Part of the "Sundered" series - the heroine continues her struggle against the forces of evil. The harrowing tale of Erin Elliath, warrior and healer, continues in this episode of the battle between good and evil. When Erin rejects her position as Lady Sara, wife to the First Servant of the Dark Heart, she escapes from her husband's lands with the help of Darin, the Patriarch of Culverne and the last of his line. After combining forces with the deposed prince of Marantine and a mysterious old man - who has magic skills that neither Erin or Darin can identify - the foursome hatch a plan to wrestle control of the usurped kingdom of Marantine away from the priests of the Dark Heart. Meanwhile, Erin continues to struggle with her part in the betrayal of her people, the deaths of her most beloved friends, as well as her feelings for the man who doomed them for her sake.
About the Author
Michelle Sagara West is a novelist who has eight published novels as Michelle West and four novels originally published as Michelle Sagara.
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The Swords were ready for battle. The castle of the Lord of the Empire loomed in the near distance, a monument of great, carved stone and high towers — a banner not perturbed or moved by the wind on the open hillock.
Not three hundred yards from the Vale's village, in the cover provided by thin trees and goldenrod grown too high from a plenitude of rain and sun, the four men kept watch. They were dressed simply and hadn't seen use of razors or water for a fourday — but they no longer looked bored or irritated. Like a brand, the clash of white and red in the night sky two evenings past had burned itself into their eyes, a harbinger of doom or war that the blood understood well, even if the mind did not.
Although they wore no chain and no black surcoats, and attended no high priest, they bore arms that were perfectly crafted. They were Swords; Malanthi, all.
They had seen the nightwalkers drifting through the wroughtiron gates of the castle. Servants of the the Dark Heart. What had drawn the four here, they did not know. Nor were they certain they wanted to.
But they were not bored; indeed, even if they had been relieved of their long duty, they would have had trouble sleeping.
The sky was the color of firelight reflected in tears; light, misted orange. Sara rose with the dawn, in silence and mourning. Someone tended to her; she drank the water of Lerna&ngrave;s wound and found it both sweet and bitter to her taste.
She coughed, pushed the hand away, and murmured something only half-distinct.
"Almost two days," was the quiet reply. "We're in the garden house. Shed," Darin added as he looked at the rough walls. "I haven't gone back outside. I left yesterday morning to try to find the Lord, but I — there's a spell on the ground around the castle. Bethany said it was dangerous. I didn't cross it. I tried calling him, but he didn't answer. And all the slaves are gone." He tilted a cup to her lip; she swallowed, and once again felt the warmth and tingling of Lernan's Gift. It was almost more than she could bear. Gently, she eased herself to sitting.
"I'm fine," she whispered. "I — have to go outside." He offered her a hand — and a shoulder when her weight proved unstable. She stood, leaning against him until Lernan's healing offered her body strength enough to stand on its own. Then she opened the door and walked into the pink sky, the open garden. She shuddered as she passed beneath the wide door's frame.
"There's a magic on this outbuilding. It's — I don't know what it is. But it's not mine. Not ours."
Before Darin could press her for more, Bethany spoke quietly into his mind's ear. Leave her for the moment, Initiate.
But — but if there's a spell on the shed, shouldn't we do something about it?
Bethany offered momentary silence, as she often did — the pause for breath before the answer. No, she said at last. I do not think we need to fear it. It was for our protection, I think; it kept us hidden from our Enemy's detection.
He looked at Sara's drawn, pale face; he saw the shudder that stretched across her shoulders and arms. She doesn't think so.
Perhaps. But you will not ask her.
She remembered everything.
She saw, in the sunset and the low morning haze, a flicker of lids over a blood-drenched face. She arrived again a moment too late and let loose her power — her line's gift — in an empty display of anger, of pain, of betrayal.
Belfas was dead. Not even the body remained, and she knew that there had been no ceremony for him, no easing of the way. She hoped that the Bridge had been open to him and that the Beyond held nothing of war or its memories to torment him. Nothing of war, and nothing of her.
She saw the back of a young boy, started, and then relaxed — if the slight easing of her shoulders and jaw could be called that. Darin stood, elbows against the stone lip of Lernan's Gifting, eyes on the surface of the gently moving waters. His fingers, smooth and bloodless, skirted the water; his lips moved, and his fair, pale hair bobbed lightly as he rocked. He was writing something that no other eyes would see.
Darin was of Culverne. Culverne lay across the continent. Keranya's words echoed quietly in the air, where only she could hear them. It had been five years since the fall of Line Culveme — only five. Not four hundred.
A hundred bitter questions pressed against the tight line of her lips, which were closed against their utterance. She looked out at the garden; her eyes followed the smooth and perfect line of the hedges and wending trail of all manner of flowers, only a few of which she knew by name. She caught the scent of roses and saw that they were white — the color of mourning, of passage. She looked again at Darin. Now was not the time for questions, and she doubted that he could answer even a fraction of them, even if it were.
She knew where she was, although the forest and the Lady's trees had been cleared completely away, and no trace remained of the path, once familiar and oft traveled, to the Gifting — the Gifting that Elliath had kept and preserved in its long battle.
They had lost it, and she would abandon it again. There was no choice.
She was quiet as she walked to the inner gates that kept the garden from the rest of the castle; quiet as she bent down to retrieve what Gervin, slavemaster no longer, had left for her keeping.
There was a weapon, a sword a little longer than those she had trained with, and a shield and armor; there was food, snares, and two bedrolls; there was even a small tent which would serve both her and Darin well.
"Sara?" She heard the soft pad of quick, light steps as Darin left the well and approached her turned back.
"It's morning," she said quietly. "We should leave now, while we have the chance." Swallowing, she continued. "Lord — Lord Darclan gave us time, but only that. The priests will probably come, if the lord was injured or — or killed."
"Can't we check?"
"No." The word was quick and clear — too quick. As if realizing this, Sara added, "The ward on the grounds would make it very difficult — and we ... we can't risk the power. Not now. Trust me, Darin. It's best this way."
He nodded, hearing her words clearly, and misunderstanding the shakiness with which they were delivered. He had been told, by both Gervin and Lord Darclan, that they would have to flee the castle and perhaps Mordantari itself.
Lady Sara slid quickly out of her dress, and, before Darin could blush or offer his aid, found her way into the tunic and trousers that Gervin had also seen fit to provide. They were plain, but not coarse; even though they were simple, no observer would have mistaken them for mere slave's wear. Padding followed, as did armor. She buckled leather into place and girded herself with her weapon.
"Should I change, too?"
"Yes. But keep the clothing anyway. It's fine, a little too fancy, and not very practical — but we may need it, in time."
He began to change, and she, to rearrange the backpacks. When she was done, she lifted the heavier one with quiet authority and slid it onto her shoulders. It felt strange. It had been years since she'd traveled with one. Darin's grunting drew her attention, and she turned with almost a sigh.
She walked over, held out both hands, and caught the straps of his pack before they crossed at the back. He flushed a little; it added color to his cheeks, to the fairness of his face. "Sorry, Sara," he muttered, as he turned and held his arms out behind his back.
She was familiar with the gesture. It cut; it cut deeply. "Don't be afraid to ask me for help."
He would remember that, later. That, and the expression on her face.
Two others watched the castle from without, aware of the Swords, although they were not aware of each other. One was an older man who carried his age like a mantle of authority or a symbol of wisdom. He wore a brown robe, one simple and unadorned by any threads or embroidery that spoke of rank or office. The hood at the back was pulled up and rested just above the line of salt-and-pepper brows; a twined rope girded his midsection and hung to his knees. A pack lay at his feet and a staff beside it — one of gnarled wood that would stretch to just past his shoulder when carried. He stood almost in plain sight, certainly more so than the Swords — but none noticed or remarked on his presence.
He was a man of many talents and many dangers — and the moment that he had been planning for, even hoping for, was about to come to pass.
Indeed, as he watched the gates he hardly seemed to breathe at all.
The last man waited, better hidden and more silent than any of the others. He watched the Swords, and he watched the gate; it would have been hard to say which garnered more of his attention. He was not old, but not in the first bloom of youth either; lines had been etched into the comers of his eyes, but whether it was due to smiling or frowning was impossible to divine. His face was smooth and perfectly expressionless beneath the dark, deep brown of his hair. There was a scar across his forehead, and another across his cheek — but they were faint, like the trace of an old web that's been all but removed.
His arms were crossed; he kept his hands at his sleeves. The sword that he wore hung, sheathed, past his knee. Yet he, too, was prepared for battle.
"Darin," Sara said softly, "stay behind me."
Her voice, quiet, was nonetheless edged and cold. Darin tilted his head, as if to question her commands, and fell silent at the look on her face, although it was not directed at him. The sweep of lashes closed in a narrowed line over her eyes; those eyes flared green for a second — a fleeting echo of the previous night's battle.
Her sword rang out in the stillness, a raw scrape of steel and light. Following her gaze, he saw four men, villagers by their dress, but far too idle for those of the Vale. They lounged by the roadside, but even at this distance it was obvious to Darin that they, too, held swords — swords that were drawn.
Without a word, he reached — fumbled, really — for Bethany. She came to his hand, and he leaned on her for strength; he called on her for knowledge.
A thin, murky thread of light, almost invisible in the greater brilliance of sun and clear sky, streaked across the distance that separated them from the four that waited.
Before it reached them, it died, cut off abruptly.
"Malanthi," Darin whispered.
Sara nodded quietly, her eyes a green sheen, her jaw a rigid, square line. "Swords."
"Should we go back?" He looked over his shoulder; the road behind them was clear.
"No," Sara said softly. "I can't."
"Then maybe we should get off the road?" His eyes darted to trees, but even the suggestion was made doubtfully; the Swords were close. As if his words were beacons, they began to move forward — not running, not precisely, but walking at a very quick pace.
Sara stopped, planting her feet slightly apart in the flat dirt road. Her pack hit the ground and rocked to a stop. She reached for the shield that rested atop it and shrugged her forearm through its leather straps. The handgrip was caught and held in whitening fingers. The shield's rounded contours fell just below her hips. It had been years since she had held either sword or shield; there had been little call for either in Rennath.
She wondered, briefly, if she would be up to the fight. There were four men, each taller and larger than she, and each was carrying a sword with a greater reach than hers. No doubt they were in practice with those weapons. At least they carried no bows. The Swords were an arrogant group of men, skilled at their arms and vicious in their service to the Church of the Dark Heart — but even they had standards. Ranged combat, the kill from a distance, was a measure of last resort. After all, what good was a kill if you couldn't feel the death?
At twenty feet, they stopped. She held her place, aware of Darin's presence — and Bethany's power — at her back.
"Excuse me, ma'am," the foremost Sword said, pointing slightly with his weapon. "We'd like a few words with you, if it won't take you out of your way." He smiled congenially — which is to say that his teeth flashed in an even line between his parted lips. His was a square face, gentled by a long forehead, full cheeks, and short, soft hair. But his eyes never relaxed — and they never really left Sara's weapon.
Damn. Damn it. Sara tightened her grip, both on sword and shield. She had hoped that the Swords might somehow take her presence at face value — a common woman in the Empire didn't really know much of the use of weapons, and even if she had one, would probably not know how to use it. Stupidity was an advantage that she wasn't going to be offered here.
"What," she said evenly, "did you want to know?"
"You came from the castle." He took another step forward, and the three behind him fanned out at his back in a half circle of glinting steel. "We just want to ask you about the events of two nights past."
"Ask, then. But stay your ground." She pulled her sword up until the flat rested very lightly against her shoulder.
He didn't stop; she didn't expect him to. He had all of the advantage that numbers, size, and, to his mind, rank provided. He had no reason at all to heed her quiet request.
"Here isn't really the best place for such a discussion; it's very open." Another step, slow and carefully placed. His eyes were dark brown — she could see them very clearly now; they were as sharp to her eyes as his breathing, tense and short, was to her ears.
"You know that the Lord of Mordantari doesn't always appreciate the importance of his Church or its agents." His smile died suddenly; his voice lost even the patina of friendliness that had, after all, soothed no one. "You'll both come with us to the village."
"Mordantari?" Her reply was almost dreamy, so peculiar was the tone. "Is that what he calls it now? The peace of the dead?"
A frown rippled subtly down the Sword's face, a sudden unease exposed to the light. He started forward, sword at ready, even as she raised and lowered her arms. Her free hand danced in the air more quickly than his feet against the ground; her lips moved soundlessly.
But her eyes, her eyes were the most terrible thing of all to the Sword who was several years her elder. He had never seen such an ugly, all-encompassing shade of green. And he had never, for all of his lessons and studies prior to attaining his rank, felt the Greater Ward.
Light seared the insides of his skin. The pain was great enough that he forgot, for full seconds, the use of the counterward. He heard the shouts to his left and right as he brought his own hands up in the gesture and the call.
The fire increased; the light grew brighter. He lost the words and the rhythm of the ward as Bethany joined her power to Sara's.
But he saw, through the haze, the quick dart of his enemy's lunge. He brought his sword up, as a reflex, and felt it clang against hers. She swore; he smiled grimly and struggled to gain his feet before realizing that he'd never lost them.
At his back, he heard footsteps retreating. He shut them out; they were not his concern. She was. He wanted her death, more than he'd wanted anything in his life. In this Sword, of the four, the blood was still very strong.
Sara felt his shields flare to life; she saw the faint pink glow of the two other Swords as they also drew close. She called upon her power as Sarillorn and moved quickly and concisely. Her physical shield she thrust to the side in a low block, but her light she held out before her at the strongest of the three. Her sword, the third of her weapons, moved in a perfect harmony to her two defenses.
She felt the blood call; her body tingled with its imperative. For the first time in years, she gave in to it, joining her skill to the dance of the red and the white, the Dark and the Light.
There was no longer any reason to hold back. Belfas was dead. The Lady was dead. The line had been consumed by history; what was there to hope for now?
Her anger was her direction and her commander. Bethany's light flared white and warm, a pillar to her right. She heard a scream start — and ended it viciously and absolutely with an instinctive thrust to the side. In the midst of white light came crimson blood.
But it had been four years since she'd wielded a weapon, and Telvar's words and warnings returned to her too late. Never let anger guide your tactics. Curt, short, true. Her blood flowed next as the point of a sword disappeared into her left thigh. And her blood, as it flowed, was also red.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lady of Mercy"
Copyright © 1993 Michelle Sagara West.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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