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"I'd keep it at the skirmish-level for a while," Gel cautioned.

"I intend to," Kyrtian assured him, as more of the "dead" on the sidelines cheered the surviving fighters on or showered them with abuse. "At least until everyone's gotten a fair amount of practice at this. I don't want people stumbling around break­ing ankles in rabbit-holes or running into an alicorn and getting skewered. We're out here to fight, not get hurt." He loosened his throat-guard and yanked it off.

Gel barked a laugh at that, and Kyrtian had to grin. 'That's as true as it sounds absurd," Gel chuckled. "And it's true you'd have less luck getting people to volunteer to fight for us if too many of the boys started coming back with broken bones, or worse." He stuck his thumb in his sword-belt and watched the fighters with pardonable pride. "I'll tell you what, though—I'd pit these lads against any of the professional fighters I've seen when it comes to combat rather than gladiatorial games. They'd win."

"That's rather the point, though I hope it doesn't come to that. There'll be far less blood shed if they go up against con­scripts." Kyrtian watched as the last of his men surrounded the last of Gel's and demanded their surrender. "The Elvenlords can compel men to fight, but they can't compel them to fight well. Speaking of volunteers—the field-folk are going to need another holiday before too long."

"We'd better think about organizing a melee, then," Gel sighed. He hated setting up melees, as they were a great deal of work, and as in real battles, most of the people who took part in them had no idea how to actually fight. A good per­centage got muddled and did the opposite of what they'd been ordered, and when they got muddled, they generally confused those who were trying to obey the orders correctly. Still, everyone on the estate enjoyed the mock-wars and were happy

to volunteer for them; there was great excitement in battle when there was no chance of dying and little chance of getting hurt. A war-day meant a general holiday with feasting and mu­sic, and dancing for those who were "killed" before they were completely exhausted.

Not that anyone got killed deliberately just so he could go dancing, since those who were too exhausted to dance were pampered and treated like heroes regardless of which side won.

Ever since the first time that Kyrtian and his right-hand man had expanded their war-games to include the general popula­tion of the estate, the exercise had proven so popular that hu­mans and elves alike had come to expect and anticipate a war-day every two or three moons or so. Kyrtian just couldn't bring himself to disappoint them—and the one time he'd tried to hold a feast without a war, there had been such protest that he'd never dared do it again.

"I don't suppose it could be a woods-battle, could it?" he asked wistfully. "Or—oh, what about a siege?"

"With the manor as the target? No, better yet, the Dowager-House; no one's used it in decades, and it's been years since it was cleaned and aired out. It'll give your Lady-Mother an ex­cuse to get it set to rights in case we need it for something. An­cestors know what, but we might." Gel mulled that over as his men declined to surrender, electing to fight to the last one standing. "That could be done—if you could manage mock-arrows and mock-stones; perhaps mock-boiling-oil."

Kyrtian stared at him, aghast at the picture that conjured up. "Ancestors! You're certainly bloody-minded!"

"If you want a siege, you might as well do it right," Gel ar­gued. "That means that the besiegers will use bows, and the be­sieged will pelt them with whatever they can from the walls. Now, can you produce the proper material, or can't you?"

"I probably can," Kyrtian admitted. "But you do realize what this will mean, don't you?"

"Huge casualties early on, which means the battle won't run long, which means we'll get to the feasting sooner." Gel grinned. "Which means less work for me and more for your obliging Lady-Mother in arranging the entertainment."

"And probably a population increase in nine months unless I make sure to dose every particle of food on the estate against conceptions," Kyrtian sighed. "Which means more work for me, both in concocting the new magic-weapons, and in seeing to it that we don't get that flood of new births. You know what happens when the women get to be in on the combat! Why it is that mock-fighting gets them so stimulated—" He shook his head. "Sometimes I think that you humans are so different from us that I'll never understand you. Still—"

"A siege would be fun," Gel said, persuasively, as his men dropped, one by one, beneath the swords of Kyrtian's fighters. "We've never done a siege before with live fighters. Things that work on the sand-table with models don't always work with living people."

The temptation was too great to resist. "All right," he de­cided. "Start planning and working toward it. I'll research the magic needed. If it doesn't look as if we can pull it off in a months' time, we'll have the usual field-melee instead."

"Done!" Gel crowed, and slapped him on the shoulder, just as the last of his men fell. At that point, Kyrtian's remaining fighters rushed up, cheering, and there was no point in trying to talk until the victory celebration was over.


As was usual, the two groups of combatants trudged out of the forest together as a single fraternal mass with no sense of marching order. The forest could well have been devoid of life at this point; birds and beasts were probably frightened into immobility by the laughter and talking. At any rate, Kyrtian couldn't spot so much as a rabbit or a sparrow as they followed the faint track of an old road beneath the trees. The sun was just setting, and a thick, golden light poured

through the branches, gilding the edges of the leaves and touch­ing the clouds. Tired, but cheerful, friends and comrades traded congratulations, boasts, and outright lies as Kyrtian and Gel brought up the rear. Kyrtian never permitted anyone to carry his armor for him; like his men, he bore his own equipment, at least as far as their transportation. There were wagons and a carriage waiting just outside the woods to carry them all back to the manor, since it would have taken them hours to return on foot; Kyrtian was very glad to be able to toss his helm to his driver and allow his body-servant to take the heavy armor off before he climbed into the cushioned comfort of the carriage. As a to­ken of his privileged rank, Gel shared both the attentions of the servant and the carriage; the men helped each other and made do with the cushioning effect of a thick layer of hay in their wagons. "Ah, the benefits of rank," Gel sighed as he sat back in the carriage opposite Kyrtian. Kyrtian grinned.

As soon as Gel got himself seated, the driver turned the horses and sent the carriage on its way while the wagons were still being loaded with men and armor. "Ancestors!" Kyrtian exclaimed, as the servant handed him a flask of cool, sweet wa­ter. "I've been looking forward to this all afternoon!" He took a long draught, timing his drink with the jolting of the carriage so he didn't break his teeth on the neck of the flask, before hand­ing it to Gel.

"You'd think we'd get tired of this nonsense," Gel responded, leaning back into the soft, dark brown velvet cushions after he'd corked the flask and handed it back to young Lynder, Kyrt-ian's body-servant. "Your dear mother keeps saying we're too old to play at being soldiers, and sometimes I wonder if she's right, at least about me. Every time we come back from one of these games, I ask myself if it isn't time to stop."

"You only think that as long as it takes for you to get your wind back." The young Elvenlord grinned at his companions, and Lynder chuckled. "And mother has a different set of priori­ties from you and me. What do you expect her to say? She's not just a female, she's a lady, and if she had her way we'd all be drifting around the estate in clouds of tranquil music, perfume, and refinement. If it were up to her, you'd be cultivating roses,