The Stonegate Sword

Chapter One - The Lost World

A grove of spears suddenly sprang from clumps of bare willows, keen-edged points flashing in the hard afternoon sun. The blackened shafts were held by a mob of grim-faced men, who sullenly reformed themselves into a long march file. They then resumed their plodding course upstream, following a time-worn trail next to the river.

Swift and cold the river ran, carrying the mountain's frost in its deep, grey eddies. Down from the frozen canyon, through granite gorges it had come, foam-flecked and savage. Lower, then, through broader valleys it flowed, through stands of leafless aspen and cottonwood to the openness of grey brush and tawny grass. Oblivious to the puny line of humans, it shot on, rushing to its own separate destiny.

The sky was brilliant blue and the chill air clear and clean. A black speck coasted before a gauzy wisp of cloud, the swerved lower, gliding over a juniper-covered knoll. The March wind gusted briefly over the scattered patches of snow, then died.

With a convulsive leap of fright, a young cottontail reacted to a rushing sound and a feel of danger. The redtail hawk, talons spread, flared out of his dive with a shrill cry just before the strike. A thud, a high-pitched shriek, and a quick struggle followed. Then silence returned. Satisfied, the bird lifted his proud head to scan the surrounding valley floor. His gaze took in the ranks of nearby sage and the more distant saltgrass plain. The shattered seedheads of a nearby clump of wheatgrass nodded lazily. But another movement caught his eye. A dark smudge was moving next to the distant river. He clutched his prey convulsively, as his whole being tensed in quivering concentration. His pinions and hackles raised. A minute passed, then two. Then he abruptly relaxed, gazed for a moment at his near surroundings, then dropped his head and began to feed. Greedily, he filled his crop with hot, sweet flesh and his body with energy. The movement drew further away, toward the blue and white peaks to the east. Metal rang distantly on metal, but the bird disdainfully ignored it. He cared nothing for tax collectors or any other affairs of humans.

Clunk! The stone slammed against a fungus-covered stump. Gray slivers flew in a spray, leaving a yellow streak of rotted wood. A slender figure knelt at the edge of a green clearing and selected another smooth stone from a bed of gravel. Flat on the nearby grass lay a cheap canvas satchel, next to a carelessly folded cloak. The black pines stood in a circle around him like silent spectators.

The whirring noise broke the stillness as a rawhide sling cut the air. With an expert motion he rolled one thong off his forefinger and made his cast. Another missile streaked its way across the little clearing and thudded into the yielding bark.

The boy holding the sling was about fifteen years old, with raven-black hair and brown eyes. His gray-brown tunic, frayed at the hem and splattered with damp mud, reached to half way between his knees and sandaled feet. His face was oval, with a button nose and ruddy cheeks, and his bare forearms were burned walnut brown. Brushing aside his unruly shock of hair, he filled the sling pouch with another pebble and sent it on its way. The stone arced gracefully across the clumps of sedge and fescue and slammed into the center of the yellow scar that was his target.

“Ahh….” he released his breath with a smile. In his mind's eye a dark villain, face twisted in a mask of hate, fell backwards to the ground. In quick succession he released the rest of the stones he had selected toward the battered wood, decimating an imaginary enemy gang. Then he stopped, breathing rapidly. With a wince, he rubbed his shoulder with his left hand as he sat down beside the satchel. Perhaps that was enough practice for one day.

He reached into his pouch and pulled out an oval leaden bullet. He was tempted to throw just one, but they were too expensive to be used for practice where he might lose them. He replaced the dense missile, then rolled over on his stomach. He watched a black beetle moving proudly among tufts of grass like a lion in its own small jungle. Shadows began to lengthen. Finally, he picked up his satchel, looped the carrying strap over his shoulder, and tucked the sling into his belt. It was high time to start for home.

As he walked the narrow trail through the pines he thought back to the old teacher and the long winter he had spent in the boring classroom. Why did his father want him to waste his time every winter hearing endless chatter from a magpie in a cold barn of a room? Twenty other boys, bored as he was, and an old man who was more skeleton than flesh, would not miss him over-much.. Besides, most of the other boys were villagers, merchant's sons and the like. His father was a blacksmith and did some farming. And that was another problem. There were no other farmer's sons in the school except for him, though there were a few that held broad acres and large fields with many sheep and cattle. He had little in common with the others, and they had let him know it.

He shrugged as he walked. Maybe this would be the last year. It would soon be time for spring planting and the forge would not cool during the night. His father would repair a stream of ploughs, harnesses, wagons and hoes, both for himself and his neighbors, and yet plough and plant his own fields besides. Philip (that was his name) would help, of course, along with the hired men of the household. Philip knew also that it would not be too long before his father would start talking about arranging a marriage for his only son. Not that he was interested in such a thing himself, but if marriage was a way of escaping the school, he was willing to consider it.

That brought the thought of his teacher to his mind as he passed deeper into a dark grove. The old man was named Benjamin, but most called him “Old Ben.” The students also called him “Skinny Benny” behind his back, but not to his face. He was keen on the Classics and the Empire and the Thoughts of the Ancients. Philip found some of it interesting such as the stories of the roads and how they were built. Old Ben believed that the ancients were men just like anyone, and no smarter, but with great knowledge. “With knowledge comes power,” he always said.

Philip didn't know, but it all sounded doubtful to him. The straight roads still lay stretched across the land, slicing remorselessly though hill and vaulting over stream. Matthew, the barrel-chested farmer south of the village, said that such roads were the work of giants, and magic as well, and his words sounded sensible. How could mere men slice through a granite mountain like one would a rotted cheese? And to the east, some said that the roads once went through the heart of a mountain, though that was hard to believe. And the cites, with their ruins, and statues and great buildings, some still standing – how were they built? Surely the ancients must have had the strength of gods, or a pact with the underworld, if they rather than giants had built these things.

Old Ben had a library full of books, more than anyone. Perhaps even a hundred, maybe more. He had read them all, of course, and even written some of his own, which his servant had carefully copied. He had commented to his class that if he was lucky perhaps a few hundred people might read one of his books in his lifetime, though he had sent copies to teachers in other villages. “In the ancient days, many thousands of people might buy a book,” he explained, “And a man's fame made if he was the author.”

Philip remembered how the class had snickered behind their hands. “How could a man seek fame through marking hides?” one asked, with a slight hint of mockery. But Benjamin had ignored the comment, his eyes fixed on the distance. Of course, the Fall of the Empire occupied much of Benjamin's attention, and he often discussed it at length with the class. Only last week he had asked Martin, one of the older boys, to speak on the topic. He asked the tall teenager, “Why did the Empire fall?”

“All men know that,” answered Martin. “It was destroyed by war – by barbarians.”

“Yes… yes,” returned their teacher, “All men do say so. And they are not wrong. War was a part of the reason. War destroyed some of her great cites and her commerce, so you answer well. But was war the only cause? Did not war build the Empire as well? What do you say, Philip?”

Philip had thought for a moment. “Perhaps they built too high like a man stacking hay,” he suggested, hesitantly. “They built higher and higher and a wind came along and toppled the whole. The same wind would have done no harm when the stack was lower, earlier in the day.”

“Very good!” exclaimed Benjamin. “I have not heard the thought better expressed. His point, class, is that the more complex they became and the greater their advances, the more fragile their society became. But in the past weeks, we have talked about a war, destruction, famine, a civil war, a plague, and a collapse of society. Who else can see the root cause of why it all happened as it did?”

No one could answer, it seemed. Silence had hung as heavy as his father's hammer. “Very well,” concluded Benjamin, finally, “Discuss it among yourselves. I have folios for you to read for the rest of this day and my library has several volumes that you may use if you are careful. By Monday you will have an opinion which you can defend. Bring me back some thoughts based on logic and the evidence. You younger students may draw a picture on your slate of some worthy structure that the ancients built.” Then he tapped the time-darkened lectern with his rod. “Class,” he said formally, as he always did, “You are dismissed.”

So, now, Philip was walking home and though the school was several miles behind him in evening shadows, the problem still clung to him like a woodtick. The old books had given no real help, though some scrolls told of the fall and the terror of fire in the great cities. Other writings told of the death of many through disease and the struggle for survival on the part of the few survivors. And now grass grew in the streets. Why could they have not rebuilt? Why did the sinews of their world melt away like the snow in spring? Did they build too well, so that it just became too hard to repair?

The trail left the woods and joined the rutted road that led by his father's farm and smithy. The western sky gave only a dull red glow, and darkness was fast falling. He had lingered over the old papers too long and tarried along the way, and he yet had chores to do at home. His rabbits had to be fed, there was wood to split and carried to the kitchen hearth. He was hungry, too. His steps quickened.

There was one other thing. He did not like the road after dark very much. Many men traveled the road in the daytime, but few did so at night. Those traveling late usually had reason, and they were often unwholesome ones. And then there were the trolls and the witches, the giants from the North, the red ones from the South and the dwarves from the hills…. The sling would be a poor weapon against such as these. Perhaps he would be caught and eaten or charmed and made into a mindless slave. His steps went faster and he broke into a jog.

The evening star shone bright in the dark blue-black sky. Philip stopped for a minute and whispered a charm toward the star, for luck. He strained his ear for footsteps behind him, but heard none. He decided he was being silly. “Like a girl!” He forced himself to slow his steps.

Shortly he came to a rail fence, marking the start of his father's farm. He decided to take a shortcut across the field. He might be able to get someone to lower a ladder over the rear of the stockade. If not, he could circle around to the front gate.

The stubble was ankle high and he soil was moist and soft as he jogged across the last field. He could smell wood smoke and see the glow of fire ahead. Strange – perhaps his father was burning something – trash? Suddenly he stopped, his heart thumping in his chest. Something was wrong, very wrong. He could not tell exactly what, but he could sense great danger. He circled off to the right to come up to the stockade from the willows and cottonwoods of the stream bottom.

As he got closer, he could hear cattle begin to bellow and the hoarse shouts of men. Cattle thieves? Or was his father selling some cattle? But not in the spring, surely. They were thin from the winter and would fetch little at the market. He crept closer and saw a number of torches coming out of the front gate. It seemed to be a group of men herding cattle and there were wagons following behind them.

There was now no possible doubt. The farmstead was being sacked: looted. Where were his parents and their servants? He dropped to the ground and tried to think. What should he do? Run for help from a neighbor? Go to the village? He had to do something quickly. Perhaps he was jumping to conclusions. If only his throat weren't so dry! He had to think. He stood up, then threw himself down again and crawled forward on his belly. The bee hives were ahead, to the left. He slowly crept among them. He noticed one of the outbuildings was gone – with a glow of embers marking the spot where it had stood.

A bonfire was blazing in front of the stockade gate. In fact, it looked as if the great gate was broken. Philip saw a soldier standing in the light of the fire in the full uniform of the Prophet's army. The three silver lightning bolts flashed on his steel helm, marking him as an officer. Had the army arrived in time to drive off the robbers? Just then more soldiers came out of the stockade and threw arm loads of things on the flames: curtains, rugs, and furniture. Suddenly, Philip knew! These were the tax collectors! This was the season for their dirty work, and they must be making an example out of his father.

A large wagon stood in the light of the fire, about 50 yards away. Philip moved closer and sidled, crabwise, to the right to see better, and to get behind a beehive. He could see that his father was tied to a wagon wheel. There was another commotion, and then he could see that his mother was being led out. She was forced to watch as the tunic was ripped from his father's burly back. A tall soldier unwound a heavy whip such as the drovers use, and cracked it against the side of the wagon. His father jumped convulsively, and Philip could hear the soldiers jeering and laughing. He could watch no more. He put his head down and closed his wet eyes.

Over the jeers of the solders, he could hear the cries of his mother. The whip swished, then slapped. The sounds came again and again. He could bear it no more. He raised his head ans saw red welts on his father's back.

“Maybe next year you'll pay taxes with a ready will! Eh, Farmer?” taunted the officer. “When you've had a taste of the whip you'll know how much worse it could have been. We've been very patient.”

He heard his mother scream again. He stood behind the beehive and looked over to where she was standing. He saw the soldiers holding her arms and another with his hands under her clothes doing indecent things. They were all laughing. The officer grinned, his teeth red in the torchlight, and said nothing. “Smack!” The whip fell again. Philip looked to the left and saw blood running down his father's back.

Philip's pulse hammered in his ears as he felt for his sling and searched his pouch for a lead bullet. He stepped to the right just enough to clear the sling from hitting the square, white beehive, whirled four times and cast.

He never learned where the first missile went. He lost it in the darkness and no one else even seemed to notice. In quick succession, he threw three more times with all his strength. The first, aimed at the soldier who had been molesting his mother, was a perfect cast. It struck him on the lower rim of his helm, driving the cheap gilded medal back into his forehead. He dropped like a slaughtered ox. As all eyes turned to the falling man, the next bullet was already on its way toward the man with the whip. He turned, just in time for the egg-shaped missile to strike him square in the middle of his bare chest with crushing effect, smashing the sternum and driving broken bones into soft tissues.

A shout rose and a soldier cocked his arm to throw a javelin. Philip made one step and made the third cast at the officer. Again, his aim was excellent. It hit him square in the face, knocking him backward to fall in the edge of the fire. The javelin, thrown in reply, almost found its target, and a cry went up.

The soldiers charged towards him, apparently having caught sight of his arm in the firelight, war spears at the ready. His mother shouted something in a note of utter despair. He looked at her, then turned and fled for the river bottom, the notes of her cry echoing in his ears.

His flight had the terror-filed quality of a nightmare. He had a short lead, and the moon was behind clouds, but he never could have escaped had he not known the area as well as he did. Following cattle trails that had been his play ground since childhood, he ran for his life. His pursuers crashed clumsily behind him, some carrying torches.

He ran for a long time until his throat was raw and heart nearly jumped from his chest. His feet, clumsy with fatigue, tripped him and he fell heavily. He lay there, gasping, his body quivering, while his mind raced on in confusion. Gradually, he realized that he heard no more sounds of pursuit. His thoughts turned to other manhunts he had heard of . Then he realized that there was no need for them to stumble in the dark. In the morning the Prophet's army would follow with trackers, dogs and horsemen. They would have him before night fell again.

Chapter Two -- The Caravan

A first hint of green tinted the tawny, rolling hills, yet frost sparkled on a puddle in the well-traveled scar which was the north-south road. The little caravan moved by, paying no more attention to the mud than to the white-capped mountains looming against the western horizon. Wagon wheels squealed, leaving a thin note of complaint hanging in the air.

One traveler walked apart from his fellows, along the shoulder of the road, and ahead of the five ox-drawn wagons. A young man above average in height, but somewhat slender, he was no burly northern giant. His hair was brown, chased with gold, but he wore no beard. His tunic was plain and well worn, and his patched linen breeches were splotched with mud from his shoes to cross-gartered knees.

None of this was particularly unusual, yet an observer familiar with northern customs would have instantly known that he was no ox-drover, or ordinary traveler, either. His tunic and cloak were grey, for one thing, which contrasted with the gaudy colors and wild checks of the peddlers and adventurers. His shoes, belt, and purse, of fine leather, and the close weave of his clothing set him apart from the drovers. His conspicuous lack of weapons, except for a stout staff and a belt knife, meant that he could not be a guard or a soldier. The pale face and hands (except for a red, peeling nose), the shapeless, fur trimmed cap, and the high, stiff collar gave the answer, even if the horn pen and ink case at his belt had not been visible. He was a lore-man, a long way from his books. He could not, of course, be a “lore master,” since he was obviously no older than 30. That title of respect was reserved for sages rich in both learning and years.

If the mornings on the northern grasslands are cold in early spring, the midday sun can be surprisingly warm. The travelers wiped the sweat from their faces and clustered in the shade of the wagons, as the animals rested or nibbled at the brown tufts of shortgrass. A pot of tea heated over a small fire, and dried meat and cold wheat cakes were distributed.

The wagon-master was short and beefy, with a florid face as red as a sunset and fingers as thick as sausages. His grizzled beard was close-cropped as a sailor's, and he wore a black, broad-brimmed felt had, a leather jerkin, and stained green trousers. Knee-high boots completed his costume, which announced his profession as clearly as a lettered sign. As weather beaten as the stump of a fallen fir, his name was “Stub.”

“Here, lore-man,” said the older man. “Have some traveler's food.” He held out a round, hard biscuit and a brown strip of dried meat.

The young man gave a thin smile of thanks and accepted the food. “Your fare is plain, Mr. Wagon master,” he responded. “But it lasts though the day.”

“Aye! That it does, and the more you chew it, the longer it lasts. But you won't find weevils nor worms.”

“No. I cannot complain . . . ” The response trailed off at the end as though his thoughts were drifting.

“It doesn't compare to your normal fare, no doubt. And a staff is heavier than a pen.” Stub paused, giving the loreman a fixed look.

“A good appetite is the best sauce, said the ancients,” came the distant reply.

“Oh, yes! The ancients and their wisdom,” smirked one of the nearby young men. He wore a scarlet cloak and a many-colored tunic and carried himself with an air of importance. “Perhaps the loreman will entertain us tonight with a fantastic tale of the old ones?”

“Perhaps I might, sir,” returned the lore-man, ignoring the sarcasm. “There are many strange tales to be told, if willing ears wish to hear.”

The group of young travelers snickered at that, and they all dropped the subject. The loreman finished his meal in silence. It was not long before the oxen were re-hitched and the wagons continued the southward journey, their hooves muffled in muddy ruts.

They camped for the night in a narrow valley below the road. A small stream and narrow meadow and a few small poplars made a pleasant site. The oxen were tethered in the meadow and a guard placed on the hill above. The evening chill came as hard on the heels of the setting sun as a hungry wolf after a crippled hare. The party ringed a blazing fire and rested their weary bones on their bedrolls, or wrapped themselves in their cloaks.

Donald of Fisher (for that was the loreman's name) sat on his nearly new bedroll close enough to the fire to feel the heat burn his face. He squinted his blue-green eyes as a puff of pungent smoke came his way. He was comfortable, his belly was full, and he was content. He cradled a half-full cup of tea in his hands and stared at the coals. His muscles ached less, so probably he was finally getting used to walking.

As he mused about the value of exercise, he became aware of Stub staring at him from across the fire, sharp eyes staring from under the broad hat brim. Don was curious, but not surprised when the burly man moved around the blaze and took a seat next to him.

“Loreman,” began the wagon master, “Do you also know the sung stores of old? How Brian the Warlord did break the Prophet's might, or the story of Carl the Elder and his spurning of the crown?”

“No, good wagon master,” returned Don with a wry smile. “Of course, I know the stories. But in the Valley of the Smoke, from whence I come, the bards and the gleemen sing of such. I cannot sing a note.”

“Well, then,” continued his persistent companion, “How does a loreman earn his keep? I hope you do not think me nosy . . . ”

“No. No,” returned Don, with a quick wave of his hand. What was the man getting at? He had heard that the unwritten law of the road forbade direct questions about a man's past. Stub seemed a bit awkward, but was pushing the custom, for some strange reason. “Well, a loreman, to answer your question,” began Don, finally, “Is one who studies the wisdom of the ancients, to learn of the past, to understand the knowledge of the writings that have been preserved, and to hand the knowledge down . . . ”

“Yes, yes! And pardon me for troubling you,” interrupted the head drover, earnestly. “I know that. But why would a northern Lord, or anyone in a remote keep, want a loreman in his company?”

“You can probably guess some of the reasons,” returned Don with a wry smile. “Many powerful men want to increase their power and look to the ancient lore as one chance to do this. Others want loremen for prestige. Petty lords want loremen because great lords have them. Some want them to teach their children the Classics.”

Stub nodded, then turned to stare at the coals for several minutes. “Loreman,” he finally said, “Do all of your kind study the arts of soothsaying and bewitching?”

“No!” answered Don, sharply. “No true loreman does such! We are not magicians or old women selling love potions. We look to the past, which we can study, and certainly do not claim to foretell the cloudy future!”

“Then maybe you can tell me,” returned Stub, equally sharply, “why I myself have seen loremen cast spells!”

“I, too, have heard of such,” returned Don, controlling another sharp retort. “But those that do so are no brother of mine.”

The drover made no response, but gazed at Don so intently that he wondered if his tunic was torn. Don glanced down at himself, but saw nothing unusual. His grey tunic was whole, and fairly clean. He could feel the high collar firmly clasped at his throat. His belt carried a rather thin purse, and though the dagger was an heirloom, he doubted that a casual observer would guess that fact. The only other ornament he wore was his family crest, a kingfisher with a trout in its beak, cleverly chased on a silver disk, hanging from a chain about his neck.

“Sir loreman,” said the wagon master, somewhat formally, in a quiet voice. “I must go check the beast's tethers. Would you favor me with a private word?”

“Of course,” returned Don, puzzled and somewhat curious. They left the group and walked over to where the oxen were picketed. With deliberate movements, Stub tested the stakes to which the halter ropes were tied. The air had a sharp chill, making Don wish he had brought his cloak . Stub moved close to Don and spoke in a low voice. “I have another thing to ask,” he began. “Forgive me if I overstep my bounds, but your mention of the brotherhood makes me bold, and I would like to know how the brethren fare in your land. . . .”

“Brotherhood?” asked Don, puzzled at the emphasis on the word. “I meant my fellow loremen and the masters of our craft – that is all.”

“What about the fish on your medallion?”

Don looked at the disk hanging against his breast. “Just my family crest,” he answered. “I am of the fisher clan.”

“But . . . but!” sputtered the older man. “When you spoke out against sorcery, I was sure that you knew the truth.”

“I hate the cheap trick of pretending to find magic spells in ancient books, and then robbing people. I dislike the practice of charging for worthless information. That's all – but I believe that is the truth.”

“Well . . . I see,” the drover finally said. “I had hoped . . .” his voice trailed off, and he stared vacantly off into the distance. Don noticed that he clinched and unclinched his fists several times. The flickering light from the fire made his face look red and hot.

“What's wrong?” asked Don, apprehensively.

“Nothing!” Came the reply. “I had misunderstood something that you had said. Let's go back to the fire.”

Don followed him back, at a loss to guess what he had wanted. Something about a brotherhood, that much was clear. A secret society, perhaps. As they returned to the fire, he noticed several of their fellow travelers eying them curiously. Their brief discussion had not gone unnoticed.

The next morning came rudely and early with the sound of an axe on wood mere feet from Don's head. Muttering to himself, he went down to the small stream and washed, using a small piece of precious soap. He only shaved every third day on the trail, so he merely scratched the stubble of his beard, scrubbed his teeth with some salt on a frayed stick and was fit to face the day.

The road stretched out before them as the wagons formed the line of march. As usual, the first mile was the hardest. Muscles stretched, cold joints thawed, and feet shaped themselves to shoe leather. Mid morning found the caravan ahead of schedule. The men talked but little, and Don even less. Stub was again the busy wagon master, but he had his cheerful smile back, and while he did not avoid Don, he did nothing to resume the previous night's discussion. The day passed rapidly. The discussion at the noon halt centered around the city of Stonegate. One of the peddlers was describing its attractions to several of the others. A huge, young towheaded drover listened intently, jaw agape.

“You've seen nothing like Stonegate in your frozen North,” the sharp-faced man was saying. “The beer is without compare, rich and nut-flavored. Not that thin, sour stuff you call by the name. The mead also has no yeasty taint. It's as good, in fact, as Lord John's of Goldstone, and there is none better, I'll wager.”

“How about the . . . wines?” asked the young giant, ox- goad in his hand. “Don't southerners drink good wines?”

“Aye, they do indeed!” came the quick response. “You can get the wines of the south there if your purse can stand it. Some sweet wines are from Stonegate and are not bad. Nothing done there is bad.”

“The women, how are they?” asked a pimply-faced youth with a loud checked tunic.

“Women are women,” laughed the first man. “But Stonegate women are fair of face and clean of limb. They have tavern girls there, but don't trifle with the women you see on the streets. Stonegate women freely come and go as they will. They go to the market alone, and without a worry. But this does not mean that they are not spoken for, or that a stranger is free to speak with them or make advances. You could find yourself with a smashed face or dead. Their justice can be swift and not understanding of different customs.”

“Loreman,” asked Stub, turning to Don, who sat cross legged on the edge of the group. “What do you know of Stonegate from your lore?” Don searched his memory. Everyone turned to look at him, which made him feel uncomfortable. There was something he had read. . . . A large settlement had stood there in ancient times.

“I recall a few things,” answered Don, finally. “Some sort of fort stood there in very ancient days and a town built up around it later. There was a great center of learning there, too. It was what was called a “University.'”

“Do the thick walls date back to the elder times, then?” asked the sharp-faced man.

“No,” returned Don. “The elders did not build such walls. When the town was at its peak, the land was at peace.”

“Strange,” came a reply, heavy with sarcasm. “Since the elders were destroyed by war.”

Don did not see who had spoken, and said no more. Talk died and did not resume.

“Two more days' journey, lads!” was the shout of Stub as he unyoked the oxen at their evening camp. The campsite was well used, and forage for the beasts was scarce. A swift river, dark and swollen with the spring thaw, ran next to their camp, fringed with a row of tall cottonwood trees, and a narrow but a dense strip of willows and alders. A ford was there, and since the feed was better on the other side, two of the drovers took the oxen across the swift current and staked them out for the night.

Later, in his bedroll, Don lay and looked up at the stars. On this night, in particular, they seemed far away and showed him nothing. No pattern could he see. He knew a little of Stonegate as it was in generations long past. It was named a fort then, but it was much more of a fort now. He knew the rich crops that the ancients raised, the busy highways, the canals that irrigated the fields, the even larger cities to the south. And especially, he knew of the halls of learning, with the wealth of knowledge that had once been stored and given out there. Knowledge, he reflected, is one thing that is not exhausted in its distribution.

But the Stonegate of the thick walls, nut-flavored beer and tavern girls, this town to which he was traveling, he knew next to nothing. Nothing, that is, but that it had a lorehouse, of great size and excellent reputation.

The cold walls of the hall of his birth had given him shelter all of his life, but it had never shown him a mother's love. His father was the Loremaster, serving Lord John of Goldstone, as the walled keep was known. If the Goldstone mead was fabled, Loremaster Fisher and his wisdom were only slightly less so. Don was raised in his father's shadow and from his youth served as a scribe and assistant. The Loremaster was as lean as a spear shaft, and only his tongue was sharper than his mind. Don had lived most of his life sorting through musty volumes in dimly-lit rooms. He liked reading and tried hard to please his father. But within the past year he had become more and more dissatisfied. Arguments erupted over points of interpretation of manuscripts. Don had been accused of sloppy pen-work. Sharp words had become more frequent until it reached the point the Lord John, himself, had suggested that perhaps the Loremaster's son should go study somewhere else for a while, perhaps to Stonegate. Neither Don nor his father was in favor of the idea when it came to it. But as winter passed, nevertheless, Don had walked out through the gray, lichen-covered walls, and set his face toward the south.

It was exciting in a way. He had never before been more than five miles from his home. He was nearly 30 years old, yet had never had a close friend near his own age. He knew much of the history of the last 20 generations of life on the continent on which he stood, yet had no idea of the latest gossip at the nearby tavern. He could read and write in the High Tongue, cast sums, and read deep volumes that even his father avoided, yet he had no “practical” skills. He could neither plow a furrow nor shoe a horse. Indeed, he had never ridden a horse! He had shot a bow for sport, but knew nothing of spear or sword, though he could discuss the weapons and tactics of the ancients in great detail. He was unsure of himself around strangers, and was considered quiet. Indeed, had he known it, he was thought to be cold and aloof, and many thought that his Father's sharpness of tongue was not wholly absent from him.

As he thought back, he frankly did not know if he could ever go back to Lord John's keep. The man lusted for power like some men for wine. It had been an evil day when his father had mentioned the weapons of the ancients, for that idea had fastened itself on Lord John's mind like a leech. Others had apparently arrived at the same idea, that of reviving some of these tools of death, and interest from many quarters in the ancient writings was at a high pitch. Knowing of his passion, peddlers brought old volumes that no one could read, mere blocks covered with green mold, faded into illegibility, brittle and shattered, or rude copies scribbled onto sheepskin rolls, it did not matter. Lord John bought them all and expected his loremen to comb them for weaponlore that would be useful on the field of battle.

Don, however, had for the last several years avoided the search for new arms. The idea sickened him, particularly when he read ancient accounts of battle and the hideous forms of death that were once common. Viewed in this light, the revival of ancient weapons would be a grave misfortune.

He had questioned his father, challenged him, even, on this point. His father had agreed that it was undesirable to bring more efficient ways of dealing death back into the world, yet pointed out that the Black Prophet's agents were also known to be buying books. How if an evil enemy army were to come east, spewing death like a hailstorm and Goldstone without any defense? Don had no answer to that question, but it did not change his mind. Even as he fell asleep, the question nagged him like an abscessed tooth.

The soft light of false dawn lit the camp faintly when Don awoke. He felt an urgent call of nature, and his entrails were gripped in a painful cramp. He quickly pulled on his outer tunic and boots, and buckled his belt as he walked toward the cover of the willows, upstream from the camp. The long tunic, reaching nearly to his knees, was warm enough for a few minutes, in spite of the fact that he left his cloak and linen breeches laying on his bed. Finding a concealed place, he relieved himself and was just starting back when the morning stillness was shattered by hoarse shouts and the clang of metal on metal.

“One went this way!” came a nearby voice.

“Hunt him down! We don't want any alarm.”

His heart gave a convulsive leap in his throat. He knew that he was in danger, and turned and fled upstream. His unlaced boots were too loose for speed, and he ran out of them in three steps, but hardly noticed. Branches whipped his face. About 50 yards farther on, he tripped over a stick in the dew-wet grass and fell heavily into a shallow puddle. The cold water, nearly freezing, shocked him back to his senses.

He suddenly realized that he had no chance of escaping upstream. The willows formed only a narrow strip in the valley bottom. He remembered from the evening before that perhaps a half-mile further on they narrowed to form only a scattered fringe on the streambank. He could never move fast enough to outrun someone running on the road parallel to the stream to cut him off.

There was crashing in the bushes behind him. He sprang to his feet, and crouching low, ran as quietly as possible toward the stream. When he saw the bank in the gray light, he turned back downstream in the direction of the camp. A sort of tunnel showed itself under a clump of twisted willows, thatched with brown grass and damp with dew. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled into the hollow, then drew up into a ball. His breathing sounded as loud as a forge bellows, and his heart hammered like the beat of a smith's hammer.

He heard footsteps coming closer, in a steady jog. Don held his breath, with an effort. He would soon be seen, of that he was sure, and grabbed for his belt knife. Seconds passed. The steps slowed, their swishing clearly audible as they passed through wet grasses and sedges. Then they seemed to get fainter as if moving further upstream. The distant sound of hoof beats came from the road to the east.

“Horses!” thought Don. They must know that no one could get too far to the north before running out of cover. But what about downstream? His heart turned cold in his breast, and he knew that his hiding place would not save him. His grey tunic (thankfully not a bright check) had no doubt teamed with the dim light to make him hard to see, but the day was growing brighter by the minute. The searchers would look more carefully as they returned downstream. He would be hard to miss. They were probably the bane of travelers – highwaymen!

He felt that he must move, but downstream he had to pass the camp. The ford was clearly visible from the road, with no cover for a hundred yards. If the campsite was now being robbed, he could not pass unseen. He was trapped in a narrow strip of willows and miles from any other dense cover. He had to find a better hiding place. He cautiously got up and began to move downstream, closely following the bank of the river for a hundred yards or so, trying to leave no obvious trail in the wet grass. Remembering his fear of dogs, he stepped out into the frigid water. He waded downstream, anxiously looking in all directions. If he were to be spotted in the water, he would have no chance to escape. The river was swift and muddy with spring runoff, and it clawed at his thighs with icy, sucking fingers, trying to pull him down.

The river made a sweeping turn to the left. Don hugged the shallow right bank. He looked ahead and saw a thin column of smoke begin to rise over the trees, and the sound of an axe and of voices drifted upstream. Don could go downstream no further, yet it all sounded normal. Could he have imagined the whole thing?

Off to his left, he saw a deep pool in the river, where the water swirled and slowed somewhat. Perhaps 40 feet across, it was bisected by a half-submerged cottonwood log. On the far side was a cut-bank about four to six feet above the water. Floating debris lay lodged in the upstream-pointing fork of the trunk.

Don could not swim, and in fact, few northerners braved chill waters enough to learn the skill. But perhaps he could still struggle over and hide on the far side of the log. He waded across the current, slipping on the slippery rocks until the water came to his chin. The pool proved to be over his head, and he was never sure how he managed to reach the log. But after a panicky struggle in closed-eyed terror, his hand touched the slimy wood. Holding his breath, he ducked under the cold water and under the log, and emerged on the other side.

As he gasped for breath, he assessed his hiding place. If he lay quiet with only his face out of the water, he should be safe from any eyes on the shore he had recently left. From the cut bank above him, however, he would be easy to see. He inched upstream along the log, trying to think of a better place to hide.

Perhaps if he could make an air space under the debris caught in the fork of the log, he could hide under the main part of the trunk, completely out of sight. The idea frightened him, but he decided to try. He fought back a spasm of panic as the suffocating water again closed over his head. His fingers found a limb and he pulled him face upward toward the surface. He could not reach air! He pushed at the mass of sticks and leaves and scum. Then he tried to push his face above the surface. This time his nose and lips reached air. He drew a grateful breath, hardly noticing the wet, moldy smell. He opened his eyes to see a few rays of lacy light and saw that he had a little tent over his head with three inches of space above the water, a space that tried to collapse downward from time to time. He let the current pull his legs up along the underside of the trunk and then clung there like a snail beneath a rock.

He had no way of knowing if he was completely hidden or not. Perhaps his white legs would be visible under the log, or perhaps the pool would be a childishly obvious hiding place. All he could do was wait, wait until the chill crept into his bones and muscles cramped into knots. He could see nothing and heard little over the sound of the water.

Surely, the highwaymen would not spend a great deal of time looking for him. They had to collect their loot and be gone before an alarm could be given. The light under the sticks grew brighter. It was obviously well past sunrise. Minutes dragged by as slow as slugs on cabbage leaves. He knew he must be patient, but it was all he could do to force himself to be still.

Finally his whole numb body began to shake, and he came afraid that he might lose his grip and drown. He began to flex his legs, alternately. He decided to move to the far side of the log and risk raising his head for a look. He saw blue sky and his glimpse of the sun showed that it was past midmorning.

Gratefully, he filled his lungs with clean air, intoxicating compared to the damp, stifling hole under the log. He clung cautiously to a limb, and watched the treeline, looking for movement in the direction of the camp. He saw nothing. Finally, he dragged himself toward the shore and struggled up the steep bank. He lay on his back in a small clearing, surrounded by willows and let the sun burn down on him for what seemed like a long time. Gradually, life returned to his limbs. He stripped off his sodden clothes, and wrung as much water as he could out of them. They still felt cold and clammy when he put them back on.

Cautiously, he circled through the willows on the opposite side of the river from the camp, finally coming to the open area next to the ford. He could see the meadow where the oxen had been, though they were now gone, as he had expected. He could see the edge of the campsite, but there was no movement or sign of life. He summoned up his courage and waded across at the shallow ford, holding his tunic out of the water. It was wet enough already.

The first thing that caught his eye was one of the wagons laying tipped over on one side. The spokes of the offside wheels were chopped in two. He wondered for an instant why they hadn't burned it, then realized that the smoke would have sounded the alarm faster than any messenger.

The next sight was far worse. He came across one of the young travelers laying face down in the trail, surrounded by a black pool of blood. His head was split open and covered by a buzzing swarm of flies. Stomach churning, Don forced himself on. He found the bodies of the rest of his companions, all dead. All, that is, except for two, which seemed to be missing. Had they escaped? Most of the bodies were scattered around the fire, near where the bedrolls had been. It appeared as if resistance had been brief, and surrender futile. One bedroll was charred as if it had briefly caught fire, but it had been carefully put out. Don checked the wagons. Every item of value was missing, and what remained was piled in one heap. They had spared no time for vandalism, except for the breaking of the wheels. His trousers and stockings lay in a heap, and his staff was under the wagon where he had placed it. But his precious package of books and manuscripts were gone, and with it his letters of introduction.

His loss was petty compared to his life, but it was enough to release the slender hold had he had on his emotions. He fell to his knees on the ground and wept. Great shuddering sobs tore from his throat. He wept as he had not for his stiff, cold mother, but he was a frightened six-year-old all over again. His fears crowded in with him again until there was no room for anything else, and his body shook.

At last he controlled himself, ashamed of his running nose and eyes. He felt cowardly and unclean. Why had he not sounded an alarm? He was ashamed to realize that the idea had simply not occurred to him. Why was he alive and the others dead? And jolly Stub. . . . He raised himself and walked hesitantly to the wagon master's blood-drenched body. He rolled it over and was amazed to see the lips move.

Cursing himself for not earlier checking for signs of life, he looked at the wounds. A gaping hole in the abdomen showed that Stub was beyond anything that Don could do. He poured some water from a nearby water bottle and gently washed the blood from Stub's pallid face. After a few moments, Stub's eyes opened. They seemed strangely calm, almost peaceful.

“I can't move, Loreman, ” he whispered. “What would the ancients say to that?”

“You're. . . . You're badly hurt!” Don blurted. Stub's eyes seemed to cloud over, and his face twisted as if in pain.

“Give me a drink. I'm as thirsty as all the southern deserts,” came a weak request.

Don made haste to comply. Stub managed a couple of deep swallows. Then his eyes seemed to clear and he smiled.

“I see that my request has already been answered. . . . ,” he murmured. The words were now quite difficult to understand.

“You are the one that God will use.”

Don winced at the reference to God, but he knew that these superstitions could be a comfort to a man at the hour of his death. He murmured reassuringly and gripped his had, for the lack of anything else to do.

“You will know him too,” whispered Stub. The small smile was still on his lips. “Funny, it doesn't hurt t all now. . . . Sweet Jesus, I am coming!”

He fell silent. The mist came over his eyes again, like a fine frost on a pane of leaded glass and then a long sigh passed his lips. Don knew without being told that the wagon master would speak no more. He bowed his head and wept again. He did not think carefully about Stub's words just then, but he did not forget them.

The shoes were not hard to find. They lay in the grass exactly where they had flown from his feet. His numbed brain was still trying to fully grasp the situation as he laced them on. He felt like the half-frozen men looked as he had seen them stumble woodenly out of a northern blizzard. What should he do? Sound the alarm – that seemed obvious. But where? Several stockaded farmsteads lay about four miles to the northwest, but they could probably not do anything, and that way was farther from Stonegate. Stonegate, itself, was an easy two days' journey to the southeast, and there surely must be other farms or villages on the way.

That was the best he could come up with. He stood up and strode back to the clearing. He decided to make a light pack of what necessities he could salvage and go on alone to Stonegate. He began to rummage through the discarded baggage when he heard a hoarse shout, and the sound of running feet. He was startled, and whirled around to see a fair-haired man bearing down on him, sword raised, face twisted with hate.

After a horrified first glance, Don realized that he was one of the young drovers. “It's only me!” he shouted, waving his arms. The other man recognized Don at the same instant, apparently, since the sword point immediately dropped to point to the ground, and the newcomer skidded to a stop several paces away.

“What are you doing here, Loreman?” he challenged, suspiciously. “And where were you last night? Calling them in on us?”

“I'm making a package of food,” Don snapped. “And I plan to hurry on to Stonegate to sound the alarm. I hid from the murderers in the river. Where were you?”

The ruddy chin dropped a trifle as the young giant lowered his gaze. He stared at the sword in his hand as if seeing it for the first time. Then he slowly returned it to the sheath at his belt.

“Aye,” he mumbled, avoiding the bodies as well as Don's eye with his gaze. “Aye. You can run and hide and no problem for you. You are a loreman and can act the coward. Who cares? But me. . . . I was to have guarded the oxen. When so many came, all at once, I ran.”

“You ran. . . .” repeated Don, picking up his iron-shod walking staff from under the wagon.

“My parents will say that I had better died,” continued the drover. “And they would say rightly. I played the coward's part and failed my trust! My fair Eliza will turn her face from me.”

His blue eyes were dry, but began glancing from side to side, wildly. The contorted face and trembling limbs made Don afraid. The young fool wouldn't harm himself, would he?

“Come on now,” Don said sharply. “If you had tried to fight, you would be dead too. It would have made no difference. The best thing you can do to redeem yourself is to go for . . . ” He was interrupted by a hoarse cry from the younger man, whose eyes finally met Don's and locked on him with a wild and terrible stare.

“You! You never answered my question!” he shouted shrilly. Foam flecked the corner of his mouth. “You did it all! You cringing lick-spittle! You . . . you planned it! I wasn't to blame for treachery at least!”

The blade again sprang free of its scabbard and the drover aimed a wild blow at Don that would have split him from head to crotch if it had landed. Without time for thought, Don partly parried the blade with his staff, which he held two handed. But the keen tip struck his left arm near the elbow as it glanced off. Don whirled the butt of the staff like a quarterstaff with the strength of desperation. The metal-shod butt struck his opponent on the temple with a hollow thud. They both fell, but only Don struggled back up.

Don examined his numb left arm. There was no pain, strangely, but a deep gash extended across the back of his forearm and diagonally across his left biceps. His sleeve was already sticky with blood, and dark drops dripped off his fingers in a pitter-patter onto the trampled earth. His opponent lay still.

Don stripped off his tunic yet again, and managed to get the bleeding stopped, clumsily binding the cuts with strips of clothing from the pile of baggage. He then attended to the drover. The younger man's pulse was strong, but he showed no sign of stirring. A swelling was clearly visible on his left temple. Don dragged him into the shade and prudently retrieved the sword. He struggled back into his outer tunic, pulled the scabbard and belt from the unconscious form and buckled the weapon around his own waist. He then threw a pack of supplies over his good shoulder and strode off down the road to the southeast. It was noon, and it had been a long morning, but he was not hungry.

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