Twelfth Moon, 347

"There is a traitor in the camp, you know," Alek Gwilym said, not looking at me, but at the bottle of wine standing tall on the table between us. He studied the graceful shape of the dark green glass as an artist might admire an especially beautiful model. After a long moment during which he satisfied his aesthetic sense, he finally reached for it, blandly intent on satisfying some other senses as well. Touch, in the way his hands closed around the bottle's dusty surface, and smell, once the cork was off and the contents were breathing. Taste would come later. I had little understanding of such ritual for myself, but Alek's obvious enjoyment of the process had taught me to respect it.

I raised one eyebrow when his eyes briefly shifted my way.

"I think he will try to kill you," he added, in the same lazy tone.

"There are always traitors in every camp. They have to kill somebody."

"You should worry about this one, Strahd. You really should."

Having been my fighting comrade for fifteen years, he was more than entitled to use my given name in private. This time, however, it irritated me, perhaps because he managed to work in a slight, patronizing tone as he spoke. I was expected to ask him why I should worry more about this one than any others, but remained silent. Sooner or later, he would tell me. Alek always seemed to know all the gossip worth knowing in the ranks and, despite his coolly amused manner, found it physically impossible to keep anything really interesting to himself.

He reached for the wine and carefully poured some into a gold chalice he'd acquired on a long-ago campaign. The heavy red fumes drifted over to tantalize my own senses. The flavor, I knew, would be ambrosial, but unless I drank it with food I'd have a headache before finishing my second cup.

With eyes closed, Alek sipped slowly, holding a few drops on his tongue to take in all the subtleties of flavor. When the last of it was gone, he opened his eyes again and shot me a chagrined smile. "Anyone else would be demanding explanations from me at sword point, but there you sit like a cat before a mouse hole, waiting for the inevitable to happen."

I said nothing.

The need to share his news finally overcame him. He put his cup on the table and leaned forward, though there was no one within earshot who could have heard him.

"The traitor is a Ba'al Verzi assassin, Strahd," he whispered.

The time for games ended with the utterance of that name. I straightened in my chair, fighting down the burst of rage that wanted to rush out. "Who? Who would dare?' He shook his head. "If I knew, he would be dead by now."

"How did you learn of this?"

"From one of our wounded. He thought he could buy special treatment with the information. Unfortunately, he waited too long and died."

"Lady Ilona can still find a way to speak with him."

"I've already seen to that. She found out no more than what I've been able to tell you now."

"Have him raised."

"That's been tried as well. Once she was aware of the threat to you, she made the preparations and performed the spell." He lifted one hand, palm up.

"Nothing."

"Why not?"

"The very question I put to her. She said he was simply not strong enough to survive the attempt."

Other alternatives came to me, each to be dismissed. Between them, Ilona and Alek would have done everything possible to learn all that they could. "Who else knows of this?"

"No one. Others are being questioned. So far none of them knows anything about an assassin."

"Unless you're the assassin."

"An excellent point, my lord," he said evenly. "And the first one I thought you would consider. But I decided to take the chance and warn you anyway."

A wise thing to do, especially since Ilona would have also told me.

"If you should wish to put me out of the way, though, then please do not relax your vigilance, for I can promise that the Ba'al Verzi will still be out there, waiting for his moment."

Indeed, yes, for deception was the greatest weapon of that particular guild of killers. Once they had operated openly, brazenly, until strict laws and liberal executions forced them into society's shadows. Your oldest friend, your most faithful servant, by the gods, even the mother that bore you could be a Ba'al Verzi. Their ways were a secret among secrets, and should one be hired to kill you... why then, you would die.

Unless you got him first. The Ba'al Verzi were uncannily sportsmanlike about their victims. Should one of their number be caught out and stopped, then the assassination was called off, never to be completed. The target had earned the right to live, and an unworthy assassin had been handily culled from their ranks.

"Why?" I repeated. "The war is over. What enemy could benefit from my death now?"

"The man's exact words were 'beware the Ba'al Verzi, the great traitor who will take all for himself.' I would rather expect the beneficiary would be among your friends... such as you have."

True. A man in my position could not afford to have friends. The art of forming friendships had not been one I'd ever sought to cultivate, anyway. Of all the people I worked with or commanded, Alek Gwilym came the closest to fulfilling that position. By right of battle skills and quick wit he'd earned his own place in the ranks as my second-in-command, no small feat for a man who'd initially joined our forces as a hired mercenary - and a foreigner, to boot. He said his homeland was so far away that the name would have no meaning, so he never bothered to name it. I couldn't honestly say that we really liked one another, but we worked well together, and there was no little respect between us.

"Until he or she is discovered, you can trust no one. I expect that common sense will guide you to include me in that number. I shan't be offended." His thin lips quirked into a smile, and he sat back in his chair again.

"I'm so relieved to hear it," I informed him.

"There's no need for me to remind you what precautions must be taken."

"No," I agreed, and called to the guards standing just outside my tent. Both hustled in with a minimum of noise, waiting for orders. If their instructions puzzled them, they did not show it, being well trained and used to my ways.

While one remained inside, the other went off to roust out two more for duty.

From now on, or until I found the traitor, I would not be alone, waking or sleeping. The Ba'al Verzi were known to strike only when their victim was isolated, their chosen weapon being a special dagger. At least I would not have to worry about being poisoned, smothered, or shot by an arrow or crossbow bolt.

Cold comfort, I thought darkly.

The guard watched over us with a stoic face as our supper was brought in and consumed. He was insurance for us all. If either of them was the assassin, neither could take action for the other's presence. It was a tidy little standoff, but not one I planned to maintain forever.

I was not inclined to think that Alek was the man, not unless he wanted to make things difficult for himself in order to enhance his reputation within the killers' guild. Then again, I was not inclined to take chances, period. On the field of battle it was different: you had a clearly defined enemy to fight, and the blood rage was upon you. But when the battle was over and the political gaming began, caution was the best watchword for survival.

A half-dozen names churned through my mind as we ate and discussed tomorrow's activities as though nothing were wrong. I could assume that, since the Ba'al Verzi would directly benefit from my death, he would be among my inner circle of officers and retainers. Anyone of lesser rank would not have as much to gain from the risk. There was the Dilisnya clan, the Wachters, the Buchvolds, even Gunther Cosco. For each one that came up, I could think of many reasons they should not kill me, balanced by an equal number of reasons they should. Beyond that core were others, and still others beyond them. After a long life of soldiering, I'd made many, many enemies, a bitter return for all my service.

The candles burned low around us, flickering whenever a servant came in with another course of food. Alek's look followed one young woman in particular, and he got a shy answering wink for his trouble. Despite his hard gray eyes and a sharp blade of a nose, which did not flatter his long face, women seemed to find Alek handsome enough. He enjoyed his ladies as thoroughly as he did his wine. In the fifteen years I'd known him, he'd never suffered through a lonely night unless he was too drunk or too battle-tired for such amusements. This night looked to be no different from any other.

When he took his leave to pursue this new conquest, two more guards came in to take his place. I did not inform any of them about my situation. There was no need for the entire camp to know that a Ba'al Verzi was after me. Alek's desire to share his news had been fulfilled; it would go no farther now. Lady Ilona, too, could be trusted to remain discreetly silent.

Could she be the assassin? Very unlikely... but not impossible.

Another problem to consider was that by keeping the guards around me, I was informing the assassin I knew of him. A moot point if he turned out to be Alek or Ilona, a warning to be more cautious if not. I pinched the bridge of my nose wearily. With this kind of worrying I could think myself into circles within circles, ultimately meeting myself along the way. Perhaps that was another Ba'al Verzi strategy: let the victim exhaust himself with suspicion and speculation before striking. The task would be all the easier.

I smiled sourly. The only way to overcome the assassin was to strike first.

Unless he chose to flout the guild's traditions and do something tonight, it was safe enough to indulge in some restorative sleep. The day had been hard, and a more difficult one lay ahead. Just because the battle had been won and a generations-long war was ended did not mean the work was over. There were bodies to bury or burn, spoils to divide, honors to bestow, and a thousand other details awaiting us in the morning.

And so the morn provided. I dragged my aching body from my cot and began the day with a fresh loaf of cheese bread and a hot cup of beef juice drained from yesterday's joint. Gradually, the pains in my limbs began to recede as the rich liquid performed its usual miracle of waking me up. I was in better shape than most men half my age, but that knowledge did not gainsay the fact that I was forty-two years old and growing older. Every day it took longer for the night's stiffness to wear off, longer still on a cold and damp morning like this one.

The charcoal braziers in my tent could do little against the chill and nothing at all against the approach of age.

My barber was sent for, and he silently scraped at my chin and cheeks as the guards watched his every move. Though they'd been given no specifics, they knew something was up. After all, a man getting a shave is in a singularly vulnerable position: head thrown back, neck exposed to a sharp razor. But a razor was a razor, and a knife was a knife. I could trust the Ba'al Verzi would cleave to tradition and so relaxed as usual for this daily necessity.

The bristles that were wiped off on the barber's towel had a gray cast to them.

At least the hair on my head was not yet affected, being thick and black as ever. When the time came for it to go gray, would I resort to some sort of dye to hide it, or simply cease to look into mirrors?

With some disgust, I shrugged off the bout of self-pity even as I shrugged into my fur-lined cloak. Men grow old, I was no different, and there was little point in wasting any thought on the fact.

Flanked by the guards, I emerged from my tent just as the sun broke free of the horizon. Its light flooded the valley and bounced off the high peak beneath which we'd made camp. It shone, too, on the more formidable crags to the north and west. A thousand feet up, perched on a natural and most convenient outcrop of rock, stood the castle. Its high walls of cream-colored stone caught the new sun's rays, reflecting them back like a beacon. For miles around, it was the most visible of landmarks and something of a lodestone for every army that had ever passed through this country.

Its warlord had allied himself on the wrong side during the conflict, and now his head was on a pike near the place where the dead were buried or burned. I'd killed him myself, and though not an easy task, he hadn't been an especially skilled fighter. His talents had lain in bluster and bullying, which were of no use against the strong downswing of a sharp broadsword.

And now his lands and the ruined castle overlooking them were mine, by right of combat and conquest. Today I would enter its walls for the first time and take formal possession.

The camp was already well astir as the cooks and their innumerable helpers worked to get the morning meal ready. Other servants attached to various officers were busy with their chores. I saw them and ignored them, this invisible army that kept my own army afoot. They were part of the normal background of the camp, always there, like one's own heartbeat.

And any one of them could be the Ba'al Verzi in disguise, I thought with a new and entirely unpleasant alertness.

I managed to throw off the feeling. I was as safe as I could be until the assassin was caught. Beneath my outer tunic, I had on a finely worked shirt of chain mail. Heavy, but I'd worn it so much over the years that the weight was noticeable now only when absent. It could be penetrated only by the thinnest blade, and I knew the Ba'al Verzi's traditional weapon would be something more substantial than a slender stabbing dirk. Few had ever seen the assassins' knives and survived, but many knew that the blades were small, with hilts decorated in red, black, and gold. Red stood for the blood the assassins took, black for the darkness of death they brought to their victims, and gold for the payment they accepted for their grim work.

Ah, well, every guild was entitled to its symbolism.

The knives were also said to be magical, which meant that even someone with a less than strong arm could cut deeply into some vital spot and make a kill. I'd studied enough of the Art to take such hearsay very seriously.

High Priestess Lady Ilona Darovnya came striding toward me. A tall, hardy woman in her fifties, she somehow managed to keep the light blue robes of her order clean in the rough-and-ready world of an army camp, as if she were back home in her distant temple. Her long, gray-streaked blond hair was in its usual thick braid over one shoulder. Only by the bruised circles under her eyes could I tell she'd been up all night with the holy brothers and sisters, tending the wounded and dying. We stopped about ten feet from one another and exchanged the expected bows and courtesies that our respective ranks demanded. Only then did she approach close enough to speak quietly.

"Alek told you?" she demanded in her low voice. She rarely raised it, except when singing the songs of her devotions.

"Yes. Have you anything to add?"

"My regret that I was unable to get anything really useful for you."

"Who was he?"

"One of ours. Called himself Vlad, a common enough name. Young fellow, no more than twenty, perhaps younger. Nothing special about him. Looked to be a jumped-up farm lad like a thousand other conscripts."

"Are you sure he was just what he appeared to be?"

"Yes, my lord. When I was trying to call him back... well, there's a feeling you get. You seem to brush against the other's soul. And the feeling I got was that he was no more than what he appeared to be."

"Then I am very curious as to how a young nobody like that should know of a... plot against me." Mindful of the guards, I chose to keep the matter vague. "Do you think he was lying?"

"No. He spoke the truth. I can only guess that he overheard something he shouldn't and passed on the little he knew, hoping for protection."

"Who was his commander?"

She hesitated, looking both unhappy and embarrassed.

"Well?"

"You were, my lord."

If it hadn't been my life at stake I might have laughed. Instead I shrugged it off, making a throw-away gesture with one hand. "If he'd just had the wit to give you something useful, like a name."

"On the other hand, he might have been misinformed or not known it."

"I can't take that chance."

"Perhaps you could."

She weathered my harsh look with no change of expression. My jaw tightened from the effort to hold in some equally harsh words. She took it as a sign to continue.

"You can spend the rest of your life waiting for it to come or run out and meet it and trust me to bring you back again if things go wrong."

"You think your god would grant a miracle to one such as me?"

Her eyes crinkled. She had a nice smile, when she deigned to use it. "Faith makes a miracle and a miracle makes faith," she responded. Members of her order abhorred the slaughter of war, but the truth was that they made many converts from those they helped during such hard times.

"Trying to bring me around, Lady?"

"That will happen when it happens," she answered. "I'm only offering you an alternative to looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life."

"A choice that might not be what it seems, should you be the one."

"I expected to hear that from you, my lord," she said, taking it without insult.

"Decide as you will. There are others besides me who can help you if help is needed."

"The Most High Priest Kir? He's a bit far away to be of much use."

"There are many right here in the camp."

"And all subordinate to you, Lady," I pointed out.

She smiled again, gently giving up with a shake of her head. "Very well." She sighed and fell in beside me, walking back the way she'd come, toward the tents of the wounded. "If I could hate anything, it would be the Ba'al Verzi guild.

They destroy trust, and how can one live without trust?"

I almost argued the point with her, until I thought of my barber again. It was true. I trusted him not to nick me, much less cut my throat. Every moment of the day I trusted all those around me to one degree or another. The Ba'al Verzi could be any of them, and unless I flushed him I would spend all my time waiting, waiting, waiting for him to strike. What pleasure was to be found in that kind of skulking existence? None.

There was work waiting for Ilona when we reached the tents, and she went straight into it, as though the stench of the dying and dead was nothing to her.

Perhaps it was so. She was a dedicated woman with an unshakable faith. Had she worn it like a proud banner as did some others, she'd have been insufferable, but she had no time for such posturing and no patience for those who did.

I left her to it and set a good pace over to where the horses were kept. The grooms stood a little straighter and worked a little harder when they caught sight of me. It was only to be expected, so long as the discipline continued without my inspiring presence. Judging from the condition of the animals in their care, it did.

One of the older men bowed as I approached. "All is ready as you ordered, my lord."

He indicated a number of horses, saddled and waiting. Close by stood their riders; Alek Gwilym stood with them. His eyes flickered as he looked me over, no doubt assuring himself that I hadn't picked up any stray blade points during the night. He was refreshed and ready to go, having a natural resilience for surviving a good victory celebration. Few of the others possessed his gift. Next to him, barely standing, was Ivan Buchvold, who was a better soldier than drinker. Propping him up were his younger brother, Illya, and his brother-in-law, Leo Dilisnya, who also looked worse for wear. All three had proved themselves a dozen times over in battle, so I wasn't going to chide them for their excesses. The morning's ride would sweat the wine from their blood soon enough.

Behind Leo stood his oldest sibling, Reinhold Dilisnya. He was only a few years younger than I, but managed to look much older. His grim face seemed daunting until one learned that it was the result of chronically poor digestion. On his left was his sister's husband, Victor Wachter, on his right, their old family friend, handsome Gunther Cosco. Though the oldest in the group by some ten years, he still cut a dashing figure, but his famous looks were a trifle blurred this morning from too much wine and too little rest.

"Good morning, Lord Strahd," he rumbled, bending slightly forward. The others imitated him.

Could he be the one?

Of course he could, I impatiently answered myself. Alek glanced at me as though he'd somehow heard my thoughts. I ignored him and mounted my horse. The others followed my example, along with their retainers and the rest of our entourage.

We made quite a parade, walking the length of the camp, and even collected a few cheers on our way to the Svalich Road.

Once there, we took the southwest branch, seemingly the wrong direction to get to the castle. The northwest turning looked like a shortcut, but the local guides agreed with our sketchy maps that though it cut off many miles from the journey to the Tser Falls, it also led to a dead end at their base, rather than to the bridge over them.

The road curved and climbed, making a lengthy switchback into this edge of Mount Ghakis. The air grew colder, not warmer, as the morning progressed, and patches of snow became more frequent until they were unbroken. I'd already sent a sizable party ahead of us to secure the castle, and evidence of their previous passage lay clear on the road in the form of churned and frozen mud. Our horses struggled through it, up and up to more rocky ground. This firmer footing had its own slippery hazard from hidden ice, and Gunther's mount nearly threw him off when its hind feet encountered some. He kept hold of his reins and head and even laughed about it later, though a careless fall in these mountains was tantamount to a death sentence.

The morning was almost gone by the time we reached the bridge. A dozen guards had been posted there and made their report of having spent a relatively quiet night. The falls made a very noisy rush, after all, in their nearly six-hundred-foot drop to this end of the valley. I peered over the high parapet of the bridge, taking my first real look at the land, at my land, at Barovia.

Almost directly below was the dead-end trail winding through dense thickets of trees. Except for the pines, the trees were bare and gray from the winter, making this the only time of year one might spot the Gypsy camp by the Tser Pool. Their wagons were gone now, driven far to the east, away from the war.

Locals said that they would doubtless return in the spring. Beyond the campground to the right, I could just glimpse the crossroads where my army quartered. Hundreds of fires sent up thin lines of smoke into the still sky. In the center of the valley sprawled the village of Barovia, neatly cut in two by the Svalich Road. The trees were considerably thinner there, or missing altogether from marked off stretches of cultivated fields and pasture. Though hard to judge now, the land looked to be rich enough to make living here worthwhile.

Days earlier, when the army had marched through the village, the inhabitants had not impressed me much. Dark and stocky, either surly or too anxious to please, but one could hardly find fault with their ill-behavior in wearily trading one ruler for another. My predecessor had been a hard man, but better the devil you know than the one you don't - as Alek had said later, repeating their sentiments to me. I didn't care what they thought, as long as the taxes were collected and promptly turned in.

On my left stood the castle on its high spire of rock, but I couldn't see it from the bridge as an even higher outcrop bulked in between.

Alek Gwilym appeared suddenly at my side. I hadn't heard him because of the falls. I did not quite jump.

"The food is ready, my lord," he announced, shouting over the water's constant roar.

I ate with the men, but silently, watching their faces in vain hope that I might discover a clue. Leo Dilisnya and Illya Buchvold had recovered enough to joke about the previous night's revels. Reinhold listened to his younger brother's bragging with amused tolerance, but Ivan Buchvold barely heard them at all, appearing to be preoccupied with something.

"Your thoughts are very much elsewhere, Ivan," I said.

He jerked and blinked, offering a thin smile. "Yes, my lord."

"Perhaps if you shared them with us they would not distract you so."

"'Tis nothing of any great interest to you, Lord Strahd."

"I will make my own judgment on what I find of interest."

Reinhold looked ready to jump in at that point, but my eye was on his brother-in-law, not him.

"Well, Ivan?"

He offered a sheepish smile. "I was only worried about my poor wife, Gertrude.

She's nearing her time, and I've heard no news of how she is doing."

"Her time?" Perhaps she had some fatal disease, I thought.

Now Reinhold did speak. "He's hoping the brat he got with my sister on his last leave will be a boy, my lord, as if the two fine daughters he has were not enough of a handful to raise."

Family matters. Ivan was right: I had no interest in such things, and they all knew it. But there was another level to discuss, and I went straight to it. "If you have a son, then will you not get an additional share from your father-in-law's estate?"

"Yes, my lord. But that hardly matters to me now. My wife..."

He went on to speak of his dear Gertrude's many virtues and his concern for her continued good health. I quickly lost the thread of his talk. After all the honors and booty he'd picked up on this last campaign, Ivan's disinterest in the Dilisnya estate seemed genuine. Not so for Reinhold, the eldest and the head of the clan for the last two years. He hadn't done as well as he'd hoped during the war. The Dilisnyas were not a small family, what with a brother and two sisters and nearly a dozen offspring to support along with various in-laws, poor relations, servants, and serfs. Among them only Leo had not yet married, probably a wise choice. He was the youngest and thus had the least share in the family fortune.

Reinhold drifted across my thoughts again. Were I to die, control of Barovia would naturally pass to him as the senior officer. A rich prize indeed for a man with the boldness to strike for it.

Except for Gunther and Alek, all the others were related by blood or by marriage. The Dilisnyas had served the Von Zarovich family for generations, but betrayals had happened before and for less cause.

As I watched, Reinhold's face twisted from some inner torment. He passed his half-finished plate of food back to his servant and got up, clutching his stomach. Indigestion, then, not guilt, though I could hardly expect a Ba'al Verzi to possess a mundane vulnerability like guilt.

There is a traitor in the camp, you know.

Alek's words turned my own meal to ashes. I gave my plate back even as had Reinhold and signed for the others to remain seated as I rose.

Reinhold had walked along the road for a little distance. I followed him. I'd left my guards behind. On purpose.

He noticed my approach and nodded companion ably, one hand rubbing his abused stomach. "My lord."

"Seeking solitude, Reinhold?"

"I was thinking a walk might ease the pains."

"You should see Lady Ilona for such trouble."

"She has enough to keep her busy. Besides, what are the cramps in an old soldier's belly compared to the sorely wounded men who really need her help?"

His hand went inside his coat, but he drew out only a small flask. He removed the cork and treated himself to a good swallow. "Medicine," he grimaced. "Catnip and fennel. It cools the fire."

We put some distance between us and the bridge; he paused and pointed. "There, you can see the edge of it, past that mountain."

I looked. One of the outer walls of the castle was just visible, a flash of white against the harsh winter sky.

"Will you live there?"

"That depends on what condition it's in. Old Dorian had the reputation of a pig.

It may be a wreck not worth the salvage."

"True, but he was still a fool to leave it and meet us in the valley. He should have waited for us to come and lay siege to him. One good snowstorm before the season's end this high up and half of us would have frozen to death, with the other half coming down with winter fever."

"Whose side are you on, Reinhold?"

"Yours, my lord, but I can't abide sloppy tactics no matter who's using them.

Why, at this bridge alone he could have held us off for weeks. He might have placed some archers up on those cliffs on the other side and picked us off as we crossed, or rolled boulders down and blocked the road. I wonder what could have possessed him to be such a fool as to discard all his advantages."

"Just be glad that he did."

"Eh? Oh, yes, of course."

Not that Reinhold didn't have an excellent point. My one guess was that Dorian had wanted to go out as a fighter instead of wasting away in his castle like a rat in a hole. A siege can best be survived when you expect relief to come and take the attackers from behind. Dorian was alone and knew it. No help of any kind would come to him, and after his many depredations elsewhere, he could not expect quarter. No one would care to ransom him. He was dead and knew it. Yes, better to die fighting than to swim in your own sweat while waiting for gaunt hunger to take you.

Alek appeared, striding toward us on long legs, one hand on his sword hilt to keep the blade from swinging too much. He didn't look happy, probably thinking that I was taking too much risk, but he said nothing and only told us that everyone was ready to leave.

We resumed our ride at a slightly faster pace. The worst of the climb was behind us, though the land still gradually rose. We made it to a three-way crossroads within an hour. The left-hand branch was the Svalich Road, the right led to the castle. Two more switchbacks, a narrow pass, and it loomed into sight.

Twin towers had been built right at the edge of the mountain, and either would have made a fine keep for any conquering lord. But they were nothing compared to what lay behind them.

It was enormous. Overwhelming. Overpowering. The eye could not take it all in at first.

The curtain wall was nearly fifty feet high, interrupted by squared-off turrets that rose even higher. As massive as these were, they were made small by the round towers of the keep, the tallest soaring three times the height of the curtain wall. I was astonished not only for the sheer size of the structure, but by the unspoken fact that men - mere men - had designed and built such a wonder.

We crossed the drawbridge, which was in reasonably good repair, and marveled at the depth of the chasm it spanned. Ivan Buchvold got only laughter for his trouble when he upbraided young Illya for spitting over the edge.

The front gate was so huge that a giant might have easily passed through it. The man-sized doors beyond the portcullis seemed like something the builder had grafted on as a jest, like making a special entrance in a house for the mice to use. The guards standing at attention before them only added to the illusion, looking like a child's toy soldiers in their puny self-importance.

Passing through a short tunnel and under the portcullis, which was rotted through and useless for defense, we stopped just inside the courtyard for a long look at the keep itself.

"Magnificent," breathed Gunther.

"It's a wreck," Alek muttered.

"You're both right," added Victor Wachter. "It's a magnificent wreck."

Reinhold, who must have noticed I was not amused, told them to be quiet.

Without doubt, the place had seen better days. Trash and offal had collected in the corners of the yard, and where the wild grass could not find root, mud held sway. There was evidence of abuse and neglect, but they were but superficial details. The true lines of the place were strong and beautiful, readily apparent to those with wit enough to really see them. The silent stone walls, the blank windows, the crenelated battlements - above all, the sheer size of the thing - imparted to me a kind of awe such as I'd never felt before in my life.

This was not the rough keep of a mountain warlord, this was the seat of power for a great king... or an emperor.

And it was mine.

Something within my belly shivered and turned over. It was a good feeling, or so it seemed to me just then.

Captain Erig, leader of the party I'd sent ahead, stood at strict attention before the main entrance of the keep. I signed for him and his steward to come forward. With a deep bow, he formally turned possession over to me, and the steward gave up the keys and a hefty scroll with a detailed inventory of the booty the previous occupants had left behind. I gave it a quick look, noting the limited amount of food - another factor in Dorian's suicidal decision, no doubt - then passed it on to Alek. At another signal from me, Reinhold dismounted and took a flat velvet pouch from one bulky saddlebag and gave it to Captain Erig. Grinning, he accepted with another bow before handing it to a young sergeant, who vanished inside the building.

I dismounted as well, feeling stiff after so much riding. The muscles in my back and thighs ached. I ignored them, as usual, and nodded once more to Erig, who raised his hand high.

Behind us a horn was sounded, and those armsmen who were not actually on guard duty hustled into the courtyard. They stood in a half-circle on our left. All eyes were on me.

Drawing my dagger, I switched it to my left hand and held out my right to Reinhold. He removed my glove and pushed up the sleeve until the lower part of my arm was bared.

The chaplain who had accompanied Erig came forward, chanting his prayers under his breath. He held a small gold ewer of wine, which he now poured over the blade of my dagger. This done, he made the sign of his faith over it and stepped back to his place among the men.

I raised the dagger to the sky and brought it level again, pointing it briefly north, east, south, and west, then stabbed it lightly into my right wrist.

"I am Strahd. I am the Land," I said loudly, intoning the ancient epigram. It was part and parcel of the ceremony of possession. The blood welled out, dribbled down my palm, and dripped onto the muddy earth at my feet. "Draw near and witness," I added. "I, Strahd, am the Land."

*****

"Will you stay long, my lord?" asked Erig after the ritual was over.

"We shall stay for the night," I said as the chaplain muttered over my small wound. Because I was looking for it, I saw the faint shimmer between his fingers and my skin. The cut vanished. He used the last of the wine to wash away the remaining blood and wiped it dry with a clean cloth. I thanked him and rolled down my sleeve.

"Very good, my lord. We've been prepared."

Reinhold's unhappy expression was eloquent, but resigned. Yesterday, when I'd made my proposal, he'd asked, "Is it a good idea for all the senior staff to be away from the main camp at this time?"

"What? For the army to be unsupervised, or for us to have only a light guard?" I had countered.

"Both."

"I think the commanders can cope for twenty-four hours without our help, and if they can't, then we'll find new officers. As for our own protection, the enemy are dead or routed. Once the drawbridge is up we'll be more than safe."

My manner had indicated that I would not be argued out of it, so he'd accepted things. I put his present grim state down to the fact that the food was bound to disagree with him again.

Alek wore a similar low face, but for a different reason. He was now worried about the Ba'al Verzi taking this as an opportunity to go to work.

"Risky, my lord," he whispered.

I made no reply.

Erig took us on an initial tour of the keep, and I saw for myself the tremendous amount of repairs that would be needed to make it livable. But while walking through the vast halls and rooms, I resolved that this place had to have more than just the necessities. I would make it a showpiece, not only to restore its former glory, but vastly exceed it. It would be the jewel of the Balinok Mountains, the crown of Barovia, the greatest treasure of all in the long history of the Von Zaroviches.

More than two hours later, dusty and thirsty, we emerged into a neglected garden at the rear of the structure. I usually had a good head for direction, but had lost myself several times and just now regained my inner map sense. The wind had kicked up, cold and relentless, cutting hard into our flesh after the stuffy stillness of the keep's interior. I left the others shuddering in the lee of a doorway, though, and strode to a low gate facing due east. There appeared to be nothing beyond it.

I was almost right. I was on a sturdy stone construction that jutted out some twenty feet from the cliff face. It gave me the odd feeling of floating since there was no visual reference to connect its base to the cliff. I craned out over the edge and was just able to see how its supports arched out from the rock face.

"Beware, my lord," called Alek, coming up to me. There were two red spots high on his cheeks from the lashing wind.

I showed him my teeth in a tight smile and turned away. It was a knife I had to fear, not a push. He stood next to me by the wall.

"It's amazing," he said, finally relaxing enough to appreciate the view.

A thousand feet below, all the valley was spread before us: the army camp, the village, and thick, dark forest to the horizon. The River Mis and the Svalich Road cut roughly parallel paths of silver and brown running east.

"It's mine," I told him.

We heard someone shout behind us and turned. The others were pointing upward.

There was a flash of movement on the tallest tower. Snapping in the wind was the banner that had been passed to Erig's sergeant. My red, black, and white colors had been raised for all to see: Strahd Von Zarovich was now the ruler of this land. "Mine," I repeated.

*****

The evening meal out of the way, we decided to bed down in the same hall since it was the only one with a working fireplace. The other rooms were in such a poor state that their discomfort outweighed anyone's desire for privacy, including mine. This met with Alek's silent approval, and I could see that he would be difficult to get rid of.

The youngest men, Illya and Leo, were too restless to retire yet and had left to do more exploring by lantern light. Ivan, Gunther, and Victor had a dice game going; Reinhold was busy writing letters and rubbing his troubled belly. That left Alek watching me while pretending not to do so. I waited him out, until natural necessity finally compelled him to leave us. Then I stood and stretched and announced I would take a last look around before sleep. This was met with preoccupied grunts and nods, so I simply walked out the door.

Guards were at watch in the hall without. I passed a few words with them, idly and unnecessarily repeating my story, and found the way to the main entrance hall. More guards. It was not easy for one such as me to be alone. Someone was always within call, be it a soldier or servant. The others - and most especially the killer who might be among them - would have a better time of it. All were of a sufficient rank that none of the men would question their movements.

If Alek were the one, then he would wisely refuse to strike. If not, then the real culprit could hardly fail to seize this opportunity - presuming that he was unaware that he was expected.

I walked outside, into the night.

The cold was merciless, but the air was clean and smelled of impending snow. I could see nothing at first, and little more when my eyes adjusted. The sky was heavy with clouds, masking off any helpful moon or starlight. Some lamps burned by the broken portcullis, but those were much too distant to be of any use. I'd have to rely on my ears, not eyes, for any warning.

I turned right, taking it slowly. I was the lord of the castle, after all, and entitled in every sense of the word to enjoy it... even if I couldn't see a damned thing in the murk.

Rounding the corner tower, I heard, or thought I heard, something behind me. I kept going and hoped that it wasn't Alek playing bodyguard again. I sensed rather than saw the high wall ahead that joined the curtain wall to the keep.

There was a wide gate in its center, allowing one to pass through to the servants' court and stables. The portcullis that should have been there was gone. Yet another bit of work for the restoration to come. I walked through and drifted close to the stables in the far corner of the yard. None of the attending grooms who slept near the horses noticed me.

Another turn to the right and a slow stroll through an open gate into the abandoned garden. The ground was firmer here, not as muddy. There were also plenty of alcoves to hide in, formed by the buttresses that supported the outside walls of the chapel. Some movement drew my eye up to the broken windows of that sad, holy place, but the motion did not repeat itself. I put my back to it and walked toward the overlook.

Outside the protecting walls, the wind tore at my cloak as though to steal it away. What warmth I'd hoarded in its folds was instantly dispelled. I cringed from the cold, but refused to let it best me and went to the very edge of the overlook, bumping into the low wall with my knees. Again, I felt as though I were floating, this time in a great sphere of darkness. There was no up or down, no sense of depth or distance, and yet I had the persistent knowledge that both were very great and very dangerous.

A crash. I couldn't tell how far away, though it had to be close or the wind would have obscured the sound. I thought of the chapel windows and the row they'd make if broken out some more. No other noise followed.

My heart pounding hard in my ears. I silently drew my sword and unbuckled the scabbard, letting it slip to the ground. I didn't want it banging into my legs.

Next, I unhooked the throat catch of my cloak and draped its heavy weight over my left arm. The bitter wind still buffeted me, but I no longer felt it.

Within the chapel garden I heard the unmistakable sounds of combat: the ring of metal on metal, grunts, curses. I darted forward, rushing into it.

My eyes were able to see movement in the blackness, but not much more than movement. I could barely make out two or three figures milling about one another. Three, I decided, just as one of them staggered from a blow and lurched right into me.

I tried to dodge him, but he was moving too fast and we both went down. Things got mixed as we each tried to get away from the other. I couldn't bring my sword arm up, only punch at him with my encumbered left. The cloak fell off and entangled him, and I used the respite to find my feet.

Only to be knocked down again. Something hard slammed into my left flank; it sliced through my clothes and scraped against the chain mail. I grappled and seized a flailing arm and twisted it back. The man belonging to it hissed with pain and broke away.

I rolled upright. "Stand where you are!" I roared.

Another voice called a question, but I couldn't make it out. Alek Gwilym's voice interrupted at the same time. He was to my right. He'd been the one that had first run into me, I realized.

"Beware, Strahd!"

Then there was a sharp gurgling cry very close to me, and something heavy dropped right at my feet. It thrashed and choked, then went silent.

"Strahd!"

"Shut up, you fool!" I was trying to hear where the third man had gone. His breathing betrayed him. He was to my right, between me and Alek. I bulled over, but miscalculated the distance and blundered into him. The two of us then fell over Alek, who was yet on the ground, struggling with my cloak. Cursing and punching, I found my feet and bellowed for them to be still or I'd run them both through. That brought instant order to the confusion.

"What's going on?" a fourth man demanded. He came running up from the servant's court gate. It was one of the many guards, and by the grace of the gods, he carried a lantern. He stopped in his tracks at the tableau revealed by his light, but I had no time for his gawking.

"Go to the keep! Fetch the commanders!" I shouted.

Eyebrows climbing, he started to run.

"Leave the light, blast you!"

He all but dropped it and bolted away.

After so much unrelieved darkness, the feeble glow of the lantern seemed like a burst of sunshine. It picked out the huddled figures of Leo Dilisnya and Alek and the very, very still form of Illya Buchvold. I recognized him by his clothes and a shock of blond hair; otherwise his lower face was obscured by some kind of kerchief. I pulled the thing away. It was soaked with blood. His throat had been cut.

I pointed at the body with my sword and looked at Alek and Leo. "Explain."

Leo's teeth were chattering with reaction. "Illya told me... told me you were in danger, my lord."

Alek locked eyes with me. I leaned forward. Leo cowered back, but Alek held him in place with a heavy hand on his shoulder.

"Go on."

"He said there was a Ba'al Verzi after you. That he thought... thought..."

"What?"

"Thought it might be Commander Gwilym."

"Why did you not come to me with this news, then?"

"He only just told me. He wasn't sure. That's why we went off. Then when we came back the others said you'd gone for a walk, and Alek Gwilym had left to go after you, and the guards said you'd gone around the keep, and Illya thought we could cut through to the chapel and head him off by climbing down from the windows."

"What made him think to come to the chapel garden?"

Leo gestured vaguely in the direction of the overlook. "The two of you were there earlier. He thought the assassin might try pushing you from the wall."

And so he might - after first stabbing me. "Alek?"

"I can't tell if this whelp speaks the truth or not, only that the two of them broke out one of the windows and jumped me while I was looking for you." He kept a grip on Leo and, shaking off the cloak, pushed himself to his feet. "So what made you kill the heroic Illya? Hmm?"

The young man was nearly in tears. "When he - when he turned on Lord Strahd. It was so fast. You were knocked away, and then I heard Lord Strahd, and then Illya went for him... and I just knew. He'd lied to me, to everyone, and I knew he was the Ba'al Verzi, and he'd used me to try to kill my lord..."

Now the tears flowed more freely. He was shaking from head to toe with rage and shame.

"I had to stop him," he choked out, impatiently swiping at his face. "He was my kinsman by marriage, but I couldn't let him kill my lord Strahd."

A neat strategy by the assassin: unable to get me alone, he'd have his dupe take care of Alek while he killed me, then murder the dupe to silence him. I strongly suspected the overlook was also meant to be used. Dropped over the edge, it might be days before my slashed and broken body was found. Not even the Most High Priest Kir would have been able to draw me back then.

"Why the mask?"

"Wha - ?"

"The kerchief." Alek pointed to the one I'd left crumpled on Illya's body.

"I don't know. A disguise, perhaps."

"Disguise?" He spat out the word as though it had a bad taste. "What use would that be to him here?"

"Not a disguise, Alek," I said patiently. "We've both been on enough night raids to know how easy it is to pick out a white face in the dark. He used the kerchief to cover himself, just in case a light was inconveniently near. He couldn't smear his face with ashes or mud or it'd give him away later, so he did the next best thing."

"You think he's the one, then?"

"I don't have to think." I pointed to Illya's right hand and brought the lantern close. The lax fingers were loosely wrapped around the hilt of a small but distinctive knife. Red, black, and gold glinted from its bloodstained surface.

The edge looked uncommonly sharp. I gingerly plucked it up.

"Is it truly one of their blades?"

I had to be sure for myself. Putting my sword down, I concentrated on the knife, holding it flat on my palm. With my free hand, I traced out a sigil in the air above it and said a word of power. Faint at first, the blade began to pulse with a lurid green glow that grew strong and steady until we were all bathed in it, shadowless and colorless. Like ghosts.

Leo's pupils shrank to pinpricks. He made the protective sign of his faith and flinched back against Alek. I wasn't certain if he feared the magicked blade or the fact that I knew how to raise and reveal it.

The others displayed similar reactions of honest horror once they arrived and the story was shared. Ivan Buchvold all but collapsed after receiving the double blow that not only was his young brother dead, but he had also been a Ba'al Verzi assassin.

"Impossible," he said, over and over. "How could it be? It must be impossible."

But the truth was there for him to see, and a later search of Illya's belongings turned up the knife's special sheath. Such things were made from the skin of the killer's first victim, and this one proved to follow guild tradition down to the last gruesome detail.

For now, though, everyone was in some form of shock or other. The others from the news of the traitor, and I from the drain of magic, or so I thought until I bent down to retrieve my sword. My sight flickered and I swayed, dizzy for a moment. Alek, ever watchful, noticed.

"You're bleeding, my lord," he said, pointing to the hand that held the knife.

I hadn't known that I'd cut myself, nor could I feel it yet. Not a bad wound, but bad enough. The seepage ran black down the glowing blade and dripped onto the ground.

"Cast it away, my lord. It's too dangerous to keep. Unlucky."

"I think not. The Ba'al Verzi failed, didn't he? I'd say that makes it very lucky for me. What's said to be unlucky is sheathing it without drawing blood... and that's taken care of itself."

"But, my lord, there's your side as well."

I looked down at what I thought to be a mere bruise. Illya had struck hard at me in the fight, I now remembered. His special knife had not only scraped the chain mail, but had sliced right through it. Cold air blasted against the warm blood oozing from the gash there.

"A scratch, Alek, nothing more. I've had worse on the practice field." I switched the knife - carefully - to my other hand and held the bleeding one out from my body. The blood fell freely onto the bare, dead earth of the garden. "I am Strahd. I am the Land," I said, repeating the ancient epigram. "Draw near and witness. I, Strahd, am the Land."

No one moved. Except for Ivan, whose head was bowed over his dead brother, they stared at me, looking as though the breath had turned to ice in their lungs.

Alek, the most hedonistic and least pious of the lot, joined them in making the protective sign of the faith.

***

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