The Dreadby Gail Z. Martin
War has come to the Winter Kingdoms. The Dread will rise. Kings will fall.
Summoner-King Tris Drayke takes what remains of his army north for a war he is ill-prepared to fight, as reports from spies confirm Tris's worst fear. A new threat rises across the sea: a dark summoner who intends to make the most of the Winter Kingdoms's weakness.
In Isencroft,… See more details below
War has come to the Winter Kingdoms. The Dread will rise. Kings will fall.
Summoner-King Tris Drayke takes what remains of his army north for a war he is ill-prepared to fight, as reports from spies confirm Tris's worst fear. A new threat rises across the sea: a dark summoner who intends to make the most of the Winter Kingdoms's weakness.
In Isencroft, Kiara's father is assassinated and she will now have no choice except to return and claim the crown. But she must leave behind her husband and their infant son to face the dark power that threatens her rule.
THE DREAD is the epic conclusion to the Fallen Kings Cycle.
Well written and full of action, this grabs the reader on the first page and refuses to let go until the very last page." - RT Book Reviews (4 Stars)"
Fans of Martin's previous series as well as those who enjoy the large-scale fantasy of George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan should enjoy this series opener." - Library Journal
"Top notch, engrossing fantasy." - sfrevu.com
Read an Excerpt
By Martin, Gail Z.
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Martin, Gail Z.
All right reserved.
I had hoped that Isencroft wouldn’t see war again in my lifetime.” King Donelan of Isencroft took a deep breath and swirled the brandy in his goblet. “I had my fill of it in my younger days. It was a bad bargain then, and it hasn’t gotten any better.”
“It’s not by your choosing, m’lord.” Wilym, the head of the elite Veigonn warriors and a close personal friend of the king’s, set aside his drink. “Temnotta’s made the first move.”
Donelan sighed. “Spare me any words about a ‘good war.’ There is no ‘good’ war. The only thing worse than war is slavery. I know we have no choice, dammit. I know Temnotta cast the die. But it’s a funny thing about war. Even when you win, you lose. There are several thousand men having a good night’s sleep tonight who won’t be breathing by war’s end. There are villages that won’t exist when the fighting’s through. I never thought a king’s reputation was earned on the battlefield. I always thought it was earned by making sure fields never saw battle. War is easy. But keeping peace for any length of time—well, that’s the tricky part.”
Donelan downed the last of his brandy in one gulp, and for a moment, Cam thought the king might pour himself another draught. Instead, Donelan let his head rest against the chair and closed his eyes. And although Cam had been the King’s Champion for years, never had he thought Donelan looked so worn and tired. “There are no thoughts in my head fit to fall asleep with,” Donelan said, his voice gravelly with fatigue. “Tell me just one good thing before I turn in for the night. I’d rather not dream of war.”
Cam exchanged worried glances with Wilym. “Think on the packet you received this morning from Kiara,” Wilym said. “You told me her letter says that she and Cwynn are doing well, and that the baby has a fine appetite. The portrait she sent showed a healthy, strong boy. And they’re safe from this madness, far away in Margolan.” He chuckled. “I’ve heard it said that no one except Martris Drayke himself ever breached the walls of the palace Shekerishet. Count that as your good thing to sleep on, Your Majesty. Kiara and Cwynn are safe.”
Donelan seemed to relax. The king was known both for his appetite for strong drink and for his ability to seem utterly untouched by it. Cam wished that tonight the brandy might overcome the king’s tolerance and give Donelan a few candlemarks of untroubled sleep.
“Aye, that’s a fine thing,” Donelan agreed, his voice a deep rumble. “A fine thing to sleep on. Thank you.”
“The firesetter’s been to your room a candlemark ago,” Wilym replied. “The chill will be off and the fire should be banked for the night. We have a few more days before the army heads for the coast. Perhaps you should enjoy a bed while you have the chance.” He chuckled. “Even the finest cot gives a poor night’s rest once we’re in the field.”
Donelan stretched and twisted in his chair, as if to loosen his shoulders. “I think I will,” he said, and he smiled, but Cam saw that it didn’t reach his eyes. “Thanks to you both for sitting with me a while. I’d best let you get some rest as well.” Donelan stood and walked across the sitting room to where a guard stood by the door to his bedchamber. He glanced over his shoulder. “Mind that you’re careful going about your business. I’ll need both of you beside me when we ride for the coast.”
The door closed behind Donelan, and the guard resumed his place. “I’m worried about him,” Cam remarked quietly.
Wilym was silent for a moment. “Donelan drew his first blood on the battlefield when we were still sucking on our mothers’ teats. Does it surprise you that it gets tiresome after twenty-some years? By the Whore! I’m wholly sick of every campaign by the end of the first battle, and I haven’t seen as much of it as he has.”
Cam nodded. “I’ve never met a sane man yet who enjoys battle, even if they love soldiering. I’m just not used to seeing Donelan look so haggard. Now it seems his dreams are dark. Makes me worried—”
A man’s scream cut off the rest of Cam’s words. Cam and Wilym jumped to their feet as the guard threw open the door to Donelan’s chamber.
“Sweet Chenne,” the guard whispered, blanching. Cam and Wilym shouldered past him at a dead run and stopped at the foot of the king’s bed.
Six stout pikes thrust up through the bed, spanning from one side to the other. Donelan lay impaled, with one of the spikes protruding from his chest. Blood spread down the king’s nightshirt, soaking the bedding, enough blood that Cam was sure the spike had taken Donelan through the heart.
“Get Trygve!” Wilym shouted. He grabbed the guard by the shoulders and spun him around, shoving him out the door. “Run, dammit!” He turned back to the king. “Hang on, Donelan. Trygve will be here in a moment.”
Donelan’s whole frame shook. His hands opened and closed convulsively, grasping at the covers. The king’s eyes were wide with pain and shock, and his mouth opened and closed, gasping for breath. Wilym took the king’s hand. “Hold on, please. Just hold on.”
Cam drew his sword and made a thorough inspection of the room. The king’s private quarters were large, but by design, they offered no easy hiding place. Cam flung open the wardrobe doors but found nothing except dress robes. The garderobe alcove was empty, with an opening too small for even a slender boy to navigate. Then he looked at the high four-poster bed. The frame was at least two feet off the floor, tall enough that two steps were required for Donelan to climb onto the mattress, and it was skirted with heavy tapestry material. When Cam knelt to look under the bed, he caught his breath.
“By the Crone!”
Cam climbed to his feet. “Someone’s rigged a bow contraption beneath the bed. Must have gone off once there was weight on it.”
Trygve barreled through the doorway, followed by the guard, who seemed close to panic.
“Mother and Childe!” Trygve swore under his breath, never breaking stride until he reached Donelan’s side. Cam and Wilym melted back along the wall, giving the healer room to work. Trygve was one of the finest battle healers in all of Isencroft, but by the set of his mouth, Cam could tell that Trygve was worried.
“We’ve got to remove the stake, and the moment we do, he’ll start bleeding harder.” Trygve’s voice was clipped.
“Tell us what to do,” Wilym said, as he and Cam stepped forward.
“Can you retract the weapon from below? I’d rather not try to lift him.”
Cam dropped to his knees. “I think so. It’s been bound to the frame with rope.”
“Then on my mark, with one of you on each side, slice the ropes while I try to staunch the bleeding.” Trygve climbed up on the bed and straddled the king’s body so that his hands were best positioned above the wound. “On three: one… two… three.”
The two swords swished through the air simultaneously, slicing through the ropes and hitting the bed frame with a thunk. The stakes dropped, but did not completely retract.
Trygve cursed. “Get on your knees. On my mark again, grab each side of that cursed thing and pull straight down.”
This time, the apparatus gave way. Cam and Wilym climbed back to their feet. Donelan gave a sharp cry, and Trygve murmured healing incantations while his hands cupped over the hole in Donelan’s chest. Blue healing light glowed beneath Trygve’s hands. But from where Cam stood, Donelan’s skin looked ashen, and his body had gone still. Trygve’s tension gave Cam no reassurance.
Blood spattered Trygve’s healer’s uniform and his hands were slick. Donelan’s breathing was slow and labored. Trygve leaned closer, and the blue light flared. Donelan murmured something Cam could not hear, and then, with one heavy breath, the king lay still.
“Donelan!” Cam said, starting forward.
“No!” Wilym cried.
Trygve bowed his head and his shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry. It was too much damage. Perhaps if we’d had a summoner to bind his soul, we might have bought more time for healing. The stake… it tore through his heart…” His voice faded. Slowly, he climbed down from the bed and drew up a sheet to cover Donelan’s body.
Cam turned to the guard at the door. The young man stared wide-eyed at the king’s body. “Who beside the firesetter entered the king’s rooms tonight?”
It took two tries for the guard to find his voice. “No one, m’lord. There’s been a guard at the door to the king’s bedchamber all day. The chambermaids set out his night clothes, but they come on the watch before mine, just before supper.”
“We’ll find the firesetter and the maids and the previous guard.” Wilym’s voice was tight and emotionless, and only his eyes revealed his sorrow. “I handpicked the king’s guards myself, and I’d swear to their loyalty on my own life. As for the servants, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Cam looked at Wilym and Trygve. “The army’s about to head to war, and the king’s dead.”
Wilym took a deep breath. “How fast can a vayash moru travel from here to Shekerishet?”
Cam met his gaze. “A few days.” He paused. “You’re not proposing—”
“Yes, I am.” Wilym’s expression was resolute. “Kiara may be Queen of Margolan, but she is also the rightful heir to the Isencroft throne. We have no choice except to call her home to lead her people. Alvior’s behind this. He’ll count on chaos slowing our response. Maybe he’s betting that without Donelan we’ll fall into a full civil war and he can sweep up the pieces. The army can move without the king. But the people need someone who can rally them, someone to remind them why they fight.”
Footsteps in the doorway made them turn. Both Cam and Wilym drew their swords. Kellen stepped into the room, followed by Tice and Allestyr. “By the Whore!” Kellen swore softly. Tice froze, a look of shock on his face. Allestyr swallowed back a sob.
“It’s true, then.” Allestyr was the first to speak. Tears ran down his cheeks. “The servants found us when the guard came for Trygve. Is he—”
Wilym nodded. “Donelan is dead. And if Isencroft is to survive, the six of us must make it happen.”
The next candlemarks passed in a blur for Cam as Donelan’s closest advisers prepared for the burial of the king. Allestyr sent messengers to the Council of Nobles, while Tice recruited Cam’s squire, Rhistiart, for help with the formal funeral arrangements that protocol demanded. Wilym went to break the news to the Veigonn in person and dispatched messengers to the generals who had already taken troops afield. Cam kept vigil beside Donelan’s body, waiting for the king’s last official visitor.
The door opened. Cam stood, knowing that the guard had orders to admit only one person. A white-cloaked figure entered, and Cam recognized the newcomer as an Acolyte to the Oracle of the goddess Chenne. He made an awkward bow. “Your Grace,” he stammered, unsure of the proper acknowledgment.
The Acolyte nodded in response, but said nothing. Cam watched her in silence. The hood hid the Oracle’s face in shadow, and her long sleeves covered her hands. Cam wondered if it was his imagination that she glided rather than walked, or whether the Acolyte’s communion with the goddess had altered her enough to make her no longer of this world.
Cam stepped back as the Acolyte approached the bed. She moved in silence; not even footsteps broke the pall. The Acolyte bent over the king’s still form as if listening for breath.
“He’s well and truly dead, if that’s what you’re checking,” Cam mumbled, as grief gave way to irritation.
“Magic did this.” The Acolyte’s voice was a murmur, barely above a whisper.
“Beggin’ Your Grace’s pardon, but there’s a row of stakes beneath the bed and each one longer than my forearm. Must’ve run on some kind of spring,” Cam argued.
The hooded head turned toward him, and he fell silent. In the shadow of the cloak, Cam could not make out any features, or any glimpse of a face at all. She considered him without speaking, and that moment of silence felt like it lasted forever. “Magic, not mechanics, sprang the trap. The man you arrested, the firesetter, was bewitched. He was not the only one.” She held out a hand above the king’s corpse, as if sensing something in the air. “Two others have handled the weapon. One merely carried it, perhaps unknowingly. The other stinks of blood magic.”
“We’ve got a pretender to the throne headed this way with dark mages and a navy. There’s rioting in the streets, and now the king’s dead. If your Mistress or the Lady Chenne has any suggestions on what to do about it, I’m sure we’d all like to hear it right about now.” Keep it up, and she’ll probably turn you into a frog. It took effort for Cam to bottle his anger and grief and swallow the rest of his comments unspoken.
Once again, the Acolyte turned toward him, and Cam felt as if she were taking his measure. “You loved him.”
Cam swallowed hard. “More like a father to me than my own father he was, that’s for damn sure. I’d have died to save him.” Cam fell on his knees in front of the Acolyte. “Can the Oracle—or the Goddess—bring him back? Take my life instead. Please, m’lady, I beg of you.” Cam smeared away his tears with the back of his sleeve.
The Acolyte inclined her head. “It isn’t given to my Mistress to bring back the dead, and Our Lady Chenne keeps her own counsel. While your grief is sincere, and your offer heartfelt, I can’t give you what you seek.”
Before Cam could answer, the Acolyte swept from the room. Then, with a silent bow toward Donelan’s body, Cam blew out the candle in the lantern and left the bedchamber.
Just a few candlemarks before dawn, a solemn group assembled in the seneschal’s chambers. Tice, the king’s closest adviser; Allestyr, Donelan’s seneschal; Kellen; Trygve; Wilym; Darry, the armsmaster; and Rhistiart were seated around a table. With them was Brother Felix, the king’s favored scholar and an Acolyte of the Oracle. Cam joined them and accepted the warm mug of wassail Wilym pressed into his hand with a nod of thanks. No one spoke until Allestyr cleared his throat.
“I know we all have duties that demand our attention, as well as our own grief. But I thought it was important to gather this group before things get any more complicated.” Allestyr’s voice was tight and his eyes were red. In all the years Cam had known the seneschal, he had never seen Allestyr look as worn and sad.
“You’re here because your loyalty is certain,” Allestyr continued, his voice growing firmer. “By dawn, Count Renate should arrive at the palace. As the most senior member of the Council of Nobles, he is empowered, under Isencroft’s Covenant of the Lords, to step in as Regent for up to ninety days until an Heir of the Blood is crowned.”
He paused. “Renate is an honorable man, and his loyalty to the crown has never been doubted. He even volunteered to raise a private army and hunt down the Divisionists himself, but Donelan persuaded him that it was a matter best left to the king’s troops.”
Tice nodded. “He’s a bold man, and good in a fight. We could do worse for a Regent, that’s for sure.”
“Since we learned of the king’s death, we’ve allowed no one to leave the palace. We wanted to keep the news from spreading until Renate could be installed as Regent and until Wilym had a chance to speak with the generals,” Allestyr continued. He shook his head. “I don’t know what will happen when word reaches the streets. I fear the worst. We have to crown a new monarch before Alvior lands his armies on Isencroft soil, or he will claim a right by blood to the throne, and I don’t know how many might throw their allegiance to him out of sheer panic.”
Cam leaned forward. “Kiara is in Margolan. By fast horse, it’s a two-week ride. She’s recently given birth, and it was hard on her. We may well be at war before she can reach Isencroft.”
Allestyr nodded. “There’s no helping that. And although Kiara is an excellent warrior, she can’t be expected to fight so soon after the birth, nor would we put her in that kind of danger.”
“Wilym asked me to contact my friends among the vayash moru. They can travel more quickly than mortals. Antoin will take the news to Kiara in Margolan. He’ll leave tonight. It should take him only a few days.” Everyone turned toward Brother Felix. “Antoin’s loyalty is beyond doubt. He can be trusted to carry word to the princess.”
Allestyr and Tice exchanged glances. “Thank you,” Allestyr said. “In the meantime, we had something a bit more arcane in mind.”
Wilym raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“There is a way to crown a new king—or queen—in absentia,” Allestyr replied. “It hasn’t been done in several hundred years. We need a mage, preferably one of the Oracle’s Acolytes. It also requires eight witnesses, one for each of the Faces of the Lady. There’s a very particular way to carry out the ceremony. For one thing, it has to be done in the necropolis.”
“Why in the tombs, for the Lady’s sake?” Rhistiart clapped a hand to his mouth as he realized his outburst.
Allestyr gave a wan smile. “It has to be done in the necropolis because that’s where the dead monarchs of Isencroft are buried. The only way to crown someone in absentia is with the agreement of the ghosts of the fallen kings.”
“There is precedent.” Once again, Brother Felix drew their attention, although his voice was scarcely above a whisper. “Aldo the Wise was crowned in such a manner, over two hundred years ago. He was on a visit to Dhasson when King Zoccoros the Third choked on a piece of venison at dinner and died. A group of loyalists and an Acolyte petitioned the dead kings and consecrated the crown. Something about the ritual activates the regent magic that’s carried in the royal blood. Once done, it can’t be undone by writ.”
“So once the crown is consecrated for Kiara, the regent magic can’t be conferred on anyone else, even if Alvior found some traitor lords to crown him?” Wilym leaned forward earnestly.
Brother Felix nodded. “If the ceremony is done right, then the crown can’t be claimed by another—unless Kiara dies.”
Wilym crossed his arms over his chest. “Just what does this ‘consecration’ ceremony involve?”
Allestyr looked to Brother Felix. The scholar took a deep breath. “It’s very old magic, and somewhat controversial. There are reasons why it fell out of favor in recent generations. For one thing, the spirits of the dead kings can be temperamental. They don’t like to be disturbed. There are legends—”
“Save the ghost stories for another time, Felix,” Allestyr prompted gently.
“Right. Well, assuming you don’t bring the wrath of the dead kings down on you—which we shouldn’t, I hope—then, a small figure is created using items that were used frequently by the heir, either things she wore or things she valued highly, and dirt from the burial place of the kings. The items are placed inside a piece of cloth cut and sewn to be the shape of a person, like a child’s doll without the stuffing. The Acolyte petitions the dead to come. It’s up to them whether they do, unless the Acolyte happens to be a summoner, which none of the current ones are.”
“Skip the details, Felix, please, or we’ll be here all night,” Tice muttered, but there was affection in his voice.
“Sorry. Sorry.” Felix rubbed his bald head. He was obviously warming to his tale. “The warding and ceremony are not unlike a ritual wedding—each of the eight witnesses must contribute a few drops of blood into a chalice, which is mixed with wine and sacred herbs. Then we each lay hands on the effigy and drink from the chalice and the Acolyte says the words of power. The dead kings lend their magic, and the doll becomes a nenkah. Magically, it ‘becomes’ Kiara until she arrives to take its place.”
“You want us to do blood magic?” Trygve’s voice was a warning growl.
Felix sighed. “I told you it was controversial. That’s one reason why it went out of fashion. But anyone who makes a ritual wedding uses a form of blood magic when they cut their palms and mix the blood with wine. It’s not like there’s a human sacrifice.”
Tice cleared his throat. “I took the liberty of reading over Brother Felix’s shoulder when he retrieved the old scrolls. There are a few potential complications.”
“Complications?” Cam asked warily.
Tice nodded. “Because the items that are used to make the nenkah are very personal to the heir, they have a strong physical and emotional tie. When that link is activated by magic, the nenkah shares that magic with the person who owned the items. In exchange, the heir shares a glimmer of life force with the nenkah.”
“This thing is alive?” Cam’s voice reflected his horror.
Tice sighed. “In a manner of speaking, yes. That’s how it can be crowned in the princess’s absence with the force of law. It creates a way for Kiara to be in Margolan and here at the same time. But if the nenkah were to be captured, or destroyed… well, the records aren’t entirely clear. It’s possible that whoever controls the nenkah may control the princess so long as the nenkah exists. And there’s at least a suggestion in the records that destroying the nenkah might be able to wound Kiara through it—maybe kill her.”
“I don’t like this.” Wilym sat back in his chair, arms crossed and face set. “What happens after Kiara arrives? How do you get rid of the damned doll?”
Brother Felix shrugged. “According to the scrolls, once Kiara is crowned and the regent magic is activated, the nenkah becomes nothing more than a rag doll filled with an odd collection of items.”
Kellen leaned forward. “While I have to say that I share Wilym’s concerns, what choice do we have? Without the nenkah, Alvior might be able to have himself crowned and invoke the blood magic before Kiara could take the throne. I agree there are risks. I don’t like magic. But even with the vayash moru’s help, it will take weeks for Kiara to reach Isencroft. We can’t leave the succession open.”
“What of the Regent?” Trygve shifted in his seat.
Allestyr shrugged. “The nenkah must remain our secret. We’ll need Renate as our public face. As far as everyone at court knows, there’s only Renate. But the crown is both legal and magical. Renate covers us as far as the legal matters go. But for the magical, we need the nenkah.”
“Does Antoin have everything he needs to leave for Margolan?” Cam asked, turning to Brother Felix.
“All he needs is a letter—I was assuming Allestyr would want to write the message.”
Allestyr nodded. “Very well. I’ll do it immediately. While I’m busy with that, I’ll need your help to make ready for our little ceremony.” Cam could hear a touch of distaste in the seneschal’s voice and he guessed that Allestyr was as uncomfortable about the ritual as the rest. “Trygve, I’m hoping nothing goes wrong, but I’d like you to have your healer’s kit with you, just in case. Cam and Tice, I need you to go to Kiara’s rooms and find some things that belonged to her that we can use for the nenkah. Kellen, I’ll need you to prepare the ritual chamber. We haven’t used it since Kiara left for Margolan.”
“What about me?” Rhistiart had been nearly silent, but now he sat forward. “I want to help.”
Brother Felix regarded him for a moment. “There have to be eight witnesses. You’ll be the eighth man.” He stood. “Gentlemen, this kind of magic is best done at dusk or dawn. We’ll meet in the crypt chamber at fifth bells. And may the Goddess look kindly on our souls.”
When the group assembled in the necropolis beneath Aberponte, Cam could not recall seeing them ever look so ill at ease. His own stomach was tight as if anticipating a battle, and he caught himself pulling nervously at the collar of his uniform. Rhistiart was pale, and although the crypt chamber was cool, a light sheen of sweat showed on Rhistiart’s forehead. None of the others looked any less nervous.
The necropolis was ancient, older than the Isencroft monarchy, going back at least to the time when warlords ruled the clans that would someday unite to become a kingdom. The newer sections of the necropolis, still centuries old, were tunnels of stone with barrel ceilings and bricked floors. Crypt rooms opened off the walkway, and many corridors branched off into darkness. The walkway led into several large rooms ringed with ornately carved catafalques, monuments to Isencroft’s dead kings and queens. Cam swallowed hard as he filed past the tomb of Queen Viata, Kiara’s mother, and noted the as yet incompletely carved catafalque next to it that would hold Donelan’s remains.
As they descended, the cut stone and bricked corridors gradually became tunnels in the rock, and many of the openings appeared to be natural cave rooms enlarged and embellished over the centuries. Bones were stacked in alcoves cut into the walls, neatly piled with the skulls facing out so that, in places, the walls on either side of the corridors appeared to be made from yellowed, grinning skulls. The deeper they went into the necropolis, the more ornate the ossuary became. Cam shuddered at the macabre decorations left behind by long-forgotten priests. Bones were set into the walls in complex designs to make crests and murals, while in other places whole skeletons posed in a lifelike tableau were cemented in place.
Hundreds of tunnels formed an ancient labyrinth beneath the Aberponte palace, filled with tens of thousands of shrouded corpses or yellowing bones. Finally, Brother Felix stopped at the door to a locked room with a thick, oaken door bound with iron and drew a key from a ring on his belt. They waited outside as Felix entered and lit the torches that hung in sconces around the room, and Cam noticed that Felix chanted as he moved.
Cam looked around when Felix bade them enter. Felix locked the door and then raised a circle of warding behind them. The torches were only partially successful at driving back the shadows, and Cam realized the room was larger than he first thought. He could not tell whether this room was part of the natural caves or man-made, but it looked as if it had been in use for centuries. The floor was worn smooth at the doorway, and the walls around the sconces were blackened with soot. Around the walls were a series of intricate mosaic crests, and Cam realized that they were the heraldic emblems not of the Isencroft kings but of the eight ancient clan lords. Where the walls met the ceiling, runes were carved into the smooth stone, and a row of ancient skulls were set beneath the runes, angled so that they appeared to be watching what transpired below. The runes shifted as Cam stared at them, and he wondered if it were merely a trick of the flickering light.
In the center of the room was a large, raised oblong altar. Its base was worked with symbols, and its surface was worn smooth with use. The stone had dark stains whose origins Cam did not care to ponder.
Brother Felix seemed to be most at ease with the night’s work. He wore his formal white robes. Silver embroidery edged the cuffs and hem, more symbols that Cam did not recognize. Over his robe, Felix wore a large gold pendant set with five of the gems sacred to the Goddess and her eight Aspects: ruby for fire, sacred to Chenne the Warrior; sapphire, blue as the skies, for the Childe; diamond, clear as air itself, for the Formless One; sea-green emerald, for the Mother; amber, the color of the Goddess’s eyes, for Istra, the Dark Lady. A wide gold cuff ringed Felix’s right wrist with the last three gems: onyx for Sinha, the Crone; red garnet for the Lover; and bloodstone for Athira, the Whore. Felix carried a large silver chalice that was set with the same stones. On his left hand, he wore a silver ring set with a large ruby. At his belt was a silver dagger with a jeweled hilt.
Felix motioned for the men to take their places in a circle around the altar stone. Before joining them, he warded the doorway so they would not be interrupted. Cam glanced around the room. Every man except Brother Felix wore a sword, even Tice and Allestyr, who usually did not go about the palace visibly armed. Cam wondered if, despite Felix’s wardings, each of them was unnerved enough by the necropolis to feel the need for protection.
When they took their places around the altar, Felix closed his eyes and lifted the chalice toward the ceiling. “Powers that be, hear me! Goddess of Light, attend! We call to the fallen kings of Isencroft and to the Lady in all Her sacred Faces for both witness and power. Hail to the eight clan lords, who raised a kingdom from anarchy. We invoke your presence as we consecrate Kiara Sharsequin, only born of King Donelan and Queen Viata, as the Chosen of Isencroft, daughter of royal blood and descendant of the clan lords of old.”
The temperature of the crypt, already cool, grew colder until Cam could see his breath. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Beside him, Rhistiart gave a muffled squeak and his eyes grew round. Along the northern wall of the chamber, mist began to solidify into the forms of men and women, until a solemn row of figures stood in silent witness.
Cam looked down the line of ghostly newcomers and was startled to recognize some of the faces from paintings and tapestries in the castle. A tall, gaunt man with short-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed beard was the ghost of King Rowan, dead more than two hundred years. The next figure was equally familiar from the portrait over one of the sitting room mantels: Queen Tanisia, a wise and steady ruler, who had lived and died a hundred years ago. The spirits of eight monarchs stood silently, but Cam did not recognize the others. The ghosts represented only a few of the monarchs who had ruled in Isencroft’s history. Some of the spirits wore garments of a style that suggested they had ruled so long ago that likenesses of them had not survived the ravages of time, and Cam wondered if they numbered among the original clan lords. Cam was disappointed not to see Donelan among the spectral monarchs.
“We gather to invoke the ancient powers,” Felix continued, and as he spoke, he lifted the chalice in turn to the four corners, and then to the cross-quarters. “We claim the powers to name a new successor to the throne, and to animate this proxy until Kiara Sharsequin can take this power for her own. Let it be so.”
A cold wind moved through the sealed chamber, gusting hard enough to make the torches flicker. Well, someone’s heard us, that’s for sure, Cam thought nervously.
Rhistiart elbowed Cam and held out an inlaid box. Cam, as King’s Champion, bore the duty to take the next step in the ritual. Cam squared his shoulders and approached the altar, holding out the box to Felix.
Felix laid aside the chalice to receive the inlaid box. From within his white robes, Felix withdrew a piece of muslin sewn in the rough shape of a person, with the stitching open on one side. The figure had no features and no markings. Felix murmured under his breath as he opened the box and withdrew a piece of silk that Cam had cut from the seam of one of Kiara’s gowns. Felix lifted the bit of silk to the four corners and slid it into the cloth doll shape.
Next, Felix took out a silver disk from one of Kiara’s childhood necklaces and then a small dirk, well worn from Kiara’s lessons in the salle with Darry. These he lifted to the cross-quarters and then placed them in the doll with the other items. Finally, Felix removed several strands of Kiara’s hair and a piece of paper Cam knew to be one of Kiara’s most recent letters to her father, covered in her neat, small script. Felix offered these to the four corners and then put them into the doll form. Then with a murmured incantation, Felix touched the rough edge of the open seam and it knitted together under his hand.
The nenkah lay lifeless but complete, a rough, featureless doll. Felix looked around the group and met each man’s eyes in turn. He took up the chalice and raised it over his head in salutation.
“By the power of creation and chaos, of light and darkness, I call on the magic of blood and bloodline to anoint this proxy until our new queen can be crowned.” Felix lowered the chalice and stood before Tice. Tice held out his left hand, and Felix withdrew the jewel-handled dagger. With one swift movement, Felix drew the blade down Tice’s palm, raising a thin stream of blood that flowed into the chalice. Cam could hear Felix chanting in a low voice, but even when it was his turn and Felix stood in front of him, Cam could not make out the words.
More ghosts joined them as Felix made slow progress around the circle. As Felix drew the blood of the last participant, Cam gasped. Next to the stone altar stood a new ghost, who appeared nearly solid enough to touch. Cam heard the sharp intake of breath as the others recognized King Donelan’s shade.
Felix appeared to be the least shaken of the group, and Cam wondered if he had expected Donelan’s participation. When Felix had stirred the last of the blood into the chalice, he stepped closer to the altar, standing directly across from Donelan’s ghost. Cam studied the late king’s face. Donelan looked neither surprised nor upset by the ritual, giving Cam to wonder again if Felix had anticipated the king’s presence. The expression on Donelan’s face was as worried and weary as it had been lately in life.
Felix looked to Donelan’s ghost. “You understand our purpose?”
“Are you familiar with the ritual?”
Again, the ghost nodded.
Felix drew a deep breath, and for the first time, Cam noticed that the Acolyte’s hand was shaking. Felix’s voice began a somber chant. He dipped the blade of the dagger into the mingled blood and withdrew it, making an eight-point circle around the nenkah. Then he looked up to meet Donelan’s eyes.
Donelan nodded once more.
Felix began to pour the blood in a thin stream onto the cloth doll. At the same time, Donelan’s ghost became less solid, like fog dissipating on the wind. Tendrils of hazy white smoke unwound from the figure of the dead king and twined around the blood, disappearing into the nenkah. When the chalice was empty, Donelan’s ghost was almost translucent and the nenkah was soaked in crimson. Felix put his hand over the nenkah, and Donelan placed a spectral hand atop his. Felix murmured one last incantation, and the gems he wore flared with sudden light, blindingly bright in the gloom of the crypt. A spark of blue-white fire leaped from Felix’s palm into the nenkah, which jolted and shuddered.
Cam realized he was holding his breath.
Beside him, Rhistiart fainted.
The nenkah was breathing.
What news do the spirit guides bring?”
Jair Rothlandorn, heir to the throne of Dhasson and Rider with the Sworn, leaned forward so as not to miss a word. Talwyn, just returned from walking the spirit paths, took a deep breath and accepted a cup of vass. She took it down in one gulp, as if its strong flavor and potent kick would fortify her, grounding her once more in the realm of the living.
“They believe we have three dawns before the war begins.” Talwyn was the shaman of her people and next in line to become their chief. Her role required her to communicate with the spirits of the Ancient Ones, the gods worshipped in the Winter Kingdoms long before the cult of the Sacred Lady came to these lands, the gods who became the Consorts of the Goddess.
“That’s something.” Pevre, Talwyn’s father and chief of the Sworn, sat back, watching Talwyn with a worried gaze.
“They weren’t reassuring.” Talwyn looked grim. “The spirit guides had little to add to what our own rune scrying has told us. Dark magic. Much bloodshed. Invasion by the living and destruction from the risen dead. If you were hoping for a cheery prediction, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.”
“We appear to be out of luck everywhere we turn.” Jair reached out to touch Talwyn’s shoulder, and she clasped his hand. The intricate tattoo that wound around each of their wrists marked them as married by the custom of the Sworn, although the royal court of Dhasson would never accept their union, nor their son, Kenver, as a legitimate heir to the throne.
Pevre tossed a handful of ground anise into the fire for protection, and its fragrant smoke rose into the night air. In the distance, Jair heard a single horn blast one sharp note: the report of the night guards marking both the hour of the night and an uneventful watch. “What of the Dread and the Nachele? Did the Spirit Guides bring word from the barrows?” Pevre asked.
Jair stole a glance at the three large, grass-covered mounds behind them. The ancient burial sites stretched from the coast of the Northern Sea in Margolan south through Dhasson to the Nargi border, and at one time, legend held that the barrows continued through Nargi into the steppes of the Southland tribes. One look at the dark hair and golden skin of the Sworn, and it was impossible not to guess that their bloodlines harkened to those same Southland tribes and to the people of the long-destroyed Southern Empire.
Imprisoned in the mounds for more than a thousand years were the Nachele, dark beings entombed to stop them from preying on the living. Their guardians, the Dread, were as fearsome as the things they guarded. Both were known only through tales passed from generation to generation, since neither had walked among mankind for ten centuries. The shamans of the Sworn were the only living people with whom the Dread communicated, and then only on the paths of spirit and by the Dread’s rare invitation. Talwyn and her father, both shamans of the Sworn, had seen the Dread, heard their long-dead voices. Jair suppressed a shiver, glad he shared none of his wife’s magic.
“The Dread are… agitated.” Talwyn chose her words carefully, and Jair wondered whether the spirits that dwelled in the large mounds bothered to listen to the living. “The magic is wrong. It was harder than it should have been to raise the Spirit Gods, difficult to walk the paths, more tiring than usual. It’s like there is a strange hum in the background that shouldn’t be there.”
“A hum?” Jair shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
Talwyn sighed and leaned against him. Jair realized that it was for support as much as it was a gesture of endearment. “I don’t understand it either. It’s hard to find a word for it. Hum is the closest I can get. Like there are voices talking in the distance. Only it’s not voices. It’s in the magic itself, and I think it’s coming from the invaders.”
Jair looked north, beyond the barrows, toward the shore of the Northern Sea. They were well behind the lines of battle, positioned by agreement with King Martris Drayke of Margolan, Jair’s cousin. In the cold light of the moon, the shadows seemed sharper-edged, and Jair was glad for the reassuring warmth of the fire in the early-autumn chill.
Talwyn closed her eyes. “The war may not have started yet, but somewhere, there’s been blood spilled. The Nachele are stirring in the barrows, and for the first time since I’ve been a shaman, I sense that the Dread are uneasy.”
Jair frowned and looked from Talwyn to Pevre. “If no one’s dying yet in battle, then where is the blood coming from?”
Talwyn shrugged. “I guess it’s up to us to figure that out—more of that bad luck you mentioned.”
They looked up as footsteps came closer, and Jair’s hand automatically fell to the stelian sword at his belt, the weapon he carried as one of the Sworn’s elite trinnen warriors. Mihei, one of Jair’s fellow trinnen, was approaching with an unfamiliar guest. Mihei reached the edge of the firelight and stopped, bowing to Talwyn and her father.
“My apologies for the interruption, Cheira Talwyn, Chief Pevre.”
Pevre shook his head. “We’ve finished the working. Who’s this with you, and how did we come to have a visitor on the eve of battle?”
The newcomer stepped into the firelight, and Jair raised an eyebrow, recognizing the cut of the man’s jacket to be Dhasson military issue, although it was stripped of its insignia. “Honored Chief and Cheira,” the man said, making a deep bow. “My name is Captain Davin, and I’ve come with a message for Prince Jair, from King Harrol.”
Jair motioned for Davin to join them and be seated. Mihei returned to his post. “These are dangerous times for a ride through Margolan,” Jair said cautiously, trying to read Davin’s face and posture. “Is father well?”
Davin made the sign of the Lady in warding and then cast a glance toward Talwyn and her father, as if he feared they might take offense at the gesture. “The king’s well, thank the Lady. But I’m afraid these are dangerous times in Dhasson as well. Plague has spread from the Margolan border, and it’s reached the outskirts of Valiquet. So many farmers have died or fled from the plague that food is becoming scarce in the cities. The king sent soldiers out to recover what he could of the harvest, since much of it was left to rot in the fields and on the trees. I’m afraid we’ll eat through the winter stockpile long before spring.”
“And hunger means unrest,” Jair murmured. Davin nodded. “What else can you tell me, Captain?”
“Your father’s called up all the regiments on high alert. Dhasson doesn’t have coastline on the Northern Sea, but there’s plenty of shoreline along the Nu River, and the chroniclers warned the king that the last time invaders came from the north, their raiders went as far south as Trevath before they were beaten back.”
“So father’s going to make sure they don’t get past Dhasson this time?”
“Yes, my prince.” He shook his head. “Granted that I’ve been on the road for several weeks, but when I left, the army had its hands full keeping the peace. Frightened people drink more, and pick more fights. It’s as if there’s been a month of full moons, what with people losing their senses. The wretches at the madhouse went on a rampage and broke down the gates. No one knows why, or where they’ve gone. Even the Sisterhood is having a grim time of it. Word has it that some of their mages have been frightened out of their wits by something only they can see.” He shivered. “We’re past the Feast of the Departed, but there are ghosts walking in every crossroads and burying ground. They won’t lie still, and even the hedge witches can’t make them rest quietly. These are bad days, m’lord. Never seen the like of them.”
Davin reached into his jacket and withdrew a folded parchment. It bore the royal seal pressed into scarlet wax. From the way the seal made a dim glow as Jair broke it, he guessed that it had been spelled to open only for him.
“Problems?” Talwyn asked, turning to watch as Jair read down through the bold, sweeping pen strokes.
Jair’s mouth formed a hard line as he scanned the letter. “They’ve had more problems with the Black Robes,” he said dryly. “Damn Shanthadurists. He put an armed guard around the barrows while the Sworn is on the northern leg of the Ride, but there’ve been grave robbings and goat killings at cairns and crypts all around the kingdom. Amulet sellers are making piles of gold off people’s fears, and the farmers won’t put their flocks out to the autumn pastures because they’re afraid of what might happen to the animals and the shepherds.”
“No wonder the Dread are restless,” Talwyn murmured. Davin paled.
“He’s sent three regiments to patrol the Nu River in case the Temnottans try to move inland. He also sent a division to watch the Nargi border. Seems some of the nobility think the Crone Priests might be behind all the grave robbing, and while father says he doubts that, he wouldn’t put it past Nargi to make a move while everyone’s busy fending off invaders from the north.”
Jair managed a wry half smile. “Father sends his regards to Pevre, and his love to Talwyn and Kenver. He says he’d far rather be on the Ride with us than where he is.” He frowned. “He’s asked you to pray to the Spirit Gods to bless Dhasson. He says he’s asked the same of the Lady’s seers.” He glanced up to meet Talwyn’s eyes. “He must really be worried. Father’s not exactly observant when it comes to religion. I’ve never seen him pray except in public on feast days, and then the seneschal has to write out the words on a paper father keeps in his sleeve.” Jair carefully folded the letter and slipped it into a pouch at his belt.
“I’m sorry to bear worrisome news, m’lord.”
Jair shrugged. “It’s not as if you were the cause of it. What instructions did father give you once the message was delivered?”
“I’m to return with your reply, if it’s possible to do so with war in the offing. If I can’t return, then I’m to offer my services to you or to King Martris.”
“And your assessment of the road between here and Dhasson?”
Davin was silent for a moment, as if something he had seen warred with his bearing as a soldier. “Speak your mind, Captain,” Jair encouraged.
“Twice on the road, I was set upon by ashtenerath,” Davin said in a quiet voice. “Fortunately, only one or two at a time, and they smell so bad I had warning of their coming. I saw ghosts aplenty and even though I know how to set stones for a night warding, many a night I couldn’t sleep because there were things out there, just beyond the wardings, wanting my blood. I came upon the body of a peddler near a crossroads, and the man and his horse looked as if they’d been torn apart by something, but it wasn’t any animal I could name. The bite and claw marks were wrong. Magicked beast or dimonn, I didn’t stick around to find out. I passed villages without a living soul in them from the plague, and at night, I could hear their wights calling me to join them.” He shivered. “I’d prefer to face a whole army in battle, Your Highness, than take that road again. But I’ll do as you command.”
“Perhaps one of the vayash moru could be persuaded to carry your reply to your father,” Pevre suggested.
Jair nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. Right now, there’s nothing urgent I have to tell father that won’t wait.” He looked at Davin, and the soldier averted his eyes, as if ashamed to admit his fear of a return journey. “You’re a brave man, Davin, and a clever one to make that trip in one piece. I’d like you to carry a message for me to the Margolan battlefront, to King Drayke. You need to tell the king what you’ve told me.”
Davin drew a deep breath, pride in his eyes at the unexpected praise. “I would be honored to do so, my prince.”
“Good, then it’s settled.” Jair gestured to Mihei, who had waited just beyond earshot. “Davin’s going to need provisions and a place to stay the night.”
Mihei inclined his head in assent. “Done.” He looked to Davin. “Please follow me.”
Jair watched Davin and Mihei leave the edge of the firelight. Talwyn laid a hand on his arm. “What are you really thinking?”
Jair sighed and stared into the fire as if a sign from the spirits might appear. “I’m worried, about father and about Dhasson. I’m too far away to do anything, and besides, we’ve got more than our share of problems here. Between his report of strange goings-on in Dhasson and Davin’s stories of what he saw on the road, I have to think that it’s more than just the Shanthadura Black Robes trying to revive the worship of a long-forgotten goddess. It’s too close to what you heard from the Spirit Guides, about something disturbing enough to upset even the Dread and the Nachele. I don’t look forward to going up against a power that has the Dread worried.”
Pevre nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. I’ve spent my life riding these barrows, and more than once, I wondered whether the whole thing was just a myth. After all, the Dread haven’t stirred in a thousand years, and generations of Sworn have ridden from one end of the barrows to the other time after time without anything noteworthy ever happening. But now…” His voice drifted off and he looked up at the star-lit sky. “Now, I’m afraid I have the answer I was looking for, and it’s one I’d have rather done without.” He looked from Jair to Talwyn. “It’s late, and there’s no telling what morning will bring. Best you get some sleep while you can, before Kenver wakes you up at dawn.”
When Jair and Talwyn reached their tent, the fire inside was banked and the embers cast a dim light around the interior of their gar, the portable circular dwelling that the Sworn called home. Jair could just make out Kenver’s sleeping form underneath the woven blankets. The tent smelled of incense, and Jair guessed that Talwyn had scattered some herbs and scented wood in the fire before they left.
As if seeing them for the first time, Jair took stock of the painted images and symbols drawn on the interior of the dwelling’s cloth walls, and of the crystals and talismans that hung from the support poles. Despite Talwyn’s position as cheira and chief’s daughter, their home was nearly identical to those of the rest of the Sworn. For all the years Jair had ridden with the Sworn, he had never fully thought about the paintings and talismans beyond their value in teaching the nomadic people’s history to the children of the tribe. Now, after hearing Davin’s story and reading Harrol’s letter, Jair wondered about the protective nature of the decorations, and whether the markings, passed down from parent to child across generations, harkened back to more dangerous times.
Kenver did not stir as Jair and Talwyn settled into their bed. Jair closed his eyes, enjoying the night sounds outside the gar. The sounds mingled with the scent of burning embers and incense, and Jair sank into the comfort of the sensations, wishing once again that he could remain on the Ride forever. None of the comforts of Dhasson’s palace ever made him feel as much at home as he did on the Ride, and each year, the months slipped by too quickly, until it was time for his return to the palace city. The war might be more adventure than you bargained for, he reminded himself silently, and he inched closer to Talwyn, who was already asleep. Tired as he was, worries about the war would have to wait, and Jair drifted off to sleep.
He awoke with a start, unsure of what had awakened him. By habit, his hand fell to the pommel of his stelian in the scabbard that lay next to the bed. Nothing stirred in the darkness of the tent, and the glow from the banked embers was nearly gone. Across the way, Jair could make out Kenver’s form, assuring himself that Kenver was still where he had been candlemarks before. Jair reached out to rouse Talwyn, and he withdrew his hand with a gasp.
Talwyn’s body was cool. Jair shook her, swallowing back rising fear, but Talwyn did not rouse. She grimaced in pain, as if about to scream, but no sound came from her, even as Jair shook harder. Talwyn’s hands were fisted, and her body was rigid. Fresh gashes, like claw marks, raked her arm and cheek, though no paw prints of an attacking animal led away from where she lay.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?”
Jair felt Kenver behind him, and only then became aware that he had been calling Talwyn’s name loudly. “Mommy’s sick. Go get grandpa. Run!”
Jair drew a deep breath, forcing himself to think instead of feel. Talwyn’s skin was unusually cool, but not devoid of warmth like a corpse. Her muscles were clenched tight, though not with the rigor of death. To his relief, he found both breath and pulse, although Talwyn did not rouse, even when he splashed her face with water.
Pevre and Kenver were beside him in minutes. “What happened?” Pevre asked, taking in Talwyn’s condition with detachment.
Jair moved back to permit Pevre to examine Talwyn. “I don’t know. Something woke me. There was nothing unusual in the tent, no strange noises outside. I reached over to Talwyn and found her like this.”
Pevre frowned in concentration, and he extended one hand, palm down, over Talwyn’s face. Slowly, he moved his hand down the center of her body, just above her skin. He closed his eyes as he moved his hand and began to chant under his breath in a low voice. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked at Jair.
“Someone… or something… has sent dream magic against her. She’s rigid because she’s fighting for her life in the dream realm, against something we can’t see or hear but that is very real to her. Her body is cool because whatever it is drains her life force, the same way a vayash moru drains blood.”
“Fighting for her life,” Jair repeated quietly, and instinctively he put a protective arm around Kenver, drawing the small boy close. “So it’s real to her, even in the dream realm?”
Pevre nodded. “Very real. This kind of magic is old. It takes power to wield it, and skill. It’s considered gray magic at best because the potential to misuse it is so strong. You can imagine what such a thing could do to a political rival, or a spurned lover, for example.”
“How do we break it?”
Pevre rocked back on his heels, thinking. “I need my ritual bag from my tent,” he said with a glance to Kenver, who ran to fetch it. While they waited for Kenver to return, Pevre motioned for Jair to help him move Talwyn closer to the fire. Lifting her by shoulders and ankles, they carried her near the fire pit and laid her on a mat. Pevre added wood to the fire and lit the lanterns. Kenver returned with the ritual bag, and Pevre set it down near Talwyn. He made a gesture of warding over the bag and opened it reverently, and then he walked a larger circle of warding around Talwyn, carefully keeping Jair within the circle and motioning for Kenver to step back so that he would be outside the warded space.
“I don’t know who sent this, or how strong their magic is. I’ll need your help to fight it,” he said with a nod toward Jair. “But I’d just as soon Kenver stay outside the warding. My magic should be strong enough to keep it contained.”
Pevre withdrew a shaman’s mantle from the ritual bag and carefully laid it around his shoulders. Then he took four carved images from the bag, one for each of the Spirit Gods the Sworn honored—the Bear, the Eagle, the Wolf, and the catlike Stawar. These he placed in a ring around the fire. As he placed the images, he bowed to each one.
“Guardian spirits, we honor you,” Pevre said in a low rumble. “Walk with me on the dream paths, and give me your strength to overcome the attacker.”
The fire glowed more brightly, and Jair thought he glimpsed movement in the shadows of the four images, and he wondered if it were a trick of the light. Pevre removed several polished disks of amber and agate from his bag and placed them at Talwyn’s head, feet, shoulders, and hips. He took a smooth piece of onyx and pried open Talwyn’s fist, closing her fingers around the disk. Then he motioned for Jair to kneel beside Talwyn.
“Hold her hand in your left hand, and your stelian in your right. Concentrate on the onyx she’s holding. I’ll open up the dream realm for you. A shadow of your weapon should follow you into her dream. Use the onyx to bring both of you back to the waking world.”
Jair nodded and began to breathe deeply as Pevre began to chant. Inhaling the smoke and incense, Jair closed his eyes and let himself enter a trance, keeping his mind focused on the onyx disk in Talwyn’s fist. At first, Pevre’s voice was loud, sounding just behind him. Over the span of several breaths, the voice grew more distant, until it was so faint Jair could no longer hear it.
Talwyn’s scream and the growl of a wild beast jolted Jair into action. Warrior training overcame instinct, and he rose with his stelian ready for battle. They stood on a stark plain that was devoid of color. Few trees or plants rose from the barren ground that stretched to the horizon, broken only by one or two rocky outcroppings. In the gray of twilight, it was difficult to make out the shape of the enemy, and then Jair spotted them and caught his breath. Shadows, not predators, were encroaching on Talwyn, who barely kept them at bay with a hand raised in warding and a gnarled broken branch wielded like a weapon. She looked exhausted, and the gashes Jair had seen on her sleeping form were fresh and seeping.
A ring of shadow forms circled Talwyn. At first, the shadows lay flat against the ground, and then one of the shadows rose out of the dark ring, amorphous at first, until it solidified into the shape of a man. It reached toward Talwyn with taloned hands, slashing at her and nearly getting inside her guard.
Jair hurled a rock at the shadow. “Leave her alone!” The rock sailed right through the figure. There was a guttural sound like many deep voices conferring in the distance, and the shadow ring began to move swiftly toward Jair across the dirt.
“Don’t let them touch you!” Talwyn’s voice was sharp with warning, but Jair could hear the pain and weariness that tinged it. She looked haggard and drained, with an unnatural pallor. He ran toward her, taking a zigzag path and doubling back on himself, eluding the shadow forms until he stood between them and Talwyn.
The guttural sound grew louder, and the shadows seemed to boil, as if his action displeased them.
“Where’s the onyx?” Jair shouted to Talwyn without taking his eyes off the roiling shadow that had doubled its size, coming toward them like a wave on dry land.
“I don’t have it!” Talwyn replied, dropping to her knees to scrabble in the dust searching for the stone. “Where was it on the other side?”
“Pevre put it in your hand,” Jair replied, bracing himself for the onslaught.
Behind him, Talwyn searched for the stone as the shadows drew nearer. Jair wielded his stelian as he would have in the waking world, unsure of its worth against their enemy. “What are these things?” Jair called to her.
“Esiteran. Life-drinkers. They drain energy instead of blood.”
“Will my stelian hold them off?”
“For a while. Sooner or later, they get inside your guard, as you can see.”
The shadows surged forward, and Jair struck at them with his stelian. The sword felt as solid and deadly in his hands here in the dream realm as it did in the waking world, although how it had moved across the gap between realms with him, he did not know. The stelian met the darkness, slicing through it like light. The shadows shrieked and drew back, only to rush at him from another angle, forcing him to pivot sharply to meet their advance with another blow of the stelian. A tendril of darkness snapped out and cut through the cloth of his pants, tearing into his leg. Jair gritted his teeth against the pain and slashed at the shadow, forcing it back.
The shadows were massing. Jair wondered if they had been merely toying with Talwyn, and whether his arrival had pushed them to action. He struck again at the shadows and a whip-thin edge of the darkness sliced down, lashing him across his shoulder and chest. He cried out at the pain and swung his stelian until the shadows drew back again.
“I’ve got it!” Talwyn found the onyx disk and clasped it between her two hands. “Lay a hand on my shoulder, and don’t let go,” she said to Jair. He complied, keeping his stelian ready in his right hand. Talwyn raised her hands overhead and murmured words of power, and she then held up the onyx between thumb and forefinger.
A brilliant flare of light streamed from the polished stone. The shadows hissed and receded, like a dark tide. The light traveled down Talwyn’s upraised arms, until Jair and Talwyn were encircled in a pillar of light.
With a sudden shift, Jair found himself back in the tent, kneeling next to Talwyn, his stelian gripped in his hand. He glanced down at his ruined shirt and the vicious slash that had laid open both cloth and skin. Jair shifted, painfully aware of the gash on his leg that had begun to throb. Talwyn’s eyes snapped open. Color had come back to her skin, and her whole form relaxed. Beside them, Pevre stopped chanting and drew a deep breath. He let his head hang for a moment, as though the effort had exhausted him, and then looked from Talwyn to Jair.
“You’re back,” he said, a note of tired pride in his voice.
Talwyn reached out to touch Pevre’s sleeve. “Thank you.”
Pevre shrugged. “The question is, how did you become trapped in the dream realm?”
Talwyn struggled to sit, and Jair helped her rise. “I’m not sure. I keep wardings set around the tent to avoid problems just like that. When we came back last night, the wardings were in place. Either something broke the wardings or someone is doing powerful blood magic nearby, strong enough that it penetrated my wardings.”
“Wouldn’t you know if someone tried to break the wardings outright?” Jair asked. Pevre was busy making a paste from liquids and herbs in his bag to clean their wounds. Jair winced when Pevre applied the thick salve.
“The sting of it can’t be helped,” Pevre grumbled. “The wounds are most likely poisoned.”
“Yes, under most circumstances,” Talwyn said, answering Jair’s question. “It should have awakened me if anyone tinkered with the wardings at all, long before they were broken. So either something was able to get past the protections without actually breaking them or we’re up against a mage who’s good enough to be sly with his power.”
“Will you be all right?” Kenver’s voice was thin and reedy, and Jair could hear the boy trying to hide the way his voice trembled. Pevre dismissed his own warding with a gesture, and Kenver ran to Jair and Talwyn, throwing his arms around them.
Talwyn tousled the boy’s hair, and Jair drew him close. “We’ll be fine as soon as your grandfather’s poultices do their work,” Talwyn said, though Jair could hear the exhaustion in her voice.
Pevre took a seat against one of the support poles of the tent. “It’s still the middle of the night. I suggest you three get some sleep. I’ll stand guard. I doubt anything will try again tonight to harm you, but if it does, I’ll be ready.”
Kenver would not return to his own bed, insisting to be between his mother and father. For once, Jair didn’t feel like arguing. Despite Pevre’s medicine, his wounds still throbbed, and he wondered if he could possibly sleep. But sleep found him, and this time, he did not dream at all.
Light was already streaming through the smoke hole in the roof of the gar when Jair awoke. Kenver was sleeping soundly beside him, but Talwyn had rolled onto her side, awake, absently stroking Kenver’s dark hair. In the light, the slashes on her cheek looked even worse than Jair remembered from the night before. Carefully, they extricated themselves from Kenver’s wide-flung arms and moved quietly outside the tent, where Pevre joined them.
“It’s going to take a few days for those wounds to heal,” Pevre said, taking in their still-tender injuries with an appraising eye. “Nature of the beast that got you. Could have been worse. At least it wasn’t teeth.”
“I didn’t know shadows had teeth,” Jair muttered.
“Those weren’t exactly regular shadows,” Pevre replied, his voice rough from lack of sleep. “If you hadn’t figured that out already. The line between waking and sleeping is just like twilight or daybreak, or the solstices. It’s a place where the threshold between our world and other realms is thinner, easier to cross. Sometimes we cross over; sometimes something else does. Just like a summoner’s magic can cross between the realms of the dead and the living, other magics can invade thoughts or dreams, even memories. We’re lucky such magics are rare. They can be a terrible weapon.”
“Chief Pevre! Cheira Talwyn!” One of the trinnen warriors came running up to them. He stopped and made a quick bow. “Two elders from one of the nearby villages approached our night guard. They said they have no one else to turn to, and they need our help.”
Jair and Talwyn exchanged glances. “I thought the villagers along this route pretty much ignored or avoided the Sworn?” Jair murmured.
“They do,” Talwyn replied. “They keep to themselves, and so do we.” She looked to the guard. “Why did they come to us? Why not go to the king’s patrols?”
The taller of the two warriors nodded. “I asked the same thing. With the preparations for war, it appears that patrols in the area are almost nonexistent. I think they were desperate. We’ve heard a little of their story, but I think you should be there for the rest. Their problem may have more to do with us than they know.”
Talwyn, Jair, and Pevre followed the taller guard, while the shorter man stayed behind on Talwyn’s orders to guard Kenver while the boy slept. The guard led the way to the large common lodge. The Sworn’s gar were large circular structures held up by an easily collapsible frame of light but sturdy wood. The heavy cloth of the gar and the fanlike ceilings could be insulated for warmth in the winter with a layer of cloth batting or sheepskin, or left to be a single layer of cloth in warmer seasons. The lodge was the largest of the moveable structures, and the entire tribe of guardian warriors could fit inside for important rituals when the need arose. Now, the large gar held only three guards, a half-grown boy, and a ragged man.
“What has brought you to our camp?” Talwyn stepped forward. Despite her injuries, she was fully in command as the Sworn’s shaman. She spoke Common instead of the Sworn’s consonant-heavy language, but the ancient language of the nomadic guardians accented her words.
Both the man and the boy made awkward bows. “Forgive us for disturbing you,” the man said. “But we had nowhere else to go. The king’s soldiers are gone to the war, and there’s no other justice within several days’ ride. Please, m’lady, we need the help of a mage. My village won’t last another night.”
Jair could see from Talwyn’s expression that she was both intrigued and moved by the man’s entreaty. Talwyn gestured for them to sit, and everyone but the three Sworn guards did so. By unspoken agreement, the guards remained standing, just a few steps behind their unexpected visitors.
“Tell me why your village needs a mage,” Talwyn said.
“It started when someone began stealing the bodies of our dead,” the man replied. Jair watched closely as the man spoke. At first glance, he’d taken the stranger for being in his middle years, but as Jair looked more carefully, he saw that hard work and deprivation had etched the man’s face more than time, and he revised his estimate of the visitor’s age downward by twenty seasons. The boy, whom Jair guessed to be twelve or thirteen summers old, seemed to shrink into himself as if wishing to disappear, or to be completely overlooked. Something’s scared both of them badly, Jair thought. That’s the only thing that would bring them here.
“A week ago, someone or something tore up our burying ground. They dug up the bodies and dragged them off.”
“Was there anything left behind, like sacrificed animals or rune markings?” Talwyn asked, leaning forward with interest.
The man looked surprised. “No, m’lady. Nothing at all, not even tracks. We thought it might be looters, but what little was buried with the bodies was left in the graves. Our village is too poor to bury anything of value with the dead, when the living make do with little.”
Talwyn nodded, and her smile gave the man courage to continue. “A few nights after that, two of the shepherds came screaming back to town in the middle of the night. They’d been out in the fields since before the grave robbings, and no one had been out to tell them about it. Swore they’d seen dead folks walking out along the ridge, and named them, all the ones taken from the burying ground. Scared nearly out of their minds they were, and these aren’t children. These are young men who have fought off wolves and robbers.”
“The dead were walking? Where were they going?” Jair watched the men as they spoke, but nothing in their manner seemed false. Like Talwyn, he was riveted by their story.
The man gave a bitter chuckle. “The shepherds didn’t stick around, or follow. They lit out of there as soon as they realized what they’d seen. Said the dead were headed north, and that they moved sluggishly, as if pulled along by strings instead of free to move on their own.”
“Is that why you came here? To ask for help in binding your dead to their cairns?” Talwyn asked gently.
Their visitor shook his head. “No, m’lady. While I would not like to see them disturbed, the dead are dead. I wouldn’t risk the living to bring them back, if they’ve taken to wandering, so long as they leave us in peace.” His voice caught. “But that’s not the worst of it. Last night, it was like madness struck our little village. M’lady, you’ll think we’re awful people, but we’re just a small village of herders and farmers, scraping out a living and trying to pay our taxes. Even when Jared the Usurper—Crone take his soul,” the man said, spitting to the side to ward off evil, “took the throne, we didn’t run away, the way so many did. We hunkered down and let the worst of it pass us by. But we’re paying for it now, m’lady, because something’s found us. Something evil.”
“You said that madness struck. What do you mean?” Talwyn’s voice was soothing, and Jair knew that its calming effect was enhanced by her shaman’s magic.
The man shifted uncomfortably. He refused to meet her eyes. “Last night, ten people in our village were murdered. M’lady, there are only forty of us, just a few families. There warn’t no reason for it. Can’t blame strong drink, because the ones who have too much to drink on a regular basis slept through it all.” He shook his head, and dared to look up. His eyes were red-rimmed, as if he had been among the grieving.
“In the space of two candlemarks, it was like a shadow fell over the village. Husbands and wives who had never quarreled took a hammer or a hatchet to each other. Parents who loved their children with all their breath wiped out their whole families. Brothers set on each other or on their parents. There’s no one untouched, no one who didn’t lose someone. And we can’t even bury the dead, for fear that they’ll be stolen away.”
At the word “shadow,” Jair and Talwyn exchanged a hurried glance. “Did anything unusual happen just before the murders?” Jair asked gently. “Anyone new visit the village or pass by? Any strange symbols or markings on the trees or rocks?”
The ragged man shook his head again. “No one’s been by our village in weeks. What with the talk of war, the traders don’t travel our way. It’s several days ride into the nearest real town of any size. We don’t have enough coin for the peddlers to make an effort to come to us, and there’s no inn or tavern nearby.” He thought for a moment.
“But there was one thing. A few days before the murders, the hedge witch in our village went raving mad. She’d been complaining of headaches that even her potions couldn’t set right, but no one else had them. When we found her, she had gouged out her eyes and was slamming her head against a rock until she was bloody. She’d been clawing at her ears until they were practically torn from her head, and her nails were stripped down to the quick. All she’d say was that something wouldn’t stop calling her, wouldn’t stop humming in her head.”
“And where is she now?” Talwyn asked.
The man took a long breath. “Last night she got away from the ones who were watching over her. She ran into the fire and danced while she burned, and she used her magic to keep anyone from saving her. She didn’t want to be rescued. The last thing she said before she died was, ‘It stopped. I can’t hear them anymore.’ ”
Talwyn and Pevre stepped away to confer in low voices. Jair sat silently beside the man, completely at a loss for words. The boy clung to his father, hiding behind a mop of unruly dark hair that covered his face. His posture and actions made Jair think of a much younger child, one just Kenver’s age. He’s seen horrors that would drive grown men out of their wits, Jair thought. Let him take his comfort where he can.
After a few moments, Talwyn and Pevre returned. “I’ll visit your village and see if there’s anything I can do to help, although I have to warn you, I’m not sure I can set things right,” Talwyn said. She held up a hand to stave off the man’s protestations of gratitude.
“We’ll go tomorrow. I’m too spent to work the kind of magic such a visit requires. You and the boy may stay the night in our camp. You’ll be safe here.”
It was apparent to Jair that the man chafed at the delay, even as he realized the necessity. The stranger nodded in acquiescence. “As you wish, m’lady. We’re in your debt.”
Talwyn spoke to the guards in the language of the Sworn, instructing them to make the strangers comfortable but to keep them under guard without implying that the visitors were prisoners. When the guards had shown the man and the boy out, Talwyn looked to Pevre and Jair.
“Once again, I have the feeling that our enemy across the sea isn’t waiting to bring the war to us,” Talwyn said. Jair could hear the fatigue in her voice, and he saw the tiredness that lined her face. “Even worse, they… or it… has the power to cause damage far behind the battlefields. And with all that power, whoever or whatever is behind this wants to free the Nachele to make it even worse.”
Martris Drayke, the Summoner-King of Margolan, watched over the seer’s shoulder, giving rapt attention to the scene that was unfolding in a basin of still water. Beyral, one of the king’s rune scryers and far-seers, held her hands on either side of the basin, near but not touching the bowl. On the still surface of the water was an image of a battle being fought miles away, out on the Northern Sea. The fighting was beyond the acute eyesight of the most eagle-eyed scout, even armed with a small telescope. And so the king and two of his generals watched anxiously, breathing shallowly so as not to ripple the water with their breath.
“Fishermen can’t hold off an invading fleet for long,” General Senne murmured.
“Pashka and his people may be fishermen, but they know those waters like the inside of their own homes.” Ban Soterius was both a general and one of the king’s boyhood friends. He leaned in over the king’s shoulder. “Can Beyral make the image any sharper, Tris? I can barely see.”
Despite the gravity of the moment, the king hid a slight smile. Soterius was one of a handful of trusted friends who still called him by his nickname. It was a fleeting reminder of the time, just over two years before, when Tris had been just a privileged second son with no aspirations to the throne, before coup and betrayal and war changed his destiny and the history of Margolan. “We can try,” Tris said, lending some of his own magic to amplify Beyral’s far-seeing.
The image sharpened and grew slightly larger. “Look there,” Senne said, reaching out to point and only barely stopping himself before he disturbed the water and might have lost the image. “Are those actually ships?”
Tris and Soterius bent to get a better look. “Some of them are,” Soterius said slowly, squinting to see better.
“But look at those ships, the ones on the right,” Tris said, feeling a chill go down his spine. “They look like hulks, as if someone hauled a wreck to the surface and made it float.”
Soterius met Tris’s eyes. “Could a summoner do that? I mean, you can call spirits back from the grave and make them solid. You have the power to raise the dead, even if Light mages don’t do such things. Can you raise ‘dead’ things like a ship hulk?”
Tris bit his lip. “Technically, yes. The wood in the ships was living at one time, so once it’s cut, even though it’s ‘dead,’ there is a thread of connection. That’s the tricky part with summoning. If you’re sloppy about how you cast a spell, in theory, you could get not only the ghost you’re trying to summon but all the dead animals, insects, and plants in the immediate area.”
“Are you telling me that Pashka’s men are fighting ghost ships?” Senne’s voice told Tris that the general was struggling to make yet another leap of faith to believe his king. Tris knew that while Senne’s loyalty was absolute, the general wrestled to understand his liege’s magic.
“Afraid so.” As they watched, larger ships, carricks and caravels, entered the scene in the scrying bowl.
“Tolya’s privateers are sailing to the rescue,” Soterius murmured. His tone told Tris that Soterius might have accepted the privateers’ help, but he didn’t fully trust their allegiance.
“Look there!” Senne cried out, belatedly tempering his voice when he realized he had just yelled in the king’s ear. Tris and Soterius shifted their attention. “Those damn ghost ships are ramming the fishermen’s boats!”
The image in the scrying bowl was smaller than Tris would have liked, though holding even that size of an image required a large expenditure of power. But even in miniature, Tris could see a flotilla of wrecks and hulks with broken masts and shattered sides moving with impossible speed. No wind propelled them, yet they were moving quickly, and the small boats of the fishermen scrambled nimbly to avoid being run down. The bow of one of the ghost ships plowed into a small skiff, breaking it in two. Tris could see the tiny images of men throwing themselves to the side to escape being crushed by the hulk.
“Not just ramming,” Soterius said grimly. “Someone’s firing on Tolya’s and Pashka’s men from the ghost boats.” Just then, the image rippled again, as Tris concentrated his power to refocus the scrying on one of the ghost ships. He could hold that clarity for only a few seconds, but it was enough to show a skeletal crew aboard the boat sending very real arrows toward the fleet of defenders.
Tris had no idea what the fishermen and privateers made of the spectral invaders, but to their credit, both groups held their positions. As they watched, the privateers replaced regular arrows with flaming missiles, gambling that even the dead might flee from flames. The battle raged for the better part of a candlemark, with Tolya’s fire missiles scuttling a dozen of the wrecks. Pashka’s fishermen used the smaller size of their crafts to their advantage, attacking near the waterline with pikes and hooked blades fastened onto poles, sinking several more of the attackers’ ships. Where the hulks exposed their crews near the waterline, Pashka and his fishermen used their hooks to yank the skeletons into the water and bash them with the pikes.
The ghost ships pulled back, but before Senne and Soterius could exclaim in triumph, Tris saw the cause for the retreat and felt his heart thud. In the space vacated by the ghost ships, a small waterspout was beginning to form.
“Here’s hoping that our mages are paying attention,” Tris muttered under his breath. Even as he spoke, he saw their own fleet of fishing boats and privateer vessels also pull back, and then he saw the reason why. A wild wind rose out of nowhere, whipping toward the waterspout and buffeting it until it dissipated. Margolan’s motley fleet bobbed with the winds, but they did not flee.
“Are the attackers moving backward?” Soterius wondered aloud. They strained to see, but as they watched, the ghostly hulks began moving in reverse, slowly at first, and then faster and faster. Tris pointed to a disturbance in the surface of the ocean, a growing vortex that pulled the Temnottan hulks back to their grave beneath the sea.
“Their side raises a waterspout, and our side sinks a whirlpool,” Senne said admiringly. The ghost ships’ skeletal crews remained in their positions, either stripped of reason or no longer afraid of death. The whirlpool widened, drawing more and more of the hulks into its maw. Margolan’s “navy” of fishermen and privateers reversed course sharply, maneuvering their own ships out of danger. Even at the distance of the scrying, they could see the crews dancing in celebration aboard their vessels as the last of the ghost ships sank into the whirlpool.
When it became clear that, for now, the battle was over, Beyral waved a hand above the image and the basin once again held only clear water. “Now by your leave, m’lord, I need to rest.” Beyral’s voice was scratchy and Tris could hear the exhaustion in her tone.
“Yes, of course. Thank you.” Beyral left Tris’s campaign tent.
The three men were quiet for a moment. “If they could raise a waterspout, why didn’t their mages do something about the whirlpool?” Senne mused.
“And for that matter, why send ghost ships when we know they’ve got a fleet hidden?” Soterius added.
Tris considered the images they had seen in the scrying bowl. “I think both were meant to test us,” he said finally. “It wasn’t the first real shot of the war; it was a fishing expedition. They wanted to see if they could intimidate the fishermen and privateers into turning tail and running away. Maybe they wanted to inspire terror in anyone watching on shore. Perhaps they were hoping to draw out our mages and get an idea of their power to use it against us later.”
“Their power—or yours,” Soterius said quietly. “I noticed that you didn’t rush in to use magic, even though someone on their side obviously was using summoning tricks to raise those ghost ships.”
Tris shrugged. “Not necessarily summoning. Animating something isn’t the same thing as bringing it back to life. We saw the same kind of thing at Lochlanimar, when Curane’s mages made our dead move like puppets. They weren’t summoners. They hadn’t brought the dead back to being able to move on their own; the mages had to use their power for every step.”
“What about the skeleton archers?” Senne was frowning as if the sudden discourse on magical instead of military tactics was straining his patience.
“That’s what Tris is saying—they could be ‘puppets,’ too, like the corpses at Lochlanimar. Any mage who could move something from a distance could do it, right?” Soterius looked to Tris for agreement, and Tris nodded.
“If you think about it, the archers weren’t particularly accurate. Their advantage was surprise and sheer numbers, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything to steer the boats, and when the whirlpool opened up, they didn’t look like they made any attempt to get out of the way.”
“That’s true.” Senne’s lips pursed as he thought. “Do you think it was a trap—for Tris?” He leaned forward. “Maybe we were meant to think another summoner was behind it, but perhaps they hoped that the king would use his power, risk himself to counter their magic. For all we know, there could have been something magical waiting to counterstrike.”
A grim smile played at the corners of Tris’s mouth. This was the general that his father, King Bricen, had so valued for his cleverness in battle. Senne might not be as comfortable with magic as Soterius was, but the general knew the value of any military advantage, whether he understood how it worked or not. And right now, Tris knew that the wheels in Senne’s head were turning quickly, looking for a strategic advantage.
“I didn’t sense another summoner’s power,” Tris said slowly, thinking back to the scrying and trying to remember what his mage senses were telling him. “Then again, we’re quite a distance from the action, but I think I’d be able to tell that kind of power signature.” He shook his head. “No, I’m certain. A mage of power, to be sure. It was a good trick, very convincing. But not a summoner’s power. I’d have felt it.”
“Could you tell, was something waiting to pounce if you had tried to use your magic?”
Tris paused again, replaying the events in his mind. Finally, he shook his head again. “Not unless whoever did it was very, very good at masking his power. We know there’s a dark summoner out there. But he didn’t show his hand tonight, and our ships held their own, so it didn’t seem necessary to risk more of our mages—or give away anything about my magic—if we didn’t need to.”
“Well played, m’lord,” Senne said with a note of honest appreciation that made Tris smile. Senne was not free with his compliments, nor was he in the habit of fawning praise.
Senne rose. “I’d best go back to the troops,” he said. “Take them some good news and have them ready in case the next salvo comes by land.”
Tris nodded. “Have Tolya and Pashka come to my tent when they return. I want to hear about the fight firsthand. Maybe something they saw will give us a better idea of what kinds of magic we’re up against.” He paused. “And let’s make sure that they get a hero’s welcome. They deserve it for standing their ground.”
Senne inclined his head in acknowledgment. “As you wish, m’lord.”
Tris waved Soterius to sit. “Stay for a moment.”
“Now that you’re done watching water boil, can I interest either of you in supper?” Coalan asked dryly from the tent doorway. Coalan was Soterius’s nephew, chosen to be Tris’s valet because of his unquestioned loyalty and longtime friendship.
Despite the tension, Tris fought a smile. “And may I assume that you’ve already sampled tonight’s fare?”
Coalan grinned broadly. At sixteen summers old, he was only six years younger than the king. He’d shown his mettle the previous year, in the war against Curane the Traitor, by killing an assassin meant for the king. But he was equally famous for his seemingly never-ending interest in food. “Stew again, and the war hasn’t actually started yet,” he reported, with an exaggerated sigh. “On the other hand, cook’s bread turned out to be softer than rocks, so it’s a good day.”
“Rocks or not, dinner would be welcome. Thank you.”
Coalan gave an exaggerated bow. “Coming right up. And I’ll make sure to include two glasses of brandy.” Only a conspiracy between Tris and Soterius kept the young man from the front lines, but after Jared the Usurper’s treachery had cost Coalan most of his family, Soterius had begged Tris to keep him as safe as possible. So while most of Coalan’s time was spent as Tris’s valet, the sword on the young man’s belt was a reminder that if anyone were to get past the bodyguards who surrounded Tris and the tent, Coalan had proven his ability to defend the king.
When Coalan had gone, Soterius turned to Tris. “You look tired, and the real fighting hasn’t started yet. I don’t think these magic skirmishes are what’s losing you sleep. So what’s the real reason?”
“We’re getting ready for war. I’m worried about having to leave Kiara and Cwynn behind. Do I need more reasons?”
Soterius gave him a potent stare. “I don’t think that’s all of it.”
Tris sighed. “I haven’t slept well the last few nights. Bad dreams. It’s been different each night. I haven’t been able to decide whether they’re warnings or just my nerves getting to me.”
“What did you dream?”
Tris shifted uncomfortably. “One night, I dreamed about Alyzza, dancing in her cell at Vistimar. Only this time, she wasn’t mad, and she wasn’t singing in riddles. She looked like she did when we met her in the caravan. She looked at me and said, ‘Look to the pages, Tris. There are answers in the pages.’ ”
“Pages? Does she mean the histories Royster brought you from the Library at Westmarch?”
Tris shrugged. “I’m not sure.” Darker possibilities had occurred to him, ones he would not speak aloud. “The thing is, I’ve read through everything countless times, and nothing jumped out at me as being significant. Maybe the circumstances just aren’t right. Maybe the meaning will be clearer later.”
“Or maybe you just had a bad dream.”
Tris grimaced. “Yeah. Maybe that too.”
“Was that the only dream? You seem a little too tired to have had just one bad night.”
“There’ve been others. I dreamed about Cwynn. He was lying on a huge pile of bones, and a current of wild magic, like the Flow, opened the ground under the pile and roared up toward the sky. I thought it was going to burn him, but it swirled around him. It was as if he were part of the magic, calling the power.”
“But you’ve examined Cwynn and had the Sisterhood and Cheira Talwyn look at him. You said that as far as anyone can tell, he doesn’t have any magic at all.”
“As far as anyone can tell,” Tris repeated tiredly. “He’s only a few months old. Most power doesn’t manifest until puberty. Talwyn thought he had something. She said he ‘glowed’ to her mage sight. She said she thought whatever we’re fighting might be after him.” Tris ran a hand over his face. “He’s my son. How can I protect him if I don’t know as much about him as our enemy does?”
Coalan returned with their dinner, taking great care to lay out their bowls, bread, and drink carefully. Soterius hid a proud smile at the young man’s proficiency. As promised, two generous glasses of brandy accompanied the meal. “Who knows what we’ll have tomorrow, or whether we’ll have time to eat,” Coalan said as he finished setting out the food. “So eat hearty!”
With that, Coalan settled down in a corner of the tent with his own meal, which Tris could not help but notice included a double portion of bread and a tankard of ale. Coalan had charmed himself into the good graces of the cook, who made sure that the young man never went hungry.
“Anything else?” Soterius brought Tris’s thoughts back to the present. “Any other dreams?”
Tris paused to take a few bites of food, followed by a sip of brandy. “It’s just as I told Sister Fallon: I’ve had each of those dreams several times. But there was one more. I dreamed about a burying ground, an old place where someone had been laying their dead to rest for a long time. I felt power sweep through the cairns, calling to the dead. It gave the spirits no choice; it tore them from their resting places, forced them to the surface.
“But it wasn’t calling them just to rise. It began drawing the souls that hadn’t crossed over to the Lady into itself. I could hear them screaming, but in the dream, I was frozen. I tried to use my power to block the magic, and I couldn’t do it. I felt like I was watching at a distance, through thick glass. It didn’t just pull the spirits into itself; it shredded them, tore them to pieces. It didn’t want the souls. It wanted the energy in the souls. It consumed them, destroyed them.” This time, Tris took a longer drink from the brandy.
“Can such a thing be done?”
Tris drew a deep breath. “Yes. The Obsidian King had the power to do that. All the accounts I read suggested that he had to do it one spirit at a time. This power pulled at many spirits at once. It hollowed them and left them shattered.”
He paused. “What’s left after Hollowing isn’t really a ghost—there isn’t enough of the original soul left for that. All that remains are random flickers of energy, but the entity is usually hostile. After the Mage Wars, my grandmother spent months wandering the countryside, releasing the spirits that the Obsidian King had hollowed. She was the last summoner of real power in Margolan.”
“Until me. And whoever it is that seems bent on invading Margolan.”
A commotion outside stopped conversation. Shouts, curses, and the sound of a fight nearby brought both Tris and Soterius to their feet. The guards closed ranks outside, blocking the doorway and surrounding the tent. Soterius stepped in front of Tris, drawing his sword. Coalan rose from where he was sitting, sword in hand. Tris, too, had drawn his weapon, and he stretched out his mage sense. Magic was close at hand, dark magic. Just as Tris readied a warding, he felt Sister Fallon’s power raise a protective barrier. Tris shouldered past the guards, followed by Soterius. The guards fell in behind them as Tris edged closer to the conflict.
The golden glow of magical wardings created a dome that covered two dozen men locked in hand-to-hand combat. Three men lay dead on the ground, bleeding from grievous wounds. A crowd had formed, and several of the lieutenants were ordering the onlookers back to their tents. Sister Fallon hurried over.
“What’s going on?” Tris did not take his eyes from the fight, which grew more deadly moment by moment. Two more men were on the ground, and their assailants kept hacking with their swords although the downed men cried out for mercy. Both Soterius and Senne shouted for the men to lay down their weapons and stop fighting, but nothing slowed the violence.
“They can’t hear you,” Fallon said to Soterius and Senne. “Or if they can, they don’t have control over their actions.”
“Are they bewitched?” Senne’s face reflected his disgust at the carnage within the warded circle, as men Tris recognized as seasoned fighters cut down their comrades with a ruthlessness rarely seen in the midst of pitched battle. There appeared to be no sides to the conflict, no reason for the attack. Within minutes, only one man was standing, and he was badly bloodied, his belly slashed open and his hands pressed against his flesh to slow the bleeding and force his entrails back into his body. The dying man collapsed to his knees, and for an instant, a look of absolute bewilderment and horror crossed his face, as if in his final moments, awareness of what he had done finally broke through a toxic haze of blood rage.
“Bewitched isn’t exactly the right word for it.” Fallon’s belated explanation filled the awful silence as the man stared, stunned, at the massacre. “Do you remember the fear spells that Curane’s blood mages sent against us at Lochlanimar? The terrors Curane’s mages created were enough to send seasoned veterans screaming from imagined horrors.”
“This feels different,” Tris said slowly, as he extended his mage sense further. “Dark magic, perhaps even blood magic, but whoever cast this is more powerful than the mages Curane had.”
Fallon nodded. “This was a sending, but of rage, not terror. These men were going about their assigned tasks when they suddenly drew their weapons on each other and set to. Fortunately, I happened to be close when the shouting started. I threw up a minor warding at first, just to protect the onlookers and keep anyone else from joining what I thought was a brawl. As soon as one of the onlookers told me that nothing had happened to spark a fight, I guessed what had happened and cast a stronger warding.”
Soterius looked at her with horror. “What’s to keep whoever sent this from turning us all on each other? Or from casting something like this randomly, to keep the camp in chaos? Sweet Chenne, do you know what it could mean if something like this happened in the middle of a battle?”
Fallon nodded soberly. “Yes. I can imagine, and it would be bad. That’s why while I was here containing this outbreak, the rest of the mages went to strengthen the camp wardings against this particular type of attack.”
“Will it hold?” Senne had joined them. Apparently, he had not gone far from the tent before the brawl.
Fallon paused. “I believe so.”
“But you’re not certain.”
“Unfortunately, magic isn’t always predictable,” Tris said in a dry voice. “I think what Sister Fallon is saying is that to the extent we can anticipate what kind of magic caused this, she and the mages have taken precautions to keep it from happening again. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the sender couldn’t come up with a variation of the spell and try again.”
“Yes and no, m’lord,” Fallon said. “Yes, it’s possible for the sender to tweak the spell and try again, but now that we’ve included this in the larger camp warding, whoever did this would have to change the power signature to get another shot. We’ve made the wardings as broad as possible, trying to anticipate just this sort of thing.” She grimaced. “Obviously our imagination wasn’t as good as we thought it was.”
“Does your magic tell you anything about who did this?” Soterius looked from Tris to Fallon.
“It took a powerful mage to cast a sending this far. And no, before you ask, I can’t tell where the spell originated, but I think it was quite a distance away,” Fallon said.
Tris paused, searching for words to convey what his magic told him. “Like the ghost ships that attacked the privateers and fishermen, I don’t think this was meant as the opening salvo of the war. Whoever is out there means to test us. They’re probing our defenses, and I’m betting they were pretty sure we could shut down something like this. The question would be: How long would it take us and how far would it spread before we could stop it?” He nodded toward Fallon. “Thanks to our mages, the damage was limited.”
“Surely they know that Margolan has powerful mages, and a summoner for a king?” Senne’s eyes were hard, and Tris knew that the general would not forgive those who had squandered the lives of his soldiers.
“Maybe not,” Fallon replied. “Temnotta has been isolated, by its own choice, for a hundred years. In all that time, have we ever caught a Temnottan spy?”
Tris thought for a moment, and then shook his head. “Not that I’ve ever heard tell.”
“If they’ve been so isolated that they haven’t even sent spies, their knowledge of anything would be badly out of date. That could mean that their information is from long before the Mage War over a generation ago. If they haven’t engaged any of the Winter Kingdoms in that time, perhaps they’re assuming their own mages are invincible.”
“That’s a bold assumption,” Soterius murmured.
Fallon shrugged. “Arrogance usually sows the seeds to its own fall.”
Tris frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. If they know so little about us, why are they attacking? How did they decide to launch a war if they haven’t even been gathering intelligence?”
Soterius stood hands on hips, eyes surveying the still-warded scene of the fight. “Just because we never caught a spy doesn’t mean spies weren’t sent. And even if they didn’t send spies for many years, they could have stepped up their intelligence recently. Until we received the warning from Donelan, we weren’t watching for outside invaders. We had our hands full with Jared, and then Curane. I doubt Jared expended any resources worrying about invaders from across the sea. He was too busy slaughtering his own people and trying to kill Tris.”
“Meaning that we have had some big holes in our attention for the last couple of years.” Tris’s voice was bitter.
“It’s been a busy couple of years.”
“All the information we’ve been able to gather about Temnotta since Donelan’s warning suggests that their invasion is somehow connected to the problems in Isencroft. If that’s true, Alvior of Brunnfen managed to get the attention of someone important in Temnotta, who probably saw an opportunity. My question is, are the Temnottans seeing the same opportunity as Alvior?” Soterius looked from Tris to Senne. They nodded, following his reasoning.
“Meaning that Alvior may think he’s found a partner, while Temnotta may have their own plans for Isencroft—and everyone else.”
“Alvior and Isencroft may end up in the belly of the stawar for all his cleverness.” Senne’s tone conveyed his anger. “If this were really an Isencroft issue, Temnotta would only be threatening Isencroft. But our information suggests that Temnotta plans to attack the whole coast: Isencroft, Margolan, Principality, and Eastmark. That tells me their ambitions go far beyond helping Alvior seize the throne.”
Soterius glanced at Tris. “Either way, it’s our problem, isn’t it?”
Tris nodded. “No matter how anyone feels about it, the futures of Isencroft and Margolan are bound together for at least a generation now. We don’t dare support Isencroft with troops that cross their border. The Crofters would think we were invading. But it’s clear that we share a common enemy. Any way that we can weaken Temnotta protects our kingdom and Isencroft. We can no more afford to have Temnotta successfully invade Isencroft than we can to let them march onto our coast.”
Tris returned to his tent, followed by Coalan and the Telorhan, elite bodyguards who followed him everywhere. When Tris and Coalan were safely inside, the Telorhan guards stepped back into place, blocking the tent’s entrance. Coalan began moving the table, basin, and chairs that had been used in the scrying aside and readying the tent for night. Tris sank into a chair, deep in thought.
Kiara and Cwynn are leagues away. How can I protect them and fight a war? A series of “what ifs,” each more awful than the one before, came unbidden to his mind, and he was only able to make a halfhearted attempt to push them from consciousness. I never wanted to have to choose between duty to crown and responsibility for the people I love.
Coalan rearranged the lightweight, sparse campaign furnishings to set out Tris’s cot and his own bedroll, and Tris realized how tired he was. Still, worries hounded him. What if things go wrong in Isencroft? Kiara will have to go home, pregnant or not. She has a duty to her people. There’s no guarantee she’ll be able to sit out this war safe inside Shekerishet.
His dark musings were broken when Coalan pressed a brandy into his hand. “Thought it might help you sleep better,” he said with a smile.
“Thank you.” Tris lifted the glass to his lips and stopped, his attention on drawings scratched into the dirt of the tent floor. “Coalan, what are those?” he asked, pointing.
Coalan fidgeted. “It’s no secret to me that you haven’t been sleeping well, Tris. You can’t keep that from someone who sleeps in the same tent. You thrash and toss, and some nights it’s as if you’re having a fight in your sleep. I’ve tried to figure out what you say when you cry out, but it’s not in either Common or Margolense, at least nothing I’ve ever heard.”
“Who taught you the runes of protection?”
This time, Coalan blushed scarlet. “Do you know Elya? She’s one of the air mages, the pretty one with the red hair? I see her when I go up to get our meals sometimes and we talk.” He looked flustered, and Tris guessed that infatuation had helped to drive Coalan’s frequent visits to the mess area, as well as the young man’s appetite. “Anyhow, she taught me some runes for peaceful sleep, and I thought it might help. Are you angry?”
Tris smiled. “No. That was kind of you. But you know that both Fallon and I have put our own wardings in place?”
Coalan looked embarrassed. “I know. And believe me, I know nothing I scratch in the dirt could compete with the kind of magic the two of you have. But sometimes, when you can do big things, little things get overlooked, you know? Like you can have a guard at the tent flap and still get mice under the sides? I’m just keeping out the mice, so to speak.”
Coalan was one of the few people who remembered how life had been before the coup, who knew him as Tris instead of as king. He and Soterius and Coalan had gone on many a hunt with their late fathers, and they shared memories of a life now forever gone. Tris recognized the friendship behind Coalan’s effort, and it was the only bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day.
“Thank you,” Tris said. “If you can keep out those damned ‘mice,’ I’ll be very grateful.”
Coalan rallied, grinning widely. “I’ll add ‘royal mouse catcher’ to my ever-expanding title.”
By the time Tris finished his brandy and changed into his nightshirt, he was feeling very ready for sleep. So it was irritation, more than curiosity, that he felt when he heard voices at the tent flap as a would-be visitor met resistance from the king’s guards. Coalan jumped up to see what visitor dared bother the king so late into the night and spoke briefly with the guards and the newcomer. He returned in a few moments, visibly concerned, with Sister Beyral behind him.
Beyral gave a nominal bow. “I wouldn’t have come at this time if it weren’t urgent, m’lord. But I’ve read both the runes and the portents and cast over and over. Always I receive the same reply. I didn’t want to believe the bones, but then I looked up and saw a ring around the moon. Tonight, a king has died.”
Tris caught his breath, and he motioned for Beyral to enter the tent and sit down. “Do you know which kingdom?”
“I saw the ring when the moon was in the northwest sky.”
Excerpted from The Dread by Martin, Gail Z. Copyright © 2012 by Martin, Gail Z.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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