Chapter seventeen


"Your Majesty?"

King Gultane looked up from the paperwork on his desk to see his Grand Vizer standing in the entranceway to the room. He was in his private quarters, but the door had been open. He placed his quill pen down on the desk in front of him and rubbed his eyes.

"What is it, Mariot?"

"Pardon for the interruption, but a wounded Imperial Knight has just been brought into the castle. It seems he was one of the men with the caravan that was ambushed."

The weary look in the King's eyes immediately vanished. The caravan had been attacked two days ago and so far Gultane had gotten precious little information about what exactly had happened, or who the perpetrators had been. They had already talked to the merchants that had survived the battle, and it seemed that every one of them had a different story to tell. Some of the merchants claimed the attackers had been small swarthy men from the southern kingdom of Gorjhan. Others swore it was raiders from one of the eastern kingdoms. Still others thought it was some kind of local band of thieves of unknown origin. Then there were those who said they were renegade Imperial Knights and finally a few who were certain it was hill giants like the kind parents spoke about in tales meant to keep their children from wandering too far from home. The King didn't believe that story, of course, but he wasn't sure which of the others was the truth either, if any of them. An Imperial Knight, however, experienced in battle and trained to observe, was a man whose word he could trust.

"Wounded, you say? How badly?"

"Quite severely my Lord. They don't know if he is going to live."

The King pondered that for just a moment, then stood up. The attack had put the entire district in an uproar. The merchants were screaming for more protection, and a number of them refused to send anymore caravans along that route until the attackers had been captured. It was a huge headache, one that Gultane had not anticipated. They were not at war and an attack of this magnitude hadn't taken place in years. Everyone had thought the area was safe. He had spent the last two days soothing frayed nerves and reassuring the merchants that this was just an aberration and the attackers would be found quickly. His reassurances alone hadn't been enough however, until he had promised to send his personal guard, the elite of the Imperial Knights, to the area to guard against any further attacks. It would drain precious resources off from other areas, but there was nothing else he could do. Even a King had his limitations. Whoever the people were who had done this, they had to be found and made to pay, and quickly. He was desperate for information.

"Then the sooner I talk with him the better. He is capable of speech?"

"He is conscious, Milord," Mariot acknowledged.

"Then I will speak with him at once. Take me to him."

They left the room, the Grand Vizer padding down a long hallway with the tapping of Gultane's boots on the stone floor following. They made their way down a winding staircase into another long hallway, this one below ground. The healer dwelt down here, right near the dungeons where the prisoners were kept. There was a reason for this. Sometimes the screams from those being treated were louder than those of the prisoners who were being questioned. This area was farthest away from the more well traveled regions of the castle. Here, the cries of agony, from whatever source, would be least likely to be heard.

The rooms were quiet now, however. There were few prisoners, and none of them were being tortured. The Healer and his assistant were standing over a man lying on a cot as the King entered. To the King's surprise Irissa also stood in the room, off to one side. There were no other patients, so the man lying down was obviously the Imperial Knight in question. When the Healer saw Gultane he immediately approached.

"Good eve Milord," he said deferentially.

Gultane wasn't in the mood to waste time with pleasantries.

"How is he?"

The Healer glanced back at the man on the table. Gultane could see a lot of blood on the cot and the floor around the man.

"He is grievously wounded," the Healer stated. "It's a miracle he survived this long at all. I have been told he walked from the place of the attack halfway to Donelan before someone found him. He is of hardy stock but I know not if he will survive the night."

The King nodded. Having no further questions for the man he ignored him and walked over to the patient. Irissa came up beside him as he did so.

Carltan looked up at the newcomer and his eyes widened a bit to see the King standing over him.

"Your Majesty," he said.

"Be at ease," Gultane told him, seeing his sudden nervousness. Calten was lying on his stomach, his shirt removed so the Healer could work on the wound on his back, a deep stab wound just below his right shoulder. Blood still seeped from it.

"The Healer will do all he can for you," Gultane reassured the man. "But I need to know what happened out there."

Carltan coughed roughly, then nodded his head. It was obvious that he was in a great deal of pain, and just as obvious he was trying very hard not to show it.

He related the events of the attack on the caravan, noting that Captain Savant had fought bravely and they had been woefully outnumbered. Gultane could see the man was sticking up for his commanding officer, trying to absolve him from any blame. He thought it very noble but he wasn't interested in that right now.

"What about the people who attacked you?" he asked. "Do you have any idea as to who they were?"

Carltan nodded.

"They were led by a man with long silver hair and a patch on one eye," he replied. "I'm sure the Captain knew him. He told me not to attack the man alone, that we wouldn't be able to beat him that way. There was also a knight riding beside him. Perhaps I heard wrong, it is difficult to keep track in the heat of battle, but I could have sworn the Captain said it was a woman. I know that sounds like madness but..."

He stopped as he saw the look on the King's face. Did the King also know who this man was?

For a long time Gultane just stood there. He glanced over at Irissa, who was looking at him keenly, but said nothing. Ktan Hammerlane. He wasn't about to forget that name. The Sacred Knight who had betrayed his trust, who had turned against him, who Irissa had been pursuing all these years because of that nonsense about that girl he had with him, the child who had supposedly survived the massacre at the Maiden's Castle in Donelan. He didn't care about the girl, that was Irissa's obsession. Frankly he couldn't see how she could be any threat at all. He hadn't cared about Ktan either, at least, not as long as the man didn't cause any trouble. This, however, was trouble with a capital T. He had let his wife use whatever resources that were available in her quest to find the girl and her companions. It had seemed harmless enough and was one way to keep her happy and out of his hair, but he hadn't taken it very seriously himself. Now he regretted that. Perhaps she had been right all along, even if it was for the wrong reasons. Apparently there was a threat there after all, but it didn't come from the girl.

Seeing that Carltan was still looking at him waiting for some kind of response the King nodded his head.

"Thank you," he said. "This information will prove invaluable. You have done me a great service."

He started to step away, but Carltan lifted up his arm, even though it made him wince.

"There's one other thing," he said.

The King stopped.

"After I was wounded, I heard them talking," Carltan continued. "They thought I was dead. They thought we were all dead. I heard them mention Norvell Wood."

It was another name the King was familiar with, of course. As the only major uncultivated area left on the peninsula, it formed a natural hideout for anyone wishing to avoid the law. Gultane was well aware it was filled with brigands and thieves, but again, he hadn't paid all that much attention to it because they hadn't caused him much trouble.

But that was certain to change now.

"Thank you," he said again. "Is there anything else?"

When Carltan shook his head Gultane stepped away from him, turning toward his Grand Vizer once more.

"It seems I have been letting some problems fester that perhaps I should not have," he admitted. "Find Variman for me. I wish to speak to him immediately."

Mariot glanced at Irissa.

"Variman is not here," he said with a touch of smugness, or so it seemed to the Queen, who gave him a foul look.

"What do you mean, not here? Where is he?" the King demanded.

The Grand Vizer did not reply, just looked at Irissa.

"Variman is in Pantaglia," the Queen finally said.

"Pantaglia?" the King said, obviously disturbed. "What is he doing there?"

Irissa hesitated for just a moment, again glancing at the Grand Vizer, but he just stood there looking at her, plainly pleased with her discomfort. She knew she'd get no help from that direction.

"He's there on an errand for me," she finally said.

Gultane looked at his wife impatiently, then turned to Mariot.

"Get him back here at once," he commanded.

"As you wish, Sire."

The Grand Vizer bowed low, then quickly left the room.

The King started for the door too, then turned when he noticed Irissa was not following.

"Come along," he said sternly.

She hesitated once again, then followed as he led her out into the deserted hallway. He waited until they had started up the stairs before he spoke again.

"The Captain of the Imperial Knights is not your personal errand boy!"

Irissa tried very hard to look contrite.

"I know but it was..." she began.

"How long has be been gone?" Gultane cut her off.

"Since the day before yesterday," she replied. "It shouldn't take him long. He should be back in three or four days."

"Three of four days," the King spate out. "I need him here now. I can't trust anyone else to handle this properly. If anyone can straighten this out quickly, he can. Frankly, I'm starting to get a little bit sick and tired of this obsession you have with that girl.

"I don't..." she began.

"Don't interrupt me!" he snapped. "I've gone along with you all these years because it seemed like a harmless enough diversion, but when you start sending my best Knight out on your wild goose chases it starts to get a little..."

They had reached the top of the staircase. A long hall stood in front of them leading to the main dining room, with stockrooms and the kitchen off to either side. Passing through here would lead them to the more populated areas of the castle, but Gultane did not pass through. Instead, he stopped dead in his tracks, staring straight ahead as his face went suddenly white as a sheet.

Irissia stood beside him, a slight frown punctuating her features.

"What is it? What's wrong?" she questioned.

For a moment he said nothing at all. His mouth worked, but no words came out. He was staring straight ahead, as if her were looking at something in front of them. Finally he pointed.

"Have you no eyes to see?" he hissed.

Irissa swung her glance ahead of them. She looked down the hall, blinking.

"I see nothing but an empty hall," she announced, sounding most puzzled by her husbands strange behavior.

He reached out and grabbed her arm, his hand clutching it like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver.

"Right there by the curtain!" he said, pointing more emphatically, his voice sounding as if it were straining with hysteria.

Irissa just stood there. Finally she shook her head.

By now, however, the King didn't seem to be paying any attention to her anymore. He had let go of her arm and taken a step back. He still stared ahead of him, as if he couldn't take his eyes off whatever it was that he saw. He backed up until his back bumped against the wall right beside the stairs. One step over and he might had tumbled down them. Finding no more room to retreat, his back slowly slid down the wall until he found himself sitting on the floor. He suddenly brought his hands up in front him, as if to fend something off, and Irissa didn't miss the look of terror on his face she saw a moment before his hands came up to cover it.

She stooped down beside him, putting her hand on his shoulder.

"Gultane, what is it?" she questioned, her voice filled with concern.

For a long time he didn't move, just sat there, his shoulders shaking with fear. Eventually he let one hand drop, as if he were afraid of what he might see. Sweat covered his brow, and the fearful look remained in his eye. Hesitantly he looked around but the panic she had seen in his face was fast ebbing.

"He's gone," he said, his voice barely a whisper.

"Who's gone?" Irissa prodded gently.

He didn't reply, just sat there for a moment, then pulled himself to his feet. For a second he hadn't looked like a King at all. For a second he had looked merely like a little boy, a lost and frightened child. From the look he was giving her it was obvious he was embarrassed she had seen him like that.

"My father," he finally admitted. "It was my father. I saw him standing in front of us, as plain as you are. He was covered with blood, and he… he was laughing. He was laughing at me."

Irissa didn't say anything, just gripped his arm.

He wiped his brow. This wasn't the first vision he had seen. It had happened before, though he had never seen his father previously. Even so, even when the vision was of something innocuous, it always filled him with dread for some reason. He had told Irissa about it, and his Grank Vizer, who had told him they were some kind of sign, but they were too vague to understand as of yet. Hopefully their meaning would become clearer at some future date. Gultane hadn't been very satisfied with that, but he realized there wasn't anything he could do about it.

"Are you all right now?" Irissa questioned.

Gultane nodded. The hallway was empty now, the vision gone. He felt his heartbeat returning to normal. Whatever fear he might have felt, he had to put it behind him. He was the King, and he had to keep up his regal appearance.

"C'mon," he said. "I must speak with Mariot about this."

Getting a grip on himself, he started down the hallway once more, and Irissa noted with satisfaction that his concern for Variman's whereabouts had apparently been forgotten. She followed, making sure to stay just a pace behind. She didn't want him to see her face, or the smile that played slowly across her lips.



"That'll be seventy six coin."

Willbrand counted the money out and handed it to the proprietor. He went to pick up all the new supplies and equipment he had bought for their trip but soon got to the point where every time he picked up one thing, another that he already had would slip from his clutches, in spite of the contortions he put his body through to prevent it. The store owner, seeing his predicament, eventually gave him a hand, piling up all that remained on the counter onto the other things held in his outstretched arms. With the supplies lumped so high he could barely see over them, he managed to make his way out of the store.

The town of Winsor stood amid the tall conifers at the foot of the Capar Mountains, a large elevated area of land that held the highest peaks in the kingdom. The setting sun streaked the sky to the west with brilliant shades of red and orange. Green forested hills rose quickly overhead to the north, while to the south the land plunged downward until it met the crystal blue of the ocean. Zalan, the town that was their next destination, was nestled in a small valley higher up in the mountains. It was about a weeks ride away by way of the road, but the road followed a circuitous route along the plains to the east, and in fact, back the way they had come, before turning north and reaching that town. Willbrand had been assured by some of the townsfolk that there were footpaths through the mountains using a more direct route. In fact, among his purchases from the general store he just exited was a map purporting to delineate just such a route, though whether he would be able to follow it was another matter altogether.

He walked across the street, trying hard not to drop anything, and over to the Inn. They had sold their horse, or rather, Alios' horse, this morning for just over two hundred coin. Willbrand thought he might have been able to get a bit more but they hadn't wanted to waste too much time haggling. In any case, two hundred coin was a decent price and more than enough to purchase supplies for the trip to Zalan. He had sent Merigan over to the Inn to get them rooms for the night while he picked up their equipment. They had been on the road two days now and were tired and dirty. One night in an Inn before heading out again would leave them refreshed for the trip into the mountains. It might be their last chance in a long time to sleep in some comfort and they weren't about to pass that opportunity up. In the two days it had taken them to get here he had seen no sign of their being followed. That gave him hope that they had lost their pursuer. Of course, just because they hadn't seen anyone didn't mean the man wasn't still back there somewhere. Perhaps they were being foolish staying at the Inn. Perhaps they should have headed out into the forest as soon as they had sold the horse and gotten their supplies. He couldn't help but think that that was exactly what Ktan would have done. Still, he had to admit he was looking forward to sleeping in a soft bed tonight instead of that hard bedroll. It was only for one night, and he would keep his sword close at hand.

He almost ran into Merigan coming out the door as he tried to enter. The supplies in his arms blocked his view of her, but she could hardly miss him. Her warning stopped him in his tracks, and she immediately relieved him of some of his burden.

"Did you get us rooms?" he asked.

She nodded, turning back inside once again. The Inn was not large. Winsor was not a big town and it wasn't along the main road that carried most of the trade between the cities of the kingdom. It was tucked away in its own little quiet corner and as such didn't get many visitors.

The Inn was simple in architecture, its weathered wooden walls giving it a rustic look. A huge pair of antlers hung from the wall just above the door as one entered. The main room was a combination reception area/dining room. Bare tables and simple but functional chairs covered most of the floor space. A large fireplace was built into one wall, the flames from it casting its yellow light through the room. The sun had already faded below the mountains to the west, and darkness was quickly falling. The fireplace was there for the light it provided, not for heat. Summer was waning but the night air was still warm. The chill would set in later at night, after the sun was long gone, or at least, that's what happened farther north in Crotasia. Willbrand wasn't sure how cold it would get here.

Merigan led him past the desk into a narrow hallway. The walls were plain wood planks here, unpainted and unadorned. A number of doors on either side led into what Willbrand assumed were private rooms. Merigan stopped in front of one and opened the door. Beckoning for him to follow, she entered.

As everything else in the Inn the room was simply furnished. A feather bed along the opposite corner. Hooks along one wall to hang clothes upon, and a small dresser with a basin of water on top.

Merigan plopped what she was holding down onto the bed. Willbrand stood there for a moment, then glanced down the hall.

"Which room is mine?" he questioned.

Merigan flopped down on the bed herself, her body bouncing up and down on the softness of it for a moment before coming to rest.

"This one is," she replied.

Willbrand didn't reply, his eyes roving the room, and the single bed it held.

"You got us one room?" he questioned after a moment.

Merigan nodded. She hadn't thought anything of it at the time, but now she could see the uncomfortable look on his face.

"Well, it makes sense," she argued, sitting up suddenly. "Even thought we've sold the horse, we still aren't exactly overburdened with coin, now are we? It would have cost twice as much to get two rooms."

Sensible or not, he couldn't help but voice his objections.

"We can't sleep in the same room together, just the two of us."

She cocked her head slightly to one side.

"Why not?"

He didn't reply. He knew that she had grown up differently from him. He knew she might not think anything of doing something like this. For that matter she could very well be right. Still, it went against everything he had ever been taught. It just wasn't something a gentleman would do.

Even though, he wasn't exactly a gentleman anymore, now was he? He was no longer in the court of Crotasia. He wasn't a man of noble title anymore either. Now he was a heretic, just a common outlaw. He was far away from Crotasia, far away with, lets face it, no chance of ever returning. The rules had changed.

Yet even as he thought that he rejected it. Yes, some adapting on his part was needed, but that didn't change who he was. In Mandaria your place in society was fixed by your birth. A child of a peasant would be a peasant with all the attendant hardship, a child of a noble would grow up to be a noble, with all the attendant benefit. He had never questioned that mandate. That was just the way it was, the way it had always been. When he had been growing up he had his own circle of friends, nobles or children of nobles all. He hadn't really given much thought to anyone else. Those that didn't have a title had only one purpose, to serve those who did. He was beginning to realize now, however, that a title didn't mean anything at all, that it wasn't a title that made you man.

"It wouldn't be proper," he told her.

Merigan opened her mouth but her voice fell still. She had been about to make light of his objections, but she could see by the look on his face that he was taking this very seriously.

"Its all right," she settled upon. "I don't mind. I trust you."

Still he stood there, motionless in the doorway as if he had grown roots.

She trusted him. He had to admit to feeling a certain warmth inside himself at her saying that. After leaving everyone he had even known, everyone he could call a friend behind him, it was comforting to know that she at least was someone he could depend on, and he really did believe he could depend on her. Already he was beginning to feel like he had known her his whole life, instead of just over a month.

Even so, he hadn't forgotten how he had felt back at the barn, when he had felt the heat of her body curled up against his own. It wasn't a matter whether she trusted him, it was a matter of whether he trusted himself, but he certainly wasn't going to tell her that!

"I'm... flattered," he finally responded. "I trust you too, but it still wouldn't be right. People would talk." If it was found out a woman in Crotasia slept in the room with a man who was not her husband, she would never live it down.

Now Merigan really did laugh. She couldn't help it.

"Now you're being silly," she said. "Talk? Who's going to talk? The people here in Winsor? We don't know any of them and they don’t know us. We're far from both of our homes, if we have homes at all. We're heretics and you're worried about a little talk? And besides, for all they know, we could be husband and wife."

She couldn't help but notice the long look he gave her after she said this. She wondered what it meant, if anything.

"Yeah, but still..." he pontificated.

She could see she was making inroads in his resolve but he didn't seem quite convinced yet.

"Besides, its safer this way," she tried another tack. "You know we're being tracked. Suppose whoever is following us catches up with us during the night. What would I do if they came upon me while we were in separate rooms?"

That gave him pause. She was absolutely right, of course. If someone came upon them tonight, how could he protect her if he was in another room? For all he knew, they could come in and take her without his even being aware they were there. It didn't seem all that likely but he had to consider it a possibility. In that case it would be foolish indeed for them to stay in separate rooms. It would be folly, in fact. Thinking about it this way made him immediately feel better about the whole idea. His obligation to protect her from harm was more important that keeping up a look of propriety.

"I suppose you're right," he finally admitted.

"Of course I am," she replied, as if it was never in doubt. "Now help me get all our supplies into our packs so we can get an early start in the morning."

By the time they were finished, the last light had faded. There was a candle stub beside the washbasin on the dresser. Merigan lit this, then went over to the windows and drew the shutters, latching them in place. The single candle cast its yellow glow feebly through the room, leaving dark shadows lurking in the corners.

Once darkness fell there wasn't much for them to do except go to sleep. Willbrand was determined to get up in the morning at the crack of dawn so they could be on their way as fast as possible anyway, and this might be the last night they had to get some decent rest. You could never tell what was going to happen once they got out in the wild.

"I guess we better get some sleep," he said. "We have to get an early start tomorrow."

She nodded in agreement. She opened up her pack, rooting through it until she found her nightshirt. In the forest she slept in her walking clothes, just like all the others, but though that was practical, it wasn't very comfortable, and here in the Inn she was going to get as comfortable as she could.

She stood up, walking over beside the dresser. She reached back and tugged on the thread that laced up the back of her dress, loosening it. Then, with a glance at Willbrand, she wicked out the candle with her fingers.

Willbrand stood beside the bed now, just looking at Merigan. Well, actually looking at the darkness where he knew Merigan stood. With the candle out and the shutters closed it was pitch black, at least until his eyes began to adjust. But at first he could see nothing, though the sound of Merigan's dress fluttering to the floor echoed through his head like a shot.

There were more sounds of movement as she put on the nightshirt, then the soft rustling of the blanket as she made herself comfortable on the bed. Willbrand remained in place, just standing there staring in front of him, his back against the wall. Slowly he eased himself down until he was sitting on the floor.

It was silent for quite some time before Merigan stirred.

"Are you coming to bed?" he heard her question in the darkness.

Coming to bed. Good question.

"I... umm... I think maybe I'll just stay here on the floor," he managed eventually. "Its not really all that uncomfortable."

He heard the sound of movement immediately. His eyes were adjusting now. It was no longer completely dark. He could make out vague shapes in the room. He looked up to see the shape of Merigan on her hands and knees on the bed looking down at him.

"Now your being foolish!" she exclaimed. "We came to the Inn so we could get a good night's sleep before we went off into the mountains. We don't know exactly where we're going. We're going to need all out wits about us on the trail tomorrow. What kind of rest are you going to get on that hard floor?"

"Its... its not really all that hard..." he stammered.

She sat up, resting her hands on her knees.

"Look, I know you're just being noble, and I appreciate it, I really do," she said, sounding more conciliatory. "And I'm flattered, but its all right. You have my permission to come up here and sleep in this bed. Its okay if I agree, isn't it?"

He wasn't sure how to answer. On the face of it, he supposed that was true. If she said it was all right, then why should he have an objection? It was her reputation that would be sullied by this, not his.

There he went again, thinking in Crotasian terms. This wasn't Crotasia, this was Winsor. No one knew them, reputation wasn't a factor here. Even so, he was still reluctant. He wasn't sure if she was thinking this through, he wasn't sure what would happen if he lay down beside her.

Seeing his continued reluctance she finally got fed up.

"Okay fine!" she snapped.

In a tumble of motion he suddenly found her on the floor beside him. She pulled the blanket off the bed, on top of her with part of it falling on his lap.

"What are you doing?" he said in surprise.

"What is does it look like?" she questioned, lying down on the floor, wrapping the blanket around her and turning away from him. "If you're not going to use the bed, then I'm not either!"

He just sat there staring at her for a long time.

"But... but that's idiotic!" he finally blurted out.

She spun around to face him.

"Yes, it is, isn't it?"

And just as quickly she turned away again.

He sat there, his back plastered against the wall, as silence fell around them again.

Try as he might, he couldn't come up with a counterargument. How had she done this? All he was trying to do was be a gentleman, yet somehow she had cut his principled stand to shreds. Right or not, he realized that no matter how he looked at it it was becoming apparent that he was facing a losing proposition here.

"All right, I surrender," he said.

She turned back toward him.

"You do? You'll come to bed?"

He gave in to one last sigh, then nodded.

"All right," she said enthusiastically. She got up and hopped back into the bed, pulling the blanket up along with her. Willbrand got up a bit more reluctantly. He stood there for a moment looking down at her, but there was nothing for it now. He slowly, almost gingerly, laid himself down on the bed.

She tossed a portion of the blanket over him. He could almost make out her features in the dark now. She lay on the bed facing him. He wasn't sure if there was a smile on her face.

"There, that's not so bad, now is it?" she asked.

Willbrand didn't reply. He didn't want to argue about it anymore. Apparently satisfied she fell silent as well. Willbrand lay on his back, staring up at the dim shapeless blur of the ceiling above his head. His eyes were wide open, sleep far from his mind. Instead it was on the girl who, though not touching him, he knew lay just inches away. Her arguments to share the bed had been irrefutable. Logically it made perfect sense for him to be there, and yet...

And yet he couldn't help but wonder if that had been all there was to it.

He was beginning to realize just how much he cared for the girl beside him, but did she have similar feelings for him?

It was ridiculous really. He hardly knew her. They had only met a little over a month ago. They had barely known each other long enough to become friends, much less something more than that. Even so, for some reason it seemed like they had known each other a lot longer. He felt... comfortable with her. He almost had to laugh at that, considering how uncomfortable he felt right now lying beside her.

He glanced over at her. She was still, lying on her side, facing him. His eyes had adjusted now as well as they were going to, but it was still dark in the room. He couldn't tell for sure if she was awake or not.

His vision returned to the ceiling once more. For a long time he lay there. Hours it seemed, yet sleep still eluded him. He had heard some sounds earlier in the night, people moving through the hallway, the sound of voices from outside, but slowly they faded, and now all was silent except the chirping of some far away insect. Surprisingly the light in the room gradually began to increase. He realized, after a while, that the moon must have risen into the sky outside, and some of its light was seeping in through cracks in the shutters. It began to get colder too. Not enough to make him uncomfortable, especially under the blanket, but enough to notice.

He was beginning to wonder if he was going to get any sleep at all.

Perhaps that was a good thing though. He realized suddenly that though they had talked about someone coming upon them in the night, they had never considered keeping a watch. Foolish of them really. They had always had someone watching when he and Merigan had been together with Ktan in their travels. He should have thought of it. Even so, he was still awake, was still on guard himself, so he really didn't have any reason to admonish himself for not thinking of it.

Merigan stirred beside him. By now he was sure she was asleep, or had been. Apparently the cold was affecting her more than him. Natural he supposed, he lived in one of the northernmost towns in the Kingdom; he was used to the cold. She turned, pulling her blanket up and wrapping it around her tightly. Her eyes opened. He could see them now. It was light enough in the room. She looked at him for a moment, then shivered.

"I'm cold," she said softly, shifting over to him until she sidled up beside him, her knees curled up, pressing against his thigh, her hands wrapping around his arm.

He felt a tingling of electricity at her touch. He lay there rigidly, feeling her soft skin against his own, her breath caressing his shoulder.

He felt an almost uncontrollable urge to take her in his arms. It was just what he had been afraid of. How would she feel if he did that? How would she react? Was she totally oblivious to this or was it what she wanted too? He couldn't tell. He didn't know her well enough. He had known Shellana all his life. They had grown up together. The fact that he knew her so well combined with the rigid social strictures of life in Crotasia had spelled out to him in no uncertain terms exactly what was acceptable behavior between the two of them and what was not. But now, now all the rules were thrown out the window and he was with a girl who he didn't know well enough to have defined what was proper behavior. The only thing he was certain of was that her definition of what was acceptable and what was not was very different from his.

Even if he did put her arm around her, was that really such a horrible thing? She was cold, after all. What did he think she was going to do?

He lifted his arm, breaking her grasp on it. She looked up at him, but then lifted her head as she realized he was bringing it around behind her. She slipped comfortably in his arms, her head coming to rest on his chest.

She lifted her head and looked at him.

"Are you all right?"

He nodded.

"Yeah, sure. Why?"

"You're trembling."

"I guess... I guess I'm just cold," he lied.

"Have you gotten any sleep at all?"

"No, not really."

"Why not?"

He shrugged.

"I don't know. I was thinking it would be better if one of us kept watch."

She didn't reply to that, but she continued to look at him.

"I'm glad you're here with me," she said eventually. "I don't know what I'd have done without you. I know I've seen a lot of the world, but Ktan has always been there for me. I've never been alone..."

Willbrand tightened his grip on her. He was glad too. He didn't want to be alone anymore than she did. Right now he couldn't imagine not having her there with him.

"I never did thank you for coming to my rescue in Crotasia," he said. "If it hadn't been for you and Ktan, Garrik would almost certainly have killed me."

"No, you don't have to thank me for that," she replied. "It was my fault you were in that position in the first place. None of this would have happened if you had never met me."

He just lay there, looking at her looking at him. He could feel the silky strands of her hair brushing against his chin.

"I'm glad I met you," he told her.

She lifted her head slightly at this.

"Really? Do you really mean that, after all the trouble it caused you? You had to leave everything you knew behind. You had a wonderful life ahead of you and I ruined all that."

"My life wasn't all that wonderful," he said.

"Well, it surely wasn't as bad as this."

She was looking at him, sadly? He couldn't tell in the dark, and he also couldn't help but notice how close her face was to his own.

"Things don't seem so bad," he said slowly. "In fact, to tell you the truth, right now I can't think of any place I'd rather be."

She smiled. Her face filled his vision. He couldn't see anything else. He might not know her that well, but he wasn't completely inept when it came to females. The fact of the matter was, every signal she was giving him led him to believe she wanted his face closer to her own as much as he did.

Willbrand could hear no sound at all now except the soft exhale of her breath. He could see nothing but her. He could feel nothing but the slow rise and fall of her chest on his own, the heat of her body, the gentleness of her touch. It was as if the rest of the world had faded away, leaving only them.

Never taking his eyes off hers he bowed to the inevitable. Slowly he lifted his hand, letting it slip into the silky hair behind her head, and with it, he slowly drew her closer. His intentions must have been obvious to her by now, but there was no resistance. He saw her eyes close.

Their lips met, at first barely touching, and for a moment he almost drew back, but her evident willingness to succumb to the moment reassured him. The electricity he had felt before returned, stronger than ever. It was almost as if it crackled in the air around them. The feeling of her lips against his own was indescribable. He could get lost in it, could forget about everything and everyone else. He didn't want it to ever end.

In spite of that, he eventually drew his head back.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I just..."

Her finger came up to touch his lips, hushing him.

"No," she said softly. "Don't. Don't say anything. Just... just hold me."

He lay there, staring at her.

"Just hold me. Please."

Merigan had always been so strong. Even when she had been poisoned she had fought bravely. This was the first time he had ever seen her when she seemed like just a frightened little girl. It was the first time she had let him see just how vulnerable she really was.

Acquiescing to her wishes, he lay back, holding her tightly in his arms. He really had no other choice.