Chapter one

A CHANCE MEETING

"Would you hurry up already?"

"I'll be done in a minute!" Willbrand replied. He looked up as Donny poked his head in the room.

"Damn, you're slower than a girl," Donny muttered.

Willbrand gave him a dirty look and finished adjusting his tunic.

"It's not every day we get Imperial Knights visiting Crotasia," he replied caustically. "You know Swordmaster Garrik is going to want us to leave a good impression on them. With his eagle eye, if even one button is amiss, I'm sure we'll all be hearing about it the next day. I don't want to be the one responsible for having the entire squad cleaning the latrines."

Donny grinned.

"That's all well and good," he replied. "But even if your appearance is spotless, we're still going to get in trouble if we're late."

"We're not going to be late..." Willbrand began.

He was interrupted by the blaring of horns off in the distance wafted in through the open window.

"Oh no?" Donny said smugly. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that's the signal that the Imperial Knights have arrived at the city gates."

"Damn!" Willbrand blurted out.

He hurriedly finished with his tunic, then turned and almost knocked Donny over on his way out of the room. His companion followed him into the bedroom, an amused expression on his face.

"Don't forget your sword," he pointed out.

"I'd be as likely to forget my right arm," Willbrand replied.

He grabbed the sheathed sword from off his bed and strapped it on as they walked out into the main hall of the barracks.

"I suspect you'd leave even that behind if it weren't attached."

Willbrand made a face but declined to reply.

They stepped out of the barracks into the castle courtyard. It was mid afternoon on a late summer day and the sun shone warmly in a clear sky. Outside the city walls the farmers were planting the last of their late season crops, looking forward to the autumn rains and the bounty this would provide come fall. The winter hadn't been bad at all last year. They had been spared any major snowfall, which was unusual. Willbrand couldnít help but wonder if that trend would continue in the coming winter.

"Would you quit dawdling?" Donny called out.

He had already broken into a run, headed for the gate to the outer bailey. Willbrand wasn't about to be left behind. He ran after his friend. When Donny saw him coming he sped up, and soon they were both racing across the courtyard as fast as they could.

Donny was still a little ahead when they came ran through the gate that separated the courtyard and the inner castle from the parade grounds and the outer bailey in front of the main gate. There they stopped, their spontaneous competition forgotten. The square before them was brimming with people. The knights and cadets of the castle lined the dirt pathway that ran from the main gate to the inner bailey. The youngest cadets up front, right by the gate, the older cadets and knights closer to the inner castle, depending on their rank, with the oldest and highest ranking knights mounted. All of them stood at close attention in well ordered ranks. In sharp contrast to the citizens who crowded in a swirling mass behind them. Just to the left of the inner gate, at the end of the line of soldiers, stood members of the royal families of Crotasia. Willbrand recognized most of them, his father among them. On a raised Dias in the center of them sat Count Dormah, the voice of the king in Crotasia. Beside him was his wife, Vanessa, and, on a chair just a step below them, his daughter Shellana.

Willbrand hesitated a moment, looking over at the Dias, hoping maybe to catch the eye of the young girl, but she was not looking in their direction. Donny, however, didn't fail to notice.

"C'mon, Will," he said. "We're late already. We don't have time to be oogling Shellana."

"I wasn't oogling," Willbrand protested.

"Yeah, whatever," Donny replied. "Let's just get to our places. I'm sure the Imperial Knights will be here any second. If we're not where we're supposed to be by the time they ride through the gate, you know they'll be hell to pay."

Since it wouldn't have been proper to run in front of all that nobility, they walked as quickly as they could down the line until they found their squad. Swordmaster Garrick stood at attention at the fore. He eyed them darkly as they slipped into line, but made no other move.

They had barely taken their places when the trumpets blared again. All eyes turned toward the front gate. For a moment nothing happened, then Willbrand caught a glimpse of color, and a after that a row of mounted knights began making their way through the entrance.

Willbrand brought himself to attention, his eyes straight ahead, resisting the urge to let them drift toward the gate. As the Captain of the cadets, he was supposed to lead by example. For the others to be lax in their attention to duty or protocol would be a minor transgression, but for him any negligence to the rules could result in his losing his position as Captain. And that was something he didn't want to risk for anything, not even an advance look at an Imperial Knight.

So he kept his eyes firmly fixed forward, no matter how strong the inclination was for them to wander. As Captain of the Cadets, he stood right beside Swordmaster Garrick. A position of honor, yet it also left him directly under the man's unscrupulous eye. Willbrand knew that even the slightest deviation from protocol would be noticed and he would be called to task for it later on.

The first horses to ride by were lesser members of the knightís entourage. Various dignitaries and hangers on that befitted the company of so prestigious a group of knights. But the mounts of even these people were larger and more ornately adorned than any Willbrand had ever seen. These animals and their finery put to shame even the horses of the nobles of Crotasia.

A few moments later the first Imperial Knight rode into his view. There was no mistaking the gleaming silver armor or the jet black warhorse, the biggest beast Willbrand had ever seen. He stood there at attention, marveling at the size and strength of it. All the Imperial Knights rode black warhorses, all of them bred in the royal stables in the Capital City of Galias. It was said that the steeds were all direct descendants from the warhorse that Prand LeGurn, the first of the Imperial Knights, rode to battle for King Darwin.

Three other knights followed the first, all of them on identical black horses, each one seeming more impressive than the previous. More lesser members of the party followed, but Willbrand, as did most of the others, kept his eyes only on the knights.

The party reached the head of the welcoming committee, with the knights stopping directly opposite the Dias. With that Count Dormah stood up, and immediately the murmurs that were running through the crowds abated.

"Welcome, most noble knights, to the humble town of Cortasia. I am Count Dormah, viceroy to the king. I send greetings to King Gultane back in Galais. I hope all is well there."

The knight on the foremost horse spoke.

"All is well indeed," the man replied. "I am Drax Gregon, lieutenant of the Imperial Knights of Donelan. I bring greeting from King Gultane. Although he has not traveled to these parts in many years, his eye is often turned your way. He is quite pleased with what he has seen."

The Count nodded his head at this gracious assessment.

"I am pleased myself then," he responded. "It is true neither the king nor a representative has been this far north in years. Thus it is doubly an honor to have you here with us now. I'm afraid you must forgive me for our paltry attempt to give you a fitting welcome. I'm afraid we do not have much in the way of luxuries or entertainment here. If we had had more time to prepare..."

The knight dismissed it with a wave of his hand.

"The welcome was more than adequate," he replied. "We are not here to engage in idle entertainment. We are here on a mission from the king. A mission that I would like to discuss with you at the earliest possible convenience."

Court Dormah got the hint.

"Of course," he replied. "I will have the pages take your horses and lead you to your quarters. They are nothing fancy, but the best we have here in Crotasia. I will gather my councilors and call you after you have had a suitable time to rest and refresh yourselves from your arduous journey."

"I assure you we are quite refreshed," Drax replied. "The journey was quite uneventful, and we are not weary. We need but time to tend to our horses."

Count Dormah paused for a moment, then nodded.

"Very well," he stated.

He called for some pages that came forward to escort the knights to the stables. Count Dormah stepped off the Dias and walked through the gate into the inner bailey, followed by his wife and Shellana. The young girl turned to look back once as she stepped down, right at Willbrand. He thought she smiled at him, but he couldn't be certain. With that the other royalty started to leave as well, signaling the end of the formal festivities. Swordmaster Garrik turned toward the squad and dismissed them.

He started walking back toward the gate himself, with Willbrand and Donny following close behind.

"I can't believe that Imperial Knights have actually come to Crotasia," Donny stated. "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime. I thought sure I'd have to get out of this dump first."

"Watch your mouth," Swordmaster Garrik warned. "Crotasia is a wonderful town. But yes, I'm surprised to see Imperial Knights here myself."

"What do you think they're doing here?" Willbrand questioned.

"I don't know," Garrik replied. "But even if I did, I wouldn't be telling you two blabbermouths."

"Huh?" Donny protested innocently. "Blabbermouths? Us?"

Garrik turned and glanced back at him fiercely.

"Don't try that innocent routine with me mister," he said. "I know you way too well for that."

Donny gave him a pained look. Willbrand smiled and shook his head.

"You know we can't help being curious, Swordmaster," he tried. "Everyone is. Why would Imperial Knights be coming to our town after all this time? And on such short notice too. I heard that Count Dormah didn't find out they were on their way until two days ago. We all know something has to be up. Surely there must have been some talk in the castle. You don't know anything about it?"

Garrik stopped abruptly and turned toward them.

"I see you can be solicitous when you need to," he stated. "But do you seriously think I'd actually tell you two clowns anything?"

"Aww c'mon, Garrik," Donny pleaded.

Garrik gave him a pointed look. They had passed through the gate into the inner courtyard now, headed for main keep. If it were anyone else, Willbrand didn't think Garrik would even stand for such questions. But in spite of his gruff exterior, Willbrand knew that he and Donny were two of Garrik's favorite cadets. He didn't think Garrik would give anything important away, but Willbrand was hoping he might give them some clue as to what was going on.

Garrik shook his head.

"The truth is I don't know anymore about this than you do right now," he replied seriously. "Everything has been hush hush up to this point. The Count has only discussed this with his closest advisors, and I'm not included in that group. I assume I'll find out soon enough though."

"And you'll let us know?" Donny said hopefully.

Garrik made a face.

"Oh yeah, it'll be my first priority to inform two wet behind the ears cadets of these great matters."

They had reached the entrance to the main keep. Garrik pulled open the door. When he looked at them again his face was a bit more sympathetic.

"I'll let you know if I find out anything, if I can discuss it at all," he said.

"Thanks," they both said gratefully.

"Don't thank me," he replied. "More than likely it's going to concern all of us anyway. So don't think you're anything special, and don't think I didn't notice how late you two were either. I'm sure a little extra work cleaning out the stable tomorrow will give you plenty of time to think about being a little more prompt."

Willbrand and Donny both groaned as Garrik closed the door behind him.

Donny turned and leaned against the door.

"Well, at least we got that out of him," he said. "I wish I could be at the council myself though. Even if Garrik parts with some information, you know he isn't going to tell us half of what's really going on."

"Probably not," Willbrand agreed. "But I suppose we'll find out eventually. Actually, we can probably consider ourselves lucky. If we were ordinary citizens, we'd probably never find out anything."

"That doesn't help much," Donny replied. "I want to know now!"

"Oh don't be so impatient," Willbrand replied, giving him a look.

"C'mon," Donny said. "You know you want to know just as much as I do."

"True, but there's nothing we can do about it right now. Have you had lunch yet? I'm kinda hungry."

Donny scratched his head.

"No, I've pulled watch duty for this afternoon. Besides, I think you're about to have other things on your mind besides lunch."

A nod of his head caused Willbrand to turn around. From near the castle stables he saw Shellana approaching.

"Well, gotta go," Donny said, walking past Willbrand with a wink.

Willbrand watched his friend walk away with a bemused smile on his face. But it disappeared as Shellana came up to him.

"Hello Shellana, you look pretty today," he said.

"Why thank you Will," she replied. "You almost didn't make it to your place this morning. I know Swordmaster Garrik would not have been pleased with that."

"No, he most certainly would not have," Willbrand concurred. "I'm sure I would never have heard the end of it. As it is, I'll still be cleaning out the stables tomorrow for cutting it so close. But I suppose it could have been worse."

Shellana tilted her head, her long blonde curls falling off her shoulder.

"He's not really a bad sort," she said thoughtfully.

"Garrik? No," Willbrand replied. "He's tough, but he's always been fair."

Shellana nodded and looked down at the ground.

"Well, I'm sure he's too busy right now preparing for the counsel than to worry about any of your indiscretions."

"Yeah, I suppose so, but that's only a temporary reprieve," Willbrand replied. "If there's one thing I know about Garrik, he's not going to forget."

Shellana looked up at him again, focusing her dark brown eyes on him. He had known her practically all his life. They were almost the same age, and had grown up in court together. It had been only a few years ago when she had been the terror of the castle, her hair in pigtails, chasing around after him all day long. She had always been like a sister to him. But he didn't feel that way now. She'd changed since then. She had grown up. Boy how she had grown up. The pigtails were gone, her long blonde hair flowing loosely over her shoulders. Her face full and more mature, and he couldn't help but notice how womanly her figure had become. No, she'd come a long way since then, as he had too. He wouldn't dare tell her, but now he thought of her as the prettiest girl in the city.

"This is a special occasion though," she told him. "You're probably safe at least until the Imperial Knights leave."

"Somehow I doubt it," Willbrand replied. He looked at her for a moment. Garrik hadn't known anything, but he was just the Swordmaster. An important title, yes, but not one of Count Dormah's close advisors. He wasn't above plying Shellana for any information she might have overheard. "Do you have any idea what they're doing here, or how long they'll be staying?"

Shellana shook her head.

"No, I haven't heard anything," she replied. "All I can say is my father was very surprised to hear they were coming. Supposedly it was lucky he found out at all. One of the Captains of the Guard happened to be in Keesa and overheard them asking for directions to Crotasia. My father was shocked that he hadn't been informed. He seemed to think it was a very bad omen."

"Well, let's hope not," Willbrand said, though personally he was inclined to agree. So even Count Dormah hadn't been informed that the knights were coming. That was interesting news. If they hadn't been expected, he had to agree with Shellana's father. He couldn't see any good reasons for them to do that.

"Well, I'm sure it'll all work out," Shellana said optimistically.

Willbrand knew that Shellana didn't like discussing politics. She had enough of that all day at court. This was her way of dismissing the subject. He took the hint.

"I hope the Imperial Knights participate in the tournament tomorrow," he said. "It is in their honor, after all, and I'm sure everyone in the city would love to see them fight."

"And test their skills," Shellana said, looking at him shrewdly. "I'll bet you're just dying to see how you would fare against one."

"Well of course," Willbrand conceded. "Everyone wants to test themselves against the best. It's only natural."

"And dangerous," she replied.

"Yeah, I suppose," he replied. "But you know people rarely get hurt, at least, not seriously. We haven't had a death from the tournament in years."

"We also haven't fought against Imperial Knights before," she reminded him.

"I'm not going to get hurt," he said dismissively. "I know what I'm doing."

"Are you sure?" she replied. "I know you've had a lot of practice, but as Captain of the cadets you'll be allowed to fight with the knights this time, not the other cadets. How do you know you're ready?"

"Why shouldn't I be?" he replied with more than a hint of pride. "As Captain of the cadets I've earned the chance. Why shouldn't I think I'm ready? Garrik obviously thinks so."

"But he's never fought an Imperial Knight before either," she said. "So how could he really say?"

Willbrand made a face.

"So what are you saying, that I shouldn't join in the tournament?"

"Would that be such a bad thing?" she replied.

Willbrand looked at her as if she were demented.

"Of course it would!" he exclaimed. "You know what an honor it is for someone my age to even be allowed to participate? And you want me to turn them down? That would be worse than fighting and getting hurt. I'd never be able to live it down!"

Shellana seemed taken aback a moment by the vehemence of his response.

"I just don't understand why you men all have to make such a big deal out of beating the stuffing out of one another," she replied tartly.

"That's what being a man is all about!" Willbrand stated. "You want me to sit on the sidelines like one of the women?"

"We sit on the sideline because we're sensible," she said tersely.

"Well, in that case I don't want to be sensible," he replied.

"I can see that!" she shot back.

"Why are you giving me such a hard time about this all of a sudden?" he said, a bit more angrily than he had intended.

He saw the anger flare up in her brown eyes.

"Well excuse me if I was worried that you might get hurt!" she snapped. "But fine, go right ahead and play in your stupid tournament. And when you get your head dented in, don't come crying to me!"

Before he could say anything else she turned and stomped rapidly away.

Willbrand just stood there and looked at her for a moment. How could she even think he would decline to be in the tournament? Didn't she realize how important something like this was? Didn't she see that it would be cowardly to back out? Didn't she see that he would lose everyone's respect?

He wanted to run after her and try to get that through her thick head, but he knew it wouldn't do any good. He'd known her long enough to know that when she got like that there was no reasoning with her. Sometimes he just didn't understand her.

With a shrug Willbrand walked back to the barracks. There he took off the dress uniform he had so meticulously put on just an hour ago. He had finished with his duties earlier today, so he was free for the rest of the evening. But with Donny on watch and Shellana obviously not interested in his company right now, there wasn't much to do. Being the son of a nobleman, he didn't have any family chores to attend to; they had servants for that, something he was eternally grateful for. Even with his duties in the cadets and at court, he still considered himself far better off than the common young man working in the fields, who was lucky to get any time to himself at all most days.

The barracks had their own mess hall, and Willbrand decided that would be his next stop. He was hungry, and not having companionship was not going to stop him from filling his face. He entered the hall and looked around. There were only a few cadets there. He recognized them, but none of them were in his squad. He picked out his food and sat down, eating silently. As the son of Baron Stromond he could have eaten in the castle proper. Not only would he have been more comfortable, but the food was much better than the standard fare of mutton, ale and bread that was served at the barracks. But as a member of the cadets, and especially as the Captain, he felt it important he appear to be one of them, and not flaunt any special privileges because of his nobility.

If didn't take him long to finish. He walked back out of the barracks into the courtyard once again. He knew Donny was on the battlement in the southwest corner of the castle. Perhaps he'd go over there and see how his friend was doing.

As he walked across the courtyard he spotted the Imperial Knights making their way into the keep, escorted by a number of Count Dormah's closest advisors. He supposed that the counsel was getting started. He wondered how long it would last. He was anxious to pump Garrik for any information he might obtain.

But like he told Donny, they would just have to be patient. He had a feeling Garrik wasn't going to be able to tell them much anyway.

He watched the group until they disappeared into the tower, then turned and continued on his way. Crotasia's castle might not be as large or ornate as some of the one's in the larger cities of Mandaria, but it was still the largest building Willbrand had ever been in. The walls rose up over two stories around the inner bailey, the courtyard and attendant buildings filling an area of about a hundred yards square. The keep itself was built into the southwest corner, rising up four stories, easily the tallest building in Crotasia, and the most massive. Although there hadn't been any battles here in almost fifty years, Count Dormah still made sure the castle was kept in good repair and well manned.

A solid wooden ramp led up to the battlement above. The keep was to his right now, the eastern wall of it below him as he mounted the ramp. A small formal garden was laid out below the wall. Count Dormah had had it built there at the request of his wife. This time of year the flowers planted there were in full bloom, leaving the garden a riot of color, which made it especially attractive.

Willbrand paused for a moment to admire it. There were no trees in the garden, but some of the shrubs were well over six feet. The largest ones ran closest to the keep, covered with bright yellow flowers. But something else caught his eye. There was someone standing in the garden. A girl. That in itself was nothing remarkable, but there were two things he noticed about her that caused him to believe this warranted further investigation. One was that he did not recognize her. He was standing close enough to see her features. She looked about fifteen or sixteen, with raven black hair the fell past her shoulders. He could see her face, and knew he had never seen her at court. She was not one of the nobles of the town. So what was she doing in the castle garden, an area off limits to ordinarily townsfolk?

The second thing was the way she was acting. She looked around every few minutes, as if checking to see if anyone was nearby. From where she was standing, Willbrand realized that no one on the ground would be able to see her. The shrubs concealed her from view. It wasn't lost on Willbrand that she was standing right beneath the window that looked in on the great counsel hall.

Even as he watched she looked around one more time, then turned and, obviously trying not to be seen by anyone inside, peered in the window.

Willbrand stood there staring at her for a minute, then found himself retracing his steps down the ramp. By the time he reached the bottom she was no longer in sight, hidden by the concealing plants. He walked rapidly over to the garden, wondering what the hell was going on. Why would a young girl be spying on a counsel meeting? Whatever she was up to, he was going to find out.

There were guards at the keep, but they were positioned in front, by the main entrance. There was no door on this side, thus no guard. Willbrand turned and looked up at the battlement for a moment. There were guards up there too, but the nearest one was in the southwest corner, the position Donny was manning. From there this part of the keep was not visible.

He entered the garden, the smell of fresh honeysuckle wafted through the air. He walked rapidly but as quietly as he could. He didn't want her to get away before he got there, but neither did he want to alert her to his presence. If she left now, she might slip past him without him even seeing her.

He slipped around a large lilac bush and there she was, still standing by the window. Again he stopped and watched her for a moment. She hadn't moved, was still looking inside. He wondered if she could hear what was going on in there.

If she could, he decided she had heard enough. He started forward; about to confront her, but at his first step she suddenly spun around, her eyes falling directly on him. For a moment she just stood there, and he thought he saw a flash of something cross over her face. It wasn't surprise. It wasn't anger either. He wasn't sure what it was, but for just a second he felt disoriented, almost as if he were going to faint. But then the look was gone, and with it the odd feeling, almost as if the two were connected somehow. But he didn't have time to think about that right now. She was standing just a few paces away from him. She wore a simple dark green dress, with none of the finery that a noblewoman would ordinarily wear. Yet the cut of it was much better than that of a peasant as well. She was looking right at him now, and for a moment he was taken aback, for in spite of her young age, her beauty was striking. Her black hair glistened in the light, framing her oval face. Her eyes were the bluest he had ever seen. Here was a girl whose attractiveness could even rival that of Shellana. How come he had never seen her before? For an awkwardly long time he just stood there looking at her, until he saw her eyes grow curious.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" he questioned finally.

In spite of the time he had given her to think of a response, she still hesitated.

"I was just...looking," she replied, sounding flustered.

"I could see that," he replied. He realized he had caught her in a very awkward position. He could easily have her thrown in chains for even being here, no questions asked. But somehow he felt that there was more to the story than that. Maybe she had a good explanation for what she was doing. "At what?"

"I..at... nothing in particular," she replied finally. "I just wanted to see..."

"See what?" he prodded, stepping closer. In spite of how he felt, he had to treat her as if she were potentially up to no good.

"Just...what its like," she said, her eyes dropping to the ground.

He frowned.

"What do you mean, what it's like?" he questioned.

She looked up again.

"You know, inside the castle," she responded. "What it looks like. I've never been in one. I'm always curious. I guess I was a little too curious this time."

He stood there looking at her for a long time, a skeptical look on his face. She said nothing, just met his gaze without turning away or flinching. He saw no hint that she was lying in her eyes. So was that it then, was she just a curious peasant? He had to admit if she was making up the story, at least it was plausible.

"What's your name?"

She hesitated again, but something in her eyes changed, as if she hadn't been expecting that, and needed to adjust before answering.

"Merigan," she replied.

"Merigan huh? How come I've never seen you before?"

"I'm here with my father," she replied. "He's a merchant from Allecar. We just arrived in town two days ago.

"What does he sell?"

"Huh?"

"What does he sell," Willbrand repeated. "He's a merchant. What does he sell?"

"Oh, uh, all kinds of things," she replied. "Whatever he can find, I guess. I don't really pay all that much attention to it."

"So he's not teaching you the business?" Willbrand questioned.

Merigan shook her head.

"He's trying, but I'm afraid I'm not a very good student. All those figures and calculations. I just find it all so...boring."

"Where are you from?"

"Donelan, originally," she replied.

"You're far from home," he commented.

"Well, that was where I was born, but we left when I was an infant, so I don't remember anything about it. My father being a merchant and all, we're always traveling. I guess you could say I don't really have a home."

"And do you make it a habit of sneaking into the castle of every town you visit?" he asked dryly.

She hesitated a moment before answering.

"I...yes, pretty much," she admitted. "I'm sorry. I just wonder..you know...what it would be like to live that way. I guess, I guess it's just kind of a dream of mine, to be part of that. I didn't mean to cause any trouble. You're not going to throw me in the dungeon or anything, are you?"

Willbrand did not reply for a long time. He thought himself a pretty good judge of character. As Captain of the cadets, he was often involved in investigating rules infractions. He had found that he could usually tell when one of the cadets was lying. Looking at her now he could see no sign of deceit. Besides, she was just a young girl. It didn't exactly fit the description normally attributed to a spy.

"No, I'm not going to throw you in the dungeon," he replied. "But I really should. At this very moment the court is holding a very important counsel with some Imperial Knights. And it's being held in the very room you were spying on. Just being in here could get you in serious trouble. If the guards found you looking in that window, you could be sentenced to death."

Merigan's face went slightly pale. She looked at the window as if it would reach out and bite her.

"I'm sorry," she said again. "I didn't realize. I mean, I know what I was doing was wrong, but I didn't mean anything by it."

"Yes I see that," he reassured her. "Don't worry, I believe you. I'm sure it was all innocent. I'm just saying that you might want to be a little more careful before you get..."

"Who goes there?"

They both turned at the sound of this new voice. Willbrand recognized the man as Barlow, a castle guard. He stood among the shrubs not far from them. His face was stern, but it immediately relaxed when he saw the young cadet.

"Oh, Willbrand," he said in a much friendlier voice. "I heard voices. I know the garden isn't frequented much this time of day and with the counsel and all I was suspicious. I didn't realize it was you."

He looked curiously at the girl.

"Don't worry, she's a friend of mine," Willbrand said.

"No, I've never met him before in my life," Merigan contradicted sharply.

"Huh?" Willbrand said, looking at her. Here he was, trying to cover for her, and she was denying it?

"I don't know him," Merigan insisted.

The guard gave them a strange look.

"What are you talking about?" Willbrand questioned angrily.

Merigan gave him a penetrating yet frustratingly unenlightning look.

"Oh, I get it, the Shellana thing," Barlow spoke up after a moment, nodding his head. "Don't worry; she won't hear anything from me. You two go on about your business."

With that he turned and walked away.

"No, wait I..." Willbrand began, but gave up a moment later as Barlow disappeared down the path. He turned to Merigan once again.

"What the hell was..." he began, but she cut him off, stepping forward.

"You fool!" she exclaimed. "Why did you tell him you knew me?"

"Well...I..." Willbrand began, completely flustered by her attitude. What the hell was going on?

"What was I supposed to say? I was trying to protect you," he managed to say finally, his own voice becoming angry. What was her problem all of a sudden?

"I don't need your protection," she snapped. "Don't you realize..."

Suddenly she shut her mouth, just staring at him for a moment.

"It was just a stupid thing to do," she said finally, her tone much softer. "You don't know how much danger you could have put yourself in. I know you were trying to help me, and I'm thankful, but you didn't have to say that. You didn't have to say anything."

Willbrand just looked at her, more perplexed than ever. His suspicions had returned at her actions. Whatever she was doing, it seemed now that she was holding something back from him.

"Just what is it you're talking about?" he asked.

She looked up at him again, this time he thought he saw pity in her eyes.

"It...it's nothing. Nothing. I just...I have to go."

With that she turned and walked rapidly away. Willbrand just stared at her for a moment. He couldn't believe she was just leaving without giving him any explanation whatsoever. He certainly wasn't going to let her get away with that.

He trotted after her until he caught up.

"What kind of answer is that?" he demanded. "What are you talking about? You better tell me. You can still end up in the dungeon, you know."

"Please, just let me go," she said. There was no defiance in her voice now. Now she was pleading. "Thank you again for being so kind, but it would really be better for both of us now if you just walked away from me."

She continued to walk as she talked, going annoyingly fast. But Willbrand wasn't about to let her go just yet.

"Not until you tell me what this is all about," he stated.

By now they had left the garden behind them and had entered the courtyard. Merigan looked around uncomfortably now that the plants no longer concealed them.

"Please, you've already done enough," she said. "There's nothing more to tell you."

Willbrand felt himself beginning to get angry. He had had just about enough of this. He quickened his pace until he was right beside her, then reached out and grabbed hold of her arm, stopping her in her tracks. He really didn't want to get harsh with her, but she was leaving him no choice.

"I told you, I'm not going to let you leave until you tell me what this is all about!" he said sternly.

For a moment a look of exasperation crossed her face. She seemed about to say something, but then looked around.

"All right," she agreed. "But not here. Not in front of all these people. At least let's leave the castle."

Willbrand gave her an impatient look. He didn't see why he should grant any of her requests at all. It was quite within his power to demand answers right here and now. He looked around as well He could see that a couple of people already seemed to have taken an interest in them. Finally he nodded.

"All right," he said.

He let her go and she walked on, even faster than before, as if she was trying to stay as far away from him as possible. He increased his own pace to keep up. He didn't even know why he was doing this. There was obviously more here than he had suspected, and he had every reason to detain her inside the castle. But even so there was something about her that made him believe she had a good reason for doing what she did. He wanted to find out what she was going to say before he passed any judgments.

They walked through the gate into the outer bailey, down the road in the center of the parade ground where the town had greeted the Imperial Knights just a few hours before. Though many people had left once the official greeting ceremony had come to a close, the area was still quite crowded. The Count had declared today a holiday in honor of their visitors, something the townsfolk were quite willing to take full advantage of. Entertainers circled through the crowds, musicians strumming lutes alongside jugglers and clowns, and a large pit had been set up where half a dozen pigs were slow roasting. At the far corner of the grounds, an impromptu archery contest was being waged.

"No one is going to notice us in this crowd," he said. "Why don't you tell me now?"

She shook her head and kept walking.

"Wait until we get outside," she said, looking back at him. "Please?"

He didn't reply, but made no effort to stop her. Whatever she was going to tell him, it had better be mighty good.

Finally they reached the main entrance. They quickly walked through the stone gateway and onto the streets of the city proper. Normally there were guards posted in front of the gates, but they were absent today because of the celebration. There was no one on the streets here but a few commoners.

"All right," Willbrand said. "Now will you finally..."

Without warning she turned and shoved him.

Taken completely by surprise by this sudden attack, he fell sprawling to the ground. For a moment he laid there in shock, looking at the girl as she turned and ran away. A second later anger surged through him and he sprang to his feet, racing after her. He had thought her behavior a bit odd, certainly, and there was more here than met the eye, but not in his wildest imagining had he thought she would do something like this. He had tended to believe her story and had thought her innocent of any wrongdoing. But now, now he was filled with anger. Now it seemed that there was a darker tale here. The truth was he had thought her kind of cute, and it had thrown him off his guard. Now, not only had she deceived him, but she had thrown him to the ground like a fool. He didn't know what she was up to or how she thought she would get away with it, but he wasn't about to let that happen.

He raced down the narrow street, determined to catch her as quickly as possible. He was one of the better runners in his squad, and was in better shape than any commoner from his training. There weren't many men who could outrace him. He knew a mere girl would be no match for his speed.

And indeed, he rapidly began to catch up. Not only was she not as fast as he, but her dress was not the best attire to be running in, hampering her movement. The block wasn't that long, and she had gotten a decent start. Nevertheless, he could see that he would probably catch her before she reached the end of it.

She glanced back at him. He could see her face clear enough to see it register alarm at how quickly he had gained. She put on a burst of speed, but it was not enough. He was still closing, only a few yards behind her now.

They had almost reached the corner. She looked back once more, and suddenly he stumbled.

He went end over end, banging hard against the packed dirt of the road. He felt stinging pain in his right elbow, but he ignored it. He sprang to his feet once more, cursing his luck. He had almost had her! He looked back for a moment to see what he had stumbled over, but there was nothing at all in the road, not even any unevenness.

He ran forward again, more determined than ever. The stumble had allowed the girl to get ahead once more. Already she had turned the corner ahead of him. But it was only a momentary reprieve. He was sure he could still catch her.

He raced around the corner, then pulled up suddenly, looking around

The girl was no where to be seen.

He stood there; his eyes narrowing as he slowly looked around. Even with the fall, he had only been seconds behind her. She couldn't possibly have reached the next block before he came around the corner. It was impossible.

The street here was lined with private homes. There was one person on the street, a middle aged woman in front of one of the houses beating a rug. He walked over to her.

"Excuse me, but did you happen do see a young lady run by here just a few moments ago?"

The woman stopped beating the rug and turned toward him.

"A young lady?" she said, shaking her head. "No."

"No?" he repeated in surprise. "Are you sure? I was right behind her when she turned down this block. She had to have passed by here."

"If you were right behind her, why didn't you see her yourself?" the woman inquired.

"I was only a few seconds behind," he corrected.

She shook her head again.

"Ain't seen no girl," she said. "Ain't seen nobody come down this block cept you. Everyone's at the celebration."

"But..." he began, but the woman had gone back to her beating.

He turned away, looking at the street, frustration growing inside him. The woman was only a few houses from the corner. If the girl had passed here, she must have seen her, unless she was too busy beating her rugs to notice. It didn't seem likely, but you never knew. On the other hand, perhaps the girl had turned off or hidden before reaching her. There were only a few places on the street that offered concealment. A horse trough, a couple of barrels in front of one house. He walked around them, inspecting them carefully, but saw no sign of the girl. He looked at the buildings once again. There were three of four that she could have entered, if she was quick enough. He took some time to look closely at the doors and windows of all of the homes that she might have found refuge in, but nothing seemed tampered with or out of place. If she had slipped inside one, she had done an expert job of concealing the fact. Somehow he didn't think a young girl like that would be able to hide her tracks so well.

And yet, hadn't he been underestimating her all along now?

At any rate, if she had slipped into one of the homes, he couldn't tell which one, and even he couldn't just barge into any house he pleased without authority from the Count. No matter how he looked at it, it appeared as if she had escaped him.

Which didn't sit well with him at all. He wasn't used to losing, especially to some girl. Not only that, but it appeared now that she could very well have been spying all along, and he had helped her get away! How would he explain this if Garrik found out? He would be a laughing stock, and would almost certainly lose his position as Captain. Without that his chances of someday becoming an Imperial Knight would disappear as well. This could ruin him!

Slowly he looked around one more time. She may have given him the slip for now, but it wasn't over yet. The fact that she was from out town was almost certainly true. The city wasn't that big, he was sure he would have noticed a girl like that before if she was from around here. And if she was telling the truth about that, she might have been telling the truth about her father being a merchant. He knew most of the merchants in town. If the man was conducting business here, he shouldn't be too hard to find.

He started in the area closest to the castle and slowly worked his way outward, stopping in every store and questioning every merchant about any strangers they had seen in the last two days, a man by himself or with a young black haired girl, determined to visit every single shop in the city if that's what it took And indeed, it was beginning to look like that was exactly what he would have to do after three hours of fruitless searching. Night was just beginning to fall, and he was becoming more and more frustrated. He had covered most of the city by now, only the northeastern portion to go. He was beginning to believe that she had lied about her father being a merchant after all.

He had made a wide circle around the city, and was now close to the castle once more. This was familiar territory for him, and he knew most of the merchants in this area by name. Harlin Drochus was one of the most well known, although his business wasn't that large compared to some of the others in town. Still, he was known as an honest man, or at least as honest as a merchant could be, and sold only quality merchandise.

"Hello Harlin," he said as he walked in the door.

The man looked up at him.

"Evening Willbrand," he said slowly.

"I was wondering if you could help me. Iím looking for a girl. About sixteen, long black hair, blue eyes. She claims her father is a merchant and that they just arrived in town a few days ago. Have you seen anyone like that or anyone else new in town?"

Harlin gave him a puzzled look.

"What, did the Imperial Knight forget something?"

Now it was Willbrand's turn to look puzzled.

"Huh? What are you talking about?" he inquired.

Harlin paused a moment before answering.

"You mean you're not with that Imperial Knight?" he asked.

Willbrand shook his head.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied. "What Imperial Knight?"

"The one that was just in here about half an hour ago," Harlin replied, fiddling with his apron. "He was asking the same questions, about some raven haired young girl. I thought maybe he had forgotten to ask something and had sent you back to find out."

Willbrand just stood there for a moment. This was certainly a surprise, and he suddenly had a very bad feeling about it. What possible reason could an Imperial Knight have to be looking for this girl as well?

"At any rate, I'll tell you the same thing I told him," Harlin continued. "I haven't seen or heard of anyone like that. Things have been a little slow lately. There have been heavy rains up in the north, and business shouldn't start picking up again for a couple of weeks. I haven't seen anyone new in town for at least a month."

But Willbrand was hardly listening anymore. Could it be that the Imperial Knights had somehow found out about the girl being at the castle? Maybe they were taking such an interest in it because they thought she might have been trying to overhear the counsel. But how could they have learned all that unless Barlow had spilled it? And if he were going to tell anyone anything, he certainly wouldn't have mentioned it to the Imperial Knights. But maybe he had said something to someone else and they had told the knights.

He shook his head. Suddenly this chance meeting seemed to be turning into a huge mess, and he was right in the middle of it. He had to get back to the castle to find out what was going on.

Harlin was still talking, but he didn't hear a word the man was saying as he walked back out the door. He hurried down the dark street, heading back to the castle at a fast trot. The way his luck was going today, Garrik was probably waiting at the barracks for him to return just so he could chew him out, and there didn't seem much he could do now to avoid it.

The celebration was still going on when he reentered the castle, just as strong as ever, it seemed. It would go on long into the night. The people didn't get a chance to celebrate very often. Usually their lives were filled with drudgery and work, so they weren't about to let this chance slip by without enjoying it to the fullest. If anything the number of minstrels seemed to have swelled, and a huge group of people were dancing and cavorting in the center of the parade grounds.

He quickly walked through them, not paying much attention. He didn't share their joy. He didn't seem to have much to celebrate right now.

He passed through the inner gate into the courtyard, the sounds of revelry fading behind him. The barracks loomed in front of him now, and he stopped. If Garrik was in there, he didn't want to confront him until he had some idea as to why the Imperial Knights had been after the girl. It's was just possible that they were after her for some other reason entirely, and he wasn't in any trouble at all. At least, that was the hope he was grasping for.

He changed direction and headed for the keep. His family had their own land out on the outskirts of town. In fact, his father was one of the largest landholders in the city. But it was a good two hours ride on horseback, and affairs of state often required the presence of his parents for weeks at a time. Therefore they and some of the other Barons had their own quarters in the castle, to be used whenever they were in the city. For Willbrand and his parents, it seemed they spent much more time here than in their real home.

At any rate, he thought he'd stop in there first. Perhaps his father knew more about what was going on. If he was in some kind of trouble, better to find out from him first.

As he approached the keep, a figure suddenly materialized out of the darkness before him. He recognized him after a moment as Trevor, one of his parentís servants.

"Oh, Master Will, thank the lord I've found you," he said. "I have a message from your father. He asks that you meet him in the servantís quarters."

Willbrand frowned.

"The servant's quarters? What for? And when did he..."

"There's no time to ask questions," Trevor cut him off. Willbrand looked at the man in surprise, and with some irritation. The man had never talked to him like that before.

"Just go to the servantís quarters. I'll tell your father you are here. And don't talk to anyone. Do you hear? This is straight from your father. Go directly to the servantís quarters immediately and wait for him there. Do you understand?"

Willbrand just frowned. Things seemed to be getting stranger and stranger every minute.

"No I don't understand. Why would he want.."

"Please, for your own sake, just do it," the man replied, and for the first time Willbrand noticed how pale he looked and how nervous he sounded. "He'll tell you everything as soon as he gets there. Now for God's sake, do as he says!"

Willbrand looked at Trevor in surprise one more time. The man seemed almost hysterical. But whatever was going on, he seemed sincere. Willbrand had known the man all his life, and trusted him implicitly. He didn't know what was going on, but it was obvious that Trevor fervently believed that Willbrand should do as he said.

"All right," he said finally. "I'll go."

Trevor nodded, seeming greatly relived. "That's a good lad. I'll go tell your father that you are here."

With that he turned and walked rapidly toward the keep. He looked back once, then waved his hand toward the left when he saw the boy wasn't moving. Willbrand turned and headed for the servantís quarters, a solitary building not far from the keep itself, shaking his head as he went. He really wished someone would tell him what the hell was going on.

He reached the building and entered. The place was quiet, apparently empty. All the servants were probably off attending to duties or the celebration. Whatever was going on, it appeared his father wanted to talk to him in private. But why couldn't they just do that in their own quarters?

He stood there for a while, waiting impatiently. He wondered how long it was going to take his father to get there. But he hadn't been waiting long at all when he heard footsteps approaching. He turned to face the door just as it was flung open, and his father came in and looked at him.

"What the hell have you done?" he exclaimed.

Willbrand just looked at him in surprise.

"What are you talking about?" he said. He was shocked at the look on his fathers face. He seemed almost as upset as Trevor had been.

"What were you doing with that girl?" his father shouted. "How did you meet her? Why didn't you turn her over to the guards? Do you have any idea what you've done? Do you have any idea what kind of a mess you've gotten yourself into?"

Willbrand was stunned by this explosive outburst.

"Father, I...I don't understand. I just saw her by the keep. She claimed she just wanted to see what the castle was like. She seemed harmless."

"Harmless!" his father roared. "You little fool! The Imperial Knights are here because of her, by the orders of the Queen herself. She's some sort of heretic, wanted for blasphemy against the church and sedition against the king. How long have you known her?"

"I told you, I just met her at the keep this afternoon," Willbrand stammered. "At first I believed her story, but later on I became suspicious. But when I questioned her, she ran away. Somehow she got away from me."

"Then why did you tell Barlow that you knew her?" his father snapped, the words flying at him like knives.

"I...I was trying to protect her," he replied. "At the time I thought she was harmless. I didn't want her to get into any trouble."

His father looked at him for a moment, then walked forward until he stood right before Willbrand, his face redder than the boy had ever seen it. For a moment he thought his father was going to strike him, but then the man turned away and slammed his fist down on a nearby table.

"Father I..." he began.

"Just shut up!" his father shouted.

Willbrand's mouth snapped shut. They both stood there in silence for a long time. His father with his back turned, and Willbrand afraid to even breathe, much less open his mouth. He had never seen his father like this before.

Finally the man turned around, apparently having gotten a hold of himself.

"The Imperial Knights have accused you of complicity with this girl," he said, controlling his emotions with some effort. "They have called an Inquisition and you have formally been charged with heresy."

Willbrand's eyebrows lifted.

"What?"

"You heard me," his father said, his voice remaining unchanged. "You have been charged to appear before the church for questioning. If found guilty you will be burned..."

His father could not continue.

Willbrand felt a constriction in his throat, his head suddenly spinning. This wasn't possible! He had figured he had made a mistake, had thought he might suffer some form of punishment, but this! This was beyond belief. A formal charge of heresy hadn't been issued in Crotasia since...well, ever, as far as he knew. He had heard of the Inquisitions in Galias though. If what he had heard was true, he could suffer from torture to get him to confess, and be burned at the stake if proven guilty. And what chance would he have of being found innocent if it was his word against that of an Imperial Knight? He would have no chance at all. Suddenly he felt his knees becoming weak.

"Father, it's not possible. Surely you can do something..." he said slowly.

"There's no time for this," his father interrupted him. "We've already remained here longer than we should. There's nothing I can do for you. The orders have come down directly through Count Dormah. Everyone in the palace is looking for you. And if they find you here you'll have no chance of getting away. You must leave, at once. Make for Keesa. You have a cousin there who might be able to help. Iíl try to send word. You're going to have to make it that far on your own. I'll be watched too closely. With a little luck I can keep them from implicating me or your mother in this. But you have to go. Now!"

Willbrand didn't know what to say. This whole thing was taking a surreal quality. How could this possibly have happened?

His father stepped closer to him.

"Do you hear me?" he said harshly.

"Yes," Willbrand replied. "But how can I leave? What will I do? I can't go now, I have duties to attend and..."

"Haven't you been listening at all?" his father snapped. "You've been charged with heresy. You are no longer one of the Crotasia cadets. That's over now, no matter what happens. You've got more important things to worry about now. Now quite acting like an idiot and start thinking, or you're never going to get out of this alive!"

Willbrand didn't know what to think. But it was obvious that he needed to go. His father was making that plain enough to him. From what his father had said, they might be found at any moment. He didn't have time to sit and ponder what had happened. He had to be on his way. And he had to go now. There was no other choice.

"Keesa," he said slowly. It was a good weekís travel to the east.

His father nodded.

"It's your only chance," he said. "Now go, and God be with you."

Willbrand hesitated a moment more, then nodded his head. Almost mechanically he walked to the door. But before he reached it he turned and ran back into his father's arms.

"Father I..." he said, but his voice choked off.

For a moment the older man said nothing, just held onto his son.

"It'll be alright Will," he finally said softly, with no more hint of anger. "We'll get through this somehow. But you must go."

Willbrand nodded and backed away, looking at his father with tears in his eyes. He swallowed hard, then turned and walked out the door.

Once outside he looked around, but no one was in sight. Watchfires burned on the battlements, but none cast their light on the courtyard inside the walls. He looked back at the door he had closed behind him; still not able to believe this was real. He had spent his whole life here. It was all he had ever known. Could he really leave it all behind? His friends, his family?

Shellana.

He looked up at the keep, towering above him in the darkness. He couldn't go. Not without saying goodbye to her first.

He stood there for a long time, but he knew right from the start what he was going to do. After a while he moved forward again, not toward the gate but towards the keep once more.

He didn't go up to the entrance. That would be guarded. Instead he walked around to the north side. He moved as quietly as he could, keeping his eyes open for any sign of anyone else. But all was quiet. Eventually he stood right beneath the keep wall. Looking up he could see the second story window that he knew was Shellana's room. Ivy grew along the wall here, had for as long as he could remember. He used to use it as a ladder to climb up to Shellana's room when they were both children. He reached out and grabbed hold of a large vine, testing his weight against it. The last time he had done this had been years ago. He wasn't sure if it would hold him now.

Fairly confident it would he started up. He paused every once in a while to look around, but there was no one nearby. It was easier than he had thought. The vines were thick, easily supporting his weight, and it only took him a minute to reach the window and pull himself up.

There he stopped. He could hear a sound coming from inside the room. It sounded like someone crying.

"Shellana," he called out as loudly as he dared.

There was sudden movement, and then the rapping of footsteps and the curtain was flung aside. Shellana stood in front of him, a look of disbelief on her tear streaked face.

"Willbrand!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here? If they find you they'll throw you in prison!"

"I know," he said. He pulled his legs up until he was sitting on the windowsill. Shellana grabbed hold of his arm to steady him. "I have to go. But I couldn't leave without saying goodbye to you."

She stood there for a moment just looking at him, and then the tears started down her cheeks again.

"How could this have happened?" she said. "They say you were in league with some girl."

"It's nonsense," he replied. "It was just a stupid chance thing. I'm not even sure how it happened myself. But I guess that doesn't matter now. I have to go. I'm sorry."

She sniffled for a bit, then took a deep breath and got a hold of herself.

"So with the entire town looking for you, you came to say goodbye to me. That's so sweet of you. But incredibly stupid! You have to get out of here or you'll get caught."

"I know," he said. "I just wanted to tell you goodbye, and to say that I'm sorry if I made you angry earlier."

"Oh don't worry about that," she said. "It was nothing. Just take care of yourself, okay?"

"I will," he said, giving her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm sure this will eventually all blow over. I'll be back someday. I promise."

She forced herself to smile.

"I hope so," she said softly. "Now hurry and get out of here before you get caught."

He nodded, looking in her eyes. He didn't want to leave, but he knew he had to. Every minute he spent with her was putting her in danger. If she was caught with him she might be implicated as well, and he certainly didn't want that.

"I gotta go," he said.

He slipped his legs back outside, grabbing hold of the ivy once again. He started down, trying to keep himself from thinking about what he was doing, about what he was leaving behind, about anything at all. It was the only way he could keep from breaking down and crying himself.

He reached the bottom and dropped onto the ground. He looked up to see that Shellana was still there, looking down at him. He waved; feeling like his heart was going to break. Was he really saying goodbye to this girl he had known all his life?

He turned away, feeling tears starting to form in his eyes. But he hadn't taken a step before he was stopped in his tracks by a familiar voice.

"I had a feeling I'd find you here."

Swordmaster Garrik stepped out of the shadows at the base of the keep.

Above them Willbrand heard Shellana gasp. Not for the first time tonight, Willbrand just stood there with a sinking feeling in his gut.

"Garrik," he said softly.

"I don't know what's going on, Will," the Swordmaster said. "I can't believe the things I've heard tonight. I know you, and I don't think you could do such things. Nevertheless I have a duty to bring you in, you know that as well as I. If you're innocent, you don't have anything to worry about."

"Do you really believe that, Swordmaster?" Willbrand asked. "The Imperial Knights themselves have accused me of complicity with a heretic. Do you actually think there can be any result but finding me guilty?"

"I don't know," Garrik replied. "I really don't know. Either way it doesn't matter. You're a cadet, my best one, in fact. I'm sorry it has to come to this, but as a cadet you know may duty commands me to not let you go."

Willbrand nodded slowly.

"I wouldn't expect any less," he said. "In fact, if our positions were reversed I would do the same thing. Nevertheless, I can't let you take me."

"Will," he heard Shellana's choked voice once again.

Garrik just nodded his head. With one smooth motion he drew his sword. Willbrand did not move. Whatever was going to happen, he was determined to face it bravely.

Garrik nodded.

"As I thought you would say," he stated. He reached down and for the first time Willbrand noticed that he had two scabbards strapped about his waist. He drew the second sword, and even in the darkness Willbrand could recognize it as his own.

Garrik hefted the sword, then lifted it in front of him and drove it into the ground. Then he stepped back.

"It wouldn't be honorable to fight an unarmed man," Garrik said. "I know you probably won't listen. I know how strong your pride is. But I implore you to listen to reason. You are not ready to fight me yet. If you surrender, if you come with me peaceably, I'll do everything in my power to help you prove your innocence."

Willbrand stood there for a moment, as if considering this. But then he slowly walked forward until he stood before his sword. Reaching out his hand he pulled it from the ground.

"I do not wish to fight you Swordmaster," he said. "But I cannot surrender. I implore you, let me go. Let me find a way to prove my innocence on my own. I promise I won't disappoint you."

This time it was Garrik's turn to hesitate, but then he shook his head.

"I'm afraid we're both as stubborn as mules," he said. "Looks like it's time to see just how much the pupil has learned from the teacher. Whatever the result, I salute you, Willbrand Stromond."

Willbrand brought his own sword up in reply.

"And I you," he said.

"Then let us get this over with."

"Wait!"

They both looked up suddenly at this new voice. They hadn't seen anyone approach, but now two people stood by the side of the keep, just a few feet away from them. Even in the dark, Willbrand immediately recognized one of them as Merigan. The other was a man. In the dark he couldn't make out many details, except for the silver white hair and the long sword glinting with reflected moonlight in his hand.

"Who are you and how did you get in here?" Garrik demanded.

The man walked forward until he stood beside Willbrand. This close the boy could make out more details. The man was younger than the silver white hair let on, perhaps even younger than Garrik. A patch covered his left eye, and he wore a thick leather tunic and leggings, all in black.

"Who I am doesn't matter," the man said calmly. "What's important right now is I'm not going to let you fight this boy. He's coming with me. I have no wish to fight you, but I will if you try to stop me. Why don't you just let us walk away and we can avoid any unnecessary bloodshed."

"I don't know who you are, or who you think you are, but you have no business interfering," Garrik said tersely. "You have no business even being here. You are not members of this court. I must warn you I am the Swordmaster for Count Dormah, the best swordsman in the city. And I say this boy surrenders to me or fights me honorably. Those are the choices commanded to me by my lord and I will fulfill those duties."

"Very commendable of you," the man replied. "Unfortunately, those choices are at odds with my own. I must insist the boy come with me. And if you get in the way, you will leave me with no choice but to kill you."

"Then have at it, stranger," Garrik said, bringing up his sword to the ready position. "If you are that anxious to die, I will be happy to oblige."

"Wait, stop," Willbrand cut in. "I don't need anyone to fight for me."

"Will, hush," he heard Merigan say.

He looked at her, annoyed at her interruption, but the two men ignored him. Without another word, Garrik lunged forward, and sparks flew as the battle was joined.

Willbrand watched, at a loss as to what to do. On the one hand this was supposed to be his battle; it should be him out there fighting the Swordmaster. He had expected to do nothing more than die honorably, but now this man was going to die in his place, and for what? The Swordmaster's claim to be the best swordsman in the city was no idle boast, in fact, it might have been understated. Willbrand had seen him beat many a foe in the tournaments, including men from other cities. It was Willbrand's personal opinion that Garrik was one of the best swordsmen in Mandaria, even as good as the Imperial Knights. There was no doubt in his mind who would win this battle.

The blades flashed with blinding speed, each one slashing so fast Willbrand couldn't even keep track. He marveled that both men were still standing at this point. He felt someone next to him and turned to see Merigan standing there.

"Who is that?" he questioned. "What are you doing here? Are you trying to get both of you killed?"

Merigan had her eyes on the battle as well.

"He's my father," she said evenly. "We came to get you. I'm sorry. I suspected something like this might happen. I didn't mean to get you involved. If you hadn't been so pig headed you might have gotten out of this. We came to rescue you."

"Rescue me?" he said. "You have a strange way of doing it. All you're going to do is get you father killed and you captured in the process. You really thought this one out well, didn't you?"

"Your Swordmaster Garrik is a good fighter," she observed. "But Ktan is going to have to kill him fast. The sounds of the swordfight are bound to attract attention. It's going to be a close thing."

"Ktan is going to have to kill him fast?" Willbrand repeated. "Do you have any idea who he's fighting? That's Swordmaster Garrik. He's the best sword..."

Garrik had been on the attack, pushing Ktan back with a flurry of blow. But just when it appeared that Ktan was faltering, his sword suddenly slashed out, at a time when Garrik had thought he could not possibly attack. It flew across Garrik's throat, and Ktan jumped away. Garrik brought his sword up, almost not seeming to realize he had been dealt a mortal blow. But then he stopped. Slowly his sword drooped, then slid from his hands. A moment later his body followed the sword onto the cold earth.

Above them Shellana cried out.

"Garrik!" Willbrand exclaimed.

He rushed over to the man, kneeling down beside the body. He lifted the man's head, looking at his lifeless face. He was dead. The man who had taught him everything he knew about swordfighting, the man who had almost been like a second father to him.

He turned to look at Ktan.

"You killed him!" he accused.

"As he would have you," Ktan said calmly. "Which you seem to have suddenly forgotten. But you don't have time to mourn now. There are more guards on the way. If you don't wish to join him, we must be away from here."

Willbrand stood up. He looked down at his hands, sticky with his mentorís blood. Again he was struck by how impossible this all was. It all seemed to be some sort of dream. And if it were, he wished ferverently to wake up.

"Let's go."

It was Merigan, coming up beside him and touching his arm.

There was nothing else he could do. He turned and looked up at Shellana, who still stood in the window above.

"I'll come back," he said. "I promise."

"I'll be here," she replied.

They heard shouts from around the side of the keep. Willbrand turned and followed the other two to the north. He still didn't know what the hell was going on, but he had no choice but to follow.

They were headed toward the northern wall, the opposite direction from the gate.

"You're going the wrong way," he said. "We can't get out that way."

"Just come along," Merigan reassured him. "We know what we're doing. And please be quiet."

Willbrand shut his mouth, angry at her telling him what to do, but realizing it was prudent. They reached a ramp up to the battlement above and walked up it, going slowly so as not to alert any guards with their footfalls on the wooden ramp. But even so when they were about half way up when they heard someone shout.

"There they are, going up the ramp!"

"Damn," Willbrand muttered.

They broke into a run, no longer worried about concealment. Willbrand still wasn't sure what they had in mind, unless they had some way of climbing down the wall. They reached the top and almost immediately he saw that he was right. A rope was tied around one of the crenellations. Ktan turned to look at them.

"Hurry!" he growled.

Merigan grabbed hold of the rope and hauled herself over, swiftly climbing down out of sight. Willbrand took a quick look around. He could hear shouts from all directions now. The entire castle had been alerted. The castle was built on a hill at the edge of town, with the front gate leading out into the streets. Here in the back the ground below them led into the forest, though most brush had been cleared away from the castle walls for many paces. He could see only darkness below. He glanced along the parapet and saw that the guards had exited the guardhouse down the corner and were converging on them as well. He didn't have time to look any further, for Ktan practically threw him over the side. He swung from the rope for a moment, nearly losing his grip, then righted himself and slid rapidly down. He let go a few feet from the ground. Almost immediately Ktan dropped down as well, nearly on top of him. Merigan was already waiting.

"Let's go!" she hissed.

They ran for the forest. Willbrand looked back to see that the top of the battlement was well lit with dozens of men with torches. Already he could see them sliding down the rope. Suddenly he heard more shouts and the pounding of hooves. He turned to the left and saw horseman rounding the side of the castle. He looked ahead. The forest was still far way, though solitary pine trees and scrub bushes pushed up around them, but not in enough abundance to conceal them for more than a moment. The brush was thicker ahead, but he looked back at the horseman and saw that they would reach them before they reached that safety. With a sinking feeling he realized that they were going to lose the race.

"We can't outrun them," he blurted out.

Ktan and Merigan had apparently come to the same conclusion.

"Head over there to those bushes," Ktan said, changing direction slightly.

Willbrand looked at the bushes Ktan was referring to. They were a little thicker than the rest, but not nearly thick enough to hide them for more than a few moments.

"That's not going to do the trick," Willbrand said.

"Just do as I say!" Ktan snapped.

"We can't hide there," Willbrand replied. "We can't get away. We might as well stand and fight."

"Just do it!" Ktan said sharply. "I didn't come all this way just to have you run through with a lance."

"Please, Willbrand, just listen to Ktan," Merigan said.

"Fine," Willbrand replied. "But they can skewer us just as well in those bushes as they can out here."

"Save your breath for running," Ktan suggested.

Willbrand fell silent. Even now, when they were all about to die, they were giving him a hard time.

They reached the bushes, running quickly behind them. Ktan suddenly stopped and wheeled around, pulling the other two down at the base of one of the shrubs. Willbrand looked around. The bushes concealed them from view now, but once the horseman rode past, they'd be sitting ducks. There were not enough bushes to hide them from all directions. Besides, even if they could hide, their pursuers were bound to search for them here. There was no place else they could have gone.

"What kind of plan..." he began.

"Be silent!" Ktan commanded. "Whatever you do, don't make a sound. All our lives depend on it."

Willbrand looked at Ktan curiously, but the man was looking at Merigan.

"Merigan..." he said softly.

The girl nodded her head. She took a deep breath. She was crouched down beside both of them, one of her legs resting against Willbrand's own. Suddenly it seemed as if her whole body relaxed. She was looking straight ahead, but didn't seem to be seeing anything in particular. In fact, she didn't seem to be looking at anything at all. It was almost as if her entire being was focused inward suddenly.

The thudding of hooves made Willbrand look up. The first horseman rounded the bushes, followed by half a dozen others. They pulled their horse suddenly to a halt, looking around.

"Where did they go?" one called out.

The other men were looking around as well. One of them looked directly at Willbrand, whose hand tightened on his sword in response, but to his amazement, the very man spoke out.

"I don't see them!"

"Dammit," the first man exclaimed. "They couldn't have just disappeared."

Now he looked in their direction as well.

"Maybe they're hiding in those bushes," he said.

"If they were there we'd see them," a third man said. "Those scraggly things can't hide anyone."

"There! Over there!" yet another man suddenly called out.

They all wheeled around to face the forest.

"Where?" the first man yelled.

"That way, in the trees!"

"Let's go then!"

With that the entire group thundered away, quickly disappearing into the wood. A few moments later more men came by, running this time. But they paid their quarry no mind either. After a few minutes they disappeared into the woods as well.

Merigan suddenly let out a sigh and her shoulders slumped.

"Are you okay?" Willbrand asked.

Merigan looked up at him and smiled seeing her face was pale.

"I'm fine" she replied. "Just a little tired. All this running and all."

"I don't think it was the running that did it," he stated. "How did you do that?"

"We don't have time to chat," Ktan said, standing up. "We have to get out of here. They're bound to realize they're on a false trail soon. We have to be gone by the time they come back. We don't have time to waste."

Without another word he started off, heading east, parallel to the forest. Merigan followed immediately, and Willbrand brought up the rear. The walked for some time, angling slowly northward until they too were in the forest proper. Occasionally they heard shouts from the men looking for them, but they gradually faded away. After a while, when Ktan was satisfied that they were safe from pursuit, he stopped.

"We'll make camp here tonight," Ktan announced. "I know you don't have any equipment," he said, looking at Willbrand. "But we brought enough for all of us. It's been a tough day. I suggest we all get some sleep."

"I'm not going to get any sleep until I get some answers," Willbrand said quietly.

The other two were silent for a moment.

"You can't leave him in the dark," Merigan said finally.

Ktan hesitated a moment more, then nodded.

"I suppose we do owe you some explanation," he admitted. "As you can tell, Merigan and I are wanted by the crown. For heresy. But like you, we are both innocent."

"So what was she doing at the keep?" Willbrand questioned.

"Spying, what do you think?" Ktan replied. "We knew the Imperial Knights were close on our trail. We wanted to see if we could find out exactly what their plans were."

Willbrand turned to Merigan angrily.

"So you did lie to me!" he exclaimed.

"Well...what did expect me to say?" she replied defensively. "Yes, I'm a spy, please lock me up?"

Willbrand looked down at the ground.

"I could have sworn you were telling the truth."

"I'm sorry," Merigan said. "But that wasn't the plan, you know. If you hadn't seen me none of this would have happened. I didn't want to hurt you, really I didn't, but I had to get out of there with my own skin. I was hoping you would just leave me alone. But no, you had to play guardian angel and tell the guard you knew me. And looked what's happened to you now."

"Are you trying to say it's all my fault?" Willbrand said angrily.

"No, of course not," she replied. "After you were so nice to me? The last thing I wanted to do was to get you involved in this. I tried to tell you, but I couldn't very well say anything openly."

Willbrand just sat there looking uncomfortable.

"We heard about your being charged with heresy as well," she continued. "And we couldn't just leave you there, not after you helped me. We decided we'd try to help you if we could."

"And killed Garrik in the process," he said bitterly.

"He wouldn't have hesitated to kill you," Ktan reminded him. "He died honorably, like a true warrior. Can you think of a better way for him to go?"

"I'd rather he didn't go at all," Willbrand replied bitterly. "And that's another thing. I always thought Garrik was one of the best swordsmen in all of Mandaria, but you defeated him. How did you learn to fight like that? Who are you?"

Ktan hesitated a moment.

"My name is Ktan Hammerlane. This girl is Merigan Maniore. Who we are is not really important. The only thing you need to know is that we are fugitives and that you are now one of us, whether you like it or not. The real question is, what do we do now?"

"Wait, I'm not done with the other questions yet," Willbrand contradicted. "Merigan said you were her father, yet you have different names."

"I'm not really her father," Ktan replied. "I've just raised her from infancy."

"You're my father as far as I'm concerned," Merigan spoke up.

"So where's her real father then?" Willbrand asked.

"He's dead," Ktan said bluntly. "Both her parents are."

Willbrand looked over at Merigan.

"I"m sorry," he said.

She just looked at the ground and shrugged.

"And that thing in the bushes," he continued. "That was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen, and I've seen a lot of strange things tonight. How did you do that?"

"Do what?" Ktan asked.

"Make them not see us," Willbrand replied, but he was looking at Merigan.

"It was luck," Ktan replied. "The shadows concealed us."

"It was not luck!" Willbrand contradicted. "At least two of them looked right at us. There was no way they wouldn't have seen us."

"But they didn't, so you are obviously wrong," Ktan replied.

Willbrand shook his head, not willing to believe that for a moment. He kept looking at Merigan, but she refused to return his gaze.

"I'll say again, what are your plans now?" Ktan persisted.

Willbrand turned toward him.

"All right, I'll let you keep your little secrets for now, but don't think I believe that hidden by shadows story for a second. My father told me to head for Keesa. I've got a cousin there who might be able to help me."

Ktan pondered this.

"Keesa huh? We're headed in that direction as well. Since we all seem to be working for the same purposes now, I propose we go there together."

"And what purposes would that be?" Willbrand replied.

"To expose the truth," Ktan responded, his voice strangely grim.

Willbrand was silent for a moment. He looked at his two companions. He had never before met two people quite like them. It was plain they were not telling him everything, but he had to admit he was curious to find out more about them. And he would never do that if he parted company with them. Besides, his father had told him he was on his own, at least until he reached Keesa. With no provision or horse, or much money, it would be a difficult trip indeed. It would be better to go with company, especially when they were so well prepared.

"I suppose," he said slowly.

Merigan looked obviously pleased at this.

"Okay," Ktan said. "It's settled. It's been a long day and we've got a lot of traveling to do the next few days. Now I suggest, once again, that we get some rest."

Neither Merigan nor Willbrand were in any mood to protest this time. As the other two broke out the sleeping gear, Willbrand sat on a log and looked up at the sky. His whole life was suddenly turned upside down. Everything he knew he was leaving behind him. He had never been away from Crotasia. But now he was striking out on his own, well, not exactly on his own, but close enough. In spite of all that had happened, there was a certain excitement to that. He couldn't help but wonder what lay ahead. But no matter what adventures he might encounter, he was pretty certain of one thing. It would have to be a hell of a day to top this one.