With his own magic restored, Rùnach of Ceangail has come to terms with the fact that the simple life he once coveted is no longer an option. Instead, he is determined to help Aisling fulfill her quest, even if his part of the bargain includes facing evil mages with power far greater than his own.
But once they reach Bruadair, Rùnach and Aisling discover that nothing is as it seems, and not only must they accept their past, they must also embrace their destiny—before the enemies drawing near succeed in extinguishing all the light in the world…
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The palace of Inntrig, seat of power in the country of Cothromaiche, was a very quiet place.
It was difficult, perhaps, to be home to the sort of magic that flowed through the hills and dales of such a country, an unsettling magic that was rarely talked about and guarded jealously. More difficult still was providing shelter for the souls that inhabited that country, souls who understood that magic and possessed the means to use it. In the end, it was no doubt best, if you were any sort of sentient thing, to just keep your opinions to yourself and let those with the ability to split the world in half with their spells continue on their way unconversed with.
It didn’t help matters any that Cothromaiche found itself so close to that most secretive of countries, Bruadair. As the residents of Cothromaiche had discovered, things tended to seep across the border, things that were perhaps not capable of being regulated by sharp-eyed customs agents and burly border guards. Dreams. Strange magic. Tales that stretched back into the mists of time so far that their authors could no longer be named. Those were the sorts of things that respectable library doors simply couldn’t bring themselves to discuss in polite company.
Aisling of Bruadair stood in front of a pair of those mute doors and wished that the fixtures in the palace had been perhaps a bit less restrained. Though she wasn’t sure anything at that point would have put her at ease, she might have at least had someone to converse with about her troubles. Or something. In Cothromaiche, she supposed the distinction didn’t matter.
Of course, there were two souls on the other side of those doors who would have been more than happy to discuss all manner of things pertaining to her present business, but considering who those two lads were, she didn’t think she wanted to hear what they might have to say.
She closed her eyes and wondered how it was that a simple weaver from an obscure village in a country shrouded in secrecy and menace could possibly find herself garnering the notice of any but a well-dressed gentleman who might want cloth woven especially for him. Yet there she was, standing in a Cothromiachian king’s palace, terrified to face her future and wondering if it might be possible to run away before anyone noticed. She wasn’t quite sure how she’d gotten from where she’d been to where she was at present, but she couldn’t deny that a book had been the start of all her troubles.
She shivered. She’d owned but one book, and somehow purchasing it had led to being befriended by the peddler who had sold it to her, then subsequently being sent on a quest by that same peddler to look for a mercenary to save her country. What had happened to her along that journey was unbelievable enough that it likely should have found itself only between the covers of that book. Then again, her lone book had been a faithful listing of the military strictures of Scrymgeour Weger. Where her tale belonged was between the covers of a book on fables and myths.
She looked at the massive doors in front of her. She would have put her hand on the wood to see what it might be willing to reveal about what sorts of books on fables and myths the library contained, but she knew there was no point. The finely carved doors were resolutely silent. If there happened to be a hint of a sshh offered as a suggestion, she could understand. She also supposed she could have been imagining that.
That was a thought she found herself clinging to more often than not of late.
She shifted a bit and decided that perhaps the wall near those doors wouldn’t mind if she leaned a shoulder against its sturdy self and caught her breath. She’d been struggling with that sort of thing for the past three days, since she had been rescued from an underground river that wended its way under Inntrig and no doubt served the palace gardener very well in his hothouse labors. The rescue had been timely given that she’d been on the verge of drowning.
A day or two of simply eating and sleeping had done wonders for her body, but not as much for her mind. If she’d thought she would find peace and respite from the unrelenting realities of her life in Inntrig’s rather silent halls, she’d been thoroughly mistaken. Having the time to think had left her with more questions than answers, and the few answers she’d gotten were ones she hadn’t wanted. She didn’t want the rest of those necessary answers, but she supposed she would have to have them just the same. No sense in putting off the inevitable any longer.
She reached out and reluctantly put her hand on the wood. It didn’t even shush her. It simply stood there, apparently too polite to mention that on its other side lay hundreds of books with potentially alarming contents. Unfortunately, books weren’t the only unsettling things inside that library. It also contained a gracious host with details about countries she didn’t particularly want to visit and the grandson of an elven king with plots and schemes on his mind.
The door shifted under her hand as only a solid wooden door could, startling her out of her unproductive thoughts. She moved away, expecting to find someone coming out of the library, but realized it had just been the door acting on its own. Perhaps it knew something she didn’t. She frowned at it, but its only response was to open soundlessly. Caught, and so easily too.
She sighed, then walked forward only to pause in spite of herself. She had seen her share of libraries over the past several fortnights which she supposed made her a decent judge of their quality. She’d seen collections of books gathered in a university, in a trio of palaces, and in a building so large she’d been almost frightened by its height. But in none of those places had she had the overwhelming urge to pull a random book off the shelf and curl up in a chair to simply spend the afternoon reading for pleasure.
The walls in front of her were covered with shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling; the floors were covered with lovely and obviously expensive carpets. The furniture was heavy and dark, upholstered with leather for the most part. There were either long tables ready to accept large numbers of books or smaller tables set next to chairs, obviously set there to support goblets of wine and plates of strengthening edibles.
The surprising part of the room was the light. There were windows along one wall, true, but they couldn’t possibly bring relief to all the nooks and crannies she could see. She supposed the lamps were lit by otherworldly means, though she could see no spells there. Obviously there was magic in Cothromaiche that she simply couldn’t recognize.
She did recognize the two men sitting at a table near the windows, though, poring over books. Or, rather, arguing companionably about what they were reading. She leaned against a doorframe that didn’t immediately tell her to shove off and supposed the time for avoiding the two of them had come to an end. She had managed it fairly well over the past couple of days, abandoning them in the library while she spent her time spinning, walking in the garden, or simply pacing through the passageways and attempting to convince herself not to up and bolt for points unknown.
Not that she ever would have managed the last, she supposed. Too much had happened to her for her to simply vanish into some obscure village and allow the world to continue on its course unchallenged, though perhaps it had been a single realization that had changed everything for her.
She had magic.
Worse still, those two men sitting there knew it.
One of the men who sat there with a tranquil expression on his face and the sun glinting off his pale blond hair would have only listened to her make excuses as to why she needed to flee and said nothing in response. Then again, that was apparently what Soilléir of Cothromaiche did, that keeping of his own counsel. For all she knew, he’d learned it from the bloody library doors.
She looked at the other man sitting there, dark-haired and rather less disinterested in what she was doing than he perhaps would have admitted. That was Rùnach of Ceangail, son of a black mage and elven princess. If she had told him she was about to run, he would have reminded her that she had agreed not only to allow him to save her country for her but wed him as well and that both would have been rather difficult if she disappeared into the night. He wasn’t at all happy with the thought of her coming along on what was in truth her own quest, but he had given up arguing with her. There was no question of his going into Bruadair without her. She knew the country; he did not.
It would have been cowardly to say how desperately she wished she knew nothing at all.
Looking for details about her country was what Rùnach and Soilléir had ostensibly been doing, though she knew they hadn’t limited themselves to that. On those fairly rare occasions when she had succumbed to the lure of library chairs, she had listened to them discuss politics, the shifting of country borders, and the antics of the members of the Council of Kings.
Well, those things and magic.
Not only had they discussed magic and all the incarnations of it that interested them, they had occasionally trotted out their formidable skills and indulged in the practice of it. Rùnach, who had been without his magic for a score of years, had smiled a little with each spell tossed out into the midst of the chamber for examination.
She had avoided thinking on how he’d had his magic restored to him. Of course, that had been made substantially more difficult by his affectionate gratitude plied on her whenever possible and the ensuing discussions between Rùnach and Soilléir about her part in the affair.
That discomfort had been added to quite substantially by the distress she’d felt over discussions of things pertaining to Bruadair. It wasn’t simply that her country had been taken over by a usurper who strutted about the city as if he were sure no one could oust him from his stolen palace. It wasn’t that she had seen for herself paintings of her country when it had been drenched in magic and beautiful because of it. It wasn’t even that Bruadair’s magic had been drained almost completely from the land, as if it had been a very fine wine siphoned out of the bottom of a cask.
It was that she knew she and Rùnach would have to not only rid Bruadair of its unwanted ruler, but uncover the mystery of where the country’s magic had gone.
She couldn’t bring herself to think about attempting to get it back.
She had never once considered, all those se’nnights ago when she’d been tasked with finding someone to remove Sglaimir of places unknown from the throne and restore the exiled king and queen to their rightful places, that such might be her true quest. She had thought only to travel to Gobhann and seek out Scrymgeour Weger’s aid in selecting a mercenary to see to the business of overthrowing a government. It had never occurred to her that she would fail in that only to find herself taking on the role of savior for a country she had thought she didn’t love.
It was odd how one’s life could change so suddenly and in ways that were so unexpected.
She had never imagined she would encounter someone like Rùnach of Ceangail or that he would offer to take her quest on himself. As tempting as that had been, she’d known that her soul wouldn’t have survived such a display of cowardice. She had agreed to his coming with her in part because he had his own quest that seemed to lie conveniently alongside hers, but mostly because she couldn’t imagine her life without him.
She jumped a little when she realized Rùnach was watching her from his spot at the table. It was no doubt foolish to be so overcome by the sight of a handsome man, but perhaps she could be forgiven. The first time she’d seen Rùnach, she’d been rendered speechless by the sheer beauty of his face. Well, half his face, rather. The other half had been covered by scars he’d earned from an encounter with a well of evil, though those scars had done little to temper his elven beauty. Unfortunately for her ability to do anything useful when he was around, those scars had been taken almost completely away when she’d spun his power out of him, woven it into a shawl that she had laid over his shoulders, then watched as the king of Durial had spelled it into him.
Rùnach rose with a welcoming smile. She pushed away from the doorframe and started across the library to meet him—
Only to find herself sprawled on the floor. She caught her breath and lifted her head in time to be whipped in the face by a flurry of what she had to admit on closer inspection proved to be the skirts of an extremely lovely silk gown.
She watched in surprise as that excessive amount of red silk and the woman it encased continued their rush across the floor only to throw themselves collectively at Rùnach with a cry of gladness that soon turned into very expressive weeping.
Aisling sat back and considered this new turn of events. She commiserated with the carpet’s disapproval of the newcomer’s very sharp heels and considered adding her own opinion about too much silk in the face, but she was distracted from that by the conversation going on in front of her, if conversation it could be called.
“I thought you were dead!” the woman wailed.
Rùnach’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. He looked around him for aid, but Aisling didn’t suppose she dared offer any. Soilléir had risen from the table as well and was sauntering around the end of it as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He didn’t seem inclined to offer anything past an amused smile.
“Um,” Rùnach managed.
The woman wailed a bit more in a terribly artistic way, then sank back down onto her very dangerous heels.
“You’re not covering my face with kisses,” she said in surprise, obviously quite unhappy about that realization.
Aisling wasn’t altogether thrilled with the idea herself. She looked at Rùnach, but he was still wearing the sort of look a body wears when it’s just been walloped across the face with a cricket bat. She knew exactly how that expression looked because she’d occasionally taken the time on her day of liberty to watch lads play that pleasing-looking sport in an open field near the Guild. She’d had little to do with lads and nothing to do with bats and balls, but watching something besides her shuttle endlessly going from side to side on her loom had been at least marginally entertaining.
“Ah,” Rùnach offered.
The woman pulled away and put her hands on her silk-covered hips. “Have you lost your tongue or your wits? Or both?”
“To see me here?” the woman demanded. “I should think you would be overjoyed. Obviously you’ve lost your wits.”
She seemed to realize quite suddenly that she was not alone with her rediscovered . . . well, whatever Rùnach was to her. She pulled away from him, then glared at Soilléir.
“I see you’re in the thick of things, Léir,” she said, sounding greatly displeased. “As usual.”
Soilléir inclined his head. “To my continued surprise, cousin,” he said, “I find that I am.”
The woman shot him an unfriendly look, then continued her inspection of the chamber. Aisling knew she shouldn’t have been surprised to be singled out next given that she was the only other soul in the library, but she was. In her defense, it had been that sort of year so far.
She scrambled to her feet and suppressed the urge to curtsey. Perhaps she should have because it was obvious she was looking at royalty. The gown she had already encountered and been intimidated by. There were endless yards of fabric expertly sewn to give the impression of a terribly tiny waist, a perfect bosom, and an inexhaustible amount of riches. The tiara sitting atop the woman’s black hair didn’t detract at all from her face, which Aisling had to admit was so beautiful it was almost difficult to look at.
She rethought her decision not to curtsey.
“And who,” the woman said, her voice dripping shards of ice, “is that?”
Rùnach took a deep breath. “My betrothed.”
Aisling felt her own skirts flutter. That was likely because the woman’s intake of breath had almost sucked them right off her.
“That?” she asked contemptuously, then she turned just slightly and favored Rùnach with a look that would have perhaps brought a lesser man to his knees. “Perhaps you have forgotten in all the excitement of your obvious escape from death at your father’s hands, Your Highness, that you are betrothed to me.”
Aisling felt something sweep through her and it was no longer a desire to curtsey to the woman in front of her. She suspected it was an intense desire to kill the man standing behind that woman.
Rùnach looked profoundly uncomfortable. “That’s where things become a little complicated.”
“Which is reason enough to take a bit of air,” Soilléir said cheerfully, “elsewhere. Aisling, perhaps you would care to join me?”
“Aye,” the woman said shortly, “take that creature there with you. I’ve a desire for private speech with the apparently still-breathing prince of Tòrr Dòrainn.”
“Annastashia,” Rùnach said with a sigh.
Princess Annastashia whirled on Rùnach. “All I want from you is the answer to where the hell you’ve been for the past twenty years!” she shouted. “And don’t pretend you’ve been off on some bloody noble quest!”
Aisling was torn between wanting to see how Rùnach would extricate himself from his current straits and wanting to escape having to listen to what she was certain would be a very unpleasant conversation. The one thing she knew with certainty was that she had no desire to be anywhere near that woman while she had her claws out. Soilléir’s cousin looked as if she were fully capable of doing damage to anyone who got in her way.
Soilléir paused next to her. “We can back out the doors, if you like,” he murmured. “Keep her in our sights, as it were.”
“I don’t think she can hear you,” Aisling said, “if that worries you.”
“I think I should be more worried about what will be left of Rùnach’s hearing after she’s finished with him,” Soilléir said with a faint smile.
“Will she stab him, do you think?”
“I don’t think she has any weapons. Well, none save her sharp tongue. If Rùnach cannot defend himself against that, there’s nothing I can do for him.”
Aisling nodded and walked with him to the doorway, wishing she could appreciate his attempt at levity. She paused, then looked over her shoulder. Rùnach was leaning back against the library table with his arms folded over his chest, wearing an expression that very eloquently said he was steeling himself for a conversation he didn’t particularly want to have. Aisling found herself the recipient of a look that she thought might have been a request not to rush off and do anything rash, but it had been a very brief look indeed.
Aisling decided there was no point in not taking the opportunity to look at what might be the means of finally sending Rùnach to his grave. Annastashia looked less elegant than perilous, and not because she was currently shouting dangerous things at Rùnach. There was something about her that left Aisling with the intense desire not to be in her sights. She considered the woman for another moment or two, then looked at Soilléir.
“Are you elves?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“Because your cousin is very beautiful, but she doesn’t look like what I thought elves should look like.” She paused. “When I thought they were nothing but mythical characters, that is.”
“Is that what you thought?” he asked with a smile.
“It is,” she agreed, “and you’re answering me with questions.”
“Rùnach does that. It’s very annoying.”
Soilléir laughed softly and offered her his arm. “I’ve tried to stop, but the habit is too ingrained in me by now. Blame Rùnach’s mother. I learned it from her.”
Aisling didn’t wonder, then, that Rùnach had taken the practice for his own, given how much she knew he had loved his mother. She suppressed the urge to look at him one final time and instead walked with Soilléir out of the library. She waited until they had left the shouting far behind before she looked at him seriously.
“My bloodlines are complicated,” he conceded. “I’m not even sure my grandfather’s bard could identify exactly where we come from. We’re a mongrel bunch, honestly.”
“Yet possessing magic capable of undoing the world, or so Rùnach says.”
“I would say that you, my dear Aisling, are one to talk.”
She would have laughed, but she realized he was serious. She shivered. “I can’t talk about magic now.” Never mind that the reason she couldn’t talk about it was because she couldn’t bring herself to face the fact that she might have it. Magic, that was. Not in truth. Not when it meant that she might have to become familiar enough with it to use it—
“Let’s make for the garden then,” Soilléir suggested. “’Tis a truly lovely place to spend the morning, as long as you aren’t wearing delicate court shoes.”
“How fortunate, then, that I’m wearing boots.”
Soilléir smiled and the sting of the previous handful of moments disappeared. “Exactly so. You and the garden will get on famously.”
Aisling considered a bit more as they walked without haste through passageways that were simply corridors instead of being hallways determined to deafen her with tales of glory and former traversers. She’d had enough of that in elvish palaces and dwarvish fortresses. The silence was, she had to admit, something of a relief.
“That was my cousin, Annastashia,” Soilléir said at one point. “In case you were curious.”
Aisling would have preferred to ignore the whole subject, but she supposed it was better to know everything sooner rather than later. “So I gathered. Is she betrothed to Rùnach in truth?”
“I think it may have been discussed,” he conceded, “but to my knowledge there was nothing formal between them.”
Which could mean several things she wasn’t comfortable thinking about. “She has magic, doesn’t she?”
“She does,” he agreed.
“Is she going to turn me into a garden gnome while I’m not paying attention?”
Soilléir smiled. “She doesn’t have those spells, thankfully.”
“You sound relieved about that.”
“I am, actually, and I imagine Rùnach is as well. Those of us who hold the spells of essence changing are very choosey about the souls to whom we give them. Anna doesn’t have the temperament to manage them very well, so she knows none of them. Rùnach, however, is the soul of discretion, which is why he has them all.”
“Did you know he had his power hidden behind his scars when you gave him those spells?”
“The spells of essence changing.”
He frowned. “Those spells?”
“You’re doing it again,” she warned.
He smiled a little. “I’m trying to avoid answering that.”
She looked at him blankly. “Answering what?”
“Whether or not I knew Rùnach’s power—” He stopped short and laughed a little. “You almost had me there.” He considered, then shrugged. “Perhaps it’s best to leave that question unanswered lest I put myself in a position of having to say more than I’m comfortable with at another time to someone else. I can tell you, though, that even if I had known what I won’t admit to knowing or not knowing, I didn’t have the power to draw his magic from him.”
She stopped at that. “In truth?”
“But you are so powerful,” she said faintly.
“It makes you wonder about the woman who managed the feat, doesn’t it?”
Aisling didn’t want to wonder about that at all. She also didn’t want to think about the fact that Rùnach had spent a score of years thinking that magic was lost to him forever when in reality it had been with him all along, buried by his mother under the scars on his hands and face. Perhaps Soilléir had done him a mercy by never mentioning it to him. She sighed.
“And yet you gave him your spells, thinking he would never use them?”
“I never said that.”
She shivered. “You must trust him.”
“With my life,” Soilléir said frankly. “And believe me when I say there are few whom I could say that about.”
She nodded and continued on with him out to the edge of the garden. She paused, then looked at him.
“They aren’t engaged?” she asked, because she couldn’t not ask it.
“It was discussed,” Soilléir conceded, “but nothing more that I’m aware of.”
Aisling wondered absently if all women who loved a particular man felt the same sort of queasiness she did upon learning that that man had come very close to wedding another.
“Well, I guess he could help me, then come back for her,” she said slowly. “If he decided to formalize what had been discussed.”
“He could,” Soilléir agreed. “Though that would make it a little difficult to continue a betrothal with you, wouldn’t it?”
“But he’s a prince. He would likely be most comfortable in a palace.” She glanced at him. “Don’t you think?”
“He might,” Soilléir said with a nod, “occasionally. But not for the rest of his life. That would be a terrible thing for him, I think.”
“Do you?” she asked searchingly. “Why?”
“Because he spent twenty years haunting my solar,” Soilléir said, “when he could have been having cushions plumped for his royal backside in Seanagarra.”
“Perhaps he wanted a look in the library there.”
“He could have had that without masquerading as my servant.” He shook his head. “He is a man of taste, true, but a life of luxury and ease is not for him.” He paused, then looked at her. “It is difficult to step back and watch terrible things happen to other people, isn’t it?”
“Is she a terrible thing?”
“I’m not sure I would want to cross her.”
She couldn’t believe that was true, but she also knew what she’d seen. “Rùnach looked uncomfortable.”
“Rùnach looked terrified.”
Aisling realized he was teasing her. She smiled at him. “Should I leave him to terrible happenings, do you think?”
“I think you should. We’ll see if he manages to emerge unscathed in time for supper. If not, we’ll decide whether or not we dare attempt a rescue.”
She supposed there was little else to do. She walked with Soilléir along paths that were just paths and under trees that seemed content to silently stretch their branches toward the heavens. Not even the fountain they walked past seemed inclined to do anything but sing softly to itself. She passed by it, then paused and turned back.
There was something caught there on the lowest basin. Aisling plucked it off the stone, then held it up to the sparkling morning sunlight. It looked like a thread from Annastashia’s gown, though it seemed a little less like proper thread and a bit more like a strand of magic.
Or a strand of dream.
Whatever it was, it definitely belonged to Soilléir’s cousin. Aisling put it in a pocket, then caught up to Soilléir who was simply watching her with a faint smile. Perhaps if she asked him enough uncomfortable questions, he would spend the morning avoiding answering her and she wouldn’t have to discuss what Rùnach was doing at the moment behind silent wooden doors.
She’d known there was a reason she’d wanted to avoid them.
Rùnach of Ceangail was swimming in deep waters.
That seemed to be his lot of late, though not a lot he would have chosen. He had almost drowned in the underground river that had brought him along with Aisling to Cothromaiche several days earlier. He’d felt as if he’d been drowning in all the details he’d been attempting to glean from the king’s library for the past pair of days, details that he was fairly sure would be critical to any future success. But at the moment, what was about to suffocate him was the torrent of words he was being subjected to from the woman in front of him, a woman he hadn’t seen in a score of years.
“You are betrothed to me!”
He hesitated. Perhaps the present moment was not the one to point out that she was mistaken. He had considered it, that was true. Her father, the second son of the current king of Cothromaiche, hadn’t been opposed to the possibility of a match, that was also true. But Rùnach certainly hadn’t felt at liberty to do anything until his father had been seen to. He’d only been a score and eight at the time. Man enough, perhaps, but still very young to be choosing a bride.
He was willing to admit that Annastashia had seemed like the perfect choice for him at the time: royal enough to suit his family but far enough away from her own grandfather’s crown to satisfy a lad with no aspirations to any throne. Whether or not he had been a good choice for her was still up for debate.
He fought the almost overwhelming urge to bid Anna a pleasant morning and be on his way to find that intriguing Bruadairian lass who had abandoned him without any show of remorse, but supposed he wouldn’t make it past the woman in front of him unscathed. She might have looked too elegant to do aught besides direct servants with a languid hand, but he suspected that in a good brawl, she would leave him a bloody mess.
Perhaps he had grown timid during his time in Buidseachd or perhaps he had simply matured enough to understand the true nature of his peril, because he could say without equivocation that she scared the hell out of him.
“It has been a few years,” he said carefully, when she paused for breath.
“A few years?” she bellowed. “It’s been a score of years, you imbecile! Where in the bloody hell have you been?”
He started to speak, then shut his mouth. There was little use in telling her the details of his adventures. She had found the fact of his parentage distasteful enough a score of years earlier. Telling her exactly what had transpired with his father at the well was pointless. Admitting that he’d been lodging at Buidseachd courtesy of her cousin could be, in a word, fatal.
“Father said you had gone to ridiculous lengths to slay your sire,” she said coldly, “and that you had failed.”
Rùnach nodded. “So we did.”
“He also said you’d died in the attempt.”
“Obviously not, though it was a very near thing.” Again, no sense in cluttering things up with particulars she didn’t need to know. She wouldn’t care at all for the things he’d had to do to survive as he had crawled away from the well, unable to bury his mother, unable to find his siblings, unable to feed himself save with what he’d been able to catch and kill with his teeth—
“Yet here you are,” Anna continued briskly. “Accompanied by some waif of a girl who looks as if she’s never in her life had a moment of instruction in deportment.”
“She’s been sheltered,” he conceded. “But what of you? Surely you haven’t been swathed in mourning garb for the past twenty years.”
She drew herself up. “The shock was not insignificant, of course. In spite of that, I did press on.”
He imagined she had. He thought it might not be inappropriate to suppress a shudder at the thought of a life with the woman in front of him. She was lovely and titled and all the things he’d once thought he needed to be happy. Now, he suspected his life would have been an endless procession of evenings spent socializing in clothes that itched and shoes that were too tight.
“I’m surprised you haven’t pressed on to the altar,” he said before he thought better of it.
“I’m still sorting through all the offers,” she said shortly. “And there are at least a dozen.”
And that, Rùnach supposed, was the absolute truth.
“Your face is scarred,” she said, scrutinizing him with a frown.
“It was much worse, believe me.”
“You also seem to have become a bit rough around the edges.”
“Blame your cousin,” Rùnach said, deciding abruptly to throw Soilléir to the wolves in order to spare himself. “I’ve been his guest.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So I heard earlier this morning. I wonder why he couldn’t bring himself to inform me of that fact?”
“Perhaps he thought that telling anyone I was alive would put my life in jeopardy.”
“How utterly ridiculous,” she said with a snort. “Who would want you dead? Well, save me, of course, when I found out you’d been in hiding all these years. Who else would possibly care?”
He smiled. “No one, of course. But you know your cousin. He tends to be overly cautious from time to time—”
“He’s a fool,” she interrupted, “with an overinflated sense of his own importance in the world. Now, get rid of that mousey wench and we’ll proceed with our original plans.”
“Rùnach,” she said, steely-eyed, “don’t be difficult.”
“I’m not being difficult,” he said. “I’m on a quest.”
She blinked, then laughed, a tinkling thing that he might have found attractive a score of years earlier. He didn’t find it attractive at present.
“You are a silly boy,” she said, reaching out to pat his cheek indulgently.
Well, he was certainly no longer a boy and he was sure he’d never been silly. He sat back against the table and held on to its edge, tapping his fingers against the underside of it, beginning with his pointer finger and working outward and back inward. It occurred to him, as he used it as a way to control his temper, that he hadn’t had to resort to that in twenty years—or been able to use his hands to do so, as it happened.
His life had changed, indeed.
“I’ll arrange for supper,” she continued. “Grandfather is still out hunting grouse, or so I understand, not that he would make an effort merely for you anyway. I’ll see to it all, as usual. We’ll have dancing.”
“Yes, you have managed the like in the past and I imagine you’ll do so again occasionally in the future, but your input is not required now. Be prompt. That is the limit of your responsibilities tonight.”
He continued to drum his fingers silently against the underside of the table because it was somehow soothing. It helped him stay where he was and listen to Anna’s plans that seemed to include more than just supper. He bit his tongue as she began to pace in front of him, discussing the arc of his life now that he was back in proper society instead of lounging uselessly about the schools of wizardry.
He shook his head at the realization that at one point, he might have thought that her plans for him sounded reasonable. Residence at either his grandfather’s palace in Tòrr Dòrainn or muscling his way into a suite of rooms in Ainneamh. Glorious parties, endless suppers, countless sets of dance, all accomplished whilst using all his charms to propel Annastashia—and himself, it had to be admitted—to ever more astonishing heights of exclusivity.
Perhaps he’d misjudged Annastashia. He wasn’t looking at a woman who wanted to simply better herself; he was looking at a woman who wanted to rule a country.
She would have been terribly disappointed if she’d had any inkling what his plans had been less than a handful of months before. Perhaps she would have approved of his having liberated himself from the schools of wizardry in order to attend the nuptials of his younger siblings, and she might have agreed that it was foolish to think he could go back to hiding again in the shadows, but she never would have agreed to the plan to turn his back on his elven heritage and aspire to a life as an ordinary swordsman in an obscure garrison.
He’d had skill enough with a sword in his youth and he’d long since given up the idea of ever using a spell again during the course of what he’d known would be an enormously long life. She would have argued with him when he’d left his paternal grandparents’ house at Lake Cladach and set out to hone his warriorly skills. She definitely would have balked at watching him go inside Gobhann.
Which was, he supposed, just as well. Getting his sorry self inside Gobhann hadn’t resulted in acquiring enviable skill, it had resulted in the acquisition of a woman whose eyes continued to haunt him and whose quest for a mercenary had compelled him to offer himself in service to her.
Though perhaps that was simplifying things where he shouldn’t have. Aisling had been sent to find a mercenary, but had discovered recently that perhaps her role in Bruadair’s salvation might be quite a bit more substantial, she who had grown to womanhood in a country where crossing the border meant instant death, spinning meant more death, and saying the name of her country aloud was a capital offense. She had done all three without harm. Either Bruadairians lied about those sorts of things or Aisling was much more than a simple weaver.
He suspected the latter.
For himself, he’d found himself first drawn to her quest, then to the woman herself, though that wasn’t as true as he might have wished. He’d gotten a good look at her, then ruthlessly decided he wanted nothing further to do with her. Falling helplessly into eyes whose color he had yet to determine even after all the time he’d known her had made a mockery of that initial determination. She was artless and honest and courageous.
That and she had thought elves nothing more than pointy-eared myths for at least the first pair of fortnight he’d known her. How could he not have loved her for that alone?
“Are you listening to me?” Annastashia demanded.
Rùnach focused on her, then nodded. Listening to her, perhaps, but being damned grateful that his future wasn’t going to include her. He wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to make that plain to her without facing her over blades, either magical or steel, but perhaps he could put off worrying about that for another few hours.
“You know, there’s still something about you I don’t care for.” She looked down her aristocratic nose at him. “Something that wasn’t there before.”
Good sense was on the tip of his tongue, but he was nothing if not politic, so he simply smiled and attempted to look pleasant.
“Something dark and unwholesome,” she announced. “Find it and rid yourself of it before we wed.” She looked at his sword propped up against a chair. “Perhaps it is that thing there. I can only assume you’re still engaged in that foolishness.”
“Amazingly enough, yes,” Rùnach said. “A useful skill, that.”
She snorted delicately. “I daresay.” She paused and looked him over. “Bathe before supper.”
“When have I ever not?”
“Well, I will allow that your grooming has left nothing to be desired in the past, but I fear that after where you’ve been loitering recently, you might have forgotten how civilized people live. I shudder to think of the habits you’ve learned from Léir in that cave he continues to dwell in.” She wrinkled her nose. “Who knows what horrible habits you’ve learned from the company you’re currently keeping.”
“Please don’t disparage her,” Rùnach said evenly. “She is on a very difficult quest. If you knew what it was, you might appreciate her efforts a bit more.”
“I doubt that. Don’t be late for supper.”
And with that, she turned and marched out of the library.
Silence descended. Rùnach was terribly tempted to simply stretch out on the sofa near the hearth and have a nap, but that seemed a poor use of his time when he had a betrothed to find.
He counted to an appropriately substantial number to give Anna time to storm off to the kitchens, then retrieved his sword and made his way to the door. He hadn’t but left the library behind before he almost ran bodily into someone who looked rather more guilty than perhaps he should have.
“Did you tell her I was here?” Rùnach asked pointedly.
“Who, me?” Astar of Cothromaiche, yet another of the king’s grandsons and brother to the elegant if not irritated Annastashia, blinked innocently. “Why would I do that?”
“Because you’re a first-rate bastard, that’s why.”
Astar grinned. “I’ve missed having you to torment. Why Soilléir didn’t see fit to tell me you were still alive, I can’t imagine.”
“I can,” Rùnach said. “You have a loose tongue and no tact. And if you think I’ll be sending you an invitation to my nuptials, think again.”
“I make a brilliant houseguest. Ask anyone who’s housed me.”
“Sìle won’t let you past the border any longer and Eulasaid is too polite to say what an absolute pain in the arse you are,” Rùnach said, then he paused. “Oh, was that too blunt?”
Astar only laughed. “Much, which leaves me no choice but to demand satisfaction from you. Let’s go outside and wreak havoc.”
Rùnach was tempted to pause and try to count from memory how many times Astar had said that very thing to him, mostly whilst leaning negligently against some wall or other in the poshest of salons overseen by the most exclusive of matriarchs. How the man had managed so many invitations from such notoriously discriminating hostesses was a mystery, but there was no doubt he was charming. Rùnach suspected he was also his grandfather’s best spy, but discretion suggested he keep that to himself.
“Unless you’re afraid I’ll humiliate you in front of the delightful Aisling, of course.”
“You know,” Rùnach said, “I might like to maintain a bit of anonymity for reasons you don’t need to know.”
“I can only imagine,” Astar said pleasantly. “But you know there are spells brooding over the lists. I’ll add to them, if your fastidiousness demands it. Trust me, no one will know we’ve been there.”
Rùnach considered. “I wouldn’t mind an hour or two in the lists, true.”
“We’ll bring our lovely Aisling along with us and allow her to be impressed by me. You, perhaps not so much.”
“She is my Aisling, not yours, and she’s seen enough unsettling things. She doesn’t need to watch you attempt to hoist a sword.”
Astar laughed as he slung his arm around Rùnach’s shoulders and pulled him down the passageway. “You know, Rùnach, if it were me, I would keep a close eye on her. Especially given the fact that my sister is roaming the halls.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Then again, perhaps you’re the one who needs protecting.”
Rùnach rolled his eyes and shook off the other man’s arm. “And you’re the one to do that? I somehow suspect—still—that you told your sister where to find me this morning.”
“She would have tortured me if I’d left that little bit of truth untold,” Astar said without hesitation. “She’s actually rather adept with a dagger. I believe she keeps them enspelled with unpleasant things and tucked in her reticule just for me. Trust me, you wouldn’t have wanted an encounter with the same.”
Rùnach had to admit facing her over words had been perilous enough; daggers might have been more than he could have managed.
He walked with Astar through passageways that were comfortingly free of would-be fiancées and was grateful for the peace. If nothing else, he needed another day or two to catch his breath and determine exactly how it was he was going to go off and rescue a bloody country.
“At least your Aisling has had a pleasant morning.”
Rùnach glanced at him. “And you would know?”
“I would,” Astar agreed. “She and Léir were walking in the garden when last I saw them. She was planning to spend the rest of the day spinning.”
“Wool, I hope,” Rùnach said, before he thought better of it.
Astar blinked, then looked at him. “I’m not sure I want to know what you’re talking about.”
“Nay, I don’t think you do.”
“Who is she?”
Where to start? Rùnach considered all the things he could say about her, then eliminated them rapidly as things he shouldn’t say about her. After all, it wasn’t his place to reveal that he was positive that she was not just a simple weaver who had run away from the most oppressive Guild in all of Bruadair, but instead the missing dreamspinner that no one had the thought to look for save those who had to have known where she was.
The final dreamspinner.
The most powerful dreamspinner.
He looked at Astar. “She is someone who needs to be protected.”
“And you’re the lad to do it.”
It hadn’t been a question. Rùnach nodded slowly. “I daresay I am.”
“All the more reason to dredge up a few spells and see if you can use them, eh? Though I worry that you’ll manage it, honestly. You look distracted.”
“It has been a very long year so far.”
Astar smiled. “Rùnach, my friend, I think it’s been a very long twenty years. What were you thinking to hole up with Léir in Buidseachd? Surely there were only so many pranks you could pull on Droch with your mighty spells poached from your sire’s book before you tired of the sport.”
Rùnach walked through the gate out into the lists that were obviously well-loved by King Seannair’s guardsmen, then waited until Astar had joined him. He could safely say that over the course of his lifetime, he had been very choosey about his confidants. His brothers, of course, and more particularly Keir had always had his complete trust. A handful of his cousins at Tòrr Dòrainn, of course, and even one or two princes of Neroche. But outside that rather small circle, the men he had trusted had been few and far between. Soilléir, without question. And though he wasn’t about to burst into tears over the thought, he could safely say that he trusted Astar well enough.
He folded his arms over his chest and looked at Annastashia’s brother.
“I take it Léir didn’t tell you what happened to me?”
“You know he says nothing,” Astar said, frowning slightly. “And tell me bloody what?”
“My father took my magic at Ruamharaiache’s well.”
Astar’s mouth fell open. “What? That’s impossible.”
“’Tis quite possible, as I’m sure you know. He took my brothers’ as well.” He sighed. “I don’t think he took my mother’s but I fear by the time he might have tried, she was past—”
“I understand,” Astar interrupted quietly. “Còir told me what his father had found there. I honestly thought you’d all perished along with her.”
Rùnach supposed he shouldn’t have felt such profound gratitude to Soilléir for having kept his mouth shut, but he couldn’t help a brief moment of it. He looked at Astar and shook his head slightly. “My mother perished, as did my younger brothers. Well, save Ruith. He was living peaceably in Shettlestoune until events forced his hand, though he did a goodly work with my father—”
“Your father is alive still?”
“If you can believe it,” Rùnach said grimly. “He’s now quite contained, thankfully, behind spells that I would imagine Ruith managed to pry from your cousin. Mhorghain is alive and wed to Miach of Neroche, which I suppose you know.”
“I had heard that much at least,” Astar said with a faint smile. “A good match for them both, I daresay.”
Rùnach nodded. “Our mothers would be pleased. As for Keir, he perished shutting the well and I’ve been loitering in the shadows of Léir’s solar for the past few years, mourning the loss of my magic and looking for replacements for my father’s spells.”
Astar went very still. “Why would you want them, Rùnach?”
“So I knew how to counter them should they find themselves out in the world,” Rùnach said. “And trust me when I say it was a very academic exercise. Or it was until a fortnight ago when I discovered that perhaps my magic wasn’t as plundered as I’d feared.”
“Should I be sitting down for the rest?”
Rùnach smiled. “I’ll tell you if you can best me with the sword.”
Astar snorted. “And here I feared you would require something difficult of me. Let’s go, then, lad, and I’ll try to leave something of you so you might spew out the rest of your sorry tale over a bit of restorative beer. My grandfather’s alemaster has had a particularly good year, you know.” He paused. “You’re sure you wouldn’t rather use spells than steel?”
That was tempting, Rùnach had to admit. Astar for all his ridiculous preenings was a very dangerous mage and he had a reputation for having no mercy on the field.
“You hesitate,” Astar noted, rubbing his hands together purposefully. “Come now, Rùnach. You weren’t such a coward in your youth. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that you were forever begging me to trot out to the field beyond my granddaddy’s glamour and beat on you.”
Rùnach laughed a little uneasily, because it was entirely true. He’d been to Cothromaiche at least a score of times he could remember, all whilst on his search for the impossible and powerful, and he’d never passed up a chance to hone his magic against the man facing him. He didn’t want to speculate on which of the spells of essence changing Soilléir’s younger cousin knew, and he’d never dared ask lest the knowledge not allow him to sleep easily at night. What he did know was that Astar had a penchant for the odd and the elusive, and Rùnach had queried him about both more than once.
“Spells, then,” Astar said brightly. “I can tell you’re too polite to ask me to leave you on your knees, weeping, so I’ll grant your unasked request. Leave your very fine Durialian steel on that bench there and let’s see what sort of job was done by whoever took pity on you and restored your magic to you. I can’t imagine it was my cousin.”
Rùnach had the feeling he might regret agreeing, but supposed he had reason enough to take any opportunity to hone his rather unwieldy magic.
It turned into a very long morning.
Astar proved to be every bit as unpredictable and offensive on the field as he had ever been. His spells weren’t so much terrifying as they were full of twists and turns Rùnach very quickly found he couldn’t counter easily or even begin to anticipate. It was thoroughly irritating, which he could tell Astar knew very well. And still Astar wove things around him, things that vexed him, poked at him unexpectedly, continually pulled at the ground under his feet as if he’d been standing on the edge of the sea as the tide was going out.
He dragged his sleeve across his face. When had the sun become so bloody hot?
Astar only smiled in a way that tempted Rùnach almost beyond reason to go wipe that smirk off with his fists.
There came a point where he’d had enough, yet holding up his hand to cry peace went unheeded. He opened his mouth to point out to Astar the concession he’d missed only to have a spell he hadn’t seen slam into him and wind him. Damned Cothromaichian magic that made no sense. Who had invented such ridiculous spells?
He reached for something to match his irritation that had somewhere during the past half hour become something far stronger. He wasn’t so much surprised as rather satisfied to find there were spells there at his fingertips, spells that came readily to his hands, complicated pieces of magic that were worthy of the power he could feel rushing through his veins—
He realized abruptly that he was standing in the midst of terrible spells that were robbing him not only of what breath Astar’s spells had left, but almost all movement as well. It took him only a bit longer to realize those weren’t Astar’s spells, they were his own.
Or his father’s, rather.
The tangle that had sprung up around him and was dense and full of thorns. He couldn’t move without something impaling him and causing him intense pain. It was, he could admit freely, agony of his own making. A dark, unrelenting, breath-stealing agony that left him feeling as if he were falling into a blackness that had no end—
And then, suddenly it was all gone.
He leaned over and gasped for breath. He saw Astar’s boots before he managed to straighten, and felt his sparring partner’s hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Astar said, sounding very sorry indeed. “I pushed you too hard.”
Rùnach attempted to shake his head, but he couldn’t. He stood there for another few moments, waiting for the stars to clear and the ability to breathe to return. He finally heaved himself upright.
“My fault,” Rùnach managed. “My apologies.”
“Nasty spells, those,” Astar said faintly. “They were . . . dark. And I couldn’t stop them, if you want the truth.”
“Neither could I,” Rùnach said, then he realized they weren’t as alone as he might have suspected.
Soilléir was standing twenty paces away, watching him thoughtfully.
“What?” Rùnach said defensively, though he knew the answer himself. He had reached for things he shouldn’t have, things that had come too easily to hand. His brother Ruith had warned him he wouldn’t want their father’s spells, but he hadn’t heeded that warning. He supposed he should have.
Yet still Soilléir said nothing.
Rùnach rolled his eyes, trying to save his pride. “An aberration or two. I’ve been without magic for half my life now. One makes the odd mistake now and again when pressed.” That Soilléir had been forced to stop whatever he’d been doing and come to rescue not only him but Astar as well . . . well, he supposed that was something he could avoid thinking about, surely.
“There is that,” Soilléir said mildly.
Rùnach shot him a look. “Regretting giving me your spells?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Novels of the Nine Kingdoms:
“Fascinating…[An] enchanting narrative.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Beautifully written.”—Romance Reviews Today
“Kurland deftly mixes innocent romance with adventure in a tale that will leave readers eager for the next installment.”—Publishers Weekly
“This is a terrific romantic fantasy.”—Midwest Book Review
“A superbly crafted, sweetly romantic tale of adventure and magic.”—Booklist