Pushing open the back door, Davin Blackthorn edged into the kitchen, hanging his coat on one of the massive brass hooks along the wall. Hoping to be ignored, at least for a while, in the midst of the organized confusion of breakfast preparations, he edged to his right toward the small breakfast table for kitchen help, which was byadjacent to the dining room door.

The kitchen was more broad than deep. Great black ovens to the left warmed the kitchen and baked biscuits. In the center were heavy oak preparation tables and chopping blocks, with sinks and racks of pots and pans to the right. Aliceia, mistress of the house, presided over the maelstrom, her tall, angular body in a black Meeting dress, the front covered with a white linen apron. Long black hair piled atop her head like a crown, she was a commanding presence who choreographed the movements of her half-dozen kitchen staff who prepared breakfast not only for the occupants of the main house, but also the fifty and more ranche hands in the bunkhouse.

Davin watched as Riala, her daughter, equally dark-haired but considerably more curved, whisked steaming biscuits swathed in linen into a wicker basket. She pirouetted past white-clad Pe and Reia, who had commandeered the stove-tops and skillets for all Davin’s lifetime, to disappear through the swinging door panel into the dining room. At the chopping block, a young woman named Quala sliced apples and pears for a bright fruit salad. With the brevity of last summer and the poor harvest, Deos only knew how there was any fruit left. The last of it, in all probability, no doubt Blessed to have been preserved this long. Two of the great brown-and-black ranche hounds, Tico and Teco, were discreetly ensconced to the left of the ovens, waiting patiently for an occasional scrap from the cooks.

Aliceia finally caught sight of him, giving him a regarding look and shaking her head slightly. Davin’s heart sank. Not only was she not surprised to see him, she knew. He almost turned and ran out the back door, since if she knew, so did the General, which meant he would be waiting with fire in his eye. The General could be bad enough when he was remonstrating gently, if there was such a behavior in his repertoire, but his tantrums were to be avoided at all cost.

Aliceia must have seen his jaw drop, as she quickly crossed to him, wrapping her arms around him, saying nothing. Suddenly she drew back, face troubled. “Child, your heart is pounding! Are you so concerned about your father’s reaction?”

He held her at arm’s length, searching her dark eyes. “No, no. I just saw . . . something. That is, I . . .” He shook his head. She couldn’t possibly believe him. How do you tell someone that you just saw a light that no one else can see?

He changed the subject. “How did you know I was asked to resign?”

“The priests were here last evening before you came in.” She smiled at his surprise. “I heard you sneak into the kitchen for a snack when you arrived, so I knew you had decided to sleep in the bunkhouse to avoid any unpleasant encounters. The priests weren’t here about you; it was chapel business. There was wood to be Blessed, and I think they wanted more money for the fund for the needy. At least that was their story.” She frowned toward the dining room. “Sometimes I think they just want to assure that their own bellies are full for the winter.”

After a moment, she went on, “Don’t mind me. I got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Anyway, one of the priests had heard something. Deos only knows how that network of theirs operates, but they seem to get word of whatever goes on in San Luis or anywhere else as soon as it happens.

“The Gen . . .” Her face flushed. Everyone called Davin’s father, Kel Blackthorn, “the General” behind his back, but Davin knew that Aliceia generally tried not to do so when she addressed Davin or his sister Meara. “Your father is already in the dining room, but he is with a guest. He knows you’re home, but he probably won’t ask about you for a while. Are you hungry? You can eat in here.”

Davin swallowed, mouth dry. “I’m not very hungry. Maybe coffee and some bacon.”

She smiled, kissed his cheek. “I’ll have Riala bring you coffee.” With a quick turn, she rejoined the kitchen dance, moving back and forth, sampling, in turn, the egg casserole and a tray of biscuits steaming from the oven, in what Davin knew was her own version of breakfast.

Edging into the small alcove, he took a seat at the white wooden table, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes. When he looked back up, Riala was bringing a steaming cup and a plate of bacon. Shorter than her mother and darker-haired, she was slender with skin a lighter, creamy olive, her face a pleasant combination of button nose, dark eyes, and soft, wide mouth. She was ready for Meeting in a bright yellow dress.

Taking the cup, Davin breathed in the aroma of what the Sudos called caffé. The General was one of the few men—even wealthy men—that had coffee regularly.

Riala smiled. “You’re home early, school-boy. Is Academy already out?”

He cast a grateful glance at Aliceia’s back—she had not told Riala. “Sit. I know you are busy, but sit. Just a minute.”

With a glance at her mother’s back, she sat. The quizzical look became a frown. “What?”

He hesitated, hating to admit failure once again, to have to tell the truth to Riala, his lifelong friend. “I have been expelled. I am no longer a cadet. Of course, they call it a ‘voluntary withdrawal.’ ”

Her face was stricken. “How? You were the best student in second school! You had the highest grade in every class!”

He couldn’t meet her eyes. He methodically began eating the bacon, finishing most of it in silence. Finally, he said, “I’m fine with mathematics and science, but in other areas, not so good. My eyesight is bad, and I’m clumsy. You have to act—and look like—a leader. I’m not a leader.”

As he raised his eyes, she regarded at him fiercely. “You could be! I know you could!”

“That’s because you’re my friend. Right now, it feels like you’re my last friend.”

“Don’t talk that way—it’s just self-pity, and that’s not like you at all. You have lots of friends here in the plains, and I’m sure you made them at Academy.”

“Not so many at the Academy, but some. The friends I did have there will forget me. You’re too busy to take time remembering those that leave—and a lot leave. Anyway, so what? Friends couldn’t keep me in the Academy, and they can’t protect me from the General, either.”

Riala’s scowl deepened. “You’re the General’s son. You don’t need protection.”

“Don’t be so sure. With my bad eyes, I can’t even volunteer for the local militia, so as far as he’s concerned, I’m a failure. Again. I had to have a dispensation to get into the Academy. Eventually, my sight would have had to have another Blessing. You know what that would cost. And eyesight is tricky. The General paid more than a thousand gold dosas for that Healing three years ago, and the result was only partially successful. Another try might have cost half our family fortune for nothing.”

“He’d have paid it.”

“Maybe so. Would it have been a wise investment? I doubt it—no guarantee that I would make it through to graduation anyway. I probably saved the General a fortune by failing.”

“You did not fail. Even if they asked you to leave, it would never be over scholarship.”

He shook his head but made no reply, simply returning his stare to the empty cup. After a long pause, she put her hand around his and squeezed. “What will you do now?”

“I’ll have to think about it. Maybe the Guild of Engineers.”

“Your father will never approve of that.”

“Not without some persuading. But since I am a verified failure at military training, perhaps he’ll consider the guild.” Riala frowned again. He knew she was thinking of the General’s opinion of engineers in general.

The kitchen workers were beginning to migrate to the alcove to eat, cooking duties over. Davin squeezed out as Pe, the chief cook, approached. She was from the montas, the western mountains, the home of the Chanches. They were reputedly fierce fighters who were said to constantly contest among their clans for the sparse living space and farmlands in the higher elevations. Pe never spoke of her homeland, however. Passing Davin, she smiled and patted his shoulder, but didn’t speak.

As Aliceia approached the table, Davin glanced down ruefully at his soiled and wrinkled trousers and stained shirt. “I have the dirt of the road on me, ‘Ceia. I slept in the bunkhouse in my clothes, too tired to even think about cleaning up. Is there hot water for a bath?”

She smiled. “Yes, but hurry. Departure at first eight.”

He paused to give Riala a hug. She wiggled her nose (“None too soon for that bath—and shave, too!”), hugged him back, and made for the great sink on the east wall of the kitchen with his plate. He detoured near the ovens to feed his bacon scraps to the hounds and give them a scratch behind the ears, then hurried out the kitchen door and upstairs to the bathing room.

Belo was already pouring alternating buckets of cold and steaming water into the largest of three tubs, so Aliceia had anticipated his request. Belo grinned and winked, saying nothing as usual. He had served the General, first as corpsman and later as manservant, for nearly fifty years. The tub was soon full, and in a moment Davin sank into the water with a groan of pleasure.

He did not luxuriate long. Retrieving soap from the table by the tub, he vigorously washed his thin, wiry body and hair. There was also a razor on the table, and he shaved off nearly two weeks’ stubble, feeling better than at any time since that terrible morning when he had been summoned to the Commandant’s office.

By the time he finished and crossed the hall to his bedroom, Paco, Belo’s assistant, had delivered clothing and shoes. He finished drying and quickly dressed in Meeting Day best—white linens, dark trousers, a gray wool shirt, and black socks. A rich wool coat, freshly-polished boots, and a fur-lined leather overcoat completed his dress.

Hat in hand, arrayed like the rich man’s son that he was, he heard the departure gong at the front door. He glanced around his room longingly, having spent little time there in well over a year. On his desk lay a telescope, brass-bound body transported a thousand kilometers from the north for his twelfth birthday, Blessed by the priests so that it would properly focus the light. There was also the brass steam piston given him by his favorite teacher, plus books and scientific papers. Scholarship awards decorated the wall above the desk.

Leaving his room, he found himself face-to-face with a tall, blond man with steel-gray eyes and a rugged, square-jawed face. It displayed the demeanor of one accustomed to command, the man’s height and broad shoulders reinforcing the picture of strength and authority.

“You must be our visitor,” Davin said. “I remember you, you’re Bayn Grenoble. You lectured at Academy last year. I’ve read your papers in the Academy library.”

In the background, he heard the harsh sound of the second gong on the front porch. The final gathering bell was announcing that departure was imminent and stragglers should hurry to the front porch. “You are coming with us to Meeting?”

“With your father’s kind invitation. I retired here for a final wash.”

Davin gestured down the hallway. “We always gather on the front veranda.” Bayn obligingly turned to the stairs, leading Davin down the flight.

As they descended, Bayn said, “I have been curious to meet the Cadet who is first in his class in mathematics and science.”

Davin shook his head. “Of course there is a top scholar at the Academy, but it is not me. I have been denied class standing and forced to resign.” He felt his face redden as he had to repeat the embarrassing admission.

At the bottom of the stairs, Bayn turned to Davin. After a moment of silence, he said, “Do not be discouraged at this turn in your life. I have often been disappointed at the attitude of our Academy toward scholarship and intellect.”

Turning, he moved toward the front entry, and Davin followed him into the cold, gray day. Clouds above seemed to hint of snow, and a biting wind whistled out of the north. Stopping at the edge of the front porch, Davin surveyed those gathered for Meeting as Bayn joined the ranche hands and mounted up.

As usual on a Meeting day, a line of wagons was waiting where the front drive met the east-west road, a motley collection from canvas-covered cargo trams to fully-enclosed wooden coaches with soft seat cushions and glass side-windows. Two such coaches were parked near the front porch of Aldronne—the General’s family and house staff always traveled in the grandest style.

Those ranche families to the west would traditionally leave earlier and slowly move east, gathering neighbors as they came toward Aldronne on Meeting day. Usually, by first eight, a string of wagons waited patiently at the gate. In addition to the honor of traveling with Aldronne’s wagons, there was the advantage of forty or fifty of the General’s ranche-hands, typically well-armed. Such was a welcome addition to the smaller ranching families, who often had only the father and a few sons or ranche hands who could act as defenders. The malito problem was not frequent, but attacks could be disastrous.

Today manpower was lower. Many of the General’s men, and those of his neighbors, were in the prairies to the south, as roundup was beginning. Spring had arrived, cold and bitter though it was, but warmer weather lay just around the corner. Ranche-hands would be scouring the pastures for new-born calves and lambs as well as scouting for evidence of predators and those who might wish to appropriate a milk cow or likely looking bull.

Only about twenty mounted men were clustered together, some talking in low tones, dressed in the traditional tan longcoats and heavy brimmed hats of the ranche worker. Their stance on their horses, their general air of watchfulness, and their clearly visible weapons marked all as former members of the Nortes Governor’s Guard. The General hired only former military men into his employ.

In years past Pedron, elderly former overseer of the ranche, would be the center of the waiting group. But during the last summer, Pedron had passed into the presence of Deos, and the General was now searching for a new foreman. It was a prestigious post for which there would be many applicants.

Pedron’s daughter and granddaughter, Aliceia and Riala, would be riding in one family coach with Meara, which Belo habitually drove, while Paco took the other coach. The General might ride with his men or perhaps in the coach with the women of the household, as he felt moved on a particular Lord’s Day. Today, with so many ranche hands in the field, he was astride his gray stallion. It snorted and blew great puffs of steam in the cold, impatient to start out. The monstrous draft horses pulling the carriages waited quietly, their nature more patient.

Paco, small and lean, with dark hair and eyes and a self-effacing manner, was waiting with Charger near the family coaches, as another servant brought Bayn’s horse.

“Good morning.” Most servants would say “Seor Davin,” a title of respect, but Paco and Davin had grown up together.

Davin took the reins from Paco. Charger was a fine dark gelding, now somewhat advanced in years. Davin mounted and, a little nervously, turned to scan for the General. Already mounted, his father was currently in discussion with two of his lead vequereos.

“You have not yet talked to your father.” Davin could sense Paco’s sympathy.

“Not yet. It will come soon enough.”

“SiSe, sise. It may be now.” Paco had spied the general, who, turning in the saddle, had discovered Davin on Charger. He slowly eased his mount around and walked it toward Davin, while Paco scuttled to his coach and took the driver’s position.

The General was a large man, nearly two meters in height. Under him, the gray simply looked like a normal-sized horse. The stallion’s name was Lanze, which meant “spear” in Sudo. Like most stallions, he was fully as aggressive (Belo said just plain mean) as his rider. Most men preferred geldings or mares to stallions, which were often hard to handle and high-strung, but the General loved the gray, a feeling that was reciprocated. Davin had seen it follow his father around the barnyard just as a puppy would follow its master.

Davin turned Charger to face the General, trying to calm his stomach as his father approached the veranda. At least, Davin thought thankfully, the General could hardly make a huge scene here in front of neighbors and employees.

The General reined in the gray, and father and son regarded each other for a moment. Davin dipped his head. “Good day, Father.”

When the General spoke, his voice was more subdued than Davin had expected. “I received word two days ago that you would be home this seven-day. Congratulations on your safe arrival and the good weather that ushered you home.” A heartfelt statement—there had been no snow lately, though the day still held promise, and the winter being considerably warmer than usual over the last several weeks.

Fifty years older than his son, General Kel Blackthorn was still straight and hard as a tempered arrow. He had a great mane of white hair, but no beard or mustache, a result of his army heritage. Clad in a glossy black leather coat and finely-pressed black wool suit, he wore black boots of rare antelope hide. All in all, the General looked to be just what he was—the richest and most influential leader in the northern land of the Sudos, the land he had personally conquered for the Governor and the Nortes Republic, more than forty years ago, and which he had ruled as Regent for nearly half the intervening time.

 “You returned home alone.”

Davin shrugged. “I took the northern coach nearly to Duro Piedre, on the River Roje, but the Alene coach was late. I rode on without waiting. It gave me time to think.”

“Later, we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, sir.”

His father turned the gray and rejoined his men, the stallion eager to be afield. Davin watched him a moment, heart gradually slipping back down his throat. Why does he do that to me? At least Davin was not alone in his reaction; the General intimidated everybody.

The procession finally departed with a simple wave by the General, who spurred his mount into a brisk walk toward the gate. As the General’s party reached the road and turned east, the queued-up wagons and horsemen followed, making a long procession of families on their way to worship.

Shortly they were moving up the long, steep hill at the crest of which was the Iglesa. Davin had joined his father’s workers, hoping to disappear amidst the riders. As many of the families that he knew were in the wagons behind him, no doubt some of his friends were present as well.

Two little girls were sitting with their father on one of the wagons, just behind Aldronne’s coaches. The youngest of them was serenading her father with a childhood song in between fits of giggles as she poked her older sister. Had he ever laughed so with his older brother? No, Kel junior had been too much older. Pictures of Kel in his memory were like monochrome portraits. It had been a long time since Davin had seen him.

Up ahead, a bright flash of light caught his eye. It was assertive, sharp, not the subtle light that he had refused to acknowledge just before he entered the Aldronne kitchen. The brilliant pulses of light came from straight ahead, through the trees, to the right of the trail. Among the riders around him, no one else even raised their head or took notice.

Why couldn’t anyone else see the light? For the first time, Davin felt a powerful urgency to tell someone what he had seen. Every time he had seen this light before, every single time, the next event had been . . . Davin spurred Charger forward among the General’s men, determined to give a warning.

He was still behind his father when a rider appeared up ahead in a gap between the trees. As an experienced military commander, the General always set a forward scout, and that scout was approaching with great haste. Davin’s father immediately held up his arm, bringing the column to the halt. His men and Davin moved forward as well, surrounding the General in a half-circle as the ranche hand rode up.

“Sir, there is a battle in the next clearing up-slope. About a half-kilometer ahead, though it is widely spread out. Several families on the way to Meeting have encountered a HellholeHellport. Very large, and many malitos. Fighting is fierce, and already several are wounded. They will need our help to survive.”

There were stirs and mutters among the men—they knew what that meant—but the General only nodded, turning in his saddle. Davin had to admit that his father was at his best in time of crisis—he was as matter-of-fact as if he were asking Aliceia for another cup of coffee.

“Men, follow me. Davin, stand by our family, along with Belo and Paco.” He turned to his visitor, who had been riding beside him. “Bayn, my friend, I would take it as a personal favor if you would stay with the wagons, as all those I love remain here. If there is a need for rapid retreat or to repel an attack, I designate you second in command.” Bayn nodded.

With that the General and his men galloped down the road, the General calling out positions as they went. One discomforting thought occurred to Davin as the Aldronne riders rode away. The HellholeHellport that had been encountered was above them on the escarpment, but those flashes he had just seen were nearby!

Urging Charger forward, Davin reined in beside Bayn, who was sizing up the remaining defenders in the column. “Excuse me, sir. Perhaps we should set up a defense to our East.”

Bayn stared at him quizzically. At that point, the wagons were in a straight line, facing north on a stretch of almost-flat ground. Up ahead, the road turned back to the east and began to climb again.

“Why to the east, young Blackthorn? Did you see something?”

“No, it’s just that . . .” Davin stumbled over the words. “I think a HellholeHellport may form close by and . . .”

Bayn stared at him again, then nodded to Davin’s surprise. “A good suggestion, I think. You know many of the families in this column, correct?”

“Yes,” Davin blinked. What was Bayn thinking?

“Good. You must be acquainted with many of the young men your age—I’m sure there are a number in those wagons. Find them, bring them here, set up a defensive front. I’m sure you’ve studied that.”

“Yes, but . . .”

Bayn interrupted. “Listen, I must assess our defenses, make up some teams of fighters. You suspect a threat, you have the training. Find your friends, bring them here, set up a defensive front. Understood?”

Davin swallowed. “Yes. Yes, sir.”

Bayn turned from him, speaking to one of the older men who was left, pointing to the string of wagons. Bayn’s apparent confidence was energizing; Davin turned Charger and went to find his friends.