This first novel of an epic fantasy trilogy reintroduces readers to the beloved and bestselling world of Deverry, blending magic, politics, and adventure in an unforgettable setting.
The bards are the people's voiceand their sword.
All over the kingdom of Deverry, the common people are demanding reform of the corrupt law courts. In Aberwyn, the situation catches fire when Gwerbret Ladoic, second in authority only to the High King, allows a bard to starve to death rather than hear their grievances.
Guildwoman Alyssa, a student at the local scholars' collegium, and Lady Dovina, the gwerbret's own daughter, know that evidence exists to overthrow the so-called traditional legal system, if they can only get it into the right hands. The powerful lords will kill anyone who threatens their privileges.
To retrieve the proof, Alyssa must make a dangerous journey that will either change her life foreveror end it.
About the Author
Katharine Kerr lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, his caregiver, and a cat. Although she spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city, she became a confirmed Californian at age nine, when her family relocated there. She’s the author of the Deverry series of epic fantasies, the Nola O’Grady series of light-hearted contemporary fantasy, the “Runemaster” duo, and a few science fiction works, mostly notably SNARE. Her website is www.deverry.com
Read an Excerpt
Up in a high tower chamber, Alyssa vairc Sirra stood at a lectern and studied a massive book of ancient chronicles. A shaft of sunlight, pale from the encroaching fog, fell through the window onto the page. Now and then she looked away from the passage she was memorizing and glanced out at the view. She could see down to Aberwyn's fine new harbor and the Southern Sea beyond, dark blue water, just flecked with white caps in the last light of the day. Soon, she realized, it would be too dark to read.
"Lyss! Lyss!" Gasping for breath, Mavva flung herself into the chamber. "You've got to come. Now!"
Alyssa looked up from the book. Mavva's long dark hair had slipped from its clasp. It hung in tendrils around her face, normally so pale, now flushed and red.
"Why?" Alyssa said. "What's so wrong? And you shouldn't run up the stairs like that. No wonder you're all out of breath."
"You don't understand. He's dying. Cradoc the bard."
Alyssa slammed the chronicle-book shut.
"Let me just get my surcoat. I'll come with you!"
With their red students' surcoats flapping over their skirts and tunics, the two women hurried down the long spiral staircase. They ran out into the main courtyard of the United Scholars' Collegia in Aberwyn, where they were studying in residence. The news had spread as Mavva had passed by, it seemed, because some thirty other students, men and women both, were milling about on the grassy lawn near the front gates of the scholars' preserve. A pair of chaperones, older women dressed in black, fluttered at the mob's edge and called out cautions. A dark-haired lad with the pale orange surcoat of Wmm's Scribal Collegium over his breeches and shirt hurried to join them.
"Here's Alys!" Rhys, Mavva's betrothed, called out. "What shall we do, go up to the dun?"
"That's where I'm bound," Alyssa called back. "If we want to see him fairly treated, we'd best all go."
The pack followed her out of the gates into the streets of Aberwyn, dim with the early twilight of a damp spring day. Already the lamplighters were out working, one to steady a ladder while the other climbed up to light the wicks of the oil lanterns from his coil of smoking fuse. Shopkeepers stood yawning at their doors; townsfolk hurried home with baskets of food from the marketplace or trotted out on one last errand. Every now and then a fine coach and four clattered down the narrow streets and made the students jump back against the shopfronts.
As they panted up the last steep hill, other students and the merely curious joined them from taverns or public squares, calling out the news to those still behind them. No one could believe it, that Gwerbret Ladoic would go so far as this, to let a true bard starve himself to death before his gates.
"Every bard in Eldidd will be singing his shame in a fortnight," Mavva said.
"If it takes that long," Alyssa said. "The news will go out with the mail coaches, I'll wager."
The grand dun of the gwerbrets of Aberwyn stood on the highest hill in town, as befitted the dwelling of one of the most important noblemen in the land. A wall of worked tan stone set it off from the city, but its cluster of towers and brochs stood so tall that you could see them, pointing up like hands, over the wall. Some of the towers bore a conical roof, covered in slate tiles, in the new courtly style, and glass caught the setting sun in every window. A fortune, that dun had cost the Western Fox clan, and townsfolk grumbled that bribes from the gwerbret's law courts had paid for it all.
Just outside the main gates huddled a crowd of some hundred persons, but they kept a respectful distance from Cradoc, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground and slumped against the wall. Under his dirty gray breeches and a shirt as loose as a shroud, he was so ghastly thin, all bone and skull's grimace, his skeletal fingers clutched round his harp, that Alyssa wondered how he managed to hold his head upright. Kneeling beside him were his two young apprentices, both in tears, and the grim-faced journeyman who'd sworn to take his place when the end came.
"Not one sign of the gwerbret and his wretched heir," Rhys muttered. "May the gods curse them!"
"Hush!" Alyssa snapped. "You'll get yourself transported to the Desolation for saying things like that."
Behind them the crowd swelled steadily. It filled the street, spilled out into the long carriage drive round the dun walls, but everyone kept silent, barely breathing, it seemed. Alyssa felt them as a huge hand pressing at her back, driving her forward. She moved close enough to see Cradoc clearly-the pale gray hair, plastered to the all-too-prominent skull; the eyes, pools of unseeing shadow. One of the apprentices dipped a linen napkin into a jug of water, then held it to his master's lips. For some days now Cradoc had been too weak to drink from a cup. The bard's mouth stayed shut. With a wail, the prentice burst out keening and flung the napkin to the cobbles.
"He's gone!" the journeyman shouted. "Look you at Aberwyn's justice!"
The crowd roared. The keening began, high and musical, sobbing and wailing as everyone began to sway, back and forth, back and forth. Alyssa keened with them; she linked her arms with Mavva on one side and Rhys on the other as they rocked, bound by grief. Their leader was dead, their leader had fallen in a battle as real as any fought with swords and crossbows. In a time of change all over the far-flung kingdom of Deverry, the gwerbret of Aberwyn had held firm for the past and its outmoded ways, even while the most famous bard in the province of Eldidd starved himself at his door in protest.
Cutting over the keening and the sobs came the call of a silver horn. With the grinding of a winch and the grumble of timbers on stone the great gates swung slowly open. Through the widening view Alyssa caught sight of men in red and brown tartan trousers and vests over their loose shirts mounting horses. Cavalry sabers flashed as the horn sounded again. The men were sheathing the sabers and taking some other weapon out of their belts. Alyssa stood on tiptoe to see: horsewhips!
"Run!" Alyssa screamed. She let go of Mavva and Rhys's arms. "When the crowd breaks we'll be trampled!"
But although the crowd swirled as the prudent slipped away, it refused to break. When the cavalrymen edged their horses out, they carried not sabers but horsewhips-after all, it was their own fellow citizens they were facing, there in the darkening streets. For a moment utter silence and utter stalemate held. The troop leader, the gwerbret's younger son, Lord Gwarl, urged his bay horse forward.
"Disperse!" he called out. "In the name of Aberwyn I command you! Clear this street immediately!"
The keening continued. The crowd swayed but never moved to leave.
"Rabble, all of you!" Gwarl stood high in his stirrups and yelled. "Scum! Disperse!"
A rock sailed through the air and smacked Lord Gwarl's horse in the chest. With a whinny it reared, nearly unseating its rider. The crowd laughed and howled. Gwarl settled his horse down and began screaming at the top of his lungs, but his words died in the screech from the mob, laughter and rage all mingled into one hideous noise. Another rock, another-the troop swung horsewhips up and charged full toward the crowd.
Alyssa heard herself shriek with the others. She tried to run, found herself caught in a press of bodies, looked round frantically but saw no sign of Mavva and Rhys. Apparently they'd taken her good advice even if she'd been too stupid to follow it herself. All round her people were screaming, staggering, flailing out at one another as they tried to get free enough to run. Horses neighed and reared; the cavalrymen were swearing and yelling as the whips snapped and swung. As people scrambled to get away from the whips, the crowd turned porous. The horsemen pressed forward into the gaps. Horses kicked and bit. People screamed and bled. Moving back toward town became impossible.
Alyssa worked her way between two burly young men, then darted forward toward the wall just as a whip cracked the air beside her ear. Her mouth framed a soundless scream as she looked up into the sweaty face of a young cavalryman, leaning from his saddle. He was weeping, cursing a steady stream as duty drove him past her into the helpless crowd. The men behind her saw that she was heading for the clear space at the wall so that she could run round the dun and find safety that way. Yelling to one another they surged forward behind her just as another horseman swung his mount round to their direction. Alyssa nearly fell, steadied herself barely in time, kept moving, half-running, half-carried forward as the men behind her pressed forward toward the wall.
The screams turned horrible as agony and terror lashed the crowd. Cries and shouts told Alyssa that people were falling, being trampled. She bent her will to staying upright, staying on her feet. Someone slammed into her from the side as he tried to evade the oncoming horseman. Someone else screamed, slipped, clutched at her arm. She shook him off before he could take her down with him, then staggered forward only to stumble over something hard-she never did see what it was-and nearly fall. Strong hands grabbed her arm from behind and swung her around, hauled her back onto her feet. She found herself staring up at the dead-pale face of a young man. Nothing else about him registered, but that he was as frightened as she was.
"Hold on!" he yelled at her. "We'll get out of this better as two."
She linked her arm with his and pushed forward again. Buoyed up by his strength she could keep walking, keep her head up, too, and see where they were going. From the screams behind her she knew that she didn't want to turn and see where she had been. At last they gained the wall, could sidle along it, could ease themselves in position for one last burst of speed and rush forward. They gained an alley at the beginning of the town proper and trotted down it, turned out into the Street of the Silversmiths and into a pool of lamplight.
"Thank every god they hang those street lamps so high," her rescuer said. "If one of them fell into the thatch . . ."
Alyssa felt suddenly sick and oddly cold. He caught her elbow and steadied her. For a few minutes they stood listening to the sounds-the screaming, the weeping, the neighing of frightened horses, and over it all the cracking of the whips and the cursing of troopers.
"This night will light a fire of a different kind," Alyssa said at last. "His Grace will feel its heat soon enough."
"Oho! So you're one of the rabble-rousers, are you?"
"Is that how you see us? Rabble?" She pulled her arm free. "My thanks for your aid, but I've naught more to say to you."
Alyssa turned on her heel and stalked off.
"Wait!" He was calling out, trotting after her. "I meant no insult, fair maid. Just a jest of sorts. Here, look, if anyone's rabble, it's me."
Alyssa stopped in the next pool of lamplight. She could still hear the screaming and the horses, but faintly now, as if the noise had both lessened and moved far away. Was the troop following the mob down to the collegium? If so, she'd best wait to go back, but here she was, a woman alone on a darkening street. And what of Rhys and Mavva? Were they safe? Her rescuer hurried up and made her a bow.
"Forgive me?" he said. "I'm afeared I know naught of your town's politics. I'm from Lughcarn."
For the first time she looked at him with some attention. A tall man, broad in the shoulders and well-built, he had a tousled mane of sandy-brown hair and, as far as she could tell in the flickering light, his eyes were blue. He wore ordinary clothes, a pair of breeches and tall boots, a linen shirt with flowing sleeves and over it a leather waistcoat. At his belt he carried an elven finesword at one side and at the other, a knife with a silver handle. A silver dagger. She recognized the three little spheres on the dagger's pommel. No wonder he'd called himself rabble.
"So, you guard the coach roads, do you?" she said.
"I do, and I've ridden a few barges, too."
When he flashed her a smile, she realized that he was a handsome man in a rough sort of way.
"Cavan of Lughcarn's my name." He made her a bow. "At your service, my lady. May I escort you to the safety of your home?"
Alyssa hesitated, but he at least seemed gallant enough. Who knew what sort of man might be lurking in the riot-torn streets?
"My thanks to you, good sir. My name's Alyssa vairc Sirra, and I'd be grateful for your company. I'm in residence at the collegium. At Lady Rhodda's Hall."
"Ah! One of our new lady scholars, then. And as beautiful as learning itself, from what I can see in this wretched lamplight, anyway."
"You, sir, have a tongue as silver as your dagger, but I'm not the sort to be cut to the heart. Shall we go, then, before the gwerbret's riders come back?"
Together they hurried downhill through the twisting streets of the city. Townsfolk stood, watching the streets, in the doorways of shops and houses, at the gates of an inn here, a tavern there. Some held lanterns, which they raised high to peer at Alyssa and her escort. They called out hopeful names but shrank back disappointed as Alyssa and Cavan passed them by.
"A fair many people came up to the gates," Cavan remarked. "I was having a pint in a tavern when I heard the excitement brewing, so I drifted up to take a look. Too much excitement, but meeting you, I had a silver dagger's luck."
"Let's hope it's not evil luck. Silver daggers have been thrown out of Aberwyn for far less than consorting with rabble."
"Oh, now, here! Don't keep holding that against me! I'm a stranger, and I knew not what I was saying."
"Well, true spoken. You're forgiven."
In the next pool of lamplight, he grinned at her, and despite herself, she returned the smile.