Blood’s Call

Exiled from the Highlands, Duncan corNial finds refuge in Nika, as one of the city’s swordmasters and bounty hunter. When forced into exile again by the outcome of a duel, he finds further adventures as a caravan guard—and then falls into the hands of a peculiar religious order.



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Duncan corNial, the son of Clan Ailane’s warleader, has been exiled because of the enmity of other clans. Leaving the Highlands, he finds refuge in the nearby city of Nika, where he makes a new life for himself as a swordmaster and bounty hunter.

Meanwhile, back in the Highlands, his younger brother Llêw joins the Highland Guard, an elite body of guards assigned to the royal court in Nika. But before Llêw can get to Nika, Duncan kills a lord’s son in a bar fight and flees, joining a caravan headed south to the country of Cantredd.

As a guard for the caravan, Duncan has further adventures in company with the caravan merchant, Guthsund. While defending a woman under attack, Duncan is badly wounded—and after help arrives from the Blues, the religious society she belongs to, he will discover that strange things happen around them.

The Highlands
22nd year of the reign of King Cernos

Duncan corNial, elder son of the First Sword of Clan Ailane, placed a knife in his younger brother’s hands and watched his eyes grow wide with delight. For all that Llêw was now fourteen and considered a man by the clans, there was still a lot of enthusiastic boy in his nature.

“Are you ready?” Duncan asked. Llêw nodded vigorously. “Hand it back, then.” He took the new knife from his brother, pricked a finger on his own left hand with the point and smeared the resulting blood on one side of the blade. He turned to his younger brother Llêw. “Now you,” and watched as Llêw repeated his actions on the other side.

“Twice blooded,” Duncan said as he wiped the blade clean with a bit of dried moss. He placed the sheathed blade back in Llêw’s hands. “So the line continues.”

Of all the fifteen clans of the Highlands, the coming of age ceremony of Clan Ailane was the simplest. And Duncan was glad of it. When he thought of what his friend and age-mate cousin Colan corSentir had endured under the Clan Rhiadd ritual the year they had received their own daggers, he didn’t know whether to laugh or shudder.

Duncan watched as Llêw drew the blade from the sheath and held it up, grinning so wide it almost split his face. From the heights of his eighteen years of age, he looked over to where his father stood, thumbs in sword belt, smiling at the two of them. “Was I like that?”

Nial corAnuwn gave his older son’s shoulder a squeeze that Duncan felt even through his mail shirt. “Oh, you were worse.”

Duncan snorted. “I couldn’t have been, Da . . . could I?”

“All of Clan Ailane breathed a sigh of relief when you finally got your man’s blade, son.” Nial’s chuckle carried a note of affection. They watched together as Llêw examined the knife. Double-edged blade; from tip to joining with the simple crosspiece hilt it was a little longer than the length of Duncan’s hand from wrist to the end of his middle finger. “Nice piece of work,” Nial commented as Llêw angled it around in the light.

“Old Connor did a good job.” Duncan grimaced. “Of course, when it came time to agree on a price, he bargained like he was selling a child. It took me two days to get him to agree to a reasonable price”

Nial laughed. Clan Ailane’s blacksmith was a gruff man, as heavy-handed as his hammer. “Oh, he was being easy on you, I think. Four years ago it took me three days to get him down to a fair price for yours.”

Llêw ran his belt through the loops on the back of the sheath, then buckled it back around his waist. He stood with hand on hilt, still wearing that wide smile.

Duncan smelled a faint scent of heather. His mother had come up beside him as Nial advanced to set his hands on Llêw’s shoulders. They watched together as Nial spoke. “With the gift of the blade from your brother, and because you have reached fourteen years, the clans now consider you a man. Learn wisdom; act with honor; be slow to speak; defend hearth and hall.” With one hand, Nial gave Llêw a light pop on the side of the head. “And don’t be forgetting that though you may be a man in the eyes of the clan law, you still live under your mother’s roof and at my hearth.”

“Yes, Da.” Llêw was almost quivering.

“All right, then. Be off with you.” Nial released the boy. “But if I see you carrying that blade naked in the camp or the festival, you’ll feel my hand, just see if you don’t.”

“You won’t, Da.” And Llêw was gone—one instant there, next instant vanished.

Nial turned with a smile and embraced his wife. “Well, Samara, my dear, that’s the second of them grown to manhood.”

She wiped a tear from her eye. “You’re daft, Nial corAnuwn. He’s no more grown than that two year old colt you spend so much time with. I care not what the clan law says.”

“Aye, perhaps you’re right, dear one. But he’s not a boy any longer.”

“Aye.” She sighed. “For all that I would hold back the years, the seasons turn, will we, won’t we. And young things grow into old things.”

Duncan watched as his mother hugged her arms around her own body. She was tall and lean, even for a clanswoman. Was that silver in her hair? Suddenly he saw her years on her.

Nial brushed back a wisp of hair that had escaped from her braids. “Aye, my dear, that they do.”

Duncan shrugged his shoulders under his mail. “Well, I must be off. The trials will begin soon.”

“Be careful,” his mother said with a hug.

“But win.” Nial’s grin was as broad as his younger son’s.

Duncan ducked out of the tent and straightened, brushing his hair back and shrugging his shoulders again under the mail so it would settle right. He hadn’t worn the mail shirt much. It had belonged to his father’s brother Jamesh, who had died without wife or children when Duncan was younger than Llêw. Duncan’s uncle had been a larger man than his father Nial, so the shirt had waited for someone it would fit. His final man growth in the last year had broadened Duncan’s shoulders to the point where the shirt became his.

He threw those shoulders back now and began walking toward the part of the fairgrounds where the arms trials would be held. His long legs covered the ground swiftly enough that it was a matter of no more than a dozen breaths or so and he was out of the Ailane clan tents and into one of the open areas between the clans. Without conscious thought, Duncan’s feet found a path leading to the east.

“Ho, Duncan!”

Duncan turned at the hail in a familiar voice, looking to see Colan corSentir jogging toward him. “Colan . . . it’s about time you showed up.” He started walking again as his friend fell into step beside him.

“So, did Llêw like the knife?”

“I’d say so. His eyes were glued on it from the moment I pulled it out until I put it in his hands. His grin was so large it went almost around his head to meet itself.”

Colan chuckled. “And I’ll wager your father had words about what it was like when he placed a knife in your hands.”

“He did in fact; something scurrilous to the effect that I was even more excited and twitchy than Llêw. A base lie, as I recall being very calm and respectful at the time.”

Now his friend choked. “Calm? I was there, if you’ll recall, and you were as calm as a flitterbird on the move from one blossom to another.”

Duncan punched Colan on the shoulder. “Away with your memory full of holes. You were obviously still in shock from your own ritual. It was my time, my recalling is the truth.”

Colan just laughed as he returned the punch. Their light conversation continued as they walked along, past other trails that joined with the one they were on to make a larger, wider path that at length opened into another meadow.

“Tell me again where we are to go?” Colan asked.

“The blue pennant,” Duncan answered, craning his head around as he searched for it. He pointed. “There.”

The two youths made their way to the pole the pennant was fluttering from in the light breeze. They pushed their way through the crowd until they arrived at the front just as a horn blew in the center of the meadow.

“Shut up, the lot of you,” a barrel-chested man in the colors of Clan Argidh shouted. The crowd quieted. “This is the testing ground for those men of the clans with eighteen summers. If you have more or less than that, you are in the wrong place and need to be elsewhere.” The crowd snickered as three young men turned, red-faced, and pushed their way away from the testing circle.

“I am Ander corFarin of Clan Argidh,” he continued. “With me as judges are Lorian corBriel of Clan Cordosa and Gault corMorghen of Clan Ramessey.” The other two men waved from their positions around the circle. “The best of each clan in your year should be present now. Each man will fight at least twice. If you are touched to the head or body, you lose. If you are disarmed, you lose. Two touches to the legs, you lose. If you step out of the inner ring, you get a warning. The second time, you lose. The second loss ends your time in this year’s contest.”

Ander thumped his staff on the ground. “Anyone but a current fighter caught inside the outside ring of branches gets thumped with this, so get your feet where they belong.” There was a rapid shuffling of bodies back beyond the outer circle. “Good. Now, let’s get this over and done with. I hear a barrel of ale calling my name.”

As the crowd laughed, Ander took tokens from two bowls set on a stand behind him. “Clan Cordosa.”


“And who are you, if your father claimed you and named you?”

“Harach corObaran,” the young man laughed.

“And Clan Ramessey.” Duncan watched as Ander read the other clan token.

“Caredh corArian,” the second young man called out as he pushed his way out of the crowd.

“Well enough,” the judge replied. “Take off your weapons, and take up your wands.”

The young men walked to racks near the other two judges and hung their sword-belts on convenient pegs, then examined the oak practice blades sticking up from adjacent kegs. Once they had made their selections, Ander beckoned them into the inner ring.


The young men took their guard.



Fifteen young men were tried in that circle that day. Duncan stood out from them in his mail shirt. There was one other youth wearing mail, and a few of the others wore scale shirts. Most of them, though, wore nothing better than boiled hide, probably good enough against the older bronze swords seen around, but not as much protection against the iron blades that had come to the Highlands in the last generation. Duncan couldn’t help feeling a bit smug about it, even though it was only luck that had left the shirt to him.

The fifteen were supposed to be the best of their age in their clans. It quickly became obvious to Duncan that if that was true, not all clans taught and worked and drilled their boys and men as hard at arms-work as his father did.

Probably the worst bouts involved Oredd corRobart, the son of a prominent member of Clan Torkiel. His first bout was with Colan in the first round. He was clearly defeated by a cut to the stomach, yet he argued with the judges to the point that an exasperated Ander corFarin out-shouted him and threatened to beat him with his own practice sword if he didn’t shut up.

As it happened, in the second round Oredd’s match was with Duncan, who had already taken the measure of his opponent. It was but a matter of moments before the Torkiel’s practice sword was flying through the air.  Oredd tried to complain that he hadn’t been ready, but everyone turned their backs on him.

By midmorning the testing was down to the half-dozen who were truly skilled. The matches began to last longer.

By the luck of the draw, Duncan and Colan had faced each other early on. They had sparred together often enough that neither of them had any doubts as to who was better, and so it proved. Despite a most spirited effort by Colan, Duncan defeated him; perhaps not as handily as he had most of the rest of the group, but in a definite and final manner, with a feint to the leg and a thrust to the belly.

It wasn’t long after noon when all but two of the youths had been dismissed from the ring: Duncan himself, and Bawdroch corKilrone of Clan Lhear. Neither had been defeated; both had been involved in rapidly winnowing through the other youths and sending them down.

In fact, Bawdroch’s last match had been with Colan. It had been another well-fought contest, but Bawdroch had prevailed. Colan came directly to Duncan when the match was concluded. “By the God, he’s strong and fast.”

“So I saw,” Duncan replied to his panting friend. He hefted his practice blade. “My turn, now.”

Duncan stepped into the circle and stood, waiting for the call from Ander corFarin. He didn’t have to wait long.


Duncan’s opponent didn’t have Duncan’s height, but he was stockier and definitely weighed more. He used that weight now, charging forward in the hope of startling Duncan into retreat or an awkward move. It was unfortunate for him that Duncan had seen him use that same tactic earlier in the morning. The taller boy simply slipped to one side at the last moment and thrust over Bawdroch’s arm to thump into his chest.

“Score!” sounded from two of the three judges. Bawdroch grimaced, but waved his hand and walked back to his starting position. Duncan threw a quick smile to Colan, then took his own place.


For this second match, Duncan again was forced on the defensive. Bawdroch didn’t charge, having learned that lesson, but he threw a flurry of cuts and slashes at Duncan, keeping him busy blocking and dodging. Duncan waited his time, knowing that the other youth would run out of breath before long.

Just as that moment came and Duncan was ready to give over to the attack, he trod on an extra thick clump of grass. His ankle twisted and his leg went out from under him. He tried to throw himself away from Bawdroch, but just as his back hit the ground he felt the other’s blade cracking first against one shin, and then against the other.

“Score!” came from all three judges. One round each, now. One final round to end it.

Duncan sat up, gathered his feet under him and rose in a single lithe movement as Bawdroch backed away. The other youth gave him a tight grin as he settled into his place.

Very well, Duncan thought. If you want to raise the stakes, so be it.


Now Bawdroch was on the defensive, still breathing hard from the last round. Duncan was unleashing thrusts that seemed to come from every direction possible. Bawdroch managed to block them all, but it was obviously only a matter of time until he missed one.

Duncan could see it coming. He knew where his opponent’s hand and blade were going to be in five heartbeats . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .  He brought his blade around in a sweep . . . one . . .

Oak blade met wrist in a hammering blow. “Score!” Bawdroch’s blade dropped from his nerveless fingers. It was obvious to everyone that, wrist brace or no, if steel had been involved Bawdroch’s hand would have been lying on the ground before his startled eyes.

Duncan dropped his blade to his side and turned to his opponent, who was cradling his numb hand in his left. “Broken?”

“Don’t think so.” Bawdroch’s voice was a high nasal tenor at odds with his appearance. “It’s all tingles at the moment, and I know it will hurt like fire tomorrow.” He looked sidelong at Duncan. “So, is it true what they say about you Ailane clansmen?”

“What’s that?”

“That you teeth on sword blades and Shaun-ki gamesmen?”

Duncan laughed. “Nah, but my Da tells me I used to gum the pommel of his knife, and I know there’s an old Shaun-ki chief in my mother’s tent that has what she swears are my teeth marks on it.”

“I’d believe that.” Bawdroch worked the fingers of his right hand, then held it out. “Good match.”

Duncan clasped hands with him. “Aye, it was.” The two youths turned away from each other as the judges arrived.

Ander corFarin clapped a big hand on Duncan’s shoulder. “And the best of the 18th year young men is Duncan corNial of Clan Ailane.” He handed him a thin bronze-wire wound torc. “Here’s your rank, lad. Come find me later and I’ll see you to a mug of heather beer.”

With that, the judges all headed for the lane where the purveyors of drink were located. Most of the rest of the youths came by and congratulated Duncan. Oredd was noticeably not among them.

Finally, Colan punched Duncan’s shoulder. “Well, you did it.”

“Did you doubt me?” Duncan snorted as he racked the oak practice blade back up and pulled his weapons belt around his waist.

“No, not really. You gave me a fright when you fell, though.”

“Bad surface,” Duncan frowned.

“I know, but you know what your father says.”

Two voices in unison: “A fight happens where it happens.” They both laughed, and strode off together, arms around each other’s shoulders.


Night had fallen when Duncan and Colan began wending their way back to their tents. If they were laughing and veering a bit from side to side, well, the beer and ale had been flowing freely all afternoon and into the evening. Ander corFarin had provided them with a mug apiece, and most of Duncan’s clansmen had offered a mug as well. Colan in particular had drunk deeply of the foamy brews and was somewhat wobbly on his feet. Duncan was feeling a bit light-headed, but was still steady.

They were walking along a narrow path, Colan laughing breathlessly at his own jokes, when Duncan froze between one step and another. “Hear that?”

Colan stopped and peered around. “No.”

Duncan heard the sound again and looked to his right. “From there,” he whispered. He stepped off the east side of the trail, moving almost without sound through the trees. It wasn’t long before he stood at the edge of a small moon-lit clearing. A man and a woman were lying on the ground. He was about to turn away, a bit embarrassed, when it became obvious that what he had first thought was love play was in fact a struggle, one that at that instant broke apart.

“Ow!” the man yelled. He sat back on his haunches, cradling his hand. “You bit me, you sow,” he snarled as the woman—the very young woman, it was now apparent in the moonlight—crawled backwards as fast as she could.

“That’s not all I’ll do if you touch me again,” she snarled as she came to a crouch.

A feeling of ice ran down Duncan’s spine, and suddenly all the vapors of the ale were gone. He knew that voice. Without thought he stepped forward just in time to catch the collar of the man’s shirt and stop him short with a grunt. He hauled and threw the man back on his tailbone just as Colan spoke.

“Meli? Is that you?”

At the sound of his voice Colan’s sister stood. Fifteen summers old, slender, with striking red hair, she had been catching eyes all during the fair. Apparently that wasn’t all she’d caught.

“Colan?” She rushed to her brother and threw her arms around him. “I don’t know how you found me, but I’m glad you did!”

“ ’Twas Duncan’s doing,” Colan mumbled to her disheveled hair.

The man on the ground rolled to his feet, and the moonlight fell across his face. “You!” three male voices exclaimed. Revealed to Duncan’s eyes was the visage of Oredd corRobart. Oredd raised his hands. “I can explain.”

“Explain!” Duncan took a step forward, hands in fists. “Aye, I’ll just wager you can explain how it was that you were about to ravish Melinora, the daughter of Sentir corFargus, First Sword of Clan Rhiadd.”

Oredd’s hands drooped, and his voice held desperation. “I did nothing wrong. She led me here of her own will.”

“Liar!” Melinora spun in her brother’s arms to face her attacker. “I told you to leave me alone, but you followed me on the path and dragged me in here.”

“You lying little sow!”

Crack! The sound of Duncan’s hand slapping the face of the would-be ravisher echoed through the clearing.

“Watch your tongue, Torkiel, or I’ll hand it to you.”

“You . . . you . . . just because you cheated and won the arms contest today doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do.” Oredd’s nasal voice grew louder.

Duncan snorted. “I didn’t need to cheat to beat you, you worthless shoat. And just now, I’m telling you to leave, before I beat you again.” He pounded a fist into a palm several times. “And there’d best be no stories or rumors come out of this, for if there are, I’ll be visiting you in the broad daylight to continue this conversation.”

Oredd said nothing more, but turned and rushed across the clearing and into the trees. Melinora left the shelter of her brother’s arms and came to Duncan, embracing him with all the strength she had.

“Thank the God you came. Thank you. I truly did not lead him here.”

“I know you, Meli.” Duncan smiled down at her upturned face, and brushed the hair back from her face. He and Colan were close enough to be brothers, having been fostered at each other’s hearths for a year each, that he looked on Melinora almost as his own sister. “I had no thought for his lies. I wouldn’t trust a Torkiel to tell me if it was raining or not, much less trust any words out of that one’s mouth.”

“Meli.” Colan held out his arms, and she returned to him. “Are you all right? Truthfully?”

“Aye. A couple of bruises, maybe, but he did no real harm. And if I’d had my dagger with me, he wouldn’t have done that.”

“Good. Let’s get back to the tents.” Just as those words left Colan’s mouth, they could all hear men crashing through the woods opposite them.

Duncan pushed his friends toward the path behind them. “Go. Get her back to your tents as fast as you can. I don’t know who this is, but you don’t need to be here when they come out of those trees. Whoever it is, I’ll deal with them.”

“But . . .” Colan blurted.


Melinora pulled on Colan’s arm, but he looked backward more than once until the trees came between them. Duncan faced toward the noise and rested a hand on the hilt of his sword. In a few moments, figures broke into the clearing from the same direction Oredd had left. They moved into the light, and Duncan could see Oredd in the lead.

“There! Arno, Lian, Carel—there he is, the one who assaulted me!” the Torkiel youth called out.

“What marsh mist-dreams have you been spreading, Torkiel?” Duncan demanded. “I no more assaulted you than you flew to the moon.”

“Lies! You cheated at this afternoon’s testing, then you assaulted me while I stood with empty hands only a few breaths ago.” Oredd gestured to the three around him. They spread out more as the lying Oredd continued to shout curses at Duncan.

Four to one odds did not look good to Duncan, even if one of them was Oredd. The fair law forbade naked blades, but that would not stop them from trying to beat him to death, especially the one who was carrying a stout stick. He started slowly backing away, looking for a stick of his own but not finding one.

“Coward! Take him, you fools! There’s only one of him.”

Rather than let the others close in on him, Duncan took the fight to them, springing to the man on the end to his right. He hammered a blow to the face and a knee to the gut, enough to stop the other in his tracks and let Duncan by him. Duncan delivered another hammer blow to the back of the neck, which collapsed the other in the path of the man with the stick, who sprawled his full length in the grass and dirt. “Get up, Carel, Lian,” Oredd yelled.

The third man, who must be Arno, bypassed his fellows and closed on Duncan, who felt grass and runners grasping at his feet as he stepped back again. If he hadn’t been busy defending himself and possibly his life, Duncan would have laughed when he recalled the conversation from earlier in the day. “A fight happens where it happens.”

Duncan swung at Arno, who instead of blocking or ducking, grasped his arm and pulled him in close. In the next heartbeat, the Torkiel’s arms were wrapped around him and squeezing for all they were worth, which was plenty. The man was strong, more so than anyone else that Duncan had ever wrestled. But Duncan’s arms were free of the grip, and in retaliation he drove his thumbs deep in the muscles where the neck joined the shoulder. Wrapping his fingers to the back side, he squeezed and pulled with all his might. With a grunt, the arms around him loosened. Duncan gave one final squeeze, then clapped his hands across Arno’s ears. The arms dropped and the Torkiel wavered on his feet, to drop when Duncan slammed a fist to his chin.

By now Duncan was heaving deep gasps. The fight had seemed to last forever, but he knew it had only been a few twelves of heartbeats. He looked around, finding the four Torkielin, including Oredd, who had not ventured close to him yet. The first man was still down, the third was just stirring, but the second was close upon him, and despite the fair laws, had drawn a dagger. “Take him, Lian!” Once again Oredd’s shouts sounded in his ears.

Duncan maneuvered so that the moonlight was behind him, leaving his hands in the shadow and his opponent as well-lit as the night would allow. The mail shirt would protect his chest and arms, so he had to watch for attacks to his face, hands and legs.

The Torkiel feinted toward Duncan’s body, then thrust at his head. Duncan turned slightly, his hands flashed out to grasp the other’s arm, and when all motion was still, Lian was moaning on the ground, knife thrust in his abdomen.

Sensing motion, Duncan spun in time to face the third man, who had dropped his stick and drawn his knife as well. Backing up a step or two, Duncan gave quick glances around. The first man, who must be Carel, was still down. Oredd was still hanging back, so unless the other two Torkielin stood up he could face this man alone.

The knife blade was long, and was flourished in the moonlight. Duncan inhaled great gulps of air, watching the blade as it waved back and forth. The Torkiel lunged. Duncan stepped back, only to have his foot drop in a hole. He started to fall over, and the other man jumped on him. They wrestled for several breaths, each trying to direct the long knife away from himself. There was a final convulsive movement and a man’s voice cried out.

Duncan rolled away from where Arno lay, knife buried to the hilt in his right thigh. Curses were interspersed with gasps and moans of pain, so it didn’t appear that the wound was fatal—at least not yet. Duncan pushed to his feet, wavering a little, and looked around. That movement of his head was what saved him. The stick swung by Oredd did not connect solidly with his head, but the impact was enough to send him staggering a step or two and raise his arms. The stick connected again, this time with his upper left arm. He both felt and heard the snap of the bone even through the mail shirt.

Oredd had a nasty grin on his face at Duncan’s grunt. “Felt that, did you? Good. I’m going to . . . what are you doing?”

Duncan’s head was spinning as he slid his sword harness off. It was all twisted about from the wrestling. “Getting this out of the way.” He dropped it to the ground. “Now, if you want me, come get me.” He crouched a bit, right hand in front of him. The thought of drawing his knife passed through his mind, but he wasn’t going to risk the fair laws. He thought he could take Oredd, even one-handed.

Oredd hesitated a moment, then tightened his grip on the stick and swung. Duncan ducked the first two swings, but a dizzy moment hit him just as Oredd made the third swing, and it connected with his left arm again. The flare of pain blinded him for just a heartbeat or two, but it was enough for Oredd to swing for his head. This time it connected firmly, and he went down.

Duncan had enough presence of mind left to throw his arms out in front of him. When his weight hit his hands and knees, the pain flared again from his arm. Head down and whirling, arm screaming, breath going in and out like a thirsty dog, Duncan heard a sword being drawn, then steps coming to stand above his head.

“Now you’re going to get what you deserve, boar’s get, after cheating me in the trials and then humiliating me in front of my love.”

“Not . . . your love,” Duncan rasped. “Melinora . . . has more sense . . . than to look at . . . a shoat like you.”

Oredd cursed and lifted the sword just as Duncan lurched up and hammered his fist into the Torkiel’s groin. The other groaned, and the two of them crashed to the ground together.

Duncan listened to Oredd retch and sob and moan as his own panting slowed down and his spinning head quieted a little. He didn’t know how long he lay there on his right side, but finally he levered himself back to his knees. The head spinning sped up and his stomach tried to crawl up his throat, so he waited for them to quiet again.

It took more than one try for Duncan to get to his feet, but he managed it at length. He looked around. All four Torkiel were still on the ground, which was good; he wasn’t sure he would have withstood a blow from a feather just at that moment.

He limped over to his sword belt. The pain in his head swelled as he bent over to pick it up, and he gasped. It wasn’t until he straightened again and the pain lessened that he realized that his sword wasn’t in the sheath. It took heartbeats for him to register through the pain that Oredd must have taken it. Wavering steps took him back to the place of his final triumph, and there it was, lying on the ground where Oredd had dropped it when Duncan had hammered him.

Duncan looked down at his sword, knowing he couldn’t leave it there, but also knowing that if he bent over again he might just fall over. After a moment, it occurred to him that he could prop himself up with the sword’s sheath. That worked well enough that he was able to grasp the hilt, but holding the sword and pushing up with the same hand was almost more than he could manage.

Duncan did straighten up again, paying a price of another swelling of pain in his head. He stood for many heartbeats, breaths shuddering in and out, head like an anvil. The pain at length died down again, to the point where he could think after a fashion.

He was still standing there, fighting nausea and trying to figure out how to sheath his sword, when torches approached from two different directions.

“What’s happened here?” The torches from the south broke into the clearing first. Duncan didn’t recognize the man in the lead, who cursed as he looked around at the bodies on the ground and Duncan standing. “You! You with the bare sword! What’s been done here?”

Before Duncan could frame an answer, a call came from the east.

“Duncan! Where are you?” It was Colan, and others from Clan Rhiadd’s tents.

“He . . .” Duncan stopped to cough, which almost caused his head to burst. “Here.”

Colan came into Duncan’s limited view. “By the God, Duncan, what happened?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” the leader from the south growled. “Four men down, two of them knifed, and him standing on his own two feet without a scratch.”

“ ’S’not true,” Duncan mumbled.

“What’s not true?”

“Arm’s broken.”

The other man snorted. “Well, you’re standing and they’re not. And you’ve a naked blade in your hand, so you’ve explaining to do.”

Duncan peered at Colan from what seemed to be gathering darkness. “Meli . . . all right?”

“She’s fine, back at the tents.”

“Good.” The darkness closed over Duncan. He felt himself begin to fall, and then knew nothing.

Duncan roused for a moment with a yell when someone set the broken bone of his arm. Someone else helped him sit a moment later and gave him something to drink. As he drifted back into darkness, he heard words. “…broken arm, two lumps . . . head . . . worried . . . pupils . . . different sizes…”

It was the morning daylight pouring through the door of the tent that next awoke Duncan. He didn’t know where he was. After turning his head, and looking around some, he still didn’t know where he was. This wasn’t his mother’s tent, and he was on a cot instead of his familiar bed roll. His left arm was strapped to his body. Just as he was about to call out, his memories flooded back.

“Colan! Melinora!” He tried to raise up, only to fall back as his head started to thunder again.

Someone ducked in the doorway of the tent. Duncan looked up to see a face with more lines than clear skin staring down at him with a smile.

“So, you finally awaken. I was beginning to be very concerned about you, son of Nial.” Argus corArgon, the healer of Clan Rhiadd laid a hand on Duncan’s forehead. “Good. No fever.” He thumbed back one eyelid, then the other. “And the darks of your eyes are the same size. So, I think you are healing, young Duncan.”

“Colan . . . Melinora . . .” Duncan got out.

“They’re fine, which is more than I can say for you.” The old healer closed one eye and squinted at Duncan. “Arm broken above the elbow, two—not one, but two—lumps on the head. Not one for half measures, are you lad?”

“I . . .” Duncan tried to feel his head.

“Nah, leave it be, lad. I’ll wager you’ve the sound of drums in your head, am I right?”

Duncan grunted in reply.

“I thought as much. But lying around won’t help that any, so up you get. Let’s see if you can sit on the bed without falling off of it.” The white-haired healer leaned over, placed his hands under Duncan’s shoulders and lifted. A moment later, Duncan was sitting with his feet on the floor of the tent, head spinning in slow loops. After a few more moments, the spinning slowed. He looked up at the healer.

“This wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to see you again, Argus.”

“Ha! If you can jape at me, boy, then you’re mending for sure.”

Duncan winced at the laugh. He looked around. “Where am I?”

“My tent.”

“Ah. And why am I here in Clan Rhiadd and not in my mother’s tent in Clan Ailane?”

“Truth to tell, lad, you were that bad when they got you this far that we, me and healer Llewass corArdh from your clan, we decided that it would be best not to move you farther until you had mended a bit.”

“And how long have I been here?”

“Well, now, this is the second afternoon since you were brought here by torchlight.”

“Two days!” Duncan winced again as the drums in his head thundered louder in response to his exclamation.

“Aye, lad. You’ve been out like a snuffed torch for the better part of two days now. Like I said, I was beginning to be just that bit concerned about you, but here you go and wake up on your own. That’s a good thing, you see.”

“I’ll take your word for it. And I’m no longer a lad, Argus.”

“Well, now, when you’ve reached a fine age such as mine, five dozen and nine, then the difference between you and your brother seems not so large, but as you will.” The healer turned to pick up a clay pot that was sitting near the coals of the fire. He poured some of the contents into a cup, then turned back to Duncan. “Here, drink this.”

Duncan sniffed the cup as it was thrust under his nose. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“Who said anything about liking? It will dull the drums in your head.”

At that, Duncan took the cup and drank the contents down. “Pfaugh!” He spat in the fire to try and clear the taste from his mouth. “That tasted worse than a muskcat smells.”

“Good. Medicine’s no good if it doesn’t taste bad.” Argus grinned at him. “Or at least, that’s what my old great-aunt Belwyn used to say.”

Duncan sat on the cot as Argus busied himself in clearing away the pot and cup and a few other loose items. Before long, he could feel the beat in his head dulling down. “It’s working.”

“Don’t sound so surprised.” Argus frowned with his mouth, but the wrinkles around his eyes said he was amused. “I do know what I’m doing.”

“So where is everyone?”

“Tired of my company already?” Argus laughed. “Nah, your mother is asleep in your aunt Guenmara’s tent. She’s been here night and day, until her sister dragged her off to get some sleep.” The old healer sobered. “And your father, young Duncan, is at the clans’ council.”

A wave of lightheadedness swept over Duncan and he shivered. He had a suspicion of what was being discussed. He remembered having a bare sword in his hand when the others came upon him the other night. A hollow feeling began growing in his stomach.


The evening shadows were falling when Nial corAnuwn ducked through the opening of the healer’s tent to find his son sitting in a chair and waiting for him. “Well,” he said, “you look somewhat better than the last time I saw you.”

“Aye,” Argus spoke from the fireside where he was tending a cup of liquid. “He is that much better. But not much more than that, mind you.”

Duncan watched as Nial dropped cross-legged to the floor beside Samara and put his arm around her shoulders. “See, I told you he’d be fine. He’s hard-headed enough that it will take more than a couple of lumps to take him down.”

“Something like a broken arm?” Duncan’s mother’s voice was sharp.

“I’d broken both my arms by the time I was his age,” Nial said equably, “and look how I turned out.”

“Stop trying to groom me like one of your colts, Nial corAnuwn.” The look his wife turned on Nial looked dark to Duncan. “Our son was hurt.”

“He caused more hurt than he took.” Nial’s face went serious.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better about seeing him all pasty-pale the other night, senseless and limp?”

“Mother,” Duncan said. “It happened. Will we, won’t we, it happened. I’m awake now. Be glad of it.”

She turned and glared at him. “You! No more sense in you than one of your father’s yearlings, and you dare to speak to me like that.” She wilted. “No, that’s not right. But what happened that put five men in the care of the healers during festival?”

“That’s what the clans’ council wants to know as well, son.” Nial turned very serious and turned to face Duncan full on. “And now that you’re awake, they’ll be asking you as soon as you can walk to the council tent. So tell me; tell your father what happened in that clearing in the woods.”

It took some time to tell the story. Duncan had to think about what had happened, recall events, talk his way through everything. His father asked a few questions along the way, but not many. At length, the story ended.

Nial rocked back a bit, then leaned forward looking into the fire. “That agrees with what Colan and Melinora have said about what led up to the fight. And if it happened the way you remember it, it explains some things the Torkielin said, or didn’t say.”

“You believe me, don’t you?” Duncan discovered he was nervous to hear the answer.

“Indeed I do. I know a thing or two about fighting, you know,” Nial grinned, “ and what you’ve said makes sense. More so than the words the Torkielin have been spewing forth, trying to explain how the four of them were beat by only you.”

Duncan shrugged, then winced from the pain that caused his arm. “They’re Torkielin.”

Nial laughed. “They are that.” He turned to Argus, who had been sitting to one side, listening. “Can Duncan go to the council tomorrow?”

“Possibly.” The healer stroked his beard. “Just possibly. But I will go with him if he does.”

“It would be better for him to go as soon as possible.”

Duncan starting feeling the hollow feeling again.


Late in the evening, Nial looked down at the face of his sleeping son, who had been dosed with one of the healers’ drafts to help him sleep. Now that Duncan had awakened on his own, they could give him some of the medicines they had been withholding because of the head wounds he had taken.

Nial tried to memorize the lines of Duncan’s face as the firelight played over it.

“And so it begins,” he murmured.

“Did you say something, Nial?” Samara said from where she sat by the fire.

“No,” the First Sword replied, still looking at his son. “Nothing.”


The following morning Argus and Llewass both ruled that Duncan was still not to be trusted on his feet. They refused to let him leave the tent, saying as much to the delegation of clan chiefs that arrived later to argue the matter. Argus gave them the sharp side of his tongue, while Llewass simply stood beside him, arms folded, with a most profound frown on his face. Duncan was unsure as to which was more disconcerting to the chiefs. He listened with inner glee, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning as Argus proceeded to ventilate the egos of the chiefs as if they had been the arrow targets on the testing days. By the time they had gathered enough collective wisdom to retreat, they were slouching like boys who had been caught at trying to pilfer honey cakes from ovens before a clan feast. He lost the struggle with the grin just as the chiefs turned and hurried away from the doorway of Argus’ tent.

The old healers were still muttering antiphonal curses when Nial ducked into the tent, followed by Samara, her sister Guenmara, and a woman that Duncan didn’t know.

“Were those clan chiefs I saw scuttling away?” Nial asked.

“Aye,” Argus snarled. “Come to badger us to send your boy to the council tent, they did. We sent them off with their tails between their legs and their bellies dragging the ground.”

Duncan’s grin broadened.

“Good,” Nial said, not responding to the grin. “We’ve something to do with Duncan now, something that must be done before he goes to the council, and I’d rather they not know of it.”

“Yet?” Argus asked. “Or at all?”

“At all, if you please.”

Llewass folded his arms and fixed a less-than-approving eye on the father of the patient. Argus aligned himself alongside his fellow, and together they glared at Nial. He seemed to be made of sterner stuff than the clan chiefs, as he was seemingly unaffected by the dual glares. “And what,” Llewass finally said in a biting tone, “are you thinking must be done to Duncan at just this moment that you had not the wit to discuss the matter with us before now.”

Samara stepped up beside her husband. “He needs his clan markings, and he needs them before tomorrow.”

Duncan was stunned. Getting the clan tattoos was normally spread over a time after the 18th birthday. Why the rush?

The two healers looked at each other, then back at Nial and Samara. Neither healer looked happy. Therefore Duncan was a bit shocked to hear Llewass say, “Understood. And I assume that explains why Lorana of Clan Ramessey is with you.”

Duncan was perplexed. Lorana? Why was that name familiar? Then a memory surfaced, of his mother and his aunt talking not long ago about Colan’s clan markings. “Will you be asking Lorana to do them?” his mother had asked. “Nay, we will not,” Guenmara had responded. “He’ll not be freighted with the power that she can put in them.”

Duncan swallowed. So Lorana was one of those who still held to at least some of the old ways. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Argus spoke up. “It will be done here, it will be done quietly, and it will be done under our supervision. If we tell you that he can take no more, you will accept that.”

“Agreed,” in unison from Nial and Samara. The other woman, who must be Lorana, nodded.

There was a certain amount of bustling around, and before Duncan was really aware of it, he was seated in a wide chair with a blanket draped around his naked shoulders. A flat board stretched across the arms of the chair and his hands were resting on it.

“Can you hold your hands steady?” the third woman, the one known as Lorana, asked in a husky voice. “If not, we can tie them down.”

“I don’t need the ties,” Duncan said. He’d seen men get the markings before; they had described how the process felt to him. A hand descended on his shoulder, and he looked up to see his father’s visage, solemn at the moment, but with a hint of a smile lurking in his eyes. Duncan knew that look, and it helped him settle.

Lorana settled on a stool before Duncan, and placed a small satchel on the board between Duncan’s hands. Samara and the healers each took a place around the pair of them, holding lanterns in their hands to shine where Lorana was going to work. She looked up at the parents. “What goes to the light hand?”

“The sword,” Samara responded in a level tone. That was as Duncan expected.  In the iconography of the clans, much of it left from before they shifted to the worship of the White God, the sword had various meanings. Courage and boldness were the predominant values the clans assigned to it, but it could also take on the aspects of defender, warrior, or even berserker.

Duncan was not a horse holder, nor was he a craftsman. His hand turned to the sword more than to any tool, so it would be the strongest influence in his life; hence the tie to the right hand, the sun hand, the strong hand. Courage, defender, warrior—all were recently evidenced in his life. Everyone in the tent could follow Samara’s thoughts.

Lorana took Duncan’s right hand in both of hers, gently turning it so that the inside of the wrist lay uppermost. Taking a small fired clay bottle out of the satchel, she carefully worked the top out and set it aside. She then took a small brush, dipped it in the bottle, and used it to limn the outline of a sword in red on the inside of Duncan’s forearm, with the point of the sword nestled in the crease where the hand joined the wrist, and the pommel lying a full span up the length of the arm.

When the scale of the outline became clear, Duncan saw both his mother’s and his aunt’s faces grow impassive. One of the healers hissed, and Nial’s hand grew heavy on his shoulder for a moment. It was more than Duncan had seen done for anyone else’s clan markings, and he swallowed. Clan marks were not ordinarily so large. But given the reactions of everyone around him, there was import here that he was not understanding. Suddenly the thought of having his hand restrained while Lorana worked seemed to not be so out of the question.

Lorana capped the bottle and put it away, then took out another. “What goes to the dark hand?” The left hand, the dark hand, the match to the sun hand, where the complement or contrast of the primary strength was seated.

“The owl,” Samara replied, face still hard. Duncan’s eyes opened wide in surprise. He had expected the bow, given that he was a proficient hunter. He started to say something, but Nial squeezed his shoulder, so he kept his silence. Aunt Guenmara looked down, and both healers shifted their feet, but no one spoke.

The owl . . . that evoked dark thoughts. The owl was associated to stealth, to darkness, to subterfuge; all connected to the spirit of the former goddess of battle, Rhaichannan. It was not a sign often used, and then more often to a woman than a man.

It took several moments for Argus to loosen the binding holding Duncan’s left arm immobile and gently place the forearm inner-side up. Even with the upper arm still splinted, the pain of the broken arm being manipulated was more than noticeable. Duncan’s jaws ached from clenching and he could feel beads of sweat on his forehead. Nial’s hand on Duncan’s shoulder was firm and steadying. Duncan watched as Lorana drew an owl’s mask on the inside of his left arm in blue, and took in a slow breath when the second bottle and brush were replaced in the satchel.

A third bottle was brought out and opened. Now Lorana looked to Duncan’s father, standing behind him. “And the heart?”

“The raven,” Nial said in a quiet tone, almost a whisper. Samara closed her eyes, and Duncan thought he caught a glint of a tear.

“Ah,” Lorana said. She looked directly at Duncan. “I think this will go easier if you sleep.”

She lifted a hand, leaning forward, and touched her fingertips to Duncan’s forehead. The room faded to darkness around him.

Duncan awoke suddenly, with the lingering feel of fingers touching his forehead. He opened his eyes to see Lorana with arm outstretched toward him. After a moment, she lowered her arm. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but she looked weary to him.

The youth looked down at his arms and stared, transfixed. The sword on his right arm was no longer an outline, but a red and gold creation with flames washing out to either side of the edges of the blade. If he looked closely, he could see the cuts made by the very fine-bladed knives that Lorana would have pulled from her satchel. The cuts were reddened and a little puffy, but somehow the ink that she had inserted through them had been spread throughout his skin into a work of art.

The left arm was nearly as stunning. The owl’s mask and body had been fleshed out, and his wings lifted and curled around his arm for almost a span. Again, the fine cuts could be detected, although with greater difficulty under the deep blue of the ink used. And again, the spread of the mark was far more than the cuts and ink would have seemingly provided.

Lorana rose to her feet in a slow and controlled manner. To Duncan’s eye she appeared to be almost exhausted. She looked to Nial. “In three days’ time I will come to you,” she said in a barely audible tone of husks.

“In three days, I will look for you,” Nial replied, with a slow inclination of his head—not a bow, Duncan thought—perhaps more of an acknowledgment.

The woman turned her entire body to face the healers, as if she was so sore that she couldn’t twist. “Mind what I said,” she husked to them. “Keep him swaddled for a week.”

“As you say,” Llewass said. Neither of the healers said any more. Lorana turned toward the tent entrance. She gave a definite nod of respect to Duncan’s mother and aunt before she passed through the open door flap.

Samara and Guenmara drew close to Duncan, standing beside Nial. Duncan looked to his mother, and was surprised to see a tear from each eye trickling down her cheeks. He started to lift both hands to her, but the flare of pain in his left arm stopped that. She caught his right hand as he lifted that, though, enfolding it in both of hers and holding it against her breast. “What?” he asked. Samara shook her head, saying nothing. Guenmara put her arm around her sister’s shoulder.

Llewass moved to step between Duncan and the others, taking Duncan’s hand and laying it back on the board. “It’s growing dark,” he said in a quiet even tone. “This is done. Go take your rest, and let us tend to Duncan. He will be asleep again shortly anyway.”

Nial gathered the two women and urged them ahead of him to the tent entry. There they all stopped and looked back for a moment. Nial urged the women again. They moved through the entry. Nial raised a hand to his son, then followed his wife.

Argus turned to Nial. “Don’t move. We have work to do on you.”

Llewass took a large bowl and set it on a stool nearby. Nial watched as the healer poured a fair amount of water into it, then pulled a vial out of his pocket. It took Llewass a long moment to carefully work the stopper out of the vial. The healer’s nose wrinkled. “That is a strong decoction,” Llewass murmured. He poured it into the bowl. The scent of it wafted to Duncan’s nose, which wrinkled on its own in sympathy with the healer. It wasn’t unpleasant, he thought. But . . . sharp, that was it; there was an acidic element to the scent that made his nose hairs prickle.

Argus brought several pieces of cloth over and dropped them in the bowl, then laid other strips out on the board that still straddled the chair arms. Llewass swished the pieces in the bowl around in the liquid with his hand, then lifted one piece up out of the bowl. As best Duncan could tell, it was a strip of cloth maybe two-thirds of a palm wide.

Argus stepped around and lifted Duncan’s right hand and arm up. Llewass laid the end of the strip on the inside of Duncan’s wrist directly atop the tip of the blade limned on the inner skin of the forearm. The healer then proceeded to wind the strip around and around the arm, each successive layer overlapping the preceding one. Duncan could feel the wrapping progressing up his arm, not tight, but a firm compress on his skin.

Llewass tied off the bandage, for that was what it was, just below the elbow. Argus laid the arm down on the board, and moved to stand on the other side. Duncan swallowed. If they were going to wrap his left arm, he suspected that it was going to hurt.

And so Duncan proved to be a prophet of the obvious. The healers waited for him to take a deep breath, then Argus lifted the left arm with as gentle a touch as he could manage. Duncan still hissed at the resulting spike of pain. Llewass wrapped as quickly as he could, duplicating the wrapping of the right arm. Duncan was still light-headed by the time the second bandage was tied off.

Argus lowered the arm even more gently than he had picked it up. The two healers stood side by side and watched Duncan as his breathing steadied and slowed. Duncan could still feel the increased throbbing in his arm once his breathing was back to normal, but it was still less than it had been just moments before.

“We can’t tie your arm back down until we swaddle your chest,” Argus said after Duncan had sagged against the back of the chair. “So we need to get that done so you can get some rest.”

Duncan dropped his jaw to look down, but all he could see was a dark blur across his chest. “What did she do to me?” he said, his voice raising.

“What your mother and father asked,” Llewass said in a hard tone. “Let us get you wrapped so you can lie down, and we’ll tell you what we think.”

Before Duncan could object, the healers moved to stand at his sides. Each placed a hand on his shoulder, then reached down to do something on each side of the chair. Duncan hissed as his body sagged a little when the back of the chair fell away, leaving him supported by their grips on his shoulder. He sat up straight, holding himself stiff. Gradually the hands eased their grips.

“You’re going to have to raise your arms for this part,” Llewass said. “And yes, that’s going to hurt again. You put your right hand on top of your head and keep it there. Argus will support your left arm and I’ll wrap your chest.” He produced a strip of thick leather. “Here, bite on this. Take a couple of deep breaths, and nod when you’re ready.”

Duncan took the leather in his mouth, clenching his teeth on it. He took a deep breath, and placed his right hand on top of his head, wrapping his fingers over to the left side as an anchor. Two more slow deep breaths, followed by an inhale, and he nodded.

Duncan’s teeth ground into the leather and he grunted as Argus lifted his splinted arm away from his body, one hand on the swaddled forearm and another on the splinted upper arm. Llewass turned back from the bowl with a large dripping cloth in his hands. Next moment that cloth had been applied to his chest, cold drops trickling down his stomach. Llewass smoothed the cloth, then produced a roll of the narrow bandage strip and began passing the roll around his body rapidly. Duncan was getting light-headed again, and he gargled a cracked laugh behind the leather as the thought crossed his mind that Llewass’ hands with the bandage were almost like a weaver’s shuttle in their speed.

It wasn’t really an eternity before Llewass tied off the bandage on the right side; it just felt that way to Duncan. As soon as that was done, Llewass raised the back of the chair and reinserted the pegs to make it solid again. Duncan really sagged back this time as his right hand dropped from his head and Argus lowered his left arm slowly, gently, until it rested in his lap.

Llewass took the leather strip from Duncan’s mouth. The two healers let him just sit slumped in the chair, panting. When his breathing had returned to something approaching normal, Argus produced the wraps that had immobilized Duncan’s wounded arm to his body before and replaced them with care. After what he had just experienced, Duncan barely even noticed the twinges from his arm.

Once Argus was done, Duncan slowly straightened and looked at the two healers from under lowered eyebrows. “What. Did. She. Do. To. Me.” His tone was flat and hard.

The two healers looked at each other; Llewass nodded to Argus, who took a deep breath of his own. “We don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like what she did. Neither has Llewass.” Llewass shook his head in confirmation.

“What is she?” Duncan demanded.

Llewass ran his hand down his face, and said, “In the old times before the coming of the White God, she probably would have been a priestess of one of the gods or goddesses, maybe even of Rhaichannan. Now, they call her a lore-wife.”

“Lore-wife?” That was something Duncan had never heard before.

“A lore-wife is always a woman. She knows things that nobody else knows; some of it from the old gods, some of it from the world around us. And every once in a great while, she will do something that no one else can do.”

“What did she do to me?” Duncan asked again in a plaintive tone.

“Lorana gave you your clan markings,” Argus resumed. “We watched. She used very small, very sharp, very old bronze knives, and instead of making long direct cuts, she made very many small cuts, both along the length of the arms and branching out from the length. And she worked very fast.”

“Then Lorana pulled out her inks and dyes,” Llewass picked up the description, “and began to rub them up and down the arms, working them into the cuts. When she wiped the skin clean again, we could see the clan marks, strong and dark. Then . . . have you seen a child dabbing berry juice on a piece of bark? It was like that. She took her fingers, and began to run them over the surface of your marks, as if she were brushing or smearing something. And the ink under your skin responded. Lorana moved as if she was a potter, molding clay, only she was molding the inks. And when she was done, your arms were as you saw them.”

Duncan absorbed all of that. “And my chest?”

Argus took a deep breath. “She had us lay the chair back flat, and she did the same—only more so. The raven she drew with her hands looks to be launching in flight from your chest.”

Duncan shivered. “Why?”

Argus shrugged. “Obviously your parents asked for it. You’ll have to ask them. But I do have to wonder if they got more than they bargained for.”

“Bargained?” Duncan asked.

“Oh, yes,” Llewass said with a grimace. “Your father has agreed that she will have the pick of his foals: a three year-old, a two year-old, and a yearling from the herds now, and one each of the newborn colts from the next three foaling seasons.”

Duncan stared at him. Six horses? His father had given up six of his prized colts for these marks? He shivered again.

“Enough,” Argus said. The healers lifted the board off of the chair arms and helped Duncan ease himself out of the chair, then guided him to his cot. “Sit,” Argus said. Llewass stood alongside Duncan; to make sure he didn’t waver and fall off the cot, Duncan assumed. Considering how he felt at the moment, that was probably prudent. The tent was beginning to move in slow circles around him.

“Drink this,” Argus ordered, shoving a mug into his good hand. The healer guided the cup to his mouth. Duncan gulped the bitter liquid it contained. Argus took the cup from his lax fingers, and Duncan felt himself being guided to lie down as the lights went dark.


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