The Sea Lark's Song

The Sea Lark's Song

by Diana Marcellas

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497631366
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Series: The Witch of Two Suns , #2
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 466
Sales rank: 287,715
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Diana Marcellas is the author of the Witch of Two Suns trilogy, comprising the three volumes Mother Ocean, Daughter Sea; The Sea Lark’s Song; and Twilight Rising, Serpent’s Dream. She lives in Arizona.

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The Sea Lark's Song


By Marcellas, Diana

Tor Fantasy

Copyright © 2003 Marcellas, Diana
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780812561784


1
 
 
As the Daystar set and dusk settled over the land, the Companion, the world's second sun, ruled the short twilight of the cool winter evening, edging every grass blade and tree leaf with a shimmering blue light. Countess Rowena Hamelin rode through a sea of blue shadows and silver, dusky blue under the occasional forest canopy that shadowed the road, brilliant silver in the open meadowlands. For the day's travel, she had dressed warmly in a long woolen riding habit, with a skirt that swept half to the ground, warm underbreeches and tunic, stout riding boots, and a furred cloak with a hood that kept the chill off her ears. The tang of the cold air chilled her face deliciously, and she could smell snow in the air. Beside the road they traveled, the broad Essentai River sparkled in the muted light.
Her heart lifted at the familiar sights of her beloved Airlie, the county that marriage to Ralf had given her and which, over the years, had steadily supplanted in her heart the Tyn-dale and Yarvannet of her youth. This land she now guarded for her ten-year-old son, for the time when Axel became count in his own right. This land she guarded in all its beauties and its folk, as the counts of Airlie had always guarded their meadowlands. A mere woman, certain High Lords would sniff--a mere woman as regent? Nonsense! But Rowena had defied them all, and dared any todiminish her Airlie in any manner, with any threat.
Two days before, she had resumed her journey home from the duke's capital of Darhel to her own Airlie capital, Carandon, with a small company of her marshal, two lady-maids, and a dozen soldiers. The first day they had advanced a good twenty miles, then had quartered in a village by the river, her folk coming out to meet her and apologizing for the simple lodging they could offer, which was all they had. She had spent a pleasant evening at the headman's house, with her folk craning through windows to watch her as she took the children into her lap and talked to her village folk, at ease with them. As Airlie's regent, Rowena must flatter her Airlie lords to keep their sure loyalty, but among her commoner folk, who had chosen to adore her since she first arrived in Airlie as Ralf's young girl-bride, she had no such purposes. And so she had smiled at them as they shyly told her their news of simple things, fish and grain, a fine foal to drop in the spring. She teased them until they dared to joke with her, and then ate a hearty meal and matched glass for glass of wine with the headman, and so paid with a solid headache the following morning. The village folk had gathered in the road as she left, waving after her, and Rowena had waved back. My Airlie, she had thought happily. My heart and spirit, all in you.
She breathed in the crisp cold air, remembering, and watched a few isolated snowflakes twist down from the sky. A gathering storm over the mountains had threatened snow all day, but the racing icetrails had never thickened as they rode gently along the river road. When the road crested to overlook the long descent into Airlie's southern meadowlands, Rowena saw a herd of winter fawn run leaping across the grass far below, long-legged and graceful. The blue twilight gleamed on their dappled hides. She reined her horse to a stop and watched them run.
"Good hunting, my lady?" her liegeman Stefan suggested, eagerness in his voice. Roger Carlisle, the young captain of her soldiers, turned around in his saddle, adding his own look of sudden interest. Stefan and Roger no doubt found this placid ride through forest and meadow a bit thin in adventures. Roger had that same lean look she liked so much in Stefan, and she felt fond of him, as she felt so often fond of the fine young men now entering her service, one by one.
She eyed both of them reprovingly. "Are you tired of riding guard on me, Roger?" she asked. "I think my soldiers are never bored in my service, whatever I ask of them. Don't you agree, Lord Heider?" She turned to her marcher lord, and saw his grin.
Lord Heider of Arlesby had joined them with a troop of his soldiers near midday a few miles beyond the village, wishing, he said, to guide her through his borderlands as courtesy. Stout and flaxen-haired, Heider had a wicked wit and eyes that saw farther than most. Rowena highly doubted Heider had ridden forth from his comfortable manor into this winter weather, breathless for the sight of herself, and, indeed, he had another purpose, as Heider usually did. During their ride through the afternoon, with grace and not enough to annoy, Heider had steadily probed her with questions about her nephew, Earl Melfallan Courtray, the new earl of Yarvannet. She had warned Melfallan that the more astute of the Allemanii lords were watching him, and Heider's overt interest confirmed her suspicions. When a young falcon rose into sight, the huntsmen below always took special note.
Heider bowed in his saddle. "Of course, my lady," he said smoothly. "How could they dare?"
Perhaps hearing a reproof in Heider's tone, Roger promptly saluted. "I never argue with my countess," he avowed.
"A prudent young man," Rowena said. "Stefan could learn from you." She looked at her liegeman, and earned herself only an impudent grin. She had become too indulgent, it seemed: these pleasant young men rarely feared her now, as was proper. She frowned warningly at Stefan, and only made his smile grow wider. Her lapse was confirmed by Heider's chuckle, but, sadly, one could not glare properly at Airlie's principal marcher lord.
"Winter fawn are good eating, my lady," Roger ventured, then put his hand on his breast, all innocence, when she looked at him. "I dread border rations and cold camps without a fire. Winter fawn have to be cooked, and cooking means a fire and that means warmth." He pretended a shiver and rubbed his arms briskly. Rowena glared, but Roger was undented, no doubt learning his manners from Stefan: they were close friends.
"Winter is settling in, countess," Stefan chimed in. "I could freeze my breeches off tonight. And there's this, too: if I froze my breeches, so might you, and your liegemen must always think of your comfort and safety." He bowed genially in his saddle. "Don't you agree, Lord Heider?"
One of the soldiers behind them chuckled, too audibly for prudence. Rowena turned in her saddle to glare at him, and got wide grins back from the lot. Yes, she had badly slipped in her rule. None of her folk feared her: this would not do.
"Good eating," Stefan said.
"Warmth," Roger added fervently.
"What an outrage!" Heider declared, now laughing outright. "Already your authority is slipping, my lady. Listen to them!"
"I will think of something suitably vile for punishment," Rowena promised. She glanced sidewise at Heider. "As I foully punish all my Airlie lords, usually for nothing important."
Heider grinned. "Oh, I've noticed that, my lady. That's why all your Airlie lords love you, and would have no other lady to govern them." He bowed in his saddle, as neatly as Stefan. "Winter fawn is good eating," Heider suggested.
Rowena turned back round in her saddle, and considered the leaping shapes racing across the meadow. "Hmm."
"It wouldn't take long," Stefan said with sudden hope flaring in his young face. He obviously hadn't expected her to consider it.
"Horses can't outrace winter fawn," Rowena countered.
"Neither can shire wolves, but they catch them." Stefan tapped his blond head. "Strategy, my lady. Sometimes winter fawn don't out-think a pack."
"And you can go whooping along with your pack, you and Roger racing your pretty mares at top speed as you love to do--whether you catch a fawn or not."
"Well--" Stefan grinned, abashed--how incredibly young they were! He glanced hopefully at Roger, and they traded an eager look before both young heads swiveled back to her. "But it's for your sake, countess," Stefan said fervently, pressing his hand to his heart. "For good eating and a fire." His eyes danced with laughter, and Rowena smiled fondly at him despite herself, and saw her Airlie in his handsome face.
She snorted. "All right, then. For my sake--but don't take too long. And don't take too many of my soldiers for your pack, Stefan."
"Yes, my lady," Stefan said eagerly. "Walter, toss me your lance. You--you, and you," he said, pointing randomly at three of their soldiers, "come with us. My Destin will leave you all in the dust of her heels, but you can try to keep up, vain as that hope is."
"So you say, Stefan," Roger retorted stoutly.
Stefan laughed, and he plunged off the road and raced down the grassy slope toward the distant herd, the others in instant pursuit.
"Do we ride much farther tonight, my lady?" Lord Heider asked her courteously.
She shrugged. "We probably should," she said. "I wish I had more villages along this stretch of river; I prefer sleeping in a bed, pampered by my lady-maids." She smiled at Tess, whose nose was pinched red with cold, bundled although she was to her eyebrows. Tess was not an outdoors person, never had been, and the new one, Natalie, was obviously even less: both her maids looked miserable, good training for Natalie but not entirely fair to Tess. "Do you believe that lie, Lord Heider?"
"I will believe anything you want me to, countess," he avowed.
"Of that I'm sure," she retorted wryly. Rowena stood in her stirrups to stretch her legs, then sniffed the cold wind blowing up the slope. In the distance on the road ahead, she saw the dark speck of an approaching horseman--but, no, there were two such specks. Somehow her marshal had acquired a companion, and she idly wondered why. She nodded to Heider absently and heeled her gelding forward.
Sir Godric had ridden ahead to find a suitable camping place alongside the river road, for they had no convenient town or manor for tonight. Fifteen miles farther, for tomorrow night's stay, lay Lord Effen's river town, where he guarded the major river ford in central Airlie. Tonight, however, she would sleep beneath the stars and sky, a cold snow camp, surely, but a change she always relished. As a girl in her father's Tyndale castle, Rowena had grown up restless and active, more interested in racing along the river shore and other boys' games than in proper activity for a noble girl. She loved hunting, choosing hound over hawk for its wilder ride through forest and dell. Under the tutelage of her father's castellan, she had learned good skill with the sword, and had been an able horsewoman since the age of eight Indeed, long after acquiring solemn dignity as awesome countess and ageless mother, she had once astonished Axel, then eight himself, by climbing the courtyard tree to a dizzying height. She smiled to herself at the memory, of which she still felt ridiculously proud, as silly as that was.
To her surprise, and even more so to Heider, Godric's companion was Heider's castellan, Sir Alan Thierry. Another excellent man, Sir Alan had served Count Ralf for years before taking up his post in Arlesby, and he had grown gray-haired in Airlie's service. Alan had been her close friend during the early years of Rowena's marriage, as fond of Rowena as she was of him. Of all her senior servants in that time, Alan alone had truly understood the gaps in Rowena's marriage to Ralf, and had offered his quiet understanding. How blessed I am, she thought suddenly, as she nodded to him with genuine pleasure.
"What brings you away from Arlesby, Alan?" Heider asked brusquely. "Is there trouble?"
"No, my lord," Alan assured him. "I had heard that a courier had arrived from Darhel with a message of some importance. I rode to see that you had received it."
"I did," Heider growled, his displeasure with Alan quite obvious, enough to make Rowena wonder why. She looked at him curiously, then back at Alan.
Alan smiled and bowed low in his saddle to Rowena. "Then it's my good excuse, my lady, to see you again."
"How are your wife and family, Sir Alan?" she asked.
Alan grinned broadly. "Six grandchildren now, my lady: they keep my good wife busy. Hmm. Seven, maybe." He squinted. "Yes, I'm sure it's seven."
"Ocean bless you, Alan, you should keep better track."
"I'll hazard you'll have the same problem, countess," Alan said comfortably, "when you're my age and have grandbabies to count. They do swarm so."
"I suppose they do." She grinned at him, then made a show of tsking, to be paid for her effort with another of those wide grins that had been greeting her all day. Alan wasn't afraid of her, either. She sighed.
"Will you be coming to Arlesby in the spring, my lady?" Alan asked. "My wife would love to see you again."
She shook her head, with some regret. "No, I'm afraid not. Melfallan's son will have his Blessing Day next month, and I won't task Sir Godric this year with two grand journeys." On the baby's Blessing Day, Melfallan would acknowledge his new son as his heir to his earldom, continuing that Courtray holding in Yarvannet. It would be a high occasion for the Courtrays, one to strain even Sir Godric's considerable talents at organization. Already a worried line had settled between her marshal's eyebrows, and he sometimes walked into doorjambs in his daze, or so she teased him. In truth, the tease was only half-false, and Godric's preoccupation would worsen as the event approached. She only hoped she could restrain his impulse to empty Carandon Castle for a sufficiently large party to match the occasion; they should leave behind at least a few soldiers for defense, should Duke Tejar use the lapse to invade her county. "In fact--"
"Shall we ride on?" Heider prompted impatiently. "I presume you found a campsite, Sir Godric?"
"Yes, Lord Heider," Godric replied and turned to point along the road. "Another mile or so, in a stand of trees." Rowena could see the shadow of the everpine grove ahead, barely visible in the growing darkness.
"Then shall we continue, my lady?" Heider asked. Rowena nodded, nudged her horse into motion, and they rode on.
"So you've definitely decided you'll go to Yarvannet?" Heider asked.
"Yes, Baby Audric is my grand-nephew, and my presence at his Blessing is important politically. I should take Axel, too, although I worry about the hazards on the road." She grimaced. "These are uncertain times, Heider, and I dislike lessening his protection. In Duke Tejar's mind, I'm too obviously Melfallan's ally, and a blow against me would be a telling blow against him." She scowled, likely showing more worry than she should. "And this duke remembers too well that his Kobus grandfather overthrew a Hamelin duke, and so sees plots where none lie."
"You think he'd strike at Axel?" Heider asked, affecting surprise. She gave him a sharp look: Heider was not obtuse about Tejar, and she wondered why he now pretended otherwise.
"Tejar would strike at anyone," she said, "if he thought it brought him advantage. A ten-year-old is a tempting victim when a full half-dozen claimants would clamor to be Airlie's count if Axel dies. Airlie in contention would be weakened, with opportunity for a duke to meddle to his gain." She shrugged. "Yarvannet isn't the only Allemanii land that hangs on the slender life of a child. At least Melfallan can have more children to protect his succession. A widow cannot, at least not without great scandal." She winked at him. "No, I must wait until Axel is safely married and producing heirs of his own. Then I will feel easy for my county, Lord Heider."
She clucked to her horse and eased him into a slow trot. The others heeled their own horses, and the troop, both Heider's and her own, fell in behind them with a jingling of reins and the quick scattered rhythm of horses' hooves.
The wind was cold, plucking with icy fingers at cloak edges and exposed skin. In the spring, when all was green and new, she liked riding about her lands, stopping at the manors of her Airlie lords to stay a week or two for feasting and hunting, for parties, and fine banquets, with each of her Airlie lords determined to do her the highest honor. In the beginning of her regency, a few of the older lords, Heider chief among them, had grumbled about being ruled by a woman. After eight years of good governance, her Airlie lords now accepted her as their countess, genuinely so, not with a false smile and mutters behind the hand, but with appreciation, a liking she returned. It was something she had earned in her own right, not given her by her father's rank or her accident of beauty, nor by fact of marriage or motherhood. It was something she had accomplished herself, and so she greatly enjoyed her lords' flattery, perhaps more than she should. As Melfallan had warned her, vanity was too easy a fault.
He always was perceptive, she thought fondly, even as a boy. She easily remembered Melfallan in his youth, quick, active, ready for any challenge, always the leader of the pack of boys who ran with him. Melfallan's inventive mind had lent vigor to his boy's pranks, to her frequent dismay when she discovered the risks he'd taken--breakneck horse races over the meadows, climbing on the roofs of Carandon's tallest tower, swinging from trees. She had not berated him for his madcap adventures during his boyhood summers in Airlie, when for a brief few months Melfallan was free of his grandfather's stern eye. Indeed, Melfallan thought she had never known of his escapades, an illusion she had not corrected.
Her father, Earl Audric, had been overcareful with Melfallan after plague had taken both of Rowena's brothers, all too conscious of the single frail life that ensured the Courtrays' future holding of Yarvannet's earldom. He had restrained Melfallan, lecturing him against unnecessary risk, weighing him down with too early an awareness of his duty as heir; checking impulsive fun that Audric disapproved. And so Melfallan had become solemn too early, and too prone to doubt himself when measured against Audric's high standards, standards that Audric himself did not always meet. It had complicated Melfallan's character, a useful gift for any High Lord enmeshed in Allemanii politics, but had made Melfallan too complaisant in Audric's choosing of his wife. Rowena had played her own role in that, one she now regretted.
Her father had chosen Saray of Mionn more for alliances than any thought of Melfallan's happiness--not that Earl Audric considered happiness a higher good than a deft move against the new duke he despised. In hindsight, Rowena now believed Melfallan's happiness had been more important than her father had realized, for happiness in his marriage would have encouraged Melfallan's personal gifts as a High Lord, lessened his doubts, given him purpose.
Most of the Allemanii High Lords quested for power and, once they had achieved it, often used their power to rule well, as had her father and Earl Giles of Mionn. Other lords, more rarely, drew their strength of rule from other sources--a sense of commitment, of duty accepted, of love for one's folk as sufficient in itself, for commoner and noble alike. Melfallan was one of those others. She suspected that Earl Audric had little understood his grandson, and so had never seen the inner boy and the man he would become.
Perhaps Brierley Mefell, the young midwife Melfallan had chosen to champion against Tejar's accusations of witchery, might change that now, although she did not wish Melfallan the risks. After a duke's man had accused Brierley of witchery, Melfallan had been forced to take her to Darhel for trial. Although Melfallan had only hoped that a trial could clear Brierley's name, if Melfallan could arrange certain High Lords as her judges rather than others, the duke had imagined another gambit in Melfallan's obedience to his summons, and so had ordered his justiciar to murder Brierley in secret. The young woman had defended herself, killing Gammel Hagan in turn, and then had fled into the mountains east of Darhel.
Two nights before, Melfallan had stood before the fireplace in her bedroom at the lodge, still cold from his long ride down from the mountains where he had left Brierley in the safety of a wayfarer cabin. The shifting light of the fire had illuminated the clean line of his jaw as he stared down into the flames. Perhaps he saw there a face, with large gray eyes, gentle curves to the cheeks, long hair curling to frame that face. Rowena, too, had loved a shari'a witch twenty years before, but had failed to save her. Perhaps now Mother Ocean offered a second chance. At times, their Allemanii goddess seemed indifferent to one heart's ardent hopes, choosing instead Her wider vision of all lives, all times. But not always: at other times, even solitary hopes might be answered, sometimes unexpectedly.
When Rowena had risen from her chair to join him at the fire, Melfallan had started slightly as she touched his sleeve. "Where did you go?" she asked him. "Have you fallen into fire-staring, to the loss of your wits?"
"Probably," he said, turning to smile at her.
"You need to practice not thinking about her," Rowena said, and saw his mild surprise. "Soon you'll be home with your wife and son, Melfallan. And Brierley is supposedly dead, not safe in hiding, and pining is not grief." She eyed him. "Stefan and Niall will watch over her. So shall I."
"You shouldn't go up there," he warned. "I know you want to meet her, but you are certainly watched."
"I wanted to meet her in Darnel, but she acted too quickly in escaping Tejar's dungeon."
"Aunt--"
Rowena waved her hand dismissingly. "I have sense. I won't try. But, I, too, have my wistful moments. I do wish I had met her before you hid her away."
"Someday you'll meet her," he promised. "Sir Niall says she resembles Jonalyn, 'enough to be noticed,' in his words. They might have been related."
"As the child is related? Megan--is that her name?"
Melfallan nodded. "Her niece, Brierley thinks. She talks about dream castles and Everlights as the reason she thinks so, but she's probably right. She told me she had waited years to find another shari'a like herself, aching years. I can't imagine that kind of loneliness, having only yourself and no others. She was convinced that if we High Lords ever discovered her, she'd be killed." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that we burn her, because she dared to exist. No matter what healing she had given to others, no matter what lack of blame for being born shari'a. Duke Rahorsum's law is a vile thing. Do you think any other shari'a survive?"
"If so, how do we find them? They have reason to hide."
"True. But I wonder where to look."
"There are none in Airlie, Melfallan. I have looked. Twenty years ago I made myself Jonalyn's champion for all to see, and I had hoped it might encourage one of the others to make themselves known to me. But in twenty years I've found not one other shari'a. We Allemanii have been very good at killing witches." She grimaced.
When the Allemanii had come to these shores three centuries before, they had lived in peace for a time with the native people, the shari'a. During the third Karlsson duke's rule, however, Duke Rahorsum had suddenly attacked Witch-mere, the shari'a capital, with a great army, and had murdered all he found there. The duke had then enacted the shari'a laws, proclaiming all shari'a witchery as foul and evil, and had condemned to death any surviving shari'a witch, should she be found anywhere in the Allemanii lands. Although no High Lord had found and burned a witch in nearly two centuries, those laws still existed.
Melfallan sighed. "Brierley says there are none in Yarvan-net, either. But surely Megan and Brierley aren't the last two--only two, Aunt. I won't believe she has that slender of a hope. How do you rebuild a craft with only yourself and a six-year-old child?"
"Is that what she intends? What craft?"
"I'm not sure she really knows. What is this Everlight she keeps talking about? She says Thora Jodann's spirit lives inside it and sends her dreams, as if a woman who lived three centuries ago somehow can take new life. How does an Everlight, whatever that is, send dreams?" He shook his head and laughed softly at himself. "I mean, what is the procedure? How is it done? And how can a ghost live inside it? How is that explained? I mean, aren't there supposed to be rules?"
"It depends on whose rules," Rowena replied with a smile.
"That really helps," he snorted. "Rules are rules, dear aunt: we don't have separate sets, please, one for us and one for them. Otherwise the world is chaos, right? But why are there four kinds of witches? And--"
"Four kinds?" Rowena asked, startled.
"We found a book--"
"A book?" Rowena said eagerly, pressing his arm hard with her fingers.
"I'm here for the night," Melfallan said irritably, "and you'll hear the whole tale, Aunt--if you'll let me tell it." Rowena tossed her chin, but gestured for him to continue. "She talked about dragon-spirits that the shari'a revered. In the library in Witchmere, there were mosaic panels of--" He stopped as Rowena opened her mouth with another question, then chuckled as she firmly shut it again. "Ocean, how to tell it in order? Theirs is an entirely different world, Aunt, hidden away, that might now flicker out of existence--and we never even knew it was there." He paused, gazing at the flames for several moments, then shook himself slightly. "I wonder if the Founders had that same puzzle when they met the shari'a after the Landing, and if any of those Allemanii ever really understood the shari'a before they tried to destroy them."
"As they nearly did, nephew, and Tejar might attempt again--not for fear of the witches, but of you. To change the shari'a laws, you must become duke. Don't shake your head, but listen to me. In that goal I support you, and I would have urged it even if you had not found Brierley. Tejar is an evil man in an evil house, and I don't say that merely because his grandfather overthrew a Hamelin duke. Our Allemanii politics are difficult enough without wise rule, and Tejar's sons will be no better than he."
"To become duke, I'd have to kill Tejar, and I haven't accepted that I must." He scowled down at her. "Or his sons."
"Tejar has no such difficulty about killing you, nephew. Accept at least that. Tejar scents the wind changing, as we all do. That's why he struck imprudently at Brierley--and at you. It is time for the coronet to change heads again: all the High Lords feel it, and most are looking to Yarvannet. You must accept that, too. It is expected, now that your contention with Tejar is out in the open."
Melfallan tightened his lips. "I appreciate your advice, Aunt--"
"--but you have a wider issue. I know. I am my father's daughter, dear one, enmeshed in my political plottings, my devious considerations of whom to manipulate, whom to kill, whom to let live. Believe me, I know exactly what I am. Your grandfather never saw an issue beyond politics: to him, that was the highest of all affairs. But I knew Jonalyn, as you now know Brierley, and I, too, wonder about your other shari'a world we've nearly extinguished. It seems it was a gentler world than ours, one of grace and lightness, of marvelous powers, where ghosts could walk in dreams, and a mere touch could heal. I wonder what other wonders they worked with their magicks, and what they thought about themselves, and how deeply we earned their hatred by our butchery at Witchmere. I, too, think of many things besides ambition."
Melfallan smiled. "I love you, Aunt, however bloody-minded you are."
"If I am such, you can be less of it. True?" She smiled back at him, then waggled a finger. "But not too much less, Melfallan. Savagery of thought will keep you alive. Ask Duke Tejar. Ask any of the other High Lords."
"I will do as I choose, savage or not. I don't accept murder of whole families."
"But you must consider its necessity. That is all I ask."
"I think Brierley would hate it," he said slowly, "that I would do such a thing to save her. She's a healer, and healers never accept death as a necessity."
"She lives in a different world, dearest, her shari'a world where all that matters is healing with a touch, and the gentleness of a quiet day, and the care of her child. You must live in your world, to protect hers."
"Perhaps," he said stubbornly. "Must you meddle in everything?" he asked and tried playfully to disengage her arm from his. She resisted, tugging at him until he staggered. "Meddler," he accused.
"Yes, I must meddle. It's a fact of your being, Melfallan. Live with it." She smiled, then disengaged her arm and seated herself in a chair, beckoning to him. Melfallan sat down at her feet and leaned back against her knees. Rowena caressed his hair, as she had done when he was a boy and he had sat at her knees in her chamber, comfortable like this. The wind sighed down the chimney, raising a shower of sparks. "Your face is still cold," she murmured, touching his cheeks. "My Airlie winters can be too harsh."
He rubbed his face against her hand. "I'm warmer now. Don't worry about me." And she had bent to kiss his hair.
Yes, perhaps in Brierley, Rowena now thought as she rode through the crisp winter air, Melfallan has now found his purpose as High Lord--and his happiness as well. His defense of the shari'a witches, for Brierley's sake, would turn Allemanii politics on its ear, and perhaps ultimately give the lands a new duke, a different kind of duke, one who ruled for more than power, as the Kobus dukes had always ruled. Perhaps. She knew she had not convinced Melfallan of the necessity--not yet.
They had entered the long wood, deeply shadowed. Many of the trees had dropped their leaves, but everpine and thorntrees grew thick beside the road, their needles gleaming in the Companion's blue light. Rowena heard the soft hooting of a mock owl in a nearby tree, then the howl of a shire wolf, miles away. Its fellows joined in its wavering cry, beginning a hunt of their own. A cool wind shivered the needles of the everpine, surrounding them with a sibilant murmur. Down the slope, the voice of the forest rose and fell, a sound similar to the surf that had dominated Rowena's girlhood in Yarvannet. She narrowed her eyes and listened, remembering the sea. Yes, perhaps she would stay in Yarvannet for a little more time than needed, if only to hear the sea again, murmuring in all of Mother Ocean's quiet voices.
The Companion now neared the crest of the distant coastal mountains, and its twilight had deepened into lavenders and deep blues. They might ride another two hours in the twilight, but Rowena felt the fatigue of the day's cold ride seep into her muscles, and the wind had seemed to grow colder. She welcomed Godric's choice of an earlier camp, this pleasant glade beside the road with overarching branches to keep away the snow.
As the soldiers unsaddled the horses, Rowena climbed a small rise beside the road and watched the twilight deepen over the grasslands. Far below, Stefan and his companions were dark specks racing over the grasses in pursuit of the herd of winter fawn. Rowena smiled as the prey easily eluded the pursuit, and eventually both fawn and riders disappeared over a low hill. She turned back to the camp and settled herself near the small fire, then accepted a cup of hot soup from Tess. Tess sat down beside her with a sigh and pulled the edge of the blanket over her head, then shivered for effect, knowing that Rowena would see it. Rowena patted her knee in sympathy.
"Cold," Tess said with a chatter of her teeth, then sipped at her own mug.
"Yes, it is. You've been very good today, Tess."
"Thank you, my lady."
"Does Natalie give you trouble?" Rowena asked.
"Not that I can't handle, my lady," Tess said confidently.
Rowena sighed. She mildly regretted taking Saray's lady-maid into her service, despite Melfallan's pleading. Already
she disliked the girl, and not only for the bit of byplay she had seen at a distance between Natalie and Brierley on the Darhel docks. Rowena knew Natalie's type well. First came careful deference to the high lady, until she was wheedled sufficiently into an indulgent good humor, then a bit of overreaching, taking a bit more than one deserved, then presumption, waxing ever greater as time passed, and perhaps, near the end, outright contempt, even if kept safely out of earshot of its target. Rowena had no doubt that Natalie had passed through all four stages with Saray, lending an edge of desperation to Melfallan's hinting, and so she had relented. After thirty years of dealing with lady-maids in her service, first as favored daughter to an earl, then as countess, Rowena was quite familiar with Natalie's tactics. She also knew what to do about them. For now, however, Tess could cope.
Rowena reached for an extra blanket and gave it to Tess, who accepted it gratefully.
"Cold," Tess repeated. "I far prefer our castle with its roaring fireplaces. Even a headman's cottage would be better. You have a hard service, countess."
"In a moment I'll be pitying you. That won't do." Tess laughed softly.
The soldiers cut branches from the nearby everpine and built rough mattresses on the ground, and three of her Airlie troop had sat down on their own beds to eat a trailside meal and drink from their water bottles. They noticed her watching and smiled, then might have got up from their comfort if she had not waved them off. Other soldiers, both Heider's and her own, were tall shadows in the nearby trees, keeping the watch, and two had stationed themselves at the edge of the forest to watch the meadows below. Eventually, Roger's sergeant appeared before her and saluted. "My lady, Lord Heider asked me to report that the watch is set."
"Thank you," she said with a nod. He marched off to his own station.
Rowena looked toward the road. "And where are my eager young men?" she asked, annoyed. "Hasn't it been enough time for their futile chasing?"
She got to her feet and walked over to the road's vantage again, then looked down into the meadows below, then along the river road behind then. The twilight filled the meadows with blue shadows. In the far distance, the dark shapes of winter fawn were leaping across the grasses as they raced up a broad hill, but she did not see any horsemen in pursuit.
"I should not have let them go," Rowena said as Sir Alan joined her. She tightened her lips with irritation. "Why do I indulge them?"
"There's likely some cause," Alan said soothingly. "A lame horse, a throw--or even a winter fawn caught. It would take time to gut the carcass."
"I suppose you're right." She bit her lip, then turned back to the fire. "Sometimes, my dear Alan, I find life annoying, and I worry like a silly old woman."
He smiled. "You, old? Not yet, my lady."
"It will come in time, I'm afraid," she said with a sigh, "and sooner for me than others. I envy Stefan and Roger their youth. I even resent it. Ah, to be twenty-four again! I can hardly remember how it felt. And that in itself shows me turning old." As she settled herself on her bed of soft bracken, Sir Alan stooped to spread a blanket across her shoulders. Tess had curled up under her own blanket, already asleep. Natalie was nowhere to be seen. Likely she had wandered away into the trees to flirt with one of the soldiers. Rowena frowned, then let it go.
Across the glade, Lord Heider emerged from the shadow of the far trees, sword in hand, and walked toward her, smiling. She smiled in response, then something about his stance, the edge to his smile, made her pause. Two other soldiers in Heider's livery appeared behind him, then three more, all with swords drawn. The soft metallic sound of Alan's sword being drawn brought Rowena quickly to her feet, and in that same instant Heider made his charge.
"Alarm!" she shouted as Alan lunged in front of her, his sword raised in her defense. "Alarm! To Airlie! To Airlie!" Heider slashed out at Alan, his face convulsed with rage, and steel rang in the glade as Alan's blade met it in midstroke. "Step aside, Alan!" Heider roared.
"Never!" The marcher lord struck again at Alan, shouting curses when the man would not yield way.
Alan's quick defense had won her time. Rowena ran to a nearby horse, where a sword scabbard hung on the saddle. She drew the sword with a shivering clang, and turned just as one of Heider's soldiers reached her at a dead run.
She hadn't time to set her feet, nor even raise her blade, and so she dodged his swinging blow. The blade whistled past her and sank deeply into the horse's haunch behind her, and it screamed in shock, then reared, striking out with its hooves at its attacker. Blood spurted from its flank, a mortal wound, and its hind leg collapsed beneath it, but not before strong teeth had ripped into the soldier's shoulder, dragging him upward as the horse tried to rear again, staggering as it screamed. Rowena thrust upward with her sword, striking for the heart, then skipped backward as both soldier and horse fell heavily to the cold ground.
"To Airlie!" she shouted. "To Airlie!" Rowena ran around the kicking horse and retreated toward the trees as two more of Heider's soldiers menaced her, trying to box her in as one circled to the left. She raised her blade and dropped into a sword-fighter crouch, watching ahead and behind. She heard a piercing woman's scream among the trees, then shouts and the angry metallic clash of swords, but all her Airlie soldiers were still too distant to give her aid. His teeth bared, one of Heider's men swung his sword, and she parried neatly, then met his next blow with ringing force, enough to force him backward. Off balance, his sword swinging wildly, the soldier staggered and Rowena put her sword into his throat. He gasped, his eyes bulging, and threw his hands to his throat to stop the blood that gushed from him. As he staggered and fell, Rowena whirled to meet the other man who swiftly pounced on her, and fought fiercely against the other's longer reach.
"You would murder your liege lady?" she demanded. The man's mouth twisted but he said nothing, and only strengthened his attack. This soldier was not as careless as the other, and nearly outpointed her in his furious assault. She prudently retreated, matching blow for blow.
Her own soldiers had almost reached her when Rowena's foot, hampered by her riding skirt, misstepped on a buried root and she stumbled, falling backward. Knowing her danger, she twisted as she tried to rise, and an instant later felt steel pierce her right shoulder, striking agony as it bit deep and through. With a cry of triumph, Heider's soldier ripped back his blade, tearing open the wound still wider, and raised the sword high over his head. Rowena flinched, seeing her death in that coming stroke.
"To Airlie!" an Airlie soldier cried, and the next moment he plunged his sword into the man's chest. He pushed Rowena roughly to the ground and straddled her, his blade raised against other men who rushed down on them. Another Airlie soldier joined him, then three others, making a ring around her. A moment later, she heard the hammering of horses' hooves on the toad, and Stefan burst into view at full gallop, the others at his mare's heels. There was a shout and suddenly the battle turned as Heider's men fled into the trees before Stefan's furious assault.
As their safety was rewon, Rowena pushed away her soldiers' hands and staggered to her feet, then moaned from the pain in her shoulder, nearly falling again at the sheeting of it, the slicing edge of it. She grabbed at her arm and staggered. No spurting of bright blood, she noted, with far more detachment than she expected. I've more than a few minutes to live. It seemed a distant question, hardly important. Odd.
And then Stefan was there beside her, lifting her up in his arms. As Stefan turned toward the fire, she saw Sir Alan, panting heavily, standing over Heider's body. "Rowena!" Alan cried as he saw her wound, shock in his face.
"She's taken a blade in her shoulder," Stefan shouted and carried her to the fire. Then Tess was there, bending over her, and then Sir Godric, her marshal, and the others crowding around her. Rowena's head swam and blackness picked at the edges of her mind.
"I'm all right," she insisted, and struggled to sit up.
"No, you're not," Stefan said and pushed her back again. "Will you not listen to me? Lie down!"
Rowena hesitated and then relaxed against him. Dear Stefan, sweet youth on the morning. But then Sir Alan had pushed Stefan aside, and ripped her sleeve from her gown and put a cloth to the wound. "It's deep," he muttered. "Can you move your fingers, my lady?"
"With some trouble," Rowena said faintly, and then closed her eyes against the agony that it caused when she tried. "Hurts," she whispered, and blinked furiously as the world shimmered with tears. The blade had passed cleanly through her shoulder, penetrating the seam of her sleeve: a lucky thrust combining the soldier's sword skill and Rowena's own stumble. I should have worn mail like Melfallan does, she thought dazedly. Wise Melfallan, wiser than me. Oh, Ocean, keep him safe! Keep my Axel safe! Blood now gushed from the cut, cascading down her arm and soaking through the cloth in Alan's hand.
"Hurts," she murmured again and her face twisted as Alan's fingers probed her wound in the inadequate firelight. She struggled against her own daze, to do what must be done, to protect--"How many are dead?" she asked faintly.
"Five of our soldiers," Sir Alan answered, "six of theirs, and your other lady-maid, countess. Apparently she and one of the soldiers were in the trees--" He shook his head impatiently. "The rest of the Arlesby men have fled."
"And Heider? He's dead?" She hardly recognized her own voice, so weak it sounded.
"Yes, and rightly so," Sir Alan growled. He pressed her hand urgently. "Countess, you must know about the message that came from Darnel yesterday. The courier would not put it in my hand, only in Lord Heider's. He seemed too lofty a man for a mere courier, and Heider was ill-tempered and silent after he left. Then, suddenly, this decision today to join you. I was worried, my lady." He bared his teeth. "Ocean bless me that I chose this time to act. I served the Hamelins before I served Arlesby--and I still serve you."
Rowena squeezed his fingers. "My thanks that you did, Alan. Dear friend, dear--" Rowena's voice failed her as the world began a slow turning, bringing down the blackness from the night sky.
"She's bleeding badly," Stefan exclaimed from a far distance. "How far to Effen's town?"
"A good fifteen miles," Alan's voice answered far above her. "A hard hour's ride, too rough for the wound, Stefan."
"Then we'll ride at less speed." Rowena felt Stefan's lips press against her forehead, and then felt herself being lifted gently in his arms. As he carried her to his horse, her head sagged weakly against his shoulder. The darkness of the night shimmered in black waves, pressing down on Rowena, merging with the pain. Her head spun, and her breath seemed harder to draw. She could no longer move her fingers in that hand, however she tried, and she felt the blood slowly pumping from her shoulder. To end like this--It wasn't right. It wasn't right, to die by a traitor's murdering, although she'd faced its possibility all her rule. Axel, my son-
Melfallan, guard my Airlie--Rowena yielded at last to the darkness.
Stefan lifted his countess onto his horse and swung into the saddle behind her; then, muttering an anguished curse, he heeled his horse forward into the night.
"Break camp!" he bellowed. "Leave the bodies where they lay! We ride!"
 
Copyright 2002 by Diana Marcellas

Continues...

Excerpted from The Sea Lark's Song by Marcellas, Diana Copyright © 2003 by Marcellas, Diana. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sea Lark's Song (Book Two of the Witch of Two Suns) 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A small, attractive room. It has four tapestries of mice hanging on the walls, large blue gingham curtains with a window that looks out into sea, and a wicker bed lined with moss and linen sheets. A bathroom is attached.
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Her ancestors the Sh¿ari were once highly welcomed in peace by the Allemani for their healing skills, but eventually fell out of grace and slaughtered by the same people they helped. Brierly Mefell has lived in a cave to remain safe in a world that would kill her if anyone learned she is the last of the Sh¿ari. Following her saving the wife of the Earl of Melfallen, whose position includes a vow to destroy the Sh¿ari witches, Brierly is exposed. Forced out of her cave, at the palace Brierly meets Megan, another descendent of the Sh¿ari. Now she has a goal to find the scattered remnants of her people. To accomplish her quest, Sh¿ari depends on her new benefactor the Earl to somehow end the witch-hunts. Though she saved his wife¿s life, she wonders if can she trust a noble whose job includes the killing of the Sh¿ari for she fears she could be leading those she finds into death. Though somewhat typical of the sub-genre, THE SEA LARK¿S SONG, the sequel to MOTHER OCEAN, DAUGHTER SEA, is an exciting female fantasy tale that grips the reader from start to finish because the heroine is an extraordinary individual who both genders will admire. The story line never slows down as the audience tastes the dilemma that frightens Brierly, but does not deter her from ending the genocide and restoring her people to the place of honor they once held. New readers will appreciate this novel that can stand alone, but would gain much more by first reading Diana Marcellas¿ debut book. Harriet Klausner