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Chapter 4

The next morning Argus and Llewass examined Duncan thoroughly before allowing him to attend the clan chief meeting. In fact, both healers followed his slow steps alongside Nial to the meeting tent. The clan chiefs all wore a rather uniform sour expression; even his own, old Ranald corManwydd of Clan Ailane. That hollow feeling Duncan had felt a couple of days before began to return.

The day began with the chiefs questioning the two healers as to the nature and severity of Duncan’s injuries. The first argument of the day began when Kholbar corGeran, clan chief of Torkiel and uncle of Oredd, insisted that it was “alleged” that Duncan had received the injuries at the hands of his clansmen. It didn’t last very long, however, as he was shouted down by three other chiefs.

“You can’t have it both ways, Kholbar,” Makh corMakhlin, Clan Rhiadd chief said. “If it is ‘alleged’ that his injuries were caused by your clansmen, then it is also ‘alleged’ that he caused the injuries suffered by your clansmen. And if all we have are allegings, then why are we even here? Call the whole thing off and let’s go get some beer.”

That brought Kholbar into line, although his reddened face gave some hint that he would not forget those who crossed him. He attempted to take his ire out on the two healers, but they were having none of that.

“I would no more value your opinion about wounds and injuries,” Argus told him, sarcasm almost literally dripping from his tongue, “than I would that of my great-aunt Belwyn about the proper manner of forging blades. She’s been dead for two dozen and seven years, and she would be just as likely to be right as you.”

That gathered a chuckle from around the tent, and a muttered, “Give it up, man,” from one of the chiefs at the back of the circle. Kholbar stared around, eyebrows lowered ominously; to no effect, though.

“The facts are,” Llewass riposted, “however little you like to hear them, that Duncan suffered the following:” and he began counting things off on his fingers.

“First, a broken upper left arm, despite the fact that he was wearing a mail shirt. If you don’t know how much force it takes to break a bone under armor, then talk to your First Swords. He was hit with a club of some kind.”

“How do you know that?” Kholbar demanded. “Could it not have been done with a blade?”

“No,” Llewass said.

“Why not?”

Llewass was obviously getting irritated with the Torkiel clan chief. “Because,” the healer said in a tight voice, “the bruising of the flesh at the impact was broad. If it had been done by a blade, the impact would have only been about the width of the blade’s edge and the bruising would have been much darker and much narrower. And,” he forestalled Kholbar with a raised hand, “we found bits of bark smashed into the links of the mail at the same point as the injury.” He nodded his head sharply, and ticked off the next point on his fingers.

“Second, we found two very large lumps on Duncan’s head, consistent with having been hit solidly with a club, plus we also found a scrape where there was bark caught in his hair. He was hit in the head three times.

“Third, Duncan was unconscious when he was brought to us. The pupils of his eyes were not the same size, and we could not rouse him. This is dangerous in someone who has a head wound. If he had not roused when he finally did, he might never have roused at all. Some of you know that.”

Duncan swallowed at that last. That he hadn’t known.

“It took four of your clansmen to bring him down,” Argus concluded in very dry tones. “Four which he took down, and he marked at least two of them as well. Draw your own conclusions from that.”

With that, the healers were done, and left the tent. The chiefs spent the next hour or so repeating old arguments, until even Duncan was tired of hearing them. He almost cheered when his father finally stood and stepped forward so that all could see him.

“You all know me,” Nial said. “You know that I know weapons and war craft.”

That was true, Duncan mused. There might be one or two men among all the clans that were as good with weapons and leading men as his father Nial. There weren’t three.

“I tell you that I well trained my son to fight;” Nial continued, “well enough that you all know he won the bronze torc for his age year at the fair contests this year. I tell you that I also taught him to think. I tell you that he was attacked, not the other way around. I tell you that it was not his hand that drew his sword from the sheath. I tell you that if he had drawn that sword with intent and desire, there would be not four wounded clansmen in the Torkielin healer’s tent; there would be four Torkielin corpses laid out for a wake instead. Say what you will, but if you judge against him, by the White God, you will judge wrongly.”

Duncan looked up as his father took his seat. “Dead?” he murmured.

“I didn’t teach you to draw a sword for play,” Nial muttered back. “If you had felt the need to draw it, you would have used it. They wouldn’t have stood against you.”

His father’s words caused a small fire of pride to light in Duncan’s heart. For a moment, he basked in that. Then he turned serious again.

“So what happens now?”

“The vote should come soon.”

The hollow feeling grew some more. “What do you think will happen?”

Nial was quiet for several moments. Duncan’s disquiet increased yet again before his father finally spoke. “If it was just a question of the events, I think there would be no problem. But . . .” he stopped again.

“But . . .” Duncan prompted.

“Clan Ailane has few friends just now. We are . . . not well liked, because we win too many of the contests, we speak bluntly in council, we’ve not been shy of telling fools they are fools. We are one of the strongest voices to speak of staying under the banner of the king of Darcia, and there are those who despise us for it. Until today, I stood by the side of old Ranald corManwydd as he spoke for Ailane in the clans’ council. But now . . .”

“But now there may be enough voices against us to . . .” Duncan’s voice thickened.

“Aye,” Nial sighed, putting a hand on Duncan’s knee. “There may be enough to swing the vote against us.”

“Against me.” The hollow feeling was so great that it felt as if there was nothing but void where Duncan’s stomach used to be.

“Ah,” Nial breathed as Kilrone corKillavil of Clan Lhear stood. He was head of the council for this fair, and had faced the thankless task of keeping order among the fractious clan leaders. “The judging begins.”

“The clans’ council sits in judgment on Duncan corNial of Clan Ailane, charged with baring a sword blade during the fair and with assault on four members of Clan Torkiel.” Kilrone looked around the horseshoe of seated clan leaders. “How many of you believe he should be judged innocent?”

Duncan sucked in his breath when only three hands were raised. His father’s hand clamped onto his thigh. “Wait,” was all that Nial would say.

Kilrone looked around again. “As no death was caused, death cannot be the punishment. How many of you believe he should be permanently banished?”

Only the hand of the Torkiel clan leader was raised. Nial’s hand loosened slightly.

“Then what is your judgment?” Kilrone spread his hands apart.

“Exile.” That word was said by several voices and rumbled in the tent.

“Exile.” Kilrone looked around the horseshoe of seats again, and saw enough heads nodding to accept that as the will of the majority. “For how long?”

Graying heads leaned close together, fingers played with beards as rough whispers were exchanged. “Six years per man injured by Duncan corNial.”

“Less six years for the injury done to him.” The rasp of Clan Ailane’s chief was heard.

Again the clan chiefs leaned first one way and then another. It was a matter of a few dozen heartbeats before they straightened. No one spoke against the subtraction, although the Torkiel chief’s mouth was working as if he tasted something sour.

“Exile for a dozen years plus six,” Kilrone said.

“With no contact between him and his clan, his kin or his friends,” the Torkiel chief spat out.

Kilrone spread his hands and looked around again. No one disagreed—it was a standard term of exile.

“Very well. Those in favor of the exile . . .”

Duncan’s heart was in his mouth as hands went up around the horseshoe. He counted quickly. Seven! Only seven of the fifteen clan chiefs voted for the exile. He started to exult, but his father’s hand clamped down on his leg again. “Wait,” the older man muttered.

“Those against the exile . . .”

Hands went up, including Kilrone’s. Duncan counted: seven hands he counted. But that couldn’t be. He counted again, and still arrived at seven. One of the chiefs had not voted, and the vote was tied.

His father’s breath hissed as it was drawn in through clenched teeth. “Damict has not voted. I would never have thought he would be the one.”

“Who?” Duncan was confused.

“Rohaun corFralix, chief of clan Damict. He abstains; he doesn’t vote.”

Duncan’s head whirled. “What does that mean?” The expression on Nial’s face was not one of celebration; Duncan’s heart was on the ground between his feet.

“It means, my son,” Nial took his hand from Duncan’s knee and put it on his shoulder, “that you will be going into exile.”

“But . . . but . . .” Duncan stuttered through suddenly numb lips, “that’s not right. It’s not fair.”

“I agree,” Nial shook his head, “but it is according to the clans’ law. You did not receive a majority vote, therefore you will be exiled.”


It was three days after the clan council which had pronounced the judgment of exile for Duncan. He was back in his mother’s tent, but was still trying to absorb what had happened, and even more important, what was going to happen. The council had—reluctantly on the part of some—ruled on the following day that Duncan could remain with his clan until he was fully healed of his injuries. “Else,” his own clan head Ranald corManwydd had uttered in what could only be called a thundering snarl, “we send him to his death. And if that occurs, Clan Ailane will not take it well.”

Ranald said nothing more, but according to those who had been there, he hadn’t needed to. Nial corAnuwn, Duncan’s father and war-leader of Clan Ailane was standing in his customary place at Ranald’s left hand, arms crossed, face like stone, wearing the full armor and panoply of the clan’s First Sword. Duncan had smiled at that account; he knew full well just how intimidating his father could be when the need was upon him. “The old men well-nigh fouled their breeks looking at your Da,” one of his cousins had chortled.

To say that the Ailane clansmen disagreed with the judgment would have been something like calling water wet. So it had probably also been a factor in the second meeting that there were already rumors of Ailane clansmen wandering the fairgrounds with cudgels, looking for hapless Torkiel clansmen to administer some rough justice of their own to.

So the clan leaders could see clearly that there was already trouble at hand because of their judgment, and they took the path of wisdom—or at least expedient peace—by allowing Duncan to stay until he was healed.

Duncan was glad of that, for the most part, but there were moments when he wished he could be on the road. It was going to take weeks, maybe months, before he was totally healed, and the thought of continuing to live in his mother’s tent, just counting days until he was forced to leave, half-nauseated him already. He couldn’t see how it would get any better before the day finally arrived.

Nial corAnuwn ducked into the tent. “Oh, good, you’re here.”

“And where else would I be, Da?” Duncan snorted. “Ma and the healers have all but tied me to a chair here.”

“And it’s only been two days, and you’re already going moon-crazed.” His father flashed a wide grin at him before he started digging around in one of the bags stashed along the side of the tent.

“Well, wouldn’t you be?”

“I was,” Nial answered, still looking at the bags. “Aha! There it is?”

“You were what?”

Duncan’s father turned with something in his hand. “I had an arm broken in a northmen raid right after you were born. Your mother says that not only was I moon-mad within a week, I had well-nigh driven her to that state as well.”

Duncan laughed. “I can see Ma saying that. But you never told me about that, Da.”

Nial shrugged. “It wasn’t important. You had no need to know. But what brought me through that time is what’s going to bring you through this time.” He held up what he had dug out of the bags.

“Shaun-ki?” Duncan couldn’t believe his eyes. “A game? Da, you know I can’t play that. You beat me like a drum every time you get me to play you.”

“That,” Nial said, leaning over and pointing a finger between his son’s eyes, “is because you never tried hard and I let you get away with it, because I thought we’d have plenty of time. Well, we don’t have a lot of time now, and there are things you need to learn that the fastest way I can teach them to you is through Shaun-ki. We’re going to spend time every day playing, and when I’m not here to play, you will be studying problems I set up for you.”

“But Da . . .”

Nial slapped his hand down on the table next to Duncan. “No! If you want to die out in the wide world, fine. I’ll just put this up and tell your mother to start grieving now. Is that what you want? Is that how you want to be remembered?”

Duncan set his jaw. He wasn’t sure why his father was doing this. It wasn’t like him.

“Well?” Nial demanded.

“No.” Duncan bit the word off short.

“Then you will listen to me, and you will do what I tell you to do. I stand as First Sword in this, Duncan.”

That sobered Duncan completely. If his father was invoking his authority as First Sword, then this was important not just to him, but to the clan as well.

“All right, Da. I’ll try. But I really never was any good at this game.”

Nial gave a twisted smile. “That’s because I never had the right way to make you focus before now. I suspect that trying to stay alive may provide that focus.”

Duncan gave a twitch as a chill ran up his spine. “I’ll try.” Nial set the game set on the table and pulled up a stool to sit on the other side from Duncan. “Nice set,” Duncan said.

“This was your uncle Jamesh’s favorite set. He brought it back from Cantredd.”

Duncan thought about that. His father’s older brother had wandered for a number of years before he came back to the Highland plateau and settled back into the clan. He died a bare few years later from some lung wasting disease, from what his father had told him. He watched as Nial unfolded the board, and unfolded, and unfolded.

“This board is bigger than the one we used to play on.”

“Right,” Nial said. “That was a board for children and beginners. This is the full game board that only an expert will play on. You’re going to learn enough to play on it before you leave.”

Duncan counted squares. “Twenty-four on a side. The old one was eight on a side. So this is . . .”

“Three times longer on a side, but nine times as many squares.” Nial had the board folded out and opened the case with the pieces.

Duncan looked at the extended board. “Are you sure about this?”

“Yes,” Nial said as he started setting out pieces. “Don’t worry, we’re going to start with the basic pieces, but we’re going to use the extended board from the beginning. You—and that’s you, the person, not a general player, have to be thinking broadly from the beginning. So that’s where we’ll start. Red or green?”

“Red, I guess.” Duncan figured he’d better start by playing defense.

“Right. Set them up, and I’ll roll the die to get us started.”

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