The bright sun shining at his back offended Kirel. So did the cheery songs of birds in the trees, the fluffy little clouds floating overhead in the deep blue sky, and the overall exciting scent of a warm spring morning. Even the rich, saturated colors of the canyonlands, slowly closing in on him, offended him. The day when his world ended just should not be this perfect!

Dapple, his Great Horse, kicked a rock and snorted. Kirel lurched in the saddle and cursed as his bruised backside, almost as painful as his wounded dignity, received a jolt.

Damn Jackon anyway, damn him and Ellya too.

Not fit to be Lord, memory taunted. Spineless coward—and that, for sitting out the last sally against the raiders because his wound from the previous battle hadn't yet healed! Impotent, impotent, impotent! Want our manor to wither and rot, like the manhood left unused?

Kirel's guts clenched and he swallowed hard. That alone, of all the charges and accusations filed against him in his own court of Law, rang true. Not that his manhood was withered, no, just that it didn't work with his pretty young wife Ellya. Nor with any other pretty young woman, either. And somehow his eternally jealous cousin Jackon discovered that fact and used it to drive Kirel out of his home, his inheritance, his very life. Only the knowledge that Dapple would take the hand off anyone but Kirel that tried to touch him ensured that he got to keep his horse. They also allowed him any possessions he, or Dapple, could wear or carry in a single brace of saddlebags. Hail the people's generosity to their deposed Lord.

At least they'd allowed him that much. He'd taken his armor and his weapons: sword, bow, shield, and bola. He'd crammed two changes of clothes, one nice and one ordinary, into the bags, along with bread and cheese and fruit. A waterskin also made the approved list, for all that it didn't fit in the bags. They didn't want to kill him, not even his thrice-damned cousin, they just wanted him gone. And humiliated. So much for loyalty. Not one so-called "loyal" tenant so much as lifted a finger to stop Jackon's childish parting insult: a solid kick to the rear, enough to make Kirel stagger down the steps of his former home and fall to the ground at Dapple's feet.

"What's a man to do, Dapple?" he asked the horse, hearing the whine in his tone but too deep in self-pity to care. "Where's the future in being a deposed lord?"

Oh, how his father would have hated to see this day. Kirel sighed. Father had died four annums ago, shortly after Kirel turned eleven, of a fever that burned through the Southlands. He'd willed the estate and lands to his son, of course, with his brother's son as heir to Kirel. And he'd known he was dying, so he'd appointed a Council to advise the young Lord and help cushion the estate from the inevitable mistakes a youngster would make. Life carried on after his death, as smoothly as can be expected after a young boy lost his father in the midst of a crisis.

Then came the wedding.

The Council picked her out, a pretty young thing of fourteen annums, two annums ago on Kirel's thirteenth birthday. All the right family, plenty of dowry, and so close in age there shouldn't be any issue there. Not to mention that this bride was actually pretty, with soft brown eyes and flowing, dark blond hair.

Kirel felt quite fortunate, in fact, because he knew precisely how much worse it could have been. He'd heard plenty of tales of young Lords saddled with hideous old spinsters just because they brought wealth or important alliances. Too bad he couldn't get it up for his wedding night. Or the night after, or the night after, or. . .

Kirel's cycle of self-pity and regret shattered when an arrow whizzed past his ear to embed itself in the ground ten feet beyond Dapple's nose. The horse rocked back onto his heels, grunting, and halted.

"Well, look what we have here."

Kirel knew that voice, although he'd never heard it sound so civilized, so satisfied. He knew the odd, yellow eyes, as well, behind the hood and mask of the man who now rode a rough chestnut cob into view.

"Look, boys! It's the young Lord Tanivar, out to survey his estate. But he forgot to bring his guard!"

"I'm not the Lord now," Kirel growled. "Let me pass."

"Not a chance, little Lord," the masked bandit leader crooned, edging his horse closer. "Not—"

Before the man could finish his sentence, Kirel kicked Dapple hard and let loose a yell. Startled, the Great Horse burst into a full gallop and shouldered aside the cob.

Kirel heard shouting and hoofbeats behind him, but did his best to ignore them. This insane risk would only pay off if no arrows struck anything vital on himself or his horse. That meant speed, and focus.

Arrows whizzed around him thick and fast, now, from perhaps five to ten archers concealed all around him in the canyon walls. One clanged off his helm, making his ears ring. More hit his back, repelled by his heavy ring-and-leather outer armor or the underlying chain mail. Another hit Dapple's rump armor, clanging off the scale mail and wringing more speed from the Great Horse.

Then they cleared bow range. Kirel felt a slight easing of tension, but didn't slow his horse. Instead he remained crouched over Dapple's neck, working with the horse by keeping his weight balanced where it would be the easiest to carry. The wind of their speed sang in his ears. Dapple ran easily, muscles clenching and releasing rhythmically under his dapple-bay hide. Great Horses were capable of incredible speed, far faster than ordinary horses, but even they needed a little help now and again.

After about a mile and a half, Kirel sat up and eased Depple down into a canter, then an armor-jangling trot. The horse was capable of maintaining this steady pace, a speed between a normal horse's trot and canter, for close to two days. He'd need to stop for water, of course, and he'd need rest and a good heavy feed afterwards, but incredible stamina was another trait bred into the Great Horse. In fact, if one believed the tale as the Ranger historians told it, the original breeders worked with their goddess to produce a made-to-order creature, simply more in every way than an ordinary horse.

As Dapple jogged along, Kirel forgot self-pity and kept a wary eye on the terrain. The lands of Tanivar Estate consisted of the fertile green valleys in the canyonlands of the Palontir River delta. Throughout the history of the protectorate, all Lords Tanivar shared the common nemesis of rampant banditry in the region. The canyonlands, cut deep into red sandstone by the river as it spread out in the final stage of its journey to the sea, provided the perfect haven for bandits and outlaws of all types. The imposing red and orange cliffs contained more caves than anyone could count. The valleys attracted a variety of game animals. Edible greens grew wild. How could anyone ever hope to eradicate all the outlaws from such a paradise?

So far, none of the Lords had. Their best efforts provided only protection for their tenants, herds, and crops. Kirel had done his part, helping plan the defenses when he was younger, then leading the counter-raids himself once he took over his lands from the Council at thirteen. He'd enjoyed a moderate degree of success in the raid where he'd been shot in the leg, for his party retrieved the entire flock of sheep stolen by the bandits. True, he hadn't wiped out the miscreants, but he'd gotten the sheep back where they belonged, then endured the endless complaints of the herder about how hard the sheep had been run, and didn't the Lord know running a sheep made its meat all tough and stringy? No gratitude, none at all.

Kirel felt depression threaten as Dapple jogged steadily on. Not only had he lost everything, but now he'd done something most people would probably interpret as the cowardice Jackon accused him of. He'd run, plain and simple, from a fight. He could argue until he turned blue about the insane odds, a single man trapped in an ambush by an unknown number of outlaws, each armed with a bow and an excellent reason to hate that single man. Running offered the best chance of survival. But some others would see cowardice, rather than self-preservation.

Unless, of course, he'd elected to join them. The notion intrigued Kirel, and he turned it over in his mind for a moment. Join the bandits, become one of the people responsible for giving the current Lord Tanivar headaches, nightmares, possibly even indigestion. . . but he couldn't do that to his people. Former people. Even though they'd stood by and let Jackon depose him by invoking that dusty old law, he still couldn't bring harm to all those innocents.

Now, if he could restrict his outlawry to harassing Jackon. . . Kirel spent some pleasant time devising ways of making his cousin miserable. A harmless enough amusement, considering that he would never turn outlaw. Whatever the future held for him, it would be on the right side of the Law.

The journey through the canyonlands passed in a blur. Jangling harness blended in with hoofbeats blended in with occasional stops for water and to answer the calls of nature. . . Kirel ate and dozed in the saddle. He didn't dare stop while the bandit-infested red canyon walls still rose around him.

Dapple showed some signs of strain by the time they reached the first village, half a day's ride from the point where the canyons melted into low, rolling hills. The Great Horse still continued to jog on at the same steady trot, but now his dapple-bay hide shone almost black with sweat beneath his armor. His nostrils flared wide and red. Kirel promised him a good rubdown and a whole lot of food.

The small village ahead boasted no inn, but a common house bulked large amongst the villager's huts. Kirel pulled his weary horse to a halt and left him standing by the hitching rail.

The age-darkened wood of the common house contained an open space large enough for perhaps fifty people, furnished comfortably with a bar, a hearth, and two long trestle tables rough-hewn from large logs. Soot blackened the hearth all around the mantle, where the stuff should bave been going out the chimney. Kirel also noted blackening of the roof and support timbers overhead, near the loft, then shrugged. It must be safe. Otherwise, the wood of the structure itself would not have survived to become dark with age.

Kirel found a man slumped on a stool behind a bar, looking bored. No customers filled the empty seats. The scent of something cooking drifted from the kitchen, although it didn't smell very appetizing. Kirel wrinkled his nose a little and approached the barman, hoping the greasy-skinned fellow had nothing to do with food preparation.

"I need a place to stay for the night and a good meal for my horse. What can you do for me?"

The barman looked Kirel over, noting the well-maintained gear and his obvious youth. "That'll be a half silver, for a real bed up in the loft, feed and stall for your horse." His voice sounded thick and heavy, like mud boiling.

Kirel fought to keep his jaw from dropping. "A half silver! That's robbery! I only have—wait." He pulled his belt pouch from its fairly secure location under his armor and shook it. Six coppers fell out. Money! Why'd he never realized he'd need money?

Because no one in their right mind would ever try to charge their lord for anything on his own lands, of course. But now Kirel was on his own, farther from home than he'd ever been before. He'd just have to learn to live by new rules, plain and simple.

The barman laughed. "Six coppers? That'll buy you space by the hearth and a cup of bran for your beast. You can turn him loose on the common, and hope no one tries to steal him overnight."

Kirel smiled, a rather nasty smile. With Dapple's training and temperament? "I hope someone does try to steal him tonight. That would be entertaining." He looked at the meager pile of coppers in his hand and sighed. So much for his wealth. "The cup and the hearthspace will have to do. I see no other option."

He handed over the money and saw the way the man's eyes lit when his eyes fell on Kirel's ring. Which one was he wearing, anyway? He'd forgotten, with all the fuss and bother the other morning. He snuck a surreptitious glance at his hands and nearly exploded with the effort to show no reaction. His signet! Oh, my.

"That ring, now," the barman said, with a casual wave of his hand. "You could trade it for the best bed upstairs, full care for the horse, and supplies for a week."

"Thank you, but no. I'm rather fond of this one. It was my father's, understand."

"Right." The man looked at Kirel's hand again, then shrugged. "I'll get your bran."

He disappeared through the swinging kitchen door, leaving Kirel to stand awkwardly by the bar, wondering if he dared sleep through the night. How many attempted robberies would he have to fight off? And what under the sun was he going to do about money?

The barman returned with the cup of bran. Kirel thanked him and fled to the side of his tired, but thoroughly safe and predictable horse.

He took Dapple across the narrow, rutted excuse for a road and onto the common, where he stripped off the horse's bridle and headgear and scattered the bran on the grass. Then he pulled off the armor and saddle, unfastening the rubrag from its carrying place behind the cantle.

Dapple inhaled the grain while Kirel began rubbing the horse dry, a long and tedious process that both of them enjoyed. By the time the horse was dry and cool to the touch, they'd worked their way towards the middle of the common, Dapple tearing up mouthfuls of grass all the way. A small stream running through the field eased Kirel's conscience somewhat. At least Dapple would have water, if not the quality of meal he needed.

Kirel gave his horse a final pat and trudged back to his pile of gear. No one had tampered with it, although a crowd of grubby children had watched him the entire time he'd been working on his horse. This town seemed rather short on adults, although about twenty sheep and three cows shared the common with Dapple. They must all be out in the fields planting, or doing something equally foreign to a privileged soul like Kirel.

He sat on his saddle and drew up his knees, using them to support his folded arms, which in turn held his chin. Dapple moved to the stream and had a brief drink, then returned to grazing.

What was he going to do? Realistically, Kirel admitted to himself he had no idea how to survive in the real world. He'd been born to privilege, taught from a young age to rule over men, to breed horses, to train horses with respect and caring. Nothing in his thorough education in the stables, the breeding pens, or his father's study told him how to earn money. Sure, he could earn money right enough for the estate, selling off horses. But now? How could he earn money for himself?

Kirel shifted, and his armor pinched him in the armpit. With a grimace, he rearranged it. Maybe he could sell the armor?

Then something clicked in his mind: not sell the armor, sell the sword. As in, with himself and his skills attached to it. He'd seen mercenaries before. Maybe that would be a good way to go. He knew how to fight, he could shoot well enough both afoot and mounted, and he knew tactics.

A creaking, groaning noise intruded on his thoughts. He'd been hearing it for some time now, without paying attention. Now he saw a trader's wagon trundling into view.

Apparently a trader generated far more excitment then a stranger grooming his horse. The grubby children charged in a pack towards the wagon, shrieking joyously all the way.

Hmm. Trader. Maybe the man needed a guard. Kirel started to stand and go find out, caught up in the moment's zeal for his new idea, then paused. His tack represented all his worldly worth. He gathered it into a neat pile and whistled for his horse.

"Guard," he said, pointing to the gear, when Dapple arrived. The horse snorted twice, blowing out his velvety black nostrils, then dropped his head to graze. One eye remained fixed on the pile, and would, Kirel knew, until he released the horse from the command. More than just physiology had been altered during the creation of the Great Horse.

The trader pulled up his—no, wait a moment. That figure atop the wagon's box showed female curves. The trader halted her wagon in front of the common house.

"All right, kiddies," she called, "run and tell your families Myra's come to town."

The flock of children separated obediently and pelted off in many different directions. Kirel took the opportunity to step up and offer the plump woman a hand down from her high perch.

"Thank you, young sir," Myra said, accepting his aid. On the ground, she stood a good bit taller than Kirel, and dwarfed him physically as well. Kirel was built small and slight, like his parents, but this woman reminded him of a brick wall.

"You're welcome, Trader Myra." Kirel frowned briefly, wondering how one approached the question of employment. "Are you in need of assistance?"

"Assistance? In what way?" Myra shot him a puzzled look, then started unbuckling a row of leather straps on the side of her wagon.

"Perhaps a guard, to protect you against bandits?"

Myra snorted. "What, you? You hardly look old enough to be off your mama's leading strings. Although," she peered at Kirel, then eased down the side of her wagon to reveal shelves for display of her wares. "I got to admit, your getup sure is fancy, and it looks like it's seen some use. Who are you? And what makes you think you're worth my money?"

"My name is Kirel," he managed to say, hearing in his head an echo of the herald's cry: Presenting Kirel Tanivar, Lord of Tanivar Estate. How long before he truly realized his situation in life now? "As for my qualifications, I've led two annums worth of campaigns against bandits, and planned out the two before that. I can use my sword well, I can shoot my bow with a fair degree of accuracy, and I can bring in a bit of game to supplement your daily meal."

"Huh," Myra said thoughtfully. "Not bad, for a younker like you. And what rate of pay do you expect?"

"Ah. . . I'm rather embarassed to admit, I have no idea what a fair price would be. But I've spent the last of my cash money buying space at the common house tonight, and I really need to remedy that situation."

"At the common house, eh?" Myra rubbed her chin. "Tell you what, you survive the night there, then come talk to me in the morning. Otherwise, I've got no use for you."

"Fair enough," Kirel agreed, as the first of the townsfolk straggled in to see the trader and her wares.

Kirel gathered his gear and released his horse from guard duty, then went in the common house and started to sit at the table.

"What do you think you're doing?"

The barman's boiling-mud voice froze him mid-sit. "Sitting at the table?"

"Not my table, you're not. You ain't planning on buying supper, so you can sit on the floor, which your money bought. Got it?"

Kirel decided he didn't like the man, but moved anyway. Sitting on a bench wasn't worth making a scene over.

The seat on the floor served his purpose better than the table would have. He settled in with his back against the wall, ignored the dirt on the floor, and spread his equipment in front of him, methodically cleaning and oiling each piece of gear, especially the horse armor. He even peeled out of his body armor to check each and every ring, seam, and join.

While Kirel worked, the common house filled with a small crowd of locals, dirty and tired from a long day in the fields, but chattering excitedly about the visit from Trader Myra. Listening to their talk, Kirel learned that traders rarely visited this little village. He wondered why. Perhaps the way was dangerous, and he'd be able to earn his keep with Myra?

Or perhaps traders simply didn't like the odious barman, whose name turned out to be Groat. Kirel could believe that easily.

The crowd thinned considerably before Kirel finished caring for his armor and saddlery. He gave the pile a thoughtful frown. How to arrange the valuable gear so he could protect it, should the need arise? He hadn't missed the significance of Myra's wording: if he survived. He doubted anyone could kill him in his sleep, but he didn't want to take any unnecessary chances, either.

Finally, he got everything arranged to his satisfaction. He pulled out a hard roll from his dwindling supply and ate it, then lay down on his saddle blanket, dagger in hand, with his back to the few remaining patrons.

Kirel dozed fitfully through the night, waiting for trouble. At some point he heard a scream ring out across the commons, and smiled. Surely someone had tried to get a hand on Dapple.

Stealthy footsteps woke him some time later. Without obvious motion, Kirel tightened his grip on the dagger he'd kept hold of the entire night.

Even ready and waiting, Kirel nearly wasn't fast enough. A whistling noise gave scant warning before a club crashed to the floor where his head had been. Kirel twisted to his feet, adrenaline surging through his veins. Too close!

He could see his attacker, a dark, looming shape in the glow of the dying embers. He slashed forward with his dagger, felt it catch on cloth. Rip!

Damn. The club swung at him again. He ducked the blow and slashed again, this time connecting with his assailant's face. With a yowl, the man staggered backwards. The club dropped to the ground.

"Run," Kirel said. "Or next strike is with the sword."

The black, moaning figure (Groat?) didn't run, but he did stagger away, cursing. Kirel took the opportunity to gather up his gear and leave the common house, staggering slightly. Who wanted to carry horse armor at this unholy hour?

Outside, the grey streak of false dawn lightened the horizon. Kirel dropped his load and whistled, the sound shocking in the predawn silence.

Dapple came at a trot, tossing his head and snorting. Kirel tacked him up by feel and memory in the dim light, with a speed he didn't realize he posessed. Adrenaline still pumped through him, accompanied by apprehension. What if his attacker returned, wounded, shamed, and furious? What if whoever had tried to steal Dapple returned? What if they had friends?

Even hurrying, gearing up a warhorse took time. The sun peered shyly over the horizon by the time Kirel swung into the saddle, muscles quivering.

Who had that been, anyway? Probably Groat. Kirel wondered what kind of damage he'd done to send the man, presumably motivated by greed, moaning off into the darkness like that. Perversely, Kirel found himself hoping it hadn't been too bad. Ridiculous, he scolded himself. The man was trying to rob you. He's no more worthy of your sympathy than the bandits ever were.

But he'd never fought the bandits directly hand-to-hand. No, that had been accomplished at a distance, with arrows and fire and ordering others into the fray while the lord stayed safe behind. Fighting a person, not a target, feeling his blade sink into flesh and tear—

Kirel made himself quit thinking and nudged Dapple towards the trader's wagon. Myra had packed her wares up for the night and herself as well. Kirel debated knocking on the door to the interior of the wagon, but chose to sit and watch the quiet beauty of sunrise instead.

People began bringing their stock out, two sheep here, a cow there. Most of them spared a curious glance for the stranger sitting his horse like a statue, but none offered so much as a morning greeting.

The sun stood a handspan above the horizon when Kirel heard sounds of Myra moving about in her wagon. He waited a few more minutes, then dismounted and tapped at the door.

It opened almost immediately, and Kirel stepped back from the ferocious scowl the woman wore.

"Who—oh, it's you, boy." The scowl melted into mere disgruntlement. "Survived, did you? How many attackers?"

"Just one," Kirel said. "And one who tried to steal my horse."

"And them? How'd they fare?"

"Dapple injured one, I believe, based on the scream I heard in the night. And I know I injured the one who came after me, badly enough that he left when I told him to go."

"Really." Satisfaction gleamed in her eyes. "That's one in the eye for this sorry pack of thieves, then. You'll do. Pay's a silver and a half a week, you sleep outside, and we share meals. Next stop's Vinteca. We pull out in half an hour, so if you've got anything needs doing, best take care of it now. Oh, and fill your waterbag, it's a ways to the next river."

"Thank you," Kirel said. A silver and a half a week. Was that good, or bad? What was considered a fair wage out here? Groat had expected a half silver for his substandard lodging. Was he the unfair one? Probably. And did he have any grounds for complaint, whether or not the price was fair? Absolutely not. He'd take what was offered and make a good job of it. Maybe later he'd find some comparison and learn what was fair. For now, he had a job to do.

Kirel went off to fill his waterskin with a much lighter heart.