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Gerin the Fox looked down his long nose at the two peasants who'd brought their dispute before him. "Now, Trasamir, you say this hound is yours, am I right?"
"Aye, that's right, lord prince." Trasamir Longshanks' shaggy head bobbed up and down. He pointed to several of the people who helped crowd the great hall of Fox Keep. "All these folks from my village, they'll say it's so."
"Of course they will," Gerin said. One corner of his mouth curled up in a sardonic smile. "They'd better, hadn't they? As best I can tell, you've got two uncles, a cousin, a nephew, and a couple of nieces there, haven't you?" He turned to the other peasant. "And you, Walamund, you claim the hound belongs to you?"
"That I do, lord prince, on account of it's so." Walamund Astulf's son had a typical Elabonian name, but dirty blond hair and light eyes said there were a couple of Trokmoi in the family woodpile. Like Gerin, Trasamir was swarthy, with brown eyes and black hair and beardthough the Fox's beard had gone quite gray the past few years. Walamund went on, "These here people will tell you that there dog is mine."
Gerin gave them the same dubious look with which he'd favored Trasamir's supporters. "That's your father and your brother and two of your brothers-in-law I see, one of them with your sister alongsidefor luck, maybe."
Walamund looked as unhappy as Trasamir Longshanks had a moment before. Neither man seemed to have expected their overlord to be so well versed about who was who in their village. That marked them both for fools: any man who did not know Gerin kept close track of as many tiny details as he could wasn't keeping track of details himself.
Hesitantly, Trasamir pointed to the hound in questiona rough-coated, reddish brown beast with impressive fangs, now tied to a table leg and given a wide berth by everybody in the hall. "Uh, lord prince, you're a wizard, too, they say. Couldn't you use your magic to show whose dog Swifty there really is?"
"I could," Gerin said. "I won't. More trouble than it's worth." As far as he was concerned, most magic was more trouble than it was worth. His sorcerous training was more than half a lifetime old now, and had always been incomplete. A partially trained mage risked his own skin every time he tried a conjuration. The Fox had got away with it a few times over the years, but picked with great care the spots where he'd take the chance.
He turned to his eldest son, who stood beside him listening to the two peasants' arguments. "How would you decide this one, Duren?"
"Me?" Duren's voice broke on the word. He scowled in embarrassment. When you had fourteen summers, the world could be a mortifying place. But Gerin had put questions like that to him before: the Fox was all too aware he wouldn't last forever, and wanted to leave behind a well-trained successor. As Trasamir had, Duren pointed to the hound. "There's the animal. Here are the two men who say it's theirs. Why not let them both call it and see which one it goes to?"
Gerin plucked at his beard. "Mm, I like that well enough. Better than well enough, in factthey should have thought of it for themselves back at their village instead of coming here and wasting my time with it." He looked to Trasamir and Walamund. "Whichever one of you can call the dog will keep it. Do you agree?"
Both peasants nodded. Walamund asked, "Uh, lord prince, what about the one the dog doesn't go to?"
The Fox's smile grew wider, but less pleasant. "He'll have to yield up a forfeit, to make sure I'm not swamped with this sort of foolishness. Do you still agree?"
Walamund and Trasamir nodded again, this time perhaps less enthusiastically. Gerin waved them out to the courtyard. Out they went, along with their supporters, his son, a couple of his vassals, and all the cooks and serving girls. He started out himself, then realized the bone of contentionor rather, the bone-gnawer of contentionwas still tied to the table.
The hound growled and bared its teeth as he undid the rope holding it. Had it attacked him, he would have drawn his sword and solved the problem by ensuring that neither peasant took possession of it thereafter. But it let him lead it out into the afternoon sunlight.
"Get back, there!" he said, and the backers of Trasamir and Walamund retreated from their principals. He glared at them. "Any of you who speaks or moves during the contest will be sorry for it, I promise." The peasants might suddenly have turned to stone. Gerin nodded to the two men who claimed the hound. "All rightgo ahead."
"Here, Swifty!" "Come, boy!" "Come ongood dog!" "That's my Swifty!" Walamund and Trasamir both called and chirped and whistled and slapped the callused palms of their hands against their woolen trousers.
At first, Gerin thought the dog would ignore both of them. It sat on its haunches and yawned, displaying canines that might almost have done credit to a longtooth. The Fox hadn't figured out what he'd do if Swifty wanted no part of either peasant.
But then the hound got up and began to strain against the rope. Gerin let go, hoping the beast wouldn't savage one of the men calling it. It ran straight to Trasamir Longshanks and let him pat and hug it. Its fluffy tail wagged back and forth. Trasamir's relatives clapped their hands and shouted in delight. Walamund's stood dejected.
So did Walamund himself. "Uhwhat are you going to do to me, lord prince?" he asked, eyeing Gerin with apprehension.
"Do you admit to trying to take the hound when it was not yours?" the Fox asked, and Walamund reluctantly nodded. "You knew your claim wasn't good, but you made it anyhow?" Gerin persisted. Walamund nodded again, even more reluctantly. Gerin passed sentence: "Then you can kiss the dog's backside, to remind you to keep your hands off what belongs to your neighbors."
"Grab Swifty's tail, somebody!" Trasamir shouted with a whoop of glee. Walamund Astulf's son stared from Gerin to the dog and back again. He looked as if somebody had hit him in the side of the head with a board. But almost everyone around himincluding some of his own kinsfolknodded approval at the Fox's rough justice. Walamund started to stoop, then stopped and sent a last glance of appeal toward his overlord.
Gerin folded his arms across his chest. "You'd better do it," he said implacably. "If I come up with something else, you'll like that even less, I promise you."
His own gaze went to the narrow window that gave light to his bedchamber. As he'd hoped, Selatre stood there, watching what was going on in the courtyard below. When he caught his wife's eye, she nodded vigorously. That made him confident he was on the right course. He sometimes doubted his own good sense, but hardly ever hers.
One of Trasamir's relatives lifted the hound's tail. Walamir got down on all fours, did as the Fox had required of him, and then spat in the dirt and grass again and again, wiping his lips on his sleeve all the while.
"Fetch him a jack of ale, to wash his mouth," Gerin told one of the serving girls. She hurried away. The Fox looked a warning to Trasamir and his relatives. "Don't hang an ekename on him on account of this," he told them. "It's over and done with. If he comes back here and tells me you're all calling him Walamund Hound-Kisser or anything like that, you'll wish you'd never done it. Do you understand me?"
"Aye, lord prince," Trasamir said, and his kinsfolk nodded solemnly. He didn't know whether they meant it. He knew he did, though, so if they didn't they'd be sorry.
The girl brought out two tarred-leather jacks of ale. She gave one to Walamund and handed the Fox the other. "Here, lord prince," she said with a smile.
"Thank you, Nania," he answered. "That was kindly done." Her smile got wider and more inviting. She was new to Fox Keep; maybe she had in mind slipping into Gerin's bed, or at least a quick tumble in a storeroom or some such. In a lot of castles, that would have been the quickest way to an easy job. Gerin chuckled to himself as he poured out a small libation to Baivers, the god of barley and brewing. No reason for Nania to know yet that she'd found herself an uxorious overlord, but she had. He hadn't done any casual wenching since he'd met Selatre. Eleven years, more or less, he thought in some surprise. It didn't feel that long.
Walamund had also let a little ale slop over the rim of his drinking jack and drip onto the ground: only a fool slighted the gods. Then he raised the jack to his mouth. He spat out the first mouthful, then gulped down the rest in one long draught.
"Fill him up again," Gerin told Nania. He turned back to Walamund and Trasamir and their companions. "You can sup here tonight, and sleep in the great hall. The morning is time enough to get back to your village." The peasants bowed and thanked him, even Walamund.
By the time the man who'd wrongly claimed the hound had got outside of his second jack of ale, his view of the world seemed much improved. Duren stepped aside with Gerin and said, "I thought he'd hate you forever after that, but he doesn't seem to."
"That's because I let him down easy once the punishment was done," the Fox said. "I made sure he wouldn't be mocked, I gave him ale to wash his mouth, and I'll feed him supper same as I will Trasamir. Once you've done what you need to do, step back and get on with things. If you stand over him gloating, he's liable to up and kick you in the bollocks."
Duren thought about it. "That's not what Lekapenos' epic tells a man to do," he said. " `Be the best friend your friends have, and the worst foe to your foes,' or so the poet says."
Gerin frowned. Whenever he thought of Lekapenos, he thought of Duren's mother; Elise had been fond of quoting the Sithonian poet. Elise had also run off with a traveling horse doctor, about the time Duren was learning to stand on his feet. Even with so many years gone by, remembering hurt.
The Fox stuck close to the point his son had raised: "Walamund's not a foe. He's just a serf who did something wrong. Father Dyaus willing, he won't take the chance of falling foul of me again, and that's what I was aiming at. There's more gray in life, son, than you'll find in an epic."
"But the epic is grander," Duren said with a grin, and burst into Sithonian hexameters. Gerin grinned, too. He was glad to see knowledge of Sithonian preserved here in the northlands, cut off these past fifteen years and more from the Empire of Elabon. Few hereabouts could read even Elabonian, the tongue in their mouths every day.
Gerin also smiled because Selatre, having first learned Sithonian herself, was the one who'd taught Duren the language. The boyno, not a boy any more: the youthdidn't remember his birth mother. Selatre was the one who'd raised him, and he got on so well with her and with his younger half brothers and half sister that they might have been full-blooded kin.
Duren pointed eastward. "There's Elleb, coming up over the stockade," he said. "Won't be too long till sunset." Gerin nodded. Ruddy Ellebactually, a washed-out pink with the sun still in the skywas a couple of days before full. Pale Nothos floated high in the southeast, looking like half a coin at first quarter. Golden Math wasn't up yet: she'd be full tonight, Gerin thought. And swift-moving Tiwaz was lost in the skirts of the sun.
Walamund had his drinking jack filled yet again. The Fox brewed strong ale; he wondered if the peasant would fall asleep before supper. Well, if Walamund did, it was his business, no one else's. He'd hike back to his village in the morning with a thick head, nothing worse.
From the watchtower atop the keep, a sentry shouted, "A chariot approaches, lord prince." On the palisade surrounding Castle Fox, soldiers looked to their bows and bronze-headed spears. In these troubled times, you never could tell who might be coming. After a short pause, the sentry said, "It's Van of the Strong Arm, with Geroge and Tharma."
The soldiers relaxed. Van had been Gerin's closest friend since before the great werenight, and that had been . . . Gerin glanced up toward Elleb and Nothos once more. Those two moons, and Tiwaz and Math, had all been full together nearly sixteen years before. Sometimes, that night of terror seemed impossibly distant. Sometimes, as now, it might have been day before yesterday.
Chains creaked as the gate crew lowered the drawbridge to let Van and his companions into Fox Keep. The bridge thumped down onto the dirt on the far side of the ditch surrounding the palisade. Not for the first time, Gerin told himself he ought to dig a trench from the River Niffet and turn that ditch to a moat. When I have time, he thought, knowing that likely meant never.
Horses' hooves drummed on the oak planks as the chariot rattled over the drawbridge and into the courtyard. "Ho, Fox!" Van boomed. The outlander was driving the two-horse team, and in his fine bronze corselet and helm with tall crest could easily have been mistaken for a god visiting the world of men. He was half a foot taller than Gerinwho was not short himselfand broad through the shoulders in proportion. His hair and beard were still almost all gold, not silver, though he was within a couple of years of the Fox's age, one way or the other. But the scars seaming his face and arms and hands gave proof he was human, not divine.
Yet however impressive the figure he cut, Walamund and Trasamir and all the peasants who'd accompanied them to Castle Fox stared not at him but at Geroge and Tharma, who rose behind him in the car. Trasamir's eyes got very big. "Father Dyaus," he muttered, and made an apotropaic sign with his right hand. "I thought we were rid of those horrible things for good."
Van glared at him. "You watch your mouth," he said, a warning not to be taken lightly. He turned back to Geroge and Tharma and spoke soothingly: "Don't get angry. He doesn't mean anything by it. He just hasn't seen any like you for a long time."
"It's all right," Geroge said, and Tharma nodded to show she agreed. He went on, "We know we surprise people. It's just the way things are."
"How'd the hunting go?" Gerin asked, hoping to distract Geroge and Tharma from the wide eyes of the serfs. They couldn't help their looks. As far as monsters went, in fact, they were very good people.
Tharma bent down and slung the gutted carcass of a stag out of the chariot. Geroge grinned proudly. "I caught it," he said. His grin made the peasants draw back in fresh alarm, for his fangs were at least as impressive as those of Swifty the hound. His face and Tharma's sloped forward, down to the massive jaws needed to contain such an imposing collection of ivory.
Neither monster was excessively burdened with forehead, but both, under their hairy hides, had thews as large and strong as Van's, which was saying a great deal. They wore baggy woolen trousers in a checked pattern of ocher and woad blue: a Trokmê style.
Pretty soon, Gerin realized, he was going to have to put them in tunics, too, for Tharma would start growing breasts before too much time went by. The Fox didn't know how long monsters took to reach puberty. He did know Geroge and Tharma were about eleven years old.
Monsters like them had overrun the northlands then, after a fearsome earthquake released them from the caverns under the temple of the god Biton, where they'd been confined for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. The efforts of mere mortals hadn't sufficed to drive the monsters back, either; Gerin had had to evoke both Biton, who saw past and future, and Mavrix, the Sithonian god of wine, fertility, and beauty, to rout them from the land.
Before he'd done that, he'd found a pair of monster cubs and had not killed them, though he and his comrades had slain their mother. When Mavrix banished the monsters from the surface of the world, Biton had mocked his sloppy work, implying some of the creatures still remained in the northlands. Gerin had wondered then if they were the pair he'd spared, and wondered again a year later when a shepherd who'd apparently raised Geroge and Tharma as pets till then brought them to him. He thought it likely, but had no way to prove it. The shepherd had been maddeningly vague. He did know no other monsters had ever turned up, not in all these years.
Having two monsters around was interesting, especially since they seemed bright for their kind, which made them about as smart as stupid people. They'd grown up side by side with his own children, younger than Duren but older than Dagref, the Fox's older son by Selatre. They were careful with their formidable strength, and never used their fearsome teeth for anything but eating.
But soon Tharma would be a womanwell, an adult female monsterand Geroge mature as well. The Fox was anything but certain he wanted more than two monsters in the northlands, and just as uncertain what, if anything, to do about it. He'd kept putting off a decision by telling himself he didn't yet need to worry. That was still true, but wouldn't be much longer.
"Take that in to the cooks," he told Geroge. "Venison steaks tonight, roast venison, venison ribs" Geroge slung the gutted deer over his shoulder and carried it into the castle. Tharma followed him, as she usually did, although sometimes he followed her. She ran her tongue across her wide, thin lips at the prospect of plenty of meat.
"I need more ale," Walamund muttered. "We're supposed to eat alongside those horrible things?"
"They don't mind," Gerin said. "You shouldn't, either."
Walamund sent him a resentful glare, but the memory of recent punishment remained fresh enough to keep the serf from saying anything. Geroge and Tharma came out into the courtyard again, this time accompanied by Dagref and his younger sister Clotild, and by Van's daughter Maeva and his son Kor.
Behind the children strode Fand. "You might have told me you were back," she said to Van, a Trokmê lilt to her Elabonian though she'd lived south of the Niffet since shortly after the werenight. A breeze blew a couple of strands of coppery hair in front of her face. She brushed them aside with her hand. She was perhaps five years younger than Van, but beginning to go gray.
He stared over toward her. "I might have done lots of things," he rumbled.
Fand set hands on hips. "Aye, you might have. But did you, now? No, not a bit of a bit. Hopped in the car you did instead, and went off a-hunting with not a thought in your head for aught else."
"Who would have room for thoughts, with your eternal din echoing round in his head?" Van retorted. They shouted at each other.
Gerin turned to Nania. "Fetch them each the biggest jack of ale we have," he said quietly. The serving girl hurried away and returned with two jacks, each filled so full ale slopped over the side to make its own libation. Gerin knew he was gambling. If Van and Fand were still angry at each other by the time they got to the bottom of the jacks, they'd quarrel harder than ever because of the ale they'd drunk. A lot of the time, though, their fights were like rain squalls: blowing up suddenly, fierce while they lasted, and soon gone.
Maeva gave Dagref a shove. He staggered, but stayed on his feet. The two of them were very much of a size, though he had a year on her. Maeva showed every promise of having much of her father's enormous physical prowess. Gerin wondered if the world was ready for a woman warrior able to best almost any man. Ready or not, the world was liable to face the prospect in a few years.
Clotild said, "No, Kor, don't put that rock in your mouth."
Instead of putting it in his mouth, he threw it at her. Fortunately, he missed. He had a temper he'd surely acquired from Fand. Four-year-olds were not the most self-controlled people under any circumstances. A four-year-old whose mother was Fand was a conflagration waiting to happen.
Van and Fand upended their drinking jacks at about the same time. Gerin waited to see what would happen next. When what happened next was nothing, he allowed himself a tiny pat on the back. He glanced over at Fand. Hard to imagine these days that he and Van had once shared her favors. Getting to know Selatre afterwards was like coming into a calm harbor after a storm at sea.
The Fox shook his head. That that image occurred to him proved only that he'd done more reading than just about anyone else in the northlands (which, though undoubtedly true, wasn't saying much). He'd never been on the Orynian Oceanwhich lapped against the shore of the northlands far to the westor any other sea.
Shadows lengthened and began to gray toward twilight. A bronze horn sounded a long, hoarse, sour note in the peasant village a few hundred yards from Fox Keep: a signal for the serfs to come to their huts from out of the fields, both for supper and to keep themselves safe from the ghosts that roamed and ravened through the night.
Van looked around to gauge the hour. He nodded approval. "The new headman keeps 'em at it longer than Besant Big-Belly did," he said. "There were times when he'd blow the horn halfway through the afternoon, seemed like."
"That's so," Gerin agreed. "The peasants mourned for days after that tree fell on him last winter. Not surprising, is it? They knew they'd have to work harder with anybody else over them."
"Lazy buggers," Van said.
The Fox shrugged. "Nobody much likes to work. Sometimes you have to, though, or you pay for it later. Some people never do figure that out, so they need a headman who can get the most from 'em without making 'em hate him." He was happy to talk about work with his friend: anything to distract Van from yet another squabble with Fand.
Fand, however, didn't feel like being distracted. "And some people, now," she said, "are after calling others lazy while they their ownselves do whatever it is pleases them and not a lick of aught else."
"I'll give you a lick across the side of your head," Van said, and took a step toward her.
"Aye, belike you will, and one fine day you'll wake up beside me all nice and dead, with a fine slim dagger slid between your ribs," Fand said, now in grim earnest. Van did hit her every once in a while; brawling, for him, was a sport. She hit him, too, and clawed, and bit. The outlander was generally mindful of his great strength, and did not use all of it save in war and hunting. When Fand was in a temper, she was mindful of nothing and no one save her own fury.
Van said, "By all the gods in all the lands I've ever seen, I'll wake up beside somebody else, then."
"And I pity the poor dear, whoever she is," Fand shot back. "Sure and it's nobbut fool's luckthe only kind a fool like you's after havingyou've not brought me back a sickness, what with your rutting like a stoat."
"As if I'm the only one, you faithless!" Van clapped a hand to his forehead, speechless despite the many languages he knew.
Gerin turned to Trasamir, who happened to be standing closest to him. "Isn't love a wonderful thing?" he murmured.
"What?" Trasamir scratched his head.
Another one who wouldn't recognize irony if it came up and bit him on the leg, the Fox thought sadly. He wished he had the wisdom of a god, to say the perfect thing to make Van and Fand stop quarreling. With that, he'd probably need other divine powers, to make sure they didn't start up again the moment his back was turned.
Selatre came out to the entrance to the great hall. "Supper's ready," she called to the people gathered in the courtyard. Everyone, Van and Fand included, trooped toward the castle. Gerin chuckled under his breath. He hadn't known what to say to get Van and Fand to break off their fight, but Selatre had. Maybe she was divinely wise.
The notion wasn't altogether frivolous. Selatre had been Biton's Sibyl at Ikos, delivering the prophecies of the farseeing god to those who sought his wisdom, until the earthquake that released the monsters tumbled the god's shrine in ruins. Had Gerin and Van not rescued her while she lay in entranced sleep, the creatures from the caverns below would have made short work of her.
Biton's Sybil had to be a maiden. Not only that, she was forbidden so much as to touch an entire man; eunuchs and women attended her. Selatre had reckoned herself profaned by Gerin's touch. Plainly, she would have preferred him to leave her in her bed for the monsters to devour.
So matters had stood then. Now, eleven years, three living children, and one small grave later, Selatre tilted up her face as Gerin came back into Castle Fox. He brushed his lips against hers. She smiled and took his hand. They walked back toward the Fox's place of honor near the hearth and near the altar to Dyaus close by it. The fat-wrapped thighbones of the stag Van, Geroge, and Tharma had killed smoked on the altar.
Selatre pointed to them. "So the king of the gods gets venison tonight."
"He'd better not be the only one," Gerin said in a voice intended to carry back to the kitchens, "or there'll be some cooks fleeing through the night with ghosts baying at their heels to drive them mad."
A serving girl set rounds of thick, chewy bread on the table in front of each feaster. When another servitor plopped a couple of still-sizzling ribs on Gerin's flatbread, it sopped up the grease and juices. The Fox reached out to a wooden saltcellar in front of him and sprinkled some salt onto the meat.
"I wish we had pepper," he said, fondly remembering the spices that had come up from the south till the Empire of Elabon sealed off the last mountain pass just before the werenight.
"Be thankful we still have salt," Selatre said. "We're beginning to run low on that. It hasn't been coming up the Niffet from the coast as it used to since the Gradi started raiding a couple of years ago."
"The Gradi," Gerin muttered under his breath. "As if the northlands didn't have troubles enough without them." North of the Niffet lay the forests in which the Trokmoi dwelt: or rather, had dwelt, for the fair-haired barbarians had swarmed south over the Niffet near the time of the werenight, and many still remained: some, like Fand, among Elabonians; others, such as Gerin's vassal Adiatunnus, in place of the locals, whom they had subjected, driven away, or slain.
The homeland of the Gradi lay north of the Trokmê country. Before coming down into Elabon, Van had been through the lands of both the Gradi and the Trokmoi. Gerin had seen a couple of Gradi at Ikos once, too: big, pale-skinned men with black hair, sweltering in furs. But, for the most part, the Trokmoi had kept the Elabonians from learning much about the Gradi and having much to do with them.
So it had been for generations. As Selatre had said, though, the Gradi had lately begun harrying the northlands' coastal regions by sea. Maybe they'd got word of disorder in the northlands and decided to take advantage of it. Maybe, too, their raids had nothing to do with whatever was going on locally, but had been spawned by some convulsion in their own country. Gerin did not know.
"Too much we don't know about the Gradi," he said, more to himself than to anyone else. Though he styled himself prince of the north, his power did not extend to the coast: none of the barons and dukes and petty lordlets by the sea acknowledged his suzerainty. If they were learning about the seaborne raiders, they kept that knowledge to themselves.
Selatre said, "I've been through the scrolls and codices in the library. Trouble is, they don't say anything about the Gradi except that there is such a people and they live north of the Trokmoi."
Gerin set his hand on hers. "Thanks for looking." When he'd brought her back to Fox Keep from Ikos, he'd taught her letters and set her in charge of the motley collection of volumes he called a library, more to give her a place of her own here than in the expectation she would make much of it.
But make something of it she had. She was as zealous now as he in finding manuscripts and adding them to the collection, and even more zealous in going through the ones they had and squeezing knowledge from them. If she said the books told little about the Gradi, she knew whereof she spoke.
She glanced down at the table. Compliments of any sort made her nervous, a trait she shared with Gerin and one that set them apart from most Elabonians, for whom bragging came natural as breathing.
"What are we going to do about the Gradi, Father?" Duren asked from across the table. "What can we do about them?"
"Watch and wait and worry," Gerin answered.
"Are they just raiding, do you suppose, or will they come to settle when they see how fragmented that part of the northlands is?" Selatre asked.
The Fox picked up his drinking jack and raised it in salute. "Congratulations," he told his wife. "You've given me something brand new to worry about. Here I spend half my time trying to figure out how to bundle the Trokmoi back across the Niffet from what ought to be a purely Elabonian land, and now I have to think about adding Gradi to the mix." He gulped ale and spat into the bosom of his tunic to avert the evil omen.
Selatre sent him a look he could not fathom until she murmured, "A purely Elabonian land?"
"Well, in a manner of speaking," he said, feeling his cheeks heat. Selatre's ancestors had dwelt in the northlands for years uncounted before Ros the Fierce added the province to the Empire of Elabon. They'd taken on Elabonian ways readily enough, and most of them spoke Elabonian these days, which was what had led him to make his remark. Still, differences lingered. Selatre's features were finer and more delicate than they would have been had she sprung of Elabonian stock: her narrow, pointed chin was a marker for those of her blood.
"I know what you meant," she said, her voice mischievous, "but since you pride yourself on being so often right, I thought surely you would take the correction in good part."
Gerin enjoyed being told he was wrong, even by his wife, no more than most other men. But before he could come back with a reply sardonic enough to suit him, one of Walamund's relatives shouted at Trasamir, "I know how you got that cursed dog to come when you called it. You" The suggestion was remarkable for both its originality and its obscenity.
The Fox sprang to his feet. He could feel a vein pulse in his forehead, and was sure the old scar above one eye had gone pale, a sure sign he was furious. And furious he was. "You!" he snapped, his voice slicing through the racket in the great hall. Walamund's kinsman looked over to him in surprise. The Fox jerked a thumb toward the doorway. "Out! You can sleep in the courtyard on the grass and wash your mouth with water, not my good ale, for I'll waste no more of that on you. On your way home tomorrow, think about keeping your mind out of the midden."
"But, lord prince, I only meant" the fellow began.
"I don't care what you meant. I care what you said," Gerin told him. "And I told you, out, and out I meant. One more word and it won't be out of the castle, it'll be out of the keep, and you can take your chances with wolves and night ghosts where no torches and sacrifices hold them at bay."
The foul-mouthed peasant gulped, nodded, and did not speak. He hurried out into the night, leaving thick, clotted silence behind him.
"Now," Gerin said into it, "where were we?"
No one seemed to remember, or to feel like hazarding a guess. Van said, "I don't know where we were, but I know where I'm going." He picked up Kor, who'd fallen asleep on the bench beside him, and headed for the stairs. Fand and Maeva followed, off to the big bed they all shared. The quarrel between Van and Fand hadn't flared again, so maybe it would be forgotten . . . till the next time, tomorrow or ten days down the road.
Once upon a time, Duren had been in the habit of falling asleep at feasts. Gerin sighed; remembering things like that and comparing them to how matters stood these days was a sign he wasn't getting any younger.
He looked around for Duren and didn't see him. He wouldn't be out in the courtyard, not with only a drunken, swill-mouthed peasant for company. More likely, he was back in the kitchens or in a corridor leading off from them, trying to slip his hands under a serving girl's tunic. He'd probably succeed, too: he was handsome, reasonably affable, and the son of the local lord to boot. Gerin remembered his own fumblings along those lines.
"Dyaus, what a puppy I was," he muttered.
Selatre raised one eyebrow. He didn't think she'd done that when he first brought her to Fox Keep; she must have got it from him. "What's that in aid of?" she asked.
"Not much, believe me," he answered with a wry chuckle. "Shall we follow Van and bring our children up to bed, too?"
Their younger son, named Blestar after Selatre's father (Gerin having named Duren and Dagref for his own brother and father, whom the Trokmoi had slain), lay snoring in her lap: he had only a couple of years to him. Dagref and Clotild were both trying to pretend they hadn't just yawned. The Fox gathered them up by eye. "Upstairs we go," he declared.
"Oh, Papa, do we have to?" Dagref said through another yawn. Along with belief in the gods, all children seemed to share an abiding faith that they had to deny the need for sleep under any and all circumstances.
Gerin did his best to look severe. Where his children were concerned, his best was none too good, and he knew it. He said, "Do you know what would happen to anyone else who presumed to argue with the prince of the north?"
"You'd cut off his head, or maybe stew him with prunes," Dagref said cheerfully. Gerin, who'd been taking a last swig from his drinking jack, sprayed ale onto the tabletop. Dagref said, "If Duren argued with you, would you stew him with prunes? Or isn't he part of `everybody else'?"
Down in the City of Elabon, they'd had special schools to train the officials who interpreted the ancient and complex code of laws by which the Empire of Elabon functioned. The hairsplitting in which those schools indulged had once struck Gerin, who reveled in minutiae himself, as slightly mad: who could not only make such minute distinctions but enjoy doing it? Watching Dagref grow, he regretted being unable to send the boy south for legal training.
When he got upstairs, he opened the door to the chamber he shared with his wife and children and went inside to bring out a lamp. He lighted it at one of the torches flickering in a bronze wall sconce in the hallway, then used its weak glow to let Selatre go into the chamber and set Blestar at the edge of the big bed. Dagref and Clotild took turns using the chamber pot that stood by the side of the bed before getting in themselves, muttering sleepy good-nights. The straw in the mattress rustled as they lay down.
"Don't blow out the lamp," Selatre said quietly. "I need the pot myself."
"So do I, as a matter of fact," the Fox answered. "Ale."
He wondered if Duren would disturb them, coming back later in the night. He didn't think so; he doubted his elder son would be sleeping in this bed tonight. Just in case, though, he shut the door without barring it. After he shoved the chamber pot against the wall so Duren wouldn't knock it over if he did come in, he blew out the lamp. Darkness and the heavy smell of hot fat filled the bedchamber.
The night was mild, not so much so that he felt like getting out of tunic and trousers and sleeping in his drawers, as he would when summer came, but enough that he didn't drag a thick wool blanket up over his chin and put a hot stone wrapped in flannel by his feet. He sighed and wriggled and twisted away from a stem of straw that was poking him in the ribs. Beside him, Selatre was making the same small adjustments.
Blestar snored on a surprisingly musical note. Dagref and Clotild wiggled around like their parents, also trying to get comfortable. "Stop poking me," Clotild complained.
"I wasn't poking you, I was just stretching out," Dagref answered, maddeningly precise as usual. "If I poke you, that's something I do on purpose." Usually, he would add, like this, and demonstrate. Tonight he didn't. That proved he was tired. Clotild didn't snap back at him, either.
Before long, their breathing smoothed out. Gerin yawned and stretched himselfcarefully, so as not to bother anyone else. He yawned again, trying to lure sleep by sympathetic magic. Sleep declined to be lured.
Selatre was breathing very quietly, which meant she too was likely to be awake. When she slept, she sometimes snored. Gerin had never said anything about it. He wondered if he did the same. If he did, Selatre hadn't mentioned it. Wonderful woman, he thought.
Her voice reached him, a tiny thread of whisper: "Have you fallen asleep?"
"Yes, quite a while ago," he answered, just as softly. Dagref hadn't poked Clotild. Selatre did poke him now, right in the ribs, and found a sensitive spot. He had all he could do not to writhe and kick one of his children.
She started to poke him again. He grabbed her arm and pulled her close to him, that being the fastest way he could think of to keep her questing finger from making him jerk again. "You cheat," she said. "That's the only ticklish spot you have, and you won't let me get to it."
"I cheat," he agreed, and covered her right breast with his left hand. Through the thin linen of her long tunic, her nipple stiffened at his touch. The feel of her body pressed against his made him stiffen, too. He felt one eyebrow quirk upward into a question, but she couldn't see that in the dark. He put it into words: "Do you think they're sleeping soundly enough yet?"
"All we can do is find out," she answered. "If they do wake up, it would fluster you more than me. I grew up in a peasant's hut, remember: the whole of it about the size of this room. I never imagined having so much space as I found first at Ikos and then here at Fox Keep."
Thinking of the raised eyebrow he'd wasted, he said, "Well, if my ears turn red, it'll be too dark for the children to notice." He kissed her then, which struck him as a better idea under the circumstancesand, indeed, generallythan talking about his ears. His hand slid down from her breast to tug up the hem of her tunic.
They didn't hurry, both because they didn't want to wake the children and because, after a good many years together, friendly familiarity had taken the edge off passion. Presently, Selatre rolled over onto her side, facing away from Gerin. She lifted her top leg a little to let him slide in from behind, a quiet way of joining in more ways than one. Her breath sighed out as he entered her to the hilt. He reached over her to tease at her nipple again. The edge might have gone from their passion, but a solid core remained.
After they'd finished, Selatre said, "Did you put the pot by the wall? I think I'd better use it again." She slid out of bed and groped her way toward it. Gerin, meanwhile, separated his clothes from hers and got back into them. He suspected he had his drawers on backward, but resolved not to worry about it till morning.
When Selatre came back to bed, she put her drawers and tunic back on, too, then leaned over and unerringly planted a kiss on the end of his nose. He squeezed her. "If I wasn't sleepy before," he said, "I am nowor pleasantly tired, anyhow."
Selatre laughed at him. "You saved yourself in the nick of time there, didn't you?"
"Considering the history of this place since I took the rule after my father was killed, how could I do it any other way?" Gerin replied, and settled down to sleep. Laughing still, almost without voice, Selatre snuggled against him.
His eyelids were growing heavy when the bed frame in the next chamber started to creak. Selatre giggled, a sound different from her earlier laughter. "Maeva must have stayed awake longer than our brood did."
"Or maybe Kor woke up, just to be difficult," Gerin answered. "He has his mother's temper, all the way through. He'd better be a good swordsman when he grows up, because I have the feeling he'll need to be."
Selatre listened to the noises from the far side of the wall for a moment, then said, "His father's quite the mighty swordsman, by all I've seen."
"That's true any way you care to have it mean," Gerin agreed. "It's because of that, I suppose, that he and Fand are able to make up their quarrels. I almost wonder if they have them for the sake of making up."
"You're joking," Selatre said. After she'd thought it over, though, she shook her head against his chest. "No, you're not joking. But what an appalling notion. I couldn't live like that."
"Neither could I," he said, remembering fights he'd had with Fand back in the days when she was his lover as well as Van's. "My hair and beard would be white, not going gray, if I tried. But one of the things I've slowly come to figure out through the years is that not everybody works the same way I do."
"Some people never do figure that out." Selatre yawned. "One of the things I've slowly come to figure out over the years is that I can't do without sleep. Good night."
"Good night," Gerin said. He wasn't sure his wife even heard him: now her breathing was as deep and regular andhe smiled a littleraspy as that of their children. Sleep swallowed him moments later.
The peasants set out for their village early the next morning, Trasamir Longshanks leading Swifty the hound on a rope leash. Walamund's relative, rather to the Fox's disappointment, seemed not much worse for wear after his night in the courtyard. Uncharitably, Gerin wondered how often he'd passed out drunk between houses in his hamlet.
Bread and ale and cheese and an apple did for Gerin's breakfast. He was going down to see how the apples were holding out in the cellar when the lookout yelled, "A horseman approaching from out of the south, lord prince."
Gerin went out to the doorway of the great hall. "A horseman?" he called up. "Not a chariot?"
"A horseman," the sentry repeated. "One of our men, without a doubt."
He was right about that. The idea of getting up on a horse's back rather than traveling in wagon or chariot or cart was new in the northlands. As far as Gerin could discover, as far as widely traveled Van could say, it was new in all the world. One of the Fox's vassals, Duin the Bold, had come up with a trick that made staying mounted much easier: wooden rings that hung down from either side of a pad strapped around the horse's girth, so a man could use his hands for bow or spear without the risk of going over the animal's back.
Duin, though, had died fighting the Trokmoi just after the werenight. Without his driving energy, the device he invented advanced more slowly than it would have otherwise. If your father had ridden to war in a chariot, and your grandfather, and his grandfather . . .
"It's Rihwin the Fox, lord prince," the sentry reported when the rider came close enough to recognize him.
"I might have known," Gerin muttered. That was true for a couple of reasons. For one, Rihwin had been some time away from Fox Keep. A couple of times a year, he went out to see how his numerous bastards were doing, and, no doubt, to try to sire some more of them. He had a fair-sized troop of by-blows scattered widely over the lands where Gerin's suzerainty ran, so his expeditions ate up a good deal of time.
And, for another, his love for the new extended to more than women. He'd come north with Gerin from the civilized heart of the Empire of Elabon bare days before the werenight for no better reason than that he craved adventure. Had riding horses been old and chariotry new, he would no doubt have become an enthusiastic advocate for the chariot. As things were, he probably spent more time on horseback than any other man in the northlands.
The gate crew let down the drawbridge. Rihwin rode into the courtyard of Fox Keep. He waved a salute to Gerin, saying, "I greet you, lord prince, my fellow Fox, valiant for your vassals, protector of your peasants, mild to merchants, and fierce against your foes."
"You've been in the northlands fifteen years and more now," Gerin said as Rihwin dismounted, "and you still talk like a toff from the city." Not only did Rihwin have a soft southern accent, he also remained fond of the elaborate phrasing and archaic vocabulary nobles from the City of Elabon used to show they had too much time on their hands.
A stable boy came up to lead Rihwin's horse to its stall. "Thank you, lad," he murmured before turning back to Gerin. "And why should I not proclaim my essence to the world at large?" A hand went up to the large gold hoop he wore in his left ear. So far as Gerin knewand he likely knew more of the northlands than anyone else aliveno other man north of the High Kirs followed that style.
"Rihwin, save for keeping you out of the alepot as best I can, I've long since given up trying to make you over," he said.
Rihwin bowed, his handsome, mobile features twisting into a sly smile. "No small concession that, lord prince, and in good sooth I know it well, for where else has the victorious and puissant prince of the north retreated from any venture to which he set his hand?"
"I hadn't looked at it so," Gerin said thoughtfully. "You tempt me to go back to trying to reform you." Rihwin made a face at him. They both laughed. Gerin went on, "And how is your brood faring these days?"
"I have a new daughterthe mother says she's mine, anyhow, and since I lay with her at around the proper time, I'm willing to believe herbut I lost a son." Rihwin's face clouded. "Casscar had only three years: scarlet fever, his mother said. The gods be kind to his ghost. His mother was crying still, though it happened not long after I saw her last."
"She'll be grieving till they bury her," Gerin said, remembering the loss he and Selatre had had. He shook his head. "You know you shouldn't risk loving a child when it's very small, for so many of them never do live to grow big. But you can't help it: it's how the gods made us, I suppose."
About half the time, maybe more, a remark like that would have led Rihwin to make a philosophical rejoinder, and he and Gerin could have killed a pleasant stretch of time arguing about the nature of the gods and the reasons they'd made men and women as they had. The two of them were the only men in the northlands of whom Gerin knew who'd had a proper education down in the City of Elabon. That perforce kept them friendly even when they wore on each other: in an important way, they spoke the same language.
But now Rihwin said, "The other thing I wanted to tell you, lord prince, is something interesting I heard when I was out in the west, out well past Schild Stoutstaff's holding. When I went that way a few years ago, I met this yellow-haired Trokmê wench named Grainne and, one thing leading to another, these days I have myself a daughter in that village. The gods grant she does live to grow up, for she'll delight many a man's eye. She"
Gerin stared down his nose at him. "Has this tale a point? Beyond the charm and grace of your daughter, I mean? If not, you'll have to listen to me going on about my children in return."
"Oh, I do that all the time anyhow," Rihwin said blithely, "whereas you need only put up with me a couple of times a year." Gerin staggered back as if he'd taken a thrust mortal. Chuckling, Rihwin said, "As a matter of fact, though, lord prince, the tale indeed has a point, though I own to being unsure precisely what it is. This village, you see, lies hard by the Niffet, and"
"Did you get word of more Trokmoi planning to raid or, worse, settle?" Gerin demanded. "I'll hit them if you did, and hit them hard. Too cursed many woodsrunners this side of the Niffet already."
"If you will let me finish the tale, lord prince, rather than consistently interrupting, some of these queries may perhaps be answered," Rihwin replied. Gerin kicked at the grass, annoyed at himself. Rihwin had caught him out twice running now. The southerner went on, "Grainne told me that, not so long before I came to visit, she'd seen a new kind of boat on the river, like nothing on which she'd ever set eyes before."
"Well, what does she know of boats?" Gerin said. "She wouldn't have been down to the City of Elabon, now would she, to watch galleys on the Greater Inner Sea? All she'll have ever seen are little rowboats and rafts and those round little coracle things the Trokmoi make out of hides stretched over a wicker frame. You'd have to be a Trokmê to build a boat that doesn't know its front from its backside." He held up his hands. "No. Wait. I'm not interrupting. Tell me how this one was different."
"The Niffet bends a trifle, a few furlongs west of Grainne's village," Rihwin said. "There's a grove of beeches at the bend, with mushrooms growing under them. She was out gathering them with a wicker basketwhich she showed me as corroborating evidence, for whatever it may be worthwhen, through a screening of ferns, she spied this boat."
"Eventually, my fellow Fox, you're going to tell me about it," Gerin said. "Why not now?"
Rihwin gave him a hurt look before going on, "As you say, lord prince. By her description, it was far larger than anything that moved on the water she'd ever seen before, with a mast and sail and with some large but, I fear, indeterminate number of rowers laboring to either side."
"A war galley of some sort," Gerin said, and Rihwin nodded. Gerin continued, "You say she saw it through ferns? Lucky the rowers didn't spot her, or they'd likely have grabbed her and held her down and had their fun before they cut her throat. That'd be so no matter who they wereand, so far as I know, nobody's ever put a war galley on the Niffet. Do you suppose the Empire of Elabon has decided it wants the northlands back after all?"
"Under His indolent Majesty Hildor III?" Rihwin's mobile features assumed a dubious expression. "It is, lord prince, improbable." But then he looked thoughtful. "On the other hand, we've had no word, or next to it, out of Elabon proper since the werenight, which is, by now, most of a generation past. Who can say with certainty whether the indolent posterior of Hildor III still warms the Elabonian throne?"
"A distinct point," Gerin said. "If it is the imperials"
Rihwin raised a forefinger. "As you have several times in the course of this conversation, lord prince, you break in before I was able to impart salient information. While the ship and men Grainne saw may have been Elabonians, two significant features make me doubt it. First, while her Elabonian is fluentmuch on the order of Fand's, including the spice thereofshe could not follow the sailors' speech. Admittedly, the ship was out on the river, so this is not decisive. But have you ever heard of an Elabonian ship mounting the shields of oarsmen and warriors between rowing benches?"
Gerin thought back to his days in the City of Elabon, and to the galleys he'd seen on the sea and tied up at the quays. He shook his head. "No. They always stow them down flat. Which leaves"
He and Rihwin spoke together: "The Gradi."
"That's bad," Gerin said. He kicked again at the dirt and paced back and forth. "That's very bad, as a matter of fact. Having them raid the seacoast is one thing. But if they start bringing ships up the Niffet . . . Father Dyaus, a flotilla of them could beach right there, a few furlongs from Fox Keep, and land more men than we could hope to hold away from the walls. And we'd have scant warning of it, too. I need to send out messengers right away, to start setting up a river watch."
"It will not happen tomorrow, lord prince," Rihwin said soothingly. "Grainne watched this vessel turn around at the river bend and make its way back toward the west. The Gradi have not found Castle Fox."
"Not yet," Gerin answered; he borrowed trouble as automatically as he breathed, having seen from long experience that it came to him whether he borrowed or not, and that it was better met ahead of time when that proved possible. The Gradi, however, were not the only trouble he had, nor the most urgent. He asked Rihwin, "When you rode out to visit all your lady loves, did you go through Adiatunnus' holding?"
"Lord prince, I had intended to," Rihwin answered, "but when I came up to the margins of the lands he rules as your vassal, his guardsmen turned me away, calling me nothing but a stinking southron spy."
"He's not yet paid his feudal dues this year, either." Gerin's dark eyebrows lowered like stormclouds. "My guess is, he doesn't intend to pay them. He's spent the last ten years being sorry he ever swore me fealty, and he'll try breaking loose if he sees the chance."
"I would praise your wisdom more were what you foresee less obviously true," Rihwin answered.
"Oh, indeed," Gerin said. "All I had to do to gain his allegiance last time was work a miracle." Adiatunnus had made alliance with the monsters from under the temple at Ikos; when, at Gerin's urging, Mavrix and Biton routed them from the northlands, the proud Trokmê chieftain was overawed into recognizing the Fox as his overlord. Now Gerin sighed. "And if I want to keep that allegiance, all I have to do is work another one."
"Again, you have delivered an accurate summary of the situation," Rihwin agreed, "provided you mean keeping that allegiance through peaceable means. He may well prove amenable to persuasion by force, however."
"Always assuming we win the war, yes." Gerin's scowl grew blacker still. "We'll need to gather together a goodly force before we try it, though. Adiatunnus has made himself the biggest man among the Trokmoi who came over the Niffet in the time of the werenight; a whole great host of them will fight for him."
"I fear you have the right of it once more," Rihwin said. "He has even retained his stature among the woodsrunners while remaining your vassal, no mean application of the political art. As you say, suppressing him, can it be done, will involve summoning up all your other retainers."
"Which might give Grand Duke Aragis the excuse he needs to hit my southern frontier," Gerin said. "The Archer will recognize weakness when he sees it. The only reason he and I don't fight is that he's never seen it from metill now."
"Will you then let Adiatunnus persist in his insolence?" Rihwin asked. "That would be unlike you."
"So it would," Gerin said, "and if I do, he'll be attacking me by this time next year. What choice have I, my fellow Fox? If I don't enforce my suzerainty, how long will I keep it?"
"Not long," Rihwin answered.
"Too right." Gerin kicked at the dirt once more. "I've always known I'd sooner have been a scholar than a baron, let alone a prince." With old friends, Gerin refused to take his title seriously. "There are times, though, when I think I'd sooner have run an inn like Turgis son of Turpin down in the City of Elabon than be a princeor practiced any other honest trade, and some of the dishonest ones, too."
"Well, why not run off and start yourself an inn, then?" Rihwin poked his tongue into his cheek to show he didn't intend to be taken seriously. His hands deftly sketched the outlines of a big, square building. "By the gods, I can see it now: the hostelry of Gerin the Fox, all complaints cheerfully ignored! How the dour Elabonians and woad-dyed Trokmoi would throng to it as a haven from their journeys across the northlands to plunder one another!"
"You, sirrah, are a desperately deranged man," Gerin said. Rihwin bowed as if he'd just received a great compliment, which was not the effect Gerin had wanted to create. He plunged ahead: "And if I did start an inn, who'd keep the Trokmoi and the Elaboniansto say nothing of the Gradifrom plundering me?"
"By all means, let us say nothing of the Gradi," Rihwin said. "I wish my lady love there had never set eyes on that ship of theirs. Father Dyaus willing, none of us will see such ships with our own eyes."
But Gerin refused to turn aside from the inn he did not and never would have. "The only way to keep such a place is to have an overlord strong enough to hold bandits at bay and wise enough not to rob you himself. And where is such a fellow to be found?"
"Aragis the Archer is strong enough," Rihwin said teasingly. "Were I a bandit in his duchy, I'd sooner leap off a cliff than let him get his hands on me."
Gerin nodded. "If he were less able, I'd worry about him less. But one fine day he'll die, and all his sons and all his barons will squabble over his lands in a war that'll make the unending mess in Bevon's holding look like a children's game by comparison. We'll not have that here, I think, when I'm gone."
"There I think you have reason, lord prince," Rihwin said, "and so, being the best of rulers, needs must continue in that present post without regard for your obvious and sadly wasted talents as taverner."
"Go howl!" Gerin said, throwing his hands in the air. "I know too well I'm stuck with the bloody job. It is a hardship, you know: on account of it, I have to listen to loons like you."
"Oh! I am cut to the quick!" Rihwin staggered about as if pierced by an arrow, then miraculously recovered. "Actually, I believe I shall go in and drink some ale. That accomplished, I shall take more pleasure in howling." With a bow to Gerin, he hied himself off toward the great hall.
"Try not to drink so much you forget your name," Gerin called after him. The only answer Rihwin gave was a finger-twiddling wave. Gerin sighed. Short of locking up the ale jars, he couldn't cut Rihwin off. His fellow Fox didn't turn sullen or vicious when he drank; he remained cheerful, amiable, and quite brightbut he could be bright in the most alarmingly foolish ways. Gerin worried about how often he got drunk, but Gerin, by nature, worried about everything that went on around him.
Right now, though, worrying about Rihwin went into the queue along with worrying about the Gradi. Both were a long way behind worrying about Adiatunnus. The Trokmê chieftain was liable to have the strength to set up on his own if he chose to repudiate Gerin's overlordship, and if he did set up on his own, the first thing he'd do would be to start raiding the lands of Gerin's vassals . . . even more than he was already.
The Fox muttered something unpleasant into his beard. Realizing he never was going to be able to drive all the Trokmoi out of the northlands and back across the Niffet into their gloomy forests came hard. One of the bitter things life taught you was that not all your dreams came true, no matter how you worked to make them real.
Up in the watchtower atop Castle Fox, the lookout shouted, "A chariot approaches, lord prince!"
"Just one?" Gerin asked. Like any sensible ruler, he made sure trees and undergrowth were trimmed well away from the keep and from the roads in his holding, the better to make life difficult for bandits and robbers.
"Aye, lord prince, just the one," the sentry answered. Gerin had chosen his lookouts from among the longer-sighted men in his holding. As it had a few times before, that proved valuable now. After a few heartbeats, the lookout said, "It's Widin Simrin's son, lord prince."
The drawbridge had not gone up after Rihwin arrived. Widin's driver guided his two-horse team into the keep. Widin jumped out of the car before it stopped rolling. He was a strong, good-looking young man in his late twenties, and had held a barony southwest of Fox Keep for more than half his life: his father had died in the chaos after the werenight. Whenever Gerin saw him, he was reminded of Simrin.
"Good to see you," Gerin said, and then, because Widin's keep was a couple of days' travel away and men seldom traveled without urgent need, he added, "What's toward?"
"Lord prince, it's that thieving, skulking demon of an Adiatunnus, that's what," Widin burst out. Worrying about the Trokmoi was already at the head of Gerin's list, which was the only thing that kept it from vaulting higher. Widin went on, "He's run off cattle and sheep both, and burned a peasant village for the sport of it, best I can tell."
"Has he?" Gerin asked. Widin, who had never studied philosophy, did not know a rhetorical question when he heard one, and so nodded vigorously. Gerin was used to such from his vassals; it no longer depressed him as it once had. He said, "If Adiatunnus is at war with one of my vassals, he's also at war with me. He will pay for what he's done to you, and pay more than he ever expected."
His voice held such cold fury that even Widin, who'd brought him this word in hope of raising a response, drew back a pace. "Lord prince, you sound like you aim to tumble his keep down around his ears. That would be"
"A big war?" Gerin broke in. Widin nodded again, this time responsively. Gerin went on, "Sooner or later, Adiatunnus and I are going to fight a big war. I'd rather do it now, on my terms, than later, on his. The gods have decreed that we can't send all the woodsrunners back over the Niffet. Be it so, then. But we canI hopekeep them under control. If we can't do even that much, what's left of civilization in the northlands?"
"Not much," Widin said. Now Gerin nodded, but as he did so he reflected that, even with the Trokmoi beaten, not much civilization was left in the northlands.
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|Title:||Tale of the Fox|
|Copyright:||© 2000 by Harry Turtledove|