Dragon Blood

Chapter One: Tisala in Estian

It takes many years of hard work and dedication to produce a
competent torturer. Young men just don't want to take the time
to learn the craft.
~Lloth of Edelbreck, Royal Torturer~

"It's just like skinning a rabbit," the old man said to his grandson. There was strength in his grip that belied the age on his face as his sharp knife removed another sliver of flesh from Tisala's finger.

"I've never skinned a rabbit alive." The boy looked ill, like a newly blooded recruit thought Tisala.

The old man lost all patience with him. "Don't be an idiot. Now watch."

The next move of the knife forced Tisala's attention back to her body. Eventually she would tell the old man what he wanted to know, but if she could wait long enough, they could trust none of what she said. But she'd only been there something under two days and already her body ached and her mind flinched away from what had been done to her.

"What do you know about Alizon's rabble, little girl? Tell me and I can quit hurting you," he crooned as his knife worked its magic. "I don't like hurting little girls, but you are hiding something our king needs to know. A brother shouldn't try to hurt his own kin. What Alizon is doing is wrong and you know it. All you need to do is tell me who's helping him and I can stop."

She didn't fear death, not even death by torture. Death was a constant companion in the battlefield, as often a friend as an enemy. Betrayal, though, betrayal was truly frightening. Best she die fast, before she could hurt someone she cared about. She'd bide her time and see if she could use her tongue as a goad to make the torturer slip. Someone had once told her that her tongue was her most formidable weapon, and it was one they hadn't taken from her.

"How can you do this all day?" asked the boy passionately. "Grandfather, cannot the mages make a person talk?"

The old man snorted. "The mages can make a person say anything the mages want him to, but they can't get real information from magic. Good information comes only from men like me. We save lives on the battlefield, give our king his victories."

"Why are you doing this one here, instead of in the castle?" Bravado not curiosity sparked his question. Tisala could tell that he knew the answer to his own question.

"For secrecy," the old man's voice trembled, betrayed by age.

The boy sneered. "Because if his precious nobles knew what we did here to a noble woman, they'd join Alizon's rebellion. Torturing a weak woman is filthy work, unworthy of the king's torturer. He'll get rid of you too, Grandfather, when you're done here."

Quite likely, thought Tisala.

"I do what I am told boy. I am the king's man." The old man was so agitated he slipped with the knife and blood cascaded down her arm and over his hand.

The boy looked at the mess, swallowed hard then turned and ran, shutting the heavy wooden door behind him, leaving the old man distracted from his work, cursing the mother that raised her boy to be weak and foolish.

Tisala almost couldn't believe the old master was so stupid, but he continued to look at the door with the knife in his blood slick grip -- so near to her hand which was held only by his inattentive clasp. Tisala never waited for second chances.

She twisted her wrist, breaking his grip and then drove her shoulder forward. She caught the hand that held the knife and used it to slice the old man's throat.

Tied to the bench she lay on, she couldn't slow the old man's body down as it fell with a loud thud, nor move out of the way of the blood gushing from his ruined throat. But she held on to his hand with her own, damaged and bleeding though it was. Once the body hung limply, she slowly shifted her grip from his hand to the knife.

For a terrible moment, she thought the knife was going to slip from her weak grasp, and she'd be stuck tied to the table. But when the old man's arm slid away, the knife was still clutched desperately in her hand.

The knife, small though it was, cut through the ropes as easily as it had sliced through her skin. Her body moved sluggishly, stiff from being tied too long and weak from shock and the indignities visited upon it. She ignored her aches as best she could, though she found a bit of rag to wrap around her hand.

No one ran in to investigate the sound the body had made. Hope rose a notch higher as Tisala weighed her chances.

The boy had said they were not in the castle, but she knew better than to trust anything she heard in a place like this. Still, if it were not true, then she might as well slit her own throat now. She was hardly in any shape to walk unnoticed through the royal halls. Maybe the boy had been right.

The hope of escape made her fumble with the crude bandaging on her hand.

Where could she go? Her thoughts were sluggish and she worried that shock would keep her from escape. She had to make the right decisions and her thoughts flowed like mud.

She had friends here in Estian who would hide her.

If someone followed her tracks through the city -- very possible in the condition she was in -- she would be sentencing her friends to death.

She couldn't afford to run home to Callis in Oranstone on her own. If she went home now, she'd be signing her father's death warrant. Their public estrangement, ostensibly because she was tired of her father abiding by his oaths of loyalty to the king, was the only thing that kept her father out of Jakoven's cells. If he saw what Jakoven's man had done to her, he'd start a war on his own and the time was not right yet.

She pulled herself back to the immediate situation. Think, Tisala, think. Five Kingdoms under Jakoven's rule, surely there was someplace to hide.

Outside of the city, Tallven was firmly in the hands of the High King Jakoven whose family name it bore. Tallven was all grasslands, no mountains to hide in. To the south was Oranstone, where she couldn't go because of her father.

West was Avinhelle and she had acquaintances there, but four years ago Avinhellish lords had conspired to betray the Kingdoms. Caught and humbled by fines and hangings, the remaining lords would hand her over as soon as they realized who she was in hopes of demonstrating their loyalty to the king.

East was Seaford, but she didn't know many people there. Seaforders were sailors and they explored the oceans, leaving politics to land-bound folk.

North... Shavigmen were cold-hearted savages. She remembered seeing a troop of Shavigmen when she was a very young child, their pale hair strung out behind them as they charged down upon a hapless village on their monstrous horses. Remembered the cries of terror of her countrymen. "Shavig," they called, "Shavig."

Shavig, she shivered.

"Barbarian?" laughed Ward, pushing his exotically pale hair out of his eyes. "Tisala, we're stubborn, obnoxious and coarse. But we're hardly barbarians. We even cook our food...if it's convenient."

Ward of Hurog. She had a sudden vivid image of him the last time she'd seen him, his sword red with Vorsag blood. He was strong, strong enough to stand up to King Jakoven if need be. Moreover he was not involved in the king's half-brother Alizon's rebellion. He lived in a keep on the coast, not too far from the Tallvenish border. Surely she could find it.

Better yet, she had information for him a payment of sorts for helping her.

She slipped on the old man's shoes to protect her feet and took his cloak off the wall. She would have taken his clothing as well, but death had released more than just blood. Wrapping the cloak around her nakedness, she decided she could steal clothing before she left the city.

She opened the door and climbed up a long flight of stairs to another door. She opened it expecting to find a hall or another room, but there was fresh night air and a set of stone stairs that led up into a tidy alley.

The guard who stood in front of the door didn't even turn around, his eyes scanning the rooftops and the shadows.

"He'll learn, Master Brown. Boys grow up," he said in the flat-nasal tones of an Estian native.

He didn't live long enough to understand that it hadn't been the torturer who'd opened the door behind him. The knife was very sharp, and Tisala took the guard's belt and sheath to carry it. His knife was crude, an eating knife rather than a weapon and she left it on the ground beside the body. Leaving the sword was a more difficult decision. She longed for the reassurance of its weight, but in Tallven, only armsmen and nobles carried swords.

Swordless, Tisala disappeared into the maze of Estian leaving no trail for the king's men to follow.


Chapter Two: Wardwick at Hurog

I've found that after the harvest is finished, I have time
for renewing old acquaintances and discussing politics.

"You're cheating," Oreg said and pain seared down my vision, weakening me until the flame I'd lit on the bowl of water flickered a sad, faded yellow and died. "I told you not to draw on Hurog you might find yourself somewhere else when you need magic and then where would you be?"

I wiped sweat off my forehead and glared at him. He looked more like a young man with dark hair and pale violet eyes than an old dragon, but appearances often lie -- something I've found to be useful myself. Oreg looked young and vulnerable and I looked slow and dumb. Neither happened to be true.

Oreg ignored my wrath and nodded at the bowl. "Try it again, Ward."

He maintained the shield that separated me from Hurog's magic and the pain made it difficult to work what power I had left. Losing touch with Hurog hurt.

"Concentrate, Ward."

Over the past few years I'd grown to hate those words. But working magic with Oreg had become my refuge when the pressures of running Hurog grew too great. It's not easy to rebuild a keep.

Technically, Hurog, lands and keep, belonged to my uncle, Duraugh. But four years ago, my uncle proclaimed me Hurogmeten in my dead father's place. Ironically it was Hurog, not my uncle's richer estate, Iftahar, that gave him power to do so -- for Hurog, which had lain in ruins by my own actions, was the heart of Shavig, northernmost of the Five Kingdoms of Tallvenish Rule. If my uncle, Duraugh of Hurog, called me Hurogmeten, then all of Shavig was prepared to go to war in defense of that proclamation.

King Jakoven, unwilling to begin a civil war when his seat was so uncertain on the throne, ignored Hurog. I stayed on Hurog land where ignoring me was easier.

But even if my uncle had not returned Hurog to me, Hurog would still have been mine, by bond of blood and bone.

I looked at the bowl of water and envisioned a flame roaring from the surface. My world narrowed to the water in the bowl. Something shifted in my head and the stone bowl cracked as flame rained to the floor borne by a sheet of water. Power roared from the soles of my feet through the hair on the top of my head and I shook with the effort of redirecting it back to where it had come.

When at last I stood empty, I realized the sound I heard was Oreg laughing.

He waved at the fire and it dissipated, leaving only a damp spot on the flagstone floor of the guard tower.

"If you can break through my shielding," he said, still fair hiccuping with laughter. "I suppose there's a fair chance you can pull magic from Hurog wherever you happen to be."

I felt a surge of triumph replace the emptiness and I grinned at him. "I broke your magic?"

"Hurog broke through my spell when you called it," he corrected and his humor gave way to bemusement.

I picked up the pieces of bowl and set it on a small table. "Hurog's magic feels different to me than it did before I killed you," I said. I knew it sounded odd, but I never forgot that I had killed him. He just hadn't died the way we both had expected him to.

"Different how?" He perched on the edge of the only stool in the tower. We'd furnished it sparsely so that there would be less to burn when my magic went awry. The tower was one of six on the wall surrounding the keep proper so there was only stone nearby. The scorched bits of rock on the tower wall proved the wisdom of Oreg's choice of classroom. Almost four years of work and I still had occasional, and spectacular, miscalculations.

"Do you remember Menogue?" I asked. The hill with Aethervon's temple stood deserted outside of Estian deserted by people that is. We'd had a vivid demonstration that Aethervon had not left the holy temple when his priests had died a few centuries ago.

"Yes."

"The magic here at Hurog isn't as focused as that was, but I sometimes feel as if there's some intelligence behind it." I looked at him. "Something that might break your shielding when I called for it. It's gotten stronger the past few months, ever since you taught me how to separate my magic from Hurog's."

Oreg's eyebrows pulled together. "Interesting. Has the connection between you and the land altered?"

I shook my head. "Not that I've noticed."


I left Oreg in the tower and crossed the bailey to the keep. I had a while before arms practice, and whenever I had a spare minute I worked on the keep.

Once Hurog had been made entirely of blackstone, but many of the stones had shattered when Oreg's death had destroyed the keep and its walls. Blackstone was expensive, and when we started rebuilding there had been little gold to buy it with. Whatever quarry had supplied the original builder with stone was lost to time, always supposing that he'd gotten the rock from somewhere nearby as was customary -- Oreg didn't remember one way or the other.

But Hurog had an old granite quarry, so we'd used granite instead and the result was...odd. Black pockmarked with grey made the keep much less imposing, and part of me regretted the old keep bitterly.

We'd rebuilt the inner curtain walls, except for a properly secure gate house. Instead we had only a primitive set of wooden gates while our blacksmith and our armorer labored mightily to supply the iron-work we needed. Most of the outside of the keep had been finished as well. Our progress had been unusually quick because of the aid of the dwarves, but I suspected that it wouldn't be completely rebuilt until my body was dust in the grave. The keep wasn't overly large by the standards of the Five Kingdoms, but neither was the workforce we had to rebuild with. The outer curtain wall was no more than a pile of rubble enclosing nearly thirty acres of land. I hadn't even had the heart to begin on it.

The harvest this year had been the best in memory, aided in no little part by the disappearance of the salt creep, which had been growing in the best of the fields since before my great- grandfather's time. Magic, whispered the people, and looked at me in awe. Dragon bones, I thought, and hoped the wheat we harvested wouldn't poison the person who ate it. It hadn't last year, or the year before. Nor, to my relief, did it seem to have any other unusual properties.

With harvest over, while others hunted for meat or sport, I worked on rebuilding the keep with whomever wanted to help. The dwarves came and went at their own whim and there were none here now. Two days a week, I paid for a work party, but even with good harvests Hurog wasn't rich. We'd finished the roof and the inner supporting walls of the keep last winter, but it was still mostly just a shell of half-finished rooms.

From the inside, the great hall looked much as it had in my father's day since I'd been firm on keeping the granite where it didn't show inside. The wall with the family curse written on it had taken the most time, finding the correct stones and setting them in proper order was somewhat more taxing than the court ladies' puzzles since each of the pieces weighed over a hundred pounds and several stones had been smashed when Hurog fell.

My uncle thought I was foolish to work so hard on it, since the curse, which predicted Hurog's fall to the Stygian Beast of mythology, had already been broken. My brother Tosten said I did it because I'd been instrumental in breaking the curse. But I hadn't realized, until I saw Oreg's face, that I'd done it to protect him from the too-rapid changes of the past few years. When you're over a millennia old, change, even for the better, is a hard thing. And it was he, as much as I who had broken the curse.

I touched the wall lightly with one hand and bent to pick up a grout bucket. For the past few weeks, we'd been working on the floors. One of the Blue Guard, an Avinhellish man, was the son of a mason. He'd taken one look at the cracked mess left on the floor of the great hall after the keep fell and declared it unfixable. If I'd known then the amount of work the stupid floor was going to be I'd have timbered it, or even just left it dirt. It took us months to get the floor level enough for our mason. I think he took covert enjoyment out of giving me orders.

The main doors of the keep were awaiting hinges capable of supporting their great weight so there was nothing to slow the boy that barreled into the great hall interrupting my work before I'd even properly begun. He stopped in front of me and opened his mouth, but he couldn't get a word out for lack of breath.

"Take it slow, boy," I said. We waited for a long moment and several false starts before he could speak. Meanwhile I examined him for clues to his identity.

He was clothed rather well, even for a free holder's son. The woolen trousers were newly dyed, and the shirt was linen a cloth that had to be purchased as flax didn't grow in our climate. The boy looked like Atwater's get, tall with dark eyes that swallowed the light.

"Sir, there's bandits, sir. Down by Da's farm. He sent me here to get you."

He was covered in sweat, and once he'd got his message out he had to give his all to breathing again.

"Atwater is your father?" I asked, and he nodded.

I always knew when there was trouble brewing on Hurog land. Oreg said it was because I was tied to it by blood right, and told me that several of my distant ancestors had the same tie to the land. Hurog spoke to me -- when I listened.

A swift touch of magic showed me that there was no fighting near Atwater's farm now which meant that the bandits had been driven off. If Atwater or one of his family had been killed, I'd have known about it for they belonged to Hurog in a way that had nothing to do with law and everything to do with blood. The death of a stranger might or might not pull my attention when it happened - after the fact, I'd have to be closer to where it happened.

"Don't fret boy," I said. "Atwater's been fighting bandits longer than I've been alive. Let's get my horse, shall we?"

In the end there were three of us following the boy. He plainly thought we needed more, I thought we could do with less. Rides with Oreg and my brother were always more interesting than pleasant.

My brother, Tosten, rode his new roan war stallion, a gift from our uncle, and came with the excuse that the animal needed exercise when he found me saddling my own horse in the stables.

Tosten was never going to be as tall as I was, but the past four years had given him a man's face and a fighter's body. He looked cool, competent and clever (as some court woman said in my hearing). Competent and clever, I agreed with. Coolness might come with age maybe in fifty years or so.

While I waited for Tosten to saddle his horse, Oreg showed up and, without a word, took out his own gelding. Except for his dark hair and a half a head in height (Tosten was taller), he and Tosten looked enough alike to be twins.

"Bandits," I said in answer to Oreg's look as I mounted and lead the way out of the bailey.

"My brother spied them near our farm and Da sent me here for help." There was a hint of accusation in the boy's tone. Three people, it implied, would not be much help.

The air was chill with the coming winter. We'd taken the last of the harvest in last week. Oreg said he thought it might snow soon, but today the leaves still clung to the branches of the rowan and aspen in bright clumps that stood out against the dark greens of the pines and furs. Pansy, my stallion, snorted with pretended fear and shied violently when a falling leaf fluttered too close. In battle, not even a heavy blow would cause him to step to the right or left without my request, but outside of serious work, Pansy loved to play.

The shortest path to Atwater's farm skirted the edge of the mountains where the land was too rocky to plow. The farm was isolated in a hanging valley away from the other cultivated fields of Hurog. That isolation had lured bandits into thinking it was a target before, but none of them had ever managed to take anything from Atwater. I didn't think that was going to change today.

The turf was still soft enough that the steady trot I'd set was unlikely to cause the horses much stress. People were another matter entirely.

"We need to hurry," said the boy for the third time. I'd had a gentle mare found for him, but I needn't have. He sat her bareback (his choice) and was impatient for the rest of us holding him back.

"Never arrive for a fight breathless," snapped Tosten impatiently.

"If they overran your farm, we'd smell smoke by now," I reassured the boy, shooting Tosten a repressive look. "They might not have seen the farm, or your father may have driven them off or killed them. Either way we don't have to hurry. There can't be very many of them or I'd have heard about it before they made it this far onto Hurog lands."

"Don't worry about Tosten, boy," said Oreg cheerfully. "He's as impatient as you are."

Tosten sank into silence. Oreg, in contrast, was unusually light-hearted, teasing the boy until he smiled at which point my brother let his stallion speed past us. With a glance at me, the boy sent his mare cantering after my brother - obviously hoping I'd hurry after both of them.

"I wish you wouldn't bait Tosten," I murmured to Oreg.

Oreg just smiled, though his eyes didn't light up the way they did when he was really amused. "Your brother has had plenty of time to decide that I'm no threat to him. Time he grew up. If I choose to tweak his tail a bit that's between him and me, he doesn't need your protection anymore, Ward."

I rolled my eyes. "You encourage him," I said.

"I frighten him," Oreg corrected, and even his mouth was serious. I must have looked unconvinced because he shook his head and said. "I'm no threat to his relationship with you and he knows that. It hasn't been about that for some time." Oreg smiled again, but this time it was a genuine one. "Poor lad's fighting dragons."

It was an old Shavig saying about someone who was displaying rash bravery impelled by fear. The ironic twist to Oreg's tone was because in this case it was literally true. Oreg's father had been half-dragon. Oreg could take dragon form when he wished, and considered both the human seeming and the dragon his true forms.

I considered what Oreg had said. Tosten was the only one who knew the whole story about Oreg, as my heir and as my brother I thought I owed him that. Perhaps it would have been better if I'd stuck to half-truths.

Atwater's boy waited for us at the top of the trail though Tosten was still ahead.

"Tosten told me it is magic that lets you see there's nothing wrong at my home. There's a lot of folks who are frightened by magic."

It sounded like a personal observation, and I looked at him sharply. He colored up, but his eyes met mine squarely.

"Most folks know you can do magic too, my lord," he said firmly. "Most of us are grateful to it. Father says that they'd never have found my brother and his hunting party caught out in the blizzard if you hadn't joined in the search."

I smiled at him and he dropped in beside us. Tosten, when Oreg is not around, usually knows how to charm people into doing what he wanted them to. It came from being a bard, he claimed, but I thought it might be a bit the other way around. Charm, good voice, and clever fingers made for good bards.

As we neared Atwater's farm, the land told me death had visited here recently. Death was no stranger to Hurog, its mortal residents came to an end on a regular basis, but I had to assume that this death had something to do with my being summoned here. Whoever had died was not of the earth of Hurog, which meant it wasn't Atwater or his people. It must be the bandits.

Nevertheless, when we passed the boundary at the edge of the farm, I drew my sword. Tosten (who'd let us gradually catch up to him) and Oreg drew steel likewise. The path we'd taken approached the farmhouse, which was more of a fort than a house, from the rear, but a lookout spied us riding down into the valley and let out a series of notes on his hunting horn Atwater's own call. The tightness eased in my shoulders.

A moment later the unmistakable form of the holder, himself, came around the corner. Seeing us, he whistled an all-clear, so I sheathed my sword.

The boy heaved a great sigh of relief and nudged his mare into a gallop.

When one is a grizzled old war lord or the younger son of a holder, one may gallop as much as one wishes. Since I was a young lord who was trying to live down various reputations, I slowed my horse to a walk.

Mounted on my father's old war stallion, walking was sometimes adventurous. Pansy knew better, but I let him snort and huff and generally announce to everyone watching that he was dangerous and would be much faster than that little mare if I would just let him go.

Atwater nodded at me when we got close enough to talk. "Thank ye, my lord, for coming. But the problem of bandits has been dealt with. I've the bodies if you'd like to look at 'em."

Atwater was a mountain of a man, approaching my height and build. His pale blond hair fading unnoticeably to grey was braided in old Shavig style unusual now, but not worth commenting about. His beard however was a magnificent thing. Fiery-red, it covered his face and a fair bit of chest. A little barbaric by proper Kingdom standards, but my Hurog folk were beginning to exhibit a pride in our Shavig heritage.

Like many of the older men at Hurog, Atwater had fought to put down the rebellion in Oranstone at my father's side.

Sometime during the campaign, Atwater had conceived a dislike for the previous Hurogmeten. I hadn't been fond of my father for my own reasons, but even I had to admit there weren't many men who could fight as well as he had. Most of the men who fought under him wouldn't hear a word against him. I don't know what my father had done to Atwater, but it had taken me the better part of two years to make him see that I was not the man my father had been.

Tosten, Oreg, and I followed Atwater and his son around the building into the chaos of children and relatives who helped him farm and protect the land. At the center of the fervor were three dead men, covered decently for the sake of the children.

I dismounted, handed my reins to Oreg, whose gelding Pansy tolerated, and pulled the blankets aside to look at the dead men's faces. I took care to keep the blankets arranged so the children couldn't peak. I'd seen one of them before, but it took me a moment to remember where.

"Mercenaries from Tyrfannig," I said dropping the cover over the last man's face. Tyrfannig was the nearest seaport town half a day's ride to the south. Hurog bordered the ocean, but her shores were too rocky for ships to harbor in. "They must not have caught jobs with the merchants going south and decided to become self-employed." Sometimes mercenaries didn't see the difference between looting on a battlefield and looting from anyone they could. "I'll see if anyone in Tyrfannig wants the bodies. Otherwise we'll bury them ourselves, eh?"

"Yes, my lord."

I started to turn away, then realized something about the wounds I'd seen on the bodies. "Who took them down?" Atwater was famed for his bow work and could use an axe on people as well as wood, he'd never have taken on these bandits armed with nothing more than a knife. Yet the two bodies with the most obvious death wounds had been killed by an short blade, not an axe. I didn't know about the third -- and wasn't about to examine the bodies more closely with all the children milling about.

"No, sir. My oldest boy, Fennel, saw them coming in time to warn us. I sent Rowan to you, and we waited. After a bit I tracked Fennel's trail to where he'd seen the bandits. And I found them three dead, sir. And I found what killed 'em, too. You'll never guess."

As we'd spoken, Atwater's wife had come out of the house with a little sprite of a girl about six.

"It was a girl," the child caroled in satisfied tones. "A girl killed them bandits all by herself."

Atwater's left eyebrow buried itself in his hairline. His wife shrugged.

"My aunt could have killed them," I said. "Why are you so surprised a woman took care of them."

Atwater shook his head. "Maybe Stala could at that. But I'd be surprised if a man in this woman's condition could have walked from where we stand to my home, let alone killed three healthy men with naught but a puny knife. Would you come look at her?"

Bemused I nodded at Oreg. "Stay out here and keep the babes out from under Pansy's feet, please?"

Tosten gave his reins to Oreg, too.

Atwater's house was dark and close, insulated for winter with dried grasses and straw. I had to duck my head to avoid rubbing the ceiling.

The fire in the hearth was more for light than warmth that would change as winter approached. One of Atwater's older daughters sat on a nearby bench sewing, a bucket of water by her feet should a spark fly out and touch either fur or straw. She nodded at me, but turned shyly back to her work. I didn't know how she could sew in the dim light. Even with the fire so near I could barely tell there was a person buried in the furs in front of the hearth.

But I could smell the distinctive odor of rotting flesh. I knelt beside the furs and touched the skin on the back of the unconscious woman's neck, feeling the dry heat.

"She hasn't moved since I found her, my lord," said Atwater. "Her weapon's on the table. After seeing the bodies, I thought I'd better get it out of her reach."

I got up and looked at the weapon on the table. Not a hunting knife, the blade was too short, not even a full finger- length. A skinning knife, I thought, but not a common one at all. The metal was worked like the finest sword, the pattern of its folding visible even in the darkness of the house.

Tosten whistled softly. "She took out three mercenaries with that knife?"

"They underestimated her," I said, setting the knife back on the table. Stala said that men tended not to take her seriously because she was a woman and that gave her an advantage that more than made up for the difference in size and strength. "Tosten would you go hold the horses and send Oreg in to look at her wounds." I'd done some field surgery, but the smell of flesh-rot told me we'd need more than that here - and Oreg, among other things, was an experienced healer.

Tosten nodded and turned on his heel without comment.

When Oreg appeared in his stead, the atmosphere in the house changed. No one in the house acted like they were afraid of Oreg, but they set him at a distance due the Wizard of Hurog.

Though he'd grown a little taller since I first met him, he was still a few fingers shorter than Tosten. Oreg's dark hair made him stick out among the fair-haired Shavigmen, but his purple-blue eyes, duplicates of Tosten's, proclaimed him a Hurog born and bred. In the past few years, unbound by the spells that had held him, he'd begun to look more like a man and less a boy, but he, like Tosten was slight of build. He didn't look like someone to be afraid of. Still less did he look like a man who had arisen from the dead.

I'd told everyone that Oreg'd been ensorcelled and that by killing him I'd broken the spell. They seemed to accept it and Oreg -- but they gave him space when they could.

Oreg held up his hand as he approached the hearth and light reflected from his curved palm and lit the little house as if the roof had come off and allowed the sun into all the dark corners. He tossed the ball of light up and it hovered above him while he pulled the furs off of the woman to get a better look at her.

In Oreg's light, her cheeks were flushed with fever and her eyes were sunken. But then, even at her best she had never been beautiful not by conventional standards.

"Tisala," I said, stunned.

Oreg stopped his examination to peer with momentary interest at her face. "So it is." He agreed mildly. "Good thing they took her knife away from her."

"Do you know her, my lord?" asked Atwater as if it surprised him not at all. He'd gone from thinking I was as brutal and irrational as my father to expecting miracles ever since that night last winter when I found his son.

"Yes, I know her," I said. It didn't seem enough, so I added. "I fought with her at my back." And there wasn't a higher compliment any Shavigman could give.

Atwater nodded, content that his lord was still odd, worldly, and all-knowing.

The last time I'd seen Tisala, her curly dark hair had been shorter than my own, but now it hung in lank tangles down to her shoulders, making her skin all the more white.

Oreg's hands were gentle, but when they touched her left hand her whole body stiffened and she moaned.

"She's been tortured," he said matter-of-factly.

I nodded. It was hard to miss: both hands, left worse than right, both feet. No telling what other damage had been done: she wore an old pair of trousers, patched and baggy, and a shirt whose arms were too short over the rest.

"They hadn't had her long," he said at last. "She'll live, if the fever and the putrefication don't kill her. But we ought to take her to the keep where my medicines are."

Magic, that meant. I'd told Oreg not to tell people exactly what he could do. He couldn't really cure her, but he could kill the infection and let her body heal on its own -- which was more than any other mage I'd ever heard of could do. It would be safer for him if all of Shavig didn't start whispering about how powerful the Hurogmeten's wizard was. Better by far to avoid all notice so we didn't get another Kariarn looking for power.

I took one of the larger furs and rolled Tisala in it. Then I scooped her up and stood, forgetting how low the ceilings were so I rapped my head a good one.

Atwater winced in sympathy.

As soon as we were well away from the farm, my brother guided his horse next to mine and said, "What was Tisala doing here?"

Oreg gave a snort of laughter and said, "Why do all the strays end up at Ward's door?"

"I don't know," I said, outwardly ignoring Oreg. Had she been running to me? It would have seemed unlikely to me this morning I hadn't seen her in a long time and had only known her briefly. I wouldn't even have thought I would have left much of an impression on her I had been nineteen and full of myself while she had been her father's right-hand for several years. Moreover, I was nothing out of the ordinary well, except for my size, while she was the only female warrior I knew of other than my aunt Stala, who served as my arms master.

I looked down at her again. Undeniably she was here. She'd fled whoever had hurt her, and come to me. I remembered hearing that she'd been estranged from her father. It bothered me that the only one she'd had to turn to was someone she'd known a few days several years ago.

"I'd like to know how she got into this condition," I said.

"The mercenaries?" hazarded Oreg who'd ridden up to my left. But he shook his head almost instantly. "She'd have gutted them long before they could bring her up here."

"Her father Haverness disowned her for taking up with a bunch of dissidents in Estian last year, didn't he?" Tosten mused. "People who wanted his half-brother Alizon on the throne rather than Jakoven?"

King Jakoven's name made me pause. If it had been Jakoven, then Tisala did indeed have a reason for coming here. There weren't many nobles still powerful enough to thwart the High King of the Five Kingdoms, but my family was. Hurog was an ancient keep and carried more power than its lack of wealth should lend. The Shavig were a long-memoried people, and Hurog had ruled Shavig in the days before the Tallvens had eliminated their competition.

"I wouldn't rule it out," I said. "That would explain why she fled here, rather than to her father or one of her co- conspirators."

"We'll keep her safe," said Tosten, his jaw set. My family would be a long time forgetting that the king had killed my cousin during one of his political games. Tisala had chosen wisely, no one would betray her here.

I couldn't be certain it had been Jakoven, not until she woke; but I had to plan for it.

"Oreg will you ride ahead and let my aunt know what's happened here? Be discrete, but make sure she understands that we may have royal troops here soon."

"Right," he said.

I waited until his sprinting horse was out of sight before I turned to my brother. "You're my heir. If the king finds out I've sheltered an enemy, he's likely to declare me a traitor. I'd like you to ride to our uncle and explain to him what's happened."

He gave me a small, half-smile. "You don't have the right to protect me anymore, Ward. I'm older than you were when you took on Kariarn of Vorsag. You can quit giving me that look Stala does it better. If it comes down to making sure Hurog stays in Hurog hands, I'll run. But, it's highly unlikely that Tisala would have led them here, and there's no reason for the king to think she'd come. I've not seen her above a dozen times in the last four years. The way you stay away from court, I doubt you've seen her at all."

Only in my dreams, I thought. I might not believe I'd made much of an impression upon her, but the reverse was certainly not true. "I would feel better with you in Iftahar with Duraugh."

"Too bad for you," he muttered, I don't think I was supposed to hear. He cleared his throat. "I always liked Tisala Mother spoiled me for fragile women."

I laid Tisala face-down on the top of the table in the library because it was one of the few finished rooms in the keep that had a window to let in the light. Tosten had muttered something about being useful elsewhere, turned on his heel and left. He seldom stayed in the room while Oreg worked magic.

I cut her clothing and pulled it out from under her until she lay bare. Her back had whip marks laid out so evenly that there wasn't more than a thumb's worth of skin left on her whole back. Some of them were almost healed, but many places the scabs were broken and wept clear fluid.

I heard an indrawn breath behind me. I turned my head and saw Oreg stare down at her back. Then he began to pace rapidly and rub his hands together, not usually a good sign.

I sat down on a bench hoping that my own restfulness would allow him to calm.

"Oreg," I said to catch his attention. Sometimes he had relivings that could be harrowing to all concerned. Soldiers had them, flashes of past battles that seem, for a moment, more real than the present -- but Oreg could the make the visions real. I'd never seen anyone but Oreg be harmed by them, but they were frightening all the same. "Tisala needs you."

He stared at me, breathing hard, looked away for a moment and gave me a tired smile. "Right."

We started by cataloguing the damage. It was not pleasant, that half hour, I was glad more than once that Tisala was unconscious, both for her dignity and her pain. It was her left hand that was the worst, the initial damage, which was considerable, made worse by infection. Upon closer examination several of the broken scabs on her back were puffed up with puss. Bruises abounded on her hips and inner thighs, where she'd been raped.

Oreg growled and muttered as we continued checking her carefully. Her feet were a mess. Oreg said finally that the damage was from walking so far in ill-fitting shoes rather than a torturer's knife.

He set her foot down and turned to the smaller table that held various herbs and salves, hot water and bandaging. "You think Jakoven did this?" With a wave of his hand he indicated Tisala's damaged state.

I nodded. "I can't think of any other reason she'd run all the way here."

"She liked you." Oreg used a clean knife to open one of the putrid places on Tisala's back, sponging up the fluid that escaped with a clean wet cloth.

"True enough," I agreed. "But I haven't seen her since I was last in Oranstone."

I'd helped Oreg heal before, and we worked as a team. Most of what we did was ordinary stuff, clean wounds, cover with mixtures of salves and powders that Oreg hoarded, then bandage.

But her left hand was swollen to twice its normal size and it was the source of the putrid smell. He soaked it first in hot sea water. Tisala must have really been in rough shape because she didn't even protest. When he was through he poured alcohol over it, again she had no reaction. Oreg examined her now-clean hand again.

Healing was the most difficult of all magics to do because the mage must know as much about the body as he does about his magic. And even a little healing sucked up such power as most mages can only dream about.

In power I was the equal of many and better than most, with such ability as four years of Oreg's tutoring could bring, but I would not have even known where to start to save the mess that remained of Tisala's left hand.

"She might loose her fourth finger anyway," commented Oreg shaking his head. "There's too much dead flesh."

"She fights right-handed," I said. "Would it be better to cut it off now?"

Oreg frowned and turned her hand this way and that. "I always hate to cut something off I can't put back on. Let me try and heal this. If it doesn't take, there will be plenty of time to cut it off later."

He set her hand down and pulled up a three legged stool next to the table. When he was comfortable he took her hand up again and poured magic over it.

Oreg had been part of Hurog since there was a Hurog to be a part of, and I was Hurog-bred sensitive to the magics imbued in the land and in him. When Oreg worked magic around me, it felt almost erotic like a hand touching me intimately. It was disturbing, but I shrugged off the uncomfortably feeling with the ease of long practice.

There is an art to working magic, and Oreg was very, very good at his art. His touch was focused and powerful, eerily beautiful to watch. When his power began to flicker, I rested my hands on his shoulder and gave him what I could of mine; all the while watching what he was doing to Tisala's hand.

Flesh peeled back and burned away in bright purple flame, leaving healthy pink behind. Oreg left other bits of flesh that looked no more healthy than the flesh he'd destroyed -- he must have seen things I did not.

When he was finished at last, her hand looked more swollen and bruised than it had when we started. I hauled Oreg off to rest on the padded bench against the wall, then turned back to Tisala with clean bunting.

"Don't wrap that hand," Oreg said. "The air will help it heal, and she won't be doing much for a few days to get it dirty."

I looked to the wounds we hadn't dealt with yet. "I think she's got a rib that's cracked or broken," I replied. "Do I bind her ribs or will that hurt her back?"

Oreg pushed himself off the bench, and moving like an old, old man, examined the place I showed him. "Bruised," he grunted, shuffling back to the bench. "Don't wrap it."

I left Oreg, pale and sleeping, in the library and took Tisala up to my own room to rest. She looked oddly fragile in the bed built for me, I thought, smiling because she would have laughed if she'd heard anyone call her fragile.

A middle aged man with sweat from the fire coating his bald head, looked up as I came into the forge and nodded at me before turning his gaze back to the bar he was shaping.

"Good 'noon, Hurogmeten," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"Hinges." I said. "And a portcullis door to go with the gatehouse we don't have. Bars for all the windows. A thousand blades and the warriors to use them."

The armorer gave me a brief smile. "The same as usual, then." The armorer shaped the iron with the same swift skill he showed with steel. It was a real concession on his part when he agreed to work iron with the blacksmith as blacksmithing was a step down from the work he'd usually been called upon to do.

"Stala said we might have a visit from the king soon," said a quiet voice from the back.

I walked around to see the blacksmith pulling shoes off a horse. He was a little younger than the armorer with long blond hair he pulled back to keep out of his eyes.

"We might," I agreed. "But we'll not be fighting if I can help it. For one thing, the gate in the curtain wall will come down at the first hit of a battering ram. He'll be looking for the woman we brought in today, and the trick will be not to let him know she's here."

The blacksmith set the horse's leg down and tossed the old shoe into a barrel. "I had heard you'd gotten another stray," he grinned. Unlike the armorer, he liked to chat while he worked.

"Hardly a stray," I said, then reconsidered. "Well, she needs help for a bit but she'll not be staying."

"We've gotten most of the bars for the windows done," he said, "and bolts and brackets for the doors inside the keep. Hinges too, for that matter but we haven't started on the hinges for the keep door yet. So far we're ahead on nails and fasteners of various kinds, but the carpenter sent his boy into check today so I imagine we'll be doing nails again in the near future."

The heat of the forge felt good in the cool air, so I stayed a talked a bit, helping with bellows and fetching water from the well.

Tisala's state had left me melancholy, and work was good to dispel it. When I left the forge's warmth, I wandered along the curtain wall and touched a rough hewn granite block of the curtain wall to remind myself of how much we'd accomplished since Hurog had fallen.

The inner curtain walls had been the first thing I'd had rebuilt after Hurog fell. And it was a good thing, too -- between the death of my father, and the invasion of the Vorsag, bandits from hundreds of miles around had come to see if Hurog were ripe for the plucking. The Blue Guard under my aunt's direction, fended them off -- but had there not been the curtain wall to hide my people behind, the bandits would have laid waste to the farmers who worked the land.

The wall was as tall and as solid as the one that had withstood many centuries of Shavig weather. On the bottom it was almost fifteen feet thick, good stone block on the outside, filled with rubble (of which we had plenty), on the top it narrowed to less than nine feet across, but still amply wide to allow the guardsmen to walk. It was a good wall, even if it looked odd with the granite stones outnumbering the blackstone.

Inside the wall, the bailey was oddly barren since the miscellaneous small buildings that my ancestors had added were gone. It had taken a great deal of work to level the bailey, since the earthen mound the keep had sat upon had settled a great deal after some of the caves beneath it had collapsed.

The new guard's quarters were built against the wall near one of the six towers, the only stone building in the bailey except for the forge. The quarters were a neat, rectangular building that took up half the space of its predecessor with twice the usable space. There was stabling in the bailey for a few animals, but most of the horses were outside, between the inner wall and where the outer had once stood.

I sighed, thinking of the outer walls and decided to continue to work on the floor of the main hall something that might be done before I died of old age. Tosten was working alone on the floor and I joined him. Tiling was mucky and nasty, and the lime in the grout finding its painful way into every little cut.

"Why did you rebuild Hurog so large?" Tosten asked, fitting a tile into the pattern we'd decided upon. "It doesn't need to be this big any more. Hurog isn't rich and this seems pretentious. We could have had a hall half this size, two stories instead of three, and half the bedrooms."

I could have argued the large. By Tallvenish standards Hurog wasn't big, though keeps in Shavig tended to be smaller. It only felt big because he and I and Oreg were the only Hurogs left to live in it. My sister, Ciarra, had married our cousin Beckram and lived at Iftahar, my uncle's estate. Iftahar's keep rang with the sounds of children and seemed much smaller than it actually was.

I said, "There is little expense involved the granite is ours and only needs quarrying. I'd be paying the Guard anyway, they might as well do something for it."

Tosten snickered, "I'd like to hear you say that in front of Stala."

I widened my eyes and dulled the expression on my face. "Do I look stupid to you?"

"No one," he said, fitting a tile against the grout he'd laid down, "is as stupid as that."

I laughed at looked around at the keep. "It's not that large; You could fit our keep into the king's palace at Estian a dozen times over. The trade with the dwarves isn't much yet, but Axiel tells me that the mysterious illness that had afflicted his people is over. There are dwarven children now, after so many years, and soon there'll be more time to spare for the making of luxury goods for trade."

Tosten nodded. "Good for him. I haven't talked to him since he came here last winter and helped finish your room."

"Neither have I," I said, "but Oreg visits him now and again."

"How is Tisala?"

"The only thing we're still worried about is her left hand, but she'll live even if Oreg doesn't manage to save it.

He nodded and turned his attention to the floor. After a little while he began humming a ballad. When he began I joined in to. After a bit we began to attract a group of children, so we hammed it up a bit. Tosten found a song with male and female roles. He took the male in a high squeaky voice and I sang the female in bass. We entertained the children and worked until it was time for dinner. Even Tosten was hoarse, but the cook brought in hot-mulled cider and kissed his cheek in gratitude for keeping the children at bay while their mothers cooked and cleaned.