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"Duin, you're a damned fool if you think you can fight from horseback," Drago the Bear said, tossing a gnawed bone to his trencher.

Duin the Bold slammed his tankard down on the long table. Ale slopped over the rim. "Fool, is it?" he shouted, his fair face reddening. "You're the fool, you thickskulled muckbrain!"

Drago stormed up with an oath, murder in his eyes. His thick arms groped toward Duin. The slimmer man skipped back. His hand flashed to his swordhilt. Cries of anger and alarm rang through Castle Fox's great hall.

Gerin the Fox, baron of Fox Keep, sprang to his feet. "Stop it!" he shouted. The shout froze both angry men for a moment, giving their benchmates a chance to crowd between them. Drago sent one man flying with a shrug of his massive shoulders, but was brought up short by a grip not even his massive thews could break. Van of the Strong Arm grinned down at him. Almost a foot taller than the squat Bear, the outlander was every bit as powerfully made.

Gerin glowered at his fractious vassals, disgust plain in every line of his lean body. The men grew shamefaced under his glare. Nothing would have pleased him more than breaking both their stupid heads. He lashed them with his voice instead, snapping, "I called you here to fight the Trokmoi, not each other. The woodsrunners will be a tough enough nut to crack without us squabbling among ourselves."

"Then let us fight them!" Duin said, but his blade was back in its scabbard. "This Dyaus-damned rain has cooped us up here for ten days now. No wonder we're quarreling like so many snapping turtles in a pot. Turn us loose, lord Gerin!" To that even Drago rumbled agreement. He was not alone.

The Fox shook his head. "If we try to cross the River Niffet in this weather, either current or storm will surely swamp us. When the sky clears, we move. Not before."

Privately, Gerin was more worried than his liegemen, but he did not want them to see that. Since spring he'd been sure the northern barbarians were planning to swarm south over the Niffet and ravage his holding. He'd decided to strike first.

But this downpour—worse than any he could remember in all his thirty years on the northern marches of the Empire of Elabon—balked his plans. For ten days he'd had no glimpse of sun, moons, or stars. Even the Niffet, a scant half mile away, was hard to spy.

Rumor also said the Trokmoi had a new wizard of great power. More than once, the baron had seen fell lights dancing deep within the northern forests. His ever-suspicious mind found it all too easy to blame the Trokmê mage for the rude weather.

Duin started to protest further. Then he saw the scar over Gerin's right eye go pale: a sure danger signal. The words stayed bottled in his throat. He made sheepish apologies to Drago, who frowned but, under Gerin's implacable gaze, nodded and clasped his hand.

As calm descended, the baron took a long pull at his own ale. It was late. He was tired, but he was not eager for bed. His chamber was on the second floor, and the roof leaked.

Siglorel Shelofas' son, when sober the best Elabonian wizard north of the High Kirs, had set a five-year calking spell on it only the summer before, but the old sot must have had a bad day. Water trickled through the roofing and collected in cold puddles on the upper story's floor. Spread rushes did little to soak it up.

Gerin plucked at his neat black beard. He wished for carpets like those he had known in his younger days south of the mountains. Study was all he'd lived for then, and the barony the furthest thing from his mind. He remembered the fiasco that had resulted when exasperation drove him to try the book of spells he'd brought north from the capital.

History and natural lore had always interested him more than magecraft. His studies at the Sorcerers' Collegium began late and, worse, were cut short after fewer than a hundred days: a Trokmê ambush took both his father and elder brother, leaving him the unexpected master of Fox Keep.

In the eight years since, he'd had little cause to try wizardry. His skill was not large. Nor did age improve it: his incantation raised nothing but a cloud of stinking black smoke and his vassals' hackles. On the whole, he counted himself lucky. Amateur wizards who played with forces stronger than they could control often met unpleasant ends.

A snatch of drunken song made him look up. Duin and Drago sat with their arms round each other's shoulders, boasting of the havoc they would wreak among the Trokmoi when the cursed weather finally cleared. The baron was relieved. They were two of his stoutest fighting men.

He drained his mug and rose to receive the salutes of his vassals. Head buzzing slightly, he climbed the soot-grimed oak stairway to his bedchamber. His last waking thought was a prayer to Dyaus for fair weather so he could add another chapter to the vengeance he was taking on the barbarians. . . .

* * *

A horn cried danger from the watchtower, tumbling him from his bed with the least ceremony imaginable. He cursed the bronzen clangor as he stumbled to a window. "If that overeager lackwit up there is tootling for his amusement, I'll have his ears," he muttered to himself. But the scar over his eyes throbbed and his fingers were nervous in his beard. If the Trokmoi had found a way to cross the Niffet in the rain, no telling how much damage they might do.

The window was only a north-facing slit, intended more for shooting arrows than sight. The little Gerin saw was enough. Jabbing forks of lightning revealed hand after hand of Trokmoi, all searching for something to carry off or, failing that, to burn. The wind blew snatches of their lilting speech to his ears.

"May the gods fry you, Aingus, you tricky bastard, and your pet wizard too," Gerin growled. He wondered how the Trokmê chieftain had got so many men across the river so fast. Then he raised his eyes further and saw the bridge bulking impossibly huge over the Niffet.

It had to be sorcerous: a silvery band of light leading from the northern woods into Gerin's holding. It had not been there when the baron went to his rest. As he watched, Trokmê nobles poured over it in their chariots, retainers loping beside them. Once long ago, Gerin thought, he had read something of such spans. He could not recall where or when, but the half-memory sent a pang of fear icing up his spine.

No time for such worries now. He hurled himself into trousers and hobnailed sandals, buckled on his sword, and rushed down dim-lit passageway and creaking stair to the great hall, where his vassals had hung their corselets when they arrived. That hall was a swearing jumble of men donning bronze-faced leather cuirasses and kilts, strapping on greaves, jamming pot-shaped helms onto their heads, and fouling each other as they waved spears in the air. Like Gerin, most had skin that took the sun well and dark hair and eyes, but a few freckled faces and light beards told of northern blood—Duin, for one, was fair as any Trokmê.

"Ho, captain!" Van of the Strong Arm boomed. "Thought you'd never get here!"

Even in the rowdy crew Gerin led, Van stood out. Taller than the Fox's six feet by as many inches, he was broad enough not to look his height. A sword-cut creased his nose and disappeared into the sun-colored mat of beard covering most of his face. Little hellish lights flickered in his blue eyes.

His gear was as remarkable as his person, for his back-and-breast was cast of two solid pieces of bronze. Not even the Emperor had a finer one. Unlike the businesslike helms his comrades wore, Van's was a fantastic affair with a scarlet horsehair plume nodding above his head and leather cheekpieces to protect his face. Looking more war-god than man, he shook a spear like a young tree.

If his tale was true, he'd been trying to cross the Trokmê forests from north to south, and had all but done it till he fell foul of Aingus' clan. But he'd escaped them too, and had enough left in his giant frame to swim the Niffet, towing his precious armor behind him on a makeshift raft.

His strength, bluff good humor, and wide-ranging stories (told in the forest tongue until he learned Elabonian) had won him a home at Fox Keep for as long as he wanted to stay. But when Gerin asked him his homeland, he politely declined to answer. The Fox did not ask twice; if Van did not want to talk, it was his affair. That had been only two years ago, Gerin thought with a twinge of surprise. He had trouble remembering what life had been like without his burly friend at his side.

The Fox's own armor was of the plainest, leather much patched, plates battered and nicked. The leather was firm and supple, though, and every plate sound. To Gerin's way of thinking, the figure he cut was less important than staying alive himself and putting a quick end to his foes.

The warriors wallowed through thick mud to the stables. It squelched underfoot, trying to suck their sandals and boots into its cold, slimy mouth. The chaos was worse inside the stables, as boys tried to hitch unwilling horses to their masters' chariots.

Gerin strung his bow and stowed in on the right side of his car next to his quiver; on the left went an axe. Like many of the Fox's vassals, Van affected to despise the bow as an unmanly weapon. He bore sword, dagger, and a wickedly spiked mace on his belt.

His shield and the Fox's, yard-wide discs of bronze-faced wood and leather, topped the car's low sidewalls when put in their brackets. Gerin's was deliberately dull, Van's burnished bright. Despite their contrasting styles, the two formed one of the most feared teams on the border.

Gerin's driver, a gangling youth named Raffo, leaped into the chariot. A six-foot shield of heavy leather was slung on a baldric over his left shoulder. It gave Gerin cover from which to shoot. Taking up the reins, Raffo skillfully picked his way through the confusion.

After what seemed far too much time to the Fox, his men gathered in loose formation just behind the gatehouse. Shrieks from beyond the keep told plain as need be that the Trokmoi were plundering his serfs. Archers on the palisade kept up a sputtering duel with the barbarians, targets limited to those the lightning showed.

At Gerin's shouted command, the gatehouse crew flung wide the strong-hinged gates and let the drawbridge thump down. The chariots lumbered into action, trailing mucky wakes. Van's bellowed oaths cut off in midword when he saw the bridge. "By my beard," he grunted, "where did it come from?"

"Magicked up, without a doubt." Gerin wished he were as calm as he sounded. No Trokmê hedge-wizard could have called that spell into being—nor could the elegant and talented mages of the Sorcerer's Guild down in the capital.

An arrow whizzing past his ear shattered his brief reverie. Trokmoi swarmed out of the peasant village to meet his men. They had no mind to let their looting be stopped. "Aingus!" they shouted, and "Balamung!"—a name the Fox did not know. The Elabonians roared back: "Gerin the Fox!" The two bands met in bloody collision.

A northerner appeared at the left side of the Fox's chariot, sword in hand. The rain plastered his long red hair and flowing mustaches against his head; he wore no helm. The reek of ale was thick about him.

Reading his mind was easy. Van would have to twist his body to use his spear, Raffo had his hands full, and Gerin, who had just shot, could never get off another arrow before the Trokmê's blade pierced him. Feeling like a gambler playing with loaded dice, the Fox snatched up his axe with his left hand. He drove it into the barbarian's skull. The Trokmê toppled, a look of outraged surprise still on his face.

Van exploded into laughter. "What a rare sneaky thing it must be to be left-handed," he said.

More barbarians were hustling stolen cattle, pigs, sheep, and serfs across the gleaming bridge to their homeland. The villeins had no chance against the northern wolves. Huddled in their huts against the storm and the wandering ghosts of the night, they were easy meat. A few had tried to fight. Their crumpled bodies lay beside their homes. Sickle, flail, and scythe were no match for the sword, spear, bow, and armor of the Trokmê nobles, though their retainers were often little better armed than the peasants.

Gerin almost felt pity as he drove an arrow into one of those retainers and watched him thrash his life away. He knew the northerner would have had no second thoughts about gutting him.

A few Trokmoi had managed to light torches despite the downpour. They smoked and sputtered in the woodsrunners' hands. The rain, though, made the thatched roofs and wattle walls of the cottages all but impossible to light.

With a wave and a shout, Gerin sent half his chariots after the pillagers. His own car was in the middle of the village when he shouted, "Pull up!"

Raffo obediently slowed. Gerin slung his quiver over his shoulder. He and Van slid their shields onto their arms and leaped into the mire. Raffo wheeled the horses and made for the safety of Fox Keep's walls. The chariot-riders not chasing looters followed the Fox to the ground. Panting footsoldiers rushed up to stiffen their line.

A Trokmê sprang on the baron's back before he could find his footing in the mud. His bow flew from his hand. The two struggling men fell together. The barbarian's dagger sought Gerin's heart, but was foiled by his cuirass. He jabbed an elbow into the Trokmê's unarmored middle. The fellow grunted and loosened his grasp.

Both men scrambled to their feet. Gerin was quicker. His foot lashed out in a roundhouse kick. The spiked sole of his sandal ripped away half the Trokmê's face. With a dreadful wail, the marauder sprawled in the ooze, his features a gory mask.

Duin the Bold thundered by on a horse. Though his legs were clenched round its barrel, he still wobbled on the beast's bare back. Since a rider did not have both hands free to use a bow and could not deliver any sort of spearthrust without going over his horse's tail, Gerin thought fighting from horseback a foolish notion.

But his fierce little vassal clung to the idea with the tenacity of a bear-baiting dog. Duin cut down one startled Trokmê with his sword. When he slashed at another, the northerner ducked under his stroke and gave him a hefty push. He fell in the mud with a splash. The horse fled. The Trokmê was bending over his prostrate victim when an Elabonian with a mace stove in his skull from behind.

Van was in his element. Never happier than when on the field, he howled a battle song in a language Gerin did not know. His spear drank the blood of one mustachioed barbarian. Panther-quick, he brought its bronze-shod butt back to smash the teeth of another raider who thought to take him from behind.

A third Trokmê rushed at him with an axe. The barbarian's wild swipe went wide, as did Van's answering thrust. The impulse of the blows left them breast to breast. Van dropped his spear and seized the barbarian's neck with his huge fist. He shook him once, as a dog does a rat. Bones snapped. The Trokmê went limp. Van flung him aside.

Gerin did not share his comrade's red joy in slaughter. The main satisfaction he took from killing was the knowledge that the shuddering corpse at his feet was one enemy who would never trouble him again. As far as he could, he stood aloof from his fellow barons' internecine quarrels. He fought only when provoked, and was fell enough to be provoked but seldom.

Toward the Trokmoi, though, he bore a cold, bitter hatred. At first, it had been fueled by the slaying of his father and brother, but now revenge was only a small part of it. The woodsrunners lived only to destroy. All too often, his border holding tasted of that destruction as it shielded the softer, more civilized southlands from the sudden bite of arrows and the baying of barbarians in the night.

Almost without thinking, he ducked under a flung stone. Another glanced from his helmet and filled his head with a brief shower of stars. A spear grazed his thigh; an arrow pierced his shield but was turned by his corselet.

His archers shot back, filling the air with death. Spouting bodies disappeared in the mud, to be trampled by friend and foe alike. The Trokmoi swarmed round Gerin's armored troopers like snarling wolves round bears, but little by little they were driven back from the village toward their bridge. Their chieftains fought back, making fierce charges across the Fox's fertile wheatfields, crushing his men beneath the flailing hooves of their woods ponies, sending yard-long arrows through cuirasses into soft flesh, and lopping off arms and heads with their great slashing swords.

At their fore was Aingus. He had led his clan for nearly as long as Gerin had been alive, but his splendid red mustachioes were unfrosted. Almost as tall as Van, if less wide through the shoulders, he was proud in gilded armor and wheel-crested bronze helm. Golden fylfots and the ears of men he had slain adorned his chariot. His right hand held a dripping sword, his left the head of an Elabonian who had tried to stand against him.

His long, knobby-cheekboned face split in a grin when he spied Gerin. "It's himself himself," he roared, "come to be corbies' meat like his father. Thinking to be a man before your ape of a friend, are you, laddie?" His Elabonian was fluent enough, though flavored by his own tongue.

Van shouted back at him; Gerin, silent, set himself for the charge. Aingus swung up his sword. His driver, a gaunt, black-robed man the Fox did not know, whipped his beasts forward.

On came the chariot, its horses' hooves pounding like doom. Gerin was lifting his shield to beat back Aingus' first mighty stroke when Van's spear flashed over his shoulder and took one of the onrushing ponies full in the chest.

With the awful scream only wounded horses make, the shaggy pony reared and then fell. It dragged its harness-mate down with it. The chariot overturned and shattered, sending one wheel flying and spilling both riders into the muck.

Gerin ran forward to finish Aingus. The Trokmê lit rolling and rushed to meet him. "A fine thing will your skull be over my gate," he shouted. Then their blades joined with a clash of sparks and there was no more time for words.

Slashing and chopping, Aingus surged forward, trying to overwhelm his smaller foe at the first onset. Gerin parried desperately. Had any of the Trokmê's cuts landed, he would have been cut in two. When Aingus' blade bit so deep into the edge of his shield that it stuck for a moment, the Fox seized the chance for a thrust of his own. Aingus knocked the questing point aside with a dagger in his left hand; he had lost his bloody trophy when the chariot foundered.

The barbarian would not tire. Gerin's sword was heavy in his hands, his battered shield a lump of lead on his arm, but Aingus only grew stronger. He was bleeding from a cut under his chin and another on his arm, but his attack never slowed.

Crash! Crash! An overhand blow smashed the Fox's shield to kindling. The next ripped through his armor and drew a track of fire down his ribs. He groaned and sank to one knee.

Thinking him finished, the Trokmê loomed over him, eager to take his head. But Gerin was not yet done. His sword shot up and out with all the force of his body behind it. The point tore out Aingus' throat. Dark in the gloom, his lifeblood fountained forth as he fell, both hands clutching futilely at his neck.

The baron dragged himself to his feet. Van came up beside him. There was a fresh cut on his forearm, but his mace dripped blood and brains and his face was wreathed in smiles. He brandished the gory weapon and shouted, "Come on, captain! We've broken them!"

"Is it to go through me you're thinking?"

Gerin's head jerked up. The Trokmê voice seemed to have come from beside him, but the only northerner within fifty yards was Aingus' scrawny driver. He wore no armor under his sodden robes and carried no weapon, but he strode forward with the confidence of a demigod.

"Stand aside, fool," Gerin said. "I have no stomach for killing an unarmed man."

"Then have not a care in the world, southron darling, for I'll be the death of you and not the other way round at all." Lightning cracked, giving Gerin a glimpse of the northerner's pale skin stretched drumhead tight over skull and jaw. Like a cat's, the fellow's eyes gave back the light in a green flash.

He raised his arms and began to chant. An invocation poured forth, sonorous and guttural. Gerin's blood froze in his veins as he recognized the magic-steeped speech of the dreaming river valleys of ancient Kizzuwatna. He knew that tongue, and knew it did not belong in the mouth of a swaggering woodsrunner.

The Trokmê dropped his hands, screaming, "Ethrog, O Luhuzantiyas!"

A horror from the hells of the haunted east appeared before him. Its legs, torso, and head were human, the face even grimly handsome: swarthy, hooknosed, and proud, beard falling in curling ringlets over broad chest. But its arms were the snapping chelae of a monster scorpion. A scorpion's jointed tail grew from the base of its spine, sting gleaming at the tip. With a bellow that should have come from the throat of a bull, the demon Luhuzantiyas sprang at Gerin and Van.

It was a nightmare fight. Quicker on its feet than any human, the demon used its tail like a living spear. The sting flashed past Gerin's face, so close that he caught the acrid reek of its poison. It scored a glittering line across Van's corselet. Those terrible claws chewed the outlander's shield to bits. Only a backward leap saved his arm.

He and Gerin landed blow after blow, but the demon would not go down, though dark ichor pumped from a score of wounds and one claw was sheared away. Not until Van, with a strength born of loathing, smashed its skull and face to bloody pulp with frenzied strokes of his mace did it fall. Even then it writhed and thrashed in the mire, still seeking its foes.

Gerin drew in a long, shuddering breath. "Now, wizard," he grated, "join your devil in the fiery pit that spawned it."

The Trokmê had put twenty or so paces between himself and the Fox. His laugh—an unclean chuckle that scraped across Gerin's nerves—made plain his lack of fear. "It's a strong man you are, lord Gerin the Fox"—the contempt he packed into that stung—"and this day is yours. But we'll meet again; aye, indeed we will. My name, lord Gerin, is Balamung. Mark it well, for you've heard it twice the now, and hear it again you will."

"Twice?" Gerin only whispered it, but Balamung heard.

"Not even remembering, are you? Well, 'twas three years gone by I came south, having it in mind to take up sorcery. You made me sleep in the stables, with the reeking horses and all, for some fatgut from the south and his party of pimps filled the keep all to bursting, you said. When the next time comes for me to sleep at Fox Keep—and 'twill be soon—I shan't bed in the stables.

"So south I fared, stinking of horsedung, and in Elabon the town only their hinder parts did the Sorcerers' Collegium show me. They called me savage, and that to my face, mind! After you, it's them to pay their price.

"For, you see, quit I didna. I wandered through desert and mountain, and learned from warlocks and grizzled hermits and squinting scribes who cared nought about a 'rentice's accent, so long as he did their bidding. And in a cave lost in the snows of the High Kirs, far above one of the passes the Empire blocked, I found what I had learned to seek: the Book of Shabeth-Shiri the sorcerer-king of Kizzuwatna long ago.

"Himself had died there. When I took the Book from his dead fingers, he turned to a puff of smoke and blew away. And today the Book is mine, and tomorrow the northlands—and after that, the world is none too big!"

"You lie," Gerin said. "All you will own is a nameless grave, with no one to comfort your shade."

Balamung laughed again. Now his eyes flamed red, with a fire of their own. "Wrong you are, for the stars tell me no grave will ever hold me. They tell me more, too, for they show me the gates of your precious keep all beat to flinders, and that inside two turns of the bloody second moon."

"You lie," Gerin growled again. He ran forward, ignoring the pain that lanced up from his wound. Balamung stood watching him, hands on hips. The Fox lifted his blade. Balamung was unmoving, even when it came hissing down to cleave him from crown to breastbone.

The stroke met empty air—like the light of a candle suddenly snuffed, the wizard was gone. Gerin staggered and almost fell. Balamung's derisive laugh rang in his ears for a long moment, then it too faded. "Father Dyaus above!" the shaken Fox said again.

Van muttered an oath in an unknown tongue. "Well, captain," he said, "there's your warlock."

Gerin did not argue.

The Trokmoi seemed to lose their nerve when the sorcerer disappeared. Faster and faster they streamed over Balamung's bridge, their feet silent on its misty surface. Only a snarling rearguard held Gerin's men at bay. Those warriors slipped away to safety one by one. With deep-throated roars of triumph, the Elabonians swarmed after them.

Like a phantasm compounded of coils of smoke, the bridge vanished. Soldiers screamed as they plunged into the foaming Niffet, the bronze they wore for safety dragging them to a watery doom. On the shore, men doffed armor with frantic haste and splashed into the water to save their comrades. Jeering Trokmoi on the northern bank shot at victims and rescuers alike.

It took two men to save Duin. Impetuous as always, he had been farthest along the bridge when it evaporated, and he could not swim. Somehow he managed to stay afloat until the first rescuer reached him, but his grip was so desperate that he and his would-be savior both would have drowned had another swimmer not been nearby. A few others were also hauled out, but Balamung's trap took more than a dozen.

A plashing downstream made Gerin whirl. Matter-of-fact as a river godlet, Drago the Bear came out of the water, wringing his long beard like a peasant wench with her man's breeches. Incredibly, armor still gleamed on his breast.

If anyone could survive such a dip, thought Gerin, it would be Drago. He was strong as an ox and lacked the imagination to let anything frighten him. "Nasty," he rumbled in a voice like falling trees. He might have been talking about the weather.

"Aye," an abstracted Gerin muttered. At the instant the bridge had melted away, the rain stopped. Pale, dim Nothos, nearing full, gleamed in a suddenly star-flecked sky, while ruddy Elleb, now waning toward third quarter, was just beginning to wester. The other two moons, golden Math and quick-moving Tiwaz, were both near new and hence invisible.

Hustling along a doubled handful of disheveled prisoners, most of them wounded, the weary army trudged back to the keep. Gerin's serfs met them at the village. They shouted thanks for having their crops, or most of them, saved. Their dialect was so rustic that even Gerin, who had heard it since birth, found it hard to follow.

Gerin ordered ten oxen slaughtered, laying the fat-wrapped thighbones on the altars of Dyaus and the war-god Deinos which stood in his great hall. The rest of the meat vanished into his men. To wash it down, barrel after barrel of smooth, foaming ale and sweet mead was broached and emptied. Men who found combat raising a different urge pursued peasant wenches and servant wenches, many of whom preferred being chased to chaste.

At first the baron did not join the merrymaking. He applied an ointment of honey, lard, and astringent herbs to his wound (luckily not deep), and winced at its bite. Then he had the brightest-looking captive, a tall mournful blond barbarian who kept his left hand clutched to a torn right shoulder, bandaged and brought into a storeroom. While two troopers stood by with drawn swords, Gerin cleaned his nails with a dagger from his belt. He said nothing.

The silence bothered the Trokmê, who fidgeted. "What is it you want of me?" he burst out at last. "It's Cliath son of Ailech I am, of a house noble for more generations than I have toes and fingers, and no right at all do you have to treat me like some low footpad."

"What right have you," Gerin asked mildly, "to rob and burn my land and kill my men? I could flay the hide off your carcass in inch-wide strips and give it to my dogs to eat while what was left of you watched, and no one could say I did not have the right. Thank your gods Wolfar did not catch you; he would do it. But tell me what I need to know, and I will set you free. Otherwise"—his eyes flicked to the two hard men by him—"I'll walk out this door, and ask no questions after."

One of Cliath's eyes was swollen shut. The other peered at the Fox. "What would keep you from doing that anyway, once I've talked?"

Gerin shrugged. "I've held this keep almost eight years. Men on both side of the Niffet know what my word is worth. And on this you have that word: you'll get no second chance."

Cliath studied him. The Trokmê made as if to rub his chin, but grimaced in pain and stopped. He sighed. "What would you know of me, then?"

"Tell me this: what do you know of the black-robed warlock who calls himself Balamung?"

"Och, that kern? Till this raid it's little I've had to do with him, and wanted less. It's bad cess for any man to have truck with a wizard, say I, for all he brings loot. No glory in beating ensorceled foes is there, no more than in cutting the throat of a pig, and it tied, too. But those who go with Balamung grow fat, and the few as stand against him die, and in ways less pretty than having the skins of them flayed off. I mind me of one fellow—puir wight!—who no slower than a sneeze was naught but a pile of twisty, slimy worms—and the stench of him!

"Nigh on a year and a half it is since the wizard omadhaun came to us, and for all we're friends now with Bricriu's clan and thieving Meriasek's, still I long for the days when a man could take a head without asking the leave of a dried-up little turd like Balamung. Him and his dog-futtering talisman!" The Trokmê spat on the hard-packed dirt floor.

"Talisman?" Gerin prompted.

"Aye. With my own eyes I've seen it. 'Tis squarish, perhaps as long as my forearm, and as wide, but not near so thick, you understand, and opening out to double that. And when he'd fain bewitch someone or magic up something, why, the talisman lights up almost like a torch. With my own eyes I've seen it," Cliath repeated.

"Can you read?" the baron asked.

"No, nor write, no more than I can fly. Why in the name of the gods would you care to know that?"

"Never mind," Gerin said. "I know enough now." More than I want, he added to himself: Bricriu's clan and Meriasek's had been at feud since the days of their grandfathers.

The Fox tossed his little knife to the barbarian, who tucked it into the top of one of his high rawhide boots. Gerin led him through the main hall, ignoring his vassals' stares. He told his startled gatekeepers to let Cliath out, and said to him, "How you cross the river is your affair, but with that blade perhaps you won't be waylaid by my serfs."

Good eye shining, Cliath held out his left hand. "A puir clasp, but I'm proud to make it. Och, what a clansmate you'd have been."

Gerin took the offered hand but shook his head. "No, I'd sooner live on my own land than take away my neighbor's. Now go, before I think about the trouble I'm giving myself by turning you loose."

As the northerner trotted down the low hill, Gerin was already on his way back to the rollicking great hall, a frown on his face. Truly Deinos was coursing his terrible warhounds through the northern forests, and the baron was the game they sought.

After he had downed five or six tankards, though, things looked rosier. He staggered up the stairs to his room, arm round the waist of one of his serving wenches. But even as he cupped her soft breasts later, part of his mind saw Castle Fox a smoking ruin, and fire and death all along the border.

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