The Oranstonians had a difficult time deciding who they'd rather fight, we Northlanders or the Vorsag. They didn't like either of us much.

My father always said that you knew you were in Oranstone when the wind picked up and it began to rain.

Tallven, through which we'd been traveling, was mostly flat with a few rolling steppes, good grain country. Oranstone was more like my native Shavig in that it was rocky and edged in mountains. But Shavig had never been this wet.

Axiel slowed his horse until I was riding beside him. Mud-spattered, he looked nothing like the son of a king. He hadn't said anything about being a dwarf prince, so I'd left it alone.

"If the land's flat, and there's no road through it, likely it's marsh. We'll have to stay on the road until we reach the mountains," he said.

Penrod, on my other side, nodded. "Just wait until night falls and the mosquitoes come out," he said cheerfully.

As we started down the old road through Oranstone, the wind picked up, and it began to rain. About midday, wet and miserable, we passed by the first village.

I sneezed. "We're short on grain. Penrod, you and Bastilla bargain, and we'll set up camp just down the road. Get news about the raiders, if you can."

Penrod nodded, and the rest of us continued on. We found a stand of trees in a rocky outcropping (as opposed to marsh) and set up our tent for the first time. Because we didn't carry tent poles, we had to find two trees the right distance apart so we could stretch the tent between them. I left Axiel and Oreg to it and had Ciarra help me with the horses, who were as miserable and wet as we were.

I'd just taken off Pansy's saddle when he stiffened and stared down the trail. After a moment, I heard someone coming at a thunderous gallop.


Penrod beat Bastilla into the camp, but it was Bastilla who called, "Bandits. In the village - a dozen or so."

"Saddle up," I commanded, and I threw the saddle back on Pansy and tightened the cinch. I hadn't expected to run into bandits this far from Vorsag, which was stupid of me. Any land as neglected as Oranstone was sure to be rife with raiders, Vorsagian or otherwise. Pansy, sensing my excitement, danced and tossed his head as I swung my leg over his back. I'd often hunted bandits with my father, but this was my first time being in charge.

As the rest of them mounted, I said, "We'll stay together until I tell you differently. Be careful of the villagers - if you're not sure if the man you've got is a villager or a bandit, don't kill him. Anything I've forgotten Axiel?"

"No, sir," he said.


"The men must be working elsewhere, because the only men I saw were bandits," he said. "The main street is cobbled under loose dirt. The horses won't have good footing there. Don't be afraid to dismount and fight. These aren't Vorsagian troops, just poorly armed common bandits. The likelihood of any group of thieves being as well trained as even young Ciarra is almost nothing."

"Ciarra," I said, reminded of her presence. "You stay in your saddle. You don't have the weight to go up against a full-grown man, no matter how poorly trained." I wanted to tell her to stay here, but Penrod was right: As long as these were normal bandits, she would be fine. More importantly, she wouldn't have stayed if I told her to. Stala always said that a good commander never gave orders he knew his troops wouldn't obey.

I glanced around and made sure everyone was mounted, then said, "Let's go."

So we galloped back to the village. There was no one in the streets as we entered, but a woman screamed, and we followed the sound as we wove between a row of huts.

There were, perhaps, fifteen bandits, scruffy and dirty. One man held a crude bow that wouldn't have hit a keep wall at twenty paces; the rest were armed with battered swords that looked as though they'd looted them from a fifteen-year-old battlefield. They'd been distracted by the entertainment, and hadn't even heard the horses until we were upon them.

The bandits had the village women gathered in a tight group. In front of it, on the bare, cold ground, lay a young girl held by a pair of men while a third was untying his breeches.

I forgot to give the signal for attack. Pansy charged into the fray, and with the force of his speed I beheaded the would-be rapist with the first stroke of my sword. The body fell on the girl, but that couldn't be helped. Following my lead, if not my orders, Axiel got another of her attackers, but the rest of the bandits scattered.

"No mercy," I called and set Pansy after one of the men.

It was butcher's work. None of the men I killed even tried to parry, let alone attack. After I killed the third man, who was old enough to be my grandfather, I couldn't find anyone else to chase. Most of my people had scattered with the bandits. The only one nearby was Penrod, who'd dismounted and was throwing a body over his horse's back.

I rode to him but had to sit through Pansy's tantrum at being asked to halt when he was having such fun. "Why take the body back?" I asked. With Penrod there was always a reason.

"We need to search them and return anything belonging to the village," he said. "Then we should burn the dead, Oranstonian fashion, so their spirits don't linger here."

I should have known that. I'd hunted bandits with my father, but my job had been to ride back to the keep with news rather than help with cleanup. I said, "I'll tell the others. Axiel's chasing one who made it into the trees. Bastilla stayed with the women. Did you see where Tosten, Oreg, and Ciarra went?" A good commander in a real battle would have known.

"Tosten and Oreg followed the three who ran the other way through the village, back toward our camp. Ciarra was behind me, but I think she stayed in the village with Bastilla."

"Right," I said. "I'll go round them up if you'll tell Axiel we need the bodies."

"Likely he already knows," replied Penrod, "But happen I'll tell him anyway."

"I'll be back to help as soon as I find the others." Pansy willingly bounded into a gallop.

At my approach, the village women bunched in a group with the children, including the bloodstained child molested by the bandits, in the middle like a herd of mares facing down a pack of wolves. I looked around for any of my missing companions and saw Bastilla emerging from the woods.

Pansy danced in place. War-trained, the smell of blood excited him rather than scared him. To me, it smelled like butchering time in the fall, and I purposely ignored that it was men not beef we'd been slaughtering. You learn to do that or be sick at every fight.

"Bastilla, have you seen Ciarra?"

"Not since she chased one that way," she motioned through the huts with her bloodied sword.

I took Pansy back through the line of huts and onto the main street. Feather stood ground-tied in front of a sturdy-looking building across the way and snorted at our approach. There was no sound of battle inside the hut.

Raw fear made my ears pound with the sound of my pulse and converted to anger. I'd told her to stay on her horse. I dismounted slowly. Speed didn't matter, because whatever had happened in that hut was already over.

I opened the door and stepped into the doorway. At first, my eyes, adjusted to the sun, I couldn't see anything at all. Something attacked me, hit me hard in the ribs.

My attacker was too close for a sword, so I tossed mine and grabbed my dagger before I saw it was Ciarra I held, her head buried against me. I hauled her out of the hut and looked her over quickly. Her sword was covered in drying blood as was her clothing from chest downward. Her whole body shook, but I wasn't much better: I'd almost stabbed her.

"Are you hurt?" I said, my voice angry and raw.

She shook her head and then pointed urgently at the hut.

I grabbed my sword from where I'd tossed it and cautiously stepped into the hut. It was little bigger than one of the stalls at Hurog. A rope bed was strung up in the left corner, the fireplace in the right. In the close quarters, the smell of sliced entrails was unmistakable, but I had to wait until my eyes adjusted to the darkness before I saw him.

The bandit was curled around his belly wound, but his eyes were open and alive. Ciarra had gotten the first blow in, and it was fatal, eventually. Underfed, he was probably Tosten's age, but his beardless, tearstained face looked younger.

My anger at Ciarra's recklessness fled far too easily and left me weak with horror.

"Please," he gasped in some heavy Oranstonian dialect.

I saw in his eyes that he knew his wound was mortal. He knew what awaited him if my courage wasn't high enough. Seleg, I thought, Seleg wouldn't have left him here to suffer. I raised my dagger, then let my hand drop. Seleg would have saved him. Killing children was for brutal men like my father...and me.

I renewed my grip and slid the dagger's sharp blade into the base of his brain, just as Stala had taught me. For a man of my strength and speed it was the fastest, surest way to kill. He didn't even have time to flinch.

I wiped both my sword and knife clean on his shirt and sheathed them. Then I picked him up and carried him out of the hut. Ciarra looked at me, then turned her face into Feather's mane. Her shoulders heaved with silent sobs. I left her there.

Bastilla was trying to talk to the women when I came around the hut. From the frustrated look on her face, she wasn't getting very far; I realized that she couldn't speak Oranstonian, and they were refusing to understand Tallvenish. There were three bodies in a pile, and I set the boy I carried beside them.

"Leave them, Bastilla," I said in clear if simple Oranstonian. My father had been baffled by my ability to pick up languages, though he said I sounded as stupid in one as I did in any other. "They'll settle down after we leave without hurting them. If you killed anyone, you need to bring the body here. We need to burn the corpses so they won't haunt this place." I repeated what I said in Tallvenish for Bastilla's sake. My voice sounded strangely harsh in my ears.

Oreg and Tosten rode in at that point. Tosten's horse was dripping mud and trembling.

"Fell in a bog," Tosten said shortly.

"We need to gather the bodies," I said.

Tosten gave me an exasperated look. "My horse isn't up to it."

"I'll get them," offered Oreg, glancing from my face to Tosten's and shaking his head slightly at me.

I bit my tongue on what I'd been about to say. It wasn't fair to take out my horror on Tosten. He looked pale and shaken. Unless tavern life in Tyrfannig was more interesting than I thought, Tosten had killed for the first time today.

Bastilla looked cool and professional, like she'd killed bandits before. Either her time as a slave had hardened her to death, or there were things going on in the Cholyte temples I didn't want to know about. Oreg, like Bastilla, looked as if he killed on a daily basis. The thought of picking up the bandits' dead bodies hadn't bothered him at all.

Tosten threw a leg over his horse's withers and slid off. He gave me a humiliated look, stuffed his reins in my hands, then bolted for some bushes. I patted his horse's neck and led him a bit to make sure he wasn't lame. The terrified looks I was getting from the village women were making me uncomfortable.

Tosten looked paler when he came to take his horse, and he wouldn't meet my eyes.

"Stala says some of the most hardened soldiers she knows are sick after every battle," I said. It didn't seem to help, so I gave him something to do. "Ciarra needs you. She stabbed a man in the stomach. I finished him off, but it was rough. She's over there." I pointed to the other side of the huts.

Maybe they'd do each other some good.

Eventually, we got all the dead bandits gathered. Oddly enough, given our disorganization (my fault), we'd gotten them all. Axiel, Penrod, and Oreg searched them and stripped them of everything but their clothes. The leader had a silver and amber pin on his sleeve. When Oreg set it on the small pile of loot, one of the village women took an aborted step toward it before she caught herself.

I sent Bastilla to tell Tosten and Ciarra to go back to our camp before someone came upon it and made off with our pack horses and gear. She returned, leading Pansy - or being dragged by him. I'd forgotten I'd left him with Ciarra.

"That's the last of them," commented Axiel, wiping his bloody hands on a ragged shirt he'd saved out. "Now we have to find fuel to burn them."

"No," said Oreg. "I can do it." He gestured at the pile, and the corpses began to smolder as if they were made of wood instead of flesh.

Bastilla joined him, touching his arm. Almost instantly, a wave of heat touched us all. Magic, Hurog magic, hit me, and I staggered back a step. For a moment, I almost felt as if I were home again, and the terrible hollow feeling left me. I was whole. It felt glorious.

"Sss, not so much, girl," snapped Oreg. He glanced at me worriedly. "I'm sorry, my lord," he said; then the magic ceased.

I almost cried out with the pain of it. Luckily, no one but Oreg was watching me, so I had a chance to recover. Until that moment, I hadn't understood that Hurog and Oreg were really the same. He'd told me, but I'd really still thought of him as a person tied to the keep - like I was, only closer. But it was different; I felt it in his magic. He was Hurog. I wondered what would happen if he were killed in battle; something I should have been worried about sooner.

"Licleng couldn't have done this on his best day," commented Penrod in awe.

His voice pulled my attention back to the bandits. Where they'd lain, there was nothing but scorched earth. It had taken less time to reduce the bandits to ashes than it would to take five deep breaths.

"That's not saying much," said Axiel. "Licleng couldn't light a candle without a flaming faggot to aid him."

"It was Bastilla," said Oreg keeping his worried gaze on me.

"Let's go," I said. "The horses are tired. And the sooner we leave, the sooner the village can start recovering." I nodded my head at the cluster of women and children.

Our camping spot was not too far from a clear-running creek, and we all washed up in it. Tosten and Ciarra had finished setting up the camp, so all we had to do was groom horses and prepare dinner. Neither Tosten nor Ciarra ate much.

Ciarra avoided me, clinging to Tosten's side. It hurt, but I understood. If I could have escaped from myself, I would have. I didn't regret putting the boy out of his misery, just the necessity of it - and the reminder that pretend as I might, I was my father's son.

People often wondered why my father, who clearly disliked Tallvens more than Oranstonians (because he didn't have to pay a sovereign's tithe to the Oranstonians), had fought so hard for the Tallvens in the Rebellion. I'd known why since I'd killed my first bandit. Once my sword bit into flesh, I loved it: loved letting go and swinging with the full force of my body. Even killing the boy hadn't robbed me of battle euphoria entirely. Sometimes I wondered when I was going to wake up and discover that I was my father.

I gave Tosten and Ciarra third watch together, taking second myself with Oreg for company. I didn't plan on waking them for their shift. If they could sleep, I'd let them.

I waited, wide awake, until Penrod came to wake me for my watch. When he and Axiel appeared to be asleep, I crouched beside Oreg, who was mending his shirt by the light of the fire.

"What happens if you're killed in battle?" I asked.

"The walls of Hurog will fall, until not one stone stands upon another." After delivering his bardic lines dramatically, he tied off a thread and said in a different tone, "Do you really think if my father had left me such an easy way out I wouldn't have taken it before? I can be hurt, but only the ring bearer can kill me."

"Ah," I looked out into the darkness. That was right. He'd said something like that before. "Only me."

"Talk to me," he said after a moment. "You're more tense than old Pansy gets when a mare walks by."

I hesitated. "Battle always surprises me. The way men die so easily. But every time I unsheathe my sword, I expect it to be different. That it should be..." No matter how I said it, it would sound stupid.

"Like the songs? Full of glory and honor?" I was right. It sounded stupid. So why did I still believe it?

"This wasn't a battle," said Axiel quietly from his bedroll. From his manner, I decided he'd only heard the last part of the conversation. "This was vermin hunting."

"I didn't mean to wake you," I apologized.

He shrugged and wrapped his arms around his knees. "I get restless after a fight, anyway."

"The boy I killed," I swallowed because my throat was dry. "He should have been farming the land with his family, not out thieving for survival. Where is the overlord for this land?"

"The boy was a pit viper, Ward," said Axiel. "Doesn't matter how old they are, they'll kill you just the same. He'd have cheered and left you if you'd been in his place. Real battles are...both better and worse. They strip you raw, tear all the pretenses, all the surface off of you. You can't hide from yourself in battle. Take Penrod: He learned that quiet self-confidence of his on the battlefield. For others...you know the high king?"

I nodded my head, though it hadn't really been a question.

"His father was such a warrior that men still speak his name in awe. Your father fought under his command. King Jorn had a rare combination of courage and wisdom, and his heir, Jakoven, was smart as a whip. He could look at a battlefield and evaluate it like a man twice his age. He was good with a sword. He should have been a fine commander, but he just didn't have it in him. The first battle he fought, he killed most of his men because he lost his courage. His father put him in a command post after that, somewhere safe where his talents would be of use. But we all knew Jakoven failed. I think it twisted him. Not just the loss of courage, but that we all knew."

"This was not battle," said Axiel. "But it was necessary. First, we saved this village and all the other villages they'd have destroyed. Second, if you are planning on taking this group into battle - there were too many of us who had never fought to kill. It's different from training."

"No one broke," I said.

"No one broke," agreed Axiel, pushing a strand of dark hair from his face. "Ciarra will be fine, and Tosten, too."

The next morning was gray and miserable. Everything was damp. It hadn't rained overnight, but there was a thick mist overlaying the land. The firewood was damp, too. If we hadn't had Oreg with us, we'd never have gotten a fire going. After breakfast, we settled into practicing. Yesterday's fight made everyone more serious than usual - or else I was so grim no one felt comfortable lightening the mood. Even Oreg was uncharacteristically silent.

Axiel called an abrupt halt to our fighting. I nodded at Penrod, my erstwhile opponent, and went to see why Axiel had stopped us.

A tall, rawboned man waited a cautious distance from our camp, a packhorse beside him. Clearly he'd decided to let us come to him rather than the other way around, a smart way to approach fighting troops. Any Hurog farmer would have just hailed the camp and tromped right in; but then Shavig hadn't been attacked in living memory. At my gesture, the others stayed back while I went to meet the man.

"My lord," he said in respectable Tallvenish as soon as I was within comfortable speaking distance. "My wife told me we owe you and your men for their safety."

He said it all without the histrionics the words implied. He could have been talking about the weather. I noticed he had a sword. Oranstone peasants were forbidden edged weapons by a law enacted just after the Rebellion. Moreover, it was a good sword, not the sort belonging to the average man-at-arms. I took a closer look at him.

He was about the same age as Penrod, though the years hadn't been as kind. He wore a woolen hat pulled down around his ears. It might just be to keep him warm, but it would also disguise that distinctive haircut that used to be worn by the Oranstonian nobility. But what really gave him away was the packhorse. Small, slab-sided, and narrow-chested, the beasts prized by Oranstonian nobles could travel for weeks on little food.

The horse he led was old. Someone else would have thought it half-starved and fast approaching death. But my father had brought back one of the horses from his campaigning, so I knew what I was looking at. Straight legs, high-set tail, and swan neck told me that this animal had never been bred for a peasant.

A nobleman, I thought. One of the ones who'd refused to capitulate at the end of the war. How terrible to owe his wife's life to the enemy. No wonder he appeared so calm. I bet he wanted to take that sword and ram it down my throat - but he had to act like a peasant.

"Something amuses you?" he said then added quickly, "my lord."

"I was thinking that you probably would have been happier if we'd managed to kill each other off," I said candidly. "If it helps, we haven't a Tallven in the party. Most of us are Shavig born and bred - and we've come to fight the Vorsagian scum." I added "my lord" to the end of my speech, too.

He looked at me a moment, then he smiled thinly. "It helps. It also helps that it was my daughter you kept from rape. My name is Luavellet." He offered his hand, and I took it "My wife also says that you are traveling, and probably came to trade for food and grain. We decided that provisioning you was the least we could do. I also brought a few things you might not have, being from a dryer climate."

"My thanks," I said, meaning it. "You will let us pay you, of course."

He raised both his eyebrows in a manner that reminded me of my grandfather at his most haughty. "I will hear of no such thing." We'd both stopped my lording each other.

"Money we have," I said. "Let me trade with you, then you can give me information for the rest. I've come to find out what the Vorsagian bandits have been doing."

"Why do you care?" he asked, though there was no hostility in his voice.

I found myself trying to answer him honestly. "I don't like bandits, but I wouldn't have traveled half the kingdom to fight them. I need to prove myself to my family, and this seemed the best way to do it."

"There's going to be a war, boy," he said.

I nodded. "So there is, and I'll have been here for a while before the king sends troops."

He smiled up into the sky, though his eyes were sad. "Why are they always so young? Boy, the king's not going to send troops. He'll wait until the Vorsag have slaughtered us all. Then he'll close flanks on them and make them fight from the wrong side of the mountains."

It made sudden sense. I'd known there would be war, just from listening to Garranon explain the situation in Oranstone. If I'd seen it, anyone with any eye to strategy knew it, too. Axiel had said King Jakoven was a strategist. He was also a cold-blooded bastard.

I could extrapolate even further. If Luavellet, isolated in his village, knew what the king was up to, it stood to reason that the Vorsagians knew it as well. Were they just after Oranstone? If so, they'd try to take the mountain passes and then dig in. If not, they'd split their forces and attack on two fronts, probably on the Seaford coast - unless King Kariarn was an idiot. What that meant for me, I wasn't sure yet.

"You just paid your debt to us," I said after a moment. "You'll have to let us pay for the supplies."

That evening we sheltered from a rainstorm on the oiled drop cloth Luavellet had provided. There was no question of practicing in the slick mud. If it persisted, I'd have to come up with something, but we took the night off. Axiel retold a few more battle stories, then Tosten brought out his harp. With Ciarra leaning against his shoulder, my brother proved he was right to give up coopering in favor of the harp. His music wrapped around me like a warm blanket.

Penrod produced a small soldier's drum from somewhere and joined in. Bastilla sang in a pleasing, if thin, alto, but it was the blending of Axiel's bass and Tosten's golden tenor that completed the magic. I hadn't heard its like since the last time I was at court. I leaned against one of the trees the tent rope had been tied to and relaxed, closing my eyes. Someone pulled a damp blanket around my shoulders.

"Careful," Penrod said in hushed tones. "I don't think he's slept since before the fight."

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