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Season of Dangerous Peace

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Malcolm and Mira and their children were the last to leave, a week before the New Year. Lange was only surprised they hadn't left before.

"I'm sorry," said Malcolm, his manner gruff. "I swore to Mira, after it happened, that we would stay so that Mira could help Leda care for their father. It has reached the point, though, where we must leave, for the children's sake. This is no longer a village; it's a rotting corpse."

Harsh words to speak to the baron's heir, but Lange merely nodded. There was no way in which he could deny the obvious. The other villagers had begun to drift away, from the very moment that the killing had occurred, fifteen months before. Now not even the traders came here any more. The village was cursed – that was what everyone said, including the former inhabitants.

Now Mountside was a village only in name. With Malcolm and his family gone, nobody would be left except Lange and Leda and their son Drew.

And the Baron of Mountside, who was the only reason that Lange and his family remained there.

"May the gods' good fortune guide your path," Lange said as he embraced Malcolm in farewell. Nearby, Mira held her newborn daughter in one arm as she tearfully hugged her older sister with the other arm. Next to the women, Mira's adopted boys made awkward attempts to say goodbye to Drew. At age thirteen, Drew was far too old to shed tears – so Lange had informed him sternly the previous year, when Drew's tears had threatened to drown them all. Now Drew was blinking his eyes rapidly but was succeeding in keeping control of his emotions, as a boy just three years from his manhood should do.

Setting a good example for Drew, Leda remained tearless. She waved her farewells until Mira and Malcolm and the children were out of sight; then she rested her head against Lange's shoulder. She no longer kissed him passionately, as she had done in the past, but she had never entirely withdrawn from him. He put his arm around her, in wonder, as always, at the extent of her love and forgiveness.

Drew was kicking the winter-hard earth, channelling all his frustration into that action. Lange said quickly, "Firewood. It's nearly time for the evening meal, and you haven't finished your chores for the day."

Drew sighed but turned toward the log pile without argument. As Drew took up his axe, Lange reflected to himself that the gods had granted him the best of sons: a generous-hearted boy, always ready to help, and if Drew's eagerness and curiosity had dimmed markedly during the past year, that was hardly surprising. Lange sometimes felt as though he himself had been swallowed up by the bleakness of the events during the past four years.

Leda pulled away from Lange finally, saying, "I should check on Father."

"I'll do that," he said, trying not to let the reluctance he felt show in his voice. Leda held far too great a burden already, and with Mira gone, Leda's burden would be doubled. Caring for a sick man was not easy.

Caring for the notorious Baron of Mountside was unspeakably hard.

Lange paused at the door to the baron's bedchamber in order to brace himself. After Lange took charge of the baron's hall the previous year, moving his family there in order to care for the widowed baron, he had ordered a separate bedchamber built for the baron – "for his comfort," Lange had said at the time, though everyone knew that it was so his family would be partially shielded from the baron's muttered remarks. These remarks never ended, and would never end, possibly even after his death.

Lange opened the door. The baron was lying on his bed. Sometimes he shuffled away from his bed to look out the window that gave him a good view of the village he had once presided over. But the window was shuttered now, not only because of the winter weather, but also to prevent the baron from noticing that all his villagers had left. He had never asked after them – never shown the slightest interest during the past year in the men and women and children he had been charged by the King to care for. Lange thought this spoke all too clearly as to the state of the baron's spirit. But there was always the chance that Berenger would realize that his villagers had abandoned him, and so Lange had nailed the shutters closed.

The chamber was dim; they dared not leave a lamp lit here, for fear that Berenger would accidentally tip it over. Lange left the door open. In the main room of the hall, Leda was completing her preparations for their evening meal, with enticing smells drifting into the bedchamber.

Lange went over to the bedside table. The cup there was empty, so he refilled it from the water pitcher. The baron did drink and eat if water and wine and food was offered to him – some instinct of survival still remained in him. But that was all he did, other than sleep and stare and mutter.

His muttering grew louder as Lange approached. That was needless; Lange knew what Berenger would say, even before he said it.

"It was the gods' will," said the baron.

Lange did not reply; he merely reached over and helped the baron to rise up high enough in his bed to drink from the cup.

"It was the gods' will," the baron repeated after he had sunk down again to his pillow. "He broke his blood vow. He had to die."

Lange looked down upon Berenger, feeling the familiar mixture of filial love, compassion, and repulsion. His father-in-marriage – once one of the strongest men in the village – had grown frail during the past year. All the events after the departure of the baron's heir four years ago seemed not to have touched him at first: the fiery messages exchanged between Berenger and the young Baron of Cold Run; the eruption of the Kingdom of Koretia into civil war after the two villages' blood feud became a feud between the King and his long-time rival, the Baron of Blackpass; and the death of Berenger's wife. (It was not by her own hand, as rumored, but the loss of both her sons had undoubtedly hastened her end by measles.) The Baron of Mountside stood stout and stalwart through all this, certain of his righteousness in having declared his younger son to be hated by the gods.

But then Adrian had returned to the village, and what happened after that had torn away the baron's mind.

Lange set the empty cup back on the table, wondering, as he often did, what had caused the baron's madness. A curse from the Jackal God? The villagers thought so; that was why they had left. Or was it merely the case that the Baron of Mountside had finally reached the point where his righteousness ate at the foundations of his mind?

Lange would never know. Nobody knew what had taken place at the time of Adrian's death; Mountside (as the baron was formally known) had sent all the rest of them away. After all, they had already played the role he needed them to play.

Feeling sick, Lange settled the blanket over Berenger, who was muttering now about the ingratitude of his son – his younger son, he meant, for the elder son was no longer in his thoughts. From the baron's perspective, Hamar had been a good son, spending his dying moments encouraging the village to avenge his death with blood. It was Adrian who had failed to live up to Berenger's hopes.

"How is he?" asked Leda as Lange closed the chamber door.

"Comfortable," said Lange, the only response he could make. He came over to move the heavy stew-pot off the fire for her. His family was in no danger of dying this winter; though the traders no longer came, Lange and Malcolm had worked hard all summer to bring in a good crop, and the two of them had hunted and salted meat from the mountain animals. It was foolish of Malcolm, really, to leave the village when winter was upon them, but Lange had done his best to make matters easy for his brother-in-marriage, paying Malcolm for his share of the food. Lange had control over Berenger's savings, and there was enough money left – just enough – to last a few months more.

So Lange and his family had enough food and coins to make it through the winter. Next spring would be harder. Indescribably hard, struggling to keep alive in a village where no one else lived and where no traders came.

He said nothing of this to Leda. They both knew the situation, and they both knew that the baron would not allow himself to be removed from his village. Their one attempt – after the madness had come, when they thought to bring him to a priest in another borderland village for healing – had ended with Berenger practically tearing down the hall in his fury. Now the baron was weaker; they might be able to remove him from the village. But because he was weaker, that removal might mean his death.

"I've made mushroom stew," Leda said as he settled the pot aside. "There's enough for double helpings."

Mushrooms stewed in wild-berry wine was his favorite dish. He felt again his wonder at her love. Kissing her lightly on her lips, he said, "I'll check the garden to see whether any herbs are left to season it."

It was an adequate excuse for Lange to leave the hall. As he did so, he heard Drew chopping wood on the other side of the hall, humming a New Year song. New Year was very close now; Lange must figure out some way for his family to celebrate it.

He walked slowly through the grove. A few remaining blackroot nuts fell to the ground, shaken from the near-bare branches by a wind bringing winter cold over the mountains to the north of the village. The cemetery beyond the grove lay grey in the half-light filtering through the clouds above. Lange knelt down beside the tombstone that showed where his daughter's ashes had been buried.

She had been less than a year old when she died of measles, a few weeks after the blood feud began. Lange had begotten other children on Leda besides their daughter and Drew, but the others had died before birth, and the measles had left Leda unable to conceive further.

There had been talk then – by the priest, and even by Mountside, who seemed to care not about the shame his elder daughter would endure – of Lange setting Leda aside. Barrenness was the only grounds for divorce in Koretia.

For once in his life, Lange had been furious enough to oppose his baron. Leda had already given him a son and heir; why should he care whether she gave him more? Even if Drew should die, Lange would not abandon Leda; she was the love of his life, his reason for being. He had no purpose in this world, except to care for Leda and their son.

And to be Berenger's heir, but that had not mattered to him in those days. He had convinced himself that, after due time, Adrian would return, Berenger would forgive his wayward son, and all would be as it should be, with Adrian resuming his proper place as Berenger's heir.

Lange placed a branch of holly on his daughter's grave, then went over to tend Hamar's grave. Lange had never particularly liked Adrian's elder brother, though Adrian and Hamar had been fond of each other. To Lange's mind, Hamar was partly to blame for all this, encouraging a blood feud in his dying moments. Hamar had been only eighteen when he had died, but Adrian had been sixteen then, and Berenger's younger son had shown better sense.

Still, Hamar had been young; it was to be hoped that he had spent little time in the Jackal's fire, being cleansed of his impurities. If good fortune shone upon him, Hamar was now at peace in the Land Beyond, in favor with the gods. Lange placed a branch of holly on Hamar's grave and stood up. His gaze drifted down to the river that wound its way around the southern foot of the mountain on which the village of Mountside was placed. On the southern bank of that river lay a barely visible village.

Cold Run, Mountside's enemy.

The sky was darkening; from where he stood, Lange could see pricks of light in the rival village. He knew that the lights represented torches that were placed in outdoor sconces by the villagers during this season of peace preceding the New Year. All through Koretia, the civil war – the kingdom-wide blood feud that had begun in Mountside and Cold Run and then spread like flames – was temporarily set aside. Koretians everywhere were lighting festive torches and preparing to celebrate the most important day in the Koretian year: the New Year, commemorating when the gods created their law and gave that law as a gift to the Koretian people.

In a week's time, in every village and town in Koretia – even in the great capital city where the King's palace stood – Koretians would gather together to celebrate the New Year. There would be festive foods and drinks and the tossing of nuts into the fire, as the Koretians prayed to the gods for good fortune in the coming year. Most of all, there would be the making of creation baskets: living symbols of the beauty that was Koretia.

And then, the next day, the killings would resume.

Lange turned away. He needed peace – he most desperately needed peace from all that had happened during the past four years. But where peace was to be found in this blood-soaked kingdom, he could not imagine.

o—o—o

As though he had only been awaiting the departure of Mira and her family, the Baron of Mountside died three nights later.

It was Drew, creeping into his grandfather's chamber before dawn to check on him, who discovered that Berenger had passed into the Land Beyond. Drew woke his parents, and soon they were all standing around Berenger's bed, looking down at him.

Lange broke the silence finally, asking Leda, "Can you do it alone?" Preparing the body for its three-day wake was a women's mystery, usually undertaken by all the women in the village.

Leda pushed her hand through her long hair, loosened for the night. She looked tired. Her cheeks were dry, as though she had used up all her tears long ago. "I'm not sure. I think . . . I think I will need Drew's help."

Lange looked quickly at his son, but Drew seemed more intrigued than offended at this potential slur upon his growing manhood. Encouraged by this return of Drew's curiosity, Lange rested his hand briefly on the head of the young man, who was doing a good job of obeying Lange's standing orders that he not cry. "I'll collect the wood for the pyre," Lange said. "Let me know if you need me to fetch any supplies."

It was a crisp morning, with frost fuzzing the flat rocks upon which the village houses were built. Lange navigated his way to the grove by means of the earthen slope, slipping occasionally. He was not a native of the Koretian borderland, where mountains stood tall. He had grown up in the lowlands of southern Koretia, an hour's ride from the capital. Fourteen years before, on a visit to the capital, Lange had met a boy newly arrived there, on his way to be deposited in the priests' orphanage outside the city. The boy was sitting on a fruit-box in the market, momentarily abandoned while the priests who had brought him there disappeared into the King's palace to meet with the King's priest.

Lange did not have enough time in his schedule to await the priests' return, but he had stayed with the boy for a few minutes, listening to him talk about the borderland village he was already homesick for. The boy seemed disturbed by the village priest's tendency to settle disturbances through blood and blade, but the boy missed his playmates in the village, especially his blood brother, and he considered the village's setting beside a mountain to be far superior to what he had seen so far of the lowlands.

"You should visit there," said the boy, who was aged somewhere between child and youth. "Cold Run. Remember the name."

He had remembered the name, less for the village's sake than because of the boy's gentle, charming manner. A couple of months later, it so chanced that Lange's father, who employed him in the family carpentry business, had sent him north to see whether better prices for logs could be found in the borderland. Lange had taken the opportunity to seek out Cold Run—

—and had nearly died when a snowstorm blew up. He had never before encountered snow; fortunately, he stumbled into the village before the Jackal God pulled him into the Land Beyond.

Not Cold Run. Mountside, a short space away from Cold Run.

As Lange began to gather fallen branches, he thought to himself how much his life had been determined by chance. If he had not met the boy that day in the capital, if he had not remembered the name of the boy's village, if he had not been sent north by his father, if he had not stumbled across Mountside in the snowstorm, if he had not fallen in love with Leda—

—if Hamar had not died, if Adrian had not been sent as a hunter to Cold Run, if Adrian had not fled from his duty as hunter, if some ill chance had not sent Adrian back home to where his vengeful father awaited, if Adrian had not been betrayed by one of his kinsmen—

Lange ducked his face under his arm to wipe off the sweat on his brow. All his life was chance, mere chance, and if that was the case, what point was there in seeking guidance from the gods? At best, the gods might be gambling with men's fates, throwing the dice to determine which direction the men should go. At worst, the gods had no more idea than Lange did of what he should do next.

o—o—o

After the three days of mourning, they burned Berenger's body, gathered the ashes, and buried him in the cemetery. Drew, who loved his grandfather despite everything, had struggled mightily as Leda lowered the ash-box into the ground; only Lange's sharp word had kept back the tears.

Now Lange and Leda lay in their bed together in the dark hall, lit by the fingers of moonlight that had made their way through the shutter cracks. Above them, in the loft, Drew lay asleep. Leda said, "We'll have to leave now."

He had always encouraged her to speak her mind, having recognized, from the negative example of Berenger's marriage, what could happen when a husband thoroughly cowed his wife. For her part, Leda never fought Lange when he made his decision, apparently content with the privilege he offered her of helping to shape that decision.

This time, though, there was no dispute as to what they should do, only how they should do it. "Where?" asked Lange. "This entire cursed kingdom is at war. And I have nothing to offer any village, other than a few rusty skills at carpentry."

Skills that would be turned down immediately, once the villagers realized who he was. The rest of Mountside's former inhabitants might find refuge in new villages, but not he. Not with his new name.

Leda said hesitantly, "You could ask the King to give you another village . . ."

He shook his head. He had spent the day going through Berenger's belongings to see if the baron had anything worth saving, other than his dwindling coins. Berenger's clothes Lange had set aside to be reused for cloth; Lange already possessed a set of silver-hemmed tunics, made at the time that Berenger declared him heir. There was Berenger's sword . . . But that too Lange set aside. He was not ready to discard the title of baron that he had inherited; if nothing else, he had Drew's inheritance to think of. But to claim that barony in any open way, by wearing a baron's sword or contacting the King, would be to invite disaster. The King had drawn every available man into his war against the Baron of Blackpass; only Lange's duties in caring for the previous Baron of Mountside had prevented him from being sucked into the King's blood feud. After all, Mountside was to blame for the feud starting in the first place; it was only right that its baron should fight in the war. That was how the King would regard matters, at any rate.

Leda seemed not to need to have this explained to her, for she only replied, "I've been thinking and thinking, trying to recall if I have any close kin outside this village. There's nobody within a cousin's range that I can remember."

Besides the Baron of Cold Run, she meant. Griffith was her cousin-in-brotherhood, by way of his blood brother Emlyn, who was Leda's mother's sister's son. Emlyn had left Cold Run long ago, but Griffith would certainly recognize Leda's kinship. He had always abided by the time-honored code that exempted women and children from the blood feud – a code that was increasingly violated by the King's hunters, but Griffith was of a different blood-lineage. He might be willing to allow Leda and Drew to stay in his village—

—but not Lange. They both knew that.

Lange sighed aloud. "My parents are still angry that I married a borderland woman against their will; they haven't responded to my letters through all these years, though a trader who visited here last year informed me that they're still alive. My elder brother married into the Baron of Blackpass's lineage; he's a hunter for that baron now and would be duty-bound to try to kill me if he saw me. My younger brothers are living in the capital, serving as clerks in the King's army—"

"Where you might be recognized and ordered to attend the King." Leda gnawed her lip. "There must be some place we can go where we won't be drawn into this war."

"We should go to Emor."

Startled, Lange raised himself up on an elbow. Dark against the glow of the hearth-fire coals, Drew stood at the foot of their bed, blankets over his shoulders.

"Emor?" Now sitting, Leda sounded as startled as Lange felt. "Why would we want to emigrate to a foreign land?"

"Because it's where Adrian went!" Drew's voice held an unaccustomed passion.

"Son, we don't know that," said Lange, trying to take control of the situation.

"But he must have! The man who came for him . . . He tried to pretend he was Koretian, but I'm sure he wasn't from our kingdom. His skin was too light, even for a borderlander. Adrian must have fled over the mountains to Emor, knowing that Grandfather wouldn't be able to reach him there. Knowing that he'd be safe from our blood feud."

It made sense. The Empire of Emor, notoriously determined to value only its own laws, looked down upon its southern neighbor's blood feuds. If Adrian had indeed sought refuge amongst the Emorians, the Emorians would have protected him against any Koretian who was foolish enough to cross the mountains in an attempt upon Adrian's life.

But even so . . .

"Drew, he couldn't have," Leda protested. "The Emorians are atheists. Adrian worshipped the gods, right to the end. You heard him."

It was the wrong thing to say. Very much the wrong thing to say, even if Leda had only been referring to Adrian's trial, which all of the village children and women had overheard.

But it had been worse than that. Drew – curious Drew, who had always eavesdropped where he shouldn't – had been the only witness, besides Berenger, to Adrian's death.

Drew stiffened. Lange resisted an impulse to climb out of bed and take his son into his arms. No doubt that would merely result in Drew crying again for three days, as he had after Adrian's death.

So instead, Lange said, "Drew, you know better than to interrupt us after bedtime for any matter that can be dealt with in the daytime. Return to your bed."

Drew turned immediately, the obedient son, but as he did so, he said plaintively, "I want to go where Adrian did. I want us to be safe and free."

As the ladder to the loft creaked under Drew's weight, Lange met Leda's eyes and held them. After a minute, she shook her head slowly. He squeezed her hand in agreement. Matters were very bad, but matters would not improve if he and Leda abandoned the gods, raising Drew among people who never worshipped the seven gods and goddesses of Koretia. As Lange had said, even Adrian had not abandoned his belief in the gods, despite every incentive to do so.

"The Jackal spoke to him, he said," Leda murmured, evoking Adrian's words at his trial. "I wish the Jackal would speak to us and tell us what we should do."

He drew her gently down to the bed then, and gave her the only comfort he could, as her husband. But when she had fallen asleep afterwards, he remained awake, staring into the darkness.