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DDDDD ZZZZZZ // D D AAAA RRR GGGG OOOO NN N Z I NN N EEEE || D D A A R R G O O N N N Z I N N N E || Volume 7 -=========================================================+|) D D AAAA RRR G GG O O N N N Z I N N N E || Number 5 DDDDD A A R R GGGG OOOO N NN ZZZZZZ I N NN EEEE || \\ \ ======================================================================== DargonZine Distributed: 11/15/1994 Volume 7, Number 5 Circulation: 617 ======================================================================== Contents Editorial Ornoth D.A. Liscomb A Lesson Learned Bill Erdley Yule 08, 1014 Tracks Jon Evans Yule 24, 1014 Kidnapped 2 Max Khaytsus Yule 23, 1014 ======================================================================== DargonZine is the publication vehicle of the Dargon Project, a collaborative group of aspiring fantasy writers on the Internet. We welcome new readers and writers interested in joining the project. Please address all correspondance to . Back issues are available from ftp.etext.org in pub/Zines/DargonZine. Issues and public discussion are posted to newsgroup rec.mag.dargon. DargonZine 7-5, (C) Copyright November, 1994, the Dargon Project. Editor Ornoth D.A. Liscomb . All rights reserved. All rights are reassigned to the individual contributors. Stories may not be reproduced or redistributed without the explicit permission of the author(s) involved, except in the case of freely reproducing entire issues for further distribution. Reproduction for profit is forbidden. ======================================================================== Editorial by Ornoth D.A. Liscomb In the minutes before I send out a new issue, I always get butterflies. It's a moment not only of pride, but of anxiety as well. Did I remember to update the circulation and issue numbers? Did I format all the submissions correctly? Is the JCL I send to Listserv correct? And the question that always concerns me most: how will the network react to the 100+ megabytes of traffic I'm about to generate? Well, for Volume 7 Number 4 the answer to that question was: badly. And if you notice this issue's circulation as compared to last, you'll get an idea why. When I sent out 7-4, I received errors from over 400 invalid recipients, and most of the error reports included full copies of the issue I'd sent. Now, sending an issue out is easy -- I send just one copy to Listserv. But neither myself nor my upstream sites were able to effectively deal with the 50+ megabytes of rejected mail that I received. Oops! Hence the new policy of sending out a small "trial balloon" mail file a few days prior to sending the actual issue. The rejected mail was almost entirely "unknown user" and "unknown site" messages. The latter appears to be a symptom of Bitnet sites switching to being Internet-only sites. Unfortunately, for many of these sites, I have no way to construct an Internet domain based upon their old Bitnet node name. I've tried to track down several sites, but the majority remain unknown. Anyone with any bright ideas on how to reach these people, please speak up! This also highlights the importance of Bitnet users notifying me of their Internet domains. I'd encourage all subscribers who are on Bitnet to find out their Internet address and send mail to me at to verify that I am sending to their Internet domain, rather than a Bitnet address that may expire. Weighing in on the other end of the scale was the passage of the rec.mag.dargon voting by a margin of 156 to 37! Our old newsgroup, rec.mag.fsfnet, has been renamed rec.mag.dargon. It will not only be used to distribute issues, but is also open to postings by anyone, for open discussion between DargonZine readers and writers. I'd like to encourage you to post your comments to rec.mag.dargon, and again thank everyone who participated in the vote -- it wouldn't have happened without your help! We have an interesting problem, however. Lots of wargamers started flooding rec.mag.dargon, thinking it was a forum for TSR's Dragon Magazine. While we're still dealing with the chaos that resulted, a number of these fantasy gamers have requested subscriptions! Since 7-4 came out in mid-October, over fifty new subscribers have signed on, and we've had the biggest influx of new writers in years! Another pleasant thing that happened recently is that Christy Phillips has made the back issues of both FSFnet and DargonZine available in a special ezine library of America Online (AOL). She'll also be making new issues available as they come out. This is a great development, because we've historically had problems getting issues distributed to AOL users, due to their flaky mail system and that system's annoying and arbitrary email file size limitations. Kujos (sic) to Christy! AOL users should be able to access the back issue collection via: Keyword PDA *Mac* users select "Software Libraries" *All* users then select "Palmtop Paperbacks" The path from there is: Ezine Libraries->Science Fiction/Fantasy/DargonZine. With all that said, I'd like to welcome the readers who have recently joined us, and once again echo the familiar refrain. Spread the word about DargonZine to people you think would be interested, and if you're a serious aspiring writer who'd like to join the project, we'd love to hear from you! This issue begins with a short story about Derrio, Bill Erdley's deaf squire to Luthias Connall. I met Bill on my road trip this spring. You should send him mail congratulating him on his recent marriage -- and while you're at it, congratulate him on getting "A Lesson Learned" printed, after it sat on the back burner for months. Bill will appear again very shortly with "the Evening After" and "the Scent of Balsam". Bill's story is followed by "Grim" Jon Evans' newest, "Tracks", in which Goren Winston, the Lord Keeper of Gateway Keep faces an important decision. Grim's a very gracious and laid back host, but beware his penchant for stealing your shampoo! He's been one of the movers and shakers in the project of late, and he too will appear again very shortly, with "Storm Dancer", the first installment in a new storyline that I'm sure you'll enjoy. And, of course, the omnipresent Max Khaytsus makes yet another appearrance with the continuation of his story "Kidnapped". So, read on! Oh, and write if you find work! ======================================================================== A Lesson Learned by Bill Erdley Yule 08, 1014 "Good Evening, Squire." The tone of voice made it clear that there were no good wishes in the greeting. The youth stepped in front of Derrio, blocking his path. "I said 'Good evening'. Aren't you going to answer me?" Derrio tried to walk around the lad, keeping his eyes cast downward in an attempt to avoid what he knew was coming. The boy pushed Derrio back. Derrio's head snapped up and he stared at the belligerent youth. *Go* *Away* "Don't flap your arms at me, buffoon! You insult me by not answering my greeting. I think that you need to be taught a lesson in courtesy ..." The youth leapt at Derrio, arms extended. Derrio, instead of retreating as the youth expected, stepped to the side, pushing the stumbling bully past him, then ran. He didn't feel like fighting again. The marching and the chores were hard, the training was tough, and the constant state of near panic had everyone on edge; but nothing was as bad as the taunting that had become an everyday occurrence. Derrio was constantly having to avoid people who meant him harm, and face up to people who tried to make him cringe. He tried to avoid trouble as much as he could, but it seemed that trouble sought him out. He finally went to Luthias. *Question* *Why* *Squires* *Hate* *Me* Luthias, his mind on matters of war and peace, didn't catch all of Derrio's signs, and shook his head. "I don't understand." *Squires* *Fight* *Me* *Much* "The other squires fight with you?" *Yes* "Do you provoke them?" *No* "Do you fight back?" *Yes* "Who's squires are they?" *Knight* *Nose* *Large* The knight chuckled at his squire's description, but sobered quickly. "Ongis. I might have known. The man's arrogance has even outgrown his rather large nose. And, it appears, his squires are learning well from him." *Squire* *Laugh* *Me* "Derrio, there are two ways to deal with a bully. You can do nothing, or you can do something that will make him stop. Doing nothing may help, or it may make him angrier. There is, however, the matter of an unrequited blow -- something that no knight will ever stand for." *Question* *I* *Fight* *They* *Stop* The knight's face softened. "Perhaps. You can make his attacks too painful to continue, or too embarrassing. You must find a way to accomplish one of those two objectives. It is quite a bit like the war we are fighting. The only way to get the Benisons to stop is to embarrass them so badly at court that they don't want to continue, or hurt them so badly in the field that they can't continue. Only with this war, the chance for the former is past, and we are limited to the latter." His mind back on the war, Luthias turned and walked into his tent. That evening, when Luthias sent the youth off to find Michiya, the bully caught up with him again, and this time he brought friends. Two of them caught Derrio from behind and held him, while Mikus, Derrio's original opponent, stood before him. "Now, idiot, you will learn to respect your betters ..." WHAM! The blow drove the breath from Derrio's lungs. "... and with that respect, you'll learn courtesy ..." WHAM! The bile rose in his throat. "... and you definitely need to learn courtesy ..." WHAM! "ENOUGH!!!" Luthias' voice was a sweet sound, indeed. The boys released Derrio and he slumped to the ground, spent. The sound of flesh hitting flesh sounded briefly through the damp air, but it wasn't Derrio that was being struck. "Cowards!! You haven't the courage to face your opponents one-on-one! If you were my squires, not only would I release you from apprenticeship, but I would beat you to within an inch of your cowardly lives! Go, before I forget my responsibility to this army and reduce its numbers by three! GO!" The three ruffians scrambled to their feet and ran. "Are you OK?" Luthias' concern was evident in his soft tone. *Small* *Rest* "Michiya has returned to my tent. Come back with me and clean yourself up." The next morning, Derrio's chores again took him into the camp at large, and once again he and Mikus crossed paths. "Derrio, I'm gonna tear you apart! Not only did I get a beating from Sir Luthias, but Sir Ongis punished me for embarrassing him. You're not gonna cause me any more trouble." Derrio's vision began to tinge with a bloody haze. This was infuriating! He couldn't even leave the tent anymore without having to defend himself. Mikus and Derrio circled each other for a moment, Mikus searching for an opening, and Derrio looking for an escape. Mikus moved first, rushing Derrio. But instead of running away, Derrio lunged forward, throwing a "sunfist" punch as Michiya had shown him. Fist met face, and the youth fell to the ground, blood fountaining from his nose and mouth. *Greetings* Derrio stepped around the fallen youth and walked away. Later, as Derrio approached Luthias' tent, he could hear voices raised in anger. He stopped outside the tent flap to listen. "It is not your place to lesson my squires in courtesy!" a dark voice roared. Sir Luthias' voice was steady. "You are wrong, sir. It is the duty of a Knight to correct the behavior of all those who aspire to the chain." The dark voice answered. "My squires behave as I teach them." With that, the dark voice acquired a name: Sir Ongis. "As does my squire," Luthias replied. "I taught him to give a curt reply to anyone churlish enough to taunt him." Sir Ongis snorted. "So your idea of a 'curt reply' is a blow to the mouth?" Derrio started. The news of his lashing out at Mikus had reached Luthias before Derrio could get back to explain. "My squire is mute, sir. He can only speak with his hands." Derrio smiled. "You! I should teach you a lesson in how to respect your betters!" "At your leisure, sir. I look forward to thrashing you as thoroughly as my squire thrashes yours." Derrio's smile broadened. There was a short silence, then Luthias spoke again. "Shall I have you escorted to your pavilion?" Derrio backed away, and found himself hiding behind several horses. "Dismissed." Luthias' voice had within it the note of finality. Sir Ongis burst from the tent, strode several paces, then stopped; obviously attempting to regain control over his temper before he returned to his tent. He spied Derrio standing by the horses. "I will teach your knight the lesson that he badly needs, a lesson in manners." The knight was speaking softly, as if to prevent Luthias from overhearing. "And when I am finished, YOU will learn a lesson in respect!" He then turned and stormed off. For several minutes, Derrio stood and quieted his quivering insides. He not only feared Ongis' threat, but Luthias' retribution as well, for it was his fault that Ongis had been here. Finally, his shaking halted, he approached the tent. "If it rains tonight, we might have a little trouble. Mud could --" Sir Luthias looked up and spied Derrio entering the glow of the campfire. "Come here, Derrio." The Knight inspected his squire sternly, noting the blood, the dirt, and the bruises. "Brawling with Ongis' squires again?" Here it comes, Derrio thought. He hung his head and nodded. Luthias waited a moment before asking, "Did you win?" Derrio couldn't help but grin, thinking that perhaps he would escape punishment. "Good. Now come over here and look at the plan for tomorrow." He didn't get angry! I thought for sure that he'd be upset because I disgraced him in front of Sir Ongis. He crossed over to the fire and looked at the markings on the ground. Luthias used his stick as a pointer and explained, "We'll meet Beinison here, and after a while, we'll retreat into this meadow. The archers will be hidden in the trees around the field. The troops will split into four parts -- one to protect the archers on each side, and the last to seal off the meadow -- and the archers will open fire." Derrio studied the plan intensely. It suddenly dawned on him ... this was a trap! A trap wasn't honorable! It didn't allow the opponent a fair chance. *Trap* "Yes, of course, it's a trap," Luthias agreed. The Knight laughed at Derrio's appalled expression. "What's wrong? Don't you think it will work?" *No* Derrio shook his head. He pointed an accusing finger at the Knight Captain, another at the battle plans, then shook his head. *You* *No* *Do* *This* "Unlike me?" Luthias didn't understand his squire at all. "What do you mean?" Disgusted, Derrio motioned reproachfully at the trap. *This* *No* *Honor* Again, Luthias misunderstood. "It's not evil! This is war, Derrio. I'm trying to save lives." *This* *Death* Luthias had to admit it. "Yes, it will kill many, too, but that's the purpose." The squire was confused and angry. Luthias had taught him about honor, now he was about to perform a most dishonorable act; and many people would die because of it. *This* *No *Honor* The knight was getting angry. "This isn't a matter of good and evil, Derrio, this is war." *NO* *You* *No *Honor* Luthias hurled his drawing stick into the fire in frustration. "You can't judge me by my battle plans!" Luthias cried. "A man's conduct in PEACE makes him good or evil, Derrio, not his conduct in war. The only moral decision in war is whether or not to start one. After that, it's survival -- kill or be killed, and end as quickly as you can." But doesn't war include honor. Isn't there to be justice, fairness, in battle? The young man's confusion grew. *Question* *This* *Fair* Luthias smiled. "Of course, it's fair. There are no rules in war." Confusion suddenly rushed onto silent Derrio's face. *Question* *You* *Lawrence* *Fight* Luthias shook his head, not understanding. *Knight* *Drink* *Cup* Again, Luthias shook his head. Exasperated, Derrio grabbed a small stick and wrote in the dirt, "LAWRENCE." "Oh." Luthias said, finally comprehending Derrio's question. "That wasn't the same." Derrio shook his head in utter bewilderment. Luthias now seemed to understand Derrio's confusion. "Single combat does have rules. It's not the same as war." Derrio again shook his head. "You used to wrestle Sir Edward's squires, didn't you?" Derrio nodded, uncertain. "You were ... playing a game of sorts, and there were rules. With Ongis' squires, though, you're just trying to beat them into the ground." Derrio nodded again, still not understanding. "When you wrestle Sir Edward's squires, it's like a Knight's single combat. You fight by rules. Thrashing Ongis' boys is like a war -- the object is to win, and win fast." Derrio considered this. *Question* *You* *Kill* *Lawrence* "Yes. I would have killed Sir Lawrence if I had to, Derrio, but I would have done it under the rules of chivalry." *Question* *Trap* *Kill* *Lawrence* Luthias shrugged. "If he's there tomorrow, he'll die by the bow, the same as the rest, if all goes well." *Lawrence* *Honor* "He is a good man," Luthias agreed, "but if I were in his trap, he would let me die, too. This is war, Derrio, and we all do what we must." *I* *Not* *Understand* Luthias smiled sadly. "You'll learn." Luthias gazed down at his hands. "Believe me, Derrio; you'll learn. We all do." That night Derrio thought long about Luthias' plans for the upcoming battle and the differences between a battle of war and a battle of honor. Fighting had always been an honorable conflict between two equal opponents -- with rules and courtesies and the better man winning. Now Luthias is making a difference between war and combat. If war is "get him before he gets you", and chivalrous combat is "prove to him that you are a better fighter", where is the line drawn between them? If two knights meet on the battlefield in the middle of a skirmish, how do they fight? Do they follow the chivalrous rules of combat, or do they do anything that they can to win? Luthias had also talked about the trouble with Ongis' squires. He made it sound like a war, with the outcome being the only important thing; "to win and win fast." But if honor was a "sometime" thing, was it really important? Sleep was a long time in coming. When the morning sun was greeted by the call of "Break Camp!" and "Prepare to March!", the young squire had come to a decision. 'Honor', as a concept, was like combat. One could follow the rules, or ignore them. It was a choice, and each individual situation demanded a decision. Choose to act chivilrously or not, choose to follow the rules or break them ... ... Choose to win or to lose. *Greetings*. "Look mates, it's the talker!" Mikus could hardly believe his eyes. Before him stood Derrio, right here in Ongis' compound! "I believe he's come for his daily lesson ..." Derrio's gestures were unmistakable. *You* *Me* *Fight* *Now* Then he turned and walked out of the compound. "Hey! Why not fight right here?" Derrio kept walking. "Hey, Idiot! Where are you going?" Mikus and his fellow squires ran to catch up to Derrio. Mikus grabbed Derrio by the shoulder to spin him around. "It's time to ..." WHAM! Derrio spun around and swung his hand over the outstretched arm of Mikus. Before the youth could react, Derrio stuck him in the throat with an open hand slap, causing Mikus to fall to the ground, gasping and gagging. The other two squires stepped toward Derrio, and he pulled a cudgel from beneath his cloak. *Come* The smile that accompanied the gesture was icy and hard. One lunged at Derrio from the right. Derrio stepped forward, spun, and struck the other boy between the legs with the club. He stepped sideways to avoid another rush, then swung around and down, striking the last youth in the back of the skull. All of his assailants down, Derrio turned back to Mikus, who was still trying to lose the constricting feeling in his throat. Mikus, seeing Derrio's approach, tried to rise, but Derrio swung the club and struck Mikus in the knees, felling him once again. Then he stepped up to his fallen adversary, looking down into the fearful eyes of a coward. *You* *No* *Knight* Then he spat in the face of the frightened boy. As he turned and strode back to his own tent, he wondered if his last words were to Mikus, or to himself. ======================================================================== Tracks by Jon Evans Yule 24, 1014 Marcus Ridgewater walked slowly down the main hall of Gateway Keep, the links of chain in his armor less than perfect after the previous days' battles. The broad sword at his side came within a foot of the ground as he half-walked half-loped toward his rightful leader, Goren Winston, Lord Keeper of Gateway Keep. Marcus' wounds were many. Arrows which had grazed his armor left bruises on his skin. Sword cuts left loose links hanging from his armor, and blood stains on his shirt and pants. He looked nothing like the epitome of chivalric knights in shiny armor. But then, he was not a knight. Goren Winston sat in his father's seat at the head of the table. The chair was large, with ornate patterns carved into its heavy wood, and almost made Goren appear to be a large child. Goren, however, while not his father's size and bulk, could not be mistaken as such. His beard was thick and unkempt, and the sadness in his eyes hinted at more than his 23 years. In the last year, he had killed both his father and his brother. Only one had been an accident. He rubbed his fingers through his beard, scratching along his jaw, and stared vaguely beyond the table. His leg ached where a shard from a magical stone had pierced his skin and muscles. The rest of the cuts and bruises on his own body had faded into a single, continuous, dull pain which generally permeated his whole being. The salves which he had administered to the cuts would heal them, in time, but his right leg would forever burden him with a slight limp. "Lord Keeper," Marcus spoke in his most formal tone. Goren had all but ignored Marcus' approach, and was slightly startled at the sound. "What is it, castellan?" Goren sat straight in his father's chair -- his own chair, now -- and looked at Marcus. "My lord, with the assistance of Lord Morion and Sir Luthias, the Beinison threat has been forced into retreat. Furthermore, with Lord Morion's men continuing presence at Gateway Keep, and the military advice of Lord Morion himself, I'm confident that Gateway Keep is not in need of my services, at this time." "What are you talking about, Marcus?" "Now that my presence is not required, I intend to take a leave of absence from Gateway, my lord. My son is missing, and I intend to find him." "You can't leave, Marcus." "Lord Keeper--" "Have you got the slightest idea where to begin?" Goren looked at his father's best friend. A man who had been almost a father to him. "You are under orders from the Crown. You serve in a military unit dedicated to the service of Baranur, and Baranur is at war. You can't leave now just because you're going through a personal emergency. You've got a responsibility." "My lord, some men have found a drain in the dungeons that has been uncovered. It leads into the Vodyanoi, and it's large enough to fit a small man, or a boy. I've also discovered a youth who saw Thomas leave with ... Captain Clay." "Clay?" "Aye. The boy was told to keep quiet about it. Clay cooked up some story about a mission he and Thomas were going on. But not that Beinison is gone and they haven't returned, I suppose the boy thinks they might be in a bit of trouble." Goren stared at the floor in front of Marcus. Captain Bartholomew Clay was the mercenary that had plotted with Goren's brother, Ne'on, to kill their father and usurp the seat of Keeper of Gateway. They had succeeded on both accounts, and imprisoned Goren for months before he was able to escape. Goren owed a debt to Bartholomew Clay that he dearly wished to repay. "I suppose you're right. Let's check out that drain." Goren squatted by the edge of the drain while Marcus held aloft the oil lantern. The flame afforded little visibility in the dark stone passages of Gateway's dungeons, and almost no light shone down into the drain. "Can you see anything?" "Yes," Goren replied, looking at Marcus. "Darkness. The lamp casts its own shadow into the drain. I'll have to go down into it." "Goren," Marcus put his left hand on Goren's shoulder. "Let me. If anything should happen-" "What? Marcus, look at you. You're almost twice around the size of me. I'll be hard put to get into that drain, but you could never fit. And if you did, how would we get you out? Besides, I've got a stake in this, too. I want Clay's head." Goren searched around the floor. "Why isn't there an old torch or something around here? What happened to castle dungeons with wooden planks and torch ends littering the ground?" Marcus smiled. "She's less than thirty years old, Goren. And your father wasn't the type to send every peasant who couldn't pay taxes into the dungeons. This area wasn't used but more than two or three times." "Yes." Goren's gaze seemed to focus beyond the wall. "And I was one of them. Tell me, Marcus ... where exactly was my cell?" "That direction," Marcus pointed down the tunnel. "Go right. Only cell on the left." Goren started walking toward it with Marcus at his heels. "Is it unlocked?" "Maybe." When they came to the cell, Goren entered it. Running his hand through the straw pile that passed for his bed, he found the object of his search. He pulled out a half-burned torch. "I was going to use this on the guards, and try to escape," he explained to Marcus. "But I never had the strength for it. It was all I had." Goren's feet found small footholds in the drain's walls as he lowered himself waist deep into the hole. It was a close fit. By the time his shoulders were in, he had only a few inches to spare. The air was stagnant, and the closeness of the walls seemed to press in on him. He had a sense of the drain hole getting smaller, and the passage shrinking. He knew it was only fear playing tricks with his mind, but his heart beat faster. He had to will himself to breath slowly, relax his body. He knew that if he panicked he could be stuck in that hole for a long time. "Goren, I don't like this." Marcus scolded him. "Ol's balls, we're grown men. We should get one of the guards to go down there first." "Well," Goren gasped out in between steps. "You name a guard you can think of that deserves to go through this, and I'll send him through. But most of the men are wounded, and besides ..." Goren looked up at Marcus and smiled. "This is the most fun I've had in a long time. Now hand me that torch so I can work my way down." Marcus sighed and reached for the torch. As Marcus' hand closed on the handle, he noticed a surprised look come over Goren's face. A soft "ulp" escaped Goren's lips, and the Lord Keeper of Gateway began to slide away through the hole. "Goren!" Marcus yelled. He dropped the torch and nearly kicked out the lantern in an effort to grab his friend, but Goren had slid beyond his reach. Slowly, a few feet at a time, Goren's face began to disappear from view. "Goren! Are you alright?" "Fine." Goren replied. "I'm moving slowly, at the moment. The walls of this drain are a little slimier than I thought. I think there's an opening beneath me, if I can get down a little further without breaking my neck." "Do you want the torch?" Marcus called. "No! My hands are wedged at my sides." After a moment he added, "And I don't much fancy the smell of burning hair." Two shadows separated themselves from the walls of the dungeon. One drew a long knife from it's sheath. The other removed a crowbar from beneath its cloak. "Evening, Castellan. Can we be of help?" "Yes," Marcus replied without turning around. "Go get a rope and a few more lanterns. And a couple of the young guards in training. They can fit through the hole easily." "I'm afraid I'm too tired to run all the way back up those stairs, sir," said the shadow with the long knife. "Maybe my friend, here-" "No, no, sir," his friend replied. "Me leg's still sore from fightin' off Beinison, and livin' down here these past few days, we ain't had but much to eat. I don't think I could muster the strength." Marcus turned around slowly to see the two figures before him. Thin, ragged, desperate men with weapons. And no room for Marcus to draw his broadsword. Were they deserters? No. Their faces looked familiar, though. When a sparkle of recognition entered Marcus' eyes, the first one spoke. "Aye, Ridgewater. The last of the Black Arm. Now step away from that drain." Marcus looked down the hole. "Goren, here comes the torch," he said, and kicked the torch down the hole before stepping away. Goren's yell began to rise up from the drain and then stopped. "Me and Nick, here, seem to have come across a bit o' luck," the first one continued. "We wanted you for offing our mates. But getting the Keeper with the same deal is a bargain we hadn't dreamed of." He looked to his friend. "Clay will have to pay us extra for Winston." "Not if we don't bring back a piece of him, Will. One of us'll have to go down there in a few days and get an ear or somethin'." "What has Clay to do with this?" Marcus asked cautiously. He glanced around for something he could use as a weapon. His armor would probably protect him from a stab or two of the knife. Possibly soften the blow of the crowbar. But with nothing to strike at them, they could keep their distance and beat him senseless. "The Captain found us," Nick said. "Last of the Black Arm. Gave us two gold marks apiece, he did. Told us you'd be comin' this way, probably alone. And that if we got rid o' you, we could get out of here without havin' to crawl through that hell at your feet." "So Clay did go through that hole?" "Aye," Nick answered. "Was there a boy with him?" "Goren, here comes the torch" were the last words Goren heard before the torch slipped over the edge of the drain. Goren couldn't reach out to grasp it. As it landed on his head, he let out a short cry of pain. The smell of burning hair quickly filled his small confines. There was only one thing to do. He let go. The rough walls of the drain, covered in the slime of decade-old garbage and excrement, were uncompromising. But as he slid further down the drain, he was able to move his left arm up to grab the base of the torch. If he was going to die, at least his scalp wasn't going to be burned off in the process. His decent accelerated gradually. He was unable to prevent his fall. His boots kicked uselessly against rough edges, and with his right hand he grasped fruitlessly at ridges and knobs in the rock. After almost a mene of slipping and sliding, he fell out of the hole and into the air, and landed on a bed of sand and grime. The torch flame cast odd shadows on the rough-hewn walls. Long-tailed creatures scurried at the edge of the flickering light, and the sound of running water emanated from his right. At the sight of one of the red-eyed creatures, he nearly cried out. Rats. Some with bodies almost two feet in length, and tails slithering along behind. Goren's sudden landing and the introduction of light into their otherwise dark demesne scattered the rats away from Goren, but they began to sense his fear. He was trapped, he knew, and had no idea what had happened to Marcus. He remembered hearing voices, someone telling Marcus to step away from the hole, and then his slide had begun. "Marcus!" he called out. "Are you there?" No answer. He did not think he would be receiving help any time soon. And the rats were getting brave. He stabbed the burning torch at one of the nearest rats, searing it. Its squeal and the smell of burning meat let the other rats know that Goren was capable of defending himself. They were wary. They almost seemed to be gauging him, planning their attack. There were scores, perhaps hundreds, of them. Crawling and squirming on the ground, fighting for space. Several of them crept closer, still out of range of his torch, and began to circle him, looking for an opening. How close could they get? How quickly could he defend himself? He knew they were pushing his limits, weakening their prey, just as he had weakened animals he had hunted. As a few more of the rats began to circle him, he noticed the light was getting dimmer. His torch was burning low. When it went out, his life would be over. He desperately looked about the area. Refuse, human waste, rats, and water. There was a small crack in the wall where the water entered the cave, and a larger one where the stream left. He noticed that while some of the rats entered and left the cave from the one crack, they avoided the crack where the water exited the cave. Why? He did not know. In the faint light remaining, he did not care. His only chance to escape from a painful, agonizing death was to follow the current. Retrospectively, climbing down the hole that had led to this room seemed to be a bad idea. Nick charged Marcus with the crowbar, swinging wildly as he came. In the few moments since the melee had ensued, Marcus had noticed they were weak. They must have been telling the truth about being here for several days without much food. And since there were no prisoners for the dungeon, and all the guards were reassigned to defend Gateway and initiate its rebuilding, no one would be delivering food to any guards stationed in this part of the castle. Still, the crowbar Nick used had struck him several times, leaving him winded and bruised. But the low-cut stone ceiling which felt so oppressive was inhibiting to Nick's swing. As he charged this time, the bar knocked the ceiling, stalling his swing. Marcus struck upward with his fist, catching the man in his throat. Nick dropped the crowbar and gasped for air. Will had kept his distance, staying away from Nick's wild swings and gauging the castellan's ability. As Marcus picked up the crowbar, fear seemed to settle in the knife-wielder's eyes. Marcus swung the crowbar hard at Nick's head. He heard the cracking of bone as Nick's skull spilled blood and brains against the impacting weapon. Then he advanced on the other. The knife shook in Will's hand as he extended it in defense. Marcus walked confidently toward him, striking the knife aside and breaking Will's hand in the process. Will turned to run, but a kick from Marcus swept his legs out from under him. Marcus grabbed the thug and turned him over, staring hatred and pain into Will's eyes. He raised the crowbar. "Kill me now, castellan," Will managed to cry, "and you'll never find your son." The crowbar hesitated. "Bring me to him." He hauled the thief up by his neck, grasping the lantern with the same hand as the crowbar. "And he'd better be healthy." "My life for his," bargained Will. "You let me go if I show you where he is, okay?" Marcus' stare was his only reply. "Right. Mine for his. He's real close by, see." Will brought him down the hall and through a door. That door led to another hall, which led around a corner, to a secluded section of the dungeon that was unused. Had never been used, in fact, until now. And there was Thomas. Thomas was chained to a wall, gagged and blindfolded. By the looks of his head and the skin on his bones, he had been beaten and starved for several days. He was unconscious and hanging by his swollen wrists. Marcus ran to him, setting the lantern on the floor, and tried to wake him. Thomas was beyond reaching, for the moment. He was breathing, barely, but only just hanging on to life. With the lantern's light closer to Thomas' body, Marcus could see the extent to which the thugs had punished his boy. He turned toward Will, hatred and pain filling his eyes again. And, this time, a touch of ... revenge? The smell of urine filled the thug's britches. Marcus advanced toward him, raising the crowbar with a sinister grin. Goren was surrounded by a swirling mass of water, tumbling and tossing him in each direction. There was no way for him to see where he was or where he was going. One moment he had been crawling backwards through the stream, using the torch's remaining fire to ward off the rats. The next, he had slipped, landing face-first in the water, dropping the torch, and being swept away by the current. There was no light without the torch. He had been pulled under to a deeper, faster moving current. At the first turn, he had been slammed into a stone wall of the underground waterway, and the air had been knocked out of his body. Now his lungs screamed for air, and the tightness in his chest seemed ready to burst. As he was hurled through the water, he wondered how the water would taste. He tried not to imagine the choking feeling of his lungs trying to breath the liquid. It would be better than being eaten by rats, he thought momentarily. Suddenly, bubbles surrounded him. Light emerged into the watery passage, and he began floating upward, no longer knocking against the passage ceiling. He emerged, exhausted, into bright sunlight. He was floating on a river, less than ten yards from one shore, and the current was slowly edging him towards the overhanging trees. He let it. When his feet finally touched ground, he had regained enough strength to drag himself out of the water and crawl to the shore. His remaining clothing -- breeches, a shirt, a belt, and a pair of boots -- hung heavily on him, filled with the waters that had almost claimed his life. His injured leg throbbed, but held his weight. He was alive. It felt good. He looked around. He was on the Laraka, about a quarter of a league north west of Gateway keep. He could see Gateway's walls in the distance, and he instinctively backed into the brush at the river's edge. "Why did I do that?" Goren asked himself. "All I need to do is hail them, and they'll send a few horses out to get me. "And then you'll be back in Gateway, sitting on your father's chair, presiding over your father's business. Bored depressed, and lonely," he answered his own question. "And probably talking to yourself more than anyone else." Face it, he thought, you don't want to go back. And this is the perfect opportunity to leave. They'll think you're dead. "If you keep talking to yourself," he continued out loud, "you might be dead anyway." He checked his resources, as if he had already made his decision: he had clothes suitable for the summer season, although not perfect for travelling; a long knife was sheathed in his left boot; and a small pouch with one ... two ... three marks and ... four rounds. "A treasure for a king," he remarked dryly. Still. What reason could take him away from Gateway? Had he not just denied Marcus, less than a bell ago, the right to go searching for his son? What about responsibility? What about his father's legacy? Had he the right to remove himself from the duties the King had entrusted him with? As keeper of Gateway, did he not have a responsibility to the men within the keep, as well as the townspeople in the villages under its protection? Would he be the hypocrite, saying "follow my thoughts, not my actions"? As he thought about this dilemma, his mind a pendulum swinging from responsibility at one end and freedom at the other, he spied a small stack of dead branches that had been used as a campfire. He made his way out of the scrub he had hidden in, and approached the old campfire. Kneeling down, he smelled it, ground some of the dead soot through his fingers. There were boot tracks nearby: one man, small feet. Possibly a heavy child? No ... Clay. The name sprung to mind instantly, and he knew he was right. Clay had taken the waterway out of Gateway, also, and landed on this very shore. He kept a small fire at night, hidden from both Beinison and Gateway by the trees on the shoreline. But he could not have left until the battle was decided. If Beinison had entered Gateway keep, the scouts would have been brought in, and Clay could escape the region. If Gateway's troops had held out, as they had done with the timely assistance of Luthias Connall and his cavalry, then Beinison would be fleeing with all speed, and the scouts would move with them. Either way, with the battle for Gateway Keep ended less than two days past, Clay's trail was relatively fresh. There had been no rain. Goren was an accomplished hunter. And Clay had no idea that Goren was following him. Now Goren's debate was ended. He would not return to Gateway. But he would send Marcus a note, once he reached a civilized town, and let him know he was on Clay's trail. In his own mind, he had justification. He had tracks. ======================================================================== Kidnapped Part Two by Max Khaytsus Yule 23, 1014 Kera stretched in bed, savoring the warmth of the old blanket. The black of the night slowly dissolved into reddish hues, forming outlines of the furniture. Was it time to get up? She sat up, holding the blanket tightly around her shoulders. The night air was chilly, even colder than the drafty old castle she had been staying at. Outside something creaked, the sound of a rusty wheel joint turning. A whip snapped, followed by a "move it, you old nag." The whip snapped again. Was that a thud that woke her up a few moments before? Kera could not remember. She got up, with the blanket, and walked over to the window, to look out, but by the time she pushed the latched shutters open, the road past the stables was empty. "Damn." It was the middle of the night, the eastern sky showing no evidence of morning light. "Like I've got nothing better to do." She returned to the bed and fell on it in a tangle of blankets, but for some reason sleep had already left her for the night. "Innkeep?" Kera called, hurrying down the stairs. "Innkeep?" The large man from the night before yawned in his chair at the front desk and looked up. "The boy I was with last night. Have you seen him?" "Not since last night," he rocked in his chair, not paying attention. "His door is unlocked and he's missing. Where is he?" "Probably went out ..." "I was up, I would have heard," Kera said. "And he'd have to walk past you to come down the stairs." "Look, I don't know," the man tried righting the chair, but Kera reached over the counter and grabbed his tunic, momentarily holding him suspended in the air, barely balanced on the two worn legs of the chair. "You better be telling the truth!" She pushed him back against the wall, the chair groaning under his weight and rushed outside. Where could Stefan had gone so early, without telling her? She rushed to the stables, to check on the horses. Hasina and Kelsey were peacefully pulling at grass just outside the stables, their pens open for no apparent reason. Stefan's own horse remained in its stall, securely locked. "What happened to you, girl?" Kera pulled Hasina's head up. The horse solemnly chewed on the grass she managed to grab on the way up, showing no eagerness to answer the question. "Kelsey," Kera whistled and Rien's horse slowly walked over to her. "You two stay here," she threw a hitching rope around their necks and wrapped the other end around a post. Something happened during the night. The stalls were opened and horses let out. Did someone try to steal them? If so, the horses would have refused to go far. But who would do that? Stefan? Why then try to take them, but not his own stallion? And why did he not tell her he was leaving? She looked around again, up and down the road, then up at the window of her room. The squeaking wheels! Kera examined the ground. So many tracks. A nearby puddle of mud contained the tracks of at least a half dozen different wheels, but no useful clues. Kera returned to the inn, suspiciously eyeing the proprietor. "If you know anything about the boy's disappearance," she warned. He shrugged. "Told ya already. I don't know." "If anything happens to him, I'll hold you responsible, understand?" She did not wait for an answer and hurried up the stairs to look in Stefan's room. The room was empty, all personal belongings she saw Stefan bring in the night before now missing. The bed was still unmade and the pillow lay on the floor on the far side of the bed, but no evidence of trouble. What reason would he have to leave? Kera looked out the window. Hasina and Kelsey stood below, slowly taking apart the bush next to them. What if he did not leave? What if he was taken? That cart or wagon she heard at night. What if he was kidnapped and taken? Could someone have recognized him or followed them from Valdasly? What would they gain? The Baron was gone, quite likely for the entire summer. But ... but if there was a kidnapper who did not know any better. Kera hurried back down, almost knocking over the serving wench from the night before. "I beg your pardon," the young woman said, holding tightly to the baluster to avoid falling. She was conservatively dressed and quieter than the night before. Kera did not answer, taking steps three or four at a time. "Did any guests leave during the night?" she demanded of the owner. "Your companion, it seems like." "Any one else?" "No." She entered the common room, trying to convince herself to relax. She was running herself ragged. It was no wonder she could not think. Taking a deep breath, Kera sat down at the table she and Stefan used the previous night. Could it have been the two men they had a run-in with the night before? That seemed the most natural answer, but why did they take Stefan and not her? He hardly did anything. She humiliated one, beat him up, knocked him cold. "You want something to eat?" a matronly woman appeared from nowhere. "Eggs and ... Just a normal breakfast." "Right away, miss." Kera leaned back in her chair, looking around the empty common room. It was still very early and no patrons had yet arrived. She folded her arms, wondering how Rien would handle this problem. He always seemed to have the answer to any problem. He always managed to see something that stood out that she never gave a second thought to. What was it? Kera started recalling the details of the night before. She saw those men earlier, right after she and Stefan came in, drinking at the bar. The plump woman was serving at the bar then. After that she became involved in the conversation with Stefan, telling him about Dargon. That was when the two men came over. And right afterwards, the innkeeper came over and told them to go to their rooms to avoid trouble. Maybe he knew those men, maybe he just wanted to avoid a fight at his inn. Most inn and tavern owners yell that it is bad for business to have patrons fighting, but from her own experience that only drew larger crowds and more silver for the mead. Noticing the proprietor watching her, she motioned him over. "Those two men from yesterday. Do you know where I could find them?" He looked flustered. "No, I don't." "I'm warning you," Kera repeated. "If you know something, tell me. If I find out you're lying ..." The plump woman came back with the breakfast Kera ordered and a warm cup of milk. "Stop bothering the girl, Arty. Go fix those loose steps. Lord knows, if someone important falls, we'll never hear the end of it." The man grumbled and left, looking suspiciously relieved at being given a task. "Are you all right, child?" the woman went on. "I'm fine," Kera answered. "Thank you." She did not want to involve the woman. There did not seem to be a reason to. "Then you have a good meal and just call me if you want anything else." "Thank you," Kera muttered. She picked at her food, worried about Stefan, about what she would tell the Duke if she could not find him. Why did this have to happen now? The Baron trusted her with his son and she lost him the first night away from the keep. He probably would have been better off at home, with no protection. She fumbled with the meal a little longer, forcing herself to eat a few more bites, then, leaving a few coins on the table, got up and left. She was too nervous to eat, too nervous to sit still and when she got outside, she felt an unsettling ache in her stomach. An acrid taste filled her mouth and she could feel the food refusing to stay down. "Damn." She leaned on Hasina's side, feeling feverish, but relieved that she no longer had to vomit. Hasina shifted, as if in sympathy, offering Kera a shoulder of support. "Horses don't get this sick, do they?" Kera tried to joke. "Actually horses can get pretty sick, miss, if you run them enough." She looked up at the young man sitting a top a horse not far away. "Are you feeling well?" "Fine. Just fine." She pulled the rope holding her two horses off the post and turned to go. "Wait up, miss," the man jumped off his horse. "I understand you're having a problem." She turned and looked at him, dressed in soiled clothes, with a deep bruise under his eye, unkempt hair. "I don't think you could help me. Thank you." "We haven't been introduced," the man stepped into her path, his horse obediently following behind him. "Bajuin Daret. I'm the constable in this village." Kera felt another contraction in her stomach and swallowed hard to avoid throwing up again, although she suspected there was nothing left in her. "Are you sure you're all right?" "Yes, I am!" she snapped. "What do you want from me?" "I understand the boy you arrived with is missing." "What's it to you?" "I told you, I'm the constable. Here," he pulled the chain of office from his tunic and showed Kera a signet ring. "In this village I carry the authority of the Duke. Let me help." "All right, find him. He's got brown hair, he's fifteen, my height." "Why don't you confirm a suspicion for me first?" "What?" Bajuin leaned on the post where the horses had been hitched. "You picked a fight with a pair of scruffy looking fellows last night in the tavern." "Is that a question?" "No, it's a statement," the man shook his head. "And I think you think they took him." "How do you know that?" "I'm the constable," he said. "I have to know these things." "Look, you better go," Kera said. "Anyone can get a chain and a ring like that." "They could, but that's against the law. I assure you, I am the constable." "Then how do you know about this?" "My cousin told me." "And who's your cousin?" "The daughter of the man who runs this establishment," Bajuin said. "The serving girl or the old woman?" He shook his head. "Do you want help or not?" "If you don't know who those men are, you're absolutely useless to me." "Are you sure the boy was taken?" "I think so," Kera sighed. "He did not take his horse, nor mine and his things are gone." "Is he a responsible type?" "Very. His father is a very strict man. I doubt he ran away." "`His father'? I'm to take it the two of you aren't related?" "That is correct." "Who's his father and where is he?" "His father's at war. I'm taking to boy to Hawksbridge." Kera was not about to say more than that. She did not need to find any more trouble than what had already found her. "All right, you go back to your room and wait. I'll check on those men to see if it was them." "I'm coming with you." "You're staying here." "That boy is my responsibility until I get him to Hawksbridge! I'm going with you!" "Look," Bajuin took Kera by her shoulders, "I've had a really rough night. I'm sore, I'm tired, I'm in pain. I don't need some nanny who can't keep her breakfast down and a kid under wraps following me around like a sick puppy. Go to your room and wait." Kera broke his hold on her with anger. "I'm not some child to be bossed around by you! If Stefan was kidnapped, there was nothing I could do to prevent it, including tieing him down to his bed! I was given a job to do and I'm damn well going to do it with or without your help!" "Okay, his name's Stefan," Bajuin said. "That's a start." Kera set her jaw. She was not going to let the subject be changed. "All right, you can come, but you're going to stay out of my way or I'm going to forget about all this and go home." "Do I need my horse?" "No, it's in walking distance." Bajuin walked Kera back to the stables where she secured Hasina and Kelsey in stalls and they then proceeded to visit the houses of the two men. "Those your horses?" Bajuin asked as they walked down the road towards a cluster of small wooden homes. "One of them. The other's a friend's." "Where's your friend?" Kera eyed him. "At war." "Seems like a everyone you know's at war." "Well, it's a big war, isn't it?" "Yeah, it is. Who are you going to see in Hawksbridge?" "Are all constables so nosy?" Kera asked. "All the ones who do a good job." "You find him and I'll believe it." They stopped before a dusty house with a damaged porch, damp and moldy from excessive moisture, sagging into the ground on one side, but obviously lived in. Bajuin knocked. "Do me a favor and let me do the talking, would you?" "Sure," Kera nodded. After a moment the door was opened by a thin young woman. "Good morrow to you, Constable." "Good morning, Sarse. Is your husband home?" "What had he done? Gotten another wench pregnant?" Sarse eyed Kera suspiciously. "The lazy bastard should be out in the field, tending his crops!" The door slammed noisily, catching Bajuin in the arm. "Oh ..." he groaned, backing away. "Are you all right?" Kera asked. "No." He straightened out. "Come on. We can check on Skaly while we're here." Kera followed the constable down the street. "What happened to you, anyway?" He looked at her. "I found who was trampling the Mayor's wheat field." "He must've been bigger than you," Kera commented. "Quite a bit bigger. This house." Kera again waited while Bajuin went up to the door and knocked. There was no answer. He waited and knocked again, then tried the door. It creaked open, revealing the dark interior of the house. "Skaly? Urta? Hello?" He pulled the door shut and walked back to the street. "No one there. Let's go to the stables and get the horses. We'll check the fields." "What if they're not there?" Kera asked. "Then I'll ride around until I find them," Bajuin said. "Is there any reason they'd want to kidnap the boy?" "I don't know," Kera said. "He hit one of them with a pitcher, but I ... Well, they have more of a reason to be mad at me." Bajuin nodded. "Maybe they entered the wrong room. Maybe they're trying to get back at you ..." "You're not surprised that they're accused," Kera noted. "Those two? Not one bit. They're about as low as low can get. I was beginning to worry they haven't been in any fights recently." At the inn Kera quickly saddled Hasina and joined Bajuin outside. "Do you know how to use that?" he indicated to the sword hanging off the saddle. "I held it once or twice," Kera answered. "Then you best leave it peace bound," he instructed and kicked his horse into a light trot. "Pig-headed, chauvinistic ass," Kera kicked Hasina. "We'll have to make one stop on the way," Bajuin told Kera when she caught up. "I need to talk to the Mayor." "Constable," Kera said, "I'm not sure how to phrase this best, but I have the feeling the innkeeper knows something of this and is hiding it." "Of the kidnapping? Probably." They rode in silence for a while. "You see, my uncle isn't as young as he used to be. There was a time he'd have been among the first to help you, but now he's older and sicker and my cousin hasn't married yet, so everything's on his shoulders. So long as his inn isn't threatened, he'll lead a quiet meek existence as far away from bullies and troublemakers as he can. He's afraid that if he does anything to help you, it will come back to haunt him and it's a risk he doesn't want to take. That's why I offered my help. It's not just my duty to you. It's also what I owe him." "So what did your cousin tell you?" "She said your companion was kidnapped and that Flary and Skaly were probably involved." "Flary and Skaly? Sounds like you know them pretty well." "It's a small community and they've spent a good deal of time keeping me company in the last few years," Bajuin laughed at a private joke. "I'm very, very close to them." They stopped at a large white stone house and Bajuin hopped off his horse, grunting as he hit the ground. "Oh, gods," a plump woman hurried down from the porch. "What ever happened to you, Constable?" "Good morning, Madam." "Clauneil!" the woman yelled. "The Constable is here!" "Are you all right, Constable? Your eye and your hair and ... oh, those clothes are ruined. What did you do?" A short plump man bounced his way down the stairs towards the street. "Good morning, Lord Mayor," Bajuin bowed. "What happened to you, Constable?" It appeared to Kera that Bajuin was searching for the right words. "I found your despoiler, Lord Mayor. It was Ol' South Paw ..." "Oh, goodness!" the woman exclaimed. "You didn't fight Ol' South Paw, did you?" "Yes, ma'am. From the creek to the road and back." "You didn't kill him, did you?" the Mayor asked. "No, my Lord, but I highly suggest you put some men to guard the field tonight." "Yes, yes, of course ..." he muttered. "I best go, Mayor," Bajuin said. "I need to help this woman find her companion and then I need some sleep." The Mayor and his wife bid their goodbyes and Bajuin again mounted his horse. "Who's Ol' South Paw?" Kera asked as they rode away from the Mayor's home. "Ol' South Paw is the biggest, toughest, meanest bear in these parts. He usually stops coming around early summer and we don't see him until the following spring, but this year he's been rather regular in his visits." "You fought with a bear?" "He did most of the fighting," Bajuin laughed. "I did all of the running." "I'm sorry," Kera said. "I didn't realize. You should be resting, not helping me." "No, no. I'm fine. Let's check the fields since we're out here, then we'll decide what to do next." "All right," Kera agreed. "What's your name?" Kera looked at him, surprised. He had not asked before. "Kera. My name's Kera." "Just Kera?" "Yeah, just Kera." "You're hiding something from me, Kera," the constable warned. "Try not to forget that you're the one to come to me and offer help." "What would you do without me?" he asked. "I don't know," Kera shrugged. "But I'd find a way. Your uncle obviously knows who I'm after." At the northern edge of the village Bajuin signalled Kera to stop and scanned the sloping field with his eyes. Not one person was in site anywhere in the field. "This is where you farm?" Kera asked. "What of it?" "It's ... that's just a dirt patch!" "Well, we all can't be as lucky as you! We live in the mountains and make the most of what we have, including farm land. It's small and rocky, but it feeds the village and there's enough to sell in the city to buy warm clothes for the winter." "Sorry." Bajuin grumbled something and rode on. Kera waited for a moment, then followed. "So what now?" "Now you go to the inn and I'll go get some sleep and I'll look again afterwards." Not answering, Kera yanked Hasina around and proceeded northeast on the twisting road. "Hey, the village's the other way!" Bajuin called after her. "Then you go there! I've got a boy to find." The clatter of hooves on the dirt road sounded behind Kera as the Constable caught up to her. "I can't let you do this alone." "Afraid for your reputation if I find him first?" "Afraid something will happen to you." "I can take care of myself." "Not against those two," he sighed. "Look," he got his horse to block Hasina's path, "neither Flary, nor Skaly worked an honest day in their lives. They've been causing trouble since they were born and I have reason to believe they've killed people in the past. Dearly as I want to see them hang, I haven't the proof. But I do know they're dangerous and that you shouldn't be looking for them alone. If they have the boy, and haven't hurt him yet, I doubt they will now. Just trust me on this." "Constable," Kera pulled Hasina to a halt, "the fact that Stefan is missing is enough to force me to look for him. The suspicion that a pair of brigands kidnapped him makes it that much more critical that I find him soon. Either help me, or get your horse out of my way." He sighed. "Look, I know it's hard, but ..." "I refuse to argue with you!" Kera jerked Hasina around the make-shift road block. "All right, all right. Let's go find the kid." Kera stared at him silently, her jaw set, Hasina shifting impatiently below her, sensing her agitation. "Did you hear anything last night?" Bajuin asked. "Any conversation Flary and Skaly were having before coming over to you?" Kera shook her head. "No." Rien would have. He always did. "I did wake up in the middle of the night," she added. "I heard some noises and a squeaky cart or wagon going by the inn." "In the middle of the night?" Kera nodded. "A man yelled for a horse to move on. Called it a `nag' -- something I haven't heard in a long time." "Voice sound familiar?" "I don't know ... I could've dreamed the whole thing." "But you wouldn't have brought it up if you believed you did," Bajuin said. "No, I guess not. And this morning I found my horses out of their stables, but not Stefan's horse. That's why I think he was taken. If he had left on his own, he'd have taken his stallion, which remained in his stall all night." "Why not take your horses?" the Constable inquired. "They're rather expensive, powerful creatures." "They're well trained. They wouldn't trust a stranger and you'd have a hell of a time staying on one if I weren't around. I think someone may have tried taking them, but they put up a fight." Bajuin nodded thoughtfully. "Sounds like you've thought all this out already. One more thing, though. Why did you throw up this morning?" "I don't know. Nervous, I guess." "Nervous? You sure you weren't poisoned? Or drugged?" "I don't know. Why drug me to get me sick?" "Just a thought," Bajuin shrugged. He looked up and down the road. "You don't happen to remember seeing a wagon at Skaly's, do you?" Kera shook her head. "I don't remember seeing a wagon all morning. And I've been watching for them." "Skaly has a small wagon. Just seems convenient it's been moved after all this time ..." "There is one more place I'd like to look, Constable," Kera said. "Stefan told me there's a lake north of here, with a valley north of it that's hard to get to, but has plenty of good hunting. He and his father went hunting there a lot. Maybe he just ran off to visit there ..." "That'll take the whole morning," Bajuin warned. "There are two ways to get there -- on foot, with a good league of the worst terrain this side of Hawksbridge, or by riding around the cluster of hills over there. Takes the same amount of time." "Let's do it, then." "That's a lot of time for someone in as much a hurry as you." "That's what I wanted to look at anyhow," Kera said. "Help me?" "Come on," he agreed. "You rather ride or hike?" "Ride," Kera said. "I don't think my stomach will let me do much climbing." It was nearing noon when Kera and Bajuin reached the north shore of the lake, having gone a good ten leagues north, then down a narrow canyon into a valley and back down the meadow to the lake. "Nothing," Kera muttered, looking at the muddy soil at the edge of the water. "As if no one had set foot here in months." "I doubt anyone has," Bajuin jumped off his horse. "It's hard to get to, as you've seen. The locals don't come here too often, though we tend to get visitors -- nobility, mostly, or hunters and trappers -- but we've had a long winter and there's a war on, so few people come here these days." He guided his horse to the water and backed away to the grassy patch where his boots did not sink into the mud. Kera jumped off Hasina, letting her get some water as well. "Disappointed?" "About Stefan? Yes." She looked down the meadow from where they came. "First time I ever wanted someone to be irresponsible ..." "We'll find him," Bajuin assured her. "Don't worry." "What if it's not Flary and Skaly?" Kera asked. "What if something else happened to him?" "We'll find him and he'll be fine," Bajuin repeated. "Just to have a clear conscience, let's ride around the lake to get back. It's about the same distance, and we'll come out on a good road five leagues outside the village. It'll be time to eat soon, anyhow." "Constable! Constable!" a man in the road waved his arms wildly as Kera and Bajuin made the last turn in the road towards the village. "What a crazy job to have," Bajuin spurred his horse on and Kera followed, keeping Hasina to a trot behind the Constable's galloping horse. By the time she made it to where the man was, she missed the beginning of the conversation and Bajuin had already dismounted his horse and followed the man who called him to the edge of the road. She jumped off Hasina and followed the two men to look down into the dry water channel at the side of the road. Another man stood in the depression, bending over a body. "Skaly?" Bajuin asked the other man and he nodded. "Stabbed to death, Constable." Bajuin looked at Kera. "Maybe we are looking in the right place, after all." He climbed down into the ditch and examined the wounds on the body, talking quietly to the man already there. They then both climbed out and started looking at the tracks in the dirt. "What are you looking for?" the man who had first flagged them down asked. "Horse or wagon tracks," Bajuin answered. "Doesn't look like he was killed here. I'd expect more blood from a death wound." "How about this?" Kera took a step back from where she was standing. "That's it," the second man said. "No one would drive this this close to the edge of the road." "Uh-huh," Bajuin knelt down. "And hooves clearly point west." He checked the dryness of the soil with his finger and got up. "Gerik, go back to the village and get the doctor or the smith to come out and get the body. And tell Lord Mayor that we have a murder on our hands and may be dealing with a kidnapping." "Right away, Constable." "And ask Lord Mayor to deputize some men and send them this way." When the two men left, Bajuin walked back to Kera, waiting at the side of the road. "What do you think?" she asked. "I think they had a falling out on the way and Flary killed Skaly. The question is, where were they going?" Kera pointed west. "Yes, but why? And why kill him? They've been friends for years ..." Kera shrugged. "No point wasting time," Bajuin got on his horse. "Let's go find him. He must have a good five bell start on us." Kera got back on her horse and they silently rode west at a trot. The choice of road struck Kera as equally strange, it being the same road on which she and Stefan arrived. It was not a major road and one through rather difficult terrain. There was nothing on it for a good fifty leagues. Nothing before Valdasly Keep, that is. Could Stefan had tricked them into taking this road? If so, why? He knew his father had left for the war. It made no sense. Some time after the sun passed the mid-day mark, Kera and Bajuin decided to take a break. There was no reason to run the horses into the ground in the middle of no where. They found a small spring and drank from it, giving the horses a chance to quench their thirst as well. They ate nothing, having neither supplies, nor weapons to hunt with, other than their swords, and even if they had, they did not intend to stay long enough to prepare a meal. "You know, Kera, I've been thinking," Bajuin said, "and I keep coming up with the same answer every time. There's nothing on this road for leagues and leagues, until the scattered villages down by Charnelwood. And there's Valdasly Keep, Sir Dower's Barony. And Baron Dower has a son, whose name, I believe, is Stefan. Am I right?" Kera only looked away. "You bitch. Had you told me this morning, the whole village would've been out looking for him now." Kera took a deep breath, but refused to answer. "Well? Why this road? Why go back? Why a murder? What are you hiding?" "I can only guess that he tricked them to take this road. I can't imagine why. Baron Dower left for the war yesterday morning. The Keep is practically empty." "What if it's a ransom kidnapping?" Bajuin asked. "It's a sound motive: Flary and Skaly recognise the boy, kidnap him to hold for money, have a disagreement and Skaly is killed." "Could be," Kera agreed. "Which just leaves me with one question," Bajuin went on. "Why is the boy travelling with you?" "As opposed to whom?" "A knight or a man-at-arms?" "You're making an assumption," Kera answered. "Am I right?" "I refuse to discuss it." "Am I?" "That is between Baron Dower, Duke Glavenford and myself," Kera got up and walked over to Hasina. "Are you coming or is this as far as you're going?" "I'm coming," Bajuin got up. Darkness in the mountains comes in a wink of an eye and by mid afternoon Bajuin voiced the question of continuing on at night. "These are dangerous roads in the dark," he pointed out. "Anything can happen." "Afraid of the forest spirits?" Kera laughed. She knew she was, but this was not the forest to be afraid in. "I prefer to call it common sense," came the answer. "Start looking for a good place to make camp. I'm sure we'll catch up to them tomorrow morning." "That's what you said several bells ago about this evening." "I was wrong. I didn't expect he made so much distance in a day." "How far do you figure?" Bajuin shrugged. "I can't imagine him being more than five leagues ahead of us now." "You're saying he went thirty leagues in one day in a wagon hitched to one horse, up hill?" Kera asked. "One or two horses, but yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. You said it took you a full day to travel the whole way?" "Just about." "Then let's figure he made it about half as far in the same amount of time." "I just hope we're following the right hunch on the right trail," Kera said. "If not, we'll have lost two days and gods only know what could've happened to Stefan in this time." "Don't worry, we'll find him," Bajuin said, as he had been saying all day long. "Do you really believe that or are you just saying that to prevent me from worrying? Because if you are ..." Bajuin started to say something, but Kera stopped him. "... don't tell me. I don't want to know." He nodded. "We will find them." "Do you think the Mayor will send ..." Kera fell silent, detecting a new smell on the wind. "If he'll organize help? Of course he will. He's ..." Kera rose her hand to silence Bajuin. "Do you smell that?" "What?" he smelled the air. "Pollen?" "Smoke." He stopped his horse and looked around. "Smoke? That means we've either found people or a forest fire ..." The wind blew from the west and Kera strained her eyes to catch any indication of a fire in the quarter league to the next turn in the road ahead of them. "There must be something beyond that bend." "Are you sure? I don't smell anything." "I'm positive," Kera kicked Hasina into a gallop. The thundersteed, a stronger, faster animal, quickly outpaced the Constable's saddle horse, in spite of his protests, and moments later she was at the bend in the road. Dismounting on the run, Kera pushed Hasina off to the side of the road where shrubbery was plenty and proceeded to stealthily advance forward. "Wait for me!" Bajuin joined her. "What the hell are you going to do alone?" "I'll know when I see the fire." They made the turn and proceeded down the road, along the wild bushes growing along the side of the road like mushrooms after a rain. "I can smell it," Bajuin suddenly said. "About time." Ahead of them was a clearing, set some twenty yards in from the road, with an open fire, but no trace of people. Not seeing anyone around, Bajuin got up and walked over to the fire. Judging from the burning logs, it was far from fresh, but at the same time, not old enough to have burned itself out. "Whoever made it can't be far ahead of us," Kera said. "No," Bajuin agreed, kicking dirt over the fire. "Let's go get him!" They hurried back to their horses, but as they made the curve in the road, a large man on a brown and grey horse, wearing home-made armor, blocked their path. "Flary?" Bajuin asked. "Evenin', Constable!" the man lowered a pike he was holding and kicked his horse hard enough to make it leap forward. Before Bajuin had a chance to react, the pike impacted his shoulder, carrying him a few yards back on the thrust, before he fell to the ground with a yell of pain. The rider turned his horse, adjusting his grip on the pike. "What's the matter, Constable? Can't stand up and fight?" "Flary ..." Bajuin gasped. "Don't do it. There's help on the way. If you kill me ..." "If I kill you, they'll what? Hang me? Ha! Constable, you don't know how long I've been waiting to do this!" And once again his kicked his horse into a charge, this time letting it simply trample the man on the ground. At the sight of this, Kera made a break for her horse. Hasina still carried her sword and bow. And a powerful mount could be of much use. "Oh no, you don't!" Flary brought his horse around, seeing Kera's destination. "You an' I still have a score to settle!" Kera leaped out of the way of his horse just in time to avoid getting hit. "But I want you alive," he turned his mount, "so you'll have to wait until the Constable and I are done." "Flary!" Bajuin was now standing in the road. He held his sword in the off hand, his right shoulder torn and punctured and his weapon arm absolutely useless. "You leave her out it! It's just you and me!" "Gladly, Constable," the brigand turned his horse again and headed for the new challenger. Kera grabbed a thick fallen branch and swung it at ground level as the horse trotted by her, splintering the wood and forcing the horse to stumble, but not doing enough to cause it to fall or throw its rider. "Oh, girl, that was stupid," Flary broke off his charge. He turned and lowered his pike, preparing for a charge. The horse already had a limp, but impact from the sharp edge on the end of the pike was nothing less than a guarantee of crippling pain. Kera quickly looked around and picked up a somewhat larger fallen branch. It was too heavy for her to swing and too dry and brittle to be used for a weapon, but it was all she had available and it was the only way she saw of getting her opponent off his horse. Rien was right, as was Sir Brand. Chivalry held little place in the world they lived in. The goal was to stay alive. The means mattered little. And this time, it was the opponent who held the advantage. "Flary, don't!" Bajuin yelled as the horse lunged forward. The tip of the pike extended a good six feet beyond the horse. Not as dangerous as facing a lance, but equally deadly. "Sevelin, please ..." Kera leveled the branch she held at the oncoming rider, letting its base rest against the ground and the far end remain in the air, level with Flary. As the horse and rider neared to striking distance, Kera took a step forward and dropped to one knee, letting the branch drop lower, changing the target from the rider to his horse. Her sudden advance was too unexpected for Flary to slow or turn his horse and his own weapon remained too high, passing clear over Kera's head. A moment later the branch Kera held splintered, as it penetrated the horse's flesh at the base of the left front leg and sank deep into the beast's body as the charge continued past her. With an agonizing neighing sound, the horse fell to the ground, throwing its rider clear. Completing her roll out of the way of her attacker, Kera whistled for Hasina and as her mount approached, yanked the sword from its saddle sheath. "Go," she slapped the horse, not wanting it to become Flary's target. Flary stood up, bruised and shaken and mad enough to spit rock. "You're dead, bitch!" "Flary, don't!" Bajuin yelled again, hurrying towards them, but he was too far and too hurt to make any difference. Kera readied her sword as her armed and better armored opponent reached her. In her mind she remembered Sir Brand's instructions from their last match. "Don't let a running opponent force you to back away. You lose any bracing you have when you do it. Instead lean in with your shield. Give me a target you want, not what I want." "But what if I have no shield?" "Then use your sword. Make me want to back off." And she swung, causing Flary to come to a sudden stop as the tip of the blade shaved a spark from his chest plate. He countered with a powerful swing, sending strong vibrations down Kera's sword, making her take an involuntary step back. He was twice her size, probably three times the weight and better armored than she thought she could handle. Flary swung in a cross pattern, making Kera dodge twice, bringing her to one knee, below him. He rose his sword above his head for one final blow. Sir Brand's voice sounded in Kera's head again. "That was a feint. I swung left, you went right. I had a choice of your head, your shield or your sword." The sword above her started its downward plunge. "Push forward as you get up," the voice persisted. "I lose my swing when we're this close. I have to step back." As the man's arms came down, Kera advanced, getting up, his elbows impacting her shoulders, but because of his much greater height, the blow did little damage and he only lost his solid grip on his blade. Not wasting the precious moments she won, Kera drew the dagger from her belt and forced it through a crack in the armor overlays of her opponent's side. As he grunted in pain, she backed away and adjusted her grip on her sword. Another blow came across her blade, but noticeably weaker. A thin trail of blood ran down Flary's leg, staining the dirt in the road. Kera took a swing, purposefully high, forcing Flary to raise his weapon for a block, then leveled her blade off, hitting the soft padding under the man's left arm. Flary staggered as the padding absorbed the blood from his wound, now holding the sword in his right arm. "Yield," Kera warned. She did not want him dead. "Gods damn you!" his blade undercut hers, throwing her arm up. She almost lost the grip on her sword. "You ignored me. You fought my shield," Kera suddenly remembered Sir Brand's words. He warned her that inexperienced fighters perceived their opponent's weapons and armor as a greater threat to them. Flary was big and strong, but he knew little of fighting. Less than she. She stepped closer, narrowing the gap between them. He had neither the skill, nor the agility to defend against the short quick thrusts she could make. The first blow was placed against his gut, where the dagger had previously made the cut, forcing him to gasp in pain. The second crashed across his arm, braking his grip on his sword. Blood splattered up as Kera realized there was only cloth protecting his lower arm. She planted a final blow to the man's side, sending him stumbling to the ground. "You lose!" Bajuin finally managed to stumble his way over to her as she stood over the beaten brigand. "Now it's over," she said, kneeling down. She picked up her dagger off the ground and leaned over Flary. "Where's the boy?" ========================================================================

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E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank