"Are you sure this is the way to go?"

Sylvan regarded the horse dubiously. Big, brown, and strong, with a long distance separating ground and saddle, which of course meant an equally long distance to fall. It wore a good bit of his gear strapped to it, instruments hanging from various rings and ties on the specially constructed travel saddle. His clothing and other possessions shared a pack with Kirel's, strapped securely to Dapple.

"Yes," Kirel said firmly, checking the girth one last time. The bay gelding, Thunder, shifted his weight, but made no protest. "This is the best way. Up you go, then."

Sylvan sighed and mounted. At least he knew how to get up on the creature now, thanks to his previous adventure, and thanks also to Kirel's patient instruction over the last lunation. He settled into the saddle and gathered the reins, confident in his ability to control the horse, if not eager to undertake a long mounted journey. Now if only he could get comfortable in this heavy mail shirt...

"Are you sure this thing is necessary?" He shrugged and wiggled, trying to settle the unaccustomed weight beneath his outer tunic.

Kirel pulled the long, heavy skirting into place over Sylvan's thighs. "Yes. I'm not going to ride about in full armor with you completely unprotected. What would you do if bandits attacked?"

"Sing them to sleep with a lullaby," Sylvan replied promptly. But he smiled and squeezed Kirel's hand where it rested on his thigh. "Thanks, love, for caring."

"You're welcome." Kirel gave Sylvan's leg a final pat and turned to his own horse. Sun flashed off adamantium as he mounted.

Sylvan took in the sight of his lover getting settled atop his Great Horse, looking like a hero out of some ballad.

"And are you sure about what you’re doing?"

Kirel gave him a solemn look. "Yes, Bard. I'm sure. The road is a rough place. And besides," a glimpse of Kirel's former mischief flashed into the armored stranger, "I don't want to leave this stuff unsupervised. Do you have any idea what it's worth?"

"Right, then. I just don't want you having any difficulties because of me."

"Taking up the sword again is not as hard as it could be," Kirel said, nudging Dapple into a walk. Sylvan urged Thunder to follow, remembering not to jerk at the reins when the horse moved. "Not when I'm protecting you."

Sylvan smiled, feeling somewhat humbled. It took a lot of courage for Kirel to don that armor and pick up his sword again. "Thank you."

"You're welcome, lover," Kirel smiled. "Just keep in mind, I've not touched my sword in lunations, and I'm guaranteed to be sore as all hells for a bit."

"No problem," Sylvan said, with a casual wave of his hand. "That'll just give me one more excuse to get my hands all over you, rubbing you down at night. How far is it to our first stop?"

"You're asking me? You're the one with the map in your head."

"Well, I've had a lot on my mind. I can't remember everything, after all."

"Right. We should make the stop by dinner time. It's Ferngully, a duke's manor, and he'll expect an evening of beautiful entertainment."

"That was a brilliant idea you had, sending out those queries."

Kirel laughed. "Thanks, although I would hardly call it brilliant. The simple fact is, I know how frequently those out of the way manors and suchlike get missed by the travelling entertainers."

"I still say it was brilliant, plotting out our entire route to Larantyne via rural nobility. And to think, New Sound Rising, if they're still together, is probably still playing village taverns and waiting to be discovered."

"Thank you for coming back," Kirel said, as he did frequently these days.

"Wild horses couldn't keep me away, love."

They rode through the early summer day, heading northwest out of Scholastica and chatting comfortably. They stopped for a meal around noon, in a small tavern that must have been kept by the most obsessive woman on the continent. Everything there, from the board floor to the rafters, shone with cleanliness.

"Can we stay here?" Kirel asked Sylvan, amazed by the shine on an earthenware mug. Yes, an earthenware mug, made of fired red clay and scrubbed with something abrasive until it gleamed with a dull glow. "Do you have any idea how rare it is to find a place this clean?"

"I do indeed," Sylvan replied. They left a bit extra behind as a thank you when they left.

"Left fork or right?"

"Right. What's gotten into you, Sylvan?" Kirel craned his neck around and gave Sylvan a puzzled look from beneath his helm. "You know your geography very well, remember?"

"Yes, I do... when it comes to countries, and kingdoms, and major towns. You've got us going to little out of the way places that never made it into my studies."

Kirel laughed. "You must never have looked at the big map on the wall in the History building, then."

"I confess, I spent as little time in there as I could. I've learned all the historical ballads, isn't that enough?"

Kirel chuckled more. "I suppose, as long as you've got me along, anyway."

"I guess I'd better keep you, then."

"I guess so."

They fell into a comfortable silence as the horses jogged down the quiet trail. Or rather, Thunder trotted, and Dapple jogged. Despite Thunder's size, Dapple outpaced the ordinary horse easily.

The road they followed wound through the stretch of partly forested hills separating Scholastica from the Great Plains. It saw little traffic, just a grassy pathway where the trees didn't grow, certainly not as fancy as one of the magical roads. But that suited Kirel just fine. They faced far less chance of trouble on a deserted back road than one of the main trade routes. Time enough to use a main road later, when it couldn't be avoided.

They reached the duke's manor in time to wash before their meal. Kirel's guess proved accurate. The duchy, although productive and beautiful, lay in an out of the way valley, leaving the inhabitants entertainment starved. Sylvan played for them after the meal, and sang, and played some more. He alternated ballads with dance sets, and told tales when his hands needed a rest. The people would have kept him performing all night if they could, but their duke reluctantly acknowledged that Sylvan had earned his rest after some two hours.

"Thank you, Sir Bard," the duke said, personally shaking Sylvan's hand. "This has been a rare treat. And thank your man, as well, for sending the letter on ahead to inquire about our hospitality. We're so isolated here, we rarely even see minstrels, much less a full Bard."

Sylvan accepted his effusive gratitude with grave courtesy and took his leave. A servant escorted them to the large and comfortable room assigned by the duke's housekeeper, with a toss-bed laid out at the foot of the large four-poster for Kirel, who chose to travel as a simple armsman rather than complicate matters by flaunting their relationship.

Of course, he didn't sleep on the toss-bed.

And so they set the pattern of their journey northwestward: noontime meals on the road, either at an inn or by a stream from their packs. Dinner at some rural noble's home, ranging from simple country manor houses to elaborate mansions tucked into the hillside. Then grab a bit of bread, cheese, and fruit in the morning, plus Kirel's all important tea, and off again.

After the third day of the routine, Sylvan gave Kirel a gracious nod and said, "I concede. You were right."

"I beg your pardon?" Kirel blinked at him.

"This is a much better way to travel than being shut inside a swaying, creaking box, where there's no room to move or air to breathe and you're trapped with several other querulous travelers."

"Oh! Well, thanks, I'm glad you agree. I just hope you're not nearly as sore as I am."

"Why are you sore?"

"I've been practicing in the mornings, remember?" Kirel grimaced. "Does my image no harm, although I'm a bit rusty, and I desperately need to build the sword muscles back up before I've any need of them. Fortunately, my archery skills haven't suffered at all, and rein calluses are in the same place as string calluses."

"So that's where you've been going in the mornings!" Sylvan exclaimed. "I forgot. I just figured you had to do something with the horses, since they're always tacked up and ready to go."

"Nah, the stablehands take care of that. It's a bit of a relief, really, to not have to be up at four thirty in the morning and working in the stable. I love horses, don't get me wrong, but I did get incredibly tired, working so hard."

"Silly man, abusing yourself like that. I'm glad I'm here to take care of you now."

"I'm glad, too."

They progressed one manor at a time until they reached the North Road, the only route through the Barrier Range likely to be passable at any time of year.

The horses' hooves rang startlingly loud as they left the rutted dirt side road they'd travelled and struck the firm white surface of the magical road. Kirel scanned the roadway uneasily. A farmer plodded along beside an ox-drawn cart filled with bleating long-haired goats, heading south on his way to some market. No other traffic shared the road, but Kirel remained wary. He'd spoken with the guards at each stop they'd made, and the last batch reported disturbing news: a new bandit leader taking control of the region. Organization among bandits was always a bad thing. A leader charismatic enough to knit together all the lone wolves into a single fierce pack presented cause for serious concern.

"What's that?"

Sylvan's voice broke into Kirel's thoughts. The Bard pointed at a smudge ahead, frowning.

"Looks like smoke." Kirel's shoulders knotted up. The smudge of smoke hung low over a densely wooded pocket valley, just the place for bandits. "Perhaps it's from someone's campfire. There's no wind to disperse it. They could have been burning green wood."

Not that he believed his own explanation, of course. He just didn't feel like listening to Sylvan's teasing about his paranoia. The Bard took an unholy glee in pointing out how little trouble they'd experienced so far, how unused their arms and armor.

Sylvan accepted the explanation, although his expression remained troubled.

Before they reached the source of the stale, hanging haze of smoke, Kirel knew trouble lay ahead. Both horses snorted continually as they approached, occasionally tossing their heads as well. Kirel felt like doing the same. The scent of burned flesh mixed in with the burned wood. He hoped, with an intensity akin to physical pain, that the smell came from an animal, not a human.

The forest closed about them, silent, watching. Smoke tendrils swirled around horse legs, thin and wispy at first, but gradually thickening.

Then Kirel drew his sword. The rasp of the blade leaving the scabbard startled Sylvan, who jumped in his saddle, inadvertantly yanking on Thunder's mouth. The horse grunted.

"Kirel, what in the world—"

"Look ahead," Kirel interrupted, then nudged Dapple into a trot, sword resting across his thighs. Through the drifting haze the shape of a wagon bulked large off the side of the road.

Kirel felt sick when he saw what remained of the family of Seekers scattered around the burned out wreckage of their home wagon. But he shoved the feeling aside and quickly inspected the immediate surroundings, finding no sign of bandits on or off the road. Somewhat reassured, he returned his sword to its sheath and rode back to the burned out wagon. At least the summer rains kept the entire forest from burning down. A few trees around the wreckage bore scorch marks, but the forest remained intact.

Sylvan knelt on the ground beside the still body of a child.

"Why would anybody do something like this? Seekers don't hurt anyone!"

No, Seekers never brought harm to anyone, with their endless and peaceful Search for... something. "No reason," Kirel growled. He dismounted, dropping Dapple's reins to ground-tie him, ordered him to watch, and approached his lover, who looked up at him with sick eyes. "No reason at all. We need to take care of these people, get them off the road. Okay?"

The Bard nodded, then looked back at the child. "She was just a little girl," he said, then spoke no more.

The two men improvised shovels from boards pried off the wagon and dug a shallow pit large enough to hold the bodies of the three adults and the child, a task that consumed nearly the rest of the day. Fortunately for Kirel's peace of mind, the smell of burned meat proved to come from a dead horse, sad enough, but easier to take than burned people. Although the corpses were grisly enough to provide many nightmares... the bandits' tastes ran to inflicting much pain before death.

With the bodies decently buried, the two moved on. A forgotten rag doll, ground into the mud at the side of the road, watched them leave with expressionless button eyes.

The burned out husk of the wagon fell behind them and Sylvan finally broke the silence.

"Tell me about bandits," he said. "Tell me why human beings do things like that to other human beings, even harmless Seekers. And most of all, tell me how they can continue to do such things. Why does no one stop them?"

"A moment, please," Kirel requested, chewing his lower lip. Such a big question! Where to begin?

"I'll take the easy part first," he said, after a moment's consideration. "How they get away with what they do. Simply put, there are not nearly enough people willing and able to patrol the roads and protect the countryside. You know as well as I do how many kingdoms, protectorates, and demesnes cover this continent of ours, each with its own rules and own military force. There is no single force to patrol all of them, or even just the roadways. And each ruler, whether he be King or Lord, is responsible for the safety of his own people first. They can't afford to leave the homeland unguarded to go out hunting bandits along the vast stretches of road between settlements.

"The bandits themselves... well, some of them are people down on their luck, who think it might be easier to make a dishonest living than to work honestly. Then there's some that can't abide by rules, they have to fight authority in any way possible. And there's some that are just plain bad. Those are the worst. The kind of bandit that's lazy might knock a person over the head and steal their purse, and maybe their good cloak too. The kind that's just plain bad will kill someone to take their purse and go looking for another target.

"As for what makes people torture others before killing them," Kirel shrugged, "I have no idea what goes on in the mind of a sick bastard like that."

"I think that's a good thing," Sylvan said, turning his sober, suddenly matured eyes to his lover. "I'm not sure I'd want to know someone who understood that sort of behavior."

"I know just what you mean."

The sun balanced on the horizon, barely visible through the trees clinging to the low ripples of hillside, before Kirel spoke again. "Sylvan? I know you're not fond of riding overlong, but would you mind if we just kept going until we get out of this forest? I don't feel safe here."

"That's fine, lover," Sylvan replied in an abstracted tone. "I don't want to break my train of thought now, anyway. The second verse..."

Kirel felt a small smile break the frozen stillness of his face. He knew that tone: Sylvan was composing something again. Then the smile vanished as he thought about the probable subject of the song, harmless folk cut down by bandits on the road.

He made sure to keep Dapple beside Thunder, so the gelding wouldn't fall behind with its rider's mind so far away, and kept an eye on the forest surrounding them while the light lasted. Several times, just as during full daylight, he saw a flicker of movement. Once, in light so dim his eyes ached, he saw a human figure duck back into the cover of the trees. His hand clenched on his swordhilt, half-drawing the weapon, but nothing came of it beyond a surge of adrenaline.

Finally, after more hours of riding than even Kirel's seasoned backside cared for, the trees thinned. The dim moonlight brightened, and glimpses of the moon itself broke through the canopy, huge and serene overhead.

The horses broke free of the forest with an abruptness as shocking as it was welcome. A wide, flat plain stretched before them, bathed in moonlight, with a jagged wall of blackness rearing against the sky due north. The Barrier Range?

"Sylvan," Kirel called, breaking into the Bard's quiet humming. "Come back to the real world for a moment, would you?"

"What?" Sylvan shook his head, like a wet dog, and looked around at the surroundings. "The moon's out! Have I been out of it that long?"

"Yes," Kirel laughed. "We can stop now, if you like."

"I'm sorry, I was working on a song, and—" the Bard stretched as he spoke, then broke off with a grimace. "Ye gods, I ache! Have we not stopped at all?"

Kirel fought against a fit of giggles and halted Dapple. Thunder stopped immediately of his own accord and blew a tremendous, gusty sigh. "Sylvan, my Bard, we stopped three times to rest the horses and drink from a stream. Were you truly that deep in thought?"

Sylvan cocked his head, considering. Then he shrugged. "I must have been, because I have no memory of doing such a thing even once, let alone three times. But I'm aware now, and I'm getting off this accursed horse. I assume we're sleeping out here under the stars?"

"That's right, if it's possible to get any rest at all with the full moon hanging over us. There's a good spot over there, well clear of the trees, and there's even a pond. Does that meet with your approval?"

"Lead on, my man." Sylvan managed a graceful, sweeping gesture with his arm, then grimaced again. "Ai. My back and shoulders may never be the same. Not to mention other parts."

Kirel laughed again, free of the gloom of the forest, although the grim memory of the dead behind them still lingered. They walked the horses a short distance off the road and found a flat spot cleared of vegetation near the pond. A blackened firepit gave silent testimony that other travellers stayed here frequently.

Moving with unspoken accord, they dismounted and began preparing a rough camp. Sylvan dug their seldom-used bedrolls out of Kirel's pack, while Kirel cared for the horses. He removed their tack and hobbled Thunder, with an apology to both and a promise of a good, thorough rubdown in the morning. Neither horse was winded or sweated, so he felt safe enough leaving them unattended with water and grazing available. He stacked their gear neatly, taking special care with Sylvan's instrument cases. He placed his helm, sword, and bow atop the pile. Then he found Sylvan stretched out on their combined bedrolls, gazing up at the moon.

"Are you too tired to eat anything?" Kirel said, dropping down beside his lover. "I am."

"For me it's more a question of soreness," Sylvan replied. "Am I too sore to eat anything? The answer is yes."

"Sorry," Kirel said, with a fond smile for his aching Bard. "Why don't you get that shirt off? The night's not too cold, maybe I can do something about the soreness."

"Now there's something you don't have to ask twice." Sylvan sat up and peeled out of his shirt, removing the mail and gambeson beneath with a vast sigh of relief, then flopped facedown on the bedroll.

Kirel rubbed his back, starting with smooth, gentle strokes before getting down to serious massaging. He felt tired, with that dreamlike sense of unreality that comes with being too tired, but he didn't want to sleep just yet. This felt too pleasant to miss out on, rubbing his lover's back and hearing his soft sighs as the day's knots dissipated.

"Kirel," Sylvan's voice nudged him out of his half-aware, dreamy state.


"I'm not feeling tired now."

Kirel smiled and won free of his armor, hearing the desire in his lover's voice. "Good," he said, stretching out beside Sylvan even as the Bard reached for him.

They explored each other's bodies slowly and sensuously under the night sky, relearning familiar territory. Somehow neither of them felt truly comfortable indulging in the physical side of their relationship while under a stranger's roof, making this chance for intimacy too precious to waste.

Later, they fell asleep twined around each other, both with faint smiles on their faces. The moon glided overhead, a silent witness to their love.