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After that, there was little Ricolf could do. He tried to make the best of the fiasco by proclaiming to everyone that Wolfar of the Axe was his true choice as Elise's groom. Wolfar acknowledged his honor with a gracious grunt, which only disconcerted Ricolf more. There were scattered cheers, including a sardonic one from Rihwin.

Gerin muttered insincere congratulations to Wolfar. Then he left the feast, claiming he wanted to make an early start in the morning. That held just enough truth to make mannerly his escape from his enemy's triumph. Van had already disappeared with another wench and a jug of wine. Ignoring the raucous celebration in the great hall, Gerin blew out the little flame flickering from the middle fingertip of the hand-shaped clay lamp by his bed and fell asleep.

He woke to the sound of someone fumbling at the barred door. Elleb's crescent, just now topping the walls of Ricolf's keep, peeped through the east-facing slit window and sent a pale pink stripe of light across the bed to the door. Sunrise was still two or three hours away.

Head aching, Gerin groped for his clothes. He slid into trousers, but wrapped his tunic round his right arm for a shield. The fumbling went on. Knife in hand, he padded to the door and flung it open.

Whatever outcry he had intended clogged in his throat. "Great Dyaus, Elise, what are you doing here?" he gurgled. He almost had not known her. No longer was she gowned and bedecked. She wore stout boots, breeches, and a sheepskin jacket so baggy it all but hid her curves. A knife swung at her belt. Her long hair was tucked up under a shapeless leather traveler's hat.

For a long moment, she stared at the blade in his left hand. Its nicked edge glittered in the fading light of the hallway torches. Then she brushed past the stunned Fox and shut the door behind them. Voice low and fast, she said, "I need help, lord Gerin, and of all the men here, I think I can only ask it of you. I was willing to try my father's idiot scheme as long as I thought I had some chance of getting a husband I could endure, but Wolfar of the Axe—"

Gerin wished he had not drunk so much. His head still buzzed and his wits were slow. "All the northland knows I have no love for Wolfar, but what do you want of me?" he asked, already afraid he knew the answer.

She looked up at him, eyes enormous in the gloom. "I know you are going to the capital—take me with you! My mother was of a southern house, and I have kin there. I'd be no burden to you. I've been daughter and son both to my father, and I can live from the land like any warrior—"

"Don't you see I can't?" Gerin broke in. "It's impossible. What would my life be worth if someone were to find you here even now?" Alarmed at that, he added, "By the gods, where are your maids?"

"As soon as I knew my father had chosen Wolfar, I put a sleeping powder in their cups. The ninnies were still clucking over poor besotted Rihwin. He wasn't a bad fellow, for all his silly ways."

The baron felt a twinge of annoyance at her mentioning the drunken fool with kindness, but stifled it. He said, "That's one for you, then. But why won't Ricolf think I ran off with you against your will?"

"Nothing simpler: I let a note in my room saying just what I was doing, and why. There are things in it only he and I know; he'd not think it forced from me."

Gerin stared. Women who read and wrote were not of the ordinary sort. Well, he thought, I've already found that out. But he shook his head, saying, "You have all the answers, it seems. But answer me this: would you have me break the sacred oath of guest-friendship I hold with your father? No luck comes to the oath-breaker; gods and men alike turn from him."

She inspected him. Her eyes filled with tears. He felt himself flinch under her gaze. "You've forgotten the oath you gave me all those years ago, then?" she asked bitterly. "How old was I? Eight? Ten? I don't know, but I've remembered from then till now that you treated me like a real person, not just a brat underfoot. You swore if ever I needed you, there you would be. Is an oath less an oath because given to a child? Am I less a person because I have no beard? You called on Dyaus; by Dyaus, lord Gerin, could you see yourself wed to Wolfar, were you a woman?" The tears slid down her cheeks.

"No," he sighed, understanding what the truth meant but unable to lie to her.

"No more could I. I would sooner die."

"There's no need of that," he said, awkwardly patting her shoulder. He shrugged on the rolled-up tunic and climbed into his cuirass. "What sort of gear do you have?"

"No need to worry about that. I've already stowed it in your wagon."

He threw his hands in the air. "I might have known. You know, Van will call me nine different kinds of fool, and every one of them true, but you'll be useful to have around. You could talk a longtooth into eating parsnips.

"Wait here," he added, and stepped into the hall. He tried Van's door. It was barred. He swore under his breath. He was about to tap when the door flew open. Van loomed over him, naked as the day he was born. His mace checked its downward arc inches from the Fox's head.

"Captain, what in the five hells are you up to?" he hissed. Behind him, a woman made drowsy complaint. In the half-light, the curve of her hip and thigh made an inviting shadow on the bed. "It's all right, love," the outlander reassured her. She sighed and went back to sleep. Van turned to Gerin: "Don't come scratching round my door. It isn't healthy."

"So I see. Now will you put that fornicating thing down and listen to me?"

When the baron finished, there was nothing but astonishment on Van's face. He whistled softly. "I will be damned. Spend two years thinking a man stodgy and then he does this to you." His shoulders shook with suppressed mirth. "What are you standing here gawking for? Go on, get the horses hitched up; I'll be with you in a few minutes." Softly but firmly, he shut the door in Gerin's face.

Blinking, the baron retrieved Elise and hurried down the hallway. The only sounds were faint cracklings from the guttering torches and snoring from behind almost every door. Gerin thanked the gods for the flooring of rammed earth. On planking, the nails in his sandals would have clicked like the wooden snappers some Sithonian dancers wore on their fingers.

"How can I thank you?" Elise whispered. "I—" Gerin clamped a hand over her mouth: someone else was in the hall.

* * *

Wolfar, stumbling to his bed, had rarely felt better in his life. He had spent most of the night thinking of Gerin chopped into dogmeat after he took over Ricolf's lands as well as his own; Elise was a tasty baggage, too. Every other feaster had long since either lurched off to bed or slid under the table, but Wolfar, buoyed by visions of glory and mayhem, was still mostly himself after drinking them all down.

He gaped when Gerin appeared before him. "Ah, the Fox," he said jovially. "I was just thinking of you." His piggy eyes went wide when he saw the baron's companion.

Gerin saw Wolfar fill his lungs to shout. He snatched a dead torch from its dragon-headed bronze sconce and broke it over his rival's bald spot. Wolfar sank without a sound, mouth still open. Gerin and Elise darted for the stables, not knowing how long he would stay stunned.

They slowed once they got outside the castle. Attracting the gate crew's attention was the last thing they wanted.

The horses looked resentful as Gerin harnessed them. His fingers leaped over the leather straps. Each had to go in its proper place, lest the whole harness come apart. He expected an alarm at any moment. But the horses were hitched and Elise hidden under blankets in the back of the wagon, and all stayed quiet. Van, however, did not come. Gerin waited and worried.

A footfall in the doorway made him whirl. His hand leaped for his swordhilt, but that gigantic silhouette could only belong to one man. "What kept you?" the baron barked.

"Some things, a gentleman never hurries," Van said with dignity. "You laid Wolfar out cold as a cod; he'll have himself a ten-day headache. Now let's be off, shall we? Ah, you've already got a torch lit. Good. Here, start another. The light may keep the worst of the ghosts away. Or, of course, it may not. I know few men who've gone night-faring, and fewer still who came back again, but now it's a needful thing, I think."

He climbed aboard, took the reins, and set the horses moving. Harness jingling, they rode up to the gate. A couple of Ricolf's hounds sniffed about the wagon's wheels. Van flicked them away with his whip.

The gate guards made no move to let down the drawbridge. They looked curiously at Van and Gerin. One asked, "Lords, why are you on your way so early?"

Van stopped breathing. It was a question for which he had no good answer. But Gerin only grinned a lopsided grin. He laughed at the guards and said, "I'm running away with Ricolf's daughter; she's much too good for anyone here."

The soldier shook his head. "Ask a question like that and you deserve whatever answer you get, I suppose. Come on, Vukov," he said to the other watchman, "let down the bridge. If they want to take their chances with the ghosts, it's their affair and none of mine."

Smothering a yawn, Vukov helped his comrade with the winch. The bridge slowly lowered, then dropped the last few feet with a thump. To Gerin, the clop of the horses' hooves on it seemed the loudest thing in the world.

Trying not to bellow laughter, Van wheezed and choked. Between splutters, he said, "Captain, that was the most outrageous thing I've ever seen! You've got to promise me you'll never, ever let me gamble with you. I have better things to do than throwing my money away."

"It's ill-done to lie in the house of a guest-friend. If his men choose not to believe, why, that's their affair and none of mine." Gerin shrugged, mimicking the guardsman.

As soon as they left the shelter of Ricolf's keep, the ghosts were on them, keening loss and shrieking resentment of any who still kept warm blood in their veins. Without the boon of blood to placate them, they sent an icy blast of terror down on the travelers.

The horses rolled their eyes, shying at things only they saw. Gerin stopped his ears with his fingers in a vain effort to shut out the ghosts' wails. He saw Van work his massive jaw, but no word of complaint passed the outlander's lips. Elise, shivering, came up to sit with them under the scant protection the torches gave.

Ricolf's lands shot by in a gray blur, as if Van thought to outrun the ghosts by fleeing south. The horses did not falter; rather they seemed glad to run. False dawn was touching the east with yellow light when the wagon sped past the little guardpost Ricolf kept on his southern border. Gerin was not much surprised to see the guards curled up asleep inside; fire and blood warded them from the night spirits. They did not stir as the wagon clattered past.

The Fox had been looking back over his shoulder as long as he was in Ricolf's lands. When he saw how Van slowed their pace once past the border, he knew he had not been the only one to worry. He cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "For all his willingness to help carry off the lady," he said to no one in particular, "I seem to notice a certain burly accomplice of mine lacking a perfect faith in the power of her notes to soothe ruffled tempers."

"If all that noise means me," Van rumbled, "then you've hit in the center of the target. It would have been downright awkward to have to explain to a horde of warriors just what I was doing with their lord's daughter."

Elise made a face at him. She, at least, seemed confident there would be no followers. Gerin wondered what it took to put trust in someone unknown for a double handful of years. His mind stalked round the idea like a cat with ruffled fur. He was still astonished any pleading of hers could have convinced him to bring her along.

At last the sun touched the eastern horizon, spilling out ruddy light like a huge hand pouring wine from a jug. The ghosts gave a last frightened moan and returned to whatever gloomy haunts they inhabited during the day.

The morning wore on with no sign of anyone on Gerin's trail, but he still felt uneasy for no reason he could name. It could not have been the land. Save for the High Kirs, now a deep blue shadow on the southern skyline, nothing was much different from what he knew in his own barony.

Meadow and forest alternated, and if there were a few more elms and oaks and a few less pines and maples, that mattered little. The woods did grow closer to the road than the Fox would have liked: south of Ricolf's holding, the highway marked the boundaries of two barons said to be rivals, and to Gerin's way of thinking they should have kept the undergrowth well trimmed so no one could use it for cover.

Once a little stream wound close by the roadway. When Van pulled off to water the horses and let them rest for a few minutes, frogs and turtles leaped from mossy rocks and churned away in senseless terror, just as they would have near Fox Keep. No, the Fox thought as he stared back at a suspicious turtle, the land was not what troubled him.

The peasants seemed much the same, too. They lived in little villages of wattle and daub, the community oxen housed about as well as the people. Scrawny chickens picked around cottages and squawked warnings at dogs, who snarled back. Little naked herdboys guided flocks of sheep and cattle with sticks, helped by the shortlegged brown and white dogs native to the north country. Men and women in colorless homespun worked in the fields, as hard as the draft animals laboring with them.

Not until Gerin lifted his eyes to the keeps could he finger what troubled him. Castles crowned many hills, but here and there the banks of their moats were beginning to crumble into the water. Some lesser barons let stands of trees big enough to shelter scores of warriors grow almost within bowshot of their walls.

Gerin had no desire to claim shelter from any of these nobles. The few he saw on the road distressed him. Their chariots were decorated with inlays of gold and bright stones, but plainly had never seen combat. More than one man wore cloth instead of mail. What cuirasses were to be seen were covered with studs and curlicues of bronze: beautiful to look at, but sure to catch and hold a spearpoint.

The footsoldiers were not much better. They were well armed, but soft jaws and thick middles said they were unblooded troops. Behind the shield of the border, where the Trokmoi were always ready to pounce on the weak, Elabon's northern province was starting to rot.

Van saw it too. "This land is ripe for the taking," he said. Gerin could only nod.

The sun rose high and hot. Gerin felt the sweat trickle down his back and chest. He wished he could scratch through his armor.

With fairer skin, Van suffered more, tanned though he was. He finally took off his proud helm and carefully stowed it in the back of the wagon, then poured over his head a bucket of cool water from the brook where they had stopped. He puffed and snorted as the water poured down his face and dripped through his beard. "Ahhh!" he said. "That's better, even if I do sound like a whale coming up for air."

"A whale?" Elise said. She had shed her jacket. In tunic and trousers, she was more comfortable than either of the men. Her hat she kept on, for her fairness was not like that of Van, who grew golden under the sun: she would burn and freckle and peel and never really tan at all. She went on, "I've heard the word. Some kind of fish, is it not? I've never seen one."

"Nor I," Gerin said. "The farthest I've traveled is to the capital, and there are no whales in the Inner Seas."

"Well, captain, I'll tell you—and you, my lady—I've seen whales right enough, and closer than I wanted, too. Do you know the land called Mabalal?"

Elise shook her head. Gerin said, "I've heard the name. It's far to the south and east, I think."

"That's the one, captain. And sultry—why, this is nothing beside what it's like there. I thought I'd melt like a lump of wax in a fire. The people are little and dark, and they seem to like it well enough. For all their swarthy hides, the women are not uncomely, and what they do—" Van abruptly broke off. Gerin was amused to see his huge friend could blush.

"But I was talking about whales," Van went on. "They come in all sizes, and the sailors like the little ones, and wouldn't think of harming them. But the big ones hate men, and sink whatever boats they can. Now, one of them had lived outside the harbor at Jalor—that's the capital thereabouts—for years, and he'd sunk maybe twenty ships. He had a reddish skin they knew him by, and they called him 'Old Crimson,' since crimson is the color their kings wear. Five times they'd tried to kill him, and neither of the two harpooners who lived was whole.

"It got so bad the captains wouldn't ship out of Jalor, and if they did they couldn't find a soul to man the oars. Didn't that put a pretty squeeze on the merchants! So they decided to have another go at him, and when one of their big traders, a fellow named Kariri, saw me in some dive, he thought I would make a good oarsman, having more in the way of muscle than his countrymen. I was game; things had been dull since I'd had to leave Shanda, and the price he promised was good. It had to be, to get rowers for that boat! Most of us were foreigners of one kind or another: the folk of Jalor knew better.

"So off we sailed, the only ship in the water, though the docks and beach were black with people watching. Now, in those part the way they lure whales is this: they catch a lot of fat tunny and pickle them with salt in big jars, and when they're nice and ripe, they soak rags in the fish-grease and dump 'em in the water where they think the whales are. The first thing any of us knew of Old Crimson being round was a sort of a loud hiss and a cloud of evil-smelling steam. Whales aren't like other fish. They have to come to the surface every so often to get a breath of air and blow out the old. That's what he'd done, not fifty yards to starboard.

"I tell you, I missed a stroke, and I wasn't the only one. Then he came all the way out of the water, and I never want to see such a sight again. That ruddy hide of his was all scarred and torn from the ships he'd sunk, and I saw three spearpoints stuck in just back of his head, but not deep enough to do more than drive him mad with pain over the years. I don't lie when I say I'd've sooner been elsewhere right then. He was bigger than our boat, and not by a little, either.

"But the harpooning crew knew what to do if they—and we—were going to come home alive. They tossed ten or twelve pounds of that pickled tunny toward the monster, and he snapped it up. It's a funny thing, but the stuff makes whales drunk, and Old Crimson lay still in the water. If he were a kitten, he would have purred.

"Once that happened, the harpooners slipped out of their clothes (not that they wore much, just rags round their middles) and swam over to him, quiet as they could. One trailed his barbed harpoon, the second a little stand for it, and the third, who had more brawn than most men of Mabalal, took a big mallet with him. They climbed up on Old Crimson's head, and he never stirred. We lay dead quiet in the water, for fear of rousing him.

"They set up the harpoon just aft of his head, right behind the others that hadn't gone deep enough to kill. Then the fellow with the mallet swung it up over his head and hit the butt end of the harpoon with everything he had. I swear by all the gods there are that the whale leaped clean out of the water, with the harpooners still clinging to him. They might have screamed, but we never would have heard them. We were backing water for all we were worth, but still I saw that great tail like a fist over the bow.

"When it came down, the ship just went all to splinters. I'm hazy about what happened next, because something hit me right between the eyes. I must have grabbed an oar; the next thing I remember is being fished out of the water by one of the little boats that came out as soon as the people on shore saw Old Crimson was really dead. Thirty-four people were on our boat when we set out, and six of us lived: only one of the harpooners, the fellow with the little stand.

"Anyway, the fishermen who rescued me took me to shore, and the Jalorians took the whale's carcass ashore too, for they valued the meat and oil of it. The head of the merchants' guild kissed all of us who had lived, and gave each of us a tooth worried out of the whale's head: I don't lie when I say it was more than half a foot long.

"But do you know what? I didn't make a copper more from it, for that fat merchant sitting on his arse on the shore just called me a filthy foreigner and wouldn't pay. For all that, though, I drank my way through the grogshops for ten days straight without touching a coin of my own, and to this day no one in Jalor knows how old Kariri's warehouses burned down."

"You know," Gerin said thoughtfully, "if they were to put a line on the end of their harpoons with floats—sealed empty casks, maybe—every hundred paces or so, they could spear their whales without having to climb onto them, and if the wound didn't kill on the spot, the whales couldn't escape by diving, either."

Van stared at him. "I do believe it'd work," he said at last. "Why weren't you there then to think of it? The gods know I never would have." He looked to Elise. "Gerin, I do believe our guest thinks my yarn would be good for making flowers grow, but not much else, though since she's kind as she is fair she's too polite to say so. Hold the reins a bit for me, will you?"

Elise started to protest, but Van was not listening to her. He stepped into the back of the wagon. Gerin heard him rummaging in the battered leather sack where he kept his treasures. After a minute or two, he grunted in satisfaction and emerged, handing Elise what he held.

Gerin craned his neck to look too. It was an ivory tusk unlike any he had ever seen: though no longer than the fang of the longtooth he knew, this was twice as thick, and pure white, not yellowish. Someone had carved a whale and the prow of an unfamiliar ship on the tooth; the whale was tinted a delicate pink.

Seeing the baron's admiration, Van said, "A friend of mine made it while I was out roistering. You'll notice it isn't done, but I got out of Jalor in a hurry, and he didn't have time to finish."

Elise was silent.

* * *

Gerin kept the reins. Van had been yawning all morning, and now he tried to snatch some sleep in the cramped rear of the wagon. The Fox was looking for one particular dirt track of the many joining the Elabon Way. Each path had a stone post set beside it, carved with the marks of the petty barons to whose keeps the roadlets ran. It was past noon before Gerin saw the winged eye he sought. He almost passed it by, for the carving was so ancient that parts of it had weathered away; startling red lichens covered much of what remained.

"Where are we going?" Elise asked when he turned down the track. She coughed as the horses kicked up dust.

"I thought you knew all my plans," Gerin said. "I'd like to hear what the Sibyl at Ikos tells me. I stopped there once before, when I went south for the first time, and she warned me I'd never be a scholar. I laughed at her, but two years later the Trokmoi killed my father and my brother, and I had to quit the southlands."

"That I had heard," Elise said softly. "I'm sorry." Gerin could feel the truth in her words. He was touched, and at the same time annoyed with himself for letting her sympathy reach him. He felt relieved when she returned to her original thought: "Where we go matters little to me; I simply didn't know. Any place away from Wolfar is good enough, though I've heard evil things of the country round Ikos."

"I've heard them too," he admitted, "but I've never seen much to make me think them true. This road goes over the hills and through some of the deepest forest this side of the Niffet before it reaches the Sibyl's shrine. It's said strange beasts dwell in the forest. I never saw any, though I did see tracks on the roadway that belong to no animals the outer world knows."

The more prosperous petty barons and their lands clung leechlike to the Elabon Way. A few hours' travel from it, things were poorer. Freeholders held their own plots, men not under the dominion of any local lordling. They were of an ancient race, the folk who had been on the land between the Niffet and the High Kirs even before the coming of the Trokmoi whom the Empire had expelled. Slim and dark, they spoke the tongue of Elabon fluently enough, but among themselves used their own soft, sibilant language.

The road narrowed, becoming little more than a winding rutted lane under frowning trees. The sinking sun's light could barely reach through the green arcade overhead. Gerin jumped when a scarlet finch shot across the roadway, taken aback by the flash of color in the gloom. As the sun set, he pulled off the road and behind a thick clump of trees.

He routed Van from his jouncing bed. Together they unharnessed the horses and let them crop what little grass grew in the shade of the tall beeches.

They had but a scanty offering for the ghosts: dried beef mixed with water. It was not really enough, but Gerin hoped it would serve. Elise wanted to take one watch. The Fox and Van said no in the same breath.

"Please yourselves," she shrugged, "but I could do it well enough." A knife appeared in her hand and then, almost before the eye could see it, was quivering in a treetrunk twenty feet away.

Gerin was thoughtful as he plucked the dagger free, but still refused. Elise looked to Van. He shook his head and laughed: "My lady, I haven't been guarded by women since I was old enough to keep my mother from learning what I was up to. I don't plan to start over now."

She looked hurt, but said only, "Very well, then. Guard me well this night, heroes." He half-sketched a salute as she slipped into her bedroll.

Van, who was rested, offered to take the first watch. Gerin got under a blanket, twisted until he found a position where the fewest pebbles dug into him, and knew no more until Van prodded him awake. "Math is down, and—what do you call the fast moon? I've forgotten."


"That's it. As well as I can see through the trees, it'll set in an hour or so. That makes it midnight, and time for me to sleep." Van was under his own blanket—the gold-and-black striped hide of some great hunting beast—and asleep with the speed of the experienced wanderer. Gerin stretched, yawned, and heard the ghosts buzz in his mind like gnats.

In the dim red light of the embers, the wagon was a lump on the edge of visibility, the horses a pair of dark shadows. Gerin listened to their unhurried breathing and the chirp and rustle of tiny crawling things. An owl overhead loosed its hollow, eerie call. Somewhere not far away, a small stream chuckled to itself. A longtooth roared in the distance, and for a moment everything else was quiet.

The baron turned at a sound close by. He saw Elise half-sitting, watching him. Her expression was unreadable. "Regrets?" he asked, voice the barest thread of sound.

Her answer was softer still. "Of course. To leave all I've ever known . . . it's no easy road, but one I have to travel."

"You could still go back."

"With Wolfar's arms waiting? There's no returning." She started to say more, stopped, began again. "Do you know why I came with you? You helped me once, long ago." Her eyes were looking into the past, not at Gerin. "The first time I saw you was the most woeful day of my life. I had a dog I'd raised from a pup; he had a floppy ear and one of his eyes was half blue, and because of his red fur I called him Elleb. He used to like to go out and hunt rabbits, and when he caught one he'd bring it home to me. One day he went out as he always did, but he didn't come back.

"I was frantic. I looked for two days before I could find him, and when I did, I wished I hadn't. He'd run down a little gully and caught his hind leg in a trap."

"I remember," Gerin said, realizing why the dog Ruffian had seemed familiar. "I heard you crying and went to see what the trouble was. I was heading south to study."

"Was I crying? I suppose I was. I don't remember. All I could think of was poor Elleb's leg shredded in the jaw of the trap, and blood dried black, and the flies. The trap was chained to a stake, and I couldn't pry it loose from him.

"Hurt as he was, I remember him growling when you came up, still trying to keep me safe. You knelt down beside me and patted him and poured some water from your canteen on the ground for him to drink, and then you took out your knife and did what needed to be done.

"Not many would tried to make friends with him first, and not many would have sat with me afterwards and made me understand why an end to his pain was the last gift he could get from someone who loved him. By the time you took me home, I really did understand it. You were kind to me, and I've never forgotten."

"And because of so small a thing you put your trust in me?"

"I did, and I have no regrets." Her last words were sleep-softened.

Gerin watched Nothos and the stars peep through holes in the leafy canopy and thought about the obligations with which he had saddled himself. After a while, he decided he too had no regets. He fed bits of wood to the tiny fire, slapped at the buzzing biters lured by its light, and waited for the sun to put the ghosts to rout.

At dawn he woke Van. His comrade knuckled his eyes and spoke mostly in sleepy grunts as they harnessed the horses. Elise doused and covered the fire before Gerin could tend to it. They breakfasted on hard bread and smoked meat. To his disgust, Gerin missed a shot at a fat grouse foolish enough to roost on a branch not a hundred feet away. It flapped off, wings whirring.

The track wound through the forest. Trailing shoots and damp hanging mosses hung from branches overhead, eager to snatch at anything daring to brave the wood's cool dim calm. The horses were balky. More than once Van had to touch them with the whip before they would go on.

Few birds trilled to ease the quiet. Almost the only sounds were the creaking of branches and the rustling of leaves in a breeze too soft to reach down to the road.

Once a sound almost softer than silence paced the wagon for a time. It might have been the pad of great supple feet, or perhaps nothing at all. Gerin saw—or thought he saw—a pair of eyes, greener than the leaves, measuring him. He blinked or they blinked and when he looked again they were gone. The rattle of the wagon's wheels was swallowed as if it had never been.

"Place gives me the bloody shivers!" Van said. To Gerin, his friend's voice sounded louder than needful.

The baron thought the day passing faster than it was, so thick was the gloom. He bit back an exclamation of surprise when they burst from shadow into the brightness of the late afternoon sun. He had not realized how much the thought of camping again in the forest chilled him until he saw he would not have to.

The hills cupped the valley in which Ikos lay. Travelers could look down on their goal before they reached it. The main road came from the southwest. Gerin could see little dots of moving men, carriages, and wagons, all come to consult the Sibyl. His own road was less used. The border lords usually put more faith in edged bronze than prophecy.

A tiny grove surrounded the temple. Probably in days long past the forest had lapped down from the hilltops into the valley, but the sacred grove was all that was left of it there. The shrine's glistening marble roof stood out vividly against the green of the trees.

Around the temple proper were the houses of the priests, the attendants, and the little people who, while not really connected with the Sibyl, made their livings from those who came to see her: sellers of images and sacrificial animals, freelance soothsayers and oracle-interpreters, innkeepers and whores, and the motley crew who sold amulets, charms—and doubtless curses too.

Around the townlet were cleared fields, each small plot owned by a freeholder. Gerin knew the temple clung to the old ways. He did not grudge it its customs, but still thought freeholding subversive. A peasant could not produce enough wealth to equip himself with all the gear a proper warrior needed. Without the nobles, the border and all the land behind would have been a red tangle of warfare, with the barbarians howling down to loot and burn and kill.

"Should we go down before the light fails?" Van asked.

Gerin thought of Ikos' dingy hostels. He shook his head. "We'd get nothing done at this hour. From what I recall of the inns, we'll find fewer bugs here."

The evening meal was spare, taken from the same rations as breakfast. Gerin knew those had been packed with the idea of feeding two people, not three. He reminded himself to lay in more. Pretty sorry scholar you are, he jeered at himself—worrying over smoked sausages and journeybread.

He must have said that aloud, for Van laughed and said, "Well, someone has to, after all."

The baron took the first watch. In Ikos below, the lights faded until all was dark save for a central watchfire. The hills to the southwest were dotted with tiny sparks of light Gerin knew to be camps like his own. In its grove, the temple was strange, for the light streaming out from it glowed blue instead of the comfortable red-gold of honest flame.

Magic, Gerin decided sleepily, or else the god walking about inside. When Math's golden half-circle set, he roused Van, then dove headfirst into sleep.

He woke to the scent of cooking; luckier than he had been the morning before, Van had bagged a squirrel and two rabbits and was stewing them. Elise contributed mushrooms and a handful of herbs. Feeling better about the world with his belly full, Gerin hitched up the horses. The wagon rolled down the path toward the Sibyl.

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