Roisart Connall watched silently as his cousin, Clifton, Duke of Dargon, donned elaborate Bichanese armor with the adept assistance of Ittosai Michiya. The Castellan of Connall already was prepared for the impending battle. Roisart’s twin brother, Luthias, armored like a hero of old, stood nearby, his sword already in his hand. Coolly, Roisart cast an appraising eye on his cousin’s armor. “It’s really beautifully-made,” Roisart concluded.
“It is Bichu’s finest,” Castellan Ittosai announced proudly. He finished armoring the Duke, then put on his own stout helm. “I am ready for whatever comes,” the castellan said.
Luthias nodded respectfully to his castellan, warned, “We’d better go,” and cast a nervous look over his shoulder at the white wall. Despite the concern flooding his face, Luthias looked brilliant, brave, like a knight in a legend. He wore his father’s battle-scarred armor and bore his family’s crest into war. His weapon, a fine steel sword, was worthy of a king. He gripped it more firmly, ready for whatever fighting would come.
“You are right, Luthias-san,” Ittosai concurred. He hefted his katana. “This will not be an easy battle.”
Nodding, Clifton reached out to his young cousin, Roisart and grasped his shoulder. “Get the defenses ready. You’ll be safe here in Dargon Keep, but they may attack the city any day now .” A sorrowful look swept Clifton’s features. “And take care of Lauren.”
I didn’t know Roisart knew Lauren, Luthias thought, then wondered at his own idea. How could Roisart not know Lauren, their cousin’s wife, the Duchess of Dargon? Roisart was at the wedding. He must have been.
Roisart gripped Clifton’s arm. “Be careful, Clifton.” Roisart released the Duke, then turned to his brother, his twin.
“Luthias…” Roisart paused awkwardly. Of the twins, Roisart usually had an easier time with words, with expressing feelings. Finally, he said, “Don’t worry, twin. Everything will be well. I’ll take care of the Duchy, and Sable’s quite capable of taking care of our barony–and herself.” Again Roisart paused, but this time he shook his head sadly. “You should have married her. The Baron of Shipbrook wants to marry her to Oleran now. You shouldn’t have let him have the chance; you should have married Sable yourself.”
Upset that Roisart should throw this in his face, and angry that there was nothing he could do about the situation anyway, Luthias closed his eyes briefly. The sword trembled in his grip. “She’s in love with someone else.” Fury tainted Luthias’ words. “And she won’t say–”
“Come on, manling,” Clifton ordered suddenly. Luthias knew that Clifton was trying to sound light-hearted, but the words were rough, impatient, angry. Luthias let the ‘manling’ go, nodded a final farewell to his twin and joined his cousin and his castellan. Together, the three threw open the gates of Dargon Keep.
Surrounding the walls were a hundred thousand men–the King’s army.
Ittosai vanished, as if he had been merely a figure in a dream. A knife suddenly flashed past Luthias’ eyes and embedded itself in Clifton’s gut. The Duke of Dargon fled desperately, pursued by countless, faceless soldiers. For a moment, Luthias froze so completely that he knew it couldn’t be natural; in that moment, strong, bodiless arms secured his limbs, threw him to the hard ground, and held him fast. He watched them; they were ripping his chest plate with knives. Soon, blood covered his armor, and his kinsman Clifton sprinted past, his belly wound belching blood.
Luthias tried to move to help his cousin, but the hold was iron-strong. And there was a pain, an annoyance, a torture. The butchers were hacking at his chest.
“Luthias, help me!” Clifton yelled, frantic.
Luthias could see him bleeding, his life soaking into the earth. Anguished, Luthias cried, “I can’t!”
“Help me! HELP ME!”
Luthias almost wept; he couldn’t move, he couldn’t help as the King’s guards caught his cousin and threw him to the ground. But Clifton rose again and sprinted.
And there was pain again, horrid pain. Luthias looked at his chest. It was open, and the butchers no longer used knives, but their own, dirty hands. With bloodied, muddy fingers, they tore at his ribs.
And there was no one to help but–
“Roisart!” Luthias called. “Help me! I need you!”
Somewhere above him, in the castle window, Luthias saw his brother, no longer a healthy young man, but a specter of death–gray-faced, two black bolts sticking from his side and chest. The specter shook his head sadly. “I can’t help you anymore, twin,” Luthias heard his brother say regretfully, and then, Roisart, too was gone.
“Roisart!” Luthias cried out in horror. The apparition did not return. His physical pain increased when his anguish did; both were now sharp. Luthias saw chunks of red fly past his eyes as the butchers clawed at him.
And Clifton went past Luthias again, running for his life. Desperately, Luthias struggled, but the grip was too strong. “Clifton, run!”
“Luthias, help me HELP ME!”
“I can’t reach you!” Luthias almost sobbed. “Run!”
A wave of pain claimed Luthias then, strong as thunder, sharp as lightning. For a moment, the world before his eyes blackened. From above, Luthias saw himself, his chest opened like a poisonous flower, and the butchers’ hands were tugging on his aorta. The veins around his heart were stretching–thE PAIN!
The pain returned him to his body. Blood, his own blood, spurted in his eyes. He could scarcely breathe.
“Luthias, where are you?” his cousin called from somewhere. “I need you!”
Luthias tried to scream. The pain was incredible. He couldn’t breathe.
“thEY’RE TEARING MY HEART OUT!”
Then the pain vanished, and the butchers faded as Ittosai had. Luthias found himself looking at Sable. Her hands held his heart in place. Luthias closed his eyes, tried to regain his strength.
“You’re mine now, woman!” and the pain returned with that declaration, made by a vaguely familiar voice. Luthias opened his eyes. Baron Oleran–that son of a –was holding Sable, viciously ripping her gown off, hitting her. She cried out. Blood geysered from her temple, spilled into her hair: on a field sable, blood gules. Oleran hit her again and laughed at her pain.
“Luthias!” she cried, trying to reach him.
Luthias tried to move, tried to help her, but the butchers were back, playing catch with his disembodied heart. They laughed, throwing it to each other, as it pumped Luthias’ life blood onto the dusty ground.
And then he saw Clifton, dead, his body being dissected before the King of Baranur. Someone was binding Ittosai’s arms behind his back. Marcellon tried to cast a spell, tried to help them all, but the magic was gone; nothing happened. Not far from Luthias’ own, stone body, Oleran beat and raped Sable. Oleran held a sword, moved to kill her–
“Sable!” Luthias screamed, bolting to a sitting position. “SABLE!”
And Luthias awoke, sitting, gasping in reality. Frantic, his hand felt at his chest; it was smooth, intact, and the heart still within it beat wildly.
It was a dream, he realized, only a dream. There was no battle; he was in the bedroom of his keep. Clifton was alive and well in his own keep, two hours’ ride away. Sable slept unharmed not forty feet down the corridor. Ittosai, free and safe, dreamed peacefully in the castellan’s rooms downstairs. And Roisart–Roisart lay dead in the crypts far below.
Only a dream, and nothing had changed. Roisart was dead, Luthias was Baron of Connall, and he was alone.
No, not alone. The door to his bedchamber slammed open, and someone bearing a pole weapon was standing, battle-ready,in the doorway. Behind the intruder were two others, equally alert, bearing swords.
Automatically, Luthias tensed with the reactions of a long-time warrior. As his eyes adjusted, his hand began to creep toward the blade kept beside his bed.
Then he recognized the closer visitor: Sable.
Luthias tried vainly to slow his breathing. To the guards, he said, “I’m all right, men. Bad dream. Return to your posts, and thank you.” The guards exchanged a shrug, nodded respectfully to their lord, and left.
Still panting, Luthias tried to laugh at the armed woman before him. “Here you are, taking care of the Baron again.”
The Baron of Connall again tried to slow his breathing as his seneschal came forward and sat on the bed. She looked as if she had been on her way to bed; her hair was partially unbound, and she was clad in nothing but a gauzy nightdress made to be worn in the kind of raging heat that had been eclipsing Dargon of late. As she set her weapon against the bedpost, Luthias looked intently at her face. She glanced around the room, as if confused.
“I thought you were being attacked,” Sable said. “You were screaming–”
Luthias scowled: pole weapon! It was a naginata, a weapon of Bichanese origin, a gift from Ittosai Michiya to Myrande, and the castellan had been instructing the seneschal in its use. Michiya had told Luthias just yesterday that she was becoming quite a she-demon with it. Oh, he understood, and it angered him. Sable had not come only to take care of him, but to defend him, with her life. The Baron scowled again. What the hell did she think they paid the guards for?
Finally, Luthias sighed, half-amused, half-despairing. He touched her hair, almost laughed. “Are you my bodyguard now, too?”
“I was closer than the guards,” Myrande explained. “You sounded like you were in trouble.”
“Quit babying me,” Luthias snapped defensively. “I’m strong enough to defend myself; I don’t need a woman to do it for me.”
“I am your friend,” Myrande returned angrily. “You would do the same for me. And don’t give me that stupidity about my being a woman. Macdougalls says I’m a better shot than half your archers, and with this–” she indicated the naginata– “I could destroy seven men together before they even got a shot at me.”
Unfortunately, she was right: Macdougalls, the assistant castellan, had praised Myrande’s archery, and Ittosai Michiya had told him already about her skill with the naginata. He shook his head and looked at her in the moonlight: a dark, disheveled, fierce woman, clothed in an almost indecent nightgown that clung in some places to her sweaty skin…Luthias felt his body tense, but he smiled, wondering if there were any woman more attractive in the Kingdom–
And then the dream returned, and the young Baron groaned and put his head in his hands. Sable put her hand on his hair; it was damp with sweat from the horrid heat of reality, from the hot horror of the dream. Gently, she stroked his head. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked softly.
Censoring selected episodes, such as Roisart’s advice and the later rape, he related what he could remember of the nightmare.
“Those letters really bothered you, didn’t they?” she asked, concerned. “More than you wanted to admit.”
Luthias attempted to smile. “Sable, you could always see through me.”
“That isn’t true,” Sable claimed, moving back a little to look at him. “And it isn’t an answer, either.”
The young Baron’s expression changed from one of bitter amusement to one of grim anger. “You’re damn right they bothered me. First, I’m informed by the Justices that I am now Duke’s Advocate. Now, I’ve got to be in Dargon City half my time, prosecuting criminals before the Tribunal–and I’m not skilled at law. Now, besides court time and traveling, I’ve got to do more reading. As if I didn’t have enough to do!”
“Don’t yell at me,” Sable protested. “I’m on your side, remember? If anyone knows how hard you work, I do, Luthias.”
Luthias smiled. She worked as hard–harder–than he did. “I know, Sable, and I’m sorry. But I’m overloaded as it is, and now this aggravation–”
“Speaking of which,” Sable prompted, thinking of the second missive that had arrived that day, “no one is better at aggravation than my uncle.”
“Yes, your stupid uncle, who never showed the slightest interest in you now wants to arrange your marriage.” Luthias’ mouth tightened. “That’s bad in itself–I don’t trust a man who would throw his brother out of his barony for no reason.”
“There was a reason,” Myrande corrected. “He threw my father out because he married my mother before my uncle got the chance.” She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. My father was happier being Castellan for your father and knight to the late Duke.”
“Well, he threw your father out, pretended he and your mother and you never existed, and now, he wants to want to marry you to Oleran–do you know what kind of man he is?”
Myrande nodded. “I’ve heard the rumors.” There were many rumors–nothing concrete–about Oleran, an older Baron from a neighboring Duchy. It was said almost universally that he was a brute, a killer, that he enjoyed others’ pain, and tortured his first wife until she died. Sable shuddered. “You know I wouldn’t marry him to save my life.”
“Yes, I know,” Luthias confirmed, and his voice left no room for argument. “I forbid it.”
Sable chuckled. “You forbid, Luthias?”
“I’m your guardian until you become twenty-one in Deber, and by law and by God, I forbid it!” Luthias snapped. “I’d rather murder Oleran and be imprisoned in the Keep for the rest of my life than have you marry that monster.”
“Don’t worry,” Sable advised him. She reached out and stroked his forearm. “I won’t marry Oleran, or anyone else, for that matter–” She stopped, pulled her hand away.
“I really should arrange a marriage for you,” Luthias sighed, as if he regretted the situation. “Your uncle is right about that.” Impulsively, he grasped her small hands. “Sable, tell me who this man is that you love. You might as well marry someone you care for.” He squeezed her hands imploringly and peered at her dark face in the dimness. “Please…your uncle threatened to wrest your guardianship from me.”
Sable shook her head. “No. If he comes around on his own, all will be well, but I won’t beg him to love me or be forced on him, as you seem to want, or sold to him like a horse, as my uncle prefers.”
“You’re too proud for your own good,” Luthias accused her angrily. “You should just tell him–”
“And gain his pity? No,” Myrande answered firmly, her chin stubborn. “I don’t want your pity.” She paused, as if finished, then added, “Or–his.”
“He’d be crazy if he pitied you,” Luthias returned hotly. “Crazy if he didn’t accept you and marry you–”
For a wild, brief moment, it seemed like Roisart was there, and Luthias heard his words of the nightmare: “You should have married her yourself.” Luthias sighed. The thought had crossed his mind before. He cared for Sable, and she for him; they got along well, and she would be an excellent Baroness. Looking at her again, in that sheer nightgown, Luthias found the idea appealing beyond its practical aspects.
But she would never accept him. Sable had always been proud, and Luthias knew she would never accept his proposal, which she would think was made out of pity. Luthias grimaced. He didn’t pity her; he loved her–she was his best friend–and he only wanted her to be happy. And so would the man she loved. Or else.
If he could ever find out who he was!
Oh, she was impossible! Luthias sighed and decided to end the argument. Not tonight, his head ached to much to argue with someone as iron-headed as Sable. He forced himself to laugh, then he hugged his seneschal. “Sable, what am I ever going to do with you?”
Sable withdrew a little from his impulsive embrace. “I’ll stay here and be your seneschal, Luthias, same as always.”
“You deserve better than to be toiling like a slave for the rest of your life.”
“So do you,” Sable countered, “but it seems the Tribunal won’t to let you get away with it.” She drew a deep breath. “You should be going back to sleep, Baron.”
“Back to sleep?” Luthias echoed incredulously. “In this heat? After that dream?” The Baron of Connall shook his head. “No, thanks, Sable.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed.
“Going to read in the study?”
“No, that would probably put me back to sleep,” Luthias quipped. He stretched his arms above his head. He looked at her and decided not to look at her again until morning. He needed to move. “I’m going to go out and beat up the pell–can’t do it during the day in this heat.” He stood, looked back at Myrande’s dark eyes; yes, that was safe enough. “And tomorrow, we’ll go see Clifton.”