The morning was muffled in mist, and Buoron stirred itself to life gently. The horses were tethered to rails in the streets, as the red paint was washed from their legs and the tangles in their manes were eased out. There was a feeling of balance as the men went to work, and the sounds of hammers from the forge came drifting in through the open window.

Ki'ol woke to a hazy view of the floorboards. His head felt stuffed with wool and cobwebs, and as he pushed himself up doggedly, the lacerations across his back stabbed him with pain.

"Bloody hell," he moaned. He sank back onto the mattress, one arm trailing from the side of the bed. He had a vague memory of singing something unsuitable, and then of coldness and water.

The door banged open, making him start. He rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand and blinked up at Pulan. She smiled and ran a hand down his back gently. He levered himself onto his elbow and she leaned down to kiss him.

"Good morning," she said softly. "How do you feel today, lover?"

"Crap," he said, and sank his head back onto the pillow. "What time is it?"

"Three hours before midday." She stripped the covers from him, letting the cool air hit him. "Time to get up, darling. We have a very important visit to make."

"Where?" He staggered to his feet and groped for his clothes, weaving uncertainly across the floor.

"To your leader and his beautiful bride," Pulan said. She smiled in amusement as he fell to the floor trying to pull his trousers on. "Careful, now. Scars may be attractive but bruises are not."

"Fuck you," Ki'ol snapped, and he smothered himself with his shirt, struggling to fasten the buttons. "Why are we going to annoy Talin?"

"Because once we have said our farewells, we are leaving," Pulan said. "The Iron Band is over. He is reunited with Leila, and the Black Priests' quest has been completed. We can go home."

"I haven't got a home," Ki'ol said, shrugging his coat on.

"Neither have I," Pulan said with a sparkling smile. "Perhaps we can work on that."

He didn't have the energy to think of a quick retort. The idea of making a home with the woman who had caused the dull ache in his swollen lip and the sharp stings across his back made him go cold. He rummaged in his pockets for some leaf and matches, only to remember that his pouch was in the ceremonial clothes he had borrowed from Tor. The clothes which had been drenched, which would have ruined his leaf.

He stopped in the doorway and banged his head against the wood. "Idiot, drunken idiot, fucking idiot," he muttered. Pulan watched him with an arched eyebrow.

"Is there a problem, darling?" she asked innocently.

"I need a smoke," he said gratingly, "and all my leaf got soaked because somebody threw me in a trough."

"Well, you should have kept your wits about you." She turned her shoulder to him and stalked out into the pale morning. "Tor is still in the house. He is a leaf merchant. I'm sure you can persuade him to spare you one cigarette." The way she said it made him feel guilty for even thinking about asking their host for a gift of leaf. He gritted his teeth and followed her out into the cold, rolling a knife across the back of his fingers. The cold made him fidget, and the lack of leaf made it even worse.

Salahim, Elohm and Na'elia were waiting for them at the edge of the village. The way Na'elia's fingers were slipped lightly between Elohm's, and the angle of his shoulders towards her betrayed a night together which had dispelled some of the tension between them. Na'elia's eyes still flashed fiercely, a liquid amber-brown, as she glimpsed Kelisa retreating into another house.

"Can we be quick, please?" Ki'ol said to Salahim, flipping his knife over and over and balancing the hilt on his fingertips. "I'm sure Talin would appreciate a flying visit."

"We must wait for Neru, and then we will leave," Salahim said. He smiled. "I hear rumours of your bardic skills, Ki'ol."

"Fuck off," Ki'ol snapped. He didn't want to be reminded of the humiliation he had suffered. "Why are we waiting for Neru? I'd have thought Talin wouldn't really care for her company."

"He asked for her to be present at his wedding," Salahim said quietly, "and he asked for the Iron Band to see him one last time. She is part of the Iron Band, so we wait for her." Ki'ol glared, but Salahim's even gaze meant he couldn't keep it up for long.

She emerged from the mist a few moments later, ashen-faced and tired, as if she had been crying. Her shoulders were rounded, her head of thick brown hair was bowed, and her Priestess' clothes which she had once worn with so much pride were tattered around her knees. She looked up sadly at the Band and signed a small motion with her hands.

"She says 'good morning'," Pulan said. Neru looked up at her sharply and signed something else with a smooth movement of her hands. Pulan's eyes narrowed, and she continued, "Although she adds that 'good' is merely a courtesy, and the morning is dark in her eyes."

"Come, walk with me," Salahim said, directly to Neru and offering his arm to her. She straightened a little and a small smile teased at the corners of her mouth. She slipped her hand through Salahim's arm and the pair of them headed out into the mist. Elohm and Na'elia slid in behind them, and Ki'ol found himself walking with Pulan into the gloom, along the ash trail which would lead them to the house near the lake.

"I have never seen a man of such generosity as Salahim," Pulan said, watching the paladin talk with Neru ahead of them. The Priestess would respond with a nod or shake of her head, and occasionally she would take Salahim's hand and spell out the words on his palm with one trembling finger.

"Paladin," Ki'ol said, by way of explanation.

"Perhaps this is not the end of the Iron Band after all," Pulan said with a smile. "Perhaps Salahim of C'arraa will lead us to greater glory."

"Salahim doesn't like leading us," Ki'ol said. His thoughts drifted back to the asylum, and the paladin's fear that they had taken the wrong course. It had been so long ago, it was like some faded footprint of a dream. "He doubts every choice he makes. He doesn't want to let anybody suffer or have to sweat for him, but he's happy to suffer for his leader. If he was our leader, he'd need somebody else to tell him we were doing the right thing all the time."

"I'm sure Neru would be able to fill the place." She laughed softly. "What do you know of Salahim's vows, Ki'ol?"

Ki'ol looked at her cautiously. "What do you mean?"

"A paladin must take vows to his god. What vows has Salahim made? Never to spill blood at full moon? Never to eat pork?"

Ki'ol stared her. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

She laughed again, throwing her head back and letting the sound lift into the air. "Ah, Ki'ol. You never were a subtle man. I am trying to discover whether or not the good paladin has taken a vow of chastity. If he has vowed never to feel a woman satisfy his lust." She smiled at Ki'ol's confused expression.

"Surely," he managed after a moment, "surely you don't want him…?"

"No, Ki'ol!" She danced around him as she laughed harder. "Cha'rochk, I already have my playboy." He frowned as she caressed his cheek at the words. "You are such a fool. Now answer my question."

"I don't know," Ki'ol stuttered, shaking his head and walking on. "The nights we used to stop in towns, and Elohm and Na'elia would have a room, and Talin would be brooding all night, and I'd go and find a brothel… I have no idea what Salahim did all night. I never saw him."

"Of course, he wouldn't pay a woman," Pulan said airily. "He would ask for a lady's love to be given freely. He is an honourable man."

Ki'ol grinned. "Am I an honourable man?" he asked.

She gave him a withering look. "Ki'ol, if you were an honourable man, I would not have thrown you in a trough last night, I would not have had to give you a tiger's markings, and I would find you altogether a very dull bedfellow. Be grateful that you have little to no honour."

He wasn't entirely sure of her logic, but he decided it would be best to agree with her, even if she claimed her skin was white and her hair was black. They walked in silence for a while before he spoke again. "Pulan?" he said carefully. "What does cha'rochk mean?"

She smiled as he stumbled over the pronunciation of the foreign word. "Are you sure you want to know?" she said, looked up through her lashes with her black eyes. He nodded.

"If I'm being insulted, I'd like to know how to retaliate," he said. "If I don't know what it means, I can't think of a reply."

She laughed. "I'm not sure it's entirely safe for you to know just yet," she said quietly, "but I will tell you that it has implications of your birth, your manhood and the nature of your soul."

He stared at her. "That's harsh," he said, almost choking on the word. She kissed his cheek suddenly.

"I know," she said, and she danced away into the mist to walk with the half-elves.

It was not long before they reached the clearing where the house stood. As the mist crept away, leaving strands here and there to keep its grip on the house, Ki'ol saw that the shutters on the upstairs window were still pulled shut. He was aware that the others had stopped beside him, and he looked over at Salahim. The paladin was studying the house with a small frown.

The door still stood open, and the crumpled red silk which had been Talin's shirt could be seen trapped between the wood and the stone floor. Na'elia and Elohm had taken each other's hands tightly, and Na'elia closed her eyes, hiding her face against Elohm's body.

Then Elohm spoke with a hollow voice, and he lifted a slender, pale arm to point to the house. "There is nobody alive in there."

Salahim lurched forwards, half-running for the house. "Talin!" His voice was cracked with fear. "Talin! Leila!" Ki'ol found himself running after him, and his heart was drumming with terror. He had never conceived of Talin's death. The big man could not die. It didn't seem possible.

They reached the door together. Salahim stopped and looked at Ki'ol. Ki'ol looked back at him. It was unspoken, but they both ducked inside the house at the same moment.

In the white dress, their eyes were drawn to her instantly. She lay on the floor, her arms out to the side, her feet against the backs of her thighs. Her hair was spread across the floor, swirling in storms on the stone. A pool of blood had formed at her head, but it was not the crack in her skull which had killed her – it was plain to see. Around her throat was the blue, pained print of the strangler's hands. Talin's hands.

"Grace of…" Salahim's words died on his lips. He knelt beside her and closed her blue eyes gently. Ki'ol could only stare. Elohm appeared in the doorway, and he murmured a soft word in his native tongue as he saw Leila.

"The stallion is gone, so is his saddlery," he said quietly. "The tracks lead east. He was travelling at a gallop."

Salahim looked up slowly. "Go upstairs and bring a sheet. We will take her back to the village."

They walked back, a solemn procession with Salahim in their midst, Leila in his arms, wrapped in the white sheet which had been spread on her marriage bed. The wound from her head left a dark red stain in the material. As they walked through the village to the house at the edge of the woods where Leila's parents lived, the men who had been working with the horses and in the open forge stopped to stare at the body wrapped in white which passed them by.

Salahim looked wearily at the house and the Iron Band stopped around him. He didn't move for a moment, composing himself. His eyes flared gently with the power of his god.

"I'll go in alone," he murmured. "Elohm, if people ask what has happened, you will answer them." The half-elf nodded, and Salahim walked up the shallow steps to the door of the house. Pulan jumped up after him and rapped on the door for him. She gave him a gentle, sympathetic look for the heavy duty he had to perform, and stepped away.

The door opened to the warrior's face of Leila's father. Salahim said nothing; he entered the house and the door closed behind him. For a few minutes there was silence. Then there came the terrible ragged scream of Leila's mother, as she learned once more of her daughter's death.

A warrior tapped Ki'ol's shoulder. "What's going on?" he demanded.

"Leila is dead," Elohm said softly. "There has been little sign of Talin. We come to return Leila to her family, and then we will begin the search for your Kerikan Lord."

"What Lord would kill his own wife?" the warrior said. "If Talin Karaethos has been seized by madness, he is no longer our Kerikan Lord. Such an act as murder is irredeemable."

"We do not know any reason for Leila's fate," Elohm said. "We intend to find Talin and discover the truth." He looked at Na'elia. "It may be that the Kerikan Lord was deceived by the dead."

Na'elia shifted her weight nervously as the warrior left them and they had to wait for Salahim to return. She muttered something to Elohm in their native tongue, and he nodded. They shared a kiss, and then Na'elia darted away, lifting her arms and shifting to a great, golden eagle and sweeping up and away into the mist, flying east.

Salahim emerged from the house with a grim expression on his face. "We ride east," he said. "We must honour Leila by finding the truth of her death. Talin must be found."

"Na'elia has flown east to try to find his trail," Elohm said. Salahim nodded.

"Find our horses," he said. "We must leave as soon as we can."

In the east, the grey stallion jogged along the dusty road, head dropped in exhaustion. His red-painted legs and hooves pounded on the ground heavily, his breath came in broken coughs. He slowed and eventually stopped at the side of the road, and he could go no further.

Talin slid from his back and lifted the heavy ceremonial saddle from the horse's back. He took the reins and began to walk, leading the animal after him. The heat was growing more intense, the sun blistering down on his bare shoulders. As his booted feet struck the road, Leila's face flashed behind his eyes as she begged him for mercy, whispered her love, choked her desperation, died.

The sound of wheels on the road began to creep into his mind, and he looked up into the dust. A wagon was coming along the road towards him, and the two horses which pulled it were shining with sweat, their sides streaked with blood where the whip had cut deeply.

The driver of the wagon shouted to stop, and five men jumped from the back of the wagon with long spears in their hands. Talin stopped and watched them blankly. He put the reins back over the stallion's neck and knotted them into his mane. The horse snorted and shied away as the five men encircled Talin and inspected him.

"Well, look at this, lads," one of them said. "This one seems to be rather a long way from home." They laughed, and levelled their spears at him, closing the circle tighter. Talin did not flinch. "Look at him," the man said. "He's covered in scars yet he's still alive. A strong one, wouldn't you agree? We could use him." He jabbed his spear at Talin's throat, stopping the point barely an inch from his skin. "What do you call yourself, eh?"

Talin looked at him dully but said nothing. The man glared and whipped his spear around in his hands to send the butt of the shaft cracking against the side of Talin's head. Talin swayed a little, but remained standing, and he looked at the man with his piercing blue eyes – ice once more.

"Answer me!" he ordered. Talin looked down at his hands, at the blood which caked his left hand from his efforts to force the iron ring from his finger. It remained around him, binding him ever tighter to what he had done.

He sought back, further into his memory, away from images of her, away from his name and his murdering hands.

"The Kerikan Lord," he said. A dragon of ice and fire, with jaws of crystal. Wings of stardust and eyes like moons which never see a name or a face. A beast which knows nothing of emotions or reason. Death is all the Kerikan Dragon knows. And he is its Lord.

"A Lord, eh?" the man said with a chuckle. "We'll see about that. Bring him down, lads."

They set upon him, beating him mercilessly, one of them slicing open his side with the edge of his spearhead. He didn't try to fight them, or even to defend himself. He remained standing, absorbing blows and pain without blinking.

Her face, her voice, her body in his arms. Her kiss on his lips, her eyes in the moonlight. Her perfection in his mind, and her soul lost in the realm of the dead. Her body taken by another, a usurper, and her throat crushed in his hands. Her exquisite corpse.

He dropped to his knees. The spears began to beat around his head and shoulders. One of the men knelt beside him and pulled his head back, placing the spear point at his throat.

"You're going to the south to fight, my friend. You will entertain the masses with this iron body. But first, we will make you fall and bleed and wish you were never born to your whore of a mother." The man stood and brought his spear sharply around to slam the shaft across Talin's stomach. Talin grunted, fell again, his hands sliding in the dust and leaving a streak of dark blood, like a trail of decayed rubies in the sun. He was lifted by his wrists, his arms bound behind his back with cold chains, and his chin was tilted up to show him the hard green eyes of the man again.

"You're going to see hell, Kerikan Lord," he hissed. "Hell and all her glories."

Talin held the man's gaze, unflinching. "I am living hell," he breathed. "Nothing you do to me will matter."

"This is just the beginning! What would you know of hell?" the man spat. He waved to the other men. "Load him into the back!"

He was dragged to his feet roughly, blood spilling down his side carelessly. The men threw him against the wooden boards of the floor of the wagon and the darkness closed around him. All he could hear was his own breath for a while, and then the rumble of the wheels over the ground. He lay still, his eyes open but seeing nothing.

Her face, her voice, her body in his arms. Her kiss on his lips, her eyes in the moonlight. Her perfection in his mind, and her soul lost in the realm of the dead. Her body taken by another, a usurper, and her throat crushed in his hands. Her exquisite corpse.

"What do I know of hell?" he whispered to the emptiness. He closed his eyes.

Her face, her voice, her body in his arms. Her kiss on his lips, her eyes in the moonlight. Her perfection in his mind, and her soul lost in the realm of the dead. Her body taken by another, a usurper, and her throat crushed in his hands. Her exquisite corpse.

The wagon lurched over a stone and rolled on, south and east.

Fin.