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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
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DargonZine Distributed: 11/15/1994
Volume 7, Number 5 Circulation: 617
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.
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)
AOL users should be able to access the back issue collection via:
*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
"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
*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?"
"Do you provoke them?"
"Do you fight back?"
"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
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 ..."
"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.
"Michiya has returned to my tent. Come back with me and clean
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
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.
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
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
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."
"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
"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.
"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
*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
Disgusted, Derrio motioned reproachfully at the trap. *This* *No*
Again, Luthias misunderstood. "It's not evil! This is war, Derrio.
I'm trying to save lives."
Luthias had to admit it. "Yes, it will kill many, too, but that's
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."
"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.
"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.
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
"You can't leave, Marcus."
"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."
"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
"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
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
"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,
When a sparkle of recognition entered Marcus' eyes, the first one
spoke. "Aye, Ridgewater. The last of the Black Arm. Now step away from
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
"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,
"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
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?"
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"Why don't you confirm a suspicion for me first?"
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
Kera followed the constable down the street. "What happened to you,
He looked at her. "I found who was trampling the Mayor's wheat
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Who's Ol' South Paw?" Kera asked as they rode away from the
"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
"You fought with a bear?"
"He did most of the fighting," Bajuin laughed. "I did all of the
"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
"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
"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."
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
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
"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,"
"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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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."
"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
"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
"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?"
"Then let's figure he made it about half as far in the same amount
"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?"
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
"Wait for me!" Bajuin joined her. "What the hell are you going to
"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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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