I wasn't entirely sure whether I'd gotten myself into a war to defend Oranstone from the Vorsag, or a war against the high king. Either way, it suited me.

The Blue Guard was camped along a soft stretch of turf against one wall. I whistled when I counted the tents, which included Stala's distinctive one. Three Blue Guardsmen were walking a lazy patrol around the perimeter. The rest were probably out practicing somewhere, knowing my aunt.

"What are you doing all the way out here with Stala and half the Blue Guard, Beckram?" Tosten asked my question, which seemed wise, given how Beckram felt about me. "Did the king decide there was a war going on at last?"

Beckram snorted. "The king misspoke himself and fell into his half brother's trap."

"Alizon?" I said.

"None other. The upshot is that Haverness was given leave to bring a hundred men to quell the problems here in Oranstone."

"And he chose the Blue Guard?" I said doubtfully.

Beckram stopped walking toward the tents. "No, that's another story. Ward, what happened to you?"

He sounded concerned. I fought back the impulse to list my nicks and bruises; old habits die hard.

"My father died." I said. "It improved my outlook remarkably - as well as my intelligence."


He smiled slowly - not his usual brilliant smile - and I wondered for a minute if he were Erdrick. They switched places sometimes, and it was surprisingly difficult, even with their widely disparate personalities, to tell which was which.

"Erdrick was right," he said. "He told me once that he didn't think you were as stupid as everyone thought you were."

"Stupid enough to lose Hurog," I returned.

He shrugged and resumed his rapid pace toward the distinctive blue tent. "Do you have camping equipment?"

"For the woods. But there are no trees here."

At Beckram's gesture, a couple of men took the horses to be stabled while we saw about our packs. After a bit of rearranging, we stored our goods in a tent vacated for us.

When the work was done, Axiel settled a hand on Penrod's shoulder. "We'll go see what Stala is up to and tell her you're safe, Ward."

"Bastilla and Ciarra should go with you and tell her that they've moved into her tent," I said.

Ciarra nodded her head enthusiastically and patted her sword; then she dashed off, leaving the rest to follow.

As soon as they were safely away, Beckram turned to my brother and gave him a bear hug. "It's good to see you, Tosten. I see you still have that harp I gave you."

Beckram always could charm the birds out of the trees, and he managed to charm a smile out of Tosten. I hadn't known the harp was my cousin's gift.

"He was supporting himself at a tavern at Tyrfannig," I said."

Beckram raised his eyebrows. "At Tyrfannig? I'm surprised you didn't find him before this."

"He took me to Tyrfannig in the first place." Tosten turned his smile to me.

"To a sailor's inn?" Beckram looked at me. "Maybe you're not as smart as I thought..."

I shook my head, but Tosten jumped in to defend me before I could say anything. "No. He left me with a cooper."

Beckram laughed. "He would. And he'd expect you to stay there, wouldn't he?"

"The cooper was a good man," my brother replied hotly. "If I'd had no other place to go, I could have been happy there."

Tosten was defending me? I couldn't be sure; maybe it was the cooper.

"Who's this?" Beckram nodded at Oreg, who was trying his best to be part of the scenery.

"Another Hurog," I said. "Oreg, this is our cousin Beckram. Beckram, meet Oreg."

"You never told Ward what the Blue Guard is doing here," said Oreg softly, without acknowledging the greeting. Of course he knew Beckram already, and Oreg wasn't happy about the way my cousin teased Ciarra.

Beckram gave Oreg a cool, assessing look, then smiled tightly at me. "You did a better job of guarding your brother than I ever did mine. Erdrick's dead." I sucked in a deep breath, but he continued before I could say anything. "I was sleeping with the queen and misstepped somehow. Jakoven killed Erdrick by mistake, because he looked like me. It was ride out with Haverness or kill the bastard." His voice was light and quick, belying the bloodlust in his eyes. I saw then that the expression he wore to greet us was a mask covering a core of soul-deep rage. I reached out and touched his shoulder, but there was no room in him for comfort, and he stepped away from me.

Erdrick was dead; it didn't seem possible.

"When I took my brother's body back to Father, he sent the Blue Guard back with me."

"So Haverness took the Blue Guard as his hundred?" I asked, changing the subject because that seemed to be what Beckram wanted.

"No, he already had most of them picked out."

"The king made a mistake," commented Alizon, stepping around a tent. The king's half brother had discarded his usual court robes and colors. Dressed in hunting leathers, he looked much more dangerous than I'd ever seen him. I couldn't tell if he'd been listening to us or if he'd just happened to come upon us, but I knew which one I'd lay odds on.

"He chose to kill Beckram," continued Alizon, "knowing that Hurog is a not very important, virtually penniless holding in the lands of the northern barbarians." Alizon's voice showed that he, clearly, was not so stupid. I was. It sounded like an accurate description of Hurog to me. "He believed Hurog's strength vanished with the death of the remarkable bastard who ruled it for so many years. So Duraugh gave him an example of the power of the Hurog name. He brought half the nobles of Shavig with Beckram to the capital and shoved the Blue Guard down my brother's throat. 'Hurog fights as one, indeed." Alizon grinned, a boyish expression that belied the cleverness in his eyes. "Shavigmen have a long memory. They know who their king would be, though there hasn't been a king in Shavig for centuries. It was obvious to everyone that Duraugh was perfectly willing to begin a rebellion right then and there. He wanted the king's hide nailed to the wall, but he was willing to settle for adequate protection of his remaining son."

"Better the king count himself lucky my father wasn't still with us," I said. "The Hurogmeten would have killed Jakoven and let politics take care of themselves."

"And he had many other fine qualities as well," murmured Oreg.

"What are you doing here, Ward?" asked Alizon suddenly. "And I might add: My, how you've changed."

"I'm told that Oranstonian air has that effect." Tosten looked at the ground as he spoke. "Or maybe it's the apples."

"My father's death seems to account for most of it," I said. "Being too smart didn't seem healthy while he was alive. As to what I'm doing here: I heard about Oranstone's troubles, and thought to myself, what they need is a Shavigman to show the Oranstonians how to fight. I ended up with a few more volunteers than I needed. Two Shavigmen are worth a few hundred Vorsag, eh, Tosten?"

Alizon's gaze narrowed abruptly on my brother.

Tosten said, "He's been saying that we should have left a few behind, but who knew the women would be such fighters. We've considered conquering Oranstone and holding it as a fiefdom as well as Vorsag, but Ward tells me it would be rude to conquer a country twice in a century." Tosten had broadened his speech into rough Northlander.

Beckram's flashing smile lit his face at last. He slapped Tosten on the back. "Fair sounds like a proper Shavig barbarian. Now that we've got him here, we've nothing to worry about."

"Better not let the Oranstonians hear you talk like that," said Alizon repressively.

"No one likes to hear the truth," said my Aunt Stala. I'd been aware of someone approaching, but since they were wearing the Blue's colors, I hadn't paid much heed.

"Stala." I caught her up, armor and all, and swung her around.

"Put me down, boy," she said, though I could tell she was pleased. "I'd hoped that old Axiel would have better sense than to allow you to play soldier down here."

I set her down. "He didn't have much say in it."

"You've lost some weight."

I shrugged, and Tosten said, "Oranstonians don't like selling supplies to Shavigmen. Last time Northlanders were down here, we did a fair job of alienating the villagers."

I guess Stala hadn't noticed him when she'd approached, because her jaw dropped and she said, "Tosten?" in a small voice.

He hugged her self-consciously and stood a little awkwardly when her arms tightened fiercely rather than releasing him. At last she stood back and looked him over.

"I have all my fingers and toes, Aunt Stala," he complained mildly.

"So you really did squirrel him away someplace?" Stala didn't look away from Tosten as she spoke.

"He needed to get away, someplace safe." I said. Not even to her would I tell Tosten's secret, though the memory of his blood lying between him and me like some pool of awful truth was as clear in my mind as if it had been a moment ago.

"I'm hungry," Oreg said. "I wonder if there's anything we can scrounge to eat."

At supper, I sat at the high table with Haverness, Alizon, and Beckram. The rest of my troop ate with Stala and the Blue Guard. Haverness set a fine meal, and not the least of its attractions was his daughter. Oh, there were sweet maids aplenty here, many of them daughters and wives of Oranstonian nobles, sent here for safekeeping. One beauty with flaming hair cascading in waves down her back stole shy glances my way and then blushed when I nodded at her. But it was Haverness's daughter who caught my full attention.

Tisala was more akin to my aunt Stala than to the prettily clothed maidens. Curly dark hair trimmed short as a man's covered her well-shaped head. Her face wasn't pretty. She shared her nose, a slim, too-long blade, with her father along with his square build and tall frame. Her hands were swordsman's hands and bore the scars of someone well used to fighting, and for all that, she wore a woman's confining gown with grace.

I remembered hearing that Haverness left his lands in his daughter's hands while he was at court, but I hadn't expected that she would be more than an administrator. She hadn't gotten those scars arguing with clerks.

Once the course had been served, she looked me over and said, "What's an idiot doing in the middle of a war?"

I smirked at her, liking her instantly. "It takes an idiot to get into the middle of a war," I pointed out. "Especially when it's not even on my own lands." I glanced around and noticed Bastilla watching me, an odd look in her eye. When I nodded to her, she turned her attention back to her food.

Haverness snorted. "You see why I never took her to court."

"My father wouldn't have taken me if he'd been given a choice," I said. "Have you had a chance to look at the villages the Vorsag have hit?"

He nodded, sobering. "Every village had a temple to Meron. That's not really surprising, since almost every village has some sort of temple. But - " He pointed his knife at me. "  -  all the ones that were hit had some object of real power. I've spoken to my mage and my priest, and they are putting together a list of other villages that fit your conditions."

We ate for a while: real food, hot and well seasoned. As we waited for the next course, Haverness said, "I'm going to send out armed parties to each of the villages on the list, keeping the larger forces here at Callis until I can pinpoint where the bastards are. They've got a base in Oranstone; they're too deep in country for anything else."

I grunted and finished swallowing a piece of duck. "My troop has come this far, we might as well be of use. Give us one of your villages."

"I hoped you'd say that. I don't have an unlimited number of trained men, and just the one wizard. Most of the men I brought from Estian are readying their own estates to face a Vorsagian invasion."

"Uhm," I ate another small piece of duck. "You'll forgive my question, but isn't building up armies on such scale illegal?"

"Demons take Jakoven, and his laws," said Haverness heavily. It had taken a lot, I saw, for him to break his oaths of loyalty, but Jakoven's refusal to rescue Oranstone had done it. Jakoven had, in fact, broken his oath first.

"By the time the king can do anything about it," Alizon said, "we'll have driven the Kingdoms' enemy out of Oranstone, and he'll have nothing to do but congratulate these men for saving his throne. If he prosecutes, he'll have the nobles of all the lands against him - and he's just smart enough to know that."

I nodded. "Especially since you'll tell him so."

"Exactly, so," murmured Alizon sweetly.

"You look like you stayed up and celebrated last night," said a raspy woman's voice, frigid with disapproval.

I opened one eye and looked first at Haverness's daughter, who stared down her long nose at me, then around the empty tent and attempted to remember what I'd been celebrating last night.

"Your men are up and at practice already. The small man who seemed to be in command told me I could find you here. My father has a village for us to go to."

I hadn't been carousing, but Stala and I had talked late into the night about Erdrick's death and Oranstonian politics. My body was trying to insist that it needed a few more minutes to recover, but it didn't appear that Tisala was going to let me rest. I rolled stiffly to my feet, bent and touched my toes a time or two to stretch. "Oranstonians have confounded long names, and they never shorten them," I said to distract her from my condition. "I suppose I could call you to Tissa or Lally."

"Not if you want to keep your tongue," she tossed back. I thought I caught a glimpse of a dimple, but her voice was serious.

"You look stupid," commented Tisala, riding beside me. I learned Haverness's definition of small was an order of magnitude larger than mine. In addition to my troop's seven, Haverness had sent his daughter and her fifty sworn men.

"Stupid," she said again, shaking her head.

I thought about crossing my eyes and drooling at her, but she didn't need any encouragement from me to continue.

"I think it's the eyes. No one expects brilliance out of a man with eyelashes like that." Her disapproval was plain.

I wondered what she thought I should have done about my eyelashes.

"Thank you," I murmured. "But I thought it was the color, myself." She had brown eyes, too. I wondered if she'd catch the insult.

"Maybe it's your size," she went on, turning her face to scrutinize the forest around us, but not before I caught sight of a betraying dimple.

"Large means stupid?" I relaxed in enjoyment as I realized she was teasing me. It gave me something to wonder about instead of dead cousins and the aching eyes from too little sleep.

"Everyone expects big people to be slow and stolid," she said. I didn't see any tension in her, but her thin, narrow-hipped war stallion arched his neck and sidled. If the stallion weighed half what Pansy did, I'd have been surprised. On its back, Tisala did look oversized. Funny I hadn't really thought about her height, but she was as tall as her father, who was accounted a tall man, though not nearly as tall as I. For a woman, being as tall as a man was no light thing.

"Slow, eh? And stolid?" I asked.

She must have heard the comprehension in my voice because her chin tilted up and her formidable brows lowered.

I grinned. "It would help if you had a real horse, rather than a skinny, cow-hocked pony." He wasn't cow-hocked much, just enough to make her sensitive - and steer our teasing to a place less painful for her.

"Better to ride a cow-hocked pony than a dullard plow-horse." The chill in her voice would have frosted a potter's kiln.

Dullard? I thought. Looking at Pansy, I supposed her observation had merit. He was paying no attention to her stallion, walking with a relaxed air that might, indeed, have belonged to a draft animal. The image was helped by the long threads of grass hanging from his mouth. He must have snatched it when I wasn't paying attention. Not much left of the murderous beast who'd terrified my grooms - not this morning.

"His name is Pansy," I said with painful dignity. "If you're going to insult him, you ought to at least know his name."

On my other side, Ciarra snickered.

Tisala looked from my sister's face to mine, nodded her head to Ciarra, and said, "Your brother is a terrible tease."

Ciarra raised her eyebrows.

"No, I'm not," Tisala snapped. "I'm blunt and rude. Just ask anyone."

Ciarra smiled broadly and tilted her chin at me.

"I have to agree with her, Ciarra." I said sadly. "Anyone who calls my poor Pansy a dullard must be blunt and rude."

"Rat," commented Tisala. "I can't believe you carried it off. How many years did you fool them that you were stupid?"

Ciarra held up seven fingers.

"Seven," Tisala shook her head. "Seven years of holding your tongue. It would have killed me."

"Probably," I agreed.

She laughed. "Is he always this bad?"

Ciarra shook her head firmly, then raised her eyes to the sky.

"Not possible," said Tisala. "He couldn't have been worse."

There weren't many people who could read the language Ciarra spoke. Penrod, used to the silent speaking of his charges, could talk to her almost as well as I. Tosten could a little. But Tisala was the first woman who'd conversed with her with such matter-of-fact ease. Bastilla tended to avoid Ciarra, as if my sister's inability to speak made her uncomfortable.

I'd been avoiding thinking about Bastilla.

When I was fifteen, the daughter of one of Penrod's grooms had been the love of my life. She had been twenty, gentle and cheerful. When I was sixteen, she broke my heart by marrying a merchant in Tyrfannig. I understood her reasons and knew they were good ones. I even liked her husband, though that had taken me a good long time. After her, I'd slept with a few who had taught me that the act without love was dreary indeed.

I felt nothing more for Bastilla than I did for...Axiel. Less perhaps. Given that, I should have refused her outright rather than leaving the possibility open for some later time. I hadn't had the chance for private conversation until now, but the ride was too good an opportunity.

"If you'll excuse me, ladies," I said, "I'll desert the field of battle, for no man wins a war with a lady's tongue."

Ciarra stuck her lady's tongue out at me.

The trail we were riding through the overgrown forest was wide enough for a wagon, so Pansy and I had little trouble working back to the rear ranks where Bastilla rode with Oreg.

I turned to ride beside them. "Go talk to Ciarra, Oreg. See if Haverness's daughter is any happier with you than she is with me."

"She finds you objectionable?" Bastilla sounded amused.

"I believe it is my eyelashes."

Oreg batted his eyes at me. "Mine are prettier than yours are, Ward. She's bound to like them."

When he'd ridden off, I slowed until we brought up the rear. I switched to Avinhellish, which I spoke with a terrible accent but well enough for my purpose, which was to ensure that no one overheard what I had to say to Bastilla.

"I believe I owe you an explanation, Bastilla."

Her marvelous eyes sparkled in the dappled light, and she smiled. "An explanation for what, Ward?"

"For my refusal of your offer the night before we came to Callis."

Her smile fled as if it had never been. "How so?"

"If we had not been on duty that night, I would have taken you up on your offer. And it would have been wrong."

"Ah." Her gelding bowed his head against her white-fingered grip on the reins. "I am too old for you? Perhaps Tisala suits you better?"

I shook my head. "Not too old." I couldn't let her think this had anything to do with Tisala. "For you, sex is a game - one you play very well. But I cannot view it that way."

"You sound like a virgin bride." Her voice was brittle with hurt.

I shook my head. "My first lover taught me that love only works between equals." And she had been right. She had led and I followed, unable and unwilling to break out of my idiot act, even where I loved. "You and I are not equal in this; you can sleep with Axiel and Penrod without causing them to fret. Anyone who can do that is far more skilled than I am. My second lover taught me that coupling without love is worse than nothing - at least for me."

"And you don't love me."

"Do you love me?" I wouldn't have asked it if I hadn't known the answer.

Her chin went up, and she didn't say anything.

"I should have said this that night. There is no love between us, lady. Respect and lust, yes, at least on my part. But not love."

"You will regret this," she said with a careful smile to hide the hurt in her eyes.

"Lady, my body already does," I said ruefully. "But it is the right thing. I will not play games."

She did not reply. After a few moments, I decided it might be best to give her some time to herself. As I rode past Penrod and Axiel, I jerked my head, and both of them fell back to ride behind Bastilla.

The priest looked at us blandly. "We are here to protect these things. They are dedicated to Meron, and we must keep them in her temple."

The temple in question was a little timber building, half the size of the peasant huts of the town. The priest, Oreg, Bastilla, Axiel, and I were the only ones inside, as there simply wasn't room for anyone else. Tisala had tried to talk to the priest for a few minutes before throwing her arms up and stalking off to get the rest of the little village into packing up and leaving. I hoped she was getting further than I.

"Except for the armband, they're not much," reported Oreg from the altar where he and Bastilla were getting a better look at the items in question. "What magic they had upon them has faded. The armband was powerful once, but there's no shape to the magic anymore."

The priest was visibly displeased with Oreg's assessment.

"They are not worth your life; even the goddess knows that," Axiel said. I'd left the negotiations to Axiel, once Tisala left, since he looked the least like a Northman and spoke Oranstonian.

"I know that, my son." The priest set aside his irritation to smile gently at the dwarf king's son. "But my word is worth my life. If I die in her service, I shall be with her forever."

"You're aiding the enemy," said Oreg unexpectedly. "These don't seem to be powerful, but if the Vorsag gain enough of them, and if they have the right sort of knowledge, they can use this to destroy even the memory of Oranstone and the Great Healer, Meron. If you take them to a fortified place, they will still be hers." But the priest would lose his power outside this village, and he knew it.

"You imply Meron cannot protect her temple," chided the priest.

Oreg moved to my side. "There are rules the gods must follow, or they invite destruction. If she steps in to protect this temple, the Vorsagian gods can act on their behalf, too."

"Perhaps the Vorsag serve Meron, too. Perhaps she has decreed that they shall have the sacred objects." The priest was enjoying this.

Stala said that to persuade someone, you had to know who they were and what they wanted. What made a priest of Meron? They were a peasant group, loosely knit with little higher organization. As Oreg continued to argue, I thought about what we must look like to the priest. Shavigmen, or at least not Oranstonian. But he'd been no more ready to listen to Tisala.

The followers of Meron were men of the land, farmers and herdsmen. Peasants. If a peasant had spoken to a nobleman's messengers the way that this priest was, my father would have him whipped until he couldn't stand up. But a priest was different.

I looked at the priest's calloused hands; he helped in the fields. Perhaps he had his own herds.

"Eh," I broke in, interrupting Oreg rudely. "They're mages, what do they know about the way of the Healer? Good with a fancy argument, they are." I'd heard enough peasant Oranstonian to know I'd gotten the accent close to right. "Nobles who sit in stone halls don't understand the goddess. I worked the land myself, before I took up the sword, and didn't I feel her hand guide my plow?" I thought my father's head herdsman might be a man of the priest's ilk, and his mannerisms weren't difficult to adopt. "Doesn't mean I don't think you ought to take whatever the goddess holds sacred and save it for her." I nodded at the armband that held its place of honor on the altar. "Hate to see that on the arm of one of those heathens who burned Silverfells and stole the dragon stone."

For the first time, the priest looked shaken in his convictions.

"If you take them with you to Callis," I said, "as soon as Kariarn turns his attention elsewhere, you can return them to their place." I heard something odd outside.

He took a deep breath. "I suppose...temporarily..."

It was the faint clash of steel on steel I'd heard. I left the priest dithering to Oreg and took a quick step to the temple door and peered out. It required no more than a glance.

"To arms!" I bellowed, as if I wasn't the last person to see. "Raiders!"

They had doubtless meant to sneak up on the village. But had met with a few of Tisala's men who'd been on the outskirts of town. I tore out of the temple and was on Pansy's back before I'd finished speaking.

The first few men hadn't slowed the mass of Vorsag down much, but by the time I arrived at the fighting, they'd run into the larger block of our troops and their forward progress had slowed to a crawl.

Pansy screamed, a harsh, shrill stallion's warning, and plunged into battle. And time slowed. Everything in me was concentrated on each moment, each block, each blow, each life lost. I became gradually aware that Tosten fought on my left and Penrod my right, but it had no meaning beyond the moment.

I loved the battle, even when it was against scarecrow bandits. Here, where sword met sword and I tested myself against the mettle of my opponent, it meant something when my sword sank deeply into flesh. Pansy told me with twitches of ears and muscles where he was going to move, and he listened in turn to my shifts of weight. We brought death to our enemies, and I loved the power of it. And that final love, one I shared with my father, frightened me more than any battle ever could.

Axiel had been right; a real battle was different. The knowledge that here at last I was facing my own kind, warriors trained in martial arts, added the sweetness of competition to the fray. These men had a real chance of killing me as the bandits we'd fought before did not. For these were regular army men, for all they wore outlaw's rags over their armor.

Stala would have told me to pull the men, because our armies were too evenly matched. There would be no victor here, just dead men to litter the ground. But there were villagers behind us, unarmed women and children I'd been sent to protect.

A long-fought battle has a flow to it. Fierce speed when I was in the heart of the enemy army followed by almost peaceful moments when Pansy and I broke through the battle lines and there were none to come against us. I held Pansy there to give him a rest and saw that there were others doing the same.

In one such pause, Tisala joined me, meeting my grin with one of her own before the years of command fell back upon her shoulders.

"We're evenly matched," she said.

I nodded, moving my right shoulder to try to restore some feeling to my arm. "I hope that occurs to the Vorsagian commander soon. We can't let them through to the village, but if the Vorsag don't pull back, there won't be many of either side left."

She scanned the battle and pointed to a group of her men who were cornered. Without another word, we both put our horses at the enemy.

Her stallion was as hot for battle as Pansy and nearly as well trained, but Pansy's heavier build made him a more effective weapon. When he shouldered a Vorsagian horse, the other horse went down with its rider. Tisala's style of fighting was different from my own, with flourishes designed as much to cow the enemy as anything else, but she killed as quickly as I did.

At another lull in the fighting, I noticed the sun hung low in the sky, though I'd have sworn it was still early afternoon. Pansy's head hung low, and I rocked back and forth with the force of his breathing.

"The commander's breaking off." Penrod rode up to me, his teeth flashing white in the dark blood and gore of his face. "They weren't expecting a troop of fighters here. They outnumber us, but not enough to make this anything but a bloodbath for us both."

"A good general never wins a close fight," I quoted my aunt. "He pulls his men out before his losses are high and hits the enemy another time."

"Your aunt never left her troops behind."

I followed his gaze and saw that the man who'd been commanding the Vorsag was escaping through the trees, while his underlings were organizing a retreat in a slightly different direction.

"Shall we go after him?" I asked. Without waiting for his reply, I sent Pansy leaping over a slippery mass of bodies, and we galloped after the fleeing man.

Beyond the growth of trees was a short limestone cliff. Pansy and I drew up beside it just in time to see the Vorsag scamper over the top. He'd abandoned his horse, so I jumped off Pansy and dropped his reins to the ground. I could hear Penrod doing likewise behind me.

"Do you think he's gone up here?" I said. No one answered.

Something hit me in the arm. I spun around, sword upraised, and saw Penrod with a surprised look on his face. In his hand was a dagger red with my blood. Behind him, my brother pulled his sword out of Penrod, and the horseman slid to the ground.

"Penrod?" I said blankly, for the scene was too strange for understanding. "Tosten."

Tosten dropped his sword and looked at me. "He was trying to kill you," he said, sounding as shocked as I felt. "I followed you and saw him raise his dagger to stab you in the back."

Warm blood wet my hand, attesting to Penrod's attack.

Penrod lay faceup on the ground, the terrible wound hidden underneath him. He smiled palely at me. "I'm glad..." His voice was a hoarse echo of itself. "I couldn't stop."

I had to drop to my knees to hear him, but he didn't say anything more. His body convulsed, and he died in the messy way all men do. Tears gathered in my eyes, and I blinked them away.

Tosten bent down slowly and picked up his sword, cleaning it on the bottom of his shirt as he stared at the dead man. "I didn't even realize it was Penrod until I struck him."

Penrod had been a mainstay of his childhood, too. What there was of it.

I looked up at Tosten. "He died fighting the Vorsag."

"Yes," he said, understanding perfectly without further explanation. Penrod's name wouldn't be blackened by betrayal. He bent and closed Penrod's eyes, then knelt beside me. "Siphern guard his path.

"Why would Penrod try to kill you?" Tosten asked.

I shook my head, feeling incredulous, although the evidence of Penrod's attempt at murder was throbbing painfully. It made no sense.

"Some wizards can control people for a brief time," said Bastilla's voice thoughtfully. From the way Tosten started, he hadn't heard her approach, either. She walked up to us in her blood-splattered leathers. "But to do that, the wizard has to be nearby." There was something wrong with her voice. She and Penrod had been lovers, but she sounded as detached as the huntmaster looking at the stag he'd just brought down.

Bastilla leaned over me to get a better look at Penrod and balanced herself with a hand on my shoulder. I remember a flash of energy gathering there between us, then blackness claimed me, and I knew no more.

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