“Who are they sending against me?”

                “Prince X.”  The answer was short, to the point.  Taru dropped his face into his hands.  He laughed bitterly.

                “Their crowned prince?  They send that poor boy to fight me?”

                “The boy’s father is apparently indisposed, sir.”

                “Perpetually,” Taru snorted.

“Besides, Taru,” Hito said idly, twirling the tip of his knife in a small depression in the plank council table.  Taru glared at him, but her merely smiled benignly and continued twirling the knife point.  “The poor boy is a man of nineteen years now.   Scarcely a child anymore.”

Taru shrugged.  “That one will always be a poor boy.   Have our spies ascertained anything about his views?”

                The secretary unrolled the scroll, glanced at it and shrugged.  “He is as recalcitrant as his father.  He will not be easily subdued.”

                “How many men?”

                “They have a good five thousand, my lord.”

                He sat back.  “Not entirely inadequate, is it?  But a rather sorry state of things, don’t you think?”

                Hito shrugged.  “Things have changed since he lived with you.”  Taru shrugged.  “Come, Hito.  Let’s go home.  I’m hungry.”

                They walked out amid the tents, through the neatly arranged camp.  In a clearing, there was a small crowd of men gathered around a collection of great barrels.  A young boy, maybe fourteen years in all, was dancing to the music of a pipe and drum while smoke from the fires wafted the smell of cooking food and burning wood.  The boy twirled lightly, and caught sight of Taru and Hito standing by watching.  He fixed his great dark eyes on Taru’s face and jumped down from the barrels, without losing a beat.  The men clapped their hands even more enthusiastically as the long haired boy danced toward them, his arms raised, fingers snapping.  He was as pretty as any girl, as graceful, yet had a fierce and determined air about him that was unmistakably masculine.  Taru smiled briefly.  “Begone,” he said, shooing the boy away with his hand.  Hito laughed, and threw a coin at the boy, who caught it deftly and capered back to his barrels.

                “We shouldn’t encourage them, you know,” Taru said.

                “Ahhh, but they encourage us, Taru,” Hito said, looking back at the boy and the appreciative crowd.

                “Well put, my uncle,” Taru smiled.  Hito lifted the corner of the tent and they slipped inside.

                Seeing them enter, the servant moved toward the meat, but Hito raised a preemptive hand.  “You’re new, aren’t you?” he said, not unkindly.  The boy nodded.  “I serve him his meat,” Hito said, hovering over the browned joint..

“Oh, Hito, come and sit,” Taru scoffed.  “You needn’t play nursemaid all the time.”  He was exhausted.

“I do this for you because it’s my pleasure to do it,” Hito glared at him.  Things remained the same because they remained the same in all things.

“Then pleasure yourself, by all means,” Taru laughed.  He dipped his bread in stew and gobbled it down, turning to the messenger who came in and dropped on one knee.

“My lord, an envoy of the enemy is approaching under a white flag.”

“Well, let’s go see what he has to say for himself,” Taru said, bolting the rest of the bread.  He strapped on his sword and Hito traded his carving knife for a long sword and followed Taru.

They walked to a place at the edge of the precipice and watched the rider approach through the valley.  “You know, Taru,” Hito began, crooking his finger at one of the archers to beckon him.  “I could pick him off from here if you liked.”

Taru laughed.  “Oh, Hito.  You will never get used to my ways, will you?”

The horse clattered to a stop.  “You know, that man must be terrified,” Taru observed. 

“As well he should be,” Hito scoffed.  “Oh, come on, man. I mean what’s one little arrow.  You’ll get your message anyway.”

“I’m not sure I want it, Hito.”

They exchanged looks.  Taru nodded to the guard.

“You there,” the guard called.  “What is your business.”

“I have a message for your Lord from my Lord, the Prince.”

The guard glanced at Taru.  “Milord?”

“Let him through.”

The guard yelled down to the horseman.  “Come then.  But lay down your arms.”

“I am unarmed,” the man said, spreading his hands.

“Bring him to my tent,” Taru said, turning and returning to the warm, bright tent.  The man was brought, between two much taller guards.  Taru smiled.  It was meet to have a small, inconsequential young man as a messenger.  He bowed his head without kneeling and held a sealed message out.

Taru took it from him.  “I am to await your answer,” the young man said stiffly.

“Of course,” Taru said cordially.  He turned to the serving boy.  “Meat and drink for our friend.”  The boy balked, the messenger looked uncomfortable, but Taru merely smiled.  “From my own dinner.  You needn’t worry.”

He cracked the seal and turned away, the sounds of the meal being prepared behind him,  The hand was familiar.  “I will be at the ash tree above the river when the moon is at the midheaven.”

He closed his eyes.  Such messages could cause a man to have apoplexy, he thought.  For a painful moment he remembered how he had answered another such call, and suffered nearly unspeakable tortures and a long exile from home as a result.  Still, this was the Prince.  They were not unknown to each other.  The likelihood of this being a trap of the same kind was minimal.   What a coup it would be for an enemy to invite his enemy to a meeting in the dark and then do away with him.  He handed the message to Hito, who read it.

                “Idiotic boy,” Hito scoffed.  He flicked his hand toward the trencher of food.


                “Well, he’ll meet with you soon enough...” 

                Taru shrugged and speared a piece of the meet with his knife.  “I’ll meet with him tonight.”

                Hito shook his head.  “You never learn.”

                “Never do,” Taru ate quickly.  “I’m going to lay down and rest for a while.  Wake me in two hours, yes?”

                “Do I have to?”  Hito grumbled.

                Taru moved quickly to the cot and laid down.  He was bone weary.  Hito pulled on his boots and stared into his face.

                “Yes, you have to…”  He closed his eyes.  Hito threw the thick furpelt over him.  He growled.  “I wish you wouldn’t,” he said.

“You’ll get cold.”

“You are impossible,” he muttered sleepily.  But if it were not for Hito and his constant ministrations, there would be nothing of tenderness in Taru’s life.  There were women, to be sure, who would fuss over him constantly, but they were frail, inconstant.  Hito had been with him since he was eleven, had grown into the role of eternal protector and comforter.  It would be impossible to sleep.  Thoughts of the young Prince invaded his mind every time he began to lose grip on consciousness.  There wasn’t a single memory he called to mind.  They came of their own accord.  He had done well moving on into the future, so that the past remained firmly and completely submerged.  But now, his eyes closed, he saw a boy of nine, very shy, very withdrawn, coming to his house as a stranger just after the treaty had been concluded with the boy’s father.  Taru himself had been much younger, maybe nineteen.  He turned his head a little and felt a rush of pleasure at the memory of what an excited and excitable young man he had been.  It wasn’t so long, but he was older, hurt more, had less to be excited about.

                Enough.  He sank deeper into unconsciousness, and was snapped back by the glint of sun on a dull edged sword, the boy’s face as bright and eager as the reflection of light.  So many years.  How many?  From nine to sixteen.  Seven years.  How long had he stated with the Pontiff?  Six?  This boy was his for a year longer, yet it seemed so short a time.  Of course, he had been with the Pontiff constantly for the entirety of that time, and had only been with the Prince sporatically, between campaigns or when his other considerable duties allowed him to return home for a few days or months.  The last few years, of course, he had had the boy in daily attendance on him.

                So many memories.  The boy running, riding one of several horses Taru had given him, his dogs, sons of Taru’s dogs, at the heels of the horses, wearing the armor.  He could remember him dressed in his state clothes, fine robes from his homeland, trying to look serious and failing.  He could see the boy jumping, naked and shining, into the water, of wrestling playfully with him.  Mostly he remembered him laughing, occasionally angry.  He was an obstinint little one, full of pride but absolutely faithful.  He was affectionate, eager for affection, generous in spirit..

                But time had moved on, and the treaty fell apart  Taru knew for at least a year before the inevitable happened, that things were deteriorating.  The king recalled the embassy he had sent seven years before, although there was not a direct breach yet.  The peace would not hold, and Taru knew it.  The night before they were to depart, Taru sat with the boy until late.  There was little to say.  Technically they had become enemies. 

                “Listen to me,” Taru said, leaning over to glance into the boy’s eyes.  “Do you remember what you were like when you came to me?”

The boy raised his finely chiselled face.  His summer tan was fading but there were still a few small freckles dotting his forehead and cheeks.  He shrugged a little.

“I do,” Taru said.  “You could barely raise your voice above a whisper.  You knew nothing of play or sport.  Do you remember?”

“Yes,” the boy shrugged.  “Of course I do.”

Your father, the king, gave you birth,” he said slowly.  “But I gave you life.”  He put his hand out and the boy clasped it.  “Don’t ever forget that, boy.”

                “I am not your enemy,” the boy said.  “I will never, as long as there’s breath in my body, fight you.”

                “Your father wants war with me,” Taru said wearily.  “He will have it.”

                “I won’t do it.”  The boy rested his head against Taru’s hand.  Taru put his other hand against the back of the boy’s head and gently squeezed the soft light brown curls. 

                “I know,” he said.  It wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought that this day would come.  But he had raised the boy well.  This was the point of taking boys from the houses of the enemy into ones’ own when the fighting was finished.

                “I’m so tired,” the boy said softly.  “I couldn’t sleep at all last night.  I’m afraid I won’t be able to sleep tonight etiher.  Taru, I don’t want to leave.”

                “Come, then, and lay down with me,” Taru said. 


                They stood facing each other amongst the tall, white trunked trees.  It was still early enough in the summer that the canopy was not as dense as it would become, and the pale grey sky was visible between the trees.  Taru unbuckled his sword and dropped it to the ground.

                “You haven’t any plans for which I would need that, do you?” Taru asked slowly.

                The boy merely snorted a little.  His narrow lips flickered something that approached a smile, but it never materialized in full.

                “You have grown into a man,” Taru said.  “You are very nearly my height.”

                “But not nearly as broad,” the boy said.  Still he was formidible enough.

                “In time, you will be,” Taru smiled.  He yearned to take the boy by the shoulders, draw him close, greet him with the all the affection that he had been unable to show him for years.  He looked away, into the sky.  “How was it being home after your years with us?” he asked.

                “It required some getting used to,” the boys said.  He looked away.  “I was much older.  My mother was very different.  She had several more children in the meantime, you know.  I think she was scandalized by what I had become.”

                “Mothers generally are,” Taru laughed.  It was a fatuous statement.  He hadn’t any idea what mothers were like.  He had lost his own when he was only five.  “And your father?”

                “He quickly made me realize that I had been living among foreigners, conquorers, and that I had come home to the people with whom I belonged.”

                Taru smiled bitterly.  “Do we ever really belong?  So you took what I taught you and now you are prepared to use it against me?”

                The boy stared at him.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. The boy knelt on the ground, digging in his boot.  “I got a stone in it,” he said.

Taru watched him quietly for a moment.  “You might just as well take it off,” he said.  “Shake it out.”

“I think I’ve got it,” the boy said, looking up from where he was crouching.  Taru. put his hand on the clasp of his breastplate, and turned it.  The boy said nothing, but watched, as Taru undid the second one and let the armor fall to the ground.

“This battle is pointless,” he said slowly, smoothly.  “You and I need not fight.  Don’t you remember your promise to me?”  The boy stared at him transfixed but said nothing.  He put out his hand.  “Come, rise.  Give me a kiss.”  The boy was motionless.  “Have you forgotten how you used to kiss me?”

The boy stood as if heavily weighted down.  “I haven’t forgotten.”

“You’ve turned bitter against me in all things?”

“I have my duty to my father,” he said, his eyes suddenly taking on an additional shine in the dim light.  He blinked quickly.

“This is not about your father,” Taru said softly, his hand still out.  “This is not about tomorrow.  This is about now, and you and I.” He took a step forward.  “You’ve grown a lot.”  He reached down and took the boy by the hip, his fingers sliding back.  The boy glanced away, but didn’t pull back.  Taru pulled him forward gently, the warmth of the boy’s skin emanating through his clothes and into Taru’s fingers.  He squeezed gently.  “This is good.  Good solid flesh.  Now is the time to decide what you intend to do.  My feelings have not changed toward you.”

“Even now?”

“Even now.”

The boy looked down and away, but still did not pull back.  Taru stepped toward him and pushed the hair from his forehead.  He gently pulled him down onto the ground and held him for a moment, then rolled onto him.  He moved slowly.  “I have missed you.”

“And I have missed you,” the boy said hoarsely.  His eyes were shining again.   He closed them and arched his back against Taru’s body. 

In a few minutes, it was over.  Taru closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around the boy from behind, resting his face in the crook where the boy’s neck and shoulder met. 

“I did this for myself,” the boy said suddenly.

Taru stroked his hair.  “Go on.”

“It changes nothing.”

I know,” Taru said smoothly.  But there was a sudden sharp pain between his ribs.  “I understand.”

“I have a duty to my father and to my country.”

“Yes.  I know.”  They fell silent and Taru felt the boy’s body wax and wane with each breath he took.  “I loved you from the first moment you came into my home.”

“So you’ve always said.”  The boy’s voice was weary. 

“It’s true.”

There was a long pause.  “I know.” The boy turned and nuzzled into Taru’s neck, sucking at the flesh.  Taru closed his eyes, dropping his head back, savoring the feeling, his hands kneading the boy’s shoulders.  With a lap of his tongue, the boy stopped and pulled back. 

“I’ve left my mark on you,” he said.  “Tomorrow, I will point you out and shout to your men, ‘you see that mark on your god?  I put it there.’”

Taru wiped his thumb across the boy’s mouth.  “You will, you say?”

                “Yes, and everyone will know that I hold you in the palm of my hand.”

“My prince, I wanted you to stay with my until you were fully a man, and return home to rule your country as my close ally.  I lay in bed last night and remembered a hundred different scenes of you.  Things we did together.  Tracking animals in the snow, you laughing so loud it started all the beasts and we went home with nothing. “

“I always messed up.”  His voice was pained.  He had been told too many times that he was a failure, though never in Taru’s house.  Not once.

“That wasn’t the point.  We had meat.  We didn’t need the animals.  It was your laugh.  The way you were happy all the time.  Always eager to go anywhere, do anything.”

“My father knew, you know…”

“It’s a common enough practice, I suppose.  I never sought to keep it from anyone.  Discretion is part of a mature love.  But I was not overly punctilious about it.”

                “He said that’s why I had to do this.”

                “Fight me?”

                “Yes.  Because it was my shame.  He said I should have died instead of accepted you.”

                “You loved me.”  He stroked the back of the boy’s ear.  “You still do?”

                There wasn’t an answer.  Taru laid still and quiet for a few minutes and then rose and finished dressing.  “I should get back.”

The boy said nothing and didn’t turn to look at him.  “You’d best get up or the cold and damp will go straight through you.”  It was a fatuous thing to say, but the boy stood and fixed his own garments without looking up.  Taru studied him sadly.   “Stay out of my way tomorrow.” 

The Prince looked up briefly and nodded.  “You too.”  They clasped arms and hesitated.  It was awkward.  There wasn’t a right thing to say.  “Farewell,” Taru said, turned and strode away, his ears straining to hear some response.  But there was none.


                There was a beautiful sunrise.  Pastel colors swept up at a diagonal from the thin but growing red line on the horizon.  He stared at it, while they dressed him.  Like a horse being fitted out, he thought.  And like a patient horse, he merely endured it.

                There was something deceptive about the way he felt.  It was almost as if there wasn’t to be a battle.  It felt unreal, to be facing this boy, and yet the boy was the same age he was when he brought the Prince to his own home.  Funny, he hadn’t felt like much of a boy, in command of a great army, with a number of palaces and farms scattered throughout the empire, children and wives, having consigned one to the spirit world already.  He sighed.  Surely it would not come to a full pitched battle.  Of all the enemies in the world, and he could barely think of the boy as an enemy, surely this one would come to his senses first.

                The idea that one or the other of them may lay dead on the field by the end of the day was incomprehensible.  The idea that men would fight and die, when in truth, there was nothing to fight over, was even more preposterous.  This time when the king lost, he would not take them back as allies.  He would crush them, put the boy on the throne and have done with the whole business.  Still, he waited and the message didn’t come.  He would let the boy keep his dignity of course.  He had told Hito to spread the word that the boy was to be preserved in the fighting, to be captured but not harmed.

                At length, they walked down the concourse between the tents.  The boy brought his horse, and he mounted.  The men were ready.  Most of them had that characteristic look of men going to battle.  The fight was inevitable.  Some had never felt fear. For most, whatever fear they had burned itself out in the preceding days.  The only way to get back home was to go through this.  Get it over with and get back to normal, to homes and farms, able to tell grandly embellished stories of this day by the fireside.  They looked at him hopefully, expectantly, ready for anything.  He was their leader, and they were somehow convinced that his spirit and the cause would provide them with more protection than their armor.   Here and there were faces of men who were terrified, some young, and some not so young.  They would be useless in the battle, of course, but if they survived this one, they would be bolder in the next one.  He nodded to the men, addressed them briefly and then, in a mass, they moved toward the still shadowless valley.

                The Prince’s army was already massed.  Taru raised his hand and orders were called out for the men to halt.  He put his feet gently to the horse’s side and trotted toward the small stream at the lowest part of the valley, which roughly divided the land into two fairly even parts.  He stepped boldly through the water, came up on the other side and reigned Horse.  Any further and he would be within the range of the archers.

                He raised his hand toward the Prince and called to him.  “Come,” he said.  “Sit down with me and we can resolve these issues.”

                The Prince’s horse danced forward a little, but the men on either side of the Prince, most certainly the king’s brothers, both reached out almost simultaneously to hold it back   Taru could not, from that distance tell if the boy had spurred the horse, or it had merely been nipped by the spirit of anticipation in the air.

                “Come.  We are men here.  We needn’t slaughter each other over so frail a pretext.  My desire is not to see you, your men or your country crushed.  I want to make peace with you.”

                The retainers leaner toward the boy and he looked first at the one and then the other.  Damn them, Taru thought.  On his own he could manipulate the boy.  He had not spent so many years so carefully training him for this.  Like a dog who has learned his commands well will snap to them again even if he has been separated for years from the man with whom he had lived in his youth, this boy would snap to his words.  It would not be fitting to refer to last night.  The boy turned his face away, his very nearly perfect profile lined with the sun that was rising behind him.

                He turned back to look at his own men.  Hito caught his glance and shook his head.  Taru looked away.  It was never futile.

                “Come,” he shouted, his voice breaking.  “I called you my son.  Do not betray my affection and care for you.”  He urged the horse forward a little, but it was too far.  His men were restless already.  Hito and several others moved forward quickly.  As for the enemy, one of the retainers moved forward.

                “You took our Prince as a boy and held him as an insurance that we would not rebel against your tyranny.  You cannot now refer to that unfortunate and tragic period of his life as something sacred.  Your son.  He is the son of the King and of the people of ().  Your sons are by whores and your sisters.”  

He heard the jingling of the silver fittings on Hito’s horse.  Without even looking back, Taru knew it was him.  He reached him quickly and stopped a few paces behind him.. 

                “Come away,” Hitoe said quietly.  “You are very nearly within range.”

                The boy’s face remained like adamite.

“Hito, I’ve lost.”  Taru did not look back at the man. 

“Taru, come.”

‘I’ve lost him.”

“You will lose much more if you persist in sitting here fully exposed to their archers.  Even with their inadequate numbers, skills and equipment, you will find that several arrows from a few lucky archers will end your life as efficiently as a well trained army.  Now, I will take the bridle of your horse if you don’t fall back.”

“Speak to me like that and I will have you flogged,” Taru spat instantly without thinking.  But the enemy were restless, swarming along the edges.  He would not give an inch, though.  He raised his arm and brought it down.  Hito turned and bellowed to the men and the commanding leaders took up the cry and it spread through the whole of the ranks until every voice had taken it up.

“I cannot lose,” Taru said muttered to Hito.  “They’re fools.” Both lines moved forward, as if magnetically drawn to each other.  He held his sword in his hand loosely.  He hadn’t the stomach for this.  Still, if they wanted a fight, a fight they would have.  His men moved past him, intermixing like two streams of water with each other until they were an almost indistinguishable mass of movement.  He turned and met men intent on having him as a prize. 

When he could he scanned the field for the boy’s standard.  Already the losses were mounting up. There were men on the ground, writhing in agony, others dragging up the moderately wounded and pushing them back into the fray.  The ground, where it was not occupied by men fighting was quickly littered with bloodstained weapons, armor, clothing and what else the unfortunates had dropped of themselves or been unable to drag away.  Even after years of fighting, the sight of carnage dismayed him, yet he was drawn back to it all too frequently.  Better to do it and do it well, than to do it poorly and sloppily and have more grief and loss.

 When he pulled away from yet another man, he turned and saw what he was looking for.  He was not a hundred feet from the boy's standard.   He pushed his horse through the mass of men and other animals.  The boy was beleaguered, menacing the men with his sword.  A small group of men came from the ranks to follow Taru.  They fought off the last of the defenders of the boy that were in close range, and several men with pikes readied in the split second to finish him. 

“Stop,” Taru cried.  Surrounded now by his men, he swung down from his horse.  “Enough.  You will not be harmed,” he said to the boy.  “You have lost this battle.  Tell your men to lay down their arms,” he said. 

The boy’s armor was dented, his face bloody, his chin and mouth covered with dirt, though Taru could not tell if it was his blood or another’s.  They had often joked, he and Hito, that they should only fight enemies whose blood was another color, to be able to differentiate the blood of friend from foe.

“Never,” the boy cried, his voice brittle.  Taru stood, transfixed for a moment.  After all, what else could be expected.  The boy had his honor and dignity to maintain.  Still, it was so familiar a face, the soft, thinnish lips he had covered with is own, the large sweet eyes, now wild,   He put his sword to the boy’s throat.  “Do not be foolish, boy.”

“Do not call me boy.”  The prince turned and spat the dirt from his mouth.  “I have fought you as a man, have I not?”

“You fought well.  But this is enough.  It’s over.  Give me your word of loyalty and we will take the injured back to Albanus and tend them.”

“I will not,” the boy said defiantly.  Taru stared at him, barely able to comprehend the words.  The sword was useless.  Fury rising in him, he lunged toward the boy, grasping him around the neck. 

“You…selfish fool. Order your men to stop.  Enough good men have died.  Why let them go on and hack each other to bits?  I’ve won the day.  What’s the sense in going on?”

                The boy still refused.  “I will never order my men to betray their cause.”

“Do it,” he screamed, frustrated.  The only other alternative was to dispatch the boy and fight until his men turned and fled or threw down their arms in panic.

The boy turned his head, tears starting from his eyes.  He looked back bitterly, his mouth wet.  “Would you?”

“This isn’t the time for a philosophical discussion,” Taru snarled.  The boy’s nearly perfect composure was maddening.  “Enough.  Men are dying out there.  Call your men off.”

                “Calls yours off.”  The dark eyes swung back toward him, incriminating.

                “Mine will stop at my order.  I cannot stop yours on my order.  If I order mine to stop, yours will continue.  You do it.”  Taru instantly realized he was bellowing. 

                “Never,” the boy’s eyes, so soft the night before, glared at him in hard defiance.

He wanted to grasp the boy by the tunic, but he was in a breastplate.  There was nothing but his neck to hang onto.  He pulled the boy to the rise.  “Look, you men of ().  See him.  I have your Prince.  You haven’t any fight left.  Lay down your arms now and I will be merciful to you all.  Continue, and it will end in more bloodshed than you can reckon in hogsheads.”  The boy struggled against him, kicking at him and writhing in his arms. He felt an animal like quickening in his body as the other touched him.  But this was not the wrestling of friendly passions, and he felt both heated and horrified at the sensations.

“Do not listen to him, men,” the boy screamed hoarsely.  “You must fight…”  Taru clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth.  

“Fool.  Would you have them all killed?” He hissed.   ‘Look you men…this is your leader.  He is mine now.  If you will lay down your arms, you will live.”  There were shouts as the word was passed through the disorganized mass of embattled men.

Slowly the movement stopped.  Taru’s men turned their faces toward him, eager.  The others looked confused.  But they had stopped fighting. 

“Take this boy.” He said to the guards nearby.  “Keep him safe.”  A man with a length of chain came close. 

“You would chain me like a dog?” the boy spat, his face wet with humiliated tears.

Taru was panting.  He watched silently as the pulled they clasped the chain around the narrow, pale wrist.  He could not bear to look into the boy’s face.  Hito was only a few paces away, having picked his way through the crowd of men and animals.  He turned away.  There was a sudden burst of noises, shouts and the clanking of the chain.  He whirled instantly, to see a knife fly past his face, only narrowly missing him, and the boy drop to the ground with a hideous cry.

“By the gods,” Taru gasped barely comprehending.  Two guards bent down and turned the punctured body over.  The boy was gulping for air.  Taru spanned the handful of steps between them in a split second and dropped down to him.  He stared into the contorted face, the eyes that wildly moving, without the control of their owner.  He cradled the boy in his arms.  “Take that off,” he ordered, nodding at the chain.  The guard moved quickly and freed his hand.  Taru rubbed the boy’s wrist gently.  “Oh, my boy,” he said softly.  “Can you speak?”

The eyes stopped moving and slowly can to focus on him.  “Will I die?” he asked hoarsely.

Taru nodded.  The boy writhed a little against him  “It hurts.”  His eyes rolled upwards again.

Taru struggled out of his breastplate and held the boy tightly against his chest.  The prince’s breathing was shallow.

                The boy reached up slowly and moved Taru’s neckband and pointed to the small dark bruise at the base of his neck.  “I put that there,” he whispered, a smile flickering on his bloodied lips.  “Taru.  They knew I had gone to you last night.  They  knew.  They would tell my father I betrayed him.  There wasn’t a choice.  Now I have made you both happy.”  Taru could scarcely comprehend the words.  His blood was pounding in his ears, his eyes burned with tears.  He pressed his lips against the boy’s forehead, his cheeks.  When he reached the boy’s lips, he could feel nothing.  The body did not swell and shrink anymore with breath, and nothing came from his mouth except a trickle of dark red blood and water.

                Hito dropped his gloved hand down onto Taru’s shoulder.  “Come.  It’s over.” Taru, still clasping the body to him, let his forehead rest against the boy’s forehead.

                Minutes passed, and guards pushed through, bringing the two retainers.

                “Ah, the faithful uncles.”

                “What should we do with the body, my lord?” the guard asked.

                “We will take it back home with us,” he said.  “I will bury him in my own chapel.”

                There was a ripple of shock through the men surrounding them.  The two retainers looked at Taru with loathing.  “You are my prisoners,” Taru said weightily.

“You must return his body to his father.”

“His father,” Taru spat.  “He was my son for years.   He lived in my house, ate at my table, slept in my bed.”

“Yes, milord, we’re all painfully aware of that,” The elder of the two men said.   “Still, you must return his body to his father.”

“If his father wants his body, he can crawl to me on his knees for it.  Why…” he stormed  “Why did he send this boy against me?”

“Because you loved him.  If you lost, we would have had the honor of having disgraced you completely and you would have been killed at the hand of the boy you had betrayed and defiled.  If you won, the boy would be killed, and you would lose as well.”

  “Guard them carefully,” Taru said miserably.  “Let them have paper and pen to write their last letters.  You will not live to see the sun set,” he said.  “Your bodies I will send back to your benighted brother.  But he will not have this one, and I will be avenged.”