Running is an act of cowardice. Not that cowardice is necessarily bad. As my aunt used to say, "Moderation in all things."

After I was through with Pansy, Ciarra followed me back to my room and manipulated me into a game of thieves and kings. The contest depended purely upon chance, and she was always confoundedly lucky - or else she knew how to cheat.

Oreg watched from his perch on his favorite stool and snickered or rolled his eyes at me as she trounced me. Oreg never hid from Ciarra unless there was someone else present.

"To bed," I said sternly when she'd beaten me yet again.

She laughed, kissed me on the cheek, and danced out of the room.

I waited until the door shut firmly behind her before I turned to Oreg. "How's our fugitive?"

He smiled lazily at me. "Sleeping. She'll stay underground until the other two leave. She doesn't like Landislaw much."

"Nor do I," I admitted freely. "I'll be happy when they're gone from here."

Someone knocked politely at my door.

"I'll just check on our sleeping guest and leave you to deal with Garranon," Oreg said and disappeared. His stool stayed on two legs for a moment before falling to the floor with a loud clatter.


I hadn't changed for bed yet, so I didn't even have to slow for my robes when I answered the knock. Garranon stood just outside the door.

"Hello," I said with an easy grin, holding the door back so he could come in.

He took the door out of my hand and closed it behind him. He stepped close to me and said, "I need your help, Ward."

I blinked at him stupidly. He needed my help?

"I found this in my brother's pack tonight," he said, taking a bundled cloth from his belt pouch. "I wondered if you had seen anything like it before."

As I bent down to get a closer look, he lifted the cloth and blew the gray green powder it had contained into my face. Before I fell, I saw him step back and cover his nose.

I awoke and dreamed that I was twelve again and I couldn't move. People shuffled about me, but I couldn't make sense of what they were saying. I screamed and howled in gibbering fear, but not even a whisper broke through my lips. Finally, the outside noises quieted, and for moment I thought it was because my ears had quit working, too.

Then Oreg's voice broke through the fog surrounding me.

"I had to wait until they left, Ward," he said urgently. "Don't be angry with me. Please, please don't be. I'll break you free of it. It's all right."

As the bonds of the magic Garranon used broke, I rolled to my knees with a gasp. "Ah gods," I pleaded, involuntary tears rolling down my face.

"Shh, shh," Oreg whispered, patting me anxiously on the hand. He kept his body angled away from me, afraid that I was going to hit him for not rescuing me sooner. His fear and my ability to move again brought me to myself.

"It's fine," I said. "Thank you." My voice sounded as hoarse as if I had screamed.

I wiped my face with shaking hands and realized I was on my own bed. I struggled to think. Why had Garranon imprisoned me in a spell and then left me in my room?

Oreg's head came up. "They're coming back. What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing," I said. "Not unless I ask you."

I could hear voices outside now. My uncle was very angry.

"Don't let them see you."

I stretched back out on the bed and closed my eyes.

"Not so stiff," warned Oreg, so I relaxed as well as I could as the door opened.

"My dear sir," said Garranon in a bored voice, "Ward is unfit to hold Hurog. To ensure for his proper care, he is to be delivered to the royal asylum in Estian as his father requested. I've shown you the king's writ. You don't even have to worry about the usual charges for this service. Knowing the state of Hurog's wealth, I have donated the fee myself."

My father had intended to imprison me in the King's Asylum?

"That was five years ago," argued my uncle. "Fenwick feared the damage to Ward was more extensive than it was."

"The Hurogmeten just didn't want to pay the fees," corrected Garranon dryly, "which I have done. The only thing you can affect now is who holds Hurog. If you help me recover the slave, I will see that you are named lord in Ward's place."

My uncle inhaled deeply in surprise or excitement. There was a long pause. What was taking him so long to accept? Here was his opportunity to have Hurog with no blame to himself.

Garranon's voice grew slick and sweet. "The king will listen to me on such a matter, especially since Ward's younger brother has been missing for over two years. Long enough to presume him dead."

"You tie my hands," said my uncle.

"You tied your own hands when you allowed the boy to make all the decisions," replied Garranon calmly. "When we found out the girl was headed here, I thought we might need this. I know your nephew from court. He recites ballads about Seleg by the hour to anyone who will listen."

Only to the people who really annoyed me, I thought.

"I knew he would hold to the old ways. He is too...innocent to be negotiated out of it. Unlike you and me."

A hand came down and rested briefly on my forehead - my uncle's hand. "Do you torture puppies, too?" he murmured.

"To protect my brother I would." Garranon's voice was hard.

"I will speak to King Jakoven." Duraugh's tone held warning. "I am not without influence."

I couldn't see it without opening my eyes, but I heard Garranon's smile in his voice. "He will not reconsider. I will have that slave."

Not if Oreg had anything to say about it, I thought. Unless they took Hurog apart stone by stone, she would be safe.

"My lord Duraugh," continued Garranon, "think of it this way. How long would Hurog survive with an idiot to run it?"

From the sound of my uncle's voice as he replied, I knew he was pacing. "And what if I don't want Hurog? Look at it. It's just an old keep, smaller than my own. The only reason it's still standing is sheer Shavig stubbornness. It's too far north to do much more than to feed itself. This year it's not even going to do that. The old mines are played out and have been for generations." He was trying to convince himself, but I heard in his voice the same soul-deep hunger I had for Hurog. I wondered if Garranon noticed.

"Poor? What about the dwarves' treasure? I've heard there was gold, gems, and magical amulets," said Landislaw. I hadn't known he was there until he spoke. I couldn't tell if he was serious or if he was just making one of his idle, cutting comments - or both.

"There have been people searching for treasure since before my grandfather was born," my uncle snapped impatiently. "If there ever was such a thing, it is long gone."

"Hurog could revert to the high king," said Garranon. "His interests leave him with large debts to cover. If someone - " Threat added an edge to his voice. "  -  suggested that he hold Hurog in trust, he might sell off the horses and anything else of value and leave Hurog to rot. If you help capture my brother's slave, I'll see to it that Hurog is yours."

Silence filled the air.

"To hold in trust for my missing nephew, Tosten," said my uncle finally, giving in. "You may have the slave as soon as we get her out."

"I thought you might be reasonable, Duraugh. But you'll forgive me if I post my own guard on Ward's door. In the morning, a delegation of my men will escort Ward to the asylum. Landislaw and I will stay here until you collect his slave."

"As you wish," my uncle agreed. I heard his footfall approach my bed. He touched my forehead again and left the room without speaking another word.

"We might have trouble with him," observed Garranon.

"No," Landislaw disagreed. "The boy will do well enough in the King's Asylum with all the other noble embarrassments Jakoven collects there. Duraugh knows it. His position will hardly change at all. Hurog will be better for it, and so will I."

"You will keep your promise to me?" asked Garranon. "You will stay away from Ciernack's gambling halls?"

"Of course," answered Landislaw. "Of course."

Garranon set a guard on the inside of the door and left with his brother. Alone, except for the shufflings of Garranon's man, I examined my options.

Under no circumstances would I allow myself to be incarcerated in the King's Asylum. Father had taken me to see the poor folk who lived there once - possibly to inspect the fate he'd decided upon for me. The visit had filled me with sympathy for the empty-eyed occupants of the barred rooms.

But I knew I wasn't going to see the inside of the asylum. Garranon didn't know what he'd face getting me out of Hurog. Oreg was my secret weapon, but I expect my aunt would have no trouble stopping him, either. She wasn't one to worry about possible political consequences of her actions, and the Blue Guard outnumbered Garranon's men.

But cold fear still coursed through my heart. My father had found a way to keep Hurog from me after all. Hurog earth was in my bones, and its magic ran through my blood. When I wasn't at Hurog, there was an emptiness inside of me that nothing else could fill. Without it, I was nothing.

Stala could drive out Garranon, but the high king would not ignore treason. Eventually, Hurog would fall - destroyed by me.

I'd have to leave. And it was my own fault.

Garranon was clever; otherwise he would not have survived the war that his father had begun. An Oranstone noble of middle rank, when merely a boy he had taken down more powerful men than my uncle. He knew how the game was played.

Within his realm of corruption in the rougher areas of the royal city of Estian, Black Ciernack was as powerful as King Jakoven. So Garranon had gone after the weaker opponent: me, the idiot.

If I'd told my uncle the truth the day my father died, the whole of Shavig and most of the Five Kingdoms would have known there was nothing wrong with me, and Garranon would not have asked the king for the writ. So the loss of Hurog was my fault.

But first I would escape. Then I would kick myself for being as stupid as I pretended. After that, I'd find some way to win Hurog back.

My decisions made, I dozed lightly for a while until the guard's breathing lapsed into the slow patterns of sleep, and I cautiously opened my eyes. But I had to shut them again when someone knocked at the door.

"Who is it?" grumped the guard.

"I have food and drink for you, sir." It was Axiel.

Axiel didn't carry food. He was the Hurogmeten's body servant. Serving maids carried food.

The guard opened the door, and I heard Axiel step in the room and cross to the table near the fireplace. The guard shut the door, and I heard nothing more. No footsteps, no voices, nothing, until Axiel spoke beside my bed.

"Well, now," he said. "What did they do to you, boy?"

I felt a sudden sympathy for Oreg and Pansy. How much could I trust my father's man?

"A spell," I said, sitting up. I dropped the character of Ward the Stupid (a matter of subtle change in enunciation and facial expression) as I continued. "It's just hard to make a spell stick to a Hurogmeten in Hurog."

He stared at me a moment, and I took the opportunity to glance behind him at the crumpled form of Garranon's guard lying bound and gagged on the floor. I knew Axiel was good, but to accomplish so much without me hearing it was better than good.

I tried a smile. "I think that I'd better leave here, unless you can think of a way for me to oppose Garranon's writ incarcerating me without bringing the king's forces down upon Hurog."

The corner of his mouth turned up suddenly. "Can you define incarceration for me, Ward? Or is your intellect too deficient?"

"Guilty as charged," I said.

He laughed once, quietly. "I've watched you at practice with Stala and wondered how a stupid man could fight the way you do. I should have realized that you weren't as stupid as you pretended." His face grew serious. "We'd best go. When Stala heard that you'd been taken, she started gathering supplies at the stables and sent me here."

"There are some others who'll have to come with us," I said, having already thought through my escape that far. "Ciarra can't stay. She's turning into a pretty girl, and there are too many men who look at her as defenseless because she can't cry out, can't tell anyone what was done to her."

"And you won't be around to scare them," agreed Axiel.

"I have Ciarra and Bastilla - the ex-slave - waiting to leave," said Oreg from the other side of the room.

Axiel had his sword drawn and was halfway to Oreg before he'd finished speaking, leading me to conclude that Oreg had decided, for whatever reasons, to show himself.

"Hold, Axiel," I said, keeping my voice down in case someone was walking in the hall outside my door.

Axiel stopped but didn't sheathe his sword.

"Axiel, this is my - " I hesitated. "Cousin." Thanks to my father and grandfather, there were a lot of Hurog "cousins" around. "He's a wizard, and the reason Garranon's spell didn't stick. Oreg, this is my man, Axiel." Oreg already knew him, of course, but I didn't want to advertise it.

Oreg bowed with old-fashioned formality. Axiel nodded in return, sheathing his steel. I didn't want to give him too much time to think until I figured out a better way to explain Oreg.

"Oreg, is there a passage to the stables? There are guards in the hall."

"Of course," he said. He turned to the nearest wall, not the panel he'd used before, and pressed a stone as if there were some mechanical lever behind it. A section of the wall slid back soundlessly, answering, I hoped, any questions Axiel had about how Oreg had come to my room - even if the answer was incorrect.

The passage Oreg led us down had stairs, dwarven-stones, and dust, just like a real secret passageway would. Maybe it was. When we came to a place where the narrow corridor branched, Oreg stopped.

"It will be faster if I take Axiel to get the horses, and you get the others," he said. "They're in the cave."

"Right." I said. "Axiel, we can meet where the two boulders stick up like rabbit ears on the trail to Tyrfannig."

He nodded. With Stala's help, there would be little problem getting the horses out the gates.

I started down the left-hand way as if I knew where it led. Once I was around a corner and out of sight, I stopped and sat down, because I knew very well I wasn't going to find the cave by trailing through miles of passageway.

Unfortunately, there was nothing to do but think. What was I going to do? I had lost Hurog. There was no way around the king's writ except for the king. And I had neither the wealth (even if Hurog's resources had still been mine) nor influence to sway the king. I was just a stupid boy who belonged in the King's Asylum. This would never have happened to my father. He was a war hero.

Oreg didn't bother walking back but simply appeared a few paces away. He took off a money belt I hadn't noticed him wearing and handed it to me. "I told Axiel I'd forgotten some things and I'd meet up with him later. Then I stopped by the study and took money out of the strongbox. Some gold, but mostly silver and copper."

I inspected coins and did some rapid calculations in my head. Taxes would be due after harvest. There were repairs to pay for as well, and hard coin wasn't easily come by. I hadn't even realized Hurog held as much coinage as the belt contained, though it was still far less than a bribe for the king would cost. "How much did you leave?" I put the belt around my waist.

"Enough to do what is necessary. Your father had more than one strong box. This one has been hidden since his death. Hurog is not as pitiful as he liked to pretend."

"Ah," I said for lack of a better response, thinking of all the things a little more gold would have done for Hurog.

"What are your plans, my lord?" asked Oreg.

I started to speak when my thoughts, which had been lingering over my father and the substantial purse I held in my hand, gave me an idea. "My father gave me one gift that might allow me to keep Hurog: Stala's teaching. I know how to lead, to plan battles and, Siphern forbid, when to retreat. I intend to be a war hero." Like my father.

"You have training," conceded Oreg after an unflattering length of time, "but you have no experience and no army - not to mention no war."

I laughed shortly. "My whole life has been a battle. I have experience. If I can prove myself with a sword, it will go a long way to nullifying the king's writ. A nineteen-year-old idiot who is seldom at court is easily disposed of; a commander who has proved his worth in battle cannot be ignored. As for a war, there is fighting going on in Oranstone with Vorsagian raiders. If it's not war yet, it will be soon."

Oreg looked at me as if I were stupid. It was something I was used to, but I didn't like it coming from him, especially when I wasn't playing dumb.

"Commanders generally have armies," he commented. "And heroes are usually dead men. Not coincidentally, dead heroes can't conspire against kings."

I grinned at his dry tone. "Much more convenient for all concerned, I'm sure. But I have no intention of dying. With this much money - " I patted the belt. "I can hire four or five fighting men, and I have Axiel. Enough for a start."

"You'll have me, too," Oreg said. "I asked Axiel to bring an extra horse."

"What?" He had his face in the shadow, so I couldn't be certain of what I'd heard. "Oranstone is halfway to hell from here."

"I know," he said.

I narrowed my gaze at him. "I thought you were Hurog?"

"I am." He gave me a look that was half shy, half smug. "But this body can go with you as long as you wear that ring. I can even work magic - just not as well."

"Can you fight?" I asked. A wizard would certainly be helpful.

"Better than Ciarra, not as well as you."

"Yes, well, that leaves a lot of room," I said.

He smiled slyly.

"Come on then, if you're going to. Let's see to the women and go meet Axiel."

Bastilla, the former slave, and Siarra were waiting for us in the cave along with a small pile of goods. On top of the pile was my chain mail tunic. I'd grabbed my sword before leaving my room, but my hauberk had been tucked in a wardrobe. I was planning on asking Oreg to retrieve it, but he'd anticipated my need.

"Oreg," I said sincerely, "I salute your competence."

Ciarra helped me into the heavy garment, and it settled over my shoulders like a familiar embrace. While I adjusted belts and sheaths, I explained about the writ and Garranon.

When I was through, Ciarra frowned at me. She tapped her forehead twice. Not so stupid, Ward, said the gesture.

"No," I said. "Do you want to come with us?"

She grinned delightedly, and I decided not to tell her I was going to try to find a safe place to leave her until I actually found one; each battle to its own day. My sister taken care of, I turned to the woman beside her.

"Bastilla, I'm sorry that I wasn't able to grant you freedom here, but I'll see to it that you don't go back into slavery."

She didn't react to what I'd said, just studied me.

The rabbit rocks were less than a half mile from the keep because I had to carry Bastilla most of the way. She'd have preferred to walk, but she was too slow.

Penrod and Axiel waited with eight horses behind the pale boulder that stuck up over the tops of the aspen grove surrounding them. Six of the horses were saddled, and two more bore heavy packs. Six with saddles, but there were only five of us.

"Thought you might use an extra hand," Penrod said.

Penrod had fought in the Guard, and he still trained under Stala every day with the rest of the stable hands. My father wanted everyone to be capable of defending Hurog. Three fighting men and a wizard weren't a large force, but it was a good start.

Penrod continued, "My second will tell your uncle that you came to the stables with a strange woman in tow and took the best horses. When I protested, you ordered me to go along and care for them."

"That way they won't tear down the keep looking for Bastilla," observed Oreg approvingly. He held out a hand to Penrod. "I'm Oreg, a cousin of Ward's. He's been letting me hide here while I tried to decide what to do with myself. It seems I'm going to travel with you."

Admiring Oreg's storytelling skills, I introduced Penrod to him, and then Bastilla to Axiel and Penrod. The introductions were necessarily short.

"We need to hurry," said Axiel. "Stala thinks that she can buy us time, but we want to get going."

We turned our attention to getting mounted. For the first time I realized Pansy was among the saddled horses. He snorted at me and shoved his nose in my chest. He wasn't a safe mount yet, but I was pleased to see him, nonetheless. It was Feather's presence that surprised me.

"You brought a mare with the stallion, Penrod?" I asked. Feather twitched a lazy ear in my direction as Ciarra scrambled atop her wide back. Ciarra was the only one besides me who I allowed on Feather.

Penrod chuckled as he checked the cinch on his own muscled gelding. "He knows that saddle and bridle means work. He's traveled with mares before and knows his manners. Feather would have fretted if we left her behind. There's no one left here good enough to ride her. If we end up with a foal out of it, well enough."

It took some sorting to get horses and people together. Oreg, for instance, had never ridden before - something that Penrod hadn't counted upon when he'd picked what horses to take. Finally, we changed the saddle to one of the pack animals, high-bred still, but with a calm manner, and Oreg settled on its back securely enough. Bastilla could ride, thank the gods.

There was no hiding the trail of so many, so I didn't bother to try. We needed distance more than secrecy.

"Where are we going?" asked Penrod, riding by my side.

"South," I answered. "Tyrfannig first. If we ride at a good pace, we'll make it there by morning. I think I'll buy our passage on a freighter headed to a major port in Seaford, Newtonburn, maybe. Then we can continue to Oranstone and see what we meet up with."

As we rode onward, I felt the steady lessening of the magic that impregnated Hurog. It was a dreary, depressing feeling, and I knew it would get worse before it got better, it always did when I left Hurog. I don't think that leaving Hurog had affected my father the same way, perhaps because I was mageborn and he wasn't. But it made me feel like a drunkard deprived of his beer. After a while I'd get used to it again, but it was always unpleasant, especially now when, deep in my heart, I wasn't certain I'd ever come home again.

"Did I hear you say Oranstone?" asked Axiel, pushing forward to ride shoulder to shoulder with Penrod and me. "Why Oranstone?"

"There's a war brewing there," I said. "And I think it might be my best chance to regain Hurog. You don't have to join me."

To my surprise, Axiel, my father's man, who'd been in countless battles at my father's side, didn't say any of the things that Oreg had rightfully mentioned about the foolhardiness of my scheme. Instead, he grinned whitely in the darkness. "I would be honored to accompany you, my lord."

"If we're going to Oranstone," said Penrod, "shouldn't we get passage to someplace farther south than Newtonburn? The road from Newtonburn to Oranstone goes over several mountain passes, and it will be late fall by the time we get there. I've done it once, and I'll be honest, my lord, I'd not care to do that again."

I used the conversation to distract myself from the growing discomfort as we got farther from Hurog. "I hadn't actually planned on traveling by sea at all. We'll buy passage and let Garranon chase the ship while we travel by road through Tallven to the capital at Estian and from there, Oranstone is a straight shot south."

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