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The town (Gerin learned its name was Fibis) did little to restore the luster of the southlands in the baron's eyes. The houses lining the north-south road were little finer than the huts of his peasants. Only muddy alleys ankle-deep in slops led away from that road.

The sole hostel Fibis boasted was of a piece with the rest. It was low-roofed, dingy, and small. The sign outside had faded past legibility. Within, the smell of old grease fought with but could not overcome the odor of stale urine from the dyeworks next door and the never-absent stench of the crosses.

And the townsfolk! City ways that had been sophisticated to the youth who traveled this road ten years before now seemed either foppish or surly. Gerin tried to strike up a conversation with the innkeeper, a dour, weathered old codger named Grizzard, but got only grunts in return. He gave up and went back to the rickety table where his friends awaited supper. "If I didn't know better," he said, "I'd take oath the fellow was afraid of me."

"Then he thinks you've already tasted his wine," said Van, who was on his third mug. "What swill!" He swigged, pursed his lips to spit, but swallowed instead.

The rest of the meal was not much better than the wine. Plainly, lack of competition was all that kept Grizzard in business. Disgusted with the long, fruitless day he had put in, Gerin was about to head for bed when a cheery voice said, "Hello, you're new here! What's old Grizzard given you to drink?"

Without so much as a by-your-leave, the fellow pulled up a chair and joined them. He sniffed the wine, grimaced, and flipped a spinning silver disk to the innkeeper, who made it disappear. "You can do better than this, you thief," he said. To the Fox's surprise, Grizzard could.

The baron studied his new acquaintance curiously, for the man seemed made of pieces which did not belong together. Despite his heartiness, his voice soon dropped so low Grizzard could not hear what he said. While his mouth was full of slang from the capital, his homespun tunic and trousers were both rustic. Yet his chin sported a gray imperial and his shoes turned up at the toes: both Sithonian styles. The name he gave—just Tevis, without patronymic or sobriquet—was one of the three or four commonest south of the mountains.

Whoever he was, he had a rare skill with words. Softly, easily, he enticed from Gerin (usually as close-mouthed as any man alive) the story of his travels, and all without revealing a bit of his own purpose. It was almost as if he cast a spell. He paused a while in silent consideration, his clear dark eyes studying the Fox. "You have not been well-used by the Empire," he said at last.

Gerin only shrugged. His caution had returned. He was wary of this smooth-talking man of mystery. Tevis nodded, as if he had expected nothing more. "Tell me," he said, "do you know of Moribar the Magnificent, his imperial majesty's governor at Kortys?"

Van, who had drunk deep, stared at Tevis in owlish incomprehension. Elise was nearly asleep, her head warm on Gerin's shoulder. Her hair tickled his cheek. The scent of it filled his nose. But in his mind the stench of the rood was stronger still. Here was the very thing Carus Beo's son had feared most: a potential rebel in the capital of Sithonia, seeking northern help.

At any other time, the baron would have shed no tears to see the Empire go up in civil war, but now he needed whatever strength he could find at his back. He chose his words with care: "Tevis, I don't know you and I didn't ask to know you. If you say one word more to me, you will have spoken treason, and I will not hear it. True, I've had my quarrels with some of his majesty's servants, but if he does not plot against me in my land, I have no right to plot against him in his. I would not have drunk with you had I known what was in your mind. Here, take this and go." He set a coin on the table to pay for the jug of wine.

Tevis smiled faintly. "Keep it," he said, "and this as well." He took something from the pouch on his belt, tossed it next to the coin, and was gone into the night while Gerin still gaped at what he had thrown: a tiny bronze hand, fingers beginning to curl into a fist.

"Oh, great Dyaus above!" he said. "An Imperial Hand!" He propped his chin on his palm and stared at the little token before him. He could have been no more startled had it sprung up and slapped him in the face.

Bristles rasped under Van's fingers as he scratched his jaw. "And what in the five hells is that?" he asked with ponderous patience.

"A secret agent, spy, informer . . . call him what you will. That doesn't matter. But if I'd shown any interest in setting Moribar on the throne, by this time tomorrow we'd be on crosses side by side, waiting for the vultures to pick out our eyes."

"Ha! I'd bite off their heads!" Van seemed more concerned with the vultures than the crucifixion that would invite them.

"That's one way of dealing with them, I suppose," Gerin agreed mildly. He woke Elise. She yawned and walked sleepily to the one room Grizzard grudged female travelers. Van and Gerin headed for their own pallets, hoping they would not be bug-ridden. Almost as an afterthought, the Fox scooped up the diminutive but deadly emblem Tevis had left behind.

Though weary, he slept poorly. The quarrel with Carus, his jarring reintroduction to the dark side of the southlands, and above all the brush with doom in the form of Tevis kept him tossing all night. The bed was hard and lumpy, too. When he awoke, half a dozen red, itchy spots on his arms and chest proved he had not slept alone.

Van was unusually quiet at breakfast. "Head hurt?" Gerin asked as they walked to the stables.

"What. Oh. No, it's not that, captain." Van hesitated. Finally he said, "I'll tell you right out, Gerin, last night I almost decided to buy myself a gig and get the blazes out of this crazy country."

Gerin had imagined disaster piled on disaster, but never in his worst nightmares had he imagined his friend leaving. Ever since Van came to Fox Keep the two of them had been inseparable, fighting back to back and then carousing and yarning far into the night. Each owed the other his life several times. With a shock, the baron realized Van was a larger, gustier version of his dead brother Dagref. Losing him would be more than parting with a comrade; part of the baron's soul would go with him.

Before he could put what he felt into words, Elise spoke first: "Why would you want to leave now? Are you afraid? The danger is in the north, not here." She seemed unwilling to believe her ears.

At any other time, the outlander's wrath would have kindled if his courage was questioned. Now he only sighed and kicked at a pebble. Genuine distress was in his voice as he answered, "My lady, look about you." His wave encompassed not just the grubby little hamlet of Fibis and the crosses outside it, but all the land where the writ of the Empire was law. "You've seen enough of me to know what I am and what my pleasures are: fighting, talking, drinking, aye, and wenching too, I'll not deny. But here, what good am I? If I break wind in the backhouse, I have to look over my shoulder lest some listening spy call it treason. It's not the kind of life I care to lead: worrying before I move, not daring even to think."

Gerin understood that well enough, for much the same sense of oppression weighed on him. But Van was still talking: "I was all set to take my leave of you this morning—head north again, I suppose. But then I got to thinking"—he suddenly grinned—"and I decided that if any boy-loving Imperial Hand doesn't like the way I speak, why, I'll carve the son of a pimp into steaks and leave him by the side of the road to warn his scurvy cousins!"

Elise laughed in delight and kissed him on the cheek.

"I think you planned this whole thing just to get that kiss," Gerin said. "Come on, you hulk, quit holding up the works."

"Bastard." Still grinning, Van pitched his gear into the wagon.

* * *

The morning was still young when they splashed through the chilly Langros river. Though not as great as the Niffet or the mighty Carastos which watered much of the plain of Elabon, its cold current ran swift as it leaped down from the Kirs toward the Greater Inner Sea.

The water at the ford swirled icily around Gerin's toes and welled up between the wagon's floorboards. Most of the travelers' belongings were safe in oiled leather sacks, but half the journeybread turned to slimy brown paste. Gerin swore in disgust. Van said, "Cheer up, captain, the stuff wasn't worth eating anyhow."

When they stopped to rest and eat, Van turned to Gerin and said quietly, "Thanks for not pushing me this morning. You might have made it hard for me to stay."

"I know," Gerin said. Neither of them mentioned the matter again.

They made good progress that day, passing small farms in the foothills and then, as the land began to level out, going by great estates with splendid manor-houses set well back from the road. When shadows lengthened and cool evening breezes began to blow, they camped by the roadside instead of seeking an inn. Gerin fed and watered the horses as the sun set. In the growing darkness the ghosts appeared, but their wails were somehow muted, their cries almost croons.

Elleb's thin crescent soon followed the sun, like a small boy staying close to his father. That left the sky to the stars and Math, whose gibbous disk bathed the land beyond reach of the campfire in pale golden light. As the night went on, she was joined by Tiwaz, whose speedy flight through the heavens had taken him well past full. And, when Gerin's watch was nearly done, Nothos poked his slow-moving head over the horizon. The baron watched him climb for most of an hour, then gave the night to Van.

The next day gave every promise of rolling along as smoothly as had its predecessor. The promise was abruptly broken a bit before noon. A manor-holder had decided to send his geese to market. The road was jammed by an endless array of tall white birds herded along by a dozen or so men with sticks. The geese honked, cackled, squabbled, and tried to sneak off the road for a mouthful of grain. They did everything, in fact, but hurry. When Gerin asked their warders to clear a way so he could pass, they refused. "If these blame birds get into the fields," one said, "we'll be three days getting them all out again, and our lord'll have our heads."

"Let's charge right through," Van suggested. "Can't you see the feathers fly?"

The thought of a goose stampede brought a smile to Gerin's lips, but he said, "No, these poor fellows have their job to do too, I suppose." And so they fretted and fumed while the birds dawdled along in front of them. More traffic piled up behind.

As time dragged on, Van's direct approach looked better and better. The whip twitched in Gerin's hand. But before he used it, he noticed the road was coming to a fork. The geese streamed down the eastern path. "Can we use the western branch to get to the capital?" he called.

"You can that," one of the flock-tenders answered, so the Fox swung the wagon down the new way.

New? Hardly. Gerin noticed that none of the others stalled behind the geese used the clear road. Soon enough, he found out why. The eastern branch of the highway was far newer. After it was complete, evidently nobody had bothered with the other one again. The wagon jounced and rattled as it banged over gaping holes in the roadbed. On one stretch, the paved surface vanished altogether. There the blocks had been set, not in concrete, but in molten lead. Locals had carried away blocks and valuable mortar alike as soon as imperial inspectors no longer bothered to protect them. The baron cursed the lout who had sent him down this road. He hoped he could make it without breaking a wheel.

The district had perhaps once been prosperous, but had decayed when its road was superseded. The farther they went, the thicker the forest grew, until at last its arms clasped above the roadway and squirrels flirted their bushy gray tails directly overhead.

Soon the very memory of the road would be gone.

Finding a village in the midst of such decline seemed divine intervention. The villagers fell on Gerin and his friends like long-lost relatives, plying them with food and a rough, heady country wine and listening eagerly to every word they brought of the world outside. Not a copper would they take in payment. The baron blessed such kindly folk, and blessed them doubly when they confirmed that the road did in fact eventually lead to the capital instead of sinking into a bog.

"You see, captain? You worry too much," Van said. "Everything will work out all right."

Gerin did not answer. He could not let things work out all right; he had to make them do so. Backtracking would have cost him a day he could not afford to spend.

The villagers insisted on putting up their guests for the night. Gerin's host was a lean farmer named Badoc son of Tevis (the baron hid a shiver). Other villagers, just as anxious for news, claimed Elise and Van.

The benches round Badoc's table were filled to overflowing by the farmer, his plump, friendly wife Leunadra, the Fox, and a swarm of children. These ranged in age from a boy barely able to toddle to Badoc's twin daughters Callis and Elminda, who were about seventeen. Gerin eyed the striking girls appreciatively. They had curly hair, sparkling brown eyes, and cheeks rosy under sun-bestowed bronze; their thin linen tunics clung to young breasts. As subtly as he could, the baron turned the conversation in their direction. They hung on his every word . . . so long as he was talking about Van. To his own charms they remained sublimely indifferent.

"I wish your friend could stay here," one of the twins mourned; Gerin had forgotten which was which. They both babbled on about Van's thews, his armor, his rugged features, his smile . . . and on and on, until Gerin began to hate the sound of his comrade's name. Badoc's craggy face almost smiled as he watched his guest's discomfiture.

At last the ordeal was over. The baron, quite alone and by then glad of it, went to his bed. His feet hung over the end, for Badoc had ousted one of his younger sons to accommodate the Fox. Gerin was tired enough that it fazed him not a bit.

A woman's cry woke him around midnight. Another followed, then another, long and drawn out: "Evoi! Evoiii!" The baron relaxed; it was only the followers of Mavrix, the Sithonian god of wine, out on one of their moonlight revels. Gerin was a bit surprised Mavrix's cult had spread to this out-of-the-way place, but what of it? He went back to sleep.

The next morning he discovered the considerate villagers had not only curried his horses till their coats gleamed, but also left gifts of fresh bread, wine, cheese, onions, and bars of dried fruit and meat in the back of the wagon. A troop of small boys followed him south until their parents finally called them home.

"I almost hate to leave," Van said. Gerin studied him: was he still wearing the traces of a satisfied grin? What if he is, witling? the baron asked himself. Do you begrudge him his good fortune? Well, yes, a little, his inner voice answered.

The road was a bit better south of the village; at least it never disappeared. Under the trees the air was cool and moist, the sunlight subdued. Gerin felt more at home than he had since leaving Ricolf's keep. He was not alone. He heard Elise softly humming a song of the north country. She smiled when she saw him watching her.

They came to a clearing almost wide enough to be called a meadow, hidden away deep in the forest. The Fox squinted at the sudden brightness. A doe which had been nibbling at the soft grass by the forest's edge lifted its head at the wagon's noisy arrival and sprang into the woods.

"Pull over, will you?" Van said. The outlander reached for Gerin's bow and quiver. Though he disdained archery in battle, he loved to hunt and was a fine shot. He trotted across the clearing and vanished among the trees with grace and silence a hunting cat might have envied.

Sighing, Gerin threw down the reins and stretched out full-length on the sweet-smelling grass. Sore muscles began to unkink. Elise stepped down and joined him. The horses were as glad at the break as the people; they cropped the grass with as much alacrity as the deer had shown.

Minute followed minute, but Van gave no sign of returning. "He's probably forgotten which end of the arrow goes first," Gerin said. He rose, went to the wagon, and emerged with Van's spear. "Carrying this, I shouldn't wonder." Every time he touched it, he marveled at his friend's skill with such a heavy weapon.

He practiced slow thrusts and parries to while away the time, more than a little conscious of Elise's eyes on him. Showing off in front of a pretty girl was a pleasure he did not get often enough. More and more he resented the wound that had kept him from courting this particular pretty girl.

It was not that he lacked for women. If nothing else, a baron's prerogatives were enough to prevent that, though he was moderate in his enjoyment of them and never bedded a wench unwilling. But none of his partners had roused more than his lusts, and he quickly tired of each new liaison. In Elise he was beginning to suspect something he had thought rare to the point of nonexistence: a kindred soul.

He had just dispatched another imaginary foe when a crackle in the bushes on the far side of the clearing made him raise his head. Van back at last, he thought; he filled his lungs to shout a greeting. It died unuttered. Only a thin whisper emerged, and that directed at Elise: "Do just what I tell you. Walk very slowly to the far side of the wagon, then run for the woods. Move!" he snapped when she hesitated. He made sure she was on her way before loping into the middle of the clearing to confront the aurochs.

It was a bull, a great roan, shaggy shoulders higher than a tall man's head. Scars old and new crisscrossed its hide. Its right horn was a shattered ruin, broken in some combat or accident long ago. The other curved out and forward, a glittering spear of death.

The aurochs' ears twitched as it stared at the puny man who dared challenge it. The certainty of a charge lay like a lump of ice in Gerin's belly: any aurochs would attack man or beast, but a lone bull was doubly terrible. Drago's grandfather had died under the horns and stamping hooves of just such a foe.

Quicker even than the Fox expected, the charge came. The beast's hooves sent chunks of sod flying skyward. There was no time to throw Van's spear. Gerin could only hurl himself to his left, diving to the turf. He had a glimpse of a green eye filled with insane hatred. Then the aurochs was past, the jagged stump of its horn passing just over him. The rank smell of its skin fought the clean odors of grass and dirt.

Gerin was on his feet in an instant. But the aurochs was already wheeling for another charge, faster than any four-footed beast had any right to be. The Fox hurled his spear, but the cast was hurried and high. It flew over the aurochs' shoulder. Only a desperate leap saved Gerin. Had the bull had two horns, he would surely have been spitted. As it was, he knew he could not elude it much longer in the open.

He sprang up and sprinted for the forest, snatching the spear as he ran. Behind him came the drumroll of the aurochs' hooves. The small of his back tingled, anticipating the horn. Then, breath sobbing in his throat, he was among the trees. Timber cracked as the aurochs smashed through brush and saplings. Still, it had to slow as it followed his dodges from tree to tree.

He hoped to lose it in the wood, but it pursued him with a deadly patience he had never known an aurochs to show. Its bellows and snorts of rage rang loud in his ears. Deeper and deeper into the forest he ran, following a vague game trail.

That came to an abrupt end: some time not long before, a forest giant had toppled, falling directly across the path. Its collapse brought down other trees and walled off the trail as thoroughly as any work of man's might have done. Gerin clambered over the dead timer. The aurochs was not far behind.

The Fox's wits had been frozen in dismay from the moment the aurochs appeared in the clearing. They began to work again as he leaped down from the deadfall. Panting, "I can't run any farther anyway," he jabbed the bronze-clad butt of Van's spear deep into the soft earth, then blundered away into the forest, having thrown his dice for the last time.

Ever louder came the thunder of the aurochs' hooves, till the Fox could feel the ground shake. For a terrible moment, he thought it would try to batter through the dead trees, but it must have known that was beyond its power. It hurled its bulk into the air, easily clearing the man-high barrier—and spitted itself on the upthrust spear.

The tough wood of the spearshaft shivered into a thousand splinters, but the leaf-shaped bronze point was driven deep into the aurochs' vitals. It staggered a couple of steps on wobbling legs, blood spurting from its belly. Then a great gout poured from its mouth and nose. It shuddered and fell. Its sides heaved a last time, then were still. It gave the Fox a reproachful brown bovine stare and died.

Gerin rubbed his eyes. In his dance with death out on the meadow, he had been sure the beast's eyes were green. His own hand came away bloody. He must have been swiped by a branch while dashing through the forest, but he had no memory of it. Shows how much I know, he thought. He wearily climbed back over the deadfall.

He had not gone far when Van came crashing down the game trail, drawn bow in his hands. Elise was right behind him. The outlander skidded to a stop, his jaw dropping. "How are you, captain?" he asked foolishly.

"Alive, much to my surprise."

"But—the aurochs . . . Elise said . . ." Van stopped, the picture of confusion.

Gerin was just glad Elise had had the sense to go after his friend instead of showing herself to the aurochs and probably getting herself killed. "I'm afraid I'll have to buy you a new spear when we get to the capital," he said.

Van hauled himself over the barrier. He came back carrying the spearpoint; bronze was too valuable to leave. "What in the name of the trident of Shamadraka did you do?" he asked.

The baron wondered where Shamadraka's worshipers lived; he had never heard of the god. "Climbing those trunks took everything I had left," he said. "The beast was hunting me like a hound—I've never known anything like it. He would have had me in a few minutes. But by some miracle I remembered a fable I read a long time ago, about a slave who was too lazy to hunt. He'd block a trail, set a javelin behind his barrier, and wait for the deer to skewer themselves for him."

Elise said, "I know the fable you mean: the tale of the Deer and Mahee. In the end he's killed by his own spear, and a good thing, too. He was a cruel, wicked man."

"You got the idea for killing the brute out of a book?" Van shook his head. "Out of a book? Captain, I swear I'll never sneer at reading again, if it can show you something that'll save your neck. The real pity of it is, you'll never have a chance to brag about this."

"And why not?" Gerin had been looking forward to doing just that.

"Slaying a bull aurochs singlehanded with a spear? Don't be a fool, Gerin: who would believe you?"

Van had killed his doe while the baron battled the aurochs. He dumped the bled and gutted carcass into the wagon and urged the horses southward. None of the travelers wanted to spend the night near the body of the slain aurochs. Not only would it draw unwelcome scavengers, but the spilled blood was sure to lure hungry, lonely ghosts from far and wide, all eager to share the unexpected bounty of the kill.

When the failing light told them it was time to camp, the deer proved toothsome indeed. Van carved steaks from its flanks. They roasted the meat over a fire. But despite a full belly, the outlander was unhappy. He grumbled, "I feel naked without my spear. What will I do without it in a fight?"

Gerin was less than sympathetic. "Seeing that you've brought a mace, an axe, three knives—"

"Only two. The third is just for eating."

"My apologies. Two knives, then, and a sword so heavy I can hardly lift it, let alone swing it. So I think you'll find some way to make a nuisance of yourself."

A nuisance Van was; he plucked a long straw from Elise's hand, leaving the short one—and the first watch—for Gerin. The Fox tried not to hear his friend's comfort-filled snores. His sense of the basic injustice of the universe was only slightly salved when Elise decided not to fall asleep at once.

Gerin was glad of her company. Without it, he probably would have dozed, for the night was almost silent. The sad murmurs of the ghosts, heard with the mind's ear rather than the body's, were also faint: the lure of the dead aurochs reached for miles, leaving the surrounding countryside all but bare of spirits.

For some reason the Fox could not fathom, Elise thought he was a hero for slaying the aurochs. He felt more lucky than heroic. There was precious little glory involved in running like a rabbit, which was most of what he'd done. Had he not plucked what he needed from his rubbish-heap of a memory, the beast would have killed him. "Fool luck," he concluded.

"Nonsense," Elise said. "Don't make yourself less than you are. In the heat of the fight you were able to remember what you had to know and, more, to do something with it. You need more than muscle to make a hero."

Not convinced, Gerin shrugged and changed the subject, asking Elise what she knew of her kin in the capital. Her closest relative there, it transpired, was her mother's brother Valdabrun the Stout, who held some position or other at the Emperor's court. Though he did not say, Gerin found that a dubious recommendation. His imperial majesty Hildor III was an indolent dandy, and the baron saw little reason to expect his courtiers to be different.

To hide his worry, he talked of the capital and his own two years there. Elise was a good audience, as city life of any sort was new to her. He told a couple of his better stories. Her laugh warmed the cool evening. She moved closer to him, eager to hear more.

He leaned over and kissed her. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to do. For a moment, her lips were startled and still under his. Then she returned the kiss, at first hesitantly, then with a warmth to match his own.

You do have a gift for complicating your life, he told himself as she snuggled her head into his shoulder. If things go on the way they've started, not only will Wolfar want to cut out your heart and eat it (a project he's been nursing quite a while anyhow), but your old friend Ricolf will be convinced—note or no note—you ran off with his daughter for reasons having very little to do with taking her to her uncle. And what is she thinking? She's no peasant wench, to be honored by a tumble and then forgotten. And further . . .

A plague on it all, he thought. He kissed her again.

But when his lips touched her soft white throat and his hands moved to slide inside her tunic, she asked him softly, "Was it for this, then, you decided to bring me south? Have I traded one Wolfar for another?" She tried to keep her tone light, but hurt and disappointment were in her voice. They stopped him effectively as a dagger drawn, perhaps more so. She slipped free of his encircling arm.

Breath whistled through his nostrils as he brought his body back under mind's rein. "I would never have you think that," he said.

"Nor do I, in truth," she replied, but the hurt was still there. The time to remember he was man and she maid might come later, he thought. It was not here yet, despite the cool quiet of the night and the moonlight filtering through the trees.

She was silent so long he thought her still upset, but when he framed further apologies, she waved them away. They talked of inconsequential things for a little while. Then she rose and walked to the wagon for her bedroll. As she passed him, she stooped; her lips brushed his cheek.

His mind was still thought-filled long after she had fallen asleep. Elleb's thick waxing crescent was well set and the nearly full Math, bright as a golden coin, beginning to wester when he woke Van and sank into exhausted slumber.

His dreams at first were murky, filled now with the aurochs, now with Elise. He remembered little of them. He rarely did, and thought strange those who could recall their dreams and cast omens from them. But then it was as if a gale arose within his sleeping mind and blew away the mists separating him from the country of dreams.

Clear as if he had been standing on the spot, he saw the great watchfires flame, heard wild music of pipe, horn, and harp skirl up to the sky, saw tall northern warriors gathered by the fires, some with spears, others with drinking-horns in their hands. This is no common dream, he thought, and felt fear, but he could not leave it, not even when black wings drowned his sight in darkness.

Those proved to be the edges of the wizard's cloak Balamung wore. The sorcerer stepped back a pace, to be silhouetted against the firelight like a bird of prey. Only his eyes were live things, embers of scarlet and amber set in his gaunt face.

The barbarian mage was only too aware of the Fox. He turned a trifle and bowed a hate-filled bow, as if the baron had been there in the flesh. The light played redly off his hollow cheeks. He said, "Lord Gerin the Fox, it's no less than a nuisance you are to me, no less, so I pray you'll forgive my costing you a dollop of sleep to show you what's waiting in the northlands whilst you scuttle about the filthy south. Would I could be drawing the black-hearted soul of you from your carcass, but there's no spell I ken to do it, what with you so far away."

No spell Gerin knew could have reached across the miles at all. He was nothing, not even a wraith, just eyes and ears bound to see and hear only what Balamung chose to reveal.

The Trokmoi danced round the fires, tossing swords, spears, aye, and drinking-horns, too, into the air. The baron's disembodied spirit was less terrified than it might have been; the dance was one of those Rihwin had performed atop Ricolf's table. It seemed an age ago. But Balamung surely knew the baron expected him to arm for war. What else had he been summoned to see?

Balamung called down curses on the Fox's head. He hoped they would not bite deep. On and on the wizard ranted, until he paused to draw breath. Then he went on more calmly, saying, "Not least do I mislike you for costing me the soul of a fine fighting man this day. Like a wee bird I sent it flitting out, to light in the body of the great aurochs. Sure as sure I was he'd stomp you to flinders and leave you dead by the side of the road. Curse your tricky soul, how did you escape him? His spirit died trapped in the beast, for I could not draw it free in time. And when it flickered away, his body was forfeit too, poor wight."

No wonder the bull had trailed him with such grim intensity! Maybe he'd been right when he thought its eyes were green, there in the meadow; that might have been some byproduct of Balamung's magic. He had been lucky indeed.

"But sure and I'll have my revenge!" Balamung screamed. Behind him, the music had fallen silent. The dancers stood motionless and expectant.

The spell the mage used must have been readied beforehand, for when he cried out in the harsh Kizzuwatnan tongue a stout wicker cage rose from the ground and drifted slowly toward the fire. Gerin's spirit quailed when he saw it; he knew the Trokmoi burned their criminals alive, and in this cage, too, a man struggled vainly to free himself.

"Die, traitor, die!" Balamung shouted. All the gathered warriors took up the cry. Horror rose in Gerin, who suddenly recognized the condemned prisoner. It was Divico, the Trokmê chieftain whose life he had spared at Ikos. He wished sickly that he had let Van give the northerner a clean death. "Have a look at what befalls them who fight me," Balamung whispered, "for your turn is next!" His voice was cold as ice, harsh as stone.

And while he spoke, the cage entered the blaze. Some minor magic had proofed the wicker against flame; no fire would hold on it. But wherever a tongue licked Divico, it clung, flaring as brightly as if his body were a pitch-soaked torch.

Held there by Balamung's wizardry, Gerin watched in dread as the flames boiled Divico's eyeballs in his head, melted his ears into shapeless lumps of meat that sagged and ran against his cheeks, then charred the flesh from those cheeks to leave white bone staring through. Fire cavorted over the Trokmê's body, but Balamung's evil magic would not let him die. He fought against the unyielding door until his very tendons burned away. His shrieks had stopped long before, when flames swallowed his larynx.

"He was a job I had to rush," Balamung said. "When it's you, now, Fox, falling into my hand, I'll take the time to think up something truly worthy of you, oh indeed and I will!" He made a gesture of dismissal. Gerin found himself staring up from his bedroll, body wet with cold sweat.

"Bad dream, captain?" Van asked.

Gerin's only answer was a grunt. He was too shaken for coherent speech. Divico's face, eaten by flames, still stood before his eyes, more vivid than the dimly lit campsite he really saw. He thought he would never want to sleep again, but his weary body needed rest more than his mind feared it.

The sounds of a scuffle woke him. Before he could do more than open his eyes, strong hands pinned him to the ground. It was still far from sunrise. Did bandits in the southland dare the darkness, or was this some new assault of Balamung's? He twisted, trying to lever himself up on an elbow and see who or what had overcome him.

"Be still, or I'll rend thee where thou liest." The voice was soft, tender, female, and altogether mad. More hands, all full of casual deranged strength, pressed down his legs. They tugged warningly. He felt his joints creak.

All hope left him. After he had escaped Balamung's forays, it seemed unfair for him to die under the tearing hands of the votaries of Mavrix. Why had the wine-god's orgiastic, frenzied cult ever spread outside his native Sithonia?

Moving very slowly, the baron turned his head, trying to see the extent of the disaster. Perhaps one of his comrades had managed to get away. But no: in the moonlight he saw Van, his vast muscles twisting and knotting to no avail, pinned by more of the madwomen. Still more had fastened themselves to Elise.

The maenads' eyes reflected the firelight like those of so many wolves. That was the only light in them. They held no human intelligence or mercy, for they were filled by the madness of the god. The finery in which they had begun their trek through the woods was ripped and tattered and splashed with mud and grime, their hair awry and full of twigs. One woman, plainly a lady of high station from the remnants of fine linen draped about her body, clutched the mangled corpse of some small animal to her bosom, crooning over and over, "My baby, my baby."

A blue light drifted out of the forest, a shining nimbus round a figure . . . godlike was the only word for it, Gerin thought. "What have we here?" the figure asked, voice deep and sweet like the drink the desert nomads brewed to keep off sleep.

"Mavrix!" the women breathed, their faces slack with ecstasy. Gerin felt their hands quiver and slip. He braced himself for a surge, but even as he tensed the god waved and the grip on him tightened again.

"What have we here?" Mavrix repeated.

Van gave a grunt of surprise. "How is it you speak my language?"

To the Fox it had been Elabonian. "He didn't—" The protest died half-spoken as his captors snarled.

The god made an airy, effeminate gesture. "We have our ways," he said . . . and suddenly there were two of him, standing side by side. They—he—gestured again, and there was only one.

As well as he could, Gerin studied Mavrix. The god wore fawnskin, soft and supple, with a wreath of grape leaves round his brow. In his left hand he bore an ivy-tipped wand. At need, Gerin knew, it was a weapon more deadly than any mortal's spear. Mavrix's blond curls reached his shoulder; his cheeks and chin were shaven. That soft-featured, smiling face was a pederast's dream, but for the eyes: two black pits reflecting nothing, giving back only the night. A faint odor of fermenting grapes and something else, a rank something Gerin could not name, clung to him.

"That must be a useful art." The baron spoke in halting Sithonian, trying to pique the god's interest and buy at least a few extra minutes of life.

Mavrix turned those fathomless eyes on the Fox, but his face was still a smiling mask. He answered in the same tongue: "How pleasant to hear the true speech once more, albeit in the mouth of a victim," and Gerin knew his doom.

"Are you in league with Balamung, then?" he growled, knowing nothing he said now could hurt him further.

"I, friend to some fribbling barbarian charlatan? What care I for such things? But surely, friend mortal, you see this is your fate. The madness of the Mavriad cannot, must not be thwarted. Were it so, the festival would have no meaning, for what is it but the ultimate negation of all the petty nonfulfillments of humdrum, everyday life?"

"It's not right!" Elise burst out. "Dying I can understand; everyone dies, soon or late. But after the baron Gerin"—the Fox thought it a poor time to rhyme, but kept quiet—"singlehanded slew the aurochs, to die at the hands of lunatics, god-driven or no—"

Mavrix broke in, deep voice cracking: "Gerin slew a great wild ox—" The god's smile gave way to an expression of purest horror. "The oxgoad come again!" he screamed, "but now in the shape of a man! Metokhites, I thought you slain!" With a final despairing shriek, the god vanished into the depths of the woods. His followers fled after, afflicted by his terror—all but the lady of rank, who still sat contentedly, rocking her gruesome "baby."

Still amazed at being alive, Gerin slowly sat up. So did Elise and Van, both wearing bewildered expressions. "What did I say?" Elise asked.

Gerin thumped his forehead, trying to jar loose a memory. He had paid scant attention to Mavrix in the past, as the god's principal manifestations, wine and the grape, were rare north of the Kirs. "I have it!" he said at last, snapping his fingers. "This Metokhites was a Sithonian prince long ago. Once he chased the god into the Lesser Inner Sea, beating him about the head with a metal-tipped oxgoad: Mavrix always was a coward. I suppose he thought I was a new—what would the word be?—incarnation of his tormentor."

"What happened to this Metokhites fellow?" Van asked. "It's not the smartest thing, tangling with gods."

"As I remember, he chopped his son into bloody bits, being under the impression the lad was a grapevine."

"A grapevine, you say? Well, captain, if I ever seem to you to go all green and leafy-like, be so good as to warn me before you try to trim me."

At that, the last of the maenads lifted her eyes from the ruined little body she dandled. There was a beginning of knowledge in her face, though she was not yet fully aware of herself or her surroundings. Her voice had some of the authority of the Sibyl at Ikos when she spoke: "Mock not Mavrix, lord of the sweet grape. Rest assured, you are not forgotten!" Gathering her rags about her, she swept imperiously into the woods. Silence fell on the camp.

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