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Fields of Wrath
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Fields of Wrath

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Author: Mickey Zucker Reichert
Publisher: DAW Books, 2015
Series: Renshai Chronicles: Book 8
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Nearly two decades ago, Mickey Zucker Reichert introduced fantasy readers to her greatest creation - the Renshai, a race of warriors who lived for battle and swordcraft, and who began training in the art of war from the moment their fingers could grasp a weapon. Set in a world enriched by Norse mythology, Mickey's first two trilogies about the Renshai - The Last of the Renshai and The Renshai Chronicles - captivated readers as they followed the adventures of these legendary warriors who fought their way back from almost total extinction to claim a new homeland and find allies in a world where far too many still feared and despised them.

Flight of the Renshai and Fields of Wrath continue the Renshai saga begun in the previous two trilogies. Opening eighteen years after The Children of Wrath ended, Flight of the Renshai focuses on the main characters from the second trilogy, as well as their now-grown children. At the center of the story are the three sons of Kevral Tainharsdatter. While Flight brings readers into the heart of the long-dreaded Great War, Fields of Wrath picks up the story in the aftermath of that war.

With the Great War over, the Renshai have won back the Fields of Wrath. However, Tae Kahn - Subikahn's father - becomes ever more certain that a far larger and fiercer wave of enemy soldiers is headed toward them.

One Kjempemagiska and an army of their man-sized servants nearly defeated the entirety of the continent. This time, Tae is certain, the ranks will include hundreds of these strong, magical, Island-dwelling giants. The only hope for the peoples of the continent is to regather their war-weary troops and find a way to convince the few magical beings of their own world to assist them.

Unfortunately for Tae, no allies are available to assist.

It becomes a race against time as Tae and his friends struggle to convince the various Continental generals of the danger, attempt to turn reluctant, antagonistic mages and elves into allies, spy on the giant Kjempemagiska sorcerers, and seek some means to defeat an enemy powerful beyond contemplation.


Excerpt

Sunlight seeped through the thickly-bunched leaves of the towering kirstal trees, the clearing beneath them riddled with chaotic patches of brilliant light and gray shadow. Ensconced in play with his young mistress, Bobbin could never remember feeling so happy, so comfortable and secure. Then again, remembering was hardly his virtue. To his mind, the world began only nine months earlier, when he had awakened tucked firmly into what turned out to be a doll's bed.

Mistri toddled toward a wall of shale. Though only a head shorter than her playmate, her thick limbs and proportionately large head aptly demonstrated her youth. She was half his weight but seemed not to notice, dragging him around like a favorite stuffed toy. Bobbin did not quite understand his place in the world, but he never doubted his mistress' love. She clutched him more fiercely than she did her dolls and insisted on having him beside her every waking moment.

Bobbin glanced toward Mistri's nursemaid, who perched on the root ball of a fallen tree, alternately peering thoughtfully and writing feverishly on a scrap of parchment. She seemed gigantic compared to her charges, half again as tall and at least twice as broad as Bobbin, though well-proportioned and feminine. He knew humanity came in two distinct sizes: the Masters, like Mistri's nursemaid, and the Servants who resembled him in size and breadth. Bobbin, however, did not fit in with either.

A movement on a large rock over the shale slope caught Bobbin's attention. He peered through the checkered light, trying to make out a shape poised above Mistri. Only rocks, it seemed, yet Bobbin still thought he had seen a glimpse of motion. He had just decided to dismiss it as the flutter of loose leaves in wind, when he saw another movement. Gradually, his gaze carved out a dark creature crouched on a huge stone over Mistri's head.

Suddenly, it pounced.

"No!" Bobbin dove for Mistri. His hands struck her, driving her forward with a gasp of breath. The girl staggered a few steps, lost her balance, and crashed to the ground, wailing. The creature slammed into Bobbin with a force that rattled his teeth, hurling him to the ground. Enormous, curved claws ripped through his clothes to draw a line of blood along his spine. Teeth scored his scalp, and he sensed a jaw powerful enough to crush his skull if he allowed it to close.

Bobbin rolled, throwing off the creature. It dropped back to a crouch, utterly still. Rich brown hair covered its stocky muscular body, and stripes of creamy gold ran from each shoulder, along its flanks, to the base of its short bushy tail. It was smaller than its strength suggested, a quarter to a third of Bobbin's weight, its length perhaps half his height. Its tail was low, its back seemed slightly arched, its snout pointed and short, its head blunt, broad, and flattened. Widely-set eyes studied Bobbin as it snarled and hissed at him, otherwise unmoving.

Bobbin growled back at the creature, mock lunging with his arms spread wide to increase the appearance of his size. Rather than frighten it, the feigned attack seemed to enrage it, and it sprang at Bobbin again with a speed that belied its previous immobility.

"No,jarfr!" Mistri screamed through tears. "No hurt Bobbin!"

The nursemaid scooped up Mistri and carried her safely away.

This time, Bobbin ducked, and the animal sailed over him. Its scent filled his nostrils, chokingly musky, strong and horrible. The instant its short legs hit the ground, it bunched them again and flew toward him.

Bobbin dredged at the ground with his fingers. He caught up dirt clods and weeds, nothing solid enough to harm the creature. Nevertheless, as it careened toward him, he hurled both handfuls at its face. The debris proved enough to throw off the attack, and its sharp-nailed claws barely grazed his ear as it soared past him again. Wholly fearless, it gathered itself for another attack.

Blood trickled down Bobbin's back, and cold air seeped through the opening in his undertunic. His head ached. He knew he could not keep this up forever; the beast's endurance would last far longer than his, especially wounded as he was. He dug up more ground, this time rewarded by a fist-sized rock. He yanked it free, his hesitation nearly his downfall. The thing Mistri had called ajarfrflew at him again. This time, Bobbin had no choice but to catch it, to embrace it like a lover. The claws raked his sides. The teeth snapped wildly at his face. The foul odor emanating from it seemed to fill his head and made his eyes water. Struggling with its weight and momentum, Bobbin found himself hard-pressed to raise the rock. It slipped in his grip, forcing him to make a desperate choice. He could grapple fully with the creature while the stone fell or grab for the rock and risk losing track of thejarfrfor the instant he did so.

Bobbin looked away just long enough to snag the rock out of the air. The beast took full advantage, seizing Bobbin's other wrist in its jaws. He could feel the teeth settling into place, prepared to shatter bone. He raised the stone, driving it against thejarfr's skull between its small and wide-set eyes. The thing barely flinched, but the teeth did ease on his wrist in sudden surprise. Using all his strength, Bobbin slammed the rock against it again, in the same place. This time, something gave. Blood spurted from the wound, and the creature's hiss became a howling snarl.

Bobbin expected it to release him, but the jaws clamped tighter on his wrist. The claws flailed relentlessly, the hind ones tearing at his thighs, the forelimbs ripping through air to catch and tear his sleeve. Bobbin felt something collapse in his wrist, and agony speared through his entire arm. He could think of nothing except the pain; it consumed him fully. Yet his other hand acted with mindless instinct, hammering the rock repeatedly against thejarfr's forehead until a hunk of skull detached, and the eyes drifted inward to touch in the center. Thejarfrstiffened, then went limp in his arms.

Bobbin sank to the ground as well, focused entirely on his wrist, his vision an empty white plain. He barely heard Mistri's voice in his ear, sobbing, "Bobbin, Bobbin." The nursemaid tried to pull her off, then abandoned that job to free thejarfr from Bobbin's sagging arms with a broken branch. She poked the beast, apparently making certain it was dead. The blood of man and beast smeared all three of them.

The nursemaid did her duty. "Mistri, are you hurt?"

"No." The girl tightened her grip. "Bobbin hurt. Help Bobbin?" she pleaded, looking up at the woman, teary-eyed.

Bobbin rocked back and forth, trying to divert his attention from the pain. It was diminishing slightly, just enough so that he was becoming aware of the words and actions around him.

The nursemaid crouched beside them, sighing. She clearly saw little reason to assist the man, aside from the frantic entreaties of his mistress. "Where's he hurt?"

Bobbin held up his injured hand, wrist flopping.

"Ah." The nursemaid reached for Bobbin.

His first instinct, to pull away, passed quickly. He doubted she could make things much worse.

In fact, she cradled his wrist with such gentleness and warmth that the pain started to noticeably recede. Then, she made a few guttural noises, tossed her head, and normalcy slid quietly back into place. By the time she released him, Bobbin felt only a throbbing ache in a wrist that, only moments before, had felt on fire.

Bobbin stared at his wrist, moving it gingerly to assure it worked again. He had seen the Masters use magic before, and it never ceased to amaze him. He knew he had no such powers, nor did the Servants, and it seemed to him as if magic should not exist at all. Yet, clearly, it did. And now, he knew, it worked on him as well.

Mistri tore a piece off Bobbin's tattered tunic and awkwardly bound the wrist. Her sweet, childish touch felt as soft and harmless as butterfly wings, and a chill of delight fluttered through him. There was something inherently remarkable about a child's ministrations that made everything feel acutely sensitive and innocently special. He smiled at her, and she patted his head.

The nursemaid examined Bobbin's torn back, touching here and there, muttering a few syllables, and the pain faded. Bobbin had not worried about the scratches, despite their depth. Their sting had disappeared beneath the all-consuming agony of his wrist. Finally, she took Mistri's hand and rose, pulling the girl up with her. She brushed the dirt from her clothing, frowning at the blood smeared across her frock, but clearly realized the girl was not the source of any of it.

"Come, Mistri. Time to go home."

Mistri nodded, pulling free of her nursemaid's hand to take Bobbin's instead. She tugged at his arm.

Worried about the stress on his wrist, Bobbin rose quickly, using only his own power. He looked at thejarfr's corpse.

Mistri followed his gaze with her own, and the nursemaid looked as well. "Very well, Mistri. We'll take it with us." She ran a hand through the pelt, then sniffed her palm and grimaced. "We can wash out the scent, and it'll make warm scarves and gloves." She hefted the carcass and easily slung it over one shoulder. It looked small there, despite the wickedly curved claws drooping from its limp paws, its dead lips locked into a permanent snarl.

Thus far, the nursemaid had done everything with a calm manner that suggested nothing out of the ordinary, but a trembling in her fingers, a wobbliness to her steps told Bobbin the attack had shaken her at least as much as him. Only Mistri seemed unaffected, skipping along at his side, his hand clutched fiercely in her pudgy, sticky fist.

As they walked toward the massive, castlelike dwelling that served as home to Mistri's parents, the girl sang softly to herself, a repetitive tune that Bobbin had come to know well. Along with Mistri, he was learning to speak in stages, though he had not yet done so in the presence of Masters other than Mistri and, now, the single syllable "no" for her nursemaid when thejarfr had first attacked. He knew a slew of nouns and verbs, and even syntax was oozing slowly into his base of knowledge. He had a strange sense that he had once spoken fluently, oddly impossible; and in his dreams he had no trouble communicating freely in a language he did not recognize.

Yet, even as he learned, Bobbin often felt as if he were missing huge parts of conversation, sometimes even the entire thing. Apparently, the language of both Masters and Servants contained a component he had not yet discovered: hand signals, perhaps, tone or timbre, inflection, or facial expression. Despite careful observation, he had not come close to unearthing the method. As a result, they classified him as animal rather than human.

And Bobbin knew he looked the part. Though he closely resembled the Servants in height and general shape, no one would mistake him for one of them. To a man, they had fine reddish hair and green eyes, their figures sleeker and more elegant than his. He had yet to meet one who stood quite as tall or broad as he did, though their size differential was barely noticeable compared to the enormous Masters. Coarse, black hair covered Bobbin's head in thick curls; and, though he believed himself quite young, he already had to scrape off facial hair every day. It seemed to grow faster and thicker than theirs as well, as though furry was his natural state. His chest sported clumps of inky hair, much darker and thicker than the Masters' or Servants', and it even coated his limbs. Mistri clearly liked his fur, grooming it with soft brushes and decorating it with ribbons that made him look silly but never failed to earn a smile from the Masters.

The tiny forest gave way to tightly packed cottages where the Servants lived, all huddled together like sticks in a bundle. Bobbin knew open places like the one they had just left were few and sparse, treasures to savor. Though he had little experience with wild animals, he knew they rarely attacked humans, especially in broad daylight as thejarfrhad. He did not know how he knew this, but he suspected the dwindling woodland played a part, forcing the creatures onto smaller and smaller ranges with more competition for prey.

The villagers ceased their normal activities to bow to the nursemaid and her charge and stare curiously at Bobbin. He was a singularity or, at least, something quite rare. He had never met, or heard about, another of his kind. Mistri had discovered him on the shore, bedraggled and all but dead. She had insisted on bringing him home; and her parents had obliged her, as they usually did. The adults never hesitated to speculate in Bobbin's presence, but he had only recently managed to understand what they said about him. They seemed to place him in the category of relatively intelligent animal, a distant and primitive relation to the Servants.

The threesome soon reached the mansion, with its inordinately high latches and massive construction. Four Servants on the stoop snapped to attention as they arrived, and Bobbin wondered why his mind always conjured images of swords and spears where there were only rags and brooms. Struggling together, the tiny Servants managed to shove open the massive door for the burdened nursemaid, who nodded her thanks with a friendly smile. The moment they entered the entryway, voices emerged. Three women chatted over tea and honey bread.

Mistri's mother, Hortens, shared her daughter's straw-colored hair and bright blue eyes. The other two women wore their reddish locks in tight buns. One was speaking, "...one never knows when the tamest animal might turn on you. I wouldn't trust my precious daughter--"

Stunned by the words, Bobbin acted without thought. He ran to Mistri's mother, seizing the gigantic hand resting in her lap. "No! Love Mistri. Not hurt Mistri never never." Frustrated by the limitations of his vocabulary, Bobbin went silent. Only then, he realized he still wore tattered clothing steeped in blood.

Hortens leaped to her feet, screaming. The teacup dropped from her fingers, splashing its hot contents over both of them and smashing on the chair. Shards of crockery skidded across the floor.

Suddenly scalded, Bobbin sprang backward.

"Bobbin save me, Mummy!" Mistri said.

Every eye went suddenly to the child, then to the nursemaid. Apparently, the nursemaid had used that as yet undiscovered form of communication that always confounded Bobbin. Although no words emerged from her mouth, she did a swift acting out of the events, using the corpse to illustrate such points as the creature leaping at Mistri and whirling around Bobbin. Finally, she let it slip to the floor, dangling her wrist as if broken.

Bobbin found himself at Mistri's side, having apparently retreated there for comfort, without conscious intent. Mistri wrapped her arms around him.

Mistri's father, Kentt, came running into the room from one of the four doorways. Though not present for the nursemaid's playacting, he somehow seemed to know what she had communicated to the other women.

Kentt went straight to his daughter, ruffling Bobbin's hair before lifting Mistri in his arms. "Are you all right?"

Mistri beamed. "Not hurt, Poppy." She looked down at Bobbin. "Bobbin save me. Save mejarfr." She made a swooping gesture to indicate the animal's attempt to pounce on her. "It want eat me." She opened and closed her mouth, hands raised, fingers curved and separated to indicate claws.

Kentt stuck his face in hers. "Well, it's a good thing it didn't eat you." A mock snarl twisted his features. "Because then I wouldn't get my dinner." He feigned biting at Mistri, making exaggerated chewing noises.

She giggled, planting her hands on his face as if to stop him.

Kentt reached for Bobbin. Bobbin stiffened, uncertain what to expect; but the giant merely hefted him with his free hand, so that he now held them both aloft. "What a fine and loyal pet you have here, Mistri. Can I have him?"

"My Bobbin." Mistri grabbed him fiercely, arousing pain in his partially healed back. Fresh blood oozed along his spine.

One of the women, Bobbin could not see which, let out a noise of revulsion. "Kentt, please. It's hard enough to get blood out of clothing, you have to share it? If you're going to allow Mistri to romp with animals, at least have the decency to keep it a clean one."

Kentt lowered Mistri and Bobbin to the ground, only then looking at his tunic, now smeared with rust-colored lines. The freshly reopened wound had not touched him, but it currently dripped on the floor. "Your Aunt Floralyn's right, Mistri. Time you and Bobbin both got baths."

Mistri skipped happily toward the bathing room, the nursemaid chasing after her.

Hortens swept the crockery bits and tea from her chair. "Kentt, he spoke. Bobbin actually talked."

Bobbin turned his gaze to Kentt, worried. He had no idea whether revealing his ability to speak helped or harmed him.

To his relief, Kentt grinned. "Well, why not? His throat looks much the same as the Servants, so we always knew he had the capacity. What exactly did he say?"

"Well..." Hortens looked at her female companions for assistance. "It was crude and broken, but I believe he essentially said he loved Mistri and would never hurt her."

The third woman glanced at the ceiling, then quoted Bobbin exactly, though in a dull monotone. "No. Love Mistri. Not hurt Mistri never never."

Kentt shrugged. "Well, that's clear enough. Discarding the double negative, which was surely spoken from ignorance, I think we can safely say he intends to continue protecting Mistri."

Though he did not understand every word, Bobbin caught the gist of Kentt's pronouncement and nodded.

Kentt's hand fell to Bobbin's head and tousled his hair fondly. "Every child should have a Bobbin."

Floralyn pursed her lips but gave some quarter. "Well, Bobbin does seem worth keeping. But I wouldn't trust something strong enough to do that..." She indicated the deadjarfr. "...with the life of my child, if I had one."

"Bobbin's safe," Hortens said firmly, sweeping the last bits of teacup into a pile. "I think that's abundantly clear. Now, if another one, another Bobbin, came along, it would have to prove itself. But I think Bobbin himself has done enough."

Kentt smiled at Bobbin. "Good ol' boy." He patted Bobbin's cheek. Though he clearly did not intend to harm him, a tap of that huge hand felt more like a slap. "Let's get you cleaned up and rested. Then we'll work on teaching you a few more words, eh?"

Bobbin returned the smile. He could not remember feeling so contented and right. Then, again, remembering was not his virtue.

Involving oneself in the affairs of wizards should never be done in ignorance. – Colbey Calistinsson

Saviar Ra-Khirsson took the castle stairs two at a time, rushing past servants and guardsmen, a sword on each hip. Strawberry-blond hair, still wet from his bath, streamed wildly around his young features. He had doffed his blood-soaked battle clothes for a fresh tunic and breeks, had slept off the exhaustion of a hard-fought war, and finally felt clean enough to face his darling.

In his haste, Saviar nearly skidded into two Béarnian guardsmen who stood, spears crossed, in front of Chymmerlee's door. To their credit, they remained firmly in place despite the muscular Renshai careening toward them, their expressions grim. Both wore standard blue and gold, with the rearing bear symbol of the high kingdom on their tabards. Saviar thought he saw a hint of fear in one's deep brown eyes.

An instant before collision, Saviar rescued himself with an agile sidestep. "Sorry," he said, smiling to put them at ease. "I just came to see Chymmerlee."

"We're under orders," the larger one said. "You cannot enter."

Saviar accepted the formality easily. As the son of a Knight of Erythane, he had become accustomed to much more extensive and oppressive decorum. Only the Knights knew how to turn even the most marvelous feast into tedium. "Tell her it's Saviar. She'll see me."

"Begging your pardon." Though smaller than his fellow, the other guard still had greater mass than Saviar and the majority of men in the Westlands. Most Béarnides did. "But you, specifically, cannot enter."

"Me? Specifically?" The words caught Saviar completely off his guard. The united armies of the continent had just won a massive war, in no small part because of Chymmerlee's magic and his own sword arm. She had doted on him since the moment his twin had led her to him, comatose, blood poisoned by a festering wound. She had saved his life and nursed him through his recovery. Later, they had held hands, laughed together, even kissed. She alone of her people had accompanied them to the war, the only mage who had assisted in a battle of epic proportions. It made no sense for Chymmerlee to turn her back on him now. "You must be mistaken. Can you please just tell her I'm here? She'll see me."

The Béarnides glanced at one another, the somberness of their expressions never changing. Their spears remained in place. The first speaker cleared his throat. "There is no reason to ask. It is by Chymmerlee's own orders that we are barring you... and your twin."

Saviar's hands drifted instinctively to his hilts. Renshai resolved most problems in a wild flurry of swordplay.

Apparently, the guardsmen had noticed Saviar's movement. Though they stayed in place, they clearly looked alarmed. The smaller one's voice cracked slightly as he explained, "We know you're Renshai, Saviar. You can probably gut both of us without breaking a sweat, but we hope you won't."

The first added, "We're only doing our jobs and protecting a woman you clearly care about."

Saviar deliberately took his hands from his hilts. Renshai trained to the sword from infancy, with both hands and in all conditions. Little mattered in their lives besides dying in glorious combat, thus earning the exquisite and violent afterlife of Valhalla. "I'm not going to attack you." Saviar saw little sense in doing so. He could kill them with a few lazy sword strokes, but he would bring the wrath of Béarn down upon him, make the Renshai even more hated, if possible, and dishonor his knightly father and grandfather. "I wouldn't do that."

Well-hidden relief barely changed the guards' stances, just a nearly imperceptible loosening of sinews.

To Saviar's surprise, tears pressed against his eyelids. He knew he had to leave as quickly as possible or risk embarrassing himself. Turning on his heel, keeping his head high, he went back down the steps and into the courtyard.

Once there, Saviar found himself more angry and confused than sad. He forced back the tears and pounded a fist on the natural granite wall of the castle. Pain flashed through his hand, but did little to distract him. He punched the wall again, harder.

A familiar voice wafted to him. "Not enough bruises from the war, Savi? You need to break a few fingers, too?"

Saviar spun, drawing his sword, glad for a target on which to sate his rage.

His twin, Subikahn, did not respond to the challenge. He stood near a neat hedgerow, watching Saviar curiously, his black hair in its usual disarray, his small wiry form a stark contrast to his brother's powerful one. Though born of the same pregnancy, each resembled his different father more than either of his brothers. "Sheathe it, Savi. We have no enemies in Béarn's courtyard."

Saviar blinked, suddenly realizing he stood in broad sunlight amid the numerous gardens that characterized Béarn's courtyard. So focused on his own problems, he had not noticed the myriad blossoms and shrubs, the neat rows of vegetables, or the many stone statues, with bears predominating. The sweet aromas of petals and pollen surrounded him. Feeling a smile edging onto his features, Saviar forced it down. "Renshai spar anywhere, anytime."

Subikahn could hardly deny it. "And Béarn supplies us with the best sparring room in existence. Don't we owe it to her not to trample her beautiful grounds and crops now that the war has ended?"

Saviar slammed his sword back into its sheath. Uncertain what to say or do, he spoke simple fact. "I'm angry."

"I noticed." Subikahn stepped around the hedge to sit on one of the whitestone benches. He patted the space beside him. "Besides having just fought the war of a lifetime, having slept what seemed like months, and attending myriad feasts, what's bothering you?"

Saviar did not move. "Chymmerlee refuses to see me."

Subikahn's grin wilted, and his brow furrowed. "Chymmerlee? Really?" He shook his head. "You were all over each other before the war."

Saviar made a wordless noise. It was not like Subikahn to repeat things they both already knew.

"Did she give you a reason?"

This time, Saviar twisted and slammed the bottom of his boot against the castle wall. "She wouldn't even see me. How could she give me a reason?"

Subikahn rose and walked to his brother. "You're strong, Savi; but I don't think even you can topple a castle formed from a mountain."

Saviar whirled. "What?"

Subikahn studied the muddy boot print on the wall. "If you're trying to shake her out the window, I don't think you can. Besides, someone else might get hurt."

Saviar was in no mood for humor. "You're not helping," he said through gritted teeth.

"Fine. Why didn't you ask whoever told you she wouldn't see you for the reason?"

"Because I--" Saviar had no good answer. He would never admit he had almost cried. "Because I didn't, that's all. I didn't." Something Subikahn had said stuck in his mind... shake her out the window... Saviar glanced sidelong at his swarthy brother. "Your father taught you how to climb buildings, didn't he?"

Subikahn chuckled, though it seemed a bit forced. He had reconciled with Tae Kahn, his father, only the previous day. The rift was still healing. "Your father teaches you manners and honor and responsibility, mine swinging on chandeliers and slide-racing down banisters. King Tae and his courtly lessons on... the thrill of being shot by one's own guards breaking into one's own castle."

Saviar walked carefully around the subject. He knew the king of Stalmize from their family's once-a-year visits when they were children. Saviar had looked forward to it, eagerly, for months. The journey was grueling, but well worth it. Tae had always frolicked with the boys, more playmate than adult.

Now, however, it seemed wrong to joke about the childlike behavior of Subikahn's father. Tae had volunteered for a wartime spying mission that had left him so near death no one had expected him to survive. Though his recovery now seemed certain, he still suffered from the ordeal. "I'm just thinking... if someone climbed up to Chymmerlee's window..." He measured Subikahn's reaction as he spoke. For the moment, his twin half-brother seemed to be listening. "...he wouldn't have to deal with the guards..."

Still no sign from Subikahn.

"...and she might talk?" Now, Saviar went silent, wishing Subikahn would give him something, some sign that he was listening.

Subikahn looked back, brow furrowed. "Sounds like a reasonable idea to me. Why don't you try it?"

Saviar took a backward step. "Me?" He made a grand gesture that outlined his large physique. "Do you really think I could climb a wall?"

Subikahn shrugged. "You're as competent as I am."

Saviar snorted. "At Renshai maneuvers, maybe." Then, worried he might have offended his brother, he added more forcefully, "Maybe." Saviar had lost some recent memory when he had awakened from his near-fatal injuries. Subikahn had once claimed Saviar had won a spar between them that he could not recall fighting. Saviar did not know the details of that battle, nor would Subikahn further enlighten him. Saviar assumed he had used a trick Subikahn did not want repeated. "But I'm clearly not built for climbing. My fingers and toes might just bear my weight, but I doubt I could find room for my massive hands and feet on tiny ledges. And the ledges would likely crumble beneath me."

"Ah." Subikahn's dark brows rose in increments. "So you really were trying to punch down the castle. You seriously believe solid granite can't hold you?"

Saviar studied his abraded fist. Tiny spots of blood had developed, but nothing worse. "I'm not applauding my own strength. I'm just saying the weakest part of stone is the tips of ledges. I weigh a lot more than you, and I don't move as quickly." The fact that he had to explain what seemed painfully evident further fueled his irritation. "I'm sick to death of discussing this. Will you do it for me, or not?"

"Not..." Subikahn said.

Saviar's hands balled to fists, though he had no intention of using them.

"...for you. But I will do it for Chymmerlee."

Saviar breathed a sigh of relief and finally came over to sit beside his brother. Subikahn's reasons did not matter, so long as the job got done. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet." Subikahn's gaze rolled over the castle wall, measuring its height and its windows. "Just because I can climb doesn't mean I'll have the words to fix whatever blundering mistake you made that has her unwilling to even talk to you."

"To us," Saviar corrected, remembering the guard's words. "She won't see you, either." Few things could make less sense to Saviar. He, his father, and Subikahn had kept Chymmerlee safe, battling waves of attackers commanded by the enemy Kjempemagiska to kill her. The other side had had only this one user of magic while the allies of the continent had two: Chymmerlee and King Griff's second wife, the elf Tem'aree'ay, who had backed her up from the castle rooftop. The three men had worn themselves far past exhaustion protecting Chymmerlee.

Subikahn's brow furrowed. "So you got her mad at me, too, huh? Thanks."

Saviar wanted to punch the wall again, but he remained seated. "I didn't do anything. I haven't seen or spoken to her since the war. When the Kjempemagiska fell, our soldiers hustled her out." He shook his head. "There must be some mistake."

Subikahn looked thoughtful, still studying his route. "Must be." He rose and headed toward the castle wall, seemingly oblivious to everything else in front of him.

Saviar stood up and walked alongside his brother to steer him around obstacles, though he need not have bothered. Like all Renshai, Subikahn remained attentive to everything, even when he seemed incapable of noticing.

When he arrived at the base of the castle wall, Subikahn pointed upward. "It's that one, right? Fourth floor?"

Saviar looked in the indicated direction, shielding his eyes from the sun. He had irises so soft a blue they appeared nearly white, exactly like his grandfather's; and that pallor seemed to make him so much more vulnerable to light than his dark-eyed twin. "One over to the right."

Subikahn glanced from window to window. Both had frilly curtains fluttering in the morning breeze. "One over to the right. You're sure?"

Irritation flared anew. "Of course I know Chymmerlee's window. Why wouldn't I know?" Then, remembering Subikahn was about to do him a huge favor, he moderated his tone. "I'm saying one over from directly above my head. That's not necessarily one over from what you're looking at, though."

"I've got it." Subikahn continued to stare upward. The sunlight did not seem to bother him at all. "I just don't want to get arrested for crawling into a princess' window. That might look very bad."

Saviar could not help smiling. Only a scant handful of people knew Subikahn preferred the company of men. Sodomy was a capital crime in the East, and Tae's fear for his son's life had resulted in the temporary rift between them. "True, but as a prince, you'd probably get little more than disdainful glances, a few whispers, and a rap on the knuckles."

Subikahn shrugged. "Maybe. But I could do without the scrutiny of my love life." He pressed his fingers into irregularities in the stone construction, kicked off his boots, and found similar notches for his toes.

"Careful," Saviar hissed, though he needn't have whispered. In open morning sunlight, anyone spying could see what they were doing farther away than they could hear it. Standing directly beneath Subikahn, prepared to support him if anything went wrong, Saviar glanced around the courtyard. Though he saw a few other people strolling through the pathways or sitting on benches beneath shading canopies, none were looking in their direction.

Subikahn scrambled upward with skill that belied his earlier protestations. Even dodging the easy windowsills for fear of discovery, he climbed like a spider, body tight to the stone, arms and legs reaching and pulling as if immune to the natural forces that held everything else to the ground. At times like this, Saviar felt proud of his brother's dexterity. Grace did not come as easily to him; he sometimes felt as floundering and awkward as a plow horse.

At length, Subikahn cautiously pulled himself up to the fourth-story window ledge of Chymmerlee's room. Several moments passed. Saviar's heart pounded as he tried to imagine the discovery, the meeting, and the conversation that followed. Then, suddenly, something flashed, as strong and sudden as lightning. An instant later, Subikahn plummeted from the window.

"Gods!" Saviar heard himself shouting. He clawed the air, as if to catch handholds for his twin. Subikahn, too, slashed crazily, his hands or feet skimming stone at intervals that barely slowed his fall. Saviar stood firm, bracing himself for the impact. Subikahn crashed into his arms with stunning force; and they both tumbled to the ground in a wheel of arms and legs. They tried to roll; but, knotted together, they thrashed around instead. Pain shot through Saviar's nose, chest, and both legs; and he tasted blood.

Subikahn unwound himself from Saviar and sprang to his feet.

Saviar also rose, wiping blood from his nose with the back of his hand. "What did she say?" he asked breathlessly.

Subikahn's eyes seemed unfocused. He looked around wildly. "She called us demons, deceivers, and liars. Then, she tried to kill me."

Shocked, Saviar could only find himself saying, "How?"

"Blast of magic in the face while I'm four stories in the air. I'm blind, by the way."

"Blind?" Concern shuddered through Saviar. A Renshai who lost his vision had little choice but tåphresëlmordat, deliberate suicide in battle. Saviar braced himself for his brother's attack, which never came. "Are you sure?"

Subikahn turned Saviar a look that might have withered, had it not focused several hands' lengths to his right.

Saviar seized Subikahn's arm, trying to hide the panic in his own voice. Blood continued to drip from his nose, unheeded. He guided Subikahn along a path and around a corner, thinking it best not to sit beneath the window of an angry sorceress. When they had traveled a reasonable distance, he pushed Subikahn onto a bench.

Subikahn scuttled into a defensive crouch on the whitestone.

Finding a sword-cleaning rag deep in his pocket, Saviar clapped it over his face, pinching his nose to stop the bleeding. "She's really mad."

Subikahn rolled his eyes, voice dripping sarcasm. "You think so?"

Focused on his own thoughts, Saviar failed to notice his brother's tone. "To try to kill you after all we--"

"All we what?" Subikahn's right hand clamped to his hilt. "She saved your life and revealed all the deepest secrets of herself and her people. People who, by the way, had kept themselves safely hidden for centuries. What, exactly, did we do for her?"

"We kept her alive through the war."

"A war we dragged her into." Subikahn squinted, blinking several times.

Saviar refused to accept that. "We didn't drag her anywhere. We sent her home; she chose to follow us."

"Because she knew we needed her. And she cared for you."

Saviar's chest squeezed. "I cared for her, too," he said, defensively. "I still do."

Subikahn blinked several more times in succession. "My vision's coming back."

Saviar breathed a sigh of relief. Chymmerlee would never hurt us. The reality belied the thought. If he had not broken Subikahn's fall, Subikahn would have been seriously injured, if not killed. As it happened, they were both lucky to have sustained nothing worse than bruises and a bloody nose. "I knew it would," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Well, I wish you would have told me. I was starting to panic." Subikahn studied his brother. "Ah, so that's why your voice sounded funny. I thought the magic affected my hearing, too."

Saviar finally dared to release the rag from his nose. Almost immediately, a trickle of blood flowed from it again. With a sigh, he replaced the rag and pinched his nostrils together. He looked up at the massive castle, tracing the route from the fourth floor to the ground. "Do you really think Chymmerlee wanted to... kill you?" He found it impossible to imagine the sweet-tempered, kind young woman intentionally harming anything.

Subikahn blinked a few more times, then measured his vision, turning his head this way and that. "By Hel's withered form, Saviar, she clouted me in the face with brutal magic and sent me plummeting four stories onto all kinds of stonework."

Guilt descended on Saviar. The war ruined her. The war we essentially forced her to fight. Despite harboring the only human magic, all the Mages of Myrcidë had shown themselves to be a peaceful, quiet people who wanted nothing more than to be left alone while they gradually regained their former numbers and power. More than three centuries earlier, they had suffered a great genocide at the hands of bored and exiled Renshai. Suddenly, as if awakening from a great blindness himself, Saviar understood. "Subikahn, she knows."

"Knows?"

"Knows we're Renshai. Someone's told her. She knows."

Subikahn made a gesture, half-nod, half-shrug. He finally looked at Saviar. "It was inevitable, I suppose. With your father commanding a platoon of exiled Renshai, and all their battle and death cries. I guess you should have told her before she found out on her own."

Saviar gritted his teeth and balled his fists, releasing his nose. If his brother had not just risked his life on Saviar's behalf, a serious spar would have been inevitable. "You're the one who made me promise not to! Now she thinks I'm a great, big liar!"

Subikahn's eyes widened as he stared down his twin. "At the time, you were awakening from a coma inside their compound. You had no idea of the extent of hatred the Mages of Myrcidë harbor for our kind. They would have slaughtered us."

Saviar turned away. He did not know how to reconcile his honor in these circumstances. At the time, weakened and confused, he would have done anything his brother told him; and Subikahn had demanded only that one thing. Later, Saviar had learned of a second deception. The mages had taken the twins in and healed Saviar only because they sensed an "aura," an indication that they carried magical blood. Saviar now knew the source of the magic the mages had sensed: his sword. Subikahn had been carrying it when he met Chymmerlee, and he had returned it to Saviar upon his awakening.

Subikahn knew the significance of honor to Saviar. The larger twin still had visions of joining the Knights of Erythane, like his father and grandfather. "I'm sorry, Savi. What choice did I have? You were helpless, and they had just saved your life. Was I supposed to say: 'Thanks for rescuing my brother's soul from Hel. Now you have to kill us'?"

Saviar had to admit the folly of such a thing, but he remained with his back to his brother, arms folded across his chest, bloody rag still clutched in his fist. "You could have let me die. Those were war wounds."

"Death from infection, even festering war wounds, would have damned your soul to Hel."

Saviar whirled on his brother, wishing he had retained some memory of the events surrounding his injuries. Subikahn's vagueness, and his own frustration, condensed to sudden anger. "I still don't understand that. If the battle wounds were not themselves fatal, then we had time. Why didn't you attack me when the wounds began to turn, while I could still fight and die with honor? Why didn't you let me find a hero's death, to earn the forever reward of Valhalla? You couldn't possibly have known Chymmerlee would happen along to save me."

As always, Subikahn changed the subject. "Think of this from Chymmerlee's viewpoint. She betrayed the secrets of her people to their bitterest enemies, then ran off with Renshai in ignorance."

Though he knew he had just been diverted, Saviar could not resist addressing the new tack. "But we're not enemies. That's what she needs to understand." Feeling a tickle of fluid sliding from his nose, Saviar again clamped the rag in place.

Subikahn made a broad gesture, using both hands. "Renshai murdered her people. All of them. The Myrcidians had to reconstitute from... from basically nothing. From a bit of scattered and diluted bloodline."

"Centuries-ago-Renshai murdered her people," Saviar reminded his brother. "Not us. Not the Renshai that Colbey Calistinsson presented to the world."

Subikahn's voice went soft. "Colbey Calistinsson was probably a member of those 'centuries-ago-Renshai'. He might have killed more than his share of mages. We know he had a hand in the downfall of the Cardinal Wizards, including the very last Myrcidian, the Eastern Wizard."

"That's not fair!" Though not loud, Saviar's tone sounded like a shout in comparison. "The Wizards brought about their own downfall when they banded against Colbey. He was in the right!"

Subikahn remained maddeningly calm. "Sometimes, Saviar, right depends on where you're standing."

Saviar started to reply, but the words died on his tongue. They had argued this point many times before; and, though he had always taken the side of absolute right, life and Subikahn had brought him too many logical points to the contrary. As Knights of Erythane, Saviar's father and grandfather had made peace with the concept of unconditional morality and honor, but Saviar had not yet formally done so.

Saviar had seen people on both sides of a conflict equally resolute, passionately asserting their viewpoints with the glib certainty of the righteous. Each believed, with every fiber of his being, that he had his feet firmly planted in honest and ethical truth. Somehow, the Knights of Erythane wound their way through such disagreements to find the kernel of shining, honorable accuracy that underlay everyone's beliefs. To the Knights of Erythane, justice was an absolute concept. And, while the Renshai and a few others mocked them, the rest of the world adored and revered them.

When Saviar did not reply, Subikahn added, "Fairness has nothing to do with it, Savi. I'm only trying to put myself in Chymmerlee's place. Right or wrong, she has grown up believing Renshai the ultimate enemies. We knew that, yet we chose not to reveal ourselves. Surely you can see why she'd consider that an enormous betrayal."

Saviar nodded grudgingly. Once again, he took the rag from his face. This time, the bleeding did not recur. He did not know what to say. Subikahn had made an inarguable point, but Saviar still felt quarrelsome and sullen. "She still didn't have to try to kill you."

Subikahn looked up at the castle wall, now safely distant. "I doubt she has the gall or desire to come after us; but, when I gave her the opportunity to help fix the problem she created, she seized it."

Saviar did not understand. "How would killing you accomplish that? It's me who should have told her what we are."

Subikahn rubbed his eyes, blinked a few more times, then smiled. Apparently, his vision had wholly returned. "Had you climbed, I imagine she would have done the same to you. But the problem, in her mind, is that we know the secret of the mages."

Now, Saviar grasped Subikahn's point. "That they exist, and where they're hiding."

"Correct."

Murder seemed an excessive way to handle the problem. "But we vowed not to tell."

"Would you trust the word of liars?"

Again, Saviar chose not to argue. They had not actually lied, simply withheld the truth. "They could move. We would still know they exist, but we would have no way to find them."

"Except they think we're magical, because of the aura your sword gave us. Or they might not be able to move."

"Why not?"

Subikahn finally dared to rise, stretching each limb, apparently assessing himself for bumps and bruises. He seemed none the worse for a fall that should have killed him. "I'm not actually magical. I certainly don't know the rules. But Papa's library is extensive, and he's made me read everything, trying to get me to learn a bunch of different languages." Subikahn worked kinks from his shoulders and back. "Historically, items imbued with magic are exceptionally rare and users of it quite limited. The creation of an invisible city seems like the kind of incredibly difficult feat that would require the efforts of several magical beings working together as well as a receptive place."

Saviar blinked. For a man with little knowledge of magic, Subikahn seemed to know a lot. "A... receptive place?"

"A place where truly great magic had once been worked. A gods' battle, perhaps. An elfin gate." Subikahn shrugged. "Something."

Saviar placed a hand on his sword hilt, surprised to find that Subikahn's words made sense to him. His sword, Motfrabelonning, had come to him after their mother's death. An ancient Renshai Einherjar, a soul dwelling in Valhalla, had given it to her. The twins' younger brother wielded her other enchanted blade; its magic came from having belonged to Colbey Calistinsson when the immortal Renshai lived on Asgard, the world of gods.

So far, Saviar had noticed little special about those two swords. They were both exquisitely crafted, but no more so than the Renshai demanded of any sword. He knew of only two things the so-called "magic" of the swords granted: they gave the wielder an "aura" and could cut beings that ordinary steel could not harm, like elves, Kjempemagiska, and demons.

Thinking while talking slowed Saviar's speech. "So... the mages might not be able... to move."

Subikahn shrugged.

"And... we know... their secrets..."

Subikahn bit his lower lip, and Saviar understood that "secrets" covered a lot of information: their existence, their magic, and their heritage as well as their location. The mages had expected the twins to remain with them forever; and their promises not to reveal any information had not proven enough for the mages to release them. They had had to take Chymmerlee as a willing hostage.

Suddenly needing to sit, Saviar placed his bottom on the whitestone bench. A lump formed in his throat. "There's no future for me and Chymmerlee, is there?" The words pounded in his head, and he felt tears sting his eyes again. His handsome face and muscular features had brought scores of young women flocking to him since he had barely entered his teens. This popularity had done nothing more than embarrass him. But Chymmerlee had come to him innocently, when he was at the brink of death, and she was the first with whom he had shared a mutual attraction.

Subikahn sighed, crouching beside his brother. "Once she gets back and tells her people about us, I'm not sure either of us has any kind of future."

Saviar's brows furrowed. He did not understand. "Their magic makes them unpredictably dangerous, but you don't think they'll come after us, do you? They didn't even follow Chymmerlee when she didn't return." He remembered the reason she had given, that she alone of her people ever left the compound. The others feared the perils outside and the possibility of someone discovering their secrets. "If someone kidnapped your great-granddaughter, you'd go after them, wouldn't you? No matter your fears. No matter what they threatened."

"I would," Subikahn admitted. "But I have a theory about that."

Saviar gave his brother his full attention.

"When they found us, they took us in for one reason only."

Saviar nodded. "They saw an aura around you and assumed you carried the blood of mages."

"Right. And their most significant issue, at the time, was reviving their line without destroying it with inbreeding."

Saviar shrugged. Early on, Subikahn had warned Saviar that the only relationship that could develop between him and Chymmerlee was one of breeding; but that was before Chymmerlee had chosen to accompany them home. "We don't have any actual magic, aside from the sword, so you assumed their only purpose for us would be..." Saviar flushed at the impropriety of what he was about to say, "...impregnating some of their women."

"Yes." Subikahn said nothing more, allowing Saviar to figure the rest out for himself.

Saviar did so, though the obvious extension of Subikahn's thought surprised him. "You think..." It seemed impossible. "You believe... they hoped... Chymmerlee and I..."

Tired of waiting for the euphemism, Subikahn went straight to the point. "...would romp like rutting rabbits."

Saviar's cheeks grew hot enough to draw attention from his throbbing nose. "That's obscene!"

"Nothing could be more so."

Saviar shook his head impatiently. "I mean no one would want a girl they love--"

"--to be buggered by a gloik like you?"

"Stop it!" Saviar had tired of Subikahn's deliberate attempts to shock. "I'm trying to make a serious point."

Subikahn went silent, brows ever so slightly arched.

Saviar spoke quickly, so as not to give his twin an entrance. "I just mean that no one wants a young woman they love to bear a child out of wedlock."

Subikahn stiffened, then lowered his right shoulder in a lazy shrug. "The mages seem more interested in silently growing their population and gaining magical power than worrying about other societies' mores."

Saviar looked toward the castle. From their new position, they could no longer view Chymmerlee's window. Subikahn had an undeniable point. Like elves, the mages clearly raised their offspring in packs, paying little heed to the rights and responsibilities of blood parents. For now, the survival of their kind mattered more to them than civilization's propriety and rules. He could not help imagining what might have been: Chymmerlee yielding to him, her breath warm in his ear, her arms winching tightly around him, begging for more.

Subikahn's voice jarred Saviar back to reality. "I know what you're thinking."

Saviar's flush went deeper. He imagined his face was as scarlet and glaring as a bonfire. "I wasn't thinking anything," he said defensively, which only made his brother's smile broaden.

"It's better this way," Subikahn assured. "Imagine what might happen if she came home... um..." Apparently, he sought a euphemism that wouldn't further embarrass his more honorable twin. "...short-skirted, and they discovered the 'lump' came courtesy of a Renshai warrior. How far would you go to save your child? Could you imprison a woman and snatch her infant from her bosom?"

Saviar bridled at the bare thought, yet he understood the dilemma. The Myrcidians might or might not feel obligated to slaughter the child. The imaginary child, he reminded himself. He and Chymmerlee had done nothing more than kiss. "There's no child to fight for. And I don't think the Myrcidians will come after us to protect their secrets, either. At least, not if we return Chymmerlee alive, as promised."

Subikahn gave his brother an ironic look. "I think you sorely underestimate the importance they place on their solitude."

Saviar wondered if he were missing something. Usually, Subikahn caught the subtleties better than he did. "If we return Chymmerlee unharmed, that makes us men of our words. They can hope we will keep their secrets as well."

"Or," Subikahn inserted, "they can murder us and assure the safety of their secrets."

"No." Saviar found Subikahn's miscalculation. "Because if they assume we're oathbreakers, they have to believe we already told the Renshai about them. They might worry our people will annihilate them again, but they know it is only a possibility. If they murder us, however, they will definitely raise the wrath of the Renshai. Their only real hope for their own security is to trust us."

"Would you?"

"Trust us?"

"Yes."

Saviar tried to look at the situation from a neutral viewpoint. The Mages of Myrcidë believed they had a common bond of magical blood. They knew Saviar was the son of a Knight of Erythane, that he cared deeply for Chymmerlee, and that Subikahn was his twin. That seemed enough for a reasonable expectation of trust. However, when Chymmerlee returned with the information that he and his brother were also unproclaimed Renshai, none of that would matter. "No," he admitted. "In their position, I wouldn't."

"There is one other option," Subikahn said with a softness that alerted Saviar. He would not like the suggestion. "We could prevent Chymmerlee from getting the information about our heritage back to her people."

"What are you saying? You want us to kill Chymmerlee?"

"That's one option." Subikahn responded with cool matter-of-factness. "Or, you could entice her to stay. Marry her, perhaps."

In less tense circumstances, Saviar would have laughed. "I can't even get her to talk to me."

"Find a way."

"I like her, but I'm not sure I love her. At least not yet."

"It wouldn't be the first loveless marriage."

Saviar gave his brother a scathing look. If Subikahn was joking, he gave no sign of it. "I gave my word I would see Chymmerlee home safe, and I have every intention of doing so. The facts are what they are; I can't change them. I'm going to do the honorable thing and let the consequences fall where they will."

Subikahn crooked one side of his face, bobbing his head from side to side. "A perfect example of why the good men die young. And why I hope you'll understand if I don't join you."

It is an honor to die delivering a killing blow, but don't drop your guard just because you believe you did. – Colbey Calistinsson

Calistin Ra-Khirsson limped into the practice room of Béarn Castle, marveling at its size. It could easily accommodate a small war. On either side of the entrance, racks held practice weapons of a variety beyond anything Calistin could have imagined. The Renshai used nothing but swords; and, though he could defend against anything, Calistin had never seen such an array of polearms, axes, swords, clubs, and hammers. Shields lay neatly piled in front of a shelf covered in wooden objects carved into the shapes of more familiar weapons. He wondered idly why someone might prefer a club in the shape of a sword rather than a solid stick.

The sparring room consisted of a wide variety of areas simulating everything from open terrain, to deep woodlands, to castle interiors. Calistin had heard that the men who designed it had done so for the convenience of the Renshai who served as bodyguards to the Béarnian princes and princesses. If so, they had done a stupendous job. Calistin could scarcely wait to try out every aspect of the room, other than the variety of shields and weapons.

Apparently, the same idea had occurred to every member of Calistin's tribe. Renshai scrambled up and down a spiraling staircase, steel flying at one another's faces. Renshai bandied back and forth over a field of simulated debris. Renshai fought wildly in an open area, in a boxed-in room full of battered old furniture, across a floor pocked with holes and cluttered with timbers. Hard-pressed to find a place to swing his sword, Calistin contented himself with watching, for the moment.

Once the others noticed him, they would make an opening for the most able Renshai warrior. With his broken left arm splinted and in a sling, Calistin would likely find more challengers than usual, people who believed they might actually best him. His battle with the enemy's only Kjempemagiska had left him battered and aching all over his body. He wanted nothing more than to engage in svergelse, practicing sword forms quietly and utterly alone, but he doubted he would get the chance. He had not become the best by hiding from his injuries or coddling weakness. As a torke, he had forced his students to push themselves past exhaustion, past pain, and to focus most fervently on vulnerabilities.

At the moment, Calistin looked anything but menacing. Renshai had become more diverse over the centuries; but he typified the classic appearance of the ancient tribe. At eighteen, he looked some four to five years younger, his eyes a steely blue-gray, his hair golden, his skin as fair as that of any true Northman. Dark bruises and clotted gashes showed clearly where his tunic did not cover them. Renshai spurned armor, shields, and other unnatural defenses, relying only on their own quickness and skill.

When no one challenged him after several moments, Calistin headed for a position on the far edge of one of the practice areas, not caring whether he chose one with indoor or outdoor obstacles or none at all. It suddenly occurred to him why no one was demanding a spar with their war-weakened champion. They, too, suffered from battle wounds and exhaustion; they saw no advantage to sparring him in what would ultimately prove a match as uneven as usual. And, even if they did manage to defeat him, everyone would ascribe the victory to Calistin's injuries.

Calistin launched into his first svergelse, immediately cursing the splints that immobilized his left arm. He would have torn them off, but he was wise enough to realize that, if he did not give his arm the chance to heal, it never would. Four or five weeks of rest would bring it back nearly as good as new. Though it might seem more like twenty-eight days of wretched frustration, it was still preferable to his arm healing crookedly or not at all.

The room went suddenly silent. Ordinarily, Calistin would not have noticed such a thing while caught in something as all-consuming as swordwork, but only something of significant danger would distract Renshai from spar. Every eye had turned to the entrance, so Calistin looked there are well.

A large, well-built Northman had entered. Massive, handsome, and also war-bruised, Valr Magnus threw an enormous shadow over the myriad racks of weaponry. Seemingly oblivious to the Renshai's sudden change in demeanor, the general of the Aeri army examined the stack of practice shields.

The Renshai waited to see what Calistin would do. As the champion of the Northmen, Valr Magnus had planned to challenge Calistin in single combat. Through a combination of deft maneuvers by the Northmen, and pride from the Renshai, Magnus had wound up facing Calistin's mother instead. The battle had gone her way until skullduggery disguised as an accident had allowed Magnus a fatal stroke. Over the next several months, Calistin had chased Magnus halfway around the world with the intention of humiliating the brute before slaying him fairly in combat.

The war had disrupted Calistin's plans. Thrown uneasily together, the two warriors had found more common ground than anyone could have anticipated and, ultimately, became dedicated war partners and even unlikely friends. When the time finally came for their battle to the death, neither wished to fight it any longer. Valr Magnus had been the only one capable of assisting Calistin against the Kjempemagiska in the war. Side by side, they had fought the giant and nearly died together.

As visions of that battle swept down on Calistin, he forced them away. Usually, he savored war, its memories his pride and his joy. But he had lost another friend in that encounter, one whose loyalty he had never appreciated and whose courage he had never respected. He could not bear to think of Treysind, not now, maybe not ever.

Raised, like most Northmen, to despise Renshai, Valr Magnus now stood in a precarious position. Calistin knew the general could prove either a valuable ally or a bitter and dangerous enemy to the Renshai. Calistin's actions might well determine which.

Sheathing his weapon, Calistin stepped forward to acknowledge the Aeri general. "Valr." The word literally meant "Slayer," and the Northmen reserved it for their greatest swordsmen in history. The first Valr had earned his nickname as a prolific killer of Renshai.

Valr Magnus turned to face Calistin. His expression gave away nothing. Apparently, he also knew and cared how much lay at stake. That boded well, in Calistin's mind.

The room seemed to collectively hold its breath. All sparring and svergelse ceased. Every eye found the two men, one tall and broad, the other childlike in form but deadly as a pack of wolves.

"Calistin," Valr finally said, his tone as unrevealing as his expression. He selected a large, broad practice sword, its balance awkward and its edges blunted.

In a single movement, Calistin sprang up beside the general and placed a restraining hand on his wrist. "Not that one." He inclined his head toward the sheath at Magnus' hip.

Magnus looked startled. He spoke softly, barely above a whisper. "You've changed your mind again? You want that battle?"

"Just a spar," Calistin replied as softly. "But a good one: well-crafted sword to well-crafted sword." He gave the practice weapon a disdainful look. "That's a worthless lump of wood."

Magnus crooked a brow. "Most practice weapons are. That's what keeps friends from inadvertently injuring one another."

Calistin shrugged. "We can handle pain."

"What about accidentally killing one another?"

Calistin's jaw tensed, but he threw off anger. Magnus spoke from ignorance not any intention to offend. "That's a grave insult," he informed the general. "I'm a torke. If I can't control my practice strokes any better than that, then to what purpose do I serve my students?"

"I'm more concerned about me," Magnus grumbled, which only further irritated Calistin.

"If I can't keep you from killing me, I deserve to die."

"That's not what I..." Valr Magnus seemed to realize that everything he said was only worsening the situation. "Very well. Real weapons... but... still a spar?"

Calistin nodded.

"And the end point?"

Calistin considered. He glanced around the room, noting the variety of terrain, the angle of the sun trickling toward the window, the many Renshai standing like statues, their attention gravely focused on the two men amid the racks of practice weapons. "First one to drive the other to the highest point of the room wins."

Magnus' brows flung upward. Clearly, he had never heard such a suggestion before. For that matter, neither had Calistin; he had made it up on the spur of the moment, with just a trickle of an idea in mind. He sometimes sparred a hundred times in a day and had often spiced up endpoints to keep them interesting. His own best torke had added knocking one's opponent on his ass in the dirt to his repertoire. For ganim, non-Renshai, there were three usual choices: first blood, first would-be fatal maneuver, and death.

Valr Magnus merely nodded. Likely, he felt questioning would only risk offending Calistin again. "Where do you want to start?"

Calistin knew the other Renshai had not heard their soft discussion. They had no way to know whether the fight was spar or genuine. To keep them guessing, Calistin roared, "Here! Now!"

Magnus' sword cleared its sheath in an instant. It seemed to gather the meager light from the windows, flashing vivid silver as it lunged for Calistin. Calistin sprang aside easily, certain Magnus had not used his full speed or strength. Apparently, the Aeri general still worried about sparring with live steel.

Without bothering to free his own weapon, Calistin hissed. "Stop playing and fight like a man."

"It's only... I don't want..."

Calistin glared, daring the Aeri to finish that sentence. "You couldn't hit me if I had two broken legs! And a blindfold!"

It was a challenge no warrior could stomach. Magnus lunged in earnest at his smaller foe. Calistin jumped, and Magnus' sword cut the air where Calistin had been. Calistin landed on a table, sending practice weapons sliding, smashing against one another, and slamming to the floor. Gaze fixed on Calistin, Magnus backstepped farther into the practice room. Clearly, he did not want to drag the fight into the castle or give Calistin the chance to pounce on him from above. "You don't have to prove it. Leave the leg breaking to your enemies."

Screaming a battle cry, Calistin charged the length of the table to hurl himself toward Magnus. Only then did he bother to draw his own sword.

Magnus seemed willing to stand back and wait, then abruptly seized the opening. Airborne, Calistin could not change his momentum. Magnus swept the flat of his blade into the path of the flying Renshai.

It took most of Calistin's strength to curl defensively beneath the sword, then fling out his legs and uninjured arm to backhand his blade against Magnus'. Harmlessly deflected, Magnus' blade circled back for another strike; but Calistin had already landed.

"Stop playing," Valr Magnus repeated Calistin's gibe verbatim. "And fight like a man."

Calistin grinned. Ordinarily, he would never have performed unnecessary acrobatics in combat. For once, he wanted something showy and wild to entertain the other Renshai and assure them that he would not allow his injuries to hamper him. "Fine," he said. With blinding quickness, he launched an attack at Magnus, his sword flickering in all directions.

Caught in the onslaught, Magnus retreated, parrying and dodging, nothing left for offense. He had just enough agility to avoid the floor debris and the other Renshai, most of whom skittered out of his way. No one wanted to bring down Calistin's ire by affecting the tide of battle; Calistin would win fairly or not at all. Anyone who made that victory suspect would pay dearly for the offense, possibly with his life.

Abruptly, Magnus turned a deft parry into a strong attack, thrusting viciously. The suddenness and uniqueness of the maneuver surprised even Calistin. He sprang aside cleanly but lost his attack advantage just long enough for Magnus to go on the offense. Blows battered down on Calistin with a speed that belied the Aeri general's bulk. Quick as a gnat, Calistin eluded every stroke, not daring to take one on his sword. He could not risk hurting his working hand. Then, gradually Calistin took control again, body weaving through the flurry, sword darting in to put the Northman on the defensive again.

"Nice," Calistin could not help admitting. Calistin was the better swordsman; with one notable exception, he always was. Yet Magnus had a talent he had never witnessed from a ganim before. Others had given Calistin a real battle, but all of those had been Renshai or had come at him in such droves that the distraction had worked to their advantage. As an Outworld creature, the giant Kjempemagiska did not count as a human adversary any more than a god or demon would. Calistin suffered an uncharacteristic twinge of sadness at the accident of the Aeri general's birth. Started as a toddler, allowed to learn the secret maneuvers, Magnus would have made a highly competent Renshai.

Curious, Calistin guided the battle through all sorts of terrain and long into the morning. He did not want the battle to end. As time went on, Magnus seemed more antsy, his intention to force the battle onto the simulated spiral staircase more obvious. Calistin knew the older man could match his own endurance, if not his skill; but Magnus seemed less eager to spend the entire day engaged in a single spar.

Once both men's feet touched the staircase, the pace of the combat increased mightily. Swords blurred into flying webs of silver. Right arm hampered by the wall, Calistin again cursed the splints that immobilized his left. The perfect two-handed training of the Renshai failed him when he only had one available, but that did not stop Calistin. He threw himself into the spar as he would a battle, careful only not to harm his opponent with the same sharpened steel that had claimed the lives of so many. He fought in flawless arcs, using the wall as a springboard and the rail, at times, as a short-term perch. Gradually, at his own measured pace, he drove Magnus toward the landing.

As they approached, the frenzy of battle intensified even further. Magnus fought wildly to switch positions, even though this opened his defenses. Calistin instinctively charged for the hole. He slapped a would-be killing blow across Magnus' abdomen, as the general completed the circle. Now, Calistin's back pointed toward the landing, and a single driving step would lose him the battle.

Damn! The maneuver seemed utter madness. What good to win the spar if one forfeited one's life? Calistin's chosen end point allowed such a trick, without penalty; but the ability to drop survival instincts to accomplish it caught him utterly by surprise. As Magnus lunged in for one last backstep, Calistin did the only thing he could. He hurled himself at Magnus.

Calistin struck a form as solid as a brick wall, but momentum won out over bulk. Both men tumbled wildly down the stairs, a flailing ball of arms, legs, and swords. Magnus caught himself first, looping an arm through the railing while Calistin continued to fall, unwilling to release his sword and unable to stop himself without the use of his opposite arm.

Magnus waited patiently on the staircase for Calistin to collect himself. Even more bruised and battered, Calistin leaped to his feet and charged the general, his battle screams ringing through the room.

Once again, Magnus put all his effort into forcing Calistin's back to the landing, not worrying about defense, opening himself fully to Calistin's attacks. Calistin avoided Magnus' deadly strokes, uncertain whether to feel incensed or mightily impressed. He doubted Magnus meant to question Calistin's competence; they both knew the Renshai had promised not to land a real blow, had bragged that he would not allow the Aeri to do so, either. Simply by choosing such a strange end point, Calistin had obviated any purpose for simulated killing blows.

It was a galling strategy, brilliant in its own strange way. Calistin found himself drawn to Magnus' deliberate openings, expending effort just to ignore them, to avoid harming his opponent in spar. Emotions bubbled up and were discarded: anger gave way to irritation, then to wonder, admiration, and, finally, amusement. He had agreed not to kill Valr Magnus but never not to cause him pain.

Now, Calistin bore in to cover those holes, smacking shins and anklebones with the flat of his blade. Like a dog at the heels of livestock, Calistin grew relentless, driving Magnus upward until the second of his large feet reached the landing. Only then did Calistin withdraw, looking up at his cornered foe, grinning at his timing. The sun had risen far enough to stream through the window, striking golden highlights from the Northman's hair. His raised sword made a grand contrast in silver.

Before Magnus could admit defeat, before he could even speak a word, Calistin joined him on the landing to address the staring crowd of Renshai. "Friends, fellow Renshai, I would like to introduce General Magnus Rognualdsson from the tribe of Aerin."

Scattered, confused applause followed the introduction. Clearly, no one wished to guess Calistin's next move. They knew him as ruthless, often cruel, and utterly humorless. They had no idea how much the events of the last few months had changed him, enough to stage a battle, to befriend his worst enemy. Without Treysind's sacrifice, Calistin realized, none of that would have happened.

Looking as uncertain as his audience, Magnus sheathed his sword and executed a polite bow.

Renshai fought wars without pattern or strategy, without commanders and titles. At Béarn's request, they had a leader, Thialnir, who represented them at the Council and in other foreign affairs. It was a flimsy hierarchy, more important to ganim then Renshai, so Calistin had no qualms about announcing vital information in his own time and manner. "We know General Magnus as the champion of the Northmen, the man who killed my mother and banished the Renshai from the West and their homes."

Rumbles rose from the Renshai. Other armies might have clashed weapons or shields, but they remained silent. They had no shields and respected their swords too much to risk notching them in anything less than spar or combat.

"Now, we know him, too, as a competent warrior and a man of honor. When my father found proof that deceit had played a role in winning that battle, Magnus retracted his victory, apologized, and nullified the agreement."

Murmurs suffused the crowd. Clearly, they needed more.

Calistin gave it, "Our banishment is lifted. The Fields of Wrath belong to the Renshai once more."

A great cry filled the practice room, echoing from the walls and funneling through the two high windows. Calistin suspected they could hear it throughout the entirety of Béarn Castle.

Calistin looked at Magnus, expecting a smile but getting, instead, a worried frown. Clearly, something troubled the Northman. Calistin waited until the cheers died down to speak again, "As if this were not enough to assure us the general is a fair man, worth trusting, look at his sword." Calistin gestured Magnus to unsheathe and raise the weapon again.

Valr Magnus did as Calistin bade, raising the blade to display its glimmering length, its perfect edge, the distinctive large, S-shaped guard a favorite of any Renshai, like Calistin's mother, who copied the ways of Colbey Calistinsson. Calistin drew and placed his own sword alongside Magnus'. They proved perfect twins, their lengths identical, their simple guards unwaveringly matched, their handgrips the same split-leather, and the pommels shaped like the nose of a cat. As they came alongside one another, Calistin's felt as if it trembled in his hand. Worried he had lost control of his nerves, Calistin studied the steel. Both swords wobbled ever so slightly, and the reflected light of the sun seemed to bounce perfectly between them.

The Renshai fell silent again, and every eye focused on the swords. Calistin need not have concerned himself. Whatever he saw, whether real or illusion, the entire group saw with him. "His sword, like mine, comes from the hand and sheath of Colbey. He gave this one to my mother, a miracle I never believed would get repeated. Yet, I saw with my own eyes as Colbey relinquished this weapon to Magnus."

Religious signs swept the crowd. Rare enough any Renshai would ever willingly give up a sword to anyone, but for the great immortal Renshai to do so, twice, seemed madness. The enormity of the tribute Colbey had bestowed upon Magnus could only truly be understood by Renshai.

Clearly uncomfortable with the intense scrutiny, Magnus sheathed the sword again. "Please," he started. "I appreciate your favor and your kindness, but it is more than I deserve. No man with a shred of integrity could have done anything less than I did."

Again, a cacophony of voices swept the crowd. One, grumbled a trifle too loudly, came through, "Northmen aren't generally known for their integrity."

Valr Magnus' frown deepened. "I admit that not all of my ilk were convinced by the evidence nor pleased with my decision..."

It was gross understatement. Calistin had been present when Ra-khir presented the irrefutable evidence of fraud. At the time, the leader of the Northmen had demanded that either the results stand or another battle replace it. Magnus had refused to act as the North's champion a second time, had shed the ill-gotten title of Renshai-slayer, had insisted the contract become null and void. He had even apologized profusely to Ra-khir and the boys for killing their wife and mother.

"...but I will not stand by while anyone denigrates my people." Magnus gave a stern look toward the crowd, as if seeking the speaker.

Never one to hide, the Renshai who had spoken stepped forward, revealing himself as Tygbiar. A veteran warrior with a deeply scarred face, he spoke words on the minds of many Renshai, "You can't deny that blatant Renshai-hating is rampant in the Northlands."

"I can't," Magnus admitted. "And much of it is ignorant and undeserved. But hatred is a two-way path."

"Eventually." Kristel, a contemporary of Kevral's spoke next in a strong feminine voice. "When someone is constantly trying to murder every member of your tribe, you do learn to dislike him. But Renshai do not teach our children to hate in organized schools. We do not have as a spoken and written goal to destroy all Northmen."

Kristel's closest friend Nisse added, "If the gods magically disarmed all of the Northmen simultaneously, we would remain at peace. But if they disarmed the Renshai, the Northmen would seize the opportunity to slaughter us all."

Magnus tipped his head and remained silent, clearly considering the words. Calistin knew the Renshai appreciated that the Aeri general did not dismiss their concerns out of hand. "I wouldn't, nor would thousands of other Northmen. To dismiss us all as monsters for the actions of a few is bias as unreasonable as that which you condemn."

Calistin did not point out that the "few" consisted of tens of thousands. "We're not going to solve centuries of conflict by cornering a good man. Colbey finds him worthy, and so do I."

The Renshai could scarcely argue with the logic.

Magnus, however, had not finished, "I've been put in place as the new Western representative for the Northlands, so you're sure to see more of me over the coming months."

Though shocked, Calistin could not help smiling. He could not think of any Northman he would rather have representing them. At least, Magnus did not hate Renshai outright, like so many of his brethren.

"Whatever anti-Renshai prejudice school has drummed into me, I'll try to overcome; but I will always do what is right for my people. I warn you that may not always gibe with your preferences or needs. However, I'm not going to endorse anything whose soul purpose is to treat anyone, Renshai or otherwise, unkindly or unfairly." It was not a strong promise but the best Renshai could hope for from any Northman. As Magnus started down the faux castle stairs, Calistin at his side, the other Renshai returned to their spars and svergelse.

"Western representative for the Northmen?" Calistin could not help asking.

Valr Magnus made a deep-throated sound. "It's a ploy to keep me here, I think. Captain Erik of Nordmir wants to get home first to tell his version of the story."

Calistin could only nod. He had little understanding of diplomacy or titles, but one thing seemed certain. Erik was responsible for the battle and its original outcome. Erik was the one who had thrown a tantrum in the Council Room when the deception became clear and the contract negated. Compared to him, Magnus had to seem like a dewy-eyed lover of Renshai. "Do you think he'll lie?"

Magnus shrugged. "He'll guard his tongue, at least in regard to me. I'm as popular with Northmen as you are among Renshai, and for much the same reason."

Calistin did not allow himself a smile. His people loved him only because of his skill, while Magnus was not only the martial champion of his race but also a kind and generous man, intelligent, and a competent general. The Renshai revered Calistin as the best of their line, but they did not particularly like him.

It occurred to Calistin that, prior to the war, such thoughts would never have entered his mind. His people expected nothing from him but to improve his swordwork and, hopefully, teach some of them along the way. He could act as he pleased. He had no obligations, no chores, no need for social knowledge or proficiency. He could think what he liked, say what he liked, do as he chose to do without fear of retribution or even negative comment.

Two things had changed him. First, Calistin had been bested in battle by an elderly stranger who had then become his torke, only later revealing himself as Colbey Calistinsson and as Calistin's blood grandfather. Colbey had exposed an awful truth: Calistin's soul had been destroyed when his mother had suffered the bite of a spirit spider while pregnant with him.

Secondly, Treysind had died a hero. The Erythanian street urchin had annoyed Calistin for most of a year, trailing him like a puppy, insisting on protecting the Renshai despite having no combat training, infusing rudimentary social skills against Calistin's will.

For so long, Treysind had managed only to get under Calistin's feet and skin, gradually and irritatingly forcing the Renshai to reevaluate the way he had chosen to lead his existence. But Treysind's last act had not only saved Calistin's life, as he had so long promised, but had turned the tide of the war itself. Treysind had thrown himself between Calistin and a killing blow, causing the Kjempemagiska to slaughter the wrong target. A Valkyrie had come for Treysind's soul, as they did for all warriors who died in valorous combat. Then, Treysind had made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his soul, which would have dwelt for eternity in Valhalla, to Calistin.

Calistin shook off consideration of a selfless act he had avoided thinking about for as long as possible. He had no idea how the Valkyrie had made the switch. If she had not told him, called him unworthy of the boy's incredible sacrifice, he would never have known it occurred at all. He certainly had no intention of becoming weakened by a decision in which he had had no choice, nor did he wish to belittle Treysind's heroic action.

Soulless, Calistin could never have found Valhalla, the final reward he had dedicated nearly every moment of every day to achieving. In the short time he had known he was soulless, he had suffered a torment beyond any he had known before, beyond any he could imagine. Yet he found himself as much burdened as rescued by Treysind's miraculous gift. Without it, his death would herald nothing. But, with it, he felt compelled to honor Treysind, to consider his own words and actions and their effects on those around him.

Still uncertain whether to deify or damn Treysind, Calistin simply watched Valr Magnus leave the practice room. He returned to his own svergelse.

Achievement is no excuse for sloth. Past glory is for the dead. A true hero never rests, but always he drives on one deed further.--Colbey Calistinsson

King Tae Kahn of Stalmize, Eastlands, had never seen so many important people packed into one room. When it became clear the Council and Strategy Rooms would prove too cramped, and the library too delicate, Tae had volunteered his own enormous guestroom. It amazed him how swiftly and effortlessly the Béarnian castle servants had converted his sleeping quarters into a reasonably formal and not-too-uncomfortable meeting place. They had removed the bed, chest, and dressing table, replacing them with tables that did not quite fit together but still managed to create a large and mostly level surface. The myriad chairs surrounding it did not match but formed an eye-pleasing arrangement. Flowers and herbs covered the sickroom smell of healing injuries, and they had left Tae a plush seat in which to rest his battered frame.

Currently, Imorelda occupied the chair, her feline body stretched to fill it, her tail flopping leisurely back and forth across the stuffed armrests. Ignoring her, and the film of shed fur she left on his seat, Tae stared out the window and into the courtyard below. He had seen his son climb the castle walls, fighting an unexpected twinge of jealousy. Tae was the one who scaled walls for sport usually, a treat he sorely missed since his injuries had rendered even simple acrobatics impossible. It seemed absurd that only a week ago he had believed himself definitively dead.

Tae had also seen Subikahn fall, suffering desperate panic until Saviar caught his twin and the two, eventually, walked off under their own power. Awash in icy sweat, Tae had finally understood why the Eastern maid, Alneezah, had hovered around him when he did similarly dangerous and foolish things. For reasons he could not explain, she loved him. And, he was only starting to realize, he cared deeply for her as well.

Now, Tae hobbled to his chair, cursing the pain and stiffness that still assailed him. Slashed to the bone, his right shoulder ached. The healers kept it in a sling, reminding him not to overuse it so it could properly mend. Every breath brought a stab of pain, though it had lessened over time and the struggle became far less fierce since his arrow-shot lung had reinflated. He limped to protect his left thigh, where another enemy arrow had penetrated. A residual headache still distracted him periodically, a memento of his battle with a hungry shark.

Voices in the hall alerted Tae. I need to sit, he sent to the cat.

Imorelda stretched her sinewy body farther, driving each leg outward, extending every claw. It seemed impossible that an animal so small could take up so much room. So sit.

Under ordinary circumstances, Tae would have enjoyed bandying with the cat, but the seriousness of the current proceedings precluded it. He already faced an uphill battle to convince the allies that the massive war they had just won was only the beginning of the battle. Béarn had called up every alliance, every favor at its disposal, to win. The heady excitement of that victory would not be easily quelled.

With a brisk motion of his good arm, Tae scooped up the silver tabby, slipped beneath her, and dumped her into his lap just as the first members of Béarn's Council entered the room.

Hey! Imorelda hissed and fluffed up her fur in protest but did not swipe at him. She stood, ramrod stiff, in his lap. How dare you!

As a king, Tae was not required to rise at the entrance of other nobility and chose not to do so. It would only further upset Imorelda if he dumped her on the floor.

Prime Minister Davian, Minister Saxanar of Courtroom Procedure and Affairs, Minister Aerean of Internal Affairs, and Minister Franstaine of Household Affairs entered together, bowed or curtsied to the foreign king, then claimed places around the makeshift table.

Tiny Minister of Local Affairs, Chaveeshia, appeared soon afterward, with her charges: Knight-Captain Kedrin, who represented nearby Erythane, and Thialnir Thrudazisson for the Renshai. After appropriate gestures of respect, the knight returned to quiet discussion with General Sutton from Santagithi. The two had spent much time together since the war had ended. Kedrin had a great historical interest in the ancient strategist for whom the general's city was named. Those four also took seats around the tables.

Imorelda paced across Tae's lap, complaining. I'm a cat, gods damn you, and a friend. I deserve some decency and respect. Whatever possessed you to... She continued in that vein, but Tae did not bother to listen. Soon enough, she settled into the crook of his lap, as if she had personally chosen the position.

Minister Richar of Foreign Affairs came next, overburdened with the representatives of hundreds of hamlets, villages, towns, and cities across the vast Westlands. Currently, he had no Northmen with him, which surprised Tae. Prior to the war, he had juggled delegates and generals from each of the nine tribes. That did not bode well for keeping them ready and waiting for the next wave of attack. Now, Richar brought sixteen Westland representatives to join General Sutton. Tae knew only one by name, the general of the West's largest city, Pudar, a massive soldier named Markanyin.

Minister Zaysharn, the overseer of Béarn's livestock came in alone, then Valr Magnus, the Northern champion, soon followed by a larger group that contained Béarn's King Griff, Queen Matrinka, the captain of Béarn's guardsmen, Seiryn, Griff's primary bodyguard, Bard Darris, and, most surprisingly, Tem'aree'ay, Griff's second wife, who apparently accompanied him to represent the elves.

As the Westlands high king entered, everyone rose, except for Tae himself. Knight-Captain Kedrin made the most gracious and stately bow before Griff, then everyone else reclaimed their seats. King Humfreet of Erythane had apparently gone home, leaving the knight to represent his city as he did in peaceful times. That, too, bothered Tae.

King Griff accepted the burden of opening the meeting. Though massive, with coarse black hair and a full beard, he still projected a childlike naïveté at thirty-five years old. Nearly all of Béarn's ruling kings and queens through the centuries had displayed this odd balance of wisdom and simplicity. The ruler of Béarn was always the focal point of the world's equilibrium without which it would crumble into ruin. Currently, a magical gem determined the next successor through a grueling test that, more often than not, drove those who failed to madness. Because of that, the test was rarely invoked until the death of the current ruler, beginning with the royal most likely to succeed.

"Once again," Griff said in his slow-cadenced, deep voice, "I would like to thank all of you for your quickness, courage, and consideration at this most difficult time in our history."

As he had now thanked them each at least a dozen times, in groups and individually, no one bothered to reply.

"Without each and every one of you, the tide of this war could easily have changed. We know the enemy's intention: to overtake our lands and to murder each and every one of us. They took no prisoners and refused themselves to us through suicide. What little we do know of their strategies and plans comes from the efforts and sacrifices of King Tae Kahn of the Eastlands. It is to him I would like to turn over the floor."

Though staggeringly uncomfortable under scrutiny, Tae did appreciate the introduction. Everyone trusted King Griff, and the reminder of Tae's unique ability with languages could only help his cause.

As every eye turned to Tae, he steeled himself against inevitable discomfort. He had spent the first half of his life sneaking and hiding, doing whatever it took to remain unnoticed. Back then, catching any eye might mean a protracted and agonizing death. "I apologize for calling you here before the celebrations have finished, but I wanted to catch as many of you as possible before you leave Béarn."

The responses rumbled into one another, but Tae got a general impression of tolerance. He had managed the only successful spying mission of the entire war and had returned, nearly dead, with valuable information. His status as king also accorded him respect.

Tae cleared his throat. He had prepared for this moment, trying to find the right words to convince without alarming. In the end, he chose the direct route. It would likely work best with men of action. "My concern is that the war is not finished, and the second wave will be much more deadly and dangerous."

Tae expected anything but the deep silence that followed. He tended to forget that men of action were also, mostly, men of patience who understood and valued procedure. They graced Tae's proclamation with an appropriate amount of deliberation. Then, suddenly, motions to take the floor appeared from every direction.

Griff first acknowledged General Sutton, to Tae's chagrin. A first-rate strategist, the Santagithian would also likely raise the most difficult arguments to counter. "I was led to believe our enemies chose to attack because they needed more land for a burdensome population."

Tae nodded once, noting the cautious phrasing of the question. As the only person currently capable of speaking the alsona's language, Tae had personally relayed that message.

The Westland general continued, "They lost thousands to the war. It will take them decades to regroup and repopulate."

He has a good point. Imorelda walked a full circle in Tae's lap, then flopped down in the exact same spot.

Tae knew that and had anticipated it. "I agree that that would normally be true, General Sutton. But not in this case."

The silence recurred, with not even a whisper or chair movement to disrupt it. It seemed more fragile this time, so Tae continued carefully, "Aside from one notable example, we fought only the alsona, the little servants of the enemy. Apparently, they did not expect anything like the resistance we gave them, having made both intelligence-gathering and tactical mistakes." Tae tried to use phrases that made it clear he was neither ignorant nor foolish when it came to military matters. "They assumed our Northlands were uninhabitable from cold, thus overlooking the Northmen. They believed we had access to no magic whatsoever, so the little bit we did have surprised them. And I'm not sure even we believed we could bring together so many diverse countries in one cause so quickly and competently."

Tae threw in the last words to flatter the generals. It was a testament to the popularity of Griff, and previous rulers of Béarn, that everyone had rallied so spectacularly to his cause. But the generals, kings, and commanders of dozens of countries deserved the credit for moving so quickly and strongly against this common enemy.

"Magical giants, like the one who commanded those alsona, are in charge; and they care little for the comfort of their servants. They lost only one of their own, so their numbers have not appreciably changed, still too high for their land to sustain them." Tae had no idea how many Kjempemagiska might exist; but, judging only by what he had learned from the alsona he had mind-read with Imorelda's help, there could be several thousand. "That single giant nearly destroyed our massed armies. If a hundred of them came at us, we would stand little chance against them." Tae gave his words a few moments to sink in, concerned about the effect they might have. From the corner of his eye, he saw Griff wince. Matrinka's hand flew to her mouth in horror. Tae had already presented his case to them, but they still shuddered at the very thought of such a war.

The only Northman in the room, Valr Magnus took the floor. "Forgive my asking, Your Majesty, but how do you know this? Did you overhear this plan while spying on the enemy?"

It occurred to Tae to answer in the affirmative and obviate the need for more argument, but the lie refused to form on his tongue. I'm too old to keep track of truths and mistruths. He wondered if traveling too long with a Knight of Erythane had affected him as well. Ra-khir had often said, "One lie can undo a man forever," and he had a strong argument. The great men and women gathered in this room not only had skill in reading others' intentions, they also knew better than to believe things that made no sense. Once given reason to doubt Tae's honesty, they would believe nothing he said in the future.

Tae admitted, "I overheard no such plan." He smiled crookedly. "It's not the way of fighting men to discuss strategies for... losing."

Apparently accepting that explanation, Magnus sat, only to be replaced by the captain of the Knights of Erythane. Age had only further distinguished Ra-khir's father, and he clearly saw authority as an honor rather than a burden. If anything, he had grown more handsome, more powerful-appearing, as he aged. "Won't it take time for the results of the war to even reach these giants? We know their servants came from across the sea, and none of their boats escaped us; as far as we know, they deliberately left no survivors of their own."

The knight spoke a truth Tae had considered; and, so, he had a ready answer. "I confess I know little about magic. I had hoped our elfin representative might help us." The moment the words left his lips, Tae suffered a pang of regret for putting Tem'aree'ay into the limelight without warning. He could not remember the elf ever deliberately drawing attention to herself.

All eyes fell instantly on the king of Béarn's second wife of three.

Tem'aree'ay seemed nonplussed by the sudden attention. Despite living with humans for nearly two decades, she still reacted in ways that seemed out-of-place and inconsistent, chaos incarnate. Her dainty face always bore a smile, surrounded by a swirl of golden curls with just a hint of elfin red. Unlike the humans who had grayed and wrinkled around her, she shed the years like water. Her sapphirine eyes still sparkled with youth and vigor, and she pressed her long-fingered, slender hands to the table. "Magic differs among those creatures who wield it." As she spoke, she revealed the small triangular tongue that reminded everyone of her alienness.

Humans collectively referred to the users of magic as Outworlders because they originated on other worlds. When the gods had fashioned mankind, they had meant for humans to have no contact with magical beings; and, for most of their history, it had remained so. To this day, many men still did not believe in the existence of magic nor creatures who wielded it. Some did not even acknowledge the gods.

"The elves have a silent form of communication called khohlar." Tem'aree'ay pronounced the foreign term with an accent Tae envied. Because of their self-imposed seclusion, he knew little of the elves' language, and that bothered him. He made a mental note to learn as much as he could from Tem'aree'ay before leaving Béarn. "It's a direct mind-to-mind touch or a shout that radiates to any mind within reasonable distance. But our range is finite. We could never hurl khohlar across oceans."

Tae had experienced khohlar. It reminded him of the contact between himself and Imorelda except any elf could use khohlar to speak mentally to any single living being or to everyone within a circumscribed area. Elves could not modulate khohlar to include some and not others. Tae's telepathic ability was limited to Imorelda, although he had recently discovered he could participate in the alsona's and Kjempemagiska's mental communication by using the cat as an intermediary. Like every other human, Tae could hear khohlar but could not send it.

Nods swept the room. Tem'aree'ay seemed to be making Kedrin's point.

"The Cardinal Wizards, when they existed, lived great distances from one another. As I understand it, they used an aristiri hawk to carry messages to one another. They were considered some of the strongest users of magic to ever exist, and they could not communicate without this go-between."

Tae frowned. Tem'aree'ay's words seemed to clinch it, yet Tae could not believe the Kjempemagiska had no means to know how the battle had gone. He could understand that they had expected to easily conquer the peoples of the continent, that they never doubted General Firuz would return to them with news of the outcome. Yet, surely they had not waged a battle in total ignorance.

Tem'aree'ay looked at Tae as she added, "However, if an elf died, we would all know it at once." She did not elaborate; but Tae, and many others, knew their secret. The gods had given the elves no afterlife; instead, they had a specific and countable number of recyclable elfin souls. Elves conceived only after the death of an elder due to age, whose soul then entered the newly born elf. Since they never suffered illnesses or infections, the system had worked well for thousands of years. Their creator, Frey, had granted them an isolated world called Alfheim, without weather or need for work, where they could live in absolute peace.

Then, the Ragnarok had come, destroying Alfheim in a ball of fire. Only two hundred and forty elves escaped to Midgard, man's world, all others consumed, body and soul. The elves had lost forty more who had been so filled with hatred that the gods had named them svartalf, dark elves, and taken them to another world.

"It's possible," Tem'aree'ay elaborated, "that the death of the Kjempemagiska in battle was instantly known to his fellows."

Possible, Tae realized, but not for the same reason. Tae did not voice this thought aloud. He did not know how many people knew of the elves' plight. Every elf killed unnaturally meant the permanent loss of a soul, one less elf for all eternity. The Kjempemagiska, on the other hand, had come to conquer land because of a burgeoning population. Clearly, they did not suffer from the shared-soul issues that bound the elves together.

"The gods," Griff said.

All attention now went to the king of Béarn, who had probably not intended to speak the words aloud. For an instant, he seemed startled by the sudden attention, then covered awkwardly. "They can see and hear on all the worlds. Right?"

Gradually, all parts of the continent had come to accept the Northern gods as the real ones, but the detailed knowledge of the nature of the gods and their history was not as widespread. In large pockets, many in the East still worshiped their single deity. In the West, small groups still followed their own ancient pantheon. Even the Northmen, who had worshiped the proper gods and goddesses for as long as anyone could remember, still suffered significant lapses. A leader of the elves claimed he personally knew some existing Outworld sea gods. The Renshai had insisted for years that the Ragnarok had occurred, the worst of it diverted by Colbey Calistinsson; while Northmen still dreaded the coming of that world-ending destruction.

Though not a Northman, Minister of Foreign Affairs Richar had thoroughly studied the religious texts so as to know his visiting charges better. "The gods do not see us most times. That's why so many sins go unpunished. Only when they sit on Odin's high seat, Hlidskjalf, can they view the goings on from Asgard. Otherwise, they have to walk among us." Apparently more accustomed to discussing such matters with men prone to sin, he added, "Which they can take other forms to do, so one never knows when they're watching."

That last sent a shiver down Tae's spine, not so much because he worried for gods watching but for whether Kjempemagiska might also manage disguises and shape-changes.

"So," General Sutton said, and that one syllable gave him the floor. "I think we can agree it will take time for word of their defeat to get back to these giants. And, even when it does, they will need to create new strategies and update their knowledge about us. As magical beings, they probably have far longer lifespans, too. Like elves and gods. So, we probably have a few decades, at least."

"No!" Tae did not like the turn of the discussion. "They still have the same overcrowding problem they had yesterday. If they come at us quickly, they catch us weak from the war while they're at their strongest."

The intensity of Tae's tone stopped everyone cold. Though swift and decisive on the battlefield, most strategists tended to act with unhurried consideration in the Strategy Room.

King Griff finally broke the silence. "Both arguments seem... compelling."

Though utterly opposite, Tae realized. He glanced at Queen Matrinka who rubbed her hands repeatedly, a nervous gesture, and looked distraught. Usually, she shunned strategy sessions as frightening, preferring to leave such affairs to generals and kings. She had come only to support Tae. In all matters, she trusted his judgment, far more than he or Imorelda thought she probably should.

Valr Magnus reclaimed the floor. "Speaking only for the North, many of our people have already headed home. Our ground needs preparation for our short growing season. Much of our ore has gone to crafting weapons, and the world needs more. We can't all stay in Béarn indefinitely waiting for giants who might come tomorrow or in decades."

The ruler of a small Western conglomerate spoke next, one Tae did not know by name. Blocky and relatively short, he sported spiky, ash-blond hair and had a voice that seemed too deep for his figure. "And what if they choose another site of attack? They may come at us from a different angle, perhaps targeting the North or your own Eastlands. They could own the rest of the continent before they found our fighting men waiting in Béarn."

Who wants them here, anyway? Imorelda looked up at Tae, comfortably wedged into his lap and purring lightly. They take up all the space, eat up all the food, and smell like toilets.

Tae ignored the cat. "I'm not saying everyone should remain here. That's not practical or possible. I just pray you all keep your men prepared, don't allow them to slack off or become complacent in their victory. Be ready to assemble even more quickly as the Kjempemagiska will not harry our coasts and gather information before attacking as their alsona did. They may even have a magical means of faster travel. And one thing more." Tae's gaze strayed toward Tem'aree'ay before he could stop it. "If you know of any magical beings, you must use every means at your disposal to convince them to join us as well."

Tem'aree'ay's expression never changed; her smile persisted. But, beside her, King Griff frowned. They had tried to convince the elves to come, without success. "I'm afraid," the king started softly, "that without new words, without some proof of these giants' intentions, we have nothing new to motivate the elves."

"What about the girl?" someone called out.

Though bedridden through most of the war, Tae had heard tales of a young woman who had assisted in the defeat of the single Kjempemagiska. Details remained sketchy; but, from what Tae had gathered, Firuz had sent his surviving minions after her while he battled the Western armies on his own.

Knight-Captain Kedrin claimed the floor using an archaic gesture that few remembered and Tae never knew. "Several Knights are preparing to escort her safely home as we speak. We don't know who or what she is, but she clearly had some means of negating the giant's magic. Hopefully, my men will glean some information from her that we can use in any subsequent battle. They have been instructed to remain in her best graces and to enlist the support of her family and anyone else she might know with similar abilities."

General Sutton of Pudar cleared his throat. "Perhaps it would be better to keep her here."

Kedrin smiled indulgently. "I believe we all know that when it comes to beings of magic, wise men never choose to anger or detain them unnecessarily. The girl asked emphatically to go home. Hopefully, whatever induced her to help us will work again, and the Knights will endear themselves to her and her kind. Whatever they may be." He looked at Tem'aree'ay, brows rising.

Tem'aree'ay rose to the question. "She's human, Knight-Captain."

This time, startled voices rose into a rumble. To the best knowledge of the world's current scholars, no human had displayed even a trace of magical powers within the last several centuries. Even Tae felt his heart skip a beat. He had more experience than most, had read more history than even the princes and princesses of Béarn. The nearest thing to modern human magic that he knew of was his ability, and Matrinka's, to communicate with Imorelda and her departed mother, Mior.

"You're sure?" Kedrin said, politely, as always.

"We had to link magic to suppress the Kjempemagiska's magic. She's human. If I had to guess, I'd say a distant descendant of the Myrcidians, perhaps carried in her line since the time of the Cardinal Wizards. They're the only magical humans I've ever known."

Shocked silent, the assemblage did not seem to know what to say. Only Imorelda addressed Tae, Is she saying she knew the Cardinal Wizards?

Either that or Tem'aree'ay had used poor phrasing. While the common human trading tongue had a basis around the worlds, it was not the elves' first language. She might have. It's rumored elves can live hundreds of years, even a thousand or longer. The one they call Captain earned his name ferrying about the Cardinal Wizards.

"A descendant of Cardinal Wizards," General Markanyin said with equal measures of introspection and hope. "Her parents may have similar abilities? And others, too?"

Knight-Captain Kedrin sighed. "She's been polite but very secretive about her home and family. We're hoping she'll bond with some of the knights and become more talkative."

The regular ministers of Béarn normally spoke little when it came to matters of war; but, this time, Minister Franstaine said his piece. "She seemed rather close to your oldest grandson, Captain. Perhaps he can get her to tell us more."

Kedrin pursed his lips. "I'm afraid anything she told Saviar remains in confidence. And whatever closeness they had no longer exists. She wants nothing to do with him."

A Western leader Tae did not know spoke next. "Then what reason does he have for keeping her confidences?"

Tae winced, and the entire room seemed to join him. Kedrin turned his head slowly until he faced the speaker directly. "One's word is one's honor. Without it, a man is nothing."

The stranger persisted. "Even when not speaking could mean the destruction of your world? It seems to me that honor dictates a man must break his word to one when the lives of so many are at stake."

Kedrin's voice remained soft but commanding and full of building rage. "Do not preach honor to a Knight of Erythane. Integrity dictates that a man do the right thing even when it becomes inconvenient or will result in the loss of one's own life. My grandson will not break any vow he might have made."

Tae did not feel certain that the same held true for his own son. If Subikahn knew anything about Chymmerlee's background, he might be coaxed to tell it, in the right circumstances, even against a promise. Clearly, however, now was not the time to mention it. "We have not gotten so desperate we need to force a moral man to go against his principles. Let's see what the Knights of Erythane can do, first. Even if they fail, we have other options."

Queen Matrinka chose to skip most of the planning sessions, especially those regarding military matters. When she did attend, she said nothing. So when she opened her mouth, the room became like a tomb around her. "May I speak from a woman's perspective?"

Multiple gestures followed from every quarter, all encouraging.

"Chymmerlee is at that age when a girl's fancy turns to... well..." Matrinka's cheeks flushed. "...boys. She just lost one suitor, by her own choice, and she may be open to the attentions of another young man."

Matrinka and her mushy stuff, Imorelda complained. If she's not trying to make me have kittens, she's trying to make some young girl have them.

Tae could not help smiling ever so slightly. I don't think she's talking about... making kittens, Imorelda. I think she's just saying Chymmerlee might open up her thoughts to an attentive young man.

Among other things.

Tae ignored the cat's crudeness. "It certainly couldn't hurt to have a well-mannered and reasonably handsome young man among the knights returning her home. One who might spare her some attention at a time when she might crave it."

Kedrin's growing frown forced Tae to add more.

"I'm not suggesting he lie to or mislead her, just show her the usual manners knights display. If he just happened to get assigned to her, well there's nothing inherently immoral about that, is there?"

"No," Kedrin had to admit. "We do have a trainee among those selected to bring her safely home. Since they are similar in age, they may drift together. Or she may feel so disgusted about her last attempt at romance she wants nothing to do with any young male. Either way, we will make her comfortable and respect her decision." The corner of his mouth twitched slightly, the only indication he had softened. "And if they do happen to drift together, no one will interfere."

"Thank you, Captain," Griff said. "No one could ask for more."

Sure they could. Imorelda lacked all of the king's subtlety.

You could, Tae admitted. But it probably wouldn't work. You can't force love, and you can't rush it.

The cat made a disgusted noise. You humans attach too much sentiment to everything and analyze things to death. We can tell when you're in love. You have to be beaten over the head with a brick sometimes.

Tae caught the reference. The cat had been trying to get him to marry Alneezah, the kind and quick-witted maid who watched over him, while he had repeatedly denied his affection for her. Tae had finally recognized that the cat was right, but he could not act on the knowledge until he returned home. Nor had he admitted his mistake to Imorelda. You can't make people love on command. It has to happen naturally.

Imorelda sent a mental laugh. Men are poor dumb saps who don't even realize that women quietly, secretly make all your decisions. Including who you love.

Tae did not have time to ponder the cat's words, other than to realize that one female did have great power over him: Imorelda herself.

King Griff summed up the proceedings. "So, it seems we have resolved to do several things today. First, we must prepare for a larger attack by giant magical beings. Second, we will shore up our communication systems, including leaving some representatives in Béarn and elsewhere to prepare for an attack in the near or distant future on any beachfront. Third, we will attempt to enlist the aid of magical beings, including the elves, Chymmerlee, and any others like Chymmerlee who might exist. Fourth, we need to learn the plans of these magical giants in order to thwart or prepare for them. We will meet back here in three days' time with specific ideas as to how to achieve those four objectives."

Tae sucked in a huge breath of air, knowing exactly which role would have to become his. He alone could speak the language of the enemy, and it required not only the use of voice but of mental speaking. He knew of only one other person capable of such a thing, and the idea of involving Matrinka in a spying mission like the one that had nearly killed him was revolting. Griff might even try to stop Tae himself from going. If he died spying, they lost the key to communication with the Kjempemagiska.

Tae had three days to make a decision.

The Renshai will remain the finest swordsmen in the world, but never again will we ravage lands at peace without cause.--Colbey Calistinsson

SAVIAR RA-KHIRSSON SLIPPED INTO the Renshai encampment as the sun glided below the ocean, smearing streaks of red across the waves. Voices carried over the sand, and the dark figures of moving men filled the horizon as they continued the job of sorting corpses. The Renshai had already sent their own dead to the pyre. The torke challenged the mortally injured to combat, granting them the death in valorous battle they all craved and required, humanely destroying those too weak to fight.

The rest of the cleanup fell to the companions of the dead or to the noncombatants of Béarn. Healers worked tirelessly on injured allies, while the dead and dying of the enemy were piled unceremoniously or dragged into the surf for the sharks to devour. Urchins and beggars ransacked the heaps, seeking missed bits of copper or jewelry and well-hidden weapons. Some groups fared better than others. Where the Renshai had lost only a handful of warriors, men and women alike; the untrained peasants of the central West had fallen in numbers that required mass graves.

Saviar walked to the makeshift tent erected by his family, only to find his father's white charger saddled and ready, Darby fussing over the last details of grooming his own chestnut gelding. Though Saviar could not explain why, the sight of the young squire diligently focused on the animals aggravated his already foul temper. He brushed aside the tent flap without bothering to ascertain that he did not expose his father.

Ra-khir looked up from his preparations, wearing the formal black breeks and long-sleeved silk undershirt of the Knights of Erythane. He looked out of place without his tabard and cape, his red-blond hair wild and his hands unclad. Although he smiled, the corners of his lips turned down ever so slightly. "Ah, Saviar." His tone did not express the usual joy at the sight of his son.

That bothered Saviar. Prior to his mother's death, he and his father had been close, much more so than the aloof, contemptuous Calistin or Subikahn, who had spent nearly as much time in the East with his father as on the Fields of Wrath with the rest of his family.

"Going somewhere?" Saviar stared into his father's face. Ra-khir should have told him; he should not have had to ask.

"On a mission for the knights," Ra-khir said matter-of-factly as he pulled on his tabard. Blue and gold in the front, it displayed the rearing grizzly of Béarn. On the back, it was black, with the orange sun and sword symbol of Erythane. Saviar knew it so well, he could draw every detail with his eyes closed.

"Where to?" Saviar asked innocently, wondering how long his father would remain evasive.

Ra-khir adjusted every seam and wrinkle. "North into the middle Westlands." He picked up his cape. "We're serving as an escort."

"We?"

"Me and three other knights." Ra-khir threw the golden fabric across his shoulders and reached for the clasp.

"Can I come along?"

Ra-khir did not miss a beat. He fastened the clasp, then set to adjusting every fold. "I'm sorry, Saviar. It's for knights only."

Saviar's ire rose further, and he fought it down. "You've taken me before."

"That was your grandfather's idea. And, at the time, you were contemplating becoming a Knight of Erythane."

Saviar studied his father, forever in awe of the splendid figure cut by all of Erythane's knights. Even without the hat and the gloves, a Knight of Erythane inspired admiration and trust, especially in the son who used to worship them. "What makes you think I no longer am?"

Ra-khir stopped preening to study Saviar. "You've expressed no further interest. Joining the Knights of Erythane is not something you can do halfway. It requires commitment and intense dedication."

Saviar could only stare. "Since I expressed my interest, when have I had a chance to pursue anything? As soon as we returned home from that particular mission, Mother was killed in the Northmen's duel and the Renshai banished from the entire Westlands. We got back barely in time for the war, which has only just ended."

Ra-khir responded so softly even Saviar could scarcely hear him. "You were not banished."

"What?" Saviar could not believe what he had heard.

Dutifully, Ra-khir repeated, "You were not banished. I told you the Erythanian Council determined you and your brothers could stay, since your only living parent was Erythanian, not Renshai."

Ire flared to frank anger. "So you expected me to abandon my tribe?"

"I expected you," Ra-khir started just as softly, forcing Saviar to strain to hear, "to do exactly as you did. Aside from leaving in secret without telling me good-bye."

"So that's what this is all about."

Ra-khir looked all innocence. "What do you mean?"

"I abandoned you, so you're abandoning me." Saviar turned his back, the insult deliberate. "I suffered a lot of guilt for that bad decision. And I apologized. I can understand your being upset, but I can't understand your inability to forgive me."

Ra-khir put on his wide, yellow belt, fastening it from long habit. "I forgave you long before you apologized. Children do hurtful things sometimes, but you never stop loving them." He reached for his sword, long and broad. Saviar could never remember a time when he did not have a sword at his own hip or in his hand, but he had started with much thinner, shorter blades. He recalled hefting his father's mighty weapon in his youth and nearly falling on his face. "I'm not abandoning you, Saviar. I'm going on a short mission. I've been serving the Knights of Erythane your whole life, and I've gone many places without you. Why is this one so different?"

"Because--" Only one answer came, not the one Saviar had intended to shout, but the truth. Realizing his resentment had grown far out of proportion to the circumstances, Saviar let the words escape him softly. "--you're escorting Chymmerlee, aren't you?"

"Yes," Ra-khir admitted, attaching his sword to his belt and flicking it into the proper knightly angle.

"She hates me now, doesn't she?"

Ra-khir would never lie. "It would appear you are not among her favorites."

Saviar had to know. "Why? What did I do wrong?"

Ra-khir sighed. He sat on the deadfall that served as their only piece of furniture in the camp and gestured for Saviar to take a place beside him.

The Renshai complied.

"You lied to her, Saviar. About being Renshai."

Although he knew his only defense would not work with Ra-khir, or any Knight of Erythane, Saviar could not help trying. "I didn't lie. It just... never... came up."

Ra-khir gave Saviar a disapproving look, one he knew from his childhood but did not realize still worked so well on his conscience. "A lie of omission is still a lie, Saviar. You know that."

"Yes, but... Thialnir says we should not reveal ourselves as Renshai until people get to know us and like us. Otherwise, they might react badly to us just because of our tribe."

"Thialnir is a wise Renshai." Having defended the source, Ra-khir did not let Saviar off the hook. "However, I think you got well past the point where Chymmerlee got to know and like you without telling her. Yes?"

Saviar nodded and opened his mouth to explain.

But Ra-khir had not yet finished. "I don't expect you to act like a Knight of Erythane, but I do expect you to behave like the moral, decent man you are. Trust must be earned, and it shatters easily, with a single lie or betrayal. In the end, a man's word and his good name are the only things he truly owns. If he sacrifices those, he has nothing."

Saviar had heard those words before. "But, Papa, that's exactly what--"

Ra-khir still had a point to make. "Do you love her, Saviar?"

Saviar had not expected the sudden question. "I-I don't know. I suppose I eventually could. I like her a lot, but I'm not ready for marriage or anything." He could not help wondering, "Why does that matter?"

"Because, Saviar, if you truly care about someone, you would never violate her trust. Never. She must know, without any reason to ever consider doubting, that you would not harm her, that you would lay down your life for her."

Saviar screwed up his features, trying to fathom the new direction the conversation had taken.

"It is the ultimate measure of a man. Because, if his wife and children cannot trust him, those he professes to love most in the world, how can anyone? If he would be disloyal to his loved ones, how much quicker will he betray anyone of lesser importance? Most women, good women, do not need this explained to them; they know intuitively. But even usually-wise kings have made the mistake of putting men who deceive their wives in positions of power, then act surprised when the dog next turns on them."

Saviar shook his head. "I see your point. It's one I admit I never considered. But, in this case, it works against you."

Ra-khir's brows inched upward. "How so?"

"Because, when I awoke from my coma--"

Ra-khir interrupted, a discourtesy he rarely indulged in, "Coma?" Clear alarm came out in that solitary word.

"--having no idea where I was or what was happening, Subikahn made me swear I wouldn't tell anyone about us being Renshai. Having made that vow to a loved one, I could hardly break it."

"The loved one being Subikahn." Ra-khir shook his head repeatedly. "Coma?"

Clearly, they could not continue the discussion until Saviar answered the outstanding question. "Apparently, I took a bad hit and went septic. I lost a lot of remembered time, not only during and after the injury but even some before it. I'm told that happens a lot with bad accidents; the healers even have a name for it. Something long I can't pronounce. If you want more than that, you'll have to ask Subikahn."

"And when you woke up, you made a promise to your brother."

Saviar managed a weak grin. Ra-khir finally understood. "One I could not violate, although I wanted to several times. Vows, I'm told, are not situational; and a man is only as good as his word."

Ra-khir laughed. His very own words had come back to bite him. "I've heard you made vows to Chymmerlee as well. Ones she worries you won't keep."

Saviar felt his blood warming again and gritted his teeth to hold back rising anger. "And I am certain you assured her I would never break my word."

"I assured her you had always kept it before, and I would do my best to see you remained the upstanding and wonderful man I raised."

Saviar tried to find an underlying insult, seeking any reason to justify the irritation toward his father that he currently suffered. "Did you also tell her there must be some logical reason why I didn't tell her about being Renshai?"

Ra-khir gathered his hat and his gloves, pulling them into his lap. "I don't second-guess the motives of any man without speaking to him first."

Saviar snorted.

"Why didn't you tell her yourself?"

Saviar suspected Ra-khir knew the answer to his own question, at least in a general sense. He also had enough knowledge of his son's vows to Chymmerlee not to ask about her and her people. "I can't get near her. When Subikahn tried to help, she nearly killed him."

"She's not open to explanation."

That being self-evident, Saviar saw no reason to reply. Finally believing himself free from the mostly irrational anger, he asked softly, "You'll talk to her? Help her understand?"

Ra-khir sighed, winching his hands around the gloves in his lap. "I'm sure we'll talk; but, as I've already stated, she's clearly not open to explanation. I suspect that, in her case, the trust issue, while significant, is not what most bothers her."

Saviar cocked his head, not fully certain of his father's point. "So now that you've lectured me to death on trust, you're saying that's not even the problem?"

Ra-khir shook his head, face crinkled with dismay. "Oh, that's a significant transgression, one I'm glad to hear you didn't commit simply to save yourself discomfort. But, having listened to you and observed her, I suspect she hates you more for being Renshai than for neglecting to tell her." He peered intently at his son, obviously expecting a strong reaction.

Saviar only shrugged. Chymmerlee had never met a Renshai before he and his twin had come into her life. She knew them only as the bloodthirsty savages who had slaughtered all of her people more than three hundred years ago. Regaled with stories of cruelty and hatred since birth, she could feel no other way about them. She had cared deeply for Saviar once, before she knew what he was. Surely, he could make her see that he had not become a different person only because she had learned the race of his mother. "Then there's hope."

Ra-khir sat up. "Hope?"

"Prejudice stems from ignorance. If I educate her, she may not only come back to me but come also to understand Renshai."

Ra-khir remained frozen in place, clearly worried to display any sort of reaction. That, in and of itself, told Saviar that he had concerns about his son's words.

Saviar felt the old ire rising again. In the last day, it had become a familiar companion. "What's wrong with what I said?"

"Nothing," Ra-khir admitted. "It's a noble pursuit."

"But..." Saviar added questioningly.

Ra-khir hesitated, as if debating whether or not to continue. "I... know women, as much as a man can. And I know young men well. You will want to begin her schooling immediately. She will not wish to speak to or about you for weeks. Those two do not mesh well. Far better to give her the space and time to miss you."

"Except, you're about to take her away."

Ra-khir could hardly deny it. "If it's meant to be, she'll come back to you. I can't tell you the details of my mission, but you have to know all of us want her to like us, to return should we need her services again." He frowned deeply, warningly. "You also must know I'm bound to protect her against anything that might harm or upset her. Please, Saviar, don't place me in the position of having to defend her from you."

Truly Renshai, Saviar's thoughts went immediately to prowess. I'd beat you senseless, old man. He kept the idea to himself. Ra-khir would not consider the danger. If he had to fight Saviar to complete his knight's mission, he would do so no matter the certainty of the outcome. Saviar had no doubt he could defeat his father, but to what purpose? It might impress someone who held the knights in high esteem, but it would mortify Chymmerlee, break his father's heart, imbue him with guilt, and accomplish nothing positive. The desperate turn of his thoughts fueled his irritability. This could not end well. "Can't I go with you?"

Ra-khir had already answered that question. "No."

"He's going though, isn't he?" Saviar jabbed a finger in the general direction of the waiting horses.

Ra-khir looked genuinely puzzled. "Silver Warrior?"

Saviar rolled his eyes. "I mean the boy. The one who tags after you everywhere."

Ra-khir's lids widened. "You mean Darby? Of course he's coming with me. He's my squire, a knight-in-training. It's his job to tag after me everywhere, to observe and question, to anticipate my needs."

Copyright © 2015 by Mickey Zucker Reichert


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