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Michael Williams

The Oath and the Measure

Chapter 1

A Surprising Banquet

Lord Alfred MarKenin grew restless as he stood before his place at table. He shivered and rubbed his hands back to life and let his eyes wander through the council hall. Tonight it was a cold sea of banners.

The standards of the great Solamnic houses hung ghostly and strange in the wavering torchlight. The old fabric, once brilliant and thick, now gossamer with age, lifted slightly and floated as the winter wind trickled through the drafty hall. The sign of MarKenin was there, of course, and the farfetched signs of Kar-thon and of MarThasal, interwoven designs of suns, kingfishers, and stars. Among them hung proudly the intertwined roses of Uth Wistan and the phoenix of House Peres. The lesser houses-Inverno and Crownguard and Ledyard and Jeoffrey-were also represented, and their colors fluttered dimly across one another as the banners settled. The first solemnities were observed, and three hundred Knights of Solamnia seated themselves to wait out the death of the year.

For isn't this the beginning and end of the Yuletide? Lord Alfred asked himself as simple Jack, a transplanted gardener, awkwardly lit the candles on the table. The death of another year?

The powerful Knight, High Justice of the Solamnic Order, shifted uncomfortably in the high-backed mahogany chair at the head of the longest table. He dreaded the unexplainable, and the unexplainable was no doubt approaching as the candlelight swelled and lengthened. He looked about, into the faces of his cohorts and lieutenants. They were numerous and as varied as gemstones, and in their eyes, he saw their reflections on this ceremonial night.

Lord Gunthar Uth Wistan sat to his left, stocky and scarcely thirty, though his hair was already steely gray. After Lord Boniface Crownguard, whose honor was legendary, Gunthar was the most skillful swordsman at the banquet. Such men were always impatient with ceremonies like this, finding them somehow too settled and pretty. Lord Alfred sympathized and continued to watch his friend. Gunthar plainly wanted it over with-all of it, from meal to ritual to the grand disruptions. Uneasily he stared out across the vast armada of standards to where darkness swallowed the silk and linen and damask, to the place where Lord Boniface, his marginally friendly rival, also sat with an entourage of youthful admirers-squires who mimicked his attitude and envied the great man's swordsmanship.

No doubt a similar impatience rose from those shadows. Though Gunthar claimed that Boniface wore the waiting more gracefully in his ardor for Oath and Measure, there was something else to the big Knight's restlessness and silence, thought Alfred. To Gunthar's way of thinking, ceremony was the delay between battles, but to Boniface, it was the battle proper.

To Lord Alfred's right, Lord Stephan Peres, an ancient veteran on his last but extraordinarily durable legs, had seated himself with an audible creak and a quiet groan. Alfred leaned back, drumming his gloved fingers across the dark arms of the chair, then raised his right hand. At his signal, the music began. It was a ponderous march, slow and melancholy as befit the dirge for the year, the three hundred and forty-first since the Cataclysm.

Beside the High Justice, old Lord Stephan smiled faintly in his forest of a beard. He was a tall man and lean, having parried gracefully that tendency of the older Knights to sink into heaviness and dreams. They said it was eccentricity that had kept him healthy-that and the gift of being amused at just about anything that came to pass in the Tower and the Order.

Tonight, though, the old man's amusement was strained. The end of his eighty-fifth year approached, and with it, as always, this ceremony of memory where the halls were decked with banners. He was weary of it all: the pomp and the trumpetry, the abyss of winter, December's winds full bitter in the Vingaard Mountains.

Lord Stephan raised his glass, and with lowered eyes, Jack filled it once more with amber Kharolian wine. Through its glistening gold, Stephan watched the squires' table nearest that of Lord Boniface, focusing on a solitary wavering candle in the ceremonial darkness.

A young man sat by the flame, lost in thought. Sturm Brightblade, it was. A southerner from Solace, though his family was northern, ancient in the Order.

The image of Angriff Brightblade, Lord Stephan thought. Of Angriff Brightblade and of Emelin before him, and of Bayard and Helmar and every Brightblade all the way back to Bertel, to the founding of the line in the Age of Might.

Sturm would have been pleased with Stephan's thoughts, for after all, it was to find his place in that chain that he had returned to beleaguered Solamnia after six years of exile.

Smuggled from Castle Brightblade one winter's night in his eleventh year, he remembered his father in images and episodes, as a series of events rather than a living person. From the beginning, Angriff Brightblade had concerned himself with Solamnic duties, leaving the lad to the care of his mother and the servants.

Sturm, though, had fabled a father from scattered memories, from his mother's stories, and no doubt from sheer imagining. Angriff grew kinder and more courageous the longer the boy dreamed, and dreams became his refuge in Abanasinia, far away from the Solamnic courts, among indifferent southerners in a nondescript hamlet called Solace. There his mother, the Lady Ilys, raised him with more tutors than friends, schooling him in courtesy and lore and his heritage…

And ruining him, Lord Stephan thought with a smile, for anything except Solamnic Knighthood.

Ilys had died of the plague. They said the boy had dismissed his few friends and grieved alone, in silence and with the proper vigils. That fall, Lords Gunthar and Boniface, who had been Angriff Brightblade's closest friends, arranged to have Sturm brought back to Thelgaard Keep, where he could be trained further in the ways of the Order.

Sturm hadn't taken to the North at first. He was smart, that was certain, and the years of genteel poverty had toughened him in ways that the northern boys secretly envied: He was knowledgeable in the woods and rode horseback like a seasoned Knight. But his southern ways and old Solamnic charm seemed like relics of the last generation to the urbane younger men, squires and Knights from prominent Solamnic families. They called him 'Grandpa Sturm' and laughed at his accent, his storehouse of remembered poetry, his attempts to grow a mustache.

They once laughed at his father, too, Stephan mused. Some laughed right up until the night of the siege.

It was hard going at Sturm's table, this or any night.

'Where is your banner, Brightblade?' Derek Crownguard hissed mockingly over the boards. He was nephew to the great swordsman and exceeding proud of his family ties, though he hadn't yet proved whether he shared more than blood and a name with his legendary uncle.

Derek sneered, and his burly companions, all hangers-on to the Crownguards of Foghaven, stifled their laughter. Two of them looked nervously to the High Table, where the assembled lords sat lost in memory and ritual, from the oldest loremaster and counselor to the younger war leaders, such as Gunthar and Boniface. Assured that their masters' gazes rested elsewhere, the squires turned back like hyenas, grinning and eager to feast.

'Be still, Derek!' Sturm Brightblade muttered, his brown eyes averted. It was a weak retort, the lad knew, and yet it was all he could summon against the vicious teasing of the other squires. Derek was the worst, all puffed and proud at being Lord Boniface's chosen squire, but all were difficult, all scornful and superior. His friends Caramon and Raistlin had warned Sturm in long conversations over firelight and ale that talk at the Tower of the High Clerist was quick and sharp and often political. When Sturm's fellows turned upon him with their edged words and jests about his missing father, he felt rural and awkward and disinherited.

And in fact, was he not all those things?

Sturm flushed angrily, clenching his whitened fists under the table. Derek snorted in triumph and turned to the center of the hall, where the ceremonies continued, as they had for a thousand years in this very room. The harpist, a silver-haired elf in a plain blue tunic, had stepped out from the swirl of banners, and there in the red tilt of light cast by the encircling torches, had begun to play the time-honored Song of Huma, that old contraption of myth

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