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England in the sixteenth century: a nation at a fatal fork in time, leading to two possible futures forseen by the Sidhe of Elfhame Avalon. Either an evil queen will join forces with the Inquisition and rule with a blood-spattered iron hand, threatening humans and elves alike—or a benevolent, red-haired queen named Elizabeth will rule wisely and well. But the evil Unseleighe Sidhe, who feed on human suffering and dark emotions, are determined that the little girl Elizabeth shall never grow up to take the throne. ...
England in the sixteenth century: a nation at a fatal fork in time, leading to two possible futures forseen by the Sidhe of Elfhame Avalon. Either an evil queen will join forces with the Inquisition and rule with a blood-spattered iron hand, threatening humans and elves alike—or a benevolent, red-haired queen named Elizabeth will rule wisely and well. But the evil Unseleighe Sidhe, who feed on human suffering and dark emotions, are determined that the little girl Elizabeth shall never grow up to take the throne. Opposing them are the good Sidhe of elfland, who have so far managed to protect the young girl. Denoriel had foiled one attempt to kidnap both Elizabeth and her half-brother and replace them with changelings, almost at the cost of his own life. But a few years have passed, and Denoriel has healed and returned to guard the young princess, now all of eight years old, secure in the knowledge that his enemy Vidal, leader of the evil Unseleighe, is dead, killed with an iron bolt fired from a primitive gun. Unfortunately, he is wrong: Vidal's armor was far stronger than any of the good elves realized. Though the wound was deep and Vidal was forced to bide his time in his own slow healing, his recovery is complete, his determination to hurl England into a new dark age is as strong as ever, and he has set in motion a plan to achieve this end of which Denoriel and his comrades are dangerously unaware. . . .
Pasgen Peblig Rodrig Silverhair frowned and moved a finger just as the imp leapt toward him, and the creature squalled and made a convulsive movement to retreat. It was held suspended midair, its struggles quickly subdued as if a heavy, invisible blanket had been wrapped around it.
If anything, the creature looked more comical than before, hanging helpless as it was, squirming and writhing. However there was another, more pressing reason not to laugh than the imp's poisoned claws, which in any case had been neutralized for now. It carried asummons from Prince Vidal Dhu.
Pasgen did not frown, but he was-perturbed. Prince Vidal Dhu. Vidal summoning him. For the past four years Vidal had been hanging between life and death, saved from perishing of iron poisoning only by his healers, who, themselves constrained by blood oaths, died draining the poison out of his blood. Now it seemed that Vidal had at last recovered enough to emerge from hiding. And he should not have been able to find Pasgen.
"So Prince Vidal wants me," Pasgen murmured. "How interesting." His frown grew blacker, and he raised his eyes to stare at the little monster. "How did you find me?"
The imp squeaked "Let me go. Let me go. Prince Vidal will punish you if you harm me."
The invisible blanket tightened around it. It tried to struggle, could not. The power that held it tightened more. A despairing squeal contained the word "Token."
"Give it to me," Pasgen said, the edge of command in his voice.
The creature's mouth opened and it disgorged a small, coiled object, wet with slime. An immaterial hand slid through the field that englobed the imp, seized what it had vomited and carried it toward Pasgen. As it approached, he could sense the drumming beat issuing from it, a drumming that perfectly matched the beating of his own heart.
Another gesture with one finger and the imp was dead, crushed to a formless lump of red, mottled and streaked with green-yellow gore. The force that held it then carried the mess outside to be consumed by the things that scavenged Pasgen's gardens. Its death had been quick, too quick for the creature even to squall. Pasgen could not allow anything that knew the location of his private domain to live, but all the years of Vidal's training had not been able to teach him to enjoy pain. He could be vicious when necessary, but he was never cruel just for amusement.
Cleaned and dried by other invisible forces, the brown scrap was clearly preserved skin attached to a thin layer of flesh. His own skin and flesh, Pasgen knew, from the vibration of congruence. He stared at it, appalled. He had always been careful about hair clippings and nail parings, making sure to burn them. And all the while Vidal Dhu had his skin and flesh. When and how had Vidal obtained so powerful a token? More important, was this the only one the Black Prince had? And now what was he supposed to do with it?
Pasgen held out his hand and the scrap of brown leather was laid upon it. Pasgen closed his hand. He was immediately aware of a feeling of constriction. He opened his hand again; it was trembling. If he could not close his hand on the thing without feeling choked, what would happen to him if he tried to destroy it? Had Vidal known he would kill the imp? Had Vidal hoped he would kill himself too, unaware of the token?
Nonsense, he told himself. He had not been aware of any sense of confinement when the token was inside the imp. Most likely it was only because he knew he was closing his hand over it that he felt closed in. Nonetheless panic still rose in him at the thought the token might fall into anyone else's hands. Yet if he could not test its properties himself, who could he trust to touch it?
That question was answered before it was quite complete in Pasgen's mind, and the answer calmed and simultaneously raised a new wave of panic in him. His twin sister Rhoslyn could be trusted to know about the token and to test its effect on him, but if Vidal had a token from him, it was all too likely that the prince had one or more from Rhoslyn also. He had to warn her-not that he knew what good a warning would do ... or would it be worse if she knew?
Pasgen rose from the stark white chair on which he had been sitting, his hand held carefully in front of him ... and stood irresolute-a condition that had not afflicted him for many, many years. Should he go to Rhoslyn at once or should he first go to Caer Mordwyn and discover what Vidal wanted?
What Vidal wanted. Pasgen brought his skittering thoughts to bear on that. The fact that Vidal was able to want anything was another shock. Pasgen cursed softly, his eyes on the token lest it fall to the floor. He had been inexcusably careless, assuming as the years passed that Vidal would die or remain a near-inanimate hulk.
Pasgen himself had recovered in two years from the wound he had received in the battle waged against his half-brother and half-sister and their Seleighe allies. But he had only been scraped by a passing elf-shot; not exactly harmless, but nowhere near as deadly as Cold Iron to one of the Sidhe. Vidal had been shot with a bullet from Fitz-Roy's mysterious gun.
Well, FitzRoy was dead. He would shoot no one again. Pasgen's lips twisted. And if someone had to be shot by a mortal, Vidal surely deserved it more than anyone else. Unfortunately it seemed that Vidal had survived with enough mind and will to demand his presence ...
Or was it unfortunate?
The idea that had come to Pasgen seemed to lift an enormous weight from his heart, and it removed his indecision. He would go to Rhoslyn, warn her about the token, and leave his with her-obviously he could not carry it with him to Caer Mordwyn. It would be safe with Rhoslyn; more to the point, it would be safe being guarded by the creatures his sister had set about her to ensure her own safety. Pasgen shuddered gently as he thought of the big-eyed, childlike girl constructs with their wire-thin fingers that could be gentle as a butterfly or cut right through flesh and bone. They guarded Rhoslyn's domain every bit as efficiently as his own burly male guardians-better, perhaps, because invaders were prone to underestimate them.
He looked down at the scrap of skin and flesh in his hand and went to the black lacquer desk under the window. The top was glass-smooth, the surface clear except for the low gold-wire stand holding three thin gold pens. No design marred the perfect surface of the drawers on each side of the kneehole. Only absolutely plain pulls-octagonal bars of pure shining gold-were fastened to the face of each drawer.
Pasgen opened the middle drawer on the left-hand side of the desk with his free hand. It held a variety of boxes of different sizes and materials. He removed a small tortoise-shell square from the front of the drawer, struggled for a while to open it single-handed, and then, grimacing-because he was reluctant to have even his near-mindless and totally enslaved servants in the vicinity of that token-moved away and summoned an invisible servant to separate top and bottom.
He bade the servant clean the box and then dismissed it. After a moment, he drew a deep breath, deposited the token inside the box, and closed it. For a while he stood with his eyes closed, just breathing deeply and evenly. Finally he opened his eyes and looked around at the white leather chairs and settles, the black-framed chairs for visitors (not that he ever had any), the black lacquer side tables and low, central table, the black and white tiled floor.
All were clear and bright. No fog or dullness, as if he were peering out through some obstruction, obscured his view. It had been his too-active imagination, after all. He uttered a deep sigh, tucked the box into the bosom of his doublet, and left the house.
Usually Pasgen took his time when he crossed the garden and park in his domain. The beautiful, symmetrical order of the flower beds, the hedges, the trees with their ordered branches and precisely placed leaves always soothed him. There was so much disorder in his life, in his mind, in his heart, that the rigid and mathematical precision of the place was a balm to his spirit.
Today Pasgen merely hurried down the lavender graveled path that branched off the main way, which led to a stark but plainly marked Gate. That Gate had six exits, all equally unpleasant; two of those six could be fatal. It was a trap for the unwary, a clever way of disposing of any who thought to spy upon him or worse, and make a quick getaway. The side path took several turns and even crossed the kitchen garden before it petered out. A few steps beyond the little square that seemed the termination of the path, two slender white-barked saplings stood about two feet apart, exactly like similarly paired birch trees all along the path. Pasgen stepped between them, and was gone.
He emerged in a narrow alley that led to a quiet back street from which one could hear the sounds of a busy market. The alley was empty, as it had always been since Pasgen cast an aversion spell on it. The two doors that had once opened into the alley were boarded up. The street beyond the alley was not always empty; only a little of the aversion spell leaked into it, but people using it had a tendency not to linger and those whose houses backed on it tended to use their front doors. Today the street as well as the alley was empty, and Pasgen strode toward the sound of the market.
It was not large, an open area perhaps three or four streets square, but then the merchants were diminutive, the tallest coming only to Pasgen's elbow, so each booth did not take up much space. The customers, however, were of all sizes, many of them Sidhe, and a few even larger folk, which made the market seem very crowded. Pasgen did not mind at all. He slowed his pace to a shopping stroll and was soon indistinguishable from the many other Sidhe. Seleighe, or Unseleighe? There was no telling. Anyone who came here was careful to make his-or her-costume as neutral as possible.
He even stopped at a booth displaying a wide variety of amulets. Most were simply small carved figures of everything and anything, even of every religious symbol-the Christian cross, the Moslem crescent, the Hebrew six-pointed star, and the symbols of every pagan god Pasgen knew ... and a number that he did not recognize. Curiously, he touched the cross.
"Fine work," the little brown merchant said. "Won't burst if you put a spell on it. Sold a lot of them. Seem to like love spells they do. Seen them glow a little with a love spell."
The little man had an inordinately long and pointed nose that drooped a bit toward his long and slightly upturned chin. His ears were too large, the lobes hanging a bit below his chin and his hair was thin and scraggly. Pasgen shook his head but smiled and took up four anonymous-looking ovals, a wooden rose, a ceramic coiled serpent with lifted head, a leaping horse of bone, and a glass Sidhe head, with open eyes and mouth, that clearly split apart just behind the pointed ears to hold something small.
"How much?" Pasgen asked, reaching for his purse. He spoke in the common trade-tongue used in every marketplace Underhill that was not large enough to have a universal translating spell.
"Gold I have, master," the gnome replied in the same language. "Bespell for me an amulet and you will have paid."
"Or overpaid," Pasgen said, still smiling, but with his voice turned hard. "What kind of spell?"
"Sleep. That should be easy enough for you, master."
It was easy. Pasgen looked down at the table, saw several more charming or frightening figures. "For what I have in my hand, one use," he said. "If you want an amulet that will always bring sleep ..." Suddenly he realized that very few Sidhe were capable of creating such a spell. To do so would mark him in the gnome's memory. He shook his head. "I cannot do that," he said, "but for five uses ..." He narrowed his eyes as if considering what he had offered. "Yes, for five uses, I will take these?" he marked the amulets with his finger "as well as what I have in my hand."
The gnome protested and bargained. Pasgen allowed himself to be divested of three of the amulets he had marked because to fail to chaffer would also mark him as unusual; however, he was growing impatient and finally made as if to throw down the amulets he was holding and walk away. That brought the gnome to heel and he accepted Pasgen's last offer of the five-times spell for the handful of amulets.
"Which shall I bespell for you?" Pasgen asked, about to pick up any amulet the gnome indicated.
Instead the little brown creature pulled a box from under the counter and opened it. Inside was a very plain oval, lightly inscribed with a small tree entwined with a clinging vine. When Pasgen picked up the amulet, it was blood warm in his hand, but it was the material of which it was made, not magic that warmed it. He bent his head and began to murmur. He could see the gnome straining to listen but ignored him. He doubted the creature could make his harsh and scratchy voice sound the liquid vowels and sweet tones of the elven- mage-tongue.
"So." Now Pasgen was in a hurry, and he dropped the amulet back in its box. "You can give the amulet to the person you want to wear it all the time, or you can lay it on that person's forehead or breast at the time you want the person to sleep. Then, to invoke, you say 'Minnau ymbil' and when you want the person to wake, you say 'Deffro deffroi.'"
"And to whom do I complain if the spell doesn't work?" the gnome growled as Pasgen picked up the amulets for which he had bargained.
Pasgen started to turn away, but then hesitated and said, "Cry for justice to Vidal Dhu at Caer Mordwyn."
"Vidal Dhu is dead," the gnome protested. "You know we are between the Bright Court and the Dark and we had that news from both sides."
"Oh, no," Pasgen said, with a lifted eyebrow. "Then I give you a gift, along with the price of the amulets. I assure you he is alive and well and will be holding court at Caer Mordwyn ere long-but the spell will work. Never fear it."
And he slipped away, weaving skillfully among the booths and the customers. Actually he made two rounds of the market in random fits and starts until he began to move into less crowded areas and finally slipped behind a booth displaying very small gardening implements. There he waited rather patiently, considering his urge to continue to his goal, but he neither heard nor felt any magic. Finally he took out the amulet of the snake and sang to it the spell that opened a small, one-passage Gate.
Clutching the amulet in his hand, he walked away from the market into the narrow streets of the town. The houses were hardly higher than his head and after some random turns and crossings, he could see that no one was following him. Then he walked directly out of town until the open ground that faced him blended into a formless mist. He invoked the Gate and stepped through, although if he had not known that he had passed through a Gate, he could easily have believed he was still in Gnome Hold.
Here, however, the mists were not formless. They swirled and twisted, retreating from him and then billowing toward him as if an erratic wind blew. Only there was no wind. Pasgen set out into the chaos with a steady step. As he went, he turned his head sharply to sniff in a wisp of mist that was passing his shoulder. A sharp scent, but not unpleasant.
A little later, he stuck out his tongue to taste a cloud that had formed directly in front of him-and that was sweet, decidedly sweet. Pasgen smiled and began to draw into himself some of the energy Rhoslyn might have used to create a construct. By the time he came to the Gate he had sensed at about the middle of this Unformed land, he had restored all the power he had used to create the gnome's amulet and build his Gate.
Excerpted from Ill Met by Moonlight by Mercedes Lackey Roberta Gellis Copyright © 2005 by Mercedes Lackey & Roberta Gellis. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 3, 2010
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