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Evening came. Gray clouds scudded across the sky. The wet-dust smell of rain was in the air. Grim and silent, Gerin began to help Van make camp. Elise, worry in her voice and on her face, said, "Not three words have you spoken since we left the temple."

All the rage and helplessness the baron had contained since he stalked frozen-faced past Falfarun to reclaim the wagon came out in a torrent of bile. He slammed his helmet to the ground. It spun into the undergrowth. "What difference does it make?" he said bitterly. "I might as well cut my own throat and save that perambulating corpse the work. The Sibyl told me the same thing he did, only from him I hadn't believed it. I was a fool to go to her; I wanted advice, not a death sentence. A plague take all oracles!"

At that, Van looked up. While Gerin stormed, he had quietly gone on setting up camp. He'd started a fire and drained the blood of a purchased fowl into a trench to propitiate the ghosts. "I knew a man who said something like that once, captain," he said.

"Is there a story to go with the knowing?" Elise asked, seemingly searching for any way to draw Gerin out of his inner darkness.

"Aye, that there is," Van agreed. He understood well enough what she was after, and pitched his words to the Fox. Elise settled herself by the fire to listen. "Captain, you know—or you've heard me say—the world is round, no matter what any priest may blabber. I know. I should; I've been round it.

"Maybe ten years ago, when I was at the far eastern edge of this continent, I hired on as a man-at-arms under a merchant named Zairin. He was moving a shipment of jade, silk, and spices from a place called Ban Yarang to Selat, a couple of hundred miles southeastward. The folk are funny round those parts, little yellow-skins with slanting eyes like the Shanda nomads'. It looks better on the women, I must say. Still, that's no part of the yarn.

"Zairin was one of those people who have no truck with the gods. Now, in those parts it's customary to check the omens by watching the way the sacred peacocks peck at grain. If they eat well, the journey will be a good one. If not, it's thought wiser to try again some other time.

"There we were, all ready to set out, and Zairin's right-hand man—a fat little fellow named Tzem—brought us a bird from the shrine. He poured out the grain, but the peacock, who probably hadn't much liked traveling slung under his arm for more than a mile, just looked at it. He wouldn't touch it for anything, not that bird.

"Zairin sat watching this, getting madder and madder. Finally the old bandit had himself a gutful. He got up on his feet and roared out, 'If he won't eat, let him drink!' May my beard fall out if I lie, he picked up that peacock, chucked it into the Kemlong river (which runs through Ban Yarang) and started off regardless."

Gerin was caught up in spite of himself. "Dyaus! It's not a chance I'd like to take," he said.

"And you the fellow who curses oracles? You can imagine what we were thinking. Most of the way, though, things went well enough. The road was only a little track through the thickest jungle I've ever seen, so we lost a couple of porters to venomous snakes the poor barefoot fools stepped on, and one more to a blood-sucking demon that left him no more than a withered husk when we found him the next morning. But on a trip like that, you learn to expect such things. Zairin was mightily pleased with himself. He kept laughing and telling anyone who'd listen what a lot of twaddle it was to pay any attention to a fool bird.

"Well, a day and a half before we would have made Selat and proved the old croaker right, everything came unraveled at once. A dam broke upstream from where we were fording; five men and half our donkeys drowned. The customs man Zairin knew at the border had been transferred, and I shudder to think of the silver his replacement gouged out of us. Half the men got a bloody flux. It bothered me for two years. And just to top everything off, old Zairin came down with the crabs. From then on, captain, he was a believer, I can tell you!"

"Go howl!" Gerin said. "I was hoping you'd cheer me with a yarn where a prophesy turned out wrong. I know enough of the other sort myself. For that you can stand first watch."

"Can I, now? Well, you can—" The outlander scorched Gerin in more tongues than the Fox knew. Finally he said, "Captain, fair is fair: I'll wrestle you for it."

"Aren't you the bloodthirsty one? I thought you'd had enough fighting for one day."

Gerin got up and pulled off his tunic. He helped Van undo the leather laces of his back-and-breast. His friend sighed as the weight came off. In kilt and sandals, Van seemed more a war-god than ever. His muscles rippled as he stretched. The forest of golden hair on his chest and belly flashed in the firelight. Only his scars told of his humanity—and his turbulent past. One terrible gash ran from right armpit to navel; every time Gerin saw it, he wondered how the outlander had lived.

Not that he was unmarked himself: sword, spear, knife, and arrow had left their signatures on his skin, and the cut Aingus had given him was only half healed. Seeing Elise's eyes travel from Van's enormous frame to him, he knew he seemed a stripling beside his companion, though he was a well-made man of good size.

But he had a name as a wrestler on both sides of the Niffet. He had learned more tricks from masters south of the Kirs than his neighbors ever imagined, and threw men much bigger than himself. For all that, though, Van's raw strength was enough to flatten him as often as he could finesse his way to victory. When word went out that they would tussle, even Trokmoi came to watch and bet.

Embarrassed that her look had been seen and understood, Elise dropped her eyes. Gerin grinned at her. "He won't chuck me through a tree, girl."

"Who says I won't?" Van bellowed. He charged like an avalanche. Gerin sprang to meet him. Ducking under the thick arms that would quickly have squeezed breath from him, he hooked his own left arm behind Van's right knee and rammed a shoulder into his friend's hard-muscled middle.

Van grunted and went down, but a meaty paw dragged Gerin after him. They rolled, thrashed, and grappled in the dirt. Gerin ended up riding his friend's broad back. His hands had slid under the outlander's shoulders; his hands were clasped behind Van's neck. Van slapped the ground. Gerin let him up. He shook his head and rubbed his eye to rout out some dust.

"You'll have to show me that one again, Gerin," he said. "Another fall?"

The baron shrugged. "All right, but the last one was for the watch." Van nodded. In mid-nod, he leaped. Gerin had no chance to use any of his feints or traps. He was seized, lifted, and slammed to earth with rib-jarring force. Van sprang on him like a starving lion onto a fat sheep.

Thoroughly pinned, Gerin grumbled, "Get off me, you pile of suet!" Van snorted and pulled him to his feet. They both swore as they swabbed each other's scratches with beer-soaked rags. The stuff stung foully.

After supper, Gerin began to regret not having the first watch. He was sure he was too full of troubles to sleep, despite the day's exertions. He tossed, wriggled until a small stone no longed gouged his back, wished the crickets were not so loud. . . .

Van watched his friend's face relax as slumber overtook him. He was not too worried about the baron's dejection; he had seen him downhearted before, and knew he recovered quickly. But the Fox deeply felt his responsibilities. If anything, a menace to his lands hit him harder than a threat against himself.

More and more clouds blew in from the west, pale against the dark blue dome of the sky. Math, a day past first quarter, and mottled Tiwaz, now nearly full, jumped in and out of sight. A couple of hours before midnight, dim Nothos' waning gibbous disk joined them. The wind carried a faint salt tang from the Orynian Ocean far away. Van scrubbed dried blood from his armor and helm, waiting till it was time to wake Gerin.

Rain threatened all through the Fox's watch. It was still dark when the first spatters came. Elise jerked as a drop splashed her cheek; she woke up all at once, like a soldier. Smiling at Gerin, she said, " 'The gods in the heaven send dripping-tressed rain/ To nourish sweet hope in a desert of pain'—or so the poet says, anyway."

He stared at her. The passage of a night had eased much of his gloom; now surprise banished the rest. "Where did you learn to quote Lekapenos? And whose rendering was that? Whoever did it knows his Sithonian well."

"As for the rendering—" She shrugged. "It's mine. That passage always appealed to me. And where else would I learn my letters than from the epics?"

That held much truth. The baron still recalled the godlike feeling he'd had when the curious marks on parchment began to correspond with the verses he'd learned by ear. Thoughtfully, he started getting ready to travel again.

* * *

Gerin was glad to exchange the dirt road that led to Ikos for the main southbound highway before the former became a bottomless river of mud. Moments later, he was wondering at the wisdom of his choice. From behind him came a drumming of hooves, the deadly clangor of bronze on bronze, and wheels rumbling on a stone roadbed—a squadron of chariotry, moving fast.

Van unshipped his spear and Gerin began to string his bow. Then a deep voice sounded above the rising clatter: "Way! Way for the men of Aragis the Archer!"

The baron pulled off the road with almost unseemly haste. Ignoring the rain, Aragis' troopers pounded past, brave in surcoats of scarlet and silver. A handful of draggled bandits were their reluctant companions.

Proud hawk face never smiling, Aragis' captain—or maybe it was Aragis himself—raised one arm in salute as his men thundered by. Some of them had leers for Elise, stares for Van's fine cuirass. The bandits looked stolidly ahead. Gerin guessed they could already see the headsman's axe looming large across their futures, and precious little else.

"Whew!" Van said as the chariots disappeared into the rain ahead. "This trip will make a fine yarn, but it's not something I'd like to do more than once."

"Which is true of most things that make good stories," Gerin said. Van laughed and nodded.

From Ikos to Cassat was a journey of two days. To the baron, they were a time of revelation. For years his mind had not reached further than the harvest, the balance of a blade, or the best place to set an ambush. But Elise had read many of the works that were his own favorites and, better yet, thought on what she read. They passed hour after hour quoting passages they liked and arguing meanings.

Gerin had almost forgotten talk like this existed. Over the years, all without his knowing it, his mind had grown stuffy and stale. Now he relished the fresh new breeze playing through it.

Van chimed in too, from time to time. He lacked the background Gerin and Elise shared, but he had seen more of the varied ways of man than either, and his wit was keen.

The purple bulk of the High Kirs, a great rampart looming tall on the southern horizon, came to dominate the landscape. Eternal snow clung to many peaks, scoffing at high summer below. Eight passes traversed the mountains; seven the Empire had painstakingly blocked over the years, to keep out the northern barbarians. In the foothills before the eighth squatted the town of Cassat, a monument to what might have been.

Oren II had planned it as a splendid capital for the new province his father had won. Its great central square was filled with temples, triumphal arches, law courts, and a theater. But fate had not been kind. Birds nested under the eaves of the noble buildings; grass pushed up between marble paving-blocks. The only reality to Cassat was its barracks, squat, unlovely structures of wood and grimy plaster where a few hundred imperial soldiers pretended to rule the northlands. A few streets of horsetraders, swordsmiths, joyhouses, and taverns met their needs. The dusty wind blew mournful through the rest of the town.

The Empire's dragon flag, black on gold, flew only over the barracks. There did Carus Beo's son, the Marchwarden of the North, perform his office; mice alone disputed in the courthouse Oren had built.

Once, Carus had been a favorite at court. He had earned his present post some years back, when the Urfa massacred a column he led. Because of what he saw as exile to the cheerless north, he despised and resented the border barons.

Gerin called on him nonetheless. Few as they were, Carus' men would help hold the border against the Trokmoi, could he be persuaded to send them north. Elise accompanied the baron. Van took the wagon to a leading trader of horseflesh, seeking fresh animals to replace Gerin's weary beasts.

The Marchwarden of the North sat at a well-scuffed desk piled high with parchments of all sizes. He was sixty or a bit over; his yellowish-white hair had retreated to a ruff round his ears and the back of his neck, leaving his pink scalp bare but for a meager forelock. His eyes had dark pockets under them.

His jowls quivered when he lifted his head from whatever bureaucratic inconsequentiality Gerin's arrival had interrupted.

"My man tells me you seek the assistance of the Empire against the Trokmoi. Surely the boldness of the brave holders of Elabon's frontier cannot have declined to such an abysmal level?" he said, looking at Gerin with no liking at all.

Then his narrow eyes swiveled to Elise, and a murky gleam lit them. The Fox saw a liking there, sure enough, but only of the sort that made him want to kick Carus' stained teeth down his throat. Elise studied a point on the wall directly behind the Marchwarden's forehead.

"Surely not," Gerin said. Ignoring the fact that he had not been offered a seat, he handed Elise into a chair and took another for himself. Carus' sallow cheeks reddened. As if nothing had happened, the Fox resumed, "At the present time, however, circumstances are of unusual difficulty." He told the Marchwarden of Balamung and his threatened invasion.

Carus was drumming his nails on top of his desk by the time the Fox finished. "Let me see if I understand you correctly," he said. "You expect the troops of the Empire to get you out of trouble with this wizard, into which you have gotten yourself. Now to justify this request for service, you may point to—what?"

"Among other things, that we border barons have kept the Trokmoi out of the Empire for two hundred years and more."

"A trivium." Carus waved his hand in a languid southern gesture which might have seemed courtly from Rihwin but was only grotesque in a man of the Marchwarden's years and girth. "If I had my way, we would merely send a few thousand tons of stone down behind the Great Gate. That would quite nicely seal off the barbarians for all time."

"Horseballs," Gerin muttered. Elise heard him and grinned. Carus heard him too. The baron had not intended that.

"Horseballs?" Carus' mouth moved in what might have been a smile, but his eyes stayed cold. "Ah, the vivid turn of phrase of the frontier. But do let me return to what I was saying: indeed, I think the Empire would be as well off without you. What do we gain from you, after all? No metals, no grain—only trouble. Half the rebels of the past two hundred years have had northern ties. You corrupt the calm, orderly way of life we crave. No, my good lord Gerin, if the barbarians can eat you up, they are welcome to you."

The Fox had not really expected help from the Marchwarden, but he had not expected outright hatred, either. He drew in a long, angry breath. Elise pressed his hand in warning, but he was too furious to pay heed. He spoke in the same polished phrases Carus had used, and the same venom rode them: "You complain the Empire receives nothing from us? Up on the border, we wonder what we get from you. Where are the men and chariots of the Empire, to help us drive away the northern raiders? Where are they when we fight among ourselves? Do you care? Not a bit, for if we are kept distracted, we cannot think of rebellion. You judge, and rightly, our flesh and blood a better shield than any you might make of stone or wood, and so we die, for nothing."

Bowing to Carus, Gerin stood to go. "And you, my fine Marchwarden, you have gained most of all from our thankless toil. While we sweat and bleed to keep the border safe, here you have stayed for the past twenty-five years, shuffling parchments from one pile to the next and sitting on your fat fornicating fundament!" The last was a roar of surprising volume.

Carus leaped to his feet, fumbling for his sword but finding only an empty scabbard. Gerin laughed mockingly. "Guards!" the Marchwarden bleated. When the men appeared, he gabbled, "Clap this insolent lout in chains and cast him in the dungeon until he learns politeness." His eyes lingered on Elise. He reached out a flabby hand to take her arm. "I will undertake to instruct the wench personally."

The befuddlement on the guards' faces was ludicrous; they had not seen their master so active in years. Gerin made no move for his own blade. He said mildly, "Do you know what will happen if you seize us? As soon as the barons learn of it, they will come down in a body and leave your precious barracks so much kindling. Not long after that, the Trokmoi will be here to light it. I'm almost sorry you won't live to watch."

"What? What nonsense are you spewing now? I'll—gark!" Carus' voice abruptly disappeared. Elise was tickling the soft skin under his chin with the tip of her dagger. She smiled sweetly at him. The blood drained from his face, leaving it the color of the parchment on his desk. Moving very carefully, he let go of her arm. "Go," he said, in ragged parody of the tone he had used a moment before. "Get out. Guards, take them away."

"To the dungeons, sir?" asked one, scorn in his voice.

"No, no, just go." Carus sank back into his chair, hands shaking and sweat gleaming on his bald head. With as much ceremony as if it were a daily occurrence, his men conducted Gerin and Elise from the Marchwarden's presence.

The sun was still high in the southwest; the audience had made up in heat what it lacked in length. Gerin turned to Elise and said, "I knew having you along would be a nuisance. Once he caught a glimpse of you, the old lecher couldn't find a way to get me out of there fast enough."

"Don't be ridiculous. I'm a mess." Of itself, her hand moved to brush at her hair.

The baron surveyed her. There was dust in her hair and a smudge of grime on her forehead, but her green eyes sparkled, the mild doses of sun she allowed herself had brought out a spray of freckles on her nose and cheeks, her lips were soft and red, and even in tunic and trousers she was plainly no boy. . . .

Easy there, Gerin told himself: do you want to make Ricolf your irreconcilable enemy too, along with the Trokmoi and Wolfar? He gave his beard a judicious tug. "You'll do," he said. "You'll definitely do."

She snorted and poked him in the ribs. He yelped and mimed a grab at her; she made as if to stab him. They were still smiling half an hour later, when Van pulled up in the wagon. He smelled of horses and beer, and had two new beasts in the traces. A grin split his face when he saw how happy Gerin looked. "Himself gave you the men, did he?"

"What? Oh. No, I'm afraid not." The Fox explained the fiasco; Van laughed loud and long. Gerin went on, "I expected nothing much, and got just that. You seem to have been busy, though—what sort of horse do you have there, anyway?" He jerked a thumb at one of Van's newly acquired animals.

Unlike its companion, a handsome gray gelding, this rough-coated little beast was even less sightly than the shaggy woods-ponies of the Trokmoi. But Van looked scandalized. He leaped down and rubbed the horse's muzzle.

A quick snap made him jerk his hand away. Even so, he said, "Captain, don't tell me you don't know a Shanda horse when you see one? The fool trader who had him didn't. He thought he was putting one over on me. Well, let him laugh. A Shanda horse will go all day and all night; you can't wear one down if you try. I like the bargain, and you will too."

"All right, show me." Gerin helped Elise up, then climbed on himself. Van followed. The wagon clattered out of Cassat toward the Great Gate, the sole remaining link the Empire allowed itself with its northern provinces.

It was a long pull through the Gate. Toward the end, the gray horse was lathered and blowing, but the pony from the plains showed no more sign of strain than if it had spent the day grazing. Gerin was impressed.

Though Elabon had not blocked this last way through the Kirs, her marshals had done their best to make sure no enemy could use it. Fortresses of brick and stone flanked the roadway. Watchmen tramped smartly along their battlements, alert against any mischance. The towers' bronze-sheathed wooden gates were closed now, but could open to vomit forth chariots and footsoldiers against any invader.

Wizards, too, aided in defending the Empire. They had their own dwellings, twin needle-like spires of what seemed to be multicolored glass, off which the late afternoon sun shimmered and sparkled. Should the fortresses' armed might fail to blunt an attack, the warlocks would set in motion the thousands of boulders heaped on either side of the pass, and thus block it forever.

The arrangement left Gerin uneasy: what wizardry had made, it could unmake. He cheered slightly when he discovered the warriors in the fastnesses could also start the avalanche by purely natural means: paths led up to the tops of the piles of scree, and triggering rocks there had levers under them. The Fox did not envy the men who would work those levers.

The succession of powerful strongholds awed even Van. "Folk who huddle behind forts are dead inside," he said, "but with forts like these it will be a while yet before anyone notices the reek of the corpse."

A brown and buff lizard chased a grasshopper into the road. It danced madly under hooves and wagon wheels, then vanished into a crevice in the rocks on the far side. Gerin never knew whether it had caught its bug.

Traffic through the Great Gates was heavy. Traders headed north. Their donkeys brayed loud disgust at the weight of the packs they bore. Traders came south. Their donkeys brayed loud disgust over nothing at all. Mercenaries, wandering wise men, wizards, and a good many travelers who fell into no neat scheme—all used the imperial highway.

Nearly two hours went by before the wagon reached the end of the pass. Golden under the light of the setting sun, the southern land spread out ahead like a picture from a landscape master's brush. Field and forest, town and orchard, all were plain to see, with brooks and rivers like lines of molten copper.

"It's a rare pretty country," Van said. "What are the people like?"

"People," Gerin shrugged.

"I'd best keep an eye on my wallet, then."

"Go howl! You'd bite a coin free-given."

"Likely I would, if I planned to spend it."


Just then a warm, dry breeze wafted up from the south. It was sweet and spicy, with the faintest tang of salt from the distant Inner Sea, and carried scents the baron had forgotten.

Like a swift stream breaching the dam that restrained it, long-buried memories flooded up in Gerin. He thought of the two years free from care he had spent in the capital, then of the sterile, worry-filled time since—and was appalled.

"Why did I ever leave you?" he cried to the waiting land ahead. "Father Dyaus, you know I would sooner have been a starving schoolmaster in the capital than king of all the northlands!"

"If that's how you feel, why not stay in the south?" Elise asked. Her voice was gentle, for the fair land ahead had enchanted her as much as the Fox.

"Why not indeed?" Gerin said surpised. He realized the notion had never crossed his mind, and wondered why. At last he sighed and shook his head. "Were the danger behind me less great, I'd leap at the chance like a starving longtooth. But for better or worse, my life is on the cooler side of the mountains. Much depends on me there. If I stay, I betray more than my own men, I think. The land will fall to Balamung, and I doubt it will slake his evil thirst. That may happen yet; the gods have given the northland little enough hope. It's partly my fault Balamung is what he is; if I can make amends, I will."

"I think you will do well," Elise said slowly. "Often, it seems, the most glory is won by those who seek it least."

"Glory? If I can stay alive and free without it, I don't give a moldy loaf of journeybread for glory. I leave all that to Van."

"Ha!" Van said. "Do you want to know the real reason he's bound to go back, my lady?"

"Tell me," Gerin said, curious to see what slander his friend would come up with.

"Captain, you'd need more than a wizard to drive you away from your books, and you know it as well as I do." There was enough truth in that to make Gerin throw a lazy punch at Van, who ducked. A good part of the barony's silver flowed south to the copyists and bookdealers in Elabon's capital.

They wound their way down from the pass, hoping to reach a town before the sun disappeared. Gerin was less worried about the ghosts than he would have been on the other side of the mountains; peace had reigned here for many years, and the spirits were relatively mild. For his part, Van grew eloquent about the advantages of fresh food, a mug of ale (or even wine!), a comfortable bed, and perhaps (though he did not say so) a wench to warm it.

The road was flanked by a grove of fruit trees of a kind unknown north of the Kirs. Not very tall, they had gray-brown bark, shiny light-green leaves, and egg-shaped yellow fruit. Both leaves and fruit were fragrant, but Gerin remembered how astonishingly sour the fruit was to the tongue. It was called . . . he snapped his fingers in annoyance. He had forgotten the very name.

As the trees began to thin, another smell made its presence known through their perfume: a faint carrion reek. The baron's lips drew back in a mirthless grimace. "I think we've found our town," he said.

The road turned, the screen of trees disappeared, and sure enough the town was there. It was not big enough to have a wall. The Fox was sure folk living ten miles from it had never heard its name. Nonetheless, it aspired to cityhood in a way open to the meanest of hamlets: by the road stood a row of crucifixes, each with its slow-rotting burden. Under them children played, now and then shying a stone upward. Dogs slunk there too, dogs with poor masters or none, waiting for easy meals.

Some of the spiked and roped criminals were not yet dead. Through sun-baked and blistered lips they begged for water or death, each according to the strength left in him. One, newly elevated or unnaturally strong, still howled defiance at gods and men.

His roars annoyed the carrion birds nearby. Strong black bills filled with noisome food, they flapped lazily into the sky, staring down with fine impartiality on town, travelers, and field. They knew all would come to them in good time.

Van's face might have been carved from stone as he surveyed the wretches. Elise was pale. Her eyes went wide with horror. Her lips shaped the word "Why?" but no sound emerged. Gerin tried not to remember his own thoughts when he'd first encountered the malignant notions of justice the southerners had borrowed from Sithonia.

"Maybe," he said grimly, "I had my reasons for going home, after all."

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