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Hidden Blade

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CHAPTER ONE

Even by my own standards, it had not been a good day.

In the morning, my father had assigned me the hated chore of trimming the hawthorn hedges that served as a boundary marker for our village. I had never understood why I had to be assigned such a chore, simply because my father was unofficially head of the village. Besides, it was late winter, and I was cold.

So at mid-morning, I sneaked back into our house – the village hall, it was called, as though it were the Chara's palace, rather than a three-room hut where all three of us older children had to sleep in a single room. I found my father's flintbox near the hearth, took it back to where I was working, and built a fire to keep myself warm.

It was only a small fire. But Petrina – who was named after the Chara and sometimes acted like she was him – went tattling to our father about what I had done. The next thing I knew, I was standing in front of my father in our house as he explained to me, in that very patient voice I hated so much, that it really wasn't a good idea to build fires next to winter fields that were dry-crisp.

So then I went and hunted down Petrina. (Being cowardly like all girls are, she had tried to hide herself from me.) I yelled at her, and she burst into tears. And then Triffy – who was named after our mother and who sometimes made me wonder whether my mother was also a terror when she was young – went running off to our father as fast as her chubby little legs would take her. Which meant that I spent the end of the morning in our house, being lectured by my father about how it is the duty of men to protect girls and women and others who are in need of assistance. Since I wasn't a man yet, I ignored what he was saying and spent the wasted time reciting Common Koretian verb forms in my head.

After that, I was so angry that I skipped my noonday meal, left the horrid hedges behind, and went to my favorite place, which was the mountains.

Our village was built at the foot of Pass Peak, the closest village to the north end of the mountain pass that leads to Koretia. There had been a village even closer to the pass before I was born, but that was sacked at the beginning of the Border Wars, which was why I had no cousins to play with. I'd sneaked off to visit there once – only once, because I'd found a human bone there amidst the tumbled timbers, and I couldn't help wondering which of my kinfolk it had belonged to. After that, I only went to the mountains.

The black border mountains. The very name made me shiver. So black were they that they could scarcely be seen against the star-speckled sky on a moonless night. They thrust their peaks up to the sky like the Jackal's jagged teeth, serving as a border that divided Emor, where I lived, from Koretia and Daxis to the south. And in the pass, the only portion of the mountains where people could travel, was the Chara's border mountain patrol.

I listened to them all afternoon. I had enough sense not to come so near them as to risk being captured, but I liked to listen to their whistles as the patrol guards raced from mountain to mountain in pursuit of border-breachers. By now, after eight years of life, I had begun to decipher some of their whistle-codes. I was compiling a list in my mind so that someday, when I went to the lieutenant of the patrol and told him I wished to be a patrol guard, I could impress him by already knowing the codes.

Eventually, the sun began to set. I became too cold to sit in the windy mountains any more, even though I wanted to wait until dusk, when the current lieutenant would lead the night patrol out on duty. Or I would have liked to have played Hunter and Hunted, which every Emorian boy knows how to play, though I had only undergone its excitement once, with some boys who were passing through the village. Since then I'd had no one to play with – except my father if I'd asked him perhaps, but he wouldn't have understood why the game imitating the hunts of the patrol guards meant so much to me.

With a reluctant sigh, I climbed down from from the ridge where I was sitting. My father had taught me to climb, almost as soon as I could walk. It was the one thing he seemed to be good at, other than catching balls, growing crops, and being able to tell when a snowstorm was about to descend upon the Emorian borderland. Since I had begun refusing to play ball with him two years ago, that left him with a very limited number of skills.

Nonetheless, I was grateful to him for teaching me to climb mountains; it meant I could visit the mountains anytime I wanted. Or so I thought, but old Nanny thought otherwise when she caught me scrambling down the steep cliff. She gave me an impromptu lecture on how I mustn't ever go into the mountains without my father as an escort, or my bones would end up being picked by the crows. I tried to endure her lecture by reciting Common Koretian noun forms to myself, but at the end of the lecture, she said, "You need to learn to be a fine man like your father."

I kicked her ankle. That was easy to do; she always wore gowns that were too short.

So then I ended up in the house again, this time with both my parents telling me what they thought of me.

"I did not undergo two full days of labor in order to bring a hedonistic law-breaker into this world." That was my mother, of course.

"It really isn't kind to hurt a servant, as I believe your mother has explained to you on several occasions." That was my father in his very patient, very gentle voice that always made me want to throw something at him.

I muttered that she'd only talked about slaves.

"Slave-servants and free-servants share some of the same burdens," my father said. He was standing very straight, the closest he ever came to looking like a soldier. The farmers' hat on his head spoiled the effect. "The advantage that free-servants have over slaves is that they can change positions if they wish, but Nanny is far too loyal to our family to do that. And if she did leave us, how could we find a replacement? Nanny is willing to work for room and board and a little pin money; most free-servants would expect full pay, which we can't afford."

This roused me to say, "That's your fault! You could have picked any other job in the world, but you decided to be a poor farmer. You could have been a baron; you could even have been a patrol guard like the Snowbound Lieutenant. But instead you decided to grow barley!"

My father smiled, as he always did when I mentioned the Snowbound Lieutenant. "Rye," he said in his very patient voice. "Barley was last year."

I hated his very patient voice. I hated how he smiled whenever I talked about the Snowbound Lieutenant, as though the greatest soldier who had ever lived was a joke, rather than the man whose memory I worshipped. I would have given all that I possessed to travel back in time and spend a single minute in the presence of the Snowbound Lieutenant, listening to his wisdom. But to my father – my farmer father, who cared about nothing except crops and weather – the border mountain patrol was nothing but a few whistles in the background as he labored over his fields.

So I hit him. Right in the chest, where he deserved it.

"Griffith!"

It was my mother's danger voice. She didn't use it often. She'd used it when I nearly let Triffy crawl into the stream, and when I dangled one of my newborn brothers over a cliff so that he could see how high the black border mountains were, and on one occasion when I was very young, which still gave me nightmares, when I almost let myself be lured away by a slave-seller who was short on children and thought he would refill his stock in the easiest manner possible.

On that occasion, my father had taken the slave-seller aside. We'd never seen the man again. I supposed that the slave-seller had been so bored by one of my father's very patient lectures that he'd given our village a wide berth after that.

It was the combination of my mother's tone and her shortening of my name that always alerted me when I'd gone too far. I stepped back; I'd been about to hit my father a second time, since he wasn't doing anything to defend himself. I shouted defiantly at my mother, "He's mocking the Snowbound Lieutenant! May he die a Slave's Death!" It was the most powerful curse I knew, evoking the image of death by torture that disobedient slaves undergo.

"Son."

And that was the closest my father ever came to having his own danger voice: when his very patient voice became very, very quiet.

I scuffed the floor with my boot, not wanting to look him in the face. He said, still very quietly, "You don't speak to your mother that way. Apologize."

I bit my lip, knowing he was right, and then forced myself to look up at my mother. "I'm sorry, Mother," I said. "I shouldn't have yelled at you." And then, reluctantly, "I'm sorry for yelling at her, sir."

I never called him Father. Not since the day two years before, when he laughed at my first mention of the Snowbound Lieutenant's prowess. I'd adored the patrol guard as far back as my memories ran. Yet it wasn't until that day – that moment in the city market, mere minutes after I first learned how the Snowbound Lieutenant gained his name and his fame – that I had realized that the man who called himself my father was utterly unworthy to raise a boy who would one day belong to the border mountain patrol.

Now my father made no immediate reply to my apology. He didn't appear to be in pain; I supposed I hadn't hit him very hard. After a while, he said, "I think you had better stay outside until you show that you are prepared to behave better."

I knew what that meant: no supper for me unless I apologized to Nanny. With an audible huff, I left the house, slamming the door behind me.

And then tiptoed around to the other side of the house. One of my father's other few gifts was that he had very good hearing. I had learned, at an early age, how to defeat that.

By the time I pressed my body against the house, where a crack in the wall lay, my mother was saying, "When are you going to tell him?"

"He's still too young."

My mother sighed. "He's growing older and more wild. Dearest, he kicked Nanny. He hit you."

"I know. My ribs know. He has a powerful punch." A creaking of wood, which meant that my father had seated himself at his chair by the hearth. "If only our families had survived the beginning of the Border Wars, he'd have relations his own age to play with. This village is so small, and none of the other boys are his age."

My mother sighed again. "My brother might have sons by now, for all I know. Perhaps even Emlyn has sons."

"Your brother, perhaps. Not Emlyn."

Another creak. That would be my mother, adding her weight to the chair by sitting on my father's lap. She still did that sometimes, when the babies were resting.

"No, I suppose not. Anyway, they're both in Koretia . . . I hope." My mother's voice had grown muffled; I imagined she must be resting her head on my father's shoulder.

"We know that Emlyn is. And you know that Emlyn would give his life, rather than allow your brother to come to harm."

"I know. I try not to worry. But now, having to worry about our son . . ."

"Unfortunately, I can't provide him with a handy outlet for his energies, such as your brother and Emlyn possess." My father's voice had turned dry. "I'd thought another trip to the capital might help, but if the weather decides to grow chill again, I'm going to end up nursing each and every seed of our spring crop."

"Secundus and Tertius don't trust this mild weather either," said my mother. "They've been crying all day. . . ."

I moved away, disgusted at the turn in the conversation. From now on, I knew, the talk would all be about crops and weather (my father) or babies and household chores (my mother). Neither of my parents seemed to be able to raise their minds higher than the dullest topics in life.

If I wasn't careful, I'd end up like them.

o—o—o

I took several steps away from the house and looked around, trying to decide where to go. As my father had said, our village was small – so small that we didn't even have a baron, though my father had been offered the barony after our village's previous baron died. The widowed baron had been childless and had left his house and fields to his best field hand, who was my father. My father had accepted the farm, but he had refused the barony. I supposed that he was too much a coward to go to the Chara's palace and pledge his allegiance to our ruler. It was a wonder to me that he even had the courage to take harvests to the market in the capital.

So we continued to live in this tiny village where there were no boys my age. Petrina was the child closest in age to me, and I wasn't about to play dolls with prissy Petrina or to share my secret with her that I planned to become a patrol guard. That left me – as it did on so many evenings – with nothing to do and no one to play with.

I was tempted to go build another fire, just to show my father what I thought of his dull life. But the talk of my uncles had sparked different thoughts in my mind.

I suppose that, if I had lived anywhere in Emor except the borderland, I wouldn't have thought of both of them as my uncles. But I was a borderlander, so I had grown up knowing both the Emorian language and Border Koretian, which is spoken in the Emorian borderland and also in the Koretian borderland to the south of the black border mountains. My mother had been born in the Koretian borderland, but she also knew Common Koretian, which is what most Koretians speak, and she had been teaching me that language during her daily school-lessons to me and my sisters.

What this all amounts to was that I knew the Koretian words of lineage. So I knew that one of my uncles was my Uncle Who Is My Mother's Brother, while my other uncle – Uncle Emlyn – was my Uncle Who Is My Mother's Brother's Blood Brother. There was also Adrian, who was my Cousin Who Is My Mother's Brother's Blood Brother's Mother's Sister's Son. ("He was your Uncle Emlyn's cousin," my mother finally explained after I'd spent a long time trying to work this out.) But Cousin Adrian had left home when he was young, after an awful family quarrel that neither of my parents seemed to want to talk about, except to say that my cousin was one of the reasons why my two uncles were in service to the gods.

That was the way my parents always put it: "in service to the gods." I supposed they meant that both my uncles were priests. I knew that my Uncle Emlyn was, at any rate; he had conducted my parents' wedding rite. And that was a tale I had heard so long ago that I could almost remember listening to it in my cradle.

The story was that my father, after laboring many years at the same work, had left his position around the time that the Border Wars began and had taken a trip south to the Kingdom of Daxis. There he had met my mother, who was travelling with her older brother from the Koretian borderland to the Koretian capital, which is at the southern tip of Koretia. My mother and father – who weren't yet my mother and father, of course – came to realize that they had a mutual acquaintance in my Cousin Adrian, who had gone to live in Emor after he left home, and who had done some sort of work with my father. Both my father and my mother had recently lost family members in the new war between Emor and Koretia. Their mutual grief at their losses drew them together, so that they fell in love.

But my Uncle Who Is My Mother's Brother – my Uncle Griffith – didn't trust my father, so my parents were parted for many years until they met again in Koretia, where my father had been living. Then my Uncle Griffith – for reasons that I never understood – decided that my father's most recent work made him trustworthy, so Uncle Griffith had given my mother permission to marry my father. (All my grandparents were dead by this time, so it had to be Uncle Griffith who gave his permission.) And Uncle Emlyn, who was there at the time, had married my parents. After that, Uncle Emlyn and Uncle Griffith had gone south to fulfill their service to the gods, while my parents had gone north to live in the Emorian borderland. And that was all there was to the story, except that I was born a year later.

It was a very dull story. In a properly exciting tale, my father would have taken part in the Border Wars, winning renown and the heart of my mother, rather than living a few years in the south before settling down to farm in the Emorian borderland for the rest of his life.

But my uncles intrigued me. No doubt, as priests, they had just as dull lives as my parents did, but I'd never met them, so I could dream them any way I wanted. I liked to think of them as priests who served in the Koretian army during the Border Wars, healing Koretian soldiers and praying over the dying. And then, when Koretia was conquered by Emor and became a dominion of the empire, my uncles had joined the Emorian army, healing Emorian soldiers and praying over the dying.

I knew perfectly well that most Emorians didn't believe in gods. But my parents did – they had a mask of the Jackal God hanging over our hearth, where we held our morning worship services – so surely my uncles could find a few Emorian borderland soldiers to pray over?

My thoughts had taken me all the way to the stream at the edge of the village, where my sisters liked to play. I could see them nearby, carefully watched by Nanny. Petrina was old enough that she helped my mother in the house, but now, released from her daytime duties, she was busy dressing her doll. My father had carved the doll out of a piece of wood – one of the few times I had seen my father hold a blade, despite the fact that most borderland men and boys wore sheathed blades at their belts, in the Koretian fashion, to show their manhood. I supposed my father knew he didn't have much manhood to show.

Triffy was racing in circles, just because she could. Nanny wisely made no attempt to stop her. As I came closer, I saw that Nanny's brow was creased, the way it always was when her head hurt.

Then I came close enough to see the bandage on her ankle, and I understood.

I stood stock still for a moment, enduring the shame of knowing that my parents had been right. That was the problem: my father and mother, despite their dullness, were so often right when they told me what to do or not to do. In retrospect, perhaps the fire next to the dry field hadn't been a good idea after all.

I swallowed down my humiliation and forced myself to walk forward. I was going to be a soldier one day, so I must learn how to face painful situations. When I reached Nanny, I said in a stilted voice, "I am very sorry for having caused you pain, Nanny."

She stared up at me from where she sat, her old-woman's face crinkling into a smile. Her skin was light in color, like most Emorians'. "Gods bless you, boy, it's nothing but a scratch. You sit down here and play with your sisters."

To be a boy of eight, and to be told to play with girls, was like a sentence of death. But I knew I deserved the punishment, so I sat down next to Petrina and tried to pretend – not very well, I fear – that I was interested in dolls' clothes.

Fortunately, Petrina knew me well enough not to inflict on me her thoughts about gowns and shifts. Putting down her doll, she asked tentatively, "Could you tell us the story of the Snowbound Lieutenant?"

Triffy, hearing that storytime had arrived, immediately flung herself down at my other side. "Jackal! Jackal! Jackal!" she demanded, pounding the ground with her little hands to make her point.

Though I was not going to admit it aloud, it was rather flattering to be asked to recite two stories. Nearby, Nanny had closed her eyes. Now that I was there to watch over my younger sisters – however unreliably – she would allow herself an early-evening nap before supper.

I thought rapidly, then came up with one of the shorter stories about the Jackal. I knew many stories by now; every Koretian trader who passed through our village I plied with requests for tales about the masked rebel-leader who claimed to be a human manifestation of the Jackal God.

"All right," I said. "First, you have to understand that the Jackal is a god. A very powerful god, one of the seven gods and goddesses worshipped by the Koretians."

"And us!" screamed Triffy, delighted to make her own contribution to the tale.

"And us," I agreed. "Our family worships the Jackal God too. But the Jackal – the rebel-leader of Koretia – isn't just a god. He's a man too. Back in the old days, he led the fight in Koretia against blood feuds and demon-stonings and slavery."

This I had learned from my mother, who had quite a few sharp remarks to make against slavery. I'd never understood why slavery was wrong in Koretia, even though the Chara deemed that it was quite acceptable for Emorians to own slaves. That was all past history, though. Although slavery remained lawful in the rest of the empire, the Chara had decided to abolish Koretian slavery – and blood feuds and demon-stonings – not long after he conquered Koretia. So I quickly skipped to the exciting part of the story: the Jackal's current rebellion against the Emorians.

"The Jackal has soldiers working for him," I said. "He calls them thieves, because sometimes they steal things. They also spy, slipping from doorway to doorway to listen secretly to conversations. Mostly, though, they play pranks. They pour sand into Emorian soldiers' food, and they pour water onto the hypocaust fires at the governor's mansion, and they do anything else they can think of to make the Emorians living in Koretia be miserable, so that they'll move away, and Koretia will be free again, no longer a dominion of Emor."

"But we want Koretia to be an Emorian dominion, don't we?" said Petrina, always ready with her soft-spoken objections. "We're loyal to the Chara."

I had to think back three years to how my father had explained it to me, when I first asked the same question. I had only been five years old then, but I had come to grasp that my parents, far from being angry at the Jackal's rebel activities, actually hoped that the Jackal's thieves would be successful in their mission to free Koretia.

So now I explained it the way my father had: "Being loyal to the Chara doesn't mean you have to agree with all his decisions. The lords of the Great Council of Emor, who help the Chara to rule the empire, sometimes disagree with the Chara about decisions he has made. If some of those lords can believe that Emor shouldn't have forced Koretia to become part of its empire, then loyal subjects like ourselves can believe that the Jackal is right to fight against the Emorian occupation."

"Snowbound Lieutenant! I want Snowbound Lieutenant!" Triffy pounded her fists on the ground.

I sighed aloud at the fickleness of my youngest sister, but I really didn't mind. Much as I enjoyed talking about the Jackal and his exciting battles against the Emorians, I much preferred to speak about my hero: the Snowbound Lieutenant.

So I completed the tale of the Jackal quickly by saying, "Oh, and the Jackal has a Second Blade – he's a sort of subcommander to the Jackal's army of thieves. He coordinates the battles. He is like—" I thought of the perfect transition to my next tale. "The Jackal's Second Blade is like a sublieutenant, while the Jackal is like the lieutenant of the border mountain patrol."

"Which can fight better, the Jackal or the Snowbound Lieutenant?" asked Petrina, clearly fascinated by this analogy.

This was a hard question, but loyalty prompted me to say, "The Snowbound Lieutenant, of course. He's the best lieutenant that the border mountain patrol ever had. He was the best soldier in the entire Emorian army."

This was no more than the truth, as I had learned on one glorious afternoon in the Emorian capital, when my life had turned upside down at age six.

I had been waiting for my father to finish bargaining with a merchant when I noticed a group of soldiers nearby, chatting with one another as they sat eating their noonday meals amidst the market stalls. The headquarters for the Emorian army was nearby, behind the walls enclosing the grounds of the Chara's palace, but of course I had never been behind those walls, so this was the first opportunity I'd ever had to listen to soldiers talk.

It turned out they were talking about the Snowbound Lieutenant. Even I had heard that name before, though only in snatches – passing references made by travelling Koretian traders, or Daxion bards, or anyone else who passed through our village, for the Snowbound Lieutenant's renown had spread throughout the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula and even, I suspected, up onto the mainland. Even some of my fellow villagers had heard of him, though none of them knew any more about him than I had before that day.

Now, sitting with my sisters, I paused to make sure I was telling the story the way I had heard it on that wondrous day two years ago when I eavesdropped on the soldiers. It was important that I tell the tale exactly the way it had happened, without embellishment. I would occasionally throw a fanciful detail into one of my stories about the Jackal and his thieves. But the Snowbound Lieutenant – the greatest leader that the border mountain patrol had ever known – was sacred to me. For him, I had to stick strictly to the truth.

So I said slowly, remembering the words, "He was a legend come to life. A soldier such as Emor had never before known. He was as quick as a striking snake, as wise as the Chara, as brave as the entire vanguard of our army, and he always knew when border-breachers arrived. Always. He could hear them coming from miles away. He'd lead his men out, adroitly hunt down the breachers, and then, if he had to fight them, he would win the battle, for his blade skills were as high as his hunting skills. Yet he was always modest about his high accomplishments. Always. His men worshipped him, for while the Snowbound Lieutenant was a powerful man who kept strict discipline over the other eleven patrol guards, he also protected them like a fierce mountain lion protects her cubs."

Nanny was fully asleep now, snoring softly as she leaned against the tree she had settled her back upon, her hands resting over each other on her lap. Petrina had abandoned her doll, leaning forward to listen better. Triffy was on all fours, as though she wanted to scramble onto me to hear better. I lowered my voice, for effect.

"Then one day," I said, "one terrible day, the winter snows came sooner than they were expected. The men of the patrol were caught in the mountains, surrounded by a howling blizzard in a hut built for the warmer time of the year, with only food enough for two days. Two days went by, then four, then eight, then ten, then twelve. Finally thirteen days had passed, and the winds died down. Grieving for the loss of his patrol, the Chara sent men into the mountains in order to retrieve the patrol guards' bodies.

"And the men found the patrol guards alive."

As always, a shiver went through my body as I whispered the climactic words. I could see Petrina shiver too, while Triffy was listening with her mouth agape.

"They'd survived – the patrol guards had survived, because the Snowbound Lieutenant was watching over them," I explained. "Their suffering had been great, but the Snowbound Lieutenant was too clever, too skilled, and too courageous to die. And because he protected his men, he kept them alive too. Even though the patrol only had two days' worth of food, the guards honored the Snowbound Lieutenant so greatly that they fought their way to life during those thirteen terrible days.

"And so the border mountain patrol was saved, and there will never be another soldier like the Snowbound Lieutenant – never in a thousand years."

There was a very satisfactory silence after I finished my tale. Then Triffy pounded the ground again, demanding, "More! More! More!"

I couldn't have given her more; that was the only tale I knew about the Snowbound Lieutenant, other than snippets of information on how he went about capturing breachers. Fortunately, though, Triffy's shouts disturbed Nanny, who snorted herself to wakefulness.

"Now, now," Nanny said to Triffy. "No shouting. That's not ladylike. It's time for your suppers."

Triffy screamed her defiance of this order. Petrina, who had been born ladylike, contented herself with a sigh as she picked up her doll and stood up. "Come on," she told Triffy, holding out her hand. "It's honey custard tonight."

This silenced Triffy's screams at once; my youngest sister bounded to her feet. After a moment, she decided to scream her delight at the news.

Clucking her disapproval, Nanny hurried the girls toward our house. I stayed where I was, looking toward the mountains.

The mountains were quiet now; even the border mountain patrol, I knew, had its suppertime. If I went there now, maybe I could find the patrol hut, which was reportedly hidden somewhere that no breacher had ever been able to find. I would be able to see the hut where once the shivering, starving patrol guards had suffered in the blizzard, while the Snowbound Lieutenant watched over them.

But Nanny was right about one thing: the mountains were dangerous. Thanks to my father's training, I felt secure enough venturing a short way into the mountains in the daytime, but until I had the training of a patrol guard, I didn't dare travel over the mountains at night.

But how was a village boy, the son of a bladeless farmer, ever going to learn what he needed to know in order to apply to be a patrol guard? How could I even find the courage to tell my father that I didn't want to be a farmer?

Sighing, I turned away. It was then that I saw him.
 

CHAPTER TWO

He was standing on my side of the stream, scanning the village with fierce eyes, like a hawk's. He was dressed in a plain travelling tunic and winter breeches, but strapped to his side was a long sword, such as only nobles and soldiers wear. The greying hair at his temples made him look distinguished. He had light brown skin, like I and my family did; even my father, being a native borderlander, had as much Koretian blood as Emorian. Like my father, this stranger was clean-shaven, Emorian-fashion. His hand rested lightly on his sword-hilt, as though well acquainted with it.

I felt my heart thump and told myself not to be a fool. It was just a coincidence. It was only a coincidence that I had told the story of the greatest Emorian soldier ever, and then a soldier had appeared before me. . . .

He caught sight of me then, his eyes resting upon me in a watchful, assessing manner. When he spoke finally, it was in Border Koretian. "Shall I guess what your name is?"

I felt my stomach plummet in disappointment. The man spoke in perfect Border Koretian – it was clear that this was his native tongue. But his accent was too southern. He was from the Koretian borderland, not the Emorian borderland.

Still, he was a soldier. Of that I was sure. Remembering that he had asked me a question, I said quickly, "My name is Griffith. I'm named after my uncle. He's in service to the gods." That sounded better than saying my uncle was a bladeless priest.

Slowly – ever so slowly, as though he had not done this for a long time – the soldier smiled. "Indeed?" he said. "And your mother – she is Tryphena?" He spoke the question tentatively, as though he was uncertain whether the woman named Tryphena still existed.

I shrugged. I would have liked to answer his question – I would have willingly answered any question that a soldier asked me – but I had no idea whether my mother's full name was Tryphena. Nanny and the villagers called my parents "madam" and "sir," while my parents addressed each other by endearments. The only reason I knew my father's name was because I was named for him.

But I wasn't about to reveal that to the soldier. I opened my mouth to welcome him to our village, in hopes that he would stay longer.

"Griffith!"

It was her danger voice. Hastily, I took several steps back from the soldier; then I looked around. My mother had emerged from our house, no doubt to call me to supper. She was standing very straight, staring wide-eyed at the scene. And then – exactly as she had done five years ago, when the slave-seller tried to snatch me – she rushed forward to beat my abductor away.

I watched with horror, uncertain what to do. The slave-seller had been a soft, short, portly man; only a few slaps from my mother had been enough to intimidate him before my father arrived and demanded to know what was going on. By sharp contrast, the soldier was tall and had hard muscles. He looked as though he could snap my mother's spine with a single twitch of his fingers.

Before I could think what to do, she was upon us, flinging herself onto the soldier. He grabbed her tight. I opened my mouth to shout for help from the other villagers.

Then I realized, to my astonishment, that my mother was kissing the soldier.

She had gone up onto tiptoe and was kissing everything within reach: his brow, his nose, his cheeks . . . And the soldier was kissing her hair as he gave a throaty laugh and murmured something into her ear.

I had no idea what to do. My mother had never given the slightest indication that she was dissatisfied with my father, much less this. I looked around wildly, as though some rescue might come to this terrible scene—

And there was my father. Standing nearby, holding a shovel covered with manure.

Terrified now, I ran over to him. "Don't be angry!" I pleaded. "Don't be angry with her! She – she's been overcome with passion." I had heard that phrase from Nanny when she was telling my sisters a love story from her own youth.

My father looked down at me. I couldn't read his expression. But in the next moment he had let go the shovel and pulled me up in his arm.

I forgot – between the rare times when this happened – how strong the farming had made my father. He carried me along like a sack of meal as I struggled in my mind to figure out what to do.

I had no doubts as to what would happen next. My father, momentarily overcoming his usual cowardice, would challenge my mother's lover in some fashion. The soldier would skewer my bladeless father with his sword. My poor, helpless father would die in a puddle of his own blood.

"Sir, no!" I began to struggle in his arm. "Please don't go too close—"

It was too late. My father let me down to my feet just as the soldier, still kissing my mother, caught sight of my father. The soldier gently pushed my mother aside, leaving no barrier between him and my father.

I stepped in front of my father. I couldn't think of what else to do. There was no one else to defend him.

Neither man took notice of me. My father said, "You've shaved your beard."

The soldier responded, "Being beardless helped to disguise me during my travels. Besides, Emor was my destination. It's good to see you again, man."

"And you." Stepping nimbly around me, my father embraced the soldier.

I stared open-mouthed as the two men continued to hug each other. My mother stood by, smiling. After a minute, the soldier caught sight of me and stepped back, laughing. "Your son looks as though he's catching blood-flies with his mouth. I think an introduction is in order."

"Is it safe?"

Unexpectedly, my father's voice had gone very soft. Equally unexpectedly, he had switched to Common Koretian. It took me a moment to realize that he was speaking that language because no one else in our village knew it.

The soldier offered a twist of a smile, replying in the same tongue, "If you've named him Griffith, it must be, mustn't it?" He looked down at my mother, who had come over to his side and was staring up at him, a worried expression on her face. He put his arm around her shoulders in an easy fashion and said quietly, "Yes, I believe I'm safe. Emlyn kept me well hidden, these past nine years; the governor must assume I'm dead. And no one will think to look for me on this side of the border."

My father nodded and turned his attention to me. "Son, this is your Uncle Griffith, for whom you are named."

I looked first at my mother, who nodded, then at the soldier, who smiled at me. Then I looked at my father. In the voice of a son who has been utterly betrayed, I said, "You told me he was a priest."

My mother hiccupped with laughter. Uncle Griffith grinned, saying, "A priest, am I?"

My father's mouth twitched, but he knelt down beside me, saying, "You misunderstood me, son. I said only that your uncle is in service to the gods."

"That is true," contributed Uncle Griffith. "I was in service to the gods."

My mother stopped laughing. My father rose slowly to his feet. There was a moment of silence as all my elders looked at one another. I spent that moment tracing Common Koretian verb forms and realizing that a verb tense had changed.

Finally my father said, "Let's go inside. The children and their Nanny are eating their supper now, but it's a mild evening; we can send them to eat in the village square. Son, go wait for them there."

I opened my mouth, outraged, then quickly clamped my mouth shut. What did it matter if I was being sent away? I would find out what they were saying anyway.

My uncle had begun to step away; now he paused and looked back at me. Once again, that hawk's scrutiny raked me. Then my uncle smiled.

"He has your looks," he said to my father. "Am I correct in guessing that he has a bit of my blood as well?"

It was my mother who sighed and said, "I'm afraid so. He's forever spying on us, listening in on conversations when he shouldn't. Even you can't catch him always." This last remark was addressed to my father.

"Then there's no point in sending him away, is there?" said my uncle. He reached out his left hand toward me.

For an instant, I could not believe my good fortune; then I rushed forward to take my uncle's hand. I looked over at my father. His brows were drawn low with concern, but he said nothing. My mother slipped her hand around her brother's right arm, saying, "You look tired. Did you have a hard journey?"

"Not as hard as it could have been. The winter weather remained mild."

"This is the mildest weather we've had for several years," said my father. "It had a good effect on the autumn crops, but I'm worried that our sprouting seedlings will get caught by a cold snap. . . ."

We continued toward the house, with my father – quite embarrassingly – chattering about his everlasting crops and weather. My mother went ahead of us, and by the time we arrived at the house, she had already sent Nanny and the girls away. Only my two baby brothers remained in the house. To my even greater embarrassment, my mother was in the midst of changing Secundus's breech-cloth.

She gestured with an elbow toward the simmering pot. "Help yourself to the stew."

"No need in my case," Uncle Griffith replied, still speaking in Common Koretian. "I ate a very full meal at noonday. I arrived nearly penniless in Emor, but I have only the highest praise for the hospitality in your borderland. I've been welcomed with open arms at every Emorian village I've stayed in."

As he spoke, my uncle set aside his sword – his only belonging, besides his clothes – and strode over to my mother's side. There he proceeded, before my astonished eyes, to change Tertius's cloth.

My father, who had gone over to the wine-stand, paused to say, "Married, with children?"

The skin around Uncle Griffith's eyes creased in apparent amusement. "Younger sister. Our mother died when Tryphena was born; I changed many a cloth while Tryphena was a baby. . . . No, I remain a bachelor. Never had the opportunity for courting." He stepped back, wiped his hands clean on the damp cloth that my mother handed him, and took the guest-cup of wine that my father offered him.

I looked around for a safe space in which to listen and then hurried over to my usual corner, half-hidden by the bookcase. What little spare money that my father had, he usually spent on books; he had a bookcase full of farming manuals, as well as a few books of Koretian sacred tales that my mother liked to read.

I took my own book off the shelf. Somehow, I had managed to persuade my father, on my seventh birthday, to buy me a soldiers' manual at the city market. It was filled with illustrations showing the different blade-moves that soldiers use in battles – though not, alas, any advice on how to fit those blade-moves together to make a coherent fight.

I had long since memorized all the moves, but I pretended to look at the book in hopes that my elders would forget I was there and be more candid than my parents usually were in my presence. After a minute, though, I felt a nudge at my foot. I looked up to see my father bowing down, offering me a bowl of stew.

I quickly set the book aside and took the stew. I had entirely forgotten, until this moment, that I had missed my noonday meal.

"Did you have trouble finding us?" My mother had settled herself upon the great chest near the hearth which doubled as a seat. With Tertius in her arms, she stretched out one of her legs so that she could rock Secundus in the cradle, with her foot.

My uncle, who had been seated in my father's usual chair, gave an equivocal gesture with the guest-cup. "It would have been easier if I'd started my search at the pass. But I entered Emor by way of Daxis, not wishing to test my skills against the border mountain patrol." He smiled as my father sat down beside my mother, holding his own cup of wine. "So I started my Emorian journey at the west coast of the borderland and worked my way east. Pleasant hospitality in every village, but I was beginning to worry that you'd decided to settle further north."

My father shook his head. "Tryphena insisted that we settle in the borderland, so that you could find us easily."

His voice, as always, was very gentle, very mild. I scrutinized him more carefully than I usually did. He had a bit of dried muck on his breeches, his tunic was peasant brown, and his farmers' hat was frayed over his grey, balding head. The flap at the neck of his tunic was clasped with a brooch depicting the Jackal God's mask – a wedding gift from my Uncle Griffith, I recalled – but that was my father's only decoration. He wasn't wearing a blade – of course – and his face was scarred . . . evidence, I had always been sure, that he'd been unable to defend himself during the usual battles of youth against youth.

He was, in a word, a ridiculous figure. I writhed inside.

My father added, "I was happy enough to live in the borderland again. I grew up in a village just to the west of us."

His expression now sober, my uncle said, "I passed through its ruins on the way here. It made me realize, for the first time, why the Chara's soldiers told me they were showing us mercy when they destroyed my own village."

"One out of every ten men in your village was executed, including your younger brother," my father said quietly. "I would not consider that mercy."

I stared, my stew forgotten. I had always known – though I often forgot – that I would have possessed three uncles, except that one had died young. I had never known that Uncle Siward had died as a result of the Border Wars.

Uncle Griffith had set aside his cup and was staring down at his hands, which were crisscrossed with scars – I supposed from old blade-battles he had fought in. "Too many deaths," he said heavily. "There has been far too much suffering and death on both sides of the border for the past thirty years."

My father put down his cup. Leaning forward, he asked softly, "What has happened, Griffith?"

My uncle raised his eyes. There was a bleakness in his expression that made my throat grow tight, even before he said, "Emlyn is dead."

My mother pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. My father immediately reached over and slid his arm around her waist, without moving his eyes from Uncle Griffith. "Killed?" my father said.

Uncle Griffith shook his head. "Died in his sleep. I was nearby when it happened. It was very peaceful." He had turned his head; his final words were addressed to my mother.

"Thank the gods for that mercy," she breathed, sketching a sacred sign over the tiny Jackal's mask on the right breast of her gown. "But Griffith – Emlyn was only five decades old."

"His labors wore him to death." Uncle Griffith returned his gaze to my father. "You guessed that was happening, the last time the four of us met."

My father nodded. "You look tired yourself."

"I am." Uncle Griffith leaned forward, his shoulders hunched, like a man who has been laboring for days without cease. "I am more weary than I can say. We have been working so hard, for so long, and with no progress. And now . . ." He let the sentence lie unfinished.

"And now," said my father. "What will happen next?"

Uncle Griffith opened his mouth. Then he looked my way. I had been about to set my stew-bowl aside; my stomach had sickened from this sad news about the uncle I would never have a chance to meet. Now I froze, like a breacher who has just been sighted during a hunt.

My father followed Uncle Griffith's gaze. "Shall I send him out?" he asked.

Uncle Griffith turned his attention back to my father. "Can he be trusted?"

"In most things. He likes to keep secrets. But this . . ." Like my uncle, my father did not finish his sentence.

"I won't tell anyone," I said in as manly a manner as I could. And then, prompted by some awareness that this was a great matter, I added what it had never occurred to me to say before: "I'll give my free-man's oath."

In the next moment, I bit my lip, certain that my elders would laugh at me. But Uncle Griffith simply looked at me steadily with that assessing gaze of his. He glanced at my father, received some sort of message there, and then, to my delight, he reached for his sword.

Unsheathed, the sword was very long and very battered. It looked as though it had been in a thousand battles. Its hilt was silver, though, shining proudly in the firelight.

My father said, "Before you make any oath, you need to understand: this is a matter of life or death. Your uncle will likely die if you let slip his secret."

"And your parents will be endangered too," Uncle Griffith added. "They may be questioned, because they are kin to me."

This was beyond any trial which I had ever encountered in my life. I was tempted to join my sisters in their ignorance. But I – I wished to be a patrol guard. I mustn't be a coward. I nodded to show I understood; then, with my heart beating loudly, I leaned forward.

I did not need to lean far; the sword was so long that it took up much of the space in the room. As my uncle held the hilt, I placed my palm carefully on the flat of the blade and said, "By my honor as a free-man, I swear that I will not reveal anything spoken tonight in this room. I swear this by my loyalty to the Chara—" I hesitated, remembering how some of the villagers ended the oaths they spoke before my father, when my father held the village court. The amendment seemed appropriate, in these circumstances. So I added, "—and by my loyalty to my god."

Uncle Griffith raised his eyebrows as he resheathed his sword. "Thoroughly put. Out of curiosity, which god does he worship?"

"Who do you think?" my father replied, leaning forward to refill my uncle's cup with wine. The Jackal's mask on his brooch glittered in the light.

My uncle gave a sharp laugh. "He'll have double motive for keeping his oath, then. To your health." He lifted his cup of wine.

"To his spirit." My father's voice was quiet as he lifted his own. "Though I admit, I find it difficult to imagine how he could have died."

My uncle's mouth twisted again. He was stroking a scar at his wrist, which I suddenly realized must be the place where he had long ago mixed his blood in friendship with his blood brother Emlyn. "You are hardly the only one. It was a shock to us all. But he was born in my village and placed in the very same cradle in which I was placed a year later. He bled from wounds more times than I can recall. He always warned us that he could die. . . . I don't know. Perhaps the god withdrew himself, in the end. Or perhaps the god stayed joined, in order to guide Emlyn into the Land Beyond. I can't imagine Emlyn entirely separate from the god, somehow, even in the Land Beyond."

"These are mysteries," contributed my mother. She was slowly rocking Tertius in her arms. "We'll never know the answers, unless such mysteries are unveiled to us after we die."

My father, who had never shown any interest in mysteries, merely nodded. "And the fight?"

Uncle Griffith sighed heavily, leaning forward again with his shoulders hunched. "That is part of what makes me weary. I cannot see how it can go on. The only thing which lent legitimacy to our cause – which made us more than common criminals – was his leadership. And when word breaks that the Jackal is dead . . ."

I must have gasped. Uncle Griffith looked my way and raised his eyebrows. It took me a moment to clear my mind enough to be able to formulate a question. Then I asked in a hushed voice, "Uncle Griffith . . . are you a thief?"

His smile was wry, though his shoulders unhunched, as if pride prevented him from showing weariness in the presence of a young admirer. "Yes," my uncle said. "I was the Jackal's Second Blade."

o—o—o

I stared bewildered at my parents. Neither of them seemed in the least bit surprised at this revelation. I opened my mouth, closed it, and turned my eyes to stare at the Jackal's mask on the hearth.

The Jackal. I now knew who the Jackal had been, during the time he had lived as a man. I shared blood with the Jackal.

It was too much to take in. Reading my silence as the consternation it was, Uncle Griffith turned his attention back to my parents. "I can't tell you much," he said. "It wouldn't be safe for you to know much. But the truth is, I know very little myself. My first instinct, after he died, was to concede defeat – to end the rebellion, to admit that the Emorians had won, for reasons that only the gods knew."

"But you didn't?" My father had his unreadable expression on his face, the one that always made me uneasy.

Uncle Griffith quirked a smile. "Mine was the reaction of an ageing man, perhaps. I was weary beyond words, and so were the others who had been there from the beginning. But the Jackal possessed newer companions – young men who were eager to fight. In the end, I decided it would be best to leave the decision in their hands. They are good men, god-lovers; I know they will do nothing until they receive indication from the gods as to how they should act next."

"And you?" My mother leaned forward, taking care not to squash Tertius. "What will happen to you?"

"I am retired." Uncle Griffith smiled at her, his expression still exhausted. "By suggestion of one of the thieves I left behind. It was the compromise we reached: the older companions would withdraw from the fight, leaving the younger generation to continue, should they receive appropriate signs from the gods. Though how the thieves will be able to carry on the rebellion without the Jackal's leadership, I cannot imagine." His voice had grown weary again, like a laborer past the brink of his strength.

"Then will you stay with us?" my father asked in his quiet manner. "Tryphena and I would welcome your company, our daughters would be delighted to get to know their uncle, and our eldest son is in dire need of a second man in this family."

I writhed again at this open admission that my father was too weak to handle me on his own. My father's remark seemed to cheer my uncle, though; he chuckled and said, "I am beginning to sense that. More than a little of my blood, then. I don't envy you. Tryphena, I think I'll have some of that stew after all. It will fortify me for battles to come." He winked at me.

"Stew for us and custard for the children and their Nanny." My mother set Tertius next to Secundus in their cradle. "I'll just call the girls in first, so that they can meet you."

"I'll do that," I said quickly, judging that the important part of the evening had ended. The truth was, I needed time alone to take in all that had been said. My head was still whirling.

As I closed the house door and hurried away, though, I heard my father say in his soft voice, "We do indeed need your help with him, but I believe that you may be of greater assistance to Tryphena and me in another matter. . . ."
 

CHAPTER THREE

The next few days passed like a flurry of blizzard-driven snowflakes.

On the surface, nothing seemed to have changed. Village life continued in its normal fashion. Nanny's closest friend Ilya, who was even older than she was, died and was laid on the usual pyre. As was customary, my father recited the death rite, Ilya's closest kin spread oil over her body, and then the entire village watched as the body burned, a mask hiding the face until the end. Afterwards, her eldest daughter scattered Ilya's ashes across the fallow fields of the village, so that her death would bring life in the years to come.

The following day, after my father had officially given over Ilya's hut to Uncle Griffith, my father held village court at its regular time of the month and determined that two quarrelling villagers ought to compromise in their battle over grazing grounds. His judgment, as usual, was entirely unofficial, and as usual, the villagers followed his advice.

As was also usual, news trickled in from outside the village, brought by traders travelling to and fro between Emor's capital and Koretia's capital. The Chara issued a new judgment, clarifying what everyone already assumed, that lesser free-men were permitted to own slaves . . . except in Koretia, of course. Lord Carle, one of the senior lords on the Great Council of Emor, was assigned higher duties, which had everyone speculating that he would be in line for the High Lordship after the present High Lord died. No disturbing news arrived from Koretia; everything remained quiet there, untroubled even by the Jackal's usual battles against the Emorians.

My uncle settled into village life more easily than I would have imagined was possible. I had expected him to be quickly bored by our provincial setting. It had taken a pointed statement by my mother to remind me that my uncle had lived in a village like this until the explosion of war between Koretia and Emor had sent the Jackal's thieves scattering in all directions to meet the new threat.

Even so, I could not imagine how my uncle could bear the tedious rhythm of the farming year, after all the excitement he had undergone. When I dared to ask him, he laughed. He seemed to be laughing a good deal these days, and his shoulders had lost some of their weariness.

"I share your father's view that there comes a time when unending excitement becomes far more tedious than a restful life," he said, taking a pitchfork from my hand.

I couldn't figure out what my father had to do with this. I couldn't understand at all why my uncle seemed to admire my father. Perhaps, I thought, Uncle Griffith simply didn't know my father very well. I felt an agonizing impatience for the moment when my uncle would realize how little my father was worthy of admiration.

In the meantime, I took to following my uncle around the farm, waiting for when he would draw his blade and fight against some worthy foe. The villagers, frustratingly dull, failed to challenge my uncle to any duels. I tried desperately to think of some deadly mission that my uncle could undertake. In response to my shadowing of him, my uncle asked me how best to handle the farm's manure.

If I could not draw my uncle into battle, could I possibly draw upon him for lessons? For surely no better man existed in the entire Great Peninsula to teach me the skills I needed. I was unhappily aware, though, that I could not seek my uncle's teachings without first receiving permission from my father. How could I ask for such permission, knowing that it would reveal my low opinion of my father's own skills? It was a conundrum that I chewed upon for many days.

Finally, on one fine spring day, I braced myself for battle. I found my father in the garden, checking over my mother's crop of herbs. "They're doing well this year," he said, upon sighting me. "If the weather holds, we should have a fine spring crop in the fields also."

I sighed. How could I hope to explain my aspirations to a man who thought about nothing except crops and weather?

Faintly, from the direction of the mountains, I heard a very high whistle that lasted a long time. My father abruptly straightened, his gaze turning toward the mountains.

This was the opening I needed. "The border mountain patrol guards do important work for the Chara, don't they?" I said.

"So people say." My father bent down over the herbs again.

"The patrol guards keep Koretian criminals from entering our land and causing trouble here. And they keep Emorian criminals from entering the Dominion of Koretia and escaping justice here. The patrol guards are even more important than the soldiers of the watch in the cities and towns, because the patrol guards protect all of us, even the villagers. They protected us when the Koretians attacked our borderland villages at the beginning of the Border Wars—"

"No." My father's voice was very mild as he straightened up again. "Don't enshrine the patrol guards like gods, son. A dozen men could not hold back the number of soldiers that the old Koretian King sent over the border. Two-thirds of the patrol was slaughtered during that attack."

I bit my lip, stung by my father's criticism. I had not meant to exaggerate. I wanted only to admire the patrol guards for what they were, not for what my fervid imagination could turn them into.

Finally I said defiantly, "The Snowbound Lieutenant could have held them back."

"No." My father's voice was even softer than before.

"How do you know?" I shouted. "You're just a farmer! You've never drawn a blade in your life!"

My father looked at me for a while, saying nothing. Then he bent down, picked up a sickle that lay on the ground, and sliced off a handful of mint leaves. Returning the sickle to the ground, he offered the leaves to me.

I stepped back. "That's not what I want."

"Which is easier, son?" he asked in his quiet voice. "To cut a plant that will provide nourishment for your family? Or to plunge a blade into the body of a man?"

He didn't understand. He would never understand. Furious now, I spun on my heel.

He caught hold of me before I could dart away, his hand hard on my arm. "Son, I am not saying that fighting is always wrong, only that it is hard. I don't want you to turn the tale of the border mountain patrol into a light ballad, when in fact it is a tale of suffering and death."

"I know that!" I cried. "I know all the tales about the Snowbound Lieutenant! I know how he and his men suffered in the snow – but I also know that he rescued his men from dying. I want to be like that. I don't just want to kill men, like you said. I want to save lives!"

It was a greater part of my heart than I had ever poured out to him before. I stood frozen afterwards, fearing that he would mock me with a smile, as he so often did when I mentioned the Snowbound Lieutenant. But after a moment, my father said, "A worthy ambition. Would you like my help?"

I drew in a deep breath. This was the tricky part. However much I despised my father for his weakness, I had no desire to be cruel toward him. I must find a way to phrase my question so that it did not unnecessarily hurt him.

I said slowly, "If I wanted to be a farmer, I'd ask for your help. I know that you'd be able to teach me a lot about farming. But different men have different skills. I was thinking . . . I was thinking perhaps that, since Uncle Griffith is a soldier, he could teach me how to fight."

My father said nothing at first. Across the spring-bright fields came the chatter of farmers and field hands as they worked. Nearer still was the chatter of women working at home to care for the children, cook the food, weave and mend the clothes, clean the house, and other such tasks that women do, since they cannot fight.

Finally, my father set aside his hat and said, "We'd best find your uncle, then."

I leapt in the air like an excited mountain cub, then hurried after my father as he strode toward the mountains.

After a bit of searching, we finally espied Uncle Griffith sitting upon a high, flat boulder that was hidden behind one of the foothills of the black border mountains. He was chatting with my mother, who, for once, had abandoned her babies to the care of Nanny and was lounging on the grass nearby, under a tree. My mother, for some reason, was running a cloth along Uncle Griffith's sword; she looked up expectantly as we arrived.

I eyed her warily, wondering whether she would seek to stop the lessons. My father said, in his usual mild voice, "Quentin-Griffith wishes to train for the patrol."

My uncle snorted as he jumped down from the boulder. "Why am I not in the least bit surprised?"

My mother merely sighed. "Blood will tell. At least he'll be putting his energy to good use for once."

My father leaned over, picked up two thick sticks from the ground, and offered one of them to me. "Here."

I stared at it with dismay. "I don't want to fight with sticks."

"Oh? Then I'll have to fight your uncle instead." My father tossed the second stick toward Uncle Griffith, who bent forward to catch it. "Are you game?"

"Do you know, I am not quite sure?" My uncle straightened up slowly, stick in hand.

"Too late." As he spoke, my father attacked.

What happened next I could barely see; the two men in front of me were a blur of motion and a rapid succession of cracks. When my father and my uncle finally paused, they were facing each other in opposite directions than they had stood before.

Uncle Griffith was breathing heavily. "You didn't give warning," he observed.

"Neither did you, the last time we did this," said my father, and attacked again.

This time my eye had adjusted itself; it followed the thrusts, the twirls of the bodies, the curve of sticks through the air, the sheer press of weight of one man's stick against the other.

Struggling to speak as they fought, my uncle said, "Did I ever tell you . . . that on that day . . . I was in deadly fear for my life? . . . I knew who I faced."

"You had no reason to fear." My father, who had somehow managed to fight his way up to the top of the boulder, leapt straight toward my uncle, his body twirling in the air, his boots in line to smash in my uncle's face. Uncle Griffith instinctively ducked; then he whirled around, straightened, and parried in the sliver of a moment before my father would have thrust the point of his stick against Uncle Griffith's back. "You are a skilled bladesman," my father added, as cool as can be.

"Not as skilled as you." Uncle Griffith was panting between every word now as my father's stick-blows forced my uncle to back up against the boulder. "If you had not chosen to throw away your blade that day, you would have—"

He stopped speaking abruptly. A single, powerful swipe of my father's stick had sent Uncle Griffith's stick soaring away. The tip of my father's stick was already touching Uncle Griffith's throat before my uncle's stick landed on the ground.

"I surrender," said Uncle Griffith. He sounded more than a little eager to make this statement.

Smiling, my father withdrew his play-blade. Then he leaned over, bracing himself with hands on knees as he breathed deeply. "I'm too old for this," he declared.

"I know twenty-five-year-olds who would sell their spirits to the demons to be able to fight as well as you do at age fifty-five." Uncle Griffith had dropped to one knee, still panting. "I never knew a man who fought better . . . except the Jackal, and he had unfair advantage over the rest of us."

"Adrian," said my father, pushing himself to an upright position.

"Perhaps." Uncle Griffith settled himself onto the grass beside my mother. "It would be a fight worthy to watch, I'll admit. Did you ever battle him?"

"No. He wouldn't fight me. But Carle trained him in the patrol, and Adrian disarmed Carle at his first try. Your family must possess a seed of skill that's passed on to every young man. Even to nephews, I suspect."

"No need to look to me for the cause, in this case." My uncle's voice had turned quiet.

I was barely aware of the conversation. From the moment of the first attack, I had been staring at my father. Now, as he turned to look at me, I became aware that I was gaping. I said, in a high voice that did not seem my own, "Who are you?"

In his slow, cautious, farmers' manner, he said nothing at first. Sweat ran down the scars on his face. His eyes met mine briefly; then he lowered them. "I'm your father," he said. "That's all that matters."

"A statement of supreme modesty," my uncle commented. "But then, modesty was always the hallmark of the Snowbound Lieutenant."

My world turned right-side up.

o—o—o

My father flicked a glance toward me, then away. He turned to toss his stick to the ground.

I could feel something building within me, something massive, like an avalanche from the black border mountains trying to burst its way out of me. I could not tell at first what it was. I only understood when my father, catching sight of me again, strode immediately over and took me into his arms.

I sobbed hysterically onto his hard chest. Above my heartfelt cries, I heard Uncle Griffith say, "God of Mercy! I'm sorry, Quentin. I should have realized what a shock the news would be to him."

"It's not your fault." My father's voice remained reassuringly gentle. "I should have told him before he began to hear the tales about me. Tryphena warned me."

"Is it true?" I could barely speak or see, but I pulled myself back from his embrace, blinking up at him. It was too important a question to wait. I needed to know whether my elders were playing a cruel joke on me. "Are you the Snowbound Lieutenant? Are the tales about you true?"

"They are true." It was my uncle speaking, somber-voiced. "No doubt, in the centuries to come, your father will enter into the realm of legend, but for now, the simple recital of his actual deeds is enough to astound listeners."

"The tales leave out my failures." My father's voice sounded heavy, as though he were bearing the weight of mountains.

"But are true as far as they go," inserted my mother, whom I had entirely forgotten. "Quentin-Griffith, your father is a very great man . . . for more than one reason."

My father turned his head. Some wordless message passed between him and my mother. I continued to stand beside him, stunned as though by a stone.

My uncle said briskly, "I know your skills, Quentin, but I'd like to see your son's."

"A good thought." My father reached down, picked up the stick he had dropped, and offered it to me.

I stared at it, appalled. "I'll never be able to fight like that!"

"Gods, I should hope not," murmured my uncle. "If all the soldiers in the Three Lands could fight like your father, every war would be a wholesale slaughter."

"You'll find your own gifts," my father said to me quietly. "Different men have different skills – you said that yourself, remember? The same is true of soldiers."

I wiped my wet face on the sleeve of my tunic; then slowly, hesitantly, I took the stick from my father's hand. He reached down and picked up a second stick. My eyes must have widened then, because he smiled faintly. "Don't worry. We'll take this at your pace. Don't try to rush yourself; your job now is to learn the rhythm of fighting, not the quickness. Tryphena, will you call the moves that Griffith and I made?"

"I can do that," I said, determined that I should contribute at least a little to this battle I was foreordained to lose.

My father nodded. "As before, then. Are you ready?"

Like my uncle, I was far from ready, but this time it did not matter. With the exception of a few new moves that my father added to keep me alert, we followed the same path that my father and uncle had taken, right down to my father's tremendous leap off the boulder, over my head. Fighting more slowly, I could see how, at each move, my father had been slightly ahead of Uncle Griffith, forcing my uncle to take the defense.

At the end, my father stopped short of placing his stick at my throat. He turned to my mother, saying, "Did he remember the sequence correctly?"

"Except for a few moves at the beginning," said my mother. "The rest was perfect." She had laid aside Uncle Griffith's sword and was plaiting together blades of grass, apparently unconcerned that I would come to harm.

"He has his mother's memory and his father's quick eye for knowing where the blow is going to land," Uncle Griffith observed. "A formidable combination."

My father nodded, then turned to me. "I told you that you would find your own gift. It took me weeks of training to remember blade-moves as well as you remembered them on your first try. You're well on your way to a fine career."

I stared up at him, remaking him in my mind from what I had thought him to be – remaking my entire life, it seemed. I said slowly, "You're proud of me. You want me to be a patrol guard!"

My father dipped his eyes suddenly. It was a full minute before he raised his eyes and spoke. When he did, his voice was quieter than I had ever heard it before.

He said, "I want you to do whatever work you feel drawn to do. It doesn't matter to me whether you're a soldier or a town councilman or a servant. Whatever you do, as long as it's in the service of good, I'll be proud of you. But if I can help you on your way . . . I'll be glad of that."

There was an aching in his voice. I realized in that moment how much he had needed me during those years when I had thrust him away.
 

CHAPTER FOUR

The months that followed were the most wonderful I had ever experienced.

Every afternoon now, my father – Lieutenant Quentin of the Border Mountain Patrol – took me to the same secluded spot next to the mountains, taught me bladeplay, and instructed me in the patrol customs that he was permitted to share with outsiders. And sometimes, when the moon was up, he would wake me a few hours before dawn. We would travel together into the mountains, faster and faster each time, so that I would know how to hunt at night. I finally found the nerve to ask him to play Hunter and Hunted with me.

Occasionally, Uncle Griffith would accompany us to our daytime lessons, and I would watch wide-eyed as the two men cut and thrust at each other with sticks. My uncle's skill was so great that he sometimes won the contest. More often, though, it was Uncle Griffith who said, "I surrender," as my father, smiling, placed the tip of his stick against Uncle Griffith's back or throat or heart.

Usually only my father trained me, for more and more now, Uncle Griffith was taking over the farm-work that my father had done for years, laboring alongside the hired field hands. I thought nothing about this until my uncle began giving orders to the field hands.

Not long after that, I began to notice that, when the villagers came to my father for a decision on this matter or that, my father would refer them over to Uncle Griffith for an answer. Eventually taking the hint, the villagers began consulting Uncle Griffith directly, acting as though he, not Quentin son of Quentin, was the head of the village.

I was at first puzzled, then disturbed. I had always known that my uncle was a baron who had lost his village during the early years of the war between Koretia and Emor. It had never before occurred to me, though, that my uncle might try to steal someone else's village, much less my father's. I began to follow my uncle around, seeking evidence of nefarious acts, but all that I received was more puzzlement. My father seemed fully aware of what was happening, Uncle Griffith periodically consulted with my father about difficult decisions, and my mother seemed serenely unconcerned when she witnessed these scenes. Indeed, she seemed happy.

We were all happy now, the entire family. As my father had predicted, Petrina and Triffy were delighted to have an attentive and loving uncle. As my father had not anticipated, my sisters were delighted and surprised by the new attention I was paying them. I couldn't explain to them that I had finally realized that my mother, far from being merely the dull farmer's wife I had always considered her to be, had actually spent her girlhood helping Uncle Griffith and Uncle Emlyn secretly fight to abolish slavery and other atrocities in Koretia. Clearly, girls were more useful than I had previously thought.

In the evenings, though, I lived in a man's world. My father and uncle, who had known each other for only a short time in the past, would stay up for long hours at night, sharing their pasts with each other. Sometimes my mother stayed up too, contributing hair-raising stories of her own, such as the horrible tale of the blood feud into which my Cousin Adrian had been drawn. But the twins kept my mother busy enough that she usually retired early.

I was allowed to stay up. Alas, I usually fell asleep halfway through the discussion, unable to keep my eyes open for the conversations I treasured so greatly. But while I was awake, I kept quiet, listening and hugging to myself the knowledge that I was the eldest son and nephew of two of the greatest men in the Three Lands.

After three months, my stick-play had improved so much that my father gave me my first dagger, casually handing it to me at the end of a lesson. We still fought with sticks, though, and I knew better than to draw my blade until my father gave permission. I was acutely aware that my father never wore a blade himself. That had seemed natural at one time; now I couldn't make sense of it.

Neither could Uncle Griffith, who made a polite enquiry one day. "Too Koretian a custom for you?" he asked.

My father shook his head. All three of us were out in the fields that day, trying to bring in the hay before a summer storm broke upon our village. My father's rugged face glistened with sweat as he said, "Even by Emorian custom, I'm entitled to wear one, as a former soldier. But when I draw my blade again, it will be of a different type."

Uncle Griffith raised his eyebrows but made no reply. I was left without understanding until the day when the messenger arrived.

o—o—o

There had been many messengers over the years. They wore the imperial royal colors on their saddle blankets: red and silver and gold. Our village was on the New Road between the capital and the pass to Koretia, so sometimes the messengers merely thundered through, going south or north between the Emorian capital and the governor's palace in Koretia. Every now and then, though, the messengers would stop and exchange a few words with my father.

I had never thought much about this. I had always assumed that the royal messengers would stop for anyone. Now I could have kicked myself for my obliviousness. Of course the royal messengers would stop on their important journeys. They were stopping for the Snowbound Lieutenant.

On this day, late in the summer, a royal messenger was coming from the south. I had just just finished teaching my sisters to play Hunter and Hunted within the village – Triffy had shown herself particularly talented at hunting, while Petrina knew all the best places to hide. As I came toward the stream to fetch myself a dipper of water, I stopped to watch my father casually lean on the flank of the messenger's horse, listening to something the messenger said. Then my father took something from the messenger's hand, nodded, and stepped back. The horse reared, and then the royal messenger was away, swift as a bird in flight.

Abandoning the dipper, I ran over to where my father was reading a piece of paper, his brows drawn low. I asked eagerly, "Did he tell you the Chara's secrets?"

I had forgotten to lower my voice. A couple of the field hands, on their way home, paused their conversation before passing on. I bit my lip, expecting punishment and knowing miserably that I deserved it. My father and uncle and mother had all trusted me to stay quiet about their secrets – had trusted me with their very lives.

My father smiled, saying, "I don't have the sort of power that would cause a royal messenger to break his oath of silence. Let's go find your uncle."

He put his arm around my shoulders. I let myself be pushed along, but I scuffed my bare feet on the ground, staring down. I felt hot with heartbreak at what I had done.

After a time, I felt my father squeeze my shoulders. He said quietly, "Mistakes happen. Yours wasn't a serious mistake. I made more than one mistake during my own training. Mistakes are there to learn from."

Cautiously, I peered up. My father was looking down at me with that patient look of his which would have once stirred me to fury. Now, knowing my father's strength, and knowing how many times he had deliberately chosen not to use that strength against his rebellious son, I felt as though something was choking my throat. I so little deserved my father's trust.

"I have less experience in these matters than your mother and uncle do," my father said unexpectedly. "Until I was thirty-five, I had only a few patrol secrets to keep. Your mother and uncle were in a far more difficult position than I was; they had to learn at an early age to keep high secrets. We ought to consult them on how not to let our tongues slip."

And that too was my father: gentle, modest, forgiving. Lieutenant Quentin embodied a lifetime's worth of lessons on how to be a good man.

By this time, we had reached Uncle Griffith, who was down on his knees in the dirt, playing with the twins while my mother watched, laughing. Uncle Griffith rose quickly, though, when he caught sight of my father.

"Message from the Koretian capital," said my father, handing over the letter. "It's from an old acquaintance of mine – a former royal messenger and spy who retired to Koretia in hopes that he might be able to pick up the occasional piece of information that would be of use to the Chara. His son is a royal messenger now and delivered the letter."

"Do you trust them?" Tilting his head to one side, Uncle Griffith did not look down at the letter.

"Oh, yes. Hylas trained Carle and Adrian to be spies; his son Locadio is a reliable man. Besides, this news is nothing secret. Locadio says it's simply a routine bit of gossip that everyone at the Koretian capital will have heard by now. Hylas wrote to me about it only because he knew of my long-standing interest in the Jackal."

At that word, Uncle Griffith immediately looked down at the letter. After a minute of reading, his breath caught audibly. "Is this possible?" he said, his voice filled with wonder.

"You would know better than I," replied my father as Uncle Griffith handed the letter down to my mother, who was still sitting with the babies. "Is it?"

Uncle Griffith appeared to think as my mother, having scanned the letter, placed her hand over her mouth, smothering a cry. Finally he said, "If you had told me thirty years ago that the god could become man even once, I would not have believed you. For the god to take human form twice . . . If it's possible, then I think I know how it happened. Emlyn was not the only priest among us."

Uncle Griffith was smiling now. My father, who had been standing stiffly, relaxed as he said, "This is good news, then?"

"Very good news, in all ways. You say that the Jackal's latest raid is considered a routine bit of gossip? That means the thieves I left behind have been successful in hiding the news of Emlyn's death. Now the rebellion will continue, without anyone except the Jackal's closest companions knowing that there has been a transition. And to cap it all, the rebellion could not have been placed in the hands of a better man." Uncle Griffith smiled down reassuringly at my mother. "You never knew him; he joined us in later years. But he was the thief who suggested I be released from my service to the god. I doubt he knew fully why then; the change must have occurred after I left."

"So you will not be called back into service."

There was something in my father's voice that even I could recognize as out of the ordinary. Uncle Griffith's head jerked up, while my mother turned her eyes to meet my father's.

After a moment, Uncle Griffith said slowly, "No. This is the final indication we need that I am free of my old service. . . . You will do it now?"

"If you think you're ready."

It was as though my father and my uncle were continuing an old conversation, one that my mother had witnessed. I kept my mouth shut, afraid that I would be remembered and sent away.

Uncle Griffith nodded. "With Tryphena's help, I'm sure I can manage matters here. Though I must confess, I'm tempted to keep you here by saying no. Will you be in much danger?"

As always, they were speaking in Common Koretian, but my uncle's voice had gone very low. Instinctively, I looked around, but I could neither see nor hear anyone nearby – only the faint chatter of the villagers and the fainter whistles of the border mountain patrol.

My father said only, "Perhaps. There is no law against what I am going to do, but laws never stopped a powerful man from having his way. And the men I will be visiting are very powerful – not merely in rank but in strength of mind."

"I should think so." Uncle Griffith's voice remained quiet. "But if they believe that you have weakened over the years, I fear they have a lesson coming to them. Still . . . Prison?"

I felt something clutch my guts. My father said calmly, "Perhaps. Perhaps a more appropriate fate."

Uncle Griffith closed his eyes for a moment, his face dappled black and brown under the clouds. Then he opened his eyes and said, in a deceptively light voice, "Well, at least there will be no mask this time."

"There will be a mask if that happens." My mother, with both babies in her arms, had somehow managed to rise to her feet unaided. The tone of her voice was one of stern pride. "The same mask as there was last time: the god's mask."

My father dipped his eyes, in that movement I had come to know very well. Uncle Griffith said softly, "Yes. He spoke of you on a number of occasions over the years, you know. He spoke of your courage and endurance. He once said that he wished you could have been his thief." Then Uncle Griffith drew in his breath sharply. "I never thought . . . Is this for him, then?"

"I hope so." My father had finally raised his eyes. "I hope this will please the Jackal, since it's the sort of work you did for him, in a different fashion. But whether or not it pleases the god, it's something I need to do."

He spoke in so simple a manner, in the same voice he used when teaching me how to reap a field of rye. A sound, dark and mournful, was struggling for release from my throat.

"Don't you dare try to stop him," said my mother fiercely to Uncle Griffith. "You fought this same fight for years in Koretia."

My uncle shook his head. "I would never think to stand in the path of the Snowbound Lieutenant. . . . Well, yes, once I made that mistake, and I learned my lesson." His voice had turned dry. "But now— I'm only surprised you didn't do this years ago."

My father shook his head as he reached over to pick up the forgotten message from the grass. "You'd entrusted Tryphena's protection to me. Later, after I inherited care of this village, there were the villagers to consider as well."

"And our children," added my mother, jogging my brothers up and down as they contributed their own cries to the conversation. "We thought it would be years before we could leave . . . but then you came."

"You know I'm willing to take over your duties here, Quentin," said Uncle Griffith, his gaze turning between his brother-in-marriage and his sister. "But Tryphena . . . did you say 'we'?"

"She's not coming," my father cut in quickly.

"No," confirmed my mother, sighing. "I can't. Petrina and Triffy are too young to leave, not to mention these joyful demands upon my attention." She was doing her best, with both hands full, to pull down her gown. Without a word, my father came over to help, and a moment later, Secundus and Tertius were sucking away at her breasts.

Uncle Griffith let out his breath. "That I am relieved to hear. I can certainly testify to Tryphena's qualifications as a rebel, but it's hard enough to send a brother-in-marriage into danger, much less my sister as well. . . . Still, it worries me, sending you out alone."

"He won't be alone," declared my mother, helping Secundus to relocate her nipple. "Dear, I want you to bring Quentin-Griffith with you."

o—o—o

For a moment, I could not believe what I had heard. Then my gaze flew to my father.

For once, my father seemed quite out of countenance. "Sweetest," he said slowly, "he is only eight years old."

My mother's chin rose. "And would you like to know how old Emlyn and Griffith were when they began the pranks that would eventually become their sacred work? Or how old I was when I first sighted Emlyn and Griffith sneaking out at night, so that I began hiding their secret forays from the other villagers?"

"Or how old you were when your father first started to train you for the patrol," Uncle Griffith said to my father. "Quentin, I appreciate your sentiments, but you underestimate your son's capacity for patience. You're lucky that he hasn't burnt down his family's home, as Emlyn and I nearly did during the wildest years of our boyhood."

My father looked at me. I tried to project back my loyalty, my trustworthiness, and oh, not a speck of the memory of the night I had spent thinking of ways to burn down our home.

I must not have succeeded, for my father placed his palm over his face. "Oh, dear," he said in a voice half tragic, half laughing.

My mother merely shook her head. "Boys. Would we girls be as bad, do you think, if we had the same opportunities for destruction?"

Uncle Griffith eyed her. "Judging from your example, I'd say yes. Best keep your eye on Petrina and Triffy. —Quentin, in all seriousness, you can't do this alone. Neither Tryphena nor I can accompany you, so that leaves you with only one choice. And his memory makes him the perfect choice."

"The danger—" my father began.

"Will not exist for Quentin-Griffith," interjected my mother. "He is too young to be charged with any crimes. God of Mercy, my heart's own, do you think I would give up Quentin-Griffith to you if there were any chance of his sharing in your danger? My heart is not made of iron."

My father responded to this statement by looking steadily upon my mother. "No, but you seem uncommonly eager to rid yourself of the presence of your first-born. May I ask why? Aside from the fact that I will be saddled with the responsibility of preventing Quentin-Griffith from burning down houses."

My mother smothered an incipient laugh atop Tertius's head. Uncle Griffith shook his head. "Brother-in-marriage, for once you are being obtuse. Of course she needs Quentin-Griffith to accompany you. If anything happens to you, who else would inform us?"

My father met my mother's eyes. Now sober from her laughter, she said in a voice that quavered for the first time, "I have to know. I can't wait another eleven years without word from you, not knowing each day whether you are alive or dead. I just can't."

Uncle Griffith relieved my mother of Secundus and Tertius in the bare moment before they would have been squashed by my father and mother coming together in an embrace. Embarrassed, I made faces at my crying brothers until they stopped wailing, fascinated by what I was doing.

Finally my mother stepped back, wiped her face clean of tears, and took the babies from Uncle Griffith's hold. My father clapped Uncle Griffith on the back in one of those wordless signs of thanks that men like to do. Then he crouched down in front of me.

"Son," he said, "you are young for this sort of work, but if you really want to be a patrol guard—"

"I do," I responded quickly.

My father nodded. "Then you may find this work to be of help to you. It will train you to keep secrets, follow orders, remain loyal, and, above all, be a man of honor. You need make no promises until I have explained the duties I wish you to undertake, but would you like to hear about the work I have in mind?"

"Yes, please," I begged, in an agony of fear that the subject would be dropped, and I would never learn how my father was entering into danger.

He nodded and stood up. "Let's go back to the house. We have a little time now, before Nanny brings the girls back for the evening meal."

o—o—o

The house was red with evening's rays when we arrived back. My father locked the door and shuttered the windows, while my uncle went over to stand sentinel next to one of the shuttered windows. My mother had stayed outside, perhaps to guard the other side of the house, though she had begun to blink back tears before we left her.

My father lit the lamps and then sat down in his usual chair by the hearth. "Quentin-Griffith," he said, "there are two wooden boxes at the bottom of the great chest. I'd like you to bring them to me."

I went to the chest on which I and my sisters often sat in the evenings. The chest had no lock; for as long as I could remember, my mother had used it to store our cloaks in the summer and to store autumn foods over the winter. It had never occurred to me to take everything out and see what lay at the bottom.

One of the boxes was so long that, if I had tilted it vertical, it would have been nearly half my height. The other box was much smaller, but it weighed almost as much as the long box. Staggering, I just managed to transport the boxes to my father's lap.

My father pushed the smaller box to one side, opened the long box, and folded back oiled cloths. Still on my knees where I had fallen, I leaned over to look, my breath motionless in my throat as I realized what lay within the box.

It was not fancy in any way. It was forged in a serviceable fashion for everyday use, rather than for show. It did not even have a fancy hand-guard, merely a rounded pommel. But at the very tip of the wooden hilt, nearly hidden, was carved a circle, and within that circle was the tiny image of a mountain with a sword barring it.

"Your army sword?" said Uncle Griffith, pausing momentarily in his sentry duty, in order to watch the unveiling.

My father nodded. "A friend of mine in the army, Sewell, kept it for me while I was away in Koretia. When he learned that I was alive and dwelling in the borderland, he had it delivered to me." As he spoke, my father took the sword in his hand. I scooted back hastily. To kneel in front of my father when he was swinging a sword, one would have had to have been uncommonly eager to enter the Land Beyond.

But my father did not slice the air; he simply turned the sharp blade to and fro before saying, "A bit of rust next to the hilt."

"Give it to me; Tryphena can take care of it. She used to burnish my blades, and was better at it than I was, alas." Uncle Griffith reached over, and my father handed the sword and sheath to him. As Uncle Griffith sheathed the great blade, my father turned his attention to the second box. I scooted back to my previous position, kneeling at my father's feet, and watched with my breath held inside, waiting.

But I was disappointed. All that lay in the smaller box was an iron mask. That was nothing to be excited about.

My uncle appeared to feel otherwise. He said in a voice that seemed to contain undertones that stretched far into the ground, "You kept it?"

My father nodded. "I wanted it as a reminder."

He had tilted the mask toward the lamplight. I could see that the mask was missing the chains that bind it to the head.

My father looked at me. "Do you know what this is?" he asked.

I nodded. "It's a death mask. Corpses wear them."

"Yes." My father raised the mask. Like the moon covering the sun in an eclipse, the mask slid in front of his face until all that I could see were my father's blue eyes through the eyeholes. I felt a sudden, unwelcome, mysterious shiver slide down my spine.

"I wore this mask for eleven years," my father said. "I will explain why." He lowered the mask, and I saw again the scars on his face.
 

CHAPTER FIVE

Councilman Hoel's house in the Central Provinces of Emor was enormous; I found it easy to locate a quiet spot in which to talk with Bernarr. The hard part was determining a time when Bernarr wasn't working. Finally, we settled upon the period before supper, when servants with day duties were permitted an hour's break before serving at meals.

Occasionally, Bernarr would slip away from our conversation to talk with other servants, then come back with tales the servants had told him. He never gave me their names. That was part of the agreement between us: that only Bernarr would be placed at risk.

A chiming bell cut short our talk. Bernarr's head lifted from where he was leaning forward to speak with me, in the dusty corner of a disused room. "I must go," he said. "That's the bell to prepare for service. You won't tell anyone I said this?" It was the fifth time he'd asked.

"Only my father, like I promised," I assured him. "You can trust him not to say anything unless he judges it's safe. I promise!"

Bernarr looked to the side, toward the window. I followed his gaze. My father had just come within sight. Formally dressed with his army sword sheathed at his belt, he was deep in conversation with Councilman Hoel. In the clear light of the autumn afternoon, the scars on his face looked as though they'd been placed there by blades.

Bernarr said slowly, "Yes, I see I can trust him. He knows."

"How can you tell by looking at him?" I asked with curiosity. I knew that it could not be from the face-scars. Being unfamiliar with certain abolished Koretian customs, everyone we'd met during our travels had assumed that my father had gained those scars in daring acts of bladeplay.

"He is cautious in his movements." As he spoke, Bernarr shifted his position so that he could not be seen by the passing councilman. Bernarr kept his voice low as he added, "You learn caution like that, over time. It saves your life."

He looked at me again. I swallowed hard. I did not need Bernarr's warning to know that my father was placing himself in as much danger as Bernarr was.

I wished I could reassure Bernarr as to the servant's own safety, but I couldn't. Baron Teague had been very angry. Only my father's quietest voice – what I had come to think of as his Snowbound Lieutenant voice – had prevented disaster there. Instead, I said, "I'll talk to him before supper. You'll know soon."

Bernarr nodded. He started to move toward the door of the room, then abruptly turned back. "You tell him," he said. "You tell your father: It's not about the service. I'm willing to serve, myself. It's about being a man – being able to care for my woman and children the way a man should."

This made perfect sense to me. I wondered whether it would make sense to Bernarr's master.

o—o—o

Supper, as always, was an eye-opening experience.

Carefully shielded by my parents from any home life outside the poor villages of the borderland, I had not previously realized that some men and women and children dine with silver plates heaped high with rich food, accompanied by crystal goblets filled unendingly with expensive imported wines. I was beginning to fear that I was acquiring a taste for food and drink that my father could not afford.

It was with relief, then, that I saw Councilman Hoel's wife rise, declaring that she and her daughters and granddaughters would retire from the table in order to allow the men time to speak together over their Daxion cider and Daxion nuts. The councilman's sons and grandsons made their farewells also, so that the head of their household might speak privately with his guest.

I pretended not to notice the gestures of invitation from Councilman Hoel's wife as she reached the door. The councilman raised his eyebrows as I remained in my seat, but he voiced no objection. Instead, as the younger members of his family departed, Councilman Hoel leaned back, smiling. He said, "I cannot possibly convey to you what a joy it is to meet with you again after all these years, lieutenant. Sewell told me in a letter that you'd been discovered alive; otherwise, I would have feared you'd wandered off to the Land Beyond. Your travels in Koretia lasted long; what were you doing in that law-forsaken land for so many years?"

My father, I had learned, had very precise timing. Now he ignored Councilman Hoel's question, saying instead, "I am pleased to see you prospering so well, and to learn that your marriage has been blessed."

"Blessed indeed." Hoel smiled as he looked around at the many empty seats left by his prodigiously large family.

Councilman Hoel's wife, who was still making an effort to catch my attention, said, "We have been very fortunate – and it is all thanks to you, sir."

My father said nothing. His face had turned unreadable.

The councilman's wife added hastily, "I mean how you saved Hoel and the others from dying in the snowbound mountains. I did not mean— I will always be fond of the memory of Chatwin, of course. He died too young."

"Dearest." Hoel spoke gently. "That is enough on that topic, I think."

My father said in a very level voice, "You are quite correct, madam. Chatwin died far too young. As for your husband's rescue, it was a collective effort on all our parts to survive the blizzard. I've received far too much credit for that episode; I could not have survived a single day without the assistance of your husband and my other men. Including those who did not survive."

Councilman Hoel's wife had already turned scarlet. She said, "I had best be on my way to help get the grandchildren to bed. I'll see that you aren't disturbed." She departed, leaving behind the slaves who were collecting the empty plates and glasses.

"Forgive her, lieutenant," said Councilman Hoel. "She does not mean to scratch at old scars."

My father said merely, "I am only sorry that Chatwin's death caused you to leave the army. —Thank you, Bernarr." He spoke with his gaze upon the servant next to him.

Bernarr, who had leaned forward to take the plate of his master's guest, looked startled, but he quickly dipped his eyes and bowed his acknowledgment of the remark. I glanced at Hoel, but the councilman did not react in any way to this unexpected interaction, instead saying, "You mustn't think it was merely Chatwin's execution which caused me to leave. I'll admit, it was a shock at the time, but there was no question in my mind that you made the right decision. He had stolen food when we were all starving in our snowbound hut. The Chara's law is quite clear as to the penalties for that, and Chatwin knew very well what the law said when he made the decision to steal from the rest of us. He also knew what the deadly consequences might be for his fellow patrol guards if he took the last scraps of food from our mouths. If anything, I continue to feel shame that my patrolling partner dishonored the patrol by his actions. And I continue to feel great gratitude toward you for taking on the heavy burden of such a decision." Hoel tilted his chair back, so that the top of its back rested upon the wall painted with a serene Emorian landscape. Hoel was stout with approaching old age, but he was still handsome, and the old-fashioned toga he wore to emphasize his rank made him look impressively powerful. Yet his courtesy toward his old lieutenant – who was now lower in rank than the town councilman – seemed genuine. "No, my primary motive for leaving arose from the fact that I realized I was not made for that sort of life. It had seemed a game at first: join the border mountain patrol, catch a few border-breachers, win fame. And then the deaths began."

His father nodded silently, his gaze upon the cider in his cup.

Hoel's voice had turned grim. "The four deaths when we were snowbound were simply the culmination of it all. I could not live with such intense pain in my life: not merely the deaths of patrol guards and the occasional breacher, but the other suffering we encountered in the patrol. I had to leave it behind." Without looking away from his cup, he beckoned to Bernarr. The slave-servant had been standing stiffly against the wall since the other slaves departed the room with the plates and goblets. Now he came forward and poured more cider for his master.

I stared at him, but Bernarr's face remained impassive. My father's face likewise revealed nothing, as it had on so many occasions in my life. With a sudden shock, I remembered what Bernarr had said: "You learn caution."

But however well he had learned to be cautious, Lieutenant Quentin of the Border Mountain Patrol had not fully left behind the bold deeds of his days as the Snowbound Lieutenant. I knew that even before my father set down his goblet and said, "You've done well since then. A large house, a large family, a large number of servants."

Hoel smiled, failing to recognize that the Snowbound Lieutenant had drawn his blade. "I have the efforts of my sons and sons-in-marriage to thank for that, as much as my own labors. My sons and sons-in-marriage helped me to build up our mercantile trading business."

"But the property is all yours, surely." My father's gaze met Bernarr's again as the slave moved forward to refill the guest-goblet. Once again, Bernarr lowered his gaze.

"Oh, yes," Hoel agreed, continuing to ignore Bernarr's presence. "My sons and sons-in-marriage insist on paying me tenancy, but it suits them to live here, where the main business is conducted. I made sure that, even if they should pay boarding costs, I would supply the service. It's easier for one man to coordinate three dozen servants than for five men to coordinate each other's servants."

"Oh?" said my father in his mild voice. "Our family has only had to give direction to a single servant, thankfully: a free-woman who came to assist Tryphena after Quentin-Griffith's difficult birth and has been with us ever since then. She is very loyal."

"So are mine, I'm happy to say. No slave revolts in this household."

Hoel looked quite smug as he made this statement. Newly enlightened though I was in such matters, I wanted to dump my cider over his head. Bernarr, though, refilled his master's goblet with the greatest of care.

My father did not so much as blink. "How marvellous. But do you not suffer from attrition? I've heard that most free-servants are hard to hold onto."

Hoel laughed. "Not even my slaves would want to leave. I treat all of my servants very well."

"Really?" My father turned his gaze toward Bernarr.

Hoel took his hint. "I do assure you. Slave, aren't you satisfied with your position here?"

"Yes, sir." Bernarr's reply was as prompt as the falling of his gaze. "My work here is most satisfactory."

My father nodded, then turned his head toward me. "Quentin-Griffith, what did Bernarr say to you when you asked him the same question two hours ago?"

I hesitated, looking toward Bernarr. The slave did not look up from where he was settling the cider bottle back onto the serving tray at the side table, but his hands shook.

Hoel took this in with a glance. He said, "That will be all, slave."

"Sir." Bernarr bowed so deeply that the bottom hem of his bare-backed tunic, which marked him as a slave, dipped toward the floor. He retreated, with one last, anxious look at me.

Hoel waited till he was gone before he snapped, "Lieutenant, that was a very dirty trick you just played on my slave-servant. I do not appreciate having his trust betrayed, if he has told your son something in confidence."

My father said nothing. He was staring at the floor. I felt my throat ache. I had come to understand the meaning behind those lowered eyes.

Hoel sighed as he set his goblet aside. "You have never done anything without cause. What point are you trying to make, sir?"

"Your goblet is empty again," observed my father. "Do you wish more to drink?"

"Yes, I'll fetch my free-servant." Hoel reached toward the hand-bell on the table.

"No need," replied my father. "I received that training when I was a slave."

He was already out of his chair and headed toward the serving table as he spoke. I knew that this was deliberate. It always took my father's men a minute or two to control their expressions after their old lieutenant made his revelation.

Hoel looked as though one of the black border mountains had just been dropped on his head. He sat motionless, evidently too stunned to think what to say. Meanwhile, my father carefully poured sugared wild-berry wine into three pottery cups, positioned the cups at exact intervals, and picked up the tray of Koretian wine in a manner that, even with my relative lack of experience, I knew must be an absolutely perfect service position.

He offered the tray to me first, his gaze meeting mine in silent support as I took the cup. Then he carried the tray over to Hoel. Still holding the tray perfectly, he bowed, as Bernarr had done a short while before.

This deference seemed to break Hoel's bonds. The councilman cried, "For love of the Chara, no, lieutenant! Please . . . I never meant to suggest . . ."

"It may interest you to know," my father said in a conversational manner as he continued to bow while holding the tray, "that this position is a good deal harder to hold than one might think. The longer I have to wait for the master to take notice of me, the greater the chance that I will drop the tray on the floor and be punished with a beating."

Hoel grabbed the wine cup offered to him. My father deepened his bow before returning the service tray to its position on the side table. Then he obeyed Hoel's frantic wave of the hand and returned to his chair. He did not take the remaining cup of wine back to his seat.

Hoel was sweating now; he paused to wipe his forehead with a face-cloth. "Heart of Mercy, lieutenant, I had no idea . . . You know I would never have raised the topic of slavery if I had known. How—?" He clamped his mouth shut.

"I don't mind your questions," my father said quietly. "The 'how' of the matter is that I was condemned to an indefinite sentence of slavery for crimes against the gods. I was visiting the Koretian capital at the time."

"Oh, the Koretians!" said Hoel with clear relief. "The Koretians condemn men to slavery for the most trivial of offenses – or did, in the days before the Chara banned slavery there."

The smugness was back in Hoel's voice. I winced. I knew that my father would not allow the councilman this escape.

"Some of the slaves I worked alongside were indeed condemned for small matters," my father agreed. "The crime I was charged with would seem equally small to an Emorian judge. But Koretian law, unlike Emorian law, takes into account all the deeds of a man's life when passing judgment upon him."

Hoel frowned momentarily. "By which measure you ought to have received the highest praise from the Koretians. We didn't merely hold back Koretian border-breachers from entering our own land; we also held back Emorian breachers who would have caused trouble in Koretia, if the patrol had allowed them to pass."

My father remained silent. His hands lay not on his lap, but at his sides, as though he were a slave standing against a wall, awaiting his master's word.

Hoel leaned forward. "What are you not telling me, lieutenant? You need not hold silent for my sake."

"It is for my own sake that I paused my speech." My father's voice was very quiet now. "Councilman, I fear that you do not know the whole of me."

Hoel drew in his breath slowly. "None of us knew you well, lieutenant – except perhaps Carle and Adrian, and neither of them shared what they knew. Have you been in touch with Carle, by the way?"

"Briefly, many years ago. Lord Carle made clear that he did not wish to see me again."

Hoel's frown returned. "I find that hard to believe. However highly ranked he may be these days, he was your sublieutenant in the old days, and before that, your patrolling partner; he learned most of his army skills from you. I met Lord Carle just two years ago, when he travelled through this town on business for the Chara. He met with the council here and was perfectly pleasant to me when I greeted him."

"I imagine," said my father, "that you did not raise with him the topic of how he treats his slaves."

Hoel put down his wine glass with a small, decisive click. "Is that what this is all about?" The grimness had returned to his voice. "Did you come here to rebuke me for my treatment of my slaves?"

"Not entirely. May I bring you more wine, sir?"

Hoel closed his eyes. He kept them closed for a while before opening them again. "I am doing more talking than listening. That is always a mistake, when I am with you. I apologize, lieutenant; you were speaking before of the events that led to your enslavement. You entered into some sort of trouble?"

"The trouble began at my birth, I think," my father replied. "I inherited certain . . . tendencies, shall we say. And these tendencies were warped by a leaning toward selfishness."

Hoel dismissed this notion with a wave of his hand. "Now, that I do not believe at all. You are the least selfish man I have ever known. You came close to sacrificing your life for the rest of us in the patrol on more occasions than I can count."

"Army discipline was good for me," my father agreed, "as was the need I felt to serve as a model of good behavior to you and the rest of my men. And before that, I was raised very strictly. I raged against my childhood training at the time – and indeed, I would not wish to imitate my grandfather's means of maintaining control. But I did not fully realize until later years how greatly he must have feared what I would be like if he slackened the reins on me. I failed to recognize what I was until – entirely against the advice my grandfather had given me before his death – I left the army. And at that point, with the reins of outward discipline slackened upon me, I discovered that I lacked the desire and the ability to keep discipline over myself."

By now, I was leaning forward, listening with my mouth agape. Each conversation my father held with the men he had once led in the patrol was like this: new revelations occurred every time. I was beginning to realize that I was not the only person who had been initially fooled by my father's semblance of simplicity.

Hoel said quietly, "I won't ask what you did then. I don't need to know. But the necessity for outward discipline that you speak of . . . Did your enslavement help you in any way? That is part of the reason that we enslave criminals, you know: to allow them the opportunity to learn discipline under a loving master."

My father promptly turned his head. "Quentin-Griffith, how many of the slaves in this household were condemned for crimes?"

"Six, sir." I already had the number at hand. "Four were rebels in the northern dominions. One was a murderer. One was a thief. The other thirty slaves are children of rebels or were born into slavery."

Hoel drew in his breath, but my father cut him off. "Yes, I did receive a certain benefit from being a slave – a side benefit, I would call it. I was fortunate enough to receive guidance from two free-men who helped me to make good use of my time in slavery. I trust that you have been doing the same for your slaves?"

Hoel, who still had his mouth open to speak, closed it abruptly. After a space of time, he said in a tight voice, "I think perhaps I should know after all what my slave-servant has said against me."

"Quentin-Griffith?" My father spoke softly.

And so I shared everything that Bernarr had entrusted to me, being careful to include what the slave had said at the very end. By the time I finished my recital, Hoel's head was bowed.

My father broke the silence. "I remember the shock I experienced – I was fully nine years into my enslavement by then, Hoel, mark that – when I realized that what was being done to me, I had done to countless slaves over the course of my lifetime. I had been fortunate enough never to own slaves, due to my family's lack of wealth; I was not forced to make decisions on the discipline of slaves, as masters do. But I remember attending your wedding nearly thirty years ago and being served by the first slave you bought after you left the army. I never looked in that man's direction. Never once. I could not tell you what he looked like, much less what his name was. And so, when my own name was stripped from me, and I was forced to serve men who never spoke to me or looked at me except to give me orders . . . It seemed fitting, somehow. I was paying in kind for the true crime I had committed."

Hoel continued to stare at the floor for a long time after that. Finally he said in a low voice, "The slave who served you at my wedding was Bernarr. He has served me for twenty-nine years, yet tonight was the first time I have ever witnessed a dinner guest look at him and address him by name. I seldom do so myself." He raised his head. "I need to talk with my wife about what you have said, sir. Is there any manner in which I can contact you during your journey? We may have questions for you."

o—o—o

As I prepared for bed in the guest room that dusktide, I looked out my window, staring down at the great courtyard. My father and I had spent the dawn hours there at our usual daily bladeplay practice – still stick-play, but my father had promised we'd move on to wooden blades within a couple of years, and then to metal blades. Mountains were hard to come by on the flat plains of the Central Provinces, but we'd taken to hunting each other through and over the crumbling ancient ruins we passed during our travels. And often when we were walking – we could not afford to hire conveyances on our journey – my father and I would play Law Links, the game that helps Emorian boys memorize the Chara's law, so important for a patrol guard to know.

Now, standing between the courtyard pool and the flowers blossoming their welcome to spring, Councilman Hoel stood, talking to his slave. As I watched, Bernarr began to fall to his knees, but Hoel caught him, pulling him back to his feet.

I looked at my father and saw that he was watching the same scene, through the other window in the chamber. He turned his head and smiled at me.

"Did it work?" I spoke in a low voice; it had been weeks since I had last allowed my tongue to slip. "Will he free them?"

My father turned his attention back to arranging the blankets on his bed. "It is too soon to say, but at least we have planted the seeds of awareness in his mind. From this point forward, he cannot take refuge in ignorance of what he is doing to his slave-servants – not unless he is a coward, and Hoel was never that." Unexpectedly, my father set down the blankets, came over to me, and hugged me hard. "Thank you. Once again, I could not have done it without your help. I'd have considered myself lucky in the patrol to have so skilled a partner."

Embarrassed, I pulled myself out of his arms and pretended to be interested in our purse of coins, which I was in charge of caring for at all times, in case my father should be arrested. My father promptly moved back, returning to his bed and picking up his travelling bag. I watched him as he carefully packed the small box he had brought with us, in case it would be of use to us on our mission. Already, my father had brought it out once. Subcaptain Sewell had required a visual demonstration of how all slaves – whether they were Koretian or Emorian – must mask their expressions and feelings and thoughts, if they are to survive.

Finally I said, "Sir? What you told Councilman Hoel about inheriting tendencies . . ." I was not sure how to continue.

My father's smile faded. After a while, he said, "I do not want to give a simplistic portrait of the matter. Many of my most dangerous qualities are also qualities that enabled me to be a patrol guard. They are qualities that can be used both for evil and for good. It all depends on whether the acts are done merely for self-gratification."

"But you said—" I struggled to find the words. "You said 'inherited.'"

His gaze turned to me and stayed there, steady. I did my best not to wriggle under that gaze. Slowly, ever so slowly, I was learning to be a soldier.

His voice was characteristically quiet when he said, "It's possible you have inherited those qualities from me. If you must struggle against temptation as I did, I'm sorry. But it's hard to tell at this point how you will make use of your thirst to fight and possess. All of us, I think, are born centering the world upon ourselves. It takes time and discipline to learn to think outwards."

"And that's why you've been hard on me . . . sometimes."

I had not meant to pause before that final word, in so revealing a manner. I bit my lip as my father scanned my face. When he spoke again, it was in a hesitant tone that, in the old days, I would have despised.

He said, "It can be difficult to determine the proper balance between being too strict and too soft. My grandfather was too strict with me, after my father died in the patrol. I've tried not to make the same mistake with you. If I have erred in the opposite direction, I beg your forgiveness. It has been hard sometimes to know the best way to raise you."

There was a vulnerability to his words, as though he were a dog offering up his belly. I did not make the mistake I had once made, of regarding this as evidence that my father was a soft man. I knew now that my father was a powerful man. (I had not yet found the courage to ask him what he had done to the slave-seller who tried to abduct me.) He had held back his power out of love for his son.

A powerful man, a highly skilled man, who occasionally had doubts about which path to take. There was so much for me to learn from him that I often despaired at being able to encompass the whole.

So instead I said, "And when you rejected the barony of our village . . . Was that because you were afraid that being held so high would be dangerous for your spirit? It would make you more selfish?"

My father smiled faintly. "I have far too much fame already for my own good. Besides, it would have been dangerous in other ways. As a lesser free-man, I have no duty to report crimes unless questioned by my baron . . . which, thankfully, our village's previous baron had tact enough not to do. But if I had become a baron myself—"

"You would have been duty-bound to report that you knew the identity of the Jackal and his Second Blade. Then Uncle Emlyn and Uncle Griffith would have been arrested and executed. I'm sorry, sir – I didn't realize."

I didn't cry at the latest revelation of how wrong I had been about my father. My final tears had come on the day we left our village, when I realized that it would be many years before I would be able to see my home and the rest of my family for more than brief visits.

I was nine years old now. In seven years' time, I would become a man and would join the Emorian army. Join the patrol, if they would have me; otherwise, the vanguard or the Home Division, so that I could be stationed close to my home village. My father and I had seven more years in which to complete our work.

During my father's years in the border mountain patrol, dozens of men had served under him. The patrol guards who had survived their time in the army – if they were not already highly ranked, such as Baron Teague – had almost always made use of the patrol's reputation in order to rise high in Emorian society through appointment, through election, through marriage, or simply through their own skills and hard work.

It would take us months to finish our visits to these men. Eventually, we would run out of former patrol guards to visit. But each man whose heart we succeeded in converting was providing us with written introductions to other men of rank. My father's reputation would open additional doors to us. If our luck held, then within the next seven years, hundreds of Emorian nobles, officials, and other powerful men would decide, of their own volition, to release their slaves. And that would begin to transform Emor in a way that the Chara could not ignore.

The time for tears was past; my father and I were now soldiers on patrol. Now it was time – it was well past time – for me to follow my father's example and adopt the selfless discipline needed to destroy the institution of slavery within the Empire of Emor. One master at a time . . . This must make at least a little difference, in the end.

Something occurred to me as my father reached toward the shutters to close them for the night. "Sir," I said, "when we finally go home, will you give me higher lessons on how to farm?"

For the first time that I could remember, my father looked alarmed. "Quentin-Griffith, I don't want you to feel that you must reshape yourself to be like me."

I shook my head. "No, it's not that. I still want to be a patrol guard, like I always did. But maybe I'd like to be a farmer when I retire from the army. I haven't given farming a fair try."

"We'll talk about it in the morning." My father's smile returned as I slipped into my bed. "Good night, son."

"Good night, Father." I closed my eyes. Soon I was dreaming of whistles echoing in the black border mountains as thousands of slaves removed their masks and entered their freedom.