Sir Michael West of Pareth approached the village cautiously. Several of King Edward‟s
knights had been slaughtered when they entered County West, and he wasn‟t about to join his
late comrades. Not that anyone could have recognized him as a knight; his armor was only fine
chain mail, and his tunic hid that. His weapons were not noticeably fine, and he was leading his
horse of twelve years. No, they would not mistake him for a knight, he thought.
Because of the knights‟ demise, King Edward had decreed that the knight or nobleman
who took County West from its count could have the land and title. Michael would normally
have passed the chance by, but his grandfather had been Count of West before Edward came to
power, and the current count had taken it from his father when Edward took the throne.
Michael stopped in the town square, where the people were getting out of the way of
something. As he watched, a knight and a lady entered the town on horseback, moving swiftly.
The villagers lowered their eyes as the nobles approached, but Michael watched on as they rode.
While he did, an escort of five soldiers appeared, mounted on standard cavalry horses. The
knight was definitely the lady‟s guard, wearing full plate and his horse all in red livery. The
lady was young, Michael reckoned, but not too much younger than his twenty-four years. She
was also the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“Lower your eyes, dog!”
His attention was jerked to the soldiers as the lady and knight left the village and his line
of sight. Being one the knights considered a little „rough‟ around the edges, and being cast from
the official order of knights, his reply was typical of himself.
He loosed his sword as they rode at him, the peasants scattering. He took his shield
from his horse‟s saddle, the pegasus of the old house of West rampant on its front.
“One,” he said, knocking the first soldier from his horse. When he got to five, number
one came up from behind him and knocked him out. He sank to the ground, the world going
Michael awoke with a start and, finding himself chained to the wall, vaguely remembered
what had happened. He looked around the cell, the situation dismal, and getting dimmer by the
“Hey, would someone at least tell me if anyone brought my horse in?” he called.
“That old thing?” the dungeon keeper came down the passage. “I hope they sent it to the
“Aw, come on. I‟m twice as old as it, and they haven‟t sent me to the knacker‟s. My
father gave me that horse when it was only two years old.”
“You should know something, Michael of Pareth, shortly you‟ll be wishing to join it at
“Where am I, anyhow, and how do you know who I am?”
“You‟re in Castle Pareth, and your father is too old to look as ye do.”
“And what can they do to me?”
“Well, I understand the dear Count wants you tortured, then hanged.”
“You‟re just lucky you ain‟t a knight, or he might‟ve had you drawn and quartered
“Oh, joy. I could‟ve lost my limbs, but instead I‟ll get my neck broke.”
“Well, a good morrow to ye, Michael of Pareth--if they don‟t hang ye tomorrow.”
After he had gone back up the passage, Michael heard the muffled metallic clanging a
suit of armor makes when one comes down the stairs.
“Where is he?” a hollow voice asked. Michael could tell that the speaker was wearing a
helmet with the face shield down.
“The dark cell, sir,” the dungeon keeper said, and returned to his torture chambers. The
metal-clad figure came down to his cell and held up the sword which Michael‟s father had given
“Where did you get this?” he demanded.
“Why?” he returned, recognizing the knight he‟d seen earlier.
Michael could see the knight‟s eyes behind his face shield, and recognized them.
“Who are you?” he said, again answering with a question. He‟d once tried to break the
habit, but had found it impossible.
“I‟m giving you one last chance. . . .”
“Fine, but I still haven‟t got much of a reason to tell you. If I‟m going to die, as they tell
me, what do I care what happens to me beforehand?”
“You can still die with honor,” the knight replied.
“Honor.” Michael laughed slightly, then sighed. “What is honor to a fallen knight?”
He smiled sadly. “No, I‟ll die, like anyone else who has ever tried to protect their rights.
M‟father was the eighth Count of West, I figured maybe someone might remember the oracle‟s
words. But no. They‟ll kill me yet. And I‟ll leave a world bound for decay; it may be to my
advantage to go.”
“What has come over you, Michael?” the knight said, pulling his helmet off to reveal a
handsome face, burdened with care beyond his years.
“Eric!” Michael leapt to the limits of his chains. “Brother, we thought you were dead!”
His zeal somewhat relieved the knight‟s worries.
“Oh, good. You actually had me thinking you were looking forward to death. But a
“On record. I‟m still on Edward‟s good side, though.” He fell back against the wall.
“But I take it you can‟t get me out.”
“No. I am married to the young lady‟s older sister for six years now. The Count . . .
Well, to put it honestly, I don‟t really care for him, but I love Ann; I‟ll not oppose him.”
“You find a way for me to fight my way out of this--”
“There is none. With Father‟s fall, you‟ve been reduced virtually to the class of a
“Then are they going to leave a shirt of mail on me when they hang me?”
“Why‟d you have to come back?” Eric said, the reminder of his brother‟s imminent death
bringing back the pain.
“Why‟d Edward‟s knights die?”
“You came for vengeance?”
“Not really. However, that is the reason I came. Edward had said, if one more of his
knights dies, he‟ll take County West under his own lordship--by force.”
“Then he ought to quit sending knights.”
“Count of West owes him tribute.”
“And he hasn‟t been . . .”
“Would you care to join your brother, Eric?”
He stiffened. “No, sir.” He gave Michael a look of pity, and left.
“Boy, I‟m getting a lot of visitors today,” Michael said as the Count of West stood in front
of his cell door.
“Come closer to the light where I can see your eyes.”
“Oh, I would, I think, but someone decided I look good in manacles. Pity they‟re firmly
attached to the wall.”
The Count took a sharp breath. “A cynic. I hate cynics.”
“What does it matter? I‟m going to die anyhow.”
“Maybe I‟ll keep you around a while longer,” the Count said. “I understand there‟s an
apprentice doing the rack now.”
“Aw, hell, you‟ve already got me down here, you could be decent enough to kill me. I
didn‟t even kill a one of „em.”
“You know that by the order of nobility, peasants must lower their eyes when a lady
“It‟s a crime to make a man lower his eyes when a lady of such beauty goes by. How
could a poet describe her features, or an artist try to do her justice, when they have never seen
her? And I don‟t exactly fit the category of „peasant.‟”
“Why do you think that? You‟re not a nobleman, a knight, a soldier, or a courtier.”
“Well, you‟re right there. I used to be a nobleman, have been a soldier, wouldn‟t be a
courtier if my life depended on it, and have been kicked out of the official order of knights. And
I am not a peasant.”
“Why not? Do you belong to the church?”
“Yeah, but I‟m not one of the clergy.”
“Oy.” The Count was being genuinely hurt by the cynicism.
“You‟re killing me,” Michael said. “Anyone who is pained by cynicism. . . . Man,
what would happen if I turned to sarcasm?”
“Would you rather be beheaded?” the Count stormed.
“Naw. You can just break the neck, it works just as well,” he said. “You really ought to
see someone about that temper.”
“That settles it. You‟ll burn at the stake.”
“I‟d like to speak to a priest.”
The Count took a deep breath. “Very well. It‟s your right.”
“Yeah. Seems like the only one I got left.”
When Michael saw the cloaked priest coming into his cell in the morning, he thought at
first that it was one of the senile old monks he‟d seen sent down to Edward‟s prisons so often.
“So how are you today, my son?” a powerful baritone voice asked. Upon seeing the
surprise in Michael‟s eyes, he quipped, “Thought I was a monk?” He cast his hood back, a
strong young face emerging into the dim dungeon light.
“Actually, yes. How am I? Oh, I don‟t know. I‟m chained to the wall, they tell me
they‟re going to kill me, and I don‟t even know what for.”
“Ooh, a cynic. No wonder he doesn‟t like you.”
“Am I all that cynical?” Michael asked.
“Enh,” the priest looked at him. “So-so.” He started looking through his basket for
something. “So what did you want to talk about?”
“Well, first of all, what do they have against me that they can kill me for?”
“Right now, I do believe it‟s attacking the Count‟s men.”
“I didn‟t kill any of them. I didn‟t even draw blood. If I was going to do more than
teach „em a lesson, I‟d have remembered not to leave my back open.”
“Ah-ha!” The priest produced a set of keys from the basket.
“You are a priest, aren‟t you?”
“Yep. Wanna buy an indulgence?”
“No thanks. Not much difference between purgatory and hell in my mind, and I‟ll end
up in one or the other anyway.”
“Now that was cynical.” The priest finished unlocking him. “Let‟s get you out of
Michael stumbled to his knees. “Well, while I‟m down here. . . .” He crossed himself.
“Dear Lord, please let this priest carry out a long life and prosper in his work. Amen.”
“Amen,” the priest echoed. “Now, was that for me, or for the people I‟ll release?”
The priest nodded slightly, then produced a pair of shackles from the basket. “Give me
“You think you can just walk out of here?”
Michael stood stiffly, and the priest locked the shackles on his wrists. He lifted his hood
back over his head, and opened the cell. He led Michael out past the torture chambers and up
the stairs, and shoved him into a storage closet when the guards had passed.
“Here,” he said, unlocking his wrists. “Now, find your belongings.”
“Ouch,” he said, seeing his horse‟s tack. “I guess that means they did send my horse to
“Well, he was stolen anyhow. Oh, well.” He picked up his saddle bags and shield, and
glanced around. “You wouldn‟t know where they keep weapons, do you?”
“You stole the horse?”
“Yeah. It‟s not what I told the one guy, but I don‟t care what they think.”
The priest sighed. “Weapons are harder to access. But . . .” He pulled Michael‟s bow
and quiver from the inner folds of his cloak. “You‟d be surprised what you can hide in here
with a little practice.”
“Uh-huh. No sword?”
“Sir Eric has it.”
“Yeah, I should have guessed he would. I think I can get out of here on my own; I grew
“I know, Michael. I know. William Faulkney,” he said, offering his hand.
Michael‟s eyes widened as he took the priest‟s hand. “William? Seriously? Man, I
never would have recognized you. It‟s been what, ten years?”
“And a long ten years, too. It‟s been hard on your brother, seeing someone else in his
father‟s place. Good luck to ye. I‟ve a feeling I know why you came, and I‟ll tell you now, I
don‟t want to have to preside over your funeral.”
“I‟ll be careful, William. And good luck to you, too.”
He opened the passage in the back of the storage room and slipped into the dark interior
of the castle‟s walls. Few people had known they were hollow in places; he hoped few still did.
He had a ways to go, and the passages connected between various rooms, as well, so he‟d risk
chance of being caught as he slipped in and out until he reached the gatehouse. Thinking back,
he remembered most of the rooms as having been relatively rarely used when he was a child and
young teen. Most of them still were, when he came upon them. Until he stumbled into the
young lady‟s bedchamber.
“Oops,” he said, darting for the next passage entrance.
“What are you doing here?” she said, quite startled. She had been sewing, but she set
the material aside.
“Me? Oh, just your routine escape. Pay me no attention. I paid you enough attention
they locked me up for it. This is my way of winning the right.”
“Oh, and once you‟ve won the right to look upon me, I suppose you‟ll vie for the right to
kiss my hand,” she said contemptuously.
“Oh, no, Lady. I‟d vie for your hand.” He pushed open the passage.
“Why you . . . You . . . Ooh!” She turned her back on him.
“You may regret that, lady. In a couple weeks, I‟ll be the count of this county, and you‟ll
understand my position.”
He entered the passageway, and she realized she should have called the guards.
“What‟s your name, anyhow? It has to be something as lovely as you, but you never
know. They gave me Michael. Do I look like a Michael?”
“Gwyneth,” she said, turning back to him. “Who did you say you were?”
“Michael West of Pareth. See you later, I hope.”
He closed the passage behind him, and in fifteen minutes, was in the gatehouse. And at
that very moment, his brother walked in.
“Howdy, Eric,” he said. “Bye.” He slipped past him, running up the road for the
“Wait a minute. . . . Michael!” Eric dashed out of the gatehouse and watched his
brother run up the road, disheartened by his flight.
“Okay,” Michael said to himself as he walked along the road. “First we get a horse.
No. First we get our hands on some cash. Then we get a horse. Then we work on breakfast.”
The tantalizing smell of roast bacon and fried eggs floated out from deeper in the forest.
“On second thought. . . .”
Michael left the road, following the smell of breakfast for almost a mile before he
stumbled onto the camp from which it was coming.
“I guess this was an Oops too,” he muttered to himself as the outlaws leapt for their
weapons. “This is „out of the frying pan and into the fire‟ a little too often for me.”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” the outlaw leader asked.
“That depends on how good your cook is,” Michael said, kicking himself mentally for
again saying the first thing that came to mind.
“What?” The reply was so off-key that the man hadn‟t quite registered what he said.
“Sorry. My name‟s Michael of Pareth, and I was following the smell of breakfast.”
“Of Pareth? What are you doing outside the castle, then, boy?” one of the outlaws said.
“Excuse me? Did I hear you right? No one‟s called me „boy‟ since I fought with
Edward in Scotland. I‟m just as blooded as any one of you here,” he said.
“A bowman, eh?” the outlaw leader said. “Why don‟t we find out--”
“Actually, no, I prefer the sword, but I just escaped the castle, the knight still has my
“Oh, you must be the roughneck who tried to fight off five guards and got himself
“That was one of my first mistakes, trying not to draw blood before I was forced to.
Don‟t rub it in, huh? I still got a headache.”
“So you fought in Scotland, eh, boy?” the old outlaw said. “Under what regiment?”
“None. I was still in the order of knights then.”
“And what did they kick you out for, huh?”
“I don‟t know. They found some little technicality, so they kicked me out. Edward was
a little ticked about losing three knights, though. Figure I‟ve got a chance at getting my title
“And you say you‟re of Pareth?”
“The old house of West,” he said, bringing his shield into sight. “Say,” he said, seeing
the side of bacon that was cooking, “that doesn‟t look half bad, especially compared to what I ate
on the way into the county.”
“Hold on, friend,” the outlaw leader said, putting his sword at Michael‟s throat as he took
a step closer to breakfast. “To eat with us uninvited, one must join us.”
“Uh-huh.” Michael considered the bacon, and the outlaw‟s sword. “How about I just
eat and run?”
“I grab the food while on the run,” he said, ducking the sword and running for the bacon.
He grabbed the end of the stick it was lashed to and ran back in the direction of the road.
“Why, that little thief,” the old outlaw said.
“Look at the pot calling the kettle black,” the outlaw leader said, chuckling. “Let him
go. It‟s been a while since I‟ve met someone who could dodge my sword.”
Michael stopped when he reached the road, realizing that they weren‟t following.
“Blast,” he muttered. “I can‟t even eat this much.” He cut off a hunk and headed back
in the direction he had come.
He walked back into the camp--the outlaws quite startled that he had returned--and set
the rack of bacon back over the fire, then headed back towards the woods.
“Okay, so you‟re either an idiot or brave, but you‟re making fools of us if we let you
walk out of here twice,” the outlaw leader said.
“Run out of here twice.”
He sprinted towards the woods again, dodging them as they tried to catch him, and
tripped. He went sprawling, taking down three outlaws with him.
The outlaw leader walked over to them, chuckling and shaking his head.
“So, friend, who are you really?”
“Michael West of Pareth, second son of Sir Ambrose West of Pareth.”
“Sir Ambrose is dead,” the old outlaw said.
“I know; I had his sword till I got myself locked up, and I aim to get it back as soon as I
“Stole it, you mean,” the old outlaw replied. “Probably helped in his demise, too.”
“I was sixteen when my father died, and not near as good with a sword as I am now. I
never could beat my father in a sword fight, and he was killed by a mob with spears, so as the
current count would have no one to stand against him in the vying for County West. He didn‟t
figure in me or my brothers, and Eric doesn‟t want to do anything that‟ll lose him his wife, as far
as I can tell. Edward said the first nobleman or knight to get the County from him could have it.
I figure that there‟s someone in the family of the old house of West could take the title.”
“I suppose you mean you,” the old outlaw said.
“Actually, I intend to, unless I can put Eric there.”
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire, huh?” the outlaw leader said. “You don‟t know
your brother very well anymore, do you?”
“How much can a guy change? Then again . . .” He thought a moment. “Say, were
the eggs any good?”
“The bacon was decent. How were the eggs?”
“And how do you plan on taking this county?”
“I don‟t know. I just got here. I‟m making this up as I go along. See ya.”
He sprinted off again, this time beating them to the woods, and continued to the next
town. Just outside the city gates, he was ensnared by nets and dragged into the forest. In a
glen about a half a mile on, he was rolled out of the nets.
“Hold off on leaving, Michael,” the outlaw leader said. “You may be passing up help.”
“Help? How? I almost lost my breakfast, and it‟s the first I‟ve had in a couple days.”
“If you pass, we can help you with manpower, supplies, and experience.”
“Pass? Pass what?”
He tossed him a sword.
“Oh, come on, now. This‟ll be too easy.”
“Put your shield aside,” the outlaw leader repeated.
Michael set his shield against the tree.
“Now, if you live, you pass.”
“If I live? Com‟on, now, if I wanted to die, I‟d not have bothered to escape Castle
Pareth.” He gingerly parried the outlaw‟s blow. “Com‟on, I don‟t want to fight. I have a
tendency to forget and accidentally kill people.”
“Oh, believe me, Michael, you could never beat Jerry Cook,” the outlaw leader said.
“You‟re not Jerry Cook.”
“Actually . . .”
“Jerry was taller than me, wore a beard.”
“You‟ve grown near six inches since you last left County West, Michael West of Pareth.”
“So I‟ve been put up against the Master of Arms of the old house of West. In that
case--” he took a step back and tossed off his cloak “--you better watch yourself.”
It took him almost fifteen minutes, but Michael finally disarmed him. Jerry grinned.
“Bows? You expect me to try and beat someone with a bow? It‟ll crack in half.”
“Idiot,” Jerry muttered to the sky.
Michael threw the sword aside and sat down. “Nope. After all that running, I think I‟ll
pass on the bows.”
He looked up, and found himself staring down Jerry‟s notched arrow. He rolled aside,
kicking his bow-arm up and the opposite leg over at the same time, and had a blade at Jerry‟s
“Anyone ever told you that I don‟t like that? That‟s how they killed my sister, if you
remember, and I‟ve never been too fond of it.” Michael was a little ticked, to say the least.
“You‟re good; I‟ll give you that. Also, foolish.”
Michael heard the other outlaws‟ bows creak.
“What would it matter? If I was going to kill you, you‟d die before I would. And I
think I still have a little better chance of it.”
“All right. I‟m sorry.”
Michael let him up. When he did, Jerry kicked his legs out from under him and put him
in roughly the same position that he himself had been in.
“How old are you, Michael?”
“So we know what date to put on your tombstone.”
He bit Jerry‟s hand and rolled free.
“Twenty-four. Look, I got enough trouble with the castle and figuring how to take over
without having to injure my brother. I don‟t need you all plaguing me. So if you‟re done with
your little test, goodbye.”
He stood and headed back towards the city, and they met him with spears before he got
out of the glen.
“Okay, I guess I‟m staying.” He picked up his pack and shield. “Now what, oh boring
Jerry stood. “You come with us. You are a knight, no?”
“They kicked me out. I told you that.”
“Our first chance at a knight, and you were kicked out?”
“Hey, it‟s not my fault. They could kick out almost all of them if they went by what they
kicked me out for.”
“It doesn‟t matter.” He pushed the spear tips apart and started towards town again.
“Michael, you‟re a fool,” Jerry said. “There are fifty skilled fighters under my
leadership, and you‟re turning down our help.”
“What good is it when everyone keeps reminding you of what you‟re not? Let me figure
this out my own way. If I need your help, I‟ll ask.”
“You think he will?” the old outlaw asked Jerry as they watched Michael go.
“Need it? Yes. Ask? No. Someone of Michael‟s background and breeding could be
bleeding to death, and they wouldn‟t ask for help.”
Michael walked into the town, not realizing that there were already guards out looking
for him. He checked into an inn, wondering how he was going to get money to pay, when he
saw a knight ride past. He recognized that knight.
“George!” He ran out of the inn. “George, wait up!”
The knight stopped.
“Michael, you old--”
“Yeah, whatever. You aren‟t going to try and collect the tribute, are you?”
“No, West, I‟m out for the county.”
“Hey, Edward offered--” He stopped. “That‟s why you‟re here, isn‟t it.”
“George, you won‟t get this county by just riding in and offering the count a challenge.
And do you know who‟d have to fight it for him? My brother, that‟s who. He‟s married to the
guy‟s oldest daughter. I hate to say it, but Eric could beat the pants off you. And if you killed
him, do you know what I would have to do?”
“Michael Arthur West!” someone up the street called.
“Look, Michael, I‟m just taking up my uncle‟s offer . . . Say, where‟s your horse? And
“I just ducked out of Castle Pareth‟s dungeon, with the help of an old friend. Look,
George, I was born and raised here. I know the people; they know me. I don‟t want to have to
get into an argument over who gets to fight over a county. And I don‟t know if Edward meant
for the guy who is already his heir to try and take the land. You‟re already getting the realm.
What do you need West for?”
“Michael, do you know why you were still considered a nobleman in the King‟s eyes,
even though your father lost his title?”
“Nope. Of course, everyone keeps telling me that I‟m a peasant. Seems to me like I
don‟t have a social class.”
“Michael, your father and the King‟s father were brothers.”
“No, they weren‟t. My father didn‟t have any brothers. He had a younger sister.”
“Ask Edward when you see him again.”
“If I see him again. At this rate, I doubt I will. Anyhow, would you mind finding your
own county to take over?”
“There‟s going to be a good deal of competition for this county, Michael. Get over it.”
“I tell you, if you enter that castle you‟ll never leave it alive. I‟ve got friends here whom
I can trust. They won‟t care who a stranger is, they won‟t want him to take the county. They
won‟t trust him. The kingdom will be yours, George, can‟t you be content with it?”
“If they couldn‟t trust me to take a county, how could they trust me to take the kingdom?”
“It‟s different. You may not realize it, but it is. The count is local politics. When that
gets interfered with, people grumble. I‟ve looked, most of the guards aren‟t from this county,
but the castle staff is. When Robert de Montage took County West from my father, he brought
his own men. So what are you going to do? The local people hate it because they feel
occupied, and they wouldn‟t work for a stranger, no matter who he was or claimed to be.”
“What‟s the real reason you don‟t want anyone else to get it?” he said.
“It‟s my home, George. What other reason do I need?”
A half a company of the Count‟s soldiers was riding towards them.
“Well, I guess I may as well give them something to hang me about,” Michael said. He
strung his bow as they approached.
“What are you doing?” George asked.
“What do you think they‟re doing here? You may be a knight, George, but you‟re naive.
When a company of soldiers comes at you with their swords drawn, they are going to try and
kill you. So either get ready to fight, or see if they‟re willing to risk Edward‟s wrath. I saw it
happen in Scotland. So if you would be so kind to leave, the King‟s heir will remain the King‟s
heir, and not just another dead relative.”
“I can‟t retreat, Michael. You know that.”
“You don‟t retreat from a battle that hasn‟t started; you just don‟t get into it in the first
place. Go, or I‟ll let Edward take out his wrath on me, as I‟ll have saved them the trouble.”
George turned his horse and headed for the border. Seeing that the knight was going to
avoid trouble, the company stopped.
“Wait a minute,” the captain said as they were turning back. “Isn‟t that the escaped
Michael‟s eyes widened like a rabbit‟s when it is cornered by hounds. He ran. After a
moment he got an idea, and he headed for the woods, going around the troops. They followed
him in, and he ran top speed for the outlaw camp. The trees slowed the horses some, and the
general roughness of the terrain kept them from keeping exactly up with him. He ran into the
outlaw camp and stopped next to Jerry.
“Do you have a sword I can borrow?” he said, leaning against a tree and catching his
“Them,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the soldiers as they emerged from
“You‟re going to take on all twelve by yourself?”
“Why not? Just lend me a sword, huh? You may get yourself a dozen or so horses off
Jerry brought him a sword. “You‟re insane.”
“Uh-huh. What, do you want to join in?”
“Then would you mind making sure none of „em get away?”
“That, we can manage.” He headed back into the encampment as Michael went out into
the open glen to meet the soldiers. “Corral the sheep!” he called to his men.
“Not pluck the turkey?” someone asked.
Michael fought to wound this time, instead of trying to just unhorse them. He was a
better swordsman than any of them, and it didn‟t take him long to down all the pursuers. He
handed Jerry the sword back, still covered with gore, and caught one of the horses.
“You do funerals?” he asked Jerry.
“No, but we‟ll dig graves--for a price.”
“Uh-huh. Hold that a sec, huh?” he said, handing Jerry the reins. “Let‟s see. Eleven
horses, twelve bows, eleven swords. . . . You want more than that?”
“Naw. Never did like this Montage scum. All they ever do is plunder the villages and
take our girls from us.”
Michael glanced at him, collecting their purses.
“You got a wife, Jerry?”
“Not anymore. She died, oh, must‟ve been six years back. Why, some lady caught
“Caught my eye and it got me thrown in prison,” he said quietly. “I‟ll see you around,
Jerry, and don‟t think I won‟t. I know this county as well as any of the rest of you.”
He mounted the black horse and rode back towards town.
Gwyneth de Montage listened listlessly to the dinner conversation. It always seemed so
boring to her. Her father and his courtiers only talked of war and politics and business. She sat
by her sister, who sat by her husband, the knight. He never joined in the discussions either,
although her sister had, on occasion, talked the men down on some points. This was rare,
however, as her father rarely let them get a word in.
When the talk turned to the escape, however, she gave it her full, unapparent attention.
The Count was furious that he had not been pursued, and that Eric had not tried to stop him as he
“Sir, Michael has run past me out of that gatehouse since I was a child. My first reaction
has never been to stop him, and my second reaction is too late to become action. Besides
which, I would as soon fight you as my brother.”
“But how did he get out?”
“I don‟t know, sir. Still, he‟s always known the castle better than I. He got into more
trouble as a kid than I; he had reason to move around outside our father‟s sight.”
“What about that priest, Faulkney? He was the last one to see him.”
“The guards found him locked in the closet,” Ann said. “Father Faulkney has more
sense than to try and help someone escape.”
“But why was there no pursuit? Could we not have caught him?”
“Sir, Michael knows these lands as well as or better than any of the peasants who traverse
them daily. He could hide within a half a mile of these walls and stay hidden well enough to be
loose for months.”
“You‟re trying to defend him.”
“No, sir, I‟m stating fact.”
“It is not fact until it‟s proven.”
“He also has sense enough not to.”
Michael sat in his room in the inn that night drawing the layout of the castle on a scrap of
parchment. He watched the embers in the fire as he put it in his pocket, seeing the shadow of
his father‟s sword in the smoke. He was mad at himself for having let it leave his possession,
something he‟d sworn to his father never to do. He was turning out to be a bigger failure than
he‟d thought he was.
At the same time, Eric was sitting in his room, holding the sword in his hands. Ancient
runes traced the blade; eight generations of Wests had wielded that sword in defense of their
county and in the service of their King--but why had Michael been chosen to carry on the legacy,
instead of him? He was older. Michael was less trustworthy. Michael had told their father
he‟d do his best to show him the parable of the prodigal son in real life; Eric stayed at home,
became a knight in his own county, and tried to adapt when his father was killed for the title.
Michael slept restlessly that night. He‟d been a failure of his duty in Scotland; he had
saved Edward and half the army, but in doing so, he had failed to protect the King‟s only son.
Edward had understood his dilemma, but the order of knights had still cast him out. He‟d lost
his best horse in Scotland; his squire died of the plague, but somehow he himself never
contracted it, though he had been in constant contact with the lad every day. He had gotten
himself captured, barely managed to escape, and when they got back to England, he was
penniless. All he had was an old nag he‟d taken off a farmer on the way back, and his weapons
and pack. His plate armor had rusted without a squire‟s care, so he lost that. When the order of
knights cast him out, he had no home, and technically, no social class. Edward had granted him
a room in the capital, as he had saved his life.
He rode south the next day, for the southern coastal town of Merkley. It was the only
major port in County West, and he had a good friend there.
“And why can‟t you?”
“And why should I? Michael, I‟ve known ye since we were lads. And ye haven‟t
changed. But we canna go up agin this count alone, and I canna while me wife‟s expecting.
Maybe in a week or two, when she‟s had it and the neighbor women are all over at the house
helping her--but no‟ before then.”
“Aberdeen!” the blacksmith‟s apprentice ran in. “Sir! Your wife‟s in labor; the
midwife thought you‟d want to know.”
“How many does this one make, Jan?” Michael asked as the smith nodded to his
“Hm? Oh, five now.”
“Five? You‟re only a year older than I am.”
“Martha‟s a wonderful wife. I‟d better get over there. I‟ll see ye later if ye hang
around town--and no‟ literally, I hope.”
Michael wandered around the town, watching the street performers and leading his horse.
Merkley was the farthest city from Castle Pareth, which was on the northern end of the county.
The castle perched atop a steep cliff on the coast, and all the towns were farther inland from it.
His father had thought him rather impudent to leave so early, to come back so sporadically. He
had wandered around with his horse much the way he was wandering around Merkley now.
He‟d been a fool so often, he wasn‟t sure it was possible for him to change now.
He stopped by Jan Aberdeen‟s smithy the next morning. The smith glanced up when he
came in, but didn‟t say anything.
“Is something wrong?” Michael asked.
“Naw. I just ain‟t sure I‟d want to be leaving town so soon.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Girl. Makes three girls now.”
“The more kids in a family, the more fun it is for the kids, and the harder it is on the
parents. Of course, the kids never realize it till they‟ve gone their separate ways, but I miss the
fun my brothers and I used to have.”
“Now, would that be running off to the mountains for a couple weeks at a time, or
streaking the convent?”
“Hey, we only did that once, and that was Bartholomew‟s idea. Not that it wasn‟t kind
of funny, but I don‟t think I‟d do that again. Not sober, anyway. Eric‟s the only one I‟ve seen
in the past six years. Not the best of terms, but he‟s the only one I‟ve seen.”
“Ye always were the one yer father called prodigal. I don‟t know. Ye just canna slow
down, I think.”
“Nope. I‟d slow down if I could find a way to. If I don‟t have anything to do, how am I
going to slow down? Spent six years in the King‟s service, what else am I going to do in this
“I wouldn‟t go spreading that around, friend. The King‟s not thought too highly of in
County West nowadays.”
“Why not? It‟s not as bad as when Andrew had the throne.”
“No, but they still associate Edward with Montage.”
“If Edward had anything to do with Montage, I‟d not have saved his life in Scotland.
No, but they‟ll think that unless Edward helps get rid of Montage, or if he doesn‟t help him when
he loses his county.”
“How would he lose his county?”
“I‟m going to take it from him. And I need your help.”
The smith set down his hammer.
“That‟s an awful lot to be askin‟ of someone whose wife just delivered „em another child
to provide for.”
“I know. And if you can‟t come, I understand. But I figured it wouldn‟t hurt to let you
“Martha won‟t want me to go so soon . . . And it takes money to raise a family, and
money is tight.”
“Is Charlie Doubler in town?” he asked.
“Nope. He never came back from Scotland. I never came back from my excursion
south, though, so since he ain‟t dead, it ain‟t too hard to guess where he is.”
“Yeah.” Michael‟s wistful glance at the embers of the forge didn‟t escape the smith‟s
“Say, ye ain‟t doin‟ this just for a girl, are ye?”
“Not really. Don‟t think it‟ll matter if I get the county; she‟ll still hate my guts.”
There was a clanging as the town crier came down the streets. It was only a weekly
event in most cases, so he was actually attracting the citizens‟ attention.
“Count‟s younger daughter to burn as witch! Accused of helping prisoner escape by
magic! Public execution in three days!”
“But where?” Michael muttered, watching the crier, waiting for the reply.
“The stake is being set up out front of the castle!”
“Oh, hell, he‟s trying to bait me,” Michael muttered.
“What?” Jan asked, not having heard him clearly.
“Well, let‟s see. Count knows I escaped, doesn‟t know how, and he knows I like his
younger daughter. I‟ve a bit of a feeling that they don‟t get along, so what better way to get rid
of the problem of a dowry? Get rid of the daughter.”
“Michael, ye‟re a fool, and one of the biggest fools I‟ve ever known. Gwyneth is a
Montage. To get this county ye‟ll have to kill her father. Do you think she‟d ever set eyes on
ye again if ye did that?”
“What‟s it matter? She already hates me; I don‟t think it‟ll change much.” He headed
for the inn. “If you see anyone who can and will help, just send „em to the castle if they can get
there in the next three days.”
“What are ye going to do, Michael? Witchcraft is a sin.”
“There‟s no such thing as witchcraft. I may be a fool, Jan, and a failure, but I know what
is true and what‟s an old wives‟ tale. She‟s not a witch. No more than you or me or any other
person in this world.”
He continued towards the inn.
“Michael, wait. Where are ye going?”
“To find a druid. They‟re the best weather-forecasters I know of.”
He paid his tab at the inn and saddled his horse. As he rode towards the edge of town,
Jan caught up with him.
“Michael, what about Jerry Cook? He‟s somewhere up by Pareth.”
“Yeah. I know. Ran into him a couple days ago. But I don‟t normally enlist the help
of someone who‟d have no qualms about cutting my heart out.”
Michael rode in the general direction of the central portion of County West. There were
few cleared areas, most of the forest being old-growth. The people were farmers and foresters,
and spread out sparsely. The fishing towns on the western coast held most of the people.
Druids were becoming rare by that time, but they were attuned to nature--with the plants,
animals, and weather. And if you could find one, they gave valuable advice about any one of
the three. Their orders were ancient, as were their beliefs, and they were held as „heathens‟ in
most people‟s opinions. Michael had traveled too much, seen too much, to comply with public
opinion. He took people as they were for what they were.
He spent the entire day tracking down a druid, and when he finally found him, it was
because he‟d fallen into a pit trap, and the druid helped him out.
“Hi.” Michael stopped him before he could leave. “Could you tell me roughly when
Pareth will be getting rain?”
“Because they‟re planning on burning someone at the stake, and I want to stop it, and I
need to know if I‟ll have the rain on my side.”
“Rain in about, oh, three, four days. Depends on the sea, if the winds change. What
“Huh? Oh, witchcraft, but witchcraft doesn‟t really exist, so I figure I‟ll try and stop it.”
The druid nodded slightly and continued with his herb gathering.
“Thanks,” Michael called after him, and he mounted his horse.
Michael jumped, the owl sweeping close to his head. It was genuinely getting dark. As
he continued on the path, he heard footsteps behind him. Twice he turned and saw nothing.
The third time, something‟s eyes glowed in the moonlight. Towards morning, he still heard it
following, and when he cleared the woods near Pareth, he found nearly a score of wolves
following him, not just a single animal. And he saw what had been directly following him,
whose eyes he‟d seen.
“Before you freak, I am human. Just not completely sane. They call me a wolf runner,
since I run with them, hunt with them sometimes, though I hunt a good deal on me own. They
like me; I think they‟re kind of nice; we get along. I figure you‟ll need help to stop a witch
burning, as I‟ve seen it tried and failed before, so I figured me friends might be a bit handy.”
“You . . . lead . . . them?” Michael said to the girl, who was clad in a jerkin and trousers
as a lad her age would have been.
“Not really. I told them there‟s a chance we could help improve their name--you know
how they are hunted--but they think this might not help their reputation any. My brother was
“You‟re . . . Oh, man, I don‟t think you‟d want to stick around much, then.”
“Why? Look, you got a contract with the family to train one to be a knight, and they‟s
pretty ticked you had to go and lose the one boy they had. They won‟t be overly happy to find
out you ain‟t a knight anymore. Anyhow, I figured I‟d help you take County West back.”
“And how‟ll you do that? You‟re a 15-year-old girl. With a boy, maybe I could chance
“I can fight as well as any boy, and I got a score of support on my side. We get around
such as Jerry Cook can‟t catch us, and I ended up inheriting me father‟s Moonstar when he fell in
Scotland. You won‟t find a better blade, excepting maybe the West‟s family sword.”
“The Moonstar? I remember seeing that before, but . . .”
She drew her sword. It flashed like a star and glowed like moonlight.
“And I can see in the dark. Look, West, if you want to save the Lady, you got from now
till the burning tomorrow to work it out.”
“You‟re rather impertinent, aren‟t you?”
She turned back into the woods.
“How good are you?”
“I don‟t worry about Pareth‟s guards, and I know the secret passages from the pinching I
do from their pantry.”
“Come on, then, but if you‟ve got any problems with Jerry, you may‟s well stay behind.”
“Only that he and his lot shoot me pack for the bounty.”
She split when he continued along open ground, drifting back into the woods, the wolf
pack following her. They met at the edge of the outlaws‟ clearing. Rather, she met him; she
was hidden well enough it would‟ve taken an experienced tracker to spot her.
“Finally decide you need our help, Michael?” Jerry said.
“Well, Jan Aberdeen‟s wife just had a baby, and I heard that Charlie Doubler never came
back from Scotland . . . I‟m kind of running out of options--and time.”
“Jo,” Jerry said, surprised. He was her uncle, on her mother‟s side, but no one usually
recognized the relationship. “You aren‟t taking to the woods again, are you?”
“Have for the past year; ain‟t no one stoppin‟ me. I do‟s I please, and the pack don‟t
worry me none. . . .” At the mention, the wolves melted out of the trees behind her. Several of
the outlaws raised bows, and Jo‟s hand went to her sword. “If I see who shoots, it‟ll be me
you‟re messin‟ with, not the wolves.”
“Would everybody chill!”
Michael sat silently for a moment after his outburst.
“Look, if you‟re going to help me stop a stake-burning, then fine, I guess I need the help.
If not . . . Well, okay, I‟ll have a go at it by myself. With the kid and the wolves, I guess.
And if I‟m going to stick my neck out tomorrow, I may as well confront the Count tomorrow too,
and hope that Eric holds his brother over his father-in-law. So, Jerry, are you going to help me
“Hold on, now. She‟s been charged with witchcraft. That‟s a pretty dern strong
“There is no such thing as witchcraft. How many times do I have to go through this?
It‟s just an excuse.”
“If you haven‟t guessed, Cook,” Jo said, “de Montage is trying to draw him out. He‟s
doin‟ a dern good job of it, and you should be glad he had sense enough to ask for help.”
“Actually, I think it‟s closer to baiting,” Michael said quietly. “In the past, oh, seven
years or so, Jerry, I‟ve been all over this island. Been down into Gaul a bit. I know what‟s fact
in this world anymore, and what is fact is that there is no such thing as witchcraft.”
“Well, it‟s nice that you think that, but--”
“Jerry, they said it was in connection with a prisoner‟s escape. I know how the prisoner
escaped, because that prisoner is me. I got out with someone else‟s help, and you might know
whom. I‟m not about to let a Lady be killed because of that. If I end up dead, well, I end up
dead. More than like she may, too, if I do. But I‟ll try.”
“Thought you didn‟t care about honor, Michael.”
Eric took a step back as the outlaws turned, their weapons half drawn.
“I don‟t,” Michael replied.
“You‟re going to get yourself and a lot of other people killed if you try to stop this,” Eric
said. “I didn‟t think you‟d risk so many people for your own whim.”
“How many soldiers and guards does Montage have in Pareth?”
“Four score.” Eric had weighed over answering, but saw it would be in his better
interest just to tell.
“And are you going to help me?”
“How can I?”
Michael turned his horse, which was becoming quite restless, in a tight circle.
“Where are Jesse? Frederick? William? Bartholomew?” he asked.
“Ireland,” Eric replied.
“Blast.” He dismounted, handing the reins to Jo. “Well, there went four good swords.”
“Erin is in Underhame,” Eric said.
“I don‟t want to chance losing my other sister.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Do you think I know yet?”
He pulled his sketch of the castle out of his pocket. There was no way a score and a half
could beat four score in a straight fight. He‟d have to figure a way to keep it from being a
“Is that current?”
He folded the parchment in half.
“You‟re sure you won‟t help?”
“How can I? My wife and two sons are still up in Pareth. I don‟t dare ask her to leave
the castle. She‟ll realize what‟s going on.”
“She‟ll let her sister burn?”
“She doesn‟t dare confront her father.”
“Jo.” She came over closer. He spoke to her in a low voice for a moment.
“Before tomorrow?” she asked.
“Aye. And quiet-like.”
“Yeah. I can manage.” She disappeared into the woods, the wolves following her.
“Oh, no.” Eric stood up straighter.
“What?” Michael unfolded the parchment again. “Look. I went by what was expected
of me for, oh, six years after Dad died. Past two years I‟ve been doing it my way, and though
it‟s been a bit rough, I‟ve been enjoying myself. Started when I went against orders in Scotland
and saved Edward‟s life. His son Kelly died because I left my post. I won them the war; I got
kicked out of the knighthood. Darn. So I stick to doing things my way now. This is my way.
I‟m going to do what I can to save a Lady from being burned at the stake. Why? Because
there is no such thing as witchcraft, thus there are no real charges, and therefore, she should not
die. To hell with anything else for now. I‟m still working on that. If anyone is going to help,
good. If not, darn.”
He took the reins of his horse before it got it in its head to wander off, and mounted.
Eric caught the bridle before he could ride off.
“I‟ll help, huh?”
“Yeah. But how?”
“Let‟s figure out how you‟re going to pull this off.”
Michael walked the horse over towards the outlaw camp.
“I haven‟t said I‟m helping you yet,” Jerry said.
“You said to ask for it, and you‟d help me. Well, I‟m asking, Jerry.” Michael tied his
horse to a sapling.
“Yeah. I heard you the first time.”
Michael was up before dawn the next morning. He woke Jerry, who, in turn, roused the
entire outlaw camp.
“So we go in . . .”
“You know your part. I‟m trusting you to pull it off. Eric said he‟d take care of the
“Yo, Michael!” Jo called softly from the edge of the woods. “Think it‟ll rain?”
He saddled his horse. “His family safe?”
He pulled the parchment from his pocket.
“Okay, Jerry. This is one of the biggest secrets of my childhood. If you care to give it
back when this is through, I‟d be kind of relieved.”
“Pareth‟s got . . . Whoa.”
“Yeah. That‟s how you get in and out when you‟ve got my personality.”
“Well, I hate to say it, I take some of these guys in once, they won‟t forget.”
“Blindfold „em if you think it‟ll matter,” Michael said. “I don‟t care. Just get in and get
your part done.”
“Will do. And Michael,” he said, catching his arm as he went to mount. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. I think we‟ll need it today.”
He rode out to the road, and headed for castle Pareth. Jo caught his eye for a moment,
and he gave her a nod. She knew what to do.
“Since no one will stand for the witch--”
“I‟ll stand for her.” Michael rode out from the woods, the executioner looking up at the
unexpected arrival. Count de Montage smiled slightly. “Pretty low, using your daughter as
bait. Or don‟t you have the guts to just challenge me to my face?”
“Bold words from an outcast knight. Would you care to eat them now, or will they have
to be force-fed to you?”
“I‟d think you were smart enough to know that there‟s no such thing as witchcraft. But
if this is proof you‟re not, maybe you should step down.” Michael dismounted.
The crowd that had gathered was getting interested in things now.
“That‟s an interesting sentiment, considering from whom it‟s coming. Why don‟t you
tell it to God?”
“Sorry. The outlook right now is hell; I don‟t think I‟ll be seeing him anytime soon.”
“Then perhaps you should burn with her.” The Count motioned for the guards to seize
“No thanks. She already hates me, I don‟t think she‟d want to die with me,” he said,
drawing his sword. “Call „em off so I don‟t have to kill them,” he asked of the Count as the
“If you do, you‟ll hang.”
“Hang, burn, what‟s the difference? If you‟re so determined for me to end up dead, you
may‟s well try and kill me yourself.”
“What the hell‟s he waiting for?” Eric muttered from the gate. “Just cut the lass free and
fight your way out of it, you fool,” he said to himself. “That‟s how you used to do it.
Michael glanced at Castle Pareth and saw Eric standing in the gateway. He also saw,
behind him, Jerry‟s outlaws slipping across the courtyard.
“Uh-oh,” he muttered, for he was supposed to have her free before they had the castle.
The guards had almost reached him, so he made up his mind fast. Michael swung, meeting the
first guard‟s spear with his blade, and it lodged solidly halfway in.
“Oops,” he said, and pulled hard, yanking the spear handle from the guard‟s hands. He
shook it a moment, trying to loose his sword from the wooden haft. Another guard ran at him,
and he swung the sword-spear combination, knocking the guard cold with the haft as he swung.
“Gee whiz, why‟s it always have to go halfway cockeyed when I try and work something out?”
They were chaining Gwyneth de Montage to the stake the next time he got a glance at
her, and they were working him towards it. Eric bit his lip. If Michael‟s luck didn‟t change, he
was going to have to get more openly involved than he cared to be. Michael glanced at the
woods, nodding for Jo to get into things if she was going to help. She smiled slightly, her
manner always a bit condescending towards people who couldn‟t seem to handle things on their
own. She led the wolves out, and, upon seeing that Michael was going to be assisted, de
Montage called for more guards. Those in the castle who didn‟t know that they were being
attacked came out, reinforcing the first five by almost a score. Michael cursed under his breath.
Gwyneth still hadn‟t figured out why Michael West, of all people, would want to stand
for her, unless he was just after the county. He obviously wasn‟t one like the fools who had
come to court her, rambling about love and her looks and all that rot. She could see he wasn‟t in
it for the glory, either, because he was already making a fool of himself. From what she‟d
heard, he‟d made a fool of himself from the first day he set foot in the county. So what, then?
she asked herself.
About the time that they pushed him back to the firewood, the guards knocked Michael
sprawling, his sword flying from his hand and the spear haft tripping the executioner, who
dropped the flame and put it out. He started back to the fire to get another light.
Eric shook his head. “Michael, you‟re going to owe me for this one,” he muttered. He
picked up the sword leaning against the wall next to him and loosed his own. He fought his way
through to his brother, who was doing his best to dodge the frantic stabs everyone was making at
him. Gwyneth‟s eyes widened when she saw Eric helping him. He smiled wryly at her as he
helped his brother up.
“What, did you think I‟d let them kill my brother like my father?” He handed Michael
the sword and turned to cover his back. “Hang onto it this time. And you owe me one.”
“Well, this makes me feel better,” he said. “How long has it been since the Sunstar and
Moonstar have fought in the same battle?” he asked Eric, his luck changing with the quality of
his blade. It cut through the spear hafts, not just into them.
“Oh, at least a decade.”
When he had a moment, he swung with his weight at the chains that held Gwyneth to the
stake, and the sword went through them like they were butter. He took her by the hand and led
her to Jo.
“Take her to her sister, huh? I got to get back to Eric before he gets killed fighting my
He turned and fought his way back to his brother.
“Finally got about to your objective?”
“Huh? Sure, she‟s kind of pretty, but I was never the one that was a fool for pretty
“Nope. That‟s always been Bartholomew‟s field. How long do you figure we can hold
“Don‟t know. Why don‟t you get back to the gate?”
“And leave you?”
“Eric, there‟s only four of „em left. The wolves are very efficient killers.”
“Well . . .” He backed out carefully and jogged over to the gate.
“This will get you cast from the knighthood, just as was your brother.” The Count held
his blade at Eric‟s throat.
“Oh, no,” Eric replied with a hint of a smile on his face as he answered the Count. “This
is in service to my King. And to the future Count of West.”
“Your sons will never hold the title. I‟ll pass it directly to my nephew.”
“My sons will never hold the title. Michael‟s will.”
Jo burst out of the gatehouse. “You know, I think Michael will be wanting to see him
shortly,” she said, nodding to the Count. “Won‟t do him any good to take the place if he‟s still
“Take Castle Pareth? That‟s a laugh,” the Count said. “If he‟s as true to family as he
always puts on, I should say you‟d make a nice incentive for him to give himself up,” he told
“Ann‟s been the reason I‟ve never confronted you. She‟s safe now.”
“My daughters are my concern, not yours, knight.”
“My wife is my concern, not yours.” Eric dodged the Count‟s lunge a fraction of a
second before he moved, keeping his neck in one piece. He stood at a safe distance between the
castle gates and the Count. Jo slid out into the open, gathering the wolves and beginning to pull
the three or four that had fallen into the woods.
Breathless, Michael stood on the pile of firewood as the last soldier fell. At that
moment, the executioner dropped a torch to it. Michael leapt clear as it blazed up in a shower of
sparks and smoke. He saw Eric guarding the gate from the Count, and that Jo and her wolves
considered their work done. He headed for the gate.
“So are you ready to accept my surrender?” Michael said to the Count as he approached.
The Count winced. “Honestly, I don‟t think there‟s any point in fighting anymore. How could
I think to take a castle all by myself? I must be a blathering idiot. Maybe I should just let you
kill me.” He grinned as Jerry and his outlaws came out into the courtyard behind Eric and the
portcullis. “You didn‟t really think I thought I could take the castle by myself, did you?”
The Count lunged at him.
“Well, sheesh, you could at least be civil about it,” he said as he swiftly stepped aside,
trying to keep his balance. He failed. He rolled aside as the Count tried to stab him, and
Michael was on his feet in a trice.
“I don‟t think there is any point in fighting fair anymore,” the Count said.
“Now I know why Dad‟s dead,” Michael muttered, catching his next blow on his shield.
He parried consistently, not taking any chances at thrusting yet. Finally, fed up with doing
nothing, he threw aside his shield and went back to his own tactics. After about fifteen minutes
he caught the Count sharply on the side, bringing a lot of blood. The Count took a step, then
“Oh, good. He didn‟t stagger around like an idiot. I hate that,” Michael muttered,
leaning back against the wall. “I haven‟t been this exhausted since Scotland.”
“Not many knights lose their squire and their best horse.”
“Not many knights get kicked out for saving their King. Did things go okay, Jerry?”
“Clean as a whistle. We know how to keep our skin intact and theirs in shreds.”
“Literally,” someone piped up. Michael smiled slightly.
“So where is Ann?” Eric asked him.
“Well . . . Uh . . . Blame it all, which way did Jo go?”
“Try the woods,” Jerry said. “Good luck in finding her. That niece of mine knows the
shadows better than I do.”
“I‟ll be right back,” he said to Eric. “But you all could at least give these guys a
soldier‟s burial and not waste the fire.”
He caught his horse and rode into the woods. He found the three dead wolves lain out of
sight in a thicket, and followed the faint signs of a trail. She had hidden it almost completely,
but she was limping, he saw. It didn‟t take him long to catch up.
“Jo,” he said, catching her attention. She was binding a nick in her calf.
“Huh?” She glanced up.
“Where‟d you take Eric‟s wife?”
“The Lady Ann? She‟s in the passages.”
She stood and turned to continue into the woods.
“No, thanks,” he repeated. “You saved my tail today, and I won‟t forget it.”
“See you later, cuz,” she said.
“See you,” he replied, turning his horse and heading back for the castle.
Michael led Eric back into the passages of Castle Pareth, the first time his brother had
been there. It didn‟t take him long to find where Jo had taken them.
“Ladies,” Michael said quietly, startling them. “Sorry. You can come out now.”
“And I suppose Father is dead,” the Lady Ann said. Eric nodded slightly. “Finally,
someone has sense enough to kill him. Took you all eight years.”
“Hold on. You gave me the impression that you didn‟t want him dead,” Eric said to her.
“Women can do that, Eric,” Michael said sideways to him. “Sometimes one gets the
feeling that we aren‟t exactly the same species. Come on. The damp isn‟t good for your
lungs,” he said, leading them back out.
“So who‟ll take title over the county?” Ann asked Eric as they came out into the kitchen.
“Him,” he said, nodding at Michael. “The one Father chose to take the title when he
“Have to let Edward know before I can get it, though.”
“Who could go tell him?” Eric said. “I don‟t rank high enough to get admittance in his
court, and you can‟t leave County West so soon without an army to guard it from the neighbors.”
“Eric, with a West in Castle Pareth, this county always has an army in its people.
They‟ll fight to defend their homes, as they fought de Montage when he first came. If we
weren‟t in the middle of a royal shift, they‟d have held off. Dad supported Edward; half our
men were off fighting for him. Look, I trust you enough to let you stay here; I‟ll go see Edward.
I owe him something anyhow.”
“He lent me ten gold pieces to get here; I have to pay him back.”
Eric shook his head slightly. The cook was just staring at them.
“Say, what is that?” Michael asked. “It smells like roast boar. It‟s been nearly two
years since I had a good roast boar.”
“We were having it for supper tonight,” the cook said. “It takes all day to roast
“Keep at it, ma‟am. It smells good.”
Michael gave her a pat on the arm and headed out into the courtyard. “Jerry!” he said,
stopping him before he could leave. “Where are you going? Do you want your job back?”
“Do I want . . . Well . . . I don‟t think . . .”
“Or would you rather be upgraded to Captain of the Guard?”
“Michael!” he exclaimed, surprised at the offer.
“I just have to make sure Edward is going to let me keep the castle now. I‟m not about
to get in a tiff with him about it.”
“I don‟t think he‟d refuse you.”
The sky opened in rain, and everyone ran for cover.
“So who‟s in my old room, Eric?” Michael asked.
“No one. It‟s been used for storage.”
“Storage. They used my room for storage,” he said, walking up the corridor to the door.
He opened the door and found all the old West livery in the room.
“So now where shall we go?” Ann asked Eric.
“You don‟t have to go anywhere,” Michael said. “You all are welcome to stay. What
good is having a big place to live if you don‟t have anyone in it but yourself?”
He walked over to the altar in the corner alcove and knelt.
“May all those who helped me today, one day join You in Paradise,” he mumbled, then
stood, laying his cloak and sword on a table. “So when‟s lunch?” he asked.
Eric grinned. “You never change.”
“Nope. Neither do you. Where else can we stick all this stuff?”
“Back up on the walls?” Eric said.
“Say, that‟s not a bad idea. There are still servants working in Pareth, no?”
“So where are they?”
“Hiding, I think,” Jerry said, coming to the doorway. “Look, Michael, I don‟t know
what you had in mind for us, but we got to get back if we aren‟t staying on with you. It‟s
getting close to business hours.”
“You can stay on. Sheesh, did you think I‟d just kick you all out?”
“You‟re letting a lot of ruffians--” Ann started.
“Hey, most of them used to be on the guard here,” Michael said. “They can have their
jobs back. We need someone to do it; we may as well have someone with experience.”
“We?” Gwyneth said.
“Plural is for anyone who plans on staying in Castle Pareth. You can leave if you wish,
I‟m not holding you here. But if you go, be careful, the world is harsh.”
He walked down to the stables to get his saddle bags, and Eric and Ann went downstairs
to the library. Gwyneth stood a moment, and Jerry spoke as she glided past him out of the
“I‟ve heard you‟re the reason he got thrown in prison.”
“I wouldn‟t know about that.”
She went to her room and picked up her sewing. After a while there was a knock on the
door, and when she acknowledged, the priest entered.
“Good morning, Lady.”
“Good morning, Father.”
“Are you feeling all right? A death is a hard blow to take and--”
“This was not much of a blow. I don‟t think my father‟s death has saddened me all that
much. But a stranger taking control of the county?”
“Michael is no stranger to County West. No. We were best friends growing up,” he
said, smiling slightly. “I got into a lot of trouble for someone who became a priest. He likes
you, I think.”
“Me? Ugh. Someone like that? He is no different from the others.”
“Wait and see, Lady. Do not judge someone by the first impression they give you. But
I think he already has seen it is hopeless with you. He will not trouble you about it. Good
morning.” He left her.
Michael sat alone in the kitchen as the others ate in the dining room, not able to face
them all at a meal. They weren‟t all settled in with his taking over, and he didn‟t want to stir
things up until he had confirmation of his control. He was already forming his travel plans and
trying to figure out how to ease County West‟s tax burden, even out the taxes, and still be able to
run the county.
“Michael,” Eric said, coming into the kitchen nearly an hour after the others had finished
“Hm?” he looked up from the scrap of parchment he was scribbling notes on.
“You haven‟t been overly sociable.”
“What do you expect? I‟ve been wandering for eight, almost nine years. You might say
I didn‟t take Michelle‟s death well, but I don‟t think anybody takes their twin‟s death well. I
don‟t know. I‟m thinking.”
“How to ease the financial state. I was going over the books before lunch. I figured the
problem‟s somewhere in the tax system. Therefore, I‟ve been doing a little algebra.”
“Huh? Oh, it‟s an Arabic word, or is it Indian? Anyway, it‟s a kind of math. And I
think tomorrow I‟ll start off to see Edward. I still owe him a bit of money.”
“So you said.”
“And an apology.”
Eric put his hand on his shoulder. “Why don‟t you come talk for a while? You‟ve
plenty of time to figure out the particulars, and it‟s been almost eight years since I‟ve seen you.”
“Eric,” he said as he put his paper in his pocket. “Did Dad have any brothers?”
“Because Sir George Everett said he did.”
“George Everett is the King‟s nephew.”
“And his heir. He said Dad had a brother.”
“He did. Died shortly after his daughter was born. Already had a son. Our aunt is
Edward‟s aunt. Our uncle on Mom‟s side--”
“Is Jerry Cook. I know. Our aunt is Jo‟s mother. I know our family, Eric, excepting I
didn‟t know that Dad had a brother.”
“Ah. Irish father.”
He took Michael to the library, with its comfortable chairs and the huge fireplace. The
ladies were already there, as well as the men who had been the old count‟s courtiers. Eric and
Ann‟s two sons were playing under the big table in the room, arranging and rearranging toy
soldiers and knights.
“You know, if they enjoy it so much, they‟d probably enjoy chess,” Michael said.
“They‟re a little young for chess, aren‟t they?” Ann said.
“I don‟t know. Dad started me and Eric playing when I was four.”
“That was so we wouldn‟t monopolize the entire table,” Eric said.
“So? It improves the mind. And I think the world‟s changing towards education being
“So all you men are going to go off and get educated and finally realize that the solution
to everything is not the sword?” Ann said.
“You might be surprised, Lady, some of the sharper minds are women‟s, though I may get
laughed at for saying it.”
“What would a woman do with knowledge?” Gwyneth said.
“I don‟t know. What do men do with knowledge? Not much, really. Try to improve
people‟s lives?” Michael was at ease with the topic, having debated it once with Edward.
“Oh, really, now. Everyone knows that women have less capacity to reason,” one of the
“Less? Then why are women so good at twisting men around their little fingers? I‟ve
seen it done, and more than once. It‟s not that the men are weak, it‟s that a woman‟s capacity to
reason is just as strong as a man‟s, and they know how to manipulate men,” Michael returned.
Ann smiled slightly.
“No one educates women because they‟re afraid of what women will be able to do with
the knowledge. Sure, some learn to read and write, but that‟s only within the aristocracy.”
“But surely your faith has taught you--”
“Christ did not treat women as less than men,” Father William spoke up.
“Where did he get such intolerant courtiers?” Michael shook his head. “Oh, well. They
don‟t have to stay.”
He took the deep armchair facing the fireplace and settled down into it.
“Hey, I was sitting there,” Eric said.
“I seem to remember debating this before,” Michael said, glancing around the back of the
“Yeah. Constantly until you finally pulled up stakes to wander.”
“And who usually won?”
“That‟s right. We usually got sent to scrub pots for the cook.”
Eric sat down by Ann.
“Oh, well. The alternatives are just as lovely.”
“I wouldn‟t call this chair lovely, Eric,” Michael said. “I don‟t remember; how long
does it take to get from here to Edward‟s capital?”
“Two days,” Eric replied.
“Mm. Looked like a nice stable of horses. I finally figured out why there was such a
money imbalance in the county, too. There‟s an excessive amount in the treasury here. It
won‟t be too hard to fix that.”
Michael glanced at the courtiers, who had protested in unison. The four looked rather
soft to him.
“What, you don‟t mind having people in poverty? I don‟t think it fits well. When the
people are unhappy, eventually they try to get rid of you. I don‟t think I want to wait till that
happens. You all may as well see if there‟s some other nobleman who‟ll take you on in his
court, because I‟m about ready to dismiss you and find some people with common sense.”
“Really, Mike, how long have you been thinking on this?” Eric asked.
“What? I only got it in my head to try about two and a half weeks ago. Why?”
“Because you‟ve always done things on impulse.”
“No,” he said, grinning. “What do you want me to do? Plan out my life? I never was
much good at chess. I don‟t think much in terms of strategy. That‟s your field.”
“Well, here we are again,” Ann said to Gwyneth. “Left out of the conversation. They
should know it‟s a woman‟s favorite past-time.”
“Your favorite past-time, Ann. I prefer sewing,” her sister replied.
“You say enough to those hotheads who come courting.”
“Enough to make sure they don‟t come back,” she said, knotting her thread.
Michael saddled his own horse the next morning, Eric coming down just before he left.
“You‟re sure we can‟t send someone else?”
“If any of Edward‟s knights show up, feed „em and send „em on their way. They may
still be trying for the county.”
“Okay. Good luck, Michael.”
He clasped his brother‟s hand, and Michael mounted.
“I‟ll be back as soon as I can. Take care of the place for me, huh?”
“Right. No parties, no girls, no booze.”
Michael grinned. “Never change, do we?”
He started east on the road, stopping overnight and reaching Edward‟s capital the next
“Michael,” Edward greeted him when he was shown in. “How are you?”
“Fine, sir. Fine.”
“And where did you go this time?”
“Don‟t tell me. You took it back.”
Michael nodded slightly.
“And you came for the title.”
This time Michael grinned.
“How did you manage?”
“I don‟t know.” Michael shrugged. “How do I manage to do anything? But why
didn‟t I know that my father had a brother?”
“He didn‟t,” Edward said, then smiled slightly. “He had a first wife.”
“Wait a minute. Back up. Did this first wife of my father have any kids?”
“Then why has everyone been telling me other things?”
“No one really knows who my parents were, Michael. I came practically out of
“Oh. The ten gold I owe you. And my apology for failing to protect Kelly.” The grin
was off his face.
“I never held it against you, Michael.”
“Oh, good. That‟s a relief.”
“And so you may have the title and lands of County West. But who‟s watching it while
“Eric is still alive?”
“Married, two kids.”
“But really, now, how‟d you get it?”
Over supper, Michael explained the week as best he could. He was, in Edward‟s
opinion, too modest, especially since he was no longer a knight and could brag on himself
without any questions about his honor. And he told him so.
“Edward, I don‟t change, remember? I am as I am. It doesn‟t matter whether I hold the
title of knight or not. I‟ll keep my personality, thank you.”
“Give me your sword.”
“Huh?” He almost said No, then shrugged. “Okay.”
Edward stood and drew the sword.
“Oh, no, I couldn‟t possibly--”
Michael was hastily on his knees, head bowed. One doesn‟t argue with the kingdom‟s
best swordsman when he has a sword drawn.
“Now, I again dub thee Sir Michael, who has more than once proved that in deed and
heart he is a knight, and shall always be. Rise, Knight of the Realm and Count of County
Michael stood. “Now can I have that I back? I promised Dad . . .”
Edward gave his sword back.
“Thanks. Every time I let this out of my sight, my luck changes for the worst.”
He clasped Michael‟s hand. “Good luck, brother,” he said as Michael headed for the
“I‟ll see you ‟round, Edward.”
He rode back to Castle Pareth more slowly than he‟d left it. He was once again a knight,
once again nobility, and felt at ease with his position. There was little left for him to attain in
life--except to run the county smoothly and find a way to get an heir. The latter would take a
wife, and he had no idea where he would find one. He had a rather bad reputation among the
women in County West, and they didn‟t care who you were, they were picky.
Michael entered the castle quietly, watching the guards as they quickly shook themselves
alert. The sight made him smile slightly, knowing that he himself had done the same thing on
more than one occasion during guard duty. He gave his horse to the stable boy and went up to
his room, falling tiredly onto his bed. He was up again quickly, unbuckling his sword belt, and
he hung it on the chair back and repeated the falling.
“Michael,” Eric said, knocking on his door.
“It‟s not even dark yet.”
“I don‟t care.”
“So how was the King?”
“Dad didn‟t have any brothers.”
“Yes he did.”
“No, he didn‟t. Edward said so himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“According to Edward, he just had a first wife.” Michael rolled over.
“You mean . . .”
“According to Edward, we‟re brothers, and I‟m kind of inclined to believe the King.”
“Half-brothers,” Eric corrected.
“So how is everyone here?”
“Why don‟t you come to supper and ask them yourself?”
“What are we having?”
Michael beat him back to the dining room.
“Shut up,” Eric said to Michael‟s grin.
“Hey, anyone can get up for food.”
He sat down at the head of the table, watching his two nephews devouring a chicken
“So how was your trip?” Ann asked.
“Fine.” He was picking through the onions, which he didn‟t like, for the carrots, which
he did. “What‟s been going on?”
“Not much. Word‟s pretty well gotten around that County West is back in the Wests‟
hands, and they seem pretty content with it,” Eric said.
“Did you bring us anything?” his older nephew asked.
“Jake!” his mother admonished.
“Actually,” Michael said, reaching into his pocket. “Nope. I left it in my saddlebags.
I‟ll get it after a bit.”
“You shouldn‟t have gotten them anything,” Eric said.
“Why not? Jerry always brought us stuff; I may‟s well carry on the uncle‟s obligation of
gift-bringing. Besides, it may be a while before I go back to the capital.”
“So what did Edward have to say?”
“Oh, let‟s see. He‟ll hold off on the first year‟s tribute, he wants to come out sometime,
and I‟m too modest.” Michael set his fork down. “So now what?”
“It‟s your castle--isn‟t it?” Eric said.
Michael nodded slightly. He stood, tapping his nephews on the shoulder as he walked
past them. “Com‟on, before it melts.”
Eric winced as the kids ran after him up to his room.
“It‟ll be candy. All Jerry ever brought us was candy. And Michael has a sweet tooth
After about fifteen minutes the kids came back, each with a small sack. Jake handed his
mother another parcel. She opened it, and smiled slightly. She handed Eric and Gwyneth each
a parcel, and opened her own.
“Never trust fools bearing gifts,” Michael said, standing in the doorway. “Just be glad
I‟m an idiot and not a fool.”
He watched them open their gifts--jewelry boxes for the ladies and a flask for his
brother--then went back up to his room. He slept restlessly, not used to a good bed, and finally
got up and walked out onto the castle wall. The sea below, at the foot of the cliff, was wild,
lashing the rocks with its full fury. Clouds were gathering on the horizon, and he could feel a
storm coming. Michael went back inside and downstairs to the kitchen. The cook had gone to
bed, so he went into the pantry and rummaged around until he found an apple. He walked
slowly back up to his room, the night air chilling quickly and the wind beginning to blow. The
rain against the stone eventually lulled him to sleep, but he was awake again at the crack of
“So what‟s eatin‟ you?” Jerry asked as Michael joined him on the wall the next morning.
“Oh, I don‟t know,” he said quietly, leaning out over the emptiness of space to look at the
base of the cliff. “Jesse and I took a boat into one of those caves once. Nearly got ourselves
killed when the tide came in.”
“You might send word to Ireland and see if they want to come back. It‟s just a matter of
time before someone else decides they want County West from you.”
“I‟ll see about sending a courier,” he said. “Why‟d they go to Ireland, anyhow?”
“Your brothers were a bit younger than you when de Montage took over. They were
safer in Ireland than in reach of him.”
“Eric said Erin‟s in Underhame.”
“She is. Happily married, but she is in Underhame.”
“If she‟s happy, I‟ll let her be. But I will let her know she‟s welcome to come visit. I
got a bit of work cut out for me, I guess.”
“Not as much as you might think,” Jerry said. “The county‟s not really in that bad of
shape. But how you can fix what problems there are. . . .” He shook his head.
“Oh, I‟m not worried about that. That‟s easy to work out. The question is, when I‟m
gone, who‟s going to take over for me?”
“You‟re bound to have kids by then,” Jerry said.
“Takes a wife to have kids, and you know that every woman in this county of my age
hates my guts.”
“There‟s no reason you have to limit your search to County West.”
“Let‟s see. Most of this fair realm, the women think I‟m dishonorable because I‟d been
cast from the knighthood--they won‟t care that I‟ve gotten the title back--and they won‟t want
their reputations ruined. In Scotland I‟m a villain, having fought them with Edward. I don‟t
think the Irish would want to send one of their lasses back here, as they don‟t exactly get along
with us. So where‟s left to look?”
“You never know.”
Michael shrugged and went down to breakfast.
“You don‟t look good,” Eric said as he sat down.
“Didn‟t get much sleep,” Michael said. “Haven‟t slept in a good bed for nearly two
years, I couldn‟t get comfortable enough to sleep till the rain started.”
“It rained?” Ann asked.
“Stormed,” Gwyneth replied.
Michael glanced at her, but said nothing.
“Am I right?” she asked.
“You are, Lady,” he said quietly, looking for the salt. “Do you think our four younger
brothers would come back to County West, Eric?” he asked.
“Maybe. Unless they‟re getting to like it there. It‟s beautiful land.”
“And fiercely proud,” Michael said. “An Irishman is not a man to get into a fight
“Do you figure the fighting with Scotland will ever stop?” Ann asked.
“Not likely, for a long time anyway. Some of the Scots are transplanted Irishmen. They
fight with the same fire as their cousins.”
Michael stood and moved to leave when he was done eating, but Eric caught his arm as
he walked past.
“Aren‟t you going to stay and talk?”
“Naw. I‟ve got work.”
He sat down in the library with the financial record, averaging the income and expenses,
and figured, off the previous list of expenses, how much it would take him to run the county and
the castle, then figured up how many years worth of spending money he had in the treasury at the
time. He decided he could get by with fewer, lower taxes, and figured, from the net gold spent
in the county, what kind of sales tax he could get by with alone. Then he figured in the annual
tribute, and came up with a total of a 12 percent sales tax. He averaged this with what the
average person would save without having any other taxes to pay, and decided it would be easier
to just transfer it over to a 12 percent income tax and leave it at that. Michael closed the books,
and looked up to see Gwyneth sewing quietly.
“I‟m sorry, Lady, I didn‟t hear you come in,” he said, standing and taking the books back
to their shelf.
“That‟s quite all right. I don‟t usually try to interrupt people.”
He pulled a book from a shelf on the far side of the library and settled down in the
armchair by the fireplace to read. Eric came in towards lunchtime to call him to lunch.
“I thought you said you had work,” he said upon finding him reading.
“I did. I finished it. Next thing I have to do is write a couple letters, and I rather write
at night. It‟s harder to read by candle light.”
“Anyway, it‟s lunchtime.”
“Oh. In that case . . .”
“So what are you going to do for the solstice?” Eric asked.
“What do you want me to do for the solstice? That‟s a Druidic holiday. I don‟t think
it‟s my place to do anything for it. Of course, it‟s also your birthday, isn‟t it? I don‟t know.
I‟ll think about it later.”
“I must say,” Eric said quietly as Gwyneth left the room, “her feelings towards you are
“That‟s nice. I don‟t think she‟d even think of marrying, and right now I‟m more
interested in finding myself a wife.”
“Wait a while.”
“I do things my way. I‟ll keep looking.”
He didn‟t say much during lunch, and throughout the next week, his life started to settle
down. He rode down alone to Merkley to check on Jan and his family, and to assure Jan that he
wasn‟t at all disappointed that he hadn‟t come to fight with him.
“Still looking?” Eric said when he came back. Michael just shrugged. He set about
with his tax reform the next week, and a few days after that, his brothers arrived. Chaos ensued
for nearly a week until they settled in, and shortly after that, Edward came out to visit County
West. By that time, the people were no longer associating the King with their past poverty,
especially as their financial state continued to improve.
“And how are you?” Edward asked Michael after supper on the last night of his stay.
They had retired to the library for some quiet, for with the four younger Wests at home, the
dinner conversation had gotten quite lively.
“Oh, fine I guess.”
“Don‟t you enjoy being Count?”
“Oh, I like that part fine. But I am human, you know.”
“Why don‟t you say anything to the younger Lady?”
“I don‟t want to make her in any way uncomfortable staying here.”
“Sometimes, Michael, you need to forget that you‟re a knight in ways beside your
“And do what? I don‟t think I can do that as easily as I did when I was younger, after
Dad had first died. That‟s one reason I never had a girlfriend after that. Courted a girl for
about two weeks, she broke it off, and I said some things that made just about every girl, and
now young woman, in this county hate me.”
“How do you think I met Alison? She was my landlady‟s daughter, I saw her every day
for almost six months before we started anything.”
“Your landlady was a duchess.”
“I don‟t know. It‟s not how I‟m used to doing things. If I ever have the nerve to say
anything to her, it may be the last time I see her.”
“From what you told me, the first time you saw her, you couldn‟t keep your eyes off her.”
“And I got myself thrown in prison for it. Besides, what I said to her the first time I met
her was just cynical enough to put her feelings against me.”
“I‟d say they‟ve changed.”
“You and Eric both.”
“Listen to your brothers,” Edward said. “We may just know what we‟re talking about.”
“The older ones, right?”
“Exactly,” Edward said, grinning. “I‟d say the younger ones are a bit nuts.”
“Hey, it runs in the family.”
“I managed to take over the country,” Edward said.
“Yeah, and you run it pretty well too.”
“You‟re not doing badly with the county. And Alison‟s given me another son.”
“Congratulations,” Michael said, pain behind his eyes.
“Michael, you did what your heart told you to when you left Kelly.”
“He‟s the one who told me to go.”
“I‟d guessed as much. He never thought of himself, and the boy knew that he had a
good chance of dying anyway. You saved the army and the war. You also saved my tail.”
“I know,” he said quietly. “I was starting to get kind of attached to him. That‟s all.”
“You and me both.”
Edward and his entourage left the next morning.
“You remember what I told you,” Edward said, clasping Michael‟s hand before he left.
Michael nodded slightly.
“God speed,” he said.
“And good luck to you.”
Michael watched them ride out of sight, then went up on the west wall of the castle,
overlooking the sea.
“It‟s a beautiful view.”
Michael jumped, startled. Gwyneth was standing next to him, and he hadn‟t heard her
“You sure come and go quietly.”
“It‟s an art.”
“Do you know that everyone keeps trying to fix us up?”
“No, I didn‟t,” she said quietly. “I do understand what you meant, though you may not
realize yourself what you said.”
“What‟d I mean?”
“You thought I was beyond your reach--”
“I‟m not an easy person to get along with. Not for a woman, anyway. I had a twin
sister, once, and we understood each other fine. But she was my sister.”
“What happened to her?”
“She was killed when the family lost the castle. She was one of the best archers I‟ve
ever known, too. They killed her with her own bow.”
“Where were you?”
“Out front of the gates, covering Eric‟s back. We didn‟t know they‟d gotten in over the
north wall. Dad fell about five minutes later, tossed me his sword when he saw he was going to
be killed. The Sunstar‟s been in the family as long as Castle Pareth, plus about a hundred
“You were right. I do regret it.”
“No, I am, because I think you‟re just wonderful.”
“Oh, great. You think the guy who killed your father is „wonderful?‟”
“Oh, come on now. You actually expect me to believe that my father would have fought
fair? He forced my mother into marrying him; Ann and I never held much love for him. Fear,
perhaps, for he was cold-hearted, but rarely anything resembling love. He had Mother poisoned
when he thought she might try to leave him.”
“I am sorry.”
“It‟s not your fault.”
“But it causes you pain.”
“Not while you‟re here. Every young fool who came courting me was gushing
romantic rot, and you‟re trying to keep your distance so you won‟t hurt my feelings. You won‟t
hurt my feelings.”
“Are you sure?”
“The King‟s your brother, isn‟t he?”
“I never had any brothers. My cousins were all a bunch of conceited, wormy-type
people. You‟re about the nicest guy I‟ve ever met.”
“You know my brother.”
“Your brother loves my sister. Whom do you love?”
“Right now? I haven‟t made any commitments.”
“I‟d say you‟re probably the closest candidate, though.”
He hadn‟t taken his eyes off the sea since he‟d discovered her there, and she was aware of
“I thought you said you won the right to look at me.”
“It‟s not polite to stare,” he replied.
“You must not have cared much about manners when you first saw me, then, as you
didn‟t take your eyes off me until I left town.”
“How did you know?”
“I was watching you.”
“You were watching me?”
“Why shouldn‟t I have? You resembled my sister‟s husband, I was wondering who you
were. I should have known you would turn out to be another West.”
“And is that good or bad?”
“Fairly good. You had a rather good reputation for your work in Scotland.”
“Oh, that‟s great. I failed to protect my King‟s son.”
“You also saved the King‟s life.”
“You could at least look at me.”
He finally pulled his eyes from the sea and met hers.
“Because I think I love you.”
Michael took a sharp breath and turned back to the sea.
“You don‟t mean that.”
“And how would you know what I‟m feeling?”
“I‟m sorry. It‟s in your eyes, and it‟s not right to question a Lady‟s word.”
“And it‟s in yours.”
“Is it? I usually try to keep it out of sight,” he said, smiling slightly.
“Well, we‟ve been standing up here talking for nearly twenty minutes, they‟ll think
something‟s up if I stay any longer.”
“You could stay all day, I wouldn‟t care what they think is up.”
“Why should I care?”
“They‟re your family . . .”
“Exactly. If I ever went by my brothers‟ opinion of me, I‟d probably be doing
mercenary work in Gaul again.”
“Yeah. Spent about three months down there. Not much different from here, save in
the language and some of the customs.”
“So I guess you aren‟t really interested in me.”
“I‟m plenty interested in you. You‟re an interesting person. You‟re also very
“And you‟re not?” she said. “I‟ve spent the past month trying to decide if you were
interested in me or just being polite.”
“The being polite part was in keeping my distance so as not to scare you.”
“Well, then, you don‟t have to worry about that anymore.”
“Because I‟m not scared of you.”
“You would be if we were married.”
“No, I wouldn‟t.”
“Are you trying to propose to me?”
“I‟ve been trying to figure out how for almost a half an hour now. Plus all last night I
spent staring at the ceiling.”
“Then why don‟t you just spit it out?”
“It‟s not polite to spit,” he said, grinning.
“Then just ask me!”
“Fine. Do you want to marry me?”
“But will you?”
“Now can we go eat lunch?”
“Of course,” she said, smiling at the consistency with which food was on his mind.
He offered her his arm and escorted her down to lunch. Eric had warned his brothers
against saying anything, and two weeks later, they had a peaceful wedding--conducted by Father
William, who was happy to be conducting a wedding and not a funeral.
And as Sir Michael West of Pareth, now Count of County West, stood atop the west wall
with Gwyneth that night, he found that, for the first time in his life, he was content.