The Fall of Lord Blackthorn

by Michael D Hilborn

(Note: The original form of this story can be found here at the Ultima V: Lazarus website.)


The boy Blackthorn inadvertently betrayed his emotions while he waited for his Lord to return from the dark halls below. 'Twas a small gesture that revealed his impatience, a mere wringing of the hands; otherwise he stood perfectly composed, dressed in green and gold brocade, back straight and proud, not a glint of sweat upon his brow, a true feat in a summer when the sun had not retreated once beyond the clouds, when rumors had rustled the leaves of the Deep Forest more than a refreshing wind. Yet the court clerk, Dryden, who stood behind Blackthorn, must have noticed the gesture, for not a moment later, Blackthorn felt Dryden's hand on his shoulder. "Patience, boy. I know thou art eager for him to appear. Others are eager as well."

Indeed, the restlessness of the crowd continued to intensify. Though the trial itself had lasted less than a week, for a year not a soul could have stepped within Yew without hearing some mention of the events that had led up to this day. First had come the accusation by the destitute woman, who had recognized the accused when she had begged him for a coin outside The Slaughtered Lamb. Everyone who had been within the tavern that night could recall her screams, for the screams had not stopped, not even when the town guard had arrived and dragged her away. Only when they had brought her to the healer did she quiet, and only then because of the sedative.

The destitute woman—Nyomae was her name—was now among those who shared the podium with Blackthorn and the others, a beautiful woman when not covered with the grit of the forest floor or dressed in beggar's rags, as the guards had found her on that fateful night. She sat with her hands folded demurely across the lap of her elegant dress, her head bowed, long tresses of curly, brown hair hiding her face. In the time Blackthorn had known her, she had never smiled nor laughed, nor had she cried. The tears had ceased nearly a decade ago, so she claimed, nearly a decade after the night when she had thought she had seen the last of the man sitting next to her . . .

Manacled to his chair, he, too, sat with his head bowed and hands folded over his lap. He barely stirred as he waited for the announcement of his fate, the folds in his robes, sewn from the finest of brocade, still as if sculpted from marble, and matching his platinum hair, cropped close to the skull. Iron eyes, and the lines etched by his frown, might have suggested anger, even apathy towards the day's events, but tears rimmed his solemn features. Unlike the woman beside him, he shared his sorrow openly.

The accused had attempted to dismiss the incident at The Slaughtered Lamb on that night a year ago, greeting his compatriots with shakes of the hand and claps on the back, even though the beggar woman had ripped his shirt and the scratches from her fingernails still bled. That he had allowed himself to bleed, that he had neither sought aid nor healed himself with his magical abilities, those were the first indications that something was amiss. Still, the accused had bought his friends drinks, even laughed about the incident. Then, after many tankards of ale, one of his compatriots had repeated the name that had been screamed, and screamed again. "Windemere!" his friend had jested in a voice that mocked the woman's cries. "Windemere! The Slayer from the Sea! He blights the coast with blood! Windemere!" And the embers of guilt had flared in the eyes of the accused—only briefly, Blackthorn had been told, but enough to ignite the curiosity in one his compatriots.

The crowd cheered and both Nyomae and the one she had named Windemere raised their eyes to stare down at the entrance of the Britannian Supreme Court. The Lord Mayor of Yew, the highest hand of justice in the land, emerged from the dark halls, robed in green, the Scales of Justice embroidered gold upon his silver tabard. He halted just outside the door to squint against the sun, and those who followed him, each wearing the trappings of his or her own town, stopped and waited. And though the light briefly blinded them, they did not disrupt their leader's formation by taking time to pause when he continued on.

As the cheers by those who wished to see Windemere condemned swelled in volume, so did the silence among those who had supported him. And although the boy Blackthorn wished to greet the Lord Mayor with an enthusiastic smile and a cheer of his own, he remained still, staring straight ahead as the Lord Mayor passed him and took his place at the podium, a stand centered between Nyomae and Windemere. The other justices filled the last of the vacant seats, forming a half-circle around the accuser, the accused, and their judge. The Lord Mayor, a tall and elegant man, his hair dark as night, save where a single lock of white touched the middle of his brow, waited as Dryden stepped away from the boy and raised his hands. Silence slowly followed, and only when the breeze whispered did Dryden speak.

"In the name of the eight Virtues and the Three Principles on which they are founded, and in the name of our Sovereign, Lord British, I declare the Supreme Court of Britannia returned to session. May His Honor, Blackthorn, the Lord Mayor of Yew, the Supreme Justice of Britannia, oversee these proceedings with wisdom and virtue."

The boy Blackthorn watched as his father acknowledged the clerk's announcement with a nod. Hands languidly clasped at his waist, the Lord Mayor pivoted himself to address the accused.

"Councilor Windemere—" And then Windemere was on his feet.

"My name is Aegean," he stated, face now free of tears. "And as I have done so in the past, I humbly ask that this court respect my wishes to be addressed—"

It was the Lord Mayor's turn to interrupt, voice stern. "Thou hast gone by many names," he said. "‘Scourge of the Seas', ‘Bather of Blood', to name but two. However, on this day, in my Court, thou art Windemere, as named by this woman who sits next to thee."

"And as revealed by thee," the boy heard Windemere murmur, and indeed, it had been the Lord Mayor, one of the Councilor's companions at The Slaughtered Lamb that night a year ago, who had noticed the embers of guilt in the Councilor's eyes.

Why the Lord Mayor had chosen to pursue the matter had never been clear to the boy Blackthorn. Yes, the Lord Mayor and the Councilor had never been friends, but neither had they been enemies. Mutual respect had described their relationship, perhaps tainted by the usual distrust shared among government officials. Yet the Lord Mayor had visited Nyomae at the healers the next morning, and had listened to her tale. Slowly, gradually, he had begun the investigation into the Councilor's past, and slowly, gradually, the inconsistencies and the lies of one of Britannia's most highly respected men, had been unearthed.

The audience was cheering again, and the Lord Mayor quickly silenced them. "And thou, too, shalt be silent, Windemere, until thou art permitted to speak. For thou hast already had a chance to state thy pleas, and thy jury hast listened; a jury, I might add, like no other. Not once in Britannia's history has the Lord Mayor had to call the highest justices in the land to serve in his court, yet here they sit, as deemed by thine peers on the Great Council and as deemed by Lord British himself!"

And directly behind the jury, Windemere's colleagues, the members of the Great Council not confronted by the Lord Mayor, stirred restlessly at the mention of their name.

All of Britannia is here, thought the boy Blackthorn. The Great Council, the justices, the Lord Mayor. Only Lord British is missing.

"No one could have asked for a fairer, more just representation in this court," the Lord Mayor was saying. "So on this final day, thou shalt listen, Windemere, to what thy peers, thy jury, have had to say."

To his credit, the Councilor did not argue, merely returned to his seat, and once again folded his hands in his lap. The Lord Mayor unrolled a scroll and began to address the accused. "As thou hast admitted, thou art Windemere, smuggler and pirate, murderer and rapist, scoundrel and thief . . ."

Or so he had been—according to what the Lord Mayor read—nearly twenty years ago, before the boy Blackthorn's time. Yet Blackthorn, like all other boys his age, had heard the name in many a tale. Windemere, whose ship, The Sea's Shadow, once terrorized the shores and shipping lanes between Minoc and Moonglow. From an ancient, hidden fortress Windemere and his crew did set sail, and not a coastal village escaped their wrath during those years. Entire communities burned, and children populated the piles of dead found within the ashes. There were those who still claimed that the land in the northeast had died not from the drought, but from the blood spilled by Windemere and his crew.

"And during this time, thou didst thy best to keep thy identity, if not thy name, hidden," the Lord Mayor said, as he looked up from his scroll. "Those of thy crew who chose to abandon thee never traveled far, did they? And thou didst leave no survivors after thy raids . . . save for one, this woman who sits beside thee. In this one instance, thou mayest speak. Why didst thou spare her, Windemere? Thy jury wishes to hear it from thee."

Sun, stillness, and silence hovered over the court. How long it was before the shadow of a cloud slipped over the crowd, the boy Blackthorn could never say. He, like the justices, the Great Council, the townsfolk, and all of those who had traveled to Yew to witness the final days of the trial, already knew the answer, but Windemere had yet to admit it. Not that he needed to. He could remain silent forever, should he chose.

Yet when the sunlight over the courtyard dimmed, Windemere spoke, voice quiet and humble.

"I spared her because of what I saw her do, because of what my actions made her do. She slit the throat of her only daughter, a girl no more than ten, to spare her the savageries that I had granted of her to my men."

And, at last, a sob escaped the woman Nyomae. As she cried, the crowd released a collective breath, one of affirmation from those who had condemned Windemere, one of reluctant acceptance from those who still forgave him.

"Thou didst reveal thy face to Nyomae that night, and thou didst spare her life," the Lord Mayor said solemnly. "Many months later, fishermen discovered the wreck of thy ship upon the reefs within Lost Hope Bay. They also found what was left of thy crew, and most had not died by the sea."

The Lord Mayor laid the scroll on the podium. He did not need it now. "A few years later, a stranger arrived on the docks of Skara Brae, a man by the name of Aegean. He was a charismatic man, handsome and young. A born leader, many claimed, and, indeed, within a few short years, after helping the community in ways too numerous to count, he became active in the city's government. He studied the magical arts. He spread the word of the eight virtues. He also married, and raised a family."

The boy Blackthorn allowed his attention to briefly shift from the Lord Mayor to where the air hung darkest in the crowd. There among a conglomeration of Windemere's supporters, most of who had sailed from Skara Brae, stood Windmere's family. His wife, regally garbed in black, his daughters, portraits of their mother, and his sons, replicas of their father, save one, the tall, thin one with a hawkish nose, and silver hair down to his waist. Rumors abounded about that one: That he was unstable, rebellious, and perhaps growing into the man his father had once been. Certainly, of the defiant glares his family cast at the podium, his drove the deepest and never wavered from the heart of the Lord Mayor, who continued to speak of the accused.

"In time, the man who called himself Aegean became a leader of Skara Brae. He earned the respect of his peers and of those in positions of higher authority. Several years ago, the leaders of Skara Brae elected him to represent the city on the Great Council. All in all, he was a humble man, spiritual and compassionate, just and courageous, honorable and willing to sacrifice himself for others. Yet, as it turned out, he was not an honest man. He hid secrets from his family, friends, and colleagues through lies and deceit about his past." The Lord Mayor's voice rose in volume. "And these secrets would have remained hidden had the man not, while visiting the Lord Mayor of Yew on official business, inadvertently met the woman whose life he had once spared!"

He faced the Councilor, ignoring the rising murmur of the crowd. "Thou didst commit the foulest of deeds in thy youth, Windemere, atrocities and evils the darkest to have been witnessed since before the Age of the Avatar. Yes, thou didst attempt to redeem thyself. Thou didst strive toward virtue and good, yet had it not been for the whimsy of fate, thou wouldst have kept the deeds of thy past a secret to all, even to thy family. Thy redemption was founded on deception, and, along with the deeds of thy past, upon this thou art judged."

The seven justices rose from their seats, and the fervor of the crowd crashed into the podium like waves pounding against a cliff. The boy Blackthorn quickly quelled his own rush of eagerness, which bubbled and frothed like an untapped fountain. Here on the podium, so the Lord Mayor claimed, emotions were to be suppressed, even on a day such as this. However, with the exception of Dryden, the Lord Mayor, and himself, the others on the podium showed no such restraint. Nyomae continued to weep. Windemere had raised his head, apathy replaced with defiance. Many of the justices stirred restlessly on their feet, acutely aware of the holes being bored into their backs by the frigid stares of the Great Council.

"Councilor Windemere," the Lord Mayor announced, and folded his hands behind his back as he always did when pronouncing judgment. "'Tis with great regret that a jury of thy peers has deemed thee guilty of thy alleged crimes. 'Tis with further sadness that we sentence thee to death, and that thy execution shall be held within the fortnight." He paused, as if drinking in the stunned silence. "In the name of the eight Virtues and the Three Principles on which they were founded, and in the name of our Sovereign, Lord British, I declare this trial of the Supreme Court of Britannia ended."

The single rap of the Lord Mayor's gavel unleashed chaos. The Great Council, including those who had condemned Windemere from the beginning, lashed out at the justices with angered tongues. The justices, in turn, lashed back, and soon several councilors and justices stood nose-to-nose, sweat and saliva frothing upon their lips, words and breath merging together in a torrent of accusations and shouts. The air flurried with gesticulations. "He is to die?" one councilor yelled, a hunched man, his fist quivering with fury. "That was not the deal! That was not what the Council decreed!"

The crowd mimicked the behavior on the podium. Those who had allied themselves over Windemere's guilt now argued over his punishment. The ranks supporting Windemere swelled and gathered around his family, and they pushed forward to the podium like a plow through a field, its blade Windemere's wife, who screamed and pointed at Nyomae. "And what of her? She who murdered her own daughter? Does she not deserve death, too?"

Soon the sun glinted off the pikes of the Britannian Guard as they swarmed into the fray, separating contenders who had resorted to blows, knocking back others, and dragging still others off the grounds. Three of the guards took up position around the boy Blackthorn and Dryden, and three more around the Lord Mayor, Nyomae, and Windemere. The boy Blackthorn barely noticed, enraptured with the mob below. Dryden was shouting something at him, but he could not hear, not over the cacophony of curses and cries. As he watched, Yew's blacksmith split the lip of a foreigner who, in turn, broke the blacksmith's nose. Both men went down, blood drenching the earth, limbs entangled in a storm. The Lord Mayor observed the unruliness as well, and though he frowned, the boy Blackthorn knew his father well enough to read the satisfaction in his eyes.

The boy Blackthorn stirred when Dryden shoved him forward, and then was surprised to see that at some point, the guards had managed to slip Windemere and Nyomae from the podium, and now they were attempting to escort the Lord Mayor, Dryden, and himself into the halls below. He allowed his legs to move, to stumble after those ahead of them, but that was all. His senses were still fixated on the masses, each person a blur of gesticulations and shouts—all but one, a boy his age, Windemere's son, the one with silvery-white hair. He, like the boy Blackthorn, moved not on his own accord, but with the storm around him. Unlike Blackthorn, whose focus had drifted from person to person, brawl to brawl, the gaze of Windemere's son remained locked on one individual, eyes slit with rage and hatred.

That individual was the boy Blackthorn.

So fierce was the stare that the boy Blackthorn lost his footing on the last of the steps, and he spilled off beyond the border formed by the Britannian Guard, into the ocean of jostling bodies. Shouts, cries, and screams tore at his ears. Arms and robes flailed around him, perspiration rained on him. Still, he did not panic, did not cry for help, merely smiled and allowed himself to flow with the crowd, to calmly float in a circle as he drifted upon the hostility that raged in the hearts and spirits of his fellow Britannians.

He allowed himself to circle downward into the crowd.

Allowed himself to circle . . .

To circle downward into . . .

The crowd which spanned the green sounded with vigorous applause as Blackthorn knelt before his Majesty, Lord British, who stood with the others upon the podium. For a moment, Blackthorn had to steady himself as a wave of disorientation washed over him along with the clamor of the crowd. He did not know where he was, or how he had arrived. Neither did he understand why his green robes had been replaced with black, boiled leather. And the Lord Mayor, his father, where was he?

He nearly cried out for his father, but a hand reassuringly settled upon his shoulder. He recognized the grip and briefly glanced at Dryden who was not the individual that Blackthorn remembered from a few minutes ago. The man had aged, the lines about his eyes and mouth sterner and deeper, and he wore the garb that Blackthorn's father should have been wearing, that of the Lord Mayor of Yew, the Supreme Justice of Britannia. Yet this place was not Yew. The buildings here were constructed of stonework, the roofs of slate tiles, the streets of cobblestone. Above the chimneys to the south rose the masts of ships, and to the east, the towers of a magnificent castle.

The city was Britain, of course, and he no longer a boy. A man now, and, at last, the present crashed back into him. Dryden, perhaps sensing the sudden relaxation in Blackthorn, released him. Something else touched him where Dryden's hand had been. Even though he wore armor, he felt the tip of the scepter as if it pressed directly against his skin: cool, heavy, and metallic. His flesh tingled, and his blood surged with warmth. A second time, against the other shoulder. When his senses cleared, he heard the voice of his king.

"With this scepter I anoint thee a Lord of Britannia, the Leader of Her Black Company, the Commander of Her Guard, and the First Hand to Her King. Rise, Lord Blackthorn, so that thy fellow citizens may look upon thee--he who has pledged his life to serve them, their laws, and the virtues upon which all have been founded."

Blackthorn rose along with the adulations of Britannia's citizens. Some had ridden from as far as the Drylands to participate in the Summer Solstice, this season's gathering of the Great Council, and Britannia's greatest festival. Banners from each of the eight cities flapped in time with the strum of mandolins, the whistle of flutes, and the tap of tambourines. The sun glinted off the armor of a band of fighters from Jhelom, and traced the lances of a cavalry from Trinsic. Magi and even a druid clustered around the pavilions and wagons, searching for exotic regents and books, many of which could be found beneath the tents of tinkers who hawked their wares to any passerby, be he shepherd or ranger. Butcher and baker, smith and tanner, sailor and wanderer, they all walked the streets of Britain this day. Though all were here for the festival, many had arrived solely to witness the anointing of Lord Blackthorn, the only man to have ever received the Shield of Valor. Now, in addition to the Shield, Blackthorn also possessed the title of First Hand to the King, he who Lord British and the Great Council could declare as Regent of Britannia. And with that official ceremony over, the celebrations truly began.

The shadows had lengthened considerably by the time Blackthorn managed to slip away from the congratulatory proceedings. He had lost count of how many hands he had shaken with fellow lords and the number of wrists he had kissed for the ladies. He had not, however, lost track of the number of dark stares served to him by certain members of the Great Council, and of those, from one in particular. That one, fortunately, was not in sight at the moment, so Blackthorn took the opportunity to flee through the back flaps of the tent. Had the other been watching, he probably would have regarded Blackthorn's exit as a sign of weakness. And perhaps it was.

Alone in an alley that reeked of the ale dripping from a mountain of overturned casks, Blackthorn wiped the perspiration from his brow with a dark cloth. Above, the sun hung heavy, even at this late hour. Rain had been sparse throughout Britannia this year, and with it, the farmer's crop and the exchange of coin—as it had been for years. Hardly dark times for Britannia's farmers, but enough that Blackthorn felt concern, though Lord British seemed unperturbed. After all, Lord British and his land had survived far, far worse.

The flaps of the tent rustled. "So this where I find thee, Lord Blackthorn. Here among tavern refuse and the stench of ale. As I might have expected."

A moment later, he found himself in the awkward embrace of a woman clothed in the uniform of the Royal Guard. His first instinct, to push her away, he decided to ignore, and permitted himself to return the embrace. "'Tis good to see thee, Shaana," he murmured into her length of raven hair.

She laughed, pushed him away, and regarded him with the quirk of a smile that only she could wear. "As if we haven't dueled every night since thy arrival, then drank and talked through to the morn. I have yet to see a solid hour's sleep since the Black Company galloped through Castle Britannia's gates." Her eyes, brown as a doe's, twinkled mischievously. "Yet of all the women who have congratulated thee on thy most glorious of days, I have yet to receive a kiss." She removed a glove and held out her hand.

With a resolute sigh, he took her fingers in his own and lifted her hand, but her grip slipped quickly and tightly to his wrist. Before he knew what was happening, she yanked him forward and down so that her lips touched his. The kiss was quick, gentle, one of friendship, yet the smile she wore, her teeth resting lightly on her lower lip, was one of shyness, and she traced the length of his beard with her finger. "I never told thee how much I missed thee, and how much I miss the childhood we shared in Yew. Thou wert my first and my best of friends, Blackthorn. Please tell me it shall always remain so."

"Of course," Blackthorn replied, who now held her tightly, partly because he did not wish her to step away and see how flushed he was. "Thou art always with me, Shaana, whether thou knowest or not. When difficult decisions need to be made, I often wonder what thou wouldst do."

She squeezed him tighter. "Good. I am glad to hear it. By the way, thou art losing thy touch." She laughed, sliding away from his embrace to reveal the dagger her gloved hand held at his side. "I have never seen thy guard down before."

He returned the laugh, and then with the flick of his wrist, playfully slapped the dagger away with his sword—she had failed to notice him take the hilt in his hand while they had kissed. The dagger dropped neatly into his palm. "I must have been preoccupied," he said.

"I have noticed how thou dost stare at the knight, Geraci," she said, peevishly, but with a smile. "She is a lovely one, is she not?" Then her smile faltered. "But thou truly dost tend to be preoccupied at times, especially when we speak of the past." Her hand touched his. "It has been a long time since the trial, and the events thereafter."

Anger briefly welled within Blackthorn. He had done everything he could to put those events and the feelings they evoked behind him, and now she had drudged them up. No, 'twas not her fault. "These proceedings, the disagreements with the Great Council, this ceremony. That man . . ." He sighed. "'Tis all too familiar."

"Familiar, but not the same, not the same at all. Thy father would have been proud."

The outrage, the fears, the distrust surfaced again, a distinct voice this time, screaming, crying to be freed. Shaana watched him with concern, knowing full well how he might react, but Blackthorn suppressed the cries. As that awful voice subsided, so did the feelings. "Thou art right, of course," he said. "This is different. A different time, a different matter. I shall not make the same mistakes as he." Not with her nearby. Shaana had a way of quelling that voice within him, even after they had first parted ways before his mother's yew tree.

Shaana spoke. "Come, then. Let us return to the tent. Methinks thou dost need another drink or two, especially if thou art to be my partner in the dances later."

"I do not think Captain Geoffrey would approve of his finest knight dancing with me. I know how he feels about me. He has never forgiven me for leaving the Royal Guard."

"Thou art being absurd. Thou wert his finest student." Shaana tossed her hair in a huff. "Besides, if it truly bothers thee, thou canst always order him to like thee. Thou art now the leader of Britannia's military, including those of us in the Royal Guard. Now, are we going to rejoin the others? Thou wilt be missed." She turned to leave.

"Art thou not forgetting something?" he asked. He held up her dagger.

She snatched it from his hand. "Bah! We are still at a draw in our duels."

"Only because thou hadst a distinct advantage back when we were younger," Blackthorn reminded her. "I was the student, and thou wert the master."

The quirk of a smile returned. "As I am still, and thou wouldst do well never to forget that." She leaned over to his ear and whispered, "And never forget this as well: I love thee, my dear friend Blackthorn. I shall always be here for thee." With that, she marched back into the tent.

Blackthorn allowed a few minutes to elapse before he, too, ducked into the celebration. No one needed to see him and Shaana emerge from an isolated alley together; the rumors abounded already. Yet no sooner had he taken two steps into the tent did a group of his own men guffaw, lift their mugs in his direction, and fill the tent with a bawdy cheer.

A mirthless chuckle caught Blackthorn's ear, and his breath caught in his throat."'Tis quite the lot thou dost have under thy command," his father, dressed in the garb of the Lord Mayor, said.

Blackthorn wiped away the sweat that suddenly blanketed his brow. No, not his father. Damn this heat and his lack of sleep. Judge Dryden, the man who had spoken, continued to chuckle. "Quite the lot, indeed. Dancers and drinkers. An unruly bunch, to say the least."

"They are disciplined," Blackthorn said.

Dryden sipped from his goblet. "For the right price, of course. Some for coin, others for freedom, a few for their lives, no doubt."

Blackthorn took the goblet from Dryden's lips. "And many for the cause." He returned the goblet to a server's tray, and grabbed another for himself.

"Yes, yes, of course," Dryden murmured, as his eyes followed the course of his drink. "One of whom is still missing."

"Nosfentre of Jhelom," Blackthorn acknowledged, unable to conceal his disappointment. "A valorous man. His ship, the Ararat, was supposed to dock this morning, but has yet to arrive."

"A pity he is not here. I would feel more confident about this venture had we more men like him and thy friend, Captain Suturb."

"Hast thou seen him?" Blackthorn asked.

"He is keeping an eye on the one thou didst wish to watch this night," Dryden remarked.


"Suturb is a fine man, as is Captain Veribed from Trinsic and Moragwain from Moonglow. The others . . ." He glanced with distaste at one group who arm-wrestled with the brothers, Noin and Roin, of the Royal Guard. "The others, well, they have performed adequately, considering their background. I never would have imagined that this rabble could have been disciplined to perform such an admirable service to their kingdom. Thou shouldst be commended for thine efforts, Lord Blackthorn."

"And what of thee? Thy part in this was no small matter. Without the support of thee and the other justices, I doubt Lord British would have gone against the will of the Great Council."

What happened next sent shivers down Blackthorn's spine. He had heard the Judge snicker before, even chuckle, but never had Blackthorn seen him throw back his head and cackle as he did now. "The Council!" he cried, briefly drawing the attention of others. "The Council!" he said, more softly. Tears ran from his eyes and he had to wipe them before he could speak. "They can sit and write laws all day, but the Virtues help them should they actually need to enforce them. I would go up against the Great Council on any given day, but then, I believe thou didst know that when thou didst seek my aid, no?"

Blackthorn said nothing, merely swirled the contents of his goblet.

"I thought as much," Dryden said with a thick, hideous grin. "Thou didst always strive to be a warrior, a fighter, and thou hast succeeded admirably, but in here—" He thumped his heart—"in here, thou art, and always will be, a politician, my friend. After all, 'tis thee who now has the privilege to sit at British's side, should he so chose. Again, I ask thee to reconsider this idea of galloping across the countryside for the next year. Why wait a year when Lord British can invoke thy Regency now? An opportunity wasted is not an opportunity at all."

Blackthorn solemnly shook his head. "I cannot stay here. The Black Company rides for Trinsic within the week, and I shall be with them. I must first ensure that the Black Company can perform abroad before I feel comfortable commanding them from afar. As thou hast said, they are an unruly bunch."

"Then perhaps thou shalt take thy place as Regent when thou dost return," Dryden grinned.


Dryden thumped his chest again. "Thy heart will ensure it." He quickly grabbed a second goblet from a passing tray, and clinked it against Blackthorn's. "Thy father would have been proud, Blackthorn."

"Yes," Blackthorn whispered, stealing a glance at Shaana, who was now pitting her arm against one of the Black Company. "Yes, so I have heard." He finished his drink with a single gulp, then excused himself from the Judge, who continued to chuckle.

Well after nightfall the festivities waged, and did so without signs of slowing, even when the royal scribe, Remoh, decided to cease recording the events in favor of sleeping in a puddle of ale. The Black Company diced and drank with a reluctant Captain Geoffrey and an eager Royal Guard, especially Shaana, who had finished her evening of dancing with Blackthorn. Judge Dryden milled among the members of the Great Council and the justices, none of whom Blackthorn wished to engage in conversation, and most of the other nobility had left for the night. Lord British still remained, however, deftly drinking at the head of the great table, surrounded by old friends beyond age, the Companions of the Avatar. Blackthorn had feasted with them earlier, acknowledged their half-hearted toasts to him and the Black Company, well aware that their praises stemmed more from the insistence of British than from their hearts. Now they talked amongst themselves, and Blackthorn caught edges of the conversation, and it was another topic he did not like: The Underworld.

Within the next few days, Blackthorn, British, and the Great Council would listen to seven wizards deliver their accounts about their separate journeys into the world beneath this one, an unearthly realm created when British and the Great Council ripped the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from the Great Stygian Abyss. Blackthorn did not expect any good news from a place born of such violence, especially now that the eighth wizard, Sutek, was missing. Like the knight, Nosfentre, he, too, had been expected to dock with the Ararat. Such tidings did not bode well. "The comets are alight this night," Blackthorn whispered to himself, his father's favorite adage.

Standing alone, thinking of his father while witnessing the bond between Lord British and the Companions, a bond that had borne them through the worst of Britannia's ages, despair and isolation swilled nauseatingly within Blackthorn's stomach, morosely settling with the overabundance of wine. He managed not to stumble when he walked to the exit of the tent, but exhausted from Shaana's insistence that he accompany her in dance after dance, he was forced to pause. He allowed time for a deep breath, then stepped outside . . . into a cavernous dome of shattered marble.

Blackthorn's breath halted along with the din of the celebration. His steps ceased as well, not on the grass of Britain's green, but on the ruins of an ancient floor, tiles of black and white uprooted in crevices that stemmed like a starburst from a crater in the chamber's center. Columns leaned broken from the circular wall, and between the columns hung tapestries, flayed and burnt like dead skin.

Shadows swarmed in this place, the children of three glowing jewels, or what seemed like jewels, each the size and shape of a dagger's blade, and serrated as well. They floated above the depression in the center of chamber, a pit darker than night, and within each translucent surface, a spectral face did glimmer and wave, as if heated from the bowels of an unseen furnace. He recognized those faces, yet could not place them, for his mind seemed to have spun a hole in itself, a place he could not touch, a place swirling deeper and deeper with the hostility, panic, and prevarications that he had thought conquered long ago. And from within that abyss arose the sounds of screaming—or perhaps of laughter. . . . He could not be certain. He knew only that the horrible chorus originated from those faces, that of a man, a woman, and . . . and of something neither machine nor man.

Other voices joined them, laughing at him, shrieking at him: Those of his father, Dryden, Nyomae, the Great Council, Lord British . . .


He fought the screams, the laughs, whatever they were, tried to thrust them out of his way. When he realized he could not, that they were far too powerful, he tried to run from them, run as he had when he was a boy, often hand in hand with Shaana, through the trees outside of Yew. Still the voices, the laughter, continued to pursue him through the deep forest he knew to be his mind. A final voice joined the pursuit, a piercing cackle, a hollow wail, and with horror, he recognized it as his own. 'Twas hopeless, he then realized, but the part of him that was the boy . . .

Run! he called out. Run!

The voices abruptly ceased.

He opened his eyes, which he had not realized had been closed. The jewels no longer glowed, were no longer there at all; in their place, an ornate frame of gold surrounded the slick surface of glass. From within the glass, another room stretched forth, a simple room with desk and chair, a chest of drawers, and a bed upon which a figure robed in black was hunched, weeping into its hands, the crown of Britannia upon its brow. Ages passed before the figure seemed to sense Blackthorn. It ceased weeping, giggled, wiped the tears from its eyes, and looked up at him. Only then did Blackthorn realize that it was a mirror in which he stared, for the reflection that wore that insane grin was his own.

The arm that slipped around his waist and guided him back to Britannia belonged to Shaana. "Too much to drink, my Lord?" she asked, amused. "Or dost thou often leave thy own celebrations to stare off into the night?" She touched his brow, and gasped. "Thou art as cold as ice."

He removed her hand, giving him enough time to compose his thoughts. "How long hast thou been here?"

"A mere moment or two. I saw thee leave, and thou didst have the same expression that thou didst wear a few hours after we had sneaked into The Slaughtered Lamb that one night." She laughed. "Dost thou remember the night we first tried drink? The innkeeper had to carry us out of the wine cellar the following morning."

"Yes." He actually smiled. "Yes, I remember."

"Good. I certainly do not." She laughed again, a pleasant sound, not like the laughter he had heard . . . Heard where? And what laughter was he thinking of? He could not remember. "I left the tent a moment after thou didst, and I found thee here, just a few steps outside the tent," Shaana said. "Thou didst not answer my first call."

"I was . . . in thought." At least, that was what he wanted to believe. Something had happened to him just now. He had been somewhere, hadn't he? He reached into his mind where a memory flitted just out of reach . . .


No. Probably just the wine. Too much wine. "I should retire for the evening," he whispered, more to himself than her.

"Thou dost disappoint me, my Lord," she said, teasingly. She then gazed up at him, her mischievous look turning to one of concern. "Perhaps thou art right. Thou hast had a long day, but be certain to pay thy respects to Lord British." She gave him a small embrace. "And be certain to see me before thou dost leave."

"Of course," he said. "I always seek thy guidance."

She left him alone, upon Britain's green. He walked to its center where the trickle of the green's fountain subdued the sounds of the celebration. From the basin he scooped water over his face, then stared at his reflection, his solemn frown illuminated by the stars and the twin moons. An overpowering fear gripped him, a ridiculous fear that his reflection would leer back at him with a hideous, insane grin. He quickly brought his fists down into the water, ripping the reflection apart.

"Lord Blackthorn."

He whirled to confront a tall, slender mage garbed in the uniform of the Great Council. The Councilor approached Blackthorn, gait smooth and slow, footsteps synchronous with the tap of his serpentine staff, his length of silvery-white hair, which dripped down to his waist, glittering with molten moonlight.

"And what does the Councilor from New Magincia wish of me?" Blackthorn asked, his voice, as well as the rest of his body, going rigid. This was the one man he had hoped to avoid all evening. He had confronted him enough over the past year, and the years before that. Fortunately, he knew that he was not alone in this particular confrontation. Beyond the fountain, a shadow shifted. Blackthorn recognized the form of Captain Suturb, who he had assigned to tail the Councilor this night.

The shepherd's crook, the symbol of New Magincia, flashed where it hung against the Councilor's chest when he stepped into a pool of moonlight. His eyes, however, remained midnight pools as he peered at Blackthorn over his hawkish nose. "What do I wish of thee?" He tilted his head to the side. "Why, only to rectify the rudeness that I have shown thee this evening." He spoke slowly, as if to heighten the impact of each word. "I have yet to congratulate thee, Lord Blackthorn, Bearer of the Shield of Valor, First Hand to Britannia's King." His lips parted, ever so slowly, in a smile. "Thy father would have been—"

"My father is dead, Councilor Windemere," Blackthorn finished, acidly, "as is thine. Shall we let their spirits rest this night?"

The son of the man who had been condemned by Blackthorn's father said nothing, merely bowed with a languid sweep of his arm, then obliged Blackthorn's desire to see him leave, the echo of his footsteps and the tap of his staff trailing behind.

"Damn thee," Blackthorn whispered. He did not know to whom it was he spoke: the father or son.

Chapter 1
Foresight and Fools

The moons shone equidistant from the horizon as the riders galloped up the hill from the town of Britain, a company of nine spearheaded by a single rider, his cloak flowering like an ebony rose against the winter wind. Snow fell like small droplets of starlight, stirred into a whirlwind as the riders passed. Mud and slush splashed, the horses huffed and whinnied plumes of frost, and occasionally a rider would bellow at his steed to move quicker—an urgent orchestra in an otherwise silent night.

When he reached the crest of the hill, Lord Blackthorn drew his steed to a halt and called for his followers to do the same. Castle Britannia loomed before the Black Company, its towers frosted pillars of snow and moonlight, so tall that the windows lit beneath their eaves seemed like the brethren of the stars above. Blackthorn's eyes traversed those towers, up and up, and then beyond, into the sky, where he stared, as he had stared every night since the omens had appeared.

The comets, three of them, silent and still, each the twin of the other, feasted upon the brightest of stars this night, the wandering beacons of Compassion, Honesty, and Valor. Despite the glow of their tails, the night around the comets seemed particularly deep, as if the sky poured itself into brilliant fissures.

A solemn horn sounded from the gatehouse, reclaiming Blackthorn's attention. Shouts called back and forth between the Black Company and the towers, then the creak of winches preceded the rasp of ancient chains. Wood groaned. The drawbridge settled to the earth with a muffled boom, sending up a flurry of snow and with it, the musty scent of damp oak and steel.

Within the courtyard of the castle, the presence of the stable girl, a pretty child with wide eyes, surprised Blackthorn. "Treanna," he said, "'tis late for one so young to be awake, much less out at night."

She curtsied as best she could with one hand holding a torch. Snow drifted about her dress. "I heard thou wert arriving this night, my Lord, so I awaited thee." As she spoke, her gaze strayed to the black Valorian charger on which he rode. Blackthorn suppressed a chuckle. It had not been Blackthorn for whom she had waited.

"His name is Virtue," Blackthorn said.

"I remember," she whispered, then quoted: "''Tis upon Virtue that Blackthorn shall ride forth to oppress villainy and chaos.'"

Blackthorn dismounted, and handed the reins to the girl, who timidly took them. He patted the charger's neck. "He is thine for as long as I am here," Blackthorn said. A warm smile dimpled the girl's cheeks. "Dost thou know where I might find Captain Geoffrey at this hour?" Blackthorn asked. "I am surprised he was not here to meet us. I sent him and the Great Council notice of my arrival."

Treanna frowned in puzzlement. "The Captain of the Royal Guard is gone, my Lord."


The girl stepped back from the severity of his tone, and Virtue quietly whinnied. Treanna stammered to answer, but another stepped forward, a tall soldier who strode out of the shadows. "He left yesterday, my Lord. With old friends."

Old friends, indeed. The Companions of the Avatar were taking matters into their own hands, it seemed. He had, of course, expected this, so it made little difference. Still, it complicated matters. One could not have one's Captain of the Royal Guard defying orders at whim. Blackthorn would need to deal with it, one way or another.

"I thank thee for the information, Captain Suturb," Blackthorn said to the soldier, "and 'tis good to see thee."

"Welcome back, my friend," Suturb smiled, and grasped Blackthorn's hand. Torchlight shimmered off his golden hair, and highlighted the scars upon his cheeks and brows, injuries that the Captain had taken while fighting at Blackthorn's side. "We have been separated for far too long," Suturb said. "I should have been at thy side for the past few months. 'Tis the way it has always been, ever since we first met within these walls, all those years ago."

"I needed thee here," Blackthorn said. "Someone in the Black Company had to oversee our operations in Britain." And it was the closest that Suturb would ever come to serving in the Royal Guard. Though the Captain would not admit it, serving the Royal Guard had always been his dream. He had been devastated the day when the knight, Geoffrey, had told him that his skills with the sword would always be lacking. 'Twas why Suturb had joined Blackthorn when he had abandoned his training in Guard.

Blackthorn addressed his men. "Thou art to assist Treanna in stabling thy mounts, then report to the Great Hall. Speak with Margaret, the upper kitchen chef. She should be awaiting thee with hot meals and warm mead, and she will direct thee to thy quarters." They acknowledged his command with their call: "By book and by blade!" With that, he gave them their leave.

He and Suturb left the Black Company and the stable girl in the courtyard and entered the main hall of Castle Britannia. Darkness lingered here, toying with the torches bracketed upon the great pillars, scuttling along the web of arches that formed the ceiling. Behind Blackthorn and Suturb, the doors closed, uttering first a moan of cool wind, then a resounding clap. Armor clinked, then silenced when the guard who had shut the door returned to his post.

Suturb stopped. "Art thou certain that thou dost wish to face the Council alone?" he asked.

"I do not relish the idea," Blackthorn said, "but it must be so."

"Mages," Suturb nearly spat. "I have never trusted them. Be wary." With that, he excused himself.

Ahead, the braziers of the main foyer beckoned, but even they, as great as they were, paled this night, and the fountain, normally vociferous in its welcome, merely whispered. Blackthorn strode through the foyer as briskly as he could, his reflection a ghostly apparition in the marble tile, then suddenly stopped. The foyer, nearly a cavern in itself, with pillars twice as tall as he and tapestries that could shelter a cottage—it reminded him of another chamber, a place shrouded in shadows, a mirror, and screams . . .

Dread chilled his blood, followed by fear when next he did hear voices, violent murmurs arguing amongst themselves. And he no longer stood in the foyer, but in an elegant hall. A brief wave of disorientation and panic swelled—then he realized that he had simply ascended to the second floor of the castle. He did not remember climbing the stairs or weaving his way through the halls to arrive here. Not that it mattered. The brief lapses in memory no longer bothered him. They brought no harm, just a bit of confusion—'twas a way for his overactive mind to rest when it could. He did not sleep much these days, had not for a long, long time. Dreams kept him awake.

The voices continued to be the sole occupants of the desolate hall. Blackthorn followed their echoes to a set of double doors thrown wide, spilling both light and debates into the desolate halls. "There is no need to invoke the clause." Blackthorn stiffened as he recognized the voice. "It might only be a matter of weeks before His Majesty's expedition returns from the Underworld. In the meantime, the representatives of the people, those they elected, can lead."

"And by representatives, thou dost mean us, of course," someone scoffed. "Now that our leader is missing, 'tis the Council's chance to take the throne, is it, Windemere?"

"I mean nothing of the sort, Felespar," Windemere answered, acidly. "If Lord British had not entrusted the Council to oversee the rule of Britannia, then he would have invoked the clause before his departure. Clearly, His Majesty believed we were capable of governing in his absence."

A woman next, solemn and quiet: Fiona of Minoc. "His Majesty tried to invoke the clause. 'Twas Blackthorn who insisted it should not be so. He believed His Majesty would return in a few weeks. Surely, if he and Lord British had foreseen this—"

"Foreseen? Dost thou honestly believe our Lords did not understand the risks of this venture? Dost thou truly think they did not foresee the possibility of this outcome? Yet they chose to forsake the clause, and allowed us to govern in British's stead."

"Within the limits of our jurisdiction," a fourth voice said, wise and aged, that of Hassad, the Councilor from Skara Brae. "As always, we may oversee, even write and sign and overturn, the laws of our own localities. We may even settle disputes and sign agreements between cities without the consent of his Majesty, but as for matters that affect the whole of Britannia, we require the consent of our monarch. 'Tis the law, Windemere, as agreed and signed by our predecessors."

A boom, as if someone had hit his fist against a table. "Laws can be changed," Windemere said.

"But not without the consent of His Majesty, or, in his absence, that of his appointed Regent," Blackthorn announced, striding into the chamber. "To do otherwise is to constitute revolt, and with the recent departure of our good Captain Geoffrey, I, for one, have had enough mutiny this night."

The prolonged silence that greeted his entrance came as no surprise. He had not expected a warm welcome from the Great Council, especially since he had arrived on his own accord, not through their summons. The councilors sat around the great table, brows and frowns creased. Annon, old and grave, acknowledged his entrance with barely a nod, as did the women, Fiona and Malifora. Felespar chuckled quietly; his neighbor, Goeth, appeared perplexed, as if uncertain of what to make of this event. Sindar showed no reaction: As usual, he dozed contentedly in his chair. Hassad's smile, however, was broad and genuine.

Windemere, the only councilor on his feet, was the first to speak. "Thou art not the Regent yet, Blackthorn, and I would hardly consider Captain Geoffrey's efforts to lead a search party as a mutiny. 'Tis his duty to protect His Majesty, Lord British."

"His duty is to oversee the Royal Guard, they who are stationed here to protect Castle Britannia and those within its halls, especially the members of the Great Council," Blackthorn responded, striding to the head of the table, opposite of where Windemere stood. "That I made to clear to him."

"We gave him leave—" Windemere began.

"I ordered him to await my arrival," Blackthorn said, harshly. "Regent or not, with Lord British's absence, I am Britannia's military commander, and that includes Captain Geoffrey and the Royal Guard." He leaned forward, hands firmly planted on the table, and peered at each councilor in turn, words slow and deliberate. "Captain Geoffrey defied his superior. The fact that the Council gave him permission to do so does not justify the indiscretion."

The silver-haired councilor would not be intimidated. "The Captain was well aware of his insubordination, but he believed his disobedience a worthy sacrifice if it meant searching for Lord British." He threw his arms wide. "Art thou seriously suggesting that we should not have recognized his honorable action? I can think of no greater injustice."

Blackthorn was about to respond, but it was Hassad who spoke. "The matter will be settled later, gentlemen." Hassad's eyes could not see, but somehow he managed to deliver a penetrating stare to both Blackthorn and the Councilor. "There are more important issues at stake. Our monarch is missing, and we must decide what is to be done."

"Stories of his absence have begun to spread," said Fiona. "The crew with whom I sailed whispered that daemons had slain their King. A ranger here in Britain spoke of seeing His Majesty's ghost amongst the trees of Spiritwood."

Felespar snorted. "Rumors, nothing more."

"Perhaps," Annon, the Councilor of Britain, said, "but rumors breed uncertainty and with uncertainty comes fear, both of which plague our realm more so than ever before. The final wasting of the northeast, the sudden surge of maelstroms within our shipping lanes." Windemere scowled at this. His family had stayed true to its roots, and now more or less controlled the seas: This time, ironically, by protecting all the known sea routes from rogue ships and pirates. Not a port could be visited without encountering Windemere's ships; if anything, Windemere's fleet constituted Britannia's navy. 'Twas said that even the great serpents and squids of the sea fled before the sight of one of Windemere's ships. But there was nothing even a navy could do against maelstroms, especially ones that appeared at random.

Annon continued listing Britannia's woes. "And with the increase of bandit and troll attacks along the roads, merchants are less willing to travel, and less willing to trade. The shopkeepers and farmers here in Britain have suffered. As a result, so have the laborers. Everyone is facing hard times. I have seen men turn on each other in the streets, witnessed children robbing beggars." He sighed gravely. "If such problems have arisen here—in our realm's center of trade—then I can only imagine what hardships lie elsewhere. There is much to be concerned about."

"Britannia is in a fragile state," agreed Fiona, "and many believe the loss of its monarch could be the final blow."

Windemere spoke forcefully. "And what dost thou believe? That we cannot survive without a monarch? Absurd! Britannia has not been a monarchy in decades, not since the founding of the Great Council."

Felespar chuckled. "If that is so, then tell me, Windemere, who is it that the lords and ladies of our land swear their fealty to? The Crown or the Council? We may not be a monarchy in the traditional sense, but sense means little in the game of power. As for the rule of Britannia: Folks speak of their king, not their councilors, and they will seek a new king when the old is lost."

"This, they already do." Blackthorn turned in surprise at the voice of Sindar, the Councilor of Trinsic, who studied them through heavy eyelids. "The fighters of Jhelom and the paladins of my own city have talked of positioning Lord Malone of Serpent's Hold as the successor to the throne."

"Lord Malone, yes." Goeth bobbed his head as if in agreement, but Blackthorn could not be certain whether the gesture—or even the words—had been a conscious effort. "Much support there is for him." The aged Council's shoulders twitched.

"Others speak of backing Sir Simon," Sindar added. His laconic gaze settled on Windemere as he said this, then he closed his eyes, and leaned back in his seat, expression serene.

"Lord Simon, yes," Goeth murmured. "Support for him, too." The rest of his speech was unintelligible, and trickled off into silence. Trust the fighters of Jhelom, Blackthorn remembered Felespar saying, to insult the mages of the Council by electing one who is crazed.

Malifora, the gypsy soothsayer from Moonglow, interrupted his thoughts, her voice melodious and sorrowful. "The fractures have appeared. Unless we take action, they will continue to grow, and the jewel that is Britannia will shatter." Her words, as always, bore the aura of finality.

Windemere shook his head forcefully. "That, I will not believe. Give the citizens of Britannia a chance to see that the Great Council, their own representatives, can govern on its own, and they will see reason, I am certain of it."

"Reason?" Felespar laughed in disgust. "Really, thou dost give them too much credit. People are creatures of habit, and hence, tradition, and the tradition of Britannia's government is a ruling monarch, and has been for centuries. Thou canst not simply erase that from the hearts and minds of the people. Should we decide to dispose of the monarch, those we represent will simply try to replace him. The answer is simple, Windemere: Invoke the clause of the Regent. Blackthorn shall rule in Lord British's stead, as was deemed by His Majesty on the day of the Summer Solstice, and we will not need to worry about petty rebellions."

Fury ignited within Windemere, and the shadows around the Councilor, those cast by the seated forms of Annon, Malifora, and Goeth, suddenly seemed to grow deeper in the blaze that was his anger. "And what makes thee think that the citizens of Britannia will unite behind Blackthorn?" he nearly shouted. "There are those that oppose his rule, as well!" He leaned over the trembling shoulders of Goeth, his voice now quiet and with purpose. "I ask this: Why choose Blackthorn over Lord Malone?" He then addressed Annon. "Or Lord Michael of the Empeth Abbey, for that matter?" And at last, he confronted Malifora, whose crystalline eyes were cold. "Or Lord Shalineth of the Lycaeum?" He slammed the tip of his serpentine staff on the floor. "Even if Blackthorn is chosen, there will be rebellion."

"Enough of this!" Blackthorn's command thundered across the chamber, and perhaps it was his imagination, but it seemed to him that the torches flared when he spoke, and the shadows within the room recoiled. "Thou dost speak as if I am not here, and I did not ride all the way from Yew to be dismissed. Nor did I ride here to listen to thee squabble over who is to rule Britannia. That is not a question. 'Tis Lord British who rules Britannia, and no one else. Not I, and not this Council, not until we know what has happened to our king."

Windemere was the first to recover from Blackthorn's outburst. "And what is it that thou dost suggest we do? We cannot simply sit back and wait for our king to return from the Underworld."

"But we can decree that he still lives and hence is still the rightful ruler of Britannia. In the meantime, the Companions will continue their search, the Great Council will invoke the clause of Regent, and I will assume Lord British's responsibilities while he is absent."

Windemere drew his breath to retaliate, but the hiss that echoed across the chamber was Blackthorn drawing his sword. The jewels upon its golden hilt burst with light as he hurled it across the room. Blade and hilt spun like an opulent disc, parallel to the table, before the sword dropped and clattered harmlessly to the floor at the hem of Windemere's robes. The Councilor stared at it.

With Windemere's response effectively cut off, Blackthorn continued. "Should I assume the Regency, it will be the Great Council alone that will provide the rules of law. If thou dost write a law, I will sign it. I will not question it; I will not veto it. I swear that I will hold no power over thee." He indicated the blade he had just thrown. "My sword, as they say, will be thine." Again, he leaned forward, hands planted firmly on the great table. "But make no mistake, no matter what is decided, 'tis Lord British who still rules this land. If I even hear of someone acting on his desire to replace His Majesty, I will brand him a traitor, and I will have the Black Company hunt him down."

With that, he left, but not before tossing his empty scabbard across the table so that it could join the sword that lay gleaming at Windemere's feet.

Snow misted the halos cast by the brazier perched upon the parapet of Castle Britannia. The moons had shifted in their westward arc, the orb Felucca closer to the apex than her sister, Trammel. They and the comets showered the night with light, and the snow-capped fields and hills of Britain shimmered like a white sea. The sea itself rested in darkness beyond the lanterns of Britain and the Britannys, but its scent, even this far away, was strong upon the chill wind. Occasionally, a voice echoed above the wind, other times the bark of a dog, some times the music of a pub.

More than an hour had passed since Blackthorn had left the chamber of the Council, or so he judged by the moons. He seemed to have fallen asleep as soon as he had left, and awoke to find himself standing here by one of the snow-covered cannons, the key in his hand.

He slowly unfolded his fingers. The key glimmered with gold, the Great Earth Serpent engraved in silver on one side of its handle, the symbol of the Codex upon the other. Lord British had entrusted him with it. No one else knew of it. He only knew of one other that existed. That one, he believed, now dwelled in the Underworld, lost with its owner.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, he closed his fingers around the key, and concealed it in the pouch at his belt. Two figures shuffled up the parapet toward him, both wrapped tightly in furs, breath frosting in plumes from their hoods. Felespar guided Hassad by the crook of the blind mage's elbow until they stood next to Blackthorn. "I thought we might find thee here," Hassad said. "I must admit, I have not been up here before. Is the view lovely?"

Felespar grinned. "Not when it is dark, you old fool." He addressed Blackthorn. "I believe thou didst leave something behind."

With hands shivering from the cold, Hassad held up the scabbard that Blackthorn had tossed at Windemere. The jewels upon the golden hilt glinted. "Of course," Blackthorn said, "I had almost forgotten." Felespar laughed at this while Blackthorn took the sword. A brief gleam of moonlight shown as he slid the blade from the scabbard, inspected it, then slapped it back into place. "Did the Council make a decision?"

Felespar chortled. "I did not realize thou hadst left us with a decision to make." He tapped Blackthorn's sword with his staff. "Thou didst make it very clear as to what thou didst believe ought to be done."

"The choice was still thine," said Blackthorn. He buckled the scabbard to his belt, next to the pouch in which the entrusted key rested. "Assuming a choice has been made."

Hassad nodded. "The Great Council shall issue a decree to the general populace that His Majesty, Lord British, is believed to be alive, and hence, is still the rightful ruler of Britannia. Lord Blackthorn, as Regent, shall assume the responsibilities of the crown during His Majesty's absence."

"And was this a unanimous decision by the Council?" Blackthorn asked.

Felespar's response was one of amusement. "Windemere's signature is not on the decree that invokes thy Regency, as is his right. Still, it does not matter. The rest of the Council voted in thy favor. He could not convince that fool Goeth, Sindar, and Malifora to act against thee. Not this time."

Blackthorn's fist hit a merlon hard enough that the corner crumbled, showering pebbles upon his boots. "This decree is not about me," he fumed. "'Tis about keeping Britannia from disintegrating into panic."

"For the time being," said Hassad. "The decree does not answer who will assume the monarchy should we discover that Lord British has—"

"Lord British lives," Blackthorn said, too harshly for his own taste, so he calmed himself. "I am certain of it. Only the greatest of evils could harm His Majesty."

"Yes," whispered Hassad, turning his face to the sky. The comets cast a pale sheen over his sightless eyes. "That is what frightens me."

Felespar wrapped himself tighter in his cloak as a breeze scattered snow. "It has grown colder," he muttered, wiping away the flakes that had already accumulated in his beard, "and I am tired. If we are finished here, Hassad, I suggest that we take our leave."

"Very well." The Councilor from Skara Brae reached up and laid his free hand on Blackthorn's shoulder. "I wish to express my condolences. I know that the knight, Shaana, was thy friend."

Blackthorn gripped the Councilor's hand with affection. He did not face the councilors as he spoke, choosing to stare off into the night. "'Twas Captain Geoffrey who wished to accompany His Majesty on his journey. I ordered the Captain to remain behind since I thought that if the journey did end in disaster, Britannia could not afford to lose both British and Geoffrey. Instead, I sent Shaana." He bowed his head. "Now all three are gone." The wind nipped icily at his cheek where he was startled to discover a tear lined his jaw—fortunately, on the side that did not face the councilors. He swallowed and spoke with sudden resolve. "When he returns, the knight, Geoffrey, shall be suspended from his duties, if not completely stripped of his rank and all privileges as Captain of the Royal Guard. Let everyone know that I will not tolerate insubordination, not during a time when we must be united."

Hassad nodded sadly as he slipped his hand from Blackthorn's shoulder. Felespar said nothing. Moments later, Blackthorn, once again, stood alone. He wiped away the sliver of ice that had been his tear. Then he removed the key from his belt. He gripped it resolutely in his hand.

From this section of the parapet, a bridge spanned over the courtyard and chambers of Castle Britannia. Over this arch he walked, cape billowing in the wind, boots crushing ice and snow, to a door set in the highest tower of the castle. The door rose above him, as did the sinewy form of the Great Earth Serpent, set in steel upon the door's oaken boards. No handle, no latch, no hinges, only the symbol of the Codex where a lock might be. On this, Blackthorn placed the tip of the key. It slid inward, turned. The door clicked, swung open. He was not the first to be here tonight. Another set of footprints not yet covered by the snowfall led up to the door. He ignored them, and stepped inside the personal chamber of Lord British.

For the first time that evening, warmth washed over him, shed by the blaze that crackled softly within the chamber's hearth. He took a step onto the ornate carpet spread lengthwise from the door, and stopped. The weight of the world felt oddly lighter here, and he took a moment to revel in it. Behind him, the door shut on its own accord, unwilling to allow the winter in. The whisper of the wind ceased, replaced by the voice of the fire, and the steady tick of a grandfather clock.

He approached the king's bed, a canopied affair with four ornate posts, mahogany headboards, and a wealth of heavy blankets neatly tucked and folded, as if patiently awaiting the return of their occupant. Blackthorn walked along the side of the bed, tracing the edges of the fabric with his fingers, marveling at its softness. At one time in his life he had had a bed he could call his own. How many years ago had that been? Not since he had fled Yew.

He reached over the bed and from its pillows he lifted the crown of Lord British. Before he had departed, Lord British had sent Blackthorn a message that indicated that the crown jewel could be found here. Now Blackthorn held the crown aloft, turning it. He had always wondered how it would feel. Like the hearth, it radiated warmth, pulsed with light. Jewels within gold scintillated, reflecting the chamber's gilded lamps and candelabra.

Crown held in outstretched arms, Blackthorn slowly crossed the floor to stand before the full-length mirror set in the corner of the chamber. He laughed ruefully at the man who greeted him from within the glass, taller than most, shoulders and neck broad, black beard neatly trimmed upon a stout jaw. A handsome man, or so others told him, with wavy hair thick and dark as coal, skin like a fine coat of bronze, and piercing eyes. He saw none of that. Just pale flesh, a solemn frown, and sorrow. All flayed by the lines of age. As he watched, the man lifted the crown above his head, as if ready to place it upon his brow.

"It suits thee, does it not?" a voice said. Blackthorn whirled around, crown gripped in one hand, the other going to his sword.

The elderly gentleman who sat hunched over Lord British's desk did not bother to look up. Instead, he dipped his quill in the inkwell, and continued to work on the parchment upon which he had been writing, one of many scattered across the desk, the nearby shelves, and floor. Blackthorn glanced in distaste at the mess. "I should not be surprised that I have found thee here." He relaxed his grip on the sword.

The old man shrugged. "Thou art not the only one to whom Lord British entrusted a key." As he wrote, the old man's length of thick, gray, knotted hair whispered over the parchment, and toyed with spots of ink. "His Majesty felt that someone ought to assume the position of scribe with Remoh gone." That mat of hair also obscured the man's face, but Blackthorn imagined a ruthless smile lingered upon the elder's lips as he spoke. "Who better else, than his court advisor?"

"The court jester, perhaps?"

The quill continued to write. "A devious man, that fellow. Far more observant than he lets on."

"Just like thee," said Blackthorn.

Another shrug. "'Tis my duty to be aware of things that others are not, else what worth would my advice be?"

Blackthorn approached the man, one hand rubbing the edge of Lord British's crown. "Then thou art aware that thou dost now speak with the Regent of Britannia?"

At last the writing ceased. The scribe rested the quill upon the parchment and leaned back. The enormous chair, its maroon cushions deep and plush, engulfed him. "So, the Council invoked thy right as Regent." Fingers gnarled like the limbs of Yew trees contemplatively tapped together in a pyramid. "Sooner than I would have expected. What, pray tell, didst thou say to them?"

Satisfied that he had at last received a reaction, Blackthorn told him.

"Clever," the court advisor admitted. "Lord British left a void of power when he did not invoke thy Regency. With his absence, the Great Council could have supported a third party as the inheritor to the throne, and since thou wert not Regent, it would not have been thy right to oppose it. But now thou dost have that power, not to mention the power to rule in Lord British's place. And since thou hast proclaimed that the missing monarch still lives, thou dost not even need to worry about a third party taking the throne. Very clever, indeed."

The warmth of the crown suddenly seemed to burn, and Blackthorn placed it on a chest of drawers. "I did what had to be done, nothing more. We should not be debating about who might inherit the throne of our ruler. We should be concerned about how our realm fairs while he is gone."

"What if he never returns?"

Blackthorn did not want to answer, believed the question did not warrant an answer. Lord British lives! Yet he heard himself speak. "If need be, then I, as Regent, will ensure that the establishment of a new monarchy is created in accordance to law." But such action will not be needed. He lives!

"And if something were to happen to the Regent?" The scribe leaned forward, the light of the chamber falling full on his face.

'Twas if winter's breath had seeped into Blackthorn's blood. He had known the court advisor for years, but that face always caused disconcertment whenever Blackthorn saw it for the first time. The crystalline, blue eye that scrutinized him gleamed with shrewdness, and the scribe's mouth curved in a sly grin, teeth in even rows if not shining white. His nose, cheeks, and jaw were lean and slender, fit for a thief. Blackthorn had recognized the man's craftiness immediately. 'Twas an intelligence others did not usually see in the old man, not when distracted by the right half his face.

Eye, nostril, and mouth drooped in a perpetual frown, each too thin, too long, twisted and warped. They might have looked as if they were trying to crawl their way off his skull, had they not simply hung there in lifeless lumps. The rest of his skin heaved in thick, molten welts, boiled and burned long ago in a fire of which the man would not speak. The right ear was missing as well, an unsightly hole covered by that angry mesh of gray hair, and 'twas the reason why the court advisor leaned with his left side forward when others spoke.

"Tell me, Whitelock," Blackthorn whispered, "what dost thou mean by ‘if something were to happen to the Regent?'"

The man named Whitelock regarded Blackthorn coolly. "Come now, didst thou not think of this? The Regent may rule in His Majesty's absence, but what if the Regent were, shall we say, to go missing as well? What then? The void of power would resume. The Great Council could then support a third party for the monarchy, should they choose to support a monarch at all." One half of his face smiled, the other frowned. "Do not think that this scenario has not occurred to Windemere."

The crown glinted out of the corner of Blackthorn's eye as he spoke. "Windemere has nothing to gain from overthrowing me. I promised the Great Council full compliance."

"Over what? Creating and signing laws?" Whitelock grunted in amusement. "Lord British had, more or less, already granted the Great Council that power. Rarely did he contend any action of the Council, not that he needed to. The courts and military, they who enforce the laws, ultimately answer to the monarch, not the Council, and Windemere will not rest until that is changed. He took his first steps toward control by providing Britannia with a navy. Certainly, he would have extended his control over the land . . . had not a young lord already done so with the Black Company." The scribe's singular eye stared pointedly at Blackthorn. "Now, with Lord British's disappearance, he need not control the land if he controls the monarchy. Yet here thou art, once again, standing in his way."

Blackthorn shook his head. "Windemere is a fool, that is certain, but he's even more the fool if he believes he can simply rid the realm of a king. The monarchy is an establishment. The Great Council knows this. If one king falls, another will replace him."

"Unless they are all busy fighting each other, in which case Windemere could convince the Great Council to declare martial law, and seize control of the courts and the military. That is within their right, providing no Regent is available to do the same."

Blackthorn could not believe what he was hearing. "An unlikely scenario," he declared.

"Is it?" Lord British's advisor grabbed a handful of scrolls off the desk. As he did so, he uncovered an ornate box of sandalwood. Something stirred within Blackthorn as he stared at the box, something that he thought he should know, but then Whitelock distracted him when he rattled the air by shaking the scrolls. "For the past few nights I have been receiving reports from the contacts that I have throughout Britannia. Jhelom. Trinsic. Minoc. Moonglow. New Magincia." He tossed a scroll down for each city that he named. "All are wondering what is to be done, and all have a different idea of what should be done. Only the folks in Britain, Yew, and Skara Brae seem to be willing to wait for His Majesty's return. Britain, for obvious reasons, and Skara Brae because of Hassad's inexplicable fondness for thee. As for Yew, Dryden will ensure that it remains loyal. Felespar, too, but only should Yew's loyalty remain to his advantage."

The clock pealed twice, deep and resonant. "There was bound to be unrest in the beginning," Blackthorn said, when the clock returned to its steady, quiet count of the hour. "The realm will settle down once the Council issues its decree. Affairs will be conducted in an orderly manner. Britannia will not be torn apart. Lord British will return." His gaze drifted to the box.

"Let us hope he does," Whitelock said. He took up his quill, and pushed the scrolls from his parchment. The box was covered again, and Blackthorn blinked uncertainly. Whitelock looked up, the maimed half of his face hidden. "Be wary of Windemere, my Lord. He is very much like his father: Charismatic, a true leader, and rebellious. His reach extends well beyond his influence in New Magincia. Those who dwell within his family's stronghold consider their island a country in its own right. In addition, he has followers in every city, some visible, others not, lawmakers and lawbreakers, all with some influence over the local courts and militia. And like a crew of one of his captains, these men and women are loyal to Windemere, fiercely loyal, save for a few, who I happen to contact every now and then." He turned back to his writing, hair and shadow once again concealing his face. "Do not underestimate him. This is his opportunity, as it is thine." He interrupted his scribbling long enough to point the quill at the crown that had mysteriously reappeared in Blackthorn's hands. So startled was Blackthorn that he nearly dropped it.

"No," Blackthorn whispered. The metal of the crown burned. "This is not mine." Neither does it belong locked in here. It belongs with the other crown jewel, the Scepter of Lord British.

He took the crown to Lord British's throne room, empty at this hour, and a soaring vault of darkness. A tunnel of pale light burrowed through that blackness, bordered by the chamber's ghostly pillars, each so enormous that the torch bracketed to it could only illuminate a pale ellipse of marble. An elaborate carpet, crafted by the silk weavers of Buccaneer's Den, stretched forth from Blackthorn's feet. At its far end, the king's throne gleamed in a fragile island of light. And on the throne, where Lord British had told him he could find the scepter . . . the scepter was not.

Heart suddenly surging, Blackthorn ran to the throne. The indentation of His Majesty's scepter was clear in the cushions, but the scepter itself—"Someone has stolen it," he heard himself whisper.

Disbelief turned to shock, and shock melted into anger, all within seconds. He released his frustrations in a bellow of rage. The throne room screamed back at him, once, twice, more until the last of the echoes died. Windemere! He tossed the crown upon the throne, and room screeched with the drawing of his blade. I shall have thine head! He spun, ready to storm out to Windemere's quarters, then heard something.

He stopped, listened. From behind him, the sound came again. A whisper so soft Blackthorn had to strain to hear it. "Ho eyo he hum." Yes, he was not mistaken. "Ho eyo he hum." This time followed by the tinkle of bells. Blackthorn's sword glinted as he looked behind the throne.

In the tiny space between the throne's back and the wall was the court jester, curled in a ball, arms clasped around his knees, which he had tucked up beneath his length of a chin. The bells in his cap jingled quietly as he rocked back and forth.

There, cradled in the fool's lap, was the scepter.

Rage consumed Blackthorn, a fire in his blood. He leveled the point of his sword mere inches from the man's neck. "Why hast thou taken it?" he whispered, fiercely.

The jester looked up, and what little light there was here gleamed off his tears. "Ho eyo he hum," he whispered. "My king is gone, and darkness has come."

The flames of anger within Blackthorn died, doused by sorrow, pity, and, above all, shame. He lowered his blade. "Keep it safe," he said softly to the jester. "It and the crown, if need be."

The jester solemnly nodded, then looked behind Blackthorn. "Ho eyo he hum," he said, voice quieter than before. "I see three, where there should be one."

He did not understand what the jester meant until he turned and noticed that with the arrangement of the torches, he cast multiple shadows upon the wall. As all men do, he thought.

Then he exited the throne room, ordering the guards outside to keep it locked to all but the jester, saddened that the Crown Jewels of Britannia were best entrusted to a fool.

Chapter 2
Paths of Destiny

The boy Blackthorn studied the two cards set before him. On the face of one card, a paladin rode upon a Valorian steed before a dawn painted of violet clouds. To the rising sun the paladin lifted his arms, and in his gauntlets he proffered a golden cup. Upon the face of the other card, a man also lifted his arms and cupped his hands, though to receive golden coins dropped from the hand of another. Behind the beggar and his benefactor the sun burned a brilliant yellow.

Blackthorn's father sat on the opposite side of the table, face illuminated by the glow of the common room's hearth. Evening had settled an hour before, just before the two had supped, and their bowls and cups still sat upon the table. "Thou art sworn to uphold a lord who participates in the forbidden torture of prisoners," his father said. "Each night their cries of pain reach thee." He tapped the card with the beggar. "Dost thou show compassion by reporting the deeds, or—" He slid his finger over to the first card, the sleeves of his linen shirt brushing the table. "Or dost thou honor thy oath and ignore the deeds?"

The boy Blackthorn did not hesitate. He laid his hand on the beggar. His father nodded, then removed the card with the paladin, setting it facedown with five others. He replaced this card with an eighth depicting a blindfolded woman swathed in green robes. She stood upon a hill of verdant grass, holding aloft a set of scales, golden like her hair.

Blackthorn's father spoke again. "After twenty years, thou hast found the slayer of thy best friends. The villain proves to be a man who provides the soul support for a young girl." His father touched the card with the beggar. "Dost thou spare him in compassion for the girl, or—" He moved his finger to the other card—"Dost thou slay him in the name of justice?"

This time, the boy Blackthorn did hesitate. Card versus card the game went, virtue against virtue until only one remained, the virtue that, supposedly, the player favored in his spirit. With this in mind, he eyed the beggar and his coins since his heart went out to the girl in his father's last question, but in the end he laid his hand upon the woman and her scales.

"The card of justice," his father said, a faint gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. He held the card aloft, rotating it. The scales flashed in the warm light shed by the hearth.

The boy Blackthorn stood from his seat to collect the plates and cups. His father halted him by gently taking the boy by the arm. "Tell me, son, why thou didst choose the card of compassion over the card of honor, yet ultimately relinquish it to the card of justice?"

"'Tis in the accords of Britannia," the boy answered, "that a man who unjustly slays multiple men should suffer for his crimes by forfeiting his life."

"And if no such precedent had been set?" his father asked. "What then wouldst thou have chosen?"

The boy Blackthorn did not hesitate this time. "I would have spared him for the girl."

His father nodded, and released his arm. The boy carried the dirty cups and plates to the hearth. As he stacked them upon the shelf to the hearth's left, his father spoke again. "What if another—say, a man who had been bereft of his sons by the man thou didst spare—what if he chose to slay the villain? Wouldst thou stay that man's sword?"

The boy Blackthorn peered at the wooden cup he was about to place over the hearth. "Yes," he finally said. "'Twould be the honorable thing to do."

"Indeed," his father said, skeptically. "But would it not also be an act of justice for the other man to slay the villain?"

The boy Blackthorn did not know how to respond, for in truth, he was not certain he could rationalize an argument. Then, at last, he said, "'Tis not an act of justice if no law permits it."

His father's answer was immediate. "Yet no law denies his action, either. The question remains, then, who is in the right, for neither can be wrong." He held up the eight cards of virtue, fanning them in his hand. "These cannot tell us, can they? The virtues are chaotic in nature, unruly, open to interpretation." He spread his fingers. The cards fluttered to the table, some facing down, others up. "They define endless paths through which one can attain spiritual fulfillment, yet never specify which is the correct path to take."

With a cloth, the boy Blackthorn picked up a kettle steaming over the hearth and poured its contents into a wide bowl that rested on the cutting table. "Perhaps there is no correct path, Father," the boy said, eyeing the rivulets of water that danced down the side of the bowl.

"No, perhaps not," his father answered. "But if the path of one man impedes that of another . . . What then?" He held up the woman and the scales. "Only rules, rules made by the men who walk the paths, can answer which one may continue forward, and which one must concede." His father gripped the boy in his gaze. "Dost thou understand what I am saying?"

"Of course," said the boy Blackthorn. "Like all things, virtues are meaningless without definition." 'Twas one of his father's favorite sayings. "'Tis why we need laws."

"Good." His father's smile was warm. "Put down thy cloth, boy, and go. I will take care of the dishes this night. I know how thou dost enjoy thy walks among the woods. Contemplate what we have discussed, for tomorrow thou shalt stay inside. Thou must study thy books."

Without trying to appear too hasty, the boy Blackthorn rinsed and dried his hands, then headed to the back door, passing the ladder that led to the loft in which his bed and wardrobe were housed. He removed a lamp from its hook beside the door, lit it, and departed the cottage.

The night held tightly to this part of the forest, an hour or so journey away from the lights of Yew. Blackthorn's lamp cast a pale circle in the darkness, not that he truly needed a light yet. The glow from the back window of his father's cottage bathed the yard, and then briefly flickered. His father had passed in front of the window, no doubt on his way to his study.

Blackthorn continued on fifty or so footfalls south and east until he came to the stable. Their horse, Gavel, snorted and quietly tapped his hooves against the earth when Blackthorn approached. He soothed the red gelding before turning to the back of the stable. There in the corner, beneath a pile of hay and straw, the boards lay loose. With a pitchfork, Blackthorn pried them up, then quickly removed the long bundle of cloth hidden beneath them. Boards and straw returned to their appropriate place, he left the barn, jogging parallel to the cottage toward the garden. A quick right past the old well took him into the woods.

The tall, voluminous trees of the Deep Forest sheltered the earth from the night sky. Stray beams of star and moonlight managed to slip through the branches and leaves. His footsteps cracked upon twigs and rock, echoing with the song of crickets and the occasional cry of an owl, then the burble of stream to his left. The scent of wet mud and stream reeds joined that of pine and yew. He followed the brook, a crisp rivulet of moonlight where it widened enough to separate the roof of the trees. Where the water eventually led, Blackthorn did not know, for he had never followed its current any farther than a few miles, but he guessed it emptied into one of the northern rivers, which, in turn, emptied into the bay far to the north.

Soon he arrived where the water hooked around a small hummock of earth and moss, and embedded in its middle, a round stone, silver in his lamplight and no higher than his waist. He balanced the lamp upon the stone, and unrolled the cloth. Steel gleamed and brass glittered as he peered at the blade and hilt of his sword.

The crunch of pebbles and the whistle of wood alerted him in time to spin and lift his weapon. The blade rang against his opponent's blow, but his assailant was quick: The second stroke forced him back a step when he parried, the third another. Again and again the strokes came as he and the enemy circled in the lamplight, and though he blocked most, by the time his blade had been flung from his hand, his right shoulder, left thigh, and abdomen throbbed from his opponent's attack.

While his assailant went to retrieve his sword, he stumbled over to the stone, nearly knocking the lamp over when he leaned against the rock, hands upon his knees, trying to catch his breath between winces.

The girl who now carried his sword tilted it, and clicked her teeth as she fingered a chip in the steel. "Thou wilt ruin it with our practices," she said at last.

"Not if I learn how to care for it, Shaana" Blackthorn responded. "The blacksmith's apprentice, Chamfort, has already agreed to help me."

Shaana stepped back into the light, tall for her age, and thin, her raven hair so dark that he could almost see naught but her pretty, oval face. She handed the blade back to Blackthorn. "I still do not understand why thou dost treasure it so. 'Tis not the finest blade there is, not even in Yew."

"'Tis the only one I have," said Blackthorn.

Shaana uttered a peevish grunt. "And doth thy father know of the treasure that thou didst steal from his stores?"

"'Twas found!" Blackthorn insisted, and that was true, though his father would wonder how he and Shaana had infiltrated what constituted Yew's armory. Shaana had a way with undoing locks with hairpins and needles. 'Twas how they had invaded the cellar of the Slaughtered Lamb the year before, and both had paid dearly for it the next morning, first in the head from the ale, then in the hide from their fathers.

Shaana was laughing. "Do not worry. I am certain that no one has missed thy prize. 'Twas nearly rust when thou didst find it. But now thou must toss it aside. Defending against me is one thing, but I will not have thee attack me with steel."

"Afraid that I will smite thee?" Blackthorn teased, and picked up the second practice sword that had been lying next to the stone. He raised his weapon and took an offensive stance.

"I'm more afraid of thee skewering thyself," she said, and flipped back her hair. "Now come at me, and prepare to be bruised."

Bruised he was by the end of the hour, and he walked with a slight limp when he and his friend left the stream to return home. A year and more the two had practiced by the stream, and still Blackthorn could not best her.

"'Tis not hard to see why," Blackthorn muttered, when she had mentioned this for a second time. "Thy father is the Captain of Yew's Guard." He winced when he stumbled over a root. "I receive nothing from my father but lectures and books."

"And thou wouldst receive a thrashing if he caught thee with thy toy," Shaana giggled.

"More than likely," Blackthorn admitted. "The man has never lifted a sword in his life, or so he claims. He believes that law is what should rule the civilized man, not the threat of the blade."

Shaana peered at Blackthorn thoughtfully. "Yet he is willing to sentence a man to the blade, should need be."

"Yes, I suppose." Blackthorn murmured. He had not told his father that he disagreed with the decision to execute Windemere. Granted, the law gave his father lee to do so, but so many other factors needed to be considered—

"Douse thy light," Shaana suddenly hissed, dropping to the ground. "Who is in thy home?" she whispered.

Dropping next to his friend, Blackthorn extinguished the lamp. They had neared the edge of the cottage's yard, close enough to discern the two figures within the light of the cottage's rear window, one clearly that of his father, the other with something in hand, a scroll perhaps. Their gestures suggested an argument, and though words were not discernible, the muffled undertone of their voices was heated in disagreement.

"'Tis the clerk, Dryden," Blackthorn finally said. "Why is he here? Rarely does he visit us. What is it that he is holding?"

"Come, we can get closer," Shaana whispered, and even in the dark, Blackthorn could see the mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Perhaps we can hear what is being discussed."

Before Blackthorn could protest, she scuttled south along the property's border, leaving behind the practice swords that she carried. Blackthorn cursed lightly under his breath, then followed. He caught up with her as she was inching toward the cottage along the north wall of the stable. Like she, he flattened his back against the stable's wall. "Shaana," he whispered, fiercely. "I don't think—"

"Shh," she said. "I am trying to listen. I thought I heard other voices."

A sudden roar echoed through the forest, a collective chorus of catcalls and jeers. Both Blackthorn and Shaana started, as did the figures of his father and Dryden, both whirling in the direction of the cottage's front door. A halo of torchlight enveloped the roof of the cottage, cast from an unknown source in the front yard. A cry went up, the stern voice of a woman. "Blackthorn, Lord Mayor of Yew, come forth!" Others, those of men, rang out. "Blackthorn!" they cried. "Purveyor of injustice, come forth!"

The figures of his father and Dryden disappeared from the window. "I recognize those voices," the boy Blackthorn said to Shaana. "I think—" But Shaana was already scampering away, rounding the corner of the stable and disappearing into the woods farther south. She waved at him to follow her. Biting back on a second curse, he complied, and the two skulked around trees of the southern edge of the property until they could see into the front yard. There, Shaana ushered him down behind a log. The sting and scent of pine needles greeted him as he prostrated himself next to her, and peeped over the fallen tree.

"The Lady Windemere," Shaana said, amused.

There were perhaps two dozen of them, men and women, many with torches, many crying out for his father, and all led by a tall, regal woman, her arms outstretched, in one hand a torch, the other a set of scales. Much like the woman on the card of justice, Blackthorn thought, except the Lady Windemere garbed herself in black, and her hair caressed her shoulders in silver peels. She called again. "Blackthorn! Come forth and behold thy jury!" Torches laced the darkness as the crowd reiterated her demand.

A shaft of light appeared when the door to the cottage opened just enough for Blackthorn's father to exit. From where Shaana and he lay, Blackthorn could see Dryden by the hearth. He doubted the crowd could see the frightened clerk from their angle.

Blackthorn's father, the Lord Mayor of Yew, spoke. "What brings thee to my door at this hour, Lady Windemere?" he said, calmly. "And who are these people that thou hast brought with thee?"

"Do not dismiss us so coldly, Blackthorn," said an elderly man, one who the boy Blackthorn recognized as Ipocrisis, the Councilor from Yew. Already short, the Councilor crouched over a gnarled cane, his torch flaring below the plane of the others. He crept forward to stand next to the Lady Windemere, the frayed wisps of his hair barely reaching the height of her shoulders. His eyes gleamed shrewdly. "Thou dost know who we are."

The Lord Mayor's expression drew stern. "I see only a fool who believes that waving a stick of fire gives him the right to trespass upon my property." The elderly man recoiled as if struck, even as angry mutters unfurled from the mob. Shaana clapped her hand over her mouth to suppress her outburst of laughter. The boy Blackthorn wished he could join her. Steel had glinted when several men at the far end of the mob had stirred. He did not think his father could see them.

Meanwhile, the Lady Windemere had drawn herself up in rage. "How darest thou address a Councilor that way!"

Still peering at Ipocrisis, the Lord Mayor said, "So long as he stands uninvited upon my lawn without writ or summons, he is a criminal, whether his seat is upon the Great Council or not." The Lord Mayor then addressed the lady. "As art thou and thine other followers, many of whom I do now recognize." He raised his eyebrows as he surveyed several individuals. They shrank away from his gaze.

"Thou wilt not be able to frighten us with petty threats, Blackthorn," the Lady Windemere said. "What wouldst thou do? Have some of Britannia's finest justices and officials incarcerated for a peaceful demonstration? I think not. Thou wouldst not come to us today when we asked, so we have come to thee." Her eyes narrowed to slits. "We will have words with thee, Lord Blackthorn," the Lady Windemere said.

"We have had words," the Lord Mayor answered, "words and words again. Dost thou think that what will be said this evening will overturn what has been decided?"

Apparently, the Councilor believed so. "Thou didst go against the will of the Great Council, Lord Blackthorn," Ipocrisis said. "Councilor Windemere is not to be executed. The Great Council decreed it, as did Lord British." The crowd endorsed him with an enthusiastic roar. "Traitor!" cried some. "Usurper of justice!" And the Lady Windemere threw down the scales she held, and stamped upon them.

The Lord Mayor would not be intimidated. "What the Great Council believes to be justice and what the law demands as justice are not the same. The Great Council, even Lord British himself, as per his own decree, are not above the laws of Britannia. Laws, I might add, written by thy predecessors on the Council. And in this case, the law clearly indicates that Windemere is to forfeit his life. Unless, of course, the law changed overnight." He awaited the Councilor's response, but none came. "No, I thought not. Not even the Great Council would presume to change the law for a single man, though I have been assured that at least one councilor made the attempt."

Indignation swept through Ipocrisis. Giggling, Shaana turned to the boy Blackthorn and whispered. "Thy father is skilled with his speech. If only thou wert as skilled with thy sword, then perhaps thou couldst best me."

"Quiet!" the boy hissed. "There. Look." He pointed to the men he had seen stir earlier. Robed in heavy cloaks, several of them flanked the crowd, and at least one seemed to be edging closer to Shaana and Blackthorn. His pace was slow, a step every few seconds, but like the others, steel glinted beneath his cloak, the links of a mail coat. Shaana sucked in her breath. Blackthorn gripped the hilt of his sword, wondering what to do.

Lady Windemere was shouting at his father. "Thou claimest that the law demands my husband's death, Lord Mayor, yet even now, thou sparest a murderer from execution. What of the girl, Nyomae, she who admits to slaying her own daughter?"

"She did so only to save her from thy husband," the Lord Mayor responded, and for the first time, his voice hinted of anger.

"Yet she is a murderer nonetheless!" the Lady Windemere declared. "Why does she not face the axe of the headsmen?"

"She took the life of only one soul, and she did so in the name of compassion," the Lord Mayor said, softly. "Can thy husband claim that of the children he slew?"

Lady Windemere's followers quieted somewhat by that, yet the Lady would not relinquish. "A man who slays a hundred is the same as she who slays one. The law makes no distinction."

"True, my Lady," the Lord Mayor said, "but the law allows the jurors to make a distinction in their penance: Life-long imprisonment or, should jurors deem the crime fit, as they have in the past, execution. For Nyomae, the jurors, the highest justices in the land, chose imprisonment. For thy husband, they chose death."

"They chose?" the Councilor scoffed. "I think not! The jurors were split in their decision over the fate of Councilor Windemere. 'Twas thee, and thee alone, who broke the vote, Lord Mayor! The choice was thine!"

"As was my right as the judge who oversaw the trial," the Lord Mayor said, but his voice could be barely heard over the new tumult.

The Lady Windemere was screaming. "'Tis thee who sentences my husband to death!"

"'Tis thee who defies the Great Council!" cried the Councilor.

"'Tis thee who defies Lord British!" others called, and with that, the crowd surged forward. Several of the torches arced through the air, two bouncing of the cottage's walls, a third upon its roof where it smoldered briefly, rolled, then dropped to the ground, shedding sparks.

The boy Blackthorn sprang to his feet. "No!" he called. Sword held high, he rushed forward. "Father!" He had only run a few steps when someone tackled him from behind. His sword clattered to the ground. He tried to reach for it, but his assailant pinned him. "Father!" he cried again. Lady Windemere and her mob were no more than a body's length from his home.

"Halt!" The command cracked liked thunder, three crossbows twanged, and three bolts slammed into the earth before the Lady Windemere and the Councilor. "In the name of His Majesty, Lord British, I command thee to halt!"

The hold on the boy Blackthorn loosened just enough so he could look up. The figures he had seen earlier held the crowd at bay with long swords, cloaks thrown wide, revealing the emblem of the Britannian Guard embroidered on green surcoats. The guard whose command had brought the crowd to a halt now stood between Lady Windemere and the Lord Mayor.

"I thank thee, Captain," the Lord Mayor said. "I see that my summons were answered."

"A timely intervention, it seems," the Captain of Yew, a burly man with a curled mustache, answered. "I admit that I doubted thee when thou didst suggest that I be on my guard this evening."

"What is the meaning of this?" Lady Windemere demanded, kicking at one of the bolts.

"Thou dost trespass upon a man's property with a mob ready to set his house afire, yet thou dost wonder why the Britannian Guard is here?" The captain grunted in amusement. "Surely thy friend, the Councilor, he who doth make our laws, can explain it to thee."

"How canst thou protect the Lord Mayor?" the Lady Windemere demanded. "Even thou dost admit he is in the wrong!"

"Perhaps, dear Lady." He glanced at the Lord Mayor. "I, too, hope that he listens to the wisdom of the Great Council and Lord British, and spares the Councilor his life. The Councilor is a good man, and has redeemed many of his sins, though even he cannot escape justice. But his fate is not a decision that is mine to make. Neither is it thine, dear Lady, nor thine, Councilor."

Tears streamed down the Lady's face. "No! This cannot be! This cannot!" She gripped the robes of Ipocrisis so fiercely that he nearly fell to the ground. "Councilor, command the Captain to stand aside."

Sadness and pity swelled within the captain's voice. "The Great Council has no authority over the Britannian Guard. Only His Majesty, Lord British, and Captain Geoffrey of the Royal Guard, may command us. The Lord Mayor has broken no law, but thou hast, and should the Lord Mayor wish, I will have both thee and the Councilor arrested for thy actions on this night."

The Britannian Guard closed in on the crowd, swords gleaming, but the Lord Mayor held up his hand. "Put down thy weapons. Let them go. My house still stands, as do I. I will declare that these men and women have done no wrong, so long as they leave."

And so they did, gradually, even the Lady Windemere, who could no longer walk on her own, so wracked was she with sobs.

When the mob's torchlight was no more than a faint wisp within the forest, the Captain of the Guard spoke in the direction of the boy Blackthorn. "Shaana, my daughter," he smiled. "I believe thou mayest let thy friend go. He will not harm anyone."

The boy Blackthorn, who had nearly forgotten he had been pinned to the forest floor, felt Shaana roll off of him. Cheeks flushing to the quiet chuckles of the captain's men, Blackthorn picked himself up, and brushed the pine needles from his clothes. He reached for his sword, only to find it being handed to him by his father.

"Why didst thou not tell me?" his father asked.

The boy Blackthorn bowed his head sheepishly, and took the sword. He could not find an answer.

"Captain," his father said, "it seems that it is the boy's desire to learn the art of the sword. Canst thou assist him?"

"My daughter seems to believe that he has promise," the captain grinned, directing his attention to the girl, "otherwise she would not be sneaking off when she is supposed to be doing chores." Shaana bowed her head at this, and the captain turned his smile back to the Lord Mayor. "I suppose I can spare some time for thy son." He clapped the boy on the shoulder, and Blackthorn winced from the sting of his gauntlet. His head whirled.

Blackthorn's father nodded. "Make no mistake, son, thou wilt still learn the lessons of law." The boy looked up. His father seemed far off. Behind him, even farther, the soldiers of the Britannian Guard stamped upon the smoldering torches. "And in doing so, thou shalt be one step ahead of me."

His father's voice grew distant as he, the captain, and Shaana were drawn away . . .

"For unlike I, thou wilt know how to enforce the laws in two ways . . ."

His father's voice softening amongst the chorus of other men, swirling, as if drawn down . . .

"By book and by blade . . ."

Drawn down into the sea . . .

"By book . . ."

" . . . and by blade!"

The words echoed as if nearly a dozen men had shouted them, but Blackthorn could only see two men before him, one in the garb of a soldier, the other with a traveling cloak flung over his judiciary robes. Surely Shaana's father and his own—but he could not be certain. The two men seemed indistinct, blurry in the torchlight. No, not torchlight . . . sunlight, gray as if dulled by clouds. The forest, too, had turned gray, its wall of trees now a palisade of stone and mortar. His cottage was also gone, and in its place, a keep.

"Lord Blackthorn?" His father lips moved, but it was the voice of Judge Dryden that spoke.

The courtyard of Castle Briannia solidified around him and the judge peered at him with concern. Captain Suturb stood where Shaana's father had just been, and he shared Dryden's expression. "My Lord," he pressed.

"Yes, of course," Blackthorn answered, then turned to the soldiers lined before him, the elite of the Black Company's soldiers who served as his entourage, the men who had ridden with him to Britain. He had ordered them to mount up, and they had responded with the call of the Black Company. Now they awaited his leave to carry out the command.

Blackthorn merely nodded, and Suturb and the company dispersed for the stables. They would all be riding east on this dull eve, the first time that Blackthorn and many of them had left the confines of Britain since they had arrived during the solstice. While they had stayed, others had left . . . and returned. The Great Council was reconvening in the morrow. This meeting would mark another first, for no where was it recorded that the Great Council had met other than during a solstice or equinox. Granted, not all of the Council had left Castle Britannia. Annon could conduct Britain's affairs from within its walls, and Felespar entrusted Judge Dryden to represent his interests back in Yew. The others Blackthorn had sent back to their towns.

Now the councilors had returned. Indeed, as the Black Company headed for the stables, their ranks broke around the figures of Felespar and Hassad. The councilor from Yew led Hassad around puddles deep enough to submerge one's ankle. Snow had surrendered to rain early this year, leaving behind swaths of slick mud. And by the smell of it, the gray sky would soon yield another storm.

Hassad extended his hand when they reached him. "Lord Blackthorn, 'tis good to see thee again."

"Hassad, as full of wit as ever." Blackthorn fondly grasped the hand of the blind mage. "I am glad that thy trip has seen thee here safely. I have missed thy counsel."

The councilor from Skara Brae chuckled. "Thou wilt have more than enough of our counsel in the upcoming weeks, I fear. Most of the councilors intend to stay through the coming of spring."

"That, I do not agree with," Blackthorn said. "The Councilors should return to their respective towns as soon as possible. They cannot help their people from here."

Felespar uttered a disgruntled oath. "With the exception of Skara Brae, Britain, and Yew, the Councilors do not seem to be helping their towns at all. There is unrest, and the other councilors do little to quell it. If not for the Black Company—"

"We need not discuss that now," Blackthorn said, severely. "The leaders of the Black Company and I will attend to those matters tomorrow."

"As will the Great Council," said Dryden, and Blackthorn could not mistake the sardonic undertone with which he spoke the name. "For surely that is why they arrive, is it not?" The judge directed question at Felespar.

The councilor met the judge's stern eyes with his own. "Thou dost know as much as I, Dryden. Windemere summoned the meeting. I would have ignored his insistence, had I not already been here. Others would have, too. Four meetings in one year are quite enough. We certainly do not relish the thought of being here for a fifth. But Malifora's message . . ." His words softened, and he would not speak.

Hassad finished for the councilor. "I sensed a great fear in her correspondence," he said.

"She hath said nothing while she has been here," Dryden noted.

"Still, she is afraid," said the mage. "Of what, I cannot say. I do not know. And I am certain that, oddly, neither does she. Not yet. But her fear is what brings the councilors together."

"Save for Windemere," Dryden said, not bothering to hide his contempt.

"His ships have arrived, nearly a fleet of them," Felespar said to Blackthorn. "Thy captain, Suturb, shall escort him back to the castle, as per thy instruction. In the meantime, we must prepare. At least, I must, and probably with drink. The heavens only know what tirade Windemere will bring with him this night."

Blackthorn thought of the comets, soon to appear in the approaching dusk. "The heavens, indeed," he whispered to himself.

They rode through a mist of rain, east then northeast along a path barely more than wheel ruts and horse hooves etched in mud. Not far from Britain, they turned onto another path. This they followed until they came to a small ring of white stones. There they dismounted and waited, many a wary eye turned to the sky where Trammel, the first moon, would normally appear if not for the clouds.

Nerves were tense by the ring of stones. "I do not like it here," Dryden commented, hunched over a fire he and several others had built for lack of anything better to do. "Why is it that we travel to Jhelom? The Black Company could have convened in Britain."

"'Twas Suturb's idea," Blackthorn answered, wondering when the Captain would meet up with them. "He sought an escape from the tedium of Britain's politics for a few days. And I agreed." He inhaled deeply. "I, too, needed a breath of Britannia's countryside to clear my thoughts."

"So long as the countryside leaves us alone," Dryden muttered, tightening his cloak about his shoulders. The flames cast his face in a gaunt, orange mask. "We are too out in the open. Too exposed."

The judge might have been right. "Trolls," Suturb said with disgust when he finally appeared. He dropped a crude axe to the ground, blade rusty red. "I found a campfire not far from here, and the remains of a merchant or two. My guess is that the trolls wait to ambush those who come through the gate." At the mention of an ambush outside the moongate, Blackthorn could feel Dryden's gaze pierce him. Still, he did not look up. "'Tis no wonder why trade and travel are so feared these days."

"Didst thou learn anything from the Councilor?" Blackthorn said, quickly changing the subject.

"Windemere was silent, my Lord. He would not speak of the Council's business to me."

"As expected." A glimmer of light caught Blackthorn's eye. "Stand back!" he warned. "Keep away from the stones until the gate materializes."

A line of brilliant light spread within the center of the stones, then rose up in a luminescent, blue curtain no wider than two men abreast, though taller than most. The air within the stones shone brilliantly, and quivered with the portal's hum.

"Moongates," Suturb said. "I do not trust them."

Most travelers did not. The magical doorways were for druids and wizards, so the stories went, and when not used properly, could leave one stranded in nothingness. Unfortunately, most in Blackthorn's current company believed such stories, even though Blackthorn had led them safely through the portals time and time again.

No traveler would appear from this particular portal, not this night, and stepping through the doorway at this hour, when Trammel was no more than a dark disc, would take them to Verity Isle, home of the mages. Hence, Blackthorn and the others awaited the rising of the second moon, Felucca, which would be half-full and waxing this night. Once that moon was closer to mid-heaven than Trammel, the destination of the gate would mysteriously change to a second island, this one in southwest Britannia.

At the appropriate hour, Blackthorn mounted Virtue, and ordered his men to follow him into the blazing doorway. A brilliant, azure flash, and then he was through the gate, galloping across the perimeter of a second ring of stones. The air was much warmer, without rain, and the moons hung like crystalline shards in the clear night sky, sisters to the three comets. A marsh spread to the southeast, coating the breeze with a salty tang, filling the winds with the chatter of midnight creatures. Where once plains had stretched to the north, the waves of the ocean shimmered in the night.

He waited for the others to arrive. First Dryden, then Suturb, then the rest of the men, one by one, materialized through the second gate. Their steeds whinnied and stamped and shook their manes. "That, I shall never get used to," Suturb muttered, soothing his stallion. "Let us leave this place."

They rode northwest along the coastline, toward the lights of a city set where the foothills of the western mountains flattened to join the sea. The giant walls and towers of Jhelom, the City of Valor, the home of Britannia's fiercest fighters, emerged against the night sky. Even at this late hour, the city teamed with life. Shouts, music, jovial laughter, and the clanks of mugs echoed over its walls. The gates were flung wide, and a captain of the Black Company rode forth to greet them.

"Lord Blackthorn. Judge Dryden. Captain Suturb." The giant of a man greeted them each in turn, his grin as wide as the half-moon above. Shaggy, red hair fell from beneath an iron helm spiked with what he claimed were the fangs of a dragon.

"Captain Ghaland," Blackthorn said, dismounting. "I see that thou art alone. Where are thy men?"

"Busy this night," Ghaland laughed. "Traveling from pub to pub, making a vain attempt to keep order. Folks seem to be at each other's throats, more so than usual. Already one drunken duel has resulted in a death. We hope to prevent another . . . Drunken duel, that is. We cannot abide a sloppy fight!" He guffawed. "Come! I will take you to The Sword and Keg where the other captains of the Black Company have convened. There thou mayest relax with a drink. And I have had my friend, Gremnor, reserve the finest quarters for thee at The Warrior's Stead."

Ghaland led Blackthorn and his companions down the main thoroughfare. Light, music, laughter, and song spilled into the street from many an open window and door—that is, until the Black Company passed before the establishment. Though the music and song never completely silenced, the laughter often did, replaced by hushed and heated discussion, and at least one discussion erupted into an argument, ending with a fistfight by the sound of it. Revelers who stumbled by were quick to quiet their din, and many openly glared at the company.

Captain Suturb spoke what Blackthorn felt. "There is much malevolence in the air. Even the shadows seem to glare at me." He shook his head, staring back at a beggar who shook his fist at them after they had refused to give him a coin.

Matters were no better within the tavern of The Sword and Keg. The other five leaders of the Black Company sat around a single table in the corner of the tavern, isolated from the other patrons by a separate ring of empty tables. At Blackthorn and his companions' entrance, the barkeep looked up, distaste clearly engraved in her frown. "More of thee tonight, eh?" She threw down the rag with which she had been cleaning a mug. "Well, make thy patronage quick, and be gone so that my other customers will come back! Thy kind is not welcome here!"

Through the haze of smoke and reek of ale, Blackthorn saw Ghaland's face flare bright as his beard, even as those around the barmaid echoed her sentiments. "Art thou mad, Nicole?" Ghaland yelled. "Dost thou not know who thou dost address?"

"I see nothing but strangers dressed like them." She pointed at those of the Black Company who were seated in the corner. Was it Blackthorn's imagination, or had the air in the tavern truly darkened? He heard the barmaid shout, but as if from afar. "And they have driven my patrons away."

"They have done nothing," Ghaland protested. His features darkened.

As did hers, or again, was it the light? "Their presence is enough. And they refuse to leave!"

"Again, thou dost not know who it is that thou dost address!" Ghaland seemed to leap forward, though his pace was only quicker than a walk. A buzz like a thousand insects swarmed in Blackthorn's ears, and the stink of swollen corpses replaced that of aged ale.

Before the Captain could reach Nicole, one of the fighters near the bar stepped forward. "I know to whom it is she speaks," said he, a knight from The Order of the Silver Serpent. "'Tis Blackthorn, he who gave himself the throne!" He directed his scowl at Blackthorn, his movements slow and liquid. Blackthorn could feel the air upon his own skin. Like oil. "Is that not true, my Lord?" the knight challenged Blackthorn. "Thou hast proclaimed thyself as the heir to the throne, hast thou not? And thou hast done naught but sit upon that throne. 'Tis the Great Council and the local civilities who seem to rule these days, and they have done naught but bicker over what is to be done."

This time it was Captain Suturb who spoke, now standing at Blackthorn's side. "Say no more!" he commanded, hand going to his sword.

The knight's gaze, locked on Blackthorn, was as defiant as his tongue. "I take commands from one person only," he sneered. "My oath belongs to Lord Malone of Serpent's Hold, head of my order and a true leader. 'Tis he who deserves to inherit the throne, for he is a man of deeds, not words, and certainly not some pet of a fallen king."

Suturb's blade left his sheath. "In the name of Valor, and in the name of Jhelom, I challenge thy words!" he cried. Men scattered. Nicole's mug shattered when it hit the floor, thunder amidst chaos.

The hand that stayed Suturb's stroke was Blackthorn's own. "Captain!" he heard himself cry. "Put down thy weapon! This man has done naught but state his beliefs!"

Light returned. The shadow that had seemed to cloak the tavern retreated with the whisper of a dying man exhaling his final breath. Suturb's eyes, alight and wide with fury, blinked and dimmed. He looked at the sword he held aloft with confusion. "My Lord?" he asked, perplexed.

The rest of the tavern shared his confusion. "Lord Blackthorn," Nicole said with a deft curtsey. "I apologize for what I have said. I do not know what came over me." She bit her lip as if that might still her trembles. "Thou art welcome here, of course, as are thy men."

Suturb sheathed his sword, and bent to one knee. "My Lord, I apologize for my actions. I will accept thy reprisal."

"There is no need, Suturb. Thou wert valiantly defending our honor. Go and join the others. I will be there shortly." Suturb nodded and followed Dryden, Ghaland, and the rest of Blackthorn's guard to the empty tables. Like Suturb, Ghaland and the other men appeared perplexed by what had just happened. Only Dryden was calm, and thoughtful.

Blackthorn turned to face the knight. Unlike the others around the bar, all of who seemed to be adamantly debating about what, exactly, had just transpired, the knight showed no signs of confusion. His gaze remained resolute.

"I admire thy loyalty, Knight," Blackthorn said, softly, "but remember: Though 'tis Lord Malone who is thy leader, 'tis Lord British who is thy Liege."

"Lord British is lost. His expedition has been slain. 'Tis Lord Malone who should rule."

Blackthorn nearly slit the knight's throat then and there, so confident was his proclamation. Instead, Blackthorn simply cut at him with words, loud enough to draw the attention of those at the bar. "Believe what thou dost will," Blackthorn said to the knight. "Thou mayest even announce it to all who care to hear. But I warn thee, never act upon it, else I assure thee, thou wilt stand trial before thine order—for 'tis a man's deeds, not his words, that break the law. Lord Malone knows this as well as I. He will not rule in thy favor, even if his heart deems otherwise." Sweat formed beneath the rim of the knight's helm. In that single bead, Blackthorn could see himself, eyes drawn to slit. He hissed his final words. "And rest assured, Knight, that I will be there when thine order hangs thee for treason."

The knight wavered. Blackthorn swept a final, menacing gaze over those who had overheard him. They shrank back, all but one, an elderly gentleman who sat alone at his table, scribbling upon a slew of parchments. He peered directly at Blackthorn, the hood of his cloak shrouding the burned ruin that marked the right half of his face.

He nodded his approval, and returned to his writing.

"'Tis a reflection of the state of affairs everywhere," said Moragwain, referring to the previous night's incident at The Sword and Keg. Her voice was drawn with concern. "I have seen it in Moonglow. Friends fight in the street. Shopkeepers cheat their most loyal customers, and their most loyal customers pilfer from them. Panic is spreading, along with a story that Lord British has been captured and his expedition lost."

"'Tis all that my men can do to keep the peace in Trinsic some days," Veribed, the knightly captain from Trinsic agreed. "And ironically, my men have become despised, distrusted, and feared because of it."

Had it not been for the morning sun through the window, a pall certainly would have shrouded the chamber of the tower. Already it ensnared Blackthorn's mood. With the exception of the reports from Skara Brae and Yew, the intelligence from the captains of the Black Company was all the same.

He did not face his subordinates. Instead he peered out the window. Beneath a clear blue sky, the ocean around the Valorian Isles shimmered crystalline, serene, calm. So unlike Britannia, he thought. He, like the others, had caught wind of the story, about how Lord British had been imprisoned within the Underworld. Why this rumor had grown and others had not, no one could explain. "And what news is there of those who wish to succeed our supposedly captive King?" Blackthorn asked.

"Only talk, my Lord," said Ghaland. "As thou canst tell, a significant number of fighters and paladins have renewed their cries for Lord Malone to take his rule to Castle Britannia. Just as many others have rallied around Sir Simon. One cannot walk through the town center without hearing someone claim 'tis time for a new monarch." He faltered, as if regretting that last statement. Perhaps he had seen Blackthorn's fist clench. "As I said, my Lord, 'tis only talk. No action has been taken."

"Not against the throne, at least." This from Captain Kayden of Skara Brae. "Though the different factions are already at each other throats from what I hear. Half the duels last night were over the honor of Lord Malone or Sir Simon. And hath not the Black Company been openly attacked in Minoc for similar reasons?"

"A rather boisterous demonstration was held before the barracks one day, but nothing more." The voice of Minoc's captain, Lady Guinere, was as rich and throaty as her looks. "When they became obnoxious, they were quickly dispersed. However, there is growing support for Sir Simon."

"The opposite can be said of Moonglow," Moragwain sighed. "Neither Lord Michael of Empath Abbey nor Lord Shalineth of the Lycaeum have any interest in succeeding Lord British, so most magi have turned their loyalties to Serpent's Hold."

"And what of New Magincia?" Blackthorn asked, continuing to stare out to sea. Two frigates, both bearing the dark flags of the Shepherd's Crook, had sailed into view. Some of Windemere's ships, Blackthorn thought darkly. "Thou hast never been so quiet, Saduj. Certainly thou dost have something to report."

He turned and faced the shifty-eyed cutthroat. Blackthorn did not care for the little thief; he already had an excellent captain positioned in New Magincia, but Councilor Windemere kept a tight watch over the Black Company there. So Blackthorn kept a close watch over Windemere with this fellow, who assisted a few folk on Windemere's personal staff. Windemere obviously did not know of the fellow's sordid past. Blackthorn did, and that and the hefty sum Blackthorn paid him per month kept Saduj loyal in deed, if not in heart.

The normally arrogant man did not glance at Blackthorn while he spoke. Perhaps New Magincia had finally given him a dose of humility. "Councilor Windemere remains loyal to the Great Council," Saduj stammered. "He does not support Lord Malone or Sir Simon, but neither does he support thee, my Lord. He speaks openly against the monarchy, and demands the rule of the people. And he is gathering followers throughout Britannia. With Lord British lost—"

"Lord British is not lost!"

Blackthorn's council started at his outburst. They sat at a circular table of yew, an elegant piece of furniture, completely out of place in a tower of war, polished so fine that it mirrored those around it. Blackthorn stepped forward until his reflection joined those of his company. Positioned just to the right of Dryden, he leaned forward, prepared to speak, when another spoke for him.

"Lord British may not be lost, but the realm will remain divided until he returns."

The voice came from the corner of the room. In a chair hunched the crippled form of Whitelock, the hood of his ragged, gray robes sheltering the burnt half of his face. His good eye gleamed at Blackthorn, and he put down his pen. "Though I am loathe to admit it," said the scribe, "our friend from The Sword and Keg last night is correct. The Black Company has done nothing but react to the events in Britannia. Still, we are not completely at fault. We made a promise not to interfere with the rule of the Great Council, yet they have done little to address the current crisis. Their time has passed. 'Tis time for us to act."

"What dost thou propose, my Lord?" said Suturb to Blackthorn. He did not look at the scribe. No one ever did. Very few could stomach his appearance.

"As thou dost know, the leaders of the Black Company are not the only ones to convene in Jhelom," said Blackthorn. "Though Lord Malone and Sir Simon could not attend this council, they have sent their most respected advisors with word of what they wish to be done. So long as there is no evidence that Lord British is truly lost, they are willing to abide by my decree that the King will return."

"And should such evidence surface?" Saduj said, hesitantly.

"Then a new monarchy will be established under my guidance," Blackthorn answered.

"I see," Saduj whispered. He ran a nervous hand through his dark, oily hair.

"What are we to do in the meantime, my Lord?" asked Moragwain. Her black leather and midnight hair swallowed the sun, but her blue eyes gleamed with renewed hope.

Whitelock leaned forward in his chair, "Maintain order, as we have always done. "Despite the compliance of our friends, Lord Malone and Sir Simon, there will be others who will rise up against us, Windemere's followers most of all. We must deal with them. Fairly, of course," he added as an afterthought.

"And how will that be done?" asked Veribed. He clearly did not like the implication of Whitelock's tone. His violet eyes were slit with suspicion.

"Should Windemere's followers or others speak up against us, they can be contained," Whitelock said. "Kayden and Guinere know of ways."

Kayden's smile was so broad it furrowed the skin upon his hairless head. "All men break the law to some degree or another. Windemere's followers are no exception. I know many who have withheld money from taxes, or who have indulged in forbidden liquors and leaf." He fingered the ivory ankh hung about his neck. "Small crimes, to be certain, but enough to lock one away for some time. It is simply a matter of deciding how lenient we wish to be."

"Others may not have broken the law, but simply have something to hide," Captain Guinere grinned. "I, for one, have intimate contact with at least one of Windemere's supporters." She winked mischievously from beneath a lock of her orange hair. "One of his ladies, too."

"Not a knight is this town or in Trinsic fails to indulge in too much drink," said Ghaland. "They can be imprisoned for unruliness from time to time." But he did not say it with conviction.

Veribed nearly crushed the cup of ale he held in his hand. "I will have no part of this! The Black Company stands for Virtue, not for the malicious acts of which thou dost now speak!"

"I agree with Veribed," said Blackthorn. Whitelock's single eye gleamed with malice. Guinere, Kayden, and Dryden appeared stunned, while Moragwain, Veribed, and Ghaland breathed with relief. Both Saduj and Suturb were preoccupied, the thief with some thought clearly disturbing him, Suturb with the ships Blackthorn had seen earlier. "We must act with Virtue," Blackthorn said, firmly.

"My Lord," Judge Dryden finally protested, "we spoke of this earlier. The Virtues are what brought us here in the first place, for they can be twisted to mean anything. The duels in Jhelom are declared in the names of Honor and Valor. The Great Council pleaded Sacrifice to account for Captain Geoffrey's insubordination. Local officials redefine Honesty and Justice to suit their lies, and remain humble only until people pledge their support. And how many men cite spiritual fulfillment to pursue selfish goals?" He paused, then added very slowly, cautiously. "Surely, thou dost remember from thy childhood the consequences of claiming Compassion to spare a murderer's life?"

Whitelock's hood had shifted slightly, revealing his injuries. He drew the fabric over his disfigurement, and whispered, "Like all things, virtues are meaningless without definition."

Blackthorn shook his head, which had clouded. "No," he murmured. "There must be a way. A compromise. Perhaps some sort of legislation—I do not know." He straightened himself. "For the moment, it does not matter. Today, we will meet with the advisors sent by Lord Malone and Sir Simon, who are both here in the city. As I said, they are willing to abide by our decree that Lord British is not lost—"

Saduj cleared his throat. "My Lord, there is a matter of which I must speak. I apologize for not saying anything sooner, but I only became convinced of the facts this morning. Councilor Windemere travels to the Great Council with dire news. He—"

Blackthorn's cloak ruffled with a sudden breeze. "Behind thee!" Suturb cried, jumping to his feet, crossbow raised and armed. He aimed in Blackthorn's direction, and fired, even as a voice behind Blackthorn spoke, "Vas Flam!"

From over Blackthorn's shoulder, a missile of flame roared, engulfing first the crossbow bolt, then the weapon and hand from whence the bolt came. Flame, wood, and flesh splintered in a brilliant burst. His arms flung wide, his glove trailing smoke, Surturb screamed as the impact slammed him back into the tower wall. He collapsed not far from the window.

Blackthorn spun as the other fighters in the room threw back their chairs and drew weapons, but Blackthorn held them at bay with a quick gesture. Before him rose a man garbed in ominous, dark robes. "Flain!" Blackthorn said to the mage. "What art thou doing here?"

"I have learned of treachery," the mage spoke softly. "Thou must leave immediately—" His eyes narrowed and peered at the window when several, soft peals of thunder sounded outside. "In Sanct Grav," he quickly spoke, pointing his staff at the floor between Blackthorn and the window. The air above the stone sparked, swirled, then a wall of crackling energy the height of the room sprang upward, separating Blackthorn, Dryden, and the mage from the others. Not an instant later, the chamber beyond the barrier exploded.

The stonework framing the window, first on the left, followed quickly on the right, bulged inward, then blew apart in two deafening bursts of flame and smoke, engulfing Moragwain and her scream. Deadly fragments of stone, glass, wood and mortar decimated the chamber, bouncing harmlessly off the wall of energy that the mage had summoned, but shearing into anything else, including flesh and bone.

The screams of Blackthorn's remaining captains shattered the air. Through their cries, bells pealed, followed by distant shouts of alarm. "Flain!" Blackthorn called. He could barely see the mage through the smoke and flames, though the mage stood less than a few feet away. "Flain! What has happened?"

"The ships off the coast," said the mage. "They have fired their cannons upon this tower. They will do so again unless I intervene." He raised his staff and spoke. "In Grav Por!" A whirlwind of smoke and dust rose from floor to ceiling when the wizard disappeared.

"Too late," said Dryden, who cowered between Blackthorn and the energy barrier, as several more booms echoed in the distance. The judge peered up at Blackthorn, eyes wide and frightened through skin smeared with soot. "By the Virtues," he whispered. "The chamber downstairs, near where the men of Lord Malone and Sir Simon wait—" The tower rumbled and shook when the cannonballs hit the walls below. "'Tis a storeroom filled with powder kegs."

The floor heaved, buckled, then cracked down the middle as the chamber below detonated. Ghaland, who was pulling himself from a pile of rubble, disappeared in a geyser of flame. It lifted one side of the enormous table, just as a portion of the ceiling collapsed upon the opposite side. The table snapped like a twig, and splinters of yew wood joined the rain of ash and rubble. The floor beneath Blackthorn slid forward. The barrier of energy wavered, shivered, disappeared. Yet Blackthorn made no move, simply watched the crumbling tower wall unveil the ocean brick by brick. The sea and its horizon slowly ascended as Blackthorn, Dryden and the chamber dipped forward. In the distance, the ships that had fired upon Jhelom's northeastern tower rocked upon the waves, the sails of one engulfed in a pillar of flame. No doubt Flain's handiwork.

The floor suddenly jolted to a halt, snapping Blackthorn's attention to his immediate surroundings. Only the seaward side of the tower was in danger of collapsing; the western side remained intact. Blackthorn grasped Dryden, who had begun to slide forward, by the neck of his robes, and tossed the judge onto the stable section of the floor where Saduj, somehow alive, had managed to crawl. Blackthorn was about to follow when he heard a desperate cry. The fingers of a gloved hand, blackened and burned, slipped steadily from an outcropping of stone. "Suturb!" Blackthorn cried, and leapt with all his strength. He landed upon his leather breastplate, slid forward, and grabbed his friend's wrist just before the Captain fell.

"My Lord!" Surturb cried with a strange mixture of terror and relief. Below him, the waves of the ocean swept upon the bluffs. It was not a long drop, but far enough. "Thou art alive! I thought that the dark mage—"

"He is an ally," said Blackthorn. "I am sorry that I did not tell thee, but I know how thou dost feel about mages." He tried to pull the captain up. He could not, not positioned like this. "Give me thine other hand," he said, then noticed that his friend's free arm hung limply at his side, blackened and caked with blood. Flain's magic had ensured that the captain would not be moving it any time soon.

The stones around the two friends cracked. Rubble fell past Suturb who peered at his leader, sadly, hopelessly. "Leave me, my Lord," he whispered. "Save thyself."

"No," Blackthorn said, and managed to struggle to his knees. "We have been friends far too long for it to end now." He grasped Suturb's wrist with his other hand. "Thou art coming with me."

"And why is that?"

Blackthorn, who had been about to pull Suturb to safety, stopped and looked behind him. There, in a section of the tower seemingly untouched by the explosion, was Whitelock, still sitting in his chair, alone. Dryden and Saduj had fled. "Why is it that thou dost wish to save this man?" he said.

"What?" Blackthorn asked incredulously, nearly letting go of Suturb, who stared at Blackthorn with astonishment and fear.

"'Twas not the dark mage he aimed for, Blackthorn, 'twas thee," Whitelock said. Ash, dust, and smoke curled around the scribe. "Thy life was the one he meant to take. The rest of the Black Company were to be spared, assuming they could survive the assault on the tower." He shifted something with his foot: An arm, jutting from a pile of rubble nearby. Blackthorn recognized Veribed's smoking gauntlet, fingers crushed around a smelted goblet. He could smell the burnt flesh from here.

His grasp on his friend slipped. "No, my Lord!" Suturb cried at Blackthorn. "'Tis not true!"

"Thou art a traitor, Captain Suturb," Whitelock shouted. "Thou dost claim to dislike and distrust magi, yet ironically, thou didst sell thy allegiance to one, ever since he promised thee a position in the Royal Guard should the Great Council be given power over them."

"Windemere," Blackthorn hissed, and his grip slipped again. Far off in the distance, the flag of the second ship took flame.

"My Lord, 'tis not true!" Suturb said again, as the precipice on which Blackthorn knelt shifted. "I have always been loyal to thee, ever since we left Geoffrey's tutelage together. Thou art a brother to me!"

"Yes, a brother," Blackthorn agreed, but his voice shook with uncertainty. His eyes watered from the sting of smoke. "It could not have been thee. Thou wert in the tower at the time of the attack"

"So he could signal the ships, of course," Whitelock shouted. "Once the signal was given, he could then leave. Since the chamber upstairs was to be struck first, 'twould have given him enough time to escort the advisors to safety, thus ensuring the loyalty of Lord Malone and Sir Simon to him and Windemere. But something caused the ships to fire before the signal could actually be given, didn't it, Captain Suturb?"

Embers rolled past Blackthorn, flared as they dropped over the edge. "Flain's magic," Blackthorn whispered. "The crews of the ships must have seen the explosion. They must have thought something had gone wrong. They fired not long afterward."

"No, my Lord! This is madness! Listen to what thou art saying!"

"Madness?" Whitelock roared from afar. "'Twas thee who chose to meet in this place, was it not, Captain Suturb? 'Twas thee who spent several hours with Councilor Windmere before the Black Company rode to Jhelom, making certain that the ships that now burn would set sail this morn, and that they would be in position for the attack. All one must do is speak with the captains and the crews. They can confirm this treachery."

Perhaps, thought Blackthorn. One ship had already begun to sink. The other would soon follow, based on what Blackthorn could see. He did not think Flain would attempt to save the crew, assuming any could be saved at this point. He had seen Flain's work before.

"And why attack today, one wonders," Whitelock called. "Did Saduj not have dire news from New Magincia? What is that news, I wonder? Certainly, Captain Suturb, thou dost know."

"No, I do not," Suturb said, his voice suddenly calm, his gaze piercing Blackthorn's own. "Nor do I know how this treachery occurred. But there is dark magic afoot here, I know that much." His grip tightened on Blackthorn's wrist. "Pull me up, my Lord, and we will find out who hath done this to thee." There was no fear in his voice, only compassion.

Blackthorn nodded. "Thou hast always been a man of truth, my friend, which has always been matched by thy strength." Calmly, he pulled Suturb up, but only enough to clamp the captain's fingers upon the very same rock to which he had clung earlier. Blackthorn squeezed his friend's hand with genuine affection. "So if thy strength is as true as thy words, then thou shalt be able to pull thyself to safety."

He strode away, jumped through flames and smoke to where Whitelock awaited him. Moments later, Suturb's screams ended abruptly. An instant after that, that section of the tower fell away with a sickening shriek of twisted stone. The drop was not far. Had the traitor managed to survive his fall, he would not live through the tomb of stone and mortar that would soon bury him.

Chapter 3
By Book

The boy Blackthorn gazed upward, eyes traveling from star to star, tracing the imaginary form of the Great Earth Serpent, the largest of constellations, whose length arched across the entire sky, its tail touching the eastern horizon, its forked tongue licking the treetops of the west. The wandering stars of Honesty, Compassion, and Valor were out this night, loping along the serpent. There were other wanderers up there, one for each Virtue, but most were hidden from those who did not possess a spyglass. One day the boy Blackthorn hoped to peer through such a magnificent device. Lord British had one in an observatory, 'twas said. Perhaps if he traveled to Britain one day . . .

"There!" Shaana said, excitedly, pointing up. Blackthorn caught the brief streak of light before it winked out. "Another star, fallen," she said, sadly. "But I wonder which one. There are so many, and the stars never seem to diminish in number." She turned her heard toward him. "Dost thou think that the stars will all eventually die, that one day the sky will be empty?"

"No," Blackthorn answered. "My mother said that the stars are much like men: For every one that falls, another is born."

They lay upon a blanket of wool, and that blanket atop a tree stump wide enough that they could stretch upon it head to head in a small "v", their feet still well within the borders of its trunk. When the yew tree had fallen, he did not know, but his mother had told him that its rings suggested that the tree had crowned the barren hill for nearly a millennium.

"Did thy mother know as much about the stars as she did the trees?" Shaana asked.

"No, I do not believe so," said Blackthorn. "She said the heavens and its stars were for mages of the Lycaeum, the earth and its trees for the druids." His mother had been one of the last of her kind. Once, druids had been common in these parts, but as Yew had evolved into the center of Britannia's justice, so, too, had it evolved into the center of bureaucracy, and the druids had slowly vanished over the years, displaced by justices and officials.

"Dost thou remember her at all?" Shaana asked, timidly. She had never approached the subject before, but then, neither had he with her, not until about an hour or so ago.

"I remember mostly her wisdom, if not her face," he admitted. "She died when I was very young. She asked to be buried beneath her Yew tree, in a grove not far from our cottage. On that day, we took a branch from her tree, and burned it. The ashes we sprinkled over her grave." He heard her shuffle as she sat up. Guessing her thoughts, he added, "I doubt if thou canst see her tree at night. If it were daylight, I could point it out. 'Tis just northeast of my father's cottage."

"Where the wisps are?" Shaana asked.

Blackthorn quickly sat up, eyes first catching the light that marked his father's cottage, then traveling northeast. There were only two of them, blue pinpricks of light flitting over and through the trees, winking on and off, dim to bright, large to small, and back again within a blink. He and Shaana had seen them in the forest before. Most folks had, especially in the past year when reports of the phenomenon had become more frequent. Still, no one knew what the wisps were. Spirits of ancient trees, leaks of magic within the ethereal void, wandering creatures composed of light—these theories seemed to be favorites, though they had as much credence as any other. One truth was certain: Wisps were to be avoided. They were dangerous, it was said.

But not from a distance, so he watched their dance without fear, wondering what drew them to the area surrounding his mother's grave. At some point, Shaana's hand crept into his own, and a short time later, she nestled up against him, and put her head on his shoulder. 'Twas an uncomfortable angle for her to be positioned in, he thought, for she was a head taller than he. Still, she made no complaint, and seemed quite happy, her eyes twinkling like the stars and wisps. As long as she did not mind, he would enjoy her warmth. And her hair smelled nice, too.

So enraptured was he with the girl herself, that she startled him when she spoke nearly a half-hour later. "There is another light down there. Dost thou see it?"

Recovering himself, he squinted into the night. "No, I do not—wait, yes." Fainter than the wisps, more sporadic, and white, like that of a lantern occasionally unveiled.

"'Tis around that light that the wisps circle," Shaana whispered, "if at a great distance."

"Could it be my father?" Blackthorn asked more to himself than she. "That light—'tis at my mother's grave, I am certain of it." Despite Shaana's warmth, his blood chilled. "The wisps are far enough away that he would not see them—" He stood, releasing her hand. "I must warn him."

"I will come with you," Shaana said in a tone that rejected his momentary thought of argument. For a second time that night, she gripped his hand, but this time with angst. "Let us go."

Hand in hand they wove through the trees and down the hill, Shaana in the lead, Blackthorn maintaining the pace of her lengthy gait only by stumbling along at a trot. Neither spoke, their quick breaths and the crackle of their footsteps enough to voice their urgency. When they arrived at the stables behind Blackthorn's cottage, they stopped, perplexed. Through the back window, they could see his father, safely at home, and speaking with the clerk, Dryden.

"Did thy father return from thy mother's grave already?" Shaana asked.

"I am beginning to think he was never there—at least, not when we were watching," Blackthorn answered. "Dryden has been here for some time. I can tell. His tankard is nearly empty and my father says the clerk drinks more slowly than any man he has ever met." He took his hand from Shaana's and walked forward. "Let's see what is going on," Blackthorn said.

A few knocks brought his father to the back door. "My son," he said, warmly. He smiled at Shaana. "And the captain's daughter, of course, she who came by earlier this evening to abscond my son from his studies. Since the two of thee doth now train and practice with the Captain of the Guard, I must wonder, then, what a growing woman would want with a young man at this hour, especially if they do not have swords with which to fight."

Why Dryden chuckled at this while Shaana's cheeks flushed a furious red escaped the boy Blackthorn. He was simply relieved to see his father indoors. "There are wisps about this night," he said.

His father raised his eyebrows. Dryden finished his drink with a single swig, then wiped his sleeve across the sweat that had suddenly formed across his brow. "A fitting portent," he muttered.

Ignoring the clerk, Blackthorn's father ushered the boy and his friend inside, and directed them to the dining table, from which he removed an unraveled scroll, but not before Blackthorn noticed the seal of Lord British upon it. "Seats, children," his father said. "Warm thyself, and wouldst thou care for tea? There is some upon the hearth."

Both the boy and Shaana accepted his offer. "Where didst thou see the wisps?" his father asked, as he set full cups before them.

"Circling an area to the northeast," Shanna answered, swirling her tea. "About a ten minute walk from here, if I judged correctly."

If Blackthorn's father realized where that placed the wisps, he did not show it. "'Tis far enough. If we do not bother them, they will not bother us. We will speak no more of it. There are other matters of import." He handed Blackthorn the scroll. "Read this, my son. I would have thy thoughts."

The boy's eyes widened. "'Tis a letter written by Lord British, himself," he whispered. Shaana nearly dropped her tea.

"I have discerned that much," his father chuckled. "'Tis about what our Lord writes that I would have thine opinion." He smiled at Shaana who could not conceal her attempts to steal a glance at what Britannia's monarch had to say. "Thou mayest read it, too, Shaana. Thy father has already seen it. 'Twas delivered on the night Lady Windemere and her cohorts visited us."

Blackthorn nodded, remembering the scroll that Dryden had held when arguing with his father. Now he reviewed the words that must have inspired that discussion. Shaana leaned over his shoulder, whispering the words that she, too, read, her hair tickling his cheek.

When they finished, the boy Blackthorn reverently replaced the parchment upon the table, and Shaana returned to her side of the table, a thoughtful, yet relieved, expression upon her face. His father had taken a seat in his plush chair, elbows upon its arms, fingertips pressed together, his gazed locked on Blackthorn. "What did our Lord have to say, my son?"

Blackthorn took a deep breath. Here he was, about to interpret the words of Britannia's monarch, and he could feel the burden of the task weigh upon him. "His Majesty believes that the virtuous thing to do is to show compassion for Councilor Windemere and his family. Hence, he asks that thou dost abide by the will of the Great Council and His Majesty's own decree. He requests a reversal of the decision that thou didst make in regards to Councilor Windmere's penance. The Councilor should not be executed. Rather, the Councilor should be turned over to the Royal Guard so that they might justly imprison him for life."

"And so it should be done," murmured Dryden, who was now half finished with his second tankard of ale. "That much I have said again and again. Thou wilt certainly be tried for treason or some such nonsense if thou dost not obey their orders. Ipocrisis will see to it."

"True enough," Blackthorn's father answered. "But what orders have been given that I can disobey?" The question was directed at Blackthorn who, in turn, directed his gaze at the letter.

At last, the boy spoke. "None," he said, quietly. "The letter is not a document of command, but one of request. His Majesty may speak of Virtue, but by Britannian law, the letter holds no authority."

"No authority?" Shaana said, stunned. "'Tis the word of Lord British, himself. Shouldst not the requests of our Liege be considered demands?"

"That is, of course, the opinion of many, including Windemere's family and the Great Council," Blackthorn's father said. "Thy father even thinks the same. What dost thou think, my son?"

Blackthorn hesitated. He agreed with Shaana and Dryden, not because he believed that Lord British's word was law, but because he believed Lord British was right. Still, personal beliefs meant nothing when interpreting the law, and nor should they. "The decision to uphold Windemere's sentence is still thine, father," he said. "Lord British knows this, and though he might not agree with thine interpretation of what is virtuous, he will defend thy right to carry out the sentence."

Dryden sighed. "Children," he muttered. "'Tis more complicated than that."

Blackthorn's father initially dismissed the clerk. "Thou art correct, my son," he said to Blackthorn. "'Tis indeed my right—nay, my duty—to see that Windemere's penance fits his crime, just as 'tis my duty to ensure that the woman, Nyomae, is imprisoned, though I feel that her act was but one of mercy, and she should go free." He turned to Dryden. "Surely, thou dost understand that?"

"'Tis also thy duty and thy right to reverse thy decision if need be," countered Dryden. The clerk shook his head, sorrowfully. "That, thou dost simply refuse to do."

"What I do is the virtuous thing to do."

"Only in thy mind, Lord Mayor," Dryden pointed out.

"And in the minds of others," Blackthorn's father said. "I am not the only one who believes Windemere should suffer the punishment he deserves.'

"The question remains, then, who is in the right, for neither can be wrong."

The boy Blackthorn did not realize he had spoken the thought out loud until the hearth crackled, and he looked up. The others were staring at him. At last, his father spoke, "What art thou thinking, my son?"

The boy Blackthorn stared at the letter; the handwriting of his monarch seemed to cast a light of its own, brilliant and burning. "Lord British and the Great Council ask much of thee, father," he said at last. "They ask thee to honor them, to sacrifice what thou dost consider to be in the best interests of Britannia." He looked up. "What hast thou asked of them?"

Dryden, who had been sipping at his tankard, slowly lowered it. Then, gradually, a smile unfurled, and he nodded with satisfaction.

Meanwhile, father answered son. "I ask only that they respect my judgment and the laws upon which I base it."

"And this they will do, but 'twould be a concession of what they believe. Yet to accept their offer would be a concession on thy part." He thought about what he and his father had discussed the other night, about the Virtues and laws. "In essence, what thou dost believe to be virtuous and what the Great Council and Lord British believe to be virtuous have come to a crossroad, and, unfortunately, there is no way to proceed without one conceding to the other. The question, then, is who will go forward."

His father nodded. "And how is one to do decide who goes before the other?"

Blackthorn was certain that his father had thought this all through already, but he answered anyway. "Thou dost not. Rather, both must decide on how they can move forward together. The Great Council and Lord British believe that Windemere should be spared execution. Thou dost believe that Nyomae should be freed. Offer the Great Council and Lord British a proposal where both beliefs are satisfied. They will accept it, for in their hearts, they know the woman acted out of mercy, and in thy heart, thou dost believe Windemere should not be slain." Or so Blackthorn hoped of his father. He could not be sure.

His father had barely moved throughout the discourse, but now he relaxed, and lowered his hands to the arms of his chair. He addressed Dryden. "He soundeth like his mother, doth he not?"

Dryden would not be fooled. "Thou hadst this in mind all along, Lord Mayor, I am sure of it. I knew thou wert fond of the woman, Nyomae—that much was obvious, otherwise thou wouldst never have pursued Windemere in the first place—" He paused, clearly uneasy with what he had to say next. "But to go through all of this: To defy Lord British, to put the justices and the Great Council at each other's throats, to anger Windemere's family, to put thy reputation in jeopardy." He took a draught from his tankard, and licked his lips. "All of this, just to see this woman freed. Why?"

The Lord Mayor rose from his chair and walked over to the hearth. Upon the center of the mantle rested an open urn packed with soil from the grave of Blackthorn's mother. From it, a single sapling grew, that of a young Yew tree. "Why risk so much?" the Lord Mayor reiterated, brushing the leaf of the sapling with a single finger. "'Tis because of something the boy's mother once remarked to me after I had finished a trial. ‘Justice often weighs in favor of the wealthy,' she said, ‘simply because they have more gold to place upon its scales.'" He turned to face the clerk. "She was correct, Dryden. For whatever reason, we hold gold, power, and reputation over all other things, and such was the case for this trial. So involved did Britannia's folk become with the fate of their Councilor, that they simply dismissed the welfare of the woman, the commoner. Her sentence, they did not question. And 'twas not because they felt her penance virtuous or fair, 'twas because her fate simply did not matter."

Perhaps Dryden would have countered, but a horse whinnied and a voiced boomed from the front yard. "Lord Mayor! I must speak with thee!"

"That is my father," Shaana said, surprised, and hurried to the door.

Outside, her father waited with seven others of the Britannian Guard. He addressed Blackthorn's father. "I know that the woman is here, Lord Mayor. Thou must turn her over to me."

Dryden looked at the Lord Mayor in disbelief. "What art thou talking about?" he said, sharply.

As he dismounted, the captain spoke. "The woman, Nyomae, was freed this night. The jailer was knocked unconscious, nearly killed, and his keys stolen. His assailant then took her from her cell. Fortunately, whoever stole away with the girl is no huntsman. They left a trail that a child could follow." The boy Blackthorn did not know what made his heart pound worse, the accusation, the captain's cold stare, or the sword that the captain had drawn. "Where is she, Lord Mayor?"

"I can only assume that this trail of which thou dost speak led here," the Lord Mayor said, calmly.

"To the edge of thy property, yes," the captain answered.

The Lord Mayor stepped forward, frowning in defiance. "But surely not to my front door, Captain, for I speak truthfully when I say she is not inside this cottage, or when I say that I do not where she is." Now his frown was one of trepidation. "We must find her, and quickly. Art thou certain she was with another—"

The screams echoed from afar: Once, twice, shrieks of unbearable pain that cut through the chorus of the forest night. The third scream had barely begun when it, too, was cut short. Silence hung. A cricket chirped, then forest quietly sung once more.

Dryden's tankard lay shattered on the front doorstep. "That scream," he whispered. "I know it. I remember hearing it during that night at the Slaughtered Lamb."

"No," the Lord Mayor stammered. "They would not do this." With that, he sprang forward and ran around the cottage, disappearing into the forest.

"Lord Mayor!" the captain called, and followed, his men on his heels.

So, too, did Shaana and the boy Blackthorn follow the course of his father, sprinting into darkness. Northeast they ran, farther away into the forest, toward the site of his mother's grave, the light of the lamps suddenly accompanied by blue pinpoints of light that winked on in the distance, one by one, flitting and swirling among the trees—

Blackthorn and Shaana broke into a clearing illuminated by the lamps of the Britannian Guard, all standing still like rocks, much like the Lord Mayor and the Captain of the Guard. The children halted abruptly at the side of their fathers. And one look was all that they needed to join the others in their statuesque spell.

At the opposite side of the clearing, his mother's tree rose up into the night, overshadowing the branches of its neighbors, even as its own disappeared into theirs. Ancient and gnarled it stood, its trunk the width of at four men, and 'twas to its trunk that the destitute woman, Nyomae, had been crucified.

The boy Blackthorn slowly recalled seeing the lantern from atop the hilltop, the light that surely had belonged to Nyomae's abductors. They had gagged her and tied her to the trunk with lengths of rope, high enough that her feet dangled at knee's height from the ground. At some point, they must have briefly removed the gag, for she still wore it. That must have been when she had screamed . . . when they had taken her arms, strung them up, and nailed the spikes through her wrists, the spikes that slowly clawed through bone and flesh while she struggled to free herself.

"Nyomae!" The Lord Mayor, the first to recover from his shock, sprinted forward. At the same time, the Captain of the Guard reached for him, crying, "Lord Mayor! No!"

Too late. The Lord Mayor fell not a moment later, foot tangled in the trip release. The wire snapped back into place as two branches, which had somehow been pulled back behind the Yew tree, were suddenly released. They whipped forward and around the trunk, one positioned above the other, woodens spike attached to their tips. They struck the woman, one perfectly placed in her heart, the other through her forehead. Her eyes went wide. Her struggles instantly ceased.

Those in the glade who had been still now came alive. Under the direction of Shaana's father, Two of the Guard rushed up to the tree and began to release the woman's body whose blood continued to flow, caking the tree in a dark syrup. Others fanned out into the woods to search for the abductors. Shaana put her hands to her face as she wept, and her father went to her.

The boy Blackthorn found himself not knowing what to do until a quiet voice, one not unlike what he remembered of his mother, suggested that he should comfort his father who stared blankly at the tree from his knees. The boy Blackthorn nodded, and walked forward, somehow aware that the wisps were still out there, but they, like the lights of the search party, were beginning to disappear . . .

Winking out, one by one . . .

He put his hand on his father's shoulder.

One by one, as if the forest swallowed them . . .

His father gripped his hand.

Swallowed them into . . .

The sea broke before the crest of the frigate, throwing back swaths of water. The sails above rattled a thunderous undertone to the howl of wind. As the ship plummeted forward, the azure lights that Blackthorn had sworn had been swallowed by the sea, the lights marking that of a coastal village, appeared again in his line of sight. His hand gripped the ship's railing, slippery from ocean spray, and he fought back his bowel's urge to spill over the side. He breathed in deeply, the salt air tasting oddly sweet against the bile on his tongue. He focused on keeping the lights of New Magincia's coast steady in his view.

How long had he been out here? He remembered dining in the cabin last night—his stomach would not allow him to forget—and recalled talking with the others about how to handle the confrontation that was inevitable once the frigate docked. Other than that, he remembered the dreams . . . the dreams that had bothered him since the summer solstice. Of writing madly through the night, filling parchment after parchment, his father hovering over him, whispers shrill in his ear, dictating, planning, scheming . . .

The frigate lurched downward again, this time careening far to the port, bringing the swirling currents of the ocean so close he could clearly see the sky, the hull of the ship, even the shadowy form of his own self dancing upon the ocean's surface. Over the creak of ropes and the flap of canvass came the shouts of the sailors. They did not sound urgent. Fortunate, Blackthorn thought, for certainly cries of alarm would mean a maelstrom.

"The comets are alight this night," Whitelock muttered, who must have arrived while Blackthorn had been trying to regain his bearings. The scribe stood without help from the deck's railing, undaunted, it seemed, by the wind and spray. He peered at Blackthorn with his good eye while the wind whipped his hood and hair over the ruins of his face. "Art thou ready for what awaits us?" He indicated the coast of New Magincia with his staff.

"We spoke of it last night," Blackthorn said, now feeling more composed. "It need not be discussed again."

But the scribe would not let it go. "They will not welcome thee upon their shores. They follow Windemere as if he were their king, not just their Councilor. And by now, they must know about what has happened." He paused, waiting for Blackthorn's reaction. He received none, and continued. "The men and women of New Magincia will resist thee as much as they can."

"There will be no violence," Blackthorn said, sternly. "They are but shepherds, humble and defenseless."

"Hardly," Whitelock scoffed. "They have Windemere's soldiers amongst them, fighters skilled enough that they now have thy men under guard. And thou art lucky that Windemere took most of his fleet to Britain, otherwise thou wouldst have to contend with his ships as well."

"I left only eight of the Black Company in New Magincia when I last visited, including Saduj. I wanted to leave more, but at the time, I had no desire to aggravate Councilor Windemere or New Magincia's inhabitants." He glared at the scribe. "I will admit that I erred in trusting them, but I will not harm them, nor will I allow others to harm them."

"They have openly defied thee, and by doing so, they have defied Lord British," Whitelock said. He shrugged. "'Tis thy choice whether or not to set an example with them."

"'Twas not they who wrought treason upon on us in Jhelom," Blackthorn said. "'Twas Windemere himself, and he is now justly imprisoned. Certainly, they will understand my reasons." A faint hope, for the Great Council had not.

As soon as he had returned to Castle Britannia after the destruction in Jhelom, he had thrown open the doors of the Great Council's chamber with such malice that they had hit the walls with a detonation that must have echoed into the outskirts of Britain. Indeed, when Blackthorn stormed into the chamber, the Councilors were already on their feet, all except Sindar, of course, who continued to doze contentedly, even as Blackthorn shouted in fury.

"Windemere!" He raised a rolled parchment that he gripped in his fist. "Is this why thou didst have Captain Suturb send me to Jhelom? Is this why thou didst try to have me and the leaders of the Black Company slain?" He threw the parchment upon the table.

Windemere, his long, silver hair dancing with motes of reflected torchlight, calmly picked up the parchment that Blackthorn had tossed at him, and read only a few lines before he returned it. "'Tis the journal kept by Remoh, scribe to Lord British, during their journey into the Underworld." His gaze at Blackthorn was of malice. "One wonders how thou didst come by a copy."

That had been Saduj's doing, but Windemere and the others need not know that. "Thou hast possessed the journal for nearly a month, and thou didst not tell us!"

"A month?" said Felepsar, his crooked smile appearing. He addressed Windemere. "Odd. Thou didst tell the Council that the knight who carried this had washed up upon thy shores but a week ago." The mage's gaze darted back and forth between Windmere and Blackthorn, judging and assessing. The other Councilors were just as wary, save for Hassad, who listened intently.

"I spoke the truth," Windemere answered Felespar. "As soon as I learned of the knight's identity, I summoned this Council and brought the journal here."

"Thou dost speak lies, Windemere," Blackthorn snarled, striding toward the Councilor. "I have had thee watched, and I have learned that thou didst keep the girl and the journal secret for a month while thou didst plot and scheme to slay the Regent of Britannia on the very day that thou wouldst reveal to the world that Lord British had been lost." Now he confronted the hawkish Councilor face to face, his eyes but inches from the Windemere's. "Without a monarch, the rule of this land would have fallen to thee and thy colleagues here in the Great Council, which is what thou hast wanted for some time, is it not?"

"My Lord," said the voice of Fiona from behind, "think of what thou art saying! Even if thy life had been forfeit, this Great Council would have raised a new monarch, either Sir Simon or Lord Malone, to be certain."

"Only if Sir Simon and Lord Malone lived to see that day," Blackthorn said, still confronting the Councilor from New Magincia. "When didst thou plan to eliminate them, Windemere? Or didst thou think that they would be in the tower in Jhelom? If so, thou wert wrong." His breath came in heavy, uneven rasps.

Windemere never blinked, and his next words were quiet, and, it seemed, of affirmation. "Thou art mad."

The Councilor's body slammed against the wall, held nearly a foot off the ground by Blackthorn himself, his hand wrapped around Windemere's throat. The Councilor's staff clattered to the floor. The air in the chamber suddenly howled, slamming shut the great doors, dousing several of the torches. "And thou art a traitor," Blackthorn hissed at Windemere. He tightened his grip. The Councilor's neck felt soft, brittle.

"This has gone far enough!" Annon shouted, and from the corner of his eye, Blackthorn noticed the grave wizard raising his staff.

In a single, swift motion, Blackthorn's free hand went to his pouch, drew forth a black pearl covered in sulphurous ash, and cast it at Annon. "Vas Flam," he murmured. Energy radiated through him into the pearl. It burst forth into flame, soared across the chamber in a fiery missle, and detonated against the Councilor's chest, loud enough that even Sindar awoke with a start. Annon fell to the ground, yet the shadow he cast against the wall continued to grow.

And from within that shadow, and from within those of Goeth and Malifora, which also seemed to expand, three figures emerged into existence, stepping forth like wraiths draped in darkness. Two men and one woman, all robed and hooded in black. Murmuring incantations, they placed themselves evenly among the Councilors. Fiona dropped to Annon's side and lay her hands upon his smoldering skin and robes, the stench of which had begun to engulf the chamber. "Vas Mani," she whispered, then looked at her hands with horror. "I cannot heal," she cried.

"There will be no more magic in this chamber for some time," Blackthorn declared. "My mages have seen to it." With that, he released Windemere, who stumbled over to the table for support. The Councilor rubbed his neck, maintaining a wary eye on Blackthorn, who snapped his fingers. On cue, a dozen of the Black Company marched into the chamber, one for each councilor, save for Windemere. Three took up position around him while the remaining two flanked the doors to the chamber.

"Councilor Windemere," Blackthorn said. "Thou art under arrest for treason and murder." The largest of the guards around Windemere grabbed the Councilor's wrists and shackled them behind the Councilor's back. "'Tis with great regret that I sentence thee to execution for thy crimes. Thrud, lock him in the castle's prison and await my orders."

Windemere sneered. "Thou canst not do this, Blackthorn. Thou hast nothing but accusations to hold against me."

"No?" asked Blackthorn. "Others might disagree." He gestured to the door where another figure had appeared.

"Saduj?" Windemere said, incredulously, as Thrud and the others pushed him forward.

"Councilor," Saduj grinned, maliciously. "It has been an honor working with thee." He followed the Councilor and his escort from the room.

Blackthorn immediately turned to his other men. "Quickly, have Annon taken to the healers. Malifora, Fiona, attend to him, and express my apologies when he awakens. I hope that he can understand what I had to do."

"I am not certain that I do," Fiona whispered, sadly. Malifora said nothing; the circles beneath her eyes spoke enough. They left, along with a confused Goeth and Sindar, escorted by Blackthorn's men and mages.

When the chamber emptied, Felespar spoke, if hesitantly. "The Great Council will not support this, Blackthorn. Even Lord British could not imprison, let alone execute, a man without trial. And if thy only witness to Windemere's actions is one of thine own men . . ." His words trailed off, though his lips turned in a half-smile.

So intense was the fury ignited by the mage's remark that somehow it burned away the last of Blackthorn's rage. He stooped over the great table, supporting himself with one hand. The other he used to cover his eyes. "I lost my best people in that attack. Captain Varibed, Moragwain, and Ghaland were among the most honorable warriors that I have ever known. Perhaps not so for Kayden or—" He gritted when he said the next name. "Or Captain Suturb. But I mourn their passing, nonetheless." He lowered his hand, and glowered. "Windemere will pay for his treachery."

"Of that, I have no doubt," Felespar smirked. He offered his arm to Hassad.

The hand that Hassad laid upon Blackthorn's shoulder might have offered comfort, but the mage's solemn parting did not. "Thou didst have one of thine own spy upon one of us. And I see that, somehow, thou hast become adept as a mage and allied thyself with the dark side of our order." He sighed and removed his hand, his frown forlorn. "I can only wonder, then, my friend, what other secrets thou dost hide from us."

"I can only wonder, too," Blackthorn said softly to himself. Despite the winds, the frigate had docked successfully in New Magincia's wharf where a few other ships rested, all bearing the shepherd's crook. Sailors jumped to the planks below while their captain barked commands to secure the ship. The stench of the sea, of dead fish and rotten seaweed, was strong here. He felt as if he stood in an underwater tomb.

Whitelock, as usual, had disappeared and was nowhere to be seen. All for the best, Blackthorn believed, since the crowd had already gathered at the edge of the dock, their temperament reflecting that of the desolate weather, and Blackthorn did not need the scribe inciting them. No blades will be drawn, Blackthorn told himself. Yet there, at the forefront of the crowd, waited a ring of soldiers, Windemere's men, surrounding Blackthorn's own, and leading the soldiers was—Blackthorn squinted. Yes, as expected. Whitelock's sources were good.

"Lord Blackthorn," Lady Windemere called, as Blackthorn strode down the plank to the dock. "Once, long ago, I confronted thy father on the doorstep of thy home. Now I find myself confronting thee at the doorstep of mine. So, I shall say as thy father did: Be gone and with haste, for thou art not welcome here."

The crowd echoed the sentiments of Lady Windemere. She wore black, possibly the same garb she had worn on that night so many years ago, and, indeed, save for a few new lines on her face and the dark streaks of gray through her silver hair, she looked much the same.

Blackthorn spoke calmly when he reached the end of the dock. "This is not thy home, Lady Windemere, nor has it ever been. Thy home is thy family's island fortress, and I suggest that thou dost return to it and leave the matters of New Magincia to its people."

"'Tis the people who have asked me to stand for my son," retorted the Lady. Her followers murmured in support. "And 'tis they who have chosen me to speak for them." Her back straightened, her eyes flashed in the gray dawn like dull ice. "Thou art a tyrant and a usurper, Lord Blackthorn, and the people of New Magincia reject thee as their king. Thou art not welcome upon this island, and shouldst thou wish to step upon our soil, then thou and thy men must pass through us first." As she spoke, the ranks behind her tightened, blocking exit from the dock. "We are unarmed," the Lady proclaimed, "but we will resist."

Blackthorn nearly laughed. He, alone, could probably cut down half these men; they would stand no chance before the armed company waiting for his signal to emerge from the hold of his frigate. And even if New Magincia managed to resist them, he had picked the night of this confrontation to fall under the waning crescent moon for a reason: Another full company was prepared to arrive through New Magincia's moongate.

No blades will be drawn, he reminded himself, and said, "'Tis fortunate, then, that I have no desire to set foot on thy island. I request only that thou dost return what is rightfully Britannia's: The men of the Black Company, and the wounded knight, Shaana, who serves me in the Royal Guard. Do so, and I shall leave peacefully. Not only that, I promise that the Black Company shall no longer maintain a presence here." They had not been expecting this concession—that much was obvious from the Lady's angered expression, and the sudden murmur of discussion from the citizens themselves. Good. Already they were beginning to divide. 'Twas time to widen the gap. "But to fail to recognize me as thy king is to defy the accords of Britannia, those written by the very Council on which thy son served. If thou dost choose not to recognize me, thee and thy followers will be deemed traitors, and action will be taken." He allowed that to settle in. "But it shall not be taken by me."

He raised his left hand, and two men on white Valorian steeds rode forth from the deck of the frigate, drawing their horses to a halt on either side of Blackthorn when they reached the crowd. Both men wore the armor of Britannian knights, the shield of one bearing the crest of the Order of the Silver Serpent. They dismounted, took their places by Blackthorn's side, and gasps arose from the crowd when they removed their helms. The Lady staggered back as if a blade had pierced her heart. She had not foreseen this.

The knight on Blackthorn's left addressed the lady, his tone surprisingly cordial for the accusation he leveled. "Thy son murdered the advisors of Bordermarch while attacking the rightful Regent of Britannia. To defend thy son is to defend a traitor. So sayeth I, Sir Simon of Bordermarch, loyal servant to Britannia's King."

The other knight, the one who bore the shield with the serpent, spoke. "Like thy son, I, too, have disagreed with our Regent more often than not, but that gives me no right to commit treason or murder. Good men of Serpent's Hold died in Jhelom the day Councilor Windemere betrayed us. I hope that their deaths are the last in this conflict. So sayeth I, Lord Malone of Serpent's Hold, loyal servant to Brtiannia's King."

"As I assured thee, Lady Windemere," said Blackthorn, "action shall be taken, but not by me. With the permission of the Great Council, who felt that I might not act with thy best interests in mind, I have temporarily conceded my authority over New Magincia to Sir Simon of Bordermarch and Lord Malone of Serpent's Hold, both of whom suffered losses when my company was attacked. It is with them that thou must now contend. I will play no part in this." He bowed before the Lady. "Fare thee well."

Gulls cried mournfully overhead while Blackthorn returned to the frigate, certain that one way or another, he would be retracing his steps back to shore by nightfall. The sycophants of the Windemere family would gladly defy Blackthorn, but as for Sir Simon and Lord Malone, the most renowned knights in Britannia—that was another matter. Terms would be reached, conditions that he, Malone, and Simon had agreed upon last night. If not—

No blades will be drawn. So he hoped. Still, a voice suspiciously like Whitelock's reminded him that he had brought the men still on board the ship for a reason. Blackthorn would see his childhood friend, Shaana, this night, and if that meant burning New Magincia to the ground and bathing the ashes with the blood of traitors, then so be it.

"Thy men have been released, my Lord," reported Lord Malone as dusk settled slowly over the coastline. "And thou mayest visit the knight, Shaana, whenever thou dost wish. She can be found at The Humble Palate."

Blackthorn nodded, but did not show his relief. The two knights had just entered the cabin moments ago. An hour more, the fires of dusk would have bloomed with the burning of New Magincia. "Is she well?" Blackthorn asked.

"She is still weak, my Lord," answered Sir Simon, "and will be unable to travel for at least another few days." The spry knight allowed himself to smile. "But there is no doubt she will survive, my Lord."

Again, Blackthorn merely nodded though his heart swelled with joy. He returned the quill pen he had been twirling in his fingertips to its well, which rested in a velvet box, and as he did so, a vision flashed before him, of Lord British entrusting him with something. He blinked, confused, and covered his hesitation by sorting the parchments that littered the desk. "And Lady Windemere, what of her? Her ships left earlier in the afternoon. Is she no longer here?"

It might have been a chuckle that escaped Malone's throat. "She departed when she realized the folks of New Magincia would not see things her way, my Lord," he said. "She returns to her family's keep. And even before we left Britain, I was receiving reports that most of Windemere's ships were sailing toward the fortress."

"The Lady is amassing an army," Sir Simon muttered.

"Hardly," said Blackthorn. "The Windemeres may have an armada, but they have no ground forces to stage an attack against the mainland, nor can they afford one. The best that Lady Windmere can do is hole herself in her island fortress, and she is welcome to do so. That way, she is no threat to anyone else. Eventually, she will run out of funds, and her loyal captains and crews will abandon her, especially when the crown starts hiring them." He smiled. "For now, I am more concerned about the citizens of New Magincia. Have they responded to our other terms?"

"They will recognize thee as Regent of Britannia, my Lord, though they ask that the Black Company no longer maintain a presence here in New Magincia."

"Fair enough," Blackthorn said, "but a complement of the Britannian Guard must be allowed to remain. Order must be enforced, one way or the other."

"This they understand, my Lord," said Simon. "Still, they ask but one more thing of thee." He hesitated, and shared a wary glance with Malone.

Blackthorn stood, and leaned over the desk. He did not like the sound of this. All the terms that they had discussed had already been met. "What is it?" he asked, sternly.

"They asked that Councilor Windemere be released from his imprisonment so that he may a undergo fair trial, my Lord."

Blackthorn allowed an uncomfortable moment of silence to pass before he laughed. "I will not release him, for he is charged with criminal acts, but that the Councilor would undergo a trial was never in any doubt, nor did I ever have any plans of executing him." The two knights visibly showed their relief, for clearly, they had had their doubts. Blackthorn grinned. "I am no tyrant, my friends. Traitor or not, Council Windemere has his rights, and I shall respect them."

They both bowed. "Of course, my Lord," Lord Malone said. "The citizens of New Magincia will be relieved to hear of this."

"I am certain that all of Britannia will be," said Blackthorn. "An example needed to be set. Those who consider treachery will think twice when they recall what was threatened, even if the threat is not followed through. Now if thou wilt excuse me, I have a friend to visit."

When he opened the door to Shaana's room at The Humble Palate, New Magincia's only pub and inn, he startled the woman attending the wounded knight. The healer was old, hair filmy and gray, nose and chin crooked and long. She jerked back from the bed, and when her eyes caught Blackthorn, they went wide with fright. She actually took a step back and wrapped herself in her cloak as if it might protect her. Windemere, he thought darkly, what hast thou said of me to make them tremble like this?

He raised his hands. "I apologize, good healer. I did not mean to frighten thee. The innkeeper told me that thou wert out collecting herbs for the evening."

It still took a moment for the healer to relax. "Not yet, my Lord. I wanted to ensure that thy friend was in good health before I left." She held up a vial. "I was going to give her this. 'Tis a mixture of ginseng and garlic and other herbs of healing."

"Allow me to do it for thee, then," said Blackthorn, "and thou mayest go about thy business. I have no wish to detain thee from thy chores."

The healer did not appear to trust him, for a few seconds passed before she finally relented. "As thou dost wish, my Lord. When thou dost wake her, have her drink the potion. But speak quickly, for she will rapidly grow tired, and her sleep will be sound." She shuffled by him. "I will return shortly, my Lord." Then she quietly closed the door to the hall.

Alone, Blackthorn knelt before Shaana's bed. She lay there, her quilt rising and falling with quiet breaths, her hair splayed out upon her pillow and over her bare shoulders. He removed his glove, and touched her forehead. So cold, he thought, and her lips uttered a frightened murmur. With his bare fingers, he gently wiped the dampness from her brow. "Thou art still beautiful," he whispered, and gently raised her head.

When the healer's brew touched her lips, her eyelids fluttered and she murmured contentedly. Eyes still closed, she swallowed the rest of it, then lay back. "'Tis bitterer than usual," she said, voice hoarse and distant, but when she opened her eyes and smiled at him, he knew that she was there with him. "Though sadly, 'tis certainly one of the better drinks that thou hast ever made." Her hand emerged from beneath the quilt, and stroked his beard. "I knew thou wouldst come for me, my Lord."

He placed the vial upon the bed stand, then took her hand and kissed it. "I should have come for thee earlier," he said, solemnly. "I should have journeyed into the Underworld—"

"No," she said, too sharply, for her throat buckled with her coughs. When she had caught her breath, her fingers tightened around his. "Never say that. Never venture into that place." He had never seen her so afraid, never seen her lips tremble as they did now. "There is only death there..."

"No, that is not true," he whispered, "for thou didst survive."

She bolted upright; the quilt slid down from her shoulders to rest delicately on the slopes of her breasts. "I did not survive!" she snarled. Her eyes burned, then dimmed, and she lay back, exhausted, staring at the ceiling. "I did not survive," she repeated. "They simply allowed me to live."

Blackthorn brought the quilt back up to her neck. "Who? Who allowed thee to live, Shaana? Tell me. Please. What happened to thee?"

Her breath shuddered once, then she faced him. "The wraiths, my friend. Three of them. I could not move. I saw them fell our king. Saw them take him." She closed her eyes. "I was powerless to stop them."

Lord British's scribe had chronicled the same. "Remoh," Blackthorn said. "Where is he?"

She shrugged. "Lost? Dead? I am not certain." She managed to open her eyes, though it was clear it took great effort for her to stay awake. "We traveled together, he and I, for days, perhaps months. I cannot say. Time loses meaning down there. There is nothing but night." She licked her lips. "His madness grew, day by day. He had touched one of the wraiths. He would not speak of it, but I saw it. He was never the same. I remember him giggling as he wrote, sometimes screaming. I awoke at some point to simply find him gone. Perhaps he wandered off, perhaps they took him. His journal and supplies remained. I tried to read what he had chronicled. 'Twas all meaningless after that fateful day." Her lips trembled again, and her eyes welled. "I have never been so alone, dear Blackthorn. So alone and afraid. I did not know what to do."

He wiped away her tears and caressed her hand. "Thou art no longer alone," he said. "Thou wilt never be alone, not again. I shall always be with thee."

She reached up and brushed his hair. "And I wish to be with thee," she smiled, even as she wept. "Thy face, thy friendship, 'tis what kept me going, even as they watched me struggle, curse, and cry. They were always there, somewhere. When I could not see their eyes, I could feel them. The hate, the fear, the lies . . ." Her hand dropped to her side. He took it again, and it gave her enough strength to continue. "They kept me alive. There are . . . things down there, creatures I have never seen, creatures of darkness and strength not known to Britannia. But even they would not approach me, not with the wraiths nearby." She looked up at him. "How long was I gone? I have been afraid to ask."

"I am not certain," he replied. "Two months, at least. No more than four."

"An eternity," she breathed. "I welcomed the waters when I fell into them. The rapids embraced me, stole my sight and my breath, and dragged me down. I welcomed it, but the wraiths. They would not let me die. So I spiraled, down and down, drowning, but not dying, down and down . . ." She looked up at him, her smile faint. "I remember thinking that I would never see thee again, that I could never tell thee again how much I loved thee . . . And then, I was here, in this bed, in thine enemy's home, and I was joyous, so joyous to be anywhere, to be anywhere except with the wraiths." She turned away, expression stricken. "Canst thou forgive me?"

He reached out and cupped her cheek, gently tilting her face toward his. "Shanna," he whispered, "there is nothing to forgive."

She smiled, closed her eyes. "I am glad." Her voice softened. "I am glad." She struggled to look at him, managed to open her brilliant eyes. "Dost thou remember the poem thou didst recite to me when we knelt before thy father's grave? The verse written upon thy mother's tree?" She could no longer keep her eyelids open. "I recited the last line to myself, over and over, while I was done there. Somehow, it kept me warm." Another breath, even quieter than before. "‘My heart is wrought of thy Light . . .'" Her recitation trailed into a murmur.

"‘And for thee, it shall never fade,'" he finished. She was delirious. She was right about the poem being written on his mother's tree, but there had never been a grave for his father. He kissed her brow. "I love thee, too, my friend, yet I never had the courage to tell thee before, and after thou didst not return, I was afraid that I would never have the chance." He kissed her again. "I love thee."

But she had fallen asleep, her breath faint and soft, so he wrapped his arms about her, rested his head against her breast, and was close to joining her in slumber when Whitelock hissed, "I did not raise thee to be a sentimental fool, boy."

Blackthorn jerked up and confronted the figure in the doorway. The candle within the room had burned out, and the only light came from the hall. Apparently, he had fallen asleep. "What dost thou want?" Blackthorn said, menacingly.

The voice that spoke was that of an elderly man, but not Whitelock's. "I apologize, my Lord. I did not mean to disturb thee. I only just returned and did not realize that thou wert still here. I should have checked with the innkeeper."

He was about to close the door, but Blackthorn stopped him. "Return? From where? Who art thou?"

The man held up the lantern he carried. His face was kind, full, and friendly. "Why, the healer, of course, my Lord. I was out collecting herbs for thy lady friend. She should be ready to leave in a few days."

He spoke something else, something in his kindly voice, but Blackthorn could not hear the words over the roar that surged through his senses. His vision, dulling and blurred, reeled across the room until it suddenly focused on the vial that the old woman had given him. The vial rested on the bed stand, but at some point in the evening, it had tipped over, and where the last of its contents had spilled, the wood beneath it was blackened.

A crash thundered in the distance, or so it seemed. An eternity passed before he realized the noise had been his sword splintering the bed stand in two. The vial shattered; droplets sprayed across him, and they burned. He collapsed against the wall. He slid down, lower and lower, until he sat helplessly on the floor. His sword dropped from his hand.

The healer now stood over the knight, frantically searching for a pulse, first on her wrist, then upon her throat. His lamp lay forgotten near the door, glass broken from its own fall, its flame guttering upon the floor as if taking its final breaths. Other folk appeared, first the innkeeper, then the guards, as the healer called for help. Throughout it all, Shaana did not stir. Not a breath escaped her. As the old woman had promised, the knight's sleep would be sound.

Chapter 4
By Blade

The boy Blackthorn collapsed to the ground after a root ensnarled his foot. 'Twas not the first time he had stumbled. Despite the light from the procession's torches, the road west of Yew remained ensnared by the net of night, not to mention roots, mud, and brush.

Strong arms lifted him back to his feet. Shaana's father, the Captain of the Guard, gave the boy a reassuring smile, and proceeded forward to check that all was well with the wagon ahead. Blackthorn stared after him, absently brushing dirt from his cloak, and wishing once again that the captain had allowed Shaana to accompany them this night. But she had seen enough, the captain had said, and the boy Blackthorn could not disagree. The boy, himself, had seen more than he cared. All of them had, they who had been to his mother's grave that dreadful night.

Who had arranged such a devious plot, none could say for certain, though it was not hard to guess. Still, no evidence could be found against the Lady Windemere or her family, or any of their followers. Instead, the family Windemere had only had to express their sympathies, and they had done just that—except for Lady Windemere, who suggested with an unusually heavy sigh that the woman's death had been Nyomae's sacrifice for slaying her own daughter. Her imprisoned husband had remained silent when he had been told, had merely nodded, in fact, as if not at all surprised, and had sat back down on the cot in his cell.

On this night, Councilor Windemere could do little except stand, ankles and wrists shackled to the floor of a narrow cage, which was securely fastened to the wagon. His shoulders were slumped, his head bowed, the ragged tresses of his gray hair melted into the tatters of his robe. He stunk, too, which was why the boy Blackthorn kept his distance. The Lord Mayor had not given the prisoner privilege to bathe since the incident at the grave, nor had he been permitted a chamber pot, nor a change of clothes. Meals had been a minimum of bread, water . . . at times, a morsel of cheese. Small punishments, yet enough to take their toll.

The steed harnessed to the wagon, a gray plough-horse from the High Steppes, was directed west. The wagon shifted precariously with the road's turn, lurched, and for a moment, the boy Blackthorn thought it would tip to the ground. He imagined the cage spilling out of the wagon, breaking apart, its occupant fleeing into the forest, never to be seen again. As if they shared the same vision, the three men of the Britannian Guard quickly converged on the wagon. Fortunately, the wagon righted itself. The Lord Mayor, at the head of the column, garbed in his official robes, paused to ensure all was well. The procession continued on.

When their destination appeared as a subtle blue glow far along the road, the boy Blackthorn finally steeled his resolve and jogged forward to the Lord Mayor's side. The Lord Mayor seemed to take no notice, not even when the boy took his hand.

"Thou art doing the right thing."

'Twas the first time that the boy Blackthorn had ever dared to suggest that his father's actions as Lord Mayor should be questioned. He waited anxiously for a response.

At last, the Lord Mayor, his father, squeezed his hand in return. "Am I? I am not so certain."

"'Tis the virtuous thing to do, father."

"By whose definition, my son?" His gaze was distant, focused beyond the trees that were now dark towers silhouetted by the soft, blue luminance of a clearing.

"By Justice itself, of course," the boy answered. "Thou hast meditated upon this matter for over a year. Thou hast consulted the facts within many texts, thou hast shared thy heart and opinions with thy peers, and thou hast had the courage to ask thyself if thy decisions are wrong. From all of this, thou hast learned what Justice means." He tightened his grip on his father's hand. "At least, in this affair. Come tomorrow, Justice will mean something new. Virtue is not necessarily meaningless without definition—it simply changes its meaning when it must. As all the Virtues must do."

The growing light shadowed the lines of his father's grimace. "I have always told thee that the Virtues were chaotic and unruly."

"Yes, but thou hast also always said that chaos and unruliness are the price we pay for freedom. We must simply learn to tame both from time to time."

"Thou dost sound like thy mother," his father said. "She was never one for absolute rights and wrongs. But sometimes I wonder . . . I wonder if events like this could be avoided if disorder could not only be temporarily tamed, but caged. Then no questions would need to be asked, no quarrels would need to be had, no mistakes would need to be made. . . . " He trailed off. "We are here, my son."

The forest ceiling parted to reveal the sky. Trammel could be seen near the mid-heaven, a waxing grin barely visible within the glow of the clearing's moongate. Windemere looked upon the portal and released a heavy sigh, one of resolved acceptance, then stared sorrowfully at Blackthorn's father, who strode up to the wagon to confront him. "Soon, Windemere, soon. We wait for others who shall wish to witness thy . . . departure."

The boy had never seen his father smile at the prisoner before.

Not moments later, the sound of galloping mounts echoed from whence the procession had just traveled. The captain and his men took up guard around the wagon as the Lady Windemere, escorted by three of her own guard, the Councilor Ipocrisis, and her youngest son, the silvery-haired youth, rode into the clearing. "Lord Mayor!" the Lady shouted, reining in her steed. "Is this how thou didst intend to carry out thy murder? Without even giving thy victim's family and friends a chance to bid him farewell?"

"'Tis more than thou didst give the woman, Nyomae," Blackthorn's father responded.

Councilor Ipocrisis drew back with such indignation that his mount nearly reared. "I denounce that accusation, Lord Mayor. There are those who deserve punishment for what they did to the poor woman, but to suggest that Lady Windmere had a hand in such devilry . . ." He could not finish the sentence, so great was his anger.

Blackthorn's father sighed. "I am certain that thou dost sincerely believe thy words, Councilor. For that, I respect thee."

"The woman's death is the result of thine actions, Blackthorn," Lady Windemere said. "As is will be my husband's execution. We will not forget that, nor will we forget this cowardly act of stealing him away in the night. Art thou so afraid of retribution that thou must conduct thine execution in secret? Had Dryden not alerted me—"

"Dryden alerted thee under my direction, Lady Windemere," Blackthorn's father said, calmly. "And there shall be no execution of thy husband on this night, nor any other, not according to the laws of Britannia." He withdrew a scroll from his sleeve and handed it to the suddenly stricken woman. "So I have decreed, and so it shall be done, once this letter is presented to Lord British for his signature." He stepped away from the Lady's horse. "Councilor Ipocrisis can verify the wording for thee."

Her movements were slow, lifeless, as she passed the document over to the hunched councilor. He reviewed it, his expression at first taught with skepticism, then gradually loosening. At last, he lowered it, eyes filled with malice. "What is the meaning of this?"

"Thou dost speak with such scorn," Blackthorn's father chided, "yet everything that thou and thy peers have asked is contained therein. Lord Windemere is to be escorted to Castle Britannia by the Royal Guard. There he shall serve a sentence of life imprisonment within Lord British's own dungeons. I am surprised that thou didst not hear of this earlier."

"Thou knowest that we did not," Ipocrisis snarled. "Thou art truly malicious, Blackthorn."

"That accusation, I shall denounce, Councilor," Shaana's father said. "Despite all that has transpired, the Lord Mayor has unselfishly renounced his decision about Windemere's fate. And yet thou dost still accuse him of malevolence. Mark my words, Councilor, what thou hast just said will not go unheard of back in Yew. When the time comes again to cast votes for thee as Yew's representative upon the Great Council, be assured that mine and many others will be absent."

Ipocrisis shrank back, and the captain jerked his hand toward the wagon. His men jumped into it, and quickly released the prisoner from his cage, if not his shackles. They brought him over to his family, where his son embraced him. Windemere looked up to his wife, whose eyes were filled with tears. "I am not certain about what thou didst for me," he said, solemnly. "I can only hope that thou didst believe it to be just. However, some actions can never be justified. Trust me on this matter. I know." Windemere shivered and closed his eyes, as if trying to repress his memories. He faced Blackthorn's father, his eyes dull from strain and exhaustion but full of clarity. "I accepted thine original penance, Lord Mayor, and found it just. Thou didst always know that. 'Twas my family and friends that did not."

"And perhaps they were right in doing so," the Lord Mayor said. He beckoned the guards to take their place around the prisoner and pointed at the moongate. "I have made arrangements. The Royal Guard awaits thee on the other side. They will escort thee to Lord British."

"Lord British. He is a fair and virtuous man, nothing short of an Avatar," Windemere said, "and not unlike thyself. I hope that my family doth learn something from thine actions." He then glanced at the boy Blackthorn. "Perhaps they will learn from thy son, as well. I overheard thy conversation. Wise words from one so young. Thou hast taught him well." He faced the silvery-haired youth who started to glare at the boy Blackthorn. "Do not despise him, son. He did nothing to thee or thy mother. If anything, I have a feeling that it was he who may have saved me." Windemere's son said nothing, only lowered his gaze. Windemere then addressed his wife. "The captain will accompany thee, our son, and the Councilor back to Yew. There thou shalt tell the rest of the family the good news. Then I ask that thou dost visit me in Castle Britannia. It shall be my home for quite some time."

The Lady Windemere could not say a word. 'Twas as if she could not avert her eyes from him, this man whose true name she had only come to know in the past year, the name she had taken as her own to prove that she would stand by him despite his past. Not an evil woman, the boy Blackthorn thought, just a woman in love.

After kissing his wife, Windemere centered himself between two of the guards. The boy's father handed the scroll to the prisoner, then instructed the guards to escort Windemere through the gate. The moongate grew brighter, hummed, set prickles across the boy Blackthorn's skin. He blinked uncertainly as a circle of light swirled up around the three men. The hum grew louder, the light brighter. The three men became silhouettes against the brilliant curtain . . .

His father faced the Lady Windemere, who continued to watch the three men disappear.

Silhouettes, then shadows, melting away . . .

"Thy husband shall not be executed—in accordance with Britannian law," he assured her.

Melting away, drawn away . . .

"Thy revenge against Nyomae shall always remain . . . unjust."

Drawn away, into . . .

The maelstrom had opened to the west, someone was reporting, and several of Windemere's ships were hopelessly caught within its rim. While the knight spoke, the three shadows behind him dissipated into the corner of the cabin. Their disappearance snapped Blackthorn from his reverie so fiercely that his breath rushed out of him. The cabin lolled, and he gripped the arms of the chair in which he sat.

"My Lord?" Sir Simon said. Lord Malone, also present, stepped forward to offer assistance.

Blackthorn waved him off. "'Tis nothing," he said.

The cabin continued to loll as the frigate cut north through the sea, now less than a mile from the shores of Windemere's island, a course he and the knights had not originally planned to take, but the news had arrived the night after Shaana had been poisoned, while Blackthorn still sat at her side, peering dully out of the window through his tears. He had lit a single candle and placed it on the sill. It had been barely enough to illuminate the room, but it had surrounded Shaana's pale, beautiful face with a lovely, serene aura.

In the window's reflection of the room, the door opened, allowing light to spill in. A hunched figure shuffled into the room and took a seat. The door closed by itself.

"I hope that thou hast learned something of importance, scribe," Blackthorn whispered, never taking his eyes from the window. "I was to be left alone."

Whitelock's sneer could be heard, if not seen. "'Tis time for thy grieving to end, my Lord. While thou hast spent thy time wallowing over what cannot be undone, I have been busy finding out who is responsible for it." The scribe tossed something forward. A flurry of parchment fluttered behind Blackthorn as it all settled on the floor. "Signed statements from the innkeeper, the healer, and half the residents of New Magincia. They all knew the woman with whom that didst speak last night. She was part of Lady Windemere's entourage."

Leather creaked as Blackthorn's gloved fists tightened. "Did she act under the Lady's orders?" Blackthorn said.

"What dost thou think?" Whitelock said, scornfully. "That she acted on her own?"

"'Tis what Windemere will claim, and what the Great Council will state that I cannot prove otherwise," Blackthorn said. "Just as they believe that I cannot prove that Windemere orchestrated the attack on Jhelom." He added, quietly, "And they are right. He hides his tracks too well, much like his mother."

Whitelock's figure rose from his chair. His posture was no longer hunched. "What needs to be proved? The links are there; they need only to be chained together. Certainly, that is what Sir Simon and Lord Malone have done. They have no doubts that Windemere is involved, and they are willing to support an assault on his keep to bring the Councilor and Lady to justice."

"If the Lady wishes to hole herself in her island, then so be it," Blackthorn said. "I will sanction an embargo upon her. There is no need for a siege. As for the Councilor, he sits in prison, and can answer for his family's atrocities."

"I am afraid not." Whitelock stooped again as he walked over to stand behind Blackthron's chair. "A courier from Britain arrived by moongate this evening. He brings . . . interesting news." He lowered himself so that the reflection of the ruined half of his face, a pale half-orb of scarred flesh, joined Blackthorn's in the window. "Councilor Windemere is free."

The candle wavered, nearly went out, as a chill wind seemed to sweep through Blackthorn. "He escaped?" He barely managed to form the words.

"The Great Council released him."

In the window, Blackthorn watched his own eyes slowly draw to angered slits. His jaw trembled, so tightly clenched were his teeth. "Why would they do this?" Not words this time, growls from the depths of his throat.

Whitelock continued to speak, each sentence seeming to bring one more crease of anger to Blackthorn's brow. "The Great Council did not find it fitting that one of their own be held prisoner without trial. They released him yesterday, and bid him to flee to his home before thou didst return." Whitelock drew away. "This has gone on long, enough, my Lord. The time has come. Let the world know what it means to defy thee."

'Twas the last he had seen of the scribe. The next morning, under Blackthorn's order, Whitelock had been sent back to Britain to deal with the Great Council while he, Lord Malone, and Sir Simon planned the siege of Windemere's island fortress. Despite seemingly overwhelming odds against victory, Lord Malone had been more than eager to join the fight; Sir Simon had expressed caution, just as he did now.

"'Twas a stroke of luck that the maelstrom appeared," he said, grasping a rafter to steady himself as the frigate rocked again. Yes, a stroke of luck, Blackthorn thought. He found his gaze lingering on the corner where had seen . . . Seen what? Something had been there, had it not? "It has cut us off from Windemere's western forces," informed Sir Simon. "We may still have time to retreat."

"Retreat?" Lord Malone scoffed. "Their victory is hardly assured."

"Thy courage is formidable," said Sir Simon, "but we knew from the beginning that we could not hope to defeat Windemere's navy. That is why we sent the captains and crews a courier who said they would be offered a reward as well as immunity if they did not fire upon us."

"And they agreed to the terms," said Lord Malone. "Yet upon our approach, they attacked."

Sir Simon shook his head, sadly. "I, too, am surprised by their treachery. I thought them more loyal to gold and land than to Windemere. Perhaps if we speak with them another time—"

"There will not be another time," said Blackthorn.

"But how, my Lord?" said the knight from Bordermarch. "We cannot break through their navy, and even if we did, how can we possibly assault the Keep? 'Tis guarded by cliffs and peaks. Granted, thou art well prepared." He indicated the sheaths of parchments on Blackthorn's desk, detailed maps of the island, its shores, the Keep's defenses, even a detailed map of the Keep itself. Whitelock had been busy collecting information from his sources. "Even with all this information, 'twould take an army to invade this island, an army we do not have. Our mission was of negotiation, not war."

Blackthorn's voice was soft. "I am through negotiating with traitors."

With that, the thunder of the frigate's canons erupted from below decks, followed by the cheers of the crew.

"Thou art attacking?" Sir Simon said, aghast. "My Lord, we cannot possibly win this battle. And what of the maelstrom?"

The oil lamp guttered fiercely with a sudden swell of the frigate. Both knights had to grasp the desk for support. Blackthorn, however, stood. "The maelstrom is not a threat," he said, uncertain as to why he was so confident that they would not be harmed. "As for us being outnumbered, there is more than one way to sink an enemy ship."

With that, he strode around the desk, past the two knights, and opened the cabin door. The acrid scent of salt greeted him, and could be tasted in the drizzle of rain. Wind roared. Thunder crashed from below as the canons fired again. Their peals were echoed by the sky when less than a league to the north, lightning skirted the bleak pinnacles of the island to which they sailed. Somewhere within that crown of peaks and gray shroud of clouds loomed Windemere's Keep and Windemere himself.

Several bursts flared in the east as he climbed on deck: Windemere's fleet returning fire. The ocean around Blackthorn's ship erupted in a spatter of gray columns, one geyser near enough that Blackthorn thought he might be able to reach over the railing and touch it. More booms as the ships that followed Blackthorn took aim at the enemy. Moments later, flames and screams burgeoned from one of Windemere's ships. The crew of Blackthorn's own frigate cheered, including Lord Malone, who, along with Sir Simon, joined Blackthorn by the railing. "For Courage!" shouted Malone.

Sir Simon, now standing next to Blackthorn, did not share his colleague's enthusiasm. "'Tis but one ship," he cried above the wind. "And there are more out there."

"Not for long," Blackthorn whispered, and Sir Simon's sharp intake of breath sounded over the next volley of canons.

The waves around the closest enemy ship surged up around her hull, as if forming a giant burial mound, then violently broke apart as they gave birth to a tentacle, its tip nearly twice the width of the ship's mast, and yet still thickening when it rose up and up, higher than the mainmast itself. Blackthorn's heart beat a rapid underscore to the distant cries of terror, and his hand empathetically touched the hilt of his sword while he watched Windemere's sailors vainly hack at the monstrous limb. Their assaults were in vain. Another tentacle sprang from the starboard side of the ship, then another, and another. Lightning flashed, briefly coating the flailing appendages with an oily gleam. When the thunder subdued, they came crashing down, tearing the frigate apart. Men and timber spilled into the sea.

"By the Virtues!" Malone cried, but his expression of petrified awe was not fixated on this particular spectacle. Instead, the Lord of Serpent's Hold gazed southeast as the neck and head of a great leviathan burst forth from the waves, rising as tall as the tentacles, and from the its fanged maw burst a veil of fire, setting the masts and sails of two more of Windemere's fleet aflame. With a screeching roar, the serpent then dove across one of the decks, carving the hull in two, as it sought to attack the frigates beyond.

Lord Malone thrust his fist into the air as lightning forked through the heavens. "Fate is with us!" he called again, triumphantly. "Let our grievances with Windemere be damned! His fleet and ours must unite to survive these beasts. For Courage! For the Serpent!"

As if summoned by Malone's call, the hump of another creature appeared, this one right beneath Blackthorn's own frigate. The ship rocked, forcing the knights to grab the railing. Lord Malone laughed, unsheathed his sword in preparation for battle, but the serpent pressed onward to join its brethren. Malone stared after it, perplexed, as Blackthorn's ship crashed back onto its keel.

Sir Simon backed away from the railing, his cape billowing in the wind. "They attack Windemere's fleet, but not our own," he shouted. Blackthorn pivoted to face the knight errant, who stood with his back to the west, against an entirely new backdrop of destruction. The maelstrom raged, a whirling rupture in the ocean, so wide that it had drawn in a three of Windemere's ships. And by Blackthorn's judgment, the waters should have been towing at his ship as well. So close were they that he could see men drowning within the whirlpool, was even able to catch the eye of one, a young man with a headband and long hair, his shirt long torn from his torso. He raised his left arm imploringly, or perhaps in farewell, then the ocean took him for its own. Yet Blackthorn's frigate sailed on, skirting the edge of the vortex as if it did not exist, propelled forward by the winds and water.

"Blackthorn!" Sir Simon's cry was one of dismay, anger. "Thou didst know of this! Tell me, didst thou even send a courier to Windemere's fleet? Didst thou even give them a chance to surrender?"

Lord Malone had silenced his acclamations, and he slowly lowered his sword. Rain lashed at his frown. Beyond the knight, more of Windemere's frigates toppled into the sea. Flames belched. Tentacles writhed. And Blackthorn's fleet continued to shower Windemere's with cannon shells.

Blackthorn confronted Simon. "It had to be done, knight," he yelled over the wind. "We cannot allow Britannia to be divided, least of all by Windemere and the Great Council. We shall set an example with them. First, with Windemere and his Keep, then with the others!"

"But, my Lord," protested Malone, "Windemere betrayed the Council as well."

More lightning. Cracks of thunder, of splintering hulls. "And 'twas they who set the traitor free!" declared Blackthorn.

"They did not know—"

Light cut him off, cut off the world.

The wave that knocked Blackthorn and others to the deck was not one of water, but of pure force and sound. 'Twas as if every clap of thunder Blackthorn had heard throughout his life had been drawn over the island and released. It poured over the mountains, onto the ocean, and across the battle. Masts cracked. Sails ripped. The serpents wailed, the tentacles writhed, and the maelstrom churned. Blackthorn slid back across the deck, tumbled down the stairs to his cabin. He smacked against the door. His ears roared. No, 'twas still the air that rumbled—from the detonation, whatever it had been. He wiped rain from his eyes. When his vision cleared, he looked toward the north.

Whatever had happened, it had tossed the lowest layer of clouds away from the island in a gray, turbulent ring. In their place hung a mushroom of black smoke, its fiery stalk retracting upward from somewhere within the island. Based on the maps that Whitelock had sent him, Blackthorn judged the epicenter had been Windemere's Keep.

He crawled up to the deck, eyes fixated on that ghastly column of smoke that marked Windemere's home. He managed to stand, albeit with some difficulty. The air still shook.

Lord Malone was picking himself up. Beyond the knight, the battle on the sea continued. Sir Simon lay nearby, shouting something at him. "What hast thou hidden from us? What forces have we unknowingly allied ourselves with?"

Powerful magic. Dark magic. He was aware of that much, and who was responsible for it. As for the maelstrom—he did not know, but would find out. He focused on the top of the cliffs ahead, imagined himself upon it, and allowed his mind to relax, to reach out into the ethereal void as he had been taught. He reached out. Something grasped him, pulled him forward.

The world slipped around him.

Atop the cliff, the battle upon the sea was distant, silent. 'Twas peaceful here, calm. There was no rain, no wind. The lightning had stopped, as had the thunder. Just the sky and the ring of clouds. Just the cloud, the cloud of dark smoke that bloomed like a stalk of nightshade.

And them.

Three of them. Silent and shrouded, they awaited him on the opposite edge of the cliffs. Though there was no wind—not even a breeze—the rims of their dark cloaks rippled against the ground, disturbing not a single mote of dust. Through them, Blackthorn could see Windemere's Keep, remarkably intact, a fortress in a snow-caked vale.

Oddly, the three cast no shadows.

He approached them, looked up, gazed deep into their hoods. Something stared back at him: Red eyes shining from within the depths of night.

"Show me what we have wrought," Blackthorn said.

The world slipped around him.

Hours had passed this time. Where he had spent them, he did not know.

Night blanketed the vale when the gates of Windemere's Keep materialized before him. Snow leisurely fell about, sometimes disturbed by a hushed breeze. The flakes settled on the bows of his cheeks, melted, and rivulets of winter streamed down his skin. His heart beat calmly, slowly, relaxed, a few counts between each mist of breath, the air scented with the taste of early spring. Somewhere, somewhere distant, metal rang against metal, and voices pleaded for mercy.

So peaceful.

A mage stepped away from the battered gates of the Keep. The portcullis lay broken to one side, twisted bars of melted steel. The great door it had guarded clung to the stone walls by a single twisted hinge, its handles torn off and thick gashes rent through its oak.

The mage, robed in black, greeted Blackthorn. "My Lord, thou hast arrived at the appointed hour." Flain's resonant, fluid voice dripped from his cowl. "I trust all went well upon the sea."

"Windemere's fleet is no more," Blackthorn said. "Thine acolytes have done well in controlling the dwellers of the deep. How goes the siege?"

Flain stepped to one side and invited him forward with a sweeping gesture. "See for thyself, my Lord. The assault will soon be finished. All that remains are scattered forces, rats among the rubble. 'Tis safe for a leisurely walk to the throne, if thou dost choose."

"By all means," Blackthorn said, and stepped beneath the charred arch of the gate. Flain joined him at his side. Two other figures methodically fell into step behind them. Soldiers, Blackthorn realized, though it took him a moment to realize that their armored plates covered not flesh, but bone.

The vaulted halls within the foyer captured and amplified the echoes of distant combat. From one net of arches emanated the familiar whisper of blades cleaving skin and bone, and the abrupt screams that followed. Torches guttered as an explosion roared. The chandeliers swung in a breeze of unearthly shrieks, the piercing war cries of things that were not men.

Blackthorn surveyed the halls as they walked, often having to step around the corpses of Windemere's men. Most tapestries hung ripped and burnt, many still smoldering, as did the portraits. Those that did not portrayed dark, ominous scenes of anguished men and women. The statues were much the same—only the sculptures of daemonic birds and beasts remained standing. The rest had been shattered.

"'Tis different than I remember," Blackthorn commented.

"Thou wert here once?" asked the mage. A woman's scream did not cause him to look up. Neither did a resounding crash of metal, as if a dozen suits of armor had clattered to the floor.

"Long ago, in the early days of the Black Company," said Blackthorn. "The Councilor invited me to his home, to convince me that I should return to the Royal Guard rather than form a legion of my own—that a military body separate from the Britannian Guard would not be welcomed by the Council. Even then, the mage thought that I might endanger their hold over Britannia." Another scream, abruptly cut off by a gargantuan roar. "This keep was different then. The walls were of light marble, the floors tiled white. The portraits and statues were beautiful." He caressed the neck of a savage, feline creature carved in stone. His gloves came back coated in soot. "I do not remember sculptures like this."

"'Twas not like this hours ago," answered Flain. "The keep changes even as we speak, twists and corrupts itself. Look." He stopped, and pointed at the statue of a robed councilor. White marble had turned gray, and black veins of some mineral crept forward across its face, deforming it, stretching a contemplative frown into a hideous grin. "The walls pulse with this black substance, and whatever structure it touches, darkness takes hold. What Windemere knew as his home will be no more come the dawn." They turned away from the statue, and proceeded forward. "When thou didst send me that scroll, I knew the spell within was of the most powerful sort, for it would have taken me decades to unravel how the magic had been bound to the parchment, much less created. But I never imagined . . . There was a blaze of light. The very earth shook. I thought us all doomed, but no one was hurt, save for the keep itself." He peered inquisitively at his lord. "I wonder how thou didst come across such magic. Is it how thou didst raise thy fortress so quickly on the island near Serpent's Hold?"

Blackthorn did not answer, absently speculative. He did not recall any such scroll or spell, much less orders to construct a fortress. The spell . . . 'Twas certainly the detonation he, Lord Malone, and Sir Simon had witnessed from afar. He could only imagine what it would have been like to stand at its heart.

They passed a fallen brazier. Its coals lay scattered, simmering. Flain spoke again. "Though the spell harmed no one, it demoralized Windemere's men, and it gave Elistaria time to summon her allies into the very heart of the Keep. I and the dark mages not controlling the ocean beasts then assailed the Keep with our own, lesser army. 'Twas not long before we broke down the doors." From a niche along the side of the hall, the beady eyes of an enormous rat peered up from the body on which it chewed. A second rat nipped at the first, then both suddenly squealed and fled as something took flight from an alcove near the ceiling. Blackthorn had thought it a grotesque gargoyle. Flain followed the creature's flight as it disappeared down the hall. "And as thou dost see, other things besides ourselves have joined this cause, things I cannot name. They are like small men, but winged, and more primeval in nature. I do not know from whence they came."

They rounded a corner, confronting a small party who had been fleeing in the opposite direction. Forming a perimeter around a noble man and woman were four soldiers, tabards with the shepherd's crook draped over their chain mail. They all drew to a halt, fear encompassing each as they realized who they faced. The woman clutched the infant she carried tighter to her breast. Blackthorn had never met the noble man and his family, but the features of the woman were unmistakable. Windemere's sister, perhaps? A cousin? He did not know.

Flain raised a fist. A powerful aroma leaked through his fingers, a nauseating mix of nightshade, mandrake, and sulfur. The mage murmured four words, the air around his hand contracted, expanded, burst forth in a dark wave. No one had a chance to scream. The hall trembled.

Moments later, Blackthorn and the mage stepped over bodies. "And what of Elistaria?" Blackthorn asked.

"Her control of the daemons is formidable," Flain said. "Hours have passed, and still they obey her commands. A score of them, at least, and two greater fiends of their kind. They struggle to break free, but the yoke cannot be shirked. It surpasses anything that I have ever seen." For the first time since they had entered the Keep, Flain turned his head to glance at his Lord. "'Tis almost as if another, darker power helps keep the devils in check."

Another corner or more, and they faced the entrance to the throne room. Where once twin doors sealed the chamber from the hall, a monstrosity stood in a fog of embers and smoke. As tall as the archway it guarded, it had to bend over to bring its elongated skull within eye level of the two men. Blackthorn stood less than a foot from it, could feel the heat from its veins, which coursed over its bloody, scaled flesh in streams of liquid fire. Ocher drooled from between its fangs, dripped like molten stalactites from the prongs of its chin. Its breath—gurgles like those of a furnace. Nostrils as large as Blackthorn's fists twitched, sniffed. An unholy light spilt from them and its eyes.

"Thou shalt let me pass," Blackthorn said.

The greater daemon raised its head and hands to the ceiling, and unleashed a hideous, frustrated howl. It flexed its torso, and spread its wings over the hallway like a fiery canopy. Yet it retreated to the side, its cloven feet uprooting the floor with each step.

Flain bid Blackthorn farewell. "I release Elistaria of her apprenticeship. Do with her as thou wilt." He left, his skeletal warriors at his heels.

Within the throne room were lesser creatures of the daemon's kind—wingless, yet still giants to most men. As Blackthorn passed each, it withdrew into the shadows, hissing, snarling, becoming nothing more than fire-lit eyes and gleaming teeth.

The two largest columns of the room bordered a curved dais three steps high. Upon the left column hung the body of Lady Windemere, silver hair and blood trickling over outstretched shoulders, a blade emboweled in her forehead, another just below her sternum. Two more blades jutted from her wrists: Flesh and bone pinned to solid marble—Blackthorn had no doubt what creature had had the strength to do that.

On the dais rested a throne, on the throne a woman, one leg draped over its arm, the skin of her thigh brilliant ivory against the slit of her dark robes. Midnight hair fashioned a lustrous cowl around her violet eyes and silky cheeks. Her dark, nearly obsidian lips, turned up with a smile.

She greeted Blackthorn with a languid wave of one hand; the other she could not move, for she had it outstretched, fist tightly ensnarled in a length of Councilor Windemere's silvery-white hair. She held him taut, enough to force his head back to expose his throat. The Councilor rolled his eyes forward, spotted Blackthorn, and though he was upon his knees, he somehow seemed to draw himself up. He took a breath—

The edge of Blackthorn's sword came to a rest on his enemy's throat. "Thou hast already said too much, Councilor," Blackthorn said. "Because of thee, Britannia swells in a panic over their lost liege, the Great Council has risen against the throne, and scores of good men and women have lost their lives today while defending a traitor, a traitor who deserves to die for the deaths he has brought, but whose life I intend to spare."

Still, the traitor dared to speak. He found that he could not. Sweat poured down his face as his mouth flopped open and shut. "For each word that thou dost try to utter, thy throat will tighten, and a breath shall be sapped from thee," Blackthorn warned, his fist clenched. "Speak not, I beg of thee. There shall be time for discussion later." He addressed the woman. "Elistaria, thou hast done well."

She inclined her head. "I thank thee, my Lord, but I have done only as thou hast instructed."

"Perhaps," he said. Whitelock had been the one who had actually planned the assault. "How long hast thou served me on Windemere's court?"

"It has been years since thou and my Master, Flain, positioned me within the fortress of thine adversary," she responded. "Here I have studied and observed, waiting for this day—a day, I fear, that I thought might never come."

"'Tis courageous of thee to admit that thou hadst doubts about thy Lord," said Blackthorn, though, in truth, he had never wished for this to happen. Windemere had simply left him no choice.

"'Tis more courageous for me to admit the following, my Lord: There is treachery afoot in our ranks, a treachery that dates back for nearly a year." She pointed to the floor around Windemere's knees. For the first time, Blackthorn noticed the collection of parchments strewn nearly an ankle deep around the Councilor. "Much of it was coordinated here through correspondence both mundane and magical. I fear that it went unnoticed by my eyes. Indeed, I did not learn of it until today, when my friends placed the documents at my feet." She eyed the figures hulking between the pillars. "They have ways of seeing things that humans cannot. Still, I fear that my ignorance has cost us much, and I give my life to thee and Flain."

"Thou didst serve us well, Elistaria. Thou wert able to warn Flain of Suturb's treachery and thou didst allow us to secure this keep. As a reward, the keep is thine, so long as thou dost adhere to my law."

He paid little attention to the woman's grateful response. Instead, he reached down and took a handful of parchments and held them before Windemere face. "Now I will know who it was who worked with thee," Blackthorn said.

Windemere's eyes grew defiant, and he struggled against the magic to speak. At last, he managed to gasp. "I have not seen any of these parchments before, nor have I ever conspired to betray thee or Britannia." He closed his eyes. "I stood only for what I believed."

Blackthorn ignored the lies; he and Whitelock had surmised that others had worked with Windemere and Suturb. Now he would expose these others as traitors as well.

He reviewed one scroll, allowed it to drop from his fingers. Scrutinized the next one, and the next. When he had dropped all of them, he blinked, uncertain at what he had seen, then took another handful, again sifting through them with a single hand while his other held his sword against Windemere's neck. The parchments were the same. Not identical in content, but in tone, voice, handwriting. Another handful. 'Twas all the same. There were no others. Only one.

Each parchment that he now dropped took longer to fall, sounded louder when it hit the floor, until each struck a beat upon a monstrous drum. And with each stroke of the drum, the world around him dimmed. More scrolls. More maps. Louder and louder. Schedules. Plans. Darker and darker. Letter upon letter. Longer and longer.

Recognition came long before certainty, and that arrived with the signature. 'Twas as if it had waited to show itself when the drumbeats were at their loudest, the world at its darkest, time at its slowest.

One signature.

There were no others.

He did not feel his arm draw back, did not recall the stroke. He remembered only the thump of the Councilor's body as it collapsed upon the dais, the head left to dangle from Elistaria's hand.

Chapter 5
The Light Shall Never Fade

The boy Blackthorn swallowed his pride, and even that subtle movement caused the point of his opponent's blade to push painfully upon the flesh of his throat. His own blade lay just a hand's length away from his knees. He could probably still reach for it . . .

The boy who had bested him, a woodsmen's son named Garrioth, pulled his wooden training sword away from Blackthorn's neck, and outstretched his hand. As required, he took Garrioth's hand so that his opponent might draw him up from his knees, but for a moment—just an instant, while his opponent was unprepared—he thought of throwing Garrioth to the ground, then snatching up his training sword to continue the fight. But what good would that do, he thought, since I am already dead. The contest was over, his opponent victorious. More importantly, how would violating the rules set a good example for his peers? If he played into trickery, would not they? And if they did, how could anyone trust each other? Was it not the purpose of the Guard to protect Britannians from those who could not be trusted?

So he allowed the boy to help him to his feet. They both took two steps back and bowed while their peers circled them and applauded. Their trainer, a gruff man of dark skin, nodded his approval. "Well fought, Garrioth. Thy skill is admirable and still reigns over thy peers, but do not grow lax. Young Blackthorn here is quick to learn." He turned to others, including Shaana. "Not one of thee has lost against him since he joined us, but I have noticed that each of thy victories against him has involved more work as the days go by. 'Tis only a matter of time, I suspect, before one of thee falls before him."

"I am certain Shaana already has," the boy next to her crowed, and the others laughed. Blackthorn did not quite understand the boy's jest, but he did join in the laughter that followed—when Shaana belted the kid in the stomach.

Their laughter halted when the gate to the field opened and Shaana's father appeared. They all stood at attention as the Captain of Yew's Guard marched toward them.

"Father?" Shaana said. It was not how she should have addressed him, for within the Guard, he was her captain first and foremost, but the expression he wore . . . The last time Blackthorn had seen it had been when the captain had directed the removal of Nyomae's body from his mother's tree.

"I have grievous news," he said. He turned to boy Blackthorn. "The court clerk, Dryden, has asked me to summon thee. Thy presence . . .

. . . has been requested from within the chamber of the Great Council," Judge Dryden noted with a rasp of irony, almost immediately after Lord Blackthorn had stepped through the gates of Castle Britannia. It had been nearly a week since the assault on Windemere's Keep, and with the exception of this morning, when he had ridden from Britain's docks to the castle, he had spent most of his time upon the sea, staring out at the waves from his frigate's cabin, thinking. It felt as if that was all he had done—think and contemplate—yet he was no nearer to understanding what he had to do than when he had first seen the traitorous signature on Windemere's documents.

"Has there been any word from Lord Malone or Sir Simon?" he asked the Judge, who followed him into the castle's hallways. The dimming light of the late afternoon fell away completely beneath the cavernous vaults.

"Not since they renounced any involvement in the assault on Windemere's Keep," Dryden answered. "They also stated that they would no longer support the Black Company or the Britannian Guard with their own men. Several knights of the Order of the Silver Serpent have already left."

"Treason," Blackthorn murmured. Had they fallen under Windemere's spell as well? Probably. Pity he had not slain the man earlier. As for Windemere's cohort, that matter would soon be taken care of.

"Treason?" Dryden asked. "Not necessarily. Lord Malone and Sir Simon are under no legal obligation to support Britannia's military. That is, unless, the laws are to be changed."

"Draft the necessary documents, then, and thou wilt have my signature," Blackthorn replied. "The Great Council hath already created enough unrest and unruliness with their cowardice. I saw it in the eyes of the citizens who watched me ride through Britain this morning. They are apprehensive, enraged, and uncertain of what to do." There had been jeers, insults, a rock or two thrown his way. He did not blame them, for it was clear that their malice was simply misplaced. 'Twas the Great Council who had betrayed them, not he. Fortunately, others within the mob understood what had truly happened, and had set out to defend Blackthorn. At least one fight broke out between the two factions, large enough that the Black Company had had to quell it. "We must let Sir Simon and Lord Malone know that it is in Britannia's best interests to unite our forces and demonstrate that even without the Great Council, there can be order within our fair land."

"Art thou certain, my Lord?" Dryden asked. "'Tis not only Britain that is in discord, 'tis the other towns as well. The betrayal of the Great Council and the loss of Lord British have spread a panic."

Blackthorn did not answer until they reached the closed doors of the chamber of the Great Council. "It takes fear to create panic," he said, placing his hand upon the middle of the doors. "It takes greater fear to control it." Shadows danced over his fingertips. "And trust me, there are greater things to fear than what the Great Council has done."

With that, he pushed open the doors and . . .

. . . stepped into the main chamber of Yew's courthouse. His father was not there, but that did not concern the boy Blackthorn. The morning after Councilor Windemere had been delivered to the Royal Guard, his father had approached him. "Tell Dryden that he is in charge of affairs for the next few days. I need time to myself, time to reflect upon the events of the past few days. If thou shouldst need to find me during the day, I shall be beneath thy mother's tree, but I ask that thou dost only do so if thou dost truly need to see me, and only if thou dost come alone."

A strange request, the boy had thought, but not without reason. His father had sensed his trepidation "I promise thee that I will be home in the evenings," he assured, and he had fulfilled his promise, making certain that supper awaited the boy Blackthorn each day after training with the Guard.

Hence, the boy Blackthorn was not concerned when he did not see his father in the main chamber of the courthouse. What struck the first chords of fear in the boy was the solemn droop of Dryden's shoulders and his beleaguered frown. Not because the boy was worried about the clerk, but because he had never seen the clerk . . . sad . . . before. Indeed, come to think of it, he had never considered the clerk capable of such an emotion. To see it now—that frightened him.

As if to intensify that thought, the boy realized that the clerk was sitting where his father ought to be. Nothing unusual, especially if his father had planned to be absent, but then the premonition hit him: His father would never again sit at the desk of the Lord Mayor. And there could be only one reason for that—

Which is why the boy nearly burst out laughing when Dryden said, "Windemere has been slain."

The boy managed to release his exclamation of relief as a long, drawn-out sigh. Shaana's father rested a hand Blackthorn's shoulder, and Blackthorn thought about telling the captain that his comfort was not needed: His father was not dead as he had briefly feared. Then Dryden lifted his head and locked his gaze with Blackthorn's. The boy did not like those eyes. They were too compassionate. Another emotion he had never thought the clerk capable of.

The sunlight around the clerk, provided by the windows high above, dimmed as a cloud passed overhead. "When Windemere emerged from the moongate near Britain, a crossbow bolt took him between the eyes. His escort and those of the Royal Guard who awaited him had no chance to intervene. Windemere died instantly."

At least Windemere had been spared the torment of being crucified, the boy Blackthorn noted. The destitute woman, Nyomae, had had no such consolation. Immediately, he shamed himself for his bitter apathy. He thought of Lady Windemere, her sons and daughters, and grieved for their sorrow.

"I will tell my father," the boy Blackthorn said. "He will be saddened by this news."

The hand on his shoulder tightened. Dryden spoke again. "'Twas only a matter of hours before Captain Geoffrey and the Royal Guard tracked and cornered the assassin, but in the process, she managed to take the life of one of Geoffrey's men." Dryden managed a smirk. "A very gifted girl, it seems, not too much older than thee. Nonetheless, she was captured and brought before His Majesty, Lord British, for questioning."

Dryden squinted up at the rays of light that fell from the windows. "There is something about His Majesty that I will never be able to fathom. I can question prisoners for hours, and they will tell me nothing. Threaten them with life imprisonment, and nothing. Hint of execution, and still . . . nothing. I do not know why. Perhaps my technique is lacking." He sighed, forlornly shook his head. "But His Majesty—he simply gazed at her, and within moments, she who had been staring defiantly at him dropped to her knees, bowed her head, wept, and confessed . . . everything." His shrug and grunt were one of perplexed amusement. "She knew of the arrangements between the Royal Guard and Yew's Guard, knew exactly when Windemere would step through that gate. She needed only to wait, then flee, then return to Yew to collect the last half of her payment from the man who had hired her. Who that person was, she named and described, and Lord British, accompanied by the Captain Geoffrey of the Royal Guard, came to find him." The clerk looked away from the windows and back at the boy Blackthorn. "They arrived this morning."

With that, a figure emerged from one of the halls leading into the chamber, a figure tall beyond height, the pale sunlight brilliant upon his white robes, golden upon his crown, a sinewy streak of silver upon his serpentine amulet. Behind him, another figure emerged, taller in height if not stature, the emblem of the Royal Guard upon his tabard.

Now the boy Blackthorn understood why Shaana's father gripped him, for his knees buckled. He would have fallen forward had not the captain held him steady. His limbs seemed to have melted away along with his voice. He could not feel. Could not speak.

At last, the boy Blackthorn composed himself. He peered at the compassionate gazes of both His Majesty and the Captain of the Royal Guard. "I will take the Captain of Yew to my father. I know where he is. He will not have fled. Despite all of this, he remains a just and honorable man."

Slowly, he turned his back upon his King, and brushed past Shaana's father. He heard the captain follow him, step by step. The hallway which led to the outside world seemed to stretch out before him, the door to Yew far, far away, receding before him, as if each step . . .

. . . brought him closer to the lonesome figure seated at the end of the great table, the table where just a few months before, Blackthorn had thrown his sword at Windemere's feet, the same sword that had ended the Councilor's life less than a week ago.

The doors to the chamber of the Great Council closed, their echo far too loud. Blackthorn winced. The blind Councilor merely looked up and smiled. "'Tis always good to see thee, my friend," Hassad said. He patted the chair next to him, and the shackles that chained him to his chair jingled. "Please, have a seat."

Blackthorn adjusted his scabbard so that he could sit. "Where are they, Hassad?"

"I cannot say."

He peered into the Councilor's sightless eyes. Even though the blind could not see, their eyes could betray the truth. But not with Hassad. "You cannot say, or you do not know?"

"Either one. Or both, I suppose, depending on the one thou dost name."

Blackthorn leaned back, weariness overcoming him. "No, my friend, I will name no one. Thou dost not need to betray thy peers. I will find them myself. Men and women of such prominence can hide for only so long. Someone will recognize them."

"Thou wouldst be surprised, I think, of how unrecognizable a councilor can be," Hassad grinned. "Oh, there are a few of us who are well known below the official levels. Windemere, for one. I, for another. But only because we made efforts to reach out to the communities we served. Fiona, too, since she always tended to the poor. The rest. . . . Who can say? Felespar never bothered with the common man, so why would they bother with him? Same with Annon, though to a lesser extent. Goeth is just another crazed mage to his people. Sindar?" Hassad laughed. "I don't think the man is awake for more than one hour out of the day, and even then I wonder. Who knows how many paladins of Trinsic know of him, or even care. As for Malifora." His lips tightened in thought. "She was a mystery even to us. Even now, when I think of her, her face is shrouded by that veil." His chains clinked when he shrugged. "It will be no easy task to find them all. Well, all except Felespar. The fool will appear soon enough, to offer thee a deal of some sort."

"Yes," Blackthorn nodded. "I am afraid he will. Tell me, Hassad, why did they release Windemere? And why did they flee? Are they that afraid of me?"

"Wouldst thou not be?" answered Hassad, solemnly. "Thou didst storm into our chamber and take one of us prisoner without writ or summons, outside the accordance of the laws that thou didst swear to obey and protect."

The pace of Blackthorn's heart quickened ever so slightly, just enough to stir his anger. "He slew the leaders of the Black Company, and the advisors of Sir Simon and Lord Malone." And he murdered Shaana. Made me murder Shaana. Quicker his heart beat, and the anger flowed.

"And what proof didst thou have of this? None that thou didst care to show us. Yet still thou didst imprison one of us. And with thee were our own kin—mages—but only those who practice spells and rituals so dark and dangerous that they defy our laws of conduct—laws that thou didst once extol." The Councilor's voice sounded louder, angrier. Or so Blackthorn thought. He could not be certain, not with his heart, his anger, screaming in his ears. "Canst thou truly blame my peers for their actions? Thou didst act outside the law. Why not they?"

"Because I am King!" Blackthorn roared, standing up and throwing back his cloak. His hand went to his sword.

"A KING OF BRITANNIA!" Hassad's pronouncement threw Blackthorn back into his chair. 'Twas the Councilor who now stood, nearly as tall as the chamber itself, the aura of the torches glorious around his shoulders and wisps of hair. He leaned over, his robes blazing white, shedding the room of its shadows. Yet all that paled to the light in his eye, which bore into the Regent, so much that Blackthorn had to avert his gaze. "And a King of Britannia is no monarch!" The Councilor's words were thunder. "He is an advisor, a counselor—a Father!—to his people! He listens to them, he protects them, he nurtures them; but never, ever does he rule them!" And suddenly Hassad's voice resumed its normal, reassuring softness. "That, thou hast forgotten. That, Windemere forgot. And now we are here."

Blackthorn opened his eyes. 'Twas as if Hassad had never moved. The mage sat as he had before Blackthorn had sprung to his feet. "If it makes any difference to thee," Hassad said, "I asked my peers to wait for thy return before releasing Windmere, to at least hear thy counsel. All but Felespar and Malifora would not listen. And when they heard the Black Company was coming for them—" His sigh diminished his stature even more. "They had no choice but to flee. The Black Company listens to only one man."

"No, not just one," Blackthorn whispered to himself. The signature blazed in his mind.

Hassad nodded. "There is a great Evil in Britannia. We have all felt it to a certain extent, lurking out there, unseen, yet affecting every one of us—filling us with distrust, trepidation, and malice. Malifora was the only one truly aware of it, but even she, I think, managed to blind herself with wishful hope. Now it is too late. Whatever this Evil may be, we cannot fight it separated. We cannot fight it alone." His gaze was gentle. "Though some of us are already trying."

Blackthorn rose and clasped the mage's frail hand. "And I fear that fight must end tonight." He strode away from Hassad, drawing the hilt of his sword free from its scabbard. Before he left, he paused. "Go, my friend," he said, without looking back. "Flee this place whilst thou can. But I warn thee, I will track thee down, should I need to find thee."

"I would expect nothing less from Britannia's finest," said his friend.

When Blackthorn did look over his shoulder, the shackles lay on the table. The mage was gone, the room . . .

. . . empty, as the boy Blackthorn had expected when he opened the door to the cottage.

"Where is thy father?" the Captain of Yew asked quietly.

"I will find him," the boy answered, and went into the main room. Breakfast had been cleaned, the floor swept. On the table rested eight cards, all spread in a fan. The boy absently touched one. He looked down. The face of Justice.

"There is no hurry," Shaana's father said. He still stood outside. "I will be here." With that, he gently shut the front door. Blackthorn left the cottage through the back.

Outside, sunlight fell upon the forest through a break in the rain clouds. Grass and leaf still gleamed from this morning's shower. Birdsong flowed upon the fresh, cool currents of air. Butterflies flitted alongside him as he passed the well and garden; darted away when he entered the trees.

The boy found his father kneeling before his mother's grave, just as his father had promised. His father wore the verdant robes of the Lord Mayor of Yew, the silver tabard of the Supreme Justice of Britannia. Both, it seemed, were damp, as if his father had wandered through the morning's rain, and had yet to dry. Indeed, the ground around was unusually wet. His hair, too, possessed the sheen of one who had just bathed, and when he looked up, that single lock of white hair upon his brow flashed in the sun. The boy Blackthorn absently touched his own hairline, wondering when—or if—he would inherit that odd trait. His mother had often fawned over it, had even said it had been what had first attracted her to his father.

"I know why thou art here, my son," his father said. "Each day, I have waited here, expecting thy arrival, but thou didst not show, so hope arose within me that, perhaps, we would never have to meet, that life could continue as it always had." His hands, cupped together over a rock in front of him, he lifted to his chin, and he sighed into them. "Then I heard thy footsteps upon the path and knew such hopes could not be. Justice will not allow her scales to remain unbalanced for too long."

"They are waiting for us," the boy Blackthorn said. He did know what else to say. He took a step forward—

"Stop," his father said, and the boy halted. The glade rippled. A strange, unctuous scent, one that reminded the boy of lit torches, brushed by, then was gone, a wisp upon the sudden breeze. When the glade grew still, his father spoke. "Stay there for a moment. Let me look upon thee. I fear that I have little time to do so."

The boy stood still for many minutes, gazing back at his father's solemn eyes, before he realized the elder Blackthorn was waiting for him to speak. When he did, he could think of only one thing. "Why didst thou have Windemere slain?" the boy whispered furiously.

"For thy mother, of course," his father said. "I freed Nyomae for her. I spared Windemere of a lawful execution for her. And how did his family repay her for her guidance? By desecrating her grave." His father bowed his head. "That, I could never forgive."

"She would not have wanted it to come to this," the boy Blackthorn said.

"No, she would not have," his father admitted, "and she certainly would not have allowed it. She had great insight, thy mother, perhaps from her studies at the Abbey. She told me long ago that thou wouldst not be satisfied with studying law—that thou wouldst one day pick up a sword. She called thee her blade, and I her book." His father closed his eyes, fond memories written upon his smile. "She, of course, was our light." His eyes opened, his smile faltered into a scowl. "And thou dost see what happens when the light is gone—" His features darkened—"or when it has been shrouded through desecration. So for the first time in my life, I wielded the blade. . . . Unfortunately, I did so without her light."

Uneasiness gnawed at the boy's insides, dappled his skin with sweat. He had never heard his father speak like this, the ramblings of a man who had decided to take leave of his sanity. Reason appeared to have left his father's eyes as well—they now peered unseeing, unfocused, roaming about the glade.

His father continued to speak. "I have admitted my guilt, and by doing so, if I go with thee, I shall be imprisoned for life. I would gladly accept that sentence if I thought I had more to teach thee, my son, but thou hast learned of both book and blade, and thou dost know of thy mother's light. I cannot teach thee anything more." He unfolded his right palm, held it out. It was empty. "So, I may choose to live the rest of my life within the darkness of a cell, or—"

He held out his other hand. On its palm rested a single piece of flint. His gaze was now focused, solid on Blackthorn's own. His father's voice—steady, more certain than the boy had ever heard. "Or I may choose to live it within the light. . . ."

Before the boy Blackthorn could react—before he finally understood why the breeze had wafted an unctuous aroma, why the ground and his father's clothes and hair were damp with that slick sheen—his father struck the flint against the rock.

The sparks leaped, three of them, leaving thin, brilliant, orange fissures in the air, like the tails of comets.

"Fare thee well, my son."

Those comets arched, one simply dropping into the leaves, the other falling upon the scales of justice embroidered on the Lord Mayor's tabbard, the last settling into that single lock of white hair.


The sun dimmed behind another cloud, but the glade . . .

The glade erupted . . .

Erupted with a fiery . . .


It poured forth from the hearth of Lord British's chambers, no longer warming or welcoming. Not like before. "Whitelock!" Blackthorn screamed. The great doors behind him shut, sealing him from the rest of Britannia.

He stormed forward into the chamber, sword drawn, searching for the scribe. Not at the desk, though papers covered it in thick, erratic laminas. Not on the bed. Not gloating in that plush, oversize chair. Not in the shadows, either. The shadows. The chamber may have blazed with the hearth's horrible, frigid incandescence, but the shadows—they were everywhere. Curled within the corners, scuttling underneath the bed, crouched beneath the desk.

"Whitelock! I know thou art here!"

Blackthorn scoured over the scrolls on the desk, his brow creasing slightly deeper with each line that he read, all in that familiar handwriting, the same fluid script that had marked the documents within Windemere's throne room. When he came across Whitelock's signature, fury ravished his throat, escaped in a decimating roar. A sweep of his arm sent the documents so high into the air that it seemed as if the ceiling had become shingled in yellow parchment.

He paused when his eyes caught his own within Lord British's mirror. There he stood—chest heaving in and out, rabid breaths wheezing through his ivory rictus of teeth—as if in the eye of a maelstrom of fluttering, falling parchment, a storm made all the more vast and chaotic by the reflections in that damnable mirror. He began to chuckle. He did not like the sound of it, quiet as it was, intense, maniacal, only made worse when he remembered that he had heard this laughter long ago, when his own reflection had grinned at him. It had been during the summer solstice, the day he had been named First Hand to the King, the evening he had stepped out of Lord British's tent and into the chamber of those three shards . . .


"And yet, thou still hast yet to figure out how to find me." Within the mirror, the scribe sat hunched at the desk, one hand twirling a quill pen, the burns and scars of his wounded face illuminated by the chamber's light, the uninjured half buried in shadow, save where eye and teeth gleamed. "I had expected better of thee, my boy." The last of the parchments settled at his feet; its corner unfurled, revealing Whitelock's signature.

'Twas accomplished in one, fluid movement—Blackthorn leapt back away from the mirror, spun in midair. His cape spiraling out from him in a dark, velvet disk, followed by the metallic flash of his blade. The sword drew down across the scribe's chest, whispered when it seared cloth and flesh. Blackthorn landed in a crouch, sword postured to the right and behind him, its tip upon the floor. His cape settled over his outstretched arm.

It took a moment for the blood to flow. A thin line at first, then ever so wider. The scribe peered down, and with the quill, touched the center of the diagonal slash that stretched from shoulder to heart to waist. He brought the pen up. Blood spotted its feathers, a few droplets at most. The cut had barely scratched him. "Impressive," the scribe said. "Thou truly art skilled with the blade, but sadly—" He flicked the blood from the quill—"it only shows that thou art still unaware with whom thou art dealing."

Blackthorn rose, threw back his shoulders, and placed the tip of the sword a hair's breadth from Whitelock's sternum. "Thou didst betray me," Blackthorn said, slowly, carefully. "Thou hast been working with Windemere, scheming against me."

"Please," Whitelock scoffed. "I have done nothing but serve thee. 'Tis Windemere and the Great Council who have perished, and with them gone, the rule of Britannia falls to thee." He indicated the bed. Upon it rested Lord British's crown, in the exact spot Blackthorn had found it months before. "Admittedly, it took some time to reclaim it from the jester," the scribe said. "Thou wert wise to place it in his keeping. As I mentioned before, he is far more clever than he looks. I have yet to discern what he has done with the scepter." He shrugged. "Still, 'tis only a matter of time before we find it, and then the Crown Jewels will be thine, as will the power of rule for which they stand."

Somehow Blackthorn's sword remained steady despite the quivering of his hands. "I never wanted them," he said, hollowly.

"Spare me the abnegation," Whitelock snarled. "If some part of thee had not wanted this, then thou wouldst not have brought me into this." He brushed aside Blackthorn's sword with the quill—'twas as if the pen were a blade in itself. "'Twas not I who first formed the Black Company to bring order to this realm, nor I who first consulted with the Flain. Yes, the archmage might have suspected that I was with thee at the time, that our bond was growing, but 'twas thee and thee alone who first approached him, who studied with him and forged an alliance with the dark mages in secret. And 'twas not I who placed spies within Windemere's court or backstabbers within his navy, nor I who did the same in all levels of Britannia's government. All of that was done by thee, was it not?"

Yes, he done those things. Only to counter the unscrupulous, though, and to provide a balance to the Great Council's power. As for his other sins. . . . "I would not have framed Suturb, a man who had been like a brother to me," Blackthorn hissed. "Nor would I have had my finest captains slain in Jhelom to set up Windemere."

"At the time, no," Whitelock said, his one eye looking down. He seemed to be talking to himself more than Blackthorn. "I fear I had to shoulder those burdens, as well as others that thou hast yet to discover, but nevertheless, thou wert certainly quick to allow Suturb fall to his death, wert thou not?" He snapped his head up, trapped Blackthorn in a serpent-like gaze. "And thou wert quick to take Windemere's head!"

"Only because of what thou hadst the Councilor do!" Blackthorn cried.

"I made him do nothing," Whitelock retorted, then his tone softened. "I made thee do nothing. I merely encouraged thee. The choices, the actions, and the consequences thereof, were thine own because thou didst know Windemere threatened Lord British's rule. Threatened thy rule." He nodded, then, as if he had just been firmly convinced of what had been said. "Yes. I think, in time, thou wouldst have done what I had to do in order to have Windemere removed."

"I never would have had Shaana murdered!" Blackthorn roared.

At last, silence took hold of the scribe's artful tongue; vexation knotted his spotted brow. For many minutes, he pondered, fingers interlocked and rubbing against each other. He did not continue until he uttered an embittered sigh. "Yes, that we do believe. The knight, Shaana, was thy light, thy guide. Even when she was absent, lost in the Underworld, thou wouldst have done anything for her. And thou wilt do anything for her, I think, even though her body rots as we speak. Yes, I fear that when thou dost make decisions, thou wilt certainly consider what she would have said to thee if she were still alive." His lone eye contorted with frustration. "That, unfortunately, is most disturbing. It means there is someone else with thee, like I was once—like I am—someone still capable of love, hope, and forgiveness. Someone of which we are not aware." The rest of his features contorted, and now it seemed as if all his face suffered from his disfigurement. "And we wonder where that person is hiding," he hissed. "We wonder what that person is hiding."

We. The scribe spoke of others, but the introspection in his hideous whispers suggested those others were certainly not men, certainly not real except, perhaps, within the scribe's own mind. "Thou art insane," said Blackthorn.

"No!" The scribe pounded the desk, raised himself to his feet, shouting. "I am not the one who is insane! Dost thou still not understand who I am?"

Blackthorn's accusation, as quiet as it was, rebounded across the chamber as if shouted in a canyon. "Thou art my father!"

Once again, the scribe did not respond while he thought. "No," Whitelock said at last. "That is what thou dost wish to believe, what thou hast always wanted to believe, ever since we first peered at each other within the chamber of the shards." He brought his hand his chest, held it against the red slash. "Look down and see into thy heart."

A part of Blackthorn resisted, refused to take his eyes from the scribe. Nevertheless, his gaze traveled down to his own chest, froze with his breath, boiled with his mind. He had not felt the cut, sharp as it was to have sliced cleanly through his armor, a diagonal slash that mirrored the wound he had given the scribe. He noticed his gloved fingers touch the rivulets of thickening blood. Slowly the wound began to burn, a slight tingle from barely a scratch. The scribe was right; the stroke had been masterful.

Whitelock was speaking, his speech distant, hollow, rising from the depths as if Blackthorn listened to him from within a gigantic amphitheater. "Thy father died when thou didst let him burn at thy mother's grave," he said. "Oh, thou hast always dreamt that thou hadst carried him from those flames, that thou didst hide him away within the halls of Empath Abbey. 'Tis what you want to believe and 'tis the only way thou canst explain what has happened to thee since then." The scribe's voice grew merciless. "But I assure thee that it is not thy father who is responsible for thy current actions, nor Britannia's current state of affairs." Now the words arrived as if the scribe spat them from a just hand's length away, and they were full of malice, disgust. "Thou didst do nothing the day that thy father died. Did nothing but watch." He pointed to his hairline, where his father had possessed that white lock of hair. "Watched as that last spark ignited the oil upon his brow—" The scribe's finger trailed down the ruins of his flesh. "Watched as the fire first burned across his face, then fully consumed him." He backed away. Somehow the crown had appeared in his hands. "All because thou didst believe that Windemere's family and Lord British were right about the Windmere's death sentence, and that thy father was wrong." The crown dropped, clattered upon the floor, spun round and round. "Now, thou hast disposed of both. And soon, thee and I will no longer need to fight against one another. We will be one again, and we will no longer need to worry about what has been hidden."

The crown still spun on its rim when Whitelock collapsed back in the chair, seemingly exhausted.

We wonder where that person is hiding, the scribe had said. We wonder what that person is hiding.

Who were Whitelock and these . . . others . . . worried about? Who could hide something of such importance from them? Surely, it could not be he. Not the man he was. He looked at Whitelock. Not the man he would become.

The crown spun, round and round, slowly descending . . .


Yes. It made sense now. Only someone who truly understood Virtue could hide something from Whitelock and the others, someone like the man—the boy—he had once been.

Spun round and round, slowly descending to the floor . . .

Spinning and descending . . .

Descending into the depths of...

Time had passed, a lifetime—at least for one of them. The fire had actually raged for what could have been no more than a few minutes. Then the rain had started to fall, heavy enough to quench the flames, if not enough to save the man the flames had ravaged. His father collapsed. Still the rain fell, washing away the last of the smoke, but not the unctuous residue of burnt flesh, nor the remembrance of his father's agonized screams.

His father's body lay on its side, green robes frayed and smoldering, a few of the golden threads within the Scales of Justice still red hot, but fading in the shower's gray curtain. Despite the horrific burns elsewhere, one half of his father's face miraculously remained untouched by the fire. Raindrops trickled down pale flesh, pooled in the one eye that was wide and unseeing, then fell into the mouth that hung open in its final cry, red and raw like a gate to the Abyss.

"I forgive thee, father," the boy said, and turned away. Shaana's father would have heard the screams, and would be coming . . .


'Twas a kind voice, a compassionate one, yet sorrowful, burdened. He turned. 'Twas not his father who had spoken. How could it be? His father had died.

Where the trees once marked the edge of the glade was now a stone wall, so tall it disappeared into the darkness of its own ceiling. He followed the curve of the wall, his sight drifting over burnt tapestries and broken columns; the glade, it appeared, had been transformed into a chamber, so vast it was a cavern in itself. Cracked tiles of white and black replaced earth and leaf. Where the body of his father had lain was a blackened depression, a rent in the earth, the cracks of which had laced outward through the chamber and uprooted the floor. In the center of the depression stood—no, not his father, as he had thought. Nonetheless, the man who could easily be mistaken for the Lord Mayor. He was armored neck to foot in black, boiled leather. He was tall, regal, his hair and beard neatly trimmed. He had recently suffered a wound. Blood glinted from the gash within his breastplate.

Despite the lack of a breeze, the Lord's black cape ruffled around his boots, in front of which spun the crown of Lord British, as if it had been dropped.

The crown quivered to a halt.

"At last, we are together. It has been a long time. Since the summer solstice, I believe."

He was uncertain who had spoken, the Lord or the boy. Perhaps it did not matter, if they were one and the same.

"We have been together throughout all of this, I think. We were just unaware of it."

"And that was for the best, I believe, otherwise we would truly be without hope." A pause. "Lord British is alive. Imprisoned, but alive. I know that for certain now."

The Lord stepped to one side, revealing an ornate, golden-framed mirror. It reflected a small room, not the one in which the boy stood—a simple room with a desk and chair, a chest of drawers, and a bed. At the desk sat a figure robed in a white aura, his back facing the boy and Lord.

"I cannot see his face, but I know it is our Liege. I know because... he knows."

The chamber within the mirror faded, wavered, as if the glass were liquid and had been struck by a rock. The chamber now depicted was much like this one, circular with broad columns, perhaps the interior of a desolate tower. Within the center of the columns hunched a decrepit, old man, one-half of his face horribly disfigured. In one hand he held a quill pen. Like the Lord, the scribe had suffered a cut across his torso.

"He has always known about our Liege, hasn't he? Ever since our Liege was taken."

"Yes. Because . . . they know. They brought him to life."

Three more figures manifested in the mirror, wraiths robed in shadows, one to the right and left of the scribe, the third towering behind him. From within their cowls, red motes—eyes—flashed.

"Do they know what we hide from them?"

"I am not certain what we hide from them."

"Then look."

The boy handed the Lord an ornate box carved from sandalwood. The Lord lifted its top and tilted it so that the boy could see into it. Upon a small, velvet cushion rested a smaller, round, obsidian stone.

"A moonstone. A way to summon moongates."

"The Orb of the Moons, which Lord British uses to travel to his homeland, a world far, far from Britannia. Only the Orb can span such distances, and only by spanning such a distance can Lord British be freed. It is Britannia's only salvation. I remember now: Lord British entrusted it to me before he left on his journey, told me where it and its box were hidden so that I might be able to use it free him from the Underworld should anything happen."

The disfigured scribe within the mirror suddenly stirred.

"It will not be long before he learns of it, before they learn of it. We can no longer flee them, I fear. I have tried, but they are too strong. The scribe, you, and I are being brought together again."

Pain tingled across the flesh of the boy's abdomen and chest. He glanced down. Threads hung from a tear in his tunic that ran from shoulder to heart to waist. He placed his fingers within the tear, brought them back out. Blood.

"Whitelock must not learn of the Orb." 'Twas the Lord who spoke now, the boy was certain of it. The Lord looked back at the mirror, trembled as he indicated the wraiths. "They cannot learn of it. If they do, then truly there will be no hope for British's return. Unfortunately, there is only one way I know of keeping this knowledge from them."

The one eye of the scribe suddenly came to life. It flashed first at the Lord, then to the boy, then widened in recognition and understanding.

The Lord turned away from the scribe and smiled fondly at the boy. "I am tied to him, just as I am tied to thee. I am the heart of us all. Should I die, we all perish, but then, I fear, that the three wraiths would be free too find another." The Lord trembled. "So long as a part of me lives, I spare someone else their devilry."

Within the mirror, the scribe strode forward, mouth opening and closing in unheard screams. Behind him, six eyes flared red, and the shadows followed.

"I could slay the scribe. Then, I think, only he and I would disappear." He closed his eyes, smiled at this thought, but when he lifted his eyelids, all that was revealed was sorrow. "However, only a boy would be left behind, a virtuous boy, one whom I would gladly entrust with this kingdom, but in the end, still only a boy. The wraiths will defeat that boy, learn of the Orb, and all will be lost."

Yes, the boy believed this to be true. Even now, he could feel the power of those approaching shadows, felt the hatred, fear, and lies they carried with them. And if the Lord before had been unable to stand up to them, how could he?

"And if we were to go away?" the boy asked quietly.

"Then so does our knowledge of the Orb," the Lord said with a sad smile. "The shadows will be unable to find it."

The boy trembled. Fear gripped him, not from the thing that rapidly approached them in the mirror. This fear was his own, the natural fear of what might—or might not—lay beyond. "But we will be gone. Everything that makes us virtuous will perish."

"I am not so certain of that," the Lord said. "After all, I could not do what needs to be done if not for Whitelock." The Lord leveled his sword at the boy's neck. "So perhaps there is still a little bit of us in him." The Lord drew back the weapon. Behind him, the scribe and the Shadows had reached the edge of the mirror.

The boy was no longer afraid. "Let us hope."

The Lord swung the blade.

When Blackthorn arrived in the courtyard of the castle, the Black Company awaited him with their steeds, as had been their orders. One of the men stepped forward. Blackthorn did not like the ruffian, Thrud, but the man could heft an axe like no one else. More importantly, he did not question orders to kill, and that would be needed this night.

From beyond the gates of the castle, far down the slopes of Liege Hill, rose the faint dirge of cries, jeers, and shouts. When he had left the chamber of Lord British, he had seen the torches approaching the hill, nearly a hundred of them, if not more. A protest, certainly, by those he had seen earlier in the streets, the folks who had attacked his men. He had sounded the alert.

"My Lord—" Thrud was cut off when Blackthorn grabbed the man's spiked collar. The mercenary was two heads taller than he was, yet somehow Blackthorn managed to lift him off his feet with one hand. In the other hand, he held the crown of Lord British inches before the mercenary's face.

"I am no longer thy Lord." His lips turned up in a growl. "I am thy King!" He threw the mercenary to the ground, and placed the crown upon his head. To the others, he said, "Mount up, my friends. We leave Castle Britannia tonight."

"All of us, my Liege?"

He understood why the woman asked the question, and did not blame her for the inquiry, but would have to have her thrashed later for questioning his orders. For now, though, he needed her sword. "We will not be leaving anyone behind to watch over the castle," Blackthorn said. Not entirely true. He planned on keeping one man here, someone he knew who could blend in well. "Castle Britannia is no longer of any use to us." He could sense their disquiet over this. Even one of the horses whinnied nervously. But they could not stay here—he could not stay here. He looked up to where the chamber of Lord British could barely be seen against the night sky. Dread coursed through him, thicker than his blood, and certainly colder. Something had happened to him up there this night. He knew not what—he simply remembered storming up there after Hassad had disappeared, knowing that he had to confront someone—a traitor, he thought—but he could not remember who that person had been. The jester, perhaps? That damnable fool and the scepter had yet to be found.

While he peered at the chamber, trying to remember, a terrible sense of loss joined the dread surging through his heart. He looked away, and managed to subvert those feelings with anger and hatred for all of those who had betrayed him: The Great Council, Windemere, Lord Malone and Sir Simon, his father . . . Even Lord British and Shaana had left him.

He jumped onto his mount, brought Virtue to the front of his company, and led them out the gates. Outside, the Black Company formed up behind its Liege, and all peered down at the crowd gathering in the distance.

Blackthorn drew his sword, and unhooked the Shield of Valor from his saddle. A wind swept over the hill, flapping his cape. "Britannia has been corrupted," he announced, "a shadow has fell upon her fair land. Her Virtues have been twisted, used as excuses to defy law and liege, and now fear, distrust, and malevolence have grown. Unruliness and disorder have been brought to our streets." His call grew louder. "'Tis time for this villainy to end. Town to town the Black Company shall ride, reaping the stalks of Chaos and replanting the seeds of Order. We shall slay those who fight against us, imprison those who disobey us, and reward those who welcome us!" He raised his sword. The light of the twin moons dappled across it. "By book and by blade, we shall oppress villainy!" he called. "By book and by blade, we shall oppress chaos!"

The Black Company repeated his cry, once, twice, thrice. Blackthorn swung his sword forward, its blade drawing forth a brilliant flash from the light of the three comets above. He dug his heels into Virtue, and the Valorian charger spurred forward. His Majesty, Lord Blackthorn, wearing the Crown Jewel of Lord British, and bearing the Shield of Valor, rode forth to restore order to his beloved Britannia.


The boy Blackthorn dropped his pack and knelt before the fresh earth demarking the grave of his father, which lay next to his mother's grave, both sheltered beneath the branches of the yew tree. Shaana, who had accompanied him thus far, knelt beside him, a slender arm around his waist, her head upon her shoulder. He bowed his head, contemplating that fateful day in the glade. He had forgiven his father, had forgiven Councilor Windemere and Lord British. He did not recall much after that. He only knew that at some point, Shaana's father had arrived to take him away.

He withdrew from his memories when he heard Shaana whispering to herself.

"The runes," she replied, after he had asked what she had been reciting. "The runes on thy mother's tree." She pointed to the trunk of the tree.

"'Tis a poem my mother recited for my father when they took their vows of marriage," the boy said. "He carved it on her tree after we buried her here." He sighed, stood, and shouldered his pack. "'Tis time for me to leave."

Shaana rose. A tear graced her cheek, and she sniffed. "I will miss thee," she said, then flung herself at him.

The boy Blackthorn held her tightly, not wanting to let go, hoping that somehow time would stop, this instant would freeze, and it would all be over. No more worries, no more fears, no more memories. Just a single, wonderful instant when he was enwrapped in the loving embrace of this young woman, her breasts tight against his chest, her cheek warm against his, her luxurious hair trailing over his arms, her scent fresh upon the air.

Then she snuffled, and held him even tighter. "Wilt thou be all right on thine own?" she asked.

"Do not worry. I will not be alone within the halls of Empath Abbey."

She leaned back, just enough to peer at him through him through watery eyes. "Thou didst not answer the question," she said, somewhat tepidly. "Wilt thou be all right?"

"I am frightened, I am hateful, and I do not feel I can trust anyone," he admitted.

She nodded, sadly. "I do not blame thee. I am certain I would not feel any different." She glanced off into the forest. "Sometimes I wonder if anyone does. 'Tis not a pleasant thought, but sometimes I think it is true. Folks always seem upset at something. 'Tis a matter of not letting the fear, hate, and distrust grow."

"That is why I must go to Empath Abbey," said the boy. "I need time to reflect and to overcome those feelings." And he hoped that he would. He did not like the feelings, even had nightmares about them manifesting into horrible shapes that chased him through dark, underground caverns. "If those feelings were to overwhelm me . . ." His voice grew hushed. "I do not like to think about the man I might become."

"I do not believe thou hast anything to worry about," Shaana reassured him. "Of all the people that I have met—be they fighters, mages, bards, or . . . kings—never have I known someone who understands the Virtues such as thee." She kissed him on the cheek. "But if thou dost ever worry, or if thou dost ever forget who thou art, thou dost know where to find me. I will be here to help." She held him again. "I love thee." Another quick kiss, then she left him alone at his parents' grave.

For a while, he stared at the spot where she had disappeared into the woods. He thought about everything he had been through, the lessons learned, the lessons survived. Perhaps she was right. Others would not have survived such times. He glanced at his father's grave. Others had not survived.

The fear, the hate, the distrust began to fade. They would never go away, he knew that much; but then again, what kind of person would he be without them?

And so the man Blackthorn—no longer a boy—shouldered his pack and headed into the woods for Empath Abbey. As he walked, he thought of Shaana, and whispered the verse his mother had once recited to his father:

By the word of my Book,
By the ring of my Blade,
My heart is wrought of thy Light,
For thee it shall never fade.




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