“Where’s the Duke?” Myrande demanded, her face ashen. The blue ball room of Dargon Keep was in chaos; the body of Roisart Connall lay in state across the room, where dancers would have rather stepped. Next to Roisart’s corpse was a golden box inlaid with jewels. The Countess of Connall felt tears on her cheeks. That box contained Luthias’ head.
Myrande was tired; she had ridden in haste from Connall when she heard the news that the twin lords of Connall had been murdered at the Melrin Ball. She would see Roisart and Luthias–oh, God, Luthias dead!–buried this before the next sunset.
“Here, Sable,” said Clifton, Duke of Dargon. He reached out to hold her. His wife, Lauren, stood by his side. She put a hand on Myrande’s shoulder in an effort to comfort her.
“How did it happen?” she asked incoherently, clinging to Clifton as if he were her only link to life.
“I don’t know. When we looked, Luthias’ head was cut clean off.”
“Myrande, quickly!” the Countess of Connall heard someone call her. Suddenly, it became Marcellon’s voice. “Your husband still lives!”
Myrande hastily severed Clifton’s embrace and followed the voice of the High Mage, Marcellon.
She found herself in a white-washed room. She was seated next to a large, four-poster bed. Sir Edward, the Knight Commander of the Royal Armies, stood at the foot of the bed, looking gravely concerned. The shocked Duke of Pyridain, whom she had met once or twice at the war council, stood across from her.
In her bed lay her husband, as she had never before seen him: haggard, bearded, and pale as death. But he was breathing, shallow noisy breaths. He was breathing!
“But the Count of Connall–” the Duke of Pyridain began, his voice incredulous at the miricle.
“Is he going to be all right, Marcellon?” she heard Sir Edward say, as if he were quite a distance from her and as if he had spoken underwater. “Will he live?”
Myrande awoke. She stared into the darkness of the room in her townhouse in Magnus where she had been sleeping, then abruptly sobbed. Her husband, she knew, was dead, and the only chance of her seeing him alive again was in her dreams.
I spread the maps before the Duke of Pyridain and Marcellon. “These are the fortifications, your excellency,” the Duke explained to me, pointing. “Beyond them are farms, a few villages.”
“They’ll be in danger once Beinison invades,” Marcellon murmered, running his finger along the lines of the fortifications. “We should do something about that.”
“I have some of my men out training the militia,” I assured the High Mage. “I’ve set every blacksmith for miles to making swords and armor. We’ll see if we can’t get some better defenses, however. This Duchy will be the first attacked.”
“Indeed, your excellency,” Pyridain agreed sadly. I felt for him, that his home would be the first place ravaged by this war. No, second: Connall was the first, losing father and sons, making orphans and widows before the war even started. “My castle shall of course be difficult to take, but the countryside…”
“I shall do all I can,” I promised. “The army under my command here should suffice until spring. We don’t expect an attack until then.”
Marcellon laughed at me, the wisdom of a teacher in his tones. “We did not expect many things that Beinison has already done. Expect everything, Edward. It is better to be disappointed than suprised.”
“As you say, old man,” I replied, and Marcellon laughed again. Although old enough to have been my father, the High Mage appeared close to my own age. “A winter attack? It would be extremely difficult, but it is possible,” I conceded. “I shall send out scouts when they arrive next week.”
One of my younger squires burst into the room without so much as a knock. “Courtesy!” I shouted at him angrily. “Knock on a closed door, sirrah. Knights do not burst into closed rooms.”
“Your pardon, Sir Edward,” the boy apologized. “A sick man has just arrived at the castle–”
“In this storm?” I challenged, motioning to a window shaking with wind and sprayed with driven snow.
“Aye, Sir Edward. He’s very ill, and we need the High Mage. He’s half-frozen and speaks like a madman.”
“Bring him to the guest room,” Pyridain ordered. “The High Mage will see him there.”
“I shall go fetch my things,” Marcellon promised, rising. “And start water heating. He’ll be cold,” the Royal Physician surmised dryly, listening to the high winds of the blizzard.
“Who is he?” I asked my squire as the High Mage rushed from the room.
“I do not know him, my lord. But even in his madness, he speaks as an educated man.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“A noble?” Pyridain speculated.
“He would have to be one of your barons, then,” I replied.
“One of my barons?” echoed the Duke. “In such a blizzard?” He looked toward a window, where snow whirled as if caught in some mad dance. “It would be terrible news, then, to warrant sending a nobleman out on this day.”
Terrible news, indeed. I thought about what Marcellon had just said about winter attacks. “We’d best go see him, your grace.”
I followed Pyridain through the chilly halls of his castle. The corridors twisted like heat-crazed snakes; no enemy would find his way easily in this keep! Finally, I caught sight of Marcellon slipping into a room. Pyridain motioned me toward the heavy door.
I was greeted by a mumbling voice, hauntingly familiar, and I saw Marcellon slowly set his leather bag on a bedside table. He looked at me, and in his eyes was a rare thing: absolute suprise. The High Mage glanced at the servants and my squires, who had brought the water. “Send them away,” he ordered me.
I am first and most a soldier; I know a command when I hear one. Marcellon’s voice had forbidden arguement or question. I jerked my head toward the door, and my squires bowed and removed themselves. After a gesture from Pyridain, the servants did the same.
“Edward,” Marcellon called me, his voice odd as he sat slowly next to the patient, “come here and see him.”
The Duke of Pyridian and I approached the bed. At the foot, I caught glimpse of the man. He seemed tall, though it was difficult to tell with the blankets, and thin, although he could have been quite muscular if he hadn’t been underweight. His face was gaunt and bearded, his skin grey, and his hair dark with a hint of red racing through it. Abruptly, he opened his eyes and stared, unseeing, at me.
I gasped and took a step backwards. I knew this man; I knew his face. I had last seen it lifeless and disembodied. “Luthias?” I breathed, staring at first at the man who would have been my squire, then at my friend the High Mage.
It was impossible that he could be alive! Impossible that he could be alive like this! But then, the gods granted miricles, and I was glad to see him. Luthias was a brilliant fighter–a good strategist. When I first saw Luthias, so long ago when I visited Lucan Shipbrook, I knew Luthias was going to be invaluable to the army. For that–and for what he could have been–I regretted his death–or what I thought was his death. But he was here, alive, and I needed brilliant fighters.
Pyridain went around the other side of the bed. “I recognize him,” he muttered at Marcellon, who was, like me, gazing at the man. “Did I meet him at the War Council?”
“I believe you met him at Duke Dargon’s trail,” Marcellon confirmed. “He is the Count of Connall.”
“The Count Connall?” Pyridain denied incredulously. Marcellon was staring at young Luthias. He held up his hand, as if to quiet the Duke. “But the Count Connall–”
I knew what he was thinking; the Count Connall’s head had been sent back to the King in a golden box. I knew, for Marcellon had told me, that head was false, but I had never suspected that Luthias somehow had lived. Still, alive he was, and I needed him. “Is he going to be all right, Marcellon? Will he live?”
“Damn it! I cannot reach her!” Marcellon exploded abruptly.
“Who?” Pyridain demanded.
“Myrande.” At Duke Pyridain’s confusion, the High Mage explained, “The Countess. She surely has a right to know that her husband is still alive.”
“How?” Pyridain made his second demand. “I saw that head.”
“Yes, and I knew it to be a fake,” Marcellon revealed to him. The High Mage reached out and felt the Count’s sweaty forehead. “This is Luthias, the Count of Connall, and he is alive.” He reached for Luthias’ thin hand and searched for his pulse. “Quick and thready. Not good.” Marcellon continued his examination, looked up, and asked me, “What’s that in the corner?”
“His clothes, I suspect,” I answered, looking myself at the haphazard pile that I supposed my squires had created.
“Search them. Perhaps–” I nodded and began. “There is no reason for this,” Marcellon was muttering. “He has no fever. There are no chills. He does not have the Plague or the ague or…”
“Could it be something rare?” the Duke suggested.
“I have only eliminated the Red Plague,” Marcellon told him. Then suddenly: “Good God!”
I turned from the ragged pile to look. In order to listen to Luthias’ breathing, I suppose, Marcellon had pulled the blankets from his chest. A den of serpents, burn scars, squirmed on Luthias’ chest. I grimaced, but shrugged. “If you think they didn’t torture him, you’re an old fool.”
Marcellon frowned, but nodded and continued his examination. “Yes,” the mage muttered. “I should have known. I had hoped…but then, I know that Empire. They are not a gentle people.”
I returned to the clothes, dirty and frozen with snow. “Look,” I said, holding up the cloak. “It’s a Beinison soldier’s.”
“He had to escape somehow,” Marcellon returned briskly, without pausing in his examination. “I do not like this. It looks to be a reaction, but I can find no reason for it. He isn’t injured–”
A heavy pouch dropped onto my feet as I held Luthias’ too small tunic high. From it seeped some blue powder. “Marcellon,” I spat angrily, “perhaps I have found your reason.” The High Mage whirled; I lifted the bag. “Could this be ardon?”
Marcellon ripped the leather pouch from me and opened it. “It is ardon!” he cried. “He’s withdrawing.”
I scowled and marched toward the fireplace. I hadn’t known Luthias Connall long, but I thought I had known him better than that. Ardon robbed one of control over mind and body. Luthias surely knew this. Why a warrior of his calibur and his sense of honor would indulge in taking ardon I didn’t know, nor could I comprehend if I knew it. I needed him. And yet he does this!
I heard Marcellon mutter something, and my hair stood on end. As if he had heard my thoughts–and sometimes, Marcellon could–the High Mage said, “Don’t hold him responsible, Edward. Luthias would never take ardon of his own will. And this,” he indicated the bulging bag, “is magicked. There is no way he can cease taking this and live.” Marcellon frowned, but his face seemed more confused than displeased. “There is only one living being besides me who has the power and the knowledge to do this.”
“Styles?” Duke Pyridain asked, naming Marcellon’s teacher.
“Styles is long dead,” Marcellon corrected. “It was he who taught me…” The High Mage sighed heavily. “It was he who taught my fellow apprentice, Mon-Taerleor.”
“The Beinisonian High Mage,” I accused.
Marcellon put a little of the ardon on his finger. “The same. My friend, Alexander Mon-Taerleor.” Gently, he put his finger in Luthias’ mouth. “Easy,” he soothed the Count quietly. “Easy. You will live.”
The Duke of Pyridian was shaking his head. “What is happening to our young men?” he asked sorrowfully. “First, my son and Princess Lysanda. Now, the young Count.”
I clenched my jaw. I agreed with Marcellon: Luthias Connall would never take ardon–magicked ardon at that!–of his own volition. But what had happened to Cydric Ariosto was Cydric’s–and Lysanda’s–own doing. They did not deserve to be compared.
Marcellon glanced at the Duke. “The Count Connall will need hot food, broth if we have it, and quickly. Would you see to it, your grace?” The Duke looked confused, but nodded and left the room. Marcellon watched the Duke leave, then he answered my questioning face. “I do not want strangers here when Luthias awakes.”
“There is nothing we can do to free Luthias from the ardon? Marcellon,” I coaxed, squatting next to him, “I need him. I need him to be a Knight. The war–”
The High Mage looked at me sadly. “Edward, there is nothing.”
I snorted with contempt. “You cannot make me think that the great wizard Styles would teach you how to make this poison and not teach you to cure it!”
“That is exactly what he did,” Marcellon returned curtly. He grinned with a trace of bitterness. “I suspect he was keeping the cure to himself, in case he ever needed to use it on me or Mon-Taerleor.”
“There must be a way.”
“If there is, I do not know it.”
The bed shook as Luthias coughed. I stood. Marcellon turned to his patient. The Count Connall slowly opened his eyes and stared into the face of the High Mage. “Marcellon?” I knew that Marcellon smiled at him, although I couldn’t see it. Luthias looked at me. “Sir Edward.”
“I am here,” I replied, although that much was obvious.
“Where are we? Magnus?” the Count Connall asked weakly, closing his eyes.
“No, Pyridain,” I told him. “You are in the Duke’s castle.”
“Thank God,” he groaned. “I’d die if Sable saw me like this, with the–” He abruptly turned to Marcellon, and his eyes were angry and accusing. “You gave it to me, didn’t you!” he screamed. “You bastard!” And the young Count began coughing again.
“I saved your life,” Marcellon snapped.
“I would be better off dead!”
“Don’t say that!” I admonished him quickly. “Never say that.”
“It’s true,” Luthias argued bitterly. “Do you know what they have done to me? Do you know what I have done? Do you know what they did to me in Beinison?”
“That’s a good place to begin,” placid Marcellon tried to calm him. “Tell us. What happened when you arrived in Cabildo?”
“They threw me into prison. They took Sable’s portrait.”
Marcellon shot a concerned glance at me. I had an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. A man with the power of Mon- Taerleor, a man who would torture another with a magicked drug, in possesion of a portrait of Lady Myrande?
Marcellon composed his face instantly and quipped, “What a novel way to receive an ambassador. How long did they torture you?”
Luthias looked away. “You’re so certain they did?”
“I saw the scars,” Marcellon answered, his voice level. “How long did they torture you before giving you the ardon?”
“Ardon?” Luthias asked mildly, looking the High Mage in the eye. “So that’s what it is. I had wondered.” The Count of Connall sighed deeply. “They tortured me a few weeks, perhaps…I’m not sure. I lost the time in the prison.” A shadow filled his eyes. “And then they put the blue spice in my food. It drove me mad, and I knew I would die without it.”
“Unfortunate,” Marcellon muttered.
Luthias looked sad and scared and stunned, then he abruptly stared at me. “Sir Edward,” he began urgently, “They were questioning me about the fortifications along the Laraka River. I didn’t break under the torture. Of that I can give you my word. But the blue spice–the ardon–I was going mad–I don’t remember what I told them, whether it was fact or fiction, but I told them anything to get the blue spice.”
The Laraka? Damn! That means–
And Luthias finished my thoughts: “They’re probably planning to come down the river into Magnus.”
“I’ll send Sir Ailean,” I promised, swallowing. Beinison would attack Shark’s Cove and send ships down the Laraka! The High Mage had been right: expect the unexpected. Now we would have two lines to fight: one in Quinnat, one here in Pyridain.
Luthias turned his face from me. “I am sorry, Sir Edward.”
“There was nothing you could have done, Luthias,” I tried to comfort him. Something in his eyes made me think that nothing, no one, could console the young Count.
“I don’t know how I managed to get out of there,” Luthias continued, shaking his head. “I don’t remember very much at all.” His jaw twitched, and he dully held out his hands. “There was a man…I murdered him…for his gold…and the ardon.” He stared blankly at his hands, hands that had murdered. “My wedding ring is gone,” he noted without feeling. “I wonder what happened.”
“Luthias,” I choked. This man was to have been a Knight! In its truest sense, Luthias Connall would have been a Knight. And now this! Marcellon closed his eyes.
“And there was a woman, later,” the Count of Connall continued. “I don’t remember her name, nor her face. But if I didn’t–she kept the ardon away until I did, until I couldn’t help it.”
The High Mage’s eyes snapped opened angrily. “There’s a name for that, you know,” he snarled, fury in his voice.
Luthias didn’t face him. “I know: adultery,” he supplied, his voice hollow and devoid of interest.
“No,” Marcellon corrected crisply, “I’d call it rape.”
The young, sick Count looked at the wizard with shock in his eyes, and then he continued. “I don’t remember what happened after I managed to leave her.” Connall sighed. “I remember running.”
“You’re safe now,” I assured him, taking a step closer. “We’ll take you back to the King, back to Myrande–”
“What? Sable? No!” he cried out. “Go back to her? Go back?” He stared at me, bewildered and pained. “My God, Edward! I’ve betrayed my country, betrayed my wife–Oh, God–oh, God– why didn’t I die?” Luthias screamed finally, burying his head in his hands. “Why didn’t I die?”
I could stay no longer. I am a warrior, bred and raised, and I have seen death more times than I can remember. I know death; I have watched my friends butchered and bleeding in battle, and when they finally expired, there has been rejoicing in the heavens to receive their valiant spirits.
But when a man such as Luthias, a man young and brave and honorable, is trapped in a living death such as this, even the war-god would weep.
Marcellon watched Sir Edward quietly leave, then he reached out to young Connall. “Easy,” whispered the High Mage. “All is not yet lost.”
Luthias slowly lifted his head. He coldly demanded, “How can you say that?”
“I can enchant the ardon. I can keep you alive.”
Luthias leaned back on the bed. “I need it, then, to stay alive?” Marcellon looked at the bare white wall. “That woman told me if I stopped taking the blue spice I would die. I hoped that she was lying.”
It was several moments before the High Mage returned his gaze to Luthias. “She spoke truth,” Marcellon admitted heavily.
“There is no cure?” Luthias asked.
“None that I know. But I will search for one.”
Luthias sighed once, then looked in the wizard’s eyes. “Then promise me something, Marcellon.”
“What do you want?” the physician inquired compassionately.
The young Count took a deep breath. “If after a fortnight you cannot find a cure for me, I want…” Luthias closed his eyes, unable to face the High Mage, and took a deep breath. “I want you to give me poison.”
“Poison?” Marcellon leapt from the bed. “You wish to kill yourself? What about the war? What about Myrande?”
“How can I face Sable after what I’ve done?” Luthias countered. “How could I ever face the King? God only knows what I’ve told the Beinisonians! No, Marcellon, I’d rather die than live like this. And Sable deserves much better than me.” Luthias stared into space. “If you only knew what it was like, Marcellon, to be like this. I don’t know when my mind will leave me, when I’ll do something I would never even consider doing when I’m sane. I’ll murder…I’ll…” Connall faced the High Mage. “I’m not…I’ll never be a Knight now. How could Sir Edward ever knight me? How can I be a decent husband for Sable? I can’t even control myself anymore, Marcellon.”
The High Mage took a deep breath and exhaled it through his nose. “All right,” he conceded. “I do not believe in keeping people in pain. No more can I let you live in hell.”
“A fortnight, then.”
“A fortnight,” Marcellon confirmed.