With the Mad King of Emmer in the north and the vicious King of Pohorir in the east, Kehara Raehema knows her country is in a vulnerable position. She never expected to give up everything she loves to save her people, but when the Mad King’s fury leaves her land in danger, she has no choice but to try any stratagem that might buy time for her people to prepare for war—no matter the personal cost.
Hundreds of miles away, the pitiless Wolf Duke of Pohorir, Innisth Eanete, dreams of breaking his people and his province free of the king he despises. But he has no way to make that happen—until chance unexpectedly leaves Kehara on his doorstep and at his mercy.
Yet in a land where immanent spirits inhabit the earth, political disaster is not the greatest peril one can face. Now, as the year rushes toward the dangerous midwinter, Kehera and Innisth find themselves unwilling allies, and their joined strength is all that stands between the peoples of the Four Kingdoms and utter catastrophe.
|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||4 MB|
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Winter of Ice and Iron
When he was fourteen, Innisth terè Maèr Eänetaì tried for the first time to kill his father. He did not succeed. He found out instead something that he should have realized beforehand: that the Immanent Power of Eäneté protected the Duke of Eäneté from any ordinary attack.
No Immanent Power was concerned with action or achievement or triumph, not when it was young and new and first stretched itself out in the earth and stone and forests and creatures of its land. Such matters were human concerns. But Immanents took something of the character of those to whom they were tied. Ambition and domination and triumph had been the driving concern even for the first of the Maèr line. So Innisth should have realized that the Immanent Power would move to shield his father from any attack. Even an unexpected attack. Even an attack by the heir.
He also learned that it is a great deal easier and less painful to discover such things through logic than it is to learn them through trial and error. Both lessons proved useful, in time.
Innisth survived his father’s punishment and the subsequent years of his youth. When he was twenty, he tried again to murder his father. This time he succeeded. This time he thought out his plan with cold deliberation, and when the opportunity presented itself, on the twenty-eighth day of the Month of Wolves, he seized his chance.
Wolf Month was the starving month, the bitter month, the month when winter stores grew lean and the new growth had not yet come, the month when the long haunting cries of the wolves drifted almost nightly from the high mountains. It was a hard month. The cold lingered. But one could look forward from the Month of Wolves to the approaching spring. It was a good month for sharp change, for renewal, for the rekindling of life out of grim silence. Perhaps that, too, drove Innisth to make and seize his chance.
This time, he knew that the Eänetén Immanent would block any attempt to stab or bludgeon or poison its master. But there was nothing it could do to preserve a man flung down a sheer thousand-foot cliff.
The Immanent Power of Eäneté came down upon Innisth after his father’s death. By that time it was immensely strong, for the dukes of Eäneté had always, despite their cruelty, been intelligent enough to steward their province with an eye toward the prosperity of both land and people. It was not a Great Power such as ruled and bound lesser Immanences into a unified nation. It was not quite that. But it had learned ambition and pride—not in any mortal or human way, but in the way the soul of the land could learn such things from those most closely bound to it. Now only stark will could rule it.
Generally, a duke’s heir mastered his Power while surrounded by supporters and allies, men and women bound to allied lesser Immanences, who knew best how to help a new heir survive the often brutal transference of the deep tie. Innisth Eänetaì mastered the Immanent of Eäneté alone, in the cold heights, lying in the trampled snow at the top of the ice-edged granite cliff. It was a cruel and ferocious Immanent, long shaped by the sharp-edged mountains and the high cutting winds of Eäneté and by the savagery of a long, long line of Eänetén dukes, none of whom had taught it much of gentleness.
But Innisth was his father’s true son. He encompassed the Eänetén Power, and mastered it, and bound it, and he did not freeze to death there in the heights because Eänetaìsarè would not allow its master to die such a death.
By the time he got to his feet and brushed the snow off his face and out of his hair, it was nearly dusk. Innisth did not look toward the cliff edge where his father had fallen. He found his horse and his father’s horse not far away, in the shelter of the firs in the lee of the mountain’s high ridge. Though he was stiff with cold, he mounted and rode down the long steep way to the gate at the mouth of the pass.
The men stationed there knew immediately what had happened. At least, they knew the important part of what had happened. They knew because Innisth Eänetaì came out of the pass alone, leading his father’s horse by its reins. And they knew because of the look on Innisth’s face, or by some subtle difference in his manner, or perhaps because they could feel the dense, invisible presence of the Eänetén Power spreading out above and around him. They knelt there in the snow and made their vows.
Innisth did not accept an escort back to the house that was now his: the massive house that loomed, gray and thick-walled and forbidding, dominating the town below. He told the men where to look for his father’s body. They took his orders with white-faced impassivity. He left his father’s horse with them and rode his own black mare down from the gate of the pass toward that great grim house. He did not look back.
There were more men-at-arms at the courtyard gate, of course. They were not so quick to understand, until Innisth said, “I am now Eäneté.” Then he said, “Send for my seneschal, and for your captain, and bid all the household staff assemble here in the courtyard.”
It was cold, with the frigid stillness that sometimes lay across the mountains during the winter dusk. But the courtyard was the only place large enough for all the staff to assemble. And there were other advantages to the courtyard besides its sheer size. Even at night. “Light all the lanterns, and light torches,” Innisth commanded the men-at-arms. They ran to obey.
If one included all the men-at-arms, the household staff comprised well over a hundred men and women. There were the stablemen and grooms, the huntsmen and kennel girls, the kitchen staff and scullery maids, the old women who stayed in the attics of the servants’ quarters and spun wool and wove cloth, and the seamstresses who made the cloth into finished clothing. In the back of the assembly hovered the girls who endlessly polished the wooden floors and the brass doorknobs and the boys who clambered dangerously about on the outside walls to wash the house’s many fine glass windows. To one side stood the house physickers and the grim old librarian with his assistant scribe. To the other side stood the men-at-arms, drawn up in their neat ranks, with their captain at their head. Before them all, with the torchlight casting his heavy features into unreadable shadow, stood Innisth’s father’s seneschal and his father’s personal servants—including the special servants, with their rusty-black clothing that did not show blood.
They all knew the old duke was dead. Innisth did not have to tell them so. Word must have run through the house, even in the few moments they had required to assemble, but he believed they would have known anyway. He thought the empty space where his father should have stood echoed with the old duke’s absence. To him it seemed that absence echoed through the entire house, louder than a shout. The assembled staff were utterly silent. They did not know yet how the shift of power from the old duke to the younger would affect them.
Innisth looked along the silent lines of the gathered staff. He said flatly, “Captain Tregeris,” and beckoned with the crook of one finger.
The captain of the men-at-arms stepped out, approached Innisth, and saluted. He was not a young man, but not old; his shoulders were broad and his mouth narrow and he thought much of himself and little of others—except for Innisth’s father, whom he had always feared and admired and sought to emulate. His eyes ran up and down Innisth’s frame, curious and scornful, for he had, following the old duke’s lead in this as in all else, never much regarded his son.
Innisth took one step forward, flicking his smallest knife out of his sleeve and into his hand. He stabbed the captain in the stomach and then stepped back while the man’s mouth fell open and he sank down, quivering, his hands clutching at the hilt of the knife. The knife was small, but it was a vicious quilled blade, and when the captain steeled himself and jerked it out, a great dark gush of blood followed, and his breath followed it in a voiceless moan, and he died.
It had all been very quick, though at the same time the moment seemed to Innisth to stretch out and out, until he was half surprised that, when he looked up again, the whole assembly was still frozen in shocked quiet.
Innisth said, “Sergeant Etar.”
There was a pause. Then the man he had named stepped out of the ranks and came forward to face him. Etar was nearly of an age with the dead man, perhaps twenty years Innisth’s senior. In other ways he was not much like his former captain, for he was a plain man who did not seek to come near power. That was why he was still merely a sergeant, despite his age and competence. He met Innisth’s eyes now, expressionless save for the tightness of his mouth.
Innisth said, “Captain Etar. The men-at-arms are yours. Over the coming days, you may set them in what order you think best. Dismiss men you do not think suited to your command; recruit other men as you see fit. I will expect you to inform me of what you do, but I do not expect I shall countermand your decisions. Is that clear?”
Small muscles around Etar’s mouth twitched; that was the only sign of surprise. He gave a measured nod. “Your Grace.”
Innisth sent him back to his men with a small gesture and said, not raising his voice, “Now, where is Gimil Sohoras? Where is my father’s seneschal?” His voice, though not loud, fell into the echoing silence of the courtyard as clearly as a shout.
His father’s seneschal was, of course, right there at the front of the assembly. He was a big man with heavy bones and heavy hands and a heavy voice. He glowered at Innisth and started to speak. Innisth lifted an eyebrow, and the man closed his mouth without a word.
“Gimil Sohoras,” said Innisth, in that same quiet, carrying tone. “Though I appreciate your years of service to my father, I find I have no need of your service myself. You may have until dawn to gather all your possessions and leave Eäneté. You are not to count the girl Ranè among your possessions, however. She will remain here. Nor are you to damage her before you depart.” There was a murmur from the gathering. Innisth pretended not to notice the young woman he had named, who turned and embraced an older woman. The woman eased Ranè away out of sight through the crowd. Innisth pretended not to notice that, either.
The big man stared at Innisth, plainly stunned. “But—”
“Or, of course, you may refuse to go,” said Innisth. “That is certainly an option, if you prefer.” He glanced thoughtfully down at the dead man who had been his father’s captain and then once more regarded his father’s seneschal.
The man closed his mouth.
“Dawn,” Innisth reminded him. “Captain Etar will provide you with the assistance of two of his men. You would not wish to risk mistaking the hour as the sunrise approaches.”
“No,” said the man, his voice husky with suppressed rage. “No.” He backed away awkwardly, nearly bumping into one of the men-at-arms Etar had sent to oversee his departure. He wheeled on the man, but then shot a wary glance at Innisth and smothered his anger.
“Gereth Murrel,” said Innisth, naming a man who had been a factor and steward in the great house all Innisth’s life. When the man made his way forward, Innisth met his eyes and smiled for the first time in all this long day.
Returning his smile, Gereth came forward to take the new duke’s hand and kneel at his feet. “Innisth,” he said, but very quietly. Then he said more loudly, “Your Grace. Command me.”
Gereth was not young, being already in his fifties, but he was the man to whom everyone turned when they were in need. Quiet and methodical, Gereth was seldom noticed: a manner he had learned bitterly in this house and taught, as well as he could, to Innisth, when he had still been young enough to sometimes escape his father’s notice. Innisth was confident that Gereth Murrel knew everything about running the house. And he knew the older man was kind.
Resting a hand briefly on the older man’s shoulder, Innisth told him, “You are my seneschal,” and another murmur, louder than the rest, whispered through the assembly.
Gereth said clearly, “Yes, Your Grace.” His eyes searched his new duke’s face. “Mastering Eänetaìsarè cannot have been easy. No one will challenge your right or your tie. There’s no need for you to reorder the entire province tonight.”
Innisth gave him another thin smile. “I have one or two more tasks before I rest. But you may certainly assign factors and stewards as you please. You will need an adequate staff, and I do not suppose you will find many of my father’s factors suitable.” He turned his hand palm-up: permission to rise.
Then he turned to his father’s . . . special servants. He looked them over, one and then the next and then the third, and then raised his hand to signal to Captain Etar and said briefly, “Hang them all.”
“But—!” protested one of the men, taking an involuntary step backward before stopping himself. Men-at-arms were already moving swiftly to seize them; Etar had plainly anticipated this order or one like it, and there would be no escape. The man flung himself to his knees instead, pleading. “But, Your Grace! We served your father well—we would gladly serve you—we only obeyed your father’s commands, Your Grace—we had no personal animosity—I’m sure none of us ever wished—”
Innisth cut the man off with a lift of his hand. He said softly, “Yet I seem to remember a quite personal relationship between us. I advise you, do not protest overmuch. There are far more unpleasant fates than mere hanging. As you of all men are certainly aware.”
The man closed his mouth.
“Be quick,” Innisth said to his new captain, careful that his tone was merely impatient and held no trace of unease—though to himself he acknowledged that he would not truly be able to believe himself secure until these three servants, among all others, were dead. On that thought, he added to Etar, “And assemble a punishment detail. I do not care what failings the men have shown, but there should be at least half a dozen of them. I will see them, and you, downstairs. In half an hour.”
There was the slightest stiffening of Etar’s expression. But the captain only asked, “Tonight, Your Grace?” But he added immediately, “Of course it will be as Your Grace commands. Six men in half an hour.”
Innisth had actually forgotten the time. If he had thought, he might have ordered Etar to bring his men downstairs in the morning, but he did not wish to seem indecisive, so he only gave a curt nod and turned to watch as the third of his father’s torturers joined the other two in strangling death. It was not the death the man deserved, but it would do. It would do. He glanced across the courtyard toward the assembled staff. They were very quiet now. If anything, the silence had deepened. He met Gereth Murrel’s wide gaze and said to him in a low voice, “I will speak to you further on matters of law and custom. Both will change now. You may advise me. Tomorrow. Late tomorrow.”
Gereth bowed acknowledgment. “Your Grace.”
“You are dismissed. You are all dismissed,” added Innisth to the gathering, raising his voice. “Save for male servants of my household between the ages of twenty and thirty. The rest of you may all go.” He paused, and then added flatly, “Go.”
There was a general movement, not precisely a retreat, but nearly everyone was clearly glad to be permitted to escape without being singled out in any way. A few of the staff lingered, however, braver or more curious than the rest, or perhaps having friends among the young men whom Innisth had commanded to stay. Innisth pretended not to notice this minor disobedience. He said to the young men—there were fourteen of them, from a young groom to a senior huntsman—“I require a personal body servant. If any of you are not content with your current position, you may inform my seneschal of your interest. Your duties as my personal servant would be light, but various.”
Only the stupidest of men could fail to understand, and even those would assuredly be enlightened by their fellows. Even now, a few of the sharper or more daring of them were exchanging significant glances. Innisth said, “This position will remain open until it is filled,” and gestured dismissal.
The young men all edged away toward the staff entrance or toward the stable—none of them daring to speak, not yet, not while Innisth might overhear. But when Innisth turned to go into the house, he found the librarian’s scribe in his way. He stopped, startled and prepared to be offended.
The youth clasped his hands in front of his belt, glanced down nervously, but then raised his gaze to meet Innisth’s eyes. “Your Grace. I’m—I—if it pleases you, Your Grace, I would be glad to—to ask for the transfer of which you spoke.”
Innisth looked the scribe up and down. He had the bony look of a boy who has not yet grown into himself. His clothing was plain but of good quality, as befit a young man who earned his bread with a quill rather than with the labor of his hands or a hunting bow. But he did not look delicate. His wrists were too big for his hands; his shoulders promised eventual strength. He was plain, with a rather ordinary face and untidy brown hair, but his gaze was sharp enough—though nervous, at the moment.
“Caèr Reiöft,” Innisth said, pulling the name from his memory after a moment. “How old are you? Am I to understand that you have been dissatisfied with your place as a scribe?”
“Nineteen, Your Grace,” the young man answered immediately. “But near enough twenty, if it pleases you. I don’t mind the scribing, Your Grace, and if you wished me to—to write letters for you, or anything you wish, I would be glad to do that. But I would be glad—that is, I believe I understand the duties you will expect of a personal servant, and I would be very glad to serve Your Grace in any capacity that pleases you.”
Innisth’s eyes narrowed. “You mean: instead of the librarian. Is that what you mean?”
Reiöft took a quick breath. “I’ve no complaint of him, Your Grace. But I would—I’ve lived all my life in this house, Your Grace, and I would be glad to serve you, if you will have me. I know I’m not—I don’t want to be presumptuous, Your Grace—”
Innisth lifted one hand a fraction, and Reiöft stopped. “We may at least try the arrangement,” he said. “Inform Gereth of the matter. I am going downstairs for a little while. Then I will come up to my rooms. I will wish to bathe and rest. I will expect you to have everything ready for me.”
Reiöft nodded swiftly. “Your Grace.” He looked slightly stunned now that it was settled. His eyes were wide and vulnerable. Innisth liked that. He had never much noticed the young man before, but now he thought he might like him well enough. He gave him a brief nod of dismissal and walked away, for the black door and the narrow steps that led downstairs.
A long table, scarred by iron and knife, dominated the large antechamber of the old duke’s dungeons. Beyond it stood an ornate chair with a high, carved back and carved arms and a cushion of black leather. The chair was a handsome piece, out of place in this room. Save for the space directly around the chair, the floor was matted with straw and sweet rushes, originally laid down to absorb blood and other matter, but left far too long. The stench of moldy straw and rotted blood and filth hung in the room; even the torches seemed to burn low and flicker unevenly in the close air. A vast fireplace took up most of the wall to the left, though at the moment no wood was arranged there. Tools of all sorts occupied racks and shelves along the wall to the right. In the far wall, an iron door stood open, leading to the small cells where the old duke’s less fortunate prisoners might linger for . . . some time. There was no sound from beyond the iron door. Innisth could not remember whether his father currently held any prisoners in those cells, but if any were there, they were too cowed to make a sound when they heard men come into this antechamber.
Drawn up in an uneasy row waited the men-at-arms Innisth had ordered be brought to this place, and their new captain. The men were afraid, Innisth saw, but not terrified. That was Etar’s influence. He met the new duke’s gaze with level fortitude before inclining his head. “Your Grace.”
Innisth gave him a small nod. He glanced around, his gaze catching on the chair. He nodded toward it. “Burn that.”
“Burn it.” Innisth scuffed the toe of one boot through the filthy straw. “Clean away this mess. Clear the air. Burn cedar—burn incense, if necessary.” He didn’t actually care for incense, but better that than this current stench. “Scrub the floor. Clean and polish the table. Replace those torches with clean-burning lanterns and clean the soot off the walls.”
The men were exchanging glances in which dismay and relief mingled. Even Captain Etar let his breath out. He gave Innisth a crisp nod. “Those?” He nodded toward the racks of whips and knives, irons and needles and clamps. “Shall we dispose of all of that as well?”
Innisth hesitated, wanting to say, Yes, burn it all. But Eänetaìsarè pressed him, drawn by this place with a force he had not entirely expected. The Immanent wanted blood and screaming; already he could tell he would eventually need to give it something of that kind. Already he could tell he would eventually want to.
“No,” he said at last. “Clean away the old blood and rust. Sharpen the blades; replace anything worn or damaged and leave everything in good order.”
Some of the relief faded. But Etar met his eyes and said quietly, “Of course it will be as Your Grace commands. But as your captain, I must ask that Your Grace leave the discipline of your men-at-arms in my hands.”
That was brave. Of course, Innisth had known Etar was brave. It took a moment of effort to appreciate that courage, to set down offense. There was a tiny stir among the men as they waited for his response, a general catch of breath. Their fear was . . . seductive, in a way Innisth had only half expected.
Nevertheless, at last he managed a thin smile. “So long as they respect my law and my commands, my own people will have nothing to fear from me, my captain. Neither your men nor my staff nor any of my folk.” He made this a promise, flat and uncompromising, and swore to himself that he would keep that vow.
Captain Etar bowed his head briefly, accepting this assurance. If he let out a covert breath, Innisth couldn’t tell it.
Setting aside the pressure of the Immanent as well as he could, Innisth made himself look around with careful consideration. “The cells,” he told the captain. “Clean them all. If there are prisoners, inform me. If any could benefit from the attentions of a physicker, summon one. If any would best be granted a swift knife, then supply that need and, again, inform me.” The men were once more looking faintly dismayed. He ignored them. He had, after all, told Etar to assemble a punishment detail.
“Your Grace,” Etar acknowledged. “I think this will take more than one night’s work, if I may say so.”
“In this, I prefer thoroughness to speed.”
Etar gave a nod. “I shall inform you when the task is completed, Your Grace.”
Innisth returned the nod and left the men to their labor, turning back toward the narrow stairway. The stench of this place clung to him even after so brief a time, following at his heels as he mounted the steps and returned to the clean air above. He did want a bath now. Though . . . that was not all he wanted. But the bath, certainly, first. And then he would discover whether Caèr Reiöft did indeed understand the duties Innisth expected of his personal body servant. And then . . . and then, Innisth thought, he might at last be able to rest.
The old duke’s body was returned to the house, where it lay in state for a day and a night. The Immanent Power of Eäneté did not take it up, and thus the body was finally interred in the duke’s garden of remembrance. Innisth did not attend the ceremony.
There were quiet celebrations all through Eäneté as the season eased from the Month of Wolves into the new spring. Nothing obtrusive. No one wanted to risk offending their new young duke. But on the twenty-eighth day of the Month of Bright Rains and then again on the twenty-eighth day of Apple Blossom Month, townspeople made cakes with brandy and berry preserves, then broke the cakes to share with strangers on the street. The wealthy bought lambs and young calves, took them up to the pine forests, slaughtered them there, and left them for the wolves. This might have been the old custom of propitiation, to turn wolf and misfortune aside, save that the month was wrong and the day was wrong. Innisth knew, though no one would say so, that it was a gesture of homage to the new Wolf Duke. Those who could not afford lambs bought larks and other songbirds in the market and set them free in a new custom that had, Innisth gathered, already become quite widespread.
“I believe some of the larks have been caught and released a dozen times by now,” Gereth told Innisth, who lifted one shoulder in a deliberately disinterested shrug. But he was pleased. So he also rode down to the town on the twenty-eighth day of the next month, which was the Golden Hinge Month.
As the month ended, the world would enter the uncounted four days of the Golden Hinge, the days of good fortune and celebration during which spring turned to summer. Already the town was fragrant with baking and decorated with streamers of flowers. Delicate strands of blown robins’ eggs had been draped over the lintels of doorways where marriages would take place during those golden days. Innisth strolled through the Open Market. No one had the temerity to offer him a bit of cake. But folk caught his eye and smiled as they bowed, tentative and hopeful, and though Innisth did not smile in return, he offered no rebuke to this familiarity. And he bought a lark from the first woman he encountered offering them for sale.
Innisth took the little bird out of its cage and held it in his hands for a moment, feeling its heartbeat rapid and delicate against his fingers. And then, in the middle of the market square, in full view of all his people, he opened his hands and let it fly.