I'D WRIGGLED out of some sticky situations in the past, but my luck had run out. I was trapped, at the mercy of the boar, and I knew it would show no more mercy towards me than I had shown to its partner.

As I lay, waiting for the end, eyes locked on the boar, somebody shouted loudly above me. A hush had settled over the vampires, so the voice rang clearly through the cavern: "NO!"


A shadow leapt into the pit, darted forward into the space between me and the boar, snatched up the spear I'd dropped, jammed the blunt end into the ground, and aimed the tip at the charging boar. The boar had no time to swerve or stop. It ran heavily onto the spear and impaled itself, then crashed into my protector, who dragged it to one side so that it wouldn't fall on me. The wrestling pair collapsed into the dust. The boar struggled weakly to get back to its feet. Lost control of its legs. Grunted feebly. Then died.

As the dust cleared, strong hands seized the boar lying on top of me and hauled its carcass out of the way. As the hands located my own and helped me to my feet, I squinted and finally realized who'd leapt to my aid - Harkat Mulds!

The Little Person examined me to make sure no bones were broken, then led me away from the dead boars. Above, the vampires were speechless. Then, as we made for the doors, a couple hissed. Next, a few booed. Soon the entire Hall was filled with the sound of jeers and catcalls. "Foul!" they shouted. "Disgraceful!" "Kill them both!"

Harkat and I stopped and gazed around, astonished, at the furious vampires. A short while ago they'd been hailing me as a brave-hearted warrior - now they were calling for my blood!

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Not all the vampires were in an uproar. Mr. Crepsley, Gavner, and Kurda didn't raise their voices or demand justice. Nor did Seba, who I spotted sadly shaking his head and turning away.

As the vampires yelled at us, Vanez Blane stepped over the fence and climbed into the pit. He raised his hands for silence and gradually got it. "Sire!" he shouted to Mika Ver Leth, who was standing stone-faced by the fence. "I'm as appalled by this as any of you. But this wasn't planned and isn't Darren's doing. The Little Person doesn't know our ways and acted on his own. Don't hold this against us, I beg you."

Some of the vampires jeered when they heard that, but Mika Ver Leth waved sharply at them for quiet. "Darren," the Prince said slowly, "did you plan this with the Little Person?"

I shook my head. "I'm as surprised as anyone," I said.

"Harkat," Mika growled. "Did you interfere on your own account - or were you obeying orders?"

"No orders," Harkat replied. "Darren my... friend. Couldn't stand by... and watch... him die."

"You have defied our rules," Mika warned him.

"Your rules," Harkat retorted. "Not mine. Darren... friend."

The eagle-featured Mika looked troubled and ran a black-gloved finger over his upper lip as he considered the situation.

"We must kill them!" a General shouted angrily. "We must take both to the Hall of Death and -"

"Would you be so quick to kill Desmond Tiny's messenger?" Mr. Crepsley interrupted softly. The General who'd called for our heads lapsed into silence. Mr. Crepsley addressed the Hall. "We must not act hastily. This matter must be taken to the Hall of Princes, where it can be discussed reasonably. Harkat is not a vampire and cannot be judged as one. We do not have the right to pass sentence on him."

"What about the half-vampire?" another General spoke up. "He is subject to our laws. He failed the Trial and must be executed."

"He didn't fail!" Kurda shouted. "The Trial was interrupted. He'd killed one boar - who's to say he wouldn't have killed the other?"

"He was trapped!" the opposing General bellowed. "The boar was about to make a fatal charge!"

"Probably," Kurda agreed, "but we'll never know for sure. Darren proved his strength and ingenuity on previous Trials. Perhaps he would have shrugged off the dead boar and avoided the charge at the last moment."

"Nonsense!" the General snorted.

"Is it?" Kurda huffed, jumping down into the ring to join me, Harkat, and Vanez. "Can anyone say for sure that Darren would have lost?" He spun slowly, meeting the eyes of all in the Hall. "Can anyone say that he was in a truly hopeless position?"

There was a long, uneasy silence, broken in the end by a woman's voice - Arra Sails. "Kurda's right," she said. The vampires shifted uncomfortably - they hadn't expected the likes of Arra to side with Kurda. "The boy's situation was perilous, but not necessarily fatal. He might have survived."

"I say Darren has the right to retake the Trial," Kurda said, seizing on the uncertain silence that filled the Hall. "We should adjourn and stage it again, tomorrow."

Everybody looked to Mika Ver Leth for judgment. The Prince brooded on the matter in silence some moments, then glanced at Mr. Crepsley. "Larten? What do you say about this?"

Mr. Crepsley shrugged grimly. "It is true that Darren was not actually defeated. But breaking the rules usually means a forfeit. My relationship with Darren forces me to speak for him. Alas, I do not know how to make a case for mercy. Whatever the circumstances, he has failed the Trial."

"Larten!" Kurda screeched. "You don't know what you're saying!"

"Yes, he does," I sighed. "And he's right." Pushing Harkat away, I stood by myself and faced Mika Ver Leth. "I don't think I'd have escaped," I said honestly. "I don't want to die, but I won't ask for any special favors. If it's possible to take the Trial again, I will. If not, I won't complain."

An approving murmur ran through the Hall.

Those who'd been standing angrily by the fence settled back and waited for Mika to make his call. "You speak like a true vampire," the Prince praised me. "I do not blame you for what happened. Nor do I blame your friend - he is not one of us and cannot be expected to act as we do. There will be no measures taken against Harkat Mulds - that is a guarantee I am willing to make here and now, on my own."

Some of the vampires glared at Harkat, but none raised a voice against him. "As for your fate," Mika said, then hesitated. "I must speak with my fellow Princes and Generals before passing sentence. I don't think your life can be spared, but Kurda may have a point - perhaps it is possible to take the Trial again. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been permitted, but maybe there's an old law we can fall back on.

"Return to your cell," Mika said, "while I and the others consult with our colleagues. You'll be informed of our decision as soon as we reach one. My advice," he added in a whisper, "would be to make your peace with the gods, for I fear you will face them shortly."

I nodded obediently to Mika Ver Leth and kept my head bowed while he and the other vampires filed from the Hall.

"I won't let you perish without a fight," Kurda promised as he slipped past me. "You'll get out of this yet, I'm sure of it. There must be a way."

Then he was gone. So were Vanez Blane, Mr. Crepsley, and the rest, leaving just me and Harkat with the dead boars in the pit. Harkat looked shameful when I turned and faced him. "I did not... mean to... cause trouble," he said. "I acted... before I could... think."

"Don't worry about it," I told him. "I'd probably have done the same thing if I was in your place. Besides, the worst they can do is kill me - I'd have died anyway if you hadn't leapt to my rescue."

"You are... not angry?" Harkat asked.

"Of course not." I smiled, and we started for the exit.

What I didn't say to Harkat was that I wished he had left me to die. At least with the boar, my death would have been fast and easy to face. Now I had a long, nervous wait, which would almost certainly be followed by a gut-wrenching walk to the Hall of Death, where I'd be hoisted above the stakes and subjected to a messy, painful, and humiliating end. It would have been better to die nobly and quickly in the pit.

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