Crown of Vengeance

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Tor Books

CHAPTER ONE
 

THE FALL OF FARCARINON
Even as we reckon time, our history is long—so long its beginnings have been worn away by the passage of time. Long before Man came to be, we were. It could be said that our history begins with the Endarkened, for that terrible conflict scoured away all that we had been before it, leaving us one purpose:
Survival.
—Peldalathiriel Caerthalien, Of the Reign of Great Queen Vieliessar
Perchelion used to tell me the Hunt rode through every storm. When I grew old enough to question I said I did not believe her. I remember how she slapped me, and said I would never become a knight of my father’s meisne, for to doubt the Starry Hunt meant I would never wield a sword. I remember I laughed, and said there were not enough storms in all the year for them to do that …
Ladyholder Nataranweiya forced her mind to focus on such ancient trifles, for to allow it liberty would mean she thought of things it would not be good to think on now. Her child-swollen body shuddered harder than the cold should merit, even as the horse’s body shook with weariness.
Lightning stitched the woods to sudden brightness, and in its light she could see Falthiel, his face turned toward her, shouting something. She could not make out the words over the howl of the wind and the thunder of the horses’ hooves. Dioniron had given their mounts enough of the battle cordial to poison them: they would run until they died.
They would have to. Caerthalien’s dogs were a candlemark—no more—behind them now, and Nataranweiya knew they outnumbered the scant handful of her surviving protectors.
Suddenly her mount put a foot wrong, slipping and staggering through mud and autumn leaves for a handful of terrifying moments before finding its balance and running on. The near-fall jarred her agonizingly, but Nataranweiya did not cry out. She would not shame her Bondmate, even though all her broken soul yearned for was to follow him into the death he had found. Serenthon Farcarinon would have made her queen over all the Hundred Houses. If only Serenthon had never known of Amrethion’s Curse. If only he had not taken it into his heart, as if it were a lover’s message meant for him alone.
As reasonable to wish he had never known of the sun, or the sky, or the trees.
Why was our Bond not enough for you? Why must you reach for more?
“Near, my lady!” Beleval shouted, his voice loud enough to cut through the roar of the storm. Near to the Sanctuary of the Star.
Near to safety. Near to revenge.
Pain gripped her, this wave coming sooner than the last, and when it passed she tasted the blood from where she’d bitten her lip. She had been upon the birthing couch when the traitors had come. That the child had delayed even from nightfall to nightfall was more grace than she had hoped for; the unborn babe would not grant her yet more clemency. She must be delivered soon or this nightmare ride would have been for nothing.
Only within the Sanctuary of the Star could she be safe.
The bright call of a warhorn sheared through the noise of their flight and jarred her back to full consciousness. Any daughter of the Hundred Houses learned early the strategies and treacheries an enemy might use to gain what it wished. She knew their pursuers had no need to signal an intended attack. It was an attempt to startle the prey into rash action, so they might be easily taken.
The horn called again, closer.
Suddenly Nataranweiya found herself alone. Moments later the full fury of the storm struck her; so much water was flung at her by the wind that she coughed and choked on it. The shock was so great that in her exhaustion it took her precious heartbeats to understand what had happened. Beleval and Dioniron have turned back.
The three of them had been in the lead. If Beleval and Dioniron had turned back to throw themselves against their pursuers, the others had as well.
Farewell, farewell, friends, companions, cousins! We shall meet again in Tildorangelor, beneath the trees.…
She would have wept, save that her tears had all been shed long before. Now the sky must do her mourning. She could not open her eyes against the wind to search for the lights ahead, but they must be there. They must.
Her mount’s gait was even more jarring now. It had run the sun down out of the sky, its drug-maddened gallop as unchanging as the beat of drums. Even in her exhausted, pain-racked state, Nataranweiya knew the instant that rhythm changed. The horse slowed from a gallop to a jarring trot, forced itself to a gallop again, staggered to a stiff-legged exhausted canter and held there. Nataranweiya could hear the desperate whistling sound it made as it fought for air, for life
The animal lost its fight between one step and the next. She felt its muscles go slack, even as the hot blood of its death sprayed her, she was already kicking her feet free of the stirrups and releasing her cold-cramped grip on its reins. She must throw herself from the saddle or be trapped beneath its body when she fell. Who had first taught her that? She no longer remembered; nor was she the bright slender girl who had learned that lesson any longer. She screamed at another wave of pain that rose just as she flung herself free. Hurry, you must hurry, they will hear, they will follow.… Then all thoughts were driven from her mind until it passed.
She crawled from beside the horse’s body as soon as she could. With shaking fingers she ripped the jeweled clasp of her fine fur cloak open, shedding its sodden weight in the mud.
Hurry. To your feet, witless girl, you must run now.…
She crawled.
Three times she was forced to halt by the agonizing pressure on her abdomen. She barely knew when she reached the Sanctuary gates. They stood eternally open in both warning and promise that no conflict might enter here. She clawed herself to her feet along one pillar.
Beyond the gate. Inside. You are not safe until you are within. Not safe. Not safe …
*   *   *
For six centuries Maeredhiel had served the Sanctuary of the Star. Let the children come and go in their season, let a new Astromancer be chosen each time the ever-living Vilya bore its fruit; what was that to her? Maeredhiel had made for herself a place and a peace that none would take from her. Did not Lightborn need to eat and sleep? Did not the workrooms and stillrooms run more smoothly when there was a proper supply of herbs and fruits to hand for decoction and enchanting?
And did not young Candidates tear their tunics and outgrow their sandals, here just as within the walls of the Keep in which she had been born?
The time was late, and tomorrow as always would be a day of much work, yet Maeredhiel found she could not sleep. She had already checked the storerooms and the sleeping rooms for possible storm damage, and even visited the high tower where Celelioniel spent so many nights. The Astromancer had not gone there tonight, for clouds had obscured her beloved stars, but still Maeredhiel was uneasy. Tonight’s storm was fierce and unseasonable.
Fool! she berated herself. Are you yourself an Astromancer, to know the stories the stars whisper? What troubles you is indigestion and age, nothing more.
She hesitated in the antechamber of the Shrine, adjusting her hooded shawl. It was always as bright as summer noon here, for the walls and ceiling shone with Silverlight renewed again and again since the day Mosirinde Peacemaker had first set this place apart. The stone floor was inlaid with a silver wheel whose arms pointed the true directions, and the ceiling was inlaid with the star pictures that edged the Hunt-road. It was both promise and warning, as was the depiction of the Silver Hooves themselves upon the great bronze doors at the far end of the chamber. Beyond those doors stood the Shrine of the Star itself.
As if her musings had summoned Them, the antechamber was filled with a sudden blast of cold.
No one would come to the Sanctuary in this storm merely to bid us good greeting, Maeredhiel thought in alarm. She clapped her hands to summon the servants—the simple cantrip she wore on a string about her neck ensured her summons would be heard in their bedchambers—and hurried to open the inner door. Gusts of wet wind skirled around her and she turned her head away.
“… please…” The word was the faintest of whispers.
How did you come here? Maeredhiel wondered, gazing down at the bundle of muddy rags barely discernible as a living body. She stepped over the body to pull the outer doors back into place, peering out as she did, but if any followed, they were as dark as the storm.
“Mistress, what—?” It was Elithreth, one of the Candidates in his Service Year.
“What else but someone seeking Sanctuary?” Maeredhiel answered. “A woman, and with child,” she finished smoothly. “So use care.”
With Elithreth’s help, Maeredhiel lifted the supplicant to her feet and helped her inside. Many came to the Sanctuary of the Star seeking that which only it could supply. Normally such a one would place a hand upon the bronze doors of the Shrine and make their formal petition before being sent to hospital or resting chamber. Maeredhiel did not think this one had that much strength left in her body—if she and Elithreth had not supported her, she would have collapsed. Every footstep she took left pools of muddy, bloody water upon the stone floor, but in the stronger light of the antechamber, Maeredhiel saw the glitter of silver, moonsilver, and gems.
Noble—and with child—and hurt—and alone. None of these things boded well for the peace of the Sanctuary. “Your name and your House, Lady?” Maeredhiel asked, her voice low and urgent. Celelioniel would wish to know these things—and at once.
The traveler struggled to answer, turning her face toward Maeredhiel—Maeredhiel saw blood-bitten lips, bruises, abrasions—but any reply she might have made was cut off by a gasp of pain.
Best to place her in a retiring room until I can call Mistress Healer’s lazy servants to bring a litter. “Come, Elithreth, we will—” she began.
But her words were cut short by the arrival of the Astromancer herself.
“Is it she? Is it now? Oh, this creature has come in an evil time!” Celelioniel Astromancer cried. She looked like a creature demented, with her shorn hair in disorder and her thin woolen robe kilted up past her knees. Her feet were bare and earth-smeared. She has come from the Shrine, Maeredhiel realized with a pang of unease.
“I know not who she is, Lady,” Maeredhiel said. “But surely this poor creature cannot be anyone’s great enemy?” She struggled with the visitor’s full weight now, for at Celelioniel’s cry, Elithreth had released his hold on her and backed away.
‘When stars and clouds together point the way—And of a hundred deer one doe can no longer counted be’! It is the Prophecy, Maeredhiel! It comes true—now—for has not Caerthalien a sennight hence led the breaking of Farcarinon? Here—here!—lies the Doom of the Hundred Houses!”
Maeredhiel turned away so that Celelioniel would not see her face. When Celelioniel had begun her research, she had known no more of Amrethion’s Curse or the Child of Prophecy than any Sanctuary-trained Lightborn might know. Maeredhiel would never know what steps had led Celelioniel to The Song of Amrethion, and what hints gleaned from ancient histories had led her to decide she alone could unriddle Amrethion’s Curse. But whatever she had found there had terrified her. Maeredhiel had watched the obsession—the madness—grow from the day Celelioniel had become Astromancer, nearly a century ago.
I pray the Vilya fruits soon, she thought sorrowfully. And my lady goes far from this place that has done her such harm.
“Lady, no harm may enter here,” Maeredhiel said soothingly. “Only let me bring this one to Mistress Healer Nithrithuin before her babe is brought to harm, and—”
“It is the babe I fear!” Celelioniel wailed. “Does not The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel speak of the birth of a babe who will cast down the High Houses? A babe whose birth will herald the beginning of great Darkness?”
Suddenly Celelioniel darted forward and seized the woman’s chin, gazing into her eyes for a moment before springing back and wailing as if she were but a babe herself.
“Sanctuary … I claim … I must…” the Lady whispered. The Astromancer’s touch seemed to drain the last strength from the supplicant; rather than drop her, Maeredhiel knelt with her upon the stone floor. As she did, her heart sank further: nestled in the hollow of her throat was a pendant, a Vilya blossom of moonsilver. Somewhere, this woman’s Bondmate awaited her. The Soulbond was the greatest joy any alfaljodthi could know, and the greatest sorrow as well, for once the Bond was made, to slay one half of it was to slay the other. Two lives might end this night—if not three.
“Your name, Lady, and how you came here,” she asked again, though she thought the Lady might be past hearing. “You lie before the Shrine itself. None will carry you away.”
Maeredhiel had nearly made up her mind to send Elithreth for Mistress Healer without waiting for Celelioniel’s order, for the Sanctuary Healer would be willing to overrule the Astromancer if Celelioniel’s hysterics continued. But Celelioniel’s wailings had roused others.
“What disturbance is this?” Hamphuliadiel Lightbrother had obviously been roused from his rest, for his Green Robe bore signs of having been hastily donned and he had bound it with a simple acolyte’s cord. “I should have been summoned before you opened our doors!” Hamphuliadiel added.
“You are not Astromancer yet, bold one,” Maeredhiel muttered, lowering her eyes lest he should read her words in them. She was saved from whatever reply Hamphuliadiel might have made by the arrival of yet more strangers.
Outer and inner doors slammed open as one and three komen in Caerthalien green and gold stalked into the antechamber. “There she is!” the foremost barked out. “Farcarinon’s bitch in whelp!” She reached up and unlatched her helm. “Has she claimed Sanctuary?” she added, the mocking tone in her voice making it clear what she thought the answer would be.
“She has,” Maeredhiel answered, her voice bold and loud over the howl of the wind. “Ladyholder Nataranweiya of Farcarinon has set her hand upon the door of the Shrine and set her words aloft for the Silver Hooves to hear!” She could not say why she spoke so, save the long-burning anger in her heart against those who would dice with the lives of innocent folk.
The knight drew back with an angry curse, placing her hand upon her sword.
“Yet if it is her own will to leave…” Hamphuliadiel began.
“We turn none away who seeks Sanctuary,” Maeredhiel said sharply. “Nor do we permit weapons within it,” she added, glaring at the swords the Caerthalien knights still bore. “Elithreth, you must lead our guests to the stables, so they may put up their horses, then see them lodged in our guesthouse.”
“Yes, Mistress Maeredhiel,” Elithreth answered, sounding relieved to be given a task that would take him from the Astromancer’s presence. “My lords komentai’a, will you accompany me? And say, perhaps, if there are others abroad who need shelter this night?”
“I thank you, young one,” the nameless knight answered. She could do nothing else, for no one would dare to profane the peace of the Sanctuary of the Star—nor rouse the anger of its Mages. “Yet I say I will remain to see what is done here. Nimboroth, take you my sword and blades.”
“It shall be done, Komen Harthelin,” Nimboroth answered.
“And shut those damned doors!” Harthelin added.
At least someone gives ear to orders this night, Maeredhiel thought sourly, as a loud banging and the sudden absence of wind told her Harthelin’s order had been followed.
By now the antechamber was filled with the curious and the concerned. “I would see Ladyholder Nataranweiya beneath the hands of the Healers,” Maeredhiel said again, raising her voice.
“Name her Lady-Abeyant, of your courtesy, for her traitor-lord is dead,” Harthelin said with a mocking smile.
“Perhaps…” Celelioniel said, as if speaking to herself, “… perhaps we can yet outrun our fates.”
At last Mistress Healer Nithrithuin arrived. She knelt beside Nataranweiya and laid quick hands upon her. “Why lies she upon cold stone?” she demanded, glaring at Celelioniel. “Is it more of your addled prophecy, witless one? Go!” she demanded of the nearest Lightborn. “Summon a litter from the hospital—and bearers.”
“I should be honored to bear Serenthon’s sow wherever she must go,” Komen Harthelin said.
“I know not what cause you have against this lady, but I say to you, you may not bring your quarrel here,” Nithrithuin said sternly.
“I?” Harthelin answered. “I hold no quarrels but that of my lord, and it is his word—the word of Caerthalien—that Farcarinon shall be cast down and ended.”
Two of the hospital servants appeared, carrying a litter between them, and swiftly and efficiently transferred Lady Nataranweiya to it. Nataranweiya would not release her death grip upon Maeredhiel’s hand, so when the servants lifted the litter to carry it away, Maeredhiel had no choice but to accompany them.
*   *   *
The Sanctuary hospital was a quiet place. It trained the Lightborn who would become Healers throughout the Fortunate Lands, and was the last resort of those whose hurts could not be mended by their own Lightborn. This realm was Mistress Healer’s jealously guarded domain, over which she ruled as absolutely as the Astromancer ruled the Sanctuary itself.
Here Nataranweiya was laid upon a bed in one of the small chambers used for the healing of Banespells. A stool was brought for Maeredhiel, as each time she tried to pull free of Nataranweiya’s grip, the lady’s agitation because so great that Mistress Healer told her to remain.
What came next should have been done in decent privacy, but the hallway outside the room was crowded with Lightborn and gawking servants, and Komen Harthelin had not withdrawn when Nataranweiya was set upon the bed, but leaned against the wall, her arms folded across her chest.
Servants entered with braziers and such other things as might be required for the ease and comfort of a patient. A touch of Nithrithuin’s hand unmade each seam of her patient’s garments, and their jeweled fastenings rang upon the floor as Nithrithuin pulled them away. Those ragged clothes had been sodden with blood, so the chamber now stank of it.
“My daughter … my daughter…” Lady Nataranweiya moaned until her words were cut off by a new spasm of pain. She thrashed weakly upon the mattress.
“Not even the Silver Hooves can hurry a birthing babe,” Maeredhiel said for Harthelin’s benefit. She possessed no understanding of the birthing mysteries, but no daughter of the Hundred Houses grew to adulthood without knowing how much blood a body could hold—and how much blood one could lose before they must ride with the Starry Hunt.
“No!” Celelioniel said, forcing her way through the press of servants and dropping to her knees beside Maeredhiel. “She must not be hurried! Delay—you must delay the birth until dawn. Then we will all be safe!”
Maeredhiel made to get to her feet. If Celelioniel’s madness had fixed upon this inconvenient Lady and her even-more-inconvenient babe, Maeredhiel wished to be elsewhere. But Lady-Abeyant Nataranweiya still would not release her, and though a week-old kitten could have broken that grasp, it was enough to hold Maeredhiel where she sat.
“Where is the birthing-woman?” Celelioniel demanded, sounding frantic now. “Where is Thelfelient Lightbrother?”
“At Farcarinon,” Komen Harthelin said, the mockery in her voice enough to make Maeredhiel set her jaw. “He was called to attend the birth of the heir. So I am told.”
“Surely in all the Sanctuary one Healer skilled in midwifery remains?” Maeredhiel snapped, her patience—never great—coming to an end.
Harthelin laughed in triumph. “No Healer can stay the lady of Farcarinon from the journey she must make. Indeed, she fails because my lord of Caerthalien has succeeded for all of us, and Serenthon has gone to the Vale of Celenthodiel before her!”
“Silence, armored whelp!” Nithrithuin Lightsister rapped out. “You attend here by our courtesy, nothing more.”
Maeredhiel felt a spasm of relief at the intercession of Mistress Healer, for no one would willingly cross one whose services they might someday need. But when Nithrithuin Lightsister laid her hand upon Lady-Abeyant Nataranweiya’s forehead, she drew back sharply, shaking her head.
“I am no Great Power, to Heal death,” she said. “It is as this sword-wielding bully says—the Lady tarries but for the sake of the babe. Then she will follow her Bonded upon the road to the Vale of Celenthodiel.”
And the babe will soon follow, Maeredhiel thought grimly. For if Serenthon and Nataranweiya are dead, any who wishes to become Farcarinon’s War Prince must see their child slain as well.
“The child’s name,” Celelioniel said urgently. “I must know it! The Prophecy—”
Nithrithuin shook her head sadly, but took Nataranweiya’s hand in hers. “The lady your daughter,” she said softly. “How shall she be named?”
“Vielle—Vieliessar…” Lady Nataranweiya whispered. “Her name—Her name must be—”
“An odd name for Farcarinon’s heir,” Harthelin said. “To name for the Light what would have cast all of us into darkness.”
“You know not what you speak of!” Celelioniel cried. “Therefore be silent!” Once more Maeredhiel felt the thrill of power ghost over her skin, and Harthelin did not speak again.
*   *   *
“Both will die,” Maeredhiel whispered.
She did not know how long she had been here, for the healing chambers were windowless. She knew only that Nataranweiya’s struggles grew weaker and that she could not push the babe from her body. Celelioniel’s near-constant fretting and pacing had driven away nearly all who had come to watch the birth. Again and again the Astromancer would vanish upon some mysterious errand, always to return with more impossible demands: Nithrithuin must hasten the birth. Nithrithuin must delay it.
“Perhaps you would like her to simply slit the woman’s throat and simplify matters?” Maeredhiel snapped at last, goaded beyond endurance.
“Not her throat,” Nithrithuin Lightsister said softly as she approached the bed once more. Maeredhiel saw the gleam of a knife in her hand and realized that Mistress Healer was taking pains to conceal the weapon from Celelioniel. “The mother is lost, but the babe may yet be saved.” Before Maeredhiel could shape a question, Nithrithuin had lifted the blanket from Nataranweiya’s unmoving, sweat-drenched body. She set the point of the blade against the stretched flesh of the Lady’s swollen belly …
… and slashed with one quick motion.
Celelioniel’s cry of anguish blended with Nataranweiya’s even as Nithrithuin reached into the wound with ruthless hands and lifted the blood-slimed form of the infant into the light and air. Another moment, and the infant’s angry squalls filled the chamber.
“Your daughter lives,” Maeredhiel said. But too late. Farcarinon’s lady would hear no more.
“Fool! Witless meddler! A curse upon you and all your House! Let Penenjil’s fortunes be tied forever to Farcarinon’s!” Celelioniel’s voice soared and cracked with rage—no, Maeredhiel realized uneasily, not rage.
Fear.
“Let it be so, Lightborn,” Nithrithuin said, bowing her head in acceptance.
At the far wall, nearly forgotten, Komen Harthelin stirred at last. Her laughter, when it came, startled all of them.
A week later, Celelioniel sent Vieliessar away into fosterage.
Years would pass before she returned.
*   *   *
The Wheel of the Year turned upon its great Festivals. In Flower Moon was the Kite Festival, when young girls flew their kites against each other, and afterward braided their hair in the style of maidens. In Rain Moon the tribute caravans went to the Sanctuary of the Star, and those who had been Called at Midwinter made their journey with them. In Sword Moon the princes rode to war, and those who had flown their kite or leapt the fire the year before rode with them, as squire and page and arming page. In Thunder Moon the people of the Great Keeps waited eagerly for news of victory or defeat, for the ransoms and penalties levied would affect the fortunes of all. In Fire Moon was the Festival in which boys wishing to become men dared the flames, and blazes were kindled on every hill. Harvest Moon marked the end of War Season, and at Harvest Court fates and fortunes were set: this one to the Swordmaster for training, that one to apprentice to the Warlord, those youths and maidens who had distinguished themselves in War Season to be granted the spurs and sword of a maiden knight. Rade and Woods and Hearth were for Landbond and Farmfolk to bring the harvest and prepare for winter; in Frost Moon the first snows fell. Snow Moon followed, and with it the Midwinter Festival.
Each year at Midwinter, the Lightborn Called to the Light in all the youths and maidens of their lord’s domain, to see which of them were most truly Pelashia’s Children, and the children the Lightborn chose went to serve at the Sanctuary of the Star. Cold and Ice and Storm were the moonturns in which the land slept, and the komen hunted and feasted and fought one another in the Challenge Circle in their lord’s great hall. And then Rain Moon came again, and the year truly began.
The Great Wheel was kept differently in Farmhold and village and border keep than it was in the Great Keep, but Varuthir knew nothing of those ways. Rade Moon had come twelve times since she had taken her first breath, and she knew no world but the Great Keep of Caerthalien. As far back as she could remember Varuthir had been told by everyone she should be grateful she had a place at Caerthalien now that her mother and father were dead. In truth, she thought little about her own Line: she was of Caerthalien, and this year at Harvest Court she could make her petition to Lord Bolecthindial to train in arms. Knights didn’t care if they were fosterlings and neither did anyone else. Knights fought for the House they were born into (unless they were captured and had to pledge allegiance to another House) and if they fought well, they could gain rich rewards and even pledge komentai’a to one of the princes of the House, to serve him or her always and ride to war as part of their meisne. They might even be granted estates where they might have dozens of servants, and meisnes of their own, and nobody but the head of the Line Direct could tell them what to do. They sat at the tables at the front of the Great Hall and everyone looked up to them. They had adventures.
She’d paid no attention to the preparations to send the tithe-wagons and the Candidates to Sanctuary, for it didn’t concern her. Ivrulion Light-Prince hadn’t even looked at her at Midwinter.
That was before the day Mistress Nindorogond held her back after the day’s lessons were finished.
All the castel children were schooled to read and write and do sums, for whether one had been born a servant or a lord, such knowledge was useful. Later, those who would become komen and commanders of a taille or a grand-taille would learn maps, geography, and history along with horsemanship and swordcraft, but for now, all learned together, whether their place was castel servant, treaty hostage, or future knight. Perhaps I will not need to petition Lord Bolecthindial, she thought. Perhaps Mistress Nindorogond means to tell me now I am to train as komen.
Mistress Nindorogond waited until the schoolroom was empty and silent. Varuthir waited with her, standing silently before the great table piled with scrolls and wax tablets and ciphering frames. When the last to leave had closed the door behind her, Mistress Nindorogond looked up.
“You have been an apt pupil, Varuthir,” she said at last. “I am pleased that you will be given this opportunity. All know that the Sanctuary is a place of great learning as well as great Magery.”
“I do not understand, Mistress. What has the Sanctuary of the Star to do with me?”
“You know that Storm Moon is nearly fled. Caerthalien sends its tithe early this year. In a fortnight the wagons go. And you go with them.”
“To the Sanctuary?” Varuthir said in horror. “But I—But why, Nindorogond?” she’d stammered in shock. “Prince Ivrulion—”
“This is not a matter that concerns him,” Nindorogond said sharply. “This has been a thing settled since the day you were born. It is for the best.”
“But I—” Varuthir said again. “But they’ll see I have no Light in me! How long do I have to stay there? Do you mean I…”
Her words stumbled to a halt as she stared at Nindorogond’s face, for in the set of her lips, Varuthir could read her answer. Forever. Never to follow the Way of the Sword, to be a great knight, to earn War Prince Bolecthindial’s regard …
“You cannot mean I have to stay there forever!” she’d cried in protest. “I want to be a knight! I want to fight for Caerthalien!” Caerthalien would need her. The Long Peace that had followed the Breaking of Farcarinon had been all she had ever known, but for the last two summers, there’d been raids along the borders as the High Houses gauged one another’s strength. War would come again soon.
“It is for the best,” Nindorogond repeated, and Varuthir had run from the schoolroom before Mistress Nindorogond could see her tears.
*   *   *
When the first shock of Nindorogond’s announcement passed, Varuthir went to everyone she knew among the lesser nobles of the Court trying to find some explanation, some way to undo this terrible fate. Everyone who would answer her said the same thing. It is for the best. It is a matter settled long since.
She would go to the Sanctuary. But she would never leave it.
She thought of simply running away—but where would she go? She couldn’t just walk up to a manor or a farmstead and ask them to take her in: as soon as they discovered she was promised to the Sanctuary, she’d be sent there, for to stint the Sanctuary was to risk the wrath of the Silver Hooves. There were parts of the Fortunate Lands claimed by no House, wild lands that had become the lairs of outlaws and bandits, and she thought of making those her destination. They at least would not send her to the Sanctuary!
But to reach the Wild Lands she’d need a cloak, and good boots, and to steal a horse from the stables—and not just the horse itself, but its saddle and bridle. She had a cloak, gloves, and boots, for in the days that followed the settling of her fate, gifts had come to her from Caerthalien’s Ladyholder—green leather boots with silver heels, the leather stamped in gold with patterns of twining vines; a matching green cloak of the best wool, lined with white fox fur; and fur-lined riding gauntlets to match both boots and cloak. But from the candlemark Nindorogond had told her she was to go to the Sanctuary, Varuthir had always been watched. Four times in the last fortnight she’d nerved herself to slip away to the stables, and four times she’d been stopped, or turned back, or noticed.
And now she’d run out of time.
A sennight ago the Called who were to go to the Sanctuary had arrived at Caerthalien. The preparations for departure had been going on since yesterday’s dawn. They would leave today.
The morning dawned grey and rainy, as if it were late autumn instead of early spring. It was too early for the leaves to have returned to the trees, and the flagstones of the outer courtyard were still covered with straw each night so ice would not form on them by morning.
She had not slept the night before, and had dressed as soon as it was light enough to see. When Mistress Tiradil tapped at the door to summon her, she simply walked out into the hallway, leaving the door open behind her.
“It is for the best, Varuthir,” Mistress Tiradil said quietly. “Someday you will understand that.”
I shall never see this room, this place, these people again, Varuthir thought to herself, and silently set her jaw against her tears of anger and grief.
The time of the morning meal at Caerthalien was a good candlemark away, and the Great Hall was empty except for those who would be riding out today and the servers bringing out pitchers and trays and baskets for the meal to come. Berthon and Athrothir—two of the other Called—were already there, eating bread and cheese, drinking mulled cider, and chattering happily about what was to come. They were Farmfolk, and in the ordinary way might never have expected to see the Great Keep in their lives. But if they gained the Green Robe, they would live in luxury for the rest of their lives. They would live in a Great House even if they did not become Mages, for those who completed their Service Year at the Shrine without becoming Lightborn were eagerly sought after as servants.
Varuthir walked toward them, feeling as if her feet were shod in lead and not in leather. Berthon offered her a tankard of cider, but she had no appetite, and mutely shook her head. A few minutes later Thurion, the last of this year’s Candidates, rushed in. With his arrival, the komen who were to accompany them began getting to their feet.
Varuthir hung back until the last minute, wishing desperately that some reprieve would come. She dawdled long after the komen and the Candidates had gone out to the courtyard, pretending she’d gained a sudden appetite.
Perhaps she could simply hide somewhere. They would not delay the caravan’s departure just to look for her. Perhaps they would not think it worthwhile to commit a taille—or more—to escort her after it. Perhaps she would have another year at Caerthalien. Anything might happen in a year.
As she was edging her way toward the door that led back into the Keep there was a flurry among the servants, and Ladyholder Glorthiachiel strode into the Great Hall, her personal Lightborn beside her.
Glorthiachiel of Caerthalien was a commanding presence, her husband’s equal in all things. For centuries she had ruled over the Caerthalien lands, and would rule for many more. The first time Varuthir had heard Ladyholder Glorthiachiel and Lord Bolecthindial Caerthalien called “Hawk” and “Hound” she’d been struck breathless by the presumption, but the rude nicknames suited them, for Ladyholder Glorthiachiel was as beautiful and dangerous as any of the falcons in the castel mews, and her husband was as relentless and tenacious as any hunting hound.
To Varuthir’s amazement, Ladyholder Glorthiachiel beckoned her over. Varuthir’s heart leapt with hope at this unexpected summons. It had all been a mistake! She wasn’t meant to go to the Sanctuary at all, and Carangil Lightbrother had discovered the error and told his mistress, and now Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had come to give the order that would mean she didn’t have to leave.
But Glorthiachiel’s first words dashed that hope. “So today you leave us, child,” she said, and Varuthir nodded mutely.
Ladyholder Glorthiachiel smiled, as if this were a day for great celebration. “In ten years and two, all the time you have lived beneath my roof, it has never come to my ears that you spoke of your parents, and I find that a curious thing.”
“I know they are dead,” Varuthir said in a low voice. “I had hoped—”
Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s smile widened and her eyes gleamed predatorily. “Indeed they are. You are too young to know the history of the Hundred Houses, so what I tell you now will mean little. But you will remember it. Oh, yes. You will remember it all the days of your life. You, who will toil as a servant, were born to be War Prince of Farcarinon! It was Caerthalien that erased Farcarinon as if it had never been. You are Vieliessar Farcarinon—the last of Farcarinon—and you are nothing!”
In all the days of her life, Varuthir had tasted scorn and indifference aplenty, but never had she been hated as she saw Ladyholder Glorthiachiel hate her now. For a moment it was incomprehensible—what could she have done to merit this?
I have done nothing. It is my Line—my House …
She had heard the tale of the Breaking of Farcarinon all her life. She had never known it told the tale of her parents’ murder. And never had the story been sung of the last survivor of Farcarinon. But if Ladyholder Glorthiachiel spoke true, she was not Varuthir of Caerthalion. She was Vieliessar of Farcarinon—no, more: she was Vieliessar Farcarinon.
And Caerthalien …
“Murderess!” Vieliessar hissed in rage. She took a quick step forward, scrabbling for the knife upon her belt. She would slay the enemy of her House, and in her own death buy honor and a place at the Starry Huntsman’s right hand.
But Carangil Lightbrother was quicker than she. He raised his hand and Vieliessar felt a sudden icy tingling everywhere on her skin. Suddenly she was unable to move, to cry out, to demand vengeance.
“Today my vengeance is complete—Vieliessar Farcarinon!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said mockingly. “I would not have you leave us without knowing all I have taken from you. Fare you well, Farcarinon. And live a long, long time.”
I shall see you drown in your own blood! Vieliessar thought in fury. But it did not matter how hard she fought the geasa that had been placed upon her: the frenzied anger she felt did not transmute itself to action. Instead her body made a formal deferential bow, her feet turned her away, and her body walked from the Great Hall to the courtyard. Her hands plucked her gloves from the sash of her tunic and pulled them on, and her hands lifted the hood of her stormcloak to cover her hair. Without her will, her hands laced its drawstrings tight against the rain and the chill. Her body walked sedately to the bay palfrey that would carry her to debasement and imprisonment; her hands grasped the cantle, her foot set itself into the stirrup.
No matter how hard she tried, she could not make a sound.
*   *   *
It would take the caravan a fortnight to travel from Caerthalien to the Sanctuary of the Star. Traditionally the Candidates’ processionals were exempt from attack, though this tacit truce was something that held only among the Hundred Houses—outlaws and Broken Spurs might see nothing more sacred than a rich prize for the taking. For that reason, tribute caravans traveled with an armed escort in addition to the servants and drovers. Berthon, Thurion, and Athrothir laughed and chattered, excited by the journey and delighted with everything they saw.
The night’s mist still hung heavy over the fields and meadows as the gates of Caerthalien rattled open. The winches creaked as the heavy bronze portcullises were raised over the inner and outer gates; heavy chains rattled over pulleys and then the outer doors—massive slabs of bronze-bound oak—swung outward as their counterweights were released.
At last Runacarendalur of Caerthalien could spur his mount through the inner gate, through a long narrow tunnel, and through the outer gate. He took a deep breath as Gwaenor began to prance, the warhorse’s joy at reaching the open air plain to see. Both horse and rider relished the chance to be out and doing, and as Gwaenor danced, Runacarendalur laughed aloud.
“Is it not a beautiful morning, Helecanth?” he asked.
“Any morning is beautiful when one is not yet dead,” the chief of Runacarendalur’s personal guard grumbled.
“And so it will be a beautiful evening, too,” Runacarendalur said teasingly. “For you cannot think anyone will offer insult to a Sanctuary party—still less when a full double-taille of Caerthalien’s finest ride with it?”
“I think one stone can end a life—if it is the right stone at the right time,” Helecanth answered dourly. “And you are not such a fool as to think yourself safe even within the shadow of your father’s walls,” she added, frowning at him. Instead of a battle standard, for this journey Helecanth carried the long white pennion that would tell all who saw it this was a Candidates’ Escort bound for the Sanctuary of the Star. The pennion itself was sodden with rain, and hung down limply, its silk growing more transparent the wetter it got.
“Let us go more than a bowshot from Caerthalien before you begin fretting at every shadow,” Runacarendalur protested, laughing. It might be Helecanth’s duty to worry—for she was charged with his safety—but the countryside had been quiet for longer than he liked to remember—for so many years together that the time had been named the Long Peace.
Some suggested the Hundred Houses waited to see if the Starry Hunt meant to strike them down for the Erasure of Farcarinon, for the doing was against the Code of Battle. Serenthon Farcarinon had done only what any of them might do when he had schemed to make himself High King. Some said they waited for the Curse of Amrethion to fall upon them. In fact (as Runacarendalur knew) there was a far simpler explanation: the war against Farcarinon had been costly. Thousands of blooded warriors and trained warhorses had been lost, tracts of land laid waste—and the wrangling over who should gain Farcarinon’s lands had nearly bred a second war.
Serenthon was a fool. We have lived since the time of Amrethion and Pelashia without a High King, Runacarendalur thought. Yet I will say this for Farcarinon: the battles against it were glorious.
“Helecanth,” he said abruptly. “Do you think the Hundred Houses need a High King to govern them?”
“I say that if you do not rein in, we will reach the Sanctuary a sennight before the wagons do,” his Mistress-at-Arms said.
Runacarendalur glanced over his shoulder as he checked Gwaenor. The wagons were far behind them. His taille—which knew its business was not to indulge their commander’s fancies where his father could see—rode sedately at the head of the column, their bright cloaks and lacquered armor the brightest spot of color in the grey overcast day. Just behind the knights rode the Sanctuary Candidates—two Farmfolk more used to mules than palfreys, a Landbond who had probably never seen a horse before a sennight gone, and …
Better if she’d been slain before she was a day old, Runacarendalur thought grimly. Better even that the Lightborn had fostered her within the Sanctuary so she knew no other life. But the Sanctuary of the Star had no provision for the care of a child. Her fate had been set from the moment she first drew breath: to return to the Sanctuary of the Star in her twelfth year, never again to set foot outside it lest she find her death.
At least she does not know her true parentage, he thought. Perhaps the Lightborn would be kind and she never would.
*   *   *
I am Vieliessar of Farcarinon! Caerthalien killed my parents! I will have vengeance on them—on all of them! Only the spell held her silent. Losing her hope for her future and what she’d thought was her House was a doubly bitter blow: she’d dreamed ever since she was a child of becoming komen to Caerthalien. But the Magecraft that held her imprisoned and silent granted Vieliessar one unlooked-for boon.
It forced her to think.
Ladyholder Glorthiachiel did not have to tell me the truth.
If Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had told her of her parentage and then said that Caerthalien had wished to show mercy to a helpless child, Vieliessar would have been grateful and devoted. Instead Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had sent her into exile bearing the knowledge that she—a child—was held their enemy.
Why?
She had no answers.
*   *   *
In the last fortnight, his world had grown wide. Thurion had never been farther from home than the fields his family worked for Menenel Farmholder, and if the Light had not awakened in him, he would have lived and died without ever going more than a mile from the hut in which he had been born.
There were not enough Lightborn in all Caerthalien’s domain to visit every crofthold and farmstead each Midwinter, so it was the custom for all the children of a certain age to be sent to the nearest manor house to be overlooked. His father had not wished to risk the loss of Thurion’s labor, even though—should it come to pass that Thurion Landbond became Thurion Lightbrother—Lord Bolecthindial would make a great award to his family. At ten, at eleven, at twelve his father had said he was too young to make the sennight’s journey there and back, for Brightwater Manor lay far distant from Goldentrees Farm.
But in the spring following his twelfth year, the Light had awakened in Thurion without being Called. He had been able to hear the speech of beast and growing thing as plainly as he heard the words of his family and kin. His father had beaten him uncounted times for tale-telling, yet Thurion could not keep from speaking of what he knew.
That winter, for the first time in Thurion’s memory, Menenel Farmholder hosted Dilvalos Lightsister beneath his roof and made a great feast for all who toiled upon his lands. Dilvalos Lightsister had looked into Thurion’s heart and said, “This one shall go to the Sanctuary in the spring,” and her words were such a telling as not even one of the great lords could set aside.
It was barely Storm Moon when Thurion was summoned to Menenel Farmholder’s house to hear that he must journey to Caerthalien. He hoped to say farewell to his family, but Menenel insisted he must start for Komen Radanir’s manor house at once. The journey would have been more speedy if he had not gone at a wagon’s pace, but Thurion had never ridden a horse.
Komen Radanir’s husband had tsked over Thurion’s smock and leg-wrappings and knitted shawl of oiled wool, and said such garments would not do for Caerthalien’s Great Keep. He’d given Thurion a tunic, trousers, and the first boots he had ever worn, then said it would be a long cold ride to Caerthalien and given him a fine wool cape as well. Thurion was ashamed to say he had never ridden a horse, but somehow Komen Radanir had known. She said Thurion must learn, and quickly, but there had only been time for a lesson or two before they set off for Caerthalien.
And oh!—he’d thought Komen Radanir’s fine manor house was wondrous enough, but Caerthalien’s Great Keep was more magnificent still. In the castel there was magic everywhere, and the bed he slept in was soft as down and covered with many soft blankets in more colors than he had thought possible. More wonderful even than that was the food. He ate until he was full to bursting, and there was yet more food—so much food that full bowls and platters were returned to the kitchen from every table. He had asked, the first evening, if this were some great feast day, and the others had laughed …
But Thurion didn’t care. A scant sennight was barely time enough for him to list Caerthalien’s wonders. And not once was he called upon to do any work at all. It was as if he had fallen into an endless holiday.
A few days after his arrival, Berthon and Athrothir joined him at the keep. Berthon was the son of a knight, Athrothir the son of a castellan—one who held the manor house of a knight when he or she rode off to fight. They teased Thurion greatly about his wide eyes, for Berthon had visited the castel many times with his father and Athrothir had lived all his life in a rich manor house. Yet despite their teasing, Thurion thought they might well become friends, for—as Komen Radanir had explained to him—they would be a full turn of the seasons at the Sanctuary of the Star, tendering their service to the Lightborn. Then, if those of the Sanctuary, who would look more deeply into their hearts than had those who had Called the Light at Midwinter, felt them worthy, they would begin their training as Lightborn.
A whole year at the Sanctuary! And honor to his family, and to Menenel Farmholder, and to Komen Radanir. So Thurion simply laughed when Athrothir and Berthon spoke mournfully of the privations those in their Service Year endured, and told them he would be sure to give them advice on how to bear up beneath them.
They were not the only ones making the journey to the Sanctuary of the Star this springtide. There was Varuthir. Berthon, who knew all the gossip, said she was a fosterling of House Caerthalien who had lived all her life here. Thurion was far too shy to speak to her; she seemed as distant and unreachable—and as beautiful—as the winter stars.
Perhaps—if I become Lightborn—she will look kindly upon me. Perhaps, if she is not betrothed already …
In the castel, as on the farms which made up the estates which made up the domain of Caerthalien, betrothals came early, for what better way to seal a contract or to plan for the future? One might set aside a betrothal in the name of greater fortune, or if those promised to it disliked the idea enough to win their parents’ agreement. But the most certain way to break a promise, a handfasting, or even marriage itself, was a Bonding. Not even a Lord of the Line Direct could stand against the magic that bound Bondmates together for the rest of their lives. Such unions were deeply blessed, but the sorcery that tied soul and soul together created a binding so deep and true that one heart could not continue to beat if the other was stilled. Thurion well recalled the day when Henion (Bonded, as all knew, to Aglahir) had been plowing the field with a new team and had fallen and been trampled by the young, skittish beasts. Though Thurion had only been a child, he remembered how Aglahir had run screaming from the main house to the field and found Henion, though the fields were far and only the Bond had given her knowing. Henion had not survived to see the next day’s dawn, and Aglahir had been dead by the following nightfall.
So though the first time he saw Varuthir Thurion thought he had seen his heart’s twin, his destined Bondmate, he was grateful to realize he had not. This did not keep him from adoring her in silence and secret.
When at last the great day came for their departure, there were wonders enough to distract Thurion from the contemplation of his love. Not only were they to travel with a company of knights—a thing he had known already—but Caerthalien’s heir, Prince Runacar, was to escort them. The prince was a glorious figure in Caerthalien livery, with armor enameled just the shade of his surcoat and a great black destrier who pawed the flagstones and snorted steam from his nostrils. Thurion was just as glad to be riding the gentle mare Filioniel Horsemaster had chosen for him, for he had grown fond of her, and he could tell she liked him as well.
On the journey to Caerthalien he and Komen Radanir had stopped each night at a farmstead or manor, but on the journey to the Sanctuary of the Star they would sleep in pavilions, just as the knights did when they went off to war. On the road, the four Candidates were much in one another’s company and Thurion fell even more deeply into love with Varuthir, though she spoke few words to anyone and seemed to wear grief like a heavy weight.
*   *   *
Ten days’ travel saw the convoy deep in the Unclaimed Lands that bordered the forests surrounding the Sanctuary. Runacarendalur had escorted four previous groups of Candidates to the Sanctuary of the Star: even in the depths of war, Candidates from every House made the journey, for nowhere else could those with the Light receive training, and without the Lightborn there would be no one to Heal the sick and the injured. To make the fields bear fruitfully, to enchant stone and wood and cloth to endure, to do all the thousand tasks that required Magery. For that reason, even when House and warring House met upon the road to the Sanctuary gates, they nearly always passed one another in peace.
And in the gap between “nearly” and “always” fell reason enough for Caerthalien to send Runacarendalur forth a full moonturn early. He would gladly have brought an escort of a hundred, but to do so would be to reveal the thing Caerthalien needed to hide—that Farcarinon’s last daughter traveled with them.
She was too tempting a prize.
*   *   *
Knowing it was only a fantasy, Vieliessar spent the days of her journey hoping for some reprieve from the future she saw before her. There’d been a hundred chances on the journey to run. But the problem remained: where would she go, and how would she gain vengeance on Caerthalien?
Again and again she’d come to the very edge of wishing Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had never told her who she was—but to wish that would be to deny her father, her mother, her House. And she could not. House and kin were sacred. Vengeance was sacred. She would have learned that same lesson in Aramenthiali. In Vondaimieriel. In Sarmiorion.
In Farcarinon.
Even if she managed to escape to another House and persuade its lord to grant her knightly training, the outcome would be much the same as if she remained in the Sanctuary of the Star: if and when she fought, she would fight for the House to which she had pledged her fealty. Not for Farcarinon. Farcarinon would still be unavenged.
No. She must watch, and wait, and plan. No matter how much she loathed the thought, her best—her only—chance to be avenged on her parents’ murderers was to continue to the Sanctuary of the Star.
*   *   *
Four more days of travel would see them at the Sanctuary, and the last of them would be spent in the Flower Forest that surrounded the Sanctuary of the Star. Thurion had stretched his eyes at the thought of a Flower Forest so large it would take a whole day to ride through it, and the prince had laughed and said Caerthalien’s eastern reaches held Flower Forests greater than that.
Thurion had looked to Varuthir to see if she thought this as great a wonder as he, yet she seemed not to have heard Prince Runacarendalur’s words. She stared off into the distance and her face was still with grief.
He knew she walked the bounds of the camp each night until the spell-lamps were covered and all composed themselves for sleep. In the first days he had been too tired to do anything but seek his bed after the meal, but when that exhaustion had passed, he’d often spent those candlemarks in games or in hearing story-songs of great deeds, for even though Helecanth was very grand, she said she was happy to have the telling of them to fresh ears. But Varuthir had never joined them. It did not seem good to him that something so joyous as this journey should make one so beautiful so sad, and so, this night, he left Athrothir and Berthon to their amusements and sought her out.
Thurion had become accustomed to the sounds of the camp at night—the faint grunts of tethered horses, the grinding sound of grain being chewed, the long sighs of the oxen, the jingle of bridle and clink of stirrup as the sentries rode the bounds. Tonight there was a new scent upon the wind, for one might smell the blooms of a Flower Forest even from so far away. He soon found Varuthir, a dim figure in the darkness, only the silver embroidery on her cloak gleaming in the light from the pavilions.
“You should be happy,” Thurion blurted out when he reached her. It was not what he’d meant to say. He had intended to say he cared for her, and worried about her, and had seen her sadness. He might even have asked if she missed her friends from the castel, for he felt certain she’d had many.
“I?” she asked, turning. The distant glow of the lanterns fell full upon her face, framed in the white fur of her cloak’s hood, and she twined one long ebony braid between her fingers. “I was not born to be happy,” she said in a low voice.
“I don’t know why,” Thurion answered, his tongue stumbling over the words. “To be Called to the Sanctuary of the Star—I always hoped to be summoned there, even if it is only for a year, as it might be, you know, and … Berthon will be made a knight, if he is not found to be Lightborn, but such as I—to become one with the Light is a great honor—” At last he managed to stop talking, cursing his clumsy tongue, for he had meant to offer comfort, and instead he saw Varuthir’s eyes glitter now with tears.
“It is an honor I never sought, nor is it one I shall gain,” she said flatly.
“Have you Seen this?” he blurted. “The dreams that come—if you have Light—they do not matter unless—until—”
But she held up her hand to stop him. “The dreams I held were not of this. I thank you, Thurion, for your kindness,” she added after a pause. “You do not know me, and so it does you honor.”
It was plainly a dismissal, but he could not bring himself to leave. “Do you—do you think—when we are at the Sanctuary—” he began, but she shook her head and he fell silent.
“You do not know me,” she repeated. “But you will. And then you will … Then you will have your answers.” Still she did not send him away, so Thurion stood with her in silence until Komen Helecanth summoned them both to their beds. He wondered at the words she had spoken, and it was not long before he could place knowing upon them.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory