Well, we seem to be getting down to the last of it. Some time ago I said I'd tell anyone reading this when we reached the time I'm actually living in, but we're not at that point yet. It's true we're almost there, but there are still some things that have happened which I haven't mentioned as yet. I wonder if I'll ever have the chance to put down the very last of it…

No, it isn't a good idea to borrow trouble, not when you have enough of it that already belongs to you. I'm sure you remember that the others and I had finally managed to free some of the Highs and strong Middles who were being used in the empire's army, and that they helped us to defeat the two hundred guardsmen sent after us by the falsely Seated Five. That was a clear and definite victory, which was followed almost immediately with the news that the people of Astinda had finally managed to put together an army of their own - and that army was defeating and destroying ours.

I, personally, had no idea what to do about the situation, but happily my groupmates had no doubts. The Astindan army seemed to be headed for the border between our two countries, intent on destroying our countryside and people the same way theirs had been done. Turn about is usually considered fair play, but in this instance it would hardly be the nobility, the ones who were responsible for the death and destruction done in Astinda, who would pay with their property and lives. Ignorant, innocent people would be the victims, and there was no one to warn them but us and our new allies. Not to mention getting ourselves out of the path of the avenging army, which outnumbered us ten to one…

And then, of course, there were the personal problems, between me and Vallant Ro and between Vallant and Alsin Meerk. They were small and feeble compared to the rest of what was going on, but it didn't seem like that at the time. For a while it had almost been a game, but then the game stopped being amusing…



CHAPTER ONE



Rion Mardimil rode next to his beloved Naran, extremely relieved that she showed no signs of strain over the haste of their journey. Or no signs that the rest of them didn't show. They'd been on the move for the last day with very little rest, fleeing ahead of the oncoming Astindan host. Lorand was in the lead, that being his part of the country, and he assured everyone that they were almost to the district which had once been his home. Privately, Rion thought Lorand didn't look especially happy over that, but the people had to be warned and their own group could hardly ride from hamlet to hamlet shouting the danger. It would be up to the - Widdertown, was it? - people to pass along the news of imminent attack, and then their own group would be free to continue on in returning to Gan Garee.

Naran gave him a sweet, passing smile which he returned, then she went back to studying the countryside they rode through. The horses of the attacking guardsmen had done well for completing the mounting of their entire force, and those horses the guardsmen had abandoned on the way - the ones which survived having been ridden into the ground, at any rate - were being taken up as they were passed. Having spare mounts never hurt, even though no one but their own rode with them.

Rion took a deep breath, still wondering if the fate of the officers and "prods" who had savaged their new allies should disturb him more than it did. The higher officers had all been nobles, of course, and Jovvi had told him and the rest of their groupmates that they'd been incapable of believing they'd be harmed right up to the very end. But that end had been sufficiently long and drawn out to make them believe, not to mention being painful. Their former victims had been badly savaged, and their vengeance had been completely in keeping with what had been done to them.

And Rion had found himself grimly pleased to hear the screams and suffering of those so-called nobles. Considering the fact that he'd spent most of his life thinking of himself as one of them, his actual enjoyment of their suffering had startled him. He should have been highly incensed over peasants treating their betters that way, but the fact was he didn't perceive his current allies as being inferior. To the contrary, he'd discovered that in most ways they were superior to the lazy, pampered drones he'd once considered his peers. It was no longer unthinkable to feel regret that he wasn't truly one of those he'd formerly thought of as useless peasants…

"Rion, my love, has Jovvi made any suggestions about what might be done to restore peace between Vallant and Alsin?" Naran asked abruptly in a soft voice, pulling Rion back to the present. "The difficulty between them seems to increase with their very breathing, and if something isn't done there will be a terrible confrontation that none of us will want to witness."

"We all fear the same outcome, my love, but so far Jovvi hasn't said anything," Rion responded, Naran's disturbance affecting him at once. "I'm still not quite clear about how there can be trouble between them over Tamrissa, not when one considers the bond between our two groupmates. Have I missed seeing the obvious again?"

"Yes, and it's one of the most charming things about you," Naran said with shining eyes and a gay laugh, and then her amusement faded. "For some reason Vallant seems to have decided to have nothing more to do with Tamrissa, although anyone with eyes can see that his heart will never belong to any other woman. She, for her part, made an effort to dissuade Alsin's interest in her, but his having noticed Vallant's distance caused her efforts to be wasted. Alsin committed himself to courting her, and Vallant decided to interfere with that intention - without changing his own stance in the least."

"Oh, dear," Rion said with brows high, sounding to himself a good deal like Jovvi. "Is he truly saying that he refuses to become involved with Tamrissa himself, but also refuses to allow any other man to become involved?"

"I'm afraid so," Naran agreed with her own sigh. "What Tamrissa's thoughts must be like is something I don't care to dwell on, but that's actually only a part of the problem. After Vallant and Alsin had words, Vallant began to … take over leadership of our efforts, I suppose you could say. Alsin expected to be consulted, since he is supposed to be our strategist, but Vallant isn't doing any consulting. Alsin is now feeling even more like an outcast than ever."

"I'm sure his being a strong Middle rather than a High isn't helping in the least," Rion said, now understanding the glares sent in Vallant's direction by Alsin. "They're both used to being leaders and they both want the same woman; if there are any worse subjects they can disagree about, I can't think of them."

"They don't need any other subjects of disagreement," Naran assured him. "The two they have are two too many, and they really are heading for a terrible showdown if something isn't done. Do you think you might speak to Jovvi and tell her that, and possibly even help to devise something to do?"

"I'll be glad to speak to Jovvi," Rion said, suddenly disturbed in an odd way. "In point of fact you could speak to her yourself, since the others really do consider you one of us. Naran… Why are you hesitating to speak your own thoughts? Since you seem so absolutely certain, I'm surprised that you hesitate. Do you believe that Jovvi or one of the others would dismiss what you said?"

"Oh, no, my love, of course not," Naran hastened to assure him, the earnestness in her eyes entirely unfeigned. "The others are wonderful and have accepted me fully, but… I suppose you could say I'm too shy to speak up myself. At times I've been forced to by the circumstances we were in the midst of, but now… I'll just be happier letting you do my speaking for me."

"Certainly, my love, I'll be glad to take care of it," Rion said, reaching over to pat her hand as he smiled. "Anything within my power to make you happy, I think you know that."

She returned his smile and briefly clasped his hand, and then they returned to paying attention to where they rode. Rion felt a great deal of relief, as he would have been extremely unhappy if anyone had made Naran feel less than completely welcome and one of them. Even though, in all truth, she wasn't…

* * *

Lorand looked around as he led the rather large column of former army or potential army people directly toward Widdertown. He was currently in the midst of trying to decide whether to be happy or bothered that he was almost home, but so far hadn't had much luck in making up his mind.

Now that they had left Astinda behind and were back across the border into the empire, there were healthy, cultivated fields to either side of the road. The devastation caused by their army was no longer visible, and despite its being only a few miles behind them, hadn't been visible since they'd crossed back. The nobles had obviously not wanted anyone in the empire really knowing what the army was doing, and so they'd disguised their efforts in the place, close to the border, where they would be most easily seen. Now, that disguising would certainly work against their own group.

"Lorand, would you like to tell me what's disturbing you?" Jovvi asked suddenly from where she rode beside him, the words gentle and encouraging. "If I can possibly be of help, it would give me a great deal of pleasure to do it."

"I know that, love, but I don't think anyone can help," he replied with a sigh that was part exasperation. "My own mind refuses to stick to the subject bothering me most, so trying to discuss it will probably turn into a conversation about the weather. Do you really want to talk about the weather?"

"If it helps to make you feel better, why not?" she countered with a merry grin. "And it's a rather pretty day, so how can we go wrong?"

"I'm afraid we already have," Lorand told her ruefully. "It's a pretty day right now, but in a few hours we'll be in the middle of a chain of thunderstorms. I just hope we can find some shelter before then…"

"So that's what's bothering you," she said softly as they cantered along. "You aren't sure what sort of reception we'll get in your home town. Just because there were harsh words between you and your father before you left, why do you believe everyone else will be just as hostile?"

"The people of Widdertown … don't take to strangers very readily," Lorand answered slowly and reluctantly, feeling as though he betrayed his former neighbors by saying that to someone who wasn't one of them. "They're … a small, tightly knit community with … beliefs and opinions they think everyone should have. They won't enjoy having this horde descending on them, and might not even believe us."

"Lorand, I ache for the hurt you're feeling, but if they decide not to believe us, whatever happens to them won't be our fault." Jovvi now spoke firmly and slowly, as though she sought to make him believe. "That means it certainly won't be your fault either, even if they fail to survive. When you're dealing with supposedly responsible adults, you can't make their decisions for them. Anyone who refuses to take a warning seriously can't complain about what happens to them afterward."

"Intellectually I know that," Lorand agreed glumly. "If we were anywhere else I would be saying the same exact thing, but we don't happen to be anywhere else. We're in the place where I grew up and where my family lives. The idea of them ending up the way so many people we've come across lately have is just too-"

He shook his head, knowing it would be impossible to find the right word to describe his emotions. Everyone in the Widdertown area was not like his father, but they did share too many of his attitudes. The idea of not convincing them of the danger terrified him, but it seemed to be beyond him to come up with something that would guarantee success.

Jovvi reached over to touch his arm with clear sympathy and support, and then she let the subject drop. Obviously she'd noticed that discussing the problem was making things worse for him rather than better, and so had left him to his writhing thoughts. But he couldn't bear his thoughts any longer, so he gave his attention to the fields and farmsteads they passed. Everything was alive and thriving and humming with the joy of growth and health, and he refused to think about how soon all of that might end.

It was late afternoon when Widdertown finally lay directly in front of them, with too-familiar neighborhoods safely behind them. There were now farm wagons on the road heading for the same destination, and Lorand realized that luck might be with them. He'd lately lost track of time and days, but the only time the men of the farms came into Widdertown at the end of the day was just before week's end. That would mean that most of the farmers would be there to hear what they had to say, without anyone needing to go and fetch them. And considering the looks they'd gotten from the men in the wagons, word of their arrival would certainly not take its time spreading.

The streets of Widdertown held many more men than women, the women naturally at home preparing the evening meal. Everyone stopped to stare uneasily at their column, pointing at them and muttering to those who stood staring with them. Some also began to follow at a small distance, right into the town square, the place Lorand had decided would be best. The general alarm hung there, and once they reached it he dismounted. Taking up the hammer that was never touched unless a real, true emergency came up, Lorand struck the suspended circle of metal, sending out the harsh and clanging echoes that meant everyone was to come.

By the time Lorand put the hammer down again, everyone who had heard the alarm had come running. Confusion reigned as the newcomers slowed their run to add their stares to those already in the square, and then Ravis Grund finally made his appearance. Ravis was the man who ran things in Widdertown, but not because the farmers and townies had agreed that he should. Lorand had never stopped to wonder why a man who was wealthy only in comparison to most of the people in the district ran things, but now he believed he knew. Ravis Grund was probably the agent of whichever noble claimed the district as private property, and ran it for them as an overseer of sorts.

"Who's causing all this commotion?" Ravis demanded as he made his portly way through the crowds, mopping his brow as he came. "Lorand Coll, is that you, boy? What are you doing back here with that scraggly-looking lot? And what do you mean by ringing the alarm? You're in deep trouble now, boy-"

"That's enough, Ravis," Lorand interrupted, more than annoyed by the man's attitude. "I'm not the one in trouble, and if you had an ounce of common sense you would have asked why I rang the alarm, not decided in advance that I couldn't have had a reason. How much do you know about what the empire's army has been doing in Astinda?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, boy," Ravis denied at once, his gaze shifting furtively to the townspeople around them. Lorand hadn't spoken softly, and everyone but Ravis looked disturbed and confused and had begun to mutter. "The empire doesn't have an army, and even if they did it would be none of your business. Now you take these raggedy drifters and-"

"So you do know all about it," Lorand said with a satisfied nod for the obvious lie, again interrupting the fool. "I'm sure your owners told you, but you never saw fit to pass on the information. With that being the case, I'll do it for you right now, because the information is vital. The empire has more than one army, but the one which has been devastating Astinda is the one everyone needs to hear about. Astinda has finally put together its own army, and its been destroying all our forces in its path without any trouble. Now that army is heading for the border, and it should be here in much too short a time. The Astindans have obviously decided to return some of the destruction empire forces have caused in their country, and Widdertown lies directly in their path."

A chaos of alarm and shock broke out in the crowd, sustained and encouraged by the fact that Ravis had gone pale and terrified. He'd waxed extremely indignant when Lorand had spoken about his "owners," but now indignation had given way to fear.

"You see?" Lorand shouted over the hubbub, pointing toward Ravis. "If any of you doubt what I said, just take a good look at the man who assured you a minute ago that the empire doesn't have an army. He works for the nobles who bleed you dry and treat you like slaves, so his actions are always in their best interests. Now he's willing to let you all die, destroyed under the heels of an avenging army, just to keep his owners' secrets."

"Stop sayin' that!" Ravis screamed, his country accent coming back with the hysteria. "I don't have no 'owners,' I'm a free man! They have owners and they know it, but I don't!"

"Too bad we can't say nothin' to deny that," Idroy Welt, one of the district's biggest farmers, said with barely hidden venom. "Those nobles own us body and spirit, an' leave us with almost nothin' to raise our families on. Are we supposta die for them now?"

"Ain't you takin' whut the boy said with a real big grain a salt?" another voice put in, that of Mollit Feldin, another large-acreage farmer standing at the front of the crowd. "I knowed Lorand there since he been a pint-sized hellion, an' everythin's always real important if he's in the middle a it. Looks like nothin's changed since he growed, an' I don't fancy runnin' off on just his say-so. If the rest a you think on it, you'll see thet whut he says ain't real likely."

This time the muttering of the crowd was in support of what Mollit had said, the voice of reason drowning out the voice of warning. The fact that they'd known him all his life was one of the biggest problems, as no one wants to believe the lie of a possible practical joker and thereby make himself look foolish. Add that to their very understandable reluctance to accept the possibility of their being about to lose everything, and control of the situation was abruptly taken right out of Lorand's hands.

"I've never seen a bigger bunch of damn' fools in my life," Vallant said suddenly and loudly from where he now stood beside Lorand. "They'd rather believe the lies of that fat toady who steals from them in the name of the nobles, so why bother arguin'? It's their lives, not ours, so let's go on to another town where there might be fewer fools."

Everyone took umbrage at that and anger rose in shouts, but the voice of Idroy Welt rose above the rest. Idroy was a big man, hard and tough and respected by his neighbors even if they didn't like him very much, and his booming tone drowned out most of theirs.

"Let's everybody calm right down," he said, looking around in all directions. "This ain't somethin' to believe or not believe right off the bat. Let's invite these here folk to the meetin' hall where we c'n all sit down and hear what they gotta say, an' then we c'n talk about it. Don't know if the meetin' hall's big enough to hold all a them, though… Let's show 'em hospitality an' take care a their mounts too, an' then some of 'em can come to the meetin' hall. By then most everybody oughta be in town."

Mollit Feldin tried to say it was a waste of time and food and effort, but happily the rest of the men there were more inclined to agree with Idroy. They weren't happy about any part of the situation, but at least they were willing to listen. What happened afterward was still up in the air, but at least they'd get fed and their horses would also be fed and rested.

So then, if they were asked to leave after the meeting, there would be nothing but Lorand's memories and regrets hovering in their path out of there…