I was caught in the web I'd spun. Instead of breaking free, I tried to convince myself I was safer there.

"At least he can fight," I heard one of the men mutter to another. I couldn't be sure who it was just from the voice, and my eyes were occupied with my opponent.

"One on one, when he doesn't have to remember orders. But in three years, he'll be giving the orders. I'm gonna be gone by then." No mistaking the oddly nasal tenor of Stala's second. In the three weeks since my father's death, I'd been treated to several variants of this conversation.

A muttered curse from my opponent brought my attention back to the fight. Ilander of Avinhelle was new to the Guard, and this was the first time he'd drawn me for all-out pairs.

The Blue Guards drew fighters from four of the five kingdoms: Shavig, Tallven, Avinhelle, and Seaford. If a man lasted a few years here, he could expect to be first or second in any guard. There weren't any Oranstonians because fifteen years ago, the Blue Guards under my father's command had been instrumental in putting down the Oranstonian Rebellion.

Ilander might have been new, but he understood that my aunt had trained me since I picked up the sword, so he shouldn't have assumed I'd be easy. Still, he'd watched me all week in drills after Stala had announced the participants in the weekly slaughter. But drills were drills, and all-outs were battle. During drills, I regularly "forgot" the patterns, especially if Stala changed them very often. I slowed down and refused to use all my strength against an opponent who was just interested in getting the swings right. Was it my fault Ilander thought that meant I was slow and clumsy? Ilander, who thought that playing tricks on the stupid boy was really funny.

I smiled at him sweetly as I gave an awkward twitch of my sword in a feeble-looking attempt to parry his deadly slice. It made him look really bad when my parry worked. He growled and swung overarm in the mistaken impression I couldn't hit his body with a killing stroke and still catch his blade before he lopped something important off - like my head.

Stala called it with a shrill, two-fingered whistle as soon as the tip of my sword whipped across his belly armor, but it was my blade that stopped his sword. In a serious fight, he would have been dead. If I hadn't caught his blade, I would have been dead, practice or not. He wanted to continue; I could see the rage in his eyes as I met his gaze mildly.

"Good fighting," I said earnestly, stepping back and letting his sword slide off mine. "It was good fighting, wasn't it, Stala?"

Stala snorted. "Ilander, you're not a boy. You should know better than to get angry with your opponent. When you're facing someone who has already proven stronger than you, not to mention faster, it's the height of stupidity to pull a move like that overhand. You're lucky you didn't really get hurt."


"I'm sorry I made you mad, Ilander," I said, giving him my best cow-eyed look. "I won't do it again."

Ilander, who'd been flinching under the sting of my aunt's tongue, returned to his earlier state of rage. His face flushed, and his nostrils flared whitely. "You - "

"Careful," barked Stala, and Ilander shut his teeth with an audible click. When she was satisfied he wasn't going to say anything more, she relaxed. "Go wash up. You're off for the rest of the day. Lucky will take your place on guard duty."

Lucky's position in the circle of guards was just behind Stala and to her right. Being a relatively intelligent man, he stiffened apprehensively. She didn't even look at him, keeping her eyes on the dirt in front of her. "I told you to quit fleecing money from the fledglings, Lucky. How much did you take him for?"

"A silver, sir."

"Betting that he couldn't beat Ward."

"Yes, sir."

"You know what? Sometimes I can work magic better than Licleng. Watch me. Poof!" She raised her hands in a theatrical manner. "That bet didn't happen."

He thought about arguing, opened his mouth to do it twice. "Yes, sir," was all he got out.

Lucky taken care of, Stala turned her attention to me. "Ward, you haven't even worked up a sweat."

I frowned thoughtfully, decided sniffing my armpit would be overkill, then nodded my head.

"After everyone else is through, you and I will have a go of it, eh?"

I smiled and nodded. Even if no one had thought I was stupid before, the smile would have done it. No one beat Stala. Like Lucky, I wondered just how much she knew. Did she, for instance, know that I'd baited Ilander deliberately? Did she intend our upcoming bout to punish me for it?

Sweating enough even for Stala, I limped up the stairs of the keep. Every movement hurt, but that was to be expected. Stala was tall for a woman, and thirty-odd years of fighting had made her muscular. I was stronger, faster, and had a longer reach than she did, but Stala fought dirty. In an all-out, the only thing that mattered was winning, and she liked to win.

I rubbed my left eye cautiously, removing a few more grains of sand. I couldn't use dirty tricks without giving my act away, but I was learning them, all the same.

When I opened the door, Oreg was waiting in my room with a smirk on his face. I forgave him the smirk as soon as I saw the tub of hot water. I dropped my unpleasantly damp clothing and stepped into the water. The tub was built for my father (the only thing besides Axiel that I had appropriated), so I fit inside it. I sighed as the heat pulled the stiffness from my aching muscles.

"Do I thank you or Axiel?" I asked, reaching for a sliver of soap.

"Axiel hauled the water, but I've heated it again."

"Thanks," I said, ducking my head under the water and staying there for a bit. But the stain of what I'd done this morning still clung to me. Oh, there was no shame in losing to my aunt. Everyone lost to her - but most of them couldn't make her work for it. What bothered me was the fight with Ilander.

I came up for air.

"I watched you fight," said Oreg, sitting on my stool and balancing it on two legs without putting his feet on the floor. I wondered if his balance was that good or if he was using magic. My ability to detect magic was a vague thing, and Oreg infused any area he was directly in with so much magic, I had a hard time telling if there were small spells being worked. It felt like Hurog's magic, and I sometimes wondered if he was the magic I could always feel here or if he just tapped into it.

He used his magic a lot more than most magicians I knew - even the good ones at court. I couldn't tell if he was more powerful, less discreet, or just trying to impress me.

"You mean when my aunt almost eviscerated me?"

"No," he smiled at the wall beyond me. "When you made an idiot out of the new guard. Ilandei? No, that's a Tallvenish name and he's Avinhellish. Ilander."

My father was dead. My uncle was acting like a conscientious regent, handling the affairs of Hurog as well as if it were his own estates. Better, perhaps. For the last three days, he'd been out most of the day working to reclaim the land the salt had taken. He'd had broken shells brought from the sea in wagonloads and was directing their spreading on top of the salt. It wouldn't work. My several times great-grandfather, Seleg, had tried something similar when the creep had first been seen, but it hadn't worked. I'd read about it in his journals.

I could have saved Duraugh three days of work. But an idiot would hardly have read the dusty, mostly illegible scrawls hidden on a remote shelf in the library. Guilt vied with fear. No longer was it fear for my life - nothing so noble.

So to distract myself from the guilt of watching Duraugh put all the effort into a losing project, I played games with an unfortunate guardsman while my uncle struggled to do his best for Hurog.

"You showed him," continued Oreg unhelpfully. "He won't try that trick with oatmeal and helmets again. Not on you. He's learned to treat the Hurogmeten with more respect."

I watched Oreg narrowly. Was he commenting or fishing? Could Oreg see the guilt that rode me? I couldn't tell. My father's care had made certain I was very good at reading people, but Oreg was another matter altogether. He'd been a slave for a very long time.

I grabbed another sliver of soap and used it to scrub my hands clean of the metallic odor of my sword.

"What was my uncle like as a boy?" I asked to distract him from this morning's fight.

"I think I liked him." Oreg's stool rocked back and forth. "It's been too long ago. I used to remember everything, but I stopped doing that. Now I forget as fast as I can." His face had a blank inward look that made me uneasy. It usually precluded some of his odder moments.

"You think I should let him know," I accused. "You were the one who told me to listen to my instincts."

He set the stool carefully down on all four feet, then slid off and away, out of my reach. Pansy was coming along much faster than Oreg, but then Pansy had only four years of mistreatment to forget. "What could he really do to you? You're not twelve anymore. I think...I think that the pretense is harming you more than it is protecting you."

"I'm going riding," I said, standing up in a rush of water, ignoring his flinch at my sudden movement. I took a bit of toweling and dried myself briskly. "I need to clear my head."

As I dried off, I couldn't keep my lip from curling up in a self-directed sneer. Oreg was right: Regardless of my uncle's trustworthiness, it was time to throw off the disguise, but that's where the fear came in. I didn't want to confess to my uncle that I'd hidden myself under a mask of stupidity for seven years out of fear of my father. It had been easier to tell Oreg, but then Oreg knew my father as I had. He had been here when my father had beaten me almost to death in a frenzy of jealous rage.

It was beautifully ironic. I, who had pretended for a third of my life to be an idiot, didn't want to appear to be a fool.

I laughed shortly and stalked to the wardrobe to get fresh clothing. "When I get back, I'll tell my uncle that I'm not as dumb as I look."

I hadn't ridden Pansy much yet, and the ride I envisioned wasn't one that would do him any good at this stage. My usual mount for my mountain runs was a big liver chestnut mare I called Feather for the wisp of white on her wide forehead. She was deep chested, big boned, and loved to run as much as I needed her to.

For her, the wild race over the side of the Hurog mountains was fun; for me, it was a necessary escape. While we raced up narrow trails and down steep-sided gorges, I had to keep my mind on where we were going rather than let my thoughts twist round and round about matters I had no control over.

While we ran, the only thing that was real was the heaving of her great barrel under my calves and the thunder of her hooves. I smelled the sweat of her effort and heard the even rhythm of her breaths. When that rhythm broke, I would stop.

The trail I directed her to today was challenging, full of dead-fallen timber and abrupt twists. We both knew it well. Usually, we stopped at the top of a craggy ridge near a lightning-struck tree and turned back toward Hurog at a saner pace. But when we flew past the tree, Feather was fresh, and I was still twisting between right and embarrassment.

We tore around a sharp corner at the top of a steep slope. I leaned my weight to the inside to help her negotiate the abrupt turn, and the soft soil under her outside hoof gave way.

She would have fallen then, and we'd have rolled all the way to the bottom of the mountain, except that I shifted my not inconsiderable weight and pulled her head around to send us galloping swiftly down terrain that was little better than cliff face.

I gripped her with my legs and watched her ears so I could anticipate the direction she would dodge around the larger rocks. I had to steady her head without interfering in her frantic attempt to keep her legs under her as our combined weight pulled us downward. If the slope hadn't been so steep, I could have thrown my weight back and asked her to slide on her haunches, but here such a move would have been fatal. There was a tangle of downed trees at the bottom, and somehow she managed to leap and jump through them at a speed no sane horse would have taken.

If she had been a fraction less bold, we'd never have made it. I honestly don't know how she kept her feet - nor for that matter how I stayed on top while she did it - but we were still upright when she stumbled to a halt. Her breathing rocked me, and the sweat of terror and effort warmed my legs.

"Shh, Feather," I said, patting her neck. "What a good girl you are, what a lady," and other such nonsense until the white left her eye and she rubbed her head on my knee with one of those incredible contortions horses are capable of.

I swung off and landed on wobbly legs. I checked Feather over thoroughly, but she only had two minor cuts and no lameness. By the time we were halfway home, she was cool and relaxed, unlike me. I'd almost killed the both of us with my stupidity. When we got home, I'd explain everything to my uncle.

The grooms were working on a pair of strange horses that looked even more tired than my poor Feather when I rode into the stable yard. From the colors on their headstalls, gold and gray, they were Garranon's.

Garranon was an Oranstonian noble; moreover, he was the high king's favorite. Normally, he spent all of his time at court or hunting on the estates of various acquaintances because Oranstonian lords, even the king's favorite, were forbidden to spend much time at their own estates, a consequence of the Oranstonian Rebellion. I couldn't fathom what he would be doing here.

There was no one in the great hall except for Oreg when I came in. He stood splay-legged, hands clasped behind his back, and stared at the ancient message, the Hurog curse, carved into the wall.

There was such intentness in his expression that I stared at it, too, but it hadn't changed. The runes still looked as though they had been rough-carved with a hunting knife, but no knife I'd seen would dig into stone. In some places, the writing implement had dug in almost a finger's length, and at others, it was little more than a faded scratch. Each rune was nearly as tall as me.

"Oreg?" I said, after a quick glance to confirm that the room was empty. I was the only one who saw him whenever he was present. He used some sort of magic to keep other people from seeing him, though he usually showed himself to Ciarra, too. I'd learned to be very careful about talking to him in public places. I was supposed to be stupid, not crazy.

Magic began to gather in the room so strongly it brought a flush to my face. Much more magic than usually surrounded Oreg.

"Oreg?" I asked with a bit more urgency.

"I wrote this," he said, waving a hand at the wall. "I did it after he killed the dragon. Her eyes shimmered with silver waves, and he killed her, so I presented Hurog's future to him."

"It looks like a lot of work," I observed, trying to draw his attention. I'd begun to recognize when Oreg was about to have one of his fits. Sometimes he talked to people who weren't there or just stared blindly through me. Usually, he left abruptly, and the next time I saw him, he was fine. But once or twice, I'd been able to pull his attention to me and stop the fit.

"He couldn't read it - illiterate bastard." His voice hit the last word with raw hatred.

"It's in old Shavig. Not many people can read it," I commented.

"He had me beaten when I told him what it said." As he spoke, the threads of his shirt parted in a short, straight line down his back from his right shoulder to his right hip. He flinched, and another line of broken threads appeared. Incredulously, I saw blood darken the edges of the material, but Oreg didn't turn his attention from the wall.

"Oreg," I said, trying to keep my voice calm, though this time I could hear the snap of a whip as a third invisible blow hit him.

My mother could work illusions. Sometimes I'd walk into a room in the castle, and it would be filled with vines and exotic flowers from her homeland in southern Tallven. This didn't feel like an illusion: Blood dripped from his back to the dusty floor.

"Oreg, that was a long time ago. He can't hurt you anymore," I said.

"He could have killed me," continued Oreg in that unnaturally calm voice.

I stepped between him and the wall to catch his eyes, but when I saw his face, I couldn't say another word. His face was swollen past recognition, and white bone showed through his cheek.

"But he didn't. He had someone else use the whip. Do you know why?"

"No," I whispered. "Tell me."

"Because he didn't want to lose Hurog. He knew how much I wanted to die. He wore the ring so only he could kill me, and he knew that's why I baited him. So he had someone else do it."

"Oreg," I said, touching the top of his head gently, for it was the only place unmarked by ancient pain.

"Ward?" said my uncle just behind me. "Who are you talking to?" His voice was soft; it sounded very much like the voice I was using on Oreg, whom he obviously couldn't see.

So much for my plan to explain to Duraugh that I was really normal.

"I was reading the words on the wall," I said without looking around. "My brother Tosten tried to teach them to me once, but I only remember a little."

"Ah," said my uncle, sounding much relieved. "Garranon and his brother are here."

I turned abruptly from Oreg, trying not to react when he began a high-pitched keening as I pulled the shield of stupidity firmly around me. The visitors had hung back while my uncle approached, but it only took me a few strides to reach them.

"Garranon!" I grabbed his hand hard and shook it vigorously, despite his decorous attempts to escape. Then I slapped him on the back, holding him in position with the hand I still held.

He gave a muffled yelp. My uncle threw his arm around my shoulder and pulled me off unobtrusively. "Lord Garranon and his brother Landislaw have ridden all the way from court this past week," my uncle said.

Garranon was about average height with fine-boned features, curly brown hair, and thin lips that smiled too easily. He looked younger than he was, which I suppose was the attraction he still held for the king. His brother Landislaw looked very like him, but somehow Landislaw made the same features appear rugged rather than aristocratic. On Landislaw, Garranon's thin nose became strong and masculine. The narrow lips were firm, the smile charming. With the two of them together, one thought of scholar and warrior or stag and blooded bull - or so the ladies of the court said.

After I made everyone sufficiently uncomfortable by staring at them, I nodded my head. "Court is boring. I would have come here, too."

Landislaw laughed. "Truthfully said. I've enjoyed this past week more than any week at court. I'll be sorry to see it over." Landislaw was a panderer and a bully whom I disliked intensely.

Garranon was still rubbing his shoulder unobtrusively, but he had court manners. "I wish to express my condolences."

I looked at him inquiringly.

"For your father," he said.

"Oh," I said with sudden comprehension. "Yes, for my father. Died a few weeks ago."

Disconcerted at my lack of filial mourning, Garranon's practiced speech left him. I liked Garranon more than I wanted to like the high king's favorite. I liked him even better now when his presence meant I had to wait to tell Duraugh the truth.

My uncle stepped in smoothly. "Now that Ward's here, perhaps you will tell us what brings you here, my lords."

"Hunting?" I asked. Oreg had quit making any noise but soft grunts, but the sound of leather hitting flesh echoed in the hall, and the thick magic kept me from concentrating on our guests.

Garranon snorted sourly. "Yes, we're hunting - but not the kind you mean. Landislaw bought a slave from an acquaintance. Now he finds that the slave wasn't his friend's to sell." A slave? Poor abject things, they were commonplace in Estian at the high king's Tallvenish court as well as other parts of the Five Kingdoms. Shavigmen didn't own slaves.

"It belonged to his father," added Landislaw with a graceful grimace.

"His father," continued Garranon sourly, "is Black Ciernack."

"The moneylender?" asked my uncle, clearly shocked. Maybe he hadn't heard the rumors about Garranon's brother.

Oh, Landislaw was not in debt, quite the contrary. He brought friends from court into friendly gambling dens, just seedy enough to appeal to the jaded young courtiers. The dens belonged to Ciernack. If Landislaw's friends lost money there, it surely wasn't his fault. Just ask him.

"The moneylender," agreed Garranon. "Before Landislaw could return her, she ran away. So we've been chasing her ever since. Frankly, if Landislaw hadn't discovered that someone had been feeding her stories that Hurog is a refuge for slaves, we'd never have found her. From the tracks we've followed, she's in a tunnel down by the river. I don't know how she got in there: We couldn't move that grate. But her footprints continued beyond the grating."

Garranon was speaking to me rather than my uncle. It was one of the things that made me like him. Most people at court tried very hard to forget I was there, even if I was standing beside them.

I frowned at the floor. "Sewers."

Garranon snapped his fingers. "Of course. I was wondering what that tunnel was. I'd forgotten that this place - " He made a sweeping gesture around the room."  -  was dwarven made."

"No," I corrected. "Just the sewers."

"Ah." Garranon nodded. "Even so. We have an escaped slave in your sewers, and we can't get beyond the grate that seems to be sealed to the tunnel mouth."

Not when I'd been there last, I thought. As far as I knew, the grate should still be off its hinges, because I'd forgotten about it. Oreg must have sealed it after the slave ran inside. He had more reason than most to care for a runaway slave. Perhaps that was what had set him off on his fit.

Behind me, the sound of the whip had become rhythmical, though Oreg had quit making any sound at all.

"We left the men and dogs there and came here to see if you had a way into the sewers," said Garranon.

"No," I said.

"You've been in the sewers, Ward," reminded my uncle with a frown. "Certainly you know how to get into them."

I nodded. I did indeed. "No slaves at Hurog."

Garranon and his brother regarded me warily, but my uncle began frowning. He knew what I meant; I could see the apprehension in his eyes. I had no particular fondness for slavery or Landislaw. If Oreg wanted to save the poor thing, I felt no compunction about helping him.

"We followed her in," said Landislaw slowly, perhaps thinking I'd understand it better that way. "She went in through the grate. We could track her that far. But she won't be able to get back out that way, since we left men guarding the grate. We need a way in."

"Only way in is through the grates," I said mildly.

"You can open them?" snapped Landislaw, dropping his pleasant act. He must be really worried. It didn't bother me to see him sweat. One of the boys Landislaw had led into Black Ciernack's nets had killed himself. He'd been a good lad, kind to his stupid friends.

"Yes," I agreed.

"Then let's go get the slave out," snapped Landislaw, ignoring his brother's hand on his shoulder.

"There is no slave," I said, smiling at him as if I thought he were hard of understanding.

My uncle bowed his head, shaking it slowly.

Perhaps forgetting that my stupidity was in my head and not my body, Landislaw grabbed my upper arms.

"Wrestling," I said happily and tossed him a dozen feet into the pack of mastiffs that usually lolled about the fireplace when no one had them out hunting. "I like wrestling."

"Not," said my uncle firmly, "in the keep, if you will, Ward."

I looked hurt and pointed at Landislaw. "He started it."

Garranon had turned away so that I was the only one who saw his grin.

"I don't think he intended to wrestle with you, Ward," replied Duraugh in a long-suffering voice. He walked to the sputtering lordling who was fighting off the cheerful tongues of half a dozen dogs. "Here, now Courser, behave yourself. Down, Two-Spot. My lord, take my hand. You might remember that my nephew likes nothing more than a good wrestling bout. He's civilized enough if you keep your hands off him." There was cool rebuke in his voice.

Landislaw gave me a cold look, but he'd gone beyond the bounds of guest manners, and he knew it. He took my uncle's hand and climbed to his feet.

"I believe I know what Ward was trying to tell you," continued Duraugh, escorting Landislaw back where Garranon and I waited. "As someone must have told your runaway, by ancient law, there are no slaves at Hurog."

"I knew that, my lord," said Garranon, "but what does your choosing not to own slaves have to do with our slave?"

"You don't understand, my lords," apologized my uncle. He repeated himself. "There are no slaves here. If your slave has made it onto Hurog land, then she is no longer a slave."

Landislaw looked at him in disbelief. "You're jesting."

Garranon turned to my uncle, though he kept a tight grip on his brother's arm. "Lord Duraugh, surely you could make an exception this time."

"No," I said firmly, though my uncle was nodding. "There are no slaves at Hurog. As I am Hurogmeten, caretaker of these lands, there are no slaves here. All who come to Hurog are free to stay here peacefully; Hurog is sanctuary to all." It took me a good long while to get it out, not being particularly swift of tongue.

My uncle recognized the song I quoted from, one of the more famous sagas about my hero, the Hurogmeten Seleg. (Seleg hadn't started the tradition of no slavery - it was an earlier Hurogmeten who needed people to help farm the land - but Seleg had revived it.) The other two men, not being Hurogs, stared at me as if I were a cow that suddenly began talking.

"Ward, that is only a story," Duraugh said carefully. Testing, I think, to see how he could persuade me.

I smiled. "Mother told me I should be like Seleg." I could see the dismay in my uncle's eyes.

Every man who lived on Hurog lands knew the stories, and there wasn't a man here (or woman for that matter) who didn't revere old Seleg. Reminded that Seleg had taken pride in Hurog's refuge status, they would all be on my side, whether my uncle agreed or not, and he knew it. Landislaw was not going to leave with his slave. Poor Landislaw.

Duraugh frowned heavily at me. "Gentlemen, give me some time to talk with Ward..."

"Should be locked up..." said Landislaw.

My uncle raised his voice. "I'm sure that you and your men are very tired. I'll station a few of the Blue Guard at the sewer tunnel and let you and your men rest You'll feel better after a good meal and some sleep. Ward, you need to change out of your riding gear. I'll be up in a moment to discuss some business that has come up since you left this morning."

Oreg screamed suddenly, and I couldn't help flinching.

Garranon stiffened, an odd, listening look on his face. "What was that?"

"What?" asked Duraugh.

"That sound. Like something dying..." his voice trailed off when he realized no one else was reacting.

"Ghost," I said casually. "I'll go clean up, now." I bowed to everyone in general and bounced up the stairs in character. As soon as everyone cleared out, I planned to go back and check on Oreg.

Axiel waited for me in my rooms. Mutely, he helped me disrobe and wash up. He didn't even comment about the new set of Oreg-sewn clothes lying on my bed ready for me to wear to dinner. I'd have to talk to Oreg about that. I didn't mind Axiel knowing about the "family ghost," but it wouldn't do to have him the topic of common gossip.

My bedroom door opened just as Axiel was tightening the lacing on my left arm - the right was already done.

"If I could speak to you for a moment alone?" asked my uncle.

I nodded. Axiel finished the lacing and bowed his head shortly. "I'll be in my quarters if you need me."

Duraugh waited until the valet left before he began pacing back and forth. "Out of the mouths of children and..." His voice trailed off before he added "idiots."

"Where did you get your sense of right and wrong, Ward? Not from Fen, I vow. Much as I loved him, he was a chip off our father, and Da would have laughed himself to butter if someone reminded him that Hurog was supposed to be a refuge."

I stood where I was, moving my head with his pacing - something that looked particularly idiotic. I stopped when I remembered that I was going to tell my uncle the truth.

He halted midstride as if it had only been my head movements that had powered his steps. "I came up here to argue with you. If word of this gets out, we'll be a target for every runaway slave in the Five Kingdoms. We'll be laughed at in the king's court. But that wouldn't matter to you, would it?"

He didn't sound like he wanted an answer, so I didn't answer him directly. "In Hurog there are no slaves."

He sighed, but it sounded almost like a sigh of relief. He stared past me, speaking as if to himself. "There are no slaves at Hurog. The ancient law, written into our charter by the first high king states when any slave sets foot here, they are freemen from that time forth. That my father and his father chose to forget it makes it nonetheless true. Landislaw and Garranon will just have to take their chances with Ciernack. Seleg's word still holds true in Hurog."

"Garranon's all right." I said. "Landislaw can rot."

Duraugh frowned. "You don't like him? Why not?"

This was my chance to tell him that I was smarter than he knew. But my tongue was never swift, and in the end, I just shrugged. I'd wait until Garranon was gone.

"If you had liked him, would you have declared the slave free?" asked my uncle.

I frowned at him. It was a good question. Was most of my decision based on spite? Would I have remembered the ancient laws if Landislaw hadn't been in the middle of it? I thought of Oreg mourning in the great hall and the chained dragon somewhere below the keep. Too many Hurogs had forgotten their laws over the centuries.

"'There are no slaves at Hurog," I said.

My uncle gave me an odd smile and half bowed in a gesture of respect. "Indeed." He shut the door behind him.

The only slave who remained in Hurog said, "Ward? You won't turn her in?"

I turned to see Oreg standing before the panel in my wall that had opened into the passages. The cuts and marks were gone, and he seemed lucid again, though he hugged himself and shifted from one foot to the other anxiously.

I wished suddenly that I knew how to free him, too. Perhaps I'd talk to one of the king's sorcerers next time I was at court, though I wasn't sure I wanted anyone else to know our secrets. I also doubted that even one of the king's wizards could unlock an enchantment that would last so many years. Everyone knew that mages were more powerful in the Age of the Empire.

"I won't turn her in," I said.

Oreg raised his chin. "Really?"

"Really." I hoped the firmness in my voice was enough to convince him. "You've seen that she has bedding and food?"

"Yes," he whispered, "but she's still scared. I put her in the cave with the dragon bones." In a softer voice, he said, "She hasn't seen me. I just put warm things and food in the cave. I should have told you this morning."

"You've sealed her in the cave?" I asked. "She's been there all day?"

He nodded.

"I'll go talk to her," I said. "She should be all right in the keep, even if Garranon and Landislaw haven't left yet. Or she can wait there if she likes and you have no objections."

Oreg had come to me for help. Yesterday, Pansy had whickered when I came up to his paddock. Miracles do happen. Oreg stared at me uncertainly - looking as young as my brother had that last day. Sometimes I could forget what Oreg was, but not after the scene in the great room a few minutes ago. He'd come for help, but he didn't quite trust me enough to take it.

"She will be safe," I assured him.

Though he didn't move, the panel behind him slid open. He turned on his heel and walked through. I followed, and the panel slid shut behind me. This time, the passage was very short into the dragon cave, as if it were merely adjacent to my room instead of deep in the heart of Hurog. As I crossed into the cavern, I noticed two things: The first was a strange, thrumming noise inside, and the second was the magic filling the cavern like thick soup fills a pot. I could see faint glows twinkling among the rocks, and the back of my neck kept telling me that there were things watching from the shadows.

When I stopped, Oreg turned back to me and said,

"She's trying to work magic, but she isn't strong enough to break my protection of the bones here in Hurog."

We hadn't been quiet coming in, but she didn't seem aware of us as we maneuvered through the rubble to the sandy area where the dragon bones lay. She sat in front of the skull. Her hair hung in matted, filthy clumps halfway down her back. She was so dirty it was hard to tell much more about her, even in the light provided by the dwarvenstones. The thrumming sound I'd heard was her singing, though it sounded like no music I'd ever heard.

I was watching her so closely, it took me a moment to notice that the chains were off the skeleton. I'd thought about doing it myself but had come to the conclusion that it was too much like hiding my family's guilt. A dragon's remains being found deep in Hurog would not be surprising; having it bound made our culpability clear to any who saw it. So I'd left it as it was.

"Welcome, fair traveler, to Hurog's hearth." I gave her the traditional greeting, making her status as my guest real, whether she realized it or not.

She must have been absorbed in her spells, because at my words, she jumped to her feet like a startled rabbit, and her voice choked off. Before I could say anything further, she made a throwing gesture with her right hand and a flaming, crackling something launched itself from her hand with blinding speed.

Then it stopped several lengths in front of us and winked out.

"Peace, little sister," crooned Oreg. "I'm sorry I had to leave you here, but I had to know what the Hurogmeten intended before I knew what I could do for you."

She lifted her chin. "I am not your sister." Her voice shook, disguising everything about her accent except that she had one.

"Why did you come to Hurog?" I asked peaceably.

"I thought Hurog was supposed to be a place of refuge, where dragons and slaves are safe. The others laughed at me. Then I came here and found they were right." She gestured toward the dragon's chains that lay near her.

I decided she was probably from Avinhelle, though Ilander's accent was much thicker. The Avinhelle folk were given to slavery, so that would make sense. But something about her didn't ring true; she didn't sound as subservient as she should if she were a slave.

"You are safe here," I said earnestly. "You may stay at Hurog if you wish. It might be wiser to stay down here until Garranon and Landislaw are gone, but that is up to you."

"Who are you to say this?" she asked scornfully after staring at the two of us a moment. "The both of you are little more than children." The effect was ruined when her voice broke.

Lines of weariness gathered about her mouth and eyes. Garranon and Landislaw had looked tired, but they'd been on horseback. She'd been...I looked down and muffled an exclamation. She'd been barefoot.

"Oreg," I said, ignoring her earlier question. "See her feet?"

He looked down. "I'll get a pail of water and some of Penrod's witch hazel brew from the stables," he said and vanished.

The woman's eyes widened, and she sat down abruptly. "Who are you?" This time there was no accusation in her voice.

"Ward," I said companionably. "My father, Fenwick of Hurog, died a few weeks ago, so I am Hurogmeten - though my uncle rules Hurog until I'm one and twenty."

"And he?" She asked gesturing vaguely at where Oreg had been standing.

"Oh, Oreg?" I thought about what I could tell her. "He's a friend."

"He is a wizard," she said, almost to herself.

"Well," I confided, deep in my role as idiot, because that was how I always dealt with people, "I really don't think he's a wizard. We have a wizard here, but he doesn't look at all like Oreg."

"Wizards don't all look alike," she said in surprise.

"Uncle Duraugh's wizard and Father's wizard look alike," I protested.

"That's because they're brothers, Ward," murmured Oreg gently, returning from his errands.

I blinked at him for a moment. It was easier than usual to look stupid. I wasn't used to him popping in and out in front of me. "Oh, right. I'd forgotten that."

I motioned her to a broken slab of rock that was just a little low to be comfortable.

"I'm pretty good at this," I said, taking the bucket from Oreg and setting it on the ground at a comfortable distance in front of her. "The Brat used to cut her feet up all the time because she didn't like wearing women's slippers. Got her some good woodsmen's boots. Mother didn't like them, but she didn't have to doctor the Brat's feet, either." By the time I finished speaking, she looked calmer.

I took the pottery bottle holding Penrod's brew and uncorked it. I poured a fair portion into the bucket. Cautiously, she put her feet into the bucket, hissing when the disinfectant touched the cuts. I dipped the clean vegetable brush Oreg handed me into the bucket and pulled out a foot.

She'd done some damage. The whole bottom of her foot was raw and embedded with dirt. Knowing that there was nothing I could do to lessen the pain of scrubbing, I set about doing it well once, so I wouldn't have to do it again. When I was satisfied I'd gotten all the grit and filth out of that foot, I set it back in the water and picked up the other one.

All in all, she was a strange slave, I thought. For one thing, she'd demonstrated she was mageborn when she'd thrown magic at us. Although I suppose a mage could be made a slave, I'd never heard of one. For another, tired as she must be, she had none of the dull helplessness I'd seen in all the slaves I'd ever met.

"What will your uncle do when he knows I'm here?" she asked tightly.

"He already knows," I replied, frowning. There was some infection starting on this foot already.

"My lord?" said Oreg, his face going distant. "Your uncle is looking for you. Supper is ready."

"Can you finish here?" I asked.

He nodded, his eyes still unfocused. "If you hurry, you can meet him in your rooms."

Garranon and Landislaw were seated on either side of my mother, across from my uncle and the Brat, while I sat at the head of the table. Garranon was his usual smooth self, but Landislaw was grim and silent.

"So," said Duraugh. "What is the news from court? I haven't been there since Winterfair."

Garranon set down the bite he had been going to eat and said, "King Jakoven is worried about Vorsag, still." Vorsag lay just to the south of the Five Kingdoms, along Oranstone's southernmost border. "The new ruler, Kariarn, is said to be unstable, and there is some question as to whether he will hold to his father's treaties."

"There was some question as to whether Kariarn's father would hold to the treaties," replied my uncle. "I've met Kariarn, and I'd say there is no question at all about him. He'll hold them as long as it suits him and not a moment more. I've heard that there have been Vorsagian border raids in Oranstone."

Garranon nodded. "I've sent most of my men back to my lands with my arms master."

"But your estate is more than six leagues from Vorsag," said Duraugh, his voice tautening from relaxed conversation to honest interest. "If there are bandits that far in, why isn't the king sending troops?"

"King Jakoven accepts Kariarn's claims that it's a few lone bandit clans increasing their activity, or even Oranstonians doing the raiding themselves." I'd never heard Garranon utter a word against the high king, but there was a bitter edge to his voice. "Jakoven won't declare war over a few bandit raids."

"War?" I asked, trying to sound eager, the way an idiot who was good at fighting would say it.

Garranon shrugged. "The king won't go to war over Oranstone unless the Vorsag decide to start taking land rather than riches and lives." He said it with casual ease, and I wondered if I'd imagined the earlier bitterness. He was Oranstonian, but he'd been the king's lover for fifteen years.

I turned my outward attention to my food. War would mean leaving Hurog in the hands of...someone...while Duraugh, I, and the Blue Guard traveled all the way across the Five Kingdoms to Oranstone. With the threat of bad harvest, it wouldn't do Hurog any good at all, except there would be fewer mouths to feed.

Like my uncle, I'd met the Vorsagian king, Kariarn, at court. He was one of those men who was not particularly blessed in feature or form but left you believing he was. He'd been decked with bone charms and followed about by a handful of mages. The official word was that he was a mage himself, but I thought not. His attitude about magic was wrong for a wizard; reverently obsessive, when the wizards I knew reveled in it.

"Don't you, Ward?" asked Landislaw.

I looked up. "What? I was thinking."

He smiled. "Your uncle was just telling us about your father's horse. Said it was a killer, but you have it following you around like a lady's puppy."

"Easy to get a horse to follow you," I said cheerfully. " 'Nuther matter to ride him. Had me off three times this week."

"Hmm," said Landislaw neutrally. "I was observing to your uncle that you collect misfits like the stallion. You did it at court. Remember that gawky girl last year, Garranon? Even look at your sister - though a woman who can't speak is not a bad thing. And now you're trying to add my slave."

Duraugh and Garranon smiled politely; the Brat looked nervous and tried to be invisible in her seat.

Mother looked up and said in the rambling-dreamy way she had this late in the day, "But of course he does. If he weren't the heir, he'd have been sent to apprentice with the mages, but his father wouldn't hear of it. The High King Jakoven himself commanded Fen to do it. We don't have nearly enough mages anymore. But before Fen could send him, there was that terrible accident. And then Ward wasn't at all suitable for learning magic." She turned back to her meal.

Landislaw frowned at her. "What does that have to do with Ward's strays?"

Mother chewed daintily and swallowed, then washed her food down with a small sip of wine. "He's a finder - like the ones in the stories. He finds lost things - and they find him." Her pupils were pinpoints, though the hall was only dimly lit by oilcloth-covered skylights. I wondered which of the herbs in her garden she'd been eating. Dream-root didn't affect the pupils.

I'd almost expected her to get better after Father died, but she seemed instead to lose herself in the role of grieving widow. The woman who'd made my blocks move around the room was gone for good.

"I don't think it works that way, Lady Hurog," objected my uncle. "If he were still a finder, and Fen told me that his abilities disappeared when..." He glanced at me, but I chewed unworriedly and rather loudly on a raw carrot. "When he was hurt. If he were still a finder, he would find things; they wouldn't find him."

"Yes, dear," said Mother, just as she had to Father. "I'm sure you're right."

I coughed, feeling sorry for my uncle. It's hard to argue with someone who slides away from your point like wet oatmeal slides around a spoon. Garranon looked particularly uncomfortable, and it occurred to me that eating at a table with Mother and me would not be a treat.

I finished the last bit of bread on my wooden trencher and got up. Duraugh looked at me and frowned, trying to remind me that it was rude for the host to leave while people were still eating. But I thought I'd let Duraugh explain that Hurog was going to hold Landislaw's slave without me.

"Pansy," I said. "He needs some carrots." I showed everyone the ones I'd stolen from the table. The Brat grabbed the remnants of her bread and jumped up after me.

"All right," I said before my uncle could say something about her manners. "You can come. Stay out of the way. If Pansy hurts you, it will make him feel bad."

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