Acair of Ceangail, still dodging his reputation as a notorious black mage, has undertaken the ultimate quest: ridding the world of a mysterious, terrible dark magic while using no magic of his own. But he never bargained for three maddening complications: attempting to safeguard his beautiful but horse-obsessed companion, Léirsinn; trying not to slay a profoundly irritating prince of Neroche; and slipping in and out of places he knows will spell his doom if he’s caught.
Léirsinn of Sàraichte simply wants to do what needs to be done—find the makers of various spells and rescue her grandfather. But walking side by side with Acair brings a terrible revelation about the magic she needs, and what its price will exact from her soul.
Together, Acair and Léirsinn face danger they never could have imagined, culminating in choices that will alter them and the history of the Nine Kingdoms forever.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Horses. Grain. Manure. Those were useful, reliable things a woman with any amount of good sense chose to fill her life with. Anything of a more untoward or unnerving nature was obviously something that same sort of woman should avoid like a pile of mouldy oats.
Léirsinn of Sàraichte stood in the shadows of a rather disreputable-looking pub, shivered, and made a valiant effort to focus on those things that had made up so much of her life so far. Horses were majestic creatures, grain kept them happy, and cleaning up after them was the price she'd paid for the joy of riding on their backs. It was a simple, predictable circle that had given purpose and meaning to her days. How she had strayed so far from such a pedestrian life, she couldn't say-
She sighed and stopped herself from even finishing that thought. She knew exactly how she'd come to be where she was and how barn work had led her to such a terrible place. It wasn't something she particularly wanted to think about, but she was trapped where she was for the moment and she needed something to help her pass the time. It seemed like the least dangerous of the things she could be doing, so she made herself more comfortable against the outside of the pub and allowed her thoughts to wander.
They wandered without much effort to the moment when her life had become something so thoroughly not what she'd been accustomed to. There she'd been, innocently going about her chores as usual, when a man had arrived at her uncle's barn looking for work. What she should have done was take away the pitchfork he quite obviously had never used and shown him the quickest way out of the barn.
Instead, she'd stared just a bit too long at his truly spectacular visage and apparently lost all her wits. Not only had she allowed him to remain in her uncle's stables attempting work he was singularly unqualified to do, she had listened to him long enough to be convinced that her uncle wanted her dead and her only hope was to flee. She had somehow lost her grip on good sense and traded the three things she knew best for other, less comfortable things such as mages, magic, and mythical beasts.
A breathless race across the whole of the Nine Kingdoms in the company of a madman and a shapechanging horse-two horses actually, but who was counting?-had left her standing where she was at present, trying not to gape at her surroundings like the country mouse she most definitely was and wishing she were safely tucked away in an obscure barn.
Where she was at present was Eòlas, the capital city of the country of Diarmailt. She hadn't dared ask anyone to verify her location, though she likely could have given that most of the inhabitants of the Nine Kingdoms were on the same cobblestone byway with her. Never in her life had she seen so many people gathered together in one place.
To make matters worse, most of those souls seemed determined to either elbow her out of their way or grope various parts of her person as they passed by her, no doubt in search of valuables.
She frowned at a particularly irritating lad who seemed determined to pester her, but she wasn't sure what the rules were for ridding oneself of that sort of vexation. She thought a hearty shove or perhaps even a fist to the lad's nose might be the easiest way to make her wishes known, but she was unfortunately under an injunction to do whatever was necessary not to draw attention to herself.
"A bit of ale," the young man said, looking at her meaningfully, "then perhaps a quiet moment or two in a-"
"Ditch?" suggested a deep voice from directly behind him. "Or perhaps you would care to select a less comfortable final resting place."
The lad turned, squeaked, then fled.
Léirsinn understood. She looked at the tall, cloaked figure now standing where her would-be companion had recently stood and supposed that if she'd had any sense, she would have bolted as well. The man facing her, while terribly elegant, gave the impression that a good brawl was something he indulged in each morning just after sunrise and just before helping himself to a hearty breakfast.
Fortunately for her, he was her traveling companion and deliverer of the occasional bit of maudlin sentiment. If he also happened to be the youngest bastard son of the worst black mage in recent memory, well, she wasn't going to complain. He was sitting on her side of the table instead of sitting across from her and spewing spells at her. She didn't think she could ask for anything more than that, though she did snort silently at how freely thoughts of magic galloped across what was left of her mind.
Spells. What absolute rot.
She turned away from indulging in those thoroughly useless thoughts and focused on the man standing in front of her. Acair of Ceangail shoved aside another gangly youth, then joined her in leaning against the pub wall, as far out of the press of humanity as possible.
"Any trouble?" he asked.
"Nothing noteworthy," she said, "though I'm probably not the right one to judge that." She glanced at him. "I've never seen so many people in one place in my life and 'tis only dawn."
He pushed his hood back from his face. "It is an easy place in which to lose oneself, true. In your case, though, I can see why nothing would aid you in escaping the attentions of every lad in the area."
She ignored the flattery, mostly because the memory of their thoroughly unpleasant journey to their current locale was still very fresh in her mind and he was responsible for it. "Did hiding your face help you in the past quarter hour?"
"Barely," he said, straightening his cloak. "I vow I was accosted by no fewer than half a dozen maids with mischief on their minds."
"Good thing you're accustomed to it," she observed.
"Isn't it, though?"
She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. She imagined he was very accustomed to the same and she further supposed he had rarely passed up an opportunity to indulge as many lassies in their desires as possible. Given that she had experienced his powers of persuasion firsthand, she knew those poor women weren't to blame for whatever straits they found themselves in.
She could scarce believe she had been just as overcome, but the man was hard to resist. He was also, as she had reminded herself just a moment or two ago, completely to blame for the terror-filled journey she'd made on the back of her favorite horse to places she'd never intended to go, where she had encountered people of various sorts she had never imagined existed-
"You're thinking pleasant thoughts about me," Acair murmured, leaning closer to her. "Planning on joining that list of my admirers?"
"I was actually wishing I had stabbed you with a pitchfork the first time I saw you," she managed.
He smiled, and she winced. She realized at that moment that it had been his smile to render her not only witless but unable to do him any serious bodily harm. The first time she'd clapped eyes on him, she should have clapped her hand over her own traitorous eyes and stumbled away to somewhere he wasn't.
"You aren't in earnest," he said with a small smile. "Do damage to this extremely fine form? I don't think you could."
"I'm not sure you want to test it after what you put me through last night," she said, trying to ignore the memories of that extremely bumpy ride on the back of a dragon who had seemed determined by his antics to wring shouts of laughter from the madman standing next to her. She dredged up the sternest look she could muster and attempted an abrupt return to the business at hand. "What now?" she asked. "Well, besides watching you step over the pile of lassies who have fallen at your feet, did you find anything unexpected?"
He propped his foot up underneath him and sighed. "Nothing out of the ordinary, which bodes well for success here. Unfortunately, that leaves us with nothing to do but continue to keep ourselves out of trouble whilst we wait for a certain finicky prince of Neroche to locate the sort of accommodations he might find to his liking, then we run away from them as quickly as possible and find something suitable."
"And then?" she asked. "I know you told me yesterday, but I spent so much time screaming last night that I believe the noise drove it from my mind."
He bumped her companionably with his shoulder. "You didn't scream the entire time."
"Nay, I fainted midway through the torment, which likely saved your ears."
He smiled. "I thought you were swooning for my benefit, so I'm not sure I'll accept anything else." He watched the shadowy press of humanity for a bit longer, then looked at her. "We'll find somewhere safe to leave our gear, then I need to nip in and out of the library and fetch that book I need."
She knew that, of course. She'd simply been hoping her ears had been failing her. Traveling to their current locale seemed like a great deal of fuss for not much at all. "You couldn't have found a copy of this book somewhere else?"
He opened his mouth, then shut it and shook his head. "Nay, though you've no idea how it pains me to say as much. The damned thing is of my own make, unfortunately, and whilst I usually make at least one copy of my notes to hide elsewhere, in this instance I was in a hurry and therefore less careful than I should have been." He shrugged. "I would prefer not to be here, but here we are."
She was tempted to ask him why he didn't just stash things under his bed, but for all she knew, he didn't have a bed, never mind a home to call his own. Perhaps he was forced to hide his priceless treasures in odd places just to keep them safe. Given that he seemed to endlessly travel the world, she wouldn't have been surprised.
The idea that she might travel the world in a similar fashion had honestly never occurred to her. In fact, if anyone had suggested the possibility of it to her even a pair of months before, she would have stabbed them with a pitchfork to give them relief from their stupidity. Getting herself even from her uncle's stables in Briàghde across the hill to Sàraichte, nothing more than a leisurely hour's walk, had seemed the very limit of what she could do. It had never crossed her mind that she might someday travel farther than that, never mind all the way across the Nine Kingdoms.
Yet there she was, hundreds of leagues from the only home she truly remembered, keeping company with a terrible black mage on holiday from his usual business of wreaking havoc, and looking forward to a nap in lodgings that had been sought for them by a prince of the royal house of Neroche. She had seen elves, mages, and horses worth a king's ransom. She had encountered kindness she hadn't deserved and refuge she hadn't dared hope for. It had been an adventure beyond her wildest imaginings and she knew it was far from over.