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Part I: Harmonies

“Our lives are works composed by an unseen, unknown composer; our bodies the instruments upon which that music plays; our actions and those of the people who share our lives the chords and harmonies of the symphony. There are those who rewrite the score now and again, but in the end, we must remember: it is not our hands that shape the larger music.”—unknown pre-Exodus author

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Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7

Chapter 1: Bram

As I reached the crest of the long, steep mountain path, the castle I had seen from a distance rose into view, gilded by the setting sun that carpeted my path with my shadow. For a moment I stood there, leaning on my staff and catching my breath, for it had been a long uphill climb. Then, with an effort, I slowed my breathing and enjoyed the play of the soft pastel light that waxes at the day's end. It was rather more pleasant than my instinctive analysis of the number of defensive towers and errors in their spacing. Gradually, the tightness in my chest eased.

Behind me, a stone clattered under the step of an incautious foot, and I spun, gripping my staff in both hands, to face the newcomer. I softened my expression, but kept my eyes moving to confirm he was as alone as he appeared. “I bid you good day, fellow traveler.”

 He paused to push a lock of glossy, raven-black hair from his eyes, which were the blue of a deep mountain lake beneath the sun. He stood gracefully, hands raised and opened towards me to show they were empty, and his fine features were unperturbed by the taxing climb that lay behind us. The smooth hands, which bore calluses only on the finger tips, told of no experience with weaponry or manual labor. Though he wore the clothes of a wealthy townsman, new enough to be unstained by the road's dust and sweat, his only possession was what appeared to be a harp bag, and he carried no weapon I could discern. Odd, given how far we were from the nearest town. An enigmatic smile lit his face as he observed my scrutiny, and he replied in a mellow voice. “I thank you, and in my turn I offer the good will of a fellow traveler, which is an auspicious thing to invoke when the shadows lengthen. Do you also head for yonder castle?”

“That I do, and I would be grateful for the company of a minstrel. The roads in these lands are not a friendly place for one alone at night.” I thought back to an earlier narrow escape, but relaxed my grip on my staff. I had seen no sign of any other men at his back, nor ahead of me despite clear evidence that horses had passed this way not long before, and he had an open, honest look; moreover, I had once reckoned myself a good judge of men, and I felt no ill will in this one. I beckoned him to join me. With a deep bow, at once courtly and mocking, he complied, gliding the last few paces upslope to join me.

“Lead on then, friend, for we still have a way to go if we’re to arrive before the gates close for the night.”

That was the end of our conversation for a time, as we needed all our breath for walking and were obliged to jog the last few hundred paces when we saw their preparations to raise the drawbridge for the night over a dry moat. There looked to be a chill night on the way, with the deep, clear sky beginning to show the fragile clarity that only a night in the mountains possesses. When I had begun my climb earlier in the day, there had been a hint of rain clouds gathering to the south, and knowing how fast mountain weather changes, I considered myself twice fortunate at the prospect of lodging. Indeed, it proved to be a pleasant surprise that the people of this border keep followed the traditions of my homeland and were unwilling to turn us away. Mind you, wandering minstrels such as my companion are rarely unwelcome, and my own strong back is appreciated where there is work to do.

And there is always work to do.

A cluster of horses, still sweaty from the trail, stood by the stables at the courtyard's far end, held by somber men at arms while the grooms worked to dry and curry them and ward off a fatal chill. Our hosts had guests this evening, likely the same riders that had preceded me along this trail, and I was confident my bed and board would be well-earned tonight. My companion and I were separated before I regained the breath to ask his name, and when they learned I had worked with horses before, I soon had work enough to occupy me. I had hoped this night to seek a comfortable place of rest, an unaccustomed luxury, in exchange for familiar work. I confess that I had also been too long without human companionship, and though I had needed my time alone, there are other needs a man must fill.

When next I met the minstrel, I was bent over a cask of ale by a side table in a great hall filled with the castle's most important people and their guests; my ease was not to be purchased by only a few hours of work in the stables. As I rose, mopping sweat from my eyes (for the room was overheated and airless after so long spent out of doors), conversation ceased. From a shadowed archway by the high table, a darker shadow had emerged. Light gleaming from midnight hair and black satin garments, my former travel companion stepped forward. He strode towards the center of the hall, his fingers wandering across the harp strings and calling forth echoes from the high-vaulted ceiling. His harp was of an antique and ornate style, and had a deep resonance that sounded in my bones when he brushed the bass strings. With a sketchy bow towards the high table, all semblance of casualness vanished, and he began to play.

The reverent silence was richly deserved, for he was a master of his craft; even before I had taken to the road, I had never heard the like. His fingers built shimmering patterns of tone, flowing runs of sound that were hypnotic in their compulsion. In and out the song's threads wove his voice, merging with the harp, complementing it and coaxing forth rhythmic echoes from the chamber’s walls and, in harmonics, from the music itself. And through it all ran a theme of gentle melancholy, waxing and waning in counterpoint to the main themes. When he was done, amidst the fading of the final chords, he stepped back into the shadows and vanished. We mortals, kissed by the mystical, returned to the mundane once more.

There was no applause, for such a discordant response would have been scant praise for that performance. Conversation resumed here and there, tones hushed. The lord and lady of the keep, clad in worn finery, returned to their dining and their guests, attended by watchful servants in shabby homespun. Gemstones dripped transformed lamplight from fingers and ears, but the light seemed subdued, almost as if in defiance of an inevitable fading. The lord’s few men-at-arms stood here and there amidst the hall's faded grandeur, grey-silvered in tarnished ceremonial armor, lightly armed, boredom in every uncomfortable line of their bodies. I shook my head to clear it, remembering how bright the hall had been when I first entered it, and turned back to my work, hoping to lift the mood. Despite my efforts, certain memories had reawakened.

I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and turned to find myself facing the singer. “Look at them,” he whispered, eyes sad and voice wistful. “They believe themselves unaffected by what they have heard.” Proud words, yet somehow they lacked the bite of wounded pride. He appraised me for a moment, then nodded as if he had seen something. “Yet I see that you were touched, and for this reason I give you warning. Cast an eye towards the hall’s main entrance, and you will observe that our host’s guards have company.” I followed his gaze and saw that, indeed, a half-score of the men from the courtyard had entered the hall and taken up position by the men-at-arms. My companion mused, “It would seem our host has offended someone... and been chosen as an object lesson. Were I you, I should find an excuse to leave.”

I felt a chill, despite the oppressive warmth, for there was certainty in his words. “How could you know this? Are you one of them?” I scrutinized him more closely, seeking signs of treachery.

In that same mellifluous voice, tinged now by melancholy, he replied. “You must trust that mine is not the way of the sword, and that I do not serve their masters.”

There was a strange irony in the way he spoke those last words, but I had no time to ask, for they were punctuated by a hoarse bellow of pain from the far end of the room, followed by the clash of metal. In the moment of silence that followed the first guard's fall, bedlam entered the hall, screams of outrage and agony resounding from walls that had so recently echoed a different music. The struggle at the doorway was already over, replaced by conflicts that had sprung up everywhere between guests and hosts. At the high table, ceremonial daggers that had served as cutlery and other, less formal weapons, were no longer being used for dining. Those newcomers not engaged with the remaining guards, who had rallied to defend their lord, were hacking at anyone within reach.

I backed against the wall behind me, and grasped my dagger. Images of other battles rose before me, and I fought them down, beginning to sweat again. The minstrel was nowhere to be seen, though he had been standing at my side but an instant earlier, and unarmored and unpracticed as I was, I had little hope of doing anything to right the situation. In any event, this was not my fight, and I began edging my way towards a side exit. But before I could escape, an eddy in the crowd left me facing a blood-splashed newcomer, who turned on me with a rapacious grin, seeing what he took to be an unarmed servant in the shadows. He rushed me without sufficient caution, sword held too wide, and before he could change tactics, I caught his forearm, stepped inside his swing, and buried my dagger in his throat, wrenching it free as he fell.

Dodging a screaming serving girl, fear and anger preventing me from thinking past the moment, I tried for the man’s sword, but a comrade had seen him fall and would have slain me before I could pry the blade from the man’s death grip. The second man approached me with a healthy measure of caution, not wishing to suffer the same fate. I edged towards a nearby table as he stalked me, and caught up a heavy pewter mug in the seconds his caution granted me. My foe was almost upon me, and in the moment's clarity, I saw the blood flecks in the coarse beard that lay atop a chainmail coif as I hurled my impromptu weapon at his teeth. It missed him, but following close behind it, I did not. The amateur’s natural reflex to dodge my missile delayed his sword arm long enough for me to grab it left-handed and sink my shoulder deep into the pit of his stomach. The chainmail that would have deflected my dagger could not fully absorb the impact, so he lost his breath and his interest in the fight. I gave him no time to recover either. As I stepped back, still holding his sword arm, I used my momentum to swing him hard against the wall; he struck headfirst and dropped in a jingle of chain links. I took the sword from his weakened grip.

Sword in hand, dark blood still dripping from it onto the rush-strewn floor, I sought my next opponent, my urge to escape subsumed by the knowledge that I had just become an actor in a struggle I did not understand. Atop the high table, my host and his guest rolled over and over amidst the remains of their feast. I did not pause long to think—outnumbered as we were, with no chance to overcome the superior numbers and armor of our attackers, I did the only thing I could think of that might save us. I ran for the high table, arriving just as the two struggling men crashed to the floor by my feet. Before either could recover from the impact, I stooped and wrenched the ungrateful guest away from our host and back to his feet. He was smaller and weaker than me, and his struggles ceased when I wrapped my arm under the line of his jaw and lifted him to the tips of his toes. With the pommel of my borrowed sword, I smote the table. That had the desired effect, turning all eyes towards me for an instant. Placing the edge of my sword at my prisoner’s throat, I shouted into the momentary hush that had fallen over the hall.

“I have your lord. Drop your weapons and surrender!”

To my dismay, the enemy soldiers greeted my suggestion with hearty laughter. One mocked me from midway down the hall. “Fool! Think you our master would risk himself here?”

The fighting resumed, and for my troubles I was rewarded by one soldier breaking off his pursuit of a wounded servant to come after me. Reflexes won out over thought, and I pushed my captive behind me into the arms of our host. I advanced to meet the oncoming soldier, waiting for him by the table's end and taking a serving platter into my free hand. As he drew near, I flung it at him, following closely in its wake, but this time my ploy failed; the man was a veteran, and took the impact on his armor while bracing his sword arm to impale me. I met his sword in a desperate stop-thrust that backed him off, and leapt backwards to evade his counterblow. Despite the passage of time, my reflexes were good enough to save my life, but the sword felt awkward in my hand, and unarmored, I would be hard pressed to fend off his skilled strokes as he pursued me across the room. Reluctant but not stupid, I gave ground before his disciplined attack, noticing as I did how the battle was dying down and the few survivors, soldiers who had not left in pursuit of fleeing victims, had begun moving towards us, pausing now and then to administer the coup de grace to the wounded. At that moment, backing, my foot slid on the remnants of a meal, and I fell backwards.

I deflected his reflexive lunge with an awkward parry that disarmed me and left me open for a second and final blow. But as he began that final stroke, my host jumped over me and landed on the armored veteran. The collision threw both to the ground, sword protruding at least half its length from my savior’s back. I gave his killer no time to untangle himself, and stilled him with a kick to the head, all I could manage from the ground. In the stillness that had begun to replace the moans of the dying, I glanced beneath the table to appraise the scene.

My former captive had fled, and in the rest of the room, nothing stirred save our assailants and the guttering tapers, which, by sheer luck had not toppled and started a fire. Far off in the hallways came the sounds of further conflict. I had moments to act before someone came to confirm my demise, so I rearmed myself with the fallen sword and peeked behind the tapestry that backed the high table. As I’d hoped, the tapestry concealed an exit, and I crawled through it, not knowing where it led but having no alternative.

There was no immediate pursuit, and I eluded detection through luck and the intuition honed by traveling alone in a hostile land. After a time, I reached the walkway that overlooked the courtyard, encountering none but the dead, and peered from concealment on the scene below. A score of the invaders still stood, surrounded by the remains of their opposition and the twitching body of a dying horse. There were no signs of prisoners, not even the castle’s women, so I could expect no mercy were I caught. The drawbridge remained up, leaving no escape for me that way, and a fall from the keep’s sheer walls into the empty moat would cripple me, so that was no better option.

I withdrew deeper into the shadows to think as the post-battle reaction took hold of me and I began trembling.

***

By the time the drawbridge began to lower, I had regained control of myself and I watched, unmoving and stiff, as one of the men mounted and rode out into the night. As I had expected, the remainder then divided into small groups and separated to sweep the castle for anyone like me who had survived the first sweep. I crept to the narrow flight of stairs nearest my position, stretching cramped muscles and smiling grimly in the dark as four men began climbing upwards towards me. As the leader reached the topmost step, I flung myself on top of him, hitting him high to overbalance him and sending both of us downwards into the men behind him. Narrow as the stairs were, the others had no chance of evading us, and our combined weight was irresistible.

Armor clattered against stone as the five of us tumbled to a jarring stop at the base of the wall. The impact winded me, but I was on top, and those below were less fortunate. Shaking, I got to my feet and recovered my sword. The topmost man in the pile had begun stirring, and the shouts of surprise from the soldiers atop the walls would soon bring help. I stilled him with a sharp kick, then turned and ran for the stables, a short distance across the courtyard. Several horses stood unguarded and harnessed, so I cut the tether of the nearest one and swung into the saddle. Alarmed shouts warned that men were on their way to investigate the commotion, and two of the four men from the stairs were already on their feet and moving towards me. I took a deep breath to steady myself, reigned my horse around to face the stable, and put my heels to his flanks.

Even without my spurs, the horse leapt forward. Steering with my knees, I turned him in a tight circle so I could cut the others loose, then I drove them before me. We fled together towards the men who were trying to cut off our escape. Not being true warhorses, they were maddened by the smell of blood and the scent of their dead fellow and fled across the drawbridge, scattering their owners, the drumbeat of their hooves filling the night air. Crouching low over the back of my steed and hoping the dim light would confound any crossbowmen, I fled across the moat and out into the night, confident I could escape beyond earshot before any effective pursuit could be mounted. I worried for a moment that one or more men would pursue me bareback, but I was fortunate; none were good enough riders to try that, and I would be far away before they could saddle the other horses.

To conceal my tracks, I followed the other horses for a time before slowing to a walk and striking off cross-country along a ridge that was prominent in the light of the new-risen moon, letting the horse feel its way along. My proficiency at riding had returned quickly enough—I suppose it is one of those things one never forgets—and now I held my steed to a slow walk. I had seen forests east of the castle, and reasoned that my wilderness experience would suffice to keep me ahead of any pursuit unless they had a tracker with them. I doubted they did, and was sure the soldiers would not feel enough at home in the wild to pursue me by night.

By the time I reached the edge of the woods, the moon that had lit my way thus far had begun to dip below the surrounding peaks. Several times during my flight I paused to listen for sounds of pursuit. Nothing reached my ears save the horse’s loud breathing and, now and then, the squeak of a hunting bat. Just outside the forest’s edge, I dismounted and paused once more. The horse chuffed to itself and stamped its feet, an owl hooted in a nearby tree, and a mosquito whined past my ear. Otherwise, nothing.

I led my mount deeper beneath the trees. Rich leaf mould cushioned our steps, filling the air with a familiar spicy aroma that mingled pleasantly with my horse’s pungent sweat. Leather creaked and twigs snapped as we walked onward, picking our way among deepening shadows. After a time, the last of the moon slipped away behind the peaks, and we were left in near-total darkness. Seeing that it was foolhardy to proceed any further, I groped for a tree and tethered my companion. After removing his saddle and wiping him down as best I could with the saddle blanket, I moved far enough aside to avoid being trampled while I slept, then lay down and closed my eyes.

I was more fatigued than I thought, for I remember nothing else.

***

I awoke, stiff, sore, and cold, to face a changed world. Gentle rain drizzled down on me through a broken green canopy of leaves, and the horse tossed his head in silent reproach. Getting to my feet with the aid of a nearby tree, I stretched away the worst of the painful stiffness, yawned until my jaw cracked, and combed my hair out of my eyes with stiff fingers. Not having eaten last night, I was starving and I turned at once to the saddlebags to take stock of my resources. I was rewarded with the discovery of a soft blanket, a coil of thirty or so feet of stout hempen rope, a cake of stale waybread (which I ate as I completed my inventory), a set of flint and steel, a half-full water skin, and a curry comb. These, the clothes on my back, my knife, the sword, and the horse were the sum of my worldly possessions.

Draping the blanket over my head to keep off some of the rain, I sat once more to ponder my circumstances. Memories of the night’s work were returning despite my best efforts to suppress them, and with my hunger assuaged, I had little to distract me from them. I had no knowledge of the lands I had entered, other than rumors from my childhood, and the only person I could safely ask had disappeared. I felt oddly certain the minstrel had escaped. To the east lay only unknown lands while at my back was nothing I could ever return to. It did not take long to decide which way I must go, and at least moving would keep my thoughts at bay for a time. I considered discarding the sword, but as I had been unable to retrieve my staff, and had reason to believe I might need to defend myself again, I could not bring myself to do so. With reluctance, I hung the stolen weapon from my waist in a makeshift rope scabbard.

As the rain began to taper off, I followed my back-trail to the forest’s edge, then struck off at an angle to rejoin the road a good distance east of the castle. As I swayed along, still stiff from a night on the ground, it came to me that perhaps my problems were more serious than I had at first realized. The horse’s pace jogged my memory, which had begun falling into well-worn patterns. In my own land, anyone who could afford a horse was entitled to ride one; indeed, it had long since become necessary for our survival. But I had heard the new lands I was entering followed the ancient customs, and reserved the right of riding for the nobility, their knights, and other officers of the realm. As I had no demonstrable right to the horse I was riding, and as horse thieves were despised in any land, I was risking being hanged as a thief were I discovered on horseback in my present disreputable state. Not without justice, I admitted.

These thoughts led me to the uncomfortable realization that last night's killers had been authorized to ride and suggested I had interfered with an officially sanctioned lesson... though that rang false given my failure to end the fight by capturing the man who appeared to be their leader. That boded ill for the lands ahead and for my future there. Prudence won out over my desire for mobility, and I reigned in and dismounted. Resenting the necessity that forced my hand, I took such gear as I could carry, then drove the horse off down the road behind me, hoping it would find its way back to the castle.

On foot once again, I moved away from the horse at a pace I could sustain all day, knowing there would be a village ahead of me at some point and that I must avoid it and any travelers until I was much farther from the castle. There was no telling what might happen in the massacre's aftermath, and I could not risk stopping to acquaint myself with the lands ahead before I was safely through the next valley, at earliest.

As I walked, wary of any signs of pursuit, my thoughts returned to the fight, worrying at fragmentary images like a hound at a deer. There was something about the men, their armor, and their horses that did not fit with what I had heard of the Eastcountry. Something that reminded me of the western lands at my back. Pondering this took my mind off the familiar patterns I had fallen into with so little regret last night.

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Chapter 2: Gareth

Things aren’t going well when you lose a tooth, your rank, and a fight all in the same day. I consoled myself with the thought that my earlier promotions hadn’t lasted much longer, and the days that led up to the fight hadn’t led me to expect this one to last the month. I consoled myself with the knowledge I’d always had an easier time as one of the rank and file, and with a sip of barracks-brew. Cold rain ran down the back of my neck as I tipped up the flask, and fiery liquor burnt its way down the back of my throat. This promotion had already been feeling stale anyway.

Having lost rank’s privileges, I found myself at the town's western gate pulling a solo midnight shift in the rain on a freezing night. Early summer was feeling an awful lot like early spring, which was a pretty fair match for the way everything had been going up ’till then. I took another sip from my flask, and when I looked down again, feeling a lot warmer and a lot more philosophical, someone was standing below the gate in a deep puddle.

I looked him up and down as best the light allowed. Fancy black clothes, satin from head to toe, and all of it soaked through to the skin. Glossy black hair, plastered flat to his skull, and a shade too pretty for a man. A sack slung over his shoulder, its contents looking to be the only dry thing about him. We stood there for a time, him and me, just looking at each other until I caught a peek at his eyes in the light from my lantern. Eyes tell you a lot about a man, and when I got a good look at his, I shivered. The first thing to cross my mind was that I was looking at someone who'd woken from a bad dream. But then he gave me a sheepish sort of smile and after that he just looked embarrassed.

Well, I gave him a grin at that; just two poor bastards caught by the same bad luck and no one in the whole world caring. He recognized it too, and his smile grew a little less self-conscious.

“Good evening, brother guard. I was wondering if you might find it in your heart to lower a half-drowned, half-frozen traveler a rope so I might enter your fair town.” The voice was smooth as his looks, but sounded male enough despite that.

“There’s nothing fair about it, but I wouldn’t leave a dog out in this weather. C’mon up.” Without another word I lowered the knotted rope we kept on hand for late-night visitors after the gates had been barred. Before I knew it, he’d swarmed right up the rope and was standing beside me on the wall, looking both grateful and amused.

“Thank you, friend. You have my gratitude.”

“No problem. But if you don’t mind my saying, where might you be coming from in those clothes at this time of night?”

“You’d never believe me if I told you.” His grin vanished, and he was all business now. “But if there’s anything else I can do for you…?”

“Just doing my job, not that those bastards care who I let in. Just show me what you’ve got in the sack.” I should’ve pressed him harder about his business, but I wasn’t feeling all that loyal to my job these days. More to the point, he’d made me curious: he hadn’t been walking far in those fancy shoes, and with no pack. Someone out looking for an excuse after her husband came home early? A thief? The way he climbed the wall told me he was nimble enough, but he looked too delicate for that line of work. I shrugged. He looked kind of cold, so I offered him my flask. He waved it off, so I took another swallow.

“I’d prefer not to show you my harp, since the rain will damage it. But if you want to see it, come to the performers’ courtyard west of the palace just before noon and you’ll hear me play music such as you’ve never heard before.” He cocked his head as if he was listening to something, his eyes never leaving me, then spoke again. “Well, I thank you again for your courtesy, Gareth, but I have pressing business at the palace. Have a good watch.”

I wished him a good night right back and watched as he shot down the streetside rope like the thief he could’ve been, and I was just annoyed enough with life that I let him go. He dropped the last half dozen feet, landed like a cat, and vanished into the shadows, black swallowing black. Just like a thief, except that what thief would be escaping into town?

Then I raised an eyebrow, ’cause I sure didn’t remember telling him my name, and I sure as death didn’t know his, and even feeling the way I was feeling, there was no way I’d ever have let a stranger with things to hide come over the wall on a dark night without a lot more reason or a lot more liquor.

Now I’m not stupid, but I’d seen enough strangeness to be sure magic existed and that maybe someone had just worked some on me. So I took a little more warmth from my flask and went back to my watching, checking the shadows a little more carefully than before and hoping no one had seen anything and that no more strangers would appear out of the night.

 ***

Funny thing—that black-haired guy was the first thing on my mind when I woke the next morning. That and my headache made me wonder if I’d drunk a little more than I’d thought, ’cause the dreams I mostly remember are my drinking dreams. The only way to be sure would be to get to the palace today, and if I didn't manage it, I’d spend the next month wondering. I made a deal with my new sergeant, a drinking buddy from back when I had his rank and he had mine, and got myself transferred to the midtown barracks. He shook his head as if I was crazy, but he owed me a favor or two, and that bound him enough that he made the arrangements. An hour later, papers drawn up, I presented myself at my new home.

Ever notice how easy it is to tell when an officer’s around? All you do is drill, or worse yet, do makework too lousy for the paid laborers. Before I even had time to locate the still, I was out on the parade ground with my new mates, slogging up and down the pavement. I guess it’s a good thing for the Baron he doesn’t pay me by the mile. So there we were marching round and round the square when out came the sun. I don’t mind marching in the rain, ’cause I don’t have any problem with cold, but the sun’s another matter. It was a toss-up between whether we could sweat faster or the sun could dry us faster. The sun didn’t quite win, but it was a near thing, and we spent the better part of the morning dripping sweat all over the Baron’s parade ground—nice and clean, thanks to us—while people began gathering in whatever shade there was. News got around fast that a performance was scheduled, so the town criers must’ve had a busy morning. A few sadistic bastards cheered us on for a while, sitting in the shade and sipping their drinks, but they lost interest after a while.

After enough years at this kind of job, you get used to playing dead while your mind’s off elsewhere. So that’s what I did while I checked out what was going on over by the palace. A bunch of palace lackeys were busy setting up a platform with a canvas roof next to a side entrance, and it was a fancy looking job. It didn’t take much brains to figure out these were the expensive seats and that sure enough, the crowd wasn’t just here to watch us drill. That my black-haired acquaintance was involved seemed a fair bet. Around noon, a commotion began up on the stage, and our officer emerged from the shade and told us to make ourselves comfortable. I was farthest from him when he gave the order, and he hadn’t learned my face yet, so it was easy to slip away into the crowd when he headed back to his cold drinks. If he was typical officer material, he couldn’t count high enough to know that one of his men was missing, and none of my new chums would bother to enlighten him.

With all the townspeople crowding around and the sun in my eyes, I couldn’t see much of what was going on, and there was still no sign anyone had noticed I was missing, so I found a better place to watch the show. Off to my left, there was a store with a balcony overlooking the platform, and I conned my way into a fine seat on the balcony. In fact, the shopkeeper and his family weren't much inclined to keep me company, so I had the balcony to myself. The way I smelled after half a day marching in the sun, I couldn’t find it in my heart to feel offended. I set my pack down by the railing, unbelted my sword, and settled back to watch the fun.

Time went by and the crowd began to get edgy, but I just sat back, put my feet up, and closed my eyes; in the soldier business, you learn to catch up on your sleep when you can. When the muttering stopped, I sat up and peered over the balcony's edge. The Baron had arrived, and stepped forward to speak. He pointed at an old guy sitting off to one side, said something about an important emissary from the west, spoke a while about difficult negotiations, then thanked us for our patience and promised a reward. There were a few cheers after he’d done speaking and stepped back to rejoin his personal guard. Then the minstrel stepped into view.

He’d changed clothing, and now he wore a blue cloak so dark it almost matched his hair. Judging from the way it caught the light, it must’ve been velvet. The crowd watched, appreciative, murmuring as he opened the sack I’d been so curious about and produced a harp. It was pretty enough from the looks of it, all gold and glittery in the sun, but it still didn’t seem worth the wait. Nonetheless, after all the trouble I’d gone to getting a good seat, it’d be worth my while to stick it out and see if he was any good.

I didn’t regret my choice.

I’m no great fan of court music, but this guy was good. I could hear every note perfectly, layer upon layer of them, and sadness underneath it all. I’m not sentimental, but something in me responded anyway. You could see it in the crowd too, ’cause they just stood or sat there with their mouths gaping, collecting parade-ground dust, barely breathing ’till he’d finished. My mouth was dry too, and it was painful to swallow, so I must’ve been doing the same thing. I took out my trusty flask and when I put it down again amidst the sound of loud applause, the minstrel was gone as if he’d never been there. Gone like a dream. A low, excited muttering began in the crowd and I started gathering my things to return to duty before the officer got back.

The Baron returned to the front of the stage and the crowd started to grow quiet. He raised his hands for silence as if he was going to make another speech, something he did a lot, and the silence spread. But just as it quietened once more, there came the snap! of a bowstring from nearby, and a crossbow bolt buried itself in his chest up to the fletching. The Baron toppled off the stage without a sound. Right about then, it’d be fair to say that things went crazy.

Everyone was yelling and running about in confusion, and the few who weren’t were being jostled by those who were. Townsfolk were screaming and fleeing for cover, my friends in the guard were drawing weapons and looking around, and as far as I could see, I was the only one doing anything halfway sensible. That was because I’d spotted the bowman’s position, on the roof next to my balcony. I got myself moving before I was even sure what I was doing. Stepping as far back as I could on the balcony, I took a running start, used the railing as a takeoff point, and jumped for the next roof, the one where the assassin had been. My hands caught the roof’s edge, braced against the shock of my weight, and held. I hit the building's side hard, but my leather armor cushioned the shock. I pulled myself over the edge of the roof and landed in a crouch, ready for trouble. A big crossbow and two loose bolts lay there, and judging by the bow's size, I didn’t want to meet this guy barehanded. I drew my sword, but the only sign of the killer was the open trap door by my feet.

If I were him, I wouldn’t be waiting for the guards, so I pursued. Holding my sword against my side, I jumped down through the door, folding at the knees and rolling onto my left side when I hit, just in case I’d guessed wrong. My time hadn’t come yet, ’cause he wasn’t there. But I heard heavy, running footsteps down the stairwell, so I got up and ran after him.

This time, I guessed wrong. A blade licked out, nicking my ear as I leaned aside. My own counterthrust took the bastard in the chest, tearing through his leather cuirass. He screamed, and went on screaming as I kicked him off my sword and he rolled down the stairs. Then I spotted the town guard’s crest on his armor, and I turned and ran, cursing.

Guess I wasn’t the only one who’d seen where the assassin had been waiting.

My number still hadn’t come up, though, ’cause the guard had been alone. Judging from the noises downstairs, that wouldn’t last long, so I ran deeper into the building, looking for a back exit. I saw a window ahead of me through an open door, and ran for it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw what the assassin’d left of the building's owners, an old couple and their daughter. I didn’t much want to end up looking like them, so I kept going without a backwards glance. The window was only just above head height, so I hit the ground running—and lost my balance, going ass over elbows into a pile of trash.

I was down for maybe a dozen seconds, but that was enough for two guards to round the corner of the alley. Things were going from bad to worse, and this was the final straw. The guards didn’t look like they were in the mood for explanations, and since I couldn’t talk my way out of this one anyway, that left me only one choice. The first one was bloody young for a guardsman, and I was on him before he could react; then he was just bloody. His partner was tougher and managed to pink me a few times before I downed him. Then I was off and running again.

My luck finally changed for the better, ’cause I managed to find a nice dark cellar before any other would-be heroes found me.

 ***

Night again, and more rain. It suited how I felt, and it was the only thing that would get me out of town alive. I slipped out of the cellar, sword in hand and leaving my armor behind, and catfooted it towards the main gate along the least busy route I could think of. Not a great idea, maybe, but I hoped they would think so too, and it was the best I could come up with on short notice. There were a lot of extra patrols out, meaning I’d become just as popular as I’d expected to become, but I knew the patrol routes as well as they did and had no difficulty avoiding my former friends. When I reached the gate, I slipped into the shadows to wait while the dozen men on watch refused to get careless enough to let me to slip past unobserved.

It began looking like I was in real trouble—but just then I felt icy fingers begin creeping along my spine. The instincts that had kept me alive for my whole mis-spent life were pointing at a dark alleyway running alongside the walls. From out of the darkness, starting off almost like one of the normal night sounds, there came a weird humming sound that vibrated in my bones, chasing those cold fingers up my spine. The guards on the wall didn’t notice—in fact, they weren't noticing anything much at all. Then, in between blinks, he was there, harp and all, walking towards me, his fingers crawling across the strings of his harp like pink spiders. But spiders don’t wear blue velvet and probably don’t talk as pretty when they come for you.

“I bid you good evening yet again, Gareth, for I’ve come to repay my debt. If you hurry, I can hold the guards enthralled long enough to get you over the walls. But you’d best hurry, there are strange things afoot this night.” He met my gaze, but he wasn’t all there, as if he were concentrating on something and didn’t have a lot of attention left for me. I started to speak, but before I had half the chance to get a good rage going, he frowned, and added something to the pattern of his strumming. My feet started up on their own and began carrying me towards the wall. Needing no more encouragement, I broke into a run, caught up the dangling rope, and hauled myself up the wall.

On top, I brushed a guard, but he was frozen in place, unaware of my presence. I was almost too shook up to notice the music was still playing, driving me on. I looked back, but the minstrel was invisible in the shadows. There was enough independence left in me to make one last act of bravado. Reaching past an immobile guard, I grabbed the pack containing the watch’s rations and waved it back at my helper. Then I was on my way over the parapet and off into the night. I wasn’t sure where I was going just yet, but I wanted to get there fast.

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Chapter 3: Bram

Night in the mountains has always been special to me. The thin air has all the sharpness of a freshly honed knife and the intoxicating effect of strong wine, and the stars dancing on high are dancing for me alone. Now and then, when I am exhausted and lonely, it even seems like something unseen, something older and stranger than mankind, is present, watching over me as I sleep.

Sometimes, but not on this night.

Perched beneath the shelter of a rocky overhang, gazing down on the lights of an unfamiliar city far below, I felt myself in the grip of something strange. My thoughts, which had honored their truce with my conscience until now, were back again in force, taking me back to another night just like the present one, the night before our attack on Kardmin. That night, I had camped in the foothills above the city with my many comrades-in-arms gathered around, each wondering who among us would be alive to celebrate our victory the following night.

It was the night before we broke their resistance and sacked the city. The same night that I broke my bloodoath, cutting myself off from the company of all who had known me and setting my feet on my present path. I guess you could say that something in me broke too that night. It was this fracture with myself and with my past that had led me, after the final sword was sheathed and the last wound tended to, to a very different mountain slope in a different land. But tonight, there was dried blood on my sleeves, undeniable evidence that old habits had lain just below the surface, ready to emerge again under the appropriate coaxing. As a result, I found myself with sword in hand once more, serving another poorly understood cause even though I had never intended to serve any cause again.

I came back to myself, still gazing downslope, and felt hot tears of frustration in my eyes. The night in the border keep was still with me, as sharp as Kardmin would always be, and a week later, I still woke at night, images of slaughter and my part in it banishing any hope of sleep until exhaustion claimed me again. No matter how well you think you have buried your past, it always surfaces to remind you of the truth, to show how little you have changed. I had at least learned to feel revulsion upon slaying a man for no purpose, yet I still could not control the learned reflexes that would lead to his death. So there I lay, my back against the cold rock, not daring to light a fire—but less from fear of what it might attract than from fear of my own response.

By my side, colder still, lay the sword I had carried now for a week and that I dared not leave behind. For now, the greater fear was of lacking its protection, not of being forced to use it. I took the grip in my hand, cradling it and feeling the comfort of worn leather, shuddering at how… how right… it felt. I laid it down again, and turned my eyes back to the city a traveler had named Arden. A prosperous town, with no ties to the keep behind me and knowledge of neither me nor my past. I closed my eyes, and I was able to keep the thoughts at bay long enough for sleep to come.

***

I woke and opened my eyes, then closed them again, blinded. During the night, I had rolled onto my side to face the sunrise, and my hand had curled instinctively around the sword's hilt. I opened my eyes again, more cautious this time. The view before me was breathtaking, the sun peering over eastern mountains blithe with the promise of a new day. It was still early enough for the valley below to remain in shadow. As I sat there, relishing my small, cold breakfast, surrounded by the near-silence of the heights, the sharp line dividing sunlit hilltops from shadowed fields receded faster and faster towards the valley's floor as the sun rose. Finally, in one last rush, the concealing cloak of night was whisked from the land, baring all to my gaze.

Arden's grey-brown stone slumbered in the light of dawn, plumes of smoke rising straight and tall from rekindled hearths. The morning air was so clear, so free of the far city's taint, that I fancied I could reach out and collect the streamers of smoke in my hand. Yet the town was far enough away that no sounds reached my ears, and my best estimate was at least two more days of walking downhill before I reached the walls. And even though I could almost see the first servants walking its streets, I knew the slopes before me were deceptive in their length and difficulty.

The sun’s rays warmed me as they forced back the night’s chill. Wheat fields beckoned below, still a long way from the harvest, but there was cold dew on the ground around me. I sat still, basking like a rock lizard, while all around the pale ground mist rose. I remained sitting in reverent silence until the last dancing veils of vapor were banished by an awakening breeze and my bones began to feel warm again. I smiled at the cloudless sky and rose to my feet, wincing as cold-tightened muscles stretched. In a few moments, I had packed my few belongings, sheathed my sword in its primitive scabbard, and begun my descent, careful to avoid any remaining patches of dew-slicked rock.

***

 A day later, I had descended into the foothills. Gently rolling, mostly bare of vegetation, and clad in scattered taluses of the grey-brown local rock, they differed little from the steeper slopes at my back save for warmer nights. As I descended further, plants became more abundant until the bare rock was gone from sight other than along the well-kept road below me. The road wound past on its way to the city, hedged here and there by great banks of stone or earth. More distant from the town than I was, a lone traveler strode along towards the walls. Perhaps the morning sun blinded him to my presence, for though he scanned around him as he walked, he showed no sign of having seen me. I quickened my pace, noting that our paths might intersect and eager for the company and the chance to learn more of my destination.

But I misjudged either his pace or mine, for he had drawn almost level with my position by the time he came within hailing distance. Nonetheless, I filled my lungs to shout—then stopped and took cover behind a bush. From my elevated vantage point, I could discern what the traveler had not yet noticed: three men lying in ambush behind a stone outcropping. A short distance away, a fourth man lay in the ditch, sword in hand. While I pondered my course of action, the traveler spotted the three men ahead of him, but despite a hasty glance over his shoulder, missed the fourth man. I hesitated a moment—this was no business of mine. Yet I could not in good conscience leave this man to his fate, and he would owe me a favor if we managed to chase off the ambushers.

If I were fortunate, they were hill bandits, likely to flee when opposed by half their number of determined men. If not... Well, I would handle that as necessary. My best course of action would be to attack the three men from behind, with the advantage of surprise, and even the odds quickly. As I thought this through, the traveler went to bay, back against a rock wall, sword ready as I began to move, and I found myself hoping the ambushers had no crossbows, that the solitary man could hold them off long enough for me to reach him, and that my presence would be enough to end any fight. Freeing my sword from its rope scabbard, I maneuvered so my shadow would not alert them, and moved downslope as fast as the ground and the need for stealth permitted.

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Chapter 4: Gareth

If you’re going to be hunted, pick a large crowd to hide in. Despite my size, I don’t stand out much and crowds provide good cover if need be. That’s why I headed east to the nearest big town after fleeing Kelfan, a walk of three days or so through the mountains. Nice thing about the mountains is that, like a crowd, they provide lots of good cover and places to hide. Unlike a crowd, they’re quiet enough for you to hear your pursuit before it gets too close, and they don’t mean that a comfortable bed and a good place to drink are nearby. I liked the prospects of a bed and a drink more than I liked the extra warning, enough so that I chose the crowds.

I walked on the road whenever possible, keeping an eye on the road behind me so I could leave the road in a hurry if any large group of armed men appeared. There was a better chance of being spotted this way, but I wanted to get as far as possible before my hunters found out I wasn’t in town anymore. Besides, staying on the road made me look less suspicious than skulking in the bushes like a bandit. The traffic was normal, meaning light, but twice after the first day, fast-moving riders rode past—probably couriers. They were moving fast enough they couldn’t have been looking for me, so I let them past and didn't try to hide. Even if the messages they carried were about me, there were more people I didn’t want to meet again behind me in Kelfan than in front. So I kept on, wary of ambushes, and that saved me.

I was being more cautious than usual, ’cause the rocky banks that had risen around me gave plenty of cover for attackers and a tough climb to safety if a large group of men came up from behind me. To make things worse, the rising sun was in my eyes, making it hard to see the tops of the banks. On the other hand, it was the glint of sun on metal that warned me of the ambush, and then all at once, there were three armed men ahead on the road. I put my back to a solid wall, drew my sword without rushing it, and grinned at them, friendly as could be. But that didn't stop me from checking around me, and that's why I caught the fourth man clambering from the ditch to cover the road back to Kelfan.

Three or one? I was just about to charge the solo guy when I realized I’d let the others get too close. If I ran, they’d stick me in the back before I could kill the one man. Worse yet, if they'd been waiting here for me, they would be more rested than I was and I wouldn't be able to outrun them long.

“Throw down the sword, traitor, and we’ll bring you home alive.”

I just grinned. Four on one wasn’t my idea of a fair fight even if I wasn’t the one. I relaxed, knowing that if they weren’t used to fighting as a team, I could finish off at least one before they learned to stay out of each other’s way. Possibly two, and then it was a fair fight—particularly if there was a larger reward for me alive than dead. I drew a dagger left-handed, raised my sword, and blew a kiss at the speaker.

Enraged, he charged, sword held a mite too high. I waited ’till the last possible second before I leaned aside, parrying. His wild swing, aided by a light touch from my own blade, connected with the rock at my back and jarred the sword from his grip. I stepped into him, sword circling to parry the next man’s cut, and buried my dagger in his chest. Even as the second man’s blade slid downwards to strike my hilt, I threw the dead man backwards with a grunt and wrenched my dagger from his falling body. Following him back, I brought the dagger up to cross with my sword hilt, just in time to catch an overhand blow and trap the blade.

Things got busy for the next bit. I stepped hard over the body at my feet, barging into the attacker whose blade I'd trapped. He gave ground in a hurry, but I took a shallow cut on my sword arm from his neighbor—the kind of wound that would eventually disable me if I’d been fencing, but my leather gloves would keep the blood off my fingers for some time yet, and this was hack-and-slash melee, which required and permitted less finesse. I was standing free again, blood running down my arm and dripping from my elbow, and by this time the rearmost of their company had closed the gap. Three angry men now faced me.

I’ll grant them this, they'd paid attention to their drillmaster—it might even’ve been me that trained them. They fanned out, enough so I wouldn’t have to confront all of them at once, but close enough I couldn’t face any less than two at a time. I gave ground grudgingly, backing down the road so none of them could circle behind me, and they followed. I kept up a cocky grin, though the confidence behind it was slipping a little. They knew they had me now, even if I wasn’t going to admit it, and they were in no hurry.

Then the odds changed in my favor. A small pack struck one of my foes from above, staggering him. It was followed by someone who landed badly, sprawling forward on hands and knees. I was just as surprised as the others, but the surprise hadn’t happened at my back, so I recovered faster. I closed with them, kicking one in the groin—he dropped with a strangled whimper—and ringing my blade off another’s helm. My new ally was on his feet again, facing the man he’d hit with the pack, who'd turned to face the newcomer. That was all I had time to see, ’cause I was too busy with the other two to pay attention to his fate.

As I advanced, I trod hard on the downed man’s throat. I was rewarded by a satisfying crunching noise and a stinging slash across the chest from his buddy. But then I had only one opponent left and I relaxed. I left my last foe lying still, dying even as I turned to see how the newcomer was doing. He'd already finished his man and was standing over him, bar-rigid and with a look of shock. Behind me came a gurgling noise from the man with the crushed throat.

My ally’s voice was quiet, and sounded just as appalled as he looked. “Blast you, why couldn’t you yield?” I didn’t say anything. Not everyone’s as comfortable with killing as I am, but it surprised me anyone willing to risk his life for a stranger would be bothered by having to kill to do it. Either he was an idiot, a wandering knight who'd had one too many blows to the head, or both. I bandaged the wound in my arm, pausing only to finish off the dying guy and have a look through his gear. When I’d done, my ally was wiping his blade on his dead foe’s cloak, distaste plain. I was glad to see he wasn’t going to go to pieces on me before I learned who I was indebted to. I cleared my throat, and when he faced towards me, I pulled off my leather glove and stuck out a bloody hand.

“Gareth. Thanks.” He paused a moment, then reached out to take my hand. He had a firm swordsman’s grip and all the proper calluses, even if he did let go a mite too soon.

“Bram.” His voice matched the grip, and there was no tremor. My guess was he’d turn out to be a good man to have beside you in a fight, once he’d gotten over his fussing about death. Now we had the time, we took the chance to size each other up. He stood several inches shorter than me, slimbut built strong; if I was a bear, he was a coyote, all whipcord and lean muscle. His face was soft and cleanshaven, framed by ragged, shoulder-length black hair caught up in a leather band. But his skin was burned by sun and wind, and his eyes were a piercing green and held a look that belied his softness. If I’d thought he was a kid, I was wrong—there were lines around those eyes that implied many years, and a quiet strength that I’d seen before in a few professional soldiers. But he looked away first, cocking his head as if to hear better.

Taking in his shoddy kit—he didn’t even have a sword belt!—I bent to remove a sword belt from one of the ambushers. “Here... you look like you could use this.” He caught it easily, but as he belted it around his hips, a sound distracted him and he glanced back over his shoulder. Then I heard the hoofbeats too, racing up the road and in good company. We both had the same idea, and climbed into the rocks above the road to take cover.

When the horsemen arrived, we were hidden and ready, more than head height above the road. There were four of them, and fear grew in their faces when they discovered the bodies of their friends. As one dismounted, there were muffled curses and all looked warily around. After kneeling to examine the nearest body, the leader shot to his feet and drew his sword. “Still bleeding. He must be close!”

Bram stirred, but I waved him to silence. Below, the leader had remounted and stood in the stirrups, craning his neck for a better view. I smiled, loving every minute of it. So I was the hunted one, was I? I saw no sign of a bow or crossbow, a large mercy. Confidence surged, and I got to my feet. The horses shied back in surprise and all eyes turned my way. I motioned to Bram to stay down.

“Looking for me, gents?” I crossed my hands on my chest and planted my feet, savoring the moment. They looked confused and apprehensive. After all, there’d been four ambushers and only one of me. My grin widened as one of the men at the back mumbled something and took a firm grip on the reins. Gathering his courage about him, the leader rode a few paces forward to confront me, forcing him to tilt his neck even further backwards to meet my eyes.

“We have orders for your arrest, Gareth. Surrender, and we’ll take you back alive for a fair trial.”

“Funny, that’s just what they said.” I nodded towards the corpses. “Come and get me, bloodhound—I know what mercy an assassin can expect.” Bram gave a startled grunt and got to his feet, face drawn in indecision, hand gone to sword hilt. Out of the corner of my mouth I hissed at him. “Patience… I’ll explain when these offal are gone.” To the riders, in a much louder voice, “Better leave now before we come down there and send you after your buddies.”

That was enough. The two rearmost backed away, then headed off at a fast trot, looking back over their shoulders in case I attacked. The third man followed. Seeing the odds turn against him, the leader spat a curse and wheeled his horse violently. He rode off, back stiff with fear, but too proud to let himself look back. Braver than I’d expected, and even if I’d had a crossbow I’d have let him live. I laughed aloud and turned back to Bram, who was watching me, eyes narrowed.

“Well, Bram, they’ve seen your face now. Welcome to the brotherhood of assassins.” His look hardened, and I softened my tone. “Sorry. Bad joke. And I’m innocent, believe me.” In my most sincere voice, I added, “I was in the wrong place at the right time for someone else to get away free, and I left without having time to explain.” He still looked dubious, so I seated myself on a rock, sheathed my sword, and gestured for him to join me. He didn’t sit, but he relaxed and let me tell my story, right from the first time I’d met the minstrel.

I hadn’t really expected the story to help, but his eyes narrowed when I told of the music and he took his hand off his sword. I’d have to remember to ask him about that later, but I didn’t want to give him any more time to get suspicious, ’cause frankly, I was still having problems with the story myself.

“We’d best be going. They’ll be back soon with reinforcements, and you won’t want to try to explain what you’re doing here with me.” I gestured back at the bloodstained road and he nodded. "And Bram? Sorry. Not the best way to repay you for your help."

Without a word, he turned his back and began climbing the rocky slopes behind us, moving at an angle to the road. With a shrug, I followed—if he was willing to stay with me, I sure wasn’t going to turn away another sword.

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Chapter 5: Bram

For the remainder of that day, we traveled in a comfortable silence, moving mostly away from the road but west of where they would expect us to go. I appreciated the quiet, for I had much to think on. Gareth’s story rang true, being as it was so like my own, and it helped draw my thoughts away from the fact I had been obliged to kill again, and this time it had been someone performing his lawful duty. Yet once, long ago, I had dealt with assassins, and Gareth seemed stamped from a different mold. True, he had been ruthless and efficient in the fight, but he was too big and fought too well to fit the pattern. Moreover, I had taken his measure afterwards when we locked eyes and I was convinced I could trust him—at least for the moment. I have been forced to judge a man often enough, with scant time for error, and my survival until now bears witness to my success.

By nightfall, we had reached a ledge I had seen earlier, close to where various signs indicated we might find a stream. The stream turned out to be nearer than anticipated, and was surrounded by a screen of lowlying scrubby vegetation. Gareth laid himself flat to drink, careless about exposing his back. As the sun touched the western peaks rising above us, the light waned and I felt a touch of uncertainty. Suddenly I was not nearly so confident my companion was worthy of my trust. We would be unable to light a fire that night lest it attract our pursuers, and I resolved in that moment to be sure I could sleep in peace. I had an idea, and acting on it, drew my dagger.

Perhaps Gareth was less trusting than I'd thought, for he rolled aside in an instant, rising in a crouch with sword in hand. Facing me, rough face gone cold, features shadowed by his coarse beard, I felt myself very near death. He straightened, standing inches above my own height, yet looking twice my size in the gathering gloom. Before my courage failed me, or he could misinterpret my gesture, I reversed my grip on the dagger and poised it above my palm.

“Do Easterners still honor the custom of bloodoath?” His stance relaxed, and he sheathed his sword, nodding a yes. I drew the dagger’s point across my left palm, relieved that this ancient custom survived here, for I had been unsure. He approached, wordless, as blood began welling from the cut, then took the dagger and made a matching cut in his own palm. Then we clasped hands, blood flowing slick and warm across our palms, squeezed out by the force of our grip. As initiator of the ceremony, tradition required that I speak first.

“ ‘By our mingling blood are we bonded, companions in all adversity, oath brothers henceforth.’ ”

His reply was uncouth, though the words paralleled those prescribed by tradition. “ ‘Sword-brothers, by spilled blood of self and foe. While together, let neither fear his back unguarded, while apart, let no wrong to one go unrighted by the other.”

As he said the final words, I felt heat surge in my hand and up into my arm, and when we unclasped our hands, the blood was gone, leaving only a thin scar. There was a pause, and his deep voice held a note of amusement as he continued. “And now you can sleep, knowing I won’t slit your throat and drink your blood. That is, if you feel you can trust the oath of an accused assassin, who might not fear the magical and mystical consequences of breaking a bloodoath. But you may live to regret it in coming few weeks.” He grinned fiercely, then turned back to the stream.

Embarrassed at how well he had read my thoughts, I turned away and began making camp as the sun settled behind the mountains and darkness flowed across the land.

***

I took the first watch, too thoughtful to sleep. My palm ached, though the closed wound was slight. Gareth had no such problems and was soon snoring, face turned to the sky. After a time, the moon rose. I sat crosslegged amidst the dew that had begun forming, sword naked across my knees, watching his sleeping form. He looked even bigger now, though the moonlight was gentle on his face, hiding its lines and scars, making him look closer to my age. As I watched, an old, familiar peace descended on me, that same contentment I had last felt while guarding other comrades half a world away. The bloodoath had come from the times of chaos long ago, before the Exodus that had led the survivors of our race to this land to make it our own. Legends told of the fate of those who had broken such oaths, and fear of the consequences had haunted me ever since I left Kardmin far behind. Though magic had all but passed from our lives, one thing was certain: every generation spread new tales of those who broke such an oath.

I shook off the mood and returned my attention to the job at hand, remembering how close we remained to the scene of our crime. Every now and then I rose to scan downslope, pause, close my eyes and listen. Occasionally, I would sniff the night air for the scent of torches or horses, although I was unlikely to smell either before I saw or heard them. I had done this for several hours with no luck, when sleep began to weigh upon me. I rose, then began pacing to stay awake, and so it was that I saw a light.

An indeterminate distance across the slope, previously concealed by a fold in the rock, there hung a faint illumination. So faint I was unsure, despite the darkness, that I was seeing anything other than reflected moonlight. I averted my gaze, relying on the keener night-sight of indirect vision. The light remained, pale and diffuse as the reflection of torchlight on lowlying clouds, but it was there nonetheless. I crouched down, and the light vanished. Moving behind a bush, I rose until the luminescence reappeared. Then, using the pommel of my sword, I scratched a line through the shallow soil, pointing in the direction of the light. As I repeated the same process from a point a few yards away, Gareth’s deep voice sounded from behind me.

“Trouble?” Moonlight glinted on a drawn blade.

“Company, further along the slope. I’m marking it so we can avoid it in the morning, though from the position, it seems unlikely to be our pursuers.”

Silence for a moment. “Where to head, you mean. We’ve got to know if they’ve spotted us.” There was a hard edge in his voice that I did not like much. “All right, then. You take your turn, and I’ll watch for a while.” Then, more gentle, “You sound kind of tired anyway.”

***

I awoke, well rested despite my earlier trepidation, sun streaming down on me and my mouth drier than old pine needles. Without opening my eyes, staying still and breathing slowand deep, I listened. I heard nothing save the stream's quiet gurgle, and my companion's breathing. I opened my eyes then, just enough to peer through my lashes. Gareth squatted to my left, half turned away from me with a frown of concentration on his broad face. As near as I could tell, he was watching the slopes in the direction we had looked last night. Yawning, I sat up and stretched prodigiously.

Only a tilt of his head suggested he had noticed; his eyes still kept watch. I started to wish him a cheery good morning, for indeed it was such, but his vigilance warned me. Crouching, legs still cramped, I moved to join him, staying low and under cover. He anticipated my question, speaking softly and stifling a yawn.

“Cave mouth, no signs of life, no fire. But something’s down there for sure.”

“Are you certain? This deep in the hills it could be a will’o’wisp or...”

A snort of mirth. “Will’o’wisps? Next you’ll be warning me about witches!”

“Or spell-casting minstrels, perhaps?” That shook his composure. “Are you still set on going down there and seeing what we have found?”

“Of course I am! Or should I say we, brother?” With that he rose, looking down at me, half-mocking. Again, our eyes met and I strove to read what his face hid. He looked away first this time, but I had had the chance to glimpse a little more of his nature, confusing though that glimpse was. I grinned. It felt good to be needed again. I knelt by the stream to wash and wake myself a little more. The water was ice cold, and refreshing.

Before setting off, I took a moment to scout out a path towards the cave, noting the patches of cover that would screen us from the road. Traveling by day was not the best of ideas, but we still had time before the hunt was organized, and I preferred the risk of discovery to that of a bad fall in the dark. I led us upslope, Gareth willing to follow behind. Every so often we paused to scan the road and look towards the cave mouth (now hidden) for any signs of motion. We moved silently, save for the occasional scuff of a boot on stone, and the sun rose ever higher. The cave was not distant, but my caution delayed our arrival until midmorning, still having seen nothing more threatening than some small furry thing that fled across the slope before we could try to catch it for our dinner.

The cave mouth turned out to be fronted by a pit sunken nearly a tall man's height below the surrounding ground and filled with water of an indeterminate depth, bordered by a fringe of rock just wide enough to stand on. Across the water, an erratic swath of water lilies traced a pathway into the cave, maybe fifteen feet distant. Perhaps ten feet high and half again as wide, a rock overhang warded the morning sun from the entrance. The darkness was so absolute beyond that point that we could see no more than a foot past the entrance. The darkness remained every bit as impenetrable when we had descended to the water’s edge for a better look.

Kneeling by the water, I took the rope from what passed for my pack and tied one end to a small rock. I lowered the weighted end until it would sink no further, then withdrew the rope. The water was a dozen or more feet deep.

“Well, brother, we shall have a small swim before us if you still want to continue.” He muttered something I missed as I laid the rope on the sun-warmed rocks to dry, but made no move to comply. I stood, and once more surveyed the scene before us. The pond surrounded the cave mouth and the rock overhang made climbing impossible without hammer and chisel. Swimming appeared to be our only choice. Then, reluctant to swim blind into who-knew-what, not convinced it was necessary in any event, I had a sudden thought.

Though I had not noticed this before, several of the lily pads were larger than normal for such plants. Furthermore, it occurred to me I had never seen lily pads growing in what looked to be a spring-fed mountain pool. So I leaned precariously over the water, noticing as I did that the plants formed a close-spaced pathway into the darkness. Leaning closer still, I observed a small clump of mud clinging to a pad that grew beneath the overhang. I detached the rock from my rope, and dropped it onto the nearest large pad—which supported the weight far more easily than it should have. I prodded it with my toe, and it didn't move an inch. On a hunch, and evading Gareth’s startled grab, I stepped forward onto the first lily pad. It wobbled, sinking slightly under my weight, but supported me easily. With a delighted chuckle, I took several more steps, and, in mid-pond, I turned, swaying to keep my balance, to face an incredulous Gareth.

“Then again,” I grinned, “perhaps we will keep our feet dry after all.” I beckoned to him to follow, then turned, wobbling, my curiosity kindled, and moved deeper into the cave. Behind me came the sound of flint on steel as Gareth struggled to light a piece of wood we had collected for use as a torch.

I did not venture much farther, for a thought struck me: I still could see nothing within the cave, and my bobbing green stepping stones vanished within the darkness. Close to the unknown as I was, could there be something lurking near enough to sweep me from my perch into the water? Unbidden, thoughts came once more of the will’o’wisps that border scouts had assured me lurked in such dark and abandoned places. I drew my sword and waited for Gareth’s torch. As I balanced there, waiting, my nostrils began to tell me what lay ahead.

There was no powerful musk smell, so it was doubtful this was the den of any large animal. Neither was there the dank, mildewy odor that one might expect from such a wet cave. Rather, subtler scents awaited me, some pleasant and familiar, others bitter and not within my experience. There was nothing truly unpleasant, which was a good sign despite hill-folk legends that told of monsters luring unwary travelers to a perfumed death. Light washed across me as Gareth arrived. He passed me the torch, which helped to reveal my path but did little to dispel the hovering dark. I stepped slowly onto the next pad, Gareth close at my heels.

As we passed beneath the overhang, the torch flared and all at once the cave’s interior was revealed. A handful of paces ahead, the trail of water plants ended against a wide, flat rock ledge. Beyond that lay a firepit and a pallet of fresh-cut pine boughs. To our left, carved into the smooth stone walls, were shelves covered by dozens of small earthenware jugs and leathern sacs.

Other curious equipment stood in the shadows cast by our torch, as well as the commoner implements a hermit or other recluse would need to survive. I said as much to Gareth, then stepped onto solid ground. Gareth brushed past me, then set about using the torch to light oil lamps positioned in several shallow notches in the walls. This done, he cast the torch into the fire pit. In the dim, pleasant light that suffused the cave, the mouth of a tunnel leading farther into the mountainside was revealed. I moved to stand by it, sword still drawn, ready to listen for signs of the cave’s denizen. From behind me came the splash of water and the hiss of the torch, and I looked back over my shoulder. Gareth stood with his back to me, legs spread, relieving himself into the fire pit. The torch went out, and ashes splattered onto the clean-swept cave floor.

“Ashes in the pit, full oil lamps, and fresh boughs in the bed,” he said, calm voice echoed by the now intermittent stream of ‘water’. “Someone was here last night. They're probably still nearby.”

At that, a tingling feeling spread through me, as if my limbs had gone to sleep, and a voice came from the tunnel ahead of me. “Perceptive,” said a rich female voice. I turned to face her, or at least, I tried to: I found to my horror that I was stuck in my twisted pose, unable to move. Footsteps approached and I felt a warm, callused hand caress the back of my neck. I shuddered, strained to shift myself in any manner whatsoever—and failed. The voice went on. “It seems old Grace has guests after all this time.”

Gareth stood unmoving, though I could see muscles bunching at the back of his neck in his vain effort to face our captor. Then the footsteps moved around my blind side, and I steeled myself for what I might see.

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Chapter 6: Gareth

Talk about getting caught with your breeches down! When I heard the voice, I tried my best to turn around and found out I couldn’t even move a finger... much less anything more exposed. So I stood there straining every muscle to the breaking point and going nowhere as the footsteps came nearer. Then she moved in front of me to where I could see her: an old woman in a patchy, much mended robe. She must’ve been twice my age by the look of her, a foot shorter, and with the look of someone confident she had the situation well in hand. I could move my eyes, so I stared over her head rather than meeting her gaze. I felt madder than a sergeant fallen into the latrine and twice as embarrassed. It didn’t help that she was so cool, or that I could see her from the corner of my eye, giving me a slow once over.

“Fie, sirrah! Is this how you greet a lady? Gracey, Gracey, how the world has changed since you were a girl!” She stood there trying to look stern, shaking a gnarly finger at us, but she couldn’t hide her smile. “Well, gentlemen, have you no manners whatsoever? Who be you?” She was the only one who could talk, and was gloating about it. “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”

As she spoke, a skinny grey cat stepped from the shadows, giving me a wide berth as it moved over to its mistress and began rubbing up against her legs. “Well, Precious, have you indeed stolen their tongues away?” The cat gave a spiteful yowl. “Tell me then, Precious, what shall we do with these fine... gentlemen?” The cat moved a little bit away from her and squatted down by my feet. It started giving me that same head to toe inspection its mistress had done, and despite myself, I blushed like a virgin. ‘Precious’ gave a loud sniff, then vaulted into the woman’s arms and began purring.

“Well indeed!” said the woman. “Precious has good taste in men... usually,” she went on, “so I guess I’ll be letting you go.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out what looked to be two lumps of wax with scraps of leather and metal stuck in them. Long fingers began pulling at the scraps and as they did, an all-over burning feeling passed through me and my muscles unknotted. I did up my breeches while footsteps told me Bram was moving again too. I cleared my throat, but he spoke first.

“Forgive us, milady, for our rather rude entry into your abode. I am Bram, and my large companion here is named Gareth. And who, if I might be so bold, are you, Grace?”

“Merely a simple mountain witch, gentlesir, merely that. But what brings men of such obvious breeding to my humble home?” She looked meaningfully at me and I glared back. I put my hand on my sword, but didn’t draw since Bram had gotten her talking. Besides, though I was angry enough to feel no fear, I wasn’t fool enough to dare a witch’s magic without better cause.

“Hunted men find it inconvenient to worry overmuch about the nature of their actions. But you need not fear aught from us. Forgive my friend, Grace—you have, after all, caught us in a rather... awkward... position.” I saw the bastard holding back a smile. “Last night we spotted your fire, and came to ensure we were not being followed by our enemies, and that we would not be reported had we been seen. Please accept our humblest apologies for any damage we have done.”

“A glib tongue, and courtly. Very well, I’ll forgive the both of you. “Hunted, are you? You at least lack the look and sound of a common criminal, first impressions to the contrary.” She shot me a sideways look in case I'd missed her point. “Well, then. Tell me what you’ve done to offend our masters.”

“I’m an assassin,” I spat, “or so they say, seeing as how the evidence all says so. Bram here was unfortunate enough to associate with me before he knew why I was running. Then he was unwise enough to make the association more permanent.” I showed her the scar on my palm. “Any more questions?” My defiance was back, and I was almost my old, bold self again.

“Oh, yes, my fine lad, questions aplenty, and not just on the magic you invoked so carelessly. But I have a faster way of answering them if you’ll trust me.” She looked calmly at Bram, then beckoned us to be seated by the hearth. I sat instead on her pallet. She didn’t miss the gesture, nor did her cat, which hissed at me and spat. She shrugged and sat beside Bram, taking his hand in the two of hers. “This will be very simple, and not at all unpleasant if you relax and don’t resist me. Merely gaze into my eyes, hold my hand tight, and relax.”

I stood up, unsheating my sword. “No. I won’t let you bewitch him.”

Bram smiled, confidence in his eyes, and it occurred to me we didn’t have much choice in the matter. “Come now, Gareth. We were wholly in her power a few moments ago and yet she did nothing to us.” Which was true, yet made me no more comfortable.

I sat down again, feeling awkward and not a little bit worried. If he'd been trapped in a spell, I didn’t dare slay the witch in case he remained trapped, and my oath wouldn’t let me risk that.

“Watch me if you like,” Grace added. “Kill me if I do anything suspicious.” Then she turned back to Bram, ignoring me.

Bram met her gaze, and their eyes locked. The fingers on his free hand began clenching into a fist, but “soft, soft” whispered the witch, and he relaxed again, with an obvious effort. There came a silence that dragged on for too long, and the cat crossed over to place a paw on their linked hands. I tried to shoo it away, but it ignored me and I wasn’t going to mess with obvious magic. After a moment, my oathbrother shuddered and turned away from us. For a moment, I saw Bram in the witch’s eyes when she faced me, and it put the wind up my back.

“So,” she said. “So and so.”

I glared at her, feeling a comfortable old scowl settle into place. I resheathed my sword, reminding her what she could expect if she played us false. All the same, I made sure I didn’t meet her eyes, just in case. Bram had recovered and was watching us with a guarded expression. The cat minced over to him and curled up in his lap and, without thinking about it, his hand drifted down and began stroking it, making it purr. I bared my teeth at it, thinking that if it had come to me, I’d just as soon have strangled it.

“Well then, my lads, well then. What will you be doing with yourselves now, being so popular with the locals?” Absently, she began scratching at an itch.

“Ankur,” I grunted. “Far enough from here to be safe. And I hear their lord needs good swordsmen.”

“Aye,” she said. “Safe for the moment. But these hills are no place for roaming right now. You’d not get far before the next ambush, and this time they’d have bowmen or slingers and you’d not escape so easily.”

Despite myself, I felt a chill. How’d she know that? I looked to Bram, trying to ignore her knowing smile, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. His face was closed tight, looking like mine felt, and you could tell by the way the lines sat there his face wasn’t used to it. The cat stared right back, and that scared me—animals aren’t supposed to look at you that way. I scowled at Grace.

“Meaning, maybe, that you’re looking for us to stay for a few days. Suits me, so long as you remember we’ll be watching you the whole time so you don’t go and invite anyone. Understand me?” She shook her head dismissively, then rose and walked over to her shelves, gathering up some sacks and pots. Taking a small knife in one hand, she turned back to me.

“Do as you desire. I must return to my caverns to collect certain things, for if you found me this easily, my wards must be nearly spent. Since you don’t trust me, I’ll take your friend along to keep me from mischief.” She winked, then beckoned to Bram, who shrugged and rose, spilling the cat to the floor. He dusted himself off and began to follow her.

I caught his arm and spun him around. “You're all right? You’ll be all right alone with that witch?” He looked me in the eye, sober, and nodded. He was more relaxed now, and that was good enough. I let him go, and without a word, he stepped through the gap at the back of the cave, the cat following close behind. I saw a torch flare up, and in its flickering light, saw the cat staring back. Its look gave me the creeps, and I spat into the fire pit. The cat wrinkled its nose in a silent snarl. Then it turned and leapt through the gap, following the torch.

***

They'd been gone for a long time, and I was getting itchy for something to do. There’s only so many times you can clean a sword before you’re just doing makework, and there wasn’t enough room to do any proper drills. I prowled around awhile, found nothing interesting, and at last decided to walk back across the water to see what was going on outside. A dim sort of light filtered into the cave, enough to reveal the lily pad but not enough to let you see outside. More witchery, no doubt.

After a few careful steps, my head emerged into bright sunlight, blinding me for a moment. I sheathed my sword, wobbling around on the plants, and hoped no one had seen the light glinting off it. Then I stepped onto the pond's narrow shore, looking and listening for any signs of life. There was nothing, so I took a little more care and climbed out of the pit for a better look around.

Far below, the road was easy to see. I couldn’t make out anything beyond a dust cloud headed west, so I let my eyes adjust to the bright light before trying again. I knew they were out there, so I wasn’t too surprised to see sun glinting off steel. Now I could see their tiny forms crawling over the rocks far below, picked out by occasional sunglints. I kept looking, and eventually counted four groups of a dozen or so men, scouring the hills for any trace of us. Nobody was near enough to indicate they'd found our trail, so I let myself relax and watch their progress.

They showed a clear talent for missing our trail, or else maybe Bram had been a better scout than I’d thought. I watched for a couple hours as the sun slid westward. When I got bored, I crept back down to the water’s edge. I stuck my head deep into the icy water and held it there as long as I could, letting it cool me. When I could bear it no longer, I pulled out and shook my head, water spraying everywhere. Too late, I found myself hoping the watermarks would dry before anyone wandered by. Wiping wet hair from my eyes, I stepped out onto the lily pads again.

There was no problem until I reached the overhang. I could have sworn I’d left the oil lamps burning, and they could have gone out, but it was darker than a mercenary’s dreams in there. Though the dark didn’t bother me, not being able to see my next step did. Balanced on one leg, using the other to grope around for the next step, I moved into the darkness. Then all at once, the lights turned on. That surprised me enough I missed my next step.

I came up spitting water, glad I didn’t have any armor on, and it was pure luck I came up with my head in the light. I drew a deep breath, sank again, then began floundering my way to shore, spitting water and curses. Echoes bounced from the walls and ceiling, adding to the ruckus. I was hauling myself out of the pond when I heard running feet at the back of the cave. Bram came out of the gloom at a dead run, torch in one hand and sword in the other. Seeing no one else but me, he skidded to a stop, eyes darting back and forth in search of trouble.

When he realized what had happened, an ear-to-ear grin split his face. I glared at him with such malevolence he should have died on the spot, never mind any oath. Instead, he couldn’t hold back any longer, and burst out laughing, sending more echoes bounding about the cave. I flushed and put my hand on my sword hilt before I realized how funny it would have been if it’d been Bram who’d fallen in. I smiled sourly, watching his face redden with laughter until at last he stopped, out of breath.

Grace came out of the darkness and entered the cave more slowly, preceded by her cat. I almost missed her glowing fingers, but it was a hard thing to miss. “Look, Precious, at this rude man, bathing in our only water supply without even removing his harness. He must be shy indeed, and modest to fear exposing himself to our gaze.” There was unmistakable malice in the last line.

I stood in an expanding puddle, and drew my sword. Bram had stopped laughing, and sheathed his own sword. I pointed my blade at Grace, who put her hand to her breast in mock fear. The pale light on her hand faded away. “You have some explaining to do, witch. How is it no light leaves this cave, yet we saw your fire last night?”

“Put your weapon away,” she replied distastefully. “Have you already forgotten I'm a witch? Certain of my enchantments and conjurations require open skies, not dusty caverns. No,” she continued, reading my thoughts, “I did not summon you and your friend, ’twas your curiosity did that. What you saw was my witchlight. With the wards grown old, it escapes. But the spells still workagainst those dull and unsubtle of mind. Such as the searchers now outside,” she added, almost as if she hadn’t meant the comment for me. “Well, then, will you be slaying me where I stand, or are you just drying your sword?”

I felt like a fool. She turned away and moved over to the shelves. Bram came over, blanket in hand. “You had best shed those clothes, brother, before you catch your death of chill. I will dry your gear for you.” I hesitated, then began undressing as Grace called back over her shoulder.

“Don’t just stand there, lad, nor let modesty hold you back. After all, you’ve not got anything I’ve never seen before.” Bram grinned again, not the least bit sympathetic.

In a fury, I began tearing off my gear.

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Chapter 7: Bram

Poor Gareth! On top of his humiliation, he had to tolerate most of a week of inactivity, for the searchers remained in the hills below us for many days, obstinate beyond what I would have expected. Grace’s new ‘wards’ kept them far from us, and remembering the unease Gareth and I felt while she was restoring them, it was no wonder. But it left Gareth moping about, impatient and grumbling. I tried to coax him along when Grace and I went on our expeditions into the caverns, but he soon grew bored with that and took to lying outside by the pool, watching the search's progress. Meanwhile, I took the time to get to know Grace and to learn some of her abode's lore and what I could of the country we had entered.

If one took the time to look, peering past the patched and worn cloak, the grey silk hair, the gnarly hands, the wrinkled face, one found a vital personality, spirit still burning as bright as when she had been a girl. It was there in her brown eyes, and you could feel it when she looked at you, as one might well expect of a witch. If you were perceptive, you could see it in her walk and hear it in her perpetually amused voice. When she jested, never missing an irony, it was easy to forget her age. When we were alone, talking about nothing in particular, I found myself half regretting our age difference.

But Gareth never looked, perhaps still rankled by their first meeting. For Grace, there was much pleasant verbal sparring, and I suspected she hid a secret fondness for the big man. I am certain that Grace knew how much she intrigued me, though she never admitted it. When we walked together through the caverns, collecting mushrooms, pallid and odd-shaped plants, and the blind fish that swam in a subterranean lake, she would pause to explain what she had taken and how it related to her craft. The latter was beyond my understanding, though I learned much about the caverns. Grey though they were, they had their own kind of beauty.

Such was the manner of our existence that week, talking when the mood fell upon us or staying silent, wrapped in our own thoughts. It was a pleasant time for me, a chance to retire from the world and be at peace, alone with my thoughts only when I chose to be. I am also sure Grace appreciated the company—even Gareth’s. But Gareth grew more and more restless, and I began to feel uncomfortable about holding him here; it wasn’t as if we were great friends yet, but something beyond our oath had begun to bind us together.

On the night that the search moved beyond our sight, the time had come to leave. But as we sat about the fire, bellies full of mushroom and fish chowder, I realized I had to ask Grace about something that had bothered me since we first met.

“Grace,” I said, laying aside my earthenware bowl and licking a last drop of soup from my lips. “You know many things obscure to ordinary men, which is only to be expected of a witch. But I suspect you also possess lore that was once known to many, lost though it be now.” I paused to collect my thoughts, Grace and Precious watching me closely. “When you looked into my mind and drew out the story of our recent past, I felt your surprise—recognition, almost—when you learned of the minstrel. I felt perhaps it was more than coincidence that death followed soon after Gareth and I met him. What do you know of him?”

Silence fell save for the comforting murmur of the flames. Grace's eyes had gone distant, and a small mewling sound emerged from the cat. Then, in a quiet voice, the old witch spoke. Even Gareth sat a little straighter and listened, more intense than usual.

“Too much for the answer to please you... but not enough to satisfy your curiosity. Long ago, when I was young and foolish, my mistress told me the story of a man from a vanished time, a handsome youth named Dariel. From the way she spoke, I thought the story to be merely a faery tale told to enchant a young girl and keep her mind on her lessons. I remember, for in those early days I was never sure which of her ramblings were stories, and which were lessons in the craft she was teaching. To be safe, and for the discipline it afforded, I committed everything she said to memory. Because of your experience, I now believe this was more lesson than story.

“Dariel became the greatest musician of his age, though few but the minstrels know of him today. How long ago? So long the oath of blood-bonding you and your ‘brother’ over there swore had not yet been created.” She looked at me a moment, expression grave. “Be warned that an oath sworn in blood cannot be lightly set aside. There's considerable power inherent in the life force of blood. You may have known this when you rashly invoked that ancient magic, but you were no less foolish to do so."

She paused and licked her lips. “Of one thing I am sure... the stories of oathbreakers we hear as children are, if anything, simplified and made more pleasant than the truth.”

I shuddered and averted my eyes. Gareth noticed my reaction, but maintained his silence. If Grace had noticed, or had understood the reason for my unease, she chose not to comment, and continued her tale unperturbed. “There are ever fewer of us who have been privileged to study the ancient lore. Most was lost to us when we crossed the great ocean to escape the doom that had fallen upon our ancestors—or that we brought upon ourselves, some say. Precisely what the oath meant to our ancestors is lost. I know only that the need for it was far greater than the need to bind men together to survive in the face of disaster. The oldest books hint that things once part of our lives are gone forever, but reading those hints is like trying to explain a castle by describing the moat. Nonetheless, the fear inspired by those diluted tales has made the bloodoath rare these days.

“Be that as it may, Dariel was mortal and grew old. The few minstrels with sufficient talent preserved his lesser songs, but none was capable of the greater ones, the songs of power. Dariel saw perhaps too deep, and feared that the beauty—indeed, the magic—of his songs would be lost forever when he died. There are philosophers who tell us each man’s life is one small group of chords in the greater symphony of life, and that fate guides each life by the manner in which it plays our chords. It is said that Dariel’s music had fate’s power to change lives. As there was no one he could teach his music, Dariel sought out the greatest wizard of his age, a man as skilled in magic as the bard was in song. To the wizard, he put the question: ‘How may I keep my vision from fading away?’

“Folk today lack any knowledge of true wizardry; they think the few witch folk remaining are wizards, and are ignorant of the true power and the real danger of magic. This wizard had grown wise in his study, and could summon the greatest of creations as easily as Gareth there sends men to the grave with his sword. He explained to Dariel that such a boon as the minstrel sought could be had only at the greatest of prices. The wizard was right, wasn’t he, Precious?” The cat had shrunk back against its mistress, as if frightened.

“But such was Dariel’s need, he would pay any price. He begged that his songs not be allowed to die. The wizard repeated his warning one more time, and seeing it ignored, made his preparations. Wizardry follows laws we cannot imagine, but summoning the power required for such a spell would have been difficult even for a master. Even one such as Precious nearly took more than I had to offer. Does this startle you, Bram? I see the idea disturbs Gareth. One cannot always control what one has summoned, and precautions must be taken to ensure it does not come to control you. So Dariel chafed at the bit and moped, even as Gareth has done these past days, until all was ready and the summoning could begin.

“The legends do not tell what power was summoned or its cost. Though many wizards had attained immortality, the minstrel was no wizard and whatever restored Dariel’s youth and vigor carried a heavy price. Some say the wizard also paid a price, but that price is lost to the storyteller.

“Why have you never heard of Dariel before? I've heard it said that part of his price was to pass beyond mortal ken and become part of the great symphony until he had faded from the memory of mortal man. Part of the answer lies in the tens of generations that separate us from that age, and part lies in the magics that saved us from the cataclysm, but at the cost of leaving so much behind to be lost forever. My mistress speculated that to be safe from that disaster, we were forced to forsake our memories of the old lands, save for such grimoires as were preserved, from which my kindred pick and learn... and from which we die should we stray beyond the safe limits all witches set for themselves.

"Some suspect Dariel paid his price by bringing about the cataclysm. Don’t squirm so, Gareth. The Exodus was when the battles of legend were fought, the legends all warriors such as yourselves are fed on throughout your youth. But the true battles of that time were fought in ways beyond what we can imagine today, and much that was mystical perished along with the wizards who strove to control the vast magics they'd unleashed.

“If it is true our world is some vast and mystical symphony, with each life forming but one small part of the larger score, then perhaps Dariel gained his immortality by becoming part of that symphony... that in the end, the musician became the song, or something far stranger. And in doing so, perhaps Dariel attained the power to change that song. If this is true, then Dariel can change the score of any life, reshaping it and bringing about changes as violent as the strongest storm... or easing that life into silence and erasing even its echoes. Some stories tell that a great minstrel, perhaps Dariel himself, appeared before the worst changes of the Exodus, harbinger of what was to come, as the crows and other carrion birds gather before a great battle.

That, Bram, is what I know of your minstrel. That, and the knowledge that he must have entered our world once more.” She wet her lips, firelight softening her face and restoring a youthful gold to her hair. Gareth looked more thoughtful than was his wont, and I felt the turmoil of my thoughts graven on my face.

Grace’s tale sat heavy upon me, bringing fear at implications I was not yet ready to consider. Had my broken bloodoath...? Mastering that fear with an effort, I sat in silence, pondering long after the others had risen and begun their preparations for sleep. I sat on after they had said their goodnights and the fire had become low coals. I watched as their light shifted ceaselessly, and remembered a melancholy music in a border keep, and sad blue eyes seemed to watch me from the fire.

Sleep claimed me at last, bearing strange dreams. In one, Precious confronted me, staring into my eyes as if he had a message to impart, then left, frustrated. Other dreams, less pleasant, went largely unremembered, for which I am grateful.

***

When I woke, there was no sign of Grace save for a sealed earthenware jug redolent of her soup. While Gareth set about collecting our gear, I walked a short distance into the caverns, calling her name, but there was no answer save the echoes. I returned to join Gareth, wondering whether a lonely old lady might prefer not to say her farewells in person. Casting a last glance back, I took from a chain about my neck a ring I had not worn since Kardmin, and set it on her bed. Then I followed Gareth out of the cave.

The day was overcast and smelled of rain. A warm, moist breeze snapped at our heels as we descended towards the road. It was risky to travel by road, but the time we saved would make the risk worthwhile. By now, the hunt would have slackened, and indeed, it had been several days since we had last seen searchers. So we descended, pausing now and then to watch the road and ensure we remained alone. If they had left watchers on the heights, they were skilled beyond my ability to detect.

In late afternoon, we reached the road. Apart from occasional sprinkles, the rain had held off, but it grew colder as the sun dipped beneath our jagged horizons, and far-off thunder spoke amidst the peaks. It was time to find a camp. Gareth was first to spot the overhang by the roadside, and we reached it before the storm began. We had time to eat our dinner, warmed by a hasty fire and bittersweet from the emotions it awoke, before the clouds opened up in earnest. The warm, playful morning breeze had been chased far away by a coolly serious wind, but this too died away.

In the ensuing stillness, every sound was focused to an acute clarity. Thunder spoke once again, shaking the rock on which we lay, and without further preamble, the skies filled with curtains of falling water. There was an audible clap, gone almost at once, as the water struck the tight-packed earth of the roadbed and began rushing in angry, swirling torrents across the land.

The storm lasted a full day, but was subdued after its initial furious salvo. Gareth and I remained dry in our shelter. When the steady wall of water began to taper off into a light drizzle, and light once more walked the land, we drew our cloaks tight about us and headed eastward beneath a leaden sky shot through with washes of silver. Arden, no longer a safe port for us to call in, fell behind us a day later, and our path bent once more uphill, through the mountains to Belfalas.

The first long leg on our journey to Ankur.

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Continue reading: Part II



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