/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (11)

Sunlancer

Mercedes Lackey


Sunlancer

by Philip M. Austin and Mercedes Lackey

Philip Austin writes, "Misty Lackey is the one who made this story come alive. She deserves the majority of the credit and all my thanks. [She] has been a good friend and mentor. She's been helpful in so many ways. Through her good offers, I've been able to dream of a future. A creative future. That dream is worth more than any monetary reward."

Mercedes Lackey was born in Chicago, and has worked as a lab assistant, security guard, and computer programmer before turning to fiction writing. Her first book, Arrows of the Queen, the first hi the Valde-mar series, was published in 1985. She won the Lambda award for Magic's Price and Science Fiction Book Club Book of the Year for the The Elvenbane, co-authored with Andre Norton. Along with her husband, Larry Dixon, she is a Federally licensed bird rehabilitator, specializing in birds of prey. She shares her home with a menagerie of parrots, cats and a Schutzhund trained German shepherd.

Clarrin Mul-Par knelt below his open window and raised his face to the rising sun; he closed his eyes and felt the warmth of its rays against his cheeks, watched the inside of his eyelids turn as red as the robes of Vkandis' priests. The sun was a pressure against his skin, as real as the pressure against his heart.

Vkandis! Sunlord! he prayed. Hear me, and guide me in what I must do. Red-priestess Beakasi tells us we do your will and bidding — should I believe her? She tells me that it is your will that we take the young ones, that your miracles show her the ones to test for your service. Must I believe her? Sunlord, all life comes by your gift; to live in your light is the old teaching, passed from generation to generation. But is this what you meant? Vkandis! Sun-lord! What must I do? Give me a sign!

He lowered his outstretched arms, letting the rays of the sun bathe him. But although they warmed his body, they did not touch the cold in his heart, nor did they ease his worry and confusion.

For the first time in his life, he doubted.

No, he told himself firmly. No, I do not doubt the Sunlord. I doubt those who speak in His Name. I doubt that what they call upon me to do is truly His Will

And he knew exactly where to place the blame for that doubt — if "blame'" was precisely the right thing to call it.

Squarely in the lap of that scholar-scribe with the terrible eyes: the guest of his grandfather, and as such, sacrosanct.

The man had been there when he arrived last night; they seemed to be old friends, and Grandfather had introduced him as such. Clarrin found the man to be a fascinating storyteller, and the three of them had conversed long into the night, in the garden pavilion, where — now that he thought about it — no one could creep up upon them to listen without being seen.

And it was the scholar's questions that had made him doubt....

"Captain Clarrin Mul-Par is a wise man, I have no doubt," the scribe said in accentless, flowing Karaite that even a priest would envy. "As well as a man trusted in the Temple's service. I value wisdom, and I seek answers, answers to questions a man such as the Captain may be able to give me."

As he sat there, completely at ease in the low couch, boots crossed at the ankles and elbows resting on knees, his eyes never left the face of the Captain of the Temple Lancers. Clarrin wondered what in heaven or earth he was reading there. He never had learned to completely school his expression.

But he had tried not to betray his uneasiness. "What are your questions, good sir?" he replied, forcing himself to return the scribe's direct gaze. "Although you grant me more wisdom than I would claim, I will do my best to answer you."

"My first question is this — and pray, do not take offense, for I am a foreigner, and I mean none," the scholar said, with a smile that looked honest, leaning forward a little to speak. "Are the miracles performed by your priests and priestesses true miracles, or are they actually magic?"

Clarrin licked his lips, and answered carefully. "Vkandis forbids the practice of magic," he replied sternly. "It was by his will that magic was driven out of the land. His miracles ensure that we of Karse need no magic, and aid his holy ones to keep magic from our borders."

The scribe did not seem particularly disturbed by the implied rebuke. He sipped at the pleasant, fruity wine with appreciation, examined the crystal goblet that contained it for a moment, then looked up through the latticework of the pavilion's roof at the stars. Only then did he look back at Clarrin.

"Spoken as a true warrior of the Temple," he said, with another of those enigmatic smiles. "Yet — I have been in other lands. Rethwellan, Hardorn, even Valdemar. I have seen those who claim to be practitioners of magic perform feats precisely the same as those that Vkandis' priests perform. Does the Sunlord grant these people the power to work miracles as well?"

Clarrin carefully set his goblet down on the low table they all shared, heated words rising in him. "I have not seen these marvels that you claim to have seen, scribe," he replied, his anger giving his voice a distinct edge, "So I may make no judgment."

But his grandfather frowned. "Sharp words!" he chided. "Grandson, you come close to dishonoring my granted guest-right with your sharp tongue!"

Clarrin flushed, this time with embarrassment. He might be thirty summers old, but this was the man who had raised him, and the bright-eyed old fellow did right to remind him of the courtesies owed a guest of the house.

"I am well rebuked, old owl," he replied, with a bow of apology to the scribe, and a smile of affection for the wizened old man. "You remind me of the proper way to answer our guest."

He turned to the scribe. "I apologize for my discourteous reply, sir. And to answer your question with strict truth, I do not know. I have no knowledge of magic and have never seen any who practice it; we are taught that it is all trickery in any case, that the miracles of Vkandis alone are no deceit. The priests would tell you that this magic you have seen is nothing more than cleverness and misdirection."

The scribe smiled, giving Clarrin the slight bow of scholar-to-scholar, wordlessly telling Clarrin that he had shown wisdom by admitting his ignorance. Clarrin flushed again, this time feeling pleased and flattered.

"Now this — " the scribe said lightly. "This is a moment of true men's pleasure: to sip good wine, hi a beautiful garden, on a clear summer's night, discussing the mysteries of the world. Among men who can face truth and enter debate with open minds, no apologies are needed, for all three of us are men who can acknowledge that we can speak the truth only as we see it. And the truth is a crystal with many facets."

A night bird began a liquid, plaintive song just as the scribe finished speaking. The scribe half-closed his eyes to listen, and out of courtesy, all of them remained quiet until it had finished and flew away.

"The ovan has other pleasures in mind," Tirens Mul-Par, damn's grandfather, said wryly. "He calls a mate."

Clarrin and the scribe both chuckled. "Ah," the scribe replied. "And have you never heard the tale of the 'scholar's mate'?"

Both indicated ignorance, and he told them a roguish story of a priestly scholar who so loved to read hi bed that he filled half of his bed with books and heavy scrolls every night, leaving an impression on the mattress that looked as if someone had been asleep there. This continued until his superior spied upon him to catch him in the act of bringing in a (prohibited) female, and caught him only with a "mistress" made of paper.

With the atmosphere lightened, the scribe leaned forward once more, and Clarrin told himself to keep his temper in check, anticipating another unpleasantly direct question.

He was not wrong.

"Another question comes to my mind," the scholar said. "The faithful are granted healing of ills and new injuries in the Temple, and it is true healing, for I have seen the results of it. This is said to be another miracle of the Sunlord, is this not true?"

Clarrin nodded warily. "Yes. I have received the Sun-lord's Gift myself. As a young lancer I was arrow-struck during our foray into Menmellith to relieve the true believers trapped there." He tapped his left leg to indicate the site of the old wound. "One of the priests laid hands upon the wound and drew out the arrow, and there was neither blood nor wound after, only a scar, as if the injury had occurred weeks hi the past."

"I am glad that you were healed that you may still serve," the scribe replied. "Yet — forgive me, but in other lands, there are healers as well. In fact, in every land I have ever been or even read of, there are healers of the flesh. In Valdemar, they are even gathered together at an early age, and taught at a great school called a Collegium."

"We gather those granted the healer's touch by the Sunlord and teach them in the Temple — " Clarrin began, but stopped when the scribe held up a finger.

"True enough, but the healers in Valdemar are not taught in a temple, for there are many beliefs in their land, not one," the scribe said earnestly. "When these healers are proficient in their work, they are given green clothing to wear so that they may be recognized and heeded. They go where they are needed, and all may come to them for aid, even the lowest and the poorest. So, here again, I must ask you — if there are true healers elsewhere, does the Sunlord grant them this miracle of healing as well as he does here?"

Clarrin sighed. "Your question marches with the one before," he replied. "In truth, I cannot answer."

He picked up the pitcher, hoping to stave off more questions. He poured his grandfather another goblet, offered wine to the scholar and was politely refused, and filled his own glass. And in truth, he felt the need of it. This scribe had a way of demanding answers to questions he had rather not think about.

"I only have one more question, Captain," the scribe said, chuckling when he saw damn's expression of resigned dismay. "Though it could be seen as more than one."

"A puzzle, then? Or a riddle?" Clarrin hoped so. He and his grandfather had often traded riddles long into the night.

"Perhaps, yes!" the scribe agreed. "A puzzle of questions."

Clarrin waited while the breeze stirred scent up from the night-blooming flowers around them, and made the wind-chimes play gently. "Your puzzle, then?" he prompted.

"Only this; why are the young ones chosen by the priesthood taken from their homes at night? Why are they tested, cleansed of all ties of kinship, and never seen again by their kin except at a distance? Why are those that cannot be cleansed of kin-ties in your temple, or those who fail the testing, cleansed instead by burning in the fire of Vkandis? Why does the Sunlord, the giver of all life, require the death of children? Is it the cleansing and sacrifice of kin-ties that give the priests and priestesses the power to perform the Sunlord's miracles, or could they perform them if they never set foot in the temple or donned robes?"

Clarrin shifted uncomfortably in his seat, but the scribe was not yet done with him.

"Is it possible," he continued, leaning forward so that his terrible, knowing eyes bored into Clarrin's, "that the ones who are fire-cleansed are destroyed because their powers are too strong, too strong to permit their minds and hearts to be cleansed of the love of their kinfolk, and that if they lived, they could rival the priests and priestesses without ever having to wear a robe?"

His eyes seemed to penetrate right into Clarrin's mind, as if he were daring Clarrin to find the true answers to this "puzzle" of his. And there was something lurking in the depths of his gaze; a hint of pain, of loneliness, of half-madness that made Clarrin finally shiver and turn away.

"I — have no answers for you at all, sir scribe," he replied, rising to his feet, quickly. "I am only a poor lancer, with no head for such an elevated discourse. I will have to leave these things to men of wisdom, such as you and my grandfather. Now, if you will forgive me — " he ended, hastily, already backing away, "I have duties early in the morning. Very early — "

And with that, he beat a hasty retreat.

Tirens Mul-Par also faced the sun this morning, but not to pray. His prayer had been answered last night, and that in itself was proof enough of the Sunlord's power — and that His power, like the light of the sun, granted blessings and prayers in every land and not just in Karse.

Instead, he watched as his servants secretly readied all the horses in his stable for a long journey, and his thoughts, too, returned to the previous evening's conversation.

Clarrin beat a hasty, but tactically sound, retreat from the garden. He did not — quite — run, but it was plain enough from his posture that he wished he could. It was too bad for his peace of mind that he would never be able to run fast enough or far enough to escape those questions the scribe had placed in his thoughts.

Tirens watched him go, and hid a smile. This was not the first time that he had entertained the scholar who called himself "Brekkan of Hawk's Rest," but it was the first time he had been utterly certain of what this "Brekkan" really was.

"I fear I may have upset your grandson, Tirens Mul-Par," the scribe said softly. "It was not my intention."

The old man snorted. "It was always your intention — Valdemaran," he said, and watched with interest as the scribe's hand twitched a little. Interesting. A sleeve-dagger? "You Heralds of Valdemar do not care to see folk become too complacent, do you?"

He saw the man's eyes widen just a trifle, and smiled.

"I think you are mistaken — " the so-called "scribe" began.

Tirens held up a finger, cautioning him to silence. "If I am mistaken, it is only in thinking that a Herald would not resort to a hidden dagger up a sleeve." His smile broadened as the Herald twitched again. "But I did not make any mistakes in giving you my hospitality, nor in bringing my grandson here for you to disturb with your questions. He is old enough, and well-placed enough, to make a difference in this sad land."

Again the Herald moved as to protest, and again he silenced the man with a single finger.

"Your questions deserve answers, not platitudes or religious cant. But he must decide for himself what is right. I cannot give him answers, nor can you." He shrugged expressively. "I do not know what his answers will be, nor can I say what he will do once he finds them. That will come as Vkandis wills."

The Herald watched him with narrowed eyes, gray eyes, which marched well with his straight brown hair, the color of old leaves. You would never notice him in a crowd, so long as he was not wearing the expression he bore now. Which, Tirens supposed, was the point....

"How did you know?" the Herald asked, his voice low and potent with threat.

"That you are a Herald?" The old man grinned. "I did not know it until this visit, when I had need to know. I have the sight, at need. At those times, I can sense things that are not apparent."

His guest was not in the least mollified. "Why did you grant me guest-right, Tirens Mul-Par, if you knew what I am?" he demanded harshly.

Tirens sipped his wine. "I have a granddaughter," he said. "A little above damn's age. She has a daughter, a lovely child in my eyes, who laughs at the stories of her greatgrandsire, and who loves him as much as he loves her. She is only nine years old. A dangerous age, in Karse."

The Herald relaxed, just a trifle. "They test children in the temple at their tenth birthdays...."

"Exactly so." He allowed his smile to fade. "She tells me stories as well, of dreams in the night. At times, those dreams come to pass.'.'

The light of understanding blossomed in the Herald's eyes. "Dreams can be dangerous — in Karse."

The old man nodded, curtly. "I wish her and her mother to be taken someplace where dreams are not so dangerous. Before we have visitors in the night."

The Herald tilted his head to one side. "Her father may have something to say about that," he ventured.

Tirens waved his hand hi dismissal. "Only if he chooses to return from the hosts at Vkandis' right hand, where the priests pledge me he has gone," he replied.

The Herald chuckled at that, and relaxed further. His hand made an interesting little movement, that told Tirens the dagger had returned to its home. "When?" he asked only.

"Tomorrow," the old man said firmly. "I have already made the arrangements. My granddaughter is privy to them, and just as anxious as I for her daughter's safety. They will not inconvenience you. In fact," he allowed a twinkle to creep into his eyes, "a prosperous scholar, with a Karsite wife and child, returning from visiting relatives, is not likely to be questioned by anyone, so long as be is careful to stay within law and custom. Which his Karsite wife will be sure to impart to him."

The Herald coughed gently. "I can — ah — see that."

Tirens still had not heard the promise he wanted.

"Please," he said, resorting to beggary. "Please, take them to safety. You will have no cause to regret this."

But the Herald had not been reluctant after all. "Of course I will," he said, a little embarrassed. "I was just — thinking for a moment! Rearranging my trip to account for a new wife and child!" But at Tirens' chuckle, his gaze sharpened. "But what of you, old owl?" he asked, using the name Clarrin had used hi affection.

The old man leaned back in his seat on the couch and sipped his wine. "Oh, I shall enjoy my garden until I die," he said casually. "Life has been ... interesting. But I do not fear to leave it." And before his visitor could ask anything more, he leaned forward with an eagerness that was completely genuine. "And now, Herald of Valdemar, since your other tales have been so fascinating — tell me of the land that my dear ones will live in!"

Clarrin put aside his doubts long enough to bid farewell to his family. It would be many more months before he had another chance to visit them, and without a doubt, by then his niece Liksani would be almost a woman. Already she had the look of his sister Aldenwin about her, and he could not help but remember all the times when it had been Aldenwin who clung to his stirrup and begged him to stay "just one more day."

But when he told Liksani, with a playful shake of his head, that there were no more days left in the visit, she let go and let him mount.

"Uncle Clarrin," she said, her pretty, dark-eyed face solemn, "I almost forgot. I dreamed a tale for you this morning, in the women's garden after sunrise prayers."

He bent down to ruffle her hair. "And what did you dream, little dreamer?" he asked, lightly, thinking it would be a request for a doll, or some such thing.

"I dreamed that a man in armor so bright I could not look at him told me to tell you something," she laughed up at him.

Clarrin went cold inside but managed to keep smiling. "And what thing was that?"

"He said to tell you that — " she screwed her face up in concentration. " — that 'the light is the life and the breath, the flame is the blessing and not life's-ending' ..." she faltered for a moment, then smiled, "... and that 'children should live and laugh and play!' Then he told me to go and play in northern flowers!" she finished, giggling.

A weirding chill raised the hackles on his neck, but somehow Clarrin managed to lean down from his saddle to hug her firmly, lifting her right off her feet as she put her arms around his neck.

"Be happy, Liksani," he ordered gently. "Live and laugh and play, like the shining man told you."

"I'm always happy, Uncle Clarrin. You know that," she giggled as he set her back down on the ground.

Sunlord, keep her happy, he prayed silently, turning his horse to the gate, and leading his seven guards back toward his duty. Sunlord, keep her always happy.

Tirens watched as his grandson rode off down the road to the south. And two candlemarks later, he watched as his granddaughter, Liksani, and six of his seven servants rode off down the road to the north and west. With them, rode the Herald, whose true name Tirens still did not know.

He knew that the Herald was a man of honor. That was all he needed to know.

The sun was directly overhead, the birds singing all about his favorite pavilion, as his one remaining servant served him his finest wine from a fragile crystal goblet. He sipped it with appreciation as he turned the crystal to admire the way it sparkled in the sunlight. This had been one of a set of two, from which he and dear Sareni had drunk their marriage-wine. The shards of the other lay with Sareni in her grave.

Sareni would have approved, he thought, as he drank the last of the wine, and slipped his frail old hand into the bowl of figs where a tiny, rainbow-striped snake was curled. He stirred the figs until he felt a slight sting on his hand, then a sudden lethargy. The goblet fell from his nerveless fingers and shattered on the pavilion floor. He lay back in his couch, watched the snake slip away under the rosebushes, and wondered if Vkandis liked gardens.

Clarrin stirred his noodles with his fork, and stared at nothing at all.

"Captain!" his Corporal-Orderly said sharply, making him jump.

"Yes, Esda?" he replied, wondering if he looked as guilty as he felt.

Evidently not. Esda pouted at him, hands on side-cocked hips, a petulant expression on his face. "Captain," he complained, "you've hardly touched your meal, and I worked very hard making it! What is bothering you?"

Clarrin grinned in spite of himself at the burly corporal's burlesque of a spoiled girl. "Esda, you lie! You never work hard at anything. Not in the ten years you've served me, anyway!"

Esda grinned back. "Too true, Captain. That's why I picked you for my officer."

Clarrin shook his head at his Orderly's unrepentant grin. "Here," he said, shoving the plate of noodles across the table toward Esda. "Sit down, finish my meal for me, and let me use your common sense." He made it less of an order, and more of an invitation.

Esda's grin faded immediately, and the grizzled veteran's expression was replaced by one of concern. "You are troubled, Captain," he observed, taking the seat, but ignoring the food, his eyes fixed on damn's.

Clarrin shrugged. "I have some questions to repeat to you — and a dream to tell you about," he said, slowly.

"A dream!" Esda lost every trace of mockery. "Dreams are nothing to disregard, Captain." Esda had served the Temple for longer than Clarrin had been alive — he had seen three Sons of the Sun come and go. And he was both a skeptic and a believer; if anyone knew where Temple politics began and true religion ended, it would be Esda.

"Yes, well, see what you think when I am done."

For the next candlemark, Esda sat and listened without interruption as Clarrin recounted the discussion in the garden and little Liksani's dream.

"You know we serve at the Cleansing," he finished.

"Aye, and I know you mislike the assignment," Esda replied gruffly. "But — is it Vkandis you blame for — "

"No!" Clarrin exclaimed, cutting him off with a slam of his open palm on the wooden table. "Never! I cannot believe that the Lord of all Life would ever countenance taking life, that is all! It is the priests and their minions that I mistrust and fear! I believe they serve themselves, not Vkandis! And I fear that they use magic, and call it 'miracle', to order to puff up their own importance!"

"Well, then bugger them all, Captain!" Esda grinned, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. "Whatever you decide to do, just remember that poor, overworked, old unappreciated Esda will be there to pick up your soiled linen!"

The roar of laughter that followed made the rest of his personal guards turn their heads, wondering what outrageous thing Esda had said to him this time.

Esda moved quietly among the guards, speaking with them one at a time, over the next two days, while Clarrin pretended that he did not notice. And over the next two days, every one of his men approached him quietly, one at a time, to offer their personal fealty to him. Clarrin was touched and humbled by their trust. But he still did not know what he was going to do. In ten days, Clarrin was back in command of his troop of Temple Lancers. In fifteen days, they paraded for the Ceremony of Cleansing, conducted by Red-priestess Beakasi. The Temple square was crowded with worshipers and spectators at two sides, behind the lines of the temple guards. Clarrin's Lancers dosed the third side of the square. The low Sun Altar, flanked by priests and priestesses in order of rank, filled most of the fourth side.

At damn's signal, the lancers knelt as one at their horses' heads, lances grounded, with the shafts held stiffly erect. The red pennons at the crossbars moved lazily in the warm afternoon air.

Red-priestess Beakasi, flanked by her torch-bearers, mounted the altar-platform, and turned to face the crowd and the setting sun behind them. Her arms stretched out toward the sun, and her red robes matched the red clouds of sunset.

At that signal, lesser priests brought the two who were to be cleansed to the steps: a boy who looked to be hi his early teens, and a girl somewhat younger, dark-haired, with a pretty, gentle face.

damn's breath caught in his throat. She could be Liksani, he thought in anguish. The words of his niece's dream kept repealing, over and over, in his head.

The flame is the blessing and not life's ending. Children should live, and laugh, and play,

The boy was shoved forward onto the platform. He stood there looking frightened and confused.

"Vkandis! Sunlord!" Beakasi sang. "Grant your miracle! cleanse this tainted one with your holy fire!"

She brought her hands together over her head, closing them on the iron shaft of a torch held there by a Black-robed priest. He let it go, and she held it high above her head, flame flickering.

"Witness the Sunlord's miracle!" she sang. "Tremble at his power!"

The torch flame flared, and grew suddenly to man-height, then bent toward the boy. He started to scream, but remained where he was, frozen with fear. Another Red-robed priest pointed, and the boy's scream was cut off; he remained where he was, a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, living statue. Flames flowed from the torch to the boy, arching overhead like water from a fountain, in a long, liquid stream. They touched him, then engulfed him, turning him into a column of searing, white-green fire that grew to three times the boy's height. A vaguely human-shaped form turned slowly in the upper half of the column of fire, as if bathing in it.

Clarrin's heart spasmed, and his gorge rose.

Slowly the flames diminished and flowed back into the torch, until it burned normally once again.

The boy was gone, and there was only a small pile of ashes to mark where he had stood.

The priestess waited until the original bearer had his hands on the torch, before she removed hers, spreading her arms wide. Looking somewhere above the heads of the onlookers, she called out into the silence.

"Hail Vkandis, Sunlord!"

"Hail Vkandis, Sunlord!" the crowd roared in response. Beakasi signaled for the girl to be brought forward.

'The flame is the blessing and not life-ending," Clarrin murmured, his eyes bright with tears. "Children should live, and laugh, and play!"

He was standing now, moving to his saddle in slow, sluggish motion, warring within himself.

The flame is the blessing, and not life-ending. He reached for the saddle-bow and swung up into place, feeling as if he were trapped in a fever-dream. Children should live, and laugh, and play!

His hand was on his lance; his horse jerked its head up m astonishment at the tightening of his legs, then stepped forward.

He kicked it, startling it into a gallop.

"The flame is the blessing, and not life-ending!" he screamed, the words torn from his throat in torment. His lance swung down, into the attack position. "Children should live, and laugh, and play!"

Red-priestess Beakasi swung around in surprise. Her face mirrored that stunned surprise for a few moments, then suddenly began chanting in a high, frightened voice, words Clarrin could not understand. Her hands moved in intricate patterns, tracing figures in the air.

damn's superbly-trained mount, the veteran of many encounters, plunged up the stairs at the gallop, never missing a step. "The flame is the blessing, and not life-ending!" Clarrin roared as a warcry. "Children should live, and laugh, and play!"

The priestess held up her hands, as if she could ward off the lance with a gesture. The long, leaf-shaped blade impaled one of those outstretched hands, nailing it to her chest as it struck her heart.

She shrieked in anger, shock, and pain. The crossbar behind the blade slammed into her hand and chest. Clarrin took the impact in his arm, lifting her up off her feet for a moment, as he signaled his horse to halt. He dropped the point of the lance, and the priestess' body slid off the blade, to lie across the altar.

Clarrin leaned down as he wheeled his horse and started back down the stairs, sweeping the young girl into his arms without slowing. The horse plunged down the steps at the back of the altar, and they were away, the child clinging desperately to him. Clarrin held her protectively to his chest, and urged his mount to greater speed.

So far, they had escaped, but their luck could not last for much longer.

He heard horses behind him. Close, too close. He looked back, his lips twisting in a feral snarl, ready to fight for the child's life, as well as his own.

The snarl turned to a gape, and the gape to a grin that held both elation and awe.

His own personal guard and fifty of his lancers, those that had served with him the longest, were following. Esda in the lead. Many had blood on their blades.

Clarrin slowed just enough for the rest to catch up with him. Esda waved an iron-banded torch — just like the ones carried by the priests. As they galloped past a rain-swollen ditch, Esda tossed the torch into the water. Green-yellow smoke and steam billowed up hi a hissing roar as they passed the place, and a vaguely man-shaped form twisted and jerked in the heart of the smoke, as if it were on fire.

Clarrin and Esda spat, and rode on, letting the evening breeze carry the smoke away in their wake.

The pursuit, when it finally came in the wake of blame-casting and name-calling, was vicious. Clarrin felt extremely lucky that they crossed into Rethwellan with twenty-six still alive.

Or rather, twenty-seven. Twenty-six men, and one special little girl, who could now live, and laugh, and play in the warm morning sun. Without fear, and without threat.

Fifteen days later, Clarrin crossed back into Karse, his men with him, all disguised as scholars. They quickly dispersed, each with provisions and a horse, and a series of uncomfortable questions.

There were more young ones to save.

And after all, at the right time and place, a question was more deadly than any sword.