I Wrote This

Black Beast

BY

David Alan Jones


1

Milner took a long, slow draw from his pipe, and blew a smoke ring around the silver moon floating overhead. Its surprisingly bright light shone down on the rolling grasslands, picking out the fluffy coats of Milner’s sheep, causing them to glow like wayward clouds fallen from the clear night sky.

Milner sat on his favorite rock, still warm from the day’s sun, listening to the reassuringly alive sounds of his sheep sleeping or grazing or making their stupid sheepy sounds in the dark. He listened to them absently, the way an experienced mother listens to and yet rarely hears her children at play.

After a long moment, and two more lazy puffs on his pipe, he said, “What does her father say? Does he think you have enough sheep?”

Milner’s younger half-brother, Olen, — much younger for their father had married Olen’s mother after Milner’s own mother died at fifty and six years – looked up at his older sibling from where he sat on the grass, his eyes two sparkling orbs in the night.

“We haven’t spoken to him yet –“

“Well, that’s your first mistake.“

Olen held up a hand, “Peace, Mil. I only asked Kamiah today. We plan to see her father tomorrow at the eve meal and ask him then. And I don’t see why he would say no. I think sixty’s plenty for a young couple just starting out.”

Milner clicked his teeth on the end of his pipe, staring out at his flocks. With their father dead these three years the task of marriage consent for his younger siblings fell on Milner’s shoulders. Olen’s two younger brothers were still too young to take brides unless they wanted to begger themselves and probably end up working for slaves’ wages in Selerous. Olen, on the other thumb, was a man grown – seventeen years – and sixty sheep was a good count even for a shepherd much older. Milner had only forty and three when he took Rajel to bride. Still, part of him wanted to say no – to hold onto his half-brother’s youth if the boy was too fool in love to do it himself. But he couldn’t do that. Father had always said never give children an order you know they won’t follow, and the old man had been right.

Milner puffed more sweet smoke – for effect this time – and, at length, said, “Well, I suppose if her father –“

He was cut off by the sound of something howling or perhaps growling – it was hard to define for Milner had never heard such a sound – off in the distance.

“What’s that?” said Olen, standing up.

Milner didn’t answer, but slid off his rock to stand beside his younger brother. Both men took up their crooks and Milner placed his pipe gently down on his rock.

The sound came again, closer now, just inside the forest bordering Milner’s pastureland. The sheep roused, mewling their unease. The sound was different this time, not a scream, but a series of guttural coughs, as if a giant of a man were standing just out of view in the dark, having some kind of fit.

Milner and Olen moved cautiously towards the sound. Silvery moonlight shone bright, almost white, upon the downland, picking out the tumble stones and thick grasses and white sheep. But its light did not penetrate the surrounding forest.

“We let them stray too far tonight,” said Milner, feeling the type of self-recrimination only shepherds and mothers can feel.

“No further than usual,” said Olen.

A sheep screamed in the night from directly ahead. The brothers started into a run all caution forgotten.

They mounted a small hillock covered in heather and both men froze.

“Nyssor’s nose,” Olen swore.

A large, man-shaped shadow, limned in moonlight, hunched over the mutilated form of a lamb, ripping strips of meat from its bones with its teeth and large, dexterous hands.

“Is it a boar?” whispered Olen.

“Boar’s don’t eat that way and there ain’t none this close to the coast.”

Olen shook his head. “It must be a man.”

“That’s no man.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s a thief,” said Olen. He started forward, holding his crook before him. “Oy, you, Nyssor-humper. That’s our sheep you’ve got!”

The shadow stopped mid-bite and looked up. Its eyes gleamed yellow in the moonlight. It spit out the meat and stood up on its hind legs.

“Olen, stop,” said Milner.

Olen did stop, but he was now a mere seven odd feet from the monster.

Compared to a man the thing was not tall, about Olen’s height, perhaps five and a half feet, but the fur-covered black thing standing before the brothers was wider at the shoulders than any two men. Its chest might have compared to that of an ox for sheer girth, though perhaps a little wider even than that. It stood hunched over a bit at the hips and its long arms reached almost to the ground.

It opened its mouth and Milner saw a long row of sharp teeth dominated by very long canines. The thing bellowed at Olen and both men jumped at the sudden, ear-splitting sound. It beat its chest and this sound too was loud, frightening, and almost thunderous in its reverberations. Olen turned to flee, and Milner saw at once this was a mistake. Whatever the monster might be it reacted like any mongrel dog, trumpeting and charging at the first sign of fear in its enemy. It leaped, covering the space between it and Olen in a flash of black fur and white teeth.

Olen tried to turn, tried to run, but the massive thing landed atop him, tumbling him to the ground in an avalanche of flesh. Milner heard the distinctive crack of breaking bones as he dashed forward to aid his brother. Olen screamed, but the sound of it was lost in the beast’s snarls. It lifted both fists, each the size of a small boulder, and began pummeling Olen with brutal rapidity.

Milner took up his crook by the bottom end, and, running forward, swung with all his strength for the thing’s great head. The crook connected with a meaty thump. The monster howled in pain and surprise.

Milner turned to find it rubbing its head and staring at him still standing atop the trampled form of his brother.

“Go away!” he screamed as if he could banish this demon back to whatever hell it had come from.

The thing knuckle walked his direction, picking up speed as it came. Milner raised his crook.

The monster leapt.

2

The great hall inside Castle Brenenvair, royal seat in the Kingdom of Selerous, rang with music, laughter, and the raucous voices of high-born lords and ladies, their various knights and retainers, and the many low-born folk in their service. These sounds of revelry rose in sharp contrast to the pervasive quiet of the night-dark city about the castle, where the memory of plague death, only four months abated, still lingered. But the royal family, Queen Regent Gertrude Corvidae and her son, Crowned Prince Jarin Corvidae, took no perverse pleasure in the merrymaking, certainly not at the expense of their subjects. This feast was not a mere dalliance – no celebration for the sake of gluttony and largess. The queen’s cousin, Duke Rofford Moundarvis, Warden of the Southland, had, after reaching the age of six and forty, chosen a bride much to the relief of Queen Gertrude, who had feared she might have to gift his lands and holdings to one of the sniveling, back-biting vipers that made up the lower crust of her High Court.

The girl, Genevieve, only nineteen, was princess of a tribe of islanders from the southeast of Arys. And though most of the royal heads at Brenenvair’s courts had expected a savage, she had turned out to be a docile creature of fine manners with a ready command of the Keltarian language and equally refined table manner. With her olive complexion, long black tresses, and dark islander eyes, Princess Genevieve was the talk of the feast, drawing looks of envy from the women and looks of lust from the men. She held her fiancé’s arm as they turned a corner dance, seemingly as blithely unaware of the attention as any innocent soul could be.

Lieutenant Kolo Mott watched all this from an out-of-the way corner, his eyes roving the crowd for any sign of trouble. Not that he expected much from this lot. Here and there a young royal, some cousin thrice removed from the succession perhaps, might get a little fresh with one of the serving girls, but mostly this feast was a stately affair, running with military precision as the various courses arrived and were cleared away, the servants’ meticulous work matched only by the even steps of corner dances where dukes and barons led their plump ladies in lockstep about the floor to a succession of fine tunes played by the court musicians.

All in all it was not what Kolo would call fun, but then this was court and court dictated its own sort of mirth, just as it dictated its own success and disgrace and even death. And no matter how he sliced it, being here beat commanding a secondary gate on the city’s curtain wall.

Several of Kolo’s men, each an officer in training, moved about the crowd, taking no part in the meat, mead or merriment as they had been instructed. Kolo would not have chosen such men to serve in the castle. They were all young men, several mere teens, but smartly turned out and serious-minded. They watched the crowds and Kolo watched them, feeling pride and approval, though he was careful to keep his face stern.

A sudden burst of laughter caught his attention and Kolo glanced towards a group of young royals, drinking mead and ale, and lounging about one of the center tables. Most of them were maidens with here or there a young man, but all focused with apparent adoration at young Prince Jarin Corvidae who was in the midst of some animated tale which, every few seconds, left his audience in paroxysms of raucous laughter.

At sixteen, Jarin was less than a year from his majority and elevation to the throne of Selerous. But watching him now Kolo saw only a gregarious young man with not a care in the kingdom and nothing but friendship for those around him despite their stations. Kolo was no king maker, nor sage, but he felt certain the boy would make a fine ruler, and one the Selerian Companies could be proud to serve.

A movement caught Kolo’s eye and he turned to find General Kinse Balorm, High General of the Selerian Army, motioning for Kolo to approach the high table.

Balorm sat alone. The other dignitaries who had earlier dined with him were now off circulating, protecting their stations as ferociously as feral panthers no doubt.

Kolo approached his commander, knelt upon the lip of the raised dais, and cupped his right hand, palm up, in the ancient Selerian sign of fealty.

Balorm pressed two fingers into the uplifted palm and said, “Bah, Kolo, there’s no need for that here. I need to speak with you, have a seat.”

Kolo hesitated. “Sir,” he said, straightening, “that is Duke Clayeborn’s chair. I couldn’t –“

“His Grace, the Duke of Clayeborn, is off drinking rotgut and shooting dice with his groomsmen. I said sit, Lieutenant.”

Kolo sat.

“So, how do you like babysitting royals?” asked the general.

“It’s good work if you can get it,” said Kolo. It was an old joke between them: something the older man had said once when Kolo was just a boy, the soldier’s mark still freshly burned upon his jaw.

Balorm laughed. He was a large man, tall even for a Selerian whose people were known for height. At six and fifty he kept himself trim with ample sword and spear training, though time and no lack of good food had lately put some girth about his middle. Still, he was well muscled through the shoulders, neck and arms from long years at the soldier’s craft. Tonight he wore a green silk shirt, framed with a finely worked leather vest and matching leather britches. Kolo imagined it took some long convincing and not a few threats from the general’s wife, Henna, to get the old warhorse into such garb. But he looked the elder statesman now as he grinned at his protégée.

Balorm’s smile eased and his eyes narrowed just a bit. “How are you feeling, Kolo?”

“I am fine, sir.”

The general grunted. “Your eyes say different. My mother used to say, ‘Dark circles under the eyes: a man without sleep and a woman who cries’. You haven’t been sleeping well, I can see that.”

Kolo hesitated, embarrassed, but there was no use denying it. He said, “Aye, sir.”

Balorm nodded slowly. The general well knew why Kolo hadn’t been sleeping, but he was too much the gentlemen to say it aloud. Kolo’s wife, Sarahbel, the Selerian-born daughter of a fisherman, and their days-old daughter whom he had posthumously named Misha, had died of the Canx almost two years before. The pain was still fresh for Kolo and his dreams of them, wasting away unto death while he was powerless to help, made sleep a hard thing for the Ayrish-born officer.

Balorm nodded as if to close the subject, giving Kolo a reprieve from his pain, and then glanced over to the prince and his mother who were in the middle of a corner dance with Duke Moundarvis and his bride-to-be. The general said, “I had an ulterior motive in assigning you guard duty tonight, my boy. I would have spoken to you earlier, but with preparations for the Duke’s arrival and this entire hullabaloo I never got the chance. ”

“Yes, sir?”

“Did you hear that two shepherds were killed three nights ago?”

Kolo shook his head.

“Happened in a little village away east, I don’t recall the name. The people there swear it was some monster – ripped the poor fellows to shreds and pummeled their bones. I didn’t see the bodies myself, but I’d put my wager on boar or bear. I’ve seen some monstrous big boar in my time – greatboar from out of the Keltair Valley, big as a pony. They get that big and they stop fearing man. Very territorial. You ever hunt boar, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir,” said Kolo.

“Well, neither has our prince, if you take my meaning. You know how he is about the hunt. If he catches even the slightest hint of this thing all my mounted men wouldn’t be able to stay him.” The general sobered. “Kolo, I need you to take care of this beast, be it bear, boar or Nyssor-damned dragon before Jarin goes tearing off after it and gets his royal throat torn out.”

“Sir, I don’t know much about hunting. My people were fishermen.”

“I know, I know. But I don’t trust anyone else, Kolo. Most of my captains are high-born lickspittles and the rest wish to be. I can’t think of one who wouldn’t tell Jarin of the monster himself just so he could earn the future king’s favor. I know you, Kolo. I know you have the best interests of this kingdom at heart. You wouldn’t have gone through such a racist hell to get your rank if you didn’t.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Kolo.

Theirs was a strange relationship, thought Kolo, for fate had once put a younger Private Kolo Mott in the right place at the right moment to save the high general’s life. Ever since that moment a kind of familial bond had grown between them, though neither man had ever mentioned it aloud and, indeed, the general had ofttimes gone out of his way to eschew favoritism when it came to one Kolo Mott, heaping upon him the most arduous tasks, the toughest commands. But always he had taken special interest in the foreign-born officer, ensuring that no racist superior could hold Kolo back from promotions or assignments that he had by rights and hard effort earned for the fact that he had been born across the sea in Arys.

Balorm’s eyes twinkled. He said, “You thank me now, but just wait until you’re facing a greatboar.”

“I’ll do my best,” said Kolo.

“You’ll do better,” said Balorm. “You’ll kill this thing, and you’ll bring me a souvenir, yes?”

Kolo smiled. “I –“

Raised voices caught both men’s attention. The music stopped abruptly. Someone was shouting.

“Who do you think you are, you little bastard?” screamed a valet in the burgundy and blue livery of House Moundarvis.

One of Kolo’s men, Sergeant Lurn, stood in a wide circle of onlookers, most of them servants, facing the valet. Lurn was seventeen, slight of build, having not yet put on his adult girth, and short, maybe five feet and four inches in his boots. He had only made sergeant three weeks ago, receiving his second stripe from Kolo’s own hand. Just behind Lurn stood a red-haired serving girl whose dress looked to be ripped along one shoulder.

“By your leave, sir,” said Kolo, giving the general a little half bow.

“Of course,” said Balorm, his gray eyes barely concealing his interest. Kolo knew the old man would be watching how he handled this situation and that he, Balorm, would not interfere.

Kolo pushed through the gaggle of servants who were now being joined by their betters. As he arrived at the source of the tumult, the Duke’s valet drew a knife from the scabbard at his belt. Surprised gasps and cries erupted from the crowd. The blade was a jeweled show dagger its handle inlaid with gold and ivory. A pretty thing, but still deadly for all that.

To his credit Lurn did not draw the short sword at his side, but bent his knees and splayed his hands, readying himself for an attack. Despite his size, he was an excellent fighter on the training field with most any weapon or hand-to-hand, relying on speed and accuracy to carry him over larger opponents. Lurn’s face was calm, his eyes cool, his body relaxed.

“Put down the knife,” he said.

“Tump you!”

The valet thrust forward, the blade flashing in the candlelight. Lurn side-stepped the strike and cuffed the bigger man on the back of his head as he passed. The valet crashed to the stone floor, his weapon skittering from his hand.

Cheers erupted from the gathered servants when they saw the unarmed guardsman had taken the upper hand. The downed man scrambled for his blade, but when he reached it he found a heavy boot pressing it down into the stones.

He looked up. “Who the hell are you?”

“I am Lieutenant Kolo Mott of the Queen’s guard. Who the hell are you?”

“That, sir, is my personal valet,” said Duke Rofford Moundarvis. The war duke strode forward, fine golden chains of office jangling against his broad chest, the most prominent of these a large golden badge bearing his house sigil, a white star upon a red shield. Almost ten years younger than General Balorm, the duke was stout and strong and renowned for his prowess with sword, lance, spear, and even whip. He drew himself up to his full height to peer down his nose at Kolo.

Kolo did not lift his boot, but turned his eyes to Lurn.

Before he could speak, Queen Gertrude said, “Guard, what is happening here?”

“I shall find out this instant, Your Majesty,” said Kolo. “Well, sergeant?”

Lurn, who stood now with his arms folded behind his back, a stance that seemed comical given the situation, and yet proved the boy’s discipline, said, “Sir, this man,” he pointed at the valet, “accosted this woman,” he pointed at the red-haired girl who blanched under the weight of high-born scrutiny now cast upon her. She looked at the stone floor.

The valet, seeing that his dagger was, for the moment at least, irretrievable, stood and turned, red-faced and blustering towards the diminutive sergeant.

“That’s a Nyssor-damned lie, that is! The girl and I were sharing a drink when this fool shoved me off my stool. He wants her for himself. I’ve seen him watching us all night. He couldn’t stand that she was with me and not him.”

“Did you shove this man?” asked Kolo.

“No, sir. I told him to release the girl and he pushed me.”

Duke Rofford cleared his throat, and, turning to his valet, said, “Geames, are you lying?”

“No, Your Grace. It is just as I said.”

Rofford turned his serious, stern gaze back to Kolo. “Mott,” he said, addressing the queen’s officer the way he must speak to his servants, in a tone that said, “I’m just a man like you”, and yet somehow conveyed the message that the addressee would never share the duke’s lofty position. “It is obvious to me that these men have disagreed. I believe my valet. He is a trusted man in my house, as I feel certain you trust your young sergeant. But let us be honest. You must agree that so young a man might be swayed by the pressure of having so many members of the peerage watching him – that he might be afraid to tell the truth. The ardor of youth can be overwhelming. I believe that whatever passed here, no matter who is lying, we should simply toss it up to youth’s hot tempers, yes?”

Had the accusations been laid upon any other man, even one of his other soldiers here tonight, Kolo might have given in to this offer. In one way, the duke was right, young men were apt to fight over young women, it was an age old conflict, but Rofford did not know Lurn. The boy was as resolute as an iron rod driven into granite. He had his eye on a Lieutenant’s brand. He wouldn’t let a little altercation over a serving girl deter him from that goal.

And then there was the girl herself. A serving wench she might be, but in Selerous everyone had the right to protection from the Guard. Moundarvis acted as if she were a mere trifle in the matter, something to be tossed aside and forgotten in the heat of men’s concerns.

Kolo turned to her and said, “Which of them speaks the truth?”

Duke Moundarvis flinched as if Kolo had slapped him. His face flushed red and he sucked in a breath.

“How dare you ignore me!”

Kolo regarded him without expression. “I apologize if I gave offense.” He gave a little half bow. “I meant no –“

“Ayrish born by the sound of you and nothing more than a junior lieutenant, but brass bold in your impertinence before a superior officer. I should have you both stripped of rank and whipped,” said Moundarvis, turning to face his royal cousin. “Gert, do you allow this sort of disrespect in your officers? Have things fallen so at court since last I visited?”

Queen Gertrude, regal and austere, dressed in an intricately sewn gown of blue and gold, stepped forward from among her retainers to regard Kolo and the duke. Her steel gray hair, superbly coifed this night, looked to Kolo like gathering thunderheads. He felt his heart accelerate under her cold, green-eyed gaze.

At length she said, “No, cousin. Things have not fallen thus at Brenenvair’s courts.” She turned a wintry gaze solely upon the duke and Kolo thought he saw Moundarvis flinch. “Lieutenant Mott was right to ask the girl, she being a direct witness, since these men cannot agree. And I will thank you, cousin, not to address my person in so informal a manner in public again.”

Moundarvis bowed stiffly. “No, my Queen. Please forgive me. I was taken out of sorts by the slight.”

“You were not slighted, Rofford. And I would hear what the girl has to say.” She turned to the servant and the red-haired girl trembled noticeably, her skin nearly the color of her hair. “Tell us, my dear. Which of these men lies?”

“Your Majesty, I –“she looked at the floor, drew a deep breath, and said, “The valet lies, your Majesty.”

Gasps erupted from the crowd and muffled voices broke out, passing the news along to those too far away to hear.

“Quiet,” said the queen. She looked back at Duke Moundarvis. “Cousin, I believe you should take your valet in hand.”

The duke turned an angry glare upon his man, Geames, who had the good grace to look embarrassed. “You have disgraced our house before the royal family. You will leave here at once and confine yourself to your room until I send for you. Is that understood?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Go.”

The valet fled.

Kolo retrieved the knife from under his heel and held it out to Duke Moundarvis hilt first. The duke glanced at it, and then lifted baleful eyes to Kolo. He seemed about to say something, thought better of it, and snatched the dagger away.

“I apologize again for my servant’s actions, Queen Gertrude,” he said, this time bowing deeply to his cousin.

“It is done,” said the queen. “Unpleasant business is best finished quickly and forgotten. Maestro, strike up that last song. I for one haven’t had my fill of corners yet tonight.”

The music began anew and people, both royal and common, begin milling about, getting back to their merriment. Moundarvis gazed at Kolo for just a moment longer and then turned away to follow his cousins back to the dance.

The red-haired girl muttered a tacit thank you Lurn’s direction and hurried from the hall.

“You did right,” said Kolo to Lurn once they stood alone.

“I’m sorry if I caused trouble,” said the boy.

“You stopped the trouble. That’s a guardsman’s duty.”

Lurn cast a glance at Duke Moundarvis’s retreating back. “I’m not so sure I did.”

Kolo smiled grimly. He had a feeling the boy might be right.

3

Kolo found he rather enjoyed boar – or was it bear? – hunting. Of course, since he had no idea what he was doing and General Balorm had refused to let him use the castle huntsmen or their dogs for fear that Prince Jarin would notice their absence, Kolo didn’t see much difference between hunting and taking long midnight rides through the hinterland.

He knew in some armies, small affairs away in the southlands, soldiers generally lived by hunting or even farming until their liege lords called them up for duty. But such had not been the way of things in Selerous for nearly a hundred years, not since Prince Jarin’s great-grandsire organized a professional army and navy for his kingdom, using taxes to fund their upkeep. It had been a bold move at the time, since no ruler on the island of Telred had ever attempted such a thing, but the effort had paid dividends evident to this day. Selerous was now the most powerful of all the nine kingdoms on Telred. And its mercantile fleet rivaled even that of Kolo’s own motherland, Arys.

Having learned the soldier’s life in a professional army, Kolo had little chance to hone hunting skills besides the odd deer or elk, and that always in the company of more experienced men. His excursions in pursuit of the supposed boar or bear these last several nights not only gave him a chance to enjoy the countryside, but possessed the added benefit of taking him away from Selerous and thus out of Duke Moundarvis’s notice. And, since General Balorm had allowed Kolo to take one man along for the hunt, Kolo had chosen Sergeant Lurn, who had even more reason to avoid the war duke and his servants.

The young sergeant wasn’t much company, being a quiet young man who spoke to superiors only when spoken to, but that was fine with Kolo. Theirs was a companionable silence.

No further sheep or men had been attacked since the first incident, and on this, the third night since the feast, Kolo felt confident that whatever had attacked those shepherds, be it boar, bear, wolf, or wyvern, it had departed the area in search of less civilized lands. He and Lurn would, of course, spend the next two weeks hunting it – just long enough for Duke Moundarvis to marry his foreign princess and head back to his duchy in the south – and when they returned empty-handed General Balorm would probably bluff and bluster a bit and then put them back to work. It wasn’t as if there were scores of boar or bear hunters coming to aid them, not in a region known for its outrageous lack of either animal. Kolo had asked, quietly, among his fellows and even at a few of the outlying villages, but the only game in these parts were deer and coon and other food stocks. Perhaps what had taken the men was a bear, but even if that were so Kolo and Lurn weren’t like to find it. Upland bears were notoriously shy creatures who circled wide around men and their dwellings, preferring the northwestern mountain ranges to any clime near the sea.

Kolo’s horse lifted its head, pulling him out of his thoughts. He and Lurn had passed a tiny hamlet called Bridgeland some minutes ago, south of Selerous by perhaps fifteen miles. They had planned to sleep in the wild tonight if need be, but Kolo was still holding out hope of finding a farmer who might let them bed down in his barn.

“I think the horses smell something,” said Lurn. It was the longest sentence the boy had uttered all day.

“Dogs maybe,” said Kolo.

The moon called Nyssor, like a baleful red eye, dominated the heavens, lighting the forest with its red glow. Kolo didn’t believe in gods, but he had to admit the large red moon gave him the shivers on nights like this when it was full and the forest was nearly black save for the moon’s ruddy light.

Something large moved out in the trees, making the sound of bending and breaking branches. Kolo reined in his horse, which skittered in response, whinnying and stamping a fore hoof.

Lurn stopped alongside him, his mount likewise acting nervous. She was an old nag, usually docile as a pony, but tonight she turned and nipped at the boy’s leg.

Kolo drew his sword from her scabbard. It was a finely crafted blade set upon an unremarkable hilt and plain cross guard of serviceable steel. It was the finest weapon he had ever possessed, and he had named it for the finest woman he had ever known, his dead wife, Sarahbel.

Lurn drew his short sword, a standard issue blade for Selerian guardsmen.

“Who’s there?” called Kolo into the darkness. His heart thumped hard in his chest. It was probably just a large dog. Maybe.

Kolo’s horse turned back and forth in half circles, hardly answering to his rider’s insistent pulls on the reigns. A stench like none Kolo had ever experienced wafted from the trees. It was like rotted food mixed with some bitter, earthy aroma he could not place.

A shadow moved just inside the trees off the road, outlined in Nyssor’s red light. Kolo caught a glimpse of it, furry and large, but it was hard to make out with the stupid beast prancing about beneath him.

“What’s that?” asked Lurn, pointing at the shadow.

All at once something burst from the nearest thicket onto the dual-track lane, bellowing and beating upon its chest. The horses screamed. Lurn’s mare reared, and as it came down the monster knuckled forward to club it on the head with one great fist. The horse collapsed, spilling Lurn into the dirt.

Kolo fought the reigns as his own mount bucked and skittered, seemingly too befuddled to run one direction or the other. It was no use fighting the beast, for it was panicked out of its mind and surely, once it got its bearings, would bolt away, probably only to stumble and break a leg in the dark. Best not to let that broken leg to be his own.

Moving quickly he turned in the saddle and slid down, careful to jog clear of the horse’s stamping hooves. He ended up behind the monster whose attention was still focused on Lurn and his unconscious horse. Free of its burden, Kolo’s mount bolted, galloping back the way they had come from Bridgeland.

The monster, meanwhile, closed on Lurn. Using one huge, club-like arm it rhythmically pounded the horse’s head to pulp, growling low in its chest with every swing. Lurn lay with one leg trapped under the luckless animal. In the darkness Kolo couldn’t tell if the young sergeant was unconscious or simply playing dead.

Kolo had faced men in battle. He had stood at the fore of a company as men with flashing steel tried their best to cut him down. He had even faced the sinister majesty of a full grown wyvern, the first cousin of dragons, and survived. But he had never felt this outmatched. Sure, a wyvern was enormous, but that sheer size meant that on a field of battle the thing hardly paid attention to a single soldier, instead attacking entire companies of men as a single enemy. This beast, however, seemed to possess a kind of compact gigantism, distilling a monstrous creature’s speed and power into a body only two or three times larger than a large man.

In fact, it had somewhat the shape of a man but it must have weighed at least four hundred pounds and by the sound of the horse’s skull being pulverized under its fist, the thing had strength to match its girth.

Lurn roused, moaning in pain when he tried to pull himself out from beneath his horse. The monster froze at the sound and leaned forward as if perplexed that its target could still make noise. When it saw Lurn moving weakly in the red light of Nyssor, its growls renewed.

Seeing his sergeant in peril drove the fear out of Kolo, or, more rightly, drove the fear into him where it coalesced into a tight little diamond of cold fury.

The thing placed a hand on the ground, crouching to snuffle at Lurn’s head. Catching the boy’s scent, it grunted and raised its free hand high, preparing to end the sergeant’s life in one brief smash.

Kolo didn’t give it the chance. He leapt forward and slashed, slicing the thing’s back with Sarahbel’s steel. The beast howled in pain, a sound so horribly loud it rang Kolo’s ears.

The monster sprang away, still howling, escaping into the darkness of the wood. Kolo stood for several heartbeats, his sword raised, watching and listening for any sign of it, but none came. Then, without lowering his eyes, he whispered, “How badly are you hurt, sergeant?”

“My leg’s pinned and it’s hard to breath,” said Lurn in an agonized grunt. “Might have a broken rib on the left side.”

Kolo cursed. He didn’t like the idea of dragging the boy out of here with that thing waiting in the woods. But he liked the idea of leaving Lurn to go for help even less.

He hesitated a few more seconds, and then lowered his sword as he moved to free the boy.

The scream of primal rage, pain, and malice that issued through the night was so sudden and so immense that Kolo stumbled backwards over his own boots in a moment of instant fear. The creature dove out of the trees, flying at Kolo like ballast from a catapult. Later, upon reflection, Kolo would realize that it was the stumble which had saved his life. He fell flat on his back, Sarahbel flying from his grip, and the beast sailed over him. Realizing it had missed, but already in the air, the monster could do little but reach for the man below it as it passed. That small gesture, however, translated into a meaty punch that connected with Kolo’s chin. The force of it whipped his head sideways, and left dancing spots in his vision.

Kolo Mott didn’t have time to be dizzy. He gained his feet, swayed a bit, and began searching the road for Sarahbel. The monster meanwhile landed and turned to bellow its rage. Kolo spotted Sarahbel in a thicket of grass by the road. He checked the monster and saw that it was knuckling towards him for another attack. Kolo bent and grasped the sword just as the beast launched itself at him again, its black fur tinged red in the bloody moonlight.

Kolo side-stepped, bringing his blade around and down in one fluid motion. He felt steel bite into flesh, felt something give, and then the monster was once again howling in pain. It skittered to a stop, holding its right hand cradled against its chest. Then it threw a last, baleful growl Kolo’s way and bounded for the forest on only three limbs. Kolo listened as the sounds of tramping underbrush and breaking branches moved away into the distance. Soon he could no longer hear it, but still he waited, sword raised.

Some time later, once Kolo’s heart had begun to slow, Lurn croaked, “I think it’s gone, Lieutenant.”

Kolo nodded. He placed Sarahbel gently on the grass in the middle of the road, pitched forward on his splayed hands, and was sick. When he was done, when he could breathe without feeling his gorge rising on a tide of fear and stress, he reached to retrieve Sarahbel and a twinkle of light caught his eye.

A golden ring, still attached to one of the beast’s severed fingers, lay in the dirt. Upon the ring, clearly outlined in red moonlight, stood the shield and star sigil of House Moundarvis.

4

General Balorm’s offices occupied three rooms in a squat stone building just off Castle Brenenvair’s practice yard, outside and immediately adjacent to the castle wall. The sounds of steel clashing on steel and men’s voices raised in cheer or dismay echoed through the closed door and open windows. The building’s ceilings were low, the walls festooned with tapestries and war trophies, and the place smelled perpetually of tobacco, arms oils, and decaying parchment.

General Balorm sat behind his large dark wood desk positioned such that morning light fell upon its face, illuminating whatever reports he might be reviewing for the day. Today’s report happened to be an account of Kolo Mott’s experience with what the lieutenant termed, “a black beast of notable size and strength.” Balorm regarded it as he puffed a black pipe. To one side of the report stood a small wooden barrel containing a pint of dark beer and the beast’s detached finger. The golden ring, bearing the crest of House Moundarvis, lay on Balorm’s desk.

Kolo stood before the general, hands clasped behind his back, awaiting his commander’s pleasure. Normally, despite Kolo’s low rank, the general would have bid him sit in one of the wooden chairs arranged before his desk, but today they had a guest. Camben Wyle, High Priest of the Church of Odane at Selerous, stood just behind and to the right of General Balorm. The old man leaned on a tall staff of office clearly reading over the general’s shoulder – something Kolo knew Balorm detested, though he would never say so to the venerable priest.

Kolo also knew the general had only invited Camben to this private meeting because, should the matter become of higher importance, especially magical importance, questions would arise, one of those being, “why wasn’t the Church informed at the first hint of heretical taint?” The Church of Odane, the official religious body of Selerous and, indeed, most northern nations on the isle of Telred, abhorred any form of magic. In fact, any citizen caught in the act of using arcane knowledge could be tried and executed for the practice. Despite his personal qualms with Camben, General Balorm hadn’t survived this long in Brenenvair’s political seas without knowing how to protect himself and his charges from even the merest hint at such an accusation.

Balorm took another long draw from his pipe and then said, “You say it came out of the woods?”

“Yes, sir,” said Kolo.

“Big and fast and furry. That sum it up?”

“Yes, sir.” Kolo could guess the direction of the general’s thoughts and anticipated what he would say, but kept his mouth shut. He might be friendly with the High General, but that didn’t mean Kolo could take liberates, especially before High Priest Camben.

“Then I still say it must have been a bear,” said Balorm. “I’ll grant you a boar couldn’t do all you claim this black beast did, but it was dark and I’ve seen bears rear on their hind legs. Under duress, and in the darkness, one could probably look very manlike I should think.”

Kolo cleared his throat. “With all due respect sir, I do not agree. This monster hand hands. You’ve seen its finger.”

Balorm rubbed his beard. “Yes. And I can come up with no explanation for that.”

“And you’re certain the ring was on this finger? I hate to imagine House Moundarvis being embroiled in this mystery if one of its people simply lost a ring in the woods while out for a stroll,” said High Priest Camben in his quavering old man’s voice.

“The ring was still on the finger when I picked it up,” said Kolo. “You may ask my man Lurn. He saw it as well.”

“Lurn, and his horse, are another matter that gives me pause,” said Balorm. “The more I try to make these incidents fit a natural cause – and I still want it to be a bear, damn it – the more the facts don’t fit. Bears use claws and teeth. The boy’s horse was beaten, crushed even. I couldn’t have done a better job making pulp of that poor creature’s head with a hammer.”

All three men were quiet a moment, and then High Priest Camben said, “What you describe sounds like one of the Lup-Tai, to me.”

Both Balorm and Kolo gave the old priest a quizzical look.

“What’s that?” asked Kolo.

“They are men who can transform themselves into animals. It is the foulest type of foul magic – the changing of the human form into a beast. In the Church such men are named wizards, though, from what I’ve heard over the years they are not spell twisters; they have only the power to transform.”

“Transform into what exactly?” asked Balorm, sounding interested despite himself.

The old priest rubbed an eyebrow. “Wolves usually, but sometimes other things like huge cats, and, yes, bears. What you describe, Lieutenant, this black-haired beast that mostly walks on all fours, it sounds to me like an ape, though I’ve never heard of a Lup-Tai becoming one of those.”

“What is an ape?” asked the general.

“A fearsome creature similar in shape to a man, but larger and wild as any beast. We have none here on Telred. They come from southern Arys,” said Camben, his eyes turning to Kolo.

“You’re Arysh,” said Balorm to Kolo. “Did it look like an ape to you?”

Kolo shook his head. “I’m from the northwestern coast, sir. We have no apes there, but I do recall hearing stories in my youth of hairy men from the south who wore no clothes and lived like animals. Gorillas they were called. But I thought those were just stories meant to frighten kiddies like tales of ogres and witches.”

“Ogres and witches are real too,” said Camben with a fatherly grin. Then his eyes fell back to the ring and he said, “So that would make this beast a Lupe-gorill. Nasty business. For a man to be transforming via magic right here in Selerous is most displeasing. This thing should be hunted and destroyed. No taint of magic should be allowed among Odane’s people.”

Balorm rolled his eyes where the priest couldn’t see. “I agree, it should be destroyed, but I can’t organize a large hunt –“

Without a knock or announcement the office door opened. General Balorm’s eyes flashed dangerously and Kolo saw the commander ready himself to give the interloper a verbal beheading, but he froze in the act of drawing breath.

Prince Jarin Corvidae strode into the office, and he too froze when he caught sight of Kolo and the priest.

“Oh, Uncle Balorm, Uncle Camben, I apologize. I hadn’t realized you were having a meeting,” said the young prince. Although neither man was actually related to Jarin, he had years before taken to calling them both ‘Uncle’ for they both served a role close to that of his dead father in educating and generally raising the fatherless prince. Familiar as he was with both men, Jarin did not seem to realize this meeting might be private or that his presence may not be welcome. Rather than turn to leave he sauntered towards the seat beside Kolo, who now knelt before the prince.

“Lieutenant Mott, isn’t it?” asked Jarin.

“Yes, My Prince,” said Kolo.

“Stand up man,” said Jarin. “There’s no need for all that formal stuff outside court and I don’t particularly like it there.”

General Balorm, who had not risen and had certainly not bowed, smiled at the young prince and said, “Mott is new to the palace, My Prince. Give him a week or so and he’ll show you no more respect than the rest of us do.”

Prince Jarin sighed in mock resignation and settled himself into the vacant chair. “Isn’t that the tale of my time,” he said morosely.

“So, what brings you to my humble office, Your Highness? Aren’t you supposed to be entertaining guests?” asked Balorm. He was obviously taking the initiative before Jarin could ask what the meeting was about.

“Nyssor’s balls, don’t remind me. Royals my age are a bunch of vapid, self-absorbed nitwits. All the girls that aren’t related to me are ugly, fat or both and all the men my age are more concerned with the state of their finery than their sword arms. I tried to get a hunt going, but none of them, not even cousin Aaron who was happy to hunt three years ago, would go along. They all want to see and be seen at court. And none of the older men will go either. Most of them are too old or crippled to care. The only one who still hunts his own lands is cousin Rofford, but he begged off saying a dog bit his valet.”

“What’s that to do with Duke Moundarvis’s hunting?” asked Camben.

“Rofford won’t hunt without the man.” Jarin smiled mischievously, turning to Kolo. You know this one, Mott. It’s the same man who gave you grief at the feast. I was fit to burst when you stood on his knife that way and him just lying there on the ground, pulling at it. Mother and I both laughed about that later. Anyway, Rofford says the man never fails on a hunt – says he has the senses of a beast when it comes to ferreting out game.”

The small hairs on Kolo’s neck stood up. General Balorm and Camben both seemed to lean forward with interest. Kolo said, “My Prince, you say this valet was bitten by a dog?”

Jarin shrugged. “On the hand, or so Rofford says. Really I think he just wants to beg off from the hunt as well. He seems far more interested in his bride than anything else. Sad really. I mean she is beautiful and all, but…” Jarin shrugged as if to sum up all the foolishness of grown men over such commonplace possessions as comely princesses.

“Maybe next time he visits and the new has worn off, Rofford will be back to his old self,” said Balorm, though his eyes seemed to be looking inward, chasing his thoughts.

Jarin shrugged again. “Maybe,” he said. “That’s why I came here, Uncle. I was hoping you might want to hunt or perhaps you could spare a few soldiers who might like to attend me.”

Balorm’s eyes seemed to clear suddenly, focusing on his young sovereign and he said, “What exactly are you hunting?”

“The wild boar everyone’s talking about. Haven’t you heard? Some say it’s boar, others claim it’s a bear. Either way the thing has been killing villagers all these last two weeks and I mean to take it down.”

Kolo groaned inwardly and saw a matching expression on his commander’s face.

“Jarin, I say this with all due respect and courtesy. There is no way I would ever support you in hunting something like that. Your Queen Mother would have my bal – head for even thinking about helping you go risk your neck chasing some beast real or imagined. No wonder all your cousins said no.”

“But who is going to stop it from harming people?” said the Prince. He didn’t seem angry, but genuinely concerned. Kolo found a new level of respect for the boy.

“I will,” said the general. “With plenty of soldiers.”

“Then I’m coming along,” said Jarin firmly.

Balorm smirked, a look Kolo had never seen on the older man’s face. It was a distinctly paternal kind of look and seemed to hold a great deal of both affection and frustration for the boy prince.

“I will be happy to bring you along, My Prince, just as soon as you get Queen Gertrude’s permission.”

“Low blow, Uncle. To involve a man’s mother — that’s dirty snooker.”

“As the old gamesman used to say, ‘If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

Jarin puffed his cheeks and blew out a sigh, then stood from the chair with theatrical arrogance. “One day I shall be king,” he said, though without malice and while evincing a certain comical lilt to his voice.

“Yes, and I’ll still tell your mother when you get out of line,” said Balorm.

Jarin shook his head. “Low. Low,” he muttered as he turned to leave. “I’m still going to ask her all the same. You never know, she might let me come along.”

“I’ll hold my breath for you shall I, My Prince?” called Balorm.

Prince Jarin smiled, made a rude gesture, and left.

Balorm, Camben and Kolo were quiet a moment. Then Camben said, “I think we must see this valet.”

Balorm nodded. “Right now.”

6

General Balorm sent his batman, Corporal Jonse, ahead to herald their arrival in the castle’s guest suites. He, Kolo, and Priest Camben entered the narrow hall adjacent to the three rooms currently occupied by House Moundarvis to find the duke berating the young soldier.

“I don’t care if Odane himself sent you, boy. No one clomps up here and demands to see me or any of my House.” The duke’s voice rang in the narrow stone passage.

Corporal Jonse stood with his eyes downcast. “My apologies, sir.”

“You can’t excuse a dead dog after it’s dead.”

“Duke Rofford, what has happened here? Has this man offended you in some way?” asked Balorm.

The duke regarded the newcomers for a moment. Then he said, “Yes. This galoot came stomping up the hallway, banged on my fiancé’s door, giving the poor girl a fright, and demanded to speak to me or my valet. What is the meaning of this?”

“I apologize for my man’s comportment,” said Kinse. “I sent him to announce me and ask after the valet. I’m sure Corporal Jonse didn’t mean to frighten your lady.”

“Genevieve is in delicate health this morning. The last thing she needs is soldiers pounding on her door.”

“I’m sure it was a mistake,” said Balorm. “Corporal, you may go.”

Jonse hastily bowed to the duke, and then to the general – a breach of protocol, subordinates were supposed to salute officers, but Balorm ignored it – and the boy exited at speed.

Once he was gone Duke Moundarvis said, “What’s this about my valet?”

“We were hoping to find him. Is he here?”

Not to be put off by Balorm’s question, the duke’s eyes narrowed and he said, “Why, sir, do you wish to know?”

General Balorm did not blink. “We suspect him of a crime and wish to question him.”

Rofford’s face flushed red. “What crime?”

“Two murders thus far and an attack on two Selerian army officers.”

The duke sneered. “Preposterous.” His gaze fell upon Kolo. “And is this one of the officers in question? No, don’t even answer that, of course it is. This Arysh wants his revenge on Geames for the audacity of defending himself at the feast. That’s the way of the Arysh. Never stand belly to belly with an opponent when you can cut his throat from the rear.”

Kolo said nothing. It was not his place to treat with royalty, even royalty such as this.

Balorm took a step forward to stand face to face with the duke. They were of a height and met one another’s eyes.

“Sir,” said Balorm. “I’ll thank you not to insult one of my officers.”

“How dare you address me in such a manner?” said Moundarvis. “You, some up-jumped peasant out of the villages. Your blood is no more worthy of the generalship than that one’s is of being Selerian,” said Moundarvis, pointing at Kolo.

Kolo tensed, but not at the insult. He made ready to grab the general should Balorm decide to break Moundarvis’s aquiline nose.

But the general only smiled. “Yes, Duke, some of us are handed titles and station while others of us must attain them through merit.”

Moundarvis’s eyes widened and his nostrils flared. “If my wedding weren’t impending, I should challenge you, sir, and you would die eating those words.”

Balorm nodded stoically. “Find me after your wedding then, though I am loath to turn your lady from bride to widow so soon after her nuptials.”

“Gentlemen, please. This is unseemly,” said High Priest Camben. The old man fidgeted with the crystal about his neck, his eyes darting from one man to the other.

“Your valet, sir,” said Balorm into the silence that followed.

Moundarvis considered the general a moment longer and then said, “He is injured – a dog bite. I gave him leave for the day and last I saw he was headed for the kitchens.”

“Thank you,” said Balorm, never moving his eyes from the duke’s own.

“If you accuse him of these crimes, then you are accusing my House. Remember that, General.”

Balorm smiled, gave a half bow to the duke and turned on his heel, showing the man his back. Kolo and Camben trailed after him.

7

They found the valet, Geames, in the castle kitchens, filching pinches of crust from a steaming berry pie. He must have thought no one saw or perhaps he believed the kitchen slaves were too afraid of his station as Duke Moundarvis’s man to put a stop to his theft. He was wrong.

While the other women ignored him, one of the slaves, a blonde girl no older than Prince Jarin, swatted his thieving hand with a wooden spoon. His other hand, Kolo noted with interest, was bandaged.

“Ow. Stop that wench,” he said, sucking his stinging fingers.

“That is not meant for you. If you want food you go out and buy it or wait upstairs like the rest of your lot.”

Everyone in the kitchens grew quiet.

“My lot? Girl, I’ll have you know I’m of House – “

“What? Am I stupid? You’re wearing the Duke’s colors. What of it? In this castle you’re patron is still just a second flute to our Queen. So unless you want me to call the guard in here and have you dragged out, I suggest you leave.”

“Is every woman in this Nyssor-rotted city a back talking bitch? You’re going to learn some manners today, girl.”

Geames started forward, his good hand cocked to backhand her.

To her credit the girl did not back away or cower, but pulled a carving knife from a cutting board. Several of her fellow slaves gasped.

“Mother says I’m a brass-plated bitch. I like that one better,” she said.

Seeing the knife, Geames drew up short.

“Put that down,” he said.

“Take another step towards me and oaf balls go on tonight’s menu.”

“Girl, I was just going to teach you a lesson before. But I will not be threatened by a scullery slave. You’re –“

“—perfectly right to hold off a rabid dog by any means you see fit,” finished General Balorm. He and Kolo had entered unobtrusively by a rear door, Priest Camben having left them to attend mid-morning prayers.

The valet turned a sour look on him and Kolo, but he had sense enough not to speak and lowered his eyes.

Balorm turned to the girl, “Loren Chenaire. Why is it when my guardsmen answer calls to the servants’ quarters or kitchens you are usually in the thick of whatever mischief they find?”

The girl shrugged. Unlike Geames the valet, she did not look down, but met the general’s gaze with a quirked smile. “None of these have any backbone.” She twirled her blade in the air, indicating her fellow workwomen. “Someone has to stand up for the sheep, Your Generalship.”

“Well, this little incident is over, and, thank Odane, without any bloodshed this time, so go finish your pies in peace.”

She smiled in earnest now and performed a marvelous curtsy, the affectation marred only slightly by the gleaming blade still clasped in one hand.

Balorm smiled and bowed graciously back to the girl, but the smile faded as his gaze returned to the valet.

“You have a penchant for molesting women,” he said.

“No, sir,” said the valet. “I would never have harmed the girl. I only meant to play – to give her a little scare.”

“I’m sure. Step out into the hall with us for a moment. We have questions for you.”

The valet’s eyes grew wide as he looked up for the first time.

“What sort of questions?” he asked.

Balorm grew very still, his own gray eyes locked on those of the valet. Kolo was glad to not be on the receiving end of that stare.

“Did that sound like a request to you?” said Balorm in a deadly calm voice.

Geames quelled visibly. “No, sir. I do apologize.” He started for the door.

The outer hallway leading into Brenenvair’s castle kitchens was made of bare stone lighted by high glassless windows. It was not much used, save by slaves bustling in and out at odd intervals. Balorm led Kolo and Geames to a quiet alcove and turned to face the man.

“We want to know how you injured your hand,” said the general, pointing at the man’s bandage.

“This? One of the Duke’s hunting dogs bit me when I tried to catch her. She’s a good one for the hunt, but a right bitch when caged.”

Kolo pulled the golden ring from his pocket and held it out for the valet to see.

“Is this your ring?” he said.

Geames gave Kolo a cool stare, as if he expected to only be addressed by the general. After a moment he flitted his eyes to the ring and then back to Kolo.

“No.”

“Look at it,” said Balorm in a warning tone.

Geames took the ring and inspected it closely.

“House Moundarvis,” he said and shrugged. “But it’s not mine.”

“Do all Duke Moundarvis’s servants wear these?” asked Kolo.

The valet sneered. “Of course not. Only those of us privileged to directly serve the Duke and his family – castle staff. Tis real gold you see. It matches the duke’s own.”

“Then you own a ring like this?” asked Kolo. Surely the man would say he had lost his ring and then Kolo would be certain Geames was the beast. He wouldn’t be able to prove it yet, not with such poor evidence, but that he could find, especially with General Balorm’s support.

“Yes, of course I have a ring just like that. I am the ranking manservant in his lordship’s service,” said Geames in a voice oily with pride.

He seemed not to realize his peril, and that gave Kolo pause. Was this man who so blithely admitted his connection to the ring the killer they sought? Perhaps he was the beast, but couldn’t remember his exploits after his transformation.

“And where is your ring like this one?” asked Balorm as he adroitly took it back and slipped it into a uniform pocket.

“In my room.” Geames’s eyes held a mild look of trepidation now.

Got you, thought Kolo. He could hardly contain his smile.

“Unwrap your hand. I want to see this supposed dog bit,” said Balorm.

“Sir,” said the valet, “May I now ask what this is about?” He made no move to unwrap his injured hand.

“Unwrap that hand.” The general’s voice was low and penetrating.

“I should have my liege here,” said Geames.

“You’re liege knows we are questioning you.”

The valet hesitated, watching the general’s eyes.

“Am I accused of some crime?”

“Lieutenant Kolo, if this man does not begin removing his bandage in three seconds I want you to cut off his arm. We’ll have a look at that hand one way or another.”

Kolo drew Sarahbel from her scabbard with a ringing hiss. Geames hastily began unwinding the bandage.

The valet’s hand was bruised purple and blood red. Lacerated skin glistened in a U-shaped wound that had clearly been left by an animal bite. And, worst of all, none of his fingers were missing. One of them had obviously suffered a deep gouge in the attack, but it was in no way severed.

Kolo’s mind raced with wild reasoning. Perhaps, if Geames were the beast, his transformation imparted some regenerative process by which he regrew the finger. But no, that made no sense. Who, having the magic to regrow an appendage, would have it come back mangled? And the wounds on his hand were clearly not left by a sword. They were too ragged, too uneven in cut and too uniform in shape.

Geames was not the beast.

Kolo sheathed Sarahbel.

Balorm swore.

8

Lieutenant Kolo Mott and General Kinse Balorm stood in full military dress: green vests over black, high-collared blouses, sheathed swords, black britches, and knee-high boots. Before them, upon their regally carved thrones, sat Queen Regent of Selerous Gertrude Corvidae and her son, Prince Jarin Corvidae. Just below their thrones, flanking them, stood Duke Rofford Moundarvis, his fiancé, Genevieve, and his chief valet, Geames.

The soldiers were still for a moment after the bailiff called their names, as was custom, and then Balorm led the way, taking two steps forward to kneel before his sovereign, eyes downcast. Kolo followed suit.

Kolo had never been this afraid. Rationally, he knew the queen was not likely to order him executed over the matter of wrongly accusing her cousin’s valet. But a small voice in his head – a cynical, petty little voice – said execution wasn’t off the table. Royals had executed people for stupid reasons, especially when they were put out. And, by the look on Queen Gertrude’s face, she was a little more than put out.

Silence reigned for some moments as the queen, along with half a hundred courtesans, considered the two men before her.

“You may rise,” she said.

They stood and the queen said, “General, why did you and Lieutenant Mott falsely accuse my cousin’s raking valet of a crime he did not commit?”

The queen’s green eyes, vibrant and piercing despite the wrinkles in her sharp-angled face, bore down on Balorm with all the weight of her exalted station. For his part, young Prince Jarin looked anxious. He watched the general intently, his eyes steady, not watered with tears, and yet all the more sad for the lack of moisture there.

“Your Majesty, I made a mistake. I believed, without reservation, that this man had committed a crime and I sought justice against him. When I brought the charge to him he made his alibi and it was sound. Given the evidence again I would have made the same assumptions, and pursued the same line of logic,” said Balorm.

Kolo didn’t know if the general was actually as calm as he appeared. Perhaps, after so many years in Her Majesty’s service, Balorm was accustomed to this type of hearing, or perhaps those years had trained him to act outwardly calm even as he cowered on the inside. Kolo wasn’t sure, but he envied the older officer. The Ayrish lieutenant was shaking.

“What say you, Mr. Mott. Would you accuse this valet again given the same evidence?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. I would.”

“What, exactly, was the crime you thought this man committed while a guest in my castle?”

Kolo hesitated for a moment. Those sharp, green eyes were pinning him with their discerning stare. He swallowed, took a breath, and said, “Murder, my Queen.”

Shocked gasps erupted from the galleries as the onlookers began whispering with their neighbors.

The queen, who had surely heard the charges already, showed no reaction.

“An outrage,” said Duke Rofford.

“And just whom did you believe he murdered?” asked the queen.

Kolo explained about the shepherds and how he and Lurn were attacked while hunting the supposed bear.

“You believe this creature was not a natural forest animal?”

Kolo glanced at Prince Jarin whose face had lost much of its prior concern only to be replaced by intent interest.

“I am not qualified to say, my Queen.”

Gertrude turned to High Priest Camben Wyle who stood off to one side of her dais.

“It is my understanding that you advised these men as they pursued their inquest, Your Excellency.”

Camben nodded slowly. “Yes, My Queen. I did. And, having seen the same evidence as General Balorm and Lieutenant Mott, I arrived at the same conclusions. I believe the lieutenant’s description of the beast in question and therefore I believe it is a Lupe-Gorill.”

“And you thought my cousin’s valet was this Lupe-Gorill?” asked Gertrude.

“Yes, Your Majesty, I did.”

The queen sat back on her throne, her eyes remote for a moment. Then she said, “I understand your reasons for not telling me this was going on, Kinse. You didn’t want my son trying to hunt this thing.”

The prince started to speak, but his mother shushed him. “I thank you for that,” she said to the general. “However, I do not believe in magical beasts. No offense, High Priest Wyle.”

The old priest nodded and smiled.

“I do, however, believe in bears,” continued the queen,”and that is what you have here. You’ve let your imaginations run and it led you to accuse a man of committing the attacks of a wild animal. The fact that you did it out of love for my son is heartening, but I hope you see how such a failure in judgment reflects badly upon your position, General.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Balorm.

“Therefore you understand that I cannot allow your actions to go unpunished. To do so would be to condone illogical behavior – something I cannot afford to do in my position. For these reasons, I decree that you shall forfeit one month’s pay for your crime. Do you understand?”

Balorm’s cheeks flushed, but he agreed, giving the queen and Prince Jarin a deep bow.

“My Queen, do you really want a man like that leading your armies?” asked Duke Moundarvis. “Could you trust his judgment in a campaign?”

Gertrude regarded her cousin for a moment, her eyes like chips of ice. “General Balorm has proven his loyalty and sound judgment to me many times in the past. I see no reason for one discrepancy to doom his career.”

The duke started to speak again, but the queen said, “The matter is decided, Rofford.”

Then she turned her gaze on Kolo. His heart hammered. “Mr. Mott, you played your own part in this debacle. And though I understand the fear that probably caused you to mistake a bear for some magical creature, I cannot but feel that it was your wild report which culminated in the near imprisonment and possible execution of an innocent man. For this reason I decree that you are hereby reduced in rank to the grade of High Sergeant and dismissed from all castle duty. I have decided to allow you to remain in the city guard, but you will now serve as a night watchman. Do you understand?”

Blood rushed in Kolo’s ears. He had lost his commission. He was no longer an officer in Her Majesty’s guard. Worse, he had lost that commission by the Queen’s own decree. Why couldn’t she just execute him?

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said his own voice from some far off place.

Duke Rofford turned and bowed to his cousin, then leaned forward to whisper urgently to her.

“Your Majesty, I don’t understand why that man Kolo isn’t facing the whipping post. Any soldier who spreads lies and accuses innocent men deserves lashes and a summary dismissal. You can’t want such a man in your service.”

“Rofford, if I had every soldier who made a mistake whipped and dismissed we would have a woefully undermanned army by the time Jarin became king. We’ve barely had any respite from the Canx killing our people and the River Kings robbing us blind with upstream taxes. I would be a fool to throw away otherwise good men.” The queen raised a hand, forestalling another outburst from her cousin. “My decision is final.”

9

Fair weather clouds covered the stars, blotting out whatever light might have otherwise reached the city’s cobbled streets. Both moons hung in the sky, silver and red blurs obscured by the dense, gray overcast, muted and weak.

Kolo Mott walked along Doxy Street in the darkness. The captain of the watch had offered him a lantern when he set out on his rounds, but the damned things never put out much light and they must have weighed eight pounds. Holding one before him for even thirty minutes was hell, and besides, having a light just told the brigands where you stood.

His partner, a fat under sergeant twenty years his senior named Giles Kathe, walked the opposite side of the street, trying locks here and there whenever they passed a business. That was not his duty. Kolo knew he was looking for a bit of cheese as the men called it: a chance to pilfer whatever he might find in some shopkeeper’s office. Kolo had confronted him about it the first night they were partnered. Of course Giles had professed his innocence, but Kolo knew better.

The older sergeant had slowed his “checks” down a bit, but he still tried a door here and there, always keeping a weary eye on his partner. Maybe he thought he could wink in and out of a shop quickly and quietly enough that Kolo wouldn’t notice. Not likely. The plump man puffed like a draft horse as he walked and his flat feet clomped with his every step. When it came to stealth, Giles Kathe was on par with, perhaps, a tinker loaded down with his entire complement of tools and several stone of spare pans and metal bits jingling on his pack. Maybe.

It was, perhaps, this lack of stealth that doomed Giles in the end. Or perhaps it was just fool’s folly, that blind cousin to dumb luck. Whatever the reason of fate or black purpose, the scream of warning, followed immediately by a snarl of rage, was not enough to save the dishonest sergeant.

A huge black form launched itself from an alley on Kolo’s side of the street, just feet in front of him. He saw it as an indistinct shadow moving through the darkness, but he recognized it immediately nonetheless.

Someone rounded the corner just where Doxy Street turned right and become Sea Lane. The man screamed something incoherent as the monster slammed into Giles Kathe with a roar so powerful it seemed to shake the street’s very cobbles.

Giles was dead before he could react. The thing had slammed him into a stone building with a bone shattering crunch. With one mighty overhand strike it stove in the man’s head and then set about pummeling the corpse to jelly.

The stranger who had yelled the warning hadn’t missed a stride. He ran towards the beast and, as he did, Kolo could see a naked blade in his hand. Kolo, running as well now that the initial shock had faded, drew Sarahbel and gave the mightiest war cry he could muster.

That scream caught the beast’s attention. It turned and growled deep in its chest, the sound thrumming outward to scratch at Kolo’s ears and raise the hair on the back of his neck. The thing beat its chest and charged forward. Kolo skidded to a stop, set his feet as his master had taught him years before, and let the thing come to him. It knuckled forward faster than a man could run.

Regardless of how fast it could move, the monster had no weapon, and Kolo had his Sarahbel. It leapt up, and Kolo brought his sword flashing down. He felt the blade sink into the thing’s fur-covered shoulder, biting deep, until it struck bone. With its otherworldly weight and the strength of its leap, the impact was too much for Kolo’s grip. Sarahbel slide backwards, her cross guard cutting Kolo’s hands, though he hardly felt it. The pommel struck him left of center and just a little lower than mid-chest. Kolo went tumbling ass over elbow to the cobbles.

Boots clattered past him. Kolo rolled to his side in time to see the monster spin to a halt on all fours. It snarled and wrenched Sarahbel from its shoulder, flinging her into the darkness. The stranger, a short man from what Kolo could tell, drew close to the thing, sword raised.

Kolo could not take a full breath. He could feel that at least one of his ribs was broken where Sarahbel had struck him, but that didn’t matter now. Grimacing, sucking as much air as he could draw into his throbbing chest, he gained his feet.

“You’re mine, Nyssor’s spawn,” said the stranger to the monster’s enraged snarls.

At the sound of the man’s voice Kolo’s heart leapt into his throat.

“Prince Jarin,” he managed to stammer through the pain, and somehow the prince heard him.

He did not look Kolo’s way, but said, “Help me, man.”

Kolo pulled Giles Kathe’s short sword from its scabbard. It was the common guard-issue variety that, due to owner neglect, was both rusty and quite dull. Nevertheless, Kolo moved to stand just a little before his prince, menacing the monster.

Having been stung twice by Kolo, the Lupe-Gorill seemed less willing to barrel forward. It knuckle-walked in a slow circle as its eyes followed the men, looking for some weakness, some way to get through the biting steel thorns to the soft man flesh beneath.

Windows were lighting up all around now. One man stepped out onto his balcony on the second floor of a particularly fine home.

“Mother of Odane, what are you people doing down there?” he called in a cultured yet piqued voice.

The Lupe-gorill turned its head towards the noise to roar at the man and Prince Jarin seized that opportunity to attack it. The Prince possessed some skill with the sword from what little Kolo had seen of him about the castle, but he was not expertly trained and certainly not seasoned. He managed to overbalance himself in his eagerness, missing the beast and stumbling within its reach.

Kolo had no time to think. He dove forward as the Lupe-Gorill lifted its huge arm to destroy the Prince of Selerous. Giles’s short sword, while not sharp, possessed a reasonable point, which sank into the thing’s gut just below the breastbone. It howled, and seized the blade with both enormous hands. Kolo kicked away from it, intending to execute a graceful roll, but he had forgotten his wounded ribs which flashed with white-hot pain as he twisted away. He cried out, spots bursting before his field of vision, first from the painful twisting motion and then again when he hit the cobblestones with in an ungainly heap. For a moment Kolo lay very still, waiting for the pain’s sharpest edge to abate, but he had no time for his own hurts. Desperate to protect Prince Jarin, Kolo gained his feet, ignoring the stabs of fire in his side, and moved drunkenly towards the monster, weaponless and injured.

Jarin had already backed off. He glanced up.

“Lieutenant Mott,” he said in surprise. “I thought it killed you.”

Kolo didn’t trust himself to speak through the pain. He would probably just spew that evening’s potato soup on his future king’s boots.

A clatter of metal on stone drew Kolo’s eyes back to the Lupe-Gorill. It had pulled Giles’s sword free, and dropped it on the street. Blood gushed from the open wound, showing up as a sparkling pool under its belly as more candles and now torches began appearing in windows and on doorsteps up and down Doxy Lane.

The monster whimpered. It was a sound Kolo would never have associated with such a titan before this moment. It backed away from Jarin, who had begun edging forward once again, his sword raised to its eye level.

“Is it just me, or does this thing smell like the inside of a privy chamber?” said the prince.

“Prince Jarin, stop,” said Kolo, through clenched teeth.

“I should have brought a spear, not a sword. But when I saw it in the street I had no time – I took what I had at hand.”

“You saw it from where?”

“In the front courtyard of Brenenvair if you can believe that. Soon as I saw it I said to myself, now that’s what Lieutenant Mott saw and it’s sure as Nyssor no bear.”

The thing backed across the street into the darkness, Jarin following it. Kolo glanced around, spotted Sarahbel just off the street and retrieved her. The blade seemed none the worse for having been flung by a four hundred pound beast.

As Kolo turned and lifted his old sword, the creature trumpeted a roar of fury, hatred and pain in his direction. Its strength and volume seemed much reduced from before, though still fierce by any standard. Then it turned and knuckled away at a gallop.

Without words, Prince Jarin and Kolo Mott ran after it.

9

Every step sent raw-nerved flashes of pain through Kolo’s side and into his back. He could not keep pace with the young prince. Thank Odane Jarin slowed to jog beside Kolo.

“Thank you,” Kolo gasped.

“It’s leaving a blood trail,” said Jarin, pointing at the street where uneven splatters of something slick and black appeared every few paces.

The trail turned onto Tailfare Way, ran straight another three blocks, and then turned right to cross the little road called Sea Walk.

Even through the splintered-bone pain in his side, Kolo felt his heart hammer in sudden realization that the black beast was headed for Castle Brenenvair.

By the widening of his eyes, Kolo could see that the Prince had come to the same conclusion.

Kolo slowed to a walk and Jarin matched him as they approached Brenenvair. The massive structure was surrounded by a stone wall whose arched entranceway was barred with iron and shut at this time of night. Six guardsmen stood in a gaggle to the right of the archway, pikes in hand.

Jarin jogged ahead and slid to a stop before them, prompting the nearest three to lower their spear points towards him.

“Good gods, it’s the prince,” said one of them.

The other three turned and Kolo saw one bore a captain’s badge upon his steel cuirass.

“What happened here?” asked Jarin.

“Someone – some thing, just scaled the wall and ran for the castle. I sent a runner to warn General Balorm.”

“Good,” said Jarin as his eyes lifted up the wall.

Kolo too inspected the smears of blood up there. A particularly wide patch of it glistened in the torchlight at the top of the wall where the beast had obviously slid over.

“Let us in,” said the prince, and the men moved hastily to raise portcullis.

They crossed the front courtyard, easily picking up the blood trail as it left the grass to cross the cobbled carriageway that serviced Brenenvair’s main entrance. The Lupe-Gorill had scaled the wall here too, climbing up the uneven stones. It was hard to discern in the darkness, but it looked to Kolo as if the trail ended at a second story landing.

Jarin avoided the main entrance where already could be heard the shouts of soldiers and servants probably alerted by General Balorm. Instead, he led Kolo through a well hidden postern door on the west side that opened onto a narrow flight of stairs.

“We should report to General Balorm,” said Kolo, squeezing the words out between clenched teeth and a ragged breath.

“No time for that,” said Jarin. He started away up the steps before them, leaving Kolo to either follow of leave his crowned prince to face the monster alone.

Kolo sighed.

Ascending stairs was pure hell. The passageway was completely dark. Only the sound of Prince Jarin’s footfalls told him the steps continued. For all he could see his next step might well drop into an abyss, and each of those blind steps brought an exquisite stab of pain like glass shards sinking into his back.

Mercifully, they ascended only one flight, though the stairs continued up. Upon a narrow landing Jarin began probing the wall and after a few seconds a hidden door opened, spilling light into the stairwell.

They entered a stone hallway. A few candles burned in sconces along the wall, but the scant light was little more than a wavering glow. Still, it was welcome to Kolo’s eyes after the black stairwell, and it was enough for both men to see the splatters of blood like glistening pools of black ink on the stone floor.

Kolo drew Sarahbel and Jarin pulled his own sword free.

“Which way do you suppose –“began the Prince.

A set of large doors opened and Kolo realized why this hallway seemed familiar. Brighter light spilled from inside Duke Moundarvis’s suite, casting a looming shadow of the man himself onto the far wall. He was dressed in his castle silks and a fine pair of knee-high boots with a sword belt fastened at his waist. He looked like a man who has dressed hastily in the first garments to hand.

“Who’s there? What’s happening?” he demanded.

“Cousin,” said Jarin, striding into the light. “Cousin, the monster is here. It’s in the castle.”

Moundarvis started to speak, caught sight of Kolo who had been endeavoring to remain shadowed, and said, “What’s he doing here?”

“Helping me hunt the beast.”

Moundarvis gave his prince a hard, pitying look. He placed a hand on his sword hilt.

“First the Queen’s own high general and now you’ve duped even our prince,” he said, taking a step towards Kolo.

“I have duped no one,” said Kolo, all too aware of the naked blade in his hand.

“Cousin, I saw the thing,” said Prince Jarin.

“No doubt you did,” said Moundarvis, his eyes fixed upon Kolo. He drew his sword. Even in this poor light Kolo could see that it was a finely crafted weapon.

“What are you doing?” asked Jarin, his voice querulous.

“Sir,” said Moundarvis, ignoring his young cousin, “I challenge you here and now to a duel for the honor of my House and that of House Corvidae.”

“Rofford, you imbecile. I’m telling you that monster is real and it’s here somewhere, probably in one of these rooms.”

Kolo hesitated. His ribs hurt – two or three were probably broken – his hands were swollen from the cuts Sarahbel’s guard had given him, he was bone tired from running through excruciating pain, and now, to make the night complete, one of the most renowned swordsmen in all Selerous had challenged him to a formal duel with Prince Jarin as witness. If he turned this challenge down he would be called craven. His superiors wouldn’t kick him out of the army, but his peers would make his life miserable. Why in Odane’s name had he ever craved a captain’s mark, much less that of a general? If he got out of this mad house with his heart still in working order, he would be happy to sit on a gods-forsaken city gate for the rest of his life.

“Do you accept!” said Moundarvis, his voice rising.

Kolo raised Sarahbel. “If you insist.”

Moundarvis rushed him. Kolo expected something amazing – a sword flashing faster than the eye could see, the blade biting through Sarahbel as if she were made of parchment – but the blow that arrived, while powerful and well aimed, was not the stroke of a god. It moved no faster than the blades of many men Kolo had meant in the practice yard and even a few he had bested in true battle.

This was the swing of a trained swordsman, but not the killing blow of a true soldier. Doubtless Moundarvis had learned the fighting arts on a practice pitch, training to score a touch by the swiftness means possible, rather than learning to dispatch his foe by any means to hand.

Sarahbel meant Moundarvis’s sword at a high angle, turning the bigger man’s blade away by degrees. Even this simple parry elicited an unintentional grunt from Kolo as his ribs screamed a painful warning, but it wasn’t overwhelming. Still, he would not be able to fight long. He had no time to whittle the air.

While Moundarvis lifted his sword back to a guard position, Kolo kicked him, hard, directly on the kneecap. The man yelped and staggered back, his eyes rounded in surprise.

“You can’t –“

Whatever Kolo couldn’t do he never found out, for he punched Moundarvis in the mouth with his free hand and then clouted him behind the ear with Sarahbel’s pommel. Had this been a battle, he would have run the big man through and then driven on, looking for another enemy. Since he had no intention of using his blade on the Duke, Kolo simply watched Moundarvis slump, bonelessly, to the floor, made certain he didn’t try to rise, and then moved to stand beside his prince.

“Holy shit,” said Jarin, a new appreciation in his eyes for Sergeant Mott.

Kolo outwardly ignored that comment, though inside he took no small pleasure from the prince’s obvious awe.

“The trail ends with the hallway, there,” said Kolo, pointing at a closed door.

They moved slowly towards it, both of them instinctually avoiding the thing’s blood.”

When they reached the doorway Jarin looked at Kolo. Kolo shrugged. Jarin knocked.

“Who’s there?” said a thickly accented woman’s voice.

“Prince Jarin.”

A moment’s hesitation, then, “My apologies, Prince Jarin, but her Grace is not feeling well tonight. Could you come back tomorrow?”

“Woman, open this door, now,” said Kolo, hoping the woman might mistake his voice for the prince’s own.

Another pause and then the inner lock clicked and the door swung inward. A matronly woman of dark complexion and maybe fifty years of age peered out. Her hair was salt and pepper.

“I really must protest,” she said sternly, though she looked at Kolo when she said it, not the prince.

Prince Jarin grasped the edge of the door and pushed the old woman back. She fought him.

“Get out of our way,” he said. “Move this instant or I’ll have you flogged.”

At his words she scuttled back and Jarin stormed inside, Kolo following in the prince’s wake.

Lady Genevieve shrieked as if some brigand had just kicked down her door. The island princess stood in the center of the room, hands behind her back, dressed in a fine gown of light cotton colored soft blue. Her dark hair hung in ringlets over one shoulder and down her back. She seemed to recognize Jarin then and stopped screaming, but still she trembled with fright.

The blood trail, Kolo noticed, ended just inside the door. The corner of a white linen peeked out from beneath a side table by the princess’s large bed, its fabric tinged pink.

Jarin eyed the old servant who quelled under his gaze and then turned his green eyes on the island princess.

“Something came in here,” he said, watching her closely. “Something large and black and bleeding. Where is it?”

The young woman shook her head. “My Kelsh not so good. I see nothing black here.” Her eyes darted to Kolo like a pair of frightened hares and then back to Jarin. “Please put away swords? You frighten Nartha.” She pointed to the old maid.

Something itched at the back of Kolo’s mind. Hadn’t he heard Princess Genevieve was fluent in Kelsh? Everyone in the castle was talking about the way she spoke with almost no accent, though this was not her native tongue. Perhaps those rumors were untrue. Kolo was certainly not going to hold the girl’s foreign accent against her. He well knew how difficult it could be to speak Kelsh when his own emotions ran high. The girl was clearly frightened. Surely that explained her sudden lack of language.

Each man began to sheath his sword, but Kolo stopped short, with only Sarahbel’s tip covered.

Blood was spreading across the back of Princess Genevieve’s thin dressing gown even as Kolo watched. The material clung to her skin between her shoulder blades red and wet.

Her brown eyes rose to him.

“You hesitate? Are you no gentlemen, sir?”

“How many fingers do you have?” asked Kolo.

“Kolo, what are you doing?” asked Jarin.

Kolo lifted Sarahbel before him. Nartha, the maid, made a little mewling sound, but made no move to interfere.

“I no understand,” said the princess.

“You do. Show me your hands, woman, if that’s what you are.”

“Kolo, are you insane? This lady is of blood royal. You can’t –“

“Show me your hands now or by Nyssor’s heart I will slice them off!”

Princess Genevieve grew suddenly still. Her breathing increased, her breast rising and falling.

“No. No!” wailed the maid.

“You should not have come here,” said the Princess. As she spoke her voice lowered several octaves, becoming nothing but a bass rumble at the last word.

Fabric tore as her body engorged. Her head grew as well, the brow ridge sliding forward over her brown eyes, her nose flattening into her face, her mouth widening into a grinning maw of inhuman teeth. Black fur, nappy and tangled sprouted upon rapidly growing limbs, covering every part of her, save for the pads of her feet and her face.

Jarin drew his sword. “You!” he shouted.

The Lupe-Gorill snarled. Inside the small stone room the sound was deafening. Nartha the maid shuffled forward, crying out, but Kolo held her back with his free hand. Even as he pushed her Kolo felt the old woman’s body begin to change – her strength increasing many fold. His eye flicked to her in surprise and mounting horror.

The woman transformed much faster than Princess Genevieve. She was smaller than her patron, but still ropy with muscle and the fur upon her back was silver.

Kolo did not hesitate. He plunged Sarahbel’s blade through the new Lupe-Gorill’s breast, spearing her heart before the beast could react. It screamed, but the sound was truncated by a gurgling moan. The monster pitched back, pulling Kolo with it. He fell atop the smaller beast, crying out as his ribs collided with the thing’s inert legs. His head swam. His vision momentarily grayed.

Only vaguely was he aware of the princess screaming in rage, knuckling towards him at speed. He rolled slowly — so abysmally slowly — to one side, which accomplished exactly nothing. He couldn’t have raised Sarahbel even if it the sword hadn’t lodged in the old Lupe-Gorill’s body. All Kolo could do was stare up at Princess Genevieve who now stood above him, hairy arms raised, poised to smash him the way she had smashed Lurn’s poor horse.

Kolo lifted both arms in a futile attempt to shield himself.

But before the thing’s massive fists could fall a sword point budded suddenly from the Lupe-Gorill’s chest followed by a second blade which protruded further than even the first. Fresh blood poured from the thing’s chest as the royal monster writhed, arching back on the impelling blades. She screamed in anguish, skittered sideways to collide with her ornate bed, and then toppled onto the floor where she lay still.

Prince Jarin offered Kolo a hand up to his feet.

“Thank you, My Prince,” said Kolo through a cloud of red pain and fear fatigue.

“Thank you both,” said a voice beside him. Duke Rofford Moundarvis, shaking and pale, his face smeared with blood down one side from the gash Sarahbel had opened on his head, stood beside the prince, his red-smeared sword in hand. “You saved my life despite my incredible stupidity.” The duke nodded to Kolo and then turned his gaze to the former Princess Genevieve. Her inert, stunted, and overlarge body remained in the form of a Lupe-Gorill: hairy and bloody and overall a reeking mess. Rofford said, “To think I almost married that thing.”

The men were silent a moment, and then Prince Jarin said, “I don’t know, I’ve seen worse.”

It hurt like Nyssor’s balls to laugh, but Kolo did anyway.

They all did.

END

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