"That'sh crap," Belden
Harry shook his head vigorously, which only made him see triple instead of double. "It's not," he
insisted. "That's the way they do it in Pandathaway." He knew he was almost as drunk as the other man, but
he enunciated carefully so as not to show it. Appearances were everything.
As far as appearances went, Belden wasn't that impressive. He was medium height, on the slim side
but wiry, with a shock of unruly reddish-brown hair that straggled farther and farther out of the leather
thong holding it back as the night progressed. His eyes were normally an arresting crystal blue, but now
they were clouded from the untold tankards of ale he'd consumed. From a distance, he looked deceptively
Harry had been drinking with him since early that evening, and had come to the conclusion that
Belden was anything but ordinary. There was a peculiar grace to his movements that made Harry think of
the few elves he'd met, and many of his statements were downright odd. He didn't seem to be up on current
events, for one thing. True, northern Andur was a bit of a cultural wasteland, especially compared to the city
of Glorious Pandathaway, but it was still fairly common knowledge that the Emperor was Delantos the
Eighth, not Mad Alan, as Belden seemed to believe.
The reign of Alan III, known as Mad Alan for his habits of cruelty to animals and servants, and a
tendency to try to walk across the moat without using the drawbridge, was a well-known, if shameful, part
of Anduran history. But it had ended almost a hundred years ago. News didn't travel that slow, not even up
For another thing, Belden spoke with an elven accent. His Anduran was speckled with archaic
Dalnari phrases. It all made Harry curious, and he had never been able to deny his curiosity. It was that
which had brought him here, taking leave of the city of his birth and exploring what most Pandathans
thought of as a barbaric wilderness. He was discovering otherwise. While Andur was no Pandathaway, it
had its charms. He laughingly told others that he was doing his graduate work on the inns and taverns of
Andur, and was currently in the reasearch stage.
Curious though he was, he would have to wait a while to question Belden about his past. He wasn't
sure he could speak coherently enough. And besides, they were too busy arguing the current topic, which
concerned the habits of courtesans in Pandathaway. It was a subject Harry felt confident to debate with
some expertise, since he had been a regular, if not overly frequent, customer of the city's finest night spots
ever since his best friend Howie had introduced him to the House of Infinite Dreams on his fifteenth
"Can't be," Belden said, draining his mug and waving for another.
"I'll prove it," Harry said, standing. The room reeled crazily around him and he sagged back into
his seat. "Oh, wait. Hard to get there from here."
The barmaid set another frothy mug in front of Belden and refilled Harry's goblet. He pinched her
bottom out of habit, and she giggled wearily at him, trying to be flirtatious as was expected but only
managing to sound worn out. It wasn't hard to see why.
It was a busy day at the Grey Pony. They'd started out at the Whispering Nymph, across town,
earlier that afternoon, but when they realized they would be sealing their newfound friendship with some
serious drinking, they decided to take it somewhere a bit more appropriate. The Pony was perfect. It seemed
to be owned by the hard-faced woman who watched them all with a wary eye, and the patrons were rough
men of the mercenary sort. Tonight, the inn was crowded because it was rumored that the Baron had come
down from his castle in Westontown and might be hiring for a campaign against a threat of orcs from the
Forbidden Forest. The men drank hard, talked loud, and bragged incessantly. The only person who seemed
out of place was the thin, small waif of a girl who slipped along the wall and spoke to the woman. Harry
happened to glimpse her face under her hood, and saw an ugly scar twisting her cheek into a snarl of whitish
tissue. He watched her, noting her unkempt mop of thick black hair and her smoke-grey eyes. He decided
she might actually be pretty if she was cleaned up. And if something was done about that horrible scar, of
The woman frowned, and Harry wished once again that he could read lips. He'd been trying to
learn off and on for a long time, but studying had never been a favorite pastime of his. Not when there were
so many glasses undrunk, and ladies unkissed. He grinned at the thought and lifted his wine.
"To the ladies of Pandathaway," he said, loud enough for Belden to hear but not wanting his voice
to carry much beyond the table. His people weren't much liked in rural Andur. Magic was distrusted, and
mages even more so.
"To the ladies anywhere," Belden corrected, grinning broadly. "I love 'em all!"
He joined in the other young man's laughter, but his eyes were drawn back to the girl and the
woman. He was just in time to see the woman give the girl something, something that she quickly tucked
away. The speed and subtlety with which she made it disappear caused his eyebrows to go up a fraction.
The girl edged through the tables and out the door. The woman said something to the burly,
tattooed man tending the bar. He nodded and Harry saw his big hand dip behind the bar. He'd seen such
moves before, and would have wagered every last Pandathan gold coin in his purse that the bartender was
reaching for a weapon.
The door was pushed open, letting in a draft and the last of the afternoon light. It also let in a huge
figure in elaborate armor. At once, all conversation in the room ceased. Men set down their drinks and
reached for their knives. Drunks sobered rapidly.
The newcomer looked around the room. His posture was erect, haughty. The crest of his helm
nearly brushed the timbered ceiling. While many of the patrons wore mismatched bits of scrounged armor,
this man was arrayed in full dress plate, polished to an aggressive shine. The surcoat that flapped at his
knees was bright yellow, emblazoned with a scarlet wyvern and four red circles.
"Forsooth!" declared the stranger. "What manner of foul establishment doth this be, that I have
unwittingly come to in hopes of an honest night's revelry?"
"What?" Belden whispered, leaning across the table toward Harry. "What did he say?"
"I don't think he likes the looks of the place," Harry said carefully.
"It doth seem that I have been misled," the stranger continued. He pulled off his helmet, revealing
a broad, handsome face framed with a short-trimmed brown beard and cropped brown hair. His skin had the
pale, waxy look of one who spends most of his outdoor time in a helm, and his hazel eyes were squinty,
accustomed to peering through a visor. He approached the nearest table. "Tell me, commoner, if thou canst,
where I might find an inn more worthy of a knight."
"He's Tolian!" Harry said, snapping his fingers. "A Tolian knight!"
"How can you tell?" Belden asked.
"The accent. Only Tolians talk like that."
The knight turned and regarded them from his full height, which was somewhere close to seven
feet. "Didst thou speak the name of mine own homeland?" he inquired, his voice rolling across the crowded
"Uh-oh," Belden murmured into his cup. "Now you did it, bigmouth."
"Speak, man!" commanded the knight. "I have asked of thee a question."
Harry smiled. It was a wide, winning smile filled with sparkling teeth. He rose and gave a slight
bow. "Verily, sir knight, I hadst mentioned thine country, which is known far and near as the seat of honor."
The knight paused, lips moving silently as he repeated Harry's words, searching for the insult.
When he did not find one, he returned the smile and crossed the room in three large strides, seizing Harry's
hand in his gauntlet and shaking it vigorously.
"Well met, sirrah!" he said. "'Tis long I have come without hearing fair words spoken in the
custom of my people, and welcome indeed it doth be. I am Sir Wyren of Tol Vivain. Who art thou, who
doth greet a stranger so sweetly?"
"Harold Ethelbald," he replied, attempting to free his hand from the knight's tight metal grip that
was slowly crushing his fingers.
A look of consternation clouded the knight's face. "Thou art not a knight?" he asked
Harry sighed inwardly. No matter where he went, he was never accepted. Back home, he'd been
sneered at by all his classmates because he lacked the talent for magic. Even his own father, the leader of
the Council of Twenty, had been unable to reconcile himself to the fact that his son would never be a great
wizard. And so he'd gone to Andur, thinking to find acceptance among people who did not even like mages.
Instead, he'd found that they all distrusted him because they thought he was a wizard, simply by virtue of
coming from Pandathaway. Now, this overblown Tolian was going to look down on him because he wasn't
a knight either.
He glanced at Belden. The wiry young man was sniggering into his beer. Belden didn't seem to fit
in anywhere either, but if it bothered him, it didn't show.
It bothered Harry. He was tired of it. He looked the knight dead in the eye, which meant he had to
tilt his head back. Though he himself was quite tall, the knight towered over him.
"Nay, sir, I am not a knight," he admitted. "I have come here in hopes of earning such honor in the
great tournament. Though in all truth, I must say that I shall never be as worthy a knight as thee."
"The tournament!" Wyren boomed. "What a fortuitous event! For I, too, have come to test my
mettle against stalwart opponents! Mayhaps I shall meet thee upon the field of honor! What is thy crest, that
I might know thee armored?"
Harry's mind whirled. He'd heard the tournament mentioned only in passing, by a few people over
at the Whispering Nymph. There had been a foreign knight staying there with his shy but lovely lady and
squire. The knight, Geoffrey Longsword, had rambled ceaselessly about the tournament. Harry had no
intention of even attending such a thing, let alone taking to the field as a participant.
"A silver sword upraised on a black field," he said, describing Geoffrey's coat-of-arms.
"And I fight under the banner of the scarlet wyvern," Wyren said proudly, thumping his shield.
"Thou art fortunate to have made mine acquaintance, Squire Harold! 'Tis delighted I am to see a man earn
his belt, thou methinks thou art somewhat old for thine knighthood."
"My father wanted me to be a merchant," Harry lied, wondering why he was making such a big
deal out of this.
"A merchant!" Wyren's expression suggested that Harry might as well have said his father wanted
him to be a fish-gutter. "What manner of life is that for an honorable man?"
"None at all," Harry said. "I've never met an honorable merchant."
"That's true," Belden agreed.
Wyren looked down at him. "And who might thou be, young lad? Thou art too scrawny to be a
knight, and too ill-mannered even to be a squire."
Belden set down his mug with a thunk, making ale splash over the sides. He started to stand. His
eyes flashed dangerously.
"Sir knight!" Harry shoved Belden back into his chair. "I am most surprised at thee, that thou
wouldst so insult a man who thou knowest not! This man may be, for all thy sight, the greatest swordsman
of all time!"
Wyren stepped back and studied Belden with renewed interest. "Indeed, friend Harold, thou may
speaketh the truth. It is most unwise of me to judge before I have seen with mine own eyes his prowess in
battle. Tell me, dost thou join us on the tourney field? What is thy banner?"
Belden looked wildly at Harry, who nodded urgently.
"Um," he said. "Uh, a wolf."
"A wolf! A creature of strength and ferocity. Dost thou fight with its selfsame guile and
"Hey!" Belden protested.
"And what of thee, Sir Knight?" Harry interrupted. "Dost thou fight with the legendary cowardice
of the wyvern?"
Wyren's face went as red as the device on his surcoat. Several of the watching mercenaries tensed
in expectation. Belden gaped at Harry, who stood his ground with a small smile playing about his lips.
"Prepare thyself, sirrah!" Wyren began, reaching for the sword slung across his back. "I would not
cut thee down unarmed."
"Thou mistakest me, friend," Harry said smoothly. "I did but mean to suggest that thy assumption
of this man's abilities was erroneous, by means of revealing to thee a similar error."
Wyren paused again, and his skin faded back to its customary pallor. "I withdraw my claim on thy
valor, squire. Thou hast made thy point as well as any lanceman. To thy friend I must add that I meant no
slight toward his chosen symbol."
"I would advise thee to be more careful of thy words in the future," Harry said, sitting down. "This
land is not as thine, and the ways here thou might find different. Thou wouldst not wish to waste thy time in
useless duelling when there are prizes to be won on the tourney grounds."
"Prizes matter little," Wyren sniffed. "It is the honor, and the acclaim." He pursed his lips,
thinking. "And the ladies," he added. "Most especially the daughter of this land's liege lord, who is most
"The lord?" Belden asked.
"Nay, I speak of his daughter, the beauteous Lady Aylara. Like sunlight through the petals of a
palest pink rose is her skin, and luminous her eyes as the deep sea grottos. And her hair, like a river of rich
Belden opened his mouth, and Harry swiftly kicked him under the table.
"Indeed," he said. "I have heard this, and more besides. Is it true she will bestow a kiss to the
"That I had not heard," Wyren said. "But this very night before I rest, I shall lay hands upon my
sword and pray to almighty Anatole that this is true. A kiss from those honeyed lips would sustain a man
through a hundred days of war."
"Wow," Belden said.
Harry didn't say anything, but the knight's words, flowery as they were, stirred his imagination.
Maybe this tourney was worth hanging around for. Pandathaway was full of attractive women, but many of
those had their features magically enhanced. In Andur, he'd found that there was something to be said for
"The mere thought of it is enough to set my heart ablaze," Wyren said. "I must beg to bid thee
farewell, friends, for if what thou hast told me is true, nothing will do but that I win this event and the lady's
kiss, which is worth more than any purse of gold." He retrieved his helm and made his way to the door,
ignoring and being ignored by all the patrons.
"What a loon," Belden said as the door closed behind the departing knight.
"He's Tolian," Harry shrugged. "They're all like that. I heard a song once about a knight who rode
all the way to war with his helmet on backwards, and he never noticed. The Tolians love that song. They
think it's a stirring battle march."
"How'd you learn to talk like that?"
"My mother watches a lot of chapter-plays. Some of them are like that. It's easy, once you get
going. Sometimes it's hard to stop. I have that trouble. My friend Howie, he's a pirate, and he talks with the
most outrageous accent. After I've been around him long enough, I start to sound just like him. Now you,
you've got an accent, but I can't place it. It sounds partly elven, and partly Dalnari."
"Zelani elven," Belden said, finishing his ale. "I grew up there."
"Among the elves?"
"Yeah." Bitterness tinged his voice. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Ok," he said. "What do you want to talk about instead?"
"This princess," Belden mused. "Is she as pretty as they say?"
"Baronetta, not princess. I don't know. I've never seen her. But I wouldn't mind finding out."
"So let's go," Harry suggested. "I heard the baron's in town. Maybe we'll see her."
"What, just wander through town asking girls if they're the baron's daughter?" Belden shook his
head. "Ineresting way to meet girls, but I don't know."
"Come on. It'll be fun." Harry spotted a half a glass of wine he'd somehow missed, and made it
disappear. "Mayhaps it shall stir thy blood and warm thy arm for the tourney."
"Right. Like I'm going to be allowed to fight in a tournament. I'm no knight. I'm not even a squire,
and neither are you."
"What was I going to do, tell him the truth? Wake up, Beld. So I'm not a squire. Nobody knows
that but you. It isn't what you are that matters. It's what everyone thinks you are."
"Stop right there," Belden said, standing and waggling his finger in Harry's face, an impish light
dancing in his eyes. "I can see where this is going. I'm drunk, but I'm not that drunk. You're about two steps
away from trying to talk me into dressing up like some mysterious black knight and showing up at this
tournament. I can ride, but I don't know how to even hold a lance. And when I fight, I fight to win. If that
means I have to kick some poor sap in the plums and then run him through while he's gasping for breath,
that's the way I do it. What do you think I am, some sort of mad-ass hero?"
Harry applauded. "Brilliantly said. And worth about as much as a copper in Pandathaway. People
think what they want. You'd be amazed how stupid they can be. Why, give me a year, and I could have
everybody in the barony -- no! Everybody in Delain! -- thinking you're the greatest hero since Kenris the
"I'm serious! And this tourney sounds like the perfect place to start."
Belden leaned over and peered closely at him. "Do you have any idea how drunk you really are? It
doesn't show, but you're soused to the gills, my friend."
"And you're not drunk enough. Maybe you need another ale or six."
"I'd have to drink the Anduran brewers out of business before I'd go along with one of your crazy
Harry jingled his pouch. "I can afford it. Good Pandathan gold goes a long way."
"You keep flashing that around in here, and it'll go all sorts of different ways. Part of it will go
home with that guy, and another part with those three guys over there ..."
"Oh." Harry looked around and saw the mercenaries watching the two of them with flat, glinting
eyes. "Yeah. I forgot. I must really be drunk."
"I'd better get you out of here," Belden said. "I like a barfight as much as the next man, but my ribs
still hurt from that one in White Sands."
"White Sands? I've been there," Harry said as he followed the shorter man toward the door.
"You've come all the way from White Sands and you're still hurt? Why didn't you go to a Healer?"
"Huh?" Belden proceeded out into the dusty street, shielding his eyes against the glare of the
"Healer. You know, those people in the blue robes?"
"I thought they were priests."
"Nope. Andur's funny that way. They hate magic, but they've got these Healers who can do
everything almost as well as a priest of Dorian. Not to mention the Seers."
"What's a seer? You mean a fortune teller? I ran into some of those in Annis-Mara. Some old lady
told me I'd be returning that way, following my destiny."
Harry kicked a rock. It rolled along the rutted dirt and came to a stop. He weaved toward it and
kicked at it again, missing. He swayed and pinwheeled his arms for balance. "Seers are weird. They see the
future. All the time." He drew back his foot.
Belden darted ahead of him and kicked the rock first. It skittered a long way and plunked into a
puddle. "That's a point for me," he said.
"What? Any dolt can kick a stone into a puddle. The skill's in missing it."
"That's like saying a skilled swordsman is one who can fight all day and not draw blood," Belden
"Not the same thing at all." Harry went up to the puddle and paused. "See, when you get it in the
mud, you can't get it out without getting yourself messy."
"Same as sticking a sword in a man," Belden insisted. "That can get messy too. But wat's the
matter, you fancy Pandathan fop? Afraid of the mud?" He planted both hands in the middle of Harry's back
and gave him a shove.
Harry leaped forward, one foot landing in the puddle and sending up a spray of dirty water. Belden
splashed through behind him. Both drenched to the knees, they looked at each other and laughed. Harry
kicked water at Belden, and Belden exectued an amazing acrobatic leap, springing high into the air and
coming down with both feet square in the puddle. Water flew again, dousing them both.
A passing woman, hair tucked under a kerchief, pulled her basket of linens closer to her and
hurried past, muttering something under her breath. Harry laughed harder. Two grown men, jumping around
in the mud like little boys. Belden picked up the rock and tossed it further down the street, toward an
intersection with Funess' main avenue, the only street in town that was cobbled.
"No you don't!" Harry cried. "The next point's mine!" He raced toward the stone. Belden overtook
him with uncanny speed. Harry grabbed him by the collar and jerked him back. They struggled, both having
trouble because of the laughter that threatened to double them over. Finally Belden hooked a foot behind
Harry's ankle and sent him sprawling.
With a triumphant cry, Belden kicked the stone. It flew into the street, and without a moment's
thought, he charged headlong after it.
Harry heard the thunder of hoofbeats, and jolted to his feet. "Belden, look out!" he yelled, running
He reacted immediately, throwing himself to the side, but even his amazing reflexes were not
enough to get him clear of harm's way. Harry skidded to a halt, certain that he was about to see his new
friend trampled. The horse was moving too fast, much too fast to stop.
The rider, reacting with a speed that rivaled Belden's, yanked back on the reins. The horse reared
and squealed, its hooves slicing the air. Belden scrambled to safety.
The horse's front legs came down, striking the cobbles sharply where Belden's head had been only
seconds before. Belden rolled to his knees and froze, staring openmouthed at the rider.
"Are you hurt?" she asked.
Harry did not gape, for which he later gave himself a lot of credit, but he was nearly as stunned by
the sight of her as Belden was. She was a few years older than either of them, but those years seemed
insignificant compared to her beauty. Her windblown hair was chestnut brown, framing a tanned face and a
pair of eyes as dark and wild as the eyes of an eagle. Her features were strong and proud, and there was a
defiant set to her jaw that proclaimed that she was not a woman to be trifled with. Her attire added to that
image, for she was clad in leather leggings, high boots, and a chainmail tunic, with a short cape fluttering
behind her. The tip of a bow was visible over her shoulder, and a quiver of arrows rested at her hip.
Belden kept staring, hands dangling limp at his sides. Harry realized that someone else would have
to do the talking. Fortunately, that was a task for which he was well prepared.
"He's fine, milady," Harry said. "The sight of you, not the fall, is what leaves him stunned. And I
cannot blame him."
She glanced at Harry, and a peculiar expression crossed her face. For a moment, it was as if she
recognized him. Then she seemed to catch herself, and leaned from the saddle to extend a gloved hand to
"Shouldn't dash out in the road like that," she said.
He slowly reached up and took her hand. His throat moved as he swallowed.
She hauled him upright, very strong for a woman. Harry was impressed, and intrigued. Belden was
merely shocked to the core. He could not take his eyes off of her, but neither could he say a single word.
"Lucky for him you were able to stop," Harry said. "I don't believe we've met."
"Don't you?" she said, smiling. "Dame Jaenyth Maran, knight of the Golden Bow."
"Harold Alaric Ethelbald III," he said, sweeping her the most elegant bow he knew, and realizing
halfway through it that he and Belden were both still muddy from their encounter with the puddle. "And he's
"Good to meet you both. But I must be off. Perhaps I'll see you at the tournament?"
"Assuredly," Harry said.
She nodded to them, and glanced at Belden. "I hope your friend's all right."
"He'll be fine." Harry nudged Belden sharply in the ribs, but the young man did not even blink.
Harry doubted he'd blinked at all, or even breathed, since catching sight of the woman.
Still wearing that secretive smile, Jaenyth urged her horse into a trot and continued down the street,
hair and cloak flying.
Once she was out of sight, Belden slapped himself three times, forehand and backhand and
forehand again. He turned to Harry, eyes wide.
"What a woman!" he gasped.
"And what a fool you made of us," Harry added, poking his arm. "What's the matter with you?"
"I have to see her again."
"Good luck," he snorted. "In case you were too numb to listen, the lady is a knight. A female
knight. Wealthy, too, by the looks of that horse and her clothes. How are you going to get anywhere near
"The tournament," Belden said simply. "I have to get in that tournament."
Jaenyth reined in Windswift
in front of the Funess Grand Hotel, the only place Baron Fenmarc
would stay when he visited the largest town of his realm. She swung easily out of the saddle and turned the
spirited roan over to one of the stableboys.
Her mind was occupied replaying the scene she'd just been through. The two men ... a sign that her
tranquil life was about to change. The blue-eyed one, with his unkept hair and elfin grace, had stared at her
in a way that made her feel decidedly peculiar. If a Symbyan oasis could feel, it would feel much the same
as she now did when a lost and desperate wanderer happened across it. That was how he had looked at her.
As if he could drink her in and never be sated. She had noticed other men observing her hungrily before, but
they were easy to dismiss. This one, though almost ten years younger than her, was different.
And the other ... she had always known that this day would come, but somehow her conscious
mind had rejected the idea. Those strange events in River Barony so many years ago had seemed unreal,
dreamlike. Now, out of a sunset, came a man who had never met her, but whom she recognized.
She followed the stableboy into the spacious stable, making sure he settled Windswift properly.
She shrugged out of her chainmail vest and slung it over a post, rubbing her sides through the thin doeskin
tunic she wore. Distracted by her thoughts, she barely nodded to her young squire, Brennis, as he eagerly
"Dame Jaenyth," he said, stopping in front of her and standing very straight. "The baron and Sir
Derrek are waiting for you in the corner conference room."
She nodded again. "Thank you, Bren," she said. "My chainmail's got a bad spot. Could you look at
"A fight, milady?"
"Hardly," she laughed. "Just another few orcs down from the Forbidden Forest. They landed one
lucky hit, but that was all."
"Are they dead?"
She patted her quiver. "My bow was hungry today. I'll need another bunch of arrows soon."
"I was hoping to go down to Windmar soon anyway. I go through arrows much faster than you."
"They'd last longer if you hit the target instead of the ground more often," she teased, punching his
upper arm. "Poor Bren. Just not meant to be an archer, are you?"
"Afraid not, milady. I keep telling you that. When will you let me practice with cheaper arrows,
instead of breaking all of Ilhana's finest?"
"You've got to learn. The lesson sinks in faster when expensive arrows are snapping against the
rocks. Besides, Ilhana's arrows fly straighter than any I've ever seen. With your aim, you need all the help
you can get."
The young man sighed. "Sad but true. I take some consolation in my ability with lance and sword."
"Don't get too cocky yet, squire. You've yet to unhorse Derrek."
"Sir Palin is unable to unhorse Derrek, and he's been jousting longer than I've been alive. But, just
wait. The day will come when I am the champion of the West."
"Oh, I know. That's why I'm training you. You'll be the best, Bren. The best knight Andur's ever
"I won't disappoint you," he said fervently.
"Don't do it for me. Do it for yourself. And for whatever lady whose favor you bear."
He blushed. "I've yet to meet the right one."
"Oh? And the baronetta's favor isn't good enough?" she inquired, raising her eyebrows.
"That's different. Aylara is like a sister to me. A pesky older sister, always picking on me and
trying to introduce me to her ladies."
Jaenyth grinned, shaking her head. "You're not the only one. Not that she's trying to introduce me
to her ladies, mind you, but she's a matchmaker born and bred. She can't help it any more than you can help
being a knight. It's in your blood. Aylara takes after her mother's Aunt Cecily."
"The most fiendish gossip in the East," Brennis observed.
"She is a good woman, and the nobility has reason to be grateful to her. Her custom of taking in
the young people for the summer has done more to improve Anduran relations than any of our diplomats. If
you hadn't been squired to me so young, I guarantee you would have spent your summers in River Barony
as well. Possibly then you would have met the right lady."
"And all of Andur would have known about it in a fortnight," he said sourly.
"Don't worry, Bren. You'll find her, whoever she is. You're a fine, strong, handsome young man.
Now be off with you and see to my armor. I might want to go hunting later, and I'll need it."
"Chainmail for hunting?" he frowned. "Too noisy."
She held up the two fresh-killed rabbits. "Not if you know the woods. And if I'd been wearing plain
leathers, those orcs would have done more than slice a tiny hole in my armor."
"The baron's lucky you're on his side," he said admiringly. "My father says you would have made
an excellent bandit."
"Your father speaks too freely. That's a dangerous trait in a baronial advisor, and an unacceptable
one in a squire. Now, are you going to take care of my chainmail, or am I going to have to test you on your
"I'm going, I'm going!" he said quickly, picking up the discarded chainmail vest and examining it
with a critical eye. "This won't take long."
"Good," she said. "Then you can get these rabbits to the kitchen and fix them up with onion and
garlic, the way the baron likes them."
"No. Once that's done, you're on your own. Maybe you should head for Windmar tomorrow. While
you're there, don't forget to order some tourney arrows for me."
"It's a wonder that anyone else even bothers to enter the archery event," he said, heading for the
door. "You've won for the past six years running."
"And I'll continue to win, especially if your aim is any indication of that of the rest of the Western
knights." She shooed him out and headed for the door into the back hall of the hotel, taking off her
swordbelt and running her fingers through her tousled hair in an attempt to restore some order to it before
she saw her liege-lord and the first man to recognize the capability of a woman as a knight.
The Funess Grand Hotel did its best to live up to its lofty name. The double doors were polished to
a high gloss, and panels of deep purple stained glass were inset in chevron patterns above the brass
doorhandles. The doorman, in his long coat of stiffened red velvet, snapped to attention as Jaenyth
approached. His eyes flicked over her, and though his expression did not change, his manner and bearing
suggested that he found her riding attire a bit disreputable for a lady of her rank. She regarded him coolly,
slapping the ends of her swordbelt into her palm until he opened the door and bowed.
The front hall of the hotel was vast, with a three-storey vaulted ceiling. Curved marble stairs,
carpeted with an emerald-green runner held in place by brass rods, rose to the second-floor balcony. The
bannister and posts were cherrywood, gracefully carved and polished smooth. Murals of clouds, birds, and
cherubs covered the upper reaches of the ceiling. A crystal chandelier, easily the height of a grown man,
hung in the center of the room. It blazed with the light of a hundred candles, but not a spot of wax marred
the gleaming white and green marble floor.
It was close to dusk, and the hall was alive with people. Elegantly-dressed guests descended from
the luxurious rooms on the second floor, chatting and laughing quietly as they made their way through the
columned arch leading to the dining room. Servants were everywhere, politely attentive but almost invisible.
From the dining room came the sounds of harp music and pipes, and the clear, perfect voice of one of
Jaenyth paused as she saw Lord Telberan, impossible to miss in his flaming orange doublet and
lemon-yellow hose. He passed without seeing her, engrossed in conversation with Lord Ranek, the baron's
treasurer. Ranek listened patiently, nodding, as Telberan no doubt outlined another of his plans for the
wonderful things he would do once he had become baron.
Ranek saw Jaenyth, and rolled his eyes comically behind Telberan's back. She winked at him.
Everyone knew that Telberan had about as much chance of becoming baron as a pixie in an ogre's den. His
ambitions far outraced his good sense. The baron's daughter, Aylara, would sooner marry the crazy old
alchemist on the edge of town than she would tolerate Telberan.
The object of Telberan's plans leaned over the balcony. "Jaenyth!" she called delightedly, waving.
"How good to see you!"
The other lords, ladies, and knights smiled at the sight of the baronetta coming down the stairs.
There were those who disagreed with Fenmarc, and those who did not support his various advisors, but
Aylara was universally beloved by the people of the West. The only surviving child of Fenmarc and the frail
but lovely Alyssa of River Barony had been indulged throughout her life, but she had somehow managed
not to become spoiled and haughty as so many young women of the nobility did. She was carefree and
vivacious, giggly, bubbly, and flirtatious. Though twenty-six, only two years younger than Jaenyth, Aylara
looked and acted like a girl in her teens. She had a full dozen suitors, if one counted those hopeless hopefuls
like Telberan, and her husband would succeed Fenmarc as the next baron of the West.
Though she seemed flighty, Jaenyth knew that Aylara was much more intelligent than she appeared
and had the best interests of the barony at heart. Her love for gossip cleverly disguised the fact that Aylara
knew more about what was going on in Andur than a lot of professional spies.
Aylara hurried down the stairs, cheeks flushed and looking very pretty in a flouncy silk gown. Her
long dark hair was piled atop her head, and her green eyes twinkled.
"Oh, Jaenyth," she sighed, taking the other woman's hands and holding her arms out to the side.
"You look positively dreadful. Why don't you wear a dress for once?"
"Hard to ride in a dress," Jaenyth said. "It tends to snag on the branches. And it's especially
limiting when I fight orcs."
"I don't know what I'm going to do with you," Aylara scolded. "I swear, you never listen to me."
"Who's supposed to be the teacher?" Jaenyth asked. For the past few years, she had been tutoring
the baronetta in history, literature and languages, and they had become friends despite their differences.
"You are. But this is something I know about. Really, Jaenyth. How do you expect to find a
husband when you go around looking like you've just been dragged through every bog and thicket between
here and Simonton?"
"Find a husband?" Jaenyth laughed merrily. "And when will you, who have been surrounded by
suitors since you were thirteen, choose one of them and end this silly competition?"
"I'll choose when I'm ready," she said airily. "Until then, I get gifts and flattery from a dozen men
instead of just one."
"You're a wicked creature, Aylara," Jaenyth said.
"I suppose so. And you could use a bit more wickedness. You're too severe, Jaenyth. Half the men
in Andur would be courting you if you didn't scare them witless."
"I'm not interested in suitors. You know it's a waste of my time."
"I know you too well. You're just waiting for the right man to come along."
"Oh?" Jaenyth inquired. "And do you, Madame Seer, know who this man might be?"
Aylara pursed her lips and considered, turning slightly to better show off for a group of young
knights who lingered by the entrance to the dining room. "Hmm. It couldn't be anyone ordinary. He'd have
to be handsome, of course, and brave. But he can't be the sort who'd expect you to act like a lady, because
the gods know I've tried for years and you still won't change. And he'd have to be able to at least challenge
you in a fight, because you'd never respect a man who you could thrash."
"I respect many men that I could thrash," Jaenyth argued. "Your father, Lord Ranek, and my uncle,
just to name a few."
"And he'd have to be a dead shot with a bow," Aylara finished.
"And I'll meet him when I'm a hundred years old."
"What?" Aylara asked, puzzled.
"Never mind. I'll tell you another time."
"Jaenyth Maran! Are you keeping secrets from me? You of all people? Bless my soul, the sun will
rise in the west tomorrow! You're the most honest woman I know!"
"Am I?" Jaenyth smiled. "No, Aylara, even I have my secrets."
The baronetta clutched her arm, face alight with excitement. "Tell me! I must know. I simply
"What good is a secret if it's told?"
"Just to me," Aylara wheedled. "I'll never tell anyone else. I promise. On my mother's name."
She patted her hands. "That's very sweet of you, Aylara, but I prefer to keep my past to myself."
"Oh! What could it be?"
"Never mind," she repeated. "Now, I really must go meet with your father. He and Derrek want to
go over some of the tourney schedules with me."
"They can wait a few minutes longer," Aylara said, trying without much success to pull Jaenyth
toward a quiet alcove.
She gently shook her loose. "No, Aylara. I've got to go."
"Oh, all right," she pouted. "But tell Sir Derrek, would you please, that I might like to go walking
down by the beach this evening? I think it will be warm enough."
"That's one way to make sure the meeting doesn't go on all night," Jaenyth said. "I think Derrek
will be more than amenable."
"Good. But could you maybe suggest it in a way that he'll come and ask me? I hate to be the one
taking charge all the time. Derrek's really wonderful, but he's about as romantic as a stump."
"Then why favor him over all the others?"
"Oh, well, Padraic's certainly poetic, and Andrew knows exactly the right kind of presents to get
me, and some of the others are better dancers or fancier dressers, but none of them are Derrek. There's just
something about him."
"He's a good, honorable man."
"And he's got such a nice chest," Aylara said. "Among other things."
"I hope you haven't been indiscreet, young lady," Jaenyth said sternly.
"Dorian teaches us that it's all right. You yourself were the one who told me about the ceremonies
they used to have, where the priests would --"
"That was a long time ago," she said. "You are the baron's daughter, and you should behave
"Don't scold me, Jaenyth. You know I haven't done anything I shouldn't. But I can think, can't I?
You keep telling me how important it is to think."
"You should be thinking of more important things."
"Like finding a man for you?" she pounced.
"No matchmaking. You're getting to be as bad as Dame Cecily. Leave my life as it is, and don't
pester Brennis so."
"Brennis? What's he been telling you?" she asked suspiciously.
"I'm sure you know. But let him be. He needs to focus on his training right now."
"That's all you ever think about. Training. You're as bad as Derrek. Sometimes I think you and he
should get married. What a dull, plodding couple you'd be! 'Did you put your shield away, dear?' 'Yes, dear,
and I even pounded the dents out of your corselet.' That's you and Derrek."
"I don't think so," Jaenyth said, smiling in spite of herself. "But I'll mention it to him."
"Jaenyth! You wouldn't!" Aylara gasped, eyes wide.
"You're right. But now I really have to get in there, or they'll be thinking the orcs got the better of
me. My reputation cannot handle a blow like that."
"All right," Aylara sighed. She glanced at the group of knights and dimpled at them. "I think I
might see about some dinner."
Jaenyth watched as the younger woman went over to the knights. The tallest of them pushed past
the others and offered his arm. Aylara graciously accepted it, giggling at something he said. She swept into
the dining room surrounded by the eager young men.
Flirt all you like, little one, she thought fondly. You'll marry Derrek. Everyone knows it.
"You're going to kill
yourself," Harry observed.
"Shut up," Belden panted. He was in the middle of a grueling series of push-ups, his hair hanging
in limp clumps around his red, sweaty face. "You made me lose count. Where was I?"
"Six," Harry said maliciously.
"Just kidding. You're somewhere around forty."
"Thank you so very much," Belden growled. He shoved himself up, the muscles in his wiry arms
bunched and trembling. "Forty-one!"
"Just trying to help," Harry said.
"Forty-two! If you really wanted to -- forty-three! -- help, you could get some -- forty-four! --
practice swords and fight with me. Forty-five!"
"You'll be dead before you hit sixty."
"Forty-six! For your information, wise-ass, I'm -- forty-seven! -- stopping at fifty."
"Thought you were going to do a hundred."
"Shut up," he snarled again. "Fifty!" He flopped on the grass, arms splayed out.
Harry got up from his comfortable lounging spot beneath a healthy oak in the back yard of the
Whispering Nymph. The remains of his lunch, thin-sliced venison and white cheese on good nutty bread, sat
beside the half-empty bottle of ruby wine that he had been working on while watching Belden put himself
through various tortures in the name of fitness. He walked over to the prone man and prodded him with the
toe of his black suede boot.
"How are you doing, hero?" he asked.
"Unh," Belden grunted.
Ilona, the innkeeper's daughter, came out the back door with two empty buckets. She was followed
by Tenli, the merchant girl Harry had rescued on his way north to Funess. He grinned to himself,
remembering the orcs' feeble attempts to signal each other with bird calls.
Tenli smiled at him and inhaled. He raised an eyebrow. Her inhalations were a sight to behold,
especially since she was wearing a dress she'd borrowed from Ilona. Though the innkeeper's daughter was
prettier, she was also more slender in her upper body, and Tenli's already impressive proportions threatened
to burst the bodice.
He nudged Belden again. "We've got an audience."
The girls giggled, and Belden drew strength from some untapped reservior and threw himself to his
feet. He flashed them a quick grin and sprang up to grab a branch, pulling himself to chin height.
"One!" he called.
Ilona whispered something to Tenli, casting admiring looks at the russet-haired young man. Very
aware of her attention, Belden kept doing pull-ups although his arms were shaking and sweat was standing
out in large beads on his brow.
"I thought you said something about a practice bout," Harry said loudly.
"Fine by me," Belden puffed, dropping lightly to the ground. "Hope you're ready to be humiliated."
"I think you might be in for a surprise," Harry said, walking over to the pile of wooden swords
under the stable overhang and rooting through them until he found a light, well-balanced saber.
"Oh, yeah?" Belden selected a heavier broadsword-length weapon. "What do you mages know
Harry spun and lunged in the classic Paloman fencing strike, knocking Belden's sword from his
hand. In one smooth movement, he kicked the sword away and set the saber's tip against the stunned
younger man's chest.
"I'm not a mage," he said quietly.
Belden's eyes widened, and a huge grin split his face. "Good. I was afraid this would be too easy."
He wiggled his toe under his sword and flipped it into the air, catching it neatly and whipping it over his
head and shoulders in the best show-off barbarian tradition.
Ilona and Tenli, their buckets forgotten, drifted closer.
"En garde." Harry thrust, and Belden whacked the lighter blade away, responding with a low
swing. Harry deftly backed up and parried, remembering to keep his stance correct and his balance centered
as his fencing master had taught him.
As they danced back and forth across the yard, Harry realized that Belden was quite good. His
style was primarily rough and effective, but a few of his moves were oddly old-fashioned. For the second
time, it occurred to Harry that there was something unusual about Belden's entire manner. His defense was
one that had been popular in Dalnari duelling over eighty years before. Mixed in among his savage swings
would be the occasional subtle, fluid thrust that would almost get through Harry's guard.
The first strike was Belden's, more by luck than by skill. The blunted blade fetched Harry a
glancing blow to the side. But Harry landed one of his own immediately after, tagging Belden high on the
Tenli cheered, excited, her face flushed and bosom heaving rapidly. Belden took advantage of
Harry's momentary distraction to hit him a second time. Forcing himself to pay attention, Harry went at
Belden with a series of swift thrusts, alternating high and low. Just at the moment when he judged Belden to
be familiar with the pattern and expecting the next high shot, he drove a second one in low and poked him
in the belly with the tip of the saber. Belden whoofed in surprise.
"Now we're tied," Harry said. "Next blow wins."
Belden nodded, then swung from the left. As Harry brought his sword around to parry, Belden
changed direction and the wooden blade smacked into Harry's right arm, jarring the saber from his grip and
hitting his elbow at just the right angle to make him grit his teeth to avoid jumping around.
"Three for me," Belden said.
Applause sounded, and they both started to turn toward the girls, when they saw that Ilona and
Tenli were not their only audience. Three others stood watching them, smiling and clapping.
They were familiar to Harry. The man, tall and blond with a handsome face that spoke of wealth
and a touch of arrogance, was the Glantrian knight, Sir Geoffrey Longsword. Beside him was a young
woman, barely more than fifteen, with red-gold hair and a curvaceous figure well-revealed by the low-cut
green gown she wore. Harry didn't know her name, but he'd seen her a few nights ago, and judged her to be
much more shy than the typical noble lady.
Geoffrey's squire disturbed Harry just as much now as he had on their first meeting. The boy,
known for some reason as Patience, looked like an ordinary ten or eleven-year-old lad with dark hair that
fell in his eyes and a tunic that was patched and too big for him. But there was something about the way he
cocked his head to look at them that made Harry uneasy.
"Well done!" Geoffrey said. He was casually dressed for a Glantrian, meaning that his royal blue
velvet doublet and trousers were plain instead of covered with ornate brocade and gold thread, and the
buttons were gilded wood instead of precious stones. A white cape was thrown over one shoulder, held in
place with a thick gold chain. "Quite the fight indeed. Do either of you plan to be in the tournament?"
"Yeah," Belden said, resting the point of the sword on the ground.
"Not the joust?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"We haven't decided yet," Harry said loftily.
"I love the joust," Ilona gushed, batting her eyes at Geoffrey.
Belden scowled, glancing at Geoffrey's lady. She was seemingly undisturbed by the blond knight's
obvious enjoyment of Ilona's attention.
"Jousting is indeed a sport," Geoffrey said, looking her over. "The artful thrust of a lance, the
rhythm of the ride --"
"The faceful of dirt and manure as you get knocked off," Belden interrupted.
Harry hid a smirk. Geoffrey's lady smiled. Her sea-green eyes twinkled. He saw that she wore a
fine gold chain with a pendant in the shape of a maned lion's head. It was the symbol of Aslan, the Lion-
God, protector of the forests and living things.
Geoffrey glared at Belden, who returned his gaze with a slight mocking grin. Ilona and Tenli
giggled brightly. The knight suddenly turned to his squire.
"Patience!" he called. "Fetch my practice sword. I fancy a bit of a workout."
"Need a partner?" Belden asked challengingly.
"If you are rested enough. You fight well, stranger, but I will show you the way gentlemen do
"And I'll show you how winners do it," Belden promised.
"You forget, my impulsive young friend, I have seen you fight. I know your tricks and
"From watching one practice bout?" Harry asked skeptically.
"My lord is well known for his tactical ability," the red-head said in a soft, musical voice.
"But it seems he's not known for his manners," Harry said, lifting her hand to his lips. "Harold
Ethelbald, of Pandathaway."
"Amelia Dale of House Lyons of Glantri," she replied, shivering under his touch. Intrigued, he let
his fingers caress the tender underside of her wrist. Amelia closed her eyes, an expression of delight passing
over her lovely features. He felt her pulse quicken.
"Forgive me," Geoffrey said. "This is my lady, and my squire, Patience."
"Patience is a virtue," Ilona said, too loudly, miffed at being suddenly ignored.
"Much more than that." The boy handed Geoffrey a wooden sword, old and well-used, but
carefully cared for. He spoke in a low tone, much more subdued than Harry would have expected from a
"Are we going to fight or stand around all day?" Belden asked belligerently.
"Let us proceed, then." Geoffrey took off his doublet. His white silk shirt was open at the collar,
revealing a muscular chest covered with curly blond hair.
Ilona and Tenli sighed in unison. Amelia shook her head, amused. Harry offered his arm.
"Shall we retire to the shade to watch the fight, milady?"
"Thank you." As she rested her hand in the crook of his elbow, her breast pressed gently against
his arm, making him momentarily dizzy. She smelled like the woods after a spring rain. Though young, she
carried herself like a lady and seemed far more mature than her years. He led her to a spot beneath the tree,
near the other girls. Surrounded by women, two luscious blonds and this tempting redhead, Harry felt that
all was right with the world.
Belden, on the other hand, did not appear to be enjoying himself. Geoffrey was a Glantrian knight,
no doubt accustomed to years of fighting in the bitter wars that constantly raged between the rival houses of
that troubled land. He fought with the fervor and skill of the professional swordsman.
The two men at first appeared evenly matched, but Geoffrey soon began to exploit the weaknesses
he had mentioned, beating his way through Belden's guard and giving the younger man a solid blow to the
right knee. It impacted with a crunch that Harry could hear ten feet away, and he saw Belden's eyes widen in
pain, then narrow angrily.
Geoffrey pressed his advantage. The wooden blades could not cause serious injury, but Belden was
forced to limp, favoring his bad leg. Geoffrey advanced, backing Belden toward the fence that seperated the
inn's garden from the rest of the yard. Belden was barely able to defend against a wicked volley of thrusts
"He's good," Harry admitted.
"My lord has been a knight for five years," Amelia said proudly. "His brother is the heir to House
Dracus, one of the Five Greater Houses."
"That would give him a pretty good shot at the throne, if I know anything about Glantrian politics,"
She turned her sea-green eyes on him, surprised. "You are familiar with Glantri?"
"In passing. I know most disputes are settled on the field, or in the dining room. I once thought it
would be profitable to become a poisons merchant, importing Krudangan snake venom."
She laughed. "Though I wish it were otherwise, you're right. It seems there is a new deadly poison
every season. We are constantly at work finding antidotes."
"So I guessed right," he said, glancing at the lion's head pendant and realizing how low it rested,
and how her even inhalations, while not as spectacular as Tenli's, were quite pleasant indeed to observe.
"You're a servant of Aslan."
"I am. I finished my novitiate last year, and this New Year's Day I became a full priestess."
"Impressive for one so young."
"Not so impressive as that," she said, looking toward the combat.
Harry looked just in time to see Belden complete an incredible acrobatic spin and kick Geoffrey's
sword from his hand. He followed through with a cruel low swing that came directly up between the blond
knight's legs. Geoffrey lost all interest in swordplay and sank to the grass with a moan.
"Oh!" squealed Ilona, clapping her hands over her mouth.
Harry winced in sympathy. "He won't be much use tonight," he muttered under his breath.
Amelia sighed. "So my furs remain empty again," she said sadly.
Harry opened his mouth to offer to remedy that situation, then closed it with a snap. Tempting
though she was, the last thing he needed was to get in trouble with a swordsman as good as Geoffrey. He
was a skilled fencer, but if the knight decided to come after him armored, Harry would stand little chance.
His only hope would be to aim his thrusts at the eyeslits of the visor, a risky move at best. Armored, the
Glantrian would tear him up.
Belden stood over Geoffrey, tossing back his long hair. "Looks like you weren't as good as you
thought," he said.
"Lout," panted Geoffrey. "I had not figured you for a dirty fighter."
"That's because you watched me against Harry." Belden shrugged. "I like him. I try not to really
hurt people I like."
"That is a curious form of honor," Geoffrey said, accepting Belden's hand as he carefully stood.
"You've been on the field of honor too long. Try surviving on the streets for a while."
"He's right," Patience added. "Honor doesn't fill an empty belly."
"Are you all right, milord?" Ilona gasped, hurrying to Geoffrey. "I can send for the Healer."
"Perhaps you could make it better yourself," Tenli suggested slyly.
"I'm sure I could," Ilona said.
"I'd better do something before this goes much further," Amelia said to Harry. She went to her
knight, who was still taking very deep breaths. Ilona glared daggers at her as she calmly steered him toward
the tree and urged him to sit down.
As Geoffrey leaned against the trunk and Amelia knelt gracefuly beside him, Ilona sniffed
haughtily and turned to Belden.
"That was quite a fight," she said. "Are you hurt?"
Belden, who had been walking around with only the merest limp as he replaced the wooden
swords, nodded and grimaced as he began to painfully drag his leg. Harry rolled his eyes. It was one of the
least convincing bits of amateur theatrics Harry had ever seen, but it seemed to work on Ilona. She cooed
sympathetically and helped him to a seat, then dashed to fetch him a drink of cool water. Belden winked at
Harry, then his eyes widened in horror and his mouth dropped open. His face went as red as a brick wall as
he stared at something behind Harry.
Harry turned, and saw at once what had upset the younger man so. There, watching them over the
back wall of the yard, was Jaenyth Maran. Her dark eyes danced with merriment. Belden gaped at her, as
thunderstruck as he'd been in the street a few days before. Geoffrey and Amelia looked over curiously, then
nodded in recognition.
She raised a gloved hand in greeting, then gathered up the reins and kicked her horse into a trot.
"Oh, no!" Belden wailed. "How long was she sitting there?"
"I don't know," Harry said. "Nobody was looking that way."
"She's been there since about the middle of the fight," Patience said, handing an otterskin bag to
"How do you know?" Tenli asked. "You were watching the fight like the rest of us."
"Smelled her," the strange lad said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Geoffrey got a look of sudden comprehension, followed by an expression of amazement. "Her?
The others glanced at each other, confused. Patience, the object of sudden scrutiny, busied himself
shaking the wrinkles from Geoffrey's doublet.
"She saw the whole thing?" Belden smacked himself in the forehead. "Damn!"
"The whole thing," Harry confirmed. "Including that low blow, and not to mention that little display with Ilona."
He leaped to his feet and ran to the wall, hauling himself up and watching as the woman vanished
around the bend toward town. "I can explain," he called half-heartedly, though there was no way she would
"If you're going to explain anything," Harry said, "you'd better find a way to unlock your tongue
when she's around instead of staring like a peasant at a magic show."
"You've got to help me," Belden said desperately. "What do I say to a woman like that?"
"Don't panic. We'll think of something." Harry boosted himself up and punched Belden lightly on
the arm. "Trust me."
"Whenever you say that, my ears twitch," Belden complained.
Derrek Lathan was a
large man, with a handsome, square-jawed face and a broad chest thickly
covered with muscle. He had spent his entire life training to be a knight, and it defined his existence. He
wore his honor like a suit of armor.
Under other circumstances, Jaenyth supposed, he would have been a man she might have found
quite interesting. But she'd known, from the moment they'd met, that Derrek's heart belonged to another.
The attraction that might have developed between them turned instead into a firm friendship. It had
surprised her, because she would have figured Derrek as the sort of man who would not approve of a female
She reined in and watched as he donned his helm and tipped his lance toward his opponent. The
other rider returned the salute, snapping down his visor. Both warhorses pawed the ground, eager to be off.
Catching their excitement, Windswift whinnied and tossed his head.
"Calm down," she told the horse. "You've had a long ride already. You don't need to joust."
Baethyn the Younger, Lord of Funess and one of Fenmarc's best marshals, gave the signal and the
horses thundered down the field. The lances lowered and both men raised their shields.
They met in a clash of metal, Derrek's lance striking dead-center on his opponent's shield. The
lance snapped, for they were specially made to break on impact, but the force was still sufficient to send the
other man tumbling from the saddle. He hit the ground with a bone-jarring crash.
Aylara, standing to the side with her father and the various young noble ladies of the baron's court,
squealed and clapped. One of Jaenyth's squires, Artreide, dashed onto the field and helped the fallen rider to
his feet. He pulled off his helm and grinned ruefully up at Derrek, who had dismounted and removed his
"Got me again, sir," Brennis said.
"But your lance slipped under my shield," Derrek said, pointing to a new dent in his breastplate.
"Nearly took me down."
"Really?" Brennis' eyes lit up.
"You missed it, Bren, probably because you were airborn at the time," Artreide said. "But I saw it.
He almost fell."
"I almost unhorsed him?"
"Almost," Derrek admitted. "But only almost, squire. Now, are you ready for another pass?"
"I don't know," Bren said, wincing as he shifted his shoulders.
"Then how about you?" Derrek turned to Artreide. "I hardly ever see you joust."
Artreide smiled. "I prefer swords."
"She's not strong enough to handle a lance," Bren said, nudging the girl in the side. "Too frail and
Artreide whirled on him, but Jaenyth was there first, fixing the young man with a stern glare.
"What was that?" she snapped.
Bren gulped. "A joke!"
She held him captive with her glare a moment longer, until he was fidgeting uncomfortably, then
laughed. "It had better be, squire. I'd hope that I taught you better than that."
"You did, ma'am. I was just teasing her. I swear."
"It's all right," Artreide said. "He knows I can still whip him with a sword."
"That's not true," Bren protested.
"I did last time."
Derrek interrupted them. "This sounds like a matter best put to the test right now. Wouldn't you
agree, Dame Jaenyth?"
"Oh, certainly, Sir Derrek." She stood back and surveyed the two young people. "I think they need
to settle this."
Bren stifled a sigh, still aching from his fall, and began trading his scuffed armor for the padded
cloth vest and trousers that Derrek insisted they wear while practicing.
It occurred to Jaenyth that Brennis was about the same age as the russet-haired stranger at the
Whispering Nymph, but they were years apart in manner. Bren was clean-cut, clear-eyed, and completely
open. Like Derrek, honor and pride were the most important things in his life. Since the day he was born, he
had been trained for the knighthood. The stranger, on the other hand, was slightly scruffy and wild-looking.
But he fought like a demon, using some intriguing moves that she recognized as elven in style. She had been
intending to ride past, already late for the session with Derrek and the squires, but the scene had captured
her attention and she had been compelled to watch.
She knew Sir Geoffrey, since the Glantrian had presented himself at the baron's court earlier and
requested permission to attend the tournament. She suspected that he might make a good showing in the
swords competition. Unless, of course, he was bested in the first round by the stranger. That was likely,
because the joust was the only event where the laws and codes of the knighthood were strictly enforced.
While low blows such as the one that had felled Geoffrey were not highly regarded, neither were they
forbidden. But few of the Western nobles would resort to such tactics. Brennis or Derrek, for instance,
would never think of doing such a thing, and hence would be caught off-guard if it happened to them. In all
the West, only one other person was known to fight in a way that could be classified as dirty, and that was
The female squire, the third of the ones that Jaenyth had ever trained, was unlike any of her
predecessors. Squire Elyse, the first, had been even more rigidly honorbound than Derrek. She had quickly
risen through the ranks, despite the scorn of her peers, and had been knighted six years before. Squire
Vivian, cousin of Duke Holten of the Central Region, was currently in Jaenyth's service. She was a severe
and humorless young woman, and though she tried to hide it, Jaenyth did not care for her very much. She
would make a fine knight, but Jaenyth doubted that she would find happiness as Elyse had done. Vivian had
remained at Jaenyth's estate, Eagle's Roost, while Artreide and Brennis had accompanied her to Funess.
Artreide donned a suit of padded armor and accepted a wooden sword from Baethyn. She tucked
her long dark-auburn ponytail into her collar. She was quite tall for a woman, standing eye-to-eye with
Jaenyth herself though she was only seventeen.
Jaenyth frowned as she remembered the real reason Artreide had become her squire. She didn't like
keeping secrets from Fenmarc, especially when his life could be at stake, but she couldn't argue with her
uncle. She glanced over at the baron, who was smiling indulgently as something his daughter had just
whispered to him. Fenmarc was a good man, a man of solid wisdom yet innovation. When he'd seen her
shooting at a tournament in Bellis, he'd been impressed enough to approach her. After an evening's
conversation, he had offered her a knighthood and lands in the West if she would agree to tutor his daughter
in history and language, as well as training squires and serving him as a loyal knight. Her prospects back
east in the kingdom of Annis-Mara, though she was related to the royal family, had not been promising
except in terms of her eventual inheritance.
She had no real desire to be the next Countess of Greenvale. Her father, who had raised her to be
strong and willful, had always made it clear that he expected her to follow him as ruler of their lands. Since
the only other choice was her younger sister, Madelynne, Jaenyth knew that the day would come when she
would have to leave the West and go home. It was not something she particularly looked forward to, though
she was curious to see how Maddie had changed in the past six years. They'd never gotten along well, for
Jaenyth had never approved of her sister's social habits. Madelynne's birth prophecy had said that no man
would ever be able to satisfy her, and she had devoted her life to trying to prove the Seers wrong.
Thinking of birth prophecies soured Jaenyth's mood, and she shook her head briskly to clear it
before focusing on the match unfolding before her. As she'd suspected, Artreide was not burdening herself
overmuch with fighting fair. The redhead feinted to the left, then brought her sword up and over, knocking
Bren off-balance. Her next swing sent his sword flying, and she closed in for the kill.
"Hold!" Baethyn called.
Artreide scowled, but backed off at the marshal's command and allowed Brennis to pick up his
sword. The young man was flushed, and as the two moved into fighting position again, Jaenyth saw why.
She sighed. How many times did she have to tell the girl that it was terribly unfair to leave her vest gaping
like that? No wonder Bren was at less than his best.
Fenmarc had evidently seen the same thing. "Watch her sword, boy, not her cleavage!"
Aylara shrieked laughter. Bren went even redder. He grimly advanced, beating aside Artreide's
sword and backing her toward the cluster of ladies. Though Artreide was quick, she was not as strong as
Brennis, and as she parried one heavy strike after another, it was clear that she was beginning to tire. Just
when it seemed that Bren would land the first blow, she lost hold of her sword.
"Hold!" Baethyn called again.
Bren immediately stepped back, and Artreide walked leisurely over to her fallen blade, breathing
deeply. Jaenyth hid a smile as she realized the girl had dropped it on purpose in order to gain a few seconds
of rest. She would not make the best of knights, but she was too clever by half and far too cunning. They
were not qualities that Jaenyth generally admired, but she had to admit that in their place, they were