Summers at Castle Auburn

Summers at Castle Auburn

by Sharon Shinn
Summers at Castle Auburn

Summers at Castle Auburn

by Sharon Shinn

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A woman blessed, or cursed, with a talent for witchcraft returns to Castle Auburn where she spent her childhood in joy-only to find an aura of dread awaiting her.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780441009282
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2002
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.74(h) x 0.95(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sharon Shinn is a journalist who works for a trade magazine. Her first novel, The Shapechanger's Wife, was selected by  Locus as the best first fantasy novel of 1995. She has won the William C. Crawford Award for Outstanding New Fantasy Writer, and was twice nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has lived in the Midwest most of her life.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The summer I was fourteen, my uncle Jaxon took me with him on an expedition to hunt for aliora. I had only seen the fey, delicate creatures in captivity, and then only when I was visiting Castle Auburn. I was as excited about the trip to the Faelyn River as I had been about anything in my life.

    I had been surly at first when Greta insisted that I could not go alone with my uncle such a far distance from the castle. "People will say things," she pronounced in her hateful voice. "A young girl and an older man gone off together for three nights or more. It will cause talk."

    "He's my uncle," I pointed out, but Greta was not appeased. She did not like me, and I assumed her ambition was more to thwart my glorious adventure than to protect my reputation.

    However, when I learned who my traveling companions were to be, I stopped complaining and began dreaming. Bryan of Auburn was everything a young prince should be: handsome, fiery, reckless, and barely sixteen. Not destined to take the crown for another four years, he still had the charisma, panache, and arrogance of royalty, and not a girl within a hundred miles of the castle did not love him with all her heart. I did, even though I knew he was not for me: He was betrothed to my sister, Elisandra, whom he would wed the year he turned twenty.

    But I would be with him for three whole days, and say clever things, and laugh fetchingly. I expected this trip to be the grandest memory of my life.

    The others who were assigned to us Iaccepted with passable grace, though only one had come my way often. Kent Ouvrelet was Bryan's cousin, a thin, serious young man whom I had known since I first began visiting the castle eight years ago. Damien, a peasant's son, was Bryan's food taster, and never more than three feet from the prince. However, I could hardly say I knew him since he almost never spoke. The last member of our party was a young guardsman, tall, sandy-haired, lanky, and freckle-faced. He was new to the castle since my last summer there, and I did not even know his name until we set out.

    Which was the hour before dawn, a time both dark and wet. We all met at the stables behind the castle, myself, at least, skidding on the slick cobblestones that spread a hard carpet around the entire grand citadel. I had tied my heavy black hair back in a thick braid and dressed in boy's clothes (a more flattering look for my slim figure than some of my court gowns, and I hoped Bryan noticed).

    Jaxon laughed when he saw me. "Don't you look like the gatekeeper's urchin!" he exclaimed, not letting this prevent him from giving me his customary bone-cracking hug. "What was Greta about to let you out in public dressed like this?"

    "She wasn't awake when I left my room," I said breathlessly.

    "Well, your sister's maid, then. I can't imagine that she—Come to think of it," he added, breaking off to look about him in an ostentatious way, "where is that girl? Didn't Greta tell me she would be coming with us to chaperone you?"

    I gave him one long, guilty look as I tried to think of a response. There was no good answer: He laughed again, more heartily this time.

    "She's still sleeping, I'll wager," he said shrewdly. "Thinking that our little caravan's not leaving till noon or some such hour."

    "Nine," I said.

    "Well, that gives us plenty of time to travel beyond reach. Bryan! Kent!" he shouted out the stable doors, as if expecting his voice to carry to the turrets and corridors of the castle. "Where are those boys? I should have hauled them out of bed myself."

    Five minutes later, as Jaxon and a sleepy groom double-checked the saddle packs on the horses, we heard footsteps running over the wet stone. Bryan was in the lead, tossing back his dark red hair and calling to someone over his shoulder.

    "Told you I could outrace you, even in my boots," he crowed and burst into the stables. It was as if dawn had come early and forcefully, an explosion of light. I caught my breath and fell back against the wooden walls. Three whole days!

    Kent entered at a more leisurely pace, apparently having given up the challenge some distance back. "You win," he said in an even, indifferent voice, as he pushed his straight dark hair from his eyes. "I think poor Damien fell down somewhere back there."

    Bryan shook his head. "I'll never make a man out of him."

    "He doesn't have to be a man, he just has to be a stomach," Jaxon said, and then roared with laughter at his own joke. Bryan snorted, amused at this picture. Kent just looked around.

    "Are we ready? Where's Roderick?"

    "Who's Roderick?" I asked.

    "Guardsman. Just up from Veledore," Kent answered. He nodded over at Bryan. "My father won't let the young prince off the property without some protection, so Roderick's our sword."

    On the words, Bryan whipped out his own weapon, a wicked silver blade with a gorgeous filigree grip. "I'm sword enough for my own protection!" he cried, thrusting toward Kent and slashing his blade three times through the air. "If we're set upon by rogues or outlaws—"

    "Which I doubt, since there are no trade routes cutting up toward the Faelyn River," Jaxon said dryly.

    "I could defend myself," Bryan continued, a little more loudly. "I could defend all of us."

    "Well, and don't forget I've some skill with a sword myself," Jaxon said, still in that same cool voice, "not to mention young Kent here, who's even better than you are."

    "Who's—he is not!" Bryan exclaimed. He fell into a fighting stance just two yards before Kent. "On your guard, then, man! Let me prove once and for all—"

    "Lord, Bryan, just put away your sword and shut up," Kent said impatiently. I almost jumped a foot in the air. I had never heard anyone talk to Bryan that way—so dismissively, so cavalierly. Usually everyone hung on his words as though diamonds would spill from his mouth. At least, that's how the girls in the castle listened to him.

   Bryan didn't like the tone, either. He paused in his crouching dance forward and brought his sword up to his nose, bisecting his face. "Are you telling me you refuse my challenge?" he asked in an ominous voice. "Are you telling me you refuse to test my mettle against yours?"

    "I'm telling you we should get on the road before the sun comes up and stop wasting time fooling around here," Kent said. "You're a great swordsman. Everyone knows it. If we're attacked on the road, I'll personally let you defend me."

    "If we're attacked on the road—" Bryan began, but before he could finish, the last two members of our party hurried through the stable door. Poor Damien looked wet and bedraggled, as though he had fallen more than once. He held his head down and said nothing as he sidled in. Roderick glanced around once, quickly, as if to assess the situation in every detail.

    "Sorry I'm late," the guardsman said briefly. "The captain had some last-minute advice for me."

    "Well, are we all ready, then?" Jaxon demanded, touching each of us with his gaze. "All right! Mount up! Let's get out before the sun actually rises."

    Everyone moved with alacrity except Bryan, who somewhat sullenly sheathed his sword and glowered at Kent. Who completely ignored him. Managing to pass by the prince on my way to my own horse, I whispered, "I think you're the best swordsman in the eight provinces." That made him laugh, and he looked quite sunny as we finally headed out through the stable doors.

    The guardsmen at the gate saluted us, fists to forehead, and all the men except Bryan saluted back. I, too, raised a hand in the official gesture, wondering if the guards thought I was a boy as well. Probably not. Everybody knew everybody else's business at the castle, and the servants knew more than anybody. We had talked of this expedition for weeks, and even the lowliest scrub maid had heard that I would be on it. Before Greta was even out of her bed, someone would bring her the news that I had left the castle in the company of five men and no female companion. I hoped it ruined her day.

    We had not gone half a mile before I brought my horse alongside Jaxon's so I could talk to him as we rode. Despite the fact that I adored Bryan with all my heart, my uncle Jaxon was the most important man in my life. And I rarely saw him, for the summers that I spent at the castle were his busy time; he was seldom there. A landowner, a trader, a hunter—and, Greta would say, a reprobate—he was a man who never stayed still for long.

    "Thank you so much for inviting me on this trip, Uncle Jaxon," I said prettily, though I had thanked him a hundred times already. "I'm sure it will be the most exciting journey of my life."

    He looked down at me with a wide grin showing through the thick bush of his beard. He was a big man, burly even in satin court clothes; when dressed for hunting, as he was now, he seemed massive and untamed and dangerous. His black hair, now beginning to gray, was tousled and nearly shoulder length; his eyes were a bright black, and wild as a wild boar's.

    "Do you think so?" he said, and laughed again. "I doubt we'll so much as spot an aliora through the branches, let alone come close enough to catch one. But the ride should be pleasant and the weather's fine, and it won't hurt young Bryan to explore to the limits of his property. So, I don't mind the wasted trip."

    "Why won't we see any aliora?" I wanted to know. "Why won't we catch them?"

    "Because it takes stealth or guile, and a party of six doesn't possess either one," he said comfortably. "That's all well enough, though. I don't have time to be riding out to Faelyn Market with a few aliora in tow. Not this month. I'll go back later in the summer and see what I can catch. "

   He was the richest hunter in the eight provinces. He could live off his wealth acquired from this one harvest alone, but I had heard him say more than once that it was the thrill of the hunt, not the gold on the market block, that drove him again and again to Faelyn River.

    "How many aliora have you caught? You alone?" I asked him.

    "Exactly thirty. I've been doing this damn close to twenty years now, but I remember when a good year was catching three aliora all told, and a bad year was the third year in a row when I caught none. They're as smart as you or I, Corie, maybe smarter. That's what makes them so valuable."

    I glowed a little to hear him call me by my common name. At the castle, it was a rare pleasure for me to be so addressed. Greta always called me the more formal Coriel, and everyone else followed her lead. Except my sister, Elisandra. Like Jaxon, she had asked me early on how I wished to be addressed, and ever afterward, she had called me nothing else. It infuriated her mother, of course, but then, everything about me did. My existence troubled Greta. No help for that.

    "Their intelligence and their rarity and their beauty," I cited, for he had taught me that eight summers ago. He laughed again.

    "And their gentleness and their teachability," he added. "Yes, all these things have made the aliora greatly sought after—and me a wealthy man."

    "Greta is afraid you will die and leave all your money to me," I said. Just recently I had overheard this conversation and had been impatient to have a chance to repeat it to my uncle. "She says the money and property should go to Elisandra instead."

    He looked at me with those bright trickster's eyes. "Oh? And what do you think?" he asked.

    I smothered my giggles. "I think my grandmother would turn into smoke from astonishment if I inherited a penny of your money," I said. "She has the lowest opinion of you—and everybody in your family."

    Another sideways look. I couldn't tell what he was thinking. "I would like to see your grandmother turn to smoke, I must admit," he said. "Though, if I were already dead, it's unlikely I'd have the chance. But hold a moment! She's an old lady, ninety if she's a day. I—"

    "Sixty-five," I said.

    "I am a young man of fifty and will surely outlive her. So I will have to give you all my money while I'm still alive."

    I wrinkled my nose. "We don't have much use for money in the village," I said. "My grandmother usually barters her services when she needs anything in the shops."

    "Ah, but who's to say you'll always live in the village?" Jaxon asked. "Perhaps you'll marry a fine young man and move off to his estate. Perhaps you'll stay at the castle, wed to one of your sister's friends. Then you'd need plenty of gold."

    I opened my eyes very wide. "Once grandmother dies, I'll be needed in the village," I said. "There's not another wise woman for thirty miles. It's hard on her even when I'm gone for the summers."

    "Time to train a new apprentice, then," Jaxon said.

    "I'm her apprentice," I replied.

    He laughed softly at a new thought. "No wonder she dislikes me so much, then! She's afraid I'm taking you away. Well, but I'm not the only man who might do that. She has not realized just how pretty you are."

    I smiled at the compliment, and the talk turned to other things, but later I thought his words over and realized he was right. Eight summers ago, Jaxon Halsing had showed up at my grandmother's cottage and changed my life completely. He was my father's brother, he said, and my father was dead. He had come to honor a promise he had made at my father's deathbed, that I would be found and brought to my father's household, introduced to my scattered relatives and given some semblance of the birthright I was due.

    "She's a bastard," my grandmother had said flatly. "And the child of a bastard at that. I don't see her taking her place in some lord's fancy household."

    "I promised my brother," Jaxon had replied calmly. "She is his blood, after all. She deserves to be treated as such."

    My grandmother watched him with her narrowed witch eyes, familiar with all evil, all strong desires. "My daughter came upon him in the village tavern, fed him a potion, and seduced him against his will," she said. "He was not the first man she tricked this way. She cared nothing for him, nothing for her daughter. I have not seen her myself for five years. I do not think your brother deserves the scorn he will get for siring such a child."

    "My brother is dead," Jaxon said lightly enough, but he had loved his brother; that I learned later. "No scorn can be felt by him."

    "But to his legitimate daughter? Born to his lady wife?" my grandmother shot back at him. "What of their mortification and pain?"

    "His lady wife would improve upon the application of a little mortification," Jaxon said imperturbably. "And Elisandra—" He paused, and seemed to think it over. "I think she would like to have a sister."

    Even I had not believed that, credulous six-year-old that I was. But he had been right about that; Jaxon was right about many things. Following that first visit to the castle, where the royal family and their retainers lived, I had returned every summer. I could not exactly say I had been welcomed into this most sophisticated of societies, but everyone except Greta was at least civil to me. I looked forward to the visits, for I was infatuated with Bryan and I worshipped my sister and my days there were filled with pageantry and color. But I never forgot where I belonged. I never forgot that I was a bastard's bastard, a wise woman's apprentice, nobody special. Exciting though my days at the castle were, I knew that my own story would be a placid one.

We rode for three hours through the gentle green countryside that was so lush and so fertile that it made Auburn the richest of the eight provinces. Close to the castle were a number of small towns designed to cater to the gentry traveling toward the court, but farther out most of the land was privately owned. Acres and acres of abundant farmland would surround some majestic stone mansion, barely visible from the road. Such sights always amazed me. Cotteswold, where I lived most of the year, had few such noble estates. It was a poor country of hardworking farmers who would stare, as I did, at such wealth belonging to a few men.

    Eventually we left the main road that would have taken us to Faelyn Market if we followed it the next hundred miles straight north. Instead, we turned in a northwesterly direction along a badly kept track, and headed toward the forested lands on the borders of Auburn, Faelyn, and Tregonia.

    Bryan was the one who demanded a halt, which I knew Damien and I both appreciated. I was determined not to be the one to slow the party down, so I had not volunteered the information that I was thirsty and in need of some private moments behind a bush. But I was not in as sad a case as Damien, who was unused to traveling. Bryan himself rarely ventured beyond the castle for an overnight expedition; when he did, he traveled in luxury, and Damien rode along in the coach. The rest of us were more used to the saddle.

    "We'll have a few bites to eat, then, while we're stopped," Jaxon said, and passed around hard rolls fresh from the kitchens. Damien took a small bite from Bryan's bread at least ten minutes before Bryan would touch it; since he did not clutch his belly and fall to the ground, Bryan ate the rest of it.

    Jaxon watched this with interest. "At the formal meals—yes, I understand that any number of people could pour poison into your food," he said to the prince. "But here? We're in the middle of the wilderness! No one around for miles!"

    "Cooks in the kitchen have been traitors before this," Bryan said darkly. "And everyone in the castle knew we planned to set out today. Anyone could have snuck into the bakery to fold poison into my bread."

    Kent had flung his long thin body to the ground, and now he lounged on the fading summer grasses. "And you yourself have carried the food around in your saddlebag all day," he observed to Jaxon. "Plenty of opportunity there to do away with your future king."

    Bryan scowled at his cousin. "I didn't mean to say Jaxon—"

    "Oh, why not? I'm as likely as the next man to murder you," Jaxon said cheerfully. "I just didn't realize you suspected."

    Bryan's frown grew blacker. "It's not funny," he insisted. "Do you know how many kings and princes have been done away with by treachery? My own father had a taster every day of his life—"

    "And died when an edgy stallion threw him, so where's the moral there?" Jaxon asked. "He'd have done better to worry less about spies in the kitchen and more about how to hold on to his horse."

    Bryan was furious now. "He— My father was a wonderful rider!" he exclaimed. "My father could outrace you any day of the week! He could ride any horse in the stable! Yes, and the wild stallions they brought in from Tregonia, my father could tame those in a day—"

    Kent came to his feet, giving my uncle a level look. "Jaxon was only teasing you," Kent said, putting an arm briefly around his cousin's shoulders. Bryan shook him off. "Everyone knows what a gifted rider your father was. Also a great hunter. And a swordsman. The horse was lunatic. Everyone said so."

    "Yes, and the head groom shot it that very afternoon," Bryan said. "It deserved to die."

    I hadn't known this story. I felt sorry for the horse, but sorrier for Bryan, who still looked both angry and forlorn. I stepped closer to him, trying to think of some way to soothe him. "Are you much like your father, Bryan?" I asked. "You ride and hunt so well yourself. Do you resemble him? What was he like?"

    He turned to me eagerly, pushing back that deep red hair. "Yes, everyone says so, I look exactly as he did when he was my age. My fencing instructor also taught my father, and he says I hold my sword just the way my father did. He says I make the same mistakes, too—but they are not many!"

    Again, I caught that exchange of glances between Kent and my uncle, which annoyed me to no end. Did they have no conception of how hard it must be to be the young prince, trying to live up to the shadow of a dashing king, and watched on all sides for any sign of weakness or inability? I thought he should be encouraged, not baited. So as we mounted our horses again, I rode alongside Bryan for the next few hours, asking him questions and listening with unfeigned pleasure to his answers. I told myself that Elisandra would not mind; she had heard all his stories before, and she would want him to be happy on this ride. I knew that I had achieved the pinnacle of happiness myself.

    We took a longer break at noontime, though this rest passed without incident. By this time, we were within sight of the forest, the great dark cluster of woods that spread from the river in every direction.

    "Slower going once we're in the forest," Jaxon observed, bringing us all to a halt. "We'll ride as far as we can, though we might get knocked about by a few low branches. Eventually we'll have to walk."

    "How far in the forest before we reach the river?" Kent wanted to know.

    "The rest of the day, I imagine, and we might not reach it by nightfall," Jaxon said. "Best not to, in any case. You don't want to be camping by the Faelyn River more than one night. Not in these woods."

    "Why not?" Bryan demanded.

    Jaxon gave him a sidelong look. "Aliora," he said. "They'd steal you as soon as we would steal them."

    Bryan sat up straighter on his horse, laying his hand upon his sword hilt. "I'm not afraid of a few scrawny alliora," he said. "If one came to me in the middle of the night—"

    "She wouldn't try to win you away with brute force," Jaxon said mildly. "She'd whisper in your ear—crazy things, lovely things—she'd paint you a picture of Alora so beautiful you would weep to be taken there. How many times have I woken in the middle of the night to see my hunting companions leaping to their feet, their faces covered with tears, and watched them go running across the Faelyn River no matter how I called to stop them? Charm and seduction are the weapons the aliora use on men. Your sword doesn't stand a chance against them."

    We were all mesmerized by now. "Have you ever had an aliora whisper in your ear, Uncle Jaxon?" I asked.

    He laughed. "Often and often. But I know how to protect myself. And as for letting one of them touch me—ah, that's the fatal mistake to avoid, boys!—it's never happened. None of them has ever laid a hand upon my head."

    Bryan's eyes were huge. "What happens if they touch you?"

    Jaxon turned slowly to look at him. "You don't know? You came hunting aliora, and you don't know the dangers? If an aliora touches you with the least little tip of her finger, you will be enchanted. You will rise to her call, you will answer to the sound of her voice, you will follow her across the river though you drown, though you never return to your family and your loved ones. If she lays her hand across your cheek ..." He put his palm upon my face and, against my will, I leaned toward him, hypnotized. "If she feels the bone of your face with the flat of her hand, you will be dazzled—you will think of nothing else but her. She will put a fever in your blood that nothing can cure. You will splash across the river to Alora and never be heard from again."

    There was a profound silence when he finished speaking. I felt half-bewitched myself, and it was only Jaxon who had touched me. Kent was the first one to shake off the mood.

    "But we have aliora all over the castle, and we touch them all the time," he said practically. "There's no magic in their hands."

    Jaxon pulled away from me and turned to look at Kent. "Their magic is inhibited once the golden cuffs are placed around their wrists," he said. "They can't abide the touch of any metal, but gold most especially. That is why I warned all of you to wear gold talismans—to protect yourself against the touch of the aliora. Did you do as I told you? Will you be safe?"

    Damien and I instantly felt around our necks to pull out necklets and medallions of the finest gold. Kent extended his right hand, where he wore a fat signet ring bearing the Ouvrelet family's crest. Bryan wore a haughty look and displayed no such amulet.

    "I'm not afraid of the aliora," he said proudly. "I wore nothing."

    Jaxon quickly smothered an expression of irritation. "I brought a couple of extra wristbands, you can wear one of them."

    "No," Bryan said, shaking his head, "I need no protection against the lures of the aliora. I am the prince. I am not afraid."

    "Well, and you'll have very little to be afraid of, out here on the edge of the forest," Jaxon agreed. "Though at times the aliora do venture out this far, but rarely at this time of year—"

    Bryan's face darkened. "What do you mean? If you think—"

    "I think I'm head of this expedition, and responsible to your uncle for your well-being, and that if you don't wear a gold talisman into the forest, and keep it on, you're not riding in any party of mine."

    Bryan balled a hand into a fist. "And I say we ride on! You cannot tell me what to do! I am the prince, and I—"

    Jaxon turned his back on him to address Kent. "Your cousin is very wearying," he said. "Everybody mount up! We're heading back to the castle."

    Dead silence greeted this pronouncement, broken only by the jingle of Jaxon swinging back into his saddle. On horseback, he looked down at us. "Well? Mount up. Time to head home."

    I found my voice first. "Uncle Jaxon!" I cried. "No! You promised. You said you would take me to the river to see the aliora—"

    He kept one hand on his reins and spread the other in a gesture of futility. "And I'd like to, but not unless the prince is safeguarded. You and I will return some day, Corie. Just the two of us. Things will go more smoothly then."

    I turned to Bryan beseechingly, but Kent had moved faster. "Put on the damn bracelet and try not to ruin everything," he said in a rough voice, punching Bryan on the shoulder. "Jaxon's right, and you know it. My father would hang all five of us if something happened to you in the forest. If you won't do it for yourself, do it for Corie. There's some honor in being gracious for a lady."

    Bryan turned a smoldering look on his cousin, but Kent ignored him. "Give me the wristband," Kent demanded of Jaxon, and Jaxon handed it over. It was a thick cuff, hinged at the middle and closed with a key, looking like nothing so much as a shackle. This was not an ornamental piece of jewelry; this was a fetter that would be clamped to the wrist of any aliora we happened to catch in the wild. "Hold out your hand," Kent said.

    "I'm not wearing that," Bryan said through clenched teeth.

    "Then we go home," Jaxon said.

    "Put it on," Kent said, grabbing for Bryan's arm.

    Bryan slapped him away and danced backward. "I'm not wearing that—that slave's chain," he said more loudly. "I will wear gold, since Jaxon insists, but I will not dress like a prisoner."

    On the instant, I had stripped my own necklace from around my throat. It was a flat, heavy piece, a gift from Elisandra, and I rarely went without it. "Oh, Bryan, please, would you wear my necklet? I'll wear the wristband—I don't mind."

    Kent turned on me impatiently. "You shouldn't have to—"

    But Bryan interrupted. "I will be glad to," he said in a stiff voice, and made me a small, formal bow. "I will accept the loan of the lady's favor. I would not want to deprive her of the pleasures of our sojourn into the forest."

    I was instantly suffused with relief and exultation. Bryan to wear my necklace! And to return it, alive with the scent of his body! I had never been so happy to lend an object in my life. He even allowed me to fasten the chain about his neck, stooping a little so that I could close the clasp under the fall of his red hair. When he straightened, he bowed a second time, a little more fluidly.

    "My thanks, kind lady," he said, and gave me the smallest smile.

    I turned back to Kent, who fastened the band around my arm. The gold felt sleek and rich against my skin, though the hinge scraped unpleasantly against my wristbone. I twisted it to a more comfortable position and gave Kent a blinding smile. He shook his head and grinned slightly in response.

    Jaxon swung back to the ground, a most sardonic expression on his face. "Well, that's all nicely settled, then," he said. "Can we continue on with our journey?"

    And then a most unexpected voice spoke up, slightly apologetic but more than a little ironic. "Sorry, noble sirs and lady," Roderick said, "but I didn't come equipped with gold. It hasn't come my way that often," he added, and I could have sworn I saw a hint of laughter in his hazel eyes.

    I turned on him, reproof on my face and tears starting to overrun my eyes. "Oh, Roderick!" I cried, using his name for the first time. "How could you not tell us till now?"

    He shrugged. "The king will not care so much if I'm snatched by the aliora," he said. "I don't mind risking the ride into the forest unprotected."

    But Jaxon was rooting through his saddlebags again. "Nonsense, I came prepared to reap a bountiful harvest," he said, and pulled out a second shackle. He held it out to Roderick with a huge grin on his face. "Now you too can be a slave in the service of Coriel," he said. "I trust it doesn't offend your sensibilities."

    Roderick was grinning back as he snapped the fetter in a most businesslike way about his wrist. "I have none to offend, sir," he said. "Thank you kindly."

    Jaxon swept the whole group with one comprehensive look. "Any more surprises?" he demanded. We all shook our heads. "All right, then! Into the forest!"

    The track into the woods was much narrower than the road we had followed so far, though wide enough for two to ride abreast. Bryan, of course, waited for no one; he was the brave young prince, he wanted to show us all the way. Jaxon grinned and guided his horse in next. I found Kent beside me as I first rode into the green shadows of the wood.

    "So how are you enjoying yourself so far?" he asked, ducking a little to avoid a low-hanging branch.

    "Oh, it's wonderful! Better than I had even hoped! Three days with—" I stopped abruptly and shot him a sideways look.

    "Three days without hearing the dulcet tones of Lady Greta," he completed suavely. "Yes, I can see where that would improve your life somewhat."





Copyright © 2001 David Feintuch. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Part One Excursions1
Part Two Disillusionments109
Part Three Weddings219
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