, seemed almost identical until he pointed out a tiny R visible in the crown of the tree on both of Alec's choices, indicating that they were the work of the master bowyer and not one of his assistants.

"You've a good eye for a youngster," said the bowyer. "Come and try them."

Radly strung the bows, then led the way out through the workshop and into the alley beyond.

At the far end, several targets had been set up.

The first was a simple bull's-eye painted on a cross section of a large log. The second was another bull, but to reach the center of it the arrow had to pass straight through three iron rings hung from wickets between the target and the archer. The last was simply eight long willow wands stuck upright in the ground.

"What's all this?" Seregil whispered as the bowyer went to adjust the wands.

"I've heard it said that he won't sell a Black to anyone who can't hit all three targets," Alec whispered back, strapping a leather guard to his left forearm.

Returning, Radly handed him a quiver of arrows.

"Now then, let's see you shoot."

Selecting his first shaft with care, Alec sent it straight into the center of the first bull. Using the second bow, he repeated the feat easily, shaving some of the fletching off the first shaft.

At the next target, his first arrow glanced off a ring and fell short. Looking up at the clear blue sky, he drew in a deep breath, letting the necessary calm flow through him. On the second try he shot true, then repeated the shot just to be sure.

Switching to the other bow, he made three clean shots in quick succession.

It was a good day for shooting, he decided, relaxing into the almost supernatural sense of calm and well-being that came over him at such times. Moving to face the last target, he let fly four arrows in quick succession, hitting every other wand and nipping each off at nearly the same height.

Behind him, Seregil let out a low whistle of appreciation, but Alec kept his eye on the targets.

Changing bows, he quickly hit the remaining wands, shearing them off at a different height. As he lowered the bow, applause erupted behind him and he turned to find Seregil, Radly, and several apprentices grinning approval.

Blushing, he muttered, "I guess I'll take this one."

Seregil's afternoon foray was a success; he returned with the news that they were to entertain at the mayor's banquet that evening. As soon as he'd made apologies to the innkeeper, he dragged Alec off to a nearby bathhouse, then back to their room to put the final touches on his grooming.

"You look better in this than I do," Seregil remarked as he adjusted Alec's sash.

Alec wore "Aren's" second-best garments: a long tunic of fine blue wool edged with embroidered bands

along the hem and sleeves. One of the scullery girls had been paid to burnish his boots to a respectable shine.

Seregil himself was magnificent in a crimson tunic bordered with an intricate black and white pattern at neck, sleeves, and hem. His dark hair was bound back with a thin band of scarlet and black silk twisted into an elaborate knot at the back. Draping a new cloak of rich midnight blue gracefully over one shoulder, he pinned it in place with a heavy silver brooch.

"While I was striking the bargain for our wages with the mayor's bailiff I was able to quiz him on the guests," Seregil told him. "Lord Boraneus, ostensibly a trade envoy, is the head of the Plenimaran expedition. There's another noble, a Lord Trygonis, who also seems to have some pull, though he doesn't say much. With a little sweet talk to one of the house maids I also found out that Boraneus and Trygonis are housed in the best front rooms on the second floor. Besides the usual honor guard at the banquet, I imagine there'll be plenty of soldiers scattered around outside. Now, are you absolutely certain you understand what we have to do tonight?"

Alec was trying with little success to arrange the folds of his cloak in imitation of Seregil's. "We sing until everyone is well into the wine. You'll pause to tune the harp and break a string. Then I'm sent home for a new one and you step out for some air. There's a small servants' stairway at the back of the house that takes us up to the second floor. I meet you there and we go up together."

"And you have the extra string with you?"

"In my tunic."

"Good." Seregil reached into the pack lying on the bed and pulled out something wrapped in a bit of sacking.

Unrolling it, he showed Alec a handsome dagger. The handle was fashioned from black horn inlaid with silver. The slender blade was deadly sharp.

"This is for you," said Seregil, balancing the dagger across his palm for a moment. "It caught my eye while Maklin was fussing over you. It's longer than your other one and better balanced. A little fancy for a bard's apprentice, perhaps, but nobody's going to see it in your boot. If we do our job right tonight, you shouldn't need it anyway."

"Seregil, I can't—" the boy stammered, overcome. "I can never repay you as it is and—"

"Repay me for what?" Seregil asked in surprise.

"For this, for all of this!" Alec exclaimed, sweeping a hand around the room. "The clothes, the sword, the bow—I haven't ever made enough in my life to repay all this. Maker's Mercy, I haven't known you a week yet and—"

"Don't be silly. These are the tools of the trade. You'd be useless to me without them. Don't give it another thought or insult me with talk of repayment. I can't think of anything that means less to me than money; it's too easy to come by."

Shaking his head, Alec slid the dagger into the pocket of his boot and grinned. "It fits."

"Well, let's get to work, then. And may Illior watch over us tonight."

The stars were out by the time they set off for the mayor's hall. A cold wind cut in off the lake and they pulled their cloaks around them against the cold. As promised, Seregil had found Alec a pair of gloves, and he suspected the boy was grateful now for their warmth.

Not for the first time that day Seregil asked himself what he was doing dragging a green boy he'd known for less than a week's time off on a burglary job. Or what Alec was doing going along with him, for that matter. Shrewd as he was in some matters, the boy seemed to place an alarming amount of trust in him.

Never having been responsible for anyone but himself, Seregil wasn't quite certain what to make of it, except that taking Alec on as a partner of sorts out on the Downs had seemed like a good idea at the time. However much logic might dictate otherwise, looking at Alec striding along beside him, Seregil's intuition told him he'd somehow stumbled into a fortuitous decision.

At the mayor's house they were taken to the kitchen for the customary meal. The tapestry over the door had been pulled back and they could see the guests in the hall being entertained by a juggler. When the last of the platters had come back to the kitchen and the wine and fruit had been passed, Aren Windover was announced.

The great hall was ablaze with firelight and wax tapers. The trestles had been set up in a U facing the hearth and the company, made up mostly of rich merchants, guild masters, and craftsmen of Wolde, clapped approvingly as Seregil and Alec took their places on a small platform set up there. Alec handed Seregil the harp with a flourish he'd learned less than an hour before, then stepped back deferentially.

In Aren Windover's most flowery manner, Seregil introduced himself and made a brief speech of gratitude to the mayor and his lady. His words were well received and he struck up the first song amid a flutter of applause. He captured his audience at once with a rousing hunting lay, then moved on to a succession of love songs and ballads, throwing in a raucous ditty here and there once he saw that the ladies approved. Alec took frequent turns at the harmonies and fetched ale for his master as the occasion demanded.

The one calling himself Boraneus sat in the place of honor to the right of the fat mayor and Seregil studied him surreptitiously as he played. Boraneus was tall, with the high coloring and thick, blue-black hair of a true Plenimaran.

He was younger than Seregil had expected, no more than forty, and extremely handsome despite the thin scar that ran from the inner corner of his left eye to the cheekbone. His black eyes sparkled rakishly as he shared some joke with the mayor's wife, but when the smile faded his face had a veiled, unreadable quality.

By the Light, that's Duke Mardus—whatever he calls himself here, Seregil thought as he played. Though he'd never seen Mardus before, he knew him both by description and reputation. The most highly placed officer of the Plenimaran intelligence system, he was also known to be a sadistically ruthless inquisitor. Seregil felt an involuntary chill as Mardus' impassive gaze rested briefly on him. To have such a person study your face was the worst sort of luck.

The other envoy didn't look like he amounted to much.

A narrow, whey-faced fellow with lank dark hair, Trygonis was apparently doing his dour best to avoid

being drawn into conversation with the garrulous matrons seated on either side of him.

Splendidly dressed as he was in the regalia of a Plenimaran diplomat, to Seregil's practiced eye his pale skin and silent, peering manner told a different tale. He had more the look of one who spent his life huddled over books in rooms where sunlight never penetrated.

Seregil played on for nearly an hour before he judged the time to be right. Pausing to tune the harp, he snapped the string and, after a tense, whispered exchange with Alec, rose and bowed to the mayor.

"My most gracious host," he said, affecting an air of barely concealed irritation while Alec did his best to appear shamefaced. "It seems my apprentice has neglected to bring extra strings for my instrument. With your kind permission, I will send the boy back to my lodgings for replacements."

Comfortably into his cups, the mayor waved agreeably and Alec hurried out.

Seregil bowed again. "If I may ask your further indulgence, I will take this opportunity to freshen my throat with the cool night air."

"By all means, Master Windover. I think it may be some time before we let you go. Your fine singing goes well with the wine."

Once outside, Seregil made a show of clearing his lungs and admiring the stars. Spotting a Plenimaran guard posted near the front of the building, he asked after the privy and was directed to the yard in back of the house. As soon as he was safely around the corner, he pressed into the shadows and checked again; no guards back here. Alec was waiting for him beneath the servants' stairs.

"Did anyone see you?" Seregil whispered.

Alec shook his head. "I went across the square, then doubled back to the other side of the house."

"Good. Now stay close and pay attention. If anything goes wrong, you're on your own, understand? If it comes to that, I'll do my best to come back for you, but your best guarantee is to not get into trouble in the first place. All right?"

Looking rather less than reassured by this advice, Alec nodded gamely and followed him up the stairs to the second level of the house.

The door was locked, but Seregil produced a long pick. Beyond they found a dimly lit service passage. Seregil signed Quickly and moved to a door at the far end. Beyond it, they could hear sounds of the revelry below. Opening it the merest crack, Seregil found that they were near the upper landing of the great staircase.

Just as they were about to make a dash for the guest rooms, a black-clad marine came upstairs from the hall and disappeared into one of the rooms overlooking the street. Emerging a moment later with a small chest, he went back downstairs. Seregil counted slowly to ten, then drew Alec behind him into the hall. Moving quickly to the room the soldier had entered, they found the door unlocked.

"This is Trygonis' room," whispered Seregil. "Keep watch, and if you touch something, anything, be sure to leave it exactly as you found it."

Against the right wall stood a carved bedstead with a clothes chest at the foot. A tall wardrobe and a

writing table stood by the window.

"This first, I think," Seregil murmured, kneeling in front of the chest. After a moment's examination he drew a small leather roll from his tunic and spread it out in a workmanlike fashion on the floor beside him; it contained an impressive collection of various lock picks and other implements, each in a narrow pocket of the roll. The chest's heavy padlock came open on the first attempt.

Except for a brass map tube, the chest contained little more than the usual mundane articles of clothing and equipment, all seeming to confirm that the man was a diplomat rather than a soldier. Quickly shaking out the rolled parchment from the tube, Seregil moved to the thin sliver of light at the door and unrolled it to find a map of the northlands. Alec peered over his shoulder for a moment, then went back to his watch-keeping while Seregil studied it more closely, committing the details to memory.

Small red points had been inked in next to the Gold Road towns of Wolde, Kerry, and Sark. Several other points marked remote freeholdings along the Ironheart foothills, Asengai's among them.

Nothing so surprising there. Seregil rolled up the map and replaced the contents of the chest as he'd found them. The desk yielded nothing of value, but in the wardrobe he found a small silk pouch containing a golden disk hung on a golden chain.

One side of the pendant was smooth; on the other a peculiar, abstract device of intricate lines and swirls stood out in raised relief.

Try as he might, Seregil couldn't make sense enough of it to reproduce it later. Mildly annoyed, he replaced it and joined Alec at the door. No more than five minutes had elapsed.

The next room was very much like the first, except for a dispatch box sitting on the table. It was banded with nailed strips of brass and secured with an internal lock rather than a hasp. Moving to the light again, he examined the lock plate, noting tiny imperfections in the metal around the keyhole. A less experienced thief might have dismissed them as pits in the metal; Seregil recognized the needle holes lightly plugged with wax and brass dust. Anyone attempting to force the lock while the device was engaged would end up with at least one tiny but no doubt heavily poisoned needle embedded in his hand.

Running sensitive fingertips over the brass nail heads, he found one on the back left corner that depressed with a barely audible click.

Double-checking to be sure he hadn't missed any others, he picked the lock and raised the lid.

On top was a sheaf of documents written in cipher. Setting these aside, he found a map much like the larger one, but with only two red points marked on it: one deep in the heart of the Blackwater Fens at the southern end of the lake, the other apparently somewhere in the Far Forest. The point in the Fens was circled.

Beneath the map was a leather pouch containing another of the golden pendants.

What in the name of Bilairy are these? he wondered, frustrated again at not being able to make sense of the design.

At the clothes chest he felt carefully down through the layers of tunics and robes until his fingers encountered studded wood near the bottom. Lifting the clothing out, he found a rectangular casket a foot long and perhaps half that deep, its lid secured only by a hook. His mouth twisted into a humorless smile

as he cautiously opened it; inside lay a collection of small but effective torture instruments and several earthenware vials.

More certain than ever that his man really was Mardus, Seregil took extra care to replace the box as he'd found it. As he was replacing the clothing, however, another leather pouch dropped from the folds of a robe. Probing inside, he found a few Plenimaran coins, two rings, a case knife, and some small wooden disks.

There were eight in all, fashioned from some dark wood and pierced through the center with a square hole. They had a slightly oily feel, and each was carved on one side with the same frustrating design he'd seen on the gold pendants.

Now here's a piece of luck at last, he thought. These crude things didn't look like something anyone would miss in a hurry. He pocketed one for later study.

He'd just locked the chest when Alec made a frantic gesture at the door. Someone was coming.

With Alec at his heels, Seregil moved smoothly to the window. Swinging the casement wide, he looked up to find the overhang of the roof within easy reach.

He'd already pulled himself up onto the slates above before he noticed the two guards lounging near the fountain. For a brief second his breath caught in his throat; he was in plain sight if they looked up.

The noise from the hall must have covered his scramblings, however, or perhaps they were drunk, for neither of them did.

Alec snaked out the same way, and Seregil caught his wrists to help him up. The boy looked scared, but still had presence of mind enough to gently push the window shut with his foot on the way up.

The slick slate roof was steeply pitched, but they managed to get over to the back side, reaching the servants' stairway without mishap. At the bottom Seregil grasped Alec's shoulder for a moment in silent approval, then pointed him off toward the kitchen door.

Alec was nearly there when a tall figure reached from the shadows and caught him by the cloak. Seregil tensed, hand stealing to his dagger. Alec jerked back instinctively and the man laughed. Just as Seregil was about to spring to his aid, however, he heard the man speak and realized this must be one of the soldiers who'd accosted the boy earlier that day.

"Hey, you sing good in there," the man exclaimed. His tone seemed friendly enough, but he hadn't released his grip on Alec's cloak. "You sing more for me now maybe?"

"I've got to get back in." Stepping away as far as he could, Alec pulled the harp string from his tunic and waved it like a pass. "My master needs this. I'll be in trouble if I make him wait."

"Trouble?" The man squinted at the string. "No trouble for you, Cavish's man-child. Go sing some more for the fat mayor and my master!" Turning Alec loose, he sent him on his way with a resounding slap on the back.

Letting out a soundless sigh of relief, Seregil waited until the way was clear, then skirted back through the shadows to reappear from the direction of the mayor's privy.

It was after midnight before they returned to the Three Fishes. Nonetheless, Seregil insisted on making ready to leave at first light.

"You did well tonight," he said as he finished strapping up his pack. "That was quick thinking, with the window."

Alec grinned happily at the praise and continued checking over his new equipment. Master Radly had included an oilskin bow case and a covered quiver in the price of the bow, to which Alec had added a score of arrows, linen twine and wax for bowstrings, and packets of red and white fletching.

Seregil was just turning to say something more when they both were startled by the sound of someone pounding up the stairs. Micum Cavish burst into the room.

Panting, he said, "I don't know what you did this time, Seregil, but a pack of Plenimaran marines are on their way here right now!"

Somewhere below they heard a door bang open, then the sounds of heavy feet.

"Grab your things, Alec!" Seregil ordered, throwing back the shutters.

A moment later Tildus and a dozen Plenimaran soldiers burst into the room, only to find it dark and empty.

6 Alec Earns His Bow

From the inn window the three of them dropped thirty feet into water cold enough to knock the breath from their lungs. Alec floundered, gasping as he tried to hang on to his gear and keep his head above water.

A strong hand closed over his wrist; Micum hauled him to a handhold on the slimy pilings supporting the building.

"Quiet!" Seregil whispered against his ear.

Working their way back to the shallows, they crawled out onto a narrow mud bank and huddled there as the sounds of a violent search rang out overhead.

"I doubt you two will be welcome again at the Fishes," Micum whispered through chattering teeth.

It was a miserably cold vigil they kept, and dangerous. At one point several marines found their way under the building, forcing the three fugitives to turtle back into the icy water until they were gone. It was over an hour before Micum judged that it was safe to go.

They made a sorry trio as they staggered from the shadows of the tavern. Covered in mud, their hair and

clothing stiffened into fantastic configurations, they moved as fast as their numbed legs would allow, heading for the market square.

Micum led the way to the Temple of Astellus that stood next to the Fisherman's Guildhall on the square. It was a plain, windowless structure, but the large double doors at its front were elaborately carved with boats and water creatures. The lintel above displayed the stylized wave symbol of Astellus the Traveler.

By custom, the doors of the temple were never locked, and they slipped inside without challenge.

Alec had never been inside the place before, though he'd passed it often enough. The plastered walls of the central room glowed with fanciful underwater scenes and icons showing several of the patron deity's more noteworthy labors.

Near the central shrine a young acolyte dozed at his post. Passing quietly, they found their way to a door at the back of the temple and into the storeroom beyond.

Offerings, sacks of food for the priests, and oddments of furniture were stacked carelessly about. Alec sat down on an upended crate while Micum cast about, looking for something.

"Isn't it over to the left more?" asked Seregil.

"I've got it." Micum pulled open a trapdoor in the floor.

Looking over his shoulder, Alec saw a ladder descending into the darkness. Cold, earth-smelling air rose up the shaft.

"Let's hope the mayor neglected to tell his visitors about this route," Seregil muttered.

Micum shrugged. "A good fight puts the fire of Sakor in your blood. I think we could all use the warmth!"

Seregil cocked a wry eyebrow at Alec.

"He works as hard to find trouble as I do avoiding it."

With a derisive chuckle, Micum climbed down the ladder. Alec followed while Seregil took a moment to prop several small crates to fall over the door when it closed.

Once down, Micum rummaged in a belt pouch and drew out a small glowing object. Its pale radiance spilled out through his fingers, spreading a small circle of light.

"Magic?" Alec asked, leaning closer.

"A lightstone," Seregil told him. "I lost mine in a dice game two months ago and I've been fumbling around with flint and steel ever since."

"Too bad it doesn't give off any heat,"

Micum said, chaffing his arms as he led the way down the tunnel.

"Where are we?"

"An escape tunnel leading out of town," Micum explained. "It has openings near the lake shore and another just inside the woods. The Temple of Dalna has one, too. The idea was to be able to evacuate the town secretly if it was ever besieged. I doubt it would work, though-most likely bring you right up in front of the enemy. But it was thought up by merchants, not generals. As it is, Seregil and I have probably made the best use of them over the last few years."

"Where to now? The cave?" Seregil was shivering visibly now as he tried to pull his stiff cloak more closely about him.

"That's the closest place."

The passage ran in a fairly straight line back from the river. It was hardly wide enough for two men to pass, and the roof was so low that Micum had to stoop in places. The damp earthen walls, shored up at intervals with timber, gave off an unpleasant chill. Blotches of lichen and pale fungi sprouted from the support beams. After some time, the tunnel branched.

Taking the right fork, Micum drew his sword and whispered over his shoulder, "Look sharp, boy, in case we have company."

Alec moved to draw his own blade but Seregil nudged his hand away from the hilt. "Never mind that," he said. "You couldn't get by to fight and if you stumbled, you'd probably run Micum through. If we meet anyone, fade back with me and stay out of the way."

But they met nothing except a few rats and slow-moving salamanders, and soon the tunnel began to slant upward, ending at a narrow cave. It was hardly more than a thin cleft in the rock and the floor of it narrowed sharply to a y making for uncomfortable going.

Barking shins, hands, and heads against sharp-edged stones, they clambered up the fissure. Micum pocketed the lightstone as they reached the top and they pushed their way through a dense thicket of bramble at the mouth of the cave.

Looking around, Alec saw that they were somewhere in the woods; stands of oak, birch, and fir grew thickly around them. The sinking moon cast netted shadows through the canopy of branches overhead, curling darkness beneath the firs. Dawn was a few hours away and all was still.

Seregil was trembling more violently than the others.

"You never could stand the cold," Micum said, unclasping his cloak. When Seregil moved to shrug it away, Micum stopped him with a stern look and swung it around his shoulders himself.

"Save your pride for warmer days, you damn fool. The boy and I are bred to it. Your blood's too thin. Come on."

Still scowling, Seregil tied the cloak strings under his chin without further protest.

Moving quietly over the snowy ground, they headed deeper into the forest. The ground rose and fell sharply, and the shadows were thick, but Micum went along as confidently as if they were hiking a highroad.

Halfway up a hillside, they reached another cave. It was larger than the last and its opening lay in plain

sight. High-roofed and shallow, it narrowed at the back to a tiny passage leading farther into the hillside. Alec and Seregil were slim enough to pass through sideways without much trouble, but Micum grunted and swore as he worked his way in.

"I don't recall you having so much trouble a few years back," observed Seregil.

"Shut up, you," Micum wheezed, pulling free at last.

The crevice twisted sharply several times, threatening to close altogether, but finally opened into a wider space.

Micum brought out his light again, and Alec saw that they were in another cave, this one quite large.

Wood lay arranged for a fire in a circle of stones. Hunkering down beside it, Seregil found a small jar among the logs and shook what appeared to be hot coals onto the tinder.

"More magic for you." Grinning, he handed Alec the jar. Small chips of stone glowed bright as embers but, like the lightstone, gave off no heat.

"Those are fire stones," he explained. "Be careful with them. They won't hurt skin but the second they touch anything that will burn-cloth, wood, parchment-they ignite. I've seen too many accidents to carry them traveling."

Flames licked up through the dry wood, dispelling the chill and darkness. The natural chamber narrowed overhead to a crevice, and by some trick of the draft the smoke was drawn neatly up this natural chimney.

Firewood, folded blankets, and a number of pottery jars lay on various ledges around the caves. Piles of dry bracken and fir boughs were formed into rough pallets against the walls.

"This is snug camp," said Alec, admiring it.

"Micum found it a while back," Seregil said, huddling over the flames as closely as he dared. "Only we and a few friends know about it. Who was here last?"

Micum inspected the stone shelf that held the jars and held up a black feather. "Erisa. She must have stopped here before going into town. Let's see what she's left in the larder."

Carrying a few of the jars to the fire, he inspected some marks carefully incised on the wax seals. "Let's see. There's a bee on these, that's honey. A wheat stalk, that's hard biscuit.

A bee and a cup-mead. What've you got?"

"I'm not certain." Seregil held a jar closer to the light. "Dried venison. And here's some tobacco for you."

"Bless her kind heart." Micum took a pipe from somewhere inside his tunic and filled it. "I left my pouch behind in all the scuffle."

"And these two must be herbs," Seregil continued.

"Looks like yarrow and fever bane. Well, thanks to our good friend Micum Cavish, we're in no need of

healing. I just want to get dry!"

Stripping off their filthy garments, they spread them by the fire and wrapped up in blankets.

Too cold to concern himself with modesty for once, Alec noticed that both of his companions had a number of scars, though Micum's were by far the more numerous and serious. The worst was a pale rope of tissue that began just beneath his right shoulder blade. It curved down around his back to end just short of his navel. Noticing the boy's interest, he turned to the light and ran a thumb proudly over the end of the welt.

"Closest I ever came to Bilairy's gatepost." Lighting his pipe, Micum puffed out a few rings of mellow smoke. "It was nine winters ago, wasn't it, Seregil?"

"I believe it was." Seregil gave Alec a wink. "A group of us were traipsing up around the Fishless Sea and ran into a particularly unfriendly bunch of nomads."

"Unfriendly!" snorted Micum. "I'd never seen their like before-great hairy giants. We still don't know where they came from. They were too busy trying to kill us to answer questions. We stumbled across their camp by accident one evening, and figured we'd say hello and try to trade for supplies. But just as we reached the pickets, a whole pack of them—big as bears and twice as mean—came charging out of nowhere at us on foot. We were mounted, but they had us surrounded before we realized what was going on. The weapons they used looked something like a big flail; a long haft with several lengths of chain attached, each two or three feet long.

Only the links of the chains were flattened and the edges ground keen as razors. Of course, we didn't know about that until after we'd started to fight. Cyril lost an arm, cut clean off, and Berrit was blinded and died soon after. One of the bastards took the front legs off my horse and then laid into me. That's when I got this beauty." He ran a hand over the knotted ridge of flesh again. "I was all tangled up in the stirrups, but I managed to get my sword up in time to block his swing— all but one of the chains, and that laid me open to the bone right through my jerkin. If I hadn't blocked the rest, I believe he'd have cut me in half. Seregil popped up from somewhere and killed him just as he was going for another stroke. It's lucky we had the drysian Valerius traveling with us, or I'd have crossed over right then and there."

"I suppose this was my worst," said Seregil, showing Alec deep indentations in the lean muscle on either side of his left thigh.

"I was exploring an abandoned wizard's keep. She'd been dead for years, but a lot of her wards were still in place. I'd been very careful, spotted all the symbols, disarmed device after device. She'd been something of a genius in that way and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. But no matter how good you are, there's always a trap with your name on it somewhere, and I found one that day. I missed a trigger of some sort—never did see it—and the next I knew my foot went through the floor. An iron spike shot across, pinning my leg like a speared fish. Half an inch to the left and I'd have bled to death. I couldn't reach far enough into the hole to free myself, short of cutting off my leg. I've no stomach for pain. From what little I remember, I did a lot of yelling and fainting until Micum found me and carried me out. Not a very heroic tale, I'm afraid."

Alec had stripped the oilskin cover from his bow to check for damage. Without looking up from his work, he ventured shyly, "Still, you were brave enough to do all that."

"You've got a short memory all of a sudden,"

Seregil scoffed, passing him the mead jar. "Aren't you the same half-starved lad who survived Asengai's dungeons and followed me out, not to mention what we did tonight? That's a lot to claim before you're even grown."

Alec shrugged, embarrassed. "That wasn't bravery. There just wasn't anything else to do."

Micum laughed grimly. "By Sakor, then you've learned the secret of being brave. All you need is some training."

Reaching over the fire, he retrieved the mead jar from Seregil. "So what will you do now?"

Seregil shook his head. "I'd planned to blend into some caravan and take the Gold Road all the way to Nanta, but now I'm not so sure. What was all that fracas about tonight? I was certain nobody saw us."

"I was watching the house from the square. Everything was quiet until well after you left. The party broke up soon after, the guests went home, and the lamps inside were mostly out. I was just about to leave myself when all hell broke loose. Someone started yelling, then there were lights all over the place, and soldiers running everywhere. I got as close as I could—which wasn't too hard with all the excitement—and looked into the hall. That big fellow, Boraneus, had the mayor cornered. All I heard was that anyone who'd been at the feast was to be arrested and brought back immediately. That's when I lit out after you. Those Plenimarans are a damned well-organized bunch. I didn't think I was going to get to you in time."

Seregil tapped his chin with one long forefinger. "If someone had actually seen us, then they wouldn't be arresting all the guests. That's a bit of luck, I'd say."

"And what, exactly, did you steal?"

"Just this." Seregil dug into his belt pouch and handed Micum the wooden disk. "I wanted to show Nysander the pattern."

Micum turned it over on his palm and tossed it back to him. "Looks like a gaming piece to me-not the sort of thing anyone would make that kind of fuss over. You know, I think you might not have been the only ones ghosting around there tonight. Could be one of the guards got a case of light fingers."

"We saw one coming out of Boraneus room before we went in, carrying a box," Alec recalled. "And someone nearly caught us in the other room as we were leaving. It could have been one of them."

"I suppose so." Seregil frowned into the fire for a moment. "At any rate, we've certainly made ourselves look guilty enough, leaving the way we did. I say we avoid the Gold Road. We'll find some horses—"

"Find?" Micum interjected wryly.

"And head cross-country to Boersby Ford," Seregil went on, ignoring the remark. "That should be far enough to shake loose of any pursuit. Then we can take passage down the Folcwine to Nanta. With any luck, we'll be there in less than a week. If the weather holds, we can get a ship across to Rhнminee."

"I think I'd better stay clear of Wolde until the Plenimarans are well gone," Micum said, stretching out on a pallet and yawning until his jaws cracked. "I'll go back with you as far as Boersby, in case there's any trouble."

"Did they get a good look at you?"

"I'm not sure they didn't. They were right on my heels all the way to the Fishes. Better safe than dead, eh?"

Sheltered in their hidden cave, they slept deeply until afternoon.

"We'd better wait until dark to move on," said Seregil, squinting up at the narrow crack of light from the smoke hole. Pulling his harp from its case, he satisfied himself that it had survived the dunkings of the previous night, then set about tuning it. "We've still got a few hours to kill. Micum, how would you like to give my young apprentice a few lessons in swordsmanship? He'll benefit from learning your methods as well as my own."

Micum winked at Alec. "What he means is that my ways aren't as dainty as his, but I manage to make my way well enough."

"Come on now, old friend," Seregil demurred, "I'd be hard pressed if I had to face you in a fight."

"That's true—but it would be the time I wasn't facing you that I'd worry about! Come on, Alec, I'll show you daylight methods."

Micum began with the basics, teaching Alec how to grip the weapon so that it balanced to his advantage, what stances presented the smallest target to an opponent, and simple slash and parry maneuvers. Seregil finished his tuning and lazily plucked out a tune, pausing occasionally to offer advice or argue points of style.

As Alec moved slowly through Micum's drills, he began to suspect that he was learning from two masters of uncommon ability. His arm was soon aching as he tried to deflect Micum's mock attacks. Though Micum's blade was of a heavier make than his own, the man flashed it about as if it weighed no more than a glove.

"I'm sorry," Alec said at last, slicking sweat from his forehead. "It's hard, moving so slow."

Micum flexed his shoulders. "It is, but you have to learn to control the movements and direct the blade, not just wave it about until it hits something. Come on, Seregil, let's show him how it's done."

"I'm busy," replied Seregil, working on a tricky bit of fingering.

Moving to stand over him, Micum growled, "Put away that twopenny toy, you tit-sucking coistril, and show me the length of your blade!"

Seregil laid his harp aside with a sigh. "Dear me, that sounds rather like a challenge-" Lunging swiftly past Micum, he sprang to his feet and drew his sword, then swung a flat-bladed attack at Micum's sword arm.

Micum blocked and countered. Grinning fiercely and showering each other with blistering insults, they battled around the confines of the cave, leaping over the fire pit and threatening to trample Alec underfoot until he wisely retreated to the narrow crevice at the back. From there he watched with delighted admiration as the two of them moved over the uneven floor, graceful as acrobats or dancers.

At first it seemed to him that Seregil spent more time avoiding attacks then returning them—his movements seemingly effortless as he sprang here and there, his sword flashing up to block a blow, then dodging away, making Micum change his stance to follow him.

But Micum was no clumsy bear, either. There was a powerful grace to his motions, a steady, implacable rhythm as he pressed his attacks. Soon Alec couldn't have said if Micum was driving or chasing, if Seregil was leading or being driven.

The mock battle ended in a draw of sorts; choosing his moment, Micum side-stepped an attack, slapped Seregil's blade away, and skewered a loose fold of his tunic.

At the same moment, however, the wickedly slender poniard appeared somehow in Seregil's left hand, its tip pricking through Micum's jerkin just below his heart. They stood frozen for an instant, then broke away laughing.

"So arm in arm we tumble down to Bilairy's gate!" Micum said, sheathing his sword. "You marred my jerkin, I see."

"And you ventilated my new tunic."

"By Sakor, it serves you right for pulling that rat-sticker in the middle of a proper sword fight, you sneaky bastard!"

"Isn't that cheating?" Alec inquired, emerging from his crevice.

Seregil gave the boy a wink and a crooked grin.

"Of course!"

"It's no wonder you swear by Illior's Hands,"

Micum growled in mock exasperation. "I always have to keep an eye on both of yours."

"Illior and Sakor." Alec shook his head. "You say they're like my gods, but that they've been forgotten in the north."

"That's right," said Seregil. "Dalna, Astellus, Sakor, and Illior; all part of the Sacred Four. You'll need to know more of them, down in Skala."

Micum rolled his eyes. "We could be here the rest of the week now. He's worse than a priest on such things!"

Seregil ignored the protest. "Each one of them rules a different part of life," he explained.

"And they possess the sacred duality."

"You mean like how Astellus helps with birth and guides the dead?" asked Alec.

"Exactly."

"But what about the others?"

"Sakor guards the hearth and directs the sun,"

Micum told him. "He's the soldier's friend, but he also inflames the mind of your enemy and brings on storms and drought."

Alec turned back to Seregil. "And you always swear by Illior."

"Where's that coin I gave you?" Taking it, Seregil turned it to the side with the crescent moon.

"This is the most common sign of Illior. It symbolizes the partial revelation of a greater mystery. The Lightbearer sends dreams and magic, and watches over seers and wizards and even thieves. But Illior also sends madness and nightmares.

"All the Four are a mix of good and ill, bane and blessing. Some even speak of them as both male or female rather than one or the other. The Immortals show us that it's the natural way of things that good and ill be mixed; separate one from the other and caret both lose their significance. That's the strength of the Four."

"In other words, if some must be priests, then others must be murderers," Micum noted wryly.

"Right, so my cheating in a fight is actually a sacred act."

"But what about the other gods?" asked Alec. "Ashi, and Mor of the Birds, and Bilairy and all?"

"Northern spirits and legends, for the most part,"

Seregil said, rising to gather his belongings. "And Bilairy's just the gatekeeper of souls, making certain that none go in or out before the time appointed by the Maker. As far as I know, there was only one other god great enough to challenge the Four—an evil, dark one."

"Seriamaius, you mean?" said Micum.

Seregil made a hasty warding sign. "You know it's bad luck to speak the name of the Empty God! Even Nysander says so."

"Illiorans!" the big man scoffed, nudging Alec. "They've got superstitious streaks a mile wide. It was all legends anyway, started by the necromancers back in the Great War. And good true steel took care of them."

"Not without considerable help from drysians and wizards," Seregil replied. "And it took the Aurлnfaie to put an end to it."

"But what about this other god?" asked Alec, feeling a chill go up his back. "Where did it come from if it wasn't part of the Four?"

Seregil snugged down the straps of his pack.

"It's said the Plenimarans brought the worship of the Empty God back from somewhere over the seas. It's supposed to have been a pretty unpleasant business, too—all kinds of nasty ceremonies. This deity

was said to feed off the living energy of the world. He did grant uncanny powers to the faithful, but always at a terrible price. Still, there are always those who will seek such power, whatever the risk."

"And this Empty God is supposed to have started that great war?"

"The worship of that god would have been well established by that time—"

"Sakor's Flame, Seregil, a man could grow old waiting for you to draw breath once you start talking!" Micum interrupted impatiently.

"We've a long ride ahead of us, and horses to 'find. " Seregil made him a rude gesture, then went to the supply shelf and left a few coins.

"We don't have much for the larder, but I think this will do." He replaced Erisa's feather token with a bit of knotted cord.

Micum fished a fir cone from a pouch and added it to the collection. "We'll need a sign for you, now that you know the place," he said to Alec. "It's good manners to let others know when you've been here."

Alec found a bit of fletching and placed it with the other things.

Micum clapped him on the shoulder approvingly.

"I guess I don't need to ask you to keep our secrets."

Alec nodded awkwardly and turned to pick up his gear, hoping the others didn't see his embarrassed blush. Whoever these men really were, it felt good to have their trust.

They left the woods as soon as it was dark and made their way back to the edge of the farmland surrounding the town. It was impossible not to leave a trail across the snow-covered fields, so they kept to the back roads and lanes as much as possible, eyeing each farm as they passed.

As the last lights in the distant town winked out, Seregil paused on a rise overlooking a prosperous steading.

"That's what we want," he said. "Dark house, big stable."

"Good choice," said Micum, rubbing his hands cheerfully. "That's Doblevain's place. He breeds the best horses in the area. You see to the animals. Alec and I will find the tack."

"All right," Seregil agreed. "Alec, we'll continue your education with a lesson in horse thieving."

Keeping to the road and the trampled ground of the corral, they managed to leave almost no trail at all as they approached the stable. Just as they reached the door, however, two large mongrels came out of the shadows and advanced on them with raised hackles.

Facing them calmly, Seregil spoke softly and made the left— handed sign Alec had seen him use on the blind man's dog a few days earlier, with nearly the same effect. Both curs halted for a moment, then trotted forward to lick Seregil's hand, tails whipping happily. He scratched their ears, murmuring to them

in a friendly tone.

Micum shook his head. "What I wouldn't give to be able to do that! He's got a drysian's own touch with animals. Must come from his—"

"Come on, we haven't got all night," Seregil interrupted impatiently, and Alec thought he saw him make some sign to Micum, though he couldn't make out what it was.

The stable shutters were down, so they decided to risk a light. Micum reluctantly cracked his lightstone into two pieces, handing half to Seregil.

By the light of the remaining half, he and Alec located the small tack room and began pulling down saddles and gear.

Seregil soon emerged from the rich, sour darkness of the stalls leading three glossy horses, the dogs still padding contentedly at his heels.

Snowflakes were spiraling down again as they led their mounts away from the farm. When Seregil judged they were out of earshot, they mounted and set off at a gallop over the fields, trusting the new snow to cover their tracks.

By sunup they'd covered the miles of open hill country between Wolde and the Folcwine Forest. They came within sight of Stook at the forest's northern border but avoided the town, heading instead down the highroad through the forest.

New snow lay deep on the road and weighed heavily on the boughs of the trees that flanked it. The sky overhead was a stolid, even grey.

Seregil and Micum rode slightly ahead of Alec, deep in conversation. Studying their profiles, Alec wondered at how his old life sometimes seemed years gone already, and with it the simple hunter he'd been.

Lost in his own thoughts, it took a few seconds for him to make the connection between the searing pain that suddenly burned across the top of his left thigh, and the arrow protruding from his horse's side just in front of the girth strap. The animal screamed and threw him, then bolted down the road.

The snow cushioned his fall. Dumbfounded, he reached down and felt the shallow gash in his leg. The wound was minor, but the suddenness of it all seemed to numb him momentarily. It wasn't until he'd struggled up to check his bow that he truly understood what was happening. As if time had paused and was now resuming its normal course, the air around him was instantly filled with an angry hail of arrows.

"Alec, get down!" Seregil shouted from somewhere nearby.

Clutching his bow and quiver, Alec dropped and scrambled on his belly to the nearest trees. Rolling into their shelter, he peeked cautiously around a tree trunk, realizing too late that he was on the opposite side of the road from Micum. Four archers stood in the road less than two hundred feet away, sending out a volley of arrows. Alec also caught a glimpse of others working their way through the trees in his direction.

The archers kept up their steady attack; arrows sang in the air, nipping off a hail of twigs around him,

thudding into the trees he sheltered behind. There was no sign of Seregil except a third track snaking off through the snow into the trees beyond Micum.

Left more or less on his own, Alec knew what his next step had to be.

His heart pounded sickeningly as he fitted an arrow to the string and took aim at a man for the first time in his life. A tall archer standing boldly at the edge of the road presented an easy target, but try as he might, Alec couldn't seem to hold steady.

Startled by a horse's scream, he released the shaft high and it sped off uselessly into the trees.

Micum's gelding drove itself into a heap just in front of him, a shaft protruding from its throat. Another arrow slammed into the beast's chest and it gave a final bellowing groan.

"The bastards know their business, killing the horses," Micum called over to him. "I hope you have a few shafts left—I'm pinned down here!"

Nocking a second arrow, Alec drew the fletching to his ear and tried again.

"O Dalna!" he whispered as his bow arm wavered again. "Let me pull true!"

Damn, he can't do it, Micum thought in alarm, watching Alec's face.

Before he could decide how to get across to help him, however, a bandit with a sword rushed him from the trees.

Silently commending Alec to whatever gods he had, Micum turned to meet the attack.

It was his habit to look into his opponent's eyes as he fought; in this scarred, swarthy face he read no fear. Their swords rang out a steady, grim music as each, conscious of the uncertain footing beneath the snow, tried to draw the other into a clumsy misstep. Suddenly Micum saw the man's gaze flicker to the left.

Jumping aside, he faced the second swordsman before the man had time to swing at his back. Thinking Micum had off-balanced himself, the first man overextended a lunge and Micum's blade took him under the ribs.

Even as he jerked the blade free, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and barely avoided a slicing cut at his shoulder from a third swordsman. Drawing a long dagger with his left hand, Micum moved back, trying to keep them both in front of him. These two were younger, less sure of themselves than the first, but they knew their trade. Learing like wolves, they stayed wide apart, making it difficult to defend from both at once. One would cut at him to draw a parry, while the other tried to hamstring him on his open side. But Micum had been in too many fights like this to be drawn. Using his sword and dagger, he managed to fend off their attacks and return a few thrusts of his own.

Pinking one of them on the arm, he said easily, "I think it's only fair to tell you that my purse is far too light for you to go to such trouble to take it." His attackers exchanged a quick glance but made no reply, grimly pressing to break his guard.

"Suit yourselves, then."

The man to his right feinted forward strongly, managing to nick Micum on the ribs just deeply enough to make him regret leaving his mail shirt behind in Wolde. Springing back, however, the man missed his footing in the churned snow and staggered. Micum killed him before he'd regained his balance and was just turning to address his final opponent when a sharp blow from behind knocked him to his knees. Looking down, he found a bloody arrowhead protruding from the front of his leather shirt just beneath his right arm. The two swordsmen, unable to break through his defense, had managed to push him out onto the road and into the archers range.

Serves me right for not paying attention, he thought angrily, seeing the final stroke coming down. Before it could, though, the bravo fell backward with a red-fletched arrow squarely through his chest.

Ducking for cover again, Micum looked across the road. Alec knelt behind the dead horse, returning the archers' shots with a singing volley of his own. Two lay dead already, and another dropped as Micum watched.

"By the Flame," Micum gasped. " By the Flame!»

Seregil disappeared into the forest at the first sign of ambush. Making a wide circuit, he outflanked three swordsmen headed in Alec's direction and then worked his way into their path, concealing himself behind a fallen tree until they came abreast of him. When all three had passed, he jumped out and swung at the hindmost, killing him with a slash across the back of the neck. The second man turned in time to catch Seregil's blade in the throat.

Unfortunately, the third man—a great, heavyset villain armed with a broadsword—had ample time to face him. He caught Seregil's first blow at midblade, throwing it back in an attempt to wrench it free. Seregil maintained his grip, but the force of the blow sent an unpleasant shock up his arm.

He considered a timely retreat into the woods, but the snow was too deep for sprinting. Springing back a pace, he sized up his opponent.

Evidently the other man was doing the same; he gestured derisively at the slender blade Seregil carried, spat into the snow, then launched a mighty swing at his head. Hoping for the best, Seregil pulled a dagger and ducked under the blade, throwing himself at his adversary's knees. The unexpected move caught the man off guard just long enough for Seregil to bury the knife in his thigh. With a bellow of pain, the man tumbled backward, dragging Seregil with him, and immediately rolled to pin him.

Caught face down under the larger man's bulk, Seregil choked on the powdery snow. Try as he might, he couldn't break free. Then the weight shifted and cold, callused hands were around his throat, cutting off his wind and shaking him like a rat.

Summoning all his will, he managed to draw up his leg to reach his boot top. A sizzling haze of stars swam before his eyes, but practiced fingers found the grip of his poniard. With the last of his strength, he

drove it back between his assailant's ribs.

The big man let out a startled grunt, then crumpled over on top of him, still pinning him down.

Gasping for air, Seregil heaved the body aside and staggered to his feet.

"Illior's merciful today," he panted, bending to make certain the man was dead.

Something buzzed past his head like an angry wasp and he flung himself down, pulling his poniard free of the body. But it was Alec, another arrow ready on the string, who stepped from the trees. The boy's left thigh was bloody and he looked decidedly pale. Micum Cavish was with him, holding a bloodstained wad of cloth against his side.

"Behind you." Micum nodded past Seregil's shoulder.

Turning, Seregil found another ambusher sprawled dead in the snow not four feet from his back, a red-feathered arrow through his throat.

"Well," he gasped, standing up to brush off the snow, "I believe you just repaid me for that bow."

"By Sakor, this child can shoot!" Micum grinned.

"He just put me in his debt back at the road, then picked off two more as easy as you please. I saw another take off through the trees when Alec was coming over to tend me."

"Damn," Seregil muttered as he collected his weapons and searched the dead men scattered around.

"Get your arrow from that one, Alec."

Alec approached the dead man and gingerly tugged on the shaft protruding from his neck. As he pulled it free, the man's head rolled to the side, his open eyes seeming to fix on his killer. Alec backed away from him with a shudder, carefully wiping the arrowhead in the snow before dropping it into his quiver.

Back at the road they gathered the other bodies into a heap. Alec pulled the arrow from the first man he'd shot, but before he could clean it, Micum took it from him.

"That was your first man, wasn't it?" he asked.

"Micum, it's not his way," Seregil warned, knowing what his friend was up to.

"It's best to do these things proper," Micum replied quietly. "I did it for you, remember? It's you should be doing it for him."

"No, it's your ritual," Seregil sighed, slouching against a tree. "Go ahead, then. Get it over with."

"Come here, Alec. Stand facing me." Micum was uncommonly serious as he held up the arrow.

"There's a twofold purpose in this. The old ways, the soldier ways, say that if you drink the blood of your first man, none of the others you ever kill will be able to haunt you. Open your mouth."

Alec shot a questioning look to Seregil, who only shrugged and looked away. Under Micum's

commanding gaze, Alec opened his mouth. Micum laid the arrowhead briefly against his tongue, then withdrew it.

Seregil saw the boy grimace, remembered the salt and copper taste that had flooded his own mouth years before when Micum had done the same with him. His stomach stirred uneasily.

When it was over, Micum patted Alec's shoulder.

"I know you didn't enjoy that much, any more than you enjoyed killing those fellows. Just remember that you did it to protect yourself and your friends, and that's a good thing, the only good reason to kill. But don't ever get so that you like it, any more than you liked the taste of the blood. You understand that?"

Alec looked down at the steaming crimson stains spreading out from the bodies in the snow and nodded.

7 South to Boersby

In spite of his wound, Micum agreed with Seregil that they should bolt through as quickly as possible to Boersby. Giving wide berth to the few steadings and inns that lay along the road, they kept up a steady pace for as long as Micum could stay in the saddle, slept in the open, and ate whatever Alec shot. Micum's wound didn't fester, but it was giving him more pain than he cared to admit. More aggravating still, however, was Seregil's increasing silence during the day and a half it took to reach the banks of the Folcwine.

From past experience, Micum recognized this as a sure sign that something was amiss; Seregil's black mood could go on indefinitely if something didn't happen to shake him out of it.

They rode out of the forest at late afternoon and sat looking out over the broad course of the Folcwine.

Micum was bleeding again, and it left him faint and irritable.

"Bilairy's Guts, Seregil, come out with it before I knock you down!" he growled at last.

Scowling down at his horse's neck, Seregil muttered, "I wish we'd taken just one of them alive."

"One of-oh, hell, man! Are you still brooding about that?" Micum turned to Alec. "A nest of forest bandits-hardly a rarity in the Folcwine—surprises him, and instantly there's some dark plot afoot. I think he's just piqued that he didn't hear them coming."

Alec looked down at his hands, apparently finding it politic not to comment.

"All right, then." Seregil turned in the saddle to face Micum. "We searched the bodies. What did we find?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary," Micum snapped. "Not one solitary thing!"

"That's right. But think again, what did they have?"

Micum snorted with exasperation. "Cloaks, boots, belts, tunics, all local stuff."

"Swords and bows," Alec ventured.

"Locally made?"

"The bows were. I don't know about the swords."

"Looked to be," Micum said slowly, thinking back. "But what in the name of all-"

"Everything was new!" Seregil exclaimed, as if they should immediately understand. "Did they have gold, jewelry, fancy clothes?" he demanded. "Not a scrap! A little silver in their purses, but not so much as a luck charm or knucklebone otherwise. So what we're left with is a gang of ruffians in new local clothing, carrying new local weapons, who are either so inept at their trade or of such austere temperament that they forgo any of the usual adornments."

With that he sat glowering at the others, thin mouth twisted in an exasperated grimace.

He looks like a filthy young lordling berating dim-witted servants, thought Micum, again resisting the temptation to knock his friend off his horse.

Alec suddenly straightened in his saddle. "They weren't bandits at all. They were just rigged out to look like it!"

Seregil's features relaxed into something like a smile for the first time that day. "But more than that, they were foreign to the area. Otherwise, they'd have had no need to buy everything new."

"When we searched the bodies there weren't any guild marks, were there?" asked Alec. "You know, like that Juggler at Asengai's?"

"No, at least none that I recognized. But that may not be significant in itself."

Micum smiled to himself, watching them go over the details of the ambush again like two hounds on a fresh scent.

The boy was hooked for certain.

"So who are they?" he broke in at last.

"Plenimarans? Even if they tracked us, which I doubt, how could they get far enough ahead of us to set up an ambush?"

"I don't think they could," said Seregil. "These fellows were already in place, waiting for us."

Micum stroked down the corners of his heavy mustache. "But that still means they'd have to have gotten word of who we were and which way we were corning."

"That's right," Seregil agreed. "It could have been by magic, or pigeon. In any case, it means there's a good deal more afoot here than we thought. All the more reason for staying off the main roads and getting to Skala as soon as possible. Time may be shorter than we think."

"If the Overlord's forces—" Micum began, but Seregil cut him short with a quick glance toward Alec.

"Sorry, Alec," he said, "we trust you well enough, but we answer to others in this matter. It's probably safer this way anyhow."

Seregil looked up at the lowering clouds.

"We're losing the light fast, but we're too close to town for me to spend another night outside. What do you say, Micum? Are you well enough to press on?"

"Let's press on. You've got contacts there, don't you?"

"At the Tipsy Frog. We'll stay the night there."

The lamps were lit by the time they reached the town.

Unlike Wolde, Boersby was a rough and ragged wayside town consisting almost entirely of establishments catering to the traders. Jumbled together at the water's edge like thirsty cattle, inns, taverns, and warehouses competed for frontage with the long docks stretching out into the river.

With winter coming on, the town was crowded with the last rush of traders trying to make a profit before the roads closed until spring.

Seregil led the way to a dubious-looking hostelry at the edge of town. The battered signboard over the door displayed a bilious green creature—no doubt intended by the artist to be a frog—draining a hogshead.

A sizable crowd milled about in the dim confines of the main room, hollering back and forth and pounding on tables for service. A fire smoldered on the large hearth, filling the room with an eye-stinging haze. A heavy plank laid across two barrels served as the bar, and behind it stood a lean, pasty-faced man in a leather apron.

"Any rooms?" Seregil inquired, giving the taverner a discreet hand sign.

"Only got one left at the back, nothin' fancy," the taverner replied with a quick wink. "One silver penny per night, in advance."

With a curt nod Seregil tossed a few coins on the bar. "Send up some food-whatever you've got and lots of it—and water. We're just off the trail and hungry as wolves."

The room was hardly more than a lean-to built onto the back of the tavern. A sagging bedstead against the far wall, its linen hinting broadly of previous lodgers, was the only furnishing. A scruffy lad appeared a moment later with a candle stand and a covered firepot, closely followed by another with a platter of roast pork and turnips, and pitchers of ale and water.

A soft knock came at the door as they were eating.

It was the landlord this time. Without a word, he handed Seregil a bundle and left.

"Come along, Alec," said Seregil, tucking it under his arm. "Bring the pack. There's a bathhouse next door and I could do with a wash. What about you, Micum?"

"Good idea. I doubt I could stand the three of us in a closed room tonight." He rubbed a hand ruefully through the thick, coppery stubble on his cheeks. "I could do with a good shave, as well, not that either of you would understand!"

The bathhouse was a drafty establishment. After some determined haggling with the woman who owned it, Seregil saw to it that the two splintery wooden tubs the place boasted of were emptied of their murky contents and refilled with clean water. For an additional fee she heated two buckets of water to take off the chill. As they stripped down, she brought in towels and coarse yellow soap, then took their clothes away to be washed. No stranger to naked customers, she greeted Alec's hot-cheeked discomfort with open disdain.

"You've got to get over that, you know," Seregil remarked as he and Micum settled in their tubs.

"What?" Alec huddled closer to the room's tiny fire, waiting his turn.

"This modesty of yours. Or at least the blushing part."

Micum sank back with a sigh, letting the tepid water soften the crusted blood around his wound.

Seregil scrubbed himself quickly head to foot and climbed out again.

"All yours, Alec. Use the soap and have a care for your nails. I've a notion to elevate our station in life by tomorrow." He was shivering as he scrubbed the ragged towel over his hair and shoulders. "Illior's Hands!" he grumbled. "I swear when I get back to Rhнminee I'm going to head for the nearest civilized bath and stay there a week!"

"I've seen him fight through fire, blood, starvation, and magic," Micum remarked, speaking to nobody in particular, "but deny him a hot bath at the end of it and he fusses like a kept whore."

"A lot you'd know about that." Unrolling his bundle, Seregil shook out a coarse woolen dress and pulled it on over his head.

Alec gaped in astonishment, and Seregil give him a wink. "Time for another lesson, I think."

He quickly plaited his hair back into a loose braid and pulled a few strands free to hang untidily around his face. Greyish powder from small pouch dulled his hair and skin. Unwrapping the rest of the bundle, he pulled out a huge striped shawl, battered wooden clogs, and a leather girdle. Satisfied with his work, he tucked the smallest of his daggers out of sight under his belt and turned away for a moment, rearranging his body beneath the loose gown to give the impression of the stooped frailty of age. When he turned back again, Alec and Micum saw an unremarkable little servant woman.

"Would the two gentlemen be good enough to give an opinion?" Seregil asked in an old woman's voice

heavy with the soft accent of Mycena.

Micum gave his nodded approval. "Well met, gramma. Where are you off to in that getup?"

"Less said, less heard," Seregil replied, going to the door. "I'm off to see which way the wind blows. If anyone asks, just say I had other clothes, which of course," he added, dropping a rusty curtsy and flashing his best crooked grin, "I do!"

When their clothes came back, Alec and Micum returned to their room at the Frog. The candles were lit and the firepot glowed cheerfully on its tripod in the center of the room.

"How's your side feel now?" Alec asked.

"Better, but I'll rest easier on the floor," Micum said, eyeing the sagging ropes showing beneath the bed frame. "Just be a good lad and help me make up a pallet with the cloaks here next to the door."

Alec laid down blankets and cloaks for him and Micum sat down gratefully, sword across his knees.

"Bring your sword over and I'll show you how to keep a proper edge on it," he invited, taking out a pair of whetstones.

They worked in silence for a while, listening to the singing of metal against stone. Bone-tired, Alec was grateful to find Micum a person easy to be quiet with. The man's uncomplicated good nature demanded no idle chatter.

He was rather startled, therefore, when Micum said without looking up from his task, "You're as quiet as a stump. You might not think it, but I'm just as nosy as Seregil in my way."

When Alec hesitated, he continued, not unkindly,

"I never imagined him taking on an apprentice at all, and certainly not a simple young woods colt like you. Not that I mean any offense, mind you. It's just that you've more the look of a gamekeeper's son than a spy. So tell me, what do you think of our friend?"

"Well, to be honest, I'm not quite sure what to think. From the first he's treated me like—as if—" He stopped in confusion; he'd seldom been consulted about his opinions, and had to search for the words to frame them. Besides, while Micum's open, jovial manner invited candor, it was clear that he and Seregil were close friends.

"It's as if he knows all about me," he managed at last. "And sometimes like he assumes I know all about him. He's saved my life, clothed me, taught me all sorts of things. It's just that every so often it occurs to me that I don't know much about him. I tried asking him about his home, his family—that sort of thing—but he just smiles and changes the subject. He's good at that."

Micum gave a knowing chuckle.

"Anyway," Alec continued, "he seems to think he can make me into whatever it is that he is, but it makes me nervous sometimes. I don't know enough about him to know what he expects of me! You're his friend and all, and I wouldn't ask you to break a confidence, but isn't there something you can tell me about him?"

"Oh, I think so." Micum ran a thumbnail along the edge of his sword blade. "We first met years ago up near the Gold Vein River. We got on well enough and when he went south to Rhнminee again, I went with him.

"He has an old friend there, Nysander, and it was from him that I learned most of what I know about our closemouthed friend. Where he came from and why he left is for him to tell you. I don't know much of it myself, except that he has some degree of noble blood that connects him to the Skalan court. He was hardly older that you are now when he came to Skala, but he'd seen some trouble already. Nysander's a wizard, and he took Seregil on as an apprentice. It must not have worked out, though—Seregil's no wizard, for all his tricks with animals—but they've stayed friends. You'll meet him when you get there. Seregil always visits him first thing when he comes home from a jaunt."

"A wizard! What's he like?"

"Nysander? He's a good old soul, kind as the Maker on a summer's day. A lot of the other wizards act pretty grand and mighty, but let old Nysander get a drink or two in him and he's likely to start conjuring green unicorns or setting the knives to dancing with the spoons, for all that he's one of the old ones."

"Old ones?"

"Wizards live as along as Aurлnfaie, and Nysander's been around a good long time. He must be pushing three hundred these days. He knew Queen Idrilain's grandmother, and Idrilain's a grandmother herself now. He's a great favorite of hers. She has him to her chambers frequently, and he's always at banquets."

"Seregil said there were a lot of wizards at Rhнminee."

"There's a whole place full of them, called the Orлska House—though it's more like a castle than a house. Like I was saying, a lot of them are pretty full of themselves and take him for a doddering old fool, snub him even. But you just wait until you meet him, then make up your own mind. As for Seregil, don't worry about him. He's not the trusting type, so if he's chosen to take you along with him, you can be sure he's pleased with you—whatever his reasons. One thing I can tell you for certain is that he'll lay down his life for a friend, and never leave a comrade in the lurch."

"Never."

"He may tell you different—and once you see how he lives in Rhнminee, you may wonder—but I know him and he's as true as the sun in the sky. The one thing he can't forgive is betrayal; you'll do well to remember that. Somewhere, back before he came to Skala, someone betrayed him badly somehow and it's left a mark on him for life. He'll kill anyone who betrays him."

Alec mulled this over for a moment, then asked, "What's Rhнminee like?"

"It's the most beautiful city in the world. It's also rotten with intrigue. The royal family has more branches than a willow and they're always scheming against each other for a higher place on the tree.

"Political plots, old feuds, secret lovers, and who knows what else. And more often than not, when one of them needs a document stolen or some token delivered in the dead of night, it's our friend Seregil who does the job. The people who hire him never actually meet him, mind you, but those who want his services know how to contact him. You ask for the 'Rhнminee Cat. He's the best and worst kept secret in the city."

"It's all so hard to imagine." Alec shook his head ruefully. "He thinks I can do that sort of thing?"

"I told you before, if he wasn't certain you could, you wouldn't be here. I wager he sees something in you that neither you nor I do. Oh, he'd have rescued you anyway, no matter what, but there must be something else that's caused him to keep you on with him."

Micum caught his eye and winked. "Now there's a mystery for you to solve, for I doubt you'll ever hear it from Seregil. In the meantime, though, don't worry about pleasing him. Just keep your eyes open and follow his lead."

Slipping back into the room, Seregil threw his shawl aside and sprawled across the bed to ease the kinks from his back. Micum and Alec looked at him expectantly.

"There's a price on Aren Windover's head, and yours, too, Alec," he informed them. "There was also mention of an unknown third man. I trust this information was furnished by the man who got away on the road the other day."

"Don't start on that," Micum warned. "Who's offering this reward? Our good mayor of Wolde?"

"Supposedly. The message came by pigeon yesterday, saying that we've carried off the guild money box or some such nonsense."

"How much is Aren worth this time?"

"Twenty silver marks."

"Bilairy's gateposts!" Micum gasped. "What the hell have you gotten into?"

"Damned if I know." Seregil scrubbed a hand wearily through his hair. "Where's my pouch?"

Alec tossed it to him and he took out the wooden disk, regarding it with a puzzled scowl. "This is the only thing we took. I can't figure what would make it worth all this trouble, but I guess we'd better keep a close guard on it, just in case."

Threading a length of leather lacing through the square hole in its center, he stared at it again for a moment, then tied the thong around his neck. "If they want it back that badly, I'm all the more determined to get it to Skala."

"And how much do they want for me?" Alec asked. "It's the first time I've been an outlaw."

"Twenty marks, same as me. Not bad for one of your tender years. They only offered half that for Micum."

"You're certain there was no mention of me by name?" asked Micum.

"None at all. Seems you got away clean."

"I've always come and gone as I pleased around there, so I won't be missed. Are we in danger here?"

"I don't think so. If they had agents in Boersby, they wouldn't have involved the locals. It sounds like they sent similar messages all over: Stook, Ballton, Osk, even Sark. Whoever they are, they've lost us and they're not pleased. Just the same, I think we'd best be very careful."

"If they're looking for two men and a boy, I say we split up." Micum stroked his mustache thoughtfully. "I believe I'd like to circle back anyway, have a look at that place you saw marked on the map, down in the Blackwater Fens. I'll head out before first light."

"Are you sure you're up to it?"

"I'll ride easy."

"Take our horses with you when you go and send word as soon as you can. I've already booked passage for Alec and myself down to Nanta. If you need to find us, we'll be aboard a river trader called the Darter. She's got a black hull with a red cutwater. Ask for Lady Gwethelyn of Cador Ford."

"Lady Gwethelyn?" Micum grinned. "It's been a while since I've heard from that good lady. You're in for a singular treat, Alec my lad!"

8 The Captain and the Lady

"That's a warm-lookin" wench, even if she is a bit past her prime, eh, Captain Rhal?" the helmsman remarked.

The Darter's triangular sail was bellied out in the brisk wind, and Rhal moved to the rail for a better view of his passenger, still seated in the prow.

The captain was a stocky, dark-haired man of middling years. Though somewhat balding, he was still comely enough in a rakish, weather-beaten sort of way to attract the graces of a good many women in a good many ports—a fact he was glad to capitalize on.

"That she is. I've always fancied a trim-cut wench," he agreed, discounting Skywake's appraisal of her age; coming from him that meant anything over the age of fourteen. Though the lady in question was clearly past the first blush of youth, she was no beldam. Perhaps twenty-five?

Lady Gwethelyn and her young squire had come aboard at dawn. After seeing her gear stowed in the small passenger cabin, she'd asked the captain if she might sit in the prow, as she was prone to

seasickness and thought that the breeze might help ward it off until she became accustomed to the motion of the ship. Her soft, low voice and gentle manner had charmed him right down to his boots.

The trip downriver might not be so monotonous this time, after all.

Studying her in the morning light, Rhal found no cause to alter his first assessment. Her carefully draped wimple framed a demure, fine-boned face. Under her mantle she wore a high-necked traveling gown that showed to advantage a slender waist and gently rounded bosom. She might be a bit thin through the hips for some, but as he'd remarked to Skywake, he liked his women trim. The chill wind off the water had brought out the roses in her pale cheeks, and her wide grey eyes seemed to sparkle as she leaned toward her traveling companion to point out some detail on the distant bank. Perhaps she was closer to twenty?

The Darter's primary cargo was generally furs and spices, but years ago Rhal had found it lucrative to add an extra cabin below decks, and he often ferried passengers up and down the Folcwine. The previous evening, an old servant woman had booked passage as far as Nanta for the lady and her squire. In return for a glass of ale, the old gossip was happy to extol the beauties of her mistress and bemoan the frailty of health that forced her to spend the harsh winter months with her relations in the south.

This was common enough; many of the more well-to-do merchants in the northlands found themselves southern wives, and often these ladies preferred to migrate back to their warmer homelands before the icy grip of the northern winter brought all normal activity to a halt.

Seeing to it that the sail was properly trimmed, Rhal went forward to con the river. The Folcwine was broad and generally forgiving, but this was the season for gravel bars.

His new position afforded him a better view of his passengers, and he found himself distracted again. The ever-present squire—scarcely more than a raw boy for all his livery and sword—had stepped to the rail. The woman sat gazing pensively toward the shore, hands clasped in her lap.

Her dress, her manner, the large garnet ring she wore on one gloved forefinger, all confirmed her a lady of quality, but Rhal round himself again wondering about her reasons for traveling, she'd come aboard with nothing but a large hamper and one none-too-heavy trunk. The squire had a battered old pack that weighed nearly as much; hardly the baggage of a gentlewoman. That, together with her lack of women servants and the late hour at which her passage was booked, suggested a more interesting possibility. Could it be she was a runaway wife? One could always hope, and, by Astellus, he had a week to find out!

While Seregil would have been more than pleased with the impression he had made upon the captain, his pensive mood was no ruse.

The previous night, he'd found suitable clothing for himself and Alec, then checked Micum's wound and tried unsuccessfully to get him to take the bed. When all efforts had failed, Seregil had tumbled into it beside Alec and fallen asleep almost at once. Aside from the fact that he was worn out from the events of the last few days, he knew it was the only way to escape Micum's thunderous snoring.

Sometime later, he'd awakened with the sense of something amiss. A strong wind had come up in the night. It gusted around the corners of the building, sighing through the cracks in the walls. The firepot had died to a dim glow and he was cold except for the warmth of Alec's naked back resting lightly against his own.

This in itself was odd, he'd thought, because together with the fact that he didn't remember disrobing, the boy's persistent modesty would hardly have allowed him to sleep naked with anyone else.

Yet that wasn't it, he decided sleepily. By the faint light of the firepot, he could make out Micum's bulk on the pallet by the door. Something wrong there, something obvious—if only his foggy brain would clear.

Sliding out of bed, he crossed softly to where Micum lay, disliking the feel of the rough, cold boards under his bare feet. The sense of unease grew stronger as he crouched beside him; he had never known Micum to sleep so quietly.

His friend lay curled on his side, facing away from Seregil so that he could scarcely hear the man's breathing. In fact, he couldn't hear any breathing at all.

"Micum, wake up," he whispered, but his throat was so dry that hardly a sound came. Dread-thick and palpable-pressed around him and he grasped his friend's shoulder, suddenly desperate for him to wake up, to speak.

Micum was as cold to the touch as the floor beneath Seregil's feet. Jerking his hand away, he found it darkly stained with blood. Micum slumped slowly onto his back, and Seregil saw the gaping wound in his friends throat where his own poniard was still lodged. Micum's eyes were open, his expression one of terrible surprise and sadness.

An anguished cry welled in Seregil's throat.

He lurched back and pushed himself away from the body, snagging tender skin on the rough planking.

The wind mounted a sudden assault on the house, slamming one of the window shutters back in a frigid blast of air. Fanned by the draft, the coals blazed up for an instant, and by their brief illumination, Seregil caught sight of a tall figure standing in the corner nearest the window. The man was closely muffled from head to knees in a dark mantle but Seregil recognized the implacable straightness of back, the slightly inclined head, the sharp thrust of a cocked elbow under the cloak as an unseen hand rested on belt or pommel. And, with an utterly unpleasant mingling of precognition and memory, he knew exactly how their conversation would begin.

"Well, Seregil, this is a pretty state I find you in."

"Father, this isn't how it appears," Seregil replied, hating the pleading note he heard in his own voice—the very echo of a past self who'd uttered these same words in a situation not unlike the present one—but powerless to sound otherwise. But his older self was also uneasily aware of his empty weapon hand.

"It appears that you have a dead friend on your floor and a catamite in your bed." His father's voice was just as he remembered: dry, sardonic, full of calculated disapprobation.

"That's only Alec—" Seregil began angrily, but the words died in his throat as the boy rose naked from the bed with a wanton grace completely unlike his usual manner. Coming to Seregil, he pressed warmly against him and exchanged an arch glance with his father.

"Your choice of companions has not improved."

"Father, please!" A dizzying sense of unreality closed in on Seregil as he sank to his knees.

"Exile has only strengthened your baser tendencies," his father sneered. "As ever, you are a disgrace to our house. Some other punishment must be found."

Then, with that rare gentleness that had always taken Seregil off guard, he shook his head and sighed.

"Seregil, my youngest, what am I to do with you? It has been so long! Let us at least clasp hands."

Seregil reached to take his father's hand. Shameful tears burned his eyes as he peered up into the depths of the hood, hoping for a glimpse of the well-remembered face. Yet even then a tiny, sickening tendril of doubt uncurled at the back of his mind. Alec's hands tightened on his shoulders as his father's hand closed around his.

"You're dead!" Seregil groaned, trying too late to pull away from the fleshless grasp that held him. "Nine years ago! Adzriel sent word. You're dead!"

His father nodded agreeably, pushing back his hood.

A few strands of dark hair clung to the shriveled scalp. The sharp grey eyes were gone, leaving two black craters in their place; the bridge of his nose was eaten away. Shriveled lips twisted into the parody of a smile as he inclined his ruined face, engulfing Seregil in a sullen, mouldy odor.

"True, but I am still your father," the thing went on, and you shall be properly punished!"

A sword flashed from under the cloak and he stepped back, holding Seregil's severed right hand in his—Seregil had bolted up in the bed, drenched in sweat, clutching both hands to his heaving chest. There was no wind, no open shutter. Micum's snoring rose and fell in a comforting rumble. Beside him, Alec stirred and mumbled a question.

"It's nothing, go back to sleep," Seregil whispered, and with his heart beating much too quickly, he'd tried to do the same.

Even now, with the sunlight glancing off the water and the rapid chuckle of the current beneath the bow, the ominous, disorienting feel of the dream haunted him. He'd certainly had nightmares before but never about his father, not since he'd left home, and never one that had left him with such a throbbing headache the next day. A cup of mulled wine at the tavern had helped, but now it was creeping back, hammering at his temples and bringing a bitter taste into his throat. He wanted desperately to rub his eyes, but the carefully applied cosmetics prevented even this slight relief.

"Are you still unwell, lady?"

Seregil turned to find the captain towering over him.

"Just a bit of headache, Captain," he replied, modulating his voice to the softer tones he'd adopted for this particular role.

"That's probably from the sun off the water, my lady. Come around behind the mast. You'll still feel the breeze, but the sail will shade you from the glare. I'll have one of the men heat some wine for you; that should put you right."

Offering his arm, Rhal led his fair passenger back to a bench attached to the deckhouse. To his ill-concealed annoyance, Alec followed them back and took up a station at the starboard rail.

"That boy keeps a close watch on you," Rhal observed, seating himself next to «Gwethelyn» rather more closely than the span of the bench required.

"Ciris is a kinsman of my husband's," Seregil replied. "My husband has entrusted him with my safety. He takes his task very seriously."

"Still, it doesn't seem that a slip of a boy could be much protection." A sailor appeared with a pitcher of wine and a pair of wooden cups. Rhal served Seregil himself.

"I'm certain you have nothing to fear on my account.

"Ciris is a fine swordsman," Seregil lied, sipping delicately at his wine; it had not escaped his notice that his cup was a good deal fuller than the captain's.

"Just the same," Rhal replied gallantly, leaning closer, "I'm making it my duty to watch over you until we reach port. If there's any service I can render, day or night, you've only to call on me. Perhaps you would do me the honor of taking supper with me in my cabin tonight?"

Seregil lowered his eyes demurely. "You're very kind, but I'm so weary from my journey that I shall retire quite early."

"Tomorrow night, then, when you're rested," the captain parried.

"Very well, tomorrow. I'm sure you've many tales that will entertain my squire as well as myself. We will be honored."

Captain Rhal rose with a slight bow; the fleeting look of frustration Seregil caught as he turned away assured him that, at least moment, he'd held the day.

"Captain Rhal's out to seduce me," Seregil announced in their little cabin that evening, applying fresh cosmetics while Alec held the lantern and a small mirror.

"What are you going to do?"

Seregil winked. "Go along with him, of course. Up to a point, anyway."

"Well, you could hardly let him, you know—" Alec gestured vaguely.

"Yes, I know, though I rather wonder if you do." Seregil raised an appraising eyebrow at his young companion. "But you're right, of course. Letting him under my skirts now would certainly spoil the illusion I've worked so hard to create.

"Still" — dropping into the manner of Lady Gwethelyn, he looked up at Alec through his lashes—"this Captain Rhal is a handsome rogue, wouldn't you say?"

Alec shook his head, unsure whether Seregil was being serious or not. "Are you going to sleep with all that on your face?"

"I think it might be wise. If the man is determined enough to invite a married woman to his cabin on the first day, I certainly wouldn't put it past him to find some excuse to wander in here during the night. That's why I'm also going to wear that."

He gestured toward the fine linen nightgown on the bed. "The key to successfully traveling in a disguise is to maintain it at all times, no matter what. Unlace me." Standing up, he held his hair to one side while Alec undid the back of the gown. "The practice may come in handy for you someday."

From this angle, Alec was uneasily aware of the completeness of Seregil's disguise. Throughout the day, watching from across the deck as Seregil played Gwethelyn for the captain and crew, he'd been halfway taken in himself.

The illusion was considerably diminished, however, as the gown fell away and Seregil began untying his false bosom. It was his own creation, he'd explained proudly—a sort of close-fitting linen undershirt, the modest breasts consisting of domed pockets stuffed with balls of soft wool.

"Better than some real ones you'll run across," he said with a grin. "I think I can do without that for now, though." He tucked the garment carefully away in the chest. "As the defender of my honor, it's up to you to keep our good captain from discovering their loss, should he appear."

"You'd be safer with Micum along."

"Micum hates working with me when I go as a woman. Says I'm 'too damned pretty by half and it makes him nervous.»

"I can understand that," Alec replied with a self-conscious grin. "Lady Gwethelyn" sounded a troubling chord in him, as well. Seregil's convincing illusion stirred up a confusion that Alec hadn't the philosophy to put into words.

"You'll do fine. Besides, a lady is allowed some protection of her own." Smiling, Seregil pulled a small dagger from the sleeve of his discarded gown and tucked it under his pillow. "I've heard that Plenimaran women are expected to use these on themselves if some stranger invades their bedchamber, so as to protect their husband's honor. I call that adding injury to insult."

"Have you ever been to Plenimar?" Alec asked, sensing the opening for a tale.

"Just along the borders and territories, never into the country itself." Seregil pulled on the nightdress and set about braiding his hair over one shoulder.

"Strangers don't pass unnoticed there. Unless you have some good honest reason for going there, it's better to stay away. From what I've heard, spies there have extremely short lives. I find more than enough to keep me busy in Rhнminee."

"Micum says—" Alec began, but was interrupted by a heavy knock at the door.

"Who's there?" Seregil called in Gwethelyn's voice, wrapping himself in a cloak and signaling for Alec to retreat to the curtained servant's alcove.

"Captain Rhal, my lady," came the muffled reply. "I thought some tea might help you to sleep."

Alec peeked out of his alcove, and Seregil rolled his eyes. "How very thoughtful."

Alec stepped forward on cue as Rhal came in, taking the steaming pitcher with a bow that effectively blocked further progress into the room.

"I was just about to put out the candle," Seregil said with a yawn. "I shall have a cup, and I'm sure I shall go directly to sleep. Good night."

Rhal managed a strained bow and left, but not before shooting a decidedly unfriendly glance in Alec's direction.

Alec closed the door firmly and turned to find Seregil shaking with silent laughter.

"By the Four, Alec, you'd better watch your back," Seregil whispered. "My new swain is jealous of you! And the way you met him at the door— He broke off, wiping his eyes. "Ah, I'll sleep soundly tonight knowing my virtue is so well guarded. But I believe your constancy deserves a reward. Pour the tea and we'll have a tale!"

When they'd settled comfortably on either end of the bunk with their cups, Seregil took a long sip and said expansively, "So, what would you like to hear about?"

Alec thought for a moment; he had so many questions, it was difficult to know where to begin. "The warrior queens of Skala," he replied at last.

"Excellent choice. The history of the queens is the essence of Skala itself. You recall me saying that the first of these queens appeared during the first great war against Plenimar?"

Alec nodded. "Queen Gera-something."

"Gherilain the First. The Oracle's Queen, she's sometimes called, because of the circumstances of her crowning. At the start of the war Skala was ruled from Eros by her father, Thelatimos. He was a good leader, but Plenimar was at the height of her strength and by the tenth year it looked as if Skala and Mycena were going to fall. Plenimar had overrun Mycena as far as the Folcwine River years before and controlled the farmlands and territories to the north. With their superior sea power and ample resources, they had every advantage."

"And they had the necromancers," Alec interjected. "And their armies of walking dead, you said."

"I see that certain subjects stick in your mind. I believe I said that legends mention rumors of such things. The Plenimarans are known for their brutality and thoroughness both during battle and after. It's a short step from there to monsters, wouldn't you say?"

Noticing that Alec looked a little crestfallen, he added kindly, "But it's important to have a good ear and a sharp memory; you're well equipped in those respects. In our trade you have to sift every tale, separate the true weave from the embroidery, as it were.

"But to resume my tale, things looked quite hopeless that tenth winter of the war. In desperation, Thelatimos resolved to consult the Afran Oracle. This meant making a long, dangerous journey to Afra, which lies in the hills of central Skala. But he reached the precinct by the solstice and asked what he should do. The royal scribe who accompanied him took down the Oracle's reply word for word. Thelatimos later had it inscribed on a golden tablet that is displayed to this day in the throne room at Rhнminee. It reads:

"So long as a daughter of Thelatimos line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated."

"Those words changed the course of history forever.

"Since the Afran Oracles were renowned for the accuracy and wisdom of their prophecies, Thelatimos, though rather surprised, decided to follow the edict. The divine covenant was proclaimed and his four sons duly stepped aside in favor of their sister Gherilain, a girl just your age and the youngest of his children.

"There was a great deal of controversy among the generals as to whether the Oracle meant for an untried girl to take over the actual leading of the armies. Thelatimos meant to follow the letter of the prophecy. Declaring his daughter Queen, he instructed his commanders to prepare her for war. As the story goes, they had other ideas. They gave her a bit of training, dressed her up in fine armor, and stuck her in the center of a sizable bodyguard at the rear of the army. During the next battle, however, young Gherilain rallied her guard, led them to the front, and personally killed the Overlord Krysethan the Second. Although the war continued another two years, her actions that day bought Skala and her allies enough time for the Aurлnfaie to arrive. From that day no one doubted Gherilain's divine right to lead."

"And there have been queens ever since?" asked Alec. "No one ever questioned the Oracle's words?"

"Some did. Gherilain's son Pelis secretly poisoned his sister when he was passed over as king, then took the throne, claiming that the Oracle had really meant's long as the daughter of Thelatimos rules rather than "a daughter of the line of Thelatimos." Unfortunately for him, there was a devastating crop failure during his second year of rule, quickly followed by an outbreak of plague. He died, along with hundreds of others. As soon as his niece, Agnalain, took the throne things began to improve."

"But what if a queen had no daughters?"

"That's come up a few times over the last eight hundred years. Queen Marnil was the first. She had six fine sons but no acceptable successor. In desperation she journeyed to Afra where the Oracle instructed her to take another consort, specifying that she choose a man on the basis of bravery and honor."

"What about her husband?" asked Alec.

"That did present a problem, since the Oracle wasn't very specific. Since then, various queens have interpreted the directive in a number of ways. Some even used the office as a sort of reward. Queen Idrilain's grandmother, Elesthera, had more than thirty "consorts," but even the Skalans considered this rather eccentric."

"How could a queen produce legitimate heirs if she slept with any man who took her fancy?" Alec exclaimed, looking scandalized.

"What does legitimate mean, after all?" Seregil said with a laugh. "A king may be cuckolded if his wife

can fool him into thinking that her lover's child is his own, not a difficult thing to do. But any child a queen bears is her own, no matter who the father was, and therefore a legitimate heir."

"I guess so," Alec conceded with obvious disapproval. "Were there any bad queens?"

"The usual mix over the years. Divinely instituted or not, they're still human."

Alec shook his head, grinning. "All these stories and histories. I don't see how you remember all that!"

"One has to, to do any sort of business among the Skalan nobles. Importance is judged by which branch of the line one is related to, how far back you can trace noble blood, which consort one is descended from, whether your ancestor was directly descended from a female or male branch, whether or not they were legitimate—I could go on, but you get the idea."

He set his cup aside and stretched. "And now I think we'd both do well to turn in. I've a busy day tomorrow dealing with our good captain, and you've got your work cut out for you defending my honor!"

9 The Lady is Indisposed

Seregil jerked awake just before dawn, a strangled groan crawling up his throat. He tried to choke it back, but the muffled croak was enough to bring Alec from his alcove.

"What is it? What's wrong?" the boy whispered, groping his way across the cramped cabin.

"Nothing, just a dream."

Alec's hand found his shoulder. "You're shaking like a spooked horse!"

"Strike a light, will you?" Seregil clasped his aims tightly around his knees, trying to quell the fit of trembling that shook him.

Alec quickly lit a candle at the companionway lantern and regarded Seregil with concern. "You're pale as anything. Sometimes the quickest way to make a nightmare pass is to tell it."

Seregil let out a long, slow breath and motioned for him to draw up the cabin's single chair; he was certainly in no hurry to sleep again.

"It was morning," he began softly, staring at the candle flame. "I was dressed and about to go on deck. I called for you but you weren't around, so I went alone.

"The sky was a hideous, boiling purple, the light through the clouds harsh and brassy—you know, the way it is just before a thunderstorm? The ship was in ruins. The mast was snapped off, with the sail hanging down over the side, the deck all littered with wreckage. I called out again, but there was no one on board but me. The river was black as oil. There were things floating in the water all around the ship,

too—severed heads, hands, arms, bodies." He scrubbed the back of one hand across his mouth. "What I could make out of the shore was a desolate waste, the land burned and torn up.

"Smoke from ruined fields flowed out over the water and as I watched it seemed to gather itself, moving toward the ship in great coils and billows. As it came closer I began to hear sounds. At first I couldn't make out their direction, but then I realized it was all around me. It was the things in the water. They were all moving, limbs flexing and kicking, the faces twisting into horrid expressions as they rolled in the water."

He heard a small gasp of revulsion from Alec; to a Dalnan, there was nothing more horrible than a desecrated corpse. Seregil drew another shaky breath and forced himself to continue.

"Then the ship lurched and I knew that something was climbing up the torn sail. I couldn't see what it was but it jerked the vessel around like a fishing float. I clung to the far rail, waiting for it. I knew that whatever it was, it was unspeakably vile—that the very sight of it was going to shatter me.

"Yet even in the midst of my terror, a small, sane part of my mind was screaming that there was something terribly important that I should be remembering. I didn't know if it would save me, but it was imperative that I think of it before I died. And then I woke up."

He managed a faint, self-mocking laugh. "There it is. Sounds rather silly, telling it like that."

"No, it was a bad one!" Alec shuddered. "And you still don't look too well. Do you think you can sleep some more?"

Seregil glanced at the brightening square of the window. "No, it's almost morning. You go back to bed, though. No sense both of us losing sleep over nothing."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, you were right about telling it. It's fading already," Seregil lied. "I'll be fine."

As Seregil moved through the details of the morning, the nightmare did begin to fade, but in its wake came a strong sense of unease. His headache had returned, too, shortening his patience and unsettling his stomach. By noon he was so out of sorts that he retreated to his place by the cutwater, hoping to be left alone. Alec seemed to sense that he would do well to make himself useful elsewhere, but the captain was not so easily put off.

Traveling in disguise always posed complications, but Seregil was finding his current role more restrictive than usual. Rhal's inopportune attentions were more than he felt up to dealing with in his present state. The captain found frequent opportunities to make himself available to Lady Gwethelyn, noting points of interest along the shore, inquiring after her comfort, suggesting innumerable diversions for her young squire. He accepted her apologies graciously enough, but was firm in his intention to entertain them at supper that evening.

Soon after the midday meal, Seregil excused himself and spent the remainder of the afternoon dozing in the cabin.

By the time Alec roused him to prepare for dinner he was feeling considerably better.

"Sorry to leave you on your own up there," he apologized as Alec worked at a knotted lacing on his gown. "Tomorrow we'll find a way to get in some training. Lady Gwethelyn can keep to her cabin with her squire in attendance. Swordplay would be rather awkward down here, but I'm sure we can come up with something. More signing and palming tricks, maybe. That's something you have to keep at or you'll lose it."

Wriggling out of the wrinkled garment, he lifted a fresh gown from the trunk and dropped it over his head.

When Alec had pulled the lacings snug, he carefully draped a gauzy wimple over his hair, binding it with a silk cord and arranging the folds to spread gracefully over his shoulders. In addition to the garnet ring, he added a heavy chain of twisted gold and large pearl earrings.

"Illior's Fingers, I'm famished," he said as he finished. "I hope I can manage to eat in a ladylike fashion. What's for supper? Alec?"

The boy was regarding him with a perplexed expression.

Blushing a bit, he blinked and replied, "We're having stewed fowl. I dressed out the birds for the cook while you were asleep." He paused, then added with a grin, "And from what I heard from the sailors today, this disguise of yours is working."

"Oh? What did they have to say?"

"The cook claims he's never seen the captain so taken with a woman. Some of the others are taking bets on whether he'll have his way with you before we reach Nanta."

"Highly unlikely. I trust you to see to your duty, Squire Ciris, until we're safely ashore."

Rhal opened the door at their knock.

He'd donned a fusty velvet coat for the occasion and had given his beard a proper trimming as well.

With an inward groan, Seregil presented his hand and allowed himself to be escorted in.

"Welcome, dear lady!" Rhal exclaimed, pointedly ignoring Alec as he drew Seregil's arm through his own. "I hope you'll find everything to your liking."

A small table stood neatly set for three, the wine already poured, fine wax candles alight in place of the malodorous oil lanterns.

"Why, you look fresh as a spring rose at dawn," he went on, seating Seregil with practiced courtesy. "It pained me to see you looking so peaked this afternoon."

"I'm much better, thank you," Seregil murmured. Alec gave him a quick wink behind Rhal's back.

Both fowl and wine proved to be excellent.

Conversation during the meal was somewhat strained, however.

Rhal made little effort to include Alec, and replied somewhat stiffly when the boy made several pointed allusions to Lady Gwethelyn's fictitious husband. Having grown accustomed to his part, Alec was clearly beginning to revel in it.

"You must give us news from the south, Captain,"

Seregil interjected when a particularly grim pause threatened.

"Well, I suppose you've heard about the Plenimarans?" Rhal took a large, blackened pipe from a nearby rack. "With your permission, my lady? Thank you. Before we sailed from Nanta the week before last, news came through that the old Overlord, Petasarian, was ailing again and not expected to last long. That bodes ill for the rest of us, if you ask me. Being Skalan born, I don't care much for the Plenimarans, but Petasarian has held to the treaties these last five years. That heir of his, young Klystis, is another matter. They say he's been ruling in all but name this last year, and it looks to most like he's sharpening up the swords again. Rumor has it that he may even have a hand in the old man's illness, if you take my meaning. What I pick up along the coast is that there's a good many in Plenimar who think the Twelfth Treaty of Kouros should never have been signed, and that those who say so are anxious to get Petasarian out of the way so his son can set things to rights."

"Do you think there could be a war?" Seregil effortlessly counterfeited feminine alarm.

Rhal puffed sagely at his pipe. "Skala and Plenimar hardly know what to do with themselves when they're not killing each other off, though I hold the Plenimarans are generally the ones to kick the beehive. Yes, I think they're getting ready to go at it again, and mark my words, this time it'll be a bad one. Those that have business over that way say that there's an uncommon amount of ship building going on in Plenimaran ports. The press gangs are out in force, too. Sailors are getting shy of taking shore leave there."

This was fresh news to Seregil, but before he could pursue it further they were interrupted by the cabin boy who'd been sent in to clear the table. While the cloth was being changed, Rhal unlocked a small cabinet over his bunk and brought out a dusty decanter and three small pewter cups.

"Aged Zengati brandy. Quite rare," he confided as he poured. "My trade connections in Nanta give me access to a good many luxuries of this sort. Come, Squire Ciris, let's drink the health of our most excellent lady. May she continue to delight the eye and gladden the heart of those privileged to look upon her."

Though he spoke to Alec, his gaze never left Seregil's face as he raised his cup to his lips.

Seregil lowered his eyes modestly, sipping at the fiery spirit.

Alec lifted his cup again, adding with apparently ingenuous gallantry, "And to the fair child she carries, my next cousin!"

Rhal choked on his brandy, going into a brief coughing fit. Seregil looked up in startled amusement, but managed to compose himself by the time Rhal recovered.

"I would not have spoken of it had not my dear cousin, in his youthful enthusiasm, broached the indelicate subject," Seregil murmured, setting his cup aside. Mycenian ladies of quality were noted for their modesty and discretion.

But Rhal was clearly less put off than Alec had intended. Seregil could guess at the new train of thought behind those dark eyes.

After all, if a woman's already plowed and planted and still has a pleasing shape, what harm can be done?

"My lady, I had no idea!" he said, patting her hand with renewed warmth.

The cook entered with a tray of covered bowls and Rhal set one in front of him. "No wonder you've been off your feet. Perhaps the dessert will be more to your liking."

"Indeed?" Seregil lifted the lid from his dish with a small expectant smile, then froze, the color draining from his face. Inside maggots writhed over severed ears, eyes, and tongues. A hot wave of nausea and panic rolled over him. Dropping the lid with a clatter, he rushed from the room.

"Don't be alarmed, boy!" he heard Rhal say behind him. "It's quite common in her condition—" Reaching the rail, he sagged over it and vomited up his supper, dimly aware that Alec was at his side.

"What's wrong?" the boy demanded in an urgent whisper when he'd finished.

"Get me below," groaned Seregil. "Get me below now!"

Alec half carried him down the companionway to their cabin, where Seregil collapsed on the bunk and buried his face in his hands.

"What happened?" Alec pleaded, hovering anxiously over him. "Should I go for the captain, or fetch some brandy?"

Seregil shook his head violently, then raised his head to look up at the boy. "What did you see?"

"You ran out!"

"No! In the bowls. What did you see?"

"The dessert, you mean?" Alec asked in confusion.

"Baked apples."

Striding to the cabin's single small window, Seregil threw it open and inhaled deeply. Fear, keen as a dagger's point, coursed through him; every instinct screamed for him to arm himself, watch his back, run somewhere, anywhere.

His head was pounding again, too, twisting his empty belly into a painful knot.

Turning to face Alec again, he said softly,

"That's not what I saw. The dishes were full of a steaming mess of—" He stopped at anxiety that had

overwhelmed him at the sight. "Never mind. It's not important. But it wasn't baked apples."

A convulsive shudder racked him and he sagged against the cabin wall.

More alarmed than ever, Alec drew him to the bunk and made him sit down again. Seregil curled into the corner at the head of the bunk, back pressed to the wall. But he was still master of himself enough to send Alec to Captain Rhal with Lady Gwethelyn's apologies; it seemed that in her present state, she could not bear the odor of certain foods.

When Alec returned, he found Seregil pacing restlessly in the narrow confines of the cabin.

"Bolt the door and help me out of this damned dress!" Seregil hissed, but could scarcely stand still for the unlacing. When Alec had finished, he pulled on his leather breeches beneath his nightdress, wrapped a mantle about his shoulders, and returned to his corner of the bunk, sword hidden between the pallet and the wall behind him.

"Come here," he whispered, motioning for Alec to sit beside him.

Pressed shoulder to shoulder with Seregil, Alec could feel the occasional fits of trembling that still seized him, and the feverish heat of his body.

But Seregil's voice was steady, though barely audible. "Something's happening to me, Alec. I'm not sure what, but you should know about it because I don't know how I'm going to end up."

With that said, he told Alec of his latest nightmare, and of the unreasoning dread that had come over him before.

"It's either magic or madness," he concluded grimly. "I'm not sure which would be worse. I've never felt anything like this. The things in the bowls? I've seen sights a hundred times worse and scarcely given it a second thought. I may be a lot of things, Alec, but I'm no coward! Whatever this is, I imagine things are going to get worse before they get better—if they get better." He tugged distractedly at the wooden disk hanging around his neck. If you want to move on without me, I'll understand. You don't owe me anything."

"Maybe not," Alec replied, trying not to think about how frightened he suddenly felt, "but I wouldn't feel right about it. I'll stay on."

"Well, I won't hold you to that, but thank you."

Drawing up his knees, Seregil cradled his head on his arms.

Alec was about to retreat to his alcove when he felt another shiver rock through Seregil. Leaning back against the wall, he stayed silently by him well into the night.

10 Seregil Descending

Seregil struggled free of another nightmare just before dawn. Throwing open the window, he dressed quickly, then sat watching the sky brighten. The anxiety of the dream gradually faded, but the first hint of a renewed headache seemed to grow with the light. Before long he heard Alec moving around in the alcove.

"You've had another bad night," the boy said, not bothering to make it a question.

"Come hold the mirror for me, will you?" Seregil opened a pouch of cosmetics and set to work. Dark circles stood out like bruises under his eyes; the hand holding out the mirror was not as steady as it had been a week before.

"I think Lady Gwethelyn will keep mostly to her cabin today. I'm not up to lengthy dissemblements," he said, inspecting his handiwork when he'd finished.

"Besides, it will give us a chance to get on with your training. It's high time you learned to read. In fact, you can hardly manage our trade without it."

"Is it difficult?"

"You've caught on to everything else I've thrown at you," Seregil assured him. "There's a lot to it, but once you know the letters and their sounds, it comes quickly. Let's take a short walk on deck first, though. I could use the air before attempting breakfast. Let the captain see how ill I look and perhaps he'll leave us alone."

It was snowing in earnest this morning; wet, heavy flakes draped into a heavy curtain about the ship, deadening sound and making it impossible to see much farther than the end of the bow. Every rope and surface was outlined in white, and the deck was a mass of slush.

Captain Rhal stood by the mast, giving orders to several men at once.

"Tell Skywake to keep her in the middle of the channel if he can figure out where it is!" he called to one sailor, jerking a thumb in the direction of the helmsman. "Keep dropping that lead until this clears. We're less likely to get hung up so long as we stay well out in the channel. By the Old Sailor, there's not enough breeze to fill a virgin's— Well, good morning to you, my lady. Feeling better, I trust?"

"The motion of the ship is most unsettling," Seregil answered, leaning on Alec's arm for good effect. "I fear I shall have to spend the remainder of our journey below."

"Aye, it's filthy weather, and damned early for it this far south. At this rate we'll be lucky to reach Torburn by dark tomorrow. It's going to make for a long day, so if you'll excuse me—Ciris, why don't you fetch your mistress some hot wine from the galley?"

With this, he strode off toward the helm.

"I don't know whether to be relieved or insulted!" Seregil chuckled under his breath. "Go fetch us some

breakfast. I'll meet you below."

Despite the strange visions of the previous night, Seregil wasn't prepared for what he saw in the porridge Alec brought back. Pushing his bowl away, he retreated to the bunk.

Alec frowned. "It's happening again, isn't it?"

Seregil nodded, not caring to describe the slithering mass he saw in the bowl, or the stench that wafted up out of the teapot. Gathering up the dishes, Alec carried them away and returned with a mug of water and a bit of bread.

"You've got to get at least this into you," he urged, pressing the cup into Seregil's hand.

Seregil nodded and downed it quickly, doing his best to ignore the disturbing sensations that skittered across his tongue.

"You won't last long on that," Alec fretted.

"Can't you manage a little bread? Look, it's fresh from the ship's oven."

Alec unwrapped a napkin and showed him the thick slice. Sweet, yeasty steam curled up in the sunlight and Seregil's empty belly stirred at the fragrance. As he reached for it, however, maggots erupted out of the bread, tumbling through the boy's fingers onto the table.

Seregil averted his eyes with a grimace. "No, and I think it might be better if you took your meals elsewhere until this is over.

They commenced the writing lesson later that morning.

Seregil's battered leather pack yielded up several small rolls of parchment, quills, and a pot of ink. Crowded together over the small table, Alec watched Seregil draw the letters.

"Now you try," he said, handing Alec the quill.

"Copy each letter underneath mine and I'll tell you its sound."

Alec knew as little about handling a quill as he did about swordplay, so they paused for a brief lesson in penmanship. He was soon inked to the wrists, but Seregil saw progress being made and held his tongue. After he'd mastered the characters, Seregil took the quill and swiftly spelled out their names, then the words for bow, sword, ship, and horse. His script flowed graceful and elegant next to Alec's smudgy scrawls.

Alec watched all this with growing interest. "That word there; that means me?"

"It means anyone named Alec."

"And this is "bow." It's as if these little marks have power. I look at them and the things they stand for

just pop into my head, like magic. That one there doesn't look anything like a bow, yet now that I know the sounds of the letters, I can't look at it without seeing a bow in my head."

"Try this." Seregil wrote out "Alec's Black Radly bow" and read it aloud, pointing to each word in turn.

Alec followed along, grinning. "Now I picture my own bow. Is it magic?"

"Not in the sense you mean. Ordinary words simply preserve ideas. Still, you have to be careful. Words can lie, or be misunderstood. Words don't have magic, but they have power."

"Well, the mayor of Wolde wrote a letter to the mayor of Boersby and it said something like "Aren Windover and his apprentice stole my money. Capture them and I'll reward you." Because the mayor of Boersby knows the mayor of Wolde, he reads and believes. Did we steal the money?"

"No, we just went through those rooms and you—"

"Yes, yes," Seregil snapped, cutting him short. "But the point is that a few words on a piece of paper were all it took to convince the mayor of Boersby that we did!"

Seregil stopped suddenly, realizing he was practically shouting. Alec shrank back, looking as if he expected a blow. Seregil pressed his palms down on his knees and took a deep breath.

The headache was back from wherever it had been lurking, and with the pain came an extraordinary surge of anger.

"I'm not feeling very well, Alec. Why don't you go above for awhile?" It was an effort to speak calmly.

Jaw set in a stubborn line, Alec strode out without a word.

Sinking his head into his hands, Seregil wrestled with the sudden, inexplicable surge of conflicting emotions. He wanted to go after him, try to explain and apologize, but what was he going to say?

Sorry, Alec, but for just a moment there I really wanted to throttle you?

"Damn!" He stalked around the confines of the tiny cabin. The pain in his head swelled to a blinding ache. Beneath the pain, a vague urge began to resolve itself into an almost sensual feeling of need.

It flowed through him, drawing his lips back from his teeth in a terrible, vulpine smile, filling every fiber of him with the desire to lash out. He wanted to grasp. He wanted to strike. He wanted to rend and tear—

He wanted—

And then, in a final searing flash, it was gone, taking the worst of the headache with it. When his vision cleared he found himself grasping the hilt of the penknife they'd been using. Somehow he'd driven it into the tabletop with such force that the little blade had snapped in two.

He didn't even remember picking it up.

The room seemed to spin slowly around him as he stood looking down at the broken knife.

"Illior help me," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm going mad!"

Hurt and confused, Alec paced the deck.

Until last night Seregil had treated him with nothing but kindness and good humor; if not always communicative, he'd certainly been evenhanded and generous.

Now out of the blue, this coldness.

The shock of the morning's events gradually faded, allowing worry to replace his anger. This was what Seregil had been trying to warn him of last night, he realized. Of course, he had only Seregil's word that this was some new aberration; what if he'd been crazy all along?

And yet he couldn't forget his conversation with Micum Cavish back in Boersby. Alec had trusted Micum from the start, and this behavior just didn't fit with what he'd told him that night. No, Alec decided, Seregil wasn't to blame for this behavior.

He didn't have to get me out of Asengai's, he reminded himself sternly. I've said I'll stand by himthrough this and I will!

Nonetheless, he couldn't help wishing that Micum had come south with them.

Alec wandered the deck disconsolately that night, ignoring the questioning looks the sailors exchanged as he passed.

Seregil's erratic behavior had continued throughout the day. Still unable to eat that evening, he'd grown more agitated and irritable as the night wore on.

Alec had tried to talk to him, calm him, but only succeeded in upsetting him more. Seregil had finally ordered him out again, speaking slowly through clenched teeth.

It was too cold to sleep above, so Alec retreated to the companionway, his back to the cabin door. He was just dozing off when Rhal came below.

"What are you doing out here?" the captain asked in surprise. "Is something amiss with your lady?"

The lie he'd rehearsed earlier came out smoothly enough. "My snoring disturbed her sleep, so I came out here," Alec replied, rubbing his stiff neck.

Rhal frowned down at him a moment, then said,

"You're welcome to my bunk. It doesn't look like I'll be needing it, not with this weather."

"Thank you, but I think I better stay close, in case she needs me," Alec replied, wondering at this unexpected generosity.

Just then a hoarse cry came from inside the cabin, followed by what sounded like a struggle.

Scrambling to his feet, Alec tried to prevent Rhal from rushing in. "No! Let me—"The burly captain thrust him aside like a child.

Finding the door bolted, Rhal kicked it open and took a step inside.

Behind him, Alec watched with alarm as the man stopped abruptly, then reached for the long knife at his belt.

"What the hell is this?" growled the captain.

Alec let out a small groan of dismay.

Haggard and white, Seregil stood swaying in the far corner, sword in hand. His nightgown was torn down the front, effectively dashing any illusion of Lady Gwethelyn. For a moment it looked as if he might attack. Instead, he shook his head slightly and tossed his sword down on the bunk.

Waving one thin hand, he motioned for them to enter.

Alec moved to Seregil's side. Rhal remained where he was by the broken door.

"I'll ask you this once," he said slowly, his voice dark with anger. "Whatever it is you're up to, has it endangered my ship or my crew?"

"I don't believe so."

Rhal sized the two of them up for a long moment. "Then what in the name of Bilairy are you doing waltzing around in women's rigging?"

"There were some people I needed to get away from. If I tell you any more, then you will be in danger."

"Is that so?" Rhal looked skeptical.

"Well, I'd say it was either political or you've got one angry husband after you. The Darter wasn't the only ship at Boersby that night. Why load this onto me?"

"I heard you were a man of honor."

"Horse shit!"

Seregil smiled slightly. "But it's no secret that you've no great love for Plenimar."

"That's true enough." Rhal took another long look at him. "I see what it is you're aiming to make me believe. Assuming I buy it, which isn't saying I do, it still doesn't explain all the mummery that's gone on since you came aboard. You've played me for a cully, and I don't care much for that!"

Seregil dropped wearily onto the bunk. "I'm not going to explain my motives; they don't concern you. As for your attentions to the late Lady Gwethelyn, the boy and I both did everything we could to discourage you."

"I'll grant that, I suppose, but it's still my inclination to escort the pair of you over the side."

"You'd have a bit of explaining to do to your crew, wouldn't you?" Seregil suggested with a meaningful lift of an eyebrow.

"Damn you!" Rhal ran a hand over his beard in frustration. "If any of my men find out about this—the story would travel the length of the river before spring!"

"That's easily avoided. We dock at Torburn tomorrow. Lady Gwethelyn can disembark there, pleading ill health. I understand there are some wagers riding on whether or not she'll give you a tumble? If you like, I can be seen emerging from your cabin in the morning, winsome smile playing about my lips—"

Rhal darkened again. "Just see to it that both of you keep to your cabin until we arrive. Play your parts until you're out of sight of my ship and don't ever let me set eyes on either of you again!"

Striding furiously out, he collided with the first mate in the hall. Before the man had time to do more than grin, Rhal snarled, "See to your duties, Nettles!" and slammed into his own cabin.

"Well, that was undoubtedly one of the most embarrassing moments of my life," Seregil groaned, bravado falling away. "It's no easy matter, facing down a big, angry sailor in nothing but a woman's nightgown."

"You threw your sword away!" Alec exclaimed in disbelief, pushing the door back into place.

"We'd have fought if I hadn't. Win or lose, you and I couldn't afford the results. How would we have explained things if I'd killed him, eh? You defending my virtue? The crew would kill you in an instant, and Illior only knows what they'd do with Lady Gwethelyn. If he'd killed me, things would turn out just about the same. No, Alec, it's best to talk your way out whenever you can. As it stands, I don't think our secret could be in safer hands. Besides, he interests me. Blustering rogue that he is, I suspect he's intelligent and shrewd enough when women aren't involved. You never know when someone like that might be useful."

"What makes you think he'd ever help you?"

Seregil shrugged. "Intuition, maybe. I'm seldom wrong."

Alec sat down and rubbed his eyes. "What was all that commotion before we came in?"

"Oh, just another of those nightmares," Seregil replied, affecting a nonchalance he didn't feel. He didn't like to think what might have happened if Alec had been in the cabin with him when he'd thrashed his way up out of this latest one.

Sitting up, he reached for his cloak on top of the trunk. The torn nightdress slipped off his shoulder, revealing a patch of reddened skin on his chest, just above the breastbone.

"What's this?" asked Alec, reaching to move the wooden disk aside for a better look.

Icy fingers clamped around Seregil's heart.

Overwhelmed by a sudden, inexplicable fury, he caught Alec by the wrist and shoved him roughly away. "Keep your hands to yourself!" he snarled.

Yanking the cloak around his shoulders, he retreated into the corner of the bunk. "Go to bed. Now.

Hunched in his alcove much later that night, Alec heard Seregil stir.

"Alec, you awake?"

"Yes."

A long pause followed, then, "I'm sorry."

"I know." Alec had been thinking and already had the beginnings of a plan. "Micum said you know a wizard at Rhнminee. Do you think he could help you?"

"If he can't, then I don't know who can." There was another pause. Alec heard something like a dark chuckle, and the sound raised the hair on the back of his neck.

"Alec?"

"Yes?"

"Be careful, will you? Tonight, for just an instant—" Alec tightened his grip on the sword lying across his knees. "It's all right, now. Go back to sleep."

Their last day aboard the Darter was a long one. Seregil spent the morning staring morosely out the window.

Alec maintained a careful distance, preoccupied with his own plans. By afternoon, he was ready to chance Rhal's displeasure and went above.

He settled behind the cutwater, hood pulled up against the wind. By the time they neared Torburn just before sundown, he'd managed to speak with the helmsman and several of the other sailors without their captain noticing. If it was up to him to get them both to Rhнminee, then he had to know how to get there.

To Rhal's relief, Lady Gwethelyn did not appear until the ship had put in at Torburn.

The first mate's tale, already gleefully if discreetly spread among the crew, had amply explained both the silence of the lady and his sudden coolness toward her. Surreptitious nods and nudges were exchanged all around the deck when she finally came above to disembark.

No one but Rhal noticed, however, when the lady slipped a small something into his palm as he handed her down the gangway. Unwrapping the little silk square later that night in his cabin, he found the garnet ring his strange passenger had worn.

"A peculiar character, and no mistake." he exclaimed under his breath. Shaking his head in bemusement, he hid the ring safely away.

11 Dark Pursuit

The cart bumped along over the rutted dirt road through the rolling Mycenian countryside. Seregil sat huddled in his cloak beside Alec on the single rough bench. It wasn't as cold here yet as it had been in the northlands, but snow wasn't far off and the chill seemed to get into his bones.

He found that if he stayed very still he could clear his mind, holding both the pain in his head and the increasingly frequent fits of irrational rage at a manageable level. It was exhausting work. In his more lucid moments he was relieved at how well Alec was managing, though the fact that the boy had not yet slipped away, despite ample justification and opportunity, continued to baffle him.

Their first night ashore in Torburn, they'd taken a tiny room near the riverfront and changed back into their stained traveling clothes. It was then that Alec had calmly outlined his plan.

"You're sick," he began, looking very deliberate. "Since you think this Nysander is the only one who can help, I say we push on for Rhнminee."

Seregil nodded.

Taking a deep breath, Alec continued, "All right then. The way I understand it, the fastest route this time of year is to go overland to Keston, then take a ship to the city—one that goes by way of a canal at somewhere called Cirna. I don't know where any of those places are. You can help me or I'll ask directions as we go, but that's what I mean to do."

Seregil began to buckle on his sword. After a moment's hesitation, however, he handed it instead to Alec. "You'd better take this, and these."

He gave Alec his belt dagger and a small, razorlike blade from the neck of his cloak.

Alec took them without comment, then said almost apologetically, "There's one more."

"So there is." Seregil drew the poniard from his boot and handed it over, fighting back another twinge of hot rage as he did so.

It was an uncomfortable moment for both of them, each knowing perfectly well that these precautions would be useless if Seregil made up his mind to retrieve his weapons. Alec, Seregil noted, kept his own weapons about him.

"How many days will it take to reach Keston?" Alec asked when they were done.

Seregil lay back on the bed and fixed his gaze on the rafters. "Two, if we ride hard, but I doubt I'll be able to do that."

His head hurt again; how long now until another fit came on? A brisk walk in the night air might have helped, but he was too sick to attempt it. Better to concentrate on helping Alec with the details at hand.

"I'll need money," Alec said. "What do you have left?"

Seregil tossed him a purse containing five silver marks and the jewelry he'd worn aboard the Darter.

Turning out his own pouch, Alec added two copper halfs and the Skalan silver piece.

"Hang on to the jewels for now," Seregil advised. "You're not dressed well enough to hawk them without attracting notice. Sell the clothes, though."

"They won't bring much."

"Illior's Hands, money's not the only way to get something! I should think you've been around me long enough to have learned that."

It was dark by the time Alec entered the Torburn marketplace. Only a few of the booths around the square were open, but he finally found a clothier. The dealer proved to be a shrewd bargainer and he came away with a disappointing four silver pennies.

He let out a harsh sigh, tucking the coins away. "That's not going to make my task any easier."

Passing a woman frying sausages on a brazier, he paused longingly, then moved on still hungry.

An hour later, after some hard bargaining, he was the owner of a battered pony cart. Though hardly more than a large box set on a single axle, it looked sturdy enough. This, and the purchase of a few modest provisions, left him with exactly two copper halfs and the Skalan coin. Buying a horse was clearly out of the question.

Time I turned thief for good, he thought, still stinging from Seregil's parting admonition.

He returned to the inn for a few hour's sleep, then slipped quietly downstairs just before dawn.

Letting himself out a side door, he pulled on his boots and headed for the stable.

Great droves of silver-gilded clouds moved slowly past the sinking moon. Alec's heart hammered uncomfortably in his chest as he lifted the latch on the stable door. With a silent prayer to Illior, protector of thieves, he crept in.

A guttering night lantern gave enough light for him to avoid the drunken stable hand snoring in an empty stall. Moving on, a shaggy brown and white pony caught his eye. Throwing a halter around its neck, he led the beast out to the nearby alley where he'd hidden the cart and harnessed it. With this completed, he hurried back to the room.

Seregil was awake and ready to go. One look told Alec that his night had not been a peaceful one.

Despite this, he eyed Alec's cart and pony with a shadow of his old crooked smile, his face just visible in the failing moonlight.

"Which one did you pay for?" he asked softly.

"The cart."

"Good."

By sunrise they were well on their way to Keston.

The road wound through rolling winter-bare farmland and countryside and they met only a few wagons and an occasional patrol of the local militia. With the harvest in and the Gold Road closing down until spring, Mycena would be a quiet place through the winter.

Seregil sank deeper into gloomy silence through the day, answering Alec's few attempts at conversation in such a dispirited manner that he soon gave up. When they stopped for the night at a wayside inn, Seregil retired immediately, leaving Alec to sit alone over his ale in the common room.

By the next morning Seregil's hunger had faded to a hollow ache; even the thought of water nauseated him.

Worse still, he was feeling guilty about Alec. The boy had proved too honorable to run off, but how he must be regretting his vow to stay. Seregil was trying to gather the strength for pleasant conversation as they road along when a hint of motion caught his eye off to the left. He turned quickly, but the field was empty. He rubbed at his eyes, thinking it was a trick of his weakened body, but the flicker came again, just on the edge of his vision.

"What's the matter?" asked Alec, giving him a puzzled look.

"Nothing." Seregil scanned the empty countryside. "Thought I saw something."

The annoying flicker came repeatedly as the day went on, and by afternoon he was more tense and withdrawn than ever. It might be some new quirk of the madness growing in him, he thought, but well-tried instincts counseled otherwise. Another violent headache had also grown through the day, leaving him too dull-witted and queasy to give the matter proper consideration.

Pulling his cloak tight against the cold wind, he kept watch and fought off the desire to sleep.

They spent that night in the hayloft of a lonely farmstead. Seregil's nightmares returned in force and he woke up bathed in a cold sweat at dawn.

An undefined sense of anxiety gnawed at him; he couldn't recall the details of the dream, but the wary sidelong glances he caught from Alec suggested that he'd been more restless than usual. He was just considering asking the boy about it when he thought he saw motion in a dark corner of the barn. Alec was busy with the harness and didn't see him brace, reaching for the sword that no longer hung at his side. There was nothing there.

This will be his fourth day without eating, Alec thought as they rattled off down the road again.

Wan and hollow-eyed as Seregil looked, he was bearing up better than Alec had imagined possible. Physically, that was; Seregil's odd behavior was increasingly alarming.

Today he sat hunched over like an old man, despondent except for occasional bursts of intent alertness. At those moments, a terrible glitter came in his eyes and his fists would clench until it seemed his knuckles must surely break through the skin. This new development, coupled with the strange events of the previous night, did not bode well.

Alec was beginning to be as frightened of Seregil as he was for him.

He hadn't intended to sleep the previous night, but the exhaustion of the past few days caught up with him and he'd dozed off. In the middle of the night he'd awakened to find Seregil crouched less than a foot away, eyes shining like a cat's in the dark, his breathing was so harsh it was almost a growl. Motionless, he simply stared at Alec.

Alec wasn't certain how long they'd remained frozen like that, staring each other down, but Seregil finally turned away and threw himself down in the straw.

Alec had spent the remainder of the night keeping watch from a safe distance.

In the morning neither of them spoke of the incident.

Alec doubted whether Seregil recalled it at all. But that, together with Seregil's nervous vigilance today, strengthened his resolve to not close his eyes again until he could lock his companion safely in a ship's cabin at sea.

Driving along in daylight, however, Alec could see all too clearly how Seregil was suffering. Reaching behind the bench, he pulled out one of their tattered blankets and laid it over his shoulders.

"You're not looking so good."

"Neither are you," Seregil croaked through dry lips.

"If we drive through the night, we might make Keston by tomorrow afternoon. I could probably manage the reins for a while-if you need to sleep."

"No, I'll be fine!" Alec replied quickly. Too quickly, it seemed, for Seregil turned away and resumed his morose vigil.

The sense of pursuit grew stronger as the day dragged on. Seregil was beginning to catch glimpses of whatever it was that stalked him, a glimmer of movement, the blur of a dark figure that disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Just after midday he started so violently that Alec laid a hand on his arm.

"What is it?" he demanded. "You've been doing that since yesterday."

"It's nothing," Seregil muttered, but this time he was certain he'd caught sight of someone on the road far behind them.

Soon after, they topped the crest of a hill and came upon a Dalnan funeral. Several well-dressed men and women and two young children stood by the road, singing as they watched a young farmer driving an ox and plow in the middle of an empty field. The winter soil gave way grudgingly before the plowshare, coming up in frozen plates of earth. An elderly woman followed the driver, scattering handfuls of ash from a wooden bowl into the fresh furrow. When the last of it was gone, she carefully wiped out the inside of the dish with a handful of earth and poured it out onto the ground. The farmer turned the ox and plowed slowly back over it.

A dusting of snow floated down as Alec and Seregil rattled past in their cart.

"It's the same as in the north," Alec remarked.

Seregil glanced back listlessly.

"The way they plow the ashes of the dead back into the earth, I mean. And the song they were singing was the same."

"I didn't notice. What was it?"

Encouraged by his companion's show of interest, Alec sang:

"All that we are is given by you, O Dalna, Maker and Provider.

In death we return your bounty and become one with your wondrous creation.

Accept the dead back into the fertile earth that new life may spring from the ashes

And at the planting and at the harvest will the dead be remembered.

Nothing can be lost in the hand of the Maker. Nothing can be lost in the hand of the Maker."

Seregil nodded. "I've heard that—"

Breaking off suddenly, he lunged for the reins and yanked the pony to a stop. "By the Four, look there!" he gasped, looking wildly across the field on their left. A tall, black-swathed figure stood less than a hundred yards from the road.

"Where? What is it?"

"Right there!" Seregil hissed.

Even at the distance of a bow shot Seregil could see something amiss in the lines of the figure, some profound wrongness of proportion that disturbed him more than the fact that Alec obviously could not see it himself.

"Who are you?" Seregil shouted, more frightened than angry.

The dark figure regarded him silently, then bowed deeply and began a grotesque dance, leaping and capering about in a fashion that would have been ridiculous if it wasn't so horrible. Seregil felt his whole body go numb as the nightmarish performance continued.

Shuddering, he shoved the reins into Alec's hands.

"Get us away from here!"

Alec whipped up the pony without question.

When Seregil looked back, the weird creature had vanished.

"What was that all about?" Alec demanded, raising his voice to be heard over the rattling of the cart.

Trembling, Seregil gripped the edge of the seat and said nothing. A few moments later he looked up to find the thing walking in the road ahead of them. At this range he could see that it was too tall to be a man. And there was too much distance between the shoulders and the head, not enough between shoulders and hips, so that the arms appeared immensely long, its movements graceless but powerful. It looked back over one sloping shoulder and beckoned to him, as if to hurry him toward some destination.

"Look there!" Seregil cried in spite of himself, gripping Alec's arm as he pointed. "All in black. Bilairy's Eyes, you must see it now!"

"I don't see anything!" Alec replied, the edge of fear clear in his voice.

Seregil released him with a snarl of exasperation.

"Are you blind? It's as tall as a—" But even as he pointed again it vanished with a parting wave of its arm. An icy wave of fear rolled over him.

Throughout the remainder of that leaden afternoon his dark tormentor toyed with him, playing an evil game of hide-and-seek. First Seregil would spy it far off, spinning madly in the middle of a bare field. A moment later it would appear beside him, striding beside the cart close enough to touch. A troop of Mycenian militia rode by and he saw it lurching along unnoticed in their midst; soon after it rode past in the opposite direction on the back of a farm wagon.

Alec clearly could not see it and Seregil soon gave up calling his attention to it; whatever the visitations meant, they were for him alone.

The worst came just as the sun was stooping to the horizon. He hadn't seen the specter for nearly half an

hour. Suddenly a wave of appalling coldness engulfed him. Jumping unsteadily to his feet, he whirled to find the creature crouched in the tail of the cart, arms outstretched as if to gather both Alec and him to its breast. The hem of its black sleeve actually brushed Alec's head.

Then it laughed. An obscenely rich chuckle bubbled up from the depths of the black hood and with the sound came a charnel stench so revolting that Seregil retched dryly even as he grappled with Alec for the boy's sword.

Obviously convinced that Seregil had gone completely mad at last, Alec fought him for it and they both toppled over the side.

They came down hard with Seregil on top. The pony continued on a few yards, then shuffled to a stop. Looking up, Seregil saw that the cart was empty.

He rocked back on his heels and drew in deep, shuddering breaths, one hand pressed to his chest.

"Look at me!" Alec demanded angrily, scrambling up to grasp him by the shoulders. "Never mind about the pony. It's not going anywhere. You've got to tell me what's going on! I want to help you, but damn it, Seregil, you've got to talk to me!"

Seregil shook his head slowly, still staring over his shoulder at the cart. "Get us off the road before dark!" he whispered.

"Tell me what you saw!" Alec cried, shaking him in frustration.

Seregil focused on Alec then, clutching at the front of the boy's tunic in desperation. "We must get off the road!"

Alec regarded him for a long moment, then shook his head resignedly. "We will," he promised.

They came to a ramshackle crossroads inn just before dark. Seregil's legs buckled as he stepped down from the cart and Alec had to help him inside.

"I want a room. No, two rooms," Alec told the innkeeper curtly.

"Top of the stairs." The man eyed Seregil nervously. "Is your friend here sick?"

"Not so sick that I can't pay," Seregil said, forcing a smile. It took all his concentration to make it convincing and as soon as he was out of the man's sight he dropped the pretense, sagging against Alec as they climbed the narrow stairs.

Suddenly he was tired, so tired! He was already half asleep as Alec lowered him onto a bed.

He dozed, woke, dozed again. Alec was there for a time. He tried to help Seregil drink, but he wasn't thirsty, just tired. Presently, Alec left and Seregil heard a key turn in the lock.

It was all very strange, but he was too sleepy to think about it anymore. Turning onto his side, he drifted deeper into a murky doze.

He woke up shivering sometime later. The room had grown cold and Alec was crowding him off the bed against the wall, digging an elbow into the small of his back in the process. Twisting a bit, he tried to reclaim some space, but it was just too cold to sleep. Could the window be open? Did this room have a window? It seemed to him it didn't.

Giving up, he opened his eyes to check and found the night lamp still burning.

"Damn it, Alec, move—" The words died in his throat.

It wasn't Alec pressing against him, but his tormentor, the black specter. It lay face up, arms crossed over its breast in the frightful parody of a tomb effigy. It remained perfectly motionless as Seregil dragged himself over the foot of the bed and scrambled for the door. Too late he remembered hearing the key turn; he was locked in.

"Alec! Alec, help me!" he shouted, pounding on the door. Dizzying panic constricted around his chest like bands of iron.

"No one will hear you."

The creature's voice was like a high wind rushing through the naked branches of winter trees-sardonic, inhuman, the embodiment of desolation. Seregil turned and the dark thing sat up, its upper body levering in a single rigid motion like the folding of a clasp knife. In the same unnatural fashion it bent forward slightly and stood up. It seemed to fill the cramped room.

Seregil tried to cry out again, but no sound came out.

"He can't help you now." Waves of frigid cold radiated from the figure, and with it the same terrible stench.

"What are you?" Seregil demanded in a strangled whisper.

The specter advanced a step, halving the distance between them. "You led a good chase," it replied in its soft, moaning voice. "But there is no escape, no forgiveness for such as you."

Seregil flattened himself against the wall, eyes darting about the room for some cover, finding none. "What do you want?"

"Don't you know? Such a pity to die in ignorance. But it is all one to us. You are a thief, and we want back what you have stolen. You can elude us no longer."

"Tell me what it is!"

Anger and despair mingled with his fear to recall a tentative shred of courage.

Stretching its arms out across the ceiling, the loathsome thing wheezed out another blast of sepulchral fetor.

He was going to die; not knowing why seemed the final injustice.

The figure laughed again as it reached down for him, the sound of its voice tugging at the last roots of his sanity.

" No!" Snarling, Seregil sprang at it.

For a brief second his hands seemed to grasp at some distorted form, then he slammed into the far wall.

When he whirled about, the creature was standing by the door.

Another of the strange fits of blood lust came over Seregil then and this time he welcomed it, opening himself to the strength it lent. He ached with it, was driven mad with it as he flew at the dark thing. The night candle was kicked over and went out but still he fought on, finding the creature with his hands, feeling the chill of it slip away again and again.

Suddenly his fingers found purchase. The form grew solid and he clawed at it, seeking a throat with his hands.

It toyed with him, fending him off without returning his blows.

The game did not last long, however. Huge talons sank suddenly into his chest and the world erupted in a searing blast of pain. Mercifully, his mind went out.

Alec lay half strangled on the cold floor beside Seregil. In the darkness he couldn't see what had happened to his hand, but it hurt like hell.

"What's going on up there?" the landlord shouted angrily from the far end of the passage. "I'll not have my house torn up in the middle of the night, do you hear?"

"Bring a light. Hurry!" Alec gasped, struggling one-handed to his knees.

The landlord appeared in the doorway, candle in one hand, a stout cudgel in the other. "Sounds like someone's being murdered up—" He stopped short as his light fell over them.

Seregil lay unconscious or worse, blood staining the breast of his shirt and his throat. Alec realized he probably didn't look much better.

His nose was bleeding where Seregil had struck him, and his face and neck were badly scratched. Cradling his left hand against his chest, he saw what looked like a round, raw burn in the center of his palm.

"Hold the light down," he told the innkeeper.

Kneeling over Seregil, he made certain his friend was still breathing, then pulled the neck of his shirt open and gasped in dismay.

The last time he'd seen the reddened area on Seregil's chest had been aboard the Darter.

Now there was a bloody wound in the same spot.

Holding the palm of his throbbing hand to the light again, Alec saw that his burn and this mark were exactly the same size and shape.

On the floor beside Seregil lay the wooden disk, the useless trinket he had stolen from the mayor's house because it wouldn't be missed. Picking it up gingerly by the broken leather thong, Alec compared it to the strange burn on his palm and the one on Seregil's chest.

It matched perfectly. Looking closer, he could even make out the print of the small square opening in its center.

It was right in front of us all the time! he thought in silent anguish. How could he not have known?Why didn't I see?

He'd been awakened by the sound of Seregil crashing about in the next room and gone to see what was the matter. In his haste he forgot the lamp and cursed angrily to himself as he'd fumbled the key into the lock of Seregil's door. The hallway was dark, the room inside darker still. In spite of the noise, he'd been unprepared for the attack that came the moment he stepped in.

When cold fingers grasped at his throat, Alec's only thought was how he could defend himself without injuring Seregil. He was trying to get a better grip on Seregil's tunic when his hand slipped inside the neck of it. Finding the thong under his hand, he'd grabbed for it, felt it sliding away as Seregil drew back. Then the terrible pain.

"What sort of foolishness is this?" the landlord demanded, looking over Alec's shoulder. Then the man was backing way, making a sign against evil.

"You've killed him with sorcery!"

Alec thrust the disk out of sight. "He's not dead. Come back here with that light!"

But the man fled. Cursing in frustration, Alec stumbled to his own room and struck a light.

What was he to do with the cursed disk? Throwing it into the fire seemed to be the wisest course of action, yet doubt stayed his hand; Seregil had thought it valuable enough to steal, and later had said he was determined to get it to Rhнminee.

Handling it only by the leather lacing, he found a patched tunic in Seregil's pack and rolled the disk up in it. Shoving it to the bottom of the pack, he carried their gear downstairs and hurried back for Seregil. The innkeeper and his family had barricaded themselves in the kitchen storeroom and, despite his various pleas and assurances, refused to come out.

In the end he had to get Seregil down by himself, carrying the unconscious man across his shoulders like a slaughtered deer. Once downstairs, he laid him on a table and went through the kitchen again to the storeroom.

"You in there!" he called through the door. "I need a few supplies. I'll leave money on the mantelpiece."

There was no reply.

A candle stood in a dish on the sideboard.

Lighting it with an ember from the banked fire, he cast about for food. Most of it was locked in the storeroom with its owner but he still managed to come away with a basket of boiled eggs, a jug of

brandy, half a wheel of good Mycenian cheese, some new bread, and a sack of pippins. Going out to the well, he discovered a jar of milk let to cool and added that to his haul.

Stowing everything beneath the seat of the cart, he used their blankets and a few from the inn to make a pallet in the back.

When everything was ready, he carried Seregil out to the makeshift bed and carefully wrapped him up.

Except for his labored breathing, Seregil looked like a dead man on a bier.

"Well, he won't get any better sitting here," Alec muttered grimly, slapping the reins over the pony's rump. "I said we were going to Rhнminee, and that's where I mean to go!"

12 Alone

— did the dead sleep within death? Some vestige of his living consciousness sensed the passage oftime. There was a change of some sort, but what? Slowly he became aware of pain but it was muted, experienced at a distance.

Very odd.

Smells came with the pain, the smell of illness, infection, the unwashed odors of his own body from which his fastidious nature recoiled even as he rejoiced in the ability to discern them. Perhaps he wasn't dead, after all? He had neither explanation for his predicament nor memory of his past and now even the pain was slipping away again. Silently, helplessly, he willed it back, but it was gone.

He was alone. And lonely—

Alec drove as hard as he dared, determined to reach the seaport by the following day. He stopped only to rest the pony and tend Seregil's wound.

The burn on his own hand made his arm ache to the elbow, but it was scabbing over already. Inspecting Seregil's breast in daylight, however, he found that the wound there was still raw, with angry lines of infection fanning out from it.

He stopped at the next farmstead they came to, hoping to beg a few herbs and some linen. The old wife there took one look at Seregil and disappeared back into her kitchen, returning a few moments later with a basket containing yarrow salve and aloes, clean linen rags, a flask of willow bark tea and one of milk, fresh cheese, bread, and half a dozen apples.

"I–I can't pay you," he stammered, overwhelmed by such generosity.

The old woman smiled, patting his arm. "You don't need to," she said in her thick Mycenian accent. "The Maker sees every kind deed."

The countryside fell away into gentle slopes as Alec drove westward toward Keston. By the following afternoon they came down into more settled country.

There was a different scent on the breeze here. It was a water smell, but with an unfamiliar tang.

Gulls wheeled overhead, much larger than the little black-headed ones on Blackwater Lake. These birds had long yellow beaks and grey wings tipped with black. Great flocks of them flew overhead or picked their way over empty fields and rubbish heaps.

Topping a rise, Alec saw in the distance what could only be the sea. Awestruck, he reined in and stared out over it. The sun was low. The first golden stain of sunset spread a glittering band across the silver-green water. A scattering of islands lay like knucklebones cast along the coastline, some dark with trees, others bare chunks of stone thrusting above the waves.

The road wound on down to the coast, ending in a sprawling town that hugged the shore of a broad bay.

"You must be an inlander."

An old tinker had come up beside the cart. Wizened and bandy-legged, the fellow was bowed nearly double under the large pack he carried. What Alec could see of his face beneath the brim of his battered slouch hat was dark with stubble and dust.

"You've the look of an inlander finding the sea for the first time. Sitting there gape-mouthed like that, you couldn't be nothin' else," the old relic observed with a rusty chuckle.

"It's the biggest thing I ever saw!"

"Looks even bigger when yer in the middle of 'er," the tinker said. "I was a sailor in me youth, before a shark took me leg for dinner."

Twitching his dusty cloak back, he showed Alec the wooden peg strapped to the stump of his left leg.

Cleverly carved to resemble the limb it replaced, the end of it was made in the shape of a wooden clog that neatly matched the real one on his other foot.

"Trampin' all the day, I don't know which foot gets more sore. Might you offer a fellow traveler a ride into town?"

"Climb up." Alec reached to aid him.

"Much obliged. Hannock of Brithia, at your service," the tinker said, settling himself on the bench.

There was an expectant pause.

"Aren. Aren Silverleaf." Alec felt a bit silly giving the old man a false name, but it was becoming a habit.

Hannock touched a finger to the brim of his hat.

"Well met, Aren. What happened to your friend in the back here?"

"A bad fall," Alec lied quickly. "Tell me, do you know Keston town?"

"I should say I do. What can I do for you there?"

"I need to sell this cart and find passage to Rhнminee."

"Rhнminee, is it?" Hannock rubbed at his bristly chin. "By the Old Sailor, you'll be damned lucky to find passage this close to winter. It'll come dear, too. More than you're likely to realize from this contraption and a spavined pony. But don't fret yourself, boy. I've a friend or two in most any port you can name. Leave it to old Hannock."

Alec was soon glad of the tinker's company.

Keston was a bustling town, full of rambling streets laid out with no rhyme or reason that he could make out; the lanes that Hannock directed him down were little more than broad pathways between the tenements that stood cheek by jowl with warehouses and taverns.

Gangs of sailors, reeling with high spirits of one sort or another, jostled in the dark alleyways and snatches of songs and curses seemed to come from all directions.

"Yes, I've still a friend or two along the quays," said Hannock as they reached the waterfront. "Let me ask around a bit and I'll meet you back at the Red Wheel. You con the sign yonder? Two shops down from that, at the next warehouse, there's a drayman, name of Gesher. He'll probably take this rig off your hands. It'll do you no harm to mention my name in the bargaining."

Hannock's name notwithstanding, Drayman Gesher ran a bleak eye over the cart, the exhausted pony, and its equally exhausted driver. "Three silver trees, not a penny more," he said gruffly.

Alec had no idea what the relative worth of a silver tree might be, but was happy enough to unload the rig and be done with it. With the understanding that they would close the deal when Alec brought the cart back, he hurried off to the Wheel. Leaving Seregil well covered, he went inside.

He found the old tinker seated at a long table joking with a weathered man in seafaring garb.

"Here's the lad himself," Hannock told his companion, pushing a pot of beer Alec's way.

"Sit down, boy. Aren Silverleaf, this is Captain Talrien, master of the Grampus. As fine a mariner as you can hope to find on the two seas, and I should know. We first sailed together with Captain Strake, me as mate and him but a green slip of a cabin boy. He's agreed to work out a passage for you and your unfortunate friend."

"So you're short on jack, eh?" Talrien grinned, getting right to the point. His skin, brown as an old boot from salt and sun, contrasted sharply with his pale hair and beard. "How much have you got?"

"I can get three silver trees for the pony and the cart. Is that a good price?"

Hannock shrugged. "No, but it's not a bad one, either. What do you say, Tally? Will you take the lad?"

"That's scarce a single passage. Mighty important that you get to Rhнminee, is it?" Talrien drawled, settling back in his chair.

When Alec hesitated a moment too long, he laughed, holding up a hand.

"Never mind, then, it's your own business. Tell you what I'll do. I'm short a man this time out; for three silver I'll take your friend and you can work your passage. You'll have to bunk in the hold, but you're in luck there, for the cargo is grain and wool. Last voyage we carried granite cobbles. If that's agreeable to you, let's cross palms on it and call it done."

"Done it is," Alec replied, clasping hands with him. "Many thanks to you both."

Talrien had a longboat moored at the quay.

After loading in his few remaining possessions, Alec and Talrien carefully lifted Seregil into the bottom of the boat.

Seregil was paler than ever. His head lolled limply from side to side as wavelets nudged the longboat against the stone footing of the quay. Tucking a wadded cloak behind his friend's head. Alec looked down at him with a pang of fear. What if he dies? What will I do if he dies?

"Don't you worry, lad," Talrien said kindly. "I'll see to it he's made comfortable. You go sell your wagon and I'll send the boat back for you."

"I–I'll be here," Alec stammered, suddenly reluctant to leave Seregil in the hands of strangers. But what else was there to do? Clambering into the rickety cart for the last time, he flicked the reins over the pony's dusty rump.

Mycenian silver trees turned out to be rectangular lozenges of silver, each with the rough shape of a tree struck into it. Clutching the coins, he ran back as fast as he could to the docks.

As he came within sight of the deserted quay, a sudden thought stopped him in his tracks. Before they'd left the Darter, hadn't Captain Rhal spoken of Plenimaran press-gangs working the ports?

"By the Maker," he groaned aloud, dread settling like heavy ice in his belly. In his haste and weariness, had he handed Seregil over to a clever pair of rogues? Cursing himself, he stamped up and down in the cold, squinting into the darkness for any sign of movement. He hadn't even thought to ask Talrien which of the ships was the Grampus. It was a still night. Waves lapped gently against the quay. The faint sounds of men singing happily over their mugs in nearby taverns made his vigil all the more lonesome as he stood in the darkness. A bell sounded aboard one of the ships at anchor, its tone muted and distant.

He was just calling himself ten kinds of fool when he caught sight of a light moving toward him over the water. It disappeared for a moment, obscured by the hull of some ship, then reappeared, still bobbing steadily his way with the splash of unseen oars.

A wiry, redheaded sailor scarcely older than himself brought the little craft neatly alongside the dock. Alec didn't know much of press-gangs, but this didn't have the look of one.

"You the new hand for the Grampus!" the boy inquired, shipping his oars and looking up at Alec with a brash grin. "I'm Binakel, called Biny by most. Haul in then, 'less you fancy spending the night on the jetty, which I don't. By the Old Sailor it's colder'n a cod's balls tonight!"

Alec had hardly clambered down onto the stern bench before Biny was pulling away. He talked a steady stream as he rowed, needing no prompting or encouragement as he rattled on with hardly a pause for breath. He had a tendency to jumble one topic in with another as things occurred to him, and a good deal of it was profane, but Alec managed to sift out enough to set his mind at rest by the time they drew alongside the sleek hull of the Grampus.

Captain Talrien was a good-tempered master, according to Biny, whose highest praise was that he'd never known his captain to have a man flogged.

The Grampus was a coastal trader. Carrying three triangular sails on tall masts, she could deploy twenty oars on each side when need be, and ran regularly between the port cities of Skala and Mycena.

The crew was in a fury of preparation on deck.

Alec had hoped to speak with Talrien again, but the man was nowhere to be seen.

"Your friend's down here," Biny said, leading him below.

Seregil lay asleep in a deep nest of wool bales. More bales and plump sacks of grain were packed into the long hold for as far as Alec could see by the light of Biny's lantern.

"Mind the light," Biny warned as he left. "A spark or two in this lot and we'll go up like a bonfire! Keep it on that hook over your head there, and if ever we meet with rough seas, be sure to snuff it."

"I'll be careful," Alec promised, already searching for fresh bandages. Those covering Seregil's stubborn wound were badly stained.

"Cap'n sent down food for you, and a pail of water. It's there around the other side," Biny pointed out. "You ought to speak to Sedrish tomorrow about that hurt of your friend's. Old Sedrish is as good a leech as he is a cook. Well, g'night to you!"

"Good night. And give my thanks to the captain."

The bandage lint had stuck to Seregil's wound and Alec carefully soaked it loose, lifting aside the stained pad to find the raw spot looking worse than ever. There was no evidence that the old woman's salve was doing any good, but Alec applied it anyway, not knowing what else to do.

Seregil's slender body had quickly failed to gauntness. He felt fragile in Alec's hands as he lifted him to wrap the fresh bandage. His breathing was less even, too, and now and then caught painfully in his chest.

Laying him back against the bales, Alec brushed a few lank strands of hair back from Seregil's face, taking in the deepening hollows in his cheeks and at his temples, the pallid whiteness of his skin. A few short days would bring them to Rhнminee and Nysander, if only Seregil could survive that long.

Warming the last of the milk over the lantern, Alec cradled Seregil's head on his knee and tried to spoon some into him. But Seregil choked weakly, spilling a mouthful down his cheek.

With a heavy heart Alec set the cup aside and stretched out beside him, wiping Seregil's cheek with a corner of his cloak before pulling it over both of them.

"At least we made it to a ship," he whispered sadly, listening to the labored breathing beside him.

Exhaustion rolled over him like a grey mist and he slept.

— a stony plain beneath a lowering leaden sky stretched around Seregil on all sides. Dead, grey grass under his feet. Sound of the sea in the distance? No breeze stirred to make the faint rushingsound. Lightning flashed in the distance but no rumble of thunder followed it. Clouds scudded quickly by overhead.

He had no sense of his body at all, only of his surroundings, as if his entire being had been reduced to the pure essence of sight. Yet he could move, look about at the grey plain, the moving mass of clouds overhead that roiled and churned but showed no break of blue. He could still hear the sea, though he could not tell its direction. He wanted to go there, to see beyond the monotonythat surrounded him, but how? He might well take the wrong direction, moving away from it, deeper into the plain. The thought froze him in place. Somehow he knew that the plain went on forever if you went away from the sea.

He knew now that he was dead and that only through Bilairy's gate could he escape into the trueafterlife or perhaps out of any existence at all. To be trapped for eternity on this lifeless plain wasunthinkable.

"O Illior Lightbringer," he silently prayed, "shed your light in this desolate place. What am I todo?" But nothing changed. He wept and even his weeping made no sound in the emptiness.

13 Inquiries Are Made

"Oh, yes, they was here all right. I'm not soon likely to forget them!" the innkeeper declared, sizing up the two gentlemen. The sallow one would try and stare it out of him, but the comely, dark— complected gentleman with the scar under his eye looked to be a man who understood the value of information.

Sure enough, the dark one reached into his fine purse and laid a thick double tree coin on the rough counter between them.

"If you would be so good as to answer a few questions, I would be very grateful." Another of the heavy rectangular coins joined the first. "These young men were servants of mine. I'm most anxious to find them."

"Stole something, did they?"

"It's a rather delicate matter," the gentleman replied.

"Well, you've missed 'em by nigh onto a week, I'm sorry to say. They was a bad sort, I thought, when first I laid eyes on 'em. Ain't that so, Mother?"

"Oh, aye," his wife assured them, eyeing the strangers over her husband's shoulder. "Never should have taken them in, I said after, empty rooms or no."

"And she was right. The yellow-haired one tried to murder the other in the night. I locked me'self and the family in the storeroom after I caught 'em at it. In the morning they was both gone. Don't know whether the sickly fellow was living or dead in the end."

The innkeeper reached for the coins but the dark man placed a gloved fingertip on each of them.

"Did you, by chance, observe the direction they took?"

"No, sir. Like I said, we stayed in the storeroom 'til we was certain they was gone."

"That's a pity," the man murmured, relinquishing the coins. "Perhaps you would be so good as to show us the rooms in which they stayed?"

"As you like," the innkeeper said doubtfully, leading them up the stairs. "But they didn't leave nothin".

I had a good look 'round right after. It was damned odd, that boy wanting the key to the outside of the other's door. Locked him in, I guess, then took after him in the dead of night. Oh, you should have heard the noise! Thumpin" and caterwauling—Here we are, sirs, this is where it happened."

The innkeeper stood aside as the two men glanced around the cramped rooms.

"Where was the fight?" the pale one asked. His manner was not so obliging as that of his companion, the innkeeper noted, and he had a funny sort of accent when he spoke.

"This here," he told him. "You can still see a few dibs of blood on the floor, just there by your foot."

Exchanging a quick look with his companion, the dark man drew the innkeeper back toward the stairs.

"You must allow us a few moments to satisfy our curiosity. In the meantime, perhaps you would be so kind as to carry ale and meat to my servants in the yard?"

Presented with the opportunity for further profit, the innkeeper hustled back downstairs.

Mardus waited until the innkeeper was out of earshot, then nodded for Vargыl Ashnazai to begin.

The necromancer dropped to his knees and took out a tiny knife. Scraping at the spots of dried blood scattered over the rough boards, he carefully tapped the shavings into an ivory vial and sealed it. His thin lips curved into an unpleasant semblance of a smile as he held the vial up between thumb and forefinger.

"We have them, Lord Mardus!" he gloated, lapsing into the Old Tongue. "Even if he no longer wears it, with this we shall track them down."

" If they are indeed those whom we seek," Mardus replied in the same language. In this instance, the necromancer was probably correct in his assumptions, but as usual, Mardus made no effort to encourage him.

They all had their roles to play.

With Vargыl Ashnazai trailing dourly behind him, Mardus returned downstairs and gave the innkeeper and his wife an eloquent shrug.

"As you said, there is nothing to be found," he told them, as if abashed. "However, there is one last point."

"And what would that be, sir?" asked the innkeeper, clearly hoping for another lucrative opportunity.

"You said they fought." Mardus toyed with his purse strings. "I am curious as to the cause. Have you any idea?"

"Well," replied the innkeeper, "as I said, they was at it hammer and tongs before I got up there at all. Time I got the lamp lit and found my cudgel, the young one already had the other fellow laid out. Still, just from what I saw looking in, it 'peared to me they was fighting over some manner of necklace."

"A necklace?" exclaimed Vargыl Ashnazai.

"Oh, it was a paltry-looking thing, weren't it?" the wife chimed in. "Nothing to kill a fellow over!"

"That's right," her husband said in disgust. "Just a bit of wood, 'bout the size of a five-penny piece, strung on some leather lacing. Had some carving done on it, as I remember, but still it didn't look like anything more than some frippery a peddler would carry."

Mardus offered the man a bemused smile. "Well, they were a bad pair, just as you say, and I suppose I'm well rid of them. Many thanks."

Tossing a final coin to the innkeeper, he went out to the yard where his men stood ready.

"Have you any doubts now, my lord?" Ashnazai whispered, trembling with suppressed rage.

"It seems they've eluded us once again," Mardus mused, tapping a gloved finger thoughtfully against his chin.

"He should have been dead a week ago! No one could survive—"

Mardus smiled thinly. "Come now, Vargыl Ashnazai, even you must see that these are no ordinary thieves we are pursuing."

Casting an approving eye over the empty country surrounding the crossroads inn, he turned to the group of armed men. "Captain Tildus!"

"Sir?"

Mardus inclined his head slightly toward the inn. "Kill everyone, then burn it."

14 Sailing South

Alec felt like cheering aloud as the mainland slipped under the horizon their first day out. The sheer emptiness that surrounded the ship—the endless sky, the biting cold of the wind, and frozen spume thrown up by the prow as the Grampus raced gaily along under full-bellied sails—all this seemed to cleanse him down to the bone.

He worked hard, to be sure. The sailors relegated him to the lowliest tasks, not out of any meanness but because he would not be with the ship long enough to be worth training. Though his hand was still sore and both hands were soon cracked from the salt and cold, he worked with a good will at any task he was assigned: sanding decks, hauling slops, and helping in the scullery. Whenever he could find a free moment, he went below to tend to Seregil.

Despite Alec's diligent care, however, his companion was clearly failing. The infection was spreading across Seregil's thin chest, and hectic fever spots bloomed over his cheekbones, giving his face its only color. A sickly odor clung about him.

Sedrish, the ship's cook and surgeon, gave Alec what help he could, but none of his remedies seemed to have any effect.

"At least you can still get something into him," Sedrish observed, watching Alec patiently coax a sip of broth between Seregil's cracked lips. "There's hope so long as he'll drink."

Alec was working his way through a tangled pile of rope their third day out when the captain happened by.

The weather was holding fair and Talrien appeared to be in a high good humor.

"It's too bad you're leaving us at Rhнminee. I believe we could make a pretty passable sailor of you," he remarked, bracing easily against the rail. "Most inlanders spend their first voyage heaving their guts over the side."

"No problems that way," Alec replied, brightening up a bit. "Just some trouble finding what Biny calls my 'sea legs.»

"I noticed. That first day when the swells were heavy you rolled around like a keg in the bilge. When you set foot on land again, it'll be just as bad for a bit. That's why sailors always head straight for the taverns,

you know. You sit and drink long enough, and pretty soon you feel like you're back on the rolling deep. Makes us feel more at home."

Just then a cry came down from the masthead. "Land sighted, Captain!"

"We've made good time," Talrien said, shading his eyes as he looked across the water. "See that dark line on the horizon? That's the isthmus. By tomorrow morning you'll see one of the great wonders of the world."

Alec woke feeling queasy the next morning. The motion of the ship felt different, and he couldn't hear waves against the hull.

"Hey, Aren," called Biny, sticking his head down the hatchway. "Come above if you want to see something."

On deck, Alec found they were riding at anchor in a narrow harbor. A crowd had gathered at the rail.

"What do you think of that?" Biny asked proudly.

A thin mist steamed up from the surface of the sea. The first rose-gold light of dawn shone through it, bathing the scene before them in a layer of pale, shifting fire.

Sheltering cliffs soared up out of the mists on either side of the harbor. At its head lay Cirna, a jumbled collection of square, white-plastered buildings that clung like swallow's nests to the steep slopes above the jetties.

Catching sight of him, Talrien waved an arm.

"That's one of the oldest cities in Skala. Ships were putting in here before Ero was built. You can see the mouth of the Canal over there, to the left."

Looking across the water, Alec saw that a huge channel had been cut through the cliffs at the head of the bay. Flanking the mouth of it were enormous pillars carved in relief. Each reached five hundred feet or more from the waterline to the top of the cliff and was surmounted by an elaborate capital. At this early hour, flames and black smoke still issued from the huge oil flares that topped them.

"How would you make anything that big?"

Alec exclaimed, trying to grasp the scale of what he was seeing.

"Magic, of course," scoffed Biny.

"And hard work," Talrien added. "Queen Tamir the Second built it when she founded Rhнminee. They say it took a hundred wizards and a thousand workmen two years to build the Canal. Of course, that was back in the old days, when there were enough magicians about to be spared for such labor. It's five miles from end to end, but less than three hundred feet wide. And those beacons, atop the pillars there? You can see them for miles. We steered in by them last night." Turning, he waved a hand at the gathered crew. "Come on, you lot! We've got work to do."

The Grampus carried cargo for Cirna, and they put in alongside one of the docks that jutted out from the shore. Alec saw to it that Seregil was moved to an out-of-the-way nook in the hold, then went above to watch the bustling activity on shore. At closer range he could see that the tops of the great pillars were not alike. The one on the left was carved in the form of a fish emerging from a wave. Even from across the harbor he could make out the scales on its sides, the graceful curve of the fins. The capital on the right appeared to be a stylized flame.

"Why are they different?" he asked Sedrish, shading his eyes.

"Those are the pillars of Astellus and Sakor, of course," the cook replied as if amazed at his ignorance. "Illior and Dalna are at the other end. They say those old builders figured if they were going to muck up the natural lay of the land so, they'd better tip their caps to the gods when they got all done."

Talrien stood at the top of the gangplank with one of the sailors, calling out cargo numbers for the man to record in the log. On the dock below, the various merchants to whom the cargo belonged kept similar track.

Alec studied them with interest. Instead of tunics, they wore long belted coats that reached below the knee and leather breeches like those that Seregil favored.

Many wore broad-brimmed hats with a long colorful feather or two stuck at an angle in the band.

Another vessel was unloading at a neighboring wharf; a single glimpse of their cargo was enough to draw Alec down for a closer look. Ducking through a throng of sailors and dock hands, he joined the crowd gathering around a makeshift corral that had been roped off for the horses that were being led ashore.

He'd seen plenty of horses in his life, but never the match of these.

These creatures were as tall as the black mare he'd left behind in Wolde, but not so heavily made. Their legs were long, tapering from rounded haunches to dainty hooves, and they bore their proud heads on well-arched necks. Their coats and manes had none of the rough shagginess Alec was accustomed to, but shone in the morning sun as if they'd been polished.

Despite the commotion around them, the animals showed no skittishness as they milled about. Most were bays, with a few chestnuts and blacks mixed in. The one that immediately caught Alec's fancy, however, was a glossy black stallion with a white mane and tail.

"They're something, ain't they?" Biny remarked, appearing at his elbow.

"They are that," Alec agreed. "I've never seen anything like them!"

"I shouldn't think so. Them's Aurлnen horses, just come up from the south."

"Aurлnen!" Alec grabbed Biny's arm and pointed toward the ship. "Are there any Aurлnfaie there? Do you know what they look like?"

"Nah, that's a Skalan ship. The Aurлnfaie don't come up here. Ships like that one trade in Viresse and bring the cargo-horses, jewelry, glass, and the like-back to the Three Lands to sell for theirselves."

Viresse. Seregil had once mentioned that only one port in Aurлnen was open to foreigners.

"Horses like them are only for the nobles and the rich," Biny went on. "I heard once that the Queen herself wouldn't never ride no other kind in battle, nor the Princess Royal, neither. And her the head of all the cavalry in Skala."

The stallion Alec had admired came near and he couldn't resist reaching out to it. To his delight, the beast pushed its slim head against his hand and nickered contentedly as he stroked its velvety nose and forelock. Lost as he was in admiration of the horse, it wasn't until a gloved hand reached out to stroke the stallion's neck that he noticed Biny and the rest of the crowd had melted back. Turning, he found himself face-to-face with a young woman as exotic as the horse itself.

Dark chestnut hair, drawn back from a sharp widow's peak, hung in a thick braid down the back of her mud-spattered green cloak. A few strands of it had escaped to frame her heart-shaped face in soft, curling wisps. As she turned to Alec, frozen in awe beside her, he saw the startling blue of her eyes, the flush of healthy color in her cheeks. For a moment his only thought was that here stood the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. And an extraordinary one at that, for instead of a gown she wore close-fitting doeskin breeches beneath a green tabard edged in white. The front of the tabard was richly embroidered with the emblem of a pair of crossed sabers supporting a crown.

A heavy silver gorget at her throat flashed in the sunlight, and a long sword hung from a military baldric slung across her chest.

"He's a beauty, isn't he?" she remarked.

"Uh, yes." Alec hastily turned his gaze back to the horse.

"Were you thinking of buying him?" she asked as the horse leaned over the rope to rub his chin on Alec's shoulder. "He's certainly taken to you."

"No! Oh, no-no, I was just looking." Alec stepped back acutely aware of how filthy and worn his own clothing was. "I just never saw Aurлnfaie horses before."

Her sudden smile made her look girlish in spite of the sword. "I spotted him right off, but I didn't want to buy him away from you if you'd already made up your mind." Stroking the horse's nose, she spoke softly to it. "What do you say, my fine fellow? Shall I take you home?"

As if in answer, the stallion snorted and pushed his head against her hand.

"I guess that settles it," said Alec, pleased that his favorite should get such a fine mistress.

"I'd say so," she agreed. The horse dealer had been hovering nearby and at her gesture came over to them, bowing deeply. "Your horses are as fine as ever, Master Roakas. This gentleman and I have decided that I should take the black with white. What are you asking?"

"For you, Commander, two hundred gold sesters."

"Fair enough. Captain Myrhini has the purse."

"Many thanks, Commander. Will that be all this time?"

"No, I still have to pick out a few for the Guard, but I wanted to grab this one before someone else did.

Would you ask one of my escort to saddle him for me?" Turning back to Alec, she smiled again.

"Thanks for your help. You must tell me your name."

"Aren Silverleaf."

Another soldier in green and white led the saddled stallion back. Swinging lightly up, she reached into the wallet at her belt.

"Silverleaf, is it? Well, good luck to you, Aren Silverleaf." She tossed him a coin that glittered yellow as it spun through the air. He caught it deftly, hardly taking his eyes from her to do so.

"Drink my health. It'll bring me luck."

"I will, thanks," Alec called after her as she rode away. Turning quickly to the soldier, he asked, "She's beautiful! Who is she?"

"You didn't know?" the man exclaimed, looking him up and down. "That was Princess Klia, youngest daughter of the Queen. Quite a day for you, eh boy?"

The crowd surged forward to the corral again and several strangers clapped Alec on the back, envying him his brush with royalty.

Biny elbowed his way through the press. "What's that she tossed you?"

Alec held up the gold coin. Smaller than his Skalan silver piece, it was stamped on one side with the same design of crescent moon and flame and on the reverse with the profile of a man.

"A half sester? You could drink her health for a couple of days on that!" Biny gave him a playful jab in the ribs.

"A princess!" Alec marveled, shaking his head.

"Oh, we see her all the time up here. She's second in command of the Queen's Horse Guard now, under her brother, and has quite an eye for the beasts. Come on, they've started loading already. We'd better start back."

With their own cargo dispatched, Talrien's crew was now stowing slender clay wine jars below deck. After these came crates of chickens that Talrien ordered lashed down amidships on deck. The rest of their voyage would be enlivened by the cackling and crowing of the birds, as well as their stink and the clouds of feathers they shed.

By late morning everything was secured and they sailed out to join the other vessels waiting to enter the Canal; ships were carefully spaced out to avoid any mishaps that might block the narrow channel.

Soon after they dropped anchor, a skiff sailed up to them and a stout little man in a greasy slouch hat climbed aboard. Talrien spoke briefly with the harbor master and paid out the tariffs for anchorage and

passage. When he'd gone, Talrien waved Alec over.

"One-hour wait," he said. "Tell Sedrish to get a meal up, will you?"

Alec relayed the message, then took hot water and some broth down to Seregil. By the time he came up again, several of the ships ahead of them had passed into the Canal's dark opening. A bright mirror flash came from the heights near the top of the Astellus column and the stout galley moored next to them hauled anchor, unfurled a single sail, and glided off into the dark cleft.

At last the lookout called down, "There's our signal, Captain!"

"That's it, men!" Talrien shouted. "Break out the oars and stand to your locks."

While the anchor was being raised, several of the sailors set up torches fore and aft. Others pulled back a section of the deck and brought out the long oars stored there. Each oar was passed through a round, rope-padded lock in the ship's rail, twenty to a side. At the captain's signal, the mate climbed up on a hatch and began to sing.

Picking up the rhythm he set, the oarsmen pulled in practiced unison and the ship slid smoothly forward over the calm face of the bay. Captain Talrien stood at the tiller, steering her into the echoing dimness beyond the pillars.

The sun had already passed noon, and little sunlight penetrated far into the chasm. It was colder inside and smelled of salt-drenched stone. Alec was standing with Sedrish when he happened to look up.

"Are those stars?" he asked in amazement. The narrow strip of sky was pricked with faint points of light.

"It's the high walls, shutting out the sun. I fell down a well when I was a lad and it was just the same. About the only time there's much light in here is at high noon."

Rough stone towered overhead on either side, seeming to bear down over the vessel. Small freshets of water flowed down here and there, tumbling off the uneven rock face. In places, the surface of it gave back a glassy reflection that puzzled Alec.

"That's from the magicking," Sedrish explained. "In places it's shiny smooth like that; others, like over there, the rock just dripped and ran like wax down the side of a candle. I wouldn't have liked to been in here when them wizards was blasting away, I can tell you!"

Their passage was a quiet affair. The narrow space around them gave back every whisper and splash and the effect seemed to subdue even Biny. When the lookout at last shouted, "Half way sighted, Captain," his voice reverberated in a succession of ghostly echoes up and down the canal.

Alec was wondering how on earth anyone could tell distance in such a place when he caught sight of something white against the right wall up ahead. As they drew nearer, he could see that it was a huge statue of polished marble standing in a shallow niche carved into the wall. The figure glowed like a pale lantern in the dimness.

"Who's that?" Alec asked.

"Queen Tamir the Second." Sedrich touched a hand respectfully to his forelock as they passed.

"Skala's had good queens and bad, but old Tamir was one of the best. Even the balladeers can't improve much on the life she led."

Alec squinted through the gloom as they passed the statue. The sculptor had visualized his subject striding into the wind; her long hair streamed behind her, and the robes she wore were molded to the gracious curves of her form. Much of her left side was covered by an oval shield and in her right hand she raised a sword as if saluting the passing vessels. Her face was neither exceedingly beautiful nor terribly plain, but her proud stance and fierce expression spoke across the centuries.

"After the Plenimarans destroyed the old eastern capital of Ero, she just up and moved the survivors across to the other side and had this Canal cut through," Sedrish went on, lighting his pipe from a lantern. "That must be better than six hundred years ago now. Aye, there was no stopping her, they say. She was raised as a boy up in the mountains because her uncle had seized the throne. No good come of that, of course; that's what got Ero destroyed. When he was killed in battle, this nephew of his steps forward and says, "By your leave, I'm a girl."

Her uncle had murdered just about everyone else of the blood, so they crowned her on the spot.

During her reign she beat back the Plenimarans, was lost at sea during a battle, then turned up a year later and took back the throne and ruled 'til she was an old woman. Quite a character, she was. Queen Idrilain's said to be a good deal like her."

As they sailed out into Osiat waters at the western end of the Canal, Alec craned his neck to see the carved tops of the pillars flanking this entrance. He recognized the representation of Dalna; a sheaf of grain bound with a serpent. The other, a coiled dragon crowned with a crescent moon, must be that of Illior.

The Grampus turned south down the coast with a good following wind.

The winter sea shone like polished steel in the late-afternoon sunlight.

Rocky, steep-sided islands of all sizes punctuated the coastline, rising out of the water like ruined fortresses. Some were overgrown with copses of dark fir or oak; those with any sort of harbor were inhabited by colonies of fishermen. A few trading ships were still plying this route and Talrien hailed back and forth with them using a speaking trumpet.

The Osiat was alive with more than sea traders.

Alec soon spotted his first school of porpoise.

Leaning over the rail, he watched dozens of them leap and sport alongside the ship, their dark backs arching through the waves as they escorted the ship for several miles. Soon after, he saw another school leaping in flight before the dire form of the ship's namesake, a grampus. Though not large as whales go, it looked positively enormous to Alec. The thought of such monsters swimming about under their very keel left him with a decidedly uneasy feeling.

The western shore of Skala presented a rugged face. The harsh granite bones of the country lay exposed at the coastline and again in the peaks of its mountainous spine. Between these two stony extremes lay fertile terraces and valleys, the forests and harbors where the Skalan people had found purchase

centuries before. Above the surf-scoured ledges of the shore, the higher ground sloped back from the sea in a series of ascending undulations to meet the inland mountains.

Looking shoreward, Alec could make out wagons and riders moving along a coastal highroad.

A company of horsemen gave off glints of metal through the cloud of dust that half obscured their numbers.

"That there's the Queen's Highroad," Biny informed him. "It runs all 'round the peninsula, then up the isthmus and clear to Wyvern Dug."

That evening they put in at a little harbor to unload a shipment of wine and some of the poultry crates, taking on a consignment of copper bars in exchange.

When the hold was quiet again, Alec settled down next to Seregil, hoping to get a little more broth into him. But after a few spoonfuls he choked and Alec gave up. Seregil's breathing was harsher now, rattling in his throat as his chest slowly rose and fell. As he listened, Alec felt despair crystallizing into a hard lump in his throat. Unable to bear it any longer, he dug down into Seregil's battered pack and found the knotted scarf containing the jewelry. Stuffing it into his tunic, he hurried above in search of the captain and Sedrish.

"You've got to look at him," he told them, trying to keep his voice from wavering. "I don't think he'll make it at this rate."

In the hold Sedrish bent over Seregil's still form, then shook his head. "The boy's right, Captain. The man's sinking."

Talrien felt Seregil's pulse, then sat down on a barrel frowning. "Even if we make straight for the city, passing all ports of call, I don't know that it will be soon enough."

"But you could do that?" Alec asked.

Meeting Alec's bleak, determined gaze, Talrien nodded. "I'm master of this ship. I say when she sails and where. It won't do my business any good to come in a week late—"

"If it's money, then maybe this will help." Alec pulled the handkerchief from his tunic and handed it to him.

Opening it, Talrien found the heavy gold chain, earrings, and the gold half sester Klia had given Alec.

"I wasn't supposed to sell those things—he didn't want me to." Alec gestured anxiously in Seregil's direction. "If it's not enough, I think he can more than repay you once we reach the city."

Talrien retied the cloth and handed it back.

"I'll have you in Rhнminee by noon tomorrow. We can talk about price later on. Sedrish, fetch this boy some ale."

When they'd gone, Alec lay down next to Seregil and pulled both their cloaks over them, hoping to lend the sick man some of his warmth.

Seregil's skin was moist and cold, his eyes deeply sunken beneath braised-looking lids. For an instant Alec thought he saw a faint expression of pain across his features.

With tears stinging behind his own eyes, Alec grasped one cold hand and whispered, "Don't let go! We're too close now, don't let go."

Again he thought he caught the faintest flicker of emotion in that still face. Probably it was only a trick of the light.

— the plain again. Unchanging emptiness and moaning wind. Unchanging emptiness and moaningwind.

Ah, it was all too maddening! He wanted to curse, yell, kick, strike out. All he could do was spinaround and around like an idiot, sweeping the horizon for some sign. But in the midst of his fury he caught sight of a dark figure in the distance. The dark stalker, his final adversary in life, had it followed him even here?

But no, even across the gulf of distance that separated them he could make out the figure of a man, the hood of his dark cloak drawn back to reveal the pale oval of a face. And the man was calling to him.

No, singing!

He could not catch the words but the melody was so lovely, so filled with welcome and promise, that tears sprang to his eyes. How far? How long to reach him? Impossible to judge distance in this cursed barren place, but no matter. He would run to him, for he suddenly felt wondrously light as he skimmed over the dead grass and stones. He was running-no, he was flying! The feeling of release, of joyous movement was dizzying. The ground beneath him blurred and the figure ahead waited with open arms to receive him. Too soon and not soon enough he reached him, was caught by him and held above the ground, for suddenly he had form again, as the man stopped his song and smiled kindly upon him. And such a face! It was as beautiful and serene as a god's. The skin had the color and sheen of purest gold and gathered in supple folds at the corners of his eyes and mouth as he smiled. One eye was covered with a patch, but even this failed to mar the perfection of those features. The other eye, deep and richly blue as a sapphire or a summer sky, gazed at him with depthless love.

"You have come at last, my wounded one."

The voice held the very embodiment of all the love and tenderness he had ever hoped to find inhis short, violent life.

"Help me, take me from this place!" he begged, grasping at the being's arms, cold and rigid asstone beneath his hands.

"Of course," answered the god, for surely that must be what he was—Bilairy or Illior, come torescue him from this terrible place.

Gathering him close, the god cradled him like a child against his chest, stroking him with hiscold, gentle hand.

"We will pass through the gates and over the sea together, you and I. Give to me the gift you have brought and we shall go at once."

"Gift? But I brought no gift," he stammered, his heart suddenly hammering like a sharp, tiny fist in his chest.

"But you did." The god's hand stroked his head, his shoulder, opened his shirt to lay bare his chest, which ached with the thundering of his pulse. "There, you see? his The sickly odor rose in his nostrils again as a searing shaft of pain impaled him. Looking down, he saw the small wound that gaped just over his heart; from it, as if from a bloody socket, peered an eye as wonderfully blue as that of the god. A perfect match. And suddenly he was struggling in vain against the iron grip that held him as the golden-skinned god reached to reclaim it—

The Grampus pounded south through the night. Coming on deck just after dawn, Alec saw towering grey cliffs off the port bow and a cluster of islands lying close to shore ahead of them.

"Rhнminee harbor, just inside those islands," Talrien shouted over the wind.

Rhнminee was the largest of the western ports, and the most heavily fortified. A series of long granite moles had been constructed between three smaller islands that ranged across the harbor mouth, leaving two openings to allow for the passage of friendly vessels. As the Grampus passed through one of these sea gates, Alec saw that the broad causeways bristled with catapults and ballistas. A similar arrangement of moles joined two smaller islands within the harbor itself, dividing it into inner and outer zones like the bailey of a keep.

The sailors furled all but one sail and they glided into the outer harbor, steering past scores of vessels already anchored there. Long, swift war galleys with scarlet sails and two banks of oars were moored near the causeways, their bronze ramming beaks just visible at the waterline. Merchant ships, square barges, and small, high-prowed caravels rode at anchor by the dozens.

The sea gate to the inner harbor had been constructed as a wide chute that afforded no cover to any vessel entering its constricts. Ballistas were mounted on either side and the facing walls of the chute were built in a series of tiers, so that companies of archers could harry any enemy ship that breached this inner defense.

The land embracing the harbor itself rose sharply back on all sides. Even before they had cleared the inner fortifications, Alec caught sight of the citadel above. It was huge; the main city spread over the tops of several hills set half a mile back from the water, and he judged it must be three miles wide at least. Sheer stone walls surrounded the city, hiding from view all but a few glittering domes and towers visible over the parapet.

The only approach from the harbor seemed to be a twisting road enclosed between long stone walls.

Alec was no tactician, but recalling that Rhнminee had been built to replace a city destroyed in war, it looked to him as if the Skalans didn't intend to lose a second capital.

Beyond the inner moles, a jumbled sprawl of buildings clung to the base of the cliffs below the citadel. As the ship was rowed toward an empty wharf, Alec looked with growing dismay at the bustling waterfront, the relief he'd felt at reaching the city quickly giving way to alarm at the prospect of trying to

find a single wizard somewhere in the incomprehensible city before him.

He caught Biny by the sleeve as the young sailor hurried by. "Have you heard of a place called the Orл ska House?"

"Who ain't?" Biny exclaimed, jerking a thumb at the upper city. "See that shiny bit, over to the left? That's the top of the great dome on it."

Alec's heart sank further; he'd have to find some way to get Seregil up there, traversing the width of the city. He fingered the packet of jewels inside his tunic, silently resolving to get Seregil to the Orлska House before nightfall even if he had to buy a wagon to do it.

Several men had come on board to speak with Captain Talrien. Alec was just turning to go below when one of them caught sight of him and touched his sleeve.

"Are you the friend of the sick man?" the stranger asked.

Taken by surprise, Alec turned to find a tall, thin old man smiling down on him. His long, good-natured face was seamed with age around the eyes and brow, and his short beard and the curling hair that thickly fringed his balding pate were silvery white, yet he stood as straight and easy as Alec himself. The dark eyes beneath the unruly white eyebrows revealed nothing but friendly interest. By his clothes-a simple surcoat and breeches under a worn cloak-Alec took him for a trader of some sort.

"What business do you have with him?" Alec asked warily, wondering how he'd known of Seregil's presence on the ship.

"I have come to meet you, dear boy," the old man replied. "I am Nysander."

15 Rhнminee At Last

Alec's legs felt shaky as he led Nysander into the hold.

"It is as I feared," the wizard murmured, cupping Seregil's face between his hands. "We must get him to the Orлska House at once. I have a carriage waiting. Fetch the driver."

Cold with dread, Alec found the driver and helped him bundle Seregil, well wrapped in cloaks and blankets, into the carriage.

In the meantime, Nysander spoke briefly with Captain Talrien, pressing a purse into his hands. Talrien nodded his thanks and turned to make his farewells to Alec.

"Many thanks, Captain," Alec said warmly, wishing he could find better words.

"You've a brave heart in you, Aren Silverleaf." Talrien clapped him on the shoulder. "May it bring you luck."

"It has so far," replied Alec, glancing anxiously toward the carriage. "I just hope the luck holds a bit longer."

As the carriage set off at last, Nysander knelt beside Seregil and peeled away the dressing. A single glance was enough; recoiling, he laid the bandages back in place.

"How long ago did this happen?" he asked, glad that his back was to the boy.

"Five days."

Shaking his head, Nysander began a series of silent incantations. If this was indeed what he suspected, who but Seregil could have survived such an attack?

When he'd finished, he sat back to take a second look at the boy. Pale and grim, he sat clutching Seregil's pack and sword, eyes darting back and forth between his companion and the spectacle of the city passing by the carriage window.

Worn to a shadow, thought Nysander, and scared to death of me.

This was a wild-looking lad to be sure, with his rough northern clothes and tousled hair. Nysander noted the ragged bandage bound around the boy's left hand, and how he held it palm up on his knee as if it pained him. Taut lines scored his chapped young face, making him look older than his years. There was a great weariness about him, too, and an air of uncertainty. Yet beneath all that Nysander sensed the ingrained determination that had carried both him and Seregil through whatever evil had overtaken them.

"Another Silverleaf, eh?" Nysander smiled, hoping to put him at ease. "Seregil claims it is a fortuitous name. I hope that you have found it so?"

"At times." The boy glanced up for just an instant.

"He told me never to use my real name."

"I am certain he would not mind if you told it to me."

The boy blushed. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm Alec of Kerry."

"A short name, that. They call me Nysander i Azusthra Hypirius Meksandor Illandi, High Thaumaturgist of the Third Orлska. But you must call me Nysander, for that is how friends address one another here."

"Thank you, sir—Nysander, I mean," Alec stammered shyly. "I'm greatly honored."

Nysander waved this aside. "Nothing of the kind. Seregil is as dear to me as a son, and you have brought him back. I am in your debt."

The boy looked up at him again, more directly this time. "Will he die?"

"That he has survived this long gives me hope," Nysander replied, wishing he could be more encouraging. "You did well to bring him to me. But however did the two of you meet?"

"He saved my life," answered Alec. "It was almost a month ago now, up in the Ironheart Mountains."

"I see." Nysander looked at Seregil's still, white face, wondering if he would ever hear his side of the story.

After a moment's silence, Alec asked, "How did you know we were coming?"

"A week ago I was suddenly blinded by a vision of Seregil in some desperate difficulty." Nysander signed heavily. "But such visions are fleeting things. By the time I had managed to recapture it, the crisis seemed to have passed. I had my first glimpse of you then, too, and sensed that he was in capable hands."

The boy colored again, fidgeting with the hem of his worn tunic.

"I have had other flashes of your progress over the past few days. You are a most resourceful young man. But now tell me what has happened, for I see that you are wounded as well."

Nysander continued his discreet appraisal of the boy while Alec gave an account of their escape from Asengai's domain and subsequent adventures.

A bit of gentle magic satisfied him that Seregil had been very astute in his choice of companion, although his friend's reason for taking on the youngster at all remained something of an enigma.

In describing the blind man's house outside Wolde, Alec admitted to his eavesdropping and seemed relieved when Nysander merely smiled.

"They spoke of a man called Boraneus,"

Alec told him, "but then Seregil called him Mardus. He sounded upset or surprised when he said the name."

Nysander frowned. "As well he should. You saw this man?"

"At the mayor's hall. Seregil got us in there as minstrels, so he could get a look at him, and the other, a diplomat of some sort who was traveling with him."

"This Mardus, was he a tall, dark fellow with a scar under one eye?"

"From here to here." Alec drew a finger from the inner corner of his left eye to his cheek. "You could call him handsome, I guess, but there was something cold about him when he wasn't smiling."

"Excellent! And the other?"

Alec thought for a moment. "Shorter, thin, with the look of a town dweller. Thin, greyish hair." He shook his head. "He wasn't one that you took much notice of. Anyway, we, ah, well—we burgled their rooms that night."

Nysander chuckled. "I should hope so. And what did you learn from your burglary?"

"That's where we found the—" Nysander held up a warning hand, then pointed questioningly to Seregil's

chest.

Alec nodded.

"Then we must speak of that later," warned the wizard.

"Tell me everything else, however."

"Well, I was keeping watch most of the time while he worked. He found several maps. He and Micum Cavish talked about those later on, after we left Wolde. There were some places marked, towns in the northlands. Micum's gone to find one marked in the Fens. I'm afraid that's all I know about it. Seregil will have to tell you the rest."

Let us hope you can, thought Nysander again.

His expression must have betrayed his concern, for Alec suddenly exclaimed, "You can help him, can't you? He said if you couldn't, then no one could!"

Nysander gave the boy's hand a reassuring pat. "I know what must be done, dear boy. Go on, please. What happened after that?"

Nysander chuckled appreciatively at Alec's description of their hasty escape from Wolde, but grew serious as he tried to explain Seregil's frightening decline aboard the Darter and the difficult journey that followed.

"And through all that, he never spoke further to you of what he discovered in Wolde, or of those men?"

"No, Seregil wouldn't talk about any of it much after we left town. He kept saying it was safer if I didn't know certain things."

Nysander regarded Alec in bemusement; even in one so young it was surprising to find such unquestioning trust—if trust it was. Familiar as Nysander was with Seregil's powers of persuasion, he still wondered that Alec should have followed him so far and through so many trials on the strength of little more than a few tales and fewer empty-handed promises.

No, thought Nysander, trust there certainly must have been, and he had no doubt of Alec's loyalty, but there was something else at work here. Seregil would never have involved a green boy in the burglary in Wolde if he himself had not sensed something deeper in Alec's character and been taken with it.

Apprentice indeed!

Alec shifted nervously. "Is something wrong?"

"Certainly not!" Nysander smiled. "I was lost in my own thoughts for a moment, a habit we wizards often drop into. Seregil and Micum were both working for me when you met them. At a more opportune time I will explain what that entailed."

Distracted as he was by Seregil's condition, Alec couldn't help looking out at the passing city now and then. Carts, horses, litters, and pedestrians of all descriptions thronged the streets. The road leading up to

the citadel was enclosed in curtain walls on both sides and the stonework seemed to trap the noise and amplify it.

This road ended at the broad outer gate of the city.

Half a dozen blue-clad guards flanked the entrance, armed with swords and pikes, but traffic passed freely. Once through the gate they slowed, moving through an inner barbican, and then passed under the archway of a second gate, its ancient pediment decorated with carvings of fish. Beyond lay the largest marketplace Alec had ever seen.

The stone-flagged square stretched away on all sides, jammed with hundreds of wooden booths.

Their colorful awnings rippled in the brisk wind.

A broad avenue had been left open through the center of the square to allow for traffic, and narrow side lanes branched out from it into the wilderness of shops.

From all sides came the clamor of the city: voices shouting, animals braying, the pounding of artisans at work, and the rumble of the carts that flowed in a steady line in both directions along the street.

Tall, white-plastered buildings, some as much as five stories high, ringed the market square.

Everywhere he looked there were people.

Continuing on, they plunged into the maze of streets and neighborhoods that spread over the hills.

Structures of all sorts lined the streets, in some cases even overhanging it with walkways and elaborate solariums. Wagons and riders filled the streets; children, dogs, and pigs darted about underfoot.

As the dizzying spectacle flowed by, Alec recalled with horror his original plan to bring Seregil through Rhнminee alone.

The broad avenue they followed opened periodically into broad, stone-paved circles from which other streets radiated like the spokes from the hub of a wheel. Under other circumstances Alec might have asked Nysander about them, but the wizard had grown silent again, watching Seregil's shallow breathing with apparent concern.

Holding his tongue, Alec saw that they were entering an area of larger, more elaborate buildings.

Presently they came to another of the open circles, this one centered around a circular colonnade some forty feet in diameter and bordered on one side by a wooded park.

"The Fountain of Astellus, a spring which has never gone dry since the founding of the city," Nysander remarked, indicating the colonnade. "The original city was centered around it. We are nearly to the Orлska."

Halfway around the circle, their driver veered to the left onto another broad, tree-lined avenue.

High walls lined the street on either side, presenting blank faces of smooth stone or plaster except for the broad bands of decoration bordering the tops and gateways. Some patterns were painted, others done in mosaics of colored stone or tile.

He would later learn that these decorated walls, screening the elegant villas beyond, were not merely decorative; in the Noble Quarter one might be directed to "the house in Golden Helm Street with the red serpent gate" or "the house with the black and gold circles in a blue border."

Small marble pillars stood at intervals along the streets here, each one carved with a figure representing the name of that street. Small gilded helmets marked the way that Alec and Nysander followed.

"Are those all palaces?" Alec asked, catching glimpses of carved and painted facades beyond the walls.

"Oh, no, just villas. Many are owned by members of the Queen's Kin," Nysander replied. "Aunts, brothers, cousins so far removed one must consult the Archives to ascertain from which obscure third brother of what queen or consort they are descended."

"Seregil said it was a complicated place, but that I'd have to learn all about it," replied Alec, looking rather glum at the prospect.

"Quite true, but I am certain he will not expect you to learn overnight," the wizzard assured him. "You could have no better teacher than Seregil for such matters. If you will look ahead, however, you will see a true palace."

Golden Helm Street ended at the huge walled park surrounding the Queen's Palace. The carriage turned onto a cross street and they passed an open gate, Alec glimpsed an expanse of open ground and beyond it a sprawling edifice of pale grey stone decorated along the battlements with patterns of black and white.

Continuing on, they came to another great enclosed park. The gleaming white walls seemed to have been erected for the purpose of privacy rather than defense, however, for the graceful arch through which they passed had neither door nor portcullis.

As they entered the grounds Alec let out a yelp of surprise. Within the embrace of the surrounding walls, it was as if the seasons had suddenly rushed forward into summer. The sky overhead was the same pale winter blue as before, but the air around them was cool and sweet as a spring morning. On every side stretched carefully laid out lawns and beds of brilliant flowers and blooming trees. Robed figures moved among them or reclined on benches.

Alec blinked in disbelief as he caught sight of an enormous centaur playing a harp beneath a nearby tree.

The creature had the body of a tall chestnut stallion, but rising from its withers was the hirsute torso of a man. Coarse black hair overhung his brow in a long forelock and grew in a mane down his back. Nearby a woman floated cross-legged ten feet above the ground, lazily tossing globes of colored glass into the air and directing their motion in time to his music.

Nysander waved to the centaur as they wheeled past and the creature returned the greeting with a nod of his great head.

In the center of all these marvels stood the Orлska House itself, a soaring structure of gleaming white stone surmounted by a faceted, onion-shaped dome that flashed brightly in the sunlight. Slender towers topped with smaller domes and studded at intervals with carved oriels stood at each of the building's four corners.

A set of broad stairs led up to the main entrance where half a dozen servants in red tabards stood

waiting. Two men hurried forward with a litter as the carriage came to a stop; a third shouldered the battered pack and Alec's meager bundle. At Nysander's nod, Seregil was carried inside.

The main building was centered around a huge atrium lit by the natural light streaming in through the clear glass dome above.

Rising up from a splendid mosaic floor, the inner walls were broken by five levels of balconies and walkways decorated with more elaborate Skalan carving and tile work.

Nysander strode across the atrium and through one of the large archways that flanked it. Beyond lay a staircase that spiraled gently upward, giving onto a landing at each level. At the third landing they walked down an interior corridor lined with doors, found another stairway, and climbed again.

The place was teeming with people in all manner of dress. Those that appeared to be servants or visitors paid them little heed, but Alec noticed that the wizards, whom he distinguished by their long, colorful robes, invariably drew back from them as if in fear or disgust. Several made strange signs in the air as they passed and one, a boy whose white robe had only simple bands of color at the sleeves, collapsed in a faint.

"Why do they keep doing that?" Alec whispered to Nysander.

"I shall explain presently," Nysander murmured.

Leading the way along one of the fifth-floor walkways, he stopped at a heavy door.

"Welcome to my home," he said. Opening the door for the litter bearers, the wizard motioned for Alec to preceed him.

Stepping in, Alec found himself in a narrow, tunnel-like space. Stacks of boxes, crates, and sheaves of parchment filled whatever space there was from floor to ceiling. A single, narrow pathway allowed access to the inner rooms; two people might have been able to squeeze past one another, but it would be at the risk of setting off an avalanche.

The room beyond, though cluttered, was bright and spacious by comparison. Looking up, Alec realized they were at the top of one of the corner towers. Colored only by the sun and sky above, the thick leaded panes of the dome were set in swirling patterns interspersed with complicated symbols.

The tower room was filled with an amazing collection of things, the complete order of which was probably known only to Nysander himself. Shelf upon shelf of books, racks of scrolls, hangings, diagrams, and charts covered every inch of wall space. More books were stacked in precarious piles on the floor and on the stairs that curved up to a walkway beneath the dome overhead.

Around the room stood three large worktables and a high desk. Two of the tables were hopelessly laden; among the general clutter Alec noticed braziers, pots, covered jars, several skulls, and a small iron cage.

On the third table a thick book lay open on a stand surrounded by a collection of fragile glass vessels and rods. The desk was also relatively clear, though a dusty formation of candle drippings cascaded to the floor from one corner of it where, over the years, one candle had been set into the guttering pool of its predecessor.

Hooks and nails had been driven in anywhere there seemed to be room, and from these were hung an array of things ranging from dried leaves and skins to a complete skeleton of something that was decidedly not human.

Nysander went to a small side door at the right side of the room and sent the litter bearers through with Seregil. Alec followed them into a small whitewashed chamber. In the middle of the room was a rectangular table of dark polished wood inlaid with ivory; a smaller one of similar design stood against the right-hand wall with a simple wooden chair.

At Nysander's command, the servants placed Seregil's litter on the floor next to the long table and withdrew. No sooner had they gone than a thin young man in a spotless blue and white robe hurried in with an armload of leafy branches. His curly black hair was closely cropped and the sparse black beard edging his cheeks accentuated the gaunt planes of his pale, angular face.

Setting his bundle down beside the smaller table, he brushed a few leaves from the front of his robe and glanced down at Seregil, his pale green eyes narrowing with distaste.

"Ah, just in time!" Nysander said. "Alec, this is Thero, my assistant and protйgй. Thero, this is Alec, who has brought Seregil back to us."

"Welcome," Thero said, though neither his voice nor his manner evinced any warmth.

"Are the preparations complete?" asked Nysander.

"I've brought extra branches, just to be certain."

Looking down at Seregil again, the young wizard shook his head. "It seems we'll need them."

With Thero's terse assistance, Alec pulled off Seregil's filthy tunic and cut away the linen bands covering the dressing. Thero, who'd handled the tunic as if it were smeared with excrement, took a step back, making a quick warding sign as he did so.

"What is it?" Alec exclaimed in growing alarm.

"Nysander, please! Why do people keep doing that?"

"You and Seregil have been in contact with a telesm of the most dangerous sort," the wizard replied calmly, bending to scrutinize the wound. "You are both tainted with a miasmal effluence most offensive to any with thaumaturgic powers."

Glancing up, Nysander saw Alec's blank look and gave the boy an apologetic smile. "Forgive me. What I mean is that you two have been in contact with a cursed object of some sort and, while only the physical effects are apparent to the ordinary observer, to a wizard you both smell like you just crawled out of a cesspit."

"I should say so!" Thero concurred wholeheartedly.

Kneeling beside Seregil, Nysander drew a small silver knife from his belt and gently pressed the flat of the blade here and there against the seeping flesh, his unruly eyebrows drawing together as he noted the round mark left by the wooden disk. Setting the blade aside, he sat back on his heels, frowning.

"It is time I saw the cause of all this."

Alec opened Seregil's pack and pulled out the old tunic. He hadn't touched the bundle since the night of the strange attack.

"Place it there, in the center of the small table,"

Nysander instructed. "We must work with extreme care. Are you ready, Thero?"

Unrolling the tunic, he lifted the disk out with a long pair of silver tongs. "Just as I feared," he muttered. "Thero, the jar."

His assistant placed a small crystal jar on the table and Nysander dropped the disk into it.

There was a brief flash of light as he set the lid in place and the jar sealed seamlessly shut.

"That much is done, at least," Nysander said, dropping the jar unceremoniously into his pocket.

"Now we must see to the purification. We shall begin with you, Alec, for we will need your assistance with Seregil. Come now, there is no need to look so apprehensive!"

Thero positioned the chair at the center of the room and motioned for Alec to sit. Gripping the arms nervously, Alec watched as Thero fetched a tray.

Nysander patted his shoulder. "There is nothing to fear, dear boy, but you must not speak again until I tell you that I have finished."

Producing a lump of blue chalk from a wallet on his belt, the wizard drew a circle on the floor around the chair and added a series of hastily scrawled symbols around its perimeter. Meanwhile, Thero poured water from a silver ewer into a silver bowl on the side table, then selected three branches from the bundle on the floor, laying them out neatly beside the bowl.

The branches were of three different types: white pine trimmed so that the long needles at the tip formed a sort of brush; a simple birch switch; and a straight branch covered in round green leaves that gave off a sharp, unfamiliar aroma.

Adding a shallow clay dish of ink and a fine brush to the arrangement, Thero placed a thick wax candle behind the bowl and lit it with a quick snap of his fingers.

"Everything's ready," he said, moving to stand behind Alec's chair.

Nysander stood over the bowl, hands held palm downward above it, and spoke a few quiet words.

Instantly a soft glow radiated up from the surface of the water, followed by a sweet, pleasant fragrance that filled the room. Taking up the small dish and brush, Nysander painted blue symbols on Alec's forehead and palms, taking special care with the wounded hand.

This step completed, he passed one of the aromatic branches several times over the candle flame, dipped it in the glowing water, and sprinkled Alec from head to foot, repeating the flame and water process several times. The droplets glowed with the same magical light as the water in the bowl. They clung to Alec's skin and clothing, winking like fireflies.

Laying aside the first branch, Nysander passed the birch switch through the flame and water and struck Alec lightly on his cheeks, shoulders, chest, thighs, and feet, then snapped the stick in two.

Small puffs of brown, foul-smelling smoke rose up from the splintered ends. He uttered a few more, incomprehensible words; the sweet perfume of the water intensified, dispelling the odor.

Finally, he took up the pine branch and repeated the spargetaction. This time the glowing drops vanished as they touched Alec, leaving a faint tingling sensation in their wake. At a final command from Nysander, the painted symbols simply vanished.

"Your spirit is cleansed," Nysander told him, tossing the last branch onto the table. "I suggest you do the same with your body while we prepare Seregil."

Alec glanced anxiously at Seregil.

"There is time," Nysander assured him. "Thero and I have preparations of our own to make. The task before us is an arduous one. I shall need you refreshed and ready. For Seregil's sake, if not for your own, do as I ask. My servant Wethis will conduct you down to the baths. You may also deliver a message for me to Lady Ylinestra on your way. Please tell her that I shall be detained."

Thero paused on his way out with the tray, giving his master a look Alec couldn't quite decipher. "If you'd like to go to the lady yourself, I can begin the preparations."

"Thank you, Thero, but I must keep my mind clear for the ceremony, as must you," replied Nysander.

Thero gave his master a respectful nod. "Come along, Alec." A lanky, towheaded youth answered Thero's summons.

"This is Wethis," the young wizard said. Turning on his heel, he disappeared back into the side room without a backward glance.

Alec looked back at Wethis just in time to catch him making a sour face at Thero's back. As the two of them exchanged guilty grins, Alec realized how ill at ease he'd been among the wizards.

"We're to stop at the chambers of someone called Ylinestra," he told Wethis as they began the winding descent back down. "I'm supposed to deliver a message to her for Nysander. Do you know who she is?"

"Ylinestra of Erind?" Wethis shot him an unreadable look. "Everyone knows who she is, sir. Come this way, her chambers are in the visitors' wing."

"She's not an Orлska wizard?"

"No, sir, a young sorceress up from the south to study." They walked on a moment in silence, then Wethis stole another sidelong glance at Alec.

"You're the one who came in with Lord Seregil, aren't you, sir?"

"Yes," he replied, thinking Lord Seregil? "And you don't have to call me sir. My name's Alec."

Continuing down through the warren of stairways and passages, they came out on a gallery overlooking

the atrium. From here, Alec saw that the mosaic on the floor below depicted an immense, scarlet dragon crowned with a silver crescent. Its leathery wings were outstretched in flight; beyond its coiling body, as if seen from a distance, lay what Alec took to be the harbor and walled city of Rhнminee itself.

"That must be the dragon of Illior," he observed, leaning over the rail for a better look.

"The very one."

Stopping at the last door on the gallery, Wethis knocked and stepped back to make way for Alec.

A woman opened the door, her welcoming smile one a man could happily die for. It vanished as soon as she saw the two of them, however. Suddenly Alec couldn't have spoken a word if his life depended on it.

Ylinestra was stunningly beautiful. Framed in a mass of raven hair, her face was at once delicate and sensual. Her eyes were the deep, velvety purple of a summer iris. The loose-flowing garment she wore was made of embroidered silk so sheer it did little more than tint the voluptuous body it draped.

Alec, who had never seen a naked woman before, stood rooted to the spot, too shocked to think.

Wethis stood to one side in respectful silence.

"Yes?" Ylinestra demanded imperiously, folding her arms beneath her breasts.

"I've come from Nysander," Alec said, finding his voice at last. He wanted desperately to keep his eyes on hers, but the onslaught of her gaze was too much. Knowing that he'd be lost if he looked lower than her shoulders, he finally settled on her chin and blurted out his message. "He-he said to tell you that he'll be late."

"Did he say when he would come?" she demanded, her tone ominous.

"No," Alec replied, resisting the strong urge to fall back a pace.

"Thank you," she snapped and slammed the door in his face. A series of loud crashes from behind it quickly followed as Alec and Wethis beat a hasty retreat.

"If I'd known what your message was, I'd have warned you about her temper," Wethis apologized.

"She and Nysander are lovers, you see. I think she must have been expecting him in person."

''His lover!"

"The latest one, anyway," Wethis answered with obvious admiration. "Nysander's one of the few Orлska wizards who doesn't hold with celibacy. Far from it, in fact. Still, I'm not certain even he is a match for Ylinestra, if you know what I mean." Lowering his voice, he added with a knowing wink, "But I'll warrant she's worth the trouble!"

Reaching the atrium, Wethis led Alec into a long gallery lined with statuary of every size and description.

"This is just the anteroom of the baths," he explained, seeing Alec's look of wonder. "The really unusual things are in the museum across the way. Lord Seregil could show you around there; he knows the place better than some of the wizards."

Steamy air enveloped them as Wethis swung back a large door and ushered him into an immense vaulted chamber. Having always associated washing with chilly streams and drafty bathhouses, Alec wasn't prepared for the opulence that now lay before him.

At the center of the huge chamber lay a broad octagonal pool lined with red and gold tiles.

Marble griffins with gilded wings stood at four opposing corners and spewed arching streams of water into it. The tinkling plash of falling water echoed pleasantly around the chamber.

The walls of the room were decorated with frescoes depicting water nymphs and undersea scenes. Beneath these, set into the floor in the same manner as the pool, were individual tubs. Attended by servants, a number of other bathers were already making use of these. Alec could feel the warmth of the heated floor through the soles of his boots.

A carved bench, clothes rack, and the largest looking glass he'd ever seen were arranged around the tub prepared for him. Nearby a servant stood ready with a basket, and another was approaching with a tray of food. The scented water in the tub did look inviting, but Alec felt acutely uncomfortable undressing under so many eyes. Noting his hesitation, Wethis shooed the servants off and turned away himself while Alec slipped hastily into the water.

"Looks like Nysander wants you to eat," Wethis observed pushing the tray of food over to him.

In spite of his resolution to hurry, the aromas wafting up from the various bowls stirred Alec's empty belly. Taking up a spoon, he hastily wolfed down a few mouthfuls until a fiery red sauce brought him to an abrupt, choking halt.

Grinning, Wethis handed him a goblet of cool water. "You'd better slow down. Skalan food can take you by surprise if you're not used to it."

"I guess so!" Alec croaked, holding out his cup for more water. Taking a last piece of bread, he pushed the rest away. "You want any of this?"

"No," Wethis declined with a bemused smile.

"I'll take it away."

Alec ducked his head under, scrubbing his fingers through his hair. When he came up again he found a young bath servant preparing to assist him. Grabbing the sponge out of the startled servant's hands, Alec sent him off with a dark look.

Making cursory use of the soap, he clambered out to find that his soiled clothing had been removed.

Clean linen, a loose shirt, soft leather breeches, and a fine scarlet surcoat were laid out on the rack. A broad belt of embossed leather hung over the shoulder of the coat.

"Where's my bow?" he demanded in some alarm as Wethis returned. "Where are my sword and purse?"

"Your purse is here." Wethis handed it to him.

"Weapons are not allowed in the Orлska House. They'll be kept safe for you until you leave."

The bath attendant drifted hesitantly back as Alec finished dressing, offering him a tray of oils and combs. Alec was about to wave the boy away again when he caught sight of himself in the glass. For the first time in his life, he saw his entire image at once and scarcely recognized the finely dressed figure he saw reflected there. His hair stuck out in damp disarray. Feeling a little awkward, he accepted a comb and took a moment to smooth it back.

Returning to the wizards tower, Alec found that Seregil had been washed and laid naked on the larger table in the side room. His thin, pale body looked frailer than ever against the dark wood.

Angry lines of infection bloomed across his breast like a vile, livid flower.

Nysander was standing on a chair, drawing a blue chalk circle on the ceiling overhead. A corresponding circle had already been drawn on the floor around the table. He'd changed clothes during Alec's absence; the voluminous robe he wore was of the finest blue wool, the breast and sleeves richly patterned with gold embroidery. A wide belt decorated with enameled plaques and tassels accentuated the spareness of his frame, making him seem taller than ever. An embroidered velvet skullcap balanced precariously on the back of his head.

"Ah, back so soon? I trust you found yourself well served?" Nysander stepped lightly down from the chair and looked Alec over. Pocketing the chalk, he wiped his hands absently on the skirt of his robe, leaving dusty smudges across the front of it.

"Skalan dress suits you, dear boy, although your hair seems to have retained the wild fashion of the north."

He waved a deprecating hand at his own garb. "No doubt you find my appearance more wizardly now? Thero is of a similar opinion, and I find it easiest to humor him. I would be every bit as effective in my ragged old coat, or stark naked for that matter, but he does insist—" Thero came in just then and Nysander gave Alec a wink that put him very much in mind of Micum Cavish.

Alec was directed to stand at the head of the table.

Looking down, he studied Seregil's empty face as Thero quietly arranged the final items for the ceremony. The materials were much the same, with the addition of a slender ivory wand and knife. When he'd finished, he took up his position at Seregil's feet.

Nysander stood beside the table, hands clasped before him.

After a moment of silence he looked at Alec.

"We shall begin, now. You may find the ceremony disturbing, but remember that we are doing this to save Seregil's life and make him whole again. Once the process has begun, you must not speak or cross out of the circle. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Alec replied, shifting uneasily.

Nysander went to work with the ink and brush, and over the next hour covered Seregil's hands, brow, and breast with an intricate web of interconnected symbols. A particularly dense band outlined the area around the strange wound.

After another invocation, he proceeded with a spargefaction similar to the one he'd performed on Alec. As before, the beaded droplets retained their bright glow against Seregil's skin and by the time Nysander had finished, his body was encased in a gleaming mantle of them.

Nysander took up a birch switch and Alec winced as the wizard brought it down hard enough to raise thin welts across Seregil's skin. At the final blow of the switch, the droplets lost their light, then disappeared.

Chanting in a clear, strong voice, Nysander broke the switch over his knee. Foul brown smoke rose in thick twin columns from the splintered ends, swirling around the confines of the magic circle like a whirlwind in a barrel. It had a fearsome stink and Alec and Thero choked, half blinded, in the midst of it.

Unaffected, Nysander purified the ivory wand in flame and water and drew a glowing sign in the air above Seregil. The sigil writhed in a quick succession of patterns and disappeared with a loud pop, taking the smoke with it.

Motioning for Alec's attention, Nysander raised one hand and made a brief gesture. It took the boy a moment to realize that he was using Seregil's silent hand language.

Hold him.

Thero joined Nysander in a fast, rhythmic chant as they scattered water over Seregil with pine branches. The droplets danced and sizzled across his bare skin like water on a hot griddle, then disappeared. Points of reddish light winked into existence where they had been. Alec thought at first that they were drops of blood, but they quickly swelled to fingertip size, taking on an uncanny, spiderlike shape. They moved like spiders, too, and Alec felt a keen revulsion as the glowing things skittered over Seregil's helpless body, across his mouth, his eyelids and lips.

Around the wound they swarmed out in such numbers that Alec stepped back, instinctively raising his hand in a warding sign. Before he could complete it, however, Nysander's hand closed over his. With a stern gesture, the wizard firmly indicated that Alec should not repeat the gesture.

By the time they'd finished, Seregil was scarcely visible beneath a seething mass of the spidery things. His breathing had grown harsh in his throat and he stirred restlessly, rolling his head from side to side.

Signing for Thero and Alec to hold him down, Nysander raised the ivory wand over Seregil's chest and traced another intricate series of patterns on the air. When he was satisfied with the design, he drew a final circle around it. A swirling breeze sprang up above them.

Seregil's breathing quickened to short, painful panting as the glowing things were pulled off his body and drawn up into a small, tightly twisting column. When the last of them had been drawn away, Nysander and Thero cried out in unison, their voices booming in the confines of the tiny room. The very air reverberated in a manner transcending the mere power of a human voice.

The swirling cloud of red lights winked out; and blackened husks from the air crackled underfoot like tiny shards of glass.

They carefully cleared the remains from Seregil's body and the surface of the table, then began again from the beginning.

Seregil grew increasingly restless as they continued.

Within an hour he was physically resisting their efforts; by the fourth cycle of spargings Alec and Thero had to use all their strength to hold him down. During the worst of his throes, Seregil clawed at his own chest, shouting unintelligibly.

Nysander paused to listen, then shook his head.

Another hour and they were all to the point of exhaustion. Alec's face and neck were scored with the marks of Seregil's nails. Thero had a bruise darkening over his left eye and his nose was bleeding from a sudden kick. The black cinders lay almost three inches deep on the floor and broken branches were piled around Nysander's ankles.

At last the wound opened, draining thick, bloody pus. They were soon all smeared with it as Seregil continued to arch and struggle. When Nysander paused to sponge the area clean, they saw that the mark of the disk had reappeared. Alec could make out some of the enigmatic pattern and the mark of the square hole at its center.

Late-afternoon light was shining down through the tower dome by the time they completed the last of the purifications. A few of the red lights sprang up under the sprinkling of the pine tip, and finally none at all. Seregil grew quiet again, his breathing a soft, steady moan.

Using the ivory knife, Nysander gently pricked the skin where the pulse throbbed at the base of Seregil's throat. A drop of bright blood welled up, nothing more.

Reaching overhead with the wand, he broke the blue chalk circle on the ceiling, then bent and scratched across the one on the floor. Straightening wearily, he kneaded at the back of his neck with one hand.

"He is cleansed."

"Will he get well now?" Alec asked uncertainly, seeing little improvement.

Nysander stroked Seregil's damp hair back from his forehead with a fond smile. "Yes. He would not have survived the ritual, otherwise."

"You mean he could have died from this?" Alec gasped grasping the edge of the table to steady himself.

Nysander clasped him by the shoulders, looking earnestly into his face. "He would certainly have died otherwise, and perhaps gone on to something far worse after death. I did not tell you that before because I did not want you distracted by such concerns."

"Shall I send for Valerius now?" asked Thero.

"Please do. I believe you will find him in the atrium."

"Who's Valerius?" asked Alec.

"A drysian. Seregil is damaged in body as well as in spirit. That will require special healing."

This, at least, was something Alec understood. He set to work clearing away the remains of the ceremony.

Gingerly picking up a few of the blacked stars, he found them as brittle as the dead spiders they resembled.

"What are they?" he asked, dropping them in disgust.

"A corporeal manifestation of the evil that came into him through the disk," Nysander replied, sifting a handful through his fingers. "It is very difficult to affect anything of insubstantial nature. By means of the procedure you just witnessed, I was able to draw the evil from Seregil's body bit by bit, binding it to a small amount of matter to lend it a tangible form. I could then act upon it by magic to dissipate it. These ashes are simply the residue of the temporary physical form I imposed upon it."

"Is it difficult?"

"More draining than difficult. But you must be exhausted, wrestling with our poor friend here for so long. How do you suppose an old fellow of nearly three centuries must feel?"

Alec blinked. "Micum said you were the oldest of the wizards, but I never—"

"I am hardly the oldest of all, my boy, merely the eldest in residence at the Orлska," Nysander corrected. "I know of several others half again as old as myself. As wizards go, I am in my prime. Please do not go making an antiquity out of me just yet!"

Alec began a stammered apology, certain he'd given offense, but Nysander chuckled and reached to ruffle his hair. "If Micum spoke of me, he must have told you not to fear me. Speak your mind honestly, and I shall like you the better for it."

"I'm still getting used to all this," Alec admitted.

"I am not surprised. Once Seregil is settled, you and I shall have a nice, comfortable chat."

Alec went back to his task in silence, wondering what he would have to say to a wizard, even one as friendly as Nysander. He was soon startled out of his reverie, however, by the sound of someone entering the front room.

"What's the brat gotten himself into this time?" a brusque voice bellowed.

The owner of the voice, a wild-looking man in rough clothing, strode into the room, bringing with him the smells of fresh air, wood smoke, and wild growing things freshly gathered. Thero trailed in the newcomer's wake, his thin mouth pursed into a vaguely disapproving line.

"Valerius, old friend!" Nysander greeted the man warmly. "How fortunate to find you in Rhнminee today. I have dispelled the magic, but he still requires considerable healing."

Tossing a battered satchel onto the table, the drysian scowled down at Seregil. Valerius unkempt black hair stood out in violent disorder beneath the cracked brim of his disreputable felt hat.

His beard bristled belligerently, and the rich black thatch that covered the backs of his hands and forearms and curled forth from the unlaced neck of his tunic gave him a bearish look. His clothes, like those of most drysians, were plain and stained with hard travel. His heavy silver pendant and smooth-worn staff, together with the pouches of every size and description hanging from the belt girding his ample middle, marked him as a drysian. Deep lines bracketing his mouth warned of a formidable

nature.

"I believe it was curse magic of some sort," Nysander informed him.

"I can see that," Valerius muttered, brown eyes glittering as he ran his hands over Seregil's body.

"What's this?" he asked, tapping a finger under the open wound.

"The imprint of a wooden disk Seregil wore next to his skin for several days. I do not know whether the mark is the result of magic, or happened when this boy inadvertently pulled the thing off. Alec, you did say you noticed a reddening of the skin there a few days before the final incident?"

Pinned by the drysian's sharp attention, Alec nodded.

"Never seen anything like this, but it stinks of sorcery."

Valerius wrinkled his nose as he examined the faint tracery still visible. "Best to have it off."

The wizard cupped a hand over the mark for a moment, then shook his head slowly. "I think it would be better to leave it as it is for the time being."

"The last thing Seregil wants is another scar on his pretty skin," Valerius glowered. "Especially one as distinctive as this! Besides, who knows what this thing means?"

"That was my first thought," Nysander concurred, unperturbed by the drysian's manner. "Nonetheless, I feel it would be best to leave it as it is."

"Some mystical presentiment, no doubt?"

Valerius gave a derisive snort. "Suit yourself, then. But you explain it to him when he makes a fuss."

Shooing everyone from the room, the healer set to work.

Wethis was summoned to assist him, and soon the room was choked with clouds of steam and incense.

Nysander cleared a space at one of the less cluttered worktables and Thero and Alec joined him.

"Illior's Hands, that was thirsty work." He spoke a quick spell and a tall, burlap-wrapped jar appeared on the table before them, a crust of melting snow clinging to the coarse material. Alec reached out a tentative finger to see if it was real.

"Mycenian apple wine is best well chilled."

Nysander smiled, delighted with Alec's open amazement. "I keep a supply up on Mount Apos."

The three of them settled down over the mild, icy wine, waiting for the drysian to finish.

Poor Wethis scatted in and out on errands for Valerius so often that Nysander finally propped the front door open so they wouldn't have to keep letting him in.

Valerius emerged from the casting room at last, streamers of vapor trailing from his beard. Dropping

unceremoniously onto the bench beside Alec, he unhooked a cup from his belt and helped himself to the wine. Ignoring their expectant looks, he drained the cup at one gulp and let out a deep, satisfied belch.

"I've gotten the last of the poison out of his blood. He'll mend now," he announced.

"Was it acotair?" Thero inquired.

Valerius saluted him with his cup. "Acotair it was. An uncommon poison, and very effective. I daresay it leached into his skin from the disk, weakening him so that the magic could work more quickly."

"Or from a distance," suggested Nysander.

"Possibly. The combination would have killed most men, considering how long he wore the damned thing."

"Well, you know Seregil and magic," Nysander sighed. "But you are fortunate not to have handled it any more than you did, Alec."

"What did you mean, about Seregil and magic?" asked Alec.

"He resists it somehow—"

"You mean he fouls it up!" scoffed Valerius.

The drysian's derisive tone bothered Alec less than Thero's discreet smirk; he found he was liking Nysander's assistant less all the time.

"Whatever the case, it has saved his life," said Nysander. "And Alec's as well, judging by his description of Seregil's behavior. Had he decided to kill you, dear boy, I doubt you could have stopped him."

Recalling the look on Seregil's face that night in the barn, Alec knew Nysander spoke the truth.

"He'll sleep for another day, perhaps two," said Valerius. "He should stay in bed a week; knowing him, five days will have to do. But no less than that, mind you. Lash him to the bedposts if you have to. I'll leave some herbs for an infusion. Force as much of it down him as you can, and make him eat. Nothing to drink but water and lots of it. I want him properly purged before we let him go. Thanks for the wine, Nysander."

Rising to his feet, he swung his satchel over his shoulder. "Strength of the Maker be upon you!"

Alec watched him stride out, then turned to Nysander. "He knows Seregil, doesn't he? Are they friends?"

Nysander smiled wryly, considering the question. "I cannot recall hearing either of them use the term in relation to one another. Still, I suppose they are, after their own peculiar fashion. But I suspect you will have an opportunity to form your own opinions over the next few days."

16 Dinner With Nysander

Exhausted as he was after the ceremony, Alec insisted on helping Wethis carry Seregil down the back stairs of Nysander's tower to the living quarters. A short, curving hallway led past several closed doors to a comfortable bedchamber near the end of the passage.

The room was simply furnished. Two narrow beds flanked an embrasured window on the far side of the room. Thick, colorful carpets covered the floor, and a cheerful blaze crackled in the fireplace near the door.

They laid the unconscious man in the right-hand bed and Nysander bent over him, taking one of Seregil's hands between his own.

"He really is going to be all right, isn't he?" Alec asked, unable to decipher the old wizard's expression. "The same as he was before, I mean?"

Nysander gave Seregil's hand a final pat and laid it gently on the sleeping man's chest. "I believe so. He is strong in ways even he is not completely aware of. But you should sleep now, too. I shall send for you when you are rested and we will talk of anything you like. Look for me in the room across the passage or upstairs if you need me."

When he'd gone, Alec pulled a chair up beside Seregil's bed. It pleased him to see how quietly Seregil slept. His drawn face seemed less empty now, and a faint tinge of color had crept into his sunken cheeks.

I'll just sit here for a few minutes. Alec thought, propping his feet on the edge of the bed.

He was asleep almost at once.

"Alec—" Alec sat up, glancing around in momentary alarm.

He'd been dreaming of the Grampus and it took a moment to remember where he was.

Someone had brought in a night lamp and by its soft light he saw Seregil regarding him through half-lidded eyes.

"Rhнminee?" It was scarcely a whisper.

"I told you I'd get you here," Alec said, trying to sound nonchalant and failing as he pulled the chair closer.

Seregil's gaze wandered drowsily around the room and Alec saw a flicker of a smile playing about his pale lips. "My old room—" Alec thought his friend had drifted off to sleep again, but he stirred after a moment and rasped, "Tell me."

He listened quietly, stirring only to look at Alec's scarred hand, and again at the mention of Valerius.

"Him!" Seregil croaked. He groped for more words, then shook his head slightly. "Explain later. What do you think of Nysander?"

"I like him. He's someone you trust right away, like Micum."

"Always trust him, always," Seregil whispered, his eyelids fluttering shut again.

When Alec was certain he was soundly asleep this time, he fell into his own bed, only to be awakened a second time by the sound of soft voices. Pushing the quilt back from his face, he saw Valerius and Nysander bending over Seregil across the room. Sunlight slanted across the carpet.

"Good afternoon," Nysander greeted him. Gone were the embroidered vestments of the night before. His plain robe was frayed at the cuffs and devoid of ornamentation.

"I should have been up before now." Alec sat up and yawned. "How's Seregil? He came around for a few minutes last night."

"Well enough," Valerius replied as he finished with a fresh dressing. Drawing the blankets back over Seregil, he turned and surprised Alec with an almost friendly grin. "How are those scratches today?"

"A little sore."

Placing a hand under Alec's chin, Valerius tilted the boy's head this way and that. "Nothing serious. See you keep them clean. Nysander told me how you brought Seregil here. You must be as stubborn as he is."

Still gripping Alec's chin, he extended his other hand palm down toward the floor. The boy shivered as a pleasant chill ran through him.

"That should take care of anything ailing you."

Waving a hand at Seregil, Valerius added gruffly, "I expect you to keep an eye on him for me. He's to stay in that bed until I say otherwise, understand?"

The formidable glint had returned to the drysian's eye, and Alec gave a quick nod of compliance.

"You must not bully the boy," Nysander chided as Valerius took his leave. "You know very well he is quite trustworthy, and a good Dalnan besides."

"Aye, but it's not a good Dalnan that he'll be dealing with when Seregil begins to get his pepper back. Good luck to you, lad, and Maker's blessings."

"And to you!" Alec called hastily after him.

"You must be famished. I know I am," said Nysander. "Come, I have along a meal laid for us in my sitting room."

Alec cast a worried glance toward Seregil.

"Come, you must keep up your own strength if you are to be any help to him," said Nysander, taking

him gently by the arm. "It is just across the corridor. We shall leave both doors open and come back with our wine as soon as we have eaten."

Wethis was busy setting out the meal on a round table at the center of the room and nodded pleasantly to Alec as they entered.

After the massive clutter of the upper rooms, Alec was surprised at the orderliness of Nysander's sitting room. The small chamber was furnished for simple comfort; beyond a round din— jng table, two large chairs faced one another in front of the blazing hearth. Shelves along the walls held neatly arranged collections of scrolls and books interspersed with more arcane objects.

The room's most notable feature was a narrow band of mural running completely around the otherwise unadorned walls. It was scarcely two feet in width but Alec discovered upon closer inspection that it was comprised of a succession of fantastic beasts and birds rendered in superb detail. Here a tiny dragon hovered on scaly outstretched wings over a still smaller castle, blasting it with a glowing stream of fiery breath; there a centaur raiding party bore maidens away in sinewy arms. Farther along the same wall an horrific sea creature reared up from painted waves, spines bristling from its reptilian face as it crushed a ship in its jaws. Near the first corner a creature with the body of a lioness and the breasts and head of a woman held the limp form of a youth between her taloned paws.

Interspersed among these scenes were symbols that gave back a silvery sheen in the light.

Suddenly he heard an amused chuckle behind him.

"My little paintings please you, I see," the wizard said.

Alec realized with chagrin that he'd been following the mural around the room with complete disregard for his host. Turning, he found Nysander seated at the table. Wethis was nowhere to be found.

"Forgive me. I didn't mean to be rude," he stammered as he hastily took a seat.

"No need for apologies. It has that affect on most who see it for the first time. As a matter of fact, that is part of its function."

"You mean it's magical?" In spite of his hunger, Alec found it difficult to draw his eyes from the paintings.

Nysander raised one shaggy eyebrow in amusement.

"Forgive me, but it is always refreshing to meet someone as ingenuous as yourself. So many who come here expect revelations of mythic proportions—dragons under the wine table, spirits summoned down the chimney! They have no awe left in them for the little marvels. All their wonder has turned to appetite.

"In answer to your question, however, the mural is indeed magical. Its purpose, aside from dazzling my dinner guests, is to protect my rooms. The symbols you see there are each keyed to react to a different sort of intrusion. You will find them throughout the Orлska House. Perhaps you noticed the ones in the dome upstairs? The entire building is protected by an elaborate pattern of magicks—But I am keeping you from your meal! Let us talk of little things as we eat. After dinner we shall converse in a civilized fashion over the wine."

Alec began cautiously, recalling the fiery spices of the day before, but each successive dish was more agreeable than the last.

"Seregil told me that wizards come to Rhнminee to be trained," he ventured at last.

"Wizards, scholars, madmen, they come seeking the knowledge amassed and preserved by the Third Orлska. There is more than magic here, you see. We gather information of all types. Our library is the finest in the Three Lands, and the vaults below contain artifacts which predate the coming of the Hierophants."

Alec laid aside his knife. "Why is it called the Third Orлska?"

"The first mages who came here from Aurлnen were the original Orлska," Nysander explained. "It was they who first taught that knowledge is as powerful, in its own way, as any magic, and that magic without knowledge is worse than useless; it is dangerous. Later, they established the Second Orлska at Ero when magical powers became apparent among the half-blood children of Aurлnfaie and humans.

"Unfortunately, the fellowship of the Second Orлska was all but annihilated during the Great War. There have never been as many wizards since that time. Another blow befell it when Ero was destroyed.

"A terrible tragedy, so many of the ancient writings lost! Queen Tamir bequeathed this site to the surviving wizards at the founding of Rhнminee, with the understanding that they would contribute to the defense of Skala. The new alliance established at that time was deemed the Third Orлska. The Cirna Canal was one of the first demonstrations of their good faith."

"I've heard something of that. How many wizards are there now?"

"Only a few hundred in all the Three Lands now, I fear. Fewer and fewer children are being born with the power; the blood of the Aurлnfaie masters has grown thin."

"But don't the children of wizards inherit their powers?"

Nysander shook his head. "There are no children of wizards. It is perhaps the greatest price we pay for our gifts. Magical abilities demand every bit of creative force we possess. We are repaid richly with powers and long lives, but the force of Illior which gives us the ability to recreate the world around us also burns out the natural procreative forces of the body. The Immortal has never revealed why this must be so, even to the Aurлnfaie— But I am lecturing you as if you were a novice! Let us return to your room. Seregil is still deep within himself and shall likely remain so for some time, but I believe it will benefit him to have us nearby."

Nysander took down two tall goblets from a nearby shelf and handed one to Alec. The boy turned it about in disbelief, never having seen its like. Carved from flawless rock crystal, it was banded around the stem and cup with heavily embellished gold and polished red gems that glowed like wine in the firelight.

"I could just use my cup from supper," Alec protested, holding it gingerly in both hands.

"Nonsense!" Nysander grabbed up a decanter from the sideboard and headed across to the bedchamber. "I nearly lost my life acquiring them. It would be a waste not to use them."

They found Seregil still sleeping deeply.

"Let us sit close by him." Nysander gave Alec another roguish wink. "You shall surrender the chair to me out of deference to my great age. You can sit on the end of his bed. Some part of him knows we are

here and it will comfort him."

Alec settled cross-legged with his back against the footboard. Nysander filled their goblets with red wine and raised his cup at Alec.

"Drink up! This is talking wine and I know you have many more questions. I can see them swarming about like bees behind your eyes."

Alec took a long sip and felt a comfortable warmth spread through him. "I'd like to know more about that disk. What was it you called it?"

"A telesm. A magical object which has an innate power of its own that can also be used as a focus of power by one who understands its function. The poison it was coated with would aid in this, as Valerius and I discussed last night. Unfortunately, there is little more I can tell you of it."

"Well, what about that dark creature Seregil kept claiming to see? Was that real?"

The shadow of a frown flickered across Nysander's lined face. "I shall need to hear Seregil's account to be certain. Whatever the case, someone was taking a great deal of trouble and effort to find both you and the disk."

Alec looked up sharply. "You think they might still be after us?"

"Quite possibly. But you have nothing to fear, dear boy. I have placed the disk beyond their reach. If anyone was following you, I think that they found a cold trail the moment I contained it in that jar, or perhaps even when you pulled it from Seregil's neck. So long as you remain within the walls of the Orлska, an army could not get to you."

"But if Mardus is such a powerful wizard—"

"Mardus is no wizard!" Nysander fixed Alec with an appraising look. "What I tell you now must go no further, is that understood? I repeat, he is not a wizard. Mardus is one of the most powerful Plenimaran nobles, also rumored to be a bastard son of the aging Overlord. Whatever the case, he is a ruthless man of cruel and dangerous intelligence, a cunning warrior, and a known assassin. It was most unfortunate for him to have looked upon your faces that night in Wolde; let us hope he never does so again. But I did not bring you here to frighten you more than you have been these last few weeks, so I am going to ply you with more of this excellent wine and turn to less worrisome topics. Did Seregil tell you that he was once apprenticed to me?"

"No, but Micum did, back in Boersby." Alec watched the play of the firelight in the crimson depths of his cup. For all the days of talking on the Downs and after, Seregil had never once spoken of his own past. "Micum said something about it not working out."

Nysander smiled at him over the rim of his goblet.

"That, dear boy, is a magnificent understatement. No wizard ever had so devoted or disastrous a pupil! But I shall begin at the beginning. Seregil came to Idrilain's court as a poor and distant relation, exiled from his family, totally alone. At court they tried to make a page of him, but that did not last long—as you may well imagine. Next came a position as a junior scribe, I believe. Again failure. After one or two other such fiascoes, he came to my attention.

"I was delighted to get him, and could not believe my good fortune. He has the ability, you see, and he was so eager to learn. But after a few months it became apparent that something was wrong. He mastered the rudimentary disciplines with an ease which delighted us both, but as soon as we tried to move on to the higher magicks, things began to go awry."

Nysander shook his head, remembering. "At first it was simply that the spells would not come off. Or they would, but with the most unexpected results. He would try to move a small object, a salt cellar; it would overturn. He would try again and the salt would burst into flames. On the third try it might fly at his head, or mine. One day he attempted a simple messenger spell, and in the space of five minutes every spider, centipede, and earwig in the place came swarming in under the door. We began conducting his training outside after that.

"Attempting to levitate, he blew up an entire grove of trees in the park. A simple summoning, butterflies I think, and all the horses went crazy for an hour. Things soon reached such a state that whenever anything unusual happened within the Orлska grounds, we got the blame for it.

"Oh, but it was frustrating! In spite of all the blunders, all the destruction, I knew the power was there. I could feel it, even when he could not. For he did succeed now and then, but so erratically! Poor Seregil was devastated. I saw him brought to tears just trying to light a candle. Then there was the time he turned himself into a brick."

Caught sipping his wine, Alec choked as he began to laugh. He knew he shouldn't, but the wine was in him to the heart and he just couldn't help it. None of this sounded like the Seregil he knew.

Nysander shook his head ruefully. "The one sort of spell he really took to was shape changing, though I generally had to assist him. This time, however, he was determined to do it by himself and he turned himself into a brick—I believe he was trying for a horse at the time. In any case, there was the usual flash, then a thump, and there he was on the ground at my feet; an ordinary brick!"

Alec pressed a hand over his mouth, quaking with stifled laughter that jostled the bed. Seregil stirred against the pillow.

"No, no, do not trouble to move. It is good for him to sense us with him." Nysander patted Seregil affectionately on the shoulder. "You never like being reminded of that incident, do you? Ah, Alec, we may well laugh now, but I assure you, it was not very amusing at the time. To change another person out of such a self-imposed state, particularly that of an inanimate object, is terribly difficult. It took me two days to get him back! I knew we should stop after that, but he begged me to give him just one more chance. Then he really did it, sending himself into another plane."

"Plane?" Alec hiccuped, wiping his eyes.

"It is like another country or world, except that it does not exist in our reality. No one really understands why they exist at all, only that they do and that there are ways to cross into them. But they are dangerous, for the most part, and difficult to return from. Had I not been with him when he did it, he would have been lost.

"It was then that I was forced to say, 'No more. "Nysander looked down at Seregil again, all the mirth gone from his face. "That was one of the saddest days of my life, dear boy, the day you took off your apprentice robe." Taking a deep draft from his goblet, he went on. "You see, Alec, denied children, our apprentices often fill that gap. We give them our knowledge and our skill, and they carry our memory into the future when we die. So it was between my old master and myself. Losing Seregil as my apprentice

was like losing a beloved son."

"But you didn't really lose him, did you?"

"No, as it turned out, I did both of us a great service by not allowing him to keep at it until he killed himself. It also forced him to find out what he was truly suited for. But he went away for a long while after that, and I did not know if I would see him again. When he returned, however, he was well on his way to what he is now."

Alec sighed. "Whatever that is."

"Do you not know?"

"I'm still not sure. I want to understand, so that I'll understand better what he's trying to teach me."

"A wise course. And I am certain that when he is ready, Seregil will explain better than either Micum or I could. For now I can tell you that both he and Micum are Watchers."

"Watchers?"

"Spies, of a sort. None of them may speak of it, even among themselves. But as I happen to be the head of the Watchers, I can offer you an explanation."

"You're a spy?" Alec exclaimed in surprise.

"Not exactly. The Watchers are my eyes and ears in distant places. They travel around, talking, listening, observing. Among other things, they have been quite valuable in keeping an eye on certain movements by the Plenimarans. The Queen has her own intelligence service, of course, but my people are often of aid to them. Within the last year there have been rumors of unusual activity in the north, so I sent Seregil and Micum out to appraise the situation."

"Why would a wizard be the leader of that kind of thing, if you don't mind my asking?"

"It does seem odd, I suppose, but it is a tradition which predates the founding of the Third Orлska. My master and his master before him and on back through the centuries, we have always held the post, and my successor shall do the same. The Watchers have contributed much to the libraries of the Orлska over the years. They also keep those of us who take an interest in the wider world well abreast of what is happening beyond our borders."

"But can't you just find things out by magic?"

"Sometimes, but you must never think that it grants one omnipotence."

Alec turned the goblet around in his hands, studying the golden tracery as he weighed his next question.

"Come now, Alec, out with it! I think I know what you are wanting to ask."

Taking a deep breath, Alec plunged on. "You knew that something had happened to Seregil, and you knew we were trying to come to you. Why didn't you just bring us here yourself, like you did with that wine last night?"

Setting his cup down, Nysander laced his fingers around one up-drawn knee. "A fair question, and a common one. In this particular case there were a number of reasons for not doing so. First, I did not know exactly where you were or exactly what had occurred.

"What little I did know came to me in a fleeting vision, not by any conscious seeking on my part. To search for someone by magic when you do not have many clues is difficult at best, and generally disappointing. Over the next few days I was able to get brief glimpses of you both, but they told me little more than that you were on land or sea until I recognized the Canal.

"That is one reason. The next is that such spells as would have been necessary to bring him here are more difficult than you imagine; all magic takes a certain toll, and translocating him here would have been a thousand times more difficult than bringing down that jug of wine, even for me. Besides that, Seregil, with his own peculiar resistance to magic, has difficulty with translocation spells. They leave him quite ill even under the best conditions. Weakened as he was, he might not have survived. Furthermore, I could not have brought you both, so there you would have been, wondering what had become of your friend.

"All in all, I decided that it would be safest to await your arrival."

Nysander paused, regarding Alec for a moment from beneath his shaggy brows. "Now those are all valid reasons, but beyond them is one that supersedes all. The Orлska is founded on the principle that the purpose of magic is to aid the endeavors of mankind, not to supplant them.

"Despite the hardships you endured, all your worry and care, think of what you have gained. You were braver and stronger and more loyal than you have probably had to be in all your life. And your reward is that you succeeded; you saved the life of your friend. Would you give that up to have had me simply spirit you here from that inn?"

Alec thought of the expression on Seregil's face when he'd awakened in a clean bed in Rhнminee.

"No," he answered quietly. "Not for anything."

"I thought as much."

Alec took another sip of wine. "Micum tried to tell me about you, but you still aren't how I imagined a wizard would be."

"Indeed?" Nysander looked rather pleased. "Most of my colleagues would agree with you. But they have their ways and I have mine. All of us serve the greater good in our own fashion. But I believe you had some point to make?"

"It's just that, with what you told me about Seregil and all, I don't understand about Thero. It seemed to me, yesterday I mean, that he doesn't—Well, he doesn't seem to like Seregil very much. Or me, for that matter."

Nysander grimaced wryly. "If it is any comfort to you, I do not think, in his heart, that Thero cares much for me, either."

"But he's your student!"

"That hardly guarantees affection, my boy, although ideally such regard should exist between master and pupil. Your faithfulness to Seregil after such short acquaintance speaks well of you both.

"It took me many years to find another apprentice. As I said before, there are few who have the inborn power, and those who do vary greatly in their ability. Of those few who did trickle into he Orлska each year, I found none that suited my purposes until Thero. Whatever else you may think of him, he is tremendously talented. There is no facet of our art he cannot grasp. The fact that he was of my old master's family made him seem all the more suitable at the time. All that, together with the fact that I was beginning to feel quite desperately in need of a successor, blinded me to certain aspects of his nature which might otherwise have given me pause. Thero has proven trustworthy in every way, yet his thirst for knowledge borders on avarice—a serious flaw in a wizard. He also possesses no sense of humor and, while you will not find that listed among the requirements of the Orлska, I believe it to be an invaluable trait in those who aspire to power of any sort. And this lack of humor causes him to find me an embarrassment on occasion.

"However, it is his animosity toward Seregil which has most alarmed me over the years, for it reveals envy—one of the most dangerous weaknesses of all. He cannot be content that he replaced Seregil, that he is more gifted in magic than Seregil could ever have been. And though he has little use for my affection himself, he cannot bear that Seregil retains it. Of course, Seregil is little better, as I am certain you shall see for yourself soon enough. But Thero is a wizard. If he acts this way over such small matters, what will he not be capable of over great ones, when he is great?"

Nysander paused, massaging his eyelids with two fingers. "For with or without my teachings, he will be great. And so I keep him with me because I fear to let him go to another master. It is my greatest hope that with time and maturity he will gain compassion, and then what a wizard he shall be!"

Alec was amazed at the old wizard's candor. "Seregil tells me nothing of himself, and you tell me everything."

Nysander smiled. "Oh, hardly everything yet! We all have our secrets, and our reasons for them. I have told you this about Thero and myself so that you may understand him better and perhaps see why he acts as he does. Like Seregil, I also expect and trust in your discretion."

Nysander was just reaching for his goblet again when a yellow globe of light winked into being in front of him. It hovered a moment, gleaming like a tiny sun, then floated gently to settle on his outstretched palm.

The wizard inclined his head, as if listening to a voice inaudible to Alec. It disappeared as abruptly as it had come.

"Ylinestra," Nysander explained. "Excuse me for a moment."

Closing his eyes, he held up a long forefinger and a similar light, bright blue in color, sprang up there.

"Certainly, my dear," he said to it, "I shall be with you shortly."

At a slight flick of his finger, the mote of light shot out of sight.

Anticipating Nysander's departure, Alec stood up and felt the wine rise to his head. "Well, uh, I think I'm beginning to understand a few things. Thank you."

Nysander raised an eyebrow. "There is no hurry. I have sent word."

"No, really. If Ylinestra was waiting for me—Oh, damn!" Alec stammered to a halt, cheeks flaming. "I

didn't mean, that is—It's the wine, I guess."

"Illior's Light, boy, what will Seregil ever make of you if you cannot keep a straight face?"

Nysander chuckled as he rose to his feet. "Perhaps you are right, though. She can be impatient. Why not take a stroll in the gardens? I should think you would find it most pleasant there after being confined in ships and houses for so long. Wethis can sit with Seregil."

"I don't think I could find my way around," said Alec, thinking of all the twists and turns between here and the main entrance.

"That is easily remedied. Take this with you."

Nysander opened his hand to show Alec a small cube of green stone, incised on each side with tiny symbols.

Alec rolled it around on his palm. "What is it?"

"A guide stone. Simply hold it up and speak where you wish to go. It will lead you."

Feeling a bit silly, Alec held out the stone and said, "To the gardens?"

The words were scarcely spoken before the cube took on a pale nimbus and rose to hover in the air just in front of him.

"It will take you anywhere on the grounds you are allowed to go," Nysander explained. "Do remember not to attempt to enter any wizard's chamber unless invited. If you are ready, simply instruct it to proceed."

"Go on, then," Alec told the cube. Floating across the room, it passed though the polished wood of the door in a decidedly unnatural fashion.

Behind him, the wizard chuckled again. "Be certain you open the door first."

17 Watcher Business

Taking Valerius' admonition to heart, Alec saw to it that Seregil drank the prescribed infusions. Still terribly weak, Seregil slept most of the time, rousing just long enough to take a little nourishment before lapsing back again.

Alec's diligence quickly earned the brusque drysian's respect, and he, in turn, grew comfortable with Valerius' abrasive manner, recognizing the gentle sureness of his healing and liking him for it.

Nysander provided whatever he needed and visited several times a day. When Alec mentioned the writing lessons with Seregil, the wizard brought writing materials and a simple scroll for him to work on.

Alec and Nysander were playing nine stones in Seregil's room the second morning after the purification when an old woman in a travel-stained cloak appeared at the door of the sickroom.

"Magyana!" Nysander exclaimed, rising to embrace her. "You should have sent word. I had no idea you were back."

"I wanted to surprise you, my dear," she replied, kissing him soundly. "Yet it was I who was surprised. Thero says Seregil has been hurt."

Going to the bed, she laid her hand on Seregil's brow.

She must be as old as Nysander, thought Alec. The woman's face was deeply lined and the heavy braid coiled at her neck shone white as moonlit snow.

She sketched a quick, glowing symbol in the air over the sleeping man and shook her head. "Thank the Light he is safe. Who did this to him, and how?"

"He ran afoul of Mardus and his necromancers in the northlands," Nysander told her. "Young Alec here brought him to me just in time. Alec, this is Magyana, a fellow wizard and my dear companion from the days of our youth."

Magyana turned to Alec with a warm smile.

"Bless you, Alec. Nysander would have been desolate to lose him, as would I."

Seregil stirred just then, muttering hoarsely as he fought his way out of some panicked dream.

"There now, Seregil," Nysander said, raising his voice as he bent over him. "Open your eyes, dear boy. You are quite safe. Are you awake at last?"

Seregil's eyes flew open. Seeing Nysander and the others, he lay back with a sigh of relief. "I keep dreaming I'm back in Mycena."

Nysander sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand.

"You are safe now, and whole, thanks to Alec. He has told me of your adventures and you will tell me more when you are stronger. But for now you must rest. You very nearly destroyed yourself this time."

"I know." Seregil shook his head weakly. "Damn fool that I was, I'd have deserved it, too." He shifted to look up at Alec, a shadow of doubt in his eyes. "You all right? I–I wasn't myself for a while there."

"I'm fine," Alec assured him, knowing in his heart that he was damned lucky to be able to say that.

Leaving Seregil to Alec's watchful care, Nysander walked Magyana to her tower at the northern corner of the House.

"My dear, you were away too long!" he remonstrated gently, slipping an arm about her waist and pressing his lips to her cheek again.

"Surely the lovely Ylinestra kept you occupied in my absence?" she shot back, returning the kiss.

"You impossible woman! You with your damnable celibacy. All these years I have filled my bed with lesser women and not a single spark of jealousy from you. You speak of them as if they were children, or lapdogs."

"Have most of them been any more than that to you, you old rogue? But perhaps I do feel just the smallest spark, as you call it, toward this sorceress. I understand that she is as talented in the casting room as she is in the bedchamber. There, are you satisfied?"

"Perhaps just a bit," Nysander replied, affecting a sulk. "The girl does have a head for magic, but in truth she is beginning to weary me with her demands, in bed and out."

"Ah, the trials of the hot-blooded." Magyana let him into her tower rooms. "You know you shall not have a jot of sympathy from me. But now to Seregil. You still have not told me how he came to be in such a state. It took more than ordinary magic to leave such marks on him."

Pausing in the center of the immaculate workroom, Nysander watched as she set about the familiar ritual of tea making. "Evidently he and the boy stole something from Mardus in the northlands. It appears to be an object of little consequence but, as you saw, it proved to be extremely dangerous. I can tell you no more than that, I fear."

Setting the kettle on the hook, Magyana turned and studied his face; they'd known each other too long and too well for her not to read the import of his silence.

"Oh, my dear," she whispered, a hand stealing to her throat. "Oh, no!"

Seregil's strength returned quickly over the next few days and, as Valerius had predicted, he soon grew restless. On the fourth day he'd had enough of bed rest.

"Valerius said another day at least!" Alec admonished, frowning down at him as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"I won't tell him if you don't. Bilairy's Balls, I'm sore all over from lying around so long!"

As soon as he stood up, however, the floor seemed to shift under him. Drenched in a sudden cold sweat, he swayed heavily against Alec.

"There now, you see? It is too soon." Alec helped him back onto the bed. "Maker's Mercy, there's nothing left of you. I can feel your ribs."

"I thought I heard voices," Valerius rumbled, striding in to glower at the two of them. "Are you going to stay in bed as I ordered, or be tied there?"

"The former, I think," Seregil replied contritely. Pressing a hand dramatically over his eyes, he sank back against the pillow. "I'm sure you know best."

"I certainly do. Not that it's ever made the slightest damn bit of difference to you!"

Still scowling, he lifted the dressing and went about cleaning the wound. "There, this shouldn't give you any more trouble."

Looking down as his chest, Seregil saw the scar for the first time and felt his stomach lurch. The last of the scabs had fallen away and the ridged imprint of the coin's design was visible in the shiny pink circle of new skin.

"What is that doing there?" he demanded, fingering the area around the scar.

Valerius threw up his hands. "You'll have to ask Nysander. I was all for having it off that first night, but he said to leave it. It should fade in time. I'm off for Mycena today, so you're in Alec's care now. Try not to drive yourself into a relapse if that's possible, which I doubt. You won't die, but you'll land your ass back in bed for another week if you don't take care. Maker's Mercy be with you both."

Stumping out, he slammed the door after him.

"See? He was angry with you," said Alec, obviously glad not to have been the focus of his displeasure.

"Angry?" Seregil took a last worried look at the mark and pulled the shirt lacings closed again.

"He wasn't angry. When Valerius gets angry the furniture catches fire, or walls fall down, things like that. There's no mistaking it when he's upset."

"Well, he wasn't exactly happy with you, either."

"He seldom is." Shifting against the pillows, he settled with one hand behind his head. "Even the other drysians consider him an irascible old bugger. Still, we find one another useful on occasion. How's your hand?"

"Better."

"Let me see." He inspected the circle of tender skin on Alec's Palm; it was smooth and featureless except for the small square greater-than not the center. "Has Nysander said much about any of this?"

"Only that the disk was something called a telesm."

"Well, that's obvious!" Seregil snorted. "I want more of an answer than that. Fetch him for me, will you?"

Alec found Nysander at his high desk in the workroom.

"Seregil was wondering if you could come down," he told the wizard.

"Certainly." Nysander laid his quill aside.

"I was expecting Thero in a moment. Could you wait and tell him where I am?"

It wasn't until the old man had disappeared downstairs that it occurred to Alec to wonder why Nysander hadn't just sent a message by magic.

Minutes passed, and there was still no sign of Thero.

Impatient to get back to Seregil, Alec wandered restlessly around the room. The stairs leading up to the little gallery beneath the tower dome soon caught his eye and, climbing up, he looked out through a thick, leaded pane.

With a startled gasp, he caught at the ledge in front of him; the dome bowed out beyond the stonework, affording a view of the ground hundreds of feet directly below. He'd never been this far off the ground and the sensation was not particularly pleasant.

Concentrating on the solid floor beneath his boots, he made himself look out over the city. Streets fanned out like spokes from circular plazas, or intersected to form ordered squares and commons. From this height he could also see past the citadel wall to the outer harbor, where boats bobbed at anchor in the shelter of the moles. On the landward side, open country quickly gave way to rolling foothills and jagged, snowcapped mountains beyond.

As he turned to go down the steps again, a blue message sphere suddenly winked into existence in front of him and Nysander's voice said,

"Alec, join us in Seregil's room, please."

He found Seregil and Nysander in the midst of a heated discussion when he arrived. Nysander was calm, if solemn, but there was a decidedly stubborn set to Seregil's jaw.

"Are you certain you want him involved?" the wizard was saying.

"Come on, Nysander! He's already involved up to the eyebrows, whether he knows it or not," Seregil retorted. "Besides, you wouldn't have let him stay here if you didn't already trust him."

"Those are two separate issues," Nysander replied, giving Seregil a meaningful look. When the younger man maintained adamant silence, the wizard nodded gravely. "Very well. But the final decision is his to make." He looked up at Alec for the first time. "Would you become a Watcher, Alec?"

A twinge of excitement shot through Alec. "Does that mean you both can tell me more of what's going on?" he asked, guessing the import of this strange exchange.

"Certainly."

"Then yes, I will."

Seregil gave him a wink as Nysander took out his small ivory dagger and waved Alec to a chair.

When he was seated, Nysander set the knife spinning end for end in the air mere inches from Alec's eyes.

Alec's mouth went dry as he listened to the angry buzz the blade made as it flickered in front of him; he could feel the breeze of it against his face.

"Alec of Kerry," Nysander intoned solemnly. "A Watcher must observe carefully, report truthfully, and keep the secrets that must be kept. Do you swear by your heart and eyes and by the Four to do these

things?"

"Yes," Alec answered quickly, steeling himself not to lean away from the spinning knife.

"Good!" The knife fell out of the air into Nysander's hand.

"That's it?" Alec exclaimed, falling back in his chair.

"You answered truthfully," the wizard told him.

"Had you lied, the result would have been rather more dramatic."

"And considerably messier," Seregil added with a relieved grin.

"Considerably," said Nysander. "And now, what have you to report, Seregil?"

Seregil settled his shoulders more comfortably against the pillows. "When I left Rhнminee at the end of Rhythm, I took ship to Nanta and spent two days listening around the docks. Rumor had it that there were an unusual number of ships being refitted Plenimaran ports, Karia in particular. This confirmed what we already heard from Korbin.

"Moving north, I poked around Boersby, learning that a delegation of Plenimaran merchants had stopped there a month to discuss overland trade routes. A contingent of fifty armed riders had continued inland in the direction of the Fishless Sea."

"To what end?" asked Nysander. "There is little in those barren hills but a few nomadic tribes."

Seregil shrugged. "There were all sorts of speculations. Apparently local men were hired on as guides and haven't been heard of since. If the mounted column did come south again, they came by a different route. Thinking they might have followed the Brilith River down toward the Woldesoke, I decided to check in with a friend at Ballton. There'd been no sightings in that area, but she said that similar parties had been seen to the east.

"The word is that the lords of the various mountain demesnes are being visited, but nobody's certain of their purpose. It boded ill for Plenimar to be so far north, so I decided to work my way along the mountains and see what these riders had been up to.

"If they went as far as Kerry, there wouldn't be much doubt that they were casting a greedy eye at the Gold Road again.

"I was right, but quickly learned that the Plenimarans had left their new friends with a healthy distrust of strangers. Even as a bard, I had one or two difficulties before Asengai finally caught me. Not everyone was taken in, though. Lord Warkill and his sons gave them the air. Lord Nostor seems to have been noncommittal. My old friend Geriss had just died, and his widow, a Mycenian by birth, would have nothing to do with the envoys."

"Lady Brytha? I knew her as a girl," remarked Nysander. "Her holding is very isolated, as I recall."

"It's a large one, though, and well populated. I spoke to her in private and warned her to be cautious. She has four sons, two of them grown, who seem reliable enough. If worse comes to worst, they'll be able to hold out or flee."

"Let us hope it does not come to that. I have had word already that some advances were made in Kerry, but that they were politely refused."

Seregil laughed darkly. "If by polite you mean no bloodshed. The miners have been content with their situation for hundreds of years and are a hard lot to move. Still, if the mountain lords can be swayed against them, Kerry could be lost."

"And who is leading these Plenimarans? What is their method?"

"Crafty, as usual. It seems that nobody spoke to the same emissary, which means there were either several groups going among the various holdings, or they switched off leaders each time. I have the names, but I doubt they'll amount to much. As for their method, it was the old wishing mirror game."

"The what?" Alec interjected, completely lost by now.

Seregil grinned. "You've never heard the story of the wishing mirror?" You look into it to see your heart's desire. The Plenimarans send a spy or two in advance to sound out the situation, then the grand commander rides in with a great show of soldiers and a saddlebag full of empty promises based on the reports of his spies. Formio, for instance, was informed that the Overlord of Plenimar wishes to arrange a marriage for some distant niece, while old Warkill, whose lands sit at the headwaters of the Silverwind, was promised aid to take the lands clear to the edge of the Woldesoice. Mind you, our friend Mardus is down in Wolde soon after, promising to defend the mayor from just such an incursion.

"I also had the good fortune to be captured by a gang of bandits east of Derila. Their leader happened to be fond of bards, so they decided to keep me on rather than slit my throat. They were a sloppy bunch and I managed to get away when I wanted to, but not before I learned that they'd been foolish enough to attack a party of Plenimarans only two weeks earlier. Instead of obliterating them, as the marines generally would if only for the practice, these blackguards enlisted the bandits to their cause, binding them with oaths, wine, and gold. They even went so far as to offer a bounty for any other freebooters they could bring in."

"What a pack of mongrels they are leashing together up there!" Nysander exclaimed, none too pleased.

"They will turn every little faction against its neighbor and let them cut each other to pieces."

"Then march in to sweep up the spoils," added Seregil. "After Alec and I got free of Asengai, we met with Erisa and Micum in Wolde. She'd been along the coast as far as Syour and her news was much the same, including the foray toward the Fishless Sea. She's equally mystified.

"According to her, Mardus stopped for a week at Sark Island on his way up the Osk to Blackwater Lake. I've never been there, but Micum says there's nothing but the ruins of an ancient trading colony. Hardly the thing to occupy someone like Mardus for a week."

"And Micum?"

"His news was the strangest of all. He'd been up around Ravensfell and reported a company of marines in full battle dress riding into the pass. Unless they're out to conquer whatever's left of the Hazadrielfaie, I can't imagine what they think they'll find except mountains and ice."

Seregil paused, but Nysander simply motioned for him to continue. "That brings us to the mayor's

banquet. Alec says he told you about our doings there, but there are a few details I'd better fill in."

"Pertaining to the maps, I assume," said Nysander.

"Yes. I found one in Mardus' campaign chest, quite ordinary, not hidden. Points on it had been marked at Wolde, Kerry, Sandir Point, Syour, and each of the mountain demesnes."

"Rather tidy, that," Nysander remarked.

"But even better, another map locked safely away in his dispatch box was marked with points at Sark Island, another somewhere north of Ravensfell, and one in the Blackwater Fens. The last one was circled. What do you make of that?"

"Most intriguing," Nysander mused, stroking his beard.

"Micum went back to the Fens after Boersby. He meant to head down here when he'd finished."

"How long ago did you last see him?"

"He left us at Boersby; let's see." Seregil thought for a moment, then shook his head impatiently. "Damn! I'm still muddled. Alec, how long has it been?"

Alec counted back. "Just over two weeks now."

"He should be with us soon, then," said Nysander, but something in his expression must have caught Seregil's eye.

"What is it, Nysander?"

"Hmm? Oh, nothing. Is that all you have to report?"

"No. I believe those highwaymen who attacked us below Stock were Plenimaran agents. When we searched the bodies they just didn't have the right look to them. They had new weapons and clothing, all local, little money or possessions. It was as if they'd simply ridden into the Folcwine Forest and set up shop the day before. The whole situation didn't smell right."

"I have had occasion in the past to trust your intuition."

"There'd been a sudden rash of attacks on the caravans around Wolde just before the Plenimaran envoys showed up there," added Alec.

Seregil nodded wryly. "Taken with everything else, it seems rather too much of a coincidence that these cutthroats should appear out of nowhere just in time to be run off by the able marines."

"I see," mused Nysander. "Then you believe that Plenimar is providing a reason for the northern towns to seek an alliance?"

"I do."

"Anything else?"

"Just this." Seregil pulled the neck of this nightshirt open and cocked his chin at the scar.

Nysander went to the window and gazed out. "I fear I must beg your forbearance regarding that. This matter is not to be spoken of to anyone, at any time."

There was no mistaking the finality in his voice.

Seregil's brows drew together ominously over his grey eyes. "I just slept away the last two weeks because of this. Not to mention the madness that went before, or the nightmares and visions and the urge to kill just about every person I came within ten feet of, including Alec!"

"You must be patient."

"What is there to be patient about?" Seregil retorted. "I want to know who did this to me! Do you know or not?"

Nysander sighed as he sat down in the embrasure of the window. "I should say that you did it to yourself, really. You took it upon yourself to steal the thing in the first place, and then to hang it about your neck. Not that I am chiding you, of course. I know that you took it on my behalf. Nevertheless, I—"

"Don't go changing the subject. That's my trick!" Seregil interrupted hotly. "This is me you're talking to, not some provincial message carrier. What's going on?"

Caught in the line of confrontation, Alec looked anxiously from one to the other. Seregil's lips were compressed into a thin, stubborn line, his eyes larger than ever in his haggard face as he glared up at the wizard. But Nysander met his friend's smoldering gaze calmly.

"Seregil i Korit Solun Meringil Bokthersa," he said quietly, rolling the syllables as if they were a spell. "This is a matter which goes beyond any personal vengeance on your part. The mark you bear is a magical sigla, the meaning of which I am bound by the most dire oaths not to reveal."

"Then why didn't you let Valerius take it off?"

Nysander spread his hands resignedly. "You understand better than most the power of prescience. It felt unwise at the time to do so. Now that you are stronger, however, I shall cast an occultation over it."

"But it will still be there," said Seregil uneasily.

"I–I had strange dreams after Alec pulled the thing off, different than the nightmares before."

Nysander rose to his feet in alarm. "By the Light, why did you not mention this before!"

"I'm sorry. I only just now remembered, parts of them, anyway."

Nysander sat down on the edge of the bed. "You must tell me what you can, then. By your oath as a Watcher—"

"Yes, yes, I know!" snapped Seregil, rubbing at his eyelids in frustration. "Remembering—it's like trying to grasp a handful of eels. One second I remember a piece of something, then it just goes."

"Nysander, he looks ill!" Alec whispered. The color had fled from Seregil's thin cheeks and a sheen of sweat stood out on his forehead.

"I was terribly sick by the time we reached the crossroads inn," Seregil continued hoarsely.

"Alec, you had no idea. Everything had become so unreal. It was like being trapped in a nightmare that I couldn't wake up from. I don't know where in Mycena we were by then. The black creature had been dogging us since the day before. Alec couldn't see it, even when it touched him in the cart, and that scared me worse than anything I've ever encountered. Alec's told you how I attacked him that night, I know, but that's not how it seemed to me at the time, not at all! The thing was attacking me, or rather letting me attack it and sidestepping me. Alec must have come in during all that and I was too crazed to realize. Gods, I could just as easily have killed him—"

"It was magic, dear boy, evil magic,"

Nysander said softly.

Seregil shivered and ran a hand back through his hair.

"After I collapsed, I kept dreaming I was on a barren plain. I couldn't move except to turn and there was only the wind and grey grass. I was alone. I thought at first that I was dead."

Alec watched him with rising concern. Seregil was whiter than ever, and his breathing was and labored, as if it took all his strength to keep speaking. Alec glanced anxiously at Nysander, but the wizard's attention was fixed on Seregil.

"After a while, there was someone else there," Seregil said, eyes squeezed tightly shut, one hand raised to his face as if to ward off a blow.

"I can't remember who, just—gold. And eyes, something about eyes—" His chest was heaving now and Alec placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Blue," Seregil gasped, "something so blue— " With a hollow groan, he fainted back onto the pillow.

"Seregil! Seregil, can you hear me?" cried Nysander, feeling for the pulse at his throat.

"What's happening?" cried Alec.

"I am not certain. A vision of some sort, perhaps, or some overwhelming memory. Fetch a cloth, and the water pitcher."

Seregil's eyes fluttered open again as Alec bathed his temples with a cool cloth.

"You must not try to go on," Nysander warned, stroking Seregil's brow. "You were speaking gibberish just now, as if something was disordering your thoughts even as you tried to voice them."

"Could it have been that black creature again, here!" asked Alec.

"I would have sensed such a presence," Nysander assured him. "No, it was as if the memories themselves induced some mental confusion. How very interesting. Can you speak now. dear boy?"

"Yes," Seregil rasped, passing a hand over his eyes.

"Rest, then, and think no more of these things for now. I have heard enough." Rising, Nysander went to the door.

"Well I haven't!" Seregil struggled up on one elbow. "Not nearly enough! What's happening to me?"

Alec thought he caught a look of pain on Nysander's face.

"Trust me in this, dear boy," the wizard said. "I must meditate on what we have learned so far. Rest and heal. Shall I send Wethis for some food?"

Alec braced for another outburst, but Seregil merely looked away, shaking his head. He busied himself with the fire for a moment after Nysander had gone, then pulled the chair up beside the bed. "That black creature you fought with," he began, fidgeting with the hem of one sleeve. "It really was there in the cart, wasn't it? And in the room with us at the inn. It was real." Seregil shivered, staring past him at the fire. "Real enough for me. I think you saved both our lives when you yanked that bit of wood from my neck."

"But that was an accident! What if I hadn't?"

Seregil looked up at him for a moment, then shrugged. "But you did, and here we are, safe and sound. Luck in the shadows, Alec; you don't question it, you just give thanks and pray it doesn't run out!"

In the deepest hours of the night, Nysander lifted the wooden disk from its container. The chamber around him vibrated with the thickly woven spells he had invoked in preparation for the examination. Turning the disk this way and that with a pair of forceps, he tried to gauge the quiescent power of the thing. Despite its ordinary appearance, he could feel the energy emanating from it as clearly as waves lapping against his skin.

Heart heavy with foreboding, he sealed the thing away again and pocketed it, then set off for the vaults beneath the Orлska House to take his nightly constitutional.

18 Around the Ring

Alec watched in dismay, if not surprise, as Seregil struggled out of bed the next morning.

"Valerius wouldn't like this."

"Then it's lucky for us he's not here, eh?" Seregil winked, hoping the boy didn't notice how wobbly his legs still were. "Besides, there's nothing more beneficial than a good bath. Just let me lean on you a bit and I'll be fine."

With Alec's grudging assistance, Seregil worked his way slowly down to the baths without mishap.

Winded but triumphant, he let a bath servant assist him into his tub while Alec stationed himself on a nearby bench.

"Illior's Light, but it's wonderful to be back in a civilized city!" Seregil chortled, immersing himself up to the chin in the steaming water.

"I've never met anyone who takes as many baths as you do," the boy grumbled.

"A good soak might improve your disposition," Seregil teased, wondering at the boy's brittleness this morning. He had an edge of anxiety that hadn't been there before, not even during the difficult journey through Mycena.

"For the love of Illior, Alec, relax! No one's here to see." He swirled the water with his toe. "I think we could do with a walk outside next."

"You barely made it down here," Alec pointed out hopelessly.

"Where's your curiosity today? You've been living in the center of the greatest collection of wizardry in the world for almost a week and you've hardly seen a thing!"

"I'm more concerned just now with what Valerius would say if he knew you were wandering around all over the place. I'm supposed to be responsible for you, you know."

"No one is responsible for me except me," Seregil jabbed a soapy finger in the air for emphasis. "Nysander knows that, Micum knows that. Even Valerius knows it. Now you know."

To his considerable surprise, Alec stared at him for a moment, then turned on his heel and stalked abruptly away to stare out over the central pool, his back rigid as a blade.

"What is it?" Seregil called after him, genuinely mystified.

Alec muttered something, punctuating the remark with a sharp wave of his hand.

"What? I can't hear you over the fountains."

Alec half turned, arms locked across his chest. "I said I was responsible enough for you while you were sick!"

And I'm a blind fool! Seregil berated himself, the crux of the problem finally dawning on him. Struggling out of the tub, he threw on a towel and went to the boy.

"I owe you a tremendous debt," he said, studying Alec's grim profile. "With all that's happened, I guess I haven't thanked you properly."

"I'm not asking for any thanks."

"But you deserve it nonetheless. And I'm sorry if I insulted you just now. It's just that I don't think in terms of expecting anything of anyone."

Alec turned a bleak eye on him. "That's not what Micum said. He said you demand loyalty and never forgive anyone who betrays you."

"Well-yes. But that's hardly the same thing, is it?"

Color flared in the boy's fair cheeks. "All I know is that I have been loyal and if you don't need me around anymore, then what the hell am I doing in Rhнminee anyway?"

"Who said I don't want you around?" Seregil shot back in exasperation.

"No one. Not exactly. It's just that ever since we got here, I mean since the ship—with the wizards and healers and—" Alec faltered to a halt. "I don't know, I guess I just don't feel like I belong here."

"Of course you do!" Seregil sputtered. "Who's been saying you don't? Thero! That whey-faced son of a bitch—"

"Thero didn't say anything." A gravid pause strung out between them, growing increasingly more uncomfortable.

"I never could carry on an argument naked," Seregil said at last, pulling a wry face. This elicited a grudging hint of a smile, at least.

"If you figure out what you're so mad about, let me know. In the meantime, let's go across to the museum. I promised to show you wonders, and that's as good a place as any to find them."

Revived by the bath and fresh clothes, Seregil had Alec help him across the atrium to the opposite archway.

"The vaults under this building are overflowing with treasures of one sort or another," he expounded, still leaning on Alec's arm. "I used to go down there with Nysander and Magyana all the time. You wouldn't believe how much is squirreled away right under our feet."

Opening the huge door of the museum room, Alec let out a low whistle.

The vaulted central chamber of the Orлska Museum was similar in dimensions to the baths. Here, however, every wall was hung with rich tapestries and paintings, shields, and pieces of armor.

Suspended overhead was the skeleton of some horrific creature fifty feet long; the bare teeth jutting from the jawbones were as long as his forearm.

Wooden cases of all sizes, many covered with sheets of thick crystal, lined the walls and stood in neatly spaced rows across the room. In the one closest to them lay a collection of jeweled ornaments and vessels. The one next to it contained a golden coronet studded with rubies. Another was devoted to wizardly paraphernalia.

"How do you like it?" Seregil whispered, grinning at the boy's child's open-mouthed wonder. Alec made no reply as he slowly made his way from case to case, looking like a thirsty man who just found an unexpected spring.

The room was very quiet, but not unoccupied. A group of scholars were there examining a tapestry. Nearby, a girl in apprentice robes sat on a high stool next to one of the cases, working with wax tablet and stylus at copying a passage from an open book displayed there.

Across the room, two scarlet-clad servants were in the process of replacing some items in a crystal case.

"I used to spend a good deal of time here," Seregil told Alec softly. "I've even managed to add a few pieces to the collection over the years. This, for instance."

Steering him to a case near the center pf the room, Seregil pointed to a delicate flower carved from translucent pink stone.

"This belonged to the enchantress Nimia Reshal. When the proper words are spoken, it emits a magical fragrance which renders anyone who inhales it a helpless slave to the owner. She'd managed to snare Micum before I got hold of it."

"Why didn't she catch you, too?" Alec whispered.

"I happened to be approaching from a different direction at the time. While she was concentrating on him, I simply held my nose, crept up from behind, and knocked her on the head. Never underestimate the benefit of surprise!"

Nodding, Alec turned to the next case and stiffened.

Inside lay a pair of shriveled hands, the skin darkened to the color of old leather.

"What are those!" he gasped.

"Shh! A most unusual relic. Look closer."

Jeweled rings still encircled the withered fingers and the long discolored nails were covered with a delicate tracery of golden whorls; the plain iron manacles encircling each wrist looked out of keeping with the rest of the ornaments. Each band was held fast by a long spike driven through the wrist just below the base of each hand. The whole affair was bolted to the bottom of the case.

Alec stared down at the hands with puzzled revulsion.

"What in the world are—"Just then, one of the leathery forefingers slowly raised and lowered, as if scolding his idle scrutiny.

Seregil had been watching closely all the while.

As soon as he saw the hand move, he ran a finger lightly down the boy's back, sending him into the air with a startled yelp.

"Damn it, Seregil!" Alec cried, whirling around.

The scholars turned with inquiring stares. The apprentice dropped her stylus, then began to giggle. The servants merely exchanged disgusted looks.

Seregil leaned against a case, shoulders quivering with smothered laughter.

"I'm sorry," he said at last, feeling anything but repentant as he exchanged a knowing wink with the girl. "That trick has been played on just about every apprentice who ever served here, including me. I couldn't resist."

"You scared me half to death!" Alec whispered indignantly. "What are those things?"

Seregil rested his elbows on the edge of the case, tapping a finger idly against the glass. "The hands of Tikбrie Megraesh, a great necromancer."

"They moved." Alec shuddered, peering over Seregil's shoulder. "It's as if they're still alive."

"In a sense, they are," Seregil replied. "This necromancer ended his days as a dyrmagnos. Have you ever heard the term?"

"No. What does it mean?"

"It's the ultimate fate of necromancers. You see, all forms of magic exact a certain toll from those who practice it, but necromancy is by far the worst. It gradually wastes the body, draining life even as it increases the force of that person's will. In time, there's nothing left but a walking corpse burning with terrible intelligence-a dyrmagnos. This fellow here was at least six centuries old when Nysander cut these hands off him and, according to him, they haven't changed much in appearance since he took them, which gives you some idea what the rest of Tikбrie Megraesh must have looked like."

The left hand stirred, scrabbling softly against the bottom of the case with its blackened nails. Alec shuddered again. "If that's what his hands looked like, I'd hate to have seen the face."

"These hands escaped once," Seregil went on, staring down at the twitching things. "It's nearly impossible to kill a dyrmagnos, once it's reached such an age. All you can do is dismember and contain it. Those symbols you see painted on the nails were part or the original binding spell to break the power of the creature, eventually the life will fade from them."

Alec frowned down at them. "What if all the pieces were brought together again before that happened?"

"They'd rejoin and the dyrmagnos would live again. As I recall a few other parts of him are somewhere down in the vaults, but most were carried off for safekeeping by other wizards. The head is the most dangerous part. That was sealed in a lead casket and dropped into the sea."

Seregil savored a shiver of his own, imagining the head locked in darkness beneath the chill waters, dreaming perhaps, or screaming its hatred to the unheeding creatures of the mud. On the heels of that pleasant thought came another, however. When was the last time he'd seen the hands move as much as this?

"Are there any other dead things in here?" asked Alec, moving to another case.

"Not ones that move."

"Good!"

They wandered on awhile longer, but Seregil's strength soon flagged.

There was no use trying to hide the fact from Alec. "You're looking pale again," he said. "Come on, a walk outside in the air might not be such a bad idea after all."

The pale winter sky overhead presaged snow, but inside the walls the gardens were bathed with fragrant breezes, and the soft turf beneath their feet was redolent with chamomile and creeping thyme.

Seregil was leaning more heavily on his arm than he had earlier, Alec noted, wondering if it had been a mistake not going back to their room.

"There," Seregil said, pointing the way to a nearby fountain. Reaching it, he collapsed on the grass and leaned back against its basin.

Alec looked him over with renewed concern. "You're as white as this marble!"

Seregil dipped a hand in the water and pressed it to his brow "Just let me get my breath."

"He's only doing it to spite Valerius, you know," a familiar voice interrupted.

A pair of women sauntered up. Both wore the green and white uniform of the Queen's Horse Guard. The shorter of the two, Alec realized with a start, was Princess Klia. Her companion, a dark, serious-looking woman, stood at ease beside her.

Klia flopped down unceremoniously in front of Seregil but ignored him completely, addressing Alec as if they were old friends.

"Now, if Valerius had ordered him to get up and about as soon as possible, he'd have clung in bed 'til spring. You're better turned out than when we met last, I must say. What name are you going by today?"

He grinned sheepishly. "Alec."

"Hello again, Alec. This is Captain Myrhini."

The dark woman surprised him with a flashing smile as she joined them on the grass.

"I wondered afterward at meeting another Silverleaf," Klia went on cheerfully. "If I'd known Seregil was with you, the two of you could have ridden back with us."

"I was indisposed at the time," Seregil said, drawing her teasing gaze at last. "How did you know I was back?"

"I met Nysander on his way to a meeting with Mother and Lord Barien last night." Her blue eyes shone fiercely. "From what she said this morning, it sounds like things may get interesting again."

Seregil grimaced. "I should think you'd have seen enough of battle last year. That piece of fun nearly cost you your arm and Myrhini both."

Myrhini gave the toe of Klia's boot a playful kick. "You know her. She's Sakor-touched. It only makes

her hotter for the next fight."

"As if you're not just as bad." Klia grinned.

"Either one of us could be at home with a babe or two already if we didn't care more for battle than we do for a handsome face! Seregil, come see the horse Alec helped me buy in Cirna. Hwerlu is looking him over for me at the grove."

Klia helped Seregil to his feet, then wrapped a supporting arm around his waist as they set off for a nearby stand of oaks.

"I know one handsome face she favors, if only its owner had the wit to see," Myrhini whispered to Alec, winking in Seregil's direction as they followed the others.

Entering the little grove, Alec was delighted to find that Hwerlu was the centaur he'd glimpsed his first day in Rhнminee.

The creature was even more imposing at close quarters; his chestnut-colored horse body was a good twenty hands tall at the shoulder, while his man parts were those of a giant. Klia's unusual black and white and another Aurлnfaie horse stood by him,

and he patted them with his large, blunt hands as if they were hounds. Seregil and Klia looked like a pair of children standing next to him.

"Come here!" Seregil called to Alec. "I seem to recall you once referring to centaurs as mere legend."

When Hwerlu bent to greet him, Alec noticed that he had the eyes of a horse, large and dark, showing no white.

"Greetings, little Alec." Hwerlu's voice rumbled richly from the depths of his huge chest. "The light of Illior shines brightly in you. It must please you to see that legends can be real."

"It does," Alec told him. "I never imagined centaurs were so big!"

Laughing, Hwerlu threw back his black mane and pranced in a circle, his broad hoofs shaking the earth beneath their feet. He stopped abruptly, however, and trotted across the clearing.

"And here is another legend! My lovely Feeya," he proclaimed as another centaur stepped into the circle of trees.

Feeya was a sorrel, and only a little smaller than Hwerlu. She had the same coarse mane of hair running down her back, but the skin of her human torso was otherwise as smooth as any woman's. A heavy torque like Hwerlu's was her only adornment, but Alec quickly saw that he had no cause for embarrassment for she had no breasts, centaurs suckling their young in the same fashion as horses. Her broad features were not beautiful by common standards but, taken for what she was, she had a beauty of her own.

Hwerlu gallantly brought his lady to meet Alec. "She does not speak your tongue, but it pleases her to hear it."

Alec greeted the golden centaur. Smiling, she lifted his chin and spoke to him in her own curious whistling language as she inspected his face with apparent interest.

Standing behind Alec, Seregil answered her in the centaur tongue. With a toss of her long mane, Feeya nodded to them both and went to admire Klia's new horse.

"What did she say?" asked Alec.

"Oh, a greeting like Hwerlu's. I thanked her for you." Seregil sat down at the base of a tree with a contented sigh.

"Are there a lot of centaurs in Skala?" Alec gazed at the pair of handsome creatures across the clearing.

"No. They live mainly in the mountains across the Osiat Sea. A few large tribes still roam the high plains there. Magyana brought Hwerlu and Feeya back to Rhнminee with her a few years ago. That's her tower there, to the left of Nysander's."

"Nysander's friend?"

"Yes. Magyana's a great traveler. She went to learn more of centaur ways. Hwerlu was curious about her magic, it being so different from his own, so he came back with her. He'll go home when he's satisfied."

"Are you a wizard, too, then?" Alec asked Hwerlu, who'd returned.

"I cannot make fire without fuel, or fly through the air like the Orлska wizards. My power lies in my music." Hwerlu indicated the large harp that hung in the branches of a nearby tree.

"I sing healings, charms, dreams. I think now maybe I should sing a healing for you, Seregil. I still see sickness in your face."

"I'd be grateful. Your cures don't leave a foul taste in my mouth like those of the drysians. In fact, I think I'll spend the afternoon here. Alec, why don't you get a horse from the stables and go for a ride? It'll do you good."

"I'd just as soon stay here," Alec objected, having no desire to go wandering around the city by himself.

"And watch me sleep all day?" Seregil scoffed. "No, I think it's time we got on with your education. Just go around the Ring once, then come back and tell me what you saw."

"The Ring? I don't even know what that—"

"I'll show him," offered Myrhini. "I have to get back to the barracks anyway. It's on the way."

"There now." Seregil blithely ignored Alec's silent appeal. "Already you're consorting with centaurs and wizards and riding about the streets with a captain of the Queen's Horse Guard. Keep your hood well up, though. I'm not ready for either of us to be seen just yet. And be careful! You're not larking about in the woods anymore. Even in daylight, Rhнminee can be a dangerous place. And for Illior's sake, find some gloves! Your hands are in poor enough condition as it is."

Myrhini pulled a pair of gauntlets from her belt and tossed them to Alec. "Come on, boy, before he finds something else to fuss about."

Still dubious, Alec followed her to the stables behind the main building where a groom saddled a spirited horse for him.

Leaving the shelter of the magical gardens for the first time since his arrival in the city, Alec was pleased to feel the cold, sweet winter breeze against his face again.

Golden Helm Street was lined on either side with high garden walls. Craning his neck, Alec caught glimpses of statues, carved pediments, and the tops of columns decorating houses more imposing than any temple he'd seen in the north. After several blocks, the street opened out into one of the paved circles he'd noted during his first ride through Rhнminee with Nysander. Here they turned down a side line.

"What are these for?" he asked, looking around.

"It's a catapult circle, part of the city's defenses," Myrhini explained. "The streets that lead out from them are straight to give the defenders a clear shot at any approaching enemy force. There are circles like this all over the city. The Ring and the market squares by the main gates are defensive positions, too, killing grounds in case the gates are breached."

"Has Rhнminee ever been attacked?"

"Oh, yes. The Plenimarans only got in once, though. The last full-scale attack on the city was over forty years ago, though."

Two Hawk ended at Silvermoon Street, a broad avenue bordering the Queen's Park.

Ornate public buildings had been built against the park wall. On the other side stood villas larger than any he'd seen so far.

Blue uniformed guards saluted Myrhini as she and Alec rode under a heavy portcullis and onto the palace grounds.

"Those are the barracks there," she said, pointing out a collection of long, low buildings just visible beyond the dark bulk of the Palace.

At the edge of the broad parade ground that fronted the barracks they reined in to watch a company of riders practicing a battle turn. Tugging his hood back into place, Alec let out a low whistle of admiration.

Each rider carried a lance, and their green pennants snapped smartly in the breeze as the horsemen rode the length of the field in an even rank.

Reaching the far end, they wheeled sharply about, lowered their lances, and charged forward with bloodcurdling yells. Wheeling again, they threw their lances down and drew swords to practice cuts to the left and right.

"There aren't many sights finer than that, eh?"

Myrhini asked, following them with her eyes. Her horse shifted restlessly, anxious to join its fellows in action.

As they sat watching, a trio of riders rode over from the direction of the barracks-two noblemen and a

stern, pale-eyed woman in a green uniform and golden gorget. The older of the two men was imposing in black velvet trimmed with silver and furs. A jeweled chain of office hung across his broad chest.

The other man was much younger, perhaps late twenties, with a small blond mustache and a narrow tuft of hair on his chin. Although he was dressed richly in red velvet laced with gold, he struck Alec at once as someone of much less importance than the others.

"General Phoria," Myrhini said, saluting the officer. "And greetings, Lord Barien and Lord Teukros."

"I trust your troop will be ready for inspection this afternoon?" the general asked crisply, returning the salute with a hand lacking the last two fingers.

"At your command, General!"

Phoria's pale stare raked over Alec as if she had only then registered his existence. "And who is this?"

"A guest of the wizard Nysander, General. I'm escorting him to the Ring."

Alec stole a sidelong glance at Myrhini but knew better than to butt in; General Phoria had thawed noticeably at the mention of Nysander.

"You haven't the look of a wizard," she remarked.

"No, General, I'm not," Alec responded quickly, taking his cue from Myrhini. "I've come to study in the city."

"Ah, a young scholar!" The older man smiled approvingly. "I hope you'll stay long enough to see the Festival. It's the great glory of the city."

Alec had no idea what the man was referring to, but nodded politely and did his best to look respectful. Fortunately General Phoria was impatient to move on. With a final curt nod, she and her companions rode on toward the Palace.

Alec let out a slow breath. "Was that the same Barien Klia spoke of?"

"Lord Barien," Myrhini cautioned. "Lord Barien i Zhal Khameris Vitulliein of Rhilna, to be exact. He's the Viceregent of Skala, the most powerful person in the country after the Queen herself The other one was his nephew, Lord Teukros i Eryan."

"And the general?"

"In addition to being the high commander of all Skalan cavalry regiments, General Phoria is the Queen's eldest daughter. You just met the future queen, my friend. Come on now, I'll write you out a pass."

Dismounting in front of one of the barracks, Alec followed Myrhini into the wardroom. A handful of soldiers sat around a table, intent on a bakshi game. Seeing their senior officer, however, they leapt up to salute. Myrhini returned it and sat down at a nearby desk to write out the pass.

After a few curious glances in Alec's direction, the soldiers went back to their game.

Sealing the pass with her signet, Myrhini handed it to Alec. "Show this at any gate of the Ring and you'll

have no problem. There's one into the Ring just beyond the last barracks. Get your horse and I'll let you through."

Outside again, she led Alec to a heavily guarded gate near the Palace.

"You can't possibly get lost," Myrhini assured him. "Stay between the two walls and you'll come all the way around the city and back to here. It will be easiest for you to go back to the Ore'ska House by way of the Harvest Market. Just follow the Street of the Sheaf to the Fountain of Astellus, then down Golden Helm until you sight it again."

Myrhini's directions sounded simple enough, but Alec felt a bit of his original apprehension returning when the postern gate clanged shut behind him.

Looking around, he found himself in a very pleasant park with trees and carefully tended carriage paths. A number of enterprising merchants had set up shop here and many elegantly dressed patrons strolled among the gaily painted booths. Others rode or drove in carriages along the paths, the men in colorful surcoats or robes beneath heavy capes, the women muffled in rich furs, gems sparkling on their gloved fingers and in their elaborately curled and braided hair. Many were accompanied by tame animals and Alec smiled to himself, wondering if he and his father had trapped any of these hawks or spotted cats. They'd certainly sold enough of them to the southern traders.

Riding north at a trot, he soon reached the first gate. The guards inspected his pass briefly, then waved him through into the bustle of the Harvest Market.

This market was considerably smaller than the one by the Sea Gate, and not as busy at this late season.

A gate leading out of the city stood open for carts, and numerous inns and taverns faced onto the main square. Checking street markers to satisfy himself as to where the Street of the Sheaf entered the square, he crossed the square and reentered the Ring to continue his assigned ride.

This next section was used as pasturage for livestock. He rode past small flocks of sheep and cattle grazing from hay racks under the watchful eye of the children who tended them. Large cisterns had been sunk into the ground here and there along the inner wall. Although the herds he observed were not large, it was evident that should the city ever be besieged, enough animals could be kept within the walls to feed the defenders for quite some time.

Skirting the northern perimeter of the city at a canter, Alec began to notice signs of human habitation; rough plank shelters huddled at the base of the walls, many of them connected by well-trodden paths. The denizens of this shanty settlement had the sullen air of impoverished squatters. A litter of refuse marked the boundaries of their tiny holdings; thin children and thinner dogs wandered among the shacks, picking through the castoff belongings of their neighbors and watching passing strangers with a predatory eye.

As he rode past one of these ramshackle hovels, a grimy child in a torn shift popped up almost under his horse's feet, begging for coppers. Alec reined in sharply to avoid trampling her and was instantly surrounded by a crowd of motley little beggars, all clamoring for money. A lank-haired woman appeared in a doorway, beckoning to him in a harsh, lewd fashion. Except for a tattered skirt, she wore only a shawl draped over her shoulders and this she let fall away, calling out something to him.

Alec hastily fished out a few coins and cast them behind his horse to clear the children from his path. But the shacks became more numerous as he rode on, as did the knots of beggars and idlers of all

descriptions.

The next gate was in sight when he noticed three men watch his approach with undisguised interest. As he came nearer, they rose from their seats in front of a tattered tent and stood next to the roadway. They were big men, any one of them more than a match for him, and all wore long knives in plain sight.

Alec was considering whether he should turn back or simply kick his horse into a gallop when a group of uniformed riders came into sight from the opposite direction.

The winter sun glinted off their helmets. They wore the same dark blue uniforms he had seen at the gates and carried heavy truncheons and swords.

The prospective footpads quickly disappeared among the shacks as the riders came on. Alec rode quickly on to the next gate and into the Sea Market.

The huge square was every bit as overwhelming as the first time he'd seen it. Stopping for a moment to get his bearings, he spotted the open thoroughfare of Sheaf Street in the distance and set out toward it, following one of the wider lanes threading through the marketplace in that direction.

The smell of spiced lamb brought him to a halt.

Looking around, Alec quickly spotted an old man grilling skewers of meat over a brazier nearby.

A bit more at ease now, he decided to stop and eat. Dismounting, he purchased meat and cider and sat down on a convenient crate to watch the crowd stream by.

This isn't so bad after all, he thought. Six months ago where had he been?

Wandering alone through the same mountains he'd known all his life. Now here he sat in the heart of one of the most powerful cities in the world with fine, warm clothes on his back and silver in his purse.

He was beginning to enjoy himself after all.

He was just finishing when the dull, uneven clang of a bell rang out over the general noise of the square.

Joining the crowd at the edge of the street, he worked his way forward through the press.

A dozen blue-uniformed guards were escorting a tumbrel cart down the avenue in his direction. A tall pike had been set upright in the back of the cart; a man's head was fixed on its point, the slack jaw quivering at every bump and jolt. The glassy eyes had rolled upward, as if avoiding even in death the expressions of scorn and revulsion that greeted this final progress. A placard had been nailed just below it, but the writing on it was obscured by streaks of drying blood.

Alec spat out his last mouthful of meat and lowered his eyes as the cart drew abreast of him. It seemed that no matter where he turned today he was confronted with bits of dead bodies. Suddenly a hand slid under his arm from behind.

"Are you unwell, young sir?"

Unpleasant breath bathed his cheek. Turning, Alec found himself in the supportive grip of a scrawny young ruffian. The fellow's sallow face looked as narrow as an ax blade, an illusion not alleviated by his

prominently arched nose and buck teeth. An unruly lock of sandy hair kept falling over one eye and he reached up to push it away with one hand without relinquishing his hold on Alec's sleeve with the other. His garments had once been fine, but judging by their worn appearance and the sour odor that rose from them, Alec suspected their owner to be a denizen of the northern Ring.

"I'm fine, thank you," Alec replied, disliking the stranger's insistent hold on his arm.

"Some don't care for such sights," the other said, shaking his head, though whether it was at the sight of violent death or the lack of stomach for it, Alec could not guess. "When I seen you, I says to myself,

"There's one that might keel right over!" Perhaps you ought to sit down over here, 'til the spell passes. Quite an end for old Lord Vardarus, eh?"

"I'm fine," Alec repeated, pulling free at last. "Who's Lord Vardarus?"

"You was just looking at him. If you'd have looked in the back of that cart, you'd have seen the rest of him headed for the city pit. Executed this morning for plotting to kill the Viceregent his self, as I hear it." The man paused to spit wetly. "Filthy Leran traitor!"

Viceregent! thought Alec, recalling the jocular fellow Myrhini had introduced him to at the parade ground.

Now, here was something to report to Seregil; Lord Barien must have just been coming from the execution of his own would-be murderer. Alec made a mental note to ask Seregil what a Leran was.

"You all right then, young sir?" his erstwhile rescuer asked again.

"For the last time, yes!" Giving the man a curt nod, Alec stole a glance over his shoulder, looking for his horse. When he looked back, the fellow was gone.

Shaking his head in bemusement, Alec set off again.

The seaward section of the Ring was more heavily guarded; his pass was closely inspected by the watch before he was allowed to enter. Beyond the gate, the open ground had been divided into a series of huge corrals that held the herds of horses belonging to the various military units of the city.

Hundreds of animals milled about beyond the fences on either side of the roadway, their rich odor permeating the air. The workshops of regimental farriers, harness makers, and armorers were scattered among the enclosures, and the craftsmen added their own noises to the din. Signs posted at the gate of each corral displayed the regimental emblem, as did the uniforms of the soldiers standing guard. Alec quickly spotted the helm and saber device of the Queen's Horse Guard, as well as the flame emblem worn by the blue-coated riders he'd noticed around the city. Other uniforms were new to him. Soldiers wearing sky-blue tunics stitched with the shining white outline of a soaring hawk stood guard over several herds made up entirely of white horses. Another group wore deep purple, with scarlet serpents forming a complicated knot as their emblem.

The road was crowded with soldiers, strings of horses, hay racks, and dung carts. To travel any distance afoot was evidently unthinkable in such company. Those having nothing better to do lined the fence rails to watch the activity.

A few of these idlers, both male and female, greeted him with gestures only slightly less suggestive than

those of the ragged woman at the hovel. Shocked at the ways of city dwellers, Alec pressed on at a canter to the next gate and emerged gratefully again into the long park behind the Queen's Palace. Nudging his horse into a gallop, he rode to the Harvest Market and the Street of the Sheaf, then east into the city.

People bustled on all sides, jostling each other as they went about their business. Even the buildings seemed to crowd one another, leaning shoulder to shoulder over the street to trap the din of the passing traffic and echo it back. Alec's discomfort at the proximity of so many people began to well up again.

Afternoon shadows were lengthening by the time as he reached the Astellus Circle. He paused at the colonnade. Across the way lay the wooded park, bordering the circle's north side. A single street entered the park through a prettily carved stone archway. Richly dressed riders and fancy carriages were coming and going in a steady stream.

Curious, Alec rode over for a closer look.

The park embraced the street on both sides and, together with the arch, gave the place a sheltered, almost magical air, as if it might exist quite separately from the crowded city beyond. The villas here had no screening walls and he marveled at the elegance of the facades and gardens. Despite the early hour, each house had one or more colored lamps burning above its entrance. There were only four colors: rose, amber, white, and green. Al though they lent a certain festive tone, their order along the street seemed quite random.

"Excuse me, sir," Alec ventured, catching the eye of a man coming out from under the arch. "What street is this?"

"The Street of Lights, of course," the man replied, looking him over.

"So I see, but what do the lights mean?"

"If you have to ask that, then you've no business knowing, lad!" Giving Alec a wink, the fellow strode off whistling.

With a last curious glance down the intriguing avenue, Alec headed for the Orлska House. Myrhini's instructions brought him safely there, and Nysander's guide stone led him back up to the tower door.

He was just raising his hand to knock when Thero came storming out with an armload of scroll cases. They collided hard enough to knock the wind out of both of them.

Scroll cases scattered in all directions, rolling and clattering across the stone floor of the passage. One tube flew over the parapet and several startled voices echoed up the atrium as it shattered on the tiles below. Thero glared at Alec for an instant, then began gathering his scattered documents.

"Sorry," Alec muttered, picking up those that had rolled across the corridor. Thero accepted them curtly and strode off, not bothering to acknowledge that the door had closed behind him.

Much obliged, I'm sure! Alec thought sourly, standing well to one side as he knocked again.

Seregil opened the door this time, and he looked remarkably pleased with himself.

"Gone, is he?" he smirked, letting Alec into the anteroom.

"What was that all about? He practically knocked me over the railing!"

Seregil shrugged innocently. "I came upstairs to borrow a book from Nysander but he wasn't here. In his absence, Thero took it upon himself to tell me I couldn't have it. After reasoning with him at considerable length over the matter, I suggested that it was probably his vow of celibacy that keeps him so irritable all the time. I was in the middle of a detailed discourse-based largely on my own personal experience-on the methods he could employ to alleviate his difficulties when he hurried out. Perhaps he means to put my wisdom into action."

"I doubt it. And isn't it sort of dangerous, teasing a wizard?"

"He takes himself much too seriously," scoffed Seregil, sitting down at one of the work ables. "How was your ride? See anything interesting? Who stole your purse?"

"There was a procession at the Sea Market and I—" Alec stopped, openmouthed, as Seregil's last questions registered. Checking his belt, he found only the severed strings where his wallet had hung.

"That bastard at the Sea Market!" He groaned.

Seregil regarded him with a crooked grin. "Let me guess: thin, whey-faced, big nose, bad teeth? Got close to you for some reason and wouldn't be shaken off? Relieved you of this, I believe."

Seregil tossed Alec, a purse. It was his own, and quite empty.

"His name's Tym." Seregil's grin broadened.

"I figured he'd hit you at the market. He can't resist working a crowd, especially if there are bluecoats around."

Alec stared at Seregil, aghast. "You set him on me! He works for you?"

"From time to time, so you're likely to see him again. You can settle up with him then, if you want. I hope you didn't lose too much."

"No, but I still don't understand why you did it. Bilairy's Elbows, Seregil. If I hadn't been carrying that pass in my coat—"

"Consider it your first lesson in city life. Something of the sort had to happen sooner or later. I figured sooner was better. I did warn you before you left to watch out for yourself."

"I thought I did." Alec bristled, thinking of the rough characters he'd managed to avoid in the Ring.

Seregil clapped him on the shoulder. "Well, don't fret. Tym's a professional in his own small way, and you're his favorite sort of victim: just in from the country, green as grass, mouth hanging open as you take in the city. So tell me about your ride."

"Didn't Tym tell you about it?" Alec scowled, feeling he'd been made a fool of.

"Tym isn't you. I want to hear what you saw."

Still smoldering, Alec sketched a terse description of the Ring, pointedly including the ambushers, then moved on to the procession at the Sea Market.

"Lord Vardarus." Seregil frowned, twirling a glass rod between two long fingers. "I did a few things for him in the past. I'd have said he was completely loyal to the Queen."

"That cutpurse of yours said he'd tried to assassinate Lord Barien. Myrhini and I saw Lord Barien before I left, over at the Palace. Maker's Mercy, Seregil, he must have just come from the execution when I saw him, and he was talking of some festival!"

"The Festival of Sakor, at the winter solstice," Seregil replied absently. "I wonder what Nysander knows about all this? I'd never have taken Vardarus for a Leran."

"What are Lerans, anyway?"

Seregil glanced up in surprise. "Bilairy's Balls. You mean I never told you about Idrilain the First?"

"No. That night on the Darter you said there was a lot I'd have to learn about the royal lines, but then you got sick."

"Ah, well then, you're in for a treat. Idrilain the First's one of my favorites. She lived four hundred years ago and is the first and only of the Skalan queens to take an Aurлnfaie as consort."

"An Aurлnfaie?"

"That's right, though this wasn't her first husband. Idrilain was a great warrior, known for her strong will and fiery temper. By the age of twenty, she was already a general. At twenty-two, she married on the day of her coronation and soon produced an heir, a daughter named Lera. Not long after, Zengat declared war on Aurлnen. The Aurлnfaie appealed to Skala for help and Idrilain led the forces south herself."

"Where's Zengat?" Alec broke in, his head spinning with unfamiliar names.

"West of Aurлnen, where the mountains of Ared Nimra reach the Selon Sea. The Zengati are a fierce bunch, most of them warriors, brigands, and pirates. Occasionally they get bored with fighting among themselves and band together to make trouble for their neighbors, especially Aurлnen. This time they were laying claim to lands down near Mount Bardok.

"Once they got into western Aurлnen, they decided they might as well have the rest of it.

"During her campaign there, Idrilain fell in love with a handsome Aurлnfaie captain named Corruth. He returned to Skala with her, where nearly caused a civil war by putting aside her first consort to marry him."

"But you said it was common practice for a queen to change lovers as much as she liked," Alec recalled.

"But they usually only did so to gain an heir. Idrilain already had a daughter. But there was also the matter of Corruth being Aurлnfaie."

"You mean not human?"

"That's right. Even though the ancient ties from the Great War were still remembered with gratitude, it was quite a different matter for alien blood to be mixed into the royal line.

"As usual, Idrilain had her way in the end and the match produced another daughter, Corruthesthera. Her father, a kind and noble man by all reports, eventually gained acceptance from some of the nobles. But there was also a strong faction, the Lerans, who could not accept the possibility of Corruth's daughter reaching the throne. Idrilain's first consort was at the heart of it from the beginning, and probably involved Lera as well, although it was never proven. Whatever the case, relations between the Queen and the Princess Royal were strained, to say the least."

"So what happened?"

"In the thirty-second year of her reign, Idrilain was poisoned. No connection to the Lerans could be proven, but Lera ascended the throne under the shadow of suspicion. It didn't help matters any that Lord Corruth disappeared from Rhнminee without a trace the day of her accession. To Lera's credit, she didn't have her half sister, Corruthesthera, assassinated right then. Instead, she quietly exiled her to an island in the middle of the Osiat Sea. The people of Aurлnen were outraged and relations between the two nations have never been the same.

"Queen Lera was a harsh, tight-fisted woman. She's recorded to have had more people executed during her eighteen-year rule than any queen in the history of Skala.

"Ironically, her half sister survived three different assassination attempts, while Lera herself died in childbirth with a stillborn son. In spite of some threat of revolution, Corruthesthera was recalled from exile and crowned as the only remaining heir."

Alec mulled all this over for a moment. "So that means that the queens who came after were part Aurлnfaie?"

Seregil nodded. "Corruthesthera favored her father's race; they say she appeared to be hardly more than a girl at age fifty."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," Seregil explained, "in addition to living three or four times as long as humans, the Aurлnfaie mature more slowly. A man of fourscore years is close to Bilairy's gate, while an Aurлnfaie is still considered a youth."

"They must become very wise, living that long."

Seregil grinned. "Wisdom is not necessarily the product of age. Still, imagine being able to draw on the experience of three lifetimes rather than one."

"How long did Corruthesthera live?"

"She died in battle at the age of one hundred and forty-seven. Queen Idrilain the Second is her great-granddaughter."

"Then if what Tym said is true, the Lerans are still around."

"Oh, yes, though they've never achieved much beyond an assassination or two. But they still boil up to

make trouble every now and then. With the war coming, they could be more of a threat. And not only to the Queen, it seems. Was Barien by himself?"

"No, Phoria, the oldest princess—"

"Princess Royal," Seregil corrected, fidgeting with the glass rod. "Though she prefers the title of general. People have been speculating about her and Barien for years now—But go on."

"General Phoria was with him, and his nephew."

"Lord Teukros?" Seregil gave a derisive snort. "Now there's true Skalan nobility for you: nephew and sole heir of the most powerful lord in Rhнminee, scion of one of the oldest Skalan families, not a drop of foreign blood in his lily pure veins. Perfect manners, expensive tastes, and all the brains of a flounder. Quite the gambler, too. I've taken his money more than once."

"He's Barien's heir?"

"Oh, yes. Being childless himself, the Viceregent has always doted on his sister's son. Barien's no fool, mind you, but love does make excuses, as they say. It just goes to show that the nobles ought to learn what any hog farmer knows, and do a bit more out breeding now and then."

19 Uneasy Secrets

Seregil inhaled the familiar morning smells of the tower as he and Alec headed up to the workroom the next morning—the mingled incense of parchment, candle smoke, and herbs overlaid with the more immediate aromas of breakfast.

Upstairs, early morning sunlight slanted down through the leaded panes of the dome, giving the jumbled room a comfortable glow. Nysander sat in his usual place at the head of the least cluttered table, both hands clasped around his mug as he conversed with Thero.

A bittersweet pang shot through Seregil. In the days of his apprenticeship, he'd sat in There's place each morning, enjoying the early quiet while Nysander outlined the day's tasks. It had been at such moments that he'd felt, for the first time in his life, like he belonged, that he was welcome and useful.

This memory brought with it a momentary stab of guilt at the thought of a certain scrap of parchment carefully concealed at the bottom of his pack.

Seregil pushed the thought away.

"Good morning, you two! I hope you are hungry,"

Nysander said, pushing the teapot their way. Thero acknowledged their arrival with a cool nod.

Nysander's workroom breakfasts were legendary at the Orлska House: fried ham, honey and cheese, hot oat cakes with butter, and good strong black tea. Anyone was welcome and if you wanted anything else you could bring it yourself.

"Valerius will be pleased with you, Alec," said Nysander as they sat down. "Seregil is looking much more himself today."

The boy shot Seregil a pointed glance. "It's none of my doing. He's done just as he pleased ever since Valerius left, but he healed up anyway."

"I daresay you underestimate your influence over him, dear boy." The wizard turned to Seregil with a rather searching look. "Well now, what are your plans?"

Seregil could feel his old mentor watching him as he spooned honey onto a piece of oat cake.

Nysander was waiting for another argument over the scar and, under most circumstances, that's exactly what he'd have gotten. But not this time.

Concentrating on his breakfast, Seregil replied, "It's time we headed home. With a war brewing for the spring, there ought to be some jobs waiting for us."

"True," said Nysander. "In fact, I may have a bit of work for you myself."

"About this new Leran upsurge?"

"Precisely. I hope to put what details I can before you within a few days."

Seregil sat back, on safer ground now. "Do you think Vardarus was really mixed up in all that?"

"I must say, I would never have suspected the man. Yet he signed a full confession, and spoke not one word in his own defense. The evidence seemed incontrovertible."

Seregil gave a skeptical shrug. "If he'd contested the conviction and lost, his heirs would lose all claim to his property. By admitting his treason, they were allowed to inherit."

"But if he was innocent, then why wouldn't he have said so?" asked Alec.

"As Nysander said, the evidence against him was irrefutable," Thero answered. "Letters in Vardarus' own hand were produced. He could have pleaded forgery, or that magic had been used to create them, yet he refused to do so. The Queen had no choice but to pass sentence. With all respect, Nysander, it is possible that he was guilty."

Seregil tugged absently at a strand of dark hair. "And if he was innocent, what could have enforced such damning silence. He was attached to the Queen's Treasury, wasn't he? I'll need a list of the nobles he associated with in that position, and some idea of his personal habits."

"I shall see you have all you need," said Nysander.

Alec found himself studying faces over breakfast.

Seregil had been unusually pensive, although he seemed to brighten up once he'd gotten some food in him. Thero was as stiff as ever, and Nysander just as easygoing, yet there was something in the older wizard's expression when he looked at Seregil, as if he were trying to figure him out.

As for himself, Alec realized that he was finally beginning to feel comfortable here. The sense of disorientation that had depressed him during Seregil's recovery had lifted at last. Watching his companion trying to tease Thero into some pointless debate, he sensed that a certain important equilibrium had been reestablished.

"You are quieter than usual this morning," Nysander observed. catching his eye.

Alec nodded toward Seregil. "This is more what he was like when we first met."

"Annoying Thero has always been a favorite pastime of his," the wizard sighed. "For goodness sake, Seregil, let him eat in peace. Not everyone shares your taste for banter first thing in the morning."

"I doubt there are many tastes Thero and I do share," Seregil conceded.

"A fact for which I am continually thankful," Thero parried dryly.

Leaving the two of them to their private battle, Alec turned back to Nysander. "I've been wondering about something you mentioned when we talked that first night."

"Yes?"

"You spoke of shape changing spells. Can a person really be changed into anything?"

"A brick, perhaps?" Thero interjected.

Seregil acknowledged the gibe with a gallant salute of the honey spoon.

"That is correct," Nysander replied.

"Transubstantiation—or metamorphosis, if you will—has always been a favorite subject of mine. I made quite a study of it, years ago. Few of the spells are permanent and the risks are often high, but I do enjoy them."

"He turned us into all sorts of things," Seregil told him. "And it still comes in handy now and then."

"There are several general kinds of changes," Nysander went on, warming to his topic.

"Transmogrifications change one thing completely into something else—a man into a tree, for instance. His thoughts would be those of a tree and he would exist as one without memory of his former nature until restored.

"A metastatic spell, however, would merely give a man the appearance of a tree. To alter the nature of a substance-iron into gold, for example-would require an alchemic transmutation."

"And what about that intrinsic nature spell of yours?" Seregil inquired blandly, staring down into his mug.

"I might have known you'd bring it around to that," Thero sniffed. "A trick to entertain children and country peasants!"

"There are those who believe it has some value," Nysander said with a meaningful look in Thero's direction. "Myself among them."

Seregil leaned over to Alec as if to speak in confidence, though he didn't bother to lower his voice. "Thero hates that spell because it won't work on him. He has no intrinsic nature, you see."

"It is true that this particular spell does not affect him," Nysander admitted, "but I am certain that we shall discover the impediment eventually. However, I suspect that it was not Thero's nature you had in mind?"

Seregil gave Alec a playful nudge in the ribs. "How about a bit of magic?"

Nysander laid his knife aside with a resigned sigh. "I see that I am not to enjoy this meal in peace. I suggest we retire to the garden in case Alec proves to be something especially large."

"Me?" Alec choked down a bit of ham. He had no idea what an intrinsic nature spell could be, but it suddenly appeared that they meant to work one on him.

Seregil was halfway to the door already. "I just hope he doesn't turn out to be a badger. I've never gotten on with badgers. Thero will probably turn out to be a badger if you ever get it to work."

They followed Nysander down to the Orлska gardens and into a thick stand of birch surrounding a small pool.

"This will do nicely," he said, stopping in the dappled shade near the water's edge. "I will transform Seregil first, Alec, so that you may observe the process."

Alec nodded nervously, watching as Seregil knelt on the grass in front of the wizard.

Resting his hands on his thighs, Seregil closed his eyes and all expression vanished from his face.

"He attains the suscipient state so readily," Thero muttered with grudging admiration. "Still, you take a chance, trying to work anything on him."

Nysander motioned for silence, then laid a hand on Seregil's head. "Seregil i Korit Solun Meringil Bokthersa, let thy inner symbol be revealed."

The change was instantaneous. One moment Seregil knelt before them. The next, something was squirming about in a tangle of empty clothing.

Nysander bent over the wiggling pile. "The change was successful, I gather?"

"Oh, yes," replied a small, guttural voice, "but I've lost my way in here. Could you lend a hand?"

"Help your friend, Alec," Nysander said, laughing.

Alec gingerly lifted the edge of the surcoat, then jumped back in surprise as the blunt head of an otter thrust out from under the loosened shirttail.

"That's better," it grunted. Waddling free of the clothing, the sleek creature sat up on its hindquarters with its tail stretched out behind. It looked exactly like any otter Alec had ever trapped, except that its small round eyes were the same grey as Seregil's.

Seregil smoothed his drooping whiskers into place with a webbed paw. "I should've stripped down first, but the effect is more startling this way, don't you think?"

"It's really you!" Alec exclaimed in delight, running a hand over the otter's gleaming back. "You're beautiful."

"Thank you-I think," Seregil clucked. "In light of your former profession, I'm not certain if that was a compliment or an appraisal of the worth of my pelt. Watch this!"

Humping to the edge of the pool, he slid into the water and dove out of sight with sinuous ease. After a few moments he climbed out again to deposit a flopping car