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He woke some time past noon. By the racket coming from below, the roistering had never ceased. Probably no one was on the walls, either, he thought disgustedly; could Balamung have roused his men to a second attack, he would have had Fox Keep in the palm of his hand.

The girl was already gone. Gerin dressed and went down to the great hall, looking for half a dozen of his leading liegemen. He found Van and Rollan the Boar-Slayer still rehashing the battle, drawing lines on the table in sticky mead. Fandor the Fat had a beaker of mead, too, but he was drinking from it. That was his usual sport; his red nose and awesome capacity testified to it. Drago was asleep on the floor, his body swathed in furs. Beside him snored Simrin Widin's son. Duin was nowhere to be found.

The Fox woke Simrin and Drago and bullied his lieutenants up the stairs to the library. Grumbling, they found seats round the central table. They stared suspiciously at the shelves full of neatly pigeonholed scrolls and codices bound in leather and gold leaf. Most of them were as illiterate as Cliath and held reading an affectation, but Gerin was a good enough man of his hands to let them overlook his eccentricity. Still, the books and the quiet overawed them a bit. The baron would need that today.

He scratched his bearded chin and remembered how horrified everyone had been when, after his father was killed, he'd come back from the southlands clean-shaven. Duin's father, dour old Borbeto the Grim, had managed the barony till his return. When he saw Gerin, he'd roared, "Is Duren's son a fancy-boy?" Gerin had only grinned and answered, "Ask your daughter"; shouts of laughter won his vassals to him.

Duin wandered in, still fumbling at his breeches. Bawdy chuckles greeted him. Fandor called, "Easier to stay on a lass than a horse, is it?"

"It is, and more fun besides," Duin grinned, plainly none the worse for his dunking. He turned to Gerin, sketched a salute. "What's on your mind, lord?"

"Among other things," Gerin said drily, "the bridge that was almost your end."

"Downright uncanny, I call it," Rollan murmured. He spoke thickly, for his slashed lip had three stitches holding it shut. Tall, solid, and dark, he ran his fief with some skill, fought bravely, and never let a new thought trouble his mind.

"Me, I have no truck with wizards," Drago said righteously. He sneezed. "Damn! I've taken cold." He went on, "There's no way to trust a body like that. Noses always in a scroll, think they're better than simple folk."

"Remember where you are, fool," Simrin Widin's son hissed.

"No offense meant, of course, lord," Drago said hastily.

"Of course." Gerin sighed. "Now let me tell you what I learned last night." The faces of his men grew grave as the tale unfolded, and there was a silence when he was through.

Duin broke it. Along with his auburn hair, his fiery temper told of Trokmê blood. Now he thumped a fist down on the table and shouted, "A pox on wizardry! There's but one thing to do about it. We have to hit the whoreson before he can hit us again, this time with all the northmen, not just Aingus' clan."

A mutter of agreement ran down the table. Gerin shook his head. This was what he had to head off at all costs. "There's nothing I'd like better," he lied, "but it won't do. On his home ground, their mage would squash us like so many bugs. But from what the braggart said, we have some time. What I'd fain do is go south to the capital and hire a warlock from the Sorcerers' Collegium there so we can fight magic with magic. I don't relish leaving Fox Keep under the axe, but the task is mine, for I still have connections in the southlands. We can settle Balamung properly once I'm back."

"It strikes me as a fool's errand, lord," Duin said, plain-spoken as always. "What we need is a good, hard stroke now—"

"Duin, if you want to beard that wizard without one at your back, then you're the fool. If you had to take a keep with a stone-thrower over its gate, you'd find a stone-thrower of your own, wouldn't you?"

"I suppose so," Duin said. His tone was surly, but there were nods round the table. Gerin was relieved. He was coming to the tricky part. With a little luck, he could slip it by them before they noticed.

"Stout fellow!" he said, and went on easily, "Van will need your help here while I'm gone. With him in charge, nothing can go too badly wrong."

It didn't work. Even Fandor and Simrin, both of whom had kept those noses buried in their drinking jacks till now, jerked up their heads. Diffidently, Rollan began, "Begging your pardon, my lord—" and Gerin braced for insubordination. It came fast enough: "The gods know Van of the Strong Arm has proven himself a man, time and again, and a loyal and true vassal as well. But for all that, he is an outlander and owns no land hereabouts, guesting with you as he does. It'd be downright unseemly for us, whose families have held our fiefs for generations, to take orders from him."

Gerin gathered himself for an explosion. Before he loosed it, he saw all the barons nodding their agreement. He caught Van's eyes; the outlander shrugged. Tasting gall, the Fox yielded with as much grace as he could. "If that's how you would have it, so be it. Van, would it please you to ride with me, then?"

"It would that, captain," Van said, coming as close as he ever did to Gerin's proper feudal title. "I've never been south of the Kirs, and I've heard enough about Elabon's capital to make me want to see it."

"Fine," Gerin said. "Duin, you have the highest standing of any here. Do you think you can keep things afloat while I'm away?"

"Aye, or die trying."

Gerin feared the latter, but merely said, "Good!" and whispered a prayer under his breath. Duin was more than doughty enough and not stupid, but he lacked common sense.

Drago and Rollan decided to stay at Fox Keep themselves and leave the defense of their own castles to the vassal contingents they would send home; Gerin dared hope they might restrain Duin. After his other liegemen had gone, he spent a couple of hours giving Duin instructions on matters probable, matters possible, and as many matters impossible as his fertile mind could envision. He finished, "For Dyaus' sake, send word along the West March Road and the Emperor's Highway. The border barons must know of this, so they can ready themselves for the storm."

"Even Wolfar?"

"As his holding borders mine, news has to go through him anyway. But the slug happens to be out a-courting, and his man Schild, though he has no love for me, won't kill a messenger for the sport of it. Also, you could do worse than to get Siglorel here; he has the most power of any Elabonian wizard north of the Kirs, even if he is overfond of ale. Last I heard, he was in the keep of Hovan son of Hagop east of here, trying to cure Hovan's piles."

Duin nodded, hopefully in wisdom. He surprised Gerin by offering a suggestion of his own: "If you're bound to go through with this wizard scheme, lord, why not go to Ikos and ask the Sibyl for her advice?"

"You know, that's not a bad thought," Gerin mused. "I've been that way once before, and it will only cost me an extra day or so."

* * *

Next day he decided—not for the first time—that mixing ale and mead was a poor idea. The cool, crisp early morning air settled in his lungs like sludge. His side was stiff and sore. His head ached. The creaks and groans of the light wagon and steady pound of hooves on stone roadbed, sounds he usually failed to notice, rang loud in his ears. The sun seemed to have singled him out for all its rays.

Worst of all, Van was awake and in full song. Holding his throbbing head, Gerin asked, "Don't you know any quiet tunes?"

"Aye, several of 'em," Van answered, and returned to his interrupted ditty.

Gerin contemplated death and other delights. At last the song came to an end. "I thank you," he said.

"Nothing at all, captain." Van frowned, then went on, "I think yesterday I was too hellishly worn out to pay as much attention to what you were saying as I should. Why is it such a fell thing for Balamung to have got his claws on Shabeth-Shiri's book?"

The Fox was glad to talk, if only to dull the edge of his own worry. "Shabeth-Shiri was the greatest sorcerer of Kizzuwatna long ago: the land where all wizardry began, and where it flourishes to this day. They say he was the first to uncover the laws behind their magic, and set them down in writing to teach his pupils."

"Now, that can't be the book Balamung was boasting of, can it?"

"No. I have a copy of that one myself, as a matter of fact. So does everyone who's ever dabbled in magic. It's not a book of spells, but of the principles by which they're cast. But, using those principles, Shabeth-Shiri worked more powerful warlockery than any this poor shuddering world has seen since. He made himself king as well as mage, and he fought so many wars he ran short of men, or so the story goes. So he kept his rule alive by raising demons to fight for him, and by many other such cantrips. Think how embarrassed an army that thought itself safe behind a stream would be to have it flood and drown their camp, or turn to blood—or to see Shabeth-Shiri's men charging over a bridge like the one Balamung used against us."

"Embarrassed is scarcely the word, captain."

"I suppose not. Shabeth-Shiri wrote down all his most frightful spells, too, but in a book he showed to no one. He meant it for his son, they say, but for all his wizardry he was beaten at last: all the other mages and marshals of Kizzuwatna combined against him, lest he rule the whole world. His son was killed in the sack of his last citadel, Shaushka—"

"Shaushka the Damned? That was his? I've seen it with my own eyes. It lies in the far north of Kizzuwatna, at the edge of the plains of Shanda, and the plainsmen showed it to me from far away: stark, dark, and dead. Nothing grows there to this day, even after—how many years?"

Gerin shuddered. "Two thousand, if a day. But the winners never found Shabeth-Shiri's body, or his book either, and sorcerers have searched for it from that day to this. The legends say some of its pages are of human skin. It glows with a light of its own when its master uses it." The baron shook his head. "Cliath saw it, sure as sure."

"A nice fellow, this Shabeth-Shiri, and I think he'd be proud of the one who has his Book now. It seems all Kizzuwatnans have a taste for blood, though," Van said. "Once when I was traveling with the nomads—" Gerin never found out about the Kizzuwatnan Van had fallen foul of, for at that moment two hurtling bodies burst from the oaks that grew almost to within bowshot of the road.

One was a stag, proud head now low as it fled. But it had not taken more than three bounds when a tawny avalanche struck it from behind and smashed it to the grass. Great stabbing fangs tore into its throat, once, twice. Blood spurted and slowed; the stag's hooves drummed and were still.

Crouched over its kill, the longtooth snarled a warning at the travelers. It settled its short hind legs under its belly and began to feed. Its stumpy tail quivered in absurd delight as it tore hunks of flesh from the stag's carcass. When the men stopped to watch, it growled deep in its throat and dragged its prey into the cover of the woods.

Van was all for flushing it out again, but Gerin demurred; like rogue aurochs, longtooths were best hunted by parties larger than two. Rather grumpily, Van put away his spear. "Sometimes, Gerin," he said, "you take all the fun out of life."

The Fox did not answer. His gloomy mood slowly cleared as the sun rose higher in the sky. He looked about with more than a little pride, for the lands he ruled were rich ones. And, he thought, the wealth they made stayed on them.

The lands between the Kirs and the Niffet had drawn the Empire of Elabon for their copper and tin and as a buffer between its heartland and the northern savages. Once seized, though, they were left largely to their own devices.

Not a measure of grain nor a pound of tin did Elabon take from Gerin's land, or from any other borderer lord's. The Marchwarden of the North, Carus Beo's son, kept his toy garrison in Cassat under the shadow of the Kirs. So long as the borderers held the Trokmoi at bay, the Empire let them have their freedom.

Traffic on the great road was light so near the Niffet. The only traveler Gerin and Van met the first day was a wandering merchant. A thin, doleful man, he nodded gravely as he headed north. A calico cat with mismatched eyes and only one ear sat on his shoulder. It glared at Gerin as they passed.

When night began to near, the baron brought a brace of fowls from a farmer who dwelt by the road. Van shook his head as he watched his friend haggle with the peasant. "Why not just take what you need, like any lord?" he asked. "The kern is your subject, after all."

"True, but he's not my slave. A baron who treats his serfs like beasts of burden will see his castle come down round his ears the first time his crops fail. Serve him right, too, the fool."

After they stopped for the evening, Gerin wrung a hen's neck and drained its blood into a trough he dug in the rich black soil. "That should satisfy any roving spirits," he said, plucking and gutting the bird and skewering it to roast over the campfire.

"Any that wouldn't sooner drink our blood instead," Van said. "Captain, out on the plains of Shanda the ghosts have real fangs, and they aren't shy of watchfires. Only the charms the nomads' shamans magic up can keep them at bay—and sometimes not those, either, if most of the moons are dark. A bad place."

Gerin believed him. Any land that made his hard-bitten comrade leery sounded like a good place to avoid.

They drew straws for the first watch. Within seconds, Van was curled in his bedroll and snoring like a thunderstorm. Gerin watched Tiwaz and Math, both thin crescents almost lost in the skirts of twilight, follow the sun down to the horizon. As they sank, full Nothos rose. Under his weak grayish light, field and forest alike were half-seen mysteries. Small night-creatures chirped and hummed. Gerin let the fire die into embers, and the ghosts came.

As always, the eye refused to grasp their shapes, sliding away before they could be recognized. They swarmed round the pool of blood like great carrion flies. Their buzzing filled Gerin's mind. Some shouted in tongues so ancient their very names were lost. Others he almost understood, but no true words could be heard, only clamor and loss and wailing.

The Fox knew that if he tried to grasp one of the flittering shapes it would slip through his fingers like so much mist, for the dead kept but a pallid semblance of life. Grateful for the boon of blood, they tried to give him such redes as they thought good, but only a noise like the rushing wind filled his head. Had he not granted them that gift, or had the fire not been there, they likely would have driven him mad.

He kept watch until midnight, staring at stars and full Nothos and the half-seen shapes of spirits until Elleb, a copper disc almost half chewed away, was well clear of the dark woods on the horizon. No man disturbed him: few travelers were so bold as to risk moving in the dark of the sun.

When Gerin roused Van, he woke with the instant awareness of a seasoned warrior. "The ghosts are bad tonight," the baron mumbled, and then he was asleep.

Van announced the dawn with a whoop that jerked the Fox awake. Trying to pry his eyes open, he said, "I feel as if my head were filled with sand. 'Early in the morning' says the same thing twice."

"An hour this side of midday is counted as morning, is it not?"

"Aye, it is, and too bloody early in the bargain. Oh for the days when I was in the capital and not one of the wise men I listened to thought of opening his mouth before noon."

Gerin gnawed leathery journeybread, dried fruit, and smoked sausage, washing them down with bitter beer. He had to choke the bread down. The stuff had the virtue of keeping nearly forever, and he understood why: the bugs liked it no better than he.

He sighed, stretched, and climbed into his armor, wincing as his helm slipped down over one ear bent permanently outward by a northerner's club in a long-ago skirmish. "The birds are shining, the sun is chirping, and who am I to complain?" he said.

Van gave him a curious glance. "You feeling all right, captain?" he asked, a note of real concern in his voice.

"Yes and no," Gerin said thoughtfully. "But for the first time since I came back from the southlands, it doesn't matter at all. Things are out of my hands, and they will be for a while now. If someone pisses in the soup-pot, why, Duin will just have to try and take care of it without me. It's a funny feeling, you know. I'm half glad to be free and half afraid things will fall apart without me. It's like running a long way and then stopping short: I've got used to the strain, and feel wrong without it."

They moved south steadily, but not in silence. Van extracted a clay flute from his kit and made the morning hideous with it. Gerin politely asked if he'd been taking music lessons from the ghosts, but he shrugged a massive shrug and kept on tweedling.

A pair of guardhouses flanked the road where it crossed from Gerin's lands to those of Palin the Eagle. Two sets of troopers sprawled in the roadway, dicing the day away. At the creak of the wagon, they abandoned the game and reached for their weapons.

Gerin looked down his long nose at the wary archers. "Hail!" he said. "Would that you'd been so watchful last summer, when you let Wacho and his brigands sneak south without so much as a challenge."

The guard captain shuffled his feet. "Lord, how was I to know he'd forged his safe-conduct?"

"By the hand of it, and the spelling. The lout could barely write. Too late now, but if it happens again you'll find a new lord, probably in the underworld. Do we pass your inspection?"

"You do that, lord." The guard waved the wagon on. Gerin drew sword as he passed the ancient boundary stone separating his holding from Palin's. Palin's guardsmen returned his salute. For long generations the two houses had been at peace. The stone, its timeworn runes covered by gray-green moss, had sunk almost half its height into the soft earth.

Once past the guards, Van turned and said to Gerin, "You know, Fox, when I first came to your land I thought Palin the Eagle had to be some fine warrior, to judge by what his folk called him. How was I to know they were talking of his nose?"

"He's no Carlun come again, I will say." Gerin chuckled. "But he and his vassals keep order well enough that I don't fear a night or so in the open in his lands, or perhaps with one of his lordlets."

"You don't want himself to guest you?"

"No indeed. He has an unmarried sister who must be rising forty by now and desperate, poor lass. Worse, she cooks for him too, and badly. The last time I ate with Palin, I thought the belly-sickness had me, not just a sour stomach."

When the travelers did stop for the night, it was at the ramshackle keep of one of Palin's vassals, Raff the Ready. A blocky boulder of a man, he was very much of the old school, wearing a forked beard that almost reached his waist. His unflappable solidity reminded the Fox of Drago; so, less hearteningly, did his disdain for cleanliness.

Withal, he set a good table. He had killed a cow that day, and along with the beef there was a stew of frogs and mussels from a nearby pond, fresh-baked bread, blueberries and blueberry tarts, and a fine, nutlike ale with which to wash them down.

Gerin sighed in contentment, loosened his belt, belched, and then, reluctantly, gave Raff his news. His host looked uneasy. He promised to spread the word. "You think your men won't be able to hold them at the Niffet, then?" he asked.

"I'm very much afraid they won't."

"Well, I'll tell my neighbors, not that it'll do much good. All of us are looking south, not north, waiting for the trouble in Bevon's barony to spill over into ours."

"There's fighting there?" Van asked hopefully.

"Aye, there is that. All four of Bevon's sons are brawling over the succession, and him not even dead yet. One of them ran twenty sheep off Palin's land, too, the son of a whore."

With that warning, they left early, almost before dawn. They carried a torch to keep the ghosts at bay. Even so, Gerin's skin crawled with dread until the spirits fled the rays of the sun.

He spent a nervous morning hurrying south through Bevon's strife-torn barony. Every one of Bevon's vassals kept his castle shut tight. The men on the walls gave Gerin and Van hard stares, but no one tried to stop them.

Around noon, they heard fighting down an approaching side road. Van looked interested, but Gerin cared far more about reaching the capital than getting drawn into an imbroglio not his own.

The choice did not stay in his hands. Two spearmen and an archer, plainly fleeing, burst onto the highway. The archer took one quick glance at Gerin and Van, shouted "More traitors!" and let fly. His shaft sailed between them, perhaps because he could not pick either one as target.

He got no second shot. Gerin had been sitting with bow ready to hand, and no confusion spoiled his aim. But even as the archer fell, his comrades charged the wagon. Gerin and Van sprang down to meet them.

The fight was short but savage. The footsoldiers seemed to have already despaired of their lives, and thought only of killing before they fell. Cool as usual in a fight, the Fox ducked under his foe's guard and slid the point of his blade between the luckless fellow's ribs. The man coughed blood and died.

The baron wheeled to help Van, but his friend needed no aid. A stroke of his axe had shattered his man's spearshaft, another clove through helm and skull alike. Only a tiny cut above his knee showed he had fought at all. He rubbed at it, grumbling, "Bastard pinked me. I must be getting old."

The triumph left the taste of ashes in Gerin's mouth. What fools the men of Elabon were, to be fighting among themselves while a storm to sweep them all away was rising in the northern forests! And now he was as guilty as any. Warriors who might have been bold against the Trokmoi were stiffening corpses in the roadway—because of him.

"Where you're going makes you more important than them," Van said when he voiced that worry aloud.

"I hope so." But in his heart, Gerin wondered if the southern wizards could withstand Balamung and the Book of Shabeth-Shiri.

He sighed with relief when at last he spied the guardhouse of Bevon's southern neighbor, Ricolf the Red. He was not surprised to see it had a double complement of men.

The baron returned the greetings Ricolf's guardsmen gave him. He knew a few of them, for he had spent several pleasant weeks at Ricolf's keep on his last journey to the southlands. "It's been too long, lord Gerin," one of the guards said. "Ricolf will be glad to see you."

"And I him. He was like a second father to me."

"Peace be with you, wayfarers," Ricolf's man called as they drove past.

"And to you also peace." Van made the proper response, for he held the reins. He had been quick to pick up the customs of Gerin's land.

The sun was dying in the west and Gerin felt the first low keenings of long-dead wraiths when Ricolf's castle came into view, crowned by a scarlet banner. Somewhere high overhead, an eagle screamed. Van's sharp eyes searched the sky till he found the moving speck. "On our right," he said. "There's a good omen, if you care for one."

"I mislike taking omens from birds," Gerin said. "They're too public. Who's to say a foretelling is meant for him and not some lout in the next holding who has to squint to see it?"

A boy's clear voice floated from Ricolf's watchtower: "Who comes to the holding of Ricolf the Red?"

"I am Gerin, called the Fox, guest-friend to your master Ricolf, and with me is my friend and companion, Van of the Strong Arm. By Dyaus and Rilyn, god of friendship, we claim shelter for the night."

"Bide a moment." After a pause, Gerin heard Ricolf's deep voice exclaim, "What? Let them in, fool, let them in!" The drawbridge swung down. The lad cried, "In the names of Dyaus and Rilyn, welcome, guest-friend Gerin! Be you welcome also, Van of the Strong Arm."

Ricolf's keep, more sophisticated than Gerin's frontier fortress, had stone outwalls instead of a log palisade. Its moat was broad and deep; limp-looking plants splashed the slick surface of the water. A vile stench rose from the moat. Sinuous ripples made Gerin suspect water plants were not the only things to call it home.

Ricolf greeted his guests at the gatehouse. He was stout, perhaps fifty, with a square, ruddy face and blue eyes. His tunic and trousers were brightly checked and modish in cut, but the sword swinging at his belt was a plain, well-battered weapon that had seen much use. He had more gray in his red hair and beard than Gerin remembered, and lines of worry the Fox had not seen before bracketed his eyes and mouth.

When Gerin scrambled down from the wagon, Ricolf enfolded him in a bearhug, pumping his hand and thumping his back. "Great Dyaus above, lad, is it ten years? They've made a man of you! Ten years indeed, and us not living five days' ride from each other. This must never happen again!"

Untangling himself, Gerin said, "True enough, but I doubt if either one of us had a five-day stretch free and clear in all those years." He explained why he was traveling south. Ricolf nodded in grim comprehension. Gerin went on, "If what traders say is true, you've had your own troubles."

"I did, until I sent my unloving cousin Sarus to the afterworld this past winter," Ricolf agreed. He focused on Van. "Is this your new lieutenant? I thought what news I heard of him so much nonsense, but I see it was just the truth."

"My comrade, rather," Gerin said, and made the introduction. Van acknowledged it with grave respect. His broad hand, back thick-thatched with golden hair, swallowed Ricolf's in its clasp.

"I greet you as well, Van of the Strong Arm. Use my home as you own for as long as you would. Speaking of which"—Ricolf turned back to Gerin—"would you like to scrub off the dust of the road in my bath-house before we eat? You have the time, I think."

"Bath-house?" Geirn stared. "I thought I'd have to shiver in the streams or reek like a dungheap till I got south of the mountains."

Ricolf looked pleased. "So far as I know, I have the first up here. I had it put in last summer, when I sent messages to the unmarried barons of the north-country—and to some south of the Kirs, too—that any who thought himself worthy of my daughter Elise's hand should come here, to let me decide which man I thought most suited to her. My wife Yrse gave me no sons who lived, you know, nor have I hopes for any legitimate ones now, as I've no real intention of marrying again. I had three bastard boys, and one a lad of promise, too, but the chest-fever carried them off two winters back, poor lads, so when I die the holding passes to Elise and whomever she weds. Gerin, you must have got my invitation to join us; I know you're still wifeless."

"Yes, I did, but I had an arrow through my shoulder. It was a nasty one, and I was afraid the wound would rot if I traveled too soon. I sent my regrets."

"That's right, so you did. I remember now. I was truly sorry; you've done yourself a fine job since Duren and Dagref, er, died."

"It wasn't the trade I was trained for," Gerin shrugged. "My father always counted on Dagref; besides being older than me, he was a fighter born. Who would have thought the Trokmoi could get them both at once? I know my father never did. As for me, I'm still alive, so I suppose I haven't disgraced myself."

He changed the subject; remembering his father still hurt. "Now you'd better show me where that bath-house of yours is, before your dogs decide I'm part of the midden." He scratched the ears of a shaggy, reddish hound sniffing his ankles. Its tail switched back and forth as it grinned up at him, tongue lolling out. A half-memory flickered, but he could not make it light.

"Go away, Ruffian!" Ricolf snapped. The dog ignored him. "Beast thinks the place belongs to him," Ricolf grumbled. He took Gerin's arm and pointed. "Right over there, and I'll see to it your horses are tended."

Ricolf's tubs were carved limestone. The delicate frieze of river godlets and nymphs carved round them told Gerin they'd been hauled up from the south, for local gravers were less skilled. Soaking in steaming water, the Fox said, "Ricolf gives the suitors nothing but the finest. I never thought I'd feel clean again."

Van's bulk almost oozed out of the tub, but he grunted contented agreement. He asked, "What is this daughter of Ricolf's like?"

Gerin paused to rinse suds from his beard. "Your guess is as good as mine. Ten years back, she was small and skinny and rather wished she were a boy."

They dried off. Van spent a few minutes polishing imaginary dull places on his cuirass and combing the scarlet crest of his helm. Gerin did not re-don his own armor, choosing instead a sky-blue tunic and black breeches.

"With your gear, you could go anywhere," he said, "but I'd look a mere private soldier in mine. Even this is none too good; the southerners will doubtless have their hair all curled and oiled and wear those toga things they affect." He waved a limp-wristed hand. "And they talk so pretty, too."

"Don't have much use for them, eh, captain?"

Gerin smiled wryly. "That's the funniest part of it. I spent the happiest part of my life south of the Kirs. I'm a southerner at heart some ways, I suppose, but I can't let it show at Fox Keep."

Ricolf led them into his long hall. At the west end, a great pile of fat-wrapped bones smoked before Dyaus' altar. "You feed the god well," Gerin said.

"He has earned it." Ricolf turned to the men already at the tables. "Let me present the baron Gerin, called the Fox, and his companion Van of the Strong Arm. Gentlemen, we have here Rihwin the Fox—"

Gerin stared at the man who shared his sobriquet. Rihwin stared back, his clean-shaven face a mask. His smooth cheeks alone would have said he was from the south, but he also wore a flowing green toga and a golden hoop in his left ear. Gerin liked most southern ways, but he had always thought earrings excessive.

Ricolf was still talking. "Also Rumold of the Long Bow, Laidrad the Besieger, Wolfar of the Axe—"

Gerin muttered a polite unpleasantry. Wolfar, a dark-skinned lump of a man with bushy eyebrows, coarse black hair, and an unkempt thicket of beard that almost reached his swordbelt, was the Fox's western neighbor. They'd fought a bloody skirmish over nothing in particular two winters ago, before Wolfar went to seek Ricolf's daughter.

While Ricolf droned on, introducing more suitors and men of his household, Gerin got hungrier and hungrier. Finally Ricolf said, "And last but surely not least, my daughter Elise."

The baron was dimly aware of Van's sweeping off his helmet and somehow bowing from the waist in full armor. What Elise's long golden gown contained reminded him acutely of how much little girls could grow in ten years. He vaguely regretted she did not follow the bare-bodiced southern style, but the gown showed plenty as it was. Long brown hair flowed over her creamy shoulders.

Her laughing green eyes held him. "I remember you well, lord Gerin," she said. "When last you were here, you bounced me on your knee. Times change, though."

"So they do, my lady," he agreed mournfully.

He took a seat without much attention to his benchmates, and found himself between Rihwin and Wolfar. "Bounced her on your knee, forsooth?" Rihwin said, soft voice turning words in elaborate southern patterns. "I should be less than a truthteller were I to say some such idea had not crossed my mind at one time or another, and I daresay the minds of others here as well. And now we meet a man who has accomplished the fondest dreams of a double hand of nobles and more: in good truth, a fellow manifestly to be watched with the greatest of care."

He raised a mug in mocking salute, but Gerin thought the smile on his handsome face real. The baron drained his own tankard in return. Rihwin seemed to wince as he downed his ale; no doubt he preferred wine. Most southerners did, but grapes grew poorly north of the Kirs.

An elbow nudged Gerin's ribs. Wolfar grinned at him, displaying snaggled teeth. Gerin suspected he had were-blood in him. His hairiness varied marvelously as the moons whirled through the sky. Three years before, when Nothos and Math were full at the same time, a tale went round that he'd gone all alone into the forests of the Trokmoi and slain men with his teeth.

At the moment, he seemed civil—and civilized—enough. "How fare you, Fox?" he asked.

"Well enough, until now," Gerin answered smoothly. From the corner of his eye, he saw Rihwin cock an eyebrow in an expression he was more used to feeling on his own face than seeing on another. He felt he had passed an obscure test.

His belly was growling when the repast appeared. Ricolf's cooks did not have the spices and condiments the Fox had known south of the mountains, but the food was good and they did no violence to it. There was beef both roasted and boiled, fowls fried crisp and brown, mutton, ribs of pork cooked in a tangy sauce, creamy cheese with a firm, tasty skin, thick soup from the stockpot, and mountains of fresh-baked bread. Ricolf's good beer was an added delight. Serving wenches ran here and there, food-laden bronze platters in their hands, trying to keep ahead of the gobbling suitors.

Rihwin and one or two others discreetly patted the girls as they went by. Gerin understood their caution; it would not have done for a noble intent on marrying Ricolf's daughter to get one of his wenches with child. Van had no such worries. When a well-made lass came by, he kissed her and gave her a squeeze. She squealed and almost dropped her tray. Her face was red as she pulled away, but she smiled back at him.

The feasters tossed gnawed bones onto the hall's dirt floor, where Ricolf's dogs snarled and fought over them. Whenever the battles grew too noisy, a couple of cleaned-up serfs in stout boots toed the hounds apart. Even so, the din was overpowering.

So were the smells. The odors of dog and man vied with the smell of cooking meat. Smoke from the torches and the great hearth next to Dyaus' altar hung in a choking cloud.

Gerin ate until he could barely move, then settled back, replete and happy. Everyone rose as Elise made her exit, flanked by two maids. When she was gone, the serious drinking and gambling began.

Wolfar, Gerin knew, was a fanatic for dicing, but tonight, for some reason, he declined to enter the game. "I never bet in my life," he declared loftily, pretending not to hear the Fox's snort.

"I wish I could say that," a loser mourned as his bet was scooped up.

"Why can't you? Wolfar just did," Rihwin said. Gerin grinned at him with genuine liking. In the southlands the smooth insult was a fine art, one the baron had enjoyed but one too subtle for Castle Fox. Rihwin nodded back; maybe he had aimed the remark for Gerin's ears. It always warmed the Fox when a southerner born and bred took him for an equal. They were a snobbish lot on the other side of the Kirs. That Rihwin's target was Wolfar only made things more delightful.

Rihwin had a capacity for ale that belied his soft looks. Gerin valiantly tried to keep up, empyting his mug again and again until the room spun as he rose. His last clear memory was of Van howling out a nomad battlesong and accompanying himself with the flat of his blade on the tabletop.

To his surprise, the baron woke up the next morning in a bed. He had scant notion of how or when he'd reached it. Little wails of delight and Van's hoarse chuckle from the next room told him the outlander had not wasted his night sleeping.

The Fox found a bucket of cold water outside his door. He poured half of it over his head. Spluttering, he walked down the passageway and into the yard. He found Ricolf there, halfheartedly practicing with the bow. Though the older man had not tried to pace his guests, he looked wan.

"Does this sort of thing happen every night?" Gerin asked.

"The gods forbid! Were it so, I'd have been long dead. No, I plan to announce my choice tonight, and it would be less than natural if tension didn't build. For near a year I've seen these men—all but Sigiber the South, poor wight, who got a spear through his middle—in battle, heard them talk, watched them. Aye, my mind's made up at last."


"Can you keep it quiet? No, that's a foolish question; you could before, pup though you were, and it's not the sort of thing to change in a man. For all his affected ways—I know some call him 'Fop' and not 'Fox'—Rihwin is easily the best of them. After him, perhaps, would be Wolfar, but a long way back."

"Wolfar?" Gerin was amazed. "You can't mean it?"

"Aye, I do. I know of your trouble with him, but you can't deny he's a doughty warrior. He's not as slow of wit as his looks would make you think, either."

"He's a mean one, though. Once in hand-to-hand he almost bit my ear off." Something else occurred to the Fox. "What of your daughter? If the choice were hers, whom would she pick?"

It was Ricolf's turn for surprise. "What does that matter? She'll do as I bid her." He turned back to his archery.

Gerin was tempted to leave, but knew his old friend would think him rude to vanish on the eve of the betrothal. He spent the day relaxing, glancing at the couple of books Ricolf owned, and making light talk with some of the suitors.

Van emerged in the early afternoon, a smile on his face. The outlander was rubbing a callus on his right forefinger when he found Gerin. The baron remembered the heavy silver ring he'd worn there. Van explained, "It's only right to give the lassie something to remember me by."

"You, I don't think she's likely to forget."

"I suppose not," Van said happily.

A bit before sunset, a wandering minstrel appeared outside Ricolf's gate and prayed shelter for the night. The baron granted it, on condition that he sing after Elise's betrothal was announced. The minstrel, whose name was Tassilo, agreed at once. "How not?" he said. "After all, 'tis the purpose of a singer to sing."

The evening meal was like the one the night before. Tonight, though, Ricolf opened jugs of wine brought up from the south along with griffin-headed ivory rhytons and eared cups of finest Sithonian ware—beautiful scenes of hunting, drinking, and the deeds of the gods were painted under their glaze. Gerin's thrifty soul quailed when he thought of what Ricolf must have spent.

Rihwin, who seemed to expect his coming triumph and hadn't tasted the wine he loved in a year, began pouring it down almost faster than he could be served. He held it well at first, regaling his comrades with bits of gossip from the Emperor's court. Though this was a year old, most of it was new to Gerin.

The feasters finished. An expectant hush fell on the hall.

Just as Ricolf began to rise, Rihwin suddenly clambered onto the table. The boards creaked. Voice wine-blurred, Rihwin called out, "Ha, bard, play me a tune, and make it a lively one!"

Tassilo, who had looked at the bottom of his cup more than once himself, struck fiery music from his mandolin. Rihwin went into a northern dance. Gerin stared at him. He was sure Ricolf would not like this. But Rihwin found the jig too sedate. He shifted in midstep to a wild, stamping nomad dance.

Ricolf, watching the unmanly performance, looked like a man bathing in hellfire. He had all but beggared himself to provide the best for these men and make his holding as much like the elegant southland as he could. Was this his reward?

Then, with a howl, Rihwin stood on his hands and kicked his legs in the air in time to the music. His toga fell limply around his ears. He wore nothing under it.

At that spectacle, the maids hustled Elise from the hall. Gerin did not quite catch her expression, but thought amusement a large part of it.

In agony, Ricolf cried, "Rihwin, you have danced your wife away!"

"I could hardly care less," Rihwin said cheerfully. "Play on, minstrel!"

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