"The Warrior"

By James Berardinelli

    Some days, it felt good to be alive. This was one of those. Using the back of a gloved hand, Vagrum wiped the still-warm blood from his face. His opponents, all three of them, lay dead at his feet. Had they coordinated their attacks, they might have brought him down but he was too big, too ferocious, and too skilled for their haphazard approach to beat him. Today, victory belonged to him and the rest of the boys from Obis. Now it was time to collect his pension and marry his girl. They had been waiting for this day for what seemed like ages.

    According to what they had been told during an abbreviated briefing, this was the largest and most organized bandit encampment in the whole of the North - big enough to threaten some of the smaller settlements outside the city's immediate environs and a definite danger to merchant caravans traveling the Great East-West road from Syre to Obis. No more, however. Fifty of Obis' best soldiers had been more than a match for the two hundred bandits. Vagrum's company had lost perhaps ten men. The bandits had been utterly routed with about half their number dead and the rest scattered. Eventually, they would regroup. In another half-year or so, King Rangarak would have to send out another band of "Bandit Killers." After six years in the service, this was Vagrum's last confrontation. He had given enough of himself to the army, losing an eye and most of one ear and gaining a mass of scars. The time had come for him to settle down. He was going to build a house for himself and Justine and sell his sword arm to her village to earn his keep.

    "Ain't gonna be the same without you, Vagrum," said Dauphin, one of his closest friends. They had been through thick and thin together over the years. The bond of comradeship between them had been fired in battle, sealed by blood.

    "Reckon you'll be takin' your pension soon," said Vagrum.

    "Aye, there's truth in that. Ain't gonna stay up here in the freezing North like you, though. I got my sights set on Vantok. Paradise in the South, they call it. They say the women down there are just as willing as the ones in Syre but you don't hafta wear your boots to bed at night to ward off the cold."

    "My girl's up here and she don't wanna head South." It was unfortunate, though. Justine was in fragile health - always had been - and Vagrum thought the warmer climate would agree with her. But she wouldn't consider leaving the village where she had been born and raised. Her parents were dead but her brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and grandda were all there.

    "She might say that now, but waddabout in the middle of the Winter, when the snow's piled up to the top of her head?"

    The same thought had occurred to Vagrum. He liked the North during the latter weeks of Planting, through all of Summer, and much of Harvest, but Winter was another thing. Many times in the past, he had headed for the warmer climes of the lower farming villages when the air turned cold. No longer, it seemed. Justine didn't like traveling and she was wed to the idea of staying where her family was. It was her only condition for marrying him.

    "I'll miss you, Crags," said Dauphin.

    "Same here." There wasn't much more to be said. They'd had some good times together - at least a dozen campaigns, and not all of them on a battlefield. Vagrum recalled one epic night when they visited as many taverns and brothels as time and stamina would allow, each trying to outdo the other drinking and whoring. In the end, Vagrum won out - he was stouter and taller than Dauphin and could hold his liquor better. But times like those were better left in the past. In return for imparting wisdom, age stole away stamina. He was ready to start a new chapter in life.

    Vagrum was a mountain of a man - a big, brawny brawler who had earned the nickname "Crags" as much as for his scarred, rugged features as for the size of his body. In a social setting, he was intimidating. Even friends didn't like arguing with him. In a fight, however, he was fearless and his presence sent many a foe into full flight. The Iron King of Obis, Rangarak, acknowledged few of his soldiers by name but Vagrum was an exception. His reputation was known far and wide across the North. His enemies would rejoice in the news of his retirement. The village to which he was headed, a remote place called Ostabel, would gain a formidable protector.

    A fortnight later, with a full coin purse containing his pension and "a little extra" for all his hard work (a rarity for a skinflint like Rangarak), Vagrum was on the road to Ostabel, one of several dozen small, hardy communities that dotted the countryside north of the East-West road. At this time of the year, with Planting about to give way to Summer, it was a lovely place to visit but, as the days grew shorter later in the year, living in Ostabel was more about survival than the enjoyment of life.

    He had known Justine for four years, having met and fallen in love with her when she was 13 and he was twice that. Odd that after all the women he had bedded, this girl had captured him. He'd never understand the workings of the heart, but that's how the gods intended it. Justine's relations had forbidden a marriage until she reached her Maturity and their wedded bliss was delayed for another two years beyond that to allow Vagrum to finish his contract with Obis. He made sure to visit her several times each year and, while she was no beauty by conventional standards, Vagrum never lost interest. Every Winter, he worried about her. She was physically frail; according to her grandda, that had always been the case.

    She greeted him as she always did, running barefoot like a hare across the fields to leap on him and wrap her arms and legs around his bulk. He enfolded her in a bear's hug and planted a chaste kiss on her forehead. She would have none of that and forced his lips down until they met his. Vagrum glanced around nervously. There didn't seem to be anyone in sight but one never knew who might be watching in a place like this and laws of conduct for unmarried couples were exceedingly strict even when the two were past Maturity and promised to one another. It was much different here than in any of the big cities. There, fucking was just something that happened like eating, sleeping, and pissing. In isolated places like Ostabel, where sex invariably led to children, it was elevated to something of importance.

    There was one task Vagrum had to complete before he could marry Justine: build his own home. Everyone assured him that, for someone of his immense strength and stamina, that wouldn't be a problem but he had no idea where to begin. Ever since before his Maturity, when he grew up in orphanages in Syre and Obis, he had been groomed as a warrior. He could kill a man with almost any weapon and was especially proficient with the sword, the axe, and the longbow. But building a cottage? No task in his life had been more challenging to the big man.

    The first and most important decision was whether to use stone or timber for the building. Considering how much more readily available the latter was, Vagrum opted for it. After all, a vast forest surrounded Ostabel, encroaching upon the peaceful hamlet from all sides. He spent the better part of a week felling trees, stripping the trunks of branches and bark, cutting them into logs of manageable size, and hauling the result to the village. It was back-breaking work - far more difficult than the time he stood alone against a half-dozen bloodthirsty nomads near the fringes of The White World. He hoped Justine appreciated the effort he was putting into providing a place they could call their own, where they could live in wedded bliss and raise their children. From time-to-time, she would come out to watch him work, favoring him with a beatific smile and sometimes planting a kiss on his sweaty, stubbled pate.

    In the end, Justine's encouragement alone wasn't quite enough; Vagrum needed help from many of the local village folk, all of whom had more experience with this sort of thing than he did. They were a helpful, gregarious lot and most just shook their heads good-naturedly when they observed the early beginnings of the warrior's misbegotten dwelling. However, since they were grateful for his joining the local citizenry - certainly no bandits would think of raiding with such a beast of a man acting as Ostabel's protector - they were more than happy to help Vagrum make his home one of the biggest cottages around with three rooms instead of the more common one or two.

    A fortnight after arriving in Ostabel, Vagrum was ready to be married. The entire village, population 150, showed up for the event, which provided an excuse for feasting. With her gentle disposition and shy nature, Justine was beloved by everyone and the occasion of her joining with the settlement's new hero was celebrated with the vigor of a high holiday. The Delirious Jester, Ostabel's sole drinking establishment, offered the first round free and Vagrum further endeared himself to the population by buying the second and third rounds. By the time he took his new bride to bed in the house he completed only the day before, Vagrum was in high spirits although, because of his bulk, wasn't nearly as inebriated as most of his neighbors.

    Life with Justine was a revelation to Vagrum. For most of his three decades, he had been packed into tight quarters with uncouth men and his primary interaction with women were those who took his coins in return for some quick action in a rented room or behind a stable (the latter being far more common than the former). Justine treated him like her knight and that, as much as anything, was an aphrodisiac. Her looks were plain and her figure was slight but her solicitous attitude enflamed him every night when they went to bed. She was willing to try almost anything as long as it made him happy. For his part, Vagrum was careful with her, recognizing how easily she became winded and how quickly she grew faint. That she loved him was an amazing thing - he had never thought of himself as loveable or, for that matter, especially likeable - but no more astonishing than that he reciprocated the emotion with equal fervor.

    Their first two years together were blissful, marred only by Justine's occasional bouts of poor health and her inability to conceive a child. They both wanted a daughter; Justine had even used her skills as a seamstress to make some clothing for the little girl who never blossomed in her womb. As the seasons passed without an abatement of her woman's blood, she became increasingly despondent.

    "I ain't a proper wife to you," she despaired one dark Winter's night as they huddled together under the furs near the healthily blazing flames in the fire pit. "We should have two babes by now. One little boy toddling after you and one little girl suckling my tit."

    "If the gods will it, it'll happen." Vagrum wasn't sure whether the lack of children should be viewed as a blessing or a curse. It was obvious how Justine thought of it but he wasn't so sure. In her condition, caring for a babe would be a trial and, although there was an undeniable appeal in some of the duties of a father, he wasn't sure someone of his temperament was well suited for such a self-effacing role.

    "I must have displeased them. But I can't think how. My whole life, I ain't done nothing but helped others. I don't never think first of me." Her tears fell in silence but Vagrum noticed them the way he noticed everything about his wife. "Why don't they favor me?"

    Vagrum considered. In his travels, he had heard rumors, more common now than ever, of the gods turning away from men. The Prelate of Obis called those who believed such things to be "disillusioned" and "lacking in the true faith" but, curiously, he didn't condemn them or threaten them with excommunication. To Vagrum, the high priest's leniency spoke volumes. Now was not the time to speak of this to Justine, however. She was a simple girl whose faith was one of the cornerstones of her life. While it might explain why the gods hadn't taken pity on the plight of a faithful daughter, it would distress her greatly. In these dark hours, she needed succor not more pain.

    That Winter, a surprisingly mild one in the North, gave way to a hot Planting and a blistering Summer. By the time Harvest arrived, some folks in the village were opining that they might welcome the cold winds and driving snows. At the time, Vagrum thought they should hold their tongues. Dauphin always used to caution that to challenge the weather was to invite something worse. When Winter belatedly arrived, it did so with a vengeance.

    The last itinerant merchant of the year arrived three weeks before Midwinter, bearing with him tidings both good and ill. "Widow's Pass is closed. Has been for several weeks now. Word is two-dozen merchants was lost in some kind of avalanche. After that, on one was willing to chance it, least not till the weather improves. I came up by way of Earlford. Weather's better out there than here. But there's another rumor you's may notta heard 'bout. They say a herd of white stag was seen not far from here, mebbe four days snow-walk nor-nor'east."

    Vagrum's eyes widened at this. The white stag was one of the rarest of the northern snow creatures. To have a head mounted on one of his walls… People around here were already impressed by him, but how much more would his reputation be enhanced if he could hunt down one of those creatures…

    He thought about it for a full day before making up his mind. Justine's health - she had been afflicted by a cough for several weeks now, although it didn't seem to be getting worse - was a source of concern. He didn't like leaving her alone, especially at this time of the year.

    "If you'd rather I didn't go…" he offered, although they both knew how she would respond to that. She never denied him anything, especially not when it meant as much to him as this did. Nevertheless, it was a sincere offer.

    "Of course not. I'll be fine. I've lived through damn near 20 Winters up here. 'Nother one ain't gonna kill me."

    "You could go stay with your people." Vagrum had built the house a short distance from the village center. It seemed like a good idea at the time but, during the cold seasons, he learned why so many of the houses were clustered together. The half-mile walk - a mere jaunt during Summer - was long and tiring when the snow was waist-deep.

    "Nonsense. I wanna make this a proper home for you to come back to. Wouldn't do for it to be all cold and drafty. You're my husband and this is my house. This is where'n I belong."

    "Still…" Vagrum hesitated. This didn't sit well with him. "I'll ask yer brothers to stop by an' keep you company." What he meant by that was that he'd ask her family to check in and make sure she was physically okay.

    Recognizing there was little time to lose in this quest, Vagrum packed the things he would need for a two-week journey with the intention of departing at dawn's first rays on the next day. A part of him would have liked to leave immediately but he wouldn't get far before twilight and only a fool traveled in the dark this far north at this time of year. The uneven terrain was more dangerous than the predators that roamed it. Most of those would shy away from a blazing campfire but there was no defense against a hidden crevasse.

    Vagrum and Justine made love twice that night - once as they lay down together and another time shortly after midnight when both found sleep elusive. After their second mutual climax, they cuddled together for the long hours until a gradual lightening of the sky heralded the time of Vagrum's departure. Before leaving, he gave his wife a long, lingering kiss - one that some would find surprisingly tender for such a big, burly man. "I'll be back afore Midwinter," he said. "We'll spend the holiday together with the head of a white stag on our wall."

    She smiled, not because the decoration meant anything to her but because she knew how much it meant to Vagrum. Then he was gone and she was alone. Without him, the house suddenly seemed too big.

    For the first couple days, the trek north-northeast was an easy one with milder than normal temperatures and clear skies. That changed on the third day as a stiff breeze started from the west and dark clouds clogged the horizon. Vagrum, who claimed a solid working knowledge of the weather, was surprised by this since most winter storms came in directly from the north. He suspected this one would be warmer and more precipitation rich than most. He was right in one of those two assumptions.

    The snow began falling shortly after noon. With visibility reduced to less than ten feet, he had to halt travel well before dusk and hunker down under a thickly furred animal skin he carried with him for such occasions. It kept him warm enough to fend off death by cold and dry enough that he wasn't soaked to the bone. With the snow falling heavily and the wind blowing a gale, Vagrum was in for a miserable night. Still, his soldier's training came in handy as he was able to grab a few winks of sleep even in those conditions.

    When dawn arrived, muddy and indistinct, the snowfall had abated but not stopped. There was more on top of Vagrum's skin than on the ground beneath him. Shaking his covering free of the clinging white matter, he wrapped it around him like a cloak and continued his journey, his pace about a tenth of what it had been on the previous day. Not only did he have to trudge through nearly two feet of fresh powder but he had to tread carefully less he fall victim to a concealed pitfall that could put an end to more than just his journey. A broken ankle out here in this weather would mean his doom. Walking into a biting wind only made things worse.

    For a day, a night, and another day, Vagrum endured the elements until he was forced to admit that even if he made it to the area where his quarry had been spotted, the poor weather likely would have chased off the white stags. In good conditions, it would have required an extreme stroke of luck to achieve success on such a hunting expedition. After the passage of the unrelenting storm, it was foolish to continue on. So, conceding defeat, he turned around.

    Heading out, it had taken him four days to reach this locale. Adverse travel conditions restricting the ability of his long strides to eat up the leagues more than doubled the time for the return trip. As a result, Vagrum was one day shy of a two week absence when he caught sight of the distant wisps of smoke drifting skyward from the huts and cottages comprising Ostabel. Despite the coldness of the day, the sight brought a flood of warmth. So rarely in his life had the warrior had a place he could rightfully call "home."

    The first indication that something was amiss came from the lack of activity near his house. The snow lay in an unbroken blanket around the cottage with no footprints to interrupt its pristine beauty. No smoke issued through the vent hole in the roof. As he approached the dwelling with a knot of worry tightening in his chest, he tried to calm himself with the thought that perhaps Justine had seen sense after all with the storm coming and had gone into the village proper to stay with one of her relatives. Deep inside, however, he knew that to be unlikely. She was a stubborn woman and her intention had been to welcome him upon his return. She would view the approach of a storm, no matter how severe, as a nuisance. After all, she had lived through dozens of them.

    She lay cold and still in their bed. Her eyes were closed, her skin pale, her lips blue. Vagrum would never know the truth of the matter but it appeared she had gone to sleep one night and not awoken the next morning. The fire had gone out and the temperature had plummeted. He didn't know when it had happened but it had at least been several days. No one from the village had checked on her as he requested although, if she had died in the small hours, it wouldn't have mattered if they had come the next day.

    In his life, Vagrum had gazed upon many bodies, the majority of them brought to that state by his actions in battle. He was a hardened man accustomed to the knowledge that all men came to the same state eventually. Justine's corpse was one of the most placid ones he had seen; her features were serene, showing none of the signs of distress or discomfort Vagrum normally associated with death. But this body was different. Justine wasn't some nameless, faceless opponent he had hacked to bits in a fight. She was his wife, his lover, the potential mother of his never-to-be children, his whole life… Now she was gone and he felt as if her passing had taken the better part of him along with her.

    His breath streamed white in the cold of his home's interior as he stood there, trying to process the fullness of his loss. It was his fault. He knew that as surely as he knew any fact of his life. If he hadn't gone on this fool's errand, he would have continued to feed the fire that fateful night and warmed her flesh with his own. Assigning blame to others was pointless. The responsibility was his. On the day of their marriage, he had promised to safeguard her against all threats. For her, the cold had always been a more real danger than marauding bandits or wild animals - something he had conveniently ignored in his quest for the glory of a dead stag's head on his walls. Now he had nothing - no trophy, no wife, and ultimately no home. He knew instinctively he couldn't spend another night in this abode. Without Justine, this place was anathema. He had built it for her.

    He wanted to cry but the tears wouldn't come. Warriors were taught never to cry; it showed weakness. Part of his training had been to suppress the desire when it arose. Now, when he badly needed the release offered by sobbing, it was beyond him. Grief surged within him but, instead of manifesting itself in tears, it vanished into the growing emptiness building within. Vagrum could feel himself becoming numb and it had nothing to do with the embrace of the icy air.

    He departed without informing anyone, and no one came looking when he consigned Justine's body to the flames of a large pyre he built beside their home. His last image of her before the flames began their feeding frenzy was one of peace and gentleness, but this shell was a pale echo of the person she had been. It looked like her but it lacked her warmth, her courage, her passion, and, most importantly, her ability to calm him. It was curious that no one from the village came when the dark smoke began to billow but he supposed they were all huddled inside. Come better weather, someone would arrive and discover the house abandoned. The remnants of the pyre would relate all they needed to know. Vagrum didn't have to be here to tell the story.

    He packed for a long journey, taking with him all the coin in the house and enough provisions to last several weeks if properly rationed. Water wasn't a problem; snow melt offered a good, clean source and saved him the difficulty of lugging around heavily laden skins. He put on snow shoes; they would enable him to travel faster. When he set out not that many hours after entering his home, he had no clear destination in mind. His thoughts were still full of Justine and, as Ostabel vanished behind him, obscured from his vision by trees and terrain, he regretted not giving her cold lips one last kiss before allowing the fire to consume her.

    Vagrum could have directed his path toward Obis. He knew King Rangarak would be only too happy to restore his commission. There was some appeal in that - the life of a soldier was, after all, regimented. There was no need to think. But his time in Ostabel had accustomed Vagrum to freedom and he didn't know how well he would be able to return to taking orders and doing as he was told. Additionally, the thirst for blood had dried up. Justine had taught him there was more to life than killing and his responsibility for her death made him long for something else. He wasn't sure he'd find it but rejoining Obis' army didn't seem to be a likely starting place. He needed a future not a reunion with the past.

    A more appealing option was Syre. While Obis was devoted to war, Syre was a place of pleasure and learning. Its soldiers were no less fierce than those who fought for King Rangarak but its army was smaller, designed to defend not pursue conquest. In fact, an unwritten agreement between the two cities ensured that Syre would go unmolested. In exchange for an annual tribute, a combination of gold and women, Obis would not only refrain from aggression against its eastern neighbor but would also come to its defense in the unlikely situation that Syre was attacked by a force it couldn't repel. The mutually advantageous agreement worked for all parties, including the women, who were volunteers not conscripts. For courtesans, Syre's most famous export, more coin could be made in Obis than if they remained home - the competition in a foreign city, after all, was less stiff.

    Thanks to being a lifelong skinflint, Vagrum didn't lack for funds and he was able to afford one of Syre's more upscale inns for his stay. Nights allowed him to forget. It was a welcome distraction to spend hours in taprooms buying rounds for temporary friends before retiring in the arms of a paid companion. He intentionally chose women who were nothing like Justine, preferring robust, statuesque courtesans - those who could respond to his sexual aggression in kind. In the heat of the moment, he didn't want to be reminded of Justine. The days were the worst, however. Vagrum had never been the kind of man to linger abed past dawn and the hours before his personal code permitted him to start the night's drinking were long and empty. Unlike the Southern locales, which were replete with amusements for travelers, Syre was primarily functional, as befitted a city encroached upon by snow and cold for half the year. For those who, like Vagrum, were there without a particular purpose, the rhythms of daily existence became monotonous and it was during those dead times when the unwanted memories washed over him like a flood.

    The Planting thaw couldn't come soon enough for Vagrum. Ten weeks in Syre felt like an eternity. The charms of the women dwindled and Vagrum soon found that he preferred sleeping alone than with a paid partner. Most nights when he stumbled into his room, he was so drunk that he could barely stand let alone engage in the kind of activity a courtesan would expect. As one woman explained: "Dear, I know this be your coin, but I'm in this line of work cause I always got an itch between my legs that needs scratching and in your condition you ain't never gonna get hard enough to scratch anything."

    After Syre, where? That was the question. Not back to Obis. He wanted somewhere new. Somewhere free of memories. Somewhere he could re-invent himself. That meant going south. It meant crossing the Broken Crags. It meant traveling to the warmer lands where he should have insisted Justine go. If he had been adamant, if he had overruled her objections, she would be alive today. Then again, if he hadn't gone on that damn fool stag hunt, the same would be true. She was dead because of him, because of decisions he made and chose not to make. It was the same as if he had unsheathed his sword and driven it through her breast. That was a realization he would carry with him for the rest of his days and, while it might not always haunt him the way it did now, he was sure it would shape his every action.

    Vantok was the obvious destination, the city where all Northerners dreamed about going. It was called The Jewel of the South. No walls, no standing army - all was peaceful down there. Just the place for a weary warrior to find rest and maybe escape a few of his ghosts. And if the answer wasn't in Vantok, there was always Basingham or one of a hundred small settlements strewn across the land like seashells on a beach. Vagrum didn't doubt he'd be able to find work. Not only was he proficient with weapons but, in his youth, he had tilled fields, mucked stables, and done a dozen other honest, hardworking jobs. There was always a place for someone like him.

    He decided to use Widow's Path to make the mountain crossing. Although the route was no shorter - and considerably more dangerous - than the coastline road down to Earlford, Vagrum was familiar with the westerly approach, having made the passage several times. He had never been as far south as Vantok but he knew the terrain for several hundred miles beyond The Broken Crags. There were bandits in that area but he doubted they would bother one such as him. The average outlaw waylaid targets that were soft and rich, neither or which applied to Vagrum, especially after he had squandered nearly all of his small fortune on the spirits and women of Syre. He wasn't the first wanderer to have entered that city with a fat purse and left it with only a few lonely coins scraping together.

    In the end, circumstances smiled favorably on Vagrum and he wasn't forced to undertake the journey alone. He applied for a job protecting a Vantok-bound merchants' caravan and was accepted on sight. There were eight wagons, all of the tall thin type designed to traverse the pass with its narrow, treacherous road, six sellers, six guards, and ten whores. The entire 1600 mile journey was expected to take between 11 and 14 weeks. The merchants were hoping to reach Vantok around Midsummer's Day, although they would have to set an aggressive pace to make that goal.

    The trip through Widow's Pass was almost without incident, although one of the wagons was nearly lost due to the incompetence of the merchant driving it. South of The Broken Crags, they encountered a spate of bad weather and one of the wagons tipped over in a gale. The damage, including a broken axel and smashed wheel, was so great that the wagon had to be abandoned. This necessitated redistributing its contents to the surviving vehicles, overburdening them and forcing the whores to walk. That slowed the southward pace to a crawl (beleaguered peasants were passing them on the road) making a Midsummer arrival impossible. But no bandits attacked and there were no signs of any threat that required the employ of six strong, able-bodied men. Of course, it was likely that those six strong, able-bodied men were the reason why there were no dangers arose.

    Vantok was much different from any city Vagrum had visited. It was more like an overgrown village. It sprawled. There were no walls to constrain its expansion. The surrounding farms seemed more like extensions to the city's footprint than disconnected locales. Vantok was welcoming although a small part of Vagrum's mind noted how nightmarish it would be shielding the place in the event of a military conflict. The only defensible buildings were the palace and the temple - the two most imposing structures in the city.

    With a few extra coins now in his pouch as compensation for the protection he provided to the caravan on the road south, Vagrum could afford drinks and a cheap room for at least a week. He had that long to find permanent employment or he'd end up sleeping in a back ally - not that Vantok had many of those. He chose an inn called The Wayfarer's Comfort because it was both welcoming and inexpensive. As he approached the front door just after dusk on a day two weeks past Midsummer, he could hear snatches of familiar tavern songs. In Obis, no one sang in taprooms. In Syre, only professionals hired by the establishment did so. In The Wayfarer's Comfort, everyone sang. Vagrum found that strangely comforting.

    He was sitting at a table nursing a mug of watered-down ale and watching the attractive woman behind the bar when he heard a familiar voice: "As I live an' breathe, it can't be Crags!"

    He turned to face the speaker, a wide smile on his face. "Been a long time, Dauphin!"

    "That it has been, my friend. Gotta confess, though, I never thought to see your ugly mug again. Get tired of all that snow and ice?"

    "Something like that." Vagrum didn't feel like going into details about the reason for his journey. The wound was still too raw.

    "Ain't no place in the world quite like Vantok. Got myself a new life here and even a new name." He sat down in a chair across from his old friend.

    Vagrum raised an eyebrow at that.

    "They call me 'Rotgrub.'"

    The big man laughed. "Doesn't sound very appealing. Spent a lot of time rolling around in the mud, have you?"

    "It's meant kindly. Coupla the men I work with in the duke's militia gave it to me as a joke. It stuck. Doubt you'd find one man in all of Vantok who knows my given name is Dauphin."

    "Hey, Rotgrub." Vagrum turned to find the handsome woman from behind the bar standing next to him. Her smooth features wore an appealing smile. She was a little younger than she looked from across the room. Although notoriously bad at guessing women's ages, he thought she might be close to thirty.

    "Evening to ya, darling," said Rotgrub. "Lemme introduce a good friend of mine from up North. Vagrum, this is Ponari, the wife of the innkeeper. Ponari, this is an even rougher scoundrel than me."

    Ponari smiled. "You're a liar, Rotgrub. The only rougher scoundrel than you in The Wayfarer's Comfort is my good-for-nothing husband."

    "I see you've made a reputation for yourself, 'Rotgrub'."

    "Aye. Worked hard at it, too. Defender of the wicked. Despoiler of virgins. Then there's all my great feats in battle, most of which I borrowed from you."

    "While I have no desire to interrupt a reunion of friends, I've got an issue with you, Rotgrub." Ponari's tone was sweet but Vagrum could tell by the flashing of her eyes that she wasn't pleased. "My husband tells me you offered to obtain a kitten for our daughter."

    "Only a little one, to catch the mice."

    "You know how I feel about cats."

    "I thought you might make an exception in this case. Little girl, little cat."

    "You thought wrong. No cats in the inn. None in the stable. None anywhere within my sight. If you bring a cat here, you won't like what I'll do to you or it. You know I got plenty of knives and know how to use 'em."

    Rotgrub smiled but it was an uneasy expression.

    After Ponari returned to her customary position behind the bar, Vagrum noted, "I'd advise not giving her daughter a cat."

    "Can't figure that woman. I'd love to know why she don't like cats. That stable especially could use them. It's infested with those rodents."

    "Who's her husband, anyway?"

    "See that big guy over in the corner flapping his mouth?" Vagrum glanced in the direction indicated by Rotgrub's thumb and saw a rotund man wearing a dirty apron regaling his listeners with tales of derring-do. "Warburm, the great adventurer. He and Ponari got to Vantok round the same time I did, bought this inn, and settled in good'n proper. Damn, I'd like to spend some time rolling in the stable's hay with her but she don't offer it up the way some of the serving wenches do. Heard tell she ain't never been with a man other than Warburm. A dozen years they been married."

    The name "Warburm" tickled something in Vagrum's memory. Ain't there stories in the North about an adventurer named Warburm? This couldn't be the same man, could it? The more he looked, the more convinced he was that it could be. The innkeeper had a sizeable midsection but that fat could easily have once been muscle, softened as a result of several years' inactivity. Maybe Vantok was where warriors, tired of shedding blood, came to retire.

    "What now?" asked Rotgrub. "You stayin' or just passin' through?"

    "Tell me if there's anything here for me. There ain't nothing up North no more." Nothing but a cold, empty cabin. He wondered whether someone had moved into it or whether the men and women of Ostabel had left it empty as a monument to Justine.

    "You lookin' for a position?"

    "I might be," conceded Vagrum. Vantok might not be a bad place to stay, at least for a while.

    "Come round Duke Carannan's estate tomorrow morning. I'll bring you ta him. He's lookin' for someone just like you. Post like that might suit if ya don't mind babysitting. But I gotta warn ya: Carannan's a decent sort to work for but you won't be breakin' any skulls or guttin' any bandits. Being a warrior means something different in these parts."

    The next day, true to his word, Rotgrub introduced Vagrum to the duke, a handsome man in his late twenties with dark hair and intensely green eyes. With him was a toddler new to walking, a little girl of about two years of age. Unlike Carannan, she was small and fair with light blond hair, but her eyes marked her as his offspring. The duke introduced her as Alicia. Vagrum was surprised the girl didn't run shrieking from him - his rough, scarred appearance often frightened children. Instead, she regarded him solemnly for a moment before approaching him and extending her hand for him to kiss. The maturity of that action touched something deep in Vagrum. This was no ordinary child - of that he was certain.

    The job was straightforward. "I'm looking for someone to protect Alicia. Oh, my guards do their duty and I trust them with all our lives but I want someone dedicated to my daughter. She's more precious than you can imagine and I want her to have a bodyguard and companion - someone who will be with her all her waking hours and will watch over her when she sleeps. It's a demanding post; you wouldn't have much time to yourself - just a few hours each day. Wages are good, rooms and meals are free. But I expect nothing less than complete devotion. And I require a 13-year commitment. You must stay with her until she reaches Maturity. Can you do that?"

    Could he? He looked at Alicia. So tiny, so dainty, with eyes that hinted at a mischievous nature. She returned his gaze, those piercing green eyes meeting his. Then, ever-so-slightly, her lips curled upward. In that smile, Vagrum's fate was sealed. So soon after losing everything, the gods had given him a chance to once again mean something to someone.

    "I'm your man, Your Grace." And so began Vagrum's second life.