Seeds of Betrayal: Book 2 of the Winds of the Forelands Tetralogyby David B. Coe
The Forelands have enjoyed relative peace in the nine hundred years since the Qirsi Wars, until the stability of the seven kingdoms is shaken by the brutal murder of Lady Brienne of Kentigern, newly betrothed to Lord Tavis of Curgh. Tavis, who is blamed for the crime, has escaped the dungeons of Kentigern and searches the Forelands for his love's killer. But… See more details below
The Forelands have enjoyed relative peace in the nine hundred years since the Qirsi Wars, until the stability of the seven kingdoms is shaken by the brutal murder of Lady Brienne of Kentigern, newly betrothed to Lord Tavis of Curgh. Tavis, who is blamed for the crime, has escaped the dungeons of Kentigern and searches the Forelands for his love's killer. But already the Qirsi conspirators who murdered Brienne have taken their campaign of violence and deception to Aneira, Eibithar's hated neighbor, plunging that kingdom into turmoil. Now Tavis's search for redemption takes him into the stronghold of his realm's most bitter enemy.
For the first time in nine centuries, war threatens to engulf all the Forelands. And there are whispers of a new Qirsi threat. A Weaver, they say, is behind the deaths, the betrayals. Nobles who have depended on Qirsi ministers suddenly fear those they have trusted.
If the renegade Qirsi are indeed led by a Weaver, can this powerful sorcerer be found before he conquers the Forelands? And who wields magic potent enough to stop him?
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Seeds of Betrayal
Book Two of Winds of the Forelands
By David B. Coe, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 David B. Coe
All rights reserved.
Bistari, Aneira, year 879, Bian's Moon waning
The duke rode slowly among the trees, dry leaves crackling like a winter blaze beneath the hooves of his Sanbiri bay. Massive grey trunks surrounded him, resembling some vast army sent forth from the Underrealm by the Deceiver, their bare, skeletal limbs reaching toward a leaden sky. A few leaves rustling in a cold wind still clung stubbornly to the twisting branches overhead. Most were as curled and brown as those that covered the path, but a few held fast to the brilliant gold that had colored the Great Forest only a half turn before.
Even here, nearly a league from Bistari, Chago could smell brine in the air and hear the faint cry of gulls riding another frigid gust of wind. He pulled his riding cloak tighter around his shoulders and rubbed his gloved hands together, trying to warm them. This was no day for a hunt. He almost considered returning to the warmth of his castle. He would have, had he not been waiting for his first minister to join him. This hunt had been Peshkal's idea in the first place, and they were to meet here, on the western fringe of the Great Forest.
"A hunt will do you good, my lord," the minister had told him that morning. "This matter with the king has been troubling you for too long."
At first Chago dismissed the idea. He was awaiting word from the dukes of Noltierre, Kett, and Tounstrel, and he still had messages to compose to Dantrielle and Orvinti. But as the morning wore on with no messengers arriving, and his mind began to cloud once more with his rage at what Carden had done, he reconsidered.
Kebb's Moon, the traditional turn for hunting, had come and gone, and the duke had not ridden forth into the wood even once. More than half of Bian's Moon was now gone. Soon the snows would begin and Chago would have to put away his bow for another year. He had the cold turns to fight Carden on his wharfages and lightering fees. Today, he decided, pushing back from his worktable and the papers piled there, I'm going to hunt.
When Peshkal entered the duke's quarters and found him testing the tension of his bow, he seemed genuinely pleased, so much so that the Qirsi even offered to accompany Chago.
"Thank you, Peshkal," Chago said, grinning. "But I know how you feel about hunting. I'll take my son."
"Lord Silbron is riding today, my lord, with the master of arms and your stablemaster."
"Of course. I'd forgotten." The duke hesitated a moment, gazing toward the window. Moments before he hadn't been sure whether or not to go, but having made up his mind to ride, he was reluctant now to abandon his plans. "Then I'll hunt alone."
Peshkal's pale features turned grave and he shook his head. "That wouldn't be wise, my lord. There have been reports from your guards of brigands in the wood. Let me come with you. I have business in the city, but I'll meet you on the edge of the wood just after midday." The Qirsi forced a smile. "It will be my pleasure."
Still Chago hesitated. As white-hairs went, Peshkal was reasonably good company. But like so many of the Eandi, the duke found all men of the pale sorcerer race somewhat strange. If the object of this hunt was to calm him, riding with the first minister made little sense.
Then again, neither would it be wise for him to ride alone; he'd heard talk of the brigands as well. In the end, Chago agreed to meet Peshkal in the wood, and a short time later, he rode forth from his castle, following the king's road away from the dark roiling waters of the Scabbard Inlet toward the ghostly grey of the forest. His bow, unstrung for now, hung from the back of his saddle along with a quiver of arrows. But even after he entered the wood, he saw little sign of game. Not long ago, the forest would have been teeming with boar and elk, but each year, as the cold settled over central Aneira, the herds moved southward and inland, away from the coastal winds. Chago would be fortunate just to see a stag this day; there was little chance he would get close enough to one to use his bow.
Again, the duke felt the anger rising in his chest, until he thought his heart would explode. He could hardly blame the king for a poor hunt, yet already he was counting this cold, grey, empty day among the long list of indignities he had suffered at the hands of Carden the Third.
He couldn't say when it began. In truth, his own feud with the Solkaran king was but a continuation of a centuries-old conflict between House Solkara and House Bistari that dated back to the First Solkaran Supremacy and the civil war that ended it over seven centuries ago. During the next two hundred and fifty years, the Aneiran monarchy changed hands several times, ending with the Solkaran Restoration and the establishment of the Second Solkaran Supremacy, which persisted to this day. It was a period of constantly shifting alliances, all of them based on little more than expedience and cold calculation. But throughout, Aneira's two most powerful houses, Solkara and Bistari, always remained adversaries.
In the centuries since, when circumstances demanded it, the two houses managed to put their enmity aside. During the many wars the kingdom waged against Eibithar, Aneira's neighbor to the north, men of Bistari fought beside men of Solkara. But the wars ended and the crises passed, and always when they did, one essential truth persisted: Chago's people and those of the royal house simply did not trust each other.
Of course, rivalries among houses of the court were common in Aneira, and, from all Chago had heard, in the other kingdoms of the Forelands as well. When one's enemy was the king, however, the royal court could be a lonely place. Chago had friends throughout the kingdom. Bertin of Noltierre journeyed to the western shores each year and stayed with Chago and Ria. And though he hadn't seen Ansis of Kett in a number of years, he still counted the young duke among his closest allies. In most matters of the kingdom he could expect to find himself in agreement not only with Bertin and Ansis, but also with the dukes of Tounstrel, Orvinti, and Dantrielle.
Unless he was at odds with the king.
It was not that the others were blind to Carden's considerable faults, or that they agreed with every decree that came from Castle Solkara. But Solkaran rulers had made it clear over the centuries that those who opposed their word, especially those who sided with Bistari in doing so, would suffer for their impudence. Raised fees, restrictions on hunting, increases in the number of men levied for service in the king's army — all were measures used by Aneiran kings to punish what they viewed as defiant behavior. And no house had borne more of this than Chago's own.
It was a credit to his strength and that of his forebears that Bistari had retained its status as one of the great families of Aneira despite the abuses of the royal house. A lesser house would have crumbled long ago; Bistari had thrived, all the while taking pains to keep its rivalry with House Solkara from manifesting itself as anything that could be interpreted as an act of treason. Bistari's dukes paid their fees, though they were far greater than those paid by any other house. They sent soldiers to the king's generals, though their quotas were too high. They hunted the forest only when they were allowed, though their season was nearly a full turn shorter than that allowed in Dantrielle, Rassor, and Kett. Let the Solkaran kings play their foolish games. Bistari was the rock against the tide, the family blazon a great black stone standing against the onslaught of the sea. Chago's people endured. And this made Carden's most recent affront that much more galling.
The increase in the lightering fees he could accept. Kings had always taken their share of profits from trade and it was too much to expect that Carden would be any different. But no fair-minded man could doubt that the wharfage fees were directed almost solely at House Bistari. To be sure, several of Aneira's houses were located on water — almost all of them really. But Bistari was the only one on the coast; the others were on rivers or, like Orvinti, on a lake. Their wharves were in little danger of needing replacement any time soon. Bistari's, on the other hand, had to be rebuilt every few years after the passing of the cold turns and the powerful storms they brought to the Scabbard Inlet. Carden's latest fees covered the entire kingdom, but since the wharfages applied only to newly constructed wharves, Bistari would bear the brunt of this new levy.
The king knew that. Chago was certain of it. This was merely one more reprisal for an imagined slight that should have been forgotten years ago. How long did Chago and his people have to suffer for the fact that Silbron had been born within a day of when Carden's father, Tomaz the Ninth, died? Ria had nearly lost her life giving birth to the boy, and for the next several days, Chago refused to leave her side. True, it was a short ride to Solkara, and he was the only one of Aneira's dukes who did not attend the observances honoring the old king. But this was his son, his heir, and, as he had tried to explain to Carden several times since, he had come within a hairsbreadth of losing the woman he loved. No reasonable man would have done different. The Solkarans, though, had never been known for being reasonable.
A woodpecker drummed in the distance, the sound echoing among the trees, and two crows flew silently overhead, black as vultures against the grey sky. Chago reined his mount to a halt and surveyed the forest. At first he saw nothing, not even a jay. But as his eyes came to rest on the path just before him, something caught his eye. He swung himself off his horse to take a better look, his pulse quickening. Elk droppings, just as he had suspected. Squatting beside them, he saw that they were fresh.
The duke stood again, glancing around, his entire frame taut, as if for battle. He stepped carefully to his bow, removed it from the saddle, and shouldered his quiver. Resting one end on the ground and bracing it with his foot, he bent the smooth wood until he could slip the bowstring into place at the top. Then he drew an arrow from the quiver and nocked it.
It was hard to say which way the beast had been traveling. Chances were that it had crossed the path rather than followed it, but Chago couldn't say more than that with any confidence. After a moment's pause, he started south. A small stream flowed through the wood not too far from where his horse stood. Perhaps, he thought, the elk was headed there. Had it not been for the blanket of dead leaves covering the forest floor he might have found tracks, but as it was, the ground told him little. Before long, however, he came to a small tree with tooth marks on it, where the elk had eaten off much of the bark. The marks appeared as new as the droppings he had seen on the path. He heard something moving in front of him, the dead leaves betraying each step, and he stepped forward as quickly as he dared, craning his neck to see beyond the thick trunks just before him.
For an instant he caught a glimpse of the beast, the warm brown of its coat flickering amid the grey trees like candle fire on a moonless night, then vanishing again. He couldn't see its head, but the animal certainly appeared large enough to be a stag. He hurried on, bow half-drawn, expecting to come face-to-face with the creature at any moment. He spotted it briefly once more, farther ahead than it had been a moment earlier. It almost seemed to be drifting among the trees like a wraith. Running now, he tried to catch up with it, but all he saw was grey.
The duke stopped again, straining to hear over the whispering of another gust of wind. Nothing, at least not from the elk. Far behind him, his mount snorted and stomped. Chago felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. And then he heard it, too.
Singing. It was so soft at first, so ethereal, that the duke thought he must be imagining it. Who, in his right mind, would be singing in the wood on a day such as this?
The thought made him shudder, as if another chill wind had knifed through his cloak. His sword was still strapped to his saddle, and though he carried his bow, he preferred to face an assailant with his steel. Turning quickly, he started back toward his horse, fighting an impulse to run. For just an instant the duke lost his bearings and halted again, feeling panic rise within him like bile. Then his bay nickered and he strode toward the sound, cursing his lack of nerve. As he made his way among the trees, he scanned the wood for the singer, listening as the voice grew stronger.
It was a man, with a voice both strong and sweet, rich and high. As the man drew nearer still, the duke even recognized the song: "The Blossoms of Adlana," a Caerissan folk song that Chago had learned as a child. It struck him as an odd choice for such a chill, dreary day. But it set his mind at ease somewhat and he slowed his gait. A moment later, he spotted his bay and could not keep a relieved smile from springing to his lips.
By the time the singer came into view, the duke had his sword in hand and was securing its sheath to his belt. Armed now, and within reach of his mount, the duke was able to laugh at the dread that had gripped him only moments before. This was no brigand, not with a voice like this, and seeing the singer's face, Chago felt what remained of his fear recede like the tide after a storm. The man was lean and bearded, with long dark hair that fell to his broad shoulders and pale eyes the same color as the silver bark on the maples that grew all around them. He smiled kindly at the duke as he walked toward him and he nodded once, though he continued with his song. His glance fell briefly to Chago's sword, but the smile remained on his face.
Chago thought him vaguely familiar and wondered briefly if he had ever sung at Bistari Castle, perhaps with the Festival. He almost stopped the singer to ask him. But though the man was clearly a musician, they were still alone in the wood, and the duke thought it wiser to let the stranger pass.
He offered a nod of his own as the singer stepped past him, but he kept his blade ready and turned to watch the man walk away. Only when the singer had disappeared among the trees, his song fading slowly, did Chago sheathe his sword and allow his mind to return once more to the elk.
He would have liked to track the animal; given time, he knew that he could find it again. But Peshkal would never find him if he left the path.
Where could his first minister be? It had to be well past midday. The Qirsi should have been there already.
"Damn him," the duke murmured.
The bay whinnied softly, as if in response, and Chago froze. The wood was silent. Even the wind had died away. More to the point, though, the singing had stopped. Or had it? The man had been walking away. Had the song ended? Had he just covered enough distance to be beyond the duke's hearing?
Chago stood, still as death, listening for the singer's voice, much as he had listened for the elk a short time ago. He was being foolish, he knew. Surely the singer was too far away to be heard by now. Besides, Chago had his bow and his sword, and he knew how to use both. He had nothing to fear from a musician.
Yet he continued to stand motionless, waiting. This time he heard no song. Only a footfall, soft and sure, and closer than it should ever have been. It had to be the elk again. Still, the duke reached not for his bow, but for his blade.
Before he could pull the weapon from its sheath, before he could even turn to face the sound, he felt someone grab him from behind, a hand gripping his right arm at the elbow, and a muscular arm locking itself around his throat.
The duke struggled to free his sword, but the man holding him was remarkably strong. He opened his mouth to scream, but the singer — it had to be he — tightened his hold on Chago's throat until the duke could barely draw breath.
"My apologies, my lord. But it seems someone wants you dead."
He's an assassin then, Chago thought, not a brigand.
Not that it mattered. He was going to die here in the wood, not even a league from his castle.
Where in Bian's name was Peshkal?
Excerpted from Seeds of Betrayal by David B. Coe, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2003 David B. Coe. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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