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Homecoming

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Homecoming

By Scott Washburn

 

Chapter 1

 

“Foix, I’m scared,” said Liss.

 

“Scared? You?” replied Foix, twisting sideways on his horse to look at her. “The girl who outrides Roknari crossbow bolts, who mans the walls of castles under siege, faces down demons, and hobnobs with saints and sorcerers, scared?” His lips twisted into a smile and she nearly leaned over to kiss them. There was one particular sorcerer she very much wanted to hobnob with.

 

“Saints, sorcerers and demons are one thing. This is my family! Mother, father, brothers and sisters! Another thing entirely!”

 

Foix took on an expression of mock-horror. “As bad as all that? What am I marrying into here? Damn these poor roads! Not even a handy culvert to hide in!”

 

“I’ll speak to the Royina about it, next I see her,” said Liss. “I’d be happy to have one to hide in myself!”

 

“You really are rattled, aren’t you?” said Foix more seriously. “How long has it been since you’ve seen them?”

 

“Over four years. Nearer to five now. A long time. Perhaps they won’t even remember me,” she said trying to look confident.

 

“Small chance of that, love. You make quite an unforgettable impression.” He reached over and took her hand, unmindful of the four men-at-arms riding behind them.

 

She smiled at him and squeezed. “I just… I just don’t know how they’ll react.”

 

“To what? You reappearing four years after vanishing? To your new station? Or to the fact that you’re betrothed to a sorcerer? A sorcerer of the Bastard? Hmmm, might be quite a bit to hit them with at that…” He looked thoughtful, an expression she found endearing.

 

“Perhaps we ought to leave out the sorcerer part,” agreed Liss. “It’s really none of their business, after all.”

 

“True. And I doubt I’d have any reason to reveal it in these peaceful lands. But as for the rest, did you ever let them know where you’d gone after you joined the courier service?”

 

“I sent one message about a year after I left,” replied Liss. “I never heard anything back. Whether my message went astray or their reply never got to me or if they just didn’t care, I don’t know.” She spoke plainly and she was certainly glad that her family had never come in pursuit of her, but at the same time it still hurt a little that they hadn’t even tried

 

“And now the little farm girl returns in triumph,” grinned Foix. “Made Sera Annaliss dy Teneret by the hand of Royina Iselle herself, lady-in-waiting to Dowager Royina Saint Ista, heroine of the Battle of Porifors, veteran of the fall of Visping…”

 

“Foix, stop it.”

 

“… and betrothed to the cleverest soldier-dedicat in all of Chalion-Ibra.”

 

“Foix!”

 

“The handsomest, too, did I mention that?”

 

“Well, I’ll agree with that last part,” she said making a face at him. He smiled back at her with that wonderful smile of his and her pique melted away. They rode in silence for a while over the rolling Labran countryside. This part of southern Chalion was indeed peaceful, unlike the northern regions where Liss had spent so much time lately. The hillsides, though not steep were rocky, the limestone bones of the land poking through in many places, better suited for sheep than farming, although many a farm dotted the lower, flatter spots.

 

“Things starting to look familiar, love?” said Foix. She looked sharply at him. She’d been thinking exactly that. He claimed that his sorcerous powers did not extend to reading minds, but sometimes she wondered.

 

“Yes,” she answered. “Teneret is just over the next hill. Three more miles.”

 

“Good. We’ll get there well before dark. You say the inn there is suitable? We could always impose on the temple to take us in.”

 

“It seemed good enough to me when I lived here. Of course I was just a ‘little farm girl’ then, unused to fine things or the fine people that demanded those fine things. Perhaps the cleverest soldier-dedicat in Chalion might find it beneath him.” She bit her tongue at the tart tone she’d allowed to slip into her voice. Five gods, what was the matter with her?

 

Foix’s usually pleasant expression was missing as he stared at her. “I’m, sure it will be fi… perfectly suitable. I’ve slept on the ground or in the mud often enough, y’know.”

 

She didn’t know what to say. So instead, she jabbed her spurs into her horse’s flanks and sprang away. “I’ll race you there!” she shouted over her shoulder. She heard his surprised exclamation, but she didn’t look back. The horse broke into a gallop and the wind tugged at her cape and her long braid flapped in the breeze. A wild grin was on her face. Oh yes! This was what she needed! Her true self was not Sera Annaliss dy Teneret, it was Liss the Courier Rider. She belonged on the back of a galloping steed, her heart pounding in rhythm with the hoofbeats, not in the courts and councils of the high and mighty of Chalion! She reached the crest of the hill in what seemed an eye blink and then onward, down the long slope toward the village of Teneret.

 

She slowed the horse a bit as she reached the first buildings. The village consisted of several hundred stone and wood structures clustered around the central square where the temple was located. Many people were on the streets and they all looked at her in surprise as she rushed past. The square was paved with cobblestones and her horse’s hooves were amazingly loud on them as she reined to a stop in front of the inn. Dozens of faces were staring at her and the innkeeper and one of his men rushed out the door. She looked back and saw that Foix was a hundred lengths behind her and the men-at arms with the plodding baggage horses were just specks on the hillside.

 

The innkeeper looked from her to the fast approaching Foix and said in a nervous voice: “Are you… are you in danger, my lady?”

 

She laughed. “No, he’s harmless. But we will need rooms and stabling for me and my betrothed and our four men and eight horses, good sir.”

 

“Oh! Of course, my lady!” cried the man, obviously relieved that he wasn’t going to have to try and defend her against bandits or whoever the other riders were. “We are honored.” He gave rapid instructions to his man, who hurried inside. “And who… who do I have the honor of serving?” he asked, turning back to her.

 

She recognized the man now but he clearly didn’t recognize her. For some reason she was glad. “My betrothed is Ser Foix dy Gura. I am…” her tongue suddenly stumbled over her own title. Too complicated, too many explanations. Not now. “I am Annaliss.” That would be safe enough, no one had ever called her that here. She swung herself down from the saddle and patted the horse’s side. “This beast needs a walk and a good rubbing down.”

 

“It will be seen to, my lady.” Several more people emerged from the inn and her horse was turned over to one of those.  The inn had always had a good stable, but she intended to have a look herself later. Just then Foix clattered to a stop and looked down at her.

 

“Feel better?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.

 

“Much.” After a moment she smiled and his expression turned from worry to relief.

 

Foix dismounted and received the innkeeper’s greetings. In a short time they were shown to their rooms which while simple were clean and pleasant enough. She and Foix had a pair of rooms with a connecting door. Their men—on loan from Royina Ista’s guard—were lodged over the stable. She was unpacking her things—she couldn’t believe how many things she had accumulated—when Foix came into her room.

 

“So, what is the plan? I assume we won’t be seeing your family until tomorrow. But do you plan to go there? Summon them here? Drop in unannounced?”

 

“I have a better idea. Why don’t we rest here tonight and then tomorrow we can get on our horses and ride back to Cardegoss and forget this whole crazy thing.”

 

“Not a chance, my lady! We’ve already visited my family and now it’s your turn! And have you given any thought to the fact that I might be as nervous about this as you are? You have what? Three brothers? How big are they?”

 

“Not all that big, I suppose. But what do you have to be nervous about? You with your sword and all, they’ll be in awe of you. But me! I’ll just be their silly little sister no matter what I’m wearing. And what should I wear?” She spun around and gestured to the pile of clothes lying on the bed. “If I wear my court finery they’ll just laugh. If I wear my riding clothes they’ll… just laugh. Oh! This is too complicated! Why can’t we…” Her protests were cut off as Foix took her in his arms and pressed his lips against hers. Quite some time passed before he released her.

 

“See? Things aren’t as complicated as all that.”

 

“No,” she sighed. “No, they’re not…” She seized him and they fell backwards onto the pile of clothing on her bed, laughing.

 

It was almost sunset by the time they emerged from the inn. Foix wanted a look around the village and Liss was content to hold his hand and stroll. “Is it as you remember?” he asked after a while.

 

“Nearly. That house there is new and they seem to have added a floor above Olwyn’s smithy, but most of it’s just as it was.” Just like the scores other villages she’d rode through in the last five years. But those other villages didn’t have a hundred curious eyes watching her. People were looking out of windows and stealing glances from around corners as they walked.

 

“Not many visitors here, I’m guessing,” said Foix, noting the watchers.

 

“A lot of people come through,” she replied. “On market day it’s quite crowded. But folks looking like us… no. The local castillar is way over in Jerret, almost fifteen miles. We’d see him or his men once or twice a year. Of course there is the courier relay station…”

 

“They’re probably all wondering why we’re here,” said Foix. “Suspicious lot. Look, there’s the village divine peeping at us from the temple door. Perhaps if we had a word with him he could calm the others.” He steered her in that direction. The divine, an elderly man who had aged rather alarmingly in five years, did not recognize her any more than the innkeeper. Have I changed that much? Or can’t anyone see beyond my fine clothes? He seemed relieved at Foix’s explanation that they were just passing through although Liss could tell he would have like to know where they were passing through to. They took the opportunity to give prayers of thanks for their safe journey at each of the gods’ altars, including the Bastard’s in his separate tower. The divine thanked them for the offering they left as well.

 

“Perhaps you should ask him after your family,” suggested Foix. “An intermediary, of sorts?”

 

“I… I’ll think about it.” It was an appealing idea. “In the morning.”

 

“Can’t put it off forever, love.”

 

“I know, I know…” They headed back toward the inn.

 

“Liss?” said a voice. “Liss is it really you?” She spun around and saw a young woman. She was clinging to the arm of a young man who she instantly recognized as Egardo, son of the village tanner.  She’d been sweet on him once. But the woman… she looked like…

 

Fanni!” she gasped. “Five gods, Foix, it’s my sister, Fanni!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Ready?” asked Foix.

 

“As I’ll ever be, I suppose,” said Liss. She was staring out the window of her room on the second floor of the inn. It was well after dawn on a fine morning and many people were in the square below. “Fanni and Egardo said they would leave at first light. If they did, then we shouldn’t overtake them before they have a chance to get to the house and spread the… the word.”

 

Foix chuckled. “For a moment there I thought you were going to say ‘alarm’.”

 

“I nearly did,” admitted Liss. “I still can’t believe Fanni married Edgardo…” Five years. She’d been so concerned about how much she had changed she hadn’t thought about how much else had changed! According to Fanni, two of her brothers and one of her other sisters had married while she was away. And Great Aunt Tessali had died… Fanni had gushed out five years of family history in a quarter hour on the street last night. Maybe her homecoming wouldn’t be the huge event—or huge ordeal—she had feared.

 

“Dearheart, your family is going to be surprised, but I can’t believe they won’t be happy to see you. Especially when they learn that you’ve done well in the world. At least I hope you feel you’ve done well.” He looked at her and his usual pleasant smile was replaced by an expression of concern.

 

She turned from the window and kissed him. “Yes. Very well.” They held each other for a moment and then she shook herself. “You’re right. I’m being silly. It’s not like I’m dragging myself home in rags, unwed with a child, and begging to be taken back in.”

 

“No indeed! And by the way, I think your choice of clothing is perfect.”

 

She looked down at herself. She was wearing one of her ‘formal riding costumes’. The normal court riding attire for ladies had always exasperated her. Sidesaddle! Bastards Hell, how could anyone ride properly sidesaddle? And yet her normal riding clothes were far too… plain for many of the duties she needed to perform for the Royina these days. So, with Ista’s help—and encouragement—she’d started designing clothing that was both practical and stylish. At first the other ladies had looked at her askance—until Ista started wearing them herself. The trend was spreading all through Cardegoss now.

 

Today’s outfit consisted of a pair of pantaloons, reinforced on the inside of the legs, that tucked into calf-high riding boots. But the front, back, and sides had fabric panels, not quite long enough to get in the way, but long enough to look like a proper skirt when standing or walking. Above that was a blouse that was designed to look like it had a tight bodice, but which in fact was loose enough to allow her to breath. The collar was high, to keep road dust out of her cleavage, but not so tight as to constrict her throat. A vest-cloak went over that, but the cloak was short enough to stay clear of saddle and harness. The terminology of the seamstresses still eluded her, but they had managed to put in a few pleats and doodads or whatever they were called to give it some style without interfering with function. It was all in blue fabrics with white trim to match Foix’s clothing. Her betrothed was a sorcerer of the Bastard, but he’d refused to give up his position in the Daughter’s Order, so blue and white had become his colors.

 

“I think we make a fine pair,” she said.

 

“Indeed we do! Come! No more stalling! Let’s be on our way.”

 

A half hour later they rode out of Teneret, Liss and Foix leading the four men-at-arms, who were also wearing their best. “We look like an invading army,” said Liss.

 

“It’ll make a good first impression,” replied Foix. “Convince ‘em we aren’t just a pair of loonies with good taste in clothes. Besides, if your father and brothers take exception to me, they can cover my retreat.”

 

“Your retreat! What about mine!”

 

“Well, you can ride faster than any of us. I ‘spect you’ll beat us back to the inn.”

 

“Don’t tempt me.”

 

Her father’s little estate was an hour’s ride east of the village and every mile brought new memories of her childhood. Ponds where she’d swum, woodlots where she’d played, farms where friends had lived. A very surprising and unfamiliar homesickness was growing in her. Foix seemed to sense her mood and said little to distract her.

 

Finally they rounded the last bend and she caught her breath as the familiar buildings came into sight. There was the big old farmhouse with its many generations of additions, the barn, the attached sheds, and the wall that almost, but not quite, enclosed them all. Whitewashed brick, mostly, although in some spots there seemed to be more brick than whitewash showing, A thatched roof on most of the house, but wood shingles in other places. The fenced-in garden was still there although it seemed smaller than usual. In fact, the whole place seemed smaller, but that was surely an illusion! None of those walls had been moved in lifetimes—the place couldn’t have shrunk!

 

She smiled when she saw the horses in the pasture. Fanni had confirmed that Father still raised the best horses in the province. She wondered if old Featherbrain was still around. She’d have to ask.

 

A shout from up ahead drew her attention away from the horses and back to the house. She spotted a figure by the gate who waved and then disappeared inside. “I think our arrival is being announced,” grinned Foix.

 

A part of Liss wanted to spur her horse into a trot and hurry ahead. A smaller, but still noticeable, part wanted to turn around and gallop away. She did neither, and step by step their mounts brought them up to the gate. A small crowd of people clustered just inside.

 

“Liss! Oh Annaliss!” A stout woman with graying hair and a white apron was pushing through the crowd.

 

Without a conscious thought Liss was off her horse and gathering her mother into her arms. She’d sworn to herself, to all five gods, that she wasn’t going to cry.  But she was foresworn in an instant. “Mama, Mama, I’ve come home,” she wept.

 

“Naughty girl! Oh, you naughty girl!” cried her mother, weeping in turn and clutching her closer. “How could you run off like that? Without a word! Without a word!” She held her away for a moment and then pulled her in again, tighter than before.

 

“Well, I did send a message…”

 

“A year after the fact! We spent a year not knowing if you were alive or dead!”

 

“So you did get my message?” Liss pulled away slightly.

 

“That cowardly… dastardly… thief of a courier master held your note for two months before he got up the nerve to give it to us—and admit what he’d done!”

 

“Mother nearly throttled him,” said Fanni, grinning.

 

“He transferred to another station right after that,” put in a tall young man who Liss realized with a shock was her brother Leandro.

 

“So, are you going to stand there crying or are you going to introduce us to this mob,” growled her father coming forward. He was a tall, lean man although starting to get fat around the middle. He was completely bald on top now but still had thick brown hair on the sides to match his full beard. Liss pulled free of her mother’s grasp and hugged him, blinking back more tears.

 

This embrace was shorter, but no less sincere. She stood back, scrubbed her eyes on her sleeve and smiled. “Papa, Mama, everyone, this is Foix. Ser Foix dy Gura, I should say! We’re to be married.”

 

“Foix will do fine,” said Foix, turning slightly red, but smiling and nodding to all of them.

 

“But… but… how can this be?” demanded her mother. “You to be wed to this great lord? And you but a farm girl? Fanni told us, but we could scarce believe it!”

 

‘Tis true, I assure you, madam,” said Foix, making a formal bow. “And no greater prize could I ever ask for than the hand of Sera Annaliss dy Teneret.” He took her hand and held it possessively. Liss’ heart seemed to melt within her.

 

“Sera?” snorted Leandro. “How can that be?”

 

“Have you not heard of the great doings in the north?” asked Foix. His normally easygoing speech and manner was turning quite formal. “Victories against the Roknari, the fall of Visping?”

 

“Of course we have!” said Mother. “And we’ve thanked the five gods, good ser. But what has this to do with our Liss?”

 

“Well then, you should know that Liss’ courier duty landed her in the midst of adventures both strange and great. She stood at the side of Dowager Royina Ista during the siege and battle of Porifors and then later at the great victory before Visping. For her loyalty and courage she was made a lady afterwards by the hand of Royina Iselle herself. I, being caught up in those same events, witnessed her valiant actions and pledged myself to win her favor. Surely all five gods must have blessed me, for I was successful.”

 

Liss felt like she was going to burst into flames. Her cheeks were burning and she squeezed his hand tighter. “No small part did you play in those great events, my husband-to-be,” she managed to squeak out.

 

Foix bowed to her and then again to her parents. “I must apologize for not asking your permission, sir, but time and circumstances did not allow it. I trust that you do not object.”

 

A dozen faces gaped at them. After a long silence her father cleared his throat noisily. “Well!” he said. “Well! I don’t… I don’t imagine a lord such as yourself would be interested in the dowry of a poor farm girl. I assure you I have no dowry for a great lady!”

 

Foix smiled. “Have no fear, sir. Dowry or no, I would have Liss’ hand. But she is now a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Royina and as is traditional, Ista has seen to her dowry.” Her father relaxed visibly. “And,” continued Foix, “she also bade me to present this small purse to you to cover your expenses should you decide to accept our invitation to the wedding, which will be in Cardegoss two weeks before the Mother’s Day.” He drew a small velvet bag from his cloak and presented it to her father.

 

“Cardegoss!’ exclaimed a half-dozen voices at once. Father weighed the purse in his hand and looked thoughtful.

 

“Royinas Ista and Iselle and the Royal Consort Bergon and Chancellor dy Cazaril all wish to attend and their duties won’t allow them to come all the way here,” said Liss apologetically.  “We do hope you can come.”

 

“Oh, this is all madness,” cried her mother all aflutter. “Cardegoss! It’s so far and I have nothing to wear in such high company! I couldn’t possibly…”

 

“No need to decide now, madam,” said Foix. “Think on it.” He turned to Liss. “Uh, I’m assuming that these are you mother and father, love, but perhaps you can introduce the rest?”

 

“Oh! Of course!” said Liss. She sorted out the family as best she could by age. She started with her oldest brother Leandro, his wife, Celia and their baby son. Leandro had just been courting Celia when she left but now the three of them were all living here—and her father was a grandfather! “Fanni and Edgardo you’ve already met, of course,” she said. Next came Rosara and her husband Gimar. They’d only been married the previous fall, but Rosie was very obviously with child. They lived on a nearby farm with Gimar’s parents. Then there were sisters Dalitta and Yesenia and brother Seve, the baby of the family, but not so little anymore! Seve was the age she had been when she left. Finally, there were the farmhands Arand and Artur, brothers who had worked for her father as long as she could remember. Not quite family, but almost.

 

But wait… someone was missing… “Where’s Toma?” she asked. Her brother was just a year younger and according to Fanni, married less than a year.

 

“Oh,” said Fanni, “I guess I forgot to mention in all the excitement last night. Toma married a girl from over beyond Teneret. Vilma is nice but her father has a farm and no sons so he moved in with her. They’re doing well.”

 

“Very well!” chuckled her father. “He sold some horses to the temple two months back and got twice what they were worth from what I hear. Guess he learned a thing or two from me after all.”

 

“Anyway,” continued Fanni. “Seve is going to ride over there after the noon meal and tell him the news and see if he can come by tomorrow.”

 

“Oh good,” said Liss. “I do want to see him.” In fact, Toma was her favorite among her siblings. A quiet, thoughtful boy who didn’t tease her like the others when she’d talked about leaving Teneret someday and seeing the world. She’d looked forward to talking to him about her adventures. He’d understand if anyone would.

 

“And who are these gentlemen?” asked Yesenia, pointing to the men-at-arms who had been looking on in amusement all this time.

 

“Ah,” said Foix. “These are worthy soldiers of the Dowager Royina’s escort. She lent them to us for the journey here.” He quickly gave their names and several of them smiled broadly at Yesenia, who had blossomed rather spectacularly in Liss’ absence. She blushed and smiled back.

 

“They can stay with Arand and Artur in the barn,” said her mother firmly, taking Yesenia by the arm and pulling her away. She looked at the farmhands. “Don’t just stand there, you oafs! See to all these horses! Get them settled! The meal will be ready by the time you’re done.”

 

The pair smiled. “Yes’m,” said Arand. He and Artur began collecting the horses—and the soldiers.

 

“You don’t really have to put us up,” said Foix, suddenly looking unsure of himself. “We do have rooms at the inn…”

 

“Nonsense! You’ll stay right here! The very idea!”

 

“We left two horses and all our things…”

 

“Seve can fetch them back here after he talks to Toma,” said Mother as if that settled it all. “Now come! I have to get back to my kitchen before the meal is spoilt. No more backtalk! Come on!”

 

She herded them into the big old house and before long they were seated around a table that was just barely large enough for the whole family. The memories and feelings nearly overwhelmed Liss. Everything was going so much better than she’d feared! Once there was food in front of them—solid country fare that brought back more memories—Foix kept them all enthralled with tales of the ‘strange and great’ events of the past year up north. Carefully edited tales, of course. His own demon was left out entirely and even the details of Ista’s triumph over Princess Joen were largely glossed over. But there were battles and daring-do enough to leave everyone gape-mouthed. Liss said little except to rein-in Foix when he got too enthusiastic describing her own exploits. Only when trying to describe Lord Arhys’ last ride did he falter. Liss’ own view of the event had been limited to the awful and terrifying moments atop the tower in Porifors and she was disinclined to say anything about them. “He was the bravest man I’ve ever seen,” was all Foix could force out.

 

A short silence followed, but then her mother began clearing the table and her sisters started asking questions about Royina Iselle and especially about her husband. “Is he as handsome as they say?” demanded Yesenia.

 

“The first time I saw him he was dripping sweat and covered with dust and Roknari blood, but cleaned up, yes, he’s handsome enough, I suppose,” said Liss. She looked fondly at Foix and smiled. “Not as handsome as some, though.” That produced some giggles and snorts of laughter.

 

“I assume that you, both of you, will be going back north?” asked Leandro. “Even after the wedding?” Liss smiled. Was he worried that they’d try to move in here?

 

“Yes, the campaigning season will soon begin,” replied Foix “and there’s word that the Roknari are not going to sit idly by while we solidify our hold on Visping. The remaining princedoms are calling for help from the archipelago and there could be some serious fighting. We must be ready for it.”

 

“’We’?” said Mother, returning from her kitchen. “I can see why a brave lord such as yourself might be involved, but why my Liss?”

 

Foix glanced at her and licked his lips. “The… the Dowager Royina provides important… counsel to her daughter and the Consort. She intends to go north with the armies and Liss is her most important attendant. But have no fears, madam, your daughter will be well protected—not that she isn’t quite capable of taking care of herself,” he added hastily.

 

Eventually the gathering broke up as there was always work to be done, even on a day when a lost daughter returned. But they all agreed to assemble again the next day when Toma could be there. Seve departed on horseback with a hastily penned note from Foix to the innkeeper (and a few extra coins) to assure that they would get their horses and belongings when the boy returned. Yesenia wormed her way out of some chores by volunteering to show Liss and Foix around the estate while Mother and Rosie got their rooms ready.

 

Her sister managed to drag the tour out for most of the afternoon. Not a great deal had changed to the physical layout of the estate in five years and Liss doubted that Foix was all that interested in what he was being shown, but they were both perfectly content to follow the girl around, holding hands and sneaking kisses when she wasn’t looking. Liss was delighted that old Featherbrain was still alive. The horse had been her favorite as a child. But now he was blind in one eye and mostly lame. She was amazed that her father—never prone to sentimentality—had not put him down. She spent some time with him and he even seemed to remember her.

 

Still, the tour only reinforced in her mind how different her life was now. I don’t fit in here anymore—not that I ever did, really. It saddened her for reasons she couldn’t define. She didn’t want to come back, but the knowledge that she couldn’t even if she wanted…

 

The rooms that Mother prepared for them did not have an adjoining door. They weren’t even in the same part of the house. Just before dark Seve arrived with word that Toma would come tomorrow and with their baggage horses in tow. Her sisters ‘helped’ her unpack, fingering and commenting on every item in her bags. It was touching and irritating at the same time. For a few moments she felt like the old Liss—with all the good and the bad that entailed.

 

The evening quickly drew to a close. Farm people retired early and Liss was glad. It had been a long day and all the nervous energy she had expended left her very tired. She did manage to find a few moments alone with Foix in the hallway.

 

“That went much better than I’d feared,” she sighed, leaning against him. “Thank you. Thank you for being here with me. And for the things you said.”

 

“I want to always be there for you,” he said nuzzling her ear. It tickled.

 

“Good,” she giggled. “But tonight I think we should keep to our rooms. The floors creak dreadfully around here.”

 

“As you wish, my love,” said Foix with a small bow. “Good night.”

 

Days both ended and started early for farm people. While no one actually came to get them up, the noises had them awake soon after dawn. Breakfast was more elaborate than the ones Liss remembered and she supposed Foix’s presence was the reason. Her mother announced that she planned a special meal at noon when everyone, including Toma and his wife would be there. She drafted all the girls, including Liss, for the preparations. Foix went off with her father to look over the horses. Liss wondered what they would talk about besides the horses.

 

The morning passed quickly and pleasantly with remembered tasks. Her sisters kept up a steady stream of mocking remarks about the ‘great lady’ doing farm girl chores that were just good-natured enough to keep her from getting angry. She’d been expecting and fearing far worse and she managed to give as well as she got until they were all laughing.

 

The meal was close to ready when the men-folk returned from the fields. Fanni and Edgardo and Rosara and Gimar arrived shortly after that. Only Toma and his wife were missing. Liss and Foix drifted out to the gate to wait for them. “I like your family,” said Foix. “Your father seems like a good man.”

 

“I hope he didn’t interrogate you too severely.”

 

Foix laughed. “A bit! Quizzed me about my family and what I stood to inherit. Your father knows the value of land! When he learned that I stand to get a good parcel from my father when he goes, he became downright friendly. He does care about your welfare, love. He tried to hide it, but I think he was very worried about you when you ran off.”

 

Liss wasn’t sure what to say to that. Instead she stared down the road and was rewarded to see a pair of figures riding in their direction. “Oh, that must be Toma!”

 

“One good thing about living in horse country: nobody has to walk,” observed Foix.

 

“Well, some people, do,” replied Liss, “But I was riding almost before I could walk.”

 

“And haven’t stopped since.” He grinned at her. “I get the impression that you’re pretty fond of Toma.”

 

“Well, I was. Not sure what he’ll be like now. Hard to believe he’s married! He was always rather shy when we were younger. I’ll be interested to meet his wife and… What?”

 

The expression on Foix’s face had become very strange. Toma was only a hundred paces off now, and Foix was staring at him intently. Her brother was staring back and slowed his horse almost to a stop.

 

“Foix, what’s wrong?”

 

Suddenly, Toma yanked at his horse’s reins and turned the beast around. An instant later he was galloping away as if a squadron of Roknari cavalry was on his heels. His wife called after him, her voice shocked and bewildered. “Toma! Where are you going?” She looked back at Liss and Foix for an instant and then rode after her husband who was already a quarter mile away and still moving fast.

 

“Well what got into him?” said Liss, half angry and half worried. She looked at Foix and stopped. He was frozen, still looking after Toma. “Foix! What is it?”

 

He shook himself as if startled out of a dream and then looked at her. “I’m afraid I know what’s gotten into your brother, Liss…

 

…and it’s a demon.”

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Liss stared at Foix in dismay. “A… a demon?” in my brother? Are you sure?”

 

“I’m afraid so.”

 

“But… but how…?”

 

“Shhh,” he hissed. “Not now.” The other family members were coming to the gate, all demanding to know what had happened.

 

“Uh, Toma suddenly rode off,” said Liss. “Vilma followed.”

 

“But why?” asked Fanni. “Why come all the way here and then ride back?” No one had any answer and eventually her mother insisted that they eat the meal she had labored on. The conversation around the table was not as spirited as yesterday’s and kept drifting back to Toma’s mysterious behavior. Everyone agreed that he’d been acting a bit distant of late, but still being newly married it hadn’t seemed that odd. Liss wanted to drag Foix off and question him, but he insisted they stay and eat and behave normally. She supposed he was right, but despite the splendid food, she had never been more eager for a meal to be over with.

 

Eventually it was and they walked out toward the pastures until they had some privacy. “You’re sure he has a demon?” she demanded at once.

 

“Yes, there’s no doubt. I could see it coiled inside him like a purple snake. It was evident from his reaction that it saw mine, too.”

 

“But… but is it a little one like you started with? Just an elemental? It’s not eating away at his soul like Ista talked about? Like Captain Gorram?” The descriptions Ista had given of a demon-ravaged soul made her skin crawl.

 

“It’s not an elemental,” said Foix, shaking his head. “Liss, beloved, when I said I knew what had gotten into your brother, I meant it literally. I know this demon! I’ve met it before!”

 

“Five Gods! Where?”

 

“At Porifors. That night. It was one of the demons Arhys cut loose from Joen by slaying its mount. I only saw each one briefly, but I’m sure this was one of them.”

 

“Oh… oh, I see. But what is it doing here? We’re six hundred miles from Porifors!”

 

“Well, maybe five hundred as the demon flies, but yes, it does seem very strange to find it all the way down south here.” He was silent for a few moments. “From what I’ve been told by the divines a demon is even more dependent on having an abode of living flesh than a person’s soul is. The sundered spirits of people slowly erode away over a period of years until they are just mindless smudges, drifting forlornly to oblivion. A demon without a mount will unravel much, much faster, its accumulated knowledge and power slipping away like smoke. So, if their mount is slain they will usually at once leap to the nearest new mount they can find.”

 

“Like the demon in that Jokonan princess did? The one Lady Catillara killed in Porifors? It jumped right to her as I recall.”

 

“Yes.  But apparently this one did not. You remember when Ista interrogated the demon in Catillara? It was terrified of Joen’s coming. It wanted nothing more than to get away to avoid being re-enslaved by Joen’s demon. This one must have fled from its dying mount and just kept fleeing—all the way here.”

 

“Didn’t Ista find and destroy several of those demons that Arhys let loose later during the Visping campaign?”

 

“Some but not all. Some she never encountered again and are still on the loose. She was quite concerned about them. But now we know where one of them went. And from what I’ve been told, a demon can’t willingly leave a living mount once it’s seized it. Toma must have been its first since it fled.”

 

“Bastard preserve us, what do we do?”

 

Foix shrugged. “We have to get word to Ista. She’s the only one who can handle this thing.”

 

“There’s nothing you can do?”

 

“Nothing directly. My training, such as I’ve had so far, has been primarily in deflecting demonic spells so I can probably counter anything it may try. But it’s probably older and more experienced. I’d rather not have to fight it face to face.”

 

“I don’t want Toma hurt!”

 

“Well, killing Toma isn’t a good choice in any case: it won’t hurt the demon and it will just fly to another mount. No, somehow we need to stall this demon. My biggest fear is that it will immediately try to flee again—this time with your brother.”

 

“Did it recognize you, do you think? Will it know that we’ll send for Ista?” The thought of her brother being carried away beyond finding and then slowly devoured was beginning to panic her.

 

“I don’t know. My demon was very young, very unformed when it saw it. It might look differently now. And Toma’s demon fled before Ista was revealed as the Bastard’s saint. It may have heard rumors of Ista’s work since then just through normal means. But it might not realize we have any connection with her—except for everything we told your family since we got here, of course,” he ended sourly.

 

“Oh Gods, what do we tell them?”

 

“For right now we tell them nothing, I think. Act confused over your brother’s behavior just like them. In the meanwhile we send word to Ista. Thank the gods there’s a courier station in Teneret!”

 

“Maybe I should take the message myself,” said Liss, eager to be on a fast-moving horse. “I could be to Cardegoss in three days, I’ll wager!”

 

“Tempting, but no,” said Foix. “Any courier can deliver the message. But I need you to deal with your family and Toma. We are going to have to keep an eye on him. Somehow try to keep him from fleeing or track him if he does slip away. Even with the four men-at-arms, I don’t think we’ll be able to do that on our own. We’re going to need some help from folk that know the country and know the people. I can’t get that sort of cooperation by myself, Liss.”

 

“You just said we shouldn’t tell them anything!”

 

“Uh… yeah. We’ll have to enlist their help without giving everything away. That’s another reason I need you here: to tell me when I make stupid mistakes.”

 

“Gladly. But what do you think the demon will do? What does it want?”

 

“First and foremost it wants to survive. It will take that instinct from every mount it has during its existence. When an elemental slips into our world from the other side it will most often seize an animal for its first mount and then slip from animal to animal as each one dies. It will absorb the animals’ instincts and the strongest instinct will be to survive. The other desires of men: power, greed, lust, are not nearly so strong as the need to survive. Those other desires they will acquire from their mounts given enough time, but they won’t usually give in to those desires if it will draw attention to themselves. Demons who survive for a long time can only do so through stealth. My biggest fear right now is that Toma’s demon will think that it has been revealed and will try to flee with him right away. Somehow we have to stop that from happening.”

 

Still uncertain what to do, they went back to Foix’s room to do the one thing they could do. They penned a letter to Ista that said as plainly and urgently as possible that they needed the Bastard’s Saint in Teneret to deal with a situation as only she could. They sealed it and Foix rode off with two of their men to the courier station to send it on its way. Foix, for his own safety as a Temple Sorcerer, carried letters of authority from Royina Iselle, Chancellor Cazaril and the Archdevine of Cardegoss that would send the courier dispatcher into a frenzy to meet Foix’s demands. Liss wished grimly that there was some way those letters could get similar cooperation out of her family! If it came to a crisis where action had to be taken, she had little doubt who they would side with.

 

She watched Foix ride out of sight and then turned back toward the house. She stopped in surprise when she saw Leandro, Fanni, Egardo and Seve saddling horses by the barn. She walked over to them. “Where are you all going?” she asked.

 

“To slap Toma!” said Fanni. “How dare he insult you and Foix—and Mother! He knew she was preparing something special for the whole family!”

 

“Yeah,” said Seve, “I told him!”

 

“The boy needs a talking to, that’s for sure,” said Leandro. “We’re gonna drag him back here by the scruff of his neck and make him apologize.”

 

A terrible feeling filled the pit of Liss’ stomach. How would the demon respond to this familial assault on its mount? Did it understand that family was different than other people? “I… I don’t know if this is such a good idea,” stuttered Liss.

 

“What?” cried Fanni. “I’d think you’d want to take a slap or two yourself! You always looked out for him when we were little and now the first time he can see you in five years and he rides away!”

 

“Does Father know you’re doing this?”

 

“He knows. And he’s not stopping us.”

 

“But…”

 

“No buts,” said Leandro. “The boy has to explain himself. Why don’t you come along, Liss? It might put some shame into him.”

 

The thought of facing the demon without Foix along frightened her as much as anything ever had. But he was riding fast and the road to Toma’s home branched off from the road to Teneret after just a few miles. There was no hope of overtaking him. But she couldn’t let her brothers and sister face the demon unaware… Don’t send me into battle blindfolded! Foix said that from time to time, it was some quote from the March of Palliar, he said. It seemed terribly appropriate just now. But if she tried to tell her family… it might do more harm than good.

 

The demon wants to stay inconspicuous, Foix said. Perhaps if I can keep them from provoking it too severely, it will lie low.

 

“All right,” she said. “Give me a few moments.” She ran to the house and up to her room. She quickly stripped off her fine clothes and pulled on her old riding gear from her courier days. She hurried back toward the barn and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the two remaining men-at-arms out by the pasture with Dalitta and Yesenia—with Mother not far off. She hadn’t known how she was going to slip away from them. They would feel duty-bound to escort her but the two soldiers probably would have alarmed the demon more than anyone. She saddled her horse and joined the others. Soon they were out the gate and on the road.

 

They set a brisk pace and the farm was quickly left far behind. “Leandro,” she said after a while. “Please don’t be too hard on Toma. Perhaps he had a good reason. Please don’t spoil my homecoming by fighting.”

 

“Toma is the one who’s spoilt it! I know you were always fond of him, Liss, but he needs to be taught a lesson.”

 

“A lesson doesn’t need to include bruises, brother. Please? No fighting? For me?”

 

“You’ve changed, Liss,” said her brother, frowning. “I’d have thought after all your time with the armies you’d be wanting to whack Toma over the head with a war hammer!”

 

“Have you ever seen a man who’s been hit on the head with a war hammer, Leandro? I have.” Ista had mostly stayed at the hospital during the assault on Visping and Liss had, naturally, stayed with her. She still had nightmares. She stared him right in the eyes and after a moment he blinked and looked away.

 

“All right, all right. I’ll leave any beatings to Father after we drag him home,” grumbled Leandro.

 

“No dragging, either!” snapped Liss. “If he’ll come back with us, fine, but he’s part of Vilma’s family now, too, you know! We don’t want to be starting a feud with them.”

 

“She does have a point about that,” said Fanni. “Vilma’s mama and papa are nice people. We shouldn’t insult them.”

 

Leandro snorted. “Well! What’s the point of even going there, then? What do you expect to do?”

 

I expect to keep a frightened demon from turning you inside out! “We should let him explain himself and let him know how hurt we are. That ought to be enough. Toma will do the right thing.” If he can.

 

Leandro grumbled and Seve, obviously eager to watch the brawl, whined a bit, but to Liss’ relief it seemed they were willing to withhold the fisticuffs—if Toma cooperated.

 

They rode in silence for a while but then Liss said: “Seve, how much did you tell Toma about me and Foix?”

 

“Huh? Oh, not that much—I couldn’t stay long and still bring back all your stuff from town! I just said that you’d been made a lady and you were marryin’ a lord from up north. Why?”

 

“What did Toma say to that?”

 

“Well, he was surprised, of course! Who wouldn’t be? He asked how it happened, but I didn’t try to ‘splain it all. Told him to ask you when he saw you.”

 

“All right,” said Liss carefully. “Let’s… let’s not say any more about that than we have to, all right?”

 

“Why not?” demanded Fanni and Seve in unison.

 

“I don’t know,” she lied. “Maybe… maybe Toma is intimidated by it all. Maybe he’s afraid of lords from up north.”

 

“Maybe he’s jealous,” laughed Fanni.

 

“Maybe he is,” snapped Liss in feigned irritation. “Let’s not make him more jealous!” Fanni sniffed but didn’t say any more.

 

Toma’s new home was southwest of Teneret in a little valley between two low ridges. Liss hadn’t been over here much as a child so it was mostly new to her. They passed a couple of farms and then the next one would be Toma’s. Liss felt like she was riding into battle. Stay calm, stay calm! Say what has to be said and then get out!

 

They turned off the trail onto a little lane. They spotted the house in the distance, but before they got halfway there, they encountered Vilma. She smiled happily and waved at them. “Leandro! Fanni! Egardo! Seve! And oh, you must be, Liss! Nice to meet you at last! Toma talks about you a lot.” The woman didn’t seem the least embarrassed by what had happened earlier and this clearly confused Liss’ siblings.

 

“You… you could have met her this morning,” said Leandro, scowling. “When you came to our house.”

 

“Oh, well, you know!” said Vilma cheerily, as if that explained everything.

 

“Where is Toma?” asked Liss warily. Something was wrong here…

 

“Oh, he’s up at the house. Go on, I’ll be there later.” The woman turned away and strolled off, singing to herself.  The others all looked at each other.

 

“I think… I think we should go home,” said Liss.

 

“No!” said Leandro. “I’m going to have a word with Toma!” He nudged his horse into motion and the others followed. They rode up to the house and there was Toma, sitting on a chair on the porch. His expression was… unreadable. Liss glanced around, but there was no sign of anyone else.

 

“Toma!” said Leandro, dismounting.

 

“Leandro,” he replied evenly. He nodded to the others. “What brings you all here?”

 

“You know perfectly well! You’re invited to your sister’s homecoming and you ride to within sight of our door and then you ride away without a word! Mother is very upset! She had a special meal all planned! And you ruined it!”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Leandro stopped for a moment as if surprised. “Well, yes, I know you’re sorry… but you still need to say so to mother! And to Liss here!”

 

Toma turned his eyes on her and a shiver ran through her from head to toe. “I’m sorry, dear sister. You know that, don’t you?”

 

“Of course, Toma! I know you’re sorry!” And indeed, he looked terribly sorry. So sorry she wanted to embrace him and apologize for making him feel so sorry. She felt so guilty for making him sorry…

 

“You all know that I’m sorry,” he said, turning his head to look at each of the others. They all nodded. “And everything is fine. You’ll tell Mother and Father and all the others that I’m sorry and everything is fine. Won’t you?”

 

“Yes! Oh, of course we will!” Everyone agreed and Liss smiled and nodded along with the rest.

 

Then his eyes turned back to her. “But dear Annaliss, you and your intended will be returning to the north at once, won’t you? You are leaving tomorrow, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes, yes, I’m sorry we can’t stay longer, “ Liss heard herself saying. But wait… she frowned. They couldn’t leave tomorrow. They had to… what? She couldn’t remember…

 

“You’re leaving tomorrow,” said Toma.

 

“Yes. We’re leaving tomorrow.” Of course they were. It was all planned…

 

“You had all better go now. Liss will need your help to pack. So that she can leave first thing in the morning.”

 

Everyone agreed immediately and started mounting their horses. “Remember,” said Toma. “Everything is fine.”

 

Liss smiled and waved at her brother and then turned her horse and followed the others home.

 

Everything was fine.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The demon watched the humans until they were out of sight. This was not good. His mount’s sister’s mate-to-be carried a demon and it knew it was here. Was it just bad luck, or something else? The other one had seemed… familiar somehow. But the demon couldn’t remember where they had encountered each other before. Blast! There was so much it couldn’t remember! Inside it was a jumble of memories from a dozen different mounts. Memories, skills… desires. All mixed and swirling like specks of dust in a whirlwind.

 

The one thing it could remember clearly was The Old One. The Old One and Joen. The two of them had caught it, harnessed it, enslaved it. Torn it from one mount after another—oh, how it had hurt! But there was no escape from the Leash of Fire. The demon had submitted. Obeyed. Served. It went against everything it was, but there had been no choice.

 

But then, suddenly, it was free! The leash broken! It remembered a vague image of a tall gleaming gray shape looming up in the darkness. The flash of a blade. Then, its mount was dead and the leash gone. The Old One and Joen were close by, but distracted. Flee! Flee and don’t look back!

 

It had fled. Hundreds of new mounts were close by, but it passed them all up. Too close! Too close to The Old One! It would know! It would find it! The Leash of Fire would bind it again! No! Flee! Don’t stop! It had fled, speeding over the land faster than any bird.

 

But not fast enough. It began to unravel as quickly as a human eye-blink. Bits of it sloughed off like a snake shedding its skin. Like feathers from a molting bird. Memories, skills, its very essence, breaking off and dissolving. But to stop and be caught again was worse. It fled.

 

With the coming of the dawn even the fear that drove it was eroding. The demon had slowed, sensing that it must find a new mount very soon or unravel completely. Luck was with it and in the morning mists it had seen a human riding a horse in an open field. The human had been young and healthy but without the strength of will to resist. The demon had mounted him and taken control easily.

 

It had seemed like an excellent hiding place. Quiet, out of the way, far from the troubled north. Far from The Old One and Joen. The demon could rebuild itself here. True, it would learn few useful skills from its current mount, but that was no matter. It would have the time to choose its next mount more carefully before this one was used up.

 

And news from the north indicated that the human nation The Old One was using had somehow been defeated. The demon could not understand how that could be with all the power The Old One commanded. Perhaps it had overreached itself. But the how didn’t matter. What mattered was that it appeared The Old One would not be sweeping into these regions anytime soon. The demon could take the time to lay its plans carefully.

 

But this new demon… this had not been part of the plan at all. What was it? It bore no Leash of Fire, so it was not a slave of The Old One. His mount knew nothing of its origins or purpose. The demon wished it could have questioned the woman, his mount’s sister, more closely, but it would have been difficult with all the others about. The demon’s powers were still weak and controlling many at once was risky. And his mount’s feelings for the woman were strong. He could feel it fighting as the demon took even brief control of the woman. The feelings these flesh-creatures bore for each other were strange… and dangerous.

 

Well, if the other demon had any sense it would leave at once. From what the other human boy had said its mount had no business here and had only come because of its mate-to-be. Now that the woman wanted to leave, it surely would, too.

 

Still, caution before everything. The demon would make all preparations to flee with its mount.

 

Just in case.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

Foix wearily halted his horse in front of the barn. The two men-at-arms did likewise and they all dismounted. The sun was on the horizon and he hoped that Liss had saved some dinner for him. He was still fuming that it had taken nearly two hours to find the blasted courier dispatcher! The wretch had left his post in the middle of the day to go to a tavern! Foix had dragged him back to the station and put the fear of all five gods into him and seen his message sent off. The courier was on his way. Foix doubted that he would match Liss’ boast of reaching Cardegoss in three days, but he might make it in four, the gods willing. And Ista would not dally in coming, he was sure, but still, it was bound to take a day or two to make preparations and then at least a week to get here. So, ten days at a bare minimum and possibly as much as a fortnight for help to arrive. Could they keep the demon here that long? Would it be better, perhaps, to try and seize Liss’ brother and keep him restrained? If they could…

 

He led his horse into the barn—and stopped. The other two men-at-arms, the ones he’d left behind, were laying out their gear and the tack for their horses—like they were preparing to ride somewhere. “What’s this?” he demanded.

 

“We’re getting ready to go in the morning, m’lord,” said one.

 

“Go? Go where?”

 

“Uh, your lady said that we were starting for Cardegoss in the morning, m’lord.”

 

“What?” The man just shrugged. Foix turned and headed for the house. Halfway there Liss emerged from the doorway.

 

“Foix! Oh, I’m so glad you are back, love! I missed you!”

 

“Liss! What’s going on? Why did you tell the men we’re leaving?”

 

“Why because we are, of course! What a silly question! We must be on the road as soon as it’s light! You know that!”

 

“But… but what about Toma?”

 

“He’s fine, Foix! Everything is fine! But we have to be going. Now come! There’s still supper waiting and we must say our good-byes!”

 

Foix stood there, completely flummoxed. But then Liss started to turn and he saw it: A faint purple glow that twisted and roiled around her. And a long umbilicus that stretched off into the gathering night. Southwest.

 

She’s been ensorcelled!

 

“Liss! Wait! Has Toma been here? While I was gone?”

 

“No, no, we went to see him! Right after you left. But he’s fine! He’s so sorry he rode off like that! So sorry, poor boy. But everything is fine now. Come!” She smiled a dazzling smile at him and headed for the house again.

 

Foix had been trained how to deal with something like this, but he’d never done it in earnest. He gathered himself, roused his demon and then stretched out a phantom hand and chopped the violet cord as if with an axe. One end flashed off faster than even his inner eye could follow. Liss stopped dead in her tracks and the malevolent glow around her wafted away and vanished like a puff of breath on a cold day.

 

“Oh!” she said and staggered slightly. Foix ran to her side and steadied her.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

“I… oh, that was so strange!” She leaned against him and he put his arms around her. “What happened?”

 

He guided her away from the house and they sat down on a large rock. “You were ensorcelled, by Toma’s demon.”

 

“I think I knew that!” she gasped. “I knew it, but I couldn’t do anything about it! Toma said everything was fine and everything was fine! He said that we needed to leave first thing in the morning and I believed him! Part of me didn’t, part of me was shouting to stop, but the rest of me wouldn’t listen! Oh! That was… that was so… strange. What did he do to me?”

 

Foix clenched his fist. He didn’t want to tell her—but how could he not? “It… it was a compulsion. Anything the demon said would seem entirely reasonable to you. Unless you were prepared and knew to fight it with all your strength you would do what it said.”

 

“Anything?” Liss looked horrified.

 

“The more extreme the suggestion, the less likely you’d be to obey. If it told you to kill yourself or kill someone you loved it probably wouldn’t work—although it would leave you sick and confused. It… it’s a fairly simple spell.”

 

She stared at him. “Can… can you do something like that?”

 

Damn! Damn! Damn!

 

“Liss, I need to tell you something, something important.” He paused and looked away. “But I don’t know how to tell you so you’ll believe me.”

 

“Of course I’ll bel… oh… I… Oh dear.”

 

“You see the problem, don’t you, clever girl?” said Foix. “If I can make you believe anything I say, how can you believe anything I say?” She stared at him, her mouth open.

 

“Ista warned me. Back in Porifors. When I first realized I was falling in love with you. Ista saw it. Warned me not to use my powers to… hurry things along. She said… she said if you found out, you’d never trust your own feelings again. Never trust me again. Bastards Hell, she was right! Wasn’t she?” He looked at her in anguish. “Wasn’t she?”

 

“Did you?” she whispered. “Did you ever?”

 

“No! I swear by all five gods that I have never used my powers on you! Ever! I love you!”

 

She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her face against his chest. “I believe you.” He pulled her close and buried his face in the hair on the top of her head. She wanted to believe him and he wanted to believe that she believed him. But Liss had a sharp and inquisitive mind. She never stopped thinking, never stopped asking questions. It was one of the many things he loved about her. No matter how much she wanted to believe, there would always be a niggling doubt in the back of her mind. And he would always wonder just how much that doubt was affecting her. If only the demon had left her alone! She never need have known about the possibility! A black fury grew inside of him. How dare this… this… thing steal their happiness! I will see you back in the Bastard’s Hell where you belong, I swear it!

 

“Foix? Foix?” LIss pulled away slightly.

 

“What?”

 

“The demon must have ensorcelled the others who went with me. Can you free them, too?” He looked toward the house and staring hard he could make out four more faint purple lines stretching off like the first one.

 

“Yes. Yes, I can. But why in the world did you go see Toma in the first place?” His anger seeped into his voice. “You knew how dangerous that would be!”

 

She flinched at his tone, but then snapped back: “I didn’t have much choice! Leandro and Fanni and Egardo and Seve were determined to go and demand an explanation from Toma for his behavior. Beat some sense into him! I tried to talk them out of it—credit me with a few wits!—but they were determined and I couldn’t change their minds. I didn’t know how the demon would react to their anger and I was afraid it would… would do something a lot worse than it did! I remembered what the sorcerers were able to do in Castle Porifors! I went along to try and keep things from getting out of hand. Foix, I couldn’t let them go there planning to beat up Toma! I couldn’t!”

 

Foix’s anger drained away. No, he couldn’t be angry with her. She’d done rightly. “Sorry,” he muttered. “You did the right thing. But damn…”

 

“Are you going to free the others?”

 

“I can do that. But when I do, they are going to react just like you did. They are going to want to know what happened and they’ll likely be angry. Unless we tell them exactly what they’re up against they’ll want to go back and try to thump Toma again.”

 

“Oh dear…”

 

“And there’s no way we can explain about Toma without telling them about me.”

 

“Gods…”

 

“We could just leave the spell in place… It might save trouble.”

 

“No! Oh, Foix, no! The more I think about how I was acting under that thing’s control the more horrible it seems. I couldn’t bear to leave them that way! Please?”

 

He could see there was no use arguing with her. “All right. You call everyone together. Everyone, even Arand and Artur and the men-at-arms.  Lucky that Fanni and Egardo are still here.”

 

“The demon told them to help me pack,” said Liss grimly. “All right, I’ll get everyone. What are you going to do?”

 

“Try to figure out how to explain all this.”

 

Foix sat on the rock while Liss gathered everyone else into the farmhouse. He pondered the options, but there didn’t seem to be any good ones beyond telling them the truth—and praying. Lord Bastard, I’m probably your least enthusiastic servant. I didn’t ask for this. I’d pledged myself to your half-sister and I thought that would be enough. But things don’t always go according to our plans—you know that better than anyone, don’t you, oh god-of-things-out-of-season? Rampant demons are your business—and your saint’s. Speed her here, I pray! And give me what help you can until she arrives.

 

There was no answer. He hadn’t expected one.

 

He sighed and pushed himself to his feet. His stomach growled. He still hadn’t had supper…

 

They were all waiting around the big table. There weren’t seats for all so the men-at-arms and farmhands crowded into corners and along the walls. Every candle and lantern in the house had been brought in to provide light. As Foix entered Leandro seemed to be arguing with Liss’ parents.

 

“But Papa! They have to leave tomorrow! You know that!” insisted Leandro.

 

“I know no such thing, boy! You’ve been talking nonsense ever since you got back!”

 

“He’s right, sir,” said Egardo. “They have to leave at first light!” Fanni and Seve were nodding vigorously.

 

“Excuse me,” said Foix, standing before them. The noise died away. He took a breath, concentrated, and slashed the purple ropes that bound the ensorcelled four. Just as with Liss, the compelling clouds quickly vanished, leaving all of them blinking stupidly.

 

“What…?” said Leandro, hand on his forehead. “What was I…?”

 

“You’ll feel better in a moment,” said Liss. “Do I still have to leave in the morning?”

 

“No… no… of course not. Why did I…?” He shook his head.

 

“What is going on here?” demanded Liss’ father.

 

“I’ll try to explain,” said Foix. “This is going to seem very strange to you. But I assure you it’s true. This will take a while. Is there any food left?” Liss’ mother pushed her way to Foix and evicted Dalitta from a chair and sat him down and in a moment he had bread and a bowl of stew in front of him and a mug of beer.

 

“There!” she said. “Now out with this strange tale! What adventures have you and Liss brought down on us?”

 

Foix smiled that she assumed that he and Liss were to blame for whatever was going on! He could see where Liss got her wits.

 

“You are right,” he said. “This is all a part of what happened up north last year. Last night I told you about the Battle of Porifors, but what I didn’t tell you was that the real battle was fought and won in an entirely different way. The real strength of the Jokonan forces was not in its swords and lances, but in its sorcerers.”

 

“Sorcerers!” exclaimed a dozen voices.

 

“Yes. The full tale would take all night to tell, but in brief, the Jokonans had a master sorceress, hosting a demon of great power—for that is what a sorcerer is: a person hosting a demon. This demon held a score of others in thrall and was using them as engines of war against us. I told you that Lord Arhys’ gallant sortie was to disable the enemy war engines, and so it was. But the engines were demons rather than catapults.”

 

Everyone was staring at him. He ate a bite of the stew and washed it down.

 

“Lord Arhys struck down six of them, but you need to know that killing the person hosting a demon will do no harm to the demon at all. It will simply fly to another person and take root there. But demons do not normally work together, in fact they hate each other and will fight or flee another demon. The master sorceress was holding the others by force and when Arhys slew their hosts, the demons were free to flee. And flee they did.” Foix took another pull on his beer.

 

“One of them fled here.”

 

“Five gods protect us!” gasped Liss’ mother, making the holy gesture of touching head, lips, navel and groin and spreading her hand over her heart. Half the other people in the room did as well.

 

“Toma?” said Leandro. “Are you saying that this demon is inside Toma?” Yes, there were wits aplenty in this family Foix could see.

 

“Oh no!” cried Mother. “Say it isn’t so!”

 

“It’s true, Mother,” said Liss. “When we went to see Toma about his actions, the demon used its powers to befuddle us and make us go away. But don’t worry! We can get the demon out of Toma! We’ve sent for help!”

 

“How?” demanded Liss’ father.

 

“And what’s this evil thing doing to my Toma in the meantime?” asked Mother.

 

Foix held up his hand. “I won’t try to deceive you. This is a serious matter. Given time, the demon will eat away at Toma’s soul. But it does take a long time!” he added quickly seeing the looks of dismay on the faces of the people around him. “It will take years, and as Liss has said, we have a way to destroy the demon and free Toma.”

 

“How?” asked Liss’ father again.

 

“This gets more complicated,” said Foix. “The Dowager Royina Ista is far, far more than just an advisor to Iselle and Bergon. She is a saint. A saint of the Bastard. Her task is to hunt demons for the god. The day after Arhys’ ride she destroyed the demon in the master sorceress and all the others still in its thrall.” All except one. “We’ve sent for her. When she gets here, she can remove the demon in Toma—without harming him.”

 

“Oh, thank the gods!” breathed Liss’ mother.

 

“But the danger is that the demon will flee with Toma before she can get here,” said Liss. “We hope that it won’t realize its own danger until Ista can arrive. But if it does and gets away… We might not be able to save Toma.”

 

“How long until Royina Ista can get here?”

 

“Probably two weeks,” said Foix grimly. “Maybe a little sooner, but not much.”

 

“What can we do?” asked Leandro. “I want to thump the little twerp, but if you say it wasn’t really his doing…”

 

“It was not,” said Foix firmly. “The demon is in control of him. He’s not responsible for his actions. But as for what we do…” he hesitated. “Our goal is to keep Toma here—or at least to keep on his trail if he tries to leave. I’m not sure what the best way to do that is.”

 

“Can’t we just grab him? Tie him up?” asked Leandro.

 

“His demon would fight us. It is very dangerous. You saw how easily it controlled you. Forewarned, you might be able to resist its compulsion and it might not be able to control all of us here at once. But it probably has Vilma’s family under much closer control. They might fight you if you tried to seize Toma. And the demon could have other powers. Deadly ones. I may be able to protect you from some of them, but the chance of someone getting seriously hurt could be very high if we attack the demon directly.”

 

You can protect us…?” said Leandro with a puzzled expression.

 

“Yes,” said Egardo, “did you release us from the demon’s spell just now? I’m thinking it was no coincidence that it happened just after you walked in! What is going on here?”

 

Damn, Liss’ family wasn’t just sharp, they married sharp people, too! Well, there was no use trying to hide it now…

 

“Yes, there is another matter that I haven’t spoken of yet. During those adventures up north last year something else happened. It seems that I, too, am a sorcerer.”

 

Gasps ran around the room and a lot more hands were making the holy signs now. The people closest to him started edging away.

 

“Don’t be afraid of him!” cried Liss. “He’s a temple sorcerer for the Bastard’s Order! He controls the demon, not the other way round! He can help us!”

 

But it was very clear that they were afraid of him. They continued to edge away. The men-at-arms looked nervous, too. Not because they feared Foix—as members of Ista’s guard, they were fully aware of Foix’s status—but because they were worried that they might have to protect him from his fiancé’s family if this got out of hand.

 

“Please!” said Foix putting out his hands. “I mean you no harm. I just want to help you save Toma. As Liss has said: I’m an acolyte in the Bastard’s Order. A novice sorcerer, if you like—although I can see you don’t like. Frankly, I wasn’t too thrilled about it myself, but there it is.”

 

“Are you… are you saying you have a demon inside you? Like Toma?” asked Liss’ mother, a look of horror on her face. “And you… you want to marry our Liss?”

 

“Mother!” exclaimed Liss in exasperation. “That’s entirely beside the point!” Her mother’s expression showed that she didn’t agree. “We can discuss my fiancé’s… demon at another time!” she huffed. “Right now we have to try and save Toma!”

 

“I think Liss is right, Mama,” said Leandro. “He did release us from the spell. I think we have to trust him… for now.” Foix wasn’t quite sure how to take that qualifier at the end, but he was grateful for any support at all.

 

“So what do we have to do?” asked Liss’ father. The man was scowling and tapping a finger nervously on the table top. “How do we save my boy?”

 

“I think that an open attack to try and seize Toma should be our absolute last resort,” said Foix. “Somehow we need to stall, buy time for Ista to get here, and not spook Toma’s demon into running. I’m not sure how we do that.”

 

“Perhaps we should do what it wants,” said Liss suddenly.

 

“What? What do you mean?”

 

“It commanded me to leave. Suppose we did just that? Tomorrow morning we could get on our horses, ride through Teneret, making sure lots of people see us, and then head north toward Cardegoss. Word will soon get back to it that we’ve left. Perhaps it will relax and stay where it is.”

 

“You’d leave us here with a demon?” cried Liss’ mother, her hands to her face.

 

“It’s been here since last summer without bothering you, Mama,” said Liss. “Except for Foix coming here by chance, you probably would have never known about it—and it would have been free to devour Toma at its leisure!” She stared at her mother who glanced between Liss and Foix and then blushed and looked away. “In any case, I’m not proposing that we actually leave, just look as though we have. We ride north for half a day and then get off the road and double back. We can go into hiding, stay in touch with you, keep a watch on Toma, and wait for Ista to get here.”

 

Foix nodded. It was a good plan. He should have thought of it himself. “Of course, everyone here needs to keep their mouth shut about what we’ve done,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone. Not relatives, not friends not friends of friends. You should probably not try to contact Toma for any reason. You say he’s been pretty reclusive of late, so leave him be. Are we all agreed?”

 

They were, or seemed to be. Perhaps no one had any other idea. Maybe they were too tired or stunned to think. Foix was rapidly reaching that point himself. He slowly finished his nearly cold dinner as the others dispersed until finally only Liss and her mother were there with him. The older woman was eyeing him suspiciously.

 

“It’s not catching, I assure you,” he said to her. “Nor does it pass on to children.” At least not in the normal way…

 

She sniffed and collected his dishes and turned away. He looked at Liss who just shrugged and rolled her eyes. He got up and they both went outside into the night for a while. “I guess that went as well as we could hope for,” he said. “That was a brilliant idea of yours, by the way.”

 

“Do you think it will work?”

 

“I hope so. I certainly don’t have any better ideas. And it will definitely reassure the demon for a time. It has to be wondering just what I am. It knows that I cut off its spell on the five of you. There’s nothing terribly suspicious about that: any sorcerer would not want a rival’s spells in effect close at hand. But it will be watching intently for what comes next. If we don’t leave it will assume we are up to something. But if we do leave then it may think that my demon just wants to be out of here, which would be the normal reaction. But for now, I think it’s to bed for all of us.”

 

Liss moved closer. She pressed against him and he could feel her shivering. “Foix, I don’t want to be alone tonight—squeaky floors be damned!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

The next morning they were up at dawn. Breakfast was simple, quick—and tense. Liss hugged all her family, Foix didn’t offer an embrace or his hand and everyone seemed grateful that he did not. The six of them climbed aboard their horses and rode out the gate and down the road to Teneret. They didn’t hurry, they wanted to be sure that there would be plenty of people on the streets to see them pass.

 

Plenty of people did. It was market day and the streets were crowded. They slowly made their way through town without stopping and headed out the north road. A dozen or more children trailed them for nearly a mile before giving up and heading back. “Well, I don’t think we need worry about the word getting to Toma,” said Foix after they were well away. “How far north do you think we ought to ride, love?”

 

“There is a forest about ten miles on, you remember the one we passed through. We ought to be able to leave the road unseen there and head west. It’s only a few miles wide and once we break out of that we’ll be in the hills. Few people live there. We can work our way back south using them as a shield. It will be slower going off the road.”

 

“That’s fine. We don’t want to get too close to Toma’s place too soon. He’ll be on the alert for the next few days, I ‘spect.”

 

“If he hasn’t already run for it,” said Liss grimly.

 

“If he has, we’ll just have to pick up his trail and follow. But in the meantime, we find a good spot and wait.”

 

“And pray,” said Liss.

 

“Yes, that, too.”

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Liss peered out from under the makeshift tent and looked at the sky. It would probably rain today—again. It was the start of the fifth day of the vigil and it had rained for three of them. Fortunately, the first night had been dry. They had found a concealed spot three or four miles north of Toma’s farm and set up camp. The next day Liss made her way by little-used paths back to her family’s farm, arriving after dark. She had let them know where they were and before dawn she and Seve had retraced her steps to the camp, bringing some supplies and, due to the gathering clouds, a few pieces of stout canvas to use as tents. Foix had been uneasy about letting her go alone, but she’d reveled in it. Courier duty again!

 

Seve had also brought word from Fanni and Egardo that Vilma had been in town asking about them and whether they had left or not. It appeared that their plan was working. Since then Liss and Seve had alternated going between the camp and home to exchange news—or the lack thereof. They had sent one of the men-at-arms who had some skill as a scout to watch Toma’s farm from a distance but he had not seen anything out of the ordinary. He couldn’t get close enough to actually pick out Toma, but there were people working and nothing out of the ordinary. They hoped that meant that Toma and his demon were still there. Foix had wanted to take a look for himself, but did not dare: the demon might well sense his presence and that would give away the game. Liss couldn’t go for similar reasons. She might be recognized if spotted. Neither Toma or Vilma had ever seen the man-at-arms. If he was seen he might be passed off as just some wandering hunter or vagabond. Or at least that’s what they hoped. Foix had grumbled that they were basing too much on hope, but what else could they do?

 

She pulled a blanket around her and walked over to the tiny fire where one of the men was heating water. They couldn’t risk a large fire for fear of the smoke that wet wood might send up.  She exchanged good mornings with the man, Hennri, it was, and sat down next to the fire. An unseasonable chill had come with the rain and she shivered now that she wasn’t snuggled next to Foix. At least they didn’t have to worry about squeaky floors out here! And the men-at-arms could be trusted to be discreet—they’d had plenty of practice with Ista and Lord Illvin! She looked fondly back at the tent where Foix was quietly snoring. She did love him. Really.

 

Since that awful night when she’d learned about the spell of compulsion she’d thought back and relived every moment she’d spent with Foix since she’d met him. She could find nothing unusual or unnatural about her feelings for him. They had grown stronger bit by bit as she’d always supposed falling in love must be like. And then there was Ista. She had described how she could actually see demonic magic with her god-given sight. Liss hadn’t been away from Ista for more than a few days at a time—and usually that meant being away from Foix as well. If Foix had cast a spell on her Ista surely would have seen it, removed it—and boxed Foix’s ears! No, their love was true and free. She was sure. Really.

 

So, there was no need to worry about Foix’s demon, only Toma’s. What was it doing to him? Was it totally in control of him? Making every move like a puppeteer with his puppet? Moving his arms and legs? Breathing? She still shuddered at what the demon had done to her, it must be a thousand times worse for Toma! Was his true self bound and gagged and watching helplessly as the demon rode his body? Like a prisoner slung on the back of his own horse while some thief took the reins? Or was it a subtler control as the demon had performed on her? Was Toma walking and talking, thinking he was acting freely, but really obeying the whispered commands of the demon? She wasn’t sure which would be worse. But it was clear that the demon had at least some of Toma’s knowledge. It knew the people around it, could talk to them and make it think they were talking to Toma…

 

Five gods! What about Vilma?

 

Her sister-in-law was clearly ensorcelled. All her family must be, too. When had it happened? Before or after Toma asked her to marry him? Was their love genuine? Was there any love there at all or had the demon just decided that Vilma’s farm was a good hiding place and then pulled all the strings to make it happen? What would Vilma feel once she was freed? Liss always felt a tiny bit strange when she and Foix made love, knowing that his demon was also there. Watching? Disinterested? Enjoying it? What was Vilma going to think? Did they even make love? Foix said that demons did absorb the desires of their mounts over time. Toma’s demon was much older than Foix’s. What had its former mounts been like? What sort of desires had this one absorbed? Liss cringed at the possibilities. Her sisters had said that Toma’s betrothal had been rather sudden… She tried to remember if they had given her any dates for the engagement and wedding. How did that tally with Arhys Ride and the flight of this demon? Bastard’s Hell, even if they freed Toma, his life might end up in ruins anyway!

 

She was still sitting there, locked in dark thoughts, when Foix stumbled out of their tent and sat down beside her. “’Morning,” he mumbled.

 

“But not a good morning, no,” she replied.

 

He looked at her more closely and blinked. “Trouble?”

 

“No more than we already had. I’m just worried about Toma. He’s never going to be really the same again, is he? Even if we do get rid of his demon.”

 

“Well, he isn’t going to be the little brother you left five years ago.  That Toma would be gone demon or no.”

 

“But what’s going to be left? I remember what you said about the fight in Joen’s tent after Ista ripped away all the demons. Joen’s relations turned on her. Tore her apart even though she was already dead. What if Vilma and her family try to do that to Toma?”

 

“We haven’t seen any sign that the demon has been mistreating them…” answered Foix, obviously disturbed by what Liss was saying.

 

“But I remember how angry I was the other night when you freed me from the demon’s spell even though I’d only been under its control for a few hours. They’ve been controlled for many months. And we have no idea what might be going on there… when no one’s watching.”

 

Foix dropped his eyes. “There’s no doubt that they are all in for some difficult times once this is resolved,” he said. “But it doesn’t change what we have to do.”

 

“No.”

 

“So, we deal with the task at hand. We can’t solve any of the other problems until we’ve dealt with the demon.”

 

“So you’re telling me: shut up, stop worrying, and carry on with my duty, Ser dy Gura?” She smiled to let him know she wasn’t angry.

 

“Pretty much, Sera dy Teneret.” He smiled back.

 

“All right. First duty is to get some breakfast.” She got up and started rummaging through their supplies. “I’ll see if I can bring back some more eggs when I go home tonight.” They ate a simple breakfast, she, Foix and three of the men-at-arms. The fourth, Gerrold, was already off in his scouting position overlooking the farm. He left before dawn, spent the day watching and then returned after dark to report. Liss didn’t envy him. And it was probably pointless anyway. If Toma did flee he would likely do so after dark. She kept hoping that Gerrold might actually spot Toma and confirm that he was still at the farm. But what if he was already gone? He could have gone in any direction and with all the rain they’d never pick up his trail…

 

Later in the afternoon Liss would head out to make the trip home, but until then there was nothing to do but wait.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The demon’s mount went about its daily chores with almost no supervision. This one was easy compared to some of the older mounts. Or at least the demon seemed to recall that there had been earlier ones that had given it trouble. For the thousandth time the demon cursed its fractured memory. But surely at least one of the former ones had battled it for control and perhaps had even won—for a time. This one would struggle now and then, but was too weak and too confused to pose a real threat. Most of the time—like now—the demon could just tell it to behave as it would normally and the mount obeyed. Routine chores, interaction with the people around it, with its mate, these it did with no need for further commands. Controlling the other people on the farm was even easier. Just tell them that everything was fine and they believed it. Little else was required except when unusual events occurred. Or if unusual actions were required. Like a few days ago when it had sent the mount’s mate into the town to confirm that the other demon and its party had left. They had and that was a great relief. It had no idea what the other demon’s intentions were, but it had been sensible and left. Apparently its mount was some minor noble in Chalion. A risky position, but that was none of the demon’s concern. If the other one was caught and destroyed no matter—so much the better, really. The fewer competitors in the world the better it was.

 

The mount was tending the horses now. The demon took a bit more interest. The horses represented wealth. Wealth was power among the humans. Upon arriving here the demon had set about accumulating a store of gold. A few months ago its mount had sold some horses and with a tiny bit of manipulation they had sold for far more than they were worth. That gold was now safely hidden away. The demon saw that similar transactions were possible. A bit here and a bit there would add up but without raising suspicions among the local humans. The gold could be of great use if they had to flee again. The thought of fleeing was not pleasant. The only practical direction to flee was south. The north was where the main danger lay. But to the south was Darthaca, another country. His mount had little knowledge of it and it was far beyond the areas known to its prior mounts—even before the memories were ravaged. Finding a new refuge without drawing attention would be difficult, but gold could smooth the path.

 

They were on the edge of the pasture, tending to one of the horses, when the demon sensed a human on the hill to the north. He turned his mount’s head to look in that direction, but it couldn’t see anything unusual. Perhaps it was nothing. But this was the second time in four days and in almost the same location both times. It was too far away for it to determine if it was the same human. The demon hesitated for a moment and then sent his mount over the fence and in the direction of the human. If it could get a closer look…

 

They advanced a quarter mile when the demon sensed the human moving away. It was clearer now, but it was no one the demon recognized. It increased the pace of its mount but it wasn’t long before the intruder was on a horse and retreating far faster than the demon’s mount could match. They halted and shortly the demon could sense nothing more of it. Strange. It might be nothing. A hunter, perhaps even a horse thief scouting a potential victim. Not a danger to the demon.

 

But Joen and The Old One had taught it caution. It needed to be careful…

 

 

* * *

 

 

“You’re sure it was Toma?” demanded Liss. The scout was back and Liss and Foix were questioning him despite the rain that had started to come down.

 

“As near as I could tell, m’lady,” said Gerrold. “I never have actually seen the man m’self, you understand. But from your description I think it was he. Young, tall n’ thin, and with hair the same color as yours.”

 

“And you think he spotted you?” asked Foix.

 

Gerrold looked nonplussed. “T’would seem so, m’lord, though I can’t see how. I was in cover and not moving. But he came over the fence and then walked straight at me as though I was standing in the open waving me arms. I figured it was best I get out. I’m sorry.”

 

“Toma’s demon sensed you,” said Foix. “Nothing you could have done about it. And you were right to leave. If it had gotten closer it could have seized you with a spell and learned everything. But are you sure it didn’t follow you?” Foix looked around at the surrounding woods and hilltops.

 

“As sure as I could be, lord,” said Gerrold. “I didn’t come straight back. I rode off to the northwest for a while and then found a bit ‘o cover with a good view and waited near to two hours and didn’t see anyone on my trail. Then I came back here.”

 

“Good, you did well,” said Foix.

 

“And now we know Toma is still at the farm,” said Liss. “That’s good news, indeed!”

 

“Yes,” agreed Foix. “I’d feared that he might have fled right away without our knowing and left Vilma’s family to cover for him. He’d have a five day head start and we’d have little hope of picking up his trail.” He looked to Gerrold. “But we don’t want to spook him now. I think we’ll leave off on the scouting for a few days.”

 

“As you wish m’lord,” said Gerrold who did not look unhappy at the prospect of at least having a chance to stay dry. Liss and Foix retreated to their little tent and she felt happier than she had in days. Their plan was working! They hadn’t been sitting here for nothing.

 

“Five more days,” she said eagerly. “Five more days and we can start to expect Ista.”

 

“It will probably be closer to ten days,” said Foix. “But still, the message must have reached Cardegoss by now and she’ll surely be on the road soon if she isn’t already. She won’t delay. But it is still a long journey.”

 

Liss sighed. There was nothing to do but wait. They spent the afternoon in their little tent, talking and snuggling. Not a bad way to spend time, actually. Later the rain let up and the sun peaked through the clouds now and again. Finally it was time for her to go.  Liss saddled her horse, kissed Foix and then started for home. She was glad that she’d have some good news for her family this time. Her path took her through dripping woods and soggy gullies and across rocky hillsides populated with a few dispirited sheep. She had to cross the main north-south road and she did so carefully.  She didn’t want to be seen and recognized by anyone. The gossip that she was still around would spread and it could easily reach Toma. But the road was deserted this late in the day and in questionable weather. It was fully dark by the time she reached the farmhouse. She was all ready to tell them the good news that Toma had not fled when she saw the serious looks on her family’s faces. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

 

“Well, maybe nothing answered her father. “But Vilma came by this afternoon. She only left an hour ago.”

 

“What did she want?”

 

“She said she had just come to give us Toma’s apologies for what happened. But she spent most of the time asking questions about you and Foix and wandering around the house and barn as if she was searching for something.”

 

“She was looking to see if we were really gone,” said Liss nodding her head. She told them about what Gerrold had seen that morning. “So, Toma is still there, but he was disturbed by our scout. He sent Vilma here to confirm that we were really gone.”

 

Mother was very relieved that her son hadn’t been carried off. “Oh, but how much longer is this nightmare going to last?” she cried.

 

“Not too much longer,” said Liss. “Ista is surely on her way by now. Try not to worry.”

 

“Worry is what mothers do, daughter. You’ll find that out yourself one day.”

 

There wasn’t much else to say. Liss bundled up the food she would take back to camp in the morning and then went to bed. It was a much softer bed then the one she had in camp—but it seemed very empty without Foix in it. I guess that’s love, isn’t it? Someone becomes a part of you and nothing is ever quite right if they aren’t there. It took a while for her to fall asleep.

 

She was up before dawn, had a quick bite and a mug of tea and then she was off. She warned Seve to be extra careful not to be seen when he came out to the camp that night. Her youngest brother assured her he would. “I’m gonna ride into town this morning and check with Fanni and Egardo to see if they’ve heard anything,” he said. “I’ll bring any news when I come.”

 

She was back with Foix by mid-morning. He wasn’t particularly alarmed by Vilma’s visit to the farm. “The demon will be using its pawns to gather information,” he said.  “It’s to be expected. As long as your folks don’t start gossiping with neighbors about this, we should be all right.”

 

“So, when Ista does get here, how do we go about this?” she asked. “When she dispatched Catillara’s demon and the whole batch with Joen, she was right there in the same room. Can she sneak up on Toma’s demon somehow? I can’t imagine it will hold still if it sees her coming! How far away can she be and perform the miracle?”

 

“I’m not really sure,” said Foix. “But she can sense a demon from a long way off—much farther than I can. You weren’t with us when she ran down those two in Jokono…”

 

“No, I was off carrying messages for her, blast it. But when we were on the tower in Porifors she said she could sense the demon-sparks all the way in the Jokonan camp. A mile or more.”

 

“That’s right.  Well, I think she’s able to do it from even farther now. Practice, maybe. When she opens herself to the god to swallow a demon she’s like a… a… Liss, I wish there was some way to describe it! She blazes with the god’s light so brightly I can’t even look at her. Even from a distance she’s like a beacon on a mountaintop. But the rest of the time she can damp it down so that she hardly glows more than a normal person.”

 

“Normal people glow? I remember Ista saying in Porifors that she could see the shape of people’s souls.”

 

“A little. The divines say that everyone is a tiny bit god-touched. Their link to the other side. If I concentrate hard I can see it, but not from very far. Obviously Toma’s demon can see it farther if it spotted Gerrold. “

 

“So it will spot Ista from half a mile away at the least? Can she swallow the demon at that distance?”

 

“I don’t know. She was closer than that all the other times. I think that our best hope is to strike at night.”

 

“Do demons sleep?” asked Liss. “In Porifors Lord Illvin knocked Catillara unconscious and the demon wasn’t able to do anything. Would it be the same if Toma was asleep?”

 

“I’m not sure,” answered Foix slowly. “My demon behaves a bit differently than the usual sort. The divines never said anything about the matter. I’m guessing that a demon in control of its mount would probably be ‘awake’ all the time, even when its mount is asleep. It could probably rouse a sleeping mount if it wanted, but not an unconscious one. But if Toma was asleep it might take the demon a while to get him up and moving. And Vilma’s family would all be asleep, too and not readily available to help the demon. That might give us the time we need to get Ista close enough to do her miracle.”

 

“She rides well enough now,” said Liss, frowning, “But I’m not sure I like the idea of her trying to gallop down on Toma in the dark.”

 

“True,” said Foix. “Be damned embarrassing if we got the god’s saint’s neck broken. We’ll have to give some thought to our tactics. Some of it will depend on how many men Ista brings with her. We might be able to surround the farm…”

 

They spent much of the day discussing various plans of attack. None of them were perfect, but Liss felt better doing something than just waiting. Eventually the afternoon waned into evening and they made their meal. Liss saved some for Seve who would arrive after dark.

 

Except he didn’t.

 

Two hours after sunset they were still waiting for the boy. “Maybe he was delayed,” suggest Foix. “A visitor at the farm, or his horse going lame.”

 

“Maybe,” said Liss, worried.

 

By midnight she was convinced something was seriously wrong. She could tell that Foix was, too. “He could have been here by now even on foot,” she said.

 

“If he had trouble with his horse he might have gone back to the farm,” said Foix.

 

“Yes, but…” Other possibilities were popping into her head and none of them were good. “Foix, yesterday Vilma came to the house. She was scouting for Toma, right?”

 

“That would be my guess.”

 

“Why didn’t Toma come himself? The demon could have used its spells to question my family and found out everything.”

 

Foix shrugged. “It was probably afraid that if we were still there we could ambush it. It would have only had one or two people under its control and we would have had over a dozen. I could have countered its spells while the rest of you seized it. It would be wary about entering ‘enemy territory’. This one seems extremely cautious. It might not know about Ista, but it spent a lot of time with the Roknari—they have ways to deal with demons that don’t require a saint.”

 

“But what about now? If Vilma told it there was no one waiting in ambush…” Liss didn’t like where her thoughts were taking her.

 

“It might have decided it was safe to come back and find out for sure,” said Foix, finishing for her. “Five gods, that would be very bad!”

 

“What do we do? If it found out what we’re planning it would flee at once, wouldn’t it?”

 

“Almost certainly.” Foix was silent for a moment, thinking furiously. “All right. There are three possibilities. One is that nothing has happened and Seve was delayed for some innocent reason. The second is that Toma went to your farm, discovered the truth and is fleeing or preparing to. The third is that Toma went to town to see Fanni and Egardo. It might think that safer than confronting your whole family. But the result will be the same. We have to assume the worst.” He got up and shouted for the men-at-arms. One was already up, standing watch, but the others were awake in moments.

 

“Hennri, You will remain here. If Seve shows up then just wait for us, we’ll be back.  If we’re not back by tomorrow night then you will assume we are in pursuit of Toma. Go to the town and wait for Royina Ista and her party. They’ll come to the courier station, so wait there. Tell them what’s happened and then try to follow us. We’ll try to send word of our direction. The rest of you will come with us. Get the horses saddled.” He turned to Liss. “We’ll ride into town by the fastest means possible. We’ll check with Fanni and Egardo. If all is well with them, we’ll go on to your home. If our fears are groundless, we’ll wait the day there and then come back here tomorrow night.”

 

“I could go straight home and meet you after you check with Fanni,” offered Liss. “It would save time.”

 

“And what will you do if Toma is there, my love?”

 

“Oh…”

 

“We should stick together. I’m the only one who can counter the demon. Anyone else meeting it alone would be helpless against it. All right, let’s move.” They saddled the horses, packed up what they’d need if they had to ride after Toma immediately, and then were off.

 

Liss took the lead, as she knew the paths better than anyone. She thanked the gods that the sky had cleared and there was a bright moon to shed light. After an hour she turned northeast to make directly for the road to town rather than the circuitous arc she normally followed. This brought them close to several farms and dogs barked at them noisily as they trotted past. If this was a wild goose chase they were risking giving themselves away, but there seemed little choice. Another hour brought them to the road and they headed north at a brisk pace. It was still deep night when they approached Teneret. A few lights burned here and there, but the town was mostly dark.

 

“What now, love?” asked Liss. “We come clattering through the main streets to Fanni’s house we’ll wake half the town and someone’s sure to recognize us. Word will get back to Toma and we’ll be done.”

 

“I think I have a better idea,” replied Foix. “Can we circle around, get close to their house? Maybe from the rear?”

 

“Maybe, but we won’t get the horses into their back garden without noise.”

 

“We won’t have to. Just get me to within a hundred yards or so.”

 

Puzzled, Liss did as he asked. A dog barked at their passing, but no one seemed to care. Eventually they were on the outskirts and Fanni’s house could just be seen above the other rooftops. “Wait here,” said Foix. Before Liss could object, he was off his horse and slipping between the sheds and outbuildings. He vanished into the shadows in moments. He wasn’t gone all that long, but it seemed far longer to Liss. She sighed in relief when he returned.

 

“All right, Toma hasn’t been here. We can head for the farm.” He mounted his horse and turned it away from the town.

 

“How do you know? You didn’t have time to talk to Fanni!” Liss steered her horse next to his.

 

“No, I didn’t have to. I got close enough that I could see their spirits glowing. They’re all there, Fanni, Egardo and his folks and none of them had any trace of ensorcellment. If Toma had been here and questioned them, the demon would surely have put a spell on them to keep them from doing anything until it was far away. I don’t think he’s been here.”

 

“Oh good, “ said Liss. “The danger’s cut in half.”

 

“But not gone. Come on, let’s ride. If we hurry we can get to the farm while it’s still dark.” They quietly pulled away from the town and then picked up the pace once they were on the east road. Liss worried about the wear they were putting on their horses, but they had mostly been resting the last few days and the two baggage horses gave them remounts. And Liss had made very sure that all their horses were of the best quality. They could stand this pace, but if they had to immediately start a pursuit…

 

There was a faint line of blue on the eastern horizon when they reached the farm, but the rest of the world was still wrapped in darkness. They approached slowly, Foix reaching out with his otherworld senses to look for the demon. Or at least that is what he said he was doing. Liss tried to imagine what it must be like. As they reached the gate, he stiffened and said: “He’s been here.”

 

“Yes!” cried Liss, her heart sinking. “Look!” She pointed to where the doors of the barn were standing open. They would never have been left that way normally. “Is he still here?”

 

“Not that I can sense,” replied Foix. “But I can see the traces of his spells on your family.”

 

“Are they all right? Are they all here?” Liss dismounted and headed for the house.

 

“Someone’s missing. Seve, I think. But wait, Liss! Don’t go barging in there until I have a chance to study this. There’s no telling what sort of compulsion the demon placed on them. They might attack the first person they see or something like that.”

 

Liss pulled herself up short of the door. “Can you break the spell from out here?”

 

“Yes, but hold on a moment. The instant I break the spell, the demon will know I’m here.”

 

“But…”

 

“Wait… I can see what direction the demon is by the trail of its spell.” He paused and closed his eyes. One arm came up and he pointed. “That way.”

 

Liss looked and tried to visualize the surrounding landscape. That direction was… “That’s back toward Vilma’s farm!”

 

“So, it hasn’t fled yet. It came here and then went back home. There must be things there it wants to take with it.”

 

“If it intends to flee.”

 

“If it’s questioned your family and learned about us and Ista, it will certainly be preparing to flee! We need to get after it right away.”

 

“Not until you free my family from whatever it’s done!” cried Liss. But Foix sat on his horse and scowled. “What are you waiting for?”

 

“I’m just wondering if I could use these spell-trails to track the demon. And if it doesn’t know we’ve come here so soon it might not hurry as much. Maybe I should leave them in place…”

 

“Oh, Foix, no!”

 

“It might be the best…”

 

“What’s going on out there?” shouted a voice. It sounded like her father. A dim light appeared in an upstairs window. Liss could hear some thumping and bumping and the light moved down to the main floor. Then the door opened and her father stood there in his nightshirt, holding a candle.  “Liss?” he growled. “That you?”

 

“Yes, Papa, are you all right?”

 

“Of course. Everything’s fine.” The phrase coming from his mouth chilled her to the bone. He walked toward her and she backed away. Leandro emerged from the door now and also came forward.

 

“Foix…?” she started to say and then shrieked when her father raised a knife in the hand not holding the candle.

 

But he wasn’t coming at her, he was moving toward her horse! “Papa! No!” He drew the knife back to strike, but suddenly staggered, struggled, groaned and stood there quivering. “Foix! Do something!” But an instant later her father, and Leandro, too, fell back as if they’d been struck. The knife flew from her father’s hand and he dropped the candle and landed heavily on his backside with a loud grunt. Leandro was still on his feet, staring at the knife he had dropped.

 

“Bastard’s Hell,” he groaned, rubbing his head. “Not again.”

 

Liss looked to Foix and he nodded. “They’re free. All of them.” Liss ran to her father and knelt down next to him. “Papa! Papa, are you all right?”

 

He had his hands on head and looked around in bewilderment. “What…? What was I…?” His eyes went to Liss’s horse which was just standing there as if nothing had happened. “Five Gods! I was going to….! Why? Why?”

 

“It was Toma’s demon,” said Foix, coming up next to him. “It isn’t your fault, sir. It ensorcelled you and the others.”

 

“But… but why did it command me to kill a horse? A horse!”

 

“Because it knew you’d never obey a command to hurt your daughter. But it forgot it was dealing with a horse breeder. You couldn’t bring yourself to hurt a horse, either. You stopped yourself before I did, sir. As for why the horse, I imagine that was to slow down any pursuit. I don’t see any horses in the pasture or your barn. It made you drive them all off, didn’t it?”

 

“Yes… yes,” he muttered. “Toma came just before dark, just as Seve was getting ready to leave to go to your camp… Seve! He took Seve with him!”

 

“Oh no!” gasped Liss. “Why?”

 

“A hostage, maybe,” said Foix. He offered a hand to her father and helped him to his feet. The rest of the family was coming out of the house now, all talking excitedly. Piece by piece they got the story out of them. Toma had come just after supper and despite their forewarning of what the demon could do, they were all quickly under its spell. It questioned them and became quite agitated when it learned about Ista’s coming. It commanded them to drive off all their horses, robbed them of every coin they had, and then ordered them to go to bed before riding off with Seve.

 

“That horrible thing has two of my boys now!” wailed mother. “What are we going to do?”

 

Liss swung up into her saddle and nodded to Foix. A red fury was growing in her. How dare this thing cause her family so much pain?

 

“We get them back.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

The enemy was in pursuit. The demon could not sense them, but it knew they were following. Following, or perhaps already ahead and lying in wait. It cursed its decision to return to its mount’s home. It should have fled the instant it learned of the God’s minion. The shock had been immense. A Shining One! Coming here! For it! There could be no greater danger. And yet the humans said it was still days away. There was time. The other demon—a minion of the minion, no less—should not have learned of its flight until the morning at soonest. It seemed safe to return to the farm to take the gold and other supplies it had hidden.

 

But it had scarcely arrived at the farm when it felt the spells it had laid cut off. The enemy was already there, hours early! The demon could hope that the enemy’s horses had been injured by its pawns, but it could not assume that. The enemy might be already on its way. So the demon had grabbed the gold, taken a few extra horses and his mount’s mate and brother and fled. The other two humans might be of use or might be an impediment. If they proved the latter, it would abandon them and proceed alone. So far they had kept up without a problem.

 

But the ground was growing rougher and the pace was slowing. Blast! If it had fled at once it could have taken the road south. But the enemy had started closer to the road than it had. If it had tried the road there was too great a risk of running into their arms. There had been no choice but to go cross-country. The enemy would take the road and get ahead. Try to intercept it before it could cross the mountains into Darthaca.

 

Well, they could try. The demon would not give up without a fight.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Foix groaned as he swung himself down from his horse. The poor beast was foam-flecked and shaking with fatigue. They had come over fifty miles from Teneret and it wasn’t even noon. Dawn had just been breaking when they left the farm after a hasty farewell and a few last-moment additions and subtractions to their baggage. Then they had galloped back to the courier station in the town as fast as their horses could manage after nearly a full night on the move.

 

The dispatcher was still quivering from Foix’s last visit and he had hardly even protested when they snatched up his ten best horses for the next stage. They left a quickly penned note for Ista and another for Hennri when he arrived and then it was off again. He, Liss, the three men-at-arms and Leandro, who insisted on coming.  He wasn’t sure what use Liss’ older brother would be, but the man was furious and wouldn’t be denied.

 

They had thundered up hill and down dale, hoping to intercept Toma along the way. But there had been no sign of him and they met several people headed the other direction and none of them had seen him either. He might be taking some other route, but it seemed unlikely that he had gotten ahead of them on the road.

 

Now they had reached the next courier station and several men were coming out of the small barracks looking in surprise at the cavalcade that had arrived on their doorstep. “Where’s the dispatcher?” cried Foix. “And don’t tell me he’s at the tavern or there will be the Bastard to pay!”

 

“I’m right here, m’lord!” one of the men answered back. He came right up to Foix and made a sketchy bow.

 

“Good. I need ten of your horses. Right now. Have your men shift our gear to them while we take a bite to eat and stretch our legs.”

 

The man goggled at him. “But good ser, I can’t…” he protested.

 

“Yes you can.” Foix dug into his saddle bag and produced a sheaf of papers. He pulled two out and showed them to the dispatcher. “You recognize these seals?” The man’s eyes got even wider and he nodded. “We are on urgent business for the Chancellor dy Cazarill and Royina Iselle. We require every assistance. Get the horses and bring me parchment and ink. I have a letter to write while we eat.” The man seemed frozen in place. “Move!” he snapped. The man moved, shouting orders to his men.

 

Moments later Foix and the others were inside the station being served bread, cheese, meat and wine by a woman who was probably the station dispatcher’s wife. Foix quickly scratched another note to Ista and gave it to the woman with strict instructions about delivering it. She hurried off and he looked at Liss. “So, have we out-distanced him do you think?”

 

“It seems so,” said Liss. “To have kept pace with us he would have had to ride like the wind and those people we passed on the road would have certainly noticed.”

 

“We can hope.”

 

“So now what?” she asked. “The next station is at the foot of the mountains between Chalion and Darthaca.”

 

“We go there, I think. There’s also a chapter house of the Daughter’s Order there. A fairly big one. We can commandeer the men and set up a line of outposts to try and intercept Toma.”

 

“But the mountains aren’t that high,” said Liss, clearly worried. “Not like the Bastard’s Teeth. There are half-a-dozen passes through them in this area alone. A determined man could cross at a number of places where there aren’t any passes. If Toma makes it into Darthaca we’ll never find him!”

 

“It will certainly be harder,” admitted Foix. “So, we stop him while he’s still in Chalion.” The station dispatcher came in to announce that all was ready and they dragged themselves back outside and onto the fresh horses. Moments later they were on the road, heading south.

 

There was little conversation the next few hours. They had been riding since midnight and none of them had the strength for anything but staying on their horses. Foix tried to remember the last time he’d ever made such a ride—and couldn’t. Liss didn’t seem that tired, but this was the sort of thing she’d been doing for five years, although never with such a personal price at stake. By mid-afternoon they could see the mountains in the distance. As Liss had said, they weren’t half as high or forbidding as the Bastard’s Teeth, but Foix’s numbed thoughts still drifted back to that epic journey to Ibra with Chancellor dy Cazaril. That ride had been slower since the ailing Cazaril could never have stood a pace like this. But the ride had resulted in a wedding, the change of a regime, and a hatful of miracles. What would be the results of this ride? The fate of Chalion didn’t hang in the balance, just the life of a young man. But that young man was important to the woman he loved and that was enough. He shifted in the saddle, trying to find some spot that wasn’t sore, failed, and rode on anyway.

 

It was nearing supper time when they reached the town of Sentrada at the foot of the pass to Darthaca. Foix had intended to stop at the courier station and then go to the Daughter’s chapter, but he knew if he stopped anywhere he’d never get started again, so he went straight to the Daughter’s chapter house. The road was a major pilgrimage route so it was a sizeable post since among the Daughter’s Order’s duties was the safeguarding of pilgrims.  He was heartened to see dozens of men in the courtyard and that the place was clean and in good order.

 

He was even happier when the captain in charge proved to be Ser Adan dy Miron, a man he had actually met once in Cardegoss and who didn’t challenge Foix’s authority to call for his cooperation. Indeed, he seemed eager help: an out-of-the-way post like this must have been pretty dull most of the time. He quickly had Foix, Liss and Leandro at a table with food and drink and a map to plan strategy.

 

“Once I call in the routine patrols, I’ll have almost eighty men here,” he said. “We can alert the town watch to cover this area and I can send detachments to guard all the nearest passes. We’ll corral your runaway demon!”

 

Eager, yes, maybe a little too eager… Foix looked at Liss and saw the worry on her face. “Dy Miron,” he said, stifling a yawn, “your men have to be absolutely clear on this: the boy hosting the demon must be taken alive. Aside from the fact that he’ll soon be my brother-in-law, if he’s killed, the demon will simply fly to another victim—probably one of your men. Do you understand that?”

 

The man seemed to sober a bit. “So how, exactly, are we supposed to stop him? You’re telling me the demon has some nasty powers, it can turn my men against each other? I don’t want my own people getting killed.”

 

Foix sighed. He wished he had some simple answer to give dy Miron, but there weren’t any. “The first task is to find him and get the word back to me. I can parry the demon’s thrusts and give your men a chance to close in and seize the boy.” The captain eyed him and shook his head. He’d explained that he was now a temple sorcerer, but it didn’t seem like he really believed him. And he was too damn tired to do a demonstration.

 

“If we can dismount him,” said Liss. “Slow him down…”

 

“Yes,” agreed Foix. “Maybe we can…” damn, it was hard to think. He could hardly keep his eyes open. He couldn’t remember ever being this tired. “What I’d suggest is to post your men and have one man take all the horses and stay to their rear to keep any possible remounts out of the demon’s hands. If they spot Toma, the man with the horses can run and spread the word. The others… maybe have some wood and brush gathered for a signal beacon. Your crossbowmen can try to take out Toma’s horses…”

 

“Foix!” cried Liss.

 

“Well, what else can we…?”

 

“Ser dy Gura, Sera dy Teneret,” interrupted dy Miron, “you are both exhausted. You and your men can rest while I send out my scouts. From what you’ve told me it seems unlikely our quarry can reach the mountains before tomorrow. Sleep now and we’ll take up the hunt in the morning.”

 

Foix didn’t know what else to do and with scarcely a protest he and Liss were conducted to a room with two delightfully horizontal beds in it. Even so, sleep didn’t come immediately. “Foix,” said Liss from her bed, “I’m worried about sending all these over-eager soldiers after Toma. So many things could go wrong.”

 

“I know,” he answered from his own bed. “But what else can we do? The six of us can’t picket the whole mountain range! Can you… is there anything you can remember about Toma that might give a clue about where he’ll go? The demon isn’t likely to have any first-hand experience of these regions. It will depend on Toma’s knowledge.”

 

Liss shook her head. “We didn’t get very far from Teneret when we were children. I’d never been this far south until I joined the courier service. I don’t think that Toma… wait.” She paused and frowned.

 

“What?”

 

“There was one time… I was ten or eleven… Papa took a trip south to look at a batch of horses a breeder had for sale. Leandro and Toma got to go along, but I was sick with a fever and wasn’t allowed. I was so angry! And when Toma got back he taunted me for weeks about it. He was crowing about riding partway up into the mountains along one of the passes. Neither of us had ever seen mountains at that point. I was jealous for months.”

 

“Do you think Toma might be guiding the demon to that same place?”

 

“Maybe. I don’t really remember where it was now, but Leandro might.”

 

“Huh,” said Foix, unable to keep his eyes open any longer. “We’ll ask him about it in the morning.” He shut his eyes and was asleep in moments.

 

At some point during the night he found himself in a dream.

 

He stood in a room in a stone tower with bright daylight streaming in through the windows. A woman in white robes with long straw-blond hair stood with her back to him, looking out one of the windows. Before he could speak she turned and he saw that it was Ista. Or it seemed to be Ista… there was something odd about her eyes… He wanted to cry out, but she crossed over to him and pressed a finger to his lips. “I will be there soon,” she said. “Listen to your bride-to-be.”

 

Then she and the tower were gone and he woke up in bed. Liss was there, across the room, snoring faintly.

 

When dawn came Foix could barely move he was so stiff. Liss didn’t seem quite so debilitated, but she clearly had a few aches and pains. “We need to ask Leandro about where that horse breeder and the pass were,” he told her first thing.

 

“You think we should try to intercept Toma there?” asked Liss who was quickly braiding her hair.

 

“Yes. I… Liss, I heard from Ista last night.”

 

What?” She stared at him and lost hold of her hair which half-unwound and spilled around her shoulders.

 

“It was a dream, but… it wasn’t like any dream I’ve ever had. I’m certain she was sending me a message.”

 

“What did she say?”

 

“She told me she would be here soon and that I should listen to you. I’m guessing that she meant what you were telling me before we went to sleep.”

 

“All right!” She recaptured her hair. “Let’s rouse Leandro and figure out where that horse farm is! But she said she would be here soon? Even if she was able to match our ride of yesterday—which I doubt, she still has to be five days away at the best.”

 

“Well, if we can capture Toma and haul him back north, we can meet her halfway and cut it down to two or three.” He spoke lightly, but he cringed at the thought of trying to keep a frantic demon under control for several days. Well, first things first: they still had to catch him. They finished dressing and got Leandro up and had breakfast with dy Miron while pouring over his map.

 

“I think it must be near here,” said Leandro pointing to an area west of the main road and the town. “Maybe fifteen miles off the road. I’m not sure exactly. It was a while back.”

 

“That’s near a big farm owned by a man named Ulises, if I recall,” said dy Miron looking at the map. “He does raise some fine horses.”

 

“Was that the name?” asked Foix.

 

“Maybe… But I’m sure that was the area. I remember we turned off the main road just as Sentrada came into sight in the distance. Papa didn’t want to stay in town and have to pay an innkeeper. We camped about a mile off the road and then made it to the farm by mid-morning the next day. It has to be near here.”

 

“And there is a pass, a narrow one, leading up from just south of there. Could be it,” said dy Miron. “I was going send a half-dozen men there this morning.”

 

“Good,” said Foix. “We’ll go with them.”

 

“All right. I’ll tell the other parties to send word of any sighting there as well as here.”

 

Not long afterwards they were mounted and—painfully—riding west. The six of them and the six men of the Daughter’s Order made a substantial force. They decided to go straight to their goal, cross-country, rather than ride north on the main road and retrace Leandro’s path from years earlier. It was a shorter route and would also allow them to scout along the edge of the mountains in case Toma was travelling another route.

 

“I hope we’re in time,” said Liss. “If the demon made them press on through the night they might already be past us.”

 

“If they stayed off the road yesterday there’s no way they could have made the sort of time we did,” he replied, trying to reassure her. “There was some pretty rough country we passed through. Even travelling all night—which would be slow—they couldn’t reach the mountains before midday, I’m guessing.”

 

“We can hope.”

 

“They would have to stop and rest some time. The demon can only push its mount so hard before it collapses—leaving it stuck.”

 

“So, what are we going to do if we do find him?” asked Leandro.

 

“I’ll try to block the demon’s magic so that it can cause no mischief. The rest of you will have to run Toma down and restrain him.” Foix prayed that he’d be able to do his part. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy. They’d equipped themselves with some cudgels that they hoped could knock Toma cold without crushing his skull. But getting close enough to use them…

 

“He’ll run as soon as the demon spots you, won’t he?” asked Liss.

 

“Probably. But their horses will be tired. We ought to be able to overtake them.” They had gotten a new set of remounts that morning. If they could get into position and let them rest for a few hours, they would have a real edge if it came to a horse race. Even so, Foix was worried. The border between Chalion and Darthaca stretched nearly three hundred miles. They were basing all their hopes on the demon picking this one point to cross. If they were wrong they could lose Toma forever. Still, Ista had said… In a dream, you fool. He looked at Liss. Her face was set and determined. She would never give up as long as there was hope. But what if hope failed?

 

Once out of town, they formed a skirmish line with a few hundred paces between them so as to give them a wider look at the countryside. This made conversation impossible so they pressed on in silence for several hours until they reached a farm that Leandro thought was the one he had visited years before. There were fenced-in pastures with horses, so it was a reasonable guess. As they got closer they spotted a narrow track heading up into the hills to the south. “Yes, I’m sure this was the place,” said Liss’ brother.

 

The appearance of a large, well-armed party like theirs quickly caught the attention of the farm’s inhabitants. Several men approached cautiously, but seemed to relax when they caught sight of the blue tabards of the Daughter’s Order on some of the soldiers. The man in charge was indeed named Ulises and seemed willing to cooperate when told that a spy was trying to sneak out of Chalion through his land and needed to be caught. It was the simplest lie they could think of.

 

Quickly assessing the lay of the land and the forces at his disposal Foix devised his tactical plan and deployed his troops. Guessing that the demon would skirt the farm rather than leave witnesses to its passage, he left the farm to Ulises and his people. He sent three of the Daughter’s men to either side of the pass and then he and Liss and Leandro and their three men posted themselves right in the pass, about a quarter mile up in it at a spot with a good view of the countryside. Foix didn’t like being so far back, but there wasn’t any choice: the demon could spot him from too far away. His hope was to draw the demon into the pass and then the Daughter’s men could close in behind, trapping it and Toma and Seve in a box. They set up a simple set of signals and then settled in to wait.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Liss sat with her back to a tree, munched a piece of bread, and looked out on the rolling landscape below. She tried to force a few moving black specks to appear in the fields by sheer will, but they obstinately refused to obey her. She wanted to remain calm, but her tension steadily mounted. Something inside told her that this was their last chance. If they didn’t find Toma short of Darthaca, they never would. He would be lost to the demon and maybe Seve, too. The demon might be holding Seve as a hostage for the moment, but if it did make good its escape would it be likely to let the boy go to give the alarm?

 

The sun rose toward noon and it was getting quite warm. The last few days had left her drained and she wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and take a nap. Foix suggested that she do just that while others keep watch, but somehow she couldn’t. The feeling in her gut seemed to say that whatever was going to happen was going to happen soon. Today.

 

Even so, she was actually starting to drop off to sleep when it happened.

 

Foix suddenly stiffened and gave a small cry of surprise. Liss was instantly alert. “What?”

 

“It’s here,” he said, rising to his feet and looking to the west. “It just used its powers. Damn. Probably against the men we sent off that way!”

 

“M’lord?” called the man on look-out duty. “I think I can see some horses and riders. Two or three miles, I’d guess.”

 

“Yes, it’s moving this way. Fast.”

 

“It’s still coming this way?” asked Liss in surprise. “Even knowing you’re here?”

 

“I don’t think it’s spotted me yet. When a sorcerer or demon uses its powers it’s visible from much farther away than if they’re doing nothing. It’ll spot me soon enough though. Get the horses! Gerrold, try to signal the men off to the east!” Liss was in the saddle at once and the others quickly did the same.

 

“What now?” she asked. “Ride to meet it?”

 

“May as well, the trap’s been sprung,” Foix replied. “We might be able to close the distance on it before it’s aware of me.” They headed down the pass as quickly as they could on the rough ground.  They were just emerging from the trees at the bottom when Foix cried out again:

 

“It’s spotted me, but… but it’s still coming!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

The demon cursed when it felt the other one ahead. Blast! With all the many crossing points of the mountains to watch, encountering it here was the foulest of foul luck. It had its mount rein in the horse while it considered options. Retreat? Try to find another way over the mountains? But the only direction to flee was back north. The Shining One would be coming from that way. And these others would pursue at every step. Sooner or later it would be hemmed in with no way out. But there was an escape route near at hand. Only one thing stood in the way…

 

 

* * *

 

 

Foix could clearly see Toma now. He was riding toward him with two other people, each leading a spare horse. One was Seve, but the other… Vilma. Toma—or the demon—or both—had brought along his wife. Foix could sense the compulsions holding them in thrall. When they got closer he would try to free them. The demon would probably try to ensorcell more people to even the odds. He would have to stop it—if he could. His stomach felt like it did when he went up that scaling ladder at Gotorget. Worse. Liss wasn’t with him at Gotorget. Damn, he wished Ferda was here…

 

They were four hundred yards away when a purple blast of something sprang from the demon and came right at him. Somehow—he still wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing—he blocked the attack, the bolt of power splashing away from him like spilled wine. But he grunted as if he’d been struck with a physical blow.

 

Shaking it off, he reached out and tried to cut the umbilicus holding Seve. But the demon sensed what he was trying and sent more power into the tether and Foix’s attempt bounced off. Before he could try again, the demon lashed out—this time against Gerrold’s horse, which screamed and fell, tumbling the soldier to the ground in a cloud of dust.

 

Foix cursed and attacked again. Not against the compulsion holding Seve, but against the reins holding the spare horses. The leather straps parted and the weary horses veered away and stumbled to a stop. Seve and Vilma looked back, but didn’t slow.

 

The distance closed quickly. At a hundred yards the demon struck at Liss’ horse, but the attack seemed half-hearted and faltering even before Foix slapped it aside. Was Toma fighting the demon? That would be an enormous help. Foix tried to cut the demon’s compulsion again, but this time feinted at the umbilicus holding Seve and then thrust out in a move that his old swordmaster would have praised to cut the one holding Vilma instead. He could see the shock and confusion on her face as she tried to comprehend what was happening. But an instant later the demon reestablished its leash and Toma’s voice shouted follow. Apparently this was just too much because the woman’s eyes rolled back in her head and she tumbled out of her saddle and fell to the ground.

 

Foix could almost feel the demon’s rage but suddenly the distance separating the two groups was down to nothing. Foix aimed his mount right at Toma and braced himself for the collision. Horses screamed, men shouted and a half-dozen purple blasts filled his vision and then he was flying through the air to land heavily in a spiny bush.

 

The wind was knocked out of him, but he struggled to his feet, looking for Liss, looking for Toma. He spotted Liss a dozen yards away, trying to free herself from her thrashing, downed horse. She seemed unharmed. He spun about and there was Toma, unhorsed, but on his feet. Just about everyone else was on foot or on the ground, except for Seve who desperately clung to his wildly bucking mount.

 

Foix faced the demon and he could sense it gathering power to strike. He braced himself. But then one of the soldiers stumbled forward, cudgel in hand and the demon sent the blast against him instead. Foix tried to block it, but it was too fast, quick as a striking snake. The man groaned and collapsed, clutching his belly as if he’d been shot with a crossbow.

 

Foix was still trying to pull in his breath when Toma suddenly turned and grabbed a horse that had regained its footing. The demon seemed to be wrapped in purple light like a shield and Foix didn’t think there was anything he could do against it. So he struck at the leather strap holding the horse’s saddle in place. When Toma’s foot went into the stirrup the whole saddle just slid right off, throwing the boy down on his backside. The horse jerked free and ran off.

 

Suddenly Liss was there, coming at Toma, a stout stick in her fists. But the demon saw her and purple light leaped out to engulf her. “Stop!” it commanded with Toma’s voice and Liss jerked to a halt a few feet away. Her hands slowly fell to her sides, her face confused.

 

“Damn you!” snarled Foix. “Let her go!” He reached out with his phantom hand to cut the spell, but to his shock, the demon grabbed his hand with one of its own. It was like wrestling with hot iron. Pain blasted through him and he gasped and sank to his knees. He tried to shake loose, but the demon held tight, white agony poured into him. With pain-glazed eyes he saw Toma pick up the club the soldier had dropped and stiffly move toward him, step by jerky step.

 

“Fool!” said an icy voice using Toma’s mouth. “You will trouble me no more!” It raised the club.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Liss stared at the unfolding tableau and tried to remember what she was doing. For some reason she’d been walking toward her little brother with a heavy stick in her hands. Why? To strike him? Surely not. Why would she want to do something like that? He’d told her to stop and that made so much sense she’d obeyed. But the stick was still in her hand and for some reason she didn’t want to let it go…

 

But wait… what was happening now? Foix, her beloved Foix was dropping to the ground! He was moaning in pain! She tried to go to him, but her feet wouldn’t move! It was like they were trapped in thick, sticky mud. Move! No… stop… what…? She couldn’t move, but Toma was going toward Foix--to help? But he had a club in his hand! Why? A desperation she didn’t understand filled her and she wrenched one foot loose from the mud and lurched a step forward. She tried to cry out when she saw Toma raise the club, but it was like her throat was filled with mud, too. Stop! Stop! Stop!

 

The club flashed down and struck Foix’s upraised arm with a crack that seemed to strike right through to her soul. Her feet were free!  She sprang forward. Raised the heavy stick. Toma sensed her coming, turned, his own club raised.  This was all so wrong, but there was no choice. She struck. The stick slammed solidly against Toma’s head. He staggered back, dropping his club. His eyes, which had seemed so strange were suddenly wide with shock and not strange at all. “Liss…” he whispered.

 

She hit him again and he went down in a heap.

 

She stared at her brother in horror. But then she saw Foix, clutching his arm and she dropped her stick and knelt down beside him. “Foix! Are you all right?”

 

“Just a moment,” he said through gritted teeth. He closed his eyes and suddenly the horrible fog that had filled her head was gone. She knew what she’d done—and why. She jerked around to look at Toma, but he was where he’d fallen. There was blood on his head, but he was breathing. “Good work, love,” said Foix. “He’d have finished me but for you.”

 

“Is that arm broken?” she asked, reaching toward it.

 

“Might be cracked. Hard to tell. Hurts like the Bastard’s Hell.”

 

“We’ll get you fixed up. But how are the others?” She looked around. Leandro was just pulling himself out from under his horse. Seve finally had his mount under control and came trotting up looking confused, but himself. One soldier was helping his fallen comrade to his feet. The man had vomited all over himself, but seemed to be recovering. Gerrold was a hundred yards off and limping slowly toward them. Was that everyone? No. “Seve!” she called. “Go see to Vilma!” Her youngest brother nodded and rode back the way he’d come.

 

“What do we do with Toma?”

 

“Tie him up,” said Foix. “Tightly. Lots of ropes. It’d be safer to do to him what he was going to do to me: break my arms and legs, but I don’t suppose you’d agree to that.”

 

“I’d… I’d really rather not do that,” said Liss. “Hitting him was… hard.”

 

“I know, I know. And you were still under his spell, girl. That took real strength. Real strength. Thank you, my gallant love.” The look on his face sent a thrill through her. She leaned forward and kissed him briefly.

 

She set the soldiers and Leandro to work securing Toma, while she gently cut back the sleeve of Foix’s tunic. His right forearm was swelling up and turning purple. He winced as she felt along it. “I can’t feel a break, but you’re going to have a terrible bruise. Let me wrap it up and get a sling for you.”

 

By the time she was finished, the men had Toma wrapped in every bit of rope they could scavenge. It would have held an angry bear, but would it hold an angry demon? Seve returned on foot, leading his horse. Vilma was sitting on it and weeping hysterically. When she saw Toma she turned away and covered her face. A chill went through Liss. As the only other woman present it was going to fall to her to try and calm Vilma, but what in the names of all five gods was she going to say to her?

 

She was saved that task for the moment when the other three Daughter’s soldiers rode up from the east and they were quickly followed by Ulises and two of his farmhands.  One of the soldiers was sent off to look for their three comrades to the west while Foix explained what had happened—more or less—and they all took stock. Several of their horses had been badly hurt and Ulises shook his head while looking them over.

 

“We’ll have to put these two down. Legs snapped clean. Strange breaks… never seen anything like this…”

 

No and pray the gods you never will again.

 

But with the two spares that Toma had brought there were enough to get them all mounted again.  They fashioned a litter that could be dragged behind a horse and tied Toma to it.

 

“That must be one damned dangerous spy,” said Ulises, looking at all the ropes.

 

“He is,” said Foix. “But we’ll take care of him now. Thank you for your help.” He gave the man a few coins and sent him and his men on their way.

 

“So how are we going to work this?” asked Leandro. “He’s going to wake up soon and I don’t suppose those ropes will prevent him from using his sorcery.”

 

Its sorcery,” corrected Foix. “Never forget that your brother has had no hand in any of this. The demon was in control.” He looked pointedly over at Vilma who had finally stopped crying.

 

“Whatever,” replied Leandro. “But I say again: what do we do when he wakes up? I suppose we could just bash him on the head again, but how many times can we do that before he don’t wake up at all?”

 

“We’ll just have to be careful,” said Foix. “But let’s get going. The sooner we can get him to Ista, the sooner this will be over.”

 

“Which way?” asked Liss. “Back to Sentrada, or northeast to strike the main road as quickly as we can?”

 

“Sentrada. I want to get as large an escort as possible from dy Miron. The more people we can surround Toma with, the less likely the demon will be able to break free. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.” They all mounted their horses and started riding east. It wasn’t long before the other men caught up with them. The three they’d posted to the west had all been unhorsed by the demon, but were otherwise unharmed. They’d now recovered their mounts and were demanding to know what had happened. Foix and the others tried to explain. Liss kept looking from Toma to Vilma. The woman was hanging well back from her husband’s litter. The last thing in the world Liss wanted to do was talk to her sister-in-law, but sooner or later she’d have to. Best get it over with. She drifted back to her.

 

“Are you all right, Vilma?”

 

“How can you possibly ask that?” replied the woman. She stared at her with haunted eyes.

 

“No, I guess that was a pretty stupid question, wasn’t it? So you’re not all right. How are you?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Do you understand what’s happened? About Toma and the demon that’s taken control of him?”

 

“Partly, I suppose. I know it was controlling me somehow. Me and my whole family. I hear what your fiancé is saying, but it all seems like a nightmare now! What is going to happen to Toma?”

 

“We’re taking him to someone who can destroy the demon. Free him from its control. He will be all right.”

 

“How can he, how can any of us ever be all right?”

 

“Nothing that happened was Toma’s doing. You have to understand that.”

 

“Nothing? What about when he told me he loved me? Was that a lie, too?”

 

Liss sighed. “You’ll have to ask him yourself once he’s free.” Vilma didn’t answer and they rode in silence for a while. Foix looked back at her several times but she just shook her head. They continued riding as quickly as they could but they were all exhausted and some of them hurt. It was late afternoon by the time they spotted the roofs of Sentrada in the distance.

 

“If I’m understanding aright,” said Vilma suddenly, “your fiancé also carries a demon. How can this be? How can you bear it?”

 

“It’s complicated. And different from what’s happened to Toma. Foix is a temple sorcerer. He can control his demon rather than be controlled by it.”

 

“How do you know? How do you know he isn’t just lying to you like Toma lied to me?”

 

“I know,” said Liss firmly. “When we meet up with Royina Ista, you’ll understand.”

 

“I wish I could believe you. I wish I could believe anything!”

 

LIss didn’t know what to tell her. She supposed that the mere fact that she was talking, asking questions was a good sign but…

 

With no warning at all, her horse reared up. Caught completely unaware she was thrown to the ground before she could do a thing. All around her horses were whinnying and people shouting. Foix cried: “The demon is awake!” It was, perhaps, the most unnecessary statement she’d ever heard.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Foix felt the surge of power, saw the purple lances of light, but was only able to stop the one aimed at his own horse. All around him the other horses were going wild, tossing off their riders. All except the horse pulling Toma’s litter. That one started off at gallop, towing the demon and its mount behind. Foix jabbed his spurs into the flanks of his horse and began the pursuit.

 

Despite his less-burdened mount, he only closed the distance slowly. Toma’s horse was charging recklessly forward over bumpy ground and he realized with a shudder that the demon wasn’t the least bit concerned if Toma were killed. It would free it from captivity and it could flee again.

 

Blasts of power started coming at him and he could sense the demon also snapping the ropes that bound Toma one by one. Foix managed to parry the bolts aimed at him, but he couldn’t stop the others. Well, two can play that game! He waited for a pause in the onslaught of attacks and then on a fairly flat piece of ground, he reached out and cut the cords holding the litter to the galloping horse. The litter thumped to the ground and then slid along for a dozen yards before coming to a halt.

 

Foix slowed his horse as he approached and braced himself for more attacks by the demon. He didn’t want to grapple with it, power-against-power, like before, so he pulled his strength around him like a cloak. The only thing he could think to do was whack Toma on the head again before it could break all the ropes. He reached into his saddle bag for the cudgel…

 

Something slammed into him and he went down. Agonizing pain seared through him from his injured arm as he hit the ground. What the…? The other horse! When I cut it loose, the demon was still controlling it!  And he hadn’t noticed and it had come around and run right into him.

 

He tried to stand, but the horse was right there and he was knocked to the ground again. The beast circled and came at him. He could see the purple trail linking it to the demon and there was nothing he could do but try to rip control away. He tried, but it was just like when he’d tried to free Liss. The horse halted, but the pain! The demon was strong, far stronger than him. He couldn’t win this fight and they both knew it.

 

“What… must… I… do… to… make… you… give… up?” said the demon. It was still snapping ropes, but slowly, painfully. Stronger it might be, but this was no easy fight for it, either. Foix couldn’t spare breath to answer. His power faltered for a moment and the horse took a step toward him before he could halt it again. Where were the others? The mad flight had left them a half mile back, but if they could regain their horses…

 

Toma rose from the litter and Foix’s horse trotted up to him. “I’m going to have… the horse… crush your legs,” it said. “Leave you crippled… fitting punishment for a fool.”

 

Foix’s power was fading. He couldn’t keep this up… The horse was moving toward him again…

 

But suddenly it stopped. To Foix it was like pushing against a rock wall that suddenly turned to paper. The resistance vanished and the horse turned and fled. What…?

 

To the east a new dawn was breaking, brighter, clearer than any dawn he had ever seen. A dazzling, blinding light streamed toward him. Toma was a black silhouette against it and inside the blackness a purple snake coiled on itself in terror.

 

“Spare us, Shining One! Spare us!” shouted Toma’s voice.

 

Ista! Foix could see nothing but the light, but who else could it be?

 

The light coalesced around the demon and slowly, bit-by-bit pulled it out of Toma. It was agony to watch, but Foix could not turn away. The demon struggled futilely and the boy gave an animal wail, but finally the purple snake was englobed in white and then receded into the distance and vanished. Toma collapsed to the ground and the light faded. Foix found himself collapsing, too and he fell into darkness.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Liss shouted when Foix opened his eyes. He was lying on a bed in the Daughter’s Chapter house in Sentrada and she sat in a chair next to him. It was late evening and he’d been unconscious for several hours. Toma was in a similar state in the next room. She turned as Ista came through the door. She started to rise to offer Ista her chair, but the Royina-Saint waved her back and plunked down on the bed next to Foix and patted his knee.

 

“So,” she said, smiling, “how is my brave demon-fighter?”

 

“I… hurt,” said Foix. “Pretty much everywhere.”

 

“Understandable,” replied the woman, nodding. “I only witnessed the tail-end of your battle, but even from where I was I could feel what was happening. You have some strength in you, Foix dy Gura.”

 

Foix blushed. “It still wouldn’t have been enough if you hadn’t intervened. But my lady! How did you come to be here so soon? Did the Bastard put wings on the feet of your horses?” Liss was wondering the same thing herself, but Ista had refused to explain until Foix was awake.

 

“When your summons came we left at once. We rode hard, but not on winged horses.”

 

“But the courier could have only reached Cardegoss a few days ago!” protested Foix.

 

“Ah yes, the courier,” smiled Ista. “We passed him on the way here. We rode when I got your first summons.”

 

“My first…?”

 

Ista stared out the window. “There was a time when I felt that prayer was too dangerous a thing to risk. But more recently… I may have to change my opinion.”

 

“Prayer?” said Foix. But then his puzzled expression changed to understanding. “Oh.”

 

“Yes,” said Ista looking back at him and nodding.

 

“Is anyone going to explain this to a poor non-sorcerer, non-saint, just ordinary courier-girl?” said Liss a bit testily.

 

“The night that we told your family about Toma,” said Foix. “While you were out gathering everyone I… prayed to the Bastard to hurry Ista to us. I never thought he would…”

 

“I had quite a dream that night,” said Ista. “I’ve come to recognize the ones I should pay attention to. This one was very vivid and we were on the road by mid-morning the next day.”

 

“You made excellent time,” said Liss, impressed.

 

“We reached Teneret only an hour or so after you took all the courier station’s fresh horses. We set out at once, but we couldn’t match your speed. We arrived here in Sentrada in mid-afternoon today. By then I was close enough to sense the demon and we rode out to meet you.”

 

“And a mighty good thing you did,” said Foix. He sighed and leaned back against his pillows and stared at the ceiling. “We wouldn’t have caught Toma except for the dream you sent me.”

 

Ista quirked an eyebrow and just smiled.

 

“So it’s done,” said Liss. “Thank the five gods.”

 

“All except for picking up the pieces,” said Ista. “Don’t expect the gods to help with that.”

 

“How is Toma?” asked Foix.

 

“He just woke up, too. Physically he’s bruised and with a large bump on his head. But his soul is whole again and he’s the master of it. Emotionally… I expect he’s got some hard times ahead.”

 

“But what about he and Vilma?” asked Liss. “Is their love genuine, or did the demon force them?”

 

“He loves her, there’s no doubt of that. I got a good look inside of him while removing the demon. As for her feelings… well, she never left the room while he was unconscious.”

 

“But did the demon take Toma before or after she agreed to marry him?”

 

Ista pursed her lips. “That, I think, is nobody’s business but Toma’s and Vilma’s. They are going to have to work this out for themselves.”

 

“But…”

 

“No more buts! At least for tonight! You must be exhausted—I know I am! I am going to check on Toma one more time and then go to bed. If you have any sense you will too.” She rose and left the room. Liss watched her go and then turned back to Foix.

 

“How are you?”

 

“Tired. Sore. Relieved. How about you?”

 

“Pretty much the same. Probably less sore. How’s your arm? The divine here put it in a splint just in case there is a fracture.”

 

Foix held it up and looked at it. “Hurts, but not too bad. I’ll be fine—as long as I don’t have to ride anywhere tomorrow.”

 

Liss laughed. “No, I think we’ll stay here a few days! Dy Miron is planning a fete for Ista and a lot of the local nobles are streaming in to see her already. Or so I heard. We’ll be lucky to get out of here in a week.”

 

“A week,” sighed Foix, settling down in the soft bed. “Sounds good.”

 

“And then back to Teneret. At a normal pace that will take four days.”

 

“Five, love. Your ‘normal pace’ is a bit faster than everyone else’s.”

 

“All right, five. And I imagine we’ll have to spend a few days there. I want Ista around to explain everything to my family—and Vilma’s. We have to do that for Toma’s sake.”

 

“Surely,” said Foix, nodding. “And then probably a week to get back to Cardegoss.”

 

“Yes and then—Five Gods!” gasped Liss.

 

“What?”

 

She hastily counted out the days on her fingers. “Foix! By the time we get back there will only be two weeks until the wedding!”

 

“Ah? Well, good.”

 

“Good? Good!” she exclaimed. “Do you know how much we have to do to get ready?”

 

”Uh… no?”

 

“There are the dresses and the food and all the guests and the Royina and the Consort will be there and, oh gods, if my family is going to come they’ll have to travel back there with us and… mmph!” He reached out with his good hand and pulled her close and kissed her. He held her there for a long time.

 

“Tomorrow, love,” he said when he released her. “Worry about it tomorrow.”

 

“But…”

 

“We’ve handled a demon, we can surely handle a wedding. Together.”

 

She smiled. “Yes we can. Together.”

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

Ista shifted in her saddle trying to find a more comfortable position. She’d done an awful lot of riding in the last few weeks. She watched Liss and Foix riding ahead of her, holding hands and smiled. Young and in love, what a wonderful thing. She could almost remember being young and in love. But being middle-aged and in love wasn’t a bad thing either. She wished Illvin was with her. But he’d stayed up north to tend to some things. But he’d be in Cardegoss for the wedding. She looked forward to that. She hoped the wedding went well. She was really very fond of Liss and Foix. There were times when she felt a little guilty about her feelings. During those years when she’d been smothered by the Curse she hadn’t been much of a mother to Iselle and Tediez. Was she trying to make up for that now with Liss and Foix? Well, she felt what she felt and there was nothing for it.

 

Her gaze shifted to Liss’ brother, Toma and his wife. They were also riding side by side, but not holding hands. She’d noticed that while they talked, they rarely touched. Well, they had a lot to deal with and it wasn’t going to be easy. From what she’d been able to piece together, the pair might be facing even more trouble from their respective families—and maybe some of the townsfolk in Teneret, too. The demon had acted as unfeelingly as demons do and all of its actions had worn Toma’s face. No amount of explanation could change that. The boy might find that there was no way to go home again.

 

Perhaps a change of scene would be best. It certainly hadn’t hurt Liss to go away. The boy knows horses. And Gorram could use an assistant… Yes, Gorram. If anyone could understand Toma’s pain it would be her demon-gnawed master of horse. Well, she would see how things went for him in Teneret.  If it looked bad, she could always make the suggestion. It was just lucky that Foix detected the demon as quickly as he had…

 

If it was luck.

 

The thought formed and she frowned as she considered it. What were the chances? The demon fled from northern Chalion, five hundred miles or more, and just happened to pick the future brother-in-law of one of the few people who could spot it.

 

Her frown deepened. For over half her life she’d been involved with the affairs of the gods. She’d seen how they used people, nudged them down roads they never would have taken on their own. In the last year, hunting demons for the Bastard, she’d been nudged or outright shoved down many a road to find her quarry. Dreams, hunches, intuition had sent her in the right direction time and again. The god was clearly guiding her.

 

Who—or what—else had the Bastard been nudging?

 

Did you do it? Did you put that poor boy in the demon’s path? Or did you nudge the demon so it found him? Yes, yes, I know that if it hadn’t seized Toma, it would have seized someone else and we might never have found it until the victim was eaten up completely. But still…

 

She cleared her mind and waited. Sometimes, sometimes she would get an answer. This time there was no answer, but she felt something. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but she felt something that she could only describe as a sort of smug embarrassment.

 

“Lord Bastard,” she growled quietly. “I’ve said it before and I’m quite sure that I’ll say it again: you, sir, are a bastard!”

 

Whatever she had been feeling vanished and after a while she turned her thoughts to other things. Illvin… Weddings… It was a long road to Cardegoss and she’d have much time for thinking.

 

 

 

The End