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Having rebuilt the NordornLand from rubble, Ashen and Gaurin rule justly and fairly over a reinvigorated land. Beloved by their kingdom, they now turn their attention to the next generation of Nordorn royalty.
Responsible Bjaudin, heir to the throne, focuses on his studies and Hegrin, Queen of Rendel, rears her own growing brood. But the youngest siblings, Elin and Mikkel, seem destined to alter the future of the NordornLandfor better or for worse.
Thirteen-year-old Elin craves power, and believes her new alliance with the evil Ysa may help her achieve it.
Eleven-year-old Mikkel stows away on a Sea-Rover ship, hoping for a brief adventure. But when the ship is attacked, Mikkel is taken prisoner, and soon his bonds to the NordornLand are the last thing on his mind.
Through births and deaths, celebration and wars, Ashen and Gaurin have worked tirelessly to bring peace and prosperity to their kingdom. But it appears that this era of peace may be at its end. This final installment of the Cycle of Oak, Yew, Ash, and Rowan brings the series to a thrilling climax worthy of these fascinating characters.
About the Author
ANDRE NORTON has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The creator of such classic series as Witch World and The Time Traders, she has enthralled generations of readers. Norton passed away in 2005.
SASHA MILLER is the author of Ladylord. Miller lives in Denton, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Eleven-year-old Mikkel was not studying The History of the NordornLand as he had been instructed to do by his tutor. It wasn't his fault; he was distracted by the argument taking place just beyond the door of his outer chamber. "Please go somewhere else," he called. "I'm trying to read."
Neither his older brother nor his sister deigned to answer. The least they could do, Mikkel thought, was to fight in one of their apartments or even the Great Hall. There were weapons in the Great Hall. Let them take up arms, settle the matter once and for all, and be done with it.
At another time, Mikkel would have been studying at the desk he and his tutor customarily occupied in the outer room, but even if Bjaudin and Elin hadn't chosen that room for their latest battle, he had no real objection to moving to his inner chamber. The room was much cozier and he preferred it for that reason, particularly during the cold months. He just wished it had been his choice.
At the moment, he was sprawled on his bed. He stuffed cotton wool in his ears, and, for good measure, covered them with his hands. He could still hear the two of them going at one another.
Why, he wondered, do they do that? What have they to complain about? Bjaudin held the title of NordornPrince; he was next in line to become NordornKing, and, in fact, had assumed many of the duties of kingship. Elin, as NordornPrincess, was next in succession after Bjaudin. His eldest sister Hegrin, whom he seldom saw, was actually a queen! Queen of Rendel she was, and turning out princes and princesses of her own. He, Mikkel, didn't have a title of any kind beyond the one he had been born with. His sole honor was that Father had knighted him last year. He could be called "Sir Mikkel" if he didn't care to be known as a prince. For a moment, he wondered what his title might be, if he had one. Duke of Obscurity, probably.
But there was no chance of even that crumb for him. There wasn't any need for him to be granted a title, other than Extra Prince, the younger son of Gaurin Norborne King and Ashen NordornQueen, the one who had no real prospects other than a life of hanging around the Nordorn Court, playing King's Soldiers and trying to stay out of trouble. Or, he thought wryly, to cause it. Like Elin was now doing with her clamor to be proclaimed heiress to the Duchy of Iselin.
"Granddam Ysa isn't going to live forever," she was now arguing, forcefully enough that Mikkel could hear her clearly even through the cotton wool. "Iselin is a fair country-or would be, if Granddam would just care for it instead of only for herself-and it deserves to come into caring hands. All it would take is a word from you-" "I am not the Nordorn King," Bjaudin told her, not for the first time. "Such a bestowal is Father's to make, not mine."
Mikkel could almost see his sister's shrug in the dismissive tone of her voice.
"That's only a formality. All you have to do is mention it to him and it will be done."
"I see no reason to," Bjaudin said, again not for the first time.
"Well, I've told you," Elin retorted. "Shall I tell you again?"
Oh, no, Mikkel thought. He closed his book. Better to give up now and risk a caning from his tutor than stay and have to listen to the whole argument repeating itself.
He was saved by the arrival of Rolls, one of the senior house stewards. The signal bell atop the Water Tower had begun ringing.
"The Sea-Rover ships are entering the fjord, young master," Rolls reported. "Your father and mother and others are gathering at the landing to give proper greeting."
"Thank you, Rolls," Mikkel said, grateful to have a legitimate excuse to leave his studies. "I thought I heard the warning bell. Have you informed the Nordorn Prince and the Princess?"
"I did on my way to you."
Rolls bowed his way out of Mike’s inner chamber and, before he closed the door behind him, added, "There are four ships."
Four ships when but two had been expected! Mike’s day brightened immediately. Who could the others be carrying? he wondered. There had been a report at dinner last evening that the newest addition to the Nordorn fleet was being delivered under escort and should very likely arrive today, but nothing had been said about a third vessel, let alone a fourth.
One, three, four, or a dozen, this prospect was infinitely more interesting than listening to another of Badin’s and Elfin’s interminable battles, or even reading the history of the NordornLand and the tale of how Gaurin Nordorn King and Ashen Nordorn- Queen had, at great pain to themselves, rid the land of an Ice Dragon that was held to be virtually unkillable.
He swung himself off the bed and dashed out of his bedchamber, tossing the book ungently on his desk, and in the process disturbing the half-grown warkat that had been drowsing on a rug in front of the hearth. The warkat shook its ears vigorously, then got up and followed Mikkel down the stairway leading to the Great Hall, and thence to the cool, clean air outside the Castle of Fire and Ice.
"When did you become interested in ships, Talkin?" Mikkel asked the warkat. "Or were you bored to tears with them, like me?" He indicated the area where Bjaudin and Elin had been fighting. "Well, whatever it is, let's go see what we can find."
The young Prince and his companion reached the landing at the top of the stairs that led down the cliff to the quay to find a considerable company already there.
The Castle of Fire and Ice had a sizable population. Not only the Nordorn King and Nordorn Queen and their immediate family lived there, but also Uncle Einaar and Aunt Elibit, the Duke and Duchess of Åsåfin and the NordornLand, even though they had fine estates outside Cyornasberg and a handsome manor house inside the city as well. Mikkel stifled an exclamation of displeasure; Yngvar was with them, dressed in deep blue velvet, pale and slight and a total bore. For a moment, Mikkel regretted that he hadn't changed into better clothing to greet the visitors, but the feeling passed as quickly as it had come.
Admiral-General Count Tordenskjold was, naturally, on the scene to receive his newest addition to the growing Nordorn navy. Count Svarteper of Råttnos, Lord High Marshal and Protector of the NordornLand, stood beside the great Admiral-General, with the Countess Gyda at his side. Tordenskjold's wife, Aud, was absent and Mikkel remembered that she had left Cyornasberg to be with their daughter, Audiline, who was expecting the Admiral- General's first grandchild at any moment.
Svarteper's town residence was a part of the Castle of Fire and Ice, and Tordenskjold had an apartment set aside especially for him when business required his uninterrupted presence.
Other barons and counts came and went as they pleased, though this day it seemed that most of the Nordorn nobility had chosen to attend. Several had joined the crowd to watch the ships make the turn into the fjord. Mikkel recognized Count Baldrian of Westerblad and, a little to his surprise, Mjødulf of Mithlond and his wife, the Countess Ekla. Mjødulf almost never came in to Cyornasberg except on important occasions. Father leaned on a staff carved with dragons and other fierce creatures, and Mother stood close beside him. Beatha, who had served as nursemaid to Hegrin, then Bjaudin, and so on through the rest of the royal children, hovered in the background. Though the need for a nursemaid had passed, Beatha stayed on. Transparently, she hoped for Bjaudin or Elin to marry and start producing babies for her to care for. In the meantime, she ministered to Father and Mother when they would allow it.
Mikkel's conscience bit him a little; he had just been attempting to read about the wounds his parents had suffered. Their Maimed Majesties, they were called now. Both wore gloves to hide their withered right hands. In addition, Father had suffered a weakened right arm as well as permanent injury to his left knee. It must be painful today for, handsome though his staff was, he disliked using it and did so only at need. Mother also bore the marks of that encounter with the Ice Dragon. Her left hand, where she had gripped the blade of a sword that had been forged from the scales of the Ice Dragon's mate, was badly scarred. Both were old beyond their years, their faces lined with wrinkles. Once Father's hair had been like Elin's, honey gold. Now it was almost pure white. Mother's hair also had lightened from its silver-gilt color until the gilt had melted into silver alone. Looking at the two of them, Mikkel wondered where his bright red hair and ice-blue eyes had come from.
"Greetings, Mother. Greetings, Father," Mikkel said, with a bow.
"And to you, dear son, greetings," his father replied.
"Did you come to watch the ships come in, or are you merely playing truant from your lessons?" Mother asked.
"Not playing truant!" Mikkel protested. No need to tell either of them that Bjaudin and Elin were fighting again. "You know I've always loved to watch ships, and, even better, to go on board one!"
"Well, then," Father said. "This is a brave sight. Find a good place from which to watch." Arngrim of Rimfaxe, one of the barons, beckoned to Mikkel and he moved over to stand by him. He liked Arngrim, who bred excellent horses at his holding in Rimfaxe. He did not expect to see Gangerolf of Guttorm, who had a well-earned reputation for tardiness, and so was not disappointed.
Three ships had already cleared the headland. One he recognized immediately as Spume Maiden, as it was a frequent visitor to Cyornas Fjord. The second could be none other than Earl Royance's yacht, Silver Burhawk, with its rakish lines and boldly .ying banner. The third was just cobby old single-masted GorGull, wallowing along, bobbing in the other ships' wakes, her stern wagging and threatening to throw anybody off the aftercastle.
The fourth ship had to be the newest addition to the Nordorn navy, saved for last to impress the crowd.
"Can you see the banner on that fourth ship?" Arngrim asked, smiling.
"Not yet, sir."
"You will in a minute, and there's a rumor that it's going to be a nice surprise to more than one. That's the new Nordorn ship, Ice Princess, and your uncle of New Vold, Rohan, is at the helm. He wouldn't entrust her to anyone but himself. Further, I have had word that he is bringing Obern-he's taking his turn captaining Spume Maiden-and young Tjórvi with him. Look to the banner, Prince Mikkel. There's a very special person on the Ice Princess."
At that moment, the ship cleared the headland to a gasp of admiration from the waiting crowd. Her design was radically new, crafted along marvelously clean lines. Like Spume Maiden she boasted three masts, with sails square-rigged on the foremast and mainmast and lateen-rigged on the stern, but Ice Princess was built without the overhanging forecastle that always made sailing to windward almost impossible. With a fair wind at her back, she looked capable of outrunning anything that currently rode the waves. Timing her entrance into Cyornas Fjord to follow awkward old GorGull emphasized the improvement. Ice Princess sliced through the chop created by the other ships with scarcely a dip of her bow.
The banner-Mithlond's snow-fox on a deep blue ground- flying alongside Uncle Rohan's blue-green with the device of a crashing wave, indicated the presence of one of Count Mjødulf's relatives. It was a mystery Mikkel did not take time to explore. He was too joyful over Arngrim's other news. Tjórvi was coming to Cyornasberg! Now there would be good times indeed! The royal lad closest to Mikkel in age and station was his cousin Yngvar, and he was a stick. You never could have much fun with Yngvar around. Or, even worse, Mårten of Mithlond, who was nine and thought himself very grown up, much to the annoyance of those who really were. He always wanted to shove in on games of King's Soldiers-a very popular pastime for all castle residents-yet either could not or would not learn the rules.
Count Tordenskjold of Grynet, Admiral-General of the NordornLand and Uncle Rohan's friend and mentor, had been the one for whom Tjórvi had been named, but nobody called him by anything but his nickname.
Mikkel and Tjórvi were almost the same age and furthermore, they shared the burden of being younger sons in families where the succession of rulership was already secure. Yngvar was as yet without a rival for his father's rank and estates and furthermore, made no bones about it. Mikkel rubbed Talkin's ears. "Do you hear that?" he said. "Tjórvi's almost here! Good games of King's Soldiers for a change! And we can go out hunting! You'll like that." Life in the Castle of Fire and Ice, so burdensome just a few moments ago, seemed sweet once more.
"Think you've got the perfect excuse to get out of your lessons, do you?" said Granddam Zazar as she puffed her way onto the landing, followed by the unearthly little creature,Weyse, that went with her everywhere. For once Weyse was unaccompanied by Finola, the oldest female warkat in residence at the Castle of Fire and Ice.
Talkin uttered a sound halfway between a chirp and a purr, and immediately trotted over to Weyse to begin a wrestling match. The two creatures grappled playfully, getting underfoot.
"No, Granddam Zazar!" Mikkel exclaimed with as much innocence as he could muster. "One must show hospitality when visitors come, that's all." Zazar sniffed audibly. "Well, let them come and then let them be gone again."
"How now, Madame Zazar," Gaurin said, visibly amused. "You will not be pleased to see Rohan? Or others of your grandchildren? Possibly even great-grandchildren. Young Obern is married now, you know."
"No blood kindred," Zazar retorted. "None at all."
"And so the more cherished," Ashen said, a smile hovering around the corners of her mouth as well. "Perhaps he's remembered that one piece of magic he could ever master, and will make you a silken rose."
Zazar just sniffed again. "I don't need any roses, silk or otherwise." She turned to Mikkel. "If you're so concerned about manners, why didn't you bring the NordornPrince and your sister with you? Answer me that!"
"I'll go get them," Mikkel said.
"No need," Zazar told him."They were arguing over who went through the door first. I informed them on my way here that they'd better put their disagreement aside, at least for the time being, and get out here to greet their guests or risk my wrath. They'll be along presently."
Nobody, Mikkel thought, ever got the better of Granddam Zaz. For all that she had become very stooped with age, her mind- and her tongue-was as sharp as it had ever been. .
After Granddam Zazar had scolded them and bade them depart in haste to the landing to greet their Sea-Rover guests, Elin- Alditha, NordornPrincess, scowled at her brother, the Nordorn- Prince. "This conversation is far from over," she told him.
"Oh, I know," he replied. "You won't stop until you get Granddam Ysa's duchy away from her. Or you think that is what is going to happen. But it isn't." We shall see, Elin thought. She nodded her head, not quite a bow, and a slight frown on Bjaudin's forehead smoothed. Go ahead and think you've won-for now. I'll have that nice bit of property, never you fear, my dear brother.
"Anyway," Bjaudin continued, "what makes you think Granddam Ysa would agree to such a scheme as making you her heiress unless she thought of it first?"
In spite of herself, Elin stopped, struck by his words. Of course. Elin had overlooked what should have been obvious. As the implications of what Bjaudin had said sank in, she smiled as another plan unfolded in her mind.
Granddam Ysa had always been one for schemes and plots. She was old now, but surely she hadn't lost all of her cunning. Why not, then, enlist her aid, rather than making her an adversary? All Granddam Ysa really needed was a good excuse.
Elin's smile widened as she contemplated the avenues of speculation that opened up before her. Father and Mother were both in ill health. Father now confined himself to Council meetings only, leaving the administrative work to his brother, Uncle Einaar. It was a precarious situation at best, one open to charges of collusion and even treason. "Thank you, dear brother," Elin said. "You have convinced me of the foolishness of my request. You will hear no more about it from me, I promise." He nodded in acknowledgment, though his expression told her he did not fully believe her sudden capitulation.
A bothersome princess, even the Nordorn Princess, second in line to succeed to the throne, might find herself married off to the first suitor who seemed likely, and sent away to trouble another land. Her sister had been wed when she was not much older than Elin was now. And that would not do at all.
Right now, there was the tedium of exclaiming over the new ship to get through, and the greeting of whatever guests had taken it into their heads to visit the Castle of Fire and Ice, and the necessity of guarding her tongue every moment and trying to convince everyone that, while high-spirited, she nonetheless was sweet and mild and compliant in her nature. To that end, she allowed her brother to precede her through the doorway and down through the ward and thence to the landing where, she had to admit, the arrival of the ships was a brave sight. She paid particular attention to the new ship, Ice Princess, for she was certain it had been named for her. Therefore, it would, when she had gained enough power, be her own private vessel. She would deck it out in silver and white. The sails would be of snowthistle silk -
Her reverie was interrupted by the arrival of the first wave of guests. Oh. Nothing to be concerned about. It was only Uncle Rohan and his ill-mannered sons. No sign of his daughter Amilia, with whom she could at least have converse even though she was a rough Sea-Rover maiden, or young Naeve who would be amusing to bully. Elin set her features in the pleasant, noncommittal smile she had practiced often before the mirror in the privacy of her bedchamber. Behind that smile she could think as she pleased, or even doze and dream herself a thousand miles distant.
A sudden burst of laughter, shouting and applause brought her back to the present. She realized that Earl Royance had arrived at the landing, escorting a woman who, though elderly by Elin's standards, was still passably attractive. The waiting crowd was now offering the Earl congratulations and wishes for a long life and-heirs?
It had long been a topic of conversation-oh, call it what it was, gossip-that the old Earl had been smitten with the lady whom he always referred to as "the handsome Mjaurita" and she had accepted his attentions without ever committing herself to any sort of deeper relationship. That explained Mjødulf and Ekla's presence. Mjaurita was Mjødulf's aunt. She had kept Royance dangling for years now, and apparently, had acquiesced at last to be married.
The ignorant might laugh behind their hands and make jokes about heirs, but Elin had long known that "Uncle" Royance was quite hale for a man of his years, and those years fewer than most thought. Royance was simply one of those men who had looked mature when he was young, and elderly when he was mature. He enjoyed looking the part of the seasoned statesman and also being still able to deliver a surprising counter to those who thought to take advantage of his supposed infirmity of age. If there would not be heirs from this union, the fault, if any, would lie with Lady Mjaurita, whose childbearing years must be well past.
Then Elin came fully awake behind her smile. Royance had come to the NordornLand to claim his bride. Such an important wedding demanded the most capable person in the land to organize it, and that would be none other than Granddam Ysa.
Of course she would be recalled to the Nordorn Court. It would be an unforgivable insult not to do so. Then, Elin would volunteer her services to assist. In the cozy intimacy of making wedding plans, she could remind Granddam that she had long been told she was Granddam's favorite. What a pity they had been separated so long. What an excellent opportunity to repair that oversight. Perhaps she could even go to live with Granddam for a while, once the wedding was over.
Later, Elin told herself, I will go and find that bracelet I once saw in Mother's jewel chest, a bracelet composed, oddly, of nine tiny teeth strung on a thin chain. She had never seen Mother wear the bracelet and, in fact, it had been hidden under the false bottom of the chest itself. She had found it only by accident-well, by snooping, actually. At first, she had thought it composed of baby teeth shed from her and her brothers and older sister, but the shape wasn't quite right. Anyway, Elin had only three siblings and that would not account for the nine teeth. When she had handled the bracelet, she had felt an odd, almost unsettling vibration as she touched each tooth in its turn. Furthermore, each vibration was subtly different. One tooth, one- person? They did not look like human teeth, not all of them.
Here, she thought, was an article of Power if only one had the means of divining how to use it. Perhaps now was the right time to try to find that means. Granddam Ysa would know. Or, between the two of them, they could find out.
That would be her avenue to begin to explore with Granddam ways she could grow more solidly in her favor and become her heiress in fact and in deed.
Yes, that would work and much better than her original plan. With Granddam Ysa in the forefront-and taking the brunt of the opprobrium and disapproval that would come her way-Elin could work in the background and, in the end, have the Duchy of Iselin and even the entire NordornLand itself!
Elin-Alditha Nordorn Queen. Now there was a name to be reckoned with. . As quickly as they could manage, Mikkel and Tjórvi slipped away from the crowd now surging toward the Castle of Fire and Ice, bearing with them Earl Royance and the Lady Mjaurita, who, as a prospective bride, had arrived on Ice Princess and not Royance's yacht. They also managed to elude Yngvar, who showed signs of wanting to be included in their company.
"Royance and Mjaurita have been all but living together for years," Tjórvi said with a shrug. "I do wonder what he bribed her with, to get her agree to becoming his Countess, though."
"Probably his entire estate of Grattenbor with Åskar thrown in as well."
"She already had those, or as good as. Well, it's a woman's mystery." Tjórvi shrugged again, dismissing the entire matter. "Let's go hunting!" No sooner said than done. The boys, not bothering to wait to instruct stewards as to the disposition of Tjóvi's belongings in whatever guest apartment had been assigned to him, paid a hasty visit to the armory. A short while later, having avoided Yngvar once more, and now accompanied by the warkat Talkin and equipped with bows and a sheaf of hunting spears, they slipped out the postern gate of the Castle of Fire and Ice.
"They're starting to call this place Cyornas Castle down south," Tjórvi remarked as they made their way out of town and toward a copse of woods where reportedly there was small game to be had. With the approach of winter, conies would have put on their layer of insulating fat.
"Cyornas Castle? Really?"
"Well, you've got Cyornasberg the town, and Cyornas Fjord already. So why not? Too much of a mouthful, all this Fire and Ice nonsense. Makes people think you have too high an opinion of yourselves, if you get my meaning, and maybe need to be taken down a peg."
"You mean there are people who would go to war over a-a name?" Mikkel said incredulously.
"Some people would go to war over the way you wear your hair," Tjórvi retorted. He glanced at Mikkel meaningfully.
Mikkel touched his bright red braids. "It's the Nordorn style," he said defensively. "When I'm older, I'll cut it. Maybe."
Tjórvi shrugged. "I suppose the braids keep the stuff out of your eyes. But I'm saying there are people who would fight you for just such a minor thing." He smoothed his wavy hair, a little more blond than red, cut a noticeable manly inch above his collar and secured with a headband. Unruly locks nevertheless escaped and hung over his forehead. "I have this, too." He showed Mikkel an amulet on a thin silver chain. The amulet was in the shape of an open circle and waves forever crashed inside it. "My da gave it to me on my birthday, for luck."
Mikkel had no such amulet-at least not yet. He decided to change the subject. "Why the fourth ship?" he asked. "Surely Mjaurita could have sailed on Spume Maiden or even on GorGull if she didn't want to be seen by her new bridegroom." He sniggered, and Tjórvi joined him.
"Well, as to that," he said, "Ice Princess is going to have a sea trial. Tordenskjold's going to insist on it, regardless of the trial she's already had, both the sailing up the coast and before then. Da will go back in Spume Maiden of course, Royance will be off on his honeymoon in Silver Burhawk, Ice Princess has a quick cruise up and down the coast, and even though it's late in the season, GorGull is going a-roving."He paused, relishing his next words. "I'm going to be on her."
A sudden suspicion gripped Mikkel. "Does your father know about this?"
"Not yet." Tjórvi grinned mischievously. "But by the time he finds out, it’ll be far too late for him to tell me no. Obern’s been set to watch, but I can evade him easy enough."
"I suppose, in all the excitement-" Mikkel thought a moment, and then came to an instant conclusion. "I'm going with you. You think there'll be room for me on the GorGull?"
"Always room for one more. Well, maybe not Yngvar."
Both boys sniggered.
"Definitely not that stuck-up little princeling in training. Just you and me?" Mikkel said. "Just us. I was hoping you'd want to go along. That's the big reason I told you."
"We'll be cabin boys together, or deckhands, or whatever the captain sets us to do," Mikkel exclaimed happily. "Who is the captain?"
"Fritji the Younger. He's grandson to my grandfather Snolli's old Wave Reader. He says he has a portion of his grandfather's gift, too, though I've never seen sign of it. His brother Jens has it more, so he wields the Spirit Drums."
"What do you think he'll say or do once he finds us aboard? Will he take us back home?" "Not likely. It's the way of the Sea-Rovers. We take ourselves out to sea when we think we're ready, and nobody objects. If we are, we are, and if we're not- Well, it's a weakling gone and not much mourned." Tjórvi grinned again. "Fritji's a fledgling captain. He won't dare take us back. That would mean his first outing as a Sea Rover was a failure. So we're set. In fact, that's why we're on GorGull. It's the oldest ship in the fleet, and if it's lost, there's not much to mourn. The keel's already laid for her replacement. It's to be a sister ship to Ice Princess, and called NordornQueen's Own."
"Never mind that. You're talking about us maybe being lost as well," Mikkel said reprovingly.
Tjórvi threw back his head and laughed aloud. "The keel's been laid for my replacement, too!" he said. "Mam's expecting again. Anyway, there's nothing to worry about. Fritji won't go far. One good raid and we'll be back at home, safe and sound, with stories to tell around the fire all next winter."
Talkin stiffened, and growled low in his throat. He began to move forward at a crouch, eyes intent on something the boys could not yet see. They fell silent immediately, and followed the young warkat. Tjórvi hefted a throwing-spear, while Mikkel nocked an arrow to his bowstring.
What seemed to be an entire nest of young conies erupted from the underbrush, scattering in every direction. Talkin raced after them in furious pursuit. Mikkel let .y one arrow, then another. His aim was better the second time. Tjórvi got one with his spear, picked up a rock and brought down another. A high-pitched squeal from farther in the brush told of Talkin's success.
"He won't bring it back, will he," Tjórvi said. It was not a question.
"Not likely. But he won't be trying to steal ours, either," Mikkel told him. "Let's skin these and take them back. I know a cook who'll prepare them in a pie, just for us. With a pastry crust and tubers and onions and lots of gravy inside."
Tjórvi licked his lips. "I can fair taste them already!"
Neither boy paid much attention to the ruination of their good clothes as they knelt in the dust and yanked the skins off the three rather small but plump conies. Stewed with a few vegetables and then baked in a dish covered with pastry, they would make a very good meal for two hungry boys. Later they could occupy themselves with a game of King's Soldiers, and leave both Yngvar and Mårten to entertain themselves.
The prospect seemed much more inviting than sitting through what was bound to be a boring state dinner that evening, almost certainly with both of them stuck at the same table with Yngvar.
Ashen and Gaurin had retired to the privacy of their own apartment, where they could speak freely as they prepared for the evening's welcoming guest-feast.
"Do you really think they're just out hunting?" Ashen asked Gaurin anxiously.
"Of course they are, my Ashen," he replied. "Don't they always, whenever they are together?"
Ashen had to concede his point. "They should have told us first," she said.
"So they should. But they did not. They are both growing up."
"And I hate to see it. Oh, I'm being silly."
He didn't try to disguise how stiffly he moved; that was reserved for public appearances, when he had to hide the pain. He took her in his arms and put her head on his shoulder, burying his face in her pale hair.
"You always smell so good," he murmured. "Clean."
She had to smile at that. "You never knew me when I was growing up in the Bog. I knew nothing of soap. Also, I was less than clean while I was following you to give you the Dragon Blade," she said.
"And you couldn't wait to bathe." He held her closer. "You are as you are. Let your youngest child be as he is."
"Only if he returns to make his manners with our guests. Just imagine what Ysa would think or, worse, say!"
"Speaking of Ysa," Gaurin said as he released Ashen, "Elin has petitioned that she be allowed to go and give the Duchess her personal invitation to oversee the wedding. She'll be there and back in less than three days. I am inclined to grant her this request."
"It is surprisingly well thought on," Ashen commented. "Ysa has scarcely visited Cyornasberg since I suggested she turn her energies to the governance of her duchy."
"As good as exile. It's been a very peaceful several years. But now I recognize that we must welcome her back to our midst for the sake of others. Perhaps she's mellowed."
At that, Ashen laughed out loud. "Never!" she said. "You do bring up the question of what gifts we shall bestow on the newly wedded couple, though."
"I will discuss it with Bjaudin and Einaar."
Then they both took their seats at dressing tables and Ashen rang for Ayfare and Nalren to come and make them ready for the banquet.
Though Ayfare had been Chatelaine and Nalren Seneschal of the Castle of Fire and Ice for many years, neither would dream of giving up the privilege of being personal attendants and body servants to Ashen NordornQueen and Gaurin NordornKing.
They took off their gloves, in preparation for donning fresh ones of white snow-thistle silk. Their Maimed Majesties,Ashen thought, gazing at Gaurin's withered right hand, a match to her own. She picked up a jar of soothing cream prepared by the Court physician, Birger, in collaboration with Zazar. She opened it not without some difficulty, and began applying it to her hands, especially the dry, withered one. Naught but Nordorn-crowned, the saying had gone, could wield sword of dragon spawn. Well, they both had wielded the sword and, though the NordornLand had been saved, both had paid a fearsome price. She handed Gaurin the jar of cream. He applied it to his hands in turn. The cream kept the skin from cracking and bleeding.
"Have you got Rohan's gift ready?" Gaurin asked as Nalren began massaging his face to smooth out the wrinkles.
"I have," Ashen said, "and I think you will be pleased with what I have chosen." Ayfare was ministering similarly to Ashen and as a consequence her words were a little muffled as the Chatelaine massaged a different cream into the skin around her lips. "Ayfare put it in my jewel box for safekeeping." The two women smiled at each other fondly; they had been friends since they were barely out of childhood.
Though Rohan had never made mention or complained of its absence, Ashen knew that Chieftain of the Sea-Rovers had always worn a particular badge of his office. Rohan's grandfather Snolli had been the last to do so. "It's a thumb ring. A special one."
"Ah," Gaurin said, understanding at once.
"All shined and polished, and .t for a Sea-Rover chieftain," Ayfare said with the easy familiarity of long acquaintance. She set aside the jar of skin cream and began brushing Ashen's long silver hair. When it was smoothed to her satisfaction, she would braid it in Nordorn fashion.
"Snolli set great store by his ring. It is still with him, wherever he may be." Gaurin held his head steady for Nalren to begin applying a thin layer of cosmetics, a process he particularly hated. Nonetheless, it would not do for the King to appear pale and wan, so he suffered the tinted lotion and a dusting of rouge without protest.
Ashen likewise was receiving a slightly heavier layer of rouge to her cheeks and lips than usual. She had to admit that they both looked better and healthier with the applications; appearances must be maintained.
"The white silk is laid out," Nalren told them. "Perhaps with red surcoats and mantle?" "That is well thought on."
As women's styles had changed, so had men's. Though men customarily went clean-shaven, the NordornKing now wore a neatly trimmed beard, a fashion that several in the court emulated. His doublets were padded to hide a certain gauntness, and his collars were high, to conceal the thinness of his neck. When Nalren finished dressing him, only a close eye could detect that he was no longer his hale and robust self.
Rather like me, Ashen thought. I am too thin. "Who is overseeing the preparation of the feast?" she asked.
"My assistant, Huldra,"Ayfare said.
"You trained her yourself," Ashen commented. "Therefore, she is to be trusted with tonight's important event."
"When you have finished with your lady's hair, would you bring the new Chieftain's ring for my inspection?" Gaurin said.
Ayfare put a few last touches on the shining looped braids she had arranged on Ashen's head, set the small diadem in place, and went to do Gaurin's bidding.
How clever Ayfare is, Ashen thought. The diadem, one of a matching pair made for the Nordorn monarchs, settled under the pile of braids as if an integral part of them; the midpoint of the band dipped lightly onto her forehead. A crystal snowflake glittered at the center, and in its heart glowed a fire-stone, one of the handful that remained of the crown of Cyornas NordornKing of reverent memory.
Neither Gaurin nor Ashen wore their own state crowns often these days. The spiked silver columns spangled with crystal snowflakes made for a precarious burden, and the bands encrusted with .re-stones rested on their heads far too heavily. The diadems sufficed.
Ayfare returned with the newly made ring for the Chieftain of the Sea-Rovers and laid it on Gaurin's dressing table. As far as Ashen could tell, and working only from her memory, the goldsmith had duplicated the ring as closely as anyone could. Yet another .re-stone, of a size .t for wearing on the hand, adorned the broad band of the thumb ring. Ashen recalled how the original ring's red stone seemed to flame in whatever light was to be had; perhaps it, too, had been a .re-stone, gleaned ages past from another dragon's hoard. This one had been chosen from among the ones the Mother Ice Dragon had disgorged from her scales when she had been defeated. Rohan would be pleased.
Then Nalren and Ayfare helped Gaurin and Ashen into their festive clothing. Current styles for ladies dictated simply cut dresses with a snug bodice ending just below the bosom. The sleeves were separate items, laced in place, and these were lined with soft wool blended with silk. Over this went a crimson fur trimmed sleeveless coat. Her dress and Gaurin's doublet were covered with embroidered silver snowflakes and on Gaurin's there was also an embroidered silver snowcat wearing a silver collar-the badge of his house. On her skirt she bore the Ash badge-name rising from a vessel of pure silver. The silver state necklaces set with the remainder of Cyornas's .re-gems and coats of deep crimson warmed what might otherwise have been too cold an appearance for the two monarchs. Crimson mantles completed their attire.
Nalren placed Gaurin's diadem on his silvery hair and settled it onto his forehead. He and Ashen drew on their gloves, arose from the dressing tables, and Gaurin took up his staff. To Ashen's secret amusement, both Nalren and Ayfare stepped back a pace, heads cocked appraisingly, so identical in attitude that she nearly smiled.
"Do we pass your muster?" she asked, unable to hold back the words.
"You both look very fine. Now, please do not over-do tonight. You need your rest."
"I hear and obey," Ashen said with a laugh.
Contentedly, Ashen took Gaurin's arm and they left their apartment, there to be met by her ladies and his Court gentlemen. To the sound of welcoming trumpets, they descended into the Great Hall.
Excerpted from The Knight of the Red Beard by Andre Norton and Sasha Miller.
Copyright © 2008 by Andre Norton and Sasha Miller.
Published in October 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.