Crown of Vengeance
Book One of The Dragon Prophecy
By Mercedes Lackey, James Mallory
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
All rights reserved.
THE FALL OF FARCARINON
Even as we reckon time, our history is long — so long its beginnings have been worn away by the passage of time. Long before Man came to be, we were. It could be said that our history begins with the Endarkened, for that terrible conflict scoured away all that we had been before it, leaving us one purpose:
— Peldalathiriel Caerthalien, Of the Reign of Great Queen Vieliessar
Perchelion used to tell me the Hunt rode through every storm. When I grew old enough to question I said I did not believe her. I remember how she slapped me, and said I would never become a knight of my father's meisne, for to doubt the Starry Hunt meant I would never wield a sword. I remember I laughed, and said there were not enough storms in all the year for them to do that ...
Ladyholder Nataranweiya forced her mind to focus on such ancient trifles, for to allow it liberty would mean she thought of things it would not be good to think on now. Her child-swollen body shuddered harder than the cold should merit, even as the horse's body shook with weariness.
Lightning stitched the woods to sudden brightness, and in its light she could see Falthiel, his face turned toward her, shouting something. She could not make out the words over the howl of the wind and the thunder of the horses' hooves. Dioniron had given their mounts enough of the battle cordial to poison them: they would run until they died.
They would have to. Caerthalien's dogs were a candlemark — no more — behind them now, and Nataranweiya knew they outnumbered the scant handful of her surviving protectors.
Suddenly her mount put a foot wrong, slipping and staggering through mud and autumn leaves for a handful of terrifying moments before finding its balance and running on. The near-fall jarred her agonizingly, but Nataranweiya did not cry out. She would not shame her Bondmate, even though all her broken soul yearned for was to follow him into the death he had found. Serenthon Farcarinon would have made her queen over all the Hundred Houses. If only Serenthon had never known of Amrethion's Curse. If only he had not taken it into his heart, as if it were a lover's message meant for him alone.
As reasonable to wish he had never known of the sun, or the sky, or the trees.
Why was our Bond not enough for you? Why must you reach for more?
"Near, my lady!" Beleval shouted, his voice loud enough to cut through the roar of the storm. Near to the Sanctuary of the Star.
Near to safety. Near to revenge.
Pain gripped her, this wave coming sooner than the last, and when it passed she tasted the blood from where she'd bitten her lip. She had been upon the birthing couch when the traitors had come. That the child had delayed even from nightfall to nightfall was more grace than she had hoped for; the unborn babe would not grant her yet more clemency. She must be delivered soon or this nightmare ride would have been for nothing.
Only within the Sanctuary of the Star could she be safe.
The bright call of a warhorn sheared through the noise of their flight and jarred her back to full consciousness. Any daughter of the Hundred Houses learned early the strategies and treacheries an enemy might use to gain what it wished. She knew their pursuers had no need to signal an intended attack. It was an attempt to startle the prey into rash action, so they might be easily taken.
The horn called again, closer.
Suddenly Nataranweiya found herself alone. Moments later the full fury of the storm struck her; so much water was flung at her by the wind that she coughed and choked on it. The shock was so great that in her exhaustion it took her precious heartbeats to understand what had happened. Beleval and Dioniron have turned back.
The three of them had been in the lead. If Beleval and Dioniron had turned back to throw themselves against their pursuers, the others had as well.
Farewell, farewell, friends, companions, cousins! We shall meet again in Tildorangelor, beneath the trees....
She would have wept, save that her tears had all been shed long before. Now the sky must do her mourning. She could not open her eyes against the wind to search for the lights ahead, but they must be there. They must.
Her mount's gait was even more jarring now. It had run the sun down out of the sky, its drug-maddened gallop as unchanging as the beat of drums. Even in her exhausted, pain-racked state, Nataranweiya knew the instant that rhythm changed. The horse slowed from a gallop to a jarring trot, forced itself to a gallop again, staggered to a stiff-legged exhausted canter and held there. Nataranweiya could hear the desperate whistling sound it made as it fought for air, for life —
The animal lost its fight between one step and the next. She felt its muscles go slack, even as the hot blood of its death sprayed her, she was already kicking her feet free of the stirrups and releasing her cold-cramped grip on its reins. She must throw herself from the saddle or be trapped beneath its body when she fell. Who had first taught her that? She no longer remembered; nor was she the bright slender girl who had learned that lesson any longer. She screamed at another wave of pain that rose just as she flung herself free. Hurry, you must hurry, they will hear, they will follow. ... Then all thoughts were driven from her mind until it passed.
She crawled from beside the horse's body as soon as she could. With shaking fingers she ripped the jeweled clasp of her fine fur cloak open, shedding its sodden weight in the mud.
Hurry. To your feet, witless girl, you must run now. ... She crawled.
Three times she was forced to halt by the agonizing pressure on her abdomen. She barely knew when she reached the Sanctuary gates. They stood eternally open in both warning and promise that no conflict might enter here. She clawed herself to her feet along one pillar.
Beyond the gate. Inside. You are not safe until you are within. Not safe. Not safe ...
* * *
For six centuries Maeredhiel had served the Sanctuary of the Star. Let the children come and go in their season, let a new Astromancer be chosen each time the ever-living Vilya bore its fruit; what was that to her? Maeredhiel had made for herself a place and a peace that none would take from her. Did not Lightborn need to eat and sleep? Did not the workrooms and stillrooms run more smoothly when there was a proper supply of herbs and fruits to hand for decoction and enchanting?
And did not young Candidates tear their tunics and outgrow their sandals, here just as within the walls of the Keep in which she had been born?
The time was late, and tomorrow as always would be a day of much work, yet Maeredhiel found she could not sleep. She had already checked the storerooms and the sleeping rooms for possible storm damage, and even visited the high tower where Celelioniel spent so many nights. The Astromancer had not gone there tonight, for clouds had obscured her beloved stars, but still Maeredhiel was uneasy. Tonight's storm was fierce and unseasonable.
Fool! she berated herself. Are you yourself an Astromancer, to know the stories the stars whisper? What troubles you is indigestion and age, nothing more.
She hesitated in the antechamber of the Shrine, adjusting her hooded shawl. It was always as bright as summer noon here, for the walls and ceiling shone with Silverlight renewed again and again since the day Mosirinde Peacemaker had first set this place apart. The stone floor was inlaid with a silver wheel whose arms pointed the true directions, and the ceiling was inlaid with the star pictures that edged the Hunt-road. It was both promise and warning, as was the depiction of the Silver Hooves themselves upon the great bronze doors at the far end of the chamber. Beyond those doors stood the Shrine of the Star itself.
As if her musings had summoned Them, the antechamber was filled with a sudden blast of cold.
No one would come to the Sanctuary in this storm merely to bid us good greeting, Maeredhiel thought in alarm. She clapped her hands to summon the servants — the simple cantrip she wore on a string about her neck ensured her summons would be heard in their bedchambers — and hurried to open the inner door. Gusts of wet wind skirled around her and she turned her head away.
"... please ..." The word was the faintest of whispers.
How did you come here? Maeredhiel wondered, gazing down at the bundle of muddy rags barely discernible as a living body. She stepped over the body to pull the outer doors back into place, peering out as she did, but if any followed, they were as dark as the storm.
"Mistress, what —?" It was Elithreth, one of the Candidates in his Service Year.
"What else but someone seeking Sanctuary?" Maeredhiel answered. "A woman, and with child," she finished smoothly. "So use care."
With Elithreth's help, Maeredhiel lifted the supplicant to her feet and helped her inside. Many came to the Sanctuary of the Star seeking that which only it could supply. Normally such a one would place a hand upon the bronze doors of the Shrine and make their formal petition before being sent to hospital or resting chamber. Maeredhiel did not think this one had that much strength left in her body — if she and Elithreth had not supported her, she would have collapsed. Every footstep she took left pools of muddy, bloody water upon the stone floor, but in the stronger light of the antechamber, Maeredhiel saw the glitter of silver, moonsilver, and gems.
Noble — and with child — and hurt — and alone. None of these things boded well for the peace of the Sanctuary. "Your name and your House, Lady?" Maeredhiel asked, her voice low and urgent. Celelioniel would wish to know these things — and at once.
The traveler struggled to answer, turning her face toward Maeredhiel — Maeredhiel saw blood-bitten lips, bruises, abrasions — but any reply she might have made was cut off by a gasp of pain.
Best to place her in a retiring room until I can call Mistress Healer's lazy servants to bring a litter. "Come, Elithreth, we will —" she began.
But her words were cut short by the arrival of the Astromancer herself.
"Is it she? Is it now? Oh, this creature has come in an evil time!" Celelioniel Astromancer cried. She looked like a creature demented, with her shorn hair in disorder and her thin woolen robe kilted up past her knees. Her feet were bare and earth-smeared. She has come from the Shrine, Maeredhiel realized with a pang of unease.
"I know not who she is, Lady," Maeredhiel said. "But surely this poor creature cannot be anyone's great enemy?" She struggled with the visitor's full weight now, for at Celelioniel's cry, Elithreth had released his hold on her and backed away.
"'When stars and clouds together point the way — And of a hundred deer one doe can no longer counted be'! It is the Prophecy, Maeredhiel! It comes true — now — for has not Caerthalien a sennight hence led the breaking of Farcarinon? Here — here! — lies the Doom of the Hundred Houses!"
Maeredhiel turned away so that Celelioniel would not see her face. When Celelioniel had begun her research, she had known no more of Amrethion's Curse or the Child of Prophecy than any Sanctuary-trained Lightborn might know. Maeredhiel would never know what steps had led Celelioniel to The Song of Amrethion, and what hints gleaned from ancient histories had led her to decide she alone could unriddle Amrethion's Curse. But whatever she had found there had terrified her. Maeredhiel had watched the obsession — the madness — grow from the day Celelioniel had become Astromancer, nearly a century ago.
I pray the Vilya fruits soon, she thought sorrowfully. And my lady goes far from this place that has done her such harm.
"Lady, no harm may enter here," Maeredhiel said soothingly. "Only let me bring this one to Mistress Healer Nithrithuin before her babe is brought to harm, and —"
"It is the babe I fear!" Celelioniel wailed. "Does not The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel speak of the birth of a babe who will cast down the High Houses? A babe whose birth will herald the beginning of great Darkness?"
Suddenly Celelioniel darted forward and seized the woman's chin, gazing into her eyes for a moment before springing back and wailing as if she were but a babe herself.
"Sanctuary ... I claim ... I must ..." the Lady whispered. The Astromancer's touch seemed to drain the last strength from the supplicant; rather than drop her, Maeredhiel knelt with her upon the stone floor. As she did, her heart sank further: nestled in the hollow of her throat was a pendant, a Vilya blossom of moonsilver. Somewhere, this woman's Bondmate awaited her. The Soulbond was the greatest joy any alfaljodthi could know, and the greatest sorrow as well, for once the Bond was made, to slay one half of it was to slay the other. Two lives might end this night — if not three.
"Your name, Lady, and how you came here," she asked again, though she thought the Lady might be past hearing. "You lie before the Shrine itself. None will carry you away."
Maeredhiel had nearly made up her mind to send Elithreth for Mistress Healer without waiting for Celelioniel's order, for the Sanctuary Healer would be willing to overrule the Astromancer if Celelioniel's hysterics continued. But Celelioniel's wailings had roused others.
"What disturbance is this?" Hamphuliadiel Lightbrother had obviously been roused from his rest, for his Green Robe bore signs of having been hastily donned and he had bound it with a simple acolyte's cord. "I should have been summoned before you opened our doors!" Hamphuliadiel added.
"You are not Astromancer yet, bold one," Maeredhiel muttered, lowering her eyes lest he should read her words in them. She was saved from whatever reply Hamphuliadiel might have made by the arrival of yet more strangers.
Outer and inner doors slammed open as one and three komen in Caerthalien green and gold stalked into the antechamber. "There she is!" the foremost barked out. "Farcarinon's bitch in whelp!" She reached up and unlatched her helm. "Has she claimed Sanctuary?" she added, the mocking tone in her voice making it clear what she thought the answer would be.
"She has," Maeredhiel answered, her voice bold and loud over the howl of the wind. "Ladyholder Nataranweiya of Farcarinon has set her hand upon the door of the Shrine and set her words aloft for the Silver Hooves to hear!" She could not say why she spoke so, save the long-burning anger in her heart against those who would dice with the lives of innocent folk.
The knight drew back with an angry curse, placing her hand upon her sword.
"Yet if it is her own will to leave ..." Hamphuliadiel began.
"We turn none away who seeks Sanctuary," Maeredhiel said sharply. "Nor do we permit weapons within it," she added, glaring at the swords the Caerthalien knights still bore. "Elithreth, you must lead our guests to the stables, so they may put up their horses, then see them lodged in our guesthouse."
"Yes, Mistress Maeredhiel," Elithreth answered, sounding relieved to be given a task that would take him from the Astromancer's presence. "My lords komentai'a, will you accompany me? And say, perhaps, if there are others abroad who need shelter this night?"
"I thank you, young one," the nameless knight answered. She could do nothing else, for no one would dare to profane the peace of the Sanctuary of the Star — nor rouse the anger of its Mages. "Yet I say I will remain to see what is done here. Nimboroth, take you my sword and blades."
"It shall be done, Komen Harthelin," Nimboroth answered.
"And shut those damned doors!" Harthelin added.
At least someone gives ear to orders this night, Maeredhiel thought sourly, as a loud banging and the sudden absence of wind told her Harthelin's order had been followed.
By now the antechamber was filled with the curious and the concerned. "I would see Ladyholder Nataranweiya beneath the hands of the Healers," Maeredhiel said again, raising her voice.
"Name her Lady-Abeyant, of your courtesy, for her traitor-lord is dead," Harthelin said with a mocking smile.
"Perhaps ..." Celelioniel said, as if speaking to herself, "... perhaps we can yet outrun our fates."
At last Mistress Healer Nithrithuin arrived. She knelt beside Nataranweiya and laid quick hands upon her. "Why lies she upon cold stone?" she demanded, glaring at Celelioniel. "Is it more of your addled prophecy, witless one? Go!" she demanded of the nearest Lightborn. "Summon a litter from the hospital — and bearers."
"I should be honored to bear Serenthon's sow wherever she must go," Komen Harthelin said.
"I know not what cause you have against this lady, but I say to you, you may not bring your quarrel here," Nithrithuin said sternly. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Crown of Vengeance by Mercedes Lackey, James Mallory. Copyright © 2012 Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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