The moment the maid admitted Marcellon into the townhouse, he called her: “Sable! Myrande!”
“She’s in the other room, your lordship,” the maid, a wench named Yara, informed him. “I believe she was a wee bit sick, your lordship, but–”
“I’m all right,” said the young Countess of Connall, Myrande Shipbrook Connall. She stood in the doorway, easy and dignified. Her grey gown complemented her raven hair, ebony eyes, and dark skin. Marcellon’s mouth twitched with a smile; she was not unnaturally pale, but he had seen her darker. “Yara, you may go.” Myrande crossed the room and gestured to a chair. “What may I do for you, Lord Marcellon?”
“I’ve just received a message from the King,” the mage revealed, displaying a bit of parchment with the royal seal on it. “A ship from Beinison has just arrived in the city.”
“Luthias–?” Myrande began, hardly daring to hope.
“No, he’s still the Empire, but the King has received a pouch from him, and apparently the Emperor has sent the King a gift, to be presented this afternoon to the King by the Imperial Ambassador, Count Tyago.”
Myrande sighed. Marcellon knew the separation from her new husband was difficult for her. Myrande had known Luthias all her life; her father was castellan in his father’s keep since before Myrande was born. Life without Luthias and his late brother Roisart was alien to her. She asked, “A gift?”
“A peace offering, I should think.”
“Then…perhaps…the King might allow me to go to him.”
“Join Luthias in the Beinison Empire? I think not,” Marcellon, mage and physician, said. “You look pallid, Sable,” he continued, affection in his voice. Myrande, who was staying in her new house in Magnus while at the War Council, had become like another daughter to him. His own daughter’s husband, Clifton, Duke of Dargon, was staying at the mage’s home during the Council. But Myrande, though unrelated, bore a striking resemblance in carriage and character to Marcellon’s late wife. Though Myrande knew of Marcellon’s power, she, like his wife, was not afraid of him; once, in the summer, she had stood up to Marcellon in defence of the mage’s daughter. Marcellon took a deep breath. His daughter, too, had been pale.
“Besides,” he continued, “your maid said you were ill. Nausea again, Myrande?” She nodded. “And your sleepiness…still?” Again, the Countess nodded. “The King is concerned about you, and so am I. Have you any idea what is wrong?”
Suddenly, Myrande smiled. “I know what is…wrong, Marcellon, and I suspect you know as well as I–”
“I do have my suspicions,” the High Mage smiled, “as I have told Sir Edward and the King.” Marcellon patted a black leather pouch, in which he kept his medical supplies. “I can tell you for certain.”
She looked at him, mildly amused. “I thought you were a wizard, not a doctor.”
Marcellon smiled. “One can hardly be one without the other, young lady. The training, especially in the potions, is remarkably similar. And I have the herbs which can tell for certain whether or not you are indeed bearing a child.”
“Thank you, but I don’t need the herbs,” Myrande refused politely. “I’ve been a midwife for six years, and I already know for certain.”
“When shall the child be born?”
“At the beginning of Yule, I should think,” Myrande calculated. She smiled. “I can’t tell you exactly, like Lauren can, but it should be close to Luthias’ birthday.”
“With all luck, he should be home by then,” Marcellon agreed. He smiled. “You seem to have all well in hand. Perhaps you should become my apprentice.” The High Mage rose. “Come, Myrande, we must attend the King.”
“Yes, the King has called immediate court for the presentation of the gift.”
“Despite the storm?” Myrande asked, doubtfully casting a glance at the falling snow.
“Yes. This is important; besides, most of the nobles are staying at the palace or near it. My house here isn’t that far; nor is yours.”
“I know, but I’m unused to anything happening in Deber– especially when there’s snow falling.”
“Snow comes early and fiercely to Dargon,” Marcellon agreed. “It isn’t like that here in the south. Come along, Countess. The King awaits.”
The Duke of Dargon met Marcellon, his father-in-law, and Myrande, his cousin’s wife, at the King’s palace in the city of Magnus. The great hall was tall, cold, and impersonal; yet the hundred or so nobles gathered from all the land of Baranur warmed it a little, as did their cheerful looks. Clifton Dargon smiled at Myrande and bowed slightly to her, as did her cousin, Warin, Lord of Shipbrook, who was also in Magnus for the War Council.
“Did the King tell you?” Clifton asked his father-in-law. “After the meeting with you, Sir Edward, and the rest of the War Council last night, the King has made the decision not to attack the Beinison Empire.”
“Good thing, too,” Myrande acknowledged. “The last thing we need is a war.”
Yes, a good thing, Countess, Marcellon thought, for your husband would be the first casualty in that conflict. But the mage said, “Your young hot-headed friends will be disappointed, Baron Shipbrook.”
Warin shook his head. “No doubt, your excellency. They think of war as a toy and they wish to play with it. All they think about is the glory of the wars we’ve read about at the University, about being heroes, about battling for the King.”
Perhaps those books should be writ in blood, not ink, Marcellon thought. “I must attend the King,” Marcellon excused himself. “Clifton, see to the Countess.” Clifton smiled at the tone of the command. He and Myrande had been friends since Myrande was a child playing with Clifton’s cousins, Roisart and Luthias, the latter now her husband and the Count of Connall. “I shall see you shortly, Myrande,” he said his farewell. “Baron Shipbrook.”
Marcellon weaved his way to the vestry behind the throne. The King, Haralan, was not yet there, and neither was his other chief advisor, Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of the Armies. Marcellon sat down softly on a cushioned chair and stared out at the snow.
It fell peacefully, gently, the first snow of the season. As Marcellon watched, it turned gold, then blood red.
Quickly, Marcellon blinked the vision away. Gold, and red, in the snow. A chill took him, and he frowned. Another vision. The third within a week, all three of gold and blood. Odd, very odd. Something powerful–
“Ah, Marcellon,” the King greeted him from behind. The mage rose smoothly and nodded to the King, then to Edward Sothos, the scarred man who stood with him. “Help me into this cloak, will you, Edward?” The King smiled at his chief advisor, the mage, the most powerful wizard in Baranur. “What think you, Marcellon? Will this gift bring peace?”
“I think, your majesty,” Marcellon began slowly, then stopped.
“What do you think?”
“I think, your majesty, that there will be war.”
“Ah, so I should refuse this gift.”
“That would be extremely bad form, Haralan,” Edward softly reminded him. “And it would indeed start the war you wish to avoid.”
“There will be no war so long as the Empire does not attack us,” the King said firmly. “I feel no great need to fight.”
“They did try to trick us into warring with Bichu by killing the late Baron of Connall and his son, and accusing the Duke of Dargon of treason,” Edward mused. “I am not sure we can avoid dealing with that issue.”
“We have only Coranabo’s word and the Count Connall’s speculation for the truth of that, Edward,” the King admonished the Knight Commander gently. “We will not fight a war for that.” The KIng of Baranur smiled. “I wonder what this gift shall be.”
“Bloody gold,” Marcellon muttered.
“What is that?”
“Nothing, your majesty,” the High Mage lied. “Let us go.”
The King gave a nod to a nearby servant, who in turn gave a signal to the heralds. The royal trumpets swiftly announced the King’s presence. Haralan stood regally, and started for the door which would open to the side of the dais. Marcellon followed, a pace behind, to the King’s right. Edward, parallell to the High Mage, was on his left.
When the King stood before the throne, the assembly of nobles bowed, and the King returned the respect with a nod. “Be seated, my lords and ladies,” the King commanded royally. “A message of peace has come from the Beinison Empire.”
Around the long tables, the nobles sat, muttering amongst themselves. Marcellon had known the news; Countess Myrande knew, as did the Duke of Dargon, but this was new information to the rest of Baranur’s noblility. The herald cried out, “His majesty calls forth the Count of Tyago, Ambassador of his Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Beinison.”
And the boy came forward. Marcellon couldn’t think of Count Tyago as anything else. He was a thin young man, blond, with blue eyes as innocent as the sky. His face was decked in happiness as he came forward with two servants, one who carried a roll of sealed parchment, another who bore a gold coffer inlaid with jewels.
“You have a message for us, do you not, Count Tyago?” asked the King, his voice respectful, yet superior, as befitted his station.
“I do, your royal majesty,” the boy said. How old could he be? Marcellon wondered. Seventeen, eighteen perhaps? Younger than Luthias, certainly. They were both too young to be ambassadors, Marcellon thought. “His Imperial Majesty has sent me a missive to read to you, and a gift.” The boy held out his hand for the parchement. He broke the seal ceremoniously and began to read in a loud voice:
“From his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Untar the Second, greetings unto his Majesty, the King of Baranur, who seeks peace with Us.” Count Tyago paused, took a breath. “Your Count of Connall has presented your case before us, and We have considered it carefully with Our wisest counsellors. We have listened to the Count Connall, and how your Kingdom wishes to avoid war with Our Empire.”
Marcellon grimaced. Luthias would never present Baranur’s case from a point of vunerability. Luthias knew too much about war to do that. Yet, the Empire chose to see it so.
“To end all further uncertainty between Our fair Countries, we have sent to you this gift, which shall clarify Beinison’s intention toward Baranur forever.”
Count Tyago bowed, rolled the parchment, and sent the servant forward to present it to the King. Sir Edward took it, unrolled it, then nodded to Haralan. The Count’s words were accurate. Marcellon looked over at the paper. Still uneasy, still uneasy, a message of peace, and he was still uneasy.
“It seem that your sensible Emperor is friendly to us, your grace,” King Haralan said, his voice laced with magnaminity, to the Count. “Pray, what is the gift you bear us?”
“In truth, your royal majesty, I do not know,” the boy confessed. “But from his Imperial Majesty’s letters to me, I suspect that the Count of Connall deeply impressed him, and he sends this gift partly in esteem of the Count.”
“The young Count Connall has done well,” Haralan pronounced. How a man as young as Haralan could be as pompous as Haralan was sometimes, Marcellon could not fathom. “Bring us the gift.” The servant started forward. “No…” the King changed his mind, “bring it to the Countess Connall, as it was her lord and husband who inspired this gift.” He gestured to Myrande, who sat next to the Duke of Dargon, a mere two seats from Marcellon.
Myrande stood gracefully as the servant approached. She thanked the servant.
Something was wrong. Marcellon gazed at the coffer between her two small, dark hands.
Uneasy, uneasy, what was it that made him so uneasy? “It must be magical, your majesty,” Countess Myrande said to the King. “It is so light.”
“It is a possibility, my lady,” Count Tyago informed her. “Mon-Taerleor, the Emperor’s wizard, is said to have made for his Imperial Majesty this gift for your Kingdom.”
Marcellon stared at the golden coffer, a cube somewhat bigger than a man’s head, in sharper apprehension. Mon-Taerleor: Marcellon knew the name and the man, and raised an eyebrow. Alexander Mon-Taerleor, his old friend: the thought should have comforted him, but it didn’t. Still, despite his ill ease, Marcellon was curious. What would Mon-Taerleor have done to impress a King, to honor young Luthias, the Count of Connall?
Mon-Taerleor. Marcellon almost smiled at the memories of his fellow apprentice, but still, the fear gripped him. Chills of terror coursed through his suddenly and with force. Something was wrong–so wrong!
He reached out and touched the King’s arm–a bold gesture to be performed in Court, even by the High Mage. The King, annoyed, scowled at his advisor. Marcellon shook his head. “Haralan,” he hissed, and the King lost some of his anger to puzzlement; Marcellon almost never called him by name. “Take it from her. Do not make her open it.” Marcellon gazed over at Myrande with uneasy urgency; she was loosening the latch.
For a moment, Marcellon saw Haralan wrestling mentally, wondering if he should reprimand the High Mage. Finally, the King said, “Be easy, Lord Marcellon. It is a gift of peace.”
The Countess’ scream cleaved the exepectant silence of the Court and sliced the rest of Marcellon’s protest from his tongue. The High Mage whirled and saw the white-faced Duke of Dargon swat the golden box from her in a shocked attempt to close the coffer. It flew from Myrande’s hands towards the King.
The box landed on the table before Haralan and his two chief advisors. The gift bounced onto the table and thudded to a halt in front of the King. Stunned, then quickly sad, Marcellon stared into the death-frozen eyes of the Count of Connall.
Pale, Clifton instantly whirled Myrande to him, held her head against his chest. “Don’t look,” Marcellon heard his son-in-law rasp. “He wouldn’t want you to see this.”
Next to the High Mage, the King rose, fury in his movement. “What means this?” the monarch demanded, gesturing to the severed head of his ambassador. “You will pay–”
“Your majesty, he’s only a boy,” Edward Sothos counseled softly. “A pawn…as was Luthias.”
“Remove the Count Tyago,” Haralan ordered angrily. “I will call for him later.” Palid and frightened, the boy-count bowed and left with his attendants and a smattering of royal guards. The King turned to his High Mage. “I should have listened to you, Marcellon.” He sighed, looked at the Count of Connall’s wife. “Remove the Countess.”
Shrilly, Myrande’s voice rose from the depths of Clifton’s arms, “The Countess does not wish to be removed!”
The Court was buzzing, men were moving, and some came forward boldly to see the gift. “There will be war!” the Duke of Northfield cried. “Your royal majesty, you cannot ignore this!”
“No,” agreed the King firmly, “we shall not ignore this. The man who dares treat my ambassador so shall be punished–and promptly.”
“War now!” suggested a Baron, and the cry rose up insanely, “War! War now!”
Again, Myrande’s scream split the air of the great hall: “No!” Startled, the nobles fell into silence. With the strength of shock and pain and anger, she broke Clifton’s strong, frantic grasp and turned to face the court. She had not been unnaturally pale before, but her face was a ghastly grey now, and Marcellon feared for her and the child she carrried. “Do you want that Luthias will have died for nothing? Do you want your sons, your brothers, your grandsons, to die for lack of food or from the cold? Do you damned idiots think that you can fight a war in the winter? The supplies will be blocked, and men will starve and die of disease and frostbite.”
“We can invade Beinison, Countess,” the Duke of Northfield told her in a superior tone. “It is warmer there–”
“Oh, yes, invade the strongest Empire on the continent!” Clifton spat. “Your majesty,” Clifton appealed, turning to the King, “this is what the Emperor wants, that we will enter into this at a foolish time, do foolish things–”
“Do you want your kinsman’s death to go unavenged?” sneered a Baron.
“I have more cause than any of you to wish the bastards who ordered Luthias’ death tortured dead!” Myrande screamed at him. “Yet I do not want a hundred thousand men to die for him because of your stupidity and impatience!”
“Lady, you offend me!” the Baron cried.
“Accept my pity that the truth offends you,” Myrande snapped. “But if we fight Beinison now, we will have two enemies, the Empire and the winter.”
“I demand satisfaction,” the Baron insisted.
“I must agree with the Countess’ view.” The Knight Commander spoke calmly and simply, but he glared at the Baron menacingly. “If you wish satisfaction, you may have it from me at your leisure.”
“I too agree with the Countess and with the Duke of Dargon,” added Marcellon. “We may yet triumph over Beinison, mighty as they are, but over nature, we are powerless.”
The King nodded. “There will now be a true war council, and there will be war,” he announced. “But I will not fight the winter and Beinison both. We shall wait until the spring–and then, death to them all!” A cheer rose. Marcellon frowned at the bloody thirst; he saw Clifton scowl. Myrande looked ill. The King waved at a herald. “Bring before us the Count Tyago.”
Swiftly, the boy was ushered into the court. With nervous quickness, the Count bowed. “You will remain here until spring, in your embassy, under guard” the King announced. “We will not treat the Emperor’s ambassador as shamefully as he treated ours, yet we will allow no communication with your Emperor until you are returned after the thaw.”
“Perhaps, one?” asked a small voice, and the King turned to see Myrande.
The King looked at her, his gaze sorrowful and kind. “What do you wish, Countess?”
Myrande took a deep breath, and stepped forward. “I would wish that the Count Tyago request of his Emperor that Lu–Count Connall’s body be returned to me, that he may be buried beside his father and brother.”
“I do not know if that would be possible in any case, your grace,” the boy-Count said sadly. “I am suprised they bothered to send the head. Usually, the Emperor hangs offenders, slitting their throats, and leaving their bodies to the birds and dogs.”
Myrande groaned, put a hand over her mouth and the other over her belly, and closed her eyes. Marcellon, fearing the worst, moved toward her, but she held up a staying hand and dry-heaved.
“Count Tyago,” said the King omnimously, “you are dismissed.” The boy bowed and left.
Pale and beaten, Myrande came forward. “With your permission, sire,” she whispered, and she reached out for Luthias’ head.
“You shouldn’t do that, Myrande,” Marcellon admonished sternly. The High Mage gestured his son-in-law and the Countess’ cousin Warin forward, then reached out himself to take the head into his hands. For a moment, he stared full into that face, which he had seen animated with life; then, Marcellon placed it gently in the box, closed the eyes, and shut the coffer.
“Let him be entombed in the royal crypt,” declared the King. Impatiently, Haralan whirled and left the hall. Immediately, the herald cried, “The Court of his royal majesty the King is dismissed.”
An eerie stillness, more silent than winter, reigned over Marcellon’s house as the snow continued to fall that night. Clifton had stayed with Myrande, whom they had brought to the High Mage’s home; Marcellon mixed a potion.
Luthias’ head stared up at him from the bluish liquid…
Marcellon cleared his mind again, continued to mix the potion. It boiled over an alcohol burner; the fire was bright.
Again, the Count of Connall’s visage gazed at him, but something was wrong with it.
The High Mage grimaced in an effort to concentrate. The vision cleared. Vision? No, just an image from his memory; it was the head of the Count of Connall, as he had held it between his hands today. Something about it haunted him. The poor boy…poor Myrande.
Yes, Myrande–he had to finish this potion. Carefully, he took a glass rod and stirred it.
Luthias’ face was again in the beaker. Somehow, it seemed incomplete.
This had to stop! Marcellon took the potion from the fire, poured into a goblet half-full with mulled wine.
Within the wine, he saw again the face of Count Luthias Connall.
Determined, Marcellon took up the wine cup and left the room. No matter what, he could not let this memory interfere. He had work to do, magic to plan, a Countess to take care of…
With a soft knock, Marcellon entered Myrande’s chambers. Clifton sat at the table, writing something. She sat, dressed in only a white flannel shift, gazing at the floor. Her face was not hard, or wreaked by pain, nor aflame with fury, but dull, blank. The High Mage frowned. He did not like this.
“Myrande,” he said softly. Myrande looked at him immediately. “Drink this.”
“I don’t want it,” the Countess insisted, keeping her voice low in an effort to disguise her pain. Marcellon sensed it in any case, and the sorrow leaked into her whispered words despite her. “I’m…” She swallowed and looked away.
“Drink, Myrande,” Marcellon insisted. “For the sake of the child you carry. I feared for you today.”
Myrande looked at him, but did not take the goblet. “I’m all right. I’m not dead yet…but they all are, Father and Mother and Uncle Fionn and Roisart, and now Luthias…Luthias…God, it nearly killed me once, when I thought he died at the same time as his brother…I feel like the world is gone.”
Marcellon ached for her, gazed at the cup, and saw Luthias’ head again, as it had stared up at him today when he had replaced it in the jeweled box.
“My family is gone, all of them,” Myrande continued, in a voice stunned and painful. “I have no one..nothing…no where even to live.”
“That is not true,” Marcellon stated flatly. “You are always welcome here in my home, Myrande.”
“And in mine,” Clifton added, rising from the table. “Warin wouldn’t turn you away, and neither would your mother’s kin, the Taladors. In any event,” the Duke of Dargon continued, approaching the Countess, “you have your own home–several.” He handed her a piece of parchment with his great seal upon it.
“What is this?” she asked.
“As Luthias’ child isn’t yet born, Connall, its holdings, the town house in Dargon, and the house here in Magnus revert to me,” Clifton explained.
“I know,” Myrande said dully. “Why else would I not have a home?”
“You have a home,” Clifton assured her firmly. “My father granted that land to Uncle Fionn for him and his children; I grant it to you, Myrande, for you and yours.”
Myrande took a shuddering breath. “My children? What children? How am I ever going to have children? He’s gone,” she sobbed. Determined, she choked it down, but her eyes still held tears.
“Drink this,” Marcellon whispered, and this time, she obeyed blindly. Clifton gestured for the maid, and both men left the room uncomfortably.
When the door was shut, Marcellon saw that his son-in-law was more disturbed than when his cousin’s head had laid before him. The High Mage put a hand on the Duke’s arm. Clifton choked, “She- -it must be worse on her than–I’ve not seen her this close to crying since she was a baby. She has too much pride to weep in front of anyone; I doubt even Luthias has ever seen her cry.”
Marcellon placed a hand on his son-in-law’s shoulder. “Are you all right, Clifton?”
Luthias’ face hid in Clifton’s eyes. “I’m all right, Father. But he was the last of my kinsmen–” The Duke of Dargon stopped, regained his voice. “They were so young. Uncle Fionn was only forty-five, younger than you are.”
“Early death is no uncommon thing,” Marcellon disagreed. “Your father couldn’t have been–”
“That’s different. The Red Plague takes everyone. But Roisart survived it; he was going to be in the university now, learning how to be Baron. Uncle Fionn and Sir Edward wanted to make Luthias a Knight.”
“I know, my son, I know,” Marcellon soothed. “You should rest.”
“No, I think I’d better stay with Sable,” Clifton suggested. “She won’t sleep tonight–”
“No, she will,” Marcellon assured him. “The potion will make her sleep. I’ll not risk her health, nor the babe’s. Trust me, Clifton.”
The Duke of Dargon almost smiled. “I do trust you.”
“Now go,” the High Mage ordered. “You need the rest.” Marcellon jerked his head down the hall. “I had rooms prepared for you.”
“I don’t know if I can,” Clifton confessed. “It’s rather…unnerving to see the man you called your brother…to see him sent home, piecemeal, in a box.”
“If you need it, I shall make you a potion, too,” Marcellon joked lightly. “Now, go to sleep.”
“Yes, Father,” Clifton almost laughed at the imperious tone of the final command, and the Duke of Dargon slipped into his rooms.
The High Mage sighed, stared at the door–
Luthias’ face lurked within the wood.
Damn it all! He could not banish that sight from his mind. And it was not the shock, nor the horror, nor the anger which kept the vision recurring. No, he had seen worse, much worse, in the time when he was in Beinison, learning from the now-dead Styles. No, something nagged him; something was wrong, more than the obvious injustice. Wrong–something was wrong with that head!
Furious at the visions, Marcellon strode to his room. Wrong with it–it was severed from its body, that is what was wrong with it. The life, the animation, was gone from the eyes, the soul from the body– Marcellon threw open the door to his bed chamber, slammed it shut–
The Count of Connall stared at him from a hanging mirror. “Why do you haunt me?” demanded the High Mage in an enraged whisper. He gazed at the head. Something was wrong, missing…
Stubbornly, Marcellon blinked the vision away. Then he turned, lit a candle, and pulled a chair to a nearby table on which sat a bundle of black cloth. Marcellon pulled the velvet away and dusted the crystal ball. “Then show me,” he challenged.
Marcellon gazed at the ball, cleared his mind, and let his eyes, his soul, see only the crystal. Yes, the crystal…then the mist.
The mist cleared, and Marcellon saw a riverbank, in the summer, some people…
Yes, they were closer now. A young man, of twenty perhaps, in riding clothes, brandishing a sword and laughing. Suddenly, Marcellon realized he gazed a younger version of his son-in-law.
There were others with him, two boys and a girl. The boys were tall and slim in the manner of young men growing too quickly. They both looked strong, though one looked slightly more athletic, and the other squinted in the sun. They laughed loudly (though silently, to Marcellon) on the riverbank, and the more athletic lad retrieved a sword from his saddle.
The girl was dark of hair and eyes. She, too, wore riding clothes–boy’s riding clothes–and her figure was just beginning to distort them. Her eyes laughed at the playful challenge that Marcellon knew his son-in-law had issued. The more athletic twin brandished the sword, smiled at the girl, and attacked his Clifton boldly.
Clifton parried well, but Marcellon could tell that only his superior training saved him. The athletic boy was naturally skilled, and somewhat trained beside. He attacked Clifton again. His twin and the girl cheered.
Again, the boy attacked his cousin. Suddenly, his body betrayed him; Marcellon, the physician, recognized the clumsiness of a young man whose body had recently spurted in growth and whose mind had not adjusted completely to the change. He attacked, but missed, and tripped; Clifton swept a blow at him, laughing, and it contacted.
Blood dripped onto the grass. Marcellon could see the girl gasp; she rushed forward, snatching a napkin from the picnic on her way. Quickly, she pressed it to the cut. The boy brushed her away in an effort to be manly about the wound, but kept the handkerchief, quickly soaking the blood, to his head.
Marcellon blinked. The vision had disappeared.
Clifton on a picnic with twin boys: they were Roisart and Luthias, obviously. Younger, perhaps fourteen. So the dark-haired girl of thirteen was Myrande, a younger Myrande who knew no grief for father or mother or uncle or brother or husband.
A picnic on the river…yes, Marcellon and Clifton and Lauren had taken an excursion with Luthias and Myrande to the same place some time that summer. Clifton had said it had been a favorite retreat when they all were boys.
But this vision was merely a dream of childhood. It signified nothing.
Suddenly Marcellon understood. Nothing–that was the problem. There had been *no scar on Luthias’ head*.
Marcellon left the room hastily, intending to ride immediately to the palace. Then a thought overtook him: was it Luthias who had been scarred, or Roisart his twin? It would make sense that Luthias, the warrior, who would have been Knighted, would be the more athletic twin whom Clifton wounded, but still–
One person would know. The High Mage ran to his son-in-law’s suite, and knocked loudly. “Clifton!”
Marcellon entered and asked quickly, “Which of the twins did you cut in a fight?”
The question seemed to startle the Duke. “Both of them, at one time or another. Nothing like what they did to me, though.”
“You went on a picnic, and fought one of the twins. He lost.”
“Oh, that,” Clifton realized. “That was…seven years ago. He was so angry; I’d spoiled his looks.”
“He had a scar.”
“It was Luthias who was scarred?” Clifton nodded. “Where?” demaned the High Mage.
“Over his right eye. He was nervous about it when Sir Edward came to Dargon–”
“Thank you, Clifton,” Marcellon finished abruptly, and he fled the room.
Due to the snow, it took Marcellon much longer than he would have liked to reach the palace. He entered boldly and demanded to see the King and Sir Edward Sothos.
“How is the Countess?” the King asked when he was admitted. Haralan shook his head. “It is all my fault. I should have never sent that young man…and now his lady…”
Marcellon, in his urgency, ignored him. “Where is the Count’s head? I must see it.”
Startled out of his guilt, the King called a servant and sent for it. “Marcellon, I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, your majesty–yet,” Marcellon answered in way of explanation.
“What is wrong?” Sir Edward inquired.
“We shall see,” Marcellon promised, grabbing the jeweled coffer from the swift servant. With all haste, the High Mage opened it, removed the head.
The forehead was smooth and perfect…no scar.
“He has no scar,” Marcellon announced. “Count Connall had a scar over his right eye, and this head has no scar.”
“A scar? I never noticed a scar,” Sir Edward protested.
“It was seven years old, and therefore would have been very light. Truth be told, I never noticed it either,” Marcellon confessed. “But Clifton assured me it was there. It was he himself who made the cut.”
“Perhaps it is healed beyond visibility,” the King suggested.
“I doubt it, your majesty,” Marcellon argued. “The Duke of Dargon told me that his cousin was *scarred.* He bore a scar. And light as it must be by now, I am looking for it, and it is not there.”
“Then this cannot be the Count’s head,” Sir Edward concluded.
“Exactly,” Marcellon confirmed, turning it to examine it. After a minute, the High Mage scowled furiously. “It is a facsimilie–a magical duplicate. Styles taught me how to manufacture these. He taught Mon-Taerleor as well.” The scowl ripened.
“Forgive me,” Sir Edward interrupted. “Marcellon, who is Mon- Taerleor?”
“He and I learned together from Styles,” Marcellon explained. “We were much alike.” We were much alike once, Marcellon corrected himself mentally. The High Mage sighed. Apparently, his friend had changed. “I believe he is now the High Mage for Beinison.”
“I see,” the King murmered. “It seems a wise thing, as he can do things such as this–” he gestured to the man-made head, “–and you cannot.”
“No, your majesty,” Marcellon corrected. “I *will* not, and I *do* not. But I can. I can.” The High Mage swallowed his disbelief. Alexander had not been like this. “He chooses differently than I.”
The three were silent for a moment. “This isn’t the Count’s head,” the King began, “therefore, Count Connall is still alive.”
“I doubt it highly, Haralan,” Sothos countered him softly. “Recall what Count Tyago said. In Beinison, they hang people and slit their throats, and leave their bodies to animals. They’ve done something so horrible to Luthias that there is no body left.”
Marcellon replaced the head in the box and shut it with a disgusted snap. “Yes, they’ve done away with him, and not prettily. The Count of Connall was an expert in things military, and he knew this land. We would be foolish to believe that he was not tortured for information–and the Beinisons do not do such things neatly. The body must be so mangled and scarred that–In any case, that head is not his.”
“We must tell the Countess,” Edward suggested.
“No!” Marcellon countermanded, shocked. “It is bad enough to her that her husband is dead. At least let her believe he died quickly and with some dignity.”
“We shall not tell anyone,” the King commanded. “I will not take the chance of the Emperor discovering our knowledge. But Luthias Connall shall be revenged when we reached Beinison.”
Saddened, the High Mage swallowed and turned away. “‘Peace is despair’d,’” he murmered, thinking of the blood, the blood and the gold and men dying in the snow. “‘….War then, War/Open or understood, must be resolved.’”
“What’s that you’re saying?” the King wondered, his voice sympathetically.
“The words of a blind poet,” Marcellon sighed, “that I read once in my crystal.” The High Mage turned away. “And may God help Beinison–and us.”