By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

The Safe House

Behind the warehouse was a courtyard containing a small garden, a stable, a well, and an outhouse, all walled in from the rest of the city. It was truly a formidable outpost for Ironwood. It was also, in Talyk style, made impressive by its fine craftsmanship and efficiency to purpose.

In the front of the warehouse was a small but well-furnished office where business was conducted. There also was a generous amount of storage space to each side of the main hallway. In the rear left corner, there was a kitchen with a chimney against the back wall, and in the right corner, a large dining hall for the entertainment of guests. There was also a stair to the second floor, where there were three bedrooms, a small storeroom, and a barracks full of bunks on either side of the hall. A fine building in a district of both commerce and mansions, it had been ideal for conversion to Ironwood’s cause both as a place of business, and as an outpost: a home away from home.

There were currently fourteen people residing in the building, including one Captain Daron of Ironwood’s Mercantile Company. He and and his two assistants maintained a permanent residence, though arrangements would change soon when Daron married. The rest of the men present were part of the caravan from Ironwood. Erik and the Captain each occupied one of the private rooms, while the other two were shared by the permanents assistants. Even so, there were bunks available, for there were eight in each barracks.

Within the dining hall, multiple tables were pushed together to provide a common eating space. Here there was some deference to beauty over function, for there were several eye-catching tapestries involving scenes of both Ironwood and Talyk, and the seating was crafted from gorgeously polished ironwood. While there was a small hearth in the room, it was not currently lit. Instead, several lamps and candles gave the room a cheery glow. Jacob sat on one of the benches, catching up with some of the guards from Ironwood. They appeared to be taken with Laranna, who had changed out of riding gear, and brushed her hair to a fine sheen. Jacob kept the conversation away from the most weighty news until his brother returned, but Laranna’s presence at least had to be explained.

Ceann, who had sullenly begun avoiding the members of Jacob’s small group, was visibly relieved to be back among his own, and his voice was warm as he gave hints of what would be revealed once Erik joined them. Francis, meanwhile, had gone to help in the kitchen, and the aroma of the stew was tantalizing as it wafted from its immense pot. Daniel and Athena were currently in the midst of filling their mugs from one of two large casks of ale standing at the side of the room.

It was into this happy scene that Lord Erik entered, with Captain Darron close behind. Erik was a tall man, dark haired, dark-eyed, and broader than his brother. “Jacob!” the heir to Ironwood’s Barony called out, and took Jacob into his embrace. “It’s good to see you, but whatever has brought you all the way out here?”

Jacob clapped his older brother on the back. “Right to business, then. I suppose I better start from the beginning. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but a couple weeks ago, the shield of St. Thomas was stolen, and Father Gerrold and Timothy were both killed during the theft. The killers were clearly dangerous men, and they used noseburn to cover their escape.”

He paused a moment, watching his brother’s eyes widen and expression harden before continuing, “With Ceann’s help, I led a team out of Ironwood to try to find the Shield and hopefully some justice. After a few false starts, Daniel and Athena traced the murderers to a village near the city of Sarronen. We lost the trail for a while, but an enterprising Clansman named Thane pointed us towards the city itself.

We had hoped, once there, that the King of Sarronen might help us look for the thieves among his city. Unfortunately, he wasn’t much use to us, for reasons that became clear later. In the meantime, we attended the annual Spring Tournament in Sarronen. Daniel, you see, had caught sight of the assassins during the theft of the Shield, and we had some indications that they might be in the competition. We were right. Late in the competition, Daniel recognized one of the killers.”

“Wait,” Erik interrupted. “The tournament is highly competitive: only Sarronen’s best survive until late in the tournament, and most of them work directly for the king. Are you saying the King himself ordered theft and murder in Ironwood?”

Exhaling slowly, Jacob nodded. ”Yes, but it’s worse even than that. When I fought the assassin, he wasn’t just good. Demonfire, he wasn’t just exceptional! He was supernaturally fast, and stronger than any man should be. He overwhelmed me in seconds.”

Erik’s eyes narrowed skeptically, and he looked around the room for confirmation. “Why were you fighting him? Jacob, you entered the tournament, didn’t you? Ceann, is all this true?”

The heavy man nodded. “Yes, my Lord. So far, every word is true. Jacob and Athena both entered, and got through multiple rounds. Jacob was dominating the competition, until he ran into the man. I’ve never seen anything like it. Well, until that point, I hadn’t. After that, nothing I saw made sense.”

The heir to Ironwood shook his head. “There’s even more to the story, I see. Continue.”

Jacob smiled mirthlessly. “Of course. It turns out this assassin, named Serren, worked for a shaman named Innoken. And Innoken, with the help of the Kharshe Fire God, appears to be pulling King Haldor’s strings. Apparently, he was able to bless his favored warrior with some kind of magical abilities, making him twice as fast and strong as mere mortals. None of this helped him against Brother Francis. When Serren insulted the Lazerrian God, Francis floored this man with two strokes of his sword.”

Erik threw up his hands and turned towards the monk. “Gods are making men into super-warriors? And you, Brother Francis, are one of them?”

The monk hesitated. “Spirits of the dead, at least the more powerful ones, are acting in the world in a way never seen before. Under certain conditions, they can grant speed, strength, reflexes, and so forth to regular men. Some are gathering followers, and calling themselves gods. In my case, the spirit of St. Thomas has offered me his own support, which includes all those things and more. Would you like to see an example?”

Lord Erik stared for a moment, then nodded slowly. “If you will.”

Francis stepped before the noble, and lifted his arm straight in front of his body. He bared his robe to the elbow, showing skin that before the eyes of all in the room, turned into fine blue scales. They were like those of a salamander, but with a hard reflective sheen. “Take your sword or dagger, as you prefer, and strike my arm as hard as you like. I warn you, it may notch the blade.”

Erik, after a long moment, complied, sending his weapon down in a quick swing. He was afraid to use full force, despite the monk’s words. Still, the sword rang like a bell, sending a shiver up his arm. Even as he watched, Francis lowered his arm, his skin returning to normal.

“I can also increase my speed and strength, and do a few other things,” Francis stated, “though St. Thomas’s power is new to me. Innoken, unfortunately, can do much more than I: he has been connected to Shakath for over forty years.”

“I see.” Lord Erik stood staring at him, the slight tick in his jaw his only reaction to the impossibilities he faced. “This Innoken, who is directing Sarronen, is even more dangerous than a man who can turn his skin to armor. That is… unfortunate. Yet you killed the murderer, Serren?”

“No, my Lord,” Francis answered. “I left that to Jacob. Perhaps you would like to hear the rest of the story from him.”

At his brother’s assent, Jacob spoke again. “Right, where was I? Yes. Francis answered Serren’s challenge in the tournament, but left him alive. We didn’t know who he was, yet, and we were surrounded by a thousand people or more. When Daniel recognized him, we knew the Shield was likely beyond our reach. But at the time, I was more worried about Sarronen’s intentions toward Ironwood. But by then, we had also met the Lady Laranna, and that changed things.”

“This,” Erik asked, “Is Laranna of Northspire? She’s been missing for weeks, and presumed dead.”

“Yes,” Jacob returned. “I’m sorry we missed introductions. Laranna, Lord Erik. Erik, Lady Laranna Northspire. And you’ve met Brother Francis, of a monastery just north of Talyk. Laranna was an involuntary guest of Sarronen.”

“I see,” Lord Erik replied, accepting this new bit of insanity, and making a slight bow. “It is a pleasure to meet you, my Lady. Should I understand, then, that they just captured you and held you hostage? To what purpose?”

Laranna met his eyes evenly. “After a fashion. Masked warriors in Kull clan markings grabbed me near Kullen. A patrol led by Halvar of Sarronen ‘rescued’ me from them, but I caught hints that he was behind my induction all along. Thanks to Jacob, those hints were confirmed. Halvar planned to present me at the Summit, so I could explain how he saved me from the Kulls. I can only conclude that Sarronen wants to incite more trouble between the Kulls and Travan, presumably so we will be too busy squabbling to interfere with their plans.”

“What plans are those?” Erik asked with exaggerated patience.

“Plans to destroy Ironwood,” Jacob replied. “And we will get to those momentarily. After we discovered who had stolen the Shield, I was concerned about what Sarronen was up to, though I had no proof of their intentions, and they remained outwardly friendly. So I decided to ask if them I could escort Laranna back home. Since that fit Innoken’s plans at the time, he agreed.”

“I fail to see the connection,” Erik replied. “I am pleased to find Laranna alive, but she was doing fine, and I presume you didn’t know the truth regarding her yet. You had time to return home and inform my father of your findings in time to attend the Summit, if only barely. Why in the world didn’t you just do that?”

“Yes,” Ceann interjected. “That’s what I asked, and never got a good answer. In fact, he announced his intention to Halvar before even letting me know what was on his mind.”

“Right,” Athena returned sarcastically, “because you were always so supportive of all his ideas. Especially, you know, the ones that worked.”

“That’s enough,” Jacob replied mildly. “We didn’t have enough evidence of my suspicions. Father never would have believed me about Sarronen’s plans, especially with Ceann’s skepticism. But Thaddeus knows we went to Sarronen, and haven’t returned. Father will be putting out extra patrols and making preparations for trouble as we speak, which is the right thing to do. Meanwhile, I had more time to figure out what Sarronen was up to. I figured if I could expose their plans at the Summit, maybe I could prevent them from causing harm to Ironwood. Since I wanted to come east, helping Laranna was a better option, and good cover for my intentions.”

Erik sighed. “So that’s why you’re here. Still, I thought you said something about killing the man who took the Shield?”

“Right,” Jacob replied. “On the way East, I had a little disagreement with Ceann. I went for a walk to clear my head, and Athena followed me to offer some advice. By some strange luck, we both stumbled into five bandits less than a mile from the road, big guys. It was - well it wasn’t pleasant. In fact, it was one of the worst days of my life, but Athena and I killed all five. On the bright side, we found the Shield of St. Thomas on one of the bodies.”

Erik put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “It grieves me that you had to go through with that, and I am grateful you survived. Still, this is crazy. Who took the Shield? Was it Sarronen or bandits?”

Jacob shrugged. “Sarronen. My best guess is that since we tracked the Shield into Sarronnen, they tried to sneak it out into a hiding place with a couple men. The bandits were set up around a cave. Maybe they wanted to use that as a storage place and didn’t know about the new occupants? I don’t think we’ll ever know. But we didn’t move on from our campsite nearby until the next morning. That was when Halvar and Sarren came by with a dozen men.”

The taller man shook his head in disbelief. “Don’t tell me: you killed them too?”

“We did kill two,” Jacob replied softly, “including Serren. Brother Francis kept most of them busy: you’ve seen something of what he can do. Before he died, Serren laughed at me, told me Innoken was going to destroy Ironwood. Halvar confirmed it, and his plans for Laranna. I think he obeyed Innoken out of fear.

I suppose you’re going to ask how I killed Serren. Just like the time before, he was far too strong for me, far too fast. So I grabbed the Shield, and called out to St. Thomas. He granted my prayer, making me even faster and stronger than Serren. The fight was easy after that. If only saving Ironwood were so simple.”

Erik raised an eyebrow. “You have super strength and speed now?”

“I don’t know,” Jacob replied. “From what Francis says, maintaining supernatural capabilities takes some kind of bond, and continual effort. It could be that I lost those abilities when I put down the sword.”

The dark-haired noble turned back to the monk. “Is this something Ironwood can use to defend against the Clansmen? Can St. Thomas gift multiple warriors with these capabilities?”

“No,” answered the Sorcerer reluctantly. “It would be difficult and time-consuming for St. Thomas to divide his power among multiple people. More importantly, Heaven will not provoke the Spirit World to war, and so he is forbidden to interfere. I am sorry.”

Jacob turned back towards his brother. “That’s why I need to attend the Summit, and get the help of Travan. There may be other so-called gods in the East that Shakath won’t want to turn his back on. I can’t imagine he’d have taken such an interest in stirring Travan against the Kulls if there were no benefit in it. Ironwood can’t fight Sarronen and win. I’m hoping it won’t have to. Anyway, we have to try. If Heaven won’t help us, what other choice do we have?”

“None, I suppose,” Erik muttered.

The Captain of the outpost, long silent, added in, “This is all over my head. Whatever my Lord asks, I will support.”

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Dorbin rushed to answer it, and found another well-dressed page and a man-at-arms in the Count’s livery standing outside. “My Lords,” the page spoke smoothly, “I hope this evening finds you all well. Forgive my haste, but I am told that the Lady Laranna of Northspire has returned. In joy and relief, my Lord the Count has offered a room for the Lady in his own keep. He has also offered her and her rescuers invitation to a banquet tomorrow evening. How many shall I tell him will attend?”

Laranna stepped forward before the door. “May I take a guest into my room? There is another young woman here, and I would prefer not to force her to bunk next to fighting men.”

“Thank you,” Athena fervently interjected.

The page paused, then answered in the affirmative. “Of course, my Lady. Your room is yours to do with as you please, and the Count will welcome your guest as his.”

The Lady thanked him and continued, “Then you may thank him for his offer, for I accept with gratitude. I arrived with five men and women. I assume they and Lord Erik will wish to attend tomorrow.”

Lord Erik nodded. Hearing no further argument, Laranna bade her hosts goodnight. She and Athena hurriedly gathered their things and walked out into the night with the waiting page.

After the door closed, the Baronet turned to his brother, and shook his head. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. On the one hand, what you say seems crazy. On the other hand, I cannot either contradict or ignore it. You always were trouble, Jacob.”

The younger Lord grinned back at his brother. “Then I suppose that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. Does than mean we can eat now?”

Erik clapped him on the back again. “Of course. After all you have endured, you most certainly deserve it. And after my day, I could eat a horse.”

The room was large, by city standards. It wasn’t quite as big as the single room house her husband had left her, but it was much better decorated. The bed was huge, and soft, with linen sheets and down-stuffed pillows. There was a vibrant tapestry depicting a flowing waterfall, and a shuttered window facing into the courtyard below. There was a fresh chamber pot provided, and a dresser with an actual mirror. There were two lamps in the room, giving it a cozy evening light. There was even a small desk with an empty inkpot, and a matching chair.

After a brief conversation with the keep’s steward, Laranna had latched the door shut, and changed into an elegant nightgown that made her feel inadequate in her own shift. Laranna had found a horsehair brush, and begun to work out the day’s knots in her hair, humming softly to herself as she did.

“Thank you so much for inviting me here, Laranna. After the last couple weeks, sleeping without a man’s snore nearby is a luxury in itself, and this room is wonderful.”

Laranna’s blue eyes twinkled in the lamplight. “You’re most welcome. It wasn’t entirely a selfless gesture, though. I’ll admit that after being kidnapped and held against my will for weeks by watchful clansmen with their lingering eyes, I don’t really want to be alone. In fact, you are doing me a favor. Being a guest here, with a real bedroom and amenities, is the next best thing to being home, especially if I can share. The only thing to make it true luxury would be to have my handmaiden back.”

Athena’s cheeks broadened in a smile. It had been so long since she had been “one of the girls” in Ironwood that she had forgotten what it felt like. In past couple years, she had won respect from the men, at least some of them, among the guard. But she had never had many female friends, even before her marriage: the older clanswoman who had taught her to hunt had been one of the few. Since becoming a guard, she had been almost entirely rejected by Ironwood’s women, which was why her newfound friendship with Laranna was so strange, and so very welcome. It made her feel like an entirely different person - a better one. “I’m no handmaid, but I could help with your hair, if you like.”

She moved over to the bed behind Laranna, who surrendered her brush, and continued, “You have great hair, Laranna. It’s dark and silky, just straight enough that you could do almost anything with it. I think I’m jealous.”

Laranna laughed lightly, a bright tinkling sound. “If you say so. Dark hair is common in Northspire. Your blond, on the other hand, would turn heads. I could work it into a crown, and it would shine like the sun. Though no doubt you would quickly tire of all the men drooling over you.”

Athena’s lips quirked. “You do well enough, I bet. I’d say you turned Jacob’s head, for one. It’s almost a pity he’s engaged. His eyes will settle on you, and then he remembers he’s a gentleman, and he turns away. But it’s always in the funniest moments.

Just this morning, he was droning on about some piece of stone he saw by the road on the way to Talyk. You started mumbling on right with him, and he just lit up. It was like you both saw this amazing hot fresh cherry pie, and then you found out you could keep it all to yourselves. It was the sweetest thing.”

Laranna’s eyes warmed in memory, but then she shrugged. “It is nice to find someone my scholarship does not bore to tears. There were a couple men I felt obliged to court who reacted, well, quite differently. Jacob, however, is engaged, and we were just passing the time. Still, his intended must be quite the lady.”

Athena shrugged, then went back to brushing her friend’s hair. “She’s a very pretty young thing, beautiful even. Isn’t that how men measure us?”

“So it seems,” Laranna replied. “Anything we add to that but money only weighs us down in their eyes. Still, you must have courted a man at some point?”

“Yes,” Athena answered distantly, her voice growing colder. “I was married, and to a good man, if a frustrating one. But he’s gone now, and I miss him terribly. It’s been almost three years, and still it doesn’t seem quite real. I had him for such a short time, but back home, his loss defines me.”

“I’m so very sorry. I didn’t know.” Laranna managed to fill her voice with sorrow and empathy, and yet also with a warm light of hope that Athena envied. “Still, you’re a fine woman, and you will find someone else. If you don’t like your prospects back in Ironwood, you’d make an excellent bodyguard. Or else a lady-in-waiting, if you preferred.”

Athena snorted. “No, that is definitely not me. I am too blunt an instrument for court. Besides, I thought they liked handmaidens pretty and young.”

Laranna lowered her eyes, but her voice was filled with amusement. “I lost one handmaiden because she was a little too pretty and young. I asked her to get to know one of my suitors a little better. I’ve always heard that you can judge a man by how he treats those beneath his station, and I wanted a second opinion on him. She fell into a family way, so to speak, after performing the task a little too well. I don’t see you making that mistake.”

Athena’s jaw dropped. “No! Truly?”

“Indeed. At least the experience taught me what I needed to know; I dumped him straightaway. Anyway, you can’t be that far north of twenty, and I saw the attention you drew in Sarronen. There might not be many men worthy of you, Athena, but I’m positive you’ll find another one. If Ironwood’s your problem, don’t be afraid to leave.”

It was Athena’s turn to lower her eyes. “I don’t have a lot of friends in Ironwood, but the ones I do have are precious to me.”

“I see,” Laranna replied. “Well, happily there is more to life than men. I’ve spent a lot of time back home proving that. You should see all the projects I have going there. If you ride back to Northspire with me, I’ll show you what I mean.”

“I’d like that,” Athena replied. “In the meantime, I think your hair is done. This bed is soft as butter, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”

Laranna grinned broadly. “Absolutely. Goodnight, Athena, and sleep well.”

Laranna sat by Athena in the Count’s sitting room. It was a small, cozy square with wooden panels, cushioned chairs, and modest decoration. The wells boasted a couple canvas paintings, and the stone floor a wooden table for refreshments. She had been here a dozen times before, usually with her father. She knew the room well, to the pulled threads in the cushions of the chairs, and to the scuff marks on the smooth stone floors, and she waited patiently for her host to arrive. Athena was less at ease. Her experience with Jacob and his father hadn’t been enough to make her comfortable with the concept of facing other nobility. Laranna’s brief attempts to engage her in small talk had failed, and so the huntress sat fidgeting in silence.

Laranna herself was content. It had been ages since was able to sleep in, secure in her own room, and she had enjoyed the slow start to the day. Though she had hid it well, her time in Sarronen had threatened to unravel her nerves entirely. Every day, she had forced herself to be pleasant to men who had kidnapped her for reasons unknown, to act like a guest rather than a prisoner. She was sure that if her captors had known their lies were exposed, they would kill her. Under those conditions, Halvar’s outward kindness had not been reassuring, but frightening, making her feel ever more caged as the days passed. She wasn’t sure how long she could have held up under those conditions. Day after day, she feared makeup would be unable to hide the circles forming under her eyes from lack of sleep, and her time would be up. Jacob’s arrival had been a Godsend.

Unfortunately, his “rescue” had drawn her into a mad world of Gods, magic, and further betrayal. None of it was entirely real to her yet. Stepping into this castle, and out of that world, felt like a deep breath of fresh air that she had been denied for weeks. Count Ervallyn was not her favorite man in some respects, but she had known him all her life. She basked in the trust and the familiarity that came with that. Here, she was safe.

Within a few more minutes, their host entered, a broad man whose deep brown hair was touched with gray. He had a strong chin that was just beginning to soften. His eyes were steady charcoals in a face that was hard, but not unpleasant. He was dressed in a finely tailored tunic of Talyk’s local red. He bowed briefly, then spoke in deep tones, “Pardon, ladies, for my delay. It is a pleasure to see you, and I hope the day finds you well.”

Laranna stood and curtsied in return, with Athena hesitantly following suit. Laranna replied for the pair, “No apologies are necessary, My Lord. Thank you for meeting with us. We have met, of course, and this is Arianna Black, of the Ironwood Mercantile Company’s guard, though most call her Athena. Athena, this is Lord Count Ervallyn of Talyk.”

At this, Athena nodded and mouthed the words, “A pleasure, My Lord.”

The Lord of Talyk’s lips pressed into a smile of greeting. “I am glad to meet you. I had not heard that it was common practice in the West for women to bear arms.”

“It is not, My Lord,” Athena replied. “However, after my husband died in a logging accident, I had need to find employment. I am more skilled with a sword or bow than with a needle, and Baron Ironwood allowed me honorable employment in the Guard. Jacob brought me along primarily for my skills as a tracker, My Lord.”

“More recently,” Laranna added, “her skills perfectly met my need for a chaperon. A well-bred lady should not travel alone, at least if she lacks such skills as Athena has to defend her own honor.”

“Quite sensible,” Ervallyn answered, “Well, young woman, you are welcome in my house in that capacity. And Laranna, I am most glad to find you here. We had thought you lost after you disappeared in Kullen.”

“Yes,” Laranna replied. “I was captured as I stepped out for a moment’s air. I felt a sting on my shoulder, and woke bound and blindfolded. It must have been a dart tipped with Drowsy. I have heard Kull hunters sometimes use it to bring down game with a single arrow, and without poisoning the meat. I traveled that way for some hours before a patrol from Sarronen encountered my captors, and scared them off. Prince Halvar, who led the patrol, then took me back to Sarronen. He professed unwillingness to cross Kull territory until he could determine it was safe to take me across. At least, that’s the story.”

The count raised his eyebrows slightly. “My dear, do you have cause to doubt Halvar? He has some reputation for honor, for a clansman.”

“Unfortunately,” Laranna sighed, “I do. I was blindfolded until I was brought to Halvar, but I recognized some of the voices of my captors in Sarronen, among other clues. They belonged to men working for King Haldor. Also, I found it a little suspicious that Halvar was able to capture me without bloodshed, even with a superior force. Although Sarronen let me go willingly, in Lord Jacob’s care, I suspect my capture was a ruse to stir trouble between Travan and the Kulls. I am only thankful that ruse did not involve harming me.”

“I see,” the Count replied darkly. “And what of this Lord Jacob? Why do you think they let you into his care?”

Laranna shrugged slightly. “Ironwood was at peace with Sarronen, and respected by the Kulls, and Jacob was riding this way. Since none in Kull territory could know we were coming, it seemed safe enough, and maintained Sarronen’s image of friendship.”

Her host seized on her use of the past tense. “Was at peace? What has changed?”

“That,” Laranna replied hesitantly, “you should hear from Lord Jacob or his brother, and no doubt you will tonight. The brief version is that we believe Sarronen has some designs on Ironwood that began with stealing a religious relic from them, which Jacob just lately discovered. Jacob is hoping to resolve his problems with Sarronen at the Summit.

The Sarronens are not known for intrigue, but trouble is stirring. As far as we can tell, followers of the Fire God are influencing the throne of Sarronen, and they desire conflict between Travan and the Kulls.”

“You are being uncharacteristically cryptic,” Ervallyn complained. “Even if religious zealots are rising in Sarronen, why would they risk stealing from Ironwood? Or causing trouble between Travan and its neighbors, when that might backfire? You level serious accusations, Laranna.”

“Yes,” Laranna answered, “I do. Obviously, I’m not happy about it, after all the work my father has done to ensure peace with our neighbors. I fear you will not believe all I say, but believe this: Sarronen is behind my capture, not the Kulls. The mood during my absence must have soured, but we should not act. There’s more, but you will want to hear it from Jacob. At least that way, you won’t have to hear it all twice, and repeat it to your sons.”

Lord Talyk shook his head. “Don’t act? You ask a great deal: the mood in Talyk has soured, indeed. Yet as you say, this is a matter for the Summit. In the meantime, thank you for trusting me with your suspicions. I will try to be patient about the rest. I assume you’ve only told the men from Ironwood, so far.”

“Yes,” the dark-haired lady replied. “Jacob and his colleagues know, but it’s not information they can act upon. That’s why I need to get home.”

The older man nodded. “Then we must make sure that you do, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, if there’s anything you need, please let me know. Your father and I have known each other for a long time, and I’m here for you, despite any differences we have had.”

The conversation continued only a little while longer, until the women begged their leave, and left for the Ironwood warehouse. Ervallyn watched them go with forced patience, as Laranna had just devastated his plans, and he had little time to make new ones.

The afternoon sun was bright behind the Mercantile Company’s warehouse in Talyk. The Captain and two of his men were still in the marketplace, displaying some of the western goods that had arrived in Erik’s recent caravan. The warehouse was open most of the year, and the Captain had a small wagon that he sent out every month or so to surrounding towns and villages. However, that was mostly to support the maintenance of the property and its staff. The real profits came from the bi-yearly caravans from Ironwood.

Jacob had joined his brother and the Captain earlier in the morning, displaying what he had picked up from Sarronen. In the second and third mornings before competing in the tournament, he had had much better luck getting merchants to take on both his trinkets and his coins on the grounds that he’d be back, and that the honor of a warrior was good. He’d picked up a fair amount of artwork and high-quality local flax, though he’d burned through most of his stash and his purse to do so. He hadn’t bothered mentioning it to Ceann, who surely would have protested his use of the party’s purse.

However, it turned out that the market for both Sarronen treated linen and its tapestries were strong in Talyk at the moment. Fascination with Clan culture seemed be to growing even as popular support for expansion against the clans rose. Additionally, Talyk’s trade with Sarronen was minimal, mostly because Travanian merchants were forbidden from selling copper, iron, and especially arms and armor to clansmen. Sarronen’s response was not to buy much of anything else, while the Kulls typically only offered their raw materials for practical dry goods like wool, finished wood, ropes, and pottery. In any case, Jacob had made a hefty sum over the morning, and sold most of the rest of the goods to Captain Daron. Just now, he felt more comfortable carrying currency than bulky goods, and if he got home, he’d be able to repay his father three times over for the sacks he’d taken from Ironwood. Even Ceann would have to be pleased with that.

His morning being well spent, Jacob had returned for a relaxed lunch, and then come out to the rear courtyard to watch the guards from Ironwood practice. Unlike in the evening bouts on the road, Ceann was happy to take part here, and was doing well. He took the opportunity to lecture some of the younger men on their forms, sharing a few tidbits Jacob recognized as coming from Brother Francis. Jacob couldn’t help but smile at the irony. He was distracted from his reverie by the sound of footsteps from behind.

“I’m surprised”, Lord Erik, heir to Ironwood, spoke teasingly. “Back home, you would be out in the yard all day, fighting anyone who would let you. Come, join me for a match. It might improve your mood.”

“Not if you pound me like you usually do,” Jacob responded. “I have to admit, after the fight with Serren, I’ve been a little anxious about lifting a weapon again.”

“It’ll be good for you,” Erik replied. “Besides, you may have some of that super-strength left that you were telling me about. If so, I would dearly love to see it. Already, last night seems a fantasy of drink.”

Jacob snorted, but quickly slid on his chain shirt and took a spot outside one of the dueling circles, waiting behind a few others for his turn. Once Erik stood in line on the opposite side of the circle, however, most of the line evaporated. Erik was a phenomenal swordsman by Ironwood standards, and most of the guards preferred watching him fight to facing him. When Ceann took his own victory and backed out of the circle, Jacob was clear to take his place.

He made a couple quick cuts with his practice sword to warm up, while his brother did the same. After a short pause, he and his brother both raised their staves in salute, and the fight began. Erik, unlike Jacob, preferred to begin his fights with a blinding offense, and he came in swinging hard, shield at the ready.

Per usual, Jacob rode out the initial salvos gracefully, with the minimal blocks and parries required to stand his ground, waiting in the hope that Erik would overextend himself. As usual, his brother’s execution was near perfect, and Jacob was given no opening. Still, he had lost no ground, either, and the flurry of movement faded into a more measured set of probes. At the point, Jacob began the dance in earnest, beginning his own set of counter-probes. Forgetting his anxiety, Jacob entered the game.

It was at this point that time itself seemed to change. Unlike in the fight with Serren, the world didn’t slow to a crawl. Instead, everything seemed to move at a normal pace: everything but him. Jacob found to his surprise that he had all the time in the world to think, and his every move was flawless, and he realize he could go much faster. Erik’s sword moved with its usual speed, but Jacob didn’t see it as a bright blur, but as a precise movement. In every fraction of an instant, Jacob could make out the outline of the weapon in crisp detail, and adjust his own thoughts and motions to match. He realized each chop and parry was timed by habit, and was no match for his actual ability, so he accelerated them. Jacob’s sword was soon moving twice as fast as Erik’s, and he could move it faster still.

Suddenly, Jacob knew that the speed St. Thomas had given him was now a part of him, to his bones, to his soul. Erik stood no chance. Jacob realized he could, between one of Erik’s swings and another, tap his brother on the head, and still have time to deflect the next strike. The only question in his mind now was how he would win. It wouldn’t do to overwhelm and embarrass his brother as Serren had done to him, and so he deliberately slowed his responses for a time, throwing in an occasional flick to his opponent’s wrist, or thigh, or shoulder.

After a few minutes, Erik frowned. “You’re holding back, aren’t you? You are not the same, after all. You’re like - him. Go ahead and end it, brother.”

And so Jacob did, stepping around Erik’s guard and rapping him sharply in the thigh for the kill. Erik winced and lowered his sword, rubbing his leg. “I regret doubting you, Jacob, about the gift you were given. I’ve never seen anything like it, or heard anything like it since the time of Michael and Khardum, and who believes those tales? Perhaps I must, now. Good monk, I thought you said this extraordinary speed would be gone now that Jacob is no longer wielding St. Thomas’s relic.”

Francis rose from a bench at the side of the courtyard, frowning. “It should be. St. Thomas only gave Jacob a nudge, increasing his existing abilities. Yet magic works in strange ways. When I change my body like Jacob’s was changed, I bend the rules of nature to allow it to do things it should not be able to. Then, when I relax and nature reasserts itself, my body reverts back to its older, more stable form.

Jacob’s body, apparently, wanted to house a great warrior, and reorganized itself in such a way to as be one without violating the ways of the World. His new body fits his identity better than his old one, and is under no outside pressure to revert back to what it was.

As strange as it sounds, Jacob’s abilities are more natural now than unnatural. St. Thomas could not undo them if he wished to.”

Erik rubbed his chin carefully. “Any chance you could share that with someone else?”

The monk shook his head. “Probably not, even if I were allowed to, and St. Thomas refuses to try. Congratulations, Jacob: you have received a very rare gift.”

Jacob smiled crookedly. “It’s amazing. This is what I always wanted, to be the best I could possibly be. Swordsmanship is much more than a game to me. It is a way to master my own mind and body, and earn respect for that control. I am so much closer to that than I ever thought I could be.

But I realize now that what I love, as much as the mastery, is the competition, the chance to measure myself, and better myself, against others. I fear I will miss that: who will fight me now?”

Brother Francis eyes twinkled. “Let me grab a sword.”

For the next hour, Jacob and Francis fought, their swords and shields a constant blur. Erik could follow the motion for a only few seconds at a time before his eyes crossed and lost focus, but the whistle, hiss, and thud of their blades came quick and loud. The speed seemed impossible, and surely no one could keep up the incredible pace, but the fight seemed to go on and on. Eventually, minutes later, Jacob paused, acknowledging a hit.

The two weren’t finished, however. Jacob saluted his opponent, and as Erik watched incredulously, the two returned to their impossible contest. Erik gave up following the movement of the swords. Instead, he stood listening to the clack of the practice swords, and the loud hiss of offended air, a bemused smile on his face.

After what seemed like hours, Jacob wiped his brow and signaled a stop. “I’m glad to know there’s still something to aspire to, Sorcerer. You took four out of five, at least.”

The former monk shrugged, then limped slowly towards the bench, favoring his right knee. “St. Thomas has closed most of the physical gap between us, but not all. And though I am rusty, I have had a long time to learn.”

Behind him, Jacob heard a slow clap, followed by a feminine voice. “Very impressive. It’s going to be a lot less convincing the next time you let me win.”

“Who says I ever let you win?” Jacob asked. “And more importantly, how was the castle?”

“Right, it’ll be our secret then,” Athena replied with grin. “The room was pretty nice, way better than the warehouse. It got a little boring after that. Laranna had a short conversation with the Count, but you’ll have to ask her about it.”

“Oh?” Jacob replied, turning his gaze to heiress of Northspire.

“The Count wanted to hear my story. I told him what happened to me, but I left the Ironwood side of things vague. I didn’t actually let him know we were attacked, but I told him I would answer his questions tonight, so I would not have to repeat my account.”

Jacob’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t trust him, then.”

Laranna hesitated, then replied carefully. “I don’t, not completely. Unfortunately, I will have to tell him the rest of the story soon. He’ll be insulted if he hears it first at the Summit, and that might be costly for Northspire. Most of our trade with the rest of the world passes through Talyk, using the Count’s porters. The Count is also a good friend of the Duke of Danryk, and has the ear of the crown. Though I have no real reason to suspect his motives, Northspire risks his displeasure enough just by speaking in favor of peace with Kullen.

In any case, the Count will hear the rest tonight, but I hope you will forgive me for feeling more comfortable sharing the information in your presence. You have shown me there are powers at play in the continent of Annaria that I would not have dreamed of, a month past. What more may be happening that I do not know? But you have faced the wrath of the Sarronen’s Fire God, and survived. If there is anything dark going on, I’ll be safer with you there.”

“Then you will have my support,” Jacob replied. “Telling the truth about this won’t make Ironwood any enemies we didn’t have before.”

Brother Francis nodded slowly in agreement. “I am forbidden from interfering in Innoken’s plans, but now that he knows who I serve, the reverse is also true. He will not use his power against me, and lesser dangers do not frighten me. While I am here, you are under my protection.”

“I feel better already,” Athena added smoothly. “Now, on to the important question. What are we going to wear?”

“Unfortunately, it is too late to have a new dress made,” Laranna replied. “So I will have to use one Halvar provided me. I would prefer if I had more jewelry with me, though, and a scarf, not to mention some personal items. I’m afraid circumstances didn’t leave me any coin, but hopefully my credit is good here.”

“Jacob, is it payday yet?” Athena asked. “I packed a dress, but I also will need some coin and advice. I’ve never had dinner with a Count.”

Jacob fished into his pouch. “Close enough. And here’s more besides: dressing up formally shouldn’t be done on a guardsman’s wages. Laranna, this is for you, if you need it. Happily, I have the brown tunic I wore in Haldor’s tent, so I need nothing new. Ceann claims he is prepared, though I will check on Daniel.”

“Appreciated,” Athena replied, appraising the coins Jacob handed her. “As for Daniel, if he needs something, let me know. This should be enough to take care of him.”

Laranna smiled in thanks. “Your brown tunic should do nicely: it suits you well. Thank you for the loan, Jacob. I promise, I will pay it back the moment we get to Northspire.”

“Excellent, but enough of that. Let’s get to shopping,” Athena grinned.

Count Ervallyn’s dining room, like the rest of his castle, was decorated to the height of Travan standards. The settings were more subdued than Jacob had seen back in Pearl Bay, but the craftsmanship everywhere was exquisite. The high-beamed roof was deeply stained, and carved with simple but elegant geometric designs. The multi-sectioned table itself was a minimalist work of art, every curve and line placed just so, in pleasingly exact symmetry. The surrounding chairs were equally polished, with deep backs and luxurious padding.

The hanging art was also pleasant to the eye, if a bit pointed. Woven images of the line of Tallyn, Talyk’s founding family and the Count’s distant ancestor, graced the walls by the entryway, while elsewhere Jacob saw images of Travan’s battle with the Kulls to retake the ruins of old Talyk. There was even one of Tallyn himself that predated Talyk’s fall: a treasure, indeed. For dinner there was freshly slaughtered beef, a variety of fresh vegetables and berries, and truly mouth-watering honeyed pastries. The ales the count favored were bitter and hearty, though his wife sipped a sweet apple wine that was popular among the men and women of Ironwood.

Both Lord Ervallyn and his wife the Lady Edana were pleasant and courteous, though they mostly addressed Lord Erik, whom they had known for years. Three of Ervallyn’s older sons sat to his right, with their wives sitting together further down the table. Countess Edana sat to his left beside Erik. Jacob sat beside his brother, with Laranna to his left, with Athena and Brother Francis further down. Ceann and Daniel rounded out the evening’s visitors near the edge of table, outside of Jacob’s earshot. This close to summer, the hearth was cool and quiet. However, the sconces and candles kept the room pleasantly lit, though they occasionally wavered in the late spring draft.

Introductions went quickly, and then the Count and Lord Erik fell into conversation, talking of little things. The weather had been pleasant, and the spring harvest good. There had been a bumper crop of wool, including the more expensive white. Ervallyn had acquired an excellent new hound, and Edana finished a lovely quilt. Erik offered little new, but they both talked like old friends. Brother Francis, meanwhile, chatted with the ladies nearer the end of the table, though Jacob could not quite make out what they said. Instead, he listened quietly as Laranna, after a period of awkward silence, reacquainted herself with her hosts, including the Count’s sons.

Morgren, Ervallyn’s third son, was the first to speak. He was a sandy-haired man of medium height, with intelligent brown eyes and a veneer of self-confidence. “So, Laranna, how has Jaselle been?”

The dark haired Lady of Northshire wore the deep blue dress in which she had been captured, the one she wore when Jacob met her. The pale scarf that offset it was new. Her hair was expertly pinned and braided, her lips were painted with a new pale pink, and she still kept the silver circlet from Sarronen. Her new earrings were silver to match, a fine tribute to her last-minute shopping spree. The only thing that didn’t match her fine display was her smile, which looked more than a little forced as she replied. “Still mooning over you, I’m afraid. She thinks she can hold on to the man her sister could not. Otherwise, however, she is doing well, and I would like to keep it that way.”

“It’s not like that,” Morgen explained. “I really like her.”

“How nice”, Laranna replied, her lips pursed. “And how is Talia?”

Morgren ran his hand through his hair. “She’s happy, mostly. She’s working in the kitchens, and wearing a lot of new jewelry. She’s quite the cook, it turns out.”

Laranna smiled sweetly. “It’s good to know who we have to thank for tonight’s feast. Give her my congratulations, if you have the chance. I’m guessing she has another bun in the oven as we speak.”

The sandy-haired man nodded uncomfortably. “Yes, though I don’t know who made the dough.”

“Almost I could feel sorry for you, Morgren,” she replied.

The Count’s son crossed his arms. “Spare me your pity, and keep some for yourself. Your parents must still be pressuring you to find a suitable husband - even more so now. Was it five men you chased off in your anger?”

The woman in blue found herself lowering her eyes. “Two of those showed me the door, actually. Neither really wanted to marry a woman smarter than they were.”

Morgren laughed softly. “Somehow I doubt that’s what they said. Well, I’m sure you’ll get another chance, some perfect man to sweep you off your feet. Jacob, are you attached?”

Jacob, forced now to participate, answered softly, “I’m engaged, actually. If I get home, there’s a woman I am to marry.”

The Talyk man snorted. “If you get home? What a strange thing to say. Why wouldn’t you?”

Jacob checked his sigh, but not his bitter tone. “I think your father should hear this first.”

Lord Ervallyn, overhearing duing a pause in his conversation, gave Jacob a quizzical look, then turned to Erik. “What is it that I should hear?”

Erik looked down for a moment, thinking, before he spoke. “Are you familiar with the Shield of St. Thomas, one of the few items retained from the founder of Ironwood? Well, roughly two weeks ago, the Shield was stolen. Men came in the night, killed two people, and left with relic. My brother Jacob led a party immediately to find it, and tracked the thieves to Sarronen, before losing the trail. However, once there, he was welcomed and introduced to the Lady Laranna and Prince Halvar, who claimed to have recovered her from abduction by the Kulls. Once Jacob was satisfied the Shield was no longer in the city, he offered the Lady Laranna an escort home, an offer she and the king of Sarronen gratefully accepted.

Unfortunately, that was where things fell apart. After leaving, Jacob found the Shield of St. Thomas east of the city. Apparently, Sarronen felt the secret was worth more than the lives of six men and women, because he immediately was set upon by Halvar and a dozen men. Jacob’s party drove them off, and headed the only place he could: here. He also claims Halvar admitted there both that he was in fact responsible for Laranna’s capture, and that Sarronen has plans to attack Ironwood.”

Ervallyn’s eyebrows rose incredulously. “Why would King Haldor do this, or his son? Murdering two men over a shield, however old, makes no sense. Also how could Jacob and his party of three guardsmen defeat a dozen clan warriors without losses? Pardon me, but he doesn’t look like a man who has just buried friends.”

“The answer to both questions is that the shield is not just a shield, but allows the bearer contact with its former owner, St. Thomas. St. Thomas protected Jacob and St. Thomas, offering them incredible capability with a sword. I watched them spar today, and you would have to see them in action to believe how dangerous they are now. You might not even believe it then. With the help of St. Thomas, they could easily defeat a dozen men, just between the two of them. It would not do Sarronen any good to have the shield, but if King Haldor did have designs on Ironwood, he most certainly would want to deny Ironwood’s men of it.”

“What a frightening thought,” Ervallyn replied. “That must have put an end to Sarronen’s plans.”

“Unfortunately not,” Jacob interjected. “Innoken, Haldor’s shaman, has a similar connection to a spirit calling himself the fire god Shakath. He was also able to grant similar gifts to two of his own servants that we know of, though he does appear to have limits.

Our problem is this: St. Thomas is forbidden as a member of Heaven from fighting a war. Shakath does not have that restriction.”

“Right,” Ervallyn stated flatly.

Brother Francis added his own melodious voice to the conversation. “I know this is difficult to believe, but you will soon hear such stories from every country in the world. Great spirits of the Spirit World are choosing to act in the world as they have never done before. Their champions, the bearers of their powers, they are calling Sorcerers.

The spirits of Heaven, like St. Thomas, are forbidden to take or ally with nations. However, those like Shakath are here specifically to conquer. They will not stop until they hit the domain of another Sorcerer, though almost all Sorcerers are forbidden from killing each other.”

Jacob started. “Almost all?”

The former monk turned to explain. “Some Ascended have not signed the Compact. I do not know much about those. Most of the rest have announced some kind of geographical claim. Shakath’s includes Ironwood. Others have claimed Chaltan and Margon, west of the Wall. There is one in Southern Travan whose claim is not yet established.”

Ervallyn, despite his skepticism, felt compelled to ask, “And here in Talyk? Kull territory?”

“Northern Travan and Kull territory are unclaimed among those who keep the Compact,” Francis replied, “at least so far. Shakath and his allies have staked out everything between Margon and Kullen, extending South down until the Free Cities and Chaltan, which belong to others.”

“How comforting,” the Count replied dryly. “Can these claims be enforced?”

“We will see,” Francis replied.

The room fell to silence for long moments, until finally Athena spoke up. “Are there any more of those pastries left?”

“Of course, dear,” Lady Edana replied with forced cheer, ending all serious conversation.

An hour after their guests had retired, Morgren stood across from his father in a small sitting room in the corner of the keep. It was a cozy little place with a thick wooden door, and utterly separated from the other sounds of the keep.

Ervallyn sat in his broad, cushioned couch, but his son was too restless to use the chair across from it. In fact, he fought the urge to pace as he faced the Count. “Did you believe any of that, father?”

Ervallyn’s eyes were distant, but his voice carried the slow confidence Morgren always expected from his father. “I do not yet know what to believe, and so I reserve judgment. However, if what we have heard carries any truth, Haldor has played us like a harp.

We sold him arms in the hope of keeping him out of our conflict with the Kulls, and we paid him to abduct Laranna in the hopes of accelerating that conflict. However, it seems his plan was to distract both us and the Kulls from interfering in his own war. An incredible swordsman or two might turn a battle, but could not let him face the full might of Travan, or keep us from burning Sarronen behind him. We paid him dearly for what he wanted all along.”

Morgren shuffled his feet. “Now Ironwood knows that Sarronen captured her: what if they learn we were involved? Do we need to change our plans?”

“They won’t,” his father replied. “Secrecy is more important than ever, and we cannot change what is past. Therefore, we go forward. We still claim a faction of Kulls were involved with Laranna’s capture. We don’t really care if Erik also claims Sarronen was involved too, so long as he also says they are also after Ironwood.

If Haldor doesn’t attack Ironwood, Erik’s credibility will be gone. If Haldor does, Erik will be a landless non-entity, and no one will much care what he says. As long as Sarronen is more concerned its western border than its eastern one, Ironwood is the least of our problems.”

“You’re not worried about making a personal enemy of Jacob? He and the monk supposedly killed a dozen men between them.” Morgren asked.

“He’s going to be much more concerned with Sarronen than us, though it would be best if he cannot connect us to anything that happened to Laranna.”

“Father, how do we keep Laranna quiet?” Morgren asked carefully.

“That is not your problem,” Ervallyn replied evenly.

“Father!” Morgren whispered insistently. “You said we wouldn’t hurt her.”

His father met his eyes calmly. “We will not, though I cannot promise no one else will. My son, I know you were uncomfortable placing her in danger at all, but it was necessary. I would not have involved you, except I needed your contacts. But do not worry: your part is done. The rest is not your affair.”

Morgren continued to pace. “Yes, father.”

Athena yawned widely, tired but unable to sleep. She listened to Laranna’s deep and even breathing with envy.

While she tried to leave the worrying to Jacob, the thought of never going home was worming its way into her soul. How much worse would that thought be for Jacob, who cared more for Ironwood than she? Or for Lord Erik who had a wife and a child on the way!

This craziness about Spirits and Sorcerers was also starting to become too real. She wanted to blink it away like a dream or a bad bedtime story, but that was hard to do after watching Jacob and Francis fight. They had moved with a crazy berserker speed that just went on and on, and yet somehow made it look graceful. That kind of power had no place in this world. It made them seem so distant, like ghosts themselves, and Jacob was one of her oldest friends. Now he was talking of entire nations falling into that unreality. It didn’t bear thinking on, but she couldn’t clear her head of it, and so she lay in the endless dark, tossing and turning.

After fighting her restlessness for hours, Athena was on the edge of sleep when she heard an odd click that didn’t belong. She forced her eyes shut, but her ears reported a faint whisper that in no way belonged, and so she parted her eyelids a crack. To her dismay, the door to her room had been opened. A shadow moved her way, lit from behind by the reflection of single lamp against the far wall of the hallway. A dagger glinted in its hand.

Athena’s mind raced during the precious seconds before the intruder could reach her, fighting a rising panic. Her body was entangled in a blanket, and so she feared to move, or even to open her eyes wider. For now, she had the element of surprise, but her attacker would be far more mobile. She needed to attack first, somehow. She needed a plan, but her mind was blank. Time, her enemy, continued to advance.

The shadow approached her side of the bed first, and peered at her, unable to make out her slitted eyes in the dark. It hesitated, then began to lift the dagger. At that moment, Athena lashed out with both feet, catching the intruder in the face, pushing it back.

The shadow cursed with the voice of a man, but Athena’s kick had launched the blanket from the bed, and she swung in a single motion to her feet. She leaned back from a clumsy swing of the dagger and punched her assailant high, clean in the nose. Blood spurted in the darkness, and the shadow screeched in alarm. His left arm flung out wildly for a moment, and then he struck blindly with the dagger in his right, eyes watering from the pain. Athena stepped out of the way and toward the bottom of the bed, then grabbed the man’s flailing left arm and tugged it across his body, trying to keep the weapon hand away from her. The shadow’s knee met her stomach, and nearly doubled her over, but she held firm. Meanwhile, the assailant’s dagger still reached for her, but with his left arm pulled into the way, it scratched his forearm instead.

“No!” the man shrieked, dropping the dagger to the floor and clutching his arm. Within a few beats of her heart, the man swayed and fell to the floor, dead.

Laranna by now had sat up on the bare bed, and was staring wide-eyed. “Help!” she screamed. “Intruder!”

It was a little late for that, Athena thought, staring at the still-bleeding corpse on her bedroom floor. Still, she had the presence to place her hand on Laranna’s arm. “It’s over now. It’s done. There’s nothing left but the mess.”

Within minutes, servants flooded in in nightgowns. They were followed by Count Ervallyn himself, in his own nightclothes. He had a lamp in hand, and a horrified expression. “What is this?” he cried.

“Someone tried to kill us,” Laranna answered evenly. “The door was locked from the inside, but he must have found a way to lift the latch.”

“This is terrible,” Ervallyn said, bending to examine the body. “He’s none of my household. He has the face of a Kull, and a clan-make dagger. We must take care to move it: I think it is poisoned.

Laranna, whoever arranged your kidnapping is at it again, and in my own house. You have my deepest apologies, my Lady. I swear I will not rest until we reach the bottom of this. I will not fail you again.”

“I’m sure this isn’t your fault, my Lord,” Athena replied.

“Of course,” Laranna added, softly. “Still, I don’t think I will sleep tonight.”

Athena put a hand on her shoulder. “It will be alright, Laranna. Tonight, I will stand by the door. Nothing will come through without my leave.”

The Count met her determined eyes with a grim smile. “I believe you. Still, I will place a guard outside your door. This will not happen again, I swear it.”

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