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SEVENTEEN PEOPLE WATCHED the duel, and not a sound could be heard above the whispering of the blades and the discordant music of steel on steel. The earl rolled his wrist and sent a lancing stroke toward the face mask of his opponent, but the man dropped his shoulder and swayed aside, flashing a riposte that the earl barely parried. For some minutes the two duelists were locked in a strategic battle, then the earl launched a blistering attack. His opponent—a tall, lean man wearing the gray habit of a monk beneath his mask and mail shirt—defended desperately. With a last hissing clash the swords came together, the earl’s blade sliding free to touch the monk’s chest.
The duelists bowed to each other, and a light ripple of applause came from the spectators. The earl’s wife and three sons moved out onto the floor of the hall.
“You were wonderful, Father,” said the youngest, a blond-headed boy of seven. The Earl of Talgithir ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Did you enjoy the exhibition?” he asked.
“Yes, Father,” the boys chorused.
“And what was the move by which your father defeated me?” the monk asked, pulling off his mask.
“The Classic Chare,” replied the eldest.
The monk smiled. “Indeed it was, Lord Patris. You are studying well.”
The earl allowed his wife to lead his sons from the hall and waved away his retainers. With the hall empty, he took the monk’s arm, and the two men strode to the south gallery, where a pitcher of fruit juice and two goblets had been set aside.
The earl filled the goblets. “Are you really content here?” he asked.
The monk shrugged. “As content as I would be anywhere, my lord. Why do you ask?”
The earl gazed into the eyes of the man before him. The face he saw was strong, the nose long and aquiline, the mouth full below a trimmed mustache. “There are many legends concerning you, Chareos,” he said. “Some have you as a prince. Did you know that?”
“I have heard it,” Chareos admitted. “It is unimportant.”
“What is important? You are the finest swordsman I ever saw. You were one of the heroes of Bel-azar. You could have been rich beyond the dreams of common men.”
“I am rich beyond the dreams of common men, my lord. And that is what is important. This life suits me. I am by nature a student. The libraries here in Gothir are among the best anywhere. Far south, they say, the libraries of Drenan contain more books, but here are the complete works of Tertullus. It will take me many years to study them all.”
“It doesn’t seem right,” said the earl. “I remember my father putting me on his shoulder so that I could see the heroes of Bel-azar as they marched through the streets of New Gulgothir. I remember everything about that day. You were riding a white stallion of some seventeen hands and wearing a silver mail shirt and a helm with a white horsehair plume. Beltzer was behind you, carrying his ax. Then Maggrig and Finn. People in the crowd reached out to touch you as if you were a lodestar. It was a wonderful day.”
“The sun shone,” agreed Chareos, “but it was only a parade, my lord—and there are many parades.”
“What happened to the others?” asked the earl. “Did you remain friends? I have heard nothing of them for years.”
“Nor I,” Chareos answered. The dark-eyed monk looked away, seeing Beltzer as he had been on the last day: drunk, red-eyed, and weeping, his ax auctioned to settle his debts. The farmer had become a hero, and it had destroyed him in a way the Nadir could not. Maggrig and Finn had been there; they had left Beltzer alone in the back room of the inn and walked with Chareos out into the sunshine.
“We are going back to the mountains,” Finn had said.
“There’s nothing there,” Chareos had told him.
Finn had smiled. “There’s nothing anywhere, Blademaster.” Without another word the black-bearded archer had taken up his pack and moved off.
The youth Maggrig had smiled, offering Chareos his hand. “We will meet again,” he had said. “He probably only needs a little time to himself, away from crowds.”
“How do you suffer his moods and depressions?” Chareos had asked.
“I do not see them,” Maggrig had answered. “I see only the man.”
Now Chareos sipped his fruit juice and gazed out of the tall window. He was sitting too far back to see the courtyard and the gardens beyond. But from here he could look over the high wall of the monastery and off into the southern distance, where the forest lay like a green mist on the mountains. His gaze swept across to the east and the ridges of hills that led to the Nadir Steppes. For a moment only he felt the touch of icy fear.
“You think the Nadir will attack come summer?” asked the earl, as if reading his thoughts. Chareos considered the question. The Nadir lived for war—a dour, nomadic tribal people, joyous only in battle. For centuries Gothir kings had held them in thrall, sure in the knowledge that the tribes hated one another more than they detested the conquerors. Then had come Ulric, the first great warlord. He had united them, turning them into an invincible force, an army numbering hundreds of thousands of fierce-eyed warriors. The Gothir were crushed and the king slain, and refugees fled to the northwest to build new homes. Only the great Drenai citadel of Dros Delnoch, far to the southeast, had turned them back. But a century later another warlord arose, and he would not be thwarted. Tenaka Khan had crushed the Drenai and invaded the lands of Vagria, his armies sweeping to the sea at Mashrapur and along the coastline to Lentria. Chareos shivered. Would they attack this coming summer? Only the Source knew. But one point was as certain as death—one day the Nadir would come. They would sweep across the hills, their battle cries deafening, the grass churned to muddy desolation under the hooves of their war ponies. Chareos swallowed, his eyes fixed to the hills, seeing the blood-hungry hordes flowing across the green Gothir lands like a dark tide.
“Well?” queried the earl. “Do you think they will attack?”
“I could not say, my lord. I do not listen to the reports as once I did. It is said that the Drenai are in rebellion again, led by yet another who claims to be the Earl of Bronze reborn. I think that makes it the fifth in the thirty years since Tenaka Khan stormed Dros Delnoch. But perhaps such an uprising will put off the Nadir plans.”
“He went the way of all the others,” said the earl. “He was caught and crucified; the rebellion was crushed. It is said the new khan has ordered his troops north.”
“People have been saying that for years,” said Chareos. “There is little here for them. The spoils they took from the conquests of Drenan, Vagria, and Lentria made them rich. We have nothing to offer them; we are not even a gateway to richer kingdoms. Beyond New Gulgothir is the sea. Perhaps they will leave us alone.” Even as he spoke, Chareos felt the lie sitting cold in his throat. The Nadir lived not for plunder but for blood and death and conquest. It would matter nothing to them that the riches were few. No, they would be fired with thoughts of ancestral revenge on the Gothir people.
“You do not believe that, Blademaster. I see it in your eyes,” said the earl, standing. “No, the Nadir hate us for the past, and they are tormented by the memory of Bel-azar, the only defeat to stain the reputation of Tenaka Khan.”
“Chareos rose and assisted the earl into his caped coat. He looked into the younger man’s face. “Bel-azar was a miracle. I do not know how we did it or why Tenaka Khan allowed us to hold. But it was twenty years ago; I very rarely think of it now.”
“The old fortress is in ruins,” the earl said. “It’s as good as Nadir territory now. Thank you for the lesson. I think I am getting closer to you.”
“Better than that, my lord. You beat me today.”
“Are you sure you did not let me win just because my sons were watching?”
“You won fairly, my lord. But next week I will be better.”
“Next week you come to the castle. Afterward we will ride out into the Hunting Woods and see if we can flush out a boar or two.”
Chareos bowed as the earl strode from the hall. There was still some juice in the pitcher, and he refilled his goblet and wandered to the window, watching as the earl’s retinue rode from the monastery.
It had been a long time since those names had been voiced: Beltzer, Maggrig, and Finn. He could still see the red-bearded giant hammering his battle-ax into the Nadir as they swarmed over the gate tower wall. And each evening the bowmen, Maggrig and Finn, would compare scores and write them in charcoal on the granite wall: “Maggrig killed eleven today, making his tally thirty-one. Death to the Nadir!” Old Kalin would dispute their figures as he cooked the evening meal over the brazier. Such a way with food, that man, Chareos remembered—he could make sirloin steak taste like sheep’s bowels. He had died on the last day.
The gate tower section took the most casualties throughout. Of the original complement of forty-five, only Beltzer, Maggrig, Finn, and Chareos had survived. The Nadir had taken the fortress, but Beltzer had leapt from the gate tower and single-handedly retaken the Gothir standard, hacking and cutting his way back to the tower door. Once inside, the soldiers had barricaded themselves in and defied the encircling Nadir warriors. For most of the day the enemy had scaled the wall, only to be repulsed by the swords and axes of the defenders.
That night Tenaka Khan himself had walked, with his shaman, below the gate tower.
“Surrender to me and you may leave here alive,” he had called.
“That would be contrary to our orders,” Chareos had answered him.
“What is the most important to you, duty or freedom?” the khan had asked.
“An interesting question, sir,” Chareos had replied. “Why not come up here and debate the point.”
“Throw down a rope,” the khan had answered.
Chareos smiled at the memory now as he heard footsteps in the hall behind him and turned to see the senior brother approaching.
“Am I disturbing you?” asked the old man.
“Not at all, Parnio. Please join me.”
The white-robed senior sat by the table and gazed up at the sky. “The heavens are incredible,” he whispered. “Everchanging yet constant in their beauty.”
“Indeed they are,” agreed Chareos, sitting opposite the old man.
“Have you touched the power of the Source yet, my son?”
“No, Father. I am still a doubter. Is this a concern to you?”
The senior waved a slender hand. “Not at all. Those who seek him find him … but in his own time. But you have been here two years now, and I wonder what holds you. You do not need to wear the robes in order to use the library.”