Dragon Bones

Chapter 1:Wardwick of Hurog

Hurog means dragon.

Breathing heavily from the climb, I sat upon the ancient bronze doors some long-distant ancestor had placed flat into the highest face of the mountain. The doors were huge, each as wide as I was tall and twice that in length. Because the ground was angled, the tops of the doors were higher by several feet than the bottoms. On each door, worn by years of harsh northern weather, a bass-relief bronze dragon kept watch over the valley below.

Below me, Hurog Keep perched on its man-made eyrie. The ancient fortress's dark stone walls rose protectively around the keep; formidable still -- though there was little chance of enemy attack now. By the standards of the five kingdoms, Hurog was only a small keep, barely able to support itself from the meager harvest the north climate and rocky soils allowed. But from the sea harbor visible in the east to the bald-topped mountain in the west the land belonged to Hurog. Even the great White Snake River curling below me before flowing into the sea was a part of Hurog. Like most keeps in Shavig, northernmost of the Five Kingdoms of the Tallvenish High King, Hurog was greater in land than wealth. It was my legacy, passed father to son, like my blond hair and large size.

In the old tongue, Hurog meant Dragon.

Impulsively I rose to my feet and opened my crippled mind so I could feel Hurog's magic gathered around me, pulsing through my veins as I roared out the Hurog battle cry.


Mine, if my father didn't kill me first.

"He'll kill us." My cousin Erdrick's voice, though hushed, came from the river side of the trail.

The willows were so thick between the trail I followed and the river, he couldn't see me anymore than I could see him. I was tempted to walk on, my cousin and I were not friendly, but the nagging certainty that I was the "he" to whom my cousin referred gave me pause.

"It's not my fault, Erdrick." Beckram, Erdrick's twin, spoke soothingly. "You saw her. She took off like a startled rabbit."

They'd been teasing my sister again. Erdrick might be right, I might just kill them this time.

"Next time don't tease a girl whose brother's the size of an ox."

"Good thing he's got the brains to match," Beckram said serenely. "Come on, let's get out of here. She'll show up safe and sound."

"He'll know it was us," predicted Erdrick with his customary gloom.

"How? She can't tell him."

My sister was mute from birth.

"She can point, can't she? I tell you, he'll kill us!"

Time to catch them and find out what they'd done. I took a deep breath and concentrated on looking like a stupid ox instead of a vengeful brother before I crashed through the brush to the river bank where the keep sewer emptied into the river. With my size and features, no one expected me to be intelligent. I'd taken that and played on it. Stupid Wardwick was no threat to his father's position.

They might be twenty to my nineteen, but I was a head taller than either and three stone heavier. I'd been out hunting, so my crossbow hung over my shoulder and my hunting knife was in my belt. They were unarmed. Not that I intended to use a weapon on them. Really.

My hands worked just fine.

"Who will kill you?" I asked, untangling myself from a branch that had caught my shirt as I'd plowed through the bushes.

Struck dumb, Erdrick just stared at me in mute horror. Beckram was made of sterner stuff. His mobile face curved in a charming smile as if he were glad to see me there.

"Ward. Good morning, cousin. You've been out hunting? Any luck?"

"No," I replied.

From their light-chestnut hair, handsome features, and dark complections to their peculiar purple-blue (Hurog-blue) eyes, they were virtually identical in appearance, though not in spirit. Beckram was bold and charismatic, leaving Erdrick forever Beckram's hand-wringing shadow.

I looked at the river, the trees, the keep's sewer outlet. When my eyes crossed the last, Erdrick drew in a loud breath so I looked closer. The grate which kept out wandering wildlife was loose, leaving a narrow gap. A small foot had sunk ankle deep in the mud by the tunnel entrance.

I walked over to the grate and stared at it a while. Erdrick quivered with tension. I reached up and wiggled the grate and it slipped back easily. The gap widened into a passageway large enough for my small sister to sneak into.

After a long pause, I turned to Beckram. "Did Ciarra go in here? That was her footprint."

He turned over several answers in his head before he said, "We think so. We were just going to look for her."

"Ciarra!" I yelled down the tunnel. "Brat, come out!"

I used my pet name for her, in case the tunnels acoustics distorted my voice. I was the only one who called her Brat. My bellow echoed in the tunnel's depths like a dragon's roar. There was no reply, but, of course, Ciarra couldn't make one.

I didn't need the muddy tracks inside to tell me that she was in there somewhere. The only thing left of my childhood gift of magic - other than a few minor tricks - was a talent for finding things. Ciarra was in there somewhere, I could feel her. I looked up at the sun. If she was late to dinner, the Hurogmeten, our father, would beat her. I took off the pack which carried my bolts and a bit of lunch.

"What'd you do to her?" I asked.

"I tried to stop her. I told her it was dangerous in there," pleaded Erdrick before Beckram could stop him.

"Ah?" I straightened and took a step nearer to Beckram.

"She's a silly chicken," sputtered Beckram, finally losing his nerve and backing away. "I wasn't going to hurt her. Just a little harmless flirting."

I hit him. If I'd wanted to, I could have killed him, or broken his jaw. Instead, I pulled my punch and gave him the start of a beautiful black eye. It dazed him for long enough for me to turn my attention to Erdrick.

"Really, Ward, all he did was tell her he liked her hair," he said.

I continued to stare at him.

Finally Erdrick squirmed and muttered, "But you know how he is, it's not what he says, it's how. She took off like a startled doe and charged out the gates. We followed because it isn't safe out here for a girl alone."

Erdrick might be an irritating wimp, but he was usually truthful. There weren't any rats or insects in the sewer -- some magic of the dwarves who built it, though my brother Tosten had populated it with all kinds of monsters in his stories.

The opening the Brat had slipped through was nowhere near large enough for me. I pulled hard, but the grate only creaked.

"You won't fit," predicted Beckram, sitting up and touching his eye delicately. He must be feeling guilty or he'd have tried to hit me back. A bully he might be, but Beckram was no coward. "Neither Erdrick nor I could. She'll come out when she's ready."

It was almost time for dinner now. I couldn't bear it when Father hit her. Wouldn't bear it again, and it was too soon for that. I wasn't good enough to defeat him yet. I stripped out of my thick leather tunic and set it down with my hunting gear.

"Take my things to the keep," I said and took a good grip on the grate and pulled. There was an easier way, of course, but an idiot wouldn't think of it. I had to continue struggling until my cousins were gone or Beckram lost patience...

"Take out the linchpin, then we can pull the damn thing off," muttered Beckram. I was right, he was really feeling guilty.

"Linchpin?" I asked. I stepped back to look at the grate better, carefully not looking at the single heavy hinge.

"The bolt holding the hinge together," sighed Erdrick.

"Ah," I stared at the hinge for a good long time before Erdrick took his knife out and worked the thick old pin out of the hinges. He ruined his knife doing it.

With the linchpin gone, the iron grate popped out of the hinge and I lifted it away from the opening.

"Damn," swore Beckram softly as I moved the grate and propped it up near the opening.

The grate was heavy. If I hadn't been trying to impress my cousins, I'd have asked for help. As it was, Beckram might remember this when he thought about scaring the Brat again.

This near the river, the tunnel was mushroom shaped, with walks on either side of a deep, narrow ditch that ran sluggishly with sewer water. The walkways were meant for dwarves, not hulking brutes who towered over most grown men. With a sigh, I dropped to my hands and knees and began crawling through the foul-smelling muck.

"Brat!" I shouted, but the sound just dampened in the mossy growth that covered the walls.

The tunnel took a bend that obscured the last of the daylight. In front of me, on both sides of the wall, dwarvenstones lit themselves as I approached, illuminating the tunnel with pale blue light. Most keeps didn't have sewers anymore, not even the high king's new palace at Estian. Stonework on that scale had been the dwarves' domain, and they were gone now, taking their secrets with them.

The sewer tunnel narrowed to a large tube and I knew the outer walls of the keep were above and just in front of me. Not that I'd explored the sewers much, but there were copies of the ancient plans in the library, buried where few bothered to look. At any rate, the sewer tunnel narrowed by two thirds so an invading army would not be able to use the sewer to undermine the walls. Not even a child could swing a pick or shovel in the narrow stone confines.

Sweat gathered on my forehead from the effort of keeping track of Ciarra through magic. I seldom used magic because it made me remember how it was to do more, but for Ciarra, alone and maybe frightened, I was grateful for what little I had left.

I crawled forward into the narrow section, trying not to think about what was in the muck I'd just set my hand in. On the bright side, my nose was showing signs of self-defense because the odors were less overwhelming.

There were dwarvenstones in the smaller tunnel, too. They weren't bright enough to allow me to see what I was crawling through, but that was just as well. Ciarra was getting farther away from me now, but she was a lot smaller and wouldn't be as hampered by the size of the tunnel.

As the eldest, I'd always looked after my brother and sister. Tosten was two years safely gone from Hurog. But since Ciarra was both adventurous and mute, her safety was a constant undertaking. Ciarra was supposed to be helping Mother today. But I knew Mother. And I knew Ciarra, too. With my uncle and cousins here, I should have stayed home, but the mountains had called to me.

We were bound to be late for dinner now, unless father's hunting party took longer than usual. But at least with both of us equal miscreants, my Father would concentrate on me instead of the Ciarra. The tunnel narrowed and branched, making me rue the three fingers' height I'd gained already this summer as I scrunched into the cleaner and smaller of the two tunnels. I could see dwarvenstones shining down it where someone had activated them, while the other one, the bigger one, was dark ahead. Trust the Brat to choose the smallest way.

I scuttled ahead, fighting the feeling that the walls were collapsing. After I was well in, the tunnel tilted dramatically upward for a few body lengths before starting downward nearly as steeply. I hit my head on a low spot and stopped to think a minute. I might not be a dwarf, but I knew the sewers worked because water flowed downhill.

This tunnel had been designed to keep water out of it rather than let the water flow to the river. I closed my eyes and tried to envision what the map had indicated, but I'd found it months ago. And beyond noting a few interesting features, I hadn't given it much attention. How was I supposed to guess my sister would choose to run around the sewer tunnels?

I rubbed my head and decided that this must be an escape tunnel - all the old castles had them, a legacy from a day when Hurog, rich with dwarven trade, had been worth besieging. I was still considering it when Ciarra went from being not too distant from me to being somewhere far below. I stopped breathing.

She must have fallen, I thought as I frantically scrambled forward, perhaps through a trap door intended to keep besiegers from following some long ago ancestor as he fled his attackers through this tunnel. Gods, oh gods, my little sister.

I scrambled forward like a frog pushing with my legs and reaching out with my hands in the awkward fashion I'd had to adopt in the small tunnel, all the while thinking, "It's too far down. She's fallen too far."

One moment I was scuttling along and the next I couldn't so much as blink my eyes. My face went numb, and magic flooded around me. Underneath my hand, the smooth stone of the tunnel began to glow red and green, brighter by far than the faint light of dwarvenstone. It was so bright that after a moment I had to close my watering eyes against the intensity. That's why I had no warning when the floor of the tunnel disappeared out from under me and I fell.

The magic left me lying flat on my stomach in utter blackness. I pushed up, but the ceiling had closed above me, leaving me barely enough room to lift my head off the ground. My hands were trapped underneath me and, though I pulled and wiggled, I couldn't get them out. I panicked and fought ferociously against the stone walls cocooning me. I cried out like one of the silly maids, but there was no one to hear.

The thought stopped my useless struggling. If anyone had heard me, my father would have seen to it that I spent a lot more time trapped in darkness. Men don't panic, don't cry, don't grieve.

But I did. I blinked back my tears, but my nose dripped. I'd lost contact with Ciarra when the spell hit me. Ilooked for her again, hoping she'd been caught in the same spell that had held me, but she was still deeper. She wasn't moving. I had to get to her.

The tunnel was far smaller than the one I'd been crawling through. In my thrashing (well, I'd tried to thrash anyway) panic I'd established that the ceiling was as solid as it felt, no matter that I had just fallen through it. There was something blocking the way behind me, but cool fresh air blew by my flushed face so I could probably go forward if I could get my hands out from under my body where they were trapped.

Having already proven I couldn't pull them both out at the same time, I started with my left hand, which was trapped further forward than my right. The terror at being caught with my hands pinned against my side brought on one or two bouts of panic. But when I was finished and lay sweating and shaking in the darkness, I still had nothing to do but continue wriggling my hand up. The tightest part was pulling my elbow past my chest and shoulders and I struggled for a long time before admitting defeat.

I lay sweating and relaxed a moment. Hopelessly, I leaned my weight to the right and pushed my arm forward.

It slid out.

I stretched it above my head and wiggled it. As relief let me think clearly once more, I realized what must have happened. Relaxed, my shoulders took up less room than they did tightened with the force of my struggles. The right hand was easier than the left, but by the time I'd finished, the cold from the stone had sunk to my bones and I was shivering with it.

With both hands in front pulling, and shifting the rest of my body as well as I could, I was able to start forward. My forearms hurt from being dragged across the rough stone each time I pulled, and my shoulders were scraped raw because they were wider than the tunnel; likely by the time I finished they'd be a few inches narrower.

I pushed with my feet, too, or at least with my toes. Unused to such strange exercise, they cramped after a while. I stretched them as best I could, though it was maddening not to be able to bend down and rub them with my hands. It seemed as though I crawled forever before the absolute darkness in front of me let up. Somewhere ahead there was light.

Perversely, it was almost harder to go on, as if the knowledge that things were looking up made it more difficult to continue the effort. After a bit it grew still lighter. Of course with my luck, the light might be coming from a dwarvenstone embedded in a wall that sealed the tunnel. But pessimism lost. My tunnel curved and I saw that the light came from a hole in the floor.

I slid my head over the edge and looked out to see, a long way below me, the floor of a large natural cave. My view was obscured by the twisted stalactites that surrounded my opening. I couldn't tell if Ciarra's body were lying below, though magic whispered that she was probably in that cave.

On the right hand edge of my hole were two metal spikes driven into the rock. Tied to each spike was a rope. One of the ropes was about a foot long and frayed at the end, the other dangled through the thicket of stalactites until I lost sight of it. The rope looked very old, and I wasn't a lightweight. But Ciarra waited for me below and so I reached for it and held onto it as I pulled the rest of my body out of the cave. The relief of being free of the stone embrace was almost enough to distract me from Ciarra for a moment.

The rope wasn't a ladder, though it might have been part of one once, but it was better than nothing. After I cleared the stone formations on the ceiling of the cave, I could tell that the rope only reached two thirds of the way to the floor. I worried about what I was going to do for the last ten feet, but I needn't have. The rope broke before I got quite that far.

As I hit the ground I rolled as my father's armsmaster had drilled into me until it was second nature. Even so, I hit hard. After tumbling over once or twice I stopped against a broken outcropping. I lay there for a moment trying too hard to catch my breath to worry about where I was. At last my air came back in a rush and I stumbled to my feet.

I'd rolled up against the remains of a broken column which looked to have spanned from floor to ceiling in ages past. The cavern was huge, at least twice as big as the great hall in the keep. The mouth of the tunnel I'd fallen from was along the edge of the room and relatively low. In the center of the room the ceiling was much higher, perhaps as tall as Hurog's walls though it was hard to judge. Dwarvenstones were everywhere, brighter than the ones in the sewer, making the room actually lighter than the castle was even during the day.

There was no body crumpled on the floor. Ciarra wasn't anywhere to be seen. But she was nearby.

"Hello!" I called out. "Brat?"

A small form hurdled at me and thunked her head into my ribs. I grabbed Ciarra around the waist and swung her around twice before setting her firmly on her feet and shaking her.

"You scared me to death, Brat! What idiot notion took you that you ran into the sewers?"

Ciarra's long blond hair (lighter even than mine) hung in a muddy tangle half-way down her back. She wore tunic and trousers similar to mine, and her feet were bare. She looked pitiful, but I wasn't fooled: Pitiful wasn't repentant.

"Come on, Brat," I said with resignation, "let's find our way out of here."

Though my initial relief at finding her was overwhelming, if I couldn't find a way out, she might not be any better off than if she had died. We certainly weren't going to get out the way I came in. The dwarvenstones suggested that the room had once been in use - there had to be a better way out.

Although the room was brightly lit and must once have been fairly open, the original cave formations and the rubble where great stalactites had fallen in ages past made it difficult to tell what was inside. Maybe it had once held treasure, but there was nothing here now. The center of the cave was higher than the outer edges and there were more stalagmites and rubble. Ciarra's feet were tough as hooves since she seldom wore shoes, but I lifted her over the worst of the rubble anyway. As I surmounted a broken pile of rock, I saw what the mess had hidden.

It had long been rumored that there was treasure hidden in Hurog from when the dwarves had come here and traded their jewels and metals. Here was treasure indeed, but one I would rather never have seen. Forgetting Ciarra momentarily, I slid down rocks and stepped closer to it.

The dragon's skull, still in an iron muzzle, was as long as I was tall. Iron manacles clasped its feet, and four more sets of manacles surrounded the delicate bones of its wings. In life whatever misborn ancestor of mine who'd committed this crime had pierced the dragon's flesh to set the iron into the wings.

"Stupid!" I snarled, though the deed was long done and there were none who could hear me. In the cave the sound of my voice echoed and returned to me. I blinked away the tears in my eyes. Tender-hearted, my father called me when he was most angry. It was something that he hated worse than my stupidity. A man with a tender heart could not survive here, he said, and what was worse, those around him would die, too. I believed him. Even so, I couldn't prevent the tears, though I widened my eyes so no water spilled down my cheeks.

There were no dragons anymore. Not one. It was to see the dragons living in our mountains that the dwarves had come, bearing trade gifts for the privilege and ushering a time when Hurog had been the richest keep in the Five Kingdoms.

Hurog had held the last of dragonkind. When they were gone, the dwarves had gone too, and the lands belonging to Hurog had begun to die as the dragons had. They'd died of sorrow, the old stories said, leaving only memories and the crest of my house to remind the world that they once were -- what Hurog once was.

My family had been the protectors of dragonkind; they had died to keep their preserve safe, entrusted to that task by the first High King or, some of the old tales held, by the gods themselves. Hurogmeten in the old Shavig tongue meant guardian of dragons.

All of my life I'd clung to the glory that had been Hurog's. When I was a child I played at being Seleg, the most famous of all Hurogmetens, and defended Hurog from sea-born invaders. When there was no one but the Brat, Tosten and me, I would take down the battered lap harp and sing the old songs of dragons and dwarven jewels as large as horse heads.

Here buried in the heart of Hurog was proof that one of my ancestors had betrayed everything Hurog stood for. I caressed the skull under the black iron muzzle, kneeling as was proper before the creature the Hurogs had served throughout the ages.

"She was beautiful," said a soft tenor voice behind me.

I jerked my head up and saw a boy, a year or two younger than I. He was no one I knew, a stranger in the heart of Hurog.

He would have come up to my shoulder if I were standing, but so did many grown men. At Hurog only my father was taller than I. The boy's hair was very dark, perhaps even black, and his eyes were light, purplish-blue. The bones of his face were sharp, almost hawk-like, as aristocratic as my own face was not.

He hugged himself as he stared at me. His stance reminded me of a high-bred horse ready to bolt at a loud noise or harsh word. Ciarra sat at my side, undisturbed by the strange boy, absently petting the skull as if it were the head of one of the keep's dogs. I shifted until I was between her and the stranger.

"Silver eyes," the boy said, "and a song that made many a man's heart beat faster. He should have let her alone - I told him so." His voice was breathless, shaking a bit.

I watched him; doubtlessly with the peculiar witless look on my face that drove my father thrashing mad. But I was thinking. I was in the depths of keep, and a boy I'd never seen before was here, too. The last dragons had disappeared seven or eight generations ago, and yet this boy claimed to have spoken to the man who'd done this.

I knew who he was.

The boy who was looking at me with great, wounded eyes was the family ghost. Oh, we all knew about him, though we didn't say anything to outsiders. There wasn't a one of the family who hadn't had something inexplicable happen.

If the ghost liked you he could be helpful. My mother's maid's knitting needles were always in her bag when she looked for them, though on several occasions I'd just seen them elsewhere. If he didn't like you... well, my aunt hadn't visited again since she'd slapped the Brat.

No one I knew had ever seen him, though there were family stories about people who had. I'd expected someone more formidable, not a lad who looked like a dog that had been beaten once too often -- a Hurog-dog though. If his features were more refined than mine, I could still see a similarity in the shape of the cheekbones. Except for his coloring, he looked a lot like my younger brother, Tosten; and his eyes, like Tosten's and Ciarra's, were Hurog-blue.

He watched me with the still alertness of an unhooded falcon waiting for my response to his speech.

"This is desecration," I said deliberately and touched the fragile-seeming ivory bones. Magic pounded at me through my fingertips and I hissed involuntarily.

"This is power," replied the boy in soft voice that raised the hair on the back of my neck. "Would you have resisted the chance to harness it? You are a mage, Ward, crippled though you are. You know what the power here means. It means food for the people, wealth and power for Hurog. What would you have done if your people were starving and the power was here for the asking?"

Caught by the force of the pulsing magic I stared into his eyes and couldn't speak; I didn't know what answer I could make. Ciarra's hand clamped on my forearm, but I didn't look at her. In his eyes I read desperation and terror - the kind of fear that holds rabbits immobile before the fox. I'd never seen that look in a human face before.

He waited.

At last I said, "I could not have done this."

He turned away and my fingers dropped away from the skull. I didn't know what answer he'd been searching for, but it wasn't the one I'd given him. "Glib answers from a simple man," he said, but there was more sorrow than taunt in his voice.

I said, "You wouldn't have had to tell me this was stupid." I reached over and caught the chain that led from the thick iron muzzle to an eye-hook bigger than my fist screwed into the ground. "But desperate people do stupid things all the time."

I turned back to him, half-expecting him to disappear or back away, but he stayed where he was, though the fear had not left his eyes. In spite of the magic he'd used on me -- if it had indeed been his magic and not the dragon bones - in spite of knowing he was centuries older than I, I felt sorry for him. I knew what it was like to be afraid.

When I was younger I used to be afraid of my father.

"I have something for you, Lord Wardwick," he said holding out a closed hand. His fist was white knuckled, and there was tension about his mouth.

Still kneeling because I didn't want to intimidate him, I put my hand under his and he dropped a ring into it. It was plain and worn smooth with just a few bumps left of ornamentation though the metal was platinum, much harder than gold. I knew it was platinum and not silver because it was my father's ring.

"I am Oreg," he said as the ring landed in my palm. "I am yours as you are Hurog's."

From his manner, I almost expected the lightning flashes that accompanied my father's wizard's more spectacular events, but I only felt the cool metal of the ring in my hand. "This is my father's."

"It is yours now," he said. "From his hand to yours."

I frowned, "Why didn't he give it to me himself?"

"That is not the way it is done," he said. Then he looked upward once, quickly. "Come, my lord, they are looking for you. If you will follow me?"

Holding the ring, I followed him to an opening in the wall that I must have missed when I was exploring the cave, Ciarra trotted at my heels. Though the opening was a narrow walkway that turned this way and that often enough I no longer had any idea whether we traveled north or south. The walls had, at some point, changed from rock to worked stone, though I hadn't noticed when the change occurred.

At last he stopped and pressed against a stone that looked, to my eyes, to be exactly the same as all the others. A person-wide section of wall swung open and I found myself in my room. I stepped out of the tunnel with an exclamation of disbelief. The section of sewer I'd been in was underground, and I'd dropped down further into the dragonbone cave. I'd swear on my Grandfather's grave that the ghost's passageway had been absolutely level. How then was it that we'd come out in my bedroom on the third floor of the keep?

The passage door closed behind Ciarra and I, and when I turned to look the Oreg was gone, leaving me with the puzzle of our route. Magic? I hadn't felt anything more than the usual currents that were ever-present inside the keep.

The door to my room swung open behind me. Ciarra, with characteristic quickness, dove under the bed.

"Ward!" exclaimed Duraugh, my uncle and the twin's father, striding in without my leave. Like my father he was a big man, though not as large as I. In his youth, he'd covered himself in glory and the High King's gratitude that gave him a Tallvenish heiress to wed and a title higher than my father, his older brother. Even though his estate, Iftahar, was larger and richer than Hurog, he still spent a great deal of time here. My father often said, "Blood will tell. Hurogs are tied to this land."

My uncle usually avoided me - I wouldn't have thought he even knew where my room was.

"Uncle Duraugh?" I asked, trying to sound composed and suitably dull-witted. Dull-witted wasn't a stretch. Words never had tripped to my tongue, and I suppose many people would have thought me stupid even if I hadn't tried to appear so.

His eyes traveled from the top of my head to my feet and back again, taking in the muck and blood. He held his hand to his nose; I'd gotten used to the smell myself.

"When the twins said you were in the sewers I thought they were joking. That's a trick for someone half your age, boy. Your presence is required in the great hall at once - though I suppose you'd better change clothes."

I noticed for the first time that he was still in his hunting gear which was stained dark with fresh blood. He'd gone with father and a hunting party this morning.

I slipped the ring Oreg had given me onto the third finger of my right hand casually and asked, "Good hunting?" as I stripped off the remains of my shirt. The blood on my shoulders had dried and the shirt didn't come off easy.

I took up the cloth that lay beside the ever-present bowl of clean water that sat on the night stand.

"Damnable luck," he replied shortly. "Your father's horse threw him. The Hurogmeten's dying."

I dropped the towel I'd been holding to stare at him.

He looked at my face which I knew must be blanched with shock, much more honest a reaction than I usually gave anyone. He turned on his heel and left, shutting the door behind him.

Ciarra slid back out in the open and wrapped her arms about me fiercely. There was no grief in her face, just concern. I don't know why she was worried about me. I hated him.

"I'm fine, Brat," I said, though I hugged her back. "Let me find your maid - you'll need cleaning, too."

Luckily my sister's maid and keeper was mending clothes in Ciarra's room. She grimaced as I handed the Brat to her.

I ran back to my room where I stripped the rest of the way, scrubbed quickly and threw on the court clothes I used for formal occasions. The arms of the shirt were too short and it was tight over my sore shoulders, but it would have to do.

When I opened my door, the Brat was waiting outside. She'd had time to scrub up, too, and was dressed in respectable clothing. It made her look her actual age of sixteen instead of twelve. It also made her look like Mother, fragile boned and beautiful. But it was my father's fierce spirit that burned in Ciarra, purified by her sweet heart. If I was stolid and patient, she was wildfire, flitting from here to there at a whim. She hugged me again.

"Shh," I said, taking, I was sure, as much comfort from the embrace as she did. "I understand. Come down with me, Brat."

She nodded and stepped back from me, wiping her eyes briskly with her sleeves. Then she took a deep breath, wrinkled her nose because she'd obviously washed better than I'd had time to, and held out her hand imperially. I smiled, despite the events doubtlessly unfolding in the great hall below us, and offered her my arm. She took it and walked at my side down the stairs with the regal air she adopted in front of strangers and people she didn't like.

They'd improvised a bed before the fireplace. My mother knelt beside it, her face pale and composed, though I could see she'd been crying. My father disliked tears.

Stala, the armsmaster, like Duraugh, was still dressed in hunting clothes. She held her helmet in one hand and rested the other on my mother's shoulder. Stala was my mother's half-sister. She was, as my father liked to brag, the greater part of my mother's dowery -- and the main reason the Blue Guard kept its reputation during my father's tenure.

She'd trained in the king's army and served two terms of service before someone noticed she wasn't a man. She returned to her family home, then followed Ma to Hurog when my father offered her the post of armsmaster when no other warlord in the country would have looked at her twice. Her hair was silver-grey, but I remembered when it had been dark chestnut like Mother's. Stala could best my Father in everything but hand-to-hand wrestling.

There was sorrow on her face when she met my gaze, but her eyes were sharp with warning. When she saw she'd caught my eye she carefully looked at my father's wizard as he frantically scribbled on a piece of sheepskin.

I pulled the Brat with me to a place where my father could see us. His face was pale, his body more still than I'd ever seen it under the bloodstained blankets. Like Ciarra, he'd always seemed filled with boundless energy. Now the only thing alive about him was his eyes which glared at me in futile anger, an anger that increased when he saw the silver-colored ring on my hand. I wondered if he really had given it to the family ghost to give to me or if Oreg had taken it from him.

I touched Stala's shoulder. "What happened?" Unlike everyone else in the family, Stala always spoke to me as if I weren't stupid. Partly, I suppose, because I could use a sword as well as any excepting only my father and my aunt.

"Stygian was madder than usual," said Stala, looking up at me, her voice expressing her distaste for my father's mount. The stallion might well act wildly, but he such had power and speed I thought it was worth putting up with the rest. My aunt disagreed; she said that riding a horse like Stygian was akin to fighting with a flawed sword -- it always broke when you needed it most. Perhaps Stala was right. "He tossed the Hurogmeten onto a dead tree. None of the external wounds are serious, but it broke something inside. I'm amazed he's survived so long."

"Die at home like my father before me," grunted the Hurogmeten staring at me.

I'd never seen him look so old. It had seemed to me that my father always appeared a score of years younger than Mother, though he was actually older. This day he looked ancient and my mother, next to his bed, looked no older than her Ciarra.

"Bad enough to leave this to an oaf-" he said to me "-but still worse to die with my oaths undone. When you die, you will give to your heir what I have given you - swear it." His speech was broken, but none the less forceful for it.

He could only be talking about the ring. "Yes," I said rubbing it.

He gave his head a short nod, though he didn't look relieved. "Good. Are you done yet, Licleng?"

"Yes, lord," replied the wizard spreading sand over his writings then shook the page and brought it to my father.

No fool even on his deathbed, my father read the script. Then he gestured for the quill and signed his name with a bloodstained hand that shook so much his signature was mostly illegible.

"You're too young to take care of Hurog. Too soft. Too stupid," he told me. "Can't do much about the softness, though I've tried -- nor the stupidity."

The stupidity is your fault, I thought, but I didn't say it. When I was twelve, he'd beaten me senseless. When I recovered I was changed, but not entirely in the way most people thought.

After drawing a couple more pain-filled breaths, my father said, "Should have married Stala instead of Muellen, but a young man is proud." Mother made no sign that his words bothered her; she heard only what she wanted to. "The Hurogmeten can't be marrying a peasant's bastard no matter who her father was. Can't see any child of Stala's being as soft as you. But my brother will rule Hurog until you've reached your twenty-first birthday -- then Siphern's wolves deliver poor Hurog."

My father, the Hurogmeten, shoved the paper at the old wizard. The quill he crushed in a spasm of pain or spleen at the unfairness of a life that left him with his oldest son an idiot, younger son a runaway, and his daughter a cripple. Too concerned with the present to worry about the future, I merely nodded my head in acknowledgment of what he'd said.

The Hurogmeten grinned malevolently at me despite the pain he must have felt. "The only thing I've left to you is Stygian. Knowing Duraugh, he'd have the beast killed. If you can't ride him, use him for breeding stock."

Stala snorted. "And breed that temper into all of his get - though I suppose none of your get ended up with yours." I'd never been sure whether Stala disliked my father, or just returned his spitefulness in kind. Certainly they'd been lovers for years, though I wasn't sure if anyone but me knew that.

The Hurogmeten made a dismissing gesture with his right hand. "Duraugh?"

My uncle came forward, intent on the space where the Brat was. I stepped in front of him, blocking his way, before he could push her into the background. At something over fourteen stone, I was a good deal less movable than she.

Uncle Duraugh raised an eyebrow before he walked to the other side of the bed, edging in front of Ma. "Yes, Fen?"

"You'll take care of Hurog."

"Of course."

"Good." My father sighed. "Duraugh, Tosten will be Ward's heir. Find him, wherever he is."

"I know where he is," I replied unwisely. But I couldn't resist the impulse. It would be the only chance I'd ever have to hint to my father that he might be wrong about me.

The Hurogmeten looked at me, surprised. He'd beaten me until I bled when my younger brother had disappeared two years ago. Then he'd decided if I'd known anything about Tosten, I'd have told him: everyone knew I was too stupid to lie well.

"Where?" he asked, but I shook my head.

If my uncle knew where he was, Tosten would be yanked back here, and he wouldn't want that. I'd come across him slitting his wrists one autumn night shortly after his fifteenth birthday and persuaded him that there was a better way to leave Hurog.

"He's safe." I hoped that was true.

He sighed again, closing his eyes. Abruptly they opened again as he fought for air and lost a battle for the first time in his life.

Mother stood up. She hummed a little eerie melody staring at his body for a moment, then she turned and left the room.

I felt lost and betrayed, as if I'd finally been winning a game at the expense of great effort and time, and my opponent left the playing field before he noticed I'd been winning. Which is, of course, what had happened.

Ciarra tightened her grip and leaned her cheek on my arm, her face a blank mask. My face, I knew from long practice, looked vaguely cow-like - the deep brown eyes Mother'd given me added to the general bovine appearance of my expression.

My uncle looked at me closely. "You do understand what has just happened?"

"The Hurogmeten is dead," I replied.

"And you are the new Hurogmeten - but I'll be holder in your place for two years." Duraugh's eyes hooded for a moment, and underneath the Hurog-stern face was excitement as well as grief. Duraugh wanted Hurog.

"I get father's horse," I said, having searched for the most inane comment I could make. "I'm going to go see him now."

"Change your clothes first," suggest my uncle. "When you get back, your mother and I will have decided how to honor your father. We'll have to call your brother home for the funeral."

When I'm dead and buried, I thought, but I nodded anyway. "All right."

I turned as if I'd forgotten the Brat on my arm. She stumbled, trying to keep up with me so I shifted and hefted her under my arm, carrying her up the stairs at a rapid pace. She was really getting too old for that kind of play, but we both enjoyed it - and it reminded my fa - my uncle, just how strong I was. Part of the game, I thought, part of the game.

So did my uncle take my father's place as my opponent.