Destiny's Conflict
Volume 10 of the Wars of Light and Shadow
Book 2 of Arc IV: Sword of the Canon
Excerpt from Chapter I
Duress
Stone as my impartial witness, behold!
The Terms of the Fellowship's stay of execution for
Arithon Teir's'Ffalenn are withdrawn.
Crown debt to Rathain, sworn at Athir, is confirmed.
Koriathain are freed to determine his Grace's fate,
henceforward.
— Asandir's oath of nonintervention
witnessed in stone at Whitehold Third Age Year 5922
Late Spring 5923

Lysaer awoke, groggy, his nostrils clogged with the parched taint of volcanic rocks and blown sulphur. His reflexive cough raised an aching complaint from cramped limbs. He lay bound hand and foot. His stubbled cheek rested against the rough boards of a wagon-bed, splotched by old blood-stains and sliced by the shadows cast by a sturdy, spoked wheel. Dizzy and sick, left with the disjointed recall of a battle, Lysaer squinted through glare and identified the transport the surgeons' corps sent to move the Light's wounded.

Which made no sense. He had sustained no injury. Lashed in discomfort, he stirred, annoyed, then lifted his head, furious enough to lambaste the healer who had miscalled his condition. But the wagon loomed empty. No other casualties sprawled, strapped into splints or field bandages. His confused survey met only burlap sacks of provisions, two barrels of ale seared with Cainford tax brands, and a crate of bottled brandy, then the knotted leads fixed to five head of horseflesh, hitched to the cargo rings meant to lash field tents.

Evidently, the dray was not hauling the surgeon's gear in the baggage train. Lysaer heard no chatter, no gossiping wash-women. The baked air was not clouded with dust from the lance companies' ranks or popped by the whip-cracks of the war host's outriders. The vehicle was parked in full sun, in a desert without habitation.

Lysaer gritted his teeth. He tried to roll over, jerked against tight restraint. Whoever bound him also had trussed his frame in oiled canvas. Which extreme measure suggested the horror of madness inflicted by Desh-thiere's curse, and far worse: the recall of a shameful act, fraught with pain sufficient to break him.

He had killed again, wantonly mass murdered innocents in an act beyond human conscience.

The coward in him preferred not to bear what could never be reconciled. Thousands of times, over hundreds of years, the voice of self-censure condemned him: better he died than survive to fall prey to the next wretched bout of insanity. Logic destroyed the weakness of delusion, that he ever had owned the brute will to defeat the forces that rode him.

Lysaer tested his bonds with a useless tug. Strap leather and rope reinforced with wrapped wire redoubled his crushing despair. Someone's pitiless foresight already had thwarted the pitch of his desperation. Conjured light could not singe him free. Not without crippling damage to both hands and feet, or risk of igniting the oil-soaked tarp bundled over him. Without recourse, he breathed, while the midday sun scorched the air into ripples. Only pride stifled his frustrated groan.

Lysaer raised his chin. Plagued by a throbbing headache, he surveyed his surroundings to see whose mishandling imposed the ignominy.

Nothing met his eye past the wagon's edge. Just barren ground: an unbroken flatland of parched lava and gravel. The stabbing flash of flecked mica melted seamlessly into the shimmer of heat-waves. Yet he was not alone. Two of his captors locked horns, beyond view, with a grainy voice Lysaer recognized as Dakar's shouting over the other's obstinate protest. "No. That would get us fricassied for betrayal the instant he starts to wake up!"

Dread retreated a fraction. Perhaps his nightmare fear was a phantom. Lysaer eavesdropped, hopeful the dispute haggled over the terms for a ransom by Elkforest's barbarians.

"I won't shoulder that risk!" Dakar ranted on. "Yes, I lack the main strength. No ranging ward I might weave can subdue an elemental mastery of light. Be patient for another few days. At least until I've ascertained we're clear of Arithon's fatal proximity."

Which callous mention of that accursed name triggered Desh-thiere's geas. Whiplashed by the assault, Lysaer shuddered in agony. The vicious drive to embrace wholesale ruin set his wits under siege. He battled for reason, as always. Clung to the rags of free choice: not to blast everything within reach with a levin bolt charged to melt stone into magma. He suffered in recoil. While the primal torrent surged to consume him, the gall of repeated past failures made a mockery of his resistance.

Torment wrung a gasp from him.

The sound stopped the ongoing argument. Gravel grated. Someone's scuffed tread approached.

Lysaer twisted for confrontation. Any frail stay to distract him from the drive of the curse.

Glare stabbed his eyes like needles to the brain. Squinting against the white dazzle of sky, he made out the loom of volcanic formations grotesquely weathered and eroded with crumbling arches. Then a shadow flicked over him. A clownish face eclipsed his view, raffishly bearded and wisped with grey hair, streaked by faded chestnut. Cheeks and snub nose wore a peeled scald of sunburn on a countenance stripped of forbearance.

Dakar snapped, "Don't think to put on your statesman's mask, Lysaer! I'll stand for no pretence. Are you able to govern your natural mind? Or speak with frank honesty? Then defend your case. Convince me that you didn't kill her."

Which test of trustworthiness needed no name. Viciously personal, the accusation frayed the last thread of sane balance. Lysaer bridled. He sucked an offended breath through clenched teeth. Whether to plead or to scream became moot: as if human language existed to stem the cascade towards disaster.

The idiot spellbinder lectured, oblivious. "This is not Sithaer, but a place in the Scarpdale Waste called the Stacks. Before you cry foul, accept your lot, held under my charge in good faith."

Lysaer's temper ignited. His lethal retort in pure light tipped towards destructive release.

Dakar yelped. Eyes widened, he scrambled too late for a stop-gap intervention. Yet what murderous damage might have ensued, his unseen companion's blow, swung from behind, clipped Lysaer's nape like Dharkaron's vengeance.

He dropped limp, hurled back into black-out unconsciousness.

Saved, but not sanguine, Dakar rebounded from shock and glared at his slighter accomplice. "That's thanks for the killing strike I didn't field?" he shouted in caustic astonishment. "Best hope your crude remedy didn't crack his Lordship's thick skull."

Daliana hurled aside her makeshift bludgeon: a chunk of fire-wood, padded at need with a grimy Sunwheel surcoat. The billet thudded into the wagon-bed next to Lysaer's slack form. "Necessity," she stated, crisp. Stripped to a squire's shirt and torn hose, she scrambled over the tail-board and knelt to examine her prostrate victim.

Blond and royal-born, chiselled to a statuesque fitness made to bring sculptors to rapture, Lysaer looked, every inch, like the downfallen avatar worshipped by the Light's faithful. Unwashed, dishevelled in his soiled white tunic, he sprawled with an unconscious majesty designed to wreak female havoc. A stone heart could but melt at the sight of such helplessness, trussed ankle and wrist in looted strap leather.

Daliana's features already softened as she explored Lysaer's goose-egg bruise. "This wants ice." Flushed by shameless regret, she leaned on Dakar's scant sympathy. "Might you fashion a construct to freeze a piggin of water?"

"My sleep spell wouldn't have dunted his noggin," Dakar grumbled with reproach.

"No." Daliana unfurled the surcoat from the billet and wadded a pillow for her liege's bashed head. "But your callous comment left his Lordship no civilized course to salve his wounded pride. Someone had to do that for him."

When Dakar said nothing, she straightened, contrite, a tanned, slender minx with tawny eyes fierce enough to outface a tigress. She brushed back chocolate hair that a fortnight in barren country had tangled for want of a comb. "Your sack of wound remedies includes poppy? Then perhaps a tisane for headache could be added to his next dose of valerian."

But when her concession to further drugged sleep failed to lift the fat spellbinder's frown, Daliana lost patience. "You claimed Asandir had swept Lanshire clear of The Hatchet's war host under Fellowship mandate!"

"He has." Dakar's pouched eyes blinked with injury. "My scrying shows the last companies of rear-guard have withdrawn past Havish's northern border."

"Since when?" Her irritable gesture encompassed the spires of lava, pocked in between with ash pits and hot springs rimed with bilious mineral deposits, plumed geysers, and steaming mud pots. "Why are we still skulking like rats in a place fit only for scorpions and lizards?"

Dakar deflated. Careless of splinters, he perched on the dray, which was flat, without shade for relief since an awning increased visibility. "The orderly troops have departed. But I cannot trace every straggler or the criminal bands of deserters." He cut her off. "Oh, yes! There are rogues holed up in the Storlain foot-hills. They'll be making their furtive way on the sly. Hungry enough to slaughter our draft team or kill for the theft of a horse." He need not broach rape. Not after Daliana had braved the peril of the Light's war camp. Alone, without a stitch of protection beyond several daggers and a lance squire's dress, she must acknowledge her personal vulnerability.

Since Arithon's recent escape from Lithmarin ruled out travelling south, the inhospitable terrain to the east provided a brutal haven. The reduced chance that Lysaer might be seen forestalled the armed rescue that would come in force if word of his presence alerted the True Sect fanatics.

Daliana tossed back the damp braid pasted against her neck. "Stop lying, then. You don't need to buy time to perfect any ward ring. You haven't the means to fashion a shield against elemental light in the first place!"

Dakar side-stepped. "You can't know that for certain."

Which evasion sparked Daliana's mercurial laughter. "I wear Asandir's mark, or did you forget? At Morvain, tossed into the holocaust of Lysaer's curse-driven fire-storm, even your former master's ward wasn't infallible."

Trickling sweat, Dakar warned, "Be most careful. It's a deadly folly to presume with regard to the actions of Fellowship Sorcerers. The power they wield was bestowed by the dragons. They can do the unimaginable, and without limit. Never ever forget the more dangerous list of what actions they might be withholding under some abstruse ethical preference."

But reckless as Dakar had been in the past, Daliana shrugged off the gravity of semantics. "Whether or not a sure safe-guard exists against Lysaer's gift, why not admit the truth? You're past your depth. We're here because there's minimal brush and nothing in range that's combustible!"

Dakar deflated, stung by the irony that had landed him on the flip side of his own argument: Lysaer could not be drugged unconscious, indefinitely. The palliative use of medicinal draughts tore away what remained of a spirit already shattered by a cursed compulsion.

"Why not stand off and allow me to handle him?" Daliana pleaded. "Could I do any worse? Your blunders have done little else but inflame the wound in his self-respect."

Mightily worn by his shortfalls in the arena of subtle relationships, Dakar lashed back. "I should abet your impetuous ruin? What happens the next time your liege goes insane and fries the ground where you stand? Don't tempt fate! You haven't the strength to constrain him each time he loses his grip."

"Then think beyond the use of brute force!" Before the spellbinder shouted her down, Daliana admonished, "After hundreds of diligent years of apprenticeship, surely you've learned other options!"

The spellbinder stared, moon-calf features slackened as though the heat had broiled his wits.

Daliana reached for her billet, galled enough to hammer him senseless.

She lost the chance.

From stunned windless to owlishly rapt, Dakar reversed. "I've got an idea." He surged erect, slapped his forehead, and chortled. "Oh, indeed, yes. My dear! The notion is genius!"

Daliana glowered in suspicion. "What now?"

The Mad Prophet's smile sparkled with teeth. "You've asked all along to stay at Lysaer's side, a death sentence waiting to happen. But not if I stand that prospect upside down."

The method was brilliant. Once, Asandir had done the same: wrought a punitive stay that bound Dakar to Arithon's company with the persistence of a malediction. More, Luhaine had fashioned a similar spell, years later, an obdurate constraint on Fionn Areth's rebellion, weaving him under protections within the spellbinder's close proximity. Both approaches opened intriguing possibilities when combined with the homing ciphers stitched into the aura of Asandir's stallion. Dakar flexed his fingers, empowered by enough sundry knowledge to rig an inventively nasty variation.

"What in Dharkaron's name are you thinking?" Daliana broke in.

"Bless you, sweetling!" crowed Dakar. "I'm going to tie Lysaer's presence to you! Give him a leash that extends for three leagues, you can duck beyond range of his rages. He might slip your guard at the whim of his curse, but not bolt out of reach without your complicity." The spellbinder hitched up his pot-belly with venomous satisfaction. "Ath above, I can't wait. We can leave this forsaken place, soonest. Just nip off a thread from your clothing and loan me a knife to prick his little finger."

"No." Daliana uncoiled from nursing her invalid. "I can't sanction this plan."

Dakar shrugged. "Then I'll seal the craft-work without you." Undeterred by the scorch of her rage, the spellbinder bore in, "How many more temple war hosts will wreck the peace for your pride? Canon Law will purge more clanbred families, and for what good end, Daliana?"

She did not stand down. Small, scuffed with dirt, and rabidly furious, the minx defended her ground. "Dakar, you can't. This is not a solution. Your proposal does nothing to bolster my liege's besieged integrity. Compulsion can't mend his raw self-esteem! You'll do naught but destroy the last shred of true spirit if you rope down a man already ridden beyond mercy."

Dakar slid off the wagon. "Athera cannot afford your squeamish instinct to coddle Lysaer's cursed madness. You don't fully grasp the scope of the stakes. Stick now over principle, or hang up on your infatuation, I will the more ruthlessly clip the man's wings." The snatched move to unsheathe her belt knife raised only the spiteful slap of his indifference. "Don't imagine bloodshed will stop my interference."

"Should I worry?" Daliana retorted. "The moon will fall out of the sky on a wish before my liege grants you permission."

The spellbinder's crafty smile stretched wider. "A grand gift, for sure, he's tossed out of the compact, and also that I've been dumped from the upright graces of Fellowship auspice."

"You daren't stoop to coercive extortion! That verges upon dark practice!" But as the Mad Prophet braced to take action, Daliana promised, "Try, and I will not rest until I find means to prevent you. I don't care how many innocents you believe you'll be saving! The back-lash you cause will strip Lysaer of his humanity and leave us with a monster."

A man less resolved should have quailed from her smoking glare on him, except the leeway for debate was exhausted. A muffled groan from the wagon-bed warned that their charge recovered his senses.

Dakar eyed the tousled blond head sheltered by such untoward sentiment. "You wanted an ice pack to ease his bashed skull? Then strike me a fire to heat a fresh tisane. We need that valerian infusion, right quick."

"We? No." Daliana leaped down from the tail-board, as determined a bundle of feminine rage as ever set off to thwart destiny. "Do the scut work yourself since you fear to burn!"

Forthwith, she claimed a pair of saddle packs and began to stockpile provisions. "I'll be taking two horses and Lysaer. You can test the mettle of Asandir's mark and try to stop me at your peril."

Dakar turned his back. However brave, Daliana's resolve would not upset his decision. Neither did he revel in her misery, or cave in to the tears she swiped off her grimed cheeks as she tacked and loaded the pick of the available string. Stressed as she was by rough living, the spellbinder weighed what had to be done with a cold heart and ironclad purpose.

Forget the fair fight. Past service to Arithon s'Ffalenn gave him the long view and the scars of unpleasant experience: a sharp adversary corrupted by Desh-thiere's geas never spurned dirty tactics. First chance, Lysaer would snatch the advantage against any fool who volunteered as his chaperone.

"Pack the valerian as you wish," Dakar said. "Or leave me a horse and a share of the stores and drive off with the wagon."

When Daliana spurned his effort to ease her lot, the spellbinder hunched stoic shoulders and stumped off into the dazzle of heat-waves. Discomfort compounded his sullen mood. The flint rock burned through his boot soles. Insects whirred aloft upon glassine wings from the desiccate cracks in the boulders. Through the scrape of his stumbling strides, he deafened himself to the ring of shod hooves, receding. Onwards, he plunged from the glare of midday into the abyss of shade beneath the high arch that buttressed the nearest rock stack.

The bounce of a kicked stone cracked an echo that died. Dakar sucked a vexed breath, pulled up short while his eyesight adjusted. He required a flat surface, less reactive to flux charge, to lay down meticulous boundaries. Care must be taken with a work not in form: no chance influence should warp his intent.

"Did you believe your twisted bumbling wasn't noisy enough to draw notice?" admonished a voice from the desert silence.

Brought face-to-face with the tall shadow that detached from the gloom, Dakar discerned the faint emanation flared off of uncanny embroidery. The impression of a gaunt face, framed in a streaked tumble of shoulder-length hair crossed the keyhole behind, and punch-cut the figure into silhouette.

"Davien!" the spellbinder yelped. "Did Sethvir send you as my keeper or have you come to champion Daliana's appeal?"

The Sorcerer also known as the Betrayer took pause, a stalking lynx against the parched vista behind him. "I happened to be afoot in the vicinity."

Dakar swallowed back his panicked consternation. Recall surfaced too late, that the dragon Seshkrozchiel had denned up in the volcanic spur of the Storlains to hibernate. The nonchalance behind Davien's phrase distilled into visceral dread.

Lately released from the thrall of the drake, the most untrustworthy of the Fellowship Sorcerers meddled here as a radical free agent.

Amused, Davien rested his foot on a boulder, crossed his arms on his thigh, and leaned forward. "I'm not ready to answer Sethvir's cry for peace. Here's the pot and the kettle, both sooted black. You seem hell-bent to grant Althain's Warden due grounds to ban you from the compact."

Dakar forced his lungs to inflate. "After my choices killed High King Gestry, does another transgression even signify?"

"Perhaps." Davien straightened. Not impervious, his person showed the frayed snags and cinder burns from mean travel through Scarpdale's rough country. "Your first course of action salvaged Arithon's life and threw no one to grief against their will. Don't overplay your importance, besides. The strengthened potency of the flux lines was far more to blame for Gestry's untimely demise."

"No one else could have pressured that wild-card play," Dakar insisted. "Since I wasn't condemned for up-ending Asandir's standing orders in Havish, I have reason to dread my murky call may spark the next round of catastrophe."

"Are you trying to win my agreement?" Davien chuckled. "Or is this an attempt to stiffen your nerve?"

"Why else are you here?" Dakar snapped. "Except maybe to gloat at the on-going expense of your overtaxed colleagues."

"I am not crowing!" Davien contradicted. The fixated glitter of black eyes and white teeth like the stoat, he slashed for the jugular. "In fact, my courtesy call is a precaution. Don't waste your effort or your good name. Because if you proceed, I will stop you."

"Who are you saving?" Dakar cracked, annoyed. Though his nape puckered up into gooseflesh, he pressed, "Daliana? Or Lysaer? Don't pretend you stirred a finger to spare me. After your handling of the Teir's'Ffalenn against the grey cult at Etarra, I'd kill myself laughing."

Davien grinned. "You forget. The mist-bound entities locked down in Rockfell Pit are not free wraiths. If you compromise Lysaer to serve Arithon's survival, our means to curb Desh-thiere might go down in flames."

Dakar sighed. "Don't play me for a gullible idiot, that you have any loyalty left to the Fellowship."

The Sorcerer's figure stayed dangerously still, more silent than the primordial boulder under his foot.

Soaked in run sweat, Dakar cleared his throat. "Pray, have you a better solution in mind?"

"Maybe." Davien shrugged. "If so, the option relies upon Daliana's cooperation."

Dakar sat on a nearby outcrop, ribs clutched against wheezing laughter. "If your counsel will move her, by all means, try! Kharadmon failed to cool her devotion. Not even the True Sect war host, with its cohort of priests and diviners, kept her from returning to her liege's side!"

"She has the brute courage to hammer through bed-rock," Davien agreed. "Who says I intend to dissuade her?" Before Dakar pushed erect and rushed back towards the wagon, he added, "Don't bestir your protective instincts to warn her against the hazards of hearing my offer."

The spellbinder wilted. Chary of the chit's knack with a billet, he said, hopeful, "Daliana's already loaded her liege and gone on her way." Bone-tired, he knuckled his inflamed eyes. "Asandir should have told you I've been outfaced since the day of my birth."

When Dakar looked up, the span of the archway stood empty. Davien had gone. A glance over his shoulder confirmed: the tacked horses with Daliana were already diminished to blots in the dazzle of heat-waves. Since the spellbinder was too pudgy to give chase, he opted to bury his misery and take an oblivious nap in the shade.

Lysaer roused again to a furred mouth, vile with the after-taste of a drugged syrup. His fuddled awareness added a pounding head to the inflamed discomfort of sunburn. Hurting, he stirred, gouged by crushed pumice and tufts of razor-edged grasses. His limbs were cut loose. The breeze that stung his abraded flesh wore the chill of on-coming twilight. Another day waned in the unknown span of his prolonged captivity. If his keepers had not let him soil himself, the affront to his dignity chafed even through the haze of turned senses.

Sundown burnished the snow-capped peaks, their crumpled flanks folded into cobalt shadow, except where spewed smoke from a volcanic vent smudged the horizon. Lava sand gritted between his teeth and invaded his soiled clothing. His stubbled chin itched, and his tangled hair hung rank as the thatch on a bogman's hovel. Propped halfway erect, Lysaer surveyed the view. Nothing moved. Only the breeze riffled the clumps of stunt thorn, their crabbed twigs darned with tattered foliage.

Lysaer dared not assume Dakar's watch had abandoned him. Irked to have lost the civilized service of his valet, he examined his wrists, dye-stained where the straps had dug into his flesh. His hose had matching marks at the ankles.

Given freedom of movement, innate caution distrusted the impression of autonomous solitude.

"Forget Dakar's spectacular failure," the voice of the woman he thought he had murdered declared from behind him. "The setting's my choice, and this isn't my reckoning for your catastrophic behaviour at Morvain."

Lysaer spun around, terrified. But the diminutive female who faced him in squire's dress was not an apparition. The pert face with too-bright, tawny eyes raked him over. Her dark brown braid was no longer luxurious but roped into a wisped knot and pinned up with a hazel stick. The worse for him, she witnessed his panic: shock destroyed his prized poise as a statesman. Her intact, living presence slammed through heart and mind, a visceral blow that also hit below the belt.

While Lysaer gaped, paralysed, she attacked first. "I did not burn by your hand, as you see, and nothing between us is finished, yet."

Lysaer twisted his vulnerable features away. Not fast enough: twice shamed as the force of his anguish unmanned him, he had no way to silence her or any word to fend off her analysis of his weaknesses.

"At least you should know why you failed," Daliana pursued. "The rage that turned Desh-thiere's curse against me was no fault of your character. Your demise was set up. In fact, you fell prey to the tricks of the Koriathain."

But excuses were empty. Nothing relieved the responsible ethic demanded of his royal upbringing. His short-falls and his privacy were subject to no one's ruthless dissection, far less any female bent on interference. Once laid open by Talith, and after the inexcusable pretence of his political marriage to Ellaine, Lysaer s'Ilessid brooked no exception. The merciful woman would withdraw as a kindness; likewise, the stout-hearted one plunged beyond her depth.

But this brazen creature respected no boundaries. Her courage possessed too much gall to salve his beleaguered spirit. The locked pause extended. Coarse with the whisper of breeze through the brush, the grey mantle of nightfall continued to leach the last colour out of the world.

Yet falling darkness lent cover, at least. Lysaer torqued his facade back into the semblance of equilibrium. His voice was ice, and his nerves, armoured steel, before he tried speech. "I want you gone."

Her calm contained the strength to eviscerate. "I won't oblige. Leave on your own merits."

She would not enable a coward's retreat. Or else she understood him too well and refused the reprieve in his plea for rejection.

"Hold out in vain, then." Lysaer gathered himself to arise, shocked by the quiver of atrophied muscle and sun-poisoned nausea. How long had he languished in drugged oblivion at the whim of his self-righteous guardians? Bitter, he wondered if he also suffered withdrawal from an addiction. Dakar knew his herbals. Given a wagon equipped to haul casualties, the slippery spellbinder could have plied him with a war-time stockpile of narcotic remedies.

Daliana addressed that transparent suspicion, aware that he sorted his appalling infirmity for evidence of further treachery. "You were not dosed with poppy."

She extended a hand to him.

Lysaer stifled a fury that clenched his jaw, brought to his knees by sapped vitality and cruel despair. Pride refused to yield. He hoarded his right to unfettered autonomy and spurned her care though he scrabbled like a dog to buy distance.

Darkness hid his agony, while the vertigo ebbed. When in due time he commanded himself and used a boulder to claw himself upright, Daliana did not mock or step in to brace up his wracked balance. Instead, she silently offered the bridle of one of her two saddled mounts.

"If you go, the choice becomes yours alone." Golden eyes pinned him, direct beyond quarter, though her grasp on the reins trembled with distress. "I will not leave. No matter if you succumb to the curse, or how brutal the provocation, nothing you do, alive in this world, can make me abandon you."

Which lashed him to fury and cut him in places too harrowed to bleed in her sight.

Destroyed, the last shred of control he possessed: Lysaer strove to drive such innocence past the hazard of reckless endangerment. Proximity to him would see her dead, and far worse, unravel the dregs of his self-control that chose not to sully his last, tattered remnant of decency. Once, he had yielded himself to affection, only to endure heart-break great enough to demolish his principles. Never again would he divide his autonomy under the sway of feminine influence. He had cast off both women pledged to him in marriage, turned from them and denounced their memory. The Mistwraith's fell madness blighted his future, too murderous an affliction for him to sustain.

Of all the mis-steps with power to wound him, he had lost control: nearly scorched alive the tender innocent pleading to save him. Lysaer rejected the unthinkable liability. He owned no sane means to protect Daliana or spare her from the fate that had destroyed Ellaine and Talith before her.

Lysaer fought venomous self-revulsion, too choked up for words, even had sickness not wrung him wretched.

He staggered forward, snatched the reins without touching her. Disability forced him to lean on the hack to stay upright but did not weaken his besieged defences. He clawed himself astride. Shaky and soaked in febrile sweat, he searched the gloaming for Dakar's campsite. Though no fire burned to draw unfriendly eyes, he picked out the angular bulk of the dray, with the unhitched team tethered nearby. Lysaer turned his mount's head in the other direction. Then he dug in his heels and set off at a break-neck gallop without a glance backwards.

Night swallowed him, sultry with the steam vented off the simmering hot springs. He did not slacken pace or guide the horse under him. Reckless, he let his mount's keener instincts pick the path through treacherous country. Lysaer scarcely cared if he broke his neck. He drove the animal at clattering speed through the craters of hardened caldera, leaped over seams where the rills of old lava flows yawned underfoot. He coughed on the fumes belched from the mud pots, and taunted fate, where the pressurized gush of the geysers seethed in the obsidian shadows. Alone, he need not wrestle to mask the misery of total despair …

Under the ice-chip glitter of stars, her heart crushed, Daliana sank to her knees. Tears fell for the fracture she could not mend. But she did not sob aloud. Failure preferred the night's silence since Dakar's vindictive lecture surely would finish her. How many would come to die in the future lay out of her hands, nor might any measure of sore regret lift the gravity of tonight's miscalculation. Done was done. She had acted as her intuition directed. No matter how dimmed the hope of Lysaer's long-term healing, she had turned him loose with his spirit intact.

Numb to the bite of the volcanic gravel, she bore the disastrous hurt. She renounced self-pity, straightened, and rose, and gathered the reins of the gelding left to her. Unable to face the Mad Prophet just yet, she laid her wet cheek against the animal's shoulder.

Lysaer's cause would not be forsaken. For more than a sealed oath under Asandir's auspices, she would search the breadth of the five kingdoms for a remedy. "Until I've found some way to redeem my liege, before Ath, I will not rest his case."

"You are worth ten of him," a dismissive voice snapped from the darkness.

Startlement whirled Daliana volte-face and dislodged the hazel twig pinned through her hair. Half-blinded, she clapped a hand to her belt-knife and braced for a defensive throw.

But the speaker's stark stillness smothered her impulsive attack.

"Whatever you say, I promised my liege. Nothing else matters." She drew herself up though the presence before her radiated the might of a Fellowship Sorcerer. "Kharadmon already forewarned that I pursued Lysaer's better nature in vain."

Her visitor strode forward. Angular and tall, he wore a belted tunic and simple hose. The lean face, brushed in starlight, was graven by absolute confidence; or else smelted by the flame of an arrogance that brooked no impertinent questioning.

Daliana regarded the dangerous creature last seen in the company of a dragon. The edge had not left him. His attention still blazed like a brand, even cloaked under nightfall.

Davien said, "I am not here to part you from your desire but to offer you means to pursue it."

Her bitterness echoed off the naked rocks. "How? Lysaer distrusts women! Worse than that, he views affection as a fatal weakness. He won't abide his deepest dread, that he might fall prey to his vulnerability."

"Intimacy could bring him down, wide open to enemy leverage." Davien capped her list, razored with irony. "The greater his love, the more fear of loss, added to the horror he can't stand the guilt if his cursed nature drives him to murder."

Daliana leaned on the horse, all the brazen starch shaken out of her. "The honest spirit should panic, in fact."

The Sorcerer stepped closer. "You're weak at the knees?" Presumptuously bold, he prised her fisted grip off the bridle reins. "My dear, let go. If the horse strays, I will summon it back for you."

Escorted aside, nostrils filled with the sulphurous taint ingrained in his clothing, Daliana permitted the steering touch that perched her on a nearby boulder. "How can I possibly keep my sworn charge if my liege allows no one near him?"

"Ah!" Davien straightened. "Is that strictly true?"

Daliana regarded the face notched out of the deep sky above her and conceded the point. "Well, he does have his retinue." Galled by her defeat, she raised a nervous hand, yanked out the skewed twig, and let her crimped braid tumble over her shoulder. Rewinding the hair to steady herself, and through the stick clamped in her teeth, she carried her share of a dialogue that led nowhere. "My liege will bear no one's familiarity. He isolates himself through his station. I know he has no one he consults for wise counsel though history records that my forebear Sulfin Evend relied on the steadfast allegiance of his Lordship's personal valet."

"A male lackey is invisible in that regard," Davien agreed, too complacent.

Daliana jammed the hazel shim through her tucked plait and glowered at his insolence. "Yes, I played the lance squire. But not directly for Lysaer, and only at a safe distance. The disguise worked in the crowded confusion of the True Sect's campaign. I got by, always by feigning to be the malingering servant of somebody else!" Amid the massed host, one face more or less risked little notice, and lazy boys everywhere contrived devious ways to shirk duty.

Davien said nothing. But one booted foot tapped in impatience.

Which cue emptied her chest in bolt-struck epiphany. Daliana shoved straight so hard, the pumice against her braced seat ripped sound cloth, and her braid came unmoored from its fastening. "You couldn't!"

"Could I not?" The Sorcerer laughed outright. "Ask Dakar. In fact, more than once, your spellbinder stymied himself against my skilled touch for concealment. Although strictly speaking, a masking spell won't fully address your straits. Illusion can't blindside a necromancer, or evade the trained Sight of the True Sect's diviners." Head cocked, Davien peered down with an intensity to drill through pretence. "How strong are you, really?"

Daliana crossed her arms over her breast, while her heart raced, and dread lanced her viscera.

Once before this, Dakar had warned, "Don't let him cozen you," while the ceiling of an inn cellar became ignited by drakefire over their heads.

This Sorcerer's bargains never were wont to tread the straightforward path. Flesh and blood, breathing, he was not mortal: the air in his company still crackled, unseen, with the volatile flame of a dragon's live dreaming.

Daliana's question ground through her tight throat. "What moonstruck scheme are you proposing?"

Davien bent, plucked a thorn cane barehanded, and gave it a vigorous shake. Sparks flew, as though flint had struck steel, and the whisper of fallen leaves pattered his boots. He extended his offering. The stripped stem was not as it had been: a fine lacquered hairpin glistened under the starlight. "Forms can be changed."

Daliana accepted the perilous gift, finger-tips tracing the refigured wood through the Sorcerer's resumed explanation.

"You don't behold trickery, or a disguise. The thorn has not forsaken its nature. The core substance is not shape-shifted. Only the outer surface has been remade."

Stunned as though hurled into the abyss, Daliana dropped the polished stick.

Davien picked it up, laid it flat on the boulder. His stride kept the grace of a predator as he paced before her, still speaking. "Lysaer does not confide in his servants. However, with time, the ones who are faithful do earn a measure of trust. They handle his person. Come and go when he sleeps. How strong are you, lady? Have you the fibre to lurk in the background, watch his struggles, his failures, and even, the ghastly course of his short-falls? Could you wait, hold your tongue, keep to the shadows behind his affairs and bide without snapping? Can you live for the day that unforeseen destiny might grant you the perilous opening?"

As she measured herself, wrung by trepidation, the Sorcerer stopped before her. Features in shadow, his regard could be felt, searing as coals on her skin. "You would be alone as never before. None would know your identity. On the days you suffer in pain and despair, no one's kindly word will support you. While you watch aggrieved, your beloved may destroy himself. His worst hour might break him. Can you survive? Is the purity of your love deep enough?"

Daliana swallowed. "Didn't Dakar just warn that my decision to let him go would murder untold thousands of innocents?"

The Sorcerer regarded her, bleak. "But you were not blind to the danger inherent in the fool's intervention the spellbinder proposed."

A knifing breath, snatched into seized lungs. "Then we agree? Lysaer is a good man, yes, with human flaws that have been unconscionably pressured and twisted!" Daliana swallowed again. "Somebody has to stand by his character. Else watch the last fragment of his true grace fall to wrack and ruin." A second justification, no steadier, "Asandir sent me into the breach already aware I was overfaced. So Kharadmon informed me, too late."

Davien's teeth flashed, not a smile. The line of his shoulders reflected no humour but only the indomitable steel that bore the weight of two ages. "Asandir did as he must. The options he had were most likely fatal. Lady, most brave, do not miscalculate the purpose that drives the Fellowship! Mankind on Athera walks the razor's edge. All the more as the True Sect gains sway, humanity's long-term survival is threatened. Against that disaster, you are hope itself. Or else the frail straw cast into the breach to buy a brief margin of time. Never doubt, Daliana, we Seven are ruthless."

She shivered. "I accepted Sulfin Evend's oath, willing."

In whip-crack retort, Davien's pacing resurged. "Did you know the bad odds? The best years of your natural life could be lost!" He spun and regarded her. "I will not lie. Nothing can guarantee the victory you seek."

Daliana took up the hairpin. Defiant courage reached up, determined, and restored her braid into a coil. "You would make me appear as a man?" Despite iron will, her hands trembled. "Would I be so, in fact?"

Davien raised his eyebrows. "Enough to pass close up scrutiny, and not as a figment for show. You would need to shave, or the lack would raise questions. More, your aura must withstand the Sighted scrutiny of even the True Sect's most gifted diviners. To alter your signature presence that deeply means, yes, you would have to bear a measure of masculine responsiveness."

The idea made her choke. "Then what if —"

While her blush heated scarlet, Davien chuckled. "The young women need not be a problem, I think. As you wish, I could fashion a form that makes you seem older in years."

Daliana reeled under suffocating apprehension. "Would I even know myself?"

"You will hold your self-image, but only in Name. And only the fullness of that true identity could sunder the binding. Few but the most wise own the vision to sound your true essence. No man alive, beyond Athera's Masterbard, or through a human love great enough to surpass the awareness of flesh and blood. I would not leave you helpless. The means to free yourself will remain under your command, always."

Daliana skewered the braid, wound too painfully tight as gooseflesh prickled her nape. She scrubbed her hands over her face, rattled by atavistic reservations. Sensible caution knew her experience was inadequate to plumb the enigma Davien represented. His motive could not be read in the hands casually hooked at his belt, with the sparkle of citrine set in his ring a captive spark under starlight. Unable to fathom his greater purpose, and hag-ridden: since only one choice upheld Asandir's charge, Daliana picked at the flaw in the Sorcerer's terrifying proposition.

"How many years would I have before death? Would the effect of your glamour shorten my lifetime? Lysaer does not age as a natural man."

Davien's snapped fingers dismissed the concern. "This point can be redressed without consequence." Shown disbelief, his peaked eyebrows rose. "Ah! You'd have proof? Dakar never informed you? My hand engineered the Five Centuries' Fountain that crafted your liege's longevity."

Rocked by that admission, Daliana leaped to mad impulse and bargained, "Then you'll match that advantage since I gave my heart-felt promise to Lysaer that I would never desert him."

"With your due permission?" Davien yanked a black thread from the embroidery stitched through his cuff. The strand flickered bright as contained lightning as he knotted it into an intricate bracelet. "Lady, push back your sleeve and give me your left wrist."

Her arm quaked, despite her hard-set resolve. The Sorcerer cradled her hand, his touch tenderly brisk as he slid his enchanted cincture over her skin. A quick movement noosed the weave firmly in place: nothing more, after all, than a frayed linen thread, except for a pattern that defied sight and sense to discern.

"Most brave," Davien challenged, "you are quite certain?"

She dared not pause. Second thoughts would destroy her: love's question, unanswered, would haunt her the worse if she failed to rise to this test. "Yes." Consent melted the construct into her flesh. A wave of heat followed. Then a flush like high fever, while her ears rang through a barrage of dizziness.

Deft support rescued Daliana's reeling balance as the firm bounds of her body seemed to dissolve.

Dimly, she realized the Sorcerer's handling laid her down gently onto firm ground. His words echoed across a chasm of distance and chased her fall into reeling black-out, "You will waken refreshed. Spend enough time alone as you need to adjust. I will leave you with more than sufficient provisions to supply your journey from here. When you wish to restore your true form, the change back will become irreversible. Simply grip your left wrist. Repeat your birth name three times, and break the circlet as it resurfaces."

Early Summer 5923
Pitfall

The country rose steeply beyond the pebbled moraine that lined the lake-shore of Lithmarin. Here, where a great fault-line bisected the continent, the Storlain foot-hills shattered into slopes of slab-sided rock. Stunted trees knuckled into the cracks, crabbed branches yawed over the shadowed gorges. A region riddled with bolt-holes aplenty for a hunted fugitive, including the desperate bands of deserters who fled the True Sect ranks from the warfront. A man alone set upon by such brigands survived by the sword, else, mage-gifted, slipped through the rugged vales undetected.

Such stalker's cunning let Arithon move swiftly. He slept lightly by day. Travelled by night to elude the two-legged predators, who would cut a sleeper's throat for his boots or be drawn by the glimmer of fire-light to steal a scrap of charred meat. Criminals under crown justice in Havish, the worst of them fled across the north range towards the backwater towns in Melhalla.

Arithon bent his solitary course due south, into the western spur of the ranges.

The desolate land climbed under his furtive steps, sap-green tangles of scrub oak replaced by black fir and interlaced balsam. Thinner air wore the perfume of pitch pine, lent the mineral tang of wet stone where the springs welled over the flanks of the gulches. Alert for human voices, Arithon re-entered the bounds of Havish. He climbed the baked ramparts, reared upwards into serried ridges where the snow-toothed peaks carded the summer clouds into ice-crystal wisps. Under the jagged spine of the Storlains, he sought a particular small cabin tucked into a sheltered vale. The site where the stuttering pulse of the flux lines still whispered the imprint of a woman's presence.

With his journey's end a short league as the crow flew, Arithon forged ahead as though drawn by a beacon. He ached to restore his memory of her, no matter how tenuous the fragment.

He crested a ridge-top lightly as wind. Breeze from the far side slapped his face like wet felt, stiffened with storm scent. He breasted the buffet, a cut silhouette punched against a wracked sky that spat lightning in actinic bursts. The descent plunged him back into pine forest that shuddered and tossed overhead. Snapped off needles smacked into his leathers. Such seasonal squall lines broke over the Storlains with tumultuous ferocity. Too far to bolt for the cabin's dry roof, Arithon pushed to seek shelter before the deluge unleashed and stymied his subtle senses.

He could not trace her through the lane currents while the elements snarled in rampage. Better to wait than to wander astray and plunge off the brink of a gulch.

That moment, he heard a woman's scream through the roar of the inbound gale.

Arithon altered his course toward the cry, odd though it seemed, that a Sunwheel deserter might push this far south. Few town-bred rogues owned the woodwise skills to outstrip his pace through these wilds.

Which puzzle must wait. A second cry sheared through the wind-tangled greenery. Even raised to hair-trigger alert, a mage's tuned senses could not measure the danger he faced. Already, the storm charged the flux into tumultuous static. Arithon slipped his sheathed sword off his shoulder. Hand on the hilt, he ducked through the stunt trees. He heard a man's grunt of exertion. Through the tossed boughs, veiled in gloom, someone's curse guided him towards a scuffle screened by the undergrowth.

Slowed to quiet his step, pelted by icy raindrops, Arithon peered through the thrashed branches. Lightning flickered. Flash-lit to grey upon mercury, the hollow beyond held the grappling form of a man. Crushed underneath, struggling with pinned wrists, the woman he forced fought him, weeping.

Arithon drew the sword, tensed by expectation: but the star-song within the black steel stayed quiescent. The gleam of the Paravian runes failed to ignite the sound-and-light chord of enchantment imbued at its forging. Without time to question, Arithon moved. He grabbed the man's shoulder and hauled his bulk off the violated woman. While he angled the weapon as a deterrent threat, the compromised female jerked her pinioned wrists free.

She thrust her attacker away and rolled clear, a blur of pale limbs in the gathering dark. Terrified as a wild thing sprung from a trap, she scrambled and fled, clutching her rifled clothing.

Arithon let her go. Wary, he faced her assailant, who did not bellow, or rally in response to her surprise ally. Instead, the lusty fellow writhed on the ground. Lightning flared again and illuminated the blued flash of metal sunk to the hilt into flesh.

The game little vixen had stuck him with a skinning knife.

Arithon rebounded from startled shock. He sheathed the sword, bent, and bore down to constrain the man's agonized thrashing. His explorative touch marked a forester's dress: a sturdy leather jack, belted overtop of a town-woven jerkin sodden and warm with let blood. Guided by mage-sight, he assayed the dagger protruding between neck and shoulder. The artery had been severed deep down, where no skilled pressure might stem the gushing spurt. Life fled, catastrophically. Under flux patterns storm-charged to uproar, scant seconds remained to interpret the man's fast-expiring matrix.

Arithon cradled the dying man's frame. While the sky opened up into torrents, and thunder slammed earth and sky, the tempest scattered his refined senses. He could not plumb the imprint of the ruffian's Name. Helpless, except to lend human comfort, he offered what gentle condolence he could to ease and hasten release.

The stricken man battled the throes of extremis. The erratic flicker of storm-light recorded the wracked struggle of his last, urgent effort to speak. Wide eyes stared, imploring. The corded throat worked. But the dagger had gashed the dying man's windpipe. Convulsed, rendered helpless, he passed without requite. His desperate message perished along with him though the stranger who kept vigil through his gurgled, last breath stayed until his contorted hands loosened.

The tormented spirit crossed over at length.

Arithon laid the lolled head to rest. Rocked back on his heels in the thrash of the downpour, skin-soaked and shivering, he closed the slack eyelids against the rain. As he straightened the contorted limbs, he noted the snares looped at the man's hip. The pulled knife, wiped clean, had the curved edge to dress pelts, suggesting a trapper's livelihood. With nothing else to be done to lend succour, Arithon abandoned the corpse and shoved off to find the distraught victim still living.

Flight had turned her eastward, spurred by a panic that left a swathe of snapped twigs and thrashed greenery. Arithon traced her through the crack and slam of the storm, while rainfall sheeted the pocks of her footsteps and puddled them silver. His arcane talent stayed unreliable, though fitful bursts of her graphic distress pierced through the chaotic flux. He followed with deliberate care, first not to lose her tenuous trail and also to let her traumatized nerves settle at least enough to withstand the approach of a kindly stranger.

Something had changed since the storm struck at nightfall. Elaira scrubbed at the gooseflesh that puckered her nape, anxious to unriddle the source. With the trade-road through Orvandir's flats windswept and open, and the cross-roads at Durn teeming with the encampments of the silk trade's northbound summer caravans, even the late hour thwarted her need to find solitude. The bad call had to be faced without flinching: that distance from the dense, brawling noise increased the grave risk of interference by the Koriathain.

Since the sisterhood's seat at Whitehold wielded a very long arm, the peril of isolation outstripped the town-based threat to trained talent posed by the Sunwheel fanatics. Scarcely a wise refuge to practise her arts, Elaira currently knelt on the scuffed flagstone floor in a wayside inn's fusty wine-cellar. Silence and dust weighted the stifled air, encased by walls of dense brick. Sunk deep into earth, the site naturally muffled the rambunctious emotion that stewed in the jammed upstairs tap-room. But not the flaring unease arisen from Arithon's sharp change of course.

Enroute to the cabin that once housed her herbalist's work in the Storlain ranges, he veered west: not chased in pursuit but lured. Elaira shivered again, her hands shaking. The pitch-darkness lent her no ease and no clarity. Determined, afraid, she laid out the bowl, then the corked flask and the candle stub filched from an unoccupied room. She worked quickly while her beloved's changed straits threw her fitful impressions: of wet skin and harsh gusts, icy rain and rife urgency, fragmented by static disturbance where the flux stream crackled over the fault line.

The region posed her a scryer's worst nightmare. Even without the tempestuous squall, natural interference disrupted the electromagnetic currents. The same jagged bursts once utilized to advantage to balk her order's invidious prying also upset the innate gestalt of her emotional link with Prince Arithon.

Perturbed enough to chase her apprehension, no matter the risk, Elaira unstoppered the flask and filled the brass bowl, listening against the boisterous noise from the tap-room: for the tread of the serving maids, coming and going to fetch and carry for customers, and for the noisier boots of the cheerful lad who tapped beer kegs. She dreaded disclosure, despite the cobwebs that curtained the arched brick vault, where grain spirits and wine aged in casks.

However removed, the niche was not safe. Caught at arcane practice, Elaira might suffer a branding, or worse, be dragged off in irons for the priests and the scaffold at Durn.

The upstairs door opened. Warm light sliced the gloom, followed by the boom of clogs on the stair. Starred beams from a candle lamp jittered and swayed, while grumbling over a cranky patron, the bar's ham-fisted wench collected a wheel of cheese and retreated.

Elaira expelled her stopped breath. Masked in the dark, she laid a half-consumed crust of bread to one side of the bowl, a thin effort to disguise the arcane array illumined as she sparked the candle. Misconstrued as a vagrant, she might be tossed out, or perhaps be made to wash pots with the scullions in recompense for illicit shelter.

But no such innocuous pretence might excuse the black-and-gold hawk's quill she smoothed in the tremulous glow of the flame. Stone floor, for earth, the vessel of water, the taper for fire, and feather for air: she dedicated the ritual with a whispered cantrip. Then she palmed the emerald signet of Rathain, wrought of white gold and imbued with the live charge of Arithon's past amid its layered tapestry of ancient history. Elaira passed the band over the flame, whisked it under the feather, then touched it to the surface of the brim-full bowl and asked earth to complete the connection.

Last, she cupped the set gemstone between her palms, invoked Arithon's Name, and awaited the vision engaged by the energized construct. When the connection flowered, her sight of the candle melted away. The surface of the water darkened to night and unveiled the storm broken over the Storlains with unsated ferocity …

Wild gusts thrashed the tree limbs, while the deluge pelted the ground to frothed run-off. The huddled woman did not hear Arithon's step through the crash of tossed branches. Forlorn stranger, to him, she could not know the silence of his movement, guided by his attuned sensitivity. Her first warning of his approach became the drummed punch of the rainfall, interrupted by the flick of spread cloth as he cast his hide jacket over her shivering frame.

She recoiled in terror. Sobbing from the after-shock of another man's violence, she surged to her feet, a wary creature lent panicked strength to take flight.

Whatever Arithon said to disarm her drowned under the drum of the rainfall. But lightning revealed the trapper's knife, reversed handle first, and extended toward her.

The traumatized woman snatched up the peace offering. She brandished the blade and lunged to fend him off, while he melted back, his palms raised. Although he remained armed, the black blade, Alithiel, stayed sheathed and secured at his shoulder. Small, chilled as she, and quite as miserable as his shirt soaked through, Arithon posed her no threat.

This, the woman before him would see: as initiate master, he knew how to infuse his presence with genuine calm …

Which emotional balm poured through the scryer's construct intact. While Elaira suffered the wrench of separation, a close lightning stroke in the Storlain wilds hammered the crest of the ridge and excited the flux currents. Electromagnetic chaos unravelled her established connection to Arithon.

Shaken, the enchantress closed her fist over the emerald ring and fought welling tears. Closed in the dim cellar, plagued by formless anxiety, she waited for her wheeling senses to settle, while the rushed blood pulsed through her veins, and her quickened breaths stirred dust from the casks.

Fleeting as the contact had been, the flash-point awareness cut with aching clarity: Arithon was hungry and cold to the bone. Hunted by enemies for far too long, he was tired and altogether distraught, unexpectedly saddled with helpless company against his marked preference for solitude.

Blood bound to compassion, he could not turn away. Even for self-preservation he would not ignore an abused woman's need for comfort and shelter.

Elaira had no cruelty in her nature. Her healer's instinct understood trauma. The battered person just rescued from rape was too wretchedly hurt to be left to fend for herself. Whatever motive had prompted a town-bred female to brave the Storlain wilds alone, the victimized wound to her spirit was real.

Elaira swore softly. Too well, her dread measured the vulnerable entanglement. Arithon's forthright ethic left no one in need, even when hounded by covert enemies. Though caution ought to question why such a forlorn innocent crossed his path, Rathain's prince answered to empathy first. He would smother the cry of his heart and take the destitute creature in tow.

An hour passed, two, while the squall raged apace in the Storlains. Elaira sought to restore her smashed contact as serving-maids came and went on the stair, and the electromagnetic chaos of weather smote the reactive lane currents.

Through the hours, she netted glimpses of vision: of Arithon, working beyond his safe limits, picking a tenuous path through the turbulent elements. She felt his slipped steps on slicked rocks and roots, while the sodden trees thrashed in the wind, and the woman shivered in her ripped skirt and borrowed jacket, blinded by rain in the relentless dark and reliant upon his talent-based lead.

She followed, dependent, while his guidance led down a rock-cliff and through the ravine, infallibly drawn by the whisper of a love that tormented him for its absence. Guiding flame to his yearning, Elaira shared the piercing desire by which Arithon extended his overstrung faculties. He followed the remnant trace of herself, as lightning gashed the sky overhead, and the downpour sapped his vitality. The toll of exposure forgave no mistakes. Survival relied on the abandoned cabin tucked in the lee of the ridge.

Midnight came and went within the dry cellar. Elaira stayed wakeful in the musty gloom, while the drudges swept the tap-room overhead and the boy rousted out the stupefied drunks. The stout landlord made his final rounds and closed up. He extinguished the lamp at the stair-head, then shut and locked the strapped door to the wine-vault.

Secure from interruption at last, Elaira bundled up in her mantle and catnapped. Fitful Sight wracked her sleep: of Arithon's spare words of encouragement, pitched to lift beaten morale when the woman's strength faltered. Inched across a slippery deadfall, he saw her safely over the swollen spate, raced to froth in the sunken ravine.

The little cabin perched on the far side, up a steep path shored with cut logs, puddled under the forest canopy. Above dripping firs, the angry clouds shredded to patched indigo scattered with stars.

Wakeful in the calm aftermath, Elaira shared the intimate flare of anticipation as Arithon mounted the cabin's plank stair. His thrill when he lifted the latch banished weariness, then dissolved into pain as he flung wide the door and discovered the place had been ransacked.

Nothing of value remained. The floor wore a mat of soaked leaves. Oiled-hide windows chewed through by mice had tattered from prolonged neglect.

Elaira suppressed the hot prickle of tears. Her beloved would find no meaningful trace of her. The possessions that mattered had long since gone with her, light enough to be carried. On departure, she had picked everything clean: scoured the cracks and swept all the crannies, then burned every last stick of furnishing. By such rigorous measures she had foiled the Koriathain, who would have seized the ruthless use of her leavings to anchor their divination.

"Come in," Arithon urged the fraught woman, who shrank into the shadows behind. "If there are no comforts, the roof appears sound. I can kindle a fire, close up the shutters, and get ourselves warm and dry."

Banal talk to steady the female stranger: but Elaira's tender perception sensed his suppressed note of desolation. Unable to bear his forlorn disappointment, the enchantress flung off her mantle and paced the wine-vault like a caged beast. Her steps riffled the cobwebs in the cramped space, while the slow hours unreeled towards dawn, and the stutter of the Storlain flux patterns smoothed enough to refigure her scryer's array …

… the bowl's image cleared to show Arithon, seated on the floor, with his arms tucked over his drawn-up knees. His drenched hair, rinsed clean, was neatly tied back, and his damp shirt half-unlaced in the carmine fire-light. Belt and baldric had been stripped off to dry where the heat would not crack the leather. The black sword, unsheathed, leaned against the board wall beyond reach, a firm statement of neutral disarmament.

The woman huddled nearest the hearth, her dishevelled bodice still swathed in his jacket. The dead man's blood stained the blouse underneath, and her muddied skirt clung to scraped ankles. Trapped in cramped quarters, shame and misery exposed, she feared to turn her back, even to mend her frayed laces. Her fixed regard blazed with distrust, while his gaze in turn read every nuance of her hostile rage and discomfort.

Arithon asked gently, patient enough to overlook her antagonism, "What is your name?"

Hoarsely, she answered. "Vivet." A shudder raked through her. Eyes blue as a glaze on fine porcelain glinted back through tear-swollen lids. Then she ducked her head, her heart-shaped face veiled behind tangles of red-gold hair. Bruises on her wrists marred creamy skin, delicate in the grain as veined marble. Her alto tone coloured by a mountain dialect, she added, defensive, "I was on my way home."

"Alone?" Arithon asked, his Masterbard's timbre velvet with calm.

Her shoulders moved, a shrug of stiff impatience. "I was born in the region. These peaks have been native soil to my family for generations."

She pinched her lips, terrified. The strangled pause stretched.

Endowed with a healer's tactful restraint, Arithon displayed no inclination to pry …

But the surge of his unspoken compassion raised a piercing ripple of pure emotion. The water in the scryer's bowl shivered, while Elaira reeled in wrenching empathy.

Ath on earth, how she missed his testy company!

The fact Arithon was free in the world, and untouchable, threatened to break her in pieces. Relief came, ridden by desolation as the unstable flux sawed through the clear linkage and cut off rapport like a mercy stroke. The scried image winked out. The puff as Elaira released her seized breath extinguished the fluttering candle.

Plunged back into fusty dark, she blotted the emerald ring dry, then restored the band to the chain hung from her neck. Trembling, distraught, she sheathed the hawk's quill in her sleeve. Then, wrung ragged, she leaned against the stacked casks. Face shuttered, she released the pent storm of sheer longing and helpless resentment. The Biedar crone's warning given at Sanpashir haunted her: "Can you let Arithon go beyond your control? Do you love enough to keep faith in him, even afflicted by your own loss? For he will seek his fate. If he can invent a fresh course by his wits, he will try to resolve his own happiness. Stand or fall, his life's path will be forged in this world. The gifts of his birthright will claim their full due. He will find himself, with or without you."

Elaira firmed her shaken discipline. She packed up the tools of her practice. Sorely as she wished otherwise, she dared not forsake love's inviolate trust. Arithon must be left to rely on his instincts. If she wavered and intervened without cause, her selfish weakness would come to destroy him.

His state of ignorance shielded them both.

For as long as Arithon did not know her whereabouts, and while the sequestered recall of her identity stayed lost to him, Koriathain could not use her as the weapon to smash his defiant free will.

Whether Vivet's straits engaged his heart-felt sympathy, the Prince of Rathain would be safest from the reach of his enemies left upon his own merits.

Cold daybreak brought in the next squall line. A rampaging tower of anvil-heads with gale-force winds broke over the Storlain Mountains. Vivet slept in a corner, outworn by exhaustion, curled beneath her torn cloak. The soaked fabric had dried. Her snarled chestnut hair curtained her cheek. The arms folded over her breasts lay relaxed, fingertips with broken nails flushed pink as a child's. She did not stir, even when thunder and driven rain rattled the cabin's rickety shutters.

The coals in the fire-place warmed off the dank chill. Since nothing else could be done for her comfort without the intrusion of touching her, Arithon left her undisturbed.

More, he welcomed the peace. Taxed to the edge of endurance himself, and still wracked by the bound and start of stressed faculties, rest escaped him. Given calm reprieve from the young woman's strident terror of his male presence, he snatched the chance to act for himself.

The driving blaze of his preference resurged: to relentlessly quarter the cabin and seek the lost memory of his beloved. Vivet's trauma curtailed a tranced assay through tienelle. The herb's heightened expansion would mire his wits and sweep him into the magnified pain of her wounded emotions.

Arithon reclaimed his discarded jacket. He replenished the fire, lit a brand, and under the juddering light, pondered his limited options. No trace remained to suggest where his heart's partner had slept. The soot-stained chimney showed nothing, not even a pot-hook, to define the character of her inhabitancy. In a dwelling stripped unremittingly bare, the weathered timbers themselves presented his only available sounding-board.

Patterns pervaded the flux currents. Over time, repeated events, or an individual's unique traits combed the structures of stone and wood into sympathetic alignment. Listen deeply enough, and the sensitivity of his Masterbard's ear might capture the ephemeral imprints. Latent impressions of his beloved should linger even after an extended absence.

Arithon wedged his torch in the cracked mantel shelf. He proceeded, no matter how exhaustively tired. His search must be done promptly. Before the delicate presence of her abraded under the stamp of recent experience, and Vivet's reactive turmoil clouded the near-faded trace.

Wood's vibration best amplified harmonic nuance, where mineral's retentive record endured. Arithon began with the fieldstone hearth. Eyelids half-shut, he stilled into a receptive state and stroked his finger-tips over the masonry.

Fire spoke to his inner ear first, the pungent vitality of fir logs just burned for lifesaving heat. Below the sibilant shriek of live flame, beneath the drummed rampage of weather, he heard rain-song: a wind-driven sluice ringing yet with shrill overtones wrought by the winds of high altitude.

Arithon sounded deeper. Underneath surface noise, he touched a faint pang of desolate sorrow. Loss and regret wove in poignant refrain, beneath which should lie the strata of her more significant presence. But as he reached into the tenuous veil, seeking, a vehement blast of Fire! and sage smoke razed through, a deliberate scour unleashed for the purpose of annihilation.

A ritual cleansing had swept this place clean!

Adamant, thorough, the measure had unravelled the residual record. Gone, the patterns that would have charted the cherished inflections of her personality.

Wrung blank by the purge, Arithon shuddered in recoil. Nothing more remained to be read. With all resonance of her prior tenancy erased, she had fled this dwelling with no ties and no plan to return. Cast adrift where he sorely hoped to find answers, and crushed by desolation, Arithon opened his eyes.

Plunged back into the framework of natural sight, he caught a pinprick flash of reflection: something shiny, wedged into a crack between floor-boards.

Before thought, he seized on the hope a small leaving of hers may have been overlooked. Not glass, he discovered upon closer survey. A tiny, broken sliver of crystal surfaced under his effort.

Crouched with held breath, spurred by careless persistence, he fingered the shard, intently listening. The rush of awareness took him by storm, a leap of revelation that crushed expectation and shattered his incomplete recall with terrible truths: that she was a sworn sister of the Koriathain, trained in the usage of sigils amplified through a quartz matrix. The very same vicious knowledge once had been engaged to seal his long-term confinement. More than poisoned bait, she had made her love the willing tool of her superiors. Attached to his affairs by her Prime's directive, she had abetted his downfall, her person the infallible leverage behind the capitulation that saw him ensnared.

Facts damned, by stark honesty. The impressions distilled in the fragment of crystal did not lie: he knew her well enough to sting under the bitterness of her heart's yearning, shackled in oath-tied subservience. She had been a weapon beyond all compare: a danger to him above death itself, her magnetic allure a force fit to level all of his core defences. Even wounded, he ached with irrational yearning. Peerless proof of her secret duplicity did not destroy the fatal attraction. Arithon wept, unable to reconcile his instinctive, flawed trust with the voice of her very self.

He flung the crystal chip into the hearth. He could not bear the message, far less assimilate the black agony that stranded him in separation.

Since rain and cold, and the violent storm matched the bias of his temper, he stumbled erect, yanked open the door, and barged outside to quench his bleak fury.

Practical measures steered his direction. Any anchor to dull a raw hurt that no remedy could assuage. Over the ridge, the corpse of a knifed trapper awaited a burial. More, survival relied upon setting game traps for sustenance. He could manage the insignificant chores. Fix his attention upon mindless work, before the crippling blow ground his spirit under the weight of stark sorrow.

Arithon ran. Downpour soaked him, and lightning flared, silver-white in the grey dawn. But the cruel severance could not be escaped, unequivocally framed in betrayal.

Summer 5923
Personation

The breezes stirring midsummer's brass heat still carried the tang of defeat out of Havish. Rampant talk sown by Sunwheel deserters spread vivid accounts, embellished by the disaffected anxiety still building apace since the past spring's explosive flux surge. Few townsfolk doubted an outbreak of sorcerous Shadow had broken the True Sect invasion. If rumour claimed the Light's avatar also had vanished from the field in the after-shock, as dust settled in The Hatchet's retreat, port towns along Instrell Bay moved more reliable news in sealed dispatches. These confirmed the Master of Shadow's escape. Fewer, kept secret, traced Lysaer s'Ilessid's reappearance in anonymous seclusion at East Bransing.

While Sethvir at Althain Tower strained errant hearsay from truth, news of the war trickled eastward across the continent, hampered where Athili's bounds and the haunted pass through Lithmarin thinned the hectic flow of town trade across the Storlain ranges, and stalled altogether where the merchant guilds' influence languished at Backwater. Itinerant tinkers crept word of mouth northward. Morbid fears and suspicion spread from Daenfal Lake gradually through Araethura's back-country herders, where Iyat-thos Tarens and his youthful clan companions traversed the open steppe.

Footbound for weeks in an isolate vista of grassland and quicksilver streams thatched with briar, the party had been run off by vicious dogs. Where the goats grazed, unfenced, they were stoned on sight by furtive boys wielding hide slings.

Distance from the settlements added rank distrust. Appointed as spokesman for his friendly smile and crofter's accent, Tarens found his most polite knock met by a screech from the cottage matron who answered her door. His honest request to trade for a waxed cheese was put off by a meat skewer, the uproar unpleasantly quick to draw riled kin from the byre brandishing hay-forks.

"You'd think I'm a sorcerer in league with Shadow!" he vented, chased to breathless flight. Returned to find that morning's campsite stripped down, and no sign of his furtive companions, he required a clan tracker's skills to ferret out their direction.

Tarens caught up with Siantra at midmorning, soaked to the neck and flushed after crossing the swift-running creeks that furrowed a landscape riddled by narrow ravines. "Slinking weasel!" he accused. "You knew my reception was going to cause mayhem."

Sidir's willowy descendant fingered her strung bow and shrugged. Seal-dark hair and the fey glint in pale eyes accented the wolfish cast to her cheek-bones. "Why the injured surprise?" Daughter of her lineage, she evaded with truth. "You look like a ruffian inclined to steal eggs."

In fact, thieving was the most likely aim of a townsman this far off the beaten track: a large stranger scarred by a broken nose and armed with knife and sword posed a threat great enough to inspire hostility. Perhaps shamed she had played that advantage and bolted, Siantra flicked her sly glance askance. "You swam to throw off pursuit? That's foolhardy."

More than wet clothes prickled Tarens to chills. Warned he ruffled more than the young woman's poise, he bristled with incredulity. "This near the Arwent Gorge? Brazen sneak! Don't mock me with the belated concern that I might have drowned in the current!"

The vixen blushed. "If you're all that wise to the lay of the land, why risk your life?"

"Because I don't trust the pair of you out of my sight." The glib request to restock supplies in hindsight should have been questioned. "Esfand's gone ahead," the frank crofter accused, doubly annoyed to have fallen for the transparent deception.

"I stayed." Guilty, Siantra defended, "You can't fault us! Esfand rightfully should report first as his sire's heir apparent."

"More than my own sensibilities would argue," Tarens flared back.

"You can't overtake him," Siantra protested, hot on the crofter's heels as he passed her. "I held back only to stop you! If you manage to find the way down to the gorge, Esfand's alert will have warned the patrol scouts."

But Tarens possessed in full measure the past memories of Jieret, once caithdein to Rathain and High Earl of the North. He required no guide. Unless two hundred and fifty years of weather had crumbled the gap through the notch, he knew the hidden access into Halwythwood better than any.

Tailed by Siantra's dismayed footsteps, Tarens glanced backwards and spat in the dirt. "That, for cold-blooded murder! Your choice."

Then he sprinted. Shocked, nearly tearful, Siantra could not check a grown man twice her weight, short of taking him down with an arrow. Which the forest scouts' vigilance might well do anyway, denied their due chance to verify the outlandish twist: that this affable stranger who spoke in town dialect was not the bumpkin he appeared but a feal liegeman to Prince Arithon of Rathain.

Siantra shouted, distraught. "Esfand went to break the news that the clan relay through Halwythwood may be overfaced. And he's right! We can't grasp how deeply the True Sect's defeat has gutted treaty law, or what oppressive policy's arisen since Lysaer abdicated the mayor's seat at Etarra to Canon Law."

The recent lane shift unleashed hard against the disastrous campaign to fight Shadow had recoiled into fanatical hysteria. Distrust fed the Light's cause, while the volatile terror stirred by the heightened flux incited still more widespread purges. Old blood-lines were pursued under bounty again as True Sect doctrine inflamed the south. Irruptive outbreaks of latent talent at Backwater unleashed the renewed predation of trackers with dogs, funded in force by the head-hunters' leagues and the temple's coffers. Hounded under blood-letting unrest, the free wilds' scouts would be primed to kill any outsider on sight.

When Iyat-thos refused to wait upon reason, Siantra shed her cumbersome pack roll and raced in scared desperation to flank him.

The snare dropped with barely a slither of warning. Twine mesh weighted with stones netted Tarens halfway down the notched path, zigzagged through the cliff where Araethura's plateau dropped off sheer at the central fault-line. The cleft where he tumbled swooped a hundred yards downwards, straight for the rocky ravine that channelled the snaked froth of the Arwent. Banged and cut as he fell, unable to save himself, he slid at frightening speed towards the precipice.

A spindly, stunt fir snagged him short of fatality. Subject to a rough rescue, spluttering the spray inhaled from the white water boiling down the river-course, he swore vengeance in outraged Paravian. Siantra's shouts, more than his fluent insults, forestalled the scouts' ready swords. Murderous still, unimpressed by his grasp of old language, the clan patrol guarding the fringes of Halwythwood preferred distrust over lenient caution.

They trussed his hands, no surprise, given such callous handling deserved the honest retort of his fists. The gag that followed imposed an indecency Tarens fought tooth and nail.

The scouts jerked the knots brutally tight, while Siantra sniped from the side-lines. "Well, what did you expect? You've trespassed without leave, and not only that, crossed the honour of Esfand's ancestral name."

Which provocation Tarens already had acknowledged in unvarnished words. Restraints alone forestalled his scathing redress: Jieret's outrage demanded due reckoning. Dharkaron Avenger's Black Spear take the hour he should face High Earl Cosach s'Valerient: a blood chieftain, a father, and unconscionably terrifying, an invested caithdein whose cowardice had let three youngsters hare off after the realm's rightful duty to Rathain's crown prince.

That dangerous trek into enemy territory had led onto the red field of war and entangled their fates, with one feckless boy's life lost untimely.

Where Esfand's rebellious impulse had strained the leash of adult interference, not every rigorous standard had slipped since the day of Earl Jieret's authority. The patrol scouts that Tarens had thrashed to singed rage still reacted apace to unsanctioned intrusion.

They hauled his bulk upright. Efficient and quick, they disarmed him, then prodded his person at weapons' point down the precarious, switched-back trail into the ravine. Met at the river's edge by Esfand, and spoken for over the thundering rapids by Siantra's passionate argument, he found himself blindfolded and hoisted on a sling across the white race of the Arwent. Forced, stumbling, over the slippery rocks on the far bank, then from chilly shade into sunlight, he smelled grass, ears deafened by the shrilling of summer cicadas in the parched scrub underfoot. He endured more brisk handling. Another tussle, that ended with him in duress, lashed by a stout rope on horseback. By then, his captors' exasperated forbearance suggested his fight, or Siantra's insistent appeal, had been heard.

"Rest easy, fellow!" the scout captain snapped. "You're under our escort for a clan hearing."

If Jieret's inherited wisdom approved of the ruthless precautions, Tarens endured a pace that blistered his knees, painful sacrifice for the blessing of speed. His imperative charge to reach Halwythwood's council scalded his nerves to unease. Each passing hour since the past evening, the gut wrench of his instincts screamed warning. Wherever Arithon fared in the Storlains, whatever his current activity, Tarens sensed that a crucial dynamic had turned for the worse.

Family ties, before Sighted urgency, shaped the High Earl of the North's explosive response to the news of the prodigal children's return. The message relay that sent word by notched arrows flagged him down where he stood in tense conference. Cosach ran out on the council's debate over the True Sect hazard brewing at Etarra.

Burst into the lodge where his fair-haired wife nursed their four-month-old infant, he grinned ear to ear through his wiry beard and lunged for his weapons. "Esfand's back at last!" Aware of her tears as she surged to arise, he kissed her forehead and resettled her before the babe lost its suckle and howled. "I'm going myself." Busy with buckles, he answered her thought. "Laithen's heard. She's already away. When you've done with the wean, take over the reins and talk common sense to the chieftains. A few flaming maniacs think we can repel the Canon's blood purge with a war band."

The door flap slapped to his vigorous exit, through Jalienne's bemused rejoinder, "I'm not the best choice to keep order in there. Ask me, our warmongering dolts should be cooled like a dog scrap with pails of flung water."

"If only that worked," Rathain's caithdein lamented over his shoulder. A scrambled thud of hooves saw him mounted and gone, swiftly enough to meet the inbound scouts enroute from their post by the Arwent.

As usual, Laithen s'Idir's stringent sense outpaced everyone else. Her advance dispatch saw a hide tent pitched in wait, tucked under the dappled shade at the southern fringe of Halwythwood.

Late-afternoon sunlight seeped through the tied-back entry when Cosach stalked in. He found pine torches staked in place, but unlit, beside a plank trestle surrounded with grass-stuffed hassocks. Surprised to raised eyebrows by the banner of Rathain, hung behind, his glance met the whipcord-tough woman who emerged from the shadows. "I've received state visitors with much less fuss. My son won't be cowed. Are you trying to wake the fear of Dharkaron's vengeance in your only daughter?"

"As if anyone could," Laithen said, too blunt for his blustering. "Our youngsters may come in hungry and tired. Let's welcome them home and hear their report. In formal quiet, before they are mobbed for details by a raucous audience."

"Well." Cosach gestured askance at the curtain strung to provide private quarters. "Jalienne will skin me alive if I stall our boy overnight."

Laithen's mouth quirked. Slender in restraint as a planted spear, she countered the feint. "They aren't children, no matter they've not come of age. After this, you don't think they deserve the respect of an adult reception?"

Cosach snorted. "Maybe." He fumed, bunched broad shoulders, and swore with bad grace, then shucked his sword and filled the cramped tent with his restless anticipation. Ever the model of cool sobriety, Laithen leaned on a support pole to quell her impulse to pace.

A woodpecker's tap pocked the stillness from the humid depths of the forest: no bird's industrious foraging but a signal from a concealed sentry. Cosach froze between steps, while Laithen let go and shoved forward. Muscular High Earl and mercurial woman barely avoided collision as the outriders reined up lathered mounts in the glen. Both anxious parents poised with stopped breath until the boisterous commotion sorted itself out, and the dismounted pack of scouts swirled and parted.

The son whose rash exploits had sent him too dangerously far afield emerged first. Esfand was no longer the unfinished stripling, all elbows and knees with the gawky neck of adolescence. Taller, fleshed out, he advanced with confidence, his seal-dark clan braid secured with grass twine, and his leathers the worse for hard wear. Intent hazel, his eyes locked on the father poised at the tent's entry.

Then mature poise shattered. Esfand surged forward in naked relief and burst out, agonized, "Khadrien —"

Cosach swept the lad into a bear hug. Gruff with pride for the young man in his clasp, he said, "Never mind. Later. We already know. Your mother's well, and you have a new sister to welcome. Cordaya."

Hard at Esfand's heels came Siantra. Grown as well, but fretted rail thin, her coltish frame still moved with incongruous grace, but no more in impetuous innocence: under charcoal brows bunched into a frown, her enormous, pale eyes held an unearthly light. Met by her diminutive mother, she burst out, "I'm sorry! The black sword, Alithiel —"

"We're aware of that, also." Laithen embraced her daughter, tearful and smiling. "Khadrien's exploits can be discussed later." Overjoyed though she was by reunion, the fair-skinned outsider the scout guards hauled in blindfolded had not escaped her. "That won't be his Grace. Who else have you brought us?"

Cosach scowled at the bound stranger, which prompted the patrol to present the unplanned arrival forthwith. "Inside," he snapped, then, "You, as well," to the son just reassessed at arm's length. "Sit with us. I'll hear your report once this trespasser's case is settled to my satisfaction."

Siantra and Esfand exchanged a tense glance, not canny enough to duck Laithen's quicksilver intelligence. "Not now!" The jerk of her chin towards the tent implored them to retire without argument.

Commanded to the side-lines, the youngsters watched, silent, as the scouts dragged Tarens from horseback and hauled him to the tent for summary judgement. Laithen settled at the end of the trestle, overshadowed by Cosach, who stalked in and retrieved his sword. The baldric hung in place at his shoulder when the stranger's person was manhandled before him and shoved onto his knees in the dirt.

"He's unarmed?" Cosach cracked. "Then cut the wretch free. I would see a man's face while he's questioned." Through the bustle as the scout escort wrestled their trussed prisoner back upright, the High Earl repeated Laithen's clipped inquiry. "What have you brought us?"

Siantra's swift assessment, called out of turn, "An ally who knows Prince Arithon better than we do!" entangled with Esfand's appeal, "Let the fellow speak for himself."

"Ally!" Surprise never softened High Earl Cosach to leniency. He kicked a stuffed hassock towards the armed scouts. "Sit the trespasser down." Arms braced on the board at his back, he watched slit-eyed, while the scouts prodded their charge as directed, spring-wound to strike at the least provocation. They severed the knots at the intruder's roped wrists, then whisked off the cloth bundled over his head.

Blond hair in need of a trim pasted the fellow's flushed features: a visage moulded by country-bred honesty, handsome before the welted scar that disfigured his broken nose. Weathered to creases by sunburn, blue eyes blinked in the dazzle of sunlight shafted through the open tent flap.

A poised threat recessed into gloom, Cosach sized up the scouts' catch at stilled leisure. His own stance stayed hackled as he found himself as directly surveyed in turn. The captive did little but chafe his cramped hands, an innocuous gesture that also lent space for his unmasked senses to reorient. Plain as a shout, his incensed silence protested his uncivil treatment.

"Rough times have returned," Cosach allowed softly. "Town-born strays are apt to be head-hunters' spies. Best give us your reason for slinking into the free wilds."

The stranger's response cut past Siantra's protest. "I would have your name before I confide." Head tipped upwards in dangerous inquiry, he laced his limbered fingers.

The realm's caithdein showed teeth and responded with all of his titles. Then, mocking, he inclined his head and acknowledged the witness of Laithen s'Idir.

"Ah!" Wheaten eyebrows rose with brazen amusement. "By all means, I'll endorse Sidir's lineage for probity. Provided, of course, the lady serves also as unimpeachable oversight for my case in turn." Clasped fists hardened, the rogue leaned aggressively forward. "I am known by Iyat-thos Tarens." In flawless Paravian, he repeated Cosach's state titles, added Laithen's full name with deference, then declared, "Mind your impeccable tradition since I will deliver the tidings I bring on my feet!"

He shoved erect then, palpably angered as the armed guard behind slapped a hostile grip on their weapons.

Cosach's barked order defused the attack. Equally matched in height and broad stature, he had not misread the capable stamp of the farmer. Yet the balanced stance wearing the guise of a crofter pitched more than his scouts onto prickling edge. Cosach acknowledged the fighting trim on a man whose business screamed primal danger.

Tarens invoked clanbred etiquette, crossed his wrists at the heart, and continued. "I bring word of your own. Be it known to s'Valerient kin that my best effort could not avert tragedy. Your boy, Khadrien, crossed the Wheel in Scarpdale in the brave service of Rathain's prince."

Laithen made a sound, hands pressed to her mouth, while Cosach's chopped signal enforced her silence. "Town-whelped upstart! How dare you presume."

"To your shame, on the contrary," Tarens replied. "Explain why three youngsters not grown to majority left the safety of Halwythwood to shoulder a perilous cause for the realm. The answer you give better satisfy, obligated as I have been by the shade of your titled ancestor, Jieret s'Valerient. His outraged memory as a clan chieftain demands a reckoning in full."

Cosach purpled.

"He's telling the truth!" Siantra pealed, desperate.

Which shocking breach impelled Laithen to break protocol. A diminutive brown sparrow swooped in to scold at an eagle's threat to the nest, she flung herself between the insolent stranger and Rathain's incensed caithdein. "Sit down, both of you!" Her open palm slapped Cosach's barrel chest, while she spun in chastisement on Tarens. "Don't condemn the harsh choice you know nothing about. Ath above! If your claim of connection is genuine, then find the civilized reason to air both sides of the matter before you cause bloodshed."

When Tarens folded back onto the hassock, face masked behind shuttered hands, she pealed over his shoulder to one of the scouts. "End this cruel falsehood. Now! I will not abide! You're sent. Yes, at once! He's assigned at the horse picket."

Yet the person she summoned required no messenger: a sheepish cough and a crack in the privacy flap disclosed the eavesdropping presence of a gangling scamp in trail leathers, the carroty wisp of yesterday's clan braid gnawed between nervous teeth. "I'm here, actually," confessed Khadrien, singed red for the prank played on his aghast companions. "Sorry about that. But who could resist? Since you thought I was dead, you deserved the comeuppance for leaving me." He managed no more, overturned with a yelp as Siantra and Esfand pounced both at once, knocked him flat, and pounded him breathless.

Amid bemused commotion, Laithen transferred her repressive scowl from Cosach. Sympathy moved her to grip Tarens's wrist as she realized his shaken clasp masked relieved tears.

She said quickly, "We had word from a Sorcerer, yes, within days. The youngsters should have been informed straightaway. Since our miscreant carelessly lost the heirloom sword and the horse, the Fellowship decided he had no further business mucking about in the Kingdom of Havish. Asandir dispatched Khadri home from the focus circle at Fiaduwynne. As you see, he has suffered less than he deserved. I'm so sorry! No one meant to be callous. We had no idea that you'd shouldered a harrowing trip and misplaced anguish in our behalf."

Cosach recoiled and roared at Laithen, "Dharkaron's grief, woman! What insanity prompts your trust in an outsider whose outrageous claim is not verified?"

Laithen paused. Rod thin, she glared upwards at her chieftain: who backed off a step, hiked one hip on the trestle, and perched in stonewalled confrontation.

Laithen's whiplash grin followed. "Likely I've seen the same thing as my daughter. This man shares your lineage in truth. You're not convinced yet? Let me show you proof."

She bent once more to the town-born on the hassock, stunned yet in mortified after-shock. "Here's the filthy secret to dealing with Khadrien. If his exploits bother your conscience again, understand that fecklessness runs in his blood. As our High Earl's family descends from Barach, here's the flip side of history: Khadri's branch springs from the sister, who wed Sevrand s'Brydion."

Tarens lowered his hands. "You say Jeynsa married the bullheaded nephew of Alestron's warmongering duke?" Through an unembarrassed sheen of stalled tears, his expression showed genuine horror. "The minx! Was she mad to breed with that clutch of rife trouble?" He winced. "Though fiends plague the hindmost, nobody else owned the cast-iron bollocks to deal with her spitfire nature."

All at once, he succumbed to the irony, threw back his blond head, and laughed.

When finally Iyat-thos recovered his breath, he bypassed the shield of Laithen's acceptance and tackled Cosach's recalcitrance directly. "I've been endowed with Jieret's memories and the full measure of his trained skills. Not to supplant your sworn charge as caithdein, but to grant Arithon a reliable ally to access his forgotten past."

Cosach fielded the remarkable statement, prepared to seek disposition. "This is an appeal?"

"Perhaps," Tarens ventured. "I came to help your effort to contact his Grace and restore his connection with Rathain's feal clans. As a friend, I entreat your council to weigh my attributes in good faith. My background bought your youngsters safe passage through Backwater." Through the distraction of Khadrien's glib talk, and Siantra and Esfand's recounted experience, the outsider offered, "A town-bred crofter might move freely where clansfolk would face deadly risk."

Granted his own shrewd angle of insight, Cosach spun and accosted the youngsters in cahoots by the curtained alcove. "I'll have your opinion before your report! Do I rely on this fellow to keep the integrity of our affairs?"

As observer, Laithen interpreted two boys' crest-fallen consternation, then lost her breath, chilled by the uncanny depth in her daughter's regard. "Surely we must." She brushed off her chieftain's disgruntled surprise. "Well, how else can we hope to thwart these three miscreants from trying their next lame-brained escapade?"

But Cosach's assessment of the errant trio belied her dismissive remark. The stunning expansion of Siantra's talent, offset by Esfand's obdurate commitment and Khadrien's hot-headed impulses, suggested that the three together posed something greater than their individual destinies.

"Ath wept!" muttered Cosach, jellied by a fore-running tremor of prescience. He folded onto the nearest hassock and dismissed the scouts' guard from the tent. His capitulation called upon Laithen to scrounge someone's brandy and a suitable vessel.

"Iyat-thos!" he concluded in outright demand. "You're prepared to swear a guest's oath of amity?"

Shown the man's unreserved acquiescence, Cosach's broad gesture invited the townsman to claim a proper seat at the trestle. "Let's hear your story. Leave nothing out! You say our dead ancestry has seen fit to provide living guidance from beyond the veil? Then I'll have the facts on the matter straight up! What under Athera's mysteries are Rathain's liege folk being stiffened to face?"

Summer 5923
Realignments

Called onto the carpet before the High Priest at Erdane, the Light's First Commander, known as The Hatchet, accepts the new orders for his beaten troops; and while eyes chill as ice chips flick down the lines, his clamped lips flex into a predator's grin, that his proposal to harden morale has been endorsed to his satisfaction …

Amid the rainy streets of East Bransing, a charitable, blond aristocrat halts his retinue for a destitute elder who pleads to black his boots for a penny; and when the fellow's deft expertise brings up the reason for his unemployment, the tale of a master's demise in the war prompts a kind invitation to serve in his Lordship's household …

Briefly returned to Althain Tower from the High Queen of Havish's late coronation, Asandir sees his black stallion stabled, then all but collides with Sethvir, caught descending the stairwell in agitation: "The Prime," he admits. "Her next move's set in motion, a play of deceitful exploitation far worse than anything she's tried before …"

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