Sixth Moon, 348

"Does this pigsty have a name, Alek?"

"Renika, my lord." It was deemed a wise policy to allow the rabble at least one good look at their new lord before civil rule was turned over to the boyars, and while I hadn't stopped at every village in Barovia, our tour of inspection had certainly covered quite a number of them. This portion of my duties was always highly abhorrent to me - I would almost have preferred to be digging ditches since the various discomforts of that task were comparable - except that we were also collecting the taxes, a benefit that no man working with a pick could ever hope to gain from his labor.

"Get on with it, then."

Alek and the two trumpeters kicked their horses to a faster pace, while I and the rest of the party continued more slowly. The men and mounts were tired, it was late in the afternoon, and this was our fourth stop today. I wasn't planning to spend the night, though, having discovered it was safer and healthier to camp on the open road, away from troublesome rats (and other village vermin), not to mention the wisdom of keeping a goodly distance between my men and the nearest tavern. I wanted this business done as quickly as possible, and any delays traced to overindulgence in the local brews was not something I was prepared to tolerate.

The horns sounded ahead of us, announcing my approach to the village. Alek had yet to lose his amusement for the work; perhaps it had to do with the fact that no matter where we went or how isolated the hamlet, the locals never failed to exhibit utterly identical behavior. First fear, then cautious curiosity, and finally emergence from the frail shelter of their homes to offer greetings. One and all, without exception, the people had managed to gather a gaggle of brats to present bouquets of flowers to me. I accepted their weeds, but that was as far as I cared to take it. If the mothers expected me to reward their offspring with a kiss or a copper, then they would just have to live with the disappointment. I'd been forced to do many terrible things in the name of duty, but one must draw the line somewhere.

Renika had apparently long known of our coming. This time, Barovia's ubiquitous wildflowers had been strung into garlands that ran from house to house all along their main street. More were strewn in our path, and a virtual rain of petals were dropped on us from the upper stories. Several musicians were thumping and puffing out something resembling a popular marching song, no doubt to honor my exploits as a soldier. Everyone had donned his or her best clothes; some of them even wore shoes.

A tiny girl, still a novice to walking, was urged in my direction, clutching her bouquet in one miniature fist. She tottered forward in her painfully clean smock, just managing not to fall over. I bent low, swept the flowers away from her, and held them high, nodding to the cheering crowd. There were actually enough people here to form a crowd. The revenue promised to be better than average.

The girl remained where she was, looking undecided, ultimately sticking a green-stained thumb into her mouth. Her mother darted up to grab her out of the way so I could dismount. In turn, one of the trumpeters relieved me of the flowers so I could face the burgomaster unencumbered. It's difficult to put on a properly stern face while so frivolously burdened. Alek was of the opinion that that was the purpose behind such presentations: to place the visiting dignitary at a disadvantage by the subtle diminishment of his dignity.

The burgomaster launched into the usual speech of greeting and wish for my continued good health and wise rule. These preambles always concluded with an invitation to some meal or other, which I never failed to politely refuse. Had I accepted all of them, I'd have had more stomach problems than Reinhold Dilisnya.

"And now, Lord Strahd, I humbly beg your permission to allow us to honor you by letting Renika be the first village to celebrate that blessed event that ultimately brought you to this, our beloved Barovia."

What? I thought. Dorian's depredations?

"Indeed, with your permission, I would like to be so bold as to propose that the great day be made into a national holiday to be marked by all from one end of the land to the other."

"What are you talking about, Burgomaster?"

"I beg leave to allow your grateful subjects the honor of celebrating your birthday, my lord." He finished with a flourish of his arms, which signaled to the crowd to start cheering again. When the noise finally subsided, the broadly smiling man gradually became aware that I was not at all amused.

"I find it interesting, Burgomaster, that you wish to celebrate a day that means I am yet another year closer to my death."

His face went blank with utter shock. "Oh, no, my lord! That is the last thing I - we wish to do!"

"Then we are in accord, as it is also the last thing I wish to do."

Nonplussed, he blinked his eyes rapidly as his mind attempted to adjust to this unexpected turn.

"The taxes, Burgomaster," I prompted, reminding him of the purpose of my visit.

In a gratifyingly brief time, a small wooden box with iron banding was produced and offered to my clerk of the exchequer. He unfolded his portable counting table and immediately got down to work. Chosen for his speed and expertise, he soon finished and made his report.

"Too short, my lord," he concluded.

Nothing new there, the taxes were always less than expected.

"Much too short," he added, significantly.

I fixed my eye on the burgomaster. "Explain."

"It's been a very difficult year, your lordship. The war has drained us... the harvests have been lean... there's been a lot of sickness..." Some of the crowd nodded their vague agreement to his excuses.

"And yet you wear a very excellent gold chain around your neck."

"Part of the office, my lord, it's really the property of the village."

"And enough fine wool on your back to clothe a whole family. Those buttons are pure silver, are they not?"

"An inheritance from a wealthy, but sadly deceased, relative - "

"And which of these humble hovels is your home?"

Sensing that this was not going to be a good day for him after all, he hesitantly pointed with a trembling finger, though I could have spotted it a mile away. Looking very new and freshly whitewashed, the bold structure stood out from the rest of the buildings like an overdressed woman surrounded by her drab servants.

"Th - the public nature of my office requires that I maintain a certain standard of living, making it necessary that I - "

"Peculate on a regular basis?" suggested Alek.

"Eh?"

"Steal the public and his lordship blind?" he bellowed in his ear.

The crowd watched silently, their pinched faces and worn bodies proof of a hard life of scant food and little or no respite from their labor. This must have been rare entertainment for them: they seemed all but nailed in place.

"Alek," I said quietly.

With the clerk and some armsmen, he strode to and thrust open the door of the burgomaster's house. Things were so still that we clearly heard the squawks of outrage and fear coming from within. Soon a scullery boy and several servant women dodged and hustled into the street. I was strongly reminded of the sort of confusion one finds in a hen yard while attempting to chase down the evening's meal.

Alek came out last and commented, "Does well for himself."

The burgomaster was sweating freely now. A dozen feet away you could smell the fear oozing from him.

The clerk emerged not long after. He and the armsmen carried a number of scrolls - the tax records of Renika - which were gone through one by one. To the illiterate rabble, it must have seemed like some sort of magical rite. I glimpsed more than one of them making a sign against the evil eye in the clerk's direction.

"Much too short, my lord," he repeated. "Did it gradually over the years, but it shows up badly when compared to his predecessor's collections."

"But those were better times," the burgomaster protested.

"I've accounted for the drop in population, its recovery, and the years with bad weather, scant crops, and the recent war. Still too short."

"Perhaps out of compassion for your people, you simply lowered the taxes to ease their burdens," I murmured.

He wasn't quite stupid enough to fall into that trap. He did not instantly agree with me and glanced nervously at the silent, very silent crowd. He'd get no sympathy from that lot.

"Lord Strahd, I... I admit that I may have made some mistakes in my sums. I'm not as skilled with numbers as was my father, but I shall gladly make up the difference, whatever it may be."

I raised an eyebrow at the clerk.

"Clothes off," he ordered.

The burgomaster blinked some more, confused by the incongruity for a moment, then his face lighted up with understanding. "Yes, yes, of course." The compensation would begin with his own rich wardrobe.

He whipped off his gold chain of office and gave it to the clerk, then his brightly dyed cloak, then his waistcoat with the silver buttons. The clothes were heaped one by one on the table until he was down to his last garment, which the clerk told him to retain for purposes of decency. The man shivered as the summer air hit the sweat covering his pale body. He looked ridiculous, but pathetically grateful. He was more than willing to suffer some little humiliation rather than the traditional fate of a thief: the sudden removal of one of his hands.

Of course, that was the old law. I was running things now.

"On your belly," said the clerk.

The burgomaster winced and spread himself flat, probably expecting a whipping at this point. I might have ordered one, had I thought it would do any good, but this object lesson was for the people, not the thief.

The clerk turned to the armsmen. "Tatra."

The one so named stepped forward. He wasn't a large man, but had exceptionally strong arms, a good eye, and no objection to the work. As he crossed over, he quietly drew his sword. Some of the peasants saw what was coming; mothers clutched their infants and hid their own eyes, other people leaned in for a better look. No one said a single word by way of warning. Possibly they knew the futility of it; more likely they knew better than to risk trying.

It was over very quickly, raising a collective gasp from the crowd since it is something of a shock to see how far the blood spurts when a head is expertly severed. Tatra grabbed it up by the hair before it could roll away and held it high so everyone could see. The burgomaster, if one could judge anything from his last mortal expression - which was one of pensive worry - never knew what hit him.

Now I cleared my throat. All eyes, save two, came round to me.

"I expect my subjects to be honest in their dealings with each other, but most especially with me. The taxes will be collected and turned in each year - all of them. No excuses."

There was no need to ask if they understood; it was very obvious that they did.

"You are free to choose a new Burgomaster according to whatever custom you follow. Make sure you pick an honest one, or we'll have to go through all this again next year."

A few people, perhaps potential candidates for the office, gulped, looking unhappy.

"My collector will be back in one week. You will have that long to correct your records and make up the amount that this dolt withheld for himself over the years. Be ready."

The point made and the show over, we mounted up and rode away without further ceremony.

"That makes four out of four today," remarked Alek. "This is becoming monotonous."

"I've always thought as much."

"But this one did stand out from the rest with that birthday business."

"More like a death day, for him at least."

"Shows imagination, though."

"Didn't help him, though."

"Agreed, my lord." He brushed some stray flower petals from his shoulders and hair.

"Does the next pigsty have a name?"

"Jarvinak, my lord."

"How far?"

"Three or four miles, no more." He checked the progress of the westering sun.

"There's time. Shall we try for five out of five?"

I squinted at that bright orb myself and shrugged. "Why not?"

Fourth Moon, 350 "Lord Sergei's party is on the final approach to the guardhouses, your lordship," one of the footmen puffed out, breathless from his run up the stairs.

"Very well."

That did not give me much time to get to the front courtyard. Of course, I could just slip out my bedroom window, tie a rope to one of the crenelations, and rappel down the wall. That only took a few seconds, as Alek and I had discovered while practicing the sport last summer with the castle guards. On the other hand, I was in my best dress clothes, which were designed for show, not agility, and the sight of me in even a controlled fifty-foot drop over the side of the keep would alarm the guests and compromise my dignity. It would not do to let people know I was overly anxious about anything, especially not this event.

Instead, I quickly made my way to the spiral stairs just off my private dining room and skimmed down to the main floor.

Once the regular flow of gold and goods from taxation had been re-established, the restoration of the castle proceeded with considerable speed. Artisans, carpenters, masons, and others with the necessary skills had turned up like dogs at a feast, ready for whatever scraps might come their way. I fully exploited their combined talents, using them to turn the castle into the showpiece that I'd envisioned on that first day over three years ago. In the end, the final result exceeded the vision as each expert sought to outdo the work of the others. But some adjustments between beauty and practicality had to be made, hence the difficulty of getting anywhere quickly. It was still a castle, ostensibly designed for defense, and what eased the passage for the inhabitants would certainly aid the invader. (One result of this was that I rarely, if ever, had a hot meal. I was told that the master cook and one of the remaining engineers were working on the problem.) Alek and a few others of my entourage were waiting in the great entry for me.

All came to attention at my appearance. Some wore armor, others were in their robes of office, most were bedecked with the glitter of gems and gold in medals and badges that represented their lives' accomplishments. Next to them I must have cut something of a stark figure in my plain black garments. It was the best quality fabric, though, and contrasted well with a blinding white silk vest and shirt, both with buttons of true pearl. Carefully knotted below my chin was a neckcloth of the same blood red as the great Von Zarovich ruby that flashed from my breast.

Another footman rushed in. I arched an eyebrow, giving him permission to speak.

"Lord Sergei is crossing the drawbridge, your lordship."

At a nod from me he vanished and the party fell into line: Alek Gwilym at my left, Lady Ilona Darovnya on my right. Their retainers and my own sorted themselves, and I led the way through the massive doors of the entry. The timing had worked out after all; Sergei's banner bearers were just emerging from under the portcullis. They separated, one to each side, trailed by others who merged into place with my own honor guard. The implied symbolism must have been quite satisfying to those present. Alek, now steward in charge of the castle defense, had arranged an excellent show.

A constant rumble and roll of drums filled the courtyard now, quickening the heart. The lighter voices of pipes joined them just as Sergei rode through the gate. I felt the eyes of the gathered crowd shifting between us, hoping perhaps to gain some insight to our inner feelings at this historic moment.

With Sergei, the insights must have been easy.

Even from a distance, one could see each emotion flashing over his face, like summer light and storm clouds on a mountain side. He was blessed with the strong Von Zarovich features of black hair, high cheeks, and a tough jaw, but these were markedly softened by the Van Roeyen side of the family. He had Mother's warm blue eyes. By the gods, but he was a handsome man, an opinion very obviously shared by all the young, and not a few of the older, female members of the court and staff.

As he rode closer, more and more heads turned from him to me. Comparing. I endured it, for there was nothing else to be done. It was no less than I'd expected: I was doing it myself.

Younger, much more handsome, open and smiling - everything that I was not - Sergei reined his horse and dismounted.

I was taller, I noted.

He marched forward, sweeping off his hat and gracefully dropped to one knee, a bare step short of our party. I took up that step and placed my right hand on his shoulder. He looked up then and smiled directly at me, happy, guileless, and brimming full of that which I'd long ago learned to interpret as hero-worship.

That was unexpected. To have it coming from a stranger was one thing, but receiving it from my own brother - even a brother I had never met - was quite something else again.

Sergei placed his right hand upon my own and recited in a clear voice the words of greeting, followed by a pledge of faith and service required by custom when siblings of rank formally face each other. I made my response and Sergei rose again, then we embraced. Witnesses to the ceremony could hold themselves in no longer and began to spontaneously cheer.

*****

"Who would have thought such a thing could finally come to pass?" my youngest brother confided to me some hours later.

Introductions by the dozens, feasting, and endless talk and questions had yet to dampen his enthusiasm or energy. He looked as fresh as midsummer dawn.

"Our parents?" I suggested.

His smile faltered, then turned into a laugh. He laughed very easily. It might have been irritating had it been for effect, or to cover up an insecurity, but in truth, it was the result of a free and innocent heart, a lightness of the soul that I had inevitably lost in my years of war and slaughter.

"I meant that we should finally meet after all this time," he said.

"We're hardly strangers."

"Oh, but reading a letter just isn't the same. 'Dear Brother: Today I went hunting,' or 'The apple crop failed,' or 'A storm knocked down many trees.' That's not how you get to know a person. You must've grown weary reading of such news from me while you were away."

"No soldier ever wearies of receiving letters from home. The smallest detail was always of great interest to me and kept my memories from fading. I am in your debt and only sorry that I did not have as much time to reply as I would have liked."

"Oh, but we understood, all of us. You had your duties to consider, and unless you gave them your full attention... well, the wrong side might have won the war.

We missed you terribly, especially Mother, but we knew that you were needed more elsewhere. No other commander could have done so well as you."

Possibly not, I thought. But my passion for war and obedience to duty had swept me from the home of my childhood, never to return. I had not seen my younger brother Sturm grow up, or been there for Sergei's birth or for any of a thousand other joys that a man might take from the heart of his family. I had not even been able to attend the burial of our parents, four years past. Their deaths had occurred during the height of a particularly close and bitter campaign, and I could not be spared. I'd yet to see their graves. In some part of my mind, they were still alive as I'd last seen them three decades ago; Sergei's presence had driven home the fact that this was not true.

"I wish she could have seen this place," he said, now speaking of our mother.

"It would have made her very happy to see what beauty you've wrought here and that you named it after her... well, I suppose she might have burst from the pride and honor of it all."

"Ravenloft for Ravenia Van Roeyen," I said. I remembered her ink-black hair and the pride and sorrow in her blue eyes when I went off to war. Sergei took after her quite a lot, not so much in exact looks, for our father was certainly in him, but in mannerisms and patterns of speech. At times I could almost hear a ghost of her voice in his own when he spoke. "A pity you were not able to come in time for the naming ceremony. Lady Ilona would have been glad of your assistance."

"I don't know if my help would have been proper, though, since I'm not yet ordained, and that won't happen until Most High Priest Kir passes on - which won't be for years and years, I'm sure. I've letters for you from him, by the way, and for Lady Ilona as well."

"How is the young whelp?"

Sergei was made a touch uncomfortable by my addressing Kir in such an offhand manner. I'd felt the same way about my teachers, once.

"Still trying to look old enough to suit his office?" I added.

He surrendered into a grin, threw his head against the back of his chair, and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. "I'd forgotten he was just a child when you first left for the wars. Yes, yes, he still works at looking older. He's grown quite a beard and that seems to help. No one dares to show him any disrespect in class, though, or he metes out something worse than rapped knuckles."

"And what did you end up doing?"

Sergei's jaw sagged at this bit of insight from me. He was chagrined and amused all at once. "Conjugating a hundred verbs for three different languages." He sipped at his wine and lifted the cup slightly in my direction. "Mow, what about you? Did his predecessor ever punish you?"

"Old Zarak? He once put me to holystoning the floor of the classroom."

"Not really!"

"Yes, really! Said I needed more humility or some such rot. I don't know if it humbled me or not, but he got a very clean floor for his trouble. I did pay better attention in class after that."

"I just can't see you doing it, Strahd."

"Apparently Zarak could. Took a week before I could straighten my back and knees properly."

Sergei laughed again. Responding to it, even I managed to raise a brief smile to the memory of the boy I'd once been. The boy who was gone forever.

I looked at my brother across the table, where we'd shared our first private meal together, and saw myself in him, myself as I should have been. Not that I begrudged Sergei his own life, but that mine had been all but used up, sacrificed to the demands of duty and obligation. When possible, the eldest child always went into soldiering, the second administered the estates, and the third was consecrated to the service of the gods. Such binding tradition could be broken, but when one is raised to it and knows nothing else, one has little chance to discover until too late that there are other things in life.

I looked at Sergei and felt a hot surge of anger for my lost years and envy for all those that lay before him. Yet, I could not hate him. He was bound by tradition as well. Indeed, as I had before him, he'd no intention of breaking with it. He was pledged to the church of our god and glad of the fact. The anger eventually cooled into a kind of pity for his blindness. Someday, perhaps, he would come to understand how he'd been manipulated and feel as I felt now.

"Is anything wrong, Brother?" he asked, concerned by my change of manner and long silence.

It was pointless to try explaining it to him. He was just too young.

*****

Sergei's sword came down with deadly speed. I barely blocked it with the flat of my blade and at the last instant, preventing him from chopping me in half the long way.

He was strong but also knew when to break off, which he now did and thus avoided the thrust of my parrying dagger into his guts. He danced back, assumed a guard position I was unfamiliar with, and grinned like a young wolf. A less experienced fighter might have charged in, but I held away, studying him. He was prepared for an upper body attack, but only from the front; the positioning of his feet was too awkward for a really fast turn.

I attacked his left flank, changed it to a feint at the last second, and dived to his right. As I'd hoped, he wasn't able to cover himself. I ducked under his guard, slammed his sword arm back with my own, and stopped with my dagger pressed lightly against the center point of his stomach, just below his breastbone. A single sharp move would send it right up into his heart.

He saw and grinned again, nodding his surrender. We stepped apart and bowed to one another as the applause began.

So this is what it's come to, I thought, twenty-five years of battle training so I can entertain the court peacocks.

I was being unfair: our audience mostly comprised soldiers who had served with me. Their response rankled because they had probably seen that Sergei's defeat had been a very near thing. I was conscious of my hard breathing and the sweat running from my face like rain. Sergei still looked fairly fresh, and only a few minutes passed before he asked Alek to spar with him next.

His challenge was readily accepted. Alek was lean and fast, but cautious. He refused several openings Sergei offered; their first minute dragged as they tried various feints and dodges on each other. Sergei then tried a feint-feint-attack, but Alek read it correctly and countered, working both sword and dagger as the expert he was. In the years since he'd ceased to be my second-in-command and become castle steward, he'd not allowed himself to grow soft. Perhaps there was nothing more for him to do now than to keep the guards in shape and to dally with the chambermaids, but he worked his body in practice combat every day as if his life still depended on it. And it showed.

A lightning quick parry, feint with the dagger, and a return cut - Alek stopped with his blade just touching Sergei's middle.

"I've much to learn," Sergei said, unable to give up his smile.

"You're doing as well as any of my fighters and better than most, my lord."

Judging from the renewed applause, the others agreed with him.

"Perhaps one day I shall be half as good as my brother, and then perhaps I may count myself worthy of being a warrior," he said, bowing to me.

I returned the bow. It was expected of me. As flattering as any of the peacocks, but he'd been sincere. On the other hand, it was easy for me to interpret his true meaning as mockery. Surely he knew just how close he'd come to defeating me. In a few weeks, especially if he took training from Alek, he would be the best fighter in Barovia.

The sparring games had been going on since early morning, and now the sun was just beginning to clear the curtain wall of the courtyard. It was too soon for the midday meal, but I ordered the footmen to have a table loaded with food standing ready. After a series of matches, we were always ravenous. While Sergei and the others reviewed their moves and style, I strolled over and wiped at my sweat with a serving cloth, then eased my thirst with iced wine liberally diluted by water. This high up in the Balinoks, having ice the year round was hardly the luxury it was in the lower, more temperate areas to the south, but I still found it so and enjoyed it.

"My Lord Strand!" came a woman's voice.

I finished my long drink and handed the cup to a waiting servant. The woman who'd just approached me was not immediately familiar, nor was she dressed for court show. Her motley clothes were dusty, and her eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep.

"Falov, isn't it?" I vaguely recalled that she'd been one of the many junior lieutenants in my command. Like the rest, she'd been mustered out to either settle in Barovia or return home. From the sheepskin vest she wore over her mail shirt, I concluded she'd chosen to remain in the new land and supervise flocks instead of soldiers.

She bowed. "Yes, my lord. Forgive me for coming unannounced - "

"Never mind that. What's the trouble?"

"Bandits, my lord."

"Bandits. So?" The mountains were full of them. Hardly impressive news. My men often made forays into their strongholds in much the same way the rat catchers worked their trade at the castle. One could never hope to entirely stamp out the vermin, but it reduced their numbers and kept them in line.

"It's a large group, my lord... led by Red Lukas."

Now that did catch my attention. The renegade had been a troublemaker for over two years, flouting my laws with his murders and thefts. "You're certain?"

"Aye, my lord. I saw him myself. No one else around here has such a head of hair. Like fire it was."

"Where?"

"Not half a day's ride from here."

"Ah, but where will he be now?"

"The same place, I'm sure. I have some men keeping him under watch, but we're not enough to attack. We were hoping your lordship could spare some troops to help us take him."

"Take him? I've no intention of releasing troops to take him, Falov - "

Her mouth opened, then snapped shut on whatever protest she might have had.

"But I will go myself to see to his execution."

Her disappointment changed to elation almost as soon as the words left my lips.

"Thank you, Lord Strahd." She didn't question whether such a clean-up job was beneath my station, as would some others of the court. Having once been a soldier herself, she could readily understand my interest in running headlong into what promised to be a good fight.

"It's like sending a giant to smash a roach," said Alek when I outlined the situation to him a few minutes later.

"It takes a nimble giant to strike so small a target," I returned. "This is hardly a midsummer flower festival. We're going after Red Lukas."

"Who is he?" asked Sergei.

Alek filled him in on a few details of the bandit's most recent crimes, which included the slaughter of at least fifty people in a farming village. The few survivors had claimed he'd decided not to burn it because others would eventually move in and provide him with more such sport the following year. My little brother was righteously horrified and asked to come along. He whooped in a most undignified way when I said yes.

"Do you remember being that eager for blood?" Alek asked as we walked back to the keep to get ready for the expedition.

"I still am, Commander. Can you not tell?"

He glanced at me, his pale, hard eyes going bright with amusement as they locked briefly upon mine. "Yes, my lord. Now that you mention it, I can. Let's hope that Red Lukas has his affairs in order."

The cold meats laid out for the sparring gamesters were hastily packed for the journey. Within an hour, we were geared up and cantering through the pass on our way to the northwest branch of the Svalich Road.

*****

Red Lukas had chosen an excellent lair. On this shoulder of Mount Ghakis, he commanded a wide view of the road and valley below and had all of the town of Vallaki in sight. Any sortie from that direction could be spotted in plenty of time for him and his followers to either prepare a defense or hide. The land was more than rugged at this point, and once off the road a horseman was at a tremendous disadvantage.

"It's beautiful," observed Sergei. He'd entered Barovia from the east and had not yet seen this portion of the country. We were high above Lake Zarovich, which I'd renamed in honor of my father. Looming beyond it, with snow heavily cloaking its flanks and peak, was Mount Baratok. The angle was just right for its every detail to be reflected in the quiet surface of the lake.

Alek Gwilym ignored the scenery and peered ahead and to the left. "How far?"

"A mile as the crow flies," Falov answered, keeping her voice low.

"And as the soldier stumbles?"

"Two."

"They're closer than that to us. I can smell 'em."

We'd seen nothing since leaving our horses with Falov's people and posting the main body of troops in a stand of trees just off the road. The air was so still that any sound would carry for a considerable distance; we dared not bring the troops closer, lest the bandits be alerted.

"More than that," said Falov. "Listen."

"I don't hear anything," Sergei whispered.

"Aye, my lord. When the birds grow silent, there's usually a good reason for it."

My instincts told me it was too late for stealth. Along with the others, I drew my sword.

And only just in time.

Screaming and roaring, they burst out from their cover and fell upon us like white-hot vengeance. Alek was the closest and the first to be attacked, but managed to parry and counter. After that I lost track of him: I had troubles of my own.

Sparring practice has about as much resemblance to field combat as a sculpture has to its subject. It may look the same, but one is cold stone and the other alive and moving and reacting to you. The two men who picked me out for quarry had some battle experience, but were undisciplined. I'd rather face a well-trained soldier than such amateurs, for the latter could often be dangerously unpredictable.

The one on my left charged in first, perhaps thinking it was my weaker side. I got my blade up, moved it so his slid down its length, and before he could break away, got him between the ribs with my parrying dagger. It did not sink in as deeply as it should have, nor was I able to wrest it out for another try. He must have had mail on under his coat; worse, he didn't seem to be aware he'd been stabbed.

His partner crashed into me, knocking me over. I felt my breath go as one of his knees dug into my gut, but he'd left himself open. Even without air I was able to smash the pommel of my sword into his face. I felt bones give under the blow, and his nose spouted blood.

The first man, my dagger sticking absurdly from his side, raised his blade to bring it down on my head. With the other man on top of me, I could not possibly dodge it. Desperate, I grabbed his friend by the clothes and pulled hard, dragging him between us like a shield. The sword buried itself into the wrong skull, as far as both opponents were concerned. Not a pleasant sound, that, but better hearing it happen to another than to me.

My shield's body collapsed onto mine; I was still struggling for breath. He lent a whole new meaning to the term "dead weight." Pushing and grunting, I surged up and heaved him off, shoving him hopefully in the direction of the other man.

Alas, he wasn't where I'd thought, and the ploy was a wasted effort.

Something hit my side. Damn, but it was almost in the same spot where the Ba'al Verzi had gotten me. More lost breath, but I swung around, keeping my blade up to protect my head. Good thing, too, for his return swipe would have otherwise taken it right off. I blocked it and cut forward and down, finally winging one of his shoulders.

He'd had enough and turned to run.

Honor has no place in this type of fight. One might as well question whether it is more honorable to kill a roach while it's holding still or wait until it's moving. But the fact is, a roach is a roach, and the object is simply to kill it. Five running steps and I'd caught up with this two-legged specimen. On the sixth step he was at my feet, firmly skewered in the back and shuddering out the last of his life. I didn't waste time watching him, but pulled out the blade, retrieved my dagger from his side, and turned to help the others.

Alek was nowhere in sight. Sergei had killed one man and was busy circling with another. Falov was on her knees, face white, and clutching her arm. Her attacker was on his back with a knife in his throat and not doing much of anything.

"Damn," said Falov, and fumbled for a horn dangling from her belt. She just managed to sound it, giving the signal for the rest of the men to come ahead.

Better late than never.

"Where's Commander Gwilym?"

Falov pointed ahead down the road. She winced, and I understood that she'd been wounded as well, but not badly. Sergei was still holding his own; actually, he looked like he was toying with the man. I left him to it and rushed away to find Alek.

I found another body instead. The road made a sharp turn, the outer shoulder marked by whitewashed rocks. This was necessary since the land dropped away beyond them. The man was dead from a sword cut - there are few other weapons that make just that sort of wound - but neither the blade that killed him nor Alek was anywhere to be found. There was no blood on the bandit's sword, hopefully meaning my steward was yet unharmed.

The tracks, such as they were, were too confusing to read well. Dust and grass were churned up, right to the base of the rocks. No other tracks led away up the road, Alek must have... I looked over the edge and found him, lying spread-eagle on his back on a rocky shelf that slanted just like a roof. He'd slid part way to its edge and was within a heartbeat of sliding farther. It wouldn't have taken much: just beyond his feet the angle turned to a true vertical, dropping hard away. I couldn't see the bottom.

"I've got you," I said and fell to my belly, my arms hanging down toward him.

"No, don't look up, I'll come to you."

His slight movement caused him to slip away by a handsbreadth. "Don't," he said between clenched teeth.

I didn't bother arguing, just inched toward him. My feet were hooked over the rocks above. Pebbles tumbled ahead of me, lodging in Alek's hair.

"Don't, Strahd," he whispered. "I'll drag you down, too."

My fingers closed on his wrist. Now for the other one.

The ground under him shifted. He slipped down a little more. I tightened my grip. "Don't move, damn you."

He didn't, but the earth was not as obedient to my will. A piece of it dropped away below his boot heels. Some seconds later we heard a distant crash as it struck whatever lay below. He muttered something, a prayer, perhaps, and went still as a corpse. Useless. He slid a bit more and I went with him. My ankles and my arm were feeling the strain of holding our combined weight, and my head felt heavy and swollen from the rush of blood between my ears.

"Let... me go," he breathed.

I gripped all the harder. I didn't dare yell for help. Our balance was so precarious that anything could upset it.

"Let me die alone, Strahd."

"No."

"I've no wish to kill you, my lord."

"Shut up."

Another slip. My gloves were sodden with sweat. I couldn't feel my fingers grasping anymore. I felt only the pain in my legs, spine, and neck. My shoulders... The rock my feet were hooked over loosened. Just a little. It sent a reaction all down my body and on to Alek. He dropped another sickening inch. All I could hear was his strained breath and the faraway tick of pebbles that had shot out from the edge and landed far below us.

Slowly, his free hand crept over to his waist. It moved as if it were detached from him, unable to affect the rest of his body by the change of position. His fingers spread and closed upon a second knife in its sheath on his belt.

"No, Alek."

"Better me alone than both of us."

Sweat blurred my vision for a moment. When it cleared again, Alek had drawn the knife and was bringing it up. All he had to do was stab my hand, and I'd have to release him.

"You would draw my blood, Commander?"

"Only a drop or two if it spares the rest, my lord."

"I forbid it."

"Then I must disobey."

"Alek, do that, and I'll go over regardless. I swear it."

"You must not." But he hesitated, which was what I wanted.

The rasp of breath, my heart thudding so fast that it might burst from my chest, my muscles stretched so far as to part from the bones, the bones themselves ready to crack, but I had to hold onto him just a little longer.

"Strahd!" Sergei's voice. Hoarse, shocked, afraid.

"Grab my legs, boy!"

Sergei obeyed. I felt him strongly seize my ankles and set himself. At the same time I was able to tighten my hold on Alek's wrist.

"Climb up or die." I told him.

Alek chose to climb. More earth broke and crumbled beneath him when he rolled over, but he gained enough purchase with his knees to thrust himself up and catch my belt. His weight dragged at me. My face was shoved into the ground for a moment, then he was suddenly gone. I heard Sergei grunt with effort and felt myself being pulled back from the abyss. A second later and the three of us were sitting safe on the road, dazed and panting like dogs in the sun.

*****

"It's not that I planned it, my lord, but the lowborn pig flipped me like a skillet cake, and over I went. I was expecting him to poke his head over the edge to finish me off any moment, until you appeared."

"You finished him yourself," I said, pointing to one of the bodies my armsmen had laid out on the narrow verge opposite us.

Alek regarded me with a hard eye. He said a lot of things with that look, mostly reproach for putting myself at risk to save him, combined with gratitude for doing it anyway. My only reply was to quirk my brows and shrug.

I'd retained a third of the men for guard and sent the rest up the mountain to look for more of Red Lukas's bandits. They'd probably be up there the whole night searching, but the exercise would do them good.

Falov was having her wound tended; she wouldn't be using her sword arm for a few weeks, but the gash should heal cleanly. My own wasn't serious. This time the blade had not been magical, and my mail had taken most of the force of the cut.

The man I'd killed had not been so fortunate in his choice of armorer. In serious combat, it always pays to have the best quality protection possible.

Sergei was busy questioning the one prisoner we had. He'd succeeded in knocking out the fellow I'd seen him fighting; the man was recovered, but predictably uncooperative.

"We can leave him for Lady Ilona," I said. "I'm sure she can get him to talk."

"I'd as soon not let him within ten feet of her, Strahd, not unless he's chained head to foot."

"Be assured, that's exactly how he will be presented."

The man snarled something obscene about Lady Ilona, drawing a black frown from my brother. Sergei stepped forward as if to strike him, but checked himself, forcibly relaxing the fist he'd made.

"Why not go ahead?" I asked him. I wanted to do it myself, but was too tired to move just yet.

"He's hardly more than an animal," he said. "He can't be expected to understand such things, and beating him will hardly put him in a mood to learn."

"Kir's done a good job of teaching you, then. And it's just the sort of thing Lady Ilona would have said herself, had she been here."

Sergei turned, giving me a grateful look. "Thank you, Brother." He had truly wanted to pulp the man and felt bad at having so natural an urge. The particular dilemma of when and if one should use force always seemed to plague the soldier-priests, making me glad I'd been limited to fighting. To struggle with such moral puzzles had no appeal for me whatsoever.

"There's no need to take him in for questioning, my Lord Strahd," said Falov, walking over to us, her arm in a sling.

"Why is that? You know who he is?"

"I think so. Take off that hood he's got tied on so tight, and we'll all know for sure."

Sergei signed to one of the men, who pulled off the prisoner's head-covering. It was matted down with dirt and sweat, but the hair beneath was fiery as an autumn sunset.

"Red Lukas himself," said Alek. "And you captured him alive." He looked at Sergei with new respect.

Sergei seemed more startled than triumphant. The word quickly spread among the rest of the men, and Sergei became the focus of some back-slapping congratulations for several moments. Though it was not seemly for a noble of his rank to be so treated, I said nothing. Sometimes it's better for morale to allow a certain limited familiarity. This was one of those times.

"What's to be done with him?" asked Falov.

"Immediate execution," I said.

That startled Sergei. "But I thought he was to be questioned first."

"All we were going to ask him was the location of Red Lukas. Since we have the answer, I'll waste no more time on him."

"But the customs, the laws - "

"I am the law here," I reminded him. "If you have any other objections to make, I suggest you carry them to the surviving victims of that village he wiped out."

Sergei glanced back at Lukas, who spat in our direction. It fell short.

"Alek, if you've recovered yourself, please see to things. Falov, can you entrust some of your people to carry the news around? We'll put the proof in something to preserve it for them, and they can be off tomorrow."

"My lord, I would be most happy to go with them myself. I don't need two arms to sit a mountain pony."

"Excellent. Be sure to take it through Vallaki and that village I mentioned so the people may see."

"See what?" Sergei asked.

"Red Lukas," said Alek. "Or at least his head pickled in vinegar."

"You're planning to parade him all around the country like... ? That's barbaric."

I sighed. Sergei was proving to be something of a novice to the art of enforcing domestic order. "It's necessary, Brother. Not only do potential murderers and thieves see the penalty for their crimes, but the common folk are made aware that there is one less criminal for them to fear. I think they will rest the easier for having undisputed proof that Red Lukas is dead, and parading his head through the streets is the best means I know to accomplish that."

Sergei, as I'd expected, had nothing more to say on the subject, although it was clear he was not exactly pleased with the demands of the situation. His sort of compassion was well placed for a priest, but a ruler cannot afford to be so indulgent.

It's just as well, I thought, that he's destined to be ordained.

***

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