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+-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME TEN NUMBER FOUR | | ========================================== +___________+ FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT | ++ | F S F NN N E T | ++ | FFF SSS FFF N N N EEE T | | F S F N NN E T |_________| F SSS F N N EEEEE T /___________\ ========================================== | | BITNET Fantasy-Science Fiction Fanzine ___|___________|___ X-Edited by 'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> CONTENTS X-Editorial 'Orny' Liscomb A Wyrm's Tale Ron Trenka A Summer's Day: June, 2084 Sean Myles Smith Tattoo's Becki Tants *Worthy of the Title, Part 2 M. Wendy Hennequin Date: 031988 Dist: 590 An "*" indicates story is part of the Dargon Project All original materials copyrighted by the author(s) <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> X-Editorial Hello! Since this issue follows right on the heels of 10-3, there's really no new news to bring up, and I honestly don't want to bore you with the standard editorial comments, so I'll depart from tradition and, as it were, editorialize a bit. You know, running a magazine is a fascinating experience. No, really! The strangest things happen. For instance, for over two years readers have been commenting that although the Dargon Project is excellent, they'd like to see more non-Dargon fantasy stories and more science fiction in FSFnet. And, for over two years, I've been replying with the standard disclaimer that I can only print what people submit, and that no one is submitting anything but Dargon stories. Well, within the past two weeks I've received seven non-Dargon stories from five different authors, with promises for more. It's enough to make an editor want to take up something sane, like professional wrestling! But don't mind me, it's healthy for an editor to rave - it only *looks* like insanity. There are some interesting differences between editing an electronic magazine and a 'real' one. An electronic magazine must, by nature, be freely distributable, because it is so easy to send copies along to non-subscribers. To offset this, electronic magazines do not need to worry about advertising costs, as most network services are glad to make room for a magazine announcement or information file. There is also a closer tie between the editor and the readership of an emag, due to the ease of communication via electronic mail. But the most noteworthy difference is inherent in the difference between the phosphor screen and the printed page. Most people find that the attention span of an individual reading one article from a computer screen is much less than if they were reading printed text. The repercussions this has for emags is that their articles should be short and to the point, like newspaper articles, and issues should be small and frequent rather than large and infrequent. Of course, FSFnet is no exception to this rule, and I'm sure that many people simply never get to their issues. However, I find that most people who are serious FSFnet readers do not read issues at a terminal, but print them out and read the hardcopy, thus successfully avoiding the problem. Well, before I bore you all to tears with subjects only an editor could enjoy, I'd better sign off and get this issue sent. My welcome to all the people who have recently subscribed, and for BITNET readers, don't be shy about appending to the FSFNET discussion on the server CSNEWS@MAINE. And, of course, back issues are available from the server LISTSERV@TCSVM. -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> A Wyrm's Tale The warrior sat near the mouth of the lair and planned. Soon would come the time when the wyrm would sleep. Then there would be no time to waste. He must be swift or he would fail like the rest. "There," he thought. "The sunset approaches. It is time." He gathered up his equipment and gingerly picked up the weapon he had spent many years to find and more to secure. It was rumored to be the only thing that could kill the dreaded wyrm... a creature he had sworn to slay or die in the process. He entered into the darkeness of the cave. Through the darkness he crept, moving slowly and silently as not to awaken the wyrm. Many years had he perpared for this moment. Only if the wyrm slept would he be able to slip his blade into the creature's chest. "That glow must be the wyrm's chambers," he said quietly to himself, "where he sleeps on his golden bed. Quietly. I mustn't fail." "Hello," a deep vioce said as the warrior entered the chamber. The warrior stood paralyzed as the wyrm's massive head rose to look him straight in the eye. "I knew that it was too good to be true," the wyrm said. "It has been so many years since the last one, I had hoped the world had forgotten me." The warrior was aghast when a glint showed in the wyrm's eye. "Ahhhh...." the wyrm said, obviously statisfied. "You have brought back Wirmhyr. Then you are welcome." "Back, horrid wyrm," the warrior said, drawing Wirmhyr from its sheath. "Or surely this blade will find its mark!" "I beg your pardon," the wryrm said. "I think you are quite mistaken. There isn't a blade of this world that can pierce my hide." "I have come to end your reign of terror," the warrior announced in a formal challenge. "You have murdered your last maiden, stolen your last cattle...." "I think you have come to the wrong cave," the wyrm said calmly. The warrior was somewhat taken aback. "Is this not the cave of Kravaxx the Golden?" the warrior asked. "It is," the wyrm replied. "Then I have come to the right place," the warroir said flatly. "I beg to differ," the wyrm said. "You beg to what?" the warrior asked, incredously. "I am Kravaxx the Golden," the wyrm said, "but it ha been a few centuries since I have stolen cattle and never have I slain a maiden that didn't deserve it." "I do not understand," the warrior said, confused. "Look," the wyrm said, "it isn't difficult. The last maiden I murdered, if you want to call it that, was Karita the Loud. And if you ask me, it was more a mercy killing." The warrior then smiled and raised Wirmhyr confidently. "I understand you now, wyrm," he said. "You try to confuse me and lure me into a trap. It will not work, for I have heard of this trick before. You are beaten, wyrm." "By the gods, you are thick," Kravaxx said. "Look, if it would make you happy, I will let you strike once with Wirmhyr. Anywhere you like, except the face. I put so much work getting this face to look as perfect as it does - I wouldn't want you to scratch a scale." "Again you confuse me, wyrm" the warrior said. "Give it your best swing," the wyrm said. "Go ahead. I will even pretend that I am sleeping." And with that, the wyrm promptly laid down, as if to rest. The warrior stood, wondering what to do, and decided that it couldn't hurt to give it a try. If he was fast, which he was, he could be in and out before the wyrm could strike. So, preparing himself and carefully choosing a likely spot, the warrior darted in and swung Wirmhyr with all his might. The blade whistled through the air as it came around. And then bounced off the thick scales of the wyrm with a resounding clang. The warrior was too scared to even move. The wyrm opened his eyes and turned its huge head toward the warrior. Praying to his god and preparing for a blast of the wyrm's firery breath, the warrior could only stare. "See, I told you so." was the only thing the wyrm said. -Ron Trenka <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> A Summer's Day: June, 2084 It was wasting-time again. Jason hated wasting-time, hated it like poison. Not because of the wasting itself, but because of the messiness that always seemed to go with it. Jason was a very clean boy, and despised being messy. he would have condemned wasting-time altogether had it not been for the fact that his birthday was on the second day of the third wasting-time of every ninth month. As it was, wasting-time was hated, but tolerated. Jason slipped out of bed and headed for the shower; another reason to hate wasting-time. Jason liked to get in and out as quickly as possible, every action intentional and economical. Instead, he scoured himself three times with the rough soap, doused his hair with shampoo, rinsed himself with too much water. Which, of course, was the entire purpose of a waste-day: to waste things. After using two towels to dry off and too much toothpaste to clean his teeth, Jason cleared out of the bathroom to make way for his sister, Janice-- who, when it came to the bathroom, used too much of everything anyway. Except, of course, when it was fasting-time. Janice brushed by him with a sniff and shut the door firmly behind her. The lights in the hall were all on, which meant that his parents were already up. Jason groaned. Whenever possible, Jason liked to make his own breakfast on waste-days, sparing himself the almost sickening culinary orgy that was the norm. He padded into the kitchen, resigning himself to the inevitable. "Hi, mom." he said. "Why, hello, Jason." she answered. "Breakfast will be ready in a minute. Just sit down at the table--but turn on a couple of radios while you're up." Jason snapped on two of the several radios within a few feet of him, then sat down. he studied his mother as she deftly flipped eggs, fried bacon, buttered toast and English muffins, opened canned fruit, poured milk and orange juice, and carried out all the other myriad responsibilities of making breakfast on a waste-day. Mrs. Grady Powers was a tall, graceful woman in her late thirties. Her darkish hair, beginning to show signs of grey, was let down so that it fell around her shoulders, one of the outward signs of a waste-day that Jason had come to notice. As Jason's mother finished her cooking and began placing the heaping platters on the table, his father walked in. He raised the radios' volume and turned on a third. "Smells good." he commented. Jason wrinkled his nose in distaste. His father reeked of cologne on wasting-days. "What?" asked Jason's mother. "I said," repeated his father, loudly, "it smells good!" "Thank you!" she replied, with similar of volume. "Eat up!" Jason's father sat down and began shoveling food into his mouth with his fork. Jason did so less rapidly. Janice came in, sat down, and started complaining that waste-days ruined her diet. "Eat." said Jason's father, around a mouthful of bacon. "You'll be thankful for it next time fasting-time comes around." "Terrific." she said, and began to eat. Jason played with his food, hoping to disguise his reluctance to consume as much as his parents and sister. "You too, Jason." his mother said. "A growing boy has got to eat." Jason scowled. On fasting-days his mother said that to not eat when one was hungry built character. "I'm not hungry." he muttered sullenly. "I hate waste-days." "Now, Jason." his father admonished. "You know that everybody needs a proper balance of attitudes. That's why we have wasting-time. If we didn't have wasting-time, there would be nothing to balance out fasting-time. If we didn't have lazy-time, there would be nothing to balance out work-time. If we didn't have. . ." "If we didn't have any times at all," Jason interrupted, "we could do whatever we wanted and we wouldn't have to do whatever the Shrinks told us to." "Jason!" his mother exclaimed. "You should be ashamed of yourself! The Shrinks only want what is good for us! Eat another bagel, this instant!" Jason grabbed a bagel and began stuffing it in his mouth. "With cream cheese." his sister mocked. Jason HATED cream cheese. "Shut up, wart." he answered. He crammed the rest of the bagel into his mouth and swallowed hugely. "Just because you don't like doing something is no reason to be surly, young man." Jason's father said firmly. "Just for that, you wash your dishes last." "Aww, dad. . ." Jason whined. Washing your dishes last meant waiting around an hour and a half while everyone else did theirs. Jason ate in silence for five minutes, then asked to be excused. His mother examined his plate critically, then told him he could watch TVs until it was time to wash the dishes. "And tape something, too." she called. Finally, two hours later, Jason put away the last of his dishes and went outside, heading for Robert Bond's house. Jason liked Robert. He could always think of neat things to do. Jason walked down the street, kicking pebbles. Robert lived only four houses down, but Jason took the long way around, circling the block. The cool air felt good upon his skin. he squinted up at the sun, enjoying its warmth. All in all, he decided, a good day to be alive, except for the wasting. Robert's house was a neat little two-story brick edifice. Jason went up the walkway and rang the bell. Robert opened the door and grinned when he saw Jason. "Hi, Jase." he said. "I knew you'd come by. What do you want to waste today?" "How about time?" Jason asked, hopefully. "That's for lazy-time, dummy." Robert answered. "Let's waste, uh, let's waste film!" "Okay." Jason said. Jason liked photography--not as much as Robert, who had glossy photos all over his walls, but enough not to mind spending the day snapping his shutter at everything he could find. "Get your stuff." Robert ducked inside, re-emerging half a minute later with his camera and a bag full of film. "Come on." he said. "Let's go." They walked towards Jason's house. "I wish we could just use your stuff." Jason said. "It's inconvenient to have to walk back to my house." "It's not that far." returned Robert. "Besides, rules are rules. Everyone has to waste his own stuff or the Shrinks won't know who needs to be checked." "I guess." Jason said glumly. "You want something to drink?" "Yeah." said Robert. "My mom'll kill me. She'll say, 'Why couldn't you be thirsty at our house? Don't you think we have requirements to meet, too ?' I know she will. I don't care, though. What's a little lemonade between friends?" Jason opened the front door. "You know where everything is. I'll be right there. Pour me one too, okay?" He went down the hall and into his room. He heard Robert pouring as he found his camera and grabbed a satchel. "Jason?" came his mother's voice from somewhere upstairs. "Is that you?" "Yes, mom." he answered, moving back into the kitchen. "Me and Robert are gonna go take pictures." "Oh. Okay. Bring me back some beauties." "I will, mom." Jason crossed the kitchen to the cabinet the film was stored in. He scooped a dozen rolls into the satchel and turned to face Robert . "Ready?" he asked. "When you are." Robert replied, and held out a glass of lemonade. "Oh, yeah." said Jason. He took the glass and downed the contents in three long gulps. The two of them left the house and headed down the street. "Where do you want to go?" Jason asked. "I was thinking we could go down to the river. Near the falls." "Okay by me." They followed the road for a while, then cut across an open field. Robert took occasional shots of the houses, the sun, and the sky. Jason loaded his camera, but didn't take pictures. Robert appeared not to notice, absorbed in his surroundings. The field ended in a long downslope, with the river at the bottom. They picked their way carefully until they stood on the sandy, relatively level bank. Robert began to walk upstream, and Jason followed. "You know what I'd like to be?" Robert asked after a while. "No, Robert," Jason asked, amused, "what would you like to be?" "A Shrink." Robert answered. "You're crazy." Robert laughed. "That's a good one." he replied. "A crazy Shrink. That's a good one." he repeated. "No, but really," he said, sobering, "I think I would. When testing-time comes around again, I think I'm going to tell them that." "Come on, Robert." Jason said. "Almost nobody makes it. And nobody knows why the ones who do get picked. 'The ways of the Shrinks are downright strange.'" he said, quoting an old proverb. "Still," Robert insisted, "I can always try." The sound of the waterfall was getting louder. Jason began taking pictures of the trees and rocks. They rounded a bend in the river and he could see the waterfall, throwing broken reflections of light at him, all red and green and blue. Jason began taking pictures in earnest. So absorbed was he in getting a close-up of the rushing waters, Jason failed to notice the man sitting behind the waterfall until he stood up. He was small, only a couple of inches taller than Jason, and dressed in tattered, threadbare garments. Despite this, he possessed a calm dignity that held Jason semi-hypnotized for the first few seconds. "Robert." he said, softly. "Rogue." Robert turned. His eyes grew wide and his mouth formed an O shape. Suddenly, his mouth snapped shut and he began to run back downstream. "Wait." called the man, but Robert kept running. Soon he was out of sight. Jason stood paralyzed. He had heard about rogues, of course--everyone was supposed to be on the lookout for them and know what to do in case one was spotted. But he had never figured on actually SEEING one. Rogues were the dissidents, the ones who didn't believe in the Shrinks or their ideas. They ran away from the crews who came to take them to attitude training, and lived in the wilderness. The Shrinks said that there weren't very many of them, and Jason had believed it. Surprise was all that kept him from flight. Finally, after an eternity, Jason began to run. "Boy. Wait." said the rogue, and something, the calmness in his voice , maybe, but something made Jason hover, if only for an instant. "Hear me out." said the rogue. "I have seen you. I know that you are different--that you do not believe the Shrinks when they say that they must control the way you act and the way you think. I know you want to live life the way YOU want to live it, not as the Shrinks would have you. Come with me, Jason." He became intense. His eyes locked on Jason's, and spoke silently of forgotten freedoms. "I will take you to meet others like you," he continued, " but we must hurry. Your friend is already on his way to bring the authorities. " The rogue held out his hand. "There is a better way than you know." he finished. Jason stared at him for a few moments, unbelieving. Then he turned, and ran from the rogue faster than he'd ever run in his life. He was nearly to his house when he heard the sirens, and he knew the rogue would get away. It was easy to hide in the woods. He slowed down, and saw Robert waiting for him on the steps leading to his door. "God." said Robert. "I've never been so scared in my life." "Me too." Jason panted. "I don't much feel like taking pictures anymore." "Neither do I." said Robert, and headed towards his house. Jason was grilled about the event at the dinner table by his parents, and again later that evening by the police. He told them both the same thing. "I got so scared I couldn't move." he said. "He started talking crazy, and I ran before he could grab me or somethin'." Both his parents and the police seemed satisfied. The sergeant who interviewed him said that they didn't expect to catch the rogue, that they were usually experts at hiding, but that there was little chance he'd be hanging around this area, either. Jason was relieved. And the next morning, the second day of the first wasting-time of the sixth month, Jason ate everything on his plate and asked for more. -Sean Myles Smith <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Tattoo's As Kara walked onto the bridge, all the crew's eyes turned toward her. She looked disheveled, with burn marks on her ripped clothing and her face streaked with ash. Her hair was a mess, full of knots and singed spots. "What should I expect", she thought, "I look like I've been thru hell and back. It was only a little revolution." Little revolution. Amazing how easy it had become to write things like that off. Only killed a few million people, no big deal. Slowly but surely, these ties to the Fifth Horsemen Mercenary Troops were getting to her. "How do they get me INTO things like that???" she asked herself. Yet she knew the answer already. It was Cross. Damian Cross. As usual, he had asked her for help and she had brought her ship running to his aid. And he didn't even need her this time (altho he got some kind of joy out of watching her fight like that...just sitting up in his HoverTank watching her lead her men. "Well, at least they respect me.", she thought. "Anyways, back to work." "Navigator, plot a course to Delta Mynas II. Security, report status, both ship and crew." "Security reporting Ma'am. Ship security tight and unbreached. Seems they can't get off the planet down there. What did you guys do to them?" "Never mind," she said, snickering a little about the ease with which they had immobilized the Space Port. The Horsemen were famous for such great planning as that. "I'll tell you all about it later. How about the crew?" "Well, as you know, we lost 45 men down on planet, and 3 more of the injured have died since we brought them back up here to high port. The rest are expected to be OK. That leaves us with about 102 soldiers and the normal on board personal." "Damn. That's a lot to loose. I'm going to my cabin to clean up. Send a message to Cross that he's invited to dinner over here in 2 hours. Let me know what he says." "Yes Ma'am." "Ma'am," the navigator piped up. What a weaselly little man. Maybe I'll send him on combat duty soon...see if that strengthens his character. "Yes, Johnson, what." "Ma'am, the course is plotted and laid in." "Good, we won't be leaving for about 3 hours, so double check your figures. No mistakes allowed this time. I think the sharpshooters need some moving target practice." With a snicker she remembered the time they had ended up at exactly a 180degree angle from where they were headed because he reversed a couple figures. God what an idiot. That got him his pay docked for months to pay for the time lost and the job passed on. This time she wasn't in as patient a mood. "Yes Ma'am." Johnson said with a cringe. She'd done it before. God was it nice to be alone. For the first time in days, she could get undressed, take a slow, leisurely shower, and not be surrounded by hot, sweaty men. The way they all looked at her was enough to drive any woman bonkers. Stepping out of the shower, in front of the full length mirror, she acknowledge that maybe they had a reason to gawk her like that. Maybe. Maybe if she were just some normal bimbo on the street. But she wasn't. She was in command of the Iron Fox III, a name passed from generation to generation of ship's captains. One of the finest mercenary ships in this part of the galaxy, second only to the Horsemen. The shouldn't gawk her like some street whore. She was a pretty woman, but 15 years of leading this group through uncounted battles have left their marks. Scars marred the once beautiful face giving her a very rough look. Lines from worrying and from fighting made her look years older then she was. Her figure was as slim, lithe and strong as ever, but as scarred as her face. And then there was the tattoo. The shape of the Fifth Horseman's symbol, small, dark, shown on the side of her hip. The sign of a female possession of theirs. A permanent mark for all the world to see. She had been found on a devastated planet, her father's ship destroyed by an attack of the Horseman. She was 15 at the time, and some of the horsemen had decided he wanted her as their pet. They tattooed her, and put her to work onboard their ship, serving food and sleeping her way up thru the command ranks in an attempt to get out. When she met Damian, he saw some potential in her. He gave her the chance to learn ships operations and mercenary actions. Soon she was a strong commander and an even stronger soldier, so when a derelict (but still flying) ship was found, Damian convinced the other leaders to let her have it. (A simple feat, considering that they had been watching her to make sure she didn't organize a revolt among the servants for quite some time.) From there she'd made her own way. Getting the ship fixed up, getting a crew, and eventually getting some soldiers together took the better part of the next 6 years. But she did it. Alone. Never, however, forgetting about Damian. he'd given her the chance. And he called that one in every time he could. "Stop daydreaming and get dressed!" Kara said out loud, as if saying it out loud would change the fact that she was still somewhat lost in her own thoughts. The battles of the past few days was still very fresh in her mind. She and her men had merely been extra numbers, not needed, but it looked good. The Horsemen rarely NEEDED the help. They had a beautifully laid and executed plan. The world involved, Altilles Planet, had a dependence on outside fuel sources. The Horsemen merely ran them dry, let a shipment get thru, and then blew up the ground side space port with all the fuel in it. Made a rather large crater of the capital city, killed most of the major government figures (as was their contract with the neighboring planet who wanted the agricultural land there) and left the path open for takeovers. Of course, they took more then their share of loot off the place. They always do. But then again we did too. That's the mercenary way. After three days of cleaning up the last of the straggling government and sending them all to their makers (in rather imaginative ways), it's time to move on. And count the loses. One third of my mercs on a battle that we weren't even needed for. Damian had better clear this debt now. They would be hard to replace. Half an hour later, dressed in her normal black jumpsuit, with her long wavy red hair down for once, Kara was back on the bridge. "Cross will be arriving in 15 minutes Ma'am. Everything is prepared for your dinner in the Main Conference Room." "Thank you, Stevens. I'm headed down there now. If anything should happen while I'm there, buzz me." "Oh, and Johnson, tell Port Control that we will be leaving in exactly 2 hours. Get the clearance." "Yes Ma'am.", Johnson said, as she turned and walked out of the room. Breathing a sigh of relief, he turned back to his calculations. When Damian walked in the room, she was standing facing out the port hole, not really at anything, but just out. Away from him. She knew what would happen when she turned around. He would be in control. The only man that had ever been able to control her. She wasn't even sure if she resented that fact or not. "Evening. You wanted to see me?", Damian said, as he walked in, poured himself a drink, and sat down at the head of the table. "Yes.", she said, turning around to face him where he sat. "I seem to have lost a lot of men in the past few days over a silly squabble that you didn't even really need me for. Now why did you really bring me here?" "If I said because I wanted to get laid would you get mad at me?", he asked, with a smile so sarcastic, it was almost painful. "Yes, I would. I do have jobs of my own you realize. I hope this absolves any debt you feel I still owe you. You've been paid a million times over for it." "That tattoo you bare on your hip tells me when you owe me no more. As long as it's still there, you still owe me." Putting his feet up on the table, he picked up his plate and started eating, completely ignoring her. Furious, she turned away from him and stared out the port hole again until she was calm enough to talk again. "Damian, me, you may feel you own. The battered hull of this ship you own. But I lost 1/3 of my crew down there and you do NOT own them. Now I need some kind of recompense for this. Otherwise next time I won't come." "You haven't checked your bank account recently. Money for the men you lost is in there. And as far as you go, dear, I do own you. Don't you ever forget that fact. In the meantime, I just wanted to let you know that I won't be needing your help for a while. We're taking some time off and you need to train some new men. I'll call when I need you. Have a nice day." Out of his mouth, "have a nice day" sounded like a string of obscenities. He got up to leave, but as he reached the door, he looked back. Walking across the room to where Kara was standing, he grabbed her and gave her a rather rough, but passionate kiss. Then he turned and walked out. Again. After eating, she headed back up to the bridge, all the way saying to herself "Damn, he did it to me again." But that's how it always went, and altho it put her in a foul humor for a day or two, it never changed. Arriving on the bridge, she did the only thing possible. "Johnson, get us out of here now. And you'd better get it right!" Later that night, after safely getting underway on the right course, Kara wandered back to her room. She wasn't furious anymore, just in that state of mind where nobody wanted to cross her. It was written all over her face. Needless to say, most of the crew gave her a wide berth as she walked down the hall. Arriving back in her quarters, she was surprised to see a bit of a glow coming from around the corner, her bedroom. Drawing her Neural Paralyzer, she quietly moved up to the corner. "Nice little weapon" she thought, as she set it on one of it's lesser settings. These weapons had been known to cause insanity, or at the very least extreme pain to those hit by it. Perfect for anyone sneaking around in the Captain's quarters. She swung around the corner, weapon going first, ready to fire. "So, what took you so long?", Damian said, apparently unfazed by the fact that she had a weapon in hand. "Damnit, what are you doing here????? I thought you'd crawled back in your hole by now." He was sitting, well actually lying, on her bed with her favorite wine on the table next to it and candles glowing in the candle globes she kept scattered around the room for relaxation. "I told you. We're taking a vacation. So put the gun down and come over here. I've already poured you some wine." "Damn." she thought, as she put the weapon down and walked across the room to him. Here we go again. -Becki Tants <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Worthy of the Title "You might as well go out and see the festival, now that you're here," Lord Clifton Dargon had suggested as his twin cousins finished breakfast. "Melrin only comes once a year." "Yes," Luthias had agreed practically, but his voice was heavy. "We might as well." "What's going on today in the Melrin, Bartol?" Roisart asked his cousin Dargon's bard. "Oh, final competition for the Bardic Crown," the bard cum bodyguard announced enthusiastically. "Today at noontime." "What else?" Luthias wondered. While bardic tales could interest Luthias, hours upon hours of sung tales drove him to distraction. Bartol gave him a strange, appalled look. "What else?" demanded Bartol, gazing at the young noble as if he were insane. "What else is there?" Roisart looked at his twin and smiled. Luthias rolled his eyes. Then he turned to his cousin, the lord. "Clifton, do you think you'll be all right here after what happened to our father yesterday?" Clifton had laughed then; Roisart smiled. "Come on, Luthias," his brother urged. "Think about it. What would Clifton, with all his guards, need us for? Considering the men who attacked us this morning," Roisart continued, turning his eyes towards his cousins, "we may need guarding ourselves." But Clifton had smiled and shaken his head. "You'll be safe enough in the festival," the Lord of Dargon ventured. "And the city guard is out in full should you need assistance." The smiled widened and the skin around Dargon's brown eyes crinkled slightly. "Besides, you two didn't do all that badly this morning." So it was with this assurance the Roisart and Luthias left Dargon Keep and strolled into the Middle City, where most of the Melrin was taking place. There were as yet three hours until the Bardic Crown competition was to take place, so Luthias suggested to his brother, "Let's go down to the docks. There's bound to be something happening there." "Yes, Father used to take us there when we got to the Melrin early," Roisart sighed. Luthias frowned; he too missed their father. Then Roisart brightened a bit. "Maybe the races are today." The noble twins walked a little more quickly toward the docks, past the side shows and food stands that were just setting up for the fourth day of Melrin. Roisart noted curiosities along the way: a bearded lady, a steer the size of a small house, a fortune teller or two, a seller of rare books...many things that he and Luthias would have to see. It would have been easier if their father had been with them; the late Baron was much like Roisart in his zest for oddities and stories. Luthias was not as interested such things, for which he could find no real use. Then Roisart spotted the booth of an armoire come all the way from Magnus for Melrin, and decided it would be easier than he had anticipated to drag Luthias back. They arrived at the docks very early, so the docks were deserted, except for old Simon, the Stew Man, and his monkey, who chattered at the twins in a primate greeting. Luthias played with the jovial creature, and Roisart began eagerly to ask the old man about a sea legend he had recently read and whether or not it could have any truth to it. Finally, as the crowds began to press onto the docks, Luthias slipped the monkey a sovereign and pulled Roisart away to find a good view for the race. It was a spectacular race, with Captain Kent's "Victory Chimes" taking the honors at the end. When it was over and the crowd was thinning, Roisart told his brother, "I saw some interesting booths over by the market. Let's go look them over." Luthias shrugged his shoulders and together they left the dock areas for the Middle City, near the market. As Roisart had expected, Luthias was not particularly interested in the side shows, but he became very enthusiastic when he saw the display of the best sword maker of Dargon. While Luthias inspected the blades, Roisart paid two coppers to see the steer as big as a house and played a game of toss, though he won no prizes. Still, Roisart made sure at all times that he knew exactly where his brother was. Luthias watched Roisart as well, saw him duck into the tent with the exaggerated steer. "I'll take this one," he said to the sword maker, choosing the best blade of the lot, but keeping his eyes on the tent. "And a scabbard, too." Roisart emerged from the attraction and moved over to his brother. "Look, Roisart," Luthias bragged as he paid for his new toy, "see this!" The pride was well-founded; the sword was very well made and decorated. "You going to fight with that?" Roisart laughed. "That's what swords are for," Luthias said, a gleam in his eye. "But that's too nice to fight with," Roisart argued. "Besides, in a pinch, you're used to your old blade." Luthias grimaced. "We had better stick together, twin. I thought I saw someone following us on the docks." "You worry too much," Roisart chided his brother lightly. "Come over here, Luthias. Let's take a look at this scribe's cart. Did you see the books?" Luthias took his sword from its maker and nodded. "I saw them," Luthias confirmed as they crossed the street. "Very old." Roisart arrived at the cart and immediately began rummaging through the titles. "These aren't so old, Luthias." "I meant the scribe," joked his brother, picking up a red-bound volume inscribed with blue. He opened it, looked at the title page, then called over the scribe. "How much is this?" "Do you have 'History of the Ancient World'?" Roisart wondered. The scribe shook his head. "I'm sorry, young sir. And you, young sir...." He looked from Roisart to Luthias, then back again. Then, to Luthias, he gave the price of the book, which Luthias paid laconically and turned away to flip through it as Roisart browsed. After a minute, Roisart peered over his brother's shoulder. "What's that you've bought?" "Meresan's 'Lives of Lords and Princes'," Luthias told him. "We're going to need the examples if one of us is going to be baron." Roisart sighed. "If we can ever decide who is to be baron." Luthias looked into his brother's brown eyes. "I think you should be baron." "What?" laughed Roisart. "But I'm not much of a leader, or a fighter. Men would follow you, Luthias. In an emergency, you think fast and act." "But that would be deadly to me if I were judging a legal case," Luthias replied, closing the book with a decided thump. "I would think too quickly. You'd delve into the matter until the truth was found. I might take the truth at the surface. And what about law, Roisart? I know nothing of laws." "If only we could both be baron," sighed Roisart dismally. "I know that that is against the law," Luthias chuckled. "We can't both be baron." "I know, but we both have qualities that are so necessary to be one," Roisart replied. "And it's hard to tell which one of us would better serve Clifton." "Clifton," muttered Luthias, beginning to move away from the scribe's cart. "Now, about him I am very worried." "You worry too much," Roisart laughed. Then he sobered. "But something's got to be done. Clifton can't let this continue." "There's nothing we can do about it, though," Luthias pointed out. "We'll just have to decide which of us should be baron." There was a moment of silence, then Roisart announced suddenly, "Luthias, I'm hungry." Luthias smiled. "So am I. I think there's a tavern on the next street over. It's been a long time since breakfast." "I hope it's a good tavern," Roisart said. "I don't want to get sick before the ball tomorrow." Slowly, the twins made their way through the crowds to the nearby street. The tavern which Luthias had earlier spotted, the Rogue and Quiver, was full, and seemed rather dirty. So they kept walking and searching, until Roisart spotted a large sign which advertised, "Belisandra's." Luthias gave the place a cursory inspection. "It looks clean, and the food smells good. Let's eat." Together, the twins ducked into the darkened tavern, scanned the room and its patrons (neither seemed too bad), and found a table in the corner nearest the door. Luthias pointed it out, and motioned to his brother. Roisart nodded, knowing the location's advantages as well as Luthias did; it allowed no attack from behind, and the proximity to the door made the twins difficult to spot as a potential killer's eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness. A sharp-eyed serving wench had spotted the brothers almost immediately and hustled over to their table as they seated themselves. She was a small girl, only reaching the twins' shoulders, but she dressed neatly and wore a pleasant smile. "Good Melrin to you, sirs," she greeted the twins politely. "What may I serve you?" Roisart began to smile in a lazy way which triggered alarms in Luthias' brain. Roisart was having an infatuation again. Luthias sighed mentally. Well, at least the girl wasn't a peasant; her speech was clear and free of the peasant accent, and she wore her clothes like a decent woman, unlike another serving wench on the other side of the room. Still....Luthias nudged his brother beneath the table and spoke. "Two ales, to begin with. What's the special for luncheon?" The girl's smile spread. "Belisandra's Secret Stew. The recipe's older than the Keep. It's the best stew in Dargon. And it's fresh; Belisandra made it just this morning." The girl nodded enthusiastically to a buxom woman nearing middle age, who stood behind the bar, tending it and a large cauldron of stew behind it. "It comes with fresh bread and butter and greens, and I can bring it to you right away." "Perfect," Luthias' stomach answered. "Bring two of those please." The girl nodded and turned away with a natural, unflirtateous bounce. "Too young for you, Roisart," muttered Luthias. "She can't be more than fourteen." "She's very sweet," Roisart argued. "Yes, but she's not for you." Roisart sighed with resignation; his brother smiled affectionately. "You give your heart too easily." "Whoever is baron could choose his own woman," Roisart realized. "If only we could choose a baron," Luthias laughed as the girl returned with two bowls of stew, a plate of fresh bread and a pat of butter, and a bowl of greens. Wondering how she could carry all that, Luthias continued, "There's absolutely no way to choose between us." The girl was setting the dishes down. "Belisandra will be over with the ales in a minute," she promised. She leaned back a moment and surveyed the young brothers with an appraising look. "Choose between you? How could any girl choose between you?" She blushed then, perhaps feeling immodest. Both twins, blushing as well, smiled at her as she continued. "Maybe your lucky lady should see Corambis." The tavern mistress Belisandra, bearing two ales, came from behind the girl as Luthias asked, "Who is Corambis?" "You don't know Corambis?" the girl asked, her eyes now wide. "I thought everyone knew Corambis. He's the Sage in the market-place. Your lady should see him today to see which of you she should choose." Belisandra set the ales down with two distinctive thumps. "Go to him today? Mika, he may never come back!" She gave the twins a motherly gaze. "He's been gone all winter, without a trace, and--" "He got back yesterday," Mika protested. "He read my horoscope for me this morning, Belisandra." She turned again to the twins, and began to continue, but Belisandra interrupted. "Where was he this time?" Mika took a moment to recall the information. "He went off with a young man for a few days, then stayed with relatives for the winter, he said. But he is back," she assured Roisart and Luthias, "and you can go and make an appointment for your lady friend. He's right in the market." Luthias faced his brother. "Do you think we should?" Roisart shrugged. "Why not, Luthias? We've tried everything else." He then asked Mika and her lady, "Where can we find Corambis?" "Oh, he's easy to find, my lords," Belisandra explained helpfully. "It's the only closed booth in the main market place. You can't miss it, young sirs." "I'll think we'll try it," Luthias decided. "Thank you." Mika smiled engagingly; Belisandra nodded, pleased. "You're welcome, my lords," Belisandra answered. "Good Melrin." "Good Melrin," Roisart returned politely. Belisandra went back to her bar and her stew and left Mika with the twins. "Enjoy your meal," the girl said pleasantly. "Call me if you'd like anything else, milords." Luthias nodded and smiled at her, and then Mika also left. Luthias turned to his stew and greens and began to eat hungrily. Then he laughed, his mouth full. Aware of his manners, he stopped, swallowed, then said, "I can't believe I'm actually going to see a fortune-teller!" "Why not?" Roisart answered, stirring his hot stew to cool it. "Didn't she say he was a Sage? Sages are very wise men, Luthias." Still Luthias shook his head. "Leaving a barony to a horoscope..." Roisart laughed. "Be practical, twin, just as you always tell me to be. We're going for advice, not for a decision. That will have to be made by you and me." For a moment, Luthias was quiet. Then he said in a low voice, "We should be more careful what we say in public, Roisart. The girl, Mika, didn't guess what we really meant, but if someone were searching for us..." "It wouldn't be that hard," Roisart countered. "I'd bet that we were the only twins in mourning blue in a festival city." Luthias attacked the greens. "Still, we don't need the whole of Dargon knowing about us and about...our cousin's troubles." Roisart swallowed and nodded. "Agreed. But we should go see this Corambis. We need all the help we can get." "It certainly couldn't hurt," Luthias concurred. About mid-afternoon, Luthias and Roisart finished their leisurely meal, and after paying Belisandra and generously tipping the girl Mika, they made their way to the main market square in search of Corambis the Sage. As Mika predicted, his stall in the market place, the only one that was closed in completely, was easy to find. Luckily for the twins, the people of Dargon, accustomed to Corambis, were exploiting other fortune tellers today. A bit self-consciously, Luthias knocked on the door, and the nervous twins were admitted into the booth by a young woman whom Roisart recognized as being one of the serving wenches at Belisandra's. She smiled at the twins provocatively, and in a sugary voice informed them that Corambis was with another querent, but would be free very soon. Both twins nodded soberly at this information and seated themselves gingerly on a wooden bench. After a minute, a middle-aged man dressed in a gay shade of red came through the door directly opposite the twins. A young woman followed him, apparently in tears. She slipped the man a gold piece and then slipped out the door. The man then turned his attention to the twins. "Who are these men, Thuna?" he asked the girl, giving her a stern, suspicious look. The wench Thuna shrugged coyly. "They've come for you, Corambis." The Sage looked visibly relieved. "Come in, gentlemen," he invited, motioning toward the plain, still-open door. In unison, Roisart and Luthias rose and walked toward the room. The cubicle was dark, despite the afternoon daylight outside, and from what the twins could tell, somewhat bare. Candles illuminated a small, circular table. Roisart recognized it as the Wheel of Life, a divination device. After a moment, Luthias also recalled the Wheel. Roisart noticed two chairs in opposing points around the table. He indicated it to Luthias, who shook his head, so Roisart sat down. After a few quick words of instruction to Thuna, Corambis the Sage joined them. "I apologize about Thuna," the Sage began. "I thought that perhaps she had fallen into old habits again." The Sage looked at Luthias, who was still standing. "I'm sorry, sir. I don't have another chair." "It's all right," Luthias assured him. "Don't trouble yourself. I don't mind standing." "All right," the Sage agreed. He looked at Roisart then, and again at Luthias. "How may I help you, gentlemen?" "We would have you tell our horoscope," Roisart answered quickly. Corambis at once appeared surprised and flattered. "It's not often men of nobility come to me," he chuckled, beginning to smile. "They don't often trust their problems to strangers." "This is an exceptional problem," Luthias revealed. "You may confide in me, my lords," Corambis declared with dignity. "I will not reveal your secrets. Why have you come to me?" Roisart smiled. "I suppose we had no where left to go." Corambis' eyebrows raised. "Sir?" "My brother and I," began Luthias, "have come to you with an unusual problem, sir. When we were born, our mother died, and so no one noted which was the elder." "And your father has just perished?" Corambis asked sympathetically, gazing at the blue-grey mourning dress. "I see. You have no idea which of you is heir." Roisart and Luthias both nodded. "My lords, have you brought your case before Lord Dargon?" Roisart and Luthias looked each other in the eye a moment, and Luthias had his doubts. But Roisart trusted the Sage, and Luthias gave his consent, so Roisart revealed the entire story to Corambis. To the twins' astonishment, the Sage was not surprised by the information. "I have been seeing that in the stars lately," mused Corambis. He sighed, then looked at Roisart, sitting across from him, and then at Luthias. "Well, my lords, I shall do what I can to help you." The Sage rose and turned to a little cubby-hole in the corner. >From it, he withdrew a small, velvet bag. He opened it, rummaged a moment, then turned back to the cubby-hole. He reached into it again, and tossed something across the room to Luthias. Luthias caught the thing deftly, then opened his hand to examine the object. It was a small red chip. Corambis seated himself once more. With one hand, he offered the velvet bag, and another red chip to Roisart. With the other, he beckoned Luthias closer. "It isn't often I do readings for twins," he mused, "but I often read for couples. Lord Roisart, take half the chips, and do not look at them. Give the rest to your brother." "What's the red chip for?" Luthias asked. "Put that on your birth sign, the Oak," Corambis instructed. "You too, Lord Roisart." The twins obeyed. Roisart took a handful of chips, and gave the rest to Luthias. Corambis spun the wheel. "Drop them when you are ready." Without any outward signal, the twins simultaneously dropped the blue chips onto the whirling Wheel of Life. It spun and spun; Luthias knelt next to the table to see better. The Wheel spun and spun and spun. Roisart put a hand on his brother's shoulder. Corambis stared at the whirling Wheel. The Wheel stopped. Corambis stared at the Wheel, with its scattered chips of red and blue, for a moment. "Unusual," he said. "Look here, my lords. The two birth chips have separated. One has stayed on the Oak, a sign of strength and long life. The other has strayed to the Ship, as if he were going to make a journey away from the other." "What's that blue one on the Ship?" Roisart asked, fascinated. Corambis scrutinized the symbol. "A new ally, come from afar, it seems." He gazed at the other chips. "You will need him, along with this ally--" Corambis pointed to a chip straddling the elements of Fire and Sword. "--to combat these two. Two very dangerous enemies, one caught between deceit and caring...probably a woman," he mused to himself. "And another, on the sign of the Fox--" Again, Corambis pointed. "He is a dangerous, cunning man, and I would be wary of him. "The outcome..." Corambis looked at the chips. "It will be decided soon, my lords. There are chips in the present and in the near future." "But which one of us?" demanded Luthias. The Sage shrugged his shoulders slightly. "I know not, my lords. But I can tell you this," he promised, pointing to the sign of the Knight, which held two chips, "the decision will be made by an act of extreme valor." Luthias looked up at his twin. "I should have known that there would be no easy answer, my brother," sighed Luthias. "So should I," smiled Roisart. Corambis shrugged pleasantly. "I can assure you of this, my young lords. The sign of the outcome is on the Mistweaver. Whatever happens in your case will be a fufillment of destiny." "Do you mean that the elder will gain the barony?" Roisart asked. "The Wheel is not specific," sighed Corambis. "It is never as specific as I would like. As you said, my lord, there are no easy answers in the affairs of destiny." The Sage smiled. Both twins returned the smile with crooked, somewhat sad grins. Luthias rose, and Roisart rose with him. "Thank you, Corambis," Roisart said respectfully. "We appreciate your time." "How much do we owe you, sir?" Luthias inquired. "Nothing," said Corambis amiably. "It isn't often I get to tell the future of the Baron of Connall and the Lord of Dargon." "Please," Roisart insisted, "let us give you something for your trouble. You lost other Festival customers by telling our fortune." "Doubtless there are other fortune tellers in Dargon for the festival," Corambis smirked. "No, my lords, you need not pay me." "But we want to," Luthias said, with the tone of a demand. Corambis rolled his eyes. "Oh, all right," he conceded. Luthias gave him two sovereigns. Corambis looked at the coins, then back at the twins. "I suppose you won't let me put up a fuss about the amount, my lords?" Luthias gave him a wild, wicked, challenging grin. "I didn't think so." Corambis sighed. "Well, good Melrin to you, lords, and be careful." "Good Melrin," echoed Roisart, and Luthias nodded a silent farewell as they stepped out the door. A little old lady rushed past them to see Corambis. They heard a hysterical weeping as he door shut. "Poor woman," said Roisart sympathetically. Luthias took a deep breath. The twins crossed the room and left Corambis' booth. Roisart looked at his brother. "Well, twin, what do you think?" Luthias shrugged his large shoulders elaborately. "What should I think, Roisart?" "I think you'll be the next baron," Roisart announced flatly. "Me? Why me?" wondered Luthias. "Haven't we already spoken of this, Roisart?" "The Sage said it would be decided by an act of valor," Roisart reminded his brother. "You excel in matters of bravery, twin," Roisart praised with a confident, affectionate smile. Luthias' faced echoed the smile falsely; Luthias' smile was introverted, private, but it retained the happiness shared by his brother. "Roisart," Luthias told him, "there are many sorts of valor." The two wandered in silence for a few moments, then Roisart wondered, "What shall we do now, Luthias?" Luthias gazed up at the sky. The sun was just above the horizon. Funny, but it didn't seem as if it should be that late. Lunch and finding Corambis must have taken longer than he thought. The reading was certainly quick. Due to the setting sun, people were clearing the streets. The merchants were closing and barring their shops and booths; the side show people were packing their equipment. Tomorrow was the last day of Melrin and the best day for business. One could not take a chance on one's equipment being stolen in the twilight. Luthias grimaced. If humble merchants took that much care.... "Roisart, perhaps we'd best go back to our cousin's," Luthias suggested, carefully omitting their cousin's noble name. "After what happened this morning..." Roisart appeared disappointed (he had heard that there would be firework s that evening), but then thought about the situation. "I agree, my brother. Let's go home." The twins were a little over a mile and a half from the keep, a nice leisurely walk in the twilight. Roisart did a little mental calculation and figured that he and his twin brother would arrive at Dargon Keep about the time of the sunset. Perfect, just perfect. Roisart again thought about that morning's escapade and began to feel apprehensive. These murderers after Clifton, he thought, don't even wait until after the dark. Just a deserted place. They don't mind the twilight. Another thing occurred to Roisart. He was unarmed. Luthias had bought the fine, new sword at the bazaar, but he, Roisart, had brought no weapon. Only the city guard was allowed to wear arms during the festival, a mandate Clifton had issued for public safety. Luthias, therefore, carried his new sword, snug in its fabulous scabbard, in his hand, and by the blade. That morning, the two of them had ridden prepared. But now... Apparently, Luthias had shared his brother's thoughts. Luthias gazed at the covered sword, and at his brother's hands, which carried only the book Luthias had purchased. "Let's hurry, twin." "You worry too much," Roisart said automatically. "I don't want to lose you, Roisart," Luthias answered, sotto voce. Yes, Luthias worried too much. After all, what assassin would be stupid enough to try the same trick twice in the same day? Still, Roisart gave his twin a watery smile, then gripped the book tighter as the pair quickened their pace slightly. The streets were becoming deserted. Luthias took a step closer to his twin. Roisart noticed that the knuckles of the hand clutching the sword has paled. Grim, Roisart quickened the pace again. It was getting dark quickly. Roisart looked at the setting sun, red and round, like a ripe, round apple, then at his brother's face, bathed in red light. Something moved behind Luthias. "Roisart, fall!" cried Luthias suddenly. Instinctively reverting to the fighting lessons they had received under their father's auspices, Roisart trusted his brother and collapsed carefully onto the ground. He rolled to the side, looked up. Luthias swung at a thief, bearing a knife in one hand a rope in the other, and bloodied the man's nose with a sweep of the sword. The one behind Luthias, whom Roisart had seen move, moved to strike, but Roisart pulled his brother's leg, tripping him. Luthias stumbled, but was unhurt. Roisart rose, put his back against Luthias', and observed the numbers. Six. And thieves again. Roisart wondered at one of them; he seemed familiar, but the light, as well as the observer, was uncertain. He heard something clatter to the ground behind him; Luthias had unsheathed his sword. Roisart cringed. Six to two, and I am unarmed. He took a good hold on the book. Not a peasant weapon, the unexpected thought came, but certainly an odd one. Suddenly, there was a cry from the shadows, and four more men joined the scene. Luthias lunged forward and impaled a thief in one sure thrust. Roisart leapt toward one of the attackers, and clubbed him clumsily with Luthias' new book. The thief stumbled, more surprised than hurt, but he shook his head and kept coming. Roisart kicked him soundly in the groin, and when he fell, he clubbed him again with "Lives of Lords and Princes." Roisart lunged from the knife of his attacker, but the thief dodged despite the pain. Roisart fell to the ground, losing his breath. Some strong arms roughly grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. "Master Roisart, are you all right?" Bartol's voice hissed. "Bartol!" cried Roisart. "Thank God!" Then, in the darkening twilight, Roisart saw movement again. "Bartol, look out!" Deftly, the bard turned to defend himself. Roisart crouched, to try to ward off any attackers with hand-to-hand combat. He left the book in the dust; it was of no use to him in this situation. Six of them, six of us, Roisart thought. Fair odds. One of the thieves lay on the road, bleeding from wounds from Luthias' sword. Another's head was crushed on one side from a blow from one of Bartol's three guards. But one of Bartol's men was still, the slit in his neck allowing all life to gush from him. Roisart checked around. One, two, three--where is the fourth---? A crushing blow to the neck gave Roisart his answer. Behind him. Dazed, Roisart fell. Far away, he heard Luthias' voice, "Roisart! ROISART!" Far away, he felt rough, rough hands tying his arms and feet with coarse, chafing ropes. Not far away, he saw through blurred eyes another of Bartol's men fall. He saw Luthias, trying to fight off three thieves. The other, probably the one who had tied him, was being defeated by Bartol and the last of his men. Bartol's last guard fell, leaving the bard alone. And Luthias, defending himself against three thieves. Bartol fell, clutching his sword-arm. The thief kicked him soundly, and ran to join his comrades, fighting Luthias. Luthias, Roisart tried to cry out. His mouth wouldn't move. Luthias! Bartol, help him. Bartol was bleeding. Roisart couldn't even see Luthias any more. There was a strange battle cry. Suddenly, a blue and white clad stranger leapt into the midst of the four fighting Luthias. One, he stabbed in the back. Luthias made a lucky thrust into one of the others. The other two backed off, but did not run. The strange, a short, young man, Roisart judged him, swung an odd curved sword above his head and charged one of the thieves. Encouraged, Luthias sprang at the other, who was ready. The thief stabbed at Luthias, and Roisart heard his brother cry out. The stranger's opponent fell. The stranger saw Luthias clutch his side and quickly went after the thief. One slash rid the thief of his arm. Another robbed him of his life. Roisart regained his breath and began to fidget. The ropes irritated his wrists, which had been bound tightly. He heard Bartol moan. It was becoming difficult to see. "Are you all right?" asked the stranger in accented words. "It's not deep," Luthias said. "But my brother...Bartol..." Luthias took a few steps toward his brother and knelt beside him. "Roisart?" he asked, tentatively touching his brother's forehead. "Untie me," Roisart demanded irritably. Luthias slit the bonds. "Are you all right?" Roisart pushed on the ground and managed to get on his feet. "Yes, I'm all right. Bartol?" "A cut," the stranger answered. He was binding it. "A physician should be able to repair it." Luthias put his hand on his brother's arm and together they joined the bard and the stranger. "We are indebted to you, sir," Luthias said politely. "We--my brother, Bartol, and I--would have died here without your help. Thank you." "Prease," said the stranger, "do not make fuss over it. I saw that the thieves attacked you, and like any honorable man, I wished to help." "How can we ever repay you?" Roisart asked. "Prease," the stranger begged, "I do it out of honor and decency. I need no reward." "At least come to sup with the masters and their cousin, the Lord of Dargon," the bard urged. "We at least owe you that much, sir?" The stranger took a step back and bowed. "I am Ittosai Michiya of Bichu." "I am honored, Michiya-san," Roisart answered, bowing and using the suffix he had learned in books. To his surprise, Mocha bowed again and smiled. "I am Roisart Connall. My brother, whose life you saved, is Luthias Connall. The other man is," here Roisart smirked, "apparently our new body guard." Bartol frowned. "Yes, Lord Dargon sent me and the others to look after you two." "We should be leaving this place," Ittosai recommended. "I agree," Luthias replied gravely. "Do come to dinner with us, sir," he urged. "You did us a great favor this night, and the least you deserve is our thanks and our hospitality." "You do me honor to invite me to the house of Dargon," said Ittosai. "I will go." "Quickly," said Bartol, clutching his arm. Quickly, they returned to the keep. Roisart, rubbing his rope-burned wrists, and Luthias, clutching his thinly-sliced side, rushed though the gates of Dargon Keep with Bartol the bard and Ittosai Michiya, the noble from Bichu, in close attendance. The city of Dargon had stealthily and swiftly snuck into the dark, night hours. From their experience at the morning's dawn and this evening's twilight, the twins knew they were no longer safe. Roisart's head was throbbing miserably. Stubborn blood seeped slowly through Luthias' clenched fingers. Both twins hurt, but Roisart knew by instinct that he did not have a concussion, and Luthias' wound was only skin deep, as much as it was bleeding. Bartol also nursed a minor flesh wound in his sword arm; the bard sincerely hoped that all tendons were intact. Ittosai was slightly winded, nothing more. Guards quickly ushered the wounded party to the presence of Lord Dargon, who was waiting for the return of his noble cousins of Connall. As soon as he saw them, he rose. "God, not again!" He looked at the twins, then at Bartol. "Bartol, I gave you orders--" Bartol wore an obstinate mask. "My lord, the three you instructed to take with me are dead. If it were not for my lord of Bichu, Master Roisart and Master Luthias would have died too." Dargon grimaced and went to the door. "Bring Griswald," he told the nearest servant, who nodded once and went immediately to fetch the old physician. He shut the door and returned to his guests. "Forgive me, cousins," he said to Roisart and Luthias. "I thought you would be safe in the city." "They waited until sunset," Luthias informed him. "The streets were almost deserted. This man, Ittosai Mich...Michiya? saved us." Dargon bowed to the Bichurian in the style of the foreigner's homeland. "I am honored to meet with you again, Lord Ittosai. You honor my household." Past the formalities, Dargon then said, "I thank you for saving the lives of my cousins, Lord Ittosai. I am indebted to you." Ittosai himself bowed to Dargon's lord. "I do what any man would do, Lord of Dargon." "I have offered the hospitality of your household to the Lord of Bichu," Bartol informed his lord. "You did right, Bartol," Dargon replied. He again turned to Ittosai Michiya. "You are welcome here, Lord Ittosai, not only as a hero, but as a noble of a great land." Griswald almost seemed to choose this moment to enter the lord's study--without knocking. He looked from Bartol to the twins, and groaned, "Gods and gods, what have you two been doing this time?" Dargon unconsciously frowned at the disrespect of Griswald's words, but said nothing, as he thought that the old man meant no harm. "Bartol, what happened to you?" Griswald quickly snatched an herb and some cloth out of his bag and bound the bard's arm. "It should heal quickly. Don't overuse it." He turned then to Luthias and did the same. "And what happened to you?" he finally asked Roisart. "I was clubbed from behind," explained Roisart. Roisart turned to his cousin. Griswald grunted by way of reply, and probed the boy's skull with dexterous fingers. "No lump. Were you unconscious?" Roisart gingerly shook his head. "It's sore, though," he admitted. Roisart turned to his cousin. "They were careful, Clifton. They didn't want me harmed. They clubbed me hard, but it didn't put me to sleep. And then...they tied my hands." Clifton frowned, exchanged a glance with Luthias. Luthias gravely nodded the confirmation of the event and his understanding of its implications. Griswald seemed unaffected. "Can you see all right? Feel nauseous? Tired?" Again, Roisart carefully shook his head. "Then don't worry about it until you do," the physician instructed in harsh, laconic tones. Griswald then turned to his lord. "If you'll not be needing me, I'm going to bed. You got me up very early this morning." Without waiting for Dargon's dismissal, Griswald abruptly left. "He hasn't been himself for days," Dargon revealed, having seen Ittosai's perplexed expression following the physician. "Can a man not be himself?" Ittosai wondered, no less confused. "It's an expression," Roisart explained with a smile. "It means he is not acting as he usually does." "Let's go to dinner," Luthias suggested. "It's been a long time since Roisart and I ate lunch." Dargon nodded, and Bartol went to hold the door open for the Lord of Dargon and his noble guests. As Dargon followed Ittosai out the door, he said, "You will be coming to the Melrin ball, won't you, Lord Ittosai?" When the Bichurian didn't answer, Clifton continued, "You are invited, as my guest, as the worthy noble of a distant land." "I fear I am not versed in your past-times," Michiya admitted. Roisart smiled. "But it's simple, Michiya-san. You smile at the pretty women--" "And try not to fall in love with them," Luthias finished for his brother. "A strange expression is falling in love, as if one were to fall into a pit," Ittosai noted. "Please do come, Lord Ittosai," Dargon repeated his invitation. "The people of Dargon are very curious about your nation across the sea, and want to have better relations with you and your people." "I am not the best speaker of my people," Ittosai protested, "but I will come." "Thank you," said the Lord of Dargon. "Please accept my house's hospitality for this night, and for tomorrow night, after the ball. You wouldn't want to miss any part of it." "Yes," Roisart said. "I imagine it will be a night to remember." -M. Wendy Hennequin <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>

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