Gerthafel, Duke Arvinsosh’s chief Justicer, found the duke’s summer processions to be an odd mixture of light work and festival celebrations. Normally, he spent the summer riding the quarters of the duchy, distributing high justice where it was needed, serving in the duke’s, and when necessary, the king’s stead. But during the duke’s periodic processions his role was more than official. He usually only had to take up his office when a decision by local justicers was questioned by someone of high enough influence in an area the procession was passing through.
It was the second day of the summer festival and the procession was once again lodged at the somewhat excessive Mordairi Holding. Gerthafel’s quarters within the manor house were opulent in the extreme, almost uncomfortably so, but he preferred being able to sleep in a real bed rather than a cot in a tent like the bulk of the personnel on the procession. Mordairi manor was large enough that the senior members of the procession were given their own rooms, while normally everyone but the duke and his personal staff slept in tents set up somewhere on the landholder’s property.
The midday meal had just finished, when a group of seven riders rode up to where the food had been set out on long tables in a cleared field next to the house. They dismounted and walked straight to the duke, one distinguished older man in the lead. That man said, “If it please your grace, I am Franal, Lord of Granavil. I have come looking for the new Mordairi bard; there has been a murder and a robbery at Granavil and we believe that he is responsible.”
Duke Arvinsosh stood and said, “Yes, I remember you, Master Franal. Who has been murdered and what has been stolen?” He turned and scanned the group gathered around the meal until he spotted Gerthafel, whom he motioned over.
“Your grace, it was our resident artist, Eilonvil, who was murdered. And our luck-stone was stolen. The Mordairi bard, Bonavec, visited us yesterday; he seemed quite taken with Eilonvil, who has been mourning the loss of our second son, Derokein, whom she loved deeply. He cheered Eilonvil up greatly, for which we were glad. We gave him a room last night, but this morning we found her dead in the main room, and the luck-stone, a fox-carved fragment of sculpture, was missing.”
Gerthafel took up the questioning. “You are sure that the man was the bard?”
“Well, he said that he was. Why would he lie?”
Gerthafel looked at Master Franal with a steady, knowing look. The man had the decency to look a little sheepish. Gerthafel said, “Well, describe him, just so we can be sure.” The prospective bard for the Mordairi Holding had traveled from Sengintol with them, so he knew what the young man looked like fairly well.
“Ah, he was tall and had brown hair. He dressed in fancy clothes, and played the lute. His eyes were green and he had a big nose, and a scar under his left eye down his cheek. He played like a Master Bard, but he didn’t sing all that well.”
Gerthafel compared the description he had been given and found some discrepancies. Bonavec was tall, brown-haired, green-eyed, and had a large nose. However, he had no scar, played only middling well, and sang like a songbird. Something was wrong.
“Tell me more, Master Franal.” Gerthafel listened to a recounting of the evening meal and Bonavec’s musical performance. Several different versions were given, but all were essentially the same. He wasn’t absolutely certain, but he thought that the man that the Granavil family had entertained was not the young bard Bonavec.
Gerthafel turned to one of the Mordairis and said, “Have you seen your new bard lately?”
“Well, no, I don’t think so,” was the reply.
“When did you last see Bonavec?”
“Yesterday? No, the day before.”
“I don’t suppose he’s here now, is he?”
There was a general scuffle of feet as people looked around for the young man, but he was not among their company. Then, because he was thorough and knew that something was wrong, Gerthafel asked whether anyone else was missing. In all, four people besides the bard were not present. Two were servants of the Mordairis, known to slip away from their work at any and every opportunity. The other two missing people were from among the duke’s party, two sisters named Maeanat and Tironvil. With some difficulty, he recalled that Maeanat — who was with the duke’s personal guard — was tall, green-eyed, big nosed, and bore a scar down one of her cheeks.
With some suspicions building, Gerthafel organized a group of guards to ride back to Granavil Holding. The eight of them, including the duke and Lord Granavil’s eldest son, rode as fast as possible for the neighbor holding; it had already been too long since the robbery and murder to hope for any good clues, but Gerthafel hoped that one of them might be able to pick up the murderer’s trail.
Maeanat took her time getting to the meeting point, obscuring her trail as much as possible. She wasn’t concerned with being found eventually, just as long as she and her sister had the time to enact the charm. After that, being caught wouldn’t matter all that much.
As she rode, she found herself regretting having to kill Eilonvil. Befriending her had been a spur of the moment action; she had been riding around the Granavil manor house to make sure that no one was home before breaking in and stealing the stone, when she had spotted someone in the graveyard. Putting on her Bonavec performance that she had been practicing for weeks, she had gone up and introduced herself as the new bard from the Mordairi holding. She had been surprised at the connection she felt with the grieving woman. Even though she had never met Eilonvil before, she felt like she had known her for years. Even playing at being a young man, she hadn’t found it difficult at all to be a companion to the woman.
The secondary plan — to get the woman to let her into the manor, then slip away and steal the stone — had also been abandoned as it had seemed more natural to slip away into the Granavil lands and spend the afternoon together. Once the two of them had returned to the manor house, it had been relatively easy to continue her role and be the bard for the whole family. Even though she had spent most of her life fighting, first on the streets of Sengintol and later in the service of the duke, she had always had an aptitude for playing music, able to pick up any instrument and with just a little experimentation, play it with ease. This served her well in her charade, and as far as she knew, no one saw her as anyone but Bonavec the bard.
Perhaps she should have waited longer before trying to steal the stone, which had been on the mantel just as she had remembered. But she knew that Tironvil was already waiting at the meeting place, and the sooner they met up the better, which was when Eilonvil had surprised her in the manor house’s main room. The act had been easy, almost unthinking, a product of her upbringing rather than her immediate desires. But she needed time to get away, and a witness to her crime wouldn’t provide nearly enough of that. Whereas with Eilonvil dead and the supposed bard Bonavec missing, suspicion would naturally fall on the group of people at the Mordairi Holding, giving her even more time to get to the Veneletri Stones and enact that charm.
She thought herself fortunate that her ride wasn’t further hampered by the darkness she rode through, but the roadway was clearly if crudely marked and both moons were in the sky providing plenty of light. In due time, she met up with Tironvil at the crossroads as they had arranged and without even a word of greeting, both started off on the next leg of their journey.
As they rode side by side, Maeanat said, “So, Ahnev, did everything go well with Bonavec?”
Tironvil replied, “Oh yes, just perfectly. He never even noticed his missing clothes or instruments. Fortunate, I suppose, that they weren’t his favorite instruments. And he seemed to have no reservations about the story of you wanting to meet him at the Veneletri Stones. But I still wonder whether it was wise to send him there. I doubt he will have stuck around there for so long, since he left for them two days ago, but still, it is some kind of clue as to where we are.”
“Maybe I want them to find us,” said Maeanat. “And it is not as though I know many of the local landmarks after all. It isn’t important anyway, as long as they don’t find us until we’ve completed the charm. And then …”
“Right, and then it won’t matter. *If* the charm and the stones work as promised.”
“Oh, they’ll work. I know it. I *feel* it. Don’t worry, sister. Our future is assured.” And somehow, Maeanat really believed that, as though her entire life had been leading up to this series of events, and soon it would be complete. Nothing had gone wrong yet, and she knew that nothing would. This was their destiny!
Tironvil said for the hundredth time, “We’re lost.”
Maeanat sighed. “Yes, we’re lost,” she answered, trying to restrain herself from hitting her sister.
“How could we be lost?” Tironvil whined.
“Because, Ahnev, I’ve never been here before!” Maeanat shouted.
“Sorry, no need to get angry. But, I thought that you said that it would be a snap to find the Veneletri Stones from anywhere south of the Mordairi and Granavil lands.”
“And I’m sure it would be, if only everyone wasn’t off at their summer celebrations. But we’ll either find the stones or someone to ask directions of eventually. If, that is, I don’t end up killing you before then. So, if you wouldn’t mind, please stop reminding me that we’re lost!”
“I’ll try, sister. I’ll try.”
Even riding as hard as possible, Gerthafel and his group didn’t have very much daylight left by the time they arrived at Granavil holding. The best tracker among them scouted the grounds around the manor house, but didn’t find anything of much promise. Giving up the search for morning, the group entered the manor house. Eilonvil’s body had been wrapped and moved to the salt house, but nothing else had been touched. Unfortunately, a detailed examination of the main room revealed no clues. Neither did the body, save for the knife, which bore the crest of the Sengintol Bardic school. The Granavils invited the duke’s people to supper and to stay the night. There was no entertainment after the meal that night; everyone was eager for morning light when perhaps more clues could be found outside.
Gerthafel was trying to coordinate a methodical search of the grounds around the manor house in the middle of the next morning when a familiar figure rode up on horseback. All of the duke’s men recognized Bonavec, and immediately surrounded him while he was still mounted, swords drawn. The duke called out, “Come down from there, bard Bonavec. We have some questions for you.”
Bonavec dismounted cautiously, confusion evident on his face. The horse was led out of the circle, and the duke’s guards closed in around Bonavec. Then, when some of the Granavil family had come over, cries went up that the man within the circle of swords was not Bonavec.
Gerthafel wasn’t surprised. He questioned the family, and they said that this man was not the one who had visited them two days ago, which Bonavec himself confirmed. The bard told a story, somewhat hesitantly, of being promised an assignation with one of the duke’s guards, named Maeanat, at the local monument called the Veneletri Stones. He had ridden away without telling anyone, waited for a time at the stones, and then started riding back. He had taken a different path on the way back and had ended up at Granavil instead of Mordairi.
Closer questioning revealed that it had been Tironvil, Maeanat’s sister, who had informed the bard of the desired meeting. That answered everything for Gerthafel, except for where the sisters were.
It was the duke who asked, “What if they went to those very stones?”
“Why would they do that?” asked Gerthafel.
“Well, if I recall,” answered Arvinsosh, “the sisters are native to Sengintol. They are not likely to be familiar with local geography, true? Except for such famous places as the Veneletri Stones. So, if they really did want the bard to disappear for a time, to bolster their story, it wouldn’t make much sense to tell him to just travel in some arbitrary direction for some arbitrary number of leagues and wait. And, having sent the bard to the stones, they are likely to believe that we won’t think that they are going there themselves. There you have it.”
Gerthafel couldn’t fault the duke’s logic, even if he didn’t necessarily believe in it. But they didn’t have any other leads, and so within a very short time, there were ten riders racing south for the Veneletri Stones: the original eight, plus Lord Granavil and the bard Bonavec.
Maeanat was not the most pleased of people, but at least she and her sister had finally found the ‘unmissable’ monument of the Veneletri Stones. She was not very happy that it was late in the day, two days after she had acquired the fox-carved stone. It had taken them too much time to find the stones, but now they were here and there were, as yet, no signs of pursuit.
She and her sister rode in among the many rings of standing stones, every other pair of which supported a third stone on top of them. They passed ring after ring, and finally arrived in the center.
There they found a large cleared space, empty except for a single standing stone that seemed to be made of a different material than those in the rings. It was also half-again as tall as the outer stones, and its other obvious feature was a large hole in the center.
Maeanat dismounted, unhooked her saddlebags, and carried them over to the central stone that was known as the Peace Stone, while her sister took care of the horses. Dropping the bags in front of the center stone, she walked around it, marveling at the amazing upright mass of it.
Tironvil walked over and dumped her own saddlebags and a bundle of sticks next to Maeanat’s bags, and as she walked back to where she was working on the horses, Maeanat said, “Do you know the legend of these stones, Ahnev?”
“No, should I?”
“Its a fascinating story, sister,” said Maeanat, running her hand along the smooth edges of the hole in the stone. “A thousand years before the Fretheod conquered these lands, even before Gerolevan existed, there were people here. Small tribes, small by the standards of Sengintol that is, who wandered across these lands trying to survive.
“Two such tribes came into conflict here. They battled over this land, each trying to claim it for their own people. But neither was superior to the other, and the war just continued on and on.
“Eventually, the battle came to be known to a powerful wizard who thought it within his power to halt the war. He kidnapped the families of the rulers of both tribes, and held them for ransom. At first, the tribes’ leaders didn’t believe him but once the wizard had turned both of their fathers into beasts of the field, they gave in.
“The ransom was a pact, signed in blood and binding ’til the end of time. The wizard erected this stone right here, and he told the tribal leaders that they would have to suspend their war until the time when his task was completed. And that task was for them to wear a hole through the stone using no tools, but only the rubbing of their hands.
“With no choice but to obey, the two tribes set to their task. One person from each tribe worked on the stone from either side. Day after day, year after year, the tribes worked at their task. As the years passed, the two tribes began to erect stones in rings around the central stone, capping two with a third stone every fifth year. Stone after stone, ring after ring, and finally, hundreds of years later, the central stone was pierced.
“By then, of course, the two tribes were one. Working together for so long, any differences between them had vanished long since, and been forgotten in the dictates of the task. And that is how the Venel and the Eletri tribes became one, and how this monumental creation came to be.”
“Very interesting, sister,” said Tironvil, “but how does that help us right now? It will be dark shortly; perhaps you could help me light a fire while you contemplate the supposed history of that punctured stone.”
Maeanat made a rude noise, but bent to help her sister. Tironvil had never been much for imagination. The fire was laid and lit, and Maeanat thought all the while about composing a song about the legend. Maybe she would call it ‘Stone of Peace’. She was surprised that no one had set the tale to verse and music yet.
The fire was soon burning well, and Tironvil once again interrupted Maeanat’s thoughts with, “So, could we get this over with? We’ve taken far longer getting here than we should have, and our pursuers could be here any moment.”
“And how do you know there are pursuers? Or that they’re coming here?”
“It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, sister,” said Tironvil. “We’re here, the stones are here, and as soon as we get them bonded together and then bonded to us, the better off we will be. Then it won’t matter whether or not there are pursuers, right?”
“Right, right,” sighed Maeanat. She pulled her saddlebags over, opened the pouches and pulled out both wedge-shaped fragments of stone. Setting them carefully aside, she next extracted a candle and the scroll tube bearing the chant Melajoof had written out. She handed the candle to Tironvil and said, “If you could light this, Ahnev, and hold it over my shoulder so I can read the scroll, I’ll start this ceremony.”
Tironvil took and lit the candle, while Maeanat removed the parchment from the scroll tube. Settling herself comfortably in front of the fire, she dragged the two stones over in front of her. As the gentle glow of the candle appeared over her shoulder, she looked at the carved stones before her. There was something strange about those stones, though. She stared at them, and noticed that it looked like the stone fragments actually belonged together. There were fragments of the limbs of each animal on the other piece of stone, and the bands of weaving looked like they would match up perfectly.
She reached down with her free hand and pushed one stone toward the other. Her sister reached over her shoulder and helped by pushing the other stone as well. They met in the middle, and Maeanat felt a tingle from the stones. Then, with a flash that blinded her momentarily, the two stones fused together. When she could see again, there was only one stone fragment in front of her, with a cat and a fox intertwined, and with fragments of interwoven bands interlaced across the top of them.
“Did you feel that?” asked Maeanat.
Tironvil said, “Yes, I did. Maybe Melajoof was right, maybe there is magic in these pieces of stone.”
“Of course he was right! And that tingle was the stones bonding to us. Now, we just have to read the incantation to reactivate the protective enchantment on the stones, and we’ll be invulnerable, just like that castle they came from. Ready?”
Without waiting for the reply, Maeanat unrolled the parchment and started to recite the incantation. The rhythm of the words felt good to her, like a song, and she almost started singing it but wasn’t sure whether that would harm the spell. She read every word out perfectly, and then let the parchment fall to her lap as she waited for some kind of signal that the spell had worked. She had seen no lights, felt no tingle, but perhaps she had missed them …
“Tironvil, did you feel or see anything?”
“No, Nati, nothing. But it must have worked. Melajoof said it would.”
“You’re right, sister. But, how can we be sure?”
As she pondered a test, she heard a noise from her left. She turned and saw a group of people ride into the center ring. Among them were the duke, the bard, and the duke’s chief Justicer, Gerthafel. It looked like the test had found them.
The duke called out, “Stand fast, you two,” as he dismounted from his horse. All the men with him did the same.
Lord Granavil stepped forward into the firelight and said, “Well, she’s wearing different clothes, and her hair has become lighter, but that is the face, scar and all, that sat at my table and ate with my family. And there on the ground in front of them is what looks like our luck stone. This must be the one who impersonated Bonavec and killed Eilonvil.”
“The evidence is clear,” said Gerthafel. “Do you deny it? Can you refute it?”
The duke said, “Answer!”
Maeanat had risen and her sister stood beside her. She debated constructing a lie, but decided that it was not needed. The stones — stone — protected them now, so there was nothing to fear from the duke and his men. So, she said, “Yes, that was me. But there’s nothing you can do to us now.”
She tilted her head toward her sister and whispered, “Come, sister, let’s run. Upon thought, they could always cage us even if they cannot hurt us with weapons.”
Tironvil nodded, and Maeanat stooped quickly, scooped up the unified stone, and said, “Now!”
She turned and ran, sensing her sister half a pace behind her. Shadows from the fire showed the duke’s men chasing them, but the stones were very close and if she and her sister could reach them, surely they could make good their escape.
She felt the steel enter her back just as she was about to step beyond the inner ring of stones. She heard Tironvil cry out beside her, and at that moment knew that Melajoof had fooled them for a final time. And she had been sure, so sure!
Gerthafel stood over the bodies of the two sisters, wondering why they had run. How could they have hoped to get away? And what had Maeanat meant by ‘there’s nothing you can do to us now’?
The duke stepped up beside him and said, “Now that’s the kind of justice I like: swift and sure. I can’t believe that the palace sheltered such as these.”
As Arvinsosh walked away again, Gerthafel bent and took the stone from Maeanat’s dead hand. It was a fine piece of sculpture, if fragmented, done in excellent Gerolevan style. He wondered what it was, and where it had come from.
He turned from the bodies with the stone in his hand, and decided that it didn’t matter. As the duke had said, justice had been done. He just hoped that this incident wasn’t an example of what this season’s ducal progress was going to be like.