The young Lord of Dargon sat unquietly behind his large oaken desk and stared through the arms of his family which adorned the walls of his receiving room. His forebears had been men of decision and action, reknowned for timely justice and intelligence, yet Duke Clifton Dargon had reached an impasse and wished that his ancestors had left some indication in their writings of how his current predicament could be resolved. Yet again, he stood and strode to the tall, open window which overlooked the courtyard, the city, and the surrounding fields.
Though his mind wandered, his eyes followed a young man in a grey tunic as he left the market. The nobleman wondered what business this man might have in Dargon, what concerns he might have, and what he might do if he faced Clifton’s problems and responsibilities. The man turned off Merchant’s Way and strode unhurriedly through the part of town that contained several of the inns that catered to people from away. As he continued, a woman in a bright blue shirt and gauzy white pants came up to him. She fawned on him for several moments before she turned him back the way he had come and disappeared from sight in a cross-alley. Clifton smiled secretly and sighed a heavy sigh.
Clifton was surprised by the clearing of a throat behind him, and turned suddenly to look angrily at his cousin, the young Baron of Connall, as he strode into the office. Realizing that it was Luthias and not one of his annoying advisors, Dargon calmed a little, but his irritation remained unquenched like a vicious undertow beneath the deep brown eyes.
Luthias, attractive, strong, and manly for his twenty-one years, stood out of respect for his lord, yet his stance emanated the ease of standing before a man loved and understood as well as respected. Clifton gazed upon his cousin’s face, so similar to his own, with equal respect. Since the assassinations of Luthias’ father and twin brother, Luthias had grown considerably. At one time, the Baron of Connall was known for quick action and thought which could occasionally border on rashness. But since his brother’s death in the attempt to save the lives of Luthias and Dargon, Luthias had become more thoughtful, as if the twins’ soul, divided at birth, was reunited at last through death. Luthias’ ability for quick, practical decisions, like his grief for father and brother, had not left him; the quickness and pragmatism now mingled occasionally with the grave caution of his brother, just as the blue bands of mourning still lingered on the everyday clothing. There were a few days when Clifton, Lord Dargon, had worried that the grief and the responsibility of the barony would turn the streaks of auburn in Luthias’ brown hair to a premature gray, but the young baron had quickly and manfully accepted grief and responsibility both. A smile fluttered across Dargon’s lips. Luthias was making his cousin and liege very proud.
“You wanted to see me, Clifton?” Luthias prompted finally.
Clifton returned from the quick current of his thoughts and looked his cousin in the eyes again. There was pain in them still. It must be difficult, Clifton thought, for him to look at me, or even at himself, and yet see only his brother. And still I see Roisart in him.
After a moment, Clifton replied, “Yes, Luthias. Please sit down.”
Perplexed at the anger on the face of his lord and kinsman, Luthias obeyed. Once seated, he wondered aloud, unafraid of the answer, “Have I done something, Clifton?”
“No, Luthias, no,” Dargon assured him, brushing the idea away with a flick of the hand. “I need to talk to you. You and Roisart were always good at calming me down.”
“I’m only half as good as we used to be,” Luthias quipped, jesting lightly at his own grief. “But I’ll listen. What’s wrong?”
Lord Clifton Dargon scowled with immeasurable wrath. “They’re after me again!”
Luthias went white, missing the subtle twinkle of irony in Clifton’s brown eyes. “God, no. Not another plot against us!”
“What? Oh, no,” Clifton told him quickly. “No, they aren’t trying to murder us.” He scowled again. “But that would top my day nicely!”
“What’s wrong, then?”
“My counselors,” Clifton explained. “They are plaguing me yet again… They want me to marry!”
Luthias almost laughed. The concept didn’t seem so terrible. “Is that all?” he asked lightly.
“Is that all?” thundered the Lord of Dargon, rising from his chair, then pacing behind the desk. “Is that ALL?”
“Marriage hardly seems a vile fate, Clifton,” Luthias vainly tried to calm him. “I know many who have survived…”
“I don’t see you running out and marrying,” Dargon accused, whirling on his bewildered cousin.
Luthias’ mouth went tight and his eyes narrowed with seriousness. “Yesterday the Baron of Coranabo offered his daughter to me, Clifton,” he snapped. “I need a baroness, and I would have married her if she wasn’t in love with Tylane Shipbrook.”
“Well, how would you feel being pushed into it?” the Lord of Dargon demanded.
Luthias stared at his cousin a moment. It wasn’t like him to be this angry, he thought suddenly. “It isn’t just your advisors,” Luthias concluded aloud. “What is it, Clifton? What’s bothering you?”
Dargon gazed suddenly at his cousin, and just as suddenly, his anger defused. He sighed, trying to calm his confused emotions. “Sit, Luthias,” invited the Lord of Dargon wearily. “I need to talk to you.”
Luthias obeyed slowly, not taking his eyes off his cousin. “Talk, then, Clifton. What is it?”
Again, the Lord of Dargon sighed. He sat silent for a few moments, then spoke. “I was telling the truth,” he ventured, as if he were half talking to himself. “It is my advisors. They want me to marry. They want me to have an heir.” The lord scowled. “It doesn’t befit women to be treated as mere heir machines, and I will not marry a woman merely to provide one.”
“I agree,” Luthias replied gravely. “But there’s more,” he knew.
Almost sadly, Dargon nodded. “I don’t want to get married,” he told his cousin. “I don’t want to marry just anyone. I want to marry a woman that I could love.”
“Don’t you think you will find a woman to love, Clifton?” Luthias questioned carefully.
“That’s the problem, cousin,” sighed Clifton Dargon. “I already have. And I already love her.”
This took Luthias quite by surprise; for a moment he simply stared uncomprehendingly at his noble cousin. In the next moment, Luthias, Baron of Connall, almost lost his temper. “Problem? What IS the problem? You have found her. You love her. You’re the Duke around here, Clifton. You can marry anyone you like. Clifton, there is no problem.” Another thought slapped Luthias smartly. “Gods, Clifton, you haven’t fallen in love with a married woman, have you?”
Dargon looked at his young cousin once again and laughed softly. “Married? No, she isn’t married. Quite the contrary. By most standards, she is what the people would judge an old maid.” His eyes clouded as he let the memory of her wash over him. “Though she’s by no means old, and the man who would not choose her is blind.”
At this romantic turn in his cousin’s nature (which Luthias had never before witnessed) the Baron of Connall asked meekly, but with amusement, “Do I know this lucky woman, Clifton?”
The mist in the eyes of the Lord of Dargon cleared. He looked directly into Luthias’ eyes. “I believe you do,” Dargon told him. “You met her at the Melrin ball. Lady Lauren, the Winthrops’ cousin. The one from Magnus.”
The Baron of Connall pondered a moment, and then the recollection shone on his face like a beam of sunshine. “Oh, yes, the dark-haired one with the greenish eyes–”
“Her eyes are blue,” Clifton corrected. “Perhaps a little green,” he reconsidered. “Blue and green, like the sea,” he mused.
“The one in the white gown,” continued young Luthias. “The one my brother liked.” Again, Luthias considered the matter. “That woman isn’t married? But she’s–beautiful. And charming. And educated. Clifton, what’s wrong with her?”
The Lord of Dargon leapt to his feet. “Wrong with her?” echoed the Lord of Dargon in a most undignified manner. “Nothing’s wrong with her.” He smiled affectionately–like a man in love, thought Luthias. Clearly, his emotions were confused enough for it to be love. “She’s perfect.” Dargon began to pace yet again. “It’s her father. He will not give her up.”
“Did you meet her father, Luthias?” Luthias thought a moment, then shook his head. “His name’s Marcellon, and he’s a very powerful mage. He was trained in Magnus by the great Styles himself.” Having heard his late brother prattle on about Styles, wizard to Beinison Emperors, Luthias was suitably impressed. “Marcellon was wizard to the King of Baranur, until he left a few months ago, before the thaw.”
“Before the thaw?” Luthias repeated, incredulous. “Why would anyone travel that distance in winter? The conditions–”
“Were life and death,” explained Dargon. He kept on pacing, moving back and forth like a pendulum on a clock. “It’s a long story, and Lauren only told me recently, when I asked her for her hand.”
“Fine thing, to go asking for a woman in marriage and not even telling your cousin you’re in love until your advisors bother you,” Luthias teased.
“Quiet, manling,” Clifton growled good-naturedly, using a term he hadn’t employed since the twins were in their youth. “I…” The ruler of Dargon seated himself. “Our love is so special that I wanted to keep it a secret as long as I could. But then, when I asked her…”
“Why would he deny you, Clifton?” Luthias wondered. “What could he object to? You are noble, wealthy, and you are good-natured…”
“Marcellon trusts no man to treat his daughter well enough,” Dargon explained. He made a grim, frustrated face, then continued. “Some years ago, Marcellon gave Lauren’s sister in marriage to a young noble ‘of good character’. A few months later, she was beaten to death by her husband.” Dargon stared at his cousin. “He doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Lauren.”
“Maybe he just doesn’t want the insanity that grips him to run in the family,” grumbled Luthias. “Clifton, what’s the problem? When we were growing up, you had a crush on–oh, what was her name? And you threatened to carry her off if her father objected to the marriage. You make the laws around here. Just throw her over a stallion and run off and you’re married.”
“And separate her from her father? Lauren loves him dearly, and it would break her heart,” Dargon objected. “Besides, the marriage would be short-lived, cousin. Remember, Marcellon is a powerful wizard, with knowledge of the spells of the great Styles himself. He could attack me from a distance of hundreds of leagues.”
“Yes, ‘Styles’ Death’, Roisart told me about it.”
“It’s not a pretty or an easy death.” Luthias shook his head. “And while I fear neither death nor Marcellon, I have no wish to die and leave the duchy with, if you will forgive me, inexperienced leadership.” Luthias smiled a little, humbly. “Still, I want no other woman but Lauren, and Luthias, I intend to have her,” the Lord of Dargon finished firmly. Again, he looked his cousin, the Baron of Connall, in the eyes. “There is a way, Luthias. I asked for her hand, and she told me that her father would be willing, on one condition.”
Luthias shook his head in a disapproving way. “A mage’s condition. I don’t like the sound of this, Clifton.” When Dargon didn’t continue, Connall prompted, “All right, Clifton. What is this condition?”
“He requires that I pass a test of his choosing.”
“What kind of test?”
“Lauren didn’t say.”
“She didn’t tell you anything?”
Dargon shook his head. “Nothing, cousin. But Lauren told me that it can be very dangerous.”
His suspicion leapt from dormancy to dominance. “Dangerous? How?”
Dargon leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. “I don’t know exactly. Lauren would not tell me much, either. She said that two men from Magnus who took the test died–”
Luthias nearly leapt from his seat. “Died?! Clifton!”
Dargon shook his head at Connall. “No, Luthias, it’s not what you think. One had a crossbow that exploded; one died of a sudden seizure, not caused by Marcellon. His purpose is to eliminate those not of exemplary character, not to hurt anyone.”
“I still don’t like it,” Luthias snapped. “I don’t trust it. Two men have died, Clifton. And how do you know Marcellon did not cause it? It certainly sounds odd to me that a mage with that power– And he left Magnus in a hurry, you said, in a matter of life and death. Whose? And why? It all seems very suspicious to me, Clifton, and I don’t want to lose you too!”
“Luthias, I don’t use crossbows,” the Lord of Dargon said with some amusement. “And I am not subject to seizures.” He sighed, shifted. “It was a matter of life and death that Lauren and her father left Magnus. A matter of their lives or deaths.”
“What, is this Marcellon some sort of criminal?”
Dargon shook his head. “Marcellon has broken no laws by testing his daughter’s suitors. But the test got him into trouble. The families of the two who died made no protests; they knew that one had overestimated his warrior skills and that the other was sickly. But healthy young men have taken the test. Six came out alive and unharmed, but they couldn’t remember a thing about the test.” Clifton grimaced. “Four went mad.”
“Mad?” Luthias echoed, startled. “But what could make them mad?”
“No one knows,” admitted the Lord of Dargon, “and Marcellon won’t tell. Families are not pleased when their sons return a raving lunatic from courting. And the last suitor was from a very rich and influential family–”
“They were run out of Magnus because some rich, foppish fool took the test and went mad?” Luthias interrupted. Dargon nodded. “I’m not sure if I like this, Clifton.” Luthias paused a moment. “Have you presented your suit to her father?”
“Not yet,” Dargon admitted. “I’ve been invited to dinner tonight. I want to ask him then.” Dargon made a wrathful face. “Lauren does not want me to ask.”
“She doesn’t want you?”
Dargon gave his cousin a quick, sharp look, then calmed. “No, I don’t think that’s it. At least I hope not, Luthias. I wouldn’t pursue her in that case.” A sad, almost grieving look covered Dargon’s face. “I want to marry her, Luthias. Only her.”
Luthias stared at his cousin’s face and saw the truth of it. Luthias recognized the expression; it was almost the same expression his father had worn when he talked to Luthias and his twin about their mother, the only woman their father had ever loved. And who, through the birth of Luthias and Roisart, was lost to him forever.
Luthias stood and walked over to his cousin’s desk. He put his hand on Dargon’s shoulder. Clifton looked up. “Try for her, Clifton,” young Luthias advised.
“That’s not like you, Luthias,” Dargon returned with gentle surprise. “I thought you were the practical one. I could lose my life, as you pointed out before, and putting myself in jeopardy for personal reasons is not something a ruler should do…” Clifton clearly was reluctant to make such a decision.
“Well, yes,” Luthias admitted, almost sheepish –he had told Myrande he wasn’t built for loving–”but what’s life without love?”
Cheered, Lord Clifton Dargon smiled at his cousin, and left the study to dress for dinner.
How Luthias had been convinced that he should attend the dinner at the Winthrops’ he was never certain. For one thing, he didn’t feel that Clifton really needed a second, or that Marcellon would appreciate the fact that Clifton had brought one. And if anything happened to Clifton, it might be unseemly for his heir to have been the one responsible for his safety. And there was Pecora, little Pecora, still mourning over Kite. And only the gods knew how Luthias was supposed to act around a great, educated lady and a man trained in magic by the great Styles.
The only thing that was keeping the evening from being completely uncomfortable was Sable–Myrande Shipbrook, Luthias’ seneschale. Born six months after the twins, Myrande had known Luthias, his brother Roisart, and Clifton all her life. Her father, who had been castellan to Luthias’ father until he died five years ago, had been quite a valorous man who had been awarded knighthood and arms by Clifton’s father. Myrande’s mother had died days after her father, and at fifteen, she became Seneschale of Connall. When Luthias became Baron a month or so ago, he had asked her to stay with him, to manage his household and to help him run the barony; Myrande was wise for her age, and Luthias had always respected her counsel, even when, as a boy, he had never heeded it. And now, Myrande was helping him again–taking care of the Baron again, Luthias thought ruefully–just by being her honest, easy-going self. Luthias sighed, wondering again whom Sable loved. The man was a blind fool, not seeing the beauty in her black hair and dark eyes nor the beauty of her soul.
Luthias watched Myrande walk through the garden as Marcellon approached him and introduced himself. Luthias found himself surprised that he actually had met Marcellon. He had been dressed in red robes at the Melrin ball, but now he was dressed in a courtly suit of grey and dark blue. As they waited in the Winthrop garden, Marcellon shook his hand kindly. “I remember you, Lord Baron,” said the mage with grave kindness, which surprised Luthias even more. “You danced with Pecora, and your brother danced with my Lauren.” Marcellon smiled. “It was a brave thing your brother did that night.”
Luthias smiled awkwardly. “Braver than I, milord.”
Marcellon lifted his eyebrows. “Would you not have done the same, if you had seen the opportunity?” Luthias considered a moment, then nodded. “Do not say he was braver, then.” Marcellon looked at the bench where Lauren and Clifton sat talking. “I know that Lord Dargon has come to ask for her.” Luthias looked at his shoes. Marcellon smiled. “Don’t worry, Lord Baron. I do not ask you to betray your cousin. But,” and the smile grew wider, “I am not a blind man. I have seen the way they look at one another, their eyes the secret messengers of the hearts. I’ve seen it before, though,” Marcellon sighed, and his eyes narrowed. “Although I doubt I’ve ever seen a man so serious about her–or Lauren so serious about any man.”
Luthias did not know how to respond. Clearly, Marcellon was a wise and observant man, yet strong in his convictions. The old man smiled. “Come, milord Baron. We are expected for dinner,” then, toward Clifton, “my lord?”
“In a moment, father,” responded Lauren, her blue-green eyes not leaving Clifton’s.
The two sat silently and watched as Marcellon and Luthias made their way from the garden, then Lauren turned to Clifton and clasped his hand strongly. Lauren cast a quick look over her shoulder–Lady Myrande was still walking forlornly alone. But Lauren knew–there were things she just knew–that she need not fear Myrande. It was well; Lauren needed to speak quickly.
“Clifton, you know it’s wrong to put yourself before the duchy…”
He smiled at her warmly. “Yes, Lauren, I know, but I’ve spent the past days weighing this decision. The duchy needs a direct heir, and I want you to be my wife and the mother of our children. Your father’s test is not meant to harm people, only to determine whether they will treat you as you deserve… and, well, I love you, and I think that I’d be able to treat you well…” His sentence trailed off; Clifton couldn’t believe he felt embarrassed.
“But, Clifton, it could be dangerous! I don’t want any harm to come to you.”
Clifton shifted on the bench. “But I won’t be hurt, Lauren. It will turn out for the best. Once this is done we shall be married.” Lauren wasn’t convinced by Clifton’s insatiable optimism, and her eyes showed her deep concern, equally beyond reason.
“Clifton… Listen to me. I’ve heard those very words nearly a dozen times. Each time, I watched as they confidently went to ask for my hand. Each time I secretly hoped they would succeed, for I truly cared for them. And each time I watched as they returned, having failed, and I felt their hurt, their shame. Somehow their failure was equally my failure, for I had not discouraged them. And, Clifton, I’ve got far too much at stake to let you fail. Can’t you see? I couldn’t stand to see you fail – not for the duchy, but for myself. If you failed, it would kill me! I love you, can’t you see that? I can’t let you fail.” Lauren paused, anguish in her eyes. “If you were hurt– gods, Clifton, if you lost your mind–”
Impulsively, the Duke of Dargon put his arms around Lauren and held her close. “Shhh, love, I’ll be fine,” he assured her. He kissed her gently.
They sat quietly as a gentle breeze moved the trees above them. Finally, Clifton said, “I Lauren, I must try. You know the saying as well as I, ‘Nothing risked, nothing gained’. You cannot achieve anything if you aren’t willing to put what you have at the outset at risk. And a man isn’t a man if he stops achieving better things for himself and those he loves. So, you see, I have to do this… It’s the right thing, believe me. I love you, and I don’t want to live without you, and if I don’t try, I’ll fail you, and myself.”
Lauren reluctantly accepted Clifton’s words. “I love you too, Clifton. And I don’t think I’d love you as much if you weren’t willing to do this. But remember, you’re risking far more than yourself; you’re putting the duchy and everyone in it at risk, and me. I pray you do not falter…if you did fail, I hate to think of your cousin.” She gazed at Luthias, who was standing on a patio, watching Myrande and speaking with Marcellon. “He’s lost his father and brother; could he lose you too, and be a Duke? Clifton, he’s only twenty-one.”
“I know; believe me. But,” and Clifton smiled, “my love, it was Luthias, practical, sensible Luthias, who convinced me to do this. It’ll be all right,” he assured her, kissing her again.
There was a sudden crash behind them. “Clod!” Luthias called with teasing familiarity.
“Luthias?” Myrande called, rising to her feet. “Just twisted an ankle,” she answered Clifton’s questioning glance. “Luthias, come here, please. I need you.”
Luthias moved toward her. Lauren smiled and said softly, so only Clifton would hear, “He hears the words, but misses the message.” At the Duke’s confusion, Lauren asked, “Didn’t you know that Lady Myrande is in love with your cousin?”
“Of course. My uncle Fionn, Luthias’ father, told me some years ago when he asked Myrande whom she wished to wed. How did you know?”
Lauren shrugged. “I just know.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Clifton accused with amused severity. “You still don’t want me to do this?”
Lauren looked pained. “Clifton, I want to marry you. I love you more than any other man in the world. I can’t bear it if I lost you.”
“Then there’s nothing more to do than try,” Clifton said firmly. He helped to her feet. “Now, come, let’s catch up with the others.”
Clifton and Luthias were set opposite Marcellon and Lauren. At one end of the table sat Lady and Lord Winthrop, an interesting couple who probably would have felt more comfortable with Clifton’s father, but they managed to keep an incessant chatter alive at the table. At the other end sat the two women: Pecora and Sable. Pecora was the daughter of the Winthrop’s, a dark-haired woman with whom both Clifton and Luthias had shared their childhood, and whom had been through so much recently. Sable, or Lady Myrande as she was called by everyone except Luthias and occasionally Clifton, was certainly the more beautiful of the two, a dark beauty, the Belle of Connall, as some had called her before she had become seneschale and stopped going to balls. Luthias smiled. It was long held a rumor that Myrande Shipbrook had been promised to one of the twin lords of Connall.
Luthias noted that Clifton was in a serious mood, and understood why, but it made the conversation drag. Although everyone in the room were old friends, there was an air of awkwardness in the room. The group had gone through a lot in the past few months. Pecora had taken ill and then Kite had disappeared mysteriously. People also avoided talking about Luthias’ brother and father, as well (he wished they wouldn’t avoid them; part of Luthias needed to know that he wasn’t the only person who remembered or missed Roisart and his father). And there was Clifton and Lauren, and surely everyone present knew about Clifton’s intent. Only Sable seemed at ease, Luthias noted. He smiled. Sometimes he thought she was the only thing that kept him sane.
The feast ended. Luthias was relieved when his cousin finally broached the subject of his suit to Marcellon.
“Lord Marcellon, your daughter and I have spoken at length. We wish to be married. I ask for your blessing.” Luthias was impressed; Clifton’s tone was that of a request bordering on a demand.
Marcellon’s face betrayed nothing of what the man was thinking, but he replied, choosing his words carefully, “My daughter has told you of my whim?”
“And you wish to prove yourself worthy of her in my eyes?”
“Yes, sir,” Clifton replied firmly. Lauren closed her eyes. Myrande saw the grief in Lauren’s face, but could do nothing. Clifton saw it, and touched her hand beneath the table.
“Very well,” Marcellon agreed. “You will be provided with everything necessary to prove yourself. When do you wish to begin?”
Clifton had committed himself now, and Luthias knew it. Clifton gazed across the table at his cousin. If he failed–if he died, or lost his mind–this man, this young man, would become the Duke of Dargon. Luthias knew this, saw the concern in his cousin’s eyes.
He’s asking my consent for this, Luthias thought. As if he needed it. Luthias nodded to his cousin, and heard the words he had used this afternoon: Try for her.
“If it is possible, this evening,” Clifton requested.
“Very well.” Then, turning to Lord Winthrop, his brother-in-law, “With your permission, shall we adjourn to the sitting room?” The host nodded, and the group rose. Clifton, Marcellon and Lord Winthrop led silently, with Lauren hanging uncertainly near Clifton and the others behind, secretly exchanging concerned expressions. They reached the sitting room far too quickly for Luthias’ comfort.
Myrande squeezed his arm. “It’s all right, Luthias.”
The old mystic motioned for Clifton to sit facing him. “You shall be facing great peril, though the purpose of this test is not to prove your prowess at arms or to harm you. You choose any weapon or armor you desire. What do you wish?”
Luthias could see Clifton’s mind racing, and could also see the unquiet expression he bore. “Are arms and armor necessary to succeed?”
Marcellon’s brow rose in curiosity. “They are not.”
“Then I shall bear neither.”
“As you wish. In a moment, I shall ask you to submit to my will, and to allow me to penetrate your self. This will not be painful, but you must concentrate upon opening yourself to me. I shall create the test within your mind as an illusion. You will find yourself in a corridor. You will find an object of beauty, and you need retrieve it, and I shall bring you back to this room. Are you prepared?”
The Duke of Dargon took and released one large breath before replying. “I am.”
Clifton shared a final glance with Lauren, which dispelled any doubts left within him, although her face was filled with fear. He nodded to Marcellon, and closed his eyes. He had no formal training in wizardry, but there were books in the ducal library and in the college at Magnus which had discussed it. He envisioned a door in his chest and willed it open, feeling the vulnerability and insecurity beneath his outward strength and resolution. He kept his mind from wandering and concentrated upon it.
He suddenly knew that Marcellon was within him; not within his body, but within his mind. Startled at the alien feeling, Clifton opened his eyes, but still saw nothing. Suddenly, as if he had been thrown into a pond, there was another person within him. His eyes could see, but what they saw was definitely strange. He was sitting with several other people in a small circle at the edge of a field, eating something that looked very much like worms in red mud. Around them stood several canvas shelters which stood of their own accord. One of the people near him, a dark-haired woman in a revealing white tunic, turned suddenly toward him and spoke.
“Well, I think you look more like Luthias than Clifton…”
As he went to speak, he felt his lips moving, yet the words that he spoke were not his own. “Well, of course, everyone will have different pictures of what’s been written about, like the climate. I’ve always pictured Dargon as being like Maine, but other people will have different ideas…”
Clifton thought he felt the third person leave his mind as his eyes drained; then he lost consciousness.
Clifton awoke in a grey stone passageway, lit by an occasional sconce. To either side the corridor continued perhaps 30 paces before ending, a door at each end. Clifton waited several moments to be sure that his head was clear, then walked down the passageway to his left.
He stopped before the large wooden door, his conversation with Marcellon going through his mind once more. The test was to bring back something of beauty. Clifton gathered himself and opened the door.
Any semblance of secrecy he had desired was shattered by the protest of the seemingly ancient door. That decided, Clifton swung the door more forcibly open and strode into the huge room beyond. What he saw was enough to make him take several steps backward. The room was dominated by a large grayish mound surrounded by hundreds of huge, black insects. They were built like wasps, but each was the size of a small dog. The noise of the door had created a commotion, and the air about the nest was full of the insects. Clifton watched in horror as a single insect, larger than the others, emerged from the nest and rose to the air. The other insects flocked to follow it as it led the way toward the intruder.
Clifton, of course, knew what he faced. There was a story which parents would tell their children about such insects. It would normally scare the children enough to keep them from playing with hornet and wasp nests and getting hurt. Clifton, as a child, had even told the story to his cousins, Luthias and Roisart, and Myrande, when he was the lordly age of twelve, and they were but six and five. The Wasp-King cruelly ruled all flying insects by terror. His temper was swift and his bite death. His greatest treasures was his colony, and the colony’s greatest treasure was a flower which it kept preserved inside the hive.
Clifton knew that the flower was to be the object of his test, and his heart sank. He had always held a secret fear of flying insects, and his fear now was maddening. The Wasp-King arrived and dropped to the ground less than an arm-length before him as his comrades circled above. The thing, for Clifton could not call it a beast, twitched and turned, its antennae brushing Clifton, who dared not move. Suddenly, he heard the thing speaking within his mind; the absolute alienness of the thing inside his head threw him violently to the ground. A thousand voices echoed, “WHY DOES IT INVADE US?”
The assault ended, and Clifton rose to his hands and spoke. “I have been sent… I have need of your flower, your treasure.” Clifton dared not raise his head to look at the abomination. He steeled himself for another assault.
“WHY DOES IT NEED OUR TREASURE-FLOWER?”
“I wish to marry a woman of my race. It will only be permitted if I bring back the flower.”
“IT MAY NOT HAVE THE TREASURE-FLOWER.”
Clifton felt enraged for a moment, and it blocked out his fear. For a wild moment, he wanted to attack the Wasp-King, splatter its brains on the floor. But better sense prevailed; he was unarmed, and even if he had a legendary sword, he could not succeed against the wasp horde. Besides, he bore them no ill. He thought of Lauren, and spoke again.
“I again ask you for your treasure-flower. I will not be able to marry the woman without it.”
The sea of emotionless voices returned unmercifully. “IT IS NOT OF US; WE DO NOT CARE. MANY ITS HAVE INVADED US AND ATTACKED OUR HIVE; WHY? THIS IT DOES NOT ATTACK; IT SPEAKS. WHY?”
Clifton knew no way to explain why other humans had come and why they had acted differently. “The others were renegades.” Well, it wasn’t quite accurate, but maybe they’d understand the basic gist. “I speak because I am wiser, and have no need to attack, for I mean you no harm. I only come for the treasure-flower.”
“IT MEANS US NO HARM? THE OTHER ITS HAVE INVADED US AND ATTACKED US WITH BLADES. THIS IT WILL DO THE SAME.”
“No, I mean no harm,” Clifton repeated. A thought struck him. “If I can have the flower, I will leave, and I will insure that no other ‘its’ will come to attack you.”
The thing buzzed and twitched, and Clifton breathed deeply, still on his hands and knees. At least he wasn’t in imminent danger. The legend had said nothing about the things being able to talk, and that was the most painful part of the ordeal. Then the voices returned.
“IT MAY HAVE THE TREASURE-FLOWER, BUT IT MUST PROVE IT IS NOT RENEGADE. IT MUST GO AMONG US AND GET TREASURE-FLOWER.”
Clifton didn’t quite understand the words, but his contact with the thing told him that the flower would be just within the hive. The Wasp-King rose into the air as Clifton stumbled to his feet.
The distance was less than 30 paces, but it took Clifton several minutes. The insects were all around him, and he stumbled blindly toward the hive. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears, but he couldn’t block out their feelers or their wings, which were constantly around him. He couldn’t block out the droning of their wings, or the memory of their eyes. Nor their insane presense in his mind. It took all his will to keep from running, but he knew that if he did, they would flock to attack him, stinging him repeatedly. He struggled onward, until he reached the papery hive entry, which stood about half his height. He rolled onto his back and stuck his head and arms underneath the opening and felt above the entry. Finally coming upon what seemed to be a large flower, he carefully removed it from the wall and struggled out.
He opened his eyes only long enough to be sure that he had the flower, and began walking slowly back toward the doorway. The insects slowly dispersed, and he finally stumbled the last few steps to the doorway. There had never been a sound so delightful to Clifton as the complaint of the iron-shod oak and the satisfying boom of it as it met the jam. Exhausted, Clifton sank to the floor, propped his back against the door, and slept.
Luthias began to wonder why someone hadn’t asked Marcellon how long this thing would last. It had been several minutes, but no one had dared to leave the room, least of all Luthias, with Sable at his side, and Lauren. Would this take minutes or hours, or days? No one had spoken; everyone was watching Clifton, yet his countenance had not changed since they had begun. His long face showed little of the youth it had when he and Luthias had spent more time together. Nor had Marcellon’s, of course, as he been in some sort of trance as well.
“How long?” Luthias finally asked Lady Lauren.
She stopped pacing, stared a him a moment. “A few more minutes,” she faltered. “Not long, Lord Luthias,” she assured him, with a shaky attempt at a smile. “It is never long.”
Myrande looked at the seemingly sleeping Duke. “I don’t like the way he breathes,” she said, noting Clifton’s labored pants.
Lauren whirled upon Luthias. “Is anything wrong with his heart?”
No one noticed the informality. Luthias shook his head. “He loves you. Don’t worry,” Luthias tried to convince Lauren, but he sounded too worried himself. He grimaced and walked away a few steps.
Lauren watched as Myrande followed Luthias with her eyes. When Luthias was out of earshot, she asked, “How long have you loved him?”
Myrande appeared startled. “Since I was sixteen, seventeen.” She smiled. “Is it so obvious?”
“I just know things, sometimes,” Lauren reassured her. “Clifton said something about you asking Luthias’ father for his hand…”
“Not exactly, my lady,” Myrande replied, watching Luthias. They were speaking softly, and Luthias looked like he had slipped into another world. “When I was sixteen, Luthias’ father, Fionn, asked me if there was any man I preferred, so he could see about a marriage for me. I told him, and he said we should wait.” She swallowed. “And so I have waited.”
“And you can’t stop loving him?” Myrande shook her head. Lauren sighed. “I never knew what that was like…until Clifton…” She looked at her love, still breathing heavily. “It should be soon…”
Soon, indeed they both showed signs of waking up, and everyone watched anxiously as Clifton took a deep breath. Both Luthias and Lauren caught their breath as they saw the haunted look in Clifton’s eyes as he opened them, then slumped back into the chair.
“He is fine, just let him rest a while.” Marcellon said groggily. Luthias thought that Marcellon could probably use the rest as well.
Still, Lauren went to the Duke’s side. Clifton opened his eyes, smiled weakly. “Flower, my lady?” he asked, holding out to her a white rose, but his hand fell weakly to his chest, and he gave in to sleep.
“Father!” came Lauren’s cry. Luthias saw her pointing at Clifton, and noticed, for the first time, a delicate white papery rose lying across his chest, and knew what it meant. Luthias grinned, most of the tension leaving him. Sable was suddenly beside him, and they shared a smile. Lauren continued whooping–there was no other word for it–”He did it! We have your blessing?”
Marcellon looked stern. “I will have to give it some thought.”
Luthias’ grin crashed and was deformed into a frown. “What?”
Lauren’s expression was one which only a father could bear. “But, father, he’s done it! He’s fulfilled the test! He’s proven himself.”
“Yes, he has. He is a good man, and I promise to let you know if I find him acceptable.”
“Find him acceptable?” Luthias was startled to hear Myrande’s voice. He stared at her. She was angry, a black kitten with claws. “What do you mean? He loves her, Lord Marcellon. Don’t you know how lucky she is to love a man who actually loves her back?”
Luthias winced. Marcellon looked at Lady Myrande sorrowfully and shook his head. “There ss more to it, milady. You do not understand.”
“What is there to understand? You are denying me what I have waited years to have! Father, he’s passed your damned test, and he’s the Lord of Dargon! I refuse to allow you to be so unreasonable.”
“Unreasonable?” Marcellon thundered. “Would you end up as your sister did?”
“Clifton would never so abuse me,” Lauren said haughtily, pride in her eyes and her posture.
“You cannot have him,” Marcellon announced with finality.
“No!” Lauren replied.
“What?” Marcellon asked, his voice incredulous and furious.
“I said no. I love him, and if you cannot find it in you to approve after he has gone through so much, then I shall marry him without your blessing!”
“I am a wizard and–”
“I know that you’re a wizard. Do you think I am without power of my own–or that I fear you more than I love Clifton? Father, I’ve seen some of your books and I know some of your tricks. You may kill us, but it will take time and effort, and in the end, at least we’ll die together!” Lauren turned to Luthias. “Help me take Clifton home.”
Luthias moved to lift his cousin, and Lauren turned to him, but her father grabbed her wrist.
“You defy me, then?”
Lauren’s head was high. “I love him, Father. I will marry him, with or without your consent.”
Marcellon slumped into a chair and closed his eyes. “Thank God.”
Lauren was on the defensive. “What?”
Marcellon smiled and waited before continuing. “Now listen, Lauren. Clifton has proved himself worthy of you. No other man has passed my test of him–gaining something delicate, such as your love, without using force. But what if you did not love him? I would not allow you to marry someone whom you did not love, even if he succeeded in passing my test.”
Lauren was wondering if she should faint. “Then why the test? Why didn’t you just ask me whom I loved?”
“I did not want you beaten and abused, dearest,” Marcellon said affectionately. “If you remember, your sister loved her husband. I wanted that test, to keep you alive and happy. But if the right man passed, and you did not love him…”
“But you knew I loved Clifton!”
“Yes, and you loved the others, but would you have defied me for any of them?” Lauren shook her head. “I thought not. And so, there was a second test, my dear. Your test.”
“What?” Lauren seemed on the edge of fury.
“You had to be worthy of him, as well. Until you defied me, you had not proved yourself or your love to me. I know you must be angry with me, but it was necessary.”
Lauren understood, though she clearly had not approved of her father toying with her. “I understand, Father.” She returned to Clifton’s side and he quietly smiled. With that, the last of her anger vanished.
“Put him down, Lord Luthias,” Marcellon commanded, smiling. “Lauren, wake him.”
Something gentle and soft touched Clifton’s lips, and he woke. “I brought you a flower, Lauren,” he mumbled. Then he saw Marcellon standing behind his daughter. Luthias felt distinctly out of place. Clifton stood proudly, although he felt exhausted. “I ask again for your blessing.”
Marcellon smiled and bowed. “You have it, your grace–or may I say, my son?”
Clifton cheered, grabbed Lauren, kissed her lips, twirled her through the air. She laughed like a girl. Marcellon beamed his approval, until finally Clifton put down the man’s daughter and shook his future father-in-law’s hand.
“Thank you…Father,” Clifton said. Marcellon embraced him. Clifton turned to Luthias. “Come on, manling, we’ve got a lot of planning to do.”
“Where are we going and what are we planning?”
“Home–the wedding, manling, the wedding!”
“When will you be getting married?” Marcellon asked.
Clifton blinked, then looked at Lauren. “Next week?”
“Next week?!” Marcellon protested.
“I don’t want to wait,” Clifton said dreamily, putting his arms around Lauren.
“Nor I,” Lauren agreed, laying her head on his shoulder.
“So soon…” Marcellon said uncertainly.
“What’s to be gained by waiting?” Luthias argued practically.
“Very well,” Marcellon agreed, smiling. “Next week.” Clifton kissed his bride as a celebration of the concession.
Marcellon touched Luthias’ shoulder. “Come, milord. I think they’d prefer to be alone.”
Unnoticed, Marcellon, Myrande, and Luthias left the room. Walking through the halls, Luthias offered his arm to Myrande. She smiled, took it. “Well,” sighed the Baron of Connall, “it looks like we’re having a wedding after all, Sable.” Sable laughed softly. Luthias stopped, looked at her. “I’m sorry it can’t be yours.”
Myrande elevated herself on her toes, and kissed his cheek. “Give it time, my lord,” she said, smiling. She leaned on his shoulder contently. “Give it time.”