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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Blade of Empire

Book Two of the Dragon Prophecy

The Dragon Prophecy Trilogy (Volume 2)

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Tor Fantasy

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CHAPTER ONE

SNOW MOON TO ICE MOON: THE END OF ALL THINGS


One cannot pledge fealty to the wind.

—Elven Proverb

From Rade Moon to Storm Moon, Winter High Queen was the true ruler of the Grand Windsward. Only the Flower Forests, locked in their eternal Springtide, were exempt from snow and cold, and Elvenkind did not enter the Flower Forests.

It is a great mystery, Gonceivis Haldil mused once again, that we draw our ultimate power from a place we dare not go.

In the West, Lightborn might enter the Flower Forests whenever they chose—save, perhaps, on the Western Shore, and there it was merely dangerous. Only in the Grand Windsward was it impossible, for in the Grand Windsward, the Beastlings ruled. The Beastlings had been the enemy of Elvenkind since before Amretheon had reigned. They were monstrous and cruel, a terrible parody of Elvenkind in shape and manner. Centaurs—Minotaurs—Gryphons—there was no end to their horror, the shapes they came in … or their bestial sorcery.

Gryphons had weather magic at their command; Aesalions could control the hearts of their prey; Bearwards were masters of sickness and plague. The Minotaurs slaughtered Elvenkind’s herds and flocks, and Centaurs razed their villages. Sorcery could only be fought with Light, and so in the Grand Windsward, the Lightborn went regularly into battle. Mosirinde’s Covenant demanded that the Lightborn draw their power from the Flower Forests alone, and by Mosirinde’s Covenant, Elvenkind was bound to a dreadful bargain, for the Flower Forests were home to a thousand races of Beastling: fairy and sprite, dryad and Faun, nymph and gnome and pixie. To keep the Covenant, the Lightborn must hold sacrosanct the strongholds of their enemy, for those strongholds were the only source of their protection from that same enemy.

At least Winter brings us some respite from the eternal battle, Gonceivis thought. In Snow Moon, Haldil—first among the Houses of the Grand Windsward—opened its doors in revelry and celebration to any of the Hundred Houses who wished to enter. If the sennight of the Midwinter Festival was named a time of tacit truce throughout the Fortunate Lands, here in the Grand Windsward the Midwinter Truce was more than empty words.

Gonceivis Haldil looked down the length of his Great Hall. Its ceiling was low, the better to defend them from the incursions of fairies and pixies. It had no windows, for even an arrow slit could provide entrance to a Faun. It was so vast that there was not one Storysinger performing before the High Table, but rather half a dozen performers scattered among the revelers. The talk and laughter echoing from the banner-hung stone hushed the sounds as easily as a spell of silence might. Gonceivis had little interest in songs, and as War Prince he could see Lightborn Magery any time he chose. The entertainer chosen for the High Table was a Lightless illusionist: one who used deft trickery to make a pretense of Magery. He watched, diverted, as she turned one disk into two, then a dozen, then juggled them deftly. They glowed in the Silverlight set upon the walls and ceiling, flashing brightly before they returned to her hands. When they vanished, she replaced them with lengths of shining gilt ribbon that continuously swirled through the air. The fire trenches that crossed the floor were golden with coals, and one of the ribbons, swooping too close, burst into flame. For a moment Gonceivis thought this was an error, and made a note to have the steward who had chosen her flogged, but then all the ribbons burst into flame to become lanterns, then batons, and at last a single white bird. The illusionist flung the dove toward the ceiling; it flew along the line of war banners that hung upon the walls, their bright heraldry cooled by the Silverlight’s soft radiance. The banners belled softly in the rising waves of heat, and at last the bird vanished behind one of them.

The Lightless illusionist swept him a low bow, and Gonceivis tossed her his empty cup in reward of her skill. She caught it with another low bow, then ran toward one of the staircases that entered the hall at its four corners.

“Thank the Light that’s over,” Ladyholder Belviel said. “My father had no patience with such trickery.”

“Your father did not rule in Haldil,” Gonceivis told her. He chewed thoughtfully upon a salted fig as his cupbearer brought him a new cup and filled it with wine. It was not the plain and lightweight sort he’d tossed to the performer, its worth only in the gold of which it was made: this was a massive thing, carved and jeweled, and capable of holding six gills of wine.

“Nor did my father lead his House into ruinous rebellion,” Belviel responded, choosing a morsel of cheese from the tray before her.

“As I recall, you did not find it objectionable when we began,” Gonceivis said.

“I was fond of Demi-Prince Malbeth,” his wife replied placidly. “A pity he did not survive.”

“A pity we did not know that had we but waited half a century we could have had the victory without the war,” Gonceivis snapped.

A Wheelturn ago last Harvest, Oronviel fell to the last child of Farcarinon. At Midwinter, Vieliessar sent messages inviting the Windsward to rise up as her allies. The Windsward had declined Vieliessar’s gracious invitation—still smarting from its inglorious defeat fifty Wheelturns before—but it had watched with interest. It was Serenthon Farcarinon’s madness reborn, but the daughter outstripped the father. She struck the shackles of Mosirinde’s Covenant from the Magery of the Lightborn. She armed the Landbonds and offered full pardon to any outlaw who would pledge to her. In War Season, half the Houses of the West fell to her in a handful of moonturns, and the rest, plunged into madness, formed a Grand Alliance, following her over the Mystrals. The Windsward Houses promptly proclaimed their independence from the West for the second time in a scant half-century. Vieliessar sent demands of fealty and the Grand Alliance sent demands for aid. Haldil and the rest of the Windsward Houses ignored them both.

No one expected the war to continue beyond moonturn.

Mirwathel, Haldil’s Chief Storysinger, stepped forward to begin The Courtship of Amretheon and Pelashia. Gonceivis did his best to conceal a wince; it was a very long song. It was also the signal for all who had left childhood behind in the past year to gather before the High Table, and for the Lightborn to come to await them, for this was the sixth night of Midwinter, and on this night, everywhere across the whole of the Fortunate Lands, the Lightborn would Call the Light. Each Lightborn had a servant by their side; each servant held a basket filled with sweets and ribbons. Silver ribbons for those who would go to the Sanctuary in the spring, gold for those who would not.

If anyone goes anywhere in the spring, Gonceivis thought, for this had been a Wheelturn of wonders.

Kaelindiel Bethros raised his cup in a mocking toast. He was seated at Gonceivis’s tuathal side, the place of greatest honor. “So we are once more in rebellion, Lord Gonceivis. Only … against whom, this time?”

“I see no rebellion here,” Gonceivis answered evenly. “Haldil is held in clientage by Caerthalien, as Bethros is by Aramenthiali. If they are no more, well, one cannot pledge fealty to the wind.”

“But now—so they say—we are to have a High King. The Child of the Prophecy, perhaps, as Haldil once foretold—though, perhaps, prematurely,” Kaelindiel answered.

“Then I wonder why you did not declare for Oronviel when Lord Vieliessar first sent to you,” Gonceivis said tartly.

“Had I done so, I would be now as her princes are,” Kaelindiel said. “Mourning so many dead no Tablet of Memory could contain them all.”

The first of the children reached the waiting Lightborn. A brief touch, hand upon head, and it was done. Gold ribbons only, as was only to be expected: the nobles and the offspring of the Lords Komen were first, and Light was rarely found there.

“Yet her cause endures,” Gonceivis said.

“Are your spies less able than mine?” Kaelindiel asked archly. “She flees. The Alliance follows.”

“And Thurion Lightbrother tells us she will win, and we must pledge,” Gonceivis answered. This was old news to them both: Thurion Lightbrother had come seeking alliance for his master moonturns ago—and many had listened. Kerethant, Penenjil, Enerchelimier, Artholor … nearly a taille of Windsward Houses had declared for Lord Vieliessar before Thurion Lightbrother headed Westward again. Let them go, Gonceivis told himself. Let them all go. Let Kerethant and Artholor strip themselves of defenders. Let Enerchelimier follow a dream.

“Perhaps Penenjil’s Silver Swords will grant her victory,” Kaelindiel said. “It is an omen, you must agree. The Silver Swords have not left Penenjil since the fall of the High King.”

“The last High King,” Gonceivis corrected. “If she is to have her way.”

“Let her be High King, or Astromancer, or the Mother of Dragons,” Kaelindiel answered dismissively. “I care not, so long as she does it elsewhere. Perhaps she and the Twelve will devour one another and leave us in peace. And if she calls those Windsward Houses which have declared for her to her battlefield, well … a domain is not merely its grand array. There will be Landbonds and Craftworkers in plenty seeking protection.”

“Peace is what you and I most desire, of course,” Gonceivis answered. He smiled as the first silver ribbon of the night was placed in a child’s hands.

If Vieliessar Oronviel can become High King, so may Gonceivis Haldil, he thought to himself. A Kingdom is land, and wealth—and armies. It is not an empty throne. Or a handless sword.

* * *

Snow Moon became Ice Moon, and the news from the West was a muddle of conflicting information. Useless demands for aid came from the High Houses. Other words, private and clandestine, came from the Lightborn: Farspeech was the only thing that could reach across the Feinolon Peaks before Spring Thaw, and the Lightborn—now, as always—spoke among themselves. Every House of the Grand Windsward had sent children to the Sanctuary, and every child of the Windsward—given, as so many were, in tithe to the Great Houses of the West—hungered for news from home. Thus, Gonceivis had spies in the Grand Alliance and spies in the “High King’s” army, for in exchange for the promise to pass word to their Lightless kin—a promise Gonceivis saw scrupulously kept—the Lightborn spoke of where they were and what they did. Once their words had been of weather and harvest, of minor triumphs, of such things as anyone might know. Since Thunder Moon, it had been of the daily life of an army upon the march, and the word had always been the same.

The High King fled. The Grand Alliance followed.

As the two armies drained the Flower Forests of the Uradabhur, the news became the merest trickle, for Farspeech needed Light. In Frost Moon it became a torrent once more, as the Lightborn—first of one array, then of both—found a new and seemingly inexhaustible wellspring to draw from. But the news did not change. The High King ran like a stag in winter. The Alliance followed, dogged as a pack of hounds.

“And what am I to think of it?” Gonceivis demanded of Othrochel Lightbrother. “This ‘news’ you bring me is no more than the mutterings of Lightborn! Even Caerthalien has stopped its eternal prating that Haldil do the impossible!”

The day was clear, and so Gonceivis had called a council in his solar. It was not a particularly private council, for the solar was one of the most pleasant rooms in the Great Keep, and anyone permitted to be here by birth or office had come. Of that perhaps two dozen souls, nearly half were gathered around the table which dominated the center of the chamber.

“It is the only news there is,” Aenthior Swordmaster pointed out. She fingered her necklace of Gryphon talons. “As you well know, Lord Gonceivis.”

“Don’t tell me what I know,” he answered irritably. “Tell me what I do not know.”

“The outcome of the battle yet to be fought?” Ranruth Warlord asked. “All we know is that it will come.”

“My … colleagues … in both arrays say this,” Othrochel Lightbrother said. He was a Lightborn of middle years, and he’d been Gonceivis’s closest advisor for more than half his life. “The High King’s Lightborn say she leads them to Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor—”

“A myth,” Ladyholder Belviel said.

“—to claim Amretheon’s city and the Unicorn Throne in actuality,” Othrochel finished, unperturbed. “I find it interesting that the Lightborn of the Grand Alliance do not speak of a destination. Save, of course, wherever the High King’s army stops.”

“Do stop calling her that,” Ranruth Warlord urged. “Or I shall feel the need to leap to my destrier’s back and ride to lay down my sword at her feet at once.”

Aenthior snorted rudely. “We have to call her something. If not that, what? Oronviel? Farcarinon? Lightsister? She styles herself High King, and holds the fealty of forty of the Hundred Houses. Although, of course, not Haldil.” The Swordmaster bowed slightly in Gonceivis’s direction.

“She has been promising to fight since last Flower Moon at least,” Gonceivis said. “But when?”

“Soon,” Ranruth said. “She’s running out of room. Already she is hundreds of leagues south of the southern bounds. She’ll be underwater soon if she keeps on as she is.”

“There’s nothing there,” Heir-Prince Paramarth said. He peered down at the surface of the table. It was covered by a single sheet of velum containing a map that had taken decades to make. Its northwestern edge ended with the Medhartha Range. The southern boundary was towers and forests. And where Vieliessar now was … blankness.

“Othrochel?” Gonceivis asked.

The Chief Lightborn came forward with a fragile sheet of parchment scraped almost to transparency. He set it carefully over a portion of the southern edge of the map. It was covered with marks in silverpoint. A few in ink. And a long line, straight as the flight of a fleeing dove, in charcoal.

“There is indeed something there, my lords,” Othrochel said. “There is a Flower Forest so vast that the Lightborn of sixty houses cannot drain it. They call it Star-Bright Forest, and it is believed to lie to the west of the, ah, the Rebel Vieliessar’s route, which lies through the forest her Lightborn have named Janubaghir. She and the Alliance are now upon the plain Ifjalasairaet, which is bordered upon the south by cliffs and upon the north by forests. This map is necessarily both incomplete and inaccurate, but it provides some notion of their present location. And of the size of the area across which they travel.”

The party stared at the map in silence.

“But what is she going to do?” Gonceivis asked again.

No one had any answer for him.

* * *

Hallorad was far to the east of the other Windsward Houses; a mere sennight’s journey west of the perilous shores of Greythunder Glairyrill. And Hallorad stood, as she had always stood, alone.

In season, Hallorad sent her Lightborn to the Sanctuary of the Star. She paid her tribute in the wealth of the Windsward: fur and feather, horn and bone, for her people grew barely enough grain to feed themselves. There were no vast farmholdings or manor houses in Hallorad: Hallorad’s Great Keep was the only building anywhere upon the lands it claimed. Generations of Lightborn had worked to expand its underground chambers, until ten times as much living space lay below the ground as above. There were a hundred entrances into Hallorad’s underworld, each entrance surrounded by a few dozen hectares of cropland.

Hallorad survived in a world filled with monsters by quickness and cleverness.

* * *

“Three Candidates, a mad Astromancer, and a High King,” Paramarth Hallorad said. “What am I to do?”

Far to the east of Haldil, War Prince Paramarth and his advisors were gathered in the solar at the top of Hallorad Great Keep. The slanting rays of late-afternoon winter sunlight streamed through the slit-windows, its illumination almost enough to make the Silverlight lanterns unnecessary.

“The High King is there and we are here,” Ladyholder Ingwinde said. “She is the least of our problems.”

“Except for the fact she wishes me to go halfway across the world and swear fealty to her,” Paramarth said.

“Swear to Haldil instead,” Swordmaster Anande said. “Gonceivis is closer.”

“If I swear to Haldil,” Paramarth Hallorad said reasonably, “I still have to go west to do it.” He sighed. “I have less objection to Vieliessar than to Gonceivis. I object to having to go and tell her so.”

“The Windsward Houses pledged to her have done that and more than that,” Anande pointed out. “They have gone west with everything they own. Meanwhile, Antanaduk and Rutharban have pledged to Haldil, so that alliance has ten Houses now.”

“So Gonceivis is King at last. How nice for him,” Ladyholder Ingwinde said.

“Over all save Hallorad,” Paramarth said again. “In that, he and Vieliessar High King are equal. So far.”

“Let us ignore Haldil until it comes, then surrender,” Warlord Arturkiel said. His counsel wasn’t cowardice as much as it was practicality: Hallorad could shelter her people, but not her herds.

“He won’t come,” Swordmaster Anande said. “He’ll bluster and send messengers. But he won’t come. He knows his army would be nothing more than a grand feast for the Gryphons and Aesalions. He’d probably rather try to break a Hippogriff to saddle.”

Most of those in the chamber joined her in laughter. Arahir Lightsister did not.

“But come! You have been silent, Lightsister. And much of this concerns you. What window upon the future do you have for our ears?” Paramarth asked.

Arahir was Chief Lightborn of Hallorad. At Rosemoss Farm, in the years of her Postulancy, she had seen what the people of the West called windows—great holes in their walls large enough to ride a fully armored destrier through. She had kept her opinions to herself: westerners were all mad, living in peace and safety and calling themselves constantly imperiled. She sighed at Paramarth’s question, one she had been hoping to evade. “The Candidates are of no matter. We can apprentice them here—”

“As if they were Craftworkers?” Ladyholder Ingwinde exclaimed. “What an odd notion!”

“—but all know the reason Vieliessar fought,” Arahir said, finishing her thought.

“Amretheon’s Prophecy.” It was not an inclination to scholarship that brought Paramarth’s quick answer. The Grand Windsward—though not Hallorad—had fought the High Houses only half a century before on the pretext that the time of the Prophecy had come. “Lightsister, she did not win in the field because anyone believed her.”

The commonfolk believed her, Arahir answered silently. But they were desperate. “I do not say the Prophecy brought her victory, my lord,” she answered carefully. “But I say she fought to become High King because she believed the time of the Prophecy is upon us.”

“You knew her when you were at the Sanctuary, did you not?” Paramarth asked curiously.

“When she was Sanctuary servant, not Lightborn,” Arahir said. “Even then she had a clever mind and a great thirst for knowledge. But we have spoken of her many times since Hamphuliadiel sent warning she left the Sanctuary, my lord. This is old news.”

“She wasn’t High King when she left the Sanctuary,” Paramarth pointed out. “Nor was Hamphuliadiel mad.”

“Haldil has ever nurtured goblin fruit,” Swordmaster Anande said. “It is well to remember the Astromancer’s lineage: he claims descent from Kaelindiel Bethros through Einartha, Lady Ringwil’s sister and squire.”

Centuries before, Haldil had taken Bethros by treachery, forcing a ruinous ransom that had brought Bethros to its knees. Kaelindiel had blamed Einartha and exiled her, not knowing it was Ringwil who was the traitor. Ringwil had begged to be able to follow her sister into exile for love of her—but when they sought sanctuary in Bethros, Ringwil was garlanded with honors and wealth … and Einartha ended her days as slave and scullion, even though they were sisters, for it had been Ringwil who betrayed Bethros, not Einartha.

Paramarth threw his hands up in a mocking gesture of despair. “My Anande! You make my head ache with this tale—am I to imagine a long and terrible plot on the part of the Astromancer against Bethros? Or Haldil? Or both?”

“If that were so, he would be the High King’s ally, my lord, rather than her enemy,” Anande said. “I think he is as maddened with ambition as … another we knew.”

“Ivrulion of Caerthalien,” Arahir said quietly. “You need not fear to speak the name in my hearing, Anande. He broke the Covenant, and too many paid the price of that arrogance. Hamphuliadiel’s madness is a different thing. He does not seek to rule as War Prince, but as Astromancer. And in other days, that would be the threat I counseled you against.”

“But not now,” Paramarth said shrewdly.

“No,” Arahir said. “Not now.”

* * *

When Paramarth had determined to his satisfaction that Hallorad would be best served by delay on all fronts, Arahir returned to her own chambers. As befit the Chief Lightborn, they were located high enough in the castel to permit actual windows. Arahir wasn’t sure whether she liked the windows or not: her parents had been herdsfolk, and the sky meant nothing but danger. Now she walked to the nearest one, folded back its shutters, and peered out.

“What news from the deliberations of the great and mighty?”

Arahir startled as Monthir entered the room. Like her, he had been sent to the Sanctuary. Unlike her, he’d served only his Service year.

“None, I suppose,” she said. “Or what was to be expected: Lord Paramarth will say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the High King and ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to Haldil. And we shall train our Candidates here.”

“And yet you do not caper in glee,” Monthir said. “Nor, I think, did you counsel our prince as completely as one might hope.”

“How can I?” Arahir said wearily, turning away from the window. “He would say—all of them would say—it is the echoes of Ivrulion Oathbreaker’s darkness that disturbs my visions.”

Arahir’s Keystone Gift was Prophecy. It was untrustworthy at best, utterly unreliable at worst: most of her time at the Sanctuary had been spent learning to ignore her Gift rather than to summon it. What use was a Foretelling when it could not be deciphered until after it had come true?

“But you think not,” Monthir said, moving to the tea-brazier and preparing tea.

“I think not,” Arahir agreed. “But I do not know what to make of it, so how can I counsel Paramarth? The Windsward becomes an ocean of blood—it sounds like something out of The Song of Amretheon. And just as useful.”

“Ah, well,” Monthir said. “Let us hope this ocean does not come as high as the windows, then. It would take forever to get the stain out of the linens.”

Arahir laughed dutifully and drank her tea when it was ready. She gave no more thought to her vision.

* * *

That night Arahir stayed late in the Great Hall, hoping to tire herself enough to sleep without dreams. She had barely returned to her chambers and begun preparing for bed when …

One moment she was unknotting the sash of her robe. The next, she was kneeling on the stone floor beside her bed. Bile rose in her throat and she gagged, trying to understand what had felled her when there had been no blow to strike her down.

She forced herself to her feet, staggering as she ran for the door. It opened nearly in her face. “Arahir! What—?” Alpion Lightbrother clutched at her arm, his face stark and grey with the same nauseated horror she felt. She shook him off, running for the stairs that led to the watchtower roof. Three doors set at intervals blocked the staircase. Frantically, she flung them all open, lurching drunkenly up the stairs and onto the roof of Hallorad Great Keep.

All was silent. The night air was sharp and cold, but it brought her no relief. The two Lightborn on guard—Iandal and Kerligan—knelt on the stone, moaning, struck down as she had been. The two guardsmen leaned over them, their voices low and worried.

“Alarm, attack, sound warning,” Arahir gasped, her voice little more than a whisper. She never knew, afterward, if they’d heard. But by then she knew it wouldn’t have done any good anyway.

“You’ve come to meet me. How nice.”

As if it were some Lightless illusion, a figure appeared on the battlement. It was winged, but it was no kind of Beastling Arahir had ever seen. It was tall and beautiful, with a body lushly, unmistakably, female. Its skin was bright scarlet; it wore tall boots and a wide jeweled belt, and nothing else at all. Its great ribbed wings were spread against the wind, and its barbed tail writhed. The alien stranger smiled a predator’s smile. Its mouth was filled with long white teeth.

Iandal Lightbrother clawed himself to his feet. The guardsmen advanced with their pikes lowered. Arahir felt a prickling over her skin: Iandal was summoning Storm. She gathered her own magic and struck: Fire. Simple and deadly.

It had no effect.

She summoned Send, to cast the winged monster from the roof, but Send had no more effect than Fire had.

“Do not play with them yet, Shurzul!” a second winged creature cried laughingly as it landed on the roof beside the first. “There will be time later!”

Then the guardsmen in front of her were gone and Arahir felt a warm splash of wetness on her skin. It took her a moment to realize it was blood. One of the winged ones bounded past Arahir to rip the door to the castel off its hinges as if it were paper. Kerligan Lightbrother screamed, throwing himself at it. And then he—and it—were gone.

“Run,” Shurzul said, gazing at Arahir with glowing pupilless yellow eyes. “Run.”

And Arahir did.


Copyright © 2017 by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory