By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Worn Welcomes

Jacob awoke the next morning with a groan, muscles and bruises screaming. Luckily, he had switched early in the evening to a milder juice, and his head was only slightly wooden, and not from the wine. He was less sure of Athena; several men had been trying to ply her with drink. Thankfully, there was some recovery time before the tournament started again late in the morning. In the meantime, Jacob had a number of things to talk about.

Ceann wasn’t meeting his eyes at the moment. Between Jacob’s “irresponsibility” in competing, and his adviser’s lack of invitation to the Prince’s gathering the previous evening, the man was not pleased with Jacob, not at all. Meanwhile, Athena wasn’t yet ready to be good conversation, and she was sitting with the red-head, anyway. So Jacob sat with both Francis and Daniel, who were enjoying the breakfast their hosts has graciously provided.

Brother Francis was engaged in praising the food. “So how many varieties of nuts and local spices they’ve used in the mix? You cannot find these west or east, and they go surprisingly well with the eggs: this is a meal to put one on one’s feet!”

Jacob paused to swallow. “I’m certainly not complaining. At least, not about this. Daniel, are you sure you’ve seen no one you recognize?”

The boy shook his head. “No one, Jacob. I could spot a pimple on a hawk’s ear in flight, and I’ll never forget their faces. They weren’t on the field. I won’t swear they weren’t in the audience, though: I did not have time to check every face. It was too crowded to be sure.”

Jacob sighed. “There’s nothing to do but keep looking, then. Unless you have any better ideas?”

Brother Francis responded thoughtfully, “No. I was able to pick up a little, yesterday. I am confident now that the Shield entered Sarronen from the West Gate, but I’ve heard nothing about it leaving. No one has been trying to sell it publicly, and no one seems to have been bragging about having it. I trust such news would travel. The thieves themselves are our best chance, and we have evidence they were accomplished warriors. That means they will likely compete in the tournament. If not, they will be conspicuous to the locals by their absence. Daniel needs to be at the stadium, and he will need me there in case he finds the murderers, and there is a confrontation.”

“Should I be with you?” Jacob asked.

The monk shook his head. “No, backing out in the middle the tournament would be disrespectful. I was also hoping that you could use the respect you’ve earned to listen among the warriors and nobility you’ve met since. Did you learn anything last night?”

Jacob returned a rueful half-smile. “Not much. I’ve learned that women here are more, let us call it confident, than in Margon. It seems, Daniel, that your admirer Anginette’s behavior was not so atypical. But regarding the Shield? Halvar hadn’t heard of it until I asked him. He knew we were looking for some thieves, but not what they stole. His father apparently hasn’t asked around very far for us, which is concerning.”

The sandy-haired monk gave Jacob an uncharacteristic frown. “Very. I would expect him to share our quest freely, unless he knows something he does not want us to discover. If King Haldor is involved, our chances of recovering the Shield alive are very slim. I trust Sarronen hospitality until we leave, for once offered, honoring hospitality is sacred to them. But if the King is involved, he is too shrewed to act without cause. No such cause could be good for Ironwood.”

After a short, uncomfortable silence, Daniel changed the subject. “Forward women, Jacob? Does Anna have cause to worry?”

Grateful for the distraction, Jacob grinned. “Confident doesn’t mean desperate: quite the opposite. No one took a serious interest in me, but there was a very pretty woman asking about Ironwood who was not shy about putting her hand on my arm, and no one thought a thing of it except for Athena, who knew me well enough to laugh. We probably have more to worry about with her. Some of the fighting men we ran into made their interest in her very plain. Happily, she can take care of herself.”

Daniel blushed, but Athena called out from across the room, “Don’t you forget it!”

Jacob pursed his lips, then added. “How’s your head feeling this morning?”

Athena grunted. “Don’t make me come over there and kick your arse.”

Ceann added helpfully, “I’m available if you need any help.”

Athena rounded on him just as swiftly. “I said I can take care of myself!”

Jacob kept his laugher as quiet as he could, out of concern for Athena’s headache, of course. “In that case, I think I’ll head into the market. Maybe I can trade in on my newfound fame to get through to some of those merchants who didn’t want to deal with an outsider yesterday.”

“Knock yourself out then, Jacob” Athena replied, hand still on her head. “Please.”

Halvar nodded gratefully to Mala, a Kynzri with a bright smile, and drank deeply of the pale fruit juice he had been offered. Throughout the broad hall around him rose the boisterous laughter of friends and clansmen breaking their fast, those Halvar had invited to stay the night. Many had weathered the first stage of the tournament to compete today, and were trading boasts of the victories they would earn. The tall prince spared an sympathetic smile for some of the others, but kept his silence for now. The faint pressure behind his temples and the weight at the top of his skull were already fading. By midday, they would surely be gone entirely. That was good, because the competition this afternoon would be fierce; he might even face his new westerner friend in the sands, and wouldn’t that be interesting?

Lord Jacob was good, much better than he expected. His style was different anything seen in Sarronen before, though, and that made his true skill hard to estimate: likely his success sprung from surprise. He did seem to depend on provoking his opponents, though, and that was a weakness. If Halvar faced the him today, he would control the fight and ignore Jacob’s pinpricks. Unless the westerner was even quicker than he looked, Halvar could force him into a short and brutal duel where he had the advantage. Victory wouldn’t be guaranteed, of course, but then, it never was. All you could count on was the thrill of the fight, and the stakes of the game, and those were high. There was much respect to be won or lost in the Tournament, even for a prince. Unfortunately, the prince’s recent covert actions had left him little time to train, not that he had any real regrets. If diplomatic missions, spying, raids, or even “rescuing” maidens were the price of being chosen heir to the throne, he was willing to pay. It was always an honor to serve his clan, even if not all his duties were pleasant.

Halvar had to admit to himself, though, that he did enjoy watching over the foreigners. They were stronger, truer, and much more pleasant than he expected of coin-counters, especially Jacob and the woman Athena. Halvar’s friends had been warming towards the pair, and even thanked him for inviting them to the party last night. No doubt they enjoyed watching grown warriors blush with Margon prudishness, but both guests were becoming unexpectedly popular. In fact, Halvar saw something of himself in Jacob. The man was too honorable, too capable, and too genuine not to like. Perhaps it was a little strange to find actual friendship with a man from Ironwood, but he didn’t regret that, either. And who could not enjoy the company of such an open and capable woman as Athena?

Halvar even liked Laranna. It didn’t hurt that she was pretty, but he had to respect her strength and self-sufficiency alone outside of Travan. She hadn’t entirely dispelled the cold reputation of Travanian women, but what could he expect of someone who was brought and kept here against her will? He knew a moment of guilt about that, but he hadn’t exactly had any choice. It was natural that had chilled their relationship, despite her gratitude at being delivered from the Kulls. Yet she was always thoughtful and polite, for which he was thankful. Halvar’s friends had been resentful when he spurned them to entertain first the Travanian Lady and then the other foreigners, but he could live with that. It helped to remind them who and what he was. Yet it was much better for his reputation that the guests made themselves worthy of praise. After all, a prince needed to maintain that reputation for the clan chiefs to confirm him as king.

Halvar had always known, since he was young, that he was destined to wield power. While the Stonebeard clan was large, and his several brothers and cousins were also eligible for the throne, Halvar never doubted he would someday lead his clan, and would likely become King. Not only was Halvar the oldest and strongest of them, but he exceeded the others in the martial arts, and had the temperament best suited to command. When he had been twelve, his father, the King, had begun to share his mind on the matters of the world and of power. Sarronen’s chiefs and shamans had followed the King’s lead in selecting Halvar his heir-presumptive. Since that day, the young prince had been educated in depth about his people, and his father’s plans for Sarronen’s peaceful rise.

Yet while Halvar had over the years fulfilled the promise of his youth, his father’s plans had changed. Years ago, King Haldor had taught his son to respect his neighbors to the east and west, and to consider diplomacy a more subtle and precise power than violence. In a land born of war, he had taught the value of peace as a source of strenth. To that end, Haldor had carefully fostered the friendship of Ironwood and the Kulls, and used them to forestall the advance of Travan, thereby offering room for Sarronen to grow in population, industry, influence, and might. Eventually, possibly even in Halvar’s lifetime, Sarronen might be capable of facing Travan on more even terms, whether that meant open trade or war. Until then, Sarronen would hoard its strength, and reach towards prosperity. By every measure Halvar could see, that approach was working.

However, Innoken had other ideas, and lately the King was listening. For a shaman to dictate to his King should be unthinkable, but this was Innnoken, and he was a law unto himself. It wasn’t always so: in his youth, he had nearly been lamed by a wasting sickness. Even after recovering, he had been an unremarkable fighter. Instead, he had turned instead to religion and law, to the judgment of souls, and the inspiration of men. He became a shaman of the Fire God Shakath, who had been nearly abandoned a century ago when a fire cult led a disastrous attack against Travan in his name. However, Innoken railed that as Sarronen’s power grew, its neighbors failed to properly respect it. A powerful people demanded strength of themselves, and respect from others. He was as quick to praise his friends as to excoriate his enemies, and he soon built a loud and powerful following. He had never been a likable person, but he was a master manipulator, and an effective motivator. What he failed early to accomplish for himself, he did through his students, at least those who could both meet his standards and stomach working with him. Those became the most powerful orators, the fiercest warriors, and the most dangerous political adversaries among the clans of Sarronen: men loyal to him, who would succeed by any and all means necessary.

Naturally, Innoken’s ambitious and aggressive nature gained him more enemies than friends. Several years back, when the shaman was in his mid-thirties, the clan chieftains attempted to contain Innoken’s influence by mocking his own skills as a warrior. In response, Innoken entered his first tournament, and won handily, though none could say when he had gained the necessary speed and power. He claimed only that his God had blessed him with victory, a phenomenon straight out of legend, and yet no one could argue with his achievements. In fact, few dared argue with him at all, for he made sure to repay those who did. After three straight victories in sword, spear, and bow, Innoken retired from competition, in order to focus entirely on his vocation: shaming Sarronen into greatness.

Halvar wasn’t sure when Innoken became his father’s unofficial chief adviser, but the public announcement was made five years ago, when the King renounced service to Akhor in favor of the fire God Shakath, winning Innoken’s support. Since then, the shaman had made clear his disdain for all but the sons of Kharshe, and the kingdom had followed his example. King Haldor still gave lip service to openness and tolerance of other nations, but he did not scold Innoken or his men when they failed to demonstrate it. Instead, he spoke of Sarronen’s growing might, and of the need for other nations to show it proper respect.

More recently, the King began sending his sons on patrols to the east. Halvar had spent months raiding there, sowing dissent between Kullen and Travan. Laranna’s presence represented an escalation of that strategy, though, and that worried him. His father had included him in his short-term plans still, but was becoming vague about the future, and flatly refused to explain Innoken’s role in his vision.

Halvar was proud to serve, but he had to wonder if Haldor had changed his mind about Sarronen’s peaceful rise, or whether his actions were all to gain leverage against Travan. Innoken’s influence was concerning, too, of course. The Shaman might be cunning, but disdain of Travan was dangerous. After all, hadn’t followers of the fire God led thousands to their deaths a century ago? Meanwhile, the Empire hadn’t lost a war since the Conquest of Miraka! Still, the King was as clever and capable as he ever had been, and he was adamant in his strategies. As long as he trusted Innoken, there was nothing for Halvar to do but obey them both, and put what faith in them that he could.

Besides, there would be time. Whatever his father was planning had been decades in the making, and surely would continue for years to come. When the time came, his father could adapt to Travan’s behavior as appropriate. Then, perhaps, the anger Innoken had inflamed in his people would pass, and Halvar would have the father of his youth. At that thought, the prince had to resist physically shaking his head. No, today, he had a tournament to win, and that was that.

Jacob wiped his brow as he staggered from the sand and plopped down on the bench, trying not to gasp for breath. The once-pleasant warmth of the day was baking him in his armor. He was doused in sweat, and every muscle cried out for reprieve, including, he swore, brand new ones that only introduced themselves to torture him. Still, he was victorious, for the fourth time today. Not for the last time time, Jacob cursed the lack of proper brackets: the whole tournament could have been completed with no more than eight fights for the victor. The combats were taking their toll, and today each opponent was more skilled than the last. Jacob was exhausted. He turned to his right to see if Prince Halvar was as worn as he was, for the warrior had been assigned to the same circle as he.

The prince caught his eyes and asked the question first, “How are you holding up, Jacob?”

“Fine, just fine,” Jacob answered, forcing a relaxed grin that fooled no one.

“Eight fights in two days is a hard schedule for anyone, under these rules. There’s no shame in denying it,” Halvar offered.

“I suppose I could use a breather,” Jacob admitted, “but you should see the other guy. Atually, I suppose you did. Yourself?”

“Oh, I’m just getting started. I’ve been training for this all my life, and I’ve only had two fights today,” Halvar answered confidently.

Jacob examined the Sarronen carefully and saw the fatigue in his eyes, the slight strain in his face, and his carefully managed posture. He might not be nearly as worn as Jacob, but he was not immune to the grueling nature of combat in armor, either. Of course, he would never admit it. That was the language of warriors everywhere, as far as Jacob knew.

“Then Sarronen training has my full respect,” Jacob answered. “I caught your last bout, and you have a swing that would fell an Ox. You’ve been so kind to me, it’ll almost be a shame to face you.”

Halvar rose to the bait with good humor, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’ll be over soon.”

Jacob shook his head with mock sadness. “I know you’re hardly warmed up, but you should give yourself a little more credit.” Jacob had never seen a clansman roll his eyes before, but Halvar showed that he was familiar with the expression. Jacob couldn’t help but like the man.

“Right, I’ll work on that,” the prince replied dryly. “Speaking of confidence, it looks like Athena is fighting again. This should be a good one: Erdan is as tough as he is big.”

Jacob turned to follow the other man’s eyes and saw Athena facing a veritable giant of a man. Her schedule had been as wearying as his, and the merchant’s heart went out to her. She would have to outmaneuver her opponent, for her typical direct approach was not going to work against someone so much larger than she was. Athena’s footwork was capable, but keeping it up was going to be hard, this late in the day.

The huntress started the round with a roar, though, charging in as if Erdan’s size meant nothing. However, when the giant swung at her, she wasn’t there. Instead, she hacked at the man’s knee, and was rewarded with a curse. She moved like angelfire or a will o’ the wisp, dancing around him with a speed that would have done Jacob proud, sword licking in to strike hand, shoulder, knee, or thigh. But it was not to be an easy battle: Jacob could see already that she was breathing hard.

Halvar shook his head, “Erdan is tough. She’s go the right approach, but she’s tiring too quickly. He’s big enough to ride this out. See - he’s almost letting her hit him, but he’s spacing himself, waiting for the time to strike.”

Jacob only nodded, waiting. After several misses, Erdan delivered a crushing blow to the chest, knocking the wind form her, with a thud that could be heard across the field. Erdan’s next strike nearly split her shield, and still he kept coming. The crunch of his sword when it met her shoulder was almost sickening, and Jacob winced. “I’m not sure what would be worse, watching this or going up against the man myself.”

Halvar visibly ducked along with Athena as she avoided Erdan’s killing stroke and began a dizzying counter-attack, striking the larger man hard enough that he held his sword hand against his ribs, staggering. But it was only moments before he stabilized and threw her back with his shield. “I’m not sure, either, and I’ve done both.”

“Did you win?” Jacob asked.

“Of course,” Halvar replied. At Jacob’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “Erdan’s a predictable fighter once you’ve gone up against him a few times, and it’s been a year and half since he’s beat me last. He did pummel me a couple times first.”

Athena continued her counter-attack, but she was slowing. The Sarronen giant interrupted her flurry with a wicked backhand, and Athena went to her knees, propping herself up with her shield. Erdan too paused, hand on his hips as he caught his breath. Then he came at her again. Athena stood just in time, using sword and shield to block and parry, block and parry, but she was pushed back, completely on the defensive. Both fighters were slowing now, and each swing was an individual event, the beat of metal on metal erratic when before it had played a quick march.

Jacob held his breath, waiting for the counterattack that would make or break the fight. “One more good round of attacks, that’s all she has left,” he whispered. “Let’s hope it’s enough.”

Sure enough, Athena’s lethargy disappeared, and she flew at the giant before her with a last burst of energy. She abandoned her earlier finesse, and swung at him like an angry lumberjack chopping wood. The ferocity of her onslaught drove the larger man back, and overwhelmed his guard, leaving him reeling. Strike after strike landed, leaving gashes in his armor, and starting to draw blood as the chain rings cut into his skin.

It wasn’t enough. The giant of a man finally shrugged her off, and clubbed her down with a great forward swing, leaving Athena again on her knees. His backstroke put her face-forward in the dirt, ending the match. Erdan dropped sword and dented shield to the dust. He put his hands on his knees and bent over, heaving big gaping breaths from his bloodied torso. Athena did not rise.

“Come on,” Halvar said heavily. “Let’s go get her.”

Both men jogged over to the fallen woman, then stopped before her, uncertain. Jacob knelt to check her, but then Athena groaned, and rolled on to her back. “Shit,” she muttered, opening her eyes and meeting Jacob’s. “Blasted tree fell on me, I think.”

“Let’s get you up,” Jacob said, taking in her bloody armor and dirt-smeared pants and overshirt.

“I got it, I got it,” Athena mouthed irritably, making it all the way to a sitting position before falling on her back again. “Or not. Shit.”

Jacob gave Halvar a look, then took Athena’s hand, and pulled her to her feet. With Halvar on one side, and Jacob on the other, they walked back to a fighter’s pit on the side of the stadium, and to the waiting benches. Though Athena let the men stabilize her, she soon recovered her legs, and limped quietly to her seat, deaf to the applause and men calling her name.

“Please tell me,” she said, once they lowered her to the bench, “why I thought this was a good idea.”

“Somehow,” Jacob said, “you didn’t seem to think you would lose.”

Athena met his eyes irritably. “Yeah, maybe not. Your turn’s coming up soon, I think.”

Jacob nodded in agreement. “Yes, it is.”

Halvar’s eyes crinkled in something mixing mirth and respect as he regarded Jacob. “And you’re alright with that?”

Jacob nodded in response. “If you fight long enough, you will always lose eventually.”

“Idiot,” Athena muttered.

As luck or planning would have it, the last fight of the day was between Jacob and Halvar, and the other circles that would have held simultaneous duels were emptied, as the two stood to face. Jacob wondered if Halvar had asked to face him before Jacob was eliminated. If so, he would come to regret it.

Both warriors were quiet in the moments leading up to the fight, offering only a couple words to each other before they walked to the edge of the dueling circles and gave their salutes. The air was unnaturally still as they stood across from each other, arms at the ready. The cheers and applause had been loud when the match was announced, but had long since faded into silent anticipation. Halvar was not the top ranked-fighter: that honor belonged to one of Innoken’s favorites. Nor was he in last fall’s top five, in part due to a sprained wrist he had obtained during the tournament. But he was skilled enough, and popular enough, to carry the honor of Sarronen this day, and the crowd felt the weight of it. Halvar had to win.

Laranna and Brother Francis watched anxiously from the Stranger’s section, and Daniel fidgeted as if he would prefer to pace. Only Ceann seemed calm, but Laranna was no longer certain whether the red-haired merchant even wanted Jacob to win. There was a story there, but Laranna was in no position to ask for it. She suspected Daniel had been right yesterday, that Ceann was jealous of Jacob somehow, but the why escaped her.

She pushed the riddle to the back of her mind as she saw Halvar approach the western nobleman. The others expected her to cheer the man who freed her from her Kull kidnappers, but then, they didn’t know her secret. She could not speak it, or even think it safely, not yet. So Laranna called out the prince’s name when he advanced, and when he pushed the attack. She could not entirely suppress a grin when Jacob gained a hit, but she hoped her companions took that as a grudging appreciation of the opposition. The truth was that she wanted Jacob to win, and she was entirely undivided on the issue. Only her eyes bespoke the lie.

Down below, Jacob handled Halvar’s feint expertly, following it with his gaze, and punishing it with his own sword. Superb. The shadows were growing long, and Jacob had to be tired, but he was the very spirit of economy of motion. He was elegance, dancing in and out of his opponent’s reach only where necessary, leaving the thinnest of margins, but he made it look so easy. There was no strain, no flurry of motion betraying frantic gasps of energy. He only sliced, almost absently, at any limb that left itself in harm’s way. She was no great critic of swordplay, but the beauty of it moved her, even more so after the increasing savagery that the other fatigued fighters had begun to show. Halvar clearly knew what Jacob was about, for he tried to brush off Jacob’s quick strokes and push through to overwhelm him. It did no good, as Jacob was simply too quick on his feet to let himself be trapped. While the prince chased him around the ring, Jacob left only counter-attacks behind, without losing a step in the dance.

Laranna reminded herself that she did not know the man from Ironwood, could not trust him, and that any personal beauty of his was none of her business. It was not a difficult task, though she felt the familiar loneliness that came with the reminder. It was only a handful of handsome, charming men that had sought her out for her inheritance, only a few that she had discovered secretly despised the odd bookworm of a woman who came with it. But that had been enough to break her heart thoroughly. If she still felt hollow, still wanted too much to reach out to a friendly hand, her will was sufficient to hide the urge. It was safe enough, however, to follow Jacob’s fluid movements, and hope he ground his opponent into dust.

As she watched, Jacob turned aside another overhead chop; a flick of his wrist left another bruise in the prince’s side, and wrought another groan from the crowd. There had been few cheers from the crowd in this fight. Halvar seemed to get the better of Jacob for a moment, pushing him back, but even that turned out to be a ruse, a chance for Jacob to batter the Sarronen’s arm, leaving Halvar’s shield limp.

Laranna held her breath, but her heart began to soar. Brother Francis commented softly for her ears, “I’m sorry, my dear. Halvar is a solid warrior, but he has no chance in this match. None at all. I have never seen Jacob fight like this.”

“It is not yet over,” she replied carefully, “but I fear you have the right of it. The Prince must be very careful now, with his shield arm injured.”

It was over almost too quickly, for Jacob repeated his feat with Halvar’s right arm, leaving the man almost disabled. After a sharp rap on the forearm, the Sarronen nearly lost his sword entirely. He was utterly unable to block the shield bash to the short ribs that left him breathless and nearly unable to stand. Jacob then had pity and stepped inside of Halvar’s guard, using a hip throw to send the man sprawling, then placed the point of his weapon on his opponent’s chest.

Laranna somehow managed to hold her face impassive as Halvar yielded. Jacob saluted the prone warrior before helping him to his feet, and then backed quietly to the fighter’s pit as Halvar’s friends came to claim him and offer consolation. Simply superb. “Well done, Ironwood,” she finally said aloud, gaining a a shrewd glance from the monk.

After the others returned Laranna to the care of Halvar’s men, Athena joined them back at the guest house for dinner. She nursed a flagon of excellent wine as she watched Brother Francis and Jacob fuss over the sizzling chunks of meat. On the way back, they had found a butcher well-stocked with freshly slaughtered lamb, and the aroma from the fire was heavenly. Athena was so hungry, she could haven eaten the lamb raw, much less the the fresh vegetables or still-cooling bread meant to accompany it. She would wait a few minutes longer, though, and eat with her friends. But anyone who attempted to separate her from her wine would have a fight on his hands.

Everything hurt. She had bruises on her bruises, pulled muscles in her thigh, and what felt like a sprained wrist. Even so, losing, being eliminated from the tournament: that hurt more. Tomorrow she would watch as Jacob entered the final stages of the tournament. The top five competitors from last season would be added to the twenty or so remaining from today. That meant perhaps another five “rounds” of competition, if the tournament were properly organized. Of course, if had been, Athena would only have fought two or three times so far instead of six, so that was something. But tomorrow, it would go on without her. And though after today’s beating, Athena felt in no shape to wield a weapon, it was always hard to see a thing and not be part of it. She was happy for Jacob’s success, but a little piece in the back of her mind was already jealous of his ability to be “in it” when she could not.

Ceann’s greeting was a welcome interruption to her thoughts. “Hi, Athena. How are you feeling?”

Athena met his eyes. Ceann had beautiful eyes, blue and gold gemstones that sparkled in her presence, even when she couldn’t sparkle back. “Like there’s not enough wine in the whole world to make losing easy. No, that’s wrong. Maybe there’s just not enough wine in my cup.”

Those warm eyes crinkled tolerantly. “You fought well today, though. You should be proud.”

Athena shrugged uncomfortably. “Not well enough. If I had three more chances against that giant, I would have lost three more times.”

“Even if that were your first full contact bout instead of the sixth in two days? You have to stay ahead of a big guy like that, and that wears you down fast. Keep in mind that was only his second fight. It seemed like the crowd favorites got more matches, too, not fewer. No one can stand up to that kind of punishment forever.”

Athena relented. “I knew there was a reason I liked you, Ceann. I just thought it was your pretty face.”

“Any part you like best? I’m willing to share,” Ceann teased.

Athena gave him the best come-hither look she could muster, given her fatigue. “Fetch me another cup of wine, and we’ll talk.”

“I can do that,” Ceann replied, and took her cup, heading across the room. Now, that was a good man.

Seeing a pause in the conversation, Daniel took a seat beside her. “How are you holding up?” he asked.

“Tolerably,” she answered. “See anything today?”

“No,” Daniel replied. “It’s pretty discouraging. If the man we’re looking for isn’t in the final five, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

She sighed and rubbed her temples, then nodded thanks as Ceann returned and passed her a flagon. “Start asking if anyone notable didn’t show for the tournament, I guess. That’s really Jacob’s headache, so talk to him if you haven’t already. But I still think we were right: they’ll be there tomorrow. And I’ll be there with you this time, assuming I sleep well enough tonight.”

Ceann asked tentatively, “Are you sure about this? The people you overheard could have been wrong.”

Athena paused, then smiled confidently. “I’m sure. Ceann, Daniel and I heard men who knew who the thieves were, though they would never tell us, and those men were afraid. It makes sense: if you had the means, you’d send the best on a mission like that. Whoever shows tomorrow will be the best.”

Ceann’s forehead wrinkled with his reply, “I hope you’re right: I think. I’m a bit nervous about who would have the means to send Sarronen’s best.”

The silence continued until Jacob and Francis returned with dinner. It was the best thing Athena had ever tasted.

Athena gazed out absently at the stadium, waiting for the final session of the tournament of the sword to begin. The breeze remained pleasant, and the sky was clear and bright: too bright for her pounding head. Ceann sat silently by her side, bless him. There was a lot to be said for a man who knew when to talk, and when not to.

To her right, Daniel was making himself red-eyed, trying to identify every soul in the stadium. Occasionally he and Laranna would speak about some little nothing. Laranna was still showing her cheerful mask; Athena had no idea what was underneath, and not much interest in unveiling it. Meanwhile, Halvar and Brother Francis were chatting away, about Travan, about Sarronen, and about Jacob’s chances. The prince seemed remarkably sanguine about yesterday’s loss, and was even kind enough to remain here with Laranna, though he must be missed elsewhere. But as for his conversation, it was all guesswork: Athena would wait. Down below, Jacob was surrounded by Sarronen warriors, and occasionally they shared some pleasantry, or one would pat another on the back. Yet for some reason, he looked as alone as she felt.

Athena had sat waiting with the others for hours. Showing up early had been a good choice. The stadium was stacked like wheat after the harvest, overfull and laden with anticipation. And why not? Today was the climax of Sarronen’s great sporting event. The best of its fighters were here, and Jacob. Had such a thing ever happened before?

Athena was almost surprised when the trumpet blew, but Jacob was not to participate in the first round of fights. In fact, there seemed to be one of the newcomers, last season’s champions, in every ring. They each seemed to be winning. They were deadly fighters, every one. Even Brother Francis seemed unsure how Jacob would fare against some of them. However, one fighter with a red emblem on his sleeve outshone all the rest; his speed and strength were almost unnatural. Looking over her shoulder, she caught Daniel watching the same man.

“Prince Halvar,” the boy blurted out, his voice strange, “who is that fighter there? The one with the red emblem.”

The clansman paused, shielding his eyes from the sun as he followed Daniel’s finger. “Ah, that is Serren. He won last season’s championship, and will surely take this one. His skill has grown steadily in the past year: lately, he is unstoppable.”

Brother Francis frowned, examining the fighter. “He takes the emblem of the Fire God, and serves him well, it seems. His lord must know himself blessed.”

“Hmmm?” Halvar noted absently, watching the fight. “He’s Innoken’s man. I believe you met Innoken. He is the Chief Shaman of the city, and speaks for the Fire God in Sarronen.”

“Francis, that’s - ”, Daniel began, but Francis put a hand on his arm and interrupted. “Incredible? Yes, that he is. He is a credit to Sarronen.”

Halvar nodded politely, and returned to watching the fight. Daniel, however, swallowed, and fell to a pale silence. Athena was a little frightened herself. Innoken was the right-hand man of the King. There was no way anyone from Ironwood was bringing the Shield of St. Thomas back now. The results of the tournament no longer seemed important. But there was nothing else to do now, and nothing to say, so she continued to watch. She wondered how Jacob would react, and what in Heaven’s name would happen next.

An hour passed, then another, as the heat of the day continued to rise. Athena had taken some satisfaction in watching Jacob dismantle the giant who had left her still limping today. Given the chance to rest, he had systematically worn Erdan down. The huge man had the greater range, but Jacob made him look clumsy trying to use it, continually stepping just inside, just outside, or just under the man’s jabs and swings. Then Jacob would lazily whack an arm, a hand, a knee, and so on. Eventually, Jacob switched to a full-on attack on the leg just above the knee, making the larger man crumple. Jacob should be winded and covered with sweat after all his fancy footwork in full armor, but the bastard made it look effortless, at least at this distance.

But now here he was, in his second fight of the day, standing across from Serren. Suddenly Athena realized: this was it, the best chance Jacob would ever have for revenge against Timothy’s killer. She found herself praying for Jacob to take his head off. “Kill him, Jacob!” she yelled. Laranna gave her a distasteful look, but she didn’t care. She wanted the demon-damned fighter dead.

For Jacob, however, this was just another fight. He saluted the Sarronen respectfully, and was met with a sneer. For a long while, the two looked at each other, and then Jacob approached, feinting. Serren ignored the feint. Athena watched as Jacob cocked his head, then began his exploratory strikes, trying to coax Serren into a mistake.

Serren was having none of it. He reacted to nothing, except at the last possible fraction of a second, then batted Jacob’s weapon away, laughing. This continued for minutes, with Jacob pushing harder, and finding no weakness. Finally, when it seemed even Jacob’s enduring patience must finally end, Serren flew into a fury of motion, too quick for the eye to discern. Jacob moved as fast she had ever seen him, desperately deflecting sword and shield, giving up ground, and being pushed around the ring. Serren, rather than tiring, continued to increase his speed until Jacob’s guard began to leak, and sword strikes flowed onto him like water, covering him, weighing him down. Within moments, Jacob sank to one knee, his shield reduced to ribbons, and raised his hand in surrender. It was over. Jacob had been not just beaten, but utterly overwhelmed. Serren laughed, and spit on the ground before him. “Next,” he announced audibly.

The folks from Ironwood stood in stunned silence at the incredible display: no human could possibly be that fast. But any hint of surprise from the audience was overwhelmed by the roar of approval. Among the foreigners, Brother Francis was the first to speak. “Who will come with me to fetch Jacob?”

Athena, still aching everywhere, struggled to her feet. Daniel started to stand, until he realized that letting Serren recognize him might not be the best of ideas. Halvar and Laranna glanced at one another, then remained seated. The monk nodded in response, and said, “Let’s go.”

A way opened in the thick crowd as the pair went down to the field. Luckily, they were in good seats, and it was only moments before they could reach Jacob, and pull him to his feet. Jacob’s face was nearly as battered as his body, and his lip was split: Serren’s flurry of attacks was so quick and controlled as to allow him to bash Jacob’s face without dropping him. Athena did not know whether to be impressed or appalled.

Serren wasn’t done, however, but laughed out loud again at Jacob. “Uncomfortable? This is just the beginning. You are as weak as all who follow your pathetic false God.”

Uncharacteristically, Brother Francis straightened and met the zealot’s expression with his own eyes blazing. “Mind yourself: some of those who follow our God are capable of defending his honor.”

Serren laughed again. “Is that a challenge? Close your mouth or take up a sword! Do you need to borrow armor to face me, or will you die where you stand?”

The monk replied, his melodious voice silk over steel, “I need no armor or shield.” He turned to face the referee by the side of the circle, “Will you allow this challenge?”

The referee at the head of the circle shrugged uncomfortably, but did not answer.

From the stands, a voice called out, clearly audible, “You may allow it. If the monk accepts, we will witness this contest. Dueling rules: all strikes are legal, and they fight until surrender or death.”

Brother Francis looked up to see Innoken staring down, arms folded, face solemn. He gently let go of Jacob’s shoulder, allowing the man to stand. He put his hand on Jacob’s sword. “May I?” he asked softly.

Jacob stumbled to make a sensible reply, “Of course, but Brother - ”

“Thank you,” the monk replied, then walked to near the edge of the circle, and slid into a defensive stance. “By your leave?” he asked the circle referee, who nodded helplessly. “Are you prepared?” he asked of the zealot before him.

Serren met the monk’s hard eyes, suddenly uncertain, as the others cleared out of the ring. “Any time.”

The monk was a blur. In what looked to be a single motion, he rushed inside Serren’s guard, elbowed the man in the face, and as the clansman stumbled, clubbed him to the ground with a single strike of his pommel. He stood over the prone warrior, sword pointed at his chest, and spoke calmly. “I hope you have learned some courtesy. Are we done?”

Serren crawled backward and sprang with to his feet with unbelievable speed. “Die, monk!” he screamed, and charged.

Francis stepped forward past the charge, executing a blinding backhand to the helmet that sent the zealot reeling to the ground. Then, placing the tip of his sword just above Serren’s neck, he asked conversationally, “Do you yield?”

The tournament’s most dangerous warrior stared at him for long moments, eyes wild, before finally acquiescing. “Yes,” he hissed.

The victorious monk examined the warrior sprawled on the ground for only an instant. Then, satisfied, he returned to Jacob his sword. “Thank you,” he said.

After a brief nod to the stone-faced Innoken, Brother Francis walked slowly toward the stands, Jacob beside him. “What was that?” Jacob whispered, as they began to walk.

The monk’s reply was wry. “Which part? But you should probably know that Serren was one of those who killed Timothy, and stole the Shield of St. Thomas.”

“Daniel confirmed it,” Athena added.

Jacob, still dizzy, struggled to digest the news. “But Serren works for Innoken.”

Brother Francis completed the thought. “Yes, and Innoken looks to be the king’s most trusted adviser. I doubt he is terribly happy with me, either.”

“This isn’t good,” Jacob mumbled, raising his hand to Francis’s shoulder.

“No,” Athena replied. “It really isn’t.”

With Brother Francis’s help, Jacob limped quietly into the stands, trying to ignore Laranna’s look of pity, and Halvar’s awed stare. At least he was recovering quickly: for all of Serren’s fury, Jacob bore no serious injuries. He wondered if the Sarronen warrior had been under orders not to harm him. If so, Jacob was grateful, for he had never encountered anyone so far beyond his own capabilities. Except that he had also seen Brother Francis utterly outclass Serren. The world had just gone a little mad.

Halvar waited several seconds before giving in to his own incredulity. “How?” he asked. “Serren is far and away the most dangerous man I know. They say he and Innoken have the power of the Gods, the like of which is only spoken in legend.”

The monk met the prince’s gaze steadily, wry amusement written across his face. “Then truly legends are walking again. His technique is unimpressive, but it seems the Fire God has granted him strength and superhuman speed. All my life I have served the God of the prophet Lazarus. I had faith he would allow me to defend his honor.”

Daniel’s eyes grew wide. “But if he had not? You could have died.”

Brother Francis’s melodious voice made his answer reasonable. “You do not know how much I have already given for the love of God, and what he stands for. Yet always when I asked God for strength, I have received it.”

“I can’t believe it” Athena muttered. “It’s not fair.”

She continued, louder, facing Brother Francis. “When you pray, you get super strength. I prayed every night when my husband died, and all I heard in return was silence. I was alone! I got nothing.”

“Until Jacob saved you,” Francis responded. “Of course, you didn’t deserve that burden. Nor Jacob losing his mother when he was young. Too many carry their own secret pains: I too have known sorrows I will not share here.

Some people have not been tested, and some may never be. Life is not fair, and often it is not kind. But if we serve, if we give of ourselves to others, we offer meaning to pain and joy to success. I see God not as the Great Power that solves all problems, but as the Great Purpose that pervades all life. Faith in God is the promise that if you take on that Purpose, you will find the strength and the joy required for your chosen path.”

Jacob cocked his head slightly to the side, considering before responding, “So when you step up, God has your back?”

Francis’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “More or less. Anyway, I have found it so. You may still have to pay a price for it. But if your life has meaning, then even death is just a new beginning.”

Ceann rolled his eyes. “As long as we’re speaking in aphorisms, here’s a couple more: ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Oh, and ’A good deal gives twice.`”

Laranna raised her hand, waving away Ceann’s criticism in the air. “No, what Francis says is very Travanian. Not the mystical part - I have never seen the like of that! But that is what we believe about fate and responsibility. The Margonians sometimes criticize us because our citizens are less free to leave, or ignore their Lords. But our nobility have responsibilities to those who serve them that Margonians don’t. No one ever starves in a street in Travan, though it does happen in the cities of the West. Any Travanian Lord who allowed it would be stripped of his title. The prosperity of the people is our prosperity: the monarchy is based on this premise, and these are the first words a Lord makes on his investiture. They were written into the constitution by the Great Travansil himself, during the splintering of Miraka.”

Franics nodded, but added gently, “That is the vow of every duke, count, baron, King, and Queen of Travan. I regret that I have seen that vow broken, but men remain men.”

Halvar folded his arms, leaning back. “The sons of Kharshe live differently. Allegiance to our great ones is freely chosen upon reaching adulthood, and not easily forsaken. The duty of our King to his people is to make them strong, not to coddle them. We expect our men and women to be independent.”

“And when people get old or sick?” Jacob asked.

“The clan gives strength to its own, and is happy to help those temporarily ill,” Halvar responded. “However, men who fear to become a burden to their clan often take their own lives. Their sacrifices are honored. Some few do become beggars or live on their clan’s charity, but it is a sad state. When life’s blessing is done, it is better to give oneself to the great cycle, and be born again. We are a proud people.”

Jacob shook his head. “In Ironwood, the poor and infirm receive support out of charity, especially widows and orphans. The distribution is organized by the Lazarrian church, but noblemen like my father always take part. The life of a farmer, especially, is cruel and subject to the whims of nature. It is understood that even the capable will sometimes struggle, and father often offers small loans or defers debt in hard years. The Lord of Ironwood is charged with protecting his people, administering the King’s law, and with promoting commerce. But the men and women of Ironwood count themselves free.”

Athena snorted. “Free. Most people can’t even choose who they marry, at least not safely. That’s awfully close to rape. You don’t control your time, either. If you work for someone else, they own you, and it’s awful hard to be on your own. Even then, your “church” and Lord each take a cut of whatever you have. So it’s a lot like Sarronen: you pick your master, and serve them. There’s not much room for high ideals. Not that I have a better answer. Just don’t try to sell me cow patties for beef patties because they’re both brown.”

Laranna put her hand on the other woman’s arm in unwilling sympathy. “That brings us back to Brother Francis’s point about purpose. A nobleman is called to improve the lives of his people in whatever small ways he can. Unfortunately, we disagree on how to do it. Halvar’s people think demanding strength is a kindness, for it makes people strong. Brother Francis believes in giving of yourself to help others shoulder their burdens, and Jacob is somewhere in between.”

Athena gave the slender woman’s hand a pat. “And you hold with Brother Francis.”

The Baron’s daughter shrugged. “Mostly. I fear if the whole of your purpose is to help others, you may find yourself empty. You have to love yourself and your neighbor. The original text of the mandate of Lazarus is quite clear on the point, though at least four translations have mangled it.”

Jacob spread his hands in agreement. “Lazarus called us all to exercise what virtue we can, that our souls may grow. For a nobleman, that means serving his people, but also leaving them as much freedom as he can. How can they grow if he controls every aspect of their lives?”

Laranna’s eyes crinkled with her smile. “I think you do believe that. It is good to hear.”

Jacob nodded in thanks, but gestured to the Sarronen prince. “But give the Sarronens their own credit. Prince Halvar, for example, has been more than generous during our stay. He has been a thoughtful host, and has recently even rescued a kidnapped woman.”

Halvar’s crossed his arms again, covering his chest. If he was grateful for the acknowledgment, he didn’t show it. “We all do as honor demands. As interesting as this discussion has been, it seems Serren is back on his feet and fighting. I, for one, don’t want to miss the final rounds of the tournament.”

“Of course,” Brother Francis replied gently. “As you say, we all do as we believe God demands.”

Later that evening, Jacob nursed a honeyed ale, considering. He had closely followed the rest of the fighters in the tournament, including a couple other than Serren that he recognized as better than himself. A wiry veteran named Dalan, for example, displayed superb technique, and Jacob learned much from watching him. Prince Halvar Brother Francis, and himself all especially enjoyed the technical aspects of swordplay, and together analyzed the matches thoroughly. Athena and Daniel seemed offended that he could focus on sword games after the revelation about Serren. Yet Jacob knew that, even if Halvar was as innocent as he seemed, betraying his suspicions could be fatal, and so he had forced the knowledge from his mind. Except, he couldn’t help but notice that Serren hadn’t seemed friendly with any of his peers. Whoever his accomplices had been, they weren’t present today, and that left him uneasy.

Serren, of course, had taken the final victory, effortlessly dismantling the clansman named Dalan. There had been a brief victory ceremony, and a few speeches, before the stands began to empty. Jacob had bid Laranna and the prince farewell, explaining that his search had come up empty, and there was no sense imposing on the King any longer. Halvar had responded by inviting the entire group to a large party. There were celebrations throughout the city once the sun set: the Great Stadium itself was open to the public for dancing and revelry, and every alehouse in the city would be overflowing. The Great Tent was open to the clan chiefs and elders, and to their wives and mistresses. But the elite warriors and young heirs had their own party, in a great ballroom in the southern part of the city, and the prince had urged the Ironwood visitors and Laranna to attend. Jacob had been obliged to agree, little though he felt like celebrating.

So while the night’s merriment continued around him, Jacob sipped his fine ale, trying to ignore the spectacular bruises stiffening his arms and legs. There were dozen of tables and benches at the edges of the ballroom, and throngs dancing in the center of the room. At the moment, Athena and Ceann were dancing together, though Athena must be as stiff as he was. Halvar was drinking with his peers, each teasing the other about their performances in the days past. Even Daniel and Brother Francis joined in the dancing. But Jacob had too much to consider, and not enough time. So he sat, considering his options, pondering what he knew.

First, Serren was a murderer, and working for the king’s shaman, had stolen the Shield of St. Thomas. That seemed clear. Second, he seemed to have his God’s favor in a very real way. That couldn’t be a coincidence. Third, the king had made no attempt to help Jacob find the shield, or Halvar and others would have known more about Jacob’s story. Did this mean the king knew what Innoken was up to? Probably. But then, why had he been otherwise friendly? Innoken hadn’t been friendly, but he hadn’t been openly hostile, either, and that was strange. Jacob couldn’t dare risk letting either know that he knew they weren’t a friend, but the reasons made no sense. The swordsman badly wanted someone to explain what was going on.

Halvar would be no help in that regard. The prince’s friendship seemed genuine. Either he was a great actor, or he didn’t know what his father was planning. Not that Jacob had any illusions he would side with a man he had just met against his father, once he knew what was going on. What was interesting, though, was that Halvar served a different God than his father, and Innoken. That might explain why Halvar wasn’t in the know. What if the Fire God himself stood against Ironwood, and had wanted St. Thomas’s Shield out of the way? That was a frightening thought. God and Demons had not interfered directly in the world since the time of Khardum at least, possibly since the fall of Miraka, depending on what stories you believed. Jacob no longer had the luxury of disbelieving in powers he couldn’t see, but he knew too little about them. He needed to talk to Brother Francis: the man had seemed too knowing about the Shield and St. Thomas both for a man of Travan.

But as he looked up, it was not the monk, but the daughter of the Travanian Earl who came to sit beside him. She looked lovely tonight, in a cream dress that flattered her skin in the dim room, and offset her artfully arranged raven hair. “Good evening, my lady Laranna. You look a vision tonight. I thought for sure someone would be begging to dance with you.”

She favored him with a dimpled smile. “You are too kind, but no. I am out of my element here, and even back home I did not find myself on the floor often. Once it became known I was not eager to surrender Northspire to just any man, only the arrogant and clumsy were willing to ask, and I became loathe even to attend them. A dance with someone who has no further use for you can last forever, and my feet have been trod upon too many times.”

Jacob cocked his head to the side, stroking his chin. “I find that puzzling. You are attractive, intelligent, well-read, and do not fear to speak your mind.”

Laranna’s face reddened slightly, and she turned her face down, holding a lock of her hair before her mouth. “Perhaps you do not know Travan, if you find those to be endearing traits. I speak often, but perhaps not often well. A proper lady deflects attention to others, improving the room by her presence, and is only ever a distraction to the eye.”

“Then I will not embarrass you by asking you of yourself. Instead, I will admit my ignorance. I know little of Travan, and near nothing of your home. What is it like?”

Laranna warmed to the safe topic. “It is beautiful, though it can be cold. Northspire is named after the tallest peak in Travan, though its territory crosses into several other hills and mountains. The lake nearby is clear as crystal, as it draws mostly from the melting snows of spring. The highlands have flowers you won’t see elsewhere, carpeting the hills in pink and blue. The goats devour many of them by summer, but they always return. It’s not the most fertile of areas, as measured by bales of wheat per acre. We have too many hills, and our seasons in the highlands are short, though the valley makes up for some of that. It’s a young Earldom, recaptured from the Kulls only a couple generations ago, though few Kulls ever lived there. They never could grow much in Northspire. Even under Miraka, the Northspire had been known for its productive quarries and mines, but was not heavily populated. We are a stubborn folk, who settled north in the hope of a little more freedom and prosperity. We have not found prosperity yet, but we are better off than our grandfathers. An old copper mine has been re-opened recently, and we have a discovered a rich vein there.

Northspire is sparsely populated, but we are growing. The Southern nobles consider Northspire uncivilized area, but that is not a fair criticism. Father is well-educated, and he allowed me an excellent tutor, after my older brother and sister were lost to the mountain fever. Anyway, I ramble on too long, but it is home, and I miss it.”

Jacob’s eyes crinkled in sympathy. “Your father must worry about you.”

“Yes,” Laranna replied. “I was to come home before the Summit, to plan with him. But first, I needed to meet with some leaders in Kullen. It is vital that we have peace with our neighbors. We cannot grow prosperous on the basis of our agriculture alone: we need to re-establish the export of metal and stone. That won’t be possible with the long road southward so near the Kulls’ territory, unless they are friendly to us. We need them buying our copper and iron, not stealing it.

But, I digress. My father and I are close, and I miss my mother deeply. I was not to be gone long, and they have heard nothing for several weeks: they must fear my death.”

“I wish you could return home. It must be incredibly disheartening to find your neighbors hostile, too, after all your efforts to extend peace.”

Here, Laranna lowered her voice to a whisper, though her tone held a fierce intensity. “They aren’t! Or weren’t. We were getting through to them, and nearly all of their elders favored peace. My father has mostly earned their trust, and seeing his daughter share his attitude eased their minds. Say nothing to anyone, but - no, I have said too much already.”

Jacob nodded. “Then perhaps we should dance, instead.”

“Very well, then. If your footwork in the combat circle is any indication of your skill, I will risk it,” she replied, pursing her lips in a crooked smile. “It may make a pleasant change.”

“Alas, my lady. It is not,” Jacob added regretfully. “Though I believe I can avoid stepping on your feet. The dances here are different than back home, and I do not know them. In Margon, men and women were seldom allowed to touch in public, even in the ballroom. Still, if you are patient with me, I will try to learn them.”

“That is a lack I can cure,” Laranna answered, rising from her seat. “Come with me, then, Lord Jacob, if you can suffer my hands upon you, and I will show you what to do.”

The glistening flagstones of the ancient street were faintly illuminated by Brother Francis’s torch as he led the way back to the guest house. Outside of the circle of light, Jacob could just make out the stately lines of the centuries-old stone buildings. Behind, Ceann and Athena were practically leaning on one another and singing, badly. Daniel gamely joined them, but was unable to salvage the tune. Thankfully, the trio kept their volume reasonable, though they were not alone. Jacob could hear drunken laughter in the distance, emanating from another bubble of light. Jacob, like Francis, has been more moderate. After the first hour, to his surprise, he had spent most of the night dancing. Learning the new steps had been a joyful task, in Laranna’s hands, though both had switched off among the crowd. Despite the day’s hard news about the mission, he felt a peace overlaying his exhaustion. It was almost a shame to disrupt it with conversation, but tomorrow would come too soon.

Brother Francis turned to him as he approached, noting his expression. “What’s on your mind, Jacob?”

“Is it that obvious?” the young man replied.

The monk’s amusement was written all over his face as he replied, “I’m afraid so. You’ve had this enormous grin painted on your face all evening. Who can blame you, with so many young women willing to dance with the foreign blademaster? You and the Lady Laranna seemed particularly good company for one another: I think she may be a bit taken with you. Only now the smile is gone, and you have returned to your worries.”

Jacob shook his head. “Laranna is easy to talk to, and she misses home. It’s put her a bit on edge. She badly needs a friend here, and that’s a role I enjoy filling. No, I think she is just relieved not to be alone.”

The monk’s hazel eyes were inquisitive. “Halvar seems to have gone out of his way to make her comfortable, without overstepping his bounds. Does she not like him?”

Jacob considered carefully, thinking of her body language near the prince. She had stated her gratitude for his concern, and never pushed him away, but she always stayed proper and aloof. It was only seeing her open up to him and Francis that made him suspect her response towards Halvar was carefully measured. With some women, that might be an attempt to hide attraction, but that didn’t seem quite right, either. “I don’t know, but I think she may be hiding something. Her presence here may be less a co-incidence than I thought.”

The monk stroked his beard carefully. “Go on.”

Jacob paused, searching for words, then shook his head. “I’ll come back to that once I know more. For now: do you think it’s fair to say The Fire God is acting against Ironwood? For centuries, there have been no news of Gods taking active part in the world at all. But Serren, who just committed theft and murder in Ironwood, has his blessing. So I have to ask, what does Shakath want? Do you know anything about him?”

Brother Francis’s smile did not reach his eyes. “That is three questions in one. I will start with the last. Shakath is known for his force, not cunning. He is a God of War and destruction, whose name was first recorded in Travan’s history of the Fall, and his rise is no good omen. Serren is his creature, of course, but whether Ironwood is his primary target, I cannot say.”

Jacob nodded. “That brings more questions. Why was Halvar patrolling in Kull territory? Why would he risk taking Laranna from the Kulls? Why would the Kulls kidnap Laranna in the first place? She doesn’t think many men of that clan would approve.”

“You think Sarronen is sorting out allies and enemies, and that Kullen may be its target?”

Jacob nodded again, enthusiastically. “Yes, something like that. On the surface, they are playing nice with us and Travan, but not the Kulls. Maybe the theft of the Shield is to keep us out of the picture while they attack the Kulls? Perhaps with Travan’s help?”

The monk raised an eyebrow at that. “Maybe, though Ironwood is not in much position to interfere. Nor can I think what attacking Ironwood would gain them. If the Kharshe Gods are involved, they’re playing a game I can’t see. Maybe it’s not Ironwood, but the True God that they are concerned about. Ironwood may be incidental to Sarronen’s plans against Him, though I don’t think stealing St. Thomas’s shield would stop Him! At least it would explain Sarronen’s friendliness towards us.”

Jacob balled his fist in frustration. “Maybe, and maybe not. I need to know more. The timing of all this is suspect too: right before the Great Summit. We need to be there.”

Brother Francis quirked an eyebrow. “And your father? If you don’t return, he may assume the worst and prepare for war.”

“That may not be such a bad thing,” the young man replied. “He certainly won’t make those preparations if I have to convince him in person. I don’t have enough evidence.”

The older man’s tone turned to concern. “Think carefully: is this worth it? He’s not going to be happy with you, Jacob, for forcing his hand. The decision of how to read the threats is his to make.”

The Ironwood noble ran his hand through his hair, and sighed. “I know. Ceann isn’t going to take the news any better. But if there’s even a chance that the Fire God has targeted Ironwood, I have to do everything I can to stop him. What are his limits? Who are his enemies?

Maybe I am only jumping at ghosts, but in my worst fears, I imagine one thousand screaming Serrens scaling Ironwood’s walls, each with blood in his eyes. Going home solves nothing: I have to roll the dice.”

“Then I will travel with you until the Summit, if that is your choice. The Shield may be lost, but the danger of war brewing is too great for me to ignore.”

* * *

Jacob was again cooking breakfast with the eastern monk, when a knock came on the door of the guest house. “Come in,” Jacob called out, unwilling to risk burning the biscuits.

A beardless teenager in armor entered hesitantly, examining some of the bleary-eyed guests. “My apologies,” he began, “but you are wanted by the King in the Great Tent within an inch of the sun’s passing. If it pleases you.”

“We will be honored to answer,” Jacob replied, flipping one of the biscuits. “Which of us does his majesty wish to see?”

The soldier eyed the broad woman just climbing out of bed, then blurted out, “All of you. Well, you all are welcome, but Jacob, Ceann, and the Travanian at least should come.”

At the monk’s acknowledging gesture, Jacob spoke, “Then we will be there. Thank you for the message, armsman. Please leave us, that we may meet his majesty’s requirements.”

Athena rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. She was absolutely going to curb her drinking, starting tomorrow. Not that she drank much, normally. It just was difficult to be the only sober one at the party. She massaged her temple briefly, then asked aloud, “What is that all about?”

“That,” Jacob answered, “is going to be our invitation to leave. Time to pack, everyone.”

Roughly an hour later, Jacob’s party again stood before the King of the Sarronen. He was surprised to find Laranna and Halvar both present for the same audience. Innoken remained standing impassively behind the throne, his red-tailed raven perched on his shoulder. King Haldor seemed more intent than when last they met, less at ease. Jacob bowed deeply upon his introduction.

Though the King’s words and tones were gentle, his eyes were piercing as he spoke. “Greetings, Jacob of Ironwood. It is a pleasure to see you again. Your reputation has changed much in the few days since you have arrived. I hope your mission has gone as well?”

Jacob shook his head. “Alas, you Majesty, it has not. Our attempts at trade have met little success, and our search for the Shield of St. Thomas has met a dead end. Where it has gone after entering the city is unknown. Unless your Majesty has heard news that I have not, I fear our mission has failed.”

Haldor received the news solemnly. “Unfortunately, our sources have found nothing on the subject. You have our heartfelt sympathy. A people’s history is a great source of pride, and its symbols should not be lost. Perhaps the acclaim you have won in our Spring Tournament will be of some small consolation; you have earned our respect. Halvar speaks highly of your skills and character.”

Jacob bowed to the prince who stood at his right. “He has also gained my regard, your majesty. When we part, it will be with my sincere friendship.”

Halvar bowed slightly in return. “Be assured that you take my own friendship with you when you go.”

Haldor’s eyes lightened. Jacob could almost see a ghost of a smile in his features. “Your words and actions do you credit, young man. Yet I must ask: does this conclude your business in Sarronen?”

Jacob’s voice lowered. “It does, your majesty.”

“Then,” the King replied, “we must bid you farewell upon your journey. You may retain the use of the guest house until nightfall, though we will need it tomorrow for a visiting chieftain. Is there anything else you wish to ask us, before you go?”

Jacob paused, then replied carefully. “Yes, your majesty. Is the lady Laranna free to leave, also?”

Innoken’s burning gaze swung to Jacob at the moment, as if seeing him for the first time, but Haldor answered evenly. “She is a guest, and not a prisoner. The only thing keeping her here is our concern for her safety.”

Jacob took the opportunity to continue. “We in Ironwood have long had strong relations with the Kulls. We are no threat to them, and they deign to trade with us when our caravans pass through. As your friends, and theirs, we hope we can show our gratitude for your hospitality. Upon your majesty’s agreement, and Laranna’s, we offer her escort to Northspire.”

Jacob kept his eyes upon the King, ignoring the hissing sound of Ceann’s sudden intake of breath. Haldor remained motionless, almost as if he had not heard, and long seconds passed awkwardly. After a few moments, Innoken whispered something in the King’s ear. The king waited, unmoving, until he had finished, before turning his head toward the Lady of Northspire. “Is it your wish, young lady, to return home in the company of these men from Ironwood?”

Laranna’s face lit up, and she answered enthusiastically, “Oh yes, your majesty. With all due gratitude to Halvar, who has been nothing but wonderful to me, I want to go home. My father must be worried beyond belief, and someone must tell him what the Kulls have done.”

The King searched Jacob’s face once more, and apparently finding nothing to displease him, answered slowly. “Then you may go, young Lady, with our blessing. Now, young man, if there is nothing else? No. Then, you too may go, with our goodwill. Laranna, you are released into Lord Jacob’s care.”

Halvar waited patiently while the foreigners left. He enjoyed meeting new people, and had been surprised to find most of his his guests so friendly in nature. Even Laranna had been pleasant enough, despite her reserved nature. He had heard that Travanian women were like that. But Jacob had truly been an eye-opener. The man was clearly comfortable acting as a merchant, yet he was a potent warrior, as well. Halvar had not believed it was possible to find both in the same body, and yet he had seen it with his own eyes. Not only Jacob, but Athena also, seemed more comfortable as warriors than as coin-counters. In fact, Athena was a fine woman by any measure, worthy of a Sarronen man. They were good people. It bore thinking on.

While he waited, the king excused his guards, leaving he and his son alone in his private section of the tent, out of sight and earshot of any but Innoken. When it was done, King Haldor spoke, “Innoken, it is time.”

The tall priest strode forward toward the uneasy Halvar, fiery eyes boring into his own. “I have need of your services. Two of my men have gone to bury an important item, and have not returned. It seems I have erred: in my haste, I sent men insufficient to the task. You are to go with Serren to remedy the situation.”

This was simply not done. Despite his shock at Innoken’s words, he held his own countenance steady, as befitted a warrior. “It is a pity then that I do not serve the Fire God, but Akhor.”

Innoken’s amusement was unnerving on his thin face. “On the contrary,” he stated, “Akhor has released you to me.”

As Halvar watched, transfixed, Innoken raised his right arm up to Halvar’s chest. The skin on his hand and arm reddened before his eyes, settling on the mottled black and crimson of a snake’s skin before bursting into a flame that wreathed the arm without consuming it. Halvar could feel the intense heat through his tunic, only inches from his skin. “Shakath requires your service. Do you accept?”

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