Chapter 16

"Villainous cretins! Unworthy and unjust fiends! I shall have you for this!" The shouting was enough to startle the sleep from Ketheral and wake him fully in a matter of seconds. He jerked upwards from where he lay, directly into a strong beam of sunlight, pouring into his room from the east. He winced away from the light, and the visual distraction slowed him enough to hear the generous laughter from outside, and the high-pitched giggling of small children. Ketheral scooted out of his very comfortable bed and walked across the wooden floor to the open door-windows of the balcony. He pushed one of the doors completely open and peered down in the backyard. The shrieks and giggles of delight had only increased in volume since he had reached consciousness.

Peering hard against the sunlight, Ketheral dipped his head and looked down on the Drakens' "backyard". From this height, he could see into the grove and indeed, all the way into where the forest again rose up to surround the Drakens' little clearing. But, in the backyard near the house, Magdalena was chasing little Talia and Therei around the yard, and the two children were shouting and yelling, half in fear, half in delighted excitement—which explained why Magdalena had been shouting in High Dromirian. But they weren't the ones doing the giggling—that was the youngest Krovernis, George, and Claria, who were watching from the sidelines. Asa and Jezréel Draken were sitting at a table they had pulled out near the grove, looking very amused at the antics of the younger ones who were running madly across the grass. Sychem and his wife Ilane, and Damaris Krovernis was with them, and they had a small feast on the table in front of them. Muffins, rolls, warm bread, juice and milk were on the table.

The sight of food was enough to wake Ketheral completely, and he quickly put on clothes light enough to allow a good workout. He fully intended upon practicing his archery today, and it seemed intelligent to do it before the Kalorian suns rose too high in the skies. Instead of climbing down the outer wall as he normally would of, he rushed out of his room, down the stairs unto the first floor of the great stone house, and then down another flight of stairs. Instead of being dim and dank and empty like most basements, this room in the Drakens' house looked more like a hall than anything else. There were a few filing cabinets against the walls, but Ketheral was much more interested in the second room in the basement—the miniature armory. Yet, on this morning, he passed both and headed outside.

He nearly tripped over David Krovernis in the attempt. As it was, Ketheral had to stagger ingloriously to one side and land against a little outcropping of the house. David was sitting on the edge of the stone steps—and fletching arrows, of all things.

"Hello, Ketheral," David said cheerfully. "A good morning to you—may the Suns shine—ouch! Confound all this blasted hot glue!" he shouted. "That's the sixth time this morning!"

"Why are you fletching your own arrows?" Ketheral asked, his brow furrowing in curiosity. "Those are real feathers, aren't they?"

"Real feathers from a real duck that I shot with a real bow last fall," David said, still glaring at the hot glue still steaming in a pot. There were little dribbles of glue on the stonework next to him, but it was probably nothing that a knife wouldn't pry up. "I finally made my own bow that shoots well—not decently—well—and Magdalena suggested I try my hand with fletching." David shrugged a little. "My arrows still list a little to the right, but they're a thousand times better than when I started."

"What about Magdalena?" Ketheral asked, "Can she fletch?"

David nodded with a slight grin. "She can't make the arrow or the bow to save her life, but she can repair an arrow, and she can make a decent sword."

This surprised Ketheral. "Wait a minute—you all do blacksmithing?"

"Sure," David said, this time the grin becoming more obvious. "A Starburst has to, you know. You saw the Mandilins at the Betrothal? Well, the Lord of Mandilin's brother is a blacksmith, and their daughter, Risfasi, learned the trade pretty well. I think they were disappointed when she went off to the Levenian Islands for university—Risfasi had a clear eye for blades. But I think she helps one of the smiths over in the Islands—there is probably more than enough metalwork for them, with the shipping industry and all."

"Kalorian or Dromirian?" Ketheral asked, doubtfully.

This time, David winked. "I know exactly what you're thinkin'," he said with a smile. "What use do Dromirians have for a smith? You're right, they don't, but in addition to the Dromirian port in Levenian—which isn't half as big as the Kalorians, you know the Dromirians don't have much use for those Islands—but the Kalorians build ships the old fashioned way. How else could we build them? But they suit their purposes—who needs a boat that big anyway?"

To this, Ketheral had no good answer, so, of course, he said nothing. He saluted David, who returned to his painful fletching, and walked across the warming grass to the table where the Drakens, Sychem, Ilana, and the Lady Damaris sat, talking amicably. By this time, young George and Claria had joined them at the table. Ketheral bowed to the occupants of the table, "A fair morning greets you, my lord and lady" he observed to the Drakens. Then he bowed at the Lady Damaris and her son George, "And fair company, as well." Then he hid a smile, all the while letting his eyes twinkle a bit. "And I can find only solace in knowing that I at least beat Timothy and Thomas to breakfast."

Both Sychem and Ilana grinned, the former rolling his eyes as well. "You'd think we worked them all day ruthlessly, instead of letting them roam through this land on horseback half the day, and laze about the other half!"

"Not quite true, my lord," Magdalena called out from behind them. Ketheral turned, and promptly smiled. Magdalena had caught "the villainous cretins" (and he was sure that the little ones had no idea what she meant by that, only that it sounded grand and insulting) and was carrying them back, one under each arm. And they squirmed and giggled and pleaded with her that she let them go, and of course, Magdalena would not. She stood there, looking very serious indeed, but anyone could see in her eyes that she was greatly amused over the whole affair. "I did quite a bit of arms practice with the older ones early yesterday morning, and Alexander is insisting that they learn Kalorian and my brother takes scholarship very seriously."

Now that they had reached the table and their family, the two little girls were becoming more vocal in their pleas—now they were hungry. Ketheral could barely stop himself from grinning ear to ear as Magdalena studiously ignored them and greeted each person at the table with a lengthy and polite introduction. And of course, everyone but the twins knew what she was doing, and couldn't help grinning or even laughing aloud as she spoke with them.

Trying to think of a way to continue the game, Ketheral struck upon a worthwhile question: "Magdalena, where is Alexander? He told me something of his destination, but I never quite grasped the point of it."

"That is probably because they are not quite sure it has a point. He went looking for that cave with Kathleen, Corissa, and—eh, what's that?" Magdalena interrupted herself, angling her head toward Talia.

"Lady Magdalena," the girl asked in a sweet, lilting voice. "Would you please, please let Therei and I go? We are very hungry."

Ketheral couldn't help grinning again at the pleading in the girl's voice, and had to resist the impulse to laugh aloud when Magdalena finally upended them and set them feet-first on the ground. He heard a great sigh of relief from Therei, and saw both pairs of eyes widen when Magdalena blithely said: "Of course, I will."

"But . . . but," Talia protested. "Why—"

"We asked you before," Therei said indignantly. "Why didn't you let us go before?"

"Because, this time, you said 'please'," Magdalena said, amusement in her dark eyes. "Remember courteousness—love is always courteous, and if you all want to grow up and have adventures and be knights like I hear you talking about, you must remember that a knight's first duty is to love, and therefore, he or she must always be serious."

When Ketheral saw how serious the twins took that, he was impressed. Magdalena must have been serious about the knight business. "After all," he heard himself saying. "Who doesn't want to be a knight?"

"I do," George said, his blue-gray eyes widening in his small, earnest face. "Well, sort of. I want to be the Herald of the Moonsword!"

Before Ketheral could ask what "the Herald of the Moonsword" was, Claria spoke, laughing a little self-consciously, "I think most of us girls rather get rescued by the knight than be the knight ourselves."

The little twins made faces at each other, but Magdalena made a face, "You're probably right," she admitted, her tone that of curiosity rather than disgust. "When we were little, Ilene always was 'the damsel in distress'—normally at the top of a very tall tree and everyone else had to rescue her and fight off the bands of evil Faeries come to hurt her!"

At that point, David decided that he had burned his fingers enough and came over to join them. He swiped a blueberry muffin from the table and handed another one to Ketheral. "Right, I remember those jaunts of yours," he said, grinning as he ate the muffin. "Poor Alexander and even Joseph and Rebecca and Adam—you and Risfasi used to never let them be the good guys because you couldn't stand to be the 'evil Faery'."

Magdalena blushed a little. "Ah—we started taking turns because Alexander told us we weren't being fair and that he didn't like being evil all the time. We used to argue about who would be the Faery—no one wanted to be the Faeries."

"What's so bad about the Faeries?" Ketheral asked, finally taking a seat on the bench. When several pairs of incredulous eyes met him, he shrugged. "Kalorians know a lot of tales about their mythologies but the Dromirians . . . well, we don't talk much about it anymore."

"I do not think it is a very complicated explanation," Jezréel commented. "In all the tales, the Faeries were evil or up to no good." She shrugged, "That's all."

"That's accurate," Magdalena said, she then turned to David. "Ready for a bout or two of sparring?"

David sighed dramatically. "Each time I come here," he said in a conspiring tone to George, "I let this upstart of a girl years younger than me beat the living tar out of me. Wherefore?"

Claria giggled a little at David's mischievous antics. George, however, took him very seriously. "Because you want to get better and you know that Magdalena can teach you." Then he smiled brightly, "That's why I let you teach me!"

David patted George on the shoulder and rose, "Well said, little brother, and you're pretty good with your little sword and bow, aren't you?"

"I'm okay," George said diffidently, "But everyone else I know is better."

"That is only because they've practiced longer," Claria reassured him. "But I know you could beat me!"

George titled his head curiously: "Why?"

"I wouldn't know how to shoot an arrow to save my life," Claria confessed. "In fact, I don't know anything about weapons at all."

Now little George was frowning, "Or self-defense?"

"Or self-defense," Claria confirmed.

Instantly, all of the Kalorians present frowned, deeply—even George's frown became more pronounced. Ketheral knew that Kalorians, the Kalorians who lived in the country and who had retained most of their culture from the pre-Dromirian days, anyway, trained all of their children to some proficiency with self-defense, swordwork, and the basics of archery. Nothing elaborate, necessarily, but those Kalorians generally knew how to fight well enough to defend himself or herself against the average thug. Kalorians who lived in the city, whether it be Safian's Light or Celestia, were generally ignorant when it came to knowledge of any weapons.

"We've been lax," Magdalena declared after a moment of silence. "Claria, you should start learning self-defense as your brothers have." She shook her head. "I had forgotten that Dromirians do not stress this thing amongst even their own people."

"Pardon me, Magdalena," Ketheral interjected. "Only the Dromirian nobles know anything of archaic weaponry. It is for that reason that no one else learns the blade or the bow—it is supposed to be a sign of the nobility to be proficient in the ancient arts."

"I don't see the connection," David said as he emerged from the basement with a pair of practice swords. "No live steel right now, Magdalena. I would hate if one of these kids got hurt."

"The connection," Magdalena said before Ketheral could explain, "is that the nobility were originally responsible for the defense of the land. And one can only lead what one understands—the king or the lord was responsible for having his men in good fighting shape and leading them out to war himself."

"That's right," Ketheral said, all the while trying to decide if he wanted to watch David and Magdalena spar or if he wanted archery practice. "Of course, those are thousand year old customs."

In the end, Ketheral's desire to watch the sparring match one out. He watched as David and Magdalena begun after stretching and warm-ups, first pacing apart several feet, and saluting each other. The Kalorian salute was interesting—each party would stand in an open stance and point the blade over the knee to the opposite foot (normally the right one). After a moment, the fighter would simply extend his arm upwards at a thirty degree angle from the shoulder. Then the sword would go back to any sort of "ready" position the fighter decided.

The fight was especially entertaining because David and Magdalena were so skilled. One moment the two's blades would be crashing against each other with amazing speed and strength. Then, someone—normally Magdalena—would change styles; she was doing it now, flitting about David as if she were a leaf blown by the wind. He would grimly adjusted styles, but generally not before she scored a point or two against him. Soon they were both sweating and dripping in the warm sunlight, but neither stopped. A moment or two later, Magdalena "killed" David without touching his weapon at all.

"Good one," David said, breathing a little heavily. "Real fighting, now?"

"Let us try—oh, why not be creative? Let's suit up for full contact and drag all the weapons out here. Ketheral can pick the weapons combinations at will, and we will show him just what a couple of Starbursts can do."

Ketheral's eyebrows shot up at this and despite himself, he felt his heart start to beat a little faster with anticipation. He followed Magdalena and David into the neat little armory and watched as they chose from the practice weapons, Magdalena chose an assortment of swords: broadsword, short swords, single blades, and rapiers. David picked up a staff or two, a few long knives—some with wicked, curved edges, and other long, simple and straight—and daggers. Ketheral looked around the inside of the armory, picked up a chainwhip, a normal whip, a brace of throwing knives, and a couple of shields. Then the trio trouped outside and arranged their weapons in their coverings on the grass. Not surprisingly, the adults had moved the table nearer to the house and Asa and Sychem were putting out a line of chalk to mark off the sparring range.

"Not a step over that line, Talia, Thirei," Ilana said sternly, her eyes very serious. "At the very least, you might get knocked silly—at the worst you'll get killed. I'm tempted to tell you to watch from inside, or up on the balcony.

"We won't be able to see anything from there," Talia said hurriedly, "oh, we won't go past it, we promise."

"Thirei?" Sychem asked.

"I promise I won't go passed the line or get into any trouble," the little girl said instantly.

Already, George was watching the three young adults intently. Ketheral did notice that his mother hadn't said anything to him at all. Of course, the nine year old had probably been around weapons since before he could watch and had probably seen people hurt by them as well. And maybe he got a little scratch from his practice blade, Ketheral reasoned. Unless you are a complete fool, you hardly need warning after that.

"Alright Ketheral," David said easily. He had already pulled out a great deal of quilted-padding, slipped on arm and shin guards and donned a helmet with a clear visor built in. Likewise, Magdalena was ready, she was adjusting her fingerless gloves and looking to her weapons. "Make it fun."

Ketheral scrutinized the weapons. "David, whip and short sword. Magdalena . . . long knife, dagger and, you may both have a couple of throwing knives." They both choose the appointed weapons and marched out a good thirty feet away from the kids and faced each other on the field. When Ketheral shouted "begin" it was about twenty seconds from start to finish. David lunged forward, snapping with his whip while Magdalena somersaulted backwards, her helmet, luckily did not move. Predictably, the kids oohed and awed over that move and she spent the next couple of seconds dancing about David. Finally, he caught her on an off beat and sent that whip flashing out—she skipped backwards, raising that long knife of hers. Just as she had planned, the whip coiled about her weapon and she levered back on it. Surprised by her tactics, David pulled back as well. Magdalena let all of the pressure go and lunged forward, using her right arm and shoulder with the dagger to block the short sword. She tackled David to the ground, let go of her knife and grabbed one of his smaller throwing knives from its sheath at his waist. Swiftly, she mimed a strike at his ribs, and then held the small, dull edged blade to David's neck, smiling a bit.

"Show off," he grumbled, shoving her off. "My ribs are not happy with you, O Lady who charges like a bull."

Magdalena just laughed and offered him a hand up. "Perhaps your ribs need toughening up?"

They continued with that set of weapons for a bit, improvising defenses and switching off until they both felt that they had learned enough, then Ketheral switched the combination. They went through several such changes, but the most remarkable had been when he had armed Magdalena with a light sword and a shield and David with a long staff. He saw the crestfallen expression on Magdalena's face and was slightly astonished. But then he saw David begin to laugh evilly and whip the thick wooden staff about him in dizzying combinations and high speeds. "That's his best weapon," Magdalena noted, a bit forlorn. "It's a very good day when I can beat him in more than one out of four matches. And I'm at a disadvantage."

"What is your best weapon?" Ketheral asked—he had been meaning to ask her that for days.

"The sword," Magdalena said with a sigh. "Anything with a blade, really—any sort of sword, I can use."

"No one I have seen can best you with a bow," Ketheral said. "You are better than some of the Dromirian champions."

"Archery was probably my first love," Magdalena noted. "But my friend, Risfasi a'Mandilin—she shoots better than I do. And you should see her throwing knives, javelins, discus—anything."

"You name it, that girl can throw it," David said, shaking his head. "Now, you, you can only delay the inevitable so long." And then he cackled madly again. Magdalena walked over to where David stood, adjusted the shield on her left arm and raised her sword. Promptly, she dipped it in the salute and raised it again. David saluted her as well, and this time, when Ketheral said "begin", they started out much more cautiously.

Soon, Magdalena was blocking feverishly, using her shield in part for defense and in part for a makeshift bludgeon, trying to smash David's fingers. After a few moments, she gave up that tactic and evidently decided to wait him out, dancing about and blocking every advance of his staff.

"Evading!" David shouted out, obviously annoyed. After a few moments, Ketheral knew why: they both were getting tired. A moment or two after that, Magdalena did something clever that involved trapping David's staff for a moment and somehow using it as leverage to give David a toss over her head. But he kept a hold of the staff and rolled easily with that, and the match went on. Finally, David managed to give Magdalena's shield a good hard, thud, use the other side as a sweep—which Magdalena valiantly turned into a back handspring (although a messy one in which she had to drop both of her weapons)—and then tapped Magdalena's helm when she landed.

"Now, you've lost your marbles," David said, breathing hard.

"Oh, good," Magdalena said with some amusement as she pulled off the helm. "I was getting a bit tired." Then she frowned. "Should have flipped over and not done a handspring, then, but I didn't have the angle for it or a decent backroll."

"Better than what I could have done," David offered. "And you lasted longer than I thought you would."

"I lasted a little longer than I thought I would too," Magdalena admitted with a smile. "That throw was all luck and it kept me in for a minute or so." Then she turned her dark eyes on Ketheral. "If you were contented with watching us, why don't you do a little archery until we get our wind, then we can do a bit of sparring as well?"

Ketheral agreed readily, eager for the chance at further instruction. After retrieving his bow and walking over to where the old archery targets were set up, he stretched a bit and tried a few warm up shots. He then moved back to the forty yard line and adjusted his stance, raising the bow. Every day, his old skill came back to him, and he was able to hit the targets with more precision. When he got to sixty yards or so, he would ask to start with moving targets—which was an entirely different arena. He released the arrow, waiting until he struck his target before drawing another. To his surprise, young George joined him with a bow of his own—smaller and with less strength-but the young boy was still very good for his age.

Magdalena gave him a few quiet pointers, but mostly she watched a little and checked his progress, telling him when he could back up a few yards or asking him how he thought he should adjust for a particular shot. Meanwhile, Timothy and Thomas joined them. David, regaining some of his energy, set out to teaching them a few more things they could use for self-defense. After he had tired them out, he sent for Claria and while David tutored her in the beginnings of self-defense, Magdalena showed Ketheral a thing or two with the blade.

Directly in the middle of their sparring session Magdalena stopped, her practice sword freezing in the air and her eyes turning wide with shock. Finally, some of the shock cleared from her eyes and they narrowed, half in fear and half in anger. "Yes," she finally said to the air and raised her hand. To Ketheral's great surprise and confusion, Lazuli came charging out of nowhere in particular, closely followed by David's black mare, Duststorm. What in . . . ?

Magdalena was already moving, sprinting toward the basement and shouting all the way: "That was Barak—apparently there's some trouble. Ketheral, David, come with me."

Ketheral obediently jogged into the basement after her, and David was right behind her. "I do not know what happened, but Barak somehow touched my thoughts. He's on his property and riding for our lands." Magdalena shrugged as she handed David a sword. "Barak did not specify what sort of trouble there was, so I hope I am overestimating the threat."

"What on earth is going on?" David demanded as he took the sword and sheath, then buckled his own swordbelt around his waist.

"I do not think Barak knows," Magdalena said as she strung her bow and picked out a quiver of arrows—real arrows, not one for target practice.

"Does he have any assessment of the danger?" Ketheral asked, picking up additional throwing knives, a long dagger, and a pair of long knives. Knives, he knew; he would even bet that he could score a kill or two on Magdalena with them.

"'Much danger' and 'come quickly'," Magdalena said, walking outside after arming herself as completely as possible. "We could be talking about rabid wolves or something of that nature."

"In that case, I should like to have a bow," Ketheral said dryly, picking up a quiver of arrows quite unlike the ones he had just been practicing with. "Fowl, I might have some trouble, I believe I can hit a wolf." At that moment, Ketheral saw the flicker of surprise that passed over David's features. He is surprised that I am going, he realized. "I swore an oath," he reminded them both quietly.

"So you did," Magdalena said calmly, but then she reached forward and clasped his arm with her gloved hand. "Neither do we doubt you."

David gave a sharp nod, "Then let us hope it is only wolves."

"Indeed," Asa Draken said from the doorway. "And you had best hand me that next sword and bow. Did Alexander have the foresight to bring his weapons."

"No," Magdalena said reluctantly. "He wouldn't have thought of it—and his short swords are right there." After taking his own weapons, with a dagger or two, Asa Draken took his sons swords as well.

"Corissa'll have a knife and so will Marcus, but we had best give them something, just in case," David remarked, grabbing two extra single edged blades. "Let's go."

When they returned to the yard, Ketheral was impressed and grateful to see that the Lady Damaris and the Lady Jezréel had already tacked up the four horses—no, unicorns. Ketheral saw Lazuli, glinting in pearly silver, Duststorm as black as midnight, and two others, one a pale yellowish-color of high spirits and the other a dark gray. Duststorm was David's, and the Lord Asa went directly and mounted the gray. But the Lady Jezréel led Ketheral directly to the yellow unicorn with a pearly white horn. "This is Liruill, my dear unicorn," the Lady Jezréel said calmly. "Ask anything of her and she will do it—she is as intelligent as you or I and she loves my children almost as much as I do."

Ketheral nodded. "She is a fine unicorn," he said, trying not to stumble over either the concept or the name. "I thank you for your generous gift." The Lady Jezréel nodded, stepping away from them both. Ketheral mounted quickly, and as soon as he had arranged his bow and quiver properly, Magdalena nodded sharply and set them first walking, then trotting straight across the field to the east. They picked up to a canter for only a heart beat or so, but then they had to stop to a trot and go through a few hundred yards of woods. Finally, they were through the woods and they were off again, galloping through the fields to the south.

At breakneck speed, Ketheral said as he grimly keep his seat and balance. On any other horse, he knew, the beast would be exhausted in seconds, and laboring already. But Liruill was keeping this pace easily, and none of the other horses seemed to be having much trouble with the speed. As he watched the trees flash by and the forest looming up in front of them, he realized that they must be going near to a mile a minute—that is about as fast as the best in a race can do, these unicorns are really something. Before long, they slowed to a canter, and then a trot as the trees again stretched out in front of them. Magdalena gave a shout of greeting to another on horseback, and Ketheral recognized the rider on his impossibly white unicorn as Barak Velum, a man whom he knew not very well. Barak Velum gave Magdalena a very Dromirian salute, and pointed to the west. Magdalena nodded, and they went off at a brisk trot through the woods.

Moments later, all of the unicorns burst into a swift canter, spreading out and dodging trees and fallen branches. Ketheral cursed—his horse—no, his unicorn, seemed to have a mind of her own. She was taking trees and turning and twisting madly through the forest as if he had gone mad. Wisely, Ketheral concentrated on keeping his seat, trying desperately to remember old jumping lessons and not to be too much of a burden for this fine mare. It's all you, my dear, he said to her silently.

To his surprise, a brown eye rolled up to him and he heard in his mind, *Why, thank you.* That shock, of course, jarred Ketheral more than any jump or twist, no matter how dramatic. Finally, their dash through the woods ended, leaving Ketheral trembling aside his horse. Ahead of him, Magdalena and Barak had already dismounted, and Asa and David were pulling up next to him.

Ketheral dismounted—and almost fell over when his feet to the ground. He patted the neck of Liruill in thanks, then ghosted up behind Barak Velum and Magdalena.

"What is the sudden danger?" he asked very quietly, guessing at the reason for their sudden increase in speed.

They both turned and Ketheral realized that Barak Velum was a Dromirian—or at least had some Dromirian ancestry. The thin, brownish hair, set of the jaw, and clear blue eyes all bespoke Dromirian, unless he was just one of those odd Kalorians who looked Dromirian but wasn't. "Dromirian Stealth craft," Magdalena answered.

Velum flickered his eyes up to the blue sky peeking through the tops of the trees. "We have to go in quiet, now," he said softly. "Or rather, Magdalena, David, and I will go in—"

"I was Dromirian Special Forces," Ketheral interrupted quietly. "And I have no great skill with a bow—perhaps another should . . . ?"

Barak's eyes lit up. "Special Forces? Good. I will take my bow and stay a ways back."

"I wonder who it is," Magdalena muttered, taking out her bow and holding both it and an arrow with one hand—she kept the other one free for the sword or knife at her waist. "Whoever finds out first . . . that is need to know information."

Ketheral nodded, watching as Magdalena disappeared behind a tree. He crept forward as well, stooping low to the earth and watching his feet and listening intently to every sound behind him. He silenced all of the useless questions floating about his mind and focused only on getting as close to the landed shuttle as possible. He could see it now, and could see the men at watch around it. But they were not looking in his direction at all. Finally, he saw the cave Magdalena had briefly spoken of—the men were walking into it, and just as quickly they came out. Ketheral was very close now—only ten yards away. He couldn't see Magdalena or David, but he knew they were somewhere close. He could hear the Dromirians too—they were arguing about someone.

"There is no one here!" one of the men shouted as Ketheral found a better place behind an especially large tree trunk. Ketheral carefully eyed the shuttlecraft—there were no markings, no indications of ownerships. Meaning . . . meaning they were probably assassins or mercenaries, and not of the sort that anyone wanted to be known for dealing with.

"They are too, here, you idiot!" the other man exclaimed, stabbing a finger at something he held in his hand, presumably a scanner. "Look, biosigns—and four of them."

"Well," the other man said, obviously displeased. "We found some old ship in there, but the locking mechanisms are rusted shut and there is still dust everywhere—they aren't inside that. And it probably would not have held the four of them anyway. So they are somewhere else in the cave. I say we just blow it instead of wasting our time here looking for them."

"I suppose you—" but the man was cut off from another emerging from the cave. "We found them, sir—they're in some sort of room there and they welded the door shut. But one of our rifles could take care of it."

The leader nodded. "Blow out the door," he ordered. "But let's have at look before we kill them—we want to make absolutely sure they are who we think they are."

That settled it for Ketheral—he would take no great pains to spare their lives when these assassins were so eager to end the lives of those they did not even know. Mercenary scum, he thought coldly. At least you will live to hurt no one else. As if punctuating his though, an arrow flew through the air and dropped one of the men. Ketheral waited a few moments, not wanting to expose his position as arrows from three different people pelted through the air and dropped Dromirian assassins.

In a moment or two, the Dromirians wised up and started shooting wildly into the woods. One, however did something that much displeased Ketheral; he aimed upwards and shot the branch that Magdalena had been shooting from. Magdalena leapt out of the tree and fell to the earth, rolling swiftly out of the sight of Dromirian weaponry. Ketheral drew an arrow from his quiver, took aim carefully and let the arrow fly. It struck the stunned Dromirian in the chest, and he fell backward, probably dead. Ketheral ran forward, still low to the ground, until he reached the side of the shuttlecraft. The men were in the cave now, defending it from the inside. There were maybe two or three Dromirians dead and that number again wounded.

Hearing voices from inside the shuttle, Ketheral realized that whoever was inside was calling for reinforcements. Meaning, he thought grimly, that they aren't assassins at all. They are in the keep of a Senator, and they are just not wearing his colors in order to keep this from getting back to him. Ketheral tore open the door of the shuttle, revealing two Dromirian soldiers, frantically radioing for help.

Reacting instinctively, Ketheral threw one of his knives into the shoulder of the man on the radio, having just enough time to dive under the bolt of white hot energy coming from the other man's hand-pistol. Ketheral launched himself up from the floor and tackled the man with the rifle, pointing the rifle anywhere but to himself. In a moment, the Dromirian had fired the pistol a half-dozen times, liquefying steam and lighting the upholstered bunks in the back on fire.

"Idiot," Ketheral ground out, managing to get his arm up under the other Dromirian's jaw. He then forced the Dromirian's head back and hit it three times against the wall, rendering him insensate. Ketheral instantly dropped to the ground, avoiding the return of his own knife toward his skull—he was lucky that the other was a bad thrower—and scooped up the downed man's pistol. Ketheral rolled forward and spun, desperately thumbing down the setting on the compressed energy pistol. Before the other could tackle him as Ketheral had tackled his friend, Ketheral shot him.

The greenish-yellow tinge of the energy that leapt from the muzzle of the gun told Ketheral that he probably hadn't killed the other man. Collecting his knife, and the bow he had tossed aside in desperation, Ketheral thumbed up the pistol to full power and began blasting away at the council. No distress beacon now, he reasoned grimly.

With a long knife in one hand and his newly acquired pistol in the other, Ketheral went again to the door of the shuttle. Seeing cover a couple of feet away, he threw himself out of the shuttle, into a roll and scrambled up behind the downed tree, instantly whirling with his pistol to meet a possible threat.

"Easy, Ketheral," David said, jogging up to him from the opposite direction. "The only ones left are the ones in the caves, shooting at us from within. But Magdalena's about to solve that."

Ketheral rose easily to his feet and watched as Magdalena raised a hulking compressed energy rifle to eye level. She lowered it again when Barak called out. The man sheathed his blade—a broadsword like Magdalena's—and pressed a few buttons on the energy rifle. Magdalena nodded her thanks, then brought the rifle up again. Then she shot into the cave at an angle, the yellow-red light leaking out in diffuse waves. A moment later, she dropped the rifle to her side and cocked her head to the side, listening. Then Ketheral heard the sounds—two bodies collapsing to the ground with indignant thumps.

Ketheral jogged forward, hopping over a few downed Dromirians and around brush and trees up to Magdalena's side. "Let me go first," he said, holding up the pistol. "I'll shoot blind in case they're faking it." Pushing his way past her to the cave, he started at a light run and dive-rolled through the entrance, shooting a couple of shots to his left, just in case the men had decided to take another one out by deception. It was unnecessary though—the two were sound asleep. Ketheral turned toward the entrance of the cave and waved them in, then bent over and secured the weapons from the fallen Dromirians. One had an arrow sticking out of his leg at an odd angle—Ketheral absently wondered who had placed that shot. Staring down at them, Ketheral shook his head, then spoke:

"It seems that we have ambushed the ambushers."

"Indeed," Barak said as he swept through the entrance to the cave. He stopped for a moment—he had clearly been about to say something else—and stared at something behind Ketheral. Ketheral turned, still in a crouching position next to the fallen Dromirians, and despite himself, he felt his eyes widen in wonder and surprise.

It was a ship. Clean lines and made of a glorious silver metal that dust could not dim the beauty of, the ship resembled a small bird in flight, perhaps it aped a waterfowl taking out, for its outstretched wings were hunched over in just that position. It was streamlined and delicately made, every bit of it elegant and suggesting swiftness—hardly the boxy, unattractive clumsy shuttle that the Dromirians used. And yet this ship was most likely a shuttle or some sort of transport vessel—it might have been a fighter, but Ketheral's practiced eye saw no such weapons' port. In fact, he did not see an exhaust port of any kind—but it might have been on the back of the ship.

Unbidden, he rose, taking a step towards the ship. Barak, too, seemed astonished, but the sight of it did not seem to affect the others in the same way. "It is lovely," Magdalena said, her eyes examining it. "And it is nothing like you see built now-a-days."

"I've never seen anything like it," Ketheral said aloud, momentarily forgetting about the others, still trapped in the room.

"I have," Barak said so softly, so quietly that Ketheral might have been imagining it. But a half a second later, he forgot all about it and began cursing his own stupidity.

"I say!" he blurted out in a fashion uncharacteristic of him. "We need to get out of here very quickly—they put in a call for help before I disabled their controls. It will take them a bit to find us because I got the homing beacon, but with eight of us here, we won't be that hard to locate."

By this time, Magdalena was standing next to the door. "Kathleen is cutting them out," she reported. "It will only be a minute."

"Watch?" David suggested to Ketheral. Ketheral nodded instantly and followed the slightly taller man outside. David kept his eyes on the motions of the forest while Ketheral watched the sky. Moments seemed to crawl on like minutes, but finally, finally, the four in the cave were free, and the group in the cave rushed outside in haste.

The Lord Asa had been gathering the unicorns. He slapped Alexander on the back as he emerged from the cave. Ketheral breathed a sigh of relief when the four got out, relatively unharmed. It was the collective work of seconds to sort out weapons to those who didn't have it and mount up. Except, Alexander . . . who refused to move. "Look here," he argued, color coming into his cheeks. "We can't just leave all of that stuff here . . . it would be immoral."

"It isn't worth risking your life," Ilene snapped, almost startling Ketheral with her sudden anger. "Do you want to get killed?"

"And yet, I almost think it's worth it," Marcus admitted slowly, not seeming to want to say the words. "I honestly do not know if it is or not . . . ."

Ketheral had no idea what they were talking about, but at the moment he didn't care. He dismounted quickly and went to Alexander's side. "I do not know what you are risking your life about," he said to Alexander quickly. "But we must not waste time here, debating. We must leave, whatever you decide to do." Suddenly, a thought came to Ketheral. "What if they leave and I remain with you? Then you may decide without too much risk to others? My life is yours as it is."

A strange look passed over Alexander's features. "You saved my life here, you owe me nothing."

"Untrue," Ketheral parried. "I once owed you seven lives—now only six."

"I wouldn't risk yours—"

"Enough," Ketheral said. "You are risking yours and I trust your judgment."

Then, Alexander made up his mind. "Go," he said to the others, "We'll figure it out." With prompting from Magdalena, the rest set out—except Magdalena.

"Would that I could go with you," she said as she leapt off the back of her horse to grab both of their arms tightly. "But I know my duty is to them—I will look for you as soon as I can. Hura Elolossae, elandolyur ara ride fast," she spoke intensely, meeting both of their eyes. She then leapt astride Lazuli without so much as putting a foot in the stirrups—and rode away without even looking back.

Alexander touched his arm briefly and ran back into the cave, shining a light in front of them as he ran. Glad that his friend was taking this seriously, Ketheral followed swiftly, not questioning. When Alexander ducked to the right inside an opening, Ketheral followed.

"We already got it pried off the floor," Alexander said, motioning for Ketheral to grab the other end of the chest. Surprisingly enough, it was incredibly light for its size—in fact, it seemed just about the weight that the chest would have by itself, if that.

"Are you sure everything is in here?" Ketheral asked doubtfully.

"Everything—and it is all made of some light material I've never seen before," Alexander said quickly. "We won't be able to make any sort of speed riding with this thing," he said. "So let's go where they wouldn't expect."

"They expect you to go back home," Ketheral said. "Where could we go—and the more cover the better."

"West it is, then," Alexander decided, mounting Jade and laying hold of the precious chest as Ketheral handed it up to him. "You've only seen Silas and Naaman a couple of times, but we shall pay them a house call."

"How far?" Ketheral asked as he swung up on Liruill.

"If we ride through the day, we'll hit the part of Asaeyaloht nearest us—the lake itself, not the property."

"Then let us go—and as fast as we can."

Alexander nodded, placed his arms over the trunk, and took fistfuls of Jade's silver fur. "This is going to be incredibly uncomfortable," he muttered. "Let's go, Jade."