By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action


Everything hurt. Jacob’s left arm and shoulder were tightly bound, but ached constantly, and any motion set his teeth grinding. His back felt like it had no skin left at all, despite everything Francis had done. He had been lucky.

Beside him, Athena lay on her own bed, nursing her own wounds. There she valiantly fought her discomfort and intense boredom. “You know,” Jacob offered, “We could ask if there is something for us to read.”

Athena gave him a withering look, only slightly marred by her inability to properly turn anything other than her neck to face him. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re an idiot? What kind of rich snot asks for a book to read when he can’t even sit up? I still can’t believe you sucked me into this. We should both be dead.”

A grin crept its way onto Jacob’s unwilling face. He had had long enough to examine the wooden beams above him, and the daubed and woven saplings that thatched it. Now he turned his own head towards his friend, ignoring the sharp tug that sent shivers of pain down the muscles of his back. “We’re not, though. And it wasn’t my idea for you to dash out into the middle of a duel to block Innoken’s attack. I’m amazed you were quick enough to do it.”

Athena shrugged awkwardly, momentarily turning her own eyes back to the ceiling before returning them to Jacob. “I was on my feet as soon as you fell, and he was kind of just standing there gloating. But yes, I ran over to save your life. You’re not welcome, by the way, you ungrateful sod.”

Jacob managed to stifle a chuckle. His back surely didn’t need one of those. “Well, thank you, anyway. I am grateful, of course, just surprised. I thought you were dead, for sure. Instead, you’re just pissed that you missed the rest of the fight.”

Athena’s short laugh turned quickly into a pained grunt. “Maybe. Don’t try to cheer me up, though: it hurts. What did happen? Francis though I should hear it from you. He looked pretty damned shocked, himself, and I don’t think he’s easy to rattle.”

At that moment, there was a light knock on the door, and then Francis was in the doorway. It was odd, seeing the former monk dressed in a spotless cream-colored robe with a dark sash, hair and beard neatly trimmed. Jacob expected he would always envision the man in the sturdy brown hemp of a traveling monk. “Normally, I am not. Your adventures have been quite the exception. Pardon me for overhearing, for I have just come to check on you both. How do you feel?”

Jacob forced a grin, but remained prone, head swiveled slightly toward the door. “Everything hurts, but not as bad as I expected. I thought I would wake to find my left arm laying on the floor, if at all.”

“Happily, I’m better off than that,” Athena added. “I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut with God’s boot, especially when I laugh. But I expected worse, far worse.”

Francis nodded. “Good. I got to you quickly enough, then. You body had not fully accepted the reality of your injury yet, and something in you trusted me to resolve it. Athena, your body was happy to be shown how to heal itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up more healthy than ever.

Jacob, your shoulder knows much better how to be be properly attached than shattered, burnt, and rent. Given how well your body took to the extra speed St. Thomas gave you, you may well end up with some extraordinary healing, as well. You took a lot of physical damage, but I expect you may be up and around in days. I might say it would shock everyone for you to be on your feet so soon, but at this point, I think the crowd might believe anything of you. You should hear the stories they are telling in the market about the fight. I thought nothing could be more ridiculous than the truth.”

“What are they saying?” Athena asked. “Actually, forget that for now - you never answered my earlier question. What in Lazarus’s name happened on that field?”

Jacob cleared his throat, pausing to think. “Do you remember when Francis had just beaten Serren, and we talked about how if you step up to do the right thing, God will have your back? Well, it turned out I didn’t really have the power to win, like you said. But I stepped up, and then I found I wasn’t alone. You stood up for me, and then Francis. He turned my sword into a weapon that could counter the magic of Sorcerers. But it was powered by the crowd, and the crowd wasn’t engaged enough, at first. I didn’t see what happen, but late in the fight the cheering got louder, and louder, and eventually it weakened Innoken’s defenses. I was as tired as I ever was in my life, but finally I put my sword right through his chest. That put out his fire, but it still wasn’t enough to kill him. There I was with my sword stuck in his chest, and so I couldn’t stop Innoken from near taking off my shoulder.

At that point, he knew he had won. However, I had more than enough enough Two-Step to poison my sword, so I coated my dagger with it too, just in case. Innoken didn’t get a chance to burn the poison off of that. So I just threw it at him, right by where my sword was, where his skin was exposed. Incredibly, it worked. I won, and he died. But you were right: I couldn’t have come close to doing it alone, and I almost didn’t anyway. I owe you both a huge debt of gratitude.”

Francis crossed his arms, his mirth displayed freely on his face. How much Jacob had grown from the boy, a few weeks ago, who was so caught up in his concerns. Despite his earlier advice, the former monk had been at least as worried as Athena about the wisdom of Jacob’s plan. The thought that Jacob would die at his feet, when he and St. Thomas had the power to help, but not the permission, had been difficult to bear. Then Francis realized he need not provide the power, he just had to help direct the magic already in the air. It was poetic that the faith of men had the strength to defeat their would-be Gods. Apparently, Heaven and Vallaton both were a bit unhappy about his actions, but he could live with their discomfort. As far as he could tell, no lasting damage had been done to the Compact. Still, Jacob had not heard the whole story, and so Francis lifted his resonant baritone to reply.

“You had more help than that. It was Laranna’s idea to harness the energy of those who believed in you. St. Thomas and I took a great risk that changing the sword in that way would not violate the Compact. We bent it enough in providing you your special abilities, even if Shakath did nearly the same with Serren. Keep in mind the punishment for breaking the Compact is being rejected from the Spirit World, losing all records and memories of your past lives forever. The only worse punishment among the Ascended is consignment to Hell. Happily, Heaven does not see our actions in that light, but you should know not to expect them again.

Even so, without the faith of men and women like Laranna, Lord Morgren, and even Halvar, none of that would have done any good, however much your brother and friends believed in you. The nature of your success is proof of how many people put their trust in you. Their strength powered your sword. You were lucky, but you should also feel honored.”

Jacob bowed his head in acknowledgment, his lengthening dark hair nearly into his eyes. “I am, and I’m very grateful to you, to Athena, Daniel, Laranna, and others. Without your help and St. Thomas’s, especially, Ironwood would be doomed and I dead. But I just can’t help wondering what happens next.”

Athena smiled longways at him, halting a brief chuckle to hold her hand to her pained side. “What, aren’t you just going to go back to your father to take your pat on the head? Then, wasn’t your plan to go off to Margon to count coins and make babies with Anna?”

Jacob turned his eyes ruefully to face his friend, fearing to move his neck again. Had it been so long since he thought in those terms? Athena was right, though. Unless some other danger emerged, he was likely to do exactly that. Despite his words to Laranna, it was hard to imagine himself telling his father that Anna wasn’t the right match for him, and could he please consider someone else? Lord Sterik’s honor would be deeply wounded by that, even if Jacob’s survived.

Even if his father somehow supported him, well, Laranna liked him, but that didn’t mean she would actually marry him. If she wouldn’t, Jacob would certainly be the fool then. At least Anna seemed to want him, but would marrying her be honor or cowardice? He wasn’t sure.

“Maybe,” Jacob replied tentatively. “But is it really over? Francis, you haven’t said much, but Innoken can’t be the only Sorcerer who might cast his eye on Ironwood. And that doesn’t speak to Travan or the rest of the world. If we take St. Thomas’s shield back to Ironwood, will he still protect us?”

Francis eased himself into in a wooden chair in the corner, considering. “I can’t answer all your concerns,” he finally replied. “St. Thomas still cares for the people of Ironwood, and you may carry the Shield back. However, the neutrality of Heaven will prevent him from providing the kind of gifts he gave you in the future. He may heal, bless children, and otherwise contribute to the peace and prosperity of Ironwood. He will not fight for you. Maybe your own reputation will forestall any further trouble in Ironwood while you are there. I cannot be sure.

You are right to think of Travan and Margon, however. Many plans of Heaven and Vallaton were thrown into disarray when you killed Innoken. But there will be new plans, and there will be war. It is only a matter of when and where. Before you set up in Margon, if that is your plan, listen closely to news and rumor. But for now, sleep! You have earned a great victory, and at least some respite.”

“Thank you, friend,” Jacob replied, “if I may call you that. I will try, though I doubt my shoulder will permit it.”

“Yes,” Athena added. “Thank you, monk, for everything. Who knew you could be good, and a man of God? If there is anything you ever need of me, just ask.”

Jacob healed faster than he had believed possible. Within only a few days, he had ceased to be an invalid, and was now a going concern. He still ached, still lacked much of the incredible vitality he had felt before facing Innoken, but he felt twice as strong as the day before, and that was good enough to enable him in this little errand before the opportunity passed.

The guest apartments in Haran were all loosely connected, a set of broad stone houses with tiled roofs slanted to avoid collecting rain and snow. Most abutted one another, though some had narrow alley-ways between. In either case, Jacob found it easy enough to travel from one to another without notice, once the sun had set. They were fine quarters, most even including a small courtyard in the center. The young nobleman dropped silently into one of those courtyards, and peered though the open shutters into one of the rooms within. No, that wasn’t the one he was looking for. Thankfully, the men within hadn’t noticed the silhouette of his head against the dimly lit wisps of clouds behind.

Jacob continued around the empty courtyard, examining one window after another, until he found a man holding audience with his son. Holding his breath, he tugged gently on the nearby door, and stepped within, fighting not to squint against the light of the fire.

Lord Ervallyn’s jaw dropped, while his son pulled out a dagger, and backed against the wall in terror. Jacob held up his right palm, speaking in a firm but gentle voice. “Peace! I am not here to fight, but I grew impatient waiting for your reply. It seems you meant to return home without seeing me. I thought perhaps this would be a more convenient place to meet you.”

Lord Morgren’s face sagged in relief, as he realized he would live through the night, after all. The older man behind him was somewhat less pleased. “You thought wrong,” the Count of Talyk replied. “After all my hospitality, you accuse me of plotting your murder to the Empress herself. I have been your friend since I met you, and you betray me this way? Why in God’s Creation would I want to see you?”

Jacob almost laughed. He hadn’t actually expected a confession, had he? The two men in the Empress’s prison had died in the closed cells where they had been placed, having offered only inconsistent information. They had each claimed their Lord, the Count of Talyk, had commanded them, but they couldn’t correctly describe any details about his appearance. They were wrong about his height, his coloring, his hair, and every other salient detail. Lord Talyk pointed out that he must have been impersonated, and so the Empress had only apologized for the mistake, and let him go. Jacob wasn’t so easily swayed. “My friends were nearly killed in your apartments by an assassin with a poisoned dagger. Men also attacked Laranna and I in the market, similarly armed, and claimed you hired them. I only relayed what I had seen, my Lord. In my position, you would think the same.”

It was Ervallyn’s turn to show relief: just a hint, a softening of the jaw, but it did not escape Jacob’s eyes in the firelight. “I see. And have you then come to apologize?”

Jacob’s brown eyes twinkled against the fire, as he stood calmly, hands crossed. He glanced towards Morgren, the man Laranna’s sister had been interested in. The Count’s son did not impress him, but he decided to place a little faith in Jaselle’s judgment. “No. You have my word that I have only come to talk, but Morgren, I don’t think you want to be here for this.”

The young man stiffened, but then his eyes widened as Ervallyn motioned to his son in agreement. “Perhaps that would be best.”

Morgren’s eyes narrowed, but then he backed toward the door. “As you say, Father. I will return soon.”

Jacob smiled ruefully as he heard the young man’s footsteps hasten outside the door, and he quietly lowered the bar before turning back to the Count. “I suppose I only have a few minutes now before I am dragged away, so I will be brief. Very few men knew I intended to use Two-Step to kill Innoken, and you are the one I trust least. You are clever, my Lord, but not honest. However, since I have promised the Empress herself that I will leave justice in this matter to her, I have come with a deal.”

The Count raised a single eyebrow: admitting nothing, denying nothing. “For now, you have a captive audience. What do you propose?”

“You will leave me alone, my family, and my friends. You will not harm or threaten Laranna, or any member of her family. In fact, you will protect them as your own children. In return, I will withhold justice for your past aggressions against us, and I will keep my silence.”

The Count chuckled. “I never intended any harm to any of them, and so that is an easy deal to keep. But if you think me a liar and murderer, why would you ever trust me to keep such an arrangement?”

Jacob shrugged. “Because if I find out one of these people has been harmed, I will find you, and I will kill you myself, messily. If by some measure of luck, you rid the world of me first, know that I will haunt you in death and kill you then. Keep in mind that at least two Sorcerers expect to meet me in the Spirit World, so that is no idle threat. So if you can look me in the eye now and agree to my terms, then yes, I think you will keep them. Won’t you?”

Suddenly, the Count swallowed nervously, and his throat tightened. He was amazed to his voice replying thinly, “Yes, I - of course.”

“Very well,” Jacob replied, unbarring the door. It was immediately opened by Lord Morgren, who stood with half a dozen guardsman. “Then, may I have your leave to go, my Lord?”

The Count hesitated, looking from Jacob, armed only with a dagger, to his own guards. Could even Jacob defeat all of them? Would Jacob let him live if he did? His reputation was already suffering after being accused of sending men to attack the boy, now something of a local hero, in the marketplace. If he did manage to kill Jacob, he would be hard pressed to maintain his own innocence, but perhaps it would be worth it.

He returned his scrutiny to the figure before him. Jacob’s feet were spread in a fighter’s stance, his knees loosely bent. The boy was ready for a fight, but his smile was easy and his eyes clear. He was utterly unafraid. In that instant, Ervallyn was sure. The young man before him was ready to slit the guards’ throats in an eye-blink, and there was nothing the Count could do about it: nothing except pretend he had never even considered the notion. “Yes, of course, Lord Jacob. I’m only sorry we could not clear up this little matter sooner. Such a pity to have any misunderstanding between us. Morgren, would you please escort our guest to the door?”

“Feeling any better?” Laranna asked.

“Not like Jacob,” Athena groused, easing herself into a sitting position as carefully as possible. “He’s been out doing Heaven-knows-what. I can walk, but it’s not exactly pleasant. It hardly seems fair. The initial healing went so well that I thought the rest of the recovery would go the same way. For that lucky bastard, it has. Still, at this rate, I’ll be up and around in a few more days. Francis promises that soon I’ll be better than ever. He’s more right than maybe he knows.”

“Oh?” Laranna responded quizzically. “How is that? You’ve got a more positive attitude?”

“Oh I hope not,” Athena laughed. “I mean, they come in useful now and then, but I’d rather have a finger on reality. No, I think, with how my body is responding, I might actually be able to have children now, if I want to.”

“Oh, Athena, that’s wonderful!” Laranna gasped. “At least, I think so. You bore a child before, so I assume you’re still interested.”

“I don’t know,” Athena answered hesitantly. “After what happened with Daglin and my poor stillborn son, God rest his soul, I admit I’m a little nervous about the idea. But I thought there was something wrong with me, that no man would ever have me. After all, what man will take a wife who can’t give him children? But maybe I can leave that behind now.

I’ve learned to take care of myself, and I’m no rush to throw that away for a man. But if I do find the right person, marriage is an option now. I don’t feel broken anymore. I feel free. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’m not fixed all the way. Or maybe it wouldn’t work out any better than the last time if I tried to get married or have a child. But for now it feels good, and I’m going to hold on to that. But please, don’t tell anyone: not yet.”

Laranna beamed at her. “You are far too hard on yourself. There are good men who would have you, barren or not. Fine. I will keep your secret, but you can’t keep me from being happy for you. I’m going to miss you, you know.”

“And now, you’re making me sad again,” Athena mock-sighed. “I’ll miss you, too, though. It’s been a long time since I’ve been friends with a woman. The girls in Ironwood have been pretty cruel to me, actually. I wish you didn’t have to go.”

“It’s been good for me too,” Laranna replied. “I’ve been separated in my own way from the ladies back home, and your practicality is always refreshing. I won’t pressure you, and I don’t want to insult you, but if you ever do decide to leave Ironwood behind, I’m learning I could really use a bodyguard I can trust.”

“I’m flattered,” Athena replied, “or I will be once I can swing a sword again. It’d be an honor, actually. I’m somewhat tempted, but I don’t want to abandon Ironwood. Jacob and his father took a chance on me when no one else would, and I can’t just walk away from that.”

“Fair enough,” Laranna returned. “But I am quite serious. If you ever change your mind, just knock on my door. The invitation’s open. Whether you just want to visit or plan to stay, you’ll always be welcome in Northspire.”

“Thank you,” Athena said, “but I have to admit I’d feel a little self-conscious about that. You are my friend, and I treasure that, but things can change, and I’d want you to be sure. After all, it’s only a couple weeks back that you said the same to Jacob.”

At the the pain that entered Laranna’s pale eyes, Athena continued quickly. “I’m sorry, that was careless. I don’t blame you for that, though I hate to see him hurt. Have you and he talked qt all since?”

“Yes,” Laranna replied slowly. “We have, earlier this morning even, though I fear we made a mess of that too. We were pleasant to each other, and said our early goodbyes, but it was terrifically uncomfortable. I still figure that if a man is willing to face down the nation of Sarronen and kill a self-proclaimed God in single combat, he can tell his father and fiance he’s fallen for another woman. At least, if that’s how he really feels about it. And if not, he’s been kind of an ass to me, even if he does keep saving my life. Sorry, I know you’re best friends, but that’s how it feels. Worse, I can’t even tell him, because I really do owe him so insanely much. It’s infuriating.

Also, he just said something to me about not having to worry about Count Talyk anymore, though he refused to explain. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do that, either, since I’m fairly sure the rat keeps trying to kill me.”

Athena shook her head in sad amusement. “That’s Jacob, I’m afraid. For what it’s worth, his feelings for you are genuine, to the extent he can get his own head straight, but he’s never been able to separate himself from his honor. Most of the time, that’s one of my favorite things about him, because in his own way, he’ll never let you down.

But thank you for clearing up where Jacob went last night. I’d wager a silver mark he paid the Count a little visit and scared him pants-less. It must have worked: he came back even more smug than usual. I wish he’d stomped the putrid old wart, but he’s probably right that Talyk won’t dare cross you now.”

“Oh,” Laranna replied in a small voice. “Does that mean I owe for something else too?”

“Yes, damn the man,” the blond woman replied, chuckling. “Though I saved his life more recently than he saved mine, and from what Francis said, you have too.”

“You certainly did! I don’t know about myself. Well, I’ll miss you, anyway,” the raven-haired woman muttered, putting her hand on Athena’s shoulder.

“Me too,” Athena replied, leaning forward to give the slender Lady a pained, awkward, and yet heartfelt embrace.

Jacob tapped his fingers nervously against the arm of his chair. Though he had blithely assured his brother this was a good idea, he found himself more than a little anxious as the moment approached. The shadows outside were growing long, and he felt the need to move, to leave this dim office for the practice yard, or just for the gentle heat of the afternoon. Instead, he waited, appetite for conversation long gone dry.

Erik, sensing his restlessness, only laughed. “You wanted to do this, Jacob.”

Jacob shook his head. “We have to do this, Erik, but I still don’t know how it will go. They’ve avoided the trade sessions, but that could mean anything, good or bad. It’s made it a little hard to focus on flax, grain and beans.”

“Perhaps,” Erik added, “but you always hated haggling over pennies a ton, and I have never seen you do it better. Even Father would be proud: I know I am. You’ve changed so much, it’s hard to believe you’re still my little brother. It’s a little scary, even if I still drove a better deal on the spices.”

“I hope not too scary,” Jacob responded quietly, carefully examining a scuff mark on the arm of his chair.

Erik put his arm on his brother’s shoulder. “No, Jacob. You were given dangerous gifts, and I know you’ve had to kill. But you’re my brother, and a good man. More importantly, you’ve grown. You used to spend all your time running off and playing jokes, and then drinking and practicing in the yard. Now you’re being careful, responsible, and focused. It’s a good thing, but it’s a big change.”

Jacob held up a hand, “Enough! Thank you, but it seems I’m not the only one. I don’t think I’ve heard that many compliments from you in my life.”

“Well, now that I have to be afraid of you - “, Erik began, then fell into silence at the sound of footsteps, followed by a knock.

The door opened a crack, and Dorbin’s voice came through. “King Haldor of Sarronen, and Prince Halvar are here to see you, my Lord.”

“Let them in,” the heir to Ironwood replied, and stood. ”Welcome, your Majesty. Please, have a seat,” he added, motioning with his hand to the chairs before him. “How can we help you?”

“Thank you for your hospitality,” King Haldor replied, in lightly accented Mirakan. He was a large man, still formidable, though his gut had begun to protrude. The formal robes of his position looked slightly out of place in the small office, but he carried them with an iron dignity only slightly marred by some new, nearly unreadable, discomfort. His voice, however, was officious, completely untouched by concern. Beside him, his son’s face was a hard mask. “Though we regret recent events, and the conflicts they represent, we come in hope of re-establishing peace between our two peoples.”

“Your Majesty,” Erik responded carefully, “peace is not merely the absence of war, but a state of friendship, and more importantly, trust. Very recently, you stole an object from our possession, murdering two good men. You attempted to kill my own brother, and you plotted the very death of our town, all with no declaration of hostility. How can trust be re-established with a nation that has disposed of all honor?”

Haldor grimaced in anger. “We came in search of peace, not insults. We are a strong people, and our warriors outnumber your own by four times, at least. We would not need Innoken’s power to destroy you, if such were our goal. Have a care what you ask for, as you might receive it.”

“It is not in the nature of Ironwood,” Erik replied steadily, “to initiate unprovoked war: we leave that to you. Still, do not think us weak. You have violated our trust by every means possible, and it will not be re-established without a reckoning.”

“We have no need of Ironwood,” Haldor all but sneered, “but hostility is no longer in our interest. If you believe it is in yours, please do continue.”

“What is it that you want of us?” Jacob interjected gently. “You need not have come in person simply to explain that you do not intend to kill us. What proposal do you offer to rebuild trust between us?”

Haldor nodded to his son, who began to speak. “Jacob, though you know I acted under the duress of a God made man, still it wounded my honor to assault you after offering friendship. I wish to apologize for my own actions against both Ironwood and your ally, Travan. I was not personally involved in the theft of the Shield of St. Thomas from Ironwood, but you have my apology and the apology of Sarronen. I fear to ask for forgiveness, but I offer this vow: I will never participate in such treachery again.”

“Thank you,” Jacob spoke sincerely, “Though it will not bring back Timothy or Father Gerrold, it means a great deal to me.”

The King of Sarronen inclined his head at Jacob’s words, then reached behind his head to remove a silver chain from his neck, and hold it before him. Dangling from the chain was a thick golden ring with four small precious stones: one each fashioned from Onyx, Sapphire, Topaz, and Ruby. They were cleverly cut and arranged to form a single rune representing the ruling clan of Sarronen. “I do not know,” Haldor said, “whether you truly believed the words you spoke to Innoken, about your intent to free the men and women of Sarronen from tyranny by those who called themselves Gods, whether that was truly important to you.”

“I did,” replied Jacob, so softly that he could only just be heard. “It was.”

“Then, if you will accept it, I offer you this ring identifying you as a Clan Leader of Sarronen, and a member of my court. We are a strong and independent people, and I do not intend to impose any duties upon you aside from this: that you honorably represent Ironwood to us, and Sarronen to Ironwood. I will choose to trust you, and if you will choose to forgive us, I vow that in the future you will find us trustworthy also. What say you?”

Jacob glanced significantly at his brother, who remarked, “I am told it is the practice, when making peace between clans, to a pay a life-price to the clans of wrongfully killed or injured men. In the name of justice, are you willing to do this for the families of Timothy and Father Gerrold?”

King Haldor nodded slowly, turning his eyes to Lord Erik. “That is acceptable. We will pay the life-price of these wronged men, according to values the Kharshe assign to their stations.”

Jacob’s fingers closed about the chain, and he smiled. “I accept your terms, your Majesty.”

Haldor released the chain, and nodded, an expression of relief finally making its way to his lips, and softening his eyes. Halvar also relaxed visibly, leaning back into his chair. “Very good, Lord Jacob. Also, we in Sarronen do not trust easily, but should you bring a wagon to Sarronen this fall, I believe you will find a much more receptive market than you have come to expect in the past. Based on your time with us, I expect you have some idea what to bring.”

“I believe I do, your Majesty,” Jacob responded with a faint grin. “I look forward to it.”

Haldor responded, mirth making its way to his own face. “Then I thank you both, Lords of Ironwood. You are a credit to your people, and give me hope that, despite the rise of the Sorcerers, we may yet have a future brighter than our past.”

“Dorbin,” Lord Erik called out to the young man waiting outside the door, “Fetch the wine. I believe it is time for a toast.”

Ceann carefully folded his stiff, dry tunic, and placed it in the center of his pack. He then added a pot, a bowl, a mug, utensils, and a growing pile of other miscellaneous items. It was good to have a moment of quiet, away from his friends in the caravan. It was better to be on his way home with them.

The red-headed trader absently knotted a rope around the mouth of the pack and gave it a good tug, considering. Baron Ironwood might well greet him with a promotion, maybe even with an assistant. Maybe Ceann would soon be planning the routes and training that assistant that would replace him, running such affairs from his own office. His parents had seen him earn enough education for that, and the Baron was known to reward those who pleased him with more responsibility, even the lowborn. His only concern was Jacob.

Ceann realized now that he had underestimated the boy from the first day of the quest, if not before. Yes, the lordling had succeeded almost entirely out of luck, but St. Merriman had said that luck was a skill of its own. From reputation ,and what little he had seen, Jacob was supposed to be lazy and presumptuous, a clever boy who ordered others around with hopeful visions unmarred by experience - or reality, for that matter. That was not the man who had made a close ally out of Northspire, killed Innoken, and then somehow largely repaired Ironwood’s relationship with Sarronen. If Jacob hadn’t already been engaged to Anna, he felt sure Earl Northspire would have offered him his daughter’s hand, and she would have warmed to that like a flower in the sun. Maybe Jacob still had fantasies he could get his father to agree with that. Maybe he just wanted in the girl’s skirt. Either fit the evidence, and Lord Jacob’s intentions were hard to read. No, Ceann didn’t really like the man, but he had learned better than to cross him, at least not directly.

Thankfully, Jacob seemed even more willing to let their disagreements lie. He probably wouldn’t criticize Ceann to the Baron. It might reflect badly on him, and he didn’t seem the type to dwell on the past. Especially after he had already gotten his revenge, and made it look effortless. He hadn’t had to say a word to rip Ceann in two: all he had to do was sleep with Athena. And there wasn’t a damned thing Ceann could do about it. He couldn’t even accuse the man without looking like five kinds of fool.

Maybe it was all inevitable. Athena had something of a reputation, and maybe Jacob had saved him from trouble down the road, but it still stung. Well, if he couldn’t get back at Jacob, he could still - quietly - make sure Ironwood knew exactly what kind of woman Athena was. Rumors would pass through the guard so quickly that no-one would know where they came from. And if Jacob’s father heard the tramp was a threat to the happiness of the Baron’s future daughter-in-law, maybe a little of that would splash back on Jacob after all. None of it would come back to Ceann.

Yes, that would be perfect, the merchant decided, and whistled happily as he strapped his pack to his horse. After that, he would be even with the dangerous lordling and the slut, and he could happily put it all behind. Truly, all was well that ended well.

Francis breathed in the spreading crimson from the rising sun, seeping like God’s paint into the gray sky. Glorious. It was on a morning like this that he had set out with the young men and women of Ironwood, though it was warmer now. The world had changed since that day, though few were yet aware of it. His own bag was packed, and his clothing was again that of an itinerant monk, though less ragged, as the Empress had set her handmaiden upon his hair and beard. The food this morning was better too. He accounted himself a fair cook, but there was only so much one could do without a full larder of fresh ingredients. The lamb, fruit, eggs, and fresh biscuits the Empress had offered were beyond marvelous.

She had invited Jacob and himself to meet her this morning, to thank them and tell them goodbye. However, she had left early, called by away affairs of state after little more than pleasantries. She seemed to recognize that magic would play an increasingly important role in the shaping of the World, and was determined to be on good terms with those touched by it. She had always been shrewd.

The young man was even more enchanted with his breakfast than Francis, and seemed entirely diverted by it. It was almost a shame to wrest him from his reverie, yet the Sorcerer could not resist. “So, Jacob, you have done it: all of it. You recovered the Shield of St. Thomas, defeated Innoken, saved Ironwood, and then had the gall to make peace with your enemies. And you have somehow lived to tell the tale. Are you ready to return to a normal life?”

“Yes,” Jacob answered, over a mouthful of eggs, then paused to swallow. “At least, I think so. I couldn’t have done it without you, though, or St. Thomas. I must appear ungrateful, but I assure you that I’m aware of it. I don’t deserve what you’ve given me, and I thank you - for all of it.”

“For my part, you are welcome,” Francis replied in his characteristically musical baritone, voice somehow seeming to echo into lower registers. “Though I must admit a question: how could St. Thomas have touched you so deeply with his power, when you are so critical of Heaven? The power of the spirit is one of influence and persuasion over reality. He, and I, should not have been able to accomplish anything in you without your trust.”

“But I do trust you, implicitly,” Jacob replied, letting warmth into his deep brown eyes. “And St. Thomas is always described, despite his honor and loyalty, as a kind of maverick. Though he moved to Ironwood to escape humanity, his heart would not let him abandon the men and women who followed him there, and he watches over it still. When Serren attacked me, I was over-matched, and I needed help no man could provide. In that moment, I knew St. Thomas, despite his promises to Heaven, would help me. So yes, I trusted him with my life. I still do. After all, we love many of the same things, most especially Ironwood.

Speaking of Ironwood, please let him know how grateful I am that he is allowing us to take the Shield back home. I’m sure it would be useful to you, wherever you are going.”

“I will, and again, you are welcome. Ironwood is where the Shield belongs. I do believe you will take good care of it.”

“And you, my friend?” Jacob asked, before taking another great bite of beautifully spiced eggs.

The Sorcerer grinned broadly. “It is time to visit my monastery, and there bid my old life goodbye. The Empress and Count Northspire have offered me permission to build a small church in Travan’s borders, and gather there those who are willing to follow. Like Vallaton, Heaven intends to build an outpost in the World, but ours will be different. We will not seek power or broad territory, but will denounce violence. Instead, we will offer wisdom, healing, and refuge to our host countries. It is is our hope that this will prove effective, in the long run, for nurturing the beauty of this world, and the spirits within it. It is for this that we forged the Compact, and made peace with Vallaton. I only hope it will work as well as we envisioned. It is difficult not to intervene in the conflicts of the world, as you know. I can only hope that men like you will rise and do it better than we could.”

“I don’t know if I can agree with that,” Jacob replied sadly, “but I do respect it. Does that explain breakfast with the Empress, then?”

Francis stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Partially, though there is a longer story behind that, and the Empress lays her own plans. That reminds me: did you make up with Laranna before she left?”

“Not exactly,” Jacob shrugged. “I can’t quite figure her out, but it seems as though I have committed some wrong she can’t forgive. Athena has gotten quite friendly with her, but she only laughs at me when I ask what’s going on. Beyond that, I still have to go back and figure out how to face Anna and my father. I’m not sure how well I will fit in that world anymore. I feel so strange, now that I have time to think about all that has happened. But back at home, I don’t think anything much has changed.”

“When you do figure out the minds of women, please let me know. For the rest, I have no doubt that your old problems will seem small in the light of your new confidence,” Francis said reassuringly. “But my hour has come, and I must go. Farewell, Jacob. I do not know if our paths will cross again, but it has been a great honor and pleasure to get to know you.”

“Likewise,” Jacob replied, though a lump rose in his throat. Briefly, he embraced his friend, and then it was time to go home.

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