Tournament Prize

a Wizards and Warriors story

By Janice Cox (jancox46@attbi.com)

"Wizards and Warriors" created and (c) by Don Reo and Warner Brothers. No infringement of copyright is intended.

Chapter One

The soft, rhythmic jingling of the bells on the outside of their wagon was soothing, making it harder and harder for Tessa to keep her eyes open. Talmor, bless him, was patiently going over their lines with the young apprentice Gregory for what must have been the twentieth time that long, warm fall afternoon. They had been playing to crowds too harvest-happy to care if the boy said "h'aint" for "aren't" and "jump down from yer window" for "step lightly down from yon balcony" but Talmor did care, and that was enough. Tessa smiled drowsily, remembering her own first days with the troupe so many years before.

She had been only twelve, and so innocent of the ways of the world. Talmor would say that she still was, of course, but at the time even the sound of rough men's laughter had been enough to send her scurrying for the safety of their covered wagon. She had never known their were such people, so rough of hand and voice yet so generous with their appreciation for the simplest of entertainments. Back then Nana Anna had still been-but no. Tessa sat up and restlessly patted at her long plaits of pale blond hair. There was no point in thinking of the past, especially when her memories of her time before joining the troupe were so hazy anyway. What was past was done and only the business of the dead, as Talmor would say. Today was all that mattered, today and the Aperanian Tournament they traveled toward.

The Tournament was held every year at the end of the harvest season. According to Talmor it had been held for years beyond memory, even during the time of the Great Wars. For three days men would lay down their enmities and come together from all over Aperans to celebrate the successful end to another harvest. Only the most skilled of musicians and performers were invited to perform. Many of these, Talmor said, would so please one or another of the lords or princes attending that they would receive a commission to entertain at the lord's residence for the entire winter. Imagine! To have a warm, soft bed each night, and no fear of starvation or highwaymen to keep one awake at night. It would be a dull life year round, no doubt, but one that Tessa would very much like to try at least once. She had asked Talmor why they had never before appeared at the Tournament, but for once the man's glib tongue seemed to fail him.

"We've no need to come under the scrutiny of kings and princes, my girl," he had growled at her when she had first broached the subject. "We do well enough without that."

"But Talmor, surely we have nothing to hide. And to perform before the King-well, Kings, I suppose-Talmor, what an honor! And think of the stories we would hear. You're always saying that we never have the latest happenings to relate. Why, with so many minstrels in one place, we could--"

"Never mind! We don't need that kind of attention, girl. There's a few things you just haven't learned in your three and twenty years, Tessa, for all that you're spot-on with a song or play. Now, go on, back to your practice, and let an old man rest." He had rolled over on his side and feigned sleep and she knew she would get no further that day. Both she and Gregory had pestered at him off and on for the rest of the summer to no avail. It hadn't been until Martha began to take ill two weeks ago that Talmor had at last begun to relent. The woman's deep, wet cough had gone far beyond anything Tessa's herbal remedies alone could heal. She needed a prolonged rest in a warm, dry place if she was to recover. Just the kind of shelter one of the lords could provide, Tessa had reminded him. And Talmor himself was always saying that their small troupe was the match for any minstrel group anywhere on Aperans. At the very least they could find a position with some minor lordling that would keep them out of the worst of the winter's bitter winds, she reasoned. At last the old man had relented, his fear for his wife's health overcoming whatever foolish concerns he held so close to his vest. Tomorrow would see them there, and Tessa was nearly dancing with excitement.

"Tessa!" Gregory's hand on her shoulder shook her from her reverie. "Come on. Talmor says Martha needs her tea, and it's nearly suppertime. And I'm starving!" He added plaintively. Tessa suppressed a grin as she belatedly began to gather the herbs she would need for Martha's medicinal tea. Gregory was fifteen, and a bottomless pit when it came to food. Martha was always complaining that she was forced to let the boy's clothes out every week, he was growing so. Now Martha was coughing again, poor thing, and her she had sat, lost in her own thoughts. Scooping up the last of the small cloth bags that held her precious supply of herbs, Tessa pushed the canvas aside and stepped carefully down to the ground.

The air was still warm with the last of the days' sunlight, and she could hear Gregory quickly stacking the wood that would be their cooking fire. The trees around them were filled with the soft chirping of the birds who hadn't yet left for warmer southern climates. The only voices were the familiar tenor of old Talmor and Gregory's soft mutter as he recited his lines to himself while he worked. It was soothing, like the soft chime of the bells, and Tessa couldn't help but wonder what tomorrow evening would be like. They had never traveled with other musicians, never stayed in a large city for more than a single night. The peaceful quiet of the road was all she could remember, and for a brief moment a black chill ran down her spine. Perhaps there was a reason Talmor had kept them to themselves so much. Certainly he had done his best to keep word of the Tournament from them for as long as possible. What did he know that the rest of them didn't? For a moment the answer danced just out of reach, they way things sometimes did in her dreams. Then it was gone, and Gregory was calling to her again.

"Tessa? Are ye' all right? The fire's just o'er here, ten paces to your left. I cleared away the brush. Do you want me ta--?"

"No, I'm fine, Gregory, thank you. You'd better see to the horses before Talmor starts roaring, don't you think?" Gregory still thought her sightless eyes made her helpless, dear lad. Reaching back into the wagon Tessa deftly picked up her walking staff and headed unerringly for the sound of the crackling fire.

###

"Well, now, what do we have hear?" The man's warm, easygoing voice allayed the last of Tessa's fears and she leaned forward with anticipation. They had so few visitors while traveling! They had heard the steady approach of men on horseback quite clearly in the still autumn air, and Gregory had quickly disappeared into the forest to see what kind of men approached. Thankfully, he had brought back word of a half-dozen men dressed in the uniforms of Camerand soldiers with a man in fine clothes leading them. This must be that man, Tessa thought. His voice was clear, confident, the voice of a leader. Or a musician, she thought with a smile. Only those accustomed to addressing large groups of people had voices with that wonderful timber to them. She heard saddle leather creak as he dismounted.

"Just simple minstrels, my lord, taking their rest after a long day upon the road. Would you care to share our fire, and perhaps tell us of news of the war?" Talmor was on his best behavior, telling her that this was more than just an officer out of uniform. What did he see?

"That would be right nice of you," the man said with a smile so broad she could hear it. "Me and the boys could use a breather, that's for sure. We've been riding hard all day, trying to get to Allhands. Don't want to miss the Tournament, do we boys? Me and my brother Erik are gonna kick some serious butt this year." There was a general murmur of agreement from the men, who then began to dismount and tend to their animals.

"You arrive in good time, my lord. Allhands is but a days' ride, and the Tournament yet two days away. You and your men are welcome to camp here, if you find the company of simple minstrels agreeable."

"Yeah, that would be great. And it's Justin. Justin Greystone." The two men shook hands, which surprised Tessa. The sharp clap of hands coming together could have been nothing else, but what lord shook hands with a mere musician? And this man spoke of competing in the Tournament, which meant that he was nobility of some sort. Tessa knew little of the comings and goings of the ruling caste, but the name Greystone did seem familiar…

"My lord!" Talmor's voice sounded impressed and alarmed at the same time. "I meant no offense, to suggest that you would wish to share-"

"Now, now, let's just forget all that, all right? That ale smells mighty good, and Mikhail over there's got a tadmon dressed and ready for the fire. Why don't we just all relax and have a good time? I haven't seen a good minstrel show in, hell, must be days. Maybe after supper we could trade news of the front for a song or two, what do you say?"

"Of course, my lord. Oh! My name is Talmor, and this is my good wife Martha." Talmor must be shook, indeed, to fumble introductions so, Tessa thought with a wry grin. Who was this man? The heir to all Camerand? "This young lad is Gregory, and the lovely lass over by the fire is Tessa. Tessa, rise and greet the man properly."

Obediently Tessa rose to her feet and turned to face in the stranger's direction. "Well met, sir," she began courteously, "and welcome to our humble camp." In an instant the man was in front of her. A smooth, gentle hand, unlike that of a farmer or soldier, reverently lifted one of her hands. To her stunned amazement the lord bent over her grubby hand and kissed it lightly. She had to smother a giggle of unreality.

"Very well met, indeed," the man said. "I had no idea such treasures were to be found in the middle of the wilderness." Tessa felt herself blush uncontrollably. "Maybe my brother's right, and I oughtta spend less time in the city."

"Here is your ale, my lord. Shall I pour some for your men, as well?" Talmor sounded protective, dear man. As if this charming young lordling was any threat to a simple minstrel girl. After a beat the man released her hand and took a step back.

"That sounds great." He drank half of the mug at a draught. "Yeah, I'm sure we'd all appreciate a little refreshment." He allowed Talmor to lead him around to the chair Talmor set before the fire, but Tessa felt his gaze linger on her for a long time. Talmor continued his polite attentiveness all evening, despite his worries over Martha and the upcoming Tournament, until Tessa was ready to scream with curiosity. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, she grabbed Gregory as he passed by with more of the freshly cooked tadmon.

"Who is that man," she hissed, "And why does Talmor fawn over him so? He's met nobility before this, he's told us so."

"Who--?" Gregory voice was strangled surprise. "Didn't you hear him? That's Justin Greystone."

"So? Does he own half of Camerand?" she replied with asperity. "Talmor's behavior is disgraceful. Minstrels have more pride than that."

"Actually, I think he does own half of Camerand," Gregory replied in a fair imitation of Talmor's dry wit. "That's Prince Justin Greystone. Of the Greystones. Though I think it's his brother who's gonna inherit Camerand. All of it, I think." Picking up the plate of tadmon, Gregory hurried back to the waiting men.

Tessa's stomach sank. That explained everything. Nobility must be respected, of course, but the fear of bardic reprisals kept the nobles from treating musicians with undeserved cruelty. That couldn't be said for royalty. The royals could-and often did-do whatever they pleased. How many times had they sung tales of ill-fated musicians, hung from walls or quartered at a crossroads for some imagined royal infraction? One must always entertain royalty when bid, of course, and an honor it was indeed, but they all knew better than to rub elbows with one for long. It was rarely good for one's health.

And now one sat at their campfire. He seemed a friendly sort, for a royal, but they would all needs be on their guard. Tessa sighed inwardly, schooling her face to polite attentiveness. It was going to be a very long evening.

###

"You're not still afraid of me, are you?" Prince Greystone asked teasingly, pulling his horse up alongside their wagon. He had offered to ride the rest of the way into Allhands with them, giving them the tacit protection of his troops for the remainder of their journey. Talmor had reluctantly agreed, but promptly pulled Martha and Tessa inside the wagon with him, leaving Gregory to drive the wagon alone. Gregory was uneasy up there by himself, Tessa knew, and, as soon as Talmor had dropped off into his midmorning nap, Martha curled up at his side, she had crawled out to join him on the rough wooden bench. Now the Prince had ridden up to join them. It wouldn't be polite to ignore him, she supposed.

"I'm not afraid of you," she said calmly. "Just of what you can do. Simple folk tend to get trampled underfoot when royalty flexes its' muscles." She heard Gregory gasp beside her, but what of it? The man had asked her a question.

"Aw, we're not really like that. Well, not all of us, anyway. Blackpool, now…" he trailed off. "Well, the Greystones aren't, anyway. Heck, some of my best friends are common folk. There's this pair of sisters, Margaret and Lucille, for instance. Never known a nicer pair of-a nicer couple of ladies," he finished hastily. "You don't have anything to fear from me. And Erik, well, he's just about the nicest guy I've ever met. Too nice, sometimes. Why, there was the time he and I were…" and he was off, telling a story so wildly improbable that it had her laughing almost against her will.

"…and we finally made our way out, less about 10,000 kolnas and two kegs of royal ale. Took me a week to get the smell of tadmon droppings out of my shirt." They both burst out laughing and any remaining awkwardness was gone.

"I don't believe more than every third word," she said when she could catch her breath. "You'd have made a very fine bard, Prince Justin."

"Nah. Too much like work. And it's just Justin, okay? Calling me Prince makes me feel like I oughtta be doing something responsible."

"Justin, then," she agreed. "Well, you're on your way to do something prince-like, aren't you? You said last night you were competing in the Tournament?" The competitions were the stuff of romantic ballads, and she was curious to see what someone who was directly involved thought of them.

"Yeah, I'll be competing. We always do. Gotta keep up our reputations, you know. And it's a lot of fun. Little civilized dueling, nobody gets really hurt, then a great celebration afterwards. Folks'll be too hung over to even think about fighting for a least a week."

She laughed. "It does sound like fun. Though I think there's more to it than that. There are jousts to satisfy honor, or to win one's knighthood, aren't there?" She shivered, remembering the Ballad of Stormhold. Two centuries ago a tournament had been held in the north that had ended in the tragic death of a prince and his vassal over the honor of the prince's sister. She had died of grief before the year was out and the land fell into a year of the darkest mourning. "It sounds like very serious stuff, indeed."

"It can be," Justin replied with sudden seriousness. "Wars have started over things that happen at the Aperanian Tournament. Lot of people dying over some guy's injured pride, which is just the craziest damn thing I ever heard. Hell, I land on my pride," and he swatted at his backside, "least once a week, but you don't see me starting wars over it. But you can't dwell on the serious stuff or you'll get all old and wrinkled before your time. And that," he said lightly, "would be a tragedy for such a lovely lady." The moment of seriousness was there and gone like a summer shower and she smiled back at him. Prince Justin was harmless enough, it seemed. A flirt, undoubtedly. A layabout, almost certainly. But a good man underneath, one who would follow a comrade to the ninth circle of hell should it be called for. Complaining all the way, she thought ruefully.

"Then we won't talk about the Tournament any more," she replied. "I'll see it soon enough, I expect. What shall we talk about instead?"

"How about a song?"

"I think I can manage that. What type of song? A song of manly conquests," she asked teasingly.

"No, I get enough of those. How about something new? I've heard every tavern song I know enough times to sing the things backwards."

"Something new?" She bit her lip in thought. Talmor had discovered an old saga several months back and adapted it to music, but…

"What? Come on, give," he wheedled.

"Well, there is a new saga. We've been rehearsing it for weeks. We were going to use it at all the harvest festivals we attended, but now, with the Tournament, I don't know if we'll get the chance. You should see the dress Martha made me out of some old curtains for the final act. Very stylish." He was silent, waiting. "It's a very lovely saga. Talmor's outdone himself this time, I think. And it's based on a true story."

"But…?"

"But it's the story of Queen Evana. Talmor thought it might not be…politic…to perform that particular story in front of so many of the nobility." Queen Evana had once ruled all of central Aperans, and quite well, so it was said. But she hadn't been born to the role, and therein lay the difficulty.

"Queen Evana, the commoner queen. Yeah, that might shake up a few crowns. Bet it would make a good story, though."

"Oh, but it does!" She twisted on the hard wooden bench to face him, trying to convey her pleasure. "Evana was a common woman, true, but anything but common in her intelligence."

"Or her beauty," Justin added with a mock leer.

"Or her beauty. Something certainly caught King Highcraig's eye. He made her his mistress, and she became one of his most trusted advisors. She had been a serf's daughter, a nothing, and became advisor to a king." Tessa shook her head in amazement. "That would have been bad enough, and there were those who thought she had already risen dangerously far above her station And then the King became ill…"

"And she became his bride. That must have shook up a few folks, all right," Justin replied. "What I've never understood was how he got it by the Council. I just can't believe that they stood by for that. She had no royal blood at all." Justin didn't sound outraged, merely curious. Then he laughed. "Sounds like we're talking about horse breeding, don't it?"

"The Council has been most careful about keeping the royal bloodlines pure, or so I've been told," she agreed. "I'm sure that there's a good reason for it, but…" she trailed off doubtfully.

"Yeah. I always thought that was just a good ol' boys club rule, but Traquill said that there was a reason for it." He scratched his head. "Can't remember what it is, though. Doesn't matter much to me, anyway. I'm not exactly the marrying kind. And Erik's set to marry Ariel, so that's taken care of. Long as nothing happens to Erik," he added glumly. "Anything happens to him, dad might try to make me marry Ariel." He sounded so despondent that she couldn't help but smile.

"Oh, it couldn't be that bad, could it? Is she so very…plain?" No princess was ever ugly. Even if a few of them could frighten horses.

"No! Ariel's very pretty. Not as pretty as you, maybe,"

"Mmm hmm."

"But not hard to look at," he continued. "Ariel's just…not real bright. She means well enough, but… And if you've ever seen her dance, well…" he trailed off awkwardly. "King Baaldorf is a great guy, but I don't think I'd want to marry his daughter. Not that I'm in a hurry to marry at all," he added quickly. "I'm more the 'sow your wild oats' type of guy."

"To the great sorrow of every single woman in Aperans, no doubt," she said with a laugh.

"You ought to do it," he said suddenly. "Like you said, it's a true story. An she dies at the end, right? That ought to please the old die-hards. I'll bet you'd look just fine in that curtain dress." There was something gentle in his voice that made her nervous and pleased at the same time. "Now, why don't you sing me a song? Something from Queen Evana's story."

"I suppose it couldn't h-" her throat tightened in sudden alarm, cutting off her voice in mid-word. Something dark and clammy had swept across her mind and nerves like a slime-coated sheet, making her feel weak and somehow soiled. It faded quickly, leaving behind a deep, nameless fear. She heard Justin start in surprise.

"Riders!" There was no playfulness in his voice now. At the sharp command in his voice the men who had been riding lackadaisically behind them swept forward. From within the remains of her terror and revulsion Tessa was remotely aware that one had stopped on the other side of their wagon while the others ranged to the sides and ahead of them. Beside her Gregory's breath caught in his throat.

"What kind of men--?" Gregory whispered.

"Men dressed all in black," Talmor added, answering her unspoken question. "Perhaps a dozen of them." The older man had poked his head through the canvas behind them and now whistled softly. "And wearing insignia the likes of which I've never seen. Heavily armed, too. Blackpool's men, perhaps?"

"No, them I know. I-" Justin broke off suddenly and she heard the scream of a horse, so like the shriek of a woman. Beside her Gregory muttered an oath as the wagon jerked suddenly. From the sound of it, both of their horses, normally the most staid and steady of beasts, had shied. As he struggled to control them Tessa heard the thundering sound of hoofbeats rapidly approaching them.

"Talmor?"

"They're going to pass us by, girl." Talmor's voice was its familiar, soothing self and Tessa felt her chest loosen slightly. "They're just men in cloaks and masks, that's all." One hand stroked her hair, soothing her as he had after many a childhood nightmare. "Nothing to be so afraid of."

"The horses don't seem ta think so," Gregory muttered. "Easy now, you." The alarmed whinnies began to fade as the last of the mysterious riders passed by.

"Shall we follow, sire?" one of the soldiers inquired.

"Nah," came Justin's easy reply. "Whoever they are, looks like they're headed straight for Allhands. Maybe they heard about Tronin's new batch of ale, hey, Mickey?" The other man laughed in response. "The truce is in force for the Tournament. Even Blackpool's men know that. Still, wouldn't hurt to give 'em a heads-up in Allhands. You go on up ahead, cut across country to the north and you'll head them off. Maybe Tronin'll want to have a proper welcoming party ready for 'em." There was a tightness to the Prince's voice that told Tessa that he took the riders more seriously than he was letting on. Apparently the soldier heard it as well.

"Aye, sir!" A sharp clap of leather and the man was gone to the sound of thundering hoofbeats.

The danger--if there had ever been any--seemed to be gone. Even so, Tessa couldn't seem to stop shaking. Unable to explain her fear or the chill that clung to her despite the warm weather, she excused herself to the prince and slipped into the back of the wagon. The close, familiar surroundings did little to ease her frayed nerves. Shaking beneath a thick pile of blankets Tessa finally drifted off to sleep late that afternoon to the sound of Martha's gentle lullaby.

###

"His Royal Highness, Prince Erik Greystone!"

From long experience Erik Greystone did not step forward immediately after the liveried servant had announced him. Sure enough, moments later trumpets blared authoritatively, further emphasizing the importance of the announced guest. His ears ringing slightly, Erik now stepped forward, passing the now silent trumpeters and walking with as much dignity as he could muster toward the throne of King Edward Tronin the Third.

King Tronin, like his father before him, had a great love of both ceremony and adoration and both were well represented in the throne room Erik now entered. As he walked across the large room Erik was uncomfortably aware of the eyes of more than two dozen people upon him. All of them were elaborately dressed, and lounged carefully in heavily appointed chairs and divans to either side of a throne which took up a full third of the wall. These were not the admiring looks of his own people, which he had ceased to notice before he could shave, but the measuring stares of people who wondered how he could be used to further their own political ambitions. His family ruled over one of the most prosperous kingdoms in all of Aperans and had ties of blood or marriage to every other ruling family in Camerand. His father, Richard, was a direct descendant of the High King, and had married a second cousin of the Blackpool family. Add to that Erik's announced betrothal to Ariel Baaldorf, only child of the influential King Edwin Baaldorf, and you had a guy in position to some day place all of Camerand under the control of the Greystone family. Under his control, to be precise.

It was a lot of responsibility for a guy who'd just celebrated his twenty-sixth birthday. Stopping ten paces in front of the throne, Erik bowed gravely and tried to remember all of his father's advice. "Thank you for receiving me, your majesty." He heard a soft titter of female laughter and when he rose Erik saw that one of Tronin's daughters was blushing furiously. Two of her companions were looking at him like he was a stud horse and he nearly missed Tronin's reply in his embarrassment. I thought that father's announcement of our betrothal would at least get me out of the marriage market. It had been one of the few consolations Marko had been able to come up with after his father announced his intentions to marry his eldest son to Baaldorf's only daughter. He would have shot a dirty look at his vassal, but Marko had (wisely, it would appear) elected to make sure the knights were properly settled in their quarters while Erik made his formal greetings. Erik made a mental note to review that decision with him later. Over a tankard of ale, hopefully.

"It is always a pleasure for us to receive you, Prince Greystone," King Tronin replied. He was a balding, pudgy man in his mid forties who looked as if he was wearing half of his kingdoms' jewels on his elaborate crown. "We have been looking forward with much anticipation to your arrival. We have so many things to discuss. This distressing war, for one."

You mean your contribution to it, Erik thought with mild annoyance. Tronin had both men at arms and wealth in abundance yet balked at every kolna he was forced to spend in defense of Camerand. You'd think with his lands as close to the northern front as they are he'd be falling all over himself to help. Ah, well. Some people just have really rotten priorities, I guess. Sparing another glance around the opulent throne room Erik quickly mustered a suitable reply. "I'm sure that we do," he agreed. "My father and I have spoken about your concerns at great length. He should be arriving tomorrow, if the weather holds. I'm sure he is looking forward to discussing our mutual concerns."

"Perhaps we could discuss them this evening over dinner, if you are not too fatigued by your journey?" A hint of eagerness flickered across Tronin's face. Most people, seeing his open, honest face, thought that he would be an easy mark compared to his father, Erik knew.

"I would like nothing better, sire, but tradition dictates that the competitors dine together the night before competition. They say that it provides opportunities for dialogue during the truce that would otherwise go lacking. And with this 'distressing' war…" he trailed off meaningfully.

"Of course, of course." Tronin hid his disappointment well. "Perhaps tomorrow night, then, when your father will be free to join us."

"I look forward to it." Almost as much as another night in the Caverns of Chaos, Erik amended silently. "Now, I must beg your leave. There are still preparations my men and I need to make before the competition." Marko would have taken care of most of it by now, but there was no need to tell Tronin just how efficient his vassal was. Erik bowed his head politely in the direction of Queen Morita and then looked at Tronin expectantly. The king waved one pudgy, ring covered hand negligently toward the door.

"Far be it from me to keep a young man from the Tournament. Go, Prince Greystone. We will speak again soon." At the words of dismissal a servant quietly refilled Tronin's wine glass and Erik bowed hastily before making his retreat, glad to have escaped unscathed.

###

The air was fresh and clean after the stale, heavily perfumed air of Tronin's chambers, and Erik took a deep breath, a smile of pure pleasure on his face. The Tournament would be a welcome relief from the war. The war, started in his father's generation, seemed destined to go on forever. Bad enough for the kingdom's coffers, but worse for the men called to fight in it. And die in it. Erik shook his head. For three days he was free of all that. Well, more or less, he amended. There were still the northern barons to speak to, if the opportunity arose. Years after the Blackpools usurped their kingdoms, the kings-turned-barons still bore a powerful grudge. To date their loyalties to each other and the north had outweighed their anger at Blackpool, but as the war ground on and they lost more and more resources to it that loyalty might well wear thin. Some of the sons (and one of the daughters!) of these barons would be competing in the Tournament, and Erik was to speak with each of them in turn, assessing their mood and loyalty. And there was Tronin, waiting for the chance to whittle away at his contribution to the war effort. And King Baaldorf, concerned about northern encroachments to his grazing lands and the import tariffs that hurt his lacemakers, as well as the status of his daughter Ariel's wedding. And, of course, he was expected not only to compete in the Tournament, but to win for the honor and glory of all Camerand. While maintaining his princely dignity at all times, of course.

"I need a drink," Erik muttered. And a winsome bar lass, and…

"And some of Michael's broiled kithpah," Marko said agreeably, falling into step with Erik. "I had a chance to taste it earlier, and has he outdone himself this time." Marko smiled his broad smile and Erik couldn't help but respond in kind.

"Your brother came in from Dunfirm?" Marko's brother Michael ran one of the most popular taverns in central Aperans, and his love of good food and drink was at least the equal of Marko's. If Michael had brought food, it would be the best. "Boy, that sounds good right now. You don't suppose he brought some of that golden ale of his, do you?"

"Two kegs," Marko confirmed. "I had him set one aside for us." He sighed happily. "And Margaret and Lucille came with him."

"Have I mentioned how much I like your brother, Marko?" They both laughed. "Now, how are our knights?"

"Settled in King Tronin's guest quarters and already flirting with the pretty girls. There's this one chambermaid, Erik, I swear, she has the most amazing…"

"Did you hear that?" Erik held up one hand, his head tilted to one side. "Sounds like a rider approaching."

"Well, the day before the Tournament, I guess that's not too surprising. Lots of people are arriving. Now, about this chambermaid-"

"No, this is one rider. Maybe we'd better-" Erik broke off as a rider, bent low over his saddle, appeared around the bend in the road and rode straight for the open castle gates. Both he and his horse were coated with dust and sweat, but beneath it Erik could see familiar red, white, and gold. "That's one of ours. Come on!" Not waiting for Marko, Erik broke into a run.

The horse and rider came to a sliding stop in the middle of the front courtyard. The horses' side rose and fell like great bellows as the rider slid from the saddle and bowed shakily before Erik.

"Sire, I bring news of strange riders approaching. Prince Justin bid me ride ahead and bring word to you." Bobbing his head respectfully to Erik the man pulled off his riding helmet and ran one hand through his sweaty hair.

"Riders? What kind of riders?" The last of Erik's jovial good mood vanished and he frowned in concern.

"Twelve men, dressed all in black, wearing insignia that none of us recognized. All of them heavily armed with swords and crossbows. Their helmets," the man shook his head, "sire, I've never seen the like of them. They have horns, with slits for eyes and fierce designs etched in silver over the faceplate like a mask. They ride like the demons of hell are pursuing them, and they head in this direction. Prince Justin thought that King Tronin should be aware of their approach."

"He thought right," Erik said grimly. "I'll inform the King. You tend to your horse and yourself. Well done, soldier." He clapped the exhausted man on the back and turned away thoughtfully, his vassal in his wake. "Marko, why don't you round up some of our men and send them up to reinforce the main gate while I go explain to King Tronin." Marko nodded.

"Any idea who it could be?"

"No clue. And that's what worries me. The only thing I can think of is raiders, and raiders aren't likely to honor the tournament truce."

"Have to be crazy to attack here," Marko said. "There are enough soldiers and knights here for the Tournament to turn back an entire army."

"Yeah. That worries me, too." Nodding briefly to Marko, Erik wheeled around and headed back toward the throne room. So much for the broiled kithpah and Michael's ale, he thought with regret. I've got a feeling this is going to be a long day.

###

It was. The mysterious riders arrived within the hour and set up camp just outside the castle gates. The Tournament truce prohibited a challenge without extreme provocation, leaving them little choice but to double the guard and wait. The men in black just sat and waited, watching each group of arriving travelers closely but doing nothing to impede their passage. A sense of disquiet had fallen over the tournament grounds, and dinner was a subdued affair. The Blackpool contingent had yet to arrive, so there wasn't even that to break up the tense monotony.

Justin's arrival had briefly broken the tension, but Erik's brother had been able to add little to their knowledge of the mysterious strangers. To no one's great surprise Justin had arrived with a troupe of traveling musicians, and spent far more time regaling Erik with tales of one musician's beauty than he did providing any useful information. Now Justin was gone, most likely to seek out the attention of the Winslow sisters. Erik sighed. Justin meant well, but… Sipping at the single mug of ale he'd allowed himself for the night, Erik stared out at the camped strangers.

"Pretty creepy, aren't they?"

The voice came from directly behind him. He'd heard no one approach, and Erik had whirled and half-drawn his sword before he belatedly identified the owner of that voice. It was Traquill the wizard. The old man was seated in a heavy wooden chair that seemed to have been carved from a single great oak. He was sipping from a glass of wine and smiling vaguely. Erik released his pent-up breath and bowed his head to the kindly wizard.

"I really wish you wouldn't do that."

"You're too tense, lad. It's not good for you. Ties up the digestion." The old man stared at him with eyes which belied his decrepit appearance. "You're worried about our unexpected guests, aren't you?"

"Yeah." Erik looked back through the gate. The men in black had a small campfire burning, which was all that gave their position away. Even their horses were black.

"That's half of why they dress that way. Gives them an edge in battle, having their opponents jumping like a spooked horse all over the place." He looked sternly at Erik, who felt a blush begin to crawl up his cheeks. The wizard never failed to make him feel like an untried boy of eight or nine.

"I don't suppose you can tell us anything about them?" Erik asked. "Besides their effect on their opponents?" It was impossible to stay annoyed at Traquill, and Erik felt a grin spreading across his features.

"Well, don't let those helmets fool you. They're human enough under those scary looking outfits." The wizard frowned thoughtfully and crossed his legs, revealing absurdly long, narrow brown shoes. "Still, there is something about them. Something magical, mark my words." He tapped the side of his nose. "I can smell it."

"But you said they were human," Erik protested.

"I know what I said! I'm not so senile as to forget what I just said!" The old man said indignantly. "Why, I ought to…what were we talking about, again?"

"Magic," Erik reminded him patiently. "You said you could smell it." Sometimes, like now, he was fairly certain that the old wizard's apparent senility was just an act. Other times he wasn't so sure.

"That's it!" Traquill exclaimed. "And so I can. But it's not coming from any of the soldiers camped outside our doors. Humans can do magics, low ones, but this is something different. A device, I would guess. And very powerful one, from the feel of it. No human ever born could create something like that."

"Vector," Erik sighed. "Or Bethel. But why-" he stopped short as he turned back to face the wizard. Traquill was shaking his head, a puzzled frown on his lined face.

"Perhaps, perhaps. But there's something about the feel of it that isn't quite right. And then there's that insignia they're all wearing. That's not Blackpool's sign. Oh, I wouldn't put a little treachery past him or Vector, but…" Traquill sighed. "That symbol they're wearing looks familiar, somehow. And not because it belongs to that young whelp, Blackpool." He yawned hugely. "Well, I've helped you enough for one night. I'm off to bed."

"But you haven't-" Erik was talking to empty air. Traquill had disappeared. Erik sighed. "A 'device.' You couldn't have been little more specific?" Taking a sip of ale he stared moodily out into the darkness and whoever--or whatever--was out there.

###

The first day of the Seven Hundred and Forty Third Aperanian Tournament dawned bright and clear. Freshly-scrubbed squires ran here and there, carrying messages and helping their knights into finery reserved for just such rare occasions. Children ran through the gathering crowds, laughing and smearing their faces with hot pastries and sweets from the stalls set up around the perimeter of the Castle Tronin courtyard. Peasant men and woman wandered casually from stall to stall, nodding politely to the young noblemen and women who passed among them. The Tournament was Fair Day, Midwinter Festival and Harvest Celebration all rolled into one, and it seemed as if every subject and ruler in Aperans was trying to join in the festivities.

None of this mattered to the stranger in black. He passed through the crowds like some malign serpent, paying no attention to the way some pulled away with small grimaces of distaste as he passed. Even these few sensitive folk could not have said was disturbed them about the stranger. He was handsome enough, with fine features and striking deep-red hair above piercing blue eyes. But handsome was common enough at Tournament time. The black clothing he wore was of the finest materials and fit his lean form perfectly, but many here wore clothing as fine or finer. The jewel that sparkled at the base of his throat as if lit with some internal flame was perhaps the cause, but again, many men and women in attendance wore finer jewelry. Whatever the cause, people stepped from the stranger's path almost without being aware they were doing so. He ignored this as well, intent his mission.

###

Princess Ariel Baaldorf was not having a good day. First her handmaiden Cassandra forgot to pack the lavender handkerchiefs that she had to have if her new dress was to look right. What was she supposed to drop attractively for all those handsome knights to retrieve? Oh, sure, she was supposed to be betrothed to Erik Greystone. But daddy said they would be allowed to say yes or no themselves, even if he betrothal had already been announced. Erik was nice and all. Okay, nice and very cute, but there were other men in the sea, weren't there? Or on dry land, anyway. She didn't want anything to do with a guy who was all wet. So she needed nice handkerchiefs to drop, and Cassandra had gone and forgotten them. Then when she woke up this morning icky old King Tronin had sent her a bouquet of flowers. Some of the flowers were okay, and the sachet blooms would look very nice with the silver dress that she'd wear for dinner tonight, but the blue roses had made her sneeze. She had tossed the bouquet out the window an hour ago, but she was still sneezing! Some people were just so inconsiderate.

Finally, Erik had promised to come and escort her around the Tournament-thingie before he had to go fight, and now he said he couldn't do it! Something about some strangers that weren't invited or something. She hoped it wasn't Dirk Blackpool who hadn't been invited. He was rude, and okay they were at war with him, but he always wore those black leather pants and chains and things. She sighed. Erik never wore anything so interesting. Honestly, even the servants here dressed better than he did! But the important thing was that Erik wasn't coming, leaving her sitting upstairs in the dress she'd had made just for walking around today. She'd told Queen Morita all about it last night, and the king's wife had agreed it sounded like just the thing to be seen walking around in. She sighed again, then sneezed.

"Bless you." Cassandra handed her a handkerchief--a plain boring white one--and Ariel blew her nose noisily before handing the cloth back to her servant. "I looked everywhere, your highness, but I couldn't find any lavender handkerchiefs. I don't think there are any in the whole kingdom."

"Which is why mine would have been so perfect," Ariel complained.

"I know," Cassandra replied. "I just don't understand it. I told them that all six bags were supposed to go. At least it was just the bag with your scarves and handkerchiefs. Can you imagine how awful it would have been if they'd forgotten one of your dress bags?"

Ariel shuddered wordlessly.

"I did find something you might like," Cassandra continued tentatively. "They're silver, not lavender, but the seamstress said that no one else here has anything like them." At that Ariel looked around at the small silver cloth in Cassandra's outstretched hand. "She said they're made of the finest silk from the eastern kingdoms, with the lace made of the same material. See how the cloth just becomes lace at the edges? It was unwoven there and then rewoven into the lace pattern. I've never seen anything like it, Princess."

Ariel snatched it up and examined the cloth closely. "My! You're right, Cassandra. I can't see any seams at all. Of course, it would have been better if it was in lavender, but daddy says we all have to make sacrifices sometimes. How many of these does she have? And how long will it take to get them here?"

"I don't know how many she has," Cassandra said. "I saw a stack of them. Maybe eight or so." Seeing the look on Ariel's face she hurried on. "But she's here at the Tournament. You can have at least half a dozen right away, and I'm sure she'd be happy to make more for you."

"Yes, I'm sure she would. You say she's here right now?" Ariel's blue eyes crinkled with mischief. "I think we'd better go get them before someone else buys one."

"Yes, of course, I'll go down right-we?"

"We," Ariel confirmed. "Erik may be too busy with his darned old bad guys, but I want to see the Tournament stalls."

"Your father gave very strict orders about your going out unprotected," Cassandra began.

"Oh, pooh! Daddy always worries too much. And almost every knight in Aperans will be here today." Her eyes gleamed in anticipation. "How much trouble could I get into?"

###

"How much trouble will I get into? Is that what you're asking, Erik?" The voice was silken amusement with a strong undercut of mockery, a familiar combination which never failed to set Erik's teeth on edge.

"Yeah, Dirk, that is what I'm asking." They were standing in the courtyard in front of the castle, where Blackpool had just paid his respects to King Tronin. A crowd was beginning to gather as the two warring rulers confronted each other. Soldiers for either side shifted uneasily. "It's a funny thing, but everywhere you go, people die. I'd just like to know when it's going to start this time."

"People die all the time. I'm a very busy man, Erik, but I can't lay claim to all of them. Just the ones who cross me." Dirk smiled, and Erik realized with a start that on some level the other man was enjoying this.

"With a ruler like you, that probably includes half your own kingdom. Just remember, Dirk: we're here under truce. Breaking the truce here, in front of every ruling head on Aperans, would be a bad mistake."

"Break the truce?" Dirk took a step back in mock surprise. "Why, Erik, the thought had never crossed my mind. My people and I are merely here to compete in the games and enjoys the fruits and labors of the common folk." Erik snorted. He knew full well Dirk's feelings about 'the common folk.'

"Then I won't keep you from it, Dirk." He hesitated. Dirk was here, along with a dozen or so of his knights and a few hand-picked soldiers. Geoffrey, Dirk's younger brother, had been here, then wandered off somewhere as soon as they'd left Tronin's chambers. But where was Vector? "Did you lose someone, Dirk? Or did your pet wizard finally break his leash?" Dirk's face darkened, but his reply was as smooth as ever.

"Not at all. Vector is merely…under the weather. I'll be sure to tell him of your concern when he arrives. Now, if you will excuse us? The first competition is in less than an hour, and I don't want to miss it." The competition would involve one of each of their knights fighting with long, weighted poles without the benefit of armor. Dirk made a mocking half-bow and wheeled around, gesturing for his men to follow him. I can remember sitting beside you, watching our fathers' men joust for fun with staffs like those, Erik thought with a sudden rush of sadness. What happened to us?

Erik sighed. It didn't really matter any more, did it? Something was up with Dirk's wizard, and that might be important. Dirk still wore Vector's monocle, so he knew the wizard hadn't simply left...not that Vector would ever give up his hold over Karteia in any case. Did wizards really get sick? He didn't know. Dirk did look none too pleased about Vector's absence, which led some credence to the idea. Or could it have something to do with the men in black and their mysterious "device"? Still thinking, he turned and walked back into the crowd.

###

Princess Ariel Baaldorf was having a very good afternoon. The seamstress had had two dozen of those wonderful handkerchiefs, and hadn't sold a single one at the Tournament. Something about the price, which was ridiculous. How could you put a price on fashion? Then she had found the most darling shoes and eaten just a smidgen of a wonderful berry tart. Now a jeweler was holding up a very pretty silver and diamonds necklace. Taking it from his hands she held it up in front of her and stared into his mirror critically.

"Silver suits you." A deep male voice said from just over her shoulder.

"It does, doesn't it? My mother always says gold suits me better because it matches my hair." She twirled a lock of golden-blond hair through her fingers.

"Your mother is very observant. But silver catches the moonlight and will make your eyes shine in the darkness." He chuckled. "Not something a mother would tell her young and very beautiful daughter, I'd wager."

"Thank you." Ariel beamed. Now this was more like it! She turned around, still holding the necklace to her chest with one hand and peremptorily holding out her other hand for him to take. "I'm Princess Ariel Baaldorf."

"I knew the moment I laid eyes on you that you were of royal blood. No common woman could possess such stunning beauty." He bent low over her hand and kissed it reverently.

Ariel blushed in delight. The stranger rose and met her eyes and her blush deepened. He was so handsome! Hardly anyone had true red hair anymore, not the kind that blazed like fire in the sun. And his eyes…blue eyes that seemed to be able to look straight through her. She sighed. "What did you say your name was?"

"My name is Roland, milady." He looked around in apparent surprise. "Surely your guards must be nearby? I cannot believe your husband would leave you here among so many thieves and scoundrels without proper protection."

"Oh, I'm not married. Not yet, I mean. Well, I mean, I might get married. Well, of course I'll marry, but I might be marrying…I'm babbling, aren't I?" She sighed again. He had the most wonderful eyes…

"Then perhaps you will allow me to escort you. In times like these, even a princess may not be safe when left unprotected." He held out his arm and she took it without thinking twice.

"That would be wonderful. I was supposed to have an escort, you see, but he had to go off and do…stuff." Let Erik chase down bad guys if he wanted to. Her day was turning out just fine without him, thank you very much. Roland smiled understandingly.

"How thoughtless," he murmured, guiding her expertly through the crowds. "But very lucky for me, I would say. Perhaps you would like something cool to drink, Princess Ariel? There is a stall here with the finest white wine from Dunfirm, and a shady tree just outside the gates. How does that sound?"

"Wonderful," Ariel agreed dazedly. "But I should tell-"

"Cassandra? Your handmaiden takes your purchases back to your suite. Come, let your servant do her work. You and I will enjoy this very fine day as befits our status."

Dimly, Ariel was aware that she really oughtn't be going off with a strange man, no matter how cute and charming he was. Her parents had let her go off on a picnic with Erik, true, but he was her betrothed. Sort of. And she still hadn't seen any of the stalls on the south side of the courtyard. But it was so hard to think about any of those things. So hard to think at all, really. All she wanted was a cool drink of wine, some shade, and more time to look up into those wonderful, wonderful blue eyes.

Roland was back by her side before she realized that he had left. In one hand he had a basket that held a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a selection of delicate pastries. He held his other hand out to her.

"Milady?"

A small voice in the back of her mind wasn't just yelling but screaming, but Ariel paid it no mind. Instead, she smiled and took the stranger's outstretched hand, the necklace she had been holding slipping, unheeded, to the ground.

###

Tessa was exhausted. The sun on her face told her than it was no more than mid-afternoon, but it seemed as if she had been singing and playing for days. She surreptitiously rubbed her aching fingertips together in the folds of her skirt while Talmor regaled the crowd with one of his ridiculous fairytales. Most of the tales had an undercurrent that poked fun at the proud or foolish, especially of the ruling class. They'd been a little concerned that some of their more high-ranking patrons might take offense, but so far there had been nothing but praise for Talmor's stories.

The story was well underway, and Tessa let her mind wander. The horrible sensations of the day before had fortunately not returned, though the nasty aftertaste of the rider's passing was with her still. Her long nap seemed to refresh her, for when she woke last night they were within the outer castle wall and she felt perfectly fine. Fine enough that today Talmor hadn't let her rest for a minute, but kept her with him and Gregory as they sang in first one location and then another throughout the Tournament grounds. The most enjoyable had been the hour they spent on a raised wooden stage, playing tunes for anyone who cared to dance. There they were joined by another troupe, and she had her first real experience with the complex harmonies and multiple variations that a large, experienced group could attain. It had been exhilarating, and she had been startled and saddened when it was announced that their turn was done.

Still, a part of her was grateful that Talmor had found them this position within the outdoor alehouse that had been set up specially for the Tournament. There was shade here, and bales of hay to sit on and rest one's feet between sets. Gregory, not used to so much activity, was sound asleep in his seat beside her, snoring softly. Tessa took a small sip of wine and listened for a moment to see where Talmor was in his story. Not yet half way through, thank all the gods.

"Well, hi there! Boy, I'm glad I finally found you. I've been looking for you all afternoon." She smiled and turned.

"Hello, Justin." She regretted the informality as soon as it had left her lips. They were no longer on a deserted road but within the walls of a castle. Prince Justin was probably no different here than there, but she didn't have his luxury to forget those boundaries. Ah, well, there was no helping it now. "You've been looking for us?" she asked in surprise. Out of nowhere a laugh burbled out. "And I thought you said you could find my 'golden voice' anywhere."

"Well, I mighta gotten distracted once or twice," he allowed. "I got walloped pretty good on the field today. Must've shook up my brains some."

"Oh? I hope you weren't seriously hurt?" Without thinking she reached out and touched the throbbing place on his left temple. It was warm to the touch, and swollen, but not dangerously so, she thought with relief. Abruptly she realized what she was doing and pulled her hand away quickly, blush rushing into her cheeks once again. "I'm sorry, Prince Justin. I don't know what's come over me today. It must be the heat." It certainly felt warm in here, anyway.

"Hey, now, don't apologize!" He deftly caught her hand in his. "A man likes a little feminine concern, after a hard day on the field. But you don't have to worry on my account. It'd take a lot more than anything Geoffrey's got to do me permanent damage." He rapped lightly at his uninjured temple. "They don't call us Greystones for nothing."

"Well, that is a relief. If anything were to happen to you all of the single women in the kingdom would be forced into a year of mourning," Tessa replied. She made no attempt to pull her hand away, realizing with a start that no one in this noisy, cheerful, makeshift tavern knew or cared that a prince was flirting with a lowly minstrel girl. And it felt good to smile, to make light and meaningless conversation. Talmor had kept them to themselves for far too long.

"So. Since we've established that you're not seriously injured, what brings you to us?"

"Tomorrow night we're having this big banquet. All of the royal houses will be there. They do it every year. Gives everyone a chance to snipe at each other without anybody drawing blood."

"Sounds like fun," Tessa said dryly.

"You have no idea. Anyway, there's usually somebody playing music in the background while we eat. I was talking to King Tronin earlier. He's a nice enough guy, when you get to know him. Anyway, we got to talking over this wine he had, and I told him about you."

"About me?" she squeaked.

"Nothing bad. Just about how pretty you were, and what a nice voice you have. See, his wife picked out the entertainment for tomorrow night, and Queen Morita likes opera." He shuddered dramatically. "I hate opera. So does Edward Tronin. So, I just…"

"You want us to sing tomorrow night. At the banquet." Tessa's head spun. If they performed well, they were certain to win a position for the upcoming winter. But if they did poorly… "Oh, Justin, you shouldn't have. We have nothing prepared, not nearly enough music suitable for royalty. We're tavern players!" Her voice rose at the end enough for people at several tables to turn and shush her. "We can't possibly do as you ask. Not before an audience such as that," she finished in a near whisper.

"You can, and you're gonna. You're a lot more talented than you give yourself credit for. And I should know. You have any idea how many hours I've spent listening to tavern minstrels?" He squeezed her hand lightly.

"I-I," Tessa's head swam. This was all like some strange, fantastic (and occasionally terrifying) dream. "Justin, we don't have the music for it."

"Sure you do! You're gonna perform Queen Evana's Saga."

###

"Cassandra! There you are! Marko says that you were looking for Ariel. Is she all right?" Erik came to a halt outside the room of Ariel's suite. Cassandra, an alarmed look on her face, shut the room to the room and promptly rested her back against it, effectively barring his passage.

"Oh, she's fine, Prince Greystone. Really." From inside the room there was muffled laughter and then the sound of something crashing to the floor. Cassandra blinked nervously. "Princess Ariel is resting."

"You know, it really doesn't sound like she's resting," Erik said. Now he could hear the faint sounds of singing. It was Ariel's voice, unmistakably. And she was singing…a tavern song? "I really think I ought to see her."

"NO!" Cassandra spread her arms wide. " I mean, Princess Ariel needs her rest, your majesty." She bit her lip as something else crashed to the floor inside Ariel's room. "She's very tired, and needs to rest before dinner."

"I don't think so." Erik reached out and grasped Cassandra by her upper arms, lifting her and setting her gently to one side. Taking a deep breath, Erik steeled himself for the worst and opened the door.

Ariel was in there, all right, but she certainly didn't look very tired. His sometime-betrothed was wandering around her spacious suite, carefully examining each decoration in turn, while singing an off-color song about a two-headed horse that Erik would have sworn on his horse Southwind she had never even heard.

"…and came upon the pass. The horse looked up, the horse looked down, and dumped him on his--oh, what an ugly vase!" Ariel stared owlishly at an ornate purple and green flower vase. "Honestly, how anyone could choose those as their family colors. Oops!" She smiled smugly as she dropped the offending vase to the floor. It shattered into a thousand pieces and Ariel giggled. "Much better. Now, where was I?" She took a breath, clearly intending to pick up where she'd left off, when he eyes lit on Erik, still standing in the doorway. "Erik!" She took a step toward him and tripped on her skirts. "Oh, boy."

Erik stepped forward, catching Ariel in his arms before she could tumble to the floor. She went limp immediately and rolled her head around to blink up at him. "Hello." She giggled. "You swept me off my feet."

"I kept you from landing on your--never mind." Erik walked across the room and deposited Ariel on the bed. No wonder Cassandra hadn't wanted him to see Ariel! The Baaldorf princess was clearly drunk out of her mind. "Ariel, what have you been doing?" He tried to sound stern and concerned, but he could barely restrain a laugh. Ariel was looking up at him earnestly, blinking as she tried to bring him into focus.

"I haven't been doing anything! You were supposed to take me to the Tournament, remember?" She swatted at him with one hand, missing him by a country mile. "But, noooo. You had to go fight evil, or something. So Cassandra and I snuck out all by ourselves. We bought some fabric for a new dress, and some nice new shoes, and oh!" she managed to grab his hand, "some of the most purs-most perfect handkerchiefs in all of Aperans!"

"Yeah, yeah, but, Ariel, what about the wine? I think you had a wee too much to drink, young lady." She pouted.

"Well, it's hard work, shopping! And the day was getting warm. So I had a glass of wine with this very nice man--oh, he had the nicest blue eyes!--and we talked and talked about all kinds of things."

This just kept getting worse. "You were out drinking with a man. Who was it, Ariel?" So help him, if it was that damned Geoffrey Blackpool, he'd--

"Oh, you're so cute when you're jealous! And you ought to be. He was very nice. And he didn't have anything more important to do than keep me company." She sighed. "And he had the nicest black clothes. Sort of like what's his name, Blackpool, but without all the big leather-shoulder thingies." Her eyes grew vague. "And he had the prettiest jewel. When I looked at it it seemed to glow. It was like I fell right into it." She giggled again. "Isn't that silly? So then I got so very tired, and I came up here and took a nap. Then Cassandra woke me up, which I thought was very rude. I think I'll have to punish her. No strawberry torts for a month!" Idly she ran a strand of blond hair through her fingers. "Oh no! Cassandra! I've got a split end!"

Erik stepped aside as the handmaiden came forward, murmuring soothing phrases. Cassandra sat down on the edge of the bed and began stroking her mistress' hair as Erik began pacing the room. At first it had sounded as if Ariel had simply managed to make a fool of herself, bad enough. But she'd said that it was a man in black. A stranger, not Geoffrey or Dirk, and someone with a jewel you could drown in. A jewel, he wondered, or a device? A magical device? He'd better find Traquill and--

"You rang?"

"How do you do that?" he asked as he turned around. The elderly wizard was standing in one corner of the suite, leaning on a gnarled wooden staff and smiling bemusedly.

"I'd be happy to tell you, if you've got a spare month or two. But I have a feeling something else is really on your mind today."

"It's Ariel."

"Hello!" Ariel waved from the bed.

"She's, well, I think she's--"

"Drunk out of her gourd," Traquill finished. "Some people just don't have the stomach for serious drinking. But that's not what's bothering you, is it?" His sharp gaze moved from Erik to Ariel's prostrate form.

"She said she was talking to a strange man in black," Erik explained. "And that he was wearing a jewel that seemed to glow. The men who arrived last night--"

"Just so," Traquill said thoughtfully. "Well, let's take a look at her, shall we?" He shuffled slowly across the room and sank carefully into the chair that Cassandra provided. The old man smiled vaguely at the handmaiden before picking up his monocle and holding it out toward the still-giggling princess. The monocle began to glow immediately, bathing Ariel in a soothing blue light. Ariel grew silent, staring in wonder at the wizard's tool. "Mmmm hmm. Just as I thought. Ariel, can you hear me?"

"I can hear you." Her voice was calm but distant, not at all like her usual lively self.

"Do you remember what happened to you this afternoon?"

"Yes. I went shopping. I like shopping."

"And while you were shopping, Ariel, you met someone. Do you remember that?"

"Yes." She smiled vaguely. "He was very handsome. He bought me wine. And pastries."

"Who was the man, Ariel?" The playful eccentricity was gone from the wizard's face and voice. He looked as serious as Erik had every seen him. A cold shiver wormed its way down Erik's spine.

"His name was, was…I don't remember." Now Ariel looked distressed. "I'm not supposed to remember." The blue light grew brighter.

"That's all right, Ariel. You can remember now. Nothing bad will happen to you. I promise." Ariel's hands twisted together nervously.

"He scared me." Traquill patted her hands gently and they grew still once again.

"I know. Who was the man, lass? You must tell us."

"Roland. He said his name was Roland Deerborne." The words came out in a sudden rush. "He said he came from the western baronies, but I think he lied."

"And what did Mister Deerborne want, Ariel?"

"He asked me about my family. And about the Greystones." Erik took a step forward.

"What did he want to know?" Erik's mind was already racing ahead, thinking of the men waiting patiently just outside the castle gates. Was this to be an assassination attempt? Security would have to be stepped up, and-

"He wanted to know if we had any magicians," Ariel said sleepily. "I told him about Traquill, but he already knew about you," she informed the wizard. "He wanted to know about witches of royal blood. Isn't that silly? Witches can't be princesses."

"What else did he say, Ariel?" Traquill's voice was deathly still. "Think very hard."

"He said he'd seen her here, at the Tournament. That she was wearing a crown. But that her face was hidden from him. He said that he's traveled very far to find her." She yawned again. "That his master would reward him well for returning her to him. I'm very tired. Can I go to sleep now?"

"In just a moment," Traquill said gently. "First, Ariel, tell me about the jewel. What did you see when you looked into it?" Her face contorted in fear.

"No. I won't. It's scary."

"Yes, you will," the wizard replied implacably. "You must, Ariel. Tell us what you saw when you looked into the gemstone."

"It was very pretty. It had a light inside, like the tiniest bonfire you ever saw. After we had talked for a while he told me to look into it." She bit her lip. "I didn't like it. It was nasty in there. All dark and slimy. And there were…things…in there. Scary, awful things. It was like having worms in your head, crawling around and eating your thoughts. I cried," she said matter-of-factly. "Then I woke up in my rooms, and Cassandra was there. Then Erik came in. We're going to be married, you know."

"I know. Now, Ariel, you're very sleepy. I want you to go to sleep. You'll have a nice nap, and when you wake up you'll feel much better. All right?" The wizard patted her shoulder. He looked to Erik as though he had aged ten years in the last few minutes.

"All right," Ariel agreed sleepily. She closed her eyes, then wrinkled her nose in distaste. "He won't be in my dreams, will he?"

"No, sweetheart. I promise. Sleep, now." Traquill brushed one hand over her face and the young girl sighed, slipping into a deep, restful sleep.

"Traquill?"

"Come on, lad." Traquill pushed himself up out of the chair with difficulty. "This is serious stuff. We'd better go see your father."

###

In the end both his mother and father, along with Edwin and Lattinia Baaldorf and his brother Justin, joined Erik and Traquill in the small meeting room that King Tronin had somewhat grudgingly provided. The host king was well aware that something was amiss and resented being kept out of the discussion, but Traquill had been adamant. What he had to say, he said, was for their ears alone. Traquill had served them for so long and made so few demands upon them in return that Erik's father had agreed immediately. Now they all sat around the elaborately carved table that Tronin used for meetings with his councilors, toying with their wine glasses and waiting for the old wizard to speak. For a time it looked as if he had gone to sleep in his chair, but at last Traquill spoke.

"What do any of you know about The Book?"

They shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, glancing at one another and then looking quickly away. The doings of wizards were secret and mysterious, and wise mortals were content to keep it that way. It was said that to look upon a wizards' secrets was to be driven irrevocably insane. Still, some rumors remained.

"It was kept in the Caverns of Chaos before the Great War, wasn't it," Erik began tentatively. "Some sort of powerful spell book, I think."

"It was the spell book, the source of all wizardly knowledge," Traquill corrected. "Many thousands of years ago four Keepers had possession of The Book, and took turns reading from it, using the power it offered for their own ends. Then one day The Book was severed into two pieces." He looked away into the distance and fell silent, a strange expression on his face. After a moment Richard Greystone cleared his throat.

"It is the division of The Book has something to do with the monocles you all wear, isn't it?"

"I didn't think you would remember that part about the monocle, Richard. I was a chatty fellow in your youth, wasn't I? The monocles are all that remain of the scrying glass through which we once read the complete Book. Without them we cannot read it, nor cast spells of high magic. Well, most of them, anyway."

"Vector still casts spells," added Erik. "Remember the night of the old King Tronin's funeral? Vector summoned the demon Vulcar to kill us."

"To kill Dirk," Justin corrected. "Nice guy. Glad he's not working for us."

"You said it," Traquill replied. "Vector and Bethel have had a more powerful influence on Karteia than I think you realize. But to get back to it, without both The Book and our monocles, most high magics are impossible for even the most powerful wizard to cast." He sighed. "Or so I have always believed."

"What are you saying, Traquill?" Edwin Baaldorf's voice was a low rumble. "Is there some other wizard out there? Is that what happened to my little girl?" Baaldorf, for all his advancing years, looked ready and willing to launch a full-scale campaign against anyone who would dare to harm his only child.

"Yes and no."

"That's not very damned helpful!"

"But accurate. Cool your jets, Edwin. Young Ariel is going to be just fine. Won't even wake up with a hangover. What has me so worked up is that it was done at all."

"What was done, Traquill?" Lattinia burst out. "Erik comes to us with some wild story of Ariel drinking, and some mysterious man with a magical necklace, and you sit here giving us history lessons! Please, tell us what happened!" Edwin took Lattinia's hand and she subsided, her gaze never leaving the elderly wizard.

"Ariel was whammied, all right, but no lasting harm was done," Traquill said soothingly. "It wasn't even much of a spell. We call them come-alongs."

"Come alongs? Sounds like something you'd say to a horse," Justin said.

"Exactly!" Traquill beamed. "Nice to see you're not quite the fool you pretend to be, Justin."

"Hey!"

Traquill continued as if he hadn't heard. "A come-along is a spell of persuasion. It's low magic, meaning that even mortals can learn to do it if they find someone willing to teach them. People use them to get others to do things they might do anyway, sort of like leading a horse to water. This fellow used one to get Ariel to go away with him and to talk a little bit about herself and her family. Nothing more than that, and nothing that would go strongly against her normal behavior. There are spells to do that, of course, but they require a lot more power and effort than this fellow used."

"That's all he did? Ask her about us?" Lattinia asked timidly. "He didn't-"

"Oh, he gave her a glass or two of wine, probably good strong stuff, but that's all. Ariel will be as right as rain come morning," Traquill reassured her. They all relaxed just the slightest bit at that. It would have been child's play to interfere with the innocent young maiden on a more physical level, once the strange man had her alone. "The wine would have lowered her barriers even further, you see."

"So this guy is just some low-level wizard?" Erik sounded surprised.

"I didn't say that!" Traquill poked at Erik with his staff. "You're going to wear yourself out, leaping around to conclusions like that. What I said was that he used a garden-variety spell. I got a pretty good feel for this young man when I examined Ariel. He's been studying under someone very powerful. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was Vector's apprentice. As it is, this 'Roland Deerborne' will bear watching, mark my words." He sighed again, and looked uncomfortable. "But what worries me more is his master. That jewel at his throne was made by someone far more powerful than Deerborne, and I'd wager that whoever made it is this boy's master."

"And you're sure it's not Vector? That might explain why he's not here himself." Erik said.

"Positive. Each wizard leaves his own mark on the spells he casts and the things he enchants, and I'd recognize Vector's foul stench from a hundred paces. Bethel's, too. And since there are only three of us, that means we're dealing with a very powerful mortal." Again he paused. "I've never heard of a mortal being able to make a scrying device like this one, but I suppose anything's possible." He shook his head and seemed about to add something more.

"Scrying device? Like your monocle?" Richard Greystone asked sharply.

"Sort of. This one's more like the old 'crystal ball.' They can be used to see things at a distance, sometimes even to see the future." Traquill relaxed back into his chair.

"So when Deerborne said that this woman had been 'seen' here at the Tournament…" Erik guessed.

Traquill nodded. "He was referring to what that blue gemstone showed him. I can't be sure, but it's likely something that's keyed to a certain person. Or a certain set of specifications."

"Like a royal witch," Justin said skeptically. "I thought you said that magic and royalty don't mix."

"They don't! But that rule applies to true wizards and witches, not the more mortal variety. Believe me, if that rule had been violated, you'd know it. This fellow--or, more accurately, his master--must believe that someone here has studied magic. Someone of royal blood, presumably. And who owes this mysterious master a debt.

"You're going to have trouble with this one, Richard, Edwin. He's a mortal wizard with enough power to do high magics--without the use of The Book--and one with armed men under his control and no apparent loyalties to either of your royal houses. If he has taken a member of one of the royal families under his wing, we could be in a heap of trouble." They shared long looks around the table. If Traquill was right, none of the other royal families could be trusted. And they were all gathered here under one roof for the duration of the Tournament.

"There's one more thing," Traquill said as he slowly rose from the table. "This "master magician" of yours? He's quite mad."

###

"No, I'm not!"

"Yes, you are!"

"No!"

"Yes, damn it!"

"I am absolutely NOT singing Evana. End of discussion." Tessa crossed her arms defiantly across her chest. They were standing in Queen Morita's elaborate rose garden, and the humming of bees and the sweet chirping of birds in the trees were a pleasant counter melody to their raised voices. Tessa sighed in exasperation. She had already made her feelings on the subject quite clear, and yet here he was, that same infuriating smile in his voice.

"I already spoke to Talmor. Just like you told me to," Justin needled. "He said you'd be happy to perform at the banquet."

"He said that when you made it a command!" Tessa shot back. "But I have no intention of risking my neck--literally!--just to provide you with an evening's entertainment."

"Nothing bad is gonna happen." Justin took a step forward. He sounded like he was trying to gentle a horse, Tessa thought with a sniff. "All you have ta say is that I asked you to perform it."

"You may have charmed most of the kings--and all of the queens, I'll wager--in Camerand, but what about that Blackpool to the north? He crushes little people beneath his boots without a thought!" Tessa rubbed meaningfully at her throat. "And I like my head where it is, thank you."

"You think I'm charming?" Suddenly he was standing right in front of her, his voice soft and teasing. Tessa felt herself begin to blush.

"I've no doubt you think so," she began. "And certainly every bar maid I've met in this town does, as well. You might consider setting your sights a little higher in the future, Prince Justin."

"I'll keep that in mind. But you haven't answered my question." He bent his head down to whisper in her ear, his breath warm against her neck. "Do you think I'm charming?"

"I'll admit you have a certain charm," she allowed. "And you tell a tale well. But you're also the most stubborn, egotistical, overbearing--" He stopped her words with a kiss.

###

Dinner was an excruciating affair. Despite living his entire life in the public eye Erik had never really grown comfortable with court politics, and tonight had been enough to challenge the patience of anyone. His family had been seated at the main table in what was intended to be a show of respect on the part of King Tronin. Of course, politics also required that the Blackpools, as rulers of all of Karteia, be shown the same respect. Someone--probably Queen Morita herself--had taken pains to ensure that they weren't seated next to or directly opposite each other, but being at the same table with Dirk was bad enough. You never knew when he was going to play the perfect gentleman and when he would turn and strike like a poisonous snake. Tonight he seemed determined to put on a show of politeness, which frayed Erik's nerves worse than any show of violence. What are you up to, Dirk?

That alone would have been enough to ruin his appetite. But, thanks to Traquill's warning, they were supposed to be watching their friends as well as their enemies. And how did you tell who was a magic user? A mortal witch wouldn't even have a monocle to set her apart. For the thousandth time that evening Erik looked around the room, an amiable smile on his face as he examined the faces of the many royal women here. If you counted cousins and other distant relations there had to be fifty or more women of royal blood here tonight. A military attack he could handle. Even with an assassin you knew what to look for, what to guard against. But magic was the province of wizards, and Traquill had vanished immediately after their meeting, leaving them to their own devices. Hopefully the wizard would be able to narrow down the possibilities, doing whatever it was that magicians did. In the mean time they'd just have to keep their eyes open and their fingers crossed.

A discrete gong sounded and servants appeared, carrying in the dessert trays, and Erik allowed himself to relax a little. Dinner was almost over. Tronin's eldest son Morgan tapped a spoon lightly against his wine glass and the room gradually fell silent. When all eyes were on the main table King Tronin rose ponderously to his feet.

"We would like to congratulate all of the winners of today's competition. Would that I were but five years younger, and could have joined you gentlemen on the field of honor today." To Erik's right there was a muffled snort, and from the corner of his eye he saw Justin quickly take a drink of wine. Erik faced resolutely forward. Justin's laughter could be contagious, and tonight his younger brother seemed in especially high spirits, making him all the more dangerous. "I won't bore you all with a long speech," Tronin continued.

"He's saving that for tomorrow night," Justin muttered.

"...as I realize that many of our young men will be competing in the early morning. But I would like to say a few words about the importance of the Aperanian Tournament and your participation in it. It all began during the time of the Great War..." A muffled groan from Justin and Erik was forced to take a quick drink of his own. By the time the king finally concluded his remarks and retired for the evening the entire hall was as twitchy as Justin. The rough laughter of the knights as they made their way out of the hall mingled with the soft titters of the women and the jovial conversations of the men as they wagered on the outcome of tomorrow, the final day of competition.

"So, Erik, what did you think of today's events?" It was Morgan Tronin, King Tronin's eldest son and presumptive heir. Though only thirty, Morgan was already showing signs of following in his father's footsteps. His tunic lay over a belly as round as a pregnant woman's, his squinting eyes nearly buried in layers of fat. A large goblet of wine was held in one hand. Erik thought back quickly. He had been so distracted by the black-garbed riders and Ariel's adventure that he'd paid scarcely any attention to the reason for their being at Castle Tronin in the first place.

"I thought we did fairly well," he hazarded. "With so many skilled fighters here, it's hard to pick out any performances as better than the rest." It sounded lame to his own ears, and Justin's arrival didn't make it any better.

"Not even your own brother's?" He had a bottle of wine in one hand, and refilled all three mugs, a broad smile on his face. "Too bad you missed it, Erik. For a guy as light in the head as Geoffrey Blackpool is, the boy sure swings a good staff." He took a drink of wine, his eyes dancing. "Not good enough, though." Erik nodded his agreement, wishing that he'd seen the fight. Geoffrey was strong, but Justin had a natural gift with a staff that no lack of regular practice seemed to affect. It must have been a good contest.

"I'm sorry I missed it." Marko was waving urgently to him from across the room. Great. What else could go wrong? "Excuse me, Morgan." Handing his glass to a passing servant Erik moved quickly across the Great Hall to where Marko was standing, his normally placid face dark with worry. "Marko, what happened?"

"It's Uncle Trae," the vassal replied. "Erik, I think something's wrong with him."

###

"Tessa?"

"Hmmm?"

"Tessa!" A gentle poke in her side brought Tessa out of her reverie. "I said, the soup's boiling. If you don't want us eating mush tonight, you'd better move the pot." Martha's voice was a mixture of amusement and exasperation.

"I'm sorry, Martha." Setting down her lute, still in its case, Tessa got up and walked over to their small campfire. Using the stick set aside specifically for that purpose she moved the iron caldron away from the center of the fire. A quick sniff told her it wasn't yet overcooked and she sighed in relief. Keeping her long skirts carefully away from the fire, she turned around and walked back the short distance to their wagon where Martha was waiting. "I must have been woolgathering. We have so much to do if we're to be ready for tomorrow night's performance. We've never finished Talmor's wizard robe, and Gregory's probably grown out of his trousers again."

"Aye, that's so. But it's not what has you so mooney-eyed this evening, I'll wager."

"What do you mean?" Tessa struggled to keep her face innocent.

"'What do I mean," Martha repeated teasingly. "I saw how Prince Justin was looking at you on the road. And Talmor tells me he hasn't been able to keep his eyes off you this afternoon, either."

"Talmor talks too much."

"Of course he does!" Martha said with a laugh. "He's a minstrel. But that doesn't change anything, does it?" The older woman's voice softened. "And I've seen how you've looked since you returned tonight. You're quite taken with the prince. I thought we'd raised you better than that, Tess." There was no reproach in her voice, only sympathy.

"You did," Tessa sighed. "And I'm not 'taken' with him, Martha. I like him. He's charming, and funny, and he tells a good tale. But he's also one of the most maddening men I've ever met," she added with heat. 'He's arrogant, and stubborn, and willful, and, and-" Tessa threw up her hands. 'And sometimes I'd love to wring his royal neck." Which was all true, but didn't change the fact that she'd been sitting here daydreaming for the better part of an hour, her lips tingling from that single kiss. Martha snorted in reply and then began to cough. Abashed, Tessa quickly poured another mug of Martha's herbal tea.

"Here. Sip it slowly." Handing Martha the mug Tessa stood and moved to stand behind the older woman. Draping the heavy coil of Martha's braid over one shoulder she began to gently run her hands over the woman's shaking shoulders and heaving back. "Let the tea do its work," she said gently. The awareness that was as much a part of her as her pale hair and double jointed thumb told her that the herbs in the tea were even now helping Martha's remaining lung tissue take in more air. But Tessa also knew that the sickness would soon take away the little healthy tissue that remained. Unless they were able to stop that progression, and soon, Martha would die before next spring's planting.

"Don't you worry about me," she continued lightly. "I'm a big girl now. I like Prince Justin, yes. But I know what he is, Martha: a skirt chaser of the first order. And a royal one, at that! He may be chasing me at the moment, but I have no illusions that I mean more to him than any of the others." She smiled. "Though you'd never know it from that glib tongue of his." Or from the sweetness of his kiss, her traitorous mind whispered. Martha's coughing fit had subsided and Tessa resumed her place at the other woman's side, patting her hand gently. "Believe me, I have no intention of playing a modern-day Queen Evana. Royal doings are much better left to those born to them than to simple minstrel girls, thank all the gods."

###

"Cassandra and I were in the hallway, talking about tomorrow's competition, when I heard this really loud thud coming from down this way," Marko explained as they ran down the castle halls toward the wizard's suite. "I went to check on Uncle Traquill, just in case, but he didn't answer the door. That really got me worried, so tried the handle. It wasn't locked."

That was unusual in itself. Traquill was always careful to prevent people from walking in on him when he was doing serious magic.

"I went in, and I found him like this." Marko opened the door and stepped aside for Erik. Traquill's suite was well appointed, but most of the furniture had been pushed rudely to one side to make room for a heavy wooden table and chair that looked strangely familiar. Seated in the oversized chair was the still form of the wizard Traquill. He looked almost as if he were just asleep (although Erik wasn't entirely sure that wizards slept), slumped down with his head resting on the table. His flowing white hair covered most of his face, but Erik saw with a nasty start that the wizard's eyes were open and unseeing. He ran forward, then stopped uncertainly by the wizard's side. Traquill was breathing, but his aged body tremble trembled all over like an exhausted horse.

"Traquill?" Tentatively, Erik put one hand on the old man's shoulder. There was no reply save for a single blink of his eyes. "Marko, I really don't like this." There was no sign of injury, and no sign of a fight in the room. But a magical fight might not have disturbed so much as a feather.

"You and me both," Marko said with feeling.

"We'd better lay him out on his bed," Erik decided. "Just looking at him laying here like this makes my neck hurt."

"I'll do it." Now that the decision was made, Marko didn't hesitate. With the utmost care he lifted the frail old wizard and carried him easily over to the bed in the adjoining room. With a tenderness that belied his bulk Marko settled his "uncle" down on the wide, soft bed. Traquill's eyes were closed now and he made no sound of protest as he was settled into his new position. Neither of them knew if that was a good sign or not.

"You'd better go tell my father," Erik said. "I'll stay here with Traquill." He slapped one fist against his thigh in frustration. "I feel so helpless! If only we knew how to help him."

"Maybe your father will know," Marko offered. "I mean, he's known Traquill a lot longer than we have. Maybe this is normal for a wizard." The doubt in his voice made it clear that Marko didn't hold out much hope for that possibility. "I'll get back here as soon as I can." He had made it to the door before Erik's voice stopped him.

"Marko? Keep an eye out for Dirk. Vector, too. If this is some sort of magical attack, I'll bet my eyeteeth Vector's behind it." Marko nodded. The evil wizard's continued absence had been on both of their minds. Without another word he turned and headed out the door, a look of grim determination on his normally genial face.

Erik pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat down wearily. All of the anticipation he had brought to the Tournament was gone. Now all he wanted to do was to survive it.

###

Traquill began to stir just as Erik's father, with Justin trailing behind him, entered the wizard's room. His eyes moved rapidly back and forth beneath his lowered eyelids, and Traquill muttered something in an unknown tongue.

"Has he spoken at all?"

Erik shook his head. "He just started to wake up, I think." He turned to look at his father, who had for so many years seemed to hold all of the answers. "Have you seen him like this before?"

"Just once. It was when I was about your age, I think. Our war with the north had just begun. Vector had concocted some evil gas that was killing every living thing it came in contact with. Those not in direct contact with the gas developed terrible running sores and lost large patches of their hair." He shook his head. "For years after the land was poisoned. Calves were born with two heads, babes born without eyes. Traquill told me later it was the same sort of attack that created the Plains of Death during the Great War. I asked Traquill to find a way to put a stop to it.

"He found where Vector was hiding the green glowing powder that he was using to make the gas. There was a terrible battle, but though I was in the room with Traquill I never saw a thing. Traquill said that just as he finally took control of the vile stuff away from Vector, Bethel attacked. He said that while she wasn't as strong as he, he was concentrating on his frontal assault against Vector and never saw her coming."

"Nothing like a good sneak attack to take the wind out of you," Justin agreed. "So you think maybe that's what happened this time, too?"

Richard sighed. "I certainly can't think of anything else. If it was Vector, then that would explain why he hasn't appeared at the Tournament. Knowing Vector and Blackpool, I'd say that they might have viewed the truce as the perfect time to launch a new magical assault."

"And here's Dirk, acting as polite as I've ever seen him," Erik agreed. "They probably thought seeing him here would put us off our guard." He scratched his head. "But you know, Traquill wasn't looking for Vector. He said he was going to try to track down the guy who made that gemstone. You don't think-"

"I can't imagine that a mortal magician could throw anything at Traquill that he couldn't handle," Richard Greystone said firmly. "Remember, Traquill is hundreds--perhaps thousands--of years old. I have a hard time believing that any human could best him in a magical duel."

Erik almost spoke. Wizards were powerful, but not invulnerable. Dirk had managed to wrest control of Vector's monocle away from him, after all, and Vector was supposedly as old as Traquill himself. Still, that hadn't been any contest of skills but simple theft. And Erik would be the first to admit that he knew very little about the doings of wizards, far less than his father did.

"Then we look for Blackpool," he replied. "I think I can squeeze the information we need out of Dirk." He smiled in anticipation.

"Remember, we are still under truce," Richard warned. "Unless we can find positive proof that Blackpool and Vector have already broken it, we can't act against them. Tradition prohibits it."

"Tradition gonna keep us from getting our butts handed to us, too?" Justin asked. "I saw we go grab Dirk and beat the hell out of him. Before whatever they're up to lands right in our laps."

"No offensive moves," their father said firmly, ending any further discussion on the subject. "Just because we know that Blackpool has no honor doesn't mean that we will abandon ours. Of course," he grinned tautly, "once we have concrete proof of what they're up to, I think a little 'butt kicking' will definitely be in order. "Marko, I want you to stay here with your uncle. Until he recovers I don't want him left unprotected." Marko nodded obediently. The vassal would like to have stayed my his prince's side, but he could see the wisdom in leaving him to protect the kingdom's greatest asset. "Erik, Justin, I want Blackpool found. Tell our men to be on their guard, and to watch for Blackpool. He may try to leave the castle tonight, if he thinks we suspect him. Detain him politely, if you have to. I'm going to go talk to King Tronin and King Baaldorf. If something happens here, we won't be the only ones affected." He nodded toward the door.

"Go. And remember to watch your backs."

###

"Hear me, my master." Roland Deerborne lit the brazier of incense and waited patiently while the thick, noxious smoke began to form. He stood on the highest gable of the main castle, the chill night wind snatching at his deep red hair. Thick black clouds cruised across the sky above him, temporarily obscuring the stars which stared down at him. The smoke pouring forth ignored the wind, curling sluggishly around his boots and piling up in front of him like a smoke pedestal.

"Hear me," he repeated. "I bring gifts of death, and of vitality." Setting the brazier down, the magician reached into the black bag tied at his waist and pulled out a small kitten. The white, fluffy creature, bits of straw from the barn where he had found it clinging to its fur, was still warm, and he relished its fading heat briefly before setting the still form down on the smoke pedestal. It lay still, apparently resting on the slowly roiling smoke beneath it. He waited the prescribed beat and then retrieved the second item from his bag. It was a strand of golden blond hair from the witless Princess Ariel. Bespelling that one had been simplicity itself. He allowed himself a small smile. If the rest of the Aperanian royalty were as brainless as the Baaldorf heir, they wouldn't even need the girl he sought in order to conquer them. The hair joined the kitten on the smoke pedestal. Smoke poured over it, quickly obscuring both items from view.

"Speak." He heard the deep, echoing voice easily, though he knew that any observer--should there have been one--would have heard the barest of whispers. The smoke shifted, taking the vague form of a man. Roland held his gaze at the smoke-thing's chest, knowing that, even for him, to see the face buried in the smoke would be to risk madness.

"I have arrived at the Tournament, master. The girl is indeed here, though as yet I have not seen her."

"Sight is overrated. Ask anybody." The voice dropped to a mutter. "The things I see, with my mind's eye..." It tapered off, and after a moment Roland continued.

"I have prepared the spell necessary to release the Hounds, but if their wizard senses it..."

"Traquill has other things on his mind at the moment." The voice was sure and confident again, and Roland relaxed slightly.

"Then I will cast the spell, with your permission." He bowed his head toward the form of smoke, careful to keep his eyes averted. "They have increased the number of guards on duty, almost certainly because of our soldier's presence. But these men all patrol the walls, their gaze turned outward. When the Hounds are released within their safest stronghold, they will have no defense. The girl will be ours before the night is over, and their ruling families decimated."

"Perhaps." The voice had turned thoughtful. "I foresee...difficulties. Still, this just might work. Cast your spell, Roland, and may all the gods stand behind you." Thunder rumbled overhead, and a sharp gust of wind dispersed the smoke across the rooftop. Of the kitten and the hair there was no sign.

###

Justin Greystone looked up at the sky as the first warning rumble of thunder cut through the night air. Dark clouds had been rolling in since nightfall, and it was beginning to look like a storm was brewing. Normally he liked storms just fine (well, the normal, not-likely-to-burn-you-to-death kind, anyway), but tonight he wasn't holed up in front of a fire, a bottle of wine and a pretty lady for company. Tonight duty called, and this time he hadn't managed to duck out the back way before it caught up with him. So, no warm fire, no bottle of wine. No pretty girl. He sighed. He'd hoped to spend the evening with the minstrel girl Tessa, not wandering around Tronin's courtyards under pitch-black skies, looking for a guy whose idea of fun was…the thought trailed off and Justin rubbed at the back of his neck. The hairs there stood at stiff attention, usually a sign that somebody's irate husband was about to make a surprise appearance, or that maybe he ought to just sit this hand out. He shot a quick glance around the courtyard. Nothing seemed out of place, but his hunches were rarely wrong. A cool breeze sent a chill down his spine, and his hand went reflexively to his sword hilt. Blackpool. It's gotta be Blackpool.

He looked around the courtyard again. A hundred yards to his left he could make out the dim light of the merchant's campfires, and across the courtyard to his right lay the sounds of celebration. Michael's traveling tavern was there, and that was where he belonged, not out here acting like a human target for whatever Blackpool and Vector had cooked up this time. His section of the courtyard was deserted, with guards stationed at every building entrance, which left only…up? Doubtfully he looked up the side of the building in front of him. It was easily five floors high, but he thought he could make out something on the roof. Was it a torch?

The soft sound of a boot scuffing on cobblestones brought his attention back to his surroundings, and Justin whirled, his sword coming up and out to block whatever attack his hunch had been trying to warn him about. Visions of the silent but very deadly Bug Bears Vector had summoned against them last spring filled his mind, and he readied himself for the first powerful blow from one of those massive paws.

"Oh!" The soft, feminine gasp was anything but bear-like, and Justin halted his swing inches from the surprised face of Tessa. She took an uncertain step backward, one hand held out hesitantly in front of her, walking stick held easily in the other. "Justin? Is that you?"

"Oh, it's me, all right. But what in the hell are you doing out here?" He sheathed his sword and caught her by the shoulders. "I could'a cut you into bear bait!"

"I was just out walking. I felt-I couldn't sleep, and I thought a walk might do me good. And since when is taking a walk a crime punishable by, by, whacking?" Her shock gone, she jutted her chin upward defiantly. His own face relaxed into a grin.

"Whacking?"

"You know what I mean. And what has you so edgy, anyway? Some cuckolded husband looking for you tonight?" The playful challenge that he was coming to really like was back in her voice.

"Not that I'm aware of," he drawled. "I'm out here doing some of that serious princely-duty stuff you minstrels love ta sing about."

"In you, a noteworthy event," she replied crisply, a shy smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "I hope I'm not interrupting?"

"Nah." He took another glance upward. There was nothing there. It had probably just been the wind. He reached out with his off hand and gently took her arm. "I'm just out here putting on a good show. Anything serious comes up, Erik'll take care of it."

"That sounds more like the Justin I know." The warm smile on her upturned face caught his breath in his throat. Gods, but she was lovely.

"Not ta say I haven't seen my share of excitement," he continued quickly. "I was just remembering how, a few months ago Vector--he's Blackpool's wizard, you know--conjured up some of the meanest, nastiest Bug Bears you've ever seen, and sent 'em after me and my men. They were a man and a half high, with six thick arms and claws that could tear a man's face off with a single blow."

Tessa shuddered. "They sound horrible."

"Yeah, it got pretty hairy for a while." Tessa groaned at the pun and his grin broadened. Damn. A girl who was not only drop-dead beautiful, but who laughed at his jokes and actually had a brain in her head. The last put her a step above the average tavern wench and half a mile above the royal women his father was always pushing him toward. Maybe he ought to do something about getting her to stick around for the winter. "In fact, we bear-ly escaped."

"Mercy!" Tessa groaned theatrically. "My fragile sensibilities can't take much more." She chuckled. "You're becoming unbearable, Justin."

"Well, you're a fine one to talk." They'd been walking in the direction of the tavern, but suddenly the last thing he wanted was a bunch of people around. He cast around quickly and spotted the rose garden they'd walked through earlier that day. It was lit by torches and seemed uninhabited. He began guiding them in that direction. "And showing such a remarkable lack of concern for my welfare. I mean, those bears were tough."

"If you'd had anything important lopped off, I'm sure the barmaids would've told me so," she replied sweetly. "And I already know they didn't harm that handsome face."

"Well now, that's more like it," he replied easily. They were walking down a narrow path between two rows of delicately bobbing roses, the tall shrubbery behind the roses muffling the sounds of carousing coming from the tavern nearby. "Guy always liked to know that his woman thinks he's good lookin'."

"His woman," she marveled. "Well, I've never heard it said that you lacked for self confidence, Justin." They had stopped, and now she reached up and ruffled his dark hair with her free hand. "Brains, perhaps, but not confidence."

"Well, maybe I was jumpin' ahead a little bit," he allowed. He ran one finger lightly across her delicate cheekbone and down along the sweep of her jaw. "I do that when I want something bad enough."

"You're one of those men who eat dessert first, aren't you?" They were standing very close now, her hand tracing the pattern woven into his dress tunic, a shy smile on her face. "Didn't your nanny teach you any better?"

"Who do you think taught me 'bout that?" He lifted her chin and bent to kiss her.

PAIN! He had no more than brushed her lips with his when a sharp, agonizing pain buried itself in the base of his spine and ripped upward along his backbone to explode in his skull like a cannon. The world spun crazily around him and darkness began to cloud his vision. Through it he could dimly hear Tessa's cry and then the low, guttural snarl as something launched itself at him a second time. Belatedly, his hunch warned him that something was very wrong. Yeah, no kidding. He pushed the girl aside with one hand as his other reached for his sword, but it was too late. The thing was on him, knocking him to the ground as it buried razor-sharp teeth into his shoulder. The pain was incredible, and his vision began to fill with inky black flowers as the creature worked to tear his shoulder from his body.

###

Thunder rumbled across the sky and Erik looked up apprehensively. Sure enough, thick black clouds had gathered overhead, obscuring the stars and moon. The air smelled of moisture and the acrid crackle of lightning, and he cursed inwardly. The darkness was going to make it that much harder to find Dirk and Vector, wherever they were.

"Sire?" The Captain of the Guard saluted, his helmet held in one beefy arm.

"Any news, Captain?"

"My men have completed a sweep of the outer walls, Prince Greystone. They found no sign of covert entry, and report that the riders in black are still encamped to the north of the main gates. King Tronin has ordered the gates locked for the night, and I have instructed our men to join Tronin's on the patrols within the castle." His mouth tightened as if he would say something more. Erik had a pretty good idea what it was.

"Yeah, I don't think King Tronin's men will object to a little help." Courtesy forbade either man from speaking his mind about the quality of their hosts' soldiers. "They…they sure look good, don't they?"

"I have never seen finer uniforms," the Captain agreed gravely. "And with our men to aid them, I feel confident about our safety within these walls, Prince Greystone."

"Great. Now we only have to worry about the people already here."

"Sire?"

"Remind your men to watch for Blackpool's soldiers. I want to know if they start to gather for so much as an Armdeath match." The older man nodded.

"I will. And I've sent Track and Miller inside to mingle among the revelers. King Greystone was good enough to provide them with suitable clothing. Both of them come from good families. I doubt anyone will be aware that they're soldiers."

"Great!" Erik clapped the man on the shoulder. "I think I'll take a walk around myself. Do you know which way my brother went?"

"I believe Prince Justin went to inspect the inner walls." The Captain nodded toward the south, in the direction of Michael's traveling tavern, his face carefully neutral. Erik sighed.

"Now, why doesn't that surprise me? All right, I'll head around to the north, check out some of the guest quarters. If you hear anything, anything at all, send someone out to me." The Captain of the Guard saluted and then quickly stepped aside as Erik strode purposefully down the steps and into the nearly deserted courtyard.

###

"So you've decided to join us after all. How thoughtful." Dirk Blackpool didn't bother to turn as Vector walked quietly into the room behind him. The room had in earlier times been the king's strategy room, and still afforded the narrow windows and heavy, reinforced doors that any sensible king still used in every room in his castle. The current king had added tasteless fripperies and turned the room into some sort of parlor, but the mirrors at least had their usefulness. In one he could see the wizard hesitate in the doorway, the lines of his frown cutting deeply into his pasty face. The hate and resentment were there as well, unhidden while his master's back was turned. As if I had any doubts about what you think of me. And as if it made the slightest difference.

"The journey would have been much easier, had I the monocle." Vector walked slowly into the room and sat down in the elaborate stone chair at the head of the table. It was a minor show of disrespect, but Dirk had more important things on his mind at the moment. He stored it away for later and turned away from the window to face his wizard.

"Had you the monocle, you wouldn't have made the trip at all. And I require your services, Vector."

"Why do you waste your time here? There are a hundred other places we could be that would be more advantageous than this…game." He spat the last word as if it were an epithet. Vector had never had any patience with games, or any other amusement for that matter, unless there was something of consequence to be won. "We have work to do, Prince Blackpool." There was a note of warning in his voice that Dirk didn't like. Perhaps it was time for a little lesson in manners after all.

"We? Vector, you seem to be under the impression that we are partners in the ruling of the north. Have you married my sister while I was away? Oh, wait, I forgot. I don't have a sister. I alone rule Karteia. You are my servant, by the Council's very orders. You serve me, Vector." The words cracked like a whip. "Not the other way around. If you hope to survive long enough to regain your monocle, you would do well to remember that." He fingered the monocle meaningfully, enjoying the feel of the magic as it tingled across his skin. Vector's eyes followed each movement of the monocle hungrily.

Suddenly the wizard's face contracted in a snarl. "Yes, you have my monocle. You keep me from reading The Book. You keep me from casting spells of high magic. You keep me chained to you like a dog!"

"Like a rabid dog," Dirk added mildly. This show of emotion was unlike Vector. Perhaps he really was ill.

"Well, hear me now, my prince," Vector snarled sarcastically. "Your childish insistence in holding power over me may be the downfall of all Aperans."

"Oh, Vector. What an inflated sense of your own power you have," Dirk marveled. "All of Aperans?" His hand tightened over the monocle. Had the old wizard finally gone mad? Dirk seemed to remember that one of their kind had, many centuries ago.

"Will you listen to me? When I told you back at the castle that I was merely weary from the seeker spell I had attempted to cast, I lied."

"Oh, Vector," Dirk murmured. "How could you?" The wizard ignored his dig. "I told you that I had sensed another power at work. Something dark. Perhaps someone who could be useful to us. This much was true. But when I attempted to find that being with the use of a seeker spell, I discovered someone more powerful than I had expected. Far more powerful." The wizard paused, seemingly lost in thought. After a moment he shook himself and continued. "He repelled my spell. Easily. And the backlash left me…weak. Weaker than I would have liked for you or Bethel to realize."

"You're certainly being forthcoming enough about it now," Dirk said dryly. "And I must say I'm very interested in any magician who can best you so easily. He could prove to be…very useful, indeed," he continued thoughtfully.

"The only reason he was able to turn aside my spell is because you keep me too weak to do proper magics!" Vector snarled.

"And, of course, allying yourself with another powerful sorcerer might well allow you to retrieve your precious monocle," Dirk continued as if he hadn't heard.

"The thought had occurred," Vector said grudgingly. "Which is the real reason I wished to stay behind."

"And now?" Dirk asked innocently. Obviously things hadn't gone as his wizard had hoped.

Vector stood up and began to pace restlessly. "This man, this…wizard…is of no use to us."

"He practices the black arts, does he not? Surely you could find some enticement that would interest him."

Vector shook his head. "Nothing. And believe me, I tried. But his mind…his mind is warped."

Dirk chuckled.

"Not like that! I mean he is disturbed. Mad. The things I saw in his mind when we first made contact, the things he showed me when I contacted him the second time…he is quite insane."

"If he is mad, then at least he can be little threat to us," Dirk said. "I think you overreact, Vector." The wizard frowned into a mirror and adjusted his hat minutely.

"Trust me. I don't. How can I make you understand how malignant this man is?" Vector turned to face Dirk squarely. "He hates life. Not just those idiots to the south, or all peasants, or spiders," he added with a dig of his own, "but everything. All life. Yours, mine, the life of everyone and everything in Aperans. He wants it all destroyed, Dirk. Thank all the gods he's only one man. If he had armies behind him, he could very well succeed. He's that powerful. Now do you understand, my prince?"

The wizard stared impatiently at his prince, but Dirk had turned to stare out the window into the darkness. After several long seconds he at last replied.

"Then we have a very serious problem, Vector."

###

Erik sighed heavily and pushed his thick blond hair back and out of his face again. The wind had picked up, reminding him that he badly needed a haircut. He stepped aside and nodded politely as a couple, oblivious to everyone around them, sauntered by arm in arm. This far from Michael's tavern they and a half dozen couples like them were the only signs of movement he'd seen since he'd started his patrol. Dirk hadn't been seen among the guests in the banquet hall, nor was he in his suites or in the half-dozen rooms that had seemed likely places for plotting. It was now nearly midnight, and he rubbed tiredly at his eyes. If Dirk was up to something, he was being a heck of a lot more subtle about it than he usually was.

If Dirk was up to something. Again doubt assailed him. His father had been so certain only Vector could have been behind Traquill's assault. But what had the old wizard said? That whoever made the magical device Deerborne had used on Ariel was powerful. Wizard powerful. And Vector had never appeared at the Tournament, when he rarely left Dirk's side. He was ill, Dirk had said. Ill, or injured? A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Erik wheeled around and headed for the main hall. They would have to roust the strangers camped outside, truce be damned. If they could find this Deerborne, then maybe they'd get some answers to go with the questions that kept piling up. Taking the stone steps three at a time, he was halfway up when a familiar profile finally registered in his madly racing brain. He came to an awkward stop then turned and took a half dozen steps back down the stairs. From there he could see the shadowy figure of a man in black staring moodily out into the darkness from up on the second floor.

Blackpool.

###

Dirk was still staring out the window when Erik entered moments later. The room wasn't one he would have expected Dirk to choose--it looked like the parlor of someone's maiden aunt--but maybe that was the point, Erik thought. His enemy didn't acknowledge his entry, though Erik noticed that one hand rested casually on the hilt of his sheathed sword. Vector was nowhere to be seen.

Now that he'd found the man he'd been looking for, Erik wasn't sure what to do next. If his father was right, and Dirk really was up to no good--again--he wasn't likely to admit it. Unless, of course, Erik was able to play off of that massive ego with a little judicious baiting.

Marshalling his thoughts, Erik poured a glass of wine from the pitcher on the table and walked to the series of narrow windows that faced out into the courtyard. Careful to stay on Dirk's off side, he looked out the curiously narrow window and took a sip of his wine. Lightning flashed in the distance.

"There's a storm brewing," Dirk said quietly.

"Looks that way," Erik agreed. Lightning flashed again, closer this time. In the brief light Erik could see Dirk's expression. The man looked thoughtful. Not angry. Not vindictive. Not even smug, an expression that was as natural to Blackpool as breathing. Just…thoughtful. It reminded Erik of the old King Tronin's funeral, and the Rains of Death that had immediately followed. Trapped inside Baaldorf Castle, surrounded by demons, Dirk had briefly worn that same introspective look. He and Baaldorf had talked for a long time that night. It was the most unguarded Erik could ever remember seeing his mortal enemy. Erik abandoned his idea of baiting Dirk into a rage. He might learn a great deal more, tonight, by just listening.

"Funny thing about storms. You can't control them. Not with threats, not with bribes, not even sheer force. And the worst of them lay waste to everything in their path."

"Yeah, they're funny that way." Erik risked a sideways glance. Blackpool seemed to be weighing something in his mind. "Hate to be caught out there tonight." From the looks of things they were in for a pretty wild thunderstorm tonight, but Erik wasn't entirely sure that was what they were talking about.

"Neither would I." Dirk grinned thinly. "Something we can agree upon at last."

"Well, don't let it get out, huh? Be bad for morale."

"I'll keep that in mind. You know, I'll confess that you've managed to surprise me tonight, Erik."

"How's that?" Erik asked guardedly. This was starting to sound like the Dirk he knew.

"Common courtesy demands that all those attending the Tournament be offered shelter. Yet outside these walls are a dozen men, strangers," he added pointedly, "who have not been offered lodging on this stormy night. Why do you suppose that is?"

"'Common courtesy' says that they're supposed to present themselves to the king before hospitality is offered. Even you know that, Dirk." Force of habit made Erik add that last sentence, but Blackpool ignored the barb completely.

"So you don't know who they are? And yet, there they sit. Just outside the gates. Waiting. I wonder what they're waiting for?" Erik felt his temper beginning to fray. Dirk knew more than he was telling. That was nothing new, but Erik had the feeling that this time he wanted to share it. Probably doesn't remember how, he thought impatiently. Come on, Dirk, spill it! When he didn't reply Blackpool turned to face him.

"I couldn't help but notice the extra guards along the walls this evening, Erik. I do hope they're not there for my benefit?"

"I think you know the answer to that." Two could play at this game. But part of him twitched at the delay. Dirk clearly knew something. But was it what they needed to know? "How's Vector, by the way? Has he recovered from his…illness?"

Dirk looked at him speculatively. "He appears to have weathered that particular storm. Though I have a feeling that the storm season has only just begun." Blackpool seemed to reach a decision. "Erik, I think we need to-"

A scream, high pitched and full of agony, cut through the air like a knife. Acting as one, both of them wheeled to face the door, hands gripping their weapons. A second later Morgan Tronin staggered into view. His normally florid skin had gone a pasty gray and he clutched at his ample stomach with both hands. Something that looked like port wine coated his silk tunic and was spattering steadily onto the carpet runner at his feet.

"It's--" he coughed wetly, "it's coming after me. Please, help--" He held one red-stained hand out to them in supplication, and a second later Morgan Tronin was gone. Erik had a brief impression of something huge and dog-like, and then the screams began anew only to stop with terrible suddenness. Sword in hand, he raced to the doorway. Tronin was sprawled on the carpet a dozen paces from the doorway. Rivulets of blood ran down both walls, with more pooling on the carpet beneath him. Men and women were backing away slowly from the still-twitching body, their eyes locked in horrified fascination on the creature that feasted on the dead prince.

It looked like an enormous wolf, one easily four and a half feet high at the shoulders. Long claws tipped each massive paw, digging into stone and flesh with equal ease. Instead of fur the beast had dull black scales that seemed to partially hide the enormous beast in shadows. Behind him Erik heard Dirk draw his sword.

"Friend of yours?"

"I assumed you invited him," Dirk replied tersely. "Ever seen one before?"

"Nope." At the sound of their voices the beast lifted its head and swiveled it to stare in their direction. It was just as bad as Erik had feared. Long, white teeth a hand's length long protruded from a mouth that looked like it could eat a tadmon whole. Sulfurous red eyes glared at them while blood dripped slowly from the snout. A low growl was building in its massive chest.

"Get out of here!" Erik waved urgently at the people still frozen in place near the monstrous animal. "Now!"

"Well, that's got its attention," Dirk said dryly. Sure enough, the beast was turning in the too-narrow hallway to face them. It bared even more teeth in a guttural snarl.

"Got any ideas?"

"Just one. Kill it." True to form, Dirk took a step back, leaving Erik to take the creature's first attack.

With surprising speed the wolf-beast leapt, clearing the dozen paces between them in an instant. Erik braced himself for the impact, his sword held firmly in both hands. Even so, the force of the beast's attack nearly drove him to his knees, and it was all that he could do to keep his sword as it slid harmlessly off the beast's slick hide. We could be in trouble here, he thought, as he narrowly avoided the paw that slashed at his face. Sure hope somebody thinks to call the guards. Not that there's much room for--he parried another terrifyingly fast blow--anyone else to join the fun.

"I could use a little help here," he called out, hoping that Dirk hadn't simply disappeared down the hallway. Not that he'd be likely to help, anyway. What he really needed was Marko, but that wasn't going to happen tonight. "Come on, Dirk!"

"I'm a little busy myself, Erik." From the tightness in Dirk's voice Erik guessed that he'd found this one's pack mate. At least I won't have to worry about him coming at my back, Erik consoled himself. Now if I can just keep this one from tearing through my front! An instant later he dodged, rolling to one side as razor-sharp teeth sliced through his tunic. The attack moved the creature past him, and Erik took quick advantage of the opportunity. Taking a step backward gave him enough room to swing his sword, and he met the beast's next attack head on. This time his blade didn't slide off harmlessly but bit deeply into the animal's shoulder. Its snarl turned to a cry of pain and Erik's chest loosened in relief. If they could be hurt, then they could be killed.

Couldn't they?

End of Part One

More information on the terrific 1980's TV series Wizards and Warriors can be found at:

Aperans: the Haven for Wizards and Warriors