The Lady of Marble

A Tale of Nerona`s Bravos

- November 2022 Editor`s Pick

The birds brought her tidings, as always. At first it was just a few songbirds rising above the treetops in twos and threes in panic. Then they came in waves. They became birds of all kinds, songbirds, raptors and even a handful of waterfowl rising from the mountainside.

Lenneth moved from the round seat at the center of the lookout tower towards the eastern windows. Something unusual was on the mountainside. Her father and brothers were down in the Round Lake Valley, beyond the Hall, taking in a few ducks for the guest they were expecting tomorrow. Lenneth was tempted to ignore the birds, since there were no other signs of something amiss. Only large predators or humans spooked the birds that way and neither was uniquely remarkable.

But it was possible their guest had arrived early. Leaving him to wander the mountainside for the night wouldn't be hospitable. She reached out and took up the tower's padded, metal striker and rang the eastern bell twice. The bell's clear, silvery tone echoed over the mountainside. Then Lenneth collected her short spears and spear sling and hurried over to the spiral stairway that led down from the overlook's platform. The rough wooden steps that wound around the outlook's central support beam had no interest for her. Instead she lept up on the railing and allowed her Gift to carry her down in a single sweeping movement.

She kept her legs tucked up under her body as she shifted back and forth to maintain her balance, her boots barely touching the wooden bar as the slid along without resistance. Her Gift of Grace turned the bar into a thoroughfare and propelled her along without resistance. Her sense of balanced, hone from a lifetime of similar stunts, kept her on course. She lept off the railing at the end of the bar and landed lightly on the dirt path below.

The mountain was as familiar to her as her family Hall. The Wingbreaker Clan had kept the paths on the Griffon's Mounts for two hundred years with each path, tree and clearing very deliberately maintained. The Gift of Grace wasn't integral to the way they kept the mountains. But many of the Clan had been blessed in that way over the years and they had found all the small shortcuts – rock outcroppings, convenient trees and dried creek beds – where their Gift would allow them to effortlessly slide down the side of the mountain.

From the appearance of waterfowl she'd spotted earlier Lenneth concluded their guest was crossing Hildur's Creek at the upper ford. At a normal march it was perhaps twenty minutes from the outlook. However an avalanche on the eastern ridges had left a wide channel open and smooth enough for gliding so Lenneth was able to sweep down two hundred feet of mountainside in less than a minute and the overall trip in less than five.

She walked out of the brush along river...

She walked out of the brush along river to find their guest seated on a rock beside the ford, pulling his boots back on. His appearance was immediately striking. He was tall but wiry in the way of a man who was used to an active life but not a laborious one. His skin was the olive tone of the Neronan people. The boots he was pulling on were shod with nails in the same way her own were, giving them more grip on the mountainous terrain. However that was the only concession he'd made to the wild. Unlike many visitors who came from that southern nation he had not adopted the dress of the Isenkinder but instead wore a wine red doublet and pantaloons in the Neronan style. He'd tied down the extra fabric around his arms with leather straps, presumably to keep them out of the way in the brush.

Lenneth found herself frowning at that. Many who came from Nerona bound themselves in tightly and shrank away from others. It was a very unnatural, city-like idea. The visitor's back was to her when she arrived so she made her way around to his front, grabbing the edge of her cloak and giving it a gentle tug. It rippled gently around her body, the roc feathers stitched to it it rustling with the motion. Some of her disapproval faded as the stranger immediately took note of the sound.

He stood, bracing himself on the stock of a crankbow...

He stood, bracing himself on the stock of a crankbow he'd leaned against the rock he sat on. Lenneth tensed for a moment but he made no move to raise the bow once he was standing. Instead he turned around and removed his cloth cap, a gesture of greeting and respect in Nerona.

Lenneth also turned, straightening her robe and cloak so they fell correctly about her, and presented her bare right shoulder, arm and side to their guest in openness and greeting. “Welcome to the Griffon's Mounts, honored guest,” she said, raising her right hand in greeting. “I am Lenneth Wingbreaker, of the Wingbreaker Clan. You are earlier than we expected but you are still most welcome here.”

“My thanks.” The stranger bowed from his waist then straightened, putting his cap back on his head. In the same motion he adjusted a strange piece of wire holding two disks of glass in front of his eyes. Then he took a solid look at her. For a moment he locked in place as his eyes focused on her bare arm and the narrow strip of exposed skin running down the side of her body to the top of her boots. Only the straps of her robe broke up the skin there.

Neronans dressed as if they feared any other person glimpsing their flesh. Their paranoid sometimes bordered on the obscene. Still, in many cases it was easier to close oneself off some to help others open up. She tightened the straps until the opening on her right side was little more than a finger wide. “May I know your name, honored guest?”

The man cleared his throat and pulled his eyes up to her face. “Of course. I am Ghiarelli Glasseye, of Verdemonde Province in Nerona. I came at the behest of the Marquis Verdemonde and bear letters of introduction but, alas, time was precious and no message proceeded me. I fear I am not the guest you were expecting.”

“You are welcome regardless.” Lenneth studied him a little closer, wondering what kind of man travelled to far foreign lands with nothing to warn of his coming. Such behavior spoke of extreme need. Yet if Ghiarelli was a desperate man, little about him bore testimony to it. His eyes were a bright, clear brown like the bottom of a clear river with no signs of exhaustion beyond what was normal for a traveler far from home. Likewise his clothes were worn but not tattered or uncared for.

Most of all, a bemused smile kept playing at his lips. Ghiarelli snatched up a pack by his feet, a rough, brown sack with straps for the arms and a buckler and long, thin sword strapped down within easy reach. “Thank you for your kindness, lady of marble,” he said. “My hope is to trespass on your kindness for only two or three days.”

Lenneth arched an eyebrow. “Lady of marble?”

“Am I not allowed to address you by title, as you have me?”

“There is a difference between calling you an honored guest and me a lady of marble, Sir Ghiarelli. Whether you are the one we expected or not you are our guest but I am not a creature of stone.” Lenneth turned and gestured towards the mountaintop. “Regardless of whether we expected you or not I ask you to come back to Wingbreaker Hall with me to enjoy our hospitality.”

The lifted his crankbow and slung it over one shoulder. “My thanks, lady Wingbreaker. Lead on.”

The worst part of heading back up the mountain was having to restrain her Gift so that her guest could keep pace. The Neronan man was content to walk in silence for a time. But as they turned away from the river he said, “Tell me, lady Wingbreaker, do you have many visitors from Nerona?”

“A few,” she said, casting her mind through the long line of faces that had come to the ancestral Hall over the years. “Perhaps half a dozen a year. Usually in pairs or families although some come alone like you. Why? Do you miss your contrymen's company already?”

“Not at all. I saw plenty of them in the journey north. Verdemonde is at the furthest southern limits of the western peninsula so I'm afraid I've seen half the country in the last three weeks. I was just surprised that no one has ever commented on your skin before.”

Lenneth laughed. “On the contrary, many of them do so. In fact, few if any Neronans fail to remark on the amount of skin they see; almost as if none of you have seen skin before.”

“We have, but never skin as beautiful as polished marble.”

A flush worked its way up her cheeks. It was no lie to say every visitor from the south had commented on the pallor of the Isenkinder's skin. This was the first to embarrass her over it. “Perhaps that's because they don't come from cities full of nothing but dust and stone.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “Perhaps so. I didn't realize it was that obvious where I came from. What gave me away?”

“There are no leaves or brambles in your clothes,” Lenneth said. “You've bound yourself up to avoid all contact. When something does brush against you, you take note and clean away the detrius. Only someone unused to the wilds would bother with such a futile endeavor.”

“I see! That's very astute of you,” he said, shielding his eyes as they stepped out into the clearing left by last winter's avalanche. “What other insights-”

He stopped short, grabbed her by the right arm and dragged her back into the tree line less than a second before a roc swept by. Wind from the great raptor's wings buffeted the branches of the trees. The tips of its claws scraped furrows through the dirt and stones where they had just stood. Then the mighty bird climbed up and away, banking away from the treeline and climbed upwards, screeching its frustration at the sky.

As the wagon sized bird dwindled into the distance Lenneth fitted one of her spears into the pocket of her sling. “The roc has seen us. It won't leave now until the sun sets and there is no path we can take back to the Hall that won't expose us to another attack. I'll try to lure it down and dispatch it, you head up the-”

Ghiarreli lightly grasped her sling hand and she looked over, startled. He was looking up into the air with one eye squinted and the other stretched open wide. Glimmers of light shot through his pupils. A chill ran down Lenneth's spine. He whispered, “Wait. Let it go a bit further...”

She looked back at the roc, now quickly shrinking into the sky. Then a spear shot out of the trees. It was little more than a sliver of black wood at that distance but even then Lenneth recognized the way it flew. It arced out of the trees at a brisk clip, destined to come far short of the roc. Then her father's Gift added an extra push to it and the spear jumped forward again. The great bird banked to avoid it but a second and final push corrected for the roc's maneuver and drove the weapon home. The roc dropped from the sky and disappeared among the trees.

Ghiarelli grunted and stood up, dusting himself off. “Impressive throw. Even with the Gift of Impulse to drive the weapon it's difficult to guide it at that distance in a way that will hit an evading target.” He started as four high pitched notes sounded from the distant, unseen overlook. “What was that? I heard something similar earlier.”

“A signal bell. Probably my brother, sounding the all clear so we know there aren't any other rocs in the area.”

“Ah. That's a useful system.”

“You're a clairvoyant,” Lenneth said. She immediately wanted to kick herself for saying something so obvious when you stopped to think about it.

“Is that a problem?”

“No, I suppose not.” She studied his gleaming glasses. “I've just never met one. Clairvoyants are supposed to stay cloistered in safe places, lost in the future and dead to the present, not wander around mountainsides.”

“Only the most powerful of us have that problem,” Ghiarelli said. “Most of us can only see a few seconds forward without great effort or in dreams.” He touched the wire and glass over his eyes. “With the help of a skilled Artificer we can see further or limit ourselves to the present and in general exercise more control over our Gift. Well, except for in dreams.”

Lenneth absently brushed her hand across the chain link belt she wore, an Artifact her grandfather had made to give more control and force to her own gift. “I see. That must be a great help to you. I know the Gift of Artifice is common in Nerona, such things must be plentiful there.”

“Are they rare among the Isenkinder?” The stranger asked as they resumed the climb to the summit.

“In comparison to the Talisman Gift, yes. I'm not sure why it should be so much easier for our people to amplify the residual magic of other creatures to make talismans, rather than channeling the magic of men into artifacts but so it is. If it were not the case the Wingbreaker Clan would not exist.” She ran her fingers over the feathers of her cloak. “If we were not here to mind the mountains all the rocs and griffons would be dead and their bodies turned to wards and trinkets. What brings you to our mountain, Ghiarelli Glasseye? Do you think the creatures we tend can serve to create you a talisman to help control your dreams?”

“I doubt the King of Dreams would allow me control of them,” he said with a wry smile. “The Kings at the Corners are so possessive of their omens, after all. Perhaps a talisman could add some clarity but even that's a stretch. No, I've never heard of any talisman or artifact that can affect a clairvoyant's dreams so your griffons are safe from me.”

“Not the rocs?”

“There is an appeal to a cloak that keeps me from ever getting cold.” He glanced at her roc feathers. “If I had such a thing I might be as bold as others are.”

Lenneth started pinking up again. “I thought clairvoyants saw things as they are about to happen. What clarity could you need? Are your dreams different from other visions?”

“They are much further in the future so what is likely to happen is less certain and the images become more symbollic.”

She gave him a questioning look. “What do you mean?”

“Well, let me give you an example. Just now I watched that roc tear your arm off and wiped your blood off my glass eyes.” He mimed a wiping motion with one hand. Lenneth shuddered. “It looked as real as if it actually happened. On the other hand, three days ago I dreamed that a block of marble tumbled to the ground blocking my path and transformed into the statues of two lords and a lady. Clearly a meeting that was important to my task but no idea of when or where we would meet. Until today, of course.”

Her father and brother flitted through her mind. “I see. And your dream got some of the details wrong, since I was alone when we first met.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps the moment that dream symbolized hasn't come to pass yet. Not everything we see ever does.” He flashed a charming smile. “I certainly hope I will never see you maimed before my eyes.”

“How kind of you. I'm sure my father will be impressed by your chivalry.”

“You may not remain on Wingbreaker land, Ghiarelli Glasseye,” Ulfar intoned, his face set in stone. “You must depart our land before the sun sets.”

Lenneth struggled but failed to keep her mouth from dropping open in astonishment. She hadn't actually expected overflowing gratitude from her father but she hadn't expected him to immediately send a guest away without even listening to him or the daughter who had brought him to their threshold.

“Lord Wingbreaker,” Ghiarelli said, producing a sheaf of paper folded in thirds and sealed with wax from his pack. “I assure you I come with no ill will to you or yours. I have here letters from the Marquis de Verdemonde stating his good will and offering -”

“On this I cannot be persuaded, no matter what inducement your Lord offers or how inconsequential you believe your presence to be.” Ulfar folded his arms over his chest and settled in place. “I am sorry but it must be so.”

For a moment Ghiarelli stared at her father, eyes narrow then slowly growing wider. Then he sighed and tucked away his papers. “Very well.”

“Father!” The word exploded out of her before she realized she was going to speak.

Ulfar's light brown eyebrows knitted together as he cut her off with a raised hand. “I will not be moved on this, Daughter. What binds the Isenkinder to Nerona? Or why should the Wingbreakers bow to the Verdemonde?”

“It is a question of honor, Father.”

“You question my honor, Daughter?”

Lenneth raised her chin a fraction. “No, Father, you threaten mine.”

Her father studied her fae for a moment then gestured back towards the overlook behind him. “Tyroc,” he said to her brother who waited patiently at the head of the path to the Hall, “stay with our guest. I will speak with your sister in private.”

Lenneth followed her father up the stairs. Climbing was slower than she was used to but she knew her father wouldn't want her sweeping past him on the railing. Not in front of a stranger, certainly. They emerged looking out over the valley that held the family Hall. The highest peak rose behind it. The slate eaves and fitted stone walls of the Wingbreaker's ancestral seat almost seemed a part of the landscape from that distance.

Her father stared at the building for a long moment before he spoke. “Tell me, Lenneth, what mark would stain your honor if we sent this man away?”

She joined him on the northern window. “Father, I have already offered him our shelter and hospitality.”

Ulfar relaxed imperceptibly. “Is that all? Then I hold you blameless for a promise that was not yours to make. I have already made pledges to the guest we expect tomorrow. He will have our assistance in tracking down and securing a valuable quarry and we will do all in our power to prevent others from stealing it from him. He warned us of several who might rob him by name. Ghiarelli was one of those. So you see, my Daughter, you have made a cannot honor lest I break my own word.”

Lenneth cast her eyes down. “Forgive me, Father. I did not know.”

“And I am not angry with you for it,” he said kindly, “but my own honor demands the boy be sent away. I can see from his eyes he understands our situation. Sometimes this is the way things must be. Do not trouble yourself over this.”

“I see.” Lenneth worried a feather between her fingers. “Still, wouldn't it be better to keep him here for the night, at least?”

Ulfar's gaze became sharp again. “How so?”

“If he's a rival to the guest we are expecting we must watch him to make sure he makes no trouble. It's growing late and we will need to escort him to the edge of our territory and return. It would be best to wait tomorrow to do it.” She met her father's gaze. “And I do owe him some consideration since he prevented the roc you killed this afternoon from snatching my arm off.”

“Did he.” Ulfar snorted in surprise. “He doesn't look like he would have better woodcraft than you, Daughter, how did he achieve such a thing?”

“He is clairvoyant, Father.”

This time her father was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “That explains a great deal. Very well, Daughter, I will extend him the hospitality of the Hall for tonight and send him out of our territory with my cousin Geirmund. He deserves that much for sparing you harm.”

With that Ulfar turned and strode back out of the overlook. Ghiarelli waited patiently for them at the base with her brother and faced her father for a long moment as they stared at each other. “You have kept blood from being spilled on our mountains, Ghiarelli Glasseye, and not just any blood but my Daughter's. The Wingbreakers offer you hospitality for the night, and the night only.”

The Neronan man nodded. “Thank you, Lord Wingbreaker, that is generous of you.”

“I ask only that you refrain from spilling blood yourself. If you make me this pledge of peace then Wingbreaker hall is open to you.”

“Of course.” Ghiarelli removed his cap and bowed.

It wasn't quite the outcome Lenneth had hoped for but it was something, at least.

Lenneth stepped out of the Hall in the early morning light, unsure of what roused her from bed before the sun was even risen. She pulled her roc's cloak more firmly around her body against the early spring chill. It was a minute's walk from the Hall to the overlook where she was sure she could find some hint of what was amiss. The Wingbreakers weren't clairvoyant but they knew the mountains like no other and Lenneth had always been taught to trust her instincts.

They were right on the money, although not in the way she expected. When she got up to the top of the outlook she found Ghiarelli there at the north window, his back to her, looking out towards the summit of the mountains with his arms wrapped around himself. “Is something wrong, Glasseye?”

He turned and she saw that today he wasn't wearing the artifact he took his name from. His cap was also missing. While not notable in and of itself, these changes in accessories made it easy to notice his sunken eyes and the way sweat plastered his hair to his skull. It was a stark contrast to his controlled, confident appearance the day before.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “The King of Dreams visited me again last night.”

“I take it this one wasn't pleasant?”

He turned back to the valley and let out a deep breath. “I saw a man of iron, burning like a furnace, scattering leaves in a shower of sparks and ash as he tears through ranks of trees.”

“That doesn't sound particularly nightmarish.”

“It is when you're one of the trees.”

“Oh.” Lenneth sat down on the bench behind Ghiarelli. “Are all your dreams that disturbing?”

“Does it matter?”

“I'd hate to think that I was a part of something that upset someone so badly, even unintentionally.”

He gave her a thin smile and joined her on the bench. From that lower vantage little of the mountains were visible for it was placed in a way to draw the eye to the skies; watching for the great flying beasts the Wingbreakers governed. However this morning only the clear, honey streaked skies of dawn were visible. Only single grayish green speck wobbled unsteadily through the skies to the north.

“Look,” he said, voice gaining strength, “even if Dreams do not favor me the King of Dawn sends me favorable portents.”

“How so?” Lenneth asked in amusement.

“Do the Isenkinder not believe the thing you see just before the sun rises will be yours before the next daybreak?”

Lenneth scoffed. “What a strang thing to say. What would you do with a bird from Isenlund anyway?”

His voice pitched down. “Who said I was looking at the bird?”

Risking a quick glance from the corner of her eye Lenneth caught him grinning at her and forced down her embarrassment. “The question stands.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “I see why your father was so prickly towards me last night. He must find you to be a mighty trial.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I don't understand was what he meant by not spilling blood,” Ghiarreli continued, acting as if she hadn't spoken. “Surely the Wingbreakers sometimes fail when hunting the dangerous game you keep. How can blood not be spilt?”

Lenneth glared at him for a moment then said, “It does happen. But it is our disgrace when it does, for we were entrusted these mountains because we could best learn, track and husband the strength of the creatures here. It falls to us to keep the peace between roc and Griffon, between beast and man and between fellow men. Der Isenkoenig granted us authority over it all.”

“But don't you hunt rocs and griffons?”

“It's a delicate balance but in the past their numbers have grown to the point where they became a menace to the flatlands and river country. All Isenkinder are in danger if the menace of the skies is not kept in check. Yet we also find great benefit in hunting them and if we were to simply wipe them out our talisman makers would soon follow and Isenlund would soon pass to others. When one of us dies in the hunt it is a sign that the balance we maintain is in peril.” She pointed at him the back at herself. “It is different for you or I. The Wingbreaker's mandate is not served by duels or grudges, so they are forbidden here.”

“Oh?” The glass over his eyes made the comical way they widened in surprise even more pronounced. “I heard that your people are famous for your grudges.”

“Not here.” Lenneth gestured out at the mountains below them. “The dangers of the mountain are enough and fighting in the ranks here not only weakens or position against them it attracts the attention of the most powerful of the creatures here. Thus no man may shed another's blood here save on my father's orders or that man will face the Wingbreaker's justice.”

“I see.” Ghiarelli's expression returned to normal as he watched the sun peek over the horizon. “Well. If that is how it is there's little I can do about it. Thank you for ensuring I received your family's hospitality, Lenneth Wingbreaker. I will not forget your kindness.”

She nodded gravely. “I hope you will not hold this outcome against our clan or people.”

“No, and certainly not against you. But now I think it's time I departed. I think I heard the doors to your Hall open again and no doubt your Uncle is looking for me...”

The man who came the day Ghiarelli left was named Remigio Bladebearer and he was hunting a rare creature called the emerald heron. He brought a rough sketch and a description of the bird's migratory path. According to Remigio the bird followed a two decade long circuit across unknown continents and it's eyes were a powerful talisman for seeing across incredible distances. The Neronan had pledge to share one eye with the Wingbreakers if they would help him capture the bird.

Unfortunately the map of the creatures migration pattern wasn't very precise and covered most of the Wingbreaker peaks. Remigio arrived near mid morning and insisted they immediately begin the hunt for the heron. The birds would only be passing over the mountain for a week, he said, perhaps ten days and he was anxious to begin the hunt.

Lenneth found the whole affair odd. She'd never heard of an emerald heron, nor had her brother, father or uncles and aunts. She wasn't sure how a Neronan had learned of it, especially since Remigio looked as much a city dweller as Ghiarelli did. Still, the best way to answer some of these questions was to sick with Remigio. So they set out hunting.

The creature was just as much a waterfowl as any other heron so at least they didn't have to search every inch of the mountain. However the sun rose to full height and sank towards the western horizon and they found no sign of the creature. After a long, humid day slinking along river banks, Ulfar proposed that they head back to the Hall via Round Lake Valley. Reluctantly, their guest agreed.

It was there, among the drooping pine branches and clear waves of Round Lake that they finally spotted their quarry. The emerald heron was not as striking as its name implied. The creature's plumage was a dull green, well suited to blending in with the pine trees. It stood on the bank of the lake not in the water so its gangly legs and were on full display and it's head constantly swiveled about on its snaking neck as if the creature was nervous. The bird's long, predatory beak clacked constantly, as if it was talking to itself.

Remigio instantly became excited, working the lever of his crankbow as he prepared for a shot. Ulfar put a hand on the weapon's stock. “Patience,” he whispered. “Let us take precautions. Lenneth, cross the water and sweep around it's opposite side. You will flush it to us. Tyroc, stand ready with your Gift to strike it if all else fails. But gently! Try not to destroy its eyes in the process.”

“Easier said than done,” her brother grumbled.

Her father ignored him. “Honored guest, you and I will proceed forward once Lenneth rings her bell,” he touched the bell at his own waist for reference, “and loose our darts at the bird together.”

“How will she ring the bell?” Remigio looked puzzled. “There are not strikers in your bells.”

“Of course not,” Tyroc said, “else we would constantly ring them by accident as we moved about. We strike them with our spear hafts.”

“Oh. That's sensible.” The Neronan finished loading his bow and hefted the weapon. “Then let's not waste time, shall we?”

“Indeed. With this luck and another week to search we might even take two or three more of these creatures.” Ulfar gestured to Lenneth and she took of at a slow jog.

In many cases the Gift of Grace only allowed one to drift atop a surface almost as if one was skating across ice. However, on lakes and rivers a special element of the Gift came to light. Lenneth was almost weightless while gliding, at least in regards to the surface she glided along for she herself still felt her own weight and that of what she carried. Still, it made slipping over top of the water of the lake to the far shore a simple task.

What she hadn't expected was for the heron to look at her as she crossed from its place hundreds of feet away, squawk in panic and clumsily take to the sky. Before she could process it the bird swept by perhaps six feet over her head and kept climbing. She threw her whole weight backwards, slipping down ankle deep into the water before she could reestablish her glide, and tried to reverse course. In the process she heard a confused shout from her brother, a grunt and the snap of Remigio's crankbow.

Then there was a crack of wood and another surprised shout. Lenneth got entirely turned around and scrambled back onto shore. Remigio was working to reload his crankbow, her father was stomping towards something by the treeline and the heron had landed behind them. Tyroc was holding two sticks in one hand and his other crackled with the thunder of his Gift.

Not sticks, she realized. Two darts from a crankbow. One dart had actually pierced the other through the shaft. At first that was unbelievable but once she took in the full scene it actually made a kind of sense. Standing beside the heron at the treeline was Ghiarelli Glasseye, his own crankbow leaning against his pack at his side. She wondered if all he needed to do to achieve such a feat was look to the future as he aimed and release the arrow when he saw the future he wanted.

Ghiarelli drew his sword and buckler and stood between them and the heron. “Remigio Bladebearer. I should have known Father Borgia's right hand would be here, kidnapping and Fair magic have Gregorio's fingerprints all over it.”

“Glasseye.” Remigio tossed his crankbow aside. “They said they sent you down the mountain.”

“They did. And I left the mountains in truth!” Ghiarelli pulled a vial of liquid off his belt with his buckler hand, uncorked it with his teeth and dumped it over his forehead and face. The whole time he never blinked. Lenneth realized he was staring wide eyed and, even at a distance of twenty feet behind glass, she could see his eyes were bloodshot. From the damp, stained front of his doublet she assumed this was not the first such potion he'd used, another thing to help his Gift along like the glass eyes. “But you know there's always a back way wherever you want to go, Remigio. You just have to look for it.”

The other Neronan drew his own sword, a sturdy montante with an elaborate guard and a sizable, two handed grip. As he flourished the weapon its edge glowed with a pale gold light. “All you've found is a way to your grave site, Glasseye.”

“Not today.” Ghiarelli glanced at Ulfar and smirked. “Not anymore.”

Ulfar came to a stop just outside the circle of the two men's weapons. “Ghiarelli Glasseye. Do not think you can still rely on my hospitality to keep you safe. As you say, you left the mountain. By returning you trespassed on my lands and my goodwill. If you blood spills it will be as if by your own hand.”

Remigio lept forward at those words, his weapon's blade held high and parallel to the ground. Ghiarelli casually lifted his buckler to catch the blade, keeping his weapon hand just behind the shield with the point of his sword pointed down to try and prick his opponent's weapon hand as he lunged under Remigio's cut. The montante twisted with a flourish and deflected the thrust then extended in a cross cut which Ghiarelli pushed down and away with the buckler. High thrust to the face and Remigio withdrew a step. Both men relaxed into a normal stance, the status quo restored.

The entire exchange took less than two seconds.

“It's not my blood that concerns me,” Ghiarelli said, not even winded. Then he glanced at his buckler. Remigio's glowing sword had left two deep groves in the center of the metal and taken about an inch off the right side of the shield. “Well, it concerns me a little.”

“Only a little?” Remigio demanded.

“You may be Father Borgia's favorite bravo, with the blood of a hundred duelists on your sword, but you can't kill me today, my dear Blade Bearer.” Ghiarelli's grin turned toothy. “You had a chance, but today I dreamed of death by fire and you, Remigio, cannot bring me low that way. No one here can.”

“What does he mean?” Tyroc demanded. Her brother's Gift of the Thunder Hand didn't truly burn things but it made a close approximation and Lenneth could see he was willing to try to kill Ghiarelli that way if no one else wanted a shot at it.

“He's a clairvoyant,” Remigio growled. “When they dream they see the way they are going to die. Unless they somehow prevent it.”

Lenneth's mind jumped back to their conversation that morning. Then it went back even further, to their meeting the day before and his casual mention of seeing her and her family in a dream. Her jaw dropped open. “You were going to die today.”

“And now, I'm not.” Ghiarelli produced a small leather bag from his belt. On second thought, perhaps not a bag, it looked more like a wineskin. “You see, I know something that you of the Wingbreaker clan do not.”

“That does not make you terribly special,” Ulfar growled. So far her father had watched the scene unfold with dispassion but now he reached up and pulled Remigio's sword down to a neutral position. “We are simple people of the mountains, after all. But if you think I do not know that this man serves Gregorio Borgia, Nerona's famed Merchant of Plunder, then I must disappoint you.”

“Not at all. Father Borgia believes he is a cunning man of intrigue and perhaps he is but he has reached the point where anonymity is not something even he can expect. That is something you lose when you become the most wicked man in Nerona. Still, he is every bit as cunning as he thinks he is. And he is more than unscrupulous enough barter with the Fair Folk for a curse to be placed on the children of those he seeks to bend to his will.” Ghiarelli glanced at the heron behind him. “Tell me, Ulfar Wingbreaker. Is it truly your judgment that Remigio may spill the blood of an innocent child simply because inhuman magic has changed his form to that of a bird?”

Her father's face turned stormy but otherwise he remained calm. “You can prove this accusation?”

“The child was cursed through poisoned food. As with all their magic, curses of the Fair Folk must be fair, although I have always thought that whoever determines fair must be quite the lunatic. In the case of magic that revolves around food, the counterspell is almost always the first food a person ate in their lives, save for their mother's milk.” Ghiarelli hefted the bag in one hand. “In this case, goat's milk.”

“You brought that all the way here from Verdemonde?” Remigio wrinkled his nose in disgust. “It's more likely cheese at this point.”

“The Marquis knows a few Folk of his own, they've ensured it will keep quite well.” Ghiarelli offered the bag to Ulfar. “If you want to know the truth of my words, offer this to the bird.”

Ulfar took the bag, then glanced at Remigio. Thinking better of taking his hand off the Neronan's sword arm he sought out Lenneth's eyes and nodded to her. Then, with a flick of his fingers he tossed her the bag and said, “Do as he says, Daughter.”

If nothing else the way the heron looked at her as she approached and docilely allowed her to guide its beak into the bag would have convinced her of the truth in what Ghiarelli said. When the heron's feathers melted together into a tunic and trousers and the tall, awkward bird shrunk down into a boy perhaps seven years old it was just a confirmation of what her heart already told her was true. The child looked up at her, astonishment and gratitude written on his face, then he sat down on the grass and burst in to tears.

The storm on Ulfar's face broke out in full force and he shook Remigio violently by his arm. “You have lied to me, servant of Borgia. No treasure or talisman your master can offer is worth the stain on my honor you have nearly tricked me into perpetrating. If you were not the messenger of a foreign lord, who's good will is valued by Der Isenkoenig, I would set your head upon the eaves of my roof in warning. Be gone from my lands at once.”

Remigio nodded once, not resisting but not terribly put out by her father's rage either. If anything, it seemed like something the man was used to. The idea that someone could face the full censure of the Wingbreaker clan and act like it was normal, even trivial, disturbed her as much as anything else she had seen that day. Ultimately, Borgia's bravo was taken off the mountain by her brother and two uncles before the sun was set.

Ghiarelli kept near the child but refused to tell his name, only saying that he was the son of someone important in the province of Verdemonde and he couldn't reveal more. Ulfar was suspicious but Lenneth thought it was because he'd just been duped once and not because he had good grounding for his suspicions. The boy seemed to know Ghiarelli a little, and that ultimately calmed ulfar somewhat.

“But why did the child come here?” Lenneth asked as she and her mother helped Ghiarelli make up a bed for the child in the Hall. “He could have flown home to his family.”

“That's part of the curse,” he said. “If everyone cursed that way went straight home to family the curse would be too likely to come undone. So it forces the victim to wander for some period of time along a predetermined path. Father Borgia knew the path and sent someone to kill the child when his parents refused to cave to his demands. Certain connections the Marquis has learned where the child was as well and he ordered me to come and rescue him.”

“Connections? You mean you didn't foresee his death in a dream?”

Ghiarelli turned very serious. “Sadly, I can only see my own death that way.”

“That must be a very hard thing to see, night after night.”

“Perhaps, although at least I do not dream every night.” Then the wry smile was back and he leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “But I haven't seen a death I couldn't beat so far. If you doubt it you're welcome to turn up in my dreams again, lady of marble.”

Then he trotted off to find the child, leaving her there, blushing.