ALSO BY KRISTEN BRITAIN:
First Rider’s Call
The High King’s Tomb
THE HIGH KING’S TOMB
DAW BOOKS, INC.
DONALD A. WOLLHEIM, FOUNDER
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
ELIZABETH R. WOLLHEIM
SHEILA E. GILBERT
CROWN OF FLAME
THE BLUE DRESS
THE MAN IN THE SILK MASK
THE WALL SPEAKS
ALTON AND THE WALL
A NEW ASSIGNMENT
KING ZACHARY’S TREASURE
TO THE HAWK’S TAIL
THE KNACKER’S BOY
A SHIMMERING IN THE WOODS
WALKING THROUGH WALLS
THE GOLDEN RUDDER
KING AND PRINCE AND FUTURE QUEEN
A QUEEN’S PLACE
THE RAVEN MASK
THE WALL SPEAKS
THE GOLDEN GUARDIAN
INTO THE ARCHIVES
THE WALL SPEAKS
MERDIGEN SETS OFF
A RIDE IN THE COUNTRY
THE FROST PLACE
SHAPER OF WIND
THE WALL SPEAKS
LIBERATING THE ARM
SHIP IN A BOTTLE
AN UNEXPECTED MESSAGE
THE WALL SPEAKS
FLIGHT AND PURSUIT
A VOICE IN THE DARK
THE WALL LAMENTS
THE BLEEDING OF STONE
BLADES IN THE DARK
FIGHTING THE HEAVENS
NO ORDINARY MESSENGER
RIDER IN BLACK
FOLLOWING THE CAT
THE HOUSE OF SUN AND MOON
AVENUES OF HILLANDER
THE SILVER SPHERE
THE HIGH KING’S TOMB
THE BOOK OF THEANDURIS SILVERWOOD
THE WALL SCREAMS
KNIGHT OF THE REALM
HUMILITY AND HONOR
Thank you to my readers for their support and enduring the long waits. (It’s been a long wait for me, too!)
Thank you to Julie Czerneda, who deserves meadows full of irises for putting up with me, and Ruth Stuart also for listening, reading, and traveling.
Many thanks to the Peninsulans, past and present, for hearing the thing through: Chris Barstow, Annaliese Jakimides, Cynthia Thayer, David Fickett, and Paul Markosian; and welcome to Martha Tod Dudman.
As always, thank you to my editors, Betsy Wollheim and Debra Euler, and the whole DAW crew, as well as my agents, Anna Ghosh and Danny Baror.
Thank you to my web mage, MT O’Shaughnessy, for keeping up www.kristenbritain.com—Baaah! and Todd Edgar for assistance with the machine and some graphics stuff—Meow!
Thank you to Donato Giancola for the gorgeous painting which graces the cover of this book.
There are a number of “characters” who taught me many lessons in life, and I’d like to acknowledge them here: Fox, Carefree, Tommy, Seymour, JackO, Roman, Virginia, and so many others. Most, if not all, are gone now, but forever remembered.
Thank you to those who offered support and information that have aided with the progress of this book (i.e. suturing and sidesaddle riding), and any of those whom I’ve failed to mention. I appreciate your help.
Finally, thank you to my personal managers, to whom a percentage of my earnings do go: Percy and Gryphon. You make my monitor hairy and ensure I am walked regularly. Couldn’t have done this without you guys.
Onward to the next book…
CROWN OF FLAME
In the autumn season, hawks, falcons, and eagles followed an ancient path through the sky on their journey south for the winter, the same path their ancestors had flown since the first took wing in ages long dark to memory. Their route swept down from the northlands, along the great frothing river that flowed from the glaciers to the sea, and over a cluster of small mountains. These were the Teligmar Hills of Mirwell Province, located on the western border of Sacoridia.
Perhaps the raptors were relieved when they saw the hills bulging on the horizon, for they were landmarks that helped guide the way, and the rising north wind gave loft to wings that had many hundreds of miles yet to fly, easing the toil of the journey. They hovered on updrafts over the rounded, weathered summits, resting on air currents and keeping an eye out for prey, maybe a stray songbird intent on its own imperative to migrate, or an unwary rodent.
This year, the raptors, with their sharp vision, spotted something new and curious among the mountains: humans. Numerous humans had taken up residence on one of the summits. There were clusters of tents and other structures among the trees and rocks, wood smoke wafting in the air, voices carried by the wind, and metal glinting in the morning sun. The raptors sensed a strange power down there, something their small bird minds could not grasp, but definitely something that ruffled their feathers.
Whatever it was, the concerns of the raptors rested with their own journey south, not with the affairs of humans. They left behind the Teligmar Hills, and would soon leave the land of Sacoridia to its winter, the Earth wheeling beneath the trailing edges of their wings.
As soon as the woman stepped out of her tent, she was greeted by the excited voices of children. They clustered around her, all chattering at once, tugging on her skirt for attention, showing her where a baby tooth was newly missing, asking her to play games or tell stories. She laughed and patted heads, the crinkles around her eyes and mouth deepening.
It was a mild autumn morning, but the cold breezes swept over the top of the small mountain’s summit as they always did, tumbling leaves about her feet in whorls, and loosening a lock of steel gray hair from her braid. She tired of the wind, but the children didn’t mind it, and she’d seen plenty of hawks using it as they passed south. The mountain her people camped on was aptly named Hawk Hill.
“Now, now, my children,” she said. “There will be time to play games and tell stories later. Right now I need to see Ferdan. Ferdan? Where are you?”
A towheaded boy raised his hand and the woman waded through the children to reach him. His face was drawn, with circles under his eyes and a smudge of dirt on his chin. His shirt was not buttoned correctly, as if he had dressed himself.
“How is your mum today?” she asked. She knelt to rebutton his shirt and straighten it out.
“Not too good,” the boy said. “Coughing real bad.”
When the woman finished with his shirt, she stood and pressed a pouch fragrant with herbs into the boy’s small hand. “Tell her to take this with her tea, a pinch thrice daily, no more, no less. It will help clear her lungs. Keep water steaming in a pot nearby for her to breathe. It will make her easier. You understand? Be careful not to burn yourself.” When Ferdan’s expression of worry did not alter, she tousled his hair and said, “I’ll be along to visit her this afternoon. Now you go and see that your mum has some of that tea.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” Ferdan said, and he darted off to a lean-to draped with a stained blanket used both for privacy and to keep out the weather, the pouch clutched to his breast.
She would see to it his mother pulled through. It was a tragedy that any child should lose their mum. She shook her head and turned her attention to the rest of the children. “Isn’t it time you went to your lessons with Master Holdt?” There was whining and groaning from the children, but no real rebellion, and she shooed them away, chuckling.
Only one child remained after all the others left, a little girl who was the woman’s true granddaughter, Lala. Lala was too simple in her mind for lessons and she did not like playing with the other children. Nor did she talk. So most of the time she shadowed her grandmother or played by herself.
While the woman was Lala’s grandmother by blood, she was also known as Grandmother to all her people in the encampment. She birthed their babies, provided them with medicines when they were sick, cared for their wounds, and counseled them on matters of marriage and family. She also led them in their spiritual beliefs. When it came time to flee Sacor City and seek safe haven, it was her they had looked to; it was her they followed on the grueling journey across the country all the way west to Mirwell Province, sometimes traveling along roads, but more often than not making their way through the unforgiving wilderness of the Green Cloak Forest. It had not been easy, and not all survived the journey, but those who did expressed their gratitude for her foresight and wisdom.
She was a simple woman, glad to be of comfort to them and honored by their trust. Leaving Sacor City had meant a great deal of upheaval and sacrifice. They’d left behind trades, businesses, respectable posts in the community; farms, homesteads, and houses. She had worried most about the children in the beginning, but learned over the ensuing months just how resilient the young ones were. This was a grand adventure for them, camping and hiding out in the wilds of the countryside, and the older boys liked to play “outlaw,” which usually involved the “king” and his men running after the “outlaws” of Second Empire, and ending when the outlaws slew the enemy with the sticks they used for swords. The empire always prevailed, the lads cheering with gusto.
The hiding and camping tended to be harder on the adults, who recognized what they had given up and left behind forever. Yes, they had lost much, but they still possessed their freedom and their lives, and here they could wear their pendants or tattoos of the black tree unhidden. One day, Grandmother believed, the black tree of Mornhavonia would bloom again, but in the meantime they would not be at the mercy of king’s law.
When the king discovered the existence of Second Empire over the summer, the sect in Sacor City began to collapse almost immediately with the capture of their leader, Weldon Spurlock. It was not Weldon who had revealed them, but another of their group, Westley Uxton. Names had been given, which led to more arrests and someone else giving additional names, and so on. Grandmother managed to escape with little more than a hundred of the faithful.
Others chose to remain in Sacor City on the chance they’d not be discovered, and so had those who were too elderly or unfit to travel. Some took their own lives lest they be used by the king to acquire information, and a few were operatives who knew how to evade capture.
The refugees from Sacor City occupied one side of the gray granite summit, where children recited lessons with Master Holdt and their parents washed laundry, repaired household goods, tended chickens and goats, and prepared for stalking game along the flanks of the mountain. The soldiers camped across from them, where they currently sharpened blades, practiced swordplay, and ate breakfast. Their tents and sturdy lean-tos were tucked into clusters of boulders and against outcrops.
The soldiers were not children of the empire, but had been equally persecuted by the king. Some were bandits, mercenaries, and deserters, but most were loyalists of the old Lord Mirwell, who had attempted to depose the king two years ago. The loyalists had been forced into hiding to avoid arrest and the inevitable execution.
Grandmother was convinced it was God who had brought her people and the soldiers together, unlikely allies though they may be. Her people required protection, and she needed to start building an army, and blessing be, she found the leader of the soldiers at a crossroads during their exodus. She had no gold to pay the soldiers with, no position in life with which to reward them—at least not yet—but she had been able to give them purpose, for they shared a common enemy: the king and Sacoridia.
When the time was right, she would expand their ranks with the devout of Second Empire. Already some of the men and older boys of her sect trained with the soldiers. Others remained embedded with their units in provincial and private militias, as well as the king’s own military. When she called, they would come to her well trained and ready to attend to whatever task she set before them.
Her ancestors had been wise to melt into everyday Sacoridian society, spreading a network of sects across the provinces and into Rhovanny as well. They had infiltrated not only the military, but the trades and guilds. They ran farms and sold wares. They lived as any Sacoridian did, but secretly awaited the time when the empire would rise again.
One day they would rule over those who had been their neighbors, control all trade and the military. The empire would finally conquer this land of heathens. This was the dream of the five who founded Second Empire in the aftermath of the Long War, and Grandmother did not think the fruition of that dream far off.
Such thoughts always warmed her, made her proud of her people. Over a millennium they had endured, keeping their secrets, and waiting ever so patiently. Their day would come.
The officer who commanded the soldiers made his way across the summit to where she stood taking in the morning and halted before her. They had an appointment.
“Lala, dear,” she said, turning to her granddaughter, “fetch my basket, please.”
The little girl ducked into the tent they shared, and reemerged almost instantly with a long-handled basket that contained skeins of Grandmother’s yarn.
The soldier awaiting her pleasure was tall and broad-shouldered and moved with the grace of any well-trained, disciplined warrior. He wore tough fighting leathers and a serviceable longsword in a scarred sheath on his right hip. His flesh also bore the scars of battle, notably a patch over his eye and the hook on his right wrist that replaced his missing hand. He had once been a favorite of the old lord-governor’s, and proved experienced and highly capable. Grandmother liked him very much.
“Good morning, Captain Immerez,” she said.
“Morning.” His voice was low and gravelly. “We’re ready for you.”
She nodded and followed him across the summit. Without looking, she knew Lala tagged along carrying the basket. The girl was always interested, or perhaps entertained, by her grandmother’s activities, whether it was healing the sick or punishing transgressors. Since Lala did not speak or show much in the way of emotion, it was hard to say what she thought about anything. Still, she was biddable, and her silence did not bother Grandmother in the least, for she was used to it. She had cut the girl from the womb of her own dead daughter nine years ago, and even then, though the baby had survived, she uttered not a sound when she emerged into the world, and had not made a sound since.
The captain led them to a corner of the encampment where the prisoner sat bound beneath the watchful gaze of his guard. The man was a wreck of welts, bruises, and gashes. No doubt there were broken bones beneath abused flesh.
“Jeremiah,” Grandmother said, “I am disappointed in you.”
At the sound of his name, the prisoner looked up at her. One of his eyes was swollen shut.
“Captain Immerez tells me you were seen and overheard talking to some king’s men down in Mirwellton. You were starting to give them details about us. Is this so?”
Jeremiah did not answer, and Grandmother took this as confirmation of his guilt.
“Thank God the captain’s men stopped you before you ruined us,” she said. “Exposing our secrets is one of the highest acts of betrayal you could commit. Why? Why would you do such a thing?”
Bloody saliva oozed from Jeremiah’s mouth. Many of his teeth had been smashed during the interrogation. It took him a few moments to get any words out, and when they came, they were a wet whisper. “I do not believe. I do not believe in the destiny of Second Empire.”
Grandmother schooled herself to calmness, though his words made her want to cry. She’d known Jeremiah since he was a toddler, had taught him with the other children in the ways of the empire, and she loved him as she loved all the others.
Before she could speak, he continued, “I like…like my life in Sacoridia. Do not need empire.”
Grandmother wanted to cover her ears at his words, but she could not deny the truth of his betrayal. It had happened to others, other descendents of Arcosia who adapted to life as Sacoridians so well they gave up on the empire, turned their backs on it. Whole sects had faded away; others had watered down bloodlines so much by marrying outside the society they were shunned. Those of the blood who turned away but did not seem likely to expose Second Empire were left alone in the hope they would return to the fold. Others, like Jeremiah, who had actively tried to betray them, were dealt with.
“You would turn away from your heritage and all it means?” She shook her head in disbelief and he did not deny her accusation. “You would have destroyed us—your family, your neighbors, your kin.”
“Just want to farm,” Jeremiah said. “Didn’t like leaving my land. Have peace. Nothing wrong with Sacoridia. Don’t need empire.”
Grandmother closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “You know what this means, Jeremiah?”
Yes, he would know. Every one of them knew the consequences of betrayal. Second Empire had remained hidden for so long because of the doctrine of secrecy it adhered to. Punishment against transgressors was harsh to protect that secret.
“Jeremiah,” she said, “I have no choice but to pronounce you a traitor.”
He did not protest, he did not say a word.
“Was anyone else involved in this heresy?” she asked the captain.
“The king’s men he talked to were ambushed and killed,” the captain replied. “There was no one else. We were thorough in our questioning.”
She nodded. The evidence of their thoroughness sat before her. “You have brought this upon yourself,” she told Jeremiah.
He bowed his head, accepting his doom.
Grandmother beckoned Lala forward and took her basket of yarn from the girl. “Now be a good girl and go fetch my bowl. You know the one.”
Lala nodded and trotted off.
Grandmother gazed into her basket at her yarn. There were skeins dyed deep red, indigo, and an earthy brown, and a small ball of sky blue. She chose the red, drawing out a strand about the length of her arm, and cut it with a sharp little knife that hung from her waist. She set the basket aside.
Jeremiah rocked back and forth at her feet, mumbling prayers to God. Even if he betrayed his people, at least he had not assimilated so far that he had abandoned the one true God in favor of the multitudes the heathen Sacoridians worshipped.
From then on she ignored Jeremiah and concentrated on the strand of yarn, which she started tying into knots. Intricate knots, knots that had been taught to her by her mother, as her mother’s mother had taught, and down the maternal line of her family through the millennia. Only since summer, however, had she been able to call the true power to the knots.
As Grandmother worked, sparks flew from her fingers, though they did not ignite the yarn. Cook fires around the encampment dwindled and sputtered as though the life had been sucked from them.
“Feed the fires,” she instructed Captain Immerez. She barely registered him passing the order along to his subordinates.
With each loop and tug of the yarn she worked the art, speaking words of power that were Arcosian in origin, but not of the Arcosian language. She bound the power as she tightened each knot.
The energy of the cook fires flowed through her and into the knots. She did not see red yarn woven about her fingers, but a golden strand of flame. It did not burn her.
When she finished, she held in her hands what looked a mass of snarled red yarn to those not gifted with the art. To Grandmother, it was a crown of fire. She placed it on Jeremiah’s head.
“Safir!” she commanded, and it blazed.
There were easier, more direct ways to execute traitors, it was true, but this was uniquely Arcosian, and thus fitting. The annals of her people told of the crown of fire as one form of punishing a traitor. It also provided a graphic example to others who might harbor secret thoughts of rebellion. They could not help but recognize her power and authority when they witnessed nothing more than a harmless bit of yarn bring about an excruciating death.
Jeremiah’s hair smoldered and crackled, then burned away. The yarn sank into his skull, greedily feeding on flesh to fuel its flame of power. When Jeremiah began screaming, the captain stuffed a rag into his mouth that a soldier had been using to oil his sword.
Smoke rose from Jeremiah’s head and his body spasmed, his back arching. The skin of his face and skull blackened and bubbled with blisters as the flames burned from the inside out. With a final muffled scream, Jeremiah heaved over and died.
“I must be quick now,” Grandmother said, feeling fevered herself. “Lala? There you are. The bowl, please.”
The bowl was made of nondescript earthenware, the spiderweb crackling of the glaze stained a rusty color. The vessel had always been used for the purpose for which Grandmother now employed it. It had been handed down her maternal line like the knowledge of how to tie the knots. Lala set the bowl in place.
“Good girl,” Grandmother said. She crouched beside Jeremiah. He may have tried to betray his people, but now he could give back and maybe God would forgive him, allow him into the eternal meadow. Really, she had done the young man a kindness—he now could sin no further and perhaps had not lost all chance of gaining entrance to paradise. She thrust her knife into the artery of his neck and held the bowl to catch his blood.
Captain Immerez hovered nearby while his men stayed clear of the grotesque scene of the bleeding of Jeremiah with his blackened, smoking head. “I’ve news for you, but thought it better to wait till this task was completed.”
Grandmother glanced over her shoulder at him. “Go ahead.”
He nodded. “I’ve had word that the parchment has been located.”
Grandmother grinned. “How wonderful!”
“Yes. Events have been set in motion in Sacor City just as you wished, and we should obtain the parchment very soon.”
Saddened as Grandmother was by Jeremiah’s betrayal and the necessity of his death, Immerez’s news buoyed her spirits.
It also pleased her that Jeremiah’s blood would not go to waste, but would aid her cause. Her ordinary looking bowl would keep the blood warm and fresh till she needed to use it. Her happiness grew even as crimson liquid filled the bowl to the brim.
THE BLUE DRESS
Tall grasses whipped against the Green Rider’s legs as he ran. He cast terrified glances over his shoulder, his breaths harsh and ragged, and punctuated by the thud of hoofbeats behind him. He caught his toe in a hole and plunged to the ground. Desperately he tore at grass stalks to pull himself upright and continue his flight.
And still the hoofbeats followed at a steady, measured pace, never faltering, never slowing, coming inexorably, unrelentingly behind him.
A strangled cry of triumph erupted from the Rider’s throat as safety appeared just ahead. He hurled himself between the rails of the fence, sprawling at his captain’s feet.
“Well, that didn’t go very well, did it?” Laren Mapstone said.
On the other side of the fence, the source of Ben’s terror gazed down at him with big brown eyes and snorted.
“And I suppose you’re pleased with yourself,” Laren told the gelding.
Robin flicked his ears and shook the reins, then dropped his nose into the grass to graze.
Laren gazed down at Ben who labored for breath, more from fright, she thought, than exertion. One day he’d have to get over his irrational fear of horses—he had to! What was a Green Rider without a mount? A Green Pedestrian? She had no idea from where the young man’s fear originated. As a mender, he tended the messiest and goriest of injuries without hesitation, but healthy, intelligent horses inspired terror in him. Most Riders loved horses.
Karigan strolled across the pasture, following Ben’s path and plucking at the tips of grasses as she went. When she reached Robin, she grabbed his reins and jerked his nose out of the grass. Green slobber dripped from his bit.
“We did better today,” Karigan said. “Ben actually got his toe in the stirrup to mount.”
Laren supposed it was progress, but she didn’t feel as optimistic as Karigan sounded. She was getting used to having Karigan around to help out while Mara, her recently promoted Chief Rider, continued to recover from the horrific burns she had received when fire had destroyed Rider barracks during the summer. Karigan took care of Rider accounts and scheduling, and lent a hand with settling in the new Riders that seemed to be appearing on her step weekly now—Laren couldn’t help but smile at the thought of more Riders to help fill their ranks.
“We were doing fine,” Karigan continued, giving Robin a stern look, “until this one decided to knock Ben off balance.”
Robin stamped when a fly alighted on his shoulder, his expression guileless. Laren squinted at him, not believing it for an instant. He looked like he had enjoyed himself while “chasing” Ben.
“I think you’re done here for the day,” Laren told Ben. “You may go report to Master Destarion for the afternoon.”
Ben’s relief was palpable. “Yes, Captain.” He patted some dust off his trousers and strode toward the castle, where he was due for a shift in the mending wing.
“What are we going to do with him?” Laren wondered, watching him go.
Karigan stroked Robin’s neck. “Give him time, I suppose. He dedicated himself to a life of mending the sick and injured, and he’s trained for years, only to have a wrinkle thrown into his plans, unforeseen and unasked for.”
Laren eyed Karigan sharply, knowing what a struggle it had been for her to leave behind her life as a merchant to answer the Rider call, and how much she had resented it. But Laren could find no resentment in Karigan’s demeanor now. She was merely stating fact.
Something behind Laren caught Karigan’s attention. Laren followed her gaze to find two finely dressed gentlemen approaching, one bearing packages wrapped in linen and secured with strings.
“We seek Karigan G’ladheon. Might you be she?” the first man, a stout fellow, asked. It was clear the other was a servant, for though his clothing was fine, it lacked the ornamentation of the lead fellow’s.
“What is he up to now?” Karigan muttered under her breath. She cleared her throat and said more loudly, “I’m Karigan G’ladheon.”
The stout fellow, out of breath from the short walk across castle grounds, assessed Karigan for a moment with a raised eyebrow, then placed his hand over his heart and bowed. “Good day, mistress. I am Akle Mundoy, of Clan Mundoy, from the guild, at your service.”
Laren frowned. He could only mean the merchants guild. The “he” Karigan wondered about had to be her father, Stevic G’ladheon, one of the premier merchants of Sacoridia.
Karigan copied Mundoy’s bow. “And I’m at yours.”
Mundoy nodded. “I bring you a message from your esteemed father, and one from Bernardo Coyle, of the Coyle merchanting family in Rhovanny.”
Karigan stared in disbelief at the two envelopes Mundoy passed her, one sealed with a blue and purple ribbon Laren recognized immediately, having opened enough letters from Stevic G’ladheon herself.
“And there are gifts,” Mundoy added, gesturing at his servant. “My man Reston will bear them to your chambers, if you like.”
“Er, chamber,” Karigan corrected. “Thank you, no. I’ll—” Then she glanced at Robin.
“Let me take him,” Laren said, and Karigan gratefully handed over the reins and slipped through the fence rails.
Laren sensed some undercurrent here, that this merchant, Mundoy, was making judgment on Clan G’ladheon based on Karigan’s appearance and circumstances. Why was she uniformed? Where was her servant? Only one chamber? Appearances must be just as important to merchants as to nobles. If Karigan appeared anything less than prosperous, rumors would spread across the lands, perhaps damaging the clan’s image.
“You’ve a servant to convey these?” Mundoy asked.
Karigan retained a pleasant expression, though Laren could tell it was forced. “I will see to the packages personally.” She addressed the servant rather than his master.
“They are an armful, but not overly heavy, mistress,” Reston assured her.
Karigan took them into her arms and Mundoy said, “Reston will return tomorrow for your reply to Master Coyle’s message. Good day.”
Mundoy struck off, his faithful servant close on his heels, Karigan glowering after the pair.
“Fish merchant,” she muttered. Then she turned to Laren. “May I be excused?”
Laren nodded her assent and Karigan trotted off toward the castle. Absently she stroked Robin’s neck. “What do you suppose that was all about?”
“I can’t believe it,” Karigan fumed a few hours later. She held the dress up to her shoulders so Mara could fully see it. It was made of deep, sapphire blue velvet patterned with leaves. Depending on the light and fold of the fabric, it took on the hue of midnight blue. The sleeves were puffed and slashed to reveal blue silk, and silver thread glistened in the sunlight beaming through the narrow window.
Mara, propped against a pile of pillows on her bed, smiled. “It brings out your eyes. It’s gorgeous.”
“But—” Karigan frowned, realizing how petty she must sound. It was deceptive to stand here next to Mara, for her near side appeared unchanged and unmarred, but when she gazed at Mara straight on, half her face looked like melted, puckered wax, and the hair on that side of her head grew back in crazy, curly patches. Much of the right side of her body had been burned. Only Ben’s intervention, the use of his magical healing ability, had helped Mara survive the wounds and her ensuing illness. In fact, the speed with which she was recovering was remarkable, and Ben’s ability had diminished some of the disfigurement.
“Yes, it’s gorgeous,” Karigan admitted. Her father had spared no expense on this dress and had sent along additional funds so she could have it properly fitted. It was more the intent behind the gift than the actual dress that concerned her. She fell into the chair next to Mara’s bed and let the dress blanket her legs.
“And so who is this Braymer Coyle?” Mara asked. “Is he handsome?”
Karigan sighed. “I’ve no idea. We were children last time we met. His father, like mine, is a textile merchant, but from Rhovanny; in fact he’s one of my father’s leading competitors. Braymer is the heir to the family business.”
Mara raised an eyebrow that no longer existed. “I see. So this is about more than two old friends getting their children together.”
Karigan nodded. “Yes. It’s about two middle-aged men concerned about their legacies and expanding their textile empires.” She rolled her eyes. “If Braymer and I get along, they are undoubtedly hoping for a–a marriage alliance.”
“And here I thought nobles were the only ones who worried about such things.”
“It isn’t the first time my father has tried to find a suitable match for me, though he’d never force it on me the way some would. But this—” and she rumpled the dress in emphasis “—this is serious.”
An amused smile formed on Mara’s lips, and there was humor in her eyes Karigan had not seen in a long while. “Much more serious than adventures in Blackveil and visitations by spirits of the dead?”
“Thank you for putting it in perspective for me.”
“My pleasure. I should think an afternoon out in that beautiful dress, and on the arm of a wealthy man, a nice change of pace for you from cleaning out the new Rider wing. New faces, different sights.”
Karigan took Mara’s unburned hand into her own. “I’m sorry—I’m not thinking. Who am I to complain?” Mara had not left the mending wing since the night of the fire, and rarely left her room as she healed.
“Karigan G’ladheon, don’t be silly. Your visit here brightens my day, and gives me things to think about other than my treatments. Don’t worry about me—I’ll soon be out of here, and Captain Mapstone is already keeping me busy with paperwork.” She patted a pile on her bedside table. “You went through so much this summer, and you have seemed so sad of late. You deserve a rest day, an afternoon out, and I want you to come back and tell me everything.”
So Karigan hadn’t been able to hide anything from Mara after all. Yes, she had been sad, and angry, but for reasons she would never explain. Not even to Mara. “I can’t expect it will be very exciting. We’re going to a tea room down on Gryphon Street and then to the Sacor City War Museum.”
Karigan left the mending wing for one of the main castle corridors, the bundle of velvet dress spilling over her arms. Not so long ago all she had desired was to follow in her father’s footsteps as a merchant and she had resented the Rider call for changing the course of her life. And now she resented her father for trying to draw her back?
She thought he had finally understood that for the time being, she served as a Green Rider, a king’s messenger, and it left no room in her life for a role as a merchant. And now he was trying to marry her off? Not in so many words, of course. The pretense was that she was to welcome Braymer Coyle on his first excursion to Sacor City. This was reinforced by a polite request from Braymer’s father that she show his son the city, and the gift that had accompanied it—a delicate silver necklace that matched the silver threads of her new dress.
She snorted. Their fathers had been in cahoots.
Well, she would take Mara’s advice and just relax and enjoy the change of pace. A quiet change of pace, she decided. No uniform, no sword, no enemies.
And Mara was right: she had been sad.
Her progress was hampered by a gaggle of young noblewomen clogging the corridor. With the announcement of King Zachary’s betrothal to Lady Estora, Coutre relations had descended upon the castle from all directions and were still coming, undoubtedly emptying the whole of Coutre Province.
The women were laughing and in high spirits. Karigan marveled at how the announcement of a wedding could turn people into ninnies. The fact that it was the king’s wedding didn’t help matters—the foolishness extended across the entire country.
Moving at the core of the finery and laughter was one who outshone them all, with her sweep of golden hair and statuesque figure. Lady Estora Coutre did not come across as silly or foolish—far from it. Rather she was serene, and while others giggled, she gave only a distant smile. It was almost as if she moved in a different world than they did.
Lady Estora was reputed to be the greatest beauty of the lands, and many anxious suitors had come and gone, had been turned away by her father who had settled for nothing less than the high king as the bridegroom for his firstborn daughter.
At that moment, Estora turned, as if sensing Karigan’s gaze, and caught her eyes. Karigan clutched her dress to her chest and sucked in a breath.
“Karigan?” Estora said.
Some of the gaggle paused to see whom she addressed.
Karigan exhaled, turned on her heel, and struck off in the opposite direction.
“How rude,” one of the noblewomen loudly commented. “What do you want with a commoner of that ilk anyway?”
Karigan never heard Estora’s reply. They had been friends, but ever since the betrothal announcement, Karigan had been unable to speak with her, or even to face her.
She took a long, circuitous route through the servants’ quarter of the castle, bypassing cooks and laundresses and runners. Here she felt comfortable and inconspicuous among her own kind. There was no chance she would run into Estora again, and there was especially no chance of encountering King Zachary.
She’d not gone before King Zachary since…that night. The starry night he had expressed his love for her atop the castle roof. He had chosen to tell her his feelings even as the ink on the marriage contract with Lord Coutre was drying.
Why had she fallen for her monarch, one who was unobtainable for the likes of her? His timing had been abysmal, and even as she yearned to be held in his arms, she wished he had said nothing to her at all. Maybe then she could have gotten through this whole marriage ordeal without hurting so much. If he truly cared, he would have kept his feelings to himself.
It was next to impossible not to feel pain with all the reminders of the betrothal around the castle; all the talk she overheard about wedding plans, of the children Zachary and Estora would produce. Even Karigan’s fellow Riders were caught up in the excitement.
It drowned out more important matters. It wasn’t so long ago that the lands had been threatened by a presence in Blackveil Forest which had been no less than the shadow of Mornhavon the Black, an old and deadly enemy. Had everyone forgotten already, amid all the wedding foolishness, that sometime in the future he would be back, and angry in the extreme?
She was grinding her teeth by the time she reached the lower sections of the castle. It didn’t help that Alton, whom she considered a dear friend, had decided he hated her for some reason she couldn’t fathom. She would never understand men. They were incomprehensible, and she did not hold out much hope for Braymer Coyle.
Karigan sighed as she stepped into the Rider wing. It was part of a more ancient section of the castle, and here the stonework was rougher, the walls closer, and the arched ceiling lower. Long abandoned by the Green Riders, and by everyone else for that matter, it had cleaned up nicely, but it would never replace the old barracks that had housed the king’s messengers for two hundred years before fire demolished it.
Someone had seen to hanging bright tapestries along the corridor walls. She would have liked to enlarge the arrow slits that served as windows in each of the tiny chambers, but was unable to for reasons of defense. Overall, despite the improvements that had been made, it was still a dark, gloomy place, but she had to admit that it was getting better. Especially with all the life the new Riders brought to it.
Even now, Ty Newland stood with arms folded, overseeing Fergal Duff, a new Rider, and Yates Cardell, a not-so-new Rider, move an awkward and rather heavy wardrobe down the corridor. The two grunted with effort and sweated profusely, their rolled-up sleeves revealing tautly corded muscles. Ty in contrast, looked as cool and impeccable as usual. The others called him “Rider Perfect” behind his back, but Karigan suspected that if he knew, he’d be rather pleased.
“Good afternoon, Karigan,” Ty said.
Fergal, upon seeing her, straightened, which shifted the load of the wardrobe onto Yates, who issued a garbled expletive.
“Hello, Rider G’ladheon,” Fergal said, oblivious to Yates’ strain.
He was maybe all of fifteen years old, and full of the bright innocence of one who had not been a Green Rider long. It amazed her how eager the novice Riders were about their new lives and the prospect of meeting danger in the course of their work. As part of their training, they heard about the legends and history of the king’s messengers—the little that was known, anyway. Quickly becoming part of the recent history were accounts of Karigan’s own exploits. She had caught more than one wide-eyed gaze cast in her direction from among the new Riders. Several even paused in their own weapons practice to watch her train with the fearsome Arms Master Drent.
Another male not high on Karigan’s happy list. He had insisted on continuing to train her, and unfortunately, Captain Mapstone agreed.
“Fergal!” Yates cried in a strangled tone. “Pay attention!”
“Yes, sir.” The young Rider again took on more of the weight of the wardrobe.
“Sir?” Karigan asked Ty.
“The young are impressionable, and at the moment, Fergal’s deference is keeping Yates cooperative.”
Karigan shook her head and ducked into her chamber. It just wasn’t the same as her old room at the barracks that had overlooked the green of pasture and grazing messenger horses, but it was quiet.
“Ow!” Yates howled. “That was, and I put the emphasis on was, my toe!”
Mostly quiet, she amended. She shut the door and hung her dress in the dark depths of her own monstrous wardrobe. Garth had found this, and other royal castoffs with which to furnish the new Rider wing, in a storage room somewhere in the castle.
The rich blue and tailoring of her dress looked odd hanging among all the green of her uniforms, like something from another place, another world. And she supposed it was. Her world was now that of the Green Riders, not that of a merchant, and certainly not that of a young woman caught up in more ordinary pursuits, such as attracting a profitable marriage alliance.
The world of the Green Riders was a dangerous one. Riders were not particularly long lived, and Karigan had come close to losing her own life more than once. She had lost count of how many Riders died violent deaths since she had been called. Her own brooch once belonged to a Rider she found impaled with two black arrows and dying in the road.
If she survived her tenure as a Rider, she knew that other world would be out there waiting for her, and that she’d have incredible tales to tell her grandchildren.
The bell down in the city rang out four hour, and she sat on the edge of her narrow bed, gazing into the open wardrobe. The silvery threads of her dress did not sparkle as brightly as the gold threads of the winged horse insignia on the sleeves of her uniform.
Not one to seek sanctuary, Karigan found it now in the dim light that filtered into her room through her narrow window. Here she heard no words about weddings, nor did she have to look upon preparations. No one was trying to kill her at the moment, and she hadn’t even seen the hint of a ghost in a couple months. More important, there was no sign of trouble at the wall. So far. Perhaps her days of danger were over, and some future Rider would deal with Mornhavon the Black. Maybe Alton would fix the wall before Mornhavon returned.
A sort of contentment blanketed her, and she fell asleep, dreaming of walking through a garden in a deep green velvet dress, which sparkled in the sunshine with threads of golden fire.
“Look at you,” Tegan said in a hushed voice. “Beautiful!”
She tilted the mirror so Karigan could get a better glimpse of herself, but it was too small for her to see a full view. She decided she’d just have to take Tegan’s word for it that she wasn’t about to embarrass herself.
Karigan had needed a great deal of help getting ready—this was not the simple attire of her girlhood, but a complicated system of undergarments, padding, layers of skirts, and the laces necessary to hold it all together. The worst part was the dratted whalebone corset Tegan had cinched tight, squishing all of Karigan’s innards and making the scar tissue of a not-so-old stab wound throb. It plumped up her unremarkable bosom into something…miraculous. Fortunately the seamstress in town had altered the bodice, with its swooping neckline, to perfection. A slight error in measurement would have been far too revealing.
What was her father thinking by sending her a dress like this? Well, obviously he wanted to impress Braymer Coyle with her, um, feminine wiles. Or maybe, just maybe, he didn’t see her as a little girl anymore.
Encased in the dress and its various trappings, Karigan found she could not breathe or bend, and that the layers of skirts felt like they weighed a hundred pounds. Her shoes, comprised of silk brocade dyed to match the dress with narrow wooden soles, were clasped to her feet with silver buckles. The contraptions produced dainty-looking feet but pinched her toes and made walking a treacherous endeavor. She glanced with longing at her supple leather riding boots standing at attention next to her wardrobe and hoped she’d survive the day without breaking any bones.
As the daughter of a merchant, she had always worn all the finest, latest fashions, but throughout her childhood she had admired the sophisticated women attired in their elegant dresses as they paraded about Corsa’s most exclusive shopping district and attended socials. At the time, she could hardly wait to be of an age to join them, and she had fantasized about dresses just like the one that now held her captive. What had she been thinking?
“I feel like a puffy blue blob,” Karigan said, stroking the patterned velvet with a gloved hand. Even her head felt funny with her hair piled up on it and held in place with an armory of pins, combs, and ribbons. She figured the hardware equaled the weight of her saber.
“The blue is wonderful.” Tegan’s eyes feasted on Karigan’s dress. She came from a clan of dyers and knew quality when she saw it. It was even possible the dye had come from her clan. “Oh, we must not forget your necklace,” she said. She opened the ornate porcelain box it came in and drew out the silver chain with a crescent moon pendant hanging from it.
Karigan was surprised a Rhovan would choose the symbol of the god most Sacoridians worshipped, Aeryc, as a gift. Rhovans preferred to worship the goddess of the sun, Aeryon. Perhaps Braymer’s father thought she was of a religious disposition and that this would please her. Or maybe the Coyles were religious and her father had exaggerated some facts about Clan G’ladheon to impress them. It wouldn’t surprise her in the least if he had.
Tegan clasped the chain around Karigan’s neck. The only other piece of “jewelry” she wore was her Rider brooch. It had been something of a challenge to figure out where to pin it. Ordinarily it was attached to her uniform above her heart, but presently there was not enough cloth in that region to hold it, so she had clasped it close to her shoulder. It was an awkward placement, but by the brooch’s special nature, its true form would remain invisible to everyone except other Riders.
Tegan helped wrap a matching shawl around Karigan’s shoulders and handed her a little drawstring purse. She then made Karigan turn all the way around.
Tegan clapped her hands together. “You are…” she paused, as if words failed her. “You are utterly transformed. You…you outshine even Lady Estora.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Tegan.”
“Truly, you are stunning, my dear. A noble lady.”
“Oh, my.” Karigan smiled faintly, knowing how her father would react to that comment. Stevic G’ladheon was not fond of aristocrats.
“It’s getting late,” Tegan said. “You should probably head for the castle entrance.”
Karigan grimaced. “I’m not sure I can move.” The walk to the castle entrance suddenly seemed daunting though normally she wouldn’t have thought twice about it. She sucked in a breath and wobbled out into the corridor.
Everything in the corridor stopped. Riders who had been chatting fell silent. Others striding by halted. Anyone going about their business came to a standstill and gawked. Particularly the males.
Tegan squeezed through the doorway around Karigan’s skirts. “It’s my pleasure to introduce Her Ridership, Lady Karigan.”
The Riders hooted and clapped, some of the females oohing and aahing over the dress. Karigan, taken aback, did not know what to say or do besides blush profusely.
Yates pushed his way forward and bowed with a mischievous grin, then offered her his arm. “Might I have the honor of escorting Her Ridership to the castle entrance?”
Ordinarily Yates might receive a sarcastic retort for such an offer, but this time Karigan was actually relieved, and she took his proffered arm. The challenge of walking in the blasted shoes would be easier now that she had someone to lean on.
How does Estora manage this every day? Actually, this was beyond an everyday dressing affair for most anyone, even Estora, who could make rags look elegant.
Yates was the perfect gentleman as he escorted her through the castle corridors. There were many rumors about Yates and his exploits with women, and while their veracity was uncertain, she was sure having half the castle population observe them together would send tongues wagging, something that would not displease Yates in the least.
During the seemingly endless journey to the castle entrance, men—soldiers and courtiers alike—bowed out of her way. She felt their lingering looks on her long after she had passed them by, and warmth blossomed in her cheeks. The glances she received from women were more critical and appraising. Some of these people had seen her a hundred times before as she went about her regular duties, but now they seemed not to recognize her. Maybe it was because when uniformed, she was just another servant, insignificant and common and easily overlooked. She bit her bottom lip in discomfort, suddenly feeling like she was trying to masquerade as someone she wasn’t.
As it turned out, there was a goodly number of courtiers dressed in their finest and glittering with precious gems heading in the same direction.
“There’s a garden party being held down in the noble quarter today, in honor of King Zachary and Lady Estora’s betrothal,” Yates explained.
Just what she needed to hear.
They wove through the ever thickening crowd of nobles to reach the entrance, some of whom seemed to have drenched themselves in heavy perfumes. Karigan gasped on the stench, expelling what little air she could get into her lungs, which were crushed by the hellacious corset.
Finally they broke free and walked out onto the front steps of the main castle entrance, into the fresh air. Karigan blinked in the sunshine, praising the gods it wasn’t raining. She didn’t think the velvet or her ridiculous shoes would fare well in wet conditions. It was a fine, mellow autumn day, neither too hot nor too cold. Another blessing.
Lined up along the drive were numerous shining carriages with pairs of matching horses, all their harness leathers and brasses gleaming. Grooms and drivers stood ready to aid their noble passengers into their carriages.
“Uh oh,” Karigan said.
“What’s wrong?” Yates asked.
“I don’t know which belongs to Braymer. I don’t even know what Braymer looks like.”
Then a stylish black carriage pulled by matching black horses bypassed the others. It bore a small but obvious sun banner of Rhovanny. The passengers were two finely dressed gentlemen.
“Could that be him?” Yates asked, pointing out the carriage.
Karigan shrugged. “It could be some Rhovan noble come to join the festivities.”
“But everyone’s heading out, not in.”
The two gentlemen disembarked from the carriage, one older, one younger, and both appearing to be at a loss as they gazed upon the gathering of folk at the entrance. Just as Karigan had no idea of what Braymer looked like, he had no way of knowing what she looked like.
“I think that must be him,” she told Yates, indicating the younger of the two. She started forward, but Yates’ hand on her arm forestalled her.
“Allow me,” he said.
Before she could say otherwise, he hopped down the steps to the drive and hailed the two gentlemen. Even from this distance, she could see Yates looking the younger of the two up and down, assessing him as a protective older brother might. Karigan had to suppress a laugh.
Presently Yates returned with the two men behind him. Braymer had turned out rather well, she thought. He was dark haired and complexioned, as many Rhovans were, with smooth handsome features and brown eyes. His frock coat of jet and cream-colored silk waistcoat held an understated elegance. He was plainly rich, but not ostentatious. Some merchants had a knack for flaunting their wealth in gaudy colors and jewels, but she was glad to see that the Coyle family was not of this ilk.
He grinned broadly as he approached and she decided she liked his smile. He moved easily up the steps and presented himself to her in traditional merchant fashion, with a hand over his heart and a deep bow.
“Greetings, Karigan G’ladheon. I am Braymer Coyle, at your service.” His command of the common tongue was flawless.
For one panicked moment, Karigan was caught between bowing and a more ladylike curtsy. A bow might send her off balance and headlong down the steps. Maybe Braymer or Yates would catch her. Thinking it better to avoid a spectacle, she compromised between the two, dipping and curtsying.
“And I’m at yours,” she said.
He then took her gloved hand in his and kissed it, and rather suddenly, she was quite caught up in a fancy of being a princess, and he her prince. Even the people around them bowed and curtsied.
Bowing? Curtsying? She glanced around, her heart fluttering, only to discover King Zachary and Lady Estora, flanked by somber Weapons in black, joining her on the top step.
Something withered inside her. The castle grounds grew uncommonly quiet, except for the stray scrape of a hoof down on the drive and the shuffle of feet. For a long-drawn-out moment, everything stilled until Karigan regained enough sense to curtsy for her monarch.
The man who had told her he loved her.
Braymer, still holding her hand, fell to his knee upon realizing he was in the presence of Sacoridia’s high king.
King Zachary filled her vision with his autumn colors as the sun struck the fillet that crowned his head of amber hair. They stared at one another as though stunned by the light of day.
It was Lady Estora who broke the silence. “Karigan!” She strode over—with ease, Karigan noted—and clapped her hands together. “Your dress! You! Absolutely beautiful!”
It took a moment for Karigan to unglue her gaze from the king and to give Estora more than a passing glance, and she nearly snorted, for Estora was her usual radiant self, the great beauty of Sacoridia, with her hair of spun gold. Karigan, by comparison, was a peasant girl in rags.
“Karigan?” the king said as if disbelieving his eyes. “I mean, Rider G’ladheon?”
Her cheeks and neck were burning, and she’d probably gone blotchy across the exposed portion of her chest.
The king cleared his throat. “I–I did not know you would be attending Lord Meere’s garden party this afternoon.”
Karigan tugged on Braymer’s hand so he would rise. “We’re not, sire.” She glanced significantly at Braymer.
The king drew his eyebrows together, bemused, and he stroked his beard.
Yates, sensing undercurrents ebbing and flowing, but not knowing exactly what or why, interceded. “Excuse me, Your Highness, but if any of the carriages are to move, we must get Master Coyle’s out of the way first.”
It wasn’t entirely true, but Karigan blessed his quick thinking.
The king, as if stunned by the sight of Karigan in anything other than green, made a weak gesture. “Of course. Proceed.”
With another bow, Braymer led Karigan down the steps and over to his waiting carriage, the older gentleman, his servant, falling in step behind them. Karigan was relieved, with that audience looking on, that she hadn’t floundered too badly in the idiotic shoes, or fallen. The carriage driver and Braymer made her ascent into the carriage as effortless as possible.
When all were seated, the driver snapped the reins and the horses stepped out smartly. Karigan glanced once more at the king watching them from atop the steps. He must wonder why she was dressed up, where she was going, and who the young man was that accompanied her.
Good, she thought, not without a certain amount of spiteful satisfaction.
The carriage ride proved stiff and awkward with Styles, Braymer’s manservant, watching Karigan down his nose. He queried after Karigan’s chaperone, for surely the young lady must be accompanied by one, and when she informed him that she indeed had none, he grunted with an expression of displeasure, and spoke in rapid Rhovan to Braymer. Braymer’s reply was sharp.
Karigan did not know much Rhovan, but she caught the gist of the discussion. Rhovanny was a far more conservative country in regard to its beliefs and customs, and a woman’s place in society, than Sacoridia. The women might toil in the fields, bear endless children, or manage a husband’s lands and household while he attended to “business” elsewhere, but it was rare for a woman to own a business, and unheard of for a woman to serve the king in a uniformed capacity, as Karigan did. Women bearing swords were considered immodest; those who admitted to such aspirations were regarded as ill of mind, and were treated as such.
Rhovanny tolerated the larger role women played in Sacoridian society. It had to if it wanted to participate in commercial and political endeavors with its neighbor. Rhovanny also knew Sacoridia’s history: women, and even children, had taken up arms during the Long War to defend the decimated country from the legions of Mornhavon the Black when so many of the menfolk had been slain on the field of battle. It had widened the role of women forever after, and though women could choose to continue on in traditional roles or to operate businesses or to serve the monarchy in many capacities, those who chose to carry swords remained in the minority.
Rhovans were polite about Sacoridia’s perceived oddities, but they didn’t necessarily like them or approve of them. Styles certainly did not, and Karigan was sure the absence of a chaperone placed her in the category of “loose women” as defined by Rhovan culture. She wondered what Styles would think if he saw her in uniform with her saber girded at her side. She smiled at the image that came to mind, and thought that this was going to be an interesting afternoon.
The carriage rumbled over cobblestones off Sacor City’s main thoroughfare, the Winding Way, onto Gryphon Street, one of the city’s more artistic districts. Here bookbinders and jewelers practiced their crafts, and sculptors and painters exhibited their work, hoping to attract the attention of wealthy patrons. Music wafted from an open, top story window, floating down to the street below. Fine harp music it was, music of the heavens, followed by a clamorous clash of strings and a wail.
“It is rubbish! Everything I compose! Absolute rubbish!”
Karigan winced at the anguish in the harpist’s voice. The music had sounded nice to her.
Gryphon Street was lined with bookshops and the workshops of luthiers, tailors, weavers, and potters; pubs, tobacco shops, and the occasional fortune-teller. It was also said that no less than forty poets lived in rooms above the shops. Karigan could not verify this, for she did not follow the trends in poetry.
A man leaned in the doorway of his music shop playing a jaunty tune on a pipe for passersby while two men beside him argued philosophy.
The scents of spicy foods drifted into the street from tiny eateries and mingled. There was a growing population from the Under Kingdoms now residing in the city, bringing with them the sounds of their ringing accents and the flavors of their exotic foods.
The horses skittered around an oblivious fellow who crossed the street with his nose in a book. A man and woman, gaudily dressed and painted, juggled rings and balls for a collection of youngsters and their parents.
The colors, smells, and sounds of Gryphon Street were an enlivening feast for one who had been spending far too much time on castle grounds. Mara was right: it was good to get out and see something different. When Mara was well enough, Karigan vowed to bring her here to Gryphon Street, and maybe to other parts of the city as well. There was so much to see, but it seemed like she never had the time. Until today.
Along the way, Braymer spoke little. Perhaps he was shy, or maybe just content to absorb his surroundings, looking from side to side as the carriage rolled down the street. Karigan supposed that if she were playing more the part of a lady, she’d engage him in some meaningless conversation, or flirt, or something. She just didn’t feel like making the effort.
Presently the carriage pulled up to a bright storefront under the sign of the teapot and cup.
“Ah, this is the place,” Braymer said, an expression of delight on his face. “Mistress Lampala’s Tea Room. I understand it is very good.”
Fortunately, when one was in “lady mode,” the gentlemen were quite willing to assist one in disembarking from the carriage. They even opened doors!
Karigan teetered on the uneven cobblestones. “Ridiculous shoes,” she murmured to herself. Only Braymer and Styles prevented her from falling face-first into horse droppings. No wonder some perceived women as weak—it was the clothes!
She had to admit that the solicitous attention was nice. She rarely received such courtesy when in uniform.
The tea room was dark after the bright sunshine on the street, the sound muted. There were eight tables inside, mostly occupied by couples. One young woman sat alone by a window scrawling furiously on a sheaf of papers, crossing out most of what she had just written with dramatic sweeps of her pen, and pausing only to sip from her teacup. One of Gryphon Street’s forty poets?
The aroma of delicious baked treats drifted in the air, mixing with something more exotic. Kauv. Kauv was a hot, bitter drink imported from the Cloud Islands that was all the rage among the nobles.
The tea room was not the fancy, formal place Karigan feared it might be, the type of place where noble matrons nibbled on sweet dainties and gossiped the afternoon away. Rather, it catered to the artistic denizens of the neighborhood, as well as a healthy mix of everyone else, from the common laborer to a pair of stylish aristocrats.
Just as Karigan’s feet began to go completely numb in the bloody shoes, a voluptuous woman burst from a back room, seeming to suck in the energy from all those around her.
“Hello, hello, my dears,” she said.
This would be Mistress Lampala no doubt, Karigan thought.
“Be seated, be seated.” She swept them to an open table, Styles scowling all the way.
Judging from Mistress Lampala’s accent and deep bronze skin, she hailed from the Cloud Islands, a likely connection that allowed her to serve kauv in her tea room. Not only did the beans that made kauv grow on the islands, but so did sugarcane, and in Karigan’s opinion, one needed lots of sugar to make kauv palatable, otherwise it tasted rather like burned bark. It was a winning situation for Mistress Lampala who charged an exorbitant price for both, but currency was of no consequence to the wealthy Coyle family, and Braymer ensured there was plenty of kauv, sugar, cream, and sweet treats to go around.
Braymer smiled tentatively at Karigan while she sipped her kauv, but seemed unable to find anything to say. Styles sighed with a roll of his eyes and said something in Rhovan to his ward who straightened his posture and cleared his throat, and then said in a stiff, formal way, “You are very lovely.”
Karigan nearly spewed her kauv, but swallowed hastily, only to have it scald the back of her throat and induce a most unladylike fit of coughing. “Thank you,” she rasped, more amused than flattered. The deadpan way in which he had delivered his compliment made it obvious he had practiced the words many times in front of a mirror.
Styles rolled his eyes again.
“What have I done wrong?” Braymer asked, his forehead crinkled.
Styles spoke quietly to Braymer again in Rhovan, and the young man reddened. “I…I am sorry. I am recently come from the monastery, and I find this awkward.”
Karigan raised both eyebrows in surprise. “Monastery?”
“Yes. My elder brother, you see, was to take over the business from my father, but he, alas, disgraced the family by running off with a harlot and getting her with child.”
Styles groaned and dropped his face into his hands.
“What have I said now?” Braymer asked, clearly bewildered.
“The lady! An indelicate subject—the family embarrassment.”
Karigan’s mouth twitched as she fought laughter.
Braymer glanced from Styles to Karigan. “M–my apologies. You see? I was given to the monastery at a very young age, and I’ve not been outside for many years and certainly…certainly not among,” and here he whispered, “young women.” He blushed madly. “Silence was the rule of the monastery. We spoke only in prayer, and now I do not know what to say.”
Awkward was an understatement. To save Braymer further embarrassment, Karigan decided she’d better redirect the conversation. “Perhaps you could tell me about your life at the monastery.”
Styles brightened and nodded.
Braymer, seeing his approval, smiled in delight. “Of course.” What started as an initially interesting description of the daily life and rituals of the monks in the service to the goddess Aeryon turned into an endless torrent of one-sided conversation. It was as if his years of silence had been uncorked and all the words bottled inside cascaded out.
The torrent lasted all the way from Mistress Lampala’s to the Sacor City War Museum. Karigan hoped the change of venue would dam the constant stream, but it only seemed to open a whole new freshet. Apparently both the monastery and the Coyles owned vast libraries, and Braymer had done his share of reading about Sacoridia and its wars.
Karigan drifted away from Braymer, who seemed not to notice, he was so engrossed in a display of heraldic emblems. The stone exhibition hall had high vaulted ceilings and a marble floor causing Braymer’s voice to echo to all corners. If he said anything of importance, she would hear it. At this point, she didn’t care what Styles thought of her, and he seemed to have given up on his ward himself, after a few interjected instructions about polite conversation went unheeded.
The museum covered the war history of Sacoridia but was devoted largely to arms and armor. There were racks and racks of spears and swords, and numerous suits of armor stood stiffly along the walls. Frankly, she had seen better specimens in the castle. Until, that is, the armor had magically come to life and the king ordered it locked away. She had noticed of late, however, that some of the suits were slowly repopulating the castle corridors, which had seemed strangely empty without them.
Glass cases contained more fragile items, such as documents and bits of uniforms, with cards labeled in hard to read cramped script. She gave up trying to decipher the writing and gazed at the objects with only cursory interest.
Among the artifacts that did interest her were those the museum claimed had belonged to the Arcosian Empire, which tried to crush and enslave Sacoridia a thousand years ago. There were some fragile scraps of parchment with faded, foreign script on them, some rusted weapons and bits of twisted metal that looked like articulated pieces that had once fit together. The label could only tell her: Metal pieces excavated on shore of Ullem Bay, believed to have originated in Arcosia.
There was a belt of silver links embossed with gold, pitted and discolored, with a lion’s head on the buckle. Here the label was more explanatory: Officer’s belt, elite Lion Regiment, Arcosian Empire.
Karigan had traveled to the time of the Long War and saw some of the empire’s forces firsthand. One of her ancestors, in fact, had hailed from Arcosia, a brutal man intent on subjugating the Sacoridians who had, in the end, betrayed Mornhavon to stop the war and suffering. It was difficult to believe that all that remained of the Arcosian occupation were these few rusted artifacts. Considering the alternative, she supposed it was a good thing.
She glanced Braymer’s way and caught Styles yawning while his ward examined some shields mounted on the wall. There were a few other visitors poking about, gazing into cases, and an attendant making sure no one touched anything.
Karigan slipped into a side hall, hoping to find a more interesting display, only to come face-to-face with King Zachary, his bared sword held high.
THE MAN IN THE SILK MASK
Karigan’s compressed lungs emitted only a squeak upon the menacing sight. She backed away, her hand on her heaving chest.
There was a soft chuckle beside her, and she whirled to find a red-coated attendant there.
“Lifelike, isn’t he?” he asked.
Karigan swallowed hard and looked upon the king again, feeling rather stupid. It was a wax figure made to look like the king. The effect was hauntingly realistic, from the silver fillet crowning its head of amber hair to the sword it gripped, a replica of the king’s own.
The figure was part of a tableau with banners hanging on the wall behind it, and the traitor Lord-Governor Tomastine Mirwell kneeling at the block, a basket ready to receive his head. Mirwell was as Karigan remembered him on that day, an old, crusty man with a bear pelt draped over his shoulders, who had needed the aid of servants to hobble onto the platform to meet his end. Certainly a piteous sight that was, perhaps, even worse punishment for such a proud man than the execution itself had been.
The figure of the king was attired in black, just as the real king had been the day of the execution. It had been a terrible thing to witness, and she knew it had lain heavily on King Zachary for a long time. As far as Karigan was concerned, old Mirwell got what he deserved. He had nearly succeeded in handing over the kingdom to Zachary’s villainous brother, Prince Amilton. Unfortunately, some of their conspirators were still at large, concealing themselves well enough to evade king’s law.
“Originally the artists set up the scene for just after decapitation,” the attendant said, “but too many people had not the stomach for it. Too realistic.”
Karigan gave him a sidelong look. He sounded disappointed.
He moved off to chat with a couple gazing at other figures in the hall. She turned her attention back to the “king,” and shuddered. His expression was wrong. He looked crazed, when all she could remember from that day was resolve. And remorse. Gazing more closely, she noted other inaccuracies. His chest and shoulders, for instance, were not the breadth to which she was accustomed, and his hips—
When she caught the direction in which that line of thought was heading, she silently cursed herself and tore her gaze away from the wax figure, forcing herself to look at the other tableaux. There were likenesses of other kings and queens, various heroic knights and warriors from Sacoridia’s past, and a pair of aristocrats dueling for a lady’s favor. There was no way of knowing if these visages were accurate, since she had never met those whom the figures represented, with the exception of the first high king, Jonaeus.
He sat on a thronelike chair, sunshine streaming on him from an arched window above. Though the label claimed this was King Jonaeus, the figure was all wrong. It certainly looked kingly with its crown and strong features, but it wasn’t at all as she remembered. King Jonaeus had been a grizzled, wearied warrior with gray in his beard. Even the clothing was inaccurate. She couldn’t imagine him having access to finely tailored silks, a luxury unheard of during the time of the Long War. In life, he was a man of hard leathers, coarse wool, and iron. There was no way the artists could have known his true appearance, she reminded herself, the way she had. They could only make guesses and create a representation.
She shrugged and was about to move on to the next tableau when glass shattered and someone screamed. Startled, she grabbed her skirts and hurried out to the main hall as fast as her daintily-shod feet would carry her. A surprising sight greeted her. A man wearing a black silk mask stood in the center of the hall fending off attendants and museum patrons with a rapier. In his other hand he held a document taken from a smashed case.
“Priceless!” an attendant sobbed. “Please, I beg of you! Please don’t take it.”
No one else moved. Ladies clung to their escorts, faces pale. Gentlemen stood frozen as if a spell had been worked upon them. Braymer looked his usual bewildered self, but was silent for once, with Styles bravely splayed in front of his young ward.
“Priceless to you maybe,” the masked man told the attendant, “but eminently useful to me.” Then to the rest he added, “My apologies for interrupting your afternoon. Good day.” And he saluted them with his sword.
Braggart, Karigan thought with distaste. She sighed. If no one else was going to do anything to stop him, perhaps as a representative of the king she should.
“Halt!” she cried after him as he turned to flee. “In the name of the king!”
Everyone stared at her in surprise, including the thief, whose eyes sparkled behind his mask.
“You are breaking king’s law,” Karigan said. The thief took two steps toward her and halted. She felt his eyes look her up and down in crude fashion. She blushed.
And he laughed. “Yes, and what do you plan to do about it, my lady? Certainly nothing to muss that hair so nicely arranged on your head.”
“Oh, good heavens,” she murmured in disgust. She grabbed her skirts and bustled to the nearest wall of weaponry. She yanked a sword from its mount.
“Y–you’re not supposed to t–touch the artifacts,” the attendant cried, fretting at his handkerchief. She glared at him, stifling further argument.
The masked man laughed. “I feel so threatened.”
Karigan rolled her eyes. Grabbing a bunch of skirt with her left hand, she started toward the braggart with the sword held before her. Braymer suddenly came to life and darted to her side, clutching her arm.
“Mistress Karigan, what are you doing? Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from this villain, I’ll—”
She yanked her arm loose and brushed him aside. He fell back several steps, perhaps not expecting her strength. The thief watched with apparent interest.
Though Arms Master Drent had trained her thoroughly in all manner of fighting techniques and scenarios, she had never fought in a dress. She was hoping it would not come to an actual fight.
“Leave the document and go,” Karigan said. “That artifact belongs to the people of Sacoridia.”
“And you will stop me, my lady?” There was much amusement in the thief’s voice, and an upturn to his lips suggested a smile.
Karigan sighed. “If I must.” She shifted the sword in her grip. It was a longsword, much heavier than what she was used to.
“Perhaps you should return to your needlework, my lady.” He turned dismissively and started to stride away, but Karigan shoved the blade between his legs and tripped him. Quick as a cat he rolled and was on his feet again. He tucked the document into his frock coat and gazed at her, this time without the smile.
“Mistress Karigan, is it?” Steel tinged his voice. “You would do well not to anger me.”
“I wouldn’t anger you if you’d simply return the document and leave.”
“And how would that be worth my time?”
“It might be worth your life.”
“That’s a very unladylike threat.”
“And this is the only needlework I know.” She raised the sword to eye level.
The thief barked out a laugh. “You are an intriguing lady, Mistress Karigan. Now let’s dispense with this nonsense, shall we? I’ll be on my—”
Karigan engaged him and their quick exchange of blows rang throughout the expansive halls of the museum. In retrospect, she realized she had done it again; had gotten herself into a fight when she could have just as easily pretended to be helpless and let the thief make off with the document. It was the responsibility of the constabulary, really. She always seemed to act first and think later, a dangerous failing on her part. In this first exchange, the thief revealed his rapier wasn’t just a pretty ornament he wore at his side—he knew how to use it. He was no ordinary thief, this masked man, and she might be in for more than she bargained for.
But she wasn’t helpless, and she hated standing around when she might be able to prevent a treasured artifact from being stolen, and in full daylight no less. And she had to admit, it was a bit of a response to Braymer and Styles, and their conservative Rhovan ways. Let them see what a Sacoridian woman was capable of.
“I see you have practiced your needlework,” the thief said. “A little.”
“Tut, tut, don’t frown,” he said. “It ruins your pretty face.”
Karigan closed in again, and he met her blow for blow, his sword work elegant and nimble compared to her own which was made ponderous by the weight of the longsword. She had to use it two-handed, which left her skirts dragging about her feet and seriously hampering her footwork. He glided about, his other hand set on his hip, his back held erect, his bearing aristocratic.
Karigan thrust, and he slipped aside. Her sword hissed at his neck, and he danced away. The smirk on his face revealed he thought it all a great joke. She brought the sword down in what should have been a crushing blow, but he flitted out of the way. Blow after blow was casually deflected, and when she threw herself into one particularly powerful thrust, he simply stepped aside. Her center of gravity was thrown forward and she had to hurry her feet back under her before she fell on her face.
Her lungs strained against the corset for breath. Sweat trickled down her neck and temples. The thief remained cool and impeccable, awaiting her next move. It infuriated her.
She whirled and their blades clanged together and slid hilt to hilt. They were very close, almost nose to nose. She could look right into his light gray eyes.
“I’m enjoying this dance,” he said in a silken whisper, “and I think you are, too.”
Karigan shoved him away with a growl. For a moment their hilt guards caught and she thought she might be able to tear his sword from his hands, but he deftly untangled it and backed away.
He shrugged off her blows one by one, she growing increasingly weary and light-headed because of the corset. She stepped on the hem of her dress and nearly bowled right over.
Their fight carried them out of the main exhibition hall into the wing with the wax figures. She was struggling now, struggling to remain standing, struggling to breathe, struggling just to lift the sword, which seemed to gain pounds with every blow he parried.
They locked together again.
“So enjoyable,” he said, “to dance with a lovely woman. I wonder if you would be this feisty in my bed.”
She jerked her knee up between his legs, but her skirts foiled the blow. He broke away, chuckling at her. She swung wildly, but he turned aside, the momentum of her blade chopping off Lord Mirwell’s head. It plopped neatly into its receiving basket.
The thief hooted. “Well done!”
Karigan rounded on him, her breathing harsh now. Some hair had come lose from a comb and hung in an annoying strand down the middle of her face. She stared at him, puffing, the sword valiantly held before her in hands trembling from fatigue.
With one swift blow he knocked it from her grasp and sent it clattering across the marble floor. She fell to her knees, too robbed of breath to do anything else. She was going to burn the damnable corset the first chance she got. If the thief didn’t kill her first.
The tip of his rapier flashed to the hollow of her throat. It pricked her skin as she swallowed, warm blood trickling down her chest.
The thief smiled, his gaze intent. “Ladies should not play with swords. The steel type, anyway.” He lowered the rapier tip to the top lace of her bodice and toyed with it. “But you’ve provided me with a most interesting diversion.”
Karigan wanted to tell him a thing or two that would burn his ears from the inside out, but she hadn’t the breath to speak.
“Thank the gods!” someone shouted from without. “The constables have finally arrived!”
Karigan had forgotten about all the others, and so had the thief, so immersed in their swordplay had they been.
“Time to go,” he said. With a flick of his wrist he sliced the lace of her bodice, then wrapped the chain of her necklace around the blade and yanked it from her neck. “To remember you by,” he explained. He unwound the necklace from the rapier and dropped it into his pocket.
Karigan grabbed at her gaping bodice. “You—you—” But she had so many things to say, they bottled up in her throat.
The thief backed toward the end of the exhibit hall at the sound of approaching feet. He paused and tugged off a velvet glove that matched the deep wine color of his frock coat. He kissed it and tossed it to the floor before her. “For you to remember me by.”
“You—you—you.” The venom in her voice made him wince, then grin broadly. He hopped onto the arm of King Jonaeus’ throne.
Karigan pulled off one of her useless shoes and threw it at him. She missed, knocking off King Jonaeus’ crown instead.
Armed constables rushed into the hall. “Stop, thief!”
“Good day,” he said, and he climbed up onto the casement of the window above King Jonaeus, kicked out the window, and vanished, but not before another well-aimed shoe clobbered him in the head.
“Ow!” came his cry from the street below. “That hurt, my lady!”
“You clobbered him in the head?” Mara asked incredulously.
“I was angry.”
“Karigan, you are the only person I know who can turn a pleasant excursion to a museum into a swordfight.”
Karigan sighed. Dressed now in her green uniform, she sat with her feet tucked under her in the chair next to Mara’s bed. It had been a huge relief to pry the corset loose from her body. It felt like her rib cage was still trying to spring back to its normal profile, and the whalebone ribbing had left deep indentations in her flesh.
Mara rubbed her chin. “Good aim with the shoe, though.”
Karigan had been very pleased with the throw herself, and felt no remorse over the loss of the shoe. What she hadn’t liked was how vulnerable she felt when at the mercy of the thief, which, she realized, was most of the time. She had not been able to defend herself while trapped in the dress, and he could have killed her at his pleasure. Her fingers went to the hollow of her throat where his rapier nicked her, and felt the scab. She never wanted to feel that vulnerable again. Ever.
Mara pushed back into her pillows, her gaze distant. “He sounds like the Raven Mask.”
Mara smiled. “The Raven Mask, a stealthy gentleman thief who prowled Sacor City some years ago, stealing select items like rare paintings and precious jewels. It’s said he especially favored entering the chambers of ladies to steal their fine jewels even as they slept in the night. He would leave some token for those he favored.” She glanced significantly at the velvet glove Karigan had dropped on the bed. “Some ladies were said to leave their windows wide open with gems sitting on their dressing tables in hopes he would come to them in the night, and they’d offer him other, ahem, favors. If caught and confronted, he was always polite, but he always managed to escape. He was known as a master swordsman.”
“He…the thief, he was good.” Karigan said.
“It was believed the Raven Mask retired, or was finally killed by an enraged husband, but more rumors point to him retiring to some country estate and a manor house filled with the riches he had accumulated throughout his career. Come to think of it, he’d be an elderly fellow by now.”
“This fellow was not elderly.” His hair had held no gray, but his mask hid too much of his face for her to otherwise judge his age. He certainly moved like a younger man.
Mara shifted her position on her bed. “What was the document he stole? Did you ever find out?”
“Something from the Long War days written in Old Sacoridian. The museum attendant called it ‘priceless,’ but apparently it has little market value among collectors. It only has value to historians I guess, though the attendant said they never made much sense out of it.”
“If it was the Raven Mask who took it,” Mara said, “it must have some value.”
Karigan thought back to the thief facing the museum patrons and attendants, holding his rapier in one hand and the document in another. “He called it ‘useful.’”
Mara chuckled. “Maybe it’s directions to a secret treasure. Sounds like the sort of thing the Raven Mask would steal.”
Karigan did not know, nor did she really care to, and if she ever encountered the man again, she wouldn’t give him a chance to explain. No, she wouldn’t kill him, but she would overcome him, and he could do all his explaining to the constabulary.
“And how did Braymer Coyle and his stern chaperone react to this eventful end to your outing?” Mara asked.
Karigan groaned. Braymer had become very solicitous, and had continually stolen looks at her nearly exposed bosom even as she spoke with the constables about the theft. “Let’s say that Braymer has probably set aside his monastic vows for good.” Yes, he had been much more interested in her after the eventful museum visit, in a most clinging and annoying way, as if he suddenly discovered she was female. Her sword work seemed to have excited him.
“Master Styles was unhappy.” During the carriage ride back to the castle, it was almost as if the man had turned to stone. He had refused to speak to her, or even to look at her. “No doubt his report to Braymer’s father will not prove favorable.”
“You don’t sound displeased,” Mara said.
Karigan smiled smugly. “I’m sure the Coyles will find a gentle Rhovan lady more to their liking for Braymer.” As for her father’s stake in this? Served him right. The whole set-up had been a disaster from its inception.
She stood and stretched, reveling in her freedom from corset and dress.
“Leaving so soon?” Mara asked.
“Thought I’d see to some chores before dinner.”
Mara picked up the glove from her bed and extended it to Karigan. “Don’t forget this.”
Karigan frowned. “No, you keep it. I don’t want to see it again.” It reminded her too much of her vulnerability.
In the late hours of night, long after the lights in the homes of Sacor City’s more respectable citizens had winked out, two men met in a seedy inn in a rundown section of the lower city. They sat apart from the other patrons, away from the sooty lamps and the hearth fire, allowing shadows and the haze of smoke to obscure their features.
A third man sat in the darkest corner by himself, a tankard of ale before him and a hood drawn over his head. His back was to the two men who sat opposite each other at a rickety table, but if he listened closely, he could discern their conversation over the drunken carousing of the inn’s other patrons.
“My master has obtained what you seek,” Morry said. He was an older man in common garb, but his refined speech revealed he was more than he appeared.
“Hand it over,” said the second man in a gruff, no-nonsense voice. He wore scarred fighting leathers and a plain cloak, a serviceable sword girded at his side. Like Morry, there was nothing exceptional about him, but those who were keen observers knew that by the way he carried himself he was a soldier, or had been at one time. A soldier with no device, no sign of allegiance.
“Tut, tut,” Morry said. “Show me the payment.”
There was a grunt and the thud and clink of a bulging purse dropped on the table. The man in the corner smiled and sipped his ale.
“Here is what you seek, as requested,” Morry said, followed by the sound of the leather folder scraping across the rough surface of the table. Many moments of silence followed while the soldier examined the document within.
Another grunt. “Excellent. This is the one we wanted.”
“A satisfactory transaction, then,” Morry said.
Leathers creaked and the man in the corner imagined the soldier leaning across the table. “I was instructed to arrange more work for your master upon the acceptable completion of today’s assignment.” He strained to hear the soldier’s lowered voice. “It will be risky, but there will be commensurate reward if he is successful.”
“Tell on,” said Morry, “and I shall convey your wishes to my master.”
The soldier outlined the proposal. The man in the corner listened avidly. “Risky” was an understatement. It was much more than simple theft, much more, but the man had to admit he was intrigued by the challenge and by the revival of the old and once-honored custom it represented.
Morry must have been just as flabbergasted, for it took him a long while to respond. Presently he said, “I shall tell my master all you have said. You mentioned he would be rewarded commensurately?”
“Of course.” The soldier named an outrageous sum, then added, “Half up front, half upon successful delivery. We need to know his decision as soon as possible.”
The man in the corner toyed with the silver moon necklace sparkling on the table before him, a thrill of excitement making his heart pound harder. He already knew the answer to the proposal. Yes, he certainly did.
THE WALL SPEAKS
From Ullem Bay to the shores of the dawn, we weave our song through stone and mortar, we sing our will to strengthen and bind. We shield the lands from ancient dark. We are the bulwark of the Ages. We stand sentry day and night, through storm and winter, and freeze and thaw.
From Ullem Bay to the shores of dawn, we weave our song in harmony for we are one.
We are broken.
From Ullem Bay to—
We shield the lands—
Broken. Lost. Despair.
Hear us! Help us! Heal us!
Do not trust him.
We do not trust. We forbid him passage.
ALTON AND THE WALL
The stone facing of the wall changed aspect with the passing light of the sun. One moment the stone was a bright gray-white, reflecting the sunlight back into the world. In another instant, its rough texture emerged in relief, dimpled by shadows that revealed every contour of its topography; every pit, every crag, every fissure. It looked primal, as if risen from the Earth, formed by the forces that built mountains and divided canyons, or perhaps shaped by the hands of the gods themselves. Yet the simpler truth was that it had been built by mortal men, desperate mortal men, who had deeply feared what lay on the other side. As the sun drifted farther to the west, the wall clad itself in shadow, megalithic, mysterious, and threatening.
Alton D’Yer vowed to uncover the secrets locked in the wall so that which had withstood the assault of time and weathering for over a thousand years would not crumble and unleash the evil it had been built to hold at bay. Yet the wall would not give up its secrets so easily.
“That should do it,” Leese said, tying off the last of the bandage she had wrapped around his hand. Then in a tone that was simultaneously light and pointed, she added, “I trust you won’t start banging your head against the wall next.”
Alton glanced at both hands, now swaddled in linen, and frowned. “Thank you.”
The mender sighed and picked up her pack of supplies. “If you need me again, you know where to find me.”
Alton nodded and watched her as she strode off toward her tent. She had moved down to this secondary encampment by the Tower of the Heavens after he had raged at the wall one too many times. The first time had left him with a broken toe. This time he had banged his hands bloody against it, and though he’d struck with mindless force, he’d managed not to break anything, which, he supposed, was a good thing.
Frustration brought the rages on, rage he never knew he possessed. It had been a couple months since last he stood within the tower, one of ten situated along the vast expanse of the wall. The towers once housed keepers, ancestral members of his own clan, who watched over the wall’s condition and the enemy beyond. All too acutely he remembered the fateful day when he had stepped out of the tower with his fellow Green Riders, never knowing he’d be forbidden access the next time he tried to enter.
He had traveled to Woodhaven to report to his father, the lord-governor of D’Yer Province. Swift orders had come to Woodhaven from the king that Alton should return to the tower and learn what he could about the wall and repairing it by speaking to Merdigen, a magical presence that resided in the tower.
The orders were a formality. Alton had planned to return to the wall with or without them. The wall obsessed him, crowded his dreams and his waking thoughts. Now was the time to fix the breach that weakened it, now was the time to strengthen it. Now, before Mornhavon the Black appeared in Blackveil Forest again.
Only the wall wouldn’t let him pass. No matter how he bent his mind to it, no matter how he pleaded with the guardians who inhabited the wall, they refused him. And it brought on the rage.
The tower had admitted him and the other Riders before. Why would it deny him now?
He knew the soldiers, even those at the main encampment near the breach, gossiped about him, about his obsession. Had he gone mad like his cousin Pendric, who now existed as a guardian within the wall?
The wall’s shadow swallowed his camp and the forest, and soon all would be submerged in darkness. Now that it was autumn, the hours of daylight were shrinking, and it made him feel as if he were running out of time. No one knew how far into the future Karigan had taken Mornhavon the Black. No one knew when their time line would merge with his, and his presence would again threaten the world. This was why Alton had to find the answers now. He had to take advantage of the time Karigan secured for him, and for everyone.
Before thoughts of Karigan could cloud his mind, he pushed them out—forcibly—and traced the contours of the stone wall with his fingertips.
“I will understand,” he promised the wall. “I will enter the tower, and I will understand, and nothing will hold me back.”
Sometimes the fevers came on Alton during the night like a sudden gale as the residue of poisons racked his body. Leese guessed that the poisons would eventually seep out of his blood and he’d return to normal, but he wasn’t so sure. He hadn’t given himself enough time to fully heal after his ordeal in Blackveil, and now he writhed in his bedding, the dark forest haunting his dreams. Sickly black branches snaked out of the shifting, ever present mist and stabbed at his flesh. He heard the calls of creatures that hunted him. And he dreamed of her.
He remembered her in the ivory dress, and how her long brown hair had fallen softly about her shoulders. He recalled the blush upon her cheeks, and the paleness of her neck, of her throat. She had spoken, but he could no longer hear the words, nor could he remember the sound of her voice. She had betrayed him. Karigan had betrayed him into nearly destroying the wall with false promises.
A need came upon him, even as he slept, to send a message to King Zachary and Captain Mapstone to warn them there was a traitor in their midst. Then as morning broke, and so did his fever, he would remember that Karigan was the one who risked herself to move Mornhavon into the future. Maybe it had really been a trick she played, part of some nefarious scheme. Maybe…
Birds squabbled in the trees outside his tent, and the crisp morning air flowing through the entry flap chilled the sweat clinging to his skin. He shivered violently, pulled his blanket over his shoulder, and laid there for some minutes, trying to work things out in his mind. Karigan confused him. He remembered so clearly that she had come to him in the forest, had soothed him and helped him find his way into the tower, yet was it really her? He’d been so very ill. Probably delirious. The power of the forest could have manipulated things, could have made him believe he was seeing and hearing things that were untrue.