Ricolf’s vassals were being difficult. Gerin had been sure they would be difficult, from the instant the eunuch priest led him, his son, Van, and them out of the Sibyl’s chamber. Now, back at the hostel in the village of Ikos, they, or at least three of them, openly bickered with the Fox.
“Didn’t mean a thing,” Wacho Fidus’ son declared, thumping his balled fist down onto the table. “Not one single, solitary thing.”
” `The young man shall hold all the castles/ And all within shall be his vassals’?” Gerin quoted. “That means nothing to you. Are you deaf and blind as well as-” He broke off; he’d been about to say
“The god said `all
Gerin exhaled through his nose. “That’s clever, I must admit,” he said tightly. “Are you sure you didn’t study Sithonian hair-splitting-excuse me, philosophy-south of the High Kirs? The only problem is, the question wasn’t about the keeps I control. It asked specifically about the holding of Ricolf the Red. When you take the question and the answer together, there’s only one conclusion you can reach.”
“We seem to have found another one,” Hilmic Barrelstaves said, tipping back his drinking jack and pouring the last swallow’s worth of ale down his throat. He waved the jack around to show he wanted a refill.
“Aye, you’ve found another one,” Gerin answered. “Is it one that will let you keep the oath you swore to Dyaus and Biton and Baivers” — he pointed to Hilmic’s drinking jack- “and all the other gods?”
Wacho, Hilmic, and Authari appeared to take no notice of that. But Ratkis Bronzecaster, who’d said little, looked even more thoughtful than he already had.
Duren said, “From all I’ve heard and read of Biton’s prophetic verse, the god never names names straight out.”
“What do you know, lad?” Wacho said with a sneer.
“I know insolence when I hear it,” Duren snapped. Physically, he was not a match for the bigger, older man, but his voice made Wacho sit up and take notice. Duren went on, “I know my letters, too, so I can learn things I don’t see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears. Can you say the same?”
Before Wacho answered, Gerin put in, “I’ve been to the Sibyl several times now, over the years, and the next name I hear in one of those verses will be the first.” Van nodded agreement.
Ratkis broke his silence: “That is so, or it has been for me, at any rate. It gives me one thing more to think about.”
“You’re not going to turn against us, are you?” Hilmic Barrelstaves demanded. “You’d be sorry for that-three against one would-“
“It wouldn’t be three against one for long,” Gerin broke in. Hilmic glared at him. He glared back, partly from anger, partly for effect. Then, musingly, he went on, “If your neighbors outside Ricolf’s barony hear how you’d seek to go back on your sworn word, they might hit you from behind while you were fighting Ratkis, too, for fear you’d treat them the same way after you’d beaten him. And that doesn’t begin to take into account what I’d do.”
He carefully avoided saying exactly what he would do. Absent other troubles, he would have descended on Ricolf’s holding with everything he had, to make sure it would be in Duren’s hands before Aragis the Archer could so much as think of responding. Absent other troubles- He laughed bitterly. Other troubles were anything but absent.
Then Ratkis said, “I expect I can hold my own. If the Trokm- tide didn’t swamp me, I don’t suppose my neighbors will.” He looked from Hilmic to Wacho to Authari Broken-Tooth. “They know I don’t go out looking for mischief. Aye, they know that, so they do. And they know that if mischief comes looking for me, I mostly give it a set of lumps and send it on its way.”
By the sour expressions on the faces of his fellow vassal barons, they did know that. Authari said, “Do you want to see us dragged into doing whatever Gerin the Fox here orders us to do?”
“Not so you’d notice,” Ratkis answered. “But I can’t say I’m dead keen on going against what a god says, either, and looks to me as if that’s what the three of you have in mind.”
Wacho Fidus’ son and Hilmic shook their heads with vehemence that struck Gerin as overwrought. Smoothly, Authari said, “Not a bit of it, Ratkis-nothing of the sort. But we do have to be certain what the lord Biton means, don’t we?”
“I think we’re all of us clear enough on that,” Van rumbled, and then drained his drinking jack. “If we weren’t, some people wouldn’t be trying so hard to get around the plain words.”
“I resent that,” Authari said, his versatile voice now hot with anger.
Van got to his feet and stared down at Authari. “You do, eh?” He set a hand on the hilt of his sword. “How much d’you resent it? Care to step onto the street and show me how much you resent it? What d’you suppose’ll happen after that? D’you suppose your successor, whoever he is, will resent it, too?”
The taproom got very quiet. The warriors who’d accompanied Ricolf’s vassals eyed those who’d come to Ikos with Gerin, and were eyed in return. And everyone waited to hear and see what Authari Broken-Tooth would do.
Gerin did not think Authari a coward; he’d never heard nor seen anything to give him that idea. But he did not blame Authari for licking his lips and keeping silent while he thought: Van was two hands’ breadth taller, and likely weighed half again as much as he did.
“Well?” the outlander demanded. “Are you coming out?”
“I find-I find-I am not so angry as I was a moment before,” Authari said. “Sometimes a man’s temper can make him say things he wishes he had kept to himself.”
To Gerin’s relief, Van accepted that, and sat back down at once. “Well, you’re right there, and no mistake,” he said. “Even the Fox has done it, and he’s more careful with his tongue than any man I’ve ever known.”
Much of what Van called being careful was simply knowing when to keep his mouth shut. But Gerin knew not to say that, too. What he did say was, “Since you’re not out of temper now, Authari, can you take a calmer look at the verses the god spoke through the Sibyl and admit the lines that talk about my son can have only one meaning?”
Authari looked resentful again, but carefully did not claim he was. Gerin’s intellectual challenge was as hard for him to withstand as Van’s physical challenge had been. At last, very much against his will, Ricolf’s vassal admitted, “There may be some truth in what you say.”
That made Hilmic and Wacho let out indignant bleats. “You’ve sold us, you traitor!” Wacho shouted, quickly red in the face with fury. “I ought to cut your heart out for this, or worse if I could think of it.”
“You speak truth there,” Gerin agreed. “Now, though, you will recognize Duren as your rightful overlord?”
“So I will,” Authari said sourly, “when he is permanently installed in Ricolf’s keep, and not a day sooner.”
“That is fair,” Gerin said.
“This was all your idea, and now you’re running away from it?” Wacho bellowed. Hilmic Barrelstaves set a hand on his arm and whispered in his ear. Wacho calmed down, or seemed to. All the same, Gerin wouldn’t have cared to be Authari right then. By himself, Authari was more powerful than either Wacho or Hilmic. Was he more powerful than both of them put together? Ratkis had said he could hold out against all three of Ricolf’s other leading vassals, so presumably Authari could hold out against two of them. But that didn’t mean he’d enjoy doing it.
And then Duren said, quietly but firmly, “When I succeed my grandfather, my vassals will not fight private wars against one another. Anyone who starts that kind of war will face me along with his foe.”
Gerin had imposed that rule on his own vassals. For that matter, Ricolf had enforced it while he lived. A strong overlord could. All of Ricolf’s leading vassals had assumed Duren, at least apart from Gerin, would not be a strong overlord. But Duren hadn’t said anything about asking help from his father, nor had he sounded as if he thought he’d need it. By the looks on their faces, Authari, Hilmic, and Wacho were all having second thoughts.
So was Gerin. He’d done his best to train Duren up to be a leader one day. He hadn’t realized he’d succeeded so well, or so fast. A boy turned into a man when he could fill a man’s sandals. By that reckoning-his games among the serving women at Fox Keep to one side-Duren was a man now. Scratching his head, Gerin wondered exactly when that had happened, and why he hadn’t noticed.
Ratkis Bronzecaster noticed. Speaking to Duren rather than Gerin, he asked, “When do you expect to take up the lordship of the holding that had been your grandfather’s?”
“Not this season,” Duren answered at once. “After my father has beaten Adiatunnus and the Gradi and no longer needs me by his side.”
“Your father is lucky to have you for a son,” Ratkis observed, with no irony Gerin could hear.
Duren shrugged. “What I am, he made me.”
In some ways, that was true. In those ways, it might have been more true of Duren than of a good many youths, for, with his mother gone, Gerin had had more of his raising than he would have otherwise. But in other ways, as the Fox had just realized, Duren had outstripped his hopes. And so he said, “A father can only shape what’s already in a son.”
Ratkis nodded at that. “You’re not wrong, lord prince. If a lad is a donkey, you can’t make him into a horse you’d want pulling your chariot. But if he’s already a horse, you can show him how to run.” He turned to Duren. “When that time comes, you’ll have no trouble from me, not unless you show you deserve it, which I don’t think you will. And I say that to you for your sake, not on account of who your father is.”
“I will try to be a lord who deserves good vassalage,” Duren answered.
Ratkis nodded again, saying, “I think you may well do that.” After a moment, Authari Broken-Tooth nodded, too. Hilmic and Wacho sat silent and unhappy. They’d been as difficult and obstructive as they could and, by all the signs, had nothing to show for it.
* * *
The drive back from the Sibyl’s shrine to the Elabon Way showed the damage the monsters had done in their brief time above ground. The peasant villages that lay beyond the old, half-haunted wood west of Ikos were shadows of what they had been. In a way, that made the journey back to the main highway easier, for the peasants, who were their own masters, owing no overlord allegiance, had been apt to demonstrate their freedom by preying on passing travelers.
“Serves ’em right,” Van said as they rode past another village where most of the huts were falling to ruin and a handful of frightened folk stared at the chariots with wide, hungry eyes. “They’d have knocked us over the head for our weapons and armor, so many good-byes to ’em.”
“Land needs to be farmed,” Gerin said, upset at the sight of saplings springing up in what had been wheatfields. “It shouldn’t rest idle.”
The state of the land was not the only worry on his mind, for he very much hoped he would find that his warriors had rested idle while he was consulting the Sibyl. Ricolf’s vassals had men enough to crush his small force if they set their minds to it, and to seize or kill him as he returned to their holding, too. He vowed to take Wacho and Hilmic-and Authari, for luck-down to the underworld with him if their followers turned traitor.
But when he came upon those of his troopers he’d left behind, they and the men who had served Ricolf were getting on well. When they recognized him and his companions, they hurried toward them, loudly calling for news.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Wacho said, still unready to resign himself to recognizing Duren as his suzerain.
“No, that isn’t so,” Ratkis Bronzecaster said before Gerin-or Duren-could scream at Wacho. “Sounds like the god thinks the lad should come after his grandfather. But he won’t take over Ricolf’s keep quite yet.”
“Why aren’t we fighting the Fox, then?” one of the soldiers demanded. “His kin have no call taking over our holding.”
“Biton thinks otherwise,” Ratkis said; having made up his mind, he followed his decision to the hilt. With a nod to one of his comrades, he added, “Isn’t that right, Authari?”
Authari Broken-Tooth looked as if he hated the other baron for putting him on the spot. “Aye,” he answered, more slowly than he should have. He could hardly have been less enthusiastic had he been discussing his own imminent funeral obsequies.
Gerin caught his eye. Wacho glared truculent defiance at him. He’d seen it done better. He shook his head, a single tightly controlled movement. Wacho glared even more fiercely. The Fox didn’t glare back. Instead, he looked away, a gesture of cool contempt that said Wacho wasn’t worth noticing and had better not make himself worth noticing.
Had Wacho shouted, Gerin’s men might have found themselves in a bloody broil with the troopers who followed Ricolf’s vassals. But Wacho didn’t shout. He was big and full of bluster, but the Fox had managed to get across a warning he could not mistake.
Gerin said, “Hear the words of farseeing Biton, as spoken through his Sibyl at Ikos.” He repeated the prophetic verse just as the Sibyl had given it to him, then went on, “Can any of you doubt that in this verse the god shows Duren to be the rightful successor to Ricolf the Red?”
His own men clapped and cheered; they were ready to believe his interpretation. Three out of four of Ricolf’s leading vassals, though, had disputed it. What would the common soldiers from Ricolf’s holding do? They owed Gerin no allegiance, but they did not stand to lose so much as Authari and his colleagues, either: who the overlord of the holding was mattered less to men who had to take orders regardless of that overlord’s name.
And, by ones and twos, they began to nod, accepting that the verse meant what he said it did. They showed no great enthusiasm, but they had no reason to show great enthusiasm: Duren was an untried youth. But they seemed willing to give him his chance.
Ricolf’s vassal barons saw that, too. Ratkis took it in stride. Whatever Authari thought, he kept to himself. Wacho and Hilmic tried with indifferent success to hide dismay.
“I thank you,” Duren said to the soldiers, doing his best to pitch his voice man-deep. “May we be at peace whenever we can, and may we win whenever we must go to war.”
Van stuck an elbow in Gerin’s ribs. “Have to be careful with that one,” he said under his breath, pointing to the Fox’s son. “Whatever he wants, he’s liable to go out and grab it.”
“Aye,” Gerin said, also looking at Duren with some bemusement. His own nature was to wait and look around before acting, then strike hard. Duren was moving faster and, by the way things seemed, able to be gentler because of that.
For Ricolf’s troopers were nodding at his words, accepting them more readily than they had Gerin’s interpretation of the oracular response. Before the Fox could say anything, Duren went on, “I will not take up this holding from my grandfather now, for my father still has need of me. But when that need has passed, I will return here and accept the homage of my vassals.”
Gerin wondered how the troopers would take that; it reminded them of Duren’s link to him. By their anxious expressions, Hilmic and Wacho were wondering the same thing, and hoping the reminder would turn the warriors against Duren. It didn’t. If anything, it made them think better of him. One comment rising above the general murmur of approval was, “If he looks out for his kinsfolk, he’ll look out for us, too.”
The Fox didn’t know who’d said that, altogether without being asked. He would gladly have paid good gold to get one of Ricolf’s men to come out with such a sentiment; getting it for free, and sincerely, was all the better.
Ratkis looked satisfied. Authari Broken-Tooth’s expression could have meant anything, though if it betokened delight, Gerin would have been very much surprised. What Hilmic’s and Wacho’s faces showed was at best dyspepsia, at worst stark dismay. The Fox knew they-and probably Authari, too-would be haranguing their retainers every day till Gerin got back to Ricolf’s holding. How much good that haranguing would do them remained to be seen.
Then Ratkis got down from his chariot and went to one knee on the stone slabs of the road close by the car Duren was driving. Looking up at Duren, he said, “Lord, in token of your return, I will gladly give you homage and fealty now.” He pressed the palms of his hands together and held them out before him.
At last, after seeing so much maturity from his son, Gerin found Duren at a loss. He tapped the youth on the shoulder and hissed, “Accept, quick!”
That got Duren moving. He’d seen Gerin accept new vassals often enough to know the ritual. Scrambling down from the chariot, he hurried over to stand in front of Ratkis Bronzecaster and set his hands on those of the older man.
Ratkis said, “I own myself to be your vassal, Duren son of Gerin the Fox, grandson of Ricolf the Red, and give you the whole of my faith against all men who might live or die.”
“I, Duren, son of Gerin the Fox, grandson of Ricolf the Red, accept your homage, Ratkis Bronzecaster,” Duren replied solemnly, “and pledge in my turn always to use you justly. In token of which, I raise you up now.” He helped Ratkis to his feet and kissed him on the cheek.
“By Dyaus the father of all and Biton the farseeing one, I swear my fealty to you, lord Duren,” Ratkis said, his voice loud and proud.
“By Dyaus and Biton,” Duren said, “I accept your oath and swear in turn to reward your loyalty with my own.” He looked to Ricolf’s other leading vassals. “Who else will give me this sign of good faith now?”
Authari Broken-Tooth went to one knee more smoothly than Ratkis had. He too gave Duren homage and then fealty. So far as Gerin could see, the ceremony was flawless in every regard, with no error of form to let Authari claim it was invalid. He was glad Authari had subordinated himself, but trusted the vassal baron no more on account of that.
Everyone looked at Hilmic and Wacho. Wacho’s fair face turned red. “I’m not pledging anything to a lord who isn’t here to give back what he pledges to me,” he said loudly. Turning to Gerin, he went on, “I don’t reject him out of hand, lord prince; don’t take me wrong. But I won’t give homage and swear fealty till he comes back here to stay, if I do it then. I’ll have to see what he looks like when he’s here for good.” Hilmic Barrelstaves, perhaps encouraged that Wacho had spoken, nodded emphatic agreement.
Again, Duren handled matters before Gerin could speak: “That is your right. But when I do return, I’ll bear in mind everything you’ve done since the day my grandfather died.”
Neither Hilmic nor Wacho answered that. Several of Ricolf’s men spoke up in approval, though, and even Wacho’s driver looked back over his shoulder to say something quiet to him. Whatever it was, it made the vassal baron go redder yet and growl something pungent by way of reply.
Gerin caught Duren’s eye and nodded for him to get back into the chariot. He didn’t want to give his son orders now, not when the boy-no, the young man-had so impressed Ricolf’s followers with his independence. Duren had impressed the Fox, too, a great deal. You never really knew whether someone could swim till he found himself in water over his head.
Duren jumped up into the car and took the reins from Van, who’d been holding them, saying, “When my duties farther north are done, I’ll come back here. The gods willing, we’ll have many years together.” He flicked the reins. The horses trotted forward. The rest of Gerin’s little army followed.
The Fox looked back over his shoulder. There in the roadway stood Authari Broken-Tooth, Ratkis Bronzecaster, Wacho Fidus’ son, and Hilmic Barrelstaves. They were arguing furiously, their men crowding around them to support one or the other. Gerin liked that fine.
* * *
Half a day south of Fox Keep, Gerin spied a chariot heading his way. At first he thought it belonged to a messenger, heading down toward Ricolf’s holding with news so urgent, it couldn’t wait for his return. The only sort of news that urgent was bad news.
Then the driver of the car held up a shield painted in white and green stripes: a shield of truce. “Those are Trokmoi!” the Fox exclaimed. A few years earlier, he wouldn’t have been able to recognize them as such at so long a distance, but his sight was lengthening as he got older. That made reading hard. He wondered if there was a magic to counter the flaw.
He had little time for such idle thoughts: a moment later, he recognized one of the Trokmoi in the car. So did Van, who named the fellow first: “That’s Diviciacus, Adiatunnus’ right hand.”
“His right hand, aye, and maybe the thumb of the left,” Gerin agreed. “Something’s gone wrong for him, or he’d not have sent Diviciacus out to try to make it better-and probably to diddle me in the process, if he sees a chance.”
The Trokmoi made out who Gerin was at about the same time as he recognized Diviciacus. They waved and approached. Duren stopped the team. The rest of Gerin’s men halted their chariots behind him.
“What can we be doing for you, now?” Gerin called in the Trokm- tongue.
“Will you just hear the sweet way he’s after using our speech?” Diviciacus said, also in his language. He quickly switched to Elabonian: “Though I’d best be using yours for the business ahead to be sure there’s not misunderstandings, the which wouldn’t be good at all, at all.” Even in Elabonian, he kept a woodsrunner’s lilt in his voice.
“The years haven’t treated you too badly,” Gerin remarked as Diviciacus got out of his chariot. The Trokm- was thicker through the middle than he had been when he was younger, and white frosted his mustache and the red hair at his temples. He still looked like a dangerous man in a brawl, though-and in a duel of words.
“I’ll say the same to your own self,” he answered, and then astonished Gerin by dropping to one knee in the roadway, as Ratkis Bronzecaster had done for Duren. As the Trokm- clasped his hands together in front of him, he said, “Adiatunnus is fain to be after renewing vassalage to your honor, lord prince, that he is.”
“By the gods,” Gerin muttered. He stared at Diviciacus. “It took the gods to get me his allegiance the last time he gave it. I always thought-I always said-I’d need them again to get him to renew it. Before I accept it, I want to know what I’m getting… and why.”
Still on that one knee, Diviciacus replied, “Himself said you’d say that, sure and he did.” His shoulders moved back and then forward as he sighed. “He’d not do it, I tell you true, did he not find worse in these lands south o’ the Niffet than you’d be giving him.”
“Ah, the Gradi,” Gerin said. “A light begins to dawn. He wants my help against them, and reckons the only way he’ll get it is to pretend to be a good little boy for as long as he needs to, and then to go back to his old ways.”
Diviciacus assumed a hurt expression. He did it very well-but then, he’d had practice. “That’s not a kind thing to be saying, not even a bit of it.”
“Too bloody bad,” Gerin told him. “The only debt I owe your chief is that I had my retainers gathered against him at Fox Keep when the Gradi raided us, and so I was able to throw them back without too much trouble.”
“Would that we could say the same,” Diviciacus answered gloomily. “They lit into us, that they did. I gather you’re after hearing about their raid on us by boat, and that they did it in the aftermath of striking you.”
“Yes, I heard of that,” Gerin answered. “If they hadn’t hit us and you, Adiatunnus and I would be at war now, I suppose, and you wouldn’t have to come to me and swallow his pride for him.”
Diviciacus winced. “Sure and you’ve an evil tongue in the head o’ you, Fox. They say that in the olden times a bard could kill a man by no more than singing rude songs about him. I never would have believed it at all till I met you.” He held up a hand; a gold bracelet glittered on his wrist. “Don’t thank me, now. You’ve not yet heard what I’m about to tell you.”
“Go on,” Gerin said, concealing his amusement; he had been about to thank the Trokm- for noting the bite of his sarcasm. “What haven’t I heard that you’re about to tell me?”
“That the black-hearted omadhauns struck us again ten days ago, this time coming by land, and that they beat us again, too.” Diviciacus bared his teeth in an agony of frustration. “And so, for fear of worse from them, Adiatunnus will fight alongside you, will fight under you, will fight however you choose, for the sake of having your men and your cars in the line with us. Whatever should befall after that, even if it’s you turning into our master, it’s bound to be better nor the Gradi ruling over us.”
He shivered in almost superstitious dread. The Trokmoi who’d come in the chariot with him gestured to avert evil. The Gradi whom Gerin had captured took beating the woodsrunners for granted. Evidently the Trokmoi felt the same way about it. That worried Gerin. What sort of allies would the Trokmoi make if they broke and fled at the mere sight of their foes?
He asked Diviciacus that very question. “We fight bravely enough,” the Trokm- insisted. “It’s just that-summat always goes wrong, and curse me if I know why. Must not be so with you southrons, not if you beat the Gradi the once. With you along, we’ll do better, too-I hope.”
“So do I,” Gerin told him. He mulled things over for a bit, then went on, “Come back to Fox Keep with me. This is too important to decide on the spur of the moment.”
“However you like it, lord prince,” Diviciacus answered. “Only the gods grant you don’t take too long deciding, else it’ll be too late for having the mind of you made up to matter.”
When they started north up the Elabon Way toward Fox Keep, Gerin told Duren to steer his chariot up alongside the one in which Diviciacus rode. Over squeals and rattles, the Fox asked, “What will Adiatunnus say if my whole army comes into the land he holds as his own?”
“Belike he’ll say, `Och, the gods be praised! — them of Elabonians and Trokmoi both, ” Diviciacus answered. “More than half measures we need, for true.”
“And what will he say-and what will your warriors say-when I tell them to fight alongside my men and take orders from my barons?” the Fox pressed.
“Order ’em about just as you wish,” Diviciacus said. “If there’s even a one of ’em as says aught else but, `Aye, lord Gerin, take the head of the stupid spalpeen and be after hanging it over your gate.”
“We don’t do that,” Gerin said absently. But that wasn’t the point. Diviciacus knew perfectly well that Elabonians weren’t in the habit of taking heads for trophies. What he meant was that Adiatunnus and his men were desperate enough to obey the Fox no matter what he said. Given Adiatunnus’ pride in the strength he’d had till the Gradi struck him, that was desperate indeed. Unless… “What oath will you give that this isn’t a trap, to lead me to a place where Adiatunnus can try to take me unawares?”
“The same frickful aith I gave your lady wife when she put me the same question,” Diviciacus said: “By Taranis, Teutates, and Esus I swear, lord Gerin, lord prince, I’ve told you nobbut the truth.”
If swearing by his three chief gods would not bind a Trokm- to the truth, nothing would. Gerin smiled a little when he heard Selatre had asked the same guarantee of Diviciacus: Biton didn’t speak through her these days, but she saw plenty clear on her own. “Good enough,” the Fox said.
“I pray it is; I pray you’re right,” Diviciacus told him. “The priests, they’ve been edgy of late, indeed and they have. It’s as if, with the gods o’ the Gradi so near ’em and all, our own gods have taken fear, if you know what I’m saying.”
“I think perhaps I do,” Gerin said after a moment’s pause. The Gradi prisoners had also boasted of how much stronger their gods were than those of the woodsrunners, and again seemed to know whereof they spoke.
Diviciacus sent Gerin a keen look. “You know more of this whole business than you let on, I’m thinking.” When Gerin didn’t answer, the Trokm- went on, “Well, that was ever the way of you. Adiatunnus, he swears you stand behind him and listen when he’s haranguing his men.”
“With the way Adiatunnus bellows, I wouldn’t need to be that close to overhear him,” Gerin said. Diviciacus chuckled and nodded, acknowledging the hit. Gerin was careful not to deny possible occult means of knowledge. The more people thought he knew, the more cautious they’d be around him.
The one thing he wished as the chariot clattered northward was that he really knew half as much as friends and foes credited him with knowing.
* * *
“Are we ready?” Gerin looked back at the throng of chariots drawn up behind him on the meadow by Fox Keep. The question was purely rhetorical; they were as ready as they’d ever be. He waved his arm forward, tapping Duren on the shoulder as he did so. “Let’s go!”
They hadn’t gone far before Diviciacus’ chariot came up beside Gerin’s. “It’s a fine thing you do here, Fox, indeed and it is,” the Trokm- said. Then his face clouded. “Still and all, I’d be happier, that I would, were you bringing the whole of your host with you and not leaving a part of ’em behind at Castle Fox.”
“I’m not doing this to make you happy,” Gerin answered. “I’m not doing it to make Adiatunnus happier, either. I’m doing it to protect myself. If I leave Fox Keep bare and the Gradi come up the Niffet again” — he waved back toward the river- “the keep falls. I don’t really want that to happen.”
“And if your men and Adiatunnus’ together aren’t enough to be beating the Gradi, won’t you feel the fool, now?” Diviciacus retorted.
“Those are the risks I weigh, and that’s the chance I take,” Gerin said. “If I could bring my whole army, and Adiatunnus’, too, down the Niffet against the Gradi, I’d do that. I can’t, though. The Gradi control the river, because they have boats beside which ours might as well be toys. And as long as that’s true, I have to guard against their taking advantage of what they have. If you don’t care for that, too bad.”
“Och, I’d not like to live inside your head, indeed and I wouldn’t,” Diviciacus said. “You’re after having eyes like a crayfish-on the end of stalks, peering every which way at once-and a mind like a balance scale, weighing this against that and that against this till you’re after knowing everything or ever it has the chance to happen.”
Gerin shook his head. “Only farseeing Biton has that kind of power. I wish I did, but I know I don’t. Seeing ahead’s not easy, even for a god.”
“And how would you know that?” Diviciacus said.
“Because I watched Biton trying to pick out the thread of
They soon left the Elabon Way and rolled southwest down lesser roads. Serfs in the fields alongside the dirt tracks stood up from their endless labor to watch the army pass. One or two of them, every now and then, would wave. Whenever that happened, Gerin waved back.
Diviciacus stared at the serfs. “Are they daft?” he burst out after a while. “Are they stupid? Why aren’t they running for the woods, aye, and taking the livestock with ’em, too?”
“Because they know my men won’t plunder them,” the Fox answered. “They know they can rely on that.”
“Daft,” Diviciacus repeated. “I’ll not tell Adiatunnus, for himself wouldna credit it. He’d call me drunk or ensorceled, so he would.”
“I had trouble making sense of it when I first came here, too,” Van said sympathetically. “It still strikes me strange, but after a while you get used to it.”
“For which ringing endorsement of my ideas I thank you very much,” Gerin said, his voice dry as the dust the horses’ hooves and chariot wheels raised from the road.
“Think nothing of it,” Van said, dipping his head.
“Just what I do think of it, and not a bit more,” Gerin said.
Both old friends laughed. Diviciacus listened and watched as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing and seeing. “If any of our Trokmoi, now, bespoke Adiatunnus so,” he said, “the fool’d be eating from a new mouth slit in his throat, certain sure he would, soon as the words were out of his old one.”
“Killing people who tell you you’re a fool isn’t always the best idea in the world,” Gerin observed. “Every so often, they turn out to be right.” Diviciacus rolled his eyes. That wasn’t the way his chieftain handled matters, so, as far as he was concerned, it had to be wrong.
They came to the keep of Widin Simrin’s son late the next day. Widin and Diviciacus greeted each other like old neighbors, which they were, and old friends, which they weren’t. “Better you southrons for friends nor the Gradi,” Diviciacus told him, and that seemed to suffice.
Widin had a good-sized garrison quartered at his keep: had Adiatunnus begun the war against Gerin rather than the other way round, those troopers would have done their best to slow the Trokm- advance and buy the Fox time to move down and deal with the woodsrunners. “So we’ll really be on the same side as the Trokmoi?” Widin said to Gerin. “Who would have believed that at the start of the year?”
“Not I, I tell you for a fact, but yes, we will,” Gerin replied. “The Trokmoi would rather work with us than with the Gradi, and from what I’ve seen of the Gradi, I’d rather work with the Trokmoi than with them, too.”
“I haven’t seen anything of them, lord prince,” Widin said, “but if they’re rugged enough to make the Trokmoi cozy up to us like this, they must be pretty nasty customers.” He grinned wryly. “I won’t be sorry to move out against the Gradi myself, I tell you that much. You go feeding a good-sized crew of warriors for a while and you start wondering whether anything’ll be left for you to eat come winter.”
“You don’t sing me that song, Widin,” Gerin told him. “I sing it to you.” His vassal baron grinned and nodded, yielding the point. The Fox had been feeding a lot more warriors for a lot longer than Widin. The Fox had also made the most thoroughgoing preparations for feeding and housing a lot of warriors of any man in the northlands, save perhaps Aragis the Archer-and he would have bet against Aragis, too.
Ruefully, Widin said, “And now, of course, the whole army guests off me, even if it is for only the one night.”
“I don’t see you starving,” Gerin observed, his voice mild.
“Oh, not now,” Widin answered. “The apples are harvested, and the pears, and the plums. The animals are getting fat on the good grass. But come the later part of next winter, we’ll wish we had what your gluttons will gobble up tonight.”
“Well, I understand that,” Gerin said. “The end of winter is a hard time of year for everyone. And Father Dyaus knows I’m happy to see you thinking ahead instead of just living in the now, the way so many do. But if we don’t beat the Gradi, how much you have in your storerooms won’t matter to anyone but them.”
“Oh, I understand all that, lord prince,” Widin assured him. “But since you take so much enjoyment complaining about every little thing, I wouldn’t think you’d begrudge me the chance to do the same.”
“Since I what?” The Fox glowered at his vassal, much as if he were serious. “I expect to hear that from Van or Rihwin, not from you.”
“Can’t trust anyone these days, can you?” Widin said, now doing a wicked impression of Gerin himself. The Fox threw his hands in the air and stalked off, conceding defeat.
By the extravagant way Widin fed the army that had descended on his castle, his plea of hunger to come had been a case of averting an evil omen, nothing more. As if to extract some sort of revenge on the lesser baron, Gerin ate until he could hardly waddle off to his blanket. He committed gluttony again the next morning, this time because he knew what sort of country lay ahead.
The land between Widin’s holding and Adiatunnus’ territory belonged to no one, even if it was formally under Gerin’s suzerainty. The Fox and the Trokm- chieftain had been probing for advantage down there for years; even after giving Gerin homage and swearing fealty, Adiatunnus conducted himself like an independent lord.
Caught between two strong rivals, most of the peasants who had farmed that land in the days before the werenight were dead or fled now. Fields were going back to meadows, meadows to brush, and brush to saplings. Looking at some pines as tall as he was, Gerin thought,
Adiatunnus had pushed his border station north and east, toward the edges of Gerin’s land. More than once, Gerin had moved against the Trokmoi with an army, routing his enemy’s guards and overturning the prevaricating boundary stones they would set up to support their claims. When he and his army came upon the Trokm- guards now, the red-mustachioed barbarians cheered and waved their long bronze swords in the air.
Laughter rumbled from Van. Turning to Gerin, he said, “There’s something you’ve never seen before, I’ll wager.”
“Woodsrunners cheering me?” The Fox shook his head. “The only time I ever thought the Trokmoi would cheer me was after I died.”
Diviciacus rode near enough to hear that. “We tried to arrange it, Fox dear, time and again we did,” he said, “and we’d have cheered like madmen if we’d done it. But things being as they are-“
“Yes, things being as they are,” Gerin agreed. Without the Trokmoi, he wouldn’t have become baron of Fox Keep, wouldn’t have set forth on the path that had made him prince of the north. The woodsrunners had ambushed his father and older brother, putting an end to his hopes of passing his days as student and scholar.
And, on returning from the City of Elabon to take up the barony, he’d sworn never to stop taking revenge on the barbarians for what they’d done to him and his. Over the years, he’d taken that revenge many times and in many ways. And now he found himself allied to the Trokmoi against a danger he and they both recognized as worse than either was to the other. Did that leave him forsworn?
He didn’t think so. He hoped not. He hoped the spirits of his father and brother understood why he was doing what he was doing. He thought his brother would. Of his father, he was less certain. The Dagref after whom he’d named his first son by Selatre had not been the most flexible of men.
The Fox shrugged. Regardless of what his father would have thought, he’d chosen this course and would have to see it through. What came afterwards, he’d sort out afterwards.
He knew the way to the keep Adiatunnus had held as his own since the Trokm- invasion after the werenight. He’d been that way before, with soldiers at his back every time. He’d had to fight his way through Adiatunnus’ holding then. The Trokmoi welcomed him and his men now.
Trokmoi were not the only folk still living on the land, of course. A good many Elabonian peasants remained, serfs toiling for tall, fair overlords now, not for barons of their own race. Whenever he rode past one of their villages, Gerin wondered how much that bothered them. He suspected they cared only how much of their crops their overlords, whoever those overlords were, exacted from them and how much those overlords interfered in the day-to-day routine of their lives.
He passed a couple of strongpoints he’d burned out in his last serious campaign against Adiatunnus, more than a decade before. One had been rebuilt, the other was still in ruins. Here and there in his holding, ruins remained from the werenight, well before that. The Trokmoi were moving at a pace not too far from his own.
When night fell, the Elabonians stopped at a village dominated by a stockaded building too large and strong to be a house, too small to be a castle. Several Trokm- warriors dwelt there with their wives and children, plainly to lord it over the Elabonian serfs who lived in the usual huts of wattle and daub. Had Gerin extended his dominions to the forests of the Trokmoi north of the River Niffet, he might have used a similar system, save with Elabonians controlling woodsrunners.
Golden Math, just past first quarter, floated high in the south when the sun set. Pale, slow-moving Nothos, full or a day past, rose in the east during evening twilight. Elleb, approaching third quarter, would not come up till nearly midnight, while Tiwaz was too close to the sun to be seen.
“I wonder what the Gradi call the moons,” Gerin said, staring up at Math from his seat close to a fire outside the village.
“That I can’t tell you, Captain,” Van answered. He paused to use a thumbnail to pry at a piece of mutton stuck between two back teeth, then resumed: “I’m amazed at how much of their speech has come back to me, now that I’ve had to try using it again, but I never was much interested in finding out about the moons. Maybe if some Gradi lass had looked up at ’em while I was on top of her-but she’d have been thinking about other things, or I hope she would.”
“You are impossible,” Gerin said, “or at least bloody improbable.”
“Thank you, Fox,” his friend answered. Gerin gave up and wrapped himself in his blanket. He had plenty of sentries out. Even in the worst of times, the Trokmoi weren’t likely to brave the ghosts for a night attack, and his men and theirs were supposed to be allies. Nevertheless, he hadn’t got as old as he had by taking needless chances. Knowing he’d taken none here, he slept sound.
* * *
Warriors Gerin led had-once-reached the village around the keep Adiatunnus had taken for his own. They’d fought their way in among the houses there, but never had managed to force their way into the keep. With both Trokmoi-men and women-and monsters opposing them, they’d lost men too fast to make the assault worthwhile even if it did succeed.
And now here they were, more than ten years later, coming up to Adiatunnus’ fastness once more. This time, no monsters fought them; the monsters, all save Geroge and Tharma, were back in the trackless caverns under Biton’s temple at Ikos. The Trokmoi-men and women-stood in the narrow, rutted streets of the village, shouting for the Elabonians till their voices grew raw and hoarse. The drawbridge to the keep was down, and Adiatunnus rode out from it to greet the Fox. The last time Gerin had come this far, the two of them had done their best to kill each other, and they’d both nearly succeeded.
“Rein in,” Gerin told Duren. The Fox also held up a hand to halt the rest of his chariots. His son pulled back on the reins. The horses obediently came to a stop.
Adiatunnus halted his own car perhaps twenty feet from Gerin’s. He got out of it and walked half the distance before going down on one knee in the roadway. The watching Trokmoi sighed.
Gerin jumped down from his chariot and hurried over to Adiatunnus. The Trokm- chieftain clasped his hands together, Gerin covered them with his own, and they went through the same rituals of homage and fealty in person as they had by proxy through Diviciacus.
Speaking the Trokm- tongue so his folk could follow, Adiatunnus said, “I want no misunderstanding, now. You are my lord, and I own it’s so. What you’re after ordering me and mine to do against the Gradi, that we’ll do, and promptly, too. You’ll find us no more trouble than any of your other vassals.”
The Fox noted Adiatunnus’ reservation-he would take orders against the Gradi, but hadn’t said anything about other orders. Gerin decided not to make an issue of it. Maybe the alliance against the new invaders would lead to better things later, maybe it wouldn’t. For now, he wouldn’t argue that it was necessary.
Also speaking the woodsrunners’ language, he said, “Glad we are to have your valiant warriors with us in the fight. We’ll teach the Gradi they chose the wrong foes when they decided to trifle with us.”
The Trokmoi yelled and cheered; Gerin doubted they’d ever given any Elabonian a greeting like the one he was getting. Most of his own men understood the Trokm- speech well enough to have followed what he was saying. They cheered, too.
Some of them, he saw, had their eyes on Trokm- women, many of whom were strikingly pretty and who had a reputation among the Elabonians for easiness. Gerin knew that reputation was not altogether deserved; it was just that Trokm- women, like their menfolk, said and acted on what they thought more readily than most Elabonians. But, as Fand had taught him, you tried going too far with them at your peril. He hoped no trouble would spring from that.
Adiatunnus waved back toward his keep, whose drawbridge remained down. “Come in, Fox, come in, and the men of you, too. I’ll feast the lot of you till you’re too full to futter, that I will.” Maybe he’d been watching Gerin’s troopers eyeing the Trokm- women, too.
“For my men, I thank you,” Gerin said. Save for insults on the battlefield, this was the first time he’d exchanged words with Adiatunnus. The Trokm- chief was close to his own age, a couple of digits taller and a good deal thicker through the shoulders and through the belly, with a balding crown and long, drooping fair mustaches now going gray. He wore a linen tunic and baggy woolen trousers, both dyed in checks of bright and, to Gerin’s eye, clashing colors.
He was studying the Fox with the same wary care Gerin gave him. Seeing Gerin’s eye on him, he chuckled self-consciously and said, “I’ve always been after thinking you’re so high” — he reached up as far as he could- “with fangs in your mouth and covered all over with fur or a viper’s scales, I never could decide which. And here, to look at you, you’re nobbut a man.”
“And you likewise,” Gerin answered. “You’ve given me enough trouble for any other ten I could name, though; I tell you that.”
“For which I thank you,” Adiatunnus said, preening a little. His eyes were an odd shade, halfway between gray and green, and quite sharp. Looking intently at Gerin, he went on, “Ah, but if one o’ them ten you could name was Aragis the Archer, now, would you still be telling me the truth?”
“Not altogether,” the Fox admitted, and Adiatunnus preened again, this time admiring his own cleverness. Gerin said, “If you won’t let me flatter you now, how am I supposed to fool you later?”
Adiatunnus stared at him, then started to laugh. “Och, what a wonder y’are, Fox. I’ve been glad to have you for a neighbor betimes, that I have, for you’ve taught me more than a dozen duller men could have done.”
“For which I suppose I thank you,” Gerin said, at which Adiatunnus laughed again. The Trokm- was telling the truth there. Over the years, Gerin had noted, Adiatunnus, more than any other Trokm- chieftain, had learned from the Elabonians among whom he’d settled. He played far more sophisticated-and far more dangerous-political games than his fellow woodsrunners, most of whom still seemed hardly better than bandits after all these years.
The game he was playing now was designed to make him seem a good fellow to the Fox and his warriors, and to make them forget they were more likely to be his foes than his friends. When he wanted to use it, he had a huge voice. He used it now, bellowing in Elabonian, “Into the keep, the lot of you. The meat and bread want eating, the beer wants drinking, aye, and maybe the lasses want pinching, though you’ll have to find that out your own selves.”
Gerin tried to shout just as loudly: “Any man of mine who drinks so much today that he’s not fit to travel tomorrow will answer to me, and I’ll make him sorrier than his hangover ever did.” That might also keep his men from getting so drunk they started fights, and from being too drunk to defend themselves if the Trokmoi did.
“The same goes for my warriors,” Adiatunnus said in his speech and in Elabonian, “save only that they answer to me first and then the Fox, and they’ll care for neither, indeed and they won’t.”
Roast meat was roast meat, though the Trokmoi cooked mutton with mint, not garlic. Some of the bread the serving women set before the warriors struck Gerin as odd: thick and chewy and studded with berries. It wasn’t what he ate at home, but it was good. He wasn’t so sure about the beer. It wasn’t ale, nor anything like what he and other Elabonians brewed, coming almost black from the dipper and tasting thick and smoky in his mouth.
Adiatunnus drank it with every sign of enjoyment, so it evidently was as it was supposed to be. “Aye, we make the pale brew, too,” the Trokm- chieftain said when Gerin asked him about it, “but I thought you might be interested in summat new, you having the name for that and all. You roast the malted barley a good deal longer here, you see, so it’s nearly burnt, before you make it into the mash.”
“I’ll bet the first fellow who brewed this did it by accident, or because he was careless with his roasting,” Gerin said. He took another pull and smacked his lips thoughtfully. “After you get used to it, it’s-interesting, isn’t it? A new way of doing things, as you say.”
“When all this is done, I’ll send a brewer to Fox Keep to show you the making of it,” Adiatunnus promised.
“When all this is done, if you’re able to send him and I’m able to receive him, I’ll be glad to do that.” Gerin drained his mug of beer. Getting up to fill it with another dipper of that dark brew seemed the most natural thing in the world, so he did.
Van had other ideas about what the most natural thing in the world might be. If he got any friendlier with that serving woman-a lively redhead who, Gerin thought, looked a lot like Fand-they’d be consummating their friendship on top of the table, or maybe down in the rushes on the floor.
Gerin peered around for Duren but didn’t see him. He wondered whether his son had found a girl for himself or was just off visiting the latrine. When Duren didn’t come back right away, the first guess seemed more likely.
“A fine-looking lad y’have there,” Adiatunnus said, which made the Fox start a little; he wasn’t used to anyone save Selatre or sometimes Van thinking along with him. Adiatunnus went on, “Am I after hearing the grandfather of him is a dead corp, the which puts him in line for that barony?”
“That’s so,” Gerin agreed. He eyed the Trokm- with genuine respect. “You have your ear to the ground, to have got the news so soon.”
“The more you know, the more you can do summat about,” Adiatunnus answered, a saying that might have come straight from the Fox’s lips.
Gerin peered down into the black and apparently bottomless mug of beer. When he looked up again, Duren was coming back into the great hall, a smug look on his face. That eased Gerin’s mind; after the boy had been kidnapped when he was small, the Fox wasn’t easy about letting him out of his sight.
Turning to Adiatunnus, Gerin said, “It will be strange, riding alongside you instead of at you.”
“It will that.” Adiatunnus knocked back the black beer in his mug at a single gulp, then sat there slowly shaking his head. “Strange, aye. But you southrons, now, you’ve no fear of the Gradi, have you?”
“No more than I do of you,” Gerin answered. “By the fight they made with us, they’re brave and they’re strong, but so are you Trokmoi-and so are we.”
“I canna tell you what it is, Fox,” Adiatunnus said, his features sagging in dismay, “but when we face ’em, summat always goes wrong for us. And when you get to the point where you expect to have a thing happen, why, happen it will.”
“Yes, I’ve seen that,” Gerin said. He remembered Kapich, his Gradi prisoner, sneering at the Trokm- gods. Whether that had anything to do with the woodsrunners’ bad luck against the Gradi, he couldn’t have said, but the notion wouldn’t have surprised him.
Adiatunnus said, “When we go against the Gradi, now, how will you work it? Will you mix our men together like peas and beans in the soup pot, or do you aim to keep ’em apart, one group from the other?”
“I’ve been chewing on that very thing,” Gerin said, noting with some relief that Adiatunnus really did seem to accept his command. “I’m leaning toward mixing: that way, it’s less likely your warriors or mine will think the other bunch has run off and left ’em in the lurch. How do you feel about it?”
He asked for more than politeness’ sake; Adiatunnus had proved himself no fool. The Trokm- said, “Strikes me as the better notion, too. If we’re to have an army, it should
“I do.” Gerin nodded. “My chief worry is that your men won’t follow my commands as quickly as they might, either because they think I’m trying to put them in more danger or just out of Trokm- cussedness.”
“As for the first, I trust it won’t be so, else I’d never have bent the knee to you,” Adiatunnus said. “You fight hard, Fox, but you fight fair. As for t’other, well, there are times when I wonder you Elabonians don’t bore yourselves to death, so dull you seem to us.”
“I’ve heard other Trokmoi say as much,” Gerin admitted, “but, of course, they’re wrong.” He brought that out deadpan, to see what Adiatunnus would do with it.
The chieftain frowned, but then started to laugh. “Try as you will, lord prince-I should be saying that now, eh? being your vassal and all, I mean-you’ll not get my goat so easy.”
“Good,” Gerin said. “So. You’re flighty to us, and we’re dull to you. What of the Gradi? You know them better than we do.”
“Belike, and how I’m wishing we didna.” This time, Adiatunnus’ frown stayed, making his whole face seem longer. “They’re-how do I say it? — they’re serious about what they do, that they are. It’s not your fault you’re in their way, mind you, but y’are, and so they’ll rob you or kill you or whatever they like. And if you have the gall to be offended, mind, then they’ll get angry at you for trying to keep what’s always been yours.”
“Yes, that fits in with what I’ve seen,” Gerin agreed. “They’re very sure of themselves, too: they don’t think we can stop them. That goddess of theirs, that Voldar-“
Adiatunnus twisted both hands into an apotropaic sign. “Dinna be saying that name in this place. A wicked she-devil, no mistake.” He shivered, though the inside of the great hall was smoky and hot. “Wicked, aye, but strong-strong. And the others-” His fingers writhed again.
“Father Dyaus will prosper our enterprise,” Gerin said, and hoped the chief Elabonian god was paying as much attention to him as Adiatunnus feared the chief Gradi goddess was paying to
He was distracted from such musings when a very pretty Trokm- girl less than half Adiatunnus’ age sat down on the chieftain’s lap. Adiatunnus was holding a mug of black beer in one hand. The other closed over her breast through her tunic. The public display of what Gerin would have kept private didn’t disturb her; indeed, she seemed proud Adiatunnus acknowledged she’d captured his affection, or at least his lust.
“And can I be finding you summat lively in the line of women?” the Trokm- chieftain asked. His hand opened and squeezed, opened and squeezed. “I’d not want you to think me lacking in hospitality, now.”
“I don’t,” Gerin assured him. “Good food and good drink are plenty for me, and you’ve given me those. As for the other, I’m happy enough with my wife not to care to look anywhere else, though I thank you all the same.”
“And what a daft notion that is,” Adiatunnus exclaimed. “Not that you’re happy, the which is as may be, but that your being happy back there would keep you from poking a wench here. What has the one to do with t’other? A friendly futter is worth the having, eh, no matter where you find it.”
The Fox shrugged. “If that’s how you want to live, I’m not going to say you shouldn’t. It’s your affair-and you can take that however you like. And since I’m happy enough to let other people do as they please, I’m even happier when they let me do the same.”
“You’re happy to drive a lesson home like a man splitting logs with an axe, too,” Adiatunnus retorted. “But all right, have it as you will, since you’re bound to, anyhow. And if you’re not fain to have yourself a good time, I’ll not be after making you do it. So there.”
Gerin laughed out loud and raised his own mug in salute. Not many men could puncture him at arguments of that sort, but Adiatunnus had just done it. That said something about how sharp the Trokm-‘s wits were, not that Gerin hadn’t already had a good notion of that. It also said Adiatunnus would make a useful ally-provided Gerin kept an eye on him.
The Trokm-‘s leman found something interesting to do with her hand, too. Gerin wondered with abstract curiosity whether Adiatunnus would suddenly need to change his trousers. Before that happened, the woodsrunner got up and slung the girl over his shoulder-no small display of strength-and carried her upstairs while she laughed.
Gerin turned to Duren and said, “I daresay you’re learning some things here that you wouldn’t see at Fox Keep.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” his son answered, sounding very much like him. “Van and Fand do things like that sometimes.”
“Mm, so they do,” the Fox admitted. He thumped Duren on the shoulder and started to laugh, then got to his feet. “Well, now you’re going to see something you
* * *
Van scratched his head, then, in fashion most ungentlemanly, reached inside his breeches and scratched there, too. He squashed something between his thumbnails, look at it, wiped it on his trouser leg, and let out a long sigh. “I’m going to have to go over myself for nits,” he said, and dug in the pouch at his belt for a fine-toothed wooden comb. As he started raking it through his beard and hissing as the thick, curly hairs got stuck, he shook a thick forefinger at Gerin. “And don’t you twit me about these cursed lice and where I got ’em. I know where I got ’em, and I had fun doing it, too.”
“Fine,” Gerin said. “You can have fun explaining to Fand where you got ’em, too.”
But Van refused to let that sally faze him. “There’s too many ways to-ouch! — pick up lice for anybody to be sure which one I found.”
That was true. Gerin, for his part, had fresh bedbug bites, courtesy of no one more intimate than whoever’d last slept in the bed Adiatunnus had given him and Duren. But he also knew that Fand, given a hundred possibilities, would always choose the one likely to lead to the wildest fight-and, this time, she’d be right.
The Fox didn’t waste a lot of time brooding over it, though he did spend a moment hoping he wouldn’t come down with lice himself. As he got grayer, the vermin and their eggs got harder to spot in his hair.
Getting the army ready to move soon made all such insectile worries seem of insectile size and importance. His own men were quickly ready to ride, whether on horseback or in their chariots. He’d never before watched the Trokmoi getting ready to move out on campaign-most of the campaigns on which they’d moved in these parts had been aimed at him. Now that he was watching them, he concluded they had to start days earlier than he would have to set out at the same time.
They bickered. They bungled. They got drunk instead of eating breakfast. They went off for a fast poke with a serving girl instead of eating breakfast. An Elabonian captain would have killed a couple of his men on the spot before he put up with insubordination the Trokm- leaders ignored.
When the woodsrunners had finally fought, they’d always done well against the Fox’s troopers. He had to hope the same would hold now. The longer he watched them-and he had a good long while to watch them-the more forlorn that hope seemed.
Adiatunnus was everywhere at once, shouting, blustering, cursing, cajoling. The chieftain did get his fair measure of respect, but, as far as Gerin could see, matters moved no faster because of the racket he made. Gerin had to hope Adiatunnus wasn’t making things slower, another hope that faded as the morning wore on.
Van muttered, “We’d have done better if the woodsrunners lined up with the Gradi, I’m thinking.”
“I wouldn’t argue,” Gerin said mournfully, watching two Trokmoi draw swords and scream at each other before their friends pulled them apart.
The closest Adiatunnus came to acknowledging anything was wrong came when he said, “Och, you’re ready a bit before us, looks like,” and gave a breezy shrug to show how little that mattered to him. The Fox, ignoring the way his stomach churned, managed to nod.
At last, with the sun a little to the west of south, not even the Trokmoi could delay any more. Their women calling last farewells, they rode west from Adiatunnus’ keep along with Gerin’s men. The Fox murmured a prayer to Dyaus that the campaign would end better than it had begun.