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Curse of the Mistwraith
Volume 1 of the Wars of Light and Shadow
Arc I
Excerpt from Chapter IV
Four Ravens

...By then, Elaira was sprinting in a breathless charge that carried her headlong through the scullery. Cooks and potboys scattered from her path. She dodged the swing of the knife-waving drudge by the spit, slipped someone else's grasping hands, then tripped over a pastry rack and stumbled through a rain of falling scones to snatch up the rolling pin that lay in a bowl of dough beyond. Before the befuddled kitchen staff could catch her, Elaira darted into the pantry closet, trailing a dusting of flour. The scrambles at her back became more frantic. All but within reach of her goal, she gasped, "Ath, stand back! There's a riot out there, can't you hear?"

Then she elbowed through a hanging string of onions and reached the narrow doorway to the taproom. A barrage of threats and thuds issued from the opposite side. Elaira recovered her wind, reassured. The s'Ffalenn prince still fought vociferously for his life. The wood under her palms bounced and vibrated to the rasping clash of swordplay, then the thump of a body fallen, and somebody's bitten-off oath. Elaira tripped the latch, readied her stolen bludgeon, then snapped the spell-bindings on the hinges with a shuddering whimper of fright.

The door crashed open, shoved her staggering as Arithon's shoulder bashed the panel inward under force of a narrowly missed parry. A sword blade whined through string; onions bounced helter-skelter as five men harried the prince backward. Their eagerness hampered their weapons, which ironically worked to help spare him; the pot hook had long since fatigued under punishment, and Arithon defended with only the stub of the sheared-off handle. Elaira caught her balance and retreated as the fight erupted wholesale into the pantry. Bruised against corners of shelving, she received an impression of furious faces, a battering circle of steel, and the tense, hard-driving brilliance of Arithon's close-pressed defense. Then she caught her enchantress's jewel in a grip that gouged her palm, and struck the pastry roller on the crown of the prince's dark head.

He folded at the knees, eyes widened in a moment of shocked surprise. His look became what might have been prelude to laughter before the charm Elaira wrought to fell him blanked his mind. He collapsed on the floor at the enchantress's feet. She jumped past, committed beyond heed for further risks. Her crystal burned against her skin as once again she raised power. Her hastily wrought net of spells caught and strained to stay the mob, who now surged to butcher an unconscious victim.

"Stop!" Elaira shouted clearly. "This one's mine. I claim his life as spoils."

The front-rank aggressors rocked to a stupefied stop, hostility stamped on every red and sweating face; the swords flashed at angles still eager for slaughter. Trembling before that hedge of raised weapons, Elaira held her ground. Should even one man control hatred enough to see reason, the whole crowd would discover she was not the painted doxie her glamour made her over to appear.

Yet grudges in Erdane ran obsessively deep.

Startled by female intervention, and emotionally charged from adrenaline, the furious ones were easiest to deflect. Elaira's mazework of confusion hooked their anger and carved out a foothold for change; in something like sheepish embarrassment men glanced at the prince behind her knees. Their minds recalled no barbarian imposter, but instead saw a wine-raddled street rat who had carelessly offended someone else.

The few who had sustained injuries were far less easily diverted. Some of these shoved forward, waving bludgeons of snapped-off chair legs; not a few still wielded knives, and the fellow who had tumbled from the rafters was howling in self-righteous indignation. Sweating, Elaira strove to extend her spell of influence. But her fragile fabric of illusion only thinned and shuddered near to breaking; she had no more resource left to spare.

Beyond hope, past all recourse, she faced defeat. Erdane's ongoing feud with the past was going to end her life and that of the prince she had rashly tried to rescue.

Then like a miracle, the voice of the minstrel offered surcease. "Let the doxie have him, and be done! Dharkaron knows, he's filthy enough to disgust a hog. Probably going to leave her with the Avenger's own pox to remember him by!"

The slur raised a wave of scattered laughter.

"Sithaer, now," Elaira added, somehow through terror and an unstable grip on two spells finding a note that approximated disgust. "It wasn't my bed I'd be offering him!"

A weatherbeaten captain toward the fore loosed a bellowing guffaw. "Leave him to her!" he said. "She'll probably scald his ears well enough." He shrugged to unlock a battered shoulder, then sheathed his steel; around him, other off-duty companions backed off smiling. The most rabid of the headhunters wavered, and in that instant of reprieve, Elaira hooked the door adjoining the pantry and common room and slammed the panel closed. For the benefit of the kitchen staff who gawked in the path of her retreat, she jabbed her fallen prize in the ribs, then launched into spiteful imprecations.

"Daelion mark ye in the hereafter for stinking bad habits! Ye wasted lump of a lout, ye dare te be stealin' my hard-earned coin fer spendin' on tankards at the tap!"

The cook stepped into the breach and shook Elaira's arm. "Wench, if you're minded to scold, spare us some peace and do it elsewhere."

The enchantress whirled in crazed fury. "How will I, with himself sprawled there with the onions and limp as dead dog meat in the bargain?"

She waved the fist with the pastry roller and set a row of canisters tottering. The cook snatched the implement away from her, jerked his greasy bangs toward his staff, then barked a command to lift the unconscious object of this madwoman's scorn and forcibly heave him out.

The pot boys grinned and lent their efforts to the cause. Arithon was hefted under the armpits, dragged through dustings of spilled flour and the grease-scummed runoff from the dish tubs, and ejected through an exit that led to the rear of the tavern.

Elaira followed, crying curses. She swore with redoubled vehemence upon discovery they had pitched her hard-won royalty headlong into the midden.

She shrilled at the fast-slamming door. "Dharkaron break ye for rogues, now I've got te wash his blighted clothing!"

The panel banged shut and a bar dropped in place with a final, sour clank.

Elaira subsided, shaking.

The alley behind the Four Ravens was dark and damply cold. Feeling the chill to her bones, the enchantress sucked a breath past her teeth that came shudderingly near to a choke as she gagged on the rank stench of garbage. "Sithaer and Dharkaron's Five Horses," she muttered to the form at her feet. "What in this life am I to do with you?"

The prince, sprawled limply in a nest of wilted carrots, returned an involuntary groan; then, from the shadow to one side, a sane voice proffered reply. "Where do you think he would be safe?"

Startled, Elaira spun and released a hissing gasp. The speaker proved to be the singer, leaning against the alley wall with the prince's salvaged cloak draped on his wrist. He smiled in quick reassurance. "You probably saved Arithon's life back there. He'd better thank you properly for the risks you undertook. If he doesn't, make sure to break all his fingers, then tell him I gave you permission."

Weak in the knees with relief, Elaira slumped against the midden door. "You know this man?"

"We're acquainted." The bard picked his way through the compost and crouched to check the victim's prone body; satisfied to find no lasting damage, he clicked his tongue. "Now, where are you wanting to hide him? Or do you trust him so much you'd have him wake up alone and maybe blunder into further mischief?"

Elaira thought quickly. "The hayloft, please." Since the gates closed at sundown, no mounted travelers could be expected to arrive or depart from the tavern until daylight; the grooms would be carousing, and the horse boy predictably asleep.

"All right then," the bard said agreeably. "Help me lift him before some churl inside sits up and notices I didn't duck out to use the privy."

The loft above the Ravens' innyard was dusty with the meadow-sweet scent of hay, and warm from the couriers' mounts and coach horses stabled in stalls down below. Couched in a cranny between haystacks and the high, windowless north wall with Arithon sprawled by her knees, Elaira bent over a bucket and wrung out a strip of linen torn at need from the lining of her shepherd's cloak. Lit by a glimmer from her crystal, the enchantress dabbed caked dirt and sweat from the unmistakably s'Ffalenn features of the prince. Belatedly she discovered blood in his hair. His scalp had been split by the pastry roller.

She bit her lip, chagrined. She had surely not struck him so hard; his current unconscious condition was more due to her stay-spell than to the head blow staged to disguise her blatantly foolish use of magic.

Why then was she reluctant to free him?

Elaira regarded Arithon's still face, its severe planes and angles unsoftened by her jewel's faint radiance. Under her hands she felt the corded tautness of him, the light-boned, lean sort of strength that was easiest of all to underestimate. His handling of attackers and pot hook had proved him no stranger to violence, and the raw new scars that encircled his wrists hammered home the recognition that only his bloodline was familiar. The man himself had a past, and a personality unknowably separate. He had not even been raised on Athera.

The intuitive deduction that marked Koriani origins shot Elaira's uneasiness into focus. She had been mistaken to bring this prince here, alone. Even incapacitated, he person bespoke a man wayward in judgment, and decisively quick to take action. The association that had set him off balance when he entered the Four Ravens must run deeper than a defaced kingdom banner. He had not expected to be attacked. When he woke, Arithon, High Prince of Rathain, was bound to be mettlesomely, royally enraged.

Elaira blotted flour off a miraculously ungrazed set of knuckles; the fingers seemed too finely made for the offensive delivered by the pot hook. She tossed aside her rag as if it burned her. The remiss young junior on lane-watch still had not touched her presence; worse yet, Elaira had no clue how she should handle the man, or herself, when the moment came to wake him up.

Arithon stirred on his own in that wretchedest moment of uncertainty. Elaira had time to panic and jackknifed clear as the heir apparent to a high kingship gathered his wits and sat up.

An immediate grimace twisted his face. He reached up, touched the swollen cut on his scalp, and looked at her. "Which wheel from the afterlife did you spare me from, Daelion Fatemaster's, or those of Dharkaron's Chariot? I feel like I've been milled under by something punishing from the Almighty."

"How could you be so utterly, unbelievably stupid!" Elaira burst out. Damn him, he was laughing! "They could have killed you in there, and to what purpose?"

Arithon lowered his fingers, saw blood, and thoughtfully hooked the rag she had discarded. He folded the frayed edges neatly over on themselves and pressed the compress to his wound. "Now, that's a question you might answer for me."

"Dharkaron, Ath's Avenger!" Elaira was fast becoming exasperated. "You're in Erdane! Your speech patterns are perfectly barbarian. And the Ravens is a headhunters' haunt."

Very still, Arithon said, "Whose heads are the hunted?"

His curiosity was in no wise rooted in insolence. Filled by creeping disbelief, Elaira said, "Asandir never told you? They pay body weight in gold for the fugitive heirs of the earls. Half weight for clan blood, and probably every jewel off the mayor's chubby daughters for anything related to a prince."

Arithon lazed back on one elbow in the hay, his face tipped unreadably forward as he knotted the cloth around his head. "And what do you know of any princes?"

Elaira felt her heart bang hard against her ribs. "Do you mean to tell me, that you don't know who you are?"

His response came back mocking. "I thought I did. Has something changed?"

"No." Elaira gripped both hands in front of her shins; two could play this game. "Your Grace, you are Teir's'Ffalenn, prince and heir apparent of the crown of Rathain. All that pompous rhetoric means true-born son of an old-blood high king. Every able man in this city, as well as the surrounding countryside, would give his eldest child to be first to draw and quarter you."

A sound between a choke and a gasp cut her short.

Elaira glanced up to find Arithon's hand fallen away and his head thrown back. The face beneath the black hair was helplessly stripped by confusion.

He had not been baiting her; he had plainly not been told. That was not all; around Arithon's person Elaira sensed a gathering corona of power, invisibly triggered and unmistakably Asandir's. She had a split second to note that the forces that rang in opposition to Arithon's will were in fact an ingeniously laid restraint; then the gist of what she had said lent an impetus that provided him opening. He reacted with a practiced unbinding, and the fabric of the ward sheared asunder.

A snap like a spark whipped the air.

Then Arithon did get angry, a charged, blind-sided rage that left him wound like a spring and staring inward.

"Teir's'Ffalenn," he said flatly. His Paravian was accentless and fluent, and the repeated term translated to mean "successor to power." In the glow of the jewel, the ratty twist of rag around his head lent the shadowed illusion of a crown. "Tell me about Rathain."

His command allowed no loophole for refusal; afraid to provoke an explosion, Elaira chose not to try. "The five northeastern principalities on this continent were territories in vassalage to Rathain, whose liege lord once ruled at Ithamon." She shrugged wretchedly. "Since sovereignty of Athera passed from Paravians to men, the high king crowned there by the Fellowship has always, without exception, been s'Ffalenn."

Arithon moved, not fast enough to mask a flinch. He ripped the rag from his head as though it were metal, and heavy, and an anguish he could not bury needled his reply to sarcasm. "Don't tell me. The people of Rathain are subject to misery and strife, and Ithamon is a ruin in a wasteland."

In point of fact, he was correct, but even rattled to shaking, Elaira was not fool enough to say so. There had to be a reason why Asandir had kept knowledge of this prince's inheritance a close secret.

Arithon arose from the hay. He paced in agitated strides across the loft, and barely a board creaked to his passing. At length he spun about, his desperation sharp as unsheathed steel. "What about Lysaer?"

Elaira tried for humor. "Oh, well, there's a kingdom waiting for him too. In fact, we're sitting in the middle of it."

"Ah." Arithon's brows tipped up. "The banner in the Ravens. And perhaps such unloving royal subjects were the reason for Asandir's reticence?"

Careful to suppress other, more volatile suppositions, the enchantress nodded placating agreement. She watched the s'Ffalenn prince absorb this, and wondered what enormity she had caused, what balance had shifted while Arithon went from tense to perceptively crafty.

"I can keep this fiasco from Asandir," he said in answer to the very thought that had made her bite her lip.

Elaira widened her eyes. "You?" Merciful Ath, had he failed to perceive the awful strength in the ward she had accidentally lent him leverage to unbind?" "How? Are you crazy?"

Arithon inclined his head in the precise direction of the Ravens, though the barn wall before him had no window. "Lady, how did you get across the taproom?"

Elaira reached up and smothered the light of her jewel in time to hide her expression. In the taproom, diverted by fighting, he could not have seen through her glamour.

A breath of air brushed her face out of the darkness; Arithon was moving again, restless, and his words came turbulently fast. "Asandir won't have expected me to break through a block of that magnitude." Hay rustled as he gestured, perhaps with remembered impatience. "Sithaer's furies, I'd been trying to achieve its release for long enough. Trouble was, if I pushed too hard, I went unconscious."

Elaira turned white as she connected that the banner in the taproom had initiated Arithon's compulsive moment of unsteadiness. "I wonder why the Sorcerer didn't tell you."

Hands caught her wrists; deceptively and dangerously gentle, they pulled her fingers away from the jewel. Light sprang back and revealed Arithon on one knee before her, his expression determinedly furious. "Because I happen not to wish the burdens that go with a throne!"

He let her go, shoved away as though he sensed her Koriani perceptions might draw advantage from his stillness. "Kings all too often get their hands tied. And for what? To keep food in the mouths of the hungry? Hardly that, because the starving will feed themselves if left alone. No. A bad king revels in his importance. A good one hates his office. He spends himself into infirmity quashing deadly little plots to make power the tool of the greedy."

Elaira looked into green eyes, frightened by the depth of their vehemence. She argued anyway. "Your friend Lysaer would say that satisfaction can be found in true justice."

Arithon stood up and made a gesture of wounding appeal. "Platitudes offer no succor, my lady. There's very little beauty in satisfaction, and justice rewards nobody with joy." He lowered his hands and his voice dropped almost to a whisper. "As Felirin the Scarlet would tell you."

He referred to the minstrel in the Ravens who had abetted his narrow escape. Not the least bit taken in by his show of surface excuses, Elaira drew her own conclusion. Arithon had slipped his Sorcerer chaperon and ventured abroad in Erdane looking expressly to provoke. He might not have known of the townsmen's pitch of antagonism; or he might have simply not cared. His wildness made him contorted as knot-work to decipher.

In a typically rapid shift of mood, he managed a civilized recovery. "I owe you, lady enchantress. You spared me some rather unpleasant handling, and for that you have my thanks. Someday I hope to show you my gratitude."

Which was prettily done and sincere, but hardly near the point.

"I saved your life," Elaira said in a bald effort to shake his complacency.

He just looked at her, his clothing mussed over and his face a bit worn, and his reticence underhandedly reproachful. He had not been defenseless. The pot hook was only a diversion, since he had both training and shadow mastery carefully held in reserve. Touched by revelation, Elaira saw that indeed, he had not been backed against the passage to the pantry by any accident but design.

Beginning to appreciate his obstinacy, Elaira choked back a snort of laughter. "You were on course for the midden in any case?"

Arithon smiled. "As the opportunity presented itself, yes. Have you lodgings? I'd like to see you back safely."

"Oh, that's priceless," Elaira gasped. Her eyes were watering. She hoped it was only the dust. "You're a damned liability in this town."

"In any town." The Shadow Master paid her tribute with a bow. "You shouldn't worry over things that I'm too lazy to bother with."

"That's the problem, exactly." Elaira allowed him to take her hand and draw her to her feet. His strength was indeed deceptive, and he seemed to release her fingers with reluctance. She said, "I can find my way just fine. The question is, can you?"

She did not refer to the wards that concealed the location of the seeress's house where he lodged.

Her deliberately oblique reference did not escape him. "Asandir knows I went out for air." Arithon made a rueful face at the odiferous stains on his clothing. "There are several suitably smelly puddles in the alley near Enithen Tuer's. And dozens of hazardous obstacles. A man prone to odd fits of dizziness might be quite likely to trip,"

He reached out and began with light hands to pluck the loose hay from her hair. That moment, when all care for pretense was abandoned, the junior initiate on lane-watch stumbled clumsily across Elaira's presence.

The enchantress stiffened as the energies of her distant colleague passed across her, identified her, and responded with a jab of self-righteous indignation. The backlash hurt. "Sithaer's furies, not now!" Elaira capped her dismay with a fittingly filthy word.

Taken aback, Arithon stepped away. "I beg your pardon?"

"You did nothing." Elaira assured, her mind only half on apology. Apparently there were worse offenses than visiting Sorcerers of the Fellowship, or even in engaging in card games with disreputable apprentice prophets; by the repercussions sensed in the background, Elaira understood that speaking with princes in haylofts after midnight was undeniably one of them. Yet to explain the particulars of her crisis would take by far too much time. "I have a scrape of my own to work out of – my personal version of Asandir."

Arithon grinned and melted unobtrusively into the shadows. "Then I commend you to subterfuge and a fast soft landing in a midden."

She heard his soft step reach the ladder.

"Farewell, lady enchantress." Then he was gone, leaving her alone with a larger dilemma than the one she had found in the room at Enithen Tuer's.

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