The Wild Hunt Book Two
By Elspeth Cooper
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Elspeth Cooper
All rights reserved.
THE KINGDOM WAITS
Spangles of light dusted the air, like a cloud of pallid butterflies. Silver goblet in hand, Savin stepped through them and with a gesture of his other hand drew the Veil closed behind him, as if drawing a curtain across a window overlooking a sunlit terrace garden. A tingling as his fingertips touched the edges together, a shiver over his skin, and the weave was restored as if it had never been disturbed.
A useful trick, that one. It allowed him to move freely in places where it was unwise to attract too much attention and it impressed the gullible. As the fairground shills and bunco-men knew, sometimes a little showmanship was worth more than gold.
One by one, the spangles faded into the gloom around him and he frowned. The tower room in Renngald's castle should not have been dark, nor chill enough to make his breath steam, even after the late-summer heat of Mesarild. He rarely felt the cold, though he'd had to learn the trick of ignoring it rather than being born to it like his hosts, but the damp that came with it in these far-northern climes was ruinous for a library so he'd left a fire burning. Now the fire was dead, and there was no sign of the servant girl he'd left to tend it.
Where was the useless creature? He sent a thought questing through the castle's bedchambers and sculleries and found her at last in the foetid warmth of the sty, bent over a hurdle with her eyes shut and her skirts around her waist as a lank-haired lad ploughed her for all he was worth.
He clicked his tongue irritably. Gold certainly hadn't been enough there. She'd have to be replaced. Acquiring his books had cost him too much time and trouble to let them be ruined by mildew because some dull-witted slattern was less interested in minding her duties to him than in being stuffed by the pig-boy until she squealed.
A snap of his fingers called flames to the logs in the wide hearth. Another thought lit the wall-lamps, pushing the shadows back into the corners. Despite the lustrously polished Tylan cabinetry and thick Arkadian carpets, there was no disguising that this was a room in a fortress. Granite corbels peeked between the fine wall-hangings, and no amount of swagged and draped velvet could pretend that the windows were anything more than arrow-loops. Not quite the exotic wood screens and perfumed silks of his rooms in Aqqad, but it was a comfortable enough place to work – if only he didn't have to travel quite so far in search of a decent bottle of wine.
He lifted the goblet and swirled its contents around, inhaling the bouquet. Tylan lowland red, dark and rich as blood. Not an outstanding year, but quite good – certainly far better than anything his hosts could offer: mead, or that thin, bitter beer they made here, good only for sour stomachs and dull heads. His lips twisted in distaste. This far north, good wine was one of the civilised comforts he missed the most.
A change in the texture of the quiet alerted him that he was no longer alone. The clicks and rustles from the fireplace were muted by a sudden, expectant stillness, yawning like a grave waiting to be filled.
Goblet halfway to his lips, he turned. The sight-glass stood in the middle of the table, covered by a velvet cloth. It was impossible for a mere object to stare, but somehow it did, pulling at his attention, reeling away and yet looming closer as if he was looking down at it from the top of a monstrously high cliff.
He took a mouthful of wine, then flipped away the cloth. The glass was no larger than one a lady might have on her dressing table, if she did not mind the disturbingly figured silver frame that appeared to shift under one's gaze, writhing around and through rather more dimensions than the usual three. Within the frame was darkness, void and absolute. It had no surface to reflect light or colour, and yet it seethed.
We have been waiting, breathed a voice as cold and prickly as hoar frost. You have found it?
Another delay. The darkness shifted again, like ripples in ink. Our master grows impatient.
For a creature outside time, their master appeared to feel the passing of it most keenly. 'The Guardian has a new apprentice.'
'Perhaps.' He sipped his wine. 'And perhaps not.'
You told us the Guardians are a spent candle, of no consequence.
'I may have been ...' he hated the taste of the admission '... too hasty.'
Silence. Then: This apprentice concerns you.
'He wouldn't let me read him,' Savin said, 'and I like to know what I'm dealing with. I don't much care for surprises.' Swirling the last of the Tylan red around the goblet once more, he frowned into its ruby depths. Alderan on the move again. The old meddler was planning something, without a doubt, but what? That was the puzzle, and puzzles had to be solved.
The apprentice was forewarned.
That was unlikely. It was not the old man's way to give answers to questions before they were asked, and sometimes not even then. Besides, he couldn't have known that his latest pet would come under scrutiny quite so quickly. What was he up to?
'There was no reason for him to be prepared for our meeting. It was pure chance – I happened to be in Mesarild and sensed the Guardian weaving something. I wanted to know what it was.'
The old man was usually more careful with his colours, so Savin had cut short his visit to the wine merchant and followed them to an unremarkable house by the tailors' guildhall, then to an inn in the old city, and what he'd found there had been ... intriguing.
Chance so often governed the lives of men. The turn of a card, the face of a coin, and empires fell. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Now that was an appropriate image.
Something amuses you.
'I'm curious about this one. He was wary. All he would say of himself was that he had escaped some entanglement with the Church, and his left hand was bandaged. Unless I'm much mistaken, he knows what he is.' Dressed like a ragged little nobody, but with the manner and bearing of a man who lowered his eyes to no one. Whoever he was, he was someone to watch.
A threat, then.
'More likely just another piece of the puzzle. The Guardian wouldn't come this far from the Isles simply to wet-nurse a minor talent – he was in Mesarild for a reason.' A germ of an idea began to form. Perhaps the talent was the reason ... Even more intriguing.
The idea grew, took shape. Anything special was precious, and anything precious was a point of vulnerability. A weakness. Weaknesses could be exploited. Like shucking an oyster, it was all about knowing where to insert the knife.
You should have brought him to us. Let him answer our questions.
'Your questions tend to be the sort from which there is no coming back, except as food for the pigs,' he said sharply, irked by the interruption. 'I may yet have a use for him.' A way to get behind those bloody wards, for a start.
Prevarication. In the sight-glass, the darkness seethed. We made a bargain with you. We taught you what you wished to learn. We expected progress.
'I have made progress. I am close to finding what you seek.'
The twisting of the silver frame grew more frenzied, the ever-changing shapes still more unsettling. Amongst them, fangs glinted and jaws snapped.
Make more. Be closer. Our master's patience is not without its limits.
Savin tossed the last of the wine into his throat and swallowed it down. 'I have not forgotten the terms of our agreement.'
Good. If you had, the consequences would have been ... unpleasant. The blackness in the glass trembled, no longer void now but choked, crammed with shadows that coiled in endless, restless motion, sullen as a stormy sky. Be swift, human. The Kingdom waits.
SPEAKER OF THE CRAINNH
Drwyn set a torch to his father's tent at dusk, in accordance with tradition. The flames licked at the painted leather tentatively, as if savouring a strange new food, then found their appetite and leapt up to devour it. In minutes the pyre was well alight, fire swaying and snapping in the perpetual east wind. He cast the stump of the torch into the blaze and stepped back from the searing heat. By morning, it would all be over.
A sigh rippled through the assembled clansmen. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the shadowy figures fall back, melting into the gloom amongst the huddle of tents as others came forward. Twenty warriors would stand vigil with him, one for each year of his father's rule. They formed up in a rough circle around the pyre, faces stripped of identity in the sooty orange light, honed by sharp shadows. Spears upright before them, they would stand with him until the fire died or the sun rose.
The tent collapsed in a gout of flame, the old man's body and the grave goods heaped around it now an unrecognisable huddle in the heart of the fire. When morning came, nothing would be left but ashes and a few bits of charred metal, shattered pottery. Little to show for a man who had led his people for two decades and seen them grow and prosper under him.
The last few years had been good to the Crainnh. The elk had flourished, bearing more calves than anyone could remember, and the rivers had run silver with fish. Even the winters had felt less cold, coming later and lingering less, though the plains were still snowbound for half the year.
Prosperity had made the waiting especially difficult for Drwyn. His father had remained in stubbornly good health, appearing to grow more vigorous not less as each winter passed. But Ytha had counselled him to patience, to bide his time and wait. Though it had taken another three years of Drwyn bowing his head and biting his tongue, he'd got his wish: the old buzzard had finally breathed his last between the thighs of a fifteen-year-old girl. Maegern had carried away his soul to the Hall of Heroes to sit at Her right hand and drink uisca from a silver cup, and now, at last, Drwyn would be chief.
In time, youngling, said a voice in the back of his head. All in good time.
Ytha watched him through the fire. Her gaze swept over his face like an icy wind, dissipating the heat-haze between them until her face was as clear as if she had transported herself to stand before him.
Drwyn blinked, startled, then ground his teeth at being caught out by one of her tricks. Sun-browned skin creased as one brow lifted and her lips quirked mockingly – as if she knew his secrets and the knowing amused her. He ground his teeth all the harder. He would not look away.
Ytha's lips quirked again. She was laughing at him, blast her! By the Eldest, he would not stand for it!
Green eyes dulled to grey in the darkness fixed his, no longer showing any trace of amusement. They were hard as agates, sharp as frost. Remember who is the kingmaker here, Drwyn. The torc of the Crainnh is not yours yet.
He swallowed. Sweat prickled on his palms but he couldn't move his hands to wipe them on his trews. Ytha's presence in his mind was a weight pressing on his brain; he could no more disobey her than fly.
Better, she said. You must be patient, my youngling. All things come in their season. Tomorrow you will be chief, and in time Chief of Chiefs. But not yet. You must wait for the fruit to ripen before you bite, else the taste is bitter and the fruit is lost.
Wavy hair, more white than ruddy, blew across her face. She lifted a hand to push it back and the starseed stone in her ring flared in the firelight, bright as a winter star. Then it winked out and her presence in his thoughts along with it.
Drwyn exhaled slowly. There he was, man and warrior, due to be named chieftain of the Wolf Clan in a few short hours. He shouldn't be afraid of a woman. But everyone in the clan, his late father included, walked light and spoke soft around the Speaker. He could do no different. The powers she commanded froze the marrow in his bones.
And he needed those powers, as well as her counsel. No mistaking that; without her he would never be Chief of Chiefs. With her, anything was possible, and in the morning, it would begin.
* * *
The Crainnh celebrated Drwyn's succession with a feast. Twenty elk were butchered and dressed for roasting and baskets of fish and fowl were caught by the hunters. Every woman in the clan baked or brewed or gathered her own contribution to the festivities. A huge fire was built on the ashes of the pyre, around which the new chief, his war band and the clan elders raised their cups to Drw's departed spirit before toasting the coming glories of his son.
Ytha, however, was frowning. Choice cuts of meat lay untouched in her bowl as she sat cross-legged on a cushion and watched the clanswomen serving bread and beer to their menfolk. She was watching one young woman in particular. Occasionally she sipped from her cup, but mostly she just watched.
With Drw and his dearth of ambition gone to ashes at last she should have been in a mood to celebrate, but she was not. This was only one obstacle removed; it did not guarantee that there would be no others, no further pits or deadfalls that could trip the most well-prepared plan and break its legs. Always, always she had to be wary of what might be hiding in the long grass.
Drwyn tossed a bone into the fire and scrubbed his greasy fingers on his trews. 'What troubles you, Ytha?'
'That girl, there.' She nodded towards the indistinct figure passing around the far side of the fire, a basket balanced on her hip. 'Do you see her?'
There was little to see, apart from a mane of brown hair and a light-coloured dress. 'I see her,' Drwyn grunted, reaching for his cup. 'She was in my father's bed the night he died.'
'It was the bedding of her that killed him.'
'So? My father took a dozen wenches like her after my mother passed. One of them had to be the last.'
There'd been plenty of women before his mother passed, too: casual tumbles, warm beds on cold nights, but none like this, offered for and won, and none he'd kept for so long.
'She may be a threat to us, in the future,' Ytha said. 'She has an aura I cannot read.'
'And that is dangerous?' He laughed. 'You're starting at shadows.'
'Maybe.' Ytha tapped her cup against her chin and asked the question that had pricked at her all day like a thorn in her shoe. 'What if your father had another son?'
'Drw's dead. All his sons are dead, save me.'
'And he was dipping his daigh in her for two full seasons! What if she conceived?' Ytha gestured towards the girl, who was handing out hunks of bread. 'What if the girl is carrying?'
'My father was too old for getting bastards,' Drwyn scoffed. 'Besides, what threat is a brat? I'd throttle it with one hand.'
'I don't doubt you could, assuming she let you anywhere near it. She's only young, Drwyn, not stupid.' Oh, the man was a trial, always acting, never thinking. He scowled at her rebuke and Ytha moderated her tone.
'Age only weakens the stalk, not the spark in the seed,' she said. 'Ever since that girl became your father's bed-mate, she's shied away from me. If she bears a child, and enough of the captains think it's Drw's get, it could split the clan.'
The war captains had to be united in their acclamation of a new chief, just as the clan chiefs had to be united behind the Chief of Chiefs. Without that, all Ytha's planning would be for naught.
'Clan law, yes, I remember,' he said with an impatient gesture, clearly irked at being reminded. 'Can you tell if she's going to crop?'
It was possible, but she'd need to delve the girl to be sure – and that one would not allow anyone to lay a finger on her if she thought she might be carrying the dead chief's son. If only her aura could be read!
'Yes, I can tell, but I have a better idea. If she is a threat, I would rather have her where I can watch her. I shall send her to you tonight. If you bed her a few times, we can pass off any child she might bear as yours instead of your father's. You look enough like him to make it believable.'
Drwyn showed his teeth. 'As I recall, she's pretty.'
Not that a girl needed to be much more than passable to stiffen his daigh. In that, at least, he was his father's son. 'Oh, she is very pretty, Drwyn. Eyes the colour of bell-flowers and lips like ripe berries, just waiting to be plucked. You'll enjoy her, I think.' Ytha took a deep draught of beer. 'It is time for you to speak to them. Remember what I told you.'
'I remember well enough,' he grunted and stood up. Sourness twisted his mouth as he gulped down the last of his beer.
She frowned. Drwyn did not like to be led; she had learned that much. But he even seemed unable to bear it well when it was for his own good. 'Be careful, my chief.' She spoke softly, deliberately.
He stared at her, sullen as any youth. His eyes were black in the firelight but hot, like embers. Tossing (Continues...)
Excerpted from Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper. Copyright © 2012 Elspeth Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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