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To my son Jonathan,
who liked the first one.

Chapter One

As Nils Hansen lay on the grass of the grave mound, staring toward the black pines silhouetted against the sunset, he heard a shout in the near distance and the sring! of a sword coming out of its scabbard. Hansen jumped up from the warm earth, though he'd come here unarmed and there was no need for him to take a local quarrel as his own anyway.

No external need.

The approach of men on ponies—several men, judging from the voices raised as they yipped to their mounts—had been hidden by the snorts and clicks of the herd of giant peccaries being driven to the stockade at Peace Rock for the night. Vague skyglow glinted on the riders' harness and weapon-edges as they spread to encircle the herdsman.

Three men, one carrying a curved saber and the other pair pointing lances as they walked their ponies forward, Hansen thought as his legs took him into trouble because that was what they'd always done, ever since Nils Hansen was able to stand.

"You keep away from me!" bellowed the herdsman as he pivoted clumsily. He aimed his crossbow at first one of the intruders, then another. "You keep away or I'll shoot!"

Peccaries trailing the main herd grunted and clashed their tusks. The pigs stood belly high to a pony. They were more than dangerous when they chose to be—but for now the beasts were less interested in a fight than they were in the swill awaiting them in the compound. They made way for the riders.

They made way for Hansen as well. With the dusk and the tension, none of the four actors noticed that a fifth man was joining them.

"And what d'ye suppose'll happen then after you shoot, boyo?" demanded the rider with a saber.

"Yeah, is that the way Peace Rock treats travelers asking guest rights, pig-smell?" added a lancer.

The riders halted like the spokes of a wheel, each about five meters from the herdsman at the hub.

"I don't have anything to do with guest rights!" cried the herdsman desperately. "You'll have to ask the Lord Waldron!"

The herdsman was trying to face all directions at once, but his real concern was for the lances whose points were already half the distance to his chest.

Hansen knew that was a mistake. The danger wasn't from weapons but rather from the men carrying them. The rider with the saber was the one deciding what would happen next. If Hansen were in the herdsman's place

He'd shoot the leader at once and take his chances with the other pair. The lancers would run away or at least freeze for the moment it'd take to snatch the saber and the reins of the loose pony

But Nils Hansen had the advantage of being a killer himself, with training and experience to hone a great natural talent.

"Listen to that!" said one of the lancers. "No respect for travelers nor his master neither! You know, we oughta—"

The peccaries were faint clicks in the distance. The sky had faded enough that whole constellations were visible in the east.

"You ought to learn civil speech," Hansen said, close enough to touch the nearest pony before it shied from his voice, "or the lord won't have any more respect for you than I do—boyo."

He'd had to speak up. The jingle of harness as the leader hunched over the neck of his mount meant that the fellow was about to lurch forward and cut the herdsman down from behind.

The leader straightened, trying instinctively to conceal the saber behind his right leg as the lancer nearest to Hansen sawed the reins with his left hand to control the startled pony. For an instant, the herdsman's crossbow pointed at the center of Hansen's chest; then the square-headed bolt twitched sideways to follow the lancer who steadied his mount a few meters away.

"Who the hell are you?" snarled the leader.

"I'm a traveler passing through these parts," said Hansen easily. He watched the teeth glinting in the leader's black beard and, in the corner of his eyes, the wink of the nearer lancehead. "Maybe I'll want to claim guest rights at Peace Rock myself."

Then, because he saw it was about to happen and he liked to tell himself that it wasn't what he wanted, it was never what he wanted, Hansen said, "Friends, we don't need a prob—"

The leader said, "Take 'im, Steith!", and the horseman to Hansen's left thrust forward with his lance.

Hansen was already moving, shifting his torso backward by its own depth so that the lancehead grazed Hansen's tunic of blue-dyed linen instead of grating in through one set of ribs and out through the other.

The herdsman shouted and jumped free of the circle. He still waved his crossbow, but the fellow's instincts told him it was a weapon for wolves, not men, and his fingers refused to squeeze the trigger bar.

Hansen gripped the spear shaft with both hands. The wood had been shaped with curve-bladed knives, not by lathe-turning. Hansen could feel the ridges through the calluses of his palms as he tugged.

The rider lurched forward. He dropped the lance to catch himself on the saddle pommel. His pony, slapped alongside the muzzle by the lance shaft, shied again.

Steith shouted as he tried to control his mount. The leader was shouting also, but Steith was between him and Hansen, and the second lancer couldn't seem to decide whether to track Hansen or the yammering herdsman.

Hansen didn't say a word as he slammed the butt of the weapon into Steith.

The lance wasn't fitted with a metal buttspike. Hansen's shoulder muscles were powerful even when he was calm, and now his blood bubbled with adrenaline from fear and rage. He thrust the blunt wooden pole a hand's-breadth deep in Steith's chest, catapulting the man over the cantle of his saddle.

The man with the saber kneed his mount forward as Steith's pony bolted out of the way. The lanceshaft cut an arc in the air as Hansen swapped it end for end. The leader couldn't be sure what had happened in the confused darkness, but he understood the wink of the lancehead centered on his chest. He drew up his mount with a curse.

Steith's pony, panicked by the smell of the pulmonary blood that sprayed its neck and mane, galloped into the forest with a terrified blat of sound. The other lancer shouted, "Abel! Abel! What should—"

"Get the fuck outa here!" the leader replied, yanking the head of his pony to the left and digging in with the same-side spur.

Both riders cantered off, the leader a pony's length ahead of the surviving lancer. The lancer was still bleating demands for an explanation as they disappeared.

"Eat this!" cried the herdsman as he aimed his crossbow.

Hansen lifted the crossbow's muzzle with the tip of his lance.

"What?" said the herdsman. "What?" He did not shoot.

The lance trembled like a willow in a windstorm. Hansen threw the weapon down and hugged his arms tight against his chest.

Blood and death stank in the air and in his mind.

The light was gone. The treetops stood out against the sky, but the trunks and the ground and the corpse lying there on its back were only blurs in blackness. Hansen squatted, trying to control his body as hormones burned themselves off in nervous shudders.

"My lord?" said the herdsman as he bent over Hansen. "Were you struck? My lord?"

"Just back off!" Hansen snarled. The herdsman hopped away in terror.

It was the adrenaline. Mostly the adrenaline.

Hansen stood up. "Look, I'm okay now," he said.

His voice had a rasp in it. He must have been shouting. There'd been a lot of noise and confusion; it was hard to keep the sequence of events straight, even though they had just happened.

"My lord," said the herdsman, "I'm Peter. May I guide you to Lord Waldron?"

"At Peace Rock?" Hansen said. He flexed his hands. He'd strained them in the brief moments of his grip on the lance. "Yeah, I'd appreciate that. I could use . . ."

Rest. Food. Some answers.

"Who were those—folk?" he asked aloud. "Has the Peace of Golsingh broken down?"

"Oh, them," said Peter, scornful now that he'd seen the backs of the men who would have killed him.

He'd dropped the crossbow when Hansen struck up the muzzle. Now he searched for the weapon, finding it beside the narrow track which the hooves of his peccaries had worn. "There's a lot of rovers from Solfygg to the east, recently. Warriors. They stay within the law, mostly, but they go from stead to stead and call out to a duel anybody who looks at them crossways."

Peter set off along the trail. Familiarity and the odor of pig droppings guided his steps where the faint light could not. Hansen followed along. He was glad to be moving again, but the big muscles of his thighs still fluttered with hormones and reaction.

"Those weren't warriors, surely?" he said. The hill ahead of them showed the ragged rim of a stockade, and the air held a tang of woodsmoke.

It didn't seem so very long ago that Hansen had last been in Peace Rock.

"Them warriors?" the herdsman said. "No, just retainers, the sort you'd find who'd follow a rover."

He spat. "A murderer, to give them their proper name. But the rovers now have battlesuits like the gods themselves wear, so they say. With armor like that, they kill whoever it is they call out."

"Do they just?" Hansen murmured too softly for Peter to hear.

He was beginning to tremble again. He should never have come back.

"Peace Rock was the king's seat in the time of the great Golsingh, King Prandia's grandfather, did you know?" the herdsman went on. "Before he moved to Frekka. And even then, his wife—"

"His wife Unn," Hansen said.

He thought only his mind had spoken, but the herdsman looked over at his companion in surprise and said, "Yes, Unn was her name. Do you know the story?"

"Tell me," Hansen said, flexing his broad hands in the darkness.

"Queen Unn asked to be buried here at Peace Rock," Peter said, "because it was here that she learned to love King Golsingh, so they say. That was her grave mound back there where the scuts waylaid us.

"Waylaid me," the herdsman corrected, but Hansen's mind was lost in another time.

A party of men, visible only as three bobbing torches, had just issued from the gate of the stockade a hundred meters away. "Peter! Peter, is that you?" one of them bellowed.

"I'm all right, Cayley!" the herdsman shouted back to the search that had been organized when the herd of peccaries returned without him.

"Well, where in North's name have you been?" one of the searchers demanded peevishly.

"She was supposed to be a beautiful woman," Peter said to his silent companion. "Blond hair and eyes the color of the summer sky."

"She was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," Hansen said; but this time, the whisper was too soft to be overheard except by the pines.

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