Baring Fangs at Fate

Baring Fangs at Fate

A Tale from the World of Record of Lodoss War

by Benjamin Roberts

The courier arrived at dawn.

Pounding through the city gates at breakneck speed, the messenger barely slowed to deliver a perfunctory nod to the guards on duty.  Turbaned, and garbed in the white and blue livery of a soldier of Flaim, the courier drove his mount mercilessly.

The clatter of iron shod hooves echoed through the small hours of the morning as the courier navigated the labyrinthine cobbled streets of the city of Shining Hill.  The lathered horse finally drew to a halt outside the castle gates.  Impatiently, the courier swung down from his mount, passed its reins it to a disheveled stable hand, and followed the night watchman up the stairs to the Grand Hall.

In the tapestry-hung Grand Hall, the courier was allowed brief respite while a messenger was sent to notify the king of his guest's arrival.  He took a deep breath and willed his heartbeat to slow.

The humidity of the region pressed on him, and he loosened his sweat-dampened turban.  Not for the first time since he had ridden south from the desert kingdom of Flaim, he silently cursed the insidious, creeping heat that these humid, forested regions of Lodoss boasted.

A small sound disturbed the quiet of the room, and the courier jerked his head up.  Through the iron-banded doors of the Grand Hall, a man in red robes quickly entered.  His hair was a pale blond color—nearly white.  Deep-set eyes of hard, wooden brown gazed out from under thin, aristocratic eyebrows.  Something about the crimson-robed man demanded respect.

The courier made to bow, but was stopped halfway through by the man in red.

"Save your courtesies; I am not the king."  The voice possessed the steel of command in it, yet was not unfriendly.  The courier stood.

"I am Eodric, court Sorcerer to His Majesty King Langred," the man introduced himself.  "I am to inform you that his Majesty has been awakened, and will read your dispatch shortly.  In the meantime, I am to offer you refreshment.  You must be famished.  What is your name?"

The courier smiled.  "Hassan, milord."

"No 'milords' on my account," the sorcerer chuckled.  It was a warm chuckle that seemed to include the courier in some private joke.  "Do you prefer ale or beer?"

Hassan shook his head, "Just water will do, thank you.  I travel on through Valis and to Moss still, so I must be clear-headed."

The next several minutes passed pleasantly.  Hassan drank his fill of sweet, cold water, and the crimson-swathed Eodric made polite inquiries about the safety of the courier's journey and the health of his king.

When King Langred, the sovereign of the Kingdom of Kanon  arrived, it was with no ceremony.  Just like any other man, he appeared slightly untidy, with shreds of sleep still clinging to his eyes.  He clasped Hassan's forearm briefly, and then sat upon his uncomfortable-looking carven chair at the end of the room.

Hassan bowed and removed a scroll from its weather-beaten lacquered case.  In a clear, firm voice, he read aloud:

"King Spark of Flaim sends greetings to his fellow-sovereign Langred of Kanon.

"In response to your question regarding the conduct of the ambassadors from the Northern Continent of Alecrast:  They have behaved as perfectly civilized lords during their stay, and were saddened to hear that you could not attend the feast held in honor of their arrival.

"They have asked after the rights to travel certain trade routes within the confines of the island of Lodoss: the kings of each realm were given a copy of their proposed trade roads.  (Yours is enclosed with this message).

"I see no threat of invasion from the North Continent.  You may set your mind at rest.

"With wishes for your continued health,

"—King Spark of Flaim."

Brief silence followed Hassan's reading, but he paid it no heed; great lords such as this king often digested such information before voicing a response.

"So.  Spark, too, has been taken in by the lies from Alecrast."  Langred's voice sounded weary, resigned.

In contrast, Eodric's reply was full of righteous indignation.  "Even King Spark!  This is a grave blow to our hopes indeed, your Majesty!"

Hassan waited with mounting discomfort.  Finally, Langred motioned towards the door.  "You may leave, good courier.  My reply to King Spark will be sent with one of my own."

Hassan bowed, and turned to leave.  As he neared the door, his turban began to unravel.  Nettled, he stopped to re-wind the length of linen around his close-cropped hair.  As he began to unknot the ends of the turban, he heard the king's voice; it was a whisper, but as clear to Hassan as if Langred stood within arm's length.

"Your counsel, Eodric?"

Puzzled, Hassan turned back.  Both Langred and Eodric remained at the other end of the room, obviously speaking in low voices.  Hassan let his gaze wander to the ceiling as he continued re-wrapping his turban.  He realized with a slight frown that the ceiling was arched.

He had heard of tricks with acoustics in domed chambers; if a man stood exactly opposite another in such a room, each could speak in whispers and still be heard, though they stood a bowshot apart.  Hassan made a show of staring at the architecture like a bumpkin while he laboriously knotted his turban.

Across the chamber, sorcerer paced back and forth in front of the king's throne, massaging his brow.  Hassan found himself nearly hypnotized by the rhythmic clicking of the heels of the sorcerer's boots on the flagstone floor of the Grand Hall.

"Assemble the western armies.  We must move immediately to silence the voice of Moss, or in this decision, our kingdom will be outvoted.  Though Allania and Valis take no open stance, it is well known that they favor increased relations with Alecrast.  Send assassins—or at the very least, spies—to both Raiden and Flaim."

Hassan could barely credit his ears.  Was the court sorcerer of Kanon truly suggesting that the king invade the neighboring kingdom of Moss?  He bit down an indignant protest.

"As you say," the king answered.  "I was afraid it might come to this."

Shaken, Hassan opened the chamber doors and left; he would have to ride his mount to death to warn both Moss and his own homeland of Flaim of the treachery planned within theses walls.

On his age-worn throne, Langred followed Hassan's departure with a worried glance.  "Do you think he heard us?"

Eodric shrugged, sending ripples of vermilion down his robes.  "The sound in this room has been known to carry, your Majesty."

The king bowed his head, looking much older than his forty years.  "It gives me no pleasure to order this--"

The red-garbed sorcerer bowed curtly.  "I understand, Majesty.  It is for the good of Lodoss, after all."  He withdrew pale, soft hand from the sleeves of his robe and signaled for the standing guard at the entrance of the chamber forward.

As the guard knelt, Langred spoke.  "The courier that just left is a traitor to the peace of Lodoss island.  Follow him for a league outside the city walls, then kill him."

*          *          *          *          *

Jack set down the sack of flour and stretched.

The midmorning sun painted the rolling hills surrounding his hometown of Eld in vivid, magical hues.  Grassy knolls of a lush emerald rose in the distance to the craggy, majestic beauty of the peaks that rimmed the southern coast of the Kingdom of Moss.  In a beech tree nearby, a lark sang its tribute to the lovely spring morning.

Jack hated it.

The midmorning sun beat down on his shoulders and made the rough-spun muslin of his tunic stick to him with sweat.  The grassy knolls each represented one more hill he would have to climb before he could discharge his cargo of freshly ground flour.  As for the damned lark—it was much like the one that had wakened Jack at sunrise with its mindless chirping.

And I'll be doing this for the rest of my life, the young man thought bitterly.

He rolled his aching shoulders and glared at the idyllic beauty of his surroundings.  Behind him by several fields stood his family's windmill—a heap of rock jutting out of the green earth like rocky bones.  The canvas sails—worn in many places—looked like the decayed wings of a long-deceased dragon.

"Jack!"  His father's voice roared from the next hill.  "Stop trudging along like you have millstone 'round your neck!  We need to get this flour to Master Bakerson before noon!"

The young man cursed and swiped yellow hair away from leaf-green eyes.  Kai Bakerson was a pig of a man who ate more of his own inventory than ever he sold, and Jack had despised the heavy-handed baker since boyhood.

As he shouldered his loathsome cargo, Jack let his gaze wander to the jagged blue horizon to the north.  Beyond those mountains lay the border between his homeland of Moss and the kingdom of Raiden.  The fabled Glassy Woods stood in mystic beauty past those mountains, and further north, the broken peak of Fire Dragon Mountain.

Of course, Jack had never visited either of those places; the farthest he had ever journeyed from Eld was to the capital city of Moss when the young prince had been born several years ago.  However, Jack had made it his business to track down every minstrel, scop and jongleur that passed through Eld.  Soon, the young man knew by rote every epic and saga of the old heroes that was worth knowing.

Perhaps if I imagine that this sack of flour is really the body of my comrade, wounded in battle.  This isn't a pestle hanging at my side; it's a sword!  Jack smirked grimly; he had played this game with himself for years, and it never fully took his mind of the drudgery of his dull life.  That, of course, didn't stop him from playing the game.  My elf-friend has been wounded by kobolds, and I must carry him to the nearest Abbey of Marfa for healing.  Don't despair, comrade!  I will persevere!  Would the Great Parn have despaired in this hour?  Would noble King Fahn have wearied?  Would—

Jack's silent fantasy was interrupted by an explosive oath from his father.

"Damn you, boy!  Get your head out of the clouds!"

Jack blinked in surprise.  His father stood a toe-length away from him, halted at the top of a rocky hill which overlooked a sprawling green sward below.  Alth the Shepard usually took his flock here to graze.

Except—

"Soldiers!"  Even to his own ears, Jack's gasp of surprise sounded like that of a country bumpkin.

"What the hell are they doing here?" his father's voice, so laden with venom, made Jack cringe.

Jack took the opportunity to set the sack of flour down once again.  Forcing himself to stand erect despite his aching shoulders, Jack shaded his eyes and peered down into the valley.  "There's a man in a green cloak giving a speech, it looks like . . ."

"I can see that."  Behind the venom, Jack thought he could hear a tremor in his father's usually brusque voice.  "Well, they've nothing to do with us.  Let's go home, lad.  We'll have to get this flour to Master Kai by a different route."

"But I want to--"

Jack's protest was cut short as a rider in green-and-white livery pounded up the side of the hill.  Curtly, with barely the civility afforded to even a serf, the rider jerked his head towards the valley.  "You two—the Captain wants all villagers to heed his words."

Jack expected his father to argue, but to his surprise the older man nodded his head quickly and signaled Jack to follow him down the hill, into the mass of bodies.  The crowd was made up of most of the village, as well as several green-and-white garbed soldiers.  At the center of the group, upon a tall war-wagon, stood a tall, chestnut-haired man wearing jointed, burnished plate armor, and boasted an eyepatch.

"People of Moss!" the man cried, "I bring news from the capital city; His Majesty, King Orson, has declared a state of emergency!  The armies of our neighbor kingdom Kanon amass on the border!   At present, we fear the possibility of invasion!  We seek healthy young men and women to join the Army of Moss."

The crowd murmured.  Jack could tell that most of the older men and women—like his father—seemed angry.  The Captain seemed to notice this as well, and cast his sonorous voice into the mass like a challenge.  "Who amongst you has the courage to become a Dragon Rider?"

Immediately, the younger generation in the crowd broke into excited buzzing.  Jack, however, remained silent.  Every child in Moss had dreamed of joining their country's renowned Dragon Rider corps in the Army.  Jack, however, had never been as inspired by the tales of King Jester and Queen Shiris of his country as he had been by the stories of King Spark and the Free Knight, the Great Parn.

"We will accept any applicant who is deemed worthy into our ranks for training," the Captain declared.  "Sergeant Wells will now accept your enlistments!"

Jack cast a quick glance at his father, heart hammering.  This was his chance for adventure!  He nervously edged towards the sergeant.

"Don't even think it."  His father's glare was molten, but resigned. 

Jack had time only to blurt, "I'm sorry," before he was swept away by the tide of young men and women who surged forward to enlist.

Before he even had time to set his thoughts in order, Jack found himself standing before the grizzled, red-haired man whom he assumed to be Sergeant Wells.  The sergeant looked Jack up and down for a moment, before asking, "Right, then.  You burning to be a Dragon Rider, too?"

"No."  The sergeant's eyebrows rose in surprise.  Jack felt his hands knotting together, and cursed himself for an ill-bred fool.  "I mean, no Sir.  I--" His face flushed, and he felt acutely aware of his provincial accent.  "I want to be a swordsman," he managed to say.

The red-haired man shifted in his armor, the oiled leather creaking under his corselet of interlinked iron rings.  "Do you now."  Jack couldn't quite tell if the man was smirking or not.  After a heartbeat's hesitation, the sergeant broke into an honest grin.  "That's a good answer, boy.  An' sure, you've got the arms for it.  Sign here."  He held out a length of vellum, darkened by a column of script.

Jack gulped and scratched the back of his head.  "Er . . ."

"Don't know how to write?" the sergeant asked.

"N-no, sir.  I never learned the art."  Jack forced himself to unlink his fingers and stand straight.  "But if you show me where, I can make my mark."

The sergeant smiled, and indicated a dotted line on the parchment that reminded Jack of the split-timber fences that Alth the Shepard used to mark the fields around his house.  Jack took the offered stylus and drew a simple picture of a windmill on the line.

"Not bad, at that," the sergeant remarked, and clapped Jack on the shoulder.  "Well, boy, get ye' over to Simms there and we'll have you assigned to a cohort.  Let him know if you want to learn penmanship in your off hours; Simms used to be a scribe for King Jester before his son took the crown."

Jack, still not quite sure that this wasn't all a dream, nodded.

*          *          *          *          *

For the next two weeks, time dissolved into a blur of marching drills, scrubbing dishes, working in the sticky mud, and a dull, constant ache in the muscles.  In fact, Jack had determined that only three things had kept him from attempting to sneak back to his father's mill in the dead of the night.

The first was his love for the swordsmanship he had been slowly learning.  Even though it made his legs and arms sore, there was nothing that made Jack's eyes shine like the feeling that he had finally mastered the five prime guards, or that his cuts today were more fluid than they had been yesterday.

More avidly than any other of the swordsmanship students—most of whom were only being instructed as prerequisite for Dragon Knight training—Jack studied the high stance of the Falcon's Guard, or the deceptive back-stance of the Serpent's Tail.  While other recruits immediately dropped in their bunks after the day's work, Jack would drag himself out into the cold mud of the training square and practice moving from the Ox Guard to the Boar's Fang, and then back again.

As the sergeant in charge of training had remarked, Jack seemed to have found his true calling.

The other two reasons that Jack had not yet deserted the army came in the form of his two new friends, Wode and Beatrice.  Both were recruits from small villages in rural Moss, like himself.  Wode was a dark olive-skinned young man with hair too blond to fit with his deep complexion.  At first, when Jack had asked about the matter, Wode had glared at Jack as if he were the stupidest jape alive, and then jerked a thumb towards his semipointed ears.

"My grandfather was a dark elf," he had explained curtly, and then returned to chopping wood.  Jack assumed that Wode was accustomed to repulsion at this revelation.  However, Jack found himself intrigued more than anything else, and soon learned that Wode had both a quick wit and a good heart.  The pair had become friends by the third day as recruits together.

Beatrice, by contrast, had gravitated towards Jack almost immediately.  As he later learned, she too was a miller's child, from the village of Alnei several leagues distant from Jack's own village of Eld.  Both shared the same dogged devotion to rise above their stations as millers' gets, and both hated the daily marching drills that every recruit was forced to endure.

The first words she had spoken to Jack had come after the first day's drill.  As Jack had rubbed the soles of his feet with hay snatched from the horses' stabling area, she had plopped down next to him, shaking sweat from her close-cropped brown hair and muttering.

"It could be worse," she had mumbled.  "I hear that deserters get caught and forced to clean the dragon aeries when we reach the capital city."  That immediately elicited a laugh from Jack, despite his sore feet.

 Both Beatrice and Wode seemed to get along fine with one another as well, and soon the trio spent nearly all of their off-time together.  It came as no surprise to anybody when the training sergeant assigned all three to the same cohort.

That day, two weeks after their initial recruitment, the three stood in their new green-and-white tunics in file behind their newly-assigned corporal as the Captain—for the first time since Jack had seen him in Eld—stood before the assembled army and spoke.  Jack concentrated on standing straight and looking directly at the Captain while he was speaking, although the weight of the new sword hanging at his hip—castle-forged steel, and not an oaken training blade—distracted him.

"Soldiers," began the Captain without preamble.  "The worst we feared has come to pass.  Kanon has invaded the eastern border of Moss through Valis.  Although King Orson has lodged a formal request for aid from Fiodor of Valis, it is up to us—the Eastern Host—to repel the attacks."

Worried buzzing broke out amongst the assembled troops.  Jack tried not to look to proud that he, Wode and Beatrice all stood at attention while the surrounding recruits allowed their discipline to lapse.  The Captain silenced the crowd with a sharp gesture.

"I know that you have all had your fill of marching this past fortnight, but we must press on to the border.  I have dispatched your assignments already.  Each corporal will be given direct control of his or her file.  May Myrii, the god of war, smile upon us."

With that, the Captain strode to his horse, mounted effortlessly, and kicked it into motion.  Jack followed him with his eyes as the Captain spoke to two sergeants, and then led a full cohort of ten files away to the northeast.  He shifted uncomfortably as the damp mud began to seep up around the toes of his boots, and rolled his shoulders, unaccustomed to the weight of the ringmail hauberk he now wore under his Moss Army tabard.

"Where do you think we'll end up?" Wode whispered from directly behind Jack.

Jack shrugged and rested his left hand on the handle of his new sword, liking the feel of the smooth leather-wrapped wood grip.  "Who knows?  I guess we'll go wherever we're needed."

Beatrice shot a quick glare over her shoulder at her friends.  "Quiet down, or the corporal will have our heads."  Her voice was harsh and firm, but she kept shifting her grip on her spear nervously.

Wode and Jack, as one, sent an irritated glance her way, and continued to whisper.  Beatrice rolled her eyes, but kept an ear turned towards them, in case either said anything worth responding to.

"What quarrel does Kanon have with us, anyway?" Jack wondered aloud.

Wode rewarded Jack's query with a condescending smirk.  "Don't you hear anything out in the hinterlands?  There's a dispute between the kingdoms of Lodoss over the messengers from Alecrast.  Nobody's sure whether to trust them or not.  Some say that opening our ports to Alecrast would invite another invasion like Marmo."

"That was fifty years ago," Jack protested.

The quarter-elf shrugged.  "I'm just repeating what I heard the senior officers talking about."

Beatrice's voice broke in.  "How would you know what the senior officers talk about?"

Something about the mischievous grin that worked its way across Wode's olive features reminded Jack that his friend's grandfather had likely been a fierce, fey warrior that ate the hearts of human children.  "Hey, there are some perks to being part elf," he replied.

Beatrice smirked.  "Sure.  You don't have any more magic in you than my big toe, or you wouldn't be a soldier like us.  I hear that magic-using troops get sent to the capital for special training."

Jack frowned.  "Hey, we should be quiet.  Here comes the sergeant."

Sure enough, the red-haired sergeant with the scars that Jack had met on his first day approached the file leader—Corporal Janus—and handed him a rolled up scroll of vellum.  Jack could barely make out a red wax seal stamped with an intricate design over the lip of the codex.

The corporal unceremoniously broke the wax, unrolled the parchment and read silently.  After a moment, he saluted, and turned towards the nine soldiers behind him.  Jack immediately straightened.

"Alright, worms.  Looks like we've been assigned reconnaissance duty.  We're to patrol the border near Stonefang pass between Moss and Valis to make sure that we can intercept any outriders for the Kanon army."  Janus paused to take a breath.  Jack focused his gaze on the purple boil in the center of the corporal's forehead.  "If we meet with a force of equal or larger size than our own, we're to immediately retreat and carry news to the main Host at Barrowsberg.  Understood?"

"Yes, sir!" the file cried as one.

"Good.  Secure your weapons, and get ready to march!"

Jack met first Beatrice's then Wode's eyes.  "Finally," he murmured.  "It's beginning!"

*          *          *          *          *

Eodric stretched and admired his prize.

Standing in the center of a sturdy oaken-planked table was a pewter-cast claw holding a small sphere of crystal.  The light of a dozen nearby candles flickered across its surface, throwing shards of illumination across the walls and into dark corners.

Truly, the Soul Crystal Ball was a work of art.

The court sorcerer of Kanon let his eyes follow the reflected candlelight throughout his chamber as his thoughts drifted.  The Soul Crystal Ball had been created hundreds of years ago by a madman.  This particular madman happened to be the Governor of Kastuul—the ancient Kingdom of Sorcery.

It was written in forbidden tomes that the Soul Crystal Ball possessed the power to restore life to the dead.  Eodric trembled at the thought.  Carefully, he rolled back the crimson sleeves of his robes and held his hands on either side of the crystalline orb.  As he did so, a pale nimbus of light pulsed from the surface of the globe and touched his hands with tendrils of energy.  Eodric felt a cool shock run through his arms, and he smiled.

A loud knock at his chamber door interrupted his reverie.  The sorcerer snatched up a square of crumpled velvet sitting in a heap beside the crystal ball and covered the magical artifact.  Turning towards the door and straightening his robes, he spoke.

"Enter."

The latch to his door was lifted, and in strode a short man wearing the brocaded robes of office that marked him as High Chancellor of Kanon.  The passage of years had greyed his thinning hair, and bestowed a considerable paunch upon Credeb, the High Chancellor.

"Your Lordship."  Eodric bowed.  "How may I be of service?"

Credeb tapped his fingertips together.  "I'd like to have a word with you."

"Of course," Eodric smiled.  "May I offer you some refreshment?"

A barely perceptible frown marred the otherwise calm features of the High Chancellor.  "Thank you, no.  I've come to ask about a matter of grave importance."

Eodric calmly sat in his cushioned chair.  "I am your humble servant."

Credeb paced back and forth as he spoke.  "It's about this situation with Alecrast.  Eodric, are you certain that they mean us harm?"  He waved a silencing hand as the sorcerer opened his mouth.  "Oh, I know there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious, but let's just look at things from a fresh standpoint, shall we?"

Eodric waved a dismissive hand.  "I have looked at this problem from many standpoints, your Lordship, and I have finally come to one conclusion."

"What is that?"

"It doesn't matter whether the people of Alecrast are hostile or not."  Eodric felt his body tingling with pent up adrenaline now that he'd actually voiced his opinion aloud to somebody.

Credeb was speechless for several moments.  Finally, he wiped a fat hand across his forehead.  "Please explain your opinion."

Now it was the sorcerer's turn to pace.  "History, milord.  Think—every time Lodoss has become powerful, great disaster visits it.  When the gods lived upon it, they eventually warred until they were destroyed.  During the era of Kastuul, the kingdoms of men eventually grew so powerful that they, too destroyed themselves."

The High Chancellor's brow wrinkled.  "What are you implying?"

Eodric clenched his hands.  "This island has been too long without adversity; power has stagnated and settled too much since King Spark banished the twin goddesses Kardis and Marfa.  If we ally with Alecrast--"

"We may usher in a golden age, the likes of which we have never seen!" Credeb interrupted hotly.

"Or," Eodric replied, voice quiet, "We could set in motion the process of complacency and decay that will reduce this island to nothing but scorched earth."

"On what do you base your opinion?"  The High Chancellor's voice shook.

Eodric took a deep breath, and then whipped the velvet away from the Soul Crystal Ball.  His trump card had been played.

"Is—is that . . . ?"

"This is a scrying ball," the sorcerer lied calmly.  "I can see visions of the future within its depths.  If we do not press this war against Moss, the other kingdoms will join their voices against us, and welcome Alecrast into our borders.  If that happens, the island of Lodoss will be destroyed within fifty years."

The Chancellor gaped wordlessly for a few moments, and then nodded grimly.

"You have convinced me, sorcerer.  I will advise his Majesty Langred that we double our attacks."

Eodric bowed, legs weak.  "For the peace of Lodoss, your Lordship."

*          *          *          *          *

The journey to Stonefang Pass was depressingly uneventful.  Every time so much as a rabbit ran across the trail, Jack would grip his sword more tightly for a moment, before realizing that the file was not under attack.

After the third such instance, in the early afternoon of their third day of travel, he felt Wode tap him on the shoulder.  "You're awfully keyed up about something.  Itching for some action?"

Jack flushed.  "It's just . . . well, you know . . . I've always wanted to be a swordsman fighting evil like in the legends.  I'm just anxious for something to happen so that I can test my skills."

Beatrice turned and shot Jack a reproving glare.  "Are you moon-struck?  The last thing we should be hoping for is action!  If we find 'action' then that means that we'll be fighting a piece of the Kanon Army, and our whole country is in trouble!"

"Enough babble!" Corporal Janus snapped from the head of the file.  "If the Kanon Army is around here, you damn green fools are going to give our position away faster than a band of bloody jongleurs."

Jack bit his lip and looked at his feet, knuckles white around his sword grip.  The party continued in silence for several minutes, before Janus halted abruptly.  For a heartbeat, he seemed to be listening to something.  Then, he turned, hand on his sword.

"You two, check over--"  His words were cut off abruptly, as an arrow slammed into the side of his head.  Crimson pulp splashed messily in an arc from his half-decapitated corpse, and his body jolted to the side as if slapped by a giant, invisible hand.

"Scitte!"  Jack heard his own voice screaming oaths as he drew his sword.

The other eight soldiers in the file immediately drew weapons and huddled together.  The air filled with the hissing buzz of loosed arrows.  Jack jerked his head quickly from side to side, hoping for a glimpse of his assailants.

"Sylph, spirit of the wind . . ."  Wode's voice was unnaturally clear and loud.  Jack had no time for surprise as his friend chanted a summoning incantation.  Praying to Myrii, the god of war, that his friend's spell would work, Jack readied himself for the incoming volley of arrows.

" . . . protect us from this storm of iron," Wode finished.  Jack felt the hair on the back of his neck lift in response to the presence of some supernatural force.  In less than the space of an eye blink, a blast of wind exploded around the remaining soldiers of Moss, whose tabards flapped in the air.

Jack could hardly credit his eyes as the swarm of arrows centered on his small party splintered in mid-flight and blew away on the breeze.  A stream of curses issued from the underbrush around the group, and Jack took a step forward to greet the inevitable attack.

Nightmare-fast, the enemy came.  Jack didn't even try to count them.  As the first of them came within his sword's range, Jack felt the bottom drop out of his equilibrium.  The figure in front of him was wearing the livery of Kanon, but its hair was bone white, and its skin shone like polished ebony.

A dark elf.

Behind him, he heard Wode collapse to his knees, exhausted.  Voice hoarse, the quarter-elf bellowed, "Guard your throats!  There are invisible assassins amongst their number!"

Beatrice bumped up against Jack, and gave a start.  Then, with a fierce grin, she hefted her spear.  "I've heard that dark elf blood is black," she snarled.

Jack mirrored her grin and, heart hammering, joined his first battle.

The dark elf before him wasted no movements.  If Jack delivered a slash from the Ox Guard, his assailant would dodge the attack with barely a counter-step and bring his dark-bladed knife within inches of Jack's throat.

After a few such exchanges, the dark elf paused, and began to speak.  "Tiny invisble spirits . . ."  Jack's heart stopped, and he fought to recall Sergeant Simms' speech about fighting dark elves.

"Don't give them time to talk," the old veteran had said.  "Don't even give them time to breathe.  If one of those point-eared bastards gets half a chance, he'll use magecraft to carve you up faster than a pheasant on Saint Delpin's Day."

Jack gritted his teeth and pressed the attack.  The dark elf's golden eyes widened as his spell was interrupted.

Cut, Jack told himself.  Don't worry about anything else: just cut.

As he frantically harried his opponent, Jack felt something in the dynamics of the duel give.  Sensing his opening, he swirled his blade in a deceptive strike from below and caught the dark elf square in the jaw.

Jack almost crowed aloud in joy, until the dark elf gave a horrible, gurgling shriek.  The catlike, golden eyes which had held only feral death a moment before now seemed horribly, uncannily human.  Jack felt sick.

"What are you doing?" he heard Beatrice cry.  "You killed him!  Stop staring and help drive these others away!"

"He—he's hurt," Jack blurted.

Beatrice delivered the killing blow to her own opponent, and swirled to grab Jack's arm roughly.  "Of course he's hurt, you half-witted oaf!  You hit him with a sword in his throat!"

Jack shook himself free, and glared around the clearing in a daze.  Three of his companions had fallen—in addition to Corporal Janus.  That left only six defenders against what seemed to be an endless swarm of attackers, both human and dark elven.

The battle continued for several more minutes.  Jack's breath burned in his lungs, and his arms seemed made of lead.  Even after hours of training every day, he had never been this exhausted.  Beatrice seemed similarly winded, and Wode seemed hard-pressed to even stand erect while he frantically held off his attackers.

As the olive-skinned quarter-elf administered the deathblow to a nearby soldier of Kanon, he turned to Jack and shouted.  "You and Beatrice get over here by me, and get ready to run!"

Jack nodded and passed back, keeping his sword tilted across his body to deflect any blows his attacker might launch.  He had never guessed that real combat would be so much work!

He felt his back touch Wode, and heard his friend chanting again.

"Tiny invisible spirits, let your form become our form."  Once again, his voice was too loud amidst the chaotic clamor of battle.  As the spell was completed, Jack felt something pass through him, like a cool autumn wind.

He jumped, realizing that he could see right through his hand.  The outline of it still remained barely visible, but he looked more like a shadow than a solid human being.  His head spun.

"Now," Wode's voice hissed.  "Let's go!  Keep to the shadows and run like hell before their pet elves cast the counter spell!"

Jack had no time to question—only to comply.  His feet seemed to move of their own accord, carrying him through dark underbrush as he, Beatrice and Wode slammed their way past startled and confused enemy soldiers, unaware of their approach.

Their headlong flight seemed to last for an eternity.

Finally, Wode's called for a halt, his voice brittle as flakes of shale.  The trio collapsed gratefully into the soft grass of a small clearing.  Jack didn't even care that the damp foliage was soaking his breeks; after the blood-spattered chaos of combat, it barely rated as a minor inconvenience.

"What have we done?" Beatrice moaned after catching her breath.  "We deserted our comrades—they'll be killed for sure!"

Wode's voice was harsh.  "They were dead the moment the enemy appeared.  The best I could do was to save us so that we can carry out our orders.  We're supposed to report to the Eastern Host at Barrowsberg—remember?"

Jack put a hand on his friend's shoulder.  "We appreciate what you did, Wode.  None of us would be alive now if it hadn't been for your quick thinking and abilities.  Although," he added, with a raised eyebrow, "Are there any more tricks you know that might be able to help us in the future?  It might help to know."

Wode flushed.  "Most dark elves are well-skilled in both elemental and summoning magic.  I'm just the son of a half-elf bastard, but I managed to pick up some tricks here and there.  Really, the only other useful one I know involves fire."

"Can you make us a fire now?" asked Beatrice, "This damp grass is getting chilly."

Wode shook his head emphatically.  "Sorry.  I need a small flame to start with first.  Besides, if we made a fire now, it'd just be a beacon to invite every soldier of Kanon down on our heads."

"We should get moving," Jack suggested.  "If we stay here, we'll be found for sure."

Beatrice reached into her belt pouch and handed portions of dried lamb jerky to each of her friends.  "I suppose that the first step is figuring out where we are.  Then it'll be much easier to get to Barrowsberg."

Wode's brow wrinkled.  "Just a moment," he said.  "Does anybody here know where Barrowsberg is?"

The silence that settled over the group lasted for a long time.

*          *          *          *          *

"Are you sure this is the way?" Beatrice asked for the fourth time that day.

Wode and Jack turned in unison.  "Shut up."

Beatrice hefted her spear.  "All I mean to say is that I thought Barrowsberg would be more . . . west."

"We are heading west," Wode answered.

"We're heading east," Beatrice argued.

"West."

"East."

Jack rubbed his temples.  "Stop that.  We won't get any less lost by arguing."  The decision to head for Barrowsberg had been an easy one to reach.  However, following the revelation that each of the trio had been born and raised within a relatively small territory, it became increasingly obvious that nobody knew the geography of the surrounding area.

Wode had suggested that since the group had been headed towards the Stonefang Pass originally, that they should head towards the mountains and see if they could find any settlements or signs of human habitation.

During the journey so far, the trio had subsisted on their dried trail rations (consisting mostly of dried lamb and coney jerky, with some shreds of fruit and nuts) and water from surrounding streams.

Beatrice tried to keep spirits up by telling stories of her childhood, and Jack found himself more interested than he liked to admit.  Of course, Wode mocked him no end for his interest, causing Jack to turn red and Beatrice to pronounce both of them idiots.

Now, at the base of the mountains, nearly at the entrance to Stonefang Pass, tensions were beginning to run high.  Everybody knew that it was becoming increasingly less likely that they would find Barrowsberg, and increasingly likely that they would run into enemy troops again.

"So," Jack wondered aloud, "I wonder how the rest of the war is going . . .?"

Wode shrugged and pulled a dark-bladed knife from his belt.  Its handle was made of polished bone, with shallow grooves carved into it so that it fit perfectly into Wode's grip when he closed his fingers.  The long, curved blade was made of a burnished metal that refused to reflect sunlight except for on the silver-plated runes worked into the face of the blade.  All in all, it was a beautifully crafted weapon. 

"Don't play with that," Beatrice said shortly.  "It makes me nervous."

"I'm not playing with it," Wode smiled wolfishly.  "I'm admiring it."  Jack rolled his eyes.  Wode had somehow managed to steal one of the dark elves' knives during the battle, and had declared it to be magic.  Certainly, Jack conceded, it seemed to hit its mark unerringly every time that Wode would announce a target and throw.  Beatrice argued that it was probably just luck.

Jack nudged Wode.  "Hey, don't you think it's about time you did your invisibility thing and went scouting?"

Wode heaved a long-suffering sigh.  "Alas, it falls to me to do all the dirty work, because I was cursed with a dark elven grandfather with intemperate carnal lust.  The minstrels shall sing of my deeds—mark you."

"Uh-huh.  Get going.  I need a rest, anyway—this mail isn't getting any easier to march in."  Jack rubbed his shoulders under the linked rings.

Wode shrugged, resheathed his knife, and wove his hands in a twisting gesture.  Traces of shadow trailed behind the path his fingers described, and soon, Wode had faded to little more than a shadow himself.  He flickered in the direct sunlight, and his eyes shone like twin suns out of darkness.

"Back in a flash," he said, revealing a hint of a smile in his nearly invisible state.

A few moments passed in silence.  Finally, Beatrice shifted in her mail and stretched her arms.  "Thank you."

Jack started guiltily.  "For what?"

Beatrice lifted an eyebrow.  "For sending him away.  He's my friend, too, but the magic makes me nervous, and now that he's picked up that knife, he's been making me jumpy."

"Oh."  Jack blinked, feeling stupid.  "Sure.  No problem."

Beatrice sat in the calf-high grass and hugged her knees.  "I wonder what this all means."

"What?"

"Dark elves fighting alongside the people of Kanon . . . it's very strange."

Jack nodded.  "Every story I've heard says that dark elves helped to subjugate Kanon during the War of Heroes.  I never would have thought that King Langred would join with dark elves in his campaign."

"Until a few years ago, I never would have thought that King Langred would consider attacking Moss, either," Beatrice replied.

Nonplussed, Jack could only grunt in agreement.  He plucked a few reeds from the ground and began twisting them into shapes.  First he made a sheep, and then a shepard, hunched over like old Alth from back home.  He swallowed over an unexpected lump in his throat.

"Homesick?" Beatrice asked, looking at his reed sheep and shepard.

Jack tossed them on the ground.  "Maybe a little.  I left pretty suddenly, and my da was dead against it.  I should have said good-bye to my mum, at least.  It was just so restrictive there!  I had to leave . . . otherwise I would have been just--"

"A miller's brat all your life?"  Beatrice smiled wanly.  "Me too.  I wanted to be a Dragon Rider.  Maybe I still will be, eh?  Just like Queen Shiris."

Jack found himself grinning.  "Sure!"  As he said it, he heard his country accent strongly, and closed his mouth with a loud click of teeth.

A loud rustle made both of them jump, and Jack had his sword out of its sheath in a heartbeat.  He stood at the ready, blade in the Boar's Fang guard, waiting for an attacker.

Without any further warning, Wode stumbled out of the brush, his face bloodless under his olive complexion, and his demeanor grim.  "Come take a look at this; it isn't good."

Jack and Beatrice exchanged quizzical glances, and then followed their friend.

Several minutes' walking led them to a rocky path, and Wode looked back and forth nervously before leading them further in.  Jack put a halting hand on his friend's arm as they proceeded up into the mountains.

"Isn't this Stonefang Pass?" he asked.

"Probably," Wode conceded.  "But that's not important now.  Wait until you see this."

Rounding a bend in the trail, Jack caught his breath.  Lying in the middle of the road was a man in the blue-and-white garb of a soldier of Flaim.  Even if Jack hadn't recognized the colors from all the minstrels tales of valiant King Kashue and King Spark of Flaim, he could recognize the man's nationality by his turban.

The soldier's livery was bloodstained, and several arrows stuck out of his back.  One of his hands was bent into a claw, as if it had been clutching something before he died.  His face was twisted into a grotesque mask of pain, and Jack squirmed just to look at him.

"Who do you think he was?" Beatrice wondered.

"A messenger, maybe?" Jack ventured.  "He wears the colors of Flaim, but I can't think of any reason he'd be so far south unless he was a courier of some sort."

"Perhaps he was carrying a warning to Moss of Kanon's invasion!" Beatrice suggested.

Wode frowned.  "Well whatever he was doing, he's dead now.  We should see if he has anything on him that we can use.  He doesn't need it now," he continued, in response to Jack's horrified expression.  "We can bury him afterwards."

"In this rocky ground?"

"Let's build a cairn, then," Beatrice said.  She set her spear down on the hard-packed earth and left in search of stones.  Jack looked to Wode and shook his head.  "This can't mean anything good, whatever it is."

Wode's mouth was a straight, grim line.  "There's worse.  I didn't want you two to panic, so I didn't say anything at first, but look."  He pointed down the pass into the valley below.

Jack caught his breath: thousands of lights, firefly-like, burned below.

"If that's the Army of Kanon, then we're hedged in," Jack whispered.  "There's no place we can go except further into Stonefang Pass and Valis."

*          *          *          *          *

The next few days passed slowly.

Jack, Beatrice and Wode trudged sullenly through the endless grey, and brown that seemed to make up the whole of Stonefang Pass.  It seemed as if the color had been leached form this part of the world leaving only a dull, ghostly monochrome landscape interrupted occasionally by pitiful swatches of barely-green lichen and moss.

Their journey was as dull and unpleasant as surroundings through which it carried the travelers.  Jack found himself wishing more than once that he had traded his mail for a sheepskin cloak at some point, and on the second day, Beatrice took to complaining that her feet were numb from the chill mountain air.

On the fifth day, Jack had volunteered for scouting duty when he spotted something unusual.  First of all, he thought that the surroundings were appearing more green than normal, which led him to hope that they were finally leaving Stonefang pass.

Secondly, and of more immediate concern, he thought he heard horses.

Crouching behind a boulder, Jack waited for further evidence of other travelers, or perhaps riders from the enemy army.  His legs began to cramp as he waited, and he shifted from foot to foot, trying to alleviate the slow burning sensation which had permeated most of his thighs.

Finally, able to stand it no longer, Jack surged to his feet—right in front of a scimitar blade.

A man in garb identical to that of the dead messenger Jack and the other had found stood on the other side of the boulder, sword pointed at Jack's throat.

"You must learn to hold still if you're to make a good spy," the man said through a fierce grin.  Turning, he shouted down the trail.  "My lord, we've found one!"

Jack stammered and raised his hands, palms up.  "I'm not a spy!  I was keeping lookout!"

Two more turbaned soldiers had come trotting up the hill now, and one of them chuckled.  "Is that what you call it?"

"No, I mean my friends are further up the pass--"  Jack fought to keep from waving his arms in panic.  "We've been driven from Moss by the Kanon Army, and I was keeping watch this way to make sure that--"

"Moss?" the soldier's tone was sharp.  "Just a moment.  Let me see your badge."  He lowered his scimitar and lifted the badge on Jack's chest up with the tip of the blade.  He exchanged glances with the other two soldiers, and then spoke quietly and rapidly.  The only word that Jack could hear out of the conversation was "king."

The soldier lowered his scimitar completely and sheathed it.  "I apologize for being hasty.  Stay here, if you please."  He folded his arms, as if to say that he would make sure that Jack didn't get any funny ideas.

Jack let his arms drop to his sides, and rested his hand on the grip of his sword.

A few moments later, a tall man rode forward on a chestnut-colored charger.  His hair was long and flowing.  Perhaps a decade ago, it had been iron-grey.  Now, however, it was streaked with snow-white.

Despite his obvious age—Jack guessed him to be at least seventy—the man seemed very powerful.  He wore full armor as if it weighed nothing at all, and the sword that rested by his side was obviously well-used and functional.

Clear, blue eyes gazed out of am honest face, lined with age, but not dulled by it.  A white mustache and short, pointed beard dominated the rest of his face, and Jack found himself thinking that the man looked quite regal.

Jack's eyes come to rest on the purple cloak draped over the man's powerful armor-plated shoulders—

His eyes widened.

"Are—are you . . .?"

The man smiled slightly.  "I am King Spark of Flaim.  My men tell me that you are a soldier of Moss.  Certainly your armor seems to bear out the truth of that."

Jack nodded, and then blurted.  "We—we found a soldier of Flaim slain."

King Spark's eyes tightened.  "What?"

"I—I--"  Jack cursed his accent.

The old king leaned forward in his saddle.  Jack couldn't help but gape at the majesty of the legend before him.  The figure in gleaming white, battle-beaten plate that rested his hand so naturally on the holy sword at his side was so awe-inspiring that Jack had no trouble believing that the king had, in his youth, faced down two goddesses.

"You said you found my soldier slain?"

Jack took a deep breath, determined not to play the bumpkin before the greatest hero alive.  "Yes, sire—your Majesty, I mean."  He cursed himself inwardly, but King Spark's smile took some of the sting from his shame.  "I found him on the Moss side of the Stonefang Pass.  He had been shot with many arrows in his back."

"Kanon treachery," growled one of the turbaned soldiers at King Spark's side.

"Perhaps," murmured the king.  "Let us be wary of hurling accusations.  The situation between Lodoss and Alecrast is tense enough without inventing inner treachery from what may be merely a bandit attack."  Jack noted that, however calm the king's words, his eyes smoldered with fury.

"What is your name, boy?"

Jack blanched and fought to steady his voice.  "Jack, your Majesty."

"Well, Jack, do you think that you could lead us to the place where you found my courier?"

"Y-yes, your Majesty.  Of course!"  Jack felt his chest swelling.

"Excellent," King Spark smiled.  Turning in his saddle, he spoke to a soldier whose ornate turban marked him as an officer of some importance.  "Hari, keep the bulk of the escort here in the pass.  I will take a squad of men and this boy to investigate the courier's death.  If I do not return within a sennight, move our forces to the eastern border of Moss and wait."

*          *          *          *          *

The first thing Jack did was return to give Beatrice and Wode all clear signal.  Beatrice frowned and sourly remarked that Jack could have come back sooner, but her expression changed when King Spark arrived with his squad of soldiers.  Wode goggled openly, but bowed as the legendary king approached.

From there, the journey through Stonefang Pass took less than two full days.  As the sun turned ruby and began to dip below the mountains on the second day, Jack stopped the party and indicated the cairn.

"We buried him there," he explained.  None of the party from Flaim spoke, and Jack began to fear that he had committed some grave breach of custom by burying the fallen soldier.  He turned to apologize, and saw that each of King Spark's soldiers had bowed his turbaned head in silent prayer.

After a few moments, without speaking, one of them dismounted and began deconstructing the cairn with studied indifference.  Jack flushed.  "Sorry," he began, "We didn't know what your customs were."

King Spark waved a dismissive hand.  "It's all right.  The sentiment was a noble one.  We usually burn our dead, but that's really only because it's difficult to bury somebody when your country is made of sand dunes.  The reason we need to uncover him now is to examine his wounds."

Wode elbowed Jack in the ribs, and Jack nodded silently.

Minutes passed in silence as Wode, Beatrice and Jack shifted nervously.  The soldier finally uncovered the body and frowned.  "Hassan," he said, as if confirming something feared by all.

It elicited an immediate response.  King Spark slumped in his saddle, and the other soldiers of Flaim broke into angry muttering.  The king silenced them with a wave, and spoke heavily.  "This proves it, then.  Let us return to the main army.  Shahid, take these messages to the Eastern Host of Moss."

One of the turbaned soldiers clapped a fist to his heart, took a proffered scroll from his king's hand, and kicked his horse into a gallop, heading further west.  Spark turned to Jack, Beatrice and Wode.  "Well, then.  If you three would not mind accompanying me back to the assembled army of Flaim, we have a battle to prepare for."

"Battle, your Majesty?" Wode asked as the troop began its return.  His voice indicated that he was none too thrilled with the prospect.

King Spark nodded, swinging his grey-white locks.  "I'm afraid so.  We have secretly feared that King Langred would move against one of the kingdoms for some time, now.  King Fiodor of Valis and I have been assembling our troops in the southern reaches of Valis, waiting for Kanon to make its move."

Beatrice exploded.  "If you knew that Kanon was going to attack, then why didn't you move beforehand?  You could have saved so many lives!"

Jack and Wode stared round-eyed and Beatrice.  Spark, however, seemed to take no affront.  "We didn't know where Kanon would act," he replied.  "We suspected strongly that Langred would strike north into Allania in order to confront me, since I have been the most outspoken opposition to his plan for isolation."

Jack shot Beatrice a molten glare, but she tossed her head and urged her horse ahead in the column.  Wode shrugged, as if to say, "Who knows?" and dropped slightly back, leaving Jack and Spark alone.

*          *          *          *          *

The encampment of the Flaim army proved to be several days' ride north, contrary to Jack's expectations.  When he asked why, one of the soldiers—a man named Rashid—merely shrugged, and answered, "That's where the Kanon army is."

"Why is the Kanon army gathered up north?" Jack asked King Spark the next time he had a chance to speak with him.

Spark's eyes grew hard.  "Nobody knows.  They're camped just south of Lake Stillness, in a valley across from the old mansion of the Grey Witch.  We think that they mean to occupy it and use it as a stronghold from which to pursue their campaigns in the north."

Jack shivered, and dropped back in line to speak with Wode.

That, however, proved to be more of a problem than he had anticipated.  Wode was nowhere to be found.  When he asked after his quarter-elf friend, nobody seemed to have seen him.

Finally, Jack asked Beatrice.  She looked concerned, and her eyes grew round.  "I don't know," she answered.  "He was telling me that one of the Flaim soldiers had been giving him a hard time about his dark elf heritage . . . I wonder if maybe he's just making himself scarce?"

Jack rolled his eyes.  "How scarce can you make yourself in a group of twenty people?  You don't think he's off exploring or something . . . ?"

Beatrice frowned.  "He was saying that it had been a bad idea for him to enlist . . ."

Their conversation was interrupted as one of the soldiers of Flaim cantered past, his horse's blue-and-white barding swinging rhythmically.  The soldier leaned over and whispered something to King Spark, who sat up straight in his saddle, and then motioned Jack and Beatrice forward.

"I'm afraid your elf friend has deserted," he said sadly.  "One of my soldiers saw him cast an invisibility spell some while back."

Jack gaped.  "He—he wouldn't!  We're in this together!  Why would he run away on us?"  He turned to Beatrice.  "Why would he do that?  We're friends!"

Beatrice looked at the pommel of her saddle, and mumbled.

"Maybe . . . maybe he was just afraid."

"Wode is no coward!" Jack snapped.  "There has to be a better reason!"

Beatrice wouldn't meet Jack's eyes.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean it like that . . ."  Jack saw her lip turn white as she bit it to hold back tears.  The anger drained out of him, and he reached over to out a hand on her shoulder, feeling clumsy.

"I didn't mean to yell," he muttered.

Beatrice blinked hard, and then drew herself up.  "Well, if he comes back, then we'll give him a good thrashing for making us worry.  And if he doesn't come back . . ."

Jack shrugged, trying to make light of it.  "Right.  Well, let's concentrate on the problems we have, right?"

*          *          *          *          *

Arriving at the Flaim encampment, Jack was overwhelmed.  The sea of multicolored tents absolutely dwarfed any man-made structure had had ever seen.  The enclosure for the army's mounts alone was larger than his entire home village!

Dazed, he allowed himself to be assigned a place in the barracks with the soldiers of Flaim.  As he left his tent to stretch his legs, he found himself staring at an attractive woman with pointed ears.

An elf?

Jack took a half-step forward, and a lump formed in his throat.  Wode's desertion was too recent not to hurt, and this woman reminded him of Wode in more ways than one.  She noticed him looking, and gave him a half-mischievous wink.

Waving him over, she began to talk.  "You must be Jack, right?"

Jack nodded, not quite sure what to make of the fact that this elf woman knew his name.  Guessing the source of his confusion, she smiled.  "I'm Leaf, Commander of the Fifteenth Regiment.  The Captain has spoken highly of you and your sense of loyalty."

Jack scratched his head.  "Captain?"

Leaf's mile grew even broader, reaching to her cinnamon-colored eyes.  "My, you do have quite a country-boy accent, don't you?"

Jack blushed, nettled that word had apparently gotten around.  However, before he could open his mouth to respond, Leaf was speaking again.  "And I should say 'his Majesty' instead of 'Captain.'  I'll just never get used to thinking of him as a king, even though it's been fifty years or so."  The way she giggled made Jack think of a child.

"Wait a moment."  Jack's eyes lit.  "Are you the same Leaf that served with King Spark during the Second War of Heroes?"

Leaf nodded.  "That's me.  Keep an eye out for me tomorrow—I'll be giving them some wicked surprises out on the field.  Hey—isn't that you?"

Jack looked back and forth.  "I beg your pardon?"

"The herald is calling for Jack of Moss.  Isn't that you?"

"Yes," replied Jack, surprised.  Leaf was already waving a cheerful good-bue to him as she walked away, and Jack had to hurry to catch the by-now red-faced herald who was shouting his name.  The herald informed him in flowery terms that King Spark wished for Jack and Beatrice to attend him in the grand council tent.

When Jack arrived at the council tent, he was speechless.  Its canvas walls reaching higher and extending for longer than the walls of the tavern back in his village of Eld, it was easily the largest building Jack had entered.

Inside, Jack was surprised to discover that the tent was comprised of separate rooms, halls and even a courtyard, all made of canvas.  A blue-and-white liveried herald whose bejeweled turban marked him as an important official escorted Jack into a large, central room, in which King Spark sat upon a throne.

Beatrice already sat on a small stool several paces to the right of the throne, and a similar stool stood vacant to her left.  The room was hung with tapestry-style maps of the island of Lodoss, and several furs and blankets lined the ground.

In the center of the room, standing before the throne with the air of one used to such formalities, was a man garbed in scarlet, multi-layered robes.  As Jack entered the room, King Spark motioned for him to sit on the empty stool.

"Now," he said, as Jack sat, "We are all here.  I have called these two soldiers because they are citizens of Moss, and can verify or refute any claims you make as to the military actions of your nation within their borders."

To Jack and Beatrice, he said, "This is Eodric, court sorcerer to King Langred of Kanon.  He has come under flag of parley to speak of our options."

"Options?!" Jack snapped.  "He can tell his king to get his army the hell out of my country!"

Eodric frowned, as if Jack's words left a foul taste in the air.  After a moment, he said, "That's a rather simple view of the matter.  You're a farmer, aren't you?"

Jack gritted his teeth.

"Speak," Spark commanded.  "We have limited time if we are to resolve this matter without bloodshed."

Eodric nodded.  "Your point is well taken.  I have come to speak of terms for truce."  Jack found his gaze settling on the gold threads worked into the brocade trim on the edge of the wizard's sleeves.

"What measures are you permitted to take?" Spark asked.

Eodric shrugged.  "Any, really.  The king will do as I say."

King Spark stirred.  "What do you mean?"

Robes shifting, Eodric replied, "Your Majesty, let us be frank; King Langred is a man who lives in the shadow of his father.  His father was a great hero who fought the armies of Marmo from exile and won independence for his people.  Langred is no such man; he has always been pushed this way and that—first by his father, and then by the demands of the court."  He took a steadying breath.  "I control Kanon."

Jack leaped to his feet.  "You?  You commanded the invasion?  Why?!"

"Silence."  King Spark's voice was quiet, but firm.  Jack slowly sat, and Beatrice put a comforting hand on his shoulder.  "Admitting to being the mastermind behind a puppet regime is not the most politic way to begin truce talks," Spark said, grim humor tugging at the edges of his mouth.  "Are you asking me to help back you in a coup?"

The red-robed man stalked back and forth in front of King Spark.  "You misinterpret my motives," he answered.  "I do not mean to manipulate Langred for my own gain.  There is just simply too much at stake for me to rely on him to make the right decision without my intervention."

"That's what all tyrants say!" Jack snapped.  "I bet Wagnard the Dark--"

"Jack!" Spark's voice was an authoritative bark.  "Enough!  Let him speak!"

Eodric shot a poisonous glance Jack's way, and then turned his attention back Spark.  "I came to speak with you this night to tell you one thing: in truth, I command the army of Kanon, and I tell you that if we can come to an agreement tonight, that there need be no battle tomorrow."

King Spark leaned forward, interested.  "I am willing to listen to any proposition that will spare lives.  Continue."

Beside Jack, Beatrice leaned over and whispered, "Isn't that awfully convenient?  I bet his 'agreement' includes ceding big portions of Moss to Kanon."

Jack nodded, but fumed silently.

Robes trailing behind him like muted, angry flames, the sorcerer spoke, almost to himself.  "Lodoss has fallen into complacency these past fifty years, your Majesty.  Of this you must be aware, since you are one of the driving forces behind it."

"If you mean that I was one of many that helped to bring peace to the kingdoms, then yes," Spark's voice sounded cold, if properly polite.

Sensing he was treading on dangerous ground, Eodric seemed to pick his next words carefully.  "Peace is one way to look at it, Majesty.  However, I believe that too much peace can lead to too much power.  And too much power leads to corruption.  Do you agree?"

Spark frowned, and settled back on his throne.  "In some circumstances."

The sorcerer took a half-eager step forward.  "My point is that an alliance of any sort of Alecrast will invite a glut of power, and that Lodoss will most likely fall prey to corruption which will lead to massive destruction."

"What alternative do you suggest?" Spark asked.

Eodric laced his fingers together and took a deep breath before speaking.  "Reject any kind of trade agreement between Alecrast and Lodoss.  Convince the other kings to do so as well.  They will listen to you; you are a respected legend during your own lifetime, your Majesty."

"What about Moss?" Jack burst out.  Simultaneous glares from both Spark and Beatrice cut off his protest.  He clenched his hands into fists and stared at the floor.

"You ask much," Spark observed.  "Especially considering that our forces outnumber yours.  If there is a battle tomorrow, your army will be destroyed, and you will likely be executed or exiled if you survive."

Eodric shook his head.  "My army will not be destroyed, your Majesty.  If you do not agree to these terms, then I will have no choice but to resurrect the Grey Witch, Karla."

Shocked silence gripped the room.  King Spark, face ashen, rose from his throne.  "You are more necromancer than sorcerer, then.  I warn you, you dare not threaten me with that.  You don't have the means."

In answer, Eodric withdrew two objects from his voluminous sleeves.  One was a golden circlet.  The other was a crystal ball.  Although Jack didn't recognize them, Spark obviously did.  His response was immediate.

"Guards!" he bellowed, reaching for his sword beside the throne.

Jack leaped to his feet, intending to detain the mage.  However, Eodric—a look of anger and betrayal on his face—waved his arms once, and clapped his hands.  A sound like thunder shook the council tent, and Jack found himself unable to move.

"Damn you, then!  Pigheaded fool!"  Voice composed of tones of arrogance and anger, Eodric flung an arm across the interior of the tent.  "If you will not see reason, then I will bring forth the Grey Witch to make you see it!  And this girl will be the instrument of her resurrection!"

Jack's eyes bulged as Beatrice floated forwards helplessly.  Eodric made a fist, and sneered at the frozen guards in the room's doorway.  The, with a motion like wrapping a cloak around himself, Eodric vanished, and Beatrice with him.

The night shook with Jack's scream of anger.

*          *          *          *          *

Jack woke the next morning from dark dreams, and immediately jumped into his mail and leather.  Buckling on his sword as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, he stalked out of his tent, ready to smite anything that got in his way.

His towering rage of the previous night had not diminished with the intervening hours.  If anything, he felt angrier.  Immediately after the rogue sorcerer's departure, King Spark had called an emergency council meeting, in which Jack had been included.

During the council, it had been decided that the combined forces of Valis and Flaim—under the joint command of King Fiodor and King Spark—would lead the attack on the Host of Kanon.

Jack was still unclear as to his role in the attack, but King Spark had promised that he would be told before the battle commenced.

Jack approached the King's tent and bowed to the sentries outside.  "Is King Spark within?" he asked.  "I still need my battle assignment."

The soldier on the right—a black-haired man in a loose turban—looked quizzically at Jack.  "Battle assignment?  You're a bit late for that; the hosts left an hour before dawn.  By now, the battle should be in full swing!"

Trying to keep his hands from clenching into leather-bound fists, Jack nodded curtly and stormed away from the tent, cursing.  How dare the king deny him his revenge!  If anything, he should have been at the front of the Flaim army, leading them to battle!

So absorbed was he in his dark thoughts, the Jack ran smack into a white-armored figure.  About to roundly curse the fool who had gotten in his way, Jack found himself staring openmouthed at King Spark in full battle gear.

"You're up.  Good."  Spark finished tying his long white hair back in with a leather thong.  "We have special work to do, you and I.  While my army provides a distraction, we're going to rescue your lady friend.  Let's go get you a horse and lance."

*          *          *          *          *

Eodric shook his head nervously.

In the room which he had chosen—once Karla's own bedchamber—hundreds of incense candles burned, filling the room with a heavy aroma.  The candles were supposed to clear his mind and allow him to cast spells more freely, but so far, Eodric just felt worried.

Suppose the spell backfired?  Suppose that Karla did not heed his call, or that the power of the cursed circlet was now too weak?  Suppose that the sacrifice proved unfit for use in the ceremony?

Eodric's brow creased.  He had already begun to regret his choice for sacrifice; but it had been made in a fit of pique.  He had offered the King of Flaim a chance to turn aside this course of events, and the man had stubbornly refused to listen to reason.  Beyond that, the simplistic yapping of that yellow-haired yokel had truly nettled Eodric.  Perhaps it was because of the conviction the boy held.  Eodric had once been an idealist, and the fact that he had become a monster in the eyes of another idealist stung.

"No time for that, now," he muttered.  Outside, the combined armies of Flaim and Valis assembled to wage war against the hosts of Kanon.  His window of opportunity was rapidly closing, if he had not already squandered it in his indecision.

He pushed red robes back from his forearms and gingerly picked up the circlet.

Made of twisted gold bands, and set with jewels that, by design, resembled ancient, knowing eyes, it was truly a work of art.  Using mage-sight, Eodric could easily detect traces of once unimaginably powerful sorcery woven into the structure of the graceful crown.  Now, only the ghost of power remained.

He turned and faced the sacrifice.  He had stripped her of her armor and weapons, and restrained her with bands of power woven through with ice.  In her sweat-stained, slashed gambeson and woolen leggings, she looked more like a beaten peasant girl than a holy sacrifice.

Which she is, come to that, Eodric realized.  No need to overly-romanticize this.

"I'm sorry about this," he said, as he placed the crown on her head.  "It has to be done; Lodoss is headed for terrible disaster otherwise.  I can promise only that you will feel no pain when Karla's soul enters your body."

The girl said nothing, but her eyes conveyed stark animal hatred and fear.

Ignoring the lump in his throat, Eodric turned and called a sphere of protection into existence.  As he mouthed the first words of the long, repetitive spell, power filled him.  A dark euphoria washed away any sense of guilt, and he clutched the Soul Crystal Ball tightly.

"Ladeera ladora de Karla, vanna gel dis . . ."

Finally, Lodoss would return to the care of its rightful steward.

*          *          *          *          *

At the crest of the hill, Jack stopped dead.

Across the valley, upon a small island in the center of a placid grey lake, stood the long-deserted mansion of Karla, the Grey Witch.  However, that which held Jack's attention was in the valley itself.

Far below, the ground seemed to churn with thousands of gathered soldiers.  Screams of the dead and dying filtered up to Jack on a wind that stank of blood and dung.  Swarms of black and white arrows flitted back and forth between the gathered armies like angry insects.  Every few moments, a flash of light would illuminate the battlefield as a sorcerer from either side hurled blazing energy into the enemy ranks, sending up clouds of smoke and dismembered limbs.

On either side of the bowl-like valley, a gargantuan, surreal shape crouched.  On the side occupied by the forces of Flaim and Valis, a red-brown lizard-like creature with a mane of fire paced back and forth, as if held in an invisible cage.  Every few seconds, its eyes flickered hellishly like guttering torches.  A thin, pulsing line of red energy connected the massive beast to the small, bent form of an apparently elven soldier, who held her hand out, palm facing the east.

On the side occupied by the army of Kanon, a huge beast called from the depths of nightmare stood still.  It had the torso of a human man, but its two legs were those of a stallion.  Its face boasted scimitar-like tusks and a long, serpentine trunk.  Behind it was a dark elf man, also bent with exertion.

"What—what are . . ."  Jack couldn't bring himself to finish his query.

Beside him, King Spark sighed, sounding infinitely weary.  "So, Leaf has summoned Salamander.  I was hoping that it would not come to this.  She may not live the day.  That other one is Behemoth, a great Earth Elemental.  The dark elves allied with Kanon are strong indeed if there is one among their number capable of such a summoning."

Jack felt a shiver run down his spine.  "Why don't they do anything?"

King Spark shrugged.  "I've never fully understood it.  As far as I know, when two summoners fight, it's really a test of wills.  Neither can send his called servant to attack the other, or he will in turn be cut down by his opponent's creature.  Each waits until the other tires before launching his attack."

Jack shook his head.  "Sounds complicated."

"It is," the king agreed.  "Now, enough chatter.  Your friend needs rescuing."

Jack nodded, and kicked his horse into a dead run.  Wishing that he'd had more time to study mounted combat, he couched his lance and hoped for the best.  Behind him, he heard King Spark calling upon Myrii for guidance.

And then, they were in the midst of the battle.  Jack flinched as his lance made contact, opening a Kanon soldier from sternum to throat and tossing him aside like a child's toy made of straw.  The jolt nearly unseated Jack, and he was forced to release his lance.

He spurred his horse to run faster, and after a few hellish moments, the battle was behind him, and King Spark was emerging from the melee, his Holy Sword's gleam muted by dark rivulets of blood.  Taking time only to ensure that the old king was unharmed, Jack turned and urged his horse towards the rickety bridge which spanned the mirror-still lake.

As his mount neared the threshold of the bridge, it shied and halted.  No amount of coaxing on Jack's part could persuade it to move.  Finally, disgusted, jack dismounted clumsily, nearly falling on his face as one of his feet caught in its stirrup.

King Spark smiled grimly.  "It looks like our horses are smarter than we are.  I suppose we'll have to cover this distance on foot.  You haven't gotten too used to riding, I hope?"

Jack was about to mouth an objection, when he saw the old king's sly smile.  He tried to force himself to relax.  If King Spark is calm enough to jest, he thought, I have nothing to fear.  We'll save Beatrice, and Lodoss will be safe in the bargain.  Of course, he added silently, Why should he be nervous?  He's faced goddesses and demons!  What's one power-mad sorcerer?

"Now watch yourself," King Spark said as he led the way across the bridge.  "Sir Parn once spoke to me of his encounters in this place, and none of them were pleasant.  When the Grey Witch yet lived, this was more a sorcerous stronghold than a mansion."

"This is where Ghim the Great died, isn't it?" Jack asked, gingerly avoiding a broken plank in the bridge.

The king was silent for moment before replying.  "Yes.  He died saving the soul of my mother-in-law from a fate far worse than death."  King Spark whirled on the bridge to face Jack, bringing the young swordsman up short.  "You see, this is personal for me, too.  Karla played a pivotal part in the greatest tragedies of both my mother-in-law's life and in my wife's life.  I will not allow her to be reborn."

"Neither will I," Jack swore.

The ghost of a grin moved across the aged king's features.

"What is it?" Jack asked, afraid he had said something foolish.

King Spark shook his head.  "Nothing's wrong.  It's just that you reminded me very much of Sir Parn when you said that."

Jack gaped, overwhelmed.

The king turned and continued down the bridge.  As he walked, shoulders straight, hand on the Holy Sword at his side, Jack felt he saw the years drop from the monarch.  This, he thought, is how he must have looked when he stormed Conquera Castle.

"You have the makings of a fine knight," King Spark was saying.  "If we live through this.  Come."

Jack trotted to keep up.

The entrance of Karla's mansion was enormous.  Once, huge iron-banded doors must have swing from the massive hinges on either side of massive archway.  Now, however, the doorway was an empty, gaping maw into blackness.  Jack could see stairs leading up into the gloom, but everything else beyond a stone's throw was cloaked in darkness.

King Spark drew his sword, letting its holy radiance act as a sort of magical lamp as the pair proceeded into the ancient citadel.  The blue-white illumination cast weird shadows on the old king's face, making him look even older.  As they climbed the long, broad staircase, Jack stopped every few minutes, sure that he heard footsteps following from behind.

"How long does this ceremony take?" Jack hoped that the worry in his voice wasn't as obvious as he thought it was.

"When the dark wizard Wagnard kidnapped my wife-to-be," King Spark answered, "He required much time to ready the ceremony.  He, however, was attempting to restore a goddess to life.  I don't know if the spell will take any less time to cast if the subject is a mortal."

"We should hurry," Jack said.

The pair trotted on in silence for several minutes, and Jack marveled once again at the pace that the old sovereign was keeping.  Through corridors of cracked, crumbling masonry, they moved, and into rooms where the plaster had flaked off the walls.  After what seemed an eternity of searching empty, mazelike hallways and dusty, deserted chambers, Jack stopped short.

"Do you hear that?"

Ghostly, eerie echoes of a repeated, monotonous chant threaded their way through the oppressive darkness of the deserted mansion.  Jack felt the hair at the nape of his neck rise.  King Spark tightened his grip on his sword, eyes hard and grim.

"It's coming from the right.  Let's get moving."

As they rounded a corner, the chanting became louder.  The pair stood at the end of a long hallway.  At the other end, a flickering violet light betrayed the presence of magecraft at work.  Jack broke into a run, but stopped as he heard King Spark's strangled gasp.

Standing between King Spark and Jack was a misty, lupine shape.

Jack immediately drew steel, but Spark motioned him to sheath.  The mist wolf paced back and forth, snarling at King Spark's Holy Sword.  Its wickedly sharp fangs seemed to be the only solid thing about it, and they gnashed together as the fey creature readied itself to pounce.

"Go!" the monarch ordered.  "Go and stop the ceremony!  I will deal with this hellspawn!"

Jack turned to run, but felt the icy, foul breath of the mist wolf on the back of his neck.  Frantically, he hurled himself to the ground and rolled, struggling to draw his sword once again.  A stinking, violent wind passed over him, and Jack choked.

King Spark's voice cursed loudly, and as Jack pushed himself to his feet, he saw the venerable sovereign struggling with the amorphous beast.  His glowing sword was plunged deep into the creature's flank, and dark mist poured from the wound.  It, in turn, held the king's left arm in its jaws, working frantically to tear it off.

With a roar, Spark ripped his sword free and severed the creature's head.  Then he collapsed.  Jack dashed to the fallen king, but Spark held up a staying hand.  "It's not fatal, but I will likely feel it the rest of my life."

Jack winced as the king moved his wounded arm and smoke boiled from the bloody weal, half-visible beneath his ruined arm plate.  "Here, take my sword," Spark ordered.  "You won't be able to use any of its powers yet, I daresay.  But you can use it to break any protective shield that the necromancer has around himself."

"Your Majesty--"

"Run, damn you!" the king growled.  "There's no time for this!"

Jack turned and pelted down the hallway, trying not to see the face of his wounded hero and comrade-in-arms.  King Spark's choking voice followed him.  "Stop him, Jack!  We cannot afford to let the Grey Witch live again!"

As he approached the end of the hallway, Jack could hear the voice chanting even more clearly.  Though the voice itself was not threatening, the words that echoed unnaturally in Jack's ears were sinister and filled with evil.

"Ladeera a rui deer, Ar-day del ra Karla.  Madoora van velgloss . . ."

Jack slammed up against an invisible barrier.  Cursing, he fell to his knees.  The salty, warm taste of his own blood filled his mouth, and Jack hawked and spat angrily.  Wiping the rest of the blood away from his lips, he rose and hefted the Holy Sword.

Praying to Pharis that he knew what he was doing, Jack gripped the jewel-encrusted pommel of the sword and slammed the point of the blade into the ensorcelled barrier that blocked his way.

With a loud crack and a smell like burned almonds, the invisible wall blazed a pale green and then dissipated into shreds of mist. Jack threw a quick thanks to the heavens and pounded into the small chamber at the end of the hall.

"Marta suda vaygloss, Ladora ladora dil dis . . ."

Jack was struck immediately by how small the room was.  No larger than the inside of his own bedchamber back in his home village of Eld, the air in the room was charged with dark energy that crackled from the masonry and formed a pale, translucent sphere around the blood-robed necromancer Eodric.  He held a crystal ball in his hand, and grinned in obscene triumph.

Behind him, within the sphere and shackled by bonds of blue light, Beatrice shivered.

"Leave her alone, you bastard!"  Jack dashed forward, but was immediately caught under the chin by a blast of negative energy that hurled him against the wall.  Searing pain doubled him over as black lightning from the sphere coiled around him and tore at him from the inside.

"Stop it!"  Wode's voice cut through the sound of Eodric's constant chant.

Jack's heart jumped.  Wode—here?  Even if Jack died, perhaps Wode could . . .

"Hold on, Jack," Wode's voice spoke.  The quarter-elf chanted something, and Jack gasped and collapsed in relief as the dark energy surrounding him vanished like fog before the sun.

"Better?  Good.  I'm  . . . I'm sorry about before."  Wode sounded penitent.

Jack forced his neck muscles to move, and turned his head towards the familiar voice.  Wode stood a few paces away, furious.  His body shimmered in its half-invisible state, and his eyes seemed to blaze hellishly.

"No time," Jack croaked, scrabbling to stand.  "He's going to sacrifice--"

"I know.  I've been following you."  The dark elf blood in Wode seemed to take hold as he snatched his enchanted knife from his belt.  "Hey, you!" he snapped.  "Leave my friend alone!"   The dark-burnished steel of the magic knife flipped end over end towards the necromancer within the sphere.

"Ladeera ludora Karla, Vanna dol gel . . ."  Eodric didn't even pause in mouthing the incantation.  A sanguine arm shot forward, and Wode's dagger reversed direction.  It happened so quickly that Jack could barely follow it.

One moment, Wode was crouched, trying to avoid his own reflected missile.  The next, his eyes had gone wide with stupid shock, and blood seeped from the wound in his neck where the enchanted knife was embedded.  He reached a hand towards Jack before he collapsed, lifeless.

Jack's heart turned to ice.  The utter injustice of everything made him hot with rage.  It wasn't fair!  Wode had just come back!  Jack's hands clenched so hard that they hurt.  He heard tremulous, terrified giggling fill his corner of the room, and was horrified to discover that he was its source.

His fingers and face went numb, and the muscles of his stomach and chest tightened until they burned.  Painful, dry tears choked his eyes and nose, and he felt himself begin to quiver.

"Whoreson!"  The obscenity exploded from deep within Jack, and he raised the Holy Sword above his head, determined to gut the necromancer.  A red haze seemed to envelop the room, and all Jack could think about were his friend's eyes as he had died.

"Ru deldo vir, Laderra vanna dol . . ."  Almost lazily, Eodric flicked his wrist, and a bolt of black lightning struck the sword from Jack's hands.  Feeling nothing but the urge to kill, Jack charged the red-robed mage.

Eodric took a disdainful step backwards.  The corners of his mouth twitched with the malignant ghost of a sneer as he raised the crystal ball over his head.  An eldritch wind rose within the confines of the necromancer's protective sphere and swirled his robes in a spiraling pattern.

" . . . ve Karla."  The final words of the spell rang through the chamber, their resonance an obscenity against the claustrophobic stuffiness of the small room.

Jack roared and threw himself against the opalescent shield.  He hammered his fists against the unyielding surface and screamed profanities at the smirking mage behind it.  Even when his hands grew sticky with his own blood, he continued to beat against the sphere like a pain-crazed animal.

Within the sphere, Beatrice doubled over as if kicked by a mule.  The circlet on her forehead began to glow as if it were being heated in a forge.  The two jewels set on either side of the centerpiece flickered, and seemed to move back and forth.

Then suddenly, there was no protective sphere.  Jack fell to his knees, and starting scrabbling for his the Holy Sword.  Beatrice slumped, no longer held by the bonds of energy, and Jack surged forward to catch her.

However, her fall was arrested by a force which dragged her upright like a puppet.  He arms and legs twitched jerkily, and her head bobbed arhythmically.  Jack flinched in horror as her eyes opened slowly.

They were violet.

Beside him, Eodric fell down on one knee.  "Mistress," he said reverently.  "You have heeded my call."

When Beatrice spoke, her voice sounded far away, as if she were speaking from the back of a cave.  Over her voice was laid another—one that Jack didn't recognize.  In her eerie double voice, Beatrice spoke.

"I . . . I have heeded your call, although it was not by my choice.  Who dares to call Karla from her rest?"

Eodric paled and began to shake.  "M-my name is Eodric Kalthansen, Mistress.  I am a humble sorcerer of no great power--"

"Your false modesty sickens me," the being who was not Beatrice replied.  "Say what you will."

The red-robed sorcerer gathered himself.  "Mistress Karla, you always worked to maintain the balance of Lodoss island.  For five hundred years you toiled to save Lodoss from itself—to keep it from bringing disaster upon its people."

Beatrice's violet eyes blinked, waiting.

"What I mean," Eodric stammered, "Is that we are once again in dire need of your help.  Since your passing, foolish mortals have swung the balance of power severely to one side.  If we do not move to counteract this power, all of Lodoss will surely perish!"

"And so your first act is to hand responsibility to another," Beatrice's voice was both amused and disgusted.  "You assume to much."

Eodric flinched as is slapped.  "What?"

"I was defeated by the Free Knight Parn, and by his comrades.  Whether this event occurred two years ago or one thousand years ago makes no difference to me.  The fact is, that the resurrection of Kardis failed, and her antithesis Marfa also failed to take control of Lodoss.  This in itself was an act of balance that allowed the people of Lodoss to create their own balance."

"But—but they're ruining it!" Eodric protested.

"Not so much that there is nothing left," replied Beatrice, "else you would not have the means to call me.  Go back to your struggles, little man, and let Karla dream of godhood."

The circlet around Beatrice's forehead shattered, and Beatrice bucked once, as if all the muscles in her body had been pulled taut at once.  Then she collapsed into Jack's arms.

Jack cradled her and kissed her forehead.  Tears burned the edges of his eyes: tears for himself, and for her, and for Wode.  Beatrice shifted slightly and took a breath.  Jack heaved a sigh of relief.

Behind them, Eodric stood up, shaking and white-faced.

"I don't understand," he whispered repeatedly.

Jack lay Beatrice down, picked up the Holy Sword, and advanced on the distraught sorcerer.  He raised the blade above his head and swung with all his might at the red-robed man—

But the blade jolted in his hands, and refused to strike.

Jack cursed in frustration.  "Why?  Why?  He deserves to die!  He killed Wode!  He killed so many people . . . we was ready to sacrifice so much!"

But the sword refused to let him strike.

Jack glared venom at the scarlet-garbed necromancer, and then gave him a swift, violent kick.  "Get the hell out of here.  You'll be dead within a day anyway, if the army finds you."

And Eodric—court sorcerer to King Langred of Kanon—sobbed and dashed out the door.

*          *          *          *          *

Jack placed the last mossy rock on the cairn.

Buried several feet below the pile of rocks was Jack's friend, whom he had wanted to get to know better.  Thrust into the soft, dark earth, was a beautifully crafted dark elven dagger.  And ten paces to the left, an identical cairn stood, with an old dwarven war-axe rusting to pieces in front of it.

Jack tried to smile, but the muscles of his face wouldn't respond.  It all seemed to pointless.  "I . . . I think he would have liked it," he managed to say.

Beside him, Beatrice nodded.  "Wode, like the Great Ghim, died in service to Lodoss, trying to prevent the abuse of power by those who should have known better.  I think he'd be happy knowing that he and Ghim are buried within spitting distance of one another."

She pulled a cloak tighter around her, trying to shut out the early autumn wind.  "It was very generous of King Spark to put in a word for you with King Orson.  How does it feel to be a Free Knight?"

Jack's grin was bitter.  "Sad.  I wonder if Sir Parn always felt this way."

Beatrice shrugged.  "I'll bet most heroes do."

"I'm not a hero," Jack replied.  "Wode was a hero.  He sacrificed his life."

"As you were ready to," Beatrice answered.  "Don't cheapen yourself.  King Spark will never let you keep the sword with that attitude."

Jack let his gaze drift to the Holy Sword buckled at his side.  Heirloom of great heroes, it had been carried King Fahn of Valis, the Great Free Knight Parn, and King Spark of Flaim.  Now, it would be held in trust by him—Jack.

"Sir Jack, the Free Knight of Moss," he murmured.  "I guess it doesn't sound so bad."

The last rays of the setting sun limned the pair in shades of flame and ruby, and the Free Knight of Moss straightened his shoulders and dried his unshed tears.