The Shadow Of Wisteria At Twilight - Part Two - The Darling Of Destiny 

1. An Intoxicating Brew
2. A Silver Lining
3. Rock Bottom
4. Plots And Schemes And Underhanded Deals
5. The Mother Of Monsters
6. Repercussions
7. The Game Plays Out To It's Logical Conclusion
8. The War of the Bluebells
9. The Hero's Portion
10. Flowers Of The Night
11. An Unexpected Delay
12. There Is Always A Price To Be Paid

Horsham of Arcadia at his prime. Drawing by Celebeau.

Chapter 1: An Intoxicating Brew

Horsham rode West toward The Havens despite much misgiving. Prince Kitsune and Lady Wisteria had both dreamed upsetting dreams, as had Lady Kiyohime. The omens were bad too according to the regimental wizard. But Horsham did not have the options open to Elvish officers: taking off and retiring to their country estates until the omens improved or their parents could buy or bribe or scheme better jobs or higher positions on the military lists. Horsham was only a 'superior man' ie sergeant and that was only three coppers more than any private got. That was not much. Horsham had no farm to retreat to. He had no training in anything but killing people and singing in the opera and that option had been officially closed to him as merely a Mere Mortal.

Horsham was secretly Rufus Royal's liaison to Durham the Deathless for illegal munitions forbidden by the new 'Peace Treaty' between Arcadia and the Dark Lord though no one held their collective breaths about the worthiness of that piece of sheepskin. Rufus Royal was bankrupting himself buying weapons for Arcadia Minor. He had no surplus coins to hand out to an unemployed man. So Horsham officially had only one paying job: spying for Bela's Cockpit. And Bela had already given Horsham his assignment: run down a runaway soldier turned murderer hiding in The Havens but wanted in Arcadia for murdering his wife on their honeymoon. And Bela did not believe in gods or omens.

Rufus Royal regretted Horsham's precarious employment and the fact he could not employ Horsham as his estate manager but he could not protest Horsham's redeployment. Horsham's constant comings and goings (even if he made it a point to never stay overnight at Rufus Manor) kept the gossip inflamed about his granddaughter Merry May. Her 'Outing into high society' was not going well. Few well placed young Elves were attending Lady Rufus' soirees and those that did, did not appear to appeal to Merry May who still preferred Horsham's awkward social company, uncouth table manners, and bumbling social faux pas rather than Elves of her own smooth sociality. "I feel sorry for Horsham" Merry May would explain, "he sings beautifully and he looks beautiful too, but his soul is that of a troubled man so people will never love him and he fears dying alone and abandoned". But Rufus Royal was starting to wonder if there was more to it. Lady Heike knew there was more to it. The two aging lovers disagreed as to the cure, the only time their famous unity wavered. Rufus Royal was used to solders and so saw Horsham in a positive light. Lady Heike saw Ben the Beorach and feared a replay with Horsham cast in the part of Ben and Merry May cast in the part of Luna. Ben's reputation was such as to make any mother or grandmother fear any Mere Mortal Mercenary now -- and any interracial liaison.

Horsham was not the only notorious Mere Mortal ordered to leave genteel Arcadia by Rhingol the Great. Ben was ordered to leave Arcadia Prime as well. But the 'lean and mean' Beorach mercenary did so grudging. He offered his services to Rufus Royal, offering his military expertise to command the improvised 'sunshine' militias of Arcadia Minor. Rufus Royal politely refused. Ben left Rufus Royal's Map Room then, but only after insulting some local Merrach Militias he saw practicing their archery on Rufus Royal's grand lawn. Ben snorted that "Only men without balls shoot arrows far away from the fight. The only way to fight is in your face, a knee to the groin, the knife in the stomach, the fist to the face, the spear in the spleen, the sword through the heart. Archery is only for faggots and Slings are for cowards. Only a shield wall wins a war."

"You underrate the Merrach and you underrate Horsham" Rufus Royal snapped back. Ben had spent half his time during the interview insulting Horsham, obvious to the fact that any honorable soldier like Rufus Royal would despise behind the back and below the belt insults, especially by a man who rarely bothered to fight for Arcadia, preferring to boast of his many pub bard larded adventures instead. The old Elven general glared at the bony mercenary, his mouth a hard line, his nose a beck, his grey eyes glaring like an owl about to attack. It says something of Ben's monumental arrogance that he failed to note the fifty degree drop of temperature in Rufus Royal's Map Room.

"You overrate Horsham. He is a big, fat, showy fake. He looks like a Beorach but he is nothing but a soft, gutless, girly man. A Merrach. A sham."

"You flogged a Son of Merrach to death Ben. Yet you offered your bard proclaimed expertise to first Celebeau, and then me, to command the Merrach. If you hate them, how can you expect to command them?"

Ben glared back, bristling. "You Elves will never let any Mere Mortal command nothing! You are too scared that we might show you up! We will! Someday we Mere Mortals will take it all away from you! You Elves! Our World! We will be the masters! Not you!"

"You mean that you Beorach Mere Mortals will be the masters? I think not. I butchered your glorious in-your-face Beorach all over Beorach Land during the Grey Owl Campaign. Ben. You will never have command because you are a bully. Your typical in your face Beorach bully! Bard epics to the contrary, you are nothing but a thug with pretensions of grander! I pity any command that you will have because you will be a lousy commander! Only a fool would ever put you in command! You alienate people. You despise people. You scorn people. You only see the weaknesses and do not see the strength in people. You just want to be first because you hate to come in second. You are a selfish bastard. Always was. Always will be. Out for number one. You. Ben the Beorach! How much to you pay the bards to go around the countryside singing your praises in phony epics to the gullible? What have you ever really done? Really? You are the fake! Ben the Fake! Ben the Phony! Ben the Seducer of gullible princesses!"

Ben made a motion to attack Rufus Royal. Rufus glared the enraged Beorach Mere Mortal down with fierce owl-like stare so unearthly that even Ben, who boasted of never knowing fear, almost shook. The Beorach snarled and turned his back on the Elve and stormed out of Rufus Manor. He almost hit Merry May who was coming in as he was exiting. His look of malevolence was unmistakable.

"Rufus Royal stormed out into the courtyard and shouted after the Beorach: "And if you think you will head north to Beorach Land and offer your bloody services to the bloody Beorach to help them bloody recognize after I damn near broke their collective bloody backs, I will personally kill you son of a bitch as a bloody, god damn traitor!" Ben spat back at Rufus Royal as he mounted his horse and stormed away. It was the only time Merry May had ever seen her grandfather lose his temper in front of her. Then he pulled her inside and slammed the door closed.

Merry May burst into tears in her grandfather's arms. "Horsham has ridden West. The regimental wizard said the omens were evil. People are saying he will die there, or worse. Though what could be worse than dying? Oh Grandfather! I love Horsham! I love him so dreadfully! I am sorry! But I do! I do! I will love no other! I am sorry! I will never go against you and Grandmother but if I cannot marry Horsham then I cannot marry anyone else. Oh can't you talk Grandmother around to allowing us to wed? Please! Please Grandfather! I am so unhappy!"

The weary old Elve hugged his only surviving granddaughter but what could he say? "Your Grandmother is sincerely worried. I know that not all Mere Mortals are like Ben but by the gods! My child! Ben the Beorach does make any Elve shudder in horror at the thought of their child being seduced by a Mere Mortal now! Ben is destined to destroy Princess Luna! By the gods he is! And perhaps destroy Arcadia as well! He is as evil a man as any I have ever met and I have met a lot of knaves, rogues, hellions and cowards in my long life! But Ben the Beorach has absolutely no remorse or regret or compassion. He boasts of being fearless but a soul born without fear is a soul born without a conscience. Moral Fear is the ability of the soul to see right from wrong and feel empathy and guilt and regret."

"But Horsham is not like that Grandfather!" Merry May protested.

"I know child! I know! You know! But Horsham is also a man who carries his demons around with him wherever he goes. He has a dark soul. Not an evil soul! But a dark and tortured soul. And to be honest, anyone should be as scared of Horsham of Arcadia as they should be scared of Ben the Beorach. I say this despite the fact I admire Horsham as a valiant soldier and a good friend."

"But I love him! I love him! I love him!" Merry May burst into tears in the old man's lap. But what could Rufus Royal say? Nothing. So he hugged his only surviving granddaughter as she wept bitter tears. Much like the bitter tears another broken hearted lover wept at that same moment: Princess Luna in far away Arcadia Prime. Both lovers were riding away. Both lovers would ride back ---- alas for Luna. Rufus Royal was right. Ben was destined to destroy the thing he claimed to love. Ben destroyed Luna -- after he destroyed Arcadia first.

Faced with an army in Arcadia despite the Peace talks, and with fierce resistance by the Dwarves east of The Pale in the Highlands, Iron Hills, and Badlands now allied for the first time with some of the rogue Maestusean Fallen Elves led by Bree the Red, the Dark Lord pulled back his invasion force poised on the border of the River of Shadows and instead routed them east to fight beyond The Pale. The Pale was becoming a bottomless quagmire. The Invasion of Arcadia would just have to wait. Peace Negotiations limped along and Lady Sanguinary declared victory when fighting appeared to stop (being all pulled beyond The Pale). But 'Peace in our time' was as much a mirage as the celebrated 'Mirage Line' Rhingol was counting on to save Arcadia.

Horsham rode west and beheld The Havens, the sea port to the world, and the largest city of Our World, for the first time. The trip west was quite uneventful. He detoured around the grimy little farm where his in bittered mother lived with his baby sister. Like his father Duer, Horsham was an absentee soldier awol from the home front -- but only after the home front made it perfectly clear he was person non grata.

But if the ride was perfectly uneventful, Horsham's view of The Havens was spectacular. The port city was three times the size of genteel old Arcadia. Old Arcadia was only a court city, set up like a pearl around the inner grit of economics: a king needs taxes and a place to situate his court. Rhingol the Great was a mediocre king but his court was gaudy and therefore his taxes needed a machine of collection. Arcadia City was the machine that collected taxes. But there was no other economic justification for the city outside of Rhingol the Great. The Havens however was a port city that controlled the economic jugular of Our World. All the trade that the Sea Traders brought from across the watery sea from far away 'Chinna' funneled through The Havens. All the trade produced by Our World funneled through Our World too. And all the trade both east to west and west to east was funneled into the docks and guildhalls and where houses to be sold through the middle men of Our World: The Dwarves. So every pint of tea or sweet wine, every bolt of silk, every exotic spice, every piece of jade was taxed by the Dwarves as 'business profit' and by Cleardan, the Master of The Havens as 'port expenses'. And every pint of beer, every bolt of linen and wool, every jug of honey, every wheel of cheese, every carcass of beef or pork, and every pound of bronze and iron and steel that exited Our World was taxed by the Dwarves as 'business profit' and by Cleardan, the Master of The Havens as 'port expenses' too. And that did not even factor in the Salt Trade that Cleardan controlled. Everyone in Our World needed two things: Salt and Metal. Especially Steel. So Cleardan and the Dwarves controlled the jugular of Our World. Cleardan did not live in a palace. He did not need one. He was de facto king of Our World. Economic King. And unlike genteel old Rhingol the Great, Cleardan was a cunning old sailor -- and a very wise ruler. He was so cunning that he even taxed the Dwarves and no one taxed the Dwarves!

The Havens was huge therefore, busy and bursting with goods, with trade, with money, and flush with all the intoxicating wealth that money can bring. The novo rich flaunted their wealth. The middle class flaunted their houses built above their prosperous businesses, and even the skilled workers flaunted their nice clothes and nicer mercantile skills. The High Street groaned under the weight of the guildhalls and arcades, the windows -- rich glass windows no less -- flaunting material riches protected from the damp salt air. And Cleardan's navy protected the riches too. Cleardan's navy filled ten naval docks out of the thirty three docks of The Havens at any given time -- not counting the patrols always patrolling out at sea. The one drawback that Horsham could see as a military man was the lack of a defense wall. Cleardan looked west for danger. But with the recent military defeats of Finnland which was northward, the danger now stood northward, on the land, from the Dark Lord. The old nemesis of Arcadia had spread his malevolent bane westward to the heretofore prosperous and war free Westlands. Cleardan had a lot of marines of course. But only a tiny army mostly formed from local militias and right now that army lacked a general, the admiral too busy looking westward to concern himself with land war.

Horsham was slightly sidetracked by his rescue of a small boy marled by a wolf but that actually worked out well for the boy was a fosterling in the household of Cleardan, the Master of The Havens. The accidental rescue of young Prince Gildagad gave Horsham the spy a foothold in the door into The Havens. In fact the door was wide open now. A murder warrant from Rhingol just made Horsham's presence official. The murderer was a member of the Country Folk, a wolf changeling, run to ground in the port city of Our World. The Havens had the single largest colony of Country Folk in Our World. Catching him would just require patience and minor sleuthing. But Bela did not order Horsham west just to catch a minor murderer. The murder warrant was but a front. As usual, the spy master was only using others to facilitate his own plots and counterplots. And Bela had his own agenda for Horsham in The Havens.

While supposedly waiting for the murderer to surface, Horsham rode north into Finnland to converse with General Bors, the Commander of the Amberling Army employed by Finngold, the new King of the Celestial Elves. Horsham did not bother to see Finngold, even to tell him he had rescued his exiled and disinherited son Gildagad. Finngold did not converse with Mere Mortals. More importantly, Finngold had no useful information that Bela wanted back in the Cockpit. But Bela did want the full information from General Bors about the Amberling traitor who aided and abetted in the military death of Finngolden. Bors was embarrassed about the rotten Amberling apple but assured Horsham that Affat was the only bad apple. "The rest of my army is absolutely to be trusted." Hussan, Bor's Aide de Camp who was standing nearby, nodded.

"What about the Amberlings who attacked Arcadia this last year?"

"Yes. Well. I don't know about them. After all we migrated West a mighty long time ago now and there might be a new king back home in Old Cartage. The Consortium is ever changing."

"Consortium. An odd name for a government?"

"Business interests run the city state. Always have. We left and migrated West because we did not like how the syndicate ran the city. Insider deals. Business interests looking after short term profit at the expense of long terms goals. Business never looks long term. Infrastructure for instance. Irrigation. The East is very dry as you know after the land was ravished by over farming in ancient times with the Elves lived there. They migrated West when the environment collapsed. We must still live with the mess the Elves left. Irrigation leaves salt and debases the land. The dust storms blowing across tree-less landscapes are a nightmare. The hills of rock where over grazing killed the ground cover has caused ghastly erosion, flash flooding, and suffocating silting. Living in a man made semi-desert is hard. Only a large organization can cope. But that organization has become the Consortium and business interests of the rich few too often seek out only the short term profit for themselves. Maybe the Consortium sees the Dark Lord as a profit making business. Mercenaries can make good profit, at least to the king who sends the soldiers off to fight. But I assure you that we Western Amberlings are the Faithful Amberlings! What happened to Finngolden will not happen to Finngold! I swear!" Hussan smiled and nodded.

"I saw a coin the Amberling had. It looked like Badlands silver. Does the Consortium have any silver mines in the Eastern Badlands that you know of?" Horsham showed the silver coin to Bors who shook his head. Hussan smiled when he saw it. It was a hefty piece of silver. Six months worth of wages for most Mere Mortals.

"No. I was not aware there were any silver mines in the Eastern Badlands" Bor said. "The only mines I know about are the Dwarve Badlands Silver mines."

Next Horsham did a little private errand: he rescued the hostage family of a runaway serf: a Merrach called Jippity who was presently the butler to Rufus Royal. No one had ever tried before to 'extract' a family of a runaway. So few Merrach serfs dared to runaway and abandon their families behind. Jippity was a young man who did runaway -- and lived with guilt ever after. Horsham crept in and deftly snatched the aged Mother and surviving two sisters. Jippity's older brother had been sold to another farm and since died and Jippity's younger brother had been 'culled' or killed to decrease the surplus population. The one sister had a child by the master. Horsham would have killed the brat but the girl quietly protested. So Horsham hauled the clan south to The Havens and then paid a Dwarve traveling ironmonger to haul them home to Rufus Royal's estate as merchandise. Jippity had no money for any of this. Horsham did it as a one time only favor to Jippity. The two men had become friends when Horsham was staying at the estate. Unfortunately for Horsham, Jippity told other Merrach who had fled Finnland about it and they later pleaded with Horsham to 'extract' their enslaved families too. The dangerous gesture gave Horsham a dangerous reputation to live up to and Horsham already had a dangerous reputation to live up to.

Back in The Havens, Horsham made contacts with certain types. The usual types. Bela was expanding his spy organization. The Havens and Arcadia were allies but business was still business and Bela wanted spies in The Havens. Bela had a ruthless streak behind his elegant facade. Behind his lazy charm he was perfectly able of doing anything he deemed warranted by need. He charm was dazzling but it was a facade that hid a dark man, icy, ruthless, masked perfectly, but perfectly capable of anything. So you never knew what Bela might do in any situation. There were no external signals to give you any hints what he was really thinking and his schemes were always hidden in his graceful folds of his kilt. His motives were however clear: he was a patriot who would do absolutely anything to save Arcadia from the Dark Lord and from itself. The danger was that absolute patriotism can bred absolute ruthlessness.

In the meantime, lulled by apparently lack of danger, the murderer, a ex soldier from the Arcadian Army, had finally surfaced, living with his sister and her husband, a ex soldier and now an apothecary. Horsham put his acting skills, learned from opera, to work and lured the killer out into the open. Horsham tracked the murderer into the wilderness when he tried to make good his escape and killed him neatly and deftly with a slinger bullet in the back of the brain. He took the corpse back to have Cleardan sign off on the death warrant as was proper. Horsham was not a murderer or outlaw but an agent of the law. The man's kin could have gone after him if he had not come back to have the warrant signed off. You do not want to have Country Folk mad at you. They can morph into wolves, and wolves can track with murderous skill.

Horsham was in the courtyard folding up the warrant when the sister of the murderer appeared along with her fosterling Luppis and also Luppis' friend, the boy Horsham saved from wolves, Prince Gildagad. Gildagad was then but an obscure and unimportant fosterling, branded illegitimate, and no one gave him a second of thought -- until Gildagad ran up and resolutely started kicking Horsham in his long shanks while yelling a wonderful spiel of navel profanity. Horsham held out a long arm and just pushed the angry boy away without thought or effort. At that moment the sister of the murderer plunged a knife into Horsham's guts. Agent of the law or not, the Country Folk make mean enemies. But then the woman herself collapsed in the courtyard, foaming at the mouth, howling, ranting and raving. She had the same murderous inclination as her brother: rabies, a new disease created by the Dark Lord to bedevil the Country Folk for fighting alongside Arcadia under Bela's organization. The murderer had himself killed his own wife on their honeymoon while under the influence of rabies which made the Country Folk morph uncontrollably into werewolves when the moon was full. The disease was so novel no one fully understood it other than the fact that even the bloody foam from the mouth of a rabid wolf could kill, and that rabid Countryfolk were forced to morph into increasingly hellish creatures of escalating horror, their savage madness still hinged to cunning minds that made them dangerous monsters of mayhem even as their consciences and then their sanity slowly died.

Everyone screamed and pulled away. Horsham crawled to his knees, one big hand holding his bloody guts, and he plunged the knife into the woman's heart. She died instantly. Horsham was a professional killer. Her wound in his stomach was far more unprofessional and therefore far more cruel. Horsham howled and writhed in unspeakable pain until the horror turned into a blur of agony. Held down by strong Elves, Horsham still writhed and twisted, nearly breaking loose, tearing at the hands holding him down, attacking the doctor trying to clean and burn the wound closed. Horsham had a lot of battle wounds over his many campaigns but none compared to the utter horror of this wound. A stomach wound in a Mere Mortal is ghastly, just about the worst wound that can be inflicted.

Then suddenly it was all over. A rosy blanket covered him. Rosy dreams shrouded him. He floated in a rosy balm of peace such as he had never known before. Sometimes the rosy dreams were vivid, sometimes pale as twilight. It as utterly wonderful. It was like that thing the Celestial Elves described: paradise. When he finally woke he almost mourned the waking for the haunting beauty of the dreamy world. Cleardan was looking at him with an odd look. So was the doctor. Horsham smiled, still enchanted by the rosy balm of delight. "I was dreaming of paradise." Everyone smiled. In the back of the room a man smiled too. An Amberling. The apothecary married to the sister of the murderer who Horsham had killed after she knifed him in the stomach.

Horsham rapidly recovered. More rapidly than with any other wound he had ever sustained. It was wonderful. Quite wonderful. The new wonders of medicine, this opium imported from the sea traders was truly the wonder drug, worth it's weight in mithril. Being in The Havens, the doctors were able to give the wounded man a full douse without the rationing that Arcadian doctors had to resort to. Horsham felt quite wonderful, his senses muted, his nerves calm, his anxious mind at peace, his body quiet. The wound was healing quite nicely. The doctor was quite pleased. The only problem was that a pain returned from the wound whenever Horsham stopped taking the opium, a lingering effect of the wound apparently.

The Apothecary thoughtfully gave Horsham several boxes of the opium and prescriptions for several more boxes if Horsham needed them. Top grade. Pure. Unblended with filler. It was quite decent of the man considering Horsham killed his wife. Of course his wife was doomed already, infected by rabies, and would have morphed into a werewolf at the next full moon and murdered her husband and fosterling son Luppis, then anyone else nearby. So Horsham's execution of the doomed woman was only mercy after all. Horsham did not take her act of trying to kill him personally. She was under the influence of murder. Rabies was intoxicating murder. That is all. Horsham mounted Blackie and rode back to Arcadia. He thought nothing more of the incident.

Horsham arrived back in Arcadia in a happy mood. On his desk was five more challenges to duels. Two from Sanguinary. For once Horsham did not care. He did not worry. He fought Sanguinary the next night. And was nearly killed. His reflexes were off. He moved too slowly. He barely eluded death. Sanguinary was on the cusp of victory when Horsham pulled himself together and delivered a blow that incapacitated the Elve. Both men had to retire from the field.

Horsham recovered in the Military Hospital as usual. They also proscribed opium, cheap stuff with lots of filler. Prince Kitsune visited him in the hospital and his ears pricked though his sly smile remained attached to his face. Later Prince Grafton visited and spent the hour talking about his utter happiness in discovering Kiyohime. "She is so beautiful! So kind! So loving! So devoted to me! And she has the snake talent for prophecy too! Kiyohime has prophesied I will stand high above everyone! Even Celebeau will look up to me! A hero! A military hero! The Fate of Arcadia hinges on me she says! I will decide the Fate of Arcadia! A golden crown hovers above my head. I need only reach out to seize it. Oh do you think it is true? I have been so discouraged! I must confess it! But now.....

And just think! Did you know that Lord Ryu the Quiet One was a branch of the Royal Tree of Arcadia himself! Did you know that? He was always such a plain, humble man that one always forget that little fact. He always let Rhingol have the staring role on the public stage and worked like a mule behind the scenery doing all the mundane things that had to be done. Now Celebeau has to assume all the boring drudge work Lord Ryu had to do. Ha! Ha! But Celebeau was born to do drudge work. It fits his dull personality and mediocre abilities! But don't you see! That means Lady Kiyohime is of distant royal blood too! And of course so am I. So together....our child would have as good a claim to the crown as anyone! If something happens to Luna then... don't you see? It is down between Celebeau and me! And Luna is pathetic! If she elopes say with Ben, or sires a bastard then she is out! Out! Out of the Succession! Then it is down to Celebeau and me! So if Kiyohime and I can sire a healthy Elvish boy then I have it! The Crown!

I think I have at last discovered the cure for Wisteria Melancholia: all my frustration at never possessing the woman I have always loved and can never have. All my frustration at just drifting through life unfulfilled. Useless. Beautiful and useless. Powerless. Futile. Impotent to control events. Save Arcadia...... I just have to teach Kiyohime how to dress and act in public. Lord Ryu went overboard with his 'rustic lifestyle' and did not teach her anything about Court protocols. About who she was. Who she could be. But I am sure once I have molded her into my ideal woman then Kiyohime will become my perfect soul's lover. The perfect Royal Lover. The perfect Consort! To the King of Arcadia!" Prince Grafton ruffled his bellowing silk sleeves in pride. Horsham raised one eyebrow.

Prince Grafton was so taken up with his love life that he forgot that Kitsune sent him to check out Horsham's true state of health. As usual he saw himself as the staring role and forget all about Horsham. "I have to design new clothes for Kiyohime. I must be off!" Horsham rolled over in his hospital bed and went to sleep and forget about the deviation in Grafton's usual sweetness. The unexpected ruthlessness in place of his usual charming selfishness. The heady excitement. The flushed face. The intoxication with dreams of glory. And Horsham was sleeping so deeply because of the opium that he was not tossing and turning at night as usual, worrying, sifting through all the little bits of evidence for warning signs and warning trends. An insomniac, Horsham was savoring the ability to sleep deeply and normally for the first time in his life. And he forgot about Prince Grafton's peculiar behavior. Or the his peculiar behavior in sleeping so deeply and so long. Ten hours at a stretch.

Kitsune however was worried. He always had a prejudice against opium, preferring old fashioned wizardry to modern medicine. But Prince Grafton thought Horsham looked just fine and told Kitsune so when he finally remembered his assignment -- when told by Kitsune to go back and revisit Horsham and check out his true state of health. Prince Grafton just did not like the Barrack Hospital and told Horsham he should stay at Wisteria Pavilion because it was much lovelier. It was lovelier but Wisteria Pavilion also had Lord Taira who loathed Horsham's presence and made that perfectly clear whenever the two men accidentally met.

"Oh yes Horsham, here is a new tunic for your next duel. My wife....." Prince Grafton frowned. "She was ever the tedious embroiderer. Used to sew clothes for me. I would tell her I have five professional tailors working full time but no, she would try to foster unwanted clothes off on me. Now she is trying to push her unwanted exercises of needlework off on you. So pathetic. She has embroidered magic runes all over it to 'protect you in your next duel'. Spiel. Really! As if you are in any danger! Other than Sanguinary of course. I wish you would just stop fighting him! You don't have to wear it. Lady Aoi is pathetic. The color is not even fashionable." Prince Grafton held up the tunic. It was baby blue with tiny runes of pale silver and gold all over it to cover the parts of the human body vulnerable to attack. It was sad in a way. Prince Grafton groaned and tossed it aside.

"Thank you for coming Grafton. I am going back to my digs. More comfortable there. Minor wound. Soon well. Just fine. Glad you are happy Grafton." Prince Grafton was so happy he failed to see that ugly digs were the least of Horsham's problems.

Horsham was surprised to find himself visited later that same day by no other than the object of Prince Grafton's latest affection and the source of his recent change in behavior: Lady Kiyohime herself. She was now fashionably dressed by one of Prince Grafton's five professional tailors in formal court regalia, the over tunic, under tunic, long kilt and train all matching in harmonized colors based on Prince Grafton's own scientific study of colors of the seasons and the complexion. Prince Grafton's eye for color was so famous that all the ladies of court went to him to have their colors done. Horsham once laughed at Prince Grafton's theory of color until Prince Grafton posted him in front of a dwarve mirror one day and held up color after color. The 'negative' colors did indeed make Horsham's florid face appear red while the 'harmonious' colors did indeed make Horsham's pink and white face even more handsome.

Prince Grafton had even bickered with Lady Confabulate and Floradale over Horsham's opera costumes the year before. Floradale only laughed, telling Prince Grafton to let costuming and interior decoration stay the preserves of the Third Sex and keep to seduction of neglected females. Prince Grafton disliked Floradale after that. Prince Grafton was a smart man raised to think that colors and clothes and poetry and conversation were the only things a human being was suppose to do. He did not know how to do anything else. Prince Grafton knew he was obsolete. He just did not know what else he could ever do, just as he longed to escape the Court but did not know anywhere else to go ----- until now. Until the intoxicating Kiyohime entered his life.

Lady Kiyohime sat neat and prim in the rowdy barracks hospital until Horsham got embarrassed. Then she bent over and whispered earnestly "Please tell me honestly if Prince Grafton truly loves me? I love him so desperately. I have no one else. The Ryu Clan was so cruel to me. I don't know where Mother is. Prince Grafton sent a runner but the old summer pavilion has been abandoned. Who else can I turn to? I am utterly alone and at the mercy of one man: Prince Grafton. Like my mother before me. A concubine to an unhappy courtier looking for more than his life is providing him. And I love him so much. And he has set me up in a lovely pavilion but still.... and I do know the rumors....of his many prior love affairs.... and of Lady Wisteria. He is always talking about her.... wanting me to copy her 'perfection' but I cannot. I cannot! Why does he want me to mirror my rival to his affection? Prince Grafton is otherwise so kind and caring but..." She wilted in her designer creations, a tad over the top, out of place outside of the Court, the wrong side of the Pally Mall, and most definitely out of place in a rowdy barracks hospital. Frankly, she looked like an amateur actress dressed up on costume in a role too sophisticated for her. Horsham felt sorry for her.

"Prince Grafton spent a hour telling me how much he loved you. You should not let jealousy take root. Jealousy can turn a lovely soul into a demon just as love can turn a ugly soul beautiful. Be yourself. Let Prince Grafton discover you. But if you feel insecure because you are too much at his mercy then come to me and I will give you money to escape."

"Flee where? Where can I go? I have only Prince Grafton? I have no where else to go!" the Elve wept quietly. "I know I am just jealous but I am so insecure. I don't want to become some clinging, jealous monster! But I am so insecure. Sometimes I think I am like a humble caterpillar growing into a beautiful butterfly. But other times I feel like a good country girl growing into a hideous fiend. Other times I just feel like a bad play actor performing in a role that does not suit me. I used to think people stayed the same. Father was always kind, unchangeably kind. But now I feel that people are chameleons, volatile, transforming under the influence of events, under the force of passion, or under the alchemy of desires. And I don't know myself. Who I am really! What I am! Where I am going! What is going to happen to me! How can I become what Prince Grafton wants when I don't know myself?"

"You have discovered a flair for prophecy I hear?"

"Well, sorta, kinda, I dream dreams. Vivid dreams. I always could dream vivid dreams. Intoxicating dreams. But I don't know if that makes them visions of the future or just....dreams..... of I am so happy and yet so unhappy! All at the same time! Tell me what to do? Please?"

"What could Horsham say to reassure her. "I sometimes wish I could just escape myself. I wish I could change, become someone different. Better. Happier. Nicer. More contented with my lot. Be happy that you have the opportunity to change. Embrace change. Tell yourself you have never been happier. Savor your happiness. Happiness never lasts very long. Love is something that happens to others. Maybe you are one of the others that love happens to? Enjoy being in love."

Lady Kiyohime sat and twisted her silk sleeve nervously until the silk tore. "I don't....know.... I dreamed last night about you Horsham. I dreamed I saw you in a beautiful withdrawing room with a beautiful Elve Princess and you both looked like the picture of lovers! Beautiful lovers in love with love! Maybe we will both find love eh?" The silk tore in her nervous fingers. Horsham smiled and the poor Elve left.

"Why do so called prophets never report useful things like if I am going to survive my next duel or even how I can get out of the quagmire of dueling all together!"

The next day Horsham used a box of the wonder drug given to him in The Havens and fought two other duels while his wounds were still raw. He wore Lady Aoi's tunic because he felt sorry for her and because by now he knew she secretly attended all the duels just as she had secretly attended all his opera performances, even keeping posters and clay ticket tokens. She even paid wizards to do pre duel rites of invincibility and burned red silk in magical good luck rites. She was pathetic but she was also unhappy and socially inept, a human sore toe, and Horsham could relate.

Horsham did not believe in magic. He used the opium because it was modern and sensible and because it numbed the pain. Horsham defeated both Elves, both inexperienced courtiers who fought badly. Horsham felt so good he decided that he no longer needed to drink, except socially of course. The calm of opium far exceed the calm of whisky and beer. In fact Horsham decided he never felt better in his whole life. His usual just below the surface anxieties, nights tormented by terrible nightmares, over-active nerves when there was no battle to distract his over-active brain, and bouts of depression and paranoia ceased -- blanketed by the wonderful drug that quieted his over-raw soul. For the very first time in his life, Horsham felt at peace and happy. Actually happy!

He visited Lady Wisteria to tell her about his new self discovery but she was feeling especially melancholic so he left. He meant to go back but one thing led to another and he did not go back to Wisteria Pavilion. He later asked himself why he avoided the place where he actually had something close to 'friends' and instead dug into his dismal digs in the slums with his new best friend.

But the ache of the wound persisted so Horsham, who was still officially on half pay, decided to take it easy and spent the month relaxing, riding Blackie in the park, playing with Sweetie, drinking beer in the pub, laying in bed late in the morning, sleeping deeply under the influence of the wonder drug that gave him sweet rosy dreams at night. But the ache of the wound persisted and Horsham had to use more and more opium and redeem several more prescriptions for the drug. The drug made him sleep longer and longer at night and get up more and more slowly in the morning, then midmorning, then noon.

But despite deciding that he really did not need to drink anymore, Horsham still drank by habit in the pubs at night for he was a famous duelist and everyone always offered him free whisky and beer, and the pub bar maids always offered him freebies in the dark alleys behind the pub, their backs against the wall, their dresses pulled up, Horsham's leggings unbuttoned. It was just animal sex but that was all Horsham had ever known as a soldier. Crude sex. Horsham never wasted his pay on whores but he never refused freebies either. Cheap sex and whisky and beer was still his only social outlet, the way he appeared friendly, surrounded apparently by friends, apparently popular, and apparently not shy or awkward or edgy. But the new wonder drug made him lazy and the beer started to make him fat. He stopped washing and appeared disheveled. And he stopped going to the Cockpit to pick up new assignments and avoided Wisteria Pavilion too.

Horsham could not avoid an upcoming duel and fought it so badly that he barely survived despite the fact the duelist was a total idiot. People assumed it was because he was drunk. Horsham was not drunk. So the badly fought duel shook Horsham He could not explain the failure. He went to visit Dr. Kakoff for a check up. Waiting in 'The Butchery' Horsham saw a Dwarve mirror and looked into it. He was shocked. He looked absolutely terrible. Dirty, haggard, shabby, beer bloated, a slight beer belly spilling over his leather belt, his hands shaking. His hands were actually shaking! Horsham was shocked. He could not explain his decay.

"Where did you get the stomach scar?" Kakoff asked.

"A knife in the belly during an assignment in The Havens. But patched up and good as new. But I have been having lingering pains. I was given a prescription but I am nearly out. Can you fill out a new prescription?"

"What is it?"

"Opium."

"Let me see the box?"

Horsham pulled the little box out of his belt pouch and showed it to Kakoff who promptly threw it in the fire.

"You're an addict."

"What is that?"

"You are addicted to the drug opium. I have seen it on other soldiers. A lot of ex soldiers, cut off from the military hospital, are around here now, all the apothecaries, asking for the stuff. The Military Hospital always over prescribed the drug. Now there are a whole bunch of addicts cut off from their source and breaking into apothecaries and committing crimes to buy the stuff."

"No. No. I am not ...a ... what is it? I was stabbed in the stomach. Do you know what the pain was like? I was given the drug to stop the pain. But the wound..."

"Is healed perfectly well so why are you still taking it?"

"Like I said...I am still feeling the pain of the ..."

"Addiction. The pain is from the addiction. The cravings the body now has for the drug. You want the drug. And the more you take the drug, the stronger the cravings will get, and the more you will have to take. How much of this stuff are you taking right now?"

"I....well.... half a box a ......"

"You are a drug addict. Look at you! You look like a bum! I hear your last duel was a near disaster! Everyone said you were drunk!"

"I was not drunk!"

"Of course not! You were drugged! By the Fiery Fissure I could beat you now Horsham! Your hands are shaking! Come on! Try to hit me! Try! Try!" The short, fat Dwarve hit Horsham in his guts and Horsham gagged. "Come on! Hit me! Come On!" The Dwarve punched Horsham again. Horsham growled and jumped off the metal table. The fat Dwarve punched him again. Now Horsham was mad and he punched back.

The fat Dwarve punched Horsham in his chest and sent the man sprawling on the floor. Then the Dwarve knelt down by the fallen man. "See laddie! The Old Horsham would never have allowed me to beat the shit out of him! You are an addict. The question is do you have enough guts to fight the worst fight of your life now? Because fighting opium addiction will be the very worst fight of your life!"

Horsham sprawled on the stone floor and wept. "Don't tell anyone! Please! I will be cashiered! Celebeau is just waiting to cashier me! Please! I will stop! I will just stop taking it! I will stop! Don't tell anyone! Please!" The Dwarve nodded and reached down a hairy hand and pulled Horsham up on his feet.

"Ok laddie! I will not tell anyone ---- if you can lick this thing by yourself! But if you can not then I will tell your boss Bela. Don't let me down! Don't let Bela down! And most importantly of all: don't let yourself down!"

Horsham tried to stop cold turkey. But he had a duel coming up and he was shaking all over. So he took just enough to fight. Barely. Then he tried to stop again. Cold. He threw up and writhed in pain on the floor of his miserable digs on the second floor of a back alley pub above a latrine. The pain was so bad he ran to a apothecary and redeem his last prescription. He took the little box home and wept and he held it in his big hands. Sweetie looked most mournfully at his master and howled. And howled. And howled. A dog knows by instinct and by smell when his master is sick. His master was most definitely sick. His master was so sick Horsham kicked the dog in the belly to shut the creature up. Then Horsham took so much opium he nearly overdosed. He woke sprawled on Kakoff's metal table.

"Sweetie is dead." Horsham was so sick it did not even register.

"Your dog Sweetie is dead! You kicked your dog to death!"

Horsham staggered off the table and grabbed a scalpel and slashed his stomach. Kakoff had to knock him out with a bludgeon. He and his grave robbing assistant Higgie tied Horsham to the table. Horsham went through withdrawals howling and screaming for five days.

Horsham finally stopped screaming but only because he was so weak he could not move. Kakoff was a tough old Dwarve, but he was a kindly man behind his bluster and grave robbing. He and Higgie took turns bathing Horsham's fevered body and cleaning the filth. His clothes foul by urine and excrement, Kakoff gently cut the clothes off while keeping Horsham tied to the metal table where dead bodies normally laid. Horsham looked a great deal like a dead body by the time Kakoff finally untied him. The two Dwarves continued to nurse the man for another week.

"The worse is over?" Horsham whispered desperately.

"The worse is over. But not the war. Only one battle. Laddie. You are an addict. You will always be an addict. Whether or not you take opium you will always want it. And it will make you drink even more and you already drink too much as is! Laddie. I suggest you retire to a quiet farm somewhere. I honestly don't think your nerves will ever recover. And there are too many apothecaries in Arcadia City and too many pubs. Even in a small town. But in a small town a pub owner will still stop your drinking yourself drunk. Locality is loyalty and all that. But here. A big, impersonal city.... people eager to help you self destruct .... and the duels...... Laddie..... it an't going to work. Do you have any friends you can turn to? Who might give you a quiet job at a quiet estate?" Horsham blanched with shame and turned his face to the wall.

"I an't got no place to go! Soldiering is all I know! Where else can I go? I have no where else to go!" Horsham curled up into a fetal position and wept all night.

Detail of weaving of the dragon king Orochi.

Chapter 2: A Silver Lining

Horsham finally appeared at the Cockpit for an assignment and he looked terrible despite the fact he had tried to patch himself together to pass as normal. He was still bloated and red eyed. Bela eyed him with quiet disapproval.

"Drinking rather a lot I hear..." Bela said dryly.

"Bad patch. Over with. I just need to dry out. I always dry out best on assignment."

"I don't give assignments to drunks to dry out. I give assignments to agents able to think on their feet. I don't think you are barely standing on your feet."

"I just need to dry out! Ok! Ok! Everything is fine! Or will be! Just give me an assignment that requires a week long ride. Just me and Backie!"

"What happened at the last duel? Everyone says you were drunk. And there are rumors.... about Sweetie......where is Sweetie?"

"Sweetie is dead."

"What happened?"

"Sweetie is dead! Ok! Sweetie is dead!"

"Before you went on a bender or after you went on a bender?"

Horsham whimpered despite all his attempts. "I just need to dry out..... a week long ride....just me and Blackie..... just give me an assignment ok?"

"No. I think not." Bela looked hard at Horsham who could barely stand at attention. "Do you want to tell me anything....?"

"Then I am going to ride over the Ice Pass and investigate the source of the Badlands silver the Dark Lord is paying the Amberlings and the rogue Beorach."

"No. I think not. You are in no shape to investigate anything. I wrote Durham a letter anyways."

"So you will take Durham's word? You! Who even spy on Cleardan?"

"I will send someone ..... but not you....East."

"I am going. Do as you will. I am going now. Blackie's all packed. I am leaving now. See you when I come back." Horsham marched out of The Library with a ramrod straight back and exited the garden, then threw up in the alley. Then he dragged himself onto Blackie and man and horse rode slowly east.

Horsham rode up the steep 'Knees of Ice', the steep and rugged foothills and lower ranges of the towering Central Mountains, following a steep stone switch back road that linked the Old Citadel to Arcadia. This was the only stone road in Our World in the First Age. Dwarves built it complete with bridges, road markers, and stone huts spaced along the road to shelter the Merrach Haulers who hauled beer, copper plumbing, raw bronze ingots, iron and steel weapons and tools, expensive gold and silver and mithril jewelry, luxury clothe of gold, and finance lines of credit from the great central Treasury Houses to the regional treasuries in the form of 'paper money' that only the Dwarves understood. The Merrach Haulers completed their return journeys by hauling salt, spices, sea trader imports like silk, Merrach linen, Twilight wool and honey, the raw materials of barley and hops and spices for beer brewing, wheat for whisky brewing, and raw food supplies. The Old Citadel was of course a totally urban center of manufacturing, commerce, and high finance. It imported raw materials and exported finished manufactured products according to Dwarve mercantile economic theories.

Materialism was god to the Dwarves. Economics was their life's blood. Contracts and good workmanship was virtues. Violated contracts and shoddy craftsmanship were vices. And hard business sense outweighed unsubstantial and nebulous beliefs such as genteel behavior, refinement, religion, superstition, or shame. But that did not mean that the Dwarves were passionless. Only that their passions ran deep and constrained like a subterranean river that can suddenly exploit into a mine and kill everyone. Dwarves prided themselves on logic and science and materialism. But there was no more terrifying vision than a Dwarve running amok. When a Dwarve went murderous, everyone ran for cover. Dwarves were also obsessed by beauty, just as much as greed. Just as much as the Elves, they loved beauty. The Dwarves were great artists too, obsessive compulsive about art. But they balanced it with an equally obsessive compulsive need to own beauty and show it off, boast about possessing it, then lock it away and control it. A Dwarve could be the very best friend you could have. A Dwarve could be the very worst enemy you could have. The Elves committed a historically gigantic mistake when they choose to make the Dwarves their ugly half brothers and social inferiors instead of their best friends.

Horsham planned to ride over the top of the Old Citadel, taking the back killing Ice Pass over the Central Mountains, a hard, cruel pass even in summer. But he was gut-wrenching sick by the time he just reached the fork in the road that lead in one direction to the pass, and in another direction into the Old Citadel. Horsham rolled up in a ball for two days in a stone overnight station but could not get his body together enough to continue. He could barely crawl out and tend to Blackie. For the first time, his personal demons and hidden excesses were directly effecting his ability to function. Finally a Merrach band of haulers arrived, loaded and going back to the Old Citadel, and they rescued the sick man. Horsham was allowed to lay on top of the canvas load, as the wagon bumped and jumped bone-jarringly along the stone road, up to the front door of the Old Citadel.

Horsham dug out the last few coins he had and rented two stalls in a commercial stables, one for Blackie, one for himself. Blackie was safe at least. Horsham rolled up in the hay of the stall and tried to force his shaking body to calm down. His nerves seemed hot-wired. His senses seemed livid. All his anxieties were screaming at top volume, his emotions uncontrollable, his terrors and fears overloaded to the point of an emotional breakdown. The opium had dulled everything before, into a beautiful bland dreaminess that Horsham mistook for 'contentment' and 'happiness' and savored for the first time in his brooding, anxious life. Now all the excessive passions exploited back into consciousness at a even higher volume, into a shrieking crescendo. Horsham rocked back and forth with his big callous hands over his face moaning until the frighten stable hands finally asked Horsham to leave.

"Your guys better take good care of Blackie or I will kill you!"

"You better go take good care of yourself mister! Or you might kill yourself!" they replied.

Horsham found a pub and stared inside at everyone drinking pale Dwarve ale. He stood outside and stared with gut-wrenching desire. His body screamed for whisky and beer to numb it and sedate it and batter it senseless. Finally Horsham sat down in the stone gutter before the pub and cried. The pub owner poured a beer and took it outside and set it down by Horsham, assuming him to be a down and out drunk too poor to buy a beer and afflicted by the shakes. The Dwarve actually meant to help but the beer just shattered Horsham instead. He rocked back and forth and cried. Another Dwarve blandly sat down, picked up the beer, drank it, belched, and strolled off. Then the pub owner asked Horsham to move on because he was upsetting the clientele

Horsham limped away to the alley and rolled up and hid from sight like a feral animal. The next day the pub owner found him sprawled across the alley back door when he came in to work. He hauled Horsham up over his fat shoulders and waddled into his establishment with the huge man still passed out. Horsham woke up on a bench as the staff were bustling around to open shop. The Pub, the 'Elve's Nose For A Pickle' (featuring a picture of an Elve with a very large aquiline nose smelling a very large pickle), was your typical Dwarve pub: an elaborate building carved out of solid stone, ornate, gilded, featuring big fireplaces filled with big fires, a huge Dwarve mirror over the gigantic granite bar, hundreds of ornate glass bottles of exotic brews, massive levers along the inside of the bar to pour out every type of beer and ale and lager and stout from huge barrels. Comfy benches. Wide chairs for short fat people. And fantastic machines to do fantastic things.

The pub owner, an especially fat Dwarve, waddled up to his polished, massive, over the top bar and cracked two eggs into a mysterious machine, measured and poured a glass of cream dense with a layer of butter into the machine, then poured a tipper of whisky into the machine, then poured a liberal tankard of beer into the machine. Then he snapped on the copper top and cranked a round wheel. The machine burped and then shook with fierce locomotion as the bottled container in the middle of the wheels and gears shook and spun and whirled and somersaulted. Then the Dwarve stopped and the machine snorted and slowly stopped it's fierce gyrations. The Dwarve reached up and pulled down a shiny clean tankard and poured out a milky, frothy brew rather like an alcoholic milkshake, waddled over to Horsham, and presented a 'Breakfast Beer' to the shaking man. Horsham mutely drank it down. But he felt much better afterwards. Enough to eat a breakfast of eggs, ham, steak, sausages, kidneys, salted kippers, smoked and potted oysters, sliced tongue, cold pate under aspic, and leftover meatloaf garnished by a few pickled onions and cucumbers and a dash of apple on the side along with half a loaf of bread drenched in egg and milk and butter fried and then further drenched with Dark Elve tree sugar syrup. Dwarves were fearsome carnivores and mind boggling gluttons. Gluttony was always and temptation for Horsham.

By this time the pub's usual morning clients were starting to drift in. Dwarves ate breakfast and supper and tea out at professional establishments and only ate dinner in home in their huge clan houses. Some Dwarves who were bachelors ate all their meals out. This was very different from the Elves who never ate food outside their own homes or other people's homes (by professional cooks of course). Restaurants were a Dwarve invention. Merrach pubs who purchased commercial Dwarve beer had picked up the habit of commercial cooking but only for pub grub: supper and dinner. But a Dwarve Pub was a 16 hour long marathon food and drink serving establishment. The stout Dwarves waddled in now and claimed their usual tables. Dwarves were very territorial. Horsham had to quickly vacate the bench he was occupying when a Dwarve glared at him, pushed him off, and claimed it with moral outrage, huffing and growling and adjusting the pillow to conform to his amble rump.

The pub owner waddled over to the chalkboard and quickly wrote out the morning news: treasury 'storks and ravens' (stocks and bonds), Haven gambling news (shipping), crime reports of highway robberies (Dwarves were the usual travelers on roads after all), betting scores (stock market), gambling tallies (gambling was the major Dwarve vice), announcements of big gold or silver strikes, bum reports (defaults), blackguards (foreclosures and bankruptcies), and the date when Durham the Deathless would announce his End of the World Declaration (business year report). Durham, who was the richest man in Our World, had the largest treasury (bank) and therefore influenced all other treasuries and commercial businesses which his rulings on treasury lines of Dwarve 'Pal to Pals' (credit lines) and Dwarve shares of the commercial pie (interest rates). The Dwarves all hastily put on their brand new 'spectacles' to peer with nearsighted eyes at the vitally important social news of the day. The state of the war did not even command a footnote.

Horsham, who was acutely aware he was a charity case surrounded by men who despised charity cases as bad investment risks, scurried into the kitchen and started to carry out the huge silver dome platters of food. Soon the ornate bar was groaning under massive platters of meat garnished by vegetables in the form of pickles and a few token fruits. Huge loafs of black bread, rye bread, sour dough bread, and lusty seedy wheat bread soon joined the shield wall of gluttony. Razor sharp knives glistened and fierce two prong forks marched alongside the knives like a battle line of cutlery. Then Horsham moved behind the bar and muscled the fiendish machines as one by one, the stout Dwarves stood up, fluffed their beards, patted their huge bellies, and ambled up to the trough.

"No! No! A double delight butter cream breakfast beer you ignoramus!"

"I want a double milk lager with a dash of hot pepper!"

"I want a half and half."

"Make mine a Merrach Mule Kick."

"Make mine a Big Belch!"

And so on it went. Horsham felt as battle weary by the end of breakfast as if he had faced a swarm of Orcs. Ravenous Dwarves rather equaled ravenous Orcs in fact. Afterwards, as the amble rump Dwarves ambled out like a herd of cows, burping and belching and breaking wind, the pub owner and his staff of Merrach daughters of Merrach haulers grinned at the exhausted soldier.

"I guess you have never waited tables before" Pub Owner Picklestein said, laughing. Everyone laughed. Even Horsham.

"I once waited tables at the officer mess but I lost my temper and dumped the stew on the lap of a snobbish officer and was fired from waiting mess ever after!"

"Well Laddie, you and the girls might as well finish up the leftovers!" the fat pub owner said. That was apparently the green light. The pub girls, all stout Merrach, grinned. The pickings left over on the bar were promptly finished off by all.

Afterwards Picklestein pulled out a double placard and pulled it over Horsham's head. He was now a double sided walking advertisement for 'Picklestein's The Elve's Nose For A Pickle Pub! We Pride Ourselves In Our Pickles!' Off Horsham marched to wander about town while boasting Picklestein Pickles and Picklestein's Pub.

Horsham ambled all over the high streets of the Old Citadel while his billboard spoke for him and the high streets of the Old Citadel were amazing indeed. Even Arcadia possessed only one high street. The Old Citadel possessed five. The buildings were all five, six, seven stories tall, so tall that Horsham could not see the stone ceilings. The buildings were huge and massive too. But oddly, he did not feel that he was inside a mountain even though he was. The buildings, all carved both inside and outside, from solid stone, were large, impressive, and proclaiming riches. The windows were all large and fantastical. The stone was variegated marble, the colors many and fantastical which gave the stone facades a dazzling, sparkling quality. Mirrors were everywhere too to make every building appear even bigger than it was. And it was big to begin with! Whale oil was used to light up both the insides and outsides of the buildings. Arcadia was a dim place at night and backwater villages were pitch black. Burning candles were expensive so the world went dark after sundown. But the Old Citadel blazed day and night with fiery light.

And the stores that lined the high streets sold every conceivable thing. Horsham never saw so much loot and piles of so much stuff in his whole life. Pyramids of groceries. Towers of tea and spice. Elaborate window displays of luxuries. Mounts of clothe of gold. More fur than a forest of wild animals. More gold and silver and mithril and bronze than any man could conceivably ever want. Every sort of toy and bauble and gilded whim or earthly pleasure. One store had a window display of a slowly spinning, gilded gold, 'privy throne fit for a king'. Horsham had absolutely no idea what it did. But it was gilded gold porcelain and indeed looked like something fit for Rhingol the Great.

The Forum was the most expensive high street and besides the elite shops, the stone sky itself was festooned with glittering silver and gold and mithril stars that moved by means of a 'clock' around the artificial heavens, alternating with toy 'storms' of confetti while machine drums boomed out 'thunder' and cymbals clanked and bells tolled. Giant machine gods turned on 'clock' gears and moved and performed to Horsham's utter amazement. He kept running around and around to see how they moved, even touching the machines to see if they were really alive. He could not believe they were not actors in disguise.

The piece de resistance was the Great Hall of Commerce. It was ten stories tall, a giant half mile huge cavern of a place, all carved out of solid stone, with a thousand pillars holding up the stone ceiling. At each of the thousand pillars buyers and sellers milled around, each pillar representing one commodity. The Great Hall of Commerce boasted that "Anything that can be sold, will be sold here!". Apparently the commercial boast was true. Horsham even saw speculators buying and selling 'futures' on next years harvests! Horsham walked past a cornucopia of Our World commodities: fur, amber, exotic woods, wheat, rye, barley, hops, fruits, vegetables, pearls, salt, metals and ores, linen, wool, honey, finished products, raw materials. Every conceivable thing. And Horsham saw every conceivable of import: spices, pepper, silk, strange foods, tea, opium......

Horsham gagged and marched back to 'The Elve's Nose for a Pickle'. He arrived in time to help carry out the huge silver platters of supper items: every conceivable type of sausage from lamb to deer to pig to boar to veal to fowl and also every type of beef, all hot and steaming and overflowing with rich sauces and tart pickles. Horsham manned the beef carving table and carefully carved the massive beef joints, using all his military skill at murder, as the Dwarves lined up, stomachs rumbling, beards quivering at the sight of still red meat and bloody juices.

"That is how I like it!" one Dwarve shouted. "Cooked just long enough to kill the animal but no more!"

After the supper crowd departed, the staff again devoured the leftovers. But the memory of opium put Horsham off his appetite. He had barely been able to carve the bloody rare meat. He sat down on the kitchen floor and rocked back and forth, hoping no one would see him. His body screamed out for the stuff so badly he shook. But the pub owner did see and sat down by the beleaguered man.

"What is wrong with you Laddie? You might as well confess. You need help."

"I ...during a battle....I was badly injured.....I....you would not ...."

"Doctors gave you too much opium didn't they?" Horsham jumped. "Well known problem Laddie! Half the outlaws attacking Dwarves on the roads now are opium addicts. Doctors over prescribed and the result is people like you. And it is not just people like you. A lot of fine clan houses conceal rich Dwarves who were over prescribed opium for their sweet tooth -- that is to say rotten teeth after over indulging in sweets which many a Dwarve is known to do. Many a fine clan now conceals many an opium addict who exchanged a mouth for of rotten teeth and bad tooth aches for the balmy stupor of opium addiction. I had a wife.... died ten years ago...... had a sweet tooth that became an abscess. Went to a doctor. Soon no more tooth ache. She finally overdosed despite all my appeals to her reason. Loved the stuff more than me."

"Opium is the Dark Lord in disguise!" Horsham exclaimed with sudden passion. "You don't know you are changing at first but change you do! Into a monster! You sell your soul! You commit murder. Anything. But the first victim is your soul and your conscience!" Horsham broke down and cried. Picklestein hugged the soldier gruffly and then wiped a teary eye himself with his long beard.

"I know Laddie. I know. Goldie did love me. She just could not stop." The Dwarve patted Horsham's arm. "Tell you what Laddie! Let me make you a frothy 'big belch' beer! Settle your stomach! Eh!" Horsham nodded and downed a Big Betch, the hidden alcohol easing the trembles of physiological addiction. Then Horsham went out and finished the leftovers left over by the Merrach bar maids, stuffing his body with food to still the cravings for something no amount of food would ever allay. Then he resumed walking about, a human billboard until dinner time, pausing only to feed and brush and exercise Blackie. Afterwards he helped serve dinner: every conceivable type of meat from whole salmon to whole lamb to whole suckling pig to half a massive side of beef, all appropriately dressed in rich sauces and garnished with pickles and the occasional fruit garnish. Then Horsham joined in the leftovers along with the stout pub maids, gorging, and also downing five beers that Picklestein insisted would "only do you good for beer is a very good thing indeed, and not to be compared to strong alcohol." At midnight Horsham helped serve the final ode to gluttony: every conceivable kind of pie from meat to fish to fowl to mince plus sweet heavy dessert pies. Horham ate all the leftovers except the sweet dessert pies. Horsham did not have a sweet tooth at least.

Horsham steadied his nerves for the rest of the week by gorging on breakfast beers and leftovers and lots of Dwarve beer which was very easy to do in Picklestein's establishment. Picklestein had seen a decline of business of late and was serving too much food and drink for the clientele coming in. His advertising was not solving the problem so he let Horsham gorge heroically out, inspired by kind heartedness toward the soldier's shaky health. But Dwarves possessed bodies that can handle excess gluttony while Horsham had a Merrach's body that sucked up food and converted it to fat in the wink of eye. Horsham soon packed on fifty pounds. His belly ballooned over his now straining leather belt, a paunch with double layers of love handles that no lover would want to touch. The Merrach pub maids were good respectable girls who went home at night to their respectable parent's homes. But the Merrach approved of fat as much as the Dwarves did and no one committed on Horsham's abnormal gluttony, mistaking it for joy at living rather than one physiological addiction replacing another physiological addiction.

Horsham did however achieve two things, one of which befitted Picklestein. Each day Horsham rode Blackie to the Exercise Ring (at least Blackie was staying in shape) and then rode the beautiful black horse around the ring. Dwarves did not ride but they were obsessive collectors of everything, including horses which they showed off like jewels in order to boast they were as privileged as the Elves. Dwarves would sit in the ring boxes and watch and make bets and buy and sell. Horsham got five offers to sell Blackie, which of course he refused, shocked. But then Horsham got an idea and told Picklestein to buy a fancy banner and have the bar maids parade in front of Blackie when the black horse entered the ring each day. Picklestein was now the 'official sponsor' of a fancy horse.

Horsham had Blackie go through all their battle skills: prancing gracefully across the sawdust ring in an elaborate pattern of moves like a dance routine (but really inspired by battlefield maneuvers). He then would have Blackie rear up and kick out his front legs , then stand and kick out with his hind legs like a Merrach mule, then leap into the air and kick out all four legs. Then Blackie would whirl around and around as if pirouetting, and finally Blackie would take a bow before the clapping audience as Horsham waved. Then the pub bar maids would walk around the ring with their gaudy banner 'The Amazing Blackie! Sponsored by Picklestein of The Elve's Nose For A Pickle Pub!" Then everyone would exit to more cheers. Within one week Pickesteins' pub tripled it's business. Picklestein even had an artist paint Horsham on Blackie and put the painting on one wall of the pub. The painting was still there when the Old Citadel finally closed down late in the Second Age because of mithril pollution. King Gildagad bought the painting for his Royal Collection.

Horsham also gossiped as he served behind the massive granite bar, his body now as massive as the bar, as the Dwarves gossiped about the latest business tips. And there was a lot of gossip about rumors of a silver strike in the Badlands. The Dwarves were exasperated for they could smell the silver. Their very skins pricked by the nearness to it. But not one ingot of newly discovered silver had appeared in the Old Citadel. Nor had a treasury boasted of piles of new ingots overfilling their coffers from a new strike. Not one miner had appeared gloating of a strike. Not one mining firm had taken out so much as one license to register even a tiny silver strike. It was all very strange. Dwarves coveted riches, and lusted after riches, and boasted of riches, compulsively. It just was not normal Dwarve behavior to conceal a big silver strike. And there had not been any new silver strikes for five years. At least not officially.

"There is silver! But where is it being mined and where is it going?" It was the question of the day. And everyone, especially Horsham, lusted for the answer.

After a week of sleuthing Horsham decided that the Dwarves of the Old Citadel would have killed to know about the strike, and absolutely did not know where the strike was. But if the Dwarves did find out where the strike was, and if the mine was not owned by a Dwarve and properly registered, then they would kill whoever was mining Badlands silver. The Dwarves considered the Badlands to be their territory and Dwarves are very territorial creatures. All Horsham had to do was figure out where the mine was and tip off the Dwarves. They would go berserk. The Dark Lord would not just lose his payroll, he would be very lucky if he did not lose his shadowy neck. Now the only question was how to locate the strike. After all, silver strikes are something Dwarves locate, not Mere Mortals, especially a soldier who could not tell one lump of ore from another.

Horsham decided instead to find the re-processor. The coins had to be processed and minted. Orcs were stupid and Orc work was shoddy. The silver coin Horsham still carried in his belt pouch was neatly minted silver. Only a Dwarve would pride himself on such workmanship, even in illegal minting for the enemy. Dwarves just could not ever do shoddy work. No matter what. Horsham decided that there were indeed Dwarves involved but staying mute because Durham might interpret their business transactions with the Dark Lord with a dubious eye. Horsham went to the Public Records Department of the Old Citadel and made his expanding butt at home.

The Public Records Department was a gigantic cave maze (originally old copper shafts) filled from top to bottom with records, wooden files filled with wooden bins filled with records. Dwarves are compulsive record collectors. Horsham climbed up wooden ladders and sat on hard wooden stools until his rump ached as he made a list of every clan operating in the mining re-processing business. Then he went to the Great Hall of Commerce and hung around the Pillar that featured the exceedingly strange Storks and Ravens' - the Dwarve term for what today would be stocks and bonds. Horsham made a list of every clan business that featured mineral re-processing, noting especially the top profiting businesses making the most money recently. He compared lists. Then he went to The Forum and slithered into the most expensive businesses and gossiped as he invited them to a free drink at Picklestein, a special promotion Picklestein was doing. Horsham talked Picklestein into picking up the tab as a business deduction, a novel form of advertising. The luxury merchants, for no sane Dwarve could resist turning down a freebie, soon flocked to 'The Elve's Nose for A Pickle' and planted their ample rumps at the bar. Picklestein's establishment soon glittered with fancy types that persuaded other Dwarves to visit Picklestein as well. Success draws success. Picklestein was rewarded. So was Horsham howbeit in a different way.

Gossip and big bellies ballooned on both sides of the bar, the portly Dwarves gossiping with Horsham as he redeemed 'Cards of Hospitality' for massive free 'Big Belches' and 'Giant Tankards on the House', with the happy Dwarves tipping Horsham in kind with free beers too, to celebrate their new celebrity. After all, were they not celebrities if they were important enough to be given 'Cards of Hospitality'? Beer and gossip flowed. Ample rumps, once parked at a bar, rarely move after the initial 'Cards of Hospitality' are exhausted. Huge tankards overflowed, the frothy brew spilling out, beards soon drenched, as Dwarves first drank, then boasted, then gossiped the night through.

Beorach warriors might boast of their list of killings. Merrach farmers might boast of their giant turnips or cabbages. Elves might boast of their silky wool or smooth honey or fine cheese. Dwarves boast of luxury. But a Dwarve's ethics only allowed boasting in direct proportion to their actual net worth. Faking riches, then being exposed, was considered the ultimate humiliation. So the consumption of luxury goods was a very good indicator of riches. The Dwarve Luxury Merchants boasted of one clan's recent spate of purchases in particular.

"Made it big time apparently!" the merchant announced as he drank the beer until the amber liquid spilled down his beard.

"Ya! I sold the clan Patriarch a gold and mithril ring just last week!" another merchant announced.

"I sold the clan Matriarch a diamond necklace two days ago!"

"What about them there gold privy thrones?" Horsham asked innocently. "Those gold thrones fit for a king?"

"Yep! Sold the Finklesteinbottom Clan five last week to park their bottoms on!" said a Dwarve marching into the bar and presenting his 'Card of Hospitality' to Horsham who gladly redeemed it with a gigantic tankard of 'Pickle's Best'.

"My or my!" Horsham gushed. "A gold throne to shit into!" The Dwarves laughed, savoring their favorite humor: latrine humor.

"The Finklesteinbottom Clan must be doing a lot of shitting to need five thrones!" the throne merchant crowed as he downed his tankard and belched.

"Where do you think the Finklesteinbottoms got all their recent treasure?" Horsham asked innocently as he topped off the tankard. The throne merchant gestured to tip Horsham to a small beer. A tip beer for staff behind the bar was a pint. Horsham poured out a pint and sipped discreetly.

"No! No!" the Dwarves shouted as they pounded the bar. "One gulp! Come on soldier! One gulp!" the portly Dwarves pounded the bar and cheered as Horsham downed the tankard in one take, half the beer all over him. Horsham burped and the Dwarves cheered. "Good for you soldier! We will have you belching like a Dwarve in no time! Ha! Ha!"

"Yes but... where did the Finklesteinbottoms get their sudden riches?" the Dwarves asked, stroking their long beards. Horsham's question was now teasing their brains.

"Mining re-processors ant' they?" Horsham added, pouring out some of 'Rhingol's Rump' for another customer. "...and didn't they just purchase some new equipment..... specialized equipment too.... and didn't their stock jump last week on Annual Rump Report?..." Horsham asked innocently. The Dwarves, all cunning businessmen, nodded and gossiped the rest of the night about the Finklesteinbottom clan, ferreting out every possible idea, angle, and overlooked scheme that the Finklesteinbottoms might be into as Horsham listened as if with genteel indifference.

"Why are they being so discreet?" Horsham asked, his legs now slightly wobbly from twelve free tip beers, "I thought Dwarves like to boast about their business acumen. The Finklesteinbottoms have been mighty ...how do you Dwarves say it.... close to the belt pouch about their success haven't they?" That was such a novel idea, a Dwarve being discreet about financial success, that all the Dwarve businessmen decided to eat a Late Dinner and a Midnight feast at Picklestein's Pub in order to mull over every possible gossipy business aspect. But they liked Horsham so much they gave him another ten tip beers and treated him to a free second dinner and a midnight feast too, encouraging him to gorge out like a Dwarve and not letting him stop until he finally announced that if he ate another thing he would 'burst my gut and throw up'. That was considered a proper Dwarve complement.

Two days later, and now seventy pounds heavier, Horsham slithered out (if that was the word for the now frankly fat spy) and rode Backie east, tailing a Finklesteinbottom he heard was going out on a business deal. The deal was suppose to be west. But Boff Finklesteinbottom rode east. But then Horsham expected that and decamped at dawn to wait at the brand new East Portal presently under construction to accommodate the steel and iron business coming from the New Citadel. Man and horse followed well behind, using well established tracking skills, though by now Horsham was badly out of shape and also increasingly suffering from poor eyesight that was effecting his ability to track far out of sight. He had to ride closer than he would have liked to his target.

Boff Finklesteinbottom rode east into the Badlands. The region was a hilly landscape of rugged rock and trees and tumbling streams and limpid lakes. Today the Badlands are resorts for the landscape, where it is not polluted by mine tailings, is spectacular. But the Dwarves never appreciated scenic landscapes. They called the lovely landscape 'The Badlands' because it had great treasures in ore but deeply hidden behind the rugged hills. "The Badlands is an old bitch of a Dwarve hag" one miner one wrote, "that she would rather die than yield up her riches to any man!"

Mining Camps dotted the landscape. Silver and gold strikes came and went, now flooding Our World's coffers, now starving Our World. Copper, bronze, and especially silver coinage was the stable for few could afford gold durhams. Silver Reserves were suppose to back all the city state coinage. The coppers and bronze coins were accepted as viable tender because of the silver treasuries. But few city states in fact possessed the silver treasures to back their coinage so they relied on Dwarve Treasures (banks) to float their coinage. Dwarve banks in the Old Citadel did have the silver treasures. Durham demanded yearly Rump Reports to make sure that no Dwarve treasury claimed otherwise. Business was too important to be sabotaged by a crooked treasury. So the Silver Trade was considered vitally important.

Boff Finklesteinbottom rode into the Badlands but he did not ride into any of the known mining camps. He rode east in fact, beyond the last known Dwarve silver mining camp, and did not stop until he rode into the Eastern Badlands, a little known region barely explored by only a few silver mad Dwarves driven insane by phantom silver strikes. But Finklesteinbottom was riding toward a silver strike that most definitely not a phantom.

Horsham hid Blackie in a sheltered woody glen. Then he crept up to the garbage heap. You can tell a lot from garbage so Horsham always checked the garbage. Back in Arcadia he once went through a week's pile just to locate top secret documents a bad spy tossed, thinking them safely buried in baby nappies and stinking kitchen pickings. The garbage in this place certainly told a story. Orc bones. Well chewed bones. And packing crates with Finklesteinbottom's rune. Then Horsham crawled on his very padded belly over the litter to peer out on the mining camp. The miners were all Orcs.

But one part of the camp was fenced off and fortified. There Finklesteinbottom was busy puttering away with two other Finklesteinbottoms. The place was a repossessing smithy to process ore into solid silver and melt and pour it into ingots and then strike each ingot into silver coins. The foul fumes were classic indicators of re-possessing. Horsham had visited legal minting offices in the Old Citadel to learn step by step how silver was re-possessed into ingots and then coins. The process is very smelly -- and combustible because of the strong and volatile chemicals needed. Mints were known to explode and therefore were isolated in special areas of the Old Citadel. Minters, covered by the stuff by the end of the day, were even known to spontaneously combust if they walked too close to a flame before their evening bath.

Horsham pressed himself into a small hole and waited until dark. Then he rubbed wild dog on his person so the Orcs would not smell him, or at least want to leave him alone, and crept up to the re-processing smithy. He picked the lock and crept in. All the Finklesteinbottoms were at dinner. Horsham had carefully counted their exits to make sure. The smithy was empty of Finklesteinbottoms, but not of silver. Horsham grabbed bags of silver, the ledger book of Finklesteinbottom accounts, every piece of paper lying around, then crept out of the door and stuck his flint against his boot knife and tossed the spark into the volatile smithy. The explosion took out half the camp and provided Horsham with all the cover he needed to make good his escape.

Horsham rode black to The Old Citadel with all the evidence he needed. He strolled into 'The Elve's Nose For A Pickle' Pub and deposited the bulging saddlebags of records and silver on the bar, then sauntered over to the chalk board and wrote the directions to the 'Motherlode Mine' for all to see. Then he ordered drinks on the house and paid for them in badlands silver intended to finance the Dark Lord's mercenary army. Picklestein drained all his kegs of beer to provide the free drinks, the bags of silver tumbling all over the bar and even onto the floor. Dwarves ran into Picklestein's bar to see for themselves. The line soon formed out of the door. Then down the block. Then a mob was pressed against the window glass, staring in to see the silver, and see the directions how to find it. In two hours Dwarves were hauling out of the Old Citadel, heading east, heading to the 'Motherlode Mine'. Finklesteinbottom was going to have a lot of company very quickly. And because the mine was not officially registered, it was a free for all. There is nothing more terrifying than a free for all when Dwarves are involved, with their greed at full throttle. The Finklesteinbottoms were going to really, really, really regret their greed when the mob descended.

No mob descended on the Finklesteinbottom Clan Mansion but Durham the Deathless' many financial Ravens (Dwarve Monetary Police ) did descend. Finklesteinbottom legers were hauled to Durham's own Library to be minutely dissected by the cunning old financial wizard himself, tiny pez nez spectacles balanced on his nose, one hand tugging his be-jeweled beard as the other hand ran through the books. Finklesteinbottoms were 'asked' to visit the Durham Vaults and then questioned with all the quiet intensity of dry ice by governmental accountants who reputedly used their steel pointed ink pens as torture tools. Finklesteinbottom storks crashed in Gambler's Hall (the stock exchange of the Old Citadel). Finklesteinbottom Senior was caught at the West Citadel trying to flee with 10,000 gold durhams hidden on his person, under a disguise of a poor old tinker Dwarve, complete with borrowed fleas. Finklesteinbottom Junior was caught trying to flee the East Portal dressed as female peddler. That was not hard to do. Dwarve females look almost exactly like Dwarve males. What caused the scorn was the fact that Finklesteinbottom Junior was caught as a peddler of fake brass baubles created to sell to gullible and ignorant Dark and Green Elve savages. It seemed so appropriate a downfall for the once great clan of Finklesteinbottom.

The next day the bums (defaults) started. Two days later the blackguards (foreclosures) commenced as the blackguards blackguarded, debts unpaid, luxuries reprocessed, furniture hauled off, even the five gold gilded porcelain thrones fit for a king were unplugged and hauled away. A week later an auction was held to sell off Finklesteinbottom Clan Mansion. It was an ignorable end indeed. "Greed inspires! Greed taketh away!" is an old Dwarve saying that seemed to sum it all up. Greed inspired the Finklesteinbottoms to risk all on a darling business move. Greed also caused the Finklesteinbottoms to gamble too much on a business decision that proved to be too darling for the political times. Business was business but no respectable Dwarve did business with the Dark Lord who invented cockroaches after all.....

Horsham was treated to a last fair well supper at 'The Elve's Nose For A Pickle' Pub. He was the hero of the feast. Picklestein patted him on the back and wept profusely. The stout Merrach bar maids all brought their moms and dads to see him off. The throne merchant even offered Horsham a token of his esteem: one of the repossessed gold gilded porcelain thrones from the . Finklesteinbottom Mansion. He donated it to the pub in 'Memento of a great man' and Picklestein added a brass plaque too. Horsham rode off to a round of applause and cheers from all. It was the very last time he would ever be sincerely cheered.

Horsham did not get very far. He was nabbed by the Monetary Police and hauled before the wily old Durham the Deathless in his opulent mithril and gold bedroom. The Dwarve genius inclined to do much of his work in bed, his back cushioned by feather pillows, his rump cushioned by feather mattresses (no less than five), his knees covered by mink covers lined with silk, with myriad financial books and scrolls strewn all over the huge bed inhabited by a Dwarve less than five feet tall. The back of the bed featured Durham's Rune ten feet tall however and the bed had a canopy shaped like a crown. Huge silver back mirrors make the room appear gigantic. A huge fireplace had a roaring fire blazing away so the room was excessively hot, just the right temperature for Dwarves who hate drafts.

The short, portly Dwarve reclined in luxury while stroking his jewel incrusted beard with one hand, the other hand holding a scroll. Seeing the seedy spy, the Dwarve smiled jovially. "Horsham, my dear boyo! Thank ye for apprehending 'Stinkybottom' for me. The blackguard! That is what give us Dwarves a bad name and appears to justify prejudice against us. But you must know that I am a good ally to Our World and will not tolerate such financial knavery with the Dark Lord! 'Stinkybottom'will rue the day he agreed to mint illegal tender for the Dark Lord."

"Using your steel headed writing pens on the swine?"

Durham laughed. "Don't need to. 'Stinkybottom' is squealing his guts out like a stick stuck pig! The swine! Financial misdoing means a ten year term in the Mithril Mines. For such a clan of fat pigs as the 'Stinkybottoms', that is sure death!"

"Mithril Mines are sure death for anyone working them" Horsham said dryly as he sat down in a chair away from the fire. The place was way too hot for him. "I hear the mithril mines are getting damn hot too. Way too deep for safety. What is the new disease happening down there? The miners call it the 'Bends' because the miners that get it might survive but twisted and bent over for life, invalids."

Durham blustered and rustled his scroll. "A bout of mysterious illness! That is all! Nothing wrong with the mithril mines! Where did you hear that? Spying on us for Bela. As usual. Thought we were allies."

"Yea! Bela would spy on his own mother. Me. I learn everything I can from every source. Who can predict what one might need to know. Like the fact that mithril miners hacking and coughing up back and dying prematurely. But mithril is the financial foundation of the Old Citadel and you an't a'going to look too closely into mithril poison are you? Poisoning of miners. Poisoning of mithril reprocessers. Poison by mithril slag heaps piling up on empty copper mines. Poison by mithril dust in the air vents all over the ...."

The richest man in Our World growled and rustled his scroll. "That is not why I have called you here Horsham. You don't complain about steel discounts for Arcadia Minor do you? And mithril riches pay for everything else including steel upgrades and the expansion of the steel and iron industry up a the New Citadel that I am financing with loans based on mithril! So...." the Dwarve glared at Horsham from the tops of his pez nez glasses but then huffed and puffed and rang a bell. A servant came into the room baring a huge silver tray filled with tea and sweets for Durham and a tankard of beer for Horsham. Durham knew the backgrounds of everyone he worked with down to the smallest details like Horsham's dislike of sweets and weakness for alcohol. Durham had a day by day debriefing of Horsham's entire time in the Old Citadel on his bed. Horsham drank his beer and waited for Durham to meander around to the subject at hand while casually peering at the top secret scrolls scattered all over the mink bedcover. Durham blustered and turned the top secret reports closest to Horsham's near sighted eyes over. Then he huffed and puffed and then continued.

"I have a infestation problem up at the New Citadel under construction."

"Infestation? Rats? Orcs? Beasties that go bump in the night? Rats: use Mithril poison from your slag heaps. Got too much of the stuff anyway laying around. Beasties: get a wizard. Orcs. How many? Why can't your Orc Boys handle it? You fellas have more experience killing Orcs than anyone else."

"Dragon."

Horsham growled. "Got to report back to my spy master. Also a little on the queasy side right now.... tad shaky...." Horsham drained the beer and made a motion of going. Durham waived a hand and the soldier sat back down. Horsham looked bad and felt worse. Durham however choose to ignore the obvious physical decay of the man since the time both men stayed up at Rufus Manor. A person's personal demons was no business of anyone else. Dwarves never pried into the private life of anyone else. They thought a person's private life was own business. They never even asked how the wife was, or how the children were, or if one was having a nice day. Dwarves saw that as rude which of course made them appear rude to anyone else who expected polite conversation and a token acknowledgment at least of concern. But then Dwarves also thought a person was obligated to never allow their personal life to effect business. Bowing and politeness and social graces were redundant piffle. Business required getting to the point and not straying off the point. Sentimentality was a weakness kept closeted and only revealed to the deepest family and friends. Horsham was no one's deepest family or friend.

"Know about it. No point talking. Old history. Done with. Did not stop you sleuthing out the 'Stinkybottom' problem." Durham rustled the scroll for the umpteenth time and Horsham finally grunted and ambled over and took the document and sat down, stretching out his long shanks, and read the report from Smithiton and Sons written in Dwarvish. Durham of course knew Horsham could read Dwarvish and therefore did not bother to have a translation prepared. Durham was surprised at the speed of Horsham's reading. Everyone was who ever met him.

"Infestation bullshit! You guys started laying sewer lines right into the digs of White Orochi. One of the Dragon Kings damn it! Talk about stupid! Why not just go around him? After all he was there first! The New Citadel is iron and steel foundries after all, built for location and for the huge internal water falls and steam vents. You need that stuff for your 'watermill -- waterwheel' contraptions right?"

"Well the damn dragon is sitting right in the middle of them! And he wouldn't move even though we have offered to dig him luxurious new digs elsewhere! Fat old snake!" Durham blustered, exasperated by the lack of modern thinking displayed by the infamous old dragon who lived in the Pale of the Central Mountains since time Our World was created.

"White Orochi worships water. Everyone knows that." Horsham tossed the report blandly aside. "I think it is perfectly silly if you Dwarves and Orochi can't reach an understanding. I mean the Pale of the Central Mountains ought to be big enough for both of you. I hope you did not pick the location of the New Citadel while knowing about Orochi's exact location, anticipating trouble and too lazy to move around him." Horsham dropped the report on the mink and casually slipped another report underhanded away. Durham growled and Horsham blandly glanced at it and then dropped it back on the bed. Durham growled again. By now he suspected Horsham was a speed reader and had in fact read the report while only appearing to 'scan' it nonchalantly. Durham indignantly turned more top secret reports over on his mink bedcover and growled. Horsham sat back down in his chair, stretched out his long legs, and appeared bored to death.

"No! We did not know Orochi's exact location and thought the water springs and aquifers we needed were located north of him. Too north in my opinion! Too damn close to the Dark Lord's digs! But Smithiton was so damn sure he found aquifers north of Orochi and not yet north enough to get in trouble with the Dark Lord, at least until the New Citadel infrastructure and defenses are complete. But now the construction is half complete and Arcadia Minor needs the steel. The whole war does. Everyone does."

"Including the Dark Lord. Steel and iron works just south of his demonic rump isn't the smartest place to put an industrial enema!"

Both men laughed grimly. The New Citadel was located way too far north. But Horsham could see where this was leading. Arcadia Minor needed steel archery arrowheads. Thousands. Crates and crates and crates. The whole of Arcadia Minor from the Gentry to the peasants were making self imposed tithes of long bow arrows in preparation of steel arrowheads. Horsham and Rufus had sold the entire population on the need to mass produce archery supplies and archers. The Gentry were teaching their peasants the ancient Elven sport of archery and every single person was expected to learn how to shoot the long bow. Slingers were the only exception to the quotas. But they needed iron bullets. The peace treaty had forbidden rearming but Arcadia Minor was continuing under the guise of militias and that old canard: 'sportsmanship'. Right. Sure. As if hunting for wild ducks required state of the art steel arrowheads and slinger iron bullets by the thousands. Horsham was helping to set up the distribution system while avoiding Celebeau's MP's who were obligated under the peace treaty to arrest 'war profiteers and war mongers'.

"Orochi an't open to reason but when he heard your name he agreed to you being the mediator."

Horsham raised one eyebrow. "Why?"

"Don't be suspicious! Orochi an't a MP from Celebeau!" Durham replied exasperated. "I cannot comprehend why Rhingol, that dear old darling, ever agreed to the so-called peace treaty anyway! Peace is only possible at the end of a steel arrow pointed straight at the jugular! Orochi an't your usual dragon Horsham! As you say. He has been in his digs since Our World was created. Worships Water. Thinks he is some sort of guardian deity protecting the subterranean waters of Our World from us Dwarves. Thinks he is related to Mother god of the Waters. Her son. Absurd delusion of grander of course...." Horsham looked up a the giant crown canopy and grinned. The old Dwarve growled. "Orochi is just a very old snake, slightly senile, and deluded by excessive religion from living by himself for a few too many thousands of years. Lost his one and only daughter some decades back. Says we Dwarves are 'polluters' or some such silly thing..."

"You are. Mithril wastes are..."

"We take very good care of our aquifers! Our beer and whisky Distillers need pure mountain water you know! We take very good care of aquifers! But we are sensible and logical creatures too and know that water falling down 500 feet can turn a water wheel too! Does not damage the water damn it! But Orochi is your typical dragon: stubborn, immune to reason, and possessive."

"Are you talking about Dwarves or Dragons?" Horsham grinned. "Why does White Orochi want me to mediate? I don't know him and he does not know me."

"I don't know! But as you are Arcadia Minor's Man of the Prowl, just go and mediate!" Horsham groaned and stood up, shaking his long legs. "And go by the new East Gate Route. Map on the debriefing scroll. The steel and iron wagons have already cut a clear trail. The new East West Route is still fit only for a savage to use."

"We are paying Maleth Mere Mortals to haul the steel out on the glorious East West Route on their moor ponies so I know. I can't even find the damn road and I am a spy! So much for the New Citadel being conveniently close to Arcadia Minor! The long route out via the Old Citadel is putting my smuggling operation right under the bony nose of Celebeau and his Ravens! I am having a hell of a time hiding it and losing a third of the hauls to raids. I feel like a criminal just because I am the weapons procurer for Arcadia Minor!" Horsham put the intelligence brief in his belt pouch and ambled out.

"Oh!" said Durham, "and here is a little something just in case you run into trouble...." and the Dwarve slipped a piece of paper to Horsham who also put that in his belt pouch too.

"And don't get caught by the Dark Lord's cockroaches you damn young boyo!" Durham shouted after him. "I simply will not work alongside that damn ass Celebeau! You at least have common sense and a wonderfully devious mind worthy of me!"

"Only if I can wear your crown Durham!" Horsham shouted back.

Horsham took the Pale Road that ran along the 'River of Mystery' for no one knew where it went to. The forests were dense and populated only with a few stray savages. But the wheels of the Merrach Haulers had indeed already cut a deep new trail that anyone could follow all the way up to the New Citadel. However Horsham detoured off by the last Merrach Supply Station before the New Citadel 'Vertigo Haul', a nerve racking near vertical switch back climb straight up a mountain, and then hiked on foot to the mouth of a cave. The cave provided the viewer with a breathtaking scenic sight of the Northern Highlands and the Iron Hills to the northward and the mighty River of Mystery which was so broad there was only one known ford which the enterprising Maestusean desperado Bree the Red had already staked out for his digs. He made a lot of money charging for use of the ford but Bree was a 'facilitator' for good as well as graft. He was the leader of the guerrilla war being waged by The Pale against the Dark Lord who lusted to acquire the Iron Hills. The Dark Lord needed money to wage war, and munitions too. Right now the Dwarves had a monopoly on both. Bree was a brigantine with a sense of honor and his actions right now were indirectly saving Arcadia from invasion.

However Horsham was not here to met a notorious red haired brigantine. He was here to meet a dragon. So Horsham lite a miner's lamp and ambled down a long, twisting, and dark tunnel deep and deep inside a mountain. Now some men might not be ambling in anticipation of meeting a dragon but Horsham knew all about White Orochi from Kitsune, and from Dwarves, and even from Rufus Royal. White Orochi was famous, a supernatural celebrity on par with the resident Twilight Elve genius Celebros himself. White Orochi was the oldest Yokai or supernatural creature in Our World. There was some dispute whether he was already here when the Sidh gods came. Angus Mac Org made a treaty with White Orochi to allow the Twilight Elves to migrate into the Westlands unimpeded. Unfortunately Angus Mac Org did not represent the Dwarves and the Dwarves were the ones who kept clashing with the mountain dwelling, prehistoric worm

White Orochi was however, much like Bree the Red, a dragon with a conscience and a sense of personal honor. His word was always his bond. His oracles always came true. He kept vigil near a volcanic vent that spewed out lethally gaseous fumes to all life forms but White Orochi who alone could inhale the mysterious vapors from the deep subterranean vent and go into self induced trances and predict the future. And unlike court soothsayers, White Orochi's oracles always came true. Orochi was also one of the Famous Dragons Kings of Our World. Orochi possessed the ability to control the weather, especially storms, rain, floods, springs, aquifers and well water made him a very important creature to keep on your right side. The Merrach Mere Mortals worshiped the Green Man of the Harvest and both Mother god of the Waters and White Orochi. White Orochi kept floods away and blessed well water. During drought White Orochi was positively god on earth -- at least as far as farmers were concerned. It was nice having direct access to someone who could control storms and floods and bless well water and cure droughts. Otherwise one was at the mercy of random Nature. However Orochi had been testy all this last year for the season was usually wet and nasty.

Horsham ambled to a junction where he saw the root of the problem. Here the natural fissure was suddenly bisected by an artificial tunnel, manmade, Dwarve cut, precise, straight and true, and running northward toward the New Citadel. But the tunnel stopped abruptly and messily which is not how Dwarves ever stop anything -- unless fatally interrupted. So Horsham studied it carefully and then continued ambling down the natural fissure until it suddenly opened up into a giant cavern of dizzy depths. In fact a mighty subterranean river flowed directly in front of Horsham, emerging from dim heights far above him in a spectacular water fall and blasting downwards in a ear shaking roar, before vanishing into equally distant caves and fissures and tunnels and lakes. The black granite was wet and slippery and even the air was icy cold and wet. The roar was deafening. The mighty aquifer river was over seventy five feet across. Horsham's lamp could barely illume the awesome spectacle of stone and water combined.

At that moment a slithering sound of something slowly moving across granite finally could be heard above the roar of falling water -- which meant of course that White Orochi was already here. In fact he surrounded Horsham, coils and coils of giant, white, reptilian flesh oozing slowly across stone. One coil now flowed near to Horsham, the scaly flesh cold as water, creepy, instinctively sinister. Horsham quieted his fear and assumed a stalwart pose as the giant worm coiled around his feet until he was utterly surrounded by coils upon coils of ghostly, cold as a corpse flesh. Finally White Orochi's massive head appeared in the circle of pale light cast by Horsham's lamp. The primaeval reptile had a huge and massive white head, bony horns, quivering whiskers, a beard like mithril wires, wiry eyebrows, and glowing gold eyes. Seeing Horsham, the snake smiled a toothy smile, his forked tongue dancing in the air, tasting Horsham's presence.

"Greetingssss Horsssham of Arcadia!"

"Greetings White Orochi! Guardian of the Waters of the Earth! You have asked for me to mediate between the Dwarves and yourself. May I do so? But I must confess I am an interested party for I am the agent for Arcadia Minor. Survival against the Dark Lord requires alliance with the New Citadel."

"Honesssstly said. I know you are an interesssted party -- in many thingssss!" the creature hissed.

"How may I mediate? The New Citadel is much more north than here. I cannot see how the mighty flow of the Mother Waters has been effected by their activities. And the activities include weapons needed to fend off annihilation."

The giant snake oozed around Horsham, coiling now so close to his feet he could barely stand. "I know of you.....Horssssham of Arcadia!"

"Fair reports I hope."

The snake hissed out a laugh. "Fair enough in a way Horsssham of Arcadia. You gave me a grandchild. Ssssshould I thank you or kill you for that?"

Horsham squirmed instinctively as cold scaly flesh oozed around his legs. "So is poor Aodaisho indeed your daughter? I found her child by Lord Ryu: Kiyohime. She is safe now. Prince Grafton sent a runner to the pavilion to rescue Aodaisho but came back reporting she had vanished. I did what I could to help her. I felt very sorry for her. Have you reconciled? Do you want to contact your grandchild in Arcadia?"

"Why would I wisssh to contact a byproduct of Lord Ryu who ssstole from me my daughter?"

"Lady Kiyohime is a very lovely Elve, very loving, faithful. True. Worthy of your parentage. Is Aodaisho here? Safe? I hope so. She seemed a long suffering woman."

"Sssshe ssssuffers for what sssshe did! You may sssssufer too Horssssham of Arcadia! For ssssiring with her my grandsssson."

"What?" Horsham froze and icy cold scales encircling his body was only one reason. "I did not sire any child by her. I have sired no child with anyone. Nor do I intend to. I would be as bad father as my father was a bad father to me."

"Ssssshe told me ssssshe ssssslept with you Horssssham of Aradia! And did sssssire a son! Half Sssssnake! Half and Half Human. He will be your undoing! Your bane! You will rue the day you sssslept with my daughter."

"I slept with your daughter but only that so she could dream for one more night of sleeping in the arms of her dead lover Lord Ryu. Nothing more!"

The giant snake laughed it's hissing laugh. "Charity and mercy can be as dangerousssss as war. Horssssham of Arcadia! Beware! My daughter is evil. Her children will be too. It issss an oracle! A prediction! And all my oraclessss turn out asss predicted!"

"If that is all then may I leave here alive or do you intend to kill me?"

"Why sssshould I? You have killed yourself already. Yoursssself and your city sssstate too. And there will be a sssscaffold and a man to be hanged. And he will be there because of my grandchildren, both of them together. And you will be there too! Both of you together! Betrayed by my grandchildren both! A sssscaffold ssssurrounded by battlefieldssss on fire and bierssss on fire and a world on fire. Sssso why should I kill you? You are dead already?"

"Is this a prediction or a self fulfilling curse?"

"Are they not the ssssame thing?" White Orochi laughed his hissing laugh.

"I cannot accept a self fulfilling curse about Arcadia. Myself? I know I am damned. But Arcadia? I cannot allow anyone to damn Arcadia."

"Arcadia isss damned as much as you Horssssham of Arcadia. Both. One and the ssssame. One end. Nitthing. You and your name and your city ssssstate will be Nitthing. Nothing. Debrissss of Hisssstory. Prediction and hisssstory is one and the ssssame. I ssssssee your end. Let it be sssso!" the giant snake started to ooze slowly away, the coils ebbing as the snake started to slithered away. Horsham pulled out a slip of paper from his belt pouch. He held it up to the light of his lamp.

"If you predict so well then you should have predicted my response Orochi. I am not the kind of man to accept fate meekly or stand by and do nothing when mine dies. I love Arcadia. I would damn myself to try to save her. Even if you only predict and do not curse how can I know one from the other? One can become the other. A prediction can become a self fulfilling curse just as an oath can become a transmutation curse. I cannot let you possibly damn Arcadia. I am sorry. I consider this a gesture of war. I am a soldier. I must use weapons at my disposal."

The giant snake laughed. "Tell Ben the Beorach that! Horssssham of Arcadia! When he sssseals a weapon of celesssstial calamity. Don't tell me. I predicted my death and the name of my death wassss alwayssss Horsssham of Arcadia."

"Then why ask for me to come here? You have damned us both."

The Snake hissed. "Prediction isss prediction. Resssspond asss you will. It will be sssso regardlesss!"

Horsham started to read the paper aloud.

"You know the ssssecret claussse of the Name of my desssstruction?"

"Yes" Horsham said. The snake paused blandly, knowing the weapon of words, knowing it could not fight words, knowing it was doomed, but also knowing that Horsham was doomed, and knowing that the first familiar person Horsham met along the road will also be doomed, and that the person embracing his granddaughter would be doomed too. Precisely, carefully, slowly, Horsham read out the Spell of Destruction of Orochi. Orochi himself had predicted it and only told one person: his daughter Aodaisho. When he denied Aodaisho, big with child, she fled, only to stumble upon the unfinished tunnel leading to the New Citadel there she told Smithiton the Spell of Destruction of Orochi in exchange for sanctuary and aid. It was a Spell that could only be used once, to destroy but one creature, Orochi. It was the translation of his name into death, the runes transposed. 'Ihcoro'.

Horsham said the word without emotion. Orochi listened to his sentence of death also without emotion. And then the giant snake was cold, still and cold, instinctively sinister, and also quite dead. Then Horsham folded up the paper and put it back in his belt pouch and hot trotted through the unfinished tunnel straight through to the New Citadel. But alas Aodaisho was vanished. Smithiton knew not where she was. He had paid her. She had given him the curse. Both were sufficient to his business needs. Horsham could barely hide his horror.

"I used the Curse."

"So be it" Smithiton said blandly, rocking back and forth on his chair behind his huge desk, before an equally huge mirror. "I would not go out of my way to kill Orochi but I would not go out of my way to avoid killing him either. Farmers in the Heartlands will not have a direct channel to the supernatural. One more ancient thing dead. A pity but I am not farmer. It appears to be destiny that the Supernatural World will fade away before the mundane."

"What if someday someone says the say about your race of Dwarves?"

"So be it. Want some beer before you leave? Anything to eat? A sauna?" the businessman was bland.

"The evocation of the Curse had a secret clause. That is why you did not go yourself to kill Orochi. You sent for me. Let me be the fall guy."

"You are a soldier. A sword has two edges. Any weapon of war has two edges. You make your living welding a two edged sword. I make my living manufacturing the weapons of war you covert enough to risk your life for. War is your business. Danger is your business. Manufacturing steel and iron is my business. I risk my life in the foundry too. To each, their own destiny and their own damnation. May I die on the foundry floor. May you die on the battlefield."

"Except the secret clause is this and you know it: the first familiar person my eyes see will die".

"Yes. Well. All clauses have diverse twists. That is the nature of clauses. Conspire to cast your eyes on a familiar enemy rather than a familiar friend. Use the curse to your profit. Want to inspect the latest production of steel arrows and iron bullets earmarked for Arcadia Minor?" What could Horsham say? Smithiton was a jovial man but he was a Dwarve and Dwarves got their reputation by being ruthless. Horsham was a spy. Was he not ruthless too? No one make him use the Curse on Orochi. He welded the weapon at his disposal with lethal results. But now he was destined to murder someone merely by casting his eyes on them. If looks could kill was a time honored saying. Now it was about to become fact.

Above: Horsham of Arcadia , artist unknown, below: Lord Taira, consort of Lady Wisteria.

Rock crystal goblet featuring the myth of Heike.

Chapter 3: Rock Bottom

Horsham returned to Arcadia with trepidation on top of terror with a thin veneer of panic. Prince Grafton pulled off the blindfold after Horsham in front of a confused Sanguinary. And then Sanguinary laughed scornfully and walked on. So much for the secret clause of the Curse of Orochi. Prince Grafton was profoundly disappointed. He arrived at the Old Citadel eager to rescue Horsham in his time of crisis, responding to a letter directed to Kitsune, and then thought up the brain child idea of leading the blindfolded Horsham back by the hand and killing Sanguinary with one melodramatic flourish. Instead, the infamous duelist only laughed and strolled off, apparently immune to secret clauses of secret curses.

"That is the trouble with secret clauses to secret curses. They are as full of tricky wordings as a Dwarvish contract, down to ifs, buts, maybes, and tiny runes so small you need a magnifying glass to read them" Horsham replied discouraged. He turned and walked slowly homeward, back to his digs in the slums. Prince Grafton, still heartbroken he had not thought up the cure to Duel Disease, scampered after the discouraged man.

"It is not fair! Wasn't he suppose to die?"

"Modified by ifs, buts, and maybes commingled with what ifs" Horsham replied. "Thank you for leading me by the hand all the way here. Perhaps Kitsune should have come. But I have seen half a dozen people now on the High Street and none have dropped dead. Perhaps it is all for the best. One more nightmare put to rest. That just leaves all the other nightmares to torment me. Thanks anyway...."

Horsham picked up the pace and walked fast to shake loose Prince Grafton. It had been a totally humiliating week's ride from the Old Citadel. Horsham had written to Kitsune to come but Kitsune was off on some magical intrigue and Prince Grafton read the missile and dashed off to the rescue. Being at the blindfolded mercy of Prince Grafton was trying enough at the best of times but this was the worst of times for Horsham. The bright, shiny, 'Pearl of a Prince of Our Twilight' only made Horsham feel more shopworn, stale, shabby, and defective. Listening to Prince Grafton alternating gush on about his beautiful love Kiyohime and his escalating frustration at being only a beautiful Princely Lover during a time that demanded warrior heros worn down Horsham's reserves of ego. Especially when he was shaky because of drug withdrawal, binging on alcohol, and engorging on food to dull the pains of drug abuse. Horsham was a mess and he knew it. Having to ride home side by side a beautiful and dashing Prince bored with the courtly life and being the hero of Lady Wisteria Fujitsu's book and hungering for adventure only made the debasement all the more grating. When you hit rock bottom the last thing you want is a week's holiday with a man so successful he is bored.

Horsham walked fast now, away from his perhaps friend that he desperately wanted not to see. Prince Grafton scampered after him nevertheless. "Why not come back to Wisteria Pavilion Horsham? Spend a week in beautiful peace? Lord Taira is off racing his horses and won't be there much. Lady Wisteria would love to have you come back. Kitsune will return in a month or two. I don't know where Lady Aoi is but you can ignore her. I always do."

"No. I think not." Horsham walked even faster, to no avail.

"Why not? You look worn out.... in need of ...."

"I know how I look Grafton! You don't need to compose a beautiful poem about my decline and fall! I look like shit! Ok! I know! I know! I look like a bum! Ok! I skewed up! Ok! I fucked up! Do you think I want Lady Wisteria to see me like this? Rock Bottom?" Horsham stopped in mid stride and Prince Grafton collided with him in the middle of the high street. The elegant courtier in his fashionable traveling tunic and kilt flustered, then wilted when Horsham glared at him with all the loathing and fierce despair of a proud man in desperate trouble.

"I consider myself your friend Horsham. So does Kit. So does Wisteria Fujitsu. We are all your friends. Friends in need. That is what friends are for."

"No. Friends are when you are on top. When you are a bum you don't have no friends! You only have embarrassed acquaintances."

"Let us help you Horsham!"

"I don't want your help! I just want to be left alone to dig myself out of this hole I have tumbled into! Maybe it is my grave? I don't know! But I can't dig myself out while apologizing continuously to all of you! So just go away Grafton! Damn it! Just..... leave me alone!" Horsham turned and stormed off, a dirty man in dirty clothes that no longer even fitted him. Hurt, Prince Grafton tugged at his impeccable travel tunic and walked homeward, pausing only to buy gifts of the season's newest colors in linen and wool and silk to give away to all his girl friends, past, present, and future, with a side trip to a tea house to mourn the loss of a friend over tea and toffee.

Horsham entered his dismal digs, saw no Sweetie, remembered the dog's poor death, and cried. He felt so guilty he shoved all his few belongings into two saddle bags and fled the place. He camped out in a stall next to Blackie. But everywhere he went he felt everyone staring at him and remembered all the times he and Sweetie were in the same places together. Always together. Now Horsham was alone except for Blackie. He did not have a friend in the world. Or at least any friend who was not embarrassed at seeing him, judging him by his decline and fall, comparing him to his now too long ago youthful alter ego, and measuring minutely the decay with ill-concealed horror. And everyone was staring at him. Horsham, who tended to be paranoid anyway, now felt that the invisible sign of 'Murderer of Sweetie' was tied to his back. The man who murdered so many people now felt he was going insane because of guilt for the death of his dog. Horsham did not empty his saddle bags for two days and so belatedly found the letter from Merry May Rufus. In she wrote:

"My Dear Master Horsham,

I have just heard that you dear dog Sweetie has died. I wrote this letter of condolence to you in sincere concern and sorrow. I know you must be feeling deeply upset about your noble dog's death. Sweetie was a wonderful dog. I will always remember him, and you, with deep affection and many loving memories.

I hear that you are much beleaguered by Sweetie's death. He was a devoted friend and fellow soldier to you and you relied a great deal on him. But I hope you will also remember that you are also a devoted friend to me, as I am to you. Please know that I am your friend in any need and please come to Rufus Manor if you feel in need of peace and consolation. The door is open. Believe me. The door is open.

You have always been a hero to Arcadia Minor, to my grandfather, and to me. You always will be a hero in my eyes. I know that you will always do the very best you can despite all the trials and sorrows that assail you. You are a man of desperate valor in the face of often overwhelming adversity. I admire you. I will always admire you for I have seen your bravery in the face of hostile odds and hostile enemies and just plain damnable bad luck.

I will always remember you with deep affection and concern,

Much sincere love,

Merry May Rufus."

The letter, sincerely meant, did not help.

In fact people were staring at Horsham, and judging him harshly, but not out of scorn for the death of Sweetie. Few knew how the dog even died. People stared because Horsham looked such a wreak. Once so fine looking, 'like a god', Horsham now looked appalling. Shabby. Dirty. Paunchy. Hollow eyed. Pacing nervously. Muttering to himself. He appeared to all the world to be a man demented and utterly spiraling downward into total ruin.

Lady Aoi saw Horsham in day on the high street and stared in horror when she finally recognized the man. She dropped her bag and broke the contents. Then she ran away crying. Whether it was out of grief at the breakage of expensive magic talismans, totems, and assorted paraphernalia of religious monomania or the breakage of a man no one could say. Lady Wisteria never left her beautiful pavilion to inquire. But then she never left her pavilion to inquire even about Rhingol the Great. Lady Wisteria was as much a prisoner of her beautiful island of perfection as Horsham was a prisoner of his hell on earth. Perhaps each lived in a hell of their own creation. Lady Aoi fled the city and stayed at Taira Manor for the rest of the summer. It was rumored she tried to kill herself. But then Lady Aoi was an embarrassment that even her father fond increasingly hard to endue.

Prince Grafton did not even write a letter to Aoi to inquire. He was too busy escorting Lady Kiyohime around the country estates of his friends now that he had no country estate of his own to live in during the hot summer months. No civilized man lived in town during the summer. It was inconceivable. Only shop keepers and slum peasants and Dwarves lived in town in the summer. It was beyond the pale of understanding of genteel people.

Floradale wrote: "I saw the once great Horsham on the street the other day and a more miserable sight I have not seen in many a year! The once great duelist was a shattered shadow of his prior self -- if you can call a fat man a shadow. He is now grossly pot bellied, out of shape, and grimy. And he smells most vile. But then he always smelled vile. Mere Mortals frankly do smell. I am not being prejudiced in saying this! The man looked a crazed old bull about to be put down in the slaughter house. I felt rather sorry for the man however. Such a terrible fall! Mere Mortals are such fragile creatures and shatter so easily. Like glass. Rumors abound as to why. His dog, I believe Sweetie was it's name, appears to be dead. No one knows the story. I rather suspect the dog was the man's only friend in the world. He used to take the dog everywhere.

Some are enjoying the spectacle. I find it not to my liking. Like kicking a man when he is down. Sanguinary says he will not challenge him to another duel, declaring the man a 'walking dead man'. He has the eyes of a dead man frankly. I wish he would die. It would be mercy. His presence is a reminder of failure and a warning to us all how volatile life is. One day we are like gods. The next day we are beggars. Lady Confabulate tried to give the man piece of silver. But he only laughed hysterically. For now on I shall, when I am in town, I will cross the street and avoid the human wreckage just like everyone else."

Everyone assumed Horsham had hit rock bottom. Bela was in at his country estate. His sister, who had married very unwisely, was separated from her gambler courtier husband and Bela was consoling her for she had tried to commit suicide. So Bela could not find time or heart to find out what was destroying Horsham. 'Peace in Our Time' limped along, no one deceived, everyone just waiting for war to break out once again. But everyone was also trying to enjoy the frail dredges of the uncertain peace while it did last. Arcadia was empty of the Elite 1000 who were all out enjoying the nebulous joys of summer. Perhaps they all feared it would be the last summer of peace, no matter how shoddy, seedy, and run down. Some found Horsham's ruin a sort of ghastly symbol of the ruin of Our World. Floradale wrote: "Everything is all falling down. Falling apart. Like Horsham. Human wreckage and ruin and decay. All joy is ebbing away. I find no more laughter anywhere but rather despair. Our twilight in history. We Elves are living in our Twilight."

Rhingol the Great had been advised by Celebeau to provide some sort of employment to the unemployed ex soldiers who still drifted across the landscape, homeless, unemployed, and unwanted. Celebeau suggested any number of practical infrastructure improvements that Arcadia needed. Typically Rhingol seized on the one thing most impractical: an ornamental canal. The river looped in a long lazy loop in the middle of the city. Rhingol decided to install a grand canal in the inside loop to provide a "Grand watering promenade for the people to sail down and enjoy the limpid, languid joys of the water. The Grand Canal will reflect the sky in all it's glory and magnify the sunset, and mirror the twilight, and maximize the beauty of the world. And people will be able to sail on it, and walk along side, and become finer for the beauty and tranquility infused by the watery vista before their eyes!"

So Celebeau, most unhappily, marked out the proposed path of the Grand Canal with stakes and ordered "unemployed men who were not afraid of good hard work to apply to be ditch diggers and dig the Grand Canal." The Grand Canal was going to be twenty feet across and ten feet deep. It would run from one loop to the other loop of the river, running through the city, alongside the Royal Park, in front of the Royal Palace, for some five miles.. Rhingol himself ordered fifty flowering cherry trees in advance to be planted along the proposed Grand Canal.

By accident Rhingol decreed that the Grand Canal had to be carved through a patch of nearly solid rocky hillside. Rhingol the Great wanted to see the finished canal from his second floor palace windows at sunset after all. It appeared to be not an unreasonable request for a monarch to make. But the result required back breaking digging by hand. In the end the ditch diggers had to break into teams of two. One would hold the iron spike against the rock. The other man would weld a massive sledge hammer and pound the iron spike to shatter the rock inch by inch, pounding down through the rocky hillside by sheer brute force. Needless to say no Elves volunteered. Dwarves were too rational to volunteer. So the brute force was of course assumed to be supplied by the brute working force of Mere Mortals. Unemployed soldiers. One of the unemployed soldiers who volunteered to work for a pittance was Horsham.

Horsham spent the prior week in near hell, prowling the streets of Arcadia, haunting the old tramping grounds where he once marched, seeing people cross the street rather than see him, fighting off urges to smash down the first apothecary door and seize some opium, trying not to go on a bender and then smash the pubs who now declined to serve the has-been hero when once they showered him with free whiskies and beers.

The new hovel was near a notorious well that many a suicide had succumbed to. In despair Horsham one night stared down the dark, moldering well while the moon ride high in the sky. Deep in the well Horsham fancied he saw two faces flowing on the fetid water: his own and another: a beautiful woman staring intently at him, as if beckoning him to hurl himself over the stone mouth into a portal into hell. For a moment the world whirled dizzily and Horsham teetered on the stone. To his amazement he found himself actually standing on the ruined stone breastwork of the ancient well, teetering. For once his notorious gut full of fear saved him. He hastily leaped backward and crashed down onto solid ground. In this case a weed choked courtyard facing the back alley to his hovel. After that Horsham made sure he reached his hovel by way of the north alley. But the idea of suicide pried on his mind.

Then Horsham heard about the Grand Canal Dig and decided that he would volunteer. He knew he looked bad and smelled worse. He carefully avoided seeing any Dwarve mirror because he did not want to see how bad he now looked. Now he decided that a good bout of manual labor for 16 hours a day, six days a week was just the thing he needed to get his shattered, flabby body back into shape, work off his beer gut, and get his nerves back into fighting mettle. If he volunteered for double shifts he would barely have five hours of sleep (plus one hour for Blackie, and one half hour to down a breakfast beer and jog to the work site, and one half hour to eat a cheap plate of pub grub at the end before staggering home to the stable to sleep in hopeful total exhaustion). Horsham reasoned that back breaking manual labor might work just like emotional blinkers put on contrary mules to prevent them seeing anything but straight ahead.

Every day Horsham got up, fed, brushed, and exercised Blackie before sunrise, then jogged to a pub by the stable, downed a fast breakfast beer, tossed three apples down the inside of his dirty tunic, then jogged to the construction sight. He pushed his way to the front of the line and grabbed a sledge hammer before the foreman could refuse him, marched to the site, and grabbed an ex soldier to hold the iron spike, and started pounding away. Eight hours straight with only one short break to eat one apple. After lunch, (the second apple), he picked up his sledge hammer and grabbed another man and pounded away at the second shift. Eight hours straight with one pause to eat the last apple. Then he did indeed stagger home, picking up a cheap and disgusting plate of pub grub and a tankard of beer, then he would collapse in the hay of the stall beside his beloved black horse and sleep like the dead.

When it came to pounding one's body senseless, manual labor was nearly as good as opium. Horsham did indeed sleep like the dead. He almost died the first week from the sheer horror of his self imposed 'summer in the fiery fissure'. But no matter how badly his body screamed out in pain he would still stagger to the work site at sunrise and pick up the sledge hammer and pound the iron stakes. Hour after hour. Day after day. Month after month. He wore out five sledge hammers and broke over twenty iron stakes. Soldiers trembled to served as his partner for he would never stop for more than three breaks. When they begged, Horsham would shout out "Why? Have I even once missed the iron stake and hit ya? Stop whining and hold that god damn iron bar!"

On the one day of the week off, Horsham would pack a meal of cheap pub grub and a pail of beer and ride out on Blackie into the countryside so the horse could frolic in the green meadows while Horsham slept under the trees or watched, a melancholic look in his large, baby blue eyes as the battle scarred horse galloped or sprawled in the fresh green grass. "I am going to take good care of you Blackie! I swear! I swear!" he would say out loud.

Horsham excelled all quotas and almost single handedly smashed and pounded his way through the rock ahead of all the other teams. The Grand Canal pushed through the hillside and linked the lazy loop of the river ahead of it's schedule of eight months. The foremen all cheered Horsham and boasted of his prowess. But the spectacle of an once famous ex soldier reduced to manual labor horrified the Elves who chanced to see him, stripped down to this leggings, sweat pouring off his battle scared, Orc mangled, war abused, emotionally abused body, as he swung the sledge hammer down. Celebeau was especially horrified. He never approved of Horsham but found the sight "Too terrible to enjoy". It also upset him for he started worrying about his old friend Ben the Beorach. So he begged Rhingol the Great to allow Ben to return from exile if he promised to cease all attention to Luna, the Princess Royal. Ben the Beorach came back from his exile in much better shape than Horsham, moved back into his old digs, ate mess with Celebeau, but declined to give any promise of ceasing all attention to Luna. Rather the contrary. His time away only made his passion to possess her more intense and he pursued her with even more vigor. Unlike Celebeau, Ben the Beorach found the sight of Horsham laboring like a grunt at the work site quite enjoyable. When the foreman pointed that out to Horsham, Horsham spat in Ben's direction but kept swinging his sledge hammer.

The grim self imposed routine deviated only once. One Saturday Horsham did not go to the country with Blackie. Instead he carried the hampers back to their owner: Lady Confabulate. She had found the address to Blackie and started leaving hampers of healthy food and clean clothes in Blackie's stall. Blackie needless to say did not need healthy human food or clean clothes. Horsham let the clean clothes pile up but ate the food reasoning that by the time he returned the unsolicited items to Lady Confabulate the food would be bad anyway so why not eat it? But one day a hamper held an object so unforgiving that Horsham gathered up all the unsolicited clothes and shoved them into one hamper and grabbed the other hamper containing the unspeakable object and stormed back to Confabulous House. He pounded the door and terrified the footman who answered. He pushed himself in and stormed into Lady Confabulate's withdrawing room where she was entertaining Floradale. The two were enjoying tea and gossip as usual. Horsham was lucky. The two elegant Elves were only back in town for a fortnight for shopping.

Floradale gasped when Horsham stormed in. He was a grim sight: dirty, his hair tangled, his beard untrimmed, dark circles under his eyes, his clothes old and filthy. The fearsome bum threw down the one hamper and nice clean clothes tumbled out of it. Then the disheveled man shoved the other hamper into Lady Confabulate's arms. She took the hamper gently as Horsham raved.

"Why are you doing this? What did I ever do to you?"

"Nothing but we are acquaintances and I thought you appeared to be in need....."

"I an't in need! I an't no bum! I an't starving neither!"

"You don't look it!" Floradale snapped, his famous irony shaken for once, shocked by Horsham's condition.

"I an't no bum! I don't need your charity! And that....that.... why did you do that?"

Lady Confabulate opened the hamper and pulled out an adorable puppy. She petted it gently. "I thought since Sweetie died that you might want another dog. I know you loved Sweetie very much and you two were always inseparable."

Horsham glared at the puppy in horror however. "I will never have another dog! I don't deserve another dog! It is my fault Sweetie died! I don't deserve another dog!"

Lady Confabulate put the puppy back in the hamper and gently hide it behind her chair. Floradale was outraged by Horsham's currish behavior in the face of Lady Confabulate's sincere concern. "I think you are a cad sir!"

Lady Confabulate shushed Floradale and smiled gently at the beleaguered and unstable man. "I did not mean any disrespect toward you but rather concern as befitting a friend."

"I am not your friend!" Horsham shouted, rocking back and forth on his feet, clearly aware he was overreacting and behaving churlishly. I go out on the street and everyone avoids me! The pubs won't serve me! Everyone is avoiding me like I have the pox. So why are you being friendly? No one is being friendly! No one is my friend! The other day I went to see Bela and his servants said he wasn't 'at home'. At home! That is the phase everyone uses to avoid people they don't want to see anymore!"

"Bela is actually at his country estate Moonlight Over The Water. His sister Beladonna tried to kill herself because of her cad of a husband Veggie. Otherwise I do assure you Bela would have wanted to see you Horsham. If you ever come to Confabulous House you will never hear that phase as long as I am at home. I have been out of town but I plan to stay a fortnight. In fact, as you are here now, please sit down and have tea with Floradale and myself." Lady Confabulate blandly patted a chair and poured out a cup of tea. Horsham rocked back and forth on his feet embarrassed, realized he was trapped by Lady Confabulate's unflappable poise. Growling, he sat down nervously, running one hand through his dirty hair and tugging at his soiled tunic. Lady Confabulate handed him the tea as blandly nonchalant as if she was entertaining Princess Luna. Horsham took the cup and stared at it grimly. Lady Confabulate resumed discussing the latest military gossip of Lady Lalac and Lady Blackheart and Lady Chestnutdale. "I believe you are acquainted with their sons Horsham?"

"Well. Yes. They all got fired because of me."

"They got fired because of Ben. But now we are to believe in 'Peace in Our Time' and rest happily seduced by the glorious peace that appeasement has bought. What do you think?" Horsham growled and glared at his cup of tea. "Bullshit. The Dark Lord is not attacking us because he is tied up in a war beyond The Pale with Bree the Red who is waging a brilliant partisan war."

"Yes but I do not understand how war can be waged differently? Could you explain 'Orthodox Warfare' and 'Partisan Warfare'? How can Bree the Red with only a mob of wild red haired Elves, Dwarve Miners, and wild men pin down the entire army of the Dark Lord when we could not win for the life of Arcadia?

"Oh well that is simple enough to explain." Horsham shoved the cup of alien tea aside and rearranged the tea table, lining up the cutlery to form military formations. "Bree is doing this....see..." So Horsham explained very coherently and precisely Guerrilla Warfare to the fascinated Elves who later repeated it all over town. A hour later Horsham stood up embarrassed he had been talking so long and saluted Lady Confabulate stiffly and marched out of the Confabulous House even more embarrassed than when he entered.

"I don't understand the exceedingly strange man!" Floradale exclaimed. "He behaves absolutely demented yet then he can sit down and explain military theory absolutely coherently. Why was he so outraged by a puppy?"

"It appears he blames himself for Sweetie's death. It is a pity for a man like Horsham needs a dog. He cannot function around human beings but he needs love. It must be a grim thing indeed to be absolutely loveless in the world. In his position, I would die of loneliness."

"Why did you give him the hampers. The one time you tried to give him a few silvers in the street he practically lunged at you."

"But he is still in need even if he cannot trust people enough to accept charity. I will continue to leave hampers of food at Blackie's stall. I know he has eaten the food at least. I will leave clothes there too. Perhaps he will take some clothes one of these days."

"Why be charitable to a has-been?"

Lady Confabulate paused and petted the dog gently. "Who knows when one can be down and out Floradale? Today I am one of the Elite 1000. Down the road I too may be a bum or a refugee homeless and wondering the roads in exile. Who is to say?"

Floradale laughed gently at her bemused attitude. "You once speculated that Horsham's life would be a three act operatic tragedy. It appears to be a one act ode to failure. A disappointment. I pathetic flame-out of a nasty little fire."

"Yes." Lady Confabulate petted the puppy absentmindedly. "So it seems. But I will hope that Horsham can find his way back from the wilderness he has lost himself. I will pray to my household gods that he is given a second chance for I think Arcadia will be in need of a second chance too. I am in need of hope that people -- and city states ---- can have second chances!"

Snow finally put the end to construction. The brute part of the construction was completed anyway. Next season the giant hole in the ground would be lined with stone and then the dikes at either end would be pulled up to flood the Grand Canal. Horsham did not ever bother to attend the gaudy unveiling of the finished "Folly of Rhingol the Fool" as Horsham (and privately many others) labeled it. Instead Bela came back to town to reopen the Cockpit. Horsham planned to be first in line for a job. The spy was back in business. But Bela found himself second in line to another man: Prince Kitsune who finally, tenaciously tracked Horsham down and pinned him literally into a corner. In fact the filthy, urine stinking alley behind his hovel.

Horsham had been circumnavigating around Kitsune since the little wizard arrived back in town from some dubious wizard shenanigans out west at The Havens. Cleardan, the Master of The Havens had personally asked for Kitsune to come investigate some oceanic deviltry. But now the wizard was back in town and hunting down Horsham with a vengeance. Unlike Prince Grafton who just wrote Horsham of his list of genteel acquaintances after his tender emotions were bruised by Horsham's brusqueness, Kitsune hunted Horsham down like a dog after a fox. Kitsune would not be fobbed off by rude behavior or curt letters or public cutting on the high street. The more Horsham blustered and snarled, the more tenacious Kitsune got. After Horsham got tired exiting his hovel by the roof to avoid meeting Kitsune and returned one night drunk and tired from the pub through the normal alley route, Kitsune pounced. Literally. The slight Elve pounced on the big burly man and brought him to ground.

"Damn it! The alley is a latrine! Aah! You are rolling me in muck!" Horsham growled and climbed to his feet, shaking off the little wizard and wiping his dirty clothes, now even more dirty.

"You weren't wearing the latest Prince Grafton fashions anyway! And why have you been avoiding me?"

Horsham growled and lumbered up the rickety stairs to his miserable digs and tried to shut the door in Kitsune's face. Kitsune shoved in a foot and then howled in pain when the door smashed it against the door jam.

"My tail! My tail! I mean my foot! My foot! Howl!"

"Go away!" Horsham slammed the door in the hopping wizard's face. But Kitsune was not to be deterred. The wizard scurried up the rotten slum facade onto the roof and peered through the wooden lattice of the open window. The digs were dark and cold and foul smelling. Horsham did not even bother to light a candle but merely sprawled down onto the pile of blankets on the dirty floor that served as a bed. The pale moonlight of a half moon gleamed wanly, just picking out the silhouette of the big man.

"Are you cold little brother?" a soft voice whispered pitifully.

"No big brother if you hold me in your arms..." another voice whispered wretchedly.

"Snuggle under my blankets you two and get warm" Horsham's gruff voice answered.

"It is so cold....so cold..... and we are so alone and no one cares about us and Mommy is gone and Da is dead and the rent is not paid and what are we to do? We have given the last food money to the owner and now we starve and there is no wood to burn....."

"It is so cold....so cold.... so cold...."

Kitsune peered into the darkness but could not see anything. Then he raddled the lattice again. "Why are you avoiding me? Why have you quarreled with Grafton? Why haven't you visited Wisteria Pavilion? Why are you avoiding everyone you know and who cares about you?"

"No one cares about me. Go away!"

"The way you treat your friends you won't have any friends anymore Have you rescued two war orphans? I visited the construction site but only Dwarves are there now measuring for the stonework. In the end I had to visit Lady Confabulate who is back in town for the winter season to find out what happened to you. Grafton won't give me the time of day. May hour glass sand choke him! Let me in!" The wizard, hanging upside down, raddled the lattice at the window. Horsham made a gesture of shutting the rotten wood shutters but Kitsune merely scratched away like an animal until the rotten wood gave way.

"Leave the damn shutters alone and go away!" Horsham roared.

"NO!"

"I am going to bed!"

"I am going to sit on the roof then and sing all night until your neighbors howl!" Prince Kitsune was a notoriously bad singer who howled off key like a wailing fox bitch in heat.

No! Don't! Don't!"

"Howl! Oooooh Looovely Laaaaady Loorinne! Hoooooowl!" Kitsune started to howl, mangling a beautiful opera aria. Horsham pulled the filthy blankets over his head and groaned in real pain. It was one of his favorite arias. Or at least it used to be before Kitsune started to mangle it. Finally Horsham surrendered and stormed out of the digs and pounded down the stairs and pounded down the dirty alley as Kitsune scampered off the roof in hot pursuit. He caught up to Horsham as the ex-soldier emerged from the fetid alley by the notorious suicide well. Horsham swore. He had been carefully avoiding that place all summer. Now Kitsune's mischief had caused him to exit the alley by the south, directly by the mouth of the grim portal to suicide's death. Kitsune ran out of the alley and Horsham tripped him up as he exited the alley. Then Horsham picked up the little Elve and shook him violently. Kitsune decided the best thing to do was go limp. Very limp. Like a wet corpse. He wilted in Horsham's arms like a ton of wet linen being leeched in river water. For a small Elve Kitsune had an amazing ability to weigh a ton when he wanted to. Horsham dropped the limp lump of fey Elvedom and swore. Then Kitsune 'awoke' and jumped up and pounced on Horsham, shaking him.

"Why are you avoiding me? Is it the opium? You got snared by opium didn't you? Dr. Kakoff won't talk but......"

"No one's business why I bottomed! It is my private hell and I an't inviting no audience to witness my twisting on my own sword! Ok! Go Away!"

"I can help you!"

"I have kicked it! OK! I am clean! I don't need no one! No one needs me!"

"But! But!"

"Did you know that the well over there is haunted! I saw a ghost of a beautiful young Elve girl when I stared down the well one night. Dressed in old, old, court regalia and hair style like wall paintings in the old Taira Pavilion that Prince Prince Grafton showed me one day some years back. There has been over twenty two suicides there, not to mention the odd cat or dog thrown down the well and garbage and trash. The water went fetid and now no one drinks it, and what with the corpses now ....." Horsham pointed to the abandoned well. Kitsune's ears pricked. Compulsively he scurried over and peered down the well.

"Don't you leave! We have to investigate! A suicide well! Oh my! Sounds definitely like a case of Yukei Ghost Contamination to me! I can't see anything! How full is the moon? Was there an aura around her ghost when you saw it? Was her image inverted like a mirror image? Was....."

Horsham growled but then came up to the well. At least he had distracted Kitsune away from the topic of his personal decline.

"How would I tell if the image was inverted or not? Why would that matter? She was not standing on her head or anything."

The wizard peered down the wall so intently he almost fell him himself. Horsham had to grab the tail of his kilt and stabilize the wizard who stared down the well too engrossed to realize he almost fell in and died.

"Let me get a firm hold of you damn it! You will fall in! The point is not to fall in but find out why other people fall in!"

"I can't see anything! Why do you think she revealed herself to you?"

"To kill me. Isn't that the point of suicide wells?"

"Aaah! Yes! I am not inclined to self destruction so she can't tempt me! Of course! So how do I discover her identity? Umm!" The wizard's butt wiggled as Horsham held it securely.

"Your rump an't exactly the sight for sore eyes."

"How are your eyes incidentally Horsham? I have a balm if you would like to try it. And I hear that Dwarve magic, to be exact 'eye glasses' do wonders with eye strain. Might explain your headaches too." Horsham swatted the wiggling rump.

"I don't wear no Dwarve eye glasses things!" Horsham was startled though. While swatting the wizard's rump he accidentally felt an odd thing almost like a tail. "I must be imagining things..." Horsham said to himself and he felt the rump covertly as the wizard squirmed as he hung almost upside down, down the well, held only by Horsham's strong arms around his waist. But he felt nothing and Kitsune suddenly squirmed back up to safety.

"I can't see a damn thing! She won't appear to me no matter what spell I whisper."

"You an't her type."

"No. No. So the investigation must continue in daylight. Rope. Lots of rope. Yes."

"Planning to hang her? She might have hanged herself."

"No. We have to climb down to the bottom of the well and investigate more closely for any physical evidence of ghostly contamination. How much rope will we need?"

Horsham looked down the well. "About....." he saw the ghostly image of a woman looking desperately at him, gesturing, holding out her arms like a creature in peril. "...about fifty feet I think" he replied blandly.

"Good! Good! Lets' go!" Kitsune hauled Horsham off to a suppler's shop. But as it was two O'clock in the morning the shop was closed. Kitsune sat down on the door step to wait. Horsham groaned and sat down to and was soon fast asleep. Kitsune spent the rest of the night inspecting the damage of personal demons no wizard exorcism could ever disburse. But Kitsune did not tell Horsham that when he woke just as Horsham did not tell Kitsune that he was still suicidal.

The next day Horsham bought fifty yards of rope, fishing line, a lantern, and a horse blanket. He hastily tossed the blanket into his digs, slamming the door shut in Kitsune's face, and then hauled the curious Kitsune to the well. "Adopted two war orphans? It sounds like they are sick. This winter hasn't been that cold, normal weather, not like the winter before when we had the strange sub temperature run of minus digits and so many people froze to death. But small children can get hypothermia so easy. You should let me treat them. I have a ...."

"Shut up about my digs and investigate the well! I have secured the rope. I will lever you down." Horsham tied the rope securely around the little wizard's slim waist and picked him up and passed him over the tumbled stone of the breastworks and then down into the mouth of the sinister well. "Now hold the lantern out to see as you are lowered. Ok?" Horsham slowly lowered the Elve down into the well. Kitsune carefully inspected the moldering stone as he descended.

"Noting unusual yet! Bad stonework. About ready to cave in. Old stuff. The well must have originally been dug when Arcadia was first founded. This part of the town was built in Year Seventy two, probably when this part of the town expanded out of range of the original mountain springs of pure spring water that the Dwarves built canals to distribute beyond the Mother Mountain. The first Twilight Terra Elves lived in the thousands of caves in the Mother Mountain until Year Fifty-five when the omens blessed expansion east. Then west. To here. I bet I could pull a stone right out now. The mortar is gone. Only the weight of the stones is holding the whole thing together. Let me see if..."

"Leave the damn stones alone Kitsune! You and your damn compulsion for mischief! Do you want to bring down the whole damn well? How close are you to the bottom now? Is the water deep or can you wade in the muck?"

"I have reached the bottom now. The water appears quite shallow. Mostly mud and muck in fact" Kitsune's voice echoed back to Horsham who peered down with bad eyes.

"Don't wade. It will only bring up the mud. Can you just hang upside down and fish for ghostly evidence of contamination with your hands? That way the water might stay fairly clear?"

"Yes. Good idea!"

"Remember the lantern is also tied to the end of a fishing line so it can hang loose. Let go." The Elve did as ordered and the lantern bobbed freely, throwing wild halos of light against the gloom of the abandoned well. The Elve used his hands against the wall of the well to lever himself upside down. Then he carefully felt all around the bottom.

"Lots of abandoned junk. Old tins of hardtack. Broken crockery. Bones. Dogs. Cats. Chickens. Yes.....and human too. I guess most of the suicides were abandoned here and not retrieved. I will have to do an exorcism to free their souls to travel out of history. The Festival of the Dead is coming up and that will be an ideal time to....oh! Ah! Yes! I have found it I think! Pull me up!"

Horsham grunted and hauled up the small Elve who appeared back at the breastworks grimy, muddy, hair tangled, his fair face smeared with mud, and blandishing a mucky object in his hand with obvious pride. Horsham snorted and hauled the Elve out of the abandoned well. The excited wizard held up the round, flat object. Horsham grabbed it and wiped it on his dirty clothes until the object was revealed: an ancient bronze hand mirror, polished on one side, elaborately inlayed on the reverse side with gold and mithril. It was not modern Dwarve Glass so the polished bronze reflected only faintly and with much distortion the face of the viewer. The mirror was very old. The bronze, clean of muck, was a beautiful blueish green, the patina rich. Bronze was the only metal that grows more beautiful with age. Iron would have rusted clean away. Silver would have been black. The gold and mithril glowed beautifully in the richly patina bronze, more beautiful than if the mirror had been all gold. Horsham knew enough of Twilight Bronze to recognize Ancient Age Art. He held it now. Kitsune jumped up and down excited.

"Hold it up to the light and look into the polished face!" Horsham did as he was ordered and saw a ghostly face peer back at him. His own face. But the image was spooky. Not like Dwarve mirror glass. It was like looking at his own ghost. Haunted baby blue eyes peered back at him. Horsham snorted and gave the mirror to the wizard.

"You have yourself a fine antique. Give it to Prince Grafton. He will be delighted. He will mine his memories for some obscure tale of lost love and then compose a new poem. Then he will give it away to his latest mistress. Is he still with Kiyohime? But unless you can find the right human bones of the haunted woman, you can't cure the well no matter how often you exorcize the victims."

"Except that this mirror has become the separate soul of the ghost haunting the well. Yes. I am fairly sure of it! Mirrors can become separate souls. Think about it. You peer into the mirror so intently, thinking so intensely about this rendevous, that intrigue, this party, that social event. For an eternity of minutes over a lifetime. You stare at yourself and agonize at each milestone of your life. You reproach yourself after the fact of each crisis. You take pride in yourself after each triumph. You damn yourself after each defeat. Your life parades across the face of the mirror. Until after you die, your life lingers, contained in the mirror, perhaps trapped in the mirror..."

"Mirrors don't steal no souls! Everyone told me that! Dwarve mirrors don't steal no souls. Only after you die can you see your soul after you pass out of history. Only the superstitious fear mirrors. I hear that Ben the Beorach won't look in any mirror in the palace out of fear. But only barbarians and primitives think a mirror traps the soul, or that the mirror reflection is your ghostly alter ego who will kill you and take your place if it can escape the mirror prison and leap down into the real world."

"Dwarve mirrors are just silver and glass. I agree. But ancient bronze hand mirrors! Oh these are quite different! Hold the mirror up to the sun and look on the back." Horsham held up the mirror. An odd halo of pale light seemed to focus on the concave surface. Horsham, startled, peered more closely, turning the bronze at different angles.

"It is like the trick of the rainbow. No More like them 'prisms' I saw back at the Old Citadel. The light is somehow reflected off in some way.... a trick....clever!"

Kitsune grabbed the mirror back in a huff. "Not a trick! Ancient skill! And ancient magic! Really! You behave like a Dwarve sometimes Horsham! I swear you have Dwarve blood in your veins! You take anything and analyze to death! Until there is no mystery and no magic left!" The wizard gently stroked the beautiful mirror. "Come over to the well." Horsham went to the well. In the daylight it was not sinister so much as mucky and decaying. But Kitsune carefully angled the mirror to reflect downward as Horsham peered at an angle underneath it. Suddenly Horsham saw a beautiful Elve girl reflected in the polished bronze, staring mournfully out at him, eyes full of grief, hands reaching out, appealing for help. Horsham jumped back. Then he peered down. The water was only mucky, shallow, and full of trash: human, animal, ghost. Trash left abandoned behind by the busy world, like the weeds and brambles littering a field that no one bothers to clear.

"Yes! You are right Kitsune! The ghost is trapped in the mirror. Someone threw the mirror away as trash down the well and the ghost was trapped in the well. She has been appealing for someone to rescue her. But instead, her mirrored image unintentionally enchanted people into leaping to their deaths down the well. But she only meant to implore someone to rescue her!"

"Yes. The well is no longer haunted, except by the ghosts of the suicides. I will exorcize them during the Festival of the Dead and free them. Then the well will be safe -- until it collapses into itself of course. This breastwork is dangerously unstable. And indeed a few stones tumbled down the well even as they peered down. The two men pulled back to safety.

"But why did someone long ago throw an expensive mirror down the well to begin with?"

"Ah! Yes! We must trace the original owner of the mirror! Then we will know who she is. Then I can do an exorcism of the mirror." Kitsune gently wiped the polished mirror with the sleeve of his tunic and growled softly. For a brief second Horsham could swear he saw a reflection in the polished mirror ---- of a white fox. But then it was gone. Kitsune was grinning, his sly eyes bright, his large Elven ears wiggling with excitement. He grabbed Horsham and started to skip off to the Wisteria Pavilion. Horsham growled, legs planted like anchors in the dirty soil of the weed choked field around the abandoned well. Kitsune's skip stopped abruptly. "Come on! Come on! My Shoki! My Demon Queller! The hunt is on for the identity of the girl!"

"No. You don't need me. I can't appear like this....." Kitsune looked back at Horsham. Horsham was dirty, dressed in old clothes, and right now he looked more like a dangerous vagrant than an elegant guest visiting Wisteria Pavilion for a charming day of dancing and music and poetry. Kitsune nodded, understanding Horsham's bruised and beleaguered vanity. "We will go to the Heike Pavilion first and then Wisteria Pavilion. Ok? Bathe and change? I need to bathe myself! Ahhh! I stink from the muck of the well!" Kitsune sneezed. Then he remembered something.

"Lady Aoi gave me some needlework she has completed. Except they are sized twice my size so I think she really wanted me to pass them on to you. She based the court over tunics on some old pictures of Shoki the Demon Queller I found. The over tunics are hopelessly old fashioned but festooned by magic charms inside the linings and on the trailing tails of the kilts. Everyone is laughing at her. She has taken a 90 degree turn into religious dementia. She reads all the Kijiki glossaries of Most Wanted Demons now and thanks everything that goes bump in the night is caused by some oni or yurei or yukai."

"Don't you believe that?"

"No!" Kitsune said in a huff. "I am a wizard! I am trained to tell the difference between accidents and possession, between real supernatural events and random events or logical byproducts of the physical world. The superstitious can't tell the difference and so assume everything is magic. Only some things are. The real world: use your Dwarve Science. The real magic world: use my Wizard Science. Now if you are so soft hearted that you can adopt two war orphans then you can make poor Aoi feel a little better by wearing her pathetic creations. She is a bad magician. But she is a very good needle worker."

"I have some....Lady Confabulate gave me some clothes... Bela is back in town and I have to impress him.... with the latest fashionable tunics and Lady Confabulate has an eye for fashion. Bela is always dressed in the height of fashion..... I have to make a good impression.... I need a job, my old job back."

"But if poor Aoi saw you wear something she made just once in a while she would be so happy. Frail happiness of course but.... she lives on emotional crumbs as is."

"Ok. Put it that way....." Horsham let Kitsune tug him to the Heike Pavilion where they bathed and then Horsham dressed in a pathetic creation of Lady Aoi. The outfit was crafted of rich silk. Even Lady Confabulate's tailor usually only used native linen and wool. Lady Confabulate only dressed in expensive foreign silk for opera. The over tunic was superficially black silk but the threads were layers of dense muted color anchored by gold thread, magic runes embedded deep in the weave, the lining of clothe of gold. The boxy sleeves were cut in the front along the sleeve seam line to the tunic front so the bulky sleeves could be thrown back to fly behind like butterfly wings. In fact the cut was called the 'butterfly'. Horsham, like any professional soldier, would slash his heavy battle tunics and winter tunics so he could slip one or both arms out to shoot weapons quickly without taking off the whole tunic. The last few winters had been unusually cold. Prince Grafton had taken the military idea and converted it into high fashion. The court over tunic could thus be worn over modern clothes. Horsham had brought along an outfit by Lady Confabulate and he dressed in the fashionable buckskin leggings and linen tunic and then put on his shoulder harness and steel long sword at his back. Then he pulled the court over tunic over his head and draped it over the modern outfit and lethal weapon. It looked quite fine, expensive, hinting of courtly prestige but not cumbersome like old court clothes, and the muted black and gold highlighted Horsham's pink and white complexion and baby blue eyes. The wide circular neck of the over tunic actually did not impede the pulling out of the long sword should he need it. Horsham was both too much the military man and too paranoid to not consider that option.

"Want to see yourself in a Dwarve Mirror?" Kitsune pointed to a mirror in the corner of the bathing room. Horsham snorted. He rarely had access to Dwarve Mirrors but while he did not fear them like Ben, he now feared what he would see reflected in them: the decay of his once celebrated beauty, or else the residue of enough beauty to sexually entice bored Elves. Either reflection now disturbed him. Horsham avoided the mirror and instead braided his long dark hair tightly into a braid, then looped the braid up and tied it with a ribbon to the nape of his neck. He put his military crest and metal over the top of the court over tunic and patted them. Then he slipped the old bronze short sword and long knife through the red silk sash, a good luck dueling gift from Aoi, to secure them.

"A rehearsal at Wisteria Pavilion might be needed before I see Bela. If I can fool Wisteria Pavilion then I can fool Bela. A short performance. Can't afford to be exposed. And don't blab Kitsune! I swear you are the worst material for a spy I have ever met! Talk about the dead girl! Ok! Not me!" Horsham tugged at the tunic, snorted, and then nodded. "Lets go!" the tall burly man and the short, frail Elve marched as if on parade to the Wisteria Pavilion. The con was on.

When Horsham and Kitsune arrived only Lady Wisteria Fujitsu appeared to be at home. But then she was always 'at home'. She never left Wisteria Pavilion. The beautiful self crafted island had become her beautiful self crafted prison. She smiled when she saw Horsham and Kitsune, her sad eyes distant but kind, her smile mysterious, her face timeless. The layers of expensive silk rustled as if the moths that spun them were still alive. "Dance for me Horsham. A wishful command. I have been remembering our time spent so long ago now, dancing together in the warm air in the garden. Indulge me now with a memory come to life."

"You Elves remember perfectly. My present performance will only echo sadly the perfection of your memory."

"I have a mirror....from..." Kitsune said. Suddenly, no one wanted to listen.

"Please Horsham....." Lady Wisteria said wishfully. "I have been melancholy. The sadness of the past weighs heavy on my heart. Time is both fleeting and oppressive. It makes the fragility of my memories of you all the more potent. A butterfly dancing in the summer air...."

It is now winter and no butterflies dance" Kitsune said. "I have found..." He held up the mirror. No one appeared to look at it. Suddenly it was of no interest even to Horsham.

"I will dance for you." Horsham rose and marched down to the grass of the garden. He slipped his arms back inside the over large sleeves of the court over tunic so the voluptuous beauty of the silk would flutter and shine in the cold air. The garden was not yet covered with a thin carpet of snow though the flowers were all dead, the massive wisteria bony as a skeleton, and the trees bare of leaves and black against the cold pale blue of the early winter's daylight. Kitsune and Wisteria sat on the veranda to watch. Horsham paused, smiled, and then danced the very first dance Lady Wisteria had ever taught him: the Dance of the Butterflies. The dance was a funeral dance intended to be danced on battlefields to exorcize the ghosts of dead warriors. Twilight myth believed that warriors who died on the battlefield arose in the spring as butterflies among the first flowers that bloom over the bloody earth, fertile with death. Horsham danced slowly and gracefully despite his bad leg, moving with stately dignity across the grass, the silk rustling, the boots accenting the beat of the music that played in his mind. Half way through the dance he slipped his arms out of the over tunic's sleeves and let the empty sleeves flutter like butterfly wings behind his back as he danced. Horsham had a high tolerance for pain. He finished the dance perfectly despite the aching of his bad leg.

When he finished he turned and saw in the shadows of the pavilion the other inhabitants trapped by time and circumstances in the pavilion Lady Wisteria Fujitsu created to defy the ravishes of time: Prince Adulterine Grafton bored and frustrated with his restricted life at Court, his mistress Kiyohime 'The Lady in White' insecure by the vagaries of Prince Grafton's love and tormented by jealousy of Wisteria, arrogant Lord Taira fading like his clan's reputation and riches, poor wilted Lady Aoi trapped between her arrogant father and the unforgiving and unfeeling Prince Grafton, and Taira's adopted son Celebeau trapped in the role of Supreme Battlefield Commander that contrasted so cruelly with Rufus Royal's genius.

Wisteria sighed and smiled her sad smile, savoring the beauty while Kitsune clapped excited, jumping up and down, looking somehow evermore like an animal trapped in human skin with each passing year. The shadowy inhabitants deep in the pavilion clapped politely too. Genteel behavior required it. Lady Aoi fluttered nervously with the vapors, her frail beauty long ago evaporated away, her looks decidedly those of an aging spinster despite being legally married to the most desirable lover in all the Court. She drew a pentacle in the air, an ancient sign of magic. Prince Grafton rolled his eyes and then smiled with frosty politeness. Kiyohime twisted a sleeve nervously, her hand twisting the frail silk so hard it tore. Then she fluttered, flustered, looked panicked at Prince Grafton, then smoothed the torn sleeve to hide the violent depths of her passions. Lord Taira strutted. "My horse won at the track today! I won fifty durhams!" No one wanted to listen. "Gold durhams! Not debased rhingols! A year's income!" As his estate waned away he was becoming a grasping miser. Taira had even stopped giving poor Aoi her pin money. Poor Aoi was poor indeed. Lady Wisteria secretly slipped money now to the wilting woman to allow her to indulge her religious mania and superstition. Oddly, Celebeau clapped with serious earnestness.

"You always dance the Butterfly Dance well Horsham. The last time you danced it was on the Solstice after Peace in Our Time was declared. I never thought to see it performed again. The peace is holding, may the gods bless us. Rufus bet the farm literally on the peace not holding. I hear he is hemorrhaging mortgage monies. If I ever catch you buying illegal munitions for Arcadia Minor I will prosecute you to the full extent of the law." Everyone groaned. Celebeau bristled. "Horsham is defying the Peace Treaty! If the Peace Treaty is trashed by Horsham and Rufus and the Pro War Fraction you will all be angry -- at me! But who will be to blamed! Always me! Not Rufus Royal! And who is behind the Pro War Fraction? The Old Citadel War Munition Barons! Durham the Deathless! Lining their belt pouches! Damn greedy, grasping Dwarves! Plotting to incite war so they can continue to make their bloody profits at our expense!" Lady Wisteria sighed and slipped off the veranda to the grass by Horsham.

"My Stepson is wretched because his love affair with Gloriana does not go well and people ridicule the Grand Canal he has been ordered by Rhingol the Great to construct in place of half a dozen sensible proposals Celebeau really wanted to do. Sensible things that might have proved he is a perfectly sensible and proficient leader instead of a ridiculed and overshadowed general. Will you indulge my sentimentality one more time? The Dance of Taira of Dannoura?" She assumed the correct position, holding one billowing silk sleeve gracefully with her hand. Horsham nodded and assumed the corresponding position. Then they danced and sang the beautiful dance as the doomed lovers Heikeson and Rosemont Taira.

"How cruelly does this false paradise mock our doomed love Heikeson. With false beauty the Valley of the Fiery Fissure does foully mock us. A bloody siege against a bloody god set in a valley of pristine beauty and wonder. What could be more cruel? Only this! To be fatally wounded while saving you! Only to die in your arms my dearest forbidden lover. Chaste. Doomed by love! And only once to be held in your arms! Not in our wedding bed but on my deathbed! Amidst a flurry of snow like cherry petals in Spring showering down."

"Yet does not our love rise above the travails of grim war dear Rosemont? In disguise have you ridden by my side all the way from Arcadia to this Siege of Death that in the moment of my deepest despair, at the climax of our greatest defeat, even as the flags of Heike and Taira flutter down in tattered defeat and our national honor is twisted into shame and ruin like ragged basho willow leaves, yet you guard my back! My gesith. My lover. My soul's delight...."

The Mere Mortal and the Elve danced and sang the tragic death of Rosemont Taira for her secret lover Heikeson, forbidden by Lord Taira, by Heike the Elder, and by the law of First Blood that forbad marriage between first cousins. The dance was so beautiful that all but Lord Taira wept. In fact the story was the sentimental favorite of Celebeau. It was not, however the sentimental favorite of Lord Taira. Heikeson burned the body of Rosemont of Taira at the Siege of the Fiery Fissure, along with the bodies of over five thousand of the cream of Arcadia, on the battlefield later known as Dannoura ('Calamity in History'), and then rode home to challenge Lord Taira to a duel of honor.

Naturally Lord Taira declined and Heikeson and his surviving Bodyguard of twenty most loyal Heike kin and retainers, all bloody survivors of the humiliating military defeat at Dannoura, attacked Taira Pavilion at midnight to fight and die in protest of Taira's cowardly maneuvers to pull back all reenforcements which ultimately doomed the clan of Heike at Dannoura. Denied reenforcements, winter descending, out of supplies, and trapped by the enemy, two thirds of the entire pride of the Clan of Heike along with the Pride of the Court's youngest and finest was empaled by military disaster in only three hours of gallant but overwhelming battle. The cream of Arcadia was annihilated. Three generations of the future leaders of the Court were killed. To this day the gapping hole of fine men and women who should have been leading Arcadia now, and were instead dead and burned on the Field of Dannoura, still haunted Arcadia. The Court never recovered, languishing into impotence under the waning leadership of aging parents orphaned of scions and heirs. Taira who orchestrated the political decision that resulted in national calamity survived the midnight vendetta by the few survivors of the once glorious Clan of Heike by hiding after he reputedly killed Heikeson, his own grandson, in the back.

After the dance finished everyone retired to the Pavilion. Wisteria ordered pale ale and wine. "Tell me about the Taira heirloom you found Kitsune...." the wizard jumped. He had not told anyone it was a Taira heirloom. But now he pulled it out and held it up for everyone to admire. Then he told everyone the story behind it.

"It definitely has the rune of Taira on it. So I brought it to see if anyone might recognize it. The wizard held it up to Lord Taira who briefly eyed it, then turned his face away.

"I know it not."

Prince Grafton however studied it minutely. He loved history as much as he loved Love. "This is definitely a Taira Talisman. Dating from the time of Rosemont Taira too. Perhaps even owned by Rosemont herself. Describe again the woman you saw." Horsham described her in precise detail. He had a spy's eyes even if he was slowly going blind. "By the details of antiquated fashion I think she was either of the private retainers of Rosemont or else Rosemont herself. Can you cause the mirror to show her reflection Kit?" Lord Taira suddenly grabbed the mirror and threw it across the room.

"I forbid all discussion! Rosemont was the child of my concubine Rosedale. She was illegitimate. Outside of consideration or concern. I never agreed to the coupling of the name 'Rosemont' and 'Taira'! History and critics have coupled the names together! Not I! And as for her obscene infatuation for my younger son's son -- well---- I will not endure the continual parading of it!" Lord Taira stormed out of the room, dragging poor Lady Aoi with him. Kitsune quietly scurried off and fetched the heirloom and brought it back. A chip of gold had come off. Celebeau was shocked by his stepfather's conduct. His usually stoic face showed it. Rare for him.

"He did more damage to it than a thousand years cast away in a well!" Kitsune said sadly.

"I don't have to see an reflection then!" Prince Grafton said. "The ghost of the well is poor Rosemont!"

"Why does she haunt the well if she died up at the dreaded Valley of the Fiery Fissure Fortress then?" Horsham asked. Should she not haunt Dannoura then?"

"She died violently, her life unresolved, her lover yet living, but endangered. She feared for Heikeson. She had cause to fear. Dannoura was the last battle of the Celestial Wars - at least as far as us Twilight Terra Elves were concerned. None have gone back to perform any exorcism Dance of the Butterflies at Dannoura as ought to have been done in the spring following the disaster. Instead Heikeson died assaulting Taira Pavilion in a midnight vendetta. Of the illegal vendetta attack only Lady Heike and Rufus Royal lived to tell. But they have been cast into Nitthing Exile which is why Heike Pavilion stands empty. Rhingol always forgets he damned Rufus Royal to exile along with Lady Heike. He later officially forgave Rufus Royal as kin to himself but he never withdrew the Nitthing Exile of Lady Heike and Rufus Royal will never grace Arcadia City unless Lady Heike may come back too. Lord Taira will always make sure the last surviving Heike but one will never be allowed to come back.

The blood shed that night at Taira Pavilion will never fade" Kitsune said. "It spatters the walls still! Ghastly stains of bloody violence smear the ravished wooden walls, accented by black burn marks left by the resulting fire that gutted half the pavilion too. Lord Taira lives here at Wisteria Pavilion for a reason. Not just because Wisteria Pavilion is more lovely and more close to the seat of Royalty. Taira Pavilion has become a symbol of Taira's shame. Ghosts still haunt it. At midnight on the Fifth day of the Fifth month of the Fifth year of the Cycle of the Omens the ghosts still wage war at Taira Pavilion, relieving the assault on the honor of Taira and rendering it as shredded as a basho willow leaf blowing tattered and torn in the wind. And no wizard will do a exorcism. The last one who tried died insane, thinking he was performing in front of a grand court of nobles, in fact performing in the graveyard that is the Pavilion of Taira, gibbering and leaping about over bones of dead foxes and dead dogs, dancing amidst garbage, tossing up dead leaves, pointing at nothing, raving mad." Kitsune put the mirror gently face down and looked sadly out at the late afternoon sun.

"Why did Lord Taira throw the mirror of his mistress's child away?" Horsham asked. "A man with so few legal heirs should have taken better care of the few heirs he had. A concubine is not by law beyond the pale of wearing bridal green. Lady Aoi was herself a child of a concubine Lord Taira chose to acknowledge. He acknowledged three bastards of Tairason though every child that depraved man sired turned out bad."

Kitsune paused and flinched. Prince Grafton picked up the story. "When Rosemont rode off, she rode in disguise as a young retainer to her lover Heikeson, dressed as a boy. Her seven foot long hair was cut off. She left alone, a girl in an army of tough soldiers and their tough wives and sweethearts and sisters. That season only the toughest of the Court rode off to the Valley of the Fiery Fissure for the omens all predicted disaster. Rosemont was but fifteen years old. Heikeson was a widower of over one thousand, one hundred, seventy seven. Their love was a May December Forbidden Romance of History. Both Taira and Heike had forbidden the love affair which started when Heikeson saw a fey young child of twelve dance across the Royal Maw. Her retainers hide the secret of her elopement even when Lord Taira beat them bloody, excusing her absence from Court by saying Rosemont resolved to live in seclusion until and unless Heikeson rode back to Arcadia to claim her. When the news came back about the disaster of Dannoura, all of Arcadia reeled in horror. The nation's honor was become the nation's shame. Debate about the folly of the Celestial Wars evaporated into the horror of the cream of Arcadia dying on the battlefield of Dannoura, abandoned, out of supplies, trapped by early winter snows, and most of all denied reenforcements who had volunteered to go rescue them! Shameful! Shameful!

When the bloody few survivors rode back to Arcadia on their beleaguered horses the whole city wept to see how pitiful they were, how few they were, and how mangled by defeat they were. Rhingol the Great shut himself up in his palace and wept. Everyone wept. The city dressed in black in grief of the spectacle. The world went black. In some ways Arcadia never recovered really. We have not won a war since. Whether or not we should have been there, once there we should not have abandoned the bravest to die so outnumbered, starving, and ravished by early winter snow."

"Arcadia wore black because Heikeson and the few survivors, including Rufus Royal and Lady Heike, by the time they staggered back to Arcadia, were black with frostbite" Horsham corrected Prince Grafton who was, as usual, romanticizing history. "Lady Heike lost all the toes of both feet. Rufus Royal lost two fingers to frostbite. A third of the dead came not as casualties of Dannoura but during the retreat back. The winter snows came early. Dannoura was waged as snow flurries blew. By the time the survivors staggered south of the Sweetwater River, they were suffering from exposure to the cold, to snow, to scurvy, to malnutrition. Ignorant peasants on the road thought them ghosts because they were black from frostbite and barricaded their doors to them.

Only some traveling Dwarves in fact kept their wits and shared their food and blankets and mules. Your story says they rode back into Arcadia on horses. By then all their horses were long dead. They rode back on mules given to them by Dwarves. Lady Heike herself told me the story of the retreat from Dannoura. She said Rufus Royal's frost bitten feet dangled one foot from the ground on the back of his mule. Not so romantic but more true. The mules, inelegant they might be, saved them from dying on the road. The Dwarves were metal smiths hauling a tonnage of iron and bronze along the road. They gave all their mules away and half their supplies and stranded themselves to save Elves. One other group saved them too. Not part of official history. Maestusean tinkers traveling along the road. Great Elves saved by Dwarves and outcast gypsies. Lady Heike to this day pays gypsy tinkers to harvest winter holly from the trees of the estate to give away as mementos of that ghastly journey. Dwarves never boast about it. They think it would be humiliating to Elves to hear about."

"Lord Taira was already married to me though he officially lived at Taira Pavilion until the midnight vendetta" Lady Wisteria said. "He salvaged the few heirlooms and clan treasure left and moved in here. I would have divorced him but I thought the gesture was akin to kicking a man when he is down. But since then I have deeply regretted my fatal weakness of compassion. He had Taira heirlooms scattered in hay all about my pavilion for a week. I remember the smell of burnt wood. Some had blood spatters that he ordered servants to clean off -- in vain. He later collected the 'too much damaged mementos of Taira glory' and carted them away for 'symbolic burial' he said. My memory is precise. I recognized the mirror the moment you produced it Kitsune. I did not know the mirror belonged to Rosemont. But I do remember it was part of the 'too much damaged mementos of Taira glory' carted off for 'symbolic burial'. Apparently Lord Taira consigned the Mirror of Rosemont to the fetid and abandoned well as a special burial."

"But he should have known that the mirror might have become the separate soul of Rosemont and that such a casting off might consign her to an eternity in a fetid dungeon!" Horsham protested.

Lady Wisteria smiled her sad smile. "That is precisely what Lord Taira hoped would happen. It did. Poor Rosemont died twice! Once a fast and violent death at Dannoura. Once a long and languishing death in a fetid dungeon that was that abandoned well. Lord Taira probably threw some dead animals down the well to further render it foul. Such evil! I will divorce him now. I will defy even Rhingol the Great! I will not tolerate such human evil another night at Wisteria Pavilion. May Lord Taira move back to Taira Pavilion and damn himself to that dungeon of shame! May the Shame of Taira choke him!" I will write a letter of Renouncement now. Prince Grafton, may I ask you to deliver it to Rhingol the Great?" Prince Grafton nodded. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu was icy in her determination. Suddenly Celebeau stood up.

"Let me take the Letter of Renouncement Lady Wisteria. It is properly speaking, my job" he said pompously. Lady Wisteria nodded. Prince Grafton started, hurt.

"I am the eldest adopted son!"

"I am the right hand kin at Court and I can hand deliver this directly to Rhingol without delay. And I wish to also write a Letter of Renouncement too, dissolving my formal adoption by Lord Taira, the divorcing of my name from the name Taira."

"Oh. I forgot about that. I must do that too!" Prince Grafton rang for his servant. "I don't have your pettifogger brain Celebeau. I will write a letter for both of us Kit!"

"Celebeau's attention to sensible needs is always worthy of us. People cannot live by romance alone. Nor sentimentality" Lady Wisteria said as she rang for a servant to bring paper, brush, ink stick, and ink stone. She slowly folded the long sleeve up to prepare to write the Letter of Renouncement. Writing by brush was a messy affair and must be seriously executed if dressed in rich silk. A Letter of Renouncement was especially serious to compose.

"What will happen to Lady Aoi?" Horsham asked.

"Who cares" Prince Grafton answered.

"She is a victim as much as Rosemont. I cannot allow her to be dragged back to Taira Pavilion" Horsham said. But that evening Lord Taira did just that, over everyone's protests.

Horsham paced Wisteria Pavilion angry, then announced "I am going off to rescue Lady Aoi."

"Why?" Prince Grafton asked.

"She will not live the night there. I knew it in my guts."

"So?" Prince Grafton replied blandly. By his side Lady Kiyohime perked up. If Prince Grafton was widowed then he could marry her. She was swelling with child. Everyone knew Prince Grafton would acknowledge the child of course. That was not the problem. But as wife, she would be more secure and perhaps her jealousy might wane into happy love instead of poisonous passion. Horsham saw her joy. He forgave her. He knew she was torn by jealousy. But the odds were that even if Aoi died, Prince Grafton would not marry her now. Horsham knew it. Horsham had rescued a war orphan a few years back. She ran away since and joined the Orangery -- as a 'Orange Girl' ie child whore. Horsham was teaching her to sing and perform now to try to salvage the situation. He was banned from stage but pretty Mere Mortal female singers had roles on stage as servants and peasant comic performers and Nellie Cyprian was a very funny performer of obscene songs and 'peasant interludes'. Under Horsham's tutor-age she was stealing the show from the soprano stars. She had already stolen Prince Grafton's heart. He was openly courting her now. There were reasons for Horsham's sudden dislike of Prince Grafton. Some were obvious. One reason was Nellie. Another reason was where that would put Kiyohime.

When Kitsune heard about Horsham's decision he panicked. "You can't! Don't you understand! It is but a night but two away from the Tenth Day of the Tenth Month of the Tenth Year of the Cycle of the Omens. The Midnight Vendetta occurred during the Fifth Night of the Fifth Month of the Fifth Year of the Cycle of the Omens! The two dates are celestial doppelgangers. It is but two nights away from the Festival of the Dead! Ghosts are already stirring! The last wizard who tried..."

"Yes. I know. Died a gibbering idiot. But it is not The Fifth Night! It is not even the Tenth Night! That is yet two nights away! You claim the ghosts do math! So they can't pop out of the ground yet! It an't the Tenth Night yet! So I am going off to rescue Aoi. Horsham marched off into the darkness. Kitsune scampered after him.

"Why? No one particularly cares if she lives or dies....in fact Lady Kiyohime would be ecstatic."

"Prince Grafton will never marry her. Aoi's dying will not save her. I know for a fact that.... well... anyway Kiyohime is in a 'no win' position on the battlefield. I can't help that. I can help Aoi. So she is an un-loveable sore thumb of a human being. I am a un-loveable sore thumb of a human being. I can relate. She can't die like Rosemont, a victim of her swine of a father! I can save her."

"Just because I call you my Shoki Queller, that does not mean you really are the real Shoki! And it would take the real Shoki to fend off a hundred ghosts. Between the ghosts of Heike and the ghosts of Taira, there are about one hundred ghosts haunting Taira Pavilion."

"Go back then."

"I can't! Not unless you go back!"

"Nope!"

"Then I am going along with you!"

"Suit yourself."

"I know Prince Grafton is going to abandon Kiyohime for some ..."

"...Slut I brought to town. A war orphan. Now a slut. The trouble is Prince Grafton doesn't get it. Kiyohime is a snake changeling. She an't going to take rejection well. I meet her grandfather White Orachi. Mean Dragon when roused. He said both his grandchildren were sired by a bad child and would bring down their lovers and bring down Arcadia. That means Prince Grafton."

"Who is the other grandchild?"

"Mine. Through Ryu. I was possessed by Ryu and sired a grandson apparently. Aodaisho used magic to sleep with the dead through me. Then she gave the Dwarves of the New Citadel the Curse to kill her own father when White Orachi denied her. White Orachi knew his own daughter was destined to kill him. But he told me the grandchildren she sired would also be murderers too. So your brother is damned. And there is nothing now I can do about it. So maybe you might want me dead Kitsune."

Kitsune scampered to keep up with Horsham's long legs. "I have already cast Prince Grafton's end. It is entangled with the Decline of Arcadia itself. Brother against brother. Prince Grafton against Prince Celebeau. One will live. One will die. And their bloody feud will bring down Arcadia. But I can not predict who will die and who will live to see Arcadia annihilated. And worse! There is nothing I can do to stop it. I can predict but I cannot stop. But I can protect your back Horsham. So we will try to save Lady Aoi together." Horsham abruptly stopped and the Elve collided into him.

"Why?"

"We are all doomed Horsham. But we are also friends. A friend stands by a friend."

"Are you my friend?"

"I am your friend" the little wizard said softly.

Horsham stared at Kitsune. "There an't no such thing! But you are a brave man for such a scatterbrained little Elve. So thanks for coming along! Lets go rescue a damsel in distress!"

They marched off in the darkness of the night, passing dim pavilions where aging Courtiers slept behind dim screens, the flimsy reed and cord shutters filtering the candlelight. Perhaps they dreamed of their long ago killed children perishing in the first snow flurries of premature winter at Dannoura. Perhaps they dreamed of their own premature winter, the premature winter fast coming upon Arcadia, to ambush and annihilate the ancient dowager of civilization of Our World.

As they marched toward the ruins of the infamous Taira Pavilion they heard the fast patter of feet behind. They turned and out of the darkness emerged Celebeau. "I have brought back the Acknowledge of Divorce. Lady Wisteria was vague where you were going. But I guessed you two would try to rescue Aoi. I am joining you." the pompous Elve clicked his sword in it's leather sheathe.

"None of your business, no need, go back." Horsham replied curtly.

"There is a reason the story of Rosemont Taira and Heikeson is my sentimental favorite" Celebeau replied bitterly. He disliked Horsham and did not like explaining himself. "By blood Aoi and I were too close to marry under the Rules of Pedigree. But I always knew if we could have but married we both would have been happy together. We suited each other. It would have been a perfectly sensible marriage. No. More. A happy marriage. We would not have wasted so much time languishing away waiting for other people to discover our worth and maybe love us. We would have sired children. We would have created a sensible, stable, and truly happy life together. Perhaps not a romantic love such as Prince Grafton always boasts of, but a quiet, deep, true love of quiet, deep, true people.

Instead Aoi has withered away unloved and neglected and I woo a golden girl who despises me, surrounded by people who ridicule me. Wizards have predicted I will outlive my few and miserable scions and die alone, utterly alone, 'The Last of the Last' -- whatever that means. If I had but pressed Rhingol he would have exempted us from the Rules of Pedigree. Aoi and I are not first blood cousins, or even third blood cousins for that matter. But I had not the nerve to defy convention and now I will pay for that cowardice for the rest of my life. I owe Aoi. Taira consigned her to a living dungeon as much as poor Rosemont! If I had asked her, she would have ridden away with me on the back of my horse as much as Rosemont. The wilted husk of a woman you see now was not the young Aoi I first saw and fell in love with. I owe her! I pay my debts!"

Horsham nodded curtly and Kitsune smiled a sympathetic smile. It was hard to respect or like Celebeau. He put people off with his dead fish eyes and pompous manner. But he was not a bad man, though he could well end up a bitter man if life continued to ridicule him and deny him any pride in a job well done. And Celebeau could be amazingly resilient. How many other men could have survived being the butt of jokes and scorn as the ridiculed Supreme Field Commander instead of Rufus Royal, a known war hero, a survivor of Dannoura, and a known and absolutely brilliant general.

Yes, Celebeau should have defied Rhingol and surrendered the baton of command to Rufus. But Celebeau had also persisted in learning the job, was tenacious, and was determined. He was not gifted in anything at all except tenacity. But Celebeau did have tenacity. Every time Fate and Chance knocked him down, he just climbed right back on his feet and brushed off the dust of defeat and said "Hope springs eternal!" and then he continued to confront life. And despite all the ridicule about his being dense as celewood, he would pick himself up and counterattack in a different way, learning after the fact, and bettering his attack. A genius knows what to do before the fact. But a stupid man never learns what to do no matter how often he is knocked down. Celebeau was not stupid. But it is hard to stand beside a genius and a hero and not appear small and ridiculous in comparison.

The three men marched off. They crept up to the long ago abandoned pavilion and peered at the dark wreckage in the moonlight when a sound make them jump. Prince Grafton scurried up behind them. He had changed his beautiful clothes and was dressed now in a traveling outfit. He did not have a battle tunic to change into. But being Prince Grafton, he had to dress appropriately even if it was to his own execution. He smiled at everyone now. "Wisteria has allowed her servants to pray to the household gods for our good luck. (Wisteria did not believe in gods herself and never prayed to any god no matter what.) The four men resumed peering into the dark ruin. There appeared to be no light at all, no evidence of habitation, and no sign of Lord Taira and Lady Aoi. "Perhaps they did not come here after all?" Prince Grafton whispered. Celebeau nodded stoically. But at that moment the ruins of the once large and magnificent pavilion suddenly blazed with light. Everyone gasped. Kitsune's ears wiggled.

"Waste of candles!" Celebeau whispered scornfully. "Taira must be frightened of his shadow!"

Kitsune shook his head. Horsham pointed. "Look at the pavilion. The skyline in the moonlight." Everyone did. Then they gasped in horror. In the moonlight of the half moon the roof of the Taira Pavilion was now perfectly intact. The whole pavilion was intact. Perfect. Gleaming with gold gilt and bronze filigree. Suddenly there were pristine reed and cord shutters hanging from every window. There were screens of gilded wood in gleaming rooms. Shadows of people were coming and going inside. Many people. Dead people. The four men were staring at Taira Pavilion as it once was hundreds of years ago ---- the night of the midnight attack of the survivors of Heike after the disastrous defeat at Dannoura. A defeat they blamed on Lord Taira. A defeat they intended to exact on Lord Taira. Kitsune looked at the position of the half moon. Except now it was full moon.

"It is nearly midnight! Just like that infamous night!" the four living men shuddered in horror as the past came back to life before their terrified eyes. Then they heard the soft rustle of feet on the snow. Suddenly snow blanketed the ground, late snow, spring late in coming despite the fact that it was in fact still late autumn and the first snow of winter had not even fallen yet. Suddenly they were quietly surrounded by a small band of twenty men and women. A younger Rufus Royal and Lady Heike were knelling by Horsham's right. By Prince Grafton's left a long ago dead Heikeson knelt down, dressed in his ancient battle tunic. They ghosts of the dead quietly pulled out their bronze swords (and two iron swords, iron then a novel metal) and axes and spears. They tied back their sleeves and quietly readied themselves for the attack. Horsham stared in awe at the younger Rufus and Lady Heike as they prepared for battle. Tears glistened in his blue eyes. With one hand he gently tried to touch the ghostly echo in time. The hand went straight through the ghostly echo. Horsham looked shattered and they he looked intensely at Kitsune who only nodded. Then Heikeson paused, held up his sword for a moment, and then nodded. He and his twenty loyal kin and retainers then charged straight into the Pavilion of Taira -- now joined by four living men!

Reed shutters came crashing down. Women and servants were screaming. "Beware Fire! Take care not to tip the fire blazers or hurt the innocent!" Heikeson shouted.

"Find Taira! Seize him! Then shout out!" Rufus shouted.

"For the honor of Heike!" Lady Heike shouted. "For the defeat at Dannoura!"

"For Rosemont!" Heikeson shouted.

Everyone charged through the pavilion. Celebeau went racing through to find Aoi. "I am here to save Aoi! Aoi! Aoi! Where are you?" the ghosts of Heike ignored him. They were not waging war against innocents. Celebeau did not register as an enemy to The Heike despite all his frustration at being cruelly compared to Rufus Royal. But two ghostly Taira retainers assaulted Celebeau, now formally divorced from Taira, and now an enemy of Lord Taira, and now an enemy to the ghostly retainers of Dead Taira. Celebeau glared at the enemy with blank grey eyes and then drove a sword straight through them, hacking them down to bloody death. "Aoi! Aoi! I am coming!" Off he charged down the hallway.

Kitsune had not brought any weapon. He stood perfectly still, one hand holding out his ash wood whip, one hand holding the billowing sleeve of his tunic as he whispered a magical spell. Suddenly he disappeared, vanishing into a ghostly shadow that only appeared on the gilded walls of the pavilion as he now raced ahead, unseen by all.

Prince Grafton was fighting a ghostly professional mercenary and having a fierce time of it. He was trained to fight of course. Duels. But polite, courtly exercises in honor were not the same thing as bloody professional battles to the death. The mercenary, a fierce, tough Beorach, pressed Prince Grafton hard. Only at the last moment did a ghost of one of The Heike suddenly appear which caused the ghostly Beorach to pause, then turn away to fight his ghostly foe who neatly impaled him in her spear. Prince Grafton paused to bow in his best courtly style but the battled harden ghost of a sister of a dead warrior did not even see Prince Grafton and instead plunged onward in her attack. Prince Grafton decided to become her gesith and guard her back, parrying off attack after attack to allow her to lead her assault.

Horsham was fighting ghostly Taira mercenaries in an inner courtyard. By now snow was falling, flurries, like petals of cherry, dotting his black silk tunic. The ghosts were welding spears and swords, surrounding Horsham. Horsham barked in scorn and impaled one man with his bronze short sword in his left hand. Then he grabbed the dead man's longer iron sword and now armed with a sword in each hand, he battled the other mercenaries, wheeling about, fending off attack after attack. Horsham was ambidextrous and being attacked on all sides only roused his lust for murder. Adrenalin pounding, growling, Horsham lunged after man after man, wheeling about, parrying, and then leaping aside to attack at a different angle.

It was almost like a dance. In fact Horsham had learned how to fight vicious war by learning how to dance. There was a grim beauty now as he danced in the courtyard of Taira, fending off four fierce Beorach mercenaries while leaping over the fallen body of the fifth. His face was a mask of livid passion. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. The mercenaries fell into the moist snow. Then Horsham, panting, his face livid, waved his swords and screamed out in victory. No drug ever compared to the drug of battle. Horsham swore and then leaped into the pavilion and raced down the hallway in that swaggering burst of speed that was uniquely his, bellowing out a battle cry in his deep baritone, eager to kill more men, panting to keep the chemical high of murder pounding in his brain.

The pavilion started to fill with smoke. Screams were coming from everywhere. Women and retainers were bursting out of the smoke from braziers knocked down by Taira mercenaries and retainers in their panic. Attackers and defenders were lunging in and out of the smoke. One woman died, the only known victim of the Heike Attack, when she suddenly lunged out of the smoke and impaled herself on the spear of a Heike warrior. She screamed and then fell in a bloody heap in the floor. Horrified, the Heike warrior screamed, knelt down, and then took his own life for sullying the pristine revenge of Heike by a bloody accident.

The clash of metal on metal echoed in the smoke. Screens were crashing down. Shutters were crashing down. It was a melee. Total confusion. People running everywhere. People appearing and disappearing in the smoke up and down twisting hallways and in and out of rooms and courtyards. Suddenly the female warrior, covered with blood, her own and her enemies, whom Prince Grafton was protecting, emerged from the smoke, leapt into the snow of a courtyard, and howled. Other Heike warriors leaped down as she pointed a bloody spear toward a small building: a latrine. Prince Grafton, sorely wounded, staggered and fell to the feet of the female warrior, the daughter of Lord Naratunson, married to a dead kin of Heike. She staggered and leaned on her spear, obvious to her protector. "I have seen him! Our enemy! He is cowering in the latrine!"

At that moment the last ghostly mercenary bodyguard of Lord Taira leaped down into the courtyard and formed a shield wall. The last survivors of the Heike Assault staggered into the courtyard too and formed a shield wall. It was nineteen against nine -- plus three. Celebeau emerged from the smoke carrying the dead body of Aoi. He gently laid it down and then leaped into the courtyard and joined the shield wall of The Heike. At that moment Horsham exploited through the smoke and leaped down, roaring, covered with blood, welding two swords and howling, berserk with blood lust. The two shield walls lined up only ten feet apart and roared at each other. At that moment Rufus Royal emerged, carrying the body of Heikeson. He laid it beside the body of Aoi and then leaped down and joined his bloody wife at the shield wall. Then he shouted. "We are here to kill only Lord Taira! No others! He is the architect of the Defeat of Dannoura and tonight the Defeat of Dannoura must claim him! Until he dies the shame of Dannoura can not be wiped away. Nor can butterflies dance over the flowers of the earth that covers the burnt biers of the slain of Dannoura. No excarnation of the battlefield can be done until the final player of the tragedy be held to account! Give us Taira! There is no honor in saving him! If you fight this night defending such a man your souls will haunt this place forever! All honor perished at Dannoura! Dannoura is a curse that will entangle all souls to eternal woe!"

The Beorach mercenaries were paid by gold however and did not fight for honor but for hire. They did not think they even had souls, much less souls that might be entrapped here, eternally haunting this now evil pavilion. They roared out their scorn, living for the moment, unaware they were about to be trapped by supernatural history. The two shield walls crashed together. Blood spattered on the pristine snow. And then it was all over. Only Rufus Royal and his wife stood bloody but upright, both too injured to continue the fight. Rufus held his wife in his arms in despair. Prince Grafton was covering the dead body of the long ago dead granddaughter of Lord Naratun, himself bloody. Celebeau was wounded and staggering. In despair he dropped to his knees in the moist snow. Horsham was fighting the last seven Beorach to try to force his way through the shield wall to the latrine. He was roaring like a wild animal. But he could not break through. Finally even he staggered and fell into the moist snow. Blood dripped into the snow as Horsham screamed in impotent fury at being defeated. A ghostly mercenary aimed his sword at Horsham's throat. Ghostly mercenaries aimed swords at the throats of Celebeau and Prince Grafton and Rufus Royal and Lady Heike. "Kill my lady and you will have to kill me too! I am Rufus Royal! Kin of Rhingol!" the ghostly mercenary hissed and instead struck Rufus Royal across his face and spat in the face of Lady Heike.

"Slay all others! Let these two damn fools live to tell the story of their clan's folly!" the leader of the ghostly mercenaries shouted. Hundred of years of echoing history was yet again going to climax with defeat. Yet again the Last of the Clan of Heike was being defeated. A cycle of defeat eternally trapping everyone. A ghostly quagmire about to entangle living men to join the eternal melee, eternally to be waged, eternally to be lost, year after year, century after century, everlastingly.

At that moment the door to the latrine burst open and Kitsune hauled out the screaming Lord Taira and threw him before the two shield walls. "Duel to the death!" Kitsune picked up a bloody sword and forced it into Taira's shaking right hand. He shoved Taira out in front to confront at last the ghosts of his enemies -- the ghosts of his own dead younger son sons, and the ghosts of his family's honor and dishonor. The Beorach pulled back. This was lawful and proper behavior. Why die when they did not have to die? Professionals killers do not fight to the death. Without thinking, the action of immediate self preservation saved the ghostly mercenaries, suddenly hacking apart the ghostly net entangling all their souls and freeing the doomed, living and dead, from the cycle of eternal war.

"Let it be so!" the mercenary shouted. "I weary of waging war here in this damn place. I dream of Beorach land! My souls flies northward! Suddenly I remember all I have left behind me! I am eager to leave here and fly north to freedom and my ancestor's graves! I dream of knee deep grass blowing in the wind of the North -- billowing over me like a blanket!"

The ghostly echo of Rufus Royal marched forward, helping his bloody wife as she welded her ancestral sword in shaking, bloody arms. Horsham pulled back by Celebeau and Prince Grafton. Lord Taira screamed in terror, his twisted fingers dropping the sword. He dropped into the snow and cowered in terror. Rufus Royal gently let go of his wife. Lady Heike tottered, righted herself, groaned in pain, and then slowly brought down the sword cutting off Taira's head. The head rolled across the snow. Everyone watched it. Then the four living men looked up. They were alone in the inner courtyard of a long ago abandoned pavilion, the grass dead and choked with weeds and nettles, no snow anywhere, no fire, no smoke, no corpses -- except for the dead bodies of Aoi and Taira.

"Aoi died in my arms" Celebeau said. "Taira, insane with fear of ghosts haunting the pavilion, did slay her by mistake, taking her for the specter of Heikeson."

Kitsune put the bloody sword laying by Aoi's side and put it in the dead hand of Taira. "Taira killed Aoi and then turned the sword on himself. It is over. Lets' go home."

The four living men limped back to Wisteria Pavilion, helping a sorely wounded Prince Grafton who had to be stitched back into one piece of human flesh by Lady Wisteria Fujitsu. Kitsune did not have one scratch or drop of blood on him. Celebeau had a serious shoulder wound but it was neatly stitched up by Lady Wisteria Fujitsu too. He had carried back the body of Lady Aoi despite it. He mourned for her for the rest of the night and conducted the funeral at the Sacred Grove as her next of kin. Celebeau was a stoic man but people later said they never remembered him crying except twice in all his life and the first time was at the funeral of Lady Aoi. Horsham had five wounds but none serious and Dr. Kakoff stitched him up as always. It did not stop him from reporting to Bela at the Cockpit the next day, the Ninth Day of the Tenth Month of the Tenth Year of the Cycle of the Omens. The infamous Tenth Day, the day of the Festival of the Dead, was the next day.....

Horsham presented a swaggering facade to Bela, his wounds tightly bandaged and hidden, his bluster concealing the hell of a past year and the hell of a past night. He appeared to be very much his old self one year after his disastrous trip West. Horsham was again clean, neatly dressed, beard closely trimmed, thick dark hair tied back in a neat Elvish braid, tiny gold earrings in his ears, his body again beefy strong with bulging muscles in stead of bulging fat, a tight belly, and massive shoulders. He was wearing some of the clothes Lady Confabulate left in hampers, realizing he needed to impress and desperate enough to accept her help. The clothes were all in elegant taste, perfectly chosen by Lady Confabulate who had perfect taste. Horsham had a spy's sense of clothes as costumes appropriate for an alias impersonation but Horsham knew he did not understand clothes as fashion. But right now Horsham knew he had to impress Bela who had just arrived back in town and surely would have heard how Horsham had hit rock bottom.

But Horsham's blue eyes still betrayed the real state of the inner man. They were haunted, like the eyes of a man just this side of madness. Horsham had pounded his body back into shape by forcing his brain to shut down by sheer exhaustion. But Horsham had done nothing about his overactive brain, his frayed nerves, his obsessive fears, his self destructive inclinations, and his addictions. His body was clean but his brain was still addicted to opium and alcohol and adrenalin and self destruction.

"I hear rumors you have been brawling in Court Horsham. Not the most genteel place to brawl. And the courtiers are all tottering old relics. I hear Lord Taira keeled over and died mysteriously. Don't know anything about it do you?"

"A brawl is a brawl is a brawl. I will brawl anywhere. Even my own execution! Lord Taira went insane after Lady Wisteria Fujitsu divorced him and he killed Aoi and himself in the ruins of the Taira Pavilion, I suppose raving and reliving the long ago attack on the place by the Last of the Clan of Heike. Taira died a coward."

"How do you know?" Bela smiled his wintery smile while fingering his large signet ring lazily. Were you there?"

"I an't invited to no social occasions by Lord Taira. Never have. Never will now. I spent the night at Wisteria Pavilion mourning the death of poor Lady Aoi. Everyone can testify to that. But I am here and ready for a job! Give me one....." At that moment a man reentered the door of the Library. Bela was entertaining, of all people, Sanguinary. Bela was trying to pump Sanguinary for information for Lady Sanguinary had a who's who of visitors to her elegant townhouse, including a who's who of spies for the Dark Lord. Lady Sanguinary had long ago sold her soul to the Dark Lord for power, influence, and status. But her son was wavering. The 'Peace in Our Time' was tasting more and more sour as if Arcadia was being made a fool of. If war broke out and Arcadia was invaded, with it's army still only a shattered shell, then history would damn the 'Peace Through Appeasement Movement' that Lady Sanguinary championed. Sanguinary was nervous enough to visit Bela who did not hesitate to try to 'turn' Sanguinary against his mother.

But spy tricks of the trade, amorally effective though they were, struck Horsham as less than dainty right now. He bristled when his old dueling nemesis stood up and smiled, standing at ease in the Library of Bela, as if he belonged there. Horsham, a naturally paranoid man, glared murder. Sanguinary smiled his fey smile and bowed his usual bored, effete Elvish bow. Bela sucked in his breath. The moment was dicy even for him. Then Sanguinary made his decision that decided all three men's lives and deaths.

"I challenge you to a duel Horsham."

"Really my dear fella! This is becoming tiresome! You said you were not going to issue any more challenges anymore! Why start it all over again? People will laugh at you my dear fella, for being so damn obsessed by Horsham. As if you were in love with the man. No sensible man fights over twenty duels with the same player. Like a man monopolizing a damsel at a dance. Just an't done! It makes you look ridiculous. It puts you up to ridicule."

Sanguinary glared at Bela. Bela's laughing reproach backfired. "I am killing this damnable Mere Mortal if it is the very last thing I do!"

"It will be! I will kill you Sanguinary!"

"Good! Tomorrow Night then? Why not? Isn't it the Tenth Night of the Tenth Month of the Tenth Year of the Cycle of the Omens and therefore supposed to be lucky for duels?"

Horsham blanched. "I must assist Prince Kitsune with an exorcism at a suicide well and then at twilight help him cast little paper boats into the River Arcadia filled with candles, a phantom fleet of boats taking the souls of the dead down the river to the sea and on to the Watery West and the Portal of Death. We are crafting special boats this year to commemorate the Clan of Heike at Dannoura, a sort of Excarnation of the battlefield by way of ritual. A magical way to ease tormented souls West out of history."

"Our duel can be at midnight then" Sanguinary replied, "Plenty of time. You can cast a paper boat off with your own name on it." Bela sat down wearily and put his hand over his face and shook his head.

The duel was spectacular. It was held in the Royal Park in the moonlight, the moon reflecting off the first snow of the season. Everyone attended it like a social event. Some enterprising venders came and sold hot toddies to the fur dressed Elite 1000. Horsham was actually cold stone sober. Sanguinary was unusually nervous. Perhaps Bela's retort had hit a nerve. Some people were in fact saying that it was odd that Sanguinary had not challenged Horsham to any duels when he was a shabby bum, or when he was recovering from diverse war wounds, only when he was in his prime of health ---- and good looks. Sanguinary's obsessive desire to kill Horsham was indeed becoming odd. And people were being to explain the obsession by way of Sanguinary's sexual orientation. Homosexuality was not a taboo to the Twilight Elves who did not give a damn who slept with who outside of the taboo of virginity. But Sanguinary's lust to kill Horsham was indeed very much approaching a racist's sexual lust toward a man declared inferior and therefore taboo -- but still sexually desirable.

Everyone could not believe that Horsham, the apparently hopeless down and out has-been bum, had actually come back. He looked splendid again. He looked like a god of war. He was bandaged from a prior duel apparently but still ---- he looked magnificent when he casually pulled off an rich if old fashioned court over tunic and pulled his steel long sword out of the shoulder harness. He wore a red sash about his now slim waist, over skin tight buckskin leggings and shiny new boots. He kept his tunic on because of cold. The first snow flurries of winter were falling. But the linen tunic was cut in the latest fashion, neat, form fitting, smocked to cling to the body instead of billowing. It was the cutting edge of fashion for a cutting edge duel.

Women murmured and pub girls again flocked back and giggled. Female Elves looked on Horsham's body with frank appraisal and dropped their rune cards on top of his cloak. Miscegenation was popular this season. The heretofore taboo was suddenly decadently appealing. The Elite 1000, still every bit the racist mob at the height of it's power, now entertained the idea of having sex with a Mere Mortal that they had been tormenting for almost twenty years. Horsham, at thirty one was a little long in the tooth but he was one of two of the only frankly famous Mere Mortals in Our World. And frankly Ben the Beorach was a bony dog in comparison to Horsham of Arcadia.

The reaction of the elite mob threw off Horsham's concentration and the duel turned bloody. Horsham fancied he saw amidst the glittery mob the ghost of poor pathetic Lady Aoi clutching her pathetic wizard invincibility charms and good luck talismans, almost crying with nerves, all alone, embarrassing herself even now, even after her death. Horsham had already seen Floradale sporting Lady Confabulate on his arm. Lady Confabulate smiled her elegant smile as usual and nodded at him. He had also seen Prince Grafton and Lady Kiyohime in the crowd, looking as usual perfectly elegant and beautiful despite being bandaged over half his body. But despite last night fighting along side Horsham, Prince Grafton was aloof now to Horsham. They were here for the entertainment now and not out of friendship, unlike Lady Confabulate who always paid for a doctor to be on the dueling site to possibly save lives. Prince Grafton was a charming man but he could hold a marathon grudge when his ego was marled. Horsham was now on Prince Grafton's list of person non grata along with Celebeau, the ink was scarcely dried from crossing off poor Aoi and Taira from that list of person non grata. Kiyohime clutched Prince Grafton's arm. Her swelling belly was really beginning to show now. The Snake Changeling was nervously pregnant and it was not helping her romantic situation or calming her nerves one bit. In the audience the cunning face and golden curls of the teenaged Nellie Cyprian could also be seen, flirting with Prince Grafton under Kiyohime's radar. Or perhaps not under Kiyohime's radar. The one person Horsham did not see, and indeed never saw, was Lady Sanguinary. The femme fatale never attended her son's duels, dressed in black, in mourning for past and future victims of her malice.

Now both duelists mauled each other brutally until blood was smeared all over the snow. Horsham got so sweaty he tore off his tunic despite the cold and fought bare chested, dressed chest up only in bandages and chest hair. For some reason Sanguinary gasped and stumbled. Horsham nearly killed him but slipped in the bloody snow. In the end the Master of the Field declared the duel over. Yet again both men lived. The elite mob clapped. But this time the applause was scattered between both men. Horsham, in a gesture of unexpected gallantly held up the red sash and said "this sash of invincibility was given to me by Lady Aoi and I will wear it ever afterwards in memory of her gentle kindness to me". The Elite 1000 snickered in scorn except for Lady Confabulate who nodded her head in application of Horsham's gesture. Prince Grafton blushed, embarrassed both by his late wife's religious superstition and by his memories of his quarrel with Horsham. He did not clap though Lady Kiyohime did. Most of the crowd was clapping. Sanguinary noticed that and swore and curst the mob as he was carried off the field.

"Damn you all to the Fiery Fissure! This started because Ben the Beorach was funking a Royal Princess. Now Arcadia is so corrupt that you all want to funk Horsham!" The crowd laughed. Horsham blanched. Then he fainted in the snow from a bad wound dangerously near his lung. He sprawled in the snow and blood bubbled up through his mouth. He lived because of Lady Confabulate's foresight in always paying for a doctor to attend the duels. Doctor Kakoff cleverly collapsed the blood filled lung with a hollow tube and then transported Horsham to the Military Barracks where the military doctors treated Horsham after Dr. Kakoff declared him out of danger. He was unconscious for two days from loss of blood. When he woke he smiled bemused at the doctors. "I dreamed of paradise." The military doctors had treated Horsham with opium despite Kakoff's written 'Nitthing by Mouth' warning.

The young Gildagad, missed the famous duel and much regretted it. He later wrote "I missed a very famous duel which was waged with the first snows of winter in Arcadia. I arrived at the peak of autumn, ruddy warm and heady with the harvest. I even saw the great Horsham myself during a autumn ride with Celebeau, and indeed he looked most like the god of war, as many a courtier declared him to be. But Rhingol, who disapproved of dueling, would not let me watch the duel that was waged with the very first snow of the season. The next day the trees all shed their autumn finery and the world went from gold and red to black and white and red. People came back to Court with hand fulls of red snow as mementos. One beautiful young courtier gave me a pink snowball and laughed in her most fey manner. Not knowing what I was suppose to do, I licked the snowball and tasted blood. Then she laughed and said 'You have tasted the intoxicating taste of Horsham on the snow'. I was most embarrassed and did not know what to say and stuttered out a most inane answer. I had cause to remember the scene later, for that very spring war against erupted onto the tender flesh of Our World and many a fine young man died, their blood dyeing the last snows of spring much as Horsham dyed the first snows of winter. It proved alas to be an omen. That spring Our World all tasted blood in the snow."

Horsham spent the winter carefully ignoring Wisteria Pavilion and anyone else he knew beyond the level of distant acquaintance while trying to do jobs for Bela and also for Rufus Royal. Horsham had just enough acing ability to try to fool three important men who controlled his life. Rufus, Bela, and Celebeau. Rufus Royal wanted Horsham to promote the catapult so the Arcadia Military would adopt it as a weapon of war. Horsham was also Rufus Royal's munitions purchasing agent. Horsham had control of large sums of money to illegally buy weapons from the Citadels. Rufus Royal had to continue to trust Horsham. Bela controlled the Cockpit and was Horsham's spy master. Right now spying was the only paying job Horsham openly had. Celebeau controlled the hollowed out shell of the Imperial Army. If war ever broke out again Celebeau would control any military position Horsham might desperately hope to get posted to. The problem was Horsham was also again an addict. He left the hospital an addict. He swore he would not buy any of the stuff himself. He had tried so hard to kick the vile habit. But he simply could not kick the habit. Some of the reasons were clear. Some of the reasons were obscure.

The duel haunted his brain. The mummers of the fashionable crowds of Elves haunted his brain, the naked lust of the pub girls only contrasting with the discreet lust of the Elves. Throughout the winter Horsham found himself invited for the first time to soirees and opera balls, given free opera tickets, given gifts, given cards tucked into his belt as elegant Elve women stopped him in the street and chatted with the very same man they crossed the street to avoid only a season before. Sanguinary's duel, and Bela's jest in his Library, also greatly bothered Horsham and unnerved him. Horsham was unnerved by the idea of being viewed as a sexual creature. A sexy man. A beautiful, virile, sexy beast of a Mere Mortal. A cliche come to life of the sex crazed, hormone mad, uncontrollable sexual predator that Elves racially saw Mere Mortal Men as being. And this unnerved Horsham enough to feed his addiction and return him to opium.

Horsham had never been comfortable with the idea of being a sexually appealing creature, sexually appealing to others. Desirable. Someone to be lusted after. That was not the same as Brute Sex. That was ok. Ugly brute sex in some back alley, the bar maid against the wall. That was ok. Vulgar sex on a kitchen table was ok. Even sex in the front lines, before the battle, lusting to live, or after the battle, glad to still be alive was ok. It was ok if it was ugly, vulgar, brutal, and impersonal.

But being viewed as sexually desirable was something else. Being viewed now as sexually appealing was something else. Even through Horsham knew he was said to be 'beautiful' he avoided the label and even abused his own body to avoid being seen as beautiful. He was a very beautiful man who went out of his way to not be thought of as beautiful. In the end he deliberately destroyed his very beauty on purpose, out of self loathing and self fear. Why?

Because for the first time in a very long time memories of the long ago rape in the showers burst out of hidden part of his mind. At night Horsham found himself again reliving that traumatic assault over and over. Horsham had never coped with the rape. He had buried it deep inside his soul. But now the rape ravished his mind over and over. And the memories, resurfacing in his troubled brain, kept him so emotionally unstable that he took the opium just to appear 'sane' to the outside world even as his inner mind tumbled down that long incline to total insanity that finally, violently, ended his life at the end of a long rope.

Horsham first rationalized the opium by saying he would just take a little bit to stabilize his brain. Just a little bit. He would control himself. He would control his intake. He would just take enough to keep the approaching madness at bay so he would appear 'normal'. By now Horsham had absolutely no idea what 'normal' was but he knew by any definition he was most definitely not 'normal'. But opium did not help. A drug never really helps a mental illness. Or at least a drug like opium. Soon Horsham was taking more and more and he was right back on the insane back of the kicking mule of addiction. But this time he was trying to hide it from everyone. Absolutely everyone.

Celebeau increasingly stared at Horsham with his dead fish eyes as if to say 'See! See! I knew it! I knew it! A flawed bow in battle, shattering in the middle of battle!'. Horsham sweated each time he appeared for a Cockpit briefing, out of fear that Bela would guess. He cut Prince Grafton during an performance at the Orangery, in front of everyone, the height of rudeness, which sealed his fate as far as Prince Grafton was concerned. He avoided Prince Kitsune like a plague. He circumnavigated around Lady Confabulate. He never set foot in Wisteria Pavilion so Lady Wisteria might cross examine him with her sad eyes that missed nothing. And Horsham refused to ride north and visit Rufus Manor out of shame that Rufus Royal and Lady Rufus and Merry May would see his decay and be disappointed and disillusioned with him. That would hurt him most of all.

Kitsune could not run Horsham to ground because Prince Grafton had married Kiyohime. The gesture was tainted. Kiyohime was pregnant with Prince Grafton's child and Prince Grafton was not a cold hearted cad despite the fact he was already the lover now of Nellie Cyprian. He felt guilty for Kiyohime. He did love her. He loved her exotic beauty, intensity of devotion, vulnerability and tragic, romantic history. But he loved Nellie too. Nellie was young and bantering and ribald. She made Prince Grafton laugh. She could get anyone to laugh. She could wrap men around her little finger with her mischief and wit and neat ankles and dainty dancing feet. She was wickedly funny. But looking into her pretty Merrach face you could not believe she was wicked. Mischievous. An imp of a girl. But not evil. Just pragmatic. A survivor. She even wrapped Horsham around her little finger, getting him to teach her to sing and act and then encouraging him to brawl with her rivals as her theatrical gesith or bodyguard while she seduced every man in the audience who had a title and money and power. And she did. Prince Grafton was just one of many lovers Nellie scored that winter. And where did that leave Kiyohime?

Prince Grafton pacified her with the title 'wife'. At least he hoped to pacify her. But the pregnancy was difficult and the wizards of the Court predicted dire consequences. As Kiyohime swelled up in pregnancy, Prince Grafton disappeared more and more, becoming an avoid opera lover. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu was all patience but Kiyohime snapped in jealous rage whenever she saw her past rival. She should have snapping at her latest rival. But waddling around Wisteria Pavilion kept one from attending opera at the Orangery. Kitsune had to stay full time at Wisteria Pavilion to keep the two women apart. So he could not run Horsham to ground.

Finally Horsham took the opportunity of a job to visit the famous Twilight Elve Celebros and confided in him with surprising candor. But sometimes it is easier to confess to a perfect stranger than a friend. Celebros' advice however was brutal. Horsham could try to kick the habit once and for all, or he might as well kill himself before the opium killed him. For the opium was killing him, no ifs, ands, and buts. The aged, gracious, courtly Elve offered Horsham his own home but Celebros Hall was too famous. Everyone stayed at Celebros Hall. Only one week after Horsham left young Gildagad, the later King of Our World, stayed at Celebros Hall. Everyone was in and out and all about Celebros Hall. Celebros was the single most famous wise man outside of Durham the Deathless. The only man who never ever visited Celebros in fact was Ben the Beorach which says something about Ben the Beorach.

Instead Horsham choose his usual hardest-way-to-do-it-course-of-action. He rode Blackie out into the wilderness to 'dry out'. After Horsham went missing for a week on an unauthorized trip without leave, Bela decided to investigate his most brilliant but also most unstable of secret agents. Bela first picked the lock and broke into Horsham's new digs. They were just as dismal as his old digs, this time in a back ally above the latrine and behind a stable. The single room was a dirty hole. The place stank like a den where some feral animal might hide out. The bed was as pile of blankets on the ground and they smelled vile. The chair was rickety. The table was covered with maggoty, half eaten pub grub, pails of cheap beer, moldy bread, dirty clothes, and small boxes labeled opium. Forged prescriptions were scattered everywhere.

Nailed to one dank wooden wall was the torn pieces of Merry May's letter. Bela carefully read the private correspondence without shame. On the wall, all around the torn pieces of the letter were smeared these words: "Bad. Bad. Bad. Rotten to the core. Vile. Fraud. Fake. Sham. Utter failure. Despicable failure. Base evil. Coward. She will hate you. They all will hate you. I hate you! I loathe you! I want to kill you!" The lettering apparently formed death threats against either the Rufus Family -- or against Horsham ---- but they were written by Horsham himself in his own blood.

"Are you cold little brother?" a tiny child's voiced whispered.

"No big brother if you hold me in your arms..." another child's voice whimpered.

Bela jumped, and then looked around the cold, grim hovel. He looked everywhere. There were no children. Yet somewhere two small children whimpered in the dismal digs, the teeth chattering with the cold.

"Are you cold little brother? Are you cold?"

"Where is Mommy? Da is dead and all the money is gone and we have no more food and it is cold....so cold.... and we are alone here.... and it is so cold...so cold...."

Bela prided himself on being a rational, modern Elve. But his skin crawled in fear. For over two years Horsham had kept digs in a hovel where two small, abandoned war orphans who had frozen to death. Their cruel death permeated the damp wood like mold. There were piles of blankets everywhere. More than Horsham could possibly need. He had been buying used blankets to try in vain to pacify the ghosts of the two dead children. All the while he had been slowly killing himself, two ghosts sucking his shadow and leeching away his life. Two hours later, after confirming when Horsham saddled up Blackie and rode off, Bela rode like hell too -- after a clearly suicidal drug addict.

Bela tracked Horsham down to a small cave by the Rocky River. Horsham had frequent gone to that region on his days off and even practiced map making by drawing the river. The area was rugged, mostly unexplored, populated only by migrating savage Maleth Mere Mortals and Dark Elves, and considered a semi dangerous frontier. Horsham's drawings were the first maps ever done professionally of the area.. Bela interviewed the surprisingly genteel hunter gatherer savages and immediately heard tales of a new wild beast inhabiting a cave by the river. Bela paid one genteel savage to guide him there. Blackie was still standing guard, ever the stout hearted horse, but inside the festering cave Bela found Horsham unconscious and bloody. He had tried to batter his brains in by pounding his head against the stone walls of the cave.

Bela set up camp by the rugged by lovely Rocky River, spread out a blanket on the meadow grass. Then the fastidious Elve dragged out the body of the nearly dead man. Because Horsham had apparently been in the cave nearly a week, his was in ghastly shape. Bela tore off Horsham's soiled clothes, washed his fouled body, then wrapped him in a second blanket and laid him on the clean blanket. He gently nursed the man for two more days, forcing liquids down his cracked lips, bathing his bloody brow, washing his self inflicted wounds, all while softly singing opera songs to try to keep Horsham's soul from dying, offering the wavering soul a dangling rope deep down in the bowels of the dark hole his mind was in. Finally Horsham opened his eyes, his famously large, baby blue eyes fringed by double rows of long eyelashes as beautiful as a woman's eyes. For one moment the blue eyes stared bemused, not registering, the mind still shut down. Then terror and panic descended and the eyes flashed with madness.

"Easy. Easy. My dear fella! You are not in any danger! No one is here to hurt you! Aren't we friends? Pale Pals as the Dwarves say? Pals? Pals. Pals." The blue eyes shuddered, rolling in their eye sockets. "Pals. Pals. Just Pals. Not here to hurt you! Easy....easy...."

"Pals" Horsham whispered. "Pals. Are we pals? Pals....."

Bela smiled in reply, his cool smile for once not wintery, not ruthless, not devious, but almost genuinely human. In the middle of a wilderness Bela discovered his human heart where he had locked it away hundred of years ago. People later wrote Bela did not have a heart. But tragically for all concerned, Bela did, and it was Horsham who caused Bela to discover his human heart. The consequences of misplaced humanity belatedly rediscovered would be cruel indeed.

Two weeks later Beladona, staying at Bela's country estate, saw her brother return with Horsham. Her face darkened. Beladonna loathed Mere Mortals with a racist passion. She was a proud member of the Elite 1000, clinging on desperately by her finger nails, her husband a bounder, her children embarrassed because they could not keep up with their richer peers, and Beladonna living off charity from her brother Bela. And Beladona lived terrified that her brother, still single, might one day marry and cut her off from her lifeline of cash. Beladonna did not like Bela's Cockpit either. And Beladonna feared Bela's dangerous job. If Bela died, the estate was entailed to a distant male relative and Beladonna would be cut off financially. So Beladonna wanted Bela to quit the Cockpit, quit the Front, quit the War, and quit his unsavory associations with dubious people like Horsham.. She was also worried because Bela was bisexual. Horsham was a virile man when he wanted to be. Belladonna watched many of his duels and had to testify to that biological fact.

Beladonna could not afford to see her brother either fall in love with a respectable Elve girl or fall in love with a disrespect able Mere Mortal. Either way Beladonna would then be bankrupt. Like the ghosts of Horsham's digs sucking out his warmth like icy leeches under the guise of being vulnerable and pitiful, Beladonna discouraged any romantic relationships Bela might have developed over the years, encouraging his cold aloofness, his icy solitariness so she could suck dry his kilt pouch of monies. She actually sabotaged no less than five long ago affairs when Bela was a vulnerable young man. She encouraged his suspiciousness and scorn toward people by continually questioning people's motives toward Bela, ferreting out possible ulterior motives, dicing apparently kindly gestures, and exposing weaknesses to make Bela despise humanity. All so she could leech his money.

Beladonna hissed under her breath when she saw the two men afar off. But as they rode closer she smiled in relief. Bela was his usual smooth, suave, distant, impersonal self. Pristine as winter ice. Horsham looked deadly ill. His forehead was bandaged and his face was gaunt, dark circles under his famously blue eyes. His beefy body looked shrunken. He was wearing one of Bela's tunics and kilts which did not become his more beefy body. He most definitely did not look sexy like the 'Snow Duel'. He looked wane and weary and demoralized. Beladonna was safe. This was not a romantic tryst. It was apparently just another example of Bela's dubious Cockpit intrigues.

"I think it is very rude of you to being your Cockpit business to our country estate Bela!" Beladonna whined.

"My country estate Beladonna dear" Bela corrected cooly. "You are my most charming of guests (reproof implied) but I also have business to do and I will do my business wherever I wish. It is convenient right now to do Cockpit business here." Bela smiled blandly. Bela always kept his emotions under a tight leash and never showed his true self to anyone, not even to his sister. Especially his sister. He dismounted now and gestured for the servants while giving his sister a polite bow. Bela never lost his temper and Bela was never anything but polite and genteel no matter the circumstances. But Beladonna shivered at the icy undertone hidden behind the elegant veneer of her brother. She had helped to create Bela but now she shivered at her creation.

Horsham glared malevolently at Beladonna. He knew she loathed him. He dismounted stiffly, his body staggering for a brief moment when both legs landed on solid earth. Then he righted himself and pulled his body up to his full height and patted Blackie before letting a servant take the horse away. Beladonna snickered, assuming Horsham was drunk.

"I am not drunk you bitch!" he growled under his breath as he past her. Then the trio entered the charming estate house as blandly as if they were all friends there for a charming fortnight.

Horsham spent not a fortnight but nearly two months at Bela's estate of 'Moonlight over the Water'. The drying out went much better under Bela's supervision. Bela stopped Horsham from engaging in any self destructive behavior. No binges of whiskies and beers, no drugs, no cutting himself, no excesses of any type. He bathed every day. Each day he exercised Blackie for two hours (often riding with Bela who rode his beautiful desert pony Moonlight). He ate moderate meals of healthy food. He was forced to sleep nine hours instead of prowling about for 36 to 48 hours at a time until his body collapsed. And there was lots of music to sooth his mauled soul.

Bela's many servants included a full private Orchestra which in the First Age featured oboes, flutes, violas, harps, twilight horns, and water organs ( nested, spinning glass bowls drenched with flowing water and played with the fingers to produced an ethereal music -- later reinvented by the American Genius Ben Franklin in the Eighteenth Century). Bela also offered famous opera singers free fortnights at his estate in return for 'singing for their dinners'. Horsham was surrounded by music, and even encouraged to sing with the professional singers. Music proved a more gentle balm to the soul than opium.

The regime of Elvish Moderation in All Things stabilized the unstable man to a great degree. Horsham behaved well in the countryside. Perhaps it was his childhood in a farm, but he was at his best when forced to lived in a pastoral environment where the disciplined lifestyle allowed his body and soul (if not his mind) to recover to a great degree. Surviving diaries of opera singers like Fay Jasminily visiting that season recorded that Horsham "...proved to be a most unexpectedly pleasant fella, contrary to all published reports to the contrary, and quite talented too as a singer. No table matters of course but you cannot expect Mere Mortals to be civilized creatures. After all they are not Elves. But for a Mere Mortal peasant, still quite coherent and almost respectable...."

Another diarist, the famous soprano Amaryllis, wrote that "...he (Horsham) was quite handsome too for a hairy Mere Mortal, almost as tall as us Elves, if one and a half times as broad, and quite refined in face and possessing the most beautiful eyes ....I honestly have to admit that I have rarely seen such beautiful eyes in any man.... or woman for that manner. They appear to be almost feminine in quality which is odd for he is quite a masculine example of the Mere Mortal Animal.

Now blue eyes are not Elven of course but nevertheless I would swear that Horsham's blue eyes betray Elvish blood. There are rumors circulating about Horsham's parentage. His grandmother lived in notorious Finnland where the masters routinely seduced their Merrach and Beorach serfs..... so speculation is now running riot. There is such an odd mixture of beauty and vulgarity that more than hints of miscegenation. Such an ugly word. What does our country genius, Celebros write of? Hybridization. A much better word for a still controversial idea of interbreeding between the races. Nevertheless I would have to vote with the gossipers that Horsham is part Celestial Elve. His voice is too mellifluous too, both his speaking voice when he mimics our beautiful Twilight accent and also when he sings. There is both such haunting beauty and also melancholy equally mixed in the creature that no peasants surely could bred on their own in some barn in the middle of nowhere....

He has no grace in movement however and limps in the cold of the morning which surprises me. I assumed being a duelist he would be in the prime of health. But of course he is over thirty I believe and so well over the hill. He appears to be very badly scarred thought there are only two very minor scars to his head and none to his face -- at least so far. Of course dueling rules put scarring the face off limit. Still, that dreadful Elve Sanguinary often scars his victims in the face so it is odd that he has not scarred Horsham' face yet. Perhaps gossip is on target? It would indeed be a delicious scandal if the notorious racist Sanguinary was actually in love with a savage, sexy beast of a despised Mere Mortal. Poetic Justice you might say. Those spiteful twin gods Chance and Fate playing a wick trick on a racist.

Still I am surprised that Horsham is not more graceful in his movements. But Horsham is not graceful at all. I assumed being a duelist he would move like a dancer. Didn't he use to be a dancer? At Court. Not that I ever saw Court Performances of course. The Pally Mall is a high wall for opera singers. Especially Haven Opera Singers. I find it hard to believe the opera legends, seeing him limp across the courtyard in the cold morning air. I find it hard to see how this present Horsham ever performed as Shoki and the other demigod roles of classic opera. People said he looked like god in stage. Hard to believe that seeing him now. Mere Mortals age so ungracefully. It is a pity I was still performing in The Havens Opera House the one year Horsham was allowed to perform at the Orangery. Now, even if he wanted to, he could not return to the plays he made famous. And seeing him close now, staying in the same country house and all, he is decidedly long in the tooth. I see a few greys hairs and lines around his famous blue eyes. Age I fear is catching up with the infamous Horsham. Age always does with Mere Mortals.

We Elves age so slowly that we forget that we do age at all. But do we not deceive ourselves in that self delusion? Mere Mortals think Elves live forever because they live such short lives themselves. But does not Twilight Arcadia show it's age too in the cruel light of dawn? I wonder? Do civilizations age? A moth might live and die in 24 hours and think in it's tiny brain that it is living a century. Are we Elves so deceiving ourselves? And is our beautiful civilization of Arcadia but a shining self delusion rosy in the twilight of history? Destined to die just as surely as that ignorant, self deluded moth? Is Arcadia entering into it's decline right now? Are we poised on the brink of being thrown on the ash heap of history? Overwhelmed by war and just plain old age? Am I living in the Decline and Fall of my own Race? Will I live to see my beautiful city of Arcadia burned in shameful defeat, a casualty of this terrible war?

By now few but Lady Sanguinary still suffers from any delusion that this tawdry peace will continue for much longer. It was but an interlude between battles like an interlude between opera acts. No one is deceived any more that war does not hover just beyond the horizon, but waiting and biding it's time to descend yet again. Some people even say the war will come this very Summer. Even this very Spring perhaps. And all the dying will start up again. Widows and orphans and childless parents. Funerals in Twilight Forest as the flets are filled with the dead. We Elves live slowly and breed slowly but die just as quickly as any Mere Mortal, and we do not refill our dwindling ranks as quickly as the Mere Mortals who at least breed quickly and breed in obscene numbers. They can perhaps outbreed death. Can we? Is that our racial flaw? We may not be able to outbreed death perhaps?

Mere Mortals I hear decline and die quite quickly like a seasonal flower of summer once the breath of autumn blows on it. I wonder what happens to Mere Mortals when they age. I mean their only occupations after all are manual labor, farm labor, warfare, and servantry so what happens to them when they age? We treat our servants gracefully and forgive them when they age and treat them like aged children when they grow old. I can not throw a servant away like trash after all when they age and can not work any longer. We are not Celestial Elves, may Mother god of the Waters forbid! But what do aging soldiers like this Horsham do when they are too old to wage war? I suppose they die on the battlefield and so do not need to worry about age.....die young.... I suppose..... and that is why we do not see aging soldiers. Perhaps this terrible war lurking just beyond the horizon, beyond the River of Shadows, will solve all our problems about aging and no one will survive at all to worry about old age. All the beautiful people will be dead."

Floradale, gossipy as always, passing through on his way to his own country estate wrote in his memoirs:

"Stayed a fortnight at Bela's estate of Moonlight-Over-The-Water. Beladonna is withering in her soul and becoming most uncomely, rather like a sour crab apple or a blight of mold. She ever plots to discourage her brother from falling in love er she lose her hand in folds of his kilt pouch. Rather like a sort of financial leech. It is quite chilling now she always tears people down and questions their motives. Her malice is relentless as the drip drip drip of water wearing away a stone. I wonder if Bela knows.... she schemes so nakedly now. But then Bela has shown no inclination to fall in love so perhaps he allows her unseemly scheming and pities her petty evil.

Horsham is presenting staying at Bela's estate too. He wears Elvish kilts and tunics and look rather like a hairy gorilla in that traveling circus last year, aping human behavior. Horsham has a most rapier manner however. He is a notorious mimic and can copy anyone. I caught him last night mimicking me. I spent the rest of the evening getting my revenge by mimicking him. He did not find that quite so amusing! He has mad blue eyes and will back himself against a far wall during a genteel social evening and rock back and forth like some bad bull about to charge. So I find it most odd that he is such a sensitive singer. I keep thinking he will bellow. But he sings most exquisitely, still almost as fine as any professional on the stage though by now his physical decay would prevent his performance in roles of demigods such as once he was allowed to perform in, paid out of Lady Confabulate's kilt pouch. When he sings, his face is transformed and his eyes do not blazed bloody murder, but rather assume a most melancholic blueness as if overwhelmed by sorrow and regret and tender feelings. Yet at dinner he eats with his hands. The contrast is most odd.

However I spend two hours in the library with Bela, Horsham, and another fella from the Cockpit and they explained most coherently the whole military situation, the gutting of the army, what will happen when the war restarts, where the attacks will be, even this mystery of 'technology' that I have not been able to fandom until now. This bronze versus steel altercation. Seems we are doomed to extinction unless we modernize, but we cannot modernize because our economy is in 'free fall' from 'hyper inflation'. Now if someone will just explain the mystery of 'Economics' to me then I will be set to predict the future like a prophet high up on a flet prophesying from high pearls of wisdom like drops of dew at dawn.

To be quite honest - but only to my dear sweet memoirs -- I rather suspect that Horsham knows more than me! He can talk quite the educated man when he so desires. But then I gather he is a Dwarve Lover and always hangs around with those clever blackguards. Even reads Dwarvish I hear. Can't imagine why anyone would want to read that gibberish myself. Nothing but dots and dashes. Numbers. What sort of language is that? But still, I suppose the Dwarves and the Dark Lord's Cockroaches will inherit the world.....

We Elves are paling like the Twilight we love before the baser cunning of baser races. Perhaps we are doomed to go extinct like the legendary 'Orphans of the Forgotten Gods' [Neanderthals] who once roamed Our World before we came and displaced them. We displaced them and now other races are displacing us. Poetic Justice? Or a farce played out on a empty stage before the audience of Chance and Fate who are sound asleep and snoring? Or perhaps not a god in sight to clap when the farce is over?"

Floradale also wrote about a gossipy run-in with his Host, Beladonna, and Horsham.....

The voices could be heard from the close door to the library. That was not unusual in the case of Beladonna who tended to have a somewhat shrill voice when she was upset. The unusual thing was that the other voice was Bela and Bela always prided himself on his iron clad self control. Horsham and Floradale were passing each other in the hallway and could not help but overheard the conversation along with the butler, a chamber maid hauling bed linen, two footmen, and Bela's tailor who had an appointment with Bela.

"I was just making...."

"How dare you even think of making..."

"It was just a suggestion...."

"Obscene suggestion!"

"Why is it obscene?"

"It is an obscene and disgusting suggestion!"

"Why? You fell in love a bounder, a gambler, a drunk, and a wastrel who married you for your money -- which is to say MY MONEY and you married him over my counsel just because he is a very minor member of Rhingol's family. Not even Royalty. A carbuncle on the Royal Family. And he is draining the folds of my kilt pouch dry! I do not mind bailing you out Beladonna but this is becoming a constant hemorrhage that my estate can not endue for much longer!"

"So you are going to abandon me in my time of trouble! Your own sister!"

"I only made a very reasonable suggestion..."

"Do you know how this Mere Mortal is plotting behind your back...how.."

"Please Bela! Spare both of us your incessant paranoia. I have grown weary of it. You only debase yourself when you go on so. I have made a very reasonable suggestion that might give you a second chance to salvage your weed choked life. ..."

"To prostitute myself!"

"Only you would see it that way Beladonna."

"PROSTITUTE MYSELF!"

"No! I was only..."

"Prostitute mys....."

"Shut up! You have made your point! Not I will make my point very clear! You can continue to live with that cad Veggie you married over my objections and live on his insolvency and the charity of his Royal Uncle in Law or else you can divorce the bounder."

"If I divorce then I will be socially ruined!"

"I am offering you the full time use of my country estate if you divorce Veggie. You and your children can live here full time. Your children will do better here, not trying to ape their richer friends in the Elite 1000 or the brats of the Court. You spoil them with your pretensions and snobbery and prejudice. A little hard work and clean living in the countryside would do them good right now! As for the other suggestion. It was only a suggestion. You do not have to do it.

Nevertheless I do intend to ask Horsham to retire from the Military and become my estate manager. He would be a very good manager. He trained up at Rufus Manor to be an estate manager. He would be very professional. He is nearing retirement. He is thirty one and that is approaching old age in Mere Mortal life spans. At least as far as hard physical work is concerned. If you live there then you will have to live with him regardless. I merely suggested that you consider the idea of marriage because you like a man in your bed and ....."

"Or do you mean you like a man in your bed? A fig leaf to cover any affair you might be contemplating.... with some disgusting, hairy, fat... pig of a Mere Mortal!"

"Shut up Beladonna! Everyone will hear you. I am not contemplating any such thing."

"I know that ...."

"You know absolutely nothing Beladonna! For your information I incline primarily to women if you must so vulgarly know! I simply have not fallen in love. A witch in fact predicted that I would die before I would know love. Die prematurely. 'A flower cut down by a chance hand of violence... or some such phasing of my death sentence'. So I was trying to prepare you for my death. When I die this estate will be entailed to Laurrellie and he loathes you. But he also loathes the countryside and will never stay here and will need someone to run the estate for him while he continues to live at Court. I need to have a reliable estate manager in place before I die. I need to get you situated too. The simplest solution to both problems would be if you married Horsham. Gossip will speculate anyway if you live here and Horsham lives here. People will always assume a man and a woman are having an affair if they live in the same digs. So why not? I gather the Elite 1000 are flirting with miscegenation this season. Fashionable decadence. You have a healthy sexual appetite. I find most women find Horsham's body attractive, if not his mind and soul."

"He is a drunk!"

"He is a war veteran who needs to retire for his own good. He has given many years toward the war to protect the likes of you and your glorious Elite 1000! A little 'pay back' as the Dwarves say... is not out of order now! But regardless of your tastes, or the lack of taste, I still intend to ask Horsham to become my estate manager. Do as you will!"

Beladonna stormed out and collided with the beet-red Horsham and amused Floradale. She screamed and ran up the stairs and then collided with the chamber maid. The butler stared in horror and scurried off, hauling the footmen by their ears. Floradale then bowed ironically toward Horsham and ambled nonchalantly out of the hallway.

Horsham lumbered up the stairs and packed. Servants scurried to their master and Bela asked Horsham to visit him in his library. Their voices did not raise to the same shrillness. Horsham had a low baritone that actually dropped in tone to a rumbling bass if he became angry. Bela never lost control of his voice or his emotions.

"I gather you heard my offer before I could offer it? I apologize for the mode of delivery. I do hope you will accept my offer to stay here as my estate manager. It would benefit you and it would benefit me. I do have to get my estate tidied up for Laurrellie before I die. I have been pleasantly surprised the witch's prophecy has been wrong -- at least so far -- but I rather suspect that her oracle has been merely delayed. My nephew does hate the country and will never set foot here and so will need someone to run the place. You know Laurrellie I believe? He lives at that Dwarve Club called the 'Golden Touch'. He loves gambling and good food but does not want to maintain his own cook in his own home. Laurrellie is not a member of the Elite 1000 and is not prejudiced. Only self centered and obsessed by his own regard to his own high level of creature comforts. He will not bother you. As long as you bring in some sort of profit from this place you can pretty much run it entirely your way."

"I am being put out to pasture."

"It would be good for Blackie too. You are both getting on in years and battle wounds. That bad leg aches in the morning. It does not yet effect your dueling which takes place at night before the chill sets in. But it will soon. Arthritis. I believe you Mere Mortals are susceptible to it. The leg wound let Arthritis seep into the bone. And I believe your eyesight is not quite as good..."

"You are keeping a growing list of my imperfections? I suppose that Drug Abuse and Alcoholism are Number One and Number Two on the list? I can still do my job. I did the 'Silver Job' didn't I? I always get the job done no matter what else happens.... I can still do my job!"

"Yes. For now. But be honest Horsham. You are thirty one. Even in the army thirty five is retirement age for Mere Mortals."

"My so-called-father Duer, Ben's ass-licker, is forty six. He is still a 'Superior Man' to Celebeau."

"Not in the field. Paperwork. He is the Staff Sergeant and runs Celebeau's office Mere Mortal Staff. It is not the same thing as active duty."

"You Elves declare us Mere Mortals dead on delivery at thirty but that is bogus. The high mortality rate is based on disease and the sheer violence of war. It is not based on age. As many young Mere Mortals died in the battle field as thirty year old Mere Mortals. Disease kills as many young people as old people. Only two years ago I licked cholera didn't I? The plague spread through out the camp. Killed even Elves. I lived when lots of young Mere Mortals and even Elves died. As for this last year. Ok. I bottomed. But I came back too. I was hooked on opium back at The Havens after a bad stomach wound. That was not my fault. Afterwards. Ok. But opium addiction is hard to beat. But I have beaten it. I am clean. I will stay clean too. Give me a job. I will show you. I am clean. I will stay clean."

"What an amusing way to describe coming off drugs. 'Clean'. Charming reinterpretation of our Twilight fetish for cleanliness. But actually Alcoholism is Number One on the List. Not Drug Addiction. I don't think you can beat Alcoholism Horsham. And Number Two is Old Age. You won't be able to beat that either. Not for much longer. And Number Three is Bad Eyes."

"I an't no archer and I don't need good eyes to fight! I fight with my sword! It has not effected my dueling has it?"

"A Crow needs to see the flux and flow of the battlefield, and identify the battle commanders and sniper kill them, and track enemy troop movements."

"Sweetwater Meadow again. It was twilight! Your own report said so... I ..."

"Could not eyeball the commander of the Orc buggers and sniper kill him. Sweetwater Meadow was not your fault but you still could have prevented it from happening. Remote. But another Crow agent probably could have eye balled the Orc bugger and sniper killed him."

Horsham flinched but then drew himself up to his full height, at ramrod straight attention, like a man taking punishment at drill.

"I won't retire."

"Why not? My offer will give you a dignified exit from history. What is wrong with that? I wish my exit from history would be so dignified. It apparently will be violent and sordid. A 'corpse in a dirt road in a dirt town in the middle of nowhere.' Not very dignified! I am offering you a way out that even I won't enjoy! Take it!"

"Under orders from my commander?"

"Yes. And your friend too!"

"I will give you Ben the Beorach. I know you have been trying to convict him of treason and execute him. I know you got a blank death warrant from Rhingol. You have been dying to put Ben's name there. Rhingol the Fool is desperate by now for Luna. By now even he knows of his daughter's affair with Ben. The Royal Princess of Arcadia in love with a social crawling mercenary. And Luna threatening to never marry anyone else and leave the Royal House of Arcadia childless. Rhingol the Fool is a fool but even he knows that a king has to leave a solid succession that the city state will accept. Neither the Court Elite 100 or the Elite 1000 will ever accept Ben as King of Arcadia. Hell, for that matter neither Elite will ever accept half bred bastards as future kings either so Ringolla's bastard Adulterine Grafton is also out. And no succession at all leads Rhingol into a potential civil war when he dies. And that leaves only Celebeau and alas Celebeau is engaged to that up and crawling social leech Gloriana, a bastard Celestial upstart with a heart as icy as those infamous ice bergs the Celestial claimed to have been stranded on. Neither the Court Elite 100 or the Elite 1000 will accept that either. The one thing the Court Elite 100 and the Elite 1000 do agree on is this: Arcadia will never accept a hated Celestial Elve as Queen of Arcadia. Ben has a better chance to become King than Gloriana has to become Queen. But no one else wants either of them near Arcadia! And both want the job of Top Dog of the Dump! And all the while that hungry young cur of a dog Prince Grafton is howling and prowling about the Royal Dump, bored with being Prince Charming and eager to move up the table of life.

And Prince Grafton is breeding I hear. If Kiyohime gives birth to a healthy male Elve baby, then that will change everything! Lord Ryu The Quiet One was a highly respected senior Courtier and distant kin to Rhingol the Great. Ryu is as 'royal' as Rufus Royal is in fact. And Lord Ryu acknowledged his child by his concubine and the family was finally forced by Prince Grafton to probate the will. Lady Kiyohime has been officially declared legitimate. So if Grafton and Kiyohime can breed themselves a viable heir, that will be the closest thing Rhingol the Ass has to a viable grandson and the closest thing Arcadia has to a viable heir too!

So Arcadia has a real political crisis on it's dainty hands. A most un-genteel crisis. Civil War is a lot of things but 'genteel' is not any of them. And Civil War during War is National Suicide. But if Luna will marry some Twilight Elve and breed even one viable, snotty nosed baby then there will be no political crisis and no civil war. Arcadia lives happy ever after -- at least until we are invaded because Rhingol the Ass has gutted his professional army and has pinned all his hopes for salvation of the idiotic Mirage Line."

"And how will you deliver Ben's head onto my platter like roasted pig with an apple stuffed in it's mouth? Preferably with a act of provable treason instead of an apple?"

"Ben the Beorach is plotting something that will be considered treason. He is taking a jest uttered by Rhingol seriously and he is organizing financing and supplies from Ringold up Goldenthrond to launch an expedition north of the River of Shadows to the Fiery Fissure Fortress to steal one of the infamous Devices that triggered the original Celestial Wars with the Dark Lord. Ben is plotting to bring the Device back to Arcadia to buy Luna's hand in marriage."

"One of my spies was there. Rhingol was jesting. He actually said that 'I would as soon accept a Device as accept you as my son in law' and that is not by any definition a royal permit to Ben to organize a little private army and invade the territory of the Dark Lord and seize a Device and bring it back with the Dark Lord hot on his trail to Arcadia. In fact that would put Arcadia square on the painted hay target for attack. Number One Target. Guaranteed Invasion by the Dark Lord.

War is coming but it is coming at a snail's pace courtesy of the unexpected hot and heavy fighting beyond The Pale, led by Bree the Red who has the Dark Lord's forces tied up in a partisan war in the Highlands. Bree the Red, despite being a native born Maestusean Elve, or because he is native born, is actually protecting the Iron Hills for us. The Iron Hills is the only source of iron ore for forging iron and steel. Bree the Red is saving our collective necks. Native Elves and Dwarves alike!

Rufus Royal is organizing an secret military rebuilding program. That is under the table. Oh yes! Thanks for not telling me you are Rufus Royal's purchasing agent by the way. The Sanguinary Fraction could indict you for treason if they found out. And me for not turning you over to Celebeau. Celebeau would love to have your head on a roasting platter with a banned opera score in your mouth! But right now only you know of course. I know. Rufus knows. But no one else knows. No one else can know or the Peace through Appeasement Treaty would be trash and ironically right now we can not afford to trash that piece of trash! Rufus Royal has pledged his entire personal fortune to Arcadia's secret re-armament. Durham is also funding our rearming under the table to use a Dwarve gambling term, but only as long as it stays secret because he does not want to be seen as betraying his old friend Rhingol. But right now we can not afford to have the Dark Lord refocus his demented eyes back on us. Arcadia has to stay out of sight and out of mind for another few years. We are not remotely ready to defend ourselves against attack yet. Not this Spring. Not even next Spring. If the Dark Lord invades, in hot pursuit of a Device, Arcadia is as good as dead."

"So Ben the Beorach is about to commit treason Bela, and you are about to have your blank death warrant signed off. But you need the legal proof to present to Rhingol and Luna and Celebeau after you liquidate Ben off the face of Our World. Because of course Ben must be caught red handed committing a treasonable act, but before he can actually ride north and execute our collective death warrant by way his little mis-adventure. By plotting to steal a Device, Ben is plotting treason. He is plotting to bring the Dark Lord down on our unprotected heads and naked rumps. All to buy Luna, on the basis of a bad joke by Rhingol. Ben's besotted passion is going to destroy Arcadia. Guaranteed as a rigged Dwarve game of roulette. But he has to be caught in the act of plotting.

And the Devices had another danger to them beside the obvious. The Dark Lord has been hoarding them like a Dwarve hoarding gold. So he is obsessed with them. Why? Perhaps because they are treasure? Or weapons? But if they are weapons then why has he not used them before now? The very word 'Device' implies they do something more than sit on a table and look pretty. But whatever they are, the Devices caused Finn's death back in the Watery West, and caused the Celestial Elves to flee (or be thrown out of) their so-called 'paradise'. The Devices caused Maestus the Damned to attack the Fiery Fissure to reclaim them. Then die, betrayed, in battle, his life in ruins, his children damned and disinherited and exiled. The Devices have caused three major Celestial Wars and two Minor Celestial Wars which we all lost. All while inciting suspicion and betrayal between Native Twilight and Celestial Elves. All because of the Devices.

And the Devices caused the Celestial Elves to wage two more wars on their own after Arcadia finally pulled out. Expensive wars that have nearly depleted their once glorious treasures of golden, ill-gotten gains of conquest. And for all their serfs and stolen real estate, the Celestial Elves have not done much better than the Damned Maestusean Elves. Finngolden died fighting because of the Devices. Betrayed. Ruined. Humiliated. Finngold is fighting another war even as we speak -- and he is losing. And look! He has just thrown away his only legitimate child as a bastard cuckolded by one of his own kin.

So the Devices are also contaminated by bad luck. Very bad luck. History clearly shows that. Everyone who went after a Device has perished in battle, in violence, in defeat, in ruin, invaders tasting the fruit of exile, the arrogant reaping humiliation, boastful warriors perishing in bloody battle, greed plotters reaping only disinheritance and disgrace. And betrayal runs all the way through it all. Two threads of evil running throughout the whole tapestry! Betrayal! And Death!"

"Another good reason to not allow any Device near to Arcadia!" Bela answered. "They are like some lodestone magnet that pulls iron toward it. The presence of the Devices pull warfare and doom and destruction toward them. And betrayal. As you say. Betrayal. Betrayal and Death. Wherever a Device is, there is betrayal and war and destruction and death. If Ben brings a Device to Arcadia, he brings betrayal and war and destruction and death to Arcadia The Devices are contagious evil!"

"And he brings something else to Arcadia" Horsham said. "He brings a curse. I have investigated the Celestial while spying up in Finnland for you. There is a rumor, the Celestial will not admit to it of course, but there is a rumor that the Devices were cursed by the gods of the West. Did the Celestial Elves leave their self proclaimed 'paradise' or did they flee paradise? If paradise then why leave? Why flee paradise? Or were they thrown out of paradise? Were they running away from the wrath of their gods of the West? And a curse? Did the gods of the West curse the Celestial Elves? The rumors says yes!

The rumors say that Bors overheard Finngolden the night before he committed suicide by waging a duel to the death against the Dark Lord. Bors confessed to me that Finngolden was muttering and whispering and even ranting about some sort of curse. He said Finngolden was muttering about 'Celestial Calamity'. That is the word Finngolden himself used! 'Celestial Calamity' and Finngolden muttered too that Maestus the Damned told him that the only way to fend off the wrath of the gods of the West, fend off 'Celestial Calamity' was by recovering the Devices. 'Only the Devices can save us from the wrath of the gods of the West.... only the Devices can save us from Celestial Calamity.....The Celestial Curse! We are curst! Curst! Curst!' That is what Bors told me he overheard Finngolden raving in his tent the night before he died in ghastly battle!

And look at the evidence. Betrayal. Defeat and death on the battlefield. Ruin and Shame. Exile. Disinheritance. And Death. It is always the same pattern? Is it Bad Luck. Perhaps. Bad Luck can dog one's feet. I can testify to that. But the Celestial Elves display such bad luck that one cannot but speculate that it is the bad luck of a curse! A curse on the rulers of the Celestial Elves at the very least if not a curse down to the very marrow of the bones of the Celestial Elves!"

Bela jumped up and stared out of the window, his face a mask of horror. "If Gloriana marries Celebeau she brings a possible Celestial Curse into Arcadia! Celestial Calamity! And if even one Device comes into Arcadia, then we are contaminated by contagious evil. Betrayal. War. Destruction. Death. We have to stop Ben. Kill him. And sabotage Celebeau's proposed marriage to Gloriana. Love is literally killing Arcadia! The love of Luna for Ben and the love of Celebeau for Gloriana is literally going to kill Arcadia!"

"I don't know how to sabotage Celebeau's marriage to that bitch Gloriana but I can deliver Ben."

"How?"

"Ben is recruiting heros for his little private army. I will volunteer. I already have the short list of heros he is recruiting. And I wrote Chas, the banker to Ringold up Goldenthrond, and he wrote back that Ben is demanding a cash advance secured by the equity of blackmail he is holding over Ringold's head, to finance his little private army to invade the Fiery Fissure."

"What is the blackmail?"

"Not sure. I am assuming, as is Chas, that it is the patent lie of the Golden Twins."

"That they are the blood issue of Tara the Slut and Finn the Cuckold?"

"No. That they were abandoned on the ice bergs along with the rest of the blond Celestial Elves, abandoned by Maestus the Damned and his damned red haired Elves after the butchery of the Far Fishing Elves on Desolation Island, after the fishing boats were stolen by the Celestial Elves to sail them to Our World. The patent lie is that the Damned Elves killed the Far Fishing Elves to steal their boats, then genteelly allowed the supposedly innocent blond kin to come on board, stopped by some convenient ice bergs at sea, and dumped them to die. Then they sailed on to Our World where they burned the boats to lose the evidence. Then the poor abandoned blond kin supposedly crawled on their hands and knees over the ice bergs at sea (like how is that possible) and crawled to Our World, and squealed to Rhingol the Idiot."

"The patient lie but I don't see what Ben has on Ringold."

"So if Ringold and Gloriana were supposedly crawling on their hands and knees in those supposedly ice bergs at sea ---- how did they haul the largest cache of gold and jewels and riches, second only to the legendary Cache of Durham the Deathless up Citadel way, to Our World where they have been buying their way to respectability? The Dwarves have confirmed the Cache of Ringold. But Ringold is such a miser he won't spend any of it so he employs Chas to be his treasurer instead. The Cache of Ringold fills a giant god damn cave! Chas confirms it. Also another Dwarve. The original engineer. Knoz. Showed me the blue prints to the cave treasury the Dwarves made for Ringold by way of a boast. So you tell me how does skinny little Gloriana and her gutless wonder of a twin brother drag a giant cave's worth of treasure over ice bergs on their bony little backs?"

"Bitches of a Bitch of a Celestial Whore! The Golden Twins sailed to Our World and let their own kin be dumped. Hell! They probably caused the dumping! Seas. Storms. I have never known a Celestial Elve sail a boat anywhere but into rocks! They ant' exactly sailors! Mere fishing boats full of really heavy gold and also all those iron weapons Maestus the Damned was supposed to have come with, to invade Our World. Gold and Iron. Heavy loads for fishing boats. The god damn boats were overloaded! And guess what those swine did! They dumped their own kin! Not their gold! Their own kin! You are right! That is a hell of a piece of blackmail!"

Tungold always cut out a piece of the Cache as his blackmail. Chas had to arrange delivery of it, for some secret project that swine of a second son is plotting somewhere. But Chas says Finngolden and his eldest son Finngold have refused to touch the stuff. Too damn proud? Who knows and who cares. The thing is the Golden Twins are golden frauds and golden murderers. I figure that Ben is using that lovely piece of family betrayal on Ringold to force him to finance Ben's little private army to invade The Fiery Fissure. Chas has written me and told me he will tell me when Ben finishes breaking Ringold's fingers to yield up the gold. Ringold is such a miser he must have Dwarve blood in his icy cold veins. So then I will ride up and volunteer. Once Ben briefs his little army, I will 'go pee' and ride to alert you. Nice ambush in the bushes. Dead private army. Dead Ben. Then you can present your warrant and no one can lay a claim of blood murder money on you. Not even Celebeau will be able to touch you. Not after the fact. Rigged as a Dwarve game of roulette." Bela nodded, a cool smile playing on his beautiful face.

It was a done deal. Too bad it did not work out as Horsham outlined. Then Horsham would have lived. Bela would have lived. And most of all, Arcadia would have lived. The epic bards would have lost their favorite storybook hero. But weighed against the lives of nearly half a million Arcadian lives, was Ben the Beorach worth so much to history to live long enough to give a love story to posterity at the cost of Arcadia's near total destruction?

Lady Sanguinary by Baccata above. Below is a marble bust of Celebeau copied from the orginal bronze, now lost.

Drawing from a bronze bust of Floradale, 1st Age. Floradale was a major writer about the 1st Age. His 2nd Age memoirs are

both detailed and impartial in their acid wit.

Chapter 4: Plots And Schemes And Underhanded Deals

While Bela and Horsham plotted their plot, another plotter was plotter as well. Lady Sanguinary sniffed the air and decided that Rufus Royal was behaving far too discreetly. The old dog was but playing dead. So he was plotting. What? The only possible answer was re-armament which directly violated the provisions of the 'Peace in Our Time Treaty'. If Arcadia was found to be re-arming then Arcadia would be caught red handed violating the treaty and the Dark Lord could tear it up and war would be back in the front yard of Arcadia. Lady Sanguinary was staking her reputation in history on her absolute trust that the Dark Lord would abide by the 'Peace in Our Time Treaty' provided that Arcadia dis-armed and stopped waging war against him. But Lady Sanguinary had failed to implant spies in at Rufus Manor or Bela's home of Moonlight-Over-The-Water. Until now that is.

Beladonna was desperate. So she wrote to her dear friend Lady Sanguinary. Lady Sanguinary now had her insider double agent in place. Beladonna wrote back and spilled her guts. It did not yield much. At least not yet. But the crumbs were enough for food for thought. What was Bela plotting with Horsham for some three months? Then Horsham was back in Arcadia, a busy bee but leaving no trail back to the nest. Buzzing here and there. What was he plotting? Lady Sanguinary decided that if she could crack Horsham, she could crack the plot. After all, Horsham was practically a honorary member of the Anti- Sanguinary- Pro-Rufus-War Fraction. The question was how to crack Horsham.

Sex? Horsham was not squeamish about sordid sex but he was not exactly a sex crazed predator either, contrary to racist cliches. It was not likely that Horsham would fall for a femme fatale spy. His idea of sex was five minutes with the leggings unbuttoned but the mouth very much buttoned. He never even bothered to learn the pub slut's name before the five minutes and never bothered to ask for a repeat performance. But he declined all offers from Elves eager to taste forbidden fruit. That might actually require conversation. And though Sanguinary and Ben the Beorach enjoyed spreading the gossip about town about poor Merry May Rufus, Sanguinary in fact knew that Horsham never ever touched the poor girl in any way remotely considered sexual and never would. He never even stayed at Rufus Manor overnight out of fear of gossip now.

"I wonder if he is a fag?" Lady Sanguinary speculated as she lounged on her divan, nibbling grapes and drinking sweet wine. "For a sex crazed Mere Mortal, Horsham is decidedly under sex crazed. Maybe he is into boys?" But barracks rumors did not confirm that either. Homosexual sex was not unusual in military circles. Before a battle a lot of men vented their lusts out of fear of dying unfulfilled the next day. Horsham was not dainty. He fucked men too. But he did not fuck young boys. Rather the contrary. He tended to attack any officer who fucked young boys. Horsham in fact killed or wounded some eight Elves he caught with their kilts up and the boy's leggings down. So apparently Horsham was just under sexed. His appetites apparently inclined elsewhere. But where?

Alcohol? Drugs? Rumors whispered that this last year, the year Horsham apparently spiraled downward into near suicide, was prefaced by rumors of opium. A lot of Mere Mortals seemed susceptible to drug abuse. An Elve had to work very hard and very determinately to become an alcoholic. Ringold was a drunk but being the twin to Gloriana was enough to turn any man into a drunk. But an Elve really had to point blank decide to drink himself into early flet to become a alcoholic. Mere Mortals could become addicts apparently at will. And Mere Mortals were terrible abusers of opium too. When the army hospitals booted out two thirds of their soldiers after peace was declared, a good quarter proved to be addicts who then had to turn criminal to buy their drugs they once got for free at the misguided hospitals. It was rumored in fact that doctors prescribed opium to Horsham after the 'Snow Duel' and he 'smiled like a baby suckling at his mother's breast.' but then roared and howled when he woke and punched one doctor in his face.

"I wonder? I wonder?" Lady Sanguinary plucked another grape and daintily dropped it into her rose blossom mouth and then she smiled.

Two days later Horsham found boxes of opium in his dismal digs when he rode back from Moonlight-Over-The-Water. Horsham set fire to the tenement. Fortunately he was the sole occupant at the time -- give or take a pair of ghosts which was why the tenement was empty and why Horsham got the digs for dirt cheap rent. Then Horsham bought new clothes (his solution to laundry) and moved into the 'Butchery' of Dr. Kakoff and slept on the iron table where dead bodies were dissected. Then he gritted his teeth and marched resolutely to the Wisteria Pavilion to ask Kitsune to do an after-the-fact exorcism of the burned out ruins to help the souls of the two dead boys pass out of history.

"Why did you not tell me this before?"

"I thought I could help them myself."

"They were ghosts."

"They would stop whimpering when they snuggled under the covers with me."

"Sucking the warmth of your body out of you."

"Nonsuch! Poor moppets! You talk as if they were vampires."

"Well it is going to be hard now to track them back to their graves. You don't know where they were buried do you?" Kitsune was in the garden, digging in the snow, digging up old flower seeds.

"The owner of the hovel, a cold hearted cad, dumped their bodies in a common pauper grave in the Nettle Fields outside of town. The swine did not even give the poor corpses a blanket to wrap their poor cold bodies in, much less a shroud. No wonder they suffer from the cold. But the pauper graves are mass graves. That winter a lot of poor people froze to death. I located the pauper grave but it houses over thirty corpses."

"Oh well. That will be close enough! I will do the exorcism by twilight tonight." Kitsune stopped digging and produced a wilted rose hip with a flourish.

"Why are you digging up Wisteria Fujitsu's garden?" Horsham asked, exasperated. It made the little wizard look like an animal. The wizard scampered back to the pavilion and carefully tore the rose hip apart in a water pot steaming in a bronze brazier.

"I am making Kiyohime some rose hip tea to ease her pains. She is close to term you know. Any day in fact."

"Yes" Horsham replied dryly. "How is Grafton taking it?"

"Oh....." Kitsune stirred the water pot with great intent.

"If the baby is normal then Grafton is one leg up on the greasy pole of power. But if the baby is abnormal.... and Kiyohime is a snake changeling ... then Grafton will have no reason to keep her."

"She is his wife. He did marry her. He is not the brute you seem to think." Kitsune stirred the water intently. "Grafton has a big heart" he said softly.

"Too big. Nellie Cyprian is pregnant too. But a pup by Nellie won't get Grafton up the greasy pole of power. For that matter a baby by Aoi would not. Taira was loathed by everyone. But a normal baby by Kiyohime... trickle down royalty as it were...."

Kitsune stared intently at the rose hip. "Grafton married Kiyohime because he still loved her. Nellie is an infatuation. Kiyohime is the real thing."

"Wisteria is the real thing. Anyone else is a passing infatuation to Grafton" Horsham corrected. "Politically speaking..."

"Grafton does not think like that!" Kitsune was almost vexed. He tore the rose hip apart with his fingers furiously.

"I am sorry Kitsune. But Grafton is bored with being a nonentity and he is even bored with Lady Wisteria's novel that he is staring in. The Royal Succession is a royal pain in the ass. It is open season. Suddenly it is all open season now for any player. Ben. Celebeau. Gloriana. Grafton. Luna an't pregnant yet is she? Why not? An't Ben been fucking her long enough? And Luna is still a fluttering, wilted, passive weakling, dominated by the strong. By Ben the Leech."

"Luna had a ghostly doppelganger sucking her soul for over thirty years. I don't know if Luna will ever recover from the spiritual assault."

"Or Ben's assault now! Luna is as unstable as Rhingol and Rhingol an't stable at all! So that leaves the children of Rhinga, Rhingol's sister. Rhinga. The Lost Co-Regent of Arcadia. Grafton is the elder. Celebeau is the younger."

"Prince Grafton and I were sired by a Beorach mercenary. Celebeau's father was an Elve howbeit one of minor pedigree of Taira who died young and mysteriously."

"Yeah! Right! Everyone loathes and hates Taira now. Celebeau's parentage an't worth the boast ---- except for the maternal part. Rhinga was joint ruler with Rhingol. She was as Royal as he was and a lot smarter. Hell! That was why the Twilight Elves agreed to the crown going to the pair. Everyone always knew Rhingol was stupid. Rhinga was the smart one. The ambitious one. Too bad she got herself killed off or vanished or dead or something. Spooky how she vanished out of history, as if someone censured the history books and edited out her name. Grafton and Celebeau are technically as equal as Luna to the claim to the Crown of Arcadia! Remember that! Grafton is. He is counting on that in fact! Kiyohime fed him all that prophesy crap but it has some basis in fact. The crown will go to Luna, or Grafton, or Celebeau. One of the three!

Grafton is an Elve in all but pedigree. If he can sire a healthy Elve child then he has a leg up on Celebeau who is engaged to a loathed and hated Celestial Elve and Luna who is tied to a Beorach thug and apparently sterile to boot. I am sorry Kitsune. But your brother has been entertaining seeds of ambition for a long time now. The door is open. He would be a fool not to go through and make a bid to be King of Arcadia. He can now. In fact he just might wear the crown before all is said and done. And Grafton knows it. You have to know it too now. You predicted it yourself. 'Brother will kill brother'."

"'And the survivor will bring down Arcadia'. The second half of the prediction." Kitsune sighed and stood up and looked out on the snowy garden. "When is Spring coming? I pine for wisteria in bloom!"

"And perhaps war too. I am betting on war. Unless I can stop Ben...... but enough of spy business. How is Lady Wisteria Fujitsu?"

"I am well as always! I never change or vary. I am always, eternally the same consistent creature you first met so long ago Horsham." The two men turned Lady Wisteria Fujitsu stood in the doorway to the Garden Room. She smiled her mysterious smile and slipped gracefully into the room and reclined on a bench just as gracefully. "But as you say.... enough of spy business.... how are you Horsham? I have not seen you since the Night of Heike. I pine when you decline to visit Wisteria Pavilion. I consider you a friend. A true friend. Always welcome. Always. Eternally."

"But alas 'eternally' and 'Mere Mortal' are not conjoined my lady. And as you say.... it has been a long time indeed since I first came here, the young and innocent boy. Now ....." Horsham bowed and kissed her hand gently. Only Lady Wisteria Fujitsu brought out Horsham's gallantry, the only woman beside Lady Heike and Merry May Rufus who ever did. He sat down beside her and the aging man and the ageless Elve smiled at each other, savoring the sight of each other, destined never to be close, destined never to be apart.

"You haunt my life in a way unexpected" Lady Wisteria Fujitsu said.

"As you do my life. My Ama Tersu, the gesith of my soul, the guardian of my humanity."

"You were so beautiful. The fragility of it touched me in a way I have never shaken off. You have become the symbol of twilight to me. Wisteria fragility. Yuugen: the heartbreaking beauty that haunts the soul. Quite unexpected. Poignant. Tenaciously haunting."

"Ah. Alas now...." Horsham nodded his head sadly "Beauty is fragile indeed, like wisteria in Spring. Destined to rule but a month and then be blown away. Beauty is the most fragile Tyranny of all. And now....." Horsham made an elegant gesture of loss."

"Your soul still has a grander of bravery. And nobility too. That you will always have. I will never meet a braver man I think. The Impetuous Male incarnate. No. I think not. That is properly Ben the Beorach. Your valor is more clear-eyed and tragic I think. No. I think you are rather the incarnation of Shoki, the Demon Queller battling the entire kjiki glossary of all the diverse forces besieging the Real World."

"You should see me before some battle my lady. You would not think so well of me. I only come here when I can deceive you in the twilight. I never come at noon when your eyes might see straight through me. My soul is....... alas.....soiled by too much life in the real world....." Horsham smiled sadly.

Lady Wisteria Fujitsu smiled sadly. "Don't underestimate the appeal of the real world. I created Wisteria Pavilion to be an island of beauty, a place where the arts and humanities of Mankind might flourish and where the soul could be preserved even during times of strife and war. But alas my beautiful pavilion has become a maw where people hide from strife and war and where souls become misplaced rather than nurtured. A hiding place from the real world. That was not my intent. The Plains of High Heaven are far away for a reason. Mankind was born to live in the Real World of All living Things betwixt and between the Plains of High Heaven and the Great Deep Dark Maw of the Gods. People should live in the real world. Anything else is a false dream as pink and enticing as opium, or the false Glamour of Fair Away Land where people become lost to themselves when they lose Time and passed out of History to linger and finally languish in fatal intoxication of Glamour.

Father god created Time and Change and Death for a reason just as he created Competition, Strife and War. Live in the Real World Horsham and do not regret the costs. The Real World becomes you. Even as you age, scarred and battered by Life, you acquire a rare and beautiful patina of age, both rugged yet poignant. You wear your humanity on your sleeve despite all the danger. The 'Butterfly Dance' today was all the more beautiful for being danced by a middle aged man with a battle scarred leg than when you danced it as a beautiful young man. That boy danced it then with more beauty than any Elve I have ever taught because that boy was young and vulnerable, already scarred, yet valiant enough to still be open to life. Your dance today exchanged that beauty for a more tragic beauty that counterbalances the decline of your physical skill. Now you have Yuugen: The flaw that makes the beauty more poignant.

Never regret the choice you made that day while sitting on my veranda in the warm spring of life. You choose the right road to travel. You choose to travel in the Real World rather than linger here in my pavilion and live at Court. The road you have traveled and will travel will be a tengu road of danger and hardship and finally exile but the traveling of it will make you what you are! May Dosojin, god of the Wanderer, guard your back and may Baku, Eater of Dreams, eat any dreams of regret you might have.

One day Baku, Eater of Dreams, will enter the Wisteria Pavilion and eat it for Wisteria Pavilion has become only a dream, and not a good dream anymore. A fatal dream. Like the twilight. Deceptive, echoing the colors of dawn, but ushering in only black night and the gapping darkness of the Deep Dark Maw of the Gods. Death. And all the arts and music and dance and song and books and flowers will be lost. And perhaps that will be as it should be."

"I travel the Tengu Road of Danger because I know Wisteria Pavilion stands. The day Wisteria Pavilion falls I will lose the gesith guarding my back, enabling me to plunge into the fight."

"Then I will linger here a while longer..... for you Horsham." Lady Wisteria Fujitsu smiled at the battle scarred man besieged by demons, many of his own making. Kitsune abruptly jumped up and scurried back into the garden to dig in the snow for more rose hips.

That night Lady Kiyohime gave birth to a beautiful Elve child ---- with gold eyes and partially covered with snake scales. No one said anything. Everyone acted perfectly normal. The childless Lady Wisteria Fujitsu was especially bland. Prince Grafton was all kindness to his wife -- but then he left for a night at the opera and did not return until dawn.

Horsham was in a decadent mood himself. Or more correctly the role he was playing required him to appear to be in a decadent mood. He dressed in skin tight buckskin leggings, silver buttons running from the hips to the ankle. He wore smocked military tunics belted by two sleek black belts on top of bright red silk sash, one to accent his newly slim waist, one to hold his bronze sword and bronze knife which were still considered fashion items. Any dandy at court wore a bronze short sword and matching long knife. Horsham still wore his steel long sword in a shoulder harness. His decadence did not extend that far. His long hair was braided and looped up and tied with a silk ribbon as usual but he now wore Elvish lovelocks with jewels. He beard was kept closely trimmed to accent his still firm chin now that his beer bloat was gone. He wore five small gold earrings in each ear. Horsham also started to accept all the fashionable invitations he previously refused. He soon was a fixture at the townhouses of the Elite 1000. He did not try to be fashionably charming however. He was his usual boorish self. It was all a taunt directed at one particular target.

"I hear that Sanguinary is madly in love with me?" he told Lady Confabulate during a break in the opera they were watching. "Why if he wanted a piece of me then why didn't he ask? I am a soldier and not squeamish. He could show me the back of his ass anytime he wanted." Lady Confabulate purred and Floradale repeated the insult all over town. Sanguinary was livid and stormed into his mother's withdrawing room.

"Horsham is humiliating me all over town! Taunting me!"

"It is a bluff. He is bluffing."

"Do you know what he is saying!"

"Take him up on it."

"What?"

Lady Sanguinary stretched out lazily on her divan and purred. "Take him up on it. Proposition Horsham. Make a sexual pass. He is merely taunting you because certain so-called wits like Floradale are making snide comments. But it is a bluff. Call it. Make a sexual pass. He is too much the Beorach savage to cope. It will make him go berserk. The Beorach think homosexuality or bisexuality is depraved and perverted."

Sanguinary was shocked. "Mother. Do you know what you are asking?"

"You have not been able to kill him. Try it my way. Psychological warfare."

"I can not do this. It sounds almost as if you want me to prostitute myself to promote your schemes. I can't make a sexual pass at that animal. He might actually .....accept it....."

"I want to break Horsham so I can find out what Rufus Royal and Bela are plotting!"

"Mother. You don't understand. I am ....

"Homosexual. So? Surely you have not been tempted by the sight of that man's naked, hairy chest in your many and absurd duels have you? The thought is absurd."

Sanguinary stared embarrassed. "Mother, I can not pretend to make a sexual pass at Horsham. I simply can not..."

"Why?" Lady Sanguinary laughed lazily on the divan. "Oh my! Poor boy! You are in love with that vile savage! Oh my! Silly boy! It does not matter! Use him. Abuse him. But break him. I want him to spin out of control and smash an opening for me into the Rufus War Fraction."

"Mother!" Sanguinary almost whimpered.

"Do it!" his murderous mater hissed.

A week later Horsham blandly strolled into a 'snow' party of Lady Confabulate and dropped an invitation card. Lady Confabulate always invited him to all her parties. Then he sauntered lazily through the winter gardens, crusted with snow, walking past ice and snow sculptures of wonderful beauty that gleamed in the wintery but warm day. The ice glistened as it melted. Lord Confabulous was frantic but everyone else was enjoying the warmth that hinted of Spring just over the horizon. Beautiful Elves gossiped and preened and drank imported hot spiced wine, the newest craze. Horsham was dressed to kill. His long dark hair was braided as always but this day was not clubbed in a loop with a black ribbon so it hung down his back nearly to his waist. He was wearing a new silk tunic clinched by a wide red sash and jeweled sword belt. It was a gift of Lady Confabulate who always gave him expensive clothes. It started when he was down and out and no one else went near him, crossing the street to avoid him. Only Lady Confabulate had continued to met him in the public streets and shake hands with the apparently down and out bum. The unexpected gesture had evolved into a quiet, tenuous sort of friendship. So now Horsham accept her gifts of clothes, also hampers of healthy food, cards to her parties, and tickets to the opera to view the music from her private suite.

Lady Confabulate had perfect good taste and a full time tailor. Horsham usually appreciated her flawless taste. But perhaps not today. Horsham was more used to country Merrach linen and soft Twilight wool and was not familiar with imported silk which can vary in translucence. He did not know it but the silk tunic was very translucent in the outdoor sun. Everyone could see his massive shoulders and hairy chest, the battle scars diverse and livid in front, his back soft and pristine as a woman's back, the chest hair thick as an animal. He was exposing more of his flesh than he knew, but then he routinely dueled naked to his waist so his Beorach sense of modesty was variable as well as pathological. But he was not the only predator on the prowl that lazy sunny day in the melting snow gardens of Lady Confabulate.

Luna was standing beside Celebeau and his finance Gloriana. Luna was wilting under the barbed wit of the Golden Twin who could dig a knife of spite in the back of anyone with the skill of an assassin. But then Luna was already an unhappy girl, her youth fading under the combined assault of Ben's relentless seduction and her father's equally unhappy refusal to accept Ben's wooing. Luna was never a bright light in either the Elite 100 or the Elite 1000 anyway. She had a fuddy duddy old fashion taste more appropriate to the antiquarian Court and she could not gossip or brattle away with wit or charm or even education. Like her father, Luna was not especially intelligent. And now Celebeau's official engagement meant she was losing her only friend and sympathetic kin. Luna was not even beautiful anymore. She was underweight and bony which made her famous Rhingol nose too pronounced.

Celebeau was tall and handsome, if oddly blank eyed. His eyes had a stony quality like inverted shields of the soul. He looked either stupid or doggedly tenacious but no one quite know which quality really dominated. Everyone assumed Celebeau got all his opportunities in life through his royal pedigree, therefore no one expected much from him except incompetence. Since the war ended he was engaging in a self imposed campaign of practical, down to earth jobs that only opened him up to ridicule. 'Rhingol is all flets in the clouds and Celebeau is all mundane ant hills. One aims for the heights and fails. One aims for the depths and fails.' was the newest saying. However Celebeau was suppose to be madly in love with the predatory Gloriana though he stood just as wooden as before he fell madly in love. Celebeau was named after a tall tree. He was famously considered by all to be just as wooden and dense. Lord Confabulous was frantic to salvage his raveling ties at court and ordered his wife to host the engagement party despite the fact he privately despised Celebeau. But Lady Confabulate was hosting this party not to celebrate Celebeau's engagement but to ridicule it -- openly.

Gloriana smirked as she stood like a fake goddess in her clothe of gold long tunic and the infamous 'Glory of the Dwarves' Necklace of huge diamonds around her long thin neck. She was bony too and imperially arrogant, the archetypical Celestial Elve incarnate. But it had to be confessed that Gloriana was spectactularly beautiful. No wonder Luna paled beside her, wilting like a frail flower beside the glittering glamour of the diamond hard Gloriana.

Ben prowled around the edges of the royal trio like a bony vagrant dog that could not surrender the bone no matter what. He was your typical Beorach: lean and mean. Six foot two. Greying black hair and a greying beard framing a rough and much scarred face and fierce grey eyes. His nose was broken and crooked. His lower lip jetted out, his mouth a hard line. He glared at every single man who so much as came up to bow to Luna, the object of his obsession. And his possession. Luna was both the beneficiary of his love but also the victim of his lust to dominate and control. His love was killing Luna, just as much as the ghost of Luna's long dead still born twin sister once nearly did. But Ben just could not let go. No wonder Luna was wilting. What woman could endue such dominating and possessive passion?

Prince Adulterine Grafton, the bastard son of Rhinga, Rhingol's dead sister, was also prowling like a hungry dog. But though a bastard son of an Elven princess and a Beorach mercenary much like Ben, Prince Grafton appeared every inch the dashing young Elve. Prince Grafton was at the height of his sexual maturity and bravado, elegant, beautiful, dashing, romantic, the most famous lover at Court. He was five years older than Celebeau. And up to this point Prince Grafton concealed his ambition behind lazy insolence and endless romantic intrigues that exasperated Celebeau who worked all the time only to be jeered at for being a untalented prig. Prince Grafton, Celebeau's half brother and illegitimate alter ego never worked but was admired for being the opposite to Celebeau: equally handsome but also witty, quicksilver fast, fashionable, and capable. The two sons of Rhinga were mirror images but for one thing: legitimacy. Prince Grafton circled the garden party now, spreading his wit and scorn for his boringly pompous and untalented half brother while sporting a pretty young Merrach on his arm, an equally wicked wit in the opera called Nellie Cyprian.

Nellie was once an orphan up in the war zone of Arcadia Minor when she was rescued by Horsham and brought to Arcadia. He settled her in Lady Confabulate's townhouse as a respectable lower stairs maid. But Nellie never intended to be a scullery maid for long. She threw a dinner plate at the butler and jeered the cook. Then she marched out the back door of respectability and marched through the front door of infamy. First she was a child prostitute, then an 'orange girl' at the Orangery (Opera House). Now, courtesy of Horsham's tutelage in singing and acting, she was the most famous comic singer at the opera. As a Merrach of course she could only do the supporting 'comic peasant' roles that Horsham refused to stoop to but she was doing them shamelessly well. Today Nellie was equally shameless in a silk tunic as transparent as the one Horsham, her old rescuer wore. But unlike Horsham, Nellie knew the silk in the afternoon sun was transparent and Nellie had very beautiful assets to show off.

Prince Grafton's twin brother Prince Kitsune was climbing an ice sculpture in sheer mischief. The small, frail looking wizard seemed compelled to make mischief, as if confirming in everyone's minds that his father was not Prince Grafton's Beorach mercenary but rather a fox changeling. Kitsune explained the rumors by saying his mother, already ailing despite being declared a demigod of the Moon by one and all, was suffering from kitsunetsuki, a form of mental illness that women were especially prone to.

Most fox gods and their progeny the fox changelings were infamous masters of both transformation and transmutation. They were also infamously mischievous and were called the 'Gods of Accidents' for a reason. The Orangery Opera House, like all theaters, sacrificed to household gods of foxes and also fox changelings who were considered the patron gods of performers. But then performers were as disreputable as the fox gods they worshiped. No respectable person worshiped the disreputable fox gods or eagerly embraced fox changelings unless duped. Horsham could attest to that. He had seen many a drunken soldier pay three coppers in a back alley to a prostitute only to discover he paid a fox changeling transvestite. Only Horsham thought that was hilarious.

The small fey Elve did not look or act like his twin brother Prince Grafton at all. Lord Kitsune was always carelessly dressed, his fair hair in a perpetual tangle, his outfits mis-sized and mis-matched, his boots different colors, and his kilt always askew. He always carried a mountain ash whip yet he was a terrible horseman. He was however a very good wizard despite his scatterbrained behavior.

The prior year he exorcized the dead of Desolation Island, Far Fishing Elves murdered by Maestus the Damned and his red-haired Fallen Elves, officially exonerating all native born red haired Elves like Bree the Red who was presently fighting the Dark Lord beyond the Pale of the Central Mountains in the East. Because the Celestial Elves always denied any role in the near genocidal mass murder of Far Fishing Twilight Elves, Kitsune declined to exonerate them. Gloriana would have refused any exoneration anyway. She not only denied any role in the murder, she denied any role in the dumping of her Celestial relatives in the water from stolen fishing boats grossly overloaded with iron weapons of Maestus the Damned and golden treasure owed by her and her twin brother Ringold. Gloriana despised native born Twilight Elves like Kitsune, anyone here at this party today really. Apparently her ambition to marry Celebeau and possibly become Queen of Arcadia did not clash with her prejudice against all 'inferior' native born Elves. Perhaps her arrogant Celestial superiority allowed her to rule as Queen over inferiors. No one could believe she really loved Celebeau. She could only be using him to seize power over Arcadia. After all Kitsune was presently trying to hoist a crown of brambles onto the top of the melting head of the ice carved Queen Finnalana, the Sidh ancestral god of the Celestial Elves and Lady Confabulate was only laughing at the sight. Not Celebeau of course. But then Celebeau never laughed.

Floradale, the bon vivant and gossipy wit of Arcadia was watching the scene play out. He wore a long silk scarf thrown carelessly around his famously 'fragile neck' and also wore famously decadent colors on his long, lean body. Today it was pink and grey. He was sipping wine while critiquing the fashion sense (or lack) of every single unfortunate passerby to his hostess who was giggling. Floradale was a notorious queen but like many homosexuals, he was funny too and genuinely fond of women in a strictly platonic sense, a woman's very best friend. The stage was set for the scene. It played out before Floradale's famous nose and therefore was immortalized for history in his ten volumes of self published diaries in the Second Age. But in the First Age Floradale was living history rather than writing about it.

Horsham sauntered into view, saw Ben, snorted in scorn, and turned to leave. Ben saw Horsham, spat, then glared. Celebeau looked down his famously bony nose at both men. Gloriana smirked in utter scorn. Floradale raised on eyebrow and nodded at hostess and winked knowingly. Then Sanguinary marched into the scene.

"You have been talking about me Horsham!"

"Only about why you are pursuing me" Horsham replied. Floradale raised the other eyebrow.

"What are you implying?"

"Only what everyone is speculating."

"Which is?"

"That you are a mommy's boy who fetches at Lady Sanguinary's beck and call like a lackey, but you are not reliable enough to be taken into her nefarious plots as she plays the whore to the Dark Lord's minions. Peace in our Time through Appeasement. Like a whore...." and at this Horsham looked directly at Celebeau ..... "with her legs wide open." Celebeau glared his most dead fish glare at Horsham. Sanguinary did not understand the double insult, assuming it was only directed at himself and his mother.

"How dare you! I ..."

"Please! You bore me Sanguinary! I have decided that you are not worthy of my time. Don't bother. I don't fight queers. Why don't you challenge Ben over there. He hates queers. See him! He is practically foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. You two should get together. Neither one of you ever goes near the battle front or risks his life fighting real battles. Sanguinary, you bought your military title and have never ever gone near the front! You are a coward. And Ben over there only performs if he knows some bard is watching and taking it all down. I would not be surprised if the enemy he claims to have fought are all stage hands at the opera. You know. The actors who pretend to fight the Elve singers in the phoney last act duel on stage, pretend to fight, then pretend to be overwhelmed and stagger and die on stage, only to jump up once the curtain descends and laughs. Ben is a famous performer of valor. Claims he an't never ever afraid. Scared of nothing. But all he ever does is hang around a certain spinster making unwanted advances, safe and sound in Arcadia City. So Sanguinary, go over there and make a pass at Ben. Or else run home with your tail between your legs and tell Mommy that you could not prostitute yourself after all. That is what she wanted you to do? Eh? Prostitute yourself? But I don't buy prostitutes. Everyone ought to know that. Don't need to. Got all the freebies I want."

Sanguinary glared in loathing at Horsham. Bela had spies in Lady Sanguinary's townhouse too. Bela had spies everywhere.

"How dare you!"

"You are repeating yourself Sanguinary. A self important, non-important, non-entity, cowardly mommy's boy. Say Floradale? Will your diaries feature such unimportant non-entities as Sanguinary here?"

Floradale raised his wine glass at Horsham. Floradale could see that Horsham was trying to goat both Sanguinary and Ben into making hot-headed moves. "My diary only records non-entities my dear Horsham. Unimportant people are so much more amusing and important people are such bores!"

Horsham smiled and then deliberately turned his back on Sanguinary who grabbed Horsham by his long, braided hair in one hand and his newly slim waist with the other hand. The act was one of rage but the effect appeared sexual. Horsham spun around and punched Sanguinary in the face with a big fist. Sanguinary hit the grass as onlookers gasped and Floradale pretended to be shocked. Ben glared.

"Faggots! The pair of you! Faggots only rape other faggots in the showers. Right Celebeau? That's what you said happened when Horsham joined up at sixteen. One day on the job and fucking and being fucked by faggots. You are all alike! Perverts! Elves!" Ben's response was one of overriding and uncontrollable prejudice but the effect was a public insult on the entire Elve Race. Gloriana at least kept her scorn for 'inferior' Elves behind a smirking smile. And her scorn only extended to all the Native Born Elves and not her obviously superior, paradise reborn Celestial Elves. Twilight Elves only despised native born Dark or Green Elves. The Twilight loathed the Celestial but that was not scorn at least. Ben's scorn was toward all Elves. Dark. Green. Twilight. Celestial. Ben's scorn and loathing of Elves was suddenly made public for all to see. The onlookers gasped again. They were not used to being despised by a despised Mere Mortal. The bard painted face of the epic hero suddenly pealed away to reveal an unheroic baser metal.

Celebeau gasped too. Ben's outburst was both an insult on Celebeau's Race and also a violation of something told to him in strictest confidence. Celebeau had investigated Horsham a very long time ago and discovered the nearly forgotten event that haunted only the victim. He told Ben in the strictest confidence because the offence that took place that day so long ago violated a serious Twilight Taboo: virginity. If Horsham was still a virgin, and at sixteen that was likely, then the Elves violated the taboo of virginity by forcibly deflowering a immature adolescent who was not ready for sex. The Twilight Elve had few sexual taboos but the taboo against premature and involuntary violation of virginity was one of them.

The officers that day might have only considered their rape of a Mere Mortal a trite act of scornful violence against an inferior race. But Celebeau considered it a violated taboo that had since swelled into a hideous crime and festered into an ulcerous wound that could spread with all the contagiousness of evil onto the body public of Arcadia itself. Celebeau proved right ultimately. A taboo violated can spread malicious evil. It did. But Ben exploited the confidence bestowed on him to hurt and humiliate Horsham. It was a cheap shot. That shocked Celebeau who despised people who hit below the belt. Celebeau believed the bard painted portrait of the famous epic hero. The suddenly revealed real face of the inner Ben shocked him profoundly.

In the shadows, Duer stood. He had come with some papers for Celebeau, as his staff sergeant. Now he learned for possibly the first time that Elves had raped his son as a sixteen year old boy. It explained his son's unraveling and erratic behavior that heretofore humiliated Duer who considered Horsham a bad copper. Now Duer knew Horsham was made into a bad copper by his worshiped, blindly obeyed and adored Elvish masters. And Ben the Beorach, a man Duer also worshiped and adored, had deliberately told everyone the shameful event merely to taunt Horsham out of sheer callous spite. Duer's face shuddered as if stabbed. Celebeau, warned by that famous Elvish instinct, turned around and saw his trusted staff sergeant' face. Celebeau blanched. Ben absolutely did not care. The whole situation was rapidly escalating out of everyone's control. Everyone was staring. Even Floradale gasped in genuine shock. The air was electric.

Suddenly Gloriana laughed, brittle laughter like glass breaking. The scene was amusing her -- or scaring her. Some people laugh as an reaction to stress. But Gloriana looked amused rather than scared. Celebeau, everyone really, stared at her too. Her instinctive callous cruelty was also shocking. Celebeau blinked his blank grey eyes as if seeing his intoxicating beloved for the very first time. First his best friend. Then his fiancee. Celebeau glared, then moved toward Duer, the practical, immediate gesture. Help his staff sergeant. But Duer turned and fled.

At that moment Luna whimpered, then she collapsed spectacularly on the grass in an apparently dead faint. Everyone rushed over. Celebeau picked her up and carried her to a divan. The hostess, Lady Confabulate, knelt down and rubbed her brow gently. Floradale offered his mulled wine to revive her. Gloriana pretended to appear concerned. Ben tried to break through the mob to seize her. Lady Confabulate slapped him on his war battered face, daring the notorious bully down. "Leave Luna alone you thug! I did not invite you to my snow party anyway! If you despise us so much, why hang around Arcadia? Go out and engage in one of your famous epic adventures or something! But leave poor Luna alone! You bounder! You bully! You thug!"

Ben make an instinctive gesture to hit her in the face with his fist. He actually pulled his hand back in a fist. The hostess stood straight and tall and glared at Ben, as if to dare him to punch her. "B-u-l-l-y!" she said again, slowly. Ben's face was transformed by violent fury. Ben hit her straight in the face and broke Lady Confabulate's beautiful aquiline nose. The blood dripped down the front of her tunic, onto her kilt. She took the blow like a rock. She did not even cry out. Then Lady Confabulate smiled. "Bully!"she said again. Floradale ran over and threw his arms around his friend with genuine concern. Luna cried out and cringed, then pulled the tail of her kilt over her face to blot out the ugly scene. Ben the Beorach stormed out of the engagement party.

In the meantime Horsham was already storming out of the party. Fast on his heels was his distant father Duer, running after his son. "Wait! Wait Son! Please! I did not know! I swear! Listen. Let's talk..."

Horsham spun around. "Talk? When have we ever talked Father?"

"We have .... sometimes... after you were made a 'Superior Man' and my equal in rank. We have talked....sometimes.....Anyways! You always avoided me too Horsham! Joined the Rufus Fraction..... insulted Ben who is a national hero..."

"Go fuck Ben if you love him so much then Father! Ben is a traitor to Arcadia! Your hero is plotting something that will destroy Arcadia. But by all means go and worship at the glorious altar of Ben the Beorach, the little tin god invented by the bards for their fireside serials! Sure fire entertainment value! Tell a tall tale of Ben's legendary exploits and maybe throw in a last minute song about Horsham of Arcadia for an encore! Right Father! Right!"

"You are just jealous of Ben! Face it!"

"You were never there! Whenever I needed someone! You were never there! Now we are in opposite camps! Enemy camps! Go worship your little tin god! I don't need you. You are just some biological onlooker to my accidental procreation. Mom was a alley cat, tail up in the air, munching away on a bit of rotten fish and too busy to care, and you came along and poked, then trotted off. 'Bout a year later I was born, unwanted, and quickly dumped to fend for myself. Well I have. Since I was sixteen years old and raped in the public showers by two Elve officers while everyone walked around and did not even bother to look, much less try to stop it! Thank you very much Father!"

"I did not know!"

"Too late for nothing!" Horsham stormed out and Father and Son rarely exchanged five words ever again.

Horsham found it hard to forgive Bela. It was Bela's idea to goat Ben in public to force him to act out his plan prematurely and therefore disastrously. A typical Bela ploy. Bela also hoped that Sanguinary could also be forced into the game as a wild card, an irrational wild card that could possibly wreak Lady Sanguinary's schemes with his clumsy and violent behavior. He had been wavering, alternating in his love hate relationship to his domineering matriarch who exploited him but also treated him as a child to be toyed with and then fobbed off to handlers. Again a typical Bela ploy. Horsham performed his part as if on the stage of an opera. The plot was suppose to feature trite and the cliched dialogue. But the phony lines suddenly hit too close to home and the banal plot suddenly ambushed Horsham from behind. His past was now the grist for all of Arcadia to gossip over. And rape was the one thing Horsham could not cope with. Then. Or now. Everyone's public facade except for the stony eyed Celebeau had been ripped off, exposing the inner scars and festering emotional ulcers that are the classic symptoms of all wounds to the mind. Only Celebeau remained apparently unviolated. But he was the first person to react to the ugly scene and his reaction was first surprising, and quintessenceably Celebeau.

"Apologize."

"What?"

"Apologize."

"For what?"

Celebeau's stony grey eyes glared with steely rage. Ben was genuinely ignorant. As far as Ben was concened, he did not do anything wrong.

"You insulted the Elve Race. You hit Lady Confabulate in the face. You exploited a private confidence to score a cheap below the belt hit. You humiliated Duer..."

"Who is Duer?"

"My staff Sergeant."

"What does he have to do with anything?"

"Duer is Horsham's father!"

"Well he should be ashamed of his son. Horsham is a coward and a sham and a faggot."

"You betrayed a private confidence."

"I only told the truth."

"With malevolent intent! To hurt and humiliate! Spite. Sheer spite! Your real face is not very pretty Ben. Apologize to Duer. Then Lady Confabulate. Then Horsham. Then...."

"I don't apologize. Not ever. Never. Never have. Never will. Don't need to. I only told the truth. If the truth is ugly that is your problem. If that rape thing was private then you should not have gossiped about it to me. I am a Beorach and the Beorach use every weapon we can reach."

Celebeau turned and walked out. Ben still did not get it. But he did quickly. Rhingol ordered him banished from Arcadia. Celebeau personally submitted the warrant of Nitthing Exile. If Ben stayed he could be killed on the spot by absolutely anyone. The Twilight Term was Nitthing Man. A Nothing Man. A man with no legal rights or protections. Luna threw herself on her bed and wept with total abandonment. That night she appeared at their rendevous red eyed and shattered.

"You are killing me Ben. Killing me. Your love is killing me. My love for you is killing me. Why can't you just go away! Father will never allow me to marry you now! Not now! Not after what you did today! It is hopeless! Hopeless! Our love is hopeless! Doomed! I am going to die of love for you! I might as well kill myself now and be finished with it. Built a flet and lay down and die. I just want to die! My life has become a sort of living fiery fissure..."

"That is it Luna! That is it!" Ben grabbed his golden girl and shook her. "My plans are almost ready! I am planning to ride north and slither into the Fiery Fissure Fortress as a mercenary and steal a Device to buy you! My half of the wedding dowery! Your Father did say..."

"He was joking! He will never accept you as his son in law! Not now! Don't you understand what you did today?"

"It will be a great cover! It will work to my advantage! The Dark Lord will think I am defecting to his cause out of spite! See! Then I will steal a Device and ride back the hero! Your father will have to allow us to marry! See! Now I just need a little more money. That bastard Ringold is such a swine he an't giving me much of nothing. Whining about 'celestial curses' and 'contaminating evil' and stupid stuff like that. Coward! Elves are such cowards! So I need a little more money. I tried to screw that damn Dwarve Chas but he an't delivering much neither. Dwarves are all such misers! Cowards. No guts! No one has any guts but me. Scared! Everyone is so scared of that Dark Lord. The big scary 'Shadow of His Nature' and all that bullshit! Nothing to be scared of! In! Out! Piece of cake!"

Luna was horrified. But not for the right reasons. "Ben, dearest heart, that is you're whole plan? What about a back up plan? You are assuming the Dark Lord is stupid and that the Devices are not guarded. And how much gold do you need? I only have some few pieces of jewelry Father gave me and my dowery..... dearest one, why not just elope? We can just elope. I will go into exile with you. I can take my dowery.... we can live off my dowery..... I don't care. Exile with you. It is better than staying here and being torn apart by you and Father..... perhaps if we have a beautiful baby boy he might even relent and forgive us....after you apologize to save face...."

"Forgive? I have done nothing wrong! I don't apologize! Not ever! Never! I don't apologize! And I won't live off your dowery like some sort of .....fancy man. Ben the Beorach an't no fancy man kept by his lover! Either I am your legal husband or I am leaving!"

"Oh please Ben! Please! This is killing me. Please!"

"Then help me and don't hinder me!"

"Ok. Dearest One. Please don't be angry with me. Please. I am so lonely. Father is angry with me. Mother was never very loving toward me.... almost as if she was jealous of me and Father. She is so possessive of Father. Won't share. Why can't love be shared? And Celebeau is marrying and then he won't have time for me. He was my only friend in the world..."

"You don't need no friends! See! You have me! You don't need no one but me! Me! See! Me! Only me! I will take care of you! I will provide! See! Me! Me!"

"Ok. Please Ben! Ok. Please! I am so unhappy.....I will do whatever you say......"

"About the gold.... how much can you get?"

"I might as well try to steal the lot. We might have to bribe the Captain of the Guard.... I hear that the Dark Lord pays big hiring fees but then forgets to pay back wages so we might be able to exploit that...."

"Sounds fishy to me. Devious. Don't have to play the game that way. Punch our way in. Steal a Device. Punch our way out..."

"And dearest one, I am not trying to tell you how to do it but.....if I go in undercover too....I could guard your back....."

"Don't know about that....don't need no help.... but you have never seen me in action have you? Why not? I won't need your help but it might be fun to have you watch me do it. That swine Horsham implied I was nothing but a fake! A Fake! A fake hero! The swine! He is the fake! The sham! I am the real hero! The real hero! The bards write about me because I am the real hero! Born without fear! That's what they say about me! Born without fear! I never faked nothing! Not never! I did everything I claimed..... well.... the bards exaggerate but they are bards see! They have to tell a good story! And they like a good story told them! You know! You have to sorta .....tell a good story! Everyone expects it! Anyways! It is expected of a fella to tell a tall tale. Exaggerate a bit. That is not the same a lying!

I did not ask them bards to start singing my praises and telling tall tales about me and saying I killed 50 Orcs at one time or killed 20 desperadoes all by myself or any of that stuff. I did not ask them to make me their hero at large! But now I have to live up to it.... the renown.... the fame.... the name..... my name as been hijacked by the bards and now I have to live up to their image of me! See! 'Ben the Beorach!' The most famousist hero of the Age! It is proving to be kinda hard... to live up to..... you know?" Ben's voice faltered and he looked at Luna with suddenly vulnerable eyes.

"I know Ben. I do understand. You are judged by your reputation. I am judged just because I am a Royal Princess. Celebeau is assumed to be a cipher promoted to command because he is royal and also assumed to be incompetent because he is royal. People assumed other people are this or that out of prejudice or snobbery or this or that. If only people could just see the other person as they are.... without the preconceptions. Just based on facts. On things really done. Not who they are. Or what they are. Or how they look. But how they really act. What they really do. Maybe the world could be a kinder place."

Ben stared at Luna, remembered how he first fell in love with her, before knowing who she was, just because she was so very kind. That memory had been buried under all the later stuff that came about after he found out who she was, and after all the schemes started, and the plots, and the anger and jealousy. Now Ben suddenly clasped her to his chest and hugged the beleaguered girl.

"I love ya! I do! I swear! I swear! On my soul! May I die the day I forget my love for ya! May I die the day I put anything ahead of my love for ya! I am just getting this Device thing to buy the right to woo ya and marry ya! This Device thing is nothing. Nothing but some stupid jewel thing. An't nothing to be scared of! An't going to harm us at all! Not at all! See! See! What I am doing is to prove my love for you! See! It is a good thing that I'm doing! A good thing! A grand adventure to woo ya and make ya my bride! Nothing is going to go wrong! Nothing bad is going to happen! I swear! I swear! The world loves a display of valor! Bravery always wins the day!"

Ben and Luna hugged in the moonlight and kissed with all the bottled up passion on their bodies for the irony was ---- gossip to the contrary -- they really were chaste lovers. Luna really was still a virgin. Ben was too proud to seduce her if he could not first declare her his bride. The Beorach mind set declared that a bride had to be a virgin. Anyone else was 'used'. Whores and slaves. Scum. A respectable bride had to be a virgin. A respectable virgin had to be married first. If Ben slept with Luna, and eloped with Luna, and lived off her dowry in exile, then she could only be a slut and Ben's Beorach prejudices would end up hating her.

Ben and Luna kissed in the moonlight and plotted their schemes. To bad their schemes capsized on the realities of hidden ice bergs at sea. For Horsham was right. The Devices were curst by the gods of the West and anyone who touched a Device was damned to die, betrayed, destroyed, their life's work in ruins, their children fleeing in exile, and all their achievements just so much ash and cinder. Ben and Luna kissed in the moonlight and plotted to bring a Device into Arcadia to buy their love. And their love left Arcadia a burning bier of ashes and cinder. The bards sing of their love affair. Movies are still made even today celebrating it. But their love affair incinerated a city and killed almost a quarter of a million people.

"Why are you upset Horsham?" Bela was just as perplexed as Ben. He could not see the problem either. "Ben and Sanguinary went berserk just as I predicted. Ben will launch his treasonous campaign to steal a Device prematurely. Sanguinary is going berserk back at Sanguinary House even as we speak. Now we can use Sanguinary to break apart the Sanguinary Fraction behind the 'Piece through Appeasement' Movement and nail Lady Sanguinary who is the Dark Lord's collaborator. Everything worked out perfectly. Even Celebeau is mad at Ben and he is reputed by my spies to be reconsidering his golden girl Gloriana too. No Gloriana, no Celestial Curse contaminating Arcadia! Excellent! Excellent!" Bela lounged on his bench in his Library and smiled his slick cat's smile.

"Everything worked out according to plan? What about me?"

"What about you?"

"I was humiliated back there. Now the world knows."

"Knows what?"

"What? Damn you to the fiery fissure Bela!"

"Oh. You mean the rape. That is not your fault. You were the victim. It does not show Elves in a very good light but then every race has it's rotten apples. I wonder how Ben found out? Celebeau must have told him. Mad at him now. Celebeau wrote out the exile warrant declaring Ben a 'Nitthing Man' nice. Unexpected. But nice."

Horsham glowered at Bela. "My guts are all over the floor and you say it is 'nice'. By the gods Bela you are a cold blooded swine!"

"You said you would deliver Ben's head to me. We are Crows. Spies. We play the game. You agreed to it Horsham. It spiraled a little out of control but the situation still played out our way. But we have to keep the screws on! Keep the pressure on! Until they crack!" Horsham picked up a book at random and threw over Bela's head. Bela did not even bother to flinch. "You said you could still do the job. If you can not then I will employ another Crow." Horsham glared. But then he sat down and hunched over and rocked back and forth. His habitual behavior. 'The Grim Lout'. Horsham could not afford to have Bela replace him. He had to stay in the game even if the game was eating him up inside..... at this point in his life there was nothing else.

"What is the game Mother? I want in the game!" Sanguinary glared at his matriarch. "I won't be treated like a little boy any longer! I want in!"

"Act like a man and I will treat you like a man" Lady Sanguinary purred. "Falling to pieces like that in front of everyone! Really! Who cares if you are besotted with some hairy ape of a Mere Mortal. This year Miscegenation. Next year Bestiality." She stretched lazily and resumed fanning herself in the light of the lazy afternoon. "I want winter to be over. I am bored with winter. Nothing happens in winter. The world just holds it's collective breath and waits for spring. I long for spring! Something happening. I am so bored!"

I will get Horsham for you Mother if you let me join the game."

"How? He has rather gotten you I gather."

"I will deliver him! I swear!"

"Alive. Dead, he is just another hairy ape. I want to find out what Rufus Royal is doing. It has to be secret armament! But I can not prove it! I need the proof! The only way to rearm in secret is with the collaboration of Dwarves! They are the vile war profiteers after all. Merchants of weapons and middlemen of death. And Horsham is a Dwarve lover. So he has to be the liaison between the Dwarves at the Citadel and Rufus Royal. As for Bela, the Spy Master of the Cockpit! Well.... I have plans for him too...." She smiled and purred in malicious glee. " If we can catch Horsham red handed passing money to buy weapons then we can break the scandal SECRETLY to Celebeau who will declare both Rufus Royal and Bela traitors and sign off on their death warrants. Can you deliver Horsham?....."

"......Can you really deliver Sanguinary Horsham? I need to trap Sanguinary accepting bribes from the Dark Lord's minions red handed. Then I can have Celebeau sign off on Lady Sanguinary's death warrant SECRETLY as a collaborator with the enemy. Can you deliver Sanguinary?...."

".....Can you steal the full dowery amount and not be caught Luna? We need to leave post haste to ride to Goldenthrond where Ringold is delivering the rest of my little army. Tomorrow Night at the latest!......."

".....I need to postpone the wedding Gloriana. Things have come up...... I need to reconsider."

"Reconsider what?"

"Things are happening here in Arcadia but no one is telling me anything. Everyone treats me like a piece of lumber."

"But you are a piece of lumber. Celewood. Joke! It is a joke you silly! Laugh!" Gloriana laughed and kissed Celebeau on his wooden forehead, assuming like everyone else that he was hopeless stupid. "I have to go and entertain Rhingol now darling. Oh yes. And here is really absolutely no reason to postpone the wedding. Ringold has promised to pay my share of the dowery out of the famous Cache and host it himself back at Goldenthrond. It will be the social event of the season. History will say it was the single most spectacular display Our World has ever seen. And you...." Gloriana minced up and tugged Celebeau's kilt swag straight..... "And you are going to be the guest of honor!" She patted Celebeau's cheek and then purred in self satisfaction and turned and skipped away to entertain Rhingol the Great who liked witty social butterflies and so considered Celebeau a boring piece of lumber. Rhingol the Great was delighted that Celebeau was going to marry Gloriana. The Golden Twins toadied to his delusions of grander and encouraged his frivolous inclinations. Most Celestial Elves were openly scornful of Rhingol. So Rhingol was fatally flattered by the Golden Twins' schemes. But for the first time Celebeau was worried because he was beginning to realize that the Golden Twins were golden schemers using Rhingol ---- and using him......

"...... the game is afoot Nellie! I need to know what Bela is doing in all of this. He is the Spy Master of the Cockpit! I have to know which side he will come down on! Bela is the king maker..... and Horsham works for Bela. But Horsham is no longer on my side. So can you weasel the information out of Horsham?....."

"And what is my cut darling Grafton?"

"If I become king I will reward you handsomely Nellie!"

"You an't rewarding me much now. The folds of your princely kilt pouch are empty. You have spent all your inheritance and your brother's too."

"But if I can seize the crown of Arcadia then you will be rewarded twice over!"

"And will Kiyohime be Queen of Arcadia? I hear she is pregnant again?"

"Lady Kiyohime is distantly related to the Royal House of Arcadia through Lord Ryu, Rhingol's kin on his mother's side. I need to have a Elven child by her to cement my claim to the Crown. And besides, Kiyohime would be a lovely queen and let's face it Nellie, you can't be Queen and you know it. And the role would bore you. The Court bores you now. Let Kiyohime both enjoy and endue the tedium of Royal Court Protocol. Enjoy playing the role of Royal Whore Nellie. It is much more fun......"

"....Schemes and schemes and plots and things!" Beladonna was shrill in her whining. "All you ever do is scheme and plot and maneuver!"

"That is my job Beladonna. No more credit."

"But I need the money.... the winter social gatherings are expensive and I have to keep up appearances."

"Reach into the folds of Rhingol's kilt pouch then. My pouch is double folded closed...... and Bela..... no more letters to Lady Sanguinary. I consider that to be most indiscreet. Do you understand?" Beladonna shivered for Bela was almost hissing his words like a cold blooded snake.

"Yes. I understand Bela." She scurried out of the room......

"....You have to get the money to cover my gambling debts!" Veggie shouted to his wife. "I have to have the 500 rhingols now!"

"I can't get it! Bela is furious with me as is!"

"If I don't get the 500 rhingols by tomorrow night then we are ruined!....."

"What an appropriate place for an illicit rendevous" Horsham said to himself as he pressed himself against a stony outcropping. He was inside the bowels of the original Mother Mountain that formed the core of Arcadia City. The original caves and fissures and tunnels honeycombed the lone mountain. Many of the massive caves and subterranean caverns were used by the famous cheese makers of Arcadia to store their huge wheels of cheese. The coolness of the caves were ideal for cheese. Other caves were too deep to be useful, or subterranean and prone to flooding, or so deep in the bowels of the mountain as to be flooded, or too dangerous, or too deep, or just plain too terrible. Fissures and tunnels ran here and there, forming an elaborate maze of dangerous complexity.

Some caves still bore the lost prehistoric art of the ancient Twilight Elves who first migrated into Our World from the Dusty East. Some caves were homes to millions of bats who exploded out of the caves and fissures at dusk to blot out the sky as they flew across the pastoral demi-paradise to hunt out insect pests all over the rich farms and Orchards. Twilight Elves considered bats lucky symbols of prosperity for that reason. Bats and storks were considered lucky creatures who blessed the houses and fields of prosperous and industrious Elves. But other caves were rumored to be haunted by ghosts and vampire bats. Once in a while a cheese maker was found dead in a cave, his life's blood sucked dry, his body a dry husk, his face still baring a ghastly expression of utter horror.

Horsham held up his small Dwarve lamp which cast only a very tiny ray of light and maneuvered through the stony maze, following a map in his mind. He was not claustrophobic and his mind possessed a very good sense of direction even down in the depths of a stony labyrinth of tunnels and fissures and caves and caverns. After letting the benign insect eating bats fly past him, he ambled nonchalantly down into the cool darkness. Horsham was trailing Sanguinary who was rendezvousing with a collaborator. He wore no boots so his feet make no sound (despite the cold stone which was more than unpleasant). He followed at a distance, following a distant bobbing lantern that made quite a splash of light. Most people felt compelled to flood the darkness with light to ward off fear. Judging from the size of the light, Sanguinary must have been quite afraid. Sanguinary also wore boots so he was making a lot of noise that echoed in the stony labyrinth.

Finally the bobbing blob of light stopped. Horsham closed the tin door this his Dwarve 'thief lantern' and crept softly forward. Sanguinary was talking now to someone. The echos distorted the words though. Horsham crept up closer and peered around a stony outcropping. Sanguinary's back was to Horsham. Then Sanguinary passed a small bag that jingled. Coins. A hand reached out. The voice behind Sanguinary's body was smaller and hidden behind the form of Sanguinary. The voices murmured. Despite the distortions caused by echos, both voices sounded familiar.

"Bitch!" Horsham whispered to himself. Then Horsham pressed against the stone. Beladonna scurried past Sanguinary while putting the bag of coins in the loop of her kilt that acted as a kilt pouch. Sanguinary was shoving a wad of paper in the jeweled belt of his kilt. Horsham cowered in the shadowy darkness and Beladonna scurried quickly past him and darted down the tunnel. Horsham paused, waiting for Sanguinary to turn around and depart too. Instead Sanguinary took another fissure and walked deeper into the labyrinth, his light again bobbing brightly, just ahead. Horsham softly followed the distant light. Sanguinary turned left, then left, then right, then left, counting out loud. He was navigating by the time honored technique of numbers of 'rights' and 'lefts'. Finally he paused, then entered a gigantic cavern of towering heights and behemoth dimensions.

Hundreds of amazing fairytale-like limestone stalactites and stalagmites sparkled in the darkness as if glowing with pale pearly light, as if trapping moonlight deep underground. Mithril. The lone Mother Mountain of prehistoric Arcadia contained a secret core of Mithril, the Mother of all Metals. Horsham always wondered what collateral Rhingol the Great used to counterbalance his unpaid loans with the Dwarves. So the Old Citadel did not contain an exclusive monopoly on the most rare and valuable of metals after all. Perhaps Rhingol's extravagance was rational after all. He certainly spent money like he owned a mithril mine.

The sight of apparently endless, fabulous riches was awesome. But typically, Horsham then rubbed a stalagmite to test the tantalizing beauty. The mithril ore was embedded into the rock in tiny flakes. But Horsham (who had become rather a mining expert) guessed that the ore was 'Fools' Mithril', rather like pyrite 'Fool's Gold'. The mithril was too pale and too scattered to be mined commercially. The entire mountain would have to be dug up and grounded down to produce any salvable ore. The sheer destruction and tonnage would make that impossible. Top grade mithril ore glowed brilliantly in the dark as if generating light. 'Moonlight in Darkness' the Dwarves called it. Mining grade mithril ran in deep, thick veins that also hummed as if alive. And mining grade mithril had a smell about it too: 'The Smell of Riches'.

Ancient Dwarves worshiped mithril when they first saw it, believing it was a 'living metal'. It was certainly iridescent as mother of pearl, and after processing with mercury, diamond hard. But mithril also caused no end of diseases that the Dwarves learned to their sorrow as they mined it. The dirty secret of the Old Citadel was that mithril was highly poisonous until 'set' by mercury which was highly poisonous too. A lot of Dwarves died every year of the side effects of their lust for the Mother of Metals. The beauty of mithril was toxic. Horsham distrusted Durham the Deathless because of that, despite Durham's steel discounts to Rufus Royal. Horsham could not see how a responsible man could encourage the continuing mining of a toxic metal that was now even effecting the birth rate of Citadel Dwarves. The re-processors of mithril were all females and they were also all sterile or else gave birth to deformed and dead babies. Mithril miners (all men) were usually sterile too.

The slags leftover from the mining were being stored in old copper and tin mines but the slags were notoriously poisonous and not even Durham, genius though he was, could figure out how to get rid of the slags and mining wastes and pollution that mithril generated each year. The Dwarves, insanely Horsham thought, kept saying they would develop a 'safe' means of storage but they never did and never could. The Dwarves, insanely Horsham thought, underestimated the dangers of the pollution in their lust for the 'Mother of Metals'. Horsham thought the Old Citadel was signing off on it's own death warrant. But if Durham could not see the danger, why would any Dwarve listen to a self educated Mere Mortal's opinion?

Sanguinary ignored the fool's gold of the flickering but sub-grade mithril and crept around the shore of a large subterranean lake of icy cold water. His light danced off the water which was oily with mithril contamination like the surface of a mother of pearl shell. Over thousands of years the ebb and flow of the giant subterranean lake had leeched the 'Fool's Mithril' out of the stone. The giant lake was now a giant bowl full of faintly glowing, and highly toxic liquid mithril. Horsham, barefoot, had to carefully crept around the shore, his feet often forced into the slimy and icy water that coated his naked feet with mother of pearl-like iridescence.

Finally Sanguinary stopped, then raised his lantern high. Horsham pressed himself against the stone. Sanguinary was clearly signaling. Another light bobbed into life and soon the two bobbing halos of light met by the icy lake of polluted water, the mysterious source of the 'Stream of Death' that flowed southeast of Arcadia. The tiny stream was notoriously lethal and gossip said many a poisoner dipped their vials into that infamous stream in order to poison many a parent or wife or husband or lover. The giant cavern echoed as the two shadowy forms conversed low. Sanguinary made a gesture to pass the stolen papers that Beladonna had passed to him.

Horsham leapt out and ran toward the men, dropping his lantern, pulling out his sword, his other hand already welding a throwing knife. He threw the knife and the stranger cried out, dropping the papers and also dropping a bag onto the stony ground. Sanguinary turned around and pulled out his steel long sword. Horsham pulled out his boot knife and threw it. The stranger ducked but the larger knife still hit him in the leg. He fell, crying and clutching his leg.

Sanguinary posted himself before the Dark Lord's spy and flashed his sword while holding up his lantern in his left hand. Horsham welded his long sword with both hands. So Horsham and Sanguinary waged their last duel to the death. No Master of the Field was there to police them. No rules ruled. Both men went for the jugular.

The men circled about uneven ground, sometimes splashing in the shallow part of the poisonous lake, sometimes splashing onto the shore, sometimes ducking behind stalagmites that sparked with deadly beauty. The swords rang out, echoing in the darkness, flashing off the one lantern that Sanguinary held up to see. Horsham fought as if he did not need light to see. His eyes had been faltering for so long he was in fact half way blind already. He threw himself hard against Sanguinary, delivering power blows with his ringing sword, using both hands, not trying to protect his vulnerable body to attack.

Sanguinary ducked and pricked, nimble as an assassin, pirouetting with feline grace. Neither man knew how long they fought. But finally Sanguinary started to pant. Sweat dripped off Horsham's hair. His blue eyes bulged, his mouth a fierce grimace. By now both men were bloody --- and desperate, on their last reserves of strength. Sanguinary aimed below the belt. Horsham expected the low blow and neatly whirled about and delivered a brutal knee in the groin followed by a brutal punch in the throat of Sanguinary, using the pummel of his sword. The bones broke in Sanguinary's throat. The Elve gagged for breath, wheezing. It was a dirty trick. A professional soldier's standard dirty trick. But Sanguinary was only a courtier killer and not a professional soldier and did not see it coming.

Sanguinary staggered, reeling backwards. Horsham head butted him hard. Sanguinary dropped to the shore and collapsed on his back halfway into the toxic lake that lapped the pebbly shore. There he gagged, gasping for air, as his face turned blue, his eyes rolling. Horsham stood over him like a huge dark shadow. Sanguinary dropped his sword and gestured. Horsham knelt down by the dying man. Sanguinary grabbed Horsham's tunic and pulled his bloody face toward Horsham. "I should have scarred your god damn face!"

"Why didn't you?" Horsham asked. He was the one man Sanguinary never deliberately marled with brutal sexual butchery.

Sanguinary gagged and blood hemorrhaged out of his mouth. "I guess I loved you too much. See you in hell boyo!....next duel.... in hell!." Then Sanguinary choked on his blood and died.

"To the end! To the bitter end! Son of a bitch!" Horsham pulled off Sanguinary's crest and then limped over and picked up the papers. Then the bag of money. Then he picked up the lantern he dropped and followed a trail to blood down the shore toward a dark shadowy tunnel. He stared. His mind's inner map did not recall it. The tunnel was unfamiliar and therefore dangerous. Horsham gasped, then the adrenalin kicked in and he marched determinately into the shadowy fissure to who knew where?

Bronze of Rhinga, twin sister and co-ruler of Old Arcadia. The bronze was damaged by barbarian raiders in the 3rd Age

gorging out the jeweled eyes of mithril, gold, and gemstones.

Chapter 5: The Mother Of Monsters

Horsham followed the trail of blood though the twisting fissure deeper and deeper into the prehistoric heart of the mountain of Arcadia. The spy was leaving quite a trail of blood. Then suddenly the fissure opened up into another giant cavern. Horsham knew that the spy knew he was being followed so Horsham did not bother to conceal his lantern's light. Instead he held it up to illume the cavern. The huge place was an immense hole of darkness, cold, damp, dripping, a giant maw in the depths of the lone mountain like the stone womb in the depths of history. Yet Horsham's lantern flashed off ancient wall paintings of strange and grotesque images painted by ancient Twilight Elves. Strange animals adored the stone cavity: long necks, strange heads, bizarre bodies, animals that had vanished out of history a very long time ago, primitive beasts of the past that were now monsters of the imagination.

Horsham let his light jounce here and there off the bizarre wall paintings, the light exacerbating the grotesqueness the same way that shadows grotesquely mimic reality under the illumination of fire. "The Shadow of His Nature, my master, is here in spirit!" the spy hissed in the darkness. Horsham only snorted in contempt.

"Your master, The Dark Lord, is a really bad mimic of Father god of Fire. He has bad taste too. His interpretation of Father god of Fire: EVIL is second rate reinterpretation of a complex god. Simplistic. Pathetic. If you worship this..." and Horsham waved his lantern around to spend the shadows scattering, ".....then you are a fool too. Shadows are nothing. Shadows do nothing. Shadows have no power -- except over the imagination of the mind. The only power your master, The Shadow of His Nature, has is the power to inspire fear."

"Fear is all power! I smell your fear Horsham! Your fear is pouring off you like your sweat! I can smell your fear!"

"You can smell my sweat. I sweat like a pig. So what?"

"You are eaten up by fear! I smell it......eyes.....yes......your eyes! You are afraid of ......going blind I think...."

"Well then I guess I have to kill you my little bugger. Cause' nobody a'going to find out my scary little secret! But before you die.....let's chat.....about Lady Sanguinary for instance. How much have you been paying her to be your stooge?"

Laughter echoed off the grotesque walls. The monsters seemed to echo the laughter. "I don't have to pay off Lady Sanguinary! She is my most willing stooge indeed! She most sincerely believes that she is saving Arcadia!"

"But we know she is dooming Arcadia."

"Yes but her self delusion if most advantageous to my master! Self delusion is always most advantageous! She will kill you when she finds out you killed her son!"

"An't no secret! Sanguinary has been trying to kill me for ten years! Come out spy! Let's talk face to face!" The spy laughed in the depths of the darkness, luring Horsham deeper into the Maw.

"So you can try to kill me?"

"Or maybe you will kill me? An't afraid are you spy?"

"Of course! That is why I worship The Shadow of His Nature! When I discovered my own overwhelming fear then I decided to worship the most powerful entity in Our World: FEAR."

"The Dark Lord did not create fear. The Dark Lord only exploits fear. There is a difference."

The spy laughed in the darkness. "My Master generates FEAR to feed off FEAR.. He grows ever more powerful as the peoples of Our World sink into the morass of FEAR! My Master will win! My Master is all powerful!"

"Unless Father god of Fire turns against his own shadow."

The laugher suddenly stopped. "Why should Father god of Fire turn against his own shadow? The Dark Lord is the Shadow of His Nature, his own shadow, a part of Father!"

"A shadow follows like a dog at the feet of a careless master. Your master worships Father god of Fire but he cannot understand Father god of Fire. Therefore Father god of Fire ignores his shadow for Father loves his wife Mother god of Water, and Mother is the very opposite of your master. Mother is all kindness, tolerance, and compassion. Mother teaches Mankind to cooperate together in bonds of peace and restraints of civilization. Mother is LOVE. So Father god of Fire must reject your master if he loves Mother."

"Father god of Fire is estranged from Mother god of the Waters, for has not Mother rejected Father god of Fire? Has she not rejected Father's gifts to Our World: Time? Change? Death? And Competition, Strife, and War? Does not Mother god of the Waters love rather Cleardan the Master of The Havens? So Father must have surely rejected Mother and embraced my Master!" The spy was so passionate in his defense of his master that he tripped and sent a stone tumbling. Horsham, his hidden hand holding a throwing blade, threw the small knife into the darkness. It bounced off the stone. The spy laughed. "Missed! I think I will leave you here! I have been luring you into the darkness and by now you must be surely lost! May you perish here! Surrounded by my Master!" the spy laughed and darted off. Horsham's last throwing knife nailed him square in the back.

Horsham limped up and hauled the dead body into the circle of his light. The man was a stranger. That did not surprise Horsham. The Dark Lord had many spies. Horsham dug through the spy's kilt and tunic and found nothing too. That was not a surprise either. A good spy would not carry top secret plans to the Fiery Fissure Fortress after all. Spies aspire to be faceless nonentities. A good spy leaves no trail behind. But Horsham intended to create a trail. He hauled the spy's corpse up over his shoulder and turned to leave.

But alas the spy was right. Horsham had been lured too far into the Maw of Darkness and now he could not fandom the way out. Horsham swore, fought down his panic, growled in his deepest angry growl, then calmed down. He had followed a trail of blood into the cavern. He just had to follow the trail of blood back out of the cavern. So Horsham held his lantern down and looked for the bloody trail. Alas the floor of the cavern was damp with pools of water here and there. The dark pools absorbed the tiny droplets of blood, obscuring the vital trail. Horsham's low rumble rose to a echoing bellow of fury---- and fear. The grotesque monsters painted on the walls seemed to echo the roar with silent laughter.

"Hush my child. Do not fear the darkness. The darkness conceals monsters with a blessed blanket of ignorance and blindness that the mind needs sometimes. Sometimes blindness is a good thing."

Horsham stopped bellowing really, really fast. "Who are you?" the question echoed off the grotesque walls. A shadow fluttered across the face of the stone, across the face of painted monsters.

"Who am I? Who was I? Yes. That might be the better question. Who was I? I was Rhinga"

"Rhinga? The twin sister of Rhingol? The mother of Celebeau and Grafton? But you .....didn't you ....die sometime....somewhere..... somehow....someway's back.....someplace?"

"I thought Elves preserve memories perfectly, like bugs preserved eternally in amber. Odd how a mind, even an Elve's mind, can deliberately obscure unpleasant memories .... like amnesia. A cultivated condition of the mind."

"No one knows what became of you..... how odd! It is as if ..... why don't I remember what happened to Rhingol's own twin sister and the mother of Celebeau? Why doesn't anyone remember what happened to Rhingol's own twin sister? Does even Celebeau remember? I have never ever heard him or anyone else talk about you! It is as if you have vanished out of history! Did Malian cast a sort of mirage spell to blanket our minds? The collective memories of Arcadia? Is Malian that powerful a witch?"

"Oh yes. Malian is a very powerful witch. She is the mistress of mirage spells for after all is she not a sort of mirage herself? Her Elvish human form is but assumed to deceive people like her mirages deceive people. But Malian is not human. No one knows what Malian is. But Malian is most definitely not human and Malian is most definitely a very powerful witch. And Malian loves her consort so much that apparently she cast a mirage spell to blot out the memory of me. Me. Rhinga, Rhingol's own twin sister who he once held most dear. Does not even my son Celebeau remember me? Or Grafton?"

"I do not think anyone remembers you lady. Not even Kitsune, your second child and he is a wizard. Why has Malian erased you from history and cast you away? Here? Are you a prisoner here? In this terrible place of monsters? In the Maw of Madness? This place surely must be the Maw of Madness!" The cavernous maw echoed with silent laughter as the painted monsters on the dripping walls pranced and danced and stalked Horsham from their high stony walls.

"I am forgotten! The Debris of History! Oh alas! Alas! Does not even my own children remember me!" The voice wept pitifully.

"Lady. Come out of the shadows. If you can lead me out then I can defend you against your evil brother who has condemned you to this living horror!"

"Alas! Alas! Malian has even erased poor Rhingol's mind I fear. Out of love. Malian loves Rhingol so much she would do anything to please him at the cost of even me. Even Arcadia. Sometimes Love is too powerful and too obsessive!"

"Why would Malian blot out all memory of you to your own brother Rhingol? Out of jealousy?"

"And out of guilt. Poor Rhingol. I am sure he suffered most grievously from guilt. So Malian erased his mind of all memory of me."

"What did Rhingol do to you? His own sister? Was he envious of you? Didn't he want to share the Crown with you? Joint Rulers of Arcadia. Rhingol was suppose to be the Sun King. You were supposedly the Moon Queen. Twins and twin rulers. Alter egos. Equal. Did Rhingol plot to kill you? I always thought Rhingol a fool but not a malevolent fiend?"

"Oh no. Not a malevolent fiend. My brother was never intentionally evil or cruel or spiteful or bad.....only careless and giddy and most unwise. Yes. Unwise. As you say..... Rhingol is a fool. A most kind but dangerous fool. A fool who gayly plunges off the cliff, But being Rhingol, it is others who always pay for his folly." A shadow moved in the darkness, just out of reach of the circle of light cast by Horsham's lantern.

"Show yourself lady."

"No. I think not. But I will lead you out of this Maw of Madness back to the Land of Reason. Come child. Come." The shadow gestured, then the shadow moved along the stony wall. It led Horsham back through the shadowy void to the mouth of the fissure. Then the shadow pointed to the fissure. "Here child. Follow this fissure. It will lead you back. Two Lefts. One Right. One Left. Another Right. Then take the Center tunnel. And you will be free. But when you escape... escape with care. Before the sun raises you must go wash most carefully in any pool of water and rub your skin raw from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. Most particularly your feet."

Horsham looked down. His bare feet were coated with a oily sheen of toxic mithril as if dipped in opalescent moonlight. He wiggled his toes. His feet felt normal. Just stained. But then Horsham remembered the mining perils faced by Dwarves back in the Old Citadel. Mithil poisoning.

"I will do as you suggest most carefully Lady" Horsham replied. "When you and Rhingol discovered the Heart of Mithril and the Lake of Mithril did you both swim in it, thinking it, like the Dwarves who first saw Mithril, thinking it a living metal? A magical thing? A wondrous thing? A genuine Mithril Mine? It is not you know. A mithril mine. It is but 'Fool's Mithril' for it is too low grade to mine."

"But still strong enough to contaminate and poison with it's oily promise of toxic evil."

"But Rhingol appears nor worse for the exposure?"

"Rhingol found the Cavern of Mithril while spelunking. He thought it was living magic. He told me and together we entered the ethereal cavern and marveled at the sight. We swam too in the magical lake. When we emerged we danced in the moonlight and as we danced we looked to ourselves to be like living pearls for the mithril waters drenched out naked bodies like liquid pearl. We felt like twilight incarnate. Iridescent. Opalescent. Intoxicating beautiful. The other Twilight Elves saw us at dawn and beheld us shining like dawn, and thought us become like gods. So they declared Rhingol the Sun King of the Twilight Elves and Me the Moon Queen of the Twilight Elves. We were Twilight incarnate. Beauty incarnate. We were become Divine.

But the next night Rhingol beheld Malian and Malian beheld Rhingol. And in the moonlight they fell in love. And Malian wooed Rhingol. And Malian warned Rhingol not to swim in the Lake of Mithril but rather to keep the place most secret and never go there ever again. But she did not so warn me. Rather she encouraged me to visit that forbidden place and swim in the Lake of Mithril and bath my body in the liquid pearl and glow like mithril in the darkness and become like a god.

So I bathed each night in the liquid mithril and most carefully let the liquid mithril dry on my skin. And my skin glowed like a pearl. I shone in the moonlight. I glowed at dawn and dusk. My skin was like mother of pearl in the sunlight. I looked a god. I felt a god. I felt I was becoming divine. And Malian praised me and Rhingol declared me most beautiful and my consorts fell madly in love with me, and indeed everyone fell madly in love with me and worshiped me as a god. The most beautiful of all gods. Except one. A fox changeling who fled from me, after I refused his warnings. I loathed him then! The adoration of the world was intoxicating. Like a drug. Who needed love then? Who heeded warnings?

You know how Elves love beauty. We are gluttons for beauty. I had always been beautiful. Unlike Malian who is most strange looking like a mirage flickering before one's eyes. I was always beautiful. But I was a glutton. I wanted to become more beautiful. And I was more beautiful! I was transformed by mithril into the most beautiful Elve in the whole of Our World.

But then I noticed....in the daylight....my skin...... becoming...... and I could not wash off the mithril for it had become absorbed deep in my skin. So I bathed more and more to keep a thicker and thicker oily film of mithril on my skin to conceal.....

And then I took to dwelling in the caves during the day because the sun started to hurt my skin and turn my skin... I thought it was the sun turning my skin....but it was the mithril which I larded ever more thickly on my skin. To conceal....

I would emerge only at dusk to rule as god until dawn. But then even the dimness of twilight and dawn started to hurt my skin. But Malian assured me I looked even more like a goddess in the moonlight than at twilight and dawn. So I lived in the darkness, and dreaded the light, and lived only to emerge in the moonlight where I glowed like the moon incarnate. Rhingol was the Sun. I became the Moon. But finally even the moonlight started to hurt my skin so I finally only emerged from the darkness of the caves only at the most moonless of nights to shine like the moon incarnate. And everyone worshiped me as the moon incarnate when the moon in the sky went dark. And I told my soul the adoration was worth the loss of the light. My beauty was worth the loss of the light. The loss of the living world outside. The loss of my consorts who sickened and died because they touched me while making love. The loss of the presence of my baby sons whom I dare not touch then. And so my world was reduced to the darkness of these caves and the blood I drank to keep myself alive.

And Malian blessed and Malian encouraged and Malian plotted while I reaped the fruit of Malian's jealousy. Too late I realized that Malian was most jealous of Rhingol's love, and most jealous that I would have none of Rhingol's love. So Malian plotted to make Rhingol loath me and then forget me. But only after he came to loath me. Only after everyone came to loath me. Only after the mithril ate into me and transformed me from the most beautiful of Elves into......

Poor Rhingol. And now he has forgotten me. He does not even suffer guilt for he does not even remember. And Malian has his exclusive love. Her revenge against me is most perfectly complete. Poor Rhingol. And he still believes this to be his fabulous Mithril Mine that can pay for all his extravagances and follies. He told Durham he has a Mithril Mine and has used it as equity to levy Dwarve treasures. Durham believed Rhingol because Rhingol absolutely believes it himself. But when the Dwarves find out that the equity that has secured all of Rhingol's extravagances is a lie, they will think Rhingol has deliberately cheated them."

"The Dwarves will go berserk. They are a Race veined by hidden flaws of paranoia and inferiority and hate being made fools of, or cheated, or ridiculed. They pride themselves on their materialism and reason and discipline. But when a Dwarve goes amok, they go absolutely, murderously insane. I have seen a Dwarve, a perfectly reasonable fella, tear a man's head off his body because he believed he was being cheated in a contract dispute. Rhingol is playing a fool's game if he thinks he can cheat the Dwarves he owes money to. Even Durham ....."

"Rhingol believes his folly utterly."

"The Dwarves will kill him. Absolutely kill him when they find out."

"Well then, you have a decision to make. Tell your Dwarvish friends or keep Rhingol's secret." Horsham jumped. That was nearly as dangerous a gambit as Rhingol's deluded ploy.

"I have to think about that. I have several Dwarve treasurers who have all their treasuries totally tied up to Arcadia promissary notes. If Arcadia has only phantom equities to secure the notes then the treasuries will go bankrupt. A Dwarve will kill himself before enduring bankruptcy ---- but only after killing the person responsible first!"

"Yes" the shadow said softly. "Go child." The shadow cringed deeper into the shadows of the cavern. Horsham entered the fissure. But then..... it is human nature after all.... he suddenly turned around and showed his lantern bright, catching the fleeing shadow by surprise. The light caught on her body and Rhinga was revealed in all her repulsive horror. The toxic Mother of Metals had eaten all her skin away and bloated her body into a monestrous mass of abscessed corruption. Rhinga screamed in pain as the light touched her inflamed flesh. Horsham screamed too and dropped the lantern and turned to run. But the fissure was utterly dark. It was as if he was suddenly totally blind. Horrified by the blindness of the fissure, and unable to escape, he forced his eyes to seek out the dropped lantern, picked it up, then picked up the body of the spy, and then staggered down the fissure, all while Rhinga wailed as she fled the horror of light. She had become a living shadow, a vampire monster of the darkness.

Horsham staggered back to the infamous Mithril Mine of Rhingol and there he found the body of Sanguinary by the shore of the ghastly, toxic Lake of Mithril. The waters of the lake were washing over the body, bathing the flesh in liquid mithril. Sanguinary appeared to be glowing in the darkness like a pearl of a man. Horsham gagged at the sight. Then he continued to drag the corpse of the spy back to the mouth of the lone mountain maze of tunnels and fissures where the corpse would surely be discovered by cheese makers. Then Horsham put the crest of Sanguinary in the dead hand of the spy and scattered some of the gold coins as if to create a scene of a battle over gold. Horsham dropped a weapon too to complete the sham battle scene of a man fleeing, and finally dying, after fighting and killing Sanguinary.

Then Horsham fled the caves. He emerged at dim dawn and shuddered in fear and frantically ran to the closest pool of water, a deep icy cold pool, and dived in, tearing off his contaminated clothes and washing frantically. He rubbed sand all over his body until he bleed. Then he marched naked to a public bath and spend the entire rest of the day alternating washing, steaming, enduring saunas to sweat his pores clean, then flogging his skin in massage rooms with willow branches, then showering, then bathing again. All day. He emerged beet red and ten pounds lighter for the saunas. Everyone in the bath assumed Horsham, who absolutely never ever visited public baths, was proving to one and all that those rumors circulating from Lady Confabulate's party absolutely were not true. More people saw Horsham naked that day than had ever seen him naked. He made a splendid impression, the beauty of his body outweighing his notorious reputation. The Elves were nudists, a race obsessed by beauty. They eyed Horsham now, despite his Mere Mortal hairiness with the eyes of connoisseurs and told him his body was that of a 'god'. When Horsham heard that he threw up. Dwarves told him not to take too many saunas er he become dehydrated and snorted that he was not nearly hairy enough to be considered a god..

Unbeknownst to all, deep in the heart of the lone mountain of Arcadia, deep in the deepest of caverns, by the shores of a hidden lake that glowed like liquid pearl, a shadow hovered over the corpse of a beautiful Elve, bathed in mithril, glowing like a pearl of a young man, glowing like a young god. The shadow whimpered and knelt over the corpse and laid down by the corpse and wept and held the corpse as a mother might hold her child.

"Celebeau.....Celebeau..... my son.....my son....... have even you forgotten me?......."

Above: Rhingol the Great drawn by Celebeau and below is Malian.

Above is a drawing believed to be possibly Ben the Beorach by Blackberry Blackheart and below is a detail from a weaving

of Rhingol the Great and his only child Luna the Princess Royal.

Chapter 6: Repercussions

"Why did you do it?" Bela's voice, normally cool and calm, was almost exasperated. "Why on earth did you do it?"

"I could not be sure I got my hair clean enough so I cut it off."

Bela actually turned his back to Horsham and shook his head while staring out of the window. The Spy Master and his Spy were in Bela's Library in Arcadia. The Cockpit.

"I don't see what the problem is. I killed Sanguinary. I killed the spy. I rigged the corpse to be found by hysterical cheese makers who would both mess up the crime scene in their panic, and report the news hysterically all over Arcadia. Lady Sanguinary will believe that the Dark Lord's spy killed her son over gold. And gossip will accuse Sanguinary of every conceivable crime. The scandal will race like wild fire all over Arcadia. And our fingers will not be seen in any of it. So why are you going on and on about my hair."

"Lack of hair!"

"Why does hair matter!" Horsham stopped rocking back and forth and stood up too, assuming a hulking oaf position. Horsham tended to slouch which gave him a thug-like appearance. An thug-like appearance presently enhanced by an excessively unflattering haircut. Horsham had taken his boot knife and hacked off his beautiful long dark hair at the base of the braid. Now his mangled hair bristled out around his head in a wild, unruly tangle like a drunken lion's mane. Bela looked at his spy, cringed, and sat down wearily and shook his head.

"Appearances matter Horsham! Appearances always matter! It is Elvish nature! It is Human nature to judge people by the first appearance! Now you look like some criminal thug about to assault someone in a back alley! Before, when you occasionally dressed decently, your long beautiful hair made you look refined and civilized and genteel. You had such beautiful long hair! I remember the one time I ever saw it upbraided and loose. It was so very beautiful! And now you went and hacked it off like well.... trash. You trashed your appearance. Yet again! Why do you feel compelled to trash your appearance? You can look quite beautiful when you want to be. A lot of people would envy you! Beauty is not a gift given carelessly by the gods! Later, when you are older, you might miss your beauty!"

"Being beautiful don't mean a damn thing."

"Beauty does mean a damn thing! Beauty is the gift of the gods and should never be thrown away! No gift of the gods should be thrown away! You scorn the gods and gods do not like to be scorned!"

"Beauty is nothing. Gods are careless mischief-makers. Their so-called gifts don't mean nothing!"

"You make it very hard for anyone to fall in love with you! Don't you want someone to ever fall in love with you?" The 'Grim Lout' shrugged and dropped back down on the bench which groaned under his beefy weight. He was wearing new clothes but they were jumble clothes bought from off a jumble table of used merchandise and ugly. His decadent look was apparently over and he had reverted to his thug look..

"Nobody is ever going to love me, and if someone fell in love with my body then that somebody deserves what they will get. Me. I an't beautiful. My soul is ugly. That is what counts. The soul. My soul is ugly so nobody going to ever fall in love with me. So what does it matter what I look like?"

"Are you drinking again?"

"I don't drink on duty! I did my job yester-night. I was off duty yesterday. I do what I want when I an't on duty. So yeh! I got drunk! So what! Drank until I threw up if you want to know. So what?"

"You look it!" Horsham did. He looked like a hung over drunk. Horsham just shrugged sullenly.

"Did something else happen?"

"No. Ben an't left Arcadia left. Luna is stealing her dowery today. The Dwarve treasurer in charge of it has told me. Do you want Luna to steal it? Should I give the Dwarve a green light?"

"Yes. Luna squandering her dowery to give Ben money for a criminal act is good. It makes the final crime more malignant. Squandering a woman's dowery is despicable in Elvish eyes. Rhingol will be very eager to sign off on Ben's death warrant."

"Ben appears to be planning to leave Arcadia tonight or tomorrow night at the latest. I will trail them to Goldenthrond."

"How are your eyes? I have not been impressed by your trailing lately. Two days ago you lost a spy in Arcadia's high street."

"Made up for it. Found him. Kill him. By the way Bela.... missed something?" Horsham pulled out a wad of wilted papers and dropped them on Bela's desk. They were a wad of armament requests. At Bela's insistence, Horsham had written to Rufus Royal to allow the Cockpit into the secret plan to rearm Arcadia in defiance of the 'Peace through Appeasement' Treaty that forbad a standing army in return for peace with the Dark Lord. A peace no one took seriously -- including the Dark Lord who only tolerated peace with Arcadia while his army was bogged down beyond the Pale fighting Bree the Red and his insurgents of native born Damned Maestuseans, Dwarves, and Outlaws. Bela swore, all discussion about Horsham's eyes forgotten, as Horsham intended.

"How did you get these?"

"Sanguinary was about to hand them over to the spy. The question more correctly should be how did Sanguinary get them off your bloody desk? Eh?"

Bela blanched. "Who is the traitor? I will kill the bastard!"

Horsham smiled and ambled over and whispered in Bela's ear. The Elve blanched as white as bone. Horsham nodded, smiled, and ambled down the steps of the library, then he casually turned around and grinned. "Bet'cha Veggie has paid his gambling bills!" Bela glared as Horsham ambled away, singing an aria. Then Bela ring his bell and his butler came in.

"Please ask Beladonna to come in. I want to talk to her. Now. If she is not inclined, drag her by her hair......." Bela whispered with icy coldness. The butler shuddered and scurried away.

Lady Sanguinary draped her elegant townhouse in mourning. It was hard to have a funeral however when you could not locate the corpse, only the crest. But no Elve gives up his crest voluntarily and Sanguinary was clearly missing. So Lady Sanguinary grimaced as scandal whirled around her son, and around her. The gold coins were illegal minted tender. No recognized city state had minted them. Arcadia no longer had the finances to mint gold rhingols. Inflation made gold desirable to possess but hard to get now. Wealthy Elves were starting to find themselves no longer wealthy. Elves could not understand economics but they could understand prices on the high street. Lady Sanguinary had been cut off at her elegant knees by inflation. So she had been accepting gold as a 'gracious gesture'. She refused to call it a 'bribe'. But now other people were gossiping how she was keeping afloat when so many other members of the Elite 1000 were facing financial ruin. The illegally minted gold scattered along with Sanguinary's crest whispered of illegal payoffs. Lady Sanguinary faced exposure and ruin unless she could trump the scandal by unearthing a bigger scandal like maybe the Pro War Rufus Fraction engaged in Dwarve deals for illegal armaments.

Lady Sanguinary was in the quagmire of treason too deep to turn back. And Lady Sanguinary had been deceiving herself for too long to turn back either. She had pinned herself in an intellectual corner, in a Brahean Blunder of monumental proportions . So now Lady Sanguinary decided that evidence to the contrary, the killer of her absurd son, but still her son, just had to be Horsham and surely not the Dark Lord's minions. Surely. Surely. Just as the Dark Lord surely was not plotting to invade Arcadia this Spring. Surely! Surely! Despite rumors and sightings to the contrary in Arcadia Minor of Orc sightings and movements in the reforming wolf gangs of Beorach mercenaries in ravished Beorach Land. Surely! Surely! Lady Sanguinary had staked her life, her reputation, and now her son's life on her absolute belief that she was right. So despite all evidence to the contrary, she decided that Horsham had to be the murderer. Had to be. No one else was good enough to kill her son in battle. No one but Horsham. It just had to be Horsham. And if she could nab Horsham with illegal funds being paid out to Dwarves that could be traced back to Rufus Royal then she could bring down Rufus Royal. And Horsham was back off the wagon and drinking and smashing pubs and bashing ravens (MP's) and generally behaving with mad fury.

Lady Sanguinary had Horsham tailed for a week of drunken destruction and debauchery, amidst the litter of smashed pubs and brawls and bloody fists and beer sodden clothes until he ended up in jail. The Tail watched as the drunken man was hauled into the gaol, a filthy, alcohol reeking, vomit reeking mess with a new beer belly hanging over his belt. Then the Tail shrugged and went home. Horsham was locked up for a week tight as a tin of Dwarve hardtack. That night Lady Sanguinary attended a royal ball celebrating Luna's birthday. Rhingol, a careless soul, had remembered his neglected daughter and was now fluttering all around her. Ben's secret exit was also delayed by one week too.

Inside the filthy gaol, Horsham's home away from home, the place, next the military hospital, where he spend the most time, he stopped howling, stopped punching the Ravens, and passed a silver to get better digs. In the public gaol the better jail cells could be rented for money by the prisoners. Some cells were mini townhouses complete with curtains at the barred windows and feather beds where prisoners could dine off silver and fine food by their own cooks. Horsham always rented one particular cell. 'The Horsham Suite'. It was a dismal hole in the East Wing. Horsham was locked in. The massive door was locked securely. Then the Ravens marched away. Horsham always left of his own accord after apparently paying enough bribes to the jailors so the Ravens never worried if he stayed in the 'Horsham Suite'. That was his business and the jailor's secret kilt pouch's dirty little secret. The Ravens were only responsible for putting people into jail.

Horsham suddenly stopped weaving and staggering and knelt down, pushed the soiled hay out of the way, pulled up a nearly invisible Dwarve door in the stone wall, and slithered through a ancient tunnel dug a very long time ago by some Dwarve prisoner. Horsham had found it when he was first incarcerated as a young private. He had grown up, and grown taller, and grown beefier through the years so his slithering through a tunnel dug by a small Dwarve was increasingly tight. Fortunately Horsham was not claustrophobic and knew the tunnel, pitch black, like the gripe of his sword. He pushed his beefy body through the tunnel and popped up inside his destination: another cell. The present occupant, a Dwarve, snorted in surprise and grinned. "Why laddie? Been a while! Want a Big Belch?"

Magnus Maggotous was a most notorious Dwarve. He was the usurer to the over extended of the Elite 1000. So he had lots of clients who hated his hairy, blubbery guts but were still hopelessly indebted to him. Magnus Maggotous solved the problem by residing full time in the safest digs in Arcadia: Jail. He owned the largest suite of cells, some twenty cells around a tiny inner courtyard complete with a lovely corner view of the Royal Canal, opposite the Royal Palace. His view was just as good as Rhingol the Great! The suite featured a full bath, sauna, showers, massage room, perfume chamber, dining room, bedroom, business house, and even a vault and guest rooms. Magnus had five servants (criminals sentenced to life) to cantered to his every need including a prostitute serving life for murdering her pimp. Magnus had his own cook. His tailor visited him once a week. The head of his bookies visited him too, along with the head of his criminal syndicate, his black market marketeer, his female brothel queen, his black mailer, and his accountant who audited his treasury once a year. Magus Maggotous was a criminal but he still reported his yearly treasury report to the Old Citadel like any respectable Dwarve businessman. To Dwarves, crime was still a business to be conducted with proper business protocol.

Magnus sat in an overstuffed chair by a roaring fire, a beer tankard in one hand, his other hand resting on his huge belly. Magnus hated exercise with religious horror and was also a notorious glutton to boot. He was only five foot two but weighed five hundred pounds, his gigantic belly overflowing onto his lap nearly to his knees. The huge mass of fleshy jelly quivered now with laughter as Horsham pulled himself out of his rat's hole and ambled over and dropped down into a chair beside the infamous Magnus, grinned, and downed a tankard of beer. Then Horsham pulled off his filthy tunic and unwrapped a money belt tied around his waist and dropped the gold heavy belt on Magnus' lap. The Dwarve laughed with glee and embraced the gold, the third thing the Dwarve loved most in life, after first food, then drink. Sloth came along after as the fourth vice of choice.

"Doing laundering for me eh? Why thank ya! Let me return the favor!"

Horsham spent the next hour bathing in Magnus' private bath, washing off the outward evidence of his debauchery, both real and pretend.

"Still indulging in binge drinking eh?"

"Some people go to the country when the stress of town life gets too much. I just spend a fortnight bashing pubs. What is the difference?"

"Your liver might tell you what the difference is but as long as your body can take it, go for it." Magnus sat on the porcelain throne and drank beer as Horsham bathed. Horsham's phobia did not rise to paranoia level as far as Dwarves were concerned. Horsham stewed in the hot bath quite happily. Man and Dwarve drank beer as Horsham debriefed the criminal financier.

"I dropped off our payments for the armaments via the usual laundry drops in your brothels and picked up your pimping and gambling profits while I was at it. I should be insulted really. Having to launder Rufus Funds through brothels but I guess everyone considers me trash too."

"You set up the laundry operation Horsham so you can hardly whine now about your reputation!" Magnus laughed. "Thanks for making my Friday delivery too." Magnus laughed and pour out more beer for both men. "The next batch of armaments are coming by the usual way of beer barrels through the pubs you listed."

"You are keeping to the schedule right? I change the pub drop offs by cipher code so the enemy can not predict the drop offs. The pubs distribute to the militias according to the random holding pattern."

"Oh yes! Elaborate mumble jumble as far as I am concerned."

"If the militias get the arms right after a beer delivery then the enemy will guess how we are delivering! So the pubs have to hold the shipments for random periods of time in their cellars! You know that! And the pubs have to receive their deliveries in a staggered pattern so the enemy can not see any apparent predictable pattern. Don't get lazy Magnus!"

"Ok! Ok! But no one is going to see through your pub delivery scheme laddie!"

"Not if we don't get lazy!" Horsham climbed out of the tub, splashing water everywhere. His bad leg was making him ever more ungraceful. He wrapped a towel around his waist and limped out to the warm fire as Magnus waddled behind, holding both tankards of beer.

"What spooked you into a bender laddie?" The two men sat down by the fire

"No business of nobody why I go on benders. I go on benders whenever I feel like it. Good cover for the laundry drops anyway."

"All right laddie! Just thought you might want to talk. We are Pale Pals after all. Since you were seventeen and popped up from the rabbit hole over yonder! Oh how I laughed to see ya!"

"I was damned disappointed to see the tunnel turn up in another cell!"

"A cell with a view equal to Rhingol himself! And a secret exit." The men drank beer for a while. Then Horsham looked at Magnus with an odd look.

"Magnus. How many treasurers are holding sureties and IOU's signed off by Rhingol?"

"Five. Wells. Chas. Rothiton. Goldbottom. And me of course. Why?"

"I have heard a rumor.......can't be sure..... just take it as a warning .... as a Pale Pal. Get out. Tell the others too. Pull out. Or only accept collateral of known jewels. The authentic Royal Jewels. Not the paste. The fakes. The real stuff. If need be.....take a loss but cut tail and run."

Magnus' jovial face suddenly looked malevolent. "What have you heard?" The Dwarve hissed.

"Rumor. Can't be sure."

"Tell me! I have half a million durhams lend out to Rhingol!"

Horsham flinched. Magnus threw his silver tankard directly at Horsham's head. The man ducked and the beer went flying. The grossly fat Dwarve jumped off his over stuffed chair and waddled over to the hulking man as if he would kill him.

"Don't look at me like that Magnus! I can't be sure! I said I can't be sure! But I am warning you! That is all!"

"What do you know!" Magnus bellowed, his huge belly quivering with rage.

"Cut tail and run Magnus! From a Pale Pal who is also a spy!"

The Dwarve quivered with rage. Then reason reclaimed his brain and Magnus growled, then shock his head and gave Horsham a fake punch to the belly. It was as far as Magnus could reach. Then the Dwarve waddled back and sat down. "I will sell my IOU's to the Gord Capital Merry-go-round, a debt washing syndicate. I will say I am tired of trying to collect from Rhingol the Ass and just want out. Gord is a mean bastard. I once saw him break the knees of a debtor. I can get 50% salvage by selling out to that swine. Better than nothing. Right?"

"Right." Horsham nodded. Magnus growled and rang the bell for more beer.

"Sorry I threw my beer at ya Horsham! We Dwarves kinda fear the word 'Bankruptcy' and go a little bonkers if we think we are being cheated in a contract."

"You charge 40% dwarve's piece of the pie [interest]."

"Contract is a contract! I don't make them Elves borrow my money! I even make paste faked jewels when they pawn their real family jewels so no one at Court or the high street will guess they are in bed with a Dwarve! I am a Pale Pal to all in financial need! Magnus Maggotous is a positive....."

"Paragon?"

"Yeh?"

"Virtue incarnate."

"Yeah! Yeah! A what you say: paragon! Magnus Maggotous is a paragon -- unless knifed in the back by a deadbeat blackguard of a debtor using my loan contract to go to the latrine!"

The next day Horsham wrote top secret codes to Durham for Magnus to deliver with his bookie runners, sitting at Magnus' desk, neatly using the brush and his own invented cipher. The bookie runners were still apparently running under the nose of the Dark Lord's own spies. Lady Sanguinary certainly would not think that bookies might carry espionage secrets along with their ledgers of bets. Magus sat drinking beer and burping happily while fondly watching his 'little protegee' hard at work. Then Magnus ordered his cook to produce a Dwarve feast for both men, enough to feed ten Elves. It was topped by five tankards of beer each.

Horsham's belly really did bulge when he finally waved goodbye to Magnus. But the weight of another gold belt did not help. Horsham was playing mule for Magnus, carrying out the weekly wages for his criminal organization, over fifty pounds of gold. The spy waddled into the tiny inner courtyard under the light of small moon and climbed up the wall, ran up the side West Wing, over the roof, and dropped down into the back alley outside of the jail. Horsham's bad leg made him wobble as he landed, combined with too much beer and the fifty pounds of gold. So he exited the alley with fatal carelessness -- into a reception committee. Horsham had used the alley exit too many times before and had gotten lazy, the one thing he always chided Magnus about. The ten men pounced on him and brought him down into the gutter where they took turns kicking him with their boots while welding cubs. Horsham never made it to his feet. His limp body was dragged away while Magnus sat contentedly in his over stuffed chair drinking beer, non the wiser.

Horsham woke in the withdrawing room of Lady Sanguinary. The black widow was dressed in black, as always, but now in mourning for her son. She was inclining languidly on her divan as usual though. Lady Sanguinary did everything languidly, even torture. She was playing with her late son's crest. The gold gleamed on a side table next to a crystal wine goblet. Horsham did not gleam nearly so brightly. His face and his clothes were bloody. Two burly men held his arms and a third held up his bloody head.

"How did you kill him? From behind? Ambush?"

"Nowhere near the swine" Horsham replied, spitting out blood. "Not my fault your master killed your son. Can't pin it on me." Lady Sanguinary nodded and the third man yanked at Horsham's hair Horsham grimaced.

"How did you kill him?"

"We dueled in the cavern while your spy looked on. Your son finally tired and as usual aimed low. I groin kicked him and then punched him in the neck with my sword's pummel. Broke his wind pipe. He suffocated on his own blood. Mad bastard to the end though! He challenged me to another duel in hell. All the while the spy was running away to save his own life. Left your son to die alone." Lady Sanguinary threw the crest at Horsham. It hit him in the face. Horsham took the blow with stoic disdain.

"Where did you get this gold? This gold is all durhams. Dwarve gold. Rufus does not have this . Can't have it. He is selling off his real estate assets to finance the rearmament. No Elve has this much gold now."

"Magnus Maggotous will rip your head off if you keep this gold! It is his gold!. I was riding mule, hauling out his payola to pay his criminal organization. Part time job. Running errands for Magnus Maggotous. Free drinks and free whores. What more can a Mere Mortal scum like me want?" Lady Sanguinary nodded again and the third man again yanked at Horsham' hair, then jabbed his knee in Horsham's back. Horsham bit down a moan.

"I want the next armament delivery date. When? Where? I want to expose Rufus and Bela as the traitors they are! To Rhingol! So you will tell me when and where!"

"Traitors? You're the traitor lady! Me. I am just a bum riding mule for Maggotous." The third man punched Horsham in the kidney and Horsham sagged.

"When? Where?"

"I can tell you Magnus' next delivery of black-market stolen goods. Will that do?" Lady Sanguinary jumped up from the divan and picked up a silver knife. "Guess not" Horsham said dryly. "Only information I have lady is criminal in nature. What about the payola to Ravens so Magnus' brothels don't never get raided? Or Magnus' blackmail of officers?" The silver knife came closer. " No? Then I guess I don't got nothing you want." The knife came right up to his face. The point drew a drop of blood. "Go ahead. You see, I really don't give a damn lady. Not a damn. Do it." Lady Sanguinary's hand wavered. She usually paid others to do inflict pain. She was finding the actual job surprising hard to do herself. "Good ahead!" Horsham stared at the dainty little knife poised right in front of his still pristine face. "If I were you I would aim for the eye. The blade can go straight into the brain. That is how I kill all the time." Lady Sanguinary threw the blade away in disgust. Then she picked it up and stabbed Horsham randomly. Blindly. The silver blade hit the collar bone which deflected it. The Elve screamed and gave up, her fury ebbing into impotence.

Horsham gestured in scorn. "That is not how to knife someone lady! Here! Let me show you how it is done!" Horsham gestured and the goons released him warily. Horsham casually picked up the little bloody blade as Lady Sanguinary stared as if enthralled. Then Horsham stood up and took the knife and stabbed himself expertly just under the collar blade. Blood erupted all over Lady Sanguinary's elegant imported 'chinese' carpet. She screamed in horror. She had never seen blood flowing out of a wound before. Lady Sanguinary had made it a practice not to waste her time watching her son's many duels. Now Horsham pulled out the silver blade and dropped it at her feet. His blood stained her long black linen tunic and kilt. Seeing it, Lady Sanguinary did one of two things that every novice who sees copiously flowing blood always do: She fainted.

The men scurried to carry her out of the room as the servants screamed and the butler wailed. Her maid servant, standing in the corner, did the other thing novices always do: threw up, then she ran away. In two minutes the room was entirely empty ---- except for Horsham. He grabbed a table napkin and casually shoved it into the bloody but actually fairly minor wound, delivered into a non essential part of the body with surgical precision, and then went to the window, opening the shutters and looking down. The townhouse was three stories tall. The drop was a tad too high. Horsham leapt onto the window sill and judged the distance to the nearest tree. Then he jumped just as the men were running back into the room. One man grabbed one of Horsham's booted feet just as he was leaping. It threw him off. He hit the tree branch, missed, fell, but grabbed the next tree branch. There he swung from the tree as the townhouse erupt in screams and howls. Dogs ran out and howled in the grass below, gashing teeth and snarling.

Horsham pulled himself up into the tree and ran long a branch, then leapt into another tree. He climbed up to the higher branch which was next to the townhouse alley wall. More dogs were now in the grass below howling, joined by guards. Horsham judged the wall, then the branch, then leapt. His hands just caught the top of the wall as dogs bayed below him. Guards jumped up and down to try to snatch his booted feet. That was not the problem however. The problem was the top of the wall had broken whisky bottles embedded in the mortar.

Horsham whimpered but held on, his hands gripping mortar graced with shards of glass. Then he force his hands and arms to haul his heavy body up and over the wall, the embedded glass ripping at his stomach as he dragged himself over. He fell over the wall like a dead weight as guards ran for the elaborate wrought iron gated exit. But by the time they ran around to the alley all they found was a trail of blood leading away into the darkness.

Horsham dragged himself to Bela's library before fainting from loss of blood. Bela's guards fought Lady Sanguinary's guards who were following the trail of blood Horsham left all the way to Bela's doorstop -- literally. Bela woke and put on a silk 'chinese style' gown, blandly strolled out in the middle of the fracas, and politely asked Sanguinary's thugs to go home "before you wake my neighbors. Really gentlemen. Brawling like thugs. Thugs! I am shocked! Shocked! What is Arcadia coming to?" The insult delivered to thugs who really were thugs, Bela grinned and strolled back inside his townhouse. He stopped grinning when he found Horsham sprawled out on the stone floor to his library.

Horsham woke in a clean bed, covered by bandages, his hands so densely bandaged they resembled mutts. Bela was reading a book in a chair by the bed. Bela, like all civilized people normally read aloud but he was trying to quietly mouth the words so as not to wake Horsham.

"What is the book?" Horsham asked. Bela started. Then he smiled his enchanting smile and held up the book. 'The Autobiography of King Rhingol the Great or How I saved Arcadia from a Fate Worse than Death.' Horsham snorted. "Rhingol the Ass can't read and write so how could he write his biography?"

" Autobiography. Celebeau wrote it for his uncle. Celebeau thinks people are insulting Rhingol and don't remember all the good he has done over the years."

"What good as Rhingol ever done any year?"

"He prevented the Twilight Elves from listening to the gods of the West and migrating to that so called paradise in the Watery West that the Celestial Elves claimed to have discovered."

"Urashina Taro. The famous bogus paradise of the Celestial Elves. Yah! Right! Except that Rhingol fell in love with Malian and forgot about the migration west. Non action an't action."

"Non action can be the very best action a wise man can take. Speaking of non action. Ben has been held up from taking his very bad form of action. I told the Dwarve to stall on the dowery. Ben needs it to help pay for his little invasion of the Fiery Fissure. So I have bottled necked Ben's get-away money. I figured you might need a few weeks to recover."

Horsham groaned. "Luna was tied up with her birthday party and could not get the dowery money while her father was looking over her shoulder. But how long can Wells stall Ben by withholding the dowery? Ben might ride off without it. I am cut up pretty badly. Lady Sanguinary is hot to catch Rufus Royal in the act of buying illegal armaments. She knows now I was riding mule for gold for Magnus Maggotous. She might finally add two and two and figure we are using Magnus as our middle man, paying Magnus, using his criminal organization to launder the funds, then passing on the funds via bookies to the Old Citadel to buy weapons smuggled back into Arcadia in beer barrels. The lady is stupid but not that stupid."

"Yes. More the pity. It was a great distribution scheme. But we have almost totally rearmed the militias in Arcadia Minor by now anyway."

"But not Arcadia Prime."

"No. More the pity. Celebeau is so damn scrupulous. He takes violated oaths and violated taboos and violated treaties so very seriously! Mortality can be so tiresome." Bela laughed softly and tided up the bed. Horsham had been tossing about while unconscious. "You mentioned Rhinga under the influence of bad dreams. May Baku Eater of Dreams eat away. Why?"

"She is Celebeau's mother after all. Joint Ruler of Arcadia vanishing under mysterious circumstances."

"Malian poisoned her to death. Mithril poisoning." Horsham flinched.

"Her mirage trick an't working on you apparently Bela."

"Never did. None of Malian's mirages work on me. I see her real face for instance. Not her mirage of a human form. Her real form. Not pretty."

"Neither I imagine was Rhinga by the end. I found Rhingol's phantom mithril mine. It is bogus. He is writing IOU's by the hundreds based on equity in a bogus mithril mine. When the Dwarves finally find out they will kill him."

"Yes." Bela was not surprised.

"You know?"

"Yes" Bela said casually as he closed the Autobiography of Rhingol the Great.

"You don't understand Bela! The Dwarves will..."

"Kill Rhingol. Yes. I quite understand. The trouble is Rhingol does not understand. Durham will not kill him of course with his bare hands but he will sit on his fat ass in the Old Citadel and not prosecute any Dwarve treasurer who does. What Rhingol is doing is unforgivable as far as Dwarve mortality is concerned. Yet Elve morality does not care a Maestusean tinkerer's damn about IOU's, and defaulting on loan sureties, and spending more than you possess. Each race sees the event through different eyes.

"And will see the future murder of Rhingol through different eyes too? It could incite a Racist War between Elves and Dwarves!"

"Yes. Quite possibly! But I can not do anything about it. Have you told your Dwarve friends?"

"I had to warn them! I have some Dwarve associates that are well... kinda pals of mine. And..."

"Friends. Say 'friends'. Friendship is not a crime to apologize for Horsham. You do have real friends who do care about you! Magnus for one. And me. I am not your enemy. After all, when you were crawling like an wounded animal, whose home did you crawl to? Mine."

"It was closest. That is all." Bela flinched and stood up and looked out of the window.

"I consider myself to be your friend Horsham, even if you do not consider me your friend. We have to delay Ben until you are well or else pick another crow to infiltrate Ben's little invasion army. Might be for the best anyway..."

"I will be up in a week! No replacing me! My job! Mine! My job! I said I would deliver Ben and I will! You will delay Ben if you tie up Luna. Ben is going to take Luna with him."

"Nonsuch! Not even Ben would be so reckless and stupid and irresponsible as to kidnap a Royal Princess to join him on some mad, bad, and totally dangerous adventure that is totally treasonous! Dangerous to Arcadia! And Luna would not agree to it!"

"Luna already has. I have bribed her maid servant who has told me Luna has hidden saddlebags of traveling clothes and has been questioning the maid about disguises. About acting like a peasant. Talking lower class. Luna actually thinks she is going to infiltrate the Fiery Fissure as some sort of bar maid or some such absurd thing! She is actually planning on it. She is going with Ben. She is helping Ben to try to steal a Device to bring back to buy her marriage to Ben. And she an't thinking a tinker's damn about the consequences! She loves Ben and she don't give a damn about her city state of Arcadia at all! Ben is stupid. Reckless. A bully. But Luna ought to know better! She is the bigger traitor than Ben is! She ought to know the repercussions of what she is planning to do!....."

Luna was desperately unhappy indeed, and frantic too, but not for the right reasons. Luna was unhappy because she was tied up by Court Protocol, burdened with her careless father's sudden attention and unwanted parties, Dwarve Well's hands still tight on the dowery funds, and Ben threatening to ride off to the Fiery Fissure without her.

"I might not see you again! I would rather die with you than live alone! And Mother is being so...." Luna shivered involuntarily.

"What do you mean?"Ben said. He was fishing. Ben was a very good fisherman. Tenacious. Relentless. And Fishing was a good way to get out of Arcadia City. Ben hated cities.

"Mother ....never.... I mean I know she really does love me and all but still....it sometimes seems as if she was jealous of me whenever Father remembers to remember me and all..." Luna wilted.

"I still don't understand Luna. Mothers love their children. Mothers give love and shelter and protection from the cruelties of life. Fathers teach about the cruelties of life to make children grow up tough and hard. Each parent has a job." Ben tugged at his line but the fish eluded his look. Ben glowered, his lower lip sticking out in a hard line.

"Was your father a teacher of hard facts of life?"

"Yep. That is what fathers do. Punch you in the face. Flog your butt bloody. Beat you up. Make you go out in the cold night and face down your terrors all by yourself. That is what fathers do. I am the man I am because of my father. My father taught me to be the man I am today! Mother used to try to protect me. She was a fool. One night Father beat her to death. Softness is death. Weakness is death. You can only survive by being stronger and tougher and meaner and more brutal than anyone else. Bullying wins. Violence wins. Aggression wins. Weakness dooms you. My mother was a fool. She would have killed me by keeping me soft. Father was right to beat Mother to death. Mother was a threat to survival."

"What happened to your father? You don't ever go off and see him or ask him to come here..."

"I beat Father to death. Used my fists and bashed his brains in. He died on the floor with me looming over him just as he used to loom over me. Know what he said? His last words? 'I sure taught you well boyo! Kill until you are killed! Survival of the meanest!'" Luna stared at Ben with horror.

"I am so very sorry...."

"Why?" Ben stagged a fish and reeled it in, holding it up for Luna to see. "See! A ten pounder!"

"I am so sorry about your father and mother" Luna said.

"Why?"

"But it was so terrible what happened to you.... seeing your mother beaten to death....killing your own father...."

"Why? Nothing terrible about it. The Weak die. The Strong Survive. Facts of Life. Look at Nature! The Survival of the Strongest! That is all there is Luna."

Luna burst into tears. She sat in the grass and cried, her thing body shaking. Ben stared confused. He had absolutely no idea why she was crying.

"What's up kid? Why are you bawling?" Ben dropped the fish on the grass and sat by Luna and cuffed her gently on the cheek. "What's up? Is it about your mother? Tell me then. About your mother...."

Luna dried her eyes with the tail of her kilt. "Mother is very jealous of Father. Possessive. Of anyone who threatens her monopoly of Father. Her entire existence is wrapped around Father. Just Father. If she thinks someone else is a threat she gets .....sorta........dangerous."

"Dangerous? As in threatening?"

"Well not obviously threatening but....indirectly .......yes. One day....I can't quite explain it....I saw an old bronze of some Elve and asked who it was. Rhingol suddenly remembered. It was an old portrait of his own twin sister Rhinga. He had totally forgotten her! He could not even remember what happened to her. But at that moment I saw Malian's face..... and it was .....so ......filled......with.....utter.......murderous ......hatred! Malian, my Mother, killed Rhinga just because she could not share Father with his own twin sister! No history book says so! No one will say so! That is it! No one even remembers! But I know in my deepest heart that Mother is a murderer! And I know in my deepest heart that Malian would even kill me if I threatened her possession of Father! I am scared of my own mother!"

Ben stared at Luna, then wrapped his strong arms around her thin body. "Don't worry kid! I will protect you! Always! Always! I will never abandon you! I will never leave you! I swear! Me and you kid! Me and you! Forever!" Behind them a shadow moved, invisible, like a ripple on the surface of reality or a blip on an electric image on a screen.

"Of course! Of course! As you command! Immediately! Immediately!" The curtain parted and Wells ran out of the room. The audience room in the Royal Palace featured a special room divided by a curtain. On one side of the curtain Wells would stand at attention during the Royal Audience. On the other side of the curtain the Royal Presence sat and conversed. The curtain was to spare the eyes of the Royal from seeing the ugliness of Dwarves while allowing them to converse about their credit and loans and monies the Royal House of Rhingol required to function. Wells scurried away now, panting, as fast as his blubbery body could run.

On the Royal Side of the Curtain a woman sat. She seemed to be your typical Elve, plainly dressed, unadorned, humble. But the Elve woman was not an Elve at all. Anyone who ever saw Malian knew that right off. Malian had eyes that were utterly unearthly, without pupil or iris, black voids like black holes behind a mask of a human face. And her human face wavered erratically like a flickering image behind which there was nothing at all. It flickered now, like a mirage. Then she heard a sound and spun around and her whole being became focused absolutely on it's source: Rhingol the Great entered the room.

Rhingol the Great entered and embraced his wife and kissed her passionately while chattering gayly about some party. Malian stared with all her power and being on his face. She kissed him and held him and purred deeply. Elves purr when they are either happy or sleepy or in pain. She purred now though the imitation of an Elvish purr was as peculiar as everything else Malian aped. The purr was more electric, like static, than organic.

"And the party my dearest is going to be my very best yet....." Rhingol the Great exited the room with Malian, perfectly happy, and perfectly oblivious to all the danger that surrounded him, a fool gayly striding off a perfectly visible cliff, perfectly happy, and perfectly sure nothing bad will ever happen to him. As far as Rhingol was concerned, there were never ever any repercussions to any action he ever did, nor punishment for any crime he ever committed. Rhingol the Great was immune to consequences and impervious to sorrow.

Above is a drawing of Ruf[f]us Royal , artist unknown. Below is a detail of a weaving featuring Horsham of Arcadia.

Chapter 7: The Game Plays Out To It's Logical Conclusion

"Wells has released the dowery funds"

"What!" Horsham groaned in the bed and sat up.

"Wells has released the monies for Luna to steal."

"Why?"

"Told me Malian told him to let Luna have it."

"Does Malian know she is condemning her child to almost sure death? Now Ben and Luna will ride off into the sunset ---- to Goldenthrond -- and consummate their plot to invade the Fiery Fissure to highjack a Device, bring the Dark Lord, his minions, his armies, his evil, and all the curses and contagious evil down on Arcadia!" Horsham groaned and crawled out of the bed, pulling the sheet off the bed and wrapping it around his beefy body..

"Interesting question. Could Malian want to see Luna dead? Another interesting question is if you can ride after them Horsham." Horsham threw Bela a dirty look and looked around for his clothes.

"Your clothes were perfectly bloody. If you are so keen to wear used clothes then you can wear some of mine. I will fetch some clean clothes from my closet. You left your fancy Rufus gift armor with me over a year ago. You will need that. Nowadays you are always wearing your jerkin if you wear armor. But I think we need to make a spectacular impression so Ben will feel compelled to accept you on his little invasion party. Appearances do count sometimes...."

It took a lot of artistry to get Horsham presentable. He was still stout with bandages around his stomach and chest. The armor had to be let out at the leather straps at the waist and shoulders but it still corseted his body rather more tightly than he liked. He had to borrow a kilt from Bela who naturally had no leggings in his closet either. Bela draped the loose tail of the kilt around the waist in a swag for a kilt pouch, then up the back where he pinned the kilt fabric to the shoulder leather straps like a cape. The beautiful bronze did make Horsham look beautiful though, while concealing the bandages, and the abuse that Horsham, and time, and torture, had inflected on his body. The heavy fringe of leather straps at the shoulders and kilt guard set off his beefy muscles. Lower leg guards and arm guards showed off his neat booted feet and huge, scarred hands. The shoulder guards, strapped over the top of the armor to conceal the vulnerable shoulder straps, made his broad shoulders even broader. Horsham unwrapped most of the hand bandages and then painfully pulled leather gloves over the rest of the now bloody bandages to conceal the injuries to his hands. Then he pulled out his Grey Owl Crest and neatly put it over the top of the armor along with his Grey Owl Metal of Valor. Bela's barber had trimmed his beard and unruly hair into a dark mane. Bela wrapped Horsham's red silk sash around his waist and then belted the leather belt and slipped in the fashionable bronze short sword and matching long dagger inside the belt. Then Horsham pulled the shoulder harness over his head and Bela slipped the steel long sword into the scabbard. Finally Horsham picked up his helmet with it's red horse hair crest and stood at attention, as if for inspection, as if on parade.

"How do I look? Like someone Ben can not dare refuse?" Bela nodded crisply and saluted. Horsham grinned a sudden, unexpected grin of almost childlike poignancy. "When I was sixteen I came to Arcadia to find my father and join the army and become a hero just like my hero Ben the Beorach! Now see! Today I ride off to join Ben the Beorach and his band of heros! Who would have thought! Not bad for thirty two eh! Not bad for a peasant boy!"

"The perfect facade for a spy!" Bela added. Bela did not add one thing. Horsham of Arcadia looked thirty two and more. His beefy body sweated like a pig in the tad too tight armor. The sweat smelled of alcohol. His bad leg made him limp slightly, giving him an ungainly gait. His thick dark hair was just touched with the first grey. But most of all his face betrayed Horsham. Horsham's face most definitely betrayed him. The once pristine face now revealed the fist hint of jowls and a double chin that the neatly trimmed beard could not conceal. The eyes were rimmed by dark shadows and lines now. The famous blue eyes were haunted, expressing with poignant eloquence the inner pain and sorrow, and creeping blindness and creeping madness that the outer man still denied -- and still assumed he was concealing from the world. Horsham's eyes betrayed the spy, spilling out his inmost secrets for all to see that he fancied concealed behind his facade of blustering bravado and swaggering insolence.

Horsham laughed a low, gruff laugh. "Yah! The Perfect Spy to bring down the Perfect Hero! Who would have thought!" Bela smiled his cool smile. "Infiltrate. I will be waiting at the Little Muddy. Find out the route Ben is planning to take. Then cut tail and ride to the Little Muddy. We will ambushed Ben and Party and kill everyone but Luna."

"Bitch is a traitor too!"

"Luna has to breed Rhingol an heir. Political necessity. Luna lives. Ben dies. Arcadia is saved."

Horsham rode a day behind Ben and stayed with a Goldenthrond Crow until Ben was ready to ride off on his most famous adventure. Then Horsham dressed the part to the max. On approaching the rendevous he bumped into of all people Prince Adulterine Grafton. The Elve looked sheepish. He was dressed in brand new armor and a laurel leave diadem and he was not in the military. Horsham knew at once that Prince Grafton was trying to join Ben's little army of hero in order to build himself a real reputation in order to upstage Celebeau. The next leg up the greasy pole of power. The famous courtly lover blushed at Horsham catching him in his debut as action hero.

Horsham debated with himself, gauging the extent of Prince Grafton's frustrated ambitions and also gauging the extent of their now fraying friendship. Then he patted the Elve on one arm. "Nicely designed costume Grafton but this an't the way to do it. Upstage Celebeau another way. Go to the Front and learn how to wage real war. Learn how to fight honestly. Believe me when I tell you that Ben's little expedition is doomed. Just take my word for it. Go up to Arcadia Minor and try to save the lives of hard working citizens of Arcadia and History will remember you as a real hero."

"But you are dressed to impress eh Horsham. You are going to join Ben's Band of Heros!"

"Nah. I am going to stop Ben's Band of Ignorant Fools!" Prince Grafton blanched.

"I could....warn Ben..... what should I do? What should a honorable man do?" Prince Grafton was sincerely conflicted. "I have to make my bid Horsham! I have to! I am out of money. My reputation as courtly lover has become a joke. I have become a joke. Kiyohime is so jealous and possessive now! She is tormenting me with her jealousy and frustration. Making my life perfectly miserable. Celebeau is a hair's breath away from snatching the crown. Why should he wear it? I am better than him! Why shouldn't it be me? Why? Really? Why? I am just as capable, if not more! I just have not been given the chance! And Ben's drive toward the crown is so damn naked! It is obscene! And then there is Gloriana! In comparison to them I would be a splendid king! I could be! Really! A splendid king! If people gave me half a chance to show them I can do more than just design court costumes and romance bored courtier daughters."

"You are not saying the right things to me Grafton." Horsham said sadly.

Prince Grafton stared desperately at Horsham, the battle hardened war hero. "Nellie asked for money. But I know the difference between her and you. Between Ben and you. You know something strange Horsham? You are Wisteria's alter ego in a way. You two so dissimilar souls are the real thing. The Real Thing. You have fought all your life for a city state that raped you the first day you arrived. Why? I wouldn't. Nellie is in it for the money. Ben. Ben's in it for all he can steal. Gloriana wants to be Queen of Something. Not Protector. Not Savior. Queen. Out for a shiny gold crown. Not for what she can do to help or save. Not to redeem her evil past. But you have fought in hell itself about to save Arcadia. To protect and defend a city state that has treated you with the back of it's collective hand. You don't ask what is in it for you.

You don't debate with yourself. I agonized about rescuing Aoi. It gutted me to do it. I did it because all of you were doing it. I did not want to do it at all. But you just charged off to rescue that pathetic woman who long ago actually tried to kill you even. I saw you in action. You were unbelievably brave! I could barely keep up. No. You and Wisteria are the Real Thing. The only really true thing I have ever seen. The rest is gilded tin. Ben is nothing but a cheap little tin god compared to you. I will never come up to your knees even. I know that Horsham.

But I can't just sit back at Court now and watch as life passes me by. I can't. And not just because I am frustrated and ambitious. I am! I confess! But I also know that Arcadia is approaching a real crisis! We are running out of time! We can't sit on the veranda now and watch as others fight and die. When this shabby excuse for a peace treaty rips apart and war descends on Arcadia again, we will be fighting for our collective survival. We just might survive by the skin of our teeth! Just! Just! I know it as much as you! And only if everything goes our way and we don't make any more ghastly mistakes! Not one more mistake! The fate of Arcadia is balanced on the edge of a sword. I saw Ben's little adventure as a cheap play for fame. I confess it. I loath the man but..... now I see that you know more about it than me. It is not a cheap little adventure is it? It is in fact dangerous.... to Arcadia. Why?"

"Ben's little adventure would provoke the Dark Lord to invade Arcadia despite the danger of two fronts. That alone has been holding him back. But stealing a Device would make the Dark Lord go berserk and attack. And right now Arcadia could not win if invaded. Not this year. Not next year. Even with the Dark Lord fighting on two fronts. We would lose. We would lose Arcadia Minor. We would be left fighting on our front door step in Arcadia Prime. And Arcadia is bankrupt. There is no money. And Arcadia Prime is the breadbasket for Arcadia. If the war moves to Arcadia Prime then the White Dragon of Famine will be howling! And the Mirage Line is a joke. So you see that if Ben and Luna actually launch their little adventure the final result will be no less than the annihilation of Arcadia itself."

Prince Grafton blanched. Then he nodded. "Thank you for telling me. Tell me what I should be doing Horsham."

"Go to Arcadia Minor and see Rufus Royal to learn how to wage real war by training with the local militias who are presently training for war as we speak. Take your laurel leaves bonnet in your hand and knell before the only great general Arcadia has left and ask quite humbly if he would teach you how to wage war. Serve under him and be proud of serving under him. Rufus Royal is the only hope Arcadia has to win. And Rufus Royal is a patriot. A true patriot."

"Prince Grafton smiled an ironical smile. "So are you Horsham. Thank you for not letting me fall into the trap of Ben. Our friendship has frayed. You did not have to catch me falling. You are a bigger man than I." Prince Grafton held out his hand Beorach style. Mere Mortal and Elve shook hands. Then Prince Grafton mounted his horse and smiled and pointed North. Horsham nodded. He turned to ride off. Suddenly Horsham grabbed the reins.

"Who gave you the idea to join? This was suppose to be top secret."

"Nellie. She said I should become a real hero and then maybe the Elite 1000 might take my parentage seriously. So told me about the Ben Ploy. She told me to come here." Prince Grafton hung his head. His armor seemed phony now, the costume of a play actor.

"Nellie is wrong. Don't listen to her. I know you get besotted by lovers but for now on don't take Nellie at face value! Odd how she found out.....only Crows know.... but believe me when I say that Ben is plotting treason and if you get involved then you will be a traitor too ----- and die a traitor's death. So ride north and join the real war and fight the good fight. Ok?"

Prince Grafton nodded. "I am nothing but a carbuncle. A Royal Carbuncle. What sort of life is that? A Royal Bastard. I can't respect myself and no one else can respect me. Most of all I want you to respect me Horsham." Prince Grafton smiled and pointed north. Horsham nodded. Prince Grafton rode off on his expensive hunter. His armor did not look so phony then. Prince Grafton did not know it but he survived by the skin of his teeth a sordid and horrible death that the rest of Ben's gang of heros suffered, courtesy of Ben's recklessness, born of his inability to know fear. Fear was another creation of Father god of Fire. He created the instinct for a reason. Survival in Nature demanded it. Survival in Civilization also demanded it too.

Horsham pondered the new 'Nellie Problem' and then mounted Blackie and rode out to the rendevous for the 'Band of Heros'. Ben was barking orders. The Band of Heros was trying to look heroic but mostly they just looked confused. Then Horsham asked to joined the expedition. In the sunlight he looked the hero incarnate. Ben lost face. For a Beorach that was fatal. Ben's men all cheered Horsham.

"Not afraid of a little competition are you Ben?"

"No. I think not. I don't need you. Did you ask Celebeau's permission to ride here?"

"I don't need any man's permission to ride anywhere! Not jealous are you Ben? Surely Ben, the famous Ben of all those fire side serials isn't scared of a little competition!"

"Go back to Arcadia. I don't need a peasant farm boy's help!" Everyone laughed but Rhingold, swayed by Ben. Horsham was a sham! They would be the real heros!

Ben and his gallant little 'Band of Heros', with Luna and a profoundly reluctant Ringold in tow, rode off to invade the Fiery Fissure to steal one of the infamous Devices. The other ten men of the expedition laughed as they passed Horsham. Luna acted as if she did not even see him. Ringold looked imploringly, as if begging Horsham to rescue him for certain doom. Ringold was right. The expedition of famous heros was doomed. But they were riding off on a quest that would doom Arcadia too.

Horsham rode back to his Crow ally, hauled off all his fancy armor, threw it on the ground, put on his old jerkin and 'Superior Man's bonnet with it's wilted feather, and rode off in pursuit on Blackie. He trailed the expedition, keeping out of sight so Ben would not be alarmed and bolt. Horsham trailed with all the skills he possessed as a Crow. But Horsham's eyes were failing and Horsham had to trail too closely. Ben realized he was being trailed and gave Horsham the slip. Horsham rode for another week in vain, trying to pick the track back up. Then, ashamed, he rode to the Little Muddy and reported his failure to Bela who now could not ambush Ben and kill him.

"Go ahead! Hit me. You clearly want to!" Bela was livid. Icy livid. Like dry ice so cold it smokes. Instead Bela prepared to ride off to try to find Ben himself.

"Go back to Rufus Manor and help Rufus Royal prepare for invasion! If Ben steals a Device the Dark Lord will invade Arcadia Minor this Spring! And don't mess that up at least!" Horsham flinched as if gutted. Bela rode up close so the other Crows could not hear. "I should have employed another Crow! I knew your eyes were failing! Ultimately the fault is mine and I will bare the responsibility in history! But keep out of my way Horsham! I will not ever play the sentimental fool to you ever again!" Bela hissed out the words. Then the icy Spy Master rode off with his little army of spies in furious pursuit, leaving Horsham eating Bela's dust. Literally. All the way back to Rufus Manor.

It was a weary ride back to that familiar landscape that Horsham once rode so happily alongside Merry May Rufus. It seemed ages ago. Now Horsham rode Blackie like an old man. For one day Horsham actually camped out on the road ten miles from his destination just because he was so humiliated. He wrapped his arms around Blackie's face and cried great gut wrenching tears. But then he mounted Blackie and rode into battle, the battle being of course his reception by the model family that the homeless Horsham desperately loved and admired.

Horsham rode up the all to familiar dirt road, under the broad spreading trees, and up to the grand old home and dismounted, his bad leg making the landing graceless. Then he pulled off his old bonnet and climbed the steps and knocked at the front door. Only then did he see the black ribbon tying a bunch of wheat: the traditional sign of mourning. The door opened to reveal a shattered Jippity. Horsham shuddered, then entered a house of mourning. He walked to the ancient great hall dreading who he would find. The great hall was full of grieving Elves, a who's who of Arcadia Minor. A who's who of the Grey Owl Campaign and all the other famous campaigns of Rufus Royal. In the center of the Great Hall was a temporary bier covered by battle standards. On the bier the corpse of Rufus Royal laid serenely, as if only asleep instead of brutally murdered.

The body was marled horribly. The hatred directed toward the body was horribly clear. The wounds were random hacking blows. Rufus Royal's face was alone untouched. Though dead, his eyes still glared with fierce owl like intensity, his hooked nose like a beak, his mouth a hard line. His hair was still tousled grey as when he was alive.

Lady Rufus Heike turned and smiled a sorrowful smile and greeted Horsham with a regal calmness that was heroic. "My dear child! We have been waiting for you! I expected you yesterday. But come. Come. To the front of the line. I want you to close the eyes of my husband. He would want you to do the ritual my dear boy!" Lady Rufus Heike led the dazed Horsham past the generals and commanders and captains and superior men Rufus commanded when he was alive. Then Lady Rufus Heike led Horsham up to Rufus Royal's corpse. She nodded serenely. Horsham wiped his tears on one sleeve of his tunic and bent down over Rufus Royal's face. The unblinking eyes seemed to star straight into Horsham's blue eyes.

Mirrored in the dead glassy orbs Horsham saw for a fleeting moment the very last image the dead eyes saw when alive: Lady Sanguinary driving a silver knife into Rufus Royal's body. The savage hacking wounds were the crude blows of an inexperienced murderess who usually dispatched her victims, like her three husbands and two prior lovers, by poison rather than brute violence. The blows were mostly shallow, delivered by a weak hand fueled by hatred but not powerful enough to deliver one clean blow of death rather than a dozen slashing blows that finally killed Rufus. For a brief moment the face of Lady Sanguinary hovered as if Horsham was seeing it through Rufus Royals' own eyes, see Lady Sanguinary lurch out of nowhere in the darkness, welding the silver knife, slashing violently, her face livid with loathing and rage. Then the dead orbs went blank. Horsham gently closed the eyes and kissed the face of Rufus Royal.

The funeral lasted two days, the ancient rites from ancient times far in the past, barely remembered, done by tradition and by rote, done because no one dare not do them even though no one understood their meaning anymore. At twilight Horsham carried the corpse to the newly built flet and Rufus Royal was given a sky burial. Dirges and laments and war hymns filled the rest of the night and soldiers sang around the pit fire in the great hall. Rufus Royal's flag fluttered alongside the flag of Heike in the night time air above the heads of the grieving war veterans. No general in Twilight history inspired such devotion and awe as Rufus Royal. Grown men broke down and wept. Elves embraced Mere Mortals. Durham's ambassador, a new 'war engineer' on loan to Rufus Royal, offered a final gift of a magnificent battle baton to Lady Rufus to symbolize military command. "Durham made it himself at his own forge in honor of Rufus Royal!" the Dwarve announced proudly.

Horsham sat beside Lady Rufus Heike and a shaking Merry May, mute, his head in his hands, crying openly and without shame, tears wetting the stone floor, his broad shoulders shaking with grief. Lady Rufus Heike sat like a stone, only her eyes reflecting their agony. Finally Lady Rufus Heike asked Horsham to sing Rufus Royal's favorite battle song. Horsham heaved his heavy body to his feet, stood ramrod straight and tall, and sang the song out strong and true in his fine baritone voice.

Beat the drum my boys!

Beat the drum and sing along!

Beat the drum my boys!

Beat the drum as we tramp along!

Marching to war boyos!

We are marching to the front lines!

Marching to war boyos!

We are marching in one long line!

Pal alongside Pal!

Each buddy guarding his buddy' back.

Mates and Pals!

Slogging under the weight of our backpacks.

Sleeping on cold hard ground

frost on our beards and hair

rolled up in our blankets bound

our breaths steamy in the frosty air.

Beat the drums boys. Beat the drums!

Interlock your shields and grip your spears!

See the enemy coming! Roaring down!

Guard my back boyo! Bite down our fear!

See the bastard's howling face!

Hear the bugger's howling roar!

Spit in the bastard's face!

Kill that bugger with your spear and sword!

Bite the arrow and throw your spear!

Gash your teeth and bite and snarl!

Maybe we will live to remember the fear.

Maybe we will die as we fall on the ground hard!

If I die boyo, burn my body on a bier.

If you die boyo, I will build you a flet.

If I die, sing a dirge around the fire.

If you die, I will sing a lament of regret.

Old soldiers are never found

around camp fires at war.

Old solders are only found

around the pub fires back home.

Old soldiers carry the memories

of long dead mates and pals

who never age beyond the day

when they fell in battle hard.

That was the last song to ever fill Rufus Hall.

The crowd of mourners disbursed the next day leaving the house forlornly quiet. Lady Rufus Heike was quietly genteel as always. Merry May was shattered. She stared at Horsham with grief stricken eyes like huge holes in her pale face. The hulking man and the quiet woman sat side by side on the front steps of Rufus Manor for half a day with out speaking, with Merry May's little hand inside the scarred hand of the professional killer.

"I know who killed Rufus Royal".

"Of course you do. Grandmother said Rufus would tell you. Grandmother said you would kill the murderer."

"Do you want to know?"

"No. Just kill him."

"Her."

"Just kill her."

"Ben is riding north to steal a Device from the Fiery Fissure. If he succeeds, or even if he does not, it will inflame the Dark Lord into a murderous fury. Expect invasion as soon as the last of the winter snows melt. Once the spring roads are passable, the snow gone, the mud dry, expect invasion."

"Arcadia Minor is armed and ready Horsham." It was Lady Rufus Heike, standing by the door. She came out and stood calmly, staring out at the peaceful white. It was early spring and the first crocus and daffodils were breaking through the snow. Here and there patches of snow were melting already.

"Ben rode north with nimble riders lightly supplied, to ride across the melting snow. An army is heavier. The roads will have to clear of spring mud for them to invade. You have a month. I can ride south and kill Lady Sanguinary now or stay and help you prepare for attack. Which do you wish?"

"Rufus Royal gave his life and his wealth and his honor to defend Arcadia Minor. He would expect you to fight now. Postpone the killing of Lady Sanguinary until time and destiny permit. We do not have the luxury of revenge right now."

Horsham stood up and pulled out his old bonnet and put it on. "No. We don't have the luxury. I will prepare for invasion. Who is the commander for me to report to? Who did Rufus Royal appointed? Who will carry his memorial baton?"

"You. He said a dream foretold his end. He woke by my side and told me to tell you that you must lead the attack and be the shield wall of Arcadia Minor."

Horsham blanched. "I am responsible for the invasion Lady Rufus. I failed to stop Ben and Luna from riding north to steal a Device that will trigger the renewed war. I threw away the fine armor Rufus Royal gave me in the dirt after Ben refused me so I could ride after him. But I lost his trail. Bela could not ambush Ben and kill him as we planned. This is all my fault."

"This war that is coming with the spring thaw if Ben's fault! Ben is riding north to trigger war! Ben is riding north to steal a Device in order to bring it's contaminating evil into Arcadia! Ben is riding north to play the big hero at the cost of Arcadia's long term survival as a city state! Not you! Ben.

I curse Ben and Luna! I curse their love! I curse them and wish that their glorious love affair will damn them to such misery and suffering and death as to make them rue the day they met and fell in love! May they never know the joys of married life! May they never breed beautiful children! And may they die apart! Alone! Doomed to never see each other ever again in this life or any afterlife! May Luna be damned especially for she must know the evil she is doing even if Ben is too reckless to realize it. May Luna die alone! Alone! Without father or mother or husband or child by her side! May Luna die utterly alone on a lonely flet and may no family gather up her bones, bleached by the seasons and the elements of time and the open sky, and may no family gather up her bones to distribute as mementos to any kin! My Luna's bones lay unloved and abandoned to scatter and decay! I curse them both! Utterly! Utterly! May my curse damn them both! Utterly! Utterly! And may grey owls eat their rotten corpses!"

Lady Rufus Heike turned to leave. Merry looked at her imploringly. Then Lady Rufus Heike turned back and looked down with more gentleness at the beleaguered and battered Horsham.

"Brave heart. I heard you swore an oath back in Arcadia...."

"I.... swear a lot a profanity Lady Rufus. I have a foul mouth. I do apologize for any shame I may have brought to your family."

"No dear heart. An oath of honor..... about Merry May ....what was the wording.... the exact wording?"

Horsham frowned perplexed. "People were gossiping, Ben especially, the swine, about Merry May here and me supposedly being in love and having an affair like that tramp Luna. So I swore an oath and cut my flesh in front of the biggest gossiper of all, Floradale, and said I .... to the effect... as far as I can remember.... that I 'never made love to Merry May Rufus and never would touch Merry May Rufus in any way not strictly honorable and chaste and pure' or some such thing because I was so desperate to uphold Merry May's honor. I know I only make things worse. Everyone laughed at me. I guess I was a joke. I only made things worse by fighting all those duels for Merry May's honor and all. I always mess things up! I just wanted to shut up all those damn gossiping toads! I did not know what else to say! But I guess everyone just laughed and thought it all a joke. I am so very sorry Lady Rufus."

Lady Rufus Heike blanched, then smiled her gracious smile. "Never mind my child. You did what you did out of love for us. The fault is ours. More exactly mine. I thought Merry May should marry a Twilight Elve of the landed gentry. Rufus feared my decision would make two people very unhappy. 'A fork in the road' he called it. Rufus was right. I apologize to you both my dear ones!" Lady Rufus Heike entered the house and Horsham looked at Merry May perplexed.

"Your oath was .....given in honor and now can not be undone because an oath violated can become a transmutation curse. There is no worse curse than a transmutation curse. Floradale did not laugh at you Horsham for what you swore that day. Rather, he wrote a letter of apology to us, telling us about your oath and assuring us he believed you and respected you for the 'intensity of your devotion to us'. That is what Floradale said. Floradale declared that Ben was a 'damnable man for spreading such libel for it had to be damnable libel if you were willing to bound yourself to a dangerous oath that could become a transmutation curse.' Ben was shown to be a petty man by your generous valor and honor and by your oath.

But now we have to live with it brave heart. Oh! If only you had been allowed to stay on as our estate manager! Only the gods know what could have happened! We could have perhaps fallen in love. We could have perhaps married. We could have perhaps sired children. Rufus could have played with his great grandchild before he died. Perhaps he might not have died at all. Perhaps. Perhaps. The fork in the road. The road not traveled. The road not traveled haunts our mind and our heart with a special potency of regret. The road not taken."

Merry May stood up and sighed and then smiled gently at Horsham. Then she turned to leave. As the door closed, Horsham cried out.

"Merry May! Did you love me way back when? When I was still young enough to salvage my life? Are you saying I could have stayed here all along and married you? Been happy? Been normal and boringly, mundanely happy?" Merry May paused at the door, tears quietly wetting her face. "I will always love you Horsham. I could not disobey my family's wishes or bring shame onto Rufus Manor by defying convention to marry you without the blessings of my kin. I hoped they would relent before events unfurled too far for us to salvage our maybe life together. Rufus would have relented. But Grandmother was worried you would make me unhappy. She meant well but an Elve can fall in love but once. Only once and then forever. I fell in love with you brave heart. But now, Lady Rufus having relented, I still can not marry you, now or ever, for now your oath keeps us eternally apart. I will love you until I die. I will never marry any other. But now I cannot marry you er I damn you."

Horsham cried out. "Merry May. Oh that I could have stayed here! For my life has spiraled out of all control! Into wreckage and ruin! Disgrace and shame! I am going blind Merry! I am going blind! I have seen a doctor back in Arcadia! He has told me so. I am slowly but surely going blind! What am I to do? I am middle aged and going blind. I am a drunk. What future does my life have? Only a decline and fall into lonely ruin! If only I had stayed! If only! If only! I never thought anyone could have ever fallen in love with me! Why have the gods played with me so cruelly? Why do I suffer from such evil bad luck? It is as if I was born curst!"

Merry May shook her head and closed the door and locked it. She cried with her face to the door. She dare not open it and console Horsham er her genuine love for the doomed man seduce him prematurely to his ruin. For Horsham was surely, as he said, destined for ruin. And Merry May could not stop his self destruction. So she cried on one side of the door. Horsham cried on the other side of the door. And the door stayed closed.

Map of Our World 1st Age highlighting Arcadia Minor. The War of the Blue Bells was a major upsurge of the war after a

period of deceitive peace. Afterwards few believed peace could ever return to Our World.

Marble bust of Merry May Ruf[f]us based on a bronze original now lost. Below a drawing of an unknown Amberling.

Amberling battle dress was cotton, a strange cloth, and feathers symbolized command. Red was the prefered color.

The already settled Havens Amberlings therefore changed their battle dress to the western kilt and tunic and changed

their red to black with silver trim. Amberlings fought on all sides of the conflict to the confusion of everyone.

Above a drawing of an Amberling pony showing the unique curved ears and below a moor pony. The Amberling desert pony

was the fastest of all the horses and it's use in cavalry upset the waging of war. The moor pony was very small and much

inferior. The culling of moor ponies kept them too small for use in anything but war chariots.

Chapter 8 : The War of the Bluebells

Militias throughout Arcadia Minor prepared for war even as they were hastily sowing their spring crops and lambing and all the ordinary, mundane chores of farm life. Rufus Royal had warned the farms of Arcadia Minor to stockpile harvests but food storage was iffy in the First Age. Grain usually rotted before the arrival of spring. That alone made Dwarve brewers popular men in the farm lands for they bought surplus harvests of barley and hops and wheat to take to the Old Citadel to brew into more durable beer and whisky and ale. Ice houses were usually only owned by Elves and while ice houses could preserve dairy and meat and cheese, they could not preserve grains. So spring was always iffy in the best of times. Arcadia Minor had to sow their spring crops but at the same time Arcadia Minor had to prepare for war and possible famine.

Rufus Royal left Horsham an office full of plans, instructions, preparations, and funds. Rufus Royal in fact had drained his estate, selling off almost all his assets, to provide funds for Horsham to wage war with. Every pub throughout Arcadia Minor had deep beer cellars packed with beer and weapons and supplies of Dwarve gold and silver to buy food in the autumn if disaster stroke and a entire harvest was lost, and Horsham feared that the harvest would be lost if war was waged in the spring through the summer and into the autumn. So Horsham's first act as temporary Field Commander of Arcadia Minor was to order his one official Dwarve Engineer Fror Ironshield (a distant relative of Durham the Deathless) plus every single Dwarve Horsham could draft back in Arcadia City, to come and dig out and build stone ice houses beside every tithe barn in every single village throughout Arcadia Minor. Horsham also drafted the Dwarves to secretly build hidden ice houses and tithe barns in caves and secret depots known only by the pub owners. Every pub owner, the master of gossip and the heart of every village, the man who knows every secret and every gossip and every single thing about every single person in the village, was drafted into the Crow Organization.

The Dwarves, city dwellers, were then asked NOT to return home but rather stay and fight after building the ice houses and secret bunkers. It was a devious way to draft a cantankerous race into a war but most of the Dwarves amazed everyone by staying. Some even wrote to relatives to come and join the fight. It was the first time people saw Dwarves wage war along side them. Up to now the fierce war Beyond the Pale being waged by Bree the Red and the Iron Hills and Badlands Dwarves were distant, almost invisible, and rarely reported by the pub bards who still preferred the sure fire entertainment value of Ben the Beorach to red haired outlaws and surly miners in some far away place east of the Central Mountains that no one had ever visited or seen.

The Dwarves built catapults and practiced the new lethal art of artillery assault. Rufus Royal had found absolutely no Elve or Mere Mortal who could learn how to use the catapult that required engineering and math skills. So the only logical people available became the first battle engineers. It also helped in sanitation. Dwarves introduced copper pipe plumbing to campsites to prevent the usual spread of lethal disease like Camp Plague (Lice carrying infection) and Camp Lung (influenza) that always occurred in sudden high concentrations of populations. Dr. Kakoff and his grave robbing assistant Higgie became the first trained doctor to establish a mobile hospital right behind battle lines to spend up first aid of wounded soldiers. He used farm wagons rigged into operating theaters and nursing stations.

Dr. Kakoff also invited another doctor, Dr. Lagosi to come with his sinister magic called 'sheep pox inoculation' to prevent massive outbreaks of the usual small pox, lethal to high concentrations of population and therefore a frequent and notorious killer at military camps. More people died before battle or after battle than during battle. Horsham knew that. He needed every fighter he could get. So Horsham became a Shoki in the field of military disease and sanitation. A Shoki with an eye to whores as the legendary Shoki was.

Horsham wrote to his criminal pal Magnus Maggotous for assistance and the most notorious of all Dwarves turned patriotic. He paid his whores to go nurse wounded soldiers in 'Maggotous Mobile Hospitals'. The whores became very popular because of their unusual nursing techniques. Ironically, the pun on Magnus' self financed, gaudy signed tent hospitals also saved lives with the very unusual nursing technique employed by Dr. Lagosi over Dr. Kakoff's objections: Lagosi deliberately used leeches to stop excessive bleeding of wounds and maggots to sterilize wounds. Leeches, court wizard misuse aside, had natural blood stanching chemical properties and maggots only ate rotten flesh and therefore naturally sterilized wounds, visual horror to the contrary. The two short, fat, hairy Dwarves fought like badgers until Horsham sided with Lagosi. Horsham always carried a pet maggot to clean all his battle wounds and could attest personally to the disgusting but live saving abilities of the disgusting creature.

Meanwhile Horsham drafted old Grey Wolf and Grey Owl Veterans into raider gangs and then Horsham hit hard and fast ---- in Beorach Land across the Sweetwater, a massive, brutal preemptive strike he called the 'White Dragon'. Beorach Land was just recovering from the Grey Owl Campaign, the Beorach reforming, and thinking about revenge. Now Horsham solved both problems with one violent stoke by raiding throughout Beorach Land and ruthlessly burning, looting and razing every war lord's fiefdom, while rescuing every single slave, killing every single male of war age, and stealing every single horse and ox and mule and every head of cattle throughout two thirds of Beorach Land. A gigantic tonnage of meat on the hoof were driven across the Sweetwater and distributed throughout Arcadia Minor to grow fat in the common greens of every village in anticipation of being slaughtered and packed in ice for winter eating. Horsham told the village butcher to plan to slaughter and preserve even the skin and bones and hoofs and tails. "Prepare for the howls of Famine".

Famine was a code word for the Merrach who knew famine intimately and inclined to fat genetically because they did every single thing they could instinctively think of to survive famine. The Merrach prepared for famine. But the Merrach also prepared for war. The Beorach, the fearsome ogres of the First Age, found that now the Merrach, their old victims, had finally become as savage and brutal at waging war as they used to be. The Beorach were on the receiving end of brutal warfare and they did not like it. But they had been preemptively and savagely smashed. At least for another decade, the Beorach would still not be waging war against Arcadia Minor other than thuggery.

Horsham let the militias (both men and women of war age) divide in half. Half the militias hastily sowed the spring grains for the entire village, back breaking work doing double duty. Half the militias rode to regional depots to organize patrols and defensive lines in anticipation of attack. The hidden funds Rufus Royal amassed by selling off his assets put every ex soldier back on full time pay. Horsham put the old grey owl cavalry back on horseback courtesy of stolen Beorach moor ponies. The cavalry was back on long range patrols to become the 'Eyes and Ears' of Arcadia Minor. Horsham drew a grid of Arcadia Minor and assigned cavalry to every grid square to monitor movement and prevent ambushes.

Horsham used the Merrach flair for logistics by organizing supply networks to cover the dirt roads and rivers capable of bearing raft and boat traffic to facilitate the speedy movement of soldiers and supplies where ever the need would arise. Peasants are good at digging. Horsham had anti-cavalry earthworks dug at crucial locations all over Arcadia Minor. Secret caves or bunkers were also dug to allow the vulnerable to flee and hide. Every single village had to report by trained pigeon once a day. Horsham assumed that any attack would produce a 'black spot on the map' and that by itself would tell him where the enemy was. the Pub Owners, now Crows, were given pigeons and codes, including a code if forced by enemies to send pigeons back with false reports. Horsham was deviousness incarnate. Sometimes natural paranoia does has it's benefits.

Horsham's previous turn as Rufus Royal's Aide de Camp had initiated a mass training of the Merrach as both slingers and archers, both men and women, from the time they were six years old. The first harvest of professional archers were materializing. The Merrach were not good at shield walls where they were literally nose to nose with their enemies in a violent push and shove of iron in your face. Horsham's decision to retrain the Merrach to use slings and bows and arrows while behind defensive barriers: trees, rocks, walls, gullies, hilltops, any place where they could attack at a distance, was a classic example of psychology. Horsham had only a tiny professional army of disciplined veterans who could maintain a shield wall formation without breaking and running away. Horsham used the shield wall to protect the masses of Merrach archers and slingers now, like a 'hedgehog' or mobile prickly fence. "Use what you have to the best effect." Horsham said that and Horsham did use what he had, the Merrach peasantry, to the best effect.

Horsham's use of psychology was interesting in one subtle way. He actually tried to 'psycho out' his enemy. Horsham told Arcadia Minor to publicly worship Mother god of the Waters. 'Mother's Presence' was a popular religion of course. Mother was a benevolent god compared to many other gods. Any good farmer would naturally worship the patron god of life giving water after all. But many gods were worshiped in the First Age. Horsham exploited the worship of Mother very specifically however. Gildagad, a genuine worshiper of Mother god of the Waters, later wrote:

"Horsham of Arcadia was the only man I ever knew who exploited religion for political and psychological effect. He was quite cold blooded about it. He explained that he wanted to create a fissure between Father god of Fire and his Shadow the Dark Lord, so he promoted the cult of Mother to drive a wedge between the Dark God and his Dark Lord. It certainly finally happened of course. I don't know if Horsham's exploitation sped forward a natural fissure fault line between the Dark God and his Dark Lord, or created the fissure fault line, or merely exasperated the Dark Lord. But Horsham was the first man to not fear the Dark Lord, but rather to out think him and assume he possessed flaws and blind spots that could be exploited like any other enemy. I learned many valuable lessons from Horsham. But I must confess I never knew the man to ever genuinely worship any god or express any feeling of religious awe whatsoever. He called the gods 'Mischief Makers' and despised gods as much as Dwarves did. In that he was very much like a Dwarve."

History still debates who started the War of the Bluebells. The name is clear at least. The war started in the early spring when blankets of bluebells covered the melting snows in heady swatches of intense blue color. The first attack was in a field of melting snow and intoxicating blue flowers. Orcs attacked from the River of Shadows in five legions of five thousand, aided by newly hired Amberling Mercenary cavalry. The attack hit along the Upper Arcadia River. Horsham knew it when a pigeon failed to report and a patrol party came back late, covered with sweat and dust. The Orcs hit fast and hard. Horsham hit back faster and harder.

The majority of the vulnerable populations, per the prescribed villages drills, fled the villages to hide rather than try to save their cottages and fields and farms. So the Orcs could not pick off the population piecemeal like before. The Orcs still burned everything down. The Orcs worshiped Father god of Fire after all. But vandalism and arson is petty warfare on a petty scale. The peasants knew they would be given supplies later and would not starve, unlike before when it was every village for itself, sink or swim or starve. The peasants also had militias now and hidden places to hide, complete with hidden supplies. They had drilled. They had rehearsed. They knew what to do. They also knew how to kill Orcs now. The militia, after shepherding the children and grandpas and grandmas to safety, returned with attack dogs and slings with rock salt bullets to play sniper. They knew their backyard. The Orcs were careless invaders banking on terror to make up for shoddy weapons and no discipline. The snipers also aimed for the horses, using lead and iron bullets. Amberlings on foot proved far less lethal.

Horsham made sure the patrols kept operating all over Arcadia Minor just in case this was only a feint to lure the majority of the army away. Then he rode to the regional deployment area at Pleasanton Village. He lured the invading army into attacking a fortified position on a rolling hillside, by staging an apparently panicky attack and retreat, the players, all fat, flaxen haired young peasants hand picked by Horsham for their ability to scream, ran screaming and wailing away in sheer terror -- apparently. Panicky retreat is intoxicating and few soldiers can resist following such bait. So, the adrenalin flowing, the heart pounding, the brain on overdrive, the Amberlings and Orcs plunged into a hot headed pursuit of screaming farm boys, up a hillside, topped by trees, and ran right into 700 archers and slingers entrenched behind dug in defensive trenches dressed by fallen trees and bushes and greenery. The Amberling Cavalry, brilliant in their red cotton, their desert ponies racing at top speed for they were fiery creatures, led the attack --- galloping uphill. But you can't shoot very well uphill, or into the wind. That was also blowing in their faces too. The attack was timed for the normal wind pattern the natives knew about. Galloping uphill is hard too. But most of all the Amberlings charged absolutely sure they were panicking the peasants into running away so they could kill them while retreating.

Instead the peasants were dug in, bags and boxes of steel head arrows by their sides, the slingers armed with bags of rock salt and iron bullets in the trees, and they stayed put, buttressed by their trench and fallen trees and rocks, in effect a fort on a hill. So the magnificent spectacle of feather turbaned Amberlings crashed and shattered all over the hillside. Not one single mounted horse made it even near the crest of the hill.

The Orcs, running behind, had plenty of warning but the Orcs have few collective brains and much lust when blood and flesh is splattered all over the field. Their primal instincts kicked in. Half the buggers rushed to eat the dead or dying Amberlings. Half the swarm, lead by the Orc warrior with the one complete brain, but a brain mass bred like a clone only to fight and kill, charged uphill. The slingers switched to rock salt. The archers switched to burning arrows. The result was the same. By sunset the hillside was covered by the dead or dying. Horsham kept his men in such a tight formation that even after the brunt of the victory was achieved, he still decided to signal for the Grey Owl Cavalry to charge out of the back of the grove to kill the Orcs who were eating the Amberlings rather than break the hill top formation.

Three thousand Orcs and 400 Amberlings were annihilated in three hours. The field was dark by sunset, dark and still and not a sound broke the coldness as spring nightfall kicked in except the cries of the dying enemies. Horsham kept his army on the hilltop in tight formation, guards in place with attack dogs, all night. Only when dawn came and no counterattack materialized (Orc counterattacks in the dead of night were lethal), did Horsham allow the field to be 'put to rest'. Bonfires on newly renamed 'Red Top Hill' told Arcadia Minor that the Battle of the Bluebells was won by peasants and farmers and novice archers and teenage slingers and old broken down ex war veterans instead of savage Orcs and professional Amberling cavalry. The Dark Lord must have been quite surprised.

The second battle occurred seven days later when Horsham assaulted the residue of the initial invasion force. Horsham started off by dragging Orc bitten corpses of Amberlings and dumping them where their pals and mates and compatriots could find them. The remaining Amberling cavalry force of over one thousand promptly deserted. They did not get very far. But not for the obvious reason. Horsham wanted them to run home to Old Cartage and report to the Consortium that the alliance with the Dark Lord was a really big mistake. Horsham let the cavalry retreat very happy. But the Dark Lord ambushed his own ex mercenaries and executed them. Orcs ate Amberling flesh for a week, so fat with their gluttony they could barely waddle. Horsham hit at dawn as the Orcs were rolled into balls to snore off the bloody feast like hung over drunks. Horsham drove a herd of stolen long horn Beorach cattle, tonnage on the hoof, goaded into a mad stampede, across the slaughter ground. Then he simply set fire to the battlefield. The whole battlefield filled the sky for seventy miles with a towering column of back rancid smoke. The Battle of Jebby's Farm was over. The Dark Lord's first invasion of 5 thousand Orcs and 400 Amberlings were exterminated. Horsham himself lost thirty five soldiers.

The Battle of Rosemeade started twenty miles west as the Battle of Jebby's Farm was finishing. The counteract of the Dark Lord was fast -- but anticipated by Horsham who assumed the first invasion force was only that - the first. The second invasion force, only Orcs, hit the village of Rosemeade, just north of Maritady's Farm on the main road south through Arcadia Minor. The field commander of the regional force hit the ground running. The ex Grey Owl Elve, a once time sullen officer under Horsham, later a sullen ex officer deriding Horsham, and now yet again an enthusiastic officer under Horsham, hit the invasion force just like in the old Wolf Pack Days. Captain Lavenderry even dug out his old wolf pelt and Grey Owl Metal and wore it. He attacked the Orcs at night as they were ravishing the empty village of Rosemeade (the inhabitants having fled per the drill). That was risky -- and daring. Nighttime is usually the Orc's element after all. But Lavenderry attacked at night and set fire to the empty village while the Orcs were unprepared, having glutted on abandoned dead animals and two stubborn old men who had refused to flee. Orcs usually worship fire but were unprepared for a quant town of thatch covered cottages to suddenly erupt into blazing fire all around them. The Orcs, the fires out of control, many on fire themselves, ran in all directions to flee the fiery holocaust and ran straight into hidden ambushes of wolf packs that Captain Lavenderry set around the town. The result was brutal extermination that both shocked and awed Captain Lavenderry's young lieutenant: Prince Adulterine Grafton.

The third invasion force hit May Fair Village, just across from the Sweetwater River. The Dark Lord had recruited Beorach from the upper region not ravished by Horsham in his preemptive strike. The Beorach mercenaries faired better than the other two invasion of Orcs. The Beorach were professional raiders, harden men perfectly capable of selling their mothers into slavery ---- and indeed the warlord, one Abattoir, had boasted of doing just that. Abattoir put up a vicious fight, burning five villages beside May Fair. But he was after loot and slaves and stolen cattle that he could steal in turn. There were no peasants to enslave which infuriated Abattoir. He knew they were hiding out. The tithe barns were empty. The peasants had been scraping bottom, typical of spring famine, while sowing their new crop for autumn harvest. So there was not much to steal. Abattoir rounded up stolen cattle, oxen, mules, sheep, and even chickens, burned down everything else, and decided to cut and run. He aimed for the only good ford to cross the Sweetwater, a broad river to cross with over two thousand head of meat on the hoof. Not to mention all those chickens. When he has in the middle of the Sweetwater ford he must have thought he was home free.

Horsham hit him from the west side of the Sweetwater, he and his men dressed as rival Beorach thugs. Young Prince Grafton was also attending this little lesson of bare knuckles warfare. The ford was an exercise of chaos. Cattle, oxen, mules, and chickens everywhere. The phony Beorach drove straight into the herd, causing a stampede that only multiplied the chaos. Abattoir thought he was being attacked by rival Beorach mercenaries. He found out who was really attacking while drowning in the middle of the Sweetwater River, one hand still clutching a stolen chicken.

That was how the War of the Bluebells started. It quickly got worse. The Dark Lord poured Orcs and mercenaries across the Sweetwater in waves of thousands at a time, hitting all over Arcadia Minor. Horsham hit back hard, his military organization straining to repel attack after attack.

Arcadia Minor was awash with battles by the time Celebeau heard about the renewed war down in Arcadia Prime. Horsham took the time to send Celebeau a severed head of an Amberling General, his turban still attached, his peacock feather of command still bobbing, on a silver platter, during his honeymoon supper, in front of every guest, including Gloriana, in the Royal Palace. Now a random Orc might be debatable. Orcs were predators after all and their feeding grounds north of the River of Shadows might be thin for bloody hot food this time of year. Spring is a bony time for all predators of nature after all. A Beorach head might be explainable too. The Beorach were raiders who lived by stealing. But an Amberling General's head on the platter was definitely problematic. There was no way an Amberling General ought to be anywhere near Arcadia, Minor or Prime or City, in any capacity, whatsoever. Unless of course the Dark Lord had hired Amberlings from the Old Cartage Consortium six months prior to march west and attack -- a clear violation of the 'Peace in Our Time Treaty'.

Bela, back from hunting for Ben and Luna, just in time to report to Rhingol the Great that his daughter had eloped with a bounder along with her entire dowery, now reached over and blandly plucked the peacock feather of command from the rotting head of the Amberling General and dropped it on Lady Sanguinary's silver plate of mutton.

"Eating crow might be rather unappetising my lady, but what about a peacock feather? I wonder how much the Consortium is making in profit from the Dark Lord by supplying mercenaries to attack us? A pretty copper I would bet! And where is Ben to protect us from the barbaric horde? Why off on some adventure ---- north of the border -- in clear violation of the 'Peace in Our Time Treaty' -- with Luna ---- endangering the Princess Royal.

But perhaps all will yet be well! Maybe Luna will come back big bellied with a pretty bastard Beorach to rule over Arcadia when Rhingol dies of shock and horror! A half breed Beorach King of Arcadia! My! My! Won't the Elite 1000 be happy! Behold what Arcadia will be reduced to! A bastard Beorach warlord ruling the Royal House of Arcadia, eating with his hands, spiting out bones on the floor, urinating in the great hall, vomiting beer, passing out under the table, our very own Beorach thug! Ruling Arcadia like some Beorach Land Fiefdom complete with slavery! Arcadia Prime of course! Not Arcadia Minor which is under total attack even as we speak!

And the only general who defeated the enemy in open battle, Rufus Royal, lays on his flet, brutally murdered! And we are enjoying a lovely honeymoon supper while Rufus Royal's corpse lays rotting in sky burial! Arcadia has become a whore with her legs wide open to Beorach rape!"

Bela's exit was the noisiest example of a quiet exit in history. Floradale wrote "Every footstep Bela made as he walked out of the Royal Hall echoed with deadly intensity like the drumbeat of war. Celebeau's face blanched like a corpse. Then Gloriana, a cold hearted creature, suddenly erupted into brittle laughter. She sat directly in front of the rotten head. Everyone stared at her in utter contempt. Our very own phony princess!

Finally Celebeau stood up, his face still as wooden as the famous wood he was named for, picked up the platter with the rotting head, and held it up for all to see. We all stared at him then. I declare that a maggot actually dropped of the silver platter and dropped onto the tablecloth and rolled! Then Celebeau said: 'An violated oath, a violated taboo, and a violated treaty all damn us! Ben violated his oath to me to stop courting Luna if allowed back to Arcadia. Horsham's virginity was grossly violated which is as evil a violated taboo as there ever is and now he wages war like a mad dog, and the Dark Lord has violated his treaty of 'Peace in Our Time'! Evil has come to Arcadia! Evil has come! We are infected by the evil sowed by others but reaped by us!'

To all of our utter amazement, Celebeau marched out of the Royal Hall with the platter of rot and maggots. And I am not at all sure what he did with it either! What does one do with a platter of rot and maggots! Use it as compost in the Royal Gardens? Then I remembered how the prior winter started: with that Snow Duel between Sanguinary and Horsham. I stood up and held up my wine glass and make a toast. 'On the first day of winter, during the first snow fall, we plucked up snow pink with blood. Now, as the last snow of spring melts, it is again pink with blood. Arcadia is pink. But before this year is over, Arcadia will be red. Red with blood. So let us drink to everyone who sits at this table for who knows who will die this year?' But not one person picked up their wine glass to share my toast. So I drained my suddenly bitter wine and left the honeymoon feast. The next day I enlisted to fight at the front which I assumed would be at my own front doorstep!"

Floradale proved nearly right. Throughout the spring and summer the Dark Lord sent attack after attack into Arcadia Minor. The irony was the beleaguered but stubbornly determined region stood stout as a shield wall, indirectly protecting Arcadia Prime from direct assault -- which was fortunate for the Royal Army was nearly gutted, armed only with bronze, devoid of modern body armor, most of the professionals now gone, no cavalry, and no stockpiles of food, weapons, supplies, or monies laid away in preparation for the resumption of war.

Arcadia Prime erupted in panic. Mobs stoned Lady Sanguinary's elegant townhouse. She was the obvious face to the Peace through Appeasement Movement. But then the mobs also started to stone the front gates of the Royal Palace of Rhingol the Great. Malian asked the servants to close all the shutters so Rhingol would not see his own citizens hulling stones and abuse and dung toward him. The mob finally realized that their king was supremely oblivious so they cut down all the cherry trees that lined the Grand Canal. Rhingol did see that.

"Why does everyone hate me now Malian? I don't understand?" The humorous looking Elve said, dressed with gaudy splendor, today wearing a shell on a piece of string around his neck, the gift of a child, while he stared at the shambles of his beautiful Grand Canal. "What have I failed to do? I Loved my people. I brought peace. I gave the Mere Mortals beautiful mayoral necklaces to wear to placate their primitive minds and childlike natures. What have I done? Why doesn't anyone love me now?"

"Hush my husband! The people are nothing. Arcadia is nothing! Such ingratitude! May Arcadia burn in the fiery fissure for it's ingratitude to you! My beloved husband! I love you! Let that be enough! I will always love you!" But Malian's mirage of happy prosperity was failing, unable to disguise with rosy deceit the underlying rot of Arcadia, like the inner heart of Arcadia, the Lake of Mithril haunted by Rhinga in all her rotten horror.

"I don't understand why no one loves me anymore? Luna eloped? Celebeau angry? I don't understand...."

"Don't see it..... Don't see ..... see only me..... I will always love you my dearest! See only me...."

The goddess of Mirages wrapped her mirage around Rhingol, and rosy hued, he smiled, surrounded by the mirage of Malian's love.

The war started with bluebells in the melting snows of spring. It ended with the first snows of winter. Orcs can not fight when the temperature drops. Peasants for once blessed the sight of the first snowfall. But the war had lost fully half the harvest of Arcadia Minor. Horsham, bone tired, his body suffering from five serious injuries sustained during battles, two still festering despite Dr. Lagosi's maggots, switched from field commander of the battle front to the commander of the home front. He used the distribution network to distribute food supplies now, a strict rationing of all supplies. Most of the meat on the hoof was slaughtered and packed in new ice, down to the bone and hoof and skin. What harvest that was reaped was also distributed too. Some of the Merrach, feeling famine over the horizon, panicked and protested a portion of their villages' tithe going toward other villages. Fear of hunger brings out the ugly side of people. Horsham visited villages and reminded everyone of their spring pledge of the bluebells, to share the burden of the war equally. But at one village Horsham was stoned by suddenly hysterical mobs. In another village that had lost it's harvest to war Horsham was also stoned. Natural paranoia is not a good thing during such circumstances. Horsham, his body and general health already savaged by overwork and stress and war, cut himself to vent his paranoia. The cutting did not work though it proved right bloody. So then Horsham went on a bender and drank straight whisky until he threw up.

Horsham was still retching in fact when he looked up and saw Celebeau standing very tall, over the doubled over man. "Great! Such timing! Now you can gloat! Congratulations! Go head and smirk! You must be such a happy man!" Horsham picked up a handful of newly fallen snow and wiped the vomit off his mouth. He looked appalling. He had been sleeping in his battle tunic for the last three months. Bulky bandages and pulled stitches make his body ache and his movements awkward. His hair was a tangle and his beard was untrimmed. His eyes were exhausted holes. And right now his skin was green from nausea.

"I have brought wagons" Celebeau announced stonily.

"Great! For what? War is over. Took your time coming. I hear that hunting for Ben and Luna and Ringold and their little invasion party into the Fiery Fissure was a bigger priority than helping Arcadia Minor fight off an invasion. Found them yet? Connected the dots yet? Like who caused the bloody war to begin with? Or are you going to blame me for Ben's folly -- as usual. Blame Horsham! Ben's scapegoat! While Ben walks away free as usual. Ben the Beorach! The bloody big hero! And Horsham of Arcadia! Ben's whipping boy!"

Celebeau stared at the sick man with his notorious dead fish look until Horsham finally shut up. Then Celebeau pointed at the wagons. There were over two hundred wagons, a mile long line, down the main dirt road from Arcadia Prime, through Arcadia Minor, and they were loaded with grain and food and barrels of beer.

"I had to organize Arcadia Prime for possible attack. I could not rearm before the treaty was formally broken. Not like you. I am bound by treaties. I have a sense of honor and respect for oaths and taboos and treaties."

"Yea! Right! While me, bum treaty breaker that I am, guarded your ass up here!"

"Next year Arcadia Prime will fight. We can fight now. We know we are at war. We will fight side by side. We have the winter to prepare. And right now, knowing Arcadia Minor lost half it's harvest, I have brought food. I have imposed strict rationing too. I think if we work together Horsham, we can avert the white dragon of famine. We just have to be practical and work together and not go all emotional. Can you just try to not get emotional?"

Horsham stood up straight and tall, if still green, and looked Celebeau straight in the eye. "I always do my job! No matter what! Always have! Always will! Whatever else people say, I do my job!"

"Good" Celebeau answered dryly. "Let's get to work then."

Everyone assumed that the winter put an end to the War, at least for the duration of the winter. Prince Grafton, battered and shocked by the horrors of war rode homeward for the Winter Season. Kiyohime was pregnant again. Even Horsham assumed so, though he was a graduate of Rufus Royal's Grey Owl Campaign. But the last battle took place in the depths of winter. Horsham was finally done with his temporary command. The food was distributed. The militias were snuggled safe in their cottages all over Arcadia Minor making tithes of new arrows. Celebeau was back in official command. Rhingol could not conceive how a Mere Mortal could be in temporary command and demoted Horsham down to 'Superior Man' as soon as he heard. Prince Grafton was embarrassed because he had been promoted to a captain at the same time. He gave Horsham a beautiful gold and mithril 'superior man' feather holder to pin on his old bonnet. Prince Grafton also found and gave Horsham a beautiful golden eagle feather. Most 'superior man feathers' were humble turkey. Horsham carefully wet his two fingers and smoothed the beautiful feather while Prince Grafton grinned. But the reality was that for now on Horsham had to salute Prince Grafton like the 'Mere Mortal' he was. Both men knew it. Both men were ambitious. Prince Grafton kept his Captain crest and stayed in Arcadia Minor to continue to learn about war while waging war. Horsham gain and then lost his protégée in only one season of war. And now Horsham was unemployed and told to go home, back to the Cockpit. But Horsham had one last battle to wage in Arcadia Minor before the 'War of the Bluebells' was declared officially over.

Horsham heard indirectly, that is to say from Gloriana, that Durham the Deathless had personally created a beautiful funeral battle baton adorned with tiny diamonds and enamel laurel leaves. The baton was shaped like a mass of arrows tied together by laurel leaves, the arrows heads of gold, the feathers like mithril spun so fine they felt like real feathers. Dwarves didn't believe in the afterlife or paradise but they respected their dead ancestors with memorial art and funeral trophies. Rhingol asked Horsham to fetch the funeral trophy from Lady Rufus and personally deliver it to the Royal Palace. Gloriana thought it quite unseemly that such a beautiful and expensive thing be left at Rufus Manor. So the Horsham rode wearily through the depths of the winter snows to fetch the gift intended to stay at Rufus Manor for a man who never waged war in his entire life because Gloriana coveted it. Gloriana had an eye for jewels and rare things and a lust to possess treasure as greedily as a Dwarve.

Horsham was bone tired, unrewarded, but glad to palm off the responsibility of Arcadia Minor to Celebeau who was again in command solely because he was royal and an Elve. Horsham looked like a saddle tramp on the back of Blackie who was boasting a shaggy winter coat and so looked more like a gentry plow horse than a war stallion right now. Man and horse needed a holiday. But Horsham knew he would not stay even overnight at Rufus Manor. Merry May's amazing confession of love now made Rufus Manor beyond the pale of Horsham's bone weary dreams. Horsham did not respect gods, and thought treaties were jokes, but even he knew about transmutation curses that morph from violated oaths of blood honor. And Horsham knew he would be too weak to resist snatching desperately at the tail end of the lost dream of happy-ever-after with Merry May Rufus if tempted by Fate and Chance, those mischievous gods.

Wishfully he detoured to the little glen where once long ago he stayed the summer in a rustic summer cottage on Rufus Manor. It was twilight, the light ebbing, the colors haunting. To his surprise the rustic cottage still stood in the now snowy glen, the thatch still thick, the walls wicker and moss, a fence encircling a small garden. Horsham slipped off Blackie and stood wishfully before the wicker door as memories flooded back of the lost summer of happiness, now bittersweet with the memories of loss, his life spiraling downward since he lost the chance to become Rufus Royal's estate manager and lived the happy life of a retired man. Merry May's startling confession of lost love washed over him anew. He leaned his head against the door of the abandoned cottage and wept bitter tears.

Suddenly the door opened. There stood Merry May. The young Elve woman shone in the fading light, her hair a fair tangle, her cheeks ruddy, her eyes shining, her smile bright. The battle aching man staggered at the sight. Merry May caught him before he actually fainted and helped him into the rustic cottage, still fragrant of lavender, surprising warm, glowing with golden light of a setting sun. Merry May helped Horsham stagger to the rustic willow rocking chair and he collapsed, both so bone weary, and so surprised that he was actually shaking. Then the Elve busied herself at the little fire pit heating up the water pot and then bringing Horsham a tankard of ale.

"Oh Merry May! It is like a dream come true! It is near to breaking my heart!" Horsham clasped the young woman to his bosom and wept, holding her like fragile glass. "And you look so beautiful! And I look so bad! Like some saddle tramp! I am sorry!" Horsham tugged his blood stained battle tunic embarrassed and ran a shaking hand through the tangle of his hair.

"Drink the ale. You look just like I expected a man to look like who has just saved Arcadia Minor from invasion. Don't worry. Sit there and drink your ale while I make dinner." She smiled and then busied herself at the fire pit.

"How did you know I was coming?"

"Elvish instinct. Also you are here for the Baton of Rufus Royal. Rhingol wrote Mother a letter. That is to say Gloriana wrote the letter and he signed it. Mother of course refused to hand over the Baton. So we figured Rhingol would ordered someone to ride to Rufus Manor and retrieve it."

"Yes. I am so very sorry. It is so humiliating for you. The Court is despicable."

"Never mind. It meant you had to come back to us. I am so glad! I have so wanted to see your face one last time Horsham. Before..... never mind. Eat." The Elve gave Horsham a plate of beef and brown bread. Famished, Horsham wolfed it down as Merry May sat by the chair, smiling up at him. Then he bottomed the tankard of ale.

"A nice change from hardtack and dried beef" he said embarrassed, wiping his hands on his soiled tunic. "As you can see. I still eat with my hands. Sorry! You tried so hard to teach me how to eat with a wooden spoon like a genteel soul. I never could get the hang of it. Being genteel. Oh Merry May! I remember that summer and it is near to breaking my heart! We were so close to being happy! One step away from falling in love! If only! If only! Oh why couldn't Fate and Chance cast some lucky dice once in a while for me? Just a little change from my normal bad luck? I would have been so happy living here! With you!" Horsham put his face in his hands and wept bitterly. Merry May held him as his wept, her arms around his shoulders until he was wept out.

"Why you are about skin and bones! I declare! Who has been taking care of you!"

"Me and I take very bad care of myself" Horsham wiped his wet face. "I am sorry. I will stop now. Crying I mean. My nerves are as tattered as that year when I alternated between performing at the Orangery and fighting duels. Back to back midnight staring roles! But it wore my nerves to tatters! The command of war was the same way. Just wore me down finally!"

"Well I suggest a warm bath to warm you up. Then I will re-bandage you properly. See! Over there! Clean clothes. Just like before! I have always kept some clothes for you! In the bottom of a trunk in my bedroom. Remember them?" Horsham nodded. Merry May stroked them. "Sometimes after you left I would take them out and stroke them and remember. If only. If only. But enough of 'if only'!" She helped the aching man to undressed and Horsham soaked in a warm wooden tub as Merry May poured hot water over his war battered body. Horsham groaned and soaked .

"It was such a bone killer of a campaign! As you know, we won ---- but it was bone hard! I am too old to fight like this anymore! Sitting on Blackie for 20 hours at a time. Blackie is too old too! I had to use a picket of horses to spare Blackie. I hate moor ponies! They are so small my feet practically skim the ground! The Beorach keep capturing and breaking the biggest so the wild herds are practically encouraged to grow smaller! The Beorach abuse and kill their broken ponies before they can breed and they never see far enough down the road to try to keep a proper horse stud. You Elves bred horses for a thousand years to produce Blackie. We stole a thousand moor ponies from Beorach Land this year and they are so small and rickety that one was hard pressed to call them horses at all!"

"You held off a major invasion Horsham! Sixteen thousand Orcs and five thousand Amberlings. Father would be proud of you! He knew you could do it. You did." Merry May scrubbed Horsham's smooth back and then poured more hot water over his head and washed his tangled hair.

"Going grey! Damn it! I guess I will only be able to play 'character' parts now eh!" They both laughed. "I wished you had been able to see me that one Winter Season when I was allowed to perform at the Orangery! I played gods and demigods! Not like now. Nellie Cyprian said I should bite my pride and play the peasant comic roles on stage that Mere Mortals are allowed to perform. She don't get it. Never will. She has the talent but not the passion! I love to perform so much ! But I will never debase myself by playing the peasant buffoon on stage! That is what they want me to stoop to! I won't! I would rather never stride the opera stage again that be reduced to playing peasant buffoon characters.'

"But you would return to the stage if you could .... play proper parts."

"Oh by the gods! If only! If only! Or character parts now. I would not mind playing the stock baritone villain. The villain parts are showy. You can steal the show from the staring tenor every time! You just have to pretend to die in the final act. Villainy must never triumph on the stage! Even if it does every day in real life! Oh Merry May! Is there anyway we can salvage the situation? Our love I mean. Our lost chance for love?"

"If there was not then I would not be here, waiting for you Horsham" Merry May said softly. She bent over and kissed Horsham full on the lips. "I wanted to do this for a long time! There now! Now let me help you out and I will dry you and re-bandage your wounds.. Then we can go upstairs to the loft and snuggle in the hay under soft blankets just as we both dreamed! And the dream will come true!" And the dream did. Horsham fell to sleep nestled in the arms of Merry May, asleep in fragrant hay, and no winds howled and no snow fell to blight his one and only night of pure, tender, gentle love in a world long ago soiled by blight.

Horsham woke to dawn in the middle of a glen, in the midst of the ruins of a long ago rustic cottage, all alone, all dreams cruelly disbursed by the cruel light of dawn. Like Lady Aoi, Horsham had been entranced by an Akura 'living dream'. He doubled over in pain and wept all the more bitterly. Then he hauled himself onto Blackie's broad back and rode mournfully toward Ruffus Manor and a closed door that would never open for him.

Horsham was but five miles away when he saw the smoke. He knew it was too late but raced anyway, arriving after the Beorach raiding party had departed. Rufus Manor was on fire, a smoldering fire from a five day ago attack, an appropriate bier for Lady Rufus Heike and Merry May and the rest of the servants of Rufus Manor who had barricaded the home and fought off the raiders for two days until out of arrows. Then they set fire to the manor while killing themselves to prevent the raiders from taking any live prisoners back to Beorach Land as slaves. Horsham sat and watched the beautiful home collapse into charred wreckage, knowing that last night he had slept in the arms of a ghost of a woman who had died horribly, but fighting like the Daughter of Heike that she was. When other militia soldiers finally saw the smoke and rode to the rescue they found Horsham building flets and digging graves in preparation for wading through the smoldering wreckage to find the burned bodies of once beloved inhabitants. The Merrach finished the burials of their fellow Merrach and let Horsham finish the grim task of placing the burned corpses of Lady Rufus Heike and Merry May Rufus on the flets.

As the burials were made, the trees around the burned down manor filled with grey owls. The first few were not noticed. The first ten were commented on. By the time there were twenty the Merrach were becoming uneasy. By the time there were fifty the Merrach fled. Horsham sat under the twin flets he had built high in the oak trees, by Rufus Royal's flet, and sang dirges as he did the funeral rites that tradition required. The trees around the flets continued to fill with grey owls. They made no sound at all but merely filled the bare black branches of the trees and stared at Horsham as if grey ghosts in the snow.

That night there was a snow fall. Horsham woke to snow. There were now close to a thousand grey owls. Finally even he was spooked by their eerie, ghostly grey presence. He mounted Blackie and rode across the Sweetwater. He had found no royal baton in the ruins. Then Horsham decided that Lady Rufus Heike had tossed the dazzling jewel incrusted baton out for the raiders to seize and fight over, leaving a trail for Horsham to follow in order to track down the murderers to their lair. Even revenge needs a trail and a few clues. The rich jewel incrusted baton would caused both a sensation in Beorach Land where even shoddy jewelry was prized as trophies of war, and it would cause jealousy and murder. The warlord would feel compelled to boast of his murder. The Beorach valued 'Face' and 'Face' involved both treasure and boasting. So Horsham drifted from dismal round house to dismal round house that winter, a saddle bum, a masterless hero for hire, begging a meal at the bottom of the table of warrior heros, and listening to bards and bullies boast. By early spring Horsham was deep in Beorach Land, a shaggy, shabby, grimy drifter, a gaunt masterless hero no master would ever want to hire, and eating at the bottom of the table of a warlord who welded a jeweled baton.

The warlord drank beer and whisky and boasted of his 'valor' because of his 'valiant raid' to burn down the round house of the enemy of the Beorach Race. The warlord drank and boasted how he watched the round house of his enemy burn to the ground. The warlord drank and boasted, lying by this time, about how he raped and killed Lady Rufus Heike and Merry May Rufus too. The round house roared with laughter as the warlord boasted. They were having a popular contest in Beorach Land: a drinking contest. After all, music and poetry and dancing are not exactly the norm among thugs. Rape is, but the women were hiding by now. They knew that men got meaner and meaner as they got drunker and drunker so they were cowering by now, trying not to be hit, kicked, raped, or killed. The bard had sung his songs about the glory of the Beorach Race already. So what else was left to do? Drink.

Horsham shouted from the end of the table. "I challenge you to a drinking contest! The winner takes the prize!"

"What prize is that?" the warlord roared out to the grimy, shabby drifter sitting at the end of the table, made of bales of hay and covered by furs around the central pit fire.

"The winner decides what the prize is! I offer you a dare! The winner can cut off the head of the loser!"

The warriors gaffed and stared at their warlord. The bet was hovering close to loss of face. If the warlord did not take the tramp up on the bet he might be seen as a coward in front of his men. But the warlord was a huge, beer barrel broad man famous for his drinking contests. Horsham looked gaunt. Beggar rations at the bottom of the table were the pickings of the meal, just above what the women could salvage from the wooden platters back in the kitchen after clearing off the table for drinking. That was not much. The dogs got more for they ate off the scrapings tossed to them by the men who loved to roar with laughter as the dogs fought for the scrapings. Sadism was the Beorach's middle name, right after Bully and just before Thug.

Horsham marched up and sat down on the other side of the table across from the warlord and pulled out his sword and put it on the table before him. "Put your sword on the table. We both will drink with one hand on both swords and one hand on the tankards. The man who weakens and loosens his gripe on the swords dies. The winner claims both swords and the prize. My sword is top grade steel. I stole it on a battlefield last year. Better than you sword I bet!"

The warriors around the table laughed. The warlord had lost face. The sword of Horsham was clearly a fine sword, better than any sword that any of the men around the table possessed. The warlord growled and pulled out his sword and laid it beside Horsham's sword. Both men put their right hands on both blades. Then both men picked up tankards of beer and drank. And drank. And drank.

"Come on! Come on!" the warriors shouted as they pounded the fur covered hay. "You are falling behind!" In fact the warlord was falling behind. He shouted down his men and ordered a barrel of whisky brought out. Then he ordered whisky poured into the tankards instead of beer. He hoped he could beat Horsham, who was proving to be a fearsome beer drinker, in whisky if he could not beat him in beer. The warriors cheered their warlord on and poured out whisky to the top of the tankards. Both men downed the gut strong brew, both right hands still gripping both swords. More whisky was poured into the tankards. Whisky soaked the fur and soaked the dirty tunics of both men as they guzzled whisky like beer. A third tankard was poured for each man. The warlord was woozy by now. He had been drinking liberally even before the bet while Horsham had only been pretending to drink at the bottom of the table.

"I was already half way to a hero's portion before the bet started!" the warlord protested, his words slurred by the alcohol.

"Give me a tankard of whisky then!" Horsham said. He drank down the extra tankard and smiled at the warlord. "No more excuses! Giving up? You can buy me off by a bribe. I won't kill you if you want to buy me off. But you probably don't have a thing worth a bribe. The warlord looked down. Shoved in his belt was the jeweled baton in plain view. Horsham grinned. But giving up the baton was beyond the pale of contempt. The warlord would lose face then. But Horsham seemed bottomless in his capacity to drink and the warlord was definitely on his last wobbly legs. He growled and more tankards were poured. Then more tankards. Horsham drank each one and smiled and shrugged as if bored. The warlord was weaving by now. Two more tankards were pushed toward both men by the warriors who thought the idea of two men drinking themselves to death was hilarious. Then the warlord felt his legs starting to buckle. He lunged for the swords. Horsham grabbed his sword and cut off the warlord's head. Then he grabbed the golden baton and shoved it in his belt, leapt on top of the table, and brandished his sword plus the warlord's sword, a sword in both hands.

The warriors pulled back. The warlord dead, their oaths of clientage were dead too. They had no loyalty beyond gold. But the gold baton glittered invitingly. There was no denying that. Finally one warrior gambled and pulled out his sword and leapt on top of the table. He lunged at Horsham who lobbed off his head to join the war lord's head in the hay by the barking dogs. The other warriors reconsidered and let Horsham back out of the round house. Then Horsham shoved a spear through the doors handles and then tied his leather belt around the door handles too to secure the doors. Then Horsham whistled. Blackie appeared and the man jumped most ungracefully on the broad back of the war horse. Together they made good their escape while the women, all slaves, set fire to the round house, then bolted for freedom themselves. Most were hunted down by the Beorach but some actually made it across the Sweetwater to freedom.

The bard who had watched the contest with quiet eyes before exiting timely, later rewrote the tale as the 'Saga of the Green Knight' who came at the solstice in the depths of winter to challenge the warriors of the great hall to a duel. A head for a head. The green man, unlike his victims, could always pick up his severed head and plop it back on his shoulders and saunter out of the hall -- after killing the king's own hero of course.

Horsham holed up in a ravine he had located prior to entering the fiefdom. Blackie stood guard as Horsham threw up, violently sick, vomiting blood for two days. His one remaining kidney and liver were never the same again. After that Horsham was sick whenever he drank. It did not stop his drinking but he tried without avail to temper his intake. For now on he knew his body was finally too damaged to continue his reckless, self destructive way of living. Unfortunately he simply could not stay on the wagon and out of the gutter.

In the meantime Horsham had to make good his escape. The warriors lust to claim the fiefdom, and lusted to hunt Horsham down to kill him and seize both his fine sword and the jeweled baton. The hunt was on. Horsham was too sick to ride however. But that saved him. The warriors rode off in search, assuming Horsham was riding far ahead when in fact Horsham was holed up in a hidden ravine. Horsham holed up for a week until the snows piled too high and he started to suffer from frostbite aggravated by scurvy from a winter's diet of garbage from feeding at the bottom of the table of Beorach Society. Then he mounted the valiant Blackie and rode at night, hiding during the day, to elude the hunters after him and his prize. But he was getting steadily sicker and sicker. Scurvy always gave Horsham asthmatic symptoms: panting, shortness of breath, weakness, and bloody coughing. By the time he finally neared the Sweetwater River he was doubled over on Blackie, barely able to hold on to Blackie's mane (for Horsham like many men in the First Age did not use a saddle when then did not feature stirrups).

By now the whole of Beorach Land knew the infamous renegade Beorach killer Horsham of Arcadia was on the run, and he had to be trying to make for the Sweetwater Ford. Every Beorach male with half an pretension to ambition was out waiting for him. Horsham knew it, and knew he should ride a longer round about way to elude the mobs tracking him. But Horsham also knew he was about dead. He had to cross the Sweetwater now or die from exposure and scurvy. Blackie was almost as badly off too. Man and horse were staggering in deep snows with temperatures dropping to new lows near zero. The last two winters had seen unseasonable extremes that Our World, normally balmy, was not used to. No one knew it but a mini ice age was coming. Only five miles from the ford across the Sweetwater Horsham and Blackie again staggered to a halt in a nearly blindly snowstorm. Horsham could not see how they could survive the night.

Suddenly he saw a woman in the blowing snow, carrying a lantern. She was dressed all in white, her hair such a fair flaxen blond as to appear white. She stared at Horsham, paused, and then pointed with her hand straight head and Horsham suddenly saw a light ahead. He knew it was dangerous but he staggered toward the peasant cottage that the light revealed. The cottage was half barn and half long house, built of sod half underground, half thatch, no windows, and knee deep in snow. The cottage was in the middle of nowhere and small. Horsham rode up and pounded on the door, his sword drawn. The door opened to reveal an aged crone, hunch back, gapping toothed, her hair a grey tangle. The crone cackled at the sight of the nearly dead man. At that moment the beautiful woman in white reappeared inside the cottage, the daughter apparently of the crone, and she gestured to her aged mother and then took her lantern and helped Horsham lead Blackie into the dark barn where Horsham wiped down the battered horse. The woman in white held up the lantern to light the barn which was dim and hollow, the stalls tidy, full of hay, but empty. But the grain bins were full. She let Horsham feed Blackie a double helping of feed. Then the woman in white led Horsham through the connecting door to the second half of the cottage that housed herself and her aged mother.

If daughters are young versions of their mothers then the man who would ever marry the woman in white had an eyeful to warn him. The aged crone was a fearsome hag, cackling as she sat hunched over the pit fire stirring a pot of stew. "Luck of the pot young boyo?" She cackled. "Who knows what is in the pot! Sheep's head? Pig's feet? Ox tail?" She giggled, her few teeth gapping and rotten, her hands twisted by arthritis.

"Luck of the pot is just fine with me" Horsham answered sitting down in a crude stool by the pit fire and rubbing his nearly frozen fingers. "Perhaps the crone is the grandmother of the woman in white" Horsham thought to himself. "Or else the girl will never marry for who would take both her and her fearsome witch of a mother?" He looked in the smoky light at the woman in white. Up close he could see she was unexpectedly beautiful for a peasant north west of the Sweetwater River. She was pale as snow with grey eyes so pale as to be almost silver. The only color was the ruby red of her full lips. Her gown was pure white, absolutely clean, and beautifully embroidered in white on white, the smocking neat, the linen crisp. All was unexpected in Beorach Land. The Beorach treat their women badly. Fists and cruel hard work quickly reduces a girl's beauty to a battered hag. "The crone is the mother. In Arcadia she might be a grandmother but in Beorach Land that is what a Beorach turns a beautiful girl into in ten years of brutality and drudgery and slavery." The crone crackled as if she knew what Horsham was thinking. The woman in white was a rare beauty somehow immune to Beorach abuse. Perhaps the Beorach believed the hag to be a witch and so avoided the mother and daughter out of fear. That might also explain the isolation, the cottage in the middle of nowhere, and no man in sight.

The crone ladled some stew into a wooden bowl and passed it over to Horsham who sat on the stool as his smelly clothes and filthy hair slowly molted snow into pools of water on the dirt floor. But sitting by the fire Horsham was finally feeling not just warmth but heat and he shed the outer three layers of horse blankets and heavy leather winter tunic before gladly taking the bowl of stew and wolfing it down, using his frost blackened fingers to shovel the meat into his bloody mouth greedily. The crone watched amused, then poured out some home brewed rot gut beer and Horsham downed it on two gulps. Seeing the two women watch him like a specimen he laughed embarrassed. "I look ghastly I know, and smell even worse. I have been drifting about Beorach Land all this winter but no long house will employ me even to guard the hen house. I guess the way I look the warlords figure I would just steal the hen house."

Horsham ran a filthy hand over his tangled beard. It was shaggy now, Beorach style, part of his disguise, but Horsham normally wore his beard closely trimmed and he did not like the feel of shaggy hair. He was using his best Beorach accent and hoping he was passing as a Beorach mercenary for hire but the woman in white and the aged crone looked with surprisingly shrewd eyes on him. Perhaps it was his ghastly appearance. Horsham hoped it was that. He knew he must look ghastly. He tugged at the matted hair to make sure it covered his ears. He was not wearing Elvish earrings but the piercing of his ears was not Beorach and therefore was the biggest flaw of his disguise as a Beorach vagrant. The filthy and stench would be nail on correct. The woman in white smiled and the crone laughed.

"Did you get lost in the snow storm?" the woman in white asked blandly. "Snow storms are terrible things. It must be a terrible thing to freeze to death all alone in the middle of a snow storm."

"Yes. Dying in the storm was something I did not fancy at all. If I must die I would choose moonlight in a still glen blanketed with snow, the air cold but clear, laying in the snow on my back, seeing the 'Veil of Oohagh' ( borealis lights) fluttering across the sky, gently slipping into the sleep of snowy death." the Woman in white nodded.

"Yes. That is how I would choose to die...." She smiled cryptically. "But why were you out in the snow storm? Men rule the long houses and men don't let other men perish even if they routinely punish rebellious women by driving them out into the snow to suffer and die."

"Yes. Well. I was hopelessly lost. I heard an outlaw was making for the ford and hoped I could bushwhack him before anyone else and steal the horse and sword. Instead I just got myself lost."

"And the Baton?" the crone giggled. "I hear it is choice! Not any of your pretend gold painted on lead! And real gemstones. Not glass! How a thug like Warlord Uric got hold of it I can never guess. Big thug. All beer gut and no brains!" she cackled, her few rotten teeth shining in the light of the pit fire.

"If only I could steal it from the outlaw first I could get a first class seat at the table! The Hero's Seat! All the beef and beer and slaves I want and leading raids across the river to steal women and cattle from fat Merrach peasants! Ah! That would be the life eh! My first master was a wretched thug! No balls at all! Got himself killed in the war. No I am masterless and unemployed. Who will employ me? A lot of ex-mercenaries are unemployed now. A lot of warlords got themselves killed in the war and the roads are full of ex-heros for hire! Who will hire me? But if I can ambush that there outlaw then Badhb, the goddess of war, would be smiling on me once more!" Horsham finished his beer grinning that the hag was grinning at him, apparently swallowing his spiel hook line and sinker. The woman in white smiled, her full lips luscious, like a rose in full bloom. "May I spend the night in your barn? Until the storm passes?"

"Nay! You will spend the night by the pit fire as is right and proper boyo!" the hag cackled.

"I thank thee. Who are thy menfolk so I will know to thank them when I meet them?"

"Alas we have no menfolk to protect us" the woman in white answered, her lips moist as ripe cherries. The war killed many, as you said, and left many to fend for themselves, unprotected."

"Stay until the storm passes boyo! With so many vagrants on the road we were afeared for our lives!" the hag crackled.

"I thank thee." Horsham smiled, biting down a hacking cough while rubbing his frost blackened hands together over the pit fire. So far, so good......

Horsham slept by the pit fire, rolled up in his horse blanket, one eye closed, one eye open. The women climbed up the ladder to the loft. "Be not tempted boyo to climb the ladder to the loft" the hag chided the man.

"Would a guest violate the hospitality of his host? I think you protect yourselves right well with black magic. No women live unprotected by men unless they have other defenses. I respect weapons of all types and will be satisfied with stealing little fire tonight and not fancy stealing anything further. You need not fear me! A man in your midst! In the morning I will be gone and your kitchen tools will be intact!" the hag laughed and drew a pentacle in the air, the universal sign of Glamour, magic. Then the hag climbed up the ladder to the loft. The woman in white lingered, almost invitingly. Horsham hunched over the pit fire, declining either the invitation or the bait. Then the woman in white also ascended the ladder to the loft.

But as the pit fire ebbed and the winds howled outside, Horsham heard the sounds of feet descending the ladder and stealthily approaching him. He pretended to be asleep, the horse blanket covering both himself and his hand on his sword. A clean white hem of a white gown appeared before his nearly closed eyes, one hand apparently over his face in deep sleep. Under the blanket Horsham clinched the sword just as stealthily. The pit fire flickered and died, the last warmth dying with it. The temperature dropped thirty degrees in a second. The woman in white knelt down beside the apparently sleeping Horsham, her breath coming out in white vapors in the suddenly glacial air. She breathed close to him, her presence icy cold, her breath freezing against the hand covering his face. Her luscious red lips, full and bloody red as cherries, opened slightly, as she breathed over him, her breath cold as arctic death in the snow when the misguided lay down in the snow to freeze to death by slipping into the sleep of icy death. Then the woman in white bent over Horsham, her lips near his throat, by his jugular vein.

At that moment Horsham leapt to his feet, his sword beheading the snow demon. She toppled to the dirt floor, her face blueish white as the frozen corpse she really was, the corpse of a soul of someone driven out into the snow to freeze to death, and curst to wander the snows in search of living victims to suck out their blood and their warmth eternally. Then Horsham raced up the ladder. The Hag was crouching by the top of the ladder waiting to descend and feed, hacking up the meat for her pot luck stew. She hissed at Horsham and scurried back to the darkness of the far wall of the loft.

"What did you do to my darling Yuki Onna? My snow panther?"

"I beheaded her and now I mean to behead you Kigo the Ogre!"

The ogre snarled and crouched against the far wall of the cottage, her rotten teeth fangs, her withered fingers claws, her bony body suddenly lean and hard and dangerous. "I have survived many a bully boyo who has fancied killing me! I have hacked the bodies of many a man into my pot and eaten them! Why you ate of my pot this night! Ate of man meat! Ate of the flesh and blood of Beorach thugs! I have polished my pot with many a thug and many a bully! Threaten me all you fancy boyo!"

"That means you do not fear my killing you here and now! So you have hidden your soul elsewhere eh! Like in your pot of death? I will steal away your pot and melt it down in Merrach Land. The blacksmith will greet me gayly for the scape bronze of your pot! Your soul will burn to death in the forge fires as a bully man hammers your bronze over his anvil!"

"No! No!" the ogre hissed in horror. Not that! Not that!" she cowered at Horsham's feet. Looking down at her he beheld the floor of the loft and it was full of the bones and weapons of clothes of many a Beorach victim of Kigo the Ogre and her many 'snow panthers': ghosts of women who fled or were driven out into the snow to die, fleeing men, or else being punished by men, turned into demons by ghastly deaths in the snow because of brutality of men.

"I will make a bargain with you Kigo! I have seen how the Beorach brutalize their women and I don't like it! It fills me with disgust! So I will let you live if you promise me on risk of a transmutation curse that you will only feed on Beorach men and boys and not on Merrach men and boys on the other side of the Sweetwater! And you will not feed on me! Or Elves! Is that a deal?" Horsham held out his right hand Beorach style. The ogre hissed, then climbed to her feet, her back still bent by age, but her fangs receding and her fingers twisted back into twisted fingers instead of twisted claws. The hideous crone cackled in glee.

"Yes! Yes! Why not? The far side Merrach are all greasy with fat like flaxen pigs! They would provide me with no meat such as I fancy! Beefy Beorach flesh on my spit and Beorch carcass in my pot, the bones polishing my pot! Let it be so!" She giggled in glee and bowed and minced before Horsham. See my victims? Take of them too! Feed off them too! See any loot and take it boyo!"

"I don't soil myself by stealing from Beorach thugs! They own crap and they are crap. Eat them with all the relish of hate Kigo the Ogre! I hate them too! You serve a good stew! I killed Uric the Warlord! I am Horsham the Wolf the Beorach are hunting! Let the wolf and the ogre hunt Beorach side by side! Each in their own lethal way! Now gnaw your bones and let me sleep in peace by the pit fire I will relight. Tomorrow I will ride off. Bury your poor snow panther then."

"I do not eat of the flesh of females! I take good care of my snow panthers! I find them in the snow, their bodies frozen, and take good care of them! If their souls haunt the snows I nurse them from my pot of hatred and raise them anew to lure men here to feed off men! They feed off their blood and I feed off their flesh and bones. And we are both happy. I will bury her in the snow and find myself another dead victim of the Beorach to nurture and teach!"

Horsham climbed back down the ladder and quite cold blooded, relit the fire and slept the rest of the night beside the corpse of Yuki Onna. In the morning the storm broke and Horsham fed and then mounted Blackie who had spent a uneventful night in the barn foraging on hay. Kigo the Ogre gayly offered Horsham breakfast, was politely declined, but gayly waved as he rode off, her cottage neat and appealing in the light of day, her barn clean and tidy, but her loft cluttered knee deep in bones and armor and weapons of her many male victims.

Horsham and Blackie rode five miles through deep snow and then eyed the ford and saw over two hundred Beorach prowling all around. There was no way he could race fast enough to elude them. Gasping for breath, his face black with frostbite, his mouth bloody, Horsham crawled back to Blackie and tied the baton to the reins. The dying man hugged his valiant war steed for the last time. "Blackie. I loved you as the only creature on this whole wide earth who loved me. I will lure the mob away. You must run for it! Run for the ford! You can get away! Gallop for Arcadia! Gallop for safety! Save yourself!" Horsham kissed his horse and wept without shame. Then he lead the horse to the crest of the hill and man and horse looked down. Horsham pointed to the ford. "That way Blackie! Gallop for the ford!" The shaggy, giant black horse looked mournfully at his master and nayed softly. Horsham pressed his face against the face of the horse. "Goodbye Blackie!"

Then Horsham swatted the rump of the beast and then ran in the different direction, across the top of the crest of the hill, in plain view of the mob, as if trying to get away on foot. The mob galloped toward Horsham on the crest of the hill. Blackie then made a race of it, galloping for the ford, riderless and therefore faster. Some of the mob turned, saw the horse, and fancied trying to capture it instead. They rode toward Blackie. Both man and horse found themselves surrounded. At that moment the sky went dark.

The Beorach looked up amazed and saw a cloud across the face of the sun. They yelled and pointed. Then the immense grey cloud moved toward them. Everyone stared in awe. Then horror. The cloud was a mass of flapping wings! Thousands of birds -- grey owls ---- were flying straight toward them! Horses reared and men screamed. The Beorach scattered in the snow like a pack of rats before the onslaught of meat eating predator birds. And these birds were not settling for some runty sparrow or rat or rabbit. They were aiming for human beings! And these grey owls were led by giant grey owls with wing spans over twelve feet long and talons over three feet wide.

The Beorach scattered, running for their collective lives as grey owls swooped down to seize and drag screaming men off their horses, dragging them through the suddenly bloody snow, and slash them apart with talons sharp as long knives. Torn limbs fell in the snow. Heads rolled. Bodies were torn apart. Then as suddenly as the attack started, the attack stopped. Every single man in the field of the Sweetwater Ford was dead ---- except for Horsham who stood flat footed and dazed as men were torn to pieces all around him. The mob of grey owls settled down among the corpses to feast, the snow dyed bright red. And Horsham was completely ignored. At the ford Blackie nayed and pawed the snow.

Horsham tentatively walked a few paces. The mob of grey owls just continued to eat their fill, and ignored him as if he was not on the official menu for today. Scared of breathing, trying hard not to shake in sheer terror, Horsham quietly walked across the field of death, through the mass of feeding grey owls, and quietly reached Blackie. Man and horse quietly crossed the Sweetwater Ford. Then they stood on the far back and looked back. A lone owl hooted in their direction. Horsham cringed. But the hooting owl resumed feasting on human flesh. Horsham dragged himself on top of Blackie and they quietly rode away.

Above: a fragment of a wall fresco featuring a Twilight Terra Elve driving her chariot. Chariots were for city use and were

a status symbol. By this time the use of war chariots was obsolete.

Chapter 9 : The Hero's Portion

"So you see Celebeau, Arcadia is still in deadly danger" Bela explained in his usual elegant, but precise voice. "If Ben and Luna actually surface with a Device then they will bring contagious evil and infectious luck and celestial calamity down on our heads. The Dark Lord attacked because Ben and Luna rode into the Fiery Fissure to steal a Device. Ringold himself warned Ben against the expedition. He warned of 'Celestial Calamity'. Why did the Celestial Elves 'leave' paradise? No one leaves paradise voluntarily. Either they are lying about being in paradise to begin with, or else they were driven out of paradise because of the Devices! Why are all the Celestial Elves obsessed by the Devices? All the wars have been about the Devices. The wars started because of the Devices. And General Bors heard Finngolden himself muttering and raving the night before he committed suicide about 'Celestial Calamity' and 'Celestial Curses'. And why was he fighting? To get the Devices!

Clearly the Celestial Elves have lied to us about everything! And clearly the Devices carry infectious evil. Every single person who has gone after a Device has perished in violence, betrayed, their children disinherited, their glory brought low, their aspirations reduced to ash and cinder. You say you are a man who respects the power of taboos and oaths and curses and treaties. Don't you see the absolute danger Arcadia is in? The loss of Ben, Luna, and Ringold is the very least of our worries!"

Celebeau blinked his blank grey eyes but his face otherwise continued to be absolutely expressionless. "Gloriana is distraught for Ringold's safety. She loves her twin brother very much."

"Ringold should not have caved in to Ben then!"

"Gloriana and Ringold talked to Malian two years ago about the Devices. They said the Devices were only beautiful jewels of splendor not in the very least contaminated by evil or bad luck or any curses in any way whatsoever. Gloriana even suggested that Rhingol acquire one for his jewel collection."

Bela stared flabbergasted. "Haven't you been listening to me? Celebeau! By the gods! Even Malian said afterwards that the Golden Twins 'could not tell the truth from lies if they stumbled over it!'! Ringold confessed the Devices were contagious with evil! Finngolden confessed the same thing! And you would let your new wife 'acquire' a Device for the Royal Jewelry Collection! Maybe, Luna possibly dead, Gloriana plans to 'acquire' the royal crown from the jewelry collection too?"

"Shut up!" Celebeau glared at Bela. "How dare you question my wife's honor!"

"But I would question anyone who is endangering Arcadia!" Bela hissed with icy anger. "Including you Celebeau if you are so besotted with Gloriana that you cannot see the evil she is bringing to Arcadia! She is playing Rhingol and she is playing you! You are nothing more than her trophy consort and her key to the Crown of Arcadia when Rhingol dies!"

"Shut up Bela!"

"She is playing you!"

"I said Shut u......"

"Here is your god damn baton!" Horsham stormed into the room and practically threw it at Celebeau's head. Then the bedraggled man stormed out again. Celebeau stared perplexed at the magnificent trophy of war dropped in front of his nose.

"Why do I have this? I did not ask for it? I thought it was lost anyway -- when Rufus Manor burned to the ground in that dastardly attack by outlaw Beorach thugs?"

Bela sat back down and reattached his blandly calm face, self control restored -- barely. "Your wife asked Rhingol to order Horsham to 'fetch it'. So apparently Horsham 'fetched it' from whatever warlord murdered Lady Rufus Heike and Merry May Rufus and all the inhabitants of Rufus Manor, probably after killing any number of people, and brought it here so you can give it to your wife who apparently loves jewels so much she wants the Baton of Rufus Royal even though she has never ever risked her pretty neck in any battle, in any war, anywhere in Our World!"

Bela stormed to the door, opened it, and glared at Celebeau. "And if you give the Baton of Rufus Royal to Gloriana or Rhingol I will resign as Head of Intelligence and go into exile on my country estate! I swear it!" Bela then stormed out and slammed the door.

Celebeau picked up the Baton of Rufus Royal and threw it out of the open window. Then he gasped at his rare show of temper, and ran down stairs and picked the baton up. Fortunately it was not damaged. It landed in a dense bed of forage. Then Celebeau marched into the withdrawing room where, as usual, Rhingol was playing cards with a few charming companions, which nowadays usually included Gloriana to Malian's intense dislike.

"Uncle, here is the Baton of Rufus Royal." Celebeau presented it to his uncle and his king. Rhingol, a jovial, careless soul, humorous of face, laughing of manner, totally irresponsible, utterly cavalier, and incapable of introspection or regret, picked up the jeweled baton and marveled at the beauty. "Why has not Durham ever made such a thing for me? Am I not King of Our World? Why did he make this for Rufus Royal and not for me? Rufus was but a minor scion of my royal house? It is such a pretty thing! Isn't it Gloriana?"

Gloriana purred as she glanced at it, the purr deep for Gloriana did indeed love jewels most dearly. Malian's face fluttered as if the energy suddenly dropped. Rhingol was neglecting her and Malian, who could kill without hesitation, was shattered if Rhingol so much as talked to any other woman. The goddess of Mirages wilted and the almighty Mirage Line that protected Arcadia, it's prime defense, suddenly wilted too, fluttering, leaving Arcadia for a brief moment suddenly naked to the world, and utterly defenseless to attack. Celebeau gasped it with his Elvish instinct but no one else seemed aware. Then Rhingol showed the baton to Malian and the Mirage Line was restored to full potency.

"Ringold promised me the 'Pride of the Dwarves' Necklace but now he is vanished and the Cabal that is running Goldenthrond has refused to hand it over. You should make them hand it over! The diamond necklace is mine! Rhingol! Make the Cabal hand the necklace over! But still this is a pretty thing...." Gloriana purred deeply, more deeply than when she allowed Celebeau to make love to her -- which was not often. Rhingol stood up and assumed an imperial pose, holding the baton. Malian and Gloriana clapped genteelly and Rhingol giggled in delight, his childish personality easily flattered.

"It becomes you dear!" Malian declared. "You deserve it!"

"No he does not!"

Everyone turned and stared at Celebeau who looked with stony eyes on the scene. "Rufus Royal sacrificed his wealth, his home, his family, and his life to defend Arcadia Minor. He was Arcadia's best general. He was Arcadia's best soldier. He was Arcadia' best hero. Durham made this in memorial of Rufus Royal's total self sacrifice! This baton is a monument to Rufus Royal's selfless patriotism and supreme abilities. No one in this room, including me, deserves to weld this baton! No one! No one!"

"Not even Ben?" Gloriana snickered.

"Rhingol is the king of Arcadia!" Malian shouted indignant.

"I love Arcadia!" Rhingol said confused. "Am I not a great king because of that?"

"No Uncle. You are the King of Arcadia. You were given the job based on appearances and magic, but not based on any action you have ever personally done to earn it. But Rufus Royal was the Leader of Arcadia in all but the name. It was Rufus Royal who saved Arcadia. Not you. Not ever. During the migration, Rufus Royal decided that leaving Our World would be folly. When you fell in love with Malian here, he encouraged it, along with Wisteria Fujitsu and Lord Ryu because you forgot your duties then. As always! But for once forgetting your duty was a good thing. But you always forget your duties! Rufus Royal, along with Lord Ryu, always did the work behind your back, did the duties you neglected, and did your job for you. Rufus Royal was the shield wall behind which you were safe. Now Rufus Royal is dead and no one is safe anymore. Especially Arcadia. And the Mirage Line is no defense! Only a standing army is! Modern weapons are! Supplies are! Hill forts are! Technology is! Not some magic! I want you to order me to return this baton to the flet of Rufus Royal to place it where it belongs! In the bony hands of Rufus Royal! Now order me to do the right thing Uncle! Order me now!"

Rhingol stared shocked at his normally stupidly, boring nephew. Then he mutely handed the baton over to Celebeau as Gloriana and Malian hissed, each for different reasons.

"Return it to Rufus Royal" he said softly.

Celebeau bowed. Then he paused and spoke again. "If Ben returns I will feel compelled to write out an indictment of treason against him. You can sign off on it or not. My duty is to indict Ben. I will. I must also tell you that Horsham of Arcadia risked his life to 'fetch this' in far away Beorach Land, killing god knows how many people probably, where it had been stolen by the outlaws who killed Lady Rufus Heike and Merry May Rufus. In my official capacity I advise you to award him a metal for 'fetching this', and also for his defense last year of Arcadia Minor. Rufus Royal hand picked Horsham to defend Arcadia Minor and Rufus Royal was right. Horsham did the job. Whatever else we can say about the man, Horsham does his job."

Rhingol blinked. "Who is Horsham of Arcadia?"

"That vulgar thug dear heart" Malian said. "You know. The homicidal manic who finally killed Sanguinary in how many duels was it?"

"Twenty two duels."

"How ridiculous!" Gloriana laughed. "The name strikes a bell...."

"He is the man who delivered the head of the Amberling General on a silver platter to your official honeymoon feast dear!" Malian smirked. Gloriana's face assumed the look of a malevolent lemon.

"What metal do you wish me to award Horsham of Arcadia for his genuine valor and ability in waging ruthless war?" Celebeau held out his other hand and waited.

Rhingol patted his kilt pouch but it was empty. He patted his kilt jewel pins but they were too expensive. He looked at his rings but they were official royal jewels from the famous collection (which he has secretly pawned and dare not give away now er they be exposed as fakes). Then he patted his crest. That was too famous too of course. But by the crest Rhingol felt a piece of string. He was still wearing a silly little sea shell suspended on a piece of string, a childish gift from a young boy four years ago. Young Gildagad. Rhingol laughed and pulled off the string and presented the sea shell necklace to Celebeau.

"Here! Give whats-his-name this! Young Gilly gave it to me! Such a nice little boy! But growing I hear! Why does everyone have to grow up? Stop being children? I suppose he will be a teenager when I seen him next and boasting of being blooded and taking war classes and bragging of becoming a man...... mad at me too...... disappointed..... accusing me of gods-know-what! Why doesn't anyone love me anymore?" Rhingol burst into tears and Malian embraced the child man while hurling a look of murder at Celebeau. Malian had black holes where eyes should be so an evil look from her was evil indeed. Celebeau blinked his blank grey eyes, put the shell in his kilt pouch along with the baton, and exited the room.

"I think it was so amusing of you Rhingol to palm off that silly shell on that thug....Ha! Ha!...."

"A shell". Horsham stared at it. "A shell."

Celebeau put it on the table. He was in Bela's Library. Bela was sitting behind the table. Horsham was standing hunched over. He looked terrible. He was having problems shaking off the scurvy and was still coughing up blood. Bela glared at the shell. "This is a joke! How despicable! I knew Rhingol was a fool but not this! Horsham is one of my best agents! He was the temporary field commander during the War of the Bluebells! And this is what Rhingol gives him! A shell!" Bela threw the shell across the room. The shell shattered against the stone wall of the library. Celebeau's notorious dead fish eyes blinked but revealed, as usual, no emotion.

"I have been authorized to return the Baton to the flet of Rufus Royal and place it on his bones."

"Watch out for grey owls...." Horsham said dryly, wiping bloody spittle on his dirty sleeve.

"If Ben comes back I will write out an warrant for his arrest but if Ben comes back with Luna I suspect that Rhingol will be so glad she is still alive that he will forgive them both. Rhingol can not stay mad at anyone for very long. But it has been over a year. No sign of any of the expedition. I for one am assuming all were killed. Which I gather was your desire Bela. Everything has worked out as you wanted after all. And now that the 'Peace in Our Time Treaty' is fit only for the latrine, Arcadia can rearm in anticipation of resumed war."

"The dead of Arcadia Minor might not think this is such a tidy ending Celebeau!"

"No. But it was after all, just a matter of time before the treaty was violated by someone. The Dark Lord was clearly planning to violate it anyway. Ben probably only speed up the return to war. As long as the Devices stay locked up in the Fiery Fissure we are still safe. Right?"

"Celestial curses follow any Celestial Elve like the plague. I would watch out for Gloriana if I were you Celebeau. You might discover you are sleeping with the enemy!"

There was a sudden thump as Horsham hit the floor.

"I do believe your agent has just fainted Bela" Celebeau said dryly.

Bela looked over the table. Horsham was indeed sprawled out unconscious. "Horsham has been sick since he got back from Beorach Land."

"Hasn't stopped him from drinking I hear" Celebeau sniffed.

"He gave sky burial to the burned bodies of Lady Rufus Heike and Merry May Rufus personally. He was kinda in love with Merry May Rufus. To the extend Horsham can love anyone. He worshiped the family. But for damnable bad luck he and Merry May Rufus might have married. Rufus Royal had talked his wife over to the idea just before he died. Rufus wrote to me about it. I was going to tell Horsham but then Beladonna tried to kill herself and Horsham pulled an vanishing act and one thing led to another and ....." Bela looked down on the man passed out on the floor. "Horsham lost his last chance at happiness and he knows it. This time at least I can't blame him for taking a bender."

"It would not have lasted very long anyway. Happy-ever-after never lasts beyond the honeymoon."

"Speaking from experience Celebeau?" Bela asked dryly. Celebeau blinked his steely eyes and turned and left the room. Bela sat back in his chair and closed his eyes and dreamed his day dream of happy-ever-after which he knew he was destined to never discover.

Horsham got a shell from Rhingol. The traveling bards sang a song, an encore to their still popular fire side serials about Ben who had vanished nearly a year ago on a mysterious adventure which the bards had no problem speculating about with much imagination. They made up fanciful tales of Ben trying to steal the crown from off the brow of the Dark Lord and assuming magical forms and eluding monsters. There had been rumors of sightings of monsters from the River of Shadows roaring around Arcadia Minor so the bards had a field day. The fact that Ben stayed vanished only aided the bards who would romanticize Ben's elopement with Luna to their heart's content without any pesky facts interrupting the flow of fantasy. Ben's vanishing became the oral best seller of the day.

Horsham's actual achievements during the War of the Bluebells however proved far less ideal for adventure serials. The battle of Jebby's Farm or Red Top Hill or the Sweetwater Ford Battle seemed far less romantic and glamourous even if their ratio of allied casualties to enemy losses were spectacular. The Battle of the Lower Sweetwater Bend was positively brutal, an ambush in the middle of a fierce summer storm as lighting blasted the sky. 300 men killed over a thousand orcs. The Battle of Amberly Manor was brilliantly devious but savage too. Horsham hide fighters among the dead corpses and lured Orcs into a grisly ambush waged under a night of spectacular sightings of the 'Veil of Ooohagh'.. Two thousand six hundred orcs died to only limited allied loses. But archers waging battles behind trees, or slinger ambushes in hidden trenches, or legions attacking while disguised as Beorach raiders, or soldiers hidden by corpses, or brutal near genocide scorch earth campaigns seemed so much less glamourous.

Even today movies and popular novels favor Ben's romantic adventures (most acknowledged to be totally untrue) because they seem more fun, more morally black and white and therefore fitting for technicolor spectaculars, more cleanly heroic, more commercially entertaining than a gritty year long campaign to save a far away territory that most of Arcadia Prime had never seen and did not care about. Even today historians find it hard to write about the Second Beorach Land Assault because of the moral dubiousness of near genocidal scorch earth campaigns. Rufus Royal suffers from the same stigma. Both Rufus Royal and his protegee waged brutal, real war while Ben waged occasional skirmishes that will always appear more entertaining and more easily to dramatize for popular consumption. Then and now, Ben is epic, Horsham is ugly reality. People don't want ugly reality. They want myths. They want epics. They want romance. So Ben wears the popular crown of 'hero'. Horsham gets the shell.

But if Horsham got the shell, Lady Sanguinary got the label 'Collaborator'. Next to 'traitor' what could be worse? She retreated to her fortified townhouse and peered out from behind closed shutters as mobs threw eggs and dung and cursed her. Creditors demanded immediate payments which Lady Sanguinary now could not do, her access to gold cut off. Servants quit. The Elite 1000 blackballed her. Gossip linked her and her dead son to every conceivable scandal and rumor and conspiracy theory. She was as much a prisoner as infamous Magnus Maggotous in his deluxe jail suite.

Floradale had spend part of the summer at his country estate training a local militia before seeing that the war would stay up north. Then to everyone's surprise he rode north and spent the second half of the summer up in Arcadia Minor as a volunteer nurse at the battle hospitals, doing disgusting manual labor cleaning the floors and cleaning filthy, revoltingly sick or wounded common soldiers. But now he was returned to polite society and he surprised everyone by inviting everyone to a winter party at his townhouse to 'Celebrate Survival'. He invited a who's who of Arcadia Society, hired the best cooks, brought out his best silver, ordered enough winter forage to adore the whole house, commissioned an oratorio, hired the best opera singers, and decreed how everyone was supposed to dress. 'Black and White'.

On the night of the 'Celebration for Survival' his townhouse was ablaze with torches and bonfires. The street into his townhouse was a traffic jam of litters and chariots. The Elite 1000 paraded into the townhouse dressed in their best handkerchief linen or silk tunics, billowy yards of fine fabric gathered at the neck yoke and wrists by needle lace or else gathered by ribbons and elegantly swagged at the waists about lavished jeweled girdles and belts holding beautiful wool kilts in place, the long loose tails draped in elegant swags over a shoulder or arm and bellowing behind in gathers like capes. And it was all black and white. Elves pulled out their best jewel sets of matching court jewels: kilt pins, shoulder pins, crests, earrings, lovelock hair pins, diadems and intaglio signet rings. All were famous. Some were still genuine and not paste reproductions to conceal pawned jewels hidden in treasuries of Dwarve pawnbrokers.

The Elite 1000 paraded into the elegant townhouse of Floradale and commented, as always, on his exquisite good taste. The graceful proportions. The central courtyard and reflection pool. The elegant swags at the open colonnade windows - closed now to ward off the surprising cold no one was used to. The frescos on the walls and the mosaics on the floor. The elaborate floral displays despite the winter constraints. The Elite 1000 pretended to be impressed by the entrance of Celebeau and Gloriana. Gloriana was dressed in clothe of gold (in violation of the 'Black and White'), wearing a spectacular substitute for the 'Glory of the Dwarves' Necklace that the Cabal of Goldenthrond refused to surrender to Gloriana. Too bad. The diamond 'Raven' would have matched the motif perfectly. Floradale even rudely asked Gloriana about it, using the taboo original name of 'Raven'.

But the Elite 1000 were surprised to find other guests at Floradale's party too: Dwarves. The Twilight Elves gasped at that. The Dwarves included Dr. Kakoff and Dr. Lagosi, the most famous battle field surgeons of the War of the Bluebells. There was also Engineer Leadbottom who pioneered the used of battlefield catapults during the Battle at the Heights of Lavender, a lovely name for a battle that killed one thousand two hundred and thirty Orcs but only one hundred twenty archers. The catapults kept the Twilight loss to only one hundred twenty archers. Another Dwarve, a distant relative of Durham the Deathless, Fror Ironshield was also there. He led a charge of Dwarve engineers at the Battle of the Little Sweetwater. He dressed in black, picked up from the Western Amberlings who were allies of Our World. That fitted the motif perfectly. The bankers Wells and Goldbottom were there too, financiers of the War of the Bluebells, wearing extravagant black wool coats lined with black mink and adored with diamonds to celebrate being invited to the first genuine Elve party in their entire professional career as treasurers to Arcadia. They were so keen to express their thrill of being invited to a social event that they overdressed and so reaffirmed the Twilight Elve prejudice of showy, pushy, vulgar Dwarves. After all, wearing real diamonds instead of paste was clearly vulgar!

Also at the party was a young adolescent Elve, Gildagad. Gildagad was the elder son of Finngold, but NOT the heir, having being disinherited and supplanted by a younger golden haired scion of Finngold, the new self styled King of the Celestial Elves in faraway Finnland. Gildagad had been cast off (after accusations of illegitimacy) to be raised by Cleardan, the Master of The Havens. Cleardan was a Native born Elve and no legitimate child of a Celestial Elve King would have ever been palmed off unless that child was indeed illegitimate.

The dubiously sired Elve boy was a profoundly un-handsome adolescent: runty, bowlegged, dark haired, and alas boasting an especially large aquiline nose which tended to turn bright red when he was embarrassed. It was red right now. The gangly boy was shy and tended to stutter too. Gildagad made a wonderful appearance in Arcadia society some years ago when he entertained Rhingol the Great in his palace. Rhingol would picked the then 10 year old child up and hide the boy in various giant glass jars that abounded in his palace and ordered all his courtiers to play 'hide and seek' to find the child. But now the boy was growing and was no longer remotely 'cute' or 'charmingly small'. Gildagad was just plain and bowlegged and shabby. The boy wore a white tunic but a shabby suede kilt of brown that quite ruined Floradale' black and white color scheme. Perhaps that was why his nose was bright red. But he could not afford to buy tailor made clothes because his faraway father, Finngold, had just cut off his tiny allowance entirely. Gildagad, despite his official parentage, was a pauper.

But the biggest surprise of all was the presence of Horsham. A presence everyone could not help but notice for Horsham was wearing bright red. And he was beet red with embarrassment because of the bright red. The outfit was custom designed by the top tailor of Arcadia and quite expensive: a red wool kilt embroidered with bunches of arrows of gold and silver thread bound by laurel leaf embroidery accented by pearls and tiny diamonds. The kilt was worn in the older Heike style of long kilt with the tail pinned up at the shoulders like a cape to echo the old Heike military glories. Horsham was wearing the fancy armor he had retrieved from Goldenthrond, the armor Rufus Royal had awarded to him for his military campaigns under Rufus Royal. The bronze armor featured embossed wolves and owls, worn over a new leather jerkin of gilded leather with heavy bronze tipped leather straps at the arms and kilt guard. His personal crest and Grey Owl Metal hung outside the armor. The flow of the kilt showed off the embroidery that deliberately mimicked the Baton of Rufus Royal that everyone had heard about (but of course had not seen). Horsham wore real laurel leaves like a diadem in his unruly dark hair. His outbreak of scurvy, aggravated by frostbite, was about healed and his skin looked clear again.

Floradale was standing beside Horsham and young Gildagad, and talking to them while casually introducing them to various peoples, chatting nonchalantly, witty, amusing, campy, entertaining -- though Horsham did not seem particularly entertained. Sweat dripped down his brow. One hand, bandaged from some act of violence that Horsham always seemed in the middle of, kept tugging nervously at his costume. It did look rather like a costume. A campy costume conceived by someone who was not a soldier. Horsham kept grimacing nervously too, almost shaking in fact. Even Gildagad, who stuttered, seemed more comfortable than Horsham.

"I designed the kilt myself everyone!" Floradale announced. I saw Horsham once in an opera performance and decided that he would be my 'god of Victorious War' for my 'Celebration of Survival'. I remembered seeing him a party at Rufus Royal, the summer he retired, and knew that Horsham here had some beautiful armor that Rufus Royal awarded him for military achievements. So I retrieved it from Goldenthrond, had it re-gilded, and designed the kilt to go with it. I think Horsham looks just like a god of Military Victory! Almost Heike come back to life? Doesn't everyone agree?"

Floradale smiled and patted Horsham in his shoulder. The dreadfully embarrassed man sweated huge drops of sweat and blushed, his baby blue eyes marred by dark circles. "I did not know I was suppose to wear black or white."

"No. Of course not" Floradale said. "My scheme of black and white must be accented by one touch of pure color! That is why I designed your outfit for you to wear Horsham, my dear fella. You don't mind being my once accent of color do you? My one bold touch of blood red?"

"I did not know I was going to be performing...." Horsham sputtered, one hand nervously tugging at his other bandaged hand, drawing blood. Young Gildagad looked curiously at the embarrassed soldier.

"You shouldn't tug at your ba-bandage. You are making your wound b-bleed." Horsham put his now bloody hand behind him and grimaced. At that moment Lady Confabulate appeared and Horsham grabbed her hand by instinct and painfully gasped it like a drowning man a rope. Lady Confabulate did not flinch but then she at an amazingly high tolerance for pain. Then Floradale gestured and bells rang out. The end of his great hall, curtained off, now opened revealing a small stage dressed with fake snow and bluebells. An opera chorus paraded out, dressed in opera costumes of make believe warriors. Then the three opera stars paraded out to much applause. The opera singers were two females: an contralto and soprano plus the male tenor. They were also dressed in opera versions of martial outfits. Everyone cheered as they assumed their martial poses as heros of the Heike Clan of ancient glories of old, poised on the petite stage. Horsham, his embarrassment at being the center of attention vanished, clapped his large, scarred hands together with thunderous noise. The audience settled down for the oratorio, a flowery, banal rendering of war as conceived by the home front, and totally devoid of reality -- but deliberately echoing Heike glories and Heike defeats brought about by Rhingol's bad kingship. Everyone knew the Heike was the last true winner Arcadia had. After the Heike perished, it was all downhill. And last winter Lady Rufus Heike was murdered. End of story. End of glory?

The fantasy version of war unfolded quite delightfully, perfect light entertainment appropriate for the home front. The few real veterans snickered at the banal cliches of phony patriotism, smug self satisfaction, and glib propaganda. Prince Grafton now saw the cliches for what they were and was shocked that once he would have fallen for the spiel. He blushed. Beside him Kiyohime, big with child, stared intensely, her face conflicted. Celebeau was totally absorbed by it, obviously impressed. He kept nodding with wooden sincerity. Gloriana smiled her cat's smile of barely hidden scorn that the Celestial always had for the Twilight they despised as inferior natives of Our World that the Celestial had conquered and now colonized.

At the moment of phony triumph, the opera characters congratulating each other for their operatic heroism, a man suddenly lunged onto the stage from the wings, a side door in the hall. The man was a notorious real life beggar who every day posted himself on the high street to beg for coppers. The beggar was a Mere Mortal war veteran crippled by war. In fact he had no legs, having lost both his legs above the knees in a ghastly battle with Orcs. He maneuvered onto the stage just as he maneuvered throughout life: on crutches. The cripple swung his grotesque body now onto the center of the stage and glared at the frightened audience, his face Orc bitten, his nose missing, one ear missing, his hair a greying rat's nest, most of his teeth rotten from eating garbage and stale beer, all his coppers could fetch from begging. He leered at the Elite 1000.

"What's you're clapping about? A winning war? Well I won you a war too! Don't you remember it? The last war? And what did I get out of it? No legs! No nose! One ear! Look at me! An't I some 'god of military victory' too? Eh? Or at least the other side of the coin of war! I wage your wars and you reap the pomp and glory while I only get the dregs! Life on the street. Homeless. The embarrassing part omitted by your propaganda! Your opera! Your home front version of war! Look at me! Look at me! An't I your god of military heroism too?"

Everyone gasped. Women cried. Some people stood up angry, ordering the beggar to leave the stage. Gloriana sniffed and waved a handkerchief before her face. Celebeau stared intently at the beggar, his steely eyes intense. Then Floradale blandly strolled onto his petite stage and clapped.

"Bravo! Well delivered Buggsy! Thank you. Here is the silver I promised." Floradale gave the silver coin to the suddenly grinning beggar who bit the coin to taste it, judged it real silver, dropped it in the battered bag that hung from his neck, and lunged off the stage laughing at the joke. Floradale clapped but his audience stared dazed. The banal performance had suddenly taken a sinister turn. Then Floradale bowed at his audience. "What a charming performance ladies and gentlemen! But before the performance quite ends I would like one last song to be sung. A war song. But this is a real war song. A song sung by real soldiers at the real battle front. This was the last song sung at the wake of Rufus Royal. It is called 'Beat The Drum Boys!'. Horsham sang it at the request of Lady Rufus Heike. May I request you to sing it now Horsham?" Floradale held out a hand of invitation. The audience clapped embarrassed. Horsham turned bright red again. Lady Confabulate smiled and patted his arm. Then he tugged at his gaudy armor and marched onto the stage, glared fiercely while his adrenalin kicked in, flooding his body with the chemical that he was as addicted to as opium and alcohol. Then Horsham stood at attention, straight and tall, shoulders back, head up, and his powerful baritone rang out deep and rich and clear:

'Beat the drum by boys!

Beat the drum and sing along......'

Young Gildagad stared enthralled. After the song he whispered to a neighbor: "This b-boyo looks indeed like a great god of m-military victory indeed!"

After the performance the great hall was cleared for dancing. Everyone was happy again. They rather suspected that Floradale had stage managed a deliberate rebuke and the Elite 1000 did not like to be rebuked even by one of their own. But the dancing afterwards make up for the questionable performance. The music was delightful: light and airy and elegant. Twilight music at it's best. The Twilight Elves really did have a deep and true talent as well as a love for music. The dancing was respectable dancing of course. Long lines of dancers, alternating male and female, gracefully marching across the floor in elaborate patterns of changing combinations to the rhythm of the music. Bodies straight. Legs nimble and light. Feet in soft kid skimming lightly across the wood. Arms gracefully gesturing. Faces beautiful. It was considered a shocking taboo for bodies to actually touch. The effect was light, ethereal, like mists at twilight.

Horsham danced too, at least the dances that were also popular in Merrach villages though he tended to march and stalk rather than float and glide. The ancient Court Dances were too different from this graceful but mincing High Street Dancing. Gildagad also had trouble for he also only knew Merrach village dances and also rude Haven sailor reels which were simply too vulgar for polite society. The Havens was much more vulgar than Arcadia. . One was an aging dowager, ancient and refined and genteel. One was an upstart, brash, crude, vulgar, but rich. Very rich. Something the dowager city now could not claim despite the glittering audience tonight.

For the interlude Floradale brought out professional dancers. But again, reflecting his rather daring taste, he brought out Maestusean gypsies. Most of the Maestusean Damned Elves were driven east of The Pale of the Central Mountains into exile in the Highlands. But some of the Damned and Fallen Elves drifted illegally throughout the Westlands, never allowed to stay long, hounded, persecuted, but tolerated for short periods of time because their wagons and reindeer brought crude entertainment to the backwaters of Our World. Merrach villages of peasants often only saw professional entertainment in the form of traveling pub bards and gypsies. The gypsies would set up a campsite outside of each village and offer singing, dancing, music, crude 'magic' shows, peddle 'elixirs' and rot-gut alcohol far stronger than pale pub ale, display grotesque 'freaks' bought from embarrassed families who did not want them, and behind the curtains, offer prostitutes. The impoverished descendants of the inventor of iron, Maestus the Damned, also were good iron workers who could repair broken iron tools and pots and pans and re-sharpen knives and scythes between visits by Dwarve ironmongers who charged more to do a better job. So the gypsies were despised, risque, but tolerated. Hence the expression: "Not worth a Maestusean tinker's damn in the Fiery Fissure'.

Floradale tonight hired risque gypsy dancers to entertain his genteel guests. The gypsies included two women and one man. All had the flaming red hair typical of all Maestusean Elves, alabaster pale skin, and green eyes peculiar to the damned race of fallen Celestial Elves thrown out of paradise for unspecified crimes against the gods of the West. The young girl and man were whippet thin. The older woman was oddly fleshy. But the Maestusean Elves often produced fleshy Elves. The older woman was, for an Elve, almost voluptuous. The older woman wore a black linen tunic gathered and girdled under the breasts and the hips, the tunic hovering over boots. She appeared somewhat modestly dressed, typical of a Celestial Elve. The girl wore white silk girdled at the hips, the white sheer almost to the point of being transparent and gathered to create a peek-a-boo effect, alternatively hiding and exposing the body. She also wore boots. The Twilight were nudists and normally did not see nudity as risque. But seeing a Celestial Elve, who normally operated under a taboo of covering up her body, almost exposed, was somehow oddly erotic. The man, a half breed Mere Mortal - Maestusean, was dressed in tight leggings, boots and a tight jerkin that accented his whippet thin body. The tunics worn without kilts implied the bedroom of course --- deliberately.

Three Maestusean musicians came out and played their strange music, so alien and exotic to Twilight ears, while the dancers languidly paraded around the floor, their bodies slowly pulsing to the exotic music. Then the first dancer, the girl took her gossamer tunic and brazenly draped the skirt high up, exposing her naked thighs, tucking the silk in her hip girdle. Then she started to dance, her back arched, her head high, her arms and hands gyrating to the rhythm of the music, her hips swaying and gyrating as her booted feet pounded the wooden floor. The Twilight Elves gasped for that was quite alien to their concept of dancing which was to appear to float noiselessly and ethereally across the floor. The girl stomped and pounded the floor with her booted feet to the beat of the music, as if making music herself, her boots hammering the floor with amazing speed and rhythm like a pounding heart until the very wood of the floor vibrated with the pulse of the music.

The older woman joined the girl then, the two women dancing around each other, apart, almost together, gyrating arms almost touching, backs arched, heads back, hips swaying as their booted feet hammered out the beat, the floor vibrating with the intoxicating power of their strange dancing. The audience could feel it and they fluttered nervously. The dancing was so un-genteel, so unrestrained, so powerful, so intoxicating. Then the older woman in black casually picked up her tunic skirt and hitched it up on her hands, the wide linen flashing, exposing her naked upper thighs as she danced, hands on hips, skirt draped to both reveal and conceal.

Finally the man joined the two women on the dance floor, back arched, head high, arms proudly up, hands clapping to the beat of the music, as his legs, thighs, buttocks and hips in his skin tight leggings swivelled brazenly to the now intoxicating music. The man teasingly danced almost touching the two women, bodies nearly colliding, darting in and out, just barely out of reach. The audience held their collective breaths, daring the gypsies to actually touch each other during the dance. But while the dance was risque, it was not in the end pornographic. Chastity was observed -- barely.

The music ended and the audience clapped with a combination of smug condescension and real erotic admiration. Gildagad, just entering adolescence, clapped too excitedly, his face flushed. Gloriana pretended to clap smugly. Celebeau was frankly shocked at Floradale's risque taste. Seeing him, Prince Grafton grinned and winked at Kiyohime who was not amused. In fact she rushed off violently sick and then had to be taken home by Prince Grafton was both sincerely concerned and exasperated for he had come to be entertained. Caring for a dreadfully sick and hugely pregnant wife between lulls in the war he was now totally committed to was becoming tiresome.

Then properly genteel music resumed. The properly genteel dancers also resumed. But young Gildagad noticed Horsham slip out of the room and followed him. He peeked over the balcony and looked down into the garden. In the garden the gypsies were standing in the courtyard, waiting to be paid. Floradale appeared by Gildagad's side. "Lets go down and see them more closely!" The host took the young teenager's hand and led the boy downstairs into the garden. The boy could smell the intoxicating scent of the dancers for they wore strange perfumes far more musky and exotic than the lavender or rose or jasmine Twilight Elves wore. Floradale passed a small bag of coins to the gypsies but then passed over more money still. "Perform privately ---- just for my little guest here" Floradale patted Gildagad. "He was most impressed. He is from The Havens. Everyone dances differently there."

The musicians resumed playing and the two female dancers strutted about Gildagad, as if stalking him, then they started to dance their exotic dance around him, the shy boy both embarrassed and intoxicated by the risque movements of the girl and woman. He stood bowlegged and gawky, one hand over his face, blushing red, not knowing what to do, wanting to do something, but not knowing what. Floradale clapped along with the male dancer, keeping expert time to the rhythm of the music. "You have a lovely butt Micha but I think this boy inclines to girls eh?" he whispered. Micha laughed. He knew Floradale inclined to redheaded men. That was shocking to polite society. Not the part about inclining to men. The part about inclining to red heads.

A shadow moved out of the shadows. Horsham appeared. "Boy. You should join in. Why hover out of reach?" Young Gildagad blushed and retreated to Floradale's side. Horsham, who had taken off his armor, it was too tight on him nowadays, was dressed only in his jerkin and kilt now, the tail end wrapped around his increasingly stout but still muscular waist in a swag. Horsham did not mind kilts but hated the surplus swag of material for he did not have the graceful touch to drape it elegantly over his shoulder and arm in a grand show of rich fabric. Horsham joined the older woman now, their boots pounding out the beat on the courtyard flagstones. The older woman swayed knowingly, her hands picking up her black linen and gathering it up at her naked hips, revealing and concealing the voluptuous flesh of her thighs above knee high boots. A boot knife was clearly visible. Her bullocks and groin were barely covered. The music became louder as the two people circled each other like a bull and cow in a field. The woman arched her back and swayed as her naked hips gyrated to the beat of the music, her position almost sexual.

Horsham also arched his back, his arms straight out, his hips and buttocks swivelling, his boots pounding out the rhythm as he danced around the woman. He was not as good at making music with his boots. The gypsy dancing was too alien to the refined Court Dancing he was first taught and his bad leg robbed him of grace now for dancing. So his style was more power and brute strength. But he did stalk her expertly. And he was genuinely sexy, like a bull determined to have his way.

She danced closer, tightly darting left, then right. Horsham darted, left, then right, as if to prevent her from escaping. He danced closer. She danced backwards. Horsham danced closer still, as if pursuing her. She arched her back yet more, her hips almost thrust forward. Horsham's outstretched arms almost encircled her now, as if about to capture a wild creature. Her hands crushed her skirt against her thighs, the skin white against the black linen. Horsham's bright red kilt was now almost touching her gathered up skirt. Gildagad gasped. Floradale smiled.

The music slowed. Horsham's arms almost encircled her waist. One hand touched the gathered up fabric, the big hand just caressing one exposed hip. One of the woman's hands touched the kilt where it was wrapped around his waist and fingers just caressed the metal buttons of the jerkin. One by one she unbuttoned the jerkin with both hands as Horsham's hands gathered up her skirt, exposing her naked thighs. She exposed his chest, opening wide his jerkin and pulling out the soft silk tunic and slipping her hands under the material to caress his hairy chest while Horsham caressed her voluptuous white thighs. Gildagad stared wide eyed. Floradale smiled, one hand fluttering about the silk scarf loosely wrapped around his neck.

The music slowed still more. The beat deeper like a heart pounding. The woman's hands wrapped around Horsham's waist. His hands wrapped around her thighs, pulling the black linen even further up, revealing even more flesh. Gildagad was hyperventilating. Floradale pulled off his scarf exposing his neck.

The music slowed as if dying. The gypsy and Horsham embraced and kissed, Horsham holding her tightly, her feet off the ground, the feet curling up as his strong arms held her tightly around her waist. Her strong arms held him tightly around his shoulders, her nails digging into his smooth soft back. Gildagad fainted when Floradale's silk scarf fluttered down and touched him.

The music stopped and Horsham and the gypsy parted and looked down on the fainted boy bemused. Floradale picked up the fainted boy and carried him indoors and sprinkled rose water over his face. "What happened?" Gildagad asked embarrassed to find himself in a horizontal position on a divan.

"You past out young one:" Floradale said. Gildagad sat up abashed. "Don't be embarrassed boyo!" Floradale said, patting the young adolescent on the shoulder. "Things happen."

"The dance was .....rather..... hot" Gildagad explained.

"Yes. Rather." Floradale giggled. "Who did you feel hot for? The gypsy? Or Horsham?" Gildagad blushed.

"I don't know.... both of them.... dancing like that.... gosh .... I thought Haven sailor dancing was hot....but this...."

Floradale giggled and fanned himself and then Gildagad with his scarf. "I got hot too! While watching Horsham. I shall have hot dreams tonight!"

"The music has started again" Gildagad said.

"Which music? Inside or outside?"

"Both."

"Well I suggest you go INSIDE! I however will go back outside."

"To dance with the girl?"

Floradale giggled. "To dance with the man silly boy! The divine Micha! The 'Hero's Portion' for me! Horsham can have both the girl and the woman. His 'Hero's Portion'! I prepaid so he can have his freebie. He has quite earned it!"

The two parted. Gildagad stood by the door that led inside and looked at Floradale who was at the door to go outside. "I thought it was very nice of you...what you did... I m-mean... letting Horsham play the starry role tonight."

"I don't think some of the audience will say so tomorrow."

"But it was nice of you to give Horsham of Arcadia the 'Hero's Portion' -- the starry role, I mean the staring role. Usually B-Ben the Beorach stars in the show. He is so very famous and all. All the b-bards sing of Ben. But I heard that Horsham rather came through with some show up north. I heard Cleardan and Beardon talking about it. They said Horsham 'kicked the Dark Lord's arse'. People who come through and get the job done should be rewarded even if they are not beautiful or famous or popular or all. I m-mean, no one ever notices me at all for instance. Popular people get all the friends and adoration and attention and unpopular people usually just crushed against the wall. Do you understand?" The boy looked at Floradale with a worried look, afraid he was just making a fool of himself. Floradale smiled and nodded.

"Well Horsham is very handsome... but he is not very popular and he does, as you say, usually get the shaft to Ben's arrow. But everyone does deserves to star at least once in their lives and enjoy the 'Hero's Portion'! And in Horsham's case he really does deserve it. Fair is fair. Now go inside young boyo! I will meander outside to claim my 'Hero's Portion'!" Floradale smiled, for he was really a very nice Elve for all his gossipy wit and silly scarfs and campy humor. Gildagad rejoined the Elite 1000 and tried to dance quite sedately and wondered if he would ever get the 'Hero's Portion' when he grew up or simply be stuck with the crumbs of life. He did not know it but he was destined only to reap a king's crown and ash and cinder.

But human nature was human nature after all and the young teenager, barely qualifying to be a teenager, slipped away into the courtyard. The musicians were gone. The courtyard appeared empty. Gildagad sighed. But then he heard a sound and looked in the shadows. On the lawn by the fragrant night flowering jasmine he saw shadows. The boy froze, simply unable to move. On the grass Horsham, nearly naked, his body beefy strong and muscular, was making love to the older woman. Then he rolled over and mounted the nearly naked girl who laughed, her back arched, her long red hair livid in the pale light of a small moon. The girl caught sight of the petrified boy and smiled a fay smile, her green eyes winking at Gildagad. Then the older woman unpinned the shoulder pins and let her black tunic drop off her body, naked and shining in the pale light, as if a sword suddenly unsheathed, and both woman covered Horsham, their long red hair covering his nearly naked flesh like flowing blood.

Embarrassed, Gildagad ran away. Horsham paused and looked out but saw nothing but a feral cat prowling across the grass. Then he laughed and held both women in his strong arms and embraced them both, making them his prisoners while they made him their prisoner, each claiming the other as their 'hero's portion'.

Chapter 10: Flowers Of The Night

Lady Sanguinary stared through her shutters at the howling mob, her beautiful face shattered. Then she turned away and looked around her withdrawing room. The room was now empty but for an overturned box, one divan, and one crate. Her mysterious 'credit line' with the Dwarves cut off, her secret gold line cut off, and her creditors pounding on the door, she was now 'bankrupt'. When she first heard the word she laughed. Now Lady Sanguinary was most definitely not laughing. She smoothed her sweaty hands down her limp linen under tunic. Her tailor and laundress having quit, she was wearing wilted linen. Linen needs to be kept washed and starched and ironed to keep it's crisp sharp lines. Now her informal day tunic was wilted and wrinkled and limp. Then Lady Sanguinary gritted her teeth and marched downstairs.

Dwarves were everywhere. The brazen, hairy, blubbery creatures were positively moved in! They were camped out in her great hall, and her receiving room, and her modern hall, and even on her stairs. They were debt collectors and they intended to cool their heels in her townhouse until she surrendered the money she owed them or else make her life a Dwarve version of the fiery fissure until she did. The vulgar creatures were dining on overturned boxes in her dining room, had their dirty boots up on her few remaining pieces of furniture, and were ferreting through the closets in vain, looking for any asset they had not already seized. Debt collectors were the bottom feeders of the Dwarve caste system. The grimy, hairy creatures in their patched tunics and worn boots and seedy, ratty fur lined overcoats howled when they saw Lady Sanguinary on the stairs and lunged for her, howling, holding up their IOU's in dirty hands. Lady Sanguinary shuddered, turned around, and marched proudly back up the stairs to her withdrawing room. By tradition debt collectors could not invade the private rooms of their debtors. The harassment did have specific rules of torment.

Lady Sanguinary locked the door to her withdrawing room and braced herself against the door and wept bitter tears. How had she come to this? She simply could not conceive how she had been reduced to such a disgraceful situation. Then she crept back to the shuttered window and peered out. "I can't pay my debts. All I have left is this house. Even my country estate is foreclosed. I have nothing left to pawn. Disgusting Dwarves! Ugly, nasty, disgusting creatures! My blood won't even satisfy the leeches! What am I to do? Go into the Sacred Grove and crawl onto the flet of one of my rotting consorts and die? I have nothing left!" she shouted out loud. Then she slumped against the shutter and peered out like a prisoner languishing under a life's sentence.

Down the street she watched the litter of Floradale pass by, the campy queen elegantly dressed, his four litter bearers, big husky Mere Mortals, also elegantly dressed. Lady Sanguinary watch him pass by. By Elvish instinct Floradale looked up, as if guessing she was spying on him, and waived on elegant hand and smiled at her. "Snide old queen! Preening and prancing and gossiping to everyone! About me! Snide insults delivered below the belt! Like when he ruined my son's reputation! Hypocrite! Pretending to organize a militia at his country estate and buying weapons. Probably just finding an excuse to watch pretty boys march across the commons! Going to curry the favor of Rufus Royal! Claiming he no longer wanted to be a member of the Elite 1000. Not worthy of him any longer! I was not worthy of his presence any longer! Refused to attend my soirees! Defected to the War Fraction! Playing nurse during the war. Pretending to nurse wounded men. Really! How silly! Cleaning out chamber pots and scrubbing floors after surgery, after Mere Mortals bled and vomited all over the surgery in terror of a little pain. Pretending to be a patriot! Then throwing that silly 'Celebration of Survival' at his townhouse last week. Inviting everyone! As if I could go! Dropping off an invitation, daring me to go! Goading me! Gloating! How could I know how it would all turn out? How could I know the Dark Lord would break his treaty and invade? If the peace had lasted then I would have gone down in history as the great patriot of Arcadia! Now I am Lady Sanguinary! The Infamous Collaborator! The Stooge of the Dark Lord!" Lady Sanguinary put her face in her hands and wept.

"I should kill Floradale! Poison him! No. Poison Horsham! How dare Floradale dress up that hairy ape and parade him around that party last week like some..... 'war god of victory!' The murderer of my son! Gloating! Gloating! That is it! Kill him! Kill him! Yes! Yes! Just like Rufus?"

Lady Sanguinary rubbed her dainty hands together. But the murder of Rufus left her nights uneasy for the ugliness of the violence. She had dared not hire an assassin and had to do the job herself. But the murder was exhausting, grisly, blood everywhere, all over her. It was ghastly. Not like poison, her usual weapon of choice, neat, clean, dainty, the usual weapon of a murderess. "Poison. Yes. I am much better at that. After all I have so much more experience in poison, having poisoned three consorts and two lovers previously, not to mention five rival social divas and three critics and one opera singer. Too bad Rufus Royal had loyal staff. I could have killed him that way too. But Horsham has no loyal staff. Horsham lives in hovels and pig sties like the filthy animal he is. It will be easy. Easy!"

Lady Sanguinary giggled and rubbed her dainty hands together. She danced across the room to a little secret cabinet and opened it. Inside were twelve tiny glass bottles and vials containing diverse liquids and powders of cunning creation. Her fingers danced on the tiny containers of poison as she savored the symptoms of each poison, the unique way the victim might die, the exquisite pain, the disgusting side effects, the horror of a body writhing on the floor, the green vomit, the hemorrhaging from nose and ears. Or should she use a slow poison that gradually polluted the body? Breaking down the organs? Fogging the brain? And finally paralyzing the nerves? Decisions! Decisions! Lady Sanguinary spent the entire rest of the day in wonderful daydreams of horrible death. She curled up on her divan and purred as deeply as if she was having an organism.

"I have been sick as a dog this last week" Horsham told Bela. I thought it was cholera, then that new disease making the rounds from up north: Camp Influenza. I can't keep anything down. I just keep vomiting and vomiting. How can I kill Lady Sanguinary if I am flat on my back!" Horsham was flat on his back in the military hospital. A wave of virulent influenza had hit the soldiers going back and forth from up north and the new disease was rapidly making the rounds of the military population, and from there the general population. The new plague was so bad that everyone had vacated the city if they could. But not everyone can flee to their lavish country estates. The poor and working classes had to stay in Arcadia. So the disease was killing off a hundred people a day. The hospitals were full to overflowing.

Bela was back in town because he heard that Horsham was deadly ill. He certainly looked ghastly: pale as a corpse, dehydrated, gaunt, eyes sunken holes, his skin like parchment. He had been vomiting constantly for a week, retching even if not a speck of food was in his sunken guts, and he smelled terrible.

"Arsenic. Lady Sanguinary has been poisoning you."

"What!" Horsham reared up, then threw up, his body writhing in pain. "By the gods of malice! The bitch! I am going to break her skinny neck!" Horsham twisted in pain on the coffin size box of hay that constituted a bed in the military hospital.

"What were you eating and where were you eating when you first got sick?"

"The usual muck at my usual pub by my digs."

"Logical choice. For you. And for Lady Sanguinary to bribe a slip of poison into your pub grub or breakfast beer. Once in hospital more bribes were even more easy to insure the dosage continued. I am surprised Lady Sanguinary still has enough money to offer bribes but I imagine that mere coppers could buy her access to pub kitchens or mess kitchens. The influenza is a nice cover. But you smell of arsenic. Fortunately I came by litter."

"Great! I am cheap to kill! Mere coppers! And anyway! You don't come by litter. Or chariot for that matter. You only ride or walk."

"Yah! But right now you won't be riding or walking! My staff is loyal. Lady Sanguinary won't be able to slip poison into your food if you are living with me. So up you go boyo!." Bela picked up Horsham and heaved him over his shoulders. Horsham groaned in pain as he was carried out of the hospital. "I'm naked god damn it!"

"And don't you dare shit on me even if you are sick as a dog!" Bela shouted back. Then he dropped the sick man on the litter and covered him up with a traveling blanket and nodded. His litter bearers heaved up the now heavy litter (usually used to transporting the feather light Beladonna) and with much grumbling marched to Bela's country house where Bela deposited Horsham in a guest room. Then Bela asked to see his sister. "Beladonna, my dear, I have an assignment for you. I need a full time nurse to nurse an ailing Crow. While you are here, using my home, you can make yourself useful and nurse.

"Don't be ridiculous! I am not an nurse!" She preened her immaculate linen. "Who is the disgusting man anyway? By the gods! You have not brought an influenza sufferer here have you? To our country estate!?" Beladonna gasped in panic. Bela grabbed her.

"Worse my dear sister! I brought a victim of Lady Sanguinary's poisons! And you are nursing Horsham through it!"

"What! Why?" She wailed.

"Because if you are nursing him then you won't dare help Lady Sanguinary kill him! If Horsham dies under your care I will assume you helped to kill him and I will have Dr. Kakoff cut the corpse open, cut out a sample of the arsenic pollution, and indict you for murder!"

"I can't nurse that animal! I can't!"

"Because you are a co- murderer?"

"Because nursing sick people is disgusting! I can't even nurse my two children when they are sick! You know that! How do you know it is not influenza?"

"If it is influenza then it is still the fault of Lady Sanguinary because this new disease of influenza came from across the River of Shadows during the War of the Bluebells! The Dark Lord has created a new disease to kill us because he could not kill us last summer by conventional means! So this winter he is killing us with his new disease! And your best friend Lady Sanguinary is to blame for it all! Peace through appeasement! And you are her stooge! Betraying me! Stealing documents from me! Plotting against me! Your meal ticket!" Bela hissed out his fury and slapped his sister hard in the face. She crumbled onto the floor and cried, curled up, cowering, whimpering. Her children ran into the hallway and saw their mother cowering at the feet of their normally icy cold uncle. They ran up to protect their mother.

"Don't hurt Mommy!" Little Belladonna Shady shouted.

"Then Mommy better not hurt Horsham and better stop double dealing against me! Or Mommy will be out in the cold! Now Mommy had better crawl to her feet, crawl into the guest room, crawl up to the bed of that sick man, and nurse him very, very, carefully until that man gets very, very, well! Does Mommy understand!" Bela hissed in icy fury and the children cringed beside their weeping mother. Then Bela marched down the hallway into his library and indulged in a rare show of emotion by slamming the door.

King Gildagad asked Belladonna Shady later in the Second Age what sort of man her Uncle Bela was. Belladonna Shady said: "Uncle Bela was a human fish. Absolutely cold blooded. Icy. Inhuman. He is rumored to have invented the garrote. I can believe it! He was utterly ruthless! He was a patriot of course but a cold blooded patriot perfectly capable of murdering anyone he saw as endangering Arcadia. I am sure he sanctioned state murder. I lived in total terror of the man."

Horsham's symptoms changed but he stayed sick. Beladonna actually made her ten year old daughter Belladonna Shady do the actual nursing. But Horsham stayed sick. Terrified, Beladonna ran to her room and locked herself in, then barricaded the door, abandoning her job entirely. Poor little Belladonna Shady stayed and persevered nursing the huge and horribly sick man by herself until Horsham became too weak to move himself or endue her pathetic, childish attempts to nurse him. When Bela heard, riding back from Arcadia City where he was trying to deal with the escalating influenza plague, now killing over three hundred people a day. He visited the sick room and was shocked by Horsham's condition. Horsham laughed grimly. "I did not know I was that disgusting!"

"Well you do look disgusting my dear fella!" Bela laughed, trying to joke about the situation. "You look dreadful." Horsham did. He was no longer vomiting but instead was shaking, and his limbs were now deadly cold. He was wrapped in red flannel and bundled beside a roaring fire but he still shivered like ice. His skin was blue.

"Where is the poison coming from? I thought your staff was loyal?"

"They are! I don't know where the poison is coming from! Ah....Belladonna Shady! Our little nurse! Doing Mommy's job for her! And so much better than Mommy!" Bela's voice had a icy edge like that of a razor.

Belladonna Shady, who now was terrified of her icy Uncle Bela, gritted her teeth and marched resolutely into the sick room to placed a vase of pretty flowers by the sick man. "I am trying my very best Uncle Bela so you won't be mad at Mommy! Mommy tried but she gets sick if she has to stay around sick people. I don't blame her. She has never nursed me either! I understand. Please don't blame her Uncle Bela! We're trying! We really are! All of us!" The little girl fought back tears and then sat down by the cot of Horsham and picked up a wet cloth from a basin filled with fresh water scented by flowers and she wiped Horsham's brow. Bela smiled his elegant, icy smile.

"My! My! All my relatives are so much in awe of me now! Is it because I give them money to live or because I threatened to cut off their money!"

"Don't torment the child Bela" Horsham panted. "The poor kid has tried. Poor thing. She is plucky."

Bela was not impressed. ".... And what pretty flowers! Where did you find them Belladonna Shady?"

"In the garden."

"No. I think not child. I make it a policy never to grow deadly belladonna nightshade in my garden er someone accidently slip some into my tea and sympathy. Show me where you found it my dear .... and tell me about the sweet kind lady you met who told you to add some to Horsham's water"

Belladonna Shady smiled her fay smile of youthful innocence. "She said Master Horsham here would surely get better if I added some of these lovely flowers to his water. We are all so eager to see Master Horsham get better so you won't be angry with us any longer.... Mommy is locked in her room and we are so scared, Uncle Bela, of your anger because Master Horsham is so sick. I am doing the very best I can do nurse him for Mommy, so Master Horsham will get well and you won't be angry with us! I am doing the best I can! Please don't be angry with us Uncle Bela! Please!"

"Why of course not my sweet! Uncle Bela is not angry at you! I know you are Mommy's little helper! Just show me the flower and when you met the kind, sweet, beautiful lady...." Bela nearly hissed the words. Belladonna Shady shuddered but led Bela away. Horsham grabbed the vase of lovely belladonna nightshade and threw the deadly poisonous flowers into the fire. Then he collapsed shuddering and shaking.

A week later Horsham was much better, able to sit up and take nourishment, his skin no longer blue, his limbs no longer icy cold. Bela had taken over the command of the sick room, temporarily abandoning the search for a cure for the new disease of influenza in collaboration with Dr. Kakoff.

"Dr. Kakoff can't find an elixir. It is not like cholera that can be prevented by keeping the water clean and building good sewers and aqueducts. This new disease is so damn contagious! The old influenza, chicken influenza was very mild. But this new strain is positively murderous."

"The Dark Lord must had tinkered with it somehow to turn an agricultural disease into a mass killer. How many died before the influenza plague died out?"

"Over seven thousand people. By the end we were building mass biers. The smoke could be seen for miles. Dr. Kakoff told us that even the Elves who died had to be burned to stop the spread of the disease. No one was happy at that. The Sacred Grove was empty for such a plague filled year."

"I imagine no one would want a bone in memory of a plague victim anyway" Horsham said dryly. "No sentimental mementos for surviving family and kin."

"No. Needless to say. I tried to explain the new plague to Celebeau and he was, as usual, as dense as celewood. Tall. Straight. Strong. And brainless! Arcadia is led by....well.... we have no legitimate replacements for the Royal House of Arcadia anyway!"

Horsham looked quizzically at Bela. "Would you kill Celebeau or Rhingol or both if there were competent replacements acceptable to the powers of authority? Are you fancying playing the role of king maker?"

Bela smiled his elegantly cool smile. "Really Horsham. You must be listening to my 'poor' sister. I am but the head of a informal group of amateur spies, paid for out of the fold of my own kilt pouch, who toil away, outside of the light of day and the notice of history! By the way Lady Sanguinary died last week."

"How?" Horsham asked softly.

"Influenza apparently. She vomited herself to death."

"Influenza does not cause that. Arsenic poisoning does."

"Well then she must have committed suicide, using one of her own poisons. She was hopelessly in debt and the Dwarves were moved into her townhouse. Yes. Suicide. More likely suicide."

"I would have thought she would pick a faster poison then, being the mistress of poison."

Bela smiled. "Perhaps all she had left was arsenic?" Bela stood up and rubbed his hands together in zeal, as a man does after a job well done. "Spring just around the corner. War just around the corner. Spring thaw is in the air! Springtime: cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, daffodils, bluebells, the ice melting on the streams and rivers, the birds migrating back, and the Dark Lord plotting this years' torment of Arcadia!" Bela smiled and danced across the sick room and threw open the shutters to let in the brisk cold air. Elves loved drafts. Horsham shivered, not just because of the cold draft.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Well, as Celebeau, our brilliant general at large, is now back in command, you are back in my employment Horsham. The Crow has returned to the roust! And I do, matter of fact have a job for you. I want you to find out what the hell happened to Ben and Luna! I want you to ride north beyond the River of Shadows and track the bastard down and make sure he is dead! Luna. I don't care about anymore. Ringold. Who cares but his incestuous sister Gloriana? I want Ben dead! I am tired of the swine! No more forgiveness! No more second chances! No more royal indulgences! No more adventures that endanger Arcadia! No more chances to fetch Devices and expose Arcadia to infectious bad luck or infectious Celestial Calamity! If Ben the Beorach is not dead! I want him made dead! The glorious history of Ben the Beorach ends now! Let the bard sing his praises to gullible peasants to their collective heart's contentment! But I am quite bored with him and I want you to write Ben out of the history books! Make it so!" Bela threw Horsham a icy look and walked to the door and opened it.

"You have a legal death warrant for all three people?"

"Of course."

"Who signed off on it?"

"Malian."

"Is that legal? Will Rhingol accept the murder of his daughter so casually? And will Celebeau accept the murder of Ben so casually? And will Gloriana accept the murder of her twin brother so casually?"

"Yes. If you do the deed far away and bury the corpses deep enough so not even history will ever discover what really happened to the legendary Last Expedition of Ben the Beorach! Just kill them clean and bury them deep under the debris of history and no one will question."

"But if they do question then I can be accused of murder unless the death warrant is legal. I could be hunted down and killed, or declared a Nitthing Man, or drained dry by blood money for blood debts. Heretofore the state has not sanctioned state murder. Why does Luna have to die? Ringold? Just because they might be witnesses? If the warrant is legal then why kill them too?"

Bela's beautiful face looked icy. "Because they aided and abided treason! Ben rode north to commit an act that would directly bring down Arcadia and Luna and Ringold aided and abided it. So Luna and Ringold are as much traitors now as Ben! They deserve to die. I want them all dead. Cleanly. Neatly. Far away. And never found. Do you understand?" Bela's voice hissed.

"Yes. I understand."

Bela nodded, his beautiful face smiled an enigmatic smile. "Oh yes. The last remaining scion of the once glorious Sanguinary name: one Roy Crocus Sanguinary, the new heir to the glorious Sanguinary estate, now extinct, has just decided to join his extinct clan of Sanguinary by challenging you do a duel. He is a country bumpkin. You shouldn't have much trouble. After Sanguinary, he is at best an appetizer. A mouse. So I don't expect him to delay your ride north when the roads thaw. Leave promptly with the spring thaw." Bela exited the room and Horsham shivered. Still aching, he hobbled to the window and shut the shutters. He did not like drafts and his bad leg must definitely did not like drafts.

Above : Dark Elve and Maleth Mere Mortal clothing from the Royal Collection. During the 1st and 2nds Ages only King Gildagad

collected the barbaric arts of these 'inferior' children of 'lessor gods'. The Dark Elves worshiped the Firbolg gods.

Chapter 11: An Unexpected Delay

Horsham had a death warrant in his belt pouch and Ben's name was on it. It now also had Luna's name on it. In fact it had Ringold's name on it. Bela was taking no chances now. Bela's signature and Malian's signature authorized Horsham to commit state murder. Bela did not trust Celebeau to force Rhingol's hand if Ben materialized with Luna. Bela was determined that no Device would cross the River of Shadows to endanger Arcadia, and that Ben would never again risk Arcadia by trying to fetch a Device, or marry Luna, or incite possible racial civil war by fobbing some bastard child off on the Elite 1000. The Elite 1000 was increasingly shabby, cut off at their collective knees by inflation, up to their collective necks in debt, and humiliated by their association with the now infamous Lady Sanguinary, but they could still issue a collective roar of outrage if Luna came back big bellied with a half breed princeling. So now Bela was tying up all lose ends in one tidy grave far away, hidden, secret, off the written page of history. And Horsham was his assassin.

Celebeau may, or may not, have been aware of Bela's ruthless decision to sanction state murder. He chose to turn a blind eye to the possibility, perhaps hoping that Bela would do the dirty job for him and thus allow Celebeau to stand above the fray of morally dubious 'ends that justify the means'. Celebeau did write out a second official warrant for Ben's arrest if Ben did materialize and he ordered his Ravens (MP's) to arrest Ben if he did appear. But Celebeau had to know that Rhingol was too soft hearted to execute it. If Ben waltzed back into town with Luna, Celebeau had to know that Ben would yet again get away with it. Ben always got away with it. As much as Rhingol, Ben waltzed through life enjoying the fame of the adventures and never paying the price for the adventures, much less cleaning up the mess the adventures left Our World in. Ben made it a policy to never apologize and never to clean up his own messes. And Celebeau did not have the guts to clean up Ben's messes either. So perhaps Celebeau hoped Ben was dead too. Ben's timely death far way would solve a lot of problems for everyone.

Malian asked to see the much more benign warrant of Celebeau and Celebeau showed it to her. She actually smiled. So much for being the mother of Luna. But she did not smile as she make very clear her displeasure of Gloriana's behavior. "Gloriana keeps demanding that Rhingol order the Goldenthrond Cabal to fetch the' Raven' Necklace (the original name and alas the more appropriate name for the 'Glory of the Dwarves' Necklace that Gloriana persisted in calling the 'Pride of the Dwarves' Necklace). I don't want Rhingol upset. And I don't want your uppity social climbing wife throwing herself at my consort. Do you understand?" Malian's voice was soft and low but hard as a steel blade. "And I want you to replant the cherry trees along the Grand Canal. The mobs of ungrateful Arcadians who cut them down deserve to be punished .....one way or the other...." the black holes that were Malian's eyes nailed Celebeau. When she left the room he actually shivered. He shivered even more that night.

Celebeau entered his wife's bedroom to make love only to discover his wife gleaming with ethereal splendor on her bed like an iridescent pearl in the moonlight. She laid naked on the silk sheets, glowing faintly, unbelievably beautiful. Elves love beauty above all things and Gloriana loved to be beautiful. But beautiful people lust to become more beautiful still and dread losing their beauty. Gloriana was born beautiful, reputedly the mirror image of Tara the Fair herself. But she was already obsessed with keeping her beauty so she would continue to be worshiped as a god.

Celebeau sat down on the edge of the bed and one finger caressed her naked skin, running down the skin of her naked flank as she purred deeply, intoxicated by her own beauty, now even more beautiful. "Where did you get it?"

"What?" she purred lazily as she stretched out on the silk sheets, savoring her beauty.

"The elixir".

"What elixir?" she smiled fay at Celebeau and arched her back. Her apple breasts swelled toward Celebeau. Then Gloriana caressed her iridescent pale skin, smooth, silky, musky smelling, as if she had been gilded by mithril.

"The Balm of Rhinga must be an aphrodisiac too....yes...that would explain it....I remember now....my Mother, Rhinga.... glowing in the moonlight as my Father made love to her as I laid swaddled in my cradle in one corner of the room. They would make intoxicating love in the moonlight. But it was not moonlight. My Mother had become the Moon incarnate, glowing in the darkness, musky smelling, shining like liquid mithril. But she became addicted to the elixir, and by making love Father became poisoned and died of mithril poisoning. A Dwarve doctor was perplex, treating Father during his horribly prolonged death. He kept saying over and over 'I don't understand how Rex Celeborna Taira can be displaying all the classic symptoms of mithril poisoning when he has never visited any mithril mine? All the known sources of mithril are only found in the Old Citadel. I don't understand....but of course his case if quite hopeless.... horrible death .... slow and horrible death...' I will always remember my Father's slow and horrible death by mithril poisoning.

I remember now.....my Mother Rhinga vanished.... died..... vanished..... at the end....she became like the moon. Yes! Yes! That is it! We worshiped her as the moon incarnate. But she would only appear before us the few nights when the moon went totally dark. During the black of the moon. She would appear in the midst of the Royal Maw and we would worship her as a goddess. She would stand before us imperial. Then she would dance the sacred dance, a god incarnate. We was intoxicated by her beauty. She were intoxicated by her beauty. It was like a drug. Yes. I remember now! But one day I touched her and the thick mother of pearl sheen came off on my hand. I remember now! My hand was suddenly dusty with moonlight! I remember looking at it. Yes! Then I looked up at the spot where I touched her, trying to touch my Mother who was become a god. And I noticed that her skin where the moonlight no longer glowed was -----abscessed and red and oozing with pus...... revolting... like a living rotten corpse covered with a thick gilt of mithril to conceal the rotten decay beneath.....

And I reached up to touch her beautiful face, my Mother's beautiful face, and I dragged my hand across her face as if to drag off a mask, and I rubbed off the thick gilt of mithril that covered her face like a mask of moonlight ----- and her face was totally rotten and abscessed and oozed pus like some rotting thing percolating out, like rot leaching out, like poison oozing out... repulsive rot and decay! Then I pushed my hand into her face and her entire face caved in as if a gilded shell suddenly imploding, and rot exploded out where my Mother's face used to be.

And I screamed in horror. Every screamed in horror. Repulsed. Revolted. Horrified. And we all screamed. Even Rhingol screamed and held up his hands to over his face. And the hideous monster masquerading as my Mother ran away screaming in the darkness into the deepest tunnels of Arcadia Mountain never to appear except in rumors whispered by cheese makers in ghost tales and occasional mysteriously dead bodies, their life's blood sucked out. And then Malian took me by my hand and calmly walked me away, to a pond, and washed my moonlight gilded hand until it was human again. And Malian smiled, her dark holes that are eyes peering at me as she smiled her mirage smile, aping being human. And ......I woke....the next day.....as if waking from a bad dream and I forgot.....everything.....until.....just now."

Celebeau held up his finger and his finger glowed as if gilded by moonlight. Then he stared at Gloriana in utter horror as if seeing a monster. Gloriana gasped and ran to the mirror and rubbed the sheen off part of her arm, whimpering. Crying. "By the gods! Who left this terrible pot of deadly poison to seduce me! Who? Who!" She rubbed her hands over her face and whimpered as the oily sheen rubbed off. My face! Oh my face! Oh by the gods! Has it already eaten into my face?" She whimpered and ran to her bath and washed and washed and washed for the entire rest of the night. Whimpering. Crying. Wailing. Rubbing her skin red. "It's red! It's red! My skin! My skin! Is it already rotted off?"

Celebeau who quietly washed his finger clean, stared at his hysterical wife. You are rubbing your own skin off in your panic. When did you find the gift?"

"Three days ago! This is third night I have larded it onto my flesh!" Gloriana wailed.

"It may all be well my wife. My Mother was seduced by ....seduced to take the drug for many years. I was just barely walking, a toddler, not even three years old when Father died. Only Mali.....Only the gods knows how long the poison needs to percolate through your skin..... all yet may be well. And even if your beauty is slightly marred I will still love you. You were always too proud of your beauty and now perhaps this will humble you my dear wife and make you a better person."

Gloriana screamed and shoved Celebeau out of the bathroom and locked the door. She emerged a week later after all the harsh scrubbing she inflected on her skin had past and he skin was again pale as alabaster, smooth, and normal. "I don't want to talk about this ever!" Then she smiled and preened before a dwarve mirror and then paraded out to entertain her many admirers in the Court.

Celebeau turned and woodenly looked out of a window into the Royal Gardens where Rhingol and Malian strolled among the trees and flowers, arm in arm, Rhingol laughing, Malian staring at her consort with her strange black eyes that worshiped an Elve everyone else in Our World now knew was a fool leading Arcadia off a precipice. "I can't do it" he said aloud. But he declined to explain himself to the empty room.

"I can't do it. No! I can do it! I will do it! I still have it in me! I will show Bela I still can do it!" Horsham scolded himself as he rode north with the spring thaw along roads still knee deep with mud. Blackie who had spent the winter in Bela's country estate frolicking in covered barns on deep hay, was in high spirits to charge out into battle despite the mud and the first evidence of grey whispers on it's hairy chin and thick mane and tail. Neither man or horse admitted to age which was ambushing them from behind. Horsham was now thirty three years old. In the First Age most Mere Mortals died before reaching forty, and more likely thirty. Life was harder, fraught with danger, and riddled by disease in the First Age. Few Mere Mortals had the luxury of suffering from old age. Few Mere Mortal soldiers reached thirty. Horsham was bucking time and class and reality as he rode north, along familiar roads deep with spring mud.

He was yet again a 'Superior Man' ie sergeant for officially no Mere Mortal could be given permanent officer command. He wore a wilted feather in a battered bonnet pulled down over dark, unruly hair that now featured a decided glimmer of sliver grey. He wore his now battered self crafted jerkin lined with suede that sandwiched flexible steel plate armor inside. He had given up on his fancy gift armor. The last time he wore it he felt corseted to the point of baring being able to breath. He wore leather braces on his arms and legs, sandwiching thin lamellar and chain mail inside leather and suede to prevent the jingle of Dwarve Mail. Crows don't like to be heard as they slither through life.

He wore old buckskin leggings too, belted tightly across his shrunken belly in gathers. But by now Horsham knew it was not worthwhile buying new leggings. He had lost a lot of weight when he was sick but he knew he would gain it all back and then some for he was steadily gaining weight with each passing year. His belly was shrunken for now, but now he knew that all too soon he would be back just this side of flab. Horsham was about ready to stop fighting genetics and give up on keeping trim. His flesh was just too determined to become fleshier regardless. And his diet of beer for breakfast, supper, and dinner was not helping either. Though Horsham was presently deluding himself by insisting that excessive beer consumption was not really alcoholic as long as he resisted his favorite combination of whisky with a beer chaser. Five times over. Three times a day. With an occasional side dish of revolting pub grub too disgusting to eat so he could explain his vomiting in the back alley.

Horsham sighed and rubbed his eyes. The bright springtime sun was glaring. His eyes now always hurt. And more often that not his bad leg hurt too. In the old days he would have rushed off and challenged the silly scion of Sanguinary right off. Now he just ignored the challenge and rode off, ignoring the buffoon. His bad leg was starting to effect his dueling and his willingness to expend excess time and effort on useless relics of past honor. Moving aggressively just plain hurt too much to casually do it for less than serious reasons. Dueling was increasingly just silly. Horsham hoped that with Sanguinary dead he could just quietly retire from the Dueling Game now so he could conserve his dwindling reserves of energy and health on his job as a Crow. Just doing that was increasingly hard to do.

He still did everything he always did when he was young:criss-cross the town eight times a day, practice sword fighting in the Great Hall of Military Court opposite professional soldiers on leave, exercise Blackie, murder on command in back alleys, all the dirty spy work. And he tried to continue his court dancing but his perfection now prevented him from dancing professionally at the pavilions anymore. Now he only practiced at Wisteria Pavilion with his dear lady and people informally timed their visits for that time of day --- to still see Lady Wisteria Fujitsu's most famous protege in action. But Horsham's maddening perfection would not let him compromise his declining skills as his body aged. So he still tried too hard. Did too much. And chastised himself when he failed to be 20 again. Like now.

"I have a dance for Naratun but should I try? I know he is just being sentimental and forgives my failing skills but still.... why did I accept it? Why did he ask me? Should I have accepted it? Be honest Horsham! You can't swagger and strut! Not any more! Yes, you can bring maturity of course to the performance. The patina of Yuugen. The sorrow of Wabi. You have Tragedy down pat! But people want to see the swagger and bravo, the raw physical beauty, the prowess of youth. Not the heart felt sorrow of age. By the gods! You are old! Old! And here you are still vainly talking about a court performance when you can barely do you job of spying!" Horsham let the irony sink in. The word 'Old' rolled around his mind like a thorn pricking his soul. "I am old. And this is not the time for old people! No one wants old people! No one will want me! Not when they find out I am old......."

But of course Horsham told no one that. He dare not. He knew Bela sent him north now just because the job was considered too dirty and dangerous for any other Crow. Murdering a Royal Prince, a Royal Princess, and a pub bard anointed Hero was something no one else in Our World would even consider doing. Horsham had become Bela's garbage collector. His bottom feeder. His bottom of barrel dregs fit only to do the dirty work. And Horsham knew it. Horsham clutched at the warrant, just this side of legal, like a fig leaf covering his dubious job of political assassination. The increasingly seedy hero, just this side of being declared an ex-hero, wobbling precariously on his cheap pedestal, rubbed his eyes wearily and rode right into the last glorious adventure he would ever enjoy being in the middle of.....

The boy was running across the melting snow. Panting. Terrified. He fell on the mushy snow and skeeted to a messy stop right by Blackie's massive, feathery ruffled hoofs. Then the boy looked up at the fierce man and horse looming over him, staring down, perplexed.

"Robbers! Robbers!"

"Where?" Horsham whispered gruffly, his voice dropping. The boy pointed beyond the horizon.

"We were traveling to Arcadia! On invitation of Princess Gloriana! My mistress and I! When we were attacked by robbers! I just escaped..."

"You mean you ran away?"

"I escaped so I could find help!"

Horsham grinned at that. "Clever rascal! Well! Let's go rescue your mistress! Unless, you don't like her enough to rescue her....do you like your mistress?"

The plump Merrach boy stared at Horsham in horror. "The Princess Royal is my mistress! How dare I even think such a thing!"

"Then you are not such a rascal after all but merely a boringly loyal servant to some pompous Elve!" Horsham laughed. "But I forgive you for being so bloody conventual! Who are we rescuing beside the Princess Royal-pain-in-the-butt?"

"The Robbers killedl five soldiers and the others ran away to fetch help." Horsham grinned. The boy failed to realize why and continued. "The Robbers kidnaped my mistress, her personal servant who refused to run away, and her treasure."

Horsham cocked his head. Something was not right. "So the robbers knew that the Princess Royal was carrying a treasure? Did they demand it by name? Did they know who was carrying it? Tell me exactly what the Robbers said?"

The boy jumped up and down, his little fat belly jiggling like jelly, too frantic to answer. "We have to rescue my mistress!"

Horsham grabbed the boy and heaved him up onto the back of Blackie, in front of him, and patted his head. "Calm down! Now tell me exactly what happened!"

"We were riding from Goldenthrond to Arcadia along the road. We had an invitation from Princess Gloriana...."

"Why? Gloriana is a ice berg? The Princess Royal is the daughter of ....."

Princes Rindeth.... now King Rindeth. That is why the Princess Royal is now Royal."

"The bitch has been upgraded. The Cabal has replaced Ringold with Rindeth eh! So Gloriana asked her replacement to come for an unexpected visit to Arcadia along a long road populated by robbers and riffraff just so she could tell Princess-pain-in-the-butt how wonderful it was that she had been replaced! Eh! Yea! Right! And Princess-pain-in-the-butt just so happened to be carrying a treasure.... not say by chance the Raven Necklace?" The boy stared in wide eyed awe.

"How did you guess?" he whispered in awe.

"Oh just a wild guess!" Horsham growled. "So Princess-pain-in-the-butt gladly accepts the invitation, being a royal dotard like her father Rinny the Mad, and merrily rides off to visit dear, sweet, kind, Gloriana who could plant a stiletto in your back without dropping a smile. And guess what? Suddenly Princess-pain-in-the-butt is attacked by robbers who just so happened to be on the road at just the right time! Gosh! And then .....?"

"They ordered my mistress ---- and you should not be calling her Princess-pain-in-the-butt ----- and they ordered my mistress to hand over the treasure. And my mistress refused and then the leader of the outlaws said that they should kidnap her anyway so they hauled her off." The plump boy was bright red by this time from excitement.

"Along with the servant who refused to be left behind being a join-a-long busybody sort and off they all rode. North? South? East? West?"

"East."

"Gosh! What a surprise! I never would have guessed! Ok! Show me the scene of the farce."

The boy pointed out the scene of the crime. Horsham dismounted, groaned for his bad leg, and knelt down and studied the tracks with fading eyes. Fortunately snow left a more conspicuous trail than sun dried dirt of high summer. Horsham translated the messy tracks for the chubby page boy. "The robbers were waiting by this grove of trees here for some days, waiting for your Princesss-pain-in-the-butt to finally move her tail and arrive at the ambush point. She must have been dawdling really slow. Being extra specially a royal -pain-in-the-butt eh?" The page boy nodded embarrassed, his face again bright red. When Princess Royal-pain-in-the-butt was upgraded he had also been upgraded and he was not enjoying his now exalted job of Royal Page to Princess pain-in-the-butt. "So when she FINALLY appeared the robbers pounced. All her loyal servants ran away being the dis-loyal servants they were except five loyal fools who died because Gloriana wants her god-damn- Raven Necklace back. And see. Here. This track. Off the robbers rode with the princess here and her servant here."

"How do you know?" the plump boy whispered in awe.

"The one horse of the bunch that is not a moor pony is this one here and it is leaving very conspicuous tracks being a Elve steed like Blackie here, but it is not carrying a heavy bastard on it's back." Blackie neyed and Horsham looked at this horse and grinned. Blackie had been carrying Horsham come rain or shine, and fat belly or skinny belly, for quite a few years now. And a six foot four and three quarters man is not a light load at the best of times. And increasingly Horsham was anything but skinny. "Right. So let's ride east and follow the tracks of eight robbers and one servant and one princess!" The man hauled himself onto this horse and pulled the boy up in front. Then man and boy ride east, following the messy trail in the spring thaw.

That evening they caught up with the desperados. Horsham peered quietly in the escalating darkness at the camp site, then crept away. He deposited Blackie and the boy back in a thicket of trees and them crept back to the camp, located in a gully, and deposited himself behind a ridge and peered down as the evening light failed. The campfires twinkled and men murmured as they ate their rations around the fires. No one was hiding anything. No one acted scared. The maid servant was an old bitch of a Merrach, loudly complaining, fussing about, not tied up, bustling about fetching food for her mistress and whining profanely at the robbers who were more or less ignoring her. The voice was of an quarrelsome old woman, probably the Princess Royal's original nanny who had raised the Princess Royal from a baby and so was by instinct both too familiar and intensely loyal to an Elve who probably now only tolerated her by habit. The princess appeared secured to a tree and mighty peeved about it. Her voice, with that arrogant Celestial accent, was snotty and sullen. Young too. An adolescent by the sound of it. Willful. Scared but trying to hide it. And unbelieving that this could possibly by happening to her. The horses were picketed to the left of the camp. Everyone appeared to be eating but they actually remembered to post someone on sentry duty because he was wailing to be fed.. The moon was half full.

After dinner the leader of the robbers resumed questioning the Princess Royal about the location of the 'Pride of the Dwarves' Necklace. Horsham snorted softly. Gloriana was a lousy schemer. Only she used that name. Ringold and everyone else used the name 'Glory of the Dwarves' and Horsham, a Dwarve associate, used by instinct the original name that Durham the Deathless gave to the necklace that he designed to showcase his new invention of diamond cutting in the 'facet style' which featured mathematical design cutting in hard, precise facets rather than the original smooth dome polish of gemstones heretofore. The result was a new brilliance of sparkle that make older gemstones appear dull and dowdy. The 'Raven' was named after Durham's pet ravens that he kept for good luck. But only Durham thought that ravens symbolized good luck and only the Dwarves would name a marketing promotional product after the traditional battlefield symbol of death.

The Princess Royal still continued to deny even having the necklace. To her credit, the quarrelsome nanny was smart. "We didn't bring that heavy thing! Only an idiot would bring that! On a trip along a road filled by outlaws and desperados! We an't that stupid! And anyways! The Cabal would never allow that out of Goldenthrond! We gave you the necklace we were carrying! The Alamack. Rubies. That is it! Get over it! We don't got no diamonds! Give up! Why do you think we even might have it? Who told you we might have it? We don't got nothing else! Stop being such greedy bastards! If you boys think you can get away with kidnaping the Princess Royal then you are way over your heads! Take my advice boyos! Take the Alamack and run like hell!"

"Shut up! I demand the Alamack back! How dare you even think of robbing me! Don't you know who I am! I am the Princess...."

"Royal-pain-in-the-butt" Horsham mouthed to himself as the arrogant voice bitched on and on.

"Look lady!" the lead robber shouted. "We were told you would have it so hand it over! Or we will tear your clothes off you and if we still can't find it, we will break your bones one by one until you hand it over! So shut up and hand over the diamond necklace you god-damn- bitch!"

There was a rustle and the sound of something being taken off and thrown, a thumping sound of something hard hitting the dirt. Then the leader rustled in the bushes and grunted as he apparently found the necklace and held it up. The half moon light faintly shown off the brilliant diamonds.

"Boys! We have it!"

"So what do we do with the bitch?"

"Let us go!" the nanny shouted. "You have the necklace. If you kill a Royal Princess you will be hunted down and killed! Cut and run boys! Don't do something stupid!"

"She is a witness" another man shouted. "We have to kill them both!"

"Killing a princess might be more trouble than it is worth."

"We were told to both get the necklace and kidnap the bitch. At the rendevous we hand over both and get paid plenty! So we endure the bitch until tomorrow. Then let that Marlie guy who ever he is wack her mouth shut!"

Horsham crept away and pondered as Blackie grazed and the boy slept, sitting cross legged on the ground and rocking back and forth, one hand pounding the hard ground as he plotted.

The robber gang broke ground at dawn and continued to ride east. This time they were being tracked by Horsham. Two hours after dawn Horsham rode around the robbers and dumped the boy behind some rocks. Then he tied a scarf over his face, only leaving his eyes visible and boldly rode out as if on rendevous, hailing the gang, calling some by name, for he had carefully listened to the men talk the night before and learned names and casual conversation to create the appearance of knowing about them.

"You assholes are bloody damn late! I finally had to ride to meet you! Where have you been?"

"The bitch was dawdling so we were late ambushing her!" the leader of the gang protested. "Are you Marlie?"

"No! I am Prince Ringold! Who the hell do you think I am? And let me tell you that our mutual employer, the Princess G is mad as hell! She wants her god-damn necklace now! And I am to kill that bitch and bury her deep so no one will find her! Why did you haul along that nanny? Now I have to murder her too and dig two deep graves! Damn it! Oh well! Hand them over!" The phony outlaws grumbled and one man rode up to Horsham, leading the two horses by their reins, both women tied to their mounts, gaged, and indignant. Then the leader of the phony outlaws tossed the necklace to Horsham who dropped the necklace down his tunic. "Don't try to screw me boyos! My spies already told me that the bitch came with two necklaces! Hand over the Alamack!" The outlaw swore and tossed the ruby necklace over to Horsham who dropped that down his tunic too. Then Horsham grabbed he reins of the two horses.

"Hey! Where is our payment?" The leader of the gang shouted.

At that moment slingshot bullets rained down from the rocks, hitting some of the outlaws and spooking their moor ponies. The outlaws shouted in confusion, under attack, as Horsham raced east, hauling the two horses and the prisoners behind him. He shouted out: "The Princess G's payment to you Boyos! She has screwed you right royal! You have been ambushed! If I were you I would run like hell!" Horsham rode past the rocks where he grabbed the sling shot shooting boy and hurled him up in the air and onto Blackie. All three horses raced east.

The phony outlaws swore but bolted off under fear of ambush. They were after all only phony outlaws. Meanwhile Horsham rode like the Dark Lord was after him. Blackie galloped heroically, the nanny's moor pony barely able to keep up and the Princess Royal's expensive white horse panting and out of shape compared to the professional soldier that Blackie was. Horsham rode like hell, then double tracked across a stream, then down the stream, across a gully of mud, around a rocky hillside, and down a ravine. After all Horsham knew this part of the landscape like the back of his hand and he was a professional Crow while the phony outlaws were only phony outlaws. There Horsham hauled the women kicking off their horses and threw them down hard, tied up the horses, and then ran off and further obscured the trail, walking backwards and he removed all evidence to his little hideout.

Horsham knelt by the nanny and whispered gruffly, switching his accent from 'Marlie' to 'Harry'. "Shut up and stay still! I am a Crow, an agent from Arcadia! Name is Harry. Agent Harry. Of Celebeau's staff. I am keeping my face masked because I am a secret agent. I am here to rescue you so lay absolutely still! We must lay low and let the thugs ride off to Arcadia ahead of us to vex their rage out on Gloriana! Ok! So stop moving and making any noise or I will hit you!" The two gaged women froze, eyes blazing, but mercifully mute. The boy crawled up and saluted his mistress then Horsham pushed him down too. Then Horsham pressed his big body behind a boulder and everyone make themselves as invisible as possible ---- all day long. Not a comfortable position to be in. Horsham grinned behind his bandana. He knew Princess-Pain-in-the Butt would be as mad at her rescuer as she was at her robbers. So Horsham intended to let a real agent of Celebeau take the comic rap for the Princess Royal-pain-in-the-butt's fury later.

Come nightfall Horsham dragged the women into a sitting position at least and un-gaged them after gesturing -- with a fist ---- so they would stay silent. He untied the nanny first who nodded and stayed silent. Then Horsham un-gaged the Princess Royal who opened her mouth -- and got a fist in the face. She spent the rest of the night sleeping it off. Fortunately she did not have a Dwarve mirror to see her black eye. Being Agent 'Harry' was going to be great fun.

Horsham could roost in the wilderness for days on end, spying while barely moving, enduring any weather, enduring leg cramps and exposure, and still not move until he got his information, but then move like a shadow for a fast getaway. But he found out the hard way that his guests simply were not of Crow caliber. They whined and complained and growled and bit his hand when he shoved the gags deeper in their royal mouths. Exasperated, he tied up the boy and gaged him too. But he knew he had to move soon because they were incapable of enduring the abuse he could endue. He had to unload them soon and that meant he had to move prematurely. So he slithered off and surveyed the terrain. No one appeared in sight. He figured that the phony outlaws would ride east and hunt out Gloriana, mad as hell. No one seemed near the mostly obscured trail to his little ravine. So he crept back and hauled each tied member of the unhappy party, now stiff, in pain, and miserable, back onto their horses, mounted Blackie and hauled the boy up, and quietly rode west for Goldenthrond. He almost made it. Almost.

Horsham was overtaken by real robbers who rode over the horizon and descended on him in a swarm. The leader of these real life robbers ripped off the gag and the Princess Royal promptly ordered him to "arrest this knave Harry, and tie him up, and gag him, and turn my two priceless necklaces that he stole forthwith!". The leader grinned, winked at Horsham who was rolling his eyes behind his mask while surrounded by naked blades, and promptly grabbed the two necklaces, ripping Horsham's tunic open with his sword while cutting Horsham's hairy chest quite a nasty wound, grabbed the two priceless necklaces, and delivered them to ---- himself, depositing them both in his own dirty tunic! Then he tied up Horsham, punched him in his masked face with a fist garnished by bronze rings that acted like brass knuckles, knocking him unconscious and bloody, tied him like a dead weight to Blackie, but did not untie the Princess Royal or her nanny or her plump pageboy. Instead the outlaws hauled everyone to their sanctuary in the wilderness of the Rocky River.

The outlaws lived in the ever moving camps of the migrating savages who lived in the wild lands: Dark Elves and Maleth Mere Mortals. The savages lived as wandering hunter gatherers in small tribes along the Rocky River and provided the outlaws with game, wild foods, and indirect protection in return for metal for tools and weapons. These were Southern Wild Peoples. Far Southern. But like the Sweetwater Tribes that Horsham commanded for one season, The Southern Dark Elves and Maleth were still a stone age people with only limited technology and little contact with 'civilization' which had treated them very badly throughout history. First the Twilight and then the Celestial had driven them off their rich hunting lands and sacred holy places in the Blue Grass. Now the disinherited Dark Elves and their Mere Mortal associates were beleaguered, persecuted, ravished by Twilight Diseases like influenza, small pox, measles, mumps, whopping cough, and cholera, (diseases created by agriculture and spread by agricultural animals and birds originally brought by the Twilight Elves). They therefore viewed their superior Elve cousins with wary fear and loathing and suspicion.

The one recent alliance of some of the Wild Peoples with the Twilight Elves had resulted in a flurry of bronze weapons but then a flurry of corpses. One tribe lost it's best Battle Maiden, Dark of the Moon, to a vile assault and another tribe lost five brave men to Ben the Butcher. Another tribe had four warriors butchered under mysterious circumstances too. And the tribes that had fatally allied with 'Civilization' also brought back diseases from the military camps. New plagues of pox and typus. So plainly the Wild People could see that working for the Twilight Elves still only brought disease and death. Nowadays the Southern Wild Peoples of the Rocky River avoided the Civilized Peoples like the plague. Civilization meant the plague. Exploitation. Vile Murder. No amount of bronze was worth that. Unlike the foolishly tempted Sweetwater Tribes, the Southern Tribes had no intention of making the same mistake.

This tribe was especially proud of it's avoidance of 'civilization'. Other than bartered bronze weapons and metal pots and Dwarve glass beads brought by the outlaws, the savages appeared pristine of corruption of outside influences. There was no hideous pox scars and ragged civilized clothes that made the Sweetwater Tribes look 'poor' and 'dirty'. Their skins were smooth and beautiful. Their savage fur and suede was neat and exotic. Their tree bark cloth was pristine. Their native jewelry was fantastic but beautiful. Their feathers were glorious. Hugely glorious.

Rhingol the Great saw himself as a gentle patriarch who protected all his peoples including the 'pathetic and backward savages' which he treated like retarded children. But the 'retarded' children viewed Rhingol the Great as a mass murderer and they loathed the Children of Finn as butchers. So the savages viewed the robbers as protectors and allies and they viewed Horsham, an agent of Arcadia, and the Princess Royal, a descendant of Finn, as dangerous enemies. The outlaws rode into the midst of the campsite of the Maleth and Dark Elves to both barter and to buy protection. They knew they would get it. Horsham, who tended to slither through the Rocky River Territory like a shadow, knew he was in trouble. The Princess Royal and her shrunken retinue most definitely did not realize the trouble they were in.

The savage campsite was a clearing dotted by bowers or huts of greenery and sod meant to last but the season for the hunter gathers migrated along with their wild animals that they hunted, both wild animals and wild peoples following the cycles of wild harvests that they reaped from nature. They did not stay to till the ground or herd domesticated animals other than the dog. Some of the Sweetwater Dark Elves and Maleth were doing that. Much of the barter Horsham paid the Sweetwater Tribes was in goats or sheep and moor ponies and seeds for 'wild gardens' of crude barley and hardy buckwheat and peas and onions. But the diseases tainted the barter and the Southern Wild Tribes doubted that the payoff in 'domestication' was worth the contamination of civilization.

Racks of fur and deer skin were drying in the warmth of spring. Spring buds and roots were being harvested to eat along with the usual winter foods of fish, grubs, insects, rats, rodents, sick animals too weak to survive the winter, the castoffs of big hunters like the panther, and fresh herbs and mushrooms that were now blossoming with the spring thaw. These savages did not even have moor ponies other than three rather aging ponies acquired by barter and no sheep or goats or pigs so there were no corrals or pickets. The bowers were scattered casually around the clearing. Because they migrated they did not have to worry about sanitation and the lack of domesticated animals meant no agricultural diseases either. Instead of practical commercial or agricultural output, the savages produced art.

All around the clearing were erected trees cut down, carved, adored with flowers, and re-erected. Fetishes of the Dark Elves many gods guarded the tribe with benevolence. The art, temporary, to be used and then abandoned, was nevertheless dazzling in it's skill and primitive beauty. Every bower was graced with fetish masks too, equally amazing and equally beautiful. Totems that each family did take from camp to camp were smoothly polished wood, dark from constant caressing, and much loved. Today the Museum of The Havens has priceless pieces of Dark Elve and Maleth folk art. But the Princess Royal would have viewed the priceless beauty with scornful eyes as barbaric. Horsham would have viewed the lack of 'wild gardens' or pickets of sheep or goats or pigs as 'foolish'.

The Rocky River was considered open wilderness, neighboring Arcadia's southern flank. There were yet few intruders, and they brought metal to barter to facilitate their way. Only Horsham had drawn any maps for Bela. Arcadia did not have the swelling of over population (presently restrained by war) or the politics (that drove the Beorach out of Finnland) to feed expansion. So the savages were still fairly secure in their occupation of the border land of the Rocky River. Rhingol the Great did not allow the brutal genocide that the Celestial Elves practiced in Finnland. There were no bloody massacres in Arcadia records. That did not mean that the savages did not die at the hands of their 'superior' cousins or that their 'superior' cousins did not die at the hands of savages. Just that the rate of bloody run-ins did not constitute more than a blimp in the radar of history.

But despite the relative calm of present border relations, the ancestral memories and oral history of the Dark Elves and Maleth spoke of near genocide, so ancient memories kept the savages uneasy and unfriendly. But the current relationship, Ben aside, was fairly neutral. Occasional encounters. Occasional trading for prized Twilight bronze axes and spear heads and Dwarve iron pots, and occasional acts of violence on both sides based on mutual ignorance. But the encounters were fairly rare so public myths and distorted views of history continued to color each race's perception of the other. Even Horsham, a fairly tolerant man, originally despised the 'Savages' because of myths told to him, presented as history, told by only one side, and originally believed by Horsham because he originally avoided the savages accordingly. Only when he commanded the savages did Horsham have his prejudice exposed by reality. Then Horsham mellowed But few men even now viewed the Wild Peoples as anything but inferior and dangerous.

So the savage Maleth Mere Mortals and Dark Elves now stared at their prisoners like mythic monsters, their past come back to haunt them. Elves were Elves but now the Dark Elves feared the Celestial Elve before them. The Princess Royal glared back horrified and revolted by the Dark Elves she viewed as sub-Elve. Mere Mortals were Mere Mortals but now the Maleth despised the Mere Mortal tied to Blackie like a side of meat, as he glared at them with bloody eyes, his masked face sodden with blood but his eyes blazing murder.

The savages themselves wore kilts of bark cloth or fur or buckskin, their legs covered by thigh high buckskin boots fringed down the outside and buttoned by bone buttons. Their naked chests were adored with spring flowers and here and there, Dwarve beads or strange shells from the far away 'Ocean' or bear claws or pieces of stone or flint or pyrite cunningly crafted by bone tools. Their long dark hair hung down loose and was adored with either flowers or feathers (if they were female for the Maleth were matriarchal and only women were allowed to wear feathers, a sign of authority). The Maleth dominated the Dark Elves (benevolently for the two races much intermarried) but the Maleth culture prevailed over the Dark Elve who were more passive and easily dominated. Most of the savages still welded stone weapons and tools though the stone was wonderfully crafted and really quite as effective as bronze as far as the sharpness of the edge. Bronze and iron were more status. Human nature is after all human nature. The real trophy were waterproof iron pots. The tribe crafted magnificent willow baskets but they were not waterproof and heat proof for cooking. The entire tribe possessed only one piece of steel. The Queen owned a genuine steel long knife because she was Queen. Steel was wonderful. Not even their best volcanic stone knife could equal it.

The outlaws greeted the savages cheerily and produced a blanket of barter with a flourish before the feet of the Maleth Queen: the blanket was fine Twilight wool, stolen of course, and the contents displayed on the stolen blanket were a miscellany of stolen goods, including stolen farm knives of bronze and iron, stolen boot knives, stolen fish hooks, stolen Dwarve glass beads and stolen iron pots -- all much prized by the Maleth. The display also included a fine bronze short sword, long knife, boot knife, steel stiletto, and steel long sword -- Horsham's weapons. And Horsham was not happy about that. Especially as he could not replace the one weapon, his prized steel long sword without much cost. And besides he was much attached to the weapon he had personally ordered cast by the best Dwarve Sword Makers just to fit his long shanks and long arms for the First Sanguinary Duel.

Horsham was also unhappy because after a day's ride he was retching from being tied over the broad back of Blackie like a dead weight. Horsham was also not happy because he was tied belly down on Blackie's broad back which rubbed his bloody chest and belly raw and still more bloody. And Horsham was not happy because his nose was broken and swollen, as were his two black eyes, his whole face now quite ghastly and unrecognizable. And Horsham was not happy because the Princess Royal was responsible for putting him in this position, tied to Blackie like a side of meat waiting to be slaughtered while his prized long sword was being bartered to a savage Queen.

The Princess Royal opened her mouth to order the Maleth Queen to release her, and finally, FINALLY, realized she was way over her head in danger. The Maleth Queen did not in the least acknowledge her Celestial superiority, quite the contrary. The proud if savage Queen openly despised the Celestial Elve. The teenager finally, FINALLY realized that she was surrounded by a race that her race had disinherited and casually exterminated as vermin. Finally it seeped into the dense brain of the teenager that she was really, really, really in trouble. It took that long for prejudice to drop the blinkers long enough for her to see the danger she was in. Then the young 16 year old Elve visibly wilted as she stood bound and gaged and dirty and disheveled. And normally the Princess Royal prided herself on being spotlessly clean and pressed and dressed and preened to perfection and always totally in control.

The Merrach Mere Mortal page boy shook with fear, surrounded by savages dressed in fur and feathers who stroked his strange blond hair and cooed (the Dark Elves and Maleth were dark haired). The Nanny glared fiercely. No one stroked her grey hair or cooed at her. The Maleth Queen, a stout woman dressed in a kilt of iridescent blue green mallard feathers with a crown of towering feathers on her dark hair, surveyed the blanket of loot and then the prisoners, waving her large feathered fan languidly as she inspected the trophies. Then she nodded at the outlaws, waving her fan of feathers with imperial grandeur to signal that she was much pleased. The outlaws bowed, grinning. Ritual was done. Everyone now sat down to gossip, the outlaw leader clearly on friendly terms with the buxom Queen. The Queen's retinue of servants scurried about to produce a feast out of tight spring rations fit for guests and allies. The results might not have wooed Rhingol the Great but the outlaws were not fussy being Merrach desperados who loved food, any food, even spring time grub which anywhere was skinny pickings even in the best of houses. The prisoners needless to say were not invited except for the boy. The Merrach page boy was rescued, untied, fussed over, his blond hair tousled, his plump pink and white skin pinched, and then his clothes yanked off. The boy wailed in terror. "Help! Help! They are going to boil me alive and eat me!" The outlaws only laughed.

"Boyo! You have just been adopted! You're free! You're a new brother to the Queen's own son. See!"

And indeed a Maleth boy about the same age as the Merrach boy, brought out a deerskin kilt and dressed the frightened boy. The Queen's daughter wrapped a garland of spring flowers around the boy's neck. And the Queen herself patted the boy on his plump stomach with much admiration and then kissed him. The savages cheered the adoption by clapping their hands and singing in their traditional strange clicking tongue. The outlaws joined in too. They knew enough of the savage language to grease their way into the savages' good graces, showing more wisdom than the Twilight who expected everyone to learn their language and adopt their culture as the only enlightened mode of civilized behavior.

The Princess and her nanny were left tied up and gagged. By now they ought to be used to it but no, they growled in muffled fury behind their gags nevertheless. They were shoved into a hut so the party did not have to be spoiled by their grumpy presence. Then Horsham was hauled off Blackie, his big body a heavy weight for he did not intend to help the shorter savages in any way. A six foot four and three quarters man can be a very heavy dead weight if he wanted to be. The much smaller and thinner Dark Elves and short and stout Maleth had to strain to drag him off Blackie. So they were not gentle either. Horsham hit the ground hard. Then they dragged him over to a tree and tied him up, hands tied to a high overhead branch, his feet dangling, like a still living hide -- and he not happy about that either. The Queen gestured and the bloody bandana was removed from Horsham's face. His face was then revealed in all it's bloody and swollen glory. He glared at the savages but did not say anything so he was not gaged.

The Warrior Princess then proudly marched up to claim Blackie. Horsham whistled and Blackie shook his head in agreement. The Princess jumped up on Blackie's broad back and proudly claimed the magnificent beast. The magnificent beast snorted and then bucked. The Warrior Princess found herself on her ass in the dirt. Horsham crowed in triumph. "Good boy Blackie! Show the bitch who is boss! We males have to stay together!" Blackie marched over and positioned himself right by his partner in life and stoically stood at attention tall and proud. The Warrior Princess dusted off her bruised rump and walked back to the feast and sat down. No one else decided to contest Blackie.. No one else decided to try the big white horse either then. But the moor pony the Nanny rode into the camp was seized with much delight.

The savages and the outlaws partied discreetly for everyone was still on spring time rations. But the outlaws had a good time of it, unlike their prisoners. There was no alcohol. That too was a foreign luxury and the outlaws had not been able to steal any. The Maleth Queen disliked drunkenness anyway and the outlaws knew how to keep on her good side. The Maleth Queen thought that alcohol aggravated the already irrational brains of males and she did not want their smaller brains strained more than they normally were by life's demands. The outlaws were males not lead by a female and apparently well behaved but the Queen explained that by saying they were Merrach and therefore strange and abnormal creatures anyway. Males were not always stupid, just normally stupid. It was a question of male hormones. The Queen, a Dark Elve half breed, could smell male hormones with her Elve sensitive nose and she knew about hormones. She was, she thought, an expert on males and why males were inferior creatures to females. She was as sure of that as the Beorach were sure that males were superior to females. Both sides could list a dozen reasons for their prejudice. Some of the reasons were even the same reasons.

"I challenge you to a duel" Horsham shouted in rough but viable Maleth. The Queen laughed, as did the outlaws. Male behavior was always amusing. But she was surprised Horsham spoke Maleth. Most 'Civilized' intruders could not speak any dialect of any of the Wild Peoples.

"That bird won't fly! 'Harry'" the outlaw leader laughed. "We an't Beorach thugs who like to crush each other's brains in!" The outlaw was of mixed Merrach blood and easy going for an outlaw. It was a job, not a passion. Being outlaw did not mean raping and rampaging like the Beorach. It was a business with rules of protocol, a game played on the border of morality, a casual mode just outside of convention but not outrageous, or even antisocial. The outlaw was a short, burly man, with greying flaxen hair, a spreading bald spot and spreading beer belly, a grizzled beard, and merry blue eyes. He grinned now, one tooth missing which accented his grin, and waved at Horsham with lazy humor.

"My Queen Maleth! Do you know the outlaw leader conceals great treasure in his tunic? Search him! Discover what he is concealing!"

The outlaw still laughed and he pulled off his tunic to reveal his overflowing beer belly, greying chest hair, and two necklaces. He held up both for all to see. "Queen Maleth. You accepted my barter. A steel sword is worth more than these baubles that I plan to sell to a Dwarve middleman to sell to far away 'Havens'. Only silly Elves love stuff like this."

"Did he tell you about them before the deal was done?" Horsham chimed in.

The Queen inspected the baubles but the outlaw knew her. She knew the steel sword was more useful than baubles. And the sword had been given freely. She stood up and gestured. The long sword was placed in her stout hands by the outlaw leader. Only then did she realize that the long sword was quite long indeed. In fact no one in the entire tribe could weld it. The steel long sword was crafted to be welded by a six foot four and three quarters tall man with big brawny muscles fed by lots of beef protein. Her female warriors were all too short and a diet of grubs and roots and the occasional fish and much more occasional game did not breed bodies with massive muscle mass. Horsham's broad chest and broader shoulders and bulging muscles was the product of a diet created by agriculture and no hunter gatherer could come close to it.

The Queen now eyed the baubles like one who was short shafted by a rigged arrow. The Maleth were savages but they were good archers. They were not good at swords for they hid and shot like snipers, or else laid cunning traps and snares. They did not fight in your face because they never had the tools of war to enable them to fight in your face. So a too-long sword was now revealed to be in fact rather useless. A status totem maybe. But unuseable. Something that could be paraded but then a bauble could be paraded too. Suddenly the baubles were back on the table. The Queen clicked her tongue and the outlaw leader knew it and shrugged and pulled out the baubles again from his dirty tunic and put them on the barter blanket.

"One bauble is negotiable. The other bauble I must keep to sell to far away 'Havens.' Pick one."

"Queen Maleth. Claim them both! He is trying to cheat you!" Horsham shouted.

"Oh shut up 'Harry' and let me barter!" the outlaw leader shouted back exasperated. "Queen Maleth. When have I ever cheated you? I need to pay my way in the 'Havens' too and that takes baubles. Baubles are needed in the 'Havens' just as much as metal is needed here. To each their own. And I must live in both worlds."

The Queen laughed and nodded. She picked the Alamack because the rubies were bright red. The outlaw resisted grinning for he had hoped she would pick the more gaudy red bauble. He knew the Raven Necklace was famous but could be broken up and resold in The Havens for a fortune, enough for him to retire from the outlaw business once and for all. Being an outlaw was hard on his aging joints. An outlaw with a beer belly is an outlaw who wants to retire.

"I want my god damn sword back!" Horsham shouted. I will fight anyone for it. It is my totem fetish and I must fight to the death to keep it just as you would fight to the death to keep your fetishes! I an't no different! I want my god damn sword back!" Horsham's voice bellowed over the campsite, and when Horsham bellowed he could bellow. Legend said that once Horsham bellowed "Get off your god damn Elve arse Celebeau and cover my god damn left flank!" across the entire battlefield of Sidi's Hollow and Celebeau heard him on the other side, five miles away. But then the Elves have a keen sense of hearing and the lay of the land can either swallow up sounds or else magnify sounds. But the whole campsite heard Horsham right now, and then some, like deep, rolling thunder.

The Queen looked at Horsham with raised eyebrows. The outlaw leader grinned a gap tooth grin and scratched one grizzled cheek. "I think 'Harry' wants his sword back" he laughed. The Queen reacted with amusement at Horsham's brazen defiance, laughing at the primitive male nature.

"This savage man is must amusing! I will accept the red bauble and all the swords of this savage male except for the long sword. Let us find an amusing test for this savage to reclaim his fetish sword. But we must make it amusing for he is but male and irrational and incapable of complex thought to play sophisticated games such as we are capable of!"

"Queen Maleth, does not your tribe have 'Shadowy Ones' educate your female warriors, in the Four Arts of Civilization."

"Yes. I make sure all females are properly educated in the Four Arts to grow up into fine warriors and good heads of families and wise members of the tribe. Of course we do not bother to teach men for they are so emotional that they can not follow anything complex put before them because they are always butting heads, or indulging in silly displays of violence and temper, being infantile and incapable of controlling their passions. A boy will butt heads and play brawl while a young girl will sit and learn any skill required of her. So by instinct males reveal their inferiority. Males are like the wild stags that can only bash antlers and bellow and roar and copulate but do nothing else while the females do all the practical things that maintain the life, the unity, the children, and the survival of the herd or tribe. So even nature reveals male inferiority. I tell you this quite frankly for you are an unusual male of unusual brain capacity.

The outlaw leader smiled slyly and nodded as if agreeing. "But would it not be amusing to watch this bellowing fella try and fail to do the Four Arts of Civilization and so reveal his natural inferiority? Do not these Arcadian creatures arrogantly pride themselves on being better than you? So to see him try and fail would be most amusing!"

The Maleth Queen laughed. "Splendid! I will allow the savage to attempt the Four Arts of Civilization to try to earn his fetish back despite being inferior." She marched up to Horsham and announced that "'Harry'! I will give you back your fetish sword if you display the pluck of trying the impossible by attempting our Four Arts of Civilization! You must compete in all the events of the Four Arts, and win the majority of events in each of the Four Arts. If you win the majority of events in each of the Four Arts then you can earn back your sword! But if you fail to win the majority of events in any of the Four Arts then I will keep your sword and kill you.

Death would not be unreasonable. Understand that 'Harry'. For if you lose your personal fetish, you would be damned anyway and you would feel compelled to attack us in shame so we naturally must kill you if you fail, in logical self defense. But if you re-earn back your fetish then you will have displayed valor and honor and thus you will have your sword given back to you in recognition. So you will wish to ride back to Arcadia to boast to your fellow males about it and get drunk and otherwise behave as all males do and you will not wish to stay and attack us.

Let it be so. Tomorrow you will start the first of the Four Arts. The First of the Four Arts are the Six Activities: Running, Swimming, Leaping, Riding, Hand Work, and Art. You must try all Six Activities and you must win the majority of the events or you will die. Let it be so! We will tie you to a tree so you can eat and sleep to gain strength but not escape." The Queen was a gracious woman and she knew it. She did not expect Horsham to be sensible of her graciousness however and was prepared for him to revert to male type and behave despicably.

Horsham was cut down and tied to a tree with long rope so he could sit more comfortably but his hands were kept tied behind his back. The feast continued amiably and the Queen, being in a good mood, even fed Horsham some of the feast foods herself and later she prepared a cunning mud to his face to keep his eyes from swelling shut so he could not complete in his trial of life and death. Then she stitched the nasty, jagged wound that ran down his chest and part of his stomach closed. The wound was shallow by bloody. The Queen then applied a cunning potion to prevent infection. Did that not prove the Queen was gracious? Would any male have done that?

The next day the tribe prepared for the First of the Four Arts: the Six Feats of Activity which included running, leaping, swimming, riding, handwork, and art. All the 'Shadowy Ones' lined up to be chosen, as did many of the warrior maidens. The thought of competing against an Arcadian Male seem delightful so the competition proved fierce to be chosen. The Queen had to ponder how to pick the competitors. Horsham shot another arrow into the dispute by saying only one competitor should compete against him. "Fair is fair. I am only one man. Surely only one woman should compete?" Finally the Queen simply picked lots for the competitor. The winner was a warrior maiden called Black Panther. She was a lithe maiden of some twenty two of mixed ancestry with the dark hair and flashing midnight blue eyes of the Dark Elves and the aggressiveness of the Maleth. She stood five foot three, the norm for the tribe and weighed little more than one hundred pounds. That was also the norm for the tribe. The Maleth were more stout than the lithe Dark Elves but both races inclined to smallness, a tendency reinforced by the diet of the hunter gatherer which ranged from near famine in the winter and spring to excessive gluttony in the summer and autumn which kept their bodies small.

Horsham loomed over Black Panther in both height and weight but that did not impress her at all. Black Panther grinned at Horsham and gestured in a hand sign of contempt. Horsham however knew all the ancient hand signs the Dark Elves and Green Elves originally used among themselves before the Twilight Elves appeared. The Maleth learned the ancient signs when they migrated into Our World, as did all the Mere Mortal tribes who originally spoke their own barbaric languages and needed one way to communicate with other peoples. But the Beorach and Merrach abandoned their ancient barbaric babbling and learned the official language of Our World: Twilight while the Maleth now spoke a merged language as they merged with the Dark Elves.

However the original hand signs persisted long after their original use, to communicate between peoples of diverse spoken tongues, had ceased. The hand signs migrated into the common language of civilized peoples as elegant or profane visual slang to augment the more sophisticated Twilight Language. In war the silent language of hands signs had even seen a resurgence. So Horsham knew all the signs because of his military training and his natural street vernacular (profanity). So Horsham knew the sign of profanity that Black Panther flashed. He flashed her back an equally profane hand gesture. Black Panther laughed. Everyone laughed. Horsham promised to be very amusing.

The Warrior Princess had her revenge for being upchucked by Blackie. She designed the first part of the contest to combine running, jumping, swimming and riding. A course was now laid out, lined by totems, five miles long. Trophies dangled along the route which had to be collected. They were rope necklaces. She now walked Black Panther and Horsham through the course, pointing out each trophy necklace's location along the route. Horsham was visibly unhappy so Black Panther grinned. Then the two competitors limbered up and then lined up at the start of the course. Black Panther took off her clothes and boots to compete naked. Horsham removed his tunic and boots but kept on his leggings. The Warrior Princess counted down: "Three, Two, One, Go!" and off the lithe battle maiden and Horsham ran.

Horsham lumbered after the fleeter Black Panther, pounding his heavy body down a barely trampled trail into the woods, his bad leg making his moves less than elegant. He grabbed the first necklace of tree blossoms and threw it over his head, then jumped over fallen trees, digging out another necklace from under the largest fallen tree featuring a mandrake fetish (really just a polished root for real mandrakes were rare and dangerous) and threw that over his head. Then he ran along the stream to a natural monolith and snatched another necklace featuring a tiny stone and toss that over his head. He was still not anywhere near the fleet footed Black Panther who was racing far ahead. Racing through forests were the speciality of Dark Elves.

Then Horsham leaped off a small cliff and plunged off a small waterfall, diving with the water, and plunged deep into a cool pool in the glen, plunging to the bottom to grab a stone weighted necklace of faraway shell, before surfacing, gasping for air. Black Panther was splashing out of the water just ahead of him. She had run into a problem finding her stone weighted necklace underwater. Horsham growled and swam strongly across the forest pool and hurled himself up onto the stone cliff of the pool, eighteen feet up at a near vertical descent. If either competitor fell they would fall back into the pool and lose valuable time. Black Panther was struggling to find toe holds on the mossy granite. Now Horsham's beefy fed, beefy strong muscles came into play. He hauled himself up the granite, speeding past Black Panther, and threw himself over the top of the cliff, snatched the next necklace dangling from a bush at the top of the cliff, and sprinted off, lumbering in his less than elegant gait but with powerful thighs to make up for his bad leg.

Suddenly Black Panther streaked past him. She yelled a war cry and raced ahead, her body more nimble for she was the best runner of all the tribe. Horsham panted and hauled after her and both runners raced back through the woods to the next target: an ancient oak tree worshiped by the tribe and dressed with fetishes. Black Panther jumped up into the tree and nimbly started climbing. Horsham, five minutes behind, threw himself up into the branches and hauled himself up, using his powerful forearms to pull his heavy body up from branch to branch. Black Panther was more nimble, like a tree snake. She reached the branch from which the two necklaces dangled and snatched her necklace, threw it over her head, and started maneuvering down, passing Horsham.

Horsham swore and reached for his necklace, almost dropped it, threw it over his head, and lumbered down. Half way he gambled and jumped off the tree, landing with a hard thump ahead of Black Panther but landing hard on his bad leg, then he galloped off through the woods barely ahead of her. But the few minutes he snatched were expensive. He had hurt his bad leg. Still he refused to acknowledged pain and pounded down the wooded path. Black Panther raced past him and leapt onto the borrowed outlaw moor pony ahead of Horsham who swore a blue streak but reached Blackie eight minutes behind. He jumped onto Blackie and man and horse gave chase.

Blackie was a much bigger, heaver horse than the moor pony and Black Panther had only limited experience on horses for the tribe only possessed three aging ponies, prized trophies too expensive for usual barter. Black Panther rode pretty well but she was inexperienced. Blackie was much more powerful and horse and man pounded past the moor pony as Horsham bent down low to minimize resistance. Man and horse passed Black Panther in a blur and pounded down the course, expertly navigating across a stream, jumping over trees to cut minutes off the course, and ducking low hanging tree branches.

Alas Horsham failed to see the booby trap loop in his path and he tripped it. A net dropped from up a tree and snared him in tangles of hemp rope. Horsham swore and yanked at the mess, Blackie stopped in his tracks, to pull the net off him. Behind him he heard Black Panther racing past him. Horsham pulled off the last of the netting and threw it blindly in the direction of Black Panther. The net snagged her in it's coils and she fell off the pony. Horsham grabbed the pony by the simple loop of leather around it's neck that acted as a bridle, and raced ahead. He eluded two more forest snares and saw the camp just ahead. Too excited, he failed to see the last snare. A snapped rope released a small wooden spear, the tip only cut and burned wood, that swung down toward man and horse, whistling as it fell in an arc. Horsham gasped, acting instinctively, and threw his own body before Blackie as the massive horse reaped up on it's powerful hind legs. The spear impaled Horsham's right arm.

Horsham dropped the pony's lead and the moor pony make a fast get away, obviously deciding to quit the race altogether. Horsham reeled on Blackie, nearly toppled, then righted himself on Blackie. He pulled out the small spear and tossed it away. Then he clutched at his bloody arm and rode into the camp, crossing the finish line while roaring out a war cry. The outlaws cheered, then remembered which side of their mushrooms was topped by wild honey and then they booed.

"The spear is the last trophy!" the Warrior Princess crowed back. . Horsham swore a naval blue streak, remembering too late her vague instructions back at the beginning of the race. He wheeled about and rode back. At that moment Black Panther raced up and snatched the spear and ran ahead, grinning. Horsham swore and peered around for the loop on the forest floor that would trigger her spear, spotted it, pulled and ducked, and then grabbed the spear as it swished past his head. He yanked it and raced back on Blackie. Man and horse just barely caught up with Black Panther as all raced across the dirt line together. It was a tie. Except it wasn't.

Black Panther wore one more necklace around her neck than Horsham. "You did not tell me about that necklace!" Horsham swore.

"I did. You did not hear me" the Warrior Princess insisted as Black Panther grinned.

"Where was it then?"

"The stream you jumped across before you reached the waterfall."

"No. You did not tell me that a necklace was there to be fetched!"

"I did. You did not hear me."

"Bullshit! You whispered it to Black Panther then! I fetched every necklace I hear fair and square!"

"Black Panther has won the Leaping, Running, Swimming, and Riding parts of the Six Activities so you are already too far behind." The Warrior Princess grinned.

"No. The Leaping, Running, Swimming, and Riding were ONE contest so Black Panther won only one contest. There is another contest of Hand Work and a final contest of Art. So I can still win!"

"No you are wrong!"

"I am right! You combined the Leaping, Running, Swimming and Riding into one event so it all counts as one event! You should not have been so tricky! The trick as recoiled on you! And you did not tell me about the snares being triggered to wound. The spear could have injured Blackie! That is despicable. To hurt a horse!"

"No. Being despicable is if you failed to protect your horse" The Warrior Princess declared.

"And Black Panther fell off her moor pony and lost it. She crossed the line without her pony so how could she say she won the riding part?" Horsham shouted that out to everyone. "No Moor Pony! NO Winning the Riding!"

At this point the Queen raised her feathered fan and everyone fell silent. "'Harry' does not have one necklace! Black Panther does not have moor pony! So the game is tied! Let the competitors rest and recover! Then we will have the Art and Hand Work Contest! Let it be so!" And so it was.

Horsham wrapped a rag around his bloody arm and then cooled down Blackie, walked him around the camp, trailed by many curious onlookers, and then wiped the horse down and brushed him. The Queen watched from a distance and then gestured and Horsham was fetched to her imperial side. "You take good care of your brave horse, as is only right and honorable. You took a blow that could have injured your horse too. That is also right and honorable. Let me see the wound." Horsham unwrapped the bloody rag that once was part of his tunic. The wound was not dangerous but it had bleed heavily. The buxom Queen clicked her tongue and expertly sewed it up and wrapped spider web and then clean bark cloth about it. "Your body tells me many things 'Harry'. You are a careless man of your person, like one who does not value himself."

"Men are men as I believe you have said."

"Men usually value their persons however. They are excessively violent and act hot-headed instead of coolly plotting. That is why they are inferior. I believe however that you are playing a hidden game. I would not have thought a man capable of playing a hidden game. You have not tried to escape. You would not have succeeded of course for we are wonderful in our snares and hidden defenses. But you have not tried. Are you plotting to save the two females? Or the Necklaces of colored stone and colorless stone?"

"Both. Can we barter Queen? You can keep the red necklace if I can rescue the two silly women and the colorless necklace. I know the boy is safe with you and I will let him decide his destiny for himself." the Queen was presently wearing the ruby Alamack around her neck. Horsham knew through his association with Dwarve pawnbrokers that the Elve owner of the Alamack was hopelessly in debt to his Dwarve treasurer and had in fact pawned the real Alamack off as security for his debts. The necklace the buxom Queen was wearing was actually a fake that the desperate courtier palmed off on the Princess Royal for a gambling debt.

The Queen pondered, her feather fan languidly waving as she thought. "The 'Shadowy Ones' have also asked for the two females too. They wish to ritually slay them over their secret cauldron and cut their throats and drain their blood for their 'Life and Death' Ceremonies. For the 'Precarious Time' is near when Daylight and Nighttime hover exactly even and Life teeters between Spring and Summer. Spring is thin on the ground. Summer is the time of fatness and plenty. We must exorcize Spring to usher in Summer. Usually we sacrifice an animal. But we have two aliens who are naturally evil anyway so why not use them to buy the Coming of Summer?"

"They are foolish females but they are not evil. Only ignorant and vain. Use an animal. Do not use a human sacrifice. Then the foolish back in Arcadia and Goldenthrond will say you are indeed but savages. Use an animal."

"We have not yet snared a large animal yet. The 'Shadowy Ones' say that is a sign of famine. Our snares come up empty. We are hungry. Our hunting is not being blessed. We need fresh meat soon or else our weakest will die. The Winter was hard and in Spring the weakest are precarious and needy. But the snares are coming up empty. It is a sign but of what?"

"The sign is that you should barter for tame goats to tend as you migrate from camp to camp, and more and younger moor ponies to hunt better and faster after bigger game from horseback instead of relying only on snares. Barter with the outlaws to steal you tame goats. The goats give milk all year around, and you can make cheese, and you will slay the surplus in the autumn for meat and wool and skins and bones for tools. Barter for goats. That is the sign. The outlaws can steal goats if you ask. Or I can fetch goats and moor ponies and bring them back to you if you let me. Let the foolish females go free. I will return with goats and moor ponies which are not aging cast offs. Let us barder."

"You will not return with goats and moor ponies. Men are incapable of living up to promises. What is the saying? Yes. 'Do whatever you can get away with.'. That is the Male Way."

"That is the Beorach Way. Not all Males are Beorach and not all Males think that way. Think about my trade. It is for the better good of your tribe. You are Queen and must take the long term view. The long term survival of your tribe is having tame, breeding goats that you can herd and young and breeding moor ponies for your best hunters. I will do this thing if you agree. Let us agree."

The Queen waved her feather fan languidly, her face enigmatic. "I don't know if you will do as you promise. Let me watch you and let me ponder. Go now. The Hand Work and Art Contests are about to start."

The Hand Work and Art Contest was run by a 'Shadowy One', a senior hag who lived alone with her covenant and taught the young how to be warriors, how to be healers, and how to be good tribe members. The Hags were also skillful midwives for childbirth was a sacred mystery for the Maleth. The Hags also practiced the shadowy rituals to control the precarious 'Wheel of Life', the change of the seasons. Hunter gatherers lived at the mercy of nature and the seasons and so they desperately clung to any ritual that appeared to give them some sort of power over their precarious lives. The Hags practiced sacrifice, totem worship, fetish creation, and glamour ie magic. But that did not mean they were ignorant monsters. They understood the seasons minutely by studying the sky and could tell you exactly the time of year by the movements of the moon, sun, and stars. They even understood comets and eclipses, not scientifically, but the pattern and predictability that appeared to give them power over nature. So the Hags were not stupid creatures. But they were all lesbian and despised men. And the Hags wanted a really big sacrifice to placate nature and return bounty to the empty snares of the tribe. The two silly females tied up on a hut were choice candidates. But frankly Horsham was an even bigger and more choice candidate for human sacrifice. And Horsham knew it.

The Senior Hag, the top 'Shadowy One', was a fey creature in wild furs, wild grey hair stiffened with mud to stand straight up, wild eyes, and a crafty mind. She now explained the Hand Work and Art Contest. "You must walk around the race course of this morning and find such things that are valuable and fetch them back and create the most powerful thing you can create from them. One will be Art. One will be Hand Work. Each counts on it's own as two separate contests. Each competitor will be followed by a Shadowy One who will observe but say nothing. You have until sunset. Go and be wise in the way of Nature!"

Horsham strolled back out over the trampled course, followed by an armed Hag who glared at him as if daring him to try to escape. Horsham was again dressed in his ragged and dirty tunic over his dirty leggings and boots. He was armed only with his boot knife and a lidded willow basket, given to him just for this event. He strolled calmly but he had absolutely no idea what he was suppose to be looking for. He gathered some choice mushrooms around the fallen trees, some more mushrooms growing on the rotten carcasses of the giant trees, then ambled away to try the stream. But then he paused, the back of his neck pricking. He turned around. The Hag was looking at him curiously, as if giving a hint. But surely the hag would not be wanting to help him win? Surely? Yet..... so Horsham walked back and felt around the three giant fallen trees where he had been harvesting mushrooms. Who crafted the trophy necklaces? If it were the Shadowy Ones then why did the trophy necklaces placed on the fallen trees feature roots polished to appear to be mandrakes? Was it an hint?

Horsham never saw a mandrake in his life but knew that some roots were powerful things so he felt carefully all around the trees, pushing his arms deep under the massive rotten hunks, ferreting around the forest muck, his nose in the dirt, his wounded right arm shoved deep under a rotten tree trunk. One tree. Another tree. Nothing but mushrooms and some small but choice truffles. Then he tried the third tree. He burled under the tree, the rot festering with bugs and worms and fungus, the wood moldering and smelly, the whole scene frankly quite disgusting. Nothing. Horsham, his nose next to a nest of bugs feasting off something dead, snorted and decided to give up. Then he tried to pull his right hand and arm out only to find something grabbing it and holding on tight. Horsham swore and yanked and yanked. But something held very tightly onto his injured arm. To his horror Horsham felt something sucking on his wounded arm, ferreting under the bandage, sucking on the blood. Horsham roared, visions of Orcs in his brain, and he shoved the carcass of the huge but rotten tree bodily aside with his shoulder, using all his beefy strength fueled by fear and rage. The carcass of the rotten tree suddenly imploded, partly rolling over, partly crumbling into muck. Horsham fell bodily into the rotten sludge where the rotten tree festered, in the middle of bugs and worms and rotten ooze. Bugs crawled all over him. Horsham howled and heaved himself to his knees, shuddering. But despite the emotional horror the back of his neck pricked again.

He retched in horror, but then plunged his hands deep into the festering rot to see what had seized his hand to begin with. Something deep in the dark rotting muck again grabbed his bloody arm and tugged. Now Horsham grabbed the thing with both his hands and yanked. Out came a clump of dirt. Wailing. The thing was a squealing, wiggling, writhing blob of black muck like a giant truffle -- only alive. Horsham grabbed it bodily with both his two hands. The blob bite his hands and sucked blood. Horsham held it up, gagging in repulsion, and then shoved the blob into the willow basket and shoved the lid on. He held the basket tight, saw the Hag smiling, trying to control her excitement. He shoved it at her. "Here. Take it. Hold the Mandrake for me. Enjoy the nasty beastie!" Then Horsham and the Hag marched to the pool and Horsham dived in and washed all the bugs and rot off his person, very vigorously, as the Hag laughed.

Finally the odd couple strolled through the rest of the course while Horsham fetched some pretty spring blossoms and budding leaves and more mushrooms and tucked them in his ragged tunic. They returned at sunset. Black Panther was already back and busy working on her Art: a fantastic fetish crafted out of forest materials. A stone held by her Hag held a vile concoction which was her Hand Work. Horsham hastily crafted a Green Man, a traditional Merrach farming totem out of some branches and leaves and blossoms and adored it with a willow basket full of choice mushrooms. The Merrach were good mushroom gatherers too. Horsham put the underweight but still choice truffles on top of the bounty of mushrooms to garnish it. By that time darkness obscured the scene and the contest was declared over.

The Queen came and inspected the Art with the Senior Shadowy One as all the tribe critiqued the efforts. It was a nearly full moon night. Frankly Black Panther's fetish was the more spectacular. Horsham's green man barely looked like a man and frankly a Green MAN was not a choice idea for a matriarchal tribe. The Green man actually looked rather more like a drunken wreak in fact. But the of mushrooms did look choice. The Queen and the Senior Shadowy One nibbled the truffles. Black Panther had not dug for mushrooms, pinning her winning on beauty rather than the belly. But it was spring and bellies were tight after all. Food had a tempting appeal.

Then Black Panther pointed to her potion and the Hag holding it did praise it as a very good cure for pain being from a special type of willow. Today it would be called Aspirin. Black Panther beamed. But then Horsham pointed at his basket held very firmly by his policing hag. The Hag carefully opened the lid a crack and a tiny face leered out, teeth like fangs, hissing and spitting as two tiny, clawed hands clutched at the willow basket, gashing and hissing and trying to escape. The Hag hastily shoved the lid back on and the Senior Hag very hastily, realizing what was inside, grabbed a stout piece of buckskin and wrapped it around the basket. The Mandrake was trying to bite through the willow to escape! Then the Senior Hag clutched the Mandrake, whispered in the Queen's ear, and scurried off with all her fellow Hags. "Sacrifice tomorrow night at the full moon" she yelled hastily as she vanished.

Horsham was left with a bloody arm and no Hand Work. He protested most royally. "Be at ease 'Harry'" the Queen said. "You have won the Hand Work Contest for fetching a Mandrake. Black Panther has won the Art Contest. So the First of the Four Arts is a tie. How did you know 'Harry' that only male blood could lure out a Mandrake?"

"I didn't. How nice of the Hags to use me as their lure!" Horsham laughed and fussed at his bloody arm. "Nasty bugger! Like a baby Orc!" Everyone laughed but Black Panther who was quite angry at only tying with Horsham.

The Queen cleaned and re-bandaged Horsham's arm and also re-dressed his chest wound and spread fresh medical mud on his still swollen and battered face. She made clicking sounds when Horsham mentioned their earlier conversation. "I am still pondering you and I am still pondering your trade offer. Tomorrow is the Second of the Four Arts: the Four Exercises of Weapons. The weapons are sling, throwing spear, snare, and quarterstaff. I have decided that it would be amusing to see you weld that excessively long sword for everyone claims that it is too long for any person to weld. So you may use your sword against the opposing weapon of your choice. Rest and eat and sleep well. Tomorrow you must win the majority of the challenges or die."

"Why do you keep saying that my Queen? Don't you like me? I am offering a barter trade of good value that you might not ever have again."

"The outlaws have already offered goats and a moor pony."

"They might be able to steal a few goats but your tribe will need some twenty goats to be viable and at least ten moor ponies. Not aging castoffs ready for the glue shop. Young and breeding moor ponies. The outlaws will not be able to steal that. It is too expensive an effort for the return in sanctuary. They will not bother to deliver more than a token couple. I will deliver twenty breeding goats and ten breeding moor ponies."

"Maybe. If you are a man of honor. But I have met few men who I found I could trust. Let me ponder. Try to live past tomorrow."

The next day the Second of the Four Arts was held: The exercise of Four Weapons that included the sling, the snare, the throwing spear and the quarterstaff. Horsham was given his steel long sword back ---- after Blackie was taken hostage to insure his good behavior. Targets had been crafted and now stood side by side at diverse distances to test the sling and the throwing spear. Again women lined up to be chosen by lot. But Horsham taunted the Warrior Princess. "Come! Come! You want to compete against me! Let us compete! Man against Woman! Or is the title 'Warrior Princess' given by chance of birth and not earned by skill?" Horsham had decided that the Warrior Princess was a hot headed creature and might be tricked into engaging too hastily in any duel or contest. In many duels Horsham taunted hot headed competitors to make them overeager and therefore prone to make mistakes. Horsham guessed right now. The Warrior Princess bristled in anger and marched out in front of everyone and seized her sling and a brace of throwing spears. Horsham grinned and picked up the page boy's sling, being Merrach in construction and therefore more familiar to Horsham. He also picked up a brace of throwing spears. The contest was on.

The targets were set up at diverse distances for shooting. The Warrior Princess and Horsham positioned themselves to shot. But then the Warrior Princess gestured and the Princess Royal and her nanny were hauled out of their hut and dragged out in front of everyone. The Warrior Princess grinned. " Untie their gags!" The beleaguered teenager and her aging nanny were hauled up and their gags were taken off. They gasped confused. "Now blindfold them!" The Warrior Princess ordered. Both the frightened women were blindfold by the gags instead. The Warrior Princess grinned at Horsham was feared the game about to be played on him. "Now drive the silly Celestial Elve and her craven Merrach woman out among the targets to stumble and bumble about!" The two blindfolded women were pelted with pebbles until they stumbled out among the targets. They wailed as they bumped and stumbled about, not even aware of their danger, only than they were being humiliated. The tribe laughed at their danger. Horsham gasped. He looked at the Queen with shocked eyes.

"Queen Maleth! Is this fair to kill these women?"

"Both of you will aim for the targets and not the foolish prisoners" the Queen ordered. "But if the females stumble into the targets as you are shooting then destiny and their evil gods so condemn them to death. Aim well! Let the game begin!"

Each competitor had five pebbles to shoot in their slings at five targets as the blinded women stumbled about crying. The Warrior Princess laughed and aimed and shoot her sling precisely, hitting her first two targets, the pebbles whizzing about the women who realized they were now in deadly danger. "Stay still! Stay Still!" Horsham shouted, aghast. The nanny fell to her knees and ordered her Princess to also fall to her knees and stay perfectly still. To her credit, the Princess Royal fell to her knees in the dirt and froze perfectly still. "Stay still! Stay Still! Don't panic!" Horsham shouted as the Warrior Princess shoot her last three pebbles, hitting two more targets and missing one -- and barely missing the Princess Royal of Goldenthrond who flinched but knelt perfectly still, her cheek just grazed by a pebble.

Now it was Horsham's turn. He gasped and then stood very straight and tall, focusing all his nerves and mind and hands to the task. Then he held up the page boy's sling and aimed. One. Two. Three. Four. Each pebble hit the target clean. But the last target had a woman almost in front of it. Horsham made a motion of moving. There was a murmur of the crowd. "You must shoot from where you are" the Warrior Princess said. Horsham stepped back into position and stared hard at the blurry target. If he deliberately missed the target to spare the nanny, then he might risked losing his own life in the final count. Missing would be a gamble. He stared hard at the blurry target. The target by itself could be hit clean by Horsham. His eyes were failing but the targets were reasonable in size and the only rule was to hit them anywhere on the surface. But unbeknownst to her, the nanny was knelling almost right in front of the last target. She was perfectly still but was Horsham that good a shot? Horsham stared hard, held up his sling, aimed, then gritted his teeth and dropped the sling. His eyes were just too blurry now to see in order to aim so precisely. The margin of error was too small. A foot. Horsham looked at the Queen but she only shrugged her shoulders and continued to wave her fan languidly. He could not risk it. Horsham nodded his head in defeat and dropped the sling in the dirt.

"I win! I win!" the Warrior Princess shouted. Horsham flinched in defeat. "Now the throwing spears! Ha! Ha!" The Warrior Princess used her throwing tool and hurled her brace of spears straight and true. They plunged deeply into the targets, each barely missing the women. By now the nanny was shaking despite all her valor. The Princess Royal knelt still as stone even as a spear whizzed an inch from her face. Horsham did not have a throwing tool for he never used throwing spears. He fought close to see. He knew that without a throwing tool he could not aim his throwing spears to fly straight and true and plunge deeply into the target. The disaster was escalating. He stared at the targets and tried to calculate the risks. His childhood was slings. The skill of the village boy carried over despite his bad eyes. But he simply had no skill at throwing spears at all. He sagged and broke the brace of spears over one knee in defeat. "I win again! I win again!" the Warrior Princess crowed. "Take the silly women away and gag then and confine them to their hut! I have won!"

"There is yet two more Exercises of Weapons!" Horsham said discouraged. Let us fight face to face with the quarterstaff instead of using human shields!" The two competitors picked up their quarter staffs and squared off.

Now quarterstaff fighting was a time honored skill in Merrach villages and Horsham knew how to fight with a staff. He clasped his staff now and loomed over the Warrior Princess. The Queen waved her fan and the two quarter staffs cracked against each other in fast, furious moves. The Warrior Princess was good. Quarterstaff fighting was more speed than strength. Twice she nearly toppled Horsham, her quarterstaff nearly tripping him up. Horsham was barely keeping even, just eluding blows. Repeatedly the Princess pounded his again bloody forearm where the Mandrake had bitten and sucked blood the day before. Soon the arm dripped blood. She also now knew he had a bad leg and three times she pounded his bad leg with quicksilver blows. Horsham started to limp. But despite all her cunning the Warrior Princess could not deliver a powerful blow that would force Horsham down into the dirt to acknowledge defeat. He kept on fighting.

Horsham let the Warrior Princess expend her strength as he learned her fighting style, barely holding up, barely keeping up, enduring each blow in the hope of exhausting his opponent. The minutes ticked away. Sweat started to drench both bodies. Exhaustion started to kick in. Still Horsham continued to let the Princess take the initiative while he fought defensively, parrying each blow just barely. His eyes bulged in fierce concentration, his mouth a fierce grimace. More minutes ticked away. Usually quarterstaff fights were fast and furious and short. Not today.

Horsham played the endurance game. He decided to simply outlast her while forcing her to expend all her strength on offense. Fighting defensively is always inheritably harder but can sometimes win the day if the player is patent and enduring and can trick the attacker to expend too much energy on the attack. And Horsham had fought duels up to 90 minutes long and battles that lasted all day so he could concentrate his mind and body for long periods of time because he was a professional soldier. He had trained his mind and body to endue, tautly focused, not distracted, not wondering, not blurred by exhaustion or pain for prolonged periods of time with amazing patience and tenacity and cunning. The Princess had never fought more than ten minutes at a stretch with any weapon other than a snare that naturally requires patience. Now she started to pant. Her reserves had been squandered on too reckless an assault. Horsham, now familiar with her battle style, suddenly delivered a crushing blow and broke her arm.

The Warrior Princess collapsed in the dirt, her quarterstaff cast away, clutching her broken arm while shaking in order to not scream. Blood dripped from her mouth where she bite herself to not cry out. Everyone rushed forward, pushing Horsham aside. The Queen bustled her child away. Horsham eyed the hut where the Princess Royal and her nanny were being held prisoner. The guards were distracted. Horsham eyed the guards around Blackie. The guards were distracted. But the hut was on one side of the camp and Blackie was on the other side of the camp. If he rushed to rescue one, the guards would see him on the other side and know he was making a break for it. Horsham could rescue Blackie and flee but he could not rescue the Princess Royal and the nanny in time before the camp would be alerted. The calculations flashed across his face. Then he saw the Senior 'Shadowy One' staring at him. A fey smile was on her face. She knew what he was calculating. "No point trying 'Harry' she said softly. "Gamble for an opening later." Horsham shrugged and nodded and sat down exhausted on the ground to allow his body to scream out it's pain. He endued it as mutely as the Warrior Princess.

Everyone seemed to forget about the competition though the guards all belatedly reassured guard duty and the Hags grinned at Horsham. Some even talked to him as professional warriors to a professional warrior, analyzing the fight minutely, dispassionate, precise, the total professional teachers of combat. Horsham conversed as a professional to professionals according. Soldiers are soldiers regardless of the side and even soldiers of opposing sides can treat their fellow soldiers with professional courtesy and respect. But the Hags did not offer to dress Horsham's bloody arm and he had to improvise a new bandage. The Queen's handiwork had torn open so he burned the aggravated wound closed and then wrapped it with the tattered remains of his tunic. Then he curled up and slept.

In the afternoon the Queen ordered the contest to resume but with a new competitor in the Snare. Horsham had to win the Snare to keep a tie in the event and in the contest. The new competitor was the best friend of the Warrior Princess and she was eager to bring Horsham down. And she was not wounded or battered either. But Horsham did not bother to appeal to the Queen. He did not expect any relief and he did not get it. She sat cross-legged on a fur mat, stony eyed, her fan not waving languidly.

The warrior maiden was a lithe little Dark Elve, with dark hair and midnight blue eyes, her breasts bare, feathers in her long flowing hair. She held as snare crafted of hemp, net-like, but weighted at the edges so it could be thrown to ensnare animals with a single fast gesture. Snares were the special forte of Dark Elves who seemed oddly unable to cope with bows and arrows which they still considered 'advance technology'. The Dark Elve expertly swung her snare now, as if a living predator, throwing the writhing circle of hemp from hand to hand expertly, the net of hemp swelling and floating as it flew in the air. Dark Elves called their snares 'birds of prey' and it acted now like a bird of prey ---- out to attack Horsham.

Horsham held his long sword with both hands, the blade in front of him, as he danced around the 'bird of prey'. Many a duelist had discovered to their sorrow that Horsham's big, heavy body was surprisingly mobile, his small feet as nimble as a dancer, his reflexes quicksilver. He darted and parlayed as the Dark Elve whirled her weighted snare above her head, gaging the distance, calculating the speed to throw, plotting the attack. Both Horsham and the Dark Elve knew that the snare had one chance to entrap Horsham in it's weighted coils and render him momentarily entangled and confused. Then the Dark Elve could pull out her boot knife and kill him. But if the Dark Elve missed then Horsham could drive his sword into her. It was unspoken but both duelists knew this battle was going to be to waged to the death.

Both foes danced in the dirt, nimble, weaving in and out, the whirling 'bird of prey' threatening, the sword parleying, but neither too hot headed to lunge prematurely. They gaged each other and stalked each other and teased each other to make the first premature move. Horsham had never fought a 'bird of prey' before and the whirling net whistled in the air, flying, fast as quicksilver, alien, dangerous. Horsham again had to play the defensive game. But now he was limping and his arm was bad. Sweat dripped into his battered face and dripped down his armpits. His hands were wet with sweat, the sword slippery. He started to limp more and more. Then he started to pant. The Dark Elve remained as cool as when she commenced her deadly dance under the whirling 'bird of prey'.

Then suddenly the 'bird of prey' flashed before Horsham's eyes, a blur, flying like a harpy eagle toward him. He dived to one side, hitting the ground hard, rolling away as the 'bird of prey' missed him by only two inches. Then he rolled to his feet, throwing the limp snare farther away in the dirt, and lunged at the Dark Elve. She drew her drawn boot knife and parried the blow. Horsham lunged to her right when she darted to try to retrieve the 'bird of prey' that now laid in a jumble in the dust. She hissed when Horsham blocked her. Then she pulled out a second boot knife and whirled both knives in both hands expertly, refusing to surrender or beg for mercy. So Horsham decided to fight to the death for he knew she would refuse mercy and offer him no mercy when he would have given it at this moment in the duel.

Horsham darted about, now taking the lead, aggressively stalking her as she now played the defensive game of life and death, his sword long and fast and brutal in it's powerful blows. She had to parry the stronger weapon with both stone knives, made of rare volcanic stone, in an X defense, both blades crossed to block the sword rather than use the knives individually like ambidextrous talons. Each blow rang with such power. Her lean arms had to absorb the blows and each blow drained her strength. Still she refused to surrender. She had only a sight hope that her magical volcanic stone might shatter the steel sword. And she was not without hope in fact. Volcanic stone is as hard as metal. Bronze might shatter. Even iron. But steel? Steel was alien magic. She could not be sure her magic was greater than his magic. That left only an even more remote chance that Horsham might stumble. But suddenly he seemed much less exhausted as he previously appeared and much more powerful. A killer on the prowl, stalking her. She realized he had been faking his pain to lure her out.

Now the Dark Elve started to sweat. Horsham pushed forward with ruthless aggressiveness. She was good, damn good with her two knives, very nearly the best Horsham had ever encountered. But Two Knife Duels were not uncommon on the battlefield. Horsham knew knife fighting. Even Two Knife Fighting. Two Knife Fighting was a speciality of the back alley and the criminal class and Horsham had fought a lot of Two Knives over his dubious life in the sleazy alleys and back streets of Arcadia. Two Knife Fighting was also the speciality of Rufus Royal who welded boot knives the same way an owl welded talons and taught Horsham one season how to fight back against Two Knife Fighting.

Now her deadly skill at Two Knife Fighting only roused Horsham's adrenalin and he panted now for real, in excitement, thrilled by the expert danger she posed. He pirouetted in the dirt nimbly as he eluded her quicksilver blades, his big body nimble as a dancer despite his bad leg, as he pounded her time and again, his sword, welded by both his hands, pounding down on her, the steel ringing out as if howling for victory. Then suddenly it was over. The Dark Elve lay sprawled in the dirt, her throat nearly severed. The blood spurted out, flooding the dirt. Her eyes were still open and staring. She had died instantly. Both hands still held their stone knives but the body was a rag doll in the dust. Horsham gasped, his excitement draining like her blood in the dirt, and he stared at her crestfallen, regretful like a broken bird tumbled into the ground.

"By the gods!" he exclaimed, "She was the most magnificent Two Knife Fighter I have ever fought other than Rufus Royal himself and he was the Master of Two Knife Fighting!" He knelt and closed her eyes. "What a waste! Her death is such a waste!" Then he stared at the Queen. "It is still a tie" Horsham told the Queen. "You should have taken me up on my other yesterday and your daughter and her friend were be alive and happy today. Your daughter will live to fight another day. But this Elve is dead and the fault is not mine. It was a duel to the death and we both knew it. She fought amazingly well. One of the best duels I have ever fought. I testify to that without shame. She was magnificent. But the duel should have never taken place and her death for all it's glory was a waste of human life."

Horsham surrendered the sword to the Queen and went over and reclaimed Blackie. Man and horse spend the rest of the night side by side. No one went near either of them until midnight when the magic of violent death dissipated. Also, most of the village was attending the Mandrake Sacrifice in the moonlight. Mandrakes were rare and so few had witnessed such an event. Only women were allowed to attend the sacrifice of a Mandrake. The men stood guard around the camp. But the men took their guard duty seriously and the outlaws decided it was not worth while saving Horsham so they just went to sleep in their huts while their female lovers were off watching a squirming, squealing, hissing, snarling, mucky black blob, born of rot, nursed by decay, and feeding off death, met it's death under the moonlight at the hands of the Senior 'Shadowy One', her stone knife plunged into it's tiny heart.

After midnight, and after the sacrifice of the Mandrake, the Queen came and sat by Horsham in the moonlight. Neither said anything. Finally the Queen stood and looked at the moon. " The Death of Falcon Hawk is my responsibility. But I still do not find any reason to trust you. History and Experience says you lie and you will betray. Why should I think that you would be the exception to the rule of history? If I were you, I would take advantage of the Three Nature Sports and escape while hunting tomorrow. There will be no snares for the Three Nature Sports are not played with snares and are good natured events. Even if you lose you would not be slain for that is not a proper end to a day of sport. Sport is fair play. Fair Play. So if you chose to cheat and escape then no one would be prepared to stop you. Tomorrow we display Fair Play and Good Sportwomanship. You do as you naturally incline to." The Queen returned to stand guard over her daughter who was asleep, her broken arm well bandaged, and her greatest pain right now her wounded pride.

Horsham was next visited by the Senior Hag. "Did the sacrifice of the Mandrake go well?" Horsham asked. The Senior Hag nodded as she dressed Horsham's arm. The wound was now nasty.

"Burning a wound closed is not a subtle way to prevent infection. You react brutally ---- but effectively. But I will dress the wound better. Then I go mourn the death of Falcon Hawk for she was my protegee."

"She was a magnificent duelist. Fighting a long sword with only volcanic knives is fighting the long odds. Usually the fighter surrenders to despair before defeat. But Falcon Hawk never gave up. In the end I beat her down by sheer brutal strength. But she never gave up. I just wished she had not make the fight a duel to the death."

"Your body says you have fought many battles. Did not you fight them willingly and with enthusiasm to prove yourself?"

"In the beginning. But now I weary of the Dueling Game and would quit it as pointless. A waste of life. I want to retire from the Dueling Game."

"I doubt that you will be allowed to retire from the Dueling Game 'Harry'. People with something to prove will always want to challenge the best killer. Falcon Hawk knew you were a great killer. That is why she challenged you. But Falcon Hawk challenged you openly and fairly in order to win a crown of glory by defeating a great killer in a great duel. But other people will challenge you behind your back. They will attack your back. If I were you 'Harry' I would never sit with my back exposed."

"Is that a prediction of death Lady? Do you see my death by betrayal? Stabbed in the back?"

"No and Yes. I see your death, both attacked in the back and self inflected, by blood of blood, by the same blood, slain by the same blood. A self fulling prophecy. You predicted your own death with great precision to your best enemy and you will fulfill your own prediction."

"Enigmatic as all predictions are, and therefore useless."

"Then I will offer you one useful thing. Don't visit your home village to wax nostalgic with your family and kin."

"I have never done that and could not imagine ever doing that. My Mother threw me out when I was but sixteen." the Senior Hag stood up and looked at the moon. "Now I must go mourn Falcon Hawk."

"May I be allowed to mourn her too?"

"Yes. I would allow that as one honorable warrior to another. You may come and mourn with me at her flet. I will sing war songs. If you wish you may sing war songs too, to a fellow warrior.

The odd couple slipped away to the hidden flet and soon the camp was lulled to sleep to the soft and distant sounds of male and female singers far away in the night, singing war songs over a lonely flet.

The next day was declared a day of 'Good Sports'. Officially the sports were fishing, hunting and racing. The day started with hunting. Everyone went out with snares into the wild lands to snare meat on the run. The sacrifice of the Mandrake surely meant that today the hunt, heretofore fruitless, would produce much meat for a still hungry tribe. And indeed snares ensnared animals from rodents to birds to rabbits to squirrels. Horsham rode out on Blackie along with the Outlaws to hunt big game with their metal weapons and moor ponies. Out of sight of the campsite the Outlaws winked at Horsham. "Ride for it 'Harry! We will look the other way."

"I cannot Billy," Horsham replied. "I cannot allow you to break up the Raven Necklace and sell it and I cannot allow the Princess Royal or her Nanny to perish here in the wilderness. I am a Crow. It is my job. I will not arrest you if you flee but I will kill you if you try to flee with the Raven Necklace."

Billy grinned his gap toothed grin. "Oh come on 'Harry'. Boys will be boys! I will let you go! Let me go! This necklace is the property of Elves and who gives a damn about Elves? Why risk your life for them? For Elves? And for this Raven Necklace? Let it be broken up! A necklace named after ravens of death is accurst and should be broken up err it cast a curse on the wearer! Think about it! Bad luck follows this necklace! Breaking it up will defeat the bad luck. Breaking it up will make the Raven vanish and make the bad luck vanish! Why risk your life? For this!" Billy pulled out the Raven Necklace of priceless diamonds and jiggled it on front of Horsham's face. And the back of Horsham's neck pricked as if someone had just walked over his grave. He shivered. An image of a pouring rain and a knife in an upraised hand flashed in his brain. Then it was as warm bright spring day again.

"I will kill you if you ride off with this. Give it to me and I will let you go Billy. That is my best deal. Take it."

Billy laughed. "Lawmen!" All the Outlaws laughed good naturally. Horsham sighed. They were in the mood for good nature sport. Horsham was incapable of good nature sport. Still when a herd of shaggy wild oxen appeared they all gave chase excitedly, hunting down a herd of wild beasts roaring and racing, riding dangerously into the herd to throw their spears, risking life and limb to bring down the huge beasts. In one hour the mounted men slew three huge beasts and dragged them back to the camp proudly. And no one remembered but Horsham the words spoken. Billy and his gang laughed off Horsham's words as bluster and ignored them and forgot them for Billy was an easy going man and he wanted to retire from the outlaw game. He was not implacable like Horsham. He was, despite his outlaw lifestyle, an easy going man and he assumed all sensible men were easy going. Alas he would discover that outlaws and duelists alike can never retire from their prior violent lifestyles. The world will never let them. But right now their dark and violent ends were nowhere in sight this bright and sunny spring day. The meat was eagerly received and prepared for roasting amidst much cheering. A horse and metal weapons will bring down more meat than snares any day. Big meat. Meat on the hoof. Meat no snare can ensnare. Technology and Destiny was against the tribe.

In the afternoon Horsham borrowed a fishing line and tried to fish, recalling the long ago lessons back at Rufus Manor. But he was a bad fisherman then and he was a bad fisherman now. Horsham did not have the patience and delicate touch for fishing and snared not one tiny fish. It did not help that he spent the time plotting how to butcher Billy and his outlaw gang either. Still he did not expect to snag a fish, though he did expect to butcher Billy and his outlaw gang. He like Billy. But he had no intention of letting Billy ride west to The Havens with the Raven Necklace jiggling down the inside of his dirty tunic. For all his brawls with Ravens (MP's) Horsham had a lawman's brain as well as an outlaw's heart. The last of the Sports was racing and Horsham was quite confident about that. It was to be held in the hour of first twilight. So he rode back quite confident of the race and the butchery to come. It never occurred to Horsham to escape.

The race was a foot race alas. Horsham had not thought of that just as he had not even entertained the thought of fleeing. But he was not fleet of foot and was defeated in a mob race of nimble Dark Elves who left him far behind in the dust. But death was not an appropriate end to a day of 'Good Sports' and Horsham enjoyed a hardy feast that night. Everyone did. Afterwards everyone danced Dark Elve dances in the light of the bon fires. Billy danced with his wild Dark Elve mistress, an aging outlaw with a lusty wife and it never occurred to him that he might die. He saw life as sport. But Horsham saw life as warfare.

Horsham did not know how to dance Dark Elve style and instead sat beside the Queen who waved her feather fan languidly as she sat cross legged on her fur pelt throne. After everyone tired of dancing they commenced Story Telling, Poetry, Song, and Domestic Games. Horsham did not know it but the last competition had commenced: the Seven Domestic Games. He thought he was not competing. So he was dangerously at ease, plotting how to kill Billy, and not plotting how to keep alive himself.

Horsham sang several songs, war songs, and also opera songs in his deep baritone voice. Horsham was a fine singer and he knew it. The tribe responded by clicking their tongues and pounding the dirt. Their version of applause. Horsham also recited a war poem written by Rufus Royal in his deep voice, using all his skill at mimicry and accents and operatic drama to good use. The poem turned into a rousing drama and qualified, though Horsham did not know it, as story telling. That was fortunate for Horsham was not a man able to tell a natural tall tale, exaggerating a minor event into a pub fire tale of rousing adventure such as Ben the Beorach could do for his legion of fawning pub bard admirers. Horsham saw that as lying and boasting. Oddly for such an insecure man racked by inferiority, Horsham despised boasting and bragging and strutting. That was why he loathed Ben the Beorach for all his envy of Ben's fame with the masses. Horsham always wished the pub bards would sing of him, but he refused to suck up to them or tell them juicy tall tales that they could further embroider into taller tales capable of entertaining the masses. Horsham could not see that entertainment required exaggeration and lies. Horsham saw lies as opera: make believe on the stage. Clearly made up. Clearly fiction. Clearly fantasy. He could not understand that most people enjoyed blurring the lines between fact and fantasy and between real deeds and epic exaggeration. So Horsham could not tell a tall tale or boast or regale tonight or any night. But his dramatic delivery of a quite factual episode of war came close enough to entertain the masses.

However Horsham utterly failed to solve word puzzles or riddles or word games that were posed to him by the Hags, even when hints were shouted by everyone. Even quite obvious riddles and puzzles that every small tribe child could guess stumped Horsham who glared fiercely at the nonsense nonplused. The Tribe roared with laughter at his utter inability. But they laughed good-natured for they were all full of good meat and happy with life. Billy stood up and delivered several funny riddles that charmed everyone and finished the evening with a comic song that ridiculed his own balding hair and spreading belly. Then the Queen ordered everyone to go to bed and 'sleep as mischievously as they wished'. The tribe lazily scattered to their fragrant bowers in twos and threes. Horsham stood up, stamped his bad leg to shake out the arthritis, and turned to go camp by Blackie, has he had for the previous nights. But the Queen gestured with her feathered fan. "Let's play chess 'Harry'. Few of my tribe plays the game for it is foreign but I enjoy it."

Horsham was a middling player of chess. But many long boring evenings during years of war had taught him how to play and enjoy chess. Chess was also a better cover for his painful shyness. Chess did not involve social chit chat that he was absolutely incapable of doing. And chess gave structure and quietness to social interaction that Horsham could cope with. Chess was better than reading too for Horsham read silently as if engaged in clandestine conspiracy when reading was then considered a social event which made Horsham appear abnormal and thuggish. And best of all, chess did not require Horsham to drink in order to fit in and appear to be social able. Much of Horsham's drinking was his bad attempt to appear likable in a society that sanctioned drunkenness. Drinking also numbed Horsham's painful shyness and anxiety when he was around people other than a professional level.

So now Horsham entered the Queen's bower and sat down cross legged on furs while she pulled out a battered chess board and pieces from a willow basket. The set was not valuable and was certainly stolen by Billy from some pub somewhere. But the Queen considered it a valuable and exotic commodity. "I always play white wood" the Queen declared. She set up her side accordingly. Horsham set up the small black wooden pieces on his side. Then the Queen moved first. Naturally. After all she was Queen. Horsham concentrated, his face assuming a fierce expression, his baby blue eyes bulging, his mouth a fierce frown. The expression was unconscious. That was why Horsham never understood why people feared him and considered him antisocial and hostile. He was antisocial, that is to say he was not social able. But he was not hostile by nature. Just paranoid and insecure and wary. He played the game now with fierce intensity but not with ungracious inclination. When the Queen, not an experienced player, made a clear mistake he pointed it out and let her correct her attack. Horsham did not let her win. Horsham never let anyone win. But he did not ruthlessly win and then revel in it. The game over, Horsham just shrugged blandly. The Queen could tell by the third move that Horsham would win, being much more experienced, and used the game to study him. Horsham did not use the game to study her. That was the difference between them.

By the time the game was over the evening was deep into night. The camp was quiet, all mischief making apparently over and everyone soundly sleeping. The moon was nearly full. The Queen walked with Horsham around the quiet campsite protected by it's many fantastic totems and fetishes. The cold of the night made his leg ache and Horsham limped, the nimbleness of the warm day now gone.

"You have the bone weariness of the old" the Queen told Horsham. "You must be a resourceful warrior to come to the threshold of old age when warfare is normally the deadly game of the young."

"I am a survivor" Horsham replied, half his brain still plotting how to kill Billy and retrieve the Raven Necklace, half his brain plotting how to persuade the Queen to surrender the hostages to him. "The Red Stone Necklace becomes you well. What use are two silly hostages? Beside such a rich thing, how do they compare? Cast them away like trash and so show your superiority. Give them to me to return. They will be dishonored then, humiliated by being cast aside as too unworthy of even being sacrificed."

"Why do you want to save them then?"

"It is my job."

The Queen fanned herself lazily. "I suggest you first insure your own survival."

"Are you still angry that I broke your daughter's arm? The Hags treated it as a duel. Things happen in duels. I did not kill her. She would have killed me."

"I am not angry. She played the contest like a hot headed male. She suffered accordingly. Before she can become Queen she must learn to play a cool game or else the Hags will nominate another to be the Big Woman of the Tribe. The Queen is the best person to lead. The position is not automatically inherited. The job is too important for that. A Queen must think of her people above anything else."

"My offer still stands Queen Maleth. It is a good trade. You will not have better ever."

"I agree 'Harry'. I think you even mean to fulfill it. But will your masters let you fulfill it?"

"I will do it. Let us shake hands on a done deal?"

The Queen waved her fan lazily and started to walk back to her bower. "The competition is not over yet 'Harry...." They walked back to the bower. The Queen's bower was no different from any other bower. The role of Queen or Big Woman of the Tribe involved responsibility but not conspicuous riches or absolute power. At the bower Horsham bowed to depart but the Queen's fan stopped his exit. "Let's play a game 'Harry'. A Domestic Game. Come inside. Let's sleep as mischievously as we might incline to for this tonight only."

"Simple sex? Or as you say mischief? Or more? I don't refuse 'freebies' but I have a male's attitude to sex: no strings and no implications, no love and no children."

"All sex has implications. Sex is a domestic game. But tonight the rules are simple: good sport and amusing mischief only. Nothing more. Am amusing game. Can you play an amusing game? Or are you only a killer who must wage war in the bower as well as on the field?"

"Lady. I never refuse 'freebies'. But I have never found sex particularly amusing, only an hunger. So I warn you that you probably won't find me amusing, certainly not romantic, but not violent or brutal either. Like chess, I am a middling player at sex games. But if you can find your own amusement from bedding me then I will not refuse an offer to lie with you."

The Queen laughed and waved her fan languidly. Horsham's response was not romantic and he still looked battered. But the Maleth had a pragmatic view of sex as well as lusty appetites. Men in the tribe could amble from bower to bower as long as either found the other's presence amusing. Men had no power, but no responsibility either and could amble off, drifting through life as they inclined while the women ran the families and ran the clans. The Maleth expected males to behave just like almost all males in Nature, eager to strut and display to compete for sexual partners, climaxed by sex and procreation. But then their role in life was done.

Horsham entered her bower and they slept mischievously, naked under furs. Horsham was not used to more than five minutes of sordid sex in a back alley and did not know what to do afterwards. The Queen Maleth was amused that she had to teach him diverse sexual games to be enjoyed both before and after sex. But Horsham was willing to try to learn at least and he also did not snore when they both then drifted off to sleep though he was not used to sleeping all night with someone either. At dawn he woke to the touch of her feather fan across his face which was just beginning to heal, the swelling going down and the black and blue bruises less hideous.

"Wake up 'Harry'. This is the last day of the Games of the Four Arts." The Queen rose languidly and dressed in a fox fur kilt and cape and the Ruby Necklace of phony red glass stones that she found perfectly sufficient for her needs. Horsham watched her dressed with curiosity for he had never before seen a woman so self composed and in control. Then Horsham pulled on his leggings, boots, and tattered tunic and scrambled outside to find the whole tribe arrayed before the royal bower. Billy and the Outlaws were winking at Horsham, applauding his maneuver. Horsham blushed bright red which was quite a feat for his battered face was one giant receding blue-green bruise now.

The Queen held up her fan and made her announcement. "Last night we played the Last of the Four Arts: the Seven Domestic Games. It came down to a tie so I was the tie breaker. I declare that 'Harry' has won the Four Arts and therefore can redeem his talisman sword and leave free and clear. As a gesture of good sportsmanship I bestow the two silly females as gifts to 'Harry' for they are very silly females and an insult to our Matriarchal Tribe. Let 'Harry' have them for we can not possibly want such creatures in our tribe and the Mandrake Sacrifice has brought great game and much meat to our bellies. The famine of Winter is over. Spring is safely past into Summer. Now is the time of bounty and good living. We can afford to be gracious."

The tribe clicked their tongues and stomped their feet in agreement. The Hags nodded. It was a discreet decision appropriate for the season. Only the Battle Princess blanched in anger. Billy and the Outlaws grinned jovially. Horsham bowed to the tribe and accepted his sword back and was gracious in victory. "May I have two aging moor ponies to carry the silly females north? Let their better horses stay here. You will possess a great white horse to ride Queen Maleth! But these silly females cannot walk far and will weep and whine and wail unless I have two aging moor ponies?"

"Let it be so!" The Queen waved her fan lazily. No one had dared approach the beautiful big white horse of the Princess Royal out of fear it would upchuck them just as Blackie had upchucked the Battle Princess. Now Horsham brought the really quite docile white horse forward and knelt and held out his two big hands to help the buxom Queen up onto the broad back of the huge but gentle beast. The Queen beamed as she sat grandly on the giant white horse. Her tribe sang a song of victory to see their Queen sitting on a giant horse when her daughter had failed to sit on a giant horse earlier. The Battle Princess glowered in sullen anger as her mother rode the giant horse around the campsite in a graceful display of power. Horsham did not tell anyone (through of course Billy knew) that the giant, magnificent white horse was always a gentle giant, docile and slow and trained to be steady and quiet enough for even a teenage Princess Royal to ride.

The Princess Royal and her nanny were ungracious when Horsham hauled them onto the two resident moor ponies -- both more appropriate for the glue shop than a Royal Celestial Elve. Then, grabbing the bridle reins of both shabby ponies, Horsham mounted Blackie and hotfooted out of the camp, galloping down to the Rocky River. There he hastily pointed them north. "Follow the River. You are only two day's from the East West Road. Traders and Crows and Scouts can be found all along here. They will rescue you and take you to Arcadia. Remember that Gloriana wanted you dead. Be careful and don't eat anything out of her hand! Now ride like the Dark Lord was your shadow instead of the Dark God's shadow! The Battle Princess is tracking us to kill all of us!"

"You cad! You will abandon my poor defenseless Lamby then!" the Nanny shouted. The Princess Royal, now a grimy and frightened Elve, sat angrily on her miserable pony.

"'Harry' -- if your name is 'Harry' ---- your accent and voice are as variable as your morals -- you are a coward and a blackguard to abandon us to the danger of an homicidal savage while allowing that outlaw to pawn my necklace! All while you run away to save your own life!"

"I am riding off to kill the Battle Princess before she can kill you! And then I am going to track Billy and his outlaws west and butcher them and retrieve you god damn necklace! How many people do you want to see butchered you cold hearted bitch! Just because you and Gloriana love that god damn Raven Necklace more than human life!"

"I don't give a damn about the 'Glory of the Dwarves' Necklace!" the Princess Royal shouted back, her teenage voice breaking and sounding childish, which she still was under all her battered and beleaguered show of being a self possessed teenager . "I want Billy dead! And I want that savage princess dead for endangering me and gloating! Having fun while almost killing me! And I want you punished too for treating me with absolutely no respect whatsoever! And humiliating me and enjoying it! And think it was all such a joke! And I want Gloriana punished too! I want everyone punished! I am the Princess Royal of Goldenthrond! Not a joke! Even if my Da is crazy and the Cabal really rules! I am not a joke!" The girl almost burst into tears and for a brief moment almost appeared human and vulnerable. But then she sat straight and proud on her aging moor pony, assuming a look of arrogant scorn that a princess royal was suppose to have. She sniffled and raised her chin in the air and glared with fierce pride at Horsham.

Horsham snorted in disgust. "Arrogant Bitch! Egoistical Celestial Bitch! And how are you going to cut off all the heads of all your candidates for damnation eh? You could not do a damn thing all this week but complain and be a royal pain in the butt!"

"I probably will not have any of my list of candidates for revenge struck through!" the Princess suddenly laughed "But one! You! If I can find out who you are 'Harry' I will exact a deliciously appropriate punishment on you! And I promise you I will find out who you are!

But I suspect you will do exactly as you say: butcher the Battle Princess and butcher Billy and the Outlaws and retrieve the Necklace! I also suspect you will toss the Necklace down the gutter in front of the Royal Palace of Goldenthrond in sheer scorn of us! But someday we will meet again and I will recognize you and have my appropriate revenge 'Harry'! Your face is still a mess but how many men are over six feet tall and good at accents? We will meet again!" The Princess Royal suddenly grinned like a normal sixteen year old kid, gave Horsham a back handed salute, and then kicked her aging pony forward. The aging beast jogged off slowly, north, with her Nanny in slow motion pursuit of her precious Lamby.

"Every Beorach and his mother is over six foot tall lady!" Horsham shouted after her. "And to you damn snotty Celestial Elves every Beorach looks the same! Just as every Elve looks the same to us Beorach! And anyways Celebeau won't let you come after me 'cause I am Ben the Beorach and Celebeau protects my bony arse!" Horsham spun Blackie around and pointed at his ass. The Princess Royal turned back and stuck her tongue out at Horsham. " I fucked a Maleth Queen to save your necks and this is the reward I get!" Horsham shouted as he also turned to ride away, south. "Well at least I enjoyed myself with a savage which is more than any man will ever do fucking you! Cold hearted bitch! The Queen Maleth was a jolly lady. A 'Queen of Roses'. You an't no jolly lady! You will be a 'Queen of Ravens' who just cuts off people's heads!"

The Princess Royal turned around and stared hard at Horsham's back as he rode off, as if memorizing it, an odd expression on her adolescent face. The Nanny swore a baby blue streak. "Don't listen to that bad man my Lamby. Bad is Bad! We will not tell anyone our experience here and pretend none of this even happened! I will say that you boldly escaped the clutches of those savages!"

The Princess Royal suddenly burst into tears. "Oh Nanny! I was not the hero of my drama! I was but the hostage and I failed utterly to be glorious and famous and spectacular! Or even bold! And I am not a frigid bitch! Or at least I don't want to discover that I am frigid too! I want to be a jolly queen and I want everyone to love me and admire me! Just like when that savage Queen rode around that savage camp on the back of my white horse and everyone cheered her and loved her and admired her! I want to be a hero! I want to be admired! I want to be loved!"

"Oh Lamby! You will be my darling one!" The aged Merrach hugged her ward with sincere affection. But the Nanny was the last human being to ever hug the Princess Royal with sincere affection. And she would die before the year of out. The Princess Royal appeared in Arcadia two days later, riding into a search party out looking for her. She rode into Arcadia and demanded to see Celebeau and then complained royally at 'Ben's conduct toward her.

"Ben the Beorach is still missing so someone was pulling your leg my Lady" Celebeau replied dryly. "What did he look like?"

The Princess Royal pouted. To be frank all Mere Mortals did look alike to her. Either tall and dark haired and grey eyed or short and flaxen haired and blue eyed. Period. But her Nanny provided a better description. "Well over six foot tall, dark hair, touch of grey, short beard, blue eyes, face swollen, nose broken, black and blue bruises though once they go then he will look different indeed, good teeth, battle scared, professional soldier, good at accents, low voice, arrogant but capable, smart, resourceful, he saved us from the outlaws and the savages and is presently rescuing the 'The Glory of the Dwarves' Necklace from infamous outlaws lead by one 'Billy' who is a dangerous rogue. He rides an expensive black war steed and welds an expensive steel long sword without markings. He wears a military crest around his neck which I assume he stole from Elves. No Mere Mortals are allowed to wear crests."

"The crest was silver and said 'Horsham of Arcadia'" the Princess Royal added. She could read.

"Why didn't you say that to begin with?" Celebeau said exasperated. "Horsham of Arcadia wears a military crest given to him by Rufus Royal for his military campaigns. Horsham is a Crow or Spy and works for Bela at the Cockpit. Complain to him. Why are you wasting my time? I gather Horsham did save your lives. He is a rude and vulgar Mere Mortal but then all Mere Mortals are increasingly rude and vulgar. These days it seems Mere Mortals no longer know their place in polite society. Complaints are becoming too numerous to have much meaning."

"The invitation to come to Arcadia, given by Gloriana, was a trap to kill me and steal the Necklace. This Horsham said the outlaws were waiting to ambush me and knew when and where I was coming. They said they were hired to seize me and the Necklace and hand me over to one 'Marlie' who was to kill me. They said their employer was one 'G'. Oh yes! And this Horsham said the outlaws called the Necklace the 'Pride of the Dwarves'. Clever! You see only Gloriana uses that name. This Horsham called the Necklace the 'Raven' and only Dwarves use that name. So you see that is proof! Gloriana was behind the plot! I want you to arrest her!"

"Gloriana is my wife and I am not in the habit of arresting my wife!" Celebeau said dryly. "I don't see what different names have to do with anything? The name of the Necklace is the 'Glory of the Dwarves' and any sensible person would not ride out into the countryside wearing it."

"I was asked by Gloriana to specially bring the necklace you brainless lump of wood!" the Princess Royal shouted. Celebeau stared at her with his blank grey eyes as if not comprehending a word she said. Instead he rose and opened the door and gestured that the meeting was at an end.

"If you have complaints about Horsham then complain to his boss Bela. Not me. Goodbye my Lady." The Princess Royal glared, then stomped out of the room, followed by her Nanny who glared at Celebeau too. Celebeau turned and stared woodenly out of the window. Below in the gardens his beautiful wife Gloriana was playing hide and seek with Rhingol the Great. "By the gods!" Celebeau whispered. "Bela was right! I am sleeping with the enemy. I have brought Celestial Calamity to Arcadia! Evil is infectious and bad luck is infectious and I have brought infectious Celestial evil and Celestial bad luck into my poor doomed city! But I love her. What can I do now?

And if Ben come back when what do I do? He was my best friend. At least I used to think he was. I thought he was. And I love Luna dearly too. What if they come back? From the Evil North? From beyond the River of Shadows? What if they come back from the Territory of the Dark Lord baring a Device? Won't they be bringing back contagious evil? And what do I do then? Kill them? My one best friend and my dearest kin? To Save Arcadia? Sanction state murder to save Arcadia?

But what if they merely come back empty handed? Would they still be dangerous? Infectious? Or merely defeated? Would Arcadia be safe then? Or still on the cusp of civil war because of Ben's wooing of Luna? And what if they don't come back at all? What if Bela can kill them before they cross back over into Arcadia Minor, infectious with evil? Do I turn a blind eye to Bela committing state murder? Does the ends justify the means? Does a state still stand pristine if it sanctions state murder? Or have we not brought down Arcadia with our own innate, homegrown evil? A quagmire! Perhaps I am as dense as the Princess Royal accuses me for I can not see a way out! Is Arcadia doomed? Is my beloved city state doomed? I see no way out! No way out!" and Celebeau wept bitterly.

Upper Arcadia and the River of No Return. The Sweetwater River divided Upper Arcadia from Lower Arcadia.

Above: Luna the Princess Royal of Old Arcadia. Below is a drawing of a Beorach by Celebeau --- reputed to be Ben but

never proven. The Beorach considered mirrors and drawings magic to steal the soul and never posed. Ben despised

Horsham for posing for artists.

Chapter 12: There Is Always A Price To Be Paid

"There is always a price to be paid" Bela said, his voice deadly cold. "Playing the adventurer has imperiled Arcadia! Playing the Second Rate Ben has imperiled our City State! How dare you play the self indulgent hero!"

"I had to rescue the bitch and her nanny. Then I had to butcher poor Billy and his outlaw gang and retrieve the necklace. Then I had to buy 20 goats and 20 ponies and drive them south per my agreement with Queen Maleth. Now her tribe can be self supporting. It can survive. I had to teach her tribe to herd goats and tend the ponies however and milk the goats and make cheese and that took more time too. I took three old Cheese Elves with me and they are still with the tribe teaching them, as is little Jimmy Joe, the ex page boy who is quite a goat herder and much happier than playing royal page to a royal pain in the butt. I had to do as I promised. A promise is a promise."

"What about your promise to me!" Bela hissed. "It is now late summer! Ben and Luna could be anywhere! Alive! Heading back to Arcadia! With a Device! With contagious evil! What about Arcadia!" Bela half rose from behind his desk in the Library and nearly threw a book at Horsham. Horsham had never seen Bela so out of control.

"There is no sign or even whispering of sighting of Ben or his Lost Expedition and it has been over a year. So why do you think they might be still alive? I can go north now. But why do you think they are still alive anyway?"

"I know they are alive!"

"You have reports?"

"I know! My Elvish Instinct screams out that they are alive and heading back! Bringing death and damnation like a long black shadow with them!"

"Gut instinct is not the same as factual sightings. I think your obsession with Ben is unhinging you Bela. You act as if this is the end of Arcadia. The end of the world. It is not. And furthermore, why are you accusing me of treason? If there is treason then the treason is Luna's and not mine. You cannot stop every loved blinded Arcadian from endangering Arcadia, just as you cannot stop every foolish person like Rhingol the Great, and every jealous person like Malian, and every myopic person like Sanguinary, or every stupid person like Celebeau, or every irresponsible person like your sister Beladonna, or every deluded person like the late and unlamented Lady Sanguinary, or even every adventurer like Ben. Will you save Arcadia from itself? Will you kill every person who deviates from your rigid patriotic code Bela? Look at yourself in a dwarve mirror and see what you are becoming! You are obsessed by Ben. He is an dangerous adventurer but Arcadia is filled with dangerous adventurers and dangerous fools and dangerous idiots and you cannot kill them all. Sometimes a person cannot be saved. Sometimes a nation cannot be saved. Maybe Arcadia cannot be saved. Maybe Fate and Chance, those vicious twins have flipped the coin and Destiny has turned up, arse up. Maybe Destiny has doomed Arcadia. Maybe all our actions are destined to be futile. I morally could not abandon that silly girl and her nanny to the savages. I morally could not renege on my promise to Queen Maleth, especially after killing her homicidal daughter. I owed her a chance to save her tribe."

"Who cares if some savage tribe is saved if Arcadia is destroyed!"

"Every nation has a right to save itself! Queen Maleth is as patriotic about her nation as you are about Arcadia. Every nation has a right to survive. No nation can promote it's own survival at the cost of another nation."

"She is a savage!"

"And you are becoming a savage!"

Bela sat down and jerked his head, then turned and looked out on his beautiful garden. "I want you to head out now and find Ben and kill him before he brings contagious evil back from the Land of Shadows! I don't care what you think! I don't care about the state of your conscience. I don't care who else dies. I don't care if you die while killing him. I want Ben died! NOW!" Bela turned around and glared at Horsham, his beautiful face implacable. "I am right! You are wrong! Ben is alive and Ben is heading back to Arcadia even as we speak and Ben is coming back dripping with contagious evil! My flesh and my bones and my brain and my heart and my gut instincts all scream out that Ben is alive and coming back to Arcadia dripping with danger and death! Stop him and kill him!" Bela almost screamed the last sentence. Then he jerked back his face into a facade of icy calm and resumed staring out at the beautiful garden. Horsham jerked back too, as if slapped. Then he wheeled about and marched out of the Library. Alas Fate and Chance were playing their malicious games and yet again Horsham was delayed ---- fatally for Arcadia. For Bela was right. At that very moment Ben and Luna were riding back into Arcadia Minor ---- and they were infectious! For the Land of Shadows was rabid with rabies, typhoid, and the Black Plague.

Crocus Sanguinary Junior, the pathetic last shriveled branch of the late and unlamented Clan of Sanguinary was hot to avenge his doomed and disgraced clan. And he was as fixated on Horsham was Bela was fixated on Ben. Now, hearing that Horsham had been finally sighted in town, he rushed out to commit suicide by challenging Horsham to a duel. He thrust himself in front of the huge, angry man and slapped him in his face in front of a crowd of people. Horsham swore and barked: "Damn fool boy! Don't you want to live?"

"You have disgraced my clan! You blackguard!" the strutting fool announced proudly, while standing unconsciously on his toes for alas Crocus Sanguinary Junior was rather short for an Elve.

"Please! Don't indulge in cliches on top of everything else!" Horsham marched around the hysterical little Elve who was doing his best imitation of being threatening. "People! Tell this BOY how many people I have killed! I am retired from the butcher business!" Horsham made a gesture to walk away.

Crocus Sanguinary Junior lunged at Horsham's back, making a motion of pulling his short sword and stabbing him behind his back. "Coward! Then I will kill you the coward's way!" Horsham spun around and grabbed the little Elve by his throat with his huge hand and literally held him up until his feet dangled and he turned blue in the face.

"Back off and go away and stay very, very quiet when you get there or I will lose my patience and kill you BOY!" Horsham dropped the Elve who sprawled into the ground gagging and sputtering. "I am a Crow you idiot! I have a job to do! I am trying to fight to save Arcadia and all you can think of is challenging me to some stupid duel? Why don't you get off your arse and join the damn army and fight for Arcadia too! We are fighting a full scale war up Arcadia Minor or don't you know about that! You pathetic little Elve! Can't you think of anything other than your pathetic little honor? Face! Loss of Face! You are stupider than a Beoarch thug! They are naturally stupid! You are an Elve and ought to know better! By the gods!" Horsham roared out. "By the gods of War! No wonder Arcadia is doomed! She is populated by idiots! Cowards and idiots! And traitors like Lady Sanguinary! And homicidal queers like Sanguinary whom I killed with great satisfaction! So go and run away and hide Junior! Crawl under a rock and hide!" Horsham spat at the Elve and marched away in livid fury ---- and so doomed himself and Arcadia.

For of course Crocus Sanguinary Junior had to kill Horsham then. Or die trying. Which he did.

Crocus Sanguinary Junior pursued Horsham all day, mostly making a fool of himself but enraging Horsham who found that the Elite 1000 winked and nodded and thereby encouraged the deluded fool in his drive to commit suicide. Horsham thought people would scare the boy off. Instead the careless Scions of Society encouraged the boy. The sight of the little poodle nipping at the heels of the bear was too entertaining to resist. That night, goaded by his 'friends', Crocus Sanguinary Junior attacked Horsham in a dark alley and blooded him -- in the back. Now Horsham's paranoia was inflamed full force. Horsham throw the boy against the brick wall and killed two of his 'friends' and beat the three others to bloody pulps. The game had turned from malice to murder.

The next day Horsham was dogged by not only the Scions of Society but Ravens and Crows who demanded that Horsham leave "forthwith!" Horsham was trying to leave "forthwith!". But the Scions of Society kept getting in the way. Then the older brothers of the Scions of Society joined in, ridiculing Horsham, accusing him of being a coward, being a drunk, being a has-been, and being a boaster who had not really killed the late and notorious Sanguinary. The last really knifed Horsham between the ribs for he never boasted of doing something he did not do -- he merely always claimed what was his -- with the accounting zeal of a Dwarve rather than the chivalry of a secure and self confident man. In his paranoia, insecurity, and raging inferiority, Horsham much resembled a Dwarve -- in psychology anyway.

The officers cut Horsham that night at the Officer Mess. They openly and loudly questioned his ability to kill Sanguinary, calling him over the hill, whisky soaked, and losing his nerve. Horsham stormed off to a pub but he was greeted by the same accusations, now coming out of the mouths of bar flies, pub maids, pub whores, and the pub owner who refused to serve Horsham his usual freebies in whisky and beer and whores. "Heros get the hero's potion. Cowards pay. Everyone has to pay in the end."

"What have you done for me lately eh?" Horsham sneered in loathing at the fickleness of fame. "I have killed so many people I have lost count but you spit in my face when I try to retire from the killing business! It was all just entertainment to you! All of you! I was amusement! Like the bear and dog show! Like cock fighting! I am thirty three years old! I just want to retire from butchering people and you ridicule me! But who of you had the balls to attempt half of what I have done in my life! Would you have ridiculed Ben this way?"

The bar owner wiped the bar with his dirty apron. "Ben the Beorach was a hero! You are just an aging has been bum begging for free drinks. Get out. I don't need no aging bums in my establishment!" Everyone laughed. Horsham stormed out.

Horsham spent the night in the stall with Blackie who seemed the only creature willing to love and admire him. Alone in the hay with the huge black horse, Horsham cried openly in the long mane of his only friend left in Our World. That dawn Horsham went out, bought some new clothes, dressed with unusual care for him, and marched into the club that Crocus Sanguinary Junior resided in (the Clan townhouse being sold off) and accepted the challenge to duel him. The gentlemen seated around the elegant room all nodded. Crocus Sanguinary smiled, then remembered how many people Horsham killed, and then blanched. But he was as hounded by society as Horsham was. Everyone wanted the bear and dog show except the bear and dog.

That day Celebeau ordered Horsham to his headquarters. "I hear you have another duel. I order you to stop dueling. I consider it a waste of time. I thought -- from Bela -- that you were suppose to be riding north on some job or other......"

"In a week. I did not know you were so interested in my jobs. Do you want me to fill you in what my particular job is? All the details?"

Celebeau jerked his head away. "I don't indulge in Crow shenanigans. I know espionage has it's place in war but I don't dirty my hands with it personally. I thought however that you did. So why aren't you?"

"Dirtying my hands with State Murder? Your garbage collector?"

"I order you to stop fighting duels and march off forthwith!"

"I would love to oblige you but I can't! Your fine fellow officers won't let me stop! The bar flies won't let me stop! The Elite 1000 wants their bear and dog show!"

"Just stop fighting."

"And be accused of being a coward! A has-been drunk! A bum! I can't! My tattered honor is all I have left!"

"Spies don't have honor! Tattered or otherwise! They slithered through life in the shadows, doing despicable things under orders from their bosses for the dubious national good."

"Go to the Fiery Fissure!" Horsham shouted. "I am not your bottom feeder and I am not Bela's bottom feeder! I have honor! I am a man of honor! Damn you to the Land of Shadow! I have honor! I am not a ---- joke as some kid told me recently. I have honor and I won't surrender my honor, no matter how tattered and how dubious, to the even more dubious national good!"

"I order you!"

"To go jump in the Fiery Fissure! Fuck yourself Celebeau for I am sure that your damn wife an't fucking you! I am fighting that god damn duel. Then maybe. Just maybe. Maybe I might ride north and find out what happened to Ben and his god damn lost expedition and murder him and any other survivors! Which is what you want! You and Bela! If you can't wait a week then you ride north and murder Ben yourself!" Horsham stormed out of headquarters, while slamming the door on his commander, while a vase was being hulled across the room, shattering on the opposite wall, and showering down on the stone floor in a hundred pieces -- much like Celebeau's sense of personal honor.

A week later Horsham dispatched the last surviving Sanguinary in a five minute duel watched by over fifty people including a young and naive teenager named Gildagad. The duel turned bloody, but only after the last surviving Sanguinary died, when another Scion of Society, exasperated by the continuing survival of a Mere Mortal that their parents and older brothers and war seemed unable to kill, lunged after him, on a horse no less, and tried to attack him from behind. Never a smart move considering Horsham's natural paranoia. Horsham brutally killed him and wounded several other minor and callow Scions of Society. It was not a pretty duel. It certainly was not much of a duel of honor. More a duel of desperation, salvaging tattered and dog-eared honor in the face of ridicule and derision. Only Gildagad later wrote about it with admiration but then he had seen few duels and was still as callow as the scions of society presently assaulting Horsham.

The next day, in hospital, Horsham receive three more challenges from more callow scions. That was when it finally hit Horsham. He was being challenged now by a Third Generation of Elve Elite 1000! It was never ending! All his desperate hopes of retiring from the Killing Game were futile. He would never be allowed to retire from dueling. Society would never allow him to retire. Society would only goat him into fighting and fighting and fighting until finally he was so old that he was bound to lose to some callow punk who would gloat afterwards of bringing down the aging lion. Didn't the Habetrot Hag long ago predict as much? Horsham was shattered.

He laid in his barracks hospital bed (shaped eerily like a coffin filled with hay) and wept bitter tears as the hospital orderly snored in his chair. A week later the still wounded man staggered to his feet and rode north, using the young Elve lad Gildagad as his 'eyes' for Gildagad was Dark Elve trained and a good tracker which Horsham, rapidly going blind, was no longer. But there is always a price to be paid. Horsham missed Ben and Luna who were riding south at the same time. They rode back into Arcadia Minor with Ben infectious with typhoid but no one noticed the more 'minor' infectious disease because other members of his legendary Lost Expedition, and soldiers sent north to find the Lost Expedition, all freed in a prison escape masterminded by Luna the barmaid, fled south into Arcadia Minor infectious with typhoid and rabies and typhus and cholera and other even newer and more exotic and lethal contagious diseases created by the Dark Lord, using prisoners of war like Ben and his Lost Expedition as germ incubators, who were then deliberately allowed to escape south to spread ghastly diseases of slow death. The worst of the new diseases carried south because of Ben was the Black Plague.

The Black Plague brought down Horsham who warned Gildagad to ride south and warn the villages of Arcadia Minor to prepare for contagion (but not make physical contact) and then try to kill as many of sick, escaping prisoners of war, crawling like an army of the dead from the north as possible. That winter Arcadia Minor waged a more terrible form of warfare against sick animals, and sick men, and worse -- fleas and lice and rats and vermin. The sky was filled with burning mass graves, and burning walls of oil set to ward off invisible death. Even the dense dark forest north of the River of Shadows itself set on fire. The fires did kill a great deal of life but Arcadia Minor nevertheless lost nearly half it's population to the shadowy Black Plague.

But Arcadia Minor also kept a strict quarantine which Celebeau policed even more strictly in Arcadia Prime (under the guise of a minor outbreak of agricultural disease of anthrax that effected farm animals only for Celebeau was becoming a patent liar after his first queasy bout of white lies). Ben and Luna were caught in a quarantine line before they could spread any disease south into Arcadia Prime. Ben rode out the winter recovering from typhoid with Luna's loving nursing in a pretty cottage at the border of Arcadia Prime. Horsham recovered in the wilderness, avoiding forest fires he told Gildagad to start, alone as always, just him and Blackie. He appeared wild and haggard in late Spring having beaten the Plague because of his genetics (like many Merrach, he possessed unique genes that aggressively fought back against the Plague virus). So many innocent people died that winter but Ben survived, and Luna survived, and Horsham survived, and fortunately for Our World History Gildagad survived. But many thousands died or were deadly ill with the ghastly disease that Ben let lose with the Dark Lord's permission and Luna's plotting.

There is always a price to be paid but Ben the Beoarch was always the Darling of Destiny for he almost avoid paying the price. Almost. He eluded the plague and he eluded being held responsible for spreading the plague. But he was so ravished by typhoid and rabies (that also took most of his right hand from a rabid wolf bite) that he was left a sickly cripple: pale, gaunt, bend over, feeble. Too feeble most people assumed who saw him to ever sire children or bed his beautiful wife. Yes. Ben and Luna married in a grand wedding that Rhingol the Great even paid for. Luna got her man at last. But he was a shattered wreak rather than the virile lover of her wet dreams. Luna got Ben at last and she found herself his nurse rather than his wife. Ben got Luna at last and found himself her patient, flat on his back, in bed, but not the honeymoon bed of lovers but a sick bed of an crippled invalid. There is always a price to be paid. Even for the Darling of Destiny.

Luna married a crippled and enfeebled invalid, so Arcadia turned it's eyes for the succession to Celebeau who was married to a young and healthy woman - howbeit a Celestial Elve. Rhingol the Great was aging and was presumed to be increasingly senile for his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic -- not good in wartime when your city state was slowly losing a draining far away war that was not that far away and inching closer each year as Arcadia Minor was nibbled away by death and destruction. But Gloriana failed to show any inclination to boast a big belly which Luna wanted so desperately and could not boast of because of her sickly and enfeebled husband. The Elite 1000 debated that year which was worse? Luna pregnant with a Beorach half breed? Gloriana pregnant with a Celestial half breed? Or Rhingol dying of advance old age, senile, without any heir at all? All the conclusions hinted of a grim end to the novel (fiction having just appeared in the literary world). How could Arcadia survive with any of the above scenarios? It could not. And of course in the end it did not survive. War, Disease, and the Dubious Succession to a Dubious Monarch all destroyed Arcadia within twenty years. There is always a price to be paid.

There is always a price to be paid and Horsham paid it dearly too. The last year of his life as a Crow in Arcadia before his exile as a Nitthing Man was bitter as ash and cinder, a sorry Act One Climax to a tragic life. There is always a price to be paid. With his damnable bad luck, Celestial bad luck, Horsham would pay the most bitter of prices.

End of 'Darling Of Destiny'

The Trilogy of The Shadow Of Wisteria At Twilight concludes with 'The Debris Of History' which continues his life's story with his final bitter year in Arcadia before his Nitthing Exile, a tale of fearsome Were Monsters, rogue Devices of Celestial Calamity, tragic duels, palace coups, near royal murder, civil war, and the tragic death of Lady Wisteria Fujitsu and her doomed Wisteria Pavilion before the brutal conquest of Ben the Beorach and his ruthless drive to be declared Warlord of Arcadia.