III

“Oh, a pestilence,” Gerin said as men exclaimed and cried out all around him. Unlike his vassals, he was angry at himself. After Rihwin had told him of the galley his leman had seen on the Niffet, he’d intended to station riders along the river to bring word if more such came up it. As sometimes happens, what he’d intended to do didn’t match what he’d actually done.

Too late for self-reproach now. He ran outside and hurried up onto the palisade. One of the warriors already up there pointed out to the Niffet. Gerin had to choke down sardonic thanks. The ships out there, all five of them, were quite easy enough to find without help.

He saw at first glance that they weren’t Elabonian war galleys. Instead of the bronze-clad rams those carried, these ships had high prows carved into the shapes of snarling animals and painted to look more ferocious. Grainne might have mentioned that, he thought, absurdly aggrieved the woman had left out an important detail.

The galleys strode briskly up the Niffet, propelled against the current by a couple of dozen oars on either side. They turned sharply toward the riverbank as they drew nearest to Fox Keep, and grounded themselves on that muddy bank harder than Gerin would have liked to endure were he aboard one of them. As soon as they were aground, men started spilling out of them.

“Arm yourselves!” Gerin shouted to his vassals, some of whom had followed him out into the courtyard to see what the fuss was about. “The Gradi are attacking us!”

That sent the nobles running back into the great hall?or trying to, for at the doorway they collided with others trying to get outside. After much screaming and gesticulating, pushing and shoving, that straightened itself out.

Meanwhile, the warriors from the ships pounded toward Fox Keep at a steady, ground-eating trot. As they drew nearer, Gerin got his first good look at them: big, bulky fellows with fair skins and dark hair. They wore bronze helms and leather jerkins and tall boots, and carried a shield on one arm and a long-hafted axe in the other hand.

“Gradi, sure enough,” Van said from beside the Fox. Gerin jumped; his attention on the invaders, he hadn’t noticed the outlander ascending to the palisade.

Rihwin the Fox had been right behind Van. “My leman surely saw one of those ships, lord prince,” he said, pointing out toward the Niffet.

“If I thought you were wrong, I would argue with you,” Gerin said. For a moment, gloom threatened to overwhelm him. “This is what I feared worst when I heard your woman’s news: these cursed raiders sweeping down on us by surprise, hitting us with no warning?”

To his amazement, both Van and Rihwin burst into raucous laughter. Van said, “Mm, Captain, don’t you think it’s the Gradi who’re liable to get the surprise?” He half turned and waved down into the courtyard, which was aboil with a great host of the most ferocious?or at least the most effective?warriors the northlands knew.

“Just so, lord prince,” Rihwin agreed. “Had they chosen another time to come, they might have done you grievous harm: truth. But now, with so many bold and valiant men assembled here, they are more apt to find themselves in the position of a man who bites down hard on a stone, thinking it a piece of fruit.”

“Put that way?it could be so,” Gerin said, that choking depression lifting almost as fast as it had settled on him. He looked out over the wall again. The Gradi had got close enough for him to hear them singing. He had no idea what the words meant, but the song sounded fierce. Some of the raiders carried long ladders. A corner of the Fox’s mouth quirked upwards. “Aye, let ’em try to storm the keep, and see how much joy they have of it.” He thumped Rihwin on the shoulder. “And you, my fellow Fox, gather up your horse-riders and prepare your mounts. Readying the chariots would take a long time, but we can loose you against the foe at a moment’s notice.”

Rihwin’s eyes shone. “Just as you say, lord prince.” He hurried down off the walkway, shouting for his horsemen.

Gerin’s eyes went to the peasant village not far from Fox Keep and the fields surrounding it. Not since the year of the werenight, most of a generation before, had the serfs come under attack. The older men and women, though, knew what to do, and the younger ones didn’t take long to figure it out: as soon as they spied the war galleys landing, they all ran for the woods not far away. The Fox hoped they wouldn’t peep out from the edge of the forest, either, but would keep running to get away from the invaders.

Some of the Gradi peeled off toward the villages. “They’ll steal the animals and burn the huts,” Gerin said mournfully.

“Let’s make ’em thoughtful about the keep,” Van answered. “They haven’t got the strength to coop us up in here, though they don’t know that yet, either. We’ll give ’em one set of lumps, then another.”

The Gradi started shooting fire arrows at Fox Keep. A good many of the logs of the palisade, though, were still painted with the gunk Siglorel Shelofas’ son had used to keep Balamung the Trokm? from burning the keep with magic fire during the chaos after the werenight. Even all these years later, flames would not catch on them.

Elabonians on the walkway shot back at the Gradi. A couple of the big, burly men out on the grass crumpled. One of them thrashed about, clutching at his shoulder. The other lay very still; the arrow must have found a vital spot.

“Ladders! Ladders!” The cry came from two sides of the palisade at once. One of the ladders peeked over the top of the log fence only a few yards from where Gerin stood. He rushed toward it, and reached it at the same moment as a Gradi swarmed up and tried to scramble onto the walkway.

The raider bawled something at him in an unintelligible language?and swung his axe through a deadly arc. But the Fox ducked under the stroke and thrust the point of his sword through the Gradi’s throat before the fellow could fully protect himself with his shield.

The Gradi had eyes bright and blue as a lightning bolt. They went wide in horror and shock. The heavy axe dropped from his hand. He clutched at the spurting wound as he slipped and slid down the ladder. Cries of dismay from below said he was fouling the men behind him.

Gerin leaned forward and shoved at the top of the ladder with all his strength. Two arrows whipped past his head; the fletching on one of them brushed his cheek as it flew past. He ducked away, fast as he could. The Gradi on the bottom part of the ladder shouted as it leaned away from the wall and toppled over with a crash. He looked again. Three or four of them were writhing at the bottom of the ditch. If he had any luck, they’d broken bones.

The cry of “Ladders!” rose again and again, now from all four sides of the square palisade. Three of the ladders went over faster and more easily than the one Gerin toppled?his men had remembered the forked poles kept on the walkway against just such an emergency. At the fourth one, though, around the far side of Castle Fox from Gerin, cries of alarm and the clash of metal against shields and metal against metal said the Gradi had gained a lodgement. Elabonian warriors rushed toward the fighting to hold them in check.

Down in the courtyard, trying to reach the drawbridge through chaos, came Rihwin the Fox and most of his horse-riders. “Let down the bridge!” Gerin yelled to the gate crew. He had to shout several times to gain the crew’s attention, and several more to make them believe him. With a squeal of chains, the bridge fell.

The Gradi outside Fox Keep roared in triumph when the drawbridge came down. Maybe they thought their own folk were opening it, to let them into the keep. If they did, they discovered their mistake in short order. A few of them started over the bridge. Rihwin, leading his riders out, skewered the leading Gradi on his spear. His followers rode down the others, trampling them or knocking them into the ditch around the palisade. The shouts of triumph turned to shouts of alarm.

Rihwin and his horsemen smashed through the Gradi who swarmed near the drawbridge and then galloped off toward the stragglers who’d decided to plunder the peasant village. Some they rode down, some they shot with arrows, some they speared. Had the Gradi stuck together in a tight formation, they might have been able to fight back. Instead, they scattered. A running man was no match for a man aboard a speeding horse.

With the riders gone, the Gradi tried once more to rush in over the drawbridge. Gerin’s men met them at the gate, slashing with swords, thrusting with spears, and putting their bodies between the invaders and the courtyard.

Gerin hurried down to the yard to help drive away the Gradi. And, step by step, he and his men did exactly that, forcing their bigger foes back across the drawbridge and then gaining the grass on the far side.

That seemed to discomfit the Gradi. Instead of sweeping all before them, here they were swept instead. Gerin pointed toward the Niffet. “Get torches!” he cried. “We’ll burn the bastards’ boats and see if they can swim home!” His vassals roared in fierce approval. As he’d hoped, some of the Gradi understood Elabonian. They yelled in alarm. Some of them, at first a trickle and then a great flow, began streaming away from Fox Keep and toward the great river.

Gerin looked southward. He wished Rihwin would come galloping back and hit the invaders while they were in disorder. It was probably too much to ask for, but-

No sooner had he wished for it than Rihwin, at the head of most of his riders, charged down on the Gradi. Every once in a while, Rihwin did something right, and, when he did, it was as magnificent as any of his failures. As he’d predicted and as he’d proved by the village, foot soldiers had enormous trouble standing against onrushing horses with armored men on top of them. Neither he nor Gerin had imagined how much alarm the horses would create in a foe. The Gradi were seeing mounted men for the first time, and did not like what they saw.

Neat as you please, Rihwin snatched a torch out of the hand of a running Elabonian and urged his horse ahead until the animal seemed to be all but flying over the ground. He darted past the Gradi as if their rawhide boots had been nailed to the grass and flung the torch into one of the war galleys.

They still had men aboard their ships, to protect them if something went wrong with the attack on Fox Keep. Gerin expected one of those men to douse the torch before the ship caught. But Rihwin’s spirit was rewarded with a gift of luck. The torch must have landed in a bucket of pitch or something equally inflammable, for a great pillar of black smoke rose from the galley.

The Gradi howled as if they were being burned. Gerin’s men, for their part, howled too, but with fierce joy in their voices. Not all the Gradi gave way to despair, though. A big fellow turned and slashed at the Fox with his axe. Gerin turned the blow with his shield, and felt it all the way up his arm to his shoulder. He knew he had to be careful; the axehead, if it squarely met the facing of the shield, was liable to bite straight through and into his arm.

He thrust at the invader with his sword. The Gradi also got his shield up in time to block the stroke, although he seemed cautious and tentative in meeting a left-handed swordsman.

Clank! A rock the size of a man’s fist bounced off the side of the Gradi’s helmet. He staggered. His blue, blue eyes suddenly looked distant, his face blank, as if he were drunk. Taking advantage of a stunned man was anything but sporting. The Fox cut him down without a qualm.

“Well done, Father!”

Gerin whirled around. There stood Duren, a helm on his head, a shield on his arm, a sword in his hand?his right hand, for he hadn’t taken after his father there. The blade had blood on it.

“Get back to the keep,” Gerin snapped. “You’ve no business here.”

“Who says I haven’t?” his son retorted. “Who do you think threw that rock at the Gradi? You’d still be fighting him if I hadn’t.”

Gerin started to shout at Duren, but closed his mouth with a snap before angry words came out. If his son was big enough to do a man’s job on the battlefield-and evidently he was-how could the Fox order him back like a boy? The plain truth was, he couldn’t.

“Be careful,” he said gruffly, and then, “come on.”

A pig darted across the field, squealing and threatening with its tushes anyone who came near. Gerin wondered whether some Gradi had hoped to take it away as loot, or whether they’d simply broken the pen confining it to let it run wild. It headed off toward the woods. If one of the villagers didn’t track it down there pretty soon, it would be a wild animal again; the difference between domestic swine and wild boars wasn’t great.

As the Gradi neared their galleys, they found a shield wall, behind which the men not fighting pushed the surviving ships back into the Niffet and began boarding them. The warriors of the shield wall refused to give ground, but fought in place till they were killed. Their stubborn resistance let most of their comrades escape.

The torches the Elabonians flung at the galleys fell short and died, hissing, in the Niffet. A couple of archers had fire arrows ready to shoot. Most of those missed, too, but one stuck in the timbers at the stern of a ship. Gerin’s men cheered at that. The Fox hoped the Gradi wouldn’t note the little fire till it had grown into a big one. A bend of the Niffet carried the raiders out of sight before he could find out.

Wearily, he turned and looked back toward Fox Keep. The meadows his chariotry had been churning into a rutted mess now had bodies scattered over them. Some of his men were methodically going from one Gradi on the ground to the next, making sure those bodies were dead ones.

“Take prisoners!” he shouted.

“Why?” Drungo Drago’s son shouted back. He was about to smash in the head of a fair-skinned Gradi down with an arrow through the thigh.

“So we can squeeze answers out of them,” Gerin told him. “You need to be a patient man to go around questioning corpses.” Drungo stared at him, then decided it was a joke and laughed. Had Gerin been the Gradi writhing on the ground in front of him, he didn’t think he would have found that laugh pleasing to the ear.

His own men had taken hurts, too. Parol Chickpea, who was a good enough warrior to have lived through a lot of fights but not good enough to come through them unscathed, was binding up a cut on his shield arm. One of the northerners’ axes must have hacked right through the shield, as had almost happened to Gerin.

Schild Stoutstaff was hobbling around, using his spear as a stick. When Gerin asked how he was, he gritted his teeth and answered, “I expect I’ll heal. The cut runs up and down” — he pointed to his calf- “not straight across. If I’d got it that way, the bastard would have hamstrung me.”

“Go back to the keep and have them wash it out with ale,” Gerin told him. “It’ll burn like fire, but it makes the wound less likely to rot.”

“I’ll do that, lord prince,” Schild said. “You’re clever about those things, I can’t deny.” He limped back toward the castle, blood soaking the bandage he’d ripped from his tunic and trickling down his heel onto the grass.

Gerin headed back to Fox Keep at a pace no better than Schild’s. Not only was he weary past belief, almost past comprehension, but he also wanted a closer look at the damage his holding and his army had suffered. Hagop son of Hovan, his neighbor to the east, whose holding had acknowledged his suzerainty since not long after the werenight, crouched by a corpse that looked like him-maybe a younger brother, maybe a son. He did not look up as the Fox walked by.

The thump of hooves on turf made Gerin turn his head. Rihwin the Fox was having a little trouble controlling his horse, which might not have cared for the stink of blood so thick in the air even human nostrils could smell it. The animal kept rolling its eyes and trying to sidestep, almost as if it were skipping. It snorted, and looked for a moment as if it would rear, but Rihwin, leaning forward and speaking to it in a coaxing voice, persuaded it to keep all four feet on the ground.

“By Dyaus All-Father, my fellow Fox, you couldn’t have done that better if we’d done nothing but practice it for the past year,” Gerin told him. He turned and pointed back toward the war galley Rihwin had fired, which still crackled and burned and sent a great cloud of smoke into the sky. “And that-that was better than I’d dared hope.”

“It did work rather well, didn’t it?” Rihwin said. “We were here, we were there, with almost no time between being one place and the other. And wherever we were, the Gradi gave way before us, though they have a name for ferocity.” He looked back at the carnage on the field and shook his head. “So much happened so fast. Astonishing, lord prince.”

It wasn’t done happening yet, either. Not quite all the Gradi had been flushed out of the village south of Fox Keep. There was fighting on the winding lanes that ran through the huts of the village. Gerin watched a couple of raiders flee into the forest with Elabonians pounding after them. “If the troopers don’t get them, the serfs likely will,” he said. “If they don’t have ambushes set already, I miss my guess. And they know those woods the way they know the feel of their wives’ backsides in their hands.”

“Or maybe the backsides of their neighbors’ wives,” Rihwin said.

“If they’re at all like you, that’s probably the way of it,” Gerin agreed.

Rihwin glared, then started to laugh. “That barb has too much truth in it for me to deny.”

“Hasn’t stopped you before,” Gerin said, which got him another glare.

Back at Fox Keep, the men on the palisade raised a cheer when they recognized their overlord. “We beat the bastards back,” one of them shouted, and in a moment they all took up the cry. The ditch around the palisade was full of dead Gradi. A few live men were trapped down there, too. They’d leaped in to try to swarm up the scaling ladders, only to find that those went down almost as fast as they went up.

Gerin looked with some curiosity from them to his troopers who peered over the top of the palisade to watch them. “I’d have expected you to have finished them by now,” he called to his men.

“If you want us to, we will, lord prince,” Bevander Bevon’s son called back. “Your wife said you’d be likely to want them alive for questioning, and when the lady Selatre says something, we know it’s best to listen to her.”

That might have been because the warriors respected Selatre’s own good sense, or because they still felt awe for the god who had spoken through her and wondered whether Biton might still inform her thoughts. Gerin sometimes wondered that himself. He said, “She’s right, of course.” However she did it, she knew him almost better than he knew himself. Walking up to the edge of the ditch, he called down to the Gradi, “Surrender and you’ll live.”

For a moment, the big men down in there did not respond. He wondered if they knew Elabonian. Then one of them said, “We live, you make us slaves?”

“Well, of course,” Gerin answered. “What else am I going to do with you? Give you a barony? Turn out my peasants so you can have a farm?”

“You make us slaves, what we do?” the Gradi asked.

“Whatever I tell you to do,” the Fox snapped. “If you’re a slave, that’s the end of the stick you’re holding. If I put you in the mines to grub out copper or tin, you do that. And if I have you walking a water wheel, you walk it and thank the gods you’re alive to do the walking.”

“My gods, Voldar and comrades, they ashamed if I do these things,” the raider replied. Drawing a dagger from a sheath on his belt, he muttered something in his own guttural language and plunged the knife into his chest. He tried to cry out, but blood pouring from his mouth and nose drowned his words. Slowly, he crumpled.

As if watching him inspired them, the rest of the Gradi also slew themselves-except for two who slew each other, each ramming his knife into the other’s throat at the same instant. “Voldar!” each cried the moment before his end came.

“Father!” Duren said, gulping. He’d come through his first battle fine-better than Gerin had, at about the same age-but this…

“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life,” the Fox said. He was sickened, too. Facing death on the field was one thing. If you were a warrior, that was what you did, not least so you could reap the rewards of triumph. But to embrace death as if it were a lover… you had to be mad to do that, he thought.

“Is Voldar their chief god?” Duren asked, seeking, as men will, an explanation for the inexplicable.

“I don’t know,” Gerin said. “Too much about the Gradi I don’t know. Van went through their country; maybe he can tell us something of what gods they have.” Something else occurred to him. He raised his voice to a great shout: “Bind the prisoners well. Don’t let them harm themselves.”

From the palisade, Bevander said, “None of the warriors who made it up to the walkway by that one ladder yielded. They all fell fighting.”

“That, at least, doesn’t surprise me,” Gerin answered. “Their blood was up, and so was ours. Even if they had tried to surrender, we might have slain them out of hand. This, though-” He pointed down into the ditch, then shook his head. The most articulate man in the northlands save perhaps Rihwin, he was speechless in the face of the self-murdered Gradi.

He looked over the battlefield till he spotted Van of the Strong Arm. He waved to him, but the outlander did not see. The Fox turned to Duren. “Go fetch Van here. Because he went through the country of the Gradi, he’s two ahead of anyone else around.”

“Aye, Father.” Duren loped off. Gerin looked at him with a small stir of jealousy for his son’s limber youth. He could feel himself stiffening up already; for the next couple of days he’d be hobbling around like an old man.

Van came trotting back with the Fox’s son. If he felt any twinges, he didn’t let on. “They killed themselves?” he called to Gerin. “That’s the tale the lad here tells.”

“See for yourself.” Gerin pointed down into the ditch. “Some of them called on Voldar as they did it. Is he their chief god?”

“She-goddess,” Van answered. “She’s cold as ice, any way you care to take that. They love her madly, the Gradi do, though they know she doesn’t love them.” He shrugged. “If they didn’t love her, they say, the land they live in would be bleaker yet, though how that could be, I tell you, is past anything my poor wits can fathom. But she’s that kind of goddess. If I were one of hers, I’d not want to make her angry at me, and that’s for true.”

“Surrendering after you’ve lost a fight would anger her?” the Fox asked.

“So it would, to hear the Gradi tell it.” Van frowned. “Or so I thought I heard it, not knowing their tongue any too well, and so I remember it, not having been in the Gradi country for going on twenty years now.”

“As I told Duren, you may not know much, but whatever you do know puts you ahead of everyone else here,” Gerin told him. “Do you still remember any of what you learned of their speech?”

Van’s frowned deepened. “A few words come back, no more-no surprise, when for so long I’ve used Elabonian and a bit of the Trokm- tongue and none of the rest of the languages I once knew.”

“Let’s go talk to a prisoner.” Gerin headed toward a Gradi down on the ground with one of his own men squatting beside the fellow. Not far away lay a bronze axe. The Gradi tried to hitch himself toward it, but the Elabonian wouldn’t let him. The blood-soaked bandage on the raider’s thigh showed why he couldn’t do more.

He glared up at Gerin, gray-blue eyes blazing. But the blaze slowly faded, to be replaced by a puzzled look. The Fox had seen that before, on the faces of men who would bleed to death soon. He said, “Why did you strike Fox Keep?”

The Gradi didn’t answer. Maybe he didn’t understand Elabonian. Maybe he didn’t understand anything, not any more. He nudged Van. The outlander spoke, haltingly, in a language that seemed to be pronounced farther back in the throat than Elabonian.

Something like intelligence came back into the Gradi’s face. He answered in the same tongue. “He says it doesn’t matter what he tells us now. He’s died in battle. Voldar’s handmaidens will carry him off to the golden couches of the afterworld and lie with him whenever he likes, and give him roast meat and beer when he doesn’t feel like futtering.”

“If it doesn’t matter what he tells us, ask him again why he and his comrades hit Fox Keep,” Gerin said.

Van repeated what he’d said before, whatever that was. Again, the Gradi answered without hesitation. Van translated: “He says, to kill you and take your land and-something.” The outlander scowled. “Bring it under Voldar and his other goddesses and gods, I think he means.”

“Just what we need,” Gerin said unhappily. “The Trokmoi are already here in the northlands in numbers enough to let their bloodthirsty gods contend with Dyaus and the other Elabonian deities. Will we have a three-cornered war among gods as well as men?”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he realized the war might have more than three corners. Selatre’s Biton was ancient in the northlands, far more ancient than the Elabonian presence here. And Mavrix, originally from far Sithonia, manifested himself in this land as a fertility god even if wine grapes would not grow here.

The Gradi spoke again, dreamily, as if from far away. Gerin caught the name Voldar, but had no idea what else the raider was saying. Van asked a question that sounded as if he were choking on a piece of meat. The Gradi answered. Van said, “He says Voldar and the rest like this land. They will make it their home, and change it to suit them even better.” He ground up some turf with the sole of his hobnailed boot as he twisted a foot back and forth. “I think that’s what he says. It’s been a demon of a long time, Fox.”

Whatever the Gradi had said, they weren’t going to get anything more out of him. He slumped forward, took a last few rattling breaths, and lay still. The blood from the thigh wound had not only soaked the rough bandage Gerin’s man had given him, it also puddled beneath his body.

“Let’s go on to another one, Captain,” Van said to the Fox. “We need to nail that down. If their gods are fighting for them right out in the open, like I thought from what he said, we’ve got troubles. Your Dyaus and the rest, they let people do more unless you really shout to draw their notice.”

“I wish I could say you were wrong,” Gerin answered. “The other half of the loaf is, when you have drawn their notice, you almost wish you hadn’t. I don’t like dealing with gods.”

“You don’t like dealing with anything stronger than you,” Van said shrewdly.

“You’re right about that, too.” The Fox paused thoughtfully. “You know, I’ve never truly evoked an Elabonian god. Mavrix is Sithonian, and Biton got adopted into our pantheon. I’m not eager to start, mind, but I haven’t.”

“Don’t blame you,” Van said. “But if the Gradi do and you don’t, what does that leave? Leaves you in a bad place, you ask me.”

“I’m already in a bad place,” Gerin told him. Van looked a question his way. He explained: “Somewhere in there between being born and dying, I mean.”

“Oh, that bad place,” Van said. “The others are worse yet, I hear, but I’m in no hurry to find out.”

* * *

Over the next few days, several of the wounded Gradi found ways to kill themselves. One threw himself down a stairway and broke his neck, one hanged himself with his belt, one bit through his tongue and choked to death on his own blood. The determination required for that chilled Gerin. Was he supposed to stuff rags into the mouths of all the prisoners?

A few of the raiders, though, lacked the fortitude of their fellows and seemed to resign themselves to captivity. They did not ask the Fox what he would do with them after they healed, as if, not hearing it from his lips, they could pretend they did not know.

He didn’t push the issue. Instead, he asked them as many questions as he could, using Van’s halting command of their speech and the smattering of Elabonian some of them had acquired. The picture he got from them was more detailed than the one the first dying Gradi had given him, but not substantially different: they’d come to stay, they like the northlands fine, and their goddesses and gods had every intention of establishing themselves here.

“You yield to them, they let you be their slave in this world, in next world, too,” said one of the prisoners, a warrior named Kapich. Like his countrymen, he took their victory and the victory of their deities for granted.

“Look around,” the Fox suggested. “Look where you are. Look who is the lord here.” He phrased that carefully, not wanting to remind the Gradi of his status so strongly that he would be inspired to kill himself.

The raider looked at the underground storeroom where he was confined. He shrugged. “All will change when this is the Gradihome.” He used Elabonian, but ran that together, as his people seemed to do in their own language. His eyes were clear and innocent and confident. He believed what he was saying, believed it so strongly he’d never thought to question it.

Gerin, by his nature, questioned everything. That made him perhaps a broader and deeper man than any other in the northlands. But the Gradi’s pure and simple faith in what he said was like an armor the arrows of reason could not pierce. That frightened the Fox.

He waited unhappily for Adiatunnus to take advantage of the disruption of the planned Elabonian attack to launch one of his own. Had he been in Adiatunnus’ boots, that was what he would have done, and the Trokm-‘s mental processes were less alien to him than those of the Gradi.

And, when from the watchtower the lookout spied Widin Simrin’s son approaching in his chariot, Gerin was sure the blow had fallen. The only reason Widin and his men weren’t already at Fox Keep was so they could absorb Adiatunnus’ first onslaught and keep him and his woodsrunners from penetrating too deeply into territory the Fox held.

The drawbridge came down with a thud: now, although Castle Fox bulged with men, the bridge stayed up till newcomers were identified. Gerin waited impatiently at the gatehouse. “What word?” he called before Widin had even entered Fox Keep.

His vassal, almost as urgent, jumped out of the chariot and hurried over to him. “Lord prince, the Trokmoi have suffered a great defeat!” he said.

“That’s wonderful!” Gerin said, as all the men who heard burst into cheers and swarmed round to pound Widin on the back. Then the Fox, with a keener ear for detail than his comrade, noticed what Widin had said-and what he hadn’t. “You didn’t beat the woodsrunners yourself, did you?”

“No, lord prince,” Widin answered. “Some of them have entered my fief, but as refugees and bandits, not an army.”

“Well, who did beat them, then?” Drungo Drago’s son demanded, bushy eyebrows pulling together in puzzlement. He was brave and strong and honest and had not a dram of imagination in his head or concealed anywhere else about his person.

“The Gradi, they said,” Widin replied. “Four boatloads came down a tributary of the Niffet, grounded themselves, and out poured warriors grim enough, by all accounts, to have turned even Adiatunnus’ stomach.”

“I wonder if those were the four boatloads who got away from us,” Gerin said, and then, in thoughtful tones, “I wonder whether I want the answer to that to be yes or no. Yes, I suppose: if they have enough warriors to assail Adiatunnus and us at the same time, they’ve put a lot of men into the northlands these past few years.”

“Don’t know the answer either way, lord prince,” Widin said. “From what the Trokmoi who fled ’em told me, they landed, stole everything that wasn’t roped down, killed all the men they could, kidnapped some women, and sailed off with the wenches still screaming on their ships. Adiatunnus’ men couldn’t very well go after them.”

“No more than we could.” Gerin pointed toward the Niffet. “I wish that Gradi ship hadn’t burned altogether. We need to start learning more about how to make such ships for ourselves.”

“As may be, lord prince,” Widin said with a shrug. “What matters is, the woodsrunners got badly hurt. But then, I hear the same thing happened here.”

“If I hadn’t been mustering men to move against Adiatunnus, you’d be telling your story to the Gradi here,” Gerin said.

“That wouldn’t be so good,” Widin said; the Fox thought the understatement commendable. His vassal went on, “If the Gradi hadn’t hit the Trokmoi, though, I might not be around to tell you my tale, so I suppose it evens out, in a way.”

“I suppose it does,” Gerin agreed. His scowl was directed at the world at large, and especially at the western part of it where the Gradi congregated. “What’s really happened is that the raiders have knocked me and Adiatunnus both back on our heels. That’s bad. If they’re doing the moving and we’re being moved, that makes them the strongest power in the northlands right now.”

“You’ll check ’em, lord prince,” Widin said with the unbounded faith of a man who had watched the Fox overcome every obstacle since he himself was a boy.

Gerin sighed. “I wish I knew how.”

* * *

The underground storerooms of Castle Fox made good places to stash prisoners, as Gerin had long since found. He had several Gradi down there now, and had not lost any of them in a good many days. He’d counted on that. One of the things he’d seen over the years was that not everyone could live up to a strict code of conduct. The Gradi came closer to managing than most, but they were human, too.

It was dark underground, dark and dank. Gerin carried a lamp as he headed down to a makeshift cell for another round of questioning with one of the captured raiders. As the Gradi was nearly Van’s size and not of the sort of temper given to inspiring trust, Gerin also brought along Geroge and Tharma. If anything or anybody could intimidate the prisoner, the monsters were the likeliest candidates.

He unbarred the door to the chamber where the Gradi was confined and went in. The raider had a lamp inside, a small, flickering one that filled the room with swooping shadows but didn’t really illuminate it. Gerin half expected the Gradi’s eyes to reflect the light he carried, as a wolf’s would have, but his prisoner was merely human after all.

“I greet you, Kapich,” Gerin said in Elabonian.

“I greet you, Gerin the Fox,” Kapich returned in the same language. He was more fluent in it than any other Gradi at Fox Keep, which was one reason Gerin kept interrogating him.

He walked farther into the chamber. That let Geroge and Tharma come in behind him. Their eyes did give back the lamplight, redly. Their kind had lived in caverns subterranean for uncounted generations; they needed to be able to seize on any tiny speck of light they could.

Even Gerin’s lamp, though, was not very bright. Kapich needed a moment to realize the Fox hadn’t just brought a couple of bravos with him, as he’d done on earlier visits. The Gradi sat up on his straw pallet. “Voldar,” he muttered, and then something unintelligible in his own language.

“These are my friends, Geroge and Tharma,” the Fox said cheerfully. “They’re here to make sure you stay friendly and talkative.”

Kapich didn’t look friendly and he’d never been what anyone would have reckoned talkative. Staring toward the two monsters, he said, “You have bad friends.”

“I have bad taste in all sorts of things,” Gerin agreed, cheerful still. “I’m keeping you alive, for instance.” That brought Kapich’s pale glare back to him. He went on, “Now tell me more of what you Gradi aim to do with the land here once you have it.”

“There is to tell not so much,” Kapich answered. “We make this land into a new Gradihome, we live here, our goddess and gods live here, we all happy, all you other people serve us in life, Voldar and others torment you forever when you die. It is good.”

“I’m glad someone thinks so, but it doesn’t sound any too good to me,” the Fox said. If that bothered Kapich, he did an astonishingly good job of concealing it. Gerin said, “Why do you think you and your jolly crew of gods and goddesses can settle down here without regard for anybody else?”

“Because we are stronger,” the Gradi said, with the irksome self-assurance of his kind. “We beat you people at every fight-“

“What are you doing here, then?” Gerin broke in.

“Almost every fight,” Kapich corrected himself. “Here, you were lucky. We beat the Trokmoi at every fight, too. Voldar and the gods beat down their gods, too, drive them away. Your gods-” For a moment, his self-assurance cracked. “If your gods let you rule over things like that” — he pointed to the two monsters- “they must have some strength.”

“I’m not a thing,” Geroge said indignantly. “Do you hear me calling you a thing? You should know better than to call names.” Had Gerin been admonished to mind his manners by anyone with such an impressive set of dental work, he would have seriously considered it.

“It talks!” Kapich said to him. “It is not a hound only. It talks. Your gods will indeed be more trouble than the… holy foretellers said.”

“And what did the holy foretellers foretell wholly wrong?” Gerin asked.

The wordplay made Kapich frown and mutter; Gerin resolved not to waste his wit on those who couldn’t follow it. After puzzling out what he meant, the Gradi said, “They said your gods were foolish and they were weak because this was not their proper home and they had no traffic with that home.”

Gerin plucked at his beard. The holy foretellers had a point. In a way, the Elabonian gods were immigrants here, as were those of the Gradi pantheon. And, indeed, the northlands had been cut off from the Elabonian heartland for most of a generation now. But if Dyaus and Baivers and Astis the goddess of love and the rest of the deities who had made their way north with Ros the Fierce were not at home here by now, then they were nowhere at home. They’d had centuries to grow acclimated to the northlands and have the landscape accept them. The Fox was sure the Gradi foretellers had blundered there. How to make them pay for the error?

Had he been one of the heroes of whom the minstrels sang, he would have come up with an answer on the instant and been able to use it within days, if not right away. As he was, however, an ordinary man in the real world, nothing occurred to him. He asked the Gradi, “What do you mean, you’ll make the northlands into another Gradihome? What does that entail?” He’d heard the phrase before; he wanted to be sure he understood its meaning.

Kapich stared at him, plainly thinking the question either foolish or having an answer so obvious, it needed no explaining. But explain he did, in condescending tones: “We make this country over, to suit us better. It is too hot now, too sunny. Our gods do not like this; it makes them squint and sweat. When they are at home here, they will shield us from the nasty heat.”

Were the Gradi gods strong enough to do that? Gerin didn’t know. He didn’t want to find out, either. Kapich thought they were. That probably meant they thought they were, too, which meant they’d try.

What little he knew of the land from which the Gradi came derived from Van’s accounts of his travels through it. By the outlander’s tales, it was a country of snow and rock and stunted trees, where the farmers grew oats and rye because wheat and barley wouldn’t ripen in the short, cool summers, a place where berries took the place of tree fruit and wolves and great white bears prowled through the winters.

“I thought you were coming here because you liked our land and our weather better than your own,” he said to Kapich. He had a hard time imagining anyone not wanting to escape from the grim conditions Van had described.

But the Gradi shook his head. “No. Voldar hates this hot country. When it is ours, she will make it comfortable. Some of our rowers, in working the oars, fall into a faint from the heat. How do we do a man’s deeds while we bake in an oven?”

“If you wanted a cold country, you should have stayed in the one you had.” That was not Gerin, or even Geroge: that was Tharma, who usually held her tongue.

“If we are strong enough to take this one, our gods are strong enough to make it fit what we want-and what they want,” Kapich answered.

“Do your gods ever want something different from what you want?” the Fox asked, probing for weaknesses.

Kapich shook his head again. “How could that be? They are strong. We are weak. We are their thralls, to do as they will with us. Is it not the same among you here, you and the Trokmoi?”

Gerin thought of his own efforts, some even successful, to trick the gods into doing what he wanted rather than the other way round. “You might say that,” he answered, “and then again you might not.” Kapich stared at him in incomprehension.

He left the Gradi and went up to the great hall, Geroge and Tharma following. Geroge asked, “Can his gods really do that, what he said they could?” The monster sounded like a boy asking his father for reassurance the sky couldn’t really freeze and shatter and fall on his head during a cold winter.

Gerin was as close to a father as Geroge had among the world of men. As far as he was concerned, that meant he had a father’s obligation to be honest with the young monster. He said, “I don’t know. I’ve never had to deal with the gods the Gradi follow till now.”

“You’ll find a way around them.” Tharma spoke confidently. As children are convinced their fathers can do anything, she was certain the Fox would be able to fend off Voldar and the rest of the dark deities from the dark, gloomy land the Gradi called their own.

As Widin Simrin’s son had shown, most of Gerin’s subjects felt that same confidence in him. He wished he had more of it himself. As far as he could see, he’d been lucky in his dealings with gods up to now. When you were dealing with beings far more powerful than you were, how long could your luck last? Could you make it stretch for a whole lifetime? Of course you can, Gerin thought wryly. If you make a mistake while you’re treating with a god, you don’t have any more lifetime after that.

Van got up from the table where he’d been sitting. “You look like a man who could use a jack of ale, or maybe three,” he said.

“One, maybe,” Gerin said while the outlander plied the dipper. “If I drink three, I’ll drink myself gloomy.”

“Honh!” Van said. “How would anyone else tell the difference?”

“To the crows with you, too,” the Fox said, and poured down the ale Van had given him. “These Gradi, you know, they’re going to be nothing but trouble.”

“No doubt,” Van said, but more as if relishing than abhorring the prospect. “You ask me, life gets dull without trouble.”

“No one asked you,” Gerin said pointedly.

His friend went on as if he hadn’t spoken: “Aye, betimes life gets dull. I’ve put down so many roots here at Fox Keep, oftentimes I think I’m all covered with moss and dust. Life here can be a bore, for true.”

“If things get too boring, you can always fight with Fand,” the Fox said.

Van tried to ignore that, too, but found he couldn’t. “So I do,” he said, shaking his head as if to shake off a wasp buzzing around it. “So I do. But she fights with me as much as I fight with her.”

That, Gerin knew from experience, was also true. “Maybe it’s love,” he murmured, which drew an irate glare from Van. The outlander’s eyes didn’t quite focus and were tracked with red, which made Gerin wonder how many jacks of ale Van had had. His friend didn’t test his enormous capacity as often as he once had, but today looked to be an exception.

“If it is love, why do we go on sticking knives into each other year after year?” Van demanded. Given Fand’s habits-she’d stabbed a Trokm- who’d mistreated her-Gerin wasn’t so sure his friend was using a metaphor till the outlander went on, “You and Selatre, a year’ll go by between harsh words. Me and Fand, every peaceful day is a battle won. And you call that love?”

“If it weren’t, you’d leave it,” Gerin answered. “Every time you have left, though, you’ve come back.” He raised a sardonic eyebrow. “And wouldn’t you be bored if you didn’t quarrel? You just said you thought peace and staying in one place for years were boring.”

“Ahh, Fox, you don’t fight fair, hitting a man on the head with his own words like that.” Van hiccuped. “Most people-Fand, f’r instance-you say something to ’em and they pay it no mind. But you, now, you listen and you save it and you give it back just so as it’ll hurt worst when you do.”

“Thank you,” Gerin said.

That got him another dirty look from the outlander. “I didn’t mean it for praise.”

“I know,” the Fox answered, “but I’ll take it for such all the same. If you don’t listen and remember, you can’t do much.” He turned the subject: “Do you think the Gradi can do as they say they will-them and their gods, I mean?”

“That’s the question, sure as sure,” Van said, “the one we’ve been scratching our heads about since they tried to tear the keep down around our ears.” He peered down into his jack of ale, as if trying to use it as a scrying tool. “If I had to guess, Captain, I’d say they likely can… unless somebody stops them, that is.”

“Unless I stop them, you mean,” the Fox said, and Van nodded, his hard features unwontedly somber.

Gerin muttered something coarse under his breath. Even Van of the Strong Arm, who’d traveled far more widely than he himself ever would, who’d done things and dared things that would have left him quivering in horror, looked to him for answers. He was sick of having the weight of the whole world pressed down on his shoulder. Even a god would break under a burden like that, let alone a man likely more than half through his appointed skein of days. Whenever he wished he could rest, something new and dreadful came along to keep him hopping.

“Lord prince?”

He looked up. There stood Herris Bigfoot, his expression nervous. The new village headman often looked nervous. Gerin wondered whether that was because he worried about his small job as the Fox did about his larger one or because he had something going on the side. “Well?” he said, his voice neutral.

“Lord prince, the village suffered when the Gradi came here,” Herris said. “We had men killed, as you know, and fields trampled, and animals run off or wantonly slain, and some of our houses burned down, too-lucky for us it wasn’t all of ’em.”

“Not just luck, headman.” Gerin waved to the warriors sitting here and there in the great hall, some repairing the leather jerkins they covered with scales of bronze to make corselets of them, others fitting points to arrows, still others sharpening sword blades against whetstones. “Luck had a bit of help here. If we hadn’t driven the Gradi away, you’d have had a thin time of it.”

“That’s so.” Herris bobbed his head in his eagerness to agree-or at least to be seen agreeing. “Dyaus praise all your brave vassals who kept those robbers from hauling everything back to their big boats. Still and all, though, some bad things happened to us in spite of how brave they fought.”

“Ah, now I see which way the wind blows,” Gerin said. “You’ll want me to take that into account come fall, when I’m reckoning up your dues. You’ll be missing people and animals, you’ll have spent time you could have been weeding on making repairs, and so forth.”

“That’s it. That’s right,” Herris exclaimed. Then he noticed Gerin hadn’t promised anything. “Uh, lord prince-will you?”

“How in the five hells do I know?” the Fox shouted. Herris sprang back a couple of paces in alarm. Several of the warriors looked up to see why Gerin was yelling. A little more quietly, he went on, “Have you noticed, sirrah, I have rather more to worry about than you or your village? I was going to fight a war against the Trokmoi. Now I’ll have to fight the Gradi first, and maybe Aragis the Archer off to the side. If anything is left of this principality come fall, I’ll worry over what to do about your dues. Ask me then, if we’re both alive. Till then, don’t joggle my elbow over such things, not when I’m trying to figure out how to fight gods. Do you understand?”

Herris gulped and nodded and fled. His sandals thumped on the drawbridge as he hurried back to the village. No doubt he was disappointed; no doubt the rest of the serfs would be. Gerin resolved to bear up under that. As he’d told the headman, he had more important things to worry about.

To his own surprise, he burst out laughing. “What’s funny, Fox?” Van demanded.

“Now I understand what the gods must feel like when I ask them for something,” Gerin said. “They’re really doing things that matter more to them, and they don’t like being nagged by some piddling little mortal who’s going to up and disappear in a few years no matter what they do or don’t do for him. As far as they’re concerned, I’m an annoyance, nothing more.”

“Ah, well, you’re good at the job,” Van said. Gerin wondered whether his friend intended that as a compliment or a sly dig. After a moment, he shrugged. However Van intended it, it was true.

* * *

Gerin drew his bow back to his ear and let fly. The sinew bowstring lashed his wrist. The arrow flew straight and true, into the flank of a young deer that had wandered too close to the bushes behind which he sheltered. The deer bounded away through the underbrush.

“After him!” Gerin shouted, bursting from concealment. He and Van and Geroge and Tharma pounded down the trail of blood the deer left.

“You got him good, Fox,” Van panted. “He won’t run far, and we’ll feast tonight. Venison and onions, and ale to wash ’em down.” He smacked his lips.

“There!” Gerin pointed. The deer had hardly been able to run even a bowshot. It lay on the ground, looking reproachfully back at the men who had brought it down. As always when he saw a deer’s liquid black eyes fixed on his, the Fox knew a moment’s guilt.

Not so Geroge. With a hoarse cry, the monster threw himself on the fallen deer and tore out its throat with his fangs. The deer’s hooves thrashed briefly. Then it lay still.

Geroge got to his feet. His mouth was bloody; he ran his tongue around his lips to clean them. More blood dripped from his massive jaws down onto the brownish hair that grew thick on his chest.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Gerin said, working hard to keep his voice mild. “It would have been dead soon anyhow.”

“But I liked killing it,” Geroge answered. By the way his deep-set eyes glittered, by the way the breath whistled in and out of his lungs, he’d more than liked it. It had excited him. The suddenly rampant and quite formidable bulge in his trousers suggested the same thing. He didn’t yet realize the excitement of the hunt could be transmuted to other excitements, but he would soon.

And what then? Gerin asked himself. It was another question that refused to wait for an answer, especially when he saw how Tharma looked at Geroge. Everything seemed to be descending on his head at the same time: the Trokmoi, the Gradi, the gods, and now the awakening of the monsters. It wasn’t fair. You could deal with troubles when they came singly. But how were you supposed to deal with them when you couldn’t handle one before the next upped and bit you?

Maybe you couldn’t. He’d learned a long time before that life wasn’t fair. You had to go on any way you could. But having all his problems so compressed seemed… inartistic, somehow. Whatever gods were responsible for his fate should have had more consideration.

Van drew his bronze dagger. “After I gut the beast, what say we make a fire and roast the liver and kidneys right here? Meat doesn’t get any fresher than that.”

Geroge and Tharma agreed so readily and so enthusiastically that, even had Gerin been inclined to argue, he would have thought twice. But he wasn’t inclined to argue. Turning to the monsters, he said, “Gather me some tinder, would you?”

While they scooped up dry leaves and tiny twigs, Gerin found a stout branch on the ground and a good, straight stick. He used the point of his own dagger to bore a hole in the branch, then wound a spare bowstring around the stick and twirled it rapidly with the string. Van was even better with a fire bow than he was, but the outlander was also busy butchering the deer, and Gerin had made plenty of fires on his own. If you were patient…

He worked the string back and forth, back and forth. The stick went round and round, round and round in the hole. After a while, smoke began to rise from it. “Tinder,” he said softly, not breaking his rhythm.

“Here.” Geroge fed some crumpled leaves into the hole-not too many, or he would have snuffed out the sparks Gerin had brought to life. He’d done that before, and Gerin had shouted at him for it just as if he weren’t physically far more formidable than the Fox. Gerin breathed gently on the sparks: blowing them out was another risk you took. Presently, they grew to flames.

“There ought to be a way to do that by magic,” Van said, impaling a chunk of liver on a stick and handing it to Geroge.

“I know several, as a matter of fact,” Gerin answered. “The easiest will leave you exhausted for half a day… No, that’s not so; the one for the flaming sword won’t, but that one takes ingredients that aren’t always easy to come by and, if you do it wrong, you’re liable to burn yourself up. Sometimes the simplest way is the best one.”

“Aye, well, summat to that, I suppose,” the outlander admitted. “But still, a clever fellow like you ought to be able to figure out an easy way to make the kind of magic you need.”

“I have trouble enough working magic,” Gerin exclaimed. “Expecting me to come up with new kinds is asking too much.” Wizards who could do things like that wrote grimoires; they didn’t go from one book of spells to another picking out the simplest things to try and hoping they worked.

Geroge toasted his chunk of liver over the fire. After a moment, Tharma joined him. The savory smell of roast meat drove the thought of magic from the Fox’s mind. The meat wasn’t well roasted; both foundling monsters had accepted the notion that meat needed cooking before being eaten, but they’d accepted it reluctantly, and ate even roast meat bloodier than was to Gerin’s taste.

They were also halfhearted about any notions of manners. With their teeth, they hardly needed to cut bites from a slab of meat so they could chew them. They just bit down, and a juicy gobbet disappeared forever every time they did.

Van handed Gerin a kidney on a stick. He cooked it a good deal longer than the monsters had their pieces of liver. “I wish we had some herbs, or even a bit of salt,” he said, but that was almost ritualistic complaint. The strong, fresh flavor of the kidneys-which went stale so quickly after you killed an animal-didn’t need enhancement.

Van roasted the deer’s other kidney for himself. When he lifted it away from the flames, he took a bite and then swore: “Might as well be right out of your five hells, Fox: I just burned my mouth.”

“I’ve done that,” Gerin said. “We’ve all done that. We ought to bring the rest of the carcass back to the keep.”

The outlander checked the sun through the forest’s leafy canopy. “We still have some daylight left. I don’t feel like going back yet. Suppose I do the heart in four parts and we cook that, too?”

“Do that!” Geroge said, and Tharma nodded. Any excuse to eat more meat was a good one for them.

“Go ahead,” Gerin said after he too gauged the sun. “The cooks will jeer at us for stealing the best bits ourselves, but that’s all right. They didn’t catch the beast, and we did.”

Before slicing up the heart, Van kicked the pile of guts away from the fire. He frowned a little. “Not so many flies on ’em as I’d’ve thought.”

“It’s been a cool spring. That has something to do with it,” Gerin said. Then he too frowned. Sometimes the most innocent remark, when you took it the wrong way-or maybe the right one-led to fresh ideas… and fresh worries. “Is it a cool spring because that’s how it happens to be, or is it a cool spring because the gods of the Gradi are getting a toehold here and want it to be cool?”

“You have a cheerful way of looking at things, don’t you, Fox?” Van handed him a piece of the meat he’d just cut. “Here, get some fresh heart in you.”

Gerin snorted. “You have been at Fox Keep a goodish while, haven’t you? When you first got here, you never would have made a joke like that.”

“See how you’ve corrupted me?” the outlander said. “Bad jokes, staying in one place for years at a time, having brats and knowing it-I probably sired some out on the road, but I never stayed in one place long enough to find out. It’s a strange life settled folk live.”

“All what you’re used to,” Gerin said, “and by now you’ve been here long enough to be used to this.”

He glanced over to Geroge and Tharma. Sometimes the two of them-especially Geroge-would closely follow human conversation. Humans were all they knew, and they wanted to fit in as best they could. Today, though, both of them seemed more intent on the roasting quarters of heart than on what Gerin was saying. He didn’t let that bother him as much as he would have a few years before. He’d done a better job of making them into more or less human beings than he’d ever expected.

No. He’d made them into more or less human children. He still had no proof their true essence would stay hidden as they matured. He still had no idea what to do with them as they did mature, either. The just thing would be to let them grow up as if they were people, and to treat them as such unless and until they gave him some reason to do otherwise. The safe thing would be to put them out of the way before he had to do it.

He took his piece of roasted heart off the fire, blew on it, and took a bite. The meat was tough and chewy, and he lacked the teeth to slice effortlessly through it as Geroge and Tharma had. He sighed. The safest thing would have been to put them out of the way as soon as they came into his hands. He hadn’t done that then, fearing the hands of the gods, not his own, had true control over their fate. He still feared that now. He’d do nothing-except worry.

Van’s teeth were merely human, but he made short work of his chunk of deer heart. He licked his fingers and wiped them clean on the grass, then dug around with a fingernail to rout out a piece of meat stuck somewhere in the back of his mouth. “That hit the spot,” he said. “Enough to make my belly happy, not so much that I won’t be able to enjoy myself come supper.”

“The way you eat, the only thing that amazes me is that you’re not as wide as you are tall,” Gerin said.

Van looked down at himself. “I am thicker through the middle than I used to be, I think. If I get too much thicker, I won’t be able to fit into my corselet, and then what will I do?”

“Save it for Kor,” Gerin answered, “unless Maeva takes it before he has the chance.”

“You had that thought run through your head too, eh?” Van started to laugh, but quickly swallowed his mirth. “It could happen, I suppose. There’s not a boy her age can match her, and she’s wild for weapons, too. Whether that’ll still be so once she sprouts breasts and hips-the gods may know, but I don’t. She’ll not be one of the common herd of women any which way; so much I’ll say already.”

“No,” the Fox agreed. In musing tones, he went on, “I wonder, now: is there any such thing as `the common herd of women, once you come to know ’em? Selatre wouldn’t fit there, nor Fand, the gods know” — he and Van both chuckled, each a little nervously- “nor Elise, either, thinking back.”

“You seldom speak of her,” Van said. He scratched at his beard. “To a shepherd, I suppose, each of his sheep is special, even if they’re nothing but bleating balls of wool to the likes of you or me.”

“I know that’s so,” Gerin said, warming to the discussion. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? The better you know the members of a class, the less typical of the class they seem. Does that mean there really isn’t any such thing as `the common herd of women’?”

“Don’t know if I’d go so far,” Van answered. “Next thing, you’ll be saying there’s no such thing as a common grain of sand or a common stalk of wheat, when any fool can see there is.”

“A lot of times, the things any fool can see are the things only a fool would believe,” Gerin said. “If you looked hard enough, I daresay you could find differences between grains of sand or stalks of wheat.”

“Oh, you could, maybe,” Van allowed, “but why would you bother?”

A question like that, intended to dismiss a subject, often started Gerin thinking harder. So here; he said, “I can’t tell you why you might want to know one grain of sand from another, but if you could tell which stalk of wheat would yield twice as much as the others, wouldn’t you want to do that?”

“You have me, Fox,” his friend said. “If I could do that, I would. I can’t, not by looking. Can you?”

“No, though I wish I could.” Gerin paused. “I wonder if I could make a magic to see that. Maybe with barley, not wheat: Baivers god of barley knows I’ve never scanted him, and he might lend me aid. That would be a sorcery worth taking risks for, if I could bring it off.”

He wondered if he knew enough, or could learn enough here in the northlands, even to plan such a spell. Or rather, he started to wonder; Geroge’s formidable yawn distracted him. The monster said, “I’m bored, sitting around here. Can we go back to the keep now?”

“Aye, we can.” Gerin climbed to his feet. “In fact, we’d better, so we’re there before sunset. With the deer, we have enough for a decent offering for the ghosts, but you don’t want to use such things if you don’t have to.”

They tied the carcass to a sapling, which they took turns shouldering by pairs as they carried it to the chariot waiting at the edge of the woods. The car had been crowded for four, and was all the more crowded for four plus a gutted deer, but Fox Keep wasn’t far.

When they got back, a stranger waited in the courtyard. No, not quite a stranger; after a moment, Gerin identified him: “You’re Authari Broken-Tooth, aren’t you? One of Ricolf the Red’s vassals?”

“Your memory is good, lord prince,” the newcomer said, bowing. “I am Authari.” When he opened his mouth to speak, you could see the front tooth that gave him his sobriquet. “But I am not Ricolf the Red’s vassal. I came here to tell you, Ricolf has died.”

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